The 25th of Adar is the yahrzeit of Rebbitzen Zehava Braunstein (1944-2005). Born in the Bronx as Golda Perel Zwiebel, her parents had escaped Europe before the start of the war. Her father ran a small shop on the Lower East Side and was a talmid chochom who assisted in wartime rescue efforts. Known to her friends as Gladys, one of her teachers Hebraicized her name to Zehava and the name stuck.
As a camper she was known for telling mesmerizing stories around the campfire. At the YU High School for Girls, Gladys was involved in many activities such as the school newspaper, drama and debating. Younger students knew her for her kindness and warmth. Zehava surprised everyone after her graduation by choosing to attend the Bais Yaakov Seminary with a few friends. Having planned to become a journalist, her experience there changed her life’s trajectory.
She was influenced by Rebbitzen Kaplan and Rabbi Goldlevsky. The classes of Rebbitzen Bender gave her a perspective on shalom bayis that she would later share. Zehava developed a lifelong relationship with Rebbitzen Bruria David. Shortly thereafter she married Rav Shlomo Braunstein who was the menahel of Mesivta Chaim Berlin for many years.
Rebbitzen Braunstein started teaching at Bais Yaakov Academy. The way her face would light up when she taught a pirush had an indelible effect on her talmidos. Her loving attitude made them feel like she was another mother to them. She spent the summers with her family in Camp Gila, a Bobov camp. She started teaching kallah classes, transmitting the halachos in a clear manner, but also a picture of the warmth and holiness of a Jewish home. She refused to be paid for these classes and instead asked for donations for hachnasas kallah. She taught refresher courses for married women, which attracted up to 2,000 women.
At home she would sing and dance as she was performing the most mundane activities. Rebbitzen Braunstein would advise people that if they wanted to bring the shechina into their homes they should ensure that music was always playing.
Around 1980 she was approached by Rav Yosef Harari-Raful, who was leading a Torah reawakening among Syrian Jewry, to teach in his community. Having been successful reaching the boys and men of the community, he needed someone who could inspire the girls and women as well. Although Rebbitzen Braunstein underwent a bit of a culture shock at the way the girls dressed and their lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of Judaism, she started teaching Torah and halacha from the basics.
Among her many skills as an educator, the one that had the greatest effect on her students and enabled her words to penetrate was her complete love for them. Additionally, while many teachers would skirt difficult or controversial topics, she always dealt with them directly. She had a wonderful sense of humor and always remembered what it was like to have been a teenager.
In the last fifteen years of her life she founded Beit Yaakov Ateret Torah High School, by which time she was teaching the daughters of some of her original students. Despite being ill for most of those years, she increased the number of her public speaking engagements. Her entire life encompassed the role of being a mother, one of her children said at her levaya, not just at home or school, but to Klal Yisrael at large.
* * * * *
The 27th of Adar is the yahrzeit of Rav Shlomo Eliyashiv, the Baal HaLeshem (1841-1926). He was a descendant of both the Arizal and Rav Shimshon of Ostropole. He was born in Zagar, Lithuania and was taught by his father. After his bar mitzvah he went to the yeshiva in Minsk and was a student of Rav Gershon Tanchum. Before his twentieth birthday he married Bat Sheva Esther Fine of Shavel, and his father-in-law’s support enabled him to continue his learning for many years.
Rav Shlomo was offered the position as rav of Shavel but after he initially considered taking the position, he changed his mind and went to Telshe, leaving his family in Shavel, where he learned together with Rav Meir Atlas and Rav Tzvi Yehudah Teomim. He spent his days learning Talmud and halacha and discovered an old man who studied Kabbalah in his home after midnight. After pleading with him, the old man agreed to teach Rav Shlomo Kabbalah. They began to learn together but after some time the old man passed away. By that time Rav Shlomo was already infused with a great desire to study more of the inner teachings of Torah and began to compose his work Hakdamos U’Shearim, which is an introduction to Kabbalistic thought. He also studied Kabbalah with the Rov of Telshe, Rav Yosef Reizen.
After ten years Rav Shlomo returned to Shavel and learned alone all day wearing tallis and tefillin. It was there that he wrote all four of his seforim under the general name of Leshem Shvo V’Achlamah. In 1909 he published Hakdamos U’Shearim as well as Drush Olam Hatohu. He sent copies to other mekubalim. When the sefer was received by the rabbonim of Baghdad they recited she’hechiyanu. Rav Aryeh Levin, from whose biographical sketch most of this article is taken, says that he was in London when Rav Avraham Abba Werner received a copy and Rav Werner began to cry, saying that the Baal HaLeshem was the last remnant of those upon whom the sunlight of the Vilna Gaon still shines.
His wife said that at night when he was alone in his room she would hear him learning with someone, but she never asked him who it was. She said she once entered when this was happening, but was afraid to describe what she saw.
Rav Shlomo didn’t write anything new after the age of fifty as he was so full of chiddushim that he was unable to focus on putting them onto the written page. When he had to escape Shavel during WWI, manuscripts of his were buried for safekeeping. Friends were able to go back and locate them and return them to Rav Eliyashiv. After wandering for seven years he wanted to move to Eretz Yisrael. He asked Rav Kook who had been his student years before for assistance on obtaining the necessary permits. He moved together with his daughter, son-in-law and their son Yosef Shlomo Eliyashiv. When he traveled to Palestine in 1924 his manuscript containing his commentary on the Etz Chaim of the Arizal was lost in Istanbul. Miraculously, it was found and returned just as he was boarding the ship to Palestine. On his arrival in Yerushalayim he was greeted by a number of mekubalim, and he was always being visited by them for advice and to learn from him.
In 1926 his Sefer HaKlalim was published. It was brought to Rav Shlomo on his deathbed, he kissed it and died shortly thereafter. There remain a number of works in manuscript form.
He wrote that although the many aspects of the teachings of Reshash are fundamental to understanding the Arizal, in general his is a different approach, and things can often be understood in a different, simpler, manner. Rav Shlomo opposed the usage of practical Kabbalah.
Rav Shlomo lived a life of poverty and deprivation, but it never appeared to disturb him. He spoke softly and never held a grudge. His joy when performing a mitzvah was evident to all, especially during hakafos on Simchas Torah.