I got an e-mail today informing of the passing of Rabbi Michael Katz, a longtime and underappreciated Rebbe at Yeshiva University. Case in point – as of this writing there is no mention of his passing on YU’s website.
By his own account, R. Katz taught in the YU system for over 50 years, starting in the high school and eventually teaching Hullin in the Rabbinical school for over 30 years.
My experience with R. Katz came when I was in his Hullin shiur my second year of smikha. My uncle had taken him when he was a student, and my thinking was that before I would study Yoreh Deah it would make sense to learn the gemarot on which those halakhot were based.
The shiur was by no means large. As a Hullin shiur it primarilly attracted smikha students, and many smikha students chose other ways to fulfill their Hullin requirement.
Of those that did join, some dropped out after a few days due to the relatively different style of the shiur. As opposed to playing with various hakiras in Rishonim, R. Katz actually wanted people to know and understand what the gemara actually said. R. Katz didn’t “give shiur” by lecturing, but someone in the shiur would read, translate, and explain and R. Katz would clarify, correct, or raise relavent issues for discussion. This style worked wonderfuly with the small size of the class, which gradually became a havurah because of R. Katz’s pedagogy.
Although set in his teaching style, R. Katz was also open to some changes. One day I was tipped off that R. Ben-Haim, my Rebbe the previous year, was going to perform one of his random demonstrations in shehita. Since R. Katz was learning the first two chapters of Hullin which deal with the laws of shehita, I thought it might make sense to observe and I went to ask R. Katz for permission to miss shiur that day. Conviniently, R. Katz and R. Ben-Haim shared an office on the fifth floor of Furst Hall, so when I asked R. Katz, he simply asked R. Ben-Haim if we could bring the whole shiur down.
It’s hard for me to remember the details of shiur without my notes, but there were a few points which I remember he liked to mention. First was that he was annoyed that too many of the smikha students focus on Yoreh Deah but don’t take Hullin seriously. In his words, “you can’t study Yoreh Deah without knowing Hullin.”
Second, he would frequently quote Rashi on Shemot 31:18 “?? ????? ??? ???? ????? ??? ?????? ?????? ?????” – “a sage must become proficient in the 24 books i.e. the entire written Torah. The funny thing about this was when he would say “khof daled seforim” meaning 24, his accent made it sound like “khol daled seforim” meaning “all four books.” This of course made no sense, but it did provide some amusement for the shiur and even R. Katz himself.
Finally, R. Katz enjoyed talking about some aspects of his own life. He would wistfully recount stories of his father, a former Rabbi in Petach Tikvah, and he was extremely proud of his thesis – a critical edition of an obscure commentary on Sefer Vayikra. He would also talk about the old days of YU retelling arguments between Roshei Yeshiva who have long since passed away. R. Katz was also quite the chess player and every now and again issued challenges to the shiur. (Despite some close calls, R. Katz went undefeated).
With all of his extensive knowledge, R. Katz did not conduct himself as an inaccessible figurehead, but an approachable teacher and a real person.
With R. Katz’s passing YU has lost not only a precious link to its own history, but one of the last teachers who followed the “Eastern European” style of learning. Even more unfortunate is how few people will realize what’s missing.