Last week, a sun set in Yerushalayim. There was a final moment of fire, a few days of intense prayer and longing, as Rav Zundel Kroizer zt”l slipped away. It was a final chance to contemplate the fact that he lived in the world as a special heir to the mesorah of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Rav Shmuel Salant and Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin. And then he was gone.
Rav Zundel, with his humble, unassuming simplicity, was illuminating. And now that light, the ohr hachamah, has gone.
Inhabiting a different plane, he walked among us, davened with us, and was as accessible as a regular person. He blended in with the shopkeepers, scribes, scholars and other regulars in the high-ceilinged central shul at Zichron Moshe, yet if you looked closely, you saw that his face glowed. There was an aura of illumination and elevation resting on him, similar to the way people describe tzaddikim from years past.
If you observed him, you saw that he was punctilious in every action. If you spoke to him, you learned that he was conversant in the entire Torah.
If you never met people like Rav Zundel, you could be forgiven for thinking that Yerushalayim Shel Maalah, the place and dimension of storybooks, had ceased to exist. You could be forgiven for not believing that such sublime souls, with piercing intelligence and inner beauty bedecked in simplicity, walked the same streets as you.
We weep for Rav Zundel, but we also cry for his city, a shrinking realm of ancient Yerushalayimthat he epitomized.
Bnei Tzion yagilu bemalkom. There is a simple joy that suffuses the countenance of the Yerushalmi Jew. Identified as bnei Tzion, they are literal sons of the Holy City. Like a son absorbs and carries his father’s chiyus within him, these exceptional people radiate the chein and charm of their city.
And just as the city captured nine measures of the splendor of creation, its inhabitants are equally blessed.
There is a special feeling you get when you speak to them. They are unfazed by much of what is considered important in our world. Their hearts and minds are amazingly free of the clutter that complicates our own. Their core is Torah. Their lives areTorahand revolve around Torah. The emptiness of their pockets is matched by the fullness of their vast hearts. They know that this world is transitory and they are only here temporarily to prepare for the real world. Their day to day lives attest that this vision is constantly before them.
It may sound clichÃ©d, but there is a magic to Jewish life as it’s been lived in Yerushalayim for generations. The settlement established by the students of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov – noble souls who abandoned their worldly possessions and comforts and moved to Eretz Yisroel to increase Torah and holiness in their lives and to hasten the redemption – still thrives. Their descendants, the Yerushalayimer Yidden, reflect their passion for Torah and kedushah. Rav Zundel was the paradigm of such people.
Their chein is hard to define and quantify. The old Yerushalmi Jews are “the real thing.” They are pure. Their lives are not tainted by all the nonsense that contaminates and corrupts us. They are welcoming to everyone and so full of love, not because anyone told them to act that way, but because being good and kind is their essence. Dedicated to Torah, they are naturally good.
These precious Yidden are authentic. Unfailingly humble, they seek neither honor nor glory, concerned only with fulfilling the wishes of Hashem and finding favor in His eyes.
When we mourn Rav Zundel, we mourn an archetype of a community of happy, humble, sweet Yidden. They are a lesson for us. The values that define them are attainable for all of us.
We have all read stories about Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, Rav Shmuel Salant, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, and the others who established the Yishuv Hayoshon in Yerushalayim. The stories of the poverty and deprivation with which they and their followers contended as they pursued a life of Torah are the stuff of legend.
Kollel members in those days survived on the generosity of former townspeople back in the alter heim in Europe, who would send a portion of their meager incomes so that their brethren wouldn’t freeze or starve to death, real and ever-present dangers at the time. Life was difficult.
The Holy City had its tradesmen, craftsmen and laborers who earned a few pounds here and there fixing shoes, tailoring, and delivering water or milk. When they weren’t working, they were plumbing the depths of Torah Shebiksav andTorah Shebaal Peh, niglah andnistar.
These were the people who established the community inside the ancient walls of Yerushalayim and then, as the community grew, built the new neighborhoods of Meah Shearim and Shaarei Chesed. Their descendants are the people we know today as Yerushalayimers, who dress with a distinctive levush and demonstrate old-time ingenuity and practical wisdom built on Torah and years of deprivation, independence and fortitude. They have a different value system that sets them apart from everyone else and enables them to maintain their equilibrium in a turbulent, ever-changing world.
This was the community whose milkman, Reb Betzalel of Shaarei Chesed, was sometimes late delivering the milk. The people of Yerushalayim shrugged and smiled, because they knew that it meant that someone had stopped the milkman mid-route to ask a question in Torah, and the Milchiger, proficient in all of Shas, had been delayed. Milk was important, but to Reb Betzalel, his learning was life itself.
The value system of thekehillah was perfectly aligned with the value system of the Ribbono Shel Olam.
Rav Gershon Sirota of the Perushim community once told me the story of his grandfather, who eked out a living as a carpenter. Building bookcases in a community where most of the people barely had enough income to feed their hungry children wasn’t the best business plan, and when a newly arrived American entered the small shop, it looked like good times were imminent.
The immigrant expressed interest in having a beautiful bookcase designed and built. After taking down the order, the carpenter asked the man who the fancy furniture was for. The man explained that he had just retired to Yerushalayim and desired the type of furniture he was accustomed to back home.
The carpenter refused the order. Although he was desperate for the business, he couldn’t bring himself to complete the task. He explained to the would-be customer, “If a young couple comes to me and asks for a strong, sturdy, beautiful piece of furniture, I look at them and think that this young, happy couple is just starting out, with many years ahead of them. I am happy to build them the stuff of their dreams. But you are already older. You ought to know by now how temporary life is. How can you build yourself the type of furniture you’re describing to me?”
The carpenter was so in touch with what is real and true that he was unable to fulfill the request. Nobody told him how to react. He didn’t run to his rov to ask a shailah. His own spiritual sensitivity led this simple son of Yerushalayimer Perushim, desperate as he was for income, to turn down the opportunity.
No doubt, that Yid appeared as a simple craftsman, with the thick blue work-shirt, coarse fingers flecked with wood stain, and a pencil over his ear, but his inner refinement and sensitivity revealed his true spiritual status.
Those Yidden were steeped in Torah and it permeated every aspect of their lives.
Another such person was Rav Hirsh Kroizer, a descendant of Bais Harav, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, and a talmid of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. Rav Hirsh was a great gaon whose wife supported the family while he learned in Etz Chaim.
A glimpse of the level attained by the chaburah of Rav Hirsh can be gleaned from what Rav Kroizer told a dear friend of mine. He said that talmidim of Rav Yosef Chaim who had no money at all would leave their homes not knowing where they would find the means to buy food. While walking to the makolet, they would invariably find coins on the ground, and they used that money to make their purchases.
This friend remembers Rav Hirsh walking to the neighboring Machaneh Yehuda shuk in the mornings and giving drinking water to chickens that were scheduled to be shechted. He would explain that since they were soon going to be slaughtered, nobody bothered feeding them and they were doubtlessly thirsty. To relieve their suffering, the great and humble gaon would bend down to provide them with water to quench their thirst.
The stories told and retold about the secret tzaddikim and gaonim of Yerushalayim are neither fiction nor hyperbole. They are factual accounts of a time and place where people lived the truth.
Rav Zundel, who was Rav Hirsh Kroizer’s son, was such a person. He wrote and published seforim on all of Shas, Chumash, Nach and Tehillim. He even published a siddur and Haggadah with his own peirush. Yet most people never heard of him.
Rav Chaim Brim, a Yerushalayimer giant who was steeped in Torah and all its secrets, is quoted as saying that if there are two people in whose merit the world currently stands, they are Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Zundel Kroizer.
If so, you will ask, how can it be that a man of such caliber remained unknown in a generation in which giants are so needed and so venerated?
Rav Chaim Kanievsky observed that it was actually a gift from Hashem. Many years ago, he remarked that it must be that Hashem loved Rav Zundel more than he loves Rav Chaim, because He kept Rav Zundel hidden and people didn’t bother him with shailos and tzorchei tzibbur the way they do with Rav Chaim. Rav Zundel’s relative anonymity allowed him to spend his waking hours learning Torah.
He awoke around chatzos every night to learn until daybreak, at which time he davened Shacharis kevosikin. He thus named his seforim “Ohr Hachamah.” Every Shabbos morning, after davening, the bochurim in his presence were treated to the special zechus of being able to ask him any question on any sugyah in Shas and receive his answers.
The learning didn’t always come easy. There was a manuscript of his chiddushim on Maseches Kesubos that he uncharacteristically wouldn’t lend out. Finally, a young talmid chochom who was learned in that masechta pestered him to the point that Rav Zundel loaned it to him. The fellow took it with him to Meah Shearim and lost it. He was shattered and couldn’t conceive of returning to Rav Zundel without the manuscript. Finally, he mustered the courage and told Rav Zundel the truth: The manuscript was gone.
Rav Zundel consoled him over the loss of the “hefteleh.” The fellow walked away remorsefully, assuming that was the end of the story and those chiddushim.
Several months later, a man came to Rav Zundel with his writings and asked if they were his. The man was a collector of antique seforim. As he was sifting through piles of shaimos, a handwritten pamphlet grabbed his eye. He took it home, miraculously saving it from burial. He later showed it to someone, who recognized the handwriting to be Rav Zundel’s. Thus, the precious manuscript was returned to its owner.
Rav Zundel thanked the man and told him that those chiddushim were written with tremendous mesirus nefesh as Yerushalayim was being bombed in 1948. With all the neighbors cramped into the dark bomb shelter, he found it impossible to learn, so he returned home.
“Bombs were exploding. The windows were shattering,” related Rav Zundel, “but I didn’t move from that room. It was under those harrowing conditions that I learned Kesubos and was mechadeish the Torah that is written in that notebook. I knew the fruits of that toil wouldn’t be permanently lost. I knew it would come back.”
Rav Zundel rarely talked about himself, but sometimes the truth escaped and people got a glimpse of his spiritual stature. A story went around Yerushalayim about an incident that took place when Rav Zundel was already older and learned by himself at home. People would come by to check up on him and make sure that all was in order. One day, Rav Yaakov Trietsky arrived at Rav Zundel’s apartment and found him lying in his bed, badly bruised and unable to move. Alarmed, Rav Trietsky asked Rav Zundel what happened. Rav Zundel told him that he had collapsed and fallen on the floor.
“But how did you get up on to the bed?” asked Rav Trietsky.
The response floored him. “Der chavrusah hut mir oifgeheiben un geleikt oif der bet (My chavrusah picked me up and put me on my bed).”
“But you don’t have a chavrusah,” wondered Rav Trietsky.
“That’s all I’m telling you,” said Rav Zundel, ending the conversation abruptly and shifting topics.
Everyone who knew Rav Zundel was certain that Eliyohu Hanovi had picked him up off the floor and put him on his bed. That’s the type of Yid he was.
Until a few years ago, Rav Zundel had been reticent to give brachos and engage in activities that would take him away from his learning. Then he became very ill. His talmidim approached him and told him that when Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach was approximately 75 years old, he became very ill. When he recovered, he reasoned that Hashem kept him alive so that he could help people. Until that time, though well-known to talmidei chachomim, he was not involved in public matters. After he recuperated, he overcame his previous reluctance and became the leader of the Torah community. Rav Shach lived for another 30 years.
People close to Rav Zundel suggested to him that if he would undertake to give brachos to people in need of yeshuos, in that zechus he would recover from his grave illness. When convinced that people would derive chizuk from his brachos and that through them Jews would strengthen their emunah and bitachon, he agreed. In his humility, he said that if it was true that people would really be satisfied with a bracha from someone as unworthy as he, then he would do it. “Oib ich ken mesameiach machen a Yid… There is no greater source of merit than to make a Jew happy.”
A friend described visiting Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz close to twenty years ago, desperate for a bracha for a choleh. Rav Gamliel encouraged the visitor and promised to daven, but the petitioner wasn’t content. He wanted to do more for the patient.
Rav Gamliel, who learned bechavrusah with Rav Zundel, whispered in his ear, “Go to Rav Zundel Kroizer.”
The visitor was unfamiliar with the name. “He doesn’t like doing this, but you care so much about the choleh,” said the respectedmekubal, “so I am giving you good advice. Gei tzu Reb Zundel.”
In time, Rav Gamliel’s advice and that of so many other gedolim, such as Rav Dovid Soloveitchik and Rav Meir Soloveitchik, spread. Rav Zundel’s reputation reached beyond the parameters of Yerushalayim. Many people sought his brachos and received great chizuk from them.
Rav Gedaliah Sheinen recounted that he was a talmid of Rav Zundel when Rav Zundel delivered shiurim at Yeshiva Shaar Hatalmud. During that time, as a young energetic bochur, he assisted Rav Zundel in publishing his peirush on the Haggadah. Some thirty years later, the elderly Rav Zundel arrived at the bar mitzvah celebration of Rav Sheinin’s son. The astounded baal simcha asked him, “Rebbe, why were you matriach yourself to come?”
The humble tzaddik replied that he came for “hakoras hatov.”
“For what?” asked Rav Sheinin.
Rav Zundel reminded him that he had helped him decades earlier with the publication of his Haggadah and he wanted to express his appreciation.
Rav Sheinin told of the time he brought a wealthy American to Rav Zundel for a bracha. The man wished to express his gratitude with a gift of money. Rav Zundel refused to accept it. “Ich tor nisht nemen gelt far mir. Ich bin ah gevir. Ich hob ah dirah. Ich hob vos tzu esen. Ich bin ah gevir.” He told the man that he couldn’t accept anything for himself because he was a wealthy person. “I have a house. I have what to eat. I am wealthy,” he said. He wasn’t saying it to be cute. He meant it. And hearing him say it, you knew it was true.
Several years ago, one of my sons joined a hafgonah called to protest a government blood libel against the residents of Emmanuel. It was a hot summer day and the sun was beating down on the people gathered on a sloping street that faces Rechov Yirmiyohu.
People were fainting from the heat when my son noticed Rav Zundel standing next to him. Water was offered to people standing on the melting asphalt. Rav Zundel refused the drink. He was offered to sit in an air-conditioned car parked alongside the group, but he refused.
“Ober rebbe, es iz azoi heis,” people said to him. “The heat is unbearable. Why not drink some water or sit in comfort? You can participate in the protest from the car as well. And what would be so bad if you took a sip of water to replenish yourself?”
With simple humility and greatness, Rav Zundel responded, “Der ikker iz tzu fillin mit. The main reason for standing here is to show the people who were wronged that we feel their pain. How can I say that if I take a drink or sit in a comfortable, cool car? Ich shtei doh. I am standing right here.”
Simple Yerushalmi goodness. Talmudic greatness and humility personified on a hot street, in a world spinning out of control.
I merited being welcomed into his home, receiving his brachos and purchasing his seforim several times. He beautifully and painstakingly inscribed a siddur for me, and it is a volume I treasure. As he finished writing, he looked up and, with a twinkle in his eye, signed with his initials in English, Z. K., as he often did. As great and holy as he was, he enjoyed the humorous flourish.
There was a beauty to his ways, a perfect harmony in the fusion of steady, intense avodah and complete ordinariness that marks Yerushalmi Jewry. It’s a beauty that calls to mind the words uttered by Rav Elazar regarding Rav Yochanan: “Al hai shufra, for this beauty…I cry” (Brachos 5b).
The Maharsha explains that Rav Elazar wept at the thought of Rav Yochanan’s passing because he was essentially mourning the Bais Hamikdosh. Rav Yochanan was the last of the beautiful people in Yerushalayim, and with his passing, the last vestige of that beauty and splendor would be gone forever…
We mourn the passing of Rav Zundel, a person who embodied the magnificence of the city so beloved to the Creator.
True beauty is based on proportions. Rav Naftoli Tropp once illustrated the greatness of the Chofetz Chaim by explaining the halacha that a kohein who has one arm longer than the other is a baal mum, even though that blemish does not affect his ability to serve.
He explained that in order to achieve perfection, everything must be completely aligned. If something is lopsided, then it is not perfect. Thus, one limb extending further than the other renders a kohein a baal mum.
Rav Naftoli concluded that the Chofetz Chaim was perfectly aligned. His Torah corresponded to his tzidkus, which corresponded to hismiddos, which corresponded to his humility.
Last week, we lost a man who was perfect in that way. He used the language of brilliance and breadth in his voluminous Ohr Hachamah on all sections of Shas. He wrote with clear, easy language in his Ohr Hachamah on Tehillim and siddur. An intimate of gedolim – Rav Elyashiv considered him achover, while the children of the Brisker Rov cherished him – he was a friend to everyone who crossed his threshold.
His peirush on Tehillim concludes: “This last posuk, ‘Kol haneshamah tehalel Koh,’ concludes the sefer that began with an ode of approval for one who avoids wrongdoing. Praised is he who started his journey being careful not to sit with scoffers and wicked ones… He is the one who can conclude with this posuk, ‘Kol haneshamah,’ for the entirety of his soul is one unbroken song…”
The sun of the Ohr Hachamah has set. The song that he sang in this world is now being heard in the World to Come. May his memory and lessons be a blessing to all.