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28 Ellul 5767 - September 11, 2007 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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A Biographical Sketch of HaRav Avrohom Yaakov Zeidel Epsteinzt"l

By S. Bruchi

The Mashgiach was born on Erev Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5668 (1908) in the town of Skydl, located in Lithuania near Grodno, to HaRav Yitzchok Aryeh, a talmid chochom and merchant, and his mother Chasha Yehudis. Before he was born his parents had lost eight children during childbirth and in infancy. Only one girl survived and when his mother traveled to the city of Oshmina to the renowned tzaddik, HaRav Mordechai Weitzel, known as Rebbe Mordechai Slonimer, he blessed her that the child would survive and merit long life, but set certain conditions. One was that until the age of three she dress the child in white linen that resembled tachrichin (burial shrouds) and that until he was married that the appellation "Zeidel" be appended to his name.

HaRav Nochum Abba Grossbard zt"l would recall hearing Rav Epstein's mother say that although she had yearned for a son, in her prayers she said she wanted a son only if he became a talmid chochom who was loyal to Hashem and His Torah.

During his childhood, due to the pogroms Zeidel's parents fled the town with their family, miraculously escaping death on several occasions. Eventually they arrived in Grodno, an outlying town where numerous refugees from the surrounding area had gathered. When word spread that a yeshiva was being set up in the town, though he was only eight years old Zeidel joined the group of bochurim which later became Yeshivas Shaar HaTorah of Grodno.

At first the roshei yeshiva were HaRav Alter Shmuelevitz zt"l (the father of HaRav Chaim) and HaRav Yosef Leib Nendik Hy"d (later the mashgiach of Kletzk). A year later HaRav Shimon Shkop was asked to serve as rosh yeshiva, but one year later World War I broke out and most of the yeshiva members fled, scattering in all directions. Zeidel, then 12, was one of a small group of Grodno residents who remained.

He also became one of a select few who had the merit of learning bechavrusa with HaRav Shimon Shkop. Later he would often recall that those chosen were astonished to merit such an opportunity, for R' Shimon's reputation as a gaon extended to the ends of the earth and here he was sitting and teaching a couple of twelve-year-olds with tremendous patience and astounding explanation.

During this period his father traveled far away on business and, due to the war, was unable to return. He had to flee to Germany and later sailed to the US, where Zeidel's mother managed to join him a few years later. Of course his mother very much wanted Zeidel to come with her and continue his studies in the US, particularly since he was their only son and had been born following numerous hardships, but Zeidel would not hear of leaving the holy yeshiva, especially since he was aware that at the time the US was no place for a ben Torah. In fact when someone moved to the US it was common to sit Shiva for him.

After his parents had been living in the US for a few years, his mother traveled to Lithuania, pleading with Zeidel to come with her to the US. But with the backing of his rabbonim he stood firm. When she kept pressing him, one night he ran off to Yeshivas Mir, leaving an emotionally-charged letter on the table in his grandmother's home saying that he couldn't bear her pleas, but that he was certain going to America would be spiritually disastrous therefore he had to go away. Eventually his mother went to Yeshivas Mir and, following a long talk with the Mashgiach, HaRav Yeruchom Levovitz and a promise she would see nachas, she agreed to let him stay at the yeshiva. His conviction made the local papers and was a great kiddush Hashem at a time when most European Jews dreamed of moving to the US.

At the yeshiva he became renowned as a great shakdan. Throughout the years his main two chavrusas were HaRav Yisroel Zeev Gustman zt"l and ylct"a HaRav Yitzchok Koppelman, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Lucerne.

On Fridays he would spend all day learning Ketzos Hachoshen with HaRav Koppelman. They would prepare for Shabbos in advance so they could study without distraction.

One winter, while the yeshiva was learning Yevomos, because he had already learned the masechta a number of times, besides his morning chavrusa with HaRav Gustman he arranged an afternoon chavrusa with one of the leading bochurim. The two drew up a written agreement stipulating that they would learn six blat a day be'iyun. One Shabbos night, as they were plowing through difficult material, the last of the paraffin stoves flickered out before they had met their quota. They tried learning in the moonlight in the biting cold of a Polish winter night, but soon realized that they couldn't continue that way. Eventually they decided to knock on the door of a well-known talmid chochom where the lights burned all night, and he ushered them in gladly.

HaRav Epstein was spared the horrors of the war through amazing miracles. When the Mashgiach's wife, Rebbetzin Frida Harcaby Hy"d began to sense the war coming, she urged him to travel to his parents in the US, but he refused to go and HaRav Shimon and HaRav Yeruchom agreed with him. Nonetheless the Rebbetzin kept applying pressure on the Rosh Yeshiva and the Mashgiach until they agreed to instruct him to go. The journey was already impossible by that time (late Av 5699, early August 1939) for groups were no longer traveling from Poland to Western Europe, but through a miraculous chain of events he secured passage on a cargo ship carrying only cattle, docking in the US at the beginning of Elul 5699 on the very day that the war broke out in Poland.

Soon afterwards, when a select group of talmidim went to speak with HaRav Shkop about how to face the situation — whether to stay or flee — he began by noting how HaRav Zeidel had managed to escape at the last moment, saying, "Der tzaddik hat gehalten di milchomoh tzvei vochen" ("This tzaddik delayed the war by two weeks [until he left].")

In the US he was hired as a ram at yeshivas Torah Vodaas and was asked by HaRav Shlomo Heiman to serve in the rabbinate of Elizabeth, New Jersey. That same winter a proposal was made for him to marry Rebbetzin Lesha o"h, the daughter of HaRav Yehoshua Shlomo Landi, a descendent of the Vilna Gaon.

A few years later HaRav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas, decided to send HaRav Epstein and another ram from Yeshivas Torah Vodaas to strengthen Yeshivas Mesivta Rabbenu Yaakov Yosef (RJJ), which was the oldest yeshiva in the country. The students there were not continuing their studies in yeshivos gedolos. HaRav Epstein succeeded in shifting the tone of the yeshiva, which went on to produce many of the US gedolei Torah and roshei yeshivos. When HaRav Aharon Kotler zt"l opened Yeshivas Lakewood he brought the core students from HaRav Epstein's shiur.

He served as one of the roshei yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbenu Yaakov Yosef for nearly 40 years and played an important role in setting up girls' schools by assisting Rebbetzin Vichne Kaplan and Rebbetzin Chavoh Pinkus when they set up Bais Yaakov in Williamsburg.

Over the years he received numerous offers to serve as ram or mashgiach at various yeshivas, but he always refused, feeling that his place was at RJJ. Even the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ponovezh, HaRav Yosef Shlomo Kehaneman zt"l, tried to bring him to Eretz Yisroel. One year HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein sent him a letter urging him to come to Eretz Yisroel and eventually he did arrive for the first time, but after consulting with HaRav Chatzkel and two other gedolei hador they decided he should remain in the US.

Only when the yeshiva closed temporarily in 5737 (1977) did he decide to move to Eretz Yisroel. When HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Ruderman, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Israel of Baltimore, heard the news he sent a shaliach to ask HaRav Epstein to serve at his yeshiva. He declined, determined to move to Eretz Yisroel and planning to become an avreich in one of the botei medrash of Yerushalayim.

Upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel several yeshivas asked him to join them, but he refused. Only when HaRav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg asked him to learn at Yeshivas Torah Ohr and give regular talks did he acquiesce. He spent the next 25 years giving talks at the yeshiva and at other yeshivas as well, especially Beis Medrash Govoha leTorah, a kollel in Romema headed by HaRav Chaim Zelig Cantor.

Ever since joining Yeshivas Torah Ohr he would attend the sedorim just like all the other avreichim, sometimes even coming for Seder Shlishi. It was a sight to behold to see him preparing for the Rosh Yeshiva's shiur along with the rest of the talmidim and participating in reviews of the shiur with the leading avreichim, sometimes ardently debating what HaRav Scheinberg's exact intention was, though HaRav Epstein was several years older.

Several of HaRav Epstein's books were published in recent years, starting with two volumes of Maamorei Shlomo, based on the teachings of his rov, HaRav S. Harcaby, Hy"d, the mashgiach of Yeshivas Grodno. Later He'oros was published, a five-volume compilation of his talks on the Torah, along with Afikei Ayal, his chidushim on the Shas, which contains numerous exchanges he had with his rov.


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