The Life and Torah of Reb Boruch Ber Leibowitz


by Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, Rav and Dean of Yeshivat Yavneh

Part 1 of 3

With G-d’s help, my plan is to spread the biographical notes over the three articles and also present an outline of 3 of his teachings. The biography herein is by no means exhaustive and the Torah chosen doesn’t reflect the Rosh Yeshiva’s “best” but rather 3 classic pieces.


Reb Baruch Ber with his Talmidim


History #1
This past week marks the 75th yahrzeit of Reb Boruch Ber Leibowitz (1864-1939). Who was Reb Boruch Ber? There is no quantifiable way to determine the greatest Roshei Yeshiva in history, however, in any good informal list Reb Boruch Ber qualifies.

Like many of the greatest Yeshiva students he had the mark of a prodigy at a very young age. Garnering the reputation of being a genius when your hometown is Slutsk is like being called Sherlock in Scotland Yard; talmudic greatness meant something in Slutsk, Belarus. Slutsk was home to all-star names such as Rav Isser Zalman Metlzer, Rav Aharon Kotler, and Rav Yechezkel Abramsky and many other great halachik minds.

At the age of 16, the young and innovative Boruch Ber was invited to the esteemed Volozhin Yeshiva. Legend has it that he had a difficult time adjusting to the new curriculum and fitting in with his peers. A mind like Reb Boruch Ber can’t easily be contained. His will to develop new ideas (chiddushim) got in the way of simple steady learning. In many ways his mind worked in the same way as the mind of his brilliant Rebbe, Reb Chaim Brisker.

Reb Chaim took the young Boruch Ber under his wing and developed this burgeoning titan. He helped hone his unbridled and boundless intellectual power. With time he became known for his knack of calling every sevara (logical distinction) into question. As Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer proclaimed “with Reb Boruch Ber, no sevara was safe.” Ultimately Reb Boruch Ber’s style was epitomized by precision. He argued that you must speak the answer clearly or not say it at all. The solution to any Talmudic problem must come from the text itself. No imposed answer could resolve any challenge adequately. A resolution must resonate with the daf, with the words.

In 1904 Reb Boruch Ber got the call that elected him to become the head of the Kneses Beis Yitzchak Yeshiva in Kamaneitz. With the onset of WWI, Reb Boruch Ber was forced to move the location of the yeshiva on three occaisions. His final stop was just outside the city of Vilna in 1939, where he would spend the remaining few months of his life. His grave was found in 2012.
Torah #1
According to the gemara in Gitin (8b) –
If a slave brought his Get (document) of freedom, and it says ‘yourself and my property are acquired to you’, the slave goes free, but does not acquire the property of his previous owner.
Rashi, commenting on this passage, says that we are speaking of a slave who brought his document from oversees while he assumes the role of messenger and witness of Court X (this role is called sheliach l’holacha.)
Rabbi Akiva Eiger asks why Rashi had to ‘twist himself like a pretzel’ to say that we are referring to a slave that brought his freedom document in the role of a sheliach l’holacha. Why didn’t he simply say the case is referring to a slave who brought his own document that he used to go free with and now he is holding it so that he can marry a free women? When it comes to freedom we don’t assume any forgery (just like we believe a women about her get document). However, he is not believed when it comes to his property as no such lenient dispensation was given in terms of his financial believability.

This is what we call palginan dibura – split his words and therefore as the gemara stated we believe him about the freedom and not about the property. Why then the need to label him as a sheliach l’holacha? Rabbi Eiger answers that we deploy palginan dibura in cases where, for example, one writes all his property to his slave (a demonstrative act of freedom) but leaves out an unspecified amount. We allow such a document to be used as a freedom document but not as a transfer of property because we don’t know the specific excluded amount. That is a proper usage of palginan dibura because the semantic contradiction between giving “all property” and “leaving out a portion” eliminates that part of the document, thus leaving the other clause about freedom in place.

In contrast to that is our case where we would have to declare the document a forgery in one sense and not a forgery in another. That would leave us with a document of confused identity. Therefore, a more creative solution needed to be found and this would explain why Rashi went with his thesis.

Remember what I said in the biographical sketch; Reb Boruch Ber was a warrior at undoing almost any sevara. Reb Ber claims that Rabbi Eiger is against the Rambam. The Rambam rules that a slave who brings his document of freedom and it says, “you and my property are acquired to you,” we believe him as far as his freedom but not as far as the property for we utilize palginan dibura.

While Reb Boruch Ber has used the Rambam to call Rabbi Eiger into question, it leaves us with a bigger problem – how do we understand the Rambam in light of Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s definition of palginan dibura? Either this document would be a forgery or is it not? Reb Boruch Ber has a beautiful explanation.

Most early commentaries assume that the reason why when it comes to aget, when the party who was freed by that get utilizes it we don’t claim that it’s a forger because משום עגונא אקילו בה רבנן– for the plight of the chained one the Rabbis were lenient. The Rambam, however, never cites that as the reasoning for the leniency by a get. Rather the leniency, according to him, is based on the notion that a woman (and by extension a slave) will be very careful before using such a device to remarry. There is too much at stake with a forged get. Therefore, with regard to freedom, such a document has a chazaka [definition: the presumption of ownership of a personal status] and he will be believed. But on property, where he had no prior chazaka – we won’t believe him. Therefore we can say palginan dibura.