Wednesday, Aug 4, 2021

“Maran Posek Hador” – Firsthand Stories About Rab Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztl

Twenty years have passed since the petirah of “Maran posek hador,” an appellation that would cause Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l himself to shudder every time he heard or read it. On the 20th of Adar Rishon, 5755, over 300,000 Jews from all walks of life joined his massive funeral procession. By now, it seems that everything possible has already been written and said about him. What more can we add? There are amazing stories about his profound humility, his extraordinary precision in mitzvah observance, his great care to preserve the dignity of others, and his astounding knowledge of every facet of the Torah.

But even after 20 years have gone by, we are still learning more about him.

I myself was fortunate enough to glean some relatively obscure details about his life from his younger sister, Rebbetzin Sorah Pereg a”h. The rebbetzin was called “Sorale” by her family, and when I visited her at her home in Givat Shaul, even though she was already close to 90 years old, I used to call her “Sorale Auerbach,” to which she would respond with hearty laughter. I enjoyed taking her back 70 years into the past, to the small house in Shaarei Chessed where she grew up, and listening to her talk about her father, the mekubal, Rav Chaim Yehuda Leib Auerbach, and her older brother, Rav Shlomo Zalman. She would vividly describe the poverty that prevailed in their home (“We used to divide a single egg into four portions”), the incredible hasmadah her brother displayed, and his amazing conduct even as a young man. “He would come home for lunch,” she related, “and if he saw that there was no food, he would simply turn around and return to the bais medrash.”

Seforim were Rav Shlomo Zalman’s greatest love, and in Yerushalayim of old, they were a rare commodity indeed. The rebbetzin described how her brother acquired seforim and how he lost some of them. Above all, she used to talk about his noble and refined character.

I once asked her how Rav Shlomo Zalman davened for the sick during Shemoneh Esrei. Did he pause during the brachah of Refaeinu to read a list of names? Her answer surprised me: “No. He davened for them during Elokai Netzor, not during Refaeinu.” Her response was relayed to a number of talmidei chachomim, who were asked to decide whether she was correct or mistaken.

Twenty years have gone by, but it is still impossible to forget him. Anyone who saw Rav Shlomo Zalman even once during his life, and certainly anyone who spoke with him, can never forget him. It is impossible to forget his loving eyes, his soft speech, and his open heart. And who can forget his simple home and the aging table in his living room? Who can forget how Rav Shlomo Zalman was always prepared to help everyone, but was never ready to accept help for himself?

When people say that our generation has experienced a decline, they are referring to the loss of unique individuals such as Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

About a year ago, the leaders of our generation in Eretz Yisroel issued a statement titled “The Obligation of the Hour” on the subject of interpersonal relations. “We have seen fit to reiterate the things that everyone knows,” they declared, “that every person should give his fellow the benefit of the doubt … and that we must all train our children and students never to utter disparaging words about others.” Our gedolim themselves are shining examples of what it means to exercise caution in dealing with other people. All of them are saddled with enormous responsibility, and despite that, or perhaps because of it, they never forget the burden of another individual or ignore the suffering of another person.

At the time of this proclamation, someone told me an incredible story, which had not previously come to light, about Rav Shlomo Zalman, who was himself a paragon of humility and caring. A couple once came to Rav Shlomo Zalman to receive a brachah following the birth of their son and to share a disagreement that they were having. They weren’t asking for a din Torah per se; they simply wished to receive the rov’s counsel. The dispute focused on the issue of what the child would be named: The father wanted to name his newborn son Yehonasan, but the mother adamantly refused. “There’s an ayin hara on that name!” she asserted. “Our upstairs neighbors had a son named Yehonasan and he passed away at the age of eight.”

The father dismissed his wife’s concerns. “Do you think that whenever someone passes away at a young age no one else can ever be given the same name?” he demanded.

Rav Shlomo Zalman listened to the couple and congratulated them on the birth of their son. Regarding how to name the child, he thought for a moment, closed his eyes, rested his head on his fist, and finally said, “It isn’t a good idea for you to name your son Yehonasan.”

Rav Shlomo Zalman then bade the couple a warm farewell, declining their invitation to serve as the sandek at the bris and offering a suggestion of someone else who could fill that role. The father left Rav Shlomo Zalman’s home in a state of shock and disappointment. While he had readily accepted the ruling, he also found it puzzling. A short time afterward, the father happened to daven at Yeshiva Kol Torah, and as he was leaving, he encountered Rav Shlomo Zalman emerging from one of the classrooms. The father hurried to accompany the gadol out of the yeshiva, and as they walked, he reminded Rav Shlomo Zalman of their conversation at his home. The gadol remembered the discussion, but uncharacteristically did not smile. Unable to contain himself, the avreich asked, “Does the rov actually believe in ayin hara?”

“Not all that much,” Rav Shlomo Zalman replied, this time smiling his familiar smile.

“Then why did the rov tell us not to name our child Yehonasan?”

Rav Shlomo Zalman placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder and said, “You told me that your upstairs neighbor had a son named Yehonasan, correct?”

“Yes,” the man confirmed.

“And he passed away,” Rav Shlomo Zalman continued.

Once again, the father confirmed this.

“Just imagine what would have happened in a few years,” Rav Shlomo Zalman concluded. “When your son is playing downstairs and your rebbetzin wants him to come home, she will call from the window, ‘Yehonasan, come back upstairs!’ Just think for a moment about how your neighbor would have felt upon hearing those calls.”

What an incredible display of sensitivity from a spiritual giant of our time.

On the topic of ayin hara, Rav Shlomo Zalman was an expert at curing people of foolish perceptions or fears, which he often did in a humorous way. Once, someone came to him and asked if a person who encounters a black cat when leaving his home in the morning should be worried. He explained that there is a non-Jewish superstition that a person who comes across a black cat in the morning, upon beginning his day, should be fearful of what will happen to him over the course of the day. “Is it true that it is a bad omen if one sees a black cat?” he asked.

Rav Shomo Zalman placed his hand on the frightened man’s arm and said, “It is true, but on one condition.”

“What’s that?” the man asked anxiously.

“That you are a mouse!” Rav Shlomo Zalman laughed. The questioner immediately grew calm.

A young avreich once approached Rav Shlomo Zalman and shared a dilemma: He was debating between two potential mohalim for the bris of his newborn son. One mohel was known as a world-class tzaddik, a man who spent hours on his davening, observed every imaginable chumrah, and was known as a decent mohel. The other was considered an excellent mohel, even better than the first, and was also a ben Torah and a yorei Shomayim, but he was known to make jokes while performing his sacred task. Which one was preferable?

Rav Shlomo Zalman smiled his famous smile and said, “You should hire the great tzaddik to check the arbes for your shalom zachor. For the bris itself, you should take the superior mohel, even if he is a bit of a joker.”

Rav Uri Zohar, like many other people, was a great admirer of Rav Shlomo Zalman. He once commented to us that few people understand the feelings of baalei teshuvah as Rav Shlomo Zalman did. Before the wedding of his eldest child, Rav Uri related, he found himself grappling with a shailah he had never known existed: Should he hire a band to play at the wedding?

At the time, Rav Uri was a fresh baal teshuvah. He may have been the most famous baal teshuvah in the entire State of Israel, but he was also in his first years as a religious man, and it was only after all the wedding arrangements had been made that he was told that the minhag in Yerushalayim is to hire only a drummer, not a full band. Rav Uri was at a loss. All of his friends from Tel Aviv were supposed to be in attendance, along with all the friends of his famous mechutan, Arik Einstein. He feared that the lack of a band would lead to a chillul Hashem. His guests would never be able to understand how a person could make a wedding without hiring a band. On the other hand, there was the minhag of Yerushalayim….

Rav Uri’s natural response was to bring the shailah to Rav Shlomo Zalman. He still remembers how he entered Rav Shlomo Zalman’s home, trembling with apprehension. Rav Shlomo Zalman listened to his question and then said, “Keep the band. It will be all right. I’ll take responsibility. No one knows the source for the cheirem, and the wedding is in Bayit Vegan anyway, and it isn’t even clear that it’s considered part of Yerushalayim.”

“Do you understand what happened?” Rav Uri enthuses. “He could have shouted at me, ‘Chas veshalom! There’s an ancient cheirem!’ But he saw that there was a baal teshuvah standing before him, and he said the exact opposite. He knew how to penetrate our hearts. That is what daas Torah means: not just Torah, but daas as well. It is the ability to understand what lies within every person’s heart.”

Rav Uri remembers another occasion when he approached Rav Shlomo Zalman in a highly agitated state. He was nervous about his tefillin, fearful that they weren’t perfectly square. Rav Shlomo Zalman asked to see the tefillin, and after a moment he declared, “They are kosher l’mehadrin!” That was all. He offered no explanations; he simply pronounced them kosher l’mehadrin. And Rav Uri went home happy and calm.

This week, I visited Rabbi Yosef Meir Katzburg, a resident of the Bayit Vegan neighborhood in Yerushalayim, who learned in Yeshiva Kol Torah and still considers himself a talmid of Rav Shlomo Zalman. “I was attached to him until his very last day,” he told me. Rav Shlomo Zalman served as his mesader kiddushin. “He made a special trip to Bnei Brak to officiate at my wedding. And he gave me a special wedding gift: a copy of his sefer, Maadanei Aretz.”

Rabbi Katzburg claimed to have nothing to tell me. All the stories, he insisted, have already been told. But still…

In 1939, Rabbi Katzburg came to Eretz Yisroel from Romania with his parents. “We arrived in Eretz Yisroel a few months before the war. We were a large family, with nine children. My father had been beaten in Europe, but we made it here before the war.”

He entered Yeshivas Kol Torah at the age of 15, following in the footsteps of his older brother.

“My brother learned in Kol Torah while it was still in Beit Saba, if you know what that is. When I joined the yeshiva, it was already in Rechaviah.”

Before settling in its current location in Bayit Vegan, the yeshiva was located in Rechaviah. I had previously been told about that era in the yeshiva’s history by two of its former talmidim: Rav Yitzchok Hacker, son-in-law of Rav Shmuel Rozovsky who serves today as the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Grodna in Beer Yaakov, and the recently deceased Rav Yisroel Bodenheim zt”l, who served as a maggid shiur in Kol Torah’s division for younger talmidim. When I shared this with Rabbi Katzburg, he confirmed, “Yes, I remember them both from the yeshiva. Rav Yitzchok Hacker was in the same shiur as I. So was Rav Refoel Wicksenblum.”

Along with the majority of the talmidim in the yeshiva, Rabbi Katzburg used to hear shiurim from Rav Shlomo Zalman himself. The shiur consisted of talmidim of various ages. He was 15 years old at the time, and some of them were 20. There were only four bochurim who did not attend the shiur. They were the older talmidim who had come to the yeshiva even before Rav Shlomo Zalman himself: Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth, Rav Yisroel Bodenheim, Rav Gavi Lehrer, and Rav Meir Horowitz. They were all over 22 years old.

The atmosphere in the shiur, Rabbi Katzburg recalled, was very pleasant and open. Bochurim used to ask questions in the middle of the shiur, albeit not in the same way that Rav Shach’s shiur in Ponovezh – the yeshiva Rabbi Katzburg attended after leaving Kol Torah – was regularly interrupted. (When Rav Shach spoke, stormy debates would erupt in the middle of his shiur.) “Rav Shlomo Zalman used to read every Rashi during his shiurim. Sometimes it sounded as if he was davening. But he refused to let even a single letter of Rashi go by without being read. Sometimes he would become tired and he would ask a bochur to read in his place.

“Did you ever see Rav Shlomo Zalman get angry?” I asked.

“No. There was one time during the shiur when we saw him holding himself back. We were learning Chullin at the time and someone had asked a very foolish question. We felt that Rav Shlomo Zalman’s reaction was uncharacteristic. But we never saw him get angry.”

The shiur took place in a long hall within the bais medrash itself, whereas other maggidei shiur delivered their shiurim in other rooms. And that reminds Rabbi Katzburg of a story:

“There was an entrance from the bais medrash, and there was also an entrance from the yard, which wasn’t used. One day, we were sitting in our shiur when a distinguished-looking man came in, and we saw that he seemed to be looking for something. I knew who the man was, since we both lived in Tel Aviv. It was Rav Reuven Margulies, a great talmid chochom. He was the first director of the Rambam Library in Tel Aviv, and I lived not far from him. Rav Shlomo Zalman saw him, interrupted his shiur, and stood up to greet him in the middle of the shiur. We were all astounded. Rav Shlomo Zalman went over to him, asked what he was looking for, and went to help him find it. When he came back and continued his shiur, he said, ‘Do you know who Rav Reuven Margulies is? He has already written four seforim.’ He wanted us to understand that there was a good reason he had interrupted his shiur.”

After two years in Ponovezh, Rabbi Katzburg enlisted in the army, again following the example of his older brother, who had also learned in Ponovezh after Kol Torah. In Ponovezh, he had learned with some of the yeshiva’s most illustrious talmidim: Rav Yaakov Edelstein, Rav Gershon Edelstein, and Rav Yissochor Meir. “My father’s philosophy was that we should go to the army.”

Didn’t anyone try to dissuade you?

“Oh, they certainly did, especially Rav Dovid Povarsky. But Rav Chatzkel Levenstein didn’t want to say a word on the subject.”

As for Rav Shlomo Zalman’s own view on the subject, perhaps it can be deduced from the fact that after his army service, Rabbi Katzburg served as a madrich in Yeshivas Kol Torah. The job of a madrich is to wake the bochurim up in the morning for davening and to supervise them during bein hasedarim. “But I don’t think that could happen today,” he is quick to point out. “A bochur who served in the army probably would not be accepted as a madrich in a yeshiva.”

He has a story to share about his time as a madrich.

“The rule in the yeshiva was that if I saw that a bochur hadn’t made his bed, I was supposed to call him out of shiur to take care of it. There were times when a bochur who was called out of shiur to make his bed wasn’t allowed to return to the shiur. I always did my job dutifully, but I never dared to go into Rav Shlomo Zalman’s shiur. This took place years after I had been in the yeshiva, and the bochurim were between the ages of 17 and 20. I simply didn’t have the courage to interrupt his shiur. One day, I was informed that Rav Shlomo Zalman wanted to see me. ‘Listen to me,’ he said. ‘If a boy from my shiur hasn’t made his bed, you must come get him – even from my shiur!’”

Rabbi Katzburg had a very close relationship with Rav Shlomo Zalman. To this day, he feels that connection deep in his soul. A few years before Rav Shlomo Zalman passed away, Rabbi Katzburg once went to speak with him about a certain person who was ill. Rav Shlomo Zalman sat in the room where he received visitors and listened to all the details of the person’s illness, then recommended a specific doctor.

“Suddenly, Rav Shlomo Zalman started to stand up. This took place after his wife had passed away. His son Reb Boruch was in the house, and he asked Reb Boruch to help him find the telephone number of that doctor. ‘Rebbe, I can do that myself,’ I protested, but he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t interfere in my business!’”

An interesting tidbit about that small room: During the shivah for Rav Shlomo Zalman, President Weizmann came to visit the family and asked to see the room where the rov had received visitors. When the room was pointed out to him, he couldn’t believe it. “This is where the man who was consulted by thousands of people sat?” he exclaimed.

Many people benefited personally from his wisdom and counsel on a wide variety of subjects, from child-raising and family life to emotional and psychological issues. The visitors to his home – from prominent rabbonim, educators and mental health professionals to ordinary people who had come to share their concerns and doubts – were all equally astounded by his sage advice and keen insight. Rav Yitzchok Lorentz, the husband of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s granddaughter and son of the legendary Knesset member Rabbi Shlomo Lorentz zt”l, was his grandfather’s close confidant on many of these issues and benefited from extensive shimush as a result.

On the advice of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, Rabbi Lorentz founded the Binas Halev Institute, which provides halachically sound training and guidance for therapists. Recently, in honor of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s twentieth yahrtzeit, Rabbi Lorentz released a sefer titled Chochmas Hanefesh HaYehudis Bedarko Shel Maran Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, which presents many of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s teachings on the subject of emotional and mental health. The sefer was written and edited by the well-known Hebrew author Rabbi Shlomo Kook and has been very well-received in Eretz Yisroel. It is now being translated into English by ArtScroll. The following is a selection of stories from the book:

During Rav Shlomo Zalman’s shiur in Kol Torah, a talmid once raised a difficulty regarding the Rashash’s commentary. Rav Shlomo Zalman spent several minutes struggling to resolve the question, and his distress at his inability to come up with an answer was evident on his face. Another talmid wondered aloud, “Why is the rosh yeshiva so troubled? I heard that the Rashash was wealthy and his family paid to have his commentary included in the Vilna Shas.”

Before we relate how Rav Shlomo Zalman reacted, let us try to envision the dilemma that confronted him at that moment. What would any of us have done in such a situation? Would we have rebuked the talmid for his insolence? But what if he had made the comment in complete innocence? And even if he hadn’t, was it justified to embarrass him in front of his peers? At the same time, how could anyone disregard such a comment? Silence would have been interpreted as tacit agreement, which would have been an affront to the honor of the Rashash. In fact, Rav Shlomo Zalman cleverly used the student’s own words to answer him. “My dear talmid, that story is incorrect,” he said. “But I agree with you in principle. I, too, would have been prepared to pay a fortune for the Rashash’s commentary to be included in the Gemara.”

Here is another story: Rav Shlomo Zalman often said, “Sometimes a person goes through a certain hardship that is designed by Hashem to cause a member of his family to set out on his life’s mission in that area.” As it turns out, Rav Shlomo Zalman was speaking from personal experience. His son, Rav Azriel, told me the following: “In his youth, Abba aspired to be a dayan. He poured all of his energy into learning Noshim and Nezikin. He learned Maseches Bava Kamma 100 times. But today, all of Klal Yisroel relies on his halachic rulings on the laws of Shabbos, especially on issues concerning technology. How did that happen? It began when my grandmother, Rebbetzin Tzivya, became hard of hearing after the birth of her youngest daughter. The doctors told her to purchase a hearing aid, which was a relatively new invention, but then a brand new halachic shailah arose: Was she allowed to use the device on Shabbos? My father was very distressed to learn that she would not be able to hear, and he decided immediately to learn the sugya of using electronic devices on Shabbos. He worked on it day and night, sitting for hours with the Tepliker Rov to discuss the subject, until he finally reached a conclusion. All of this was motivated by the need to find a solution for his mother. As a result of that, Klal Yisroel received a gift, the sefer Meorei Aish, which Abba wrote at a young age. This was a very valuable psychological insight: When Hashem sends a person hardships, he shouldn’t despair. On the contrary, he must use his difficulties as a means of helping not only himself, but others around him as well.”

One final story: A famous rosh yeshiva of the previous generation once came to discuss his troubles with Rav Shlomo Zalman. During their conversation, he remarked, “You are living in Gan Eden, but I am living in gehennom.” After he left, Rav Shlomo Zalman said, “I didn’t answer him, but the truth is that it is really up to him. I am also a rosh yeshiva and deal with many of the same challenges he faces. Why am I not living in gehennom? It isn’t only because my friends are so refined. When I was younger, I adopted a certain approach to my dealings with other people. If someone tries to push me, then before he even has the chance, I take two steps backward. As a result, he won’t have anyone to push.” Rav Shlomo Zalman added, “There is suffering and unpleasantness in everything. A wise person learns how to live with it.”

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