By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The loss is most profound, and it will be deeply felt by those who knew who he was. He was truly a rosh yeshiva’s rosh yeshiva. He was a ba’al eitzah to thousands of people. He was the last of the gedolei ha’dor of the past generation.
Maran HaGaon Rav Zelik Epstein, zt’l, studied in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Europe under the greatest of Europe’s roshei yeshiva. A brilliant talmid chacham, he immigrated to America and helped rebuild the glorious world of advanced Torah scholarship that had been destroyed in Europe. He began as a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva Torah VoDaas and eventually established Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah-Grodno in Kew Gardens, New York.
Rav Zelik, who was 97 years old at the time of his petirah, was perhaps the last link that our generation had with the gedolim of previous times. Rav Zelik combined outstanding hasmadah, remarkable sensitivity, and profound wisdom and insight-all wrapped in one extraordinary Torah personality.
Even at a young age, Rav Zelik displayed an exceptional grasp of the intricacies of Talmudic learning. He also had the gift of being able to explain and write with incisive clarity. Rav Zelik was extremely close to Reb Yerucham Levovitz, zt’l. Indeed, the kisvei Rav Yerucham that we now have in our possession were written by Rav Zelik when he was but a young man. Sheets of Rav Yerucham’s shiurim were carefully written by Rav Zelik, reviewed by Reb Yerucham, and sent weekly to England.
Rav Zelik married the granddaughter of Rav Shimon Shkop. Rav Zelik’s appreciation of Reb Shimon’s unique brand of lamdus inspired his learning in that direction, as well. Ultimately, he named and patterned his own yeshiva on the analytical approach of Rav Shimon.
Rav Zelik’s son, Reb Kalman, ylc’t, frequently recalled his father’s hasmadah. It was a regular occurrence for his father to be involved in a Talmudic sugyah throughout the night. In the early years after the war, while living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he developed a close friendship with the Klausenberger Rebbe, zt’l. Often the Rebbe would come to Rav Zelik’s home at two o’clock in the morning to discuss a difficult Rashba. Neither of them thought anything of the time.
In fact, Rav Zelik’s unbelievable power of concentration quite often caused him to lose all track of time. Once Rav Zelik was involved in a deep sugyah and noticed that it was a little too late for his son to still be up and about. He instructed him to go to bed. His son, Reb Kalman, went to bed for the night and arose the next morning. When Reb Kalman entered his father’s study, he noticed that his father was still exploring the very same sugyah in which he had been immersed the previous night. Rav Zelik, however, rebuked his son, telling him, “I thought that I told you to go to bed!”
While still in Europe, the daughter of the Alter of Kelm, Chana Liba, saw an opportunity. Her father’s precious writings needed to be collated and were in the attic of her home. Somehow she had found out about Rav Zelik’s talents of writing and she succeeded in having him work on her father’s manuscripts. While typing late into the night, Rav Zelik was startled by a powerful knock on the door; the door was flung open and flashlights were shined into his eyes. He was face-to-face with the KGB. His writing was abruptly interrupted with an interrogation in their headquarters. Thankfully, he explained the situation and was promptly released.
Rav Zelik was remarkably successful in his goal of transplanting higher academic learning onto the shores of the United States. He was able to develop in his talmidim a broad grasp of the deepest sugyos in Shas, combined with a finely honed analytic approach. Another rosh yeshiva once commented, “Rav Zelik was able to do what no other rosh yeshiva could do here in America in terms of building quality talmidim.”
Rav Zelik’s dedication and love for K’lal Yisrael was remarkable. Here was a rosh yeshiva who cared for people as a loving parent and grandparent would. He involved himself in the promotion of shalom bayis between husbands and wives and used his extraordinary wisdom to help many hundreds of couples. Notwithstanding his tremendous hasmadah, he would take time off to help couples straighten out issues between them. I know of one evening when he counseled three couples well into the wee hours of the morning.
He counseled people through their most difficult periods. At one time there were two couples who had to navigate their way through the difficult course of fertility treatments. Neither couple knew that the other husband and wife were undergoing the very same experiences and hardships. Rav Zelik patiently and with remarkable empathy listened to each couple recount the difficult processes entailed. He never indicated to either one of them that he was thoroughly familiar with the harshness of it all. He let them explain and “cry on his shoulder.” Why? Because he truly cared about them and didn’t want to say, “Yes, I know all about it already.” It would have taken away from the empathy he was showing them.
Once, a person was going through a difficult divorce. The other side was quite well-connected and wealthy. Rav Zelik was receiving phone calls day and night from gedolim and powerful people in the community, complaining about something that the person had filed in court. The person said, “Rebbi, let me show you exactly what was filed, so you will have no doubts.” Rav Zelik refused and said, “Chas v’shalom, I trust what you say completely.” Rav Zelik put himself through the grueling task of having to answer to all the pressure without looking for himself at the court papers. Finally, the person brought them over, against Rav Zelik’s protests.
With the papers in hand, Rav Zelik relieved the pressure instantly by calling back the gedolim and telling them firsthand that they contained nothing improper. When asked why he had not requested the papers in the first place, Rav Zelik responded that the person had felt a nirdaf, pursued by nearly everyone. “The person needed to see that someone trusted in them completely. I could not request to see the papers and contribute to the feeling of redifah that the person was experiencing.”
Very few people have the extraordinary sensitivity to empathize with others the way the rosh yeshiva did. He understood the feelings of everyone. Parents came to him with problems, along with their children. He understood what they were experiencing and gave suggestions and advice that really worked. At the same time, he was able to relate and speak to the children who were undergoing feelings unique to the teenage years.
He welcomed people with a hadras panim and a love that was felt immediately. When one interacted with him, he immediately knew where the person was coming from. His sense of hakaras ha’tov with regard to even the slightest of favors was also profound. Everyone and anyone felt welcomed by him.
He advised and helped single mothers, unemployed people, and the downtrodden at all levels of society. How many gedolim are there whose counsel is equally sought by-and given to-a rosh yeshiva, a chassidishe rebbe, a divorcing young couple, and a teenager struggling with emunah issues?
Notwithstanding his extraordinary insight into the dynamics of human psychology and his greatness in Torah learning, Rav Zelik was a tremendous anav, always preferring to be low-key and remain in the shadows. But he had a fabulous sense of humor, too. He adamantly refused to participate in asifos of gedolim. When asked why he did not attend, he responded, “Ninety-five percent of the people who go to these attend because of ga’avah-and I am not from that other five percent!”
At another time, he was asked to sign on to a kol korei forbidding movies, but he refused to do so. When asked why he did not sign, he responded, “K’lal Yisrael’s pants are falling down, and they want me to straighten out K’lal Yisrael’s tie?”
Rav Zelik was a very close yedid of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt’l. The friendship was a deep one, built on an admiration for each other’s profound learning, keen wisdom, and lively personalities. Both of them had a deep grasp of Gemara combined with a remarkable worldliness, a combination possessed by few others. Rav Zelik was Rav Yaakov’s mesader kiddushin, and Rav Zelik’s own wedding was held in Rav Yaakov’s home. Rav Zelik was profoundly grieved when Rav Yaakov passed away.
Other gedolim would travel far distances to seek counsel with Rav Zelik. They found that he was a true thinker. His advice was often “out of the box” but extraordinarily precise.
The loss that is felt in the passing of this remarkable gadol is vivid and clear. He was irreplaceable, not only to K’lal Yisrael as a whole, but to our leaders, our roshei yeshiva, who sought his counsel at every turn. We are all orphans now.
Reprinted from The Five Towns Jewish Times. The author can be reached at email@example.com.