Rav Yerucham Levovitz served as the mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva, one of the largest yeshivos of Eastern Europe, for 26 years. His piety and love for his students, as well as the depth of his insight into human character, were his trademarks. Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, Rav of Washington Heights, related that when he was a bachur in Mir, Reb Yerucham had a special fund from which the bachurim could borrow money. One year before Pesach young Shimon borrowed money from the fund to travel home for Yom Tov.After Pesach, he returned the money to the mashgiach’s fund and expressed his thanks.
“Don’t you know that thanking is considered verbal ribis?” Reb Yerucham reproached him. “Apparently, according to your worldview, politeness is more important than halacha!”
Reb Shimon was, indeed, a proper German Jewish boy, and his good manners reflected his upbringing. Yet the mashgiach did not consider his thanks appropriate in view of the halacha that when one repays a loan, he is not allowed to give the lender any extra favors or flattery. Halacha, he felt, must be considered before the dictates of politeness.
Reb Shimon took the words to heart. The next year, he again went to borrow money from Reb Yerucham’s fund to travel home for Pesach. After Yom Tov, he returned the money without a word.
He was unprepared for the response that followed. “Where is your hakaras hatov?” Reb Yerucham chided him.
A baffled Reb Shimon burst out, “Rebbe, last year I thanked you, and you rebuked me. This year, I didn’t thank you, and again you rebuked me. What am I supposed to do?”
Reb Yerucham explained, “It is certainly forbidden for you to express any verbal thanks. But the feeling of gratitude inside you should have been so strong that it would have been hard for you to remain silent. I didn’t see you experiencing any struggle to remain silent, and that is what I want to see next time!”
As a mashgiach, Reb Yerucham viewed each and every talmid in the yeshiva as his own son. His guidance made him one of the leading figures of the Torah world of his day. His personal humility and refinement also made him a beloved figure to all who knew him, and today, 65 years after his passing, we can still glimpse a bit of his greatness.
STUDENT OF GIANTS
Reb Yerucham was born around the year 1874, and little is known about his early life. In his teens, he went to learn in the Slabodka Yeshiva, becoming one of the top students of the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel.
Many yeshivos of the day operated on the principle that through Gemara study one naturally develops yiras Shamayim. Rav Yisrael Salanter, however, felt that as the generations passed, people were becoming too weak to acquire yiras Shamayim from their intellectual studies. He believed that a person must devote time to learning mussar, which will help him develop yiras Shamayim.
Reb Yisrael Salanter had three top talmidim, one of whom was Reb Simcha Zissel Ziv, known as the “Alter of Kelm.” Reb Nosson Tzvi, the Alter of Slabodka, was a talmid of Reb Simcha Zissel. Thus, the Alter of Slabodka’ s goal was inculcate mussar in every one of his students. Reb Yerucham was one of his jewels.
By 1897 Reb Yerucham, a bachur in his early 20s, had already been dubbed “the mechashef,” the spellbinder, because of his incredible ability to influence people. It was at that point that he decided to go to Reb Simcha Zissel’s yeshiva, the famous Talmud Torah of Kelm.
Reb Simcha Zissel’s policy was to only accept a select group of bnei Torah, and help them develop into giants of Torah and mussar. He therefore turned away most of the applicants to his yeshiva. Even many of his students were turned away the first time they tried to join the Talmud Torah. Reb Yerucham was no exception.
When he first arrived at the Talmud Torah in Elul 1897, he was not even allowed in the door. As he later related, he stood outside the door crying in bitter disappointment for several hours.
“If there is anything in me,” he told his talmid Rav Dovid Povarsky, who later became rosh yeshiva of Ponevezh, “it is because of those hours that I spent crying.”
When Reb Yerucham was permitted to enter the yeshiva, he was still not allowed to stay in the beis midrash while Reb Simcha Zissel gave his shmuess. This went on for seven months, until Nissan. Then, when the Alter had given his official permission, Reb Yerucham was accepted as a regular member of the Talmud Torah.
Reb Simcha Zissel passed away that summer, but in the months Reb Yerucham spent learning under him, he acquired his approach to mussar. He continued learning in Kelm under the Alter’s son, Reb Nachum Velvel Ziv, for a short time.
INTO THE REALM OF TEACHING
After Reb Yerucham’s marriage, he learned in seclusion for eight years, covering the entire Shas. Then he became the mashgiach of the Chafetz Chaim’ s yeshiva in Radin.
Reb Yerucham maintained close contact with the Alter of Slabodka, who recognized his potential as an educator and molder of students. When the Mir Yeshiva, one of the largest and most prestigious yeshivos of the time, asked the Alter for help in establishing a mussar program, the Alter sprang into action. He sent 10 of his top students from Slabodka to strengthen the yeshiva and serve as mussar role models. He also dispatched Reb Yerucham from Radin to become the mashgiach.
The year was 1910. It was the start of Reb Yerucham’s 26-year tenure as mashgiach in Mir, during which time he taught hundreds of students, among them many of the future leaders of the next generation.
Reb Yerucham gave regular shmuessen in the yeshiva twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday, and private talks in his home on Friday night and motzaei Shabbos. But no matter how large his audience, he was always talking only to himself. When he started the shmuessen, his voice was so quiet that the bachurim had to crowd around him to hear what he was saying.
One memorable Friday night, a group of talmidim had gathered in his home for the usual shmuess. Reb Yerucham was discussing a very lofty concept in mussar. Suddenly, he stopped speaking and left the room, which was extremely out of character for him.
Several of his close talmidim tiptoed up to the closed door where Reb Yerucham had closeted himself and leaned forward to hear what was happening inside. They were amazed when they heard Reb Yerucham saying, “Yerucham, Yerucham, who are you trying to fool? You know you haven’t reached such a high level.”
In mussar it says that a person must understand himself if he wants to understand the rest of the world. Reb Yerucham personified this. He had a great understanding of himself, and his understanding of his talmidim was no less thorough. His understanding of the world was also amazing. Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the leader of Lithuanian Jewry in Vilna, often consulted with him for advice on complicated matters.
Reb Yerucham would often quote Reb Chaim Ozer as having said, “A yeshiva without mussar is like an open pit in a public domain.”
THE COMMAND TO BE HOLY
In one of Reb Yerucham’s typical talks in the yeshiva, he discussed the concept of “You shall be holy, because I, Hashem, your G-d, am Holy.”
“Why,” asked the mashgiach, “are we commanded to be holy because Hashem is holy? Suppose someone asked me to donate ten thousand dollars to a charity fund because Rothschild, the millionaire, had given ten thousand dollars. How could he make that request of me? Rothschild is a millionaire, and I haven’t a penny! It’s the same thing in the passuk-‘Be holy because Hashem is Holy!’ How can someone make that request of us?”
Reb Yerucham then quoted several places where the Gemara and Midrash discuss holiness-with the Beis Hamikdash, the korbanos and mankind. How can our holiness compare to the holiness of Hashem?
Then he concluded, “But after all, who is making this demand of holiness? An ordinary person? No, this is the Creator, who knows our strengths and weaknesses. He is the One who gives us the power to think deeply and loftily. If He asks us to be holy because He is holy, then it must be within our reach.”
When Reb Yerucham read a page of Mesillas Yesharim and explained it, it took on such depth of meaning that one’s original perception of it suddenly seemed totally superficial. The yeshiva bachurim could sense his pure trust in Hashem and his immense love for his Creator and for mitzvos.
Reb Yerucham stressed not only mitzvos between man and his Creator, but also mitzvos between man and his fellow. For example, he taught his students that when writing letters they should be very careful to write neatly and clearly. Since writing a letter is a fulfillment of the mitzva of loving one ‘s fellow, it should be done in the nicest way possible to enhance and beautify the mitzva.
UNDER THE MASHGIACH’S WATCHFUL EYE
Reb Yerucham related that he once thought of leaving Mir and settling in Kelm, but one obstacle after another came up and disrupted his plans. He decided to do a goral, a system of searching for an answer from the Chumash, and he came up with the following passuk: “The staves shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be removed from it” (Shemos 25:15).
Reb Yerucham understood from this that the men who carry the Aron, meaning Torah leaders, should not leave their places-and he should not leave Mir. From then on he was very careful not to leave the yeshiva unless it was absolutely necessary.
Before a bachur was accepted into the Mir Yeshiva, he had to speak to Reb Yerucham. The mashgiach would ask him a few questions and, based on the answers he received, discern which city the boy came from. “A city leaves its mark on its inhabitants,” he explained.
All bachurim in the yeshiva would also speak to the mashgiach privately. It never took him long to analyze a bachur and discover his strengths and weaknesses, and then guide him in the right direction.
‘JUST PUT YOUR TRUST IN HASHEM’
One Rosh Hashana, the Mir Yeshiva bachurim were gathered in the yeshiva, engrossed in their prayers. Suddenly, they were informed that the town’s main square had been surrounded by Russian soldiers, who were searching for army deserters and draft dodgers.
The atmosphere grew thick with tension; almost all the bachurim had illegally evaded the dreaded Russian army. The bachurim wondered if they should scatter to the other shuls in town, in order to hide. With so many young men gathered in the yeshiva building, they would undoubtedly be caught!
Reb Yerucham, however, advised them not to leave. “Everyone should stay in the yeshiva and daven with as much concentration as he can. Put your complete trust in Hashem, and you will not be harmed.”
Davening resumed with great intensity. Although the Mir Yeshiva was usually known for its long Yamim Noraim tefillos, the heartrending, deeply felt tefillos of that terrifying day surpassed any heights that had been previously reached.
As the soldiers made their rounds through the town, they searched all the other shuls in Mir. For some reason, though, they never thought to enter the yeshiva building. All the bachurim remained safe.
THE WHITE IN HIS BEARD
Reb Yerucham cared deeply about the yeshiva bachurim, concerning himself with their welfare and worrying about them as if they were his own sons. When people would ask him why his beard had turned prematurely white, he would explain, “Each of these hairs is for a different bachur in yeshiva.”
To one questioner, he said, “You have only one son. I have hundreds.”
Chaim Shapiro, the author of “Go, My Son,” related that when his father, Alter, was a student in Mir, he received a draft notice in his hometown of Tiktin. Alter’s father, Reb Shmuel Leib, immediately arranged for a crippled boy to go to the draft board in his place and get a deferment. This plan usually worked, especially if one could afford to bribe the members of the draft board. However, one person on the draft board that day was a replacement for the regular board member and had not been bribed. He knew Shmuel Leib Shapiro and commented that he had never seen this crippled boy anywhere in the Shapiro house. The case was viewed with extreme suspicion.
Meanwhile, Reb Yerucham, who was in Mir, heard of the draft notice and began to worry that Alter, one of his prize talmidim, would have to flee to America to evade the army. To prevent this from happening, Reb Yerucham began the long journey to Tiktin, ignoring the fact that it was a 500-mile trip and it was the middle of an extremely cold winter.
Upon reaching Tiktin, the mashgiach went immediately to Reb Shmuel Leib, whom he knew from the Chafetz Chaim’s Kodshim Kollel. “Reb Shmuel Leib,” he said, speaking with uncharacteristic firmness, “do not think for a minute of letting Alter run to America. I will never permit it-not under any circumstances!”
Fortunately, Reb Shmuel Leib was able to bribe the replacement board member, and all ended well. But afterward, Reb Yerucham was known to remark, “One hair in my beard has turned white for every bachur in the yeshiva-but only up to half my beard. The other half is all because of Alter Tiktiner!”
THE ‘CONSIDERED SON’
The Gemara teaches, “Whoever teaches his friend’s son Torah is considered to have given birth to him.” At the wedding of one of Reb Yerucham’s sons, who was also a talmid of his, a wedding guest approached Reb Yerucham and wished him mazal tov “on two accounts-the wedding of your son and the wedding of your ‘considered son.'”
Reb Yerucham acknowledged the good wishes, but he corrected the man, “For us, the ‘considered son’ precedes the son.”
On another occasion, Reb Yerucham was involved in a shidduch for his son. The shidduch did not seem to be working out, running into one difficulty after another, and finally Reb Yerucham sat down and cried.
One of his relatives expressed great surprise that he should be crying over such a matter. Surely Reb Yerucham did not take it so much to heart!
Reb Yerucham explained, “I am not crying over the pain that this matter is causing. Rather, I’m crying because until now I thought that my son and other bachurim in the yeshiva are equal in my eyes. Now I see that I really feel some difference.”
THE MASHGIACH’S LESSONS
Reb Yerucham’s fatherly love for his talmidim never prevented him from giving them mussar lessons when needed. One of the top bachurim in the yeshiva once came up with a novel answer to a difficult Rambam. The chiddush was the talk of the yeshiva, and Reb Yerucham soon heard about it. He asked to speak to the bachur.
The bachur came in eagerly.
“How long did you work on this chiddush?” Reb Yerucham asked him.
“Five hours,” the bachur answered proudly.
Reb Yerucham nodded slightly. “Did you listen to the shmuess that was given yesterday?” he continued.
“How long do you think I worked over it?”
“I suppose also around five hours,” replied the bachur, apparently believing that he now understood how long it took to prepare a complicated Torah thought.
“No,” said Reb Yerucham.
“Ten hours?” guessed the bachur.
“No, more,” said Reb Yerucham.
“Perhaps up to a whole day?” the bachur asked, becoming increasingly less confident.
The bachur guessed a little higher, but could not get the answer. Finally, Reb Yerucham told him, “I worked on this inyan for half a year.”
The bachur left, taking the lesson with him.
Another bachur once complained to Reb Yerucham, “Learning Torah all day is too much for me.”
Reb Yerucham asked him, “Did you ever see a farmer complaining that working the land is too much for him? No? That’s because he knows that working the land is a part of his existence, and his work must be done if he wants to live.
“It’s the same with learning Torah all day. If a person knows and recognizes that learning Torah is the real work for which man was created, and this work is part of his very existence, it will no longer feel like it is too much or too difficult.”
The Mashgiach, as he was affectionately called, was revered by all Gedolei Yisroel of his time, no matter what their affiliation. They Imrei Emes of Ger spoke very highly of Rav Yerucham many times. When a bochur asked the Rebbe which yeshiva he should attend, the Rebbe answered in his usual cryptic manner, “You should go learn where there is Yiras Shomayim.” To clarify the Rebbe’s intent, the bochur turned to the Rebbe’s famous holy brother, Rav Moshe Betzalel Alter HY”D. “The Rebbe is telling you to go to the Mirrer Yeshiva-but only on condition that you become close to the Mashgiach, Rav Yerucham who is a great Yorei Shomayim,” said Rav Moshe Betzalel.
A DREAM WITH NO INTERPRETATION
Toward the end of his life, Reb Yerucham told his family one morning, “I had a difficult dream last night. Although I usually have dreams, I always see their meanings at the same time. This dream, however, was very unclear, and I did not dream its interpretation. Who knows what will be.”
He was very ill at the time, and 12 days later he passed away, on 18 Sivan, 1936 (5696).
Immediately after his death, his wife called out to the family and students in the house, “Kinderlach, what do you know about him? He was an angel!”
Normally, the closer one gets to a person, the less respect one has for him. But with Reb Yerucham it was the opposite; he was as pure as an angel, even to those closest to him.
Reb Yerucham was mourned by the entire Mir Yeshiva and the rest of the yeshiva world. He was a rare combination of Torah and yiras Shamayim, a mashgiach who was both a gentle father and an awe-inspiring role model. His legacy was twofold: his talmidim, who survived World War II, by and large, in Shanghai, and in many cases went on to become educators, roshei yeshiva and mashgichim themselves; and his shmuessen, published posthumously by his students, in Daas Chochma U’mussar, Daas Torah and other sefarim.
Reb Yerucham’s mussar and his greatness will certainly be long remembered.