The 2nd of Sivan is the yahrzeit of Rav Ephraim Fishel Hershkowitz (1922-2017). Born in Munkacs on Yom Kippur to a family of Spinka Chassidim, his father, Reb Shlomo, had a factory that produced beautiful tzitzis and talleisim. Reb Shlomo would go around with some compatriots in the evenings to provide entertainment and funding for poor families that were marrying off children. Rav Shlomo’s father had been a close student of the Bnei Yissaschar.
Rav Ephraim Fishel shared that when he was a child in cheder the melamed would promise them that if they would behave, he would reward them by teaching them a piece from the Shaagas Aryeh. He said that that was their favorite reward, and they would always pay more attention to their studies when it was offered to them. As a child he enjoyed reading books of responsa, but when he realized that they were all based on the Gemara he decided he should first focus on understanding Gemara with Rashi and Tosefos.
As a teenager he frequently studied with his uncle, Rav Dovid Schlussel, who was the Munkacser Dayan. As he grew older, Rav Ephraim Fishel desired a stronger connection to chassidus and he began to visit the Spinka Rebbe, the Chakal Yitzchok. He remained firmly connected to Spink-Ziditchov chassidus his entire life. During WWII he was sent to Auschwitz and assigned to hard labor. Although he was weak his sisters, who had been assigned to the kitchen, were able to smuggle food to him daily. He made every effort to keep halacha while in the concentration camp. Once during a shiur he was teaching a mishna which said that one can immerse himself in snow and it is considered like a mikvah. He mentioned that he dipped his hands in snow in Auschwitz when he had no water for netilas yadayim.
Fellow inmates said that when they were woken in the morning they were completely exhausted and could barely move. Rav Ephraim Fishel would get up and say Birkas HaTorah loudly and with great feeling and then begin to review mishnayos by heart. After the war he was concerned that he had forgotten his learning. He managed to obtain a Gemara Bava Kamma and had someone ask him every question of Tosefos in the entire mesechta to see if he remembered the answers. He remembered every one.
He married shortly thereafter and spent some time moving from place to place until he came to Hallein, Austria where he found a community of refugees who were awaiting visas to emigrate to the United States. He was officially named rabbi of the community and remained there for a year, known thereafter as the Halleiner Rav. There were fifteen young men who were orphans who Rav Ephraim Fishel gathered together and taught Gemara.
He arrived in America with a growing family of four children and developed a relationship with the Klausenberger Rebbe. The Halleiner Rav was known for his diligence in learning and love for seforim. He was famous for writing haskamos for new seforim, and he loved hearing new insights. He once had surgery and there was an expectation that he would be in a lot of pain after the surgery was completed. His son arranged for a delivery of new seforim and the Rav was so engrossed in them that he felt no pain.
He was once approached by someone who had several halachic questions. As he heard each one, Rav Ephraim Fishel answered, “It’s permitted.” The questioner asked him, “If everything’s permitted, what’s forbidden?” “To waste time,” was the answer he received.
After the attacks of September 11 he convened a beis din to rule on issues of agunah that would result. In addition to his halachic knowledge, he was also an expert in kabbalistic works. Unlike the common practice these days to rule from the Mishna Berurah, he would often utilize the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, and would also consult the Shulchan HaTahor of the Komarna Rebbe. Despite the Satmar opposition to an eruv in Williamsburg, he supported its construction as he believed that it was not a Reshus HaRabbim.
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The 3rd of Sivan is the yahrzeit of Rav Yosef Igras (1685-1730). Born in Livorno, Italy where his father served as rav, he married at the age of eighteen and had six children. After studying both Talmud and Kabbalah, he moved to Pisa and opened a yeshiva. He founded two charity funds in Pisa to help support the indigent and to pay for weddings. Some time later he moved back to Livorno and was appointed rav.
Halachic questions were sent to him from all over France and Italy. Among his students was the author of Yad Malachi, a Talmudic encyclopedia. Rav Yosef’s fame rests on his sefer Shomer Emunim (often referred to as Shomer Emunim Kadmon, so as not to confuse it with a later sefer with the same name), which is written as a dialogue between a Talmudic scholar and a Kabbalist. The scholar is skeptical about the veracity of Kabbalah and the Kabbalist sets out to prove its truth. Shomer Emunim is known as one of the classic works of Kabbalistic thought.
In the sefer he maintains that the process of tzitzum (constriction) that was described by the Arizal was allegorical, or conceptual, and not literal. In this he was disagreeing with his contemporary Rav Immanuel Chai Riki who understood tzimtzum literally. This issue formed a central point of the disagreement between the Baal HaTanya and Rav Chaim Volozhin and later between the Baal HaLeshem and Rav Naftali Hertz HaLevi. There are those who understand that this disagreement was more about semantics than substance.
In 1710 when a leading Sabbatian arrived in Livorno and tried to get Rav Yosef’s support, he had him thrown out of town. In the last months of his life he became embroiled in the controversy surrounding the Ramchal. He wrote some letters to the Ramchal’s rebbe and biggest supporter in an attempt to get some clarity, but by the time the responses arrived Rav Yosef had passed away.