Centennial Spotlight: Rabbi Yacov Halevi Lipschutz

With 2023 marking 100 years of OU Kosher, throughout the year, Jewish Action will profile personalities who played a seminal role in building OU Kosher.


Rabbi Yacov Halevi Lipschutz, my predecessor at OU Kosher from 1977 to 1980, was named for his great-grandfather, the famed secretary of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor and author of the Zichron Yaakov. He took great pride in his illustrious Lithuanian heritage (Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of OU Kosher, once commented to me that Rabbi Yacov Lipschutz was the last true Litvak), and especially in his namesake’s relationship with Rav Yitzchak Elchanan. In his youth, he studied in Torah Vodaas and Beis Medrash Elyon and was known as a real masmid. (His chavrusa was his cousin with the same name as his, who was an author of the Encyclopedia Talmudit and went on to edit manuscripts of important Rishonim for Machon Harry Fischel.)

Reb Yacov was a bona fide talmid chacham and an expert in the laws of kashrus, especially shechitah, who authored the critical work Kashruth: A Comprehensive Background and Reference Guide to the Principles of Kashruth. Published in 1988, the book served as an authoritative guide to kashrus—the first work of its kind. His detailed knowledge of the status of an infinite number of ingredients was just one aspect of his mastery of kashrus. He was learned in many other areas and used to send me his handwritten divrei Torah on the parashah, which were ultimately collected into the three volumes of his sefer Ikvei Binyamin. His divrei Torah were always full of insight, and I enjoyed reading them very much. In addition to his brilliant mind, he also had a poetic soul; in fact, along with writing sefarim, he would compose poetry.

Reb Yacov was a pioneer in many ways. He was the only boy from his Massachusetts hometown of Fall River, where his father served as rav for decades, to study in a yeshivah at the time, and one of the few from the yeshivah to continue his studies in kollel following marriage. He remained in klei kodesh work, delivering a shiur for high school and semichah students at Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, which was home to a large community of German Jewish refugees.

While in Washington Heights, he developed a close bond with Rabbi Joseph Breuer, who headed the institutions of the German Jewish community. Rabbi Breuer influenced Reb Yacov to undertake serious study of Nach. Once during a conversation, Rabbi Breuer turned to him and said, in his native German, “Uhn vas würde der Novi Yeshayahu dazu sagen—And what would the prophet Yeshayahu say about this?” Reb Yacov took these words to heart. He delved into the poetic words of Yeshayahu’s prophecies and would attempt to analyze situations as he believed the prophets would. His public speeches would invariably center on the eternity and vitality of the Jewish people as they struggled through the exile and inspire people to view themselves as members of an eternal Divine nation, not as mere individuals.

When I came to the OU in 1980, everyone held Reb Yacov in high regard, almost in awe, because of his great integrity, loyalty and expertise. Those who worked with him, people who really knew the kashrus industry, respected him tremendously for his knowledge and his judgment. He also possessed remarkable yiras Shamayim. Rabbi Elefant described to me an episode that occurred after Reb Yacov had left the OU, in which there was some remote concern about the kashrus of matzah under his supervision. Reb Yacov was trembling at the possibility that something had gone wrong, and immediately replaced all the matzah in question.

During the years Reb Yacov served at the OU, he traveled and visited plants much more frequently than I do today because the OU was much smaller at the time and had a limited staff. A 1979 New York Times article described the heads of the “big four” kosher organizations at the time, including Rabbi Lipschutz: “These are not men to cavil at the prospect of more flight time than becomes a Secretary of State, and it takes more than turbulence aloft and intransigence below to discourage them from extending the dominion of kashrut.” On occasion, the New York Times gets it right.

I often quote what Reb Yacov told me in the name of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik. Rav Soloveitchik said to him that when you see an OU on a product, it testifies to the vitality of the American Jewish community. Reb Yacov’s commitment to the community helped make the OU the trusted symbol it is.

Even though Reb Yacov was an austere Litvak, he had a wonderful sense of humor. He always saw the potential in others, and he was tremendously loyal. When the OU absorbed National Kashrus, the hashgachah he had established after leaving the OU, he had one firm condition: all the people and the mashgichim who worked with him must keep their jobs. To me, that was emblematic of his commitment and his loyalty.

The significant contributions he made to the Jewish community through his great talents and refined character, and the distinguished family he left behind, are his legacy.


Rabbi Menachem Genack is CEO of OU Kosher.

This article was featured in the Fall 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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