By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
For the Refuah Shleima of Reb Shalom Ben Miriam Rivkah
Perhaps no other Torah personality has had such a dichotomy in terms of impact and obscurity. The Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv Broide of Kelm (1824-1898), was a prime student of Rav Yisroel Salnter zt”l – the founder of teh Mussar Movement. He was also the Rebbe of the Alter of Slabodka, the Alter of Novardik, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, Rav Reuvain Dov Dessler, and Rav Yeruchem Levovitz. Essentially, every Yeshiva in Europe, America and Ashkenazic Eretz Yisroel was either started or greatly influenced by the Alter of Kelm’s Talmidim. And yet, so few people are aware of the details of his life and of the Yeshiva in Kelm.
Rav Simcha Zissel was born in Kelm. His mother was a descendent of the Chachom Tzvi. After he married, he moved to Kovno and studied under Rav Yisroel Salanter in the Nevyozei Kloiz, along with Rav Yitzchok Blahzer and Rav Naftoli Amsterdam.
Rav Yisroel directed Rav Simcha Zissel to travel to Zhagory to strengthen Mussar there and then to Moscow, where he lived for two years. He moved to St. Petersburg after that for a year and was offered the Rabanus of that city – the largest city in Russia. He declined it and suggest that they engage Rav Yitzchok Blahzer instead – which they did.
In 1864 he decided to open the Kelm Talmud Torah in order to help further spread Rav Yisroel Salanter’s ideals. In order to both counter the advances of haskallah as well as create a cadre of Talmidei Chachomim who could lift the banner of Torah Jewry in the Pale of Settlement, he included limudei chol in the curriculum. Due to problems with government authorities, Rav Simcha Zissel relocated the Yeshiva in Grobin in approximately 1877.
In 1881, Rav Simcha Zissel returned to Kelm and left his son, Reb Nochum Zev in charge in Grobin. Talmidim came to study under him in Kelm, while he still ran things from afar at Grobin. It was difficult for him to do, on account of illness. He posed the question to his Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Salanter, as to whether he should close it. He was told not do so. Failing health, however, forced him to do so by 1886.
Many of Rav Simcha Zissel’s talmidim moved to Eretz Yisroel in 1892 and opened a “Beis HaMussar” in Yerushalayim under the direction of Rav Simcha Zissel.
The Alter of Kelm was niftar on the 8th of Av – 26 July 1898. At his levaya, Rav Eliezer Gordon zt”l, the Rosh yeshiva of Telze, said that he knew every word of rashi and tosfos by heart in more than half of shas and new every siman and sif in Shulchan Aruch by heart. He further commented, “Aside from his complete gadlus in Torah, I never heard a single word from him that was not Torah or yiras shamayim.”
In his Tnuas HaMussar, Rav Dov Katz delineates three yesodos of learning that the Alter of Kelm taught.
- One should become emotionally involved in learning.
- One should always ask oneself after learning: , “What did I know beforehand and what do I know now?”
- One should always delve beyond the superficial and arrive at the core of the matter.
After Rav Simcha Zissel passed away in 1898, the Talmud Torah in Kelm was led by his younger brother, Reb Aryeh Leib Broide (?-1928). The mishpacha began moving to Eretz Yisroel, but Rav Tzvi Hirsch Broida, Rav Simcha Zissel’s son in law, stayed on to lead the yeshiva until he passed away in 1913. Rav Nachum Z’ev Ziv (1857-1916) took over until his own passing in 1916. Rav Reuvain Dov Dessler took over from 1916 until 1935. After his passing, Rav Doniel Moshovitz took over for the next six years.
Rav Nosson Tzvi Wachtfogel, a talmid of Kelm under Rav Doniel Moshovitz hy”d once said, “Whenever my Rebbe, Rav Doniel Movshovitz zt”l, discussed the Alter of Kelm, he would entirely be mevatel his own de’ah, and would instead toil diligently to understand what the Alter meant. When someone asked him why he paid so much effort to do so, he responded:
The Alter of Kelm did not open an eyelid or move his little finger without a reason and without preparation. Everything was calculated, befitting the level of previous doros. So how can we possibly imagine that we are capable of understanding such a giant who didn’t even move his little finger without first thinking about?”
Rav Doniel remained the Rosh Yeshiva and continued teaching Torah until the Nazis yemach shmam murdered everyone in Kelm in July of 1941, including the Rosh Yeshiva and his talmidim.
The glory of Kelm was no more.
The following 11 items are some of the Alter of Klem’s thoughts and sayings:
- The Alter of Kelm used to say, “Kinderlach! If one views the world as “life is simple” – then one remains simple. If one views the world from the perspective of “life can be a lofty spiritual endeavor” then one’s life can be a very lofty spiritual experience. One must have hasagos in life and not just any hasagos – but the loftiest ones.” (Rav Chatzel Levenstein cited in Ohr Yesharim p.123)
- My Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Salanter, used to point to the Gemorah in Yevamos 62b where Rebbe Akiva had 24,000 students who all passed away in one short period. He then taught just 5 Talmidim – and these 5 established Torah. We see from here that 4 or 5 people alone can build the world.
- The meaning of “veyihiyu aniim bnei baisecha” is that you should view them as if they are your own household members and you constantly be looking out for them. (Kisvei HaSaba MiKelm).
- Each person has one central middah – positive character trait – that he can perfect. If he can perfect that middah within him it carries a special path to all the other midos. The same is true with bad midos. Each person has one central bad trait that if he just allows it to remain or linger without working on eliminating it – it can completely unravel him. (See Kisvei HaSabba Vol. I p.84)
- Our sages made a number of gzeiros to various Mitzvos and prohibitions – but they did not do so on every Mitzvah and prohibition because they didn’t make gzeiros in areas where most people would not be able to handle it (See Bava Kamma 79b). But each person, individually, is obligated to make his own gedarim, fences, in areas that are otherwise permitted to him so that he not come to violate an issur [or negate a Mitzvah] (Chochma uMussar Vol. II p.353)
- There is no greater method of being metameh oneself – of making oneself impure – than Bitul Torah. The main task of a person in life is to make sure that he is always engaged in Torah and Mitzvos (Ksavim)
- The biggest mafsid – the biggest matter that brings us down is the lack of hisbonenus, deeply considering matters, and the lack of preparing for things. (cited in Imrei Ephraim p. 95)
- Chazal tell us, “Assei Lecha Rav” – but if you do not have a person [anymore] that you can find to be your Rebbe – then make yourself into a Rav [where you are constantly engaged in Torah’s wisdom] [until you find a Rebbe again] (Chochma uMussar Vol. I p. 87
- After a person learns – the more he can push to understand his conclusions to practical applications the better it is.
- We can use the telegraph [YH: or internet], as an illustration or tool in understanding the impact of just one brief moment of the repercussions of Gaavah – it is so rapid that in almost an instant it can travel around the world. When we consider the words, mashpil geyim umagbi’ah shefalim, and consider the speed and intensity in which this can happen – we realize the necessity of distancing ourselves from gaavah and the importance of being shafel ruach. (See Kisvei HaSabba miKelm Vol. I p. 166)
- The essential pathway of following Hashem is to rid oneself of earthly desires and needs and to look to be mehaneh others. This is the meaning of the Gemorah in Sota 14a that the Torah begins with chessed and ends with chessed. (Chochmah uMussar Vol. II p. 114).
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