When tape recorders first came out, they were huge and unwieldy. They were about 12” wide by 12” long x 10” high, and they weighed 15 or 20 pounds. The reels were some 8” wide, and the tape itself was easy to wrinkle or otherwise render unusable.
It was this kind of machine that David J. Schlossberg lugged with him to Israel sometime in the 1950s. He was a man (make that a student) on a mission.
To understand that mission, permit me to begin with an anecdote.
When Reb Elyah Lopian (1872 or 1876-1970) came on aliyah from England to Israel at the age of 76, he wanted to meet Rabbi Yitzhak Z. Soloveitchik, a preeminent Torah scholar. They met in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s apartment.
Perhaps they exchanged a few initial courtesies, perhaps not. Either way, they sat together for some 30 minutes and not a word was exchanged between them. Then, Reb Elyah left, but when he did, Rabbi Soloveitchik accompanied him to the door and then all the right outside to the street.
Students of Rabbi Soloveitchik had never seen him extend such respect to anyone, and they asked why.
“I never knew someone like this still existed,” he said of Reb Elyah.
When Reb Elyah’s family decided to emigrate to America from Russia, little Elyah was 10 years old. He refused to go! He feared that the atmosphere of America would undermine his Jewish commitment, as it had done with countless other Jewish immigrants. He was on his own, alone, from the time he was 10!
When spirit and strength of character are powerful and palpable, words are unnecessary.
We have here a paradox. Schlossberg brought his tape recorder with him to record the words — the legendary addresses — of Reb Elyah, who could hold an audience spellbound for hours.
It was more, a lot more, than speaking ability or command of biblical, talmudic and midrashic sources. It was that spirit that moved Rabbi Soloveitchik to the core even without a word having been exchanged between them.
It was a different world back then. No instant communication. In fact, little communication at all unless you happened to be in the room — or unless someone had a tape recorder.
Schlossberg wanted to record the addresses of Reb Elyah so that he could replay them for himself and his fellow students. There was just too much content in each address to absorb all at once.
A cinch, Schlossberg thought.
But when he approached Reb Elyah with his idea of recording his addresses, Reb Elyah said, no!
An address would begin close to the end of Shabbos and continue into the night long after Shabbos was over. Schlossberg figured he could plug in and set up the tape recorder after Shabbos ended without fear of either violating Shabbos or Reb Elyah’s sensitivities.
Boy was he wrong.
It wasn’t just that Reb Elyah deemed it unseemly to set up a machine that he wouldn’t use on Shabbos before he and the students had recited the evening prayers and formally concluded Shabbos. It went deeper. Tape recorder? This, Reb Elyah found to be wrong, somehow. Was it modern technology he objected to? Was it a dilution of the strength and purity of his addresses? He didn’t say.
Schlossberg was not to be deterred. He kept coming back to Reb Elyah and politely requested permission to record his addresses. He kept getting the same answer: No.
This went on for some time.
Meanwhile, Schlossberg, being one of the older students, earned the privilege of assisting Reb Elyah in his living quarters (being his “house bochur”). One day, Schlossberg helped out in a way that Reb Elyah regarded as beyond the call of duty. He wanted to repay the favor. He knew how much it meant to Schlossberg to record his talks. So agreed to it just this one time — the next address. Schlossberg could record it.
And he did, taking care to hide the long cords and other paraphernalia required by the original, crude tape recorder, so that the spirit of Shabbos would be preserved, even as both he and Reb Elyah recited the short version of the prayer ending Shabbos before the tape recorder was set up and turned on and before the address began.
Then what? Reb Elyah himself wanted to hear the recording, not knowing what it was. When he heard it, he was unbelievably moved. He sat and listened to his entire address.
Does this make sense? He himself knew what he had said.
“I deliver addresses,” he said by way of explanation. He delivered them because he was in high demand not just in his yeshiva but all over Israel. “But I almost never get to listen to messages of reproof and inspiration.”
So he listened to his own address, as if had not been the one to deliver it. He took in the reproof and inspiration as if he were listening to someone else.
A lot more.
He was taken with the technology! He saw what Schlossberg had been talking about — to the extent that Reb Elyah now bemoaned the fact that this kind of technology had not been invented a half century earlier.
So much of what he had said then, he had forgotten, and if a tape recorder would have existed, it could have been preserved.
So Reb Elyah henceforth welcomed the recordings.
And Schlossberg realized that his mission had greatly expanded. Not only was he providing himself and his friends with a perfectly accurate method of review, but he was collecting words of wisdom — with their powerful delivery — that he could spread around the world.
So it is that today people can re-experience the words of the person who left Rabbi Yitzhak Z. Soloveitchik speechless.
Sources: Oral history; Lev Eliyahu (2 vols.); and Schlossberg’s Reb Elyah: The Life and Accomplishments of Rabbi Elyah Lopian (1999).