Rebbe

Here is another guest post. This time, two biographies. Hopefully be”H work will slow down to the point where I can return to writing.

Today is the 14th yahrzeit of Rav Dovid Lifshitz, a man who tried so hard to be my rebbe despite by inability to really listen to what he was telling me… (Some say he was niftar on the 10th of Tammuz, but the Ezras Torah calendar writes that it was the 9th. As Rav Dovid led Ezras Torah for decades, I am taking their version as correct.)

But the closing lines of this article are ones I can attest to. “Getting mussar” from Rav Dovid meant that he sat close to you, held your arm affectionately, and you really knew that rebbe was expressing the pain of watching someone he cared about go amiss.

By the time I had gotten to rebbe‘s shiur, he had given up on filling a shiur in YU if he were to continue in Yiddish, and so rebbe gave shiur in Modern Israeli Hebrew. At least, once rebbe sat down and replaced his hat with a Lithuanian style hoich-kapl (high yarmulka). Rav Dovid tended to walk in the door greeting us with, “ShaLOIM BUCHrim! Mah NISHmuh?” (caps used to illustrate European-style word stressing), which brought a smile to the face (at least the first few times).

Another memory I feel compelled to share were the first two questions on every final. I think Rav Dovid would have preferred something more traditional, but YU required formal written finals. Before giving out the papers, rebbe would ask us who slept eight hours the night before? If you didn’t, rebbe would send you back to the dorm — you need your sleep even during final week! The second question was who ate breakfast? And if you skipped that under the pressure of finals, rebbe handed you a few dollars and sent you to the cafeteria. One’s grade in shiur was correlated to how rebbe thought you were doing (generally an A), not the final anyway.

This last anecdote is something I since found out that Rav Dovid may have learned from his rebbe, Rav Shimon Shkop. A student arrived at Grodno, obviously tired from the long trip. Rav Shimon told him he could attend the yeshiva only if he correctly answered the two questions of his farhehr (oral test): Does he need a rest? Does he need some food?


And with that I give you two biographies of Rav Dovid Lifshitz. The first is by R’ Chaim Waxman, written And with that, I give you R’ Chaim Waxman’s intimate portrait, written for the August 30th, 2004 issue of The Commentator (the Yeshiva College newspaper). This is rebbe as painted by a talmid and later son-in-law who didn’t share my greater interest in the computer room than the beis medrash.“Reb David – Harav David Lifshitz, z”l: An Intimate Portrait”
Chaim I. Waxman
Issue date: 8/30/04

Rav Dovid at the KotelThis is anything but an objective portrait. Reb David was, after all, my rebbi and my father-in-law with whom I was very, very close. And yet, I hope that what follows is not too far from the mark and will offer some insight into the significant role he played at Yeshiva University for almost 50 years. I begin with a brief biographical sketch.

Harav David Lifshitz was born in Minsk, Russia, in 1906. In 1919, his family moved to Grodno, where he was a student of the famed Rabbi Shimon Shkop at his yeshiva, Sha’arei Torah, there. He later studied in the Mirrer Yeshiva, where he stayed until 1932 and received semikha. In 1933, he married Cipora Joselovitz, the daughter of the renowned rabbi of Suwalk (a provincial capital in northwest Poland/Russia), Rabbi Joseph Joselovitz. Upon the untimely death of his father-in-law, in 1935, Rabbi Lifshitz became chief rabbi of the city and its 27 congregations, where he developed the reputation of being a warm, involved spiritual leader, concerned with not only his own congregants but with all Jews, and until his death he served as president of Suwalki Benevolent Society in the United States.

In the autumn of 1939, when war broke out, and Jews were being rounded up by the Germans, Rav Lifshitz chose to stay with his community even though he had opportunities to leave. After the death of his infant child, however, the city’s Jews compelled him to escape. He, his wife, and surviving daughter ultimately secured a U.S. visa, traveling through the Soviet Union, to Honolulu, then to the U.S. mainland.

From 1941 to 1942, he and his family lived in New York, then moved to Chicago, where he was a rosh yeshiva at the Hebrew Theological College until 1944. During World War II, he was active in Va’ad Hatzalah, the official Jewish rescue organization.

Dr. Samuel Belkin [Ed: second president of Yeshiva] actively sought to have him join the RIETS faculty and, in 1944, he came to RIETS as a rosh yeshiva, occupying a position which his mentor, Rabbi Shimon Shkop, had filled twelve years earlier as a visiting rosh yeshiva. He taught upper-level shiurim, primarily in masekhtot Kidushin, Gitin, Ketubot, Shabat, and Hulin.

In many respects, Reb David, as he was affectionately known, helped preserve the old Eastern European yeshiva tradition at RIETS. He had a full beard, dressed in the traditional garb, spoke in Yiddish, and his shiurim consisted of detailed examinations of the gemara as well as the opinions of the major Rishonim and Ahronim on the topic discussed. He also had a distinct stature to his presence. He was always meticulously dressed and he walked in a princely manner.

He was a constant presence in the yeshiva. He lived nearby and, from the time he moved in, the beit medrash was also where he davened. He was at his regular seat in the corner alongside the Aron Kodesh every morning and evening. Indeed, he was typically among the first to arrive before Shaharit and among the last leave after Ma’ariv.

He manifested a unique combination of Lithuanian yeshiva intellect and the spirituality. In addition to his bekiut, encyclopedic knowledge of Talmud and Halakhic literature, he was a very spiritual person. This manifested itself most clearly in his highly inspiring tefilot in the beit medrash, especially during the Yamim Nora-im. His rendition of Avinu Malkenu on Yom Kippur is unforgettable for its awe. Likewise, in the way his entire body shook as he shook the Lulav and Etrog during the Succot tefilot.

He is probably best-remembered as an incredibly warm individual who was genuinely concerned with the well-being of every talmid in the yeshiva. I recall numerous occasions when he would stop students on the street and tell them that they shouldn’t go out without a jacket in the cold of the winter.

His home was always open to his students, and he concerned himself not only with their performance in his class but with every aspect of their lives. Many would consult with him about every conceivable personal question, and he genuinely shared in their all of their achievements and losses.

On the evenings of Chanuka and Purim, chagigot for students, present and past – once you were his talmid, you were always his talmid – were held in his home. The tables were filled with refreshments prepared by my mother-in-law, and the students would talk and sing together for hours. Reb David would have each student there sing a line from one of the songs he selected, and then he gave an inspiring sicha, a talk which usually lasted for close to an hour.

Though he had his own chagigot, he was always present at those held in the Beit Medrash for the entire student body of the yeshiva, and he would always lead the singing and dancing there.

Every year, on Rosh Chodesh Adar, he would have signs posted in the hall near the beit medrash announcing the annual “Hasmada Drive,” his personal campaign to encourage the talmidim in the yeshiva to learn more. His primary focus was always on sacred learning.

Throughout his years at RIETS, he also played a leadership role in communal affairs, especially in Agudat Harabanim, Union of Orthodox Rabbis, and Ezrat Torah. These activities added further to the presence of the old “yeshivishe world” and RIETS.

At the same time, Reb David was quite progressive, especially for someone with his background. When, in the 1960s, he realized that most of his students did not understand the language, he stopped giving his shiurim in Yiddish. However, in contrast to other rabbeim in RIETS, he gave them in Hebrew. Many were very surprised to learn that he was fluent in Ivrit and, to this day, many are unaware that at the age of 12, he co-authored a commentary on the Mishlei (Proverbs) and Daniel, together with his childhood friend, Avraham Rosenshtein, who later Hebraicized his name as Even-Shoshan and authored the most important Hebrew dictionary of the twentieth century.

Few are aware that Reb David was fluent in Hebrew literature and poetry, and that he was able to engage in conversation with students at TI (now IBC) on material they studied in their classes. I vividly recall one day in the summer of the early 1980s, when I drove him from Yerushalayim, that he burst out in praise of the view by reciting a poem on the subject by none other than Chaim Nachman Bialik.

After the establishment of Medinat Israel, Reb David was active in guiding the relationship of American Orthodoxy to Israel. In the early 1950s, he helped create the movement in Israel for a coalition of all religious elements, both Zionist and non-Zionist. The high esteem which he enjoyed in all religious circles enabled him to help establish the Hazit Datit (United Religious Front) which ran on a single slate for the Israeli parliamentary elections.

Eretz Israel and Medinat Israel were among his greatest loves throughout his adult life. His first visit there was in 1952 and, in later years, he spent almost every summer and more there, and he frequently began his first shiur of the academic year with reminiscences of his latest stay in Israel and with a song of love for the country.

Reb David was the unique embodiment of that very special elite type of leader who was combined or “synthesized,” if you will, the role of rosh yeshiva and the role of rav. Even as rosh yeshiva, he was known as the “the Suvalker Rav.” He never relinquished that title. Nor did he ever relinquish his dedication to the rabbinate and his total dedication in carrying out the duties of a rav.

Although Reb David encouraged students to continue learning and, ideally, to become either rabbeim in yeshivot or shul rabbis, he understood that not everyone was cut out for those positions. When he sensed that a student was not going to enter those sacred positions, he encouraged him to do well in his general studies, to go to graduate school, and to be become the best professional he could while, of course, not forsaking regular sacred learning.

Finally, he was a model of beautiful behavior in his interactions with his neighbors, Jewish and not. Anyone who saw him in his many daily walks from his house to the yeshiva could not but be impressed with his warm greeting of everyone he met along the way, in his building, on the street, and in the yeshiva buildings. His very presence and demeanor were a true kiddush HaShem and a rare model.

How fortunate were we to have known him. To know him was to love him and to be loved by him.

Chaim I. Waxman, YC ’63, is a professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University.


And here is a more summary, overview, biography sent by R’ Shlomo Katz in the 14 Tammuz 5767 edition of “Hamaayan / The Torah Spring”. Aside from giving an overview rather than R’ Chaim Waxman’s detail, he also includes a thought that I also recall dearly (see my entries “Yom Yerushalyim” and “War” for thoughts based on this theme) and I think R’ Katz found an appropriate quote that characterizes Rav Dovid’s thought.

R’ Lifschitz, known as the “Suvalker Rav,” was a important figure in American Jewish life for nearly five decades, as a rosh yeshiva and as president of the Ezras Torah welfare organization from 1976 until his passing. He was born in Minsk in 1906, but moved to Grodno as a child, where he later studied in Yeshivat Shaar Hatorah of R’ Shimon Shkop z”l. From there he transferred to the Mir yeshiva where he studied under R’ Eliezer Yehuda Finkel z”l and Rav Yerucham Levovitz z”l.

At age 24, R’ Lifschitz married Zipporah Chava Yoselewitz, daughter of the rabbi of Suvalk. Two years later, in 1935, R’ Lifschitz succeeded his father-in-law as rabbi of Suvalk, a title he carried for the rest of his life.

R’ Lifschitz suffered tremendous persecution at the hands of the Gestapo before the Jews were expelled from Suvalk. One-half of Suvalk’s 6,000 Jews (including the Lifshitz family) escaped to Lithuania. In June 1941, R’ Lifschitz arrived in San Francisco on a boat that carried several other leading sages. R’ Lifschitz’s first position was in Chicago, but he soon moved to Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (the rabbinical school of what later became Yeshiva University), where he remained for the rest of his life.

R’ Lifschitz passed away on 9 Tammuz 5753 / 1993.

A small number of R’ Lifschitz’s shmuessen / ethical lectures were printed posthumously under the title Tehilah Le’David. Several of these relate to the subject of “shalom,” such as one from Yom Kippur 1974 when he said:

When we say “Shalom aleichem,” we are not merely greeting someone; we are blessing him. “Shalom” is a name of G-d, meaning “completeness.” “Shalom” / “Peace” means that the whole cosmos has achieved a state of completion through uniting to serve G-d. Whereas man was created lacking, it is his job to complete himself . . .

Israel today [one year after the Yom Kippur War] is in a state of truce. There are agreements, but is that peace? Is a cease-fire peace? Real shalom can exist only when Hashem’s awe is over all His handiwork, united to do His will (paraphrasing the Yom Kippur prayers). Shalom cannot be just the absence of war, because peace is completeness, a name of G-d.

And your thoughts...?

  1. RMR: It’s good you pointed it out, but I am going to leave R’ Katz’s words unedited. After all he writes that Tehillah leDavid was published posthumously, not that Rebbe didn’t actually see a copy. But the implication left — that there is a a lesser reliability because it’s not from Rebbe’s hand — needed your correction.