Sunday 29 April 2018


R. Pinchas Hirschprung 1912-1998.

In the cold Canadian winter of 1982, I was ordained by R. Pinchas Hirschprung (1912-1998), Chief Rabbi of Montreal.

I ascended the short flight of stairs to his brown faced apartment with great trepidation because I had heard that he knew the entire Talmud by heart. I left with a feeling of elation that wouldn’t go away for days. And the time I spent alone with him has been indelibly ingrained upon my memory.

I remember vividly sitting on the couch on the left while R. Hirschprung sat opposite me and tested me, surrounded by hundreds of books. 

I showed him a summary I had worked on for over a year of the relevant sections I was tested on, and he was visibly intrigued by my method of colour-coding the Mechaber, Shach and Taz in black, blue and red respectively.

He tested me on four separate occasions, in a mixture of Yiddish and Hebrew - and I was so nervous yet enthralled to be in the presence of a man who never put a book on his shelf until he had studied it from cover to cover - that when I left I forgot to even ask for my certificate. He had to inquire as to whether or not I wanted ‘a piece of paper?’

Although I never knew it at the time, this was his story:


R. Pinchas Hirschprung was born in Dukla, Poland in 1912.

His first teacher was his own grandfather, R. Dovid Tzvi Zehman, who was also the teacher of the Klausenberger Rebbe[1].


This picture shows a young Pinchas (on the left) with two fellow students at Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin.

Later, R. Hirschprung’s teacher was the renowned R. Meir Shapiro[2] who was the head of Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, and also the founder of the Daf Yomi programme.

R. Meir Shapiro had a special relationship with his young student Pinchas and said that although still a teenager, he knew all the 2,200[3] folios (or 4,400 pages) of the Talmud by heart.

[Years later, in 1985 at a siyum at the conclusion of the study of all the Tractates of the Talmud, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren spoke and said that R. Hirschprung was the only person alive who knew the entire Talmud by heart.]

R. Meir Shapiro said of his young student: “It would have been worth opening the Yeshivah (of Chachmei Lublin) just for Pinchas from Dukla.

When the young Pinchas was just thirteen years old he wrote his first sefer, entitled Pri Pinchas and soon thereafter, at the age of 16, he edited the prestigious Cracow Torah Journal known as Ohel Torah.

After R. Meir Shapiro passed away in 1933, R. Hirschprung was charged with the task of testing the applicants to Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, who had to know 400 pages of Talmud by heart.

R. Hirschprung would later tell that on one occasion, when his teacher, R. Meir Shapiro applied for a job as a community rabbi after the previous rabbi had passed away, he first went to the rabbi’s grave to seek ‘permission’ to take his position. Someone observed this strange conduct and asked teasingly, “What did the rabbi tell you?” To which R. Shapiro replied, “He didn’t say no!”

Many decades later, yeshiva students would frequently use R. Hirschprung as a living encyclopaedia. His number was freely displayed on the board and they would call him up - without wasting time on formalities – and ask him where certain Talmudic sources could be found. He would provide the information right down to where on the page the source was situated and then hang up.


During World War II, R. Hirschprung managed to escape to Kobe, Japan, and then he went on to Shanghai. In 1941 he arrived in Canada on the last boat to leave before the attack on Pearl Harbour.
Although a very private person, he soon thereafter published his memoirs[4], later known as The Vale Tears, which became one of the first examples of Holocaust memoirs written during the actual time of the annihilation of European Jewry.

He wrote his memoirs despite being advised not to write such an honest emotional account as this was ‘demeaning to a Talmid Chacham’. He disagreed and said: “I told myself that it was in no way demeaning for a Torah student to fulfill the commandment to ‘remember what Amalek did to you’ by describing at least a bit of what I’d seen with my own eyes.

It has been said that it was fortunate that his memoirs were not translated by ArtScroll or some other Chareidi publication as they would most likely have omitted some of R. Hirschprung’s profoundly honest and personal accounts:

On p. 156 of his book, he writes that he once woke up late, past noon, and “recited the morning prayers far too late.”   On p. 222 he writes that due to his emotional fatigue while running from the Nazis, he once even considered suicide.

On p. 221 he tells how the renowned R. Chaim Grodzinski was not concerned about Lithuania losing its independence. This was soon to be proven incorrect.

Furthermore, on p. 246 he writes how R. Chaim Grodzinski told him that he and his Yeshiva should remain in Vilna and not take visas which had just become available in order to leave. R. Hirschprung records that had they taken that advice they would most certainly have all been killed.

He described how a Christian woman who, when watching the Jewish exodus from his hometown, Dukla, shouted to the Nazis, “The Jews’ G-d is here. He who took revenge on Pharaoh, Haman, Titus, and Sancheriv… will also take revenge on you.”

Years later, he told his wife that there wasn't a day that went by that he didn't think about the war. But what was most surprising for all was that R. Hirschprung never spoke about the memoirs he had written[5]
Most people didn’t even know it existed until a close friend brought a copy of his writing to the shivah house after R. Hirschprung has passed away. Only then did his book become known and it was soon thereafter translated into English.


There was a side to R. Hirschprung that not too many people are aware of.  It is true that he is remembered as a scholar who rarely left the study hall, but, according to A. M. Kline he was also: Proficient in the Polish language, with a knowledge of German and as much Latin as Shakespeare had. The culture of Europe had not been foreign to him… The Rabbi had occasion to refer to the writings and doings of such varied worthies as Diogenes, Plato, Spinoza, Heine, Shakespeare, Lessing, and Kant.  Of the writings of Freud he has made a special study…”[8]
This came as a great surprise to me because I would never have imagined that he was grounded in such disciplines. But it makes sense now because he had a unique way of relating to ideas and people that was rather exceptional. I couldn’t put a finger on it but he somehow always seemed to be even wiser than he let on to be.

While on the run from the Nazis he once said: “If I survive this war, I’ll dedicate my whole life to Torah.” Perhaps this is why he was not known to have pursued his interest in secular studies.


According to Professor Ira Robinson[9], as a young man, R. Hirschprung read books on socialism and had always believed in a more just political and economic system. He recalled his early brush with communism when, while journeying across Soviet-Occupied Eastern Poland, he received a lift by a group of Red Army soldiers and obviously got involved in deep political and philosophical discussions.

This must be understood in a historical context, where in 1944, prior to the Cold War, there was an alliance between Western democracies and the then Soviet Union. And at that time many Jews (including Canadian Jews) had sympathy for the Soviet Union.


A student of R. Hirschprung asked him if he could name his newborn son, Shalom after his deceased father who called Shalom. The problem was that he had already named his daughter, who was born some years earlier, Shulamit also after his father.

R. Hirschprung immediately referred his student to Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud[6] where it tells of Rav Chisda who had two sons who both went by the same name.[7]

From this, he ruled that it is quite permissible to give the same name to two children.

Whilst in Kobe, Japan, during his escape from the Nazis, R. Hirschprung wrote a letter asking for help for him and his friends to be saved and brought to America. He writes about the terrible suffering they were undergoing and points out his displeasure about his previous pleas which had been ignored.
The plea for rescue from Kobe, Japan.

For me it is quite emotional to see how little his handwriting had changed when forty years later he wrote out a Smicha certificate for me:

R. Pinchas Hirschprung would often remark: “You never have to ask me to do a favour. Just tell me what to do for you.


I meet the most wonderful people through Kotzkblog.  The following are excerpts of some of the memories that Edward Trapunski has kindly shared with me. He grew up in a secular family on the same street at R. Hirschprung during the 1950s. Edward is a professional writer and has written columns in Jewish newspapers. He is the director of the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards.

"The Hirschprung family lived on Edward Charles Street in Montreal and so did my family. I was born in 1947 and we moved away from Edward Charles in 1956. So I was 9 years old. 

I vaguely remember playing with the children on the street. We lived at 407 Edward Charles near Hutchinson and the Hirschprung family lived further up the street closer to Querbes in a bigger house. Down the street at the corner of Park Avenue and Edward Charles (Avenue du Parc and Edouard Charles) was the yeshiva which was the first yeshiva in Montreal. The Chasidim hadn’t started to settle in Montreal yet. R. Hirschprung would walk down Edward Charles to the yeshiva.

If my father was alive he could tell you more. R. Hirschprung was the head of the Vaad Ha’ir or the Vaad Harabonnim. He was in effect the chief rabbi of Montreal. The Vaad has evolved into being the governing body for kashrut, but back then it was involved in all aspects of Jewish life, not just kashrut but also education, mutual aid – everything.

The Vaad merged the Orthodox and the secular. My father was secular and very involved in the Jewish community so they interacted. He had so much respect for R. Hirschprung that when my father referred to him it was like the scene in the movie To Kill A Mockingbird. “Stand up your father is passing.” 

I don’t remember R. Hirschprung with a white beard. I remember a big black beard. 

Years later I was involved in producing a television documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called A Coat of Many Colours. I had to arrange to film a Shabbos dinner. I got in touch with Zale Newman who was then starting Aish HaTorah. It turned out his wife was one of R. Hirschsprung daughters and she remembered me. (We filmed the Shabbos dinner on a Thursday.)

My friend Vivian Felson translated Vale of Tears into English. You might want to talk to her and also to Pierre Anctil who is the scholar who is most conversant with the history of the Jewish community in Montreal. Vivian translated his book from French to English.

I know that the archives at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal has a collection on R. Hirschprung."

Edward Trapunski.

[1] R. Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam.
[2] Also known as the Lubliner Rav. He was the first Orthodox rabbi to become a member of the Polish Parliament.
[3] Some put the number at 2,711 pages.
[4] The memoirs were entitled Zichronos fun a Palit (Memoirs of a refugee). This was later translated into English under the title Vale of Tears.
[5] Some of these appeared as a 100-part series in a Canadian Yiddish newspaper.
[6] Ketuvot 89b.
[7] They called the older one Mar Kashishah and the younger one Mar Yanukah, in order to differentiate between the two.
[8] A.M. Klein’s 1942 review of R. Hirschprung’s book Vale of Tears.
[9] Ira Robinson is a professor of religion and director of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who grew up in Montreal,this post of yours brought back pleasant memories of my younger years in that city led by this amazing Rav Hirschprung z'l,
    still remmember as a 11-12 year old learning in cheder of the Mesifta.Harav Hirschprung used to come once a year to give us a "FARHER" (a test in yiddish) also remember him having an amazing sense of humor.
    thanks for sharing this with us
    Chaim Schonbrun