Rav Dovid Feinstein zt”l – The Loss of a Gadol HaDor

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com

Nafla Ateres Rosheinu.  This past Erev Shabbos, Klal Yisroel has lost one of its greatest leaders – Reb Dovid Feinstein zt”l.

The Rosh Yeshiva had taken the helm of MTJ after his father, Rav Moshe Feinstein had passed away in 1986. Even before that, he was the Rosh Kollel of the Yeshiva in Staten Island. Reb Dovid headed the Yeshiva for 34 years. Rav Moshe zt”l had said about his son that he knew the entire Shas b’al peh and b’iyun – with great depth. He also knew the shitos rishonim on every sugya and he knew it in great depth.

And while it was not so well known, almost every difficult halachic question posed in the United States that was referred elsewhere – was sent to Reb Dovid zt”l. He grasped the essence of the shailah in seconds. Often, he answered with just a few words.

Years ago, the community in Kew Gardens had lost a precious gem – who had left a wonderful family.  The doctors had made an enormous mistake, and had they caught that mistake earlier, medical science said that he probably would have survived.  The community Askanim had taken upon itself to raise an enormous sum for the well-being of the family.  But first they needed to know whether a lawsuit should be brought.  The doctors who had failed would not have had to pay, it would have been the insurance company.  Reb Dovid did not answer affirmatively.  The askanim at first did not understand.  But then they slowly realized that this was how Reb Dovid zt”l often paskened.  Instead, they raised the money.

Reb Dovid was once asked how hatzolah organizations should rule in regard to a dispute between the Mishna Brurah and the Aruch haShulchan. The issue is in a case of Pikuach Nefesh, a life- threatening matter, but it is not exactly an emergency – in other words there is plenty of time to deal with the situation and no one is in a state of panic or chaos. Do we attempt to minimize the Shabbos violation in such a case? Should we try to do it through a gentile, or to perform what needs to be done in a manner that only involves a Rabbinic violation?

When there is plenty of time, and there is no concern of danger of any sort if there is a delay, the Ramah rules (OC 328:12) that we do attempt to minimize the Shabbos violations. While the other view (that of the Bais Yoseph and the Rambam 2:11) is that no minimization is required, Ashkenazic Jewry has followed the custom that we do minimize Shabbos violation when no delay or confusion will be incurred on account of the minimization. This is the view of the Raavya cited in the Ohr Zaruah, the Shiltei Gibborim, and the Maggid Mishna (Hilchos Shabbos 2:11 citing the Ramban) and is cited by the Ramah as the authoritative halacha. This also seems to be how the Mishna Brurah rules. The Aruch HaShulchan adopts the Beis Yoseph’s view.

Reb Dovid answered that the question cannot be answered across the board – each Posaik of each hatzolah should pasken in accordance with his community. However, Reb Dovid stated that he himself would pasken like the Aruch HaShulchan.

Klal Yisroel, of course, mourns for the loss of his enormous Torah. Reb Dovid went through Shas several times. As he learned through it, he kept a notebook and wrote down his insights and chiddushim. Once, a few years ago, I drove the Rosh Yeshiva upstate to a meeting. Noticing that the Rosh Yeshiva was up to Kesuvos daf nun gimel I asked him if I could ask him the parameters of a fascinating Gemorah on the previous page. The Gemorah dealt with the propriety of providing assistance to one side in a dispute.

Rav Yochanan once had relatives that he had advised in a dispute. After he did so, he regretted it. The Gemorah asked what his rationale for doing it in the first place was and why he changed his mind. The Gemorah seems to provide three fundamental concepts:

  • The first is that, generally speaking, one should avoid taking sides in a dispute. Doing so is a violation of “asinu atzmeinu k’orchei hadayanim.”
  • The second concept is that when it comes to family, one should actively advocate for your own flesh and blood.
  • The third concept is that regarding an illustrious Torah scholar – the idea of actively advocating for one’s own flesh and blood must be set aside.

I asked the Rosh Yeshiva what the parameters were for the second concept. How far is “one’s own flesh and blood?” Does it include friends? Does it include a lantzman or a helping the same gender?

The Rosh Yeshiva answered that the precise parameters here only refer to relatives. Which relatives? He answered the ones that you feel close to – those that you would invite to your child’s wedding.

Why is it different for an illustrious Torah scholar? Why can he not take sides? Reb Dovid gave two responses. Firstly, people may be unaware that he is related to that one side and see a great man taking sides in a dispute. He referenced a Rashi to that effect. A second explanation he gave was that it was unfair. People would see the great Torah scholar being involved in one side and help that position along.

Another time, I was zoche to accompany him to a wedding in Indianapolis, Indiana. The return flight was snowed in and we had to stay in a hotel for the night. I used the opportunity to discuss his father’s position on Chatzos being a constant. He explained with the greatest humility that he did not understand his father’s position on the matter and, because of that, he ruled according to the other Chatzos.

Once a Ger posed the following question: his biological father passed away and his brothers wanted to cremate the body. Is the soul of a gentile negatively affected by cremation? Should he argue with his brothers? Reb Dovid responded that it is negatively effected and that he should use as much influence as possible to stop the cremation.

Someone with a daughter named Shira had asked him about Reb Chaim Kanievsky shlita’s position that “Shira” is not a name and that girls named “Shira” should adopt a different name. He answered that he would never publicly dispute with such a Gadol baTorah – but that he never understood it. He then brought four instant proofs that it would be permitted.

A few years ago, Reb Dovid issued a psak that Rav Moshe’s ruling on smoking not being technically forbidden was only valid based upon the limited scientific knowledge available at the time. However, he explained, that he would certainly rule that in modern times it would be absolutely forbidden. The psak was promulgated by Rabbi Boruch Moskowitz, author of two seforim, veDibarta Bam, that discusses in depth sugyas upon which Reb Dovid zt”l ruled upon.

Reb Dovid was not just a brilliant Posaik and Talmudic scholar. He was extremely careful in matters of respecting others and never embarrassing another person.  He was concerned about the kavod of others to a remarkable degree.  Reb Dovid also combined his remarkable knowledge and erudition with an abiding sense of humility and strong degree of, well, utter simplicity.

The Yeshiva building in MTJ is old, reminiscent of the buildings that have not been upgraded since the 1930’s. The Yeshiva had a soda machine that no one was refilling. As his active chessed Reb Dovid took it upon himself to refill the soda machine with sodas each night – so that the bochurim would have access to something to drink. Eventually, the yeshiva realized that the Gadol haDor should not be the one to be refilling the sodas.

Once, out of town parents were driving their daughter to Camp Hedvah in Liberty, New York. They needed to get to the FDR, and saw a Jewish man on the street. They asked him directions to the onramp. He explained that it was somewhat complicated, but he could get in the car and direct them. That man did and then prepared to leave. The parents asked him what his name was, he replied, “Dovid Feinstein.” They did not realize that they were in the presence of the Rosh Yeshiva himself.

The Rosh yeshiva was very close to the members of the Jewish community in the Lower East Side. He made sure to attend their simchos whenever it was possible. One could always meet him at such a wedding, and this practice inspired many Rabbonim to do likewise. If Reb Dovid attends such simchas – how can others not do so?

These stories reflect upon the Rosh yeshiva unassuming nature.

The Rosh Yeshiva also had a sense of humor. Once a videographer at a wedding asked the Rosh yeshiva for a bracha for the Chosson and Kallah. The Rosh Yeshiva responded, that he would gladly do so and that he could leave out the particular names of the Chosson and Kallah so that the videographer could reuse the footage for future weddings.

Reb Dovid did not speak publicly and had a reputation of having a quiet personality. He gave shiurim, but never publicly addressed large forums. Yet, when it was necessary, he rose to the occasion.

Once, while Rav Moshe zt”l was alive, there was an emergency Chinuch Atzmai meeting. Rav Moshe was ill, and could not attend the meeting. Reb Dovid attended in his stead. Apparently, Chinuch Atzmai was undergoing a severe financial crisis. There was a deficit of some two million dollars – a large sum in the early 1980’s.

Reb Dovid knew what to do. He remarked, “There are twenty of us here. If each of us is mekable to take achrayus for raising $100,000 – the problem will be resolved. I will begin and take upon myself to raise my $100,000.”

When someone related what had transpired to his father, Rav Moshe, the latter responded, “That’s not my Dovid’l.” But, when necessary, Reb Dovid knew what needed to be done. He stood up for the needs of Klal Yisroel.

For many many years, Reb Dovid had a dedicated driver who had singular devotion to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yissachar Ginzberg, shlita – who was also the menahel of the pre Yeshiva.  Without Reb Yissachar, Reb Dovid could not have accomplished all that he did.  He mentioned this to this author once.

Reb Dovid had three sons, Reb Beryl, Reb Shmuel Yaakov z”l [later due to illness the name Moshe was added to the beginning of his name], and Reb Mordechai. After his son had tragically passed away, his daughter-in-law remarried Rabbi Dovid Sandel. Reb Dovid zt”l treated them just like a son and daughter. May the family and Klal Yisroel only see yeshuos and nechamos.

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