BY RAFAEL HOFFMAN
Almost 80 years after the petirah of Harav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, zt”l, and over 50 years since the publication of the last editions of his sefer, Birkas Shmuel, a new volume has been released. This sefer contains over 60 pages of Rav Baruch Ber’s previously unpublished chiddushim on Maseches Shabbos, compiled from notes handwritten by Rav Baruch Ber himself that have been zealously guarded by his descendants for decades.
For over half a century, the Birkas Shmuel has occupied an exclusive place on the shelves of yeshivos throughout the world. Especially to those trained in institutions that lean towards the “Brisker derech,” the Birkas Shmuel has become part and parcel of serious study of many of the most commonly learned sugyos in Shas. This is a distinction shared by few other more recent Acharonim, with the notable exception of the sefer of Harav Baruch Ber’s own Rebbi, Harav Chaim “Brisker” Soloveitchik, zt”l.
The new sefer is largely the work of Harav Uziel Leibowitz, a son of Harav Chaim Shlomo Leibowitz, zt”l, and great-grandson of Rav Baruch Ber.
“My father got all of Harav Baruch Ber’s ksavim from his father [Harav Yaakov Moshe, zt”l] but was always hesitant to publish them,” says Rav Leibowitz. “He saw them as a pikadon that had been left to him, and he was their shomer.”
The first volume of Birkas Shmuel was arranged and published under the direction of Harav Baruch Ber himself, shortly before his petirah in 1939. It contained his chiddushim on Masechtos Yevamos, Kiddushin, and Bava Kamma. Harav Baruch Ber’s additional writings, on many areas of Shas, remained under the watchful eye of his son, Rav Yaakov Moshe, who re-established his father’s Yeshivas Kamenitz in Yerushalayim.
“My zeide was afraid to put them out for the public; Harav Baruch Ber was careful that every detail of anything he said in Torah should be 100-percent emes,” explains Rav Leibowitz.
Yet it was no less than Harav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zt”l — who knew Harav Baruch Ber well from the time they learned together in the famed Yeshivas Volozhin — who was eager to see more volumes of Birkas Shmuel published.
On one occasion, when he attempted to convince the family to print the remaining ksavim, Rav Yaakov Moshe voiced his hesitation, saying, “If my father didn’t give it over for print himself, maybe what he wrote were only his hava aminas [hypotheses].”
Harav Isser Zalman replied that just as the Gemara itself includes many hypotheses before coming to a conclusion, so too the initial thoughts of Harav Baruch Ber are worthy of printing, as they can teach scholars how to think about a sugya and ultimately lead them to the correct answers. After which he pithily added, “And a hava amina from Rav Baruch Ber is to us a maskana [conclusion].”
Over a period of several years, more volumes appeared on masechtos from the sedarim of Nashim and Nezikin. However, this was only done after Harav Reuven Grozovsky, zt”l, a son-in-law of Harav Baruch Ber, agreed to take responsibility for their accuracy. After Harav Reuven’s petirah in 1958, no further writings were printed; they all remained under the watchful eye of the Leibowitz family.
Rav Chaim Shlomo Leibowitz related that his own Rebbi, the Brisker Rav, Harav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, zt”l, would visit the home to pore over the ksavim, concentrating especially on sections where there are quotes and explanations of statements from his own father, Harav Chaim. The Brisker Rav had seen the writings during Harav Baruch Ber’s lifetime in the latter’s home in Kamenitz and knew them well. On several occasions he told Rav Yaakov Moshe that he just wanted to see one more time “how he [Rav Baruch Ber] explains them.”
The writings themselves were prepared not specifically as shiurim; they were notes that Harav Baruch Ber kept as he learned through Shas. In Kamenitz, only the masechtos of Nashim and Nezikin were studied. Consequently, many of his thoughts on those topics did ultimately form the basis of shiurim. However, the writings also include chiddushim on many other areas, including Kodashim and Taharos. Of particular interest is that the present volume on Maseches Shabbos contains several ideas that Harav Baruch Ber heard from Harav Chaim Brisker in private conversations with him. As such, the sefer contains never-before-published chiddushim from Rav Chaim as well.
To Rav Uziel Leibowitz, the key to beginning to bring these long-guarded works to the public lay in the section that makes up another 270 pages of the volume — chiddushim and explanations on Maseches Shabbos from his own father, Rav Chaim Shlomo, who served dually as Rosh Yeshivah of Kamenitz and Yeshivas Ponevez. Though only six years old at the time of his grandfather’s petirah, Rav Chaim Shlomo retained vivid memories of Harav Baruch Ber, who had taken the young boy to attend his shiurim.
“My father lived with the mesorah of Harav Baruch Ber,” he recalls. “He put his entire self into making certain that he understood every nuance of what he had written — and even what he heard said in his name — correctly, and that is what served as the basis of his own understanding of Torah. Whenever my father gave a shiur, if there was a Birkas Shmuel on the sugya, that’s what he based it on… He was the Urim V’Tumim of Rav Baruch Ber for our generation.”
Rav Chaim Shlomo often quoted Rav Baruch Ber’s comment on Chazal’s statement, “Torah, emes is written in it,” that truth in not simply an advantage that Torah has, it is an absolute condition. For one’s learning to be Torah, it must be 100-percent emes.
Known throughout the Torah world as one of its greatest and purest Geonim, Rav Chaim Shlomo earned praises that few others in his generation merited. In his hesped, Harav Yitzchak Scheiner, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Kamenitz, said that he was a “yachid b’dor” in his complete immersion in Torah.
“My father’s ability to remember his learning was phenomenal,” says Rav Uziel. “There is only one way to explain it. It says in Tehillim (119:93), ‘L’olam lo eshkach pikudecha, ki vam chiyisani [I will never forget Your precepts, for they have sustained me].’ No one forgets to breathe or to eat. For my father, Torah was his life; there was no way for him to forget it. It was all he cared about. I don’t even think he would have recognized the appearances of different coins. He was kulo Torah, literally.”
For years, Rav Uziel studied together with his father each afternoon. If they had any writing from Harav Baruch Ber on any topic they learned, they would pore over it together. Rav Uziel kept careful notes of Rav Chaim Shlomo’s comments and explanations from these sessions, on the sugyos in general as well as on his understanding of the ksavim. Those notes, combined with Rav Chaim Shlomo’s own writings, formed the basis for the second section of the new sefer.
“Harav Baruch Ber felt very strongly that everything in Torah must have a mesorah,” he notes. “Even the way you say a svarah in learning can’t just be your own ideas; it has to be based on a method that you got from a Rebbi. Not only the Torah itself, but the way it’s learned, has to be based on a chain that goes back to Har Sinai… There are those who learn Birkas Shmuel and use its brilliant method to come up with their own creative ideas, without a firm basis. That’s a complete contradiction to Harav Baruch Ber’s derech… To publish Birkas Shmuel on Shabbos together with the way my father understood it is an essential part of guarding against it being misunderstood or misused. The approach of Rav Baruch Ber is complete loyalty to emes. If there is a single point that is missing, it’s not emes.”
It was only after many years of discussing the matter that Rav Chaim Shlomo gave his approval to the idea of printing more of the ksavim, which sadly did not come to fruition during his lifetime.
Bnei Torah on both sides of the Atlantic have enthusiastically greeted the new release. The 2,000 copies printed in Eretz Yisrael were sold in four days; 500 copies were shipped to America and sold at a similar pace. More are presently being printed and should arrive in both markets soon.
“It took over two years to put the sefer on Shabbos together, and it took a great deal of work. B’siyatta diShamaya, we hope to publish more and more over the course of time,” declares Rav Uziel.