On the Death of Zalman Schachter Shalomi, z'l: A Great Jewish Teacher and the Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement


Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, and one of the most creative and impactful Jewish theologians of the last forty years, died today. I write with tears in my eyes and love in my heart for this incredible teacher, a source of inspiration for literally hundreds of thousands. I loved this man very very deeply for the past fifty one years that I knew him.
This is not a eulogy, but a personal statement of loss and an invitation to those who did know him to share stories about him with us at Tikkun which we can send out to the tens of thousands of people who read our communications. This is my form of grieving after I stopped crying at hearing this news today.

Zalman was born in Europe and barely escaped the Nazis when he was able to flee from France to the U.S. He became a Lubavitcher Hasid and Rabbi in Brooklyn, and was chosen by the rebbe along with his friend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to reach out to the generation of Jews coming of age on college campuses in the 1950 and 1960s. Zalman served as a campus Hillel rabbi, and there tapped into the emerging new consciousness that we subsequently called “the counter-culture.” His experience with LSD and other hallucinogens opened for him a deeper level of experience that fortified rather than undermined the spirituality that had always sung to his heart and which had been the inspiration for much of the Kabbalistic and Hasidic movements. Like his friend Shlomo Carlebach, Zalman’s teachings and his approach to prayer (davvening) excited young Jews whose experiences in the established synagogues of mainstream American Judaism were quickly alienating the whole generation from the spiritual deadness, materialism, and fearfulness (which often translated into a kind of idolatry of Israel as the only savior assimilated American Jews could believe in) that was at the time parading as “Judaism.”
I was first introduced to Zalman by my mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and am forever grateful for the relationship that we developed after that. As a counselor at Camp Ramah, I invited Zalman to teach my campers some of the ways to pray the “Shma” prayer – and these 13 year olds were mesmerized by Zalman’s ability to translate deep spiritual truths into a language they could understand, and then to embody his teachings in the way he actually led the davvening. So it was no surprise to me that after Heschel died, Zalman became the de facto leader (or perhaps co-leader with Shlomo Carlebach) for all those Jews seeking a spiritually alive Judaism.
To develop that approach more fully than he could in academia (he had been teaching at a college in Philadelphia), Zalman helped create the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley – and then in Philadelphia he developed B’ney Or with its attempts to spread the kind of spiritual vision he had developed. Unlike Shlomo Carlebach and many of his colleagues in Chabad, Zalman became a champion of a creative approach to Halachah, always asking what was the goal of the halachic injunctions, and then finding creative ways to make those goals come alive in the experience and imagination of those he was teaching. Yet at the same time, he was strongly attached to the orthodoxy of his mentors in the Chabad movement, and the wisdom of the Tanakh, Talmud, Kabbalah, and Hasidut. When he began ordaining rabbis as part of the new Jewish Renewal movement he was creating, he insisted that we observe the mitzvot, particularly those regarding personal status (birth, marriage, conversion to Judaism, and death). He wanted to be sure that his ordinations were recognized in Israel and in the orthodox communities of the U.S. in order to ensure that he wasn’t participating in further splitting the Jewish people.

Zalman quickly became a champion of women’s voices and the centrality of women’s experience and wisdom in Judaism, and not long later a champion of equality of treatment for homosexuals in Judaism. He was in the vanguard of giving rabbinic ordination to women and gays. Not surprisingly, his experimentation with drugs plus his deep feminism and support for equal treatment for gays caused Chabad to break from him.
I started studying with Zalman in 1975 as one of his students and then later as an official rabbinic student, and he picked two other orthodox rabbis to be among the five rabbis who would eventually give me smicha (Jewish rabbinic ordination). What was striking to me was how important it was to him that I be able to pass the tests that any orthodox kolel (rabbinic supervision group) would put to their own rabbinic students. By the time he gave me rabbinic ordination in 1995, I had written my book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation, which became a national best-seller and brought much of Zalman’s sensibilities to a larger audience than had heard his teachings before or after. Zalman was a founding member of the Editorial Board of Tikkun magazine, which was and is the only national magazine that actively identifies with the Jewish Renewal movement. Tikkun became the one Jewish publication that he could count on to print his prayers, his translation of psalms, his own essays, and to promote many of those to whom he had given smicha. He performed the wedding ceremony for me and the co-founder of Tikkun, Nan Fink Gefen, in an orthodox shul in Oakland, California.
What was most amazing about Zalman was that he continued to grow throughout his life both intellectually and spiritually. I remember countless discussions with him on topics ranging from advice about how to deal with issues in Halachah that rose in my congregation, Beyt Tikkun, to how best to ensure that his legacy would retain the integrity of his message after he died; from current developments in Israel (he shared the pain I felt about the direction of policies that did not respect the Palestinian people, but felt unhappy that we at Tikkun were so “out there” in reporting the details of how oppressive the Occupation had become), to discussions we had about Levinas, Heschel, Buber, and even about Ken Wilber and the limits of his world view that was sweeping some people off their feet in the 1990s. What was always remarkable was how sweet he was, how caring, how he would make himself accessible to so many people, and how sophisticated his psychological insights and spiritual depth remained right till now, just a month before the Jewish Renewal movement was to celebrate with him his 90th birthday (though he told me that he had only reluctantly agreed to this celebration in order to help Aleph, the organization that is now the official voice of Jewish Renewal); and he often shared with me his disappointment that the movement he had founded and led for so long was not giving more attention to tikkun olam and more support for Tikkun magazine, and so he mentioned in his last talk to Jewish Renewal rabbis (at Ohalah January, 2014) that they should give more attention to the ideas that Arthur Waskow and I have been putting out in the past years, and he told me he wanted to convince the rabbinic training program of Aleph to make a ‘tikkun olam‘ track along the lines that Waskow and I have helped develop into a mandatory part of rabbinic training the way the davvening track is mandatory. It is sad for our Jewish Renewal movement that his sickness interfered with his following through on these directions.

It’s hard to sum up how impactful Zalman Schachter Shalomi’s message has become. The spiritual aliveness and creativity that he pioneered shaped the thinking of Rabbi Marshall Meyer who turned a failing conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side of New York, Bnai Jeshurun, into a cauldron of spiritual energy in the 1980s and 1990s. His teachings and approach to prayer has seeped into the Reconstructionist movement (he sometimes taught at their rabbinic training program in a suburb of Philadelphia), into the Reform movement, and into parts of the Conservative movement as well (sadly, many of those who have now adopted some of the approaches to prayer or theology that he pioneered learned it from others and are not even aware of how much they are de facto students of Zalman and perpetuating his legacy; but in any event he was not locked into ego, and it gladdened him when others followed his path without even knowing that that was what they were doing).
The Winter 2015 issue of Tikkun will have a brilliant piece about the evolution of Zalman’s thinking by Jewish studies professor Shaul Magid, also a member of our Tikkun editorial board. Just two days ago I received a response to that piece written by Zalman and intended to publish it alongside Magid’s piece (and I was still looking for other respondents when this heart-breaking news of Zalman’s death came to me a few hours ago). I’m considering sending out his response to Magid, whom he deeply respected, even before publishing the longer piece – I’ll figure that out. But I know now that I’ll certainly want to publish on our website and/or Tikkun Daily Blog (to which you can subscribe for free at http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/join-tikkun-daily/). Please send short articles or letters sharing memories of your own personal experience with Zalman if you think they will be instructive or moving to others (email me at RabbiLerner.tikkun@gmail.com) and I’ll try to put some of them up (but only send them if you promise with a full heart not to be insulted if what you write doesn’t get published by Tikkun).
Meanwhile, I join with my many sisters and brothers who are as shocked, saddened, and grieving at this moment as am I. If I offended anyone by writing this piece, leaving out some of the many, many creative people Zalman helped promote, or the beautiful ideas he helped support (e.g. “eco-kashrut”), I apologize. I haven’t even tried to describe how much Zalman owed to the loving support and creativity of his wife and spiritual life-partner, Eve. We have lost one of the gedoley hador, one of the greatest teachers and thinkers of Judaism in our time. Zichrono l’vracha – may his memory always be a blessing (which is what z’l means when following someone’s name after s/he dies).

12 thoughts on “On the Death of Zalman Schachter Shalomi, z'l: A Great Jewish Teacher and the Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement

  1. How sad, what a wonderful visionary man he was. I was privileged to attend a course he did at the Centre for Jewish Renewal in the Catskills many years ago.
    I live in Adelaide, Australia and was totally inspired by meeting him and learning from him.

  2. I join with the countless number of people who were touched and deeply moved by the life and spirit of Reb Zalman. My love and life partner Beatty reached out to him earlier this year and encouraged me to set up an interview with him on the Progressive Radio Network show I host entitled the Rebbe the Radical and the Rev. Beatty’s mother had taught Reb Zalman’s children in Winnepeg, Canada where they lived at the time and Beatty was profoundly moved as a young woman attending Shabbat services and other classes with him at his house. Her loving spirit was certainly influenced by these meetings and I am the grateful beneficiary of her loving life force today that Reb Zalman helped to foster those many years ago. I am and will be eternally thankful to Reb Zalman for that love and friendship he showed her then that lives on in her love to me today.
    Although ill at the time, Reb Zalman immediately responded to Beatty’s e-mail and graciously set up an interview with me on the show. We had to postpone it once due to his condition but we did have the interview on the March 3, 2014 show — Susannah Heschel and Beatty joined me for the interview and I encourage all of you to go to the archives of the Rebbe, the Radical and the Rev show on progressive radio network to listen to and rejoice in hearing Reb Zalman’s voice and his visionary love of life. As with so many others, he touched us in ways that we may not fully realize all the time — take the time to reflect on the gift of his life and reflect on how much more alive and loving we are as a result of that life and our meeting him. I certainly will and I cherish my brief meeting with him on the show and the eternal time I have with him through my Beatty.

    • Thank you so much, Jim. It took me a while to locate the link, but it was a blessing to hear Reb Zalman’s voice again. It’s been nearly 30 years since he and I met in Tübingen, but his spirit has remained with me ever since.

  3. “We have lost one of the gedoley hador, one of the greatest teachers and thinkers of Judaism in our time.”
    Without question. He was the last remaining luminary of postmodern Judaism. I regret deeply that I never had the opportunity to meet him. In fact, I was urged by a friend, an MO rebbetzen, to go to his last teaching retreat over Shavuot at Isabella Freedman last month (she and her husband were old friends of Reb Zalman’s, but were in Israel and couldn’t attend the retreat), but for various reasons I didn’t. I had thought they might go to Boulder in August for the Shabbaton and that I might go with them – but tragically, it isn’t to be.
    Thank you for writing this, Rabbi.

  4. My strongest memory of Reb Zalman and his wife Eve were when they offered a Shabbat workshop at NYC’s Open Center, perhaps during the 80’s. I’d attended to see who these two were.
    It was a few hours after darkness on Friday night. Eve lit Shabbat candles while Reb Zalman spoke on his microphone.

  5. I’ve spent some time today finding and reading stories of Reb Zalman and considering the impact he’s had and will have on our Jewish Community. I remain in awe and am greatful to find your memories.

  6. To honor his memory, I will repeat the March 3, 2014 interview Susannah Heschel and I did with Reb Zalman. Just google Progressive Radio Network this Monday evening June 7th from 8-9 pm EST and listen to the Rebbe, the Radical and the Rev show. It is a wonderfully life-affirming hour with Reb Zalman as his loving warmth, magical and insightful insights live on.

  7. It took a few days for the sad news of Reb Zalman’s passing to reach me — I am not online much these days, since we have only a very slow landline here in rural Minnesota. In a way it was Reb Zalman who sent me here to be a “voice in the wilderness” — he once called me “a master of prayer in the Way of Reb Nachman of Breslov.” Be that as it may, I have been out of touch with the Renewal movement for many years, having left when “B’nai Or” became “P’nai Or” in the mid-80s. Since then I have gone my own way, but have never forgotten what my Rebbe Reb Zalman taught me in the 70s and 80s. It was he who set me on my present journey. You can read my own memoire of Reb Zalman on my blog at the link here.

  8. Greetings Dear Ones..
    While I had not kept a relationsahip up with Zalman in his latter years (I attempted!!)
    Zaman was my first spiritual teacher..A Great Man..
    In the 1970’s while on staff at Hopkins in BAltimore..I was a regulat shabbos guest of Zalman’s in Philadelphia.(B’nai Or)
    What a blast..the learning..the niggun,,the friendships..
    When it came time for me to pursue other spiritual paths..it was Zalman who without judgement or scorn (as most RAbbis would at the time)..allowed me to keep dialoguing with him ..as I moved into territory that was both questionable..at times scary.(even in the 70s!!).but necessary.Zalman was the ultimate of interfaith MAvens…as well…Friends such as Shlomo Carlebach..Meir Fund from New York..were cultivated as well..
    Philadelphia was the hub of Jewish Renewal in those years
    Zalman was a beautiful brilliant man..fiery..a jokster..wizard..father..
    Blessings Zalman..Might Your Soul Be Bound to All the Tzaddikim..and Might You r Soul go from Strength to Strength Dear One!!..

  9. (Message to the comment moderators: I previously submitted another version, I then realized it needed further editing. Please consider using this one instead. Thank you, and thank you for asking for stories. – Cheryl.)
    Hi Michael,
    I am submitting this memory of Reb/Zalman for consideration.
    Thanks for asking for them.
    Mourning/Celebrating Reb Zalman (z”l)
    I first met Reb Zalman in the early 1970’s. He had been invited to teach a class at B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side. There had been stirrings for change among some of the membership, and this class was the first time he had been included in the adult education line-up.
    Reb Zalman traveled by train from Philadelphia every Monday evening for a full semester. He took the train after a day of teaching. He wasted no time getting started, speaking almost nonstop, totally without notes, hopping (sometimes literally) from topic to topic: Chassidus (a la Zalman), Esalen, Jewish history and beliefs before and after the Holocaust, transpersonal psychology, transdenominational religion, social responsibility, sensitivity exercises with Jewish themes, Jewish meditation. Once in a while, when least expected, out of his expansively brilliant discourse would spring a joke, a song, a dance, a simple story, a meditation, a simple almost silly suggestion. Even with his wide expanse of topics, everything seemed cohesive. I was much later to realize that even Reb Zalman’s apparently simplest of suggestions could prove to be life altering.
    The really sad thing about this past month, when the first notice arrived about Reb Zalman’s illness and time was suspended, it was not all his words that mattered most. What had touched me most that first night of class, and every workshop or holiday gathering I was able to attend years later, was not so much the content of what he was saying, but how lovingly he addressed us, how urgently he cared about what he was teaching. The class at B’nai Jeshurun was too small. In most places of learning the teacher has a right to cancel. Not Reb Zalman. He had made a commitment and he kept it. Besides, he was a man on a mission, a man filled with love for any and all of the people who sought him out. That’s what I remember most: His engaging personality, his ability to tune in to the needs of the class, how lovingly all his messages were sent; how much he himself loved the messages.
    Years before this class I had attended an interfaith weekend at Ananda Ashram. I continued to attend retreats and ongoing classes for several years after. I had serious conflicts because I was an observant Jew. An organic vegetarian retreat at an ashram was acceptable for my kashrut requirements, while keeping me safe from the artery-clogging fare at the kosher hotels.
    At the ashram I also found a way to feed my hungry soul in a way I had never experienced. I loved and practiced Judaism, had no complaints about my hometown rabbi’s pastoral care in times of need, nor his commitments to the Civil Rights movement and his own place among rabbis who were making world famous contributions to both Judaism and interfaith relations. But for meditation, chant, merging with the Cosmos, experimenting with different expressions of worship, eating healthful foods, gentle, soothing, chakra-cleansing exercise as a twice daily practice, energy healing, learning to be truly still, acquiring transformational, transpersonal, and transdenominational skills, this was the real thing. I went to get away from the city on a hot Memorial Day weekend. What I found was that I could become a more skilled, centered, and compassionate healer and teacher, while healing myself in the process.
    There was no place for me to go other than outside my own religion. Not paradoxically, through ongoing studies at the ashram I had managed to become renewed in my own faith while becoming more intoxicated with interfaith. I continued to attend Orthodox services on Shabbat, Religious Science at Lincoln Center and/or The Society for Jewish Science on Sundays, HathaYoga on Mondays, Tuesday a satsang with a Jain minister. But it was lonely. Wherever I went, I hid my true self behind a facade of trying too hard just to blend in whever I was. I never told my rabbi, most of my Jewish friends, or most members of my family. My one Jewish friend that I trusted enough to tell grabbed onto it as a frequent opportunity for ridicule. Only my mother knew and approved, as long as I stayed Jewish.
    I felt fractured. If I opened up my real self, would anybody but my mother understand?
    It was in that first class with Reb Zalman that I learned of the treasures awaiting me. We could have found all of these things, with a vast dimension of diverse rituals and practices all the way back through Jewish history. If only the “modern” rabbis had allowed it. If only post-Holocaust Jewry had not tried so hard not to suppress it. If only the traumas and losses of the Holocaust had not been so overwhelming. So many of our spiritual, cultural,and intellectual treasures perished along with too many of our people. Reb Zalman was on a mission to bring back as much as he could, relating it in such a way to resonate with modern postwar generations, doing his own kind of outreach, a surrogate spiritual zayde to all the disaffected who saw only emptiness in ritual without depth, without action.
    Within the first hour of that first class, there was a comforting “whoosh” within me, a sense of becoming spiritually healed and whole. I was learning from a rabbi who said it was OK to extend my reach without limits from within and without. He gave us the language to do so. I no longer felt so alone, so much in the wrong place all the time. Because of Reb Zalman’s teachings I could be totally me, totally comfortable wherever I went. I was no longer concerned with other people’s opinions; about where I was worshipping, and what on earth was I thinking?
    I was in graduate school at the time, lecturing part time in college. I made a new plan. Toward the end of my course work in the next eighteen months I would apply for any job I could get in or near Philadelphia in order to begin serious studies with Reb Zalman. But somebody came along. An unexpected whirlwind capsized my plans and I ended up hitched in Northwestern New Jersey.
    I found myself stuck in place, but not in spirit. I read as much as I could of Reb Zalman and Jewish Renewal, managing to feel some semblance of connection even though far away. I used Reb Zalman’s teachings as a Hebrew school teacher, therapist and mother, at least as much as I could get away with. If someone didn’t like it, I didn’t care. I was getting myself ready for another community growing somewhere else.
    I was not free to learn directly from Reb Zalman and his many gifted students and colleagues until 1998, the Summer of my separation. At Elat Chayyimt I was totally astounded, not only by the volumes of written and artistic materials on the bookshelves, in the gift shop, and by Reb Zalman’s personal library upstairs, which we were allowed to use as long as the books stayed in the room. It was overwhelming to so many of us who had come late to the party: the prolific breadth and depth of religious expression that had sprung up in such a relatively short period of time. Some of us sat together, shared our stories, and cried.
    Each rabbi, cantor, advanced student, transnspersonal therapist, energy healer, pastoral counselor, artist, musician, and more, had learned from Reb Zalman and each other. The synergistic effect was palpable, but they remained true to themselfves as well, taught their own specialities, In their own ways. It was clearly evident that a respect for artistic freedom and spiritual integrity had birthed much more than anybody could have anticipated. I sat in workshops, services, evening programs, with a host of established rabbis, cantors, deans of rabbinical schools, meditation teachers, from all strains of Judaism and beyond, who came to sit at each others’ feet, to draw the waters from this very deep well, and to bring Renewal practices back to their own congregations, seminaries, and private practices.
    There were some who came only out of curiosity. Some came to debunk. Some came to steal and claim it as theirs. A few never came at all, and fraudulently claimed ordination from Reb Zalman. Don’t think that it didn’t hurt Reb Zalman and the movement in every possible way.
    Years after my first class with Reb Zalman, when I began to visit Elat Chayyim, I attended one of his several 75th birthday parties.
    The dining room was filled to capacity. Nevertheless, Reb Zalman came out from behind the dais several times, to shake hands and shmooze. When he arrived at my place, he asked how did I know him? Why was I here? What was the connection?
    I told him I was in his first class at B’nai Jeshurun, and I was there to thank him. I told him how I had shared what I had learned, and how, due to a spiritual practice he had suggested, I had made it through some very difficult times. He asked me which practice. Considering the time constraints, and the onerous task of trying to reach every person there, I replied in two words. I didn’t need to say any more. He thanked me for that, squeezed my hand, smiled, and went on to the next person waiting.
    One of the seemingly cute little suggestions that he had delivered in one of his sweet, almost joking, deliberately entertaining moments was the one that helped to save my sanity, perhaps my life, many times over.
    Somtime toward the end of that first semester at B’nai Zeshurun, Reb Zalman began to discuss the purpose of the Cheshbon (ledger) which refers to the reckoning of our deeds on Yom Kippur, and for some, every night before sleep.
    This is where he seamlessly veered into one of his marvelous diversions, his demeanor changing from serious pedagogue to playful comedian. But it soon became evident that he was serious: Why don’t you open a nachas, a joy account? It was both a question and a directive.
    Reb Zalman elaborated on his idea of a Cosmic nachas account, which he said was just as important as a mitzvah account. The mental health aspect of such a practice as Reb Zalman described was very enticing, made a lot of sense. Every time a good thing happens to us, or we say a bracha, not by rote, but with true intention of gratitude, every time we kvell, are delighted, from something cute, or some achievement of loved ones, or something good happening in the world, we should take a moment to feel the gratitude that goes along with it, feel the nachas, the joy. It would take less than a second to close our eyes and make a deposit in our own individual Cosmic nachas accounts. In this way we build up our account over the years, to the top, with enough left over to share. And, whenever we hit hard times ourselves, we would be able to withdraw some of our stored up nachas to help lift us up, to remind us that there are good times and bad times, to help balance our moods.
    Reb Zalman had been a master of extreme highs and lows. He had figured out a way of neutralizing them and easing back to emotional balance.
    I have been doing my nachas account spiritual practice ever since that class with Reb Zalman. When I am engaged in these imaginary transactions, I smile. I smile because I know it is only a Reb Zalman metaphor. I smile because I know it is real. I smile in hard times because this spiritual practice lifts me up, keeps me level headed, keeps me joyful in the Divine healing presence.
    Doctor, nurse, stop trying to make me say how bad is the pain on a scale from one to ten. I’m busy making trans-actions at the Cosmic bank.
    In 1979 my mother was suddenly taken to the hospital. She lived for 21 days more. Helpless to have any physical influence on her condition, I prayed, and kept withdrawing from my nachas account until I sensed there was nothing left. I bargained and pleaded for Cosmic loans just to keep going, to maintain my sanity so that I could take care of my two-year old son, return to my dissertation, my college and Hebrew School teaching, and do whatever else I had to do while we waited to hear the day to day progress.. It worked. I was able to function.
    Then, toward the end, in a final fit of bargaining, I went to the other account, emptied all the mitzahs and transferred them to my mother, if only she would get well. I could not even imagine taking them back when she died. My mother did not need my mitzvahs to balance her scales. I left them with her anyway. They were hers to take with her. It seemed more than fair.
    In my mind’s eye I could see her getting ready to leave with an invisible gravity-free sack filled with invisible mitzvahs, as light as the sack of feathers of the Wise Men of Chelm. She was eager to be on her way to deliver her extra mitzvahs around, laughing along with me at our very first private trans-dimensional joke. I could feel my mother’s lightness and laughter. I could say good-by, leaving my mother to enjoy her journey, doing her work in Paradise as she had done on earth, I started over again at zero to continue my work here. That’s how I got through it. Because of Reb Zalman.
    Amen to Eve’s request for prayer intentions and mitzvahs in Reb Zalman’s memory for a peaceful end to the unspeakable strife in the Middle East, and to everywhere in the world where love and good deeds are needed. I’m sure that Reb Zalman does not need our mitzvahs on his own account. But let’s do them anyway, in his blessed memory.
    You can be sure he’ll know just what to do.

  10. I just came back to your website today after a few years of absence to read of Rabbi Schachter’s passing. I had met Rabbi Schachter as a student in the early 1980’s of his world religions class at the Ambler Campus of Temple University of Philadelphia. I had the opportunity to get to know him better as he gave me the honor of being his chauffeur home to Philly after the class. His class was, by far, the most interesting and inspiring class of my college years and he was the most interesting and inspiring teacher of those years. How inspiring was he? Well, my profession today is teaching world religions. Do I need to suggest what inspired me? I still use many of his insights and even his jokes in my class to this day !!!

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