Rabbi Mordechai Brisk, Tasnad, Hungary (Transylvania)
Head of a yeshiva, Halachic arbitrator and a leader.
> Born: 5646 (1886).
Perished: 11 Sivan 5604 (1944), Auschwitz.
Rabbi Brisk's parents were Rabbi Yehoshua, the town’s rabbi, and Esther. At a young age, he studied with Rabbi Mordechai Winkler, the rabbi of M?d, who wrote Levushei Mordechai. In the yeshiva he was known for his diligence, his sharp mind and knowledge. His rabbi ordained him for the rabbinate, and he quickly became known for his correspondence with the leaders of the generation.
In 2008 he married Gittel, the daughter of Rabbi Shmuel Zalman Weinberger who was the rabbi of Margereten in Transylvania. The rabbi studied with his father-in-law for a few years, and was appointed dayan there. During this time, he taught Torah on various levels, and was active in public affairs. He even found the time to edit and publish the manuscript of the father of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yehoshua Aharon Zvi Weinberger. The publication was called the Maharitz Responsa.
At the age of 33, he was elected as head of the rabbinical court of Tasn?d and its environs. In a short time, he proved himself as an able leader of the community. He competently organized the Kashrut issues, and established a Talmud Torah with suitable melamdim. He founded various societies like the Gemilut Chassadim society and the Mishnayot society. He built mikvehs in many communities. He was a role model for his community since he himself would contribute to these activities. As a dayan and rabbi he was decisive and courageous. He would assist people in financial straits, helping them secretly. He refused all gifts and fought against this trend which was common among officials. He kept a neat and trim appearance, and expected this of his students, too.
The high point of his life was the splendid yeshiva which he founded. From an initial student body of twenty students, its enrollment in 1935 was 500 students! This was the largest yeshiva in Hungary. Without a doubt, his personality and leadership were the secret of the yeshiva’s success. His special study method emphasized pshat, but occasionally would lead to pilpul. He would brilliantly connect together seemingly unrelated issues.
Rabbi Brisk was in contact with each and every one of his students and followed their progress with frequent testing. He was very strict about attendance and appearance during the shiurim and prayer services. Yet he was attentive to students whose absence was due to illness and would visit them, worrying about them like a father. His enthusiastic prayer would captivate the students, and instill in them yirat Shamayim. The yeshiva was so successful that many students would remain to study during bein hazmanim, and some would spend the Passover Seder with their rabbi.
The rabbi was well-known not only as one of the great roshei yeshiva in Hungary, but also as one of the great Halachic arbitrators of the generation. He published hundreds of halachic responses, some which will be mentioned here.
During the Shoah:
At the onset of the 1940s, the decrees and searches exhausted Rabbi Brisk. Yet with great effort he responded to many questions that came up due to the difficult times. For example, he was asked whether one can carry certificates on Shabbat in a place with no eiruv. He was pleased that the Jews were still immersed in Torah and asked Halachic questions.
Many Jews were sent to labor units. They had great mesirut nefesh for the Jewish religion until their last day. They would also ask the rabbi about Shabbat and tefillin issues. After the awful news arrived about the men of the labor unit who were missing, problems arose about releasing the wives from their status as agunot. The rabbi invested much time in this, and was one of the few great Halachic arbitrators whose responses dealt with Shoah matters. The responses were published during the war in the Maharam Brisk Responsa.
Some of his responses included his emotional remarks about the situation, and words of encouragement and consolation. In the introduction to the second part, he writes: “And now my cherished sons, dear students who I have nurtured, do not cease, and fear the Almighty to save you from all hardships and accept the yoke of Torah and Mitzva. And soon Israel will be redeemed, Amen.”
When the transports started to leave to Auschwitz, a delegation from the Budapest community offered the rabbi the position of leading their community. At that time Budapest was safer, and the position of a rabbi in this city would have been a lifesaver for the rabbi. He greatly deliberated the move and finally said: “If I am able to maintain a yeshiva with at least ten students provided for by the community, I will be ready to accept the rabbinate there.” The heads of the community explained to the rabbi that this request would not be met because Budapest was also under emergency conditions, and the Nazis would not allow this. Learning secretly would endanger lives. Despite these explanations, the rabbi continued to insist: “If I can’t teach Torah while serving in the rabbinate, why should I live?!”
Thus Rabbi Brisk remained in Tasn?d until the deportation to Auschwitz. Even before the deportation he underwent difficult experiences. In 1943 a young Jew was caught on the roof of the yeshiva. This Jew defected from the nearby camp of the Jewish labor unit. In reaction to this, the rabbi was arrested and tortured horrendously. In the summer of 1944, before the transfer to the ghetto, his house was encircled by gendarmes who prohibited people from meeting him. Two days later he was transferred with his family to the yard of the government school and from there to the ?imleul Silva Ghetto. Upon arrival, his beard was immediately shorn.
It is related that in the ghetto he would continue to lay tefillin. He managed to do this on the floor under blankets, risking his life. Those close to him heard him sing the prayer: “Chamol al maasecha” [Have mercy on Your creations], and he spoke about the hester panim [G-d's concealment] during the storm. He would advise young people to escape even at great risk to their lives.
The rabbi was taken to Auschwitz and perished in the gas chambers on the night of 11 Sivan 5604 (1944).
Maharam Brisk Responsa – three parts on the four parts of the Shulchan Aruch. He also wrote a comprehensive review of mikveh laws, a book on the Maharsha commentaries for some tractates, drashas for the holidays and special Shabbatot and more. Parts of these writings were lost in the Shoah.
Eleh Ezkerah, Part Two
Fuchs, Avraham, The Shoah and Rabbinical Sources
Fuchs, Avraham, Tasn?d – A Historical Description in Memory of the Tasn?d Community
Fuchs, Avraham, Hungarian Yeshivas
Shema Yisrael, vols. 1, 2 – according to the index