The Radiance of Rav Zundel Kroizer zt”l, A Conversation With Rav Gamliel Rabinovich

Rav Zundel Kroizer zt”l was one of the precious tzaddikim of Yerushalayim. Now, five years after his petirah, Rav Gamliel Rabinovich, his talmid and mechutan, shares a wealth of fascinating anecdotes about this remarkable gadol baTorah.

“Once,” Rav Gamliel Rabinovich relates, “we were making a shalom zochor in our home to celebrate the birth of a grandson, who was also a great-grandson to Rav Zundel Kroizer. In honor of the simcha, Rav Zundel walked from his home to our home on Rechov Chagiz on leil Shabbos. Of course, as soon as he entered our home, a ripple of excitement spread through the room. The father of the baby hurried to offer him refreshments after the lengthy trek that he had made. To our surprise, though, he accepted only a single piece of arbes. He recited the brocha of borei pri ha’adamah with tremendous joy and kavanah, and then he divided the chickpea in two and ate only half of it. He looked around at the people at the table, who were clearly waiting for an explanation of some kind, and he explained, ‘I knew that I wouldn’t be able to eat a lot of arbes, so I chose to eat less than a kezayis. However, there is a safek if one should recite a brocha acharonah on a single bean, since it might be considered a beryah. Therefore, I ate only half a chickpea in order to be certainly exempt from reciting a brocha acharonah.’”

Rav Zundel Kroizer zt”l was one of the outstanding tzaddikim to grace the city of Yerushalayim. He was a remarkable talmid chochom and a man of enormous religious fervor. He was the author of many seforim and is commonly known by the title of one of his works, Ohr Hachamah.

There are many remarkable stories about him. Rav Zundel was the rebbi of many other tzaddikim of Yerushalayim, including Rav Gamliel Rabinovich, who was also his mechutan. The two learned Kabbolah together for many years. Today, five years after Rav Zundel’s passing, Rav Gamliel agreed to share a number of remarkable anecdotes with the Yated about this remarkable tzaddik.

The story about the arbes is an example of Rav Zundel’s exacting performance of mitzvos. With this anecdote, Rav Gamliel illustrates Rav Zundel’s profound yiras cheit and his incredibly meticulous observance of halacha. “He never allowed himself to disregard even the tiniest detail of halacha,” Rav Gamliel asserts. “He always made sure to understand exactly what every food was in order to recite the proper brocha. Even when he had a few different types of foods in front of him, he made sure to clarify the appropriate brocha on each. He was never content simply to recite shekahol as a catch-all brocha.”

The Forgotten Brocha

“Once, when we were learning together in my home, someone brought him a drink,” Rav Gamliel recalled. “A short time after we had finished our seder and he had returned home, he suddenly came back. I was afraid that something was wrong, but he explained to me that he had simply forgotten to recite borei nefashos on his drink. Even though it was technically permissible for him to recite the brocha in the place where he remembered it, he preferred to recite it in the place where he had been drinking. Therefore, he came all the way back to my home.

“He was meticulous about the tiniest details of halacha, and he refused to compromise on even the most insignificant detail. He lived with a constant sense of duty and responsibility.”

A Source of Joy

“A young bochur once came to me in a visible state of distress,” Rav Gamliel continues. “I asked him what was wrong and he began telling me his entire sorrowful life story. He suffered from a health defect that made him unable to perform his bodily functions normally, and the doctors had inserted a tube through which the waste was able to leave his body. This caused him tremendous shame and discomfort, and he was especially distressed over the fact that he could not sit and learn in yeshiva with other bochurim. I told him to come back to me during the afternoon, when Rav Zundel Kroizer would be there; I was certain that he would know what to say. The bochur returned and told Rav Zundel about his situation. Rav Zundel replied, ‘Smach bochur b’yaldusecha. You should be happy with your lot. In general, a person who has one hundred desires two hundred, and one who has two hundred desires four hundred. You, however, have absolutely nothing but suffering. Therefore, you should feel only joy.’”

Two Tea Biscuits

“During my daily learning seder with my mechutan, Rav Zundel, we focused primarily on learning the masechtos of Shas. Whenever we reached the end of a masechta, Rav Zundel would take out two tea biscuits to celebrate the siyum, one for me and the other for him. He would then say ‘hadran alach’ and he would recite the brocha of borei minei mezonos with great joy and eat his biscuit. Then we would immediately begin the next masechta. He didn’t want to waste time on arranging a lengthy seudah to celebrate the occasion.”

Insight into the Daily Brachos

“One of the great talmidei chachomim of Yerushalayim used to learn with Rav Zundel every day. As Hashgacha would have it, the two of them fell and suffered injuries around the same time, and both were suffering from severe pain, but they refused to give up their joint learning seder. One day, Rav Zundel’s chavrusah said to him, ‘I broke my left shoulder when I fell and I am not even able to dress myself without help. How can I say the brocha of malbish arumim in the mornings?’ Rav Zundel replied, ‘Actually, in this situation, you are able to understand the meaning of the brocha that we recite every day. After all, what ordinary person is able to appreciate the chesed inherent in the fact that he is capable of dressing himself? You, however, can certainly appreciate it now. In terms of reciting the brocha, it is obvious that the halacha is the same as that which applies to a blind man, who recites the brocha of pokeiach ivrim even though he is not capable of seeing on his own, simply because he derives pleasure from the fact that others can help him find his way with their own eyesight. Similarly, we recite the brocha on the fact that others help us dress.’”

Only Fifty Years

Rav Zundel was once approached by a young man who was involved in a shidduch and was racked by uncertainty over whether he should get engaged. Rav Zundel said to him, “In the final analysis, what is the issue here? It’s a question of only fifty or sixty years. This time passes in the blink of an eye. Is it really worth suffering from doubts and confusion for that purpose? We live in a transient world!”

On another occasion, Rav Chaim Kreiswirth zt”l brought an orphaned bochur to Rav Zundel and related that the young man was having difficulty in shidduchim. “Why aren’t you engaged yet?” Rav Zundel asked him.

The young man replied, “When my mother was alive, we received many offers, but she rejected them all. Now it has been two years since she passed away and an appropriate suggestion has yet to be found for me.”

Rav Zundel rebuked him sternly, “Your mother is deep in Gehinnom right now for the sin of having rejected your shidduchim and preventing you from marrying. If you want to give her neshomah some relief and to release her from Gehinnom, you should hurry up and get married!”

“Rav Chaim Kreiswirth related to me that this was an unusually fierce reaction. He had never heard Rav Zundel speak so sharply,” Rav Gamliel relates.

One More Minute

“My neighbor, Rav Shmuel Chechik, often spoke about Rav Zundel’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah,” Rav Gamliel recalls. “But it is impossible to know the entire Torah without learning it. Rav Zundel learned all the time, without interruption; that was how he came to know the entire Torah. A bochur once asked Rav Zundel to advise him on a kabbolah to undertake before Rosh Hashanah. Rav Zundel told him to add one minute of learning to his daily schedule, since every minute of learning is precious.

“I have another story on that note,” Rav Gamliel adds. “A man once made a bet with me and said, ‘If you catch Rav Zundel reading a notice in the street, I will pay you 100 dollars.’ Rav Zundel used to run down the street; he never squandered even a single moment.”

Torah and Tefllah

“He always davened with absolute devotion, and he never skipped even the seder of Korbanos. He would sit and recite every word of davening with unbreakable concentration. He once told me that he had never missed Korbanos. I have a copy of a letter that he wrote to a bar mitzvah bochur, in which he wrote that the Chazon Ish used to say that Torah and tefillah are connected and each leads to the other. He also wrote, ‘Remember that when the yeitzer hara tries to interfere with your davening, you must not listen to him. You will suffer throughout your life if you are not careful about davening!’ In another letter, he wrote, ‘Remember that you are davening to Hashem and that only He can help you. You must think and feel that He is the only One Who can help you, and that you can ask Him for anything, because everything is in His hands.’ Rav Zundel himself used to recite every word of the davening with tremendous emotion.”

A Million Dollars

“A bochur once came to me and told me that he didn’t feel a desire to learn,” Rav Gamliel relates. “I suggested that he should come in the afternoon, when Rav Zundel was there, and speak to him about the situation. After he heard about the bochur’s feelings, Rav Zundel said, ‘Your problem is that you don’t have emunah!’ The bochur was shocked. Rav Zundel explained, ‘If you believed that every word in the Torah was like a dollar, you would not feel a lack of interest in it, since you would realize that you are amassing many dollars when you learn. The problem is a lack of emunah, not a lack of cheishek.’”

Tight on Time

“Rav Zundel kept the telephone in his home within reach at all times, so that he could answer it immediately whenever it rang, thus avoid wasting time. When he called me, he also preferred for me to answer the phone right away, so that he wouldn’t have to spend time waiting for me to answer. Once, the phone rang in my home when it was out of my reach. I answered it after a few rings and Rav Zundel was on the other end of the line. ‘You have taken three quarters of a minute from me,’ he chided me. For Rav Zundel, that was a long time…”

Bal Tashchis

“He led a very calculated life. When I warmed up water for him for a cup of tea, he would first measure the amount of water that would fill the cup and then pour it into the kettle, so that he wouldn’t boil any extra water. He didn’t want to violate the issur of bal tashchis by wasting the additional water. He once saw me filling a kettle for tea, and when I filled it up normally, until it was about a quarter or a third full, he said, ‘So much water? Wouldn’t it be enough to use less than that?’”

Fleeing from Kavod

“When Rav Zundel davened Mincha in Botei Broide, there were two minyanim there. He used to daven in the outer courtyard at the first minyan, but there were times when he davened in the second minyan in the inner shul, and then he had to walk into the bais medrash inside in order to join the minyan. Since he didn’t want people to stand up for him, he would make sure to enter the room exactly when they were up to Kedusha, since the people would be standing anyway.”

“What Woul d the Chazon Ish Say?”

“Rav Zundel refused to eat meat when he had lunch at my home every day, even though he relied on my kashrus. In fact, he never ate meat. I once asked him the reason for his habit and his answer shocked me: He told me that the Gemara states that an am haaretz shouldn’t eat meat. ‘Rebbi,’ I said, ‘I don’t understand. You wrote the sefer Ohr Hachamah on the entirety of Shas and the entire Torah, and you also wrote the Ohr Hachamah siddur, as well as seforim on Tehillim, Pirkei Avos, and the entire Shulchan Aruch and Mishnah Berurah. Is that the work of an am haaretz?’

“He replied: ‘These may be considered seforim in this generation, but what would the Chazon Ish say about them? What would Rav Akiva Eiger say? What would the Maharsha say?’ And so he was machmir and refused to eat meat.”

A Brocha on His Deathbed

“Speaking of his hakpodah on brachos,” Rav Gamliel continued, “here is an incredible story that happened twelve hours before he passed away. He was only partially conscious and barely capable of functioning, but he wanted to drink something and someone brought him a cup and tried to place a straw in his mouth. Nevertheless, he kept pushing the straw away and no one could succeed in getting it past his lips. He also refused to swallow the liquid that emerged from the straw. When they stopped trying to give him the drink for a moment, Rav Zundel said the brocha of shehakol and then he agreed to drink from the straw. The reason he had rejected it earlier was because he hadn’t said the brocha. And this was twelve hours before he passed away!”

The Definition of a Masmid

“Rav Zundel once related that when he was a bochur in Yeshivas Eitz Chaim, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, once asked the talmidim what they believed is the definition of a masmid. One of the bochurim replied that a masmid is a person who learns for twelve hours consecutively. The bochurim saw that the rosh yeshiva did not approve of the answer, so another bochur suggested that a person who learns for fifteen hours without interruption might be deserving of the title, but Rav Isser Zalman still did not agree. They suggested that a person who learns for eighteen hours consecutively might be considered a masmid, but Rav Isser Zalman made it clear that their answers were off the mark. Finally, they asked him to answer the question and Rav Isser Zalman said, ‘The measure of hasmodah lies in the reason that a person will stop learning. There are some people who stop learning in order to take a drink; this shows that their drink is more valuable to them than their Torah learning. There are other bochurim who wouldn’t interrupt their learning for that purpose, but who would stop learning to gain a small sum of money. There are others who would cease learning only for a more substantial amount of money, and then there are some who will be enticed only by a huge fortune. But then there are some bochurim who cannot be distracted from learning by anything in the world – and that is the definition of a masmid!’”

Rewarded with Soda

On that note, Rav Zundel once said, “There are some bochurim who would stop learning for a cup of soda. By doing this, a bochur reveals that the soda is more important to him than the Torah. Another bochur might not interrupt his learning for something as trivial as soda, but he would leave his Gemara for a dollar. Every bochur is on his own level and has his own conceptions. We all know that the Mishnah tells us to consider ‘before Whom you will have to give a din v’cheshbon.’ Some explain this to mean that the person himself pronounces judgment on himself in the Bais Din Shel Maalah based on his own conduct. Therefore, if someone has demonstrated that Coca Cola is more important to him than Torah, he will be rewarded with Coca Cola. For all the Torah that he has learned, he will receive crates of soda…”

This was an outlook that Rav Zundel himself exemplified. He derived satisfaction purely from his Torah learning. He did not feel the need for anything else in his life. He lived in a tiny, cramped apartment in a rundown neighborhood of Yerushalayim, but he was always happy with his lot in life. Anyone who knew Rav Zundel could attest that he was always filled with joy. The Torah that he learned shone within him, imbuing him with its radiance. And there was nothing in his life that was more important to him than learning Torah and serving Hashem. With his perfect perspective, his reward was certainly commensurate with his greatness.

Two Minutes at the Kosel

Rav Gamliel shares a story about the value that many gedolim attach to even the minutest amount of time. This story is about the Imrei Emes of Ger: “My uncle, Rav Aharon Karoll, was the gabbai of the Imrei Emes. At the time before the state was founded, there used to be several hundred stairs leading to the Kosel, in the area that has since become the sloping road on which cars drive down to it. The Imrei Emes was very weak and had to be carried on a chair all the way to the Kosel. When he arrived, his companions thought that after the arduous trek down the stairs, he would probably spend a long time immersed in tefillah. But after only a few minutes, the Imrei Emes motioned for them to carry him back up the steps.”

Rav Gamliel’s uncle once accompanied the Imrei Emes on a tour of various mekomos kedoshim in northern Israel. When he visited the tziyun of Rav Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, the Imrei Emes stood there for only a few minutes, learning from a Gemara that he held in his hand. When he left, he said, “Now let us go back to Rav Shimon in the Gemara.”

 

A Beacon of Inspiration

During Rav Zundel’s tenure as a maggid shiur in the yeshiva of Tchebin, one of his talmidim from the time relates, he was unfailingly punctual; he hardly ever missed a day of yeshiva or even came late. He would sit at the front of the room, next to the aron kodesh, in a position from which he could view the entire bais medrash. A special shtender stood at his spot, along with a chair that was hardly ever used, for the simple reason that Rav Zundel preferred to stand throughout the four hours that he spent in the bais medrash, while he fielded questions from talmidim.

“As soon as he reached his spot, he would open his Gemara and begin learning in a pleasant, melodious voice,” his talmid relates. “He spent the entire four hours of seder immersed in his learning. The bochurim slowly made their way into the bais medrash, and the sight of Rav Zundel learning with passion and enthusiasm was the first thing that every bochur saw.

“He never walked around the room to monitor the bochurim; he didn’t view himself as a mashgiach, and he didn’t look for talmidim who would attach themselves to him. Whenever anyone tried to make a fuss surrounding him, he would hurry away, eschewing even the slightest trace of kavod. He didn’t allow anyone to make him into a ‘rebbi.’ He always remained simple, unassuming, and nonchalant, allowing no one to attach any kind of aura to him.

“There was generally a long line of bochurim waiting to present their questions to Rav Zundel, but he did not allow them to wait for long. In order to prevent bittul Torah on the part of the bochurim waiting on line, he would give the most succinct answers possible. He did not permit bochurim to engage in lengthy debates with him. He would simply reduce his responses to the simplest possible replies and would then move on to the next bochur in line.

“He used to greet the talmidim who approached him by asking them, ‘What does this talmid chochom want to know? What does this tzaddik have to say?’ He used these terms when he addressed the bochurim, most of whom he did not know by name, because he didn’t have enough time to learn the names of all the talmidim. He was incredibly patient and he answered every questioner with tremendous pleasure. If he saw that a bochur wasn’t understanding him, he would repeat his answer exactly as he had given it the first time, without showing a trace of disappointment or impatience at the need to repeat himself. And so he would go on from one bochur to another, answering every question without hesitation, until the seder ended at 7:00 at night and he continued with his daily schedule.

“Even more than he taught the bochurim,” his former talmid concludes, “I believe that his mere appearance in the yeshiva had a massive impact on them, as the bochurim were exposed to a man who was a gadol baTorah, who habitually stood in one place and learned for four hours straight, exuding simcha and humility at all times.”