Rav Hillel Zaks zt”l – The Man Who Set an Example for Us All

SHOCK. FEAR. CONFUSION.

Speaking with the close talmidim of Rav Hillel Zaks, one can hear their pain. They are shattered by their loss. Two of his greatest talmidim, Rav Avrohom Shlomo Leibowitz and Rav Chizkiyahu Mishkovsky, are too choked with emotion to speak. And when I called the home of Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi to request an interview, I was told that even if he wanted to speak to me, he would be incapable of doing so. He is completely enwrapped in his pain. He cannot digest the loss of the man who was his close friend for so many decades. “Try after the levayah. Right now the rosh yeshiva can’t do it,” I was told. “He isn’t even able to eat. He hasn’t even taken his medicines.”

AN EXTRAORDINARY PERSONAGE

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv once lavished praise on Rav Hillel, commenting, “Nowadays, talmidim don’t derive much from their shiurim. Much more than the shiurim themselves, they are affected by the people who deliver those shiurim. And Reb Hillel is the most prominent of those people.”

Rav Elyashiv once told Rav Avrohom Shlomo Leibowitz that he was deeply impressed by the fact that Rav Hillel spent every day of the weeks of Shovavim wrapped in his tallis and tefillin. Rav Avrohom Shlomo adds, “Rav Hillel once told me that one of the things on which he prides himself is the fact that he was so beloved to his rebbi, Rav Aharon Kotler.”

SILENCE ON THE LINE

I called his son-in-law, Rav Chaim Mann, who is a rov in Brachfeld and a rosh yeshiva in Elad. “I am still in the hospital,” he told me. The family had yet to digest the tragedy that had taken place. He told me to try again in an hour. In the meantime, I called another talmid, Rav Yaakov Kleiner. My request to speak about Rav Hillel was met with a deafening silence. Then, suddenly, he burst into tears. I had unintentionally been the first person to inform him of his rebbi’s passing.

Such is the extraordinary closeness that existed between Rav Hillel and his talmidim.

A FATHER FIGURE

Rav Hillel was a man whom everyone loved like a father and admired as a rosh yeshiva. He had a magnetic attraction to his followers that might be typical of a chassidishe rebbe. He was brilliant and talented. It was an incredible experience to listen to him, to absorb his scintillating insights, to struggle to follow his shiurim, and to satiate oneself with his wisdom. He was a man who filled himself with wisdom and skillfully ahred it with others. He was the embodiment of the Torah wisdom of the previous generation, a man who lived with conceptions of ruchniyus bequeathed to him by his grandfather, the Chofetz Chaim.

The Gemara relates that Hillel Hazakein used to preach publicly to inspire people not to sin, stating that Hashem declares, “If I am here, everyone is here. As long as I desire this House and My Shechinah rests in it, its honor will remain intact and everyone will come here. But if you sin and I remove My Shechinah, who will come here?” Everyone who speaks about Rav Hillel marvels at his uncompromising adherence to halachah, coupled with his incredible warmth toward other people. He reached great spiritual heights. He was in a stratosphere of his own, living in a world of kedushah. And this was the key to his lifestyle of unusual focus on the things that are truly important.

Rav Hillel was truly a unique man in our generation.

THE PROMISE

Ten years ago, I went to visit Rav Hillel at his home next to the yeshiva in Kiryat Sefer. I had heard about a fascinating incident involving him that had occurred in the city of Turin, on the border between Italy and France, and I wanted him to tell me the exact details. But Rav Hillel, who shunned publicity, was reluctant to discuss the subject. He greeted me with his characteristic warmth, and I was captivated by the radiance in his eyes, but he said to me apologetically, “Please forgive me and do not be angry, but I stay very far away from publicity and newspapers.” Seeing my disappointed reaction, he agreed only to hear what I had already been told and to clear up any details that had been exaggerated or were uncertain.

The story, as I had been told, was that Rav Hillel had been visiting the Alps with his grandchildren and had expressed a desire to visit the town of Turin, despite the fact that it was far away and not particularly well-known for any reason. When they arrived, he searched for a certain shul that had been in operation fifty years earlier. At the shul, he looked for the gabbai and, upon finding him, paid him a sum of money. That was the end of their visit to Turin.

Naturally, Rav Hillel’s grandchildren were curious about the background to the visit. They asked their grandfather to tell them the story and he laughed. Fifty years earlier, after the war, he had davened in the shul and received an aliyah, he explained. In the mi shebeirach following his aliyah, the gabbai had included the usual clause affirming that he would, bli neder, give a gift to the shul. For fifty years, Rav Hillel had been troubled by that “bli neder” declaration. His grandchildren later attested, “At that time, we could see that a weight that had been on his shoulders for decades had finally been removed.”

Rav Hillel confirmed the details of the story and added one or two points. Then he asked me, “As a personal favor, if you do publish this story, can you please omit my name?”

HIS PURITY

“His only consideration in life was kavod Shomayim,” relates Rav Yehuda Breitkopf. “Kiddush Hashem was his sole priority. He wanted only to bring honor to Hashem’s Name.” Rav Breitkopf, the rov of Kehillas Chasdei Naftoli in Yerushalayim, was a student in the Chevron Yeshiva between the years 5733 and 5739. In his second year, Rav Hillel was his rebbi. “At the time, Rav Boruch Mordechai used to deliver the shiur for half a year, and Rav Hillel delivered it during the other half,” he explains. He still recalls Rav Hillel’s shiurim as clearly as if they were just delivered. “His father, Rav Menachem Mendel Zaks, who was a son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim, was still alive at the time, and Rav Hillel would occasionally come to shiur and retract something he had said the day before, explaining, ‘I told my father what we said here, and he had a few comments, so I must correct what I said.’ That was the type of self-effacement that Rav Hillel practiced.”

Rav Yehuda used to be a regular guest at his rebbi’s home for seudah shlishis on Shabbos, which gave him the opportunity to get to know Rav Hillel’s mother, the daughter of the Chofetz Chaim. “She was always there for seudah shlishis, and we –- the bochurim – used to ask her to tell us all about her father and the various things he did.”

Rav Breitkopf, like everyone else, is stunned by Rav Hillel’s passing. He was extremely close with Rav Hillel. “It is a terrible loss. He was a very unique rosh yeshiva. He had an incredible depth of understanding of Torah, and his persona was shaped by years of learning with the gedolim of the previous generation. He spent decades steeped in learning, and the years showed only in his increasing greatness. Nothing could affect him. No one else could influence him, and nothing that occurred could faze him. His very essence consisted of intensive Torah learning and purity of heart; there was nothing else to him. He lived with no other considerations, no other motives. He subjugated himself only to the truth within him.”

One example is the fact that Rav Hillel refused to actively recruit students for his yeshiva. Other people tried to encourage him to do so, pointing out that every yeshiva does so and that it is very difficult for a yeshiva to survive otherwise, but he simply shrugged his shoulders. “A bochur has to come to a yeshiva out of a desire to learn there and on his own volition, not because he has been persuaded to come,” he asserted. “He must come because he wants to. He must learn here because he has chosen that.” It may not have been the most practical approach, but it represented Rav Hillel’s essence. He was not the type of person who felt compelled to follow convention.

“It is very rare in today’s world to find such a person,” Rav Breitkopf asserts. “It is very unusual for a person to exist so far above everything else, and to be so detached from any personal or worldly considerations.”

HIS CHUMROS

One of his talmidim relates, “Rav Hillel was a giant not only in Torah learning – and he was an incredible lamdan and capable of tremendous depth – but also in other areas, such as various Kabbalistic matters. He was an expert in Kabbolah, which is very uncommon in the Litvishe world. He was also an expert in dikduk, the grammar of Lashon Hakodesh. Which of the gedolei Torah today deal with that subject? Rav Hillel was well-versed in the works of all the Rishonim and other meforshim who deal with dikduk, and he studied them regularly.” Perhaps that, too, can be attributed to Rav Hillel’s devotion to absolute truth and his indifference to the dictates of “common practice”: He studied dikduk even though he couldn’t devise a shiur klali on the subject, but simply because it was another facet of truth.

Rav Breitkopf was part of a group of talmidim who learned Chumash with Rav Hillel every Shabbos. “Yes, Chumash,” he confirms. “Learning Chumash with Rashi and the Ramban with the rosh yeshiva was like Olam Haba itself. It wasn’t only the depth of the learning and the vast knowledge that he imparted to us. It was also the fact that he brought the subject alive. We felt as if we were able to watch the malachim coming to visit Avrohom Avinu with our own eyes. We felt Hashem speaking to Yaakov Avinu.” Interestingly, all the students who attended that weekly shiur are now roshei yeshiva and mechanchim in their own right.

Like everyone else, Rav Breitkopf places special emphasis on Rav Hillel’s painstaking observance of halachah. “He was very meticulous about halachah, but without making a big deal out of it. He was extremely cautious in many areas of halachah: terumos and maasros, esrogim, and many other things. He had many chumros in all sorts of areas that no one else even thinks about.”

That painstaking care extended to the laws of bein adam lachaveiro and the requirement to share the burdens of other Jews, as well. “I will never forget how Rav Hillel and Rav Hirsch Paley used to make their rounds every year on Taanis Esther to collect and distribute money for tzedakah. Once, Rav Hillel calculated that he had gone up and down 5,000 stairs on that one day. The two of them traveled throughout Yerushalayim, Bnei Brak, and other cities to distribute funds to the needy and to avreichim before Purim and before Pesach. Once, I accompanied Rav Hillel in Rav Hirsch’s place on one of these missions. Before we entered the home of a certain wealthy man, Rav Hillel said to me, ‘In this house, we will be zocheh to verbal abuse. It should be a kapparah for us.’”

HIS UNIQUE WIT

Rav Hillel had an exceptionally clever way of speaking. He once told a talmid, Rabbi Shimon Malka, who was driving him somewhere, “Please drive with the maximum zehirut [caution], but at the minimum mehirut [speed],” communicating his message with a witty rhyme.  Another talmid, Rabbi Yaakov Yaakovson, once wrote a sefer, for which Rav Hillel uncharacteristically gave him a glowing letter of approbation. when Reb Yaakov came to bring Rav Hillel a copy of the newly printed sefer, the rosh yeshiva said to him, “With you, I can be frank. Please open that cabinet and you will see how many seforim I have there. I hardly ever have the opportunity to learn Rishonim. Do you think I can read all the seforim that people bring me?” He advised the author to take back his gift, then added, “Next time you come, bring a truck and take away all the seforim that are in those closed cabinets, and then there will be room for your sefer.”

On another occasion, Reb Yaakov asked Rav Hillel a question on hilchos brachos. Rav Hillel answered him on the spot. Reb Yaakov asked, “How does the rosh yeshiva know that that is the halachah?”

“That is what emerges from the sugyos,” Rav Hillel responded simply.

Reb Yaakov relates that Rav Hillel was capable of answering any halachic shailah based on his conclusions from the relevant sugyos in the Gemara. Once, Rav Hillel remarked, “When I come to Shomayim and they ask me why I did certain things or why I didn’t do other things, I will say to the Master of the Universe, ‘Am I at fault for the fact that You created me in this generation? Why didn’t You create me in Radin, in the previous generation?’”

Once, after a shidduch had been finalized between one of his students and the daughter of a certain talmid chochom, Rav Hillel’s face was shining with joy. He embraced and kissed the chosson and told him, “You are going to have a wonderful father-in-law, who is a major talmid chochom. He has only one problem.” For a moment, the talmid was frightened, but Rav Hillel immediately finished his statement: “It’s impossible to speak to him about anything other than learning!”

Rav Hillel once quipped, “My talmidim imitate everything about me, except the main thing that typifies me: my originality. If they imitate me, where is their originality?” Then he added, “How can they even consider themselves my chassidim? If they are my chassidim, then that means that they are not original.” To one talmid, he said, “I like you and I consider you my talmid because you are very original.”

HELPING A STRUGGLING YOUNG MOTHER

Rav Hillel often spoke about an incident that had happened to him in his youth, when he was learning at Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood: “I used to come late every day to morning seder in yeshiva, and one day, the mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, came over to reprimand me about it. I apologized to him and told him that there was a woman in Lakewood with three small children, and I was helping her every morning. Rav Nosson asked me, ‘Why are you the one who became involved in this?’ I replied, ‘Ah, yes. That’s a secret. It’s my wife and our three children.’ Rav Nosson looked at me with a degree of surprise and I added, ‘Is it my wife’s fault that she has a husband, and she isn’t a widow who benefits from other kind souls coming to help her? Is that a reason that I shouldn’t take care of her needs?’” Rav Hillel concluded, “Rav Nosson didn’t praise me for what I was doing, but he didn’t rebuke me either. I had the impression that he enjoyed my response.”

A GABBAI TZEDAKAH

Aryeh Deri is another talmid of Rav Hillel Zaks who has been devastated by his passing. Deri learned under Rav Hillel in Chevron Yeshiva from 5736 through 5741. “In yeshiva, he was like a father to me. His house was my second home. He was my rebbi,” Deri told the Yated through his tears.

I understand that you were neighbors in Maaleh Amos for a while.

“Correct. The rosh yeshiva was very fond of that place. One night, we traveled together to the yishuv that is known today as Meitzad, which was then first being built. We stood together on that mountaintop, in the middle of the night, and he commented that perhaps, one day, he would be able to found a similar community and call it Radin. It was a sort of dream that had occurred to him, and we began thinking about how to fulfill it. But then Shas was founded and I became involved in the political party instead.”

Deri, like Rav Hillel’s other talmidim, maintained a close connection with his rebbi even many years after his marriage. “I was fortunate enough to help Rav Hillel when the yeshiva in Kiryat Sefer was founded,” he recalls. “Yossi Schwinger, who was the head of the founding council of Kiryat Sefer, was our trusted messenger. I did everything I could to benefit the yeshiva, and I also helped him in his tzedakah collecting efforts through the religious council in Yerushalayim. Not many people know that Rav Hillel and Rav Hirsh Paley were among the most prolific collectors and distributors of tzedakah. They used to go from house to house, going up and down countless stairs to visit potential donors and thus supporting many families of talmidei chachomim and yungeleit.”

Deri adds his own perspective on Rav Hillel: “He was a very original person. He never simply followed any set conventions. He was an illui, a tzaddik, and an exceptional oveid Hashem. He was a firm believer in the path in avodas Hashem that he himself developed and followed.”

What was he like as a rosh yeshiva and a rebbi?

“He was incredibly close with his talmidim. He behaved toward us as even more than a father and a close friend combined. He gave us the best possible feeling, and he set an example in ruchniyus from which we absorbed everything. He was a true rebbi. Not every rosh yeshiva has talmidim like Rav Hillel’s students. In yeshiva, we were a group called ‘Rav Hillel’s kevutzah.’ We were ardent followers of Rav Hillel. We never budged from him. Everyone knew which bochurim were his talmidim. Not everyone was able to be a talmid, but those who were his talmidim followed him through everything. They attended his shiurim on the Sefer Chofetz Chaim and they absorbed his incredibly deep approach to learning.

“His home was a house of chessed in every sense, both when he lived in Givat Mordechai and in his home on Rechov Tzefaniah. His own family members felt like guests in contrast to all the unfortunate people who benefited from his hospitality. All the ‘stars’ of Geulah could be found in his home, and if any of the family members ‘bothered’ them, the guests would reprimand them. The guests slept in the beds and ate at the table, and the family was pushed to the side. I witnessed all of that. It happened on a daily basis, and it was something that Rav Hillel did without any fanfare or accolades.”

Rav Hillel’s talmidim also absorbed the example set by their rebbi’s extraordinary love of mitzvos and dedication to careful observance of halachah. “He had an answer for every halachic shailah. And he had his own derech in halachah as well, which included many chumros. This applied to tekias shofar, for instance. In fact, it applied to many mitzvos. He never cut corners and he never looked for leniencies; he did the exact opposite.”

Deri notes that he himself absorbed his rebbi’s great love of esrogim. He also wishes to emphasize that all of Rav Hillel’s chumros were accompanied by great joy. “He was a joyous person. His expression was always radiant.”

Rav Hillel kept a knife in his home in Bnei Brak, with the Torah’s commandment to “wipe out the memory of Amaleik” inscribed beneath it. This, too, may have been part of his meticulous observance of the mitzvos, a means of fulfilling the Torah’s injunction never to forget Amaleik’s deeds.

A RELIC OF A BYGONE GENERATION

His son-in-law, Rav Chaim Mann, is immeasurably saddened by the terrible loss.

“He was a relic of a generation of which we have no concept today,” he relates. “He was a rebbi who literally built up his talmidim, giving them a derech in learning and instilling yiras Shomayim in them. He imparted tools for serving Hashem, understanding machshavah and halachah, and he raised an entire generation of talmidim who drew all of their ruchniyus and their outlook on life from him, and only him. He left behind hundreds upon hundreds of tamidim who have literally been orphaned. They have lost their entire world, because he was their entire world. They relied on him for everything.”

Rav Hillel echoes what I heard from many others: “He was incredibly original. He evaluated everything on his own and drew the requisite conclusions – in learning, in halachah, and in his way of life.”

Who were his rabbeim?

“He was a talmid muvhak of his renowned father. As a youth, he learned under Rav Shlomo Heiman. When he was a little older, he became a talmid muvhak of Rav Reuven Grozovsky, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. He went on to learn under Rav Aharon Kotler for many years, and he became one of Rav Aharon’s closest talmidim.”

Throughout his life, Rav Hillel constantly spoke about Rav Aharon, always quoting his illustrious rebbi. He felt that he owed his entire hashkafah and way of life to Rav Aharon.

Rav Chaim Mann continues speaking about his revered father-in-law: “With his crystal-clear daas Torah and powerful intellect, he assessed every situation and decided what the right thing to do was. He was a true example of a person who literally perfected himself. He had extraordinary abilities and he knew how to use them all. He had phenomenal self-control.”

Rav Hillel was a man who set an example for every Jew. He demonstrated how it is possible for a human being to reach an incredible, almost angelic level. It behooves everyone in our generation to aspire to reach the heights he attained.

Sadly, he has now been taken from our midst. The Torah is in mourning. The world has gone dark. The man who lit up the world with his Torah learning, his teachings, and his incredible spiritual stature is gone, leaving a gaping void behind. We are all shattered, but it is a Divine decree and we are not permitted to question it.