Harav Gavriel Finkel, zt”l, one of Lakewood’s preeminent poskim who with his phenomenal bekius and command of psak halachah served as one of the community’s first Rabbanim, was niftar suddenly this past Friday night, 5 Sivan.
His unassuming demeanor conveyed an impression of simplicity on those who met him casually, but the many Rabbanim and marbitzei Torah who had regular interactions with Rav Finkel could testify to his unique status as a talmid chacham and halachic authority.
“You could ask him anywhere in the four chalakim of Shulchan Aruch and get a clear answer,” said Harav Yeruchem Olshin, Rosh Yeshivah Beth Medrash Govoha(BMG), at the levayah held on Tuesday, Isru Chag Shavuos, at BMG’s Alumni Beis Medrash. “[Rav Finkel] could pasken a sheilah like few others in our day and his petirah leaves a tremendous gap in the Torah world that cannot be [filled].”
In addition to his vast knowledge, Rav Finkel’s seichel hayashar and great dedication to the tzibbur and individuals alike made him a much-sought-after address not only for halachic sheilos but for personal advice and guidance. Over the years, many families and askanim came to his door, knowing that in Rav Finkel they would find a sympathetic ear as well as the wisdom and understanding needed to navigate the challenge. Whether it was matters affecting the klal or families wrestling with problems concerning parnassah, shalom bayis, chinuch, or other areas, he listened and did not rest until he had done everything in his power to rectify or at least alleviate the problem.
While still quite young, at the urging of Harav Shneur Kotler, zt”l, he was chosen to lead what was one of Lakewood’s very first kehillos of bnei Torah outside of the walls of Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) itself. As what was once a small yeshivah community began to grow into the sprawling community that it has become today, Rav Kotler proposed that a vaad harabbanim be formed, with Rav Finkel at its head. Though the plan never came to fruition as originally envisioned by the late Rosh Yeshivah, it was a responsibility that Rav Finkel earnestly bore for decades to come.
“[Rav Finkel] felt an achrayus to the whole city,” said his brother-in-law Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Ganzfried in his hesped. “Fulfilling Rav Shneur’s shlichus was something that he took very seriously and never forgot.”
Gavriel Finkel was born in The Hague, Holland, in 1942, where his parents, Reb Yeshuah Mattisyahu (Max), z”l, and Mrs. Yetta (Ida) Finkel, a”h, had fled from their native Germany following the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933. The family was renowned for its ehrlichkeit and for many years, Reb Yeshuah Mattisyahu, a prominent businessman, spent every Shabbos running programs for local children and bachurim to strengthen their connection to Torah and mitzvos. The bris of their youngest son, Gavriel, would be the last held before the Nazi takeover and subsequent destruction of The Hague’s Jewish community. Six months later, the family, with seven children in tow, was deported to the Westerbork Transit Camp, where they stayed for nearly two years. Eventually, they were sent from Westerbork to the Bergan Belsen concentration camp where the family would remain for the remainder of the war. They all miraculously survived, and when asked how a young family of nine people could survive such an ordeal, Mrs. Finkel would reply that it was “b’zechus Gavriel,” and the Torah and chessed that he would go on to spread in Klal Yisrael.
Following liberation, the family returned to The Hague where Reb Yeshuah Mattisyahu established a successful watch business. However, due to the lack of Torah chinuch, the Finkels moved to the United States in 1948, settling in Boro Park. There, their sons attended Yeshivas Toras Emes and later Mesivta Torah Vodaath.
Though he left Torah Vodaath as a relatively young bachur, Rav Finkel often reflected on the influence of some of its great figures. He would say that his 12th grade maggid shiur, Harav Moshe Shisgal, zt”l, “taught us what it means to learn a Rashi,” and that he learned how to recite krias Shema from the Rosh Yeshivah, Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, with whom he shared a close bond all their lives.
A defining move in Rav Finkel’s younger years was when he joined a small group of bachurim to become one of the early talmidim of the Philadelphia Yeshivah. There, he became one of the first and most dedicated talmidim of its Rosh Yeshivah, Harav Elya Svei, zt”l. From Rav Svei, he would gain a probing derech halimud as well as a complete dedication to a life of learning Torah lishma and a deep desire to reach for great heights in Torah and avodah.
For decades after leaving yeshivah, Rav Finkel continued to consult with his Rosh Yeshivah regularly, turning to him for all serious matters and returning to visit in person every Chol Hamoed. When recordings of Rav Elya Svei’s shmuessen became available, Rav Finkel was among the first to procure them, and he would listen to them regularly. During his years in Philadelphia, he also established a connection to Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky, which whom he continued to consult as his own role in the klal expanded.
In 1963, Rav Finkel joined what was then a small group of talmidim in Lakewood’s BMG. He was part of the first group to join after the petirah of Harav Ahron Kotler, zt”l, beginning a new era in the yeshivah’s growth, independent of its great founder. As in Philadelphia, Rav Finkel became one of the beis medrash’s respected members, setting an example through his tremendous hasmadah and methodical review of all that he learned. Amid the many sedarim he kept up through his life, Rav Finkel completed all of Shas each year.
When asked once how he received semichah, Rav Finkel responded, “Through many late nights.” In fact, he received heter horaah from Rav Shneur Kotler who held him in great esteem. During these years, he also forged a close relationship with the yeshivah’s mashgiach, Harav Nosson Wachtfogel, zt”l.
In 1966, Rav Finkel married, tbcl”c, Miraim Devorah Bursztyn, daughter of Dr. Naphtali Hertzel Bursztyn, z”l, a prominent physician who served many gedolei Yisrael. Dr. Bursztyn and his wife, Mrs. Esther Bursztyn, a”h, maintained an open home that was a bulwark of chessed for the Williamsburg community.
The Finkels at first remained in Lakewood where they began to build their home while Rav Finkel learned in the yeshivah’s kollel. From that time until her husband’s sudden petirah a few days ago, Rebbetzin Finkel was a full partner in Rav Finkel’s avodas hakodesh, supporting his aliyah in Torah and his many endeavors for the tzibbur.
In the early 1970’s Rav Finkel assumed a position at the Adelphia Yeshivah where he served as a 12th grade maggid shiur. For the next 10 years, the Finkels relocated to the town of Adelphia to be part of the small community that revolved around the yeshivah. Remaining as part of the hanhalah for 18 years, Rav Finkel was a much beloved mechanech, with whom many talmidim retained a close connection long after they had left.
Around 1980, the Finkels returned to Lakewood, where Rav Finkel became the mara d’asra of Klal Bais Torah, located in an apartment complex on Forest Avenue, which he led for several years. The kehillah was a first of its kind, a shul of BMG yeshivaleit, a model that has been replicated countless times since.
During this period, Rav Finkel became a widely sought-after posek for the growing community. He was also a member of the town’s first beis din, adjudicating many dinei Torah over the years. His mastery of Choshen Mishpat, unshakable yashrus, and keen ability to quickly and thoroughly grasp the situations at hand made him a formidable and highly respected Dayan.
With his unique ability to apply his vast knowledge of Shulchan Aruch to real-life situations, Rav Finkel was a major force in the world of kashrus. He worked for many years for the Orthodox Union and was one of the founders and leading poskim for Lakewood’s Vaad Hakashrus, widely known as the KCL.
Over the last 20 years, Rav Finkel was a fixture in the Alumni Beis Medrash, serving as one of the baalei tefilah on the Yamin Nora’im, often speaking at siyumim, simchos, and other events. Typical of his quiet nature, his place was neither at the front nor back of the shul, but at a discreet shtender somewhere in the middle. There he sat both for tefillos and, like clockwork at four each afternoon, with his chavrusa, typically after returning from a day of visits to food production facilities and other klal-centered appointments.
As the needs of Lakewood’s rapidly growing community became more complex, so did the issues brought to Rav Finkel’s desk, which he worked to address in close consultation with BMG’s Roshei Yeshivah and its mashgiach, Harav Mattisyahu Salomon, shlita. His phone rang non-stop with sheilos and requests for advice and direction on issues large and small.
Rav Finkel was niftar suddenly this past Friday night at the age of 76 after attending shul and completing his seudas Shabbos. Following the levayah at the Alumni Beis Medrash, kevurah took place in Lakewood’s beis hachaim on 7th Street.
Rav Finkel is survived by, ybl”ch: his wife, Rebbetzin Miriam Devorah Finkel; his brother, Harav Yitzchok Finkel; his sisters, Mrs. Leah Pirtinsky, Mrs. Rifka Tikotsky, and Mrs. Shifra Rockove; his sons, Rabbis Naftoli Hertzel, Moshe, Avrohom Yosef, Ezriel Shlomo, Meir, Nechemia Yitzchok, and Eliyahu; his daughters, Mrs. Rifka Rochel Mintz, Mrs. Michal Sinsky, Mrs. Shifra Safer, Mrs. Elisheva Katzenstein, and Mrs. Shalva Stern; as well as by many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Yehi zichro baruch.