Rabbi Nahum Zev Ziv

Outside of Israel there are small, remote cities that have gained universal recognition in the Jewish world because of the great men of Torah that resided in them. Among these is Kelm, a city in Lithuania that became famous because of such Tzaddikim as the Maggid of Kelm (Rabbi Leib Chassid), and above all by the man of Mussar, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, known in the yeshiva world as the Alter of Kelm. In fact the name Kelm became a synonym in the yeshiva world for Rabbi Simcha Zissel’s system of Mussar. It was in Kelm, in the “Beit HaTalmud” that he built for the benefit of wise, G-d-fearing Torah scholars, that he spread his teachings of Mussar.

During his entire life, Rabbi Simcha Zissel devoted himself primarily to education. He was a great teacher who knew how to penetrate to the depths of the human soul, which is why he devoted himself to teaching Torah and Mussar to the young. He managed to educate students who became great in Torah and Mussar, and who in turn became the greatest Mussar teachers of their generation. He also merited having children who followed in his footsteps and became exemplary figures.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel had three children: A son by the name of Nahum Zev, and two daughters, Rachel Gittel and Nachama Liba. It has been said that to get an idea of Rabbi Simcha Zissel’s greatness, it is sufficient to look at his children, for a tree is recognized by its fruits.

Rabbi Nahum Zev was educated entirely by his father, who upon noticing that the boy was gifted with a sharp mind, devoted himself to him with great resolve. If he saw any fault in his son, he admonished him severely, sometimes even ceasing to speak to him if he noticed a slight deficiency. Because of this type of education, Rabbi Nahum Zev was able to become a great figure of Mussar.

Rabbi Nahum Zev (or as he was called, Rabbi Nahum Velvel) was a businessman during his whole life. He managed large business ventures in wood and timber products, yet at the same time he studied Torah for at least six hours each day. He never changed his study hours, which were fixed.

People say that when he managed his business in Koenigsberg, Prussia, he would wake up at 3:00 am and study until the time of the Morning Prayer. After praying and eating breakfast, he worked in his shop until noon, and then devoted the remainder of his time to community and Torah matters. Every merchant who did business with him knew that he could only reached before noon, and if by chance a merchant tried to reach him in the afternoon, he had to wait until the following day.

As it happened, Rabbi Nahum Zev became involved in some non-profitable business ventures, losing all his money as a result. Despite everything, however, he did not modify his schedule in any way, and it was impossible to discern the slightest change in him. Even his bodily sufferings could not remove the peace that his soul felt, and he would say, “Sufferings are sent by the Holy One, blessed be He, and one must accept them with love.” For the same reason, he refused to take medication to alleviate his pains.

Rabbi Nahum Zev was modest in everything that pertained to his service of the Almighty, and he took great care to hide his good deeds. He had the makings of a rich merchant, dressing like a member of the upper middle class rather than as a Rav. From outward appearances, nothing enabled a person to guess that he was a great Tzaddik and that all his thoughts were directed toward serving G-d.

One day a Polish Rav arrived in Koenigsberg. When he came to synagogue, Rabbi Nahum Zev (who excelled in the mitzvah of hospitality) approached him with an invitation to his home. The Rav, who was extremely meticulous in his observance of mitzvot, did not want to go with him because he had the makings of an ordinary German Jew – and dressed like one too! Rabbi Nahum Zev greatly insisted, however, and the Rav finally accepted his invitation. When he entered his house, the Rav saw that it was apparently the home of a wealthy man who seemed to follow all German customs. He therefore decided not to trust his kashrut, eating only dry foods for which there could be no concerns.

In the middle of the night, the Rav heard the sounds of weeping coming from Rabbi Nahum Zev’s room. Frightened, he quickly arose and approached the room, and from outside the door he could hear Rabbi Nahum Zev repeating the same verse over and over: “Whatever you are able to do with your might, do it. For there is neither doing nor reckoning nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Once Rabbi Nahum Zev finished his Mussar session, the Rav heard him begin to study Gemara with a beautiful voice until the early morning hours. He found all this rather odd, and it was only the next day that he learned who his host really was.

At the end of the year 5670 (1910), Rabbi Nahum Zev went to live in Kelm and there he directed the Beit HaTalmud with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Tzvi Broida. He wholeheartedly devoted himself to this task, putting all his time into it. He received no salary whatsoever from the institution, and he often paid its budget shortfall from out of his own pocket.

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the Mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva, considered Rabbi Nahum Zev as his greatest Rav. He said that through his words and wisdom, he could draw everyone towards Mussar, yet because he was extremely humble he considered himself to be unworthy of such a task. He stated that Rabbi Nahum Zev was Rabbi Simcha Zissel’s most beautiful creation.

Rabbi Nahum Zev’s students spoke much about the last days of their Rav. He suffered greatly during his final illness, which eventually took his life, yet despite everything he rested with complete serenity. When his non-Jewish doctor told him that his days were numbered, he was asked why he had given him such news, since it could have a negative affect on his health. The doctor replied that he knew the Rav, and that for him death was but a passage from one world to another. On the day before he died, he gave a Mussar lesson before the public in the Beit HaTalmud. It was entitled, “The day of death is better than the day of birth.”

He was perfectly lucid up until his final moments. He gave various instructions on how his funeral should be conducted, as well as on how the mourning afterwards should proceed. He ordered his family not to eat fish on the Shabbat that followed his passing, lest by reason of their sadness they might swallow a bone and suffer as a result. He asked that no tributes be paid to him after his death, but rather that after a week of mourning, Rabbi Israel Stam from the Beit HaTalmud should make one statement in his honor: That he had the desire to come closer to his faith.

On Friday, 2 Shevat 5619 (1916), Rabbi Nahum departed from this world at the age of almost 50. He left behind three daughters who married the most talented men of the Beit HaTalmud: Rabbi Daniel Movshovitz, Rabbi Gershon Miadnik, and Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler. The first two replaced Rabbi Nahum as head of the Beit HaTalmud, later dying in the Holocaust. The third assumed the duties of Mussar instruction in various Torah institutions abroad, and near the end of his life he was the Mashgiach of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak.




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