A Conversation With Hagaon Harav Yitzchok Zilberstein
The Bendiner Rav said, “You make a small effort, and Above there will be an effort on your behalf.”
Harav Yitzchok Zilberstein, one of the preeminent Poskim in Eretz Yisrael, son-in-law of Harav Elyashiv, zt”l, and Rav of the Ramat Elchanan neighborhood of Bnei Brak, shares memories of his childhood in Bendin, Poland, and the brachah he received as a child from the Imrei Emes of Gur.
Hamodia is honored to present the following, providing a glimpse into his unique world.
Photos by Itzik Belnitzky
“The winds of ahavas Yisrael permeated the home I grew up in,” begins the Rav of the Ramat Elchanan neighborhood in Bnei Brak, Harav Yitzchok Zilberstein, shlita. “This spirit was inspired by the Rav of Bendin, the city in which I was born, Harav Chanoch Tzvi HaKohen Levin, zt”l. I had the zechus of having him as the sandak at my bris and as the Kohen at my pidyon haben.
“ I was born in Bendin, Bendin shel Maalah, the ‘Heavenly city of Bendin.’” The Rav waxes nostalgic and his eyes sparkle.
Until what age did you live in Bendin?
“When I was about 4, our family came to Eretz Yisrael. It was my mother, a”h, who felt the situation was getting worse since that rasha had risen to power. She felt there was nothing more for the family in Poland. My grandfather came with our family. This was, of course, after the passing of the Bendiner Rav, and Bendin was no longer the same place. From the day he passed away, the light of Bendin dimmed.
“My grandfather, Harav Avraham Yaakov Bulimovsky, zt”l, ran an orphanage in the city for some 150 girls, who came from the whole Zaglambia district. My grandfather — like most people in Bendin — consulted the Bendiner Rav for everything. For many years after the Rav’s passing, we still spoke at home about his piskei halachos and quoted him all the time: ‘The Rav would do this, the Rav ruled like that, the Rav had this custom.’
“In general, the love that the Rav had for his brother-in-law, the Imrei Emes, and the recognition of the Rebbe’s greatness and his own humility was boundless. The Bendiner Rav was unparalleled in his absolute submission to the Rebbe. Anyone who has seen his sefarim, Yechahen Pe’er on Seder Kodashim, cannot help but marvel at his insights and chiddushim on some of the most difficult sugyos in Shas. He was a gaon of geonim who learned with his father-in-law, the Sfas Emes, and was among the editors of the Sfas Emes’ sefarim. Yet he submitted himself to his brother-in-law like a talmid before his Rebbi.”
“My grandfather, z”l, always said to us: ‘Do you want to know who the Bendiner Rav was? Listen to a dvar Torah that he said.’” Harav Zilberstein takes out a volume of maseches Megillah from the bookshelf and opens to daf 10b. “‘Amar Rabi Levi, masores avoseinu b’yadeinu…, we have a tradition passed down that Amotz and Amatziah were brothers.’ Rashi explains that Amotz was the father of Yeshayahu HaNavi and Amatziah was the king of Yehudah. So what is this saying? When we have a dispute on complex matters in Shas we sometimes find the phrase ‘masores avoseinu b’yadeinu.’ But what is the great chiddush in the fact that they were brothers? We need a masorah, a tradition passed down, to tell us this?
“The Bendiner Rav offers a powerful, beautiful explanation for this — which is also guidance for life: Amotz — make the effort (maamatz), try and do the best you can, and then Amatziah — you will merit that Hakadosh Baruch Hu will make the effort for you. (Amatz — effort, Kah — Hashem.) Amotz is the first level — the level of a Navi. But above the Navi there is a higher level, that of royalty, and that is Amatziah. After one makes an effort, Hakadosh Baruch Hu adopts him, raises his level, and he becomes like a king. But the person has to take the first step. ‘Pischu Li pesach… — Open for Me an opening like a needle’s point and I will open [for you] an opening the size of a hall.’
“I think this is a chiddush not only according to drash, but it is also the simple pshat in the Gemara. My grandfather heard this wonderful vort from the Bendiner Rav, and he would repeat it throughout his life, reminiscing about the hours and days he spent in the presence of this lofty person.”
Harav Yitzchok Zilberstein serves as a Rosh Kollel in Holon and as the head of the kiruv institutions in that city. He also is the Rav of the Ramat Elchanan neighborhood in Bnei Brak and a halachic authority on topics relating to medicine. His home is open to doctors in Israel, who can discuss any technological innovation in their specific fields, and he serves as a spiritual advisor to these doctors.
For more than 50 years, he has been giving a regular weekly shiur before a medical forum. The content of these shiurim has been compiled in a number of sefarim.
He recalls an experience from the early days of the shiur: “I delivered a shiur in Halachah and related that I once arrived at a hospital and immediately sensed an air of foreboding. I was told that a doctor had performed an appendectomy that had gone wrong and developed into a liver infection. The child became an invalid. That is a terrible tragedy. I told the doctors that Chazal say that there is no forgiveness for a doctor’s error. They said, ‘But he consulted with a senior doctor before the surgery.’ I asked, ‘Had it been his son, would he have done the surgery? Only then is he not liable.’
“For some reason, this angered one of the senior professors there. He didn’t like the fact that halachic authorities — who didn’t even have bagruyot (matriculation certificates) — were rendering halachic opinions and decisions. He proceeded to challenge me. It’s not always pleasant to hear what Halachah has to say, but I tell it to them and in the end they realize that it’s the truth.”
When a complex question reaches the Rav, he always has an address to go to: “During my father-in-law’s lifetime, I would travel to Yerushalayim to ask him. Today, I go to my brother in-law, Hagaon Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita.”
The Ward’s Child
He recalls an unforgettable story that happened 25 years ago:
“One day, two senior physicians from the Kiryah Hospital at Tel Hashomer came to my house. Dr. Milbauer was the director of the maternity department and Dr. Tomer was his deputy. They told me about a baby who had been abandoned at the hospital, and they did not know who the parents were. The child, born without ears, became the child of the ward. They had given him a bris on the eighth day, and he had been named Re’ut — because he was a friend of the entire department. When he turned 2 years old, they dressed him in a uniform and he began serving as the helper of the doctors.
“At one point, they realized that the child needed a home, and they felt that only a religious family would agree to take the child. So they had come to ask me if I would do a television interview and speak in praise of adopting children. I told them I could not do that, but before anything, I had to verify an important detail: the child’s Jewish status. Because who was to guarantee that the child was not born to immigrants whose Jewish ancestry was uncertain?
I went to my father-in-law, and he asked me to bring him a Sfas Emes al HaShas, maseches Yoma. Chazal say that if a baby is found in a city and his identity is unknown, if the majority of the people are Kutim, then he is a Kuti, and if the majority are from Yisrael, then he is a Yisrael. They check what the majority is in that city, and based on that, they determine the status of the child.
The Gemara asks, what difference does it make? ‘To feed him neveilos’ — that they could feed the child treife meat. Rashi writes there, ‘He can be fed neveilos until he grows up and undertakes conversion.’ Rashi’s words need explanation. Clearly, if he converts then he will stop eating treif. So what was Rashi adding to what the Gemara said?
“The Sfas Emes says: There is a halachah that when a non-Jew comes and asks to join Klal Yisrael, he is deterred and told it is not worthwhile for him. We are a persecuted nation… But here, that is not the case. When there is a child where there is a doubt about his status — even a slight one — about whether he belongs to Am Yisrael, he is welcomed with open arms.
“The Sfas Emes revealed to us, my father-in-law concluded, that a child of questionable purity who possibly does belong to the Jewish nation needs to be welcomed with open arms. Make him a giyur l’chumrah, Harav Elyashiv determined, and then bring him into the Jewish nation and he will grow up in a way that will make us proud.
“This child, by the way,” Harav Zilberstein concludes, “lives today with a chareidi foster family in Meah Shearim and he is an unbelievable iluy. Hakadosh Barch Hu compensated for his hearing impairment and gave him other amazing talents. And the shver learned that from the Sfas Emes and ruled it as a halachah l’maaseh, a practical halachah.”
Harav Zilberstein also serves as the highest halachic authority for the security and police services, and he is invited to give shiurim there.
A Slap in the Rebbe’s Room
How do police officers who are so distant from Yiddishkeit listen to a shiur in Halachah from the Rav?
“I try to utilize those moments when I stand before the security personnel to instill in them some fundamentals that will ultimately benefit all people, including the chareidi community,” Harav Zilberstein explains.
The Rav gives an example: “At one of the shiurim, I presented a halachah regarding hitting another Jew. I told them a story about the Sfas Emes. On the yahrtzeit of one of his parents, the gabbai allowed eight Chassidim into the room to complete a minyan. A ninth person put his hand between the door and the threshold so that the gabbai would not be able to close the door.
“The gabbai gave him a hard slap and closed the door. The Rebbe asked the gabbai, ‘Is there a minyan?’ and the gabbai replied, ‘Yes.’ The Rebbe said, ‘Let’s count, hoshia es amecha… I counted, and there are only nine.’ The gabbai insisted that there were 10, and then the Rebbe counted again, and said, ‘Do you think you can join a minyan? According to halachah, you struck another Jew, and thus you are b’niduy — excommunicated. How can you be counted?’ The gabbai went to appease the Yid outside, who said he didn’t want to forgive the gabbai until he was allowed in to the [presence of the] Rebbe. The gabbai brought him in and the Yid said to the Rebbe, ‘I’m not ready to forgive him until the Rebbe blesses the gabbai that he will have children.’
“It’s confusing, isn’t it?” Harav Zilberstein asks, and then explains. “It would make sense that he should ask for a brachah for himself. Instead, he asked for a brachah for the gabbai who had hit him! I have no doubt that such a story remains etched in the minds of the police officers. Next time, before they raise a hand without a justified reason against a civilian, they will think twice.”
Harav Zilberstein divides his time between the kollel in Holon, the rabbanus in Ramat Elchanan, public matters as a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and living during the week in Ramat Chen. His influence spans many countries and his sefarim and shiurim are widely studied and appreciated. Every moment in his presence is inspiring: divrei Torah, Halachah, stories and a warmth that captivates.
The Rav has received fascinating she’eilos from all over the world.
“That is due to a brachah from the Imrei Emes.”
The Rav met the Imrei Emes?
“This is what happened. It was in 5703/1943, and my mother was in the hospital for the birth of my sister. The situation was dire and the doctors were ready to give up. I was 9 years old; I saw the situation and I decided to go mention her name to the Gerrer Rebbe. I went to the heichal of Yeshivas Sfas Emes and I told the gabbai, Rav Shammai Ginsburg, that I wanted to bring a name to the Rebbe. He looked at me in surprise: ‘You? What do you have?’ I told him that my mother was in serious condition and I wanted to mention her name in the Rebbe’s room.
“Rav Shammai ran inside and emerged with a suit. He dressed me in the suit with a gartel and then it was my turn. I was very moved when I saw the Rebbe seated on his chair and I burst into loud sobbing. The Rebbe asked why I was crying. I said, ‘My sandak was the Bendiner Rav and I want a brachah for my mother who is in serious condition.’
“When he heard the Bendiner Rav’s name, the Rebbe’s face lit up. After such a terrible war and the loss of most of his holy community, the Rebbe suddenly met a 9-year-old boy who had been circumcised on the knees of his eminent brother-in-law. The Rebbe blessed my mother and then put his hands out to me and blessed me warmly. I didn’t hear his brachah, but I felt it. That brachah accompanies me throughout my life.”
Inyan is read by people on many continents: in America, Canada, England, Europe and even Australia. What message can the Rav share with readers to guide them on how they should conduct their lives?
As is his wont, Harav Zilberstein begins with a story, also about the Bendiner Rav. “There’s a story that, had I not heard it from my grandfather, I would not have believed it. The Bendiner Rav was renowned as an ohev Yisrael in his generation and therefore this story seems a bit baffling at first. This is what happened:
“One day, my grandfather related, a Jew came to the shul to daven. In his pocket, he had an envelope with all the money for his daughter’s dowry — the large sum of 10,000 rubles. In the middle of davening, while he was distracted, someone took the envelope out of his pocket and slipped out of the shul. The Yid’s world went black. In desperation, he ran to the Bendiner Rav. That is how things were once: They didn’t go to the police, they went to the Rav, as Chazal say, ‘Someone who has a problem in his home should go to a wise person.’
“The Bendiner Rav summoned all the residents of the city to a special gathering in the shul and began to speak: ‘Dear brothers, today something very disturbing and upsetting happened. One of my brothers did not withstand temptation and stole from his friend. I hereby declare that because this is pikuach nefesh, I will not have any compassion for the thief if he does not return the money today to the tzedakah box in the shul. If the money is not returned, that thief will meet a very bitter end.’
“What do you think? The money was returned to the owner that very day. For many years I wondered: The Bendiner Rav was such an ohev Yisrael. How did he utter such a harsh statement about a wretched person who had been tempted by his yetzer hara? He, whose father-in-law, the Sfas Emes, had said, ‘Hevei mekabel es kol haadam b’sever panim yafos — like the Bendiner Rav,’ should speak that way about an individual who stumbled?
“And I thought to myself that specifically here you see the greatness and depth of the Bendiner Rav. It is true that by nature he was very soft and loved every Jew. With his middos, he was unable to speak ill about others. But when it was about yiras Shamayim, he broke his middos and spoke harshly. From here we learn a great yesod in avodas Hashem: When dealing with others one has to do so with good middos, with the right viewpoint, but when it’s about yiras Shamayim and Halachah, then one must not compromise at all.”
How does one convey this yiras Shamayim to the public?
“I merited for many years to deliver shiurim in Halachah,” Harav Zilberstein says. “In Halachah not everything is allowed; on the contrary, there are more prohibitions than things that are permitted. Still, it depends how you convey these ideas to ensure they are internalized. I remember that at the levayah of the Beis Yisrael of Ger in 5737/1977, I received an interesting question. There was a Yid living in Geula, and Gerrer Chassidim came to him in the hours before the levayah and told him that his car might be damaged from the heavy crowds expected at the levayah.
“But he refused to pay attention and combatively parked his car in the area. The Chassidim came, lifted the car, and set it on the roof of a hut in the area. No damage was caused to the car, but in order to take it off the roof, they had to bring a crane that cost him 1,000 lirot. He came crying to me. I went to Harav Elyashiv and asked what to do. He told me a very sharp statement that also expressed his admiration for the Beis Yisrael. He said, ‘They did well; derech hamelech does not have a measure.’ Then he added a lesson in life: ‘Tell that individual that one mustn’t be a fool.’ Meaning, you might be right that you live here in the area, but you have to be smart. This is relevant in all areas of life.”
Today there is an unfortunate widespread trend of bachurim dropping out of the yeshivah framework. How can this be prevented?
The Rav thinks for a few moments and then responds: “I understand the problem in America is worse than in Eretz Yisrael, first of all because of technology, which is much more open and advanced there than in Eretz Yisrael, but we need to understand something else. It is true, America is a medinah shel chessed, a benevolent nation, and it’s good for Jews there. Yes, they have a president who is good to Jews. But that is also the problem. The submission to the power of the state, to the wealthy, to the government, the submission to the materialism of America, is detrimental to us.
“If we will know how to appreciate the Torah the same way we appreciate the power of Trump — then we can win over America and raise children who will know what is really important in order to be an ehrlicher Yid.”
We thank the Rav for his time and wish the Rav continued siyatta diShmaya for many more years in good health.
Unique Piskei Halachah and Practices
A chareidi accountant in New York was faced with a complicated dilemma. One of his clients had been caught by the authorities for tax evasion and was sentenced to 10 months in prison. The authorities did not stop with that and came to the accountant, claiming that he surely knew about more tax evasion that the client was guilty of. They gave him a choice, one alternative worse than the other.
The tax official presented the accountant with what he thought was the preferable option, that the latter would declare the crimes the client was guilty of and thus absolve himself of all punishment. But if he did not cooperate and did not reveal any information, they would impose on him a sentence that was triple that of the client — 30 months in prison.
The accountant consulted Harav Zilberstein and shared his dilemma, adding that he didn’t have a lot of information about his client other than that he had a small apartment somewhere. As such, the accountant claimed that if he gave that information to the tax authorities, the client would get, at most, another month in prison, while if he didn’t say anything, he, the accountant, would get a 30-month sentence.
Harav Zilberstein ruled that the halachah does not permit providing harmful information, even in such a case.
Harav Zilberstein is known for his unique piskei halachah. For example, when he was asked if there is a problem with using disposable dishes on Shabbos [i.e., is it disrespectful of Shabbos?], he replied, “The fact that every family is interested in making things easier for the mother of the house is the essence of the honor of Shabbos, just like Shabbos candles and sharpening knives, which contain an element of shalom bayis and are done in honor of Shabbos.”
When someone asked if he should learn in kollel on Friday because there he could learn better, or should he stay home to help, the Rav replied: “The husband should stay home and help his wife take care of the children even if it brings about a decline in the quality of his learning.”
Another unique ruling relates to pikuach nefesh: “A parent who capitulates to his child and buys him an electric bicycle will be considered a partner to murder and will be held accountable if, chalilah, something happens.”
Harav Zilberstein’s name was recently mentioned following a report from the National Bureau of Statistics claiming that the Ramat Elchanan neighborhood in Bnei Brak is among the poorest neighborhoods in Israel. Harav Zilberstein, who is Rav of the neighborhood, remarked, “This study is a certificate of honor for Ramat Elchanan, which is mostly comprised of bnei Torah who live frugally and with tight [budgets]. We have never been embarrassed by this definition of ‘poverty.’” He then added: “If Chazal warn, ‘Hizaharu bivnei aniyim shemeihem teitzei Torah,’ then that is the eternal truth,”