The Wonderful Cholent: A Story of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Volozhin, the “Brisket Rabbi”

Here’s a story you’ve been waiting all year to hear. It’s from the nineteenth century and concerns Reb Chaim Soloveitchik of Volozhin, a city in what is now Belarus. Reb Chaim later moved to Brest, called Brisk by Jews, and was the grandfather of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik—called the Rav—one of the most important Orthodox rabbis of the twentieth century, who lived and taught in New York.

Reb Chaim created a new approach to Talmudic study, called the Brisker method—highly intellectual Talmud study combined with strict adherence to the text. Laws are broken down into precise components and assembled into new combinations, creating new legal possibilities.

Reb Chaim also was a Litvak, a Lithuanian, even though he wasn’t, strictly speaking, from Lithuania. And, he was a mitnagid, which means opponent—the mitnagdim were opponents of the Hasidim, whom they felt had deviated from the true practice of Judaism. Reputedly, Litvaks were cold, rational, intellectual; Hasidim, warm, emotional, mystical. 

Reb Chaim also was a shochet and a mohel—able to perform both ritual slaughter and ritual circumcision. That is, he knew how to cut both a cow and a foreskin, and he had the tools for both. He liked to call his tools for circumcision his bris-kit. His specialty in the butcher business was, perhaps not surprisingly, preparing the cut of beef called brisket. Thus his nickname, the Brisket Rabbi.

One day new parents asked him to perform a bris, a ritual circumcision. Since the mother knew that Reb Chaim was hard of hearing and forgetful, she reminded him to bring his knives for the bris, his “bris-kit.” It was a Friday morning. Before the circumcision, she had ordered and had delivered to her a large brisket from Reb Chaim. That afternoon she made cholent for the Sabbath by cooking the brisket—the cut of meat, not the meat cutter—onions and garlic, potatoes, carrots, turnips, beans, salt and pepper, and even a dash of wine, plus a secret ingredient her sainted mother had given her on the latter’s deathbed but who died before telling her what it was.  

Reb Chaim, a little under the weather and exhibiting the aforementioned manifestations of age, was preoccupied with a challenging passage from the Talmud dealing with shatnez—the laws governing mixing different types of fibers in the same garment—for example, a vest made from wool and silk, even if there’s only one silk thread, is not kosher. And so, although he already had prepared the brisket, he forgot and thought she said “brisket,” not “bris-kit.” He brought a slab of meat and his large schechting knives instead of the much more delicate instruments for performing circumcisions.

After offering Reb Chaim the first taste of the cholent, which he said was wonderful, the parents conferred with each other. Needless to say, they were alarmed about the knives and told Reb Chaim to come back another time.

That very afternoon, the famous rabbi, of blessed memory, unexpectedly died, of unforeseen circumstances, sparing the parents the embarrassment of trying to find a way to tell the rabbi they were going to look for another mohel. It seemed a sign from heaven.

After Reb Chaim died—that same day, in fact—the parents found another mohel. He was not famous but was only a mohel, and reputedly had both good eyesight and a sharp memory. It was said that while preparing for his bar mitzvah he had memorized both Talmuds, along with the Shulchan Arukh—the authoritative code of Jewish law—as well as the Tanya, the kabbalistic bible of the Hasidim.

Are you surprised I said Hasidim? Yes, the mohel was a Hasid, but not just any Hasid. He was descended from the Chernobyl Rebbe, Grand Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky, famous for his book Meor Eynayim—Light of the Eyes—who in fact was called by the title of his work. Reb Twersky was a disciple of both the Baal Shem Tov and the Baal Shem’s main disciple, Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch.

Although the parents were Litvaks, a strange impulse had compelled them to use this Hasidic mohel. That same afternoon the mohel came by to meet the parents. The mother offered him a taste of the cholent, and the mohel praised her cooking to the skies. The mohel, feeling compelled by a similarly strange impulse and knowing the parents were not Hasidim and their first choice of mohels had been Reb Chaim, decided it was his calling to perform the bris. Everyone decided that Sunday would be the best day for the bris, even though a bris can be performed on shabbat.

Sunday came around, and the parents, the baby, and the guests were all ready for the show. There was a slight problem, however. Though young, and in spite of his prodigious youthful achievements, this mohel also turned out to have memory issues and forgot his instruments, which had never happened before. It was almost as if the unseen hand of the Maker had been directing his actions. Since he lived in a neighboring village and didn’t have time to go home to get his own instruments, he had to borrow some. As it turned out, the closest set was at the home of Reb Chaim. Feeling nervous about asking to borrow instruments from this household, the Hasid took a gift of some of the cholent and—if he hadn’t been a Jew—almost felt tempted to cross himself.

He gave the cholent to Reb Chaim’s son Velvel, the future Brisker Rov, who took a taste and exclaimed it the most wonderful cholent he had ever eaten, bar none. Then, as if directed by the Holy Ancient One, and in shock from the sudden death of his esteemed father, he graciously loaned the Hasidic mohel the instruments Rav Chaim had forgotten. The Brisker, too, had felt something strange when the Hasidic mohel came knocking, as if a veil had been drawn over him by an unseen hand, obscuring the longstanding sectarian hostility between the sects.

The instruments arrived, and the new mohel did his job—efficiently, even briskly, one might say. The mother served the remaining cholent, as an appetizer, to all the attendees, who all proclaimed it the best they had ever had. She even gave her baby a taste, and he smiled.

A further wrinkle emerged that afternoon: The baby and his parents were actually distant relatives of Reb Chaim. The mohel had performed the sacred mitzvah on an infant who probably would grow up to heap invective on his Hasidic brethren.

Several months after the bris, to avoid future such mixups, the Brisker Rov—Reb Chaim’s son Velvel—made a ruling in the name of his father: A person can be a shochet or a mohel, or even both, but not at the same time. This was based on a novel interpretation of the same Talmudic passage dealing with shatnez that his father had been studying when his memory went kaput. You may remember that this dealt with the prohibition against mixing alien fibers.

A generation later, the grandson of Reb Chaim, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik—the Rav—with great simchah, witnessed his daughter’s marriage to a Hasidic rabbi descended from the same mohel who performed the bris his grandfather never performed. And this Hasidic rabbi was not just any hasidic rabbi but the Talner rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak (Isadore) Twersky, the Nathan Littauer Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and a descendant, yes, of the “Light of the Eyes,” that first Twersky.

The Talner rebbe was chair of Jewish studies at Harvard and oversaw the graduation of many PhDs, including Professor Joseph Davis, of Gratz College, the graduate adviser of the narrator of this story and himself the grandson of a famous Talmudic scholar, Louis Finkelstein, who was head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the main Conservative rabbinical school. And, the Rav was Rosh Yeshivah of the orthodox Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York City. He is said to have ordained about 2000 rabbis during his fifty years there.  

In other words, both the hasid and the mitnagid had distinguished pedigrees and were important scholars who, though staying within tradition, broke with it as well.

Oh—did I forget to say that Professor Twersky, the Hasidic rabbi, was one of the preeminent scholars of the rationalist philosopher Maimonides—who influenced the Rav and his ancestors? Or that he wrote his PhD dissertation on the medieval Talmudist RABaD—Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquieres—father of the early French kabbalist Rabbi Isaac the Blind? Or that the Rav wrote his PhD dissertation on the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen and that in his classic book The Lonely Man of Faith he melds Jewish and existentialist traditions?

Do you see how a little slip like bringing the wrong instruments for a circumcision could lead to a reconciliation of mitnagdim and hasidim after several hundred years of enmity?

You might be forgiven for thinking that a new interpretation of the law about mixing different fibers would have been forthcoming from a Rabbi Soloveitchik or Rabbi Twersky, but such was not the case, and to this day you may find a shochet or a mohel, but he won’t be practicing both specialties.

While this may seem puzzling—given the propensity of both rabbi-scholars to explore new Judaic territory—the ruling honors Jewish law on one level and a deeper reading of the law on another, namely, that at a deeper level there are no differences among fibers—they are all made of the same universal substance. Similarly, there are no distinctions between human beings, their religion, their sects, or their souls: there are no binary opposites, no mitnagid and Hasid, no such things as cold and warm, rational and emotional, intellectual and mystical. And of course behind it all is the unseen hand of the Holy One of Blessed Countenance. Remarkably, this teaching is based on a teaching the narrator heard from Rabbi Mordechai Twerski, formerly of Denver and now living in Brooklyn, another descendant of the “Light of the Eyes,” Grand Rabbi Mordechai Nachum Twersky.

And now let’s partake of the wonderful chlolent!

But wait—before we do, you may be wondering about the large schechting knives and the meat Reb Chaim had brought that fateful day? Did he take them with him when he was dismissed? As it turned out, he took the knives but forgot the meat. On Sunday morning, the mother of the baby added it to the cholent—to beef it up, one might say. And no, there was no confusion: The bris was done after she did this. . . .

Okay—now you can partake.  

Next year at this same time, at Purim, you will hear a familiar story about a rabbi, formerly of Denver, who was both a mohel and a jeweler and who, interestingly, had a license plate on his car that said FamilyJewels—something like that. In fact, when the rabbi-mohel-jeweler was helping this very narrator buy the only wedding ring he has ever bought (and also the only one he ever returned, when the engagement fell through as a result of a mixup he will not go into right now), the good rabbi excused himself to take a call from someone about a circumcision. After dealing with that client and making a few notes, he finished the deal with yours truly. The story you will hear next year will be called: “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” See you then!

By the way, the rabbi-mohel-jeweler belonged to Rabbi Mordechai Twerski’s congregation in Denver, which often was called—at this point perhaps unsurprisingly for readers of this story—TRI: Talmudic Research Institute.

I could add a few more wordplays about Briskers, but since they didn’t make the cut, I decided to spare you, dear reader . . . at least until next year.

Oh–just one more small item. What ever happened to the baby whose bris this story revolves around? Some things, patient reader, must remain mysteries until their time it is to be revealed.

About Henry Rasof z"l

I have been writing poetry for over fifty years. During this time, I have worked as a musician, chef, book acquisitions editor, and creative-writing instructor.

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