Sage Stories from the Radical Neighborhood



Maimonides writes that one form of beloved speech is “to praise those who are great and to speak of their positive attributes so that their manner of behavior will find favor with human beings, and they will follow in their ways.” (Commentary on Mishnah Pirkei Avos 1:17)


Dear Friends,


In the previous letter – “A Radical New Neighborhood” – I mentioned that the chareidi neighborhood of Shaarei Chesed has also served as the home of leading sages of the 20th century. In this letter, I will share with you some stories about one of these sages, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, whose yahrtzeit – the 20th of Adar – was on the Shabbos that we just experienced. Some of our leading sages, including Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, were called by the intimate and respectful title “Reb”; thus, he was often referred to as Reb Shlomo Zalman.


He was born on the 23rd of Tamuz 5670 (1910) to Rav Chaim Yehudah Leib and Tzivya Auerbach. Both his father and his mother were descended from well-established and learned Jerusalem families. His father, Rav Chaim Yehudah Leib, was considered one of the luminaries of his era in the secrets of the Torah; moreover, he was the founder and head of Yeshiva Sha’ar HaShamayim, where Kabbalah was studied.


The Jerusalem of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s youth was characterized by poverty and deprivation, especially during World War I. Food was so scarce that he seldom had any lunch, and he would occasionally eat a slice of stale bread and a bit of halvah for dinner. His solitary meal of the day consisted of a bowl of watery soup; hunger was his constant companion.


He became a leading authority on the “halacha” – the requirements of the Torah path, and he also became the head of Yeshiva Kol Torah, a noted chareidi yeshiva. Once, when giving a shiur (lesson/lecture) at Kol Torah, he noticed that a particular student was absent. The boy’s study partner reported that the young man was a bit under the weather.  Rav Shlomo Zalman then remarked:


“When I was young, if I had closed my Gemara (book of the Talmud) every time I felt slightly ill, I never would have learned at all.”


Rev Shlomo Zalman was a warm and loving person; moreover, he was very calm and patient. He once told someone, however, that as a boy, he was quick to anger and became irritated easily; thus, he worked on himself to become a calm and patient person. These good qualities increased his ability to guide and help others.


In 5690 (1930), he married Chaya Rivkah Ruchamkin, whose father was a rav who was a well-known Jerusalem educator. After the wedding, Rav Shlomo Zalman and his wife lived in the house of her parents, and the entire family ate their meals together. Although Rav Shlomo Zalman became a leading sage, he did not sit at the head of the table – even after Rav Ruchamkin’s passing. He maintained that the seat at the head of the table was reserved for the person who now led the family, his elderly mother-in-law. She, however, was very weak due to her advanced years, and she was not able to take her meals with the family in the dining room; nevertheless, out of respect for her, Rav Shlomo Zalman still refused to sit at the head of the table. In general, he was very devoted to his mother-in-law, and he showed her great honor.


Rav Shlomo Zalman used his Torah wisdom to wisely and warmly guide people during periods of sorrow and crisis. The following story can serve as an example:


When a young married student of his passed away, the student’s family had to make a quick decision about where he should be buried. They had the option of selecting a single plot that was available in an area of the cemetery where some of their distinguished ancestors were interred, or alternatively, they could purchase a double plot in a different area, so that his widow, after her “one hundred and twenty years,” could be laid to rest in the vacant site adjacent to his. They consulted Rav Shlomo Zalman, and he ruled that the student should be buried in the single plot near his ancestors and relatives. As he later explained, his rationale for the decision in this particular case was that buying the double lot would place an unfair emotional burden on the young widow. The woman had every right to remarry; however, if there was a burial plot waiting for her alongside her deceased husband, she would always be plagued with the thought that perhaps it was inappropriate for her to remarry, as she would feel that she had a commitment to her husband – to lie at his side after she passed away.


Although Rav Shlomo Zalman was a leading sage and a head of Yeshiva Kol Torah, he insisted on riding the city bus like anyone else. This was despite the protests of the yeshiva administration and others who wanted him to have a driver. On one of his bus rides, a woman who was dressed very immodestly suddenly sat down in the seat next to him. He then rang the bell and got off at the next stop, even though his destination was several stops away. Someone later asked him why he didn’t simply stand in the aisle until he arrived at his stop. He explained that had he had gotten up and stood in the aisle right after the woman sat down, she might have felt hurt or embarrassed that he did not continue to sit next to her, and he did not want to cause any distress to this “daughter of Israel.”


In his older years, he allowed himself to go by taxi or to have others drive him to and from the yeshiva. Yeshiva Kol Torah became established in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, and he often traveled with the drivers of Hapisgah cab service in Bayit Vegan. One driver at Hapisgah noted that Rav Shlomo Zalman always sat up front, alongside the driver, instead of in the back seat. The driver said:


“I sensed that he didn’t want me to feel like his servant or his chauffeur, you know? And he’d talk to me about my family and like that.”


The dispatcher at Hapisgah had this to add:


“One day I was taking my turn behind the wheel, and I picked up Reb Shlomo Zalman over at Kol Torah. As usual, he climbed into the front seat and greeted me, calling me his manhig (leader). I tried to explain to him that in Hebrew the word for ‘driver’ is nahag and that although the two words have the same root, manhig means ‘leader.’ I figured he was more accustomed to speaking Yiddish, so he wasn’t aware of the subtleties of Hebrew grammar. But no – Reb Shlomo Zalman insisted that I was his manhig because I would ‘lead’ him to his destination. It was such a small thing, and yet it made me feel great. This important Rav considered me his manhig!” (The driver was unaware that Rav Shlomo Zalman and all the teachers at Yeshiva Kol Torah taught in Hebrew.)


Rav Yehohsua Neuwirth, a famous Torah scholar who lives in Bayit Vegan, explained that Rav Shlomo Zalman believed that money was not adequate compensation for services rendered; it was essential to also treat the providers of such services with extreme courtesy and to show a genuine interest in their work and in them as individuals.


Rav Shomo Zalman was known for his many acts of loving-kindness, including his visits to hospitals and homes for the elderly, and he was also known for his great devotion to “tzedakah” – the sharing of our resources with those in need; in fact, many people gave him tzedekah money to distribute as he saw fit.


He was especially known for his devotion to the needs of widows and orphans, and there were cases where he acted as a surrogate father for orphans. The following story can serve as an example:


A Torah-committed man whose wife was about to give birth called the ambulance, but when the ambulance arrived, the man suddenly died. The ambulance staff tried to revive him, and they brought him to the hospital, but all the efforts to revive him did not succeed. His wife was also brought to the hospital where she gave birth to a baby boy. She sent a messenger to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to ask whether she could name the baby after his father. Instead of replying through the messenger, Rav Shlomo Zalman went immediately to the hospital to speak with the bereaved woman. He arrived at the maternity ward, and his comforting presence and sensitive words helped to raise her spirits. After hearing the details of her husband’s passing, he told her she could name the boy after her husband. In addition, he told the mother, who also had other children at home, that he intended to serve as a ‘father” to her children, and he requested that she inform him of any problem that might arise. As the children were growing up, Rav Shlomo Zalman was attentive to their spiritual and physical needs, and he also helped the mother to remarry and begin a new life.


Rav Shlomo Zalman had a deep and abiding love for Eretz Yisrael and especially for Yerushalayim – Jerusalem. He was a true Yerushalmi with passionate and enduring ties to the city where he was born and raised, and where he lived his entire life.


According to his view, one should not react at a wedding with an immediate “Mazel Tov” upon the breaking of the glass under the chuppah (wedding canopy), for this custom commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. He maintained that we should first pause and reflect on the destruction. After the pause, the wishing of “Mazel Tov” would then be appropriate, for it would encourage the couple and not allow them to dwell upon sadness at their moment of joy. At wedding ceremonies, when the glass was broken under the chuppah, Rav Shlomo Zalman would recite the following verse from the Book of Psalms:


“If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue adhere to my palate, if I fail to remember you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy.” (Psalm 137:5.6)

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was loved and respected by people in all the Torah-committed communities. For example, many people in the National Religious communities consulted with this chareidi sage, and he had a warm relationship with them. When Rav Shlomo Zalman passed away on 20 Adar, 5755, the local police estimated that at least 300,000 people attended the levaya (funeral). Other sources reported a turnout of nearly 500,000.

Many secular-oriented Jews, who had never heard his name, wanted to know why Rav Shlomo Zalman merited such respect. Newspaper reporters searched through their secular encyclopedias and computerized archives for information about him; however, the encyclopedias did not mention him at all, while his name appeared in the archives of the Ha’aretz newspaper a few times, but merely incidentally.

This oversight stunned the reporters, who were ashamed of their ignorance. Candidly, Tom Segev of Ha’aretz admitted:

“The thoughts of the great halachic authorities of the Torah world are not included in the curricula of secular Israeli schools. But those thoughts are one facet of Israeli identity that I prefer not to forego.”

As the Prophets of Israel taught us, it is the Torah – the Divine Teaching – that defines our national identity. May all of our brethren rediscover this spiritual identity, and may we soon experience the complete fulfillment of the following prophecy: “For from Zion will go forth Torah and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).


Be Well, and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)

Additional Stories and Comments:

1. Reb Michel Gutfarb served as Rav Shlomo Zalman’s main assistant for his tzedekah activities. When Reb Michel Gutfarb was hospitalized for treatment of a serious condition, Rav Shlomo Zalman not only become involved with helping his assistant; the Rav would also call his assistant’s home every other night to find out how Mrs. Gutfarb was doing.

The strain she was under was taking its toll, but the voice on the line announcing, “This is Shlomo Zalman Auerbach,” always lifted her spirits.

2. On his way home from the synagogue one brisk morning, Rav Shlomo Zalman encountered a jogger clad in “sweats” and running shoes, pounding the pavement of Shaarei Chesed, a sheen of perspiration glistening on his face in the Jerusalem sunlight. The jogger was Rav Berel Wein, a well-known rabbi and historian from the United States. The visiting rabbi was somewhat abashed at meeting this leading Torah sage while wearing his jogging clothes. He silently hoped to retain his anonymity, but he of course greeted Rav Shlomo Zalman with appropriate deference. Rav Shlomo Zalman, however, recognized him and returned his greeting. In order to alleviate the jogging rabbi’s embarrassment, Rav Shlomo Zalman remarked with a smile: “Nu, nu, one’s health is also important!” 


(Rav Berel Wein now lives in Jerusalem.)

3. Most of the information in the above letter is from the moving biography of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach by Hanoch Teller. The title is, “And from Jerusalem, HIS WORD.” The book has been distributed by Feldheim, and it is available from the author:   . When you visit this website, press down on “books” and scroll down for information about this biography. The information includes the cover of the book which has a beautiful picture of Reb Shlomo Zalman with his warm smile.

4. I also took some information from an essay about Rav Shlomo Zalman which appears in Volume 2 of “In Their Shadow” – a Hebrew work by Rav Shlomo Lorincz, a leading and respected community activist who also served as a member of Israel’s Knesset.

In this work, Rav Lorincz writes about the leading Torah sages who guided or influenced him. Volume 1 has been translated into English by Feldheim, and an English translation of Volume 2 is scheduled to appear. For further information on this inspiring work, visit:   .

5. In my research for this article, I came across an informative article about the life of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach which appears on the following site:  . This article also mentions the occasions when Rav Shlomo Zalman felt a Torah obligation to take a strong public stand on certain issues.

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