On May 27, 2016, our father (Totty), Rabbi Shmuel Dovid HaLevi Siegel, was niftar as a result of complications caused by advancing Alzheimer’s disease, a condition with which he struggled during the final years of his life.
Even in the throes of his significant challenges, Totty maintained the essential elements of his personhood: his gentleness and humility; his courtesy and courtliness; his yiras Shamayim and bitachon (fear of and faith in G-d); and his deep connection to his Torah learning. Even when his awareness of current times was obscured by his illness, Totty could still recite psukim (verses) from anywhere in Tanach, put on his tefilin unaided, and participate in a minyan.
As his mind cruised through the old memories that he cherished, our father would make reference to his beloved Baltimore; to his parents and his sisters, Ada and Debby; to his old friends from his years at Talmudical Academy; to his home on Eutaw Place; to his boyhood shul, the Shearith Israel of McCulloch Street; and to his reverence for his rebbeim, especially his Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, zt”l, of Ner Israel.
Wherever Totty was, his world was ever-defined by his beloved Baltimore and the fundamental values and ethical standards that were etched into his psyche by his parents, Morris and Miriam (Friedberg) Siegel, and the close-knit Jewish community in which he was raised.
Judaism in General - Sabbath in Particular
The groundwork for the growth of Yiddishkeit in Baltimore had already been laid in the early 1900s by the first generation of American-born men and women, many of whom had sacrificed any prospect of financial gain in favor of keeping the holy Shabbos alive.
R’ Shmuel Dovid’s parents, Morris and Miriam Siegel, z”l, had been at the forefront of the Adas, the grassroots initiative formed after the First World War for the purpose of fighting against the missionaries who preyed upon those Jewish children whose parents felt compelled to work on Shabbos. The Adas leaders provided the children with an alternative in the form of Shabbos groups and social programs. Armed with nothing more than their passion for Shabbos observance and their deep commitment to their sacred cause, the young men and women of the Adas organization created a movement whose effects are still felt in Baltimore to this very day in the form of a thriving Torah community, with an abundance of shuls and day schools for boys and girls, where individuals are no longer penalized professionally and financially for their Sabbath observance.
R’ Shmuel Dovid’s father, Morris Siegel, with his unique blend of charisma and good humor,
turned shmiras Shabbos (Sabbath observance) into an art form that inspired and energized the entire community. His storefront bore the sign, “Adas Bnai Israel: Judaism in general – Sabbath in particular.” According to Rav Aharon Feldman, shlita, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, “Morris Siegel was at the forefront of everything that took place in Baltimore.”
Morris Siegel’s unflagging commitment to Sabbath observance had been bred into him by his parents, Chaim and Sora Fayge Siegel, who had immigrated to America in the 1890s from Ponovez, Lithuania with a position on shemiras Shabbos that was absolute and non-negotiable. In those years, shomer Shabbos employment was unheard of. The resultant financial stress to the Siegel family was overwhelming, as Morris and his seven siblings struggled to maintain regular employment and keep the family above the poverty line. Yet the Siegel family’s unwavering dedication to the Shabbos was rewarded as six of the siblings were able to maintain and thrive in their Yiddishkeit: Rose (Scherr); Lena (Sugarman); Ann (Lauer); Morris Siegel; Chester Siegel; and Lillian (Shavrick).
Every Shabbos, Morris Siegel would gather the young children in need of a Shabbos experience and take them to the Adas for a captivating afternoon of serialized storytelling and refreshments that induced them to return for more on a weekly basis. With Morris Siegel’s encouragement and assistance, a number of his Adas “graduates” moved on to advanced learning in North America and Europe and eventually became prominent and internationally renowned Torah leaders.
It was into this environment of passion for the Shabbos and fervor for learning that our father was born in 1930.
The Humble Pioneer
Our father did not view himself as a pioneer. He was never an adventurous sort. Far from it. In fact, he was a very quiet fellow and heartily eschewed the public limelight. Yet the choice about whether or not to be a pioneer was taken from him, as the time in which young Shmuel Dovid came of age in Jewish Baltimore in the 1930s catapulted not only him but also his young contemporaries into leadership roles.
By the time our father had reached the age of five, his parents and other parents in the community had determined that it was time to take Jewish Baltimore to the next level by growing the existing Talmudical Academy Hebrew Parochial School, the elementary school for boys, into an educational system that would extend through high school. Until then, most of the local boys were attending public high school and studying with private melamdim.
Never backing down from a challenge and the opportunity to generate Torah growth, the Siegels jumped at the chance to enroll their son, Shmuel Dovid, in what they hoped would be TA’s first graduating class. The target date for graduation was June, 1947. The Siegels were joined in this bold pioneering effort by the Feldman, Klein, Rashbaum, Novick, Shoham, Hertzberg, Heyman, Hoberman, and Green families.
Our father took great pride in being a member of his TA class. He would proudly pull out his 1947 yearbook and point out the achievements of his classmates, many of whom had achieved greatness in their Torah scholarship and assumed positions of prominence in their respective fields. He would often reminisce about the good fortune he and his classmates had enjoyed to have Rabbi Jacob Bobrowsky as their rebbe for five years. Rabbi Bobrowsky was a European talmid chacham with a talent for teaching and imparting Torah knowledge, despite his lack of fluency in English. The boys also enjoyed the mentorship of their mashgiach, Rabbi Hirsch Diskind, zt”l, who would later become the principal of Bais Yaakov of Baltimore.
The TA Class of ’47 was legendary in Baltimore. As noted by a cousin, Rabbi Calman Weinreb, each individual member of this class was zocheh (had the good fortune) to be an idealist. Just by their very presence and participation as a member of this class, they were imbued with a sense of mission, purpose, and a deserved sense of importance that contemporary students, who attend school en masse, do not enjoy today.
Even though our father was not one to enjoy being in the public eye, this reluctant pioneer relished his place among this group of singular young men, who became his lifelong friends and partners in Torah study. Classmate and Rav of the Gra Shul in Bayit VeGan, Rabbi Leibel Hyman, zt”l, once said that our father’s nickname was “Silent Sam.” He relayed that, upon hearing this nickname, one of their rebbes commented, “Not Silent Sam, Tzadik Sam!”
Although our father is described in his high school yearbook as always having his head in a blatt gemara, he had his playful, all-American side. Fellow Class of ‘47 member, Mr. Harry Rashbaum, tells the classic story of the yarmulke and the football and why no one wanted to have Shmuel Dovid on his team after that incident: “It was the final moments of the football game, and the ball had been passed to Shmuel Dovid. As the ball approached, Shmuel Dovid jumped in the air, and his yarmulke slipped off his head. All of us on Shmuel Dovid’s team knew that we were in trouble. What would Shmuel Dovid go for? Would it be the yarmulke or the ball? The ball or the yarmulke? He chose the yarmulke.” Needless to say, our father’s team lost the game. But, as Mr. Rashbaum mused, Shmuel Dovid’s choice was truly a testimony to the homes of all of the boys in the class and the chinuch that they were receiving.
Life Changes: Learning, Marriage, and Parnassa
After graduating TA, our father remained in Baltimore so that he could enter the Ner Israel Yeshiva and fulfill his aspiration of becoming a talmid of Rabbi Ruderman, whom he had revered since boyhood. Totty learned at the Yeshiva for the next 10 years until his marriage, in 1957, to our mother, Ruth Bucher, a”h, of Williamsburg. Never once did our father consider leaving Ner Israel to learn elsewhere. For R’ Shmuel Dovid, everything that he could possibly desire for himself in a Torah experience he found in his beloved Yeshiva and in his close connection with the Rosh Yeshiva.
Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, who grew up in the Ner Israel Bais Midrash, remembers our father as a fixture: “If you got stuck on pshat in gemara in the Bais Midrash, he was the final word.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that two of the most important things in our father’s life as an adult came about through his connection to Ner Israel: his shidduch with his beloved Ruth and his decision to specialize and steep himself in the specialized sugya (subject matter) of zmanim (halachic times for religious service) as a lifelong pursuit.
According to Siegel family lore, our parents met when our mother tagged along with her identical twin sister, Sonia, and her brother-in-law, Ner Israel alumnus Rabbi Chaim Bloxenheim, on their road trip to Baltimore to attend an engagement party for Nachman Klein, z”l. Rabbi Klein was both a talmid of Ner Israel and a fellow graduate of the TA Class of ’47. The Bloxenheim entourage stayed at the home of Alvin Gerstein, Chaim Bloxenheim’s very close friend. Upon getting to know our mother, Alvin’s wife, Hannah, a”h, immediately thought that she would be a perfect match for her cousin, Shmuel Dovid. Little did Hannah know in that moment of inspiration that Ruth Siegel would become a close and dear friend, not only to her, but to the entire Caplan family, both in Baltimore and in Israel.
During the early years of their marriage, our parents lived near the Yeshiva in Forest Park. It was a period of change for our father, as he was transitioning into his father Morris’s wholesale business, for the purpose of providing parnassa (livelihood) for the family. Our father firmly believed that it was his obligation to provide for his family, and, to our recollection, there was never any discussion of his doing otherwise. It clearly never occurred to our father that his pursuit of parnassa could or would interfere with his Torah learning.
Our mother’s adjustment to Baltimore was assisted by Rebbitzen Ruderman, a”h, who reached out to the newlywed from New York and enveloped her in her singular blend of warmth, wit, and sophistication. For her entire life, our mother remained a committed devotee of both the Rebbetzin and her younger sister, Rebbitzen Judy Neuberger.
Recognizing the need for well-considered direction as he moved into the workforce, R’ Shmuel Dovid consulted with his rebbe, Rabbi Ruderman, for guidance and assistance in charting his life’s course. He was counseled by the Rosh Yeshiva to find a particular sugya in learning and make that field of study his own.
Traveling the World through Zmanim
As a man of great discipline and precision in all aspects of his observance of mitzvos, particularly davening, it was not surprising that our father was drawn to the study of zmanim. He reveled in the mathematical challenges and enjoyed the computing and calculating that this absorbing area of halachic study involved. Rabbi Dovid Heber, Rabbi of Khal Adas Yisroel Tzemach Tzedek, a contemporary expert and author in the zmanim field, considered our father a primary research source and expressed feeling fortunate to have easy access to his expertise in the neighborhood. About our father’s passion for the study of zmanim, Rabbi Heber shares the following insight: “It is indeed a passion. If you are into it, you can’t get enough of it…. You could see the amkus, the depth to what your father did; for him, there was no such thing as ‘fly by night.’”
Our father toiled and burnt the midnight oil for many years as he worked in the family business during the day and wrote late into the night after the family chores, such as dishes, laundry, and homework with the children were completed.
The fruits of R’ Shmuel Dovid’s labors were the “Sadeh” trilogy: Atzei Sadeh, Tenuvas Sadeh, and Achuzas Sadeh on time in halacha. As children, when we would ask him about the choice and meaning of the titles of his sefarim, he would explain with a shy smile that sadeh meant field and that the word was an acronym for his Hebrew name, Shmuel Dovid HaLevi.
In today’s world, we take for granted the ease with which we can find any zman we need for any locale in the world with a simple push of a button. However, before the internet age, our father would calculate calendars by hand and provide advice for international travelers, who faced considerable halachic challenges while traveling to the South Pacific, Hawaii, and Alaska. There were no shortcuts for the task of computing zmanim. According to Rabbi Heber, “R’ Shmuel Dovid went through the sugya with an envelope and stamps.” He refers to our father as one of the “mid-Pacific poskim,” with respect to his position on the location of the International Dateline. “I coined the term ‘mid-Pacific poskim’ [for your father and others]. But none of these poskim ever went to the Pacific, I’m sure. He lived the world on his desk.”
In those early years, our father was a lone and lonely traveler on his zmanim journey. His steady chavrusas (study partners) in the wee hours of the morning were his composition notebooks and his blue Bic pens, which were sold in bulk at Morris Siegel and Co. Throughout the world, only a few talmidei chachaim shared Totty’s passion for the subject and his dedication to servicing communities by providing precise zmanim tables. One of those scholars was Rabbi Meir Posen, shlita, of London and Israel, who became a regular correspondent with our father via old-fashioned aerograms. After years of corresponding, they met for the first time when Rav Posen and his wife Ruth came to Baltimore to visit their cousins, the Eisemanns on Yeshiva Lane. We remember vividly the excitement in our home as our parents prepared to meet our father’s international counterpart and their delight afterwards as they regaled us with anecdotes from their visit.
In a phone call to the Siegel children, Rav Posen, shlita, reminisced: “We met once or twice, and corresponded by letters.” Rav Posen continues. “He was very much in the sugya, and we compared notes. Even today I wouldn’t have minded if we could have some discussion, but that’s the way the world goes. It is remarkable that someone who worked for a living had time to do all that. He still lives on today. Everyone who learns his sefarim gives him life in the eternal world.”
Rabbi Heber notes that our father is widely quoted by other scholars because of his meticulous working through of the Rishonim (early Talmudic commentaries) and other sources: “I was working on bein hashmashos (twilight) and was stuck on one issue. I called your father, and he just shook the answer out of his sleeve.” In recent years, as our father was declining cognitively due to his illness, his presence on the zmanim scene was sorely missed, as his facility in the subject had been exceptional.
To be continued.