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Simple Grandeur

Yisroel Besser

When Rav Gershon Edelstein was tapped by the Ponevezher Rav to give shiur in a nascent yeshivah on a hill in Bnei Brak, it was a charge that would continue for seven decades and counting

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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RISING UP No one could imagine that this world-class rosh yeshivah and maggid shiur never entered a formal beis medrash until he was 18, learning instead under his father’s instruction together with his beloved brother Reb Yaakov ztz”l — in a chicken coop (Photos: Mattis Goldberg)

T here’s nothing obvious — none of the screaming ceremony, signs or vendors or photographers — to mark Bnei Brak’s better-known addresses on Chazon Ish and Rashbam Streets. But the observant eye catches the quiet rustle of activity.

There’s another building, just one in a row of featureless yeshivah apartments lining Rechov Raavad in the shadow of the Ponevezher yeshivah, the name Edelstein penciled in on top of the mailbox. In the narrow stairway, a class of cheder children awaits their audience with the Rosh Yeshivah, and on the third floor landing, representatives of an international tzedakah organization stand in a huddle, formulating their question.

The decor inside is predictable — seforim and more seforim. Noteworthy is the Shas, each volume worn and faded so that you can’t even make out words on the binding, and high atop the shelf is a section of Kabbalah seforim, even though the Rosh Yeshivah was never known as the mekubal of the family.

That was his brother Rav Yaakov ztz”l.

But in so many ways, their story is one.

Rav Yaakov was ill for over a year before his petirah two months ago: On his way home from the hospital to the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon where he grew a kehillah for 67 years, he asked the ambulance driver to stop in Bnei Brak, on Rechov Raavad. His brother, Rav Gershon — older by just 11 months — came downstairs and driver, paramedics, and family members cleared out of the vehicle. The two brothers sat alone, Rav Gershon in the driver’s seat and Rav Yaakov at his side, and spoke for several minutes, their last real conversation.

In the chassidishe world, the “achim hakedoshim” refer to the holy brothers, the rebbes Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk and Reb Zushe of Anipoli. But the modern-day yeshivah world has its own application for the term: these two brothers, raised together in most unusual circumstances.

Keep Up the Good Work

After the passing of his rebbetzin, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Edelstein, rav of Szumiacz in Russia, left the Communist paradise and booked passage on a ship for his family — his two sons, 11-year-old Gershon and ten-year-old Yaakov, his daughter Pesia (later the wife of Rav Reuven Yosef Gershonovitz), and his mother — to Eretz Yisrael. When they arrived in 1934, the family wasn’t affiliated with a party or group, and there was no one there to sort out living arrangements for them. With no other options, the family split up, with Pesia going to one relative and her grandmother to another. Rav Tzvi Yehuda refused to separate from his two sons, however, and searched for a place where the three could live together so that he could continue to teach them Torah.

A relative who lived in Ramat Hasharon invited them to live near him as they got settled in the town filled with farms and orchards. Rav Tzvi Yehuda found a chicken coop for rent and the fragmented family moved in, using empty crates given to them by the landlord as furniture: crates for chairs and a table, a few crates for beds. But that was enough, as long as their days could be filled with learning Torah in freedom. And so they sat and learned.

What did they learn, in this little yeshivah in a chicken coop? Torah. So much Torah.

Although Torah learning was forbidden in their Soviet city, the boys had learned with a private melamed back in Russia, completing all of Chumash with Rashi and Neviim Rishonim. Now they continued with their father where they left off, learning Neviim Acharonim, and Chumash Vayikra — with its intricate laws of korbanos and taharah — in depth. There was no bein hazmanim, and no bein hasedorim either: father and sons learned all day, sometimes deciding to learn a masechta twice, then relearn it with the Rosh and Rif. On Shabbos, they would go through the Rambam dealing with the masechta they were learning.

When the rav of Ramat Hasharon, Rav Averbuch, moved to Jerusalem, the locals asked Rav Tzvi Yehuda to serve as their rav. The little yeshivah continued, though, Rav Tzvi Yehuda occasionally leaving his two teenage sons learning together as he attended to community affairs.

It’s intriguing that Rav Gershon Edelstein, who would become one of the most effective maggidei shiur in the world and known for the clarity and precision of his shiurim, didn’t hear a formal shiur until he was 18 years old. In fact, talmidim see that as part of his appeal.

After davening, the Chazon Ish smiled. “Reb Gershon is a baal mum. He is missing that shminis sheb’shminis, the small measure of gaavah a person needs. He doesn’t have any conceit at all”

“He learned Shas in depth before he heard any vort,” one of Eretz Yisrael’s most popular maggidei shiurim told Mishpacha. “He mastered the Ketzos and Reb Akiva Eiger before being exposed to the more contemporary, ‘yeshivish’ Torah. He first went to yeshivah at 18, when he was fully developed as a talmid chacham, so there’s no ambiguity or vagueness in the way he sees the sugya — and that’s what he transmits to his talmidim.”

Those years in Ramat Hasharon also equipped the brothers with something else that would serve them well: genuine ahavas Yisrael. There was just one shul, where they joined their father for tefillos, sitting and listening to his daily Mishnayos shiur, and interacting with the farmers and craftsmen and vendors.

When their father learned Maseches Kilayim in shul and discussed “arigah,” the weaving process, a local who’d had a knitting factory back in Poland and was familiar with the method was asked to explain it. The face of this Polish Jew shone as he helped the Rav clarify the complicated concept for the others.

One day, Rav Tzvi Yehuda noticed a thin volume in the shul — a new sefer that contained chiddushim on Zevachim — and he was astounded by the brilliance and depth of the anonymous author. The gabbai explained that he’d purchased the sefer out of compassion, since he’d heard that the author lived in abject poverty in nearby Bnei Brak, and the proceeds from the sale of the sefer would help him.

Rav Tzvi Yehuda, determined to meet the mechaber, traveled to Bnei Brak — where he first met the Chazon Ish.

Instantly taken by his host, the rav of Ramat Hasharon told him about his two sons and wondered if he was doing them a disservice by learning with them at home. The Chazon Ish asked what they were learning, among other questions, and remarked that the arrangement seemed to be working.

On the following Chol Hamoed Pesach, Rav Tzvi Yehuda went back to Bnei Brak, this time taking his sons along. The Chazon Ish greeted the bochurim with a smile, asking if they were still learning Yevamos.

The 18-year-old Reb Gershon asked a kushya. The Chazon Ish heard it, and looked at Rav Tzvi Yehuda. “You’re doing a good job,” he said. “Keep on learning with them.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 655)

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