Rav Shimon Shkop on His 80th Yahrzeit
The following article appeared in this week’s Hamodia, in their Community magazine insert for 8 Marcheshvan 5780. The nicely formatted PDF proof of the article is available here.
Harav Shimon Shkop, Zt”l
Marking his 80th yahrzeit on 9 Marcheshvan
On the 9th of Marcheshvan, 5700, we lost Rav Shimon Yehudah haKohen Shkop zt”l, making this Thursday (November 7th) his 80th yahrzeit. Reb Shimon was one of the lights of the Lithuanian Yeshiva world, becoming famous as a rebbe in Telzhe Yeshiva for having developed his own style of lomdus, halachic analysis, and eventually as the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Shaarei Torah, Grodno.
Let me introduce you to Reb Shimon the way I “met” him.
It was the end of the zeman, and we sat down for bechinos. Before we began, Rav Dovid Lifshitz zt”l asked us all two questions. First, “Did anyone not sleep at least eight hours last night.” And if you raised your hand, you were sent back to the dorm. Second, “Who missed breakfast?” The first time around, some hands went up. Rebbe gave them a few dollars to take to the cafeteria.
As was his norm in shiur as well, Reb Dovid here was relaying to us a lesson from his own rebbe, Reb Shimon.
A talmid had arrived at the yeshiva in Grodno after a three day walk. He left with only a little bit of food, trying to manage off the kindness of any Jews he would meet along the way. He arrived ready for the bechinah, worried about the shame of not being accept after all that, and having to return home.
This talmid walked into the Rosh Yeshiva’s office – Rav Shimon Shkop’s kitchen. But Reb Shimon asked him only two questions. “The first question is … When was the last time you had a warm meal?” When the talmid answed that it had been three weeks, Reb Shimon apologized, “My wife is not home and I am not much of a cook but I will do my best.” And he prepared the talmid a meal, with “doubles”! Now the talmid was nervous – the real bechinah would surely begin. The second question, “When was the last time you slept on a bed?” He couldn’t remember. So, Rav Shimon prepared a bed for him to sleep in. The talmid later found out, it was his own.
A bachur who shows that determination didn’t need a bechinah to check his skills. Rab Shimon Shkop wanted such a talmid in his yeshiva.
Rav Shimon haKohein Shkop was born in Toretz, near Minsk in Tishrei 5620 (1859). Biographies of gedolim often speak of their skills at an early age. It is indicative of the message Reb Shimon passed on to his talmidim that their biographies emphasize not only young Shimon’s clear intellect but also his amazing diligence. Native intellectual ability is a gift from the Creator, but the hasmadah, the drive to study, that is an accomplishment to record.
At age 12, Shimon precociously joined the yeshiva in nearby Mir for two years. When he was a bit older and his parents were ready to send him farther from home, he went to learn under the Netziv, the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (“Reb Chaim Brisker”), who was only 7 years older than him, was already running a popular chuburah that was analyzing the gemara and rishonim using what would come to be called the Brisker Derech. Reb Shimon joined the chaburah, to become among the first bachurim exposed to the new lomdus.
Reb Shimon later gave two descriptions of life in Volozhin. On the one hand, he told of having to tie what was left of his shoes together with rags to make it through the Lithuanian winter — he lacked even the little money necessary to pay for shoe repairs. But he also frequently described this period as one of the happiest. When he and his son Rav Moshe Mordechai, went to Volozhin, Rev Shimon told him, “See, my son, this is where I sat engrossed in Torah for six years, night and day, and this was the greatest joy I had in the world!” Given a chance to learn Torah, such things were simply unimportant.
Reb Shimon Shkop was twenty-one when he married Leah Eidlewitz, in a shidduch recommended by the Netziv. The bride’s uncle was Rav Eliezer (“Leizer”) Gordon, who became the Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe in 5644 (1884). Reb Shimon was twenty-four and Rav Leizer took him on as a rebbe there.
Rav Shimon adapted Rav Chaim Brisker’s analytic approach to Talmud study into what talmidim started calling the Telshe derech. During his eighteen years in Telshe, Reb Shimon’s class became known among the students of Lithuania as an experience that must be had, attracting guests not only from the other shiurim but also visitors from other yeshivos.
It was at Telshe that Reb Shimon grew to prominence, but he had four positions altogether. Reb Shimon left Telshe after eighteen years to take a position as the rav of Moltsh. The local yeshiva there had recently closed; Reb Shimon succeeded in bringing back some of the core students and reviving it, turning his position into a dual role of rav and rosh yeshiva. In Bransk in 5667 (1907) Reb Shimon again assumed a dual role when accepted an offer to become the Av Beis Din in Bransk and then opened a yeshiva there too. But both the community and the yeshiva dwindled when the fighting of World War I reached Bransk.
Meanwhile, talmidim trying to reach various yeshivos in Eastern Europe ended up stranded in Grodno because of their inability to cross the front. They organized a yeshiva themselves, run largely by va’adim, committees, of bachurim. They found a home in a local beis medrash, and attracted a mashgiach ruchani in Rav Yoseif Leib Nandik, a product of the Novhardok school of Mussar. But no rosh yeshiva. When fighting broke out between the Soviet Union and Poland, many fled, which for a yeshiva so only existed so informally, threatened its survival.
Rav Chaim Ozer Grozhinsky convinced Rav Shimon Shkop to its helm to save the yeshiva. In 5686 (1925/6) the people of Perstat, a suburb of Grodno, appointed Rav Shimon their rabbi, and yet again he returned to the dual role of both town rav and rosh yeshiva. Reb Shimon remained Rosh Yeshiva in Grodno until his death at the onset of World War II, aside from a brief time spent in New York.
In 5789 (1928) Rav Shimon Shkop left Grodno for a fundraising trip to the United States on behalf of the yeshiva in Grodno. While there, Rabbi Dov Revel invited him to become its Rosh Yeshiva. Reb Shimon accepted, as he dreamed of following in Rav Yisrael’s Salanter’s footsteps. Teaching Torah in and training Rabbanim for the largely non-observant atmosphere of American was much like Rav Yisrael’s work to spread Torah in Prussia and Paris. He took up the position in the spring of 1929, but he returned to Grodno after less than a year at the post. Reb Chaim Ozer and the Chafeitz Chaim wrote him describing how desperately the yeshiva in Grodno needed him back. According to the family he dropped the plan was simply because Rebbetzin Leah was afraid to risk their children’s spiritual development in the atmosphere of New York of that era.
Rav Shimon haKohein Shkop’s magnum opus was Shaarei Yosher. In it, he discusses complex topics that touch on the foundations of the halachah’s legal thought, matters of doubt resolution, chazakos – presumption, testimony, and the like. Reb Shimon also wrote other works that were published posthumously – Maareches HaKinyanim, on the laws of acquisition, as well as collections of novella on several mesechtos.
It was the seventh of Marcheshvan, 5700 (October 22, 1939). The Russian army was poised to invade Grodno as World War II heated up. Rav Shimon told his students to flee to the center of Lithuanian Jewry, Vilna, and the yeshiva closed. He himself was not healthy enough to flee. Two days later, the ninth of Marcheshvan, Rav Shimon Shkop passed away. Yehi zichro baruch!
Reb Shimon was one of the first talmidim to learn Brisker Derech. However, when teaching his own talmidim, he employed a different style of lomdus.
An epigram you commonly hear when people want to summarize the difference between the two approaches is, “In Brisk they ask ‘Vos?’ – What? In Telzh they ask ‘Fahr Vus?’ – Why?” But the difference really goes one level deeper.
If one were to ask a Brisker what “baalus – property” means, he would have pointed to the halachos of acquisition and sale, of theft and inheritance, and so on. Property is defined by the sum total of the denim of ownership. In Reb Chaim Brisker’s worldview, halachah is the foundational stratum of reality. He would never ask “Why?” about a halachah because halachah is the reason why for everything else.
Reb Shimon gives a different answer (Shaarei Yosher, opening of shaar 5). He explains that even before we were even given a halachah at Sinai, there was a legal and moral concept of property. Halachah doesn’t so much replace our definition of ownership as much as give us a holier way to relate to a natural concept that is built into human experience.
The difference is likely because of Rav Shimon Shkop’s Mussar-based hashkafah. To Reb Shimon, the purpose of Torah is to make us better people, to refine our tzelem E-lokim. He therefore wouldn’t try to analyze halachah divorced from the terms of people’s experience, and would be thinking of the question of how the Jew is impacted by the experience of following the din in question.
Because Reb Shimon’s derech is tied to the question of “Why?”, it was natural that he introduced Shaarei Yosher an essay about “the big picture” – what is the meaning of life and how does Torah help us achieve it? He wouldn’t discuss dinim without giving its context.
To Rav Shimon Shkop, Hashem “created us in His ‘image’ and in the likeness of His ‘structure’, and planted eternal life within us” – birchas haTorah’s description of the Torah – “so that our greatest desire would be to benefit others.” After all, Hashem couldn’t have created the universe for His own needs – He has no needs. Hashem created in order to have beings to whom He could bestow His Good. “Vehalakhta bidrakhav – you shall go in His Ways,” living to benefit others. “Kedoshim tihyu – be holy for I Am Holy” – consecrate ourselves to benefit others, just as Hashem does. Yes, the medrash and Ramban talk about “kedoshim tihyu” being implemented as “perushim tihyu – you shall keep separate”. But Hashem Himself doesn’t need to stay apart from things to be holy. This is not the definition of kedushah or emulating Hashem’s kedushah. We people, who can be distracted, fulfilling the mitzvah of being holy by stay apart from those things that could detour our drive to be available to benefit others. And if we do so, then any rest, entertainment, or spiritual activity we do ends up not just being for ourselves, but part of that kedushah to better provide good to others.
Reb Shimon doesn’t take this to mean living selflessly. He proves this from halachos like the case of where two people are in the desert, and only one of them has water, and only enough for himself. Rabbi Akiva rules the person should keep the water.
To Reb Shimon, the Torah is about generosity, and generosity comes from extending, not denying the self. A parent who “sacrifices” for their children is not acting out of teal self-denial, but because they see themselves in their children and have a natural willingness to give to that extended self.
As Rav Shimon himself puts it,
“The entire ‘ani’ of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his ‘ani’ is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his ‘ani’ all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his ‘ani’ includes the whole Jewish People, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. In this [progression] there are more levels for a fully developed person, who can ingrain in his soul the feeling that the entire world is his ‘ani,’ and he himself is only one small limb of all of Creation. Then, his self-love helps him love the entire Jewish People and all of Creation.”
The size of a neshamah is the number of people they think of when they say “ani” – “I”.
The world lost a truly great soul eighty years ago. Rav Shimon haKohein Shkop zt”l also taught numerous talmidim who became leaders in their own right – including my rebbe Rav Dovid Lifshitz zt”l, Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d vzt”l, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l, Rav Yisrael Zev Gustman zt”l (, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman (Ponevezh) zt”l and Rav Isser Yehuda Unterman zt”l.
It is upon us to make sure Reb Shimon’s derech continues.
(The historical information in this article was taken primarily from anonymous notes printed in Sefer haYovel, published in honor of the 50th anniversary of Rav Shimon haKohein Shkop’s arrival at Telshe. There is much more information on Reb Shimon’s worldview and his introduction to Shaarei Yosher, in Rabbi Berger’s book, Widen Your Tent: Thoughts on Life, Integrity & Joy (Mosaica Press, 2019). Chapter 1 of that book, Reb Shimon’s introduction with translation is publicly available on line at <http://www.aishdas.org/asp/ShaareiYosher.pdf>.)