By Rabbi Heshie Billet
This week, our world has lost a profound Torah scholar, a wise leader, and a man whose energy and industry cast the light of Torah and Jewish letters into many corners of the world where it was previously inaccessible.
The wondrous accomplishments of Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, of blessed memory, call to mind the great Rebbe Meir of an earlier generation, the Tanna Rebbe Meir, who is among the greatest authorities in the Mishnah.
Although Rebbe Yehudah HaNasi was the redactor of the Mishnah, the Talmud declares repeatedly that “Stam mishnah Rebbe Meir”—any unattributed law in the Mishnah was authored by Rebbe Meir. The sheer volume of such passages, which are frequently normative, place Rebbe Meir as a towering halachic authority. The Gemara in Yevamos lists him first amongst the five greatest students of Rebbe Akiva.
Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz was one of the outstanding students of the revered Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l. Together with Rabbi Nosson Scherman, ybl’c, he created a library which illuminates the Torah for Jewish people all over the world.
Rebbe Meir, the Tanna, was a sofer, a scribe. The Talmud in Sotah tells us that he created a beautiful ink to adorn his writings. Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz was a calligrapher who wrote with a beautiful Hebrew script. I remember him as an artist in Camp Munk almost 60 years ago. He took an interest not only in the contents of ArtScroll/Mesorah books, but also in seeing that their covers, layout, and typeface would appeal to readers. The simple beauty of the covers of all ArtScroll publications—now so familiar to us—was Rabbi Meir’s creation.
The Talmud in Maseches Megillah tells us that Rebbe Meir was once in a place where there was no Megillas Esther. So he wrote a beautiful megillah by heart. One of the first books that Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz’s ArtScroll published was an interpretation on Esther. The book went viral and the rest is history.
We know little of the genealogy of the Tanna Rebbe Meir. Many of his contemporaries are known to us by their names and their fathers’ names. Not so Rebbe Meir, who is known by his name alone. Some say this is because he literally lived up to his name: his name was the description of his persona. The Talmud in Eiruvin suggests that Rebbe Meir’s real name was Nahorai, which means light, and he was known by the epithet Meir (literally: “he gives light”) because he lit up the world of Torah for all people.
So too our contemporary Rav Meir. It is clear that ArtScroll has wrought a revolution of Torah study. It has brought light into the homes and lives of so many people. It has made the Torah more accessible and less opaque to so many people. Synagogue libraries, school libraries, and home libraries are filled with the sundry volumes on so many different topics created by Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin tells us that Rebbe Meir used to divide his lectures into three parts: one third halachah, one third aggadah, and one third parables. He knew how to present things in a palatable way to all segments of the population. Torah scholars and laypeople alike found meaning and wisdom in his Torah. So too Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. He created an endeavor which produced popular literature for those who needed it and Torah literature on the highest level for the greatest of scholars. That is an incredible feat.
In recent years, the daf yomi has become an established learning program which has spread to all segments of our population. There isn’t a synagogue where there is not a daf yomi class. The Siyum HaShas is a major event all over the world. It seems clear that the name Meir is inextricably tied with this event. The great founder of the idea was Rav Meir Shapiro, and the person who took his idea and made it popular and possible for the largest cross-section of our population to study it was Rav Meir Zlotowitz through the creation of the Schottenstein Shas in English, Hebrew, French, and other languages. There are editions in different sizes, making the ‘daf’ easy to travel with wherever one goes.
Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz had another unique talent. He had a capacity to see quality and appreciate it. At times, this required courage and an open mind—two qualities with which Rabbi Zlotowitz was well endowed. He developed a relationship with many of us who are students of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt’l. He published a commentary on the Chumash which included many of Rav Soloveitchik’s unique interpretations. They were also included in portions of the Shas. He published Rav Soloveitchik’s machzorim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That was something that many of us in the Modern Orthodox community greatly appreciated. And I believe that the greater Orthodox world gained from increased familiarity with that great Torah scholar and his Torah.
Rabbi Zlotowitz cultivated friendship across many segments of the Jewish community. He was a generous person—generous with his time and his money. He traveled the world to enhance the celebrations of his many friends. We shared some of those friends, and we met many times in faraway places at lifecycle celebrations. He was humble, polite, and easy to speak with. He loved his family and was so very proud of the many generations that he was privileged to see.
I would say there was one area in which he exceeded Rebbe Meir. The Mishnah at the end of Sotah tells us that after Rebbe Meir died, there were no longer people who could weave parables. Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz created an institution that will continue to publish Torah, weave parables, and bring light into Jewish homes.
Rabbi Hershel Billet is the rabbi of Young Israel of Woodmere.