To discuss and pray together

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Professor David Weiss Halivni ז״ל died on June 29, 2022. He was born in what is now Ukraine, where he was ordained a rabbi in the Sighet yeshiva at the age of 15. He was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, after which he immigrated to the United States. Professor Halivni began teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1957 and was appointed Morris Adler Professor of Rabbinics there in 1969. In 1986 he was appointed Professor of Religion at Columbia University, having taught there as assistant professor almost consecutively since the 1960s. In 2005 Professor Halivni moved to Israel and for the next twelve years taught Talmud at Bar-Ilan University. In 1985, he received the prestigious Bialik Prize, equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize, from the city of Tel Aviv.

The author, Naftali Tzvi Rabinovich, is an ultra-Orthodox Talmudic scholar. He is a descendant of many Hasidic rabbinic dynasties including Sighet. —Menahem’s Butler

From 2009 to 2011, I studied at Yeshivas Brisk, Jerusalem, under Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik. At the time, my grandfather, the late Mr. Hayyim Elazar Rabinovich, resided at Rechov Diskin 13, a high-rise apartment building located in the Sha’arei Hesed neighborhood in central Jerusalem.

During my first Sabbath in Jerusalem, my grandfather mentioned that a great Talmud chacham from Sighet (Sighetu, Romania), “Reb Duvid Veiss” (Rabbi David Weiss in the Yiddish vernacular), lives in an apartment above. This Sabbath was my first of many encounters with the giant scholar, known as Professor Halivni, and to me as “Reb Duvid”. After an exchange of pleasantries, Professor Halivni recounted the triumphs, disasters and post-disaster rises of his life. Between happiness and sadness, we discussed Sighet, my ancestral relationship with the great rabbis of the city, his rabbinical ordination at 15, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, the murder by the Nazis of his entire pre-war family, Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, his father-in-law, Reb Mendel Hager de Visheve, and his mentor, Professor Saul Lieberman.

I then requested a regular study session with him in the shtarot (Jewish contract law) subjects of the Tractate Ketubot. He said in Hasidic Yiddish:Naftuli lomer yach veizen vie azoy an amulege Talmid Chuchem hut geflegt lernen k’sibis” (“Naftali, allow me to demonstrate how a pre-war Talmud chacham learned Ketubot”). Without one sefer before him, Professor Halivni quoted the Gemara, Rashi and Tossafot, from page 18b of Ketubot, verbatim, and from memory summarized every comment of P’nei Yehoshua and Haflaah regarding the page. Exacerbated, he proclaimed, “this is how you learn Torah!”

Over the next two years, I had the privilege of being Professor Halivni’s periodic study partner and attending his Monday afternoon classes at the Hebrew University in Israel. Our one-on-ones were always marked by Professor Halivni’s enthusiasm for conveying the aspirations and achievements of a pre-war Talmud chacham, indirectly urging and encouraging my Millennials to expect more of ourselves. The wise Professor Halivni never failed to take my soul and raise it to the higher sphere of pre-war Talmudic activity.

On the way to the afternoon prayer, after a particularly intense study session, Professor Halivni exclaimed: “I used to say that I cannot pray with those with whom I converse , and I cannot converse with those with whom I pray. I am happy that you and I are converting and praying together. I will cherish this moment forever.

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