Written in the brilliant and lucid style for which Rabbi Zevin is famous, each of these essays is a masterpiece in the full sense of the word.
It was in the summer of 1948. I was being transferred from a camp in the central sector of Israel to the northern front. On my way I had to pass through Petah Tikva. I considered visiting Rav Issser Zalman Meltzer. He had been wounded during the siege of Jerusalem and was convalescing in the home of his son-in-law Rabbi Y. M. Ben Menahem of the Beth Din of Petah Tivka.
I was reluctant. Mentally I was not prepared for a visit to the Gaon. At that time I was living in military camps, removed from the tenets of the Torah. Not the sefer, but the gun was the steady companion of the soldier. Once we had learned: “Kol Haosek BaTorah Balalla Whoever studies the Torah at night G-d endows him with grace during the day” (Chagiga 12b) now we were taught: “Surprise attack by night may bring victory at dawn.” Once, one had tried to make headway through the difficult pathways of a sugya – now we were trained to creep through the entanglements of barbed wire fences.
By the time I arrived in Petah Tikva I had overcome my reluctance and started out for the house of Rabbi Ben Menahem. In 1948, Petah Tikva, though already one of Israel’s largest towns, was much smaller than it is today, and everyone whom I asked was able to direct me to the house of the rabbi.
It was a humble and modest home, but full of warmth and friendliness. Rav Isser Zalman was reclining on a couch, his wounded leg resting on a pillow. Although he seemed to suffer some physical pain, his talk was affable and animated. His wife was sitting at the table. In front of her was a small pile of sheets of paper. Some of the sheets had been used for wrapping purposes, and by smoothing them she made them suitable for writing. She was copying Rav Isser Zalman’s Torah, preparing for print another volume of the Even Haazel.
The cooperation of Rav Isser Zalmen’s wife in his work was well known. In the introduction to the Even Haaezel (vol. 3) Rav Issser Zalman expresses his gratitude to her for the invaluable help she had rendered him by copying and preparing his writings for the press and by supervising the printing and distribution of the books. However, “Eino Doma Shemia L’reiya” seeing it with your own eyes is different from reading or hearing about it. Since then I was often led to reflect: Rav Isser Zalman was the greatest and oldest Rosh Yeshiva of all Roshei Yeshivos, who had been a teacher in Israel for sixty years; did he really have to employ his wife to copy his chiddushim and help prepare them for the press. He had hundreds, nay thousands of students, every one of who would have been happy and would have felt it a privilege to be able to assist him. Why did he not avail himself of their services?
Was it because he avoided at all times being served and waited upon by talmidei chachamim? These thoughts and memories came back to me not long ago while reading Rabbi Sh. Y. Zevin’s essay on Rav lsser Zalman Meltzer in the new edition of his book Ishim Vashitot. The first edition of the book contained essays on eight Gedolei Torah: The Netiv; Rabbi Chayim Brisker; the Rogachover; Reb Meir Simcha; Rav Kook; Reb Chayim Oizer; Reb Moshe Mordeche Epstein and Reb Boruch Ber. To the new edition, two essays on the Chazon Ish and Reb Isser Zalman were added.
In Rabbi Zevin’s essays only little space is accorded to events relating to the outer life of the personalities he describes. In the main they present an exposition of their approach and method in the study of the Halacha. By analyzing their chiddushlm and baring the principles which underlie them, Rabbi Zevin brings to the fore the particular contribution of each Gaon to the understanding of the Halacha. Occasionally characteristic anecdotes illustrating in a more concrete manner certain basic attitudes of these Gaonim towards problems in halachos are interwoven with the exposition.