Had Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, the great gaon who ascended to Gan Eden last week, not known a word of Torah, he would have been a gadol in midot tovot (proper deportment). I had the privilege of training as a mesader gittin (Jewish divorce administrator) with him during the summer of 1993 in the Jerusalem Beit Din. He also patiently answered the many halachic questions I posed to him for years afterward (including permitting me to write Menachem Av in mine and my wife’s ketuba per my wife’s request). I had many interactions with Rav Goldberg, which revealed his exquisite Torah behavior.
Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg was most renowned as the world’s foremost expert on the Even Haezer and Choshen Mishpat sections of the Shulchan Aruch dealing with family law and commercial law. His exceptional contributions include the creation of the Rabbinical Council of America’s prenuptial agreement in coordination with Rav Mordechai Willig. Rav Zalman Nechemia was an extraordinarily creative thinker who seamlessly applied the halacha to the contemporary scene. He deserves immense credit for being at the forefront of our generation’s successful restoration of Choshen Mishpat to everyday Jewish life. His rulings and practices impact batei din worldwide.
As one example, Rav Zalman Nechemia insisted that halacha demands we respect intellectual property and copyright law. In response to those who claim that there is no source in the Torah for these laws, Rav Goldberg applied the Gemara’s concept of “shiyur,” retention of partial ownership in a sale. The Talmud speaks of one selling his sheep but retaining a right to the animal’s wool. Rav Zalman Nechemia writes that the copyright holder similarly retains partial ownership of the product they sell. This means that the purchaser does not attain the right to reproduce the item in a manner that runs counter to copyright law.
He understood the needs of the generation and found flexibility in the halacha when it is appropriate to exercise. For example, Rav Goldberg felt that when litigants agree to a “peshara” (judgment by a blend of halacha and equity), they have consented to assume responsibility even for any damages caused only indirectly (gerama).
Rav Zalman Nechemia’s midot tovot matched his great Torah genius. This put him in a league of his own with his unique blend of Torah scholarship and beautiful interactions with people.
He was a man of great composure. I never saw him lose patience despite the sometimes difficult litigants and attorneys who appeared before him in the beit din. For example, there was one gentleman who repeatedly insisted on giving his wife a conditional get (al t’nai). Despite Rav Zalman Nechemia gently explaining that this is not an option, the husband insisted on a get al t’nai. Finally, Rav Goldberg told him firmly but gently (and without a hint of anger), “You are a talmid chacham (Torah scholar), and you are therefore familiar with Rabbeinu Yechiel of Paris (a great 13th-century authority). Rabbeinu Yechiel of Paris instituted that we longer execute conditional gittin.” The gentleman at that point relented.
There was a gentleman who refused to present a get to his wife when it was proper to do so (he adamantly and incorrigibly declined to provide his wife with marital relations and the wife wanted to have children). Rav Zalman Nechemia once again in his trademark firm but kind manner told him that the beit din is scheduling the get and that he is expected to appear at a specific time. The individual submitted to Rav Zalman Nechemia’s dignified and kind direction.
In the many conversations I had with Rav Zalman Nechemia he never expressed frustration with the sometimes trying individuals who appeared before the beit din. However, he once confided in me that he was upset at the large volume of gittin and the high divorce rate.
Rav Zalman Nechemia’s dedication to our people was boundless. During a government workers’ strike in 1993, he was the only dayan to still show up at the beit din. Rav Goldberg patiently handled the many urgent situations presented to the beit din during that trying time.
Rav Goldberg also delivered brilliant shiurim in a dazzling variety of venues, including chasidic batei midrash and yeshivot hesder. He loved all Jews and transcended partisanship and politics. His sole goals were avodat Hashem and ahavat haTorah.
What truly stands out is Rav Goldberg’s humility. I witnessed him riding the public bus every day from the beit din to the various yeshivot at which he delivered his shiurim. I was shocked to learn that even at the age of 87 he continued to insist on riding the bus, even to weddings to which he was invited.
Rav Zalman Nechemia told me of a student at the Brisker Yeshiva who requested a psak halacha without an explanation. The young man explained that if given the ruling’s reason, he would be able to disprove its validity. I told Rav Zalman Nechemia that as a talmid of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, I had heard that this is how Rav Chaim Soloveitchik approached Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor and how Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik approached Rav Moshe Feinstein.
Rav Zalman Nechemia responded that the posek’s word does not enjoy automatic validity. Either his ruling is correct, or it is incorrect. This is the reason he explains each one of his pesakim. If Torah scholars find his reasoning persuasive, then his ruling should be followed, and if not, it should be ignored. I found this expression of humility profoundly moving.
There was not a trace of arrogance in his demeanor and interactions with other rabbanim despite his being the clear superior in knowledge, wisdom and stature. He even asked me, at the age of 30 years at the time, for my opinion on the sometimes complicated cases with which he was dealing.
My childhood friend Dr. Jerry Zeitchik is a cousin of Rav Zalman Nechemia. Dr. Zeitchik is fond of recounting how Rav Zalman Nechemia always warmly received him whenever he visited Eretz Yisrael. Dr. Zeitchik recounts how Rav Goldberg told him that he does not understand why people feel a need to go on extravagant vacations to faraway places. For him, Rav Goldberg reflected, spending time with the family is the greatest joy imaginable.
Since the time I spent with him in 1993, I eagerly awaited the moment when Rav Goldberg would be recognized as the gadol hador. I always felt that his great humility held back his advancement and recognition as the world’s premier halachic authority. Part of the reason why I cried upon hearing the bitter news of his death last week was that day sadly never arrived.
But his relative lack of recognition during his lifetime should be corrected now that he has left this world. Let the world know that one of the most exceptional people who ever walked on this planet left the world last week. Rav Zalman Nechemia was an angel among men, a true nesi Elokim b’tochenu, a prince of Hashem amongst us. How privileged we were to share the world with such an excellent person. How proud we can be as a people that Am Yisrael had such a gem of a person and scholar in its ranks. Zechuto yagen aleinu!
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.