Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian • “The Greatest Mussar Figure in our Generation”

Three times a day we pray in the Shemoneh Esrei for G-d’s mercy to be “upon the righteous, upon the pious, upon the elders of Your people, the House of Israel, and upon the remnant of their sages.” Have you ever asked yourself just who are the “remnant of their sages”? These are the Sages – the Sages of the Torah – that G-d left from former generations in order to tell us of their predecessors, and to reflect the character of Torah greats of previous generations. One of these Sages, a man left over from the Great Assembly, was Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian. On Elul 20, 5370 (1970), at the age of nearly 100, he passed away in Eretz Israel at the approach of Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Eliyahu drank from the source of the “lions” of Mussar: Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm, and Rabbi Naphtali Amsterdam, the main disciples of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the father of the Mussar movement.

Rabbi Eliyahu was born to Rabbi Yaakov in the city of Graibe (near Lomza) around the year 5632 (1872). He studied in the Lomza yeshiva, which was founded was Rabbi Eliezer Shulevitz, one of Rabbi Israel Salanter’s young disciples.

Rabbi Eliyahu married the daughter of Rabbi Yitzchak David Weinmacher (“the winemaker”), a famous Tzaddik from Lomza. Under the influence of his father-in-law and Rabbi Eliezer Shulevitz, Rabbi Eliyahu left for Kelm, the residence of Rabbi Simcha Zissel, the man of Mussar who founded the great “Talmud Torah” from which the most renowned Mussar figures of the previous generations emerged. He stayed many years in Kelm and devoted himself to the Mussar of his great Rav, which he spread everywhere he went. At first this was in the small city of Kelm, then in England, and finally in Eretz Israel during the latter part of his life.

Rabbi Eliyahu founded a yeshiva in Kelm for the young, and there he educated many students in Torah and Mussar. Even until today, his remaining students evoke his name with great reverence. One of his first students, who is now an elderly man, recounted that to this day the melody of his Rav’s voice still echoes in his ears when he sings the verse, “By David, a michtam, when he fled from Saul in the cave” (Psalms 57:1). Verses such as these from the Book of Psalms, which Rabbi Eliyahu recited with sighs and tears, have accompanied him his entire life.

For various reasons, Rabbi Eliyahu left Kelm and went to live in England. He founded Etz Chaim yeshiva in London and there, as in Kelm, he never ceased his study of Mussar. He strived with all his might to educate a generation of youngsters in England according to his approach. Jews who came to the British capital would often visit the yeshiva, but when their feet crossed its threshold they forgot all the commotion that rang out from the great city, and instead felt that they were in Kelm. Also in London as in Kelm, Rabbi Eliyahu’s home was open to all who wished to enter. The students of the yeshiva often ate at his table, to the extent that they stayed in the presence of their Rav’s shadow for a large part of the day. Rabbi Eliyahu remained in England for 24 years, educating an amazing generation in Torah and Mussar.

Near the end of his life, Rabbi Eliyahu departed for Eretz Israel, where he spent the remainder of his days in the Knesset Chizkiyahu yeshiva in the rural city of Kfar Chassidim. There he accomplished amazing things, taking special care to get closer to those youngsters who were far from his path and approach. He devoted himself intensely to the Tzabarim, who spoke Hebrew and wore knitted kippot, and exerted a great influence on them through the purity of his mind and his method of Mussar. Many of these youngsters left their life of comfort in their parents’ homes to follow their elderly Rav and warm themselves by the light of his Torah. The Tzabarim became attached to him with every fiber of their being and cherished him with all their heart and soul. Even near the end of his life, he was sensitive to every individual student, discerning what bothered each of them, recognizing which ones truly feared G-d, knowing which elevated themselves in the rungs of holiness, and worrying over each like he was his own son.

One story has it that a young student from a yeshiva in Jerusalem came to visit him in Kfar Chassidim. After prayers he approached Rabbi Eliyahu and said “Shalom Aleichem,” and in the ensuing conversation the young man explained to Rabbi Eliyahu that he had come from Jerusalem with the intention of staying until Thursday. On Friday morning as Rabbi Eliyahu went to pray, he saw that the young man was still at the yeshiva. He invited him to his home, and there he asked him what his intentions were with respect to Shabbat. The young man replied, “I made some friends here and found the atmosphere very enjoyable, so I’ve decided to stay until after Shabbat.” Upon hearing this, Rabbi Eliyahu got up, went towards his closet, and took out a clean, white undershirt. He then said to him, “You didn’t plan on staying for Shabbat, so you certainly didn’t bring a change of clothes with you. Take this undershirt and some undergarments for Shabbat.”

Another story has it that Rabbi Eliyahu once went to see the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Zev of Brisk in Jerusalem. He sat down and gazed into the Brisker Rav’s face, with the Brisker Rav looking at him as well, and they exchanged a few words. When Rabbi Eliyahu left, the Gaon of Brisk said to his sons and students, “Did you see him? That was Rabbi Israel Salanter’s intention when he founded the Mussar movement.”

When Rabbi Eliyahu traveled to the United States, all the yeshivot invited him to speak to their students. His words made a profound impression on them, for they emanated from a pure heart and thus entered into the hearts of his listeners. He was an amazing speaker who knew how to inspire his audiences.

Rabbi Eliyahu lived almost 100 years. Multitudes of Jews followed his funeral procession, and the greatest Roshei Yeshiva of Eretz Israel gave eulogies for him. His grave was dug at the summit of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. With the passing of Rabbi Eliyahu, a powerful figure disappeared from our ranks, a leftover from the Great Assembly and the last of his kind in our generation.

Rabbi Eliyahu left behind sons who became great in Torah, men who have served as Rosh Yeshiva in a variety of places. He saw his grandchildren and great grandchildren all walking in the ways of G-d, and in their lives they perpetuated his ways.





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