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16 Av, 5783 - August 3, 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

Rabbeinu Yeruchom Levovitz, talmid of HaRav Simchah Zissel

Part II

For Part I click here.

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.

The first part of this essay about one of the major disciples of Rav Yisroel Salanter discussed some of the main points of the Kelmer approach directed by R' Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm. Torah is the elixir of life, but only when learned and applied by one who has perfected himself.

One of the most important principles was self-control, including control of one's thoughts. This was practiced and perfected in Kelm. One must continually think, but his thoughts must be under control. He also stressed orderliness, and insisted on it in the Beis HaTalmud. This was in order to cultivate menuchas hanefesh, which was also considered a crucial trait of an oved.

The disciples were well-trained in keeping to the time schedules. If prayers were called for eight, then when the clock struck, everyone was standing in place, ready to begin, even though a moment before the place might have been empty.

The cleanliness of the Beis HaTalmud was legendary. Dust bins and spittoons were placed in every corner to receive waste. No one ever threw something on the floor or dirtied it in any way, or laid anything anywhere but in its designated place.

A visitor once left his cane in the Beis HaTalmud. Thirteen years passed and he totally forgot about it. And then, he chanced to visit the Beis HaTalmud once again. There, in the exact spot where he had left it thirteen years before, stood his cane. No one had touched it.

R' Simcha Zissel himself devoted much attention to cleanliness and order. Once, upon arriving at the Beis HaTalmud on the eve of Yom Kippur, he saw that the washing cup was not in its designated spot. He devoted a good portion of his Kol Nidrei talk to this anomaly.

Every disturbance evoked an outburst. If a student inadvertently splashed some water on the floor or did not put his rubbers where they belonged, he was given a rousing talking-to and was looked down upon as a scatterbrain.

Order was supreme, to such a degree that when R' Simcha Zissel once went to visit his son, who was studying in another yeshiva, he first went to his room to inspect his belongings. Finding everything there in order, he felt reassured and went off to find his son.

If he demanded perfect order from his son and his disciples, he certainly exacted it from himself. Every movement was perfectly synchronized and measured.

Every step was forethought, every word counted, every utterance premeditated. His garb was always immaculately clean and pressed. Never did a speck dare show itself upon his clothing or person; he was spit-and-polished to perfection.

His tranquility was the subject of awe and a model to be emulated. In the most hectic, tumultuous circumstances, not a sign of perturbance could be noted on his face. He was always calm and collected, always maintained clarity of thought and perfect equanimity.

He even controlled his innate curiosity with an iron hand. He once learned that his only son's foot was broken. R' Simcha Zissel immediately sent a messenger to where his son was staying to inquire into his health. The messenger returned and several days passed, but R' Simcha Zissel did not ask for a report. Only on motzei Shabbos, after he had completed his regimen of study, did he first approach him and ask him to tell about his son's condition.

During the period that R' Simcha Zissel studied away from home as a youth, he would not open the letters he received during the week until Friday afternoon, after he had completed his full week's quota.

No wonder, then, that whoever ventured in his proximity for even a short while could not help being overwhelmed by his personality, ways and bearing. People who chanced to see him for the first time would have his figure forever etched in their memory as the living example of the perfect man.

The Aron Hakodesh of the Shul in Kelm


R' Simcha Zissel assigned great importance to the trait of zerizus, agility and eagerness.

Laziness, he said, was a considerable impediment towards one's attaining perfection by affecting a person's body through lack of activity, as well as his thoughts and kochos hanefesh. This disgusting attribute confounds a person's mind through lies and excuses ("Said the lazy one: there is a lion in the road..."), stifles all of his aspirations and leads him to wallow in a world of fantasy and to develop false theories to suit his own purposes.

In order to acquire its antidote, alacrity, R' Simcha Zissel formulated a program of exercises which would inculcate zerizus as an inseparable facet of his character. He also put much emphasis upon small insignificant details because these are the hooks upon which laziness attaches itself.

In order to overcome a tendency to laziness, he prescribed establishing "a time allotment for rising and getting dressed not to exceed ten minutes; not to study in a lying or reclining position; not to lean upon one's hands during study; not to be lazier in the winter" and so on.

During one period of time, R' Simcha Zissel instituted that all the students of the Beis HaTalmud rise at three-thirty a.m., eat breakfast and study from four a.m. to seven in the morning. Only then were they to pray. He sought by these unconventional methods to train his students in zerizus and in becoming accustomed to studying Torah under all circumstances, even in unconventional hours.

His outstanding students were rewarded with the all the related tasks of cleaning the beis medrash, from washing the floors to drawing water from the river. He considered this a way of training them in zerizus, order, concern for others, assistance towards Torah study. And this was a coveted honor!

R' Simcha Zissel himself would leap out of bed as soon as he awoke, as if he were being threatened by an armed robber. He carried on his steady battle against sloth until his very last moments.

On the eighth of Av, 5658, after thirteen years of suffering and pain, R' Simcha Zissel lay helpless in his bed, feeble and exhausted. He had suffered a difficult physical breakdown a year before and had reached such a point that his doctors wondered how he was still alive and surviving. Now, in his final hours, he was totally prostrated.

R' Simcha Zissel was R' Simcha Zissel, and in his moments of total weakness, he feared that laziness might have crept in the side door. This would not do! Mustering all of his remaining strength, he tried to get up from bed in order to stand for prayers. And he succeeded. Before he could remove his second shoe, however, he succumbed; his holy spirit rose to heaven.

Jewish children in Kelm

After Perfecting Oneself—The Avodah

Once a person's kochos hanefesh are fully developed and fortified, one can attack the real challenge of improving those areas bein Adam laMokom, bein Adam lechavero and between man and himself.

In Kelm, they regarded improving those attributes relating to man and his fellow man as the key to improving things between man and his Maker. The root of all evil traits and inclinations was a person's self-love, which was diametrically opposed to love of his Creator. That self-love created a barrier between him and Hashem; it distanced him from all spiritual aspirations.

On the other hand, love for one's fellow man led to love for Hashem and was the only way to approach Him. Love for one's fellow man was a basis for all the worthy attributes and advantages that existed, both between man and his fellow man and man and Hashem. It was the antithesis of sinas chinom, which was equated to the three cardinal sins of murder and idolatry, if not worse.

The world was created for man to interact with one another, to need one another. A person must do for others in order to sustain his own soul. A farmer grows wheat for people and earns a livelihood in the process; a factory worker produces goods for the farmer—for his own living, and so on. Everyone does something towards the public good and therefore benefits himself, too. This symbiosis teaches us that man's purpose in life is to do for others, both in the material and the spiritual sense.

In order to train the students in ahavas habriyos, the Beis HaTalmud initiated special resolutions in deed and in thought: to concentrate upon the commandment of loving one's neighbor during prayer, to study Tomer Devorah each day and so on.

They were obligated to meditate upon the commandment of "ve'ahavta lerei'acha komocha" at least once a week and to always look for the good in the next person. On Shabbos, everyone should be particularly careful about loving their neighbors.

For the period before and during Rosh Hashanah, they were expected to "greet everyone with smile" in order to counterbalance the austerity and severity of expression that usually accompanies these Days of Judgment.

This unique atmosphere reigned in the Kelmer Beis HaTalmud throughout the year. "When I first entered the hallway," says R' Moshe Rosenstein, who was to become the Mussar administrator of the Lomza yeshiva, "a young man came towards me, stretched out his hand with a beaming smile and asked me how I was, if I had arranged a place to eat and sleep and so on. I was certain from his warm, familiar greeting, that this young man was an old friend of mine who must have grown or changed so that I couldn't recognize him. But when another young man came a moment later to greet me in the same fashion, and then another and another, I realized that this friendly attitude was the hallmark of this place."

R' Simcha Zissel mobilized all of his prodigious kochos hanefesh and his marvelous insight into the soul of man to bring light and joy to people. He would chat with his innkeepers about their health and about the running of their establishment, about their cows and chickens and so on, to make them feel as if he really cared, while his brilliant brain was busy thinking about profound topics in Torah. He used to accompany part-way every Jewish-owned wagon he met along the way.

And despite his extensive physical suffering, he never sighed in the presence of another person so as not to cause them anguish. On Thursday evenings, he would stand by the doorway, watching the members of his household prepare for Shabbos, thereby showing his appreciation of all the work that went into this.

Once, during the heat of a halachic discussion, the rabbi of Kelm came to visit. R' Simcha Zissel immediately interrupted himself and would not utter another word, trying to create the impression that he was not a ben Torah at all, so as not to put the rabbi into the shade, so to speak, and insult his scholarship.

A few days before his death, he ordered his family to wash all of his clothing so that they could be distributed, fresh and clean, to the poor after he passed on.


Kelmer Mussar has a death battle against arrogance and pride, since this is the root of "My power and the strength of my hand" and borders on heresy. "Anyone who is not humble and submissive is proud at the expense of the greatness of Hashem, as it were."

He always warned against this despicable trait, which was ever so removed from him. Despite his greatness and wealth of talent, he considered himself puny and worthless, full of faults and shortcomings, which troubled him no end. He used to bemoan the fact that his deeds were not on par with his knowledge and that he was, therefore, guilty of hypocrisy.

When harsh things were once published against him, he wrote to a friend, "Praised be that this newspaper article revealed at least one thousandth of my shame in public, for I know I am bad and have an evil heart."

When asked once to pray for the recovery of a sick person, and a sum of money was enclosed in the letter, he wrote back, "How did it dawn upon you that I would hold myself as a man of effective prayer and, no less, one who accept money for praying, G-d forbid? I am not a man of prayer..."

He shied away from all titles and honor and would beg, "Please do not use any terms of greatness beyond my own puny worth... I must admit my paucity in Torah, G-d-fear and in deed..."

Even in his Beis HaTalmud, he would not allow his disciples to refer to him with honorary titles, and when called up to the Torah, he forbade the use of the word `rav' and would go up without their calling him by name.

He would sometimes go off to neighboring villages where he was not known, wearing unusual clothing or dressed as a wandering beggar, a handicapped or deformed person, in order to suppress any feelings of pride and haughtiness that might have accumulated in the yeshiva.

He also would speak out against the greed for money, which, in his opinion, was a universal fault and the underlying cause of deception and theft. "We are all in danger of succumbing to love of money."

He warned—but was forewarned, himself, as well. His extreme caution with other people's money was precise and thought out to an extreme degree. He would study the laws pertaining to this and carefully review each situation to see if he was taking a penny that did not belong to him.

Upon returning from a fundraising trip one time, he gave the treasurer a detailed expense account plus half a cigarette. "I smoked the first half while on duty for the institution," he explained, "but I hadn't finished it, and didn't feel it was right to smoke the other half at its expense."

Kelm also put special emphasis on acts between man and his Creator, like prayer and emunah, between man and himself, like the study of Mussar and honesty to oneself without succumbing to considerations of personal interests.


Emunah played a central part in Kelmer philosophy, both in the talks given and in the practical exercises required in acquiring it. It was the basis of all the other commandments, many of which, he would say, are divine exercises to strengthen man's emunah.

Lack of emunah can partially be attributed to a person's becoming too familiar, from his childhood, to the wonders of the world, both natural and miraculous. A child's limited and distorted version accompanies him into adulthood and robs him of the power to view things with fascination and marvel, which could lead him to such a powerful measure of faith.

In order to recapture that essential wonder, a person is advised to study natural phenomena [snow, lightning, the sea etc.] as if seeing them for the first time in his life. Then his eyes will open to see every tiny marvel in the world and the magnificence and beauty of its intricacy will be revealed in greater and finer detail, the more he seeks to discover it. Extrospection will lead him to a much greater awe of the Creator.

If a person studies the miracles that are described in the Torah with freshness, as if for the first time, they will be revealed to him with much greater impact, depth and breadth. A new world of wisdom, faith and outlook on life will unfold before him, writes R' Simcha Zissel.

He created entire new systems of thinking in the area of emunah, in which he excelled to such a degree that it became a central aspect of his personality, the axis upon which all of his activities and habits revolved.

In the circles of the baalei Mussar, they used to say, "If you seek to learn yir'a, go to R' Itzele Blazer. If you seek to learn emunah, go to R' Simcha Zissel."

Men of stature would flock to him during the Yomim Noraim in order to seep in the atmosphere which permeated his Beis HaTalmud.

It was his deep emunah which prevented R' Simcha Zissel from consulting doctors and seeking, instead, the services of a mere paramedic. Most people are boors with regard to medicine, he would say, and they, therefore, regard a doctor as if he were omniscient, which leads them to a lack of faith. No one has such implicit faith in a mere paramedic [felshers were common in those times].

He looked for and saw the hand of Providence in everything that happened. He searched for the particular "measure for measure" divine conduct in his personal life.

"If a person receives a blow anywhere on his body," he used to say, "he should not search for the reason below [through physical cause and effect], but should direct his search above."

He lectured to his students in Grubin on prayer for two consecutive years, which shows how centrally important it was to him. He would innovate many interpretations in the words of the prayers and would often expound upon explanations which had occurred to him in the midst of his own prayers.

He prayed with devout concentration, deliberately and at great length. His Shemoneh esrei alone took over an hour. Even in his last years, when he was already sick and feeble, he would not forego a lengthy prayer. Upon conclusion, he often as not would collapse upon a chair or bed from total exhaustion.

His prayer was a true "avoda shebalev," a labor, which was a slow but steady stream, uttered with surety and composure while suffused with deep feeling, fervor and suppressed passion.

R' Simcha Zissel instituted special exercises for the attainment of perfection in prayer. Anyone present in the Beis HaTalmud during services would never forget the moving experience.

He felt it very important for a person to maintain and refresh his sense of wonder. By being intellectually alert to everything around oneself, one could arouse the senses and emotions to feel deeply about things that one was accustomed to. He considered this one of the most important aspects of the study of Mussar. For years on end he would review the third chapter of Sha'arei Teshuva. A student of his once marked how he actually sang and danced for half an hour to the words, "I rejoice over Your teachings like one who finds much booty..."

"He used to say..."

R' Simcha Zissel can be quoted for books full of insights into human nature that encompassed every facet and minute of a person's life. When he "went public," that is, when he undertook to produce his own students, the world saw that he embodied everything that he preached and demanded from them, to a much greater degree. This is why he earned everyone's admiration and respect. Everyone knew that there was no distinction between R' Simcha Zissel and his teachings; they were inseparable. He incorporated and exemplified everything that was good, admirable and noble.

"There will be much to tell the coming generations," his oldest son, R' Nachum Zeev, used to say, "about what we had the great privilege to see, with our own eyes, of the level of `Adam.'"

(Based on Tnuas HaMussar by R' Dov Katz)


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