Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Shabbos Project 2014 - Be a Part of It

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Rabbi Zelig Reuven Bengis

Rabbi Zelig Reuven Bengis and his Wife

Rabbi Zelig Reuven Bengis (1864 - 7 Sivan 1953) was one of the outstanding scholars from the previous generation. By the age of 17, he had already mastered the entire Talmud to such a degree that he was able to recite it forwards and backwards (literally.) He was born in the city of Shnipshik close to Vilna in Lita and arrived to learn in the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin at the age of 17. He received his Semicha from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin - known better as the Netziv - Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin. He also received his Semicha from Rabbi Elchanan Spektor and Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen (The Cheshek Shlomo). In 1894 (at the age of just 30) he was appointed as the Rav and Av Beit Din in Bodoki in Palach Hurdana and remained there until 1912. 

In 1938 he made Aliyah and worked as Rosh Yeshiva of Ohel Moshe. After the death of Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushensky in 1949, he became the head of the Eida HaCharedit and remained in this capacity until his death in 1953 - having lived 89 years. He is buried on Har Hamenuchot in Jerusalem. Some of his famous students include Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv and Rabbi Yisrael Grossman.

Once, it came to the attention of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik from Brisk that there was a Bachur (young student) named Zelig Reuven Bengis who could recite the entire ShaS (the Talmud) both forwards and backwards. He could not believe that such a young man was capable of this and asked to meet with him to test him. When Rabbi Soloveitchik met him and asked him whether the news was true, Rabbi Bengis answered that it would be better to test him. Rabbi Soloveitchik tested him by asking him to recite a particular piece of Gemara off by heart - only, this time, from the end of the Gemara backwards to its beginning! Indeed, he found the "rumour" to be 100% true - at which point in time he acknowledged the rumour, never having to test the young Bachur again!

Once, when he was just a young student in Yeshiva, a wealthy man approached the Yeshiva with the news that he would donate an entire carton of wine (12 bottles) to the Yeshiva if the student Zelig Reuven Bengis could pass his test. In those days, such an offer was well sought after and to receive such a prize was a true gift! The Bachur approached, and the wealthy man began his test. He asked the young man to recite a certain Mishna in one section of the Talmud off by heart. Then he was to recite another Mishna from a different place - also off by heart. However, there was a catch! He would have to intertwine the two Mishnayot by reciting the first word of the first Mishna and then the first word of the second Mishna. Then he would have to recite the second word of the second Mishna with the second word of the second Mishna and so on. Indeed, Rav Bengis did not fail the test, winning the much sought out wine for the Yeshiva!

Once, when he was already acting in the capacity as Rav, a young man learning in Kollel approach Rav Bengis to talk with him in learning. He was over impressed with himself and filled with great pride that he was able to discuss the issues with the great Rabbi. When Rav Bengis saw his arrogance, he gently put him in his place. Rav Bengis asked the young man to select any book from the bookshelf that he would like to learn. Then he was to recite just a few words from anywhere on the page and that he would continue. Rav Bengis then began tor recite word for word the remaining words on the page, continuing with a lengthy discussion discussing the points. He then asked the young man to select another book and do the same - and continued this way with a third and fourth book. By the end of the day, the young man had learnt a fortune of Torah and seen the real greatness of a true Torah giant. At this point, Rav Bengis gently berated the Avreich. He explained to him that in truth man is just worms (Rima Ve'Toleah) and there was no need for such a being to be filled with pride - since after all, he will one day leave this world in any case and this is how he will end up!

The Netziv very much wanted to "show off" his student at one point in time but never seemed to have the chance. One day, the Russian authorities approach the Netziv reprimanding him for having set up a Yeshiva which did not teach the secular values of the government - to such a degree that the men in Yeshiva did not even know the Russian language! The Netziv critisized them heavily stating that not only were the students knowledgeable in the Russian language, but they did in fact listen to all the instructions told to them by the government. He even had such a student who would recite everything over word for word and even backwards - so attentive was he! The official decided to test the Netziv by giving over a lecture and then asking the students questions. When the lecture was over, the Netziv asked Rav Zelig Reuven Bengis to tell them what they had said. Rav Bengis relayed over word for word every single thing the authority had said - and then said it over yet again from the end to the beginning in reverse order! The authorities, upset at having been defeated replied that one could prove nothing from the uniqueness of such a person!

Rabbi Shurin in his book Sefer Keshet Giburin 1:40 tells over that he remembers visiting Rav Bengis in Jerusalem in 1939 - when he was then the head of the Edia HaChareidit. Even at the age of 80, he attached no special importance to himself or his role. He lived in a two and a half room apartment - very modest with simple and old furniture. His house was open for visitors all the time. He had no servants, Gabbaim or Shamashim to assist him - attending to everything on his own. There were never special times to see him, and he would receive everyone whenever they came through!

It was said that the Rav completed the entire Talmud 101 times in his life. He would be making a Siyum (celebratory meal) for the completion of the Talmud every so often. But on one occasion, he celebrated a Siyum just a couple of months after the previous Siyum. This made no sense. Some 60 days to complete 2711 double sided pages?! When asked how he managed it - he replied that this Siyum was a most special one! He explained that he had been asked on many occasions to fulfill some sort of rabbinical role for others - whether being the Mesader Kiddushin for a marriage, or invited to other celebratory meals etc. He realised soon enough that much time was wasted as he would stand around waiting for things to get going! He decided quickly to begin a new cycle of learning Talmud just for those particular occasions. "Now," he said, "this celebratory Siyum is due to completing the entire Shas just in those 5 minute waiting periods every time!"

His talk was always filled with Torah. Once, when Rav Shurin was young, he wanted to test the Rav - as is the custom of certain Bachurim who wish to find out exactly where their teachers are "holding". He asked the Rav if he agreed to be tested to which he acquiesced. He explained how he should be tested. "Take any Gemara you wish," he said, "flip through the bottom of the pages." he said, "take a look at the very bottom of the page and read out just three or four words from the smallest print. Take the Gemara, the Rashi, the Tosefot or anything and read just three or four words, and I will tell you which Gemara you are reading from and the page you are on." Rav Shurin did as the Rav asked and every time he received the correct answer - exactly! Masechet - such and such. Page such and such. In this could be seen his pure simplicity and his desire to show and teach his students the love of Torah and how it should be studied.

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