Aviad Hacohen

Gur Aryeh Yehuda – Remarks in Memory of Moreinu ve-Rabbeinu, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, of blessed memory

“There are two places in the prayer service,” my uncle, of blessed memory, once said, “in which the congregation is accustomed to wait for its teacher and rabbi.  In the recitation of the Shma and at the end of the Amida prayer.  And why is this?  Because the recitation of the Shma ends with the words “the Lord your God - true” and the Amida prayer concludes with the phrase “he who makes peace in the heavens.”  “And therefore,” my uncle concluded, “these are the two things that a Jewish person expects from his rabbi:  that he should state the truth and increase peace in the world.”

[And He Gave the Earth to People] (5765-2005), 75; in English: http://vbm-torah.org/archive/values/07values.htm].

In another place he added:  In the Religious Zionist community there are phenomena that we have never seen before.  Young men wear large knitted kippot, long sidelocks, sockless sandals and untucked shirts – true “Chasidim.”  It is as if they are proclaiming, “I am religious.  Even if my kippa flies off in the wind, my long sidelocks will pull me and bind me to the religious camp.”  Long sidelocks and tzitzit that dangle at one’s knees have no halakhic-religious meaning; however, they grant one a certain sense of security and express a certain type of fervent religiosity and ultra-orthodoxy.  I am not talking only about these phenomena but about matters of values.  I hear of yeshivot hesder where the students don tefillin for Mincha prayers.  Tefillin add holiness.  Halakhically, this practice is not arrogant or otherwise inappropriate; in fact, technically, the opposite is true.  But I belong to a different generation.  I have been fortunate enough to pray with some of our Gedolim: Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Yitzchak Weiss (author of Minchat Yitzchak), Rav Isser Zalman Melzer and Rav Aharon Kotler, and I never saw any of them recite Mincha wearing tefillin.  No one in the previous generation would have considered wearing tefillin for Mincha when the Gedolim did not, despite what the technical halakha may suggest.  Thirty years ago, I was told by Rabbi Bergman, the son-in-law of Rav Schach and a close disciple of the Chazon Ish, that he once decided to build a sukka according to all the specifications of the Chazon Ish: a sukka without any nails.  On the eve of Sukkot, he suddenly thought, “How can I have a ‘mehudarsukka when my grandfather did not?”  He immediately took some nails and fastened them into his sukka.  Our generation has lost faith in its predecessors and feels the need to “start from scratch.”  Suddenly, all kinds of new customs are being rediscovered in the Mishna Berura.  Religious behavior of this kind has its drawbacks; stringencies can be a sign of weakness.  A student of mine who teaches in one of the Yeshivot Hesder recently told me, “When I see students who wear tefillin for Mincha, I know that there are other students who skip Mincha entirely.”  [“T’nu LaTorah L’natzeach” Alon Shvut Bogrim 18 (5763-2003), 12; in English: “Religious Insecurity and its Cures”, http://vbm-torah.org/rya-articles.htm, p. 10].


(5765-2005), 75; in English: “The Fear of God in Our Time – Part 2, http://vbm-torah.org/archive/values/01b-fear.htm].

This was also his approach with respect to the pursuit of peace, which Rav Amital engaged in, even knowing that it was likely to exact its price in terms of the need to make painful compromises.  “Peace” was the last word that I had the privilege of hearing him speak, on the last Shabbat of his life, six days before his death.  As we had done every Shabbat for the last year and a half, a group of students from the yeshiva went to his home in Givat Mordechai to hold the Shabbat service with him.  He was losing his strength.  On the previous Shabbat, he had still spoken with us at the ‘kiddush’ after the service, in his so familiar language, about the “shvitz” – the seeming conceit that those who learn Torah hold onto at times, that leads them to arrogance and pride.  But on that last Shabbat, he sat as if he was looking inward, while around him were two minyanim worth of his students.  He enjoyed their singing.  As a cohen, almost the only one in the minyan throughout the entire period of time, I had the privilege of reciting birkat cohanim and trying to imbue the words “May the Lord lift his countenance unto you and give you peace.”  With the blessing of “shabbat shalom” when leaving, I parted from the Rav after more than 25 years during which I was privileged, together with thousands of his students, to benefit from his wisdom, understanding and knowledge, advice and counsel.

Rav Amital was the greatest of Admorim, but without chasidim.  Not because his thousands of students did not cling to their rav, but due to his revulsion for any manifestation of a personality cult.

The child Yehuda Klein traveled a long way from the town Grossverdein, Hungary, in the shadow of the Holocaust in which he lost most of his close relatives, until he took the oath of office as a minister in the Israeli government.

In the course of his journey, he immigrated to Israel, learned in the renowned Hevron Yeshiva and at the same time turned to the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, in order to learn from Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap; he served as a combat soldier in the War of Independence, taught Torah with Rav Shach in Yeshivat Hadarom in Rechovot, founded Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion, the flagship of the hesder yeshivot and founded the “Meimad” movement.

Rav Amital’s teachings are based upon many pillars:  The love of Torah and piousness, love of the people of Israel and the land of Israel; scholarship, originality, courage and humanity; and the integration between the past and the present, Holocaust and rebirth, between Torah and a respectful manner, between the customs of the Land of Israel and the kingship of Israel.

If you wish to “understand various aspects of halakha” go to study the Torah of a scholar and try to find what is characteristic of it.  The early sages made it clear that the science of comprehending all of the trees of the forest is vast,  it is possible – and necessary – to distinguish among the special and distinguishing lines of contour characterizing each tree found there.  And so they said:  In truth it is stated:  The words of Torah are fruitful and multiple, especially in our generation in which everyone publishes his new insights and the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.

In fact, many words of Torah seem to be copied by one person from the other.  At times you think you’ve read new words of Torah and indeed they are already familiar.  Two and three Torah scholars prophesy in one style.

At times, from the tumult, a special voice rises to the surface, one that is unique, that is not swallowed up in the general roar.  Echoing the words of other sages, it breaks through and rises again, a small still voice, a special voice in its clarity and the beauty of its song.

This was Rav Yehuda Amital’s voice.  Throughout many years, this voice was nearly hidden, well-known to his many students, but swallowed up in the roar and hidden from the ears of the public.  When the roar of the crowd subsided a bit, Rav Amital’s unique voice rose up, was heard on high, an original voice, pure and clear, voicing its unique sound in halakha, in aggadah and in thought.

Originality is one of the outstanding features of Rav Amital’s teachings.  In this context it is appropriate to mention a delicate halakhic distinction regarding waters of purification, that Rav Yitzchak Hutner, of blessed memory, the author of “Pachad Yitzchak”, and one of the great rashei yeshiva, made.  According to the halakha, a spring of water purifies in any quantity, whereas water that has been gathered into one place requires a minimum of forty seah in order to purify.  And why is this?  Because ‘some’ amount of original matter takes precedence in its weight and importance over a large quantity of matter that is only of secondary or tertiary power.  This is the power of “originality”, the strength of the “previous teacher” of the original master.

A fundamental principle in his teachings was humanity, simple humanity, whose source is in the heart, needing neither a written source nor an oral tradition.  From this principle he derived great halakhot, both in Torah and in derekh eretz.

Rav Amital frequently said:  “No holy work of any kind can do away with simple human feeling.”  And in this great principle of his teaching he relied upon the incisive words of the “Kotzker”, Rabbi Mendele of Kotzk, one of the fathers of chasidut, who interpreted the verse “and you shall be holy people to me” (Exodus 22:30), thus:  The Holy One Blessed be He says, as it were:  I have many angels, I want people who will be holy people.”  It was not without a reason that he called his book “And He Gave the Earth to People”, to teach us that even if “the Heavens are the Heavens of the Lord”, he gave the earth to people and even the Torah is a Torah of life, in this world, the world of reality, and not in an imaginary world, in which only angels can live.

taught us.  “The Torah presents the opposite approach:  Every person has a human side, which must not be denied.  Even the prophets had doubts and difficulties.  The Torah recognizes that man lives in this world, and has no expectation that he behave as if he were living  in an ideal and unreal universe” [“Humanity”] And He Gave the Earth to People (5765-2005), 146, available at http://vbm-torah.org/archive/values/17values.htm].

greatly loved the Land of Israel.  “My connection to the Land of Israel,” he once told his students, “is a deep connection.  From childhood, the Land of Israel and the anticipation of the messiah were real and concrete for me.  Let me try to relate one of the most memorable occasions of my childhood. I must have been only four or five, but I still remember everything with total clarity. We were in Cheder (school) and playing in the yard. Suddenly, I saw a great ball of fire come out of the sky - I guess I must have been gifted with an active imagination. I told my friends what I had seen, and we decided that this was a sign that the Messiah was coming! The whole Cheder became very excited. What do children do when they expect the Messiah? We all ran together to the water tap in the yard and washed our hands in order to purify ourselves for the arrival of the Messiah! I can still remember the rush and the crowd at the water tap... There was an old, gnarled tree in the yard and we began to dance around it and sing.  [“I will Speak Your Name to My Brother, Before the Community Shall I Praise You”, Alon Shvut Bogrim 3 (5754-1994), 86; in English: “Forty Years Later:  A Personal Recollection, http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/rya0-40.htm].

Each year he marked with his family the miracle of his rescue and his immigration to Israel, and viewed the two as intertwined.  As he testified:  I did not see myself as gaining total salvation when I had escaped from the Nazis. I only came to view my salvation as complete when I arrived in Israel. I remember that when I took leave of my father - he was forced to remain in the ghetto, while I had received a deportation order to a labor camp - both he and I had absolutely no doubt that we would never meet again in this world. At that time, my father said to me, "I hope that you will get to Eretz Yisrael." This was the supreme expression of hope for salvation.  In my heart I knew that we wouldn’t meet again.  I took leave of my parents with a heavy heart and went to the labor camp. All that I took with me was a small Tanakh, Mishnayot, and a booklet written by Rabbi Kook. I admit to you today, that during those days I was very pessimistic. Many doubts gnawed at my heart... If only I could die in Eretz Yisrael, even if I did not live there.”  [Ibid].

When we stood at his side, members of the family and the students that had accompanied him for decades, during the Shabbat prayers, on those last shabbatot of his life, we were reminded of the dream that was realized.  Rav Amital, the small child from Grossverdein, merited not only to live in Eretz Yisrael and to reside in Jerusalem, but also to raise up thousands of students, to establish a beit midrash and a flourishing community alongside it, and to serve in the government of a sovereign State of Israel.

Indeed, in his complex way, even in the love of Eretz Yisrael that burned within him, Rav Amital did not view it as the sum total of all.  In his deep and complex vision, he sought to emphasize that Eretz Yisrael and the love for it are only one part of the eternal triangle of the Jewish people.

After the crisis of the Yom Kippur War, in which he was bereaved of “eight princes”, some of his closest students, he changed his attitude and from the approach of Gush Emunim, of which Rav Amital was one of the leading figures in its early days, he turned to the way of peace.  Due to his “dovish” outlook, which was not common in the yeshiva world, he was subject to quite a bit of abuse and he paid a heavy price for espousing such positions.  But despite all of this, he was not fearful of expressing his opinions aloud.

He inculcated one message in his students and it accompanies them throughout their lives.  “When you learn Torah”, he taught us, “and you don’t hear the cry of the one pleading for assistance, something is defective in the learning.”  And he added:  “As long as I think that I can reduce the profanation of God’s name, increase the honor of Heaven, draw individuals near, save Jews from the spilling of blood or save something of Eretz Yisrael, I will let my voice be heard.”


[For further reading see:  Aviad Hacohen, “Kol Yehuda” – A Compilation of Articles and Ideas from the Teaching of Rav Yehuda Amital, published by Yeshivat Har Etzion (second ed., 5767-2007); A. Hacohen, “Kol Yehuda – Aspects of Rabbi Amital’s Teachings”, printed at the end of A. Reichner’s book, B’Emunato – Sipuro Shel HaRav Yehuda Amital”, [In His Faith – The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital] Tel Aviv 5768-2008, pp. 273-294; Commitment and Complexity, Jewish Wisdom in an Age of Upheaval (Aviad Hacohen ed., Ktav, 2008).]



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