By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
Klal Yisrael suffered a tremendous loss last week with the passing of Moreinu Rav Dovid Feinstein, zt’l. There will be much written, be’H, about the gadol ha’dor. What follows is not meant as a portrait or biography; rather, it is a personal journal of experiences that I witnessed or heard about from others. I beg the reader not to make any halachic conclusions from this article.
I did not have a relationship with Rav Dovid until I got married. My wife, Goldie, is the daughter of the well-known askanim of the East Side, Rav Aharon and Miriam Katz, shlita. When we went to the East Side for Shabbos, I discovered how approachable the rosh ha’yeshiva was. It was a tremendous treat to be able to walk him home after davening from MTJ on East Broadway to his apartment on Grand Street. The rosh ha’yeshiva would discuss varied topics and would answer questions posed to him.
On one such walk home, a relative of mine asked the rosh ha’yeshiva if there is a problem of bishul akum with Wise potato chips. The rosh ha’yeshiva responded, “There’s nothing like them.” Perplexed at this comment, the questioner pondered it for a few seconds and reiterated his question “Rebbe, I’m asking if there is any problem of bishul akum with Wise potato chips.” The rosh ha’yeshiva responded, “There’s nothing like them. You can’t make those potato chips at home; they can only be made in a factory setting, so there is no issue of bishul akum.” This is a well-known leniency suggested by Rav Moshe, zt’l, and it is my understanding that the OU uses it, combined with other reasons for leniency.
It is quite comical that without further explanation, the questioner would have been left wondering why Rav Dovid was commenting on the tastiness of Wise potato chips. Sometimes, the question is half the answer. A relative and his friend were arguing about Rav Dovid’s position regarding wearing a watch on Shabbos without an eiruv. They both claimed to have asked Rav Dovid. One claimed he said “assur” and one claimed he said “muttar.” They decided to both approach Rav Dovid at the same time. My relative asked Rav Dovid if he can wear a watch on Shabbos without an eiruv. Rav Dovid said yes. The friend objected: “But I asked the Rosh HaYeshiva if I should wear my nice watch on Shabbos and the Rosh HaYeshiva said I shouldn’t.”
Rav Dovid patiently explained, “You are allowed to wear the watch, but as a ben Torah you shouldn’t. You didn’t ask the same question as your friend.”
It is well-known that Rav Dovid didn’t rely on mechiras chametz for chametz gamur. He took his personal stringency one step further by not buying chametz after Pesach from places that utilized this leniency. One of his talmidim decided to adopt this stringency as well. One year, Pesach ended on Thursday. Most, if not all, kosher bakeries that year froze their dough before Pesach and sold it to a goy for Pesach. This way Thursday night they could defrost the dough and quickly bake fresh challah. The talmid did not want to purchase these challos from a bakery that utilized mechiras chametz; instead, he went to a local branch of a supermarket chain that was owned by goyim and purchased frozen Kineret challos. He was walking Rav Dovid home that Friday morning, and Rav Dovid walked into a local bakery and purchased fresh challos. The talmid was surprised and exclaimed, “But those challos were made with dough that utilized mechiras chametz!” Rav Dovid replied, “This Jewish bakery was closed for nine days and I shouldn’t give them parnassah?”
Incidentally, Rav Dovid ran a bakery counter once. One Purim morning, Rav Dovid stopped in a local bakery after Megillah. While he was there, the owner received terrible news via telephone that his father had passed away. Purim was understandably a busy day. Besides his own parnassah from the bakery, the community depended on him. There was still baking left to be done and orders to go out that were needed for that day. However, only gentile workers were there. He asked Rav Dovid what he should do. Rav Dovid told him that he had to stop working immediately. He advised the owner to temporarily sell him the bakery. But who should run the bakery? No problem. Rav Dovid ran the bakery counter on a busy Purim day until a replacement arrived.
Rav Dovid explained that he felt that his conduct not to be machmir in regard to buying chametz from the bakery after Pesach should be followed by others. He opined that in a small community where a local establishment needs the support of the residents, one should not be machmir on the heter of mechiras chametz at the expense of local businesses. Rav Dovid would frequently eat breakfast at the local pizza shop, but after Pesach he would bring his own roll. He thereby supported the local business but still managed to keep his personal chumrah.
It is my understanding that there were other times that he was mochel on his personal chumros as well. If a talmid brought food to yeshiva to serve the rebbeim, he would partake of the home-baked food without peppering the boy with lots of questions. It is my understanding that Rav Dovid’s opinion was that yoshon is just a chumrah. It is permitted to eat non-certified yoshon according to the letter of the law. Rather than risk a child being offended, he would eat the cake the child brought in without question.
Often, Rav Dovid made clear that a personal chumrah was just that — personal. Rav Dovid would often eat the third Shabbos meal in yeshiva. At one such meal, there was fresh melon being served. Someone asked Rav Dovid, “Do you recite a berachah on fruit for dessert served after a bread meal?” Rav Dovid answered “Yes.” Yet Rav Dovid himself was, at that very meal, eating a piece of bread with every bite of melon. This practice was a personal chumrah to fulfill the opinion that no berachah is recited on dessert after a bread meal. Everyone agrees that when every bite of dessert is eaten with bread, no berachah is recited. In this way, Rav Dovid did not have to recite a berachah on dessert, which would be inappropriate according to one opinion. But he freely told others that they may recite a berachah on dessert because that is the accepted halachah. (A discussion about this halachah is beyond the scope of this article, but everyone also agrees that a berachah is not recited on cake eaten after a bread meal.)
As an aside, during one of those third meals in yeshiva, someone who worked in the yeshiva’s administration related a fascinating story. An auditor came to the yeshiva to check on the public funds the yeshiva was receiving. Up until the end of his life, Rav Dovid was personally involved in the finances of the yeshiva. So Rav Dovid personally opened up all the books and explained the numbers to the auditor. Later, the auditor’s daughter remarked to her father that she wanted to convert to Judaism. The auditor recommended that his daughter go to Rav Dovid to convert. He explained, “I never met a more honest person in my entire life.”
Once at bentching after the third meal, the leader of the zimun didn’t realize that there were ten people who had washed. Hence, he was required to say Hashem’s name in the zimun but failed to do so. Realizing the zimun leader’s mistake, everyone correctly responded utilizing Hashem’s name. I asked Rav Dovid, “Doesn’t this conduct embarrass the leader? Everyone is pointing out that he made a mistake!” Rav Dovid answered, “It’s only human to make mistakes. Do you think when I forget Ya’aleh V’yavo during Shemoneh Esrei on rosh chodesh I hide? I daven again in my spot (in front of the yeshiva).”
Much has been said about Rav Dovid’s humility. He never adopted the frock and long coats of roshei yeshiva many years his junior. A good friend of mine was dating seriously. The girl knew that my friend had middos tovos and the requisite Torah knowledge. However, it seemed to her that a proper ben Torah wears only black and white, while my friend inexplicably wore a grey suit! The girl had a relative who was hospitalized, and a nice man came to do bikur cholim. She asked one of her relatives, “Who was that man in the dark gray suit and black straw hat?” She was told it was none other than Rav Dovid Feinstein. Needless to say, my friend shortly after became engaged.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, Rav Dovid, zt’l, was personally involved in my shidduch as well, and I certainly owe him hakaras ha’tov for that. As a wedding gift, he gave me a set of Igros Moshe, including the relatively new (at the time) eighth volume, which he personally inscribed with a berachah. It wasn’t the only time I personally received a sefer from him. One Pesach night, I was asking him about the shiurim for matzah, and when he saw I was still somewhat confused, he opened his office and gave me a copy of his sefer, the Laws of the Seder.
Once when speaking to Rav Dovid, I made what was probably a classic mistake. Rav Moshe, zt’l, has an interesting opinion about what is considered tefillah b’tzibbur. I asked Rav Dovid a question about this topic and after hearing his answer, I asked, “But doesn’t it say in the teshuvah…” Rav Dovid humbly responded, “Oh, I thought you were asking my opinion. Yes, my father would have probably said like you were suggesting.”
On one Shabbos I was walking Rav Dovid home together with a talmid of his who is a proprietor of a Judaica store. The topic turned to a certain product intended for use on Shabbos which Rav Dovid said was actually forbidden to be used on Shabbos. In my naiveté, I said, “Oh, so then he (the proprietor) can’t sell it in his store.” Rav Dovid replied, “He can sell it. The buyers will rely on others who say it’s permitted.”
One time, my Five Towns Jewish Times article caused a bit of controversy. I had written an article on the subject of tevilas keilim. An article in a different periodical came to a different conclusion about a specific situation. Subsequently, I asked two poskim who stated that, at least in their view, I was correct. (Generally, I try to never venture my own opinion in halachic matters.) I wrote a follow-up article with the back-and-forth on the topic; however, in that second article, which was published sometime after Purim, I mentioned the opinion of a well-known and accepted Israeli posek that one should not toivel an item that was for sale unless he owns it already. That Pesach night I was walking Rav Dovid home and I asked him his opinion on the matter. He became somewhat excited and said, “One person’s chumrah doesn’t change 400 years of halachah!” He felt that if the halachah was true that an item needs to be acquired before tevilah, it should have been mentioned in the poskim. Even if an item fell into the mikveh by itself, the tevilah is valid.
I was left wondering why Rav Dovid seemed to be so agitated by this question. After I wished Rav Dovid a good yom tov, his grandson Shlomo Fishelis approached me and said, “It’s funny that you asked my grandfather about that. A worker at a store toiveled many of someone’s utensils before the purchaser halachically acquired them. He called up my grandfather right before Pesach asking if he had to re-toivel all those utensils based on what he read in a Five Towns paper. My grandfather told him, “Certainly not!”
At the levaya, Shlomo Fishelis related an interesting story. There was a man who had an awful situation. His son was seriously ill and his daughter’s wedding was scheduled to take place very soon. The question was whether to have the wedding under these circumstances. Rav Dovid suggested that the man ask his daughter. The daughter wanted to go ahead with the wedding. Following Rav Dovid’s advice, the wedding took place. Unfortunately, the son passed away soon after.
Five years later, the father came to Rav Dovid suggesting it was the wrong psak to have the wedding. The father pointed to the fact that his daughter had not been blessed with children for over five years. Rav Dovid opined that the problem was the kepeidah of the father. “True, you let your daughter have the wedding, but you still have ta’anos against her.”
Rav Dovid convened a beis din with Rabbi Lomner, zt’l, and Rabbi Schiff zt’l. The father was mochel his daughter in front of the beis din. His daughter was blessed with a child in the following year.
The inyan of kepeidah is mentioned in halachic sources. Rav Dovid didn’t follow the popular trend when it came to segulos. Someone who was facing a difficult medical situation with a family member asked Rav Dovid if he should check his mezuzos. Rav Dovid asked him “When did you check them last?” The talmid responded, “Two years ago.” Rav Dovid asked him, “So why would you check them again?”
Those who davened in MTJ know that Rav Dovid himself gave out the aliyos and kibbudim. I was a little surprised when I was honored with the sixth hakafah on Simchas Torah. In most shuls the sixth hakafah is auctioned off because it is a segulah for parnassah. I mentioned this to Rav Dovid. He smiled and said, “Here. Have a heavy parnassah!” as he handed me one of those old and heavy sifrei Torah.
Rav Dovid personally participated in the dancing on Simchas Torah. Without giving away too many details, I was shocked to see to the extent that Rav Dovid was mochel on his kavod and allowed himself to be used as a prop during the dancing.
Back to segulos, my wife’s grandmother purchased a red “bendele” (bracelet) for my daughter. Some poskim reportedly frowned at the practice. Rav Dovid certainly would not encourage the practice but said I could let my wife put it on my daughter.
I heard that one Litvishe gadol responded when he was asked to cut a child’s hair for his upsherin, “What am I — a barber?” I highly doubt Rav Dovid held of the chassidishe practice of upsherin, but when we brought my son to him, he was only too happy to cut my son’s hair. He posed for the requisite photos as well. As was mentioned at his levayah, Rav Dovid was always ready to pose when anyone asked him for a picture. Once on Purim I was dressed as a chassid. I would never have dreamed of asking Rav Dovid for a picture. But Rav Dovid’s longtime gabbai, Rav Yissachar Ginzberg, shlita, was there. He encouraged me to pose with Rav Dovid for a picture. Rav Ginzberg took the picture and graciously mailed me a printed photo. (An extra chesed, as he could have just e-mailed me the file.)
I once asked Rav Dovid if there was an ayin ha’ra problem with buying baby items while my wife was expecting. He answered that I could buy them and just hide them so that no one knows about them. He said I had to know my wife’s nature. If she would get nervous the first time the baby has a cold and say, “I knew we shouldn’t have bought those baby items,” then it’s better not to buy them. This was another area in which Rav Dovid’s greatness revealed itself. He didn’t suffice to give me a halachic answer, but rather gave me practical advice in deciding whether or not to utilize the heter.
During a particularly difficult time for Eretz Yisrael, there were many public gatherings. There were lists of recommended paragraphs of Tehillim to say. Others suggested undertaking various segulos. However, Rav Dovid Feinstein’s suggestion was much less dramatic and exotic. In a rare public speaking appearance at the famed Bialystoker Synagogue, he recommended that everyone have extra concentration when they say Tachanun, especially during the long Tachanun on Monday and Thursday. Perhaps generally a person might need to skip a few paragraphs due to lack of time and the speed of his minyan. Rav Dovid recommended making sure to say those skipped paragraphs after davening with extra concentration as a source of merit from our brethren in Eretz Yisrael.
Shlomo Fishelis mentioned in his hesped about his grandfather’s unbelievable emotional self-control. On the day of his sister’s untimely petirah, Rav Dovid was still giving his full attention to the needs of Klal Yisrael. There were organizations that had difficult questions and needed answers that day. Rav Dovid knew when he had to keep his emotions in check. Similarly, one erev Pesach, American Jewry had been traumatized by the news that there had been a terrorist attack in Israel on Pesach night. I asked Rav Dovid, “How can we celebrate yom tov knowing what transpired?” He said that we must completely rejoice and hold our emotions in check for the duration of yom tov. He said further that as difficult as it may be, “You should know that in Eretz Yisrael they are rejoicing, too.”
I would like to return to the disclaimer I stated in the beginning of the article. In no way is this article meant as a portrait of the gadol ha’dor. These are simply stories I recalled at this moment. I heard from my in-laws that Rav Dovid’s chesed was legendary, although few outsiders know about it. His greatness in psak cannot be comprehended. Therefore, what I shared above are mere glimpses of a gadol.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.