The Ohr Sameach, Rav Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk ZT"L
By D. Sofer
This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman
It is nearly Elul. Students will soon return to their yeshivos and kollelim and all of us are beginning to prepare for the Yamim Noraim both emotionally and practically.
It is at this awe-inspiring time that the call of Rav Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk should ring clearly in the ears of all lomdei Torah: "Far vos iz geffallen di shkida?" "Why have we regressed in our steadfast study of Torah?"
This call stemmed from Reb Meir Simcha's very essence, which was all Torah, in line with the mishna in Pirkei Avos "Hafoch ba v'hafoch ba d'chola ba," "Probe it and probe for all is in it" (5:26).
Rav Meir Simcha was known for his original chiddushim, brilliant analyses and most of all, his deep love of Torah.
"One Sukkos," relates Rav Leib Bakst, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ateres Mordechai in Detroit, "Reb Meir Simcha was studying with Rav Yechezkel Chefetz. In the middle of their studies, they encountered a very difficult passage of the Tosfos, whose meaning eluded them. After hours of strenuous efforts to understand the Tosfos, Reb Meir Simcha said, 'Let's pause for a moment and pray that we merit love of Torah.'
"'Why pray for love of Torah?' Reb Yechezkel asked in surprise. 'Isn't it better to pray that we understand the Torah, as it is written, "And illuminate our eyes in Your Torah?"'
"Reb Meir Simcha smiled and replied with a parable: 'A mother leaves her child with a babysitter. The child begins to cry and doesn't calm down even when the babysitter offers him a toy or a drink. When his mother returns, she rocks him and then picks him up, and within moments he stops crying.
"'The babysitter also tried to calm him. Why did the mother succeed in soothing him while the babysitter failed? How does the mother know precisely what her infant needs? The answer is simple. Her love for him is so deep that she and her child are like one entity.
"'As a result, she knows what hurts him and what is bothering him. From the nature of his cry, she knows whether he is thirsty, in pain or wet. A baby's cries are clear signals that only a mother can decipher. Her understanding of his needs is an integral part of her makeup.
"'So it is with us. If we truly love the Torah, it will become an integral part of us, and we will be able to decipher its innermost meanings and understand its intentions. That is why we must pray for love of Torah."
Reb Meir Simcha was born in Baltrimantz in 5603. His father, Reb Shimshon Klonimous, was an outstanding talmid chacham who was very wealthy.
Reb Shimon Klonimous was also known for his hospitality, and his home was a meeting place for talmidei chachamim. One of the talmidei chachamim whom he had hosted for a lengthy period was Rav Meir of Tiktin, the Maharam. Out of gratitude for Rav Shimshon's kindness, Rav Meir of Tiktin blessed Rav Shimshon that his wife would give birth to a son who would illuminate the world with his Torah.
Later, they merited a similar blessing, this time from the rav of Baltrimantz. The rav was persecuted by some of the wealthy residents of the town, who even deprived him of his livelihood. When Rav Shimshon Klonimous' wife learned of this, she rallied to the aid of the rav and his family, providing them with all their material needs. As a result, the rav blessed her that she would she would give birth to a son who would gladden his parents.
Within a year, these two blessings were realized when Rav Shimshon Klonimous ' wife gave birth to a boy. They named him Meir Simcha—Meir after Rav Meir of Tiktin, and Simcha in deference to the blessing of the rav of Baltrimantz.
SAVED BY A MIRACLE
Reb Meir Simcha grew up in an era when one of the harshest decrees ever imposed on the Jewish people loomed over Russia—the Cantonist decree. This decree, which was in effect from 5597-5615 (1837-1855), was issued by Czar Nikolai and mandated that the Jewish community hand over a certain quota of children to the Czarist army. The children's military service began when they were 8, and lasted for approximately 25 years. Since the Czar's real intention was to sever these children from their religion and convert them, no Jewish parent would willingly let his child be drafted.
When the special "recruiting" seasons arrived, Jewish parents tried o hide their children, while the Czar sent soldiers to kidnap them. Under the alien and harsh circumstances of the Czarist army, many of the Cantonists, or kidnapped Jewish children, would succumb to their Russian officers' "persuasions" and convert. Others died, while a few adamantly refused to convert, despite the hardships they suffered.
When these unfortunate Cantonists finally returned to their families—a quarter of a century after their abductions—they were totally ignorant of their faith, and very boorish in their behavior. Many, however, did return to a full Jewish life in their final days.
One Erev Shabbos, a knock was heard at the door of the home of Reb Shimshon Klonimous Hakohen, Reb Meir Simcha's father. Reb Meir Simcha's mother opened the door and saw a stranger on the threshold.
"Rebbetzin," the stranger whispered, "keep an eye on your son Meir Simcha. Tonight, the Czar's soldiers will try and kidnap him." Then he disappeared.
When her husband returned from shul, the rebbetzin suggested that they hide Reb Meir Simcha in the large linen trunk in the bedroom. She then emptied the trunk and placed Reb Meir Simcha inside. She prayed he wouldn't be found.
That Friday night as the family was seated around the table, two kidnappers burst inside their home and began to ransack the house. But a miracle occurred, and they skipped over the linen trunk in which Reb Meir Simcha was hidden.
'A SMALL, WHITE-WINGED ANGEL'
The eulogy delivered at Reb Meir Simcha's funeral by Rav Avraham Moshe Vitkin, Rav of Baltrimantz at that time, sheds much light on the exceptional characteristics Reb Meir Simcha displayed as a child.
"He would pore over his studies day and night," said Reb Avraham Moshe, "and like a small, white-winged angel, would cause the beis medrash in which he studied to fill with light, joy and sweetness—the sweetness of Torah, which knew no bounds.
"The elders of our town, who remember him when he was only ten, relate that his voice—the voice of Yaakov—would resound in the beis medrash. As he studied, he would detach himself from his surroundings. People would speak with him, but he didn't hear them. His eyes were open, but he didn't see what was taking place around him. He was so immersed in his Torah thoughts that it was very difficult to converse with him in mundane matters.
"He had only one love—the love of Torah. The Gemara was his father, diligent study, his mother, Torah chiddushim, his brothers."
In 5620 Meir Simcha married Chaya, the daughter of the wealthy Reb Tzvi Paltiel Makovsky of Bialystock, who supported the young couple for a number of years.
In time, Chaya opened a business, enabling her husband to continue his studies undisturbed. She often explained the verse "Kol haben ha'yilod ha'yeora taslichu'hu, vechol habas techayun, "Every male who is born shall be thrown into the river, and every female let live," to mean that the man should cast himself into the sea of Torah, while his wife should sustain him.
THE GEMILAS CHASSADIM BEIS MEDRASH
Bialystock was a thriving city, and most of its many tradesmen were wealthy Jews. This prosperity had a very positive effect on the spiritual fiber of Bialystock, which was graced by 60 batei medrash where Torah learning could be heard the entire day. Illustrious talmidei chachamim presided as Bialystock's rabbanim, leaving deep impressions on its residents. In this city of Torah, Reb Simcha Meir attained great spiritual heights.
Reb Meir Simcha studied in the Gemilas Chassadim Beis Medrash, Bialystock's most prominent Torah center, founded by Rav Moshe Zeev, author of Mora'os Hatsova'os and Agudas Aizov. Reb Meir Simcha's main study partner at that time was his brother-in-law, Rav Shmuel Lipschitz, one of the most eminent talmidei chachamim of Bialystock.
"When Reb Meir Simcha was studying in Bialystock," Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach once related, "a very prominent Torah personality of the city visited the Rav of Brisk. The first question Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik asked the visitor was, 'How is the lamdan of Bialystock?'
"'Bialystock has many lamdanim,' the visitor replied.
"'I mean its greatest lamdan, Reb Meir Simcha,' the Rav of Brisk asserted."
After the petira of Rav Yom Tov Lipa Halperin, the Rav of Bialystock, Reb Meir Simcha was considered the primary candidate for that position. However, certain wealthy members of the community, who thought that his negative attitude toward the Chovevei Tzion movement was "too extreme," thwarted his appointment.
THE TWO LUMINARIES OF DVINSK
Reb Meir Simcha remained in Bialystock for 23 years. During that period, he was offered many prestigious rabbinical positions, but he refused to accept them. When he was 40 he reluctantly accepted the position as rav of the non-Chassidic community in Dvinsk.
Only a year after Rav Meir Simcha's installation as the non-Chassidic Rav of Dvinsk, the city, which had always been home to Torah greats, assumed special distinction because Rav Yosef Rosen, the Gaon of Rogatchov, became rav of its Chassidic community.
Although nearly every Lithuanian city at that time had two communities, a Chassidic one and an Ashkenazic one, in Dvinsk these two communities were like one when it came to their love and reverence for these two gedolei Yisroel. The relationship between these two gedolim was also unique, and each would comment on the other's greatness in Torah.
The Rogatchover would send all who approached him for a blessing to Reb Meir Simcha, saying, "Go to the Kohen." Reb Meir Simcha, in turn, would refer problems involving much research to the Rogatchover, saying, "It will take me all night to examine this question. Ask the Rogatchover. He will answer you on the spot."
Following Reb Meir Simcha's death, the Rogatchover paid him the greatest tribute that can be given to a Torah scholar. Prior to the funeral, the Rogatchover went to Reb Meir Simcha's beis medrash and ordered its trustees to bury Reb Meir Simcha's shtender in the grave alongside him. The practice of burying a shtender in the grave of a talmid chacham is performed only when it is absolutely certain that the shtender can testify in Heaven to its master's total dedication to Torah.
DVINSK'S 10TH MAN
In Dvinsk, Reb Meir Simcha wrote his remarkable Torah chiddushim and devoted himself to leading his flock. He was beloved by all members of Dvinsk's society, and many approached him for advice and brachos. His home was open to everyone, and he was attentive to the needs of all his constituents. Although he was offered rabbinical positions in many prestigious cites such as Kovno, Pinsk and even New York, he refused to leave Dvinsk.
His devotion to his flock reached its height during World War I when Dvinsk, which contained a large fortress, was the target of frequent German bombardments.
At that time, many people asked Reb Meir Simcha if they should leave the city, and he would invariably reply, "Every bullet and bomb has an address. If Heaven hasn't decreed that a person be hit, no harm will befall him."
When the danger increased, most of Dvinsk's residents left the city. Only those who lacked the financial means to escape remained behind, along with Reb Meir Simcha, who refused to abandon them.
When his close followers pleaded with him to leave Dvinsk, he replied, "I won't leave my destitute brothers at such a time. I will suffer with them. As long as there are nine other Jews in the city, I will remain and be its tenth man."
During that period, Rav Meir Simcha did his utmost to ease the suffering of his fellow townspeople, encouraging and inspiring them. He took a particular interest in the lot of local women whose husbands were on the battlefront, and would personally help them compose letters to their husbands. He and his wife also addressed their material needs, preparing firewood for them and providing them with money.
Reb Meir Simcha's conduct during that period became a guideline for posterity. In one of his letters, Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kaneivsky discusses the futile attempts of people to elude their destinies and to flee to more "secure" places, where they imagine that their chances of being saved are greater. He writes, "It is known that during the war, the gaon Rav Meir Simcha would advise people not to leave [Dvinsk], saying that every bullet has an address."
One time, when Reb Meir Simcha was in Vienna, he met Dvinsk's mayor who offered to take him home in his rented vehicle. Reb Meir Simcha turned down the offer, saying that he preferred to return in the company of Jews. The mayor returned home alone, and Reb Meir Simcha crowded into a wagon with many Jews. On the way back to Dvinsk, the mayor's car was hit by enemy fire, and all of the passengers were killed.
On another occasion, a bomb actually fell on Reb Meir Simcha's home, lodging itself in the wall of the room in which he was studying. The bomb didn't explode, and the frightened neighbors called the police to remove it. Reb Meir Simcha refused to allow the police to touch the wall, saying, "If Hashem wills it, the bomb won't explode and nothing will happen to me." His followers were stunned by his position and feared for his life, but he remained firm in his trust in Hashem.
The members of his community firmly believed that Reb Meir Simcha was the bastion of the city, and that in his merit it would not be destroyed. And so it was. Dvinsk was bombarded time and again by the Germans, but wasn't destroyed.
In addition, a Jewish committee was founded at that time for the benefit of the refugees who had fled Poland's war zones and escaped to Russia. Among other things, the committee decided to save the many Torah scrolls located in the synagogues in outlying areas and bring them to Petersburg, which was considered the safest place.
Knowing that the leaders of the various kehillos would not hand over their Torah scrolls without Reb Meir Simcha's approval, they asked him to endorse their plan. But Reb Meir Simcha refused to approve it. The members of the committee were shocked. "What is wrong with our plan? All we want to do is to save the Torah scrolls from the Germans?" they asked in dismay.
"Jews know from experience that they shouldn't concentrate themselves in one place. Hashem was kind to the Jewish people and scattered them among the nations, so that if one community is harmed, Jews will still remain in other communities."
The members of the committee were astounded by his wisdom and abandoned their plan. In the end, Petersburg fell into the hands of the Communists, who closed all of its synagogues and seized all of its Torah scrolls. All of the other cities, whose Torah scrolls the committee had sought to collect, remained under Polish rule, and their vibrant Jewish communities lived on.
The period in which Reb Meir Simcha lived was one of many changes and upheavals in both the world at large, and for the Jewish nation in particular. Ideas that were not consistent with Torah Judaism had surface 200 hundred years earlier, and now they began to gain momentum, manifesting themselves in movements such as Chovevei Tziyon, the Bund, and the Alliance (Kol Yisrael Chaveirim), all of which posed genuine threats to traditional Judaism.
To counteract these Zionist and Haskala movements, the gedolei Yisroel founded chareidi organizations such as the Irgun Hakehillos Hachareidios in Hungary, the Kahal Machazikei Hadas in Galicia, the Hisachdus Hachareidim in Germany, Knesses Yisroel in Poland and the Histadrut Hachareidim in Russia.
These organizations, whose activities were limited by the authorities, especially during the time of the Czarist regime, would hold secret meetings in Vilna, Kovno and Petersburg, which resulted in many initiatives to protect Torah-true Judaism. Reb Meir Simcha was very involved in these efforts, and along with other gedolei Yisroel, played an active role in these organizations.
In 5653, he attended a meeting of rabbonim convened by Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector in Kovno. This meeting was called as a result of rumors that the Russians were about to pass a law forbidding shechita. Reb Meir Simcha, who was one of the chief spokesmen at the meeting, called on his colleagues to make an all-out effort to cancel that decree.
Three years earlier, in 5650, Rav Eliyahu Meizel had tried to unite all of the chareidi organizations and form one central organization. However, secular elements thwarted these plans. Later on, in light of the growth of the various Zionist movements, these efforts were renewed and, at a meeting held in the town of Bad-Hamburg, near Frankfurt, the idea to establish a Worldwide Agudas Yisroel were finalized.
At this meeting, which lasted for three weeks, the gedolei Yisroel devised ways to unite and counteract the Zionist influence. Reb Meir Simcha was one of the gedolei Yisroel who participated in this convention. Three years later, in Sivan 5672, the founding convention of Agudas Yisroel was held in Katowitz. Among the gedolim who attended were Rav Chaim Halevi Soloveitchik and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski.
Reb Meir Simcha was also invited, but due to his poor health could not attend. However, he dispatched a letter of blessing to the convention. At the convention, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah was formed. Reb Meir Simcha was among the 12 gedolim chosen to serve on the Moetzes, even though he was absent from the convention.
ESTEEMED BY ALL
It is related that when the Chofetz Chaim learned of the petira of Rav Naftoli Trop, the Granat, on motzaei Rosh Hashanah 5689, tears fell from his eyes. After reciting the Boruch Dayan Ha'Emes blessing, he said to Rav Elchonon Wasserman, who was present in the room, "Who will protect the generation now that Rav Naftoli has passed away?"
Then, after a few moments of silence, he mentioned the names of some other gedolim who had protected the generation, such as "Hakohen." According to Rav Elchonon, the Chofetz Chaim was referring to Reb Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk, who had passed away three years earlier.
Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach once related, in the name of Rav Yitzchak Zeev Soloveitchik, that although Reb Meir Simcha and the Rav of Brisk disagreed on a crucial point at the meeting of gedolim in Vitebsk, at the end of the meeting, the Rav of Brisk visited him.
"How is it possible to visit him when the two of you disagreed so adamantly?" the Rav of Brisk's gabbai asked him.
"True we disagreed," replied the Rav of Brisk, "but does that mean that I should ignore the fact that Reb Meir Simcha is the gadol hador?"
Reb Meir Simcha, who worked tirelessly to protect his fellow Jews from the influences of the Maskilim and the Zionists, and guided them during some of world Jewry's most difficult times, is widely acclaimed for his two monumental works, the four-volume Or Same'ach, and Meshech Chochma.
The first volume of Or Same'ach, a collection of Reb Meir Simcha's Talmudic chiddushim, was published in Warsaw in 5664. Later on, two more volumes appeared. The fourth volume was published after Reb Meir Simcha's petira by Rav Menachem Mendel Zak, the rav of Riga. Or Same'ach, which is studied by Torah scholars all over the world, serves as a fundamental work that, in its brilliance, penetrates the inner cores of the various sugyos of the Talmud. It is widely acclaimed for its straightforward, in-depth approach.
Although Reb Meir Simcha had written the Meshech Chochma on the Torah during his youth, it was published posthumously. In this work, his vast knowledge, wisdom, piety and purity come to the fore. It, too, is a basic work that constantly guides Torah scholars.
One of the most famous and oft-quoted pieces of Meshech Chochma is in Parshas B'Chukosai, where Reb Meir Simcha elaborates on the Galus cycle. He literally predicted that "when people will think that Berlin is Yerushalayim—then a storm will come and uproot the Jewish people and transplant them to a different country."
A PERPETUAL FLAME
On the fourth of Elul (parshas Shoftim) 5686, Reb Meir Simcha passed away. Since he was niftar at the Metropol Hotel in Riga, the Jews of Riga demanded that he be buried in their city, while the Jews of Dvinsk insisted that he be buried in the city where he had served as rav for so many years. The question was brought to the rav of Riga, Rav Menachem Mendel Zak, who ruled in favor of Dvinsk.
In Riga, eulogies were delivered by Rav Zack as well as several other rabbonim. From there, the funeral set out by train to Dvinsk. At every station on the way, hundreds of Jews, among them rabbonim and community heads, awaited the train so that they could join the funeral entourage.
Dvinsk itself was in a state of deep mourning, and all of the Jews of the city came to accompany Rav Meir Simcha on his final earthly journey.
As related by Rav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel, the Rogatchover said at the levaya, "When a fire breaks out, and a man's possessions or family are in danger, he reveals remarkable and even super-natural strength in his efforts to save them. This strength is not newly acquired, but latent.
"[But] the fire that burned in the Or Same'ach was perpetual, and didn't have to be activated by unusual circumstances. Love of Torah without limits burned in him. Every day, he discovered new powers within himself and continued to grow in Torah. Empowered by the fires of Torah, which burned in him, he made remarkable chiddushim."
May the fire kindled by the Or Same'ach continue to glow forever. And may it inspire lomdei Torah all over the world to upgrade their diligent Torah study this Elul.
זכות הצדיקים יעזור ויגן ויושיע!!
(The author is grateful to Rav Asher Bergman, author of "Ha'Or Someach," for his help in preparing this article.)
(The author is grateful to Rav Asher Bergman, author of "Ha'Or Someach," for his help in preparing this article.)