As these great remnants die out, we are left to face an unclear and clouded future. They carry with them to their eternal rest the security and the faith that seems lost to the young generation, a generation scattered on uncharted paths.
From among the few there towered a Jew of physically modest stature – weak, thin, adorned in worn clothing, with a crushed hat upon his head – the rabbi of Baku, z”l, bearer of the totality of the beautiful rabbinic ideology of the old generation, devout in his beliefs, guileless in his character, guardian of ancient traditions, and brother to everyone whose path he crossed.
He walked among us as a brother, seemingly of our generation. But when he spoke, it was immediately apparent that he was a Talmudic giant, a master of the complete Torah, with its immense literature and infinite ramifications.
Romanian Jewry suffered a grievous loss when he died. He was a gaon of the first degree; a man whose genius crowned the country with glory and splendor, binding to itself the hearts of the entire Talmudic world with strings of love and honor.
His loss transcended Romanian Jewry. His passing was a loss to world Jewry because the deceased was a rabbinical leader not only to his congregation and country, but also to the entire Jewish Diaspora. He was one of the select few gaonim of the generation, spared by God as a remnant of former generations, when the beis medrash stood at the center of Jewish life and the nation invested its prime creative energy and talent in the study of the Torah.
* * *
And I, claiming no deserving, merited to see him.
I was in Carlsbad, two years ago, when one of my friends approached and asked, “Would you like to meet a truly great rabbi?”
“Sitting on a great chair?” I inquired. “A great speaker or a great statesman?”
My friend shook his head. “A gaon,” he said, his voice reflecting a sense of awe and wonderment I’d never heard. “The rabbi from Baku!”
Rabbi Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran, the gaon of Baku
How could I have refused such an invitation? When I went to greet him, he was preparing to return to his home. He greeted me as if I were an old friend although he had never before met me. I looked at his face and I felt joy. His pure soul shone clearly in his countenance.
I attempted to converse with him in Torah, but no sooner had our conversation begun than I was overwhelmed with his knowledge, and quite nearly swept away with his erudition.
Truly, I felt as if I were in the presence of one of the rabbis of old, reincarnated in our generation.
It was astonishment. To hear him! To see him! To witness how he retained this repository in his mind even as he swam in the giant Sea of Torah, using his erudition as a working tool, a fountainhead of unceasing Torah creativity.
Even as I was awed by his heroic scholarship and spirituality, I was no less impressed by his personality. Such humility, such ingenuousness, such unaffectedness, such love for any man, and especially for one who debates him in Torah!
When I offered a counter to his logic, he didn’t become angered or indignant. Rather his face lighted up with a pleasant smile and, with a gentle voice, he said, “Of course you are correct in your argument, but how would we then explain an explicit saying in a Yerushalmi Tractate, or an explanation given by one of the Rishonim in such and such a book?”
His counter-argument bore no animus. Rather, it carried the joy of a loving father toward his precocious child.
Truly, in the Romanian gaon we saw the wondrous blending of a prodigious mind and a gentle heart. Every word of his wisdom resonated with his noble moral essence. Every motion of his body bespoke his genius.
When I accompanied him through the marketplace on his way to the train station, I saw how he carried himself with profound modesty so that he might avoid drawing attention to himself, lest someone recognize him.
His humility was so simple, so natural, so befitting a gaon. When I offered my farewell I did not feel that our first meeting would be our last. Indeed, I hoped to merit another meeting so that I might once again enjoy the abundance of his wisdom and the warmth of his kindness.
About the Author: Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966) was a noted European posek and rosh yeshiva. He is best known as author of the work of responsa Seridei Eish.
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