On Tuesday night, January 21, Torah Jewry was shaken by the passing of Maran HaGaon Rav Chaim Epstein, zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Zichron Meilech in Brooklyn, at the age of 79, after battling a serious illness.
Rav Chaim was born in 1935 in the Polish city of Mir; his parents were Rav Yosef Dovid, zt”l, and Rebbetzin Shaina Itta Epstein, a”h. Rav Yosef Dovid was a respected member of the Mir Yeshiva in Europe, as well as an outstanding scholar and author, highly regarded by his colleagues in the Mir. He and his wife spent the war years with the yeshiva in Shanghai, and ultimately made their way to the shoresof the United States, residing in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Young Chaim Epstein spent his elementary years learning in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. He later attended Beth Medrash Elyon in Monsey for a short while, before proceeding to study under the great Torah pioneer of America, Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, in the Beth Medrash Govoha Kollel in Lakewood, NJ.
In 1961, at the age of 26, Rav Chaim married Esther Musha, the daughter of Rav Dovid Bender, a master educator and principal in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, and Basya Bender, one of the pioneers of the American Bais Yaakov movement who served as a mother to generations of students. The couple resided in Lakewood, and Rebbetzin Esther Musha did all she could to enable her husband to grow in Torah and ultimately become a renowned Rosh Yeshiva.
After seven-and-a-half years of rigorous Torah study in Lakewood, the Epsteins moved to Boro Park, Brooklyn, where Rav Chaim became known as a highly regarded Torah scholar. He assumed the position of Rosh Yeshivah in Yeshiva Zichron Meilech, where he would teach thousands of devoted students over the next several decades. The Epsteins’ extraordinary warmth and generosity quickly made their home on 46thStreet a vibrant source of comfort and inspiration for so many students and others in need of the help.
“If Not You, Then Whom?”
People flocked to Rav Chaim to confide in him and seek inspiration and encouragement. His keen perception and intuition were evident to everyone who knew him. He had a uniquely sharpunderstanding of human nature, which helped him counsel many people in the areas of shalom bayit(marital harmony) and other personal matters.
Rav Chaim was a man of phenomenal humility, never allowing the slightest bit of arrogance to enter his Torah-filled mind. As one of his eulogizers declared, “He was allergic to kavod[prestige].”
He spoke kindly and without condescension, and thus everyone – other rabbis, businessmen, non-observant Jews, and even non-Jews –
felt comfortable talking and conversing with him.
Rav Chaim wrote a widely-acclaimed work of scholarship entitled Iyunim Be’hidushei Ha’Rashba, an in-depth study and analysis of one of the classic Talmud commentaries. The work was graced by an emphatic letter of approbation by Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, the towering rabbinic leader of Torah Jewry in 20th-century America. In this letter, Rav Feinstein enthusiastically expressed his delight that “even in the new generation, true Torah giants have arisen.” Rav Chaim was only 38 years old when those words were written. And yet, when he was asked to serve as the officiating rabbi at a wedding, he called Rav Feinstein and asked, “How can I be mesader kiddushin when I don’t even have semichah[formal ordination]?” To which Rav Moshe replied, “Reb Chaim, if not you, then whom? I hereby give you semichah over the phone!”
A Heart of Gold
In the early years of the Lakewood Yeshiva, Route 9 was a hazardous roadway that, unfortunately, saw on average nearly 10 accidents a year, most of which occurred after midnight. Rabbi Shlomo Diamond, then a neighbor of Rav Chaim, recalls that whenever RavChaim heard a sudden screech or thump coming from outside, he frantically raced down the stairs of their apartment building on Madison Avenue, and hurried to the scene of the accident. He would remain there and lend whatever assistance he could until all the medical personnel had gone. Whether it was a Jew or gentile, day or night, Rav Chaim rushed to help.
Over 50 years later, toward the end of his life, Rav Chaim was once walking home with his son on Shabbat morning when he noticed Hatzalah trucks gathering at an intersection in the distance. With his four-legged walker in hand, he made the trek towards the scene. After finally arriving at the scene, he waited patiently, hoping to exchange words with the patient. A full hour passed before his son suggested that they head back home.
“Go home?” Rav Chaim replied. “For what? For cholent?! This poor man is hurt!”
They continued waiting, until finally the rabbi caught a glimpse of the victim being carried out of his home. He wasted no time, and proceeded towards the stretcher. He leaned forward and emotionally wished the man, “Refuah shelemah.”Only then did he agree to go home.
Championing Torah Ideals
In his many mussarlectures, Rav Chaim would often lament the indulgence and pursuit of material excess that is rampant in America, and urged his students to exercise discipline and moderation in this regard. He would also decry the American ideals of “fun” and “entertainment,” which he showed are contradictory to Torah principles. In addition, Rav Chaim denounced the obsession with dining in fancy restaurants, unnecessary Pesach vacations, and the general preoccupation with food. A close student of the Rosh Yeshiva explained that his intent was to discourage excessive focus on the mundane, physical aspects of life, and to urge people to direct their attention onto Torah and spirituality.
Keren Eizer L’Nefesh
After the passing of his wife just over four years ago, on
October 14, 2010 (6 Marheshvan, 5771), Rav Chaim launched a special project in her memory, establishing the Keren Eizer L’Nefesh organization to help young people get the mental health treatments they require. The issue of children’s mental health was somethingnear and dear to the rebbetzin’s heart, and Rav Chaim thus felt that helping to fund treatments for those who could not afford it was an appropriate way to perpetuate his wife’s inspiring legacy of kindness. Keren Eizer L’Nefesh has already had a profoundimpact. It has helped countless people, including members of our very own Syrian-Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, obtain the professional help they needed.
Rav Chaim is survived by a family of outstanding and dedicated Torah scholars and righteous women. His passing is mourned by his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and thousands of students and followers who have lost their leader, their guide, and their spiritual compass. Yehi zichro baruch– may his memory be a blessing for his family, his students, and for the entire Jewish Nation, amen.