By Yisroel Greenwald
It is amazing to witness the strong impact Rav Mendel Kaplan zt”l continues to have more than two decades after his passing. It is not uncommon to find former talmidim repeating his sayings verbatim, with the exact tone and inflection they first heard them decades before. His yahrtzeit is marked by an annual kinnus that still continues to draw a large gathering. What’s more surprising is that the gathering is comprised not only of family, friends and talmidim, but also an ever increasing circle of those who never met him – but still consider him their rebbi and counsel.
What was Rav Mendel’s special ability to capture the hearts of so many people? How is it that renowned educators from all streams of Orthodoxy consider him to be one of the most influential figures in their lives? What was it that made Rav Mendel such a magnetic and captivating individual?
The qualities that make talmidei chachomim respected and beloved in eyes of the tzibbur are not only their scholarly prowess and lofty spiritual level. In greater measure it is for their mentchlichkeit, their pleasant human qualities.  As the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Brudny zt”l, once explained the concept of “talmidei chachomim marbim shalom ba’olam – Torah scholars increase peace in the world,”  if you want to measure how great a talmid chochom one is, see how much peace and good will he generates. The more shalom he increases, the greater the talmid chochom he is. Rav Mendel’s grace and peaceful demeanor embodied those lofty ideals. 
Chazal ask, “Man malki? Who are the kings? They answer, Rabbonon – the Rabbis.” Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l explains that the Jewish view of royalty is totally different than the other nations of the world. For the nations, a king is a “sholet” – a self-centered ruler. The Torah’s definition of a king is someone who worries and concerns himself with the needs of every individual in the nation.  Man malki, Rabbonon – our gedolim are the true kings in that they exemplify concern to the needs of others, both physically as well as spiritually.
Rav Mendel was a beautiful human being who was beloved by anyone he came in contact with, Jew and gentile alike. His acts of kindness were legendary, his empathy and concern for the welfare of others, limitless. He treated all human beings – both the great and the simple – with respect and love.
Rav Mendel spent several summers next to an egg farm in upstate New York. Every morning around five or six o’clock, trucks used to come to pick up deliveries from this farm. Many times, Rav Mendel would interrupt his early morning learning to bring coffee and sandwiches to the hungry truckers. 
When Rav Mendel heard that a chaver of his from the Mir had come home from an operation, he immediately went to visit him. When Rav Mendel saw that his extended presence would be beneficial to buoy his friend’s spirits, he disregarded his own needs and schedule and moved into his friend’s home and stayed there for two entire days and nights.
During the Six Day War, there was a collective spirit of care and concern among the student body of the Philadelphia Yeshiva for their brethren in Eretz Yisroel. It therefore came as a surprise to the talmidim in Rav Mendel’s shiur when he failed to speak about the topic and eagerly waited to hear him deliver some divrei hisorerus about it. One day passed, then another. On the third day, Rav Mendel suddenly put his head down in middle of shiur and started to cry so bitterly that his entire body shook. This continued unabated for several minutes, after which he felt so choked up that he was unable to continue to deliver his shiur. He quietly closed the Gemara, stood up and walked out of the shiur room. On that day, the talmidim comprehended that Rav Mendel’s degree of suffering for Klal Yisroel was so painful, that it could only be expressed through tears and not with words. 
Rav Mendel had the special ability to understand another person’s inner world by merely looking at him; and to respond accordingly. The Menoras Hama’or describes that among the virtues of a talmid chochom is his adaptability to assume various roles to suit the specific needs of each individual: “He should be a protector of the poor, a compatriot to the simple, a father to the orphan, a husband to the widow, a memory prompt to the wise, a teacher to the unlearned, and a source of joy to the downcast.”  So it was with Rav Mendel. Everyone had his Rav Mendel; he held an individual key to people’s hearts and gave each one exactly what was suited to their needs and temperament. He could be the lamdan, ba’al mussar, father, mother, friend or, when necessary, even a mechanic.
One day during shiur, Rav Mendel discerned that one boy’s yiras Shomayim was lacking that particular day. Rav Mendel closed the Gemara they were learning and instead learned with the class Medrash for the next two days. He believed that the talmid would be unable to learn Gemara without first being instilled with yiras Shomayim by learning the aggadic portions of the Torah. 
When Rav Mendel lived in Chicago, he was awakened late one night by a phone call from a friend he had known in the Mir in Shanghai. The friend apologized for calling so late, but said his car was stuck fifty miles from Chicago, and he had no one to call. He inquired if Rav Mendel knew of a trustworthy garage he can contact. Rav Mendel said, “Wait right there – I’ll be right over!” and immediately went out with his old car and a chain and spent the whole night towing the friend’s car back to a garage in Chicago. 
THE CHAIN OF MESORAH
When you saw Rav Mendel, you saw the spirit of his great teachers, Rav Shimon Shkop, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, the Brisker Rov and others. He lived their teachings and they lived in him. While Rav Mendel was close to numerous gedolim of the previous generation, he was particularly close to Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d, the rosh yeshiva of the Baranovitch Yeshiva. Rav Elchonon held Rav Mendel in high esteem and would learn with him b’chavrusah while the latter was still a bochur in the yeshiva. Rav Elchonon made known that he hoped Rav Mendel would someday be a maggid shiur in his yeshiva. While the outbreak of World War II prevented his dream from materializing, Rav Elchonon did appoint Rav Mendel to say his shiur for a half a year, while he traveled overseas to raise funds for the yeshiva. 
For two generations of students, Rav Mendel was a link in the chain of the mesorah. He always considered himself a ben yeshiva, and was forever cognizant of the derech of the yeshiva. He once introduced his students to Sha’ar Hagamul of the Ramban, but at the same time made a point of mentioning, “This sefer wasn’t part of the ‘diet’ in the yeshivos. In the yeshivos we didn’t deal with Gehennom. That wasn’t the main course.” 
Rav Mendel once had a student who was struggling balancing his non-conventional tendencies while conforming to the framework of a yeshiva setting. Rav Mendel showed an appreciation towards the student’s eclectic tastes and would share with him seforim and concepts not regularly studied in yeshiva. He also encouraged him to develop his unique talents and pursue his interests.
At the same time, he knew where to set the boundaries. This talmid took particular pleasure in discussing with Rav Mendel all sorts of atypical hashkafa questions and Rav Mendel generally responded warmly to his queries. A number of times, however, he would decline to answer his questions. On one occasion, he dismissed him curtly and said, “Better return to the bais medrash and delve in a Rashba instead.”
SAME TORAH, DIFFERENT JARGON
Rav Mendel once related how Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, the mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland, was once asked to speak at a local civic event. A colleague later questioned him, “Has the mashgiach become a secular public orator?” Rav Yeruchom replied, “What I wouldn’t say in the yeshiva before Neilah, I wouldn’t have said there either. The only difference is the jargon.” 
Likewise, Rav Mendel was able to convey the Torah view in everyone’s language and to motivate others by coming from their prospective. A family whom Rav Mendel was close with had a daughter who began dressing in the fashionable styles of the time that was lacking in modesty. An occasion arose where he was able to say to her, “When you show your knees, it detracts from the beauty of your face.”
Rav Mendel was a very modest and unassuming person by nature, but when circumstances called for getting a strong message across, he could transform into a master showman:
When he first came to the US from Europe after the war, he taught a class of young teenagers. One youngster, who came from a wealthy home and had an attitude problem, would consistently come late to class. Rav Mendel finally told him that if he came late once again, he wouldn’t be allowed in the shiur. The next day the boy again came late and Rav Mendel didn’t let him into class.
The boy felt miffed and stood outside the glass door making disturbances that succeeded in distracting the class from their learning. Rav Mendel invited him back inside, but only on the condition that he first pays five dollars (a great sum in those days) as a fine. The boy took out a five dollar bill and coolly tossed it on the desk.
The boy had a knowing look on his face: “The European rabbi just wanted an excuse to schnorr some money out of me.” But instead of pocketing the money, Rav Mendel took out a packet of matches and to everyone’s surprise, set the bill alight in front of the class. “You’re probably wondering how I can destroy something so valuable?” he asked the shocked student. “I just wanted to show exactly what you are doing each time you come late.” 
When Rav Mendel was teaching in Philadelphia Yeshiva, Coca Cola came out with a short-lived three-liter bottle called “The Boss.” Once, two students returned from a heated game of basketball during a lunch break and were sitting drinking soda from “The Boss” in the seforim library. When Rav Mendel walked into the room to take out a sefer, he noticed the bottle. Ignoring the boys, he walked over to the bottle, bent his body over slightly, and began to address the bottle in reverential tones:
“Please forgive me. I never realized till this moment that you are The Boss. I always thought that Reb Shmuel was the boss. Had I known that you were the boss, I would have asked you for a raise. Zeit mochel, zeit mochel (please forgive me).” Still facing the bottle, he walked backwards and humbly bowed before exiting the room. Those bochurim later admitted that were unable to bring themselves to drink from “The Boss” again.
But all of his innovative teaching techniques were only effective because it stemmed from his honest heartfelt love of Torah and his talmidim. To Rav Mendel, his role as a rebbi was first and foremost to impart the joy of Torah study to his talmidim. Just as he experienced the sweetness of Torah, he was also able to impart those same feelings to his talmidim as well.  In his proximity, one saw such a full and appealing life, that many young talmidim gladly traded the vacuous pleasures of the world for the eternal pleasure of Torah.
When Rav Mendel taught in Chicago, he had one adolescent student who was totally absorbed in pursuing a good time and held no interest in his learning. Rav Mendel put in considerable effort to get him into learning, but to no avail. He finally made a standing offer that if the boy ever felt so inclined to learn with him, he would gladly make himself available, no matter what hour of the day or night.
It so happened that one Motzoei Shabbos, the young man was returning home at 2:00 in the morning after spending a ‘night on the town.’ It occurred to him that it would make a good practical joke to pay a visit to Rav Mendel’s home at this unholy hour and to ask to learn with him.
The student hesitantly knocked on the door of his home and, to his surprise, Rav Mendel immediately called out to him to enter. As the talmid entered the dining room, he found Rav Mendel sitting over an open Gemara. Rav Mendel joyously greeted him as an honored guest and the two studied together till the morning. “From that moment onward, I became a changed person,” relates the student decades later. “I found myself increasingly drawn to him and to learning in general until finally I merited to be what I am today – a maggid shiur in a yeshiva in Yerushalayim.” 
EXTRAORDINARY EFFORT BRINGS EXTRAORDINARY RESULTS
Talmidim saw Rav Mendel’s love of Torah translated to an equal level of ameilus b’Torah – diligent toil in the study of Torah:
Rav Aharon Brustowsky relates that before he left the Philadelphia Yeshiva, he wanted to express his gratitude to Rav Mendel by buying him the Sefer Machaneh Efraim as a present. Knowing that Rav Mendel abhorred gifts and would refuse the sefer if presented forthright, he decided to place it on his shtender, where Rav Mendel was sure to see it when he would come for Maariv that evening.
Sure enough, Rav Mendel arrived to his seat a few minutes before Maariv, and seeing the sefer before him, he began learning from it for a few minutes until Maariv began. Upon closing it, he noticed the writing on the inside cover and spent a moment reading the inscription. After Maariv, he tucked the sefer under his arm and walked out with it.
Later in the evening, he met Aharon and after warmly thanking him for the gift, said an unusually revealing comment: “Today I wasn’t feeling well, so I was learning in my room, when I was bothered with a question in the Gemara. I then reminded myself that it was actually the question of the Machaneh Efraim, but I just couldn’t remember what the Machaneh Efraim answered. I tried and tried to remember the answer, but I couldn’t recall it. Normally, I would have gone downstairs and looked up the sefer, but I felt so weak that I didn’t have the energy to even go downstairs. And all day long I had tremendous tzaar (aggravation) because of this.
“Tonight I felt a little better and I came down to the bais medrash and saw a Machaneh Efraim on my shtender. I believed that from himmel zay hut ungevorfen oif mein shtender vail ich hub azoi mitzaar geven iber dem (from Heaven they threw it down on my shtender because I was so pained over this). Then I saw it was you who put it on my shtender.”
Rav Mendel, who was always careful not to reveal anything extraordinary about himself, must have felt it was nothing unusual to have unnatural assistance if one toils in Torah.
Similarly, Rav Mendel felt that no effort should be spared in helping another Jew, and when one exerts himself beyond his nature or ability, he can merit success above the laws of nature as well:
A bais din in Eretz Yisroel once contacted Rabbi Moshe Goodman  to help locate a recalcitrant husband who left his wife without a get and was probably in the US. Reb Moshe felt their request was preposterous; how could they possibly expect him to find a person who left without the slightest clue of his whereabouts and who could be anywhere in the country?
Rabbi Goodman happened to visit Rav Mendel shortly afterwards and in the course of the conversation jokingly mentioned in passing the ludicrous call he had received from the bais din in Eretz Yisroel.
Rav Mendel’s demeanor immediately turned serious. “Vos lachst du? Dos iz hatzolas nefashos. Mir darf eppes ufton mit dem – ober vos shneler de besser. Balt shik a brief uhn fregt a bild.” (Why are you laughing? This is a matter of saving a life. You have to see to do whatever you can – and the sooner the better. Quickly send them a letter and ask them for a picture.) When Rabbi Goodman asked, “But where should I start looking for him?” Rav Mendel answered mysteriously (as the husband was not a chossid), “Go…go to Williamsburg.”
Rabbi Goodman followed his rebbi‘s instruction and went to Williamsburg where he met up with another former talmid of Rav Mendel who lived there. Together they set out to scour the neighborhood, but unfortunately with no results. The talmid who lived in Williamsburg told Rabbi Goodman to return home, and that he will continue the search alone. Several days later, Rabbi Goodman received a call from the talmid in Williamsburg. “I found him!” he reported excitedly. With the help of askonim in the city, they were able to extract a get from the husband before the end of that week.
LIVING ON IN HIS TALMIDIM
That his passing was felt as a crushing blow to the Torah community is easily understood, but to be felt by the broader world as well is a very unique phenomenon. A week after Rav Mendel passed away, the Italian carpenter who did woodwork at the yeshiva was seen crying bitterly. One of the rabbeim thought that he must have suffered some personal tragedy and asked him what the matter was. “Didn’t you hear?” he answered in a choking voice. “Rabbi Kaplan died!”
When a family member drove Rav Mendel’s car to his regular auto shop for repairs, one of the gentile workers recognized the car and asked, “Where’s the rabbi?” When he heard that Rav Mendel passed away, he sat down on the stoop next to the gas pump and began to cry. “I know all I am is a simple mechanic, but the rabbi made me feel like I was a special human being. No one in the world made me feel as good as the rabbi did.” 
Chazal say that the righteous never die; they continue to live on in the hearts and minds of their students and admirers. When you look at Rav Mendel’s disciples, you can see the spirit of Rav Mendel; they live his teachings and he lives in them.
Yehi zichro boruch.
Yisroel Greenwald is the author of Rav Mendel and His Wisdom, the enduring lessons of the legendary Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, published by Artscroll/Mesorah Publications.
1. Yoma 86a. See also Rambam Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:11, Hilchos Dei’os 5:13.
2. Brachos 64a.
3. Rav Mendel would consistently sacrifice his own honor for the sake of shalom. When once publicly belittled by a Torah scholar many years his junior, he remained silent. He later confided how difficult it was for him to let the other person have the final word. Although he believed he was in the right and had a retort ready at hand, he squelched it for the attainment of peace. As he would say, “Besser a narishe shalom, than a kluger machlokes – Better a foolish peace, than a clever feud.”
4. Based on Gittin 62a.
5. B’Mechitzas Rabbeinu p. 262. With this introduction, he explains Chazal‘s statement that “chosson domeh l’melech – a chosson is comparable to a king” (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 16). This comparison was intended to underscore that a man’s role in marriage is to conduct himself as a king; namely, to worry and care for the welfare of his wife and children.
6. Rav Mendel and His Wisdom, page 133.
7. Related by Rav Mendel Slomovitz.
See also Rav Mendel and His Wisdom, p. 219, for a similar episode concerning Rav Mendel’s pain on the subject of the Holocaust.
8. Perek Derech Eretz, end of Shaar Aleph.
9. Tanna D’bei Eliyahu Zuta, chapter 14.
10. Rav Mendel and His Wisdom, p. 164. Rav Mendel lived the dictum of Avos 2:17, “Your fellowman’s money should be as dear to you as your own.”
11. Although Rav Elchonon offered Rav Mendel to say his shiur during his absence, Rav Mendel declined the offer. He felt it was more fitting that it be delivered by Rav Leib Gavya, who was older than himself and was one of the regular maggidei shiurim in Baranovitch. Rav Mendel arranged instead to give Rav Leib’s shiur, which was directly under Rav Elchonon’s, and that Rav Leib give Rav Elchonon’s.
12. Related by Rav Chaim Benoliel.
Although Rav Mendel’s primary “diet” consisted of Gemara with its commentaries, he was knowledgeable in other subjects (Torah and otherwise) not customarily learned in yeshiva circles, including such arcane areas as Kabbolah and Chassidic seforim. A student once visited him in his sukkah and saw him looking into a Breslover sefer. He remarked that the sefer gave him a “high” like an intoxicating beverage. (Based on that analogy, it would appear that he would only dabble in such works on an occasional basis.) 13. Related by Rav Chaim Benoliel.
14. Related by Rav Ovadya Yudkowsky.
15. See Gra, Mishlei 16:21.
16. Preface to Nesivay Yam, shiurim of Rav Mendel Kaplan on Maseches Kiddushin p. 2-3.
17. Name has been changed.
18. Rav Mendel and His Wisdom, pp. 133-134.