The streets of Meah Shearim, normally bustling with shoppers and yeshiva students walking to and from the iconic Mirrer Yeshiva, were filled with mourners on Tuesday as tens of thousands of people came to pay their respects to Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, the Mirrer Yeshiva’s rosh yeshiva, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 68 from a sudden heart attack.
In the 21 years that Rabbi Finkel served at its helm, the Mirrer Yeshiva, in the Beis Yisroel neighborhood of Jerusalem, grew to be the largest yeshiva in Israel with an enrollment of 6,000 students. While Rabbi Finkel was confined to a wheelchair and suffered from Parkinson’s disease for many years, he continued to maintain a full schedule, and just hours before his death, Rabbi Finkel traveled to Bnei Brak to pay a shiva call to the family of Rabbi Yosef Aryeh Halpern. He then returned to the Mirrer where he delivered shiurim (classes) in both English and Yiddish.
Born in Chicago in 1943, Rabbi Finkel was named after his paternal great-grandfather, the Alter of Slobodka. Even as a child his prodigious intellect convinced many that he was destined for greatness. He married his second cousin, Rochel Leah Finkel, the daughter of Rav Binyamin Beinush Finkel and granddaughter of the last rosh yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel.
Upon the death of his father-in-law in 1990, Rabbi Finkel succeeded him as the head of the Mirrer Yeshiva, and while the choice of a 48-year-old who already suffered from various ailments seemed questionable to some, Rabbi Finkel ultimately transformed the institution into the Torah empire it is today, with satellite branches in Beitar Ilit, the Brachfeld neighborhood of Modiin Ilit, and the Ramat Shlomo section of Jerusalem.
Despite his poor health, Rabbi Finkel, who enjoyed a reputation of being an inspiration to all who knew him, was known to travel abroad in order to personally raise much-needed funds for the yeshiva and its students. His daily schedule was filled with delivering shiurim, both in his home and at the yeshiva; counseling the many who came to seek his advice and blessings; and spending a sizable portion of his day immersed in his own personal Torah studies. Rabbi Finkel was vigilant to always daven in the yeshiva and gave a weekly shiur to thousands of students, in addition to giving frequent shiurim at the many satellite branches of the Mirrer. In his final monthly shiur given at the Brachfeld Mirrer two and a half weeks ago, he exhorted the students, “to learn and learn. It doesn’t matter if your learning is fast or slow, if it is in greater detail or lesser detail, the request that I am asking of you is to learn, not to dream.”
Stories about Rabbi Finkel have been filling the Internet, people’s homes, and the streets of Jewish communities around the world since his death. The following two illustrate his ability to find time in his busy schedule for his students:
A Mirrer student was going through a particularly rough stretch in his life, so his father called Rabbi Finkel asking him to speak to his son for a few minutes. Rabbi Finkel approached the student and asked him if he could personally learn with him every Shabbos in his house. They subsequently learned together every Shabbos for the next several months.
In another instance, Rabbi Finkel discovered that several American students in a Yiddish shiur could not follow the lesson. From then on, Rabbi Finkel, who spoke fluent English, would repeat every class in English for the American students.
As news of the unexpected passing of Rabbi Finkel spread, the entire city of Jerusalem was plunged into mourning with people crying in the streets, tearing their clothes as an expression of their grief, and trying to offer solace to one another. Prominent rabbis, including Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv and Rav Aryeh Leib Shteinman, ordered all haredi businesses closed and instructed kollel, yeshiva, and seminary students to take time off from their Torah studies to attend the funeral. Israeli news site B’chadrei Chareidim reported that two baby boys, one in Bayit Vegan and another in Bnei Brak, were named Nosson Tzvi Wednesday morning in honor of the rosh yeshiva.