The life and accomplishments of Rabbi Elyah Lopian
By Rabbi David J. Schlossberg
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
For many years, Reb Elyah had wanted to make his home in Eretz Yisrael. He used to speak a great deal about the Vilna Gaons unfulfilled, burning desire to live in Eretz Yisrael. Reb Elyah often said that he wanted to hear Torah in Eretz Yisrael. After having dedicated 25 years of his life to Yeshivas Eitz Chaim, Reb Elyah passed the leadership of the yeshivah over to Rav Greenspan.
Reb Elyah moved to Israel in 5710 (1950), when he was 76 years old. His first visit to Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav, was during the Festival of Succos. He entered the succah, after which he sat at the table opposite the Brisker Rav, and spoke only a few words.
After that, Reb Elyah sat in silence for half an hour, then he rose, said, Gut Yom Tov again, and left. The Brisker Rav accompanied Reb Elyah down the steps and all the way to the street, which was something the Rav never did. When he returned to the succah, the Brisker Rav was visibly shaken. He paced back and forth, repeating again and again, Ich hob nisht gevust az ess is noch doh [I had no idea that there is such a person alive today].
He then turned to his sons who had remained seated at the table and said, Did you see him? Dos hot Reb Yisrael Salanter gemeint [This individual is the personification of what Reb Yisrael Salanter intended]! This gadol hador, who so clearly understood the meaning of true closeness to G-d in every sense of the word, saw in Reb Elyah a shining example of spiritual achievement that far surpassed the standards of his generation.
When the Brisker Rav had left Reb Elyah, Reb Elyah turned to the others with whom he was walking and told them in consternation, I have neglected to fulfill the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. The Shulchan Aruch rules that we must relate to one who is a gadol hador as rav hamuvhak (the rebbi who had imparted to us the majority of our knowledge). To my rav hamuvhak, I am obligated to say the blessing: Shecholak MiChochmaso LiYereiov -- Who has apportioned of His Wisdom to those who fear Him. I neglected to say those words due to my tremendous excitement at meeting this Torah giant.
WHEN HE ARRIVED IN YERUSHALAYIM, REB ELYAH STAYED in the home of his illustrious brother-in-law, Rav Yisrael Luria. His wifes brother, who had originally borne the name Rottman had changed his name to Luria in Europe, in order to avoid the draft.
Rav Luria was delivering daily shiurim in the Great Shul in the Zichron Moshe neighborhood during the time Reb Elyah was staying with him. Although Reb Elyah had hoped to lead a quiet life in Israel, he agreed to his brother-in-laws request that he speak at the Great Shul. Reb Elyah intended this derashah to be a one-time event, as a token of his gratitude for Rav Lurias hospitality.
The Shabbos on which he spoke was Parashas Shoftim, and the topic he chose was the prohibition of male members of the nations of Amon and Moav to convert to Judaism. His derashah, as always, was exemplary. Although he was certainly not a young man, Reb Elyahs voice boomed forth with its famous lion-like quality as he spoke the fiery words that emanated from the purity of his heart.
His particular style of speaking to laymen on mussar-related topics, in his inspiring darshan melody, was something never before experienced by his listeners, who were moved and amazed by what they heard. This one powerful derashah inspired his audience, awakening all those present to the concept of learning mussar.
Reb Elyahs reputation spread quickly, and people said that a new star had begun to shine in the spiritual heavens of Yerushalayim. People began to tell each other what they had heard about Reb Elyahs derashos in Europe, where thousands would flock to hear him speak for hours on end. The entire crowd would thirstily take in his every word, they related. Soon, the word that a lion had risen from Babylon spread.
When Reb Elyah was returning to his brother-in-laws home on Friday night after having delivered that first shmuess in Zichron Moshe, an elderly gentleman approached him. Sholom aleichem, Reb Elyah! the man greeted him, to which Reb Elyah answered him cordially, Shalom aleichem.
Do you recognize me? the gentleman persisted.
Ever truthful under all circumstances, Reb Elyah answered him, No, I dont.
Do you remember that when you learned in Lomza nearly 70 years ago there was a bachur there known as Mordechai David of Kobrin?
Of course I remember! responded Reb Elyah. He was a tremendously bright and talented young fellow.
That fellow was me, explained the gentleman. His name was Reb Mordechai David Levin, a Rosh Yeshivah in Yeshivas Eitz Chaim and author of Sefer Darchei David on Shas. But I remember you as well. You were the greatest yarei shamayim in that entire yeshivah of 400 boys. I used to sit near you to daven, to be warmed up by the fire of your earnest tefillos.
Yes, yes, Reb Elyah reminisced. Ive become spoiled since then!
The very next day, a delegation approached Reb Elyah to invite him to give a mussar shmuess in the House of Mussar in the Kelilas Shaul Shul of the Meah Shearim Yeshivah. Reb Elyah declined, explaining to them that he had come to Eretz Yisrael to listen, not to preach. The delegation then spent nearly two hours with him, trying to convince him of the great need for his words of inspiration and begging him to accept. He finally agreed to speak.
(Reb David Lopian relates that when it became known that Reb Elyah would speak for the first time in the House of Mussar, Reb Chatzkel Levenstein attended, accompanied by a small group of his confidants. His intent was to ascertain whether or not Reb Elyah had become corrupted during the years he had spent in London. The criterion would be whether he would speak in mussar or in derush [personal expositions, that is, his own approach to Torah study, based on his personal taste]. Had he spoken in derush, it would have been a sign to them that he had indeed become corrupted in London. Reb Elyah, of course, passed the test admirably.)
Reb Elyahs decision to speak publicly once he arrived in Israel was a very difficult one for him, because he had hoped to avoid any leadership roles at this stage of his life. He was finally influenced by Rav Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, the Chazon Ish, with whom he had an audience soon after he arrived in Israel. When the Chazon Ish asked him what he expected to do in Eretz Yisrael, Reb Elyah explained that his desire was to learn and imbibe the Torah of the gedolim who were then living there. He was convinced that at his age it would not have been realistic for him to seek a position such as mashgiach and spiritual mentor for teenagers.
The Chazon Ish blessed him with the words of the psalm (92:15): Od yenuvun beseivah, desheinim veraananim yihyu -- They shall yield fruit even in a ripe old age. Pirkei Avos (Chapter 5) explains that seivah refers to that stage of life when a man is in his 70s. The Chazon Ish then added (ibid., 16), Lehagid ki yashar Hashem -- To proclaim that Hashem is righteous; yes, at your age you are to be a maggid -- a preacher.
After his first shmuess at the House of Mussar, a small circle of distinguished individuals attached themselves to Reb Elyah, and under his leadership they took upon themselves an intense mussar regimen. Rav David Zvi Eliach, a member of this exclusive group, described the experience.
We were so lovingly drawn to Reb Elyah that we could not be satisfied by his public appearances alone. We entreated him to address us on a regular basis. He listened to us respectfully, but declined our request.
We would not relent. So insistent were we that he finally agreed to form a vaad with us -- an organization for the strengthening of guidance in the service of Hashem. He insisted that the vaad be run on his terms. His sole condition was that he would be merely one of the group, equally bound to fulfill all of the resolutions established by the group.
It goes without saying that he kept every resolution to the last detail. In fact, he was the strongest member of the group in terms of self-improvement. He was so sensitive to the concept of fairness in being an equal partner that he refused to allow us to come to him for every meeting. Often he would come to meet us at our place of learning.
The tenth will be holy (Vayikra 27:32), they declared, and so on the tenth day of every month, they imposed upon themselves strict regulations, in order to perfect themselves in the service of G-d. The group maintained this program for four years, until Reb Elyah left Yerushalayim.
ALWAYS EXPECTING MORE OF HIMSELF, REB ELYAH NEVER HESitated to accept responsibility for his own shortcomings. Once, when he was returning with Reb Chatzkel Levenstein from a hesped for a family member, Reb Chatzkel commented, I heard youve lost the eyesight in one of your eyes.
When Reb Elyah admitted that he had, Reb Chatzkel asked him what had caused the loss of his sight. The question seemed to surprise Reb Elyah. What do you mean, what caused it? he responded. If you look where youre not allowed to look, you lose your eyesight. Its a miracle that I still have the second eye!
In fact, he had lost his eyesight in what should have been a simple operation to remove a cataract. Although the surgery was considered to be routine, his family took every precaution. They hired Dr. Ticho, one of the most famous ophthalmologists in the world, to perform the operation.
While the surgery was in progress, Reb Elyahs blood pressure rose dramatically, destroying his eye and endangering his life. For several weeks he remained in the hospital, bedridden, his life hanging in the balance. Tefillos were said on his behalf in all the yeshivos, and Reb Elyah recovered.
Dr. Ticho was baffled, explaining that every step had been taken to ensure the safety of the operation, and all of his examinations prior to the operation had shown Reb Elyah to be in the perfect condition to undergo the routine procedure. We could not have known, said Dr. Ticho, that his blood pressure would have risen so suddenly. We are still researching the case to determine what could have caused it, but so far we have no clue.
Reb Elyah was not at all baffled. Several years later, when he needed to undergo a different type of surgery, the operation passed successfully and unremarkably. When several of his talmidim went to visit him in the hospital, they found him in high spirits, his face aglow. At that time he told them with a smile, Surely you remember my eye operation, when I was in such great danger. I can tell you why that happened. Before I got on to the operating table, I considered the significance of what was happening to me. My thoughts at that time were, They are now judging me in Heaven, so I have to repent.
I began to think through my past deeds, and I remembered in detail everything I had done from the time I was 12 years old until that moment [he was then over 80]. I dwelled on my past -- is it any wonder that my blood pressure jumped so high and that my condition became critical? Remembering that, before this operation I didnt think about my past at all, and thank G-d, everything went well.
RAV MOSHE AHARON STERN, THEN A YOUNG MAN STUDYING IN the Kaminetz Yeshivah, was among those present at the first shmuess Reb Elyah delivered in the Great Shul in Zichron Moshe. He spoke fire! recalled Rav Stern, who was, until his death in Adar 5758 (1998), mashgiach in the Kaminetz Yeshivah. I had never heard a speech in that style!
So enthusiastic was Rav Stern that he later approached his Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Moshe Bernstein, and described to him what he had experienced. We need a mashgiach in our yeshivah. Perhaps Reb Elyah Lopian could fill the position?
Rav Bernstein told Rav Stern, Since it was your idea, you invite Reb Elyah to speak in the yeshivah, and Ill speak to him then. Reb Elyah spoke in Kaminetz with eloquent zeal, and Rav Bernstein invited him to deliver mussar shmuessen in his yeshivah on a regular basis. With the invitation came the offer of room and board in the yeshivah.
It was an attractive invitation, for Reb Elyah did not wish to impose upon his brother-in-law any longer. He accepted the position, joining the staff of the Kaminetz Yeshivah as its mashgiach. He moved into the Kaminetz dormitory, and that became his home for the next four years. As mashgiach, he delivered a weekly shmuess and cultivated a close relationship with every bachur, encouraging them all to grow constantly in Torah, in tefillah, and in midos tovos.
ALTHOUGH YESHIVA KAMINETZ HAD BECOME THE CENtral focus of his life, Reb Elyah concerned himself with Torah and avodas Hashem throughout Yerushalayim. In the year 5712 (1952) a bachur studying at Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi approached his Rosh Yeshivah, Reb Michel David Shlepoverski, and informed him that two distinguished-looking gentlemen were in the courtyard of the yeshivah building, and had been waiting for him there for nearly half an hour.
Reb Michel David hurried out to the courtyard and was amazed to find Reb Elyah and Reb Chatzkel Levenstein waiting patiently. Overcome with emotion, Reb Michel David asked them why they had troubled themselves by traveling to his yeshivah.
Today is the yahrtzeit of Reb Nachum Velvel, the son of Reb Simcha Zissel Ziv (the Alter of Kelm), Reb Elyah began. Reb Chatzkel and I have been deliberating over a fitting mussar-resolution to be enacted in his honor. We know that you head a mussar-type yeshivah here; however, it has come to our attention that the yeshivahs seder begins in the morning only after Shacharis.
Tefillah in a yeshivah is of paramount importance. We have come to request that you arrange to have Shacharis davened in the yeshivah. This would add to the influence the yeshivah has on its talmidim and would be a tremendous tribute to the memory of Reb Nachum Velvel.
Reb Michel David replied that he understood the value of tefillah in the yeshivah, and that he too would prefer to have Shacharis there. Nevertheless, he pointed out, at that time food was being rationed in Eretz Yisrael according to family size, and was not available to large institutions such as his. The unfortunate fact was that the yeshivah was unable to provide breakfast for the talmidim. It was for this reason that the yeshivahs day began only after the bachurim had eaten at home.
Can the yeshivah offer hot tea? Reb Elyah persisted. Reb Michel David responded that hot tea would certainly be no problem for the yeshivah to provide. If that is the case, said Reb Elyah, I would like to ask your permission to speak to your talmidim. Of course, Reb Michel David did not refuse him.
Reb Elyah stood in the front of the beis medrash and discussed the importance of davening in a yeshivah. Because of the difficulty involved in providing them with a proper breakfast, he asked that each bachur explain to his parents the importance of the matter and ask them to send a sandwich or two from home for him to eat for breakfast. The yeshivah would provide them with hot tea to drink with their sandwiches. Reb Elyah told them what specific words they should use to convince their families to cooperate in this matter.
The bachurim were unanimous in their acceptance of Reb Elyahs suggestion, and from that day on, Shacharis was davened in Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi. For nearly a year, Reb Elyah came to Tiferes Tzvi every morning to daven with them and to strengthen their minyan.
Reb Shalom Schwadron delivered a regular shiur in Tiferes Tzvi. Once Reb Shalom was preparing to speak when Reb Elyah left the beis medrash. As soon as Reb Elyah walked out, Reb Shalom lay down on the floor for several moments.
When he got up, he explained to the group of talmidim who had gathered around him, I wanted to fulfill the recommendation of Chazal, You should wallow in the dust of the feet of talmidei chachamim. I take these words very literally. You see -- here is the very spot where Reb Elyah stood just a minute ago!
Reb Shalom Schwadron told several stories of the years Reb Elyah spent in the Kaminetz Yeshivah, and his attitudes towards life in general. He related that one day Reb Elyah tripped as he was climbing the steps to enter the yeshivah. Rather than continue, Reb Elyah remained seated on the steps where he had fallen. Several of the talmidim immediately rushed to his side and inquired whether he was all right.
Thank G-d, I am fine! he responded.
The bachurim were not satisfied. If you havent been hurt, they persisted, then why arent you getting up? The fact that you are still sitting on the steps is an indication that you are in pain!
Oh, no! Reb Elyah was quick to tell them. I am not in any pain at all! The reason I am still sitting here is that I am trying to understand why it is that I deserved to fall!
A former talmid of Yeshivas Kaminetz described a fascinating encounter with Reb Elyah which demonstrated his extraordinary humility:
I met Reb Elyah in Yeshivas Chevron late one night, when no one else was in the beis medrash. He was sitting and learning Sefer Shaarei Teshuvah of Rabbeinu Yonah with a concentration and depth that I had never witnessed before. It was obvious to me that he was steeped in holy thoughts of the uppermost heavenly spheres.
I sat down opposite him and simply gazed at his glowing face. The experience was so amazing to me, for I could actually feel a wonderful aura of holiness surrounding him. From the time I entered the yeshivah, he did not lift his head, nor did he move it, for a full hour. I assumed that this was the time he had set aside to involve himself in neemanus -- absolute focus on the service of his Creator.
Eventually he closed the sefer, lifted his head and rose from his place. Apparently, he saw the amazement on my face. He took my hand in his and walked with me towards the door. Then he asked me to sit down with him, and he began to speak with me.
Reb Yankel, Reb Yankel! I have been giving a great deal of thought to this lately. As our Sages have written, in the World to Come we will be brought before our parents, our family, our colleagues . . . all that we have become will be exposed before them. This means that after my 120 years have passed, you will be shown this Elyah! Then you will see the truth -- you will see who and what he really is! I tremble from that shame! I shudder from that embarrassment! Yes, yes, I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately. I tremble from that shame! I shudder from that embarrassment!
I was visibly shaken by his words. All that he told me had made a deep impression on me, but I was especially gripped with fear when he referred to me -- simple young layman that I knew I was -- as his colleague. I certainly did not feel that I would be one of those who would be brought to view him in the World of Truth!
I did not need to say a word to him. He could see that he had not succeeded in lowering his status in my eyes. On the contrary, having witnessed in this instance his phenomenal modesty, I felt a deeper respect for him than ever before. In fact, at that moment I stood utterly in awe of him.
He responded with a broken-hearted groan, Yes, yes! Here you think that I am a mezuzah, but -- alas! -- there the real truth will be known. Oh, the shame! The embarrassment! He then wished me a good night and took his leave.
WHEN HE WOULD VISIT KFAR CHASSIDIM, REB SHALOM Schwadron shared a room with Reb Elyah. Once during that period, Reb Elyah said to him, I would like to pass on to you the fundamentals of Kabbalah as I have received them from the Leshem (Rav Shlomo Elyashiv).
Reb Shalom Schwadron tactfully refused his offer. Although I am already over 40, he explained, I dont feel that I have sufficiently filled my belly with Shas and Poskim.
Several years later, Reb Shalom met Reb Elyah in Kfar Chassidim, and asked him if he would still transmit to him the fundamentals of Kabbalah.
I am so sorry! Reb Elyah lamented. Youve come too late. I am no longer in a position to transmit all that I have learned in chochmas hasod.
His mussar shmuessen in Yeshivas Kaminetz were as forceful as ever. Reb Elyah never closed his eyes when he spoke publicly, but he said that he never saw anyone when he was speaking. Nevertheless, every person present felt that Reb Elyah was gazing directly at him. When a bachur in Kaminetz asked him how it was possible to stare at people without seeing them, he said it was due to his intense concentration on what he was saying.
The bachur then asked Reb Elyah to teach him how to achieve this level of concentration. You are already too old to learn this skill, was his response. It requires a great deal of effort at a much younger age.
This same bachur related that one morning he visited Reb Elyah in his room. Reb Elyah welcomed him warmly, invited him to sit down, and said that he would make him a cup of coffee. The bachur, unwilling to bother Reb Elyah to serve him the coffee, decided to involve him in a discussion to distract him.
His plan was effective, and they sat together and spoke for quite some time. While Reb Elyah was speaking in depth about the subject the bachur had chosen, the bachur rose and prepared himself a cup of tea. He placed it on a small stool that rested between them.
They ended their conversation some time after he had finished drinking the cup of tea. Reb Elyah suddenly remembered his original intention and said, Oh, my! I wanted to bring you a cup of coffee -- Ill go now and prepare it.
Theres no need, replied the bachur. Ive already made myself a cup of tea. In fact, Ive already finished it.
May you be well! exclaimed Reb Elyah in disbelief. If you had done so, wouldnt I have seen it? It was only when the bachur showed him the empty cup still resting on the stool between them that he believed him.
Since it related to their discussion about this level of concentration, Reb Elyah told him a story of Reb Simcha Zissel of Kelm. When Reb Simcha Zissel was a young man, and his eldest daughter, Nechama Liba, was an infant, he lived with his family in a tiny room. The room was so small and narrow that it was questionable whether or not it needed a mezuzah.
One night he awoke after midnight and, leaning on his trunk, he delved deeply into his thoughts. The baby awoke suddenly with a loud cry and his wife, aware that Reb Simcha Zissel was awake, was certain that he would calm her. When he took no notice of the child, she called to him, asking him to see to the childs needs. He did not react, so she called to him several times more.
Finally in her frustration she shouted at him, Whats the matter with you -- you didnt hear the baby crying, and even when I called you several times you didnt hear me!
Reb Simcha Zissel gave a shudder, as if he had been awakened from a deep sleep. May you be well, he answered. You must realize that had I heard the baby, I certainly would have gone to her!