Hagaon Harav Refael Yechezkel Brettler, Zt”l

NEW YORK -

Thousands of people, headed by Gedolei Torah and Roshei Yeshivah, accompanied Hagaon Harav Refael Avigdor Yechezkel Brettler, zt”l, on his final journey in Bnei Brak on Sunday. Harav Brettler was a close talmid of the Chazon Ish, zy”a, and the Rav and Rebbi of numerous talmidim. He passed away on Shabbos, at the age of 84. On Motzoei Shabbos, the news of his passing spread across Eretz Yisrael and worldwide, deeply saddening his many students and all who knew him.

Rav Brettler was a unique person, a man of many talents and exceptional erudition and diligence, all of which he used to achieve the highest spiritual aspirations. His personality was a combination of noble character and sterling middos, alongside a sharp and brilliant mind and proficiency and depth in learning.

Rav Brettler was born on 15 Sivan 5694 in the city of Lemberg in Galicia, Poland. His father was Rav Ezriel, z”l, who was related to the Rebbes of Vizhnitz, zy”a. His mother, Mindel, a”h, nee Frankel, was descended from the Noda b’Yehudah. His brilliance became evident at a young age, and his Rebbeim marveled at his rapid grasp of the material and his sharp mind.

When young Yechezkel was six years old, the Holocaust began, and the family fled the Nazis. Their first stop was Cracow where, during the winter of 1940, the situation was relatively calm. In the summer of that year, they had to flee yet again, and arrived in Bochnia, where they were concentrated in the ghetto. Together with him in the ghetto was his brother, ybl”c, Harav Yosef Baruch, shlita, and their cousin, Harav Dovid Frankel, zt”l. Also in the ghetto at the time was Harav Aharon, the Belzer Rebbe, zy”a, who young Yechezkel saw there.

With the efforts of the renowned rescuer Rabbi Eliezer Landau, z”l, they were able to leave the valley of death with their mother, their grandfather, Reb Berel Frankel, and their cousin Reb Dovid’l Frankel. Before undertaking the perilous rescue operation, they asked Harav Yeshayah of Tchechoiv, zy”a, for a brachah; he was another resident of the Ghetto. He blessed them that they should merit to escape the inferno and reach their destination safely. Later, when Rav Brettler would recount his travels, he would remember each location and when he was there according to what he was learning at that particular time.

During their flight they spent a few months with the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz, zy”a, and his son the Yeshuos Moshe, zy”a, as well as the Ohr Mordechai, zy”a, and he learned together with them. After many travails, the group was able to move to Eretz Yisrael in the middle of the Holocaust, in the summer of 1944.

Upon arriving in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Yechezkel entered Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi in Yerushalayim. He was tested on his learning by the Brisker Rav, zt”l. Years later, when the Brisker Rav’s son, Harav Refael, zt”l, became engaged to Rav Yechezkel’s cousin, the Rav recalled the test that he had given him as a boy.

A short time later he moved to Yeshivas Tiferes Tzion in Bnei Brak, where he learned under Harav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz, zt”l. He quickly made great strides in his learning, and became known for his diligence and quick grasp.

In his great desire to grow even more in learning, he sought to enter Yeshivas Ponevezh even before his bar mitzvah. The Ponevezher Rav told him that if he would be able to answer a difficult question he could be accepted. Indeed, he deeply impressed the Rav with his answer, and the Ponevezher Rav admitted him to the yeshivah despite his not yet being 13.

In Ponevezh he learned under Harav Gershon Edelstein, shlita, and made great strides in his learning. All those who encountered him marveled at his rapid understanding and his mastery of everything he learned.

In time, he began to learn under the tutelage of the Roshei Yeshivah, Harav Dovid Povarsky, zt”l, and Harav Shmuel Rozovsky, zt”l, who praised him as a kli machzik brachah. When Harav Elazar Menachem Mann Schach, zt”l, became Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yechezkel learned under him as well, and became very close to him.

In those years he also became very close to the Chazon Ish; they spoke extensively in learning and Rav Yechezkel shared his chiddushim with the Gadol.

At the time of his bar mitzvah, the Ponevezher Rav was abroad, and he sent a special letter to the hanhalah of the yeshivah that it was fitting to celebrate the bar mitzvah of one of the yeshivah’s most exemplary talmidim. Indeed, all the Roshei Yeshivah attended the bar mitzvah, and even the Chazon Ish made the effort to attend.

In Elul 5711 he was summoned by the Chazon Ish to learn with him b’chavrusa. This began a period of tremendous closeness with the sage, and Rav Yechezkel, then still a bachur, would spend most of his waking hours in the home of the Chazon Ish, learning with him and with other chavrusos whom the Chazon Ish lined up for him. He excelled in the derech halimud of the Chazon Ish and the latter guided him like a father guides a son, in all areas of learning, yiras Shamayim and halachah, with its nuances and stringencies.

The Chazon Ish would praise Rav Yechezkel effusively, as is evident from the writings of those years. He marveled at his grasp of the depth of the sugyos, and noted that on every subject he was able to reach the genuine crux of the matter. He also lauded the breadth of his knowledge.

Rav Brettler was with the Chazon Ish on the last night of his life, Friday night of Parashas Vayeira 5714. Before Kabbalas Shabbos, the nephews of the Chazon Ish were in the house, and they asked the sage to deliver the regular shiur he gave each year on the yahrtzeit of his mother, the Kosova Rebbetzin, a”h, on 19 Cheshvan. They said that because the shiur was prepared, the Chazon Ish should deliver it as he usually did, before Maariv on the Shabbos before the yahrtzeit. But the Chazon Ish replied that “Chatzkel is here, and I’m afraid that he will refute the shiur and I won’t have what to say…” Indeed, the Chazon Ish did not say the shiur that Shabbos.

Later that night, after the seudah and after the Chazon Ish returned from his regular walk, they continued to speak in learning, as always. Close to midnight, after the Chazon Ish had already retired for the night, he began to feel unwell, and instructed Rav Brettler to bring his medication. The Kehillos Yaakov, zt”l, who lived next door, was summoned quickly to try and help the critical situation.

Rav Yechezkel ran as fast as he could to Rabi Akiva Street to summon a doctor, but by the time the doctor returned, the Chazon Ish was no longer among the living. The bachur — not yet 20 years old — was devastated, along with all of Klal Yisrael, at the loss of the Gadol Hador who, for him, had also been a father figure.

After the passing of the Chazon Ish, Rav Yechezkel began learning in the Mir in Yerushalayim, where he became close to the Brisker Rav. The young scholar would visit the Rav and speak with him in learning.

When he became of age, he became engaged to the daughter of Harav Yaakov Schechter, z”l, a renowned baal chessed and baal emunah. Rav Schechter was the close confidant of many of the Gedolei Yisrael at the time. When the clouds of war began to gather over Europe, Rav Schechter and his wife decided to move to Eretz Yisrael and, in 1939, they left everything behind. They arrived in Eretz Yisrael on Erev Pesach 1939, just a few months before the outbreak of the war.

Rav Schechter’s home was known as a place of Torah and chessed, and over the years many Gedolei Yisrael stayed there. Simple people as well — namely survivors — found it to be a warm home where they were welcomed with love and compassion. Rav Schechter was also close to the Chazon Ish, and Harav Yehudah Shapiro, zt”l, who worked personally to bring about the shidduch between Rav Schechter’s daughter and Rav Yechezkel.

They married in 1957 and moved to Bnei Brak, where Rav Yechezkel joined Kollel Chazon Ish. He quickly rose to become one of the eminent scholars there, and the other members of the kollel set up chavrusa sessions with him. He learned b’chavrusa for an extended period of time with Harav Yehudah Shapiro; sometimes they would learn for eight hours straight. The next morning they would continue, but noted to one another that they had each continued learning late into the night on their own.

At the same time be began learning with Harav Chaim Shaul Greineman, zt”l, and other eminent talmidim of the Chazon Ish. He also davened in the Lederman shul together with many of the talmidim of the Chazon Ish, foremost among them, ybl”c, Hagaon Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, and, lbcl, Harav Gedaliah Nadel, zt”l. Rav Yechezkel was recognized as one of the lions of the chaburah, and many of their practices in life were influenced by him. Likewise, he would speak extensively in learning with the Rosh Yeshivah, Hagaon Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, zt”l.

Over the years he began learning at home with erudite talmidei chachamim who would come to learn from him. Many kollelim would visit his house to work through difficult sugyos and to hear his rulings on a variety of subjects.

He was especially known for his expertise on the laws of ribbis, eiruvin, mezuzah, mikvaos, mitzvos hateluyos ba’aretz and more. Many serious questions on these subjects were directed to him from all over the world. He was renowned for his proficiency in Choshen Mishpat, and some of the most complex questions on the practical applications of halachos were brought to him.

With his brilliant mind and tremendous breadth of knowledge in the relevant sugyos, he provided solutions to the most complex issues in ribbis that arose as commerce developed in modern times. The wording of the heterei iska with banks was drafted with his guidance. He was also very active throughout the years in finding suitable solutions to questions of tumas meis in hospitals.

At the same time, he worked tirelessly to mitigate the autopsy decree that was prevalent at the time. He would often go to protect the dignity of the dead with his own body.

Together with his insistence on maintaining all boundaries of halachah, his talents helped him find satisfactory solutions in many areas. At the time, the drafting of women was also a major issue, and he was active in bringing about a solution to the problem. Gedolei Yisrael considered him an authority on these subjects, and sent the most difficult issues that needed creative solutions to him.

Throughout the years his home was a locus for people seeking to grow in Torah, and the sound of Torah learning resounded there throughout the day. Even when he walked in the street, it was evident that his mind continued to work on the sugyos he was learning. In fact, he was so focused on his learning that he often lost his way while walking.

Rav Yechezkel was also known to be extremely machmir on every nuance of halachah, and took upon himself many stringent practices. He was extremely cautious about kashrus and did not eat anything that was not made in his own home. He formulated many chiddushim in areas of halachah and how to perform mitzvos in the most mehudar and perfect fashion —and he employed all these practices himself.

He also inculcated leagues of talmidei chachamim with his derech halimud and guidance in halachah and yiras Shamayim, as he had learned them from the Chazon Ish.

In recent years he had grown weaker and suffered from various ailments. As per the direction of Gedolei Torah, the name Refael was added and throughout the Torah world people davened for the recovery of Rav Refael Avigdor Yechezkel ben Mindel. Despite his weakened state, he adhered as best he could to his rigorous learning schedule. As time went on he seldom left his home.

Last Shabbos he felt unwell. Rescue services were summoned, but there was little they could do, and he returned his pure soul to its Maker.

The levayah departed on Sunday morning from his house on Werner Street in Bnei Brak. The first hesped was delivered by Harav Gershon Edelsten, shlita, who began by asking forgiveness and pointing out that eulogizing is an obligation, but he felt unable to fulfill that obligation due to the niftar’s stature. He noted that there is a letter from the Chazon Ish describing a “baal Torah amiti” and Rav Gershon said he was sure that this description could be fully applied to the niftar.

Another hesped was delivered by his close friend Harav Dov Landau, shlita, who described his closeness to the Chazon Ish and praised his learning, wisdom, and many talents and brilliance. He related that he had heard from Rav Brettler in the name of the Chazon Ish that a person who is talented needs to fight against his talents, which make him think that everything goes easily.

Hespeidim were then delivered by the Rabbanim, shlita, Harav M. Greineman; his brother-in-law Harav Moshe Sternbuch, Raavad of the Eidah Hachareidis; his brother-in-law Harav A. Schechter; his mechutan Harav Shlomo Edelstein; Harav Moshe Boyer; his son-in-law Harav Eliyahu Posen; and his son Harav Yaakov.

After Kaddish, the levayah proceeded to the Shomrei Shabbos cemetery.

Harav Brettler is survived by, ybl”c, his Rebbetzin, shetichyeh, and a family of eminent talmidei chachamim, Roshei Yeshivah and Rabbanim, shlita. His sons are Rav Yaakov, Rav Avraham Yeshaya, Rav Yitzchak, Rav Chaim, Rav Moshe, Rav Zev and Rav Yosef. His daughters are married to Harav Eliyahu Posen, Harav Dovid Yitzchak Tzurkov, Harav Tzvi Asher Friedman, Harav Shmuel Zaks, Harav Avraham Kalmanowitz, and Harav Reuven Deutsch. His brother is Harav Yosef Baruch. He also leaves behind grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as thousands of Torah scholars who viewed him as their Rebbi muvhak.

Yehi zichro baruch.