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Sunday, August 27, 2006



Today is the 3rd of Elul and the 71st yahrzeit of HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. I blogged about him last year, Mizmor Shir L’Rav Kook, and more recently, about Fighting the Bombs with Prayer and Song.

I recently spotted a recording of niggunim set to parts of Rav Kook’s “Orot HaTeshuva”. I haven’t been able to find this on the Web, but if anyone does, please notify us in the comments or by e-mail.

I just found a beautiful musical inspiration from Rav Kook, from his commentary on Tehillim [Psalm] 49:

"I will open my riddle to the accompaniment of a harp." [Ps. 49:5]

The chida (riddle) works in a different fashion. The listener must work out the riddle for himself. The intellectual challenge stimulates the mind, enabling it to perceive deeper aspects of the idea to be grasped. Simply 'inclining an ear' is not enough to decipher the riddle. The listener needs a special inspiration — and that is the role of the harp. We find that the prophets utilized music in order to clear their minds and attain a prophetic state (see I Kings 3:15; I Samuel 10:5; I Chronicles 25:1). Music has the ability to stimulate and inspire. It assists us in solving the riddle, and we are granted a more profound insight into the original matter.

[adapted from Shivchei HaRe'iyah pp. 285-286]


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.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


The Skulener Rebbe: Enduring Decrees with Love and Song

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Tonight and tomorrow, the 29th of Menachem Av, is the 24th yahrzeit of the holy Skulener Rebbe, Rebbe Eliezer Zusia Portugal, ZTUK”L. Although he did not have a large following of Chassidim, he left a strong impression upon all of those who came in contact with him, by virtue of both his deeds and his heart-felt niggunim. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I had the merit of meeting the Rebbe personally, attending his Tish and hearing his Torah and niggunim [more on this below].


The following, from HaMaayan, will be interspersed with other info culled from around the Internet [sources listed below].

Rebbe Eliezer Zusia, the "Skulener Rebbe," was not a Chassidic Rebbe at all until well into his sixties. His first "career" was as Rabbi of the town of Skulyany (Skulen), in Bessarabia. His focus there was on increasing the spiritual level of his town-folk, including writing booklets in Yiddish specifically tailored to the spiritual needs of his neighbors. When the Sadigorer Rebbe visited Skulen and saw Rebbe Eliezer Zusia's accomplishments, he urged him to move to Chernowitz, where he could serve a larger community. Rebbe Eliezer Zusia complied, and before long was chosen as chief rabbi of that city. (The wisdom of the Sadigorer Rebbe was demonstrated soon after, when Bessarabia was invaded by the Russian Communists, under whom the Jews suffered terribly.)

Chernowitz, too, changed hands several times during World War II, eventually ending up in the Soviet Union. A new chapter in Rebbe Eliezer Zusia's life opened after the war, when he became the father of hundreds of war orphans, even formally adopting scores of them. (Rebbe Eliezer Zusia had one natural son--today, the Skulener Rebbe in Brooklyn.) Later Rebbe Eliezer Zusia smuggled his "family" into Rumania and settled in Bucharest where he adopted even more children. In his will, Rebbe Eliezer Zusia would ask that his "children" show their appreciation by remaining loyal to Judaism and studying Torah at every possible moment.

At the end of the World War II, he immediately founded institutions for the orphans of the Holocaust. He saved thousands of orphans. He personally made cared for some three hundred of them, all of whom called him “Abba”. Almost all of them settled in Eretz Israel and remained observant Jews.

He often had the occasion to meet people who always reminded to him that they were sons-in-law of the Rebbe, and called him their father-in-law. Later it was learned that he did not have girls of his own at all. Then the secret was understood: they were the orphaned ones who were regarded as his daughters, and that the Rebbe had married off to men who were regarded as his sons-in-law.

Because of these activities, the Rebbe was persecuted, by both the Germans and Russians. More than once his life was in danger. One day he was even taken out to be executed, but he was saved from the Germans by a miracle. The Russians also imprisoned him several times. But despite everything, he never stopped his appointed task.

The governmental authorities viewed his spiritual work as a challenge to Communism and accused him of trying to supplant the state as the orphans' guardian in order to send them to Eretz Yisrael. On Rosh Chodesh Nisan 5719 (1959) the Rebbe, zt"l was imprisoned with his son, the Rebbe Shlita. They were put in a notorious prison together with dangerous criminals, isolated from one another, so that they would not conspire together. The charges: smuggling children to Eretz Yisrael and spying for the US and Israel. They were jailed for five months. However, through chasdei Hashem [Divine mercy] the authorities were forced to release him.

Despite the danger, the Rebbe remained in Romania until 5720 (1960). He was loathe to leave the country until the last of his "children" had reached safety. During this period the well-being of all of Romanian Jewry was hanging by a thread. The Rebbe's home was the only address for all matters of holiness and Jews would come calling day and night.

It should be noted that the Rebbe underwent tremendous periods of being tortured when he was in jail, by the Germans, Russians and Rumanians. Despite this, he was inspired to compose some of the loftiest niggunim in the midst of this terrible travail. Some examples of his dedication to the orphans, even at risk to himself follow.

From the Shema Yisrael website:
Mesiras nefesh, means dedication to the point of self-sacrifice… One endeavors whatever he can on behalf of his people who are incarcerated. The Skulener Rebbe, HaRav Eliezer Zusia Portugal z"l, was like that. Nothing stood in his way in his mission to rescue Jews who were in need. He was in Chernowitz, which was under Soviet dominion, in order to assist Soviet Jews who had smuggled themselves across the border in to Romania. Furthermore, it was much easier to get papers to enable them to go to America or Israel. The Jews were caught and immediately found guilty. The punishment was imprisonment in Siberia or a quick bullet to the head. The Rebbe was indefatigable; nothing stood in his way. "I will get them out - regardless!" he exclaimed.

The colonel who was in charge of the border guards lived in Chernowitz and knew the Rebbe well. The Rebbe had won him over many a time with heartrending entreaties on behalf of his brethren. The last time he was there the colonel had told him, "This is the very last time you will bother me. If you come again on behalf of your Jews - I will kill you!"

Nonetheless, when the Rebbe was notified about a family of nine people that had been captured, he immediately undertook the daunting and dangerous task of rescuing them. Nothing worked, not even a hefty bribe. They were adamant; these people were to serve as an example for others. There was still one avenue to be employed: the Rebbe would go to the colonel and beg, regardless of the imminent personal danger involved. Jewish lives were in danger and that was more important than his life. His family begged him not to go. "How can you risk your life like this?" they asked. He responded, "It is not clear that he will take out his wrath against me, but one thing is for sure, their lot is sealed unless I am able to do something in their behalf."

The Rebbe approached the colonel's house with trepidation, climbed up the steps and knocked on the door. When the colonel saw who stood at his doorstep, he was overcome with anger. He grabbed the Rebbe and threw him down the stairs. The Rebbe was hurt badly, yet, with extreme difficulty, he was able to get up. With the little strength he had left, he once again climbed the stairs and knocked on the colonel's door.

The colonel opened the door and could not believe his eyes. There stood the Skulener Rebbe, dirty, bloodied, clothes torn - but with defiance in his eyes. "I must speak to you, colonel!" the Rebbe said, with tears streaming down his face. The colonel listened: the Rebbe begged, he cried, as he depicted the bitter plight of this hapless family. The colonel's hardened heart could not ignore the selfless pleas, the heartfelt emotion of the Rebbe. His devotion to others at the expense of his own health impressed the colonel. The family was freed. Mesiras nefesh triumphed.


How can one explain such dedication? From where did he draw the Emuna, the faith? Perhaps from learning like this:

from Chumi Friedman's Eishes Chayil website:

The Skulener Rebbe was imprisoned in Rumania. In order to use his time wisely, he began to review all the Tefillos, assuring himself that when he would pray he would do so knowing the full meaning and intent of every verse, every word. When he reached a certain phrase –"Baruch gozer u'mekayem – within the Baruch She'amar, he was a bit puzzled. Generally, when we talk about a gezeira, or decree, we are referring to what we perceive of as a negative phenomenon, a seemingly evil decree. Why then are we thanking Hashem for carrying out this evil decree? The Rebbe pondered this phrase for days and days, attempting to ascertain exactly what this prayer was referring to. The Rebbe announced, "I will not leave this prison cell, even if I am freed, until I uncover the meaning behind this phrase." Finally, the insight came, the revelation dawned on him. The word 'u'mekayem' is generally misunderstood. It does not refer to the Ribono Shel Olam who carries out the decrees - the subject of the verse. But it refers to mankind, the object. Hashem enacts the decree and then, u'mekayem, Hashem gives us the strength to endure the decree, to withstand the trial. In understanding this verse, we must read it, "Blessed is He who decrees and gives the wherewithal to emerge victorious, to endure the decrees.


After months of tremendous international efforts, including the intervention of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, he was freed and emigrated immediately to America in 1960. Finally, in the spring of 1960, he was able to settle in the United States. He chose the U.S. over Israel so he could better help those who remained in Rumania. He was encouraged to open a yeshiva, but he said, "What would my yeshiva add to all the others? A person who wants to do a mitzva must ask how he can give the most 'pleasure' to G-d." Instead, he founded the "Chessed L'Avraham" network of schools to compete with leftist schools in Israel for the children of immigrants to that country.

In 1961, Rebbe Eliezer Zusia visited Israel for the first time. One of his side-trips was to a leftist kibbutz to forgive a Rumanian socialist who had been one of his fiercest opponents years before. (That man's descendants later became observant.) A woman told the following about the devotion of Rebbe: In Romania, her husband was a leftist in his political opinions, and a member of HaShomer HaTzair. He was imprisoned him under the charge of espionage. It is impossible to describe the assistance and the support which the Rebbe granted to this woman. Not only that, but he also succeeded in releasing the husband from prison and helping him to immigrate to Eretz Israel. The kindness of the Rebbe was instrumental in the man’s return to G-d, and today he is a Jew who observes Torah and mitzvot. From time to time they came to return and visit the Rebbe, to ask him for his blessing and to thank him for his kindness.

From Yehudis Samet's "Other Side of the Story":

An aide of the Skulener Rebbe, Rebbe Eliezer Zusia Portugal, once related: Among the many people whom the Rebbe had rescued from Europe was a woman who had informed the Rumanian government of his religious activities, which led to his arrest and imprisonment. Why go to such effort and expense to save a person of her ilk?

“You have no idea how much she suffered beforehand, and how tempting the authorities make it to inform,” the Rebbe said with tears in his eyes.

Jonathan Rosenblum added:

Few of us will reach the level of the Skulener rebbe, but each of us can go a long way to bringing peace among ourselves by learning to turn a favorable eye on our fellow Jews.


The Rebbe continued his rescue and outreach efforts after arriving in America, visiting Israel eight times and establishing the Chessed L'Avraham organizations. Authoring Noam Eliezer and Kedushas Eliezer, he was musically inclined and composed many of today's popular Chassidishe melodies. Throughout his lifetime, he was a paragon of pidyon shvuyim, never resting until he helped the Jew in unfortunate circumstances. He was laid to rest in Monsey. His son, the present Skulener Rebbe, continues his father's holy work in America as well as in Israel.

Sources, in order:

Hevrat Pinto, a French website

Dei'ah V'Dibbur

The Jewish Press

The Rebbe’s Avodas Hashem and Niggunim:

The Skulener Rebbe was endowed with many fine characteristics which he applied to his Divine service, in particular his intense feel for music. As a “sweet singer of Israel”, he composed many melodies which are sung with enthusiasm until today, thus attracting the hearts of hundreds of young people, who, owing to him, remained just and fearing of G-d.

He prayed with an extraordinary enthusiasm, and very lengthily. One said: “Whoever did not see the prayers of the Skulener Rebbe never saw a real davening.” Those who did not hear at the melody which emanated and went up with deep concentration in his prayer, never witnessed how a heart can cling to the love of his Creator.

“One of the inyanim to singing is that it the niggunim can help one to appreciate the meaning and beauty of the words. I have found this to be true, such as at the Skulener Tish, most recently. It's not just while you are singing and hearing them as well, the niggunim continue to play in my mind as do the memories of seeing the Rebbe.”

My personal experience with the Rebbe ZT”L bears this out. I found him to be an incredible oved Hashem, who served his Creator with all his being. As mentioned, he davened very lengthily. It was not unusual for those with him to open a Gemara, Chumash, or other sefer to learn, while waiting for the Rebbe to finish Kriyas Shema or Shmoneh Esre. Nevertheless, no one became bored or wanted to leave, for they knew they were davening with someone really special.

His niggunim are very soulful, yet full of emotion and enthusiasm. He could sing “Kol Mekadesh” to a standard Chassidic Tish niggun, then intersperse it with his own niggunim such as “B’yom HaShabbos Sisu v’Simchu”, and get up and dance with everyone present. I also witnessed him interrupt the singing to give a Torah explanation to the words of part of a niggun [and then continue the melody]. Similarly, at Havdala, he would recite it normally, then when he came to “LaYehudim Haysa Orah,” he would sing his own niggun and start everyone off dancing. It was an incredible experience!

Besides the above-mentioned niggunim, the famous “Yamim al Ymei Melech” tune was composed by Rebbe Eliezer Zusia of Skulen. There are some seven recordings of his niggunim, and it appears that four of them are out of circulation [I couldn’t find them on the Web].

Skulener Niggunim, David Werdyger, Vol. I [1969]

Skulener Niggunim, David Werdyger, Vol. II [1977]

Shiru LaShem Shir Chadash [1982]

Baruch Hashem Asher Nasan Menucha [1983]

Padah B’Shalom Nafshi [1989]

Oy Oy Shabbos [1991]

Hoshiva Li [2000]

Zechuso Yagein Aleinu v’al Kol Yisrael – May the Rebbe’s merits protect us all!

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