Rav Meir Hershkowitz Zt”l
May 4, 2023
With Single-Minded Devotion
A Tribute to Rav Meir Hershkowitz Zt”l, Rosh Yeshivas Bais Binyomin Stamford
The group of talmidim that returned from Eretz Yisrael found themselves facing a new reality. They had left Lakewood to accompany their beloved and revered rosh yeshivah to his final resting place, escorting the aron as it was taken to be buried in Eretz Yisrael. They were back now, but their world was forever changed. Their rebbi, the great gaon and manhig Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l was no longer with them.
The group was immediately surrounded by the other talmidim, who were eager to hear about their trip. One bystander askedRav Meir Hershkowitz, one of the few yungerleit who had been asked to travel along, what it was like to fly on an airplane for the first time.
R’ Meir did not understand the question. “I didn’t notice anything,” he said.
The questioner didn’t give up. “You didn’t look out the window even once? You didn’t see the pilot, the flight attendants…?”
“No,” R’ Meir replied, tears filling his eyes. “I was traveling with the Rosh Yeshivah zt”l. There was nothing else on my mind.”
It was that single-minded devotion that defined R’ Meir’s entire life’s journey.
He was on a mission, and he had no time for, or interest in, anything else. Not for food, sleep, or physical comfort. Not for kavod. All these distractions were either ignored or tended to with minimal interest. He himself did not take up any place in his own mind; not even the personal tragedies that afflicted him could get in the way.
He just didn’t notice. He was living on a different plane, transcending the pettiness of this world.
All that mattered was his mission—to delve into Torah with immense clarity, clarifying every last aspect, solving the most intricate sugyos, and teaching the beauty of Torah to countless eager talmidim.
It was a mission that lasted a lifetime.
Born the 24th of Elul 1933, on the day that the Chafetz Chaim was niftar, R’ Meir embodied the geonus, tzidkus, and purity of middos of that renowned tzaddik, a fulfillment of “v’zarach hashemesh u’va hashemesh.”
And just like the heilige Chafetz Chaim, he illuminated the world with his Torah and greatness.
A prize talmid of R’ Aharon
R’ Meir was born to simple but ehrliche parents during an era when learning Torah long-term was a rarity. Nevertheless, he joined the Torah revolution headed by Rav Aharon Kotler. The distractions were many, but R’ Meir was not one to get distracted. He was prepared to rise to the challenge, to embrace R’ Aharon’s vision of limud haTorah lishmah fully.
R’ Aharon recognized his dedication and cherished him greatly. The Rosh Yeshivah appointed him as a rosh chaburah over a group of metzuyanim, trusting that he would guide them to amitah shel Torah. Many of his peers attest that he epitomized all that R’ Aharon had in mind when he envisioned a true talmid of his. He was a model of ameilus baTorah, of mesiras nefesh for Torah, and of how the Torah can remake one’s entire existence into one of pure hecherkeit.
But even as the ari shebachaburah, he would always seek to encourage the younger bachurim, coming over to them and speaking to them in learning. He would encourage them to give their own chaburos and come and listen as they said it just to give them chizuk.
By nature, he was weak and feeble—at times doctors advised him to eat on Yom Kippur—but that did not deter R’ Meir from toiling endlessly, staying up entire nights to explore the depths of Torah.
At the massive levayah in Beis Medrash Govoha Monday morning, Rav Yeruchem Olshin extolled how R’ Meir possessed a brilliant mind but did not rely on it to achieve gadlus in Torah. He was always learning, horeving, sweating over the words of a Rishon or Acharon with every fiber of his being.
Whenever R’ Meir was learning, he forgot his surroundings. This was especially true regarding his shiur. He would need to be reminded when it was time for lunch; otherwise, he would just continue speaking.
One Sunday in the beginning of a winter zman, he began shiur an hour early, not realizing that the clock had been changed the night before. It wasn’t until the end of shiur, which lasted an extra hour, that he realized what happened.
Time was irrelevant. A bachur, under the influence, called him late Purim afternoon and asked him pshat in “gitto v’yado ba’in k’echad.” The Rosh Yeshivah remained on the phone for 20 minutes, explaining this difficult concept.
Limitless depth, boundless breadth
The clarity that R’ Meir had in learning was incredible and was matched only by the hekef he had. As a yungerman, he was said to have proficiency in all of Nashim and Nezikin, and he would constantly bring proofs to a yesod from gemaras in other areas. Often, he would bring a ra’ayah that a certain question is valid from the fact that Tosafos asks a similar question elsewhere in Shas.
Every last detail of the sugya, every sevarah, was deliberated and dissected. There was no end to how deep he was able to go.
One evening, before she went to sleep, the Rebbetzin tbl”ch saw the Rosh Yeshivah sitting at the table deep in thought, only to wake up in the morning to see him still sitting there stroking his beard, delving deeper and deeper into the sugya. (As an aside, the honor that R’ Meir showered upon his wife was legendary, yet another aspect of the chinuch that R’ Meir imbued in his talmidim.)
The bachurim in Yeshivas Bais Binyomin would often discuss their chiddushim with the Rosh Yeshivah before they gave chaburos to their peers, to see whether he approved. It was nearly impossible to tell him a kashya, a chiddush, or a pshat that was new to him. Any path you tried taking was already trod on by his all-encompassing mind, painstakingly analyzed with his limitless yegiah. Repeating a chabura to the Rosh Yeshivah was worthwhile just to witness the clarity a human can achieve in a sugya.
But an even greater benefit was the feeling that the bachur would inevitably walk away with. The Rosh Yeshivah would listen closely, drinking in every word as if he was the talmid and not the other way around.
“The rosh yeshivah who wasn’t a rosh yeshivah”
Greatness in any area is usually accompanied by a heightened sense of self, a whiff or more of pride. But Torah lishmah, we are taught, has the opposite effect—it purifies one’s middos and brings him to the greatest levels of humility and kedushah.
R’ Meir personified that purifying power of Torah. He was renowned as one of the greatest lamdanim and talmidei chachamim of the generation, his name evoked respect among thousands of bnei Torah, but he never felt greater than others. He refused to sit alongside the mizrach wall outside of yeshivah.
A yungerman whose father would urge him to give away his seat to R’ Meir in Zichron Shneur, where he davened on Yom Tov, remembers thinking that the man his father referred to as “the Rosh Yeshivah,” was “a rosh yeshivah who wasn’t a rosh yeshivah!”
He shied away from the limelight, staying away from public-policy decisions. There was no aura around him, no noise, no flashes. To the unknowing bystander, he appeared to be a simple, unpretentious Jew minding his own business.
That is exactly what happened once when he davened Shacharis in a shteibel in the Catskills. The gabbai, unaware of the Torah giant in his minyan, was mechabed R’ Meir with…gelilah! And R’ Meir had no problem accepting it.
At one point, while in Yeshivas Adelphia, R’ Meir felt that the bachurim could use some more food, so he stopped at a local fruit market and bought a large watermelon for them, then lugged it into the yeshivah himself. Nothing was beneath him.
As extreme as he was in his self-negation, he was just as extreme in giving kavod to talmidei chachamim. He was once learning with a chavrusa in his daughter’s house when he stood up abruptly. His chavrusa followed suit, looking around to see why the Rosh Yeshivah had risen. When R’ Meir saw his bewilderment, he pointed to the window in the next room. “Look! The Rav (Rav Osher Chaim Lieberman, rav of Kehal Zichron Shneur) just passed our house.”
And it was not only to venerated rabbanim. He would stand up for every shoel u’meishiv in the yeshivah. In an amusing incident, he once said over a pshat he had seen in a kovetz given out by Yeshivas Ateret Torah. After devoting half the shiur to this pshat, he explained why he disagreed with it. When the bachurim looked into the kovetz, they were shocked to see that the Rosh Yeshivah had said over a piece from a ninth-grade bachur!
“In the forty years I was zocheh to know the Rosh Yeshivah,” Rabbi Eliezer Susna, a close talmid, shares, “I never saw him upset—but for one time. There was a colorful fellow who used to come into the yeshivah periodically, and during the Purim play, one of the bachurim dressed up to impersonate him. The Rosh Yeshivah noticed, and he literally almost passed out. His face grew ashen, and his posture began to shake back and forth. Miskabed b’klon chaveiro!His fingers clutched the table tightly for a few moments until he managed to compose himself.”
The Rosh Yeshivah once felt that the yeshivah’s cook was hurt by a comment a bachur had made about the food, so he spent three hours talking to him as if he had nothing else on his mind. He didn’t understand what kavod meant, but when someone else’s kavod was at stake, it was as if time stood still.
A bachur who had a difficult time with his chavrusa during Elul zman wasn’t sure if he should switch before the next zman. He approached the Rosh Yeshivah the night before Yom Kippur on his way out of the beis medrash to discuss it, just as the clock was striking midnight. The Rosh Yeshivah had already been informed of the issue, and they began discussing it in the hallway as the Rosh Yeshivah leaned on his walker. The conversation went on for two and a half hours before someone brought the Rosh Yeshivah a chair…and then continued until four a.m. Eventually, the Rosh Yeshivah concluded that he could not give an answer, although he had at least clarified the factors of the question. After Kol Nidrei the next evening, the Rosh Yeshivah called the bachur over and asked him mechilah for not giving him a clear answer.
One zman began with one bachur stuck without a chavrusa. The Rosh Yeshivah was so bothered that he refused to give shiur for two weeks, until the bachurim figured out between themselves arrangements for that bachur.
“I can’t give shiur to a chaburah that doesn’t worry for each other,” he explained.
As is customary before Yom Tov, an alumnus of the yeshivah once sent money to the Rosh Yeshivah in order to have a part in his simchas Yom Tov. He suspected that the Rosh Yeshivah would give over the money to the yeshivah, so he specified in a card that the money was for tzorchei Yom Tov.
A few days later, the man got the check back in the mail. A while later, he met the Rosh Yeshivah and asked him why hadn’t used the money.
“You wrote that the money was for Yom Tov expenses; my expenses were already covered.”
The yeshivah’s money was sacred. He would not turn on the lights in his office so long as the faintest rays of the sun flitted through the window. The air conditioner would not be turned on unless the heat was unbearable.
Potches? From all Sides?
The Rosh Yeshivah’s life was marked with much personal suffering and anguish. He lost his beloved daughter Mrs. Yehudis Gorelick and his cherished son-in-law Rav Ahron Moshe Jacobs. He lived in poverty for many years, as well as with physical ailments and frailty.
Any one of these circumstances could overtake a person, but R’ Meir’s emunah and simchah kept on growing.
After a complicated surgery was performed on his spine, the doctor realized that something had gone wrong and the surgery would need to be repeated. His family carefully told him that he would have to undergo the multi-hour surgery again.
His response? “Hashem was gozer that I would need two surgeries to solve the issue.”
A nephew once asked him, “You are getting potched from all sides; how do you manage?”
“Potched? Who said it’s a potch? And it’s not from all sides, either!”
A talmid once came to the Rosh Yeshivah to speak to him about a personal issue. He knocked on R’ Meir’s door and asked if he could come in. R’ Meir sat with him and listened attentively. He then remained quiet for a moment before beginning, with breathtaking clarity, to dissect the question, laying out the options, the pros and cons of each side. The two spoke for about an hour, after which the Rosh Yeshivah excused himself, saying that now that the options were clear, the talmid could make a decision himself.
The yungerman persisted. “I want the Rosh Yeshivah to tell me which is the right path.”
“It would take me another hour, and I have to go to New York now,” R’ Meir said apologetically.
“Can’t the Rosh Yeshivah answer me and then go to New York?”
“I’m sorry, but I have to go now,” R’ Meir said. “My daughter’s levayah is set to begin shortly.”
To live from a teirutz
There is a famous saying, “Fun a kashya shtarbt men nisht—One doesn’t die from a question,” connoting that leaving an unanswered question is not terrible. R’ Meir vehemently disliked this adage. He would say, “If someone says, ‘Fun a kashya shtarbt men nisht,’ veizt ois az fun a teirutz lebt er nisht”—someone who says that obviously does not live from the teirutz either!
This sentiment embodies R’ Meir’s deep attachment to Torah. He lived for another drop of Torah, another havanah in Torah.
Throughout his life, the Rosh Yeshivah was plagued with weakness and pain; what got him through it was the Torah itself.
Bachurim in the yeshivah witnessed this on a daily basis. Often, the Rosh Yeshivah would be found in the beis medrash until late at night, discussing the sugya with the bachurim as the clock inched closer and closer to midnight. Eventually, the Rosh Yeshivah would be completely sapped and would struggle to his feet to leave.
But then a bachur would come over with one more question.
“Ich hub nisht kein ko’ach tzu entferen, uber chutsh lumich heren di kashya—I don’t have the strength to answer, but let me at least hear the question,” the Rosh Yeshivah would say.
And so, the bachur would ask.
Suddenly, infused with life, the Rosh Yeshivah would be transformed. “Nein! That is not what the Rashba means…”
The ensuing conversation would take 20 minutes, and then the Rosh Yeshivah would head toward the door once more. But then another bachur would come, and the process would repeat itself all over again.
“Only the kashya…” “Nisht dus iz pshat…”Again and again, until every last question had been asked—and answered.
Often, it was not until two a.m. that R’ Meir would shuffle out of the beis medrash, leaning on shtenders as he walked. He would then enter his office to eat the cold and congealed food that had been sitting on his desk since seven p.m.
(“Eating was like putting gas into a car,” Rabbi Efraim Sussman, a close talmid, remarked. “He would just put the food in, without giving it any thought at all. He didn’t mind having bachurim there while he ate, as long as they were talking to him in learning.”)
Rabbi Sussman says that the experience of the bachurim in the beis medrash late at night repeated itself in recent years, when he and a few other yungerleit went to the Rosh Yeshivah each Motza’ei Shabbos. The Rosh Yeshivah’s memory was failing, causing him great anguish. But whenever a sugya was brought up, the Rosh Yeshivah would come back to life, revitalized by the mesikus haTorah. He managed to remember the intricacies of the sugyos, and he reveled in each vort.
And then it was time to leave. The yungerleit would wish the Rosh Yeshivah a gutte voch and get up from their seats.
“It is hard for me to learn on my own,” the Rosh Yeshivah would invariably sigh. “Please have rachamanus and leave me with a kashya to think about.”
So, one yungerman would ask a kashya, and then they would again prepare to leave.
Uber men lebt fun di teirutz! The Rosh Yeshivah would immediately begin arguing, explaining why the kashya was not shver. After finishing the explanation, the Rosh Yeshivah would sit back in his seat, his face awash with both satisfaction and fatigue. But the yungerleit could not leave before they left their beloved Rosh Yeshivah with another kashya.
And so the cycle continued.
His life was ebbing, a life of physical pain but spiritual delight. And at those moments, just like during his entire life, all that mattered was a little more Torah, another kashya, another teirutz.
This past Sunday night, R’ Meir’s transcendental neshamah left behind the world that he had worked so hard to disregard, ascending to a place where it can bask in the glow of Hashem and His Torah without the distractions and challenges he faced while here. We are left to mourn the loss of a priceless link in the chain of Torah lishmah learned with single-minded devotion, kedushah, and anavah.
With appreciation to the many talmidim who shared memories of R’ Meir zt”l for this article.