Rav Zelik Epstein zt”l – A Tribute, On His First Yahrtzeit, Tomorrow, 13 Av

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rav-zelig-epsteinEarly Monday morning, one year ago, on 13 Av, August 3, 2009, at 3:30 a.m., the holy soul of Rabbi Aaron Zelig (Zelik) Epstein zt”l, was returned to his Maker. Rabbi Epstein served as Rosh Yeshiva, Shaar HaTorah-Grodna in Queens. He is believed to have been one of the very last roshei yeshiva that studied in the Mir Yeshiva in its exile in Shanghai during World War II.

The Early Years

Rabbi Epstein was born to Reb Mairom and Meita Epstein, a”h, in Slonim, Lithuania on Wednesday Tammuz 25, July 10, 1912. In his childhood he was a student of Rabbi Shabsi Yogel, zt”l (d. 1957), who served as Rosh Yeshiva Slonim for 50 years and moved later to Ramat Gan, Israel, where he established his yeshiva. Close to the age of 20, in 1932, Rabbi Epstein joined the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland, where he became attached to the Mashgiach, Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz, zt”l (1873‑1936). He also got close to Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda (Leizer Yudel) Finkel, zt”l (1879-1965), who became Rosh Yeshiva Mir in 1917, established the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1939, and wrote Divrei Eliezer. Yeshiva historians today regard Rabbi Epstein as having been the closest disciple of Rabbi Levovitz.

Hearing about the extraordinary Torah accomplishments of the Mashgiach’s brilliant disciple, the daughter of the Alter of Kelm, Rebbetzin Chana Liba Schorr, a”h, saw an unusual opportunity. Her father was the legendary Rabbi Nosson Tzvi (Nota Hirsch) Finkel, zt”l (1849-1927), founder of the Telz and Slobodka Yeshivos, author of Shiurei Mussar, renowned as the Alterof Slobodka. Her father’s precious essays were stored safely in her home waiting to be prepared for publication.

When she learned of Rabbi Epstein’s clarity and skills, the Rebbetzin recruited him in the effort of working on her father’s manuscripts. Late one night, while pecking away on an old Hebrew typewriter, Rabbi Epstein was surprised by pounding on his apartment door. Responding, he found the NKGB (Russian secret police) who took him into custody on suspicion of communicating with enemy forces by telegraph. After Rabbi Epstein explained what he was involved with to the secret police, and upon further investigation, he was released and allowed to continue his sacred work.

Torah Study During World War II

The Mir Yeshiva fled from one place to another in order to escape the bloodthirsty Nazis: Vilna, Keidan and Krakinova, some to three small towns -Ramigola, Shat and Krak. Then the yeshiva left Europe and arrived at Kobe, Japan, and finally Shanghai, China, where it remained until 1947. Throughout these wanderings Rabbi Epstein devoted his days and nights to studying Torah intensely within the four walls of the yeshiva, wherever it was located that day.

Arriving in Toronto with 26 other Mir Yeshiva students, he continued his intensive studies. There he met with Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l (1891‑1986) then Rav in Toronto and later Rosh Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, and an instant bond followed. When Rabbi Epstein married Rebbetzin Chaya, may she be healthy and live many more healthy and happy years, it was in the home of Rabbi Kaminetsky.

Rebbetzin Chaya, the life partner in Rabbi Epstein’s immense Torah achievements, is the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Shkop, zt”l (1882-1975), appointedRosh Yeshiva Grodna in 1922, in 1929 Rav of Grodna, and escaped to America in 1941; son of renowned Rabbi Shimon Yehuda Shkop, zt”l (1860-1940), RoshYeshiva in Telz (1884), Rav of Moltsh (1903), Bransky (1907), and Grodna (1920), and author of Shaarei Yosher. Rabbi Shimon Shkop was Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University from 1928 to 1929.

The Rosh Yeshiva Comes to America

In 1948, Rabbi Kaminetsky became arosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, and in 1950 he recruited Rabbi Epstein to became arosh yeshiva there. Rabbi Epstein was quickly recognized as an outstandingrosh yeshiva and developed mentor relationships with countless students. Those that he counseled understood clearly that every word was measured and finely tuned for that student and that situation. His shiurim were presented in such way that every listener understood according to his own level of attainment.
Rabbi Epstein did not compound his shiurim with an avalanche of earlier and later commentators, but rather employed those that achieved immediate clarity. When challenged by another rosh yeshiva or student, Rabbi Epstein was not reserved in bringing forth a full complement of commentaries, those well known as well as those considered obscure, in reinforcing his understanding and presentation of the subject matter. Last but not least, Rabbi Epstein would humbly reveal his own weighty chiddushim (insights).

The warm friendship between Rabbi Kaminetsky and Rabbi Epstein endured. Later, in Flatbush, they were neighbors. After the passing of Rebbetzin Kaminetsky, Rabbi Epstein served as the Mesader Kiddushin at Rabbi Kaminetsky’s second marriage. Rabbi Epstein also served as the Mesader Kiddushin at the second marriage of Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky, zt”l (1913-1979), Rosh Yeshiva Ponovezh.

Torah Summers

In 1965, together with Rabbi Nesanel Quinn, zt”l (1910‑2005), who served as beloved Menahel Yeshiva Torah Vodaath for more than 70 years, Rabbi Epstein established Camp Ohr Shraga, the Torah learning summer camp in Greenfield Park in the Catskills. There thousands of boys have spent enjoyable summers immersed in Torah learning and invigorating camp activities. Roshei Yeshiva from across the United States would spend all or parts of their summers, especially Bein HaZmanim, at the camp. Notably, from its beginning, Rabbi Epstein spent his summers there, imbuing the camp with a special Torah atmosphere, including the summer of 2008. He was considered the camp’s crowning glory.

In 1974, Rabbi Kalman Epstein, son of Rav Zelig, established Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah-Grodna, presently located at 117-06 84 Avenue, Kew Gardens. The yeshiva is named after the works of the family patriarch, Rabbi Shimon Shkop. Rabbi Zelig joined the yeshiva one year later, permeating the institution with his own personal links to the Torah giants of generations past.

Rav Zelig was a valuable contributor to the Encyclopedia Talmudit project. Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l (1888-1978), Encyclopedia Talmudit founder, often expressed great appreciation for all the literary contributions of Rabbi Epstein, citing them as works of exceptional clarity.

Fount Of Advice

Rabbi Mosher Sherer, z”l, and, ybl”c, Rabbi Chaskel Besser, may Heaven grant him a refuah shelaimah and many healthy and happy years, would discuss American and international concerns with gedolim throughout the years of their service at Agudath Israel. After the passing of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l (March 23, 1986)), and Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky (March 10, 1986), they turned to Rabbi Epstein for guidance. Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach, zt”l (1898-2001), Rosh Yeshiva Ponovezh, also routinely referred people to Rabbi Epstein for advice, both on a communal as well as a personal level.

Rabbi Epstein’s doors were always open and he welcomed all who came to his doorstep seeking advice, regardless of whether it was a Rav of a Kehillah, aRoshYeshiva, someone with sholom bayis problems, a person seeking medical advice, someone with career choice quandaries, or even one seeking the simple translation of words of Chumash or siddur.

He received everyone with a warm engaging smile and devoted his full attention, regardless if it was a summer afternoon or Erev Yom Kippur. Students and strangers were equally ushered into his private room immediately.

If the question concerned Halachah, Rabbi Epstein would adapt his response to the person’s predicament, to his personality, to his circumstances, and then respond. TheRoshYeshiva also had a firm grasp of the secular world and its challenges. His advice was invaluably accurate for those within and without the yeshiva world. His counseling was fully inside the realm of Halachah and practicality, combined, and perfectly blended.

Every Pesach, he would be surrounded by his family. He wanted the young children to be full participants and, therefore, did not prolong the reading of the Haggadah. He wanted the children to be fully awake and excited. He actively joined in the search for the “stolen” afikoman, literally looking under the table and under furniture. He would “handel” (negotiate) with the children to obtain the afikoman, sometimes discussing possibly millions of dollars or millions of pieces of candy as payment. ProtractedHalachic or Midrashic discussions were reserved for the hours after the meal was finished and the children went to sleep.

Rabbi Epstein was not inclined to participate in public events. He reserved his time for Torah study and private discussions. His signature on the Kol Korei of Asra Kadisha (Committee for the Preservation of Gravesites) is an indication that he felt its dedication and devotion to the honor and memory of our parents and ancestors were pure acts of chesed shel emes, efforts that he felt must be supported, strengthened, and promoted.

The Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn and, during the summer, in Fallsburg, New York, is showing an exhibit of artwork created in the late 1930s in the city of Mir, famed for its yeshiva. The artist, Albert Lehman, collected many photographs and created many artworks of Mir. Rabbi Epstein was included in some of the photographs. Later, Albert Lehman helped Rabbi Epstein obtain visas to leave Europe. The complete Mir exhibit is now showing at the Living Torah Museum.

The Last Year

Rabbi Zelig continued his many daily and weekly shiurim in spite of a heart attack in his late 50s and his failing health in recent years. His schedule continued almost without fatigue until this past Chanukah 5769. On Purim, he was brought to the hospital from which he never left.

Rabbi Moshe Shochet, a former student and presently director of development at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, told of visiting theRosh Yeshiva at the hospital. Rabbi Epstein was asleep. Rabbi Shochet waited for him to wake up. Opening his eyes and seeing his former student, theRosh Yeshiva asked him how he felt. Rabbi Shochet was unnerved. Here he was visiting hisRosh Yeshiva and rebbi in a hospital and he was being asked how he felt. Moments later, the Rosh Yeshiva weakly closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

The Last Day

On that bitter pre-dawn hour when the pure soul of the Rosh Yeshiva left this world, the sad news immediately spread throughout the entire world. Tens-of-thousands of mourners converged at the Yeshiva in Queens. At 2:30 pm, hespedim (eulogies) began with Rabbi Kalman Epstein, son andRosh Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah; Rabbi Sholom Spitz, Rosh Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah; Rabbi Yaakov Bergman,RoshYeshiva Shaar HaTorah; Rabbi Shlomo Feivel Schustal, Rav of Beis Medrash Avreichim and Rosh Yeshiva Torah Temimah; Rabbi Leibel Wulliger, Rosh Kollel Torah Vodaath; Rabbi Chaim Ozer Garelick,Rosh Yeshiva Philadelphia; as well as several grandchildren.

On Tuesday afternoon, at 3:00 p.m., thousands gathered at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. From there, the bier was carried to the new section of the cemetery on Har Menuchos, where theRosh Yeshiva was brought to eternal rest.

Rabbi Epstein is survived by his life partner, Rebbetzin Chaya; son Rabbi Kalman; daughter Mrs. Elka Mordechovitch; grandchildren; and great-grandchildren, all who follow in the path paved by their patriarch. Our memory of the Rosh Yeshiva will surely serve as a blessing.

{By Rabbi Gershon Tannebaum/Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. Thank you for the beautiful article.

    “…The daughter of the Alter of Kelm, Rebbetzin Chana Liba Schorr, a”h, saw an unusual opportunity. Her father was the legendary Rabbi Nosson Tzvi (Nota Hirsch) Finkel, zt”l.”

    This is somewhat confusing – whose daughter was she?

  2. There seems to be an inacuracy here. The alter of Slabodka was not the Alter of Kelm. I think the story happened while R Zelik was learning in Kelm with the manuscripts of the Alter of Kelm.


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