Gustav Karl Friedrich Revisited

About a month and a half ago, we referenced the widespread rumors that in Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s youth he had been known as Gustav Karl Friedrich Wolbe, and had attended the University of Berlin. Two weeks ago, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz told the story thus:

Let me share a story I read about Gustav, a student who became frum on a college campus. Gustav attended shiurim on his campus given by frum university alumni, baalei batim and rabbonim of the local community. As a result of the regular shiurim, Torah discussions and guidance, Gustav went on to embrace observant Yiddishkeit. He went to learn in yeshiva, giving back to Klal Yisroel far more than we ever gave him.

This is not a contemporary kiruv story. It happened in the 1930’s, in Germany. The campus kiruv organization was called the V.A.D. (Verein Judische Academiker), which was led by talmidim of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. The group operated in Berlin, Germany, and dedicated itself to teaching Torah to students whose neshomos cried out, “Anachnu rotzim lilmod Torah!”

We know Gustav Karl Friedrich Wolbe as Rav Shlomo Wolbe, whose light of Torah continues to radiate over Klal Yisroel through his seforim and talmidim. That is thanks to the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu who cared about Yiddishe neshomos and made an effort to reach him and others like him and bring them tachas kanfei haShechinah.1

This past week, R. Lipschutz published a tantalizingly evasive quasi-retraction:

Last week, in my column, I wrote about the story of Gustav. The tale is often repeated and was cross-referenced for accuracy. However, subsequent to publication, I spoke with a talmid of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, Rav Ben Zion Kokis, who dispelled much of the legend.

Based on personal conversations with the mashgiach on several occasions, he informed me that the mashgiach was born in Berlin in 1914 to an educated family. His given name was not Gustav Karl Friedrich. In a conversation with Rav Kokis during the summer of 1976, Rav Wolbe described some details of his childhood. He rarely spoke about himself, but the discussion concerned various systems of chinuch, and these biographical nuggets were mentioned in that context.

He attended public school (“gymnasium“), which also held classes on Shabbos. The Jewish children were required to attend, but, in his words, “they didn’t write.” In other words, the observant children were able to maintain shemiras Shabbos.

On Shabbos, after school, a minyan was held for Krias HaTorah and Mussaf, and the boys would take turns saying divrei Torah. The mashgiach said that his first drasha was delivered at the age of nine or ten, and by the time of his bar mitzvah, he was the “darshan kovuah.” (Perhaps the kiruv organization V.A.D. mentioned in the story last week, was responsible for this minyan.)

So apparently, there was a strong sense of tradition in the Wolbe home, presumably largely due to the influence of his mother, who came from a choshuveh Litvishe background. In fact, his mother arranged private shiurim for her seven-year old son with Rav Chaim Cohen, the rov of their shul in Berlin. (Many years later, the mashgiach referred to Rav Cohen as “rabi hamuvhak, the chossid shebekehunah“).

At the age of 17 or 18 – in 1931 or 1932 – Rav Wolbe was urged by Rav Cohen to travel to Frankfurt to study in the yeshiva of Rav Yosef Breuer. From there he went to learn in Montreux, Switzerland, and due to his father’s urging, he also attended some university classes. By the year 1934, he was in the Mir Yeshiva in Poland.

So the legend that he studied in Berlin University during the years 1930-1933 and was first exposed to Torah through dedicated mekarvim is just that: a legend and not the truth.2

R. Lipschutz is מגלה טפח ומכסה טפחיים:

  • R. Wolbe was born to “an educated family” – was it “an observant family”?
  • “His given name was not Gustav Karl Friedrich.” – what was his given name? Was he ever known as Gustav Karl Friedrich?
  • R. Wolbe asserts of the Jewish children in the gymnasium that “they didn’t write”, and R. Lipschutz infers from this that “In other words, the observant children were able to maintain shemiras Shabbos.” Did R. Wolbe really mean that they kept Shabbas fully, or merely that they maintained at least some level of observance?
  • R. Lipschutz concludes: “So apparently, there was a strong sense of tradition in the Wolbe home”. Is this a tacit concession that the family was not actually observant?
  • R. Lipschutz suggests that the sense of tradition was “presumably largely due to the influence of his mother, who came from a choshuveh Litvishe background”. The clear implication is that R. Wolbe’s father was considerably less connected to Judaism.
  • R. Lipschutz states: “From there he went to learn in Montreux, Switzerland, and due to his father’s urging, he also attended some university classes. … So the legend that he studied in Berlin University during the years 1930-1933 and was first exposed to Torah through dedicated mekarvim is just that: a legend and not the truth.” So regardless of whether he studied at the University of Berlin, it is acknowledged that he did, in fact, study in some university.

Here’s another fascinating passage by Rav Wolbe, from another הפרדס essay of his, referencing “U Thant the Budhist”, Einstein, “[the latter’s] friend, Max Planck, the creator of the Quantum Theory“, and someone whom I cannot identity, “מאלק the atheist”:

שאלו פעם את שר החוץ, למה הוא נמנע להזכיר שם שמים מעל במת האו”ם, והלה השיב: אין זה נהוג באו”ם להזכיר שם שמים. כלומר: מה שאינו ראוי לאו-טאנט הבודיסט ולמאלק האתאיסט – אינו ראוי גם לבן היהודי …

מחוץ לזירה הפוליטית אפשר היום לשמוע הזכרת שם שמים בפי גדולי-עולם: מדענים בעלי שם אינם מתביישים לדבר על בורא העולם. ידוע ה”אני מאמין” של איינשטיין, חברו מקס פלנק יוצר תיאוריית הקוונטים מתבטא: “האלקים העומד בראשית הדת עומד בתכלית המדע”. המשוררים, ולאו דוקא דתיים, מרבים להזכיר אלקים בשיריהם.3

Einstein’s somewhat murky and incoherent religious beliefs are well documented. While he did reject dogmatic atheism, he also repeatedly explicitly dismissed and ridiculed the traditional notion of a personal God, and was quite scathing toward traditional religion, including Judaism, and its dogmas.

I have discussed another passage of this essay here.

Update: Regarding Rav Wolbe’s antecedents, my father draws our attention to (Dr) Anne Ruth Cohn’s letter to the London Jewish Tribune, which paints a portrait of Rav Wolbe closer to R. Lipschutz’s original one:

Dear Sir,

While Jonathan Rosenblum (JT 5th May) has written a beautiful and masterly appreciation of the life, educational work and greatness of Rav Wolbe Zl, I think it is most important not to be guilty of re-writing history, albeit by omission. Everything written about this giant’s Torah education, loyalties and student of Gedolim is absolutely correct yet….. Although I was not yet born at the time, I have reliable information from both my Father Dayan Grunfeld Zl and separately from my Mother OH, Fraulein Dr. Judit Rosenbaum at the time. Rav Wolbe Zl was an amazing product of a very powerful and significant Hashpo’oh during the early part of the twentieth century namely the V.A.D. (Verein Judische Academiker). This openly orthodox Students’ Union, unlike the type of thing in British Institutions had a powerful influence in the Kiruv of many initially unorthodox students. People of the stature of Rav Yechiel Weinberg, Rabbis Elie Munk, Rabbi Dr. H. Cohn, Dr. Med. Wallach (Founder of Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital) Dr. Med. Schlesinger, Dr. Jud. I. Grunfeld, and many others had a great influence on students in various different Faculties. These were all frum senior students deeply rooted in the Torah Im Derech Eretz style, which is so unpopular today. There was just a special student called, Gustav Karl Friedrich Wolbe, who attended University between the years of 1930-1933, and who, as a result of the regular Shiurim, Torah discussion and guidance of such Alumni in German university institutions, was among the very first to embrace full, observant Yiddishkeit, as well as setting aside regular Ittim LeTorah. They were all introduced to the contents of our revered Mussar Seforim under the guidance of Yekkische mentors whose Hashkofoh was faithfully modeled on the Samson Refoel Hirsch Zl religious pattern of combining secular and Lehavdil Elef Peomim, Torah knowledge.

(Dr) Anne Ruth Cohn

The letter is a response to this Tribune article by Jonathan Rosenblum. My father notes Prof. Marc Shapiro’s comment to the letter:


In response to your questions, I checked out the blog, and I see you have posted more interesting stuff. Re. R. Wolbe, see the obit. in Yated which states:

“As a child he studied in his home city and at a young age was sent to Yeshivas Frankfurt, where he studied under HaRav Shlomo Breuer. After transferring to Yeshivas Montreux in Switzerland one day he heard a mussar talk given by a talmid of Maran Hamashgiach HaRav Yeruchom Levovitz of Mir Yeshiva. After the talk when he inquired about the origins of its contents the talmid told him and suggested that he try studying at Yeshivas Mir in Lithuania.”

I am no expert on R. Wolbe so I can’t comment on the biographical particulars, but let me just note that the information in this obit. is impossible if the information given by Ms. Cohn is correct.

And now let me tell you what I do know. R. Wolbe came from a completely non-religious family. He was a baal teshuvah. None of this is mentioned in the frum obits. But if he was a baal teshuvah (his father was a non-religious intellectual of sorts), then how is it possible that he was sent as a youth to a yeshiva? Ms. Cohn’s story seems much more likely, since the Haredi version doesn’t tell when he became religious, and presumably they don’t want people to know he was ever non-religious.

Now here is something that no one seems to know. He studied at the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin, and after that he went to Mir where he fell under the influence of R. Yerucham.

In the next comment, Bob Jackson notes that in another article (this one for the Jerusalem Post), Rosenblum does actually acknowledge that Rav Wolbe was “the product of an assimilated German Jewish home” whose father, “a German academic”, apparently only allowed him to study in the Mir “after completing his first university degree”:

And when a spirit of spiritual awakening was felt in the wake of the miraculous deliverance of 1967, he did not hesitate to go out to secular kibbutzim. Himself the product of an assimilated German Jewish home, he had a special affinity for those turning towards religious observance. Every ba’al teshuva, he believed, had experienced a special level of being taken by the hand by G-d. He felt strongly that was the case in his own life, beginning when his father, a German academic, permitted him to go study, after completing his first university degree, in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland. He tirelessly encouraged his students to reach out to every Jew.

  1. Yated Ne’eman, Wed. Oct. 13, 2010, Editor’s View – link, link. []
  2. ibid. Oct. 22, 2010, [print edition] p. 30. []
  3. הפרדס, שנה מו, כסלו תשל”ב (חוברת ג’), עמוד 22 – קשר []

Schrodinger’s Aravos

In Which a Nexus of Halachah, Lomdus and Quantum Mechanics Will Be Explored

A friend posed us the following question after Succos:

I purchased ten Aravos from a vendor, but subsequently (too late to contact the vendor and resolve the matter) discovered that I had accidentally taken eleven. Was I able to fulfil the מצות נטילת לולב with these Aravos?

My friend Yisroel1 turned up a valuable, intricate discussion of precisely2 this question by Rabbi Uriel Eisenthal3 in the periodical Kol Ha’Torah4. Here is a key point of his analysis5:

אכן באופן כזה [רצונו לומר שלראובן יש ערבה אחת ולשמעון יש שתים ונתערבו שלשתם] שהבעלות היתה מבוררת קודם שנתערב יש לו תקנה ליטול כל שלוש הערבות ויוצא בשתים מתוכן השייכות לו, אבל באופן שלא ברר לעצמו קודם לכן אלא נטל שלוש ערבות ושילם רק עבור ב’ ערבות לא יועיל שיטול את כל השלוש ערבות כיון שהמוכר יש לו חלק בכל ערבה וערבה, וכמו במקדש אחת מבנותיו שיש חלות של ספק קידושין על כל אחת ואחת, כך יש חלות של ספק בעלות המוכר על כל אחת מהערבות. …

ולפי מה שכתבנו יוצא שאין לו היתר להשתמש בערבות עד שיברור לו שתים מתוך השלוש ובזה נתייחדו הערבות הללו להיות שלו, אבל קודם שבורר יש שייכות של המוכר בכל הערבות כיון שכל אחת מהן יכולה להיות שלו וכמו במקדש אחת מבנותיו שכולן אסורות.

I am not sure that Rabbi Eisenthal’s analogy to מקדש אחת מבנותיו creates a problem for us; one of the Aravos has indeed remained the property of the seller, and the question of which one is the seller’s is indeed inherently indeterminate, but why should that prevent the buyer from fulfilling his obligation by using all of them together? Rabbi Eiesenthal is presumably not suggesting that the seller and buyer are joint owners in any individual Aravah, since that is certainly not the case in the situation of מקדש אחת מבנותיו; he seems, rather, to understand that the inherently indeterminate state of doubt that exists concerning each Aravah renders it unfit for use by the buyer (or, presumably, the seller). He may be inferring this from the following idea of Rav Shimon Shkop that he has cited earlier in his analysis6:

עוד נלענ”ד דבקידש אחת מה’ נשים [ולא פירש איזה מהן הוא מקדש] וכן במחיר כלב שחל על אחד מהטלאים [שהחליפו עשרה טלאים כנגד תשעה טלאים וכלב אחד] וכן בהקדיש פרוטה בתוך הכיס, יש בזה חקירה עמוקה באיזה אופן חלות הדין על אחת מהן, דהנה במקדש אשה אחת מה’ נשים, שלא ברר המקדש והמתקדש מי מהן תהיה מיוחדת לקידושין איך אפשר לומר דבמציאות האמתית נתיחדה אשה מיוחדת לקידושין, מאיזה טעם וסבה ייחדו מן השמים אשה מיוחדת שתהא היא המקודשת והמיוחדת יותר משאר הנשים,

אלא נראה דיותר מסתבר לומר דכל כי האי גוונא גם במציאות האמתית לא נתיחדה אשה מיוחדת לקידושין ובכי האי גוונא לא שייך לומר אם יבא אליהו, והא דאמרינן דכל חדא אסורה מספק, אינו כשאר ספיקות דעלמא, דתורת הספק הוא שמא זה הוא הודאי במציאות, וכאן הענין הוא דכל חלות הדין הוא מפני סבה הגורמת לזה, וסבת דין חלות הקידושין הוא המעשה של קידושין נתינת הכסף והאמירה, וכיון שנתן הכסף ואמר אחת מה’ נשים אלו תתקדש לי, שעל ידי זה ראוי להיות שאחת מהן תהיה בדין אשת איש, מחמת זה כל אחת אסורה מחמת המעשה, ולא משום דאנו מסופקים עליה שהיא המקודשת יותר משאר הנשים הארבע הנותרות, וכן בכל כי האי גוונא כמו בספק של מחיר כלב וכן בשני בכורים שיצאו שני ראשיהם כאחד, דקיימא לן דכל אחד מהם הוא ספק בכור, מחמת דרק אחת ראוי להתקדש בבכורה, כל כי האי גוונא אין תורת הספק שמא הוא הודאי דבכי האי גוונא ליכא ודאי גם במציאות האמתית, אלא דלהנהגת המעשה עלינו להתנהג בזה עם כל אחד כדין ספק מחמת הסבה הגורמת הדין שיהיה אחד מהם ואינו מבורר מי הוא האחד וכולם ראוים להיות האחד, משום הכי הדין בזה כדין ספק, דגם קמי שמיא לא גליא שאחד ודאי איסור והשאר ודאי היתר דבמציאות האמתית גם כן כולם שווים המה ואין הבדל בין זה לזה,

ולפי זה בכי האי גוונא לא שייך לומר דין ביטול ברוב, דרק היכא שהמיעוט חלוק מהרוב אמרה תורה אחרי רבים להטות, אבל בכי האי גוונא דכולם שווים המה גם במציאות האמתית אין כאן מיעוט ורוב דכולם נאסרים מחמת הסבה הגורמת שאחד ראוי להאסר ואינו מבורר מי הוא האחד, דהי מינייהו מפקת והי מינייהו עיילת,

[ועיין שם שהאריך להוכיח כן מדברי התוספות בתמורה, והעלה] ועל כן נראים הדברים מסתברים דגם למאן דאמר אין ברירה ליכא שום היתיחדות מן השמים, וגם בלא התיחדות איכא חלות על ענין זה שאחד ראוי להאסר ומחמת זה כל אחד נאסר מדין ספק כמו שכתבנו: [ועיין שם עוד בזה]

I do not fully understand Rav Shimon’s למדות, and in any event I am not sure that Rabbi Eisenthal’s conclusion necessarily follows from Rav Shimon’s position.

Although I am generally extremely suspicious of the sort of inter-disciplinary cross-pollination in which I am about to engage, I can nevertheless not resist the suggestion that a possible paradigm for Rav Shimon’s concept of a theoretically indeterminate doubt is the idea of quantum superposition. This principle, fundamental to modern physics, states that two (or more generally, infinitely many) mutually inconsistent physical states can (and generally do), coexist in the absence of an appropriate measurement. Rav Shimon seems to be saying something analogous about Halachic states.

Incidentally, in light of the above it is most ironic that Rav Shimon’s central argument against the naive understanding of the Sugyos in question, that

איך אפשר לומר דבמציאות האמתית נתיחדה אשה מיוחדת לקידושין, מאיזה טעם וסבה ייחדו מן השמים אשה מיוחדת שתהא היא המקודשת והמיוחדת יותר משאר הנשים

is strikingly reminiscent of Einstein’s famous argument against the conventional understanding of quantum physics7:

Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the Old One. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.

Of course, Einstein was objecting to the non-determinism of state vector reduction, which has no parallel in Rav Shimon’s analysis, and not to the perfectly determinate evolution of the unmeasured waveform according to the Schrodinger equation.

  1. who else? []
  2. In Rabbi Eisenthal’s case there were only three Aravos, but this is a trivial distinction []
  3. “רב ק”ק חניכי הישיבות צא”י – רמות ג’, ירושלים” []
  4. חוברת מ”ה (תשרי ה’ תשנ”ט) עמוד ק”א []
  5. שם עמוד ק”ג ד”ה אכן ועמוד ק”ה ד”ה ולפי []
  6. שערי יושר שער ג’ פרק כ”ב ד”ה עוד נלענ”ד דבקידש []
  7. From a letter to Max Born, cited in Einstein: The Life and Times, according to this page:, retrieved on October 23, 2007 []