This is not a conventional rabbinic biography. The facts recorded here have hardly ever appeared in print or been made public. They are drawn from personal recollections and family archives, and are intended to capture the spirit and soul of a great posek.
Rav Moshe was born to Dovid and Fia Gittel Feinsteinon on the seventh day of Adar, 5755 (March 3, 1895) in the town of Uzda in White Russia. A study of his Yichus - lineage will facilitate an understanding and appreciation of Rav Moshe Zt’I’s aristocratic bearing and the feeling of self-confidence which accompanied him from his earliest days as a posek. He truly embodied the saying of our sages, Maan Malki, Rabanan - “Who are our kings? Our Torah greats!”
Rav Moshe’s father, Rav Dovid Zt’l, was a direct descendent of Rav Avrohom, brother of the Villna Gaon and author of the Maalos HaTorah. The Villna Gaon and his brother Rav Avrohom were direct descendants of the author of Be’er HaGolah, whose notations on every page of the Shulchan Aruch provide source references for all who study the Shulachan Aruch. Rav Avraham's grandson was Rav Tzvi Kamai Zt’l, who founded the Mirrer Yeshiva. Rav Kamai's son-in-law, Rav Tzvi Finkel Zt’l later became Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Moshe was related to all of them.
Rav Moshe's immediate ancestry was his father, R' Dovid; grandfather, R' Yechiel Michel; and great-grandfather, Rav Dovid. Rav Dovid, (the great-grandfasther) was a Koidenover Chasid but it is uncertain as to when and why Chasidus entered the Feinstein family. As a young boy, Rav Dovid was recognized as an extraordinary talmid chacham and he later became an extremely wealthy financier. It was Rav Dovid who established the family custom of standing motionless while praying Shemoneh Esreh, like a servant before a king. Rav Dovid was very respected by the local gentiles and served as financial advisor and estate steward to the local lord. One day, in drunken revelry, the paritz, lord of the manor, boasted to his friends about Rav Dovid’s phenomenal powers of concentration. His friends challenged him to put his boast to the test and while Rav Dovid was standing in intense prayer during Mincha Shemoneh Esreh, the paritz fired a musket inches from Rav Dovid’s head. Rav Dovid did not even pause in his devotional concentration. This incredible behavior was discussed widely and Rav David became renowned among Jews and non-Jews for his exemplary relationship with the Ribbono Shel Olam.
Rav Moshe’s paternal grandmother died young, and Rav Dovid was raised by his father’s second wife, Raize a’h. One of Rav Moshe’s sisters was named Shoshana Hyd’, the Hebrew equivalent of Raize, in recognition of their step-grandmother’s love and devotion. Rav Dovid’s father, Rav Yechiel Michel, was also a remarkable scholar and known as such from a tender age.
Rav Moshe’s father Dovid was known as an illuy. When Eliyahu Feinstein (different family), the Rav of Pruzhan and maternal grandfather of Rav Yoseph Dov Soleveitchik’s, was looking for a chasan for his sister-in-law (daughter of Rav Yitzchak Yechiel Halevi Davidowitz of Karelitz), he rejected Rav Dovid because he was a Chasid. But when the 24 year old Rav Eliyahu Pruzhaner met the 13 year old Dovid, he was so impressed with his mastery of Torah and brilliance that he agreed to take him as a chasan for his sister-in-law - on condition that he give up Chassidus and spend four years of study at the yeshiva in Voloshin.
Rav Dovid agreed, and under the tutelage of Rav Refoel Shapiro and Rav Yitzchak Fried, who directed the yeshiva in the years before the Netziv became Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Dovid became a committed Volozhiner. At the age of seventeen, Rav Dovid married Fia Gittel, sister of Guta Kisha (maternal grandmother of Rav Yoseph Dov Soleveitchik) and daughter of Rav Yitzchak Yechiel Halevi , Av Beis Din of Karelitz. Rav Moshe Zt'l and Rav Yoseph Dov Zt'l mother were first cousins.
Special note ought to be taken of the great tzidkus of Rav Moshe’s uncle, Rav Eliyahu Pruzhaner (Feinstein). Rav Eliyahu turned down the illustrious rabbunus of Kletzk, a major city of talmidei chachamim, and accepted the rabbanus in the small town of Karelitz where his in-laws lived. He did so on condition that when he left the rabbinate of Karelitz, for whatever reason, the town would accept Rav Moshe’s father, Rav Dovid Feinstein, as rabbi in his place. Rav Eliyahu made this request because his brother-in-law, Rav Dovid, had accepted the lifelong obligation of caring for their mother-in-law, the widow of Rav Yitzchak Yechiel Halevi Davidowitz.
Rav Moshe often said that the real meyuchesses of the Feinstein family was his mother, Fia Gittel. As the daughter of Rav Yitzchok Yechiel, she was a direct descendent of the author of Seder Hadoros, the historical record of the Mesora - the line of transmission of the Oral Torah from Sinai. Moreover, he was considered one of the greatest Talmudic minds of all generations and could trace his yichus directly back to Dovid Hamelech. as could the Maharal, also a member of this illustrious family.
In describing the great yichus of his mother, Rav Moshe would add, that his maternal grandfather, Rav Yitzchok Yechiel Davidowitz, could trace his Yichus in direct line of male descent from the Shelah HaKadosh. Rav Yitzchok Yechiel was also the sixth generation in the line of the rabbanim of Kappula in Russia which was famous for its great talmidei chachamim. The most famous was Ber Kappula, a figure of almost mythical standing. Non-Jews from all of Russia came to him for brachos.
The Kappula rabbanim were descendants of Yom Tov Heller, the Tosefos Yom Tov. Because of certain tragedies and subsequent salvations that happened to him during the years he was persecuted by the Russian government, the Tosefos Yom Tov declared for his family and descendants certain days of fasting and celebration. Rav Moshe’s father, Rav Dovid, kept that obligation, fasting and celebrating those days. My son, Rav Mordecai, who served as his grandfather’s aide and secretary for almost twenty years, has taken this obligation upon himself.
Rav Moshe also spoke of a great-grandmother named Rochel, who grew up in the same town as the son-in-law of the Baal HaTanya. She had a brilliant mind with an insatiable love of Torah, but there were no schools for girls in those days. After her parents sought advice from the local Rav as how to deal with their extremely gifted child, the rabbanim of the town permitted her sit in the back of the cheder . Among the young boys learning at that time in the cheder was the Tzemach Tzedek, who became the third Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Rav Moshe did not hear this story from his own family, but learned of it while he was Rav in Luban. At that time, the Lubavitcher Rebbe had convened a conference of Russian rabbonim, and Rav Moshe and Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer were asked to attend. Rav Moshe questioned the invitation since he had no direct relationship with the Lubavitcher in Russia. The Rebbe sent him a note explaining, and I quote Rav Moshe, “Your Bobbe belonged to us. She studied with our Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek.”
Rav Yitzchok Yechiel Davidowitz had four sons-in-law. The first, Rav Eliyahu Pruzhaner, (Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik's grandfather). The second was Rav Yaakov Kanterovitz, who Rav Moshe refers to in his Iggros Moshe, as “my Uncle the great Gaon,” and served as the Rav of Trenton, New Jersey. The third was Rav Dovid Feinstein. The fourth was Rav Moshe Katzeneleson, whose son, Berel Katzeneleson, became David Ben Gurion’s mentor. By coincidence, Rav Eliyahu Pruzhaner and Rav Dovid died on the same day, Tishrei 27, a year apart. All the cousins, the descendants of these four sons-in-law, remained very close, even though some of the Katzenelsons had already distanced themselves from a Torah life.
Now for some insights into Rav Moshe’s personality. Rav Moshe’s reputation as a great talmid chacham dated from his childhood. When he was nine years old, Rav Eliyahu Feinstein (Pruzhaner) visited his brother-in-law, Rav Dovid. When the young Moshe walked in, Rav Eliyahu stood up as a sign of respect for his exceptional nephew. Rav Dovid, who never raised his voice, exploded in anger, and I quote as Rav Moshe related, “Do you want to destroy my son?” and ordered Rav Moshe out of the room. As this incident illustrates, Rav Moshe’s legendary modesty was a direct reflection of the meticulous upbringing provided by his father and mother. Rav Moshe considered his father to be his primary teacher with whom he studied three Sedarim of Shas. The methodology Rav Dovid followed was the Volozhiner curriculum which involved the detailed analysis of every line of every page of all of Shas from Brachos to Nidah.
Even as a young boy, Rav Moshe’s diligence earned the respect of his elders, who were themselves great talmeidei chachamim. He remained in the Beis Hamedresh all day without interruption. His sister, Chana a’h, would bring his meals to the Bais Medresh. She later became renowned for her chesed and intelligence as the Rebbitzen of Rav Yitzchok Smal Zt’l, one of the leaders of the Chicago rabbinate. With his family’s help and support, Rav Moshe was nineteen when he completed his study of Shas for the first time. Rav Dovid then sent Rav Moshe for one year to the nearby town of Slusk, to study under the tutelage of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer. A dispute arose between Rav Isser Zalman and his Mashgiach, Rav Pesach Pruskin. They decided to take their dispute to a Din Torah and they chose Rav Dovid to be the Dayan. Rav Dovid ruled that Rav Pesach Pruskin could take ten talmidim and establish a new yeshiva. Rav Moshe was chosen to be one of the ten and left Rav Isser Zalman to study with Rav Pesach Pruskin for three years. During that time he lived in Rav Pesach’s house and became extremely close to him. Rav Moshe lead a chaburah in Ketzos Hachoshen, which explains his special mastery of that classic work.
The Gaon, Rav Gustman Zt’l reported that Rav Moshe’s derech (methodology) in learning came from his father and from Rav Pesach. It was Rav Gustman who told us many stories about Rav Moshe’s intellectual prowess and exemplary character. Due to his extreme modesty, Rav Moshe would never relate these stories himself, but after Rav Gustman told them he confirmed their veracity. Rav Pesach used to say that it was a special zechus to have had a talmid, Rav Moshe, who surpassed him many fold.
The following anecdote provides an insight into the gedolim of the last generation. As stated above, Rav Isser Zalman and Rav Pesach Pruskin had a falling out and went to a din Torah. Despite their differences, when Rav Pesach Pruskin arranged the chanukas habayis of his new yeshiva, the guest speaker was none other than Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer. Rav Moshe was honored to give a public shiur in celebration of the yeshiva’s dedication, a shiur which he later published, without modification, in the Dibros Moshe on Bava Kamma.
As a young talmid chacham Rav Moshe was already recognized as among the premier poskim in Russia. He had a dispute with Rav Yechezkel Abramsky Zt’l as to the permissibility of a woman going to the mikvah with a plug of cotton in her ear. The woman had undergone surgery for mastoiditis and needed the cotton plug to prevent water from entering her ear and causing serious medical complications. Rav Moshe was the Rav of Luban and Rav Abramsky was the Rav of Slutsk. Rav Moshe permitted the tevilah and Rav Abramsky prohibited immersing with the cotton in her ear. As was customary in those days on issues of great impor, both response were forwarded to the Beis Din of Rav Chaim Ozer in Villna for review and adjudication. Rav Gustman, who was then the youngest member of Rav Chaim Ozer’s Beis Din, related that Rav Chaim Ozer said that he too had written a responsum agreeing with Rav Moshe, but that “Rav Moshe’s teshuva was several levels more brilliant than mine.” He then added, “There are two brothers in Russia much greater than I who study Torah with the tradition that goes back to Ezra HaSofer – Rav Moshe in Luban and Rav Mordechai in Shklov.”
In 1915, Russia was losing World War I and needed more men on the front line. To fill their ranks, all military draft exemptions for rabbinical students were canceled and rabbinical students had to appear at the draft-board to register. Rav Moshe, who had an uncanny sense of people, time, and place, decided that it was better to register at the regional draft board and ask for a deferment rather than do so at the local draft-board. Having fled war-torn Radin, the Chafetz Chaim was staying in the town of Gomel. Rav Moshe, his brother Yakov and their father Rav Dovid decided to stop in Gomel on the way to the regional draft-board and request a bracha from the Chafetz Chaim. Rav Dovid introduced his sons and explained the reason for their visit. The Chafetz Chaim answered, “It says that whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah is exempt from the yoke of secular obligations”. However, the text does not say “that the yoke of secular obligations will not be imposed,” rather, “that it will be removed.” Rav Moshe accepted this as a very meaningful baracha from the Chofetz Chaim. This was the only time Rav Moshe ever met the Chofetz Chaim.
When they reached the regional board there was a very long line waiting to be processed. Rav Moshe suggested to his father, “Let’s talk to those who are leaving so that we can find out what is facing us.” After speaking to many of the young men who had already been processed they learned that even the lame and the ill were being drafted - despite their obvious infirmities. Rav Moshe decided that it was not yet a good time to present himself and ask for a deferment; instead, they returned to their hotel. A few hours later it was announced that new deferment rules would be issued the next day. The new rules did not apply to those already drafted but it did apply to both Jewish and Christian clergy who had not yet been processed. The new rules stated that whereas clergy students were no longer eligible for military deferment, rabbinic functionaries, twenty-five and older, would be eligible. At that time Rav Moshe was twenty years old and not yet a "rabbinic functionary. However, Rav Dovid was able to bribe a local official to change Rav Moshe’s birth certificate and make him 5 years older. They now had to arrange for Rav Moshe to become a rabbinic functionary.
In order to be classified as a “rabbinic functionary,” Rav Moshe was accepted as the Rav of Uzda. However, the kavod and the pageantries of the rabbunus conflicted with his innate sense of modesty and he soon resigned. With his brother, Rav Mordechai, he went to the nearby town of Izdarobin, and established a yeshiva. The town was considered a true “makom Torah” as its name “Izdarobin”, which meant, “old rabbi,” implied; and had the reputation for employing only the most prestigious rabbanim. One of the yeshiva’s most famous talmidim was Rav Moshe Tzvi Neria Zt’l, the founder of the Bnai Akiva yeshiva network in Eretz Yisroel. Rav Neria was Rav Mordechai’s talmid muvhak and followed him to Shklov when Rav Mordechai assumed that rabbunus. When the anti-Semitism in Russia became unbearable, Rav Neria and five other of the talmidim were sent to Israel. As Rav Moshe recalled, there was only one Rav in Eretz Yisroel whom they recognized as an adam gadol, Harav Kook Zt’l, and they sent him their six best talmidim. Every one of the six made great contributions to the dissemination of Torah in Eretz Yisroel.
Although Rav Moshe was Rav in Uzda for only a short time, he was always grateful to the townspeople for saving his life. It was their willingness to accept him as their Rav that made his draft exemption possible. On his matzevah we recorded that he was Rav of Uzda as an expression of his sense of gratitude to them.
Despite his innate modesty, Rav Moshe developed great self-confidence in his halachic decision making ability. This confidence is a distinguishing feature of his responsa. Rav Moshe would say, “An Anav is not one who does not recognize his own greatness. An Anav is one who recognizes his own greatness but expects nothing from others.” As was noted above, even as a child he was treated as a great talmid chacham. His self-confidence was further reinforced by the devotion of the community in Luban where he served with such distinction. He was, literally, the lord and master of Luban, and no one would dare question the accuracy or wisdom of his responsa.
Rav Moshe stated that he was the “last official Rav in Russia.” Following the Soviet Revolution, the communists could not openly prohibit rabbanus because it was permitted by the Soviet constitution; however, they labeled "rabbis" as social parasites and imposed a heavy “parasite tax” or “bourgeoisie tax” on them. To avoid the tax, many rabbanim resigned from their official positions, though they remained to serve the needs of their communities. Rav Moshe knew that in each instance of a resignation, the communist newspaper would publish a gloating report of “another rabbi forfeiting his “decadent religion.” Because of the public “chillul Hashem" – "desecration of G-d’s name” Rav Moshe considered such resignation as a renunciation of one’s faith in Hashem and Torah and subject to the injunction of, “You should give up your life rather than transgress.”
All of Rav Moshe’s salary went to pay the parasite-tax, leaving him penniless. When he still refused to resign, the Communists mounted a campaign against him. They confiscated his shul building, took away his home, and took away his food rations. The fast-day of the Tenth of Teves had significance for Rav Moshe. Even in later years, when his physical health did not allow him to fast on Shiva Assur B’Tamuz or Tzom Gedalia, he still fasted on Asarah B’Teves. It was a day of personal tragedy to him for two reasons. 1. It was the day they took away his shul. 2. It was the day his briefcase containing his many chidushei Torah was stolen. For reasons I will soon explain, he always kept his cherished chidushim in a leather briefcase and took them wherever he went. One time,on a train journey, a fellow passenger stole the briefcase along with years of his Torah writings.
When the Communist authorities confiscated his home, Rav Moshe, and his family had no place to live. He moved in with the local shoemaker, Asher der Shuster, who lived in one room with his family. R' Asher divided the room in half with a curtain and shared his food ration with Rav Moshe, whom he regarded as his great Rebbe. To give you some idea as to the uniqueness of the Baalei Baatim of Luban, Asher der Shuster new all of Shas by heart.
In later years, Rav Moshe explained why he took his kesavim (writings) with him when he went on that train trip. In the 1920’s, during the Russian civil war, Luban suffered a pogrom that occurred on Lag B’Omer. At that time Rav Moshe was not yet married, and his most prized possession was his Chidushei Torah. Fearing for their loss, he put them in a briefcase so that he could flee with them at a moments notice.
As Rav Moshe recalled the pogrom, the Jews had been forwarned that marauding hordes of drunken peasants, led by their priests, were looting, raping, and killing. Pogroms often involved the use of mortars or light artillery provided by the local army commanders. Rav Moshe had a premonition that the horde was about to attack and fled his home. Moments later it was hit by a shell and destroyed. Clearly, they had targeted the rabbi’s house. With people shooting at him, but nonetheless holding on to his kesavim, Rav Moshe ran until he could run no more. He hid in a field behind a stone wall and left the briefcase there.
Two days later, when the surviving townspeople returned to bury the dead, they found the kesavim and brought them to Rav Isser Zalman in Slutzk. He immediately recognized the chidushei Torah of his illustrious Talmid and sent the kesavim to Rav Dovid. Rav Dovid mournfully assumed that his son, Rav Moshe, had been killed and he asked Rav Isser Zalman if finding the kesavim was sufficient proof of Rav Moshe’s death to require the family to begin sitting shiva. Rav Isser Zalman responded, “No, I am certain that he is alive.”
Several weeks later, Rav Moshe reappeared. After hiding in the woods twenty-five kilometers from Luban and spending several nights in a field, a Jewish family risked their lives to take him in. He stayed with them until he recovered from his ordeal and could return to Luban. Rav Moshe was not physically strong, and he was not trained to survive life threatening circumstances; however, his extraordinary discipline, intellect and decision making ability allowed him to remain coolheaded under the most adverse conditions. Sometimes, extreme discipline and intellect translate into a lack of compassion and empathy for others less disciplined or intelligent. Not so with Rav Moshe. His deep, heart-felt empathy for anyone needing help was legendary.
For the rest of his life, because of the pogrom that had devastated Luban, Rav Moshe’s personal custom was to keep the laws of Sefira the entire Sefira, without breaking for Lag B’Omer - the day of the pogrom
On the first Shabbos Vayerah that Rav Moshe spent in our home in Monsey, he related the following story which dated from the first year of his Rabbunus in Luban. A townsman fell seriously ill and Rav Moshe went to visit him. The patient was a very learned and beloved member of the community and many people were present. Due to his illness, his tounge was severely swollen and he could barely speak.
When Rav Moshe arrived, the patient asked to be alone with the Rav. He said to Rav Moshe, “I know why I am ill and why I will die. Several weeks ago, Parshas Vayerah, I commented to several people that I was astounded that Hashem would allow Dovid Hamelech to descend from women who had committed incest with their father. That same night I dreamt that the daughters of Lot, dressed in black, came to me. “Why did you debase and insult us? We did not have to tell the truth! We could have lied! We could have claimed that we became pregnant from an angel of Hashem. Had we done so, we would have been adored among the most honored women in history. Instead, we revealed the truth of our actions to the entire world by naming our children “Moab – from father,” and Benei Ammon – a son from my own people.” We did this because we knew that Moshiach would descend from one of us and we wanted to make sure that no one would ever be able to claim that our sons had been conceived through immaculate conception! Had we not done so, our story would have been proof for such future claims. How dare you debase and insult us!” The patient said, “I know how terribly I sinned in speaking Loshon Hara about the daughters of Lot and Hashem insists that I pay with my life.” The following morning he died.
Rav Moshe’s father-in-law, Rav Yaakov Kustonovich , a great tzadik renowed for his hospitality, was the shochet of Luban. Rav Moshe himself had kabbalah for shechita but did not like to shecht. It was his custom to use live chickens for Kapporos on erev Yom Kippur, and he would call a shochet to the house rather than do so himself. However, during his last year in Luban, when it was dangerous to engage in any religious ritual, he served with his father-in-law as an auxiliary shochet for the Luban community.
After coming to the United States, Rav Moshe gave Kabolah (certification) to many aspiring shochtim. Beyond their mastery of the laws of shechita, Rava Moshe also tested their tactile sensitivity in detecting minor imperfections along the cutting edge of the Chalev – knife used for shechita. Rav Moshe’s own ability to detect the slightest imperfection was almost uncanny. I was often present during these examinations. Once, a hopeful shochet failed to detect an imperfection and attempted to excuse his failure because he was distracted by a passing fire engine. Rav Moshe replied, “When you are preparing to shecht an animal in accord with Hashem’s commandments, nothing should interfere with your concentration.” As many know, Rav Moshe’s own concentartion in all matters was absolute and legendary.
Rav Moshe had a natural mastery of mathematics. When the Communists took over White Russia, Jewish children were required to attend public school. Of course, the teachers attempted to propagandize the children into atheism - the “religion” of the state. A female secondary school teacher in Luban was infuriated when the children countered her attacks on religion by quoting their “Rabbiner.” The teacher began to denigrate Rav Moshe, poking fun at the “ignorant Rabbiner who couldn’t even do simple mathematics.”
To underscore the point and cast further doubt on Rav Moshe’s reputation for brilliance, the teacher sent Rav Moshe a calculus problem deemed far too difficult for someone who had only studied elementary mathematics. When the children came home and told their parents, the townspeople went into mourning in anticipation of the embarrassment their great Rav would have to endure.
Fearful of the teacher’s wrath, the student’s presented Rav Moshe with the calculus problem. Rav Moshe borrowed one of the children’s text books and after several hours of study, wrote the solution for the presented problem. Astounded at Rav Moshe’s solution, the teacher sent a second problem which Rav Moshe solved in mere minute. He immediately sent back the solution to the teacher so she would know that there had not been enough time for anyone else to have helped him solve the problem. The teacher insisted on meeting Rav Moshe and thereafter became his protector. As the laws against the rabbinate became increasingly severe, she would tell the local party officials that this Rabbiner should be exempt “because he is a great scholar in mathematics and not a “useless parasite.”
It is hard to know for sure what finally made Rav Moshe decide to emigrate to America. Relatives in the United Staes had been urging him to leave Russia because of the growing anti-Semitism and the threat of war, but Rav Moshe refused to leave his community. He subsequently related that the final insult or threat to his family occurred on Pesach 1935. The local Communists officials issued a ruling prohibiting the children from attending the Pesach seder, alleging that the ritual theft of the afikoman taught the youngsters to be thieves. Cynical, sarcastic, edicts of this kind were usually leveled against the Jewish community by Party officials who themselves had once been Yeshiva students. They would visit homes to make sure that the children were not participating in the seder. They then added a new spin. They convened a special school assembly on the seder night, and truant officers were sent to the homes to collect the students. The whole program at the school assembly was to have each and every student eat a piece of black bread knowing the anguish this would cause Torah observant youngsters and their families.
Following that incident, Rav Moshe applied for a passport. Again, he decided that it would not be wise to apply at the local office. Instead, in 1936 he went to Moscow to apply for a passport. In order to establish himself as a resident of Moscow he rented a room from a family sixty kilometers from the city and dressed like a worker.
That rented room proved to be historically significant. Rav Yoseph Zalman Goldberg, son-in-law to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach Zt’l related that the apartment belonged to his father and it served as the “legitimizing” address for a number of other rabbonim who had come to Moscow to apply for passports in hopes of escaping Russia.
While in Moscow, Rav Moshe went, incognito to the local shul. People noticed that he was studying Mishnayos and asked if he would teach them - since they had no Rav. For the next few months Rav Moshe gave a daily afternoon Mishnayos shiur that attracted several hundred people. They all came to hear the “unknown Jew” display his mastery of Torah. Unfortunately, it also attracted the attention of the local Communists who sabotaged Rav Moshe’s hopes for a passport. Rav Moshe considered his giving the shiur a serious tactical error that set back his plans to emigrate. Fortunately, his brother–in-law, Rav Nechemiah Katz Zt’l (Rebbitzen Feinstein’s brother) was already living in Toledo, Ohio having married the daughter of the Rav of Toledo. He was able to arrange the passports.
The hand of Hashem could not have been any clearer. Years before, Rav Nechemiah invested all of Rav Moshe’s wedding money and dowry in a surefire deal that promised enough profit to purchase an entire Shas – something that Luban did not have. Old, worn, individual volumes were available, but ant entire Shas was a true treasure that the town could never afford. Unfortunately, the deal went south and the money was lost. Rav Nechemiah’s guilt over losing the money pushed him to emigrate to America. Years later, when Rav Moshe needed the passport to flee Russia with his family, Rav Nechemiah was in place to expend heroic efforts with the help of Senator Robert A. Taft and others to obtain the necessary visas and passport to bring Rav Moshe to America. We should shudder at the thought of what might have been if Rav Nechemiah had not already been in America to intervene at that most crucial moment. The single most important name in post Churban Halacha is “Rav Moshe.” His historic rulings in every arena of societal, commercial, medical, and scientific progress defined and enabled our uncompromised national survival into and beyond the 21st century. Rav Moshe’s absolute mastery of Torah and his astounding humility, guaranteed that every word he spoke and every word he wrote was the true D’Var Hashem – word of G-d. The debt of gratitude we all owe to Rav Nechemiah Zt’L is without measure. Rav Moshe’s Torah was his Torah.
Rav Moshe was still in Moscow when the passport was delivered by mail to Luban. By the time he learned of its arrival there were only eight days remaining till it expired. Despite the great need for haste in arranging the families departure, Rav Moshe took the time to prepare an 18 year calendar for the Luban community showing all the dates and times for Rosh Chodesh and Yomim Tovim. Rav Moshe had a unique expertise and love for the rules of the Jewish calendar and even in the United States preferred writing his own Luach rather than buying a printed one. Sadly, Luban did not survive 18 more years. Every one of its citizens were cruelly slaughtered by animals parading in human form who gleefully did the bidding of Nazi Germany.
On the train from Luban to Riga, Lithuania, the first leg of their trip to America, Rav Moshe awoke with the pasuk Tehilim “ V'shumoo Amurai Ki Nuemu“, they will hear My words because they are pleasant.” He interpreted the dream as a reassurance from Hashem that all would be well.
When Rav Moshe and family arrived in the United States, Rav Moshe Soleveitchik Zt’l was waiting on the dock to greet him with a large contingent of rabbonim. This made a great impression on Rav Moshe who was terribly depressed by memories of the beloved town and people he had left behind. Soon after, he was invited to give two shiurim, one at Rabbi Issac Elchanan Theological Seminary (Yeshivas Rav Yitzchok Elchanan) and the other at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. Both institutions offered him positions which he did not accept. He believed that a yeshiva must be run by a Rosh Hayeshiva rather than be administered by lay boards. Yeshivas Rav Yitzchok Elchonon and Torah Vadaas were both run by lay boards. It’s an interesting note that Rav Moshe’s first shiur in America was delivered at Yeshivas Rav Yitzchak Elchonon, the yeshiva of Yeshiva University, and at his Levaya, the single largest contingent of Bnai and Bnos Torah was made up of students from Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary and Stern College who joined among the hundred and fifty thousand filling the streets of the Lower East Side. Thus, in 1935 the Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS, Rav Moshe Soleveitchick , gave Rav Moshe his first kavod in the United States, and a later generation of Yeshiva University students participated in his last.
An honored member of the Feinstein family berated Rav Moshe for coming to the United States. As Rav Moshe recalled, he said to him, “I told you not to come. There is nothing for you here in America. In Europe you were offered the position of the Rogatchover Gaon. Why didn’t you accept it?” Rav Moshe answered, “I came to America even to be a street cleaner. I do not expect a rabbanus. I am prepared to clean the streets, to be a shames, as long as my children will learn to make a bracha and be Jewish.”
Taken aback, Rav Moshe’s relative responded, “No, no you won’t have to do that. We will try to do something for you.” Indeed, the Feinstein family was instrumental in giving Rav Moshe an opportunity to sart a yeshiva in Cleveland with the father-in-law of Rav Ruderman Zt’l, the founder of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. Rav Moshe left his family for seven months to evaluate what could be done in Cleveland and returned convinced that he would not succeed there.
Here too the hand of Hashem was evident. Rebbitzen Sima Feinstein had a first cousin, Rav Yoseph Adler Zt’l who was the Rosh Yeshiva of Tiferes Jerusalem on the Lower East Side of New York. Rav Adler invited Rav Moshe to start a Beis Medresh and Semicha program there. Two years later, Rav Adler drowned while swimming off the beach in Far Rockaway, and Rav Moshe became the Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem.
There are many anecdotes told about Rav Moshe. Most of them are apocryphal. Some of them are even debasing. Above all, Rav Moshe was a normal healthy personality, a normal husband, a normal father, a normal grandfather who took great pride and joy in his family.
Rav Moshe did not overtly display any special tzidkus or chasidus. His only publicly displayed midah was his gentleness. In the evening he would often go for as walk with his wife and stop in the local candy store to buy a glass of soda. He read the newspaper every morning at the breakfast table, whatever newspaper it might be - the socialistic Forward, or the Tag, or the Morning Journal and then the Algemeiner Journal.
Stories reporting unusual behavior on the part of Rav Moshe are by their very nature false and insulting, for they are intended to pervert his most important message for our generation; and that is, mastery of Torah does not distort the human personality, it only adds grace and glory to it.
The trait of Emes, of absolute integrity, permeated all his responsa, all his behavior, his very personality. As was mentioned earlier, Rav Moshe escaped the military draft in Russia by obtaining a birth certificate that made him five years older than his actual age. The same birth year was subsequently recorded on his passport and on other documents when he arrived in the United States. For the first five years after he became eligible for Social Security, Rav Moshe regularly returned his monthly checks, offering no explanation except to say, “Thank you, I do not need it. I will let you know.”
He did not want to tell the government that the birthdate on his passport was false, but he also did not want to take money to which he was not entitled. I had the zechus during those five years to return many of those social security checks. Only after the five years passed did he begin cashing the checks.
Rav Moshe gave a disproportionate percentage of his income to charity. He kept records of every penny that he gave for tzedakah, never returning an envelope from an organization requesting tzedakah, without giving a few dollars.
Over the years he was audited five times by the IRS. The large amount of charitable donations declared on his tax returns relative to his yearly salary of $7,000.00 raised a red flag. However, Rav Moshe never declared a donation for which he did not have a receipt. On all five occasions when his returns had been reviewed, the auditor was so impressed by Rav Moshe’s integrity, honesty, and meticulous records that he sent Rav Moshe a gracious letter of apology for having troubled him.
During his early years at Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, Rav Moshe’s salary was $35 a week. Rav Moshe was then living in east New York near his brother-in-law, Rav Reuven Levovitz Z”l, the husband of Zlota A’H, Rebbetzin Feinstein’s sister. Because he could not afford the carfare home, Rav Moshe slept all week on a bench in the Bais Medresh until he and the Rebbitzen were able to find an apartment on the Lower East Side.
When Rav Moshe first arrived, despite his reputation as a Talmid Chacham and Posek, he had to establish himself within the American rabbinate. The other Rabbonim wanted to help him get established so they encouraged him to adjudicate a Din Torah between some of the most powerful Rabbonim in New York and the shochtim they supervised. The Rabbonim assumed that he would rule in favor of the Rabbonim in order to establish his position among them. To the shock and consternation of the Rabbonim involved, Rav Moshe ruled in favor of the Shochtim. Rav Moshe would gleefully relate that the rabbonim threatened him saying, “We tried to help you and you turned agaist us. You’re finished in America!” Rav Moshe responded, “My role was not to help you or myself. My role was to state the Halacha without prejudice - which is what I did.”
Considering the nature of the Din Torah and the reputations of the litigants involved, Rav Moshe’s name spread across the Jewish world as being fearless in the face of any and all opposition. He quickly became the final arbiter for anyone who feared the political power of the establishment and presided at hundreds of Dinei Torah. Years ago, Rav Moshe’s integrity as a posek was the target of a concerted attack by the Satmar community. Their ire had been aroused by his famous responsum on donor insemination. The Satmar Rebbe sent a committee consisting of their greatest Talmidei Chachomim to meet with Rav Moshe and ask him to retract the teshuva.
The Rebbe told the committee not to get into a discussion of halachik sources with Rav Moshe. They did not heed the Rebbe’s warning and began discussing the topic from Talmudic sources. Rav Moshe devastated them, pointing out that they had never even mastered the simple understanding of the Talmudic text let alone the complexities of the halachik application. They responded, “The Rebbe warned us not to talk to you in learning.” Rav Moshe answered, “Your Rebbe is a very wise man. You should have listened to him.”
The Satmar continued to show antagonism toward Rav Moshe. When he visited Ererts Yisroel in 1964, he visited with the leaders of the Neturei Karta. They apologized to Rav Moshe for not greeting him at the airport explaining that the Satmar Rebbe forbade them to do so. When Rav Moshe asked why the Rebbe had done so they answered, “Because you accepted to become the President of Agudas Yisroel and this gives Agudah their only prestige. We do not want the Agudah to be such a powerful organization.”
They repeatedly leveled attacks at Rav Moshe focusing on two Teshuvos, donor insemination and the nature and height of a mechitzah in shul. Rav Moshe often expressed bewilderment that a Halacha could be perverted for political reasons. How sad he would be to learn how frequently that happens nowadays, especially among those who willfully pervert his responsa.
Rav Moshe could not hold a grudge against anyone and often came to the aid of members of the Satmar community when asked to do so. For example, a certain Rav had written a vicious attack against Rav Moshe. Subesquently, the same individual became involved in a criminal investigation. Knowing the great respect that many in the legal system had for Rav Moshe, he requested Rav Moshe to intervene in hopes of bettering any potential consequences. Rav Moshe went to great lengths to help the Rav.
The Rebbitzen expressed dismay at the man’s chutzpah given the viciousness of his written attack. How could he possibly face Rav Moshe after what he had written? Rav Moshe answered, “What does one have to do with the other? He came to me for help. Did you expect me not to help him?” Parenthetically, it was the Satmar Rav who gave the longest hesped at Rav Moshe's Levaya in New York while crying the entire time.
In the last years of his life, Rav Moshe remained active as a posek; but there were several months during which when he could not personaly write his teshuvos. Rav Moshe had lost significant sight in one of his eyes because it became what we now call a “lazy eye.” He was still able to see from a limited angle and to accommodate that angle Rav Moshe wrote bent over with his face very close to the page. Unfortunately, he also developed a bone spur in his spine that made sitting very uncomfortable and was forced to dictate his responsa while lying in bed. Of course, before adding his signature to the typed teshuva he carefully reviewed every word.
One evening, while lying in bed and reviewing his daily quota of Talmud, he paused and remarked, “I have much to be grateful for. I am especially grateful that I have never had to retract any of my responsa.” As all who knew Rav Moshe can testify, Rav Moshe’s would have withdrawn any Teshuva he felt was flawed, but the certitude he expressed even as a young Rav in Luban accompanied him all his life. It wasn’t that Rav Moshe could not make a mistake – it was that he did not make a mistake. His preparation for giving and writing a teshuva was the outcome of his legendary meticulous attention to details. His absolute recall of everything he ever learned, his faultless integrity, his unqualified concentration, and the governing principal of his life that every word had to be Toras Emes, guaranteed that he never made a mistake.
As already stated, Rav Moshe was the most humble and modest of men. He never expected anyone else to acknowledge his greatness but he never failed to acknowledge it himself.
A few years before his passing, Rav Moshe had to have a pacemaker installed and I was the one who explained to him the reasons for the procedure. During the day, while he was engaged in giving shiurim, writing Teshuvos, or answering questions from all over the world, his blood pressure was perfectly normal. However, a twenty-four hour cardiac monitor revealed that at night, while asleep, his blood pressure became precipitously low. Only while engaged in studying and teaching Torah was it normal.
In the past, he had often balked at going to the doctor for a general checkup, but had always been willing to see a physician when he felt something amiss. This time, however, and quite uncharacteristically, he was reluctant to go forward with the pacemaker. I asked him to explain his hesitancy given that every doctor consulted agreed that the proposed pacemaker was essential. Several more days passed and he still had not agreed to go for the procedure.
I finally confronted him. “Shever, this is not your way. You always make up your mind very quickly. Why is it taking you so long?” Rav Moshe finally answered, “I know how unworthy I am. I know how little Torah I know, but I am also aware that if they are to pick seventy-one people to make up a Sanhedrin, among the seventy-one they will most likely pick me. However, a Baal-mum (someone with a physical blemish) cannot be a member of the Sanhedrin. I am perturbed at the thought of doing something to myself that would make me unfit to join the Sanhedrin when Moshiach comes.” I then reviewed the surgical procedure for him. I showed him some diagrams illustrating exactly what would be done. After listening carefully, he said, ‘That is not considered a baal-mum. Please make the appointment right away.” We did so.
Sadly, Moshiach did not come, a Sanhedrin was not convened, and Rav Moshe was not chosen to be a member. Hashem willing, Moshiach will be here very soon and we will merit to see the building of the Bais Hamikdash and the establishment of the Sanhedrin..