When he was a mere nine year old boy, a great rov came
to Volozhin, bringing with him his masterpiece on
Shulchan Oruch Yoreh Deah, where he pointed out
the sources to all the laws in Shulchan Oruch and
poskim. The townspeople who knew of the young
boy's genius teased him, "Nu, Zelmale, perhaps you can
also tell us mekoros of the Shulchan Oruch
like the author of this sefer." With a humility
born only of innocence, Reb Zalman told them to ask him
and he'll answer. How amazed was the crowd, including
the godol himself, to hear the young boy giving
correct answers on the spot akin to the ones the
mechaber had worked on for years.
However, Zelmale's clarity and depth of learning was no
miracle. They were simply the direct result of his
consistent and continuous review of all that he learned
hundreds of times over. He was once asked how many
times he had learnt a certain sugya. The answer
was simply "250 times." "But the gemora tells
us," persisted his questioner, "one cannot compare one
who learns 100 times to one who learns 101 times. Can't
we assume from this that 101 times is enough?"
"One hundred and one times is enough to memorize the
sugya, but when one loves the Torah, there is no
shiur to how many times one can review its sweet
Once, when Reb Zelmale was sitting with his rebbe, the
Vilna Gaon, the latter told him a chidush in
sefer Iyov. Reb Zelmale was so delighted with the
chidush that upon going home he immediately began
reviewing it. The next day, the Gra continued to
explain the pesukim, but noticed that Reb
Zelmale's joy of the previous day was not apparent
today. The talmid explained, "You see, I haven't
yet reviewed yesterday's chidush 101 times. How
can I continue further?"
It is told that after Reb Zelmale was niftar, one
of the Gra's great talmidim came to him and
listened to a chidush from the mouth of the Gaon.
As soon as he had finished, the talmid reviewed
the point three times over. With the wound of Zelmale's
passing still so fresh, the Vilna Gaon burst into
bitter tears, "Where is he, R' Zelmale? For such a
chidush he would have immediately reviewed 101
Following Reb Zelmale's demise at the young age of
thirty, a group of talmidei chachomim were
talking to his brother, Reb Chaim Volozhiner,
zt"l, about the greatness of the niftar. As
they were discussing his exceptional personality and
strength in learning, one of them speculated, "Had he
had arichus yomim, he would have probably reached
the madreigoh of the Vilna Gaon."
Upon hearing this, Reb Chaim cried out, "Chas
Vesholom, even if he had lived a thousand years he
could never have reached the level of Rabbeinu the Gra,
Astonished at his vehement outburst, the group of
talmidei chachomim begged Reb Chaim to explain
himself. Wasn't Reb Zelmale erudite in all the Torah?
Why "Chas Vesholom"?
"I know my brother's greatness," answered Reb Chaim.
"And who if not I know that if we were to ask him how
many letters are in a masechta, he would have
answered correctly without a moment's hesitation. But
let me ask you a question.
"We say three times a day the chapter of Ashrei
yoshvei veisecho and everyone knows the chapter by
heart. However, if I ask one of you where it says
umemshaltecho bechol dor vodor, you would stop
for a moment, then quote, "malchusecho . . .
umemshaltecho.' Why would it take that extra second?
I'll answer you right away. It's because although you
are accustomed to saying the chapter by memory, the
words are not in front of your eyes.
"My brother, Reb Zelmale," continued Reb Chaim, "was
erudite in all he had learned like a Jew is well versed
in Ashrei. He knew it from beginning to end,
indeed a wonder. But the Gaon of Vilna had all his
learning in front of his eyes all the time and could
see everything not only from beginning to end but back
to front as well. Between the two yedios HaTorah,
the difference is enormous."
On the day of his petiroh, Reb Zelmale was
reading from the open Tehillim before him in his
usual pleasant voice. When his family asked him not to
strain his waning strength and to stop saying
Tehillim, he replied. "Zos haTorah odom ki
yomus bo'ohel." Even when he is at death's door a
person should not desist from saying divrei
An amazing tale is told of Reb Zelmale's intense
scrutiny of his own middos.
The two great brothers, Reb Chaim and Reb Zelmale, were
once traveling together. Upon reaching an inn where
they planned to stay overnight, they were scorned and
mocked by its proprietor, who refused them entry.
Continuing their travels into the night, Reb Chaim
noticed that his brother was crying bitterly.
Perplexed, he asked his brother the reason for his
tears. "What do you care if the simple innkeeper
insulted us? I didn't pay any attention whatsoever to
his words. Why the bitter tears over the insults of
such a boor as he is?"
"Choliloh," replied Reb Zelmale. "I paid no
attention to his words and am not personally hurt at
all, but seeing that I heard his words and remember
them, makes me realize that I am not completely on the
level of those who are insulted and completely ignore
the abuse. This is the fact that pains me and is the
reason for my tears."