Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l Hy”d, On His Yahrtzeit, Today


rav-elchononLike a lofty mountain, Reb Elchonon towered over his talmidim – physically, mentally and spiritually. When scaling a mountain, one begins at the bottom, working his way to the peak; but what is the starting point of a study of Reb Elchonon and where is the peak? To paraphrase the lyrics of a Braslaver nigun, “How high are the trees! How little are we children! How can we ever reach…?”

I long ago decided that the task was too much for me. But then I met one of his surviving sons, Reb Simcha, and heĀ insisted that I put my recollections to paper.

Master of “P’shat”

Reb Elchonon was probably the only Rosh Yeshivah who “said a blatt Gemara” daily. That is, he taught a class the meaning of the page before them. He concentrated on simple p’shat – explanation of the written word. We would record his remarks on the margins of the Gemara, thus bringing into existence his classical “Koveitz He’aros,” the “Collection of Remarks.”

In his younger days, he had been known as a genius in pilpul: he would engage in dazzling comparisons between far-flung sources, differentiating and then reconciling. In fact, when he was first introduced to Reb Meir Atlas (later the Rav of Shavl) as a candidate for his daughter’s hand, Rabbi Atlas discussed various Torah topics with him, and later remarked, “That bachur’l (lad) is another Reb Akiva Eiger!” However, that “bachur’l” subsequently met a leading Rosh Yeshivah who advised him, “This is not the way. One must concentrate on p’shat!” It was no easy task for Reb Elchonon to tame down his racing mind. But once he had accepted the advice, he disciplined himself until he eventually became recognized as a “Gaon in p’shat.” In fact his commentary published on the Hagad’tos (narrative and allegorical parts of the Talmud) is named “Hagad’tos Al Derech Hap’shat.” This self-discipline was the most striking – perhaps central – facet of his personality.

rav-elchonon-1We knew that he practiced Shivisi, Shivisi HaShem L’Negdi Tamid (“I always envisioned G-d before me”). For that reason, he absolutely never laughed or smiled. Or perhaps it was in mourning over the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash: “Then (at its rebuilding) your mouths will be filled with laughter,” but not until then. The only exceptions were when a mitzvah called for rejoicing, such as at a wedding; also, when he would quote the Chofetz Chaim, his face would relax into a slight smile. As part of this severe self-discipline, he would never slip a hand into his pockets. During the most biting cold of winter, his hands – red and frozen – would be gripping his coat buttons.

Reb Elchonon and His Colleagues

One cannot speak about Reb Elchonon without mentioning Reb Dovid Rappaport, the other Rosh Yeshivah in Baranovich, or Reb Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky, the Mashgiach. Rabbi Leib Baron (currently of Montreal) was a disciple of all three and he commented: “Reb Yisrael Yaakov was a chacham, a pike’ach and a gaon (wise, clever and ingenious), and he used all three aspects of his personality to conceal his tzidkus (saintliness). Yet, all three would fail him when he was in Reb Elchonon’s presence, for he would stand before him as a servant before his master.”

I recall an outdoor discussion between the two Roshei Yeshivah on a sunny winter afternoon. When the two parted, each expressed admiration and deference for the other in a manner that could have served as a model for British royalty, with all its pomp and protocol, in the properties of taking leave.

When Reb Aharon Kotler celebrated the Chanukas Habayis (dedication) of his yeshivah in Kletsk, he invited a great many leading Torah personalities to the simchah. A rekidah (dance) followed the ceremonies. As the gedolim danced to “Vetaher Libeinu,” the crowd suddenly became aware of a man rolling on the ground. The people were shocked. How did a drunk ever enter such a gathering? Then the Rav of Slonim, Harav Fain, who was a tall man and towered over the entire crowd, called out: “Why, don’t you see? That’s Reb Yisrael Yaakov literally fulfilling: ‘You shall cling to the dust of the feet of talmidei chachamim’ (Avos 1:11).” Another keen-eyed bystander remarked: “Amazing how, in the whirl of so many feet and shoes, he manages to roll mostly before Reb Elchonon.”

One of the Bachurim

When the Mashgiach, Reb Yisrael Yaakov, would deliver a mussar shmuess (lecture on ethics), Reb Elchonon would join the listeners, choosing a seat near the rear entrance in the middle of the second bench, “like one of the bachurim.”

He would invariably go to Radin for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be near his Rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim, as if to say to us, “Children, I too have a Rebbe. I, too need to recharge my batteries.” Indeed, he would cling to the Chofetz Chaim much as Yehoshua clung to Moshe Rabbeinu. For many years, he followed him about, asking his advice on countless matters, absorbing his every word … Following one of the Chofetz Chaim’s Rosh Hashanah mussar shmuessen, Reb Sholem Eishishiker remarked to Reb Elchonon, “He said the same thing last year.”

“Not quite,” replied Reb Elchonon. “This year he included eight additional words.”

Reb Elchonon’s regard for the Chofetz Chaim was by no means one-sided, for when the Chofetz Chaim had decided to leave Poland for Eretz Yisrael, a committee of Gedolim came to plead with him to stay on. One asked, “Rebbe, in whose hands do you leave us?”

The Chofetz Chaim replied ”I leave you with Reb Elchonon!”

“For it is Our Life”

Reb Elchonon had always avoided the rabbinate, even rejecting an invitation to serve as Chief Rabbi of Moscow, for he would never depart from the yeshivah. When his father-in-law, Reb Meir Atlas, passed away, the city of Shavl, where he had been Rav, invited Reb Elchonon to succeed him at the post. The Rebbetzin was anxious that he accept this offer; she had struggled long enough with the “bare minimum” he would permit the yeshivah to pay him, attempting to meet the needs of their household of little children at the poverty level.

When he persisted in refusing she decided to take her case to the Chofetz Chaim, for she knew that her beloved husband would never reject the Chofetz Chaim’s decision. She packed her valise and summoned a taxi (horse and buggy) to take her to the railroad station for the trip to Radin. As she walked to the door, valise in hand, she turned to say goodbye to her husband, and saw him in a corner, crying. What if the Chofetz Chaim should agree with her? She paid the taxi its fare and unpacked her luggage without ever saying another word on the topic. (The city of Shavl then invited Reb Archik Baksht to leave Lomza and serve as their Rav.)

Reb Elchonon’s pride in the yeshivah was surely justified. Before Reb Meier Shapiro opened his famed yeshivah, Chachmei Lublin, he personally surveyed the Litvishe (Lithuanian) yeshivos. He arrived at the Yeshiva Ohel Torah in Baranovich during Minchah, and a thunderous, “Omein yehay shmay rabbo” emanating from 500 mouths greeted him. He stood in the doorway for a while, stunned. Then he embraced and kissed Reb Elchonon stating, “This is G-d’s Army!” Reb Elchonon nodded in agreement with deep pride.

Chassidic Endorsement

At a Knessiah Gedolah of Agudath Israel, the Gerer Rebbe met Reb Elchonon, and he was obviously very impressed by him. Soon after that, a Chassid asked the Rebbe if he should send his son to Baranovich to study; to which the Rebbe replied, “To Reb Elchonon? What’s the question!”

The yeshivah was soon flooded with Chassidic boys, and every semester their number increased. To satisfy their thirst for Chassidus, they would sneak out to the tisch of the Slonimer Rebbe. Eventually, the Mashgiach Reb Yisrael Yaakov would penetrate their hearts and minds with his Novaradoker Mussar, developing within them a synthesis of Chassidus and Mussar. The nearest thing to such a blend was Braslaver Chassidus, and as a result, more and more bachurim could be sighted with Luzzatto’s Mesilas Yesharim (a Mussar classic) and the Braslaver’s Lekutei MeHaran under the same arm.

The Fatiguing Regimen

Reb Elchonon’s energy and stamina were awe-inspiring. In addition to his daily class, he would deliver a weekly shiur of broader scope – thus his Koveitz Shi’urim. Projecting his own wide-ranging zeal on the yeshivah curriculum, he would insist that the yeshivah always complete whichever Mesechta (Talmudic tractate) it was studying, dedicating an entire year to the one Mesechta, while other yeshivos would rarely reach beyond the first few perokim (chapters), and then begin another tractate. We would sometimes start the term with the second half, later returning to the beginning.

He would travel to participate in a great variety of conferences: Agudath Israel, Agudas Harabonim, Vaad Hayeshivos … Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzenski would call him to Vilna … the Chofetz Chaim would summon him to Radin, dispatching him on any number of missions. Above all, the financial burden of his yeshivah rested on his own shoulders with no administrative assistance whatsoever. He would never engage a meshulach (professional fund-raiser) for the yeshivah, for he considered the yeshivah funds mamon-hekdesh (sanctuary funds), permitting no commissions to be skimmed off. As a result, income was meager and the faculty had to be content with salaries of a bare minimum.

In his absence, his son Reb Naftoli would say the blatt and the weekly shiur. He had a regal bearing – tall and handsome, like his father – and was a student of the yeshivah of Mir. During his bachelor days, he would wear an old suit and a ragged coat, for a budget based on bare minimums did not permit new clothing.

There were times when the exhausting effects of Reb Elchonon’s ten-fold load would become apparent to us. His blatt would generally last some two hours. He would occasionally ask our forgiveness, and rest his head on his arm for five or ten minutes. One year there were ninety boys in the class, yet during his nap one could hear a fly flap its wings in the air.

The Spartan Conditions

The yeshivah was forever in debt. Reb Elchonon once remarked: “We have three machers (literally, producers) in the yeshivah, Reb Dovid (author of several volumes of Talmudic commentary) macht sefarim, Reb Yisrael Yaakov macht baa’alei teshuvah (repenters), und Ich mach choivos (debts).”

When Reb Shlomo Heiman accepted Reb Elchonon’s offer of a position in the yeshivah, he rushed home to tell his Rebbetzin the good news. His Rebbetzin commented, “It’s very nice to be a Rosh Yeshivah in Baranovich, but what about salary? What will he pay?”

Reb Shlomo replied that Reb Elchonon had told him that he would receive the same salary as he did, and they were both very pleased. Little did they know that Reb Elchonon’s own salary was on the poverty level!

The austerity conditions affected our diet. The menu of our morning and evening meals consisted of bread – period. We ate this repast in our rented rooms – the yeshivah had no dormitories. The mid-day meal was served in the yeshivah dining hall at 2 p.m. The main course was invariably cholent, seven days a week. (In my case, it had meant cholent seven days a week for three years.) A small piece of meat was strung out across the plate as a feeble attempt at creating an illusion of bounty. Sometimes the eye was fooled.

Yet, we learned so much with such great hasmadah (diligence). There were six of us in two adjoining rooms. Three of us would extend our night study schedule until an hour or two past midnight. Walking home, we could hear the voices of the ba’alei mussar wailing from the nearby Jewish cemetery: “Mah Chovoso B’Olamo … What is man’s obligation in this world? Ai , Ai , Ai …” We could distinguish the voices of Braslaver Chassidim who would also devote nocturnal hours in the cemetery to hisbodedus (solitary contemplation), for they would call out with their peculiar Braslaver intonation: Ki Zeh Kol HaAdam, Ain Adam Mais V’Chatzi Taavaso B’Yado, “For such is the entire man; no man dies with even half of his desires in his grasp.”

Back in our rooms, we would awaken the other three to go to their studies while we went to sleep. And of course, one had to be at morning davening on time, or he would have to face Reb Yisrael Yaakov. Some students would keep a weekly mishmar, staying up to study the entire Thursday night, but Reb Elchonon frowned on the practice. Leibel Horodoker, who used to study with his son Reb Naftoli, once asked him, “How did your father ever become such a giant if he did not spend his nights studying?” The following day Reb Naftoli brought back his father’s reply: “Before I learned a mishmar, I ate a whole chicken.” He must have felt pangs of guilt for the meager portions we received.

Smart Shopping in Baranovich

Reb Sholem Dretziner was a talmid (disciple) of the Chofetz Chaim. He owned a large haberdashery in Baranovich and actually practiced shmiras halashon (guarding his tongue against slander and excessive talk) while running his store, communicating more with his hands than with his mouth. Reb Sholem reported to us how the Chofetz Chaim once told Reb Elchonon that he believed in learning Shas (the entire Talmud) in sequence; for if not, one may unwittingly skip parts and never realize it. “For instance,” the Chofetz Chaim had pointed out, “one may pass over a small tractate like Nazir, and never be the wiser.”

“Upon hearing this,” Reb Sholem tells, “Reb Elchonon wiped away a tear, for he suddenly realized that the Chofetz Chaim had singled out the one Mesechta he had never learned in its entirety – Nazir.”

Reb Sholem would sell his merchandise at discounts to b’nei Torah, so I used to purchase my clothing necessities there. I was once in his store when suddenly Reb Elchonon entered. It was crowded with customers, both Jews and non-Jews, and everyone stepped aside out of respect. Reb Sholem dropped everything, for he realized that every delay would involve bitul Torah – loss of time from Torah study.

Reb Elchonon hoped to purchase a scarf. (He was a widower then and took care of his own needs.) “Reb Sholem, give me the right price,” Reb Elchonon insisted. Normally, when a customer asked for the right price he meant a cheaper one. But this customer was afraid of a discount.

Reb Sholem pointed to the price on the box: “Rebbe, I won’t charge less, but I certainly can’t charge you more.”

Keeping Shabbos in Baranovich

Every Friday, Reb Elchonon and Reb Yisrael Yaakov would select a different business section of Baranovich to remind the people to close their stores in time to bentch licht for Shabbos, in accordance with the Chofetz Chaim’s words in Mishnah Berurah.1 People would notice them from a distance and would show their respect by closing shop even before they would draw near. One barber refused to close the doors of his shop even after Reb Elchonon quoted the Torah’s warning: “Mechale’leha – Those who violate the Shabbos will surely be put to death!” Yet he did not budge … The very next week, the barber died.

Then there was a German Jew who set up business in Baranovich. Mistaking Baranovich for Berlin, he became the first Jew to open a store on Shabbos. It seemed unbelievable. Spontaneously, Shabbos morning after davening, Jews from all the shuls, Chassidim from the beis hamidrash of the Slonimer Rebbe (who lived in Baranovich), and the yeshivah in full force, with Reb Elchonon and Reb Yisrael Yaakov in the lead, marched to the store.

In semi-fascist Poland, any kind of demonstration was forbidden. The policeman on the beat had never faced such a crowd before. He alarmed the commandant who arrived with police reinforcements. He ordered the demonstrators to disperse and arrested the two leaders, Reb Elchonon and Reb Yisrael Yaakov. Before the police made their arrest, however, the two managed to step inside the store. Reb Elchonon said, “Gut Shabbos,” while Reb Yisrael Yaakov warned, “If you won’t close mit gutten (under pressure of kindness), you’ll close mit baizen (under unpleasant pressure).”

Needless to say, when the police chief discovered the identity of the leaders whom his officers had arrested, he felt like a fool. He realized that the demonstration had not been organized but was spontaneous, and he released them immediately.

As for the I storekeeper, he went bankrupt within a month, and was forced to leave town.

Upon the Advice of the Rosh Yeshivah

Simple people as well as great talmidei chachamim would consider Reb Elchonon’s advice as a command. He once proposed a marriage match between the children of two of his closest friends. Then the dreadful word “tuberculosis” surfaced. TB was a widespread killer in Europe. Having neither treatment nor medicinal cure, it was everyone’s nightmare, particularly where a marriage was concerned, for TB is highly infectious. The two parties decided to proceed with the wedding in spite of the shadow of TB, “for if Reb Elchonon is the shadchan, nothing can go wrong.” … The couple moved to America where they were blessed with nine children and a growing number of grandchildren.

On His Travels

He was asked by an American matron if she could accept money for the various charities she engaged in from people who are not Shabbos observers. He replied: “Every Jew, while working to earn a living, subconsciously devotes part of his energies and his earnings to charity. This thought, however, is absent when he works on Shabbos, for we have a rule in the Talmud: Ain Adam Choteh V’Lo Lo… No man sins for someone else’s benefit! Thus the money you collect from a Shabbos violator is the money he earned during the week. He never gives the money he earned on Shabbos to charity.”

During a visit to America in 1939, he used every opportunity to speak at youth gatherings. Following a speech to an overflow crowd in the famed Clymer Street Shul of Williamsburg (Brooklyn), he met with a group of six leaders of the Pirchei Agudath Israel. From these encounters, a number of Klal-workers emerged, including the unforgettable Reb Elimelech “Mike” Tress. On another occasion he was asked for his impressions of America. Those who posed the question anticipated a zealous condemnation of a G-dless society. He surprised them, saying, “American youth has the greatest potential of any I have met. They are sincere in their search for truth, and once they are taught the Torah view, they develop into the finest b’nei Torah.”

On September 1, 1939 the Germans bombed Warsaw, and suddenly people’s worst fears became an immediate threat. Reb Elchonon packed his bags to return to his beloved yeshivah. He was begged to stay in America, for returning to Baranovich was suicide. Nonetheless, he set sail for Europe. How could he abandon his boys?

Later in 1939, the Russians entered Baranovich as a result of the infamous Hitler-Stalin pact dividing Poland. Reb Elchonon escaped with the yeshivah to Vilna. Since he possessed a passport, he was selected to journey back to America to attempt to gain visas for the yeshivah students. Joined by his sons Reb Naftoli and Reb Leib and their wives (they had married in the meantime) he reluctantly left. On their way to the airport – they were planning to fly to Sweden and then to America – the horse and buggy overturned and Reb Leib broke his leg. Reb Elchonon interpreted this as an omen that the trip was ill-conceived, and he remained in Lithuania. Unfortunately, he was not with the remnants of the yeshivah in Semilishev when the Soviets arrested them and deported them to Siberia. As a result, he fell in to German hands when they occupied Lithuania. He and his sons were machine-gunned to death at the 9th Fort in Kovno, where the entire Jewry of Kovno is buried.

His Own Epitaph

When the Chofetz Chaim had passed away, Reb Elchonon spoke of him as being an imposing personality whose neshamah qualities normally would have placed him in an earlier generation, much as others before him, such as Rav Hai Gaon and the Vilna Gaon, possessed a greatness only associated with much earlier times. They all lived when they did to signal the end of an era, for just as a placemark extends beyond the confines of its covers, so does a gadol who closes an era exceed all around him. In this way those who follow him are all the more dwarfed by his overwhelming shadow, and are inspired all the more to raise their insights.

In many ways, one can view Reb Elchonon in a similar vein. Very much an extension of his Rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim, he seemed larger than his contemporaries. And with his passing, the era of great European Roshei HaYeshivah came to a close.

Just as Moshe Rabbeinu was always “with us” as long as his disciple Yehoshua lived (see Rashi on Devarim 31:29), so, too, did the Chofetz Chaim “live” as long as Reb Elchonon was alive.


1. “In large communities where it is impossible to announce (the advent of the Shabbos) it is most fitting for people to volunteer to go out in the streets of the city to remind the people regarding closing shop and lighting candles.” Mishneh Berurah 65:2, and see also Shaar HaTzion.

{Article by Chaim Shapiro. This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.}

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