The Alter of Kelm zt”l, On His Yahrtzeit, Today, 8 Av


keverHaRav Yeruchom Levovitz, the famous mashgiach of Mir in Europe, wrote: “To me it is obvious that anyone who entered the Talmud Torah in Kelm, even once, was moved to repentance.” (See full quote below) It is in this vein that we are presenting this collection of recollections of Kelm now at the beginning of Elul when all thoughts turn to teshuvoh. Although an entry into the thought and spirit of Kelm certainly does not have the full impact of a physical visit, this is the best we can do today. Halevai that it has this impact on us!

It is ironic, though perhaps hardly surprising, that we are far better acquainted with many of the offshoots of Kelm than we are with “Kelm” itself. HaRav Dessler zt’l, HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein zt’l and HaRav Elya Lopian zt’l, each of whom played a major role in building the postwar yeshiva world, were all products of Kelm. Even today, we still feel the influence of one of Kelm’s earlier products, HaRav Yeruchom Levovitz zt’l, the famous Mirrer mashgiach. Though he was niftar in Mir before the war, his many prominent talmidim carried his memory with them to other lands, where they perpetuated his teaching and his standards.

But how much do we know about the founder of the Kelm approach to mussar, the Alter of Kelm, HaRav Simchah Zissel Ziv zt’l? How many of us know, for example, that he was one of the three foremost talmidim of HaRav Yisroel Salanter zt’l? What do the names, HaRav Tzvi Hirsch Broide zt’l (the Alter’s son-in-law) and HaRav Doniel Movshovitz zt’l, Hy’d, the last leader of the Kelm Talmud Torah, mean to us? Who were HaRav Nochum Zev Ziv zt’l and HaRav Gershon Miadnyk zt’l, Hy’d?

Beis Kelm is the title of the recently-published sixth volume in a series devoted to the spiritual heritage and the towering personalities of Kelm mussar. Previous volumes in the series, which is published by Machon Sifsei Chachomim, presented some of the writings of the members of this school of mussar, such as their chiddushim, notes and records of spiritual undertakings. 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.

Their stories are not meant to serve as mere biographies but as a means of arousing yiras Shomayim and as a spur to personal mussar growth. Indeed, it is impossible to read about the Alter and remain unmoved. Every line written about him prompts the reader to measure himself against the exalted levels of humanity that he attained. The question, “and where are we?” that automatically surfaces, compels us to take new stock of our own situations.

The book is a laboriously documented collection of hitherto unpublished stories and notes that were collected from some of those who had firsthand knowledge of Kelm. For example, there are stories and notes gathered from HaRav Elya Lopian, by ylct’a his talmid HaRav Gedaliah Eisemann and stories related by HaRav Nochum Abba Grossbard zt’l, which were recorded by his talmid, HaRav Chaim Friedlander zt’l. This article and those that follow it, survey the wondrous characters of the men that presided over one of the most famous schools of mussar, where many of the great men who planted and nurtured HaRav Yisroel Salanter’s mussar approach within the yeshivos, developed.

The Alter

The Alter was awe-inspiring. He didn’t leave behind anyone who could even be regarded as a shadow of himself. The source of this bold evaluation was someone who measured his words carefully — no less a figure than the Mirrer mashgiach Reb Yeruchom, as quoted by HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein.

On another occasion, Reb Yeruchom shared his recollections of the Alter’s beis hamedrash. “When we were fortunate to hear the Alter [speaking] in the Talmud Torah, our minds and emotions felt as though we were standing at Har Sinai hearing the voice of Hashem. This was due to the singular influence of looking at him, [contemplating] his holiness and his very profound wisdom.”

Reb Yeruchom’s acquaintance with the Alter was brief. In one of his shmuessen in Mir that appears in Daas Torah, Reb Yeruchom told his talmidim, “I would like to reveal something to you that all my life, I have never revealed to a soul:

“I came to Kelm as a bochur, an ordinary bochur like any other. After I merited hearing our master and teacher, the man of genius and piety, Reb Simcha Zissel — just a short time afterwards – – he passed away. In my bitterness, I went [and stood] behind the wall of the room where he was lying. I stood there all day crying and screaming. I neither ate nor drank. I still remember what I was telling myself: ‘I had only just begun to understand what man is and what his obligations are. My eyes had just begun to be opened after hearing you speak a few times and now, you have left me . . .’

“I stood there like that all day . . . All my life I will feel that if Hashem yisborach merits me with a little understanding and knowledge, all my life I shall feel that it is only thanks to that occasion, to that day.”

A Single Movement

An adherent of one of the chassidishe groups once asked the Alter’s son, HaRav Nochum Zev to sum up his father’s greatness in a few words. “Who was the Alter? Where did his greatness lie?” he wanted to know.

In later years, HaRav Elya Lopian recalled what HaRav Nochum Zev’s reply had been:

“In his fear of Heaven, Father was like someone who has a knife stuck in his throat — one careless movement can pierce him.”

In being maspid the Alter at his levayoh, his friend and colleague HaRav Eliezer Gordon zt’l, Rov and Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, said that aside from the Alter’s greatness in Torah, he had never heard a single word from him that was not related to Torah and to fear of Heaven.

This testimony was not based on a casual acquaintance. The Alter and Reb Leizer Telzer had learned together under HaRav Yisroel Salanter and they knew each other very well. During the period that Reb Leizer had served as rov of Kelm, he would visit the Alter’s home every Shabbos morning following tefillah. They would sit for several hours discussing divrei Torah.

Reb Leizer, who was known as a fiery and tempestuous genius, would repeat his chiddushim to the Alter, whose scholarship he valued highly, to agree to or to take issue with. At the Alter’s graveside, Reb Leizer said that his friend had been fluent in three sedorim of Shas, at a level where he knew every single piece of Rashi and Tosafos word for word. He was also fluent in all four divisions of Shulchan Oruch and could locate any given halochoh with pinpoint precision. Reb Leizer’s remarks were transmitted by HaRav Leib Chasman zt’l who was present at the levayoh.

The Alter of Kelm scaled heights of greatness that few reach. HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein related that the Alter lost his sense of taste for a period of ten years. Reb Chatzkel explained that the love of pleasures, which the sense of taste is one of the principal means of indulging, is liable to hinder a tzaddik’s progress in the spiritual realm because there, unlike with material acquisitions, no immediate pleasure is experienced. Sometimes, he noted, Hakodosh Boruch Hu traces a path for righteous individuals, arranging special circumstances for them, in order to facilitate their serving Him.

He Didn’t Look the Same Anymore

The Alter’s love for his fellow creatures knew no bounds. HaRav Elya Lopian related that once, when the Alter saw some gentiles at a funeral, he sighed and commented, “Until a moment before his death, he could have converted and become a Jew” (from the notes of HaRav Gedaliah Eisemann).

In a similar vein, HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein related that when the Alter was once present at the funeral of a gentile, he said to his companions, “Now though, he sees the truth.”

He felt the pain of a gentile. A lost opportunity of gaining a share in Olom haboh bothered him, even if the loss was a non-Jew’s.

“Such is the trait of a pious man”, explained Reb Chatzkel. “Even though he himself is very far from sin, he still shares the burden of the [general] community, for he desires good.”

Reb Chatzkel also pointed to another of the Alter’s outstanding traits — his fear of sin. When the Alter once spied a Jew reaching into a gentile’s wagon in order to steal a little straw, he was terribly disturbed and he bore a dejected appearance for the rest of that day. His son-in-law, the tzaddik HaRav Tzvi Hirsch Broide, who was with him at the time, thought that he was simply feeling unwell.

That evening, when HaRav Tzvi Hirsch asked his father-in-law how he was feeling, he was astonished when the latter replied, “How can one live peacefully when one sees so much sin in the world?”

With such fear and loathing of sin, the Alter might be expected to have had little sympathy for sinners and no great concern for their fates. Yet his heart was even touched by the fates of gentiles. Their very failure to become Jewish and observe Torah distressed him.

He was merciful towards Jewish sinners and he evinced genuine love for them. HaRav Elya Lopian told the following story, which illustrates the extent to which the Alter was distressed at the suffering of the wicked, even though they had brought it upon themselves:

“Towards the end of his life, our master and teacher . . . HaRav Simcha Zissel of Kelm suffered from anemia and he always looked pale, with no color in his complexion at all. From the moment Shabbos began until it ended however, his face was aflame. His weekday paleness disappeared and he looked ruddy and flushed, like a strong, healthy person. We all witnessed this — whoever learned in Kelm — every Shabbos.

“Once, one of those close to him came to him on erev Shabbos kodesh with some good news: ‘We’ve just heard that the big apikores, the editor of Hameilitz, has died. Blessed is Hashem who killed him!’ ”

From another source, HaRav Simcha Zissel Bakst zt’l, we learn that the bearer of these tidings was none other than the Alter’s son, Reb Nochum Zev. The former’s father, HaRav Aharon Bakst zt’l, Hy’d, who was the rov of Shavli and who was another of the Alter’s close disciples, was also present at the time. The editor of Hameilitz, Alexander Cederbaum, put his publication at the disposal of the group of maskilim who, amongst other schemes, had been responsible for the closure of the Volozhin yeshiva. Cederbaum himself took part in the struggles waged by the maskilim and he tried in every possible way to hinder the spreading influence of the mussar movement.

Reb Elya’s story then describes the Alter’s reaction: “When the Alter heard this, a look of melancholy appeared on his face and his face didn’t look the same that Shabbos as it did every week. When asked about this he said, ‘What are you so surprised about?! We ought to feel so sorry for that rosho, who is now standing before the Throne of Judgment and pulling his hair out as he remembers how he spent his life toiling to uproot religion.’ ”

Impurity Cannot Bear Holiness

Reb Yeruchom testified that the Alter was well aware of what transpired in the world, though no newspaper entered his home. The Alter once expressed his disgust and loathing for the heretical publications of the maskilim, using the story of a gilgul which was then current among Lithuanian Jewry, to make his point. It was said that the gilgul was drawn towards those who had read and been influenced by the heretical literature of the maskilim. On the other hand, it could not bear the proximity of a Heaven-fearing person. It said that it felt sickness and loathing when approached by such a person. Clearly, impurity yearns for the companionship of impurity and cannot bear the company of holiness.

According to Reb Yeruchom’s version of the story, the episode of the gilgul had taken place in the town of Novardok, about a generation before the Alter’s birth. Reb Yeruchom related that, “They tried everything but were unable to banish the spirit. When they mentioned that they would take it to the Vilna Gaon, it couldn’t bear hearing the Gaon’s name. Impurity cannot bear holiness.”

The journals of the maskilim, the Alter said, were like that gilgul. Like it, they found holiness disagreeable and hated men of faith and character. Their writers lauded and saluted every lowly and base impulse. “If we see those papers praising someone whom we regard as a great man,” the Alter concluded, “something must be afoot and he ought to be investigated. He may be putting on a righteous front, while his heart is full of abominations.”

Otherwise, why would the haters of religion be praising him?

No Movement Without Reason

Wondrous stories circulated in Kelm about the amazing degree of control that the Alter had over his every limb and over each of his senses. Reb Yeruchom would extol this ability, describing how every movement that the Alter made was the result of forethought. Even the movements of his eyes were carefully controlled.

For example, the Alter never let his gaze wander sideways. When he needed to look at something that was to one side of him, he turned his whole body in that direction and looked at it straight on. Generally in Kelm, turning one’s head to the side, unless it was for a very good reason, was considered something to be ashamed of.

HaRav Nosson Wachtfogel zt’l, who was mashgiach in Lakewood, related the following story:

“My teacher, HaRav Doniel Movshovitz who was one of the leaders of the Kelm Talmud Torah, never refrained from discussing any topic that cropped up, even when there was a widely held preconceived view on the matter . . . Whatever the subject, Reb Doniel would examine and argue and would try to establish the truth. Yet, when the discussion turned to some aspect of the Alter’s conduct or outlook, he would annul his own opinion and would stake his very soul in order to fathom the Alter’s thinking. He toiled in order to comprehend the Alter, whom he considered to be someone that it was imperative to understand.

“When asked to explain his special approach to the Alter’s conduct, Reb Doniel said that his great admiration for him arose after he had monitored his movements and actions and had discovered that he never made even the slightest movement without first having thought about it. The Alter did nothing without forethought. He didn’t open an eye or move his little finger without a reason or without preparation. Everything was calculated, befitting the level of an earlier generation.

” ‘So,’ Reb Doniel concluded, ‘how can we imagine that we are capable of fathoming someone who didn’t move his little finger without thinking about it first?’ ”

Among Reb Yeruchom’s discourses, we find the following comments on this subject:

“The Alter of Kelm explained the meaning of the terms, kalus rosh (irreverence) and koved rosh (decorum) as being simple translations. Kalus rosh, he said, is exactly that: having a light head. While koved rosh is also just that: having a heavy head. A person whose head is full of wisdom doesn’t turn it sideways and he doesn’t laugh readily. When looking at a layabout however, one sees what he’s like in a moment. From the way he moves it’s clear that he isn’t weighed down with any kind of content. His head is quite simply light. At every rumor and every slight noise, his head wags” (Daas Torah, cheilek III, 117).

With Wissotsky in Moscow

Before the Alter opened the Talmud Torah in Kelm, he lived in Moscow for two years. This was a period of his life that is not so well known. He came to Moscow from Zagor, the birthplace of HaRav Yisroel Salanter, where he had perfected his mussar approach. Another of HaRav Yisroel’s talmidim from the Neviezer beis hamedrash in Kovno had been living in Zagor. This was Reb Kalman Zeev Wissotsky z’l, an alumnus of the Volozhin yeshiva who later became famous as a tea magnate.

When Wissotsky moved to Moscow, Reb Simchah Zissel accompanied him. This was apparently upon HaRav Yisroel’s instructions, out of his concern for the untoward spiritual effect that the move might have on Wissotsky, on account of his immense wealth and his numerous connections with government circles. Wissotsky achieved a great deal towards drawing cantonist soldiers back to the faith from which they had been torn as children. He himself stole into the barracks where they stayed and taught them prayers and halochos. He celebrated the Jewish festivals with them and even conducted a seder for them.

He spent enormous sums of money on communal endeavors and on Torah and mussar institutions. Rabbi Mazah, the government-appointed rabbi of Moscow, relates in his memoirs that Wissotsky once called him to his house to ask for his advice as to how he should distribute his ma’aser money — a sum of half a million rubles! When their conversation had ended, Rabbi Mazah relates, Wissotsky rose and, while pacing up and down the room, put his hands to his head and cried in a tearful voice, “Woe to us on the day of judgment! Woe to us on the day of reproof!”

This then, was Wissotsky. It seems however, that there was concern among the adherents of mussar that living in Moscow might have a detrimental influence upon Wissotsky and lead him astray. The Alter was despatched to accompany him.

The Alter once remarked that the cleanliness of the streets of Moscow enabled him to reflect upon divrei Torah as he walked outside, which he was prevented from doing when walking elsewhere. It is also said that he noted, thanks to the city’s bustle, he could learn mussar in the streets without any disturbance.

The circumstances of the Alter’s departure from Moscow were typical of his unimpeachable integrity. The circles of the maskilim and the intelligentsia did everything in their power to attract Wissotsky to their ideas and projects. Apparently, one of them succeeded in gaining a foothold in one of Wissotsky’s businesses. With the clerk’s employment, Reb Simchah Zissel informed Wissotsky that he would be leaving Moscow. He explained that he was concerned about this man’s influence and it is possible that he even hinted to Wissotsky that it was “either him or me.” The clerk was engaged though, and the Alter left town.

The Alter: A Brief Biography

Despite the fact that there is scarcely a yeshiva bochur or seminary graduate who has not heard of the Alter of Kelm, relatively few know much about him, for example, what his family name was.

Reb Simchah Zissel was born in 5584 (1824) in Kelm. His father, R’ Yisroel, belonged to the well-known Lithuanian Broide family. His mother, Chaya, was descended from HaRav Tzvi Ashkenazi zt’l, author of ShUT Chacham Tzvi.

Reb Simchah Zissel married Chaya Leah, daughter of R’ Mordechai of Vidzh, a small town adjacent to Kelm. Following his marriage he travelled to Kovno, where he studied Torah and mussar under his foremost mentor, HaRav Yisroel Salanter zt’l, in R’ Tzvi Neviezer’s beis hamedrash. HaRav Yisroel later sent him to Zagor, to reinforce the beis hamussar that had been opened there. For a time, he delivered shiurim in the town of Kretinga.

After he had spent almost a year in St. Petersburg, then the largest city in Czarist Russia, the communal leaders brought Reb Simchah Zissel a signed document of appointment as their rov. He was unwilling to accept a rabbinical position however, and he proposed his friend, with whom he had learned together in Kovno, HaRav Yitzchok Blaser zt’l, for the position.

When he was almost forty years old, Reb Simcha Zissel resolved upon opening his great endeavor, the Talmud Torah of Kelm. Haskoloh was gaining ground everywhere and there was a real danger of mass defection from religious life in Lithuania where, just fifty years earlier, the Gaon of Vilna and his immediate disciples had lived and worked.

The Talmud Torah opened in approximately 5622 (1862) and it attracted young students, thirteen and fourteen year olds. The Alter wanted to shape the personalities of his students and develop both their Torah knowledge and their progress in mussar so that they would be able to resist the harsh spiritual winds that were then blowing.

Some ten years later, in 5632 (1872), he purchased a plot of land upon which he erected a building for the Talmud Torah. However, just a few short years later, in 5636 (1876), trouble began when the institution was denounced to the authorities, who began to watch it closely and to hound it. The Alter decided to open elsewhere, in Grobin in the Kurland province. He arranged for the purchase of a fine building, situated in a spacious yard. There was a main study hall, smaller rooms for shiurim, a dining room and dormitories.

Five years later, the Alter had to return to Kelm. This time, the move was dictated by his failing health, which began to deteriorate in 5641 (1881), and which necessitated his spending long periods in his home, which was in Kelm. Bochurim from the town and the surrounding areas gathered around him and the town once again became a mussar center.

From his home in Kelm, the Alter continued operating the Talmud Torah in Grobin, where he put his distinguished son, Reb Nochum Zev Ziv zt’l, in charge. However, running the institution from a distance proved too difficult and Reb Simchah Zissel decided to close the yeshiva. He sent a member of his family to consult HaRav Yisroel Salanter who was then in Germany.

HaRav Yisroel dismissed the idea out of hand and the Talmud Torah remained open in Grobin until 5646 (1886). In that year, the state of the Alter’s health almost collapsed and his doctors warned him that there was real danger to his life if he continued making the supreme effort that the continued running of the institution in Grobin demanded. The Alter was instructed to rest a lot and to go for walks. At this point, he was forced to close the Talmud Torah in Grobin.

With the closure of Grobin, the focus of his work shifted back to Kelm, which now reassumed its former prominence. The Alter established a group that was known as Devek Tov, comprised of his foremost talmidim. He shared a special relationship with the group’s members, and he worked on writing out his discourses for them, which demanded more strength than he had.

A number of his talmidim settled in Eretz Yisroel in 5652 (1892), opening the beis hamussar in Yerushalayim, under the Alter’s aegis and with his support. Several years later, in 5657 (1897), the famous Yeshivas Or Chodosh was opened in Chotzer Strauss in the Old City. The yeshiva was headed by the rov of Yerushalayim, HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt’l.

The Alter passed away on erev Tisha B’Av 5758 (1898), shortly after having recited the morning Krias Shema. He was niftar while in the middle of Ezras avoseinu, bringing the first glorious chapter of the history of Kelm mussar to a close.

Why Was He Called “The Alter”?

The source of the title Der Alter, by which most people refer to Reb Simchah Zissel, is not generally known. One of the Talmud Torah’s best known products, HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein, once explained the name’s significance.

The Alter of Kelm didn’t feel worthy of being considered a talmid of HaRav Yisroel Salanter, despite the fact that the latter was universally regarded as having been his main rebbe. Reb Simcha Zissel was of the opinion that only someone who has acquired Torah from his rebbe can be counted as a talmid. Although he esteemed HaRav Yisroel highly, he felt that so long as he did not adopt his rebbe’s conduct as his own and try to follow in his path in at least some small degree, he should not regard himself as his talmid. Out of respect, Reb Simchah Zissel would refer to HaRav Yisroel as Der Alter, meaning, the Elder.

Eventually, Reb Simchah Zissel’s own talmidim started referring to him by this name. Far from Kelm, the town’s name was added.

The Alter himself writes: “Not everyone who listens to a great man can be called his talmid, as I heard about HaRav Chaim z’l [of Volozhin,] who said that he could not be called a talmid of the Gaon z’l. This is because a talmid is one who receives wisdom from him in the proportion that a talmid receives from his teacher, as opposed to one who receives only a little. It is impossible to call the one the rebbe and the other his talmid, for there is a great gap between them.”

{By Tzvi Munk-Shema Yisroel Network}

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