HaGaon HaRav Yechezkel Roth zt”l, the Karlsburger Rav of Boro Park, 86, was a sought-after poseik whose reach around the globe will never be fully known. He authored the nine-volume Sh’eilos U’T’shuvos Eimek HaT’shuvah, which contains many of his savored responsa. His sudden passing shocked the Torah world, especially those who knew him best, including one of his closest talmidim, HaGaon HaRav Yigal Haimoff shlita, the mara d’asra of Yeshiva Ohel Simcha.
In 1953, Rav Roth fled his hometown of Transylvania, Romania, now Alba Iulia, to study in the yeshivah of HaGaon HaRav Moshe Aryeh Freund zt”l, gaavad of the Eidah HaChareidis of Yerushalayim.
Soon after, he led the Satmar neighborhood of Katamon, Yerushalayim, until, in 1972, the Satmar Rebbe, HaRav Yoel Teitelbaum, zt”l, called Rav Roth to the shores of New York to serve on the beis din for Satmar. His Yerushalmi heritage remained a visible presence in his attire ever after. Rav Roth also held the role as poseik for Misaskim, dealing with the most complex issues working alongside its founder Reb Yanky Meyer.
Rav Roth rarely left his beis midrash, often only taking power naps, and suffered a heart attack there this past Sunday morning around 8 a.m., while engrossed in learning.
The Rav is survived by his many s’farim, including Chezkas Taharah (Nidah), Eimek Shmaatza (Talmud), Chazon Yechezkel (Drush), Mishpat HaAretz (Sh’mitah), Keren HaTorah (Ribbis), Mai Chanukah (Chanukah), and by children HaRav Moshe, Rav HaTza’ir of Karlsburg; HaRav Amram, Rav of Homerad; HaRav Baruch David, Rav of Mareh Yechezkel; HaRav Ezriel Yehudah, Rav in Jersey City; HaRav Avraham Mordechai, Rav of Tcherna; HaRav Shalom, Rav of Austrick; and HaRav Yitzchak Eizik, Rav of Khal Chasidim, Rebbetzin Friedman, wife of HaRav Moshe Friedman, a Brooklyn dayan; Rebbetzin Joszef; and Rebbetzin Yides Miller of Staten Island, and by the students of Yeshiva Shaare Torah in Brooklyn.
Rav Roth was laid to rest near his wife on Mt. Meron, a place where he returned each year for several months to study in solitude with Rav Shimon bar Yochai, and where he felt closest to HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Rav Yigal Haimoff began studying in the Kollel, Beis Din, and Beis Horaah of the the Karlsburg Beis Midrash, K’hal Yerei Hashem at 1558 53rd Street in Boro Park.
QJL: When did the Rav join Rav Roth’s Kollel?
RYH: I was privileged to study in the Kollel from 1987 through 2010.
QJL: What were some of the Rav’s early experiences there?
RYH: I was the only Sephardic member of the Kollel. For me, this was a tremendous honor and one that Rav Roth always held close. It was a tremendous chidush for such a Kollel to accept someone who only speaks lashon kodesh; all the men in the beis midrash only speak Yiddish. The Rav’s eishes chayil called him into their kitchen to question how he could think to accept a man only fluent in lashon ha’kodesh. The Rav, exemplifying what it means to be a true baal midos, explained to her that the language was very special. This was the first time that I saw how the Rebbetzin took a hands-on role in the Kollel. She was always fully involved to the point that the Kollel yungerleit called her the “Prime Minister.”
QJL: Were there any other memories of the Rebbetzin that come to mind?
RYH: It is little known that ahead of his wedding day, Rav Roth was introduced not to his eventual wife, but to her younger sister. When his wedding day arrived, Rav Roth found a different woman at the chupah. His parents could not believe the situation and turned to depart. “This is not going to happen!” Rav Roth, in his saintly wisdom, took another approach and took his parents aside. “Do you want me to be a murderer, chas v’shalom?” Rav Yechezkel questioned them. He explained that the woman who stood at the chupah was a bas Yisrael and to not wed her would be like a death sentence. “It is meant to be,” the Rav said. And so, it was, as the Rebbetzin stood at Rav Roth’s side all her days helping him become a talmid chacham.
Writer’s note: Early in life, Rav Roth wed Rebbetzin Chayah Rechel a”h, the daughter of HaRav Chaim Mendel Cohen z”l. In March 2016, Rav Roth miraculously survived two hours of medical procedures, just shy of open-heart surgery, following a heart attack. He was famously m’kadeish his wife anew following his recovery. Rav Roth cited the p’sak of the T’rumas HaDeshen who writes that one should perform a second Kiddushin if he hovered between life and death.
QJL: Tell us a bit about this special Kollel?
RYH: Rav Roth assigned us chavrusos; I was chosen to learn with Rav Hershel Oish, who still is in the Kollel. We continue as learning partners today. Rav Roth always respected Rav Oish and his complex knowledge of the medical field, including all types of r’fuos. I also learned amongst great sages like Rav Ashkenazi whose father-in-law is Rav Bick, as well as the Pupa Dayan. Together, we all sat in learning and would answer extremely complex sh’eilos that would come in from around the world.
QJL: Were there any memorable encounters with Rav Roth during this time?
RYH: As talmidim of Rav Roth, we would want to stand up for our rebbe. When the Rav would enter the beis midrash for s’farim, we would all of course rise. In his humility the Rav would ask us not to stand up. We would still do so at the start of the day and each time he would respond, “This is the last time.”
QJL: What are some of the intricate laws that the Rav learned from Rav Roth?
RYH: Rav Roth would always teach with a halachah l’maaseh approach. The Rav was especially knowledgeable in the laws of esrogim, safrus, and about dayanus overall. I brought these teachings directly into Yeshivas Ohel Simcha when I opened its doors in 1993, and eventually trained my son-in-law, Rav Gavriel Elbaz, in these laws. In turn, we created an esrog center with strict guidelines.
QJL: Share with our community some of Rav Roth’s feelings about Queens.
RYH: Rav Roth consistently asked about the welfare of Torah and Yiddishkeit in Queens. On his visits to the Yeshiva, he would often utter, “Chasdei Hashem,” with tears in his eyes referring to the flames of Torah that returned from the harsh streets of Russia. The talmidim who were then in the yeshivah each went on to become great on their own paths. Rabbi Ephraim Ben-Mordechai from Yeshiva Sha’arei Zion and Rav Aharon Walkin zt”l are just two of the many.
QJL: Did Rav Roth assign you any special tasks in the Kollel?
RYH: I was chosen to teach a group of avreichim from Lakewood on Sunday afternoons. These rabbanim would come with difficult practical questions, and I would have to send them home with answers. Rav Roth always gave immediate responses. There was never a reply of come back tomorrow; his brilliance was immediate.
QJL: The Rav seems to have had a deep connection to Rav Roth.
RYH: I was a yeled shaashuim. When Rav Roth was in upstate New York, he would rarely see guests, but when he was told that I was there, I was always ushered inside.
QJL: Were there other instances when Rav Roth went out of his way for Queens?
RYH: Rav Roth davened an extremely long Amidah. It was rarely practical for the Rav to attend a bris milah. I once asked him to make the trip to be the sandek at a bris and although difficult, he made the trip. Rav Roth also once accepted to be the mesader Kiddushin for one of my sons. That was a special moment for my entire family.
QJL: It seems impractical for a chasidish leader like Rav Roth to understand the needs of the Soviet Jews here in America.
RYH: Baalei t’shuvah were certainly far from the Rav’s regular encounters, but his interactions with the Queens community were seamless. The Rav always understood the predicament and how to properly react. Rav Roth called me a gibor for my work in our community. I responded that it was he who gave me the strength, but again he countered that the koach was all my own. Rav Roth would often ask, “Nu, nu, what is going on in Queens?” We were always on the forefront of the Rav’s mind, and he often took a behind-the-scenes role in the ongoings in the area.
QJL: Were there any situations when Rav Roth relied on the Rav?
RYH: Rav Roth was a true giant of Torah. He gave me various s’michah certifications that I never even requested. Often, we dealt with life and death scenarios. There was one evening that I just returned home and barely took off my hat when the Rav called for me to return to be the third in a beis din to answer a pressing matter. Knowing that Rav Roth always delivered a resolute yes or no response to a query, I returned as requested to deliberate a response to the sh’eilah. Questions would stream in from as far away as Brazil or Los Angeles and the dayanim from Bobov and New Square were regularly in our presence.
QJL: What Yom Tov did Rav Roth hold closest?
RYH: Checking esrogim was the Rav’s true passion. It gave him a special delight.
QJL: What character trait stands out about Rav Roth?
RYH: The Rav’s anivus was tremendous. I once entered the beis midrash to ask a question and the Rav seemed to have brushed me off, so I took a seat to wait for my rebbe to become free. His grandson, who also learns in the Kollel, mentioned to the Rav that I was in the room and Rav Roth became overcome with sorrow. He could not accept that he caused me to wait. It took quite some time to calm the Rav down. Eventually, I said, “I am Israeli, I can handle it.” The Rav with both hands on my shoulders took me to the side and asked in all sincerity, “Are you sure?”
QJL: Was Rav Roth aware of the Torah programming in Queens?
RYH: Rav Roth was very much against the Internet. I explained that we use the Web to share thousands of shiurim. The Rav was aware of the work of organizations like TorahAnytime and Chazaq. I explained that we adjust to use what Hashem has given us for wonderful things.
QJL: How else did Rav Roth’s humility shine?
RYH: There was a time when people spread lashon ha’ra about the Rav, and his family became overly concerned. It came to the point where the Rav also realized something was amiss. Once he inquired, he told his family to do nothing and instead dedicate their time to learning instead of being bothered with his honor.
QJL: Have the Rav’s talmidim ever had encounters with Rav Roth?
RYH: One of my students went to Rav Roth with a question, but the gabbaim would not let him speak to the Rav. My student then mentioned my name to one of the Rav’s sons, and once Rav Roth heard, he pulled the man close to learn about his needs.
QJL: Any final thoughts?
RYH: Rav Roth had ahavas Yisrael for every Jew, if he was observant or not. It gave the Rav life to hear how Queens was advancing and succeeding as a thriving neighborhood and from a religious perspective. It was the Rav who sent me back to Queens to start my yeshivah, even though I still went back to the Kollel when I could. If there is one lasting lesson from Rav Roth, it would be to spend an extra moment learning even when we would rather not.
By Shabsie Saphirstein