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Rabbi Alex Stern

11 May 2023

When I was growing up in the early sixties, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was full of great Torah scholars. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the foremost Halachic authority in America, lived in our co-op complex. Not far away were the Kapishnitzer and Boyaner Rebbes, and Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin was there too.

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Rabbi Feinstein’s granddaughter was my sister’s best friend, and at some point, she suggested to her grandmother that I could come over and help out, to answer the phone, or to write Rosh Hashanah cards. I was only ten, but for the next two decades, I used to come by Reb Moshe’s, as he is known, on a regular basis. Later on I would even sleep over on occasion, whenever his wife was away and someone had to be there to see how he was doing.

The Feinstein home was like Grand Central Station. People were ringing the bell or calling the phone every minute, and Reb Moshe would spend time speaking with them in person. But he spent most of his remaining time writing, whether it was writing up his Halachic responsa or his classes on the Talmud, which have now been printed in his Igros Moshe and Divros Moshe.

One of the things I used to do for Reb Moshe was give out his books. When he would publish a new volume, I would give it out to a list of thirty or forty prominent rabbis in the Lower East Side.

One Thursday night in 1969, I came to Reb Moshe’s house, and told him that I would be going to have an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It was not my first time visiting the Rebbe; my father had taken my brothers and I to our first private audience a few years earlier, and we came back a few times after that for other audiences and public gatherings.

Since I had been distributing Reb Moshe’s latest book, I asked him whether I should give one to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

“Of course,” he replied, and then began telling me about the Rebbe. The Rebbe and Reb Moshe had met two or three times, at weddings or engagement parties, and had discussed Torah matters. He had also met the Previous Rebbe years before, in 1940. The Previous Rebbe had just arrived in America and he invited Reb Moshe for an audience to ask him to lead his yeshivah in 770.

The Previous Rebbe had asked him to sit, but as Reb Moshe recalled, he replied, “One doesn’t sit before a Rebbe.”

As it turned out, Reb Moshe declined the offer – he had already been appointed the dean of Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem the year before, and felt he owed them a debt of gratitude for the job – but he recommended Rabbi Yisroel Zev Gustman, who did assume the position.

“The world does not know what kind of Torah genius he is,” Reb Moshe remarked of the Rebbe, using the Hebrew term “gaon.” He then invited me into his study, so that he could take out a couple of his books – he wanted to give the Rebbe both an Igros Moshe and a Divros Moshe – and inscribe them.

We had been in the kitchen until then, and his wife was close by, overhearing every word. “You know,” she said, sounding a little agitated, “you don’t inscribe your books for anyone else.”

She was right. When I gave his books to other prominent rabbis, there was nothing written in them. But Reb Moshe had made up his mind.

He paused for a minute, thinking what to write. “One has to be careful what one writes for the Rebbe,” he remarked. When he was done, he asked me to read it.

Reb Moshe had included a brief blessing that the Rebbe’s “leadership endure until the coming of Moshiach,” using, to my surprise, the distinctive word for leadership, nesius, that is used in Chabad to refer to their Rebbes. Rebbetzin Feinstein then took the book and packaged it beautifully for me to bring to the Rebbe.

That Sunday night, I came to 770 with my family. The Rebbe came over to the door of his office to greet us, and when he sat down, I presented my gift. “Here are two books from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,” I declared.

The Rebbe became quite animated at this, but was then concerned that he already had a copy of these books. After taking out the books and seeing the inscription, he got up and asked me to go over to the bookshelf with him so we could verify that he only had the older volumes. Then, back at the desk, he asked me to convey a blessing to Reb Moshe, that “he go on to publish his insights on the entire Talmud.”

When I told this to Reb Moshe the next day, he was very pleased.

Three or so years later, I visited the Rebbe again. It was the night after Passover, and there were thousands of people there for the kos shel bracha ceremony. I joined the line to receive some wine from the Rebbe’s cup, and just as I had passed by, I got a tap on my shoulder, summoning me back to the Rebbe, who had something to tell me: “What happened with the books?”

The next day, I knocked on the Feinsteins’ door. Reb Moshe was happy to hear that the Rebbe had asked for his next book, and again he wrote an inscription. This time, he included a quote from scripture, and even asked me to bring down a Tanach from the shelf to do so. “If I don’t quote the words exactly, he’ll catch me,” he said.

Towards the end of his life I saw that Reb Moshe began putting on a second pair of tefillin after his morning prayers. I never questioned him about it, but I know that he made this change at the Rebbe’s request. In addition to using tefillin made according to the accepted view of Rashi, the Rebbe wanted him to follow the custom of putting on an additional pair that were made in accordance with the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam.

Reb Moshe responded to the Rebbe, in a letter which was later published, by setting forth a lengthy Halachic analysis on Rabbeinu Tam’s version of tefillin. When he was in Russia, he said, he used to put on this additional pair of tefillin, but when they wore out, he had been unable to find a scribe in America who would prepare new ones according to his specifications; when observing an extra stringency, he felt one had to have higher standards.

The Rebbe sent a message recommending his own scribe, Rabbi Eliezer Zirkind, and even offered to pay for the new pair of tefillin.

To this Reb Moshe replied: “Now that I have been informed, in the name of the Rebbe, that he has a reliable scribe whom he can send to me and instruct him to write Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin scrolls for me – this would be a very great thing.””

Reb Moshe went on to decline the offer of payment, but I know that he did start putting on Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin again. In my humble opinion, this came from the tremendous admiration he had for the Rebbe.

Rabbi Alex Stern lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he worked as an insurance broker, until he retired and dedicated himself to studying Torah full time. He now resides in Florida where he was interviewed in January of 2022.