Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg’s halachic mastery crossed every divide
Photos: Matisyahu Goldberg
The shivah house for Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg saw a full spectrum of visitors, the chassidic rebbe with three escorts mingling with the Sephardic dayan, the litvishe rosh yeshivah and the rav of a moshav with a knitted yarmulke crowding in alongside the men in striped Yerushalmi caftans and the professor with a cap and notebook. The crowd was heterogeneous, but so appropriate; it was simply a reflection of how Rav Zalman Nechemiah lived.
Over the past few decades, the heaviest halachic questions were addressed in this small dining room. Dayanim, rebbes, rabbanim from all sectors. Doctors — they all came. There were never gabbaim or attendants here. Anyone with a query just knocked at the door, presented the question, and got an answer — delivered with an unforgettable smile.
He walked alone in the street, without escorts or drivers. He gave thousands of shiurim, traveling anywhere he was asked to go, by bus. Sometimes he’d even stand next to the driver to make sure that no one would get up to offer him a seat — even not the in last year of his life.
Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, who passed away a few weeks ago, left behind a generation wondering who they would turn to for psak. His sons, Reb Aharon, Reb Chaim, and Reb Eliyahu share memories of their esteemed father with Mispacha.
Flight to Freedom
Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg was born eighty-nine years ago, in the city of Minsk, Russia (today Belarus) in 5691. Russia in the 1930s wasn’t an easy place for a Torah observant Jew, and the Communist government had outlawed mitzvah observance, including bris milah. But Rav Zalman Nechemiah’s father, Rav Avraham Goldberg, a rosh yeshivah and prominent figure in the Jewish community, had no intention of capitulating. The night before the bris was to take place, he smuggled his son out of the hospital, and the next day, in a dangerous, clandestine operation, the child was brought into the covenant with a minyan present.
But in KGB Russia, there were no secrets. Already the next day, the young father was arrested, and accused of establishing a yeshivah and learning Torah. Reb Avraham knew he might never leave prison, but what was worrying him was the future of his young son. He sent a letter from his cell to one of the rabbanim in the city, Rav Eizik Rabinowitz, asking, “Make sure my son receives the right chinuch.”
Miraculously, Reb Avraham was released after nine months, and the family obtained transit visas to Latvia. There, Reb Avraham Goldberg was appointed rav of the city of Riga, where they lived for two years. Young Zalman Nechemiah had one unusual memory that remained with him from these two years for the rest of his life: the learning tune of the famed Rogatchover Gaon. He lived in Dvinsk but had come to Riga for a period of time. Rav Zalman Nechemiah never forgot it. “Do you know where the Rogatchover spent his vacation? He sat in the beis medrash. People from all over the city came to the shul just to see him learn.”
After two years, Reb Avraham’s exhaustive efforts to leave Europe bore fruit, and in Elul 5695, the family moved to Eretz Yisrael, when young Zalman Nechemiah was five years old. His genius was apparent at a young age already. His father learned sefer Shaagas Aryeh with him, and over the years they completed all of Seder Zeraim while walking to Shacharis in the morning and home together in the evening.
While Rav Avraham Goldberg had been imprisoned, one of his interrogators, in an effort to break his spirits, had told him, “I don’t understand your efforts to fight for the yeshivah. We both know exactly how your grandchildren will look.” It was clear to the Communist official that within a generation or two there would be no more yeshivah students. Rav Avraham dedicated his whole life to proving him wrong, doing everything possible to help his son progress in learning.
In 5707/1947,Reb Zalman Nechemiah began the Elul zeman in Ponevezh, where the rosh yeshivah, HaRav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman of Ponevezh ztz”l, immediately discerned his outstanding talents. Throughout his life, Rav Zalman Nechemiah would speak wistfully of the learning during those war years. There were nights when there was a blackout, and the bochurim would go out to learn in the orchard. “Do you want to know what an illui is?” an alumnus of Ponevezh relates. “Listen to this story. A group of avreichim once came to Reb Zalman Nechemiah. They were trying to write down the shiurim of the Ponevezher Rav, so they went to speak to his talmidim. Reb Zalman Nechemiah smiled, sat down, and began to review the shiurim from memory. Those shiurim of the Ponevezher Rav were published.”
Rav Shlomo Zalman’s Reflection
By 5713/1953, people began to redt shidduchim for the young bochur, while HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was looking for a shidduch for his daughter. One day, someone suggested a brilliant bochur, Zalman Nechmiah Goldberg.
Harav Shlomo Zalman began to make inquiries in Yeshivas Chevron, where Rav Zalman Nechemiah was then learning. Reb Aharon Goldberg, his son, who was very close with Rav Shlomo Zalman, shares a conversation he had with his grandfather. “When I was finding out about your father, I asked Rav Aharon Cohen, [rosh yeshivah of Chevron] and he told me that he had gone away for vacation for ten days, and your father was with him. He claimed that this wasn’t a bochur who would be a gadol in the future but rather ‘ehr is shoin a gadol — he already is a gadol,’
The shidduch came to fruition and the wedding took place a year later, on 5 Elul 5714/1954. From that point on, Rav Zalman Nechemiah was extremely close to his father-in-law. Together, they tackled complex issues in halachah and worked out complicated dayanus cases. They debated the many questions that arose with regard to developing technology and their halachic aspects. After Rav Shlomo Zalman’s rebbetzin passed away, Rav Zalman Nechemiah moved into his father-in-law’s house for long periods of time.
Dozens of talmidei chachamim sitting at the shivah house repeated the same phrase: “Reb Zalman Nechemiah was the reflection of Rav Shlomo Zalman.” There were so many similarities between them. The lamdanus, the clarity, the brilliance, and above all, the “normalness.” In the Auerbach-Goldberg home, that was the most important description: normal. Be a human, and only then be a yarei Shamayim and gaon.
Rav Zalman Nechemiah spent his newly married years in the kollel of Kamenitz Yeshivah in Jerusalem. His sheer breadth of knowledge was remarkable. “In those years when the world did not know what search engines were, he knew to quote every obscure sefer, as though he had learned it just a few minutes earlier. It was unbelievable.”
This outstanding knowledge, together with a phenomenal memory, turned him into a legend. His father-in-law, Rav Shlomo Zalman, would ask for his help when he needed to find a source. Reb Aharon remembers, “I was in my grandfather’s house. Suddenly, I saw him go over to the phone, dial, speak for a moment, and then hang up. He would say to me: ‘Regards from your father.’ He needed to clarify a source. They both didn’t have extra time for chatting. And my grandfather would marvel time and again, and murmur ‘aza fahrnem — such power.’”
Another time, the sons relate, Rav Shlomo Zalman entered a shul. He met a Sephardic teacher who asked him where a certain medrash was written. Rav Shlomo Zalman smiled and said, “My son-in-law will be here soon; he remembers everything. “When Rav Zalman Nechemiah came, they asked him and he responded immediately, “It’s not a medrash, it’s from the Tzena Urena…”
Rebbi of Dayanim
In 1964, after years of teaching Torah in Kamenitz and other mosdos, Rav Zalman Nechemiah took his semichah tests.
When Rav Zalman Nechemiah came to get semichah from Rav Eliyahu Re’em, one of the gaonim of Jerusalem, the test took more than two whole days. When Rav Shlomo Zalman met Rav Eliyahu, he asked him in surprise: “You give everyone semichah after a short exam; why was it different for my son-in-law?” Rav Eliyahu replied, “He certainly deserves semichah, but I enjoyed engaging him in learning.”
Rav Zalman Nechemiah got his official semichah from HaRav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, HaRav Eliezer Goldschmiedt, and HaRav Betzalel Zolty, zecher tzaddikim livrachah. Afterward, Harav Isser Yehudah Unterman, the chief rabbi at the time, invited him to lead the dayanus kollel that he had opened, giving him the opportunity to render psak on complicated issues without the hassle of hearing the litigants. Over the next few decades, he served as one of the senior dayanim in Eretz Yisrael, without the formal title. Most of the dayanim in recent years are his talmidim, and they would conduct themselves with his guidance. Rav Zalman Nechemiah served as a borer on almost every public matter. He sat with the dayanim of the Eida Hachareidis, HaRav Yaakov Blau and HaRav Moshe Halberstam, ztz”l, as well as the dayan of Bnei Brak HaRav Nissim Karelitz, ztz”l, and was close to all of them.
In 1989, the two chief rabbis, HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu and HaRav Avraham Shapiro, zecher tzaddikim livrachah, launched an initiative to strengthen the beis din of the Israeli Rabbinate. Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg was unanimously selected, along with his friend, HaRav Shlomo Fischer, ybl”c. Initially, HaRav Shapiro had Rav Zalman Nechemiah sit on the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem to become familiar with the way it was run. But within a few years, Rav Zalman Nechemiah went on to the Chief Rabbinate, where he served until his retirement.
He dealt with some of the thorniest contemporary halachic issues. “With the agunos of the World Trade Center — he lived it,” says Reb Eliyahu. In Israel itself, he turned the world over to help prevent women from becoming agunos. “He led to changes in certain police procedures. The police do have a method of verifying the identity of someone killed in a traffic accident, but not one that conforms with halachah. In the army there’s a special procedure, including dental imaging, etc. but not in the police. According to halachah, you need to have absolute verification for the widow to marry again. Abba turned the world upside down with Rav Levisohn and Rav Neuman and they fixed it. Before that there was a lot of hefkeirus in that issue.”
Rav Zalman Nechemiah was famed for his creative solutions to permit agunos whose husbands had remained in the Soviet Union to remarry. He worked together with Rav Yitzchak Zilber, who would bring proxy documents for these agunos. The two worked together far beyond the regular hours of the beis din; often, they also sat on Chol Hamoed.
“At the time, state workers were on strike. Shifts of picketers stood at the entrance to the beis din to prevent entry. Abba and Rav Zilber used to slip in through a back door and sit down to arrange gittin,” says one of his sons.
Abba wrote an interesting letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, recommending that Chabad shluchim across the world should go the courthouse every time a Jewish couple was getting divorced to persuade them to get a real get. When he spoke before the shluchim, he always told them they should perform every Jewish ceremony except kiddushin, to avoid complications.”
“Abba was once threatened by a to’en rabbani who warned him that batei din weren’t legal and that he would appeal to the high court,” says Reb Chaim. Rav Zalman Nechemiah replied, uncharacteristically harshly, that the to’en should understand that he was raising his hand against Moshe Rabbeinu and the Torah.
“[It] irked him was when people claimed that the batei din discriminated against women,” says Reb Chaim. “He always said this was a lie, that women get everything in the batei din — not because he wanted to sound all liberal but because that’s the halachah.”
“He would go to meetings with judges and reprove them,” says Reb Aharon. “Once he met Justice Aharon Barak and he said to him: ‘Are you familiar with our Shulchan Aruch?’ Barak replied that he was not. ‘Have you ever opened a Shulchan Aruch?’ Abba pressed. Barak said he hadn’t. So Abba said: ‘So how do you expect me to take your rulings seriously?’ Barack replied that his rulings were accepted by the rest of the world. Abba answered, ‘You’re more interested in the opinion of some judge in America than in that of your Jewish brothers.”
“Rav Ronski, chief of the army rabbinate, was his talmid and consulted him often,” says Reb Aharon. “Once I was traveling in the center of the country. We passed by a secret army base and Abba told me: ‘I was inside it. We drove with Rav Ronski underground until we arrived in a certain room, and only there did he ask me the questions.’ He didn’t tell me what it was about, but apparently it was about soldiers far over enemy lines — what they should do on Yom Kippur, and so on.”
“He once said that the toughest questions he got were from the yishuvim, it was the same style as the army,” shares Reb Chaim. “For instance, on Seder night when there was guard duty rotating every two hours, what do you do about arbah kosos and when do you say the Haggadah, and so on. He would sit with them and plan out exactly what each person would do.”
Passing the Torch On
Rav Zalman Nechemiah was one of the most prominent rabbabim when it came to giving semichah. Over the years, he tested and ordained hundreds of rabbanim and dayanim around the world. “He was a very organized person,” one of the people involved in the testing system explains. “He had an organized method about what were the important halachic subjects that a rav has to know. He was an expert in guiding rabbanim on what to focus, and what they could skip or learn quickly, and where to invest their energies. In time, when he reached the Rabbinate, he would also guide the test writers about which subjects were important to ask about.”
He could test others on every single subject
He towered above, but he was “with his people.” His children relate, “One day, we saw our Abba writing semichah for someone on a few simanim in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. When we asked him what it was about, he explained: This Jew had been chosen to serve as the rav in a remote town in the Soviet Union. The only halachic question that would be presented to him would be about what time to light a yahrtzeit candle. It was important to me that he should learn a few simanim about basic principles of Yiddishkeit, and at least he should know those before he goes.”
“One of the neighbors donated seforim to the shul I daven in in Abba’s zechus,” shares Reb Aharon. “When Abba came to us for Simchas Torah and saw the dedication, he was sure I had donated the seforim. He asked me what I was thinking — if I’d wanted to donate seforim to the shul, I could have taken some from home. Why waste the money…?
“I explained to him I hadn’t donated the seforim. Our neighbor had wanted very badly for his son to stay in klei kodesh, but his son had other plans. So his father suggested he get semichah, and the son liked the idea. He got hold of Abba’s tests and learned Shulchan Aruch. Today that man is the rav of a neighborhood and heads his own shul. His father, who’s very proud of his son, was so delighted that he donated the seforim to the shul in Abba’s zechus.”
Bridging the Torah World
Rav Zalman Nechemiah was a bridge, uniting anyone who believed in and loved Torah. Litvishe lamdanim alongside Chabad students, Yidden from the old yishuv alongside Hesder yeshivah students — they were all his talmidim. Any Jew who wanted to learn was invited with pleasure. Many of the scholars in the national religious community saw him as their rav. He was invited to Hesder yeshivos and frameworks and never refused. He went everywhere. Without any gabbaim or askanim, he stood at the head of dozens of Torah initiatives and programs. He delivered shiurim in scores of kollelim and batei medrash, without taking into account their level or sectoral affiliation.
“He gave exactly the same shiur to everyone — it didn’t matter who the audience once, he always spoke on the same level,” says Reb Chaim. “During the time of the intifada he used to travel to the most dangerous places to give shiurim. I asked him: ‘Abba, why? It’s dangerous.’ He said: ‘A Jew wants to learn Torah: how can I refuse him?’ And that was the end of it.”
“There was a period when he would travel to Shechem to Kever Yosef,” Reb Aharon recalls. Because he was traveling to Beit El and Kedumim, he dropped in there too. Saba [Rav Shlomo Zalman] urged him to do it. Noam Livnat, brother of the minister [Limor] Livnat, lived in Alon Moreh and was chozer b’teshuvah. When he took ill, my grandfather made sure he would go on to there to be with him. When he recovered, he asked to have someone come learn with him, but everyone in Ohr Samayach wiggled out of it — ‘Shechem, how will we get there?’
“Our uncle, Rav Avraham Dov Auerbach ztz”l, one of the roshei yeshivos of Ohr Samayach, turned to his father, Rav Shlomo Zalman, and asked him to urge Abba to drop in when he was in the area. Saba asked him: ‘Why don’t you ask him yourself?’ Rav Berel answered: ‘If I ask, he’ll tell me: “Why don’t you go?” But if you ask, he won’t tell you: “Why don’t you go?”’
“And so we traveled there regularly for several years. This was already after the Balata refugee camp incidents and it was very dangerous. There were maybe ten talmidim there, but they all became talmidei chachamim. Rav Yehoshua Shapira of Ramat Gan, for instance; Rav David Dudkevitz, the rav of Yitzhar; and others. I was with Abba in Chevron for the wedding of Rav Ben Shachar, and Rav Yehoshua Shapira approached Abba to tell him: ‘I’m a talmid of the rav. I just want the rav to know that his labors were not in vain — we all founded yeshivos.’
“Abba told me the reason Rav Ovadia Yosef succeeded in transforming Mizrachi Jewry was that he came to deliver shiurim without caring if he had an audience of one person, of ten, of a hundred, or of five hundred,” says Reb Aharon. “It was the same with him — he didn’t care who showed up — chareidi or dati-leumi, it was all the same to him. A lot of the learning in that sector is to his credit, because of the example he gave them.”
“A Normaler Iliui”
Rav Shlomo Zalman would say: “I have a son-in-law who is a normaler illui — a normal genius.”
An eminent dayan shares: “Reb Zalman Nechemiah was a normal person. He was a gaon in normalcy. A Jew who lived a normal life, and from that, he was able to rise to the highest levels in brilliance.
“I’m already part of the new generation,” he says. “I remember once being in a car, with a driver. When we drove by the bus stop, I noticed Rav Zalman Nechemiah sitting and waiting. We stopped, but he refused to get in. ‘There’s a bus in half a minute,’ he said with a smile, and went back to his thoughts. I heard many shiurim from him — but that lesson is the one I remember best.”
He was a rav to regular people as well, not only prominent dayanim. “I’m not embarrassed to say,” says a Russian immigrant with tears in his eyes, “that he was my Abba. I took every step in my life with him. He always said to me, ‘We’re both immigrants from Russia. I came at age five. You came a bit later. But we’re the same thing.’”
Rav Zalman Nechemiah was very opposed to feminism, considering it the root of the Reform movement. He delivered thousands of shiurim, but wouldn’t speak before women. But, says his son Reb Eliyahu, “he used to go the Bais Bracha seminary to sign military exemptions for girls from the school. He could sit there for hours. When I expressed surprise he told me: ‘What, you want them to go to a lawyer?’ Those were things he did do.”
“Our father,” his sons say, “was a unique combination. Abba was a good father. He helped at home, dressed us, played with us, and helped our mother.
“We would see him mixing the baby cereal with one hand and holding a sefer and learning in the other hand. It wasn’t a contradiction. He simply was quick. When he came home and saw [what]it [looked like] after the children had been playing all day, he took a few minutes to see what he could do to help. Then he sat down to learn. It was all in a way that appeared so simple and effortless.” Sometimes, he would even learn in the neighbors’ homes, multitasking as a babysitter: “because if I’m staying home and learning anyway, what does it hurt me to do it in the neighbor’s house?”
Deracheha darchi noam. “You spoke to him,” people keep saying, “and you knew that he knew all of Torah, but he was so pleasant, and his smile was so encouraging. Somehow, when you spoke to him in learning, you thought that it was a simple thing to know all of Torah.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 829)
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