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The Two Kurenitzers

By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg

Stick-to-itiveness By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg

The mashpia Reb Mendel Futerfas once related:

There were two talmidim in Tomchei Tmimim in Lubavitch who went by the last name of Kurnitzer: Berel Kurnitzer and Zalman Kurnitzer.

The two bachurim weren't related; Berel's real last name was Garfinkel and Zalman's was Alperowitz. But in those days everyone went by the name of the town he came from, and both boys had come from Kurnitz.

I knew them both personally, having met them when they were only 13 years old, around the time the Russian revolution was first starting. They were both studying in the yeshiva ketana of Reb Shmuel Barisover in Krementchug.

In those days, most of the study schedule in a yeshiva ketana was devoted to Nigla, Gemara and Poskim. The mashpia Reb Yechezkel (Chatche) Himmelstein would give only a half-hour shiur in Tanya, and it was on a very elementary level.

Reb Chatche suffered terribly from consumption (tuberculosis). But he was the kind of person who was always joyous.

Reb Chatche was very short. One time, a group of bochurim was arrested by the K.G.B. The Russians wanted to teach their teacher a lesson, but Reb Chatche was so small that they couldn't figure out who was the teacher and who were the students. The agents decided to make everyone pass under an iron bar; whoever was tallest, they reckoned, must be the one in charge. Reb Chatche was so short that he passed right under, with inches to spare, and they never did find out his identity.

The difference between the two Kurnitzers was profound. Berel was an absolute genius. He grasped even the most difficult concepts immediately and had a photographic memory. Once he had learned something, he automatically knew it by heart.

Zalman, by contrast, had been blessed with only average abilities, and maybe even less. But he was the biggest masmid you ever saw. He slept only four hours a night, and every minute of his day was spent in a concentrated effort to acquire knowledge. By three o'clock in the morning he was already up and learning, which he continued without interruption till nine. You could almost see the wheels turning in his head, so great were his efforts at concentration.

And his labors paid off! By the age of 15 Zalman had committed three tractates of the Talmud to memory: Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, and Bava Basra. (Reb Peretz Chein knew these tractates word for word, whereas Reb Zalman had memorized only their content.)

Berel, in the meantime, had also been learning with hasmada (diligence), and, given his wonderful intellectual gifts, had far surpassed Zalman.

For many years I lost contact with Reb Berel, and didn't meet up with him again until he was 20. (I was 17 at the time.) By that time he had worked his way through half of Shas.

Reb Berel used to learn the Gemara with Rashi and Tosefos on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. On Wednesday he would learn all the other commentaries, and on Thursday he would review everything he had learned. Friday and Shabbos were devoted to learning Chassidus: he was proficient in all the sifrei Chassidus that were then available.

There was a period of time when Reb Berel decided to learn Tanya by heart. Each day he would learn a chapter; in the course of an hour he would have it memorized. Chapter 37, which is particularly long, took him two days, two hours in all.

A few years later I caught up with him again. When I asked him how he was progressing, he told me that he had completed the entire Shas. And he wasn't exaggerating! Wherever I opened the Gemara and asked him a question, it was as if he had just learned it with all the mefarshim.

Reb Berel may have been a genius by birth, but eventually Reb Zalman caught up with him. (I don't mean to imply that they were competing; it just worked out that way). Reb Zalman became just as proficient as Reb Berel, with the same depth of knowledge.

Reb Zalman Kurnitzer was later appointed mashgiach in charge of Nigla in Tomchei Tmimim. The biggest talmidei chachamim would ‰Û÷go out of their keilim‰Ûª whenever they learned with him.

One time the Iluy of Volozhin, one of the greatest Torah scholars of that generation, came to Lubavitch for a visit. After conversing with Reb Zalman, he declared that he had never met anyone of his caliber, and pronounced him an iluy, a prodigy.