Yaacov Mayer Brisman is sure that his father, Rabbi Dov Ahron Brisman, must have slept at some point; he just can’t remember him ever going up to bed. Instead, the rabbi was downstairs in his study, reading the Torah and Talmud, learning and thinking.
One time, the mother of one of Yaacov’s friends called the house at 2:30 a.m. because her son had not come home that night. He was at the Brisman residence. Rabbi Brisman answered on the first ring and sounded “fresh, newly woken up,” Yaacov said.
“He was just studying,” the son added. “He had this incredible diligence about him.”
On Sept. 19, this Talmudic scholar’s lifelong pursuit of Jewish knowledge and wisdom ended. Rabbi Brisman died in his sleep at his home in Philadelphia. He was 69.
Brisman is survived by his wife Libby Brisman and their children Yaacov, Matti Stahl, Fayga Laya Taylor and Gedalia Zev Brisman. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral at Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks Funeral Home in Philadelphia, according to Yaacov Mayer Brisman. About 200 came to his funeral in Israel.
Rabbis who knew Brisman called his death “a huge loss” and “a void for our city.” During his life, the scholar was not merely a scholar. He also led the Orthodox Beit Din of Philadelphia, the Keystone-K Community Kashrus of Greater Philadelphia and the Orthodox congregation Young Israel of Elkins Park.
He was the right man for all of those jobs because he was “a world-acclaimed Talmudic scholar,” according to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski, who leads Beth Midrash HaRav B’Nai Jacob in Philadelphia. But he was also the right man because he understood how to relate to people. Despite being a “world-acclaimed Talmudic scholar,” Brisman never took himself too seriously.
“He was your everyday guy. Accessible, sense of humor, a good friend,” Leizerowski said. “He was self-effacing; he was humble; he was modest.”
The rabbi’s indefatigable study of the Torah and Talmud developed the kind of encyclopedic mind that is rare today. He knew “the whole gamut of Jewish studies,” Leizerowski said.
Rabbi Brisman’s recall was unmatched, according to his brother-in-law. He could sit down with a stack of 500 pieces of paper, start writing and fill all 500 sheets — without looking at a single note. It was all in his head.
And then the final product would be in “the most beautifully written style” that would remind rabbis of “Talmudic study from 500 years ago,” Leizerowski said. During his 69 years, Brisman wrote books and edited others. And when he died, he left behind boxes of manuscripts that could still fill as many as 90 books, Leizerowski estimated.
“His pen was incredible,” the brother-in-law said. “He was a non-stop fountain of Jewish thought, of Jewish knowledge.”
Brisman’s scholarship started with his ability to understand and interpret old texts. But since the rabbi lived in the 20th and 21st centuries, it was his ability to apply them that set him apart.
Questions came to him from all over the world, according to Leizerowski, from chief rabbis of cities and countries. What’s your opinion? How would you deal with this?
If you buy a new pot, how would you take it into the mikvah since it’s electronic and can’t go in water? How do you deal with going to the hospital and using all of its electronic features, like doors, on Shabbos? Since you’re not supposed to be charged interest when you take out a loan, how do you handle a Jewish-owned bank that tries to do just that?
Those were some of the many modern questions that Brisman received over the years, according to Rabbi Mordecai Terebelo, a contemporary and friend, as well as the rabbi for Congregation Ahavas Torah in Northeast Philadelphia.
His responses were often 10 pages in length. After the response, he attached a glossary with references and explanations. His opinion, as Leizerowski explained, was “valued.”
“He went back to the sources and plowed over it,” Terebelo said. “Life and death takes precedence over everything in Jewish law. So of course you’re going to go to the hospital. What’s the best way to do it?”
Leizerowski said that Brisman viewed the Talmud as the “blueprint for Jewish life.” He also believed that the Talmudic scholar could find an answer to almost every question in this essential body of wisdom. And that that was true even today.
“There were things 100 years ago that were new,” Leizerowski explained. “We fashion our lives to fit the Torah philosophy, not the Torah philosophy to fit our lives.”
After Brisman died, his family had questions about the laws of mourning, according to Yaacov Mayer Brisman. But they had no one to call. JE