From the Yated
By Avraham Birnbaum
Rav Avrohom Yosef Weiss although he lived in the United States for 85 years was truly a giant in Torah and tangible yiras shomayim on the level of the Torah greats who were raised and educated in the great Torah centers of Europe.
Possibly the last living talmid of Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, he carried that mesorah of the Brisker derech halimud as well as the mesorah of his own family rooted in the Chassidic centers of Hungary. He epitomized the most remarkable synthesis of different worlds with a common theme of tremendous love of Torah and uncompromising yiras shomayim.
He was a marbitz Torah for some 75 years as he began to teach in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon (RIETS) in the late 1930’s and continued until shortly before his passing. Rav Weiss also served as a Rov of the well-known West Side bastion of Torah, the Morya Shul, since 1967.
It is the loss of Torah, yirah, horaah, and Chassidus that Klal Yisroel lost with the passing of Rav Yosef Weiss, zt”l, earlier this month.
The Roots of His Father’s Home Never Left Him
Rav Yosef Weiss was born in the Hungarian town of Nanosh in the 1920’s to his parents, Reb Chaim Yeshaya and Mrs. Chana Mindel Weiss. His father, Reb Chaim Yeshaya, was a Chossid of the famed Rav Sholom Eliezer of Ratzferd, son of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz. His father embodied the temimus and purity of heart of the Yidden who were raised in the Chassidic atmosphere of Hungary in the Late 1800’s.
In 1930, the Weiss family emigrated to the United States to escape the poverty of Europe during the Great Depression. Although young Yosef was only ten years old at the time, he never forgot the atmosphere and worldview of the shtetl of his youth. Despite the future blessed Torah influences in his life, for the rest of his life a significant part of his personality was shaped by the temimusdige, heimishe Yid who was born and raised in the European shtetl. In fact he often spoke about the influence his melamdim in Nanosh had on him.
The Influence of Mesivta Torah Vodaas
The Weiss family settled in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and young Yosef was enrolled in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. After graduating elementary school, he progressed to Mesivta Torah Vodaas High School where he became known for his brilliance and erudition. Years later, one of his grandchildren asked him what impact the legendary menahel of the yeshiva, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz had on him. Rav Weiss responded that Rav Mendlowitz made a profound impression on him. Then, with the greatest enthusiasm and passion, he related that he still had notes on the shiurim in Mishlei that he had heard from Rav Shraga Feivel.
As he approached the end of his mesivta years at Torah Vodaas, there were plans for him to travel to the Kaminetz Yeshiva in Europe and learn under Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, but due to various reasons, these plans did not work out. Rav Shraga Feivel recognized the potential of his young talmid, and when he heard that he was leaving Torah Vodaas he burst into tears.
Talmid Muvhak of Rav Moshe Soloveitchik
A watershed in Rav Weiss’s life, came in his later teenage years when he went to learn in Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon under the great Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, oldest son of Rav Chaim Brisker who became his rebbi muvhak.
Shortly after his arrival in RIETS, Rav Weiss became very close with Rav Moshe Soloveitchik. Rav Moshe’s unique derech halimud that he received from his father, Rav Chaim Brisker, especially appealed to the young Rav Weiss and before long he not only became a close talmid but Rav Moshe, sensing his tremendous ability, soon appointed him the chozer, the one who would repeat and explain the shiur to other talmidim after the shiur.
In Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, Rav Weiss found a role model in learning and adapted his derech halimud as his own, while adopting Rav Moshe as a rebbi in dikduk b’halacha as well. Rav Weiss had the uncanny talent of being able to take and assimilate important aspects of avodas Hashem from various gedolim and incorporate them into his own avodah. The special dikduk b’halacha and yiras shomayim that Rav Moshe exhibited became part of Rav Weiss’s own persona. In fact, he would say the Krias Shema – both the dikduk hamilos and voice inflection – in the exact same manner as his rebbi. In this way he was undoubtedly a direct link back to the ways of Rav Moshe’s father, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk.
Not only did Rav Weiss become a talmid of Rav Moshe in the yeshiva, but he soon became a ben bayis in Rav Moshe’s home and became very close with his entire family, so much so that when Rav Weiss was still a bochur and began to deliver a regular Mishnayos shiur in a local shul, Rav Moshe himself came to the shul to listen to the shiur and be mechazek his talmid as he embarked on a life of harbotzas haTorah. Once, Rav Moshe took his family to a town in New Jersey for the Yom Tov of Simchas Torah. Whom did he ask to join him? His close talmid, Rav Yosef Weiss. Rav Weiss ended up leading the hakofos and Rav Moshe derived great pleasure in the fact that he sang old, heimishe niggunim that he remembered from his earliest youth thereby giving the hakofos a taste of Europe, something missing in the America of that time and something that made an indelible impression on Rav Moshe’s family.
Moreover, Rav Weiss as a talmid felt he had a responsibility to protect his rebbi and his rebbi’s memory. For example, Rav Weiss once met an author of seforim that contained shiurim from a certain rosh yeshiva which he edited and published. Excitedly, this author told Rav Weiss that he had managed to procure notes from Rav Moshe Soloveitchik’s shiurim that had been written by a talmid. He triumphantly informed Rav Weiss that he hoped to publish them shortly and asked for his haskomah. Rav Weiss asked the individual to repeat some of the shiurim to him. The person acquiesced and began to relate the shiurim. Rav Weiss was not pleased. He was not convinced that they captured the chiddushim that Rav Moshe had intended to express. He very forcefully explained to that publisher how makpid Rav Moshe was that Torah said in his name should be faithful to his intentions and that nothing should be published in his name unless it was first reviewed by great talmidei chachomim. Rav Weiss told his grandson that he felt a special sense of achrayus, responsibility, as a talmid of Rav Moshe to protect his rebbi’s memory.
A fascinating story about Rav Weiss’s own notes from Rav Moshe’s shiurim transpired more than fifty years after Rav Moshe’s passing when Rav Weiss was visiting Rav Moshe’s nephew, Rav Meir Soloveitchik, youngest son of the Brisker Rov, Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik. Rav Meir asked Rav Weiss, “You certainly wrote down my uncle’s shiurim. Why then have no seforim with the shiurim of my uncle been published?”
Rav Weiss responded, “Indeed, I wrote down all of the shiurim and had numerous notebooks of his shiurim. But in 1940, after Rav Moshe’s passing, his son and successor, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, asked me to leave them in his possession.”
Upon hearing this, Rav Meir started laughing and then explained his laughter with a story. Whenever his own father, the Brisker Rov, would say a shiur or a chiddush it usually did not take too much time before that chiddush would be published in a kovetz of some sort. The Brisker Rov was very unhappy about it because often the chiddushim published in his name were not written precisely. The Rov blamed his children for not being better able to control what was being printed in his name and said, ‘My Torah is hefker because my children are not adept and talented enough. My brother, Rav Moshe, has ‘toigleche kinder’, talented children who are able to preserve his honor by ensuring that no chiddush would be published without their knowledge!’ Now, after hearing this story about your notebooks,” Rav Meir chuckled, “I understand what my father meant about Rav Moshe having ‘toigleche kinder’!”
Maggid Shiur for More than Seventy Years and Multiple Generations of Talmidim
In the late 1930’s, Rav Weiss, while still a bochur, was appointed chozer of Rav Moshe’s shiur. In 1939, Rav Weiss was given semicha by Rav Moshe Soloveitchik. In fact, there was a detailed report in prominent New York Newspapers on March 30, 1939, about the semicha class, specifically mentioning the newly appointed Rabbi, Rabbi Yoseph Weiss who had just been ordained by Rav Moshe Soloveichik.
In September 1939, he was asked to deliver a regular blatt shiur at RIETS and he continued to deliver that shiur for the next seven years until his marriage and for many years thereafter as well.
Meanwhile, he became very involved in the then fledgling frum community developing in Washington Heights. At that time, the German Jewish community of Khal Adas Jeshurun was in its infancy and did not yet have its own schools. The young Rav Weiss organized an afterschool program for boys named Bais Yosef and for girls name Bais Yaakov. He, together with other young bnei Torah such as Rav Elias and Rav Rosenheim, taught in these programs.
The well-known tzaddik and askan Dr. Raphoel Moller, Rosh Hakohol of the Breuers Kehila, noticed the bochur, saw how dedicated he was to Torah, giving shiurim and introducing the youth of the community to Torah and sought him as a husband for his daughter Miriam. They were married in 1947.
Rebbetzin Miriam (Merla) Weiss was an eizer kenegdo in the noblest sense of the word. Together they built a family of talmidei chachomim dedicated to Torah and chesed in a remarkable way. One talmid said, “The Rebbetzin was completely devoted and dedicated to all of the Rosh Yeshiva’s needs.” Indeed, the life they lived was one of such mutual respect and dignity, the embodiment of that which Chazal say that the Shechina resides among them.”
Rav Weiss took the task of transmitting Torah in its purity to his talmidim with utmost seriousness. He delivered the blatt shiur from late 1939 until the mid-1960’s. In the mid-1960’s, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik gave up the Yoreh Deah shiur and Rav Yosef Weiss was appointed in his stead. Rav Weiss continued giving the Yoreh Deah shiur until shortly before his passing. For the past ten years when it became difficult for him to travel from his home in the West Side of Manhattan to Washington Heights, the yeshiva, in a truly noble gesture, would send a car service to transport talmidim to his home where he continued giving the shiur.
His Impact on Talmidim
The impact that Rav Weiss made on his talmidim was profound. Rav Mordechai Dov Fine, Rov of Kehal Machzikei Hadas of Scranton, relates, “I came to the Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon as a very young bochur in 1957. I was too young to learn in Rav Weiss’s shiur at that time, but his whole persona made a profound impression on me. His seriousness, his dignity and his obvious dedication to learning made me realize that he was a very special person.”
“Several years later, at the age of 17, my first post-high school year, he became my maggid shiur. Aside from his gaonus and tremendous erudition in anything one asked, there was an aura about him that is hard to describe to any person who was not there. His love of learning and love of Hashem were tangible. He didn’t say, ‘Zuhgt der heilige Gemara’, but his whole being exuded love and respect for the Gemara. We could feel it! That is not to say that he imposed his ways upon us or gave us overt mussar, rather his personal example was so powerful that you wanted to try to emulate him. The way he would say the words, the ‘Maharsha’, or the ‘Rashba’ was ‘merafsin igra’. The yiras hakavod that he had for each Rishon and Acharon was impossible to miss. It was thoroughly genuine.
“I remember at the end of our year in Rav Weiss’s shiur I and a friend who also gained a tremendous amount from learning with Rav Weiss, asked the yeshiva if we could remain with him for another year rather than go up to the higher shiur.
“He was the kind of rebbi who taught us to appreciate a question of the Maharsha or the Rashba to the point that we eventually began asking their questions ourselves as we learned the Gemara before we even looked it up!
“His whole mannerism bespoke the greatness and refinement of pre-War Europe and indeed, one of the amazing things about him was that despite the fact that he had been in America since he was 10, he still remained so European. Even his classroom had an aura of a bygone era. I distinctly recall,” Rav Fine explained, “an ancient seforim shank in that classroom and you had to open a door to get to his Shas – a Shas with a sackcloth cover. When you opened the door remove the Shas, you were met by a picture of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz staring at you with his large, luminous eyes. What can I say? It made such an impression on me and broadened my horizons as to what was a ben Torah! I remember that it was because of him that I was inspired to dress more like a yeshiva bochur. When I was just 17 years old, he also encouraged me to broaden my horizons in learning and I together with my chavrusah learned the entire Masechta Menachos. He then took us especially to Rav Mendel Zaks, son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim to be tested thus giving us such cheishek.”
In fact, Rav Zaks had great respect for Rav Weiss, and he would often tell him, “Rav Weiss, Ayere bochurim kennen der klorster-Rav Weiss, your bochurim know with the most clarity.”
“When I began learning Yoreh Deah for semicha,” Rav Fine continued, “Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was still saying that shiur and I learned under him. By my final year, Rav Soloveitchik had stopped saying the shiur and gave it over to Rav Weiss so I had Rav Weiss again. Learning Yoreh Deah with him was such an experience! He was so ‘klor’ Every Shach, every Taz was learned with great iyun. Even to this day, I still look back at those days with longing!”
He demanded such klorkeit that “he would never suffice with the written bechina that was given. Rather, he would also test each talmid orally before giving semicha.”
“Later, as I became closer with him, I would often visit him in his home and when I became a chosson, both he and his rebbetzin reached out to meet my kallah. In addition, he was my mesader kiddushin.”
His Inner World
Once, while sitting with his grandson in Yerushalayim, Rav Meir Berlin who was visiting, asked him, “How was it possible for his rebbi, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik who had grown up in the unique, hallowed atmosphere that permeated the home of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, to relate to the foreign American surroundings that were culturally light years away from Rav Moshe’s own inner world?”
“My grandfather paused after hearing the question and thought for a minute. He then gave an answer that I realized was not only applicable to Rav Moshe but in essence he was also talking about himself.
“My grandfather explained, “Rav Moshe lived in his own world of harbotzas haTorah. Anything that wasn’t connected to harbotzas hatorah he didn’t even notice, and it did not interest him in the least bit.”
The same could be said about Rav Yosef Weiss. He lived in his own world of harbotzas Torah, his world of the Rashba and the Maharsha, the Shach and the Taz; his world of yiras shomayim and burning emunah. In essence, he may have lived in America for 85 years but a major part of him was the same ‘heimishe Yid” that walked out of Nanosh, Hungary. His talmid, Rav Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva at RIETS, related at a hesped, “When we were talmidim, we thought that he had stepped right out of Europe. Although we later realized that he had a remarkable command of the English language, when we were in his shiur, we had no idea because he didn’t speak a word of English with us. In truth, he was the last maggid shiur to switch over to English and thus we were sure that he was a rebbi who was giving over the Torah that he had learned in Europe.” He carved out his own atmosphere for himself.
“His apartment was his literal daled amos shel halacha,” said a grandson. “It was full from top to bottom with seforim. From when you entered the foyer and into every room, all that met the eye was seforim and more seforim lining the walls. He had a tremendous thirst for new seforim and would buy any significant new sefer that came out and learn it as well. Wherever one looked, there were well-thumbed old seforim, many of them rebound and whenever one came into the apartment there he was, sitting with a sefer, completely immersed, horeving in learning. His house was literally an island of Torah and yirah on the West Side and it was the headquarters of his own inner spiritual world.”
It was the late 1960’s and Mr. Arthur Marks was conversing with the posek hador, Rav Moshe Feinstein. In the course of the conversation, Rav Yosef Weiss’s name came up and Rav Moshe remarked, “I have never seen someone with such a clarity in psak as exhibited by Rav Yosef Weiss.” Indeed, from his early youth and on, he made a conscious decision that he wants to learn Torah. Even at the young age of 12, while still in elementary school in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, he learned the entire Masechta Chulin because already then he knew that he wanted to be a rov and devote his life to spiritual pursuits. In that time period of the early 1930’s when every American boy wanted nothing more than to attain the ‘American dream’, Rav Weiss’s only dream was to learn Torah and attach himself to Hashem.
One of his grandsons related, “Whenever I would call my Zeideh, he would always ask what I was learning. As soon as I would mention the sugya, even the most difficult of sugyos, he would immediately get into the heart of the sugya explaining, clarifying and delineating all of the various shitos of the Rishonim. He would say, ‘Oh, that sugya! There are three primary shitos that you have to see on that sugya, Rashi, Tosafos, the Baal Hemaor’ He would then explain it with such clarity that you would have thought he had just finished learning the sugya. I have spoken with numerous gedolim, both in Eretz Yisroel and America,” continued this grandson, “but I have never met someone with such clarity in every area as my Zeideh had.”
One of Rav Yosef’s sons recalled how he once saw his father dancing joyously in his apartment. When he was asked why he was so happy, Rav Yosef replied that he had been mechaven to a chiddush of the Ohr Someach! “I am suffused with joy,” Rav Yosef exclaimed, “not because the Ohr Someach was a gaon but because the Ohr Someach was glatt!” His main simcha derived from the fact that he had been able to say a chiddush that had the same ‘glattkeit’!
In the 1960’s, Rav Weiss merited spending summers together with Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Moshe’s son-in-law, Rav Moshe Shisgal in a bungalow colony in Ferndale, New York. Rav Yosef would spend much time talking in learning with Rav Moshe and Rav Feinstein would give Rav Weiss his teshuvos to review before sending them and eventually publishing them. Rav Weiss enjoyed an extremely close relationship with Rav Shisgal who embodied ahavas Torah and tzidkus. For hours, the two of them would sit at a picnic table in front of the bungalows immersed in learning with tremendous geshmak. That relationship continued and they would often talk in learning on the phone throughout the year.
Another fascinating story that offers insight into Rav Weiss’s greatness in Torah transpired when he once met with Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik as they were both about to walk up the steps to the yeshiva. On the steps they began to converse about some of the primary underpinnings of the lomdus in Masechta Gittin. When they reached the top of the steps, Rav Soloveitchik said, “Let’s review all of the main yesodos in the masechta.” The two remained standing at the top of the staircase going through the masechta by heart, sugya by sugya, reviewing the many components of lomdus on the masechta. Only when they were finished did they enter the building.
Rav Yosef’s enthusiasm for learning was remarkable. Once, when he went to Eretz Yisroel in the summer he threw himself into learning Kodshim. He bought the sefer Chazon Yechezkel and other seforim on Kodshim and throughout his stay remained totally immersed in those most difficult sugyos. He would write his chiddushim and would go to Rav Meir Soloveitchik and speak to him in learning with such a frishkeit, one would not believe that he was a man in his 70’s!
His range of knowledge was astounding. In his personal copy of the sefer Shita Mekubetzes, one could find notes in the margins of virtually every piece. He said that he learned Maseches Gittin with all the Rishonim and gedolei acharonim including every page in the sefer Geresh Yerachim. His knowledge and bekius was simply unbelievable. He rarely forgot anything. One grandson related, “I once called my grandfather and naturally, after exchanging pleasantries, the first thing he asked me was, ‘what are you learning?’ When I answered him that I was holding on Daf Gimmel in Maseches Gittin, he asked me, ‘bring me a proof that a grandfather can relate a chiddush in the name of his grandson.’ I had no idea what he was referring to because that Gemara talks about something completely different. Eventually he told me that Rav Akiva Eiger, in his Gilyon HaShas on that page quotes a chiddush from his grandson, the Kesav Sofer! Perhaps he wanted to infuse me with chizuk, encouraging me to make my own chiddushim.”
Even his recreation was Torah. One of his children remarked that, “On Chol Hamoed we would not go on a trip. Rather, our father would learn with us geshmake shtiklach from the sefer Shaagas Aryeh pertaining to that yom tov.”
The Chassidus of His Father’s Home
Rav Yosef Weiss was a gadol baTorah, a talmid of Rav Moshe Soloveitchik and a genius in learning. Simultaneously, he clung tenaciously to the minhagim and worldview of Hungarian Chassidus that he learned in his father’s home in which he had been raised. For his entire life he remained the ‘heimish Yid’ from Nanosh, deriving great chiyus from the minhagim and hanhogos of his ancestors.
In fact, in his earlier years when he still lived in Washington Heights, in a rented a room in RIETS he led a Nussach Sefard minyan every Shabbos. The Boyaner Rebbe, who grew up in Washington Heights, vividly remembers going to daven in that minyan on Simchas Torah as a child and always remarked about what an impression Rav Yosef’s enthusiasm made on him.
Rav Yosef became very close with the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, and in many ways shared the Satmar Rebbe’s ideological shitos. He would periodically visit the Rebbe and would bring his children to the Rebbe, especially for special occasions such as Hoshana Rabbah.
At his shalosh seudos he would sing the Chassidishe niggunim from his father’s home and would say comprehensive divrei Torah from the gedolei Chassidus. Even when he was young, he would frequently go to the well-known Chassidic leader, Rav Avrohom Dov Ber Levin, known as the “Malach’. One of his grandsons once told him that although the Chassidim say that the famed Haflaah, Rav Pinchos Halevi Horowitz, a rebbi of the Chasam Sofer, learned by the Maggid of Mezritch, the second generation leader of Chassidus, there is no source in the Haflaah”s writings to prove that is true. Rav Weiss exclaimed, “No?! The Baal Hatanya, writes in both the hakdama to his Shulchan Aruch and in his sefer Likutei Torah, that the Haflaah learned by the Maggid.” Rav Weiss explained, “How do I know? Because when I was your age I had the same question and I posed it to the Malach and he quoted me those sources!”
Rav Weiss’s would frequently search through the seforim of the Rishonim and Acharonim for the halachic sources for many of the minhagim that he had. Indeed, as much as he was devoted to learning, he spent much time and effort finding the sources for minhagim, nussach hatefillos and the like.
Rov and Posek
In 1967, Rav Weiss was appointed rov of the Morya Shul on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. For years before that, the rov of the Morya Shul had been Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. When Rav Soloveitchik moved permanently to Boston, the rabbonus went to his brother Rav Aharon Soloveitchik but a few year later Rav Aharon moved to Chicago to become rosh yeshiva in Bais Medrash L’Torah and Rav Weiss was asked to become rov. The Morya Shul was a prestigious Orthodox Shul and Kehilla and Rav Weiss became a significant spiritual leader in the community. His droshos, were masterpieces and were very well-received.
When he became a practicing rov, however, another facet of his personality was revealed – his ability to rule on halachic matters, often very difficult halachic matters with serious ramifications. The older rabbonim such as Rav Naftoli Rif of Camden and Rav Moshe Rosen author of the Nezer Hakodesh all recognized his clarity in p’sak and sent difficult shailos his way. Not long after his arrival to the West Side, he realized that the mikvah needed repair. When he had to rule on difficult shailos, his yiras shomayim was such that he literally became sick from the responsibility. With regard to the mikvah he felt that serious improvements had to be made, improvements that would cost money. He personally went to raise funds. While visiting a certain donor he saw that he was bareheaded. Rav Weiss said that unless he covers his head he will leave and forfeit the donation.
Similarly, when difficult shailos arose with regard to gittin, he took it so seriously that they took a toll on his health. It was during that period when he became involved in actual psak that he developed a very close relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein.
When Rav Meir Kotler, the son of Rav Shneur Kotler, passed away and a shailah regarding the halachos of aninus arose Rav Shneur who was at Mount Sinai hospital asked specifically that Rav Weiss come over to render a psak.
With his passing, we have lost not only a truly remarkable talmid chochom in all areas of Torah, not only a marbitz Torah for 75 years without stop, but also an embodiment of yiras shomayim, temimus, ehrlichkeit and Chassidus. Truly the end of an era.
Rav Weiss leaves behind his distinguished Rebbetzin, his son, Rav Herschel, Rav Chaim Yeshaya and Rav Shamshon, his daughters, Rebbetzin Rivka Taub, wife of Rav Yisroel Dovid Taub, Modzhitzer Rebbe, Rebbetzin. Rochel Gottesman, wife of Rav Berish Gottesman. Rav Weiss was predeceased by his daughter, Rebbetzin Esther Alster, wife of Rav Shimon Alster and an illustrious family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Yehi zichro boruch.