By Tovia Preschel
September 11, 1964
“The Hebrew word “pras” means prize, reward. It also means a part of something, a piece. On the occasion it means both—it is a prize, but it is only part of something: it is not all.
“The prize is not everything. Torah scholars do not labor only for the sake of prizes or for other material reward—theirs is the idealistic urge to spread the Torah among our people.”
Thus spoke Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin in his short acceptance speech of the Pras Israel, the Israel Prize, which was awarded him in 1959, for outstanding contributions to Torah literature.
Like all other addresses of Rabbi Zevin, this one, too, was brilliant, concise and from the heart.
There are few scholars who have taught Torah to as many people as has Rabbi Zevin.
For thirty years he served as rabbi in various localities in Russia. After his arrival in Palestine in 1934, he taught Talmud at a teacher’s institute. Later on, while dedicating himself completely to research and writing he broadcast a weekly Talmud lesson on the Israel radio. He frequently lectures to large audiences and conducts a Daf Yomi group in his home as well.
Many, many have listened to his courses and lectures, but those who have become his pupils through his writings are legion.
Rabbi Zevin has participated in a variety of newspapers and periodicals. Many of his articles have been collected and published in book form. They have been reprinted time and time again and no modern rabbinic author has seen his books go through so many editions.
Above all, he is one of the architects of the Talmudic Encyclopedia and its chief editor.
Rabbi Zevin’s literary activity goes back more than fifty years when, as a young rabbi in the townlet of Kazimirov, he contributed chidushim to the Yagdil Torah, which appeared in Slutsk, to Shaare Torah of Warsaw, and also write articles for Hamodia of Poltava and the Haivri of Berlin.
The young man corresponded with some of the outstanding rabbis of his time. They quickly recognized his unusual knowledge and fine Hebrew style.
Once Rabbi Zevin asked Rabbi Shimon Shkop to be allowed to publish a responsum the latter had written to him. Permission was granted on condition that Rabbi Zevin improve Rabbi Shkop’s style.
“I published Rabbi Shkop’s letter in Shaare Torah. However, confided Rabbi Zevin to us, “I did not dare change the language of Rabbi Shimeon.”
World War I interrupted Rabbi Zevin’s literary activity. He became active again after the revolution, when the Jewish communities of Russia, freed from the despotism of the Czar, set about to rebuild their national religious life. Zevin, then rabbi of Nobozipkov, joined in rabbinic conferences, was a delegate to the Jewish national assembly in Kiev and embarked upon the publication of a Hebrew periodical, Ahdut.
Soon, however, the Bolshevik seizure of power put an end to all plans and hopes. The systematic suppression of Jewish religious and national institutions began. Zevin’s pen was again forced to remain silent. It remained so for more than fifteen years, with the exception of a short period in 1927-1928, when he and Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky attempted to renew the publication of the rabbinic journal, Yagdill Torah. It was suppressed after two issues had appeared.
After his arrival in Palestine, the products of his pen again began to adorn the Hebrew press. In brilliant essays he explained various Halachic problems, described outstanding rabbinic personalities and their methods of study, and analyzed new additions to rabbinic literature. His articles caused a sensation. They were original both in style and presentation. One never imagined that intricate Halachic problems could be presented to laymen in such a lucid style. Rabbi Zevin has indeed been the creator of a new rabbinic style and his book reviews and essays have initiated a new genre of rabbinic literature.
Rabbi Zevin is a hasid of Chabad. In his youth he studied at the Yeshiva of Mir under Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Kamei, but he was also a student of the Chabad leader, Rabbi Shemarya Noach Schneerson of Bobruisk. In Soviet Russia he assisted the late Lubavitcher Rebbe in organizing religious life.
Deeply steeped in Hasidic lore, he learns the Tanya with his Daf Yomi group every Shabbat night and delivers a Hasidic talk—Rabbi Zevin has written much about Chabad, has published Hasidic stories and aphorisms and has been the author of essays tinged with Chabad thought.
In 1942 the late Rabbi Meir Berlin and Rabbi Zevin founded the Talmudic Encyclopedia. Though he was no longer young when he accepted the post of chief editor, Rabbi Zevin threw himself with youthful zeal and vigor into the enterprise. Every page of the ten volumes which have appeared thus far, bears the imprint of his great knowledge and penmanship. He has examined, corrected, completed and rewritten every one of the entries.
He is a very busy man. All day and into many hours of the night he devotes himself to the encyclopedia. In addition he is burdened with many other tasks to which has, recently, been added membership in the council of the Chief Rabbinate. Yet, paradoxically enough, he always has time on his hands. The door of his study is never locked. People come and go and all are assured a hearty welcome. Rabbi Zevin does not keep one waiting until he has finished reading a paragraph or finished writing a phrase or line. He immediately interrupts his work and gives his patient and undivided attention to the visitor. People ask his opinion about something they wrote. They come to borrow books, and it is not an unfamiliar sight to see him, a patriarch with a flowing beard, climb the ladder to reach for the book which just might happen to be on the highest shelf near the ceiling.
People seek his advice, come to enlist his help. If he can be of assistance he immediately goes to “work” writing letters of recommendation or establishing contacts with the person whom he is asked to approach. Rabbi Zevin’s interventions invariably meet with success; he is loved and respected by all.
While in Jerusalem this summer, we visited Rabbi Zevin very often and again had an opportunity to observe him closely.
The greater part of the week he works at home. Two days he spends at Yad Herzog, the new and beautiful headquarters of the Talmudic Encyclopedia on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
One day when we were visiting there, a group of young American students were shown around the building. Would Rabbi Zevin receive them? He would and did! He put aside his books, made himself forget for a while the problems he was working on, adjusted his halat, combed his handsome beard with his fingers and leaned back in his chair. He was all ready with a big smile as the group trouped into the spacious study.
Here they were, the young students, most of whom spoke little or no Hebrew, and the aged Rabbi, almost four times their years, who spoke no English. Apparently worlds apart, yet no barriers existed between them. Rabbi Zevin’s friendly welcome immediately established a rapport between them and all enjoyed an animated talk.
When we witnessed this, we again contemplated the picture of this man we had always revered and respected. Here was a phenomenon, so rare in our time: A man whose brilliant intellectual qualities are matched equally by great qualities of the heart.