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29 Av 5763 - August 27, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Kelm -- The Silent Furnace

by Tzvi Munk

Part II: After the Alter

The first part of this too-short introduction to Kelm discussed the Alter of Kelm, his biography, his influence and his conduct. This part follows the history of Kelm after his passing.

The material is based on Beis Kelm, the recently- published sixth volume in a series devoted to the spiritual heritage and the towering personalities of Kelm mussar. The series, which is published by Machon Sifsei Chachomim. The new volume illuminates the lives of the great men who led the Talmud Torah for the eighty years of its existence, first in Grobin and later in Kelm.

His Son and Spiritual Heir

While the Alter's passing unquestionably marked the end of an era, the wellsprings of Kelm remained just as prolific. Reb Simcha Zissel left a son and two daughters. The son, Rav Nochum Ze'ev Ziv zt'l, had received his education from his father. As a youngster, he learned both in Kelm and Grobin. He also spent some time in Aishishok, the town of perushim near Vilna. For a time after his marriage he lived in Sydnik and then he moved to Koenigsburg, where he was of great assistance to people who arrived in the city in seeking cures for their health problems.

Reb Nochum Ze'ev corresponded with his father throughout his life. The imprint of his father's education and of his Kelm training were recognizable in everything he did. Whoever came into contact with him and witnessed his calm and tranquility, his meticulous behavior and his orderliness, saw in him a classic product of Kelm. In 5670 (1910), some twelve years after his father's petiroh, Reb Nochum Ze'ev returned to Kelm to assist his brother-in-law, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Broide zt'l, in running the yeshiva. Reb Tzvi Hirsch passed away only three years later and all the responsibility for the upkeep of the Talmud Torah came to rest upon the shoulders of Reb Nochum Ze'ev, who faithfully replicated every nuance of his father's approach.

The following story was told by HaRav Eliyohu Lopian and recorded by his talmid, HaRav Gedaliah Eisemann ylct'a. The Alter once arrived at the yeshiva where Reb Nochum Ze'ev was learning to visit his son and monitor his progress. He reached Reb Nochum Ze'ev's lodgings, only to find him absent. Reb Simchah Zissel surveyed his son's bed and closet and then declared that he saw no reason to make any further inquiries about his learning. "I see that all his belongings are in place," he said. "There is no confusion; everything is where it belongs. I am thus quite sure that he is well ordered and methodical in his learning too."

In one of his letters, Reb Simchah Zissel wrote, "I am used to saying that when it comes to people who are capable of knowing the inner [spirit of the] wisdom of mussar, with a reasoned and acceptable approach, I have found none that equal you, my brother, my dear relative and my dear son ny'v, and one other special individual whom I know to be capable of understanding."

When Reb Simchah Zissel became sick, he saw his son as his natural successor. HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l related that in a letter that the Alter wrote to Rav Yitzchok Blaser zt'l, he mentioned that he could not find a suitable personality to replace him in the Talmud Torah. The only one, he wrote, who could and who ought to assume his mantle was his son, except that he was worried about taking his son's time away from learning. Reb Chatzkel pointed out that Reb Simchah Zissel expressed this reservation even though Reb Nochum Ze'ev was known to spend several hours each day attending to business. Even while thus occupied, Reb Chatzkel said, Reb Nochum Ze'ev's thoughts dwelt on holy matters and his father was aware of this.

Reb Nochum Ze'ev passed away during the First World War, on erev Shabbos, the second of Shevat 5616 (1916). He was buried in the cemetery in Kelm, close to his father's resting place.

A Tzaddik's Departure

The following descriptions of the wondrous manner in which Reb Nochum Ze'ev departed from this world reveals him as the giant of the Kelm approach that he had been practicing throughout his life. No trace of the terrible pains that he was experiencing showed in his facial expression. He was completely calm. The gentile physician who attended Reb Nochum Ze'ev, Dr. Grozad, was asked why he had seen fit to inform his patient that he only had a certain amount of time left to live. He replied that from his personal acquaintance with the patient, he knew that the knowledge would do him no harm, since he viewed death as being a transition from one world to another.

On the last night of his life, Reb Nochum Ze'ev delivered a shmuess to the talmidim on the topic of "The day of death [is better] than the day of his birth" (Koheles 7:1). He spoke on the subject of death with the serenity of a young man, who views his own demise as a very distant event. He had delivered the shmuess previously in the Talmud Torah. This time, he added that he was glad to be thinking such thoughts on the day of his death.

One of Reb Nochum Ze'ev's daughters recorded the events of the last days of her father's life in her diary, which she wrote in German. On yom revi'i, the twenty second of Teves 5676, approximately ten days before her father's petiroh, she wrote:

"Father spoke about suffering and about how one must bear it willingly and moreover, accept it lovingly, for it too, is the result of Hashem's kindness. Hashem's mercy and His kindness never cease. Therefore, we ought not to think that suffering that comes from Him, yisborach, is as dreadful as it seems.

"He is giving himself over utterly into the protection and to the will of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. In the meantime, he was unable to hold himself back and overcome his weeping.

"Father also related the parable of the doctor who amputates a patient's limb in order to save his life whereas when all a person's property is seized, he only needs to pay in installments."

Rav Yechezkel Levenstein related that during Reb Nochum Ze'ev's last days, his sister, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Broide's widow, sat next to him. She heard him praying that his suffering should not be so difficult for him to handle and that he should have the strength to bear it. She was astonished at this form of prayer and she asked him why he didn't ask instead that the suffering vanish completely? Reb Nochum Ze'ev replied, "Although I am not on such a high level as the tanna who welcomed suffering (Bovo Metzia 84b) saying, `Come, my brethren and friends,' I still do not reject it. It is enough for me to ask Heaven to alleviate my pain a little."

"They are His messengers and we must receive them honorably," he once remarked when his pains escalated.

Reb Nochum Ze'ev's tranquility in his last moments was amazing. Two days before his passing, he spoke to his family about their meeting each other again at some future time. He vividly described what they would tell each other. When he saw the gloomy expressions of his three young daughters, he chided them, "Don't you believe that you are about to enter a better and stronger protection than mine?!" as if to remind them that in a short while, they would become charges of the Father of orphans . . .

The day before he passed away, he called one of the town's wagon drivers and paid him. It transpired that he was concerned about his wife and one of his daughters, who could not walk properly. He therefore arranged himself that a carriage would convey them to the town cemetery . . .

"I envy your still being able to see the Chofetz Chaim," he told those who were standing around his bed. Rav Yechezkel Levenstein demonstrated Reb Nochum Ze'ev's punctilious adherence to halochoh. Before dying, he warned people not to touch him, in accordance with his status as a goseis (someone who is critically ill) who must not be moved. "Even when dangerously ill," Reb Chatzkel said in amazement, "he did not lower his guard."

Reb Nochum Ze'ev's three orphaned daughters married the top students of the Kelm Talmud Torah: the eldest married Rav Doniel Movshovitz zt'l, Hy'd, the second married Rav Gershon Miadnik zt'l, Hy'd, while the third married Rav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler zt'l, son of Rav Reuven Dov Dessler zt'l, who had been one of the Alter's outstanding talmidim. Rav Dessler later became renowned as the mashgiach of Ponovezh Yeshiva, where he arrived after establishing Gateshead Kollel, which exists to this day. The first two brothers-in-law, Reb Doniel and Reb Gershon, led the Kelm Talmud Torah until its destruction by the Nazi murderers.

"Like One of His Great Disciples"

Reb Nochum Ze'ev had two sisters. The Alter's daughters were known for their wisdom in matters of yiras Shomayim and mussar. The elder of the two, Rochel Gittel, married Rav Chaim Yitzchok Ziv z'l, who was a member of the Alter's family. The two of them toiled to support themselves and were renowned for their righteousness. It was said that her conduct was worthy of one of the gedolei hador. Once, when she needed to undergo major surgery, she refused to receive anaesthesia, so that her mind would remain clear.

After her father's petiroh, Rochel Gittel and her mother settled in Eretz Yisroel. They lived in the famous Chotzer Strauss in the Old City, which was a lodestone to members of the circle of early baalei mussar. Every day, the Alter's daughter would prepare cups of tea for the scholars who learned in the yeshiva there. She passed away childless and was eulogized by her mother.

The Alter's second daughter, Nechomoh Liebe, was better known. She had a reputation as being the greatest expositor of the Kelm approach and a faithful reflection of her great father. In the introduction to his mussar work, Yesodei Hadaas, Rav Moshe Rosenstein zt'l, who was one of the Kelm Talmud Torah's finest products and who served as mashgiach in Yeshivas Lomzhe, wrote some words of acknowledgement and estimation of this great personage:

"The fourth to whom I am indebted is the daughter of our master and teacher Rav Simchah Zissel, the widow of Rav Tzvi Broide, who is as great in wisdom, in understanding, in fear of Hashem and in fine character traits, as one of our master and teacher's great disciples, Moras Nechomoh Liebe . . . even a part of whose praises I am too small to relate . . .

"While I was in Kelm, I was a guest in her home for several years and I had the opportunity of contemplating her ways and her conduct, the paths of wisdom and yiras Shomayim that she followed and her good deeds. We learned a great deal from her; everything she did -- all her good deeds and her good and upright conduct, showed the great wisdom of our master and teacher zt'l whose daughter and whose great and distinguished disciple she was. Besides the spiritual benefits that we received from her, from her wisdom, her fear of Heaven, her righteousness and her capable deeds and traits, we also received many material benefits from her. May her good memory never be wiped from our hearts."

These lines alone are sufficient evidence of the heights that a female member of the Alter's household could attain. This valiant woman showed her mettle during the final days of her husband's life. She did not let a syllable of complaint escape her lips, neither during his illness, nor after his petiroh. She encouraged others and saw to it that the studies in the Talmud Torah would remain undisturbed by her husband's death.

Nechomoh Liebe lived to an old age. She was murdered together with the other members of the Talmud Torah when the Germans massacred the Jewish population of Kelm.

The Alter's Son-in-Law

The Alter's son-in-law and Nechomoh Liebe's husband was the tzaddik Rav Tzvi Hirsch Broide zt'l. He was the Alter's nephew, the son of the Alter's brother Reb Leib Broide z'l. He learned in Grobin and Kelm and it was said that he was inseparable from the Alter. As a classic Kelm product, Rav Tzvi Hirsch's daily timetable was arranged with pinpoint precision. People said that one could set one's watch according to Rav Tzvi Hirsch's comings and goings.

Even while his only son lay ill, Rav Tzvi Hirsch continued his usual regimen of holy service, despite the fact that he remained at his son's bedside day and night. During this period, he would sleep for a quarter of an hour at a time. He attested that, "I learned a great deal as well and I guarded myself to ensure that they wouldn't confuse my mind. Nobody knows whether I was preoccupied." When his son passed away, Rav Tzvi Hirsch accepted Heaven's decree lovingly and no signs of mourning were evident on him.

His enormous and constant mental efforts undermined his health and he used to suffer from terrible headaches but he did not allow them to divert him from his usual timetable. He would bandage his head and continue immersing himself in thought. Professor Schreiber from Koenigsburg, who treated him, told him to make less mental effort. Rav Tzvi Hirsch replied that since man was not an animal, a person could not carry on living without thinking.

His scrupulous observance of halochoh and his fear of sin were remarkable. Rav Yechezkel Levenstein related that, "I heard from the Mirrer mashgiach ztvk'l that in Kelm he saw how our master and teacher, the gaon and tzaddik Rav Tzvi Hirsch Broide ztvk'l, used to cut his fingernails on erev Shabbos and how he would try and file them nicely. He told him that his reason for doing so was, since he used seforim that did not belong to him, he might scratch someone else's sefer slightly with his nail. He therefore took care to make them smooth and rounded, so that they should do no harm, for such is the perfect appearance of man, who is concerned because of the slightest possibility of damage befalling his fellow human" (Or Yechezkel).

On another occasion, Reb Chatzkel related what happened, "When Rav Tzvi Hirsch returned from a visit to Eretz Yisroel, Rav Nochum Ze'ev asked him what life was like there. Rav Tzvi Hirsch answered very sparingly, not divulging a thing about the life there, speaking instead about Eretz Yisroel's spiritual endowments. Later, he explained that he was taking care to avoid stumbling over the sin of the spies."

This visit took place in 5667 (1907). Rav Tzvi Hirsch had left for Eretz Yisroel in order to be together with his father, whom he honored to an unparalleled degree. He regretted the fact that he was unable to minister to his father since the latter had settled in Eretz Yisroel and he resolved to follow him and settle there himself. He was inspired to take this step by Chazal's teaching that Yaakov Ovinu was punished for the twenty-two years that he spent with Lovon, during which he did not honor his parents.

The disciples at the Talmud Torah did not regard Rav Tzvi Hirsch's aliyoh to Yerushalayim favorably, for they viewed his departure as a great loss. They sent off a letter to his father, Reb Leib Broide, asking him to send his son back to Kelm which, they wrote, was in dire need of his blessed influence. The letter was signed by the senior talmidim of Kelm. Among the signatures, we encounter some names of men who later became known as the foremost expounders of mussar, such as Rav Eliyohu Lopian zt'l, Rav Isaac Sher zt'l and others.

Another letter pleading for Rav Tzvi Hirsch to return was sent to Rav Itzele Blaser zt'l, who was then residing in Yerushalayim. Rav Itzele was asked to exert his influence over Reb Leib by explaining to him that the Talmud Torah only existed in Rav Tzvi Hirsch's merit and without him, there would be nothing.

The campaign succeeded and Rav Tzvi Hirsch returned to Kelm, where he continued leading the Talmud Torah until his petiroh on the seventeenth of Sivan 5673 (1913).

The Next Generation: Shmuessen Like the Alter's

Rav Reuven Dov Dessler zt'l, occupies an important position among the leaders of the Talmud Torah in Kelm. He was born in 5623 (1863) in the port and resort city of Shivuy. He entered the Talmud Torah when he was eleven years old and remained there for twenty- five years, until the Alter's petiroh. The Alter used to praise Rav Reuven Dov's yiras Shomayim highly and he once remarked that it would have been worthwhile to have established the Talmud Torah for him alone.

When the Alter grew weaker and was forbidden to speak, he availed himself of Rav Reuven Dov's assistance in running the Talmud Torah and also entrusted him with the task of reading out the essays that he had written, to the other students.

In 5651 (1891), Rav Reuven Dov married the daughter of Rav Eliyohu Eliezer Grodzensky zt'l, who was Rav Yisroel Salanter's son-in- law. His wife passed away four years later. Rav Eliyohu Eliezer's other son-in-law was Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l, who was Rov in Vilna and leader of Eastern European Torah Jewry between the wars. Rav Reuven Dov's only son was Rav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler zt'l, whose teachings, posthumously published by his talmidim in Michtov MeEliyohu, are among the most fundamental contemporary mussar works.

Here is the testimony of Rav Dovid Povarsky zt'l about the time he spent in the Talmud Torah as a young bochur, in 5683 (1923):

"While I was in the Talmud Torah, the place was being run by Rav Reuven Dov Dessler zt'l. His disciples held him in tremendous esteem -- just unimaginable. The more senior disciples, who had been there in the time of the Alter, used to say that his shmuessen were delivered precisely as the Alter's had been. They were a precise and vivid review, both in their content and in the mode of their delivery, with the same emphases and the same kind of animation, like a gramophone [recording].

"The [students] would speak in learning with the rabbonim of the Talmud Torah and with Rav Shlomo Pianka Hy'd who was on the staff of the holy Talmud Torah. It should also be pointed out that the age differences among the students . . . did not disturb the friendship and the cordial relations that existed to the same degree between all the members of the Talmud Torah."

Upon the outbreak of the First World War, Rav Reuven Dov and his brother Rav Chaim Gedaliah supported a yeshiva that the Alter of Novardok had opened in the city of Homel where they resided. The brothers, who were known as wealthy men, put huge sums into this yeshiva. When Rav Yaakov Katz of Riga arrived in Homel with his yeshiva, they found lodging in Rav Reuven Dov's home. The latter also became involved in running the yeshiva and he attempted to implant some of Kelm's ways within it.

Following the Communist revolution, Rav Reuven Dov fled Russia and through miracles, he succeeded in reaching Kelm, where he led the Talmud Torah from after the War until 5691 (1931). In his later years, he moved to his son's home in London, where he continued disseminating mussar and yiras Shomayim until his petiroh on the twelfth of Teves 5694 (1934).

The Dessler Family -- The Alter's Soulmate, and His Offspring

by Binyomin Schaler

Reb Simchah Zissel had a close friend, Rav Yisroel Dovid Dessler, with whom he would hold private discussions on matters of consequence. When he wanted to consult his own rebbe, Rav Yisroel Salanter zt'l, who was then living in Germany, the Alter sent Rav Yisroel Dovid as his emissary to describe his situation and deliver his rebbe's advice.

Rav Yisroel Dovid's two sons, Rav Reuven Dov and Rav Chaim Gedaliah, learned in the Alter's Talmud Torah and became his faithful disciples. They belonged to the special Devek Tov group that the Alter established, whose members toiled unceasingly to meet the most penetrating standards of truth and to free their conduct from all taint of personal bias and crookedness.

When they were in their thirties, the brothers moved to the Russian city of Homel, carrying the rarefied atmosphere of the Kelm hothouse with them. They fixed times for learning Torah and mussar together, to which they adhered with the greatest care. Decades later, when Rav Chaim Gedaliah was marrying off his daughter, his elder brother included some personal memories in the letter of blessing that he wrote for the occasion:

"Just as sages are endowed with the attribute of foresight, they also have the ability to examine the past. I thus call to you loudly: `Let the past come before us, as though it is alive!' "

He goes on to list Hashem's kindnesses towards them, first for having planted them within such a home, "with special and outstanding parents, greatly elevated, lovers of doing kindness and Heaven fearing." He then mentions their education: "It was the will of Divine Providence to merit us and to develop us, to let us taste mon and feed us the honey of the wisdom of mussar."

An especially noteworthy gift was the unity that existed between the two brothers and their families: "For they proceeded hand in hand; we have always only assisted one another and within our dwellings there were only good and peace, love and friendship, at all times, continually, to the point where we were able to serve, boruch Hashem, as a general example."

And further on he noted, "How much of Talmud and its study did we fix together over the past years . . . how many projects of kindness boruch Hashem, and great benefits, have been brought about, boruch Hashem, through our agency . . ."

Divine Providence had indeed placed the brothers in Homel for the sake of their occupation in Torah, in tzedokoh and in assisting others, but the time came when they were called upon to shoulder the burden of disseminating and supporting Torah. When the First World War was at its height, a childhood friend of theirs, HaRav Yaakov Katz, arrived in Homel together with the yeshiva gedolah that he led. Rav Reuven Dov provided them with lodgings in his own home and took part in the yeshiva's management and spiritual leadership.

It transpired that this work served as training for a weightier task. When Rav Nochum Ze'ev Ziv was niftar shortly afterwards, Rav Reuven Dov was called upon to stand at the helm of the Talmud Torah where he had learned in his youth. He was assisted by Rav Yeruchom Leibowitz and Rav Nochum Ze'ev's sons-in-law, Rav Doniel Movshovitz and Rav Gershon Miadnik.

And If It Were Not Your Yeshiva?

HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein zt'l, related:

"Rav Moshe Gershon z'l, the father of Reb Doniel [Movshovitz] of Kelm, told Reb Nochum Ze'ev [his mechuton] about one of the roshei hayeshivos who, upon coming into his yeshiva and witnessing the learning, was tremendously happy and possibly even shed tears of joy.

"Reb Nochum Ze'ev asked, `Is he also that happy when he goes into someone else's yeshiva?'

A tzaddik like Reb Nochum Ze'ev asked such a question . . . because he knew that such a question can be asked.

From HaRav Abba Grossbard

I heard this from HaRav Abba Grossbard zt'l in the Yeshiva Litze'irim in Ponevezh:

Here is an example of the extent of the far-reaching demands, of the self-criticism and of the mussar toil that typified Kelm. When HaRav Nochum Ze'ev and HaRav Tzvi Hirsch were returning from the Alter's levaya, they discussed whether they ought to be concerned that they might be feeling a degree of ease after the petiroh of their great father and father-in-law, owing to the 'weight' of his presence [while alive], such as is felt in the presence of a great man.

He cited a Sifro (Vayikra 10), which says that at Har Sinai, when Moshe and Aharon had gone, Nodov and Avihu said, `These two old men will soon die and we shall lead the generation.' He said -- I think quoting them -- that they also experienced some spiritual heaviness because of the greatness of Moshe and Aharon, for the requirements of being in a godol's presence weigh upon the talmid's spiritual attainments and he thus feels "uncomfortable" when with his mentor. This was why they said that their conduct towards the generation would now become "easier."

(Heard from the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Gavriel Rykles zt'l)


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