Rav Zundel grew up in the Machane Yehuda neighborhood in a home steeped in Torah and yiras Shomayim. His mother, Rebbetzin Toba Feiga a”h, displayed truly exceptional ahavas haTorah. Early in her marriage, she informed her illustrious husband, Reb Eliyahu Tzvi, that she wished to write up a contract for the 50-50 partnership between them. She would accept upon herself the yoke of parnassah and in return receive half of the s’char of her husband’s learning.
It must be noted that in her times, it was very uncommon for women to undertake the burden of parnassah, and there were very few jobs available for women. Rav Zundel’s mother would cook at home, and the boys from the nearby Etz Chaim Cheder would come to eat their meals there. In addition, she would make her own cheeses and jams and other homemade goods and sell those items, in this way providing for the family.
Aside from being a tremendous masmid and talmid chochom, Reb Eliyahu Tzvi was also a staunch kanai. He kept a container of black paint in his pocket to be used to cover any immodest signs. He also would make daily rounds at all the neighborhood bakeries to ensure that everyone would be eating kosher bread. In the bakeries owned by Israelis, he would take challah from the dough, and in the Arab-owned bakeries, he would add some wood to the fire in the oven so that the bread would be considered pas Yisroel. Of course, these were activities that he did quietly, on his own, without talking about them to anyone.
On one occasion, Reb Eliyahu Tzvi was caught painting over an immodest sign. He was arrested and imprisoned in the neighborhood prison in the Russian Compound. Reb Eliyahu Tzvi was accustomed to davening vosikin every day, and as the time for vosikin arrived the next morning, he wanted to go to shul. He tried to open the door of his cell and saw that it was unlocked and that there was no guard in sight. He simply walked out of the prison and went straight to shul to daven and learn.
“This is just one of the many miracles my father-in-law and his father experienced,” Rebbetzin Kroizer related. “Another miracle occurred years later when my mother-in-law was ill and she had fallen from her bed in the middle of the night. My father-in-law needed help to lift her up, and even though it was in the middle of the night, he went out to look for someone who could help him. The street was deserted, and suddenly a broadly-built man with a kippah serugah appeared. He came in, lifted up Rebbetzin Malka as though he were an experienced medic, and immediately left. He simply disappeared. A neighbor who later told us that he witnessed the scene said that he was sure that the man was Eliyahu Hanovi.”
From a very young age, Rav Zundel was a tremendous masmid. When he was only nine years old, Rav Zundel’s friends were making their rounds on the night of Purim, visiting and making merry. When his friends came to pick him up, Rav Zundel’s mother was horrified. It was not an option to simply go out to do nothing. “Either you learn or you go to sleep,” said his mother. Rav Zundel readily complied.
Rav Zundel would go to sleep early each evening, immediately after Maariv, and then awaken at midnight. Rav Zundel’s brother, who was also an incredible masmid, had the opposite schedule, learning until the wee hours of the morning. This was very convenient, as they only needed one bed for the two of them. Rav Zundel’s devoted mother would wake up at midnight every night to awaken her son to begin his learning.
Rav Zundel kept to this rigorous schedule all his life. Even at the weddings of his grandchildren, he would leave immediately after Maariv and go to sleep so that he could wake up and begin learning on schedule.
Rav Zundel would spend his days and nights learning without a stop. He learned all his life, never wasting a second. He lived in a small apartment. Rebbetzin Kroizer said, “When I would sit and talk with my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law in the main room, shmoozing and laughing as ladies do, he was totally undisturbed. He wouldn’t hear a thing as he concentrated on his learning.”
Mention must be made of Rav Zundel’s devoted wife, Rebbetzin Malka, who allowed him to spend his every available minute immersed in his Torah learning. His wife’s nature was not to retire early in the evening, as her husband did. She would spend her quiet evenings doing embroidery and other projects, and she made sure that the house was quiet while he slept.
Rebbetzin Malka would tell her sons as she sent them off to learn, “If you learn, you’ll get s’char, and if you don’t, you’ll be liable, but even in the event that you were to not learn, I will still get s’char in Olam Haba for sending you off to the bais medrash.” Her daughter-in-law remarked to us, “It’s the same for wives of bnei Torah. We receive s’char for every minute we allow them to learn – whether or not they learn every minute.
“Someone once asked my mother-in-law if it was not difficult to be married to such a masmid and illui. Her reply was, ‘Zeh kasheh, aval shaveh – It’s not easy, but it’s well worth it.’”
When their fifth son was born, Rav Zundel wanted to buy his wife a present in case she was despondent about the fact that she did not have any daughters. He bought a gold pin with her name, Malka, and devised a creative way to present it: He gave her a bag of pitzuchim (nuts or seeds for noshing) and buried the pin inside the snack.
Rebbetzin Kroizer notes that Rav Zundel passed away at the age of ninety, yet he seemed very healthy and youthful until almost the end of his life. She points out that it was his Torah learning that kept him this way: “He slept about three hours a night, and ate mainly bread and water. His Torah kept him strong.”
GREATNESS IN GRATITUDE
Rav Zundel’s hakoras hatov was exemplary. Rebbetzin Kroizer related, “He never wanted us to have to do anything for him, and we would have to really think to figure out what he needed and what we could do for him. And if we did anything for him, what a brachah we would receive! We all wanted to do for him, so that we would merit a brachah.”
He would always give the leftover cholent to the cats.
“He once explained to my daughter that this was to show his gratitude to the cat that once saved his life,” Rebbetzin Kroizer explained. “He was once sitting and learning in his ground-floor apartment, and suddenly he saw a deadly snake coming toward him. He cried out, ‘Hashem, please save me!’ and a cat suddenly jumped through the open window and killed the snake.” From that day onward, Rav Zundel would share his leftover cholent with the cats each week.
Rav Zundel once suffered a minor stroke, from which he miraculously made a rapid recovery, at which point he sat and learned Maseches Bava Metzia. He proceeded to complete the masechta within two days (!) as a way of showing thanks to Hashem for sparing him.
“My father-in-law and mother-in-law showed us countless times that we should always give in to another person in all circumstances. He once bought my mother-in-law a steam iron as a gift, which really was a special gift in those days. As was the case with many things in their house, a neighbor came to borrow the iron. My mother-in-law asked my father-in-law if she should lend out the iron. He replied, ‘For what other purpose do we have it?’ Somehow, while she was using it, the neighbor broke the iron. She returned it to my mother-in-law, who did not say a word. That was the end of the iron, and that was that. It was not an issue.
“My mother-in-law had a gemach for dishes that people borrowed for simchos. It happened on occasion that the dishes would be returned dirty, and my mother-in-law would accept them back that way and wash all of them without a word.
“My father-in-law once wanted to invest in a certain enterprise and asked an acquaintance if he wanted to share the cost, as he felt they both would benefit from it. The man said that he was not interested, but later he made use of my father-in-law’s investment, on which he had spent a significant amount of money. My father-in-law never said a word about it.”
Rav Zundel had a money-changing business that he ran from his home. In fact, when this writer hosted a visitor from America a few years ago, he told my husband that he wanted to get a brachah from Rav Zundel Kroizer. My husband said that Rav Zundel did not like people asking him for brachos, but since he changed money, if a person came for business, he could then try to ask for a brachah while he was there. When my husband and our guest came to Rav Zundel, he asked my husband where we lived. When he told him, Rav Zundel asked, “I don’t understand. There are no money-changers between Rechov Chanah and here?” He proceeded to graciously bestow a brachah on the visitor nonetheless.
Rav Zundel serviced anyone who came to his door, whether or not he knew him. Unfortunately, twice he was robbed in the middle of the night, and when the police came, Rav Zundel refused to give them any information. He knew who the thief was and he did not want to incriminate him. It was due to these robberies that Rav Zundel was forced to close down his business and ultimately move in to live with his son.
“My in-laws did not talk about these losses. We learned so much just from watching them act. And this is the very best way to teach any middah to children – by example,” said Rebbetzin Kroizer.
HIS SHINING COUNTENANCE
Rav Zundel was remarkable in his hea’aras ponim. He would greet and treat others with utmost respect. Even his young grandchildren and great-grandchildren felt his warmth and happiness as he greeted them. Rav Zundel would stand up as each person walked into the room, demonstrating his deep respect for each individual. Rav Zundel also had an endearing name for each grandchild, calling them titles such as “Moreinu.” “When I would come visit, I was always called ‘Rebbetzin.’ I always felt embarrassed by this title!” said Rebbetzin Kroizer.
When he would test young boys on their Torah learning, he would ask the questions in a way that helped them give the correct answer, leaving the child with the pride of knowing what to respond.
Every Friday, Rav Zundel would visit a couple in the neighborhood who had shalom bayis challenges. He would sit and talk to the wife for about a half-hour in order to build up her respect of her husband. And to ensure that the woman would not catch on to what he was doing, Rav Zundel would visit this woman’s sister each week as well.
There was a mentally unstable woman who lived in the neighborhood. Every morning she would call Rav Zundel and say, “I’m not feeling well. What should I do?” Rav Zundel would reply, “Drink a coffee.”
“And if I drink a coffee, I will feel better?”
“Definitely,” he would reply.
This daily phone call went on for years.
Rav Zundel never let the family know when he was in pain, and he did not let his own discomfort affect his dealings with others.
He once fell, and his son wished to take him to the doctor to x-ray his shoulder, despite the fact that Rav Zundel was not complaining of any pain. Upon arriving at the office, the doctor was insistent that the shoulder could not possibly be broken, as such an injury is incredibly painful and Rav Zundel did not seem to be in pain. When the x-ray indeed showed a break, the doctor was astonished that Rav Zundel could mask the pain so well. Yet, when hearing or seeing another person’s pain, Rav Zundel would truly suffer, sometimes even fainting from emotion.
There are tears in Rebbetzin Kroizer’s eyes as she speaks of her revered father-in-law. “He gave mussar with just a twitch of his eye, or just one word, and we knew what he wanted of us. How will we continue without him? To whom will we turn when we need advice?”
Indeed, Rav Zundel’s petirah is a tremendous loss for all of Klal Yisroel.