Rabbi Elimelech Zweibel, the lead instructor in Chassidic thought and practice (mashpi’ah roshi) at Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch in Morristown, N.J., for the past 50 years, passed away suddenly on Nov. 20, the 19th of Cheshvan. He was 75 years old.

Over the course of his tenure, he was a mentor and guide to thousands of students, who loved him for his gentle warmth and dedication as a teacher, and who revered him for the seriousness of his character and for the comprehensive clarity of his scholarship. He was known to one and all by the affectionate moniker, “Reb Meilich.”

Through his classes, farbrengens, encouragement and living example, Reb Meilich gave students the conceptual tools to probe the depths of Chassidic literature, to contextualize Chassidic teachings within the wider history of Jewish thought and history, and to see how these teachings were to be applied in the practical service of G‑d.

Reb Meilich was famous for his uniquely comprehensive erudition. He was a master of Chassidic literature, lore and custom, and a master of Talmud and Jewish law. In addition, he was familiar with the great works of classical Jewish thought and learning, and with contemporary rabbinic scholarship. But part of his greatness as a teacher was that he was also a skilled storyteller. He would use a story to illustrate a point, tell more stories to sharpen the portrait of the first story’s protagonist and then return to round out the point with yet another story.

Many of his students fondly remember trekking through the snowy woods of Morris County to sit around Reb Meilich’s table on wintry Friday nights. Those who made that trip week after week soon entered into a world populated by the living memories of exemplary Chassidim—some more famous, others less so; some who he had known in person, others only by reputation. He didn’t draw anecdotes solely from other people’s lives, but also from his own, and so his students came to know him, too.

From Tel Aviv to Lod, and Back

Even firetrucks, upper left, at the Rabbinical College didn't interrupt Rabbi Zweibel's intensive daily regimen of prayer and study. (Photo: Tzvi Kilov)
Even firetrucks, upper left, at the Rabbinical College didn't interrupt Rabbi Zweibel's intensive daily regimen of prayer and study. (Photo: Tzvi Kilov)

Rabbi Elimelech Zweibel was born in Tel Aviv in 1941 to Rabbi Tzvi Yaakov and Hinda Minka Zwiebel. His father was a Chassid of old Sanz lineage who became affiliated with Bobov, a sub branch of the Sanz dynasty. As a child, he attended the Chinuch Atsma’i school in Tel Aviv before enrolling in the Chabad yeshivah in nearby Lod at the age of 11. The latter institution had the double attraction, he would recall, of having a dorm and being situated in an orange grove.

In Lod, Reb Meilich came under the tutelage of Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, who had been a student in the original Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in the Russian townlet of Lubavitch. Rabbi Shlomo Chaim placed a great emphasis on avodah, the disciplined subjection of the self to the constant service of G‑d. Reb Meilich described him as “a maivin in avodah”—meaning that he had a thorough knowledge and understanding of how to harness the mind and heart in the service of G‑d, and of how to train young students in the rigors of conscientious self-discipline and effacement before G‑d. Reb Meilich recalled that on returning home after his first stay at the yeshivah in Lod, one of the local Chabad Chassidim met him in the street and asked rhetorically: “So, you know now that all the world is worth no more than an onion skin?”

Rabbi Shlomo Chaim was generally dismissive of his Chassidic contemporaries who devoted themselves with similar single-mindedness to plumb the more theoretical depths of Chabad’s conceptual universe. In 1959, however, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—wrote to him instructing that the yeshivah students compose and publish explanations of Chassidic texts and concepts, and so he reconsidered this attitude. He dispatched a small group of students, including Reb Meilich, to be instructed by two Chabad thinkers of renown: Rabbi Moshe Gourarie and Rabbi Nochum Goldshmidt.

The students understood very little of what Gourarie said. The subject matter was far more esoteric than they were used to, and his explanatory style was characterized by intense abstraction. Goldshmidt’s presentation was far more accessible; they were able to grasp the ideas and coherently transcribe them. But what Reb Meilich remembered best was Goldshmidt’s response when they told him that Gourarie had discussed the Zoharic dictum, “the infinite light extend upward without limit, and downward without end.” “Aha!” exclaimed Goldshmidt. “There he is at home!”

Recalling this episode, Reb Meilich would often explain that every Chassid has his own conceptual prism that he returns to again and again, and through which he approaches and understands the entire corpus of Chassidic ideas and teachings.

An Intellectual and Experiential Eye-Opener

In 1962, Reb Meilich was part of the first group of students to travel from Israel to study in the central Tomchei Temimim yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway, Lubavitch World Headquarters, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Upon arrival, they were quizzed by Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, a senior Chassid and member of the faculty. When he asked if anyone knew where the Yiddish exclamation gevald appeared in Chabad discourses, Reb Meilich immediately responded, citing a discourse delivered by the fifth Chabad Rebbe in the year 1900. Levitin was sufficiently impressed by this demonstration of erudition and shared the news with the Rebbe, who asked for the name of the student in question. At a loss, Levitin could only respond that the student wore glasses, provoking an amused laugh from the Rebbe.

During his time as a student in 770, Reb Meilich became a chozer—one of the oral scribes who memorized the Rebbe’s talks, and oversaw their transcription and publication. Subsequently, he would become a senior member of the team responsible for redacting and merging related talks into the more tightly argued essays that were reviewed by the Rebbe and published under the title Likutei Sichot. These edited essays would eventually fill 39 volumes and stand as the most authoritative exemplar of the Rebbe’s scholarly output.

Rabbi Zweibel, left, with Rabbi Meir Tzvi Gruzman, Rabbi Zalman Gopin and Rabbi Yoel Kahn at the annual Yarchei Kallah gathering of leading Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis in Upstate New York.
Rabbi Zweibel, left, with Rabbi Meir Tzvi Gruzman, Rabbi Zalman Gopin and Rabbi Yoel Kahn at the annual Yarchei Kallah gathering of leading Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis in Upstate New York.

Reb Meilich once remarked that listening to the Rebbe talk for hours on end was an intellectual and experiential eye-opener. “At every farbrengen, the Rebbe would speak of atzmut—the essence of divine being that transcends all conception. From Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman—and even from Rabbi Moshe Gourarie—we never heard anything like this.” The world of Chassidic ideas is vast, ranging from contemplative techniques designed to inspire love and awe before G‑d, to intricate investigations of psychological processes and the nuances of human character, to the esoteric conceptualization of Kabbalistic metaphysics. But Reb Meilich came to understand that for the Rebbe, this vast corpus of ideas all revolved around the single goal of revealing the essence of divine being in the physical world, and in the daily activities of ordinary people.

Emphasizing this point, Reb Meilich recalled two rare instances where the intensity of the Rebbe’s excitement during his talk was conveyed with an exuberant flourish of his raised hands. (Usually, the Rebbe’s hands would remain held tightly together, concealed from most of the audience beneath the tablecloth.)

On one occasion, the Rebbe dwelt on the fact that the very first word of the Ten Commandments, anochi—“I”, which refers to the very essence of G‑d’s own self—is not Hebrew but Egyptian; not the holy tongue, but the language of those who had enslaved the Jewish people, and whose extreme moral depravity earned them the label “obscenity of the earth.” Emphasizing the seeming absurdity, the Rebbe raised both hands above his head, exclaiming: “Can you envisage this! Anochi is Egyptian!” At the very outset, the Rebbe went on to explain, G‑d wanted to underscore that the purpose of the revelation at Sinai was not simply to illuminate the holy, but to transform even the nadir of profanity through revealing the very essence of divinity.

On the second occasion recalled by Reb Meilich, the Rebbe discussed Chapter 27 of Tanya, which describes a person who resists a negative thought even for a single moment as eliciting a transcendent revelation of divine pleasure that extends throughout all existence. Twirling his hand in an upward sweep, the Rebbe declared: “With one act of self-subjugation, all realms are upturned!”

Marriage and Vocation

In 1965, Reb Meilich married Libby Blesofsky, and in the same year, he was appointed to the faculty of Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in Newark, N.J., which was later relocated to Morristown. When they first met, both parties were initially unsure that the match was right. Reb Meilich’s birthday occurred during this period, and he had a private audience with the Rebbe, as was customary at the time. When he disclosed his hesitations, the Rebbe indicated that he should set them aside. For her part, Libby forthrightly sought the Rebbe’s advice, asking in a written note whether “I should take interest in another option.” The Rebbe crossed out the last words of that sentence and added another line so that the note now indicated that she “should interest herself in a young man whose Torah is a living Torah, which speaks his praises—a chassid, a Torah scholar, a person of good character, etc., and G‑d will make her successful.”

Dancing with students in 1978 (5738)
Dancing with students in 1978 (5738)

Taking up his faculty position, Reb Meilich sought advice from the Rebbe regarding his personal curriculum of study. The Rebbe pointed out that few yeshivah graduates ever achieve comprehensive knowledge of the Codes of Jewish Law—Tur, Shulchan Aruch and their many commentaries—and suggested that this would be a good personal goal. Over the course of the next 50 years, Reb Meilich kept up a rigorous program of study. His days ran like clockwork, and he often spoke of the merits of discipline, deliberation and order. He arrived and left the study hall at the same time each day, and had fixed times for eating, for meeting with students and for each of his many personal learning schedules.

In more recent decades, he only taught classes in Chassidism, rather than in Talmud or halachah. Yet he continued to study the Talmudic texts and commentaries that were on the yeshivah curriculum, returning to them anew year after year. And though there were Chassidic discourses that he likewise taught to one group of students after another, he never allowed himself to rely on his existing knowledge and enter a class unprepared. He was a perpetual student, capable of relearning and revisiting a text many times, always alert to unnoticed nuances and open to new discoveries. In more recent years, he often used an iPod stocked with audio recordings of the Rebbe’s talks. Always curious to hear from others, he would occasionally listen to classes in Chassidism from Rabbi Yoel Kahn, and in Talmud from Rabbi Asher Arieli or Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Finkel.

From 1972 on, Reb Meilich headed the editorial staff of a scholarly journal, He’orot Anash Ve-ha-temimim, established primarily as a forum for the study and discussion of the Rebbe’s teachings. This journal, and others like it, would become a prime medium for scholarly interface—not only among the yeshivah students and other Chassidim, but also between them and the Rebbe himself. From the outset, the Rebbe took an active interest in these publications, and with the passage of time he began to respond to them in his public talks, and later to write notes and responses in their margins. Reb Meilich himself was an avid contributor to these journals, often writing under the pen name A. Rosen. In 2005, he helped publish a volume documenting the history of the Morristown journal, and collecting all the public talks and written notes in which the Rebbe responded to and took part in its discussions.

In the introduction to that volume, the editors noted that initially, some people were opposed to the idea that yeshivah students should critically discuss the Rebbe’s teachings in a public forum, asking questions and offering possible explanations. A rumor even spread that the Rebbe himself was displeased. Erring on the side of caution, publication was briefly halted until a member of the Rebbe’s secretariat called to ask why, and the editors got to work again. But there was still some doubt about what the Rebbe wanted, and so Reb Meilich arranged a private audience with the Rebbe to clarify the matter. He reported that the Rebbe was emphatic in his endorsement of the journal, noting that in response to the question of a certain rabbi, he had personally sent him a copy of the journal, saying, “here you will find your question, and here you will find your answer.”

Reason and Its Transcendence

Those words of the Rebbe—“here you will find your question, and here you will find your answer”—are a deserving epitaph for Reb Meilich himself. As a student in Morristown between 2006 and 2008, I learned a tremendous amount from him. What I found so refreshing was the conceptual clarity that he demanded both of himself and of others. He wanted his students to fully understand the questions, just as much as he wanted them to find answers. What is a good question? Why is it a good question? What kind of answer will meet its challenge and to what degree? He wanted us to use all the human capacity to think, to critically assess an idea, to determine the boundaries of logic, and ultimately, to use those capacities to discover the need to overcome such boundaries.

I recall Reb Meilich repeating Maimonides’ statement that Aristotle achieved the highest appreciation of G‑d that the human mind can achieve unaided by divine inspiration. In his Guide to the Perplexed, Reb Meilich added, Maimonides himself used only the tools of human intellect to probe and illuminate the truth of the Torah. Accordingly, human intellect itself becomes Torah, and before you read the Guide to the Perplexed, you must first recite the appropriate blessings just as if you were reading a passage from the Tanach or the Talmud.

It was Reb Meilich who first introduced me to the tale of Socrates’ death as told by Plato in the Phaedo. He did so during a class on the fifth Chabad Rebbe’s landmark series of discourses, known as Samach Vov, which re-examines the purpose of existence and the respective roles of immanent rationalism and transcendent revelation. And he did so with a Chassidic twist that he had heard from the Chassid Rabbi Avraham Drizin (Mayorer): Having proven the eternity of the soul, Socrates made no sacrifice, but exchanged the deficiencies of earthly reality for eternal bliss. The truer sacrifice was Abraham’s. He knew that it is precisely in the transformation of earthly deficiency that G‑d’s ultimate purpose lies. So in surrendering an earthly future, Abraham had to surrender his spiritual future as well, transcending every measure of reason to follow G‑d’s instruction.

A Mentor, Guide and Living Example

Reb Meilich was more than a scholar and more than a teacher. First and foremost, he was a mentor, a builder of relationships, a personal guide and a living example of what a Chassid should be. There were many students who didn’t necessarily attend his classes or follow what he said in them, and yet he was their mentor. He would call students into his office at regular intervals to discuss their studies and their spiritual progress, or simply to find a point of common interest and open the opportunity for a relationship.

As mentioned above, Reb Meilich always kept up with the yeshivah’s Talmud curriculum, and though it wasn’t his responsibility, this was another area in which he found opportunity to forge connections. In his office, he would not only quiz you on what you were learning, but also invite you to open a volume of Talmud and learn together with him. He would test your limits and challenge you, then show you the way to an additional line of thought or to an overlooked commentator to shed incisive light. Students who took advantage of these opportunities to engage and ask questions were continuously surprised not only by the breadth of his knowledge, but also by the fluent clarity and orderliness with which he discussed whatever topic was brought up.

His erudition was only overshadowed by his personal grace. The gentleness with which he carried his gravitas endeared him to everyone and enabled him to have a meaningful conversation with anyone. He addressed each of his students, and all who sought his inspiration or advice, according to their needs as individuals. When I asked him to be my mentor, he gave me a long reading list. He provided my friend, study partner and roommate—Mendy Efune—with a long reading list as well, and the two lists had very little overlap. Two very different personalities—with different qualities, sensibilities and inclinations—needed to be guided along different paths so that they could each achieve what they needed to as individuals.

As a mentor and a guide, the values that Reb Meilich perhaps emphasized most were discipline and consistency as the key to serving G‑d; and the need to form a personal bond with G‑d through contemplative prayer.

He would sometimes illustrate the first point with an anecdote about Rabbi Nissan Nemanow. While traveling by train, he once observed a student of his looking out the window at each station to see if he had arrived at his destination. Said the rabbi: “Rather than look out the window each time, you should make a note of how many stops you need to go and keep count of the passing stations in your head. Why look where there is no need to look?” Disciplined forethought, in other words, allows an individual to avoid unnecessary distractions and maximize the opportunities of every moment.

Regarding contemplative prayer a related anecdote comes to mind. The fourth Chabad Rebbe—Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn (the Maharash)—once advised one of his followers that if he wants to know what a Chassid is, he should go and observe what his son and future successor, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, is occupied with early in the morning. Following this advice, the Chassid found that the Rebbe’s son was studying the prayer liturgy and consulting the classical commentaries to gain a proper working knowledge of what the prayers mean. The point that Reb Meilich was making was that you can’t expect to have a meaningful prayer experience if you haven’t done the rigorous preparatory work of familiarizing yourself with what you are actually saying to G‑d.

Reb Meilich’s own practice was to pray along with the congregation on weekdays. On Shabbat, however, he would pray at far greater length. He would begin together with the congregation, but would soon be left far behind. He would pause to listen to the Torah reading, and to the repetition of the Amidah and Musaf prayers. Then he would remain wrapped in his tallis for an hour or two after the congregation had finished and the study hall had emptied out, before vanishing into his office.

In addition to his seminal role at the yeshivah in Morristown, his expertise in halachah earned him a place on the executive board of the Central Committee of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis in the U.S. and Canada. As one of the foremost contemporary scholars of Chassidic thought and literature, he was also an involved member of the editorial board of Heichal Menachem-Chassidus Mevueres, whose elucidated commentaries to classic Chassidic texts have been received with much acclaim.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children: Moshe Zweibel (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Dina Gourarie (Sydney), Rabbi Yossi Zweibel (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Zeldy Oster (Los Angeles), Chani Goldberg (Morristown, N.J.), Rabbi Avi Zweibel (Ashland, Ore.) and Rabbi Mendy Zweibel (Chico, Calif.); as well as by many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He is also survived by siblings Moishe Zweibel (London), Devorah Goldberg (Montreal), Zushe Zweibel (Israel), Shoshana Plesser (Israel) and Sara Halperin (Israel). He was predeceased by his brother, Rabbi Yechezkal Zweibel, who headed Yeshiva Tiferet Yaakov in Jerusalem, which was named for their father.