Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv Broida also known as the Alter of Kelm (the Elder of Kelm), was one of the early leaders of the Musar movement. The founder of the Kelm Talmud Torah.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv Broida (Hebrew: שמחה זיסל זיו; 1824–1898), also known as Simhah Zissel Ziv or as the Alter of Kelm (the Elder of Kelm), was one of the foremost students of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and one of the early leaders of the Musar movement. He is best known as the founder and director of the Kelm Talmud Torah.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv was born as Simcha Mordechai Ziskind Broida in 1824 in Kelmė, Samogitia. His father, Reb Yisroel, belonged to the well-known Lithuanian Braude family. His mother, Chaya, was a descendant of Rabbi Zvi Ashkenazi, the Chacham Tzvi. Chaya's family name was Ziv, and her son took on his mother's family name when he moved to Grobin in 1880.
Simcha Zissel married Sara Leah, the daughter of Reb Mordechai of Vidzh, a small town near Kelm. Following his marriage he travelled to Kovno, where he studied under his foremost mentor, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, at the Nevyozer Kloiz. Among the other outstanding students were Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam, Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, Rabbi Yerucham Perlman and Rabbi Jacob Joseph. Simcha Zissel established himself as one of Salanter’s closest disciples and Simcha Zissel devoted his life to furthering Salanter’s teachings.
During this time, Salanter sent Simcha Zissel to Zhagory, to strengthen the Beis HaMusar (Musar study house), which had been established there. He also delivered lectures in the town of Kretinga.
At the time, Kalman Zev Wissotzky (who later became famous as a tea magnate) was another of Salanter’s students living in Zhagory. Wissotzky had studied in the Volozhin Yeshiva and had become very wealthy and had many connections within government circles. He was a great supporter and benefactor of many Jewish causes. When Wissotsky decided to move to Moscow, Salanter instructed Simcha Zissel to accompany him, out of concern that the move to Moscow might have a negative effect on Wissotzky’s spirituality. Simcha Zissel then moved to Moscow, where he lived for two years.
Following his time in Moscow, Simcha Zissel moved to St. Petersburg, then the largest city in Czarist Russia. After spending almost a year there, the communal leaders brought Simcha Zissel a signed document appointing him as their Rabbi. He was unwilling to accept the position, however, and proposed that his friend from the yeshiva in Kovno – Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer – be appointed to the position.
Main article: Kelm Talmud Torah
Seeking to combat threats to traditional Judaism and to strengthen the cause of the Musar movement, Simcha Zissel decided to open a school in Kelm, the Kelm Talmud Torah. At the time, Simcha Zissel was almost forty years old.
The Talmud Torah opened in approximately 1865 and attracted young students, mainly thirteen and fourteen-year-olds. Simcha Zissel’s teacher – Rabbi Yisrael Salanter – had taught Simcha Zissel the importance of Musar and so the Talmud Torah aimed not only to enhance its student’s Torah knowledge but also to shape their personalities and develop their character traits using the Musar approach. Indeed, much of daily study at the Talmud Torah focused on Musar, while comparatively little time was devoted to the conventional study of Talmud.
Simcha Zissel also introduced general subjects such as geography, mathematics, and Russian into the Talmud Torah curriculum. These subjects were studied for three hours a day, which was unprecedented in traditional Lithuanian yeshivas. Simcha Zissel did not view general studies as a "necessary evil" but rather argued that such studies would encourage "better living" and "a better understanding of religious teachings as well."
In 1872, Simcha Zissel purchased a plot of land and erected a building for the Talmud Torah. A few years later, however, in 1876, the Talmud Torah was denounced to the authorities, who began to watch it closely and to hound it. Simcha Zissel decided to open elsewhere, and re-established in Grobin, in the Kurland province. He arranged for the purchase of a fine building, situated in a spacious yard. There was a main study hall, smaller rooms for classes, a dining room and dormitories. The school in Grobin opened by 1880.
Simcha Zissel, suffered from failing health which necessitated his spending long periods in his home, which was in Kelm. In 1881, he returned to Kelm, leaving his son, Rabbi Nochum Zev Ziv to run the Talmud Torah in Grobin. Young men from Kelm and the surrounding areas flocked to study under Simcha Zissel and the town once again became a center of Musar.
From his home in Kelm, Simcha Zissel continued to play a role in the running of the Talmud Torah in Grobin. This, however, began to be too difficult and Simcha Zissel decided to close the yeshiva. He sent a member of his family to consult his teacher, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter who was living in Germany at the time.
Salanter disagreed with the idea and the Talmud Torah remained open in Grobin until 1886. In that year, Simcha Zissel's health took a turn for the worse and his doctors warned him that there was real danger to his life if he continued making the effort that the running of the yeshiva in Grobin required. At this point, Simcha Zissel was forced to close the Talmud Torah in Grobin.
With the closure of the Grobin Talmud Torah, the focus of his work shifted back to Kelm, which now regained its former prominence. Simcha Zissel established a group that was known as "Devek Tov," comprising his foremost students. He shared a special relationship with the group's members and he worked on writing out his discourses for them, which, unfortunately, required more strength than he had.
A number of his students settled in Palestine in 1892, opening the "Beis HaMusar" in Jerusalem, under Simcha Zissel’s auspices and with his support.
Simcha Zissel died on Wednesday 26 July 1898 – the eve of Tisha B'Av, shortly after having recited the morning Shema. He died while in the middle of the paragraph “Ezras avoseinu”.
Simcha Zissel was known for his humility, lovingkindness, thoughtfulness, and focus on order.
At Simcha Zissel's funeral, his friend and colleague Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, the Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, said that aside from Simcha Zissel’s greatness in Torah, he had never heard a single word from him that was not related to Torah and to fear of Heaven.
Simcha Zissel was not only great in Musar but also in his knowledge of Torah and Talmud. Gordon, who was known as a fiery and tempestuous genius, would repeat his Talmudic thoughts to Simcha Zissel and seek his opinion on them, for he valued Simcha Zissel’s scholarship highly. Gordon said that his friend had been fluent in three orders of the Talmud, to such a level where he knew every comment of Rashi and Tosafot word for word. He was also fluent in all four divisions of the Shulchan Aruch and could locate any given Halacha within it with pinpoint precision.
Simcha Zissel taught that the whole world is a classroom where one can learn to improve one’s character and increase one’s belief in God. Simcha Zissel would frequently quote Socrates, who said that "true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."
Simcha Zissel offered his students the following advice: "Take time. Be exact. Unclutter the mind." The school (Talmud Torah) that he operated in Grobin was an epitome of this approach. The students conducted themselves with calmness and order but were still motivated and enthusiastic. There are numerous anecdotes that illustrated the extent that this reached, among them are;
A man once left a cane hanging on a hook in the school by mistake, he came back many years later and the cane had not been moved.
Rabbi Ziv once came into the school and saw that in the row of galoshes that had been lined up outside the study hall, one of the pair of galoshes was not in line with the others. Rb Ziv dedicated an entire ethical sermon to the need for order in light of this event.
The windows that faced the street in the study hall were never opened in order to prevent distractions. A noise was once heard outside the study hall. One of the students opened the window and looked out to see what was happening. Rb Ziv commented that he did not see that there was any possibility that that student would become an accomplished person.
Simcha Zissel explained that a person can only progress in life and perceive God by clearing his mind of confusion and haphazard thinking. Once a person has done this, they will be able to achieve a level of equanimity and clarity of mind that will allow them to plan a path through life that is independent of the fallacies that are the subconscious product of personal weakness and temptations. They will also be able to recognise the subtleties (subtleness) of God's manifestation in the world.
Simcha Zissel would study for twelve solid, successive hours each day no matter the time of year. He explained that only through clarity and clear mindedness can a person overcome their will to act impulsively and achieve focus.
Rabbi Dov Katz described Simcha Zissel’s approach to learning as consisting of three guiding principles:
One should become emotionally involved in his studies, whether joyful or sad.
One should ask oneself after everything one learns, "What did I think before, and what do I know differently now?"
One's study should always delve beyond the external facets and arrive at the essence of the topic.
He encouraged practices that would encourage visualization and introspection.
His students included many of the musar greats of the next generation: Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel of Slabodka, Rabbi Aharon Bakst, Rabbi Reuven Dov Dessler (whose son Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler authored the classic Michtav M'Eliyahu), Rabbi Nachum Ze'ev Ziv, and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Braude.
There were many other great Rabbis who only spent a short period in Kelm, yet were greatly influenced by Simcha Zissel. Among these are Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch, the Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz the Mashgiach of Mir, Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz of Novhardok, Rabbi Elya Lopian of the Knesses Chizkiyahu Yeshiva in Israel, and Rabbi Chaim Yitzchak Hacohen Bloch the chief rabbi of Bausk and Plunge.
Other students of Simcha Zissel entered professions including medicine, law, and engineering. One of his students, Israel Isidor Elyashev, became a well-known literary critic.
Many of Simcha Zissel's discourses and letters to his students were published in a two-volume work, Hokhmah U-Musar, edited by Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz and Rabbi Simcha Zissel Halevi Levovitz. Additional letters, as well as transcriptions of his words by his disciples, appear in a series of volumes under the title Kitvei Ha-Sabba Mi-Kelm.
May the merit of the tzadik Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv protect us all. Amen