by C. B. Gavant
This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is reprinted here with their permission
In 1951 the Israeli government decided to draft women into its army, much to the concern and apprehension of the frum community. The rabbanim in Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak immediately issued a p'sak that under no circumstances should any frum girl enter the army. A committee of rabbanim, among them Rav Zelig Reuven Bengis, who was the rav of the Eida Chareidis in Yerushalayim, immediately drew up a letter to the government to protest the proposed draft.
The letter was completed and sent to the most prominent rabbanim of the day for their signatures. Afterward, it was returned to Rav Bengis, who had not yet signed it.
Rav Bengis quickly scanned the page, pen in hand. Suddenly, he put his pen down, closed his eyes, and began to shake back and forth, his forehead creased in concentration.
Several minutes later, he sighed heavily and his eyes filled with tears. Then he picked up the pen and signed the letter with great care.
"Why did the rav have to reconsider whether to sign the letter?" someone standing nearby asked him. "Wasn't he involved in writing the letter to begin with?"
"Yes, I was," responded Rav Bengis, "but I just reread the letter and noticed that someone had added the phrase, 'hachosmim b'dema, those who sign with tears.' Until now, I had never shed tears over the situation. I could not sign the letter under false pretenses, so I sat down to contemplate the tragic situation of girls being forced into army service. Then, when tears came to my eyes, I was able to sign."
Rav Zelig Reuven Bengis was known for his tremendous diligence in learning and his incredible brilliance. It is clear, though, that his Torah learning was not just in the intellectual realm; he had integrated it into his personality to the point where he could not possibly attach his name to a document unless he fully meant every word.
As a rav in Europe and Eretz Yisroel and a great Torah leader, Rav Zelig Reuven was a giant of a man, one whose life is full of lessons for us today, even 48 years after his passing.
Reb Zelig Reuven was born in Sivan, 1864 (5624). His father, Reb Tzvi Hirsch Bengis, was the rav of the town of Shnippishok, Russia, and the young Zelig Reuven soon became known as the "Shnippishoker illuy."
The story is told that when the Ridvaz, the rav of Slutzk, who had written a commentary on the Yerushalmi, came to Vilna, all the talmidei chachamim of the area went to meet him. Reb Tzvi Hirsch was among these talmidei chachamim, and he brought along Zelig Reuven, who was 9-years-old at the time.
The Ridvaz began a Torah discussion, which all the rabbanim joined in. Just as things began to heat up, a high-pitched voice cried out: "You can find proof of that in Mesechta Gittin!"
The rabbanim were both amazed that Zelig Reuven had understood the discussion and shocked at his audacity. Yet Zelig Reuven insisted that he knew what he was talking about.
Retrieving a gemara from the shelf, he found the place he had in mind and demonstrated his proof to the assembled group. All those present, including the Ridvaz, were extremely impressed by his insight.
At the age of 17, Reb Zelig Reuven went to learn in the famous Volozhin Yeshiva. The rosh yeshiva there at the time was the Netziv, and he immediately took notice of young Zelig Reuven, an extremely sharp student and a very diligent learner. It wasn't long before Reb Zelig Reuven was known as one of the top bachurim in the yeshiva.
Reb Zelig Reuven learned as a chavrusa with both Reb Baruch Ber Lebowitz, later rosh yeshiva in Kamenitz, and Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer, later rosh yeshiva of Slutzk and several other yeshivos. The Netziv referred to Reb Zelig Reuven as "the living Shas," an appellation that held true to the end of his life.
The Netziv once asked Reb Zelig Reuven to help the yeshiva in an unusual manner. The Russian government demanded that the yeshiva teach the Russian language and Russian culture to its students. They would send inspectors periodically to check on the yeshiva, and the Netziv needed a representative group of students who could demonstrate knowledge of Russian and Russian culture. He therefore asked Reb Zelig Reuven to learn a little bit of Russian.
When an inspector came to the yeshiva, the Netziv called in Reb Zelig Reuven to meet with him. The inspector asked the boy if he knew of a poem by the Russian author Pushkin. It happened to be that he did know the poem, and he quickly recited it by heart.
The inspector listened in amazement. "It sounds like you know Pushkin backward and forward!" he exclaimed when Reb Zelig Reuven had finished.
"Actually, I do," replied Reb Zelig Reuven, promptly reciting the poem backward, word for word, without a single mistake.
The inspector realized that he was not dealing with an average yeshiva bachur. "This young man does not prove anything!" he told the Netziv. "He is obviously a genius and tells me nothing about your school's curriculum."
Yet in addition to his phenomenal memory, Reb Zelig Reuven had a drive for learning that lead the Netziv to say about him, "If Reb Zelig Reuven were only outstanding for his hasmada, without possessing his exceptional talents, he would surely become a great talmid chacham. And if he only had his great talents without being such a masmid, he could undoubtedly still become a gaon. But because he is blessed with both talent and hasmada, he will certainly become the apple of the eye of the Torah world."
It did not take long for this prediction to come true.
SAVING 'TWO SONS'
After several years in Volozhin, Reb Zelig Reuven married the daughter of Reb Chaim Tzvi Broide, the rav of a town called Shverkina-Zhager. He spent the first eight years of his marriage in his in-laws' home, learning with great diligence.
Afterward, Reb Zelig Reuven became the rav of Bodki, Lithuania. He consulted with the Netziv before taking the position and was told, "Your role as a rav is to be like Moshe Rabbeinu, who is called the 'father-nurse' of the Jewish people. A father-nurse takes the baby from his mother, cleans him up and makes him comfortable. As a rav, you must do the same for your followers."
From Bodki, Reb Zelig Reuven moved to Kalvarie, another Lithuanian town. However, his busy life there was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I.
As the war progressed, the Russian government forced the Jews to move eastward, deeper into Russia. Reb Zelig Reuven settled in Smolensk, a Russian town that was home to many Jews who were far from Yiddishkeit. There Reb Zelig Reuven involved himself in educating his fellow Jews in mitzva observance.
The Chofetz Chaim, who was also affected by the upheaval of the war, heard of Reb Zelig Reuven's activities and wrote him a long letter of encouragement. The following is an excerpt of this letter:
"The Heavenly design has brought about the exile of hundreds of rabbanim [because of the war]. [Yet] my mind is at ease in regard to the exile of his honor [Reb Zelig Reuven], who achieved so much until now for Torah learning and observance in our native country and who is now achieving so much more in our land of exile, particularly in fighting Shabbos desecration.É
"It is true that you are not reaching everyone you would like to. Picture, if you can, a father watching his ten sons aboard a boat that suddenly capsizes-but someone jumps into the sea and saves two of the boys. Even though he has tragically lost eight children, the father will still rejoice over the two who were saved.
"This joy is equal to Hashem's joy over all the people you influence to accept Shabbos."
POSEIK IN LITHUANIA
Returning to Kalvarie at the end of the war, Reb Zelig Reuven soon became an address for questions in halacha from all over the world. Not only was he an expert in both Gemara Bavli and Yerushalmi, but he also knew the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch, and dozens of other sefarim backward and forward. It was said that he knew all the kri u'kesiv in Tanach.
The following tragic shaila gives us some insight into the life of Jews at the time and the great mind of Reb Zelig Reuven:
After an Arab uprising in Tzefas, a young man was killed and his only son critically wounded. The boy lived for only 18 hours after his father's death, and he was kept alive only as a result of the doctor's injections.
Reb Zelig Reuven was asked if the man's widow, now bereft of both husband and son, needed to perform chalitza with her brother-in-law, who lived in Europe.
His response took the form of a long, complex discussion of the halachos of chalitza, but then he gave the following realistic conclusion: "An injection cannot sustain the life of a dead person. It is only possible to prolong the life of a live person. Because the child clearly outlived his father, there is no need for chalitza."
Some of Reb Zelig Reuven's essays on halacha topics were published in the periodical Hatevuna, but he never published his shailos u' teshuvos in book form. When he was asked why, he said, "The world expects leniencies and I refuse to give them."
LEADER IN YERUSHALAYIM
Reb Zelig Reuven loved Eretz Yisroel and was eager to make the Holy Land his home. In 1932, he was invited to become the rav of the Eida Chareidis in Yerushalayim after the passing of Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. But he turned down the offer because he was afraid the position would lead to conflict with Reb Avraham Yitzchak Kook, another talmid of the Netziv.
In 1937, Reb Zelig Reuven was asked to fill the position of av beis din of Yerushalayim's Eida Chareidis. Rav Kook had since passed away, so Reb Zelig Reuven accepted the position at once, leaving Europe shortly before the outbreak of World War II.
Reb Zelig Reuven's tiny home in Yerushalayim overflowed with visitors, yet his heart had room for everyone. Many people came to him for letters of recommendation or approbations to sefarim and other causes. Reb Zelig Reuven gave these letters generously.
The chairman of the Eida Chareidis, Reb Eliyahu Nachum Porush-Glickman, once chided him, "Your letters are so common that hardly anyone gives credence to them anymore. Why don't you try to be more selective with those whom you give letters to?"
Reb Zelig Reuven, however, had other concerns in mind. "Since my letters have so little value, it would be unfair of me to stop giving them out. If someone comes to me now and I don't give him a letter, people will completely disregard his work, assuming that he wasn't even good enough to get a letter out of me!"
On both an individual and communal level, Reb Zelig Reuven deeply felt the pain of his people. In August 1947, he and Reb Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, the rav of the Eida Chareidis, went together to speak to a U.N. Commission deciding the future of the British Mandate over Palestine. The meeting took place only two years after the end of World War II, when many Jews were still stranded in Europe and longed for the day when the quotas would lift and they would be allowed to enter Eretz Yisroel.
When Reb Zelig Reuven spoke, he told members of the commission: "For us, living in Eretz Yisroel is the fulfillment of a command from our Creator, a command that applies in all time periods. Furthermore, many of the Creator's commands in our holy Torah apply only when we live in the Holy Land. Because of this, religious Jews throughout the generations have tried to fulfill this [command] whenever possible.É
"Nowadays, however, the issue involves a different, extremely vital element, which is literally saving lives. Many of our brethren, who survived the sword of our enemies and now sit in various detention camps, are gradually wasting away. They must be saved from the bleak despair that envelops them. We plead with your honors to give them aid and relief. Certainly the Holy Land, more than any other place of refuge that could be suggested, should be viewed as their primary home.
"We plead to you from the depths of our heartsÉwe have a common Father, the Creator; answer our pleas and recognize the brotherhood we all share with our piteous brethren."
When Reb Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky passed away in 1948, Reb Zelig Reuven succeeded him as rav of the Eida Chareidis in Yerushalayim. He also served as the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ohel Moshe in Yerushalayim.
REB ZELIG REUVEN'S TORAH
Reb Zelig Reuven had an analytical style of learning Gemara, preferring an approach to learning that involved a broad understanding of many sugyos at the same time. His sefer, a seven-volume work called "Leflagos Reuven," is made up of many hadranim, complicated drashos that are used to celebrate the completion of a mesechta in Shas. In his hadranim, Reb Zelig Reuven connects every mesechta in Shas to the one that follows it.
Someone once asked him, "You are capable of producing works of genius. Why don't you write conventional Torah, instead of hadranim?"
Reb Zelig Reuven answered, "If I write sefarim of typical chiddushei Torah, who knows if anyone will ever look at them? But people will always be learning gemaras to the end. They will be making siyumim on each mesechta and they will always have opportunities to say hadranim. That' s why my sefer is necessary; it can be their guiding light."
Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss, av beis din Yerushalayim, commented, "In Reb Zelig Reuven's seven volumes of chiddushei Torah, one can see that he revealed only a hairbreadth of his greatness in Torah."
Reb Zelig Reuven's brilliance was matched by one thing: his love for Torah. One time, after giving a hadran for eight hours in Kovno (without losing his audience's attention), he jumped on the table and danced with joy. His eight-hour drasha had not tired him in the slightest.
Blessed with a phenomenal memory, Reb Zelig Reuven took pleasure in asking his visitors quiz questions on the Gemara. "Where does this phrase or that expression appear in the Gemara?" he would ask, smiling. When he himself was asked these questions, he invariably produced the right answers.
A SPECIAL SEDER
In his later years in Yerushalayim, Reb Zelig Reuven reviewed Shas regularly and made a siyum on the entire Gemara every five months.
One time, shortly after one of his regular siyumim, he told his family he was making another siyum on Shas.
His family was astounded. "Have you finished Shas again in such a short time?"
"Not quite," he replied. "This siyum is on a special seder in Gemara which I began to learn during waiting time. Often, when I am invited to a simcha, I have to wait twenty minutes or half an hour for my ride to come or for the simcha to begin once I arrive. I therefore decided to start a special seder for this time, which would otherwise be wasted. I have just completed Shas in this seder."
Reb Zelig Reuven finished Shas 101 times during the course of his lifetime.
Shortly before he passed away, Reb Zelig Reuven, ill in bed, asked his visitors to test him by quoting different sections of the Gemara. This way he would know if he was still in complete control of his faculties. To the very end of his life, he was able to recall the passages mentioned and recite backward, from memory, the words that preceded them.
On the day after Shavuos in Eretz Yisroel, 7 Sivan, 1953 (5713), Reb Zelig Reuven left this world. He was almost 90, and he had served as a rav in Lithuania and in Eretz Yisroel for over 60 years. At the levaya, Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer, his one-time chavrusa, declared, "The day after Kabbalas HaTorah, the sefer Torah was returned to its Creator."
It is no coincidence that Reb Zelig Reuven was called "the living Shas" as a teenager and referred to as "the sefer Torah" after his death. It is clear that he maintained his close bond to the Torah throughout his life, and his gentle guidance of his flock has left its mark on the Torah world to this day. Nearly 50 years after his passing, Reb Zelig Reuven's love for Torah, his incredible bekius and his warmth as a rav can only be viewed with awe.