Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l
Forty years to his passing
Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin zt”l was born on Hanukkah 1888, in the city of Kazimirov, in the Minsk region of Belarus. His father, Rabbi Aharon Zevin zt”l, was the city rabbi. The Zevin family was from the Kapust branch of the Chabad hasidic dynasty. Already in his youth he showed signs of great talent, and by the age of thirteen he was proficient in the Talmudic tractates of Bava Kamma and Hullin. After his Bar Mitzvah he was sent by his father to study at the Mir Yeshiva, which was headed by Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Kamai, zt”l. He made a name for himself at Mir for his natural abilities and diligence, and he formed a study partnership with Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg zt”l, the author of the Seridei Eish (“Remnants of the Fire”), who chose to learn with the youthful Shlomo even though he was three years his senior. Likewise, he developed a friendship with Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Finkel zt”l, later Rabbi Kamai’s son-in-law and the future Rosh Yeshiva, who was also studying in the yeshiva at the time. Shlomo’s talent for writing was evident even at this early stage; when Rabbi Finkel published Rabbi Kamai’s classes in the pamphlet “Zichron Eliyahu,” he noted that some of the summaries were taken from Rabbi Zevin’s synopses.
After marrying, Rabbi Zevin studied with other young men under the Admor Rabbi Shemaryahu Noach Schneerson of Brubruisk, grandson of the Tzemach Tzedek. The Admor was renowned as one of the great Rebbes of Russia, and thousands gathered around him. From the Admor, Rabbi Zevin learned Hasidic studies in the Chabad style. When the Admor’s grandchildren later published his Hasidic articles in the book Shemen La’Mor, they noted in the introduction that they had received some of the material from Rabbi Zevin.
Rabbi Zevin was ordained to give halakhic instruction by several great rabbis: Rabbi Joseph Rosen zt”l, the Rogatchover; Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein zt”l, author of Arukh HaShulchan; the aforementioned Rabbi Shemaryahu Noach of Brubruisk; and the Admor Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber zt”l, of Reziza (Rechytsa).
After his father’s death, Rabbi Zevin was appointed to take his place in the city of Kazimirov, despite the fact that he was only seventeen years old at the time. From 1905-1935 he served in the rabbinates of Kazimirov, Klimon, Mglin, and Novozybkov. In all these places he taught Torah while also performing many acts of kindness and enhancing religious education, for which he was greatly admired and beloved by the public.
During that period, he corresponded with the great Torah sages of the generation, including the Rogatchover, zt”l; Rabbi Itzele of Ponevezh zt”l; Rabbi Shimon Shkop zt”l; and Rabbi Avraham Menachem Steinberg zt”l, author of the responsa Mahazeh Avraham and the rabbi of Brody. In addition, Rabbi Zevin wrote for all the Torah pamphlets that were published at the time, and his articles were highly regarded. His writing was not limited to Torah commentary: He composed and published opinion pieces and philosophical articles in newspapers, in which he expressed the Haredi view on contemporary issues and submitted proposals for strengthening religious education and preserving the religious community.
In 1919, with the establishment of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the rabbi was appointed as a member of the Ukrainian parliament. In 1919 he joined the Jewish Council of Ukraine, and in 1920 became a member and officer of the parent body of Jewish communities in Ukraine.
The Soviet occupation did not deter Rabbi Zevin from continuing to disseminate Torah and Jewish education under Soviet communist rule, and from 1921 he edited the Yagdil Torah journal together with his close friend Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky zt”l, author of Hazon Yehezkel (“The Vision of Yehezkel”), rabbi of Slutsk. Important rabbis from all over the Jewish world contributed to the journal. In addition, he edited in Kiev the political journal Achdut (“Unity”). In 1855 he was offered the prestigious rabbinate of the city of Chernihiv, but since he was occupied at the time with the building of a mikvah in his town, he refused the post, fearing that his departure would lead to the cessation of construction work.
In 1927 Rabbi Shmuel Kipnis, rabbi of Ovruch in northern Ukraine, held a conference of seventy rabbis from the Soviet Union to discuss burning religious questions. Rabbi Zevin was appointed as one of the secretaries for the conference, and his speeches and practical suggestions became cornerstones of the gathering. He concluded the final speech of the conference with the following comments: “As a united, organized force, it will be easier for us to hold firm to the slogan that is the A-Z of Jewish life, the slogan with which every Jew was born and with which he returns his soul. In the past, when a Jewish child came into the world, youths from the local school would come to recite the Shema at the cradle of the newborn. And when a Jew is about to die, God forbid, if he is weak and can no longer utter the confession, he must at least hurry to declare Shema Yisrael. Long live the eternal Jewish refrain: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One’!”
In those days, Rabbi Zevin was in close contact with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who at that time headed the efforts to spread and preserve Judaism in the Soviet state. Before the Rebbe left Russia, he established a team of four rabbis, and charged them with disseminating Judaism in the Soviet Union. One of the four was Rabbi Zevin.
However, due to the intensified religious persecution by the Communist authorities and the denial of any realistic possibility of a life of Torah and mitzvot, Rabbi Zevin sought to escape the Soviet Union by any means and immigrate to Israel. After much effort, his friend Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky – who himself had succeeded in leaving the Soviet Union for London – was able to arrange Rabbi Zevin’s release from Soviet territory in exchange for a large sum of money.
Thus, in 1935 Rabbi Zevin left the Soviet Union and arrived in Israel. He settled in Tel Aviv, where he was appointed rabbi of the local Chabad community. Even in Israel he did not cease his efforts to help the physical and spiritual rescue of the Jews left in the Soviet Union. He regularly wrote articles in the HaBoker newspaper and in the weekly HaYesod. In his columns he dealt extensively with the situation of Jews and Judaism in Soviet Russia. Additionally, he penned a regular critical section that focused on new Torah books, in the HaTzofe newspaper.
In 1935, Rabbi Zevin was appointed to serve as a teacher of Talmud at the Mizrachi Teachers’ Seminary in Jerusalem, and accordingly he moved to Jerusalem. Rabbi Zevin received national recognition in 1959, winning the Israel Prize for Torah literature for his many books, first and foremost for the establishment and editing of the Encyclopedia Talmudit.
From the year 1964 until his death, Rabbi Zevin served on the Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel; by the end of the period he was the “elder member of the Chief Rabbinate Council.” In this capacity too, he made important contributions to the Council’s deliberations and decisions, and was greatly respected and esteemed by all members of the council. Rabbi Zevin was awarded the title of Yakir Yerushalayim (“Worthy Citizen of Jerusalem”) in 1969. In 1976 the committee of Chabad rabbinical courts was established in land of Israel, and in accordance with the instruction of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Zevin was appointed the first chairman of the Chabad rabbinical court in the Holy Land, a position he filled until his death. The Rebbe greatly respected Rabbi Zevin, who in turn treated the Rebbe in the manner of a hassid to his master.
Rabbi Zevin passed away on 28 February 1978, and was buried in the Chelkat Harabbonim (“Rabbis’ Section”) of the Har HaMenuchot cemetery.
His spiritual legacy
When Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan zt”l founded the Encyclopedia Talmudit, he asked Rabbi Zevin to lead his team, in the belief that only a great Torah scholar of his stature, with his talent for writing and genius for summarizing ideas, could successfully cope with this huge project, as it entailed the gathering and reprocessing of all subjects in halakhic literature from over the generations, in alphabetical order. After some deliberation Rabbi Zevin accepted the challenge, and from then onward, for thirty-five years, the Encyclopedia Talmudit was the center of Rabbi Zevin’s life. He established the structure of the Encyclopedia, set up the list of its editors, guided the writers, and himself edited all entries of the first twelve volumes. Over the years, Rabbi Zevin received proposals for various positions, including the leadership of a united religious front for the Knesset elections. However, Rabbi Zevin rejected all of the offers, mainly due to his commitment and dedication to the great project of the Encyclopedia Talmudit. This can indeed be said to have been his life’s work, into which he poured all of his Torah greatness, his talents and abilities, tirelessly investing his best energies and efforts.
The late Rabbi Yehoshua Hutner, director of the Encyclopedia Talmudit for more than sixty years, summed up the contribution of Rabbi Zevin in the creation of the encyclopedia in the following manner:
“For more than thirty-five years, from the spring of 1942 until near his death, Rabbi Zevin led the editorial team of the Encyclopedia Talmudic as a creative figure, guide and editor, who left his imprint upon all the encyclopedia entries in their various forms. A master of Torah, he had unchallenged mastery over the entire Torah, from the Sages to the Ge’onim and the Rishonim. It would be no exaggeration to say that Rabbi Zevin was not only the innovator of a new style of halakhic writing, a focused, clear style, but he also discovered and developed a bright, radiant form of halakhic reasoning. He thus became the originator of a new period in the literature of the Oral Torah from the Sages to the present day.”
In addition to editing the Encyclopedia Talmudic, Rabbi Zevin wrote many articles and notes that he published in Torah journals and the religious press. His articles dealt with various halakhic issues, reviews and critiques of Torah literature, philosophical ideas and exegesis. He collected these articles in a series of books, which at the time were all groundbreaking for the world of Torah literature, and they inspired generations of Torah scholars and interested readers. In these works Rabbi Zevin devised a clear, orderly manner of writing, in a stylish, modern language that was suitable for the new generation. Many of the authors who came after him sought to follow this path paved by Rabbi Zevin.
His published books are as follows:
Sofrim U’Sefarim (“Writers and Books”) – 3 volumes: A collection of reviews and critiques of Torah works, which had been published by Rabbi Zevin in various forums.
Ishim Ve’shitot (“Personalities and methods”): On the study methods of Rosh Yeshivas from recent generations.
Ha’moadim Be’halakha (“The Festivals in Halakha”): On Halakhic issues pertaining to the calendar holidays.
L’Or Ha’Halakha (“In the Light of the Halakha”): On various topics of Jewish law.
Sippurei Chassidim (“Hassidic Tales”) – 3 volumes: A collection of Hassidic stories arranged in accordance with the Torah portions and Jewish festivals.
La’Torah Ve’la’moadim (“On the Torah and the Festivals”): Homiletic insights on the weekly Torah portion, mostly based on the teachings of Chabad.