When I was a young yeshivah student, I came to study in Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah in Kew Gardens, Queens. One aspect that made attending this institution especially appealing to me was that at its head was Rabbi Zelig Epstein. Before knowing him personally, I knew he had studied in the Mir, back when it was in Poland, and that he was married to the great Rabbi Shimon Shkop’s granddaughter. I had also heard that he had attended the Yeshiva in Kelm, famed for its refinement of students’ character and commitment to Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s musar movement. Having the privilege of being linked to all that, and especially being linked to a world that is no longer – pre-Holocaust Europe – was especially meaningful to me. And so I attended the Yeshiva, making a conscious effort to get every opportunity I can to spend time with Rabbi Epstein, or as he was known by so many: “Reb Zelig.”
While Reb Zelig was no longer involved in the day-to-day functioning of the Yeshiva, he was very much a part of it, coming to the Yeshiva daily from his modest home in Flatbush. In Yeshiva, he would sit mostly in his apartment/office where many would come to visit him, seeking his advice. Once a week, Reb Zelig would give the entire Yeshiva a shiur on the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos.
And so, I went out of my way to maximize my contact with Reb Zelig. When someone was needed to bring lunch from his kitchen to the office, I volunteered. Several times, I was able to get a ride with whoever was driving him on that day back to his home in Brooklyn, and in the summer I attended Camp Ohr Shraga in Upstate New York (in Ellenville), where several students from the Yeshiva got to spend time with the erudite rabbi.
Reb Zelig was known for his wit, he was very youthful, and had a good sense of reality. One time, when being driven by a dedicated student in the summer months, a child in the back seat of the car asked his father – the driver – to turn on the air conditioning. The father answered with a line often used to justify keeping things old-fashioned, telling the boy, “In Europe we didn’t have air conditioning!” Without hesitating, Reb Zelig then replied, “In Europe we suffered” – a statement that recognized that times have changed and that doing things the same way isn’t always the best idea.
In all the times I saw Reb Zelig, and there were many, I never ever saw him angry or upset. He was always measured, patient, and thoughtful. This manifested itself even in the most difficult of times. One time, during Reb Zelig’s final days, when he was being treated in the hospital and I spent several hours at his side, the nurse tried drawing blood from Reb Zelig. Due to his age (he was then over 95 years old) and fragility, finding a vein was hard. My heart went out Reb Zelig, seeing him punctured several times and hurting; but Reb Zelig, despite being in a lot of pain, didn’t say a word. Reb Zelig often quoted the Rambam, stating that even though the golden middle path is the idea in all traits, with regard to anger and arrogance, one must go to the extreme; one should never be angry or arrogant. Reb Zelig embodied this teaching. When asked once about the Musar Movement in Europe and which yeshivah today follows that path, Reb Zelig said that the Musar Movement, the way it existed in Europe, no longer exists. Whatever that movement meant, it was very much embodied in Reb Zelig’s self-control, derech eretz, manners, and kindness to all.
Reb Zelig very much valued honesty and integrity. He often said that the best thing he was told about his students was that graduates of his yeshivah were very honest in business. He didn’t try to brag about any aspect of his yeshivah – not how many rabbis graduated, how many authors, the success stories, or anything else that his yeshivah produced, just that his students were honest in business – that to him was the greatest compliment.
One story that comes to mind is one that took place in a summer camp that is attended by many hundreds of b’nei Torah who found someone to supply them with kosher meat, a contract that involved thousands of dollars. After telling the supplier that they would order from him, the camp was approached by another kosher meat supplier who offered similar meat for a significantly lower price. Having given their word to the other supplier, the camp was torn between the need to keep to their word and their fiscal responsibilities. They came to Reb Zelig and asked him what to do. Reb Zelig told them clearly they needed to keep to their word and, despite the potential for saving a lot of money, they must order from the original supplier. And so they did. Not much time lapsed and the Jewish world was shaken by the revelation about a “frum Yid” who sold treif meat to thousands, using a fake hashgachah. Many camps had ordered from this supplier because of his cheaper prices, but the camp that had approached Reb Zelig and that took his advice to keep to their original word, this camp was saved from eating tarfus.
Humility and honesty were hallmarks of who Reb Zelig was. He didn’t care what would be thought of him or how much credit he would get. To his last day, Reb Zelig never wore any kind of rabbinic garb: no frock, no Homburg, nor any other kind of unique dress – just a simple suit jacket and a hat. No question was too big or too small, no person too important or simple; he was there for everyone. Reb Zelig wasn’t competing for kibudim, nor was he interested in titles. He was too busy doing the right thing. Walking into his apartment in the dorm, even past the age of 90, Reb Zelig was always busy learning. On the Yamim Nora’im, Reb Zelig’s seat was at the very back corner of the beis midrash. He didn’t need a big seat; he needed to daven. He didn’t need to sit in the front to inspire. Just taking a glimpse back at his glowing face, his white beard, and his sincere kavanah was enough. You knew the Sh’chinah was in the room.
Reb Zelig’s life was about devotion for klal Yisrael, which extended beyond his personal responsibilities. He gave a Sunday shiur to balabatim to which all were welcome, he had an open door to those who sought his advice regardless of whether he knew them or not, and was kind to whomever he passed on the street. Many wondered about his custom of reading the paper every day. His wife once commented, saying it’s obvious that we need to make sure that we know how our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael are doing. He cared deeply for Yidden wherever they are. I remember once hearing him moaning to himself from the depths with tears in his eyes: “Ribbono shel Olam, hub rachmanus af klal Yisrael.” He cared deeply for klal Yisrael.
As we will be marking Reb Zelig Epstein’s tenth yahrzeit this coming 13 Av, may his neshamah have an aliyah. May his simplicity, approachability, kindness, and gadlus baTorah remind us of the world of the Mir, Kelm, Slonim, and more. May we be zocheh to walk in those paths and do what Reb Zelig did best and spoke about most: B’chol d’rachecha da’eihu, v’hu y’yasher orchosecha.”
By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko