Excerpts From a Conversation With Harav Dov Yaffe, Zt”l, About His Rebbi, the Chazon Ish, Zt”l
BY RABBI TUVIA FREUND
Four years ago, the Mashgiach, Harav Dov Yaffe, zt”l, who passed away several weeks ago, spoke to Hamodia about his personal experiences and interactions with the Chazon Ish, zt”l. May his words serve as a memory.
The conversation at the time began with a description of his role as Mashgiach, which began more than half a century earlier when he took on the role of menahel ruchani of Yeshivas Knesses Chizkiyahu–Kfar Chassidim, alongside Harav Eliyahu Lopian, zt”l. Rav Elya asked Rav Yaffe to deliver mussar shmuessen to the yeshivah students. From then on, the Mashgiach served in this capacity, his clear, heartfelt words penetrating the hearts of thousands of talmidim.
HE WAS ALL TORAH
The Mashgiach began to speak:
The Chazon Ish was one entity of Torah. His toil in Torah until he exhausted his last vestige of energy was renowned. He taught, led and guided countless talmidim in many areas of life. He illuminated Torah communities all over the world. All I heard from him was Torah and more Torah; every movement was measured by the Shulchan Aruch; each statement, every word was measured according to the laws of Torah.
How did the Chazon Ish get to this level? The answer is, as he himself wrote in a letter (Kovetz Igros Chazon Ish, letter 153): “At this opportunity I want to say … that almost everything I do, I am anuss al pi hadibbur. I am broken and shattered all my days and I did not benefit from any pleasures of life, in addition to the physical pain… The only pleasure I had was to do the will of my Creator, and I feel no greater pain than when I stumble and sin. My Rebbeim have taught me that in every movement one needs to consult with the sections of Shulchan Aruch, and I am not free to do anything without perusing what Halachah says with regard to that action…”
Despite being a Gaon of such stature, the Chazon Ish would strengthen himself to accept the yoke of Torah. He would repeat the words of Chazal (Avos 3:6): “[When] anyone accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of derech eretz is lifted from him.” And he would add, “He will not benefit at all if he does not accept the yoke of Torah in its entirety, because instead of the yoke of Torah, the yoke of derech eretz will be imposed upon him.”
Who can describe his hasmadah, his diligence, wherein he toiled literally to his last measure of energy? He once said to me, “It is easier to learn 18 hours a day than eight hours a day!”
The Mashgiach related:
Harav Chaim Ozer, zt”l, known for his brilliance, once marveled that the Chazon Ish discerned things that he, Rav Chaim Ozer, did not. When this was repeated to the Chazon Ish, he replied, “There’s nothing to marvel at. The reason I notice things that a Gaon like Rav Chaim Ozer sometimes does not is because I conduct myself slowly, like old people walking with their canes. As we learn in Perek Eilu Metzios [with regard to leket], after the old, poor people go into the field — and go so slowly, with their canes, that they see every stalk — once they are finished, others can come and collect.”
What is the derech halimud that the Chazon Ish conveyed to his talmidim and his followers?
A young yeshivah student asked the Chazon Ish what is the best derech halimud, and he replied, “He should learn for two weeks with diligence and then he will find his way.”
He would say that one needs to approach a Gemara as though there is a question before us and we need to clarify the din, but the way to reach the answers is through continuous study of wisdom. He would say, “Der shpitz fun kenen lernen [the pinnacle of knowing how to learn] is to know how to extract the din, the practical law, from the Gemara.”
The Chazon Ish would criticize shiurim that covered all kinds of side matters in the sugya but did not teach the students how to extract the din from the sugya. “In the time of the Gemara, when they saw a talented child they said of him: ‘He is destined to be a moreh horaah b’Yisrael.’ Today they say, ‘He is destined to be a Rosh Yeshivah…’
I remember him once speaking to a young man and explaining the words of Chazal that “he who has not tasted the flavor of Halachah has not tasted wisdom,” and thus we find that one cannot taste wisdom through learning only Aggados. He then told the student to learn, in addition to Tosafos, another one of the Rishonim, because without that, the limud is still considered Aggadah.
Did he support learning iyun or bekius, in-depth or in-breadth?
The Chazon Ish shared his distress with me at the fact that there are yeshivah students who excel in pilpul, in the back and forth arguments of learning, but they never learned how to explain exactly what the words of the Gemara say. In time, when they are appointed Rabbanim, this drawback causes them to sometimes make mistakes, and they rule incorrectly on matters of Halachah!
He told me that Harav Shmuel Salant, zt”l, said of the Maharil Diskin, zt”l, that he could learn 100 dapim of Gemara in one day, and one daf of Gemara for 100 days. Rav Shmuel added, “‘I can also learn 100 dapim in one day, but on the other hand, I cannot learn one daf of Gemara for 100 days…”
When I was young and I began learning Maseches Brachos, I asked if I could skip the Aggados so that I should not dwell on them for too long, as I was drawn to Aggadah. The Chazon Ish replied, “It is not appropriate to alter the intentions of Chazal to blend yiras Shamayim into the learning. But you should try not to spend too much time on the Aggadah, and the simplicity of the words of Chazal can bestow holiness.” He would say, “Knowledge of Aggadah does not make a person into a ‘talmid chacham,’ and someone who is not a talmid chacham gets farkricht in Aggadah also…”
Once, when I mentioned something to the Chazon Ish from the order of limud established by the Shulchan Aruch Harav, in Hilchos Talmud Torah, he said, “When a Gadol disseminates a seder limud, that particular seder limud is beneficial to those whose source is the same shoresh neshamah as that Gadol.” The Chazon Ish then added that the Shoel Umeishiv attained his lofty level by reviewing Shas 45 times!
Would the Chazon Ish encourage special sedarim for the study of Halachah?
I remember that a young bachur asked him if he could begin learning Tur, and then reach Gemara through that. The Chazon Ish replied, “There is no difference where you start; the main thing is that there should be a connection between the Gemara and the Poskim.” The Chazon Ish also praised the study of the Beis Yosef, saying, “From him you can learn how psak is built from the Gemara.”
When a bachur told him that during bein hazmanim he learned Mishnah Berurah almost every day, he said that one can do this sometimes, but from then on, an hour a day was sufficient. He once told me, “You can see that bachurim who are yirei cheit know how much time to devote to the study of Halachah.”
As for the study of Mishnayos, he said that there is a great virtue to studying the Mishnah with the commentaries of the Bartenura, Tosafos Yom Tov and Rabi Akiva Eiger. He once advised a young yeshivah bachur that after finishing a perek in Gemara he should review the Mishnayos. In general, he advised anyone who learned a sugya to review it many times in his mind.
TORAH AND YIRAS SHAMAYIM
A person who does not have yiras Shamayim certainly cannot learn properly. I asked him if it is possible for one who does not have yiras Shamayim to learn the true way, and he replied, “No!” Once there was a discussion about which of two people knew more Torah, and the Chazon Ish said, “Because one of them has more yiras Shamayim, he likely knows more!”
After the passing of the Mashgiach Harav Abba Grossbard, zt”l, a certain laxity prevailed in the yeshivah. Several boys came to the Chazon Ish, and they took me as well. He said to them: “Tell them, they want to know how to learn — but what can we do? Hakadosh Baruch Hu made a ‘contract’ of sorts that without yiras Shamayim it is impossible to know how to learn.” Then he smiled and said, “How did the Aliyos D’Rabbeinu Yonah also write Shaarei Teshuvah? How did the Rosh also write Orchos Chaim? There is no other way: Torah must come with yiras Shamayim; if there is no yiras Shamayim there is no Torah!” He repeated this several times.
A bachur once told the Chazon Ish that he knew and was sure that going into the army would not ruin him spiritually. On the other hand, he was afraid that his yiras Shamayim might diminish somewhat. Replied the Chazon Ish, “Diminishing yiras Shamayim is also part of yehareg v’al yaavor!”
Did the Chazon Ish encourage the study of mussar?
Harav Aharon Cohen, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Chevron, once told the Chazon Ish that Harav Yisrael Salanter said that one can also be good without mussar, but it is impossible to become good [from bad] without mussar. Replied the Chazon Ish, “I differ on that. I think that it is impossible to be good without mussar, but it does not necessarily have to be from special mussar sefarim. There are a lot of Aggados in Shas that are words of mussar.”
The Chazon Ish once answered a question from the Alter of Slabodka regarding a rumor that he opposed mussar, and said, “I oppose the opponents of mussar even more!”
MACHMIR OR MEIKIL?
What was the Chazon Ish’s way in psak — was he stringent, machmir, or more lenient?
Harav Yoel Kloft, zt”l, told me that when people asked the Chazon Ish questions where there was room to be lenient but it was preferable to be stringent, he would assess the level of the person asking the question. Sometimes he would be lenient for one person and strict for another — even though both asked the same question.
Each year, the Chazon Ish would send matzos to Harav Reuven Katz. Even after the passing of the Chazon Ish, the members of the chaburah continued sending the matzos. When Rav Katz expressed concern that perhaps because the Chazon Ish was no longer present at the baking, the level of hiddur had declined, they replied, “On the contrary, now we are stricter because during the life of the Chazon Ish, when questions arose, he sometimes ruled strictly and sometimes ruled more leniently. Now we rule stringently on any question that arises.”
On the subject of leniencies and stringencies, I would add what the Chazon Ish said: “It’s not good for a person to worry nervously after doing a mitzvah that he may not have done it right. That is also a chillul Hashem, because simple people will see this and think that someone who wants to be strict in mitzvos has to also be nervous.” He would cite the Ramban, who writes: “It’s not good for a person to have too many doubts.”
STRENGTHENING EMUNAH AND BITACHON
When survivors of the Holocaust began coming to Eretz Yisrael and related the horrors the Yidden had endured, a relative came to the Chazon Ish and asked how Hakadosh Baruch Hu had allowed such horrors to be perpetrated against the Jews. Replied the Chazon Ish, “Hakadosh Baruch Hu is the Merciful Father and is more compassionate than we can possibly fathom, and yet with that compassion, He allowed it to happen…”
When a yeshivah bachur complained that he had doubts in emunah, the Chazon Ish suggested that he wear a tallis katan that is big enough to be considered a shiur, and that while learning, he should make sure not to touch covered places. I think he also told someone, “The disturbances don’t come from learning too much but rather from a lack in holiness; therefore, the way is to expand holiness and then the doubts will be removed.”
I once asked the Chazon Ish what to do about a young man who suddenly lost all interest in davening and learning, with no obvious reason. He told me, “He should try to learn for a few hours at a time, at an unusual hour, such as late at night, which is very sanctifying. He should learn sifrei Acharonim that lift the spirits, sifrei yere’im.”
When the bachur tried this and was not healed, he went himself to the Chazon Ish. As soon as he saw the boy’s face, the gaon said, “Your decline is not spiritual, but physical, a weakness in the nerves. Go to a certain doctor and he will give you foods to strengthen the nerves, and you will get better. Often there is a decline in ruchniyus for health reasons.” Indeed, the bachur soon recovered.
PILLAR OF TRUTH
The Mashgiach spoke extensively about the middah of truth he saw in the Chazon Ish.
The Chazon Ish told me in the name of Harav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy”d, that when the Gemara says that one may alter truth for the sake of peace, it in fact means temporarily, but there is no permission to alter the truth on a permanent basis. When one lies regularly, the habit of lying has an effect on his soul and turns him into a liar; there is no heter for that.
The Chazon Ish criticized those who would say, ‘bli neder’ and then promise things that they could not necessarily fulfill. He would say, “Even though there is no neder here, there is a promise!” He preferred to say, “I hope to be able to do what you asked …”
In the past, keeping promises was considered an important value even among the public that was not Torah-observant. Not fulfilling a promise was considered a shameful thing to do, even among simple people. In recent years this value has also declined. One prime minister of Israel would often say, “Although I promised, I didn’t promise to keep my promise …”
BEIN ADAM LACHAVEIRO
The Chazon Ish would say, “When one hurts another, he has to know that apologizing is not just saying the words, but rather he has to appease his friend, so that he should forgive him wholeheartedly.” He was once present when someone asked forgiveness very casually. He said, “When a person asks forgiveness from a friend, his face needs to be red with embarrassment!”
I merited to see how Gedolei Hador were extremely careful about not offending others and focused on doing chessed for others. Harav Moshe Yehoshua Landau, zt”l, one of his disciples, once came to the Chazon Ish and told him that he was involved in a certain chessed matter, but it was taking up far more time than he had expected. He asked the Chazon Ish if he was allowed to stop his involvement because it was distracting him from his learning.
The Chazon Ish told him, “The Torah is unlike other wisdoms whereby it is enough to have the talents to acquire them. In order to acquire Torah, one must be worthy of it, and doing chessed with others makes a person into a receptacle wherein Torah can be contained and absorbed. Therefore, even if it comes on account of Torah, it is not a real disturbance.” He did not let him curtail his chessed activities.
The Mashgiach noted something that he always saw with the Chazon Ish:
He was always joyful, and you could never discern any tension or a feeling of being burdened regarding avodas Hashem. I once asked Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, if the Chazon Ish would appear happy with simchah shel mitzvah during the Three Weeks as well. He replied that it was clear to him that the Chazon Ish was happy then as well, but he didn’t remember how he acted on Tishah B’Av itself.
Certainly the Chazon Ish fulfilled the obligation of mourning the Churban with all the nuances of Halachah, but that does not contradict being happy with the fact that everything Hakadosh Baruch Hu does is only for our good. Chazal tell us that prophecy can be bestowed upon only someone who is in a state of joy. How then could Yirmiyahu HaNavi have nevuah when he prophesied the words of Megillas Eichah, a lamentation for the Churban and the tribulations of Am Yisrael?
The Chazon Ish used this as proof that one can be happy even when dealing with matters of pain. This means that because Hashem does everything for our good, we have a reason to be joyous even for things that cause pain, because ultimately it is also for our good.
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