Tag Archives: shlomo Wolbe

to the yeshiva and back – part one

Beer Yaakov

A yeshiva bachur is a young man who studies in a traditional Talmudic academy; a Yeshiva.  It is said that you can take the bachur out of the yeshiva but you can’t take the yeshiva out of the bachur.  I define myself and my relationship with Judaism in many ways. I’m post-orthodox, traditional but not halachic, evolved and evolving, but one thing I will always be; is a yeshiva bachur. Guilty as charged.

If there is one concept or disposition that I cannot shake it is Bitul Torah. Literally the nullification of Torah, but more precisely the prohibition against wasting potential Torah study time. According to no less of a source than halachipedia: “It is imperative upon a person to use his free time for Torah study. If one wastes one’s free time on useless means, one is in violation of Bitul Torah.” The very concept of time is redefined in the Yeshiva world (and it is a world unto itself) where there are texts to be studied and concepts to be argued from morning to night and every second is literally… fleeting.  The Talmud has a powerful expression to emphasis the point.

אם תעזבני יום יומים אעזבך

“If you leave Me for one day, I will leave you for two days.” [i]

This is an early allusion to the economic concept of opportunity cost.  There is always Torah to learn and it does not wait for you, it keeps moving. You cannot return to where you left off, it has already left and gone. If you miss a day of learning you have lost both the day you could have had and the day you had.  This heightened sense of time, especially as relates to study, is for me the essence of the yeshiva and that sense has never left me.

Said Professor Saul Lieberman; when his learning was interrupted by someone asking for his time “money I have, time I don’t”.  A contribution he could make, an appearance, not so much.

In the yeshiva, learning has less to do with the knowledge gained than with the act itself.  A learned scholar who does not constantly add to his knowledge is of less worth that a less intellectually endowed student who sits and learns… day and night.  When shown a very learned businessman, Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, the head of the yeshiva of my youth was unimpressed and quipped “If you know how to steal but don’t steal, does that make you a ganif (thief)? … If you know how to learn but don’t, does that make you a lamdin (learner)?” … not exactly.

The second most impactful characteristic of the bachur yeshiva is purity verging on naiveté.  A popular song, actually a chant, sung over and over again in a trance-like hora is from the Shabbat liturgy:

וְטַהֵר לִבֵּנוּ לְעָבְדְּךָ בֶאֱמֶת

Purify our heart to serve You in truth


Ironically this song was also taken by the Israeli secular pioneers (halutzim) to celebrate their pure and undivided and untarnished focus on the labor (avodah) necessary to build a new land.


The pioneers translated this purity into the simple life of the kibbutz which eschewed makeup, jewelry and bourgeois accouterments. For the yeshiva bachur it was the simple life of the monk, lehvdil.

פת במלח תאכל ומים במשורה תשתה ועל הארץ תישן וחיי צער תחיה ובתורה אתה עמל

אם אתה עשה כן, אשריך וטוב לך, אשריך בעולם הזה וטוב לך לעולם הבא

Such is the way of Torah: Bread with salt you shall eat, water in small measure you shall drink, and upon the ground you shall sleep; live a life of deprivation and toil in Torah. If so you do, “fortunate are you, and good is to you” (Psalms 128:2): fortunate are you in this world, and it is good to you in the World To Come.[iii]

Which brings me to my return to the yeshiva, part one.

I was near Beer Yaakov on a recent visit to Israel so I decided to return… return to the yeshiva of my youth.

As a nineteen year old, I went to Yeshiva Beer Yaakov at the advice of my cousin Aviezer Wolfson, a businessman, scholar and composer. Aviezer had studied at the yeshiva and my grandfather, Charles Wolfson and his brothers had financed the buildings and sefer Torahs at the Yeshiva.  The main attraction was the Mashgiach Ruchni (spiritual guide), Harav Shlomo Wolbe who was considered when he passed away, the last of the great Mussarniks. Rav Wolbe was a card carrying Haredi who was raised in a secular home and graduated from the university of Berlin in 1933.  He ended up (it’s a long story) at the Meir Yeshiva as a student of Rav Yerucham Levovitz a student of the Alter of Kelm a disciple of Rav Yisroel Salanter the founder of the Mussar Movement. Learning under Rav Wolbe, especially in small, by invitation only, vaadim, was a unique privilege and opportunity to be directly connected through him to Rav Yisrael Salanter, this founder of a  lesser known but unique movement that coincided with the emergence of Hasidism and the haskalah. Rav Wolbe took one student every year to study Chumash with Rashi every morning.  In my second year at the yeshiva, I was that student.

Lieberman and Wolbe

Prof. Saul Lieberman and Rav Shlomo Wolbe

Lieberman Wolbe and Stern

don’t ask.. I don’t remember what we were discussing…

Liberman Wolbe and Sterns

Rav Wolbe, Geoffrey (Shlomo), Orna, Jane and Chaya

Wolbe and SternHere are previously unpublished photos of Rav Wolbe at my Sheva Barachot with Professor Saul Lieberman (who was mesader kiddushin at my wedding).

Wolbe speaking




It took me a while to find the Yeshiva.  In my day, it was isolated amongst orange groves and it’s students emerged from their isolation only once in every six shabbats to return to the civilized world.  Now it is pluck in the middle of the urban sprawl of a bustling city of Beer Yaakov, necessitating a privacy curtain (those Halutzim had built well…).

prviacy curtains

Even with all the privacy, I could already tell from the signage that the Yeshiva had fallen….  on hard times.  I couldn’t get over the fact that my isolated yeshiva was now in the middle of a city. There used to be orange groves there now it was a major thoroughfare.


Once I made my way past the privacy curtains I saw the students gathered around a printed notice on the door to the study hall.  I made my way in and read with disbelief that the yeshiva had been without electricity since the beginning of the month and the administration was pleased to announce that they had finally negotiaated a payment plan with the electric company.

According to matzav.com (The Jewish world at your fingertips)

no electricty

Here’s the notice posted the day of my visit on May 23rd:


The notice thanks the students for their savlanut (patience and endurance) and thanks God for helping to craft a deal with the power authority.  That said, there are strict regulations, punishable with fines for misusing electricity for private air conditioning in the dorms.

Here’s a picture of the aforementioned generator, which in my day was used every Shabbat so that the yeshiva was not powered by electricity produced by Jews on the Sabbath.


The yeshiva baring my Uncles name was in disrepair.



But inside, I was just in time for the afternoon service.  When I pray now, I am usually one of the last to finish…  but here at my roots, I was amongst the first.  At Beer Yaakov, on a simple everyday afternoon mincha service no prayer is finished before its time… prayers are savored like a fine wine, not gobbled like fast-food. I guess that stayed with me.

beit medrash

My  visit to Beer Yaakov that day was spontaneous and I was not dressed in the uniform white shirt and black pants.  I had no jacket and only my LoBa Kippah, which I turned inside out (ונהפכו).  I felt very comfortable and no one either approached me to say Shalom Alechem nor did they stare at me…. I was just another guy coming in, probably to say kaddish. I started walking around the “campus” and a student approached.  “I studied here” I said… under “Rav Wolbe” I added.  Now there was interest.  Now I was a link.  Students gathered as I described how it was and asked to see and describe the dining room and dorm as I remembered them.  “Where is Rav Wolbe’s house” I asked.  To my shock, the home were we gathered late at night for a vaad was now condemned.

Rv Wolbe's house

It  was sad, but maybe fitting.  The master had passed and so had an era.  The student who showed me around had the purity and simplicity that I had remembered and the food in the dining room was as sparse as I remember it…. and the Torah was being studied with only bread and water and apparently no electricity.  For me and the students, Rav Wolbe’s wisdom still echoes in the hall.  It was time for me to go.

There is much written in the agadata (non legal texts of the Talmud) about a grove (pardes) and a destroyed edifice (chorvah).  On my return to the Yeshiva of my youth I found a pardes that is no more and a chorvah that contains much of my core.  I left the Yeshiva that day.  Needless to say, the yeshiva remains in me.


[i] Sifrei on Deut. 11:22, Yerushalmi Ber. 9:5, Midrash Shmuel 1 as quoted in Rashi Deuteronomy 11:13 Similar is [the meaning of]“And it will be, if you forget” (אִם שָׁכֹחַ תִּשְׁכַּח) (Deut. 8:19): If you have begun to forget [the Torah you have learned], eventually you will forget all of it, for so it is written in the Megillah 1: “If you leave Me for one day, I will leave you for two days.”

[ii]Vitaher Libeynu (And Purify Our Hearts). 5:58 – 7:25 here.

[iii] In the name of Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi Pirkei Avot 6:4



Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, prayer, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah, yeshiva

be still


parshat Shemini

What’s the original sin? Eating fruit of the forbidden tree… Well not exactly. The first sin was that Eve fell for the oldest trick in the book.. adding, embellishing, improving on God’s laws.

You know the joke:

Said God to Moses: “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” Moses replied, “You mean you don’t want us to make cheeseburgers? “Said God, mildly shocked and bewildered, “I just said — not a kid in the milk of its mother!” Moses frowned, twirled his beard, and responded, “You mean, don’t even use the same plates for cheese & meat?” God’s face reddened. “Just don’t boil a kid in the milk of its mother”! Said Moses, “My God! You mean we have to wait six whole hours after eating meat before we can have some milk?” God threw the Divine Arms wide into the Cosmos: “Have it your own way, Moses!” And so we do. (quoted in Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Down to Earth Judaism)

Well that was Eve’s sin… no joke. God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the fruit but when the snake tempted her she said to the snake:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’ (Genesis 3:3)

According to the tradition, Eve unconsciously added a chumra (a stringency): “neither shall ye touch it” and when the snake pushed her against the tree and nothing happened she succumbed. Or as Rashi comments: “She added to the command [of God], therefore she ended up by reducing it, that is what is meant (Proverbs 30:6) “Add thou not unto His words.””

Moral of the story: If Eve had not been such a “frummer” we could still be in Paradise..

Typically, the overly zealous put up multiple “fences around the Torah” in order to assure that they not be tempted to sin. But there are incidents when in our excitement and adulation of the holy, we gets carried away and add to a mitzvah.. a positive commandment.

Maimonides writes in the Guide for the Perplexed:

You also know their famous dictum would that all dicta were like it. …. They have said: (Babylonian Talmud Berakhoth, 33b) Someone who came into the presence of Rabbi Haninah said [in leading the Silent Prayer – Shemona Esrei prayer]: God the Great, the Valiant, the Terrible, the Mighty, the Strong, the Tremendous, the Powerful. Thereupon [Rabbi Haninah] said to him: Have you finished all the praises of your Master? Even as regards the first three epithets [used by all Jews at the beginning of the Silent Prayer]

we could not have uttered them if Moses our Master had not pronounced them in the Law’ and if the men of the Great Synagogue had not [subsequently] come and established [their use] in prayer. And you come and say all this. What does this resemble? It is as if a mortal king who had millions of gold pieces were praised for possessing silver. Would this not be an offense to him? Here ends the dictum of this perfect one.

… Consider also that he has stated clearly that if we were left only to our intellects we should never have mentioned these attributes or stated a thing appertaining to them. Yet the necessity to address men in such terms as would make them achieve some representation – in accordance with the dictum of the sages: The Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man (Babylonian Talmud Yevamoth, 71a Baba Metziah 31b), obliged resort to predicating of God their own perfections when speaking to them. It must then be our purpose to draw a line at using these expressions and not to apply them to Him except only in reading the Torah. However, as the men of the Great Synagogue, who were prophets, appeared in their turn and inserted the mention of these attributes in the prayer, it is our purpose to pronounce only those attributes when saying our prayers. …

Thus what we do is not like what is done by the truly ignorant who spoke at great length and spent great efforts on prayers that they composed and on sermons that they compiled and through which they, in their opinion, came nearer to God. …. This kind of license is frequently taken by poets and preachers or such as think that what they speak is poetry, so that the utterances of some of them constitute an absolute denial of faith, while other utterances contain such rubbish and such perverse imaginings as to make men laugh when they hear them, on account of the nature of these utterances, and to make them weep when they consider that these utterances are applied to God, may He be magnified and glorified. ….

I have then already made it known to you that everything in these attributes that you regard as a perfection is a deficiency with regard to Him, … Solomon, peace be on him, has rightly directed us with regard to this subject, in words that should be sufficient for us, when he said: For God is in heaven and thou upon the earth; therefore let thy words be few (Ecclesiasticus 5:1)

Silence: The most apt phrase concerning! this subject is the dictum occurring in the Psalms, Silence is praise to Thee (Psalms. 65:2) which interpreted signifies: silence with regard to You is praise. …. Accordingly, silence and limiting oneself to the apprehensions of the intellects are more appropriate – just as the perfect ones have enjoined when they said: Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah. (Psalms. 4:5)

(Guide for the Perplexed I 59)

Maimonides is clearly an early proponent of short Synagogue services … with an emphasis on silent meditation and concise sermons. Consistent with Maimonides’ belief that many laws (such as the Tabernacle) were commanded by God to accommodate our limited intellect (see previous post honor thy sources), so too are the theological references in our prayers and holy texts a necessary evil. Had they not been written we could not have written them. To Maimonides, all of religion and ritual is an unfortunate but necessary embellishment.

This critique of theology and ritual is actually a huge paradigm shift. It creates an entirely new way to look at God’s commandments. A commandment or Mitzvah is not so much an obligation imposed upon us by a divine decree as it is a permit by the divine to say or do something in the name of God. Just as… when we make a blessing before eating an apple.. we are actually getting permission to enjoy the fruits of God’s creation, so too, when we make a blessing on a mitzvah.. we are getting permission to indulge in a ritual.

By way of example, imagine if there was no command for tefillin and you saw an individual roll up a few scrolls, put them in little leather boxes and wrap them with straps around his or her arm and head… in the name of God Almighty. Such a person could be labeled a blasphemer, Idol Worshiper or just plain crazy. It is only because this very strange ritual is commanded in the Torah that we have the right to do such an act. With regard to prayer… had we not been commanded we would be forbidden to open our mouths… in other words… You literally can’t make this stuff up… you can only do it if you were commanded.

This bias explains the fate of Aaron’s sons:

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was still. (Leviticus 10: 1-2)

The key phrase is “which He had not commanded them”. To create one’s own rituals is not simply superfluous, it is blasphemy.

But it goes one step further. Embellishing ritual is also the ultimate hubris. According to the R. Samuel David Luzzatto the sin of Nadab and Abihu was pride.

According to Luzzatto, the “strange fire” (aish zara) was simply fire that Nadab and Abihu brought with them from outside (zara as-in “outsider”)… they wanted to prove, in front of the whole community, that their offering was accepted.. and just in case God did not choose to send down the fire… they brought their own.

Understand… at its core, observing a Divine command is the ultimate hubris.

There is a profound lesson here. When a human being presents him/herself as complying with a divine commandment or living in accordance with a religious practice.. if there was no divine commandment then it is heresy… but even if it was commanded.. there is an overwhelming temptation to indulge in pride. Ironically, religion, which values humility, is itself, probably the oldest and most powerful source of hubris, especially if combined with outward success…. If your sacrifice is accepted.

I studied at a Mussar Yeshiva called Beer Yaakov, and if a student who had previously shaved, grew a beard and/or payos the Mosgiach (spiritual guide.. as opposed to the Rosh HaYeshiva), R. Shlomo Wolbe z’l would call him over and ask why he had all of a sudden become a tzadik. The phrase used in the Yeshiva was al tihye tzadik harbe… “don’t be such a tzadik”.

Although Rav Wolbe did not follow this school, there was a large but nowadays, largely unknown radical school of mussar known as Nevardok whose followers are called Nevardokers. This school, novelized by the great Yiddish writer, Chaim Grade in his book The Yeshiva, had a unique outlook on humility, stressing the wearing of tattered clothing and total negation of ego and the physical world.

It is widely reported that students of Novardok participated in deliberately humiliating behavior, such as going to a bakery and asking for a box of nails, or wearing a tie made out of hay (?). (see wikipedia: Novardok Yeshiva).

“What made Novardok unique in the yeshiva world was the emphasis on ‘working on values’ – not merely studying Torah but correcting imperfections of the soul. Pride was considered to be the worst imperfection, and our goal was a state of ‘indifference’ – remaining completely unmoved in the face of both praise and criticism.” (See Novarodok: A Movement That Lived in Struggle and Its Unique Approach to the Problem of Man, by Meir Levin (Sara Netanyahu’s father) and review in Haaretz)

Although I could not find a source… I recollect being told that some extreme Nevardokers would try to further embarrass and humble themselves by appearing to break a commandment… such as appearing to desecrate the Shabbat by stepping onto a street trolley (only to surreptitiously exit from the other side before the trolley moved). If this is true (reader: I’d be grateful for a source)… then the Nevardokers truly understood and attempted to neutralize the inherent hubris contained in living a Holy (let alone holier-then-thou) life.

We are reminded of all the great Hasidic stories that celebrate the simple, unlearned and many times, unobservant Jew for the purity of a simple moment of faith or action. We are reminded of stories of great Tzadikim such as Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement… who temporarily went under-cover to explore the world as a simple Jew. The Nevardokers went one step further…and followed in the footsteps of their founder, Yisrael Salanter (the other Yisrael), by living, on a day to day basis… an observant life… unobserved.

Nadab and Avihu and possibly Adam and Eve sinned and perished doing what most of us involved in religion, spirituality and anything ending in “ism” are guilty of…. Embellishing the ideal and succumbing to thoughts of enlightened superiority. The Nevardokers suggested an examined life with a goal of achieving true humility. Maimonides, and Aaron tragically got it right:

be still


Filed under Bible, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah