June 6, 2024
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Messages From Gedolei Yisrael

Reviewing: “Gedolei Yisrael Around the Year” by Mendy Pollak. Feldheim Publishers. 2024. 496 pages. ISBN: 9781680256413.

What is the significance of the yahrtzeit of a talmid chacham? Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: “Ein osin nefashos latzaddikim divreihem hein hein zhichronan.” We don’t make monuments for tzadikim; their words are their remembrance (Yerushalmi, Shekalim 2:5). By learning the words of the late rabbis, שפתותיו דובבות בקבר―“We cause their lips to move in the grave,” (Yevamos 97a). Through his monumental new sefer, “Gedolei Yisrael Around the Year: Biographical Sketches and Choice Divrei Torah in the Order of Their Yahrzeit Dates,” Rabbi Mendy Pollak allows the reader to do just that. A person cannot acquire new merits after their passing, but when we do things in the name of the deceased, it is a zechus for them.

Rabbi Pollak has profiled gedolei Yisroel of yesteryear for the Yated; much of what appears in “Gedolei Yisroel Around the Year” originated in his column. The book is sorted by yahrzeit dates on the Hebrew calendar, with each chapter focusing on a different gadol. The author introduces each rabbi with a brief biography, followed by divrei Torah in the name of that rabbi. Sometimes, a story is included as well. The author includes a picture or illustration of the gadol, their matzevah or a sefer they wrote.

I first read Rabbi Pollak’s profiles of gedolim in the Yated and gleaned much insight into rabbonim I knew had heard of and those who I did not. Today, reading some of these biographies and chiddushim, along with many new ones, in the context of a sefer has reinspired me. The author advises the reader to use the material in this book for speeches, classroom teaching and historical dialogue. Additionally, one will gain greater appreciation for a gadol on their yahrtzeit by learning more about them in this sefer.

While this book covers over 100 gedolim from chassidish rebbes, Sephardi chachamim, rabbonim and roshei yeshivos spanning generations, the vivid descriptions that introduce each one are one of many attributes we can attribute to them. Additionally, their chiddushei Torah could have easily filled many volumes. By reciting at least one dvar Torah from a gadol on their yahrtzeit, you are giving them an aliyah neshama. This is an enormous opportunity for us. As it says in Mishlei:  מְק֣וֹר חַ֭יִּים פִּ֣י צַדִּ֑יק―“The mouth of the righteous is a fountain for life,” (10:11).

One rabbi who is profiled in this work is Chacham Ovadia Yosef, zt”l―a renowned genius and masmid―who returned the crown of Rav Yosef Caro to its former glory, by following the Beis Yosef in most matters. Rav Ovadia spent close to a century raising the flag of Sephardic Jewry by disseminating pesakim and teshuvos covering all aspects of life for all of klal Yisrael. He enhanced Torah observance and also gave Sephardim a voice in the Israeli political arena. Rav Ovadia mastered the entire Torah and wrote over 50 halachic works. I had the merit to see him at the 10th Siyum HaShas in תשנ”ז at Madison Square Garden.

The author shares his own Rav Ovadia story, from the bookshelves of a shul he visited in Brooklyn. The Szerencze Rav―Rav Menachem Pollak (1890–1952)―whose yahrzeit is on the fifth day of Tishrei, was the author’s grandfather and namesake. Rav Pollak was one of the leading halachic authorities of his time, and the author of “Shut Chelek Levi,” which was written in Hungary in 1934.

Rabbi Pollak pursued Rav Ovadia’s work, “Yabia Omer,” as he was waiting for the minyan to begin. The first teshuva deals with the necessity to use kosher ingredients for the dye in the retutzos of tefillin. Rav Ovadia quotes “Shut Chelek Levi” to support his position. Rabbi Pollak was amazed by the length, breadth and wisdom of Rav Ovadia’s teshuvos. Despite being very young at the time, Rav Ovadia quoted many rabbonim from all walks of life in his sefer―including Rabbi Pollak’s own grandfather’s recently published sefer. Rav Ovadia displayed great achdus in utilizing these works. Rabbi Pollak was touched to see his grandfather quoted.

Additionally, Rabbi Pollak shares lessons he learned as a talmud in Mirrer yeshiva in Brooklyn. For example, Rabbi Pollak was part of a vaad that learned with Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l. Rabbi Miller was well-versed in all topics and utilized them for a Torah purpose. Over the course of 20 minutes, he implored the group to not waste words: “Don’t say ‘very good’ when ‘good’ will suffice. ‘Very’ is just hyperbole,” said Rabbi Miller. The vaad’s marching orders were to put this lesson to use over the course of the next three weeks.

Rabbi Pollak keeps his words short and sweet enabling him to cover so many rabbis and topics in over 400 pages. One insight from this group that I shared with a Daf Yomi WhatsApp group was from Rav Yaakov Emden, zt”l (“The Torah Embrace of the Yaavetz,” page 283):

Chazal often uses mnemonics to assist us in remembering different topics of a particular Gemara. In Bava Basra (46b), the word עמלק appears as a mnemonic for: ערב, מלוה, לקח, קבלן (guarantor, creditor, buyer and unconditional guarantor).

The Torah commands us to erase עמלק, as it says (Devarim 25:19), “Timche es zecher Amalek―You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek.” How then does the Gemara justify using עמלק as a siman?

The Yaavetz answers that the pasuk just quoted concludes with the phrase, “lo tishkach―you shall not forget.” The cantillation under “lo” is a “tipcha,” which severs it somewhat from the word “tishkach,” indicating that one can use the word עמלק to remember divrei Torah, as in this Chazal. Through utilizing עמלק for remembering divrei Torah, we are sapping away at עמלק’s strength and leading to its obliteration.

May that day come very soon!


Chaim Yehuda Meyer is an attorney and writer whose articles have appeared in the Jewish Link  and other publications, covering a range of topics from halacha to American law, book reviews to lectures, politics to community events. He can be reached at [email protected] 

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