23 Iyar is the yahrtzeit of the chossid Reb Schneur Zalman Vilenkin, A”H, the Rebbe’s melamed in Yekatrinislav.
By: Anash.org. Special thanks to Rabbi Michoel Seligson.
Reb Schneur Zalman Vilenkin was born on the 2nd of Sivan in 5638/1878 in Podobronka, Russia, just a few weeks after Harav Reb Levi Yitzchok, the Rebbe’s father, who was also born there. When Reb Zalman was called up to register for the Russian army, the Rebbe RaShaB blessed him and the army did not draft him. In 1900, Reb Zalman married and moved to his wife’s city, Brian, where he was taught by his father-in-law to become a shochet. When Reb Levi Yitzchok became the rov of Yekatrinoslav in 1909, he offered his old friend Reb Zalman the position of shochet. Reb Zalman welcomed the opportunity and lived in Yekatrinoslav for thirty-two years until the war came to the Soviet Union in 1941.
When Reb Zalman arrived in Yekatrenislav, he was unable to assume his new position immediately. Harav Levi Yitzchok suggested that Reb Zalman become the melamed of his oldest son, then seven years old, and of his two younger sons, until the position of shochet would be available. Reb Zalman accepted the teaching position, and as he later said, he did not regret it for a moment.
Reb Zalman Becomes a Melamed
Reb Zalman taught the children in his own home; a total of thirteen students, all “elite” local children. One of the other children was Reb Nochum Goldshmid, later of Eretz Yisroel. In later years Reb Zalman recalled, that as a child the Rebbe was engrossed in his studies and generally did not socialize with the other children. The Rebbe once asked Reb Zalman a question that that completely shocked his melamed, particularly since it was being asked by such a young child. Reb Zalman realized the Rebbe’s ability and would learn separately with him. The Rebbe later told Reb Zalman, “You can take pride in your students, who today are found all over the world.”
On one occasion, when the Rebbe was distributing mashkeh at a farbrengen the Rebbe said, “Regarding the person with whom to send the mashkeh, there is someone here I am indebted to because he is the son of my melamed, with whom I studied mikroh, mishna, and gemoro for many years.” He was Reb Sholom Eliyohu Vilenkin, Reb Zalman’s son. When a great-grandson was born into the Schapiro family in 1977 and the Rebbe was told that the baby was named after Reb Zalman, he said, “He was my melamed. He was a great Yid. The child should grow up to resemble him”.
A Unique Chossid
His oldest daughter, Mrs. Dina Vilenkin-Dubrowsky was born in 1912. As a child, she had serious kidney problems, and doctors didn’t know how to treat her. Reb Zalman traveled to the Reb RaShaB who blessed her with a refuah shelaima and long life. A short while later the illness miraculously disappeared. Reb Zalman and his family lived in poverty but he was always happy with his lot. What did upset him was his lack of funds to enable him to travel to the Rebbe.
Reb Zalman had great self-sacrifice to keep his children from attending government schools. Although busy earning a parnossa, Reb Zalman dedicated time during the days and evenings, including Shabbos, and taught them stories from the Tanach, Medrash, and Gemoroh including stories of tzaddikim. Reb Zalman did not allow his children to play with the neighbors’ children, lest they learn from their ways. When Tomchei Tmimim opened a branch in Yekatrenislov Reb Zalman was among the anash families who invited the bochurim to their homes.
Reb Zalman spent his spare time studying in a shul across from his home. The concept of not utilizing time to study Torah was alien to him. He knew the entire Mishnayos by heart, and in his last years, unable to read, he would review them orally. He also knew many maamorei chassidus by heart, and would often review them in public. When a new Maamor would arrive from the Previous Rebbe, he would teach it in public. He would also deliver a shiur in Ayin-Yaakov in shul. He was an eloquent speaker and everybody understood his shiurim. Reb Zalman had a large Sforim library, and the Rebbe would frequently come to the house to borrow seforim. Every Motzoei Shabbos there was a melave malka in his house and Reb Zalman would at that time deliver a shiur in Likutei Torah.
Occasionally, when special guests would arrive such as Reb Michoel Dworkin or other chassidim, they would Farbreng and make an appeal for the Rebbe or for Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim.
Once, Reb Nissan Nemanov came to raise money for the yeshiva. Aware of the esteem in which Reb Zalman was held, he asked that he assist him with the project. At the time, Reb Zalman suffered from kidney stones causing him great pain. He told Reb Nissan that he would gladly participate but was unable to because of his condition. Reb Nissan responded, “Since I am an emissary from the Rebbe, therefore I bless you, with the koach of the Rebbe, that the kidney stones should leave.” Reb Zalman recalled, that the stones disappeared that night. The next morning he was able to assist Reb Nissan with his appeal.
On the 14th of Kislev in 1929, the Rebbe’s wedding took place in Warsaw. The Rebbe’s parents were unable to attend the wedding, but they celebrated from afar in Yekatrineslav, with Reb Zalman in attendance at the home of Rav Levi Yitzchok and Rebbetzin Chana. In the middle of the dancing, he jumped onto the table and began dancing. “I had the privilege,” he called out, “the great privilege, that my student has become the son-in-law to the king, the Rebbe!”
Reb Zalman left Russia for Paris, at the end of Tamuz in 5707/1947, together with his daughter and son-in-law Rabbi Lipa Schapiro. Reb Zalman again became a melamed, this time in the yeshiva in Pocking. The Rebbe worked to obtain a visa for his melamed. Reb Zalman received the papers allowing him entry to the U.S. in 1948, but ill health prevented him from traveling. After the histalkus of the Previous Rebbe, Reb Zalman participated in a general pidyon written to the Rebbe, as well as writing a personal pidyon, in which he committed himself completely to the Rebbe. Whenever a new sicha or ma’amar from the Rebbe arrived in Paris, Reb Zalman would say with excitement, “Hashem has, with his generosity, had pity on us and given us our Rebbe.”
Arrival in the U.S.
In 1953, his health improved and Reb Zalman was able to travel to the United States. Upon their arrival, they were instructed by immigration authorities to remain in New York for three days, until their flight to Cleveland, Ohio, where his daughter Mrs. Schapiro lived. Reb Zalman used the time to enter into Yechidus with the Rebbe. At the time, two of his sons were still in Russia and included a request in his pidyon regarding their dire situation. When Reb Zalman entered the Rebbe’s room, neither the Rebbe nor Reb Zalman would sit. So it continued for the whole yechidus, both of them remained standing. Reb Zalman later regretted that the Rebbe stood for more than a half-an-hour for him.
Over the course of the years in Cleveland, Reb Zalman would occasionally give a shiur in Tanya which was attended by anash and bochurim of the nearby Telzer Yeshiva.
In 1957, the Rebbe referred the family to a contact to assist in obtaining the necessary papers for Reb Zalman’s move to New York. The Rebbe said to relay to this contact “I learned from him, and I still remember the pages of the gemoroh that we learned.” In 1959, Reb Zalman successfully moved to N.Y., and continued giving shiurim in Likutei Torah for anash, in Crown Heights. During the second yechidus with the Rebbe, the Rebbe asked Reb Zalman to sit, Reb Zalman said that because of his health condition, he was obliged to. The Rebbe then said, “It does not matter, approximately fifty years ago, we sat together at one gemoroh, we can also sit together now”. The yechidus continued for forty-five minutes.
When Reb Zalman entered the Rebbe’s farbrengens, the Rebbe would rise slightly from his seat and would wait until Reb Zalman sat down. This also happened when the Reb Zalman needed to leave in the middle of the farbrengen.
On Friday, the 16th of Iyar, 1963, Reb Zalman suffered a stroke. He asked his grandson to ask the Rebbe for a brochoh. That night, when the Rebbe entered the shul for Kabolas Shabbos, he met Dr. Seligson and discussed Reb Zalman’s condition for a while. On Motzoei Shabbos, the Rebbe called in Reb Zalman’s grandson and gave him pieces of matzoh for his zeide. The Rebbe’s face became serious and he added, “He should have a good week”. The Rebbe was later told that the physicians had advised that Reb Zalman needed a steady nurse. The Rebbe paid the costs of employing a nurse. On Thursday night, the 23rd of Iyar, Hachossid Reb Schneur Zalman Vilenkin was niftar.
The levaya took place on Friday afternoon. The Rebbe participated and carried the aron, as well as traveled to the bais haChaim. The Rebbe told the family that he wanted to pay for the burial plot. Since the family also needed to participate, they should give one dollar. The next Shabbos at the farbrengen, the Rebbe said that when a person is buried on Friday afternoon, he is spared from chibut hakever, a harsh punishment that one usually goes through after the ptira. When it came time to place the matzeva, the Rebbe participated in a third of the expenses.
The Rebbe gave instructions for a large matzeivoh, not shiny or glossy, without drawn lines or artwork. When the wording for the matzeivoh was shown to the Rebbe he commented “Why does it not mention that he studied with Jewish children? I can testify to this.” Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, a member of the Chevra Kadisha, entered the Rebbe’s room and was instructed to inscribe “He learned with students, and merited that the Rebbe HoRaMaM. studied by him.”
His resting place is near the holy Ohel.
Reb Zalman was survived by several children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of them the Rebbe’s shluchim worldwide.
Yehi Zichro Boruch!