Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

30 Shvat 5772 - February 23, 2012 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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HaRav Shlomo Zalman (R' Zelmale) of Volozhin, zt"l

In honor of his yahrtzeit, 9 Adar

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 words."

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 times."

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, zy"a."

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 Torah.

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."


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