When the terrible besurah began to spread on Sunday afternoon, his talmidim were in shock. His most recent talmidim, young teenagers, were in various camps in upstate New York, including at our own yeshiva’s Camp Oraysah in Sullivan County. Older talmidim were scattered in various locales. Wherever they were, the reaction was the same. They began to shed copious tears, in a stream of pain that continued unabated as they traveled back to our yeshiva in Far Rockaway for the New York portion of the levayah, as they awaited the arrival of the aron, throughout the hespeidim and long after the procession left for Kennedy Airport.
I have unfortunately been to many a levayah of a talmid chochom, but I do not recall seeing such an outpouring of genuine, raw grief from young talmidim. To what can this be attributed?
The truth is that Rav Zalmon was an ish haeshkolos, a multifaceted gadol baTorah who kept much of his greatness hidden. It is the relationship with his talmidim, the work he accomplished with his young charges, that is most apparent to us as we reflect on the too-short life of this adam gadol.
Rav Zalmon was born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was American, but his values and essence were European. His parents imbued him with old-fashioned values of fierce loyalty to Torah and halachah. His father, Rav Avrohom Aaron Malinowitz zt”l, was a talmid of Rav Aharon Kotler in Kletzk who bequeathed to his children a deep sense of kavod haTorah. The talmidim Rav Zalmon later taught were seemingly light years away from Europe, but he bridged the gap from the Old World to the New, transmitting not only mehalchim in sugyos but a palpable sense of ahavas haTorah to his talmidim.
Many of these talmidim were from affluent neighborhoods, but thanks in large part to Rav Zalmon’s work, they emerged from yeshiva as bnei Torah, as lamdonim, as ruchniyus-focused people rather than gashmiyus-focused individuals.
HOW DID HE DO IT?
Rav Zalmon was a member of a distinguished chaburah of illustrious and devoted maggidei shiur, but the shiurim he delivered took place in the afternoon rather than the morning, and they were for a select group of mesivta bochurim who had sufficiently advanced in their general studies syllabus to allow for a few periods of advanced Gemara learning.
When Rav Zalmon dissected a sugya, he was aflame. It was kenesinosson miSinai. He worked tirelessly with his bochurim to bring them to the next level of learning, to enable them to see the Gemara and meforshim with a sharper, more mature perspective, and to polish their skills as lamdonim. The clarity of his approach was remarkable. He did not let the bochurim jump to peruse the explanations of the Acharonim. He wanted them to learn how to understand each Gemara, Rashi, Tosafos and Rishon in a straightforward, glatte way, and to ultimately arrive at the underlying p’shat in each sugya.
Four times a year, he would give a written test. The chazarah for each lasted weeks. The bochurim could be seen staying up until all hours of the night, “horeving” and reviewing, making sure that they had truly absorbed their rebbi’s approach. When he marked their tests, Rav Zalmon did so “on a curve,” taking into account each bochur’s unique kochos and circumstances. He would often telephone a parent to effusively share the nachas of a stellar test result.
In his shiur, the bochurim got a true taste of the sublime sweetness of Torah, as they dug beneath the surface of each sugya together and absorbed his infectious enthusiasm for finding the emes. He pushed them to reach beyond their comfort zones, toiling and thinking and analyzing and reviewing until they attained the true p’shat. He did not let them rest on their laurels, because he cared too deeply about them.
Before he left the room where he prepared his shiurim, he would turn to his colleague, Rav Leibish Langer, and ask him for a brachah to be successful in delivering the shiur. Such was his concern for his talmidim that he did not rely on his razor-sharp mind or on his hours of intense preparation. He sought as much siyata diShmaya as he could possibly muster in this most sacred of tasks that was before him.
But there was something transcendent about Rav Zalmon that truly forged his bond with his talmidim. It was the demus, the live picture of ahavas haTorah that he embodied.
Like his parents, he was a medakdeik bemitzvos. But his was not a cold, anxious adherence to halachah. He lived every mitzvah with joy. He davened kevosikin nearly every morning of his life and was the founder and leader of Bais Medrash Govoah’s vosikin minyan. He slept little every night and spent nearly every waking moment learning and teaching. When it came to Shabbos and Yomim Tovim, his entire being was invested in the preparations beforehand and in the actual days. Talmidim were zocheh to see this and grow from this. They would spend an annual Shabbos with him in Lakewood, and the atmosphere at his table was so elevated, so infused with zemiros and divrei Torah and the joy of being an eved Hashem, that they saw what Shabbos is really about. That it’s not just about a bowl of cholent. It’s about ruchniyus, about a Yiddishkeit that is geshmak.
When they joined his seudah on Purim, they saw that it was not a day for frivolity, but a day for true joy, for growth in ruchniyus. The adage of Yom K’Purim unfolded in living color. On Sukkos, he barely left his sukkah, learning and rejoicing in the shelter of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. Before Pesach, he would line the kitchen cabinets himself, sparing no personal exertion in his love for mitzvos.
The ultimate test of his ahavah for his Torah and for his talmidim was perhaps his endurance of the dreaded machlah several years ago. Boruch Hashem, he ultimately recovered, but while he was suffering and undergoing treatments, he insisted on scheduling all of his appointments around his shiur. He never missed a shiur during that entire period.
This past Sunday night, I was at a chasunah where a number of alumni heard the news for the first time. One bochur, Bezalel Leben, who is a chosson, showed me a copy of a letter he wrote to Rav Zalmon when he left his shiur. This bochur has kept this paper folded up in his wallet ever since. In it, he thanks his rebbi for “changing my life.” He shared how he had never been to Lakewood for Shabbos before spending it at his rebbi’s house and how over that Shabbos he experienced the gevaldige enjoyment of seeing people who are living ruchniyus. Think about it for a moment: Bezalel has kept that letter in his wallet since mesivta graduation, through bais medrash, to Yeshivas Brisk in Yerushalayim, and back to America as he embarks on married life. Such was the unbreakable kesher that existed between Rav Zalmon and his beloved talmidim.
One alumnus relates that when he was a high school bochur, he was having a hard time dealing with the fact that his best friend was about to leave yeshiva to learn out of town. He discussed his struggle with Rav Malinowitz, who validated his feelings, confiding in him that he, too, had a difficult time when his older brother, Rav Chaim, with whom he was very close, made the move from America to Eretz Yisroel. “I cannot forget his empathy,” the alumnus relates. “His was ‘rosho magia haShomaymah’ – his preoccupation was in Torah, in lofty matters – but he was a ‘sulam mutzav artzah,’ ready to lower himself to meet a talmid’s needs, whatever they were.”
During the summer months, he was technically on vacation, but relaxation was far from his mind. He took the opportunity of a change in routine to tackle masechtos that he could not adequately focus on year round and to share his talents by editing seforim being prepared for publication.
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Rav Zalmon’s impact went beyond his talmidim. It was recognized by all who came into contact with him and were zocheh to a brush with true gadlus.
ONE GRANDFATHER OF TALMIDIM, WHO WAS PRESENT AT THE HESPEIDIM, WROTE:
…I am reeling from the display of love from his talmidim. That my grandsons would be hysterical over the petirah of a rebbi is a huge compliment to the man. I cannot think of a single teacher in all my years over whose loss I would be emotional… I think of a devar Torah that Rav Aharon Soloveitchik zt”l told regarding the distinction between a rebbi and a teacher. A rebbi invests his soul and heart into a talmid, while a teacher most often is a visiting lecturer…
MR. RONALD LOWINGER, THE PRESIDENT OF OUR YESHIVA, WROTE:
Rabbi Malinowitz was a quiet jewel who we were honored to have in Mesivta Chaim Shlomo for 15 years. The ma’amad [of the levaya], of bochurim crying their eyes out, is, I think, unparalleled in the yeshiva world… I think the most poignant thing I can say is something that a young [alumnus] who I respect very much told me yesterday. He said that he was not in Rav Malinowitz’s shiur, but that every night, when he would come to the bais medrash, [the rebbi] would come over and say hello. That was Rabbi Malinowitz.
A PARENT OF TALMIDIM SHARED:
A Camp Munk hanhalah member told me that when the boys in Camp Munk heard the news, they immediately gathered in the gazebo, sat on the floor, and cried their hearts out for two hours. These boys are talmidim who loved their rebbi with all their hearts. They are still kids, 16-, 17- and 18-year olds… What love for a rebbi. What kavod haTorah.
This was no ordinary rebbi. He was a rebbi who taught his talmidim how to learn and how to love learning. His bechinos were legendary. The endless hours that the bochurim put into chazarah before a bechinah was simply incredible. They put that time in because he cared for each and every one of them and they, in turn, loved his Torah and loved him.
As I told my older boys, they were zocheh to have a special bond with a gadol baTorah, and a bond formed through Torah is everlasting and can never be taken away. I feel sad for my younger boys and for all the younger boys who will never have that opportunity…
We must find a way to perpetuate his legacy and keep his Torah alive.
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Rav Malinowitz took American boys, mostly from regular baalebatishe homes, and infused in them the spirit of becoming bnei Torah, of striving for the heights of gadlus and settling for nothing less. The testaments to his success are the bochurim and kollel yungeleit, the husbands and fathers who have been forever changed because they were privileged to be his talmidim, and the alumni who took upon themselves to finish Shas Bavli in time for the shloshim, because they cannot help but give back to their rebbi they owe so much – and their gift is the only one he would appreciate: Torah itself.
The very walls of the yeshiva are saturated with his Torah, molded by his steady, clear voice that resonated with amkus, with mesikus, and an unending song of ahavah for Torah and for his talmidim.
Our yeshiva is zocheh to so many choshuveh rabbeim, but Rav Zalmon was unique. He was looked up to by his illustrious colleagues, and to a large degree he was the misacheid, a unifying force, in a close-knit group of marbitzei Torah whose burning desire is to raise talmidim who will love learning and will aspire for greatness.
He was the anchor of the yeshiva.
Mi yitein lanu temuraso?
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I would like to thank Rabbis Moshe Bender and Moshe Benoliel for their assistance in the preparation of this article.