Sar V’Gadol Nafal B’Yisrael
June 1, 2023
Klal Yisrael Mourns the Petirah of the Gadol Hador Rav Gershon Edelstein Zt”l
He was a giant in Torah, learning, and teaching thousands of talmidim.
He was a link in a glorious chain, a bridge to the gadlus of previous doros.
He was a bulwark of yiras Shamayim, maintaining a temimus and purity that are rarely found.
He was the epitome of humility and modesty, seeing himself as no more than an emissary of Torah.
He was removed from this world and anything it offers.
And in recent years, he assumed a new role. He was the manhig, a caring and loving guide for the olam hayeshivos in Eretz Yisrael and beyond.
Seeds of greatness
Rav Gershon Edelstein zt”l was born in Shumiatz, Belarus, which was under Communist rule at the time. Named after his paternal grandfather, Rav Yeruchmiel Gershon Edelstein, a talmid of Volozhin, young Gershon’s upbringing was fraught with mesiras nefesh for Torah and Yiddishkeit.
When it came time to teach him Torah, there was no functioning cheder to speak of. But his father, Rav Tzvi Yehudah, a distinguished talmid chacham and tzaddik, would not let the evil plans of the government stand in the way of his son’s spiritual growth. He therefore sent young Gershon together with his brother Rav Yaakov and five other children to an underground bunker, where they learned Torah in secret. When the makeshift school shut down, R’ Tzvi Yehudah arranged for a rebbi to come to their home, where he taught the boys under the guise of being their chess instructor, reminiscent of the way Yidden were forcedto learn under the Greeks.
A little while later, R’ Gershon’s mother became deathly ill with typhus. He was sent out of the house to live with an aunt in another town. There too, the boys had to learn in secrecy as they suffered from unspeakable poverty. His brother R’ Yaakov would later recall with a smile that “while our rebbi taught us ‘Im ein kemach ein Torah,’ we learned that you can have Torah even without kemach!”
Growing up in this environment shaped R’ Gershon’s approach to worldly pleasures. At the levayah this Tuesday, one of the Rosh Yeshivah’s sons spoke of his father’s abstinence, saying among other examples that he didn’t need sugar in his tea. In fact, he didn’t even need a tea bag in his tea. A cup of warm water was just perfect. He would dip some dried-out bread into the tea and consume it as a wholesome meal.
The two young brothers sat and learned, imbibing the pure yiras Shamayim and undiluted love for Torah. Those years were extremely formative for the brothers, both of whom grew into great Torah giants over time. In later years, when they would meet each other, they would inevitably get engrossed in deep conversation, a dazzling display of geonus and klahrkeit.
After some time away from home, they received the bitter news in the form of a three-worded telegram: “Mama iz avek—Mother passed away.”
The two brothers were called back home to their father, who decided that it was time to leave Europe behind. At the age of 11, R’ Gershon, his father, and two siblings together with their grandmother made their way to Eretz Yisrael, where they settled in Ramat Hasharon in a former chicken coop. It was an empty structure with walls and a ceiling. Wooden crates substituted for furniture, but they were elated. They could learn Torah without fear of being detained by the KGB.
Even more important, they now had three Gemaras to learn from, instead of being forced to share one sefer together. Together with their father, the boys sat and learned all day, finishing masechta after masechta with Rishonim and Acharonim. They were in a spiritual paradise, learning and chazering all of Shas. In later years, R’ Gershon’s fluency became renowned, his chiddushim on topics from Zera’im to Ohalos and everything in between printed and learned throughout the yeshivah world.
After a few years, the two bachurim finally went to learn in yeshivah, first in Lomza and then joining the Ponevezher Rav as the first group of bachurim in his yeshivah. Together with them were Rav Nissim Karelitz, Rav Chaim Friedlander, Rav Yissachor Meir, and a handful of others.
In Bnei Brak, R’ Gershon became close to the Chazon Ish, who famously quipped that R’ Gershon was a ba’al mum, an invalid, since he didn’t even have a whiff of ga’avah, what Chazal call shminis sheb’shminis, the pride necessary for a talmid chacham.
R’ Gershon’s rebbetzin once approached the Chazon Ish with a halachah she’eilah, to which the Chazon Ish responded, “Ask your husband. Whatever he says is the right psak!”
A Ponevezher for life
Once R’ Gershon joined Ponevezh, he found his everlasting place. He forged close kesharim with the roshei yeshivah Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, Rav Dovid Povarsky, and Rav Shach, his ahavas haTorah growing as he absorbed the greatness of these gedolim into his essence. Although he learned from all three of them, he was most similar to and most connected with Rav Dovid Povarsky, who saw him as a talimd muvhak. R’ Dovid, who was known for his careful speech and acute understanding of others, once expressed his view of R’ Gershon in a few concise words: “Er iz a reine mentch—He is a clean person.”
His hasmadah was outstanding, and he didn’t let a moment go to waste. While he waited to say gut Shabbos to the roshei yeshivah, he would clutch a small Mishnayos Seder Taharos in his hand, skimming this most intricate and largely unfamiliar seder. After a few months, he remarked to a friend that he had finished the entire seder, a result of a few moments and another few moments used well week after week.
As a bechor, he needed to make a siyum on Erev Pesach. One year, as a young bachur, Rosh Chodesh Nissan arrived and he remembered his obligation. He had learned Chullin that zman, and he was holding at daf lamed, leaving him another 110 blatt to finish. Not wanting to change his preplanned learning schedule, R’ Gershon decided to finish the masechta in spare time. When he was asked how he did it, he replied simply, “It was only Gemara and Rashi. I didn’t learn the Tosafos.”
A fellow talmid recalls sitting next to him during Rav Shmuel Rozovsky’s fiery shiurim. R’ Shmuel would drop a bombe kashya, and R’ Gershon would whisper into his friend’s ear that following R’ Shmuel’s usual mehalach halimud, he would probably answer as follows… When R’ Shmuel would indeed say that answer, R’ Gershon would murmur the ra’ayah that R’ Shmuel would probably bring to this yesod… And he was correct every time.
Even more glatt
Shortly after his marriage,he began giving shiur in the yeshivah, earning a reputation for his dedication to emes and glattkeit. Someone once told him a beautiful explanation in the sugya they were learning. But R’ Gershon was not happy with it, “It’s a beautiful pshat, but it’s not 100 percent emes.”
He would remain in the beis medrash until the wee hours of the night, clarifying over and over, analyzing every aspect of the sugya until he felt he had reached the ultimate truth.
The Ponevezher Rav once encouraged him to publish his chiddushim, giving him the ultimate compliment: “You say such glatte Torah; why don’t you share it with the world?”
“Because if I wait on it more, it might be even more glatt.”
He had a deep appreciation for yegias haTorah. He was once traveling with his colleague ybl”ch Rav Berel Povarsky, who is renowned for his brilliant mind, and they began discussing the sugya. R’ Berel asked a bombe kashya, and R’ Gershon offered two mehalchim on the spot. R’ Berel was blown away, and later, he repeated the story to his talmidim. One of them, a bachur with a little extra dose of spunk, decided to ask the kashya to R’ Gershon.
“Ich her, es iz a shtarke kashya, men darf es ibertrachten” was the reply. “You are asking good; it requires more thought.”
The bachur was taken aback. “Didn’t the Rosh Yeshivah tell R’ Berel two tirutzim to this kashya?” he asked.
“Ay! R’ Berel toiled on this sugya for decades already; he deserves an answer. You? Go back and horeve yourself!”
It was a chinuch moment, both in how important yegiah is and how unimportant making a good impression on others is.
Talmidim recall that he often would answer “I don’t know,” when asked a kashya in learning. He had no problem stating that he didn’t think of a question asked, even if it concealed the true greatness of his Torah mastery.
R’ Berel testified that he knew the entire Shas with the Rishonim and Acharonim, but his shiur was given with a simplicity that belied its geonus. The goal of his shiur was to teach, not to impress. And teaching, R’ Gershon felt, was by giving over the emes.
Someone once asked him why he doesn’t invest more energy to dazzle the talmidim. “The same shiur given by another Rosh Yeshivah would be considered exciting and extraordinary,” he said.
“Could be. But not always is doing that reine emes,” the Rosh Yeshivah explained.
Even his schmuessen were given with that same simple sweetness. “Chazal teach us that four ideals need constant chizuk, including Torah and tefillah,” he would say. “Mah zeh tamid? How often does something need to be done to be called constant? Tefillah is three times a day. Korban tamid is twice a day. Hadlakas haMenorah was once a day, and the Torah calls it tamid. So the least one needs to encourage himself with limud hamussar is once a day!”
No thunder, no lightning. Just plain and straightforward emes. The type that makes a greater impression than any grand presentation can.
By nature, he was very calculated and meticulous. He maintained the same schedule for decades, giving shiur in the same yeshivah for close to 80 years.
His tekios on Rosh Hashanah were legendary; he was ba’al tokei’a for 50 years and never had to repeat a tekiah. It was that steady, unwavering determination and dedication that came to define him. Talmidim used to think he was part of the furniture in Ponevezh. He never missed a day, a shiur, a schmuess. He would sit in the beis medrash learning with an otherworldly ne’imus, reveling in the heilige Torah like a young bachur first exposed to its beauty.
Rabbi Menachem Savitz, a talmid of the Rosh Yeshivah, recalls a vort he heard from R’ Gershon that personifies his ahavas haTorah beautifully:
“What is the way to learn Torah?” the Mishnah asks. “Pas b’meleh tochal—Bread in salt you should eat… If you do this, ashrecha baOlam Hazeh, v’tov lach b’Olam Haba—fortunate are you in This World and it is good for you in the Next World.”
Why does the Mishnah need to say that doing so one will be rewarded with schar in Olam HaBa? Isn’t it self-understood?
R’ Gershon’s answer? Because someone immersed in Torah enjoys Olam Hazeh so much, that one might think he won’t get schar in the Next World.
Likewise, he perfected himself with unyielding mussar and toil. Once, he was called to testify in beis din about someone regarding a sensitive topic. He began his eidus by saying, “I want to say that I have not spoken lashon hara for over seventy years. I was asked by beis din to speak, and so I am following their directive.”
His brother R’ Yaakov once said that R’ Gershon did not need to ask mechilah from anybody because he never hurt another person.
Limud hamussar was something he did not stop stressing. Usually, when someone speaks about something over and over, it loses its effect and makes that person appear ingenuous and simple. But the Rosh Yeshivah had a mission of encouraging his talmidim and KlalYisrael to this simple but highly important task, so he never tired of speaking about it. “Men darf lernen mussar,” he said in every one of his public discourses.
Readers in America might not be familiar with the inner workings of Israeli politics, but a few years ago, the Agudah party, which represents the chassidim and Degel HaTorah, which represents the Litvishe kehillos, decided to run as separate parties in the municipal elections. Everyone was on edge as the elections neared, with some unfortunately usurping the tension to create machlokes.
At a large gathering held in Yerushalayim to encourage everyone to vote, the Rosh Yeshivah was the featured speaker, and many thousands gathered to hear his words. The message he shared was not of the importance of voting, but of the terrible sin of machlokes and how one must be careful to learn mussar so not to be swayed by the yeter hara’s trap.
Love for talmidim
Rav Yehoshua Meir Mishkovsky, a talmid of the Rosh Yeshivah, recalls that some 30 years ago, he was told by Rav Ahron Leib to try to forge a kesher with R’ Gershon. He tried a few times but did not succeed. Finally, after asking several times, R’ Gershon agreed to learn once a week with him, with one condition: He was getting older, the yeshivah was growing, and he needed an inside source to see how the bachurim were faring. R’ Yehoshua Meir would have to come each week with a clear report on each of the bachurim—which one was struggling, which one needed some attention, and which one needed help with chavrusas.
Later, Rav Mishkovsky recalls, he would see the Rosh Yeshivah approaching those bachurim and speaking to them, giving them chizuk and guidance.
A nephew of the Rosh Yeshivah noted that a few weeks ago, he was still inquiring about a bachur in his shiur who appeared to be having a hard time.
He was 100 years old, and he had over 200 bachurim in his shiur. He was carrying an entire nation on his shoulders, ruling on every serious klal question that arose, but he still had space in his mind to worry about a single bachur.
Rabbi Savitz recalls that as a bachur, his parents once came to Eretz Yisrael for Pesach. The Rosh Yeshivah noticed him after all the American bachurim had left for bein hazmanim and inquired why he was still there. When Rabbi Savitz told him that his parents were coming for Yom Tov, R’ Gershon, who never got excited or fazed, exclaimed, “What are you going to do till then? Sleep by yourself in the dorm? Where are you going to eat?” and insisted that the young bachur come to his home until his parents arrived.
Ashrei mi…v’talmudo b’yado
The Rosh Yeshivah was taken to the hospital early Shavuos morning after suffering from shortness of breath and heart failure. But his health was not what lay on his mind. He was nervous that if he wouldn’t be home for Yom Tov, he wouldn’t be able to do something to prepare for Shabbos, thus rendering his eiruv tavshilin unnecessary and the brachah a brachah l’vatalah. And so, while in the hospital for observation, the centenarian tzaddik insisted that a pot be brought to him so that he could mix the food l’kavod Shabbos.
On Sunday, the Rosh Yeshivah gave shiur from his ICU hospital room via conference. He did the same thing the next day.
Tuesday morning was not much different. R’ Gershon sat surrounded by a slew of whirring and beeping machines indicating the precariousness of his situation while he calmly prepared his shiur.
Outside the hospital, thousands of Yidden were davening for a full and speedy recovery for the zkan roshei yeshivos.
And then, cloaked in his frock and tie, with the pen still in his hand, R’ Gershon’s pure heart stopped beating as his sublime neshamah slipped out of its temporary casing and ascended to shamayim, where he was undoubtedly greeted with a joyous reception, an honor befitting one whose entire life was dedicated to Toras Hashem.