Did you ever wonder how someone becomes a Torah scholar? I don’t mean just any old neighborhood rabbi who is able to quote a few sources (which for me is still very impressive) but rather someone who has an in depth understanding of the underlying ideas that all the various sources are trying to convey. Although this may sound like a trivial matter, the truth is there are few people who really acquire such an understanding.
One such person I’ve had the privilege of knowing for several years is Rabbi Moshe Zuriel. Although externally he looks like another “black hat” haredi rabbi living in Bnei Brak, the Rav (Hebrew for Rabbi) is anything but that. For starters he’s an ardent Zionist and strong advocate of Jewish settlement anywhere in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). For many years, until health slowed him down, he would periodically give lectures in various communities throughout Judea and Samaria in order to strengthen the morale of the people living there. In addition, he’s penned one of the more well-known books on the works of Rabbi Avraham Kook, a five volume set called Otrzot Ha-Ra’ayah. For anyone who is familiar with Israel, this in itself separates the Rav from most of the residents in Bnei Brak since in the haredi world Rabbi Kook is more or less a persona non grata.
A prolific writer known amongst other things for both providing indexes to some of the most difficult material to index (ie; an index for the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Tikunei Ha-Zohar) as well as for collating tremendous amounts of scattered sources (in Otzrot Emunah he provides 170 different books as reference material for over a hundred topics of Jewish religious thought), the Rav has written roughly thirty books on a wide variety of Torah subjects as well as countless articles. Although fluent in English as a result of spending most of his youth in America, all of his published works are in Hebrew. For anyone interested, many of his articles can be found on the Beit El Yehsiva site.
In order to better understand how he acquired such a vast knowledge as well as to hear firsthand some of his story (everyone has a story), I recently made a long overdue visit to the Rav in his Bnei Brak apartment.
From Germany to Cuba to America
Yoel Meltzer (YM): It’s good to see you Rav Zuriel, I haven’t been here in years. I want to go back in time with you and hear your story. If I’m not mistaken, you were born in Germany in 1938. If so, how did you get out of Germany?
Rabbi Moshe Zuriel (MZ): My father was a Polish citizen and my mother was German born. My father was thrown out of Germany as a foreigner half a year before my mother was also ejected from the country. She was placed on a train with four children and a few hundred other Jews, all of us deported to Poland. We were the last train before the border was closed. The Poles however didn’t want any more Jews, which turned out to be a godsend since otherwise we would have ended up in a concentration camp. At the same time, however, the Germans didn’t want us back as well. So we were stuck on the train for two days, all of us crushed together. Being a small infant, only six months old, I fainted from hunger. My mother told me that someone gave me half a banana which in turn kept me alive.
The Germans then decided to let us come back for two weeks to make preparations for leaving. They didn’t care where we went as long as we left Germany. However, since no country in Europe was ready to accept a few hundred Jewish refugees we decided to hire a ship, at our own expense, and set sail for South America in the hope that some country would let us in. My father, who until then was in Switzerland, was also with us on the ship.
Similar to the case in Europe, no one in South America wanted us and we were rejected by nine countries – Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, etc. We were on the ship for about two months until finally some wealthy Jews in New York gave serious bribe money to the leadership in Cuba in order to convince them to let us stay in Cuba. They agreed and we were there for two years with all of our expenses being paid by the same New York Jews.
YM: And after two years, where did you go?
MZ: We were then allowed into America and we settled in New York (Brooklyn). I grew up there and as a youth I was involved in the Bnei Akiva youth movement where I developed my love for Israel. Eventually I studied at the Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore during the day while at night I studied at Loyola University in order get a degree in education. I wanted to be a teacher in Israel so I needed to get a degree.
The First Time in Israel
YM: When did you finally head to Israel and what made you come?
MZ: I came to Israel because I was disgusted with the crime rate and problems in America. As a child we had a television and a night didn’t go by without a report of several murders. So I knew I wanted to get out of there and come to a place that I believed would be more refined.
The first time I came to Israel was in 1958 at the age of 20. My parents were against me coming since they believed it was the “wild west” here, a very dangerous place. They said if you want to be a Zionist, give money to other people who are moving to Israel. They also told me that if I left America I’d lose out. They tried to convince me to stay put in America, become rich, and then donate to other people who are moving here.
YM: Where did you go when you arrived in Israel?
MZ: The Jewish Agency gave me a plane ticket on condition that I study at a Zionist yeshiva, either in Yavne or Mercaz Ha-Rav in Jerusalem. I chose Mercaz Ha-Rav and there I learned for about half a year. I had a chevruta (learning session) twice a week with Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (the son of Rabbi Avraham Kook): once a week we studied Mesilat Yesharim of the Ramchal (an acronym for Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) and once a week we studied the Igrot (Letters) of his father Rabbi Avraham Kook.
YM: Who was studying with you at Mercaz Ha-Rav back in 1958?
MZ: Back then it was a small yeshiva with roughly forty students, still a few years before it blossomed into an “institution” following the influx of hundreds of new students who were graduates of the Bnei Akiva high schools. Nevertheless, there were quite a few students who went on to become very well-known rabbis, for instance Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, Rabbi Dov Lior, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Rabbi Tzfaniah Drori and Rabbi Zalman Melamed.
YM: That’s quite an impressive list. What did you do after half a year in the yeshiva?
MZ: I was uneasy since I wanted to teach so I left the yeshiva and began teaching in elementary schools for a short period. After being in Israel for about a year I headed back to America for two years to finish my degree, once again studying at the Ner Yisrael Yeshiva during the day and at Loyola University in the evenings. In addition to receiving my diploma in “Educational Psychology”, during that same two-year period I served for a short while as a rabbi in a small town called Newark, Delaware.
YM: From whom did you receive semicha (rabbinical ordination)?
MZ: The first time I was in Israel I received semicha from Rabbi Eliyahu Rom.
The Connection to Rabbi Avraham Kook
YM: Okay, so you went back to the states for two years. When and how did you become so connected to the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Kook?
MZ: I was very impressed by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, he was an incredible person, warm hearted and generously devoted to his students, as well as a tremendous tzadik. He told me stories about his father and I was very excited so when I went back to the States for two years he gave me some books of his father. Also in the yeshiva there was a geniza where I found some damaged copies of books of his father that had been tossed aside so I took these as well to America. During the two years in the States I avidly read and reread all these books of Rabbi Avraham Kook.
I remember being so excited about Eretz Yisrael that when I went back to the States I took some earth with me which I placed next to my pillow so that when I slept at night in Baltimore, Eretz Yisrael would still be close to me!
When I came back to Israel I continued with my studies of Rabbi Kook and through time I felt more connected to the father than to the son. I wrote on every page that I studied a brief summary of what the Rabbi said and what was the main point. This was the beginning of what eventually became Otrzot Ha-Ra’ayah.
Settling Down in Bnei Brak and The Unexpected Inheritance
YM: When did you “settle down”?
MZ: After I returned to Israel with my degree I began teaching in Hadera. Then I found a nice girl from Romania and we decided to get married. However, there was a hitch. I wanted to stay in Hadera because of my teaching job but she had a brother in Bnei Brak and a sister in nearby Ramat Gan so she didn’t want to live in Hadera. Being a good husband I agreed to live in Bnei Brak.
YM: What happened next?
MZ: At this point my father came to Israel for a visit and was so happy with my wife and new child that he purchased an apartment for us since we had very little money. In addition, he decided that he wanted to give me, rather than to my three brothers who remained in the States, whatever money he had as an inheritance. I didn’t know this at the time and I only learned about it later on.
Half a year after visiting me in Israel my father had a heart attack. He died six months later following a second heart attack. When my father died, before I knew of the will he left me, I went to the States for the last time. I went with my wife and kids in order to convince my mom and brothers that he must be buried in Israel. Eventually they gave in and my dad is buried here. However, they were angry at me since I didn’t visit his grave. I go according to the Rambam who prohibits visiting graves. They said to me “what’s the point of having him buried in Israel if you don’t visit him!?”
YM: So this was the last time you ever left Eretz Yisrael. Incredible. So what happened to the will when you came back to Israel?
MZ: Needless to say, when we heard about the will my brothers were not happy that I would receive all the inheritance so I agreed that for the time being they should hold on to the money. At the time I was still teaching in a high school in Hadera but when the school year ended I decided that I wanted to seriously study Torah. I told my brothers to continue to hold on to the money and just support me with a sum of roughly sixty liras a week. With this money we lived a very simple life but it allowed me to sit and learn Torah. I was twenty six years old and I wanted to learn with all my strength, all my intelligence, powers and energy.
The Period of Intense Torah Learning
YM: With the weekly allowance of 60 liras, how long were you able to learn?
MZ: I learned for nine or ten straight years – morning, noon and night – until the money ran out.
YM: That’s staggering! Can you describe your learning schedule and some of the items you learned?
MZ: During that period I finished all of the Babylonian Talmud, all the midrashim, all the books of the Rambam, the Tur, Shulchan Aruch; all and all I completed about one hundred different works.
Each day I learned four pages of Gemara (Talmud), two chapters of Tanach (Torah, Prophets, Writings), a few hours of Halacha, lots of Musar and various other books.
One fellow, a real tzadik who had a toy store, wanted to be awake every night at midnight in order to learn Kabbalah so he came every night to my apartment at 11:30 and we learned Kabbalah until 12:30. After that I slept until 4:00 and then another study partner came and we studied Kabbalah until sunrise, at which time we went to pray the morning prayers.
After the prayers I then slept a bit before starting to learn again. Except for three times a day to go to synagogue I almost never left my apartment during those ten years. Anything that needed to be done my lovely wife did for me as she was totally supportive of my learning.
When the money ran out the Rav got a teaching job with Rabbi Bagad in Nachal Yitzchak (a high school yeshiva in Nachalim near Petach Tikva). Then be began teaching in the Sha’alvim high school, after which he was asked in 1978 to be the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual supervisor) in the Sha’alvim Yeshiva. Although he didn’t consider himself a mashgiach he accepted the job and continued there for eighteen years. During his time in Sha’alvim he was asked questions by hundreds of students and he had a custom to give everyone a clear answer, either on the spot or the next day after checking with various sources or rabbis. Thus no one was left hanging.
The Rav jotted down in the cover of a book all his milestones in learning, per year, as a form of self-motivation. For instance, during a specific year it might be noted that all of the Babylonian Talmud, the Etz Chaim of the Arizal, the Mishne Torah of the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch and Sefer Ha-Zohar were studied. In addition, it was noted whether this was the first time that a certain work was completed, the tenth time, or in the case of the Nach (Prophets and Writings) the 100th time. Once again this was purely a technique that the Rav employed for self-motivation and therefore should not be construed in any way as a form of vanity or arrogance. Personally I was blown away when I saw the amount of material that he has covered through the years. It’s really, really mind-blogging.
YM: What other rabbis did you learn with?
MZ: I had a chevruta for about six months with Rabbi Friedlander (he edited and made available many of the works of the Ramchal). At the time he was the mashgiach in the Ponovich Yeshiva while I was the mashgiach in Sha’alvim. We learned together the kitvei kabbalah of the Ramchal. He was a real “lamed vavnik” (a hidden tzadik). He was covered; you couldn’t see on him that he was something great. He was simple, calm, reticent and easy going. Even when I learned with him I didn’t realize how great he was.
YM: Who else did you learn Kabbalah with?
MZ: Before learning with Rabbi Friedlander I learned the ropes in Kabbalah with Rabbi Sraya Deblitzky and then with Rabbi Shmuel Toledano.
Then later on I learned with Rabbi Dvir, another hidden tzadik. He opened my eyes to the “nimshal”, which is the inner meaning or unraveling of the “mashal” (the parable). I once said to him “teach me kabbalah” and he said “go find a kabbalist”. When I would stand for him out of reverence he would become aggravated and say “what’s this for, what’s the purpose?” He was very humble, truly a great man.
A Book is a Man’s Best Friend
YM: The many books you have on your shelves are full of notes. Can you say something about books and what they mean to you?
MZ: The books are my teachers, my mentors, and from the hundreds of books that I learned I acquired a true appreciation of what the Torah is really about. It’s not enough that the books are on the shelves; you have to know what their message is.
When I gave a lesson at Sha’alvim, every day I gave a lesson to a different group, I would say “today we have a guest lecturer, the Maharal is coming to teach us”. The students would look at me like I’m crazy and say “The Maharal has been dead for four hundred years”! I would say “We’re reading his book, he’s writing us a letter, he’s talking to us. Why do you need Zuriel when you have the Maharal? Let’s see what he says.” That’s the true approach. When you’re learning a book you’re connecting to the ancient author, he’s still alive and he’s imparting to you his wisdom, all the wisdom he gathered in tens of years. The book is the concentrated essence of what he learned over the course of many years and now you’re getting it for $10. It’s a big thing to study a book. A book is a man’s best friend. When I’m learning and I see something exciting, I kiss the book, I kiss the words. I can’t kiss G-d because I don’t know where he is but the words that convey his message, these words are wonderful so I kiss the book. When I take out by mistake the wrong book, instead of closing it I read at least one line. If I took this book off of the shelf, it means I needed to get something from it.
We continued chatting, jumping from subject to subject. The following are some of his main points:
• Although there is a value to learning in and of itself, the main thing, as stressed by the sages, is the deed. In other words, learning Torah should not remain simply an intellectual exercise but rather the knowledge one gains from it must be used to actively engage in making the world a better place.
• Regarding learning styles, for most people it’s preferable to learn be-kiyut (cover more ground in Torah to become familiar with the overall picture) rather then be-iyun (in depth analysis of fewer subjects). Moreover, be-kiyut learning should be accompanied by the writing of short summarizations in order to better internalize the subject matter.
• People who learn Torah but are argumentative don’t really understand what they’re learning; it’s all external to them.
• With the kibbutz galiyot (ingathering of the exiles) we need a Sanhedrin to implement various changes since Judaism is a developing matter; it’s supposed to be dynamic. He showed me in one of his works twenty items that the Tosafot (a group of medieval rabbinic sages) changed. Today however, he added, we’re like the Karaites, we don’t want to change.
• Jewish life is characterized by a true optimism that everything will work out and will be fine since G-d is in charge. G-d cannot be a failure, he created the world thus it has to succeed.
As he escorted me to the bus stop he told me a nice story from his early days in New York. He was in his late teens and he wanted to know whether or not one is required to use special kosher for Passover toothpaste during the Passover holiday. So rather than consulting with any old rabbi he decided to go to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in order to present his question to none other than Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the Torah giants of the 20th century.
When he arrived he found the rabbi sitting all alone in his study hall at a broad table covered with books. When he approached the rabbi to ask his question, the brilliant yet humble Rabbi Feinstein unexpectedly got up and pulled the young Moshe Zuriel by the arm in order for him to sit in his upholstered office chair. Although embarrassed to sit in the great rabbi’s seat, it was clear at the time to the teenage Moshe Zuriel that the venerable rabbi didn’t want to have someone standing while he sat and that he also didn’t want to have a young student exert himself by walking around the table in order to sit in the simple wooden school chair that was on the other side of the rabbi. Thus he had the young inquirer sit in his comfortable chair while he pulled up the wooden school chair for himself.
When he presented his question to Rabbi Feinstein, the great rabbi calmly asked a few questions: “Do you eat toothpaste? Do you smear it on a piece of bread and make a sandwich of it?” The young Moshe Zuriel answered “no”. The rabbi then asked “Do you feed toothpaste to a dog? Will he eat it?”. Once again the young Moshe Zuriel replied “no”. After ascertaining that toothpaste is not edible, the great Torah sage calmly said “It’s fine. You don’t need special toothpaste for Passover”.
While Rabbi Zuriel’s life story demonstrates that where there is a strong will and determination a person can accomplish an incredible amount, I decided to include the brief encounter with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein since I believe his straightforward and clear thinking, especially in an increasingly convoluted Torah world, as well as his incredible humility and respect for other people, is a lesson for all of us.