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Remembering Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg

Remembering Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg

Appreciating his greatness on the occasion of his yartzeit.


Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, the Dean of Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, was a tremendous Torah scholar and spiritual giant. He passed away 14 years ago on the 17th of Tammuz. I would like to share with you some personal encounters I had with him and some wisdom that I learned from him.

Over 30 years ago I heard that Rabbi Weinberg would be speaking at the the Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago where I was visiting my parents. Having heard that Rabbi Weinberg was a special person, I eagerly headed for the event, looking forward to the talk. I was very disappointed. He spoke entirely in Yiddish (the appropriate language for the audience at Telshe) and I understood nothing. I went to the podium after the talk, as Rav Yaakov kindly greeted people and politely shook hands with well-wishers. I was newly religious, very curious, and not shy so I maneuvered to the front of the line and approached Rav Yaakov with my best philosophical question: ‘How can a person be truly happy?”

He looked at me straight in the eye. ‘’I don’t know you so I can’t give you the answer that’s right for you. There are three aspects to happiness. The first is you must appreciate and take pleasure in all the gifts you have. Your eyes, ears, and intelligence are great gifts, enjoy them and take pleasure.

“Are you married?’’ he asked me.

“Not yet,” I replied.

“The second aspect to happiness is to learn to be a giver, to really care for other people and love them. Men have a hard time with this until they are married. Do your best, be a giving person. You will flourish when you really do this.‘’

“The third aspect,” he continued, his voice changing from a loving father to someone communicating the Fear of Heaven, ‘’do you believe in Olam Haba, the World to Come and the eternity of the soul?”

“Yes,” I managed to squeak out in a high pitched, frightened voice.

‘’You have to make it real,” Rav Yaakov thundered, “that every day of your life you are building your eternity! You are living for something Ultimate. Each day. But I don’t know you, so I don’t know which is most important for you in life right now.”

This was clearly a man with thought out ideas.

The Man who can Answer Everything

In a very different setting I heard Rav Yaakov speak in St. Louis at Washington University, in early 1980s. It was an Aish HaTorah event in the Gargoyle, a popular campus hangout. We were excited that the great rabbi would be speaking to college students, but in our enthusiasm, we erred in promoting the event. We billed it as ‘’The Man Who Can Answer Any Question’’ and Rav Yaakov did not think that was appropriate. Even worse, we titled the talk ’’The Jewish Messiah’’ with Rabbi Weinberg’s picture directly below the title on all the posters. We inadvertently made it look like he was the Jewish messiah.

The tension in that room was very thick. It was dispelled by the second question of the evening when a college student asked, “Why does Jewish lineage follow the mother?” and Rav Yaakov replied, “’I don’t know.’’ So much for the man who can answer any question!

That night was very lively, especially when a Jewish student who had converted to Christianity chose to argue publicly with Rabbi Weinberg. “God broke the covenant with the Jews because of your sins! The Jews did all sorts of horrible things!” the young man emotionally cried out. “It’s in the book of Isaiah , that the Jews are rejected!”

Rav Yaakov was calm and measured in his response. “Do you have the book? Let’s learn it together and see if it says what you are claiming.’’

‘’I don’t have the book,’’ the student replied.

His explanations were so clear, his reasoning so plain and he seemed to know the entire Bible by heart in Hebrew!

Rav Yaakov calmly answered, ‘’Allow me to read it to you …” and he started reciting the opening chapter of Isaiah, in Hebrew, with a line-by-line translation for the audience. All by heart with no book near him. He explained to all the young man’s confusion. “’Come let us reason together’ is the prophet’s call to the Jewish nation to repair its mistakes. It is not a rejection but a call to come home to one’s Creator.” Most of the attending students were astonished. His explanations were so clear, his reasoning so plain and he seemed to know the entire Bible by heart in Hebrew! There were people in that room who changed their relationship to Judaism and Torah by hearing that one talk.

Many questions in Jewish law were brought to Rabbi Weinberg by Jews around the world who valued his deep wisdom and commitment to take responsibility. If it was a tough question, in any area of life, he could wisely give guidance.

Master Teacher

I arranged for Rabbi Weinberg to speak to a group of businessmen in Toronto on the topic, ‘’What happens after we die.’’ I wanted to make sure that Rav Yaakov was prepared for the skeptical audience he was about to face. Jewish people rarely respond to fire and brimstone, and I feared that if someone asked him about ‘’gehinnom,’’ the Jewish view of Hell and punishment in the afterworld, that people might actually walk out if his answer was not ‘’nuanced’’ enough. ‘If people bring up this topic,” I asked him, “’what will the Rav answer?”

‘’They will absolutely love to hear all about it,” he said to me. “You have nothing to worry about.”

“Rosh Hayeshiva, we are talking about Hell! Why would anyone love hearing about this?”

“Do you have modern hospitals here in Toronto? Of course. Do they offer chemotherapy, radiation treatment for those who need it? Yes they do. So tell me,” Rav Yaakov asked, “you are certainly grateful that such facilities exist. How often would you like to use their services? The chemo and radiation? We are happy that it is there for those who need it, but we hope we will never spend one second there. Gehinom (Hell) is a facility for a soul that could not fix his or her mistakes in this world but still hopes to be cured. Of course it’s better to never have to check in, but if you need it, you’re glad it’s there. Fix your mistakes here and now. But for those that don’t, we have a hospital for the soul. They will be happy to hear about it.”

Rabbi Weinberg gave his students a new way of thinking; he truly raised up many students.

He answered so many questions in Torah by focusing on what exactly the Torah says. Every word of the Torah is important. The deep answers people seek are hiding in plain view. Just read and learn the text carefully, with humility, and wisdom will follow. I am thankful to be one of his students.

June 23, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Yehuda Meir Lipson, November 9, 2014 9:18 PM

The lesson of "And"

Rabbi Weinberg had already made several impressive (to say the least) guest appearances at Aish Toronto in the early 1980's by the time he joined Aish for its first Discovery seminar over a long weekend in early 1983. That was a powerful experience for many of us novices to Torah wisdom, not least because his co-presenters included Rav Motty Berger, Rav Yehuda Silver, and Rabbi and Rebbitzen Michel and Faygie Twerski.

Although I had already been involved in learning part-time at Aish since late 1981, it was that weekend that changed my life. The memory that remains the most significant to me -- and there are many -- is that that Shabbat the Torah reading was parshat Shemot (the first few chapters of the Book of Exodus). The Book begins with the letter "Vav", meaning "And". Rabbi Weinberg gave a hour-long d'var Torah on Shabbat afternoon about JUST THAT LETTER -- how the Vav in "V'Eileh" ("And these are") joined Exodus to the end of Genesis, thus providing a significant continuity that gets lost in translation. Thirrty-plus years later,I don't remember any of the details of what the Rav said, but the fact that he could prove the significance of each letter of the Torah, combined with all the other lecturers' amazing talks and insights, prompted me to tone down my pseudo-intellectual challenges and start keeping Shabbat and kashrut more seriously.

I will be eternally grateful for Rav Weinberg's no-nonsense approach to teaching Torah. Y'hi zichro l'vracha.

(10) Eugene Mazzilli, April 1, 2014 4:21 PM

A Godly Man

I have followed Rabbi Weinberg for many years until the day he died. He truly was a Godly and inspirational man with the ability to speak his interpretation of the Mind of God, and help you to understand how God loves all people especially those who come to Him for help and guidance. He was always so good at bringing peace and contentment to people troubled with anything. The day he died, I was truly saddened and very much in mourning. This was a man who was able to bridge the gap of many religions and to accept all those people of other religions who questioned him on Jewish theology. Rabbi Weinberg of Blessed Memory, may you Rest in Peace. You will always be an inspiration to me all the days of my life. Maybe God will grant to me just some of your wisdom.
Thank you Rabbi Palatnik for bringing this article to view today.

(9) Janet Lesser Toronto, October 5, 2013 10:09 PM

Jewish lineage

"Why does Jewish lineage follow the mother?" I always thought that Jewish lineage follows the mother because we can be 100% certain who the mother is but in some cases not always 100% sure who the real father is. Pretty simple really...With this system no mistakes can be made in determining who is Jewish. This idea is not one I learned from anyone (even the great Rabbi Weinberg did not have an answer) but the answer seems so clear and logical and most importantly it is a mistake-proof system.

(8) Josh Goldberg, June 26, 2013 10:51 PM

My Rosh yeshiva, my Zeidy, my King.

Thank you so much for this article. Though I merited to sit and learn at his feet only in the last months of his life, rarely does a day go by without thinking of him and his Torah. Though it is so many years hence, i still struggle to keep my eyes dry when i recall his royal countenance, his warm and patient mien, and the comfort I felt in the confidence of his leadership.

Would that Hashem grant that the day come soon when i might introduce my baby boy who carries the name Shmuel Yaakov to the giant amongs giants in whose honor and memory he is so named.

(7) max, June 25, 2013 9:03 PM

Great article - thanks

Thanks for this - his on the spot answers about happiness are as good as any and the geihinom explanation very powerful.
Well written!

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