Rabbi Shmuel Niman: Rebbe, Mashgiach, Mentor

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Rabbi Shmuel Niman, zt’l
Rabbi Shmuel Niman, zt’l

By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

In my first year of attending yeshiva gedolah in Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, I had the z’chus of having Rabbi Shmuel Niman, zt’l, as a rebbe. This year’s dinner at Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim—December 11 at Terrace on the Park—is dedicated in his memory.

To say that his shiur was unique is an understatement. There is no doubt that he created countless talmidei chachamim throughout his many years delivering shiur.

The term “delivering shiur” is not even correct. Rabbi Niman did not deliver shiur; he studied Torah with his talmidim. During the afternoon seder, his talmidim covered many blatt and hopefully finished masechtos. However, the morning shiur was not to cover ground. A sugya was chosen to study intensely. The first day of a new sugya, we just studied together reading the Gemara.

Incidentally, shiur was in Rabbi Niman’s private office. We all sat around a table filled with various sefarim, computers, and antacid medication. Without fail, there were almost always questions that presented themselves. Those questions were recorded on the ever-present tape recorder that he kept near him during shiur.

There was one time that no novel questions were raised. But that was of no consequence. Rabbi Niman recited his standard five questions into the recorder: (1) What is the hava amina, the Talmud’s initial understanding? (2) What is the maskana, the Talmud’s final understanding? (3) What is the movement between the two positions? (4) What is the pivotal point the movement depends on? And for the finale: (5) “B’chlal, what’s p’shat in the sugya?”

It is not fun or “yeshivish” to try to understand the back-and-forth of a passage of Gemara. But that is what we did in shiur. Inevitably, we would learn the commentaries to try and assist us in our understanding of the Gemara. However, the focus was always to develop our analytical and cognitive skills. Very often, the joke in the morning was that the commentary to be studied that day was “the Rosh.” The classic Rishon Rabbeinu Asher is known by the acronym of Rosh, which has the same letters as the Hebrew word rosh, head. The directive from Rabbi Niman on those mornings was that we were to use our heads to try to make headway into the sugya without studying other commentaries.

When a talmid would say a nice sevarah or chiddush, Rabbi Niman would whistle. To this day, many of his students follow that practice. The biggest reward was getting to record your chiddush “on the record” on the tape. Rabbi Niman would give us oral tests on the Gemara. Then we would follow him around the yeshiva while he tended to his official duties as mashgiach, all the while talking in learning. The talmid who knew the sugya best was chosen to record a concise synopsis of the entire sugya on the tape.

There were times that I said something that Rebbe felt was uttered without proper thought. He would smile at me and, with a twinkle in his eye, swallow an antacid. It was his way of letting me know that my words caused him heartburn!

On many occasions, the shiur was stumped on a particular question. Everyone in the room would try to offer an answer. Rabbi Niman would challenge everyone and disprove their answers. If after the discussion the shiur was still stumped, Rabbi Niman would offer his own answer. Often, a talmid would say, “Rebbe, that is the exact answer I gave!” Rabbi Niman’s response: “Yes, it was. But you went running for cover.” If you could not stand up and defend your answer against his questioning, you did not get credit for it.

Sometimes a similar scenario occurred but with a different ending. A talmid would say, “Rebbe, that is the exact answer I gave!” Rabbi Niman would say that the seemingly identical answers were worlds apart. Sometimes, one additional fine point made all the difference. Nowadays, rebbeim do just the opposite. When a talmid says something that is totally off, the rebbe pats him on the back and rewords the student’s answer to make it reasonable. Rabbi Niman was not like that. He expected success from everyone. If you did not get the answer exactly right, you did not get credit for it.

Although his standards were high, inevitably every student in the shiur had the chance to shine and bask in glory for at least one day. I remember Rabbi Niman once remarking with a smile, “It’s unbelievable how the same mouth that could say such diamonds yesterday can say such kvatch today.” It was his way of giving mussar to his talmidim for not shining. His talmidim loved him and took the mussar in stride. Once again, I cannot imagine any rebbe today giving that mussar to his talmidim.

If there was an issue of students coming late, Rabbi Niman would lock his door at the beginning of shiur and not allow late students in. Rabbi Niman’s shiur room was technically on the second floor of the yeshiva, but the first floor was really just a basement with ground-level windows. One enterprising student was dismayed to find the shiur room door locked. He went outside and climbed up on the outside of the building to knock on Rabbi Niman’s window. Rabbi Niman let him in with a smile, but said, “Just this once!”

I personally owe hakaras ha’tov to Rabbi Niman for my shidduch. Rabbi Niman was upset that I used to mumble my answers and questions in shiur. He therefore instituted that whenever I said something in shiur I was to stand behind a shtender and speak as if I were delivering a speech. I had to speak loudly and with command!

I was asked to give a public speech sometime after being in Rabbi Niman’s shiur for a year, and my public-speaking skills had improved greatly from what they used to be.

A number of years later, I asked if I could speak at the sheva berachos of a good friend of mine, Meir Shaffren. Another friend, Reuvain Weinberg, attended the sheva berachos with his wife. His wife heard me speak and thought of a shidduch—and the rest is history.

Perhaps the best parts of shiur were the tales of old that Rabbi Niman would relate. Whether it was stories from Peoria, Illinois, or South 9th Street in Williamsburg, we relished the glimpse into a world that was.

Often Rabbi Niman would test his talmidim with mishmar she’eilos or Talmudic brainteasers. One such question he asked us appears below and is the connection to the daf.

The question is based on two Gemaras. The first is in Bava Metzia (62a): “Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. If both drank, they would both die, but if one of them drank [only] he would make it back [alive]. . . . Rebbe Akiva came and taught: ‘Your brother should live imach, with you’ (Vayikra 25:36)—your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.’” Therefore, the owner of the water keeps it for himself and saves his own life.

The second Gemara is in Kiddushin. It expounds on the following verse: “For it is good for him imach, with you” (Devarim 15:16). An eved Ivri (Jewish slave) must be “with you,” i.e., equal to you in terms of eating and drinking. The Gemara tells us that if the master eats fine bread, he must provide his eved Ivri with bread of similar quality, and the same applies in other aspects. In conclusion, the Gemara relates the well-known saying, “From here Chazal derived that buying an eved Ivri is like buying a master for oneself.”

Tosfos ask, why does the Gemara say that the eved has become his master, when in fact, they are now on equal standing? Tosfos answer that if the master has only one pillow, the eved Ivri has priority and the master must give the pillow to his slave, resting his own head on the ground. The Gemara therefore says that when one buys an eved it is as if he is buying an adon for himself. If possible, they are treated as equals; if not, the eved Ivri is treated better.

The Maraham Shif (B.M. 62) says that there appears to be a contradiction between the Gemaras. The verse quoted that was related to the two people traveling says imach. We take that to mean that you, the reader of the Torah, are more important. You keep the water that you have; you need not yield it to the other party. However, the verse regarding the eved Ivri also says imach. We take that to mean that you, the reader, must surrender your pillow to the other person. In the absence of equality, the eved Ivri takes precedence. This is inconsistent.

There are several answers to this question, but the one Rabbi Niman, zt’l, wanted was based on logic. Really, imach, with you, means that you are secondary: you must surrender what you have. However, the two Jews traveling are equal. If one would surrender his water, the recipient would be commanded to give it right back. The Torah must mean, therefore, that the owner of the water keeps it. On the other hand, the verse relating to an eved Ivri is directed at the master. The owner of an eved Ivri has specific laws about how he must treat his slave. The eved Ivri, on the other hand, does not need to reciprocate, because he has no such commandments. So the slave owner gives the lone pillow to the eved Ivri, and that is where it stays!

I wrote a few brief words about Rabbi Niman delivering shiur, but I have not even begun to discuss his role as mashgiach and mentor. He touched so many lives. Rabbi Chaim Shmuel Niman, zt’l, will always be remembered by the many, many people on whom he had a profound impact. v

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.

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