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Man to Man

It’s been 25 years since the passing of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l, but time hasn’t dimmed his legacy

Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Mishpacha archives

 

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isit the study of Rav Yechiel Michel Stern, rav of Jerusalem’s Ezras Torah neighborhood, and you’ll note a distinct duo of influences. In his manner of addressing people, you can discern shades of his father, the revered Kaminitzer mashgiach, Rav Moshe Aharon Stern, known for humility and respect for every person. But when he delivers psak, you can see the reflected light of his uncle, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, whose 25th yahrtzeit falls this week.

A son-in-law of Rav Avrohom Dov Auerbach, rav of the Baka neighborhood, Rav Michel Stern forged a close relationship with the brother of his father-in-law, Rav Shlomo Zalman. Decades later, that relationship’s impact is still clear. It’s there when Rav Michel lifts phone after ringing phone, and as he issues clear rulings with precision, detail, and pleasantness. And when he opens his personal memories, the picture of Rav Shlomo Zalman that emerges is sharp in detail and vivid in character.

Back when Rav Stern was a young man, Rav Shlomo Zalman placed great trust in him, dispatching the young Rav Stern on all sorts of missions. From the instructions he received and the feedback he garnered, he learned crucial information not just about the missions, but about the man behind them.

“When I published the sefer, Hamaor Hagadol, in tribute to my uncle,” Rav Stern recalls, “people who read it came to me with tainehs, complaints. They felt that I’d emphasized all the wrong things — that I had overlooked Rav Shlomo Zalman’s geonus and breadth of knowledge and focused instead on his middos, painting him as a kindly old zeide.”

The Ezras Torah rav is a great storyteller, and he laughs. “But that was the man! I’m not sure we’ve ever seen that blend of such mastery of Torah and such mastery of bein adam l’chaveiro: His insight into other people and his determination to make things good for them were exceptional.”

Rav Michel shares a story of an older bochur who lived alone with his elderly mother. The fellow was looking for a shidduch, with the obvious proviso that whomever he would marry would accept the fact that the aged mother was part of the package and would be joining the young couple in their new home.

There weren’t too many interested candidates, and concerned relatives petitioned Rav Shlomo Zalman to get involved and tell the bochur that it was an unreasonable expectation. Rav Shlomo Zalman defended the bochur. “One doesn’t throw a mother out,” he said, and when the relatives argued, he reiterated his position. “One does not throw a mother out.”

Eventually, the bochur got engaged and he came to receive Rav Shlomo Zalman’s mazel tov wishes.

“You wanted a kallah who is a baalas chesed, a good compassionate soul,” Rav Shlomo Zalman said, “and baruch Hashem, you found her. Her willingness to live with your mother is a good thing — but you should know that when it comes down to it, living with your mother isn’t a good thing for the marriage. I’m asking you, now that you found the baalas chesed you sought, to look into a good, comfortable nursing home for your mother.”

“That,” affirms the Ezras Torah rav, “encapsulates the unique approach of my uncle.”

Rav Stern shares another story. Rav Shlomo Zalman’s brother Rav Eliezer passed away young, and left a son named Reb Yaakov Yosef. When this orphaned nephew got married in Bnei Brak, Rav Shlomo Zalman — who rarely left Yerushalayim — asked if accommodations could be arranged for him to sleep in Bnei Brak after the wedding.

It seemed strange, but the gadol explained his reasoning to one of his own children. The custom, at the time, was for the chassan and kallah to open their wedding gifts following the chasunah. The poverty at the time was such that this was a huge event for them, likely the only time they would be receiving such gifts of money, housewares, or other items.

It was customary for the young couple’s parents to remain in the hall to share in the excitement, and Rav Shlomo Zalman wanted to be there for his nephew, the orphan — and so he arranged to sleep locally, in Bnei Brak.

On Erev Pesach, Rav Shlomo Zalman would distribute envelopes to needy families. His trusted partner in this endeavor was Rav Stern, who still remembers making those rounds.

“He gave me precise instructions what to say to each family. For example, he told me to tell one large family that the money is only to be used for Chol Hamoed trips, to take the children to the park or the zoo. And if they used the money for something else, I was to tell them that it would be considered gezel.

“He explained to me that this family was extremely poor and would surely want to buy matzos and other things for Yom Tov with it. But when all was said and done they would have those other things; there were funds and organizations that would send matzos and wine to needy families, so my uncle worried about something else.

“On the day after Yom Tov, he told me, the children would return to cheder and their friends would be discussing what they had done on Chol Hamoed… and they would be forced to sit quietly. Why should the children have to suffer? That was his worry, and that’s why he gave such specific instructions for that family.”

In the very heart of the Holy City, with its various ideological strains, Rav Shlomo Zalman stood as a tower of peace, unable to be pulled in any direction.

“His essence was moderation; he opposed extremism,” Rav Michel recalls. Once my uncle was informed of Shabbos desecration near Shaarei Chesed, and he himself went to the organized protest at the site — but as soon as he heard that they were shouting, he went back home. True halachic protest, he explained, is an expression of anguish, and has no connection to shouts and castigation.

“Once he determined that a certain approach was hashkafically correct, he could not be swayed. He did not get involved at all in the split between Agudah and Degel HaTorah in 5749/1989. Everyone wanted to know his opinion of the split, but he did not utter a word. Even his children didn’t know what his opinion was.

“Then the Lev Simchah of Gur made a siyum on daf yomi Yerushalmi in Binyanei Ha’umah, and he invited Rav Shlomo Zalman to the siyum. It was clear that if he would attend, it would demonstrate his support for Agudas Yisrael. Rav Shlomo Zalman accepted the invitation, and pressure mounted. ‘Until now you refrained from expressing an opinion; what happened?’ his children asked.

“His response was simple: ‘If the Lev Simchah asked me to come, I cannot refuse him. I have an obligation of hakaras hatov to him.’

“What was the reason for that debt? Well, there was a great gaon and Gerrer chassid name Rav Simchah Bunim Leizerson, who married Rav Shlomo Zalman’s sister. He was niftar suddenly, at a young age, leaving a widow and orphans. During the shivah, the Lev Simchah approached Rav Shlomo Zalman and committed to undertaking half of all the family’s expenses until the widow — Rav Shlomo Zalman’s sister — lived out her days, on the condition that Rav Shlomo Zalman assume responsibility for the other half. Rav Shlomo Zalman agreed and was deeply grateful. Now, he felt it would be impossible to turn down a personal invitation from this benefactor, even though it might have complex political ramifications.

“When the Lev Simchah found out that there had been pressure on Rav Shlomo Zalman not to come, he sent his gabbai, the legendary Rav Chanina Schiff, to ‘uninvite’ him, since he didn’t want to put him in a difficult position — but Rav Shlomo Zalman had decided just the opposite: If the Rebbe was such a vatran, then he certainly had to go, and he did.”

Beyond the greatness in Torah and kindness, Rav Michel points out another aspect of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s character.

“My uncle’s precision and clarity in halachah were products of a clear mind; he was a very organized and efficient person. When he was appointed rosh yeshivah in Kol Torah, the administration asked him to change his headgear from the wide-brimmed Yerushalmi hat to a traditional rosh yeshivah-style Homburg. He told them he didn’t mind buying a new, nicer hat — but he wouldn’t change styles. Not because the hat style was that important, but because he believed in consistency, in keeping things as they are unless there is a pressing reason.”

Rav Michel, our host, rich in the particulars of history, tells us that there were others who did change their hats: Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap, and Rav Chaim Leib Auerbach (Rav Shlomo Zalman’s father) all changed hats at some point in their lives, switching from Yerushalmi wide-brimmed hats to litvishe-style up-hats. As he tells it, those who switched their hat were uneasy with the change, but when Rav Chaim Leib switched, he immediately walked through the streets of the frum neighborhoods of Meah Shearim, Zichron Moshe, and Shaarei Chesed so that everyone could see him with the new hat and he wouldn’t have to endure more than one round of chatter and stares.

The peace Rav Shlomo Zalman exuded reflected his inner tranquility: At times of tefillah, he barely moved, standing with serenity and calm.

Rav Shlomo Zalman once said that for him, a successful day was a day when he was able to recite Bircas Ha’Avos in all three tefillos with kavanah. “There is a well-known story,” Rav Michel recounts, “that I originally heard from his son, Reb Mottel. Reb Mottel once noticed that Rav Shlomo Zalman was reciting the brachah of Nodeh Lecha a second time during Bircas Hamazon. Rav Shlomo Zalman was not the nervous type, and Reb Mottel wondered what the reason was. After he finished bentshing, Rav Shlomo Zalman explained that he had said Nodeh Lecha without kavanah, and thanking Hashem without true focus isn’t thanking Hashem at all!”

The Ezras Torah rav got to see Rav Shlomo Zalman’s famous equanimity from a unique vantage point.

“One year, he underwent an eye operation in Elul. We wondered how he would be able to select daled minim if his eyes were not functioning properly. How would he manage? What would he do? How could we help out? But there was one person who had no worries at all: Rav Shlomo Zalman had already asked a Yemenite neighbor to purchase the arba minim for him. He felt there was no need for anyone to make a fuss about it on his behalf.”

While Rav Shlomo Zalman had eyes to see issur and heter, the nuances of halachah, he saw the nuances of emotion as well. He could look at a person and penetrate his essence, and was a shrewd judge of human character. As a talmid in psak, a close relative, a trusted baal tokeia — but most of all, just a Yid, brought in by Rav Shlomo Zalman to be kind to other Yidden — Rav Michel often saw that sixth sense at work.

“Once he asked me, ‘Michel, do you have some extra time? There’s a lonely Jew from Shaarei Chesed who is hospitalized at Herzog and I want to visit him.’ We traveled to the hospice together, and when we arrived, it was clear that the patient was not even conscious.

“Rav Shlomo Zalman wanted to speak to the doctor, so I quickly filled in the doctor regarding whom he was about to speak with. Rav Shlomo Zalman asked about the man’s condition and then decided we should come again. Two weeks later we came, and there was no change. I wondered why we had to go visit if the man was not conscious.

“Rav Shlomo Zalman said to me, ‘You have to realize that he is alone in the world, with no family. The doctor doesn’t have to report to anyone, there are no concerned family or friends inquiring about him — so at least if we come every two weeks, he’ll know that he has to answer to someone….’”

“Rav Shlomo Zalman would apply this logic to parents asking about children in cheder. If parents don’t ask the rebbi for updates on the child’s progress, the rebbi feels no obligation to report to anyone, but if the father asks each week, the rebbi knows to pay more attention so he’ll have what to report, and his entire approach will be different.”

Memories of those visits to the Herzog hospice brings another story.

“One Friday, Rav Shlomo Zalman called to tell me that there was a Yid in Shaarei Chesed who needed to be hospitalized. At the time, hospitalizing an elderly person was difficult; no hospital wanted to admit old people.

“He said to me, ‘Michel, arrange it.’ I asked how, and he said that if he would know how he wouldn’t have asked me to make it happen. He added that although he usually stopped doing melachah from 40 minutes before shkiah, he would wait at home until 20 minutes before shkiah to hear from me what happened.

“I met Reb Yud’ke Paley, a feisty chareidi activist known never to take no for an answer, and asked him if he had an idea for me. ‘Don’t mention that you know this man or take any responsibility for him,’ he advised me. ‘Just bring him to the hospital and tell him you found him on the street, and make it clear that it’s their responsibility to care for him,’ he advised me. That’s what I did. I found someone to help me transport the elderly man in a taxi to the old Shaare Zedek building. I took the man inside and, true to form, the staff started to tell me why they couldn’t admit him — they were changing shifts, they couldn’t take responsibility for my relative, I should find a different hospital for him, basically a long stream of excuses. So I told them that I’d found this elderly gentleman lying on the floor in the shuk so I brought him in, it had nothing to do with me.

“A tumult ensued, and they asked me what was wrong with the man. I told them that I didn’t know him so I had no idea what was wrong. Then I waited down the hall to see what would happen. It turns out that the shift supervisor came and said that according to the law, anyone who entered the emergency room had to be treated. They took him for X-rays, discovered an abscess, and immediately took him to the operating room.

“I made it home before the Shabbos siren and I called Rav Shlomo Zalman with the good news. He asked how I’d gotten the fellow admitted, and I told him about the little pretense I’d employed. He asked that I not spread word of the story because it was done through an untruth.”

Rav Michel leans forward. “You have to understand,” he says. “With Rav Shlomo Zalman, anyone caught not saying the truth lost all credibility with him. It simply was not an option, no matter who it was.”

Though Rav Shlomo Zalman understood his towering position in the world of halachah, humility was his hallmark. Rav Stern recalls how Hamodia publisher Reb Moshe Akiva Druk once referred to Rav Shlomo Zalman as “the posek hador.” In response, Rav Shlomo Zalman wrote him a letter: “You are my cousin. Explain to me how you can do such a thing to me.” He considered it an embarrassment, and he asked that it should not be repeated.

“Reb Moshe Akiva enlarged that letter and hung it in his office in the print shop on Yehudit Street, where it was seen by Rav Avraham Yosef Leizerson, a nephew of Rav Shlomo Zalman.”

The next time Rav Leizerson met his uncle, he took advantage of their close relationship to ask what the point of the letter was. “Rav Shlomo Zalman explained: ‘Look, I also seek kavod, I’m a person like everyone else, but look at the kavod I already got.’ Rav Shlomo Zalman then showed his nephew a different letter: a halachic responsa he had sent to Rav Moshe Feinstein, and with which Rav Moshe had concurred. Then he began to dance with that precious paper. ‘Dos iz kavod. A vadai vil ich kavod — this is kavod. Of course I want kavod but I know what kavod is….’”

It’s quiet in the room, a spirit of reverence hovering over Rav Stern’s seforim-covered table.

This leads him to a final story.

“There was a chassidish Yid in Shaarei Chesed; he wore the whole levush, and davened at length, but he had children who — Hashem yishmor — went off the derech. On the other hand, he had a neighbor who was a very simple Jew, and he had wonderful children. That chassidish Yid came to Rav Shlomo Zalman and asked: ‘Why are my children like this, while his children thrive?’ Rav Shlomo Zalman replied, ‘Do you think I was in Shamayim that I know the answer to such questions?’

“After the man left, I pressed him and he said: ‘I’ve thought about this question myself already. And I’ve reached the conclusion that this Jew, pious as he was, was also a big kanoi. So what did his children hear all day? That he was against Rav Kook, against this one and against that one. After being fed a steady diet of opposition, dismissal, and negativity, they decided that they were against all rabbanim, no matter what their sector or affiliation. But the simple Jew, who was less critical, spoke with deference to and awe of gedolei Yisrael he’d seen, and made rabbanim objects of respect to his children.”

Rav Shlomo Zalman concluded by noting that someone who criticizes gedolei Yisrael at home is destroying his children’s chinuch with his own two hands, and there’s no way to know what they will turn out like.

But sharing their greatness, their nobility, and splendor… there is no better recipe for nachas.

 

(Originally Featured in Mishpacha, Issue 801)

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