In memoriam: My teacher, Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch זצ”ל

There are moments when Divine Providence touches you on the shoulder and makes you see a certain truth with blazing clarity. Let me share with you such a moment that happened to me this week.

I was about to write one of my essays for Covenant and Conversation. I knew I was going to write about the cities of refuge, but I wasn’t sure which aspect to focus on. Suddenly, overwhelmingly, I felt an instinct to write about one very unusual law.

The cities were set aside for the protection of those found guilty of manslaughter, who needed to find safety from the goel ha-dam, the blood avenger. The Torah says about the refuge seeker, “And he shall flee to one of these cities and live” (Deut. 19: 5). From this, the Talmud draws an extraordinary lesson:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מכות דף י עמוד א

תנא: תלמיד שגלה – מגלין רבו עמו, שנאמר: וחי, עביד ליה מידי דתהוי ליה חיותא.

The Sages taught: If a student was exiled, his teacher was exiled with him, as it is said: “(And he shall flee to one of these cities) and live,” meaning do the things for him that will enable him to live.[1]

רמב”ם הלכות רוצח ושמירת הנפש פרק ז

עשה לו כדי שיחיה, וחיי בעלי חכמה ומבקשיה בלא תלמוד כמיתה חשובין,

Maimonides explains: “Life without study is like death for scholars who seek wisdom.”[2] Study is life itself, and study without a teacher is impossible. Teachers give us more than knowledge; they give us life.

Note that this is not an aggadic passage, a moralizing text not meant to be taken literally. It is a halakhic ruling, codified as such. Nor is it a stray text, out of keeping with the rest of Jewish law. To the contrary, consider these laws relating to the commandment to honor one’s father and mother:

Just as one is commanded to honor his father and fear him, so is he obliged to honor his teacher and fear him yet more than his father; for his father brought him to life in this world but his teacher who taught him wisdom, brings him to life in the world to come. If he finds a lost article of his father and a lost article of his teacher, restoring that of his teacher takes precedence over that of his father. If his father and his teacher are both burdened with a load, he should unburden his teacher’s load first and then that of his father. If his father and his teacher are incarcerated in a prison, he should first free his teacher and then his father.[3]

Note again the power of these laws. A teacher is more than a parent. A parent gives you physical life, a teacher gives you spiritual life. Physical life is mortal, transient. Spiritual life is eternal. Therefore, we owe our teacher life in its deepest sense.

Now let me share with you the moment I felt touched by Providence. I had just written those words, when the phone went. It was my brother, in Jerusalem, telling me that my teacher, Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch, zekher tzaddik livracha, had just died. Only rarely in this עלמא דאתכסיא , this world of concealment, do we sense Heaven reaching down a hand and guiding us, but this was unmistakable. For me, and I suspect everyone who had the privilege of studying with him, he was the greatest teacher of our generation.

He was a master posek, as those who have read his Responsa will know. He knew the entire rabbinic literature, Bavli, Yerushalmi, Midrash Halakhah and Aggadah, biblical commentaries, philosophy, codes and responsa. His creativity, halakhic and aggadic, knew no bounds. He was a master of almost every secular discipline, especially the sciences. He had been a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Toronto and had written a book about probability and statistical inference. His supreme passion was the Rambam in all his guises, especially the Mishneh Torah, to which he devoted some 50 years of his life to writing the multi-volume commentary Yad Peshutah.

By the time I came to study with the Rav, I had already studied at Cambridge and Oxford with some of the greatest intellects of the time. Rabbi Rabinovitch was more demanding than any of them. Only when I became his student did I learn the true meaning of intellectual rigour, shetihyu amelim ba-Torah, laboring in the Torah. To survive his scrutiny, you had to do three things: first to read everything ever written on the subject; second to analyze it with complete lucidity, searching for omek ha-peshat, the deep plain sense; and third, to think independently and critically. I remember writing an essay for him in which I quoted one of the most famous of 19th century talmudic scholars. He read what I had written, then turned to me and said, “But you didn’t criticize what he wrote!” He thought that in this case the scholar had not given the correct interpretation, and I should have seen and said this. For him, intellectual honesty and independence of mind were inseparable from the quest for truth which is what Talmud Torah must always be.

Some of the most important lessons I learned from him were almost accidental. I remember on one occasion his car was being serviced, so I had the privilege of driving him home. It was a hot day, and at a busy junction in Hampstead, my car stalled. Unfazed, Rabbi Rabinovitch said to me, “Let’s use the time to learn Torah.” He then proceeded to give me a shiur on Rambam’s Hilkhot Shemittah ve-Yovel. Around us, cars were hooting their horns. We were holding up traffic and a considerable queue had developed. The Rav remained completely calm, came to the end of his exposition, turned to me and said, “Now turn the key.” I turned the key, the car started, and we went on our way.

On another occasion, I told him about my problem getting to sleep. I had become an insomniac. He said to me, enthusiastically, “Could you teach me how to do that?” He quoted the Rambam who ruled that one acquires most of one’s wisdom at night, based on the Talmudic statement that the night was created for study.[4]

He and the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l were the Gedolei ha-Dor, the leaders and role models of their generation. They were very different, one scientific, the other artistic, one direct, the other oblique, one bold, the other cautious, but they were giants, intellectually, morally and spiritually. Happy the generation that is blessed by people like these.

It is hard to convey what having a teacher like Rabbi Rabinovitch meant. He knew, for example, that I had to learn fast because I was coming to the rabbinate late, after a career in academic philosophy. What he did was very bold. He explained to me that the fastest and best way of learning anything is to teach it. So the day I entered Jews’ College as a student, I also entered it as a lecturer. How many people would have had that idea and taken that risk?

He also understood how lonely it could be if you lived by the principles of intellectual integrity and independence. Early on, he said to me, “Don’t be surprised if only six people in the world understand what you are trying to do.” When I asked him whether I should accept the position of Chief Rabbi, he said, in his laconic way: “Why not? After all, maybe you can teach some Torah.”

He himself, in his early 30s, had been offered the job of Chief Rabbi of Johannesburg, but turned it down on the grounds that he refused to live in an apartheid state. He told me how he was visited in Toronto by Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, who had held the Johannesburg position until then. Looking at the Rav’s modest home and thinking of his more palatial accommodation in South Africa, he said, “You turned down that for this?” But the Rav would never compromise his integrity and never cared for material things.

In the end, he found great happiness in the 37 years he served as head of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maale Adumim. The yeshiva had been founded six years earlier by Rabbi Haim Sabato and Yitzhak Sheilat, but it is said that when Rabbi Sabato heard the Rav give a shiur, he immediately asked him to become the Rosh Yeshiva. It is hard to describe the pride with which he spoke to me about his students, all of whom served in the Israel Defense Force. Likewise it is hard to describe the awe in which his students held him. Not everyone in the Jewish world knew his greatness, but everyone who studied with him did.

There is a fine statement in Avot:

,רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן שַׁמּוּעַ אוֹמֵר, יְהִי כְבוֹד תַּלְמִידְךָ חָבִיב עָלֶיךָ כְּשֶׁלְּך

 ,וּכְבוֹד חֲבֵרְךָ כְּמוֹרָא רַבְּךָ

 :וּמוֹרָא רַבְּךָ כְּמוֹרָא שָׁמָיִם

“Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua said: let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own, let the honour of your colleague be like the reverence for your teacher, and the reverence for your teacher like the reverence for Heaven.”[5] Rabbi Rabinovitch was fastidious in observing the first two of these principles. We, his students, aspired to the third because we knew that having a great teacher is as close as we get to heaven. And now we weep, for our teacher has been called to the Yeshiva shel Maalah, the academy of heaven. In this city of refuge that is this world, he was our Rav; he was our life. May we find the strength so to learn and teach and act that he lives on in us.

To all the mourners we say:

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים

יהי זכרו ברוך

[1] Makkot 10a.

[2] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotze’ach, 7:1.

[3] Mishneh Torah, Ralmud Torah 5: 1.

[4] Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3: 13; based on (a slightly different text of) Eruvin 65a.

[5] Avot 4: 12.

About the Author
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a global religious leader, philosopher, the author of more than 25 books, and moral voice for our time. Until 1st September 2013 he served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, having held the position for 22 years. To read more from Rabbi Sacks or to subscribe to his mailing list, please visit www.rabbisacks.org.
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