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Sunday, August 27, 2006


Reb Shraga Feivel – A Seething Musical Spirit

Today is the 58th yahrzeit of the great Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, pictured above.

R. Shraga Feivel (1886-7 September 1948) was an early leader of American Orthodoxy and founder of key institutions such as Torah Vodaath, a Yeshiva in Brooklyn, and Torah U'Mesorah, an outreach and educational organization. He is credited by many to have pioneered authentic Jewish education in the United States. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein: "Were it not for him, there would be no Torah study and no Fear of Heaven at all in America."

from Jewish Action

Reb Shraga Feivel was an eclectic, in the best sense of the word, and sought to combine serious learning with the spirit of Chassidus. Though of Hungarian extraction, he hired Roshei Yeshiva who espoused the Volozhin/Brisk method of learning; at the same time he sought to fuse the learning with the warmth and fire of Chassidus. He maintained that the Jew of the future needed to combine, in addition to the above, Reb Yisrael Salanter’s musar, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah im Derech Eretz philosophy and the Chasam Sofer’s meticulousness in observing mitzvos. He even urged some of his students to learn German in order to be able to study Rav Hirsch in the original.

Today, it is not uncommon to find Roshei Yeshiva taking on the role of Rebbe and advisor and Chassidic Rebbeim establishing serious yeshivos that employ first-rate Talmudic scholars; this is due, in all likelihood, to the influence of Reb Shraga Feivel.

from an essay about Rav Nachman Bulman, by a close friend:

“More then two decades ago Rav Rifkin Shlita told me that Rav Bulman z”l is unique in this world. He likened the Rav to Rav S.F. Mendlowitz z”l of Torah Voda’ath in that both carried within themselves the demands and avoda of Chassidus and Mussar. Chassidus, as Rav Rifkin explained to me, requires the individual to go out of “himself” and meet the Ribono Shel Olam [G-d] in a cosmic metaphysical experience, while mussar demands that the person moves into himself and through refining his middos encounter his Creator. Most people can not sustain the dual demands of Yiras Hashem and Ahavas Hashem. Either one recoils in fear, or one runs to embrace b’ahava. But both to embrace with love and withdraw simultaneously out of fear into oneself, is seemingly a contradiction. Rav Bulman z”l [and Rav Shraga Feivel - yitz] lived with the tension of this experience having the emotional and intellectual energy and courage for this mighty spiritual voyage.”

In light of this, R. Shraga Feivel had a tremendous appreciation for Negina, which we’ll describe here.

The following is excerpted from an essay by Yosef ben Shlomo HaKohen, titled “Enlightenment Through Music”. Yosef has a wonderful website, Hazon – Renewing Our Universal Vision.

He taught his students to appreciate the beauty in the Divine creation, yet no beauty so stirred his soul as that of music. He would quote the Baal HaTanya, a noted Chassidic sage, that "anyone who lacks appreciation of music also lacks an understanding of Chassidus."

One of Reb Shraga Feivel's disciples was Yiddel Turner, a gifted musician who played the violin. Reb Shraga Feivel would listen to Yiddel Turner's soulful music with great concentration. And when he was in excruciating pain due to his ulcers, it was often the sweet sounds of Yiddel's violin that provided him with his only relief. At those moments, he would say, "Yiddel, please make sure to be there as well at the moment when my soul leaves the world." And he added, "In those few moments of your playing, I was able to think as deeply as I normally can in six hours."

The highlight of the week for the students in the yeshiva was "Shalosh Seudos" - the traditional third Shabbos meal. There is a custom to begin this meal late Shabbos afternoon, before sunset. When Reb Shraga Feivel was present at the Shalosh Seudos, no talks were given. Instead, beautiful, haunting melodies, both with and without words, were sung. At the head of the table sat Reb Shraga Feivel enveloped in thought, his eyes closed, the students seated around long tables, barely able to see him in the waning light. Never was his influence greater than in those last moments of Shabbos: "We felt as if we were in the Garden of Eden," remembers Rabbi Hershel Mashinsky.

Reb Shraga Feivel was once asked why he did not speak words of "mussar" - ethical and spiritual enlightenment - at Shalosh Seudos. He responded that the songs themselves were the most powerful words of mussar and would have the most lasting impact. His disciples agreed. For example, Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, a disciple of Reb Shraga Feivel, and the current Mashgiach - spiritual guide - of the yeshiva, described the experience of being with his teacher at the closing Shabbos meal: "His Shalosh Seudos was like a "mikveh" - a pool of purifying waters - in which one immersed his entire soul."

One Rosh Hashana, after the afternoon service, Reb Shraga Feivel gathered the students together for an hour of slow singing and restrained dancing to the words of the following prayer: "Therefore we put our hope in You, O Compassionate One, our G-d, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor, to remove detestable idolatry from the earth so that the false gods will vanish entirely, and the world will be perfected through the Almighty's sovereignty. Then all humanity will call upon Your Name, to turn all the earth's wicked towards You."

At the end of the singing and dancing, he said to his students: "You saved my Rosh Hashana for me."

On Rosh Hashana, we yearn for the day when a corrupt and oppressive world will seek spiritual enlightenment through sacred music and song. This yearning is expressed in the words of Psalm 47, which many communities chant before the blowing of the shofar. The psalm opens with the following universal call: "Join hands, all you peoples - shout to the Just One with the voice of joyous song." In the middle of the psalm, the author calls out again to the peoples and proclaims: "Make music for the Just One, make music; make music for our Sovereign, make music. For the Just One is Sovereign over all the earth; make music, O enlightened one!" (Psalm 47:7,8)

Who is the "enlightened one" that is specifically being addressed at the conclusion of the above verse? The classical biblical commentator, known as "the Radak," answers: "Every enlightened person, whether among the People of Israel or among the nations of the world should make music for the Blessed G-d." And he adds: "For the ability to compose songs and melodies is found only among the enlightened ones." The Radak is revealing to us the following insight: Although music has the power to increase enlightenment, the ability to compose music is given to those who are in a certain way already "enlightened." They have a special Divine understanding in their souls which enables them to compose music which will increase and deepen the Divine understanding in the souls of all human beings.


Finally, R. Yonasan [Jonathan] Rosenblum has authored a wonderful book titled simply, “Reb Shraga Feivel,” from which the following excerpts were taken:

He [RSF] was once walking with a group of talmidim when one of them absentmindedly picked a leaf off a tree. Reb Shraga Feivel stopped in mid-sentence. “Don’t you know,” he asked the hapless offender, “that the whole creation sings a song to the Creator -- every plant, every blade of grass? When you pulled that leaf off the tree, you cut off its song in the middle.” One still day, he pointed out the window to a tree on which a single leaf on the very top was rustling in the wind. “That leaf is the chazzan,” he said, “and all the other leaves are listening to his prayerful song.” That is how he viewed nature -- as an ongoing song of praise.


No beauty so stirred Reb Shraga Feivel as that of music. He liked to quote the Baal HaTanya to the effect that “anyone who lacks an appreciation of music also lacks an understanding of Chassidus.” And he regularly demonstrated a deep understanding of music. One Seder night, a group of talmidim came to his home after midnight, as was their custom. They found Reb Shraga Feivel in a state of high exaltation. He asked Yitzchak Rosengarten, one of the boys in the Mesivta who was particularly musical, to sing a famous Chabad niggun. Rosengarten complied with the request, but for some reason left out the concluding stanza. As he was singing, Reb Shraga Feivel sat quietly, with his eyes closed in intense concentration, but as soon as he finished, Reb Shraga Feivel instantly snapped to attention and called out, “You must have left something out. This niggun is arranged in ascending order of worlds from the lower to the upper, and I still do not feel that we have reached the world of Atzilus.”

He used to explain that each of the instruments mentioned in the final psalm -- shofar, psalter, harp, timbrel, stringed instruments, flute, loud-sounding cymbals, and stirring cymbals -- arouses a different emotional response: This one arouses tears, another happiness, and yet another encourages deep reflection. Taken as a whole, the message is that one must serve Hashem with every emotion.

Reb Shraga Feivel was extraordinarily responsive to music. Someone once shared with him one Rebbe’s explanation of the Yiddish expression: “A chazzan iz a nar -- A chazzan is a fool.” The Rebbe had explained that in the upper worlds the courtyard of melody and that of teshuva are located close to one another, and thus the chazzan was a fool for not having jumped from one to the other. Reb Shraga Feivel’s dry comment on this vort: “Whoever said that has no appreciation of music; otherwise he would have realized that anyone who is privileged to enter into the courtyard of melody has no desire ever to leave it.”

When Yiddel Turner played the heartrending “Keili, Keili, lama azavtani, My G-d, My G-d, why have You abandoned me?” on his violin, Reb Shraga Feivel would sit there, his eyes tightly shut and a look of intense concentration on his face. So emotionally wrenching was Turner’s playing for him that it not infrequently provoked one of his ulcer attacks. Yet when he was in excruciating pain, it was often the sweet sounds of Turner’s violin that provided him with his only relief. At those moments, he would say, “Yiddel, please make sure to be there as well at the moment when my soul leaves this world . . . In those few moments of your playing, I was able to think as deeply as I normally can in six hours.” (11) Motzaei Shabbos he often asked Turner to play the Modzitzer Rebbe’s niggun to “Mimkomcha Malkeinu Sofi’a -- From Your dwelling place, our King, appear.” He once told Turner, “Yiddel, I marvel at your playing, but even more do I marvel at the violin itself. How can strings of catgut speak so deeply to the soul?” (12)


On the last Simchas Torah of his life, Reb Shraga Feivel sat in the waning light with his talmidim in Beis Medrash Elyon singing the haunting melody of Rebbe Isaac of Kahliv, “Galus, galus, vie lang bist du, Shechina, Shechina, vie veit bist du -- Exile, exile, how long you are; Shechina, Shechina, how distant You are.” He told his students how the Divrei Chaim used to send his Chassidim to R. Isaac, as the Divrei Chaim put it, “to study in the yeshiva of galus HaShechina.” For his students Reb Shraga Feivel was a Rosh Yeshiva in the same yeshiva.

Wonderful post. Great way to start the week!
I have reposted portions of this to http://hearingshofar.blogspot.com/2010/02/r-shraga-feivel-on-shofar.html. I trust that is acceptable to you.

You may be interested in my book, Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram's Horn, posted at www.HearingShofar.com.
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