Moshe Shatzkes

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(Left to right) Rabbi Shlomo Shapira, Professor Setsuzo Kotsuji (Abraham Kotsuji), the Amshinover Rebbe and Rabbi Moshe Shatzkes, in Japan

Moshe Shatzkes (1881–1958) was a renowned rabbi, Talmudic scholar and noted genius, commonly known as the "Lomzshe/Łomża Rov". He was one of the pre-eminent Roshei Yeshiva (yeshiva heads) and one of the greatest rabbis in all of Poland. He was a leader in all aspects of communal life, well known as an outstanding orator, scholar, and halachic arbitrator.

Shatzkes was a close friend of Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog, chief rabbi of Israel, and had been a close friend and confidante of both the Chofetz Chaim and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski before the Second World War. Indeed, he eulogised at both their funerals.

Early years[edit]

Shatzkes was born in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1881, the scion of a distinguished Rabbinic dynasty. His father, Rabbi Avraham Aharon Shatzkes, was the spiritual leader of Vilnius who was known as the "Illui miZhetel", one of the most famous Torah sages in Lithuania, and reputed to have been proficient in the entire Talmud at the age of only 17.

His mother, Chaya Resha, was the daughter of Rabbi Avraham Abba Edelson of Vilnius, and granddaughter both of Rabbi Chaim Dworetzky, rabbi of Zelve and Rabbi Yitzchak Sherwinter, Av Beth Din of Vilnius.

Shatzkes was only 3 years old when his father died. Soon after, at the suggestion of her uncle, Rabbi Elya Eliezer Grodzinski (father-in-law of Rabbi Chaim Ozer), his mother remarried Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer (known as Reb Itzele Peterburger), one of the pupils of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter.

Shatzkes was brought up and educated by Reb Itzele and was sent to study at the great yeshivas of Slabodka and Telz. In 1904, he received Semicha (rabbinical ordination) from Rabbis Refael Shapiro of Volozhin, Eliezer Gordon of Telz and Eliezer Rabinowitz of Minsk.

The Rabbinate[edit]

His first Rabbinical position was in Lipnishuk, near Vilnius, in 1909. Within five years, in 1914, he was appointed rabbi of the nearby larger town of Iwye, in the district of Vilnius. There, he excelled as a communal fundraiser, innovator and well-liked leader.

He was also famed for his wit and wisdom and he was regularly invited by the Chafetz Chaim to important Rabbinic gatherings. His fame spread throughout Poland through his vice-presidency of the Agudath HaRabbanim in Poland, and many people turned to him with their Halachic questions.

In 1931, he was asked to become rabbi and Av Beth Din of Łomża. He had been proposed for the position by his mentor, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, with whom he was very close. His time in Łomża was not an easy one. It was marked by anti-Jewish demonstrations, the outlawing of Shechita and a boycott of Jewish shops. Łomża Jews fled in droves and the community gradually declined. With the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939 on the division of Poland, Łomża was transferred into Russian hands and Soviet tanks soon rolled in.

Shatzkes escaped the city under cover of darkness to Vilnius, which was later handed over by the Soviets to Lithuania. Along with many others, Rabbi Shimon Shkop's yeshiva, Sha'ar HaTorah of Grodno, had fled to Vilnius. After the death of Rabbi Shkop, Shatzkes was appointed by Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski to succeed him as rosh yeshiva.

Shatzkes was active in refugee and yeshiva affairs while in Vilnius. After the city was re-captured by the Russians, he travelled via Russia to Japan, having received a Japanese permit from Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese temporary consul in Kovno. Arriving in Kobe by boat in May 1941, Shatzkes immediately renewed his relief efforts for the almost five thousand Jewish refugees there. They included many yeshiva heads and almost the entire Mir Yeshiva, who had fled Poland and Lithuania.

He befriended the famous Japanese scholar, Professor Setzuso Kotsuji, a friend of Japan's Foreign affairs minister, and with his help he aided the fleeing of thousands of refugees.

Owing to his reputation as a brilliant Talmudic scholar and his previous position as Rabbi of Łomża, Shatzkes was selected by the refugee community as one of their two representatives (the other being the rebbe of Amshinov) to the Japanese Government.

Shatzkes reached America in 1941. He was immediately appointed to become a senior Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, remaining in this role for the last eighteen years of his life. He turned down an invitation by Rabbi Herzog to join the chief rabbinate in Palestine, preferring to learn and spread Torah. He also served as a council member of the Agudath HaRabbanim of the United States and Canada.

Along with Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Samuel Belkin, Shatzkes served as a member of the Rabbinical Ordination Board at RIETS, granting Semicha to 425 of its graduates.

RIETS Anecdote[edit]

Shatzkes possessed a wonderful sense of humour. A famous story is told by Yeshiva University Chancellor Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm who was in his RIETS class at the time. Shatzkes would usually look down the list of the names of his students and then at random would ask one student to read the day's page of Talmud. The students always assumed he didn't know the boys anyway. One day looking down the list he says "ok, Shapiro, zug the gemorah" (say the Gemara). Shapiro, who didn't have time to prepare properly, pipes up "Shapiro is nisht due" (Shapiro is not here). Shatzkes looks up from his gemara and with a twinkle in his eyes says to the trembling Shapiro "ok due zog" (ok you read)... the entire class fell to the floor in laughter.

Death[edit]

He died on December the 29th, 1958 in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of 77. A crowd of more than two thousand people gathered in the Lamport Auditorium of Yeshiva University as a final mark of respect to, what the Yeshiva press release referred to as, one of the greatest rabbis and roshei yeshiva of the generation.

The eulogisers included Rabbis Samuel Belkin and Joseph Ber Soloveitchik representing Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Dovid Lifshitz representing the Agudath HaRabbanim. From Yeshiva University, he was taken to Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem where eulogies were delivered by Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Yosef Eliyahu Henkin and Avraham Kalmanowitz, among others. A large crowd of mourners headed by Rabbi Aharon Kotler also gathered at the New Jersey airport from where Shatzkes was taken to his burial on Har HaMenuchot in Jerusalem. His funeral was attended by chief rabbis, Israeli roshei yeshiva and members of the Israeli Knesset.

He was survived by his sons: Rabbis Avraham Aharon (a rosh yeshiva at RIETS from 1944 until his death in 1983); and Aryeh Leib, a rosh yeshiva at Mesivta Torah Vodaas; and a daughter Chana (who died on 21 March 2013 / Nissan 10, 5773[1]), who married Rabbi Zvi Levenberg, a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, (son of Rabbi Yehuda Levenberg, founder of the Yeshiva of New Haven, Connecticut). A daughter, Itel, perished with her husband and young daughter at the hands of the Nazis.

Shatzkes wrote many Responsa and Novellae on a plethora of subjects. The vast majority were destroyed when he left Poland in 1940 — indeed he often said that his greatest loss, above all that had happened to him during a lifetime of tragic misadventure, was the loss of his writings, a loss from which he never truly recovered. His vast library of seforim was buried in the forests of Łomża for safekeeping before he left and has never been recovered.

A kollel bearing his name was established as a lasting memorial at Kfar Hasidim in Israel. It was attached to the Knesses Chizkiyahu yeshiva, named after Shatzkes's brother-in-law, Rabbi Chizkiyahu Yosef Mishkovsky, rav of Krinik, Poland.

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