by Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
We are all familiar with Rav Yisroel Salanter zt”l, the founder of the Mussar Movement. But Rav Yisroel did not emerge in a vacuum. Who then, was his Rebbe?
Rav Yoseph Zundel of Salant zt”l (1786-1866) was born on the first day of Rosh Hashana in 1786 in Salant, Lithuania. His father was Rabbi Benyamin Beinush, who was a shochet and chazan in Salant.
As a young man, Rav Zundel studied in the Yeshiva of Volozhin under Rabbi Chaim Volozhin(1741-1821) – author of the Nefesh HaChaim, and was one of his leading Talmidim. Rav Chaim passed away in 1821, Rav Zundel would make the trip to Posen and would study with Rav Akiva Eiger.
Rav Zundel moved to Yerushalayim in 1837, and lived in a small one-room apartment in the Hurva Synagogue complex in the Old City. Rav Zundel was instrumental in the founding of the famed Etz Chaim Yeshiva, the Bikur Cholim Hospital and the Chevrah Kadisha. He would learn in the Menachem Tzion Beis Midrash.
Rav Yitzchok Blahzer writes, “Without a doubt Rav Yoseph Zundel received his derech in Mussar from his Rebbe, Rav Chaim Volozhin. His holy method was that he would learn Mussar each day with great contemplation. He would review psukim of yirah and ahavah as well as statements of chazal that are aflame with yirah and mussar.” (Ohr Yisroel p. 16-17).
The following are some of his thoughts and sayings:
- When Rav Yoseph Zundel was in Volozhin during Elul, there were rumors that he would walk around in the goyish market asking for a light. The Rosh Yeshiva himself, Rav Chaim Volozhin, asked him about it. Rav Yoseph Zundel responded, “It is true. But there is a reason. I know that the Jews there are not careful about pas palter. So I go into every place where Jews purchase and pretend to need a light and then I throw a match into the fire making it pas Yisroel.” (HaTzaddik p. 15)
- Rav Yoseph Zundel, upon leaving Volozhin, asked his Rebbe, Rav Chaim Volozhin, “What Mussar sefer is good for one to delve into?” Rav Chaim Volozhin answered, “All of the Sifrei Mussar are very good, but Sefer Mesilas Yesharim should be the one that directs you.” (Rav Yitzchok Blahzer, Ohr Yisroel p. 124)
- Shortly after his protégé was married, Rav Yoseph Zundel went into the forest to do hisbodedus, and subtly noticed a young man who had secretly followed him. He said, “Yisroel! Learn mussar and you will emerge a yarei shomayim..” The young man did. The Mussar Movement emerged from this. (HaTzaddik Rav Yoseph Zundel M’Salant p.7)
- The great Gaon Rav Tzvi Broidy of Salant was once very depressed about an Avreich who was fully fluent in Torah but was a very shallow learner and there was nothing he and others could do to help this Avreich grow. Finally, they consulted with Rav Yoseph Zundel who asked the Avreich to test a young child in his learning. Rav Zundel told Rav Broidy, “This Avreich’s issue is that he is very competitive and constantly wants to show others what he knows. He is thus, unable to accept anything from anyone whom he perceives as competition. The solution is to have him tutor intelligent young children. He will not perceive them as a threat and will grow from their questions.” Rav Broidy was amazed at the pedagogical skill and perception of Rav Yoseph Zundel. (HaTazaddik p. 16)
- Rav Yoseph Zundel had a heavy shtender filled with seforim. There was one individual who took a liking to this particular shtender, and would borrow it taking it across the Beis Medrash. Rav Zundel approached him and said, “Firstly, I give you permission to use my shtender. Secondly, I would like to request that you please always put back the shtender when you are done.” The person became quite embarrassed and Rav Yoseph Zundel asked him mechilah. The person was not amenable to do so. Immediately Rav Zundel arose and announced, Morai veRabbosai, I erred and caused pain and distress to Reb ___. I publicly ask mechila for what I have done in front of everyone here.” Tears were streaming down his cheeks. The person forgave him. (HaTzaddik p. 14)
- “Once I had visited Reb Avrohom ben HaGra and discussed with him at length his father’s comments on sifra d’tzniusah regarding matters of ketz hayamin. That night I had a dream where an elderly man had an angry look at me, Later, I ascertained that his features were strikingly similar to that of the Gra. I concluded that I was not worthy of delving into these matters.” (Toldos Rav Yosef Zundel p. 18)
- After his arrival in Yerushalayim, Eretz Yisroel on Sunday, Dec. 3, 1837, he served as a moreh horaah answering halachic questions. When his son-in-law, Rav Shmuel Salant arrived, a woman approached him with a difficult question regarding the minhag yerushalayim of pouring out water from the home of a deceased. He answered, “My daughter, go to the next room. There is a Rav who answer the question better than I can.” Rav Shmuel Salant found a leniency, and his name soon spread far and wide. (Otzer HaChesed Keren Shmuel p.11)
- Rav Yisroel Salanter once related how Rav Yoseph Zundel once went to visit a gadol b’yisroel. But saw that he was not meticulous in practical halacha. He learned of the critical importance to delve deeply into this area.
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