Weekly Chasidic Story #866 (s5774-44 / 2 Tammuz 5774)

On the Inside

When the Lubavitcher Rebbe met Rabbis Chaim-Ozer Grodinski and Boruch Ber Kaminetz in Vilna, Lithuania.

Connection: Seasonal–20th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

In 1966, I [Rabbi Yosef Krupnik] was learning on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the Yeshiva Jacob Joseph, famously known throughout the world as “RJJ” (one of the first, if not the first, to certify rabbinical ordination in the USA-ed.). At the time, I had a study partner by the name of Alexander Stern who had a connection with Chabad, and he was constantly inviting me to see what a farbrengen [chasidic gathering] with the Lubavitcher Rebbe was like. Finally I accepted his invitation for Yud Shevat.

The tenth of the Hebrew month of Shevat is a most significant date on the Chabad calendar. It’s the anniversary of the passing of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, also known as the Rebbe Rayatz, and the day when, a year later, his son-in-law Rabbi Menchem Mendel Schneerson formally accepted the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch.

I went to the farbrengen and I enjoyed it very much. The result was that I got home hours after midnight and the next morning I was late for yeshiva. Our teacher, Rabbi Shaya Shimonowitz, who was one of the genuine Talmudic giants left over from the old Mir Yeshiva in Europe, realized immediately why the two of us were late that morning. When we walked into class he reprimanded us: “Don’t you realize the importance of Torah? You lost time from Torah study…you missed a class!”

He reprimanded us very, very harshly and, to be quite honest, I was deeply hurt. Up to that point, I thought I had a very good relationship with him. This was the first time that he had come down on my case in this way.

When he finished the class and it was time to go to the study hall, he asked Alex and me to stay behind. And I was sure that we were about to get the second round of rebuke, but that’s not what happened.

When everybody else has left and it was just the two of us with Reb Shaya, he told us an amazing story. It seems that he understood how much his rebuke had hurt us, and he decided to make it up to us – telling us, by implication, that the time we spend at Chabad with the Lubavitcher Rebbe was not really wasted.

In 1937, R. Shaya merited to accompany his Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Baruch Ber Lebowitz, the Rosh Yeshiva of Kaminetz, known to be the leading disciple of Rabbi Chaim Brisker (a most prominent Torah leader, from whom all the Soloveitchiks are descended-ed.), on a visit to Vilna (an important center of yeshiva learning at that time), Lithuania to discuss Yeshiva World matters withRabbi Chaim-Ozer Grodzinski [described by the Chafetz Chayim (1838-1933) as the embodiment of Torah-ed.].

It seems that in those years, when the Rebbe was not yet the Rebbe and studying in Berlin and Paris, he was sent on various missions by the Rebbe Rayatz. On this particular occasion he had to travel to Vilna in order to get Rabbi Chaim-Ozer to co-sign a letter that the Rebbe Rayatz had written [to raise money for the aid and support of the Jews in Communist Russia-ed.).
When the Rebbe arrived, it just so happened that R. Chaim Ozer was still meeting in his office with his illustrious visitor, R. Baruch Ber. The Rebbe was told that he was going to have to wait until they finished their meeting before he could go in.

As he waited, there were a few people in the study hall at the time who realized that he was a Lubavitcher chasid, and so they decided to harass him. They started asking him pointed questions on Talmudic topics – did he know this topic, and what did he have to say about it, and so forth.

But the Rebbe didn’t answer. R. Shaya, who was present as this was going on said that some of the people were really pestering him mercilessly and still, the Rebbe said nothing, remaining quiet.

And then R. Chaim-Ozer opened the door. He stood listening to the many voices, and then beckoned the Rebbe to come in. The Rebbe went inside, and there began to answer the questions that had been posed to him outside. R. Shaya said he answered with great clarity and in depth, quoting both early and late Torah commentators by heart.

So R. Chaim asked the Rebbe, “Why didn’t you answer these questions outside, when they were harassing you?”

The Rebbe replied, “I didn’t come to hold debates with anybody. However, I noticed that you registered their questions, and I became afraid that my failure to answer might have a negative impact on the mission given to me by my father-in-law.” He feared that perhaps Reb Chaim Ozer might not agree to co-sign the letter of the Rebbe Rayatz due to disdain for the Rebbe’s inability to respond, so he decided to clarify the situation.

After this exchange, R. Chaim Ozer took the letter and started reading through it. In the meantime, R. Baruch Ber continued to talk with the Rebbe in matters of Torah knowledge.

After a few minutes R. Baruch Ber said to the Rebbe, “If you come to learn in my yeshiva, I guarantee that you will become the leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva world.”

The Rebbe politely declined. He said he had his path, knew what he had to do and whom he had to answer to. When he said this, R. Baruch Ber started to cry.

R. Shaya said he had never told this story to anybody before. I sensed that it was a difficult admission for him, that the Rebbe potentially could have become the leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva world if he so desired, but instead chose to remain a loyal chasid.

Source: Adapted and supplemented by Yerachmiel Tilles from JEM-Here’s My Story [//JEMedia.org], based on their extraordinary “My Encounter with the Rebbe” project, documenting the life of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M Schneerson of righteous memory. The story is one of thousands recorded in the 800 videotaped interviews conducted to date with seniors who knew the Rebbe in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Rabbi Yosef-Zev Krupnik is a Kashrut administrator at the Detroit Council of Orthodox Rabbis.

Connection: Seasonal — Tuesday, the 3rd of the Jewish month of Tammuz (this year: July 1), is the 20th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Biographical notes (in chronological order):

Rabbi Chaim-Ozer Grodzinski
 [9 Elul 5623 – 5 Av (!) 5700 [1863 – 1940 C.E.)] was accepted into the highest level of the world-renowned Yeshiva of Volozhin of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik at age 15. At age 20, he moved to Vilna, where he married and became a rabbinical court judge. Over the following fifty-seven years he emerged as the unofficial Rabbi of Vilna. The Chofetz Chaim would not initiate any public action, or sign any public document, until he consulted with Rabbi Grodzinski, considering him to be a living embodiment of Torah. He is the author of She’elot uTeshuvot Achiezer, a three-volume collection of responsa. (from //rabbimeirbaalhaneis.com)

Rabbi Baruch-Ber Lebowitz
 [5630 – 5 Elul 5699 (1870-1939 C.E.)], born in Slutsk, is said by many to have been the leading disciple of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav. He was the Rosh Yehiva in Slobodka, Minsk and Kaminetz, where he was famed for his brilliant Talmudic lectures. He is considered among the pioneers of the system of Talmudic study in the yeshivas of the succeeding generation.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
, the Lubavitcher Rebbe: [11 Nissan 5662 – 3 Tammuz 5754 (April 1902 – June 1994 C.E.)], became the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad dynasty after his father-in-law’s passing on 10 Shvat 5710 (1950 C.E.). He is widely acknowledged as the greatest Jewish leader of the second half of the 20th century. Although a dominant scholar in both the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah and fluent in many languages and scientific subjects, the Rebbe is best known for his extraordinary love and concern for every Jew on the planet. His emissaries around the globe dedicated to strengthening Judaism number in the thousands. Hundreds of volumes of his teachings have been printed, as well as dozens of English renditions.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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