Rav Shamshon Rephael Weiss, zt”l
by Yehuda Alter
Rav Weiss was born in Emden, Germany, in 1910 to Rabbi Ahron and Yehudis Weiss. At the age of nineteen, he made his way east to Mir, Poland, where he was instantly smitten with the glory of the Torah world.
“He considered himself ‘a Mirrer’ to his last day, recalled a daughter.” This was due in no small part to his closeness to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel, as well as the mashgiach, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, zt”l—who influenced his entire hashkafah.
For four-and-a-half years, he immersed himself in Torah, after which he returned home to Germany.
In those days, one could not obtain a Rabbinic position in Germany with a degree from a university, and this is what his father wanted him to do. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz of the Mir advised him to work independently on his doctoral thesis—necessitating actual attendance in university for half a year—and that it should be the works of Rabbeinu Saadya Ga’on.
While in University in Zurich (this was 1933—and German colleges were no longer admitting Jewish students) he received a letter from his father, notifying him of an opening at the “Würzburg Teachers Seminary” founded in 1877 by Rav Yitzchok Dov Bamberger, the Wurtzburger Rav.
With the encouragement of his rebbeim, he accepted the position—his entry into what would be a lifelong tenure of influence. This young Ph.D. candidate painted for his young German students a vivid image of a world of Torah in Poland and transmitted to them the essence and the worldview of that world through his mussar classes and his close interactions with his students—all of whom were of superb intellect.
He was advised and encouraged in this balancing act of appealing to students of all stripes by Rav Elchonon Wasserman, zt”l, Hy”d.
Two of these, whom he sent to the Mir, were Rav Binyamin Zeilburger, Rosh Yeshiva of Beis Hatalmud, and Rav Naftali Neuberger of Ner Israel in Baltimore, among so many others whose lives he changed forever. Rav Weiss’ rescue would come about through the efforts of Rabbi Neuberger.
In 1944 Rabbi Weiss became the Rav of Congregation Orach Chaim in New York. With his decades of experience in Jewish education, both in Germany and in America, he was a natural fit to head Torah Umesorah/National Association of Hebrew Day Schools. In 1947, the National Council of Young Israel asked him to lead that organization. He made this contingent on the abolishment of social dancing at their events and on strict adherence to halacha.
Upon settling in Boro Park, he was reunited with his old chaverim from the Mir in whose company he basked when davening in Boro Park’s Mirer Minyan. As we have noted, he considered himself one of them in every sense. In 1956, he became the Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, a position he executed with distinction for the following 16 years.
Besides his many talents and the numerous activities for the sake of Torah and Chesed that Rav Weiss was involved with in his fruitful life, his most striking gift was oratory. Whenever Rav Weiss was in a room, his presence filled the space, but when he spoke, the experience was overwhelming, and the atmosphere he created was almost tangible. Although English was not his native language, he had a total command of the language and was extremely gifted in using it to express the depth and breadth of his thoughts. He was unique in his grasp of Machshava and Hashkafa, and was able to give it over to his audiences with tremendous depth, clarity, and delicate nuance. His grandson has dedicated himself to disseminating his Torah in Machsheves Shimshon and in his audio shiurim that are available online.
In 1972, Rav Weiss made Aliyah to Eretz Yisroel, and this consummate teacher continued his calling in Aish Hatorah in Yerushalayim, as well as in BJJ Seminary. He would also return to America in the spring and teach in Bais Yaakov.
He was niftar in New York in the winter of 1990, leaving behind a legacy of Torah leadership that spanned from Germany to Poland to Boro Park of yesteryear.