Elazar Shach

Elazar Shach

Elazar Menachem Man Shach ( _he. אלעזר מנחם מן שך) (or Rav Leizer Shach, at times his name is written as Eliezer Schach in English publications) (January 22, 1898 - November 2, 2001), was a leading Eastern European-born and educated Haredi rabbi who settled and lived in modern Israel.

He was the rosh yeshiva ("dean") of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak the pre-eminent yeshiva of Lithuanian Jewry, and founded the Degel HaTorah political party representing Lithuanian Ashkenazi Jews in the Israeli Knesset, many of whom considered him to be the "Gadol HaDor" ("great one of the generation") and used the honorific Maran (" [our] master") when referring to him.

He was recognized as a Talmudic scholar par excellence by scholars such as Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (the Brisker Rav) and Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer in their approbations to his works; he authored the "Avi Ezri" a commentary on the Mishneh Torah.

Life in Europe

Rav Shach was born in Wabolnick (Vabalninkas, pronounced Vaboilnik in Yiddish), a rural village in northern Lithuania to Rabbi Ezriel and Batsheva Shach. The Shach family had been merchants for generations but Batsheva's family, the Levitans, were religious scholars who served various Lithuanian communities. Batsheva's brother, Rabbi Nisan Levitan, later became an important figure in the Union of Orthodox Rabbis. Elazar was a child prodigy, and was sent to study in the Ponevezh yeshiva at age seven. At thirteen he moved on to the Slabodka yeshiva, where he caught the attention of its dean, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, as well as Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, dean of the Slutsk yeshiva. Shach soon became one of Meltzer's favorite pupils, beginning a lifelong relationship of friendship and respect.

When World War I began in 1914, many of the Slabodka yeshiva students scattered across Europe. Rav Shach initially returned to his family but then began traveling across Lithuania from town to town, sleeping and eating wherever he could and studying with tremendous diligence in local synagogues, continuing to study Torah "as if there were no war" [ [http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/jewishobserver/archives/feb/biography.htm Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach ZT'L] ("Jewish Observer") February, 2002.] . After the war Rav Shach rejoined Meltzer and his son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, in Kletsk, Poland. When Meltzer returned to Slutsk, Shach followed him (the Slutsk yeshiva later gained fame as the Lakewood yeshiva in America).

Rav Meltzer became both a father figure and patron to the young Shach, even arranging his marriage with his niece, Guttel, in 1923. Rav Shach received rabbinical ordination from Rav Meltzer and from 1927 to 1932 taught in the Kletsk yeshiva. He served as rosh yeshiva in Lublin, then taught Talmud at the Novardok yeshiva as well. In 1936 he became rosh yeshiva at the Karlin yeshiva in Luninets.

Escaping to the British Mandate of Palestine

Shortly before the start of World War II and the Holocaust, several yeshivas began considering evacuating their rabbis, students and families. Kotler eventually left for America, travelling across Siberia and arriving in the United States during the war. In 1939 Shach first went to Vilna, where he stayed with Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. Later that year both Shach's mother and his eldest daughter fell ill and died. In early 1940 the Shach family decided to leave Lithuania. Shach's maternal uncle, Rabbi Aron Levitan, had helped Kotler get emigration visas, but Shach decided instead to go to Palestine, where Meltzer was serving as rosh yeshiva at Etz Chaim Yeshiva in Jerusalem, (Shach would later serve as rosh there as well). His uncle helped him and his family get immigration certificates and took them in after they arrived at his doorstep, destitute.

Several years after the re-establishment of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak, he was asked to be one of its deans. He remained in the position until his passing. At this yeshiva, Shach taught many thousands of students, many of whom eventually assumed prominent positions as roshei yeshiva and rabbis.

Rabbinical career

Rav Shach was credited by many for helping revolutionize the concept of the "society of learners" in the post-war Haredi world. Under his leadership, the phenomenon of Haredi men studying in yeshivas and kollels full-time, something that had been comparatively rare in Europe before World War II, became the standard in many Haredi communities in Israel, with the financial backing of Haredi communities and subsidies to young families with many children from the Israeli government. He has thousands of students occupying prominent positions in the Rabbinate, both in the United States and abroad. His works on the Mishna Torah are regarded as classics.

Political life

Rav Shach was an unwilling member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah beginning the 1970s, having been appointed to that body by the Chazon Ish, during which time he began to take special notice of the second-class situation of Sephardim in Israel, including Haredi Sephardim, who at that time were without any real political representation and generally voted for the Likud or Agudat Israel. In an attempt to give the Sephardim more political influence, Shach encouraged and guided the formation of the Sephardi Shas party, under the spiritual leadership of his ally, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Shas ran for the 11th Knesset in 1984, and Shach called upon his "Lithuanian" followers to vote for it in the polls, a move that many saw as key political and religious move in Shach's split with Agudat Israel. While initially Shas was largely under the aegis of Shach — who capitalized on his influence with the Sephardic party in order to pressure Agudat Israel — Yosef gradually exerted control over the party and moved it away from Shach, culminating with Shas' decision to support the Labor party in the 13th Knesset in 1992, something both Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel opposed.

In 1988, Shach officially broke away from Agudat Israel and formed the Degel HaTorah ("Flag of Torah") party to represent the non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Haredim. After a bitter contest in the 1988 elections, Degel HaTorah agreed in the 1992 elections to work together with Agudat Israel under the name of United Torah Judaism, an agreement which has continued until the present.

Around 1995 Shach's political involvement slowed down, following deterioration in his health, and ceased altogether afterward. Since then the two main leaders of the party are Rabbis Elyashiv and Shteinman, of which Elyashiv is more dominant.

Rav Shach was deeply opposed to Zionism, both religious and secular. He was fiercely dismissive of secular Israeli culture. For example, during a 1990 speech he derided kibbutzniks as "breeders of rabbits and pigs" who did not "know what Yom Kippur is". In the same speech he said that the Labor Party had cut themselves off from their Jewish past and wished to "seek a new Torah". Shach was also critical of democracy, once referring to it "cancer", adding that "only the sacred Torah is the true democracy." [ [http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/767598.html How do you like your halakha?] ("Haaretz") September 28, 2006.]

However, on diplomatic issues many considered Shach comparatively moderate to other rabbinical authorities. Shach quickly realized the tangible political benefits that Haredi society could reap if it cultivated relationships with both poles of the Israeli political spectrum, and also supported the withdrawal from land, in principle, under the Halakhic teaching of "Pikuach Nefesh" ("the saving of a life"), in which the preservation of lives takes precedence over nearly all other obligations in the Torah, including those pertaining to the sanctity of land. Shach criticized Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (at that time mainly settled by secular and Religious Zionist Jews) as "a blatant attempt to provoke the international community", and called on Haredim to avoid moving to such communities.

Opposition to the Lubavitcher Rebbe [See "Mechtavim v'Ma'amorim" [Letters and Speeches of Rabbi Shach in Hebrew. Bnei Brak, Israel. 03-574-5006] : Volume 1, Letter 6(page 15), Letter 8(page 19). Volume 3, Statements on pages 100-101, Letter on page 102. Volume 4, letter 349(page 69), letter 351(page 71). Volume 5, letter 533(page 137), letter 535(page 139), speech 569(page 173), statement 570(page 174) ]

Rav Shach was involved in a number of public disputes with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson the Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement from the 1970s through Rav Schneerson's death in 1994. Rav Shach accused his followers of false Messianism. When once asked which religion was theologically closest to Judaism, Shach responded "Chabad". [ [http://www.bgu.ac.il/politics/newman/eng/pirsumim/columns/Rabbi%20Shach's%20Political%20Legacy%20-%20web%20page.htm Rabbi Shach's political legacy] ("Jerusalem Post") November 7, 2001.] Rav Shach accused Rav Schneerson of fomenting a cult of crypto-messianism around himself. [ Independent, The (London), Nov 10, 2001 by David Landau. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20011110/ai_n14431755 ] He objected to Rav Schneerson's call for "forcing" the Messiah's appearance. When Rav Schneerson's followers identified him as possibly being the Messiah, Rav Shach called for a complete boycott of Chabad, its institutions and projects by its constituents. [Faith and Fate: The Story of the Jewish People in the 20th century, Berel Wein, 2001 by Shaar Press. pg. 340 ] In 1988 Shach explicitly denounced Schneerson as a "meshiach sheker" (false messiah). [ "A Historian's Polemic Against 'The Madness of False Messianism"' By Allan Nadler. http://www.rickross.com/reference/lubavitch/lubavitch9.html See also "Toward the Millennium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco" By Peter Schäfer, MarkR. Cohen. 1998. pg. 404, footnote 56. http://books.google.com/books?id=AT8GF9EciLEC. See Michtavim U'maamarim [5:569 (173)] where Rav Shach says (in a speech he made in 1992) that Rav Schneerson is a "moshiach sheker". ] Rav Shach also compared Chabad and Rav Schneerson to the followers of the 17th century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi. [ [http://www.rickross.com/reference/lubavitch/lubavitch6.html Summer of the Messiah] ("Jerusalem Report") February 14, 2001.]

Pointing to an assertion by the Rebbe in a passage dealing primarily with his predecessor that a rebbe is ‘the Essence and Being [of G-d] placed into a body,’ Rav Schach described this as nothing short of idolatry. His followers refused to eat meat slaughtered by Lubavitch shochetim or to recognize Chabad Hasidim as adherents of authentic Judaism. ["The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference" by David Berger, 2001, published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization of Portland. Page 7. ]

Rav Shach once described Rav Schneerson as "the madman who sits in New York and drives the whole world crazy." ["The Messiah of Brooklyn: Understanding Lubavitch Hasidim Past and Present", M. Avrum Ehrlich, Chapter 10, notes, KTAV Publishing, ISBN 0881258369] .

In addition to Rav Shach's objections to all Chabad members venerating Schneerson as the Messiah (both before and after his death), the two also disagreed on various issues of Jewish law and philosophy, but particularly politics. Chabad strongly opposed peace talks with the Palestinians or to relinquishing any Israeli territory under any circumstance, while Rav Shach alternately supported both left and right-wing parties in the Israeli electionsFact|date=October 2007. During the 1988 elections, Rav Schneerson endorsed Agudat Israel over Rav Shach's newly-formed Degel HaTorah party, and instructed Israeli Chabad to campaign for it.

At a major gathering in Bnei Brak on the eve of the elections of 5749, Rabbi Shach said, "...and now a man possessed by a dybbuk of control, of messianism, has risen up! He is the true baal machlokes, for he has never gone in step with the klal in his struggles and in his ideas. He has not joined us in any of the holy endeavors we have pursued. Not Chinuch Atzmai, not chinuch habonim, not our struggle for our daughters' purity — [the campaign for] the drafting of girls. He always went by himself, alone. How is he unique? From where did he draw his uniqueness? From Paris? This is a dybbuk of a messianism gone mad, drawing innocent people after him." [ [http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com/archives5763/vayakhel/ochabad.htm Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight - OPINION & COMMENT ] ]

Rav Shach is quoted as saying, "Even if I knew for certain that they would burn me alive, I would still not desist in my campaign against false messianism, for this is bona fide avodoh zorah." [http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com/archives5766/eikev/olubvlornczekv66.htm Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight - OPINION & COMMENT ] ]

Despite Rav Shach's opposition to Rav Schneersohn he nevertheless recited Tehillim when Rav Schneerson fell ill. Rav Shach explained “My battle is against his erroneous approach, against the movement, but not against the people in any personal way. I pray for the Rebbe’s recovery and simultaneously, also pray that he abandon his invalid way.”

Rav Shach wrote [ Michtavim U'Maamaromim 5:533 (pg. 137)] that he was not at all opposed to chassidim and chassidus (including Chassidus Chabad from the previous generations [ Michtavim U'Maamorim 2:23 (pg. 31) 1986 edition. ] ); he said he recognized them as "yera'im" and "shlaymim" and full of Torah and Mitzvos and fear of heaven. [ Michtavim U'Maamaromim 5:534 (pg. 138)] Shach often said and wrote that the slander spread against him about his persecution of chassidim was something he could never forgive, for it had transformed him into a baal machlokes, a disputant, at a time when he loved peace and pursued it to the nth degree. He is quoted as saying, "We are fighting against secularism in the yeshivas. Today, besiyata deShmaya people are learning Torah in both Chassidic and Lithuanian yeshivos. In my view there is no difference between them; all of them are important and dear to me. In fact, go ahead and ask your Chassidic friends with us at Ponevezh if I distinguish between Chassidic and Lithuanian bochurim." [ [http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com/archives5763/TZR63features2.htm Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight - IN-DEPTH FEATURES ] ]

Rabbi Elya Svei, one of the rosh yeshivas of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, said in his eulogy for Shach that "Another area in which Rav Shach took the sole initiative and responsibility was in the less than popular task of protesting Messianic proclivities within Lubavitch. Rav Shach assumed the responsibility of decrying this perversion. Rav Shach started to fight this battle alone. He illuminated the truth so that others could also see the posed threat and follow his lead." [ [http://www.tzemachdovid.org/gedolim/ravshach2.html Hesped for Rav Shach by Rav Elya Svei Shlit”a at Beis Medrash Govoah, Lakewood ] ]

In a conversation that he had with an American rabbi in the 1980s, Rabbi Shach stated, "The Americans think that I am too controversial and divisive. But in a time when no one else is willing to speak up on behalf of our true tradition, I feel myself impelled to do so." [Faith and Fate: The Story of the Jewish People in the 20th century, Berel Wein, 2001 by Shaar Press. pg. 340 ]


Rav Shach had three children, all born in Kletsk in the 1920s: Miriam Raisel, Devorah, and Ephraim. Miriam Raisel died as a teenager in 1939 of pneumonia. Devorah married Rabbi Meir Tzvi Bergman, a Torah scholar in Israel, and had several children. Ephraim was unsatisfied with the Haredi lifestyle and eventually became a member of the Religious Zionist camp. He served in the Israel Defense Forces, received a doctorate in history and philosophy, and presently works as a supervisor for the Israel Ministry of Education.

Rebbetzin Guttel Schach died in 1969 from complications relating to diabetes.


*"I remember how I was educated in my parents' home: when my yarmulke fell off my head, I was taught that you had to cry from distress. They were guided by a concern for the punctilious observance of mitzvos. Once I woke up after the "zman" Krias Shema according to the Magen Avraham and I burst out crying and continued to cry about it all day long."


* [http://www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/363_Transp/Orthodoxy/Shach.html Rabbi Shach and Lithuanian Anti-Zionism (E.Segal)]
* [http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=90196&contrassID=3&subContrassID=0&sbSubContrassID=0 From child genius to ultra-Orthodox leader, 1898-2001] , by Shahar Ilan, Haaretz, 2001.

External links

* [http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=90209&contrassID=3&subContrassID=0&sbSubContrassID=0 Collection of Haaretz links relating to Shach]
* [http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,588468,00.html Obituary] , by Lawrence Joffe, "The Guardian"
* [http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/17181/edition_id/339/format/html/displaystory.html Obituary] by David Landau, "Jewish Telegraphic Agency"
* [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C00E4D61F30F930A35752C1A9679C8B63 Article] in "The New York Times"
* [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1361490/Rabbi-Eliezer-Schach.html Article] in Telegraph
* [http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com/archives5762/chayesara/CS62aravshachbio.htm Obituary] from "Yated Ne'eman"
* [http://gadol2.blogspot.com/2006/07/rav-shach-ztl-as-bachur-in-europe.html Rabbi Shach as a student]
* [http://www.eilatgordinlevitan.com/kurenets/k_pages/kotler.html Anecdote about Rabbi Shach during World War I]
* [http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/jewishobserver/archives/feb/biography.htm Article about Rav Shach] from Jewish Observer
* [http://www.famousrabbis.com/shach.htm Eulogies for Rabbi Shach] given by Rabbi Elya Svei and Rabbi Meir Tzvi Bergman and [http://www.famousrabbis.com/shach.htm Article about Rabbi Shach] from Yated Ne'eman
* [http://www.aish.com/jewishissues/jewishsociety/We_Have_Lost_A_Father.asp Article about Rabbi Shach] from Jerusalem Post

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