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At the Rogatchover’s Knee

Aharon Rubin

Rav Yehudah Tzivyon has enjoyed close connections with many great Torah scholars — his son Rav Yehoshua is married to Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s daughter — but there was nothing like growing up in the shadow of the Rogatchover Gaon. Reb Yehudah takes us back to his childhood in Dvinsk and to his memories of the gadol who frightened the world with his wit while affectionately letting “Yudaleh” tag along.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Rogatchover Gaon, who had a photographic memory and was famed for being able to connect seemingly unrelated, cryptic sources in the Talmud, was hailed by the gedolim of his generation as a Torah giant of unparalleled stature, without peer even in many of the generations preceding him. But the larger-than-life stories take on an entirely new dimension when they’re told by someone who knew him personally. Although Rav Tzivyon was then just a little boy, he can still feel the holy atmosphere of Dvinsk of old — the town that was a spiritual nerve center for Jews throughout the world.

Rav Tzivyon was born in Dvinsk and tagged along with his father — a steady in the Rogatchover’s household — and in his young mind considered himself part of the family. He wasn’t shy about going into the Rebbetzin’s kitchen, or even sitting next to the Gaon while he was immersed in his learning.

Rav Tzivyon was just nine years old when the Rogatchover passed away, but he’s never forgotten the special atmosphere of the Gaon’s room — down to its rickety furniture, and even its old-world smell.

“The truth is, his room was severely neglected,” Rav Tzivyon remembers. “There was only a single light hanging from the ceiling that cast flickering shadows on the dark, seforim-lined walls. The furniture was sparse — a single shaky chair and table, alongside a tattered bed and a single armchair that had seen better days. Once when I sat on the armchair, even though I was a child and weighed very little, it collapsed and fell apart. I don’t think the Rogatchover himself had ever sat on it. His room was all about his seforim — he even had stacks of seforim strewn across his bed.

“I was in his room once when the Rebbetzin brought him an egg to eat,” Rav Tzivyon continues. “He looked at the plate with an expression of incomprehension — he was still elevated, in a different world. After a few minutes he noticed the food, and then prepared to eat. I went into the kitchen to bring him a few pieces of bread to eat with the egg, but the Gaon lifted his pure eyes to me, and he gently explained that he did not eat bread. He briefly outlined the laws of chadash and said that he refrained from eating bread, out of concern that the flour may have come from chadash grain.”

Rabbi Tzivyon, although he was then just a cheder yingel, was privileged to learn with the Rogatchover. “My father once came to the Gaon’s house while he was learning Gemara with me. The Gaon, who was known for his razor-sharp, pithy, and sometimes caustic wit, patted my head and told my father, ‘He understands well.’ You can imagine how my heart sang when I heard that.”

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