“Am I a Professor?!”
Rav Isser Zalman’s middos – especially his middas ha’anavah – were legendary. Even when a bochur would come talk with him in learning, he would discuss the sugya as if he was talking to an elderly talmid chochom. When a young talmid would ask a good question or propose a good teretz, he would jump from joy.
Rav Yisroel Grossman, rosh yeshiva of Pinsk Karlin, recalled a remarkable story: “It was the 13th of Nissan, the day of bedikas chometz, and I went into a local shul to learn. The gabbai came over to me and said, “I’m sorry, but we are cleaning the shul for Pesach and you can’t learn now.” I went to another shul and the same thing happened. I didn’t know what to do – I wanted to learn!
“All of a sudden, I had an idea. I would go to Rav Isser Zalman’s house and talk in learning with him! Rav Isser Zalman himself answered the door and, with a wide smile, welcomed me inside. I told him I had come to talk in learning, and Rav Isser Zalman said, ‘Sure!’ I began to tell him a chiddush which he listened to with total concentration. I noticed that there was bread, butter and a cup of coffee on the table. Until today, I regret that I didn’t allow him to finish eating before I started talking, but I was young… We spoke in learning for nearly two hours. Rav Isser Zalman listened and asked, I answered, and he explained…
“It was already close to noon when Rebbetzin Baila Hinda returned home, her hands full of products that she had purchased in honor of Pesach. When she saw the plate and coffee virtually untouched, she asked the rosh yeshiva, ‘Why didn’t you eat anything?’ Rav Isser Zalman answered with utmost simplicity, ‘A ben Torah came to talk in learning – I should interrupt him?’
“The rebbetzin replied, ‘What would have happened if you would have asked the bochur to wait a few minutes until you finished eating, and then given him your full attention?’ Rav Isser Zalman, his voice rising an octave higher, asked her in wonder, ‘What? Am I a professor [distinguished doctor] that someone has to wait for an appointment with me?!’”
A Result of My Seforim or My Letters for Tzedokah?
Rav Isser Zalman never refused a request for a chesed. There were times when he was asked to write a letter seeking tzedokah that would be sent to a certain wealthy man. Rav Isser Zalman would sit down and, with great seriousness, compose a heartfelt letter. When that same person asked that another letter be sent to a different philanthropist, Rav Isser Zalman wrote a separate letter with a separate nusach. Once, a person asked him for 10 different letters for his tzedakah, to be sent to 10 people. He wrote one letter for each person! The rebbetzin asked him, “Why couldn’t you just write the same nusach and sign your name? Did you have to write 10 different letters?”
Rav Isser Zalman replied, “How do you know that the Olam Habah that I will get is because of the seforim that I wrote? Maybe all of the zechusim that I have are because I wrote all of the tzedokah letters for those in need!”
Why He Visited Rav Moshe Chevroni
One night, Rav Isser Zalman decided that he wanted to go to Rav Moshe Chevroni, rosh yeshiva of Chevron, to talk with him in learning. Rav Isser Zalman mentioned a question on a certain sugya and asked Rav Moshe if he perhaps had a terutz. Rav Moshe, who was not learning that sugya at the time, demurred. Rav Isser Zalman then proposed a terutz, but asked a question on it. It was clear that he was trying to kvetch out some kind of terutz or chiddush from Rav Moshe. In the end, Rav Moshe shared a thought on the sugya and Rav Isser Zalman left.
On the way home, the person accompanying Rav Isser Zalman wondered why he had decided to go visit Rav Moshe Chevroni and what he had wanted from him. Rav Isser Zalman told him, “I am about to publish the newest volume of my sefer Even Ha’Ezel. In that volume, I have chiddushim from both Rav Chatzkel Sarna and Rav Aharon Cohen, the two brothers-in-law of Rav Moshe Chevroni [all three were sons-in-law of the Slabodka rosh yeshiva, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, who was a brother-in-law of Rav Isser Zalman].
“If I don’t mention a chiddush from Rav Moshe Chevroni,” continued Rav Isser Zalman, “he might have chalishas hadaas that his two brothers-in-law were mentioned, and he wasn’t. That is why I wanted to hear a chiddush from Rav Moshe, so I could publish something from him as well!”
One Cannot Spill the Blood of a Bas Yisroel!
It was past midnight in Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer’s small apartment in the Batei Broide neighborhood of Yerushalayim – not exactly the time for visitors. That is why Rav Isser Zalman, his rebbetzin, and his talmid, Rav Dovid Frankel, were surprised to hear an urgent knock on the door. Who would have the temerity to knock on the door of the elderly godol hador at such a late hour?
The visitor wasn’t satisfied with knocking loudly – he then pushed the door open and walked right into the apartment! Upon seeing Rav Isser Zalman, he urgently asked for a private audience. The rebbetzin and Rav Dovid were flabbergasted, but Rav Isser Zalman showed no signs of being either upset or surprised. With his signature smile, he got up from his chair and ushered the guest into a side room, as if hosting a visitor – who had not even waited to be formally invited inside – past midnight was the most normal thing in the world.
After a few minutes of private conversation with the guest, Rav Isser Zalman emerged from the room. His countenance had changed completely. His smile had been replaced by emotion and tension – something was clearly agitating him to no end. Rav Isser Zalman uncharacteristically appeared to not even notice his wife and talmid as he paced the room, repeatedly exclaiming, “How is such a thing possible?! How can one be lenient when it comes to something like this?!” He then entered yet another room and remained there.
The rebbetzin, who vigilantly watched over her husband’s health, began to fear for his welfare. She had rarely seen him so agitated, and asked Rav Dovid to go into the room and ask Rav Isser Zalman what was happening. Rav Dovid went in and was greeted by a frightful sight – Rav Isser Zalman was sitting on the bed completely oblivious to his surroundings, deep in thought. He kept repeating, “My head is mamesh plotzing – I feel that my head is exploding! Oy! My head!”
Approaching his rebbi, Rav Dovid asked anxiously, “What happened, rebbi? What is it?”
Rav Isser Zalman, the pinnacle of a baal middos, uncharacteristically answered, “Ich beit aich – I beg of you, please leave me alone.” Such a response from Rav Isser Zalman was completely out of character; he was always friendly, always drawing others close. Rav Dovid and the rebbetzin became even more worried. Rav Isser Zalman was old and frail. They were terrified that whatever was going on was dangerous to his precarious health.
Rav Dovid again asked, “Rebbi, what happened?” Rav Isser Zalman answered even more forcefully, “I beg you, please leave the room and let me be.” Stunned by Rav Isser Zalman’s reaction, Rav Dovid left the room.
A few minutes later, the rebbetzin and Rav Dovid saw Rav Isser Zalman emerge, still extremely agitated. He once again paid no attention to them and went to the other room to talk to the visitor.
Suddenly, the rebbetzin and Rav Dovid heard Rav Isser Zalman’s voice – strong and decisive, emanating from the room, “Something like this is simply not possible. It is not possible that one can spill the blood of a bas Yisroel! No! B’shum ponim v’ofen – this absolutely cannot be done!”
Afterwards, the man exited, following Rav Isser Zalman, saying, “Nu, if the rebbi holds this way…”
“Yes! Yes!” Rav Isser Zalman interjected. “There is absolutely no doubt. Mazal tov! Be’ezras Hashem, next year I want you to invite me to the bris.”
The man left. Only then did Rav Isser Zalman explain what had transpired. “That Yid was engaged to a Jewish girl, but had just received information from a reliable source that it was possible that his kallah would not be able to bear children. He came to ask me if it would be permitted to marry her if there was doubt as to her ability to have children. I first told him that I didn’t think he could marry her, because it as a safek d’Oraysah – a Torah-mandated doubt. I told him, however, to wait, because I wanted to think about it more.
“I went into the next room and, after thinking deeply about the matter, decided that he could not annul the shidduch. Why? Because if he would annul the shidduch, the kallah would suffer unspeakable shame and terrible heartache. Chazal teach us that embarrassment is akin to shefichas domim – murder. The shame she would suffer was not a sofek, it was certain – a definite transgression of a d’Oraysah.
“I did not know what to decide, but ultimately, I came to the conclusion that her being so shamed and blemished would be even worse, and I advised him not to nullify the shidduch. I then wished him mazel tov, and blessed him that he should therefore invite to the bris in a year’s time.”
That individual followed Rav Isser Zalman’s advice and indeed, one year later, he invited Rav Isser Zalman to the bris and honored him as sandek. Rav Dovid, who had been present that night, was the one who accompanied Rav Isser Zalman to the bris. On the way, Rav Isser Zalman emotionally commented, “What happened here is absolutely amazing! It is a true miracle! I beg you,” Rav Isser Zalman continued, “please don’t speak about this. Any talk about it is superfluous.”
When the story was told to the Chazon Ish, he said, “When it comes to Rav Isser Zalman, this is one of the small things…”
Frumkeit or Krumkeit?!
Rav Chaim Brim had a problem.
It was 1941, and he was a chosson. As a talmid of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, he wanted Rav Isser Zalman to be mesader kiddushin at his chasunah. His future father-in-law, Rav Yisroel Toisig, however, felt that inasmuch as he accepted Rav Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, the gaavad of the Eidah Hachareidis, as his rov upon coming to Eretz Yisroel, he had an obligation to honor Rav Dushinsky with siddur kiddushin. Rav Chaim felt that he had no choice but to agree to his father-in-law; at the same time, he felt compelled to go to Rav Isser Zalman’s home and appease him.
He went together with his older brother, Rav Yehosha Hershel Brim. When they began to explain, Rav Isser Zalman was such a humble baal middos that he couldn’t even understand why they were so apologetic! He told them, “The reason I don’t like kavod is not because of frumkeit, but rather because of krumkeit – the whole idea of kavod is crooked, and that is why I hate it, not because I have a high degree of yiras shomayim…”
Preserving the Honor of a Child
Rav Avrohom Pam, rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas, once related during his Erev Shabbos shiur, “A young child was brought to Rav Isser Zalman for a farher on the Gemara he had learned in cheder. When the child said over the Gemara, he made some blatant errors in elementary pshat in the Gemara. Rav Isser Zalman tried to correct him, but the child was stubborn and adamantly insisted that he was right and the elderly rosh yeshiva was incorrect.
“Rav Isser Zalman suddenly stepped out of the room. He was found pacing back and forth saying, ‘Yehi kevod chavercha chaviv alecha keshelach – your friend’s honor should be just as important to you as your own – this applies to a small boy as well.’ In this way, he strengthened himself in ensuring that he would not in any way slight the honor of the child.”
“Why are You Crying? Just Learn!”
Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, rosh yeshiva of Ner Yisroel of Baltimore, related that Rav Isser Zalman Melzer once commented that when he had learned in Slutzk, he was accustomed to learn mussar towards the end of every Shabbos. When he learned mussar, he would be tough on himself and demand increasingly higher and better levels of learning for himself.
Rav Isser Zalman related that one of his neighbors was a simple baal habayis, an ehrliche Yid who never merited to learn in yeshiva or taste the sweet taste of Torah. When he heard Rav Isser Zalman bemoaning the fact that he didn’t learn anything, he came running to Rav Isser Zalman’s home, knocked on his window and said, “I don’t understand?! Why are you crying? Every week, I hear you saying, ‘I don’t learn.’ Instead of complaining, take a Gemara and just learn! Who is stopping you from learning? I will stand here and keep watch and, if someone is indeed stopping you from learning, I will chase him away!”
The Masmid Picks Up the Masmid
Rav Yisroel Yaakov Fisher, raavad of the Eidah Hachareidis, said that Rav Isser Zalman told him the following story:
Rav Zelig Reuven Bengis, gaavad of the Eidah Hachareidis, learned in Volozhin at the same time as Rav Isser Zalman. Rav Zelig Reuven would learn until very late at night and, when no one was in the bais medrash, he would personally sweep and clean the bais medrash. Once Rav Isser Zalman came to the yeshiva, though, he had a problem. Rav Isser Zalman was such a profound masmid that he didn’t leave the bais medrash, and Rav Zalman Reuven couldn’t clean it up.
He finally decided that he had no choice – the bais medrash had to be cleaned, but he didn’t want to interrupt Rav Isser Zalman’s learning. Rav Zelig Reuven was physically strong, and he picked up Rav Isser Zalman with his chair, shtender and Gemara and moved him to a different part of the bais medrash, cleaned the spot, and then returned him to his place, all while Rav Isser Zalman continued to learn!
Decades later, Rav Isser Zalman reconnected with Rav Zelig Reuven in Yerushalayim. Before Rav Zalman Reuven passed away, he was very ill and Rav Isser Zalman went to visit him. When Rav Isser Zalman saw the tremendous pain and suffering that Rav Zelig Reuven was suffering, he begged Hashem to spare him that type of difficult petirah. Indeed, when Rav Isser Zalman’s time came, he told the rebbetzin that he wasn’t feeling well, went to lie down and Hashem took his neshomah away…
Where He Wrote His First Kuntris
Rav Isser Zalman told his talmid, Rav Nota Freund, “When I was rosh yeshiva in Slutzk under the Communists, one of my friends who had become a Communist came over to me and surreptitiously told me, ‘You should know that the Communists are after you. They want to arrest you and send you to Siberia.’ I ran to the forest and hid. While I was in the woods, I wrote my first kuntris on hilchos nizkei mamon [later published in his sefer Even HaEzel].”
“Whose Job is More Important?”
Rav Isser Zalman ascribed great importance to the needs of other Jews. Once, a gas leak in his home caused the rebbetzin to lose consciousness, and she was miraculously saved from death at the last minute when Rav Isser Zalman came home and found her in a faint. After she was revived, he questioned her repeatedly, “Did a poor person come to the door whom we didn’t treat with the proper respect? Did someone ask for a donation, and we didn’t give them enough?”
On another occasion, Rav Isser Zalman was walking in the rain to deliver his shiur when a man who was collecting money for an institution stopped him. Rav Isser Zalman listened patiently to the man’s lengthy monologue, despite the fact that the rain was drenching him, and then gave a donation and continued on his way. When a talmid remarked that the man had been wrong for making the rosh yeshivah wait in the rain, Rav Isser Zalman responded simply, “My job is to deliver shiurim, and his job is to collect money for mitzvah purposes. Who is to say which of the two is more important?”
Rav Isser Zalman’s dedication to chesed and hachnosas orchim was extraordinary. Whenever someone knocked at his door, he would hurry to answer it personally; when his family asked the reason for his urgency, he would respond, “What if there is a poor man there? We have to hurry to give him what he needs!” On one occasion, someone came to the door of his home after midnight, and a family member responded to the knocking by asking, “Who’s there?”
Rav Isser Zalman rebuked the family member, “After midnight, you don’t ask who is at the door. What if it’s a situation of pikuach nefesh and someone needs immediate help? You should open the door immediately!”
(B’Derech Eitz Chaim)