[Photos below.] Rav Simcha Avrohom Sheps was born on April 18, 1908 in the Polish town of Vesokov-Mizivyetsk (near Lomza). Rav Simcha lost his father in early infancy and was raised by his mother and grandfather in the town of Sheptakova. He spent his early years learning in the Sheptakova Cheder. At the age of eleven, he went to learn in the Yeshiva Ketana of Bransk, after which he went to learn in Lomza until his Bar Mitzvah. Young Simcha truly desired to learn in the great Lithuanian Yeshivos, but he was afraid to broach the subject to his widowed mother.
At the age of thirteen he, received permission to travel to Baranovitch to learn under Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt’l, hy”d and Rav Dovid Rappaport zt’l, hy”d. After an exhausting train ride and being dropped off on the other end of Baranovitch, thirteen year old Simcha arrived at the Yeshiva tired and sullied. He was told by the Mashgiach, Rav Yisroel Ya’akov Lubchansky, zt”l, that the Yeshiva was full to capacity and could not accept him. “Then I won’t eat with the other Bochurim. I’ll take care of myself, just please let me learn,” he begged. The Mashgiach allowed Rav Simcha to enter the Yeshiva, and true to his word, Rav Simcha did not attend the Yeshiva’s meals, remaining immersed in learning in the Bais Medrash. Rav Simcha later testified, with tears in his eyes, “I would go to the garbage and take out the potato peels, which I ate together with scraps from other Bochurim’s plates.” After some time the Mashgiach caught Rav Simcha searching through the garbage can, and invited Rav Simcha to eat all three meals in his home.
He continued learning in Baranovitch with incredible Hasmoda. One day, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l came to Baranovitch on his way to the Chanukas HaBayis of Rav Ahron Kotler’s Yeshiva in Kletzk. Rav Isser Zalman was asked to give a Shiur, and began piling one question on top of the other. Just as he was about to resolve the difficulties, a Levaya passed by the Bais Medrash and all the bochurim left to take part. Being that Rav Simcha was a Kohen he remained in the Bais Medrash taking out a Rambam to review Rav Isser Zalman’s shiur. By the time Rav Isser Zalman returned, Rav Simcha had figured out a Chiddush with which to answer the difficulties. When asked if he was going to finish the Shiur, Ray Isser Zalman replied “The ‘Sheptakova’ figured it out already.” Rav Simcha held him as his Rebbe even though he never learned by him, since he gave him the courage to come and speak up. Rav Isser Zalman went back to Kletsk and told Rav Ahron to try to get the ‘Sheptakova’ to come to the Yeshiva.
Rav Simcha learned in the Mir from the age of sixteen until World War II (except for 1936-1937). While in the Mir, he was close with Rav Chaim Shmuelovitz zt”l, Rav Aryeh Leib Malin zt”l, and Rav Yonah Minsker zt”l, amongst others. Being that he was a penniless orphan, his years in the Mirrer Yeshiva were an epoch of supreme Mesiras Nefesh for Torah.
Once, Rav Leizer Yudel caught him tutoring for a small fee. Rav Leizer Yudel immediately said, “I forbid you to spend your time tutoring – you should use this time to be Mechadesh Chiddushim.” [Rav Leizer Yudel once said, “You can awaken Rav Simcha at any time of the night to ask him the Lomdus of any Sugya in Shas, and he will tell it to you.”] Rav Leizer Yudel began learning with him throughout the night every Wednesday, for which he would give him a stipend based on the “value” of the “Shtickel Torah” that he told over. Rav Simcha would not sleep on Tuesday nights, as he spent hours preparing a Vort for the Rosh Yeshiva for the following night.
A Bochur once told Rav Leizer Yudel that Rav Simcha could not concentrate on his learning being that he was worried about his mother who was alone in Shepetovka. Rav Leizer Yudel called Rav Simcha in, and asked him what could be done to help the situation, so that he would once again be able to fully concentrate on his learning. Rav Simcha suggested that seeing his mother in person might help. Rav Leizer Yudel then proceeded to give Rav Simcha two hundred dollars (at a time when two hundred dollars was worth today’s thousands of dollars). He told him “go home and come back ready to learn.” Rav Leizer Yudel gave him such an exorbitant amount of money because he understood how important Rav Simcha’s learning was.
In 1934, Rav Simcha was chosen from the Talmidim of Mir to go to the city of Brisk, and join an elite group of Talmidim to learn with the Brisker Rav zt”l, Rav Yitzchok Zev (Velvel) Soloveichik. He demurred, saying that he felt it was not right for him to be part of the same group as Rav Yonah Minsker zt”l, hy”d, who Rav Simcha looked up to for guidance when he first entered the Mir. When the offer was repeated in 1936, he accepted, and spent two years in Brisk, together with Rav Henoch Fishman zt”l and Rav Naftoli Wasserman zt”l, hy”d (the son of Rav Elchonon). These years shaped his Derech HaLimud and outlook at life, and he considered the Brisker Rav as his Rebbe Muvhak.
In 1939, while stationed in Japan with the rest of the Mir, he miraculously received a visa and emigrated to the United States. Upon his arrival in New York he joined the staff of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. During this time, he developed a lifelong relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and Rav Eliezer Silver zt”l. In 1942 he married his Rebbetzin, Sora Weitzman, the daughter of the Rav of one of the biggest Shuls in Brownsville. Rav Shlomo Heiman zt”l escorted him under the Chupah. When Rav Shlomo Heiman became ill in 1943, Rav Simcha took over his Shiur. Many have credited him with being the first to bring the ‘Brisker Derech HaLimud’ to the Yeshivos on these shores.
During the forty eight years that he was Marbitz Torah at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, he was afflicted with life threatening illnesses on a daily basis. Yet despite his poor health, he delivered Shiurim with vim and vigor, displaying his sheer exuberance for the Torah as it came to life with his delivery. The thousands of Talmidim who learned under him acknowledge that the excitement the have for Torah was a product of the time they learned by Rav Simcha.
Rav Simcha was niftar on 16 MarChesvan, 5759, and was laid to rest on Har HaZeisim. In the subsequent years, his Talmidim and family, who wrote over the Drashos and Shmuezen that they heard from him, printed them in a Sefer called Moreshes Simchas HaTorah. In 5759, his Shiurim on Mesechta Bava Kama were printed by his family in a Sefer called Divrei Simcha. Through his Shiurim and Seforim, his legacy lives on.
Photos of Rav Sheps below (courtesy of Tsemach Glenn):