by R. Eliyahu Safran
Reflections on our grandfather – Rav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran ZT’L
The Bible has numerous instances when the curse of wrongdoing is visited on multiple generations to come. L’havdil! So too does it assign the blessings of learning and good judgement to the generations of a righteous and good man. Though we may not feel worthy, the grace of our grandfather’s great piety and wisdom is a gift bestowed to us. We would be wise to accept this gift with humility and to take from it a determination to shape our own lives in the fashion of our dear forebear.
Erev Shabbat Parashat Vayetze, our grandfather, Rav Bezalel Ze’ev, was sitting home, studying by dimming candlelight even as his own strength ebbed. When the candle at last gave out and he was no longer able to study, he turned to rest on the bed. At that very moment, he was overcome by fierce pains as if his body was rebelling against the dying of the light, of at last not being able to continue his lifetime of study.
On Shabbat morning, the courtyard was filled with members of the community who had come to pray for their rabbi’s recovery.
Their fervent prayers remained unanswered. His pains continued unabated for three days, until on Monday, the 14th of Kislev, he passed away.
On Tuesday, 15th of Kislev, the city’s rabbis declared a bitul melacha – shops were closed, and no work was permitted. As word of this great man’s passing spread, tens of thousands streamed into Bacau from cities and towns near and distant. Talmidei Chachamim carried out his mita, fashioned from the table at which he faithfully studied, from his Bais Midrash to the head of the funeral procession which proceeded towards the old cemetery in Bacau.
As his son described it, “Some fifty-people immersed themselves in the mikvah and then carried his holy body on their shoulders to the cemetery. At the funeral, the mourners cried out in grief and lament. Great rabbis eulogized him with tears and sadness, recounting his brilliance and, more tenderly, his saintliness…”
Our grandfather, the Gaon Rav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran, was born in 1867 in the town of Pomeran in Galicia to a family of renowned rabbis. His father, the Gaon Rav Chanoch Heinich Shafran זצ”ל, was the scion of great gaonim and renowned tzaddikim. One of his brothers was the Gaon Rav Yitzchak Shafran, rav of Husiaten. Another, rav in Pomeran itself.
Great learning was his inheritance and birthright. Even so, who could have foreseen at his birth the immensity of his great wisdom and love of Torah? His diligence, phenomenal memory and profound diligence were clear from his earliest years. Indeed, throughout the R’baz responsa, he includes references to insights and chidushim from his early youth, insights earned from his long hours of devoted learning. Many days, he sat in the Bais Midrash for hours on end, studying with great focus and forgetting to eat. Recognizing his gifts, his righteous mother, Alta Rivka, would bring his meals to him there rather than expecting him to come home like the others.
Often sleeping only three hours, he dedicated his days and nights to his study of Torah. While other students, good students, caring students, found themselves balancing their studies with their concerns in the world, he showed little interest or awareness for anything happening outside the Bais Midrash. During those years, he lived completely immersed in Torah. His study was often self-motivated. Then, in Galicia, there were no yeshivas as we know them today. We have great yeshivas populated by wonderful teachers where students are fed Torah like a brilliant feast. How much more challenging it must have been then to distinguish yourself in learning, without the organization and structure of a formal yeshiva! With no classrooms of learning, people sat and learned in the local Kloiz from morning until night. And then, hours after even the most dedicated students had long gone home, our grandfather remained, alone, burning with love of Torah, studying until just before dawn.
His dear mother, always concerned for his well-being, would often go to the Ezrat Nashim just so she could watch over him. There, peeking from behind the screen, she would remain until nearly dawn when, shortly before the men arrived for the early morning prayers, she would slip away to avoid being seen.
Of course, there were nights when she was unable to be there.
So, it was on one such night when he was alone in the Bais Midrash he went to take down a sefer from the top shelf of the bookcase. Perhaps he teetered too unsteadily while standing on the chair to reach it. Perhaps his grip on the binding was too uncertain. Whatever the reason, the metal-bound book fell from the shelf and landed hard against his forehead.
He quickly got up and gathered himself. His concern was more for the book’s well-being than his own! Kissing it tenderly, he held it tight as he sat back down at his small table and continued his learning, not taking note of the blood oozing from the wound on his forehead. Being alone as was usually the case at that late hour, no one knew of the injury until the men first arrived later that morning to daven.
Years later, his son once asked him to explain the scar on his forehead. He recorded our grandfather’s response, “Father did not speak much of his youth or growing up years, and in general did not speak much about himself. ‘Time is precious’ he would say. ‘Whatever time we have should be sacred for Torah’.”
Those words were written upon his heart.
Recognizing his son’s brilliance, his father sent him in his teen years to Lvov to study under the Av Bais Din of Lvov; to study with the great gaonim Rav Yitzchak Aharon Ettinga and Rav Yaakov Weidenfeld of Romalov.
Rav Ettigna was the son of Rav Mordechai Ettinga who authored “Mefarshei Hayam”, grandson of Rav Yitzchak Ettinga (the first), one of the generation’s greatest talmidei chachamim, and the Gaon Rav Yaakov Weidenfeld who was considered among the gedolim of his time; a man who had met the Baal Minchas Chinuch in Tarnipol, where his sharpness and erudition were demonstrated and whose disciples included not only our grandfather but also Rav Meir Arik of Romalov.
No sooner had our grandfather arrived at Lvov than he earned the affection and admiration of his rebbeim. They both prophesized a great future for him, a great future that was already unfolding. Indeed, he was only seventeen when he received semicha and was bestowed with the honorific, Gaon, indicating that he was already considered one of the masters of his generation.
In addition to his insight and insatiable desire to learn, grandfather was distinguished by a powerful memory which allowed him to retain and instantaneously recall the many Torah treasures he acquired through his study. It was said that he was bor sud she’ino meabed tipa – that he never “lost a drop” of what he had learned. His vast store of knowledge and wisdom was always readily available to him to reinforce his sharp and lively Torah reasoning. The great rabbanim who met him were astounded at his ability to recall entire passages and chapters of the Rambam verbatim.
When Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Nimrover eulogized him, he said: “I will always remember that when I would come to Carlsbad I would hear all the great rabbanim and geonim coming there from all over the world speak of him in such laudatory terms. They referred to him as the Sar HaTorah – a warrior of Torah knowledge and thought.”
Rabbis from throughout the world would wait until summer when they knew he came to Carlsbad for a few days to travel there themselves in order discuss their most weighty and difficult Sh’elot.
The Gaon Rav Yechiel Weinberg, author of the “Seridei Eish”, met grandfather there and recalled that meeting in his memoirs, “I tried to open with words of Torah, and when I had scarcely opened my mouth he showered me with a flood of his knowledge… I was overwhelmed by his vast bekiut. I was amazed by what I saw, even though they had told me in advance that this was one of the greatest bekiim of our generation, but in truth their praise was insufficient. I felt that I was in the presence of one of the ancients, one of the giants of the early generations for whom the Torah was like an open book”
Grandfather’s – our – family tree reads like a chapter from scripture.
Grandfather married Sarah Mani, daughter of the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak David Maaran, scion of the great gaonim Rav Shmuel Shmelke of Nickelsburg and Rav Pinchas, the Baal HaHaflaa, from the distinguished line of Levi’im families, related with the ReZaH Ba’al HaMaor a descendant of Shmuel Hanavi.
Rav Bezalel Ze’ev and Sarah Mani had seven children, R’ Chanoch Heinich, R’ Pinchas Zelig, Zisel (Sophie), Elka, Chava, Avraham, Rivka.
Rav Chanoch Heinich, the eldest, married Tzivia (nee Rabinowitz) and had four children – Yeshoshua, who fathered Yaakov and Bezalel, Sarah Mina; David, father of Tzivia and Asher who had two daughters, Tzivia and Nurit.
Rav Pinchas Zelig who married Golda (nee Leiba) had six children – Zeida, Shimon, Yocheved (Burg), Rachel (Grossman), Bezalel and Shmuel, who perished in the tragic sinking of the boat Struma on its way to Israel. Rav Pinchas Zelig served as rav of the Tailors Synagogue in Bucharest.
Sophie (Zisel), a daughter living in Dresden, Germany and subsequently in America. Married to Rabbi Reuven Rabinowitz [who adopted the name “Mayer” in America]. She left Germany just before the War in 1939. Had seven children: Yosef, David, Nathan, Immanuel, Sarah, Rivka and Shili.
Elka married Rabbi Getzel Boiman who died during World War I. Elka remarried R’ Alter Birbayer, who later died in Transisistra from typhus. Prior to his passing they had a daughter named Mela. R’ Alter was the gabbai of the Boyaner Rebbe who died childless. His gabbaim divided his belongings. R’ Alter received the Rebbe’s Atara (from his tallit). R’ Alter was friends with R’ Meir Pechthaldt. Elka therefore gave him this precious Atara of the Boyaner Rebbe, and he, R’ Meir Pechthaldt, used the Atara on Shabatot, and then passed it on to his son Rav Yehuda, who eventually passed it on to the Boyaner Rebbe in the United States. In her later years Elka remarried one of the descendants of R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. Her last name is Derbarmdiker, as was R’ Levi Yitzchak.
Chava (Pechthaldt), wife of R’ Meir Pechthaldt, had five children – Sarah, Chaya, Rav Bezalel, Leah and Rav Yehuda Leib.
Avraham (Avrum) [ full name: Avraham Yehoshua Heschel] married Golda and served as rabbi in Dresden, Germany. They had three children – Zeev (William), Binyamin, and Maya-Sarah. Avraham remarried in Germany and had three more children. He perished during the bombings of Dresden by the Allied forces during World War II.
Rivka, mother of Shoshana (Ben Zvi), Hadassah, Esther, Yaakov, Devorah and Sarah’le. Rivka emigrated to Eretz Yisrael before the war. All the children were born in Czernowitz, except for Devora who was born in Israel. After becoming widowed, she remarried R’ Yitzchak Rosenbach. They had a daughter, Sarah’le. After Rivka’s passing, R’ Yitzchak Rosenbach remarried Shoshana (Roza) who lovingly cared for all the children.
When Rebbetzin Sarah Mani passed away at the young age of forty-one, grandfather remarried our own late grandmother, Finkel (Nurit) daughter of Rav Avraham Yosef Reinhartz of Iasi. She passed away in 1955. Her resting place is the Zichron Meir cemetery in Bnei Brak.
Together, they had three children – R’ Alexander, R’ Yosef and R’ Menachem.
Rav Alexander Yehuda, Chief Rabbi of Geneva, Switzerland and previously Chief Rabbi of Romania, married Sarah (nee Reinhartz) and had 2 children – Esther (Strovinsky) and Avinoam.
Rav Yosef, Chief Rabbi of Iasi, later a member of the Chief Rabbinate of Tel Aviv, and professor of Jewish Education at Yeshiva University, married Esther (nee Markowitz) and had three children – Miriam (Nussbaum), Rabbi Bezalel and Rabbi Eliyahu.
Rav Menachem Kaveh Dov, Chief Rabbi of Ploesti, later Rav in Ramat Aviv, married Malka (nee Burstein) and had three children – Meshulam-Yechiel, Rabbi Yigal Bezalel and Amikam-Tuvia.
Grandfather was only twenty years old – only three years from receiving semicha! – when he was invited to serve as rav in the city of Sekulen. He served there for two years when he was asked by the community of Stefanesti to occupy the important rabbinic position of their city.
He served in Stefanesti for sixteen years.
In 1905, he accepted the rabbinate of the Bacau community, where he remained for twenty-five years, until the day he died, and it is there he is buried.
His brilliance and wisdom were such that it overcame national boundaries. Grandfather was a Galician and yet, as a young man, he was invited to serve as a rabbi in Romania. This spoke to his great wisdom and learning as the politics of the region were particularly unsettled. Before the First World War, Romania had been a neutral country. With the war, she joined with the Allies. Bulgaria and Hungary sided with Germany. Galicia – part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – also sided with the Germans.
Being a Galician serving in Romania, grandfather could easily have been considered a danger and, like other citizens of hostile states or those who had lived in hostile states, sent to the internment camps.
Knowing how vulnerable grandfather was, two prominent men, the Rosh Hakahal and his deputy, at great risk to themselves it should be noted, approached the local police commander with a bribe offer to leave their rav alone. The bribe worked! Not only was grandfather left alone but two Romanian officers were sent to the family to ask for forgiveness.
Imagine the terror the appearance of two Romanian officers showing up at the door must have engendered in grandfather’s family! Indeed, Chava’le, grandfather’s youngest daughter from his first marriage remembered that visit until the end of her life, vividly recalling every aspect of the visit, down to the names of the two officers – Garbio and Sufleh.
The “investment” of the prominent Jews was well-placed. Because of grandfather’s great impact and influence, Bacau became a spiritual center for hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews. During the years of his leadership R’baz received many invitations to serve as rabbi in prominent cities, such as Satmar in Hungary, but he rejected these offers outright. His anchor was Torah and he feared that the burden of leading larger communities would compromise time for study.
All his days were devoted to study and teaching. He delivered countless shiurim to his community, constantly led “Shimush Chachamim” – guiding most of the rabbis of Romania in his day – and wrote countless teshuvot in response to the Sh’elot that he received from around the world.
In Bacau, renowned as a citadel of Torah, grandfather continually found new and important ways to magnify and glorify Torah, especially among the younger generation. He instituted Chevra Shas groups and Torah shiurim which attracted young and old alike. He was known as a brilliant speaker whose derashot made powerful impacts on his audiences.
He was likewise known as a great ba’al tzedakah. His integrity was recognized by all. His wisdom unassailable. His commitment to truth was non-negotiable.
Jews came to him with questions about all manner of halachic issues, and he demonstrated his expertise in his many responses. Perhaps the most challenging and sensitive of these issues concerned Agunot in the years after World War I. Grandfather’s home became the focal point of such sensitive, personal and complex questions. Indeed, his learned responses continue to serve as a basis for “freeing” agunot in rabbinical courts to this very day. Even the renowned gaon Rav Meir Arik from Tarno, whose daughter had become an Agunah during the war sent the Heter his daughter received from rabbanim in Poland for his evaluation and consent.
One case, however, required not so much his wisdom and his insight as his humility and judgement.
His daughter, Elka, had married Rabbi Getzel Boiman but only three months after their wedding, Getzel was drafted for the war and disappeared. Elka remained an Agunah for eight years when suddenly a man showed up in Bacau to “testify” that he had seen Rav Getzel as a captive in Bulgaria.
Everyone was, of course, thrilled to learn that he was alive.
However, it turned out that this “witness” was a fraud and was only out to extort money from the family. Eventually a kosher witness turned up and the matter was ultimately resolved.
When the legitimate witness showed up, grandfather showed his impeccable integrity by asking that other Poskim deal with the case despite being a world-renowned expert in Sh’elot Agunah. He declared that he could not participate in the case; he was a nogea b’davar, he was personally involved.
The kosher witness, Mote’le Tillinger, testified that he had seen Elka’s husband shot by a Romanian officer. The officer had spread a libel that Getzel wanted to desert but that was decidedly a lie. The officer had coveted his shoes and, so he’d shot him to take them.
Grandfather’s wisdom and judgement; his mode of learning earned the recognition and admiration of the most outstanding gedolim of the generation, including Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky from Vilna, Rav Meir Shapira from Lublin, Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen from Riga, the Rebbe of Munkatch, the Minchas Eluzar, Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein of Pinsk, author of the Torah Temima, HaRav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook of Jerusalem, and others.
His approach was to derive the ultimate p’sak (l’asukei shmatesa aliba d’hilchesa). With his enormous bekiut and erudition he would range from issue to issue interweaving hundreds of references to the other Poskim who had preceded him.
Using his incomparable familiarity with both the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, he would at times question the words of many of the great gaonim who preceded him, but even in doing so he showed great modesty and humility.
His love of Torah which pulsated within him, was limitless and beyond measure, which he referred to as “a constant delight”.
Our grandfather was pleasant to everyone and his posture was quiet and unassuming, but he nevertheless did not curry favor with the assertive members of the public. When rebuke was called for, he rebuked them fearlessly.
The saintly and pious viewed him as one “unique above all.” When his son-in-law, R’ Meir Pechthaldt, was traveling and learned that Rav Srulinuyu Zt’l, the Viznitzer Rebbe was also on the train he hurried to see him in his car.
When the Rebbe asked who he was he replied that he was the son-in-law of Rav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran.
The Rebbe promptly stood up and exclaimed, “If Rav Shafran has taken you for his son-in-law it is a sign that you are a Talmid Chacham and so, one must stand before you.”
His insight was legendary.
One wintry night, at a late hour, there was a knock-on grandfather’s door. On the doorstep stood a Jew who identified himself as the attendant of Rav Tzirelsohn of Kishinev. He explained that Rav Tzirelsohn was on his way to Bucharest but had stopped in Bacau, so he could spend time with the R’Baz, discussing Torah issues and concerns.
Rav Tzirelsohn was warmly received. The two men immediately entered an analysis of weighty halachic issues that continued through the night.
In the morning, the people arrived for Shacharis and they waited for their rav to come. And they waited. And they waited. But he and Rav Tzirelsohn were still at it. Then, they overheard Rav Tzirelsohn say to the R’baz, “Rav of Bacau, I don’t know whether it is written in Tosafot as you say, but if it is not written it should be written as such, because you are always right!”
Grandfather’s love and consideration for the Jewish community was legendary. Once, at the end of the First World War, a brigade of Jewish soldiers from the Russian army found themselves in Bacau on Erev Pesach. With nowhere to celebrate Pesach, grandfather not only took it upon himself to feed the hungry soldiers, but he also invited many of them to celebrate the Seder with him at his home. For those he could not fit at his table, he made sure to find homes where they could be housed during the chag.
He spared no effort to ensure everyone had what they needed for yom tov. He was tireless in making sure these soldiers, as well as everyone else in the community, were able to celebrate Yom Tov. He worked so hard that, while davening Maariv that Pesach eve, as soon as he completed his prayers he literally fainted from sheer exhaustion.
It was not only Jews who esteemed him; not only rabbis and scholars who revered him. The honor and respect he received extended to all segments of the Jewish community – and to the non-Jewish community as well!
When a new quarter in the town of Bacau was to be dedicated an impressive ceremony was planned. Indeed, Queen Helena of Romania was to attend!
When the Queen entered the city with her entourage, every prominent member of the community went out to welcome her. When the entourage reached where grandfather was standing, the Queen stopped and refused to proceed. She stood there and “stared” at this pious man who stood before her in absolute silence. It was only after several long minutes that she signaled to the entourage to continue.
It was only after the ceremony was over and the Queen had left Bacau that she confessed to her staff that, at the moment when she saw the R’baz, she was so taken by the majesty of his face, his noble appearance and the purity of his expression that she had been unable to contain a deep feeling of awe.
Many years later, when grandfather’s son, Rav Alexander, visited with King Michai in Bucharest he found himself also in the presence of the queen mother Queen Helena. When she realized that he was the son of the Rav Shafran of Bacau, she immediately recalled that day, and confessed to him that, “…his holy image is still enshrined in my memory.”
Grandfather’s saintliness could even effect political events.
In the middle of the fighting during the First World War, a gang of soldiers seized control of the city of Bacau and, and as too often the case in our long history, began to terrorize the Jews of the city. In his great distress at this, grandfather went directly to the Commander of the Army encamped in the city and appealed for mercy and consideration of his community.
The commander was so impressed by grandfather’s noble presentation that he held his hand up to stop grandfather’s plea before he’d had a chance to finish. “I will help the Jews of city in every way necessary,” he promised.
Grateful and gracious, he thanked the Commander and then returned to tell the community the wonderful news. Before he could speak, however, one of the community members who had accompanied grandfather stood up and proclaimed, “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the Divine Name rested upon you, and they were in awe of you!”
Grandfather had a commanding presence, but his commanding presence could never have been mistaken for haughtiness. There was no other man humbler in his interactions with his fellows. He was perhaps conscious of the respect shown him and he was equally conscious of the respect he felt he owed to his fellows.
One day, he was hurrying along a city street, deep in thought as he usually was. As he swept past, he overlooked a Jew who had spoken out to greet him warmly. As he walked along, his son leaned to him to inform him what had happened. He blinked and deep sorrow filled his eyes.
The next morning, before going to daven Shacharis, grandfather asked that the man be brought to him and when he was, implored him to forgive him. The man, however, was confused as to what exactly grandfather needed to be forgiven for. That a great man deep in thought had not heard his greeting seemed a small matter. Indeed, he wondered if perhaps he owed grandfather an apology for perhaps interrupting his thoughts! But that was not grandfather’s perspective and it was only when he was absolutely convinced that this Jew was not upset and had genuinely forgiven him that he agreed to begin davening.
Only in matters where a breach in halachic standards was in question did the fullness of his authority come into play and his voice betray a sharpness of a prophet. He was adamant that halacha be strictly observed throughout the community. If there was any question that it was not, nothing stood in his way to rectify the situation.
The time that the city’s butchers sought to evade the strict supervision of the appointed mashgichim is an example. Recognizing that the butchers’ actions threatened the kashrut of the entire community, grandfather knew he had no choice but to stop the city’s shechita for several weeks. Yes, his decision meant the community would not have meat to eat but it forced the butchers to accept the supervision of the Rav and assured that the community would receive kosher food without compromise.
On another occasion, the town’s municipal bathhouse, which was owned by a member of the community, was opened on Shabbat for use by the non-Jews in Bacau. When grandfather heard of this, he sent for the Jewish owner and rebuked him. “The bathhouse must never be open on Shabbat as long as it is under Jewish ownership,” he declared.
The owner protested that he could not close on Shabbat because it was precisely on Shabbat that the non-Jews most used it. In addition, he was concerned that state officials might punish him if he did not remain open on Shabbat.
The bathhouse owner was caught between two competing interests and concerns, ones not easily reconciled. Despite long hours of explanation and attempts at persuasion, grandfather realized that he was not making any progress. They ended their conversation no closer to resolution than when it began. However, before the Jew left grandfather summoned him back to a small room and, with tears in his eyes, made a personal guarantee to him that if he would make sure that the bath house was closed on Shabbat and yom tov grandfather would ensure that the man remained safe and secure – both in this world and in the world to come.
When the bathhouse owner heard grandfather make this promise with such genuine feeling, he nodded his head and swore to do his utmost to comply with his request and, from that time forward, there had been no desecration of the Shabbat.
Members of the community felt a sense of reverence and awe in grandfather. His son told that, “Whenever he passed by in the street, always in the company of someone, there was a sudden change in the atmosphere; those who saw him seemed to be taken aback by his look and appearance, and were withdrawn for a moment from the everyday world to higher spheres, to the sublime and spiritual. They sensed that his face had the look of a divine angel.”
Grandfather would have no doubt felt uncomfortable with such a description. He was aware of his profound learning and the respect it brought to him, but he had not devoted his life to study for elevating his stature or standing. It was done for the Jewish community. It was done for Torah. It was God’s will.
Time is precious. Whatever time we have should be sacred for Torah.
His life was precious.
His name is a blessing.