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To Converse and Pray Together

Professor David Weiss Halivni, who died this week, was a scholarly giant with the highest aspirations

Naftali Tzvi Rabinovich
July 01, 2022
Courtesy Elisha Wiesel
David Weiss Halivni with his childhood friend Elie WieselCourtesy Elisha Wiesel
Courtesy Elisha Wiesel
David Weiss Halivni with his childhood friend Elie WieselCourtesy Elisha Wiesel

Professor David Weiss Halivni ז״ל died on June 29, 2022. He was born in today’s Ukraine, where he was ordained as a rabbi in the yeshiva of Sighet at age 15. He was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, after which he immigrated to the United States. Professor Halivni began teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1957 and was named Morris Adler Professor of Rabbinics there in 1969. In 1986 he was appointed professor of religion at Columbia University, after having taught there as an adjunct professor almost consecutively since the 1960s. In 2005, professor Halivni moved to Israel and for the next dozen years, taught Talmud at Bar-Ilan University. In 1985, he received the prestigious Bialik Prize, equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize, from the city of Tel Aviv.

The author, Naftali Tzvi Rabinovich, is an ultra-Orthodox Talmudic scholar. He is a descendant of numerous Hasidic rabbinic dynasties including Sighet. —Menachem Butler

From 2009-11 I studied in Yeshivas Brisk, Jerusalem, under Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik. At the time, my grandfather, the late Mr. Hayyim Elazar Rabinovich, resided at Rechov Diskin 13, a high-rise apartment building located in the Sha’arei Hesed neighborhood in central Jerusalem.

During my first Sabbath in Jerusalem, my grandfather mentioned that a great Talmud chacham from Sighet (Sighetu, Romania), “Reb Duvid Veiss” (Rabbi David Weiss in the Yiddish vernacular), lives in an apartment above. That Sabbath was my first of many encounters with the giant scholar, known as professor Halivni, and to me as “Reb Duvid.” Following an exchange of pleasantries, professor Halivni recounted his lifetime’s triumphs, catastrophes, and post-calamity ascendancies. Alternating between happiness and sadness, we chatted about Sighet, my ancestral relationship with the city’s chief rabbis, his rabbinical ordination at 15 years old, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, the Nazis’ murder of his entire prewar family, Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, his father-in-law, Reb Mendel Hager of Visheve, and his mentor, professor Saul Lieberman.

I then requested a regular study session with him in the shtarot (Jewish contract law) topics of Tractate Ketubot. He said in Hasidic Yiddish, “Naftuli lomer yach veizen vie azoy an amulege Talmid Chuchem hut geflegt lernen k’sibis” (“Naftali, let me demonstrate how a prewar Talmud chacham learned Ketubot”). Without a sefer before him, professor Halivni proceeded to quote the Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafot, of Ketubot’s page 18b, verbatim, and from memory summarized every single comment of P’nei Yehoshua and Haflaah pertaining to the page. Exacerbated, he proclaimed, “that is the way to learn Torah!”

Over the next two years, I was privileged to be professor Halivni’s periodical study partner and to attend his Monday afternoon lectures at the Hebrew University of Israel. Our tête-à-têtes were always marked by professor Halivni’s excitement to impart the aspirations and achievements of a prewar Talmud chacham, indirectly urging, and encouraging my millennial generation to expect more of ourselves. The wise professor Halivni never failed to take my soul and lift it into the higher sphere of prewar Talmudic activity.

On our way to afternoon prayers, after a particularly intense study session, professor Halivni exclaimed, “I used to say that I cannot pray with those I converse with, and I cannot converse with those I pray with. I am happy that you and I converse and pray together.” I will cherish that moment forever.

Naftali Tzvi Rabinovich is an ultra-Orthodox Talmudic scholar and alumnus of the “Ivy League” of rabbinic academies (Novominsk, Brisk, and Beth Medrash Gavoah). Currently, Naftali lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, and is a student at Temple Beasley School of Law. He is a descendant of numerous Hasidic-rabbinic dynasties including Sighet.