June 21, 2024
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June 21, 2024
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The Rosh HaYeshiva, Hagaon Harav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l

Glimpses of his day-to-day life on the occasion of his first yahrzeit.

It is 8:30 a.m. Shabbat morning and the Rosh Yeshivah emerges, as he does, like clockwork, every week, from the side door of his apartment block, impeccably dressed in his Shabbat best and strolls calmly yet determinedly through the building’s gardens to Grand Street.

There he is met by one or two of his students, who have been waiting since early morning to walk alongside him as he makes his way to Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem for morning services. They pepper him with questions on random matters of halacha, as others join the procession from neighboring apartment houses to listen in on the conversation initiated by the early birds.

Sometimes the Rosh Yeshiva digresses to tell a fascinating story about his early youth in Russia, as when he watched his father, Rav Moshe, zt”l, climb the rungs of a tall telephone tower to make an overseas call to America, or about his memories of growing up on the Lower East Side, where immigrants who had recently arrived from war-torn Europe would sell their wares from pushcarts on street corners, which was the only way for them to earn a living without working on Shabbat. Or he’d point to the post office building on East Broadway, from where Jewish employees would cross the street in droves on Yom Kippur to join in the Neilah service at the yeshiva.

It is now almost 9 a.m. and the Rosh Yeshiva climbs the steps to the beit hamidrash. The entourage respectfully retreats as he makes his way to his desk and chair, next to the empty and hallowed seat of his late father zt”l, for a few moments of coveted, undisturbed study before the service begins. As he sits there, always the first to arrive, the beit hamidrash slowly fills up with a medley of students, local ba’alei batim from the Lower East Side and visitors from afar, who have made special arrangements to spend a Shabbat in the company of this great man.

The Rosh Yeshiva, now nearing 90, climbs the steps to the aron hakodesh, carefully lifts out the sefer Torah and cradles it in his arms as he carries it up to the bimah, where he lovingly sets it down. He takes up his post on the right, from where he will oversee the Torah reading. He turns, with that irresistible smile, to call up congregants, all of whose names he knows by heart, to recite the Torah blessings. When they are done, he thanks them whole-heartedly, as if they have just accorded him the greatest favor in the world.

At the end of the service, the Rosh Yeshiva stands by his desk and shakes the hand of each of the congregants as they file by, sending each one of them off with a personal greeting. He then dons his hat and coat as he slowly makes his way out, often the last to leave, before he treks back home to his apartment at the corner of the FDR.

A gathering, far larger than the morning crowd, now swells around him, jostling for a place as close to him as possible. As word of his approach flies down East Broadway, scores of people emerge from the basements and first floors of the synagogues, abutting the street, to catch a glimpse of him. He stops to greet the young, the old and the infirm, giving them encouragement and often answering pressing questions.

As he turns into Grand Street, past the corner mikveh house on the right and Moshie’s Bakery on the left, the time is fitting to ask follow-up questions from his parsha shiur the day before. He has been giving it for about the past 40 years, every Friday morning at 11 a.m., come rain, snow or even epic New York blackouts. It is attended by hundreds of people from all walks of life, including whole classes of school children and yeshivah students bused in from afar, and even businessmen, Wall Street bankers and lawyers, who duck out of their offices to listen to him talk to them, never at them, about his astounding insights of the parsha and of life in general. He pilots one over oceans of ma’marei Chazal and Tanach, which he quotes verbatim, as one listens, mesmerized, by his ability to penetrate the deepest recesses of one’s heart and emotions.

When the shiur ends and the crowd surges forward, the first to reach him are a few light-footed young rabbis, dispatched by older congregational rabbis, with a batch of questions in hand, covering subjects from all four parts of the Shulchan Aruch, which the Rosh Yeshiva answers in rapid fire without pause.

He then gets up, and the sea of the jostling crowd slowly parts as he picks his way out of the beit hamidrash to his adjacent office, where another group has already gathered, hoping for private audiences. One by one, they are ushered in by the Rosh Yeshiva’s trusty lieutenant, Eugene Weiser, who stands guard at the door, keeping a strict eye on the time. It is now about 12:20 p.m. and all visitors have to be out by Mincha at 1:30 p.m.

There was once a newcomer who approached the Rosh Yeshiva after the shiur and inquired as to where he derived the concept upon which he had based his entire shiur, namely that the word “yekum” signifies financial stability. The Rosh Yeshiva gave him a puzzled look, as one would if asked where any word of common usage, like the word “jacket,” comes from. The newcomer backed off but hung around. When Mincha time arrived, the Rosh Yeshiva was nowhere to be seen. Finally, just after Ashrei, he emerged from the library, approached the newcomer, Chumash in hand, and pointed to a Rashi in Eikev in answer to the question. Such was the humility of the Rosh Yeshiva.

Many people will remember the rabbis of their childhood taking the breitel at Neilah on Yom Kippur. Not the Rosh Yeshiva. He chose Mincha. And for Neilah he would retreat to his favorite place by the banister that surrounded the aron hakodesh. As the day grew dark he would lower his arm, ever so slowly, further and further downward from where he had raised it up on high at the first recital of “Hashem Hu HaElokim,” until it rested by his side at the seventh recital. He was descending from the seventh firmament of the heavens, where he had spent Yom Kippur and to where he has now been recalled.

He has left us with a void that can never be filled.

By Raphael Grunfeld


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