A Gentle Giant : Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l

by | in Tribute

This article originally appeared in the fall 1995 issue of Jewish Action

That Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, was relatively unknown to the general Israeli public — the secular press was astounded by the attendance of a quarter of a million people at his funeral — was largely to his credit. The ignorance derived, in essence, from his studied lifelong avoidance of the confrontational arena.

Reb Shlomo Zalman was, in effect, the Israeli Reb Moshe Feinstein, zt”l. That equation does some injustice to each, as it ignores particular qualities which energized and enriched their lives and beings. And yet, it relates, surprisingly, to major elements regarding role, status, personality and perspective which were critical to their position as gedolim of our generation. Both were, formally roshei yeshivah, for decades, and yet were preeminent as untitled poskim. Both fused humility and authority, and both sought, by precept and example — by what they did and refrained from doing — to promote harmony and diminish confrontation. In the specific area of psak, each dealt with the cutting edge of “modern” issues, particularly as regards medicine and technology; and each approached sheilot animated by sensitivity to human concerns as well as fidelity to halachah.

Finally, while both were deeply rooted in the charedi world throughout, they maintained genuine rapport with the full range of the Torah community.

Analogies aside, however, Reb Shlomo Zalman could certainly be appreciated on his own merits. Reb Shlomo Zalman was endowed, as a lamdan, with a set of qualities which served him, ideally, as a posek. He had encyclopedic knowledge — and he had it, as mechudaddim beficha, at his fingertips. His temperament was remarkably judicious, invariably level-headed, and never pedestrian. He was deferential to the views of others, and yet genuinely self-confident. He could be innovative, and even daring. His view, for example, contrary to that of the Chazon Ish, that the application of lifnei iveir, the proscription against enabling others to violate an issur, needs to consider long-range effects* rather than immediate concerns, has potentially radical implications. But his innovations do not bear a forced aspect and never appear improvised. Finally, he had a sharply honed sense of balance — of general principle as distinct from detail, of textual and logical analysis in juxtaposition to his rootedness in a specific tradition.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt"l

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l

He brought to the interpretation and application of halachah a profound sensitivity to the human dimension. Along the continuum of psak, he was far from being amongst the most radical mekilim, and he worked within clearly perceived parameters. But an awareness of the human element was always a significant factor — and not only in deviant situations. Moreover, in many contexts, he regarded this as a halachic interest, quite apart from the personal. Some of his pesakim concerning Shabbat, for instance, were informed by the sense that the day should be experienced as pleasant rather than as an obstacle course.

This element was no doubt related, in part, to his own personality. One did not see in him emotional extremes. He was a blend of composure and joy — and that, within the context of a remarkably integrated life. There was in him a streak of temimut in the sense of naivete. He could, for instance, express amazement over a report that in America there are people who regard themselves as wholly observant, and yet cut corners with respect to income tax. An astute judge of people and situations, he yet combined innocence with perspicacity. Above all, however, he was a tamim in the best and fullest sense of the term, “hit’halech lefanei ve’hyeh tamim,” as commanded to Avraham. He led a wholly organic life, without fissures and devoid of conflicts, in the service of the Ribbono Shel Olam. It was not exceedingly dramatic, but it was manifestly joyous: “uleyishrei lev simchah.”

The human touch was manifest in yet another aspect — simplicity and, concurrently, accessibility. He lived in a very plain apartment — by no means ascetic but quite modest — where he would receive anyone who had a sh’eilah. The line at the foot of the steps would form daily around two o’clock, and one didn’t need an introduction to enter. Every question, even if, from a certain perspective, it may have been trivial, was treated seriously. If it mattered enough to a person who presented it, it was important enough to Reb Shlomo Zalman as well. And above all, not just the questions but the people were treated with respect. He knew how to listen — and not just to halachic inquiries. He communicated a sense of genuine respect to interlocutors; he gave you a sense of worth. In all my discussions with him, I found him reassuringly paternal, but never condescending; and that was the typical response.

Finally, he was marked, quite strikingly, by a measure of openness. Let there be no mistake. He himself was deeply rooted — intellectually, emotionally, hashkafically — in the world of the yishuv hayashan, and its values and priorities guided his own life and what he sought for his children and talmidim. But he could recognize and acknowledge the worth of those who were cut from different cloth and appreciate their needs and their accomplishments. He not only abjured factional politics but abhorred it, and he judged people on their merits rather than by labels.

Cloistered in many respects, he was nevertheless very much in touch with others. He was, of course, grounded in the charedi world, living in Sha’arei Chesed — an area marked by the very best features of charediyut — intensive commitment to Torah learning and halachic observance, and a deep awareness of tradition, classical and recent, and marred by none of the worst features. Its culture does not denigrate labor and its walls are not plastered with hate-mongering posters. It is an area within which the impact of such figures as Rav Zvi Pesach Frank and Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop is still felt; within which Rav Kook’s memory has always been very much esteemed. Reb Shlomo Zalman was inextricably engaged in this neighborhood for many decades and, indeed, left his imprint upon it.

Reb Shlomo Zalman was of this world and he served to guide it. While not a philosophic devotee in the narrow sense of the term — he was, generally, not much involved in philosophic thought — he had great respect for Rav Kook. And beyond that, while certainly not an ideological Zionist, he had an intuitive appreciation of the significance of the enterprise of shivat Zion and the building of Eretz Yisrael. Hence, he related positively to the whole gamut of the religious spectrum, and dati-leumi bnei Torah turned to him no less than others. And they found a ready ear and an open mind.

Hence, precisely because he had an empathetic appreciation for much of the broader scene, he was saddened in more recent years, as he felt much was going awry in that scene. His response was not so much anger as concern, disappointment — at times, even anguish. What troubled him primarily was the socio-cultural scene, rather than the political arena — progressive secularization, on the one hand, and divisive polarization, on the other. He no longer felt fully comfortable within his Jerusalem streets. That concern cast a shadow. And yet, what is left with us, and what we shall so sorely miss, is the memory of that remarkable gadol, at once overawing and benign, who bestrode us like a Colossus, and yet related to us, great and small, at the core of our innermost being.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein is a Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Israel.

*Ed. note: For example, he permitted serving food and drink to a non-religious person who would become upset if asked to wash and make the blessing because, in the long run, the negative impact of not serving him would result in a graver sin. He reasoned that there was no “michshol” in serving him since the sin created by serving was less than the future, anticipated sin. (See Minchat Shlomo, chapter 35).

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A Gaon in Deed

It has been said that Reb Shlomo Zalman’s everyday actions were as much a lesson to us as his scholarly discourses and halachic rulings. In this, too, “he was a gaon,” writes long-time disciple, Rabbi Yehoshua Neivirt. He truly exemplified the injunction to behave in a manner which “would cause the name of God to be beloved on your account.”

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The parents of a retarded child came to Reb Shlomo Zalman to discuss institutionalizing him. When he asked what the boy said about the proposal, they replied that it had not occurred to them to ask him. Reb Shlomo Zalman was irate. “You intend to evict him from his home and consign him to a strange place with a regimented atmosphere,” he told them. “He must be encouraged and not allowed to feel that he is being betrayed.”

He asked to see the youngster and the parents fetched him. “What is your name, my boy?” the gaon asked.
“Akiva.”
“Akiva, my name is Shlomo Zalman. I am the gadol hador, the greatest Torah authority of this generation, and everyone listens to me. You will be entering a special school now; I would like you to represent me and look after all of the religious matters in your new home.”

The boy’s eyes were riveted to Reb Shlomo Zalman’s face and the awestruck parents sat with their mouths agape as the Rav continued. “I shall now give you semichah which makes you a rabbi and I want you to use this honor wisely.”
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For many years, the local grocery store in Reb Shlomo Zalman’s neighborhood was run by a widow. To operate such a store consumed every ounce of the woman’s strength. Delivery vans would pull up at dawn and the truckers would deposit crates of milk and dairy products on the sidewalk. Later, the widow would drag them inside when she opened the store. One day, to her delight, she saw that the crates had been placed at the front entrance, considerably easing her workload.

This phenomenon recurred the following morning and continued day after day. One morning, the widow felt that she should thank the drivers personally, so she made a point of arriving at the store very early. However, to her amazement, when the vans appeared the men deposited her delivery on the edge of the sidewalk as they had always done in the past. Perplexed, she stood on the pavement wondering how the heavy crates had transported themselves to her door, when suddenly the figure of Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach appeared, tallis bag under his arm. One by one, he lifted the heavy crates, deposited them in front of the grocery store, and hurried off to shul.
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Reb Shlomo Zalman once confided to Reb Meir Goldvicht that when he was young he was easily irritated. “So,” he explained, “I informed my fiancee as soon as we became engaged that I wished to establish a simple method whereby I would never come to anger. She agreed to give me her full support, whatever that method should be. Then, in the cheder yichud, when we were alone for the first time after the chuppah, I told her the method I had devised.” He concluded with a twinkle in his eye, “The method was that if we were ever to disagree about anything — she is right!”

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After 54 years of marriage, the Rebbetzin passed away. At her funeral Reb Shlomo Zalman was heard to utter the following remarkable words: “It is customary to request forgiveness from the deceased. However, I have nothing to ask you forgiveness for. During the course of our marriage never did anything occur that would require either of us to ask the other’s forgiveness…”
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When Rav Shlomo Zalman passed away, a beggar in Sha’arei Chesed sobbed in her anguish: “Now who will say ‘good morning’ to me every day?” (Mi yagid li boker tov?)
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Towards the end of her life Reb Shlomo Zalman’s mother-in-law lost her sight and she could no longer recite Tehillim as she had so loved to do in the past. Reb Shlomo Zalman taped the entire book of Tehillim, so she could continue her practice.
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Shortly before he passed away he advised a young family member, “Learn well. Eat well. Sleep well. And always smile.”
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Dr. Abraham of Shaarei Zedek Hospital recalls that Reb Shlomo Zalman never disparaged an individual with whom he disagreed. He would merely say, “Aich zeh yachol lihyot? (How can that be?)”
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Though he was the greatest halachic authority of our day, and was particularly skilled at solving modern-day questions, Reb Shlomo Zalman abhorred any and all titles appended to his name. In his will, he requested that his headstone be no higher than that of his parents and he stipulated that “you may add to the headstone the following words. ‘He developed disciples in the Yeshiva Kol Torah and disseminated Torah to the many.’ Should someone wish to say words of eulogy, I strongly request that they be concise and not say words of praise about me.”

Most of the vignettes above are adapted from the book by Hanoch Teller, And From Jerusalem His Word, distributed by Feldheim Publishers.

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