Principled and Dedicated, No Nonsense

A man of principles, Harav Yaakov Landau would take on communal issues despite inconvenience or popular opinion. In honor of his yahrtzeit.

By Rabbi Binyomin Cohen – Rosh Yeshiva Yeshiva Gedolah Melbourne

Rav Landau deservedly enjoyed a reputation as a Rov who stood for no nonsense. Totally devoid of any personal or political interests, he ruled with an iron hand over a city which probably contained a greater concentration of Torah scholars and pious Jews than any other place on earth. He was proudly and unashamedly a chossid of the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, which automatically ensured that his religious and philosophical outlook was markedly different from that of almost all the other Jews in Bnei Brak. None of this, however, affected his standing as a Rov, and he was accorded the highest respect even by those who were ideologically opposed to Chassidus and its adherents. 

I well remember hearing stories, whilst studying in Yeshivah in Eretz Yisroel, about the intensity of the Rov’s kashrus supervision. It was said that he often decided in the middle of the night to make a spot-check on a food store bearing his hechsher. He would then immediately proceed to implement his decision, much to the total surprise of the store’s owner. There may be an element of exaggeration in some of these stories, but the undeniable fact was that Rav Landau’s hechsher was widely recognized as the most reliable in existence. Everyone knew that this was a ‘hands-on’ Rov who made it his business to be aware of everything taking place in the city for which he had accepted responsibility, and who would not hesitate to become personally involved in any matter requiring improvement.

In this context, two interesting stories are related by Reb Shmuel Gurewicz, the principal of Beth Rivka in Melbourne, who was personally involved in both of them, even though they took place many years apart. They both serve to illustrate Rav Landau’s personality and outlook, as well as his modus operandi in discharging his duties as Rov of Bnei Brak.

The first encounter Reb Shmuel had with Rav Landau was when he moved, shortly after his marriage, to live in Bnei Brak. A young man wants to know where his wife should purchase her meat, and who better to consult than the Rov who supervised every single butcher shop in the city?

At first, Rav Landau was extremely reluctant to single out any one butcher for recommendation. “They are all under my supervision,” he protested.

“Nevertheless,” replied Reb Shmuel, “since you were my grandfather’s chavrusa in the Yeshiva in Lubavitch (fifty years earlier), I am permitting myself to ask you to make a personal recommendation.”

Rav Landau thought for a minute and then asked where Reb. Shmuel was living.

“Rechov R. Akiva,” replied Reb Shmuel.

“If so,” said the Rov, “buy your meat by Margolis.”

Reb Shmuel was quite surprised. He knew Mr. Margolis’s butcher shop which was not far from his home. He also knew, however, that next door to Margolis was another butcher’s shop owned by a chassidic Jew who had what must have been one of the largest beards in Bnei Brak. Given that both shops were under identical supervision by the same Rov, why on earth had Rav Landau chosen to recommend that he, Reb Shmuel – a chossid who would not dream of touching his beard – should buy his meat specifically from a clean-shaven Mr. Margolis, who, while he was a fine, Torah-observant Jew, was in no sense a chossid?

There was, after all, no halachic issue in this matter. Both butchers were under the same Rov, and both were definitely Halachically acceptable. The whole point of the original question, and the answer to it, had been based on the closeness of two chassidim fifty years earlier in the chassidic Yeshivah of Lubavitch. Under the circumstances one would have imagined that the chassidic Rov would have advised the younger chossid to buy his meat from a person who conducted himself in the ways of chassidim, especially since refraining from cutting one’s beard is something which is high on the list of priorities of all chassidim without exception. 

Some time later, Reb Shmuel discovered what made Mr. Margolis the Rov’s first choice. Meat was expensive in Eretz Yisroel and had to be weighed carefully and exactly. Mr. Margolis would first put in the scale the exact amount of meat which the customer had ordered, and would then add an extra few grams of meat for which he did not charge. He explained that this was because the meat was moist and he was therefore afraid that if he charged full price for the exact amount of meat requested, the customer might in fact be paying a rather high price for several grams of water. He would therefore add some meat to compensate for any water content in the meat being purchased.

A person who is extremely careful about matters of בין אדם לחבירו – between man and his fellow – will probably be similarly scrupulous in other areas, and hence becomes the first choice for kashrus reliability. Rav Landau, whose approach was formed totally by Chassidus and its teachings, apparently knew how to measure a Jew by something other than the size of his beard.

So much for the Rov’s ability to size up a person and estimate his degree of reliability. The keenest perception, however, is useless unless it is coupled with practical involvement. Which brings us to the second story which took place some twenty-five years later when Rav Landau was already ninety-two years old.

The year was 5745 (1985) and Reb. Shmuel was marrying off his oldest son to a girl from Bnei Brak on the last day of Chanukah. Rav Landau agreed to be the mesader kiddushin (the Rov in charge of the actual marriage ceremony) and asked that the two fathers should come, with the chosson to his home at 4p.m. on the actual day of the chupah, in order to write the kesubah.

They arrived at the Rov’s house at the appointed time, but, despite repeated knocking on the door and ringing the bell, they were unable to gain entry. Apparently, no one was home. Given that the Rov himself had fixed the time, this was quite surprising. Not knowing what exactly was going on or what they should do, they waited outside the house. About half an hour later, Rav Landau’s younger son Eliyahu arrived at the house with a message that his father had gone to the hospital at Tel Hashomer and had sent him (Eliyahu) to take care of the writing of the kesubah. This he did, and the chupah itself took place later that evening when Rav Landau arrived at 8.45 p.m., despite the chupah having been called for 7.30 p.m. 

Why had Rav Landau found it necessary to put everything aside and run to the hospital?

Apparently Reb Zalman Leib Estulin had something of a problem with kidney stones and had been taken to hospital suffering from a particularly large stone. At that time the technology used nowadays to break up a stone was not yet available, and the doctors had therefore recommended that an operation he performed to remove the stone. Given that Reb Zalman Leib had heart problems, his family were concerned about performing an operation and therefore sought the advice of the Rebbe in New York as to what they should do. The Rebbe answered that they should consult the local Rov and act in accordance with his decision.

The family had conveyed the Rebbe’s answer to Rav Landau and now sought his guidance. Rav Landau had decided that he had to go to the hospital in Tel Hashomer (to which Reb Zalman Leib had been admitted) in order to speak to the doctors about the details of the case. That was where he had been during the afternoon. He had spoken to the doctors and subsequently expressed his opinion that there was no need to operate. The next day the problem was solved when the stone, which the doctors said was too large to go out of the body on its own, did in fact leave the body naturally without any need for an operation.

When I heard the above story, I was rather surprised. I could not understand why Rav Landau didn’t just phone the hospital and speak to Reb Zalman Leib’s doctors. The case may have been fairly serious, and it is not always so easy to talk to all the various doctor’s involved in a patient’s case, but that would just mean spending more time on the phone. If he didn’t want to rely on the phone, he could have sent his son Eliyahu to speak to the doctors and to come back and tell him what each one of them said. Why on earth did a man who was ninety-two years old and not himself in the best of health, have to make a fairly long journey to a hospital and then spend hours looking into all the details? Why did a Rov who had already made a previous arrangement regarding a chupah and a kesubah, have to put aside everything and everybody in order to deal with a particular issue?

There will be those who will say that this was because the Rebbe had instructed that a Rov be consulted, and Rav Landau therefore felt that this had an importance to the virtual exclusion of all else. Whether he, in fact, took that approach I do not know. What we do know is that he never did things by halves. He was meticulously thorough in his consideration of every shailah (halachic question) and invariably demanded of himself at least as much as he demanded of others. If this meant considerable inconvenience for him, so be it. If it sometimes caused others to be irritated, too bad. This Rov knew of no path other than the straight one.

As one of the famous (non-Chassidic) Roshei Yeshivah is reputed to have said about him: “Look at Rav Landau, and you will know what a Rov was like in Eastern Europe.” We might do well to remind ourselves of his particular qualities and possible try to emulate them. 

To read the full article in Perspectives magazine, click here.

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