I Can’t Believe it is 25 Years Since Rav Shlomo Zalman Was Niftar

This article is not about the coronavirus. If you specifically want to read about that, please turn the page. Yes, it is larger than life. Yes, it is sucking the air out of everything we do. Yet, I believe that Yated readers want to read about other things as well, so I will tell you about a short email correspondence that I recently had.

It transpired in a correspondence with a distinguished friend/mentor. I was mentioning my memories of the unique neighborhood of Shaarei Chessed in Yerushalayim that I wrote about in last week’s article and about the Yerushalmi Yidden who lived there. I said in the email that the Yerushalmi Yidden who I got to know from Shaarei Chessed had all of the chein of Yerushalayim, but they didn’t possess kannaus that is so often associated with many types of Yerushalmi Yidden in our times. I explained how the great posek hador, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, among all of his other exalted qualities, embodied that nusach of the chein of the Yerushalmi Yid of old that I felt had its source in the approach of Rav Shmuel Salant, the great rov and leader of Yerushalayim for many decades who passed away the same year that Rav Shlomo Zalman was born.

My friend replied to the effect that this unique nusach of Rav Shlomo Zalman and the Yerushalayim Shel Maalah that he represented has been so completely forgotten that today’s readers may not even understand what I am talking about.

He may be right, but that is exactly why I feel almost an obligation to describe the uniqueness of Rav Shlomo Zalman. These thoughts were going through my head when I realized that this week is Rav Shlomo Zalman’s 25th yahrtzeit. It seems like just yesterday that I had the zechus to hold his arm and walk him home from Shacharis in the Gr”a shul in Shaarei Chessed where Yeshivah Maalos HaTorah, led by his son, Rav Shmuel, where I learned, davened Shacharis. It seems like only yesterday that I basked in his attention, his smile, his unique ability to apply halacha to the individual circumstances of any person asking him a shailah.

For most of 1987 through 1990, I merited davening with and seeing Rav Shlomo Zalman every day. I can’t say I even remotely consider myself a talmid. Other than periodically asking him shailos after Shacharis, I didn’t have that much of a personal relationship with him, but I did make sure to watch him every day, and his every interaction was full of lessons – in halacha, in middos and in understanding the unique chein of Yerushalayim. When Chazal say that ten measures of yofi, beauty, came down to the world and Yerushalayim took nine of them, I think about the yofi that was Rav Shlomo Zalman and the Yerushalayim that he represented.

After 25 years, the longing for this unique model of a gaon, posek and tzaddik – who was uniform in everything he did, without any part being uneven, everything in complete sync – becomes even greater.

Esther Hamalka – Claimed by Every Nation

Today, when the middos of aidelkeit and chein that have always characterized our nation are under constant attack through the barrage of hashchosas middos manifest in the main media platforms that have infiltrated our world, we need to understand and emulate the Rav Shlomo Zalman model even more.

With Purim still on our minds, I can think of no better way to describe the way Klal Yisroel felt about Rav Shlomo Zalman than to say that he resembled Esther Hamalka. Chazal tell us that inasmuch as Esther hid her nationality, every nation maintained that she was one of them. Everyone saw that she possessed the specific good qualities of their nation. Similarly, all of Klal Yisroel thought that Rav Shlomo Zalman was one of theirs. The Litvishe felt he was theirs, the Chassidishe felt he was theirs, the National Religious felt he was theirs, and the Sefardim saw him as an Ashkenazi who strongly identified with them.

They weren’t wrong. He did belong to everyone.

The Seeming Contradiction of Humility and Strength

Of course, what stood out most when anyone met him were his middos, his humility, his smile, his deep sense of caring, and the value he attached to each individual. When observing him more closely on a daily basis, however, you also saw that just beneath that wonderful encasement of middos tovos and love for every Yid was a strength of character that one could almost think was contradictory.

He was a person who seemed to have all the time in the world for every person, yet he never wasted a second. He was mekabel each person with such seiver ponim yafos, yet would never forgo even a minute of his regular learning sedorim, zealously ensuring that they wouldn’t be interrupted.

During a significant part of the day, he would hide in a small hovel at the outskirts of Shaarei Chessed, where he would learn either by himself or with a chavrusah. This way, he avoided being disturbed by people constantly knocking on the door of his home. In the event that someone figured out where he was and knocked on the door, he wouldn’t answer. Even when a person would claim it was pikuach nefesh, he would only interrupt if he, with his posek’s ability to cut right to the essence, determined that it indeed was. Otherwise, the person would be sent away.

While he was the most accepting of people, he was also extremely shrewd. I remember two instances that I myself witnessed when people came to him after davening ostensibly to ask shailos. Through his answer, they slyly tried to shlep him into giving his opinion on an existing machlokes based on the psak that he would render. He cut the conversation off in a millisecond and, with a temimus that belied his shrewdness, commented that he is not familiar with that inyan and they should seek out a posek who could pasken on these matters.

We all knew that he was a gadol hador and the entire Shulchan Aruch was open before him. We all knew that he was a profound masmid and that when it came to guidance in halacha, the entire world came to him, but what we saw from the vantage point of bochurim was a consistency and goodness of heart, profound humility and gutzkeit that are hard to convey on paper.

The Primacy of Davening

Every morning, Rav Shlomo Zalman would walk into the bais medrash at the exact same time. He came alone, walking the block and a half to shul from his house without a gabbai or grandchild accompanying him. He was already wearing his tallis and tefillin, which he put on at home, and then he put his Yerushalmi, flat-brimmed, velvet hat on his head.

He would arrive a full twenty minutes before Shacharis, which began at 7 a.m. I was zoche to learn in the bais medrash before Shacharis and saw him coming in every morning. One morning, the usual people were not in the bais medrash at their regular time and I was the only person there when he walked in. Looking at me, Rav Shlomo Zalman smiled and said, “Is there going to be Shacharis here this morning?”

The importance that he had for davening cannot be overstated. He walked to his seat in the front of the bais medrash, took off his hat, put his tallis over his head, and began to daven twenty minutes early. He immediately removed his glasses, placed them on a shelf and began to say korbanos. He did not put his glasses back on till after Shemoneh Esrei. He totally tuned out the world. He davened slowly and clearly. He barely shook when he davened and was the epitome of kavanah. Indeed, his Shemoneh Esrei took very long. I remember always being moved by seeing him in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, a picture of serenity combined with concentration and focus. During Shemoneh Esrei, he would take tens of papers from his pocket and read the names of sick people that had been given to him.

He attached such importance to tefillah. I can never forget witnessing a friend ask him a shailah one day after davening on the topic of coming late to davening. The question was regarding the halacha in Shulchan Aruch that gives guidelines as to which parts of Pesukei Dezimrah one may skip if he comes late. Rav Shlomo Zalman inquired, “You are a bochur, not a yungerman?”

“Yes,” the bochur answered.

“I am sorry,” Rav Shlomo Zalman said. “I cannot answer your question. This halacha of skipping is made for a true oneis, one who has been unavoidably delayed from coming on time to davening. But a bochur? Bochurim are usually not subject to unavoidable circumstances that compel them to pick a minyan already in session and skip. You must come on time to daven. What kind of oneis do you have that you seek to rely on this halacha in Shulchan Aruch?”

With all of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s gutzkeit, he refused to answer the question.

Protesting Chillul Shabbos by Learning Publicly

Another thing that bothered him tremendously was chillul Shabbos. It bothered him to his very core. Who more than Rav Shlomo Zalman rendered so many psokim promoting shemiras Shabbos? Nevertheless, when it was time to protest the chillul Shabbos in nearby Rechavia and gedolim declared that something should be done, I watched how Rav Shlomo Zalman protested. On the border between Shaarei Chessed and the more secular Rechavia, at Rechov Usishkin, he stood learning from a sefer as the cars went by, showing them how a Yid observes Shabbos.

Humility, Gadlus and Normalcy…in One Gadol

His goodness and humility were character traits that anyone could instantly see.

Once, on Erev Yom Kippur, I was accompanying him on the way home from shul when an elderly Yid, a Holocaust survivor, approached to ask for a brocha. Rav Shlomo Zalman gave him a brocha and the clean-shaven man, who appeared to come from a Chassidic background, responded, “It will be a good year, because I am relying on the tefillos of the rebbe (Rav Shlomo Zalman) to intercede on my behalf.” Rav Shlomo Zalman smiled an almost abashed smile and pointed his finger up to Shomayim, indicating that everything is dependent on Hashem.

A remarkable side to Rav Shlomo Zalman was his normalcy. With all of his gadlus, he was the most normal person with the most natural, normal human interactions. I would periodically follow him home after shul. If I had a shailah, I would walk next him asking the shailah. Yerushalayim is famous for its ubiquitous street signs and Rav Shlomo Zalman would stop and read every sign or poster on his way home. When it was a sign with the name of someone he knew had passed away, his face would cloud over in pain and, more often than not, he would say some word of praise about the niftar.

Early on Friday afternoon, you could time his going to the mikvah like a clock. He always went at the same time, together with everyone else, with no airs about him. One Friday, I remember a Yid entering the mikvah and, in front of everyone, asking in Yiddish, “Is the mikvah boiling hot?” Suddenly, I heard Rav Shlomo Zalman’s voice, “Nu, nu, nisht kosheh,” like one of the crowd innocently answering the question.

On another occasion, the first time I came back to Eretz Yisroel with my wife after my marriage, I very much wanted to get a brocha for us and our new marriage from Rav Shlomo Zalman. However, I knew how every second was so precious to him and felt that it wasn’t right to knock on his door just to ask for a brocha. I decided that since I knew his schedule, I would wait a block away from the mikvah on Friday afternoon and ask him for a brocha when he was on the way. That is exactly what I did. I met him and he greeted me so warmly, like an old friend, speaking in Yiddish. When he noticed my wife, he instantly changed languages, speaking to her in Ivrit and, with his beautiful 1,000-watt smile, wished her “chaim meusharim,” a happy life, assuming that she, like most women in Eretz Yisroel, didn’t speak Yiddish. Even that was done with sensitivity.

Diverse Questioners, A Common Reaction: Their Smile

Seeing the varied types of people who came to ask him questions after Shacharis every day was itself an experience. There were doctors of all kinds, religious and otherwise. There were many kippah serugah Yidden along with Chassidim and Yerushalmim of all types.

In truth, even more remarkable was watching them as they left. They were all smiling. No one, even those with very difficult shailos and life circumstances, left Rav Shlomo Zalman without a smile. Somehow, just the contact with him, his smile, his empathy, his love for you just because you were you, conveyed such a feeling of serenity, love and calm, of being valued, that you couldn’t leave his presence without a smile on your lips.

He was the yofi of Yerushalayim. He was never mevater on his mesorah, on his minhagei Yerushalayim, and yet, he understood and accepted every Yid.