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2 Av, 5783 - July 19, 2023 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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8 Av, 5648: The One Hundred Thirty-Fifth Yahrtzeit of R' Simcha Zissel of Kelm: "We Had the Privilege to See a Man"

By D. Weisfish


Part I

This obituary of HaRav Simcha Zissel of Kelm zt"l was first published in print forty years ago. It is now being published online for the first time.

For Part II click here.

It was not without effort that R' Simcha Zissel of Kelm attained the spiritual stature that he did. He was blessed with extraordinary kochos hanefesh and brilliant talents, but these were not enough. It was necessary to channel and mold, to activate and regulate them. He used to say, "Who knows if man is worthy of bearing that description?"

"We will have much to tell succeeding generations," said the oldest son of the Saba of Kelm, "of what we had the privilege of seeing first hand as to the dimension of `Adam.'"

"You are wholly beautiful," R' Yisroel Salanter exclaimed of his disciple, referring to his spiritual perfection. "Even your shadow is goodly, without blemish."

R' Yisroel had many disciples, all of them titans of Torah, giants of piety, colossal of spirit and prodigies of deed. Gedolei olam. He would occasionally lavish his praise upon their specific outstanding traits. But when he came to R' Simcha Zissel, his words knew no bounds and he would lapse into the magnificent allegory of Shir Hashirim: "You are wholly beautiful... and without blemish."

This was rare praise, coming from R' Yisroel, who sifted and winnowed every word before uttering it with the proverbial seven sieves.

It was not achieved with a careless wave of a hand. R' Simcha Zissel was endowed with brilliant talents and extraordinary characteristics, but these were not enough. It was necessary to channel and mold them, to activate and regulate them. Without a constant self adjustment, self criticism, precise honing and toning, he used to say, who knows where these would have led him? Who knows if he would have been justified in claiming title to the distinction of `man'?

Is man not born a wild donkey, with a conglomeration of innate drives and powers pulling him in all directions? Were it not for the mercy shown to him by the Giver of Wisdom, he would succumb to his drives.

Hashem provided him with a counselor to advise him how to obtain mastery over his body and bodily urges. Only by fortifying his intellect, his thought processes, and by a constant, unremitting effort, can one get the upper hand and channel them into the single vessel, sublime and ennobled, called `Adam.' A servant worthy of serving his Master.

It was to this end that R' Simcha Zissel formulated his unique approach that is all encompassing, yet broken down to the finest detail. He sought the path to true and certain spiritual ascent that would be firmly established and fully stable.

The classic Kelm approach to mussar is one of the most comprehensive and basic schools which molds every spark of thought, every flicker of emotion, every moment in time. Hundreds were educated in the Kelm crucible and thousands are being nurtured in faith, yiras shomayim and mussar by his method to this very day. His batei midrash produced some of the greatest Torah disseminators and mashgichim in latter and present day yeshivos, whose influence spans all the halls of Torah study.

By a careful and very exacting process of elimination, R' Simcha Zissel selected an elite corp of students for his Beis HaTalmud which would carry on his work and produce many more of the same mold.

To be sure, he himself was the first object of scrutiny and toil towards self perfection. He learned to recognize his own strengths, to shape his own character and to achieve an astonishing degree of self control. "He purified and refined his personality to a degree that defied one to believe that one of this latter generation could attain such perfection and mastery."

Not only through deeds was he punctilious, but every motion of his head, every expression, every hand or foot gesture were carefully directed and thought out beforehand. He had perfect control over his kochos hanefesh, his emotions and his very thoughts.

The main shul in Kelm (photo by Balys Buracas)

Master Of His Thoughts

Indeed, he even mastered his own thoughts, that aspect which is most difficult to rule, for thoughts have wings; they flit from one place to another and embrace worlds. Thoughts are elusive, ephemeral, slippery.

R' Simcha Zissel was not familiar with the concept of "a thought struck me" or "my thoughts led me to...", "lack of concentration" or "losing the thread of one's thoughts." He enjoyed absolute control over his thoughts; he led them where he wanted and not vice versa. He was their supervisor, their comptroller.

He was capable of concentrating upon one point for hours on end and equally capable of switching his undivided attention from the gemora to Mussar, and from Mussar to prayer with instant adjustment, without a break in continuity.

He was always preoccupied: with the study of gemora, Mussar, writing letters to his disciples, mobilizing funds for the support of his Beis HaTalmud, with an exacting inspection of everything that was taking place there. Nevertheless, says his son, R' Nochum Zeev, as soon as he crossed the threshold of the Beis HaTalmud, all of his other concerns would be left behind and he would concentrate fully upon it and its cares.

His thoughts were like putty in his own hands. Things reached such a state that some evenings he would review all the thoughts that he had thought during the course of the day in order to criticize them.

A street in modern Kelm

Adam: Master Of Himself

Just as he was able to regulate his very thoughts, so was he complete master over everything else, from emunah to yirah, anger and generosity. He was in full control of all his personality traits; everything was in total abeyance and perfect obedience to his thoughts, will, consciousness, and all were directed towards the service of his Creator.

His measure of G-d-fear, for example, reached such a level that when they came to call him for ma'ariv on Rosh Hashana, his entire body would quake and quiver from the awesomeness of the day. With the dread of death, he would say: "The summons has come from the court for the Day of Judgment."

"His G-d-fear could be likened to that of a person whose throat was penetrated by a sharp sword and whose every slight motion would endanger his life," his son confided.

Many have heard of his greatness in Mussar: a greatness which made his name and that of his beis midrash in Kelm synonymous with the Mussar movement. Many know that he was one of the star disciples and successors of R' Yisroel Salanter. But few are aware of his scholarly brilliance, of his genius, diligence, astuteness. As a young boy, he astounded his teachers with his acute questions and upon his bar mitzva, he delivered a dissertation on Nezikim.

He studied Torah in isolation and self-denial for a long period. He would sequester himself in a special room, not emerging for even the most pressing things. He slept only two-and-a-half hours out of each twenty-four, and even this, in blocks of half an hour each. Night was no different from day, and one day ran into the next without his even changing his clothing.

He would fiercely guard his study regimen from any change or invasion; nothing was capable of violating it. He would speak to no one, stop for nothing, and study a full twelve hour stretch without break, day in and day out.

Once, while secluded in his room in Gubrin, totally absorbed in study, a rich businessman from Lodz sought to visit him. He arrived at the beis medrash in a splendid coach drawn by four mighty steeds and asked where he could find R' Simcha Zissel. It was eight thirty in the morning.

"Hurry up and come in," said the mashgiach, "before he begins his daily regimen at nine. Then nothing in the world will be able to budge him."

The wealthy man looked askance. "A man of my stature," he said with disparaging aplomb, "to whose doorstep the dignitaries of the entire region flock for a word with me, does not need an appointment."

He decided to bide his time until nine o'clock. By then, R' Simcha Zissel's door was already locked. He pounded upon it with his fists, then with his cane, but to no avail. R' Simcha Zissel continued his studies oblivious to the noise and the magnate had to leave, very much abashed and disappointed.

All His Powers Do His Bidding

In his later years, R' Simcha Zissel suffered from a serious heart condition. The doctors gave him no hope. According to all the rules of medicine, they said, he was virtually dead; there was no explanation why he should be carrying on altogether. He was existing on sheer will power.

R' Simcha Zissel was forced to maintain a strict diet that limited his food and drink to tiny portions at a time and very frequently. He had to eat before shacharis and sometimes even during the prayer—even in the midst of Shemoneh esrei. Nevertheless, he continued to maintain his strict and rigorous study schedule.

He would rally all of his powers to maintain the same schedule as in the old days and, fearing that he might fall asleep, would stand for hours on end until he literally fell off his feet from sheer fatigue and weakness.

His knowledge was both encyclopedic and incisive, testified R' Eliezer Gordon, who would parry with him for long stretches in halacha and present his novellae before him. In his eulogy, R' Eliezer noted his scholarship, the depth of his understanding in Rashba, his complete mastery of three sedorim of Shas with Rashi and Tosafos verbatim, and his amazing expertise in the four parts of the Shulchan Oruch to the extent that he was able to pinpoint every source of a law according to its exact paragraph number.

He was a giant in Torah, a giant in Mussar. "Torah is our life and the length of our days," he would stress, "but one needs prior understanding in order to attain the `light contained in it [which] draws a person back to goodness'."

Why? Because our Sages taught that "If he is worthy, the Torah becomes his elixir of life. If he is unworthy, it becomes his poison."

How can we understand this seeming paradox? R' Chaim Vital answers that the necessary catalyst is purification of one's character traits. Only after a person has uprooted all of the extraneous desires and undesirable traits and has purified his entire body can the Torah become his life potion. Study alone is not sufficient, R' Simcha Zissel used to state. One must combine it with the study of Mussar, which prepares and tempers a person for the absorption of the light in Torah and the perfection he is lacking.

He, therefore, insisted that his disciples study Mussar in order to bring out the best of their kochos hanefesh, to fortify their strengths, to harness those that required restraint. He was very demanding of them of things that might have seemed picayune.

He once launched into a lengthy tirade against a pair of rubbers which someone had left overturned in some corner, instead of in the vestibule where they belonged, or against a student who had dared lift the curtain to peek out at the street during session, or against another student who had climbed over the gate upon finding it locked. He was extremely strict with them over even minor details, but this was only because he first demanded so much more of himself.

Every idea that occurred to him in the area of Mussar was first incorporated into his own being. He never demanded anything spiritual of a friend or student before having internalized it himself. He would sometimes suppress his rebuke for a long time before expressing it, meanwhile ascertaining that he, himself, was not remiss in that very area.

Basic Kelmer Principles

The Kelmer school maintains that one who seeks to serve Hashem must first modify and refine his own spiritual tools before he can confidently approach the challenge of serving his Maker.

The primary tool designed to serve a person and to help him in the constant battle against his evil impulse and his upward striving is his intellect. The power of thought is a man's sole protection and the chief advantage he has over animal. This is the divine image in man, as Rashi comments on "in our image and in our form"—to understand and grasp.

Thought and introspection are the weapons of the mind in its battle against physical drives. Only they are capable of subduing man's innate depravity, harnessing his animal instincts and guiding a person in the right direction. He used to say, "The onset of descent is the absence of thought. Anyone who reaches the stage of unthinking is already a lost cause."

The power of the mind, is, therefore, the key to a person's attainment of perfection. "And precisely where his greatness lies, there is where you find his lowliness. There is no power as abandoned and neglected as thought. A man's thoughts are wild and random, unharnessed, undirected and almost beyond his control."

"First of all," says R' Simcha Zissel, "a man is duty bound to train himself to regulate his thought processes, bit by bit, day by day."

One of the rules in his Beis HaTalmud was "not to let a day go by without self-practice in thought, for that is the key of wisdom, the source of all strength. This is the sum total of man."

R' Simcha Zissel and his disciples did not only hover in the world of thoughts and knowledge. They systematically labored on developing this strength. Each day they would carry out `practice maneuvers' in cultivating the power of thought and intellect. They trained themselves in concentrating on one particular thought for five minutes without deviation, that is, without thinking about anything else. Slowly, they increased this span until they were able to master their thoughts for hours at a time.

R' Simcha Zissel himself revealed his attainments in regulating his own thoughts. He was actually able to concentrate upon one topic for many consecutive hours and equally able to shut off his mind and turn to another subject in a twinkling. He was the master of his own mind; his thoughts were his servile minions.

Rules Of The Beis HaTalmud

In order to train others in this area, he established certain rules for the Beis HaTalmud which he founded in Gubrin. He maintained that this most important training—the control of one's thoughts—be conducted regularly immediately after prayers, during mealtime and when talking a walk. One should decide beforehand upon what to concentrate at those times and not disrupt one's thoughts with speech.

Another rule established a five minute Mussar session before mincha and a fifteen minute period afterwards. These mini-sessions regimentalized a person to concentrate only upon what was being studied, to focus his undivided attention upon it and not waste time by chatter or even flipping pages, for then the entire goal would have been defeated and the shiur would have ended before it had even begun.


The second character strength which he felt it important to bolster and develop in order to succeed was equanimity and serenity.

Lack of focus or emotional stability, he felt, was one of the main impediments to self perfection. He would quote the sage who said, "There is no dispersion like the dispersion of one's thoughts and no peace like peace of mind."

Dispersion (pizur hanefesh) is the ultimate self destruction and the source of all suffering, he would maintain. It is the rampant running-amok of the savage drives latent within a person. It is the trait of reshoim, of whom it is said, "Reshoim are as restless as the sea, because they cannot be still." They lurch from misfortune to misfortune, from love of money to lust, from lust to thirst for honor, and from a thirst for honor to pain and sorrow.

One who is far from composure (yishuv hada'as) is thus far from Torah, as he is far from HaKodosh Boruch Hu and from all kedusha.

In composure and equanimity (menuchas hanefesh), on the other hand, R' Simcha Zissel saw perfection: the power that stabilizes and builds a person, that allows him clarity of mind, clear understanding and the ability to judge and decide. As a result, R' Simcha Zissel saw serenity as a necessary condition for the education and perfection of the person. "Without this it is impossible to fear and believe [in Hashem] properly."

In order to reach menuchas hanefesh he stressed order and organization. He did not see orderliness as a superficial behavior but as a fundamental character trait, something that reflects what is happening inside, in one's soul, something that encompasses a person's entire being and affects all that he does. One who is not orderly in his deeds, his ways and his dress, is also confused and disorderly in his thoughts and understanding, and will not succeed at establishing a stable worship of Hashem. This was crucial to the approach of R' Simcha Zissel.

Acquiring composure was, therefore, established as one of the central focus points of his practical approach. In order to attain it, one had to follow a specific program complete with daily exercises which would train one is mesinus (translated as: patience, moderation or temperance) in deed, in speech and in thought.

Some of those exercises, which were practiced in the Beis HaTalmud, included:

Deed: Each time a person closed a door, he should turn back and see if he had really shut it tight. Before one sat down, he should first look if there was anything on the chair or bench. A third thing was "not to look into or out of windows unnecessarily." And if anyone entered the study hall during the middle of the session, not to pay him the least attention. These represented exercises in acquiring patience in action.

Mesinus in speech was acquired as follows: if someone had some news to divulge, he should wait at least a quarter of an hour before saying it. If a person asked your advice, you should not hasten to reply, but mull over it for at least five minutes. And before saying anything to a friend, one should think first if it was really necessary.

Temperance in thought—one should think before one spoke and formulate the words in his mind. One should not make decisions without thinking the matter through. One should not take any action unless it is truly necessary.

He deemed composure to be a centrally important factor in a person's life to the point that he would urge his disciples to make resolutions for the new year to perfect themselves therein, as a form of teshuva. Peace of mind, he felt, encompassed all other resolutions in one.

Reflections In The Yeshiva

His batei Talmud were maintained with punctiliousness, but in a calm atmosphere. Everyone rose in unison during prayers and then sat down simultaneously. They would reply to the chazon in chorus, synchronizing tune and tempo. Each student had his designated place; no one was permitted to deviate. Every object stood in its place. An air of peace permeated the premises; there were no signs of distraction or confusion.

In order to help maintain and contain this atmosphere, the Beis HaTalmud had a courtyard whose fence was higher than a man's head. Windows facing towards the street were always closed and curtained, to prevent any distraction from the outside. Special emphasis was laid on not turning one's head during prayers or study for any interfering noise or voice, creaking of a door hinge or entrance of any stranger.

This self-restraint reached such perfection that when a group of mounted noblemen once burst into courtyard, no one as much as blinked in reaction. They raised a ruckus outside, horses neighing and thumping their hooves, the riding party exclaiming in lusty cries, but nary a sign from within!

R' Simcha Zissel used to note that the Torah was based upon decorum and order. One split-second separated Shabbos from the weekday; one hairsbreadth divided kosher slaughter from invalid slaughter; one drop of water made the difference between a kosher mikveh and an unfit one; one step separated the Levite camp from the camp of the Shechina, and so on.

Continued, iy'H ...


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