By Rav Chaim Dov Keller, Rosh Yeshivas Telshe Chicago
I did not realize it, but it was to be the last time I would see my beloved Rebbi, Hagaon Reb Eliahu Meir Bloch, the late Telzer Rosh HaYeshivah. Many years have passed since, but the scene remains vivid in my memory.
When we came to the Rosh HaYeshivah’s room in the hospital he was not there. After a while he entered, dragging his slippered feet, leaning heavily on his late stepson, Mordechai Glicksman. Perspiration beaded his forehead and he had considerable trouble breathing. I winced at the sight. Reb Elya Meir, who had greeted all with seiver panim yafos, a genuine warmth – could not gather the strength to say “Sholom Aleichem,” not even nod. He merely acknowledged our presence with his eyes. With great difficulty he was helped to an arm chair and sat there breathing heavily.
After a few moments, he said two words: “A schvere mishpat” (literally “a hard judgment” – a painful punishment). This was the only time I had ever heard the Rosh Yeshivah utter a personal complaint. After he had caught his breath, he managed a weak smile and extended his frail hand with a “Sholom Aleichem.”
Then, he explained, “It’s a hard judgment. It’s not the pain, but from the time that I came to my full senses, I’ve never known what it meant to sit idle. I would be learning myself or with others, or writing or speaking, or reading or even fixing something around the house… But to just lie in bed and do nothing – this is a terrible punishment.”
Thus did Reb Elya Meir see himself just before he passed away. And thus do his thousands of talmidim and admirers remember him. Reb Elya Meir could never sit idle. There was too much to be done. He was not limited. He was an ish ha’ashkolos, – a possessor of a host of talents: He was a Rosh Yeshivah and Rebbi whose shiurim were masterpieces of profundity. He had gifts of oratory and writing, which in themselves distinguished him from others. His energy was boundless. His interest in his own family, his talmidim, the Yeshivah, the city of Cleveland, Agudath Israel and Klal Yisrael were phenomenal. Each of these had its own specific place in his great mind and heart. Above all, there was an inner calm which came from an unbelievable self-discipline, and a seder – an all pervasive order – which allowed him to accomplish in his sixty years what others could not accomplish in many lifetimes. And at the center of all of this was Torah, for Torah was the essence of his life.
From Telshe, Lithuania, to Telshe, Ohio
Reb Elya Meir was born in the small Lithuanian city of Telshe, in the year 5655 (1894). Born on Simchas Torah, his whole life – despite the tragedy and the suffering he endured – was one long saga of Simchas Torah: joy in learning and in building Torah. His father, Hagaon Reb Yoseif Leib, was the Rav and Rosh Yeshivah of Telshe, having assumed the helm of the yeshivah from his father-in-law, the great gaon, Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, the founder of the Yeshivah. Reb Yoseif Leib’s unique approach to halachah and aggadah was the basis for what is commonly called the “Telzer Derech.” Reb Yoseif Leib was an extraordinarily gifted pedagogue and put great effort into training his own three sons, Reb Zalman (who was Menahel of the Yeshivah), Reb Avraham Yitzchak (who became Rosh Hayeshivah), and Reb Elya Meir.
Reb Elya Meir married the daughter of Reb Avraham Moshe Kaplan, a talmid chacham and merchant who was a pillar of the Torah community of Memel. He spent eight years in Memel, maintaining regular sedorim of Torah study and giving a shiur for baalei battim (laymen). Then his father, Reb Yosef Leib, summoned him back to the yeshivah in Telshe. For twelve years – until the outbreak of World War II – Reb Elya Meir served as a Rosh Yeshivah, learning Torah with the many students who came under his tutelage. He also wrote in various Torah journals and was active in Agudath Israel and in work for Torah education. After Reb Yoseif Leib’s passing, the leadership of the Yeshivah fell to his oldest son, Hagaon Hakadosh, Reb Avraham Yitzchak.
When the Russians occupied Lithuania in 1940, they began a relentless persecution campaign against the Yeshivah. In Tammuz, they ordered the main building of the Yeshivah vacated, for use as a military hospital. The last night there was a mishmar in the Yeshivah until dawn. In the morning the Communist soldiers came to hurry the bachurim from the Yeshivah, but they were not quite ready. They read the Sefer Torah in the great Beis Midrash of the Telshe Yeshivah for the last time, and returned it to the Aron Kodesh.
After the davening, Reb Elya Meir approached the Aron Kodesh to remove the Sifrei Torah. The bachurim broke out in tears. Reb Elya Meir lifted his hands towards heaven and called out with a choking voice, “Ribbono Shel Olam, this is the third time that it has fallen to my lot to remove the Sifrei Torah from the Yeshivah – once during the lifetime of my grandfather, Reb Leizer, during the fire which destroyed the city; again, in the First World War; and this, the third time. I pray that just as You helped me return the Sefarim to the Aron Kodesh of the Yeshivah before, grant me the zechus to return the Torah to its resting place a third time.”
That tefillah was answered, but not as he had meant it. Two years later, Reb Elya Meir placed the Sifrei Torah into the Aron Kodesh in the Telshe Yeshivah… in a private home in Cleveland, Ohio.
The period from the Russian invasion of Lithuania until the subsequent Nazi onslaught in 1941 was a time of great anxiety and fear for the future – not only of the Telshe Yeshivah but for all Lithuanian Jewry. The Roshei Yeshivah expended great effort to strengthen the bachurim, to inspire them to apply themselves to Torah more fully than ever, and to be prepared for all eventualities.
Reb Elya Meir did not comfort his talmidim by assuaging their fears, but gave them an understanding of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying G-d’s name, with the ultimate sacrifice if need be). He taught them that they were privileged to experience that which other generations had not: To learn Torah in the face of great suffering. For Reb Elya Meir these were not mere words. This was the way he lived his whole life.
Time to Leave
When it became clear that the Yeshivah could not continue under the Communists, the administration sent Reb Elya Meir and his brother-in-law, the late Rosh Yeshivah, Hagaon Reb Chaim Mordechai Katz on a mission to the United States, to raise the funds necessary to move the Yeshivah to either America or Eretz Yisrael.
After a trying journey through Siberia, Japan, and across the Pacific, they learned of the Nazi invasion and realized that it would be impossible to bring the Yeshivah over from Europe. They would have to start anew, recreating Telshe in America.
From that time on, they acted as men possessed. Although they had no idea of the fate of their own families (Reb Elya Meir’s wife and four children, Reb Mottel’s wife and ten children), their working hours were devoted exclusively to reestablishing the yeshivah.
At a meeting of Rabbanim, Reb Elya Meir announced that Telshe would relocate in a Jewish community which needed strengthening, and which would better suit the spirit of the yeshivah than metropolitan New York. When Reb Elya Meir told the assembly that they had chosen Cleveland, one of those present said, “Rabbi Bloch, you’ll be back in New York within six months.”
At a small meeting of close friends and Telshe alumni, which had gathered to greet them on their arrival in New York, Reb Elya Meir spoke: When Yonasan arranged to signal David that he was in danger, he told him, “If I tell the boy the arrows are beyond you – go, for Hashem has sent you.”
He should have told him: “Flee!” not “Go.”
When one recognizes G-d’s “hashgachah’ (Providence) in all that occurs, he realizes that when people are impelled to leave a place because of impending danger, this is not flight but a signal of a mission on which they are being dispatched. We are not refugees! We were sent by the Almighty to replant the Yeshivah of Telshe in America!
That was over 40 years ago. Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland is today one of the worlds great Torah centers and stands as a living monument to the dedication and vision of Reb Elya Meir and Reb Mottel.
The Difficult Years
The early years were not easy. Reb Elya Meir and Reb Mottel lived in the Yeshivah, ate their meals with the bachurim, learned with them, dealt with their individual problems.
The original student body consisted of a few talmidim that had escaped from Europe and some American boys dispatched from Baltimore by Rabbi Yehudah Davis. The Americans had no idea of what Telshe signified. They were even novices in the learning of Gemara and the two Roshei Hayeshivah had to literally introduce them to advanced Torah study.
The Roshei Hayeshivah applied themselves to building the Yeshivah with exuberance and enthusiasm, even under the cloud of uncertainty and fear for the fate of their own families and the Yeshivah in Europe. The Yeshivah was opened in Cleveland in the house of Mr. Yitzchak Feigenbaum on 20 Cheshvan 5702 (1941). Five months later, on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, an official chanukas habayis (dedication) was held. Those present who had known the glory of Telshe in Europe openly wept when they saw the modest building in which the yeshivah was housed. Reb Elya Meir, who had personally experienced the awesome tragedy, had to comfort the others.
Reb Elya Meir’s words of wisdom invariably found full expression in his life’s actions. It was he who would break out in a rikud (dance) on Yom Tov, sing zemiros and nigunim at Shalosh Seudos… trade grammen with the bachurim and sing his inimitable versions of Yiddish songs on Purim.
On Shavuos, a bachur initiated the rikud in the Beis Midrash after davening. Later Reb Elya Meir thanked him in private: “Usually no one else will start to dance if I don’t, and I just wasn’t feeling up to it.”
The fate of Telshe in Lithuania was not confirmed until the winter of 1945. In the midst of lecture notes the Rosh Yeshivah was writing that day, we find:
I am not able to concentrate (on this writing) as I should, for that which I feared has reached me – the terrible news of the death of… at the hands of the cursed German murderers. May Hashem avenge their blood and have mercy on His people. Should someone look at these writings, let him not judge me as callous and cruel for having delved into the words of Torah after such terrible information. Aside from the fact that the news did not surprise me – for the terrifying knowledge [of what had transpired in Europe] had already prepared me for this terrible news – I feel that I can never come to peace [with myself] without the toil of Torah… without fulfilling the sacred duty which now falls upon the survivors. Having learned of my awful tragedy, my first call of duty must be laboring in Torah. I am indentured in the service of my people… Of what importance are the woes of the individual when compared to the duties of the Klal?
One daughter, Chasya, survived. She is married to Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin and resides in Kiryat Telshe Stone, Israel.
The Rosh Yeshivah subsequently remarried and his wife, Nechamah, who served as his dedicated partner for the latter years of his life bore him two children: Rabbi Yosef Zalman, presently Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah Eitz Chaim, in Monsey New York; and Miriam, who is married to Rabbi Dovid Barkin, presently a Rosh Yeshivah in Telshe-Wickliffe.
Introduction to Telshe
Those who were privileged to be among the first group of talmidim remember with nostalgia those early days in the Feigenbaum home on East Boulevard, Cleveland. Most had studied Gemara for an average of only one year before they had come to Telshe. Among the first five American talmidim was Reb Shmuel Yaakov Shoenig of Detroit, who recalls: “My first impression was Reb Mottel standing in the doorway to meet us as the cab pulled up: His hands characteristically poised on his hips, a broad smile on his face, his long beard flowing in the wind. Just looking at him gave us a warm feeling. Living together with the Roshei Yeshivah nurtured a certain closeness between us. They took a personal interest in us and were very easy to talk with.”
One lunch break, a few of us were standing in the hall. Reb Elya Meir walked by, taking note of our idleness. “Why are you just standing around! Why don’t you play?”
We looked at each other. Then one of the boys offered: “Rebbi, we need a football! “Vos?” “A football.” “Tomorrow you’ll have a football.” And we did.
He was not always so friendly. When necessary, he could be hard and relentless. Shortly after the Yeshivah began, one of the bachurim decided that we should take off a Saturday night seder and “go out” for some innocent distraction.
The next day, Reb Mottel told us that there would be no shiur. Sunday night was the regular shmuess time in the Yeshivah. Reb Elya Meir gave the shmuess, and I squirmed in my seat for three hours while he gave us scathing Mussar. He told us that they had no intention of opening a Yeshivah to cater to the whims of American society… He spoke of the Roshei Yeshivah they had left behind in Europe, whose “shluchim” (emissaries) they were; they would never agree to such a yeshivah… He told us that when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Golden Calf and the people cavorting around it, he smashed the Luchos (Tablets), for the Jews were not worthy of Torah. And the Ribbono Shel Olam said to him “Yasher Kochacha – More power to you for having broken them.” Whoever does not have the courage to close a Yeshivah when it departs from its goals has no right to open one in the first place. It was better, he said, to destroy it now than to let it continue, for a yeshivah without a foundation would ultimately crumble on its own. At the end of the three hours he shouted at us, “Take the keys and close the yeshivah! Tomorrow you will go home!”
We were stunned. The next day we didn’t know what to do, so we followed the regular schedule and went down to the shiur room. There sat the two Roshei Yeshivah – Reb Elya Meir and Reb Mottel. Reb Elya Meir said, “If you think I didn’t mean what I said last night, you’re mistaken. You can all pack up and leave for home.”
We did not move. He looked around and then broke the dreadful silence: “There is only one condition under which we will let the yeshivah stay open. If each of you will give us a tekias kaf – your hand and your solemn word that you will not go any place where you have the slightest doubt we may disapprove, we will continue the yeshivah. If not, you can all leave today.”
He then turned to each of us. It took a bit of agonizing, but each of us finally gave our word – which was never broken. That was when we first began to understand “Telshe.”
Reb Elya Meir used all of the instruments in that great symphony of his soul to train his talmidim and interact with them. In shiur, he was like a warrior in battle. If a talmid ventured a sevara (line of reasoning) that the Rebbi held to be illogical and the boy refused to be corrected, he could attack him with a ferocity that made one cringe. The bachur might feel that the Rebbi was his worst enemy and would never talk to him again. Yet after the shiur he would smile and wrap his arm around him as if they were the best of friends.
In a specific shiur, I asked a kushya (question). He explained again, and I maintained my position. After a spirited exchange, he reddened with anger and “honored’ me with a few choice expressions.
I felt I had overstepped the bounds of derech eretz (propriety), and after the shiur I asked his forgiveness. He smiled put his arm around me, and assured me that I had no need to apologize. “Such is the way of Torah. You must ask, and not pay attention to my anger. I enjoy your questions.” Thus our chachamim taught us: Aht Vihav B’Sofah – In a Torah discussion a Rebbi and a talmid become like enemies in the gateway, but at the end their love for each other prevails.
Man of Truth
Above all, Reb Elya Meir was a man of truth. All of his thought was aimed at arriving at the truth, and his teachings were dedicated to spreading truth. His Torah interpretations and chiddushim were formulated with extreme effort. He would never say derush (homiletical projections). If at times he would want to use a fanciful turn of thought or a poetic interpretation in a pasuk or a saying of the sages, he would preface it by saving “one might say b’derech melitzah (in a poetic vein).”
Although a gifted orator and writer, he was careful to state things simply, forthrightly, and truthfully, never using words to mislead or convey a false impression.
In one of his many shi’urei daas on the subject of truth, he told of an incident on a trip to Eretz Yisrael:
On the shores of Yam Kineret he had the urge to be tovel – to immerse himself in the sea. On a stony deserted stretch, Reb Elya Meir removed his clothing and began to walk barefoot over the sharp stones toward the water.
“What are you doing?” asked his startled companion,
“I want to be able to say that I bathed in the Kineret.”
The man looked at him incredulously: “But why go to all the trouble? Who’s to stop you from saying it?”
Reb Elya Meir was astonished by the question “It used to be said, If you can tell the truth why tell a lie? Now people say, If you can tell a lie, why bother with the truth?”
Any departure from strict standards of honesty was inexcusable – he was outraged at the Chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name).
At alumni conventions, many former talmidim came together in anticipation of an uplifting spiritual regeneration. The Rosh Yeshivah customarily delivered a profound and inspiring shmuess. On one occasion he sharply departed from his normal custom. He started out: “Men tor nisht zein a ganov (One is not allowed to be a thief).” Very agitated, he told the assembled that on a recent trip to another city he had been short of cash, so he asked a businessman whom he knew quite well to lend him one hundred dollars until the next day, when he could cash a check. He detected some hesitancy on the man’s part, and reassured him that he would bring him the money the very next day. The man was still reluctant, so the Rosh Yeshivah said incredulously, ” I said I will bring you the money tomorrow. Don’t you trust me?”
The man, embarrassed, said, “It’s not that I don’t trust you Rabbi. It’s just that I’ve had a bad experience.”
When the full impact of his words hit Reb Elya Meir, he was beside himself. Apparently another talmid chacham had borrowed money from him and had not repaid the debt.
He raised his voice in anger and distress to the talmidim: “Do you understand what matters have come to? A balabos does not trust a Rosh Yeshivah with one hundred dollars till the next day because of a ‘bad experience!’ You came here expecting to hear some deep thoughts. You may go back home and say that you came to Cleveland to hear the Telshe Rosh Yeshivah say, ‘Men tor nisht zein a ganov!'”
Reb Elya Meir’s temimus (sincerity) went hand in hand with his kano’us (zeal). He would not budge from what he saw as the truth, nor hesitate to express his opinion openly. He never was afraid to speak out against falsehood and wrong-doing. He gave mussar to his own talmidim, to ba’alei battim in the city, and to the world at large. He did not shirk from expressing unpopular positions.
He spoke strongly against late Sunday morning breakfast minyanim, then the vogue in some Orthodox shuls. He viewed them as a form of avodah zarah, since they made a special day of Sunday and were attended by many who did not attend shul on Shabbos… He was among the first to warn of the dangers of television and to declare it forbidden, quoting the pasuk: “You shall not bring an abomination into your home.”… When it was none too popular (nor profitable for the yeshivah) to belong to Agudath Israel, Reb Elya Meir proudly flaunted his allegiance to Agudah. He organized the yeshivah bachurim into Agudah youth groups as a preparation for activism in later life, regardless of parental opposition… He used every opportunity to speak against yeshivah bachurim attending college, in spite of the effect on yeshivah enrollment… At the annual banquet of the yeshivah, which was aimed at gaining communal support for the yeshivah, he would deliver a lengthy address discussing problems of the city and of the world, never considering that his outspoken advocacy of Daas Torah on controversial subjects might alienate some. On one occasion he spoke for close to one hour chastising the local Jewish community for not having participated in a memorial gathering for the Chazon Ish.
In the early years on 105th Street, when the yeshivah was in the center of the Jewish neighborhood, many outsiders would attend the seudah after the yeshivah’s hakofos, Simchas Torah night. Even Conservative and Reform rabbis would be present. They were never treated inhospitably, but Reb Elya Meir would inevitably speak out against the Reform and Conservative Movements. As a man of truth, he found no occasion inappropriate for speaking truth, and no audience too sensitive to hear it spoken.
The Peerless “Mechanech”
As a mechanech (pedagogue), Reb Elya Meir was peerless. Not because he employed ingenious teaching methods, but because his whole being was an illustration of his lessons. He always said that a Rebbi for Klal Yisrael can only be a mislamed – one who is continuously learning:
Moshe was bidden by the Almighty to show two signs to the Jews that he was to lead them: His staff turned into a serpent and his hand became leprous when he removed it from his bosom. Rashi explains that the snake indicated that he had slandered the Jews (like the serpent of old) by saying they would not believe him, and that the leprosy was a punishment for having suspected innocent people.
“Look! I’ve suspected you wrongly and have spoken lashon hara against you.” What kind of claim to leadership was this declaration? Reb Elya Meir explained that Moshe demonstrated that he had indeed made mistakes, but he was ready to learn: “I can teach you, because I myself can learn.”
Reb Elya Meir never asked anything of his talmidim that he did not ask of himself. His shmuessen and words of Torah were formulations of how he lived his own life. Thus Chazal said: “It is not necessary to erect monuments for tzaddikim. Their words are their memorial.”
Reb Elya Meir made a point of demanding k’vod HaTorah from his talmidim, but actually his very presence commanded respect. He was characterized by many as a prince of Torah. His immaculate personal appearance, his warm and engaging personality, his sensitivity, his wit and wisdom, left an indelible impression on all who met him. Yet with all his sophistication, he possessed great simplicity and candor. He saw it as his duty to teach his talmidim how to act towards a Rebbi. He once told them, “Don’t you think that I realize that I make myself foolish in your eyes when I insist that you stand up for me? But what shall I do? That is the halachah, and I must teach you the halachah.”
Reb Elya Meir was completely the talmid of his great father, Reb Yoseif Leib – in Torah knowledge, in philosophy, in the way he conducted himself – referring to him as “der Rebbi” and “der Futter” interchangeably. He had a deep commitment to transmit Reb Yoseif Leib’s whole thought system to others, but the listener did not feel as if he were simply listening to a repetition of an old shiur. One witnessed the words of Torah emanating from the mind and heart of a man fully convinced of their truth – explaining, enhancing, and expanding upon that which he had learned from his father, but might very well have said himself. His shiurim were original masterpieces of profound analysis – yet invariably based on a yesod (principle) of one of his father’s shiurim, and his derech (methodology) in learning was purely Reb Yoseif Leib’s. In both halachah and aggadah, it was difficult to tell where Reb Yoseif Leib left off and where Reb Elya Meir began.
The “Shiur Daas”
The shiur daas in Telshe, which is a philosophical discourse elaborating on a Torah principle, taking the place of the Mussar shmuess in other yeshivos, was a unique experience. There was a sense of anticipation in the air before a shiur daas. All the benches in the yeshivah would be turned toward the platform of the southern end of the Beis Midrash and the bachurim would vie for the best seats. The shiur was officially scheduled for an hour, but Reb Elya Meir rarely finished in the allotted time. During Elul and the Yomim Noraim he would speak for as much as two hours.
Those who listened were transported to different worlds – the olamos ho’elyonim of which he spoke so often – higher worlds of wisdom and spirituality. New horizons opened as we thought thoughts of Kiddush Hashem, of tikun ha’olam, of the spread of Truth, and G-d’s word in this world – of the secrets of Torah, and the profundity of Torah. He spoke of responsibility for the Klal, of discipline and of seder; of toiling in Torah and of the greatness of Chazal. Amkus and pashtus – profundity and simplicity went hand in hand. Profundity was not obscurity and simplicity was not superficiality.
There was always a practical improvement on the level of the talmidim. When some attempted to guess for whom certain words were intended, overlooking the ideas presented, Reb Elya Meir compared it to those who pick out and nibble the raisins, leaving over the whole challah.
Besides his shiurim and the individual attention he devoted to bachurim who spoke with him in learning or about their personal matters, Reb Elya Meir conducted mussar vaadim – study sessions with small groups of selected talmidim. Officially there was always a sefer that was studied in these vaadim. But the sefer was only a springboard for open discussions in Torah hashkafah or current Jewish topics, recollections of old Telshe – anything that the Rosh Yeshivah felt could develop the talmidim’s thinking, broaden their perspectives and convey to them daas Torah on all facets of life.
His Sense of Mission
Both privately and publicly he constantly spoke of responsibility to Klal Yisrael. He urged his talmidim to prepare themselves in the Yeshivah with a maximum of Torah and Yiras Shomayim (fear of G-d) and encouraged them to enter the field of chinuch and hafotzas Torah.
The leading role he played in building Agudath Israel is well known, and typically he saw this as a natural extension of his work in building Torah. His sense of mission was all-encompassing; he would speak of the role of the manhig (leader) as min hahar el ha’am “from the mountain (communion with G-d, receiving His Torah directly from Him) to the nation” – there was no stopping off in between to find out how things were at home… At times Reb Elya Meir would return from a trying trip or a convention, and head directly for his study to spend the entire night preparing his shiur, then to the Yeshivah; only after delivering the shiur would he rest.
The Gaon Reb Aharon Kotler in his hesped on Reb Elya Meir described him as a Yachid B’Doro (unique in his generation) in his approach to working for the Klal. Reb Aharon, who had worked closely with Reb Elya Meir in Agudath Israel and in many other Klal matters, related that he had a definite opinion on matters and would fight for his position. Yet, when the majority of the Gedolei Torah had decided otherwise, he would submit to the majority and was just as strong as before in carrying out their position – which had now become his position.
Reb Elya Meir was staunch in his convictions, yet he had the gift of being able to hear another viewpoint. He could live in harmony with those whose ideas he so tenaciously fought, and would treat them with the utmost courtesy. A militant Agudist who constantly battled against Mizrachi hashkafos, he organized a council of all the Orthodox organizations of Cleveland and cooperated with the Mizrachi leaders on matters of common interest. He was held in great esteem and affection by them.
With all the pressures and commitments, which took so much of his time and energy, he maintained strict sedorim for his own learning, which could not be violated except for emergencies. There was one kaballah he had – to learn at least an hour a day, which even an emergency could not disturb.
There are many who tell extraordinary stories of the unusual efforts he expended to keep this kaballah under the most trying circumstances.
I stayed with him the second night after his last major operation. He was critically ill, with tubes attached to various parts of his body. He could not move and he could hardly talk. After a while, he said one word: “Lernen (Learning). ”
I took a Chumash and learned with him the parashah with Rashi. From time to time his eyes would turn to the clock on the wall. When a half hour had gone by, he said: “Genug (Enough).” Extremely fatigued, he closed his eyes. Some time later, he looked at the clock, and again said “Lernen.” I learned aloud another half hour. When the time was up, he said Genug, with a smile or satisfaction. He had finished his hour of learning.
Reb Mottel Katz and the Rosh Yeshivah Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, once visited him in the hospital. He turned to them and said “Miyom Amdi Al Daasi – From the time that I arrived at my full senses, I never missed my kabbalah to learn at least an hour a day, with one exception, when I was wheeled into the operating room before dawn and did not regain consciousness till after the stars came out. But now I feel that to learn would be a question of pikuach nefesh – (he felt that it would endanger his life). But I will not permit myself to forego learning unless you pasken for me that I may.” Their psak was, of course, self-understood.
I realized his boundless love of Torah from my last visit with him, mentioned at the outset of this article: My last impression of my Rebbi was not of the helpless, terminally ill man I encountered.
After some conversation, I mentioned a he’ora – an observation I had made – on a passage in the Ketzos Hachoshen. As soon as I mentioned the Ketzos, the Rosh Yeshivah underwent a remarkable change. His eyes lit up, his face evinced its old warmth, a smile crossed his face, and his voice became strong and clear – as if the old Reb Elya Meir had been revived.” I made the same observation in one of my shiurim,” he said, and proceeded to discuss the Ketzos with a lebedigkeit (liveliness) which so entranced me that, to my everlasting regret, I could not concentrate on his words.
This is what our sages meant when they said, “When one takes leave of his friend, he should only do so in the midst of a discussion of halachah, for in that way he will remember him.” That is the way I remember Reb Elya Meir, who passed away two days later – enthusiastic and alive. I do not remember the halachah that he taught me then with his words. But I do remember the halachah that he taught me with his actions: “Rabbi Yochanan said a man should never keep himself from the Beis Hamidrash and from words of Torah even at the time of death, as it says ‘When a man dies in a tent’ – even at the time of death one should engage in the study of Torah.”
He passed away on Shabbos morning, Kislev 28, 5715,1954 at the age of 60, after making Kiddush for the Rebbitzen, who was with him in the hospital.
Ashrecha Reb Eliyahu Meir She’Yatzat Nishmascha B’Kiddushah.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.