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22 Kislev 5764 - December 17, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








My Rebbe, Reb Isser Zalman: HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz Recalls

HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l, 10th Kislev 5764 -- His Fiftieth Yahrtzeit>

"The rebbe Reb Isser Zalman" is the title of honor and respect by which HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, rosh yeshivas Ponovezh Letze'irim, refers to HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l, rosh yeshivas Kletsk and Eitz Chaim, Yerushalayim, whose yahrtzeit he marks every year by leading the tefillos.

The arrival on the Yated desk of a collection of recollections and anecdotes about Reb Isser Zalman, heard and recorded by HaRav Lefkowitz's talmidim, was the occasion for our paying him a visit to verify some details and to clarify which points should be stressed when writing about HaRav Meltzer. The interview with HaRav Lefkowitz that followed is presented below, as it took place.

His Shiurim and Chiddushim

YN: What should we stress when writing about HaRav Isser Zalman?

HaRav Lefkowitz: When writing about teachers of ours who lived in past generations, the main object to bear in mind is the benefit that readers will have from what they read. One should not simply tell stories.

You should note the approach to learning that he followed when learning with talmidim. At the beginning of a shiur, Reb Isser Zalman would present the gemora's discussion as it was, with some expansion, then Rashi and Tosafos as they were. He would review the sugya in detail, step by step and only then would he open the Rambam. That is how one ought to learn and teach.

YN: Perhaps he only used this method of presentation in his shiurim to the group of talmidim from Chevron Yeshiva. Maybe his shiurim took other forms as well?

HaRav Lefkowitz: When he gave a shiur in Torah's honor at the dedication of Yeshivas Chevron, on the sugya of, `If you remain silent . . .' I saw that his delivery followed the same pattern. When he gave a shiur in Petach Tikva -- after his leg had been injured in shelling and he left Yerushalayim to rest in the home of his son-in- law in Petach Tikva -- in the Lomzhe Yeshiva there, on the sugya of `Chavitzei detamrei' and the talmidei chachomim of Petach Tikva crowded in to gulp his every word -- there too, he spoke as always: gemora- Rashi- Tosafos slowly and clearly and only then the Rambam.

"When one wants to produce chiddushei Torah," Reb Isser Zalman said, "one should not lessen one's involvement with the sugya. One should learn it thoroughly and with unending patience. One should learn it and then go back and learn it again, without paying attention to the passing time. Then, automatically, new ideas will present themselves." He added, "There is certainly Torah toil in such learning."

True Humility

YN: It is well known that he conducted his dealings with others with the utmost simplicity. How did the great, sharp-witted genius from Volozhin speak and live so simply?

HaRav Lefkowitz: The gemora says in Chulin (89), "Hakodosh Boruch Hu said to Yisroel, `I delight in you because even when I bestow greatness upon you, you diminish yourselves before Me. I gave greatness to Avrohom and he said, "and I am dust and ashes" (Bereishis 18:); to Moshe and Aharon and they said, "And what are we?" (Shemos 16:); to Dovid and he said, "I am a worm, not a man" (Tehillim 22). But the gentiles are different . . .' "

These terms are not meant figuratively. When Avrohom Ovinu said, `and I am dust and ashes,' that was [precisely] how [he and] our [other] forefathers, in whom Hashem delighted, lived. This was the level of the great men of every generation. [They had] true humility and usually conducted themselves in a simple and straightforward manner.

(After a moment's thought HaRav Lefkowitz mentions Reb Isser Zalman's own teacher, Rav Chaim Brisker ztvk'l.) Reb Chaim Brisker also conducted himself with utter simplicity. I heard from someone who was a member of Reb Chaim's household that in his conduct as a private individual, it was impossible to distinguish between Reb Chaim and his shammes. [They both behaved] in an utterly simple and straightforward manner. With all his intellectual stature, Reb Chaim went about in an outer garment that was exactly the same as the one worn by his shammes. His kindness and goodness to others were also extraordinary. Abandoned children were left on his doorstep and were brought up in his home, as is well known. There were visitors in his home at all hours of day and night.

YN: And how was Reb Isser Zalman's genius evident?

HaRav Lefkowitz: That was his genius! His tremendous humility and forbearance and his ability to deal with his talmidim on their level!

When a talmid asked him something, he would help him make the question a good one. He would formulate it properly and say, "That's probably what you mean to ask" and together, hand in hand, they would develop the question. When a really good question was asked, his joy in encouraging and adding the finishing touch was genuine and heartfelt.

I remember when one of our group asked a very good question. The rebbe Reb Isser Zalman declared loudly in front of everyone, "What you said was good!" Not only that -- at the end of the shiur when he was accompanying us out, as was his custom, he said again, as though pleased with himself over something good that had fallen to his lot, "Ah, what you said was good! Du host gut gezogt!"

He once said, "When a bochur repeats a piece of Torah to my brother-in-law Reb Moshe Mordechai and he responds to it with the words, `Mir ken dos zogen (It's possible to say that),' I say about the same idea that it has a high degree of excellence."

I heard that some bochurim were once speaking in learning to Reb Moshe Mordechai Epstein when he suddenly leafed through a number of pages and asked them, "And what about the gemora in the sugya there?" Then he turned to another page and asked, "And what about what the gemora says over here?" That was his way of showing them how much there was for them to learn. However, Reb Isser Zalman's approach was different.

Simple and Unpretentious

And it was all with a fascinating simplicity. On one occasion we arrived -- our group of bochurim from Chevron Yeshiva -- for our regular shiur. We heard our rebbe's voice from inside the apartment, speaking. We knocked but there was no response. We knocked again and nobody answered. As we could hear his voice we reasoned that it must be all right to go inside and that our knocking hadn't been heard. We entered.

We saw the Rosh Hayeshiva pacing back and forth from one side of the room to the other, delving into a certain sugya. When he saw us he said, "I am troubled by a very serious question in the gemora in maseches Shekolim." We opened the gemora and saw that on the very topic that the Rosh Hayeshiva was engrossed, he himself had already written a note inside his gemora. When we showed him he said, "So, the Rebbetzin was right. She always asks me whether it can happen that after having written and published something one no longer comes across it. And here we are, meeting up again . . ."

(This story reminds HaRav Lefkowitz of something else.) Before starting the shiur he would go into the room where the seforim were and one could see that he was saying the yehi rotzon prayer prior to learning.

(Another anecdote about Reb Isser Zalman's natural humility,) When the same masechtos, Pesochim and Gittin, were being learned in Chevron and in Eitz Chaim [where Reb Isser Zalman was rosh yeshiva], the shiur for our group of bochurim took place on Shabbos morning. We would come to the rebbe Reb Isser Zalman's house and he would deliver the shiur keloli that he had said in Eitz Chaim. Afterwards, we would accompany him to mincha in the beis haknesses in Botei Broide. Once, after a shiur on the sugya of tziburin on Pesochim (9), he remarked, "There is something that compelled this shiur. When I was appointed rov in Slutsk I had to deliver a Shabbos Hagodol droshoh and this was the shiur I prepared."

(After a pause) Upon entering the beis haknesses in Botei Broide and noticing seforim lying on a shtender he would return them to the bookcase. A number of times I saw how he noticed seforim whose pages were folded inside. He went over and arranged the pages. Everything he did was with the genius of humility and simplicity.

(With particular emotion) It should be noted that he merited special Heavenly assistance in saying the right thing at the right time. With us was a bochur of distinction, whose learning was excellent but who needed a few extra words of encouragement. He was speaking to Reb Isser Zalman about Kodshim when the rebbe suddenly said to him, "Ah! You are speaking like Reb Boruch Ber, in Kodshim!" His tone of voice put life and soul into his words. A great man gets assistance to say what needs to be said.

Among the Geonim of Yerushalayim

YN: The fact that he taught the group from Chevron, of which Your Honor was a member, was also a case of Heavenly assistance -- to help our generation -- by showing how to teach talmidim.

HaRav Lefkowitz: (sidestepping the question) In Yerushalayim in those days, there were geonim of a type that is unknown nowadays. They knew the entire Torah. At the dedication of Chevron Yeshiva a number of geonim whose breadth of knowledge was astounding sat with Reb Isser Zalman and they spoke together in learning. The Yerushalmi Gaon zt'l Hy'd was there (HaRav Yosef Yerusholimski, author of Teruas Melech and Chelko Shel Yosef. A son-in- law of Reb Moshe Mordechai zt'l, he was rov first of Slobodka and then of Wilkomir) who was known as a scholar of might and tremendous breadth and also the gaon HaRav Dovid Jungreis zt'l, who knew all of Shulchan Oruch and its commentaries, down to the individual paragraphs. They sat there talking, displaying dazzling genius. It was a splendid example of Torah's honor. Reb Isser Zalman was a gaon of the same caliber but his shiurim followed a different style.

It was said that on meeting Reb Isser Zalman again in Yerushalayim after many years, even the gaon HaRav Reuven Bengis zt'l, who was one of the foremost scholars of the Volozhin yeshiva, expressed his amazement at the breadth of Reb Isser Zalman's knowledge of Shas and poskim. These men were lions of Torah.

By the way, Reb Isser Zalman arrived in Volozhin when he was a boy: thirteen years old. The rosh yeshiva, the Netziv zt'l asked an older bochur, Zelig Reuven Bengis who was then approximately nineteen years old, to learn with the new talmid. Zelig Reuven replied that his whole day was already filled and part of the night, too, but if the Netziv would approve a small raise in his allowance of a few kopecks for paraffin for his lamp so that he could learn with the new talmid late at night, he would undertake to fulfill the Rosh Yeshiva's request.

The rebbe Reb Isser Zalman indeed regarded HaRav Bengis as his teacher and in Yerushalayim, he tried to refrain from signing any proclamations before Rav Bengis had signed first.

The Torah of Earlier Generations

YN: Was the approach in Volozhin, where Reb Isser Zalman learned in his youth, to cover ground before learning deeply (Ligmar vehodar lisbar -- Shabbos 63a)?

HaRav Lefkowitz: Not exactly. They learned differently from how we learn today. Reb Isser Zalman told us that even those who were not considered the most diligent scholars in the Volozhin yeshiva, reviewed the masechteh that was being learned no less than eight times.

"In Volozhin, the bnei hayeshiva learned a daf of gemora each day and most of the bochurim reviewed that daf twelve times, while I," Reb Isser Zalman told me, "because I am a particularly deep learner, was unable to review each daf more than eight times. To this day, I feel the lack of those four reviews," he said with a sigh. "The learning of my earlier years is incomplete."

YN: So when did they learn in depth?

HaRav Lefkowitz: Their learning to cover ground and their learning to attain a deeper understanding were both different from what we understand by these terms today. They learned the way they did and they developed, as the Rambam says (Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:11): "A person must divide his learning into three, one third Torah Shebikesav, one third Torah Shebe'al Peh and one third he should understand and comprehend the conclusion from the beginning, he should make deductions and compare one thing to another . . . This is called gemora . . . When is this the case? When a person starts learning. But when his wisdom grows great and he needs to learn neither Torah Shebikesav nor . . . he should spend all his time on gemora exclusively, according to the expanse of his heart and his calmness of mind."

It is clear from the Rambam that there are two stages in a person's learning. The first stage, when a person begins learning [which the gemora calls `ligmor, he should learn'] he should divide his time between Torah Shebikesav, Torah Shebe'al Peh and comprehension. According to this, even that which the gemora refers to as the initial "learning," before getting to the second stage [of `lisbar, he should think'] of exclusive contemplation, is far from what we know nowadays as "learning in depth." It includes the understanding and comprehension that the Rambam mentions, namely, understanding on a level that Chazal call understanding -- not what is called understanding according to our paltry level. All this is called "learning" and belongs to the first stage of a person's learning. Only afterwards does a person come to the second stage, when he devotes all his time to gemora according to the breadth of his heart.

We also see here that it is impossible to achieve understanding and comprehension unless one divides his time into three, not like those who start developing intricate ideas and systems as soon as they have finished learning the mishnah, and almost before they've started learning the gemora, Rashi and Tosafos. That is confusion (shibush)!

They learned the correct way, the way one is supposed to learn and their learning included every necessary aspect of the study. They didn't jump straight away to the stage of "understanding and comprehension." Even when we were learning in yeshiva, I remember how Reb Simcha . . . Pines, who was one of the elder students in the yeshiva in my time, said to one of the leading members of our group, "My friend, how can you open the Rambam? We haven't spent enough time studying the gemora yet. You haven't finished the gemora and you're rushing to the Rambam?"

It happened that Reb Isser Zalman once forgot the meaning of a mishnah and he was extremely distressed. This is what happened.

In his youth, Reb Isser Zalman used to eat in the home of the dayan of Volozhin and, after settling in Eretz Yisroel, the two of them met again. The dayan went to listen to one of Reb Isser Zalman's shiurim and asked him a question based on a mishnah that seemed to imply differently from what Reb Isser Zalman was saying. Reb Isser Zalman brings the question in Even Ho'ezel and amply proves his point. Rav Yitzchok Epstein told me that when Reb Isser Zalman was writing the piece he berated himself in the harshest of terms for forgetting a mishnah and he had to be restrained from writing about the mistake in the most scathing terms. Even what does appear in the sefer is quite astonishing.


The following anecdotes about "the rebbe Reb Isser Zalman" were related by HaRav Lefkowitz in the course of shiurim and shmuessen in yeshiva and were recorded by his talmidim.

A Thorough Acquaintance

A bochur once repeated a piece of Torah to Reb Isser Zalman in the name of the Pri Megodim. The Rosh Hayeshiva's response was, "The Pri Megodim does not say that chiddush!" The bochur wanted to go right over to the bookcase to prove he was right, but Reb Isser Zalman stopped him and said, "Before you pick out a sefer, let's first examine whether the Pri Megodim would have written such a idea or not."

He then went on to explain the approach and the learning methodology of the Pri Megodim, demonstrating that the Pri Megodim could not possibly have presented the idea in such a way or in such a form. "Now," said Reb Isser Zalman, "you can look for what you said."

The bochur searched in the writings of the Pri Megodim for the chiddush he had said earlier and naturally, was unable to find it.

"Do you imagine that I'm fluent in everything that the Pri Megodim wrote?" Reb Isser Zalman asked his talmid. "I simply realized that he couldn't possibly say something in such a way."

Reb Isser Zalman then went on to relate a story that involved his own rebbe, Reb Chaim Brisker zt'l. Reb Chaim was on a visit to Lodz, Poland and in the place where he davened shacharis they were searching for a minyan for krias haTorah. Rav Zalman Yankelevitz zt'l was present and he said that, "There is a majority of a minyan of people who haven't yet heard krias haTorah, so we can begin."

Reb Chaim told him, "Rav Avrohom Danziger zt'l author of Chayei Odom, does not resolve the question, `when everybody has heard krias haTorah and there are some who have not, whether the Torah can be read again for them,' or whether there need to be a full ten who have not heard krias haTorah (klal 31:11)."

Rav Yankelevitz replied that the Ran, quoting the Ramban, writes explicitly that it is sufficient if a majority of a minyan have not heard krias haTorah, as with other devorim shebikedushah.

To this, Reb Chaim responded, "There is no Ran that rules as you are saying. It is impossible that the Ran says that."

Rav Yankelevitz opened the Ran (on daf 3 of the Rif on Megilloh) and read (from the piece beginning, Omar Rav): "The Ramban z'l wrote that it is no proof because all the things enumerated (in the mishnah on Megilloh 23) are obligations of a tzibbur and they are not done unless there are ten men, or a majority of ten, who are obligated in the matter for example, who have not heard Kaddish or borchu etc."

"That's not the way to read the Ran," Reb Chaim immediately corrected him. "It should be read like this: `The Ramban z'l wrote that it is no proof because all the things enumerated are obligations of a tzibbur and they are not done unless there are ten men' -- here there should be a comma, then -- `or a majority of ten who are obligated in the matter for example, who have not heard Kaddish or borchu etc.' `A majority of ten' is thus only referring to Kaddish and borchu, not to krias haTorah, which is one of the `obligations of a tzibbur . . . [which is] not done unless there are ten men.'

"Do you think that I'm completely fluent in everything that the Ran wrote?" Reb Chaim continued to his student. "It is, however, clear to me that if Rav Avrohom Danziger, who merited being a poseik, left this question unresolved, it is impossible that the Ran rules this way."

It should however be noted that the Mishnah Berurah in Biur Halochoh, at the beginning of siman 143 mentions the doubt of the Chayei Odom and writes that, "a certain godol showed me that the Ran . . . in Megilloh . . . writes explicitly that a majority [of the ten] who have not read are sufficient . . ." Neither the `certain godol' nor the Biur Halochoh shared Reb Chaim's understanding of the Ran. See a lengthy discussion on this in Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim I, simonim 28, 29 and 30.

HaRav Lefkowitz adds that he was once sitting in the home of HaRav Reuven Katz zt'l the rov of Petach Tikva when Rav Czwiyak, rov of Kfar Ganim who was also present, related that the godol who showed the Ran to the Mishna Berurah was HaRav Moshe Landynsky zt'l who served as rosh yeshiva in the Chofetz Chaim's yeshiva in Radin. Rav Czwiyak was a talmid of Radin.

Keep a Record

The rebbe once spoke to us about the importance of writing down all the questions, comments and ideas that occur while learning during the day. He added, "I myself wrote Even Ho'ezel as a result of the notes which I used to write down every day." As he was speaking, he got up excitedly, went over to the bookcase and took out a large, thick notebook which he displayed saying, "This is my tog buch (diary), where I record everything that occurs to me in the course of my learning. My sefer, Even Ho'ezel was the product of these notes."

He then added, "There was a time when I was not in the best of health and I wasn't delivering my regular shiurim in Yeshivas Eitz Chaim. The absence of those pages of the maseches on which I didn't give shiur in the yeshiva, is noticeable in Even Ho'ezel."

Self Sacrifice

When the rebbe Reb Isser Zalman traveled to the Chofetz Chaim to tell him how difficult it was for him to carry the burden of the rabbonus of Slutsk and to consult him about whether to resign from the post of being rov of such a large city, the Chofetz Chaim's response was, "One should act with self sacrifice on Klal Yisroel's behalf."

Not to Cause Bother for Nothing

Reb Isser Zalman spent a lot of time learning with his talmid Rav Yitzchok Epstein. One night, while they were learning, the Rosh Yeshiva told Reb Yitzchok a chiddush in support of which he cited a certain Tosafos but he couldn't remember where the Tosafos was.

Rebbe and talmid both searched but they were unable to locate the Tosafos. It was already late and Reb Yitzchok returned to his room in Chevron Yeshiva, without their having found what they were looking for.

The next morning before shacharis, Reb Yitzchok was told that Rebbetzin Meltzer was waiting for him next to the beis hamedrash. He hurried over to her and she told him that her husband had sent her to tell him that he had already found the Tosafos he was looking for. He wanted to let you know despite the early hour, she said, because he knew that you would continue searching and he wanted to save you from wasting time unnecessarily.

How Could I Have Repaid a Debt of Gratitude?

When both Yeshivas Chevron and Yeshivas Eitz Chaim were learning maseches Gittin, a group of bochurim from Chevron got together and asked Reb Isser Zalman if he would give them a shiur on Gittin. He agreed and we would go to his house every Shabbos to hear his divrei Torah.

One winter Shabbos, there was a torrential downpour. We left the yeshiva several times to go to his house but we had to return every time because of the driving rain. In the end we were unable to go.

The following Shabbos we told him what had happened and apologized for not having come for the shiur. Upon hearing our apology he immediately said, "Actually, you did a very good thing by not coming in the rain last Shabbos. If you would have come in such heavy rain, how could I have repaid you for it?"

In his tremendous humility, it didn't even occur to him that the shiur that we would have heard from him, had we come, would have been the best possible `payment'.

Not to Bother Someone Else

When he needed a book from the shelf while learning, it was impossible to get there before he did. He would go over to the bookcase with astonishing speed and agility. No talmid ever managed to take a sefer out for him before he took it himself.

Supervise Him, Tend Him and Guard Him

In discussing a certain gifted talmid who was not doing well in his studies, Reb Isser Zalman once remarked, "When a boy is gifted, it seems that ability alone is insufficient. The child must be supervised, tended and guarded."

Willingly and by Compulsion

For four years, between 5700-4, HaRav Lefkowitz would travel each day between Bnei Brak and Petach Tikva. He was learning half the day in Kollel Toras Eretz Yisroel in Petach Tikva and in the other half, delivered a shiur in Yeshivas Tiferes Tzion in Bnei Brak. The travelling was exhausting and it also took a great deal of time away from learning. Sometimes, he had to make his way to Petach Tikva on foot. Even when he traveled by bus, he had to walk to the outskirts of Bnei Brak (to what was then known as a `the black road'), to get to the stop for the bus to Petach Tikva. When Reb Isser Zalman was staying with his daughter and son-in-law Rav Yitzchok Ben Menachem in Petach Tikva, following an injury, HaRav Lefkowitz went in to him and complained about his schedule.

Reb Isser Zalman told him that this was the meaning of our confession on Yom Kippur for "the sin that we have sinned before You out of compulsion and willingly" -- from being compelled to lose time from learning because of one's wish to learn. One should at least feel distress and upset over the time that one is compelled to lose.

No Corrections to the Rambam Nowadays

Reb Isser Zalman once told HaRav Lefkowitz, "When I was working on the notes to the Chiddushei HaRamban, I saw how many mistakes there are in the various copies and editions and I realized that mistakes are not all that infrequent.

"On the other hand, one cannot amend the Rambam's works because they are seforim that have been in general intensive use for many generations. I amended a single halochoh of the Rambam's but my conscience troubles me over it."


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