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A Hassidic Story in Real Time

Yesterday I wrote about our teacher of blessed memory, Rabbi Yisroel Shurin. Today I want to tell you a story that involved our rabbi. In fact I recently related these events to Yitzchak Shurin and he had not heard the story even though it involved his father, grandfather, brother and uncle -- so I figured this story can't be too well known.

The story, however, isn't hassidic at all -- in fact it is about a famous rabbi who was not a hassid -- he was a Lithuanian mitnaged, those Jewish scholars originally opposed to the Hassidic movement, the followers of the Vilna Gaon. I am talking about Rav Shurin's saintly father-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky. Like other great scholars of the previous generation, many stories, in both oral and written form, circulate about Rav Kamenetzky. I don't bother too much with these accounts because they generally stretch the truth somewhat (perhaps an understatement). I have heard much about Rav Yaakov from his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren to piece together a "real" picture of a truly saintly scholar. However, I witnessed the story I am about to narrate here, first hand, as it unfolded.

Before I narrate the current story, it is important to know that it is widely reported that Rav Yaakov always told the truth -- no false statement passing via his lips. Two well known examples are related in this regard. In the first, Rav Kamenetzky was still a yeshiva student in Lithuania. During Pesach he was assigned to eat with a certain family in the town. However he was worried that he could not completely trust the kashruth of this family and thus did not want to eat there. As a young student, he could not come straight out with his suspicions of this family's kosher habits, so he found another way out. It is well known that all Lithuanian Jews eat gebrochts (kneidlach or matza shruyah), matzoth that have been soaked in water. Hassidic Jews consider this to be hametz, leaven, and forbidden on Passoever. In order to not eat at this particular household, Rav Yaakov said that his tradition was like that of the Polish Jews who do not eat gebrochts. In order to ensure that he had not lied in this instance, he did not eat gebrochts again on Peasch for the rest of his life, even though he knew they were permissible to eat. Eating them would mean that he had lied back then when he was a youngster.

The second example occurred while the Rabbi was the principal of a Hassidic yeshiva. Many hassidic and sfardic Jews put on two pairs of tefillin. The first, like everyone else, are according the tradition of Rashi, and the second pair according to the custom of his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam. The yeshiva's board very much wanted their rabbi to follow their custom and put on both pairs, but he protested that he was from the Lithuanian school and therefore did not have the tradition of Rabbeinu Tam. They continued to press him on the issue and they reminded him that the great Lithuanian sage, Rabbi Yirsoel Kagan, known as the Hafetz Hayyim, wore both pairs. In defence, Rav Kamenetzky responded that the Hafetz Hayyim only started to do this when he was old. When Rav Yaakov reached his seventies, he thought that perhaps he had made a commitment in his answer that the Hafetz Hayyim only wore the extra phylacteries when reached an advance age. Perhaps his words could be misconstrued that he had made a commitment that when he too reached this stage in his life, he would adopt the custom. So, without telling anyone, he acquired a pair of Rabbeinu Tam tefilin. Rav Shurin told me that he only knew about this because once, while visiting his father-in-law after morning prayers, he was sitting, wearing them in his house. He never put them on in public, but daily in the privacy of his home. Rav Shurin added that they were indeed a very beautiful (read expensive) pair. In other words he took his obligation very seriously, putting his money behind commitment.

It would seem that Rav Yaakov was not aware of the reason that the Hafetz Hayyim started to wear Rabbeinu Tam tephilin. In the early years of the twentieth century, a Hungarian printer hit on hard times in his business due to losing a certain franchise his family had held for a many years. In order to supplement his business and feed his growing family, he "commissioned" a work which he claimed to be a long lost tractate of the Jerusalem Talmud. He printed many copies of this "missing" mesechet of the Yerushalmi and distributed them all over Europe. The forgery was of a very high quality. Based on a passage in this volume, the Hafetz Hayyim took upon himself the obligation of the second set of tefilin. However, after a number of years, the fraud was revealed and he discontinued his practice of the second pair. Based on what I know of Rav Kamenetzky, even if he became aware of this later on, he would not have terminated his practice of two pairs. He truly was a man of high integrity.

So it seemed strange that in the last year of his life, Rav Yaakov accepted the honour of being the sandak, godfather, for a newborn in his home town of Monsey. Due to his advanced age, the rabbi had not accepted such a call for quite a while. What was surprising though, to everyone present at the brith, was that the rabbi stated at the termination of the ceremony, "please God, I'll be at the boy's barmitzva". For a renowned man of truth such as Rav Yaakov, this was utterance was incongruous. Was he pleading to the Almighty to grant him a further thirteen years of life in this world? It was indeed a puzzle.

But the Lord has his ways and these are not the ways of flesh and blood. As this boy grew up, his relationship with his father soured, deteriorating almost by the day. At the age of eleven, the father and son could no longer survive in the same household. In desperation the parents sent their son to Israel, to live with a certain Reb Mordechai, who specialises in caring, in his house, for children with various problems. The boy lived with Mordechai and his family for a couple of years. It was during this time that he celebrated his barmitzva. The call-up took place (you can believe me -- beacuse I was there) in Rabbi Shurin's synagogue!

In his sermon that shabbat morning, our rabbi related the detail of this boy's brit and of everyone's surprise at his father-in-law's seemingly strong desire to be present at this barmitzva. Seated in the front row of the synagogue that day was Rabbi Nosson Kaminetzky, Rav Yaakov's son (and Rav Shurin's brother-in-law). Now I think Reb Nosson has visited his sister, for Shabbat, at the most two or three times in the twenty three years I have lived in Efrat.

Rav Shurin said, "Rav Yaakov always told the truth. And according to the halacha, a father and a son share a similar legal status. And here, as if by chance, but we all know nothing happens by chance, is Rav Yaakov's son; he is present, right here, at the barmitva, just as Rav Yaakov promised." Until Rav Shurin brought it up in his speech, Rav Nosson had absolutely no idea that any simcha was taking place, let alone of any connection to his father. It was truly unbelievable! The whole shule was aghast, amzement all around! And to top it off, Reb Yaakov's grandson, Moshe, was also in attendance -- a doubleheader.

If you told me this story, or I had read it one of the many books, I would not believe it, no way, but I was there, in real time -- and so was my son Elisha.

Please feel free to and don't forget to stop by my site to look at my latest (and classic) photographs.


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