Feb 23, 2009

Three stories of gadlus

There is a book being published by Rabbi Shlomo Levenshtein, a renowned "maggid", and it is laced with anecdotes displaying the love and dedication, and mesirus nefesh, for Torah and mitzvos.

Mishpacha magazine printed some excerpts from the upcoming book. They selected a numer of stories. They were all good stories, but I found three in particular striking, and I want to share them with you.

1: Rav Shteinman said to one of his confidantes that on shabbos when bentching, one is required to add the paragraph of "r'tzeih". If one forgot to say it, he would have to repeat the bentching. If he is unsure of he said it or not, he would also be required to repeat the bentching, because we would assume that he said the most common bentching he is familiar with, which is the weekday version not including R'tzeih, meaning we would assume he skipped it and therefore he must repeat it.

Rav Shteinman continued, the question therefore is regarding me - I never eat bread during the week. So my regular bentching is one that includes r;tzeih. So if on shabbos I would bentch and be unsure whether or not I said r'tzeih, would the decision be any different?

Realizing that the question was not really relevant, one of the people present asked Rav Shteinman - how long has it been since the rav has not eaten bread during the week?

Rav Shteinman's answer: 70 years!

Similarly it is known that the rav only drinks hot water unflavored with tea, as drinking water flavored with tea is considered by him to be filling a desire. He would say "Why do I need to drink hot water that is colored brown?"

One time a doctor said to him that tea is good for his health, as it contains healthy nutrients. The doctor recommended he begin drinking tea. The rav agreed to drink a cup of tea. When he was about to drink the tea, he changed his mind and said,"For 90 years I have been fine without tea. Right now I have to start with new desires?".
And he did not drink the tea.

2: Rav Mordechai Reimer, the mashgiach of the Tchebin Yeshiva and a son in law of Rav Elyashiv, was in one of the concentration camps during the war. He was very weak and suffering from great hunger. Along with that he had contracted typhus. He knew that if he did not obtain some food to eat very soon, he was going to die.

He dragged himself outside, and all he saw was snow and ice. Suddenly he saw another prisoner holding four pieces of bread - a considerable treasure!

Rav Mordechai could tell that this prisoner had obtained the bread by stealing it from the kitchen, but he also knew this person would not share the bread with him.

Rav Mordechai gathered his strength and pushed the other prisoner down. When he slipped on the ice, he dropped the bread he was holding. Rav Mordechai grabbed one of the pieces and ran away.

He recovered from his disease, and he always knew that that piece of bread is what saved his life, and eventually he survived the holocaust.

Rav Mordechai eventually became a great talmid chacham, but he was always troubled by that incident of theft. He went into Rav Elyashiv once to ask about it, and split his question into three parts:
  1. Was he allowed to take the bread back then?
  2. Even if ti was ok, does he have to search out the prisoner and pay him back for the bread he took?
  3. If he should have to pay for it, how much? would he have to pay based on the value of bread today, or based on what a piece of bread was worth back then in the camps?
Rav Elyashiv answered:
  1. Because he had four pieces of bread, taking one of them did not put the other prisoner's life in danger, and therefore it was ok for him to take the bread to save his own life. A person is allowed to save his own life by causing damage to someone else's possessions.
  2. But, when one saves himself at the expense of someone else's property, he is obligated to pay for the damage he caused. Since he does not know the person from whom he stole and has no way of finding him, he should return the money by donating to public funds, with the hope that the person he stole from would get some sort of benefit from those public funds.
  3. Rav Chaim Kanievsky proved from the story of Avraham Avinu that he has to return the money based on the value of the bread in the camps. Because Avraham would give wayfarers food, and refuse payment. He would instead ask them to bentch and thank God. When they said they wanted to pay, Avraham would submit them with a ridiculous bill. The guest would complain saying the food was not worth that much, and Avraham would respond that maybe where they were from it was not worth that much, but out in the desert where he is living, it is worth those astronomical amounts. They agreed and instead would generally bless God. From that story Rav Kanievsky proved that the value is based on the location it was in.
I find it amazing that for so long he could be disturbed by the theft of a piece of bread that he stole in order to save his life. Not only was he bothered by it, but to the point where his question was how much to pay back.

3: A few years ago a woman in Bnei Brak died at the age of 97. Two years later, her sister in the US died at the age of 97.

These two women had been born in the town of Baranovich - the town famous for the great Rav Elchonon Wasserman.

They grew up during a very difficult time, and the students in the yeshiva had no food, and often did not even have bread to eat.

These two sisters, young ladies at the time, took it upon themselves to feed the yeshiva boys. They took a sack and went from house to house around the town asking each household to donate one piece of bread for the students of the yeshiva.

When they finished making the rounds, they brought the bread to Rav Elchonon Wasserman. They did this every day for a long period of time, thus the boys of the yeshiva ate and survived because of these two women. Rav Elchonon blessed them that they should merit long lives.

They both died exactly at the age of 97.


  1. LOL about the 90 years without tea. A doctor Gonzalez wrote a book called My Child Won't EAt. He says not to worry when kids don't eat vegetables. His father is in his 80s and never eats them.

  2. I have some difficulties with Rav Shteinman's story.

    1)If Rav Shteinman wishes to live his life on hot water and bread on Shabbos, Kol HaKavod but why does he speak about it with talmidim? Firstly it is not the greatest sign of humility and secondly bochrim shouldn't chas v'shalom strive to imitate this.

    2) I am more inspired by hearing of gedolim who were/are "one of the people". I would like my children to know that one can be a regular kid, love baseball/football and achieve great things in Torah, Yiras Shomoyim and Chesed. Most kids can not really relate to someone who eats only crusts of bread on Shabbos and sits on a hard stool and drinks flavored hot water.

    It is wonderful that Rav Shteinman behaves as a malach. But we were put on this world as humans and given the job to use our yetzer and material surroundings to serve HaShem.

  3. So nice to read something positive for a change. This is why some are G'dolim and others arent.

    My wife told me how she once knocked on a neighbors door two days before Pesach.

    My wife was in a tichel and robe, and looking somewhat "erev Pesachy" whereas the neighbor was all dressed up in a sheitel, shoes and suit. My wife enquired where the neighbor was going, to which she was told, that she had got dressed to daven Mincha. This neighbor is our local Rav's wife!

    This was in her front room; where none of the community would see her, and she could have easily got by with a more casual attire, but no - she got dressed for minchah.

  4. anon - I have no difficulties with it. there were other stories of regular people, and of gedolim doing more "human" things as well. In the book there are many more. The magazine only quoted about 8 or 10 stories.
    I liked that story.
    Why was he talking about it? I dont know - the excerpt did not say. I am sure he was not bragging about it, but either responding to somenody else who raised an issue or whatever. Anyways, the story says the discussion was between him and one of the people of his house, so it could be they anyway know that he does not eat bread or drink tea.

  5. Sorry, none of these stories are that inspiring and I don't see how they emphasize much gadlus. There's nothing inspiring on drinking plain hot water, or pushing down a fellow prisoner to grab a piece of bread. I find it interesting that he was obsessed with how to pay the person back for the bread and how much to pay him back, rather than how awful it is to push someone down to get what you want, even in such a horrible situation. That pretty much incapsulates the problem with charedism- focusing on halachic minutiae while bein adam l'chavero can be thrown out the window.

    The two women were somewhat inspiring, but again, I think attributing their long lives to a blessing rather than Hashem's will is silly and blasphemous.

  6. Abbi - that is pretty harsh...
    I see greatness in the ability to control one's desires like that. at that level where even a bit if tea flavoring is considered too much "taava"... I am impressed with his will power and self-control.

    The second story - what he did then we cannot judge him on. He knew his life was in danger, so he did what he had to do - steal the bread from the other guy - in order to save himself. We can't judge him on that. But that it bothered him the rest of his life until he was able to make amends, I find impressive. I think if it was me, I would have shrugged it off as something I had to do to survive and eventually forgotten about it, or at least justified it in a way that I would not later think about how to make amends.

    The third story - they did a great act of chessed, and received a blessing for it. Did they live so long because of the blessing or not I don't know. We do have a concept of a tzaddik being able to change God's "will" by decreeing something, so perhaps it was because of the bracha. Regardless, the greatness is not that they lived to 97, but what they did to merit the long life (assuming that is what gave them that merit)

  7. I really don't think resisting ta'aveh is that great- learning how to live with a ta'aveh in the world is greater and I think that is the true message of the Torah.

    It was the crazy outlier sects like the Karrites and the Qumran sects that preached asceticism during the time the Beit Hamikdash- not mainstream Judaism. I also think it's more of a Christian concept than a Jewish one.

    As for the bread stealer- I agree we shouldn't judge- as long as it's not brought up as story of gadlus. Once it is,I think it's fair game.

    And, again, I didn't see that he felt sorry for hurting his fellow prisoner. He was sorry he committed an aveirah and went against the Torah. It's a subtle difference that speaks volumes.

  8. Abbi -
    straight up, we have no right to even comment on what happened in the camps. None! Us commenting showS how far removed we are from what happened then. that being said, the rav, being older, wiser and closer to Torah and mitzvot, felt the need to reconcile in some way. That was his solution. How dare you comment about the situation in the camps from your cozy computer chair?

  9. How dare I comment? Because I have a brain and an ability to type? How dare you question my right to comment? If you believe I don't have a right to comment, than the internet is probably not the place for you (Where did you get the heter to even be here in the first place?).

    Again, if the story is brought as another example of life in the camps- I wouldn't comment. If the story is brought as an example of leadership- than yes,I believe it's open to comment.

  10. the story was brought as dedication to Torah and mitzvos. Also, I dont think the part of the story that showed the dedication (and in my opinion the gadlus) was the theft of the bread, but the fact that it bothered him for so long and he worried about repaying it.

  11. Abbi - it is true that the internet is place where anyone can waste virtual memory and their own personal time to let loose the filth of their minds. However, in a particularly Jewish virtual reality, such as a blog called: "life in Israel" devoted to Jewish orthodox conversations, i would expect that the commentators would have more brains than to question the actions of those who suffered in the holocaust. Have you no personal decency in your own mind to believe that someone who lived through the Hell on Earth of the holocaust should be questioned by someone who didn't? The reason you have a problem with the story is because you clearly don't know what people went through, and clearly don't understand what the suffering was like. The gadlus of the story is that someone who did live through it, feels bad that he may have hurt someone while simply trying to survive. With all due respect Commentator Abbi, but your comments are self-righteous, immature and blatantly proving the problems with the current generation.

  12. These stories are meant to be as a deciation to Torah and Mitzvos. I can certainly hear that in the second and third story. The fact that this man was bothered by an incident that he could have easily justified in the camps is quite noble as is the case of the 2 ladies.

    I must however agree with the first anon about the R' Shtainman story.

    Who says that in today's day and age that "pas b'melech and mayim b'midda" is Torah (especially when he doesn't eat the pas b'melech during the week).

    Although many people may be impressed with this I don't see where it is an example for devotion to Torah and Mitzvos for others.

  13. Even a cynic like me agrees with Rafi. These stories show the self-control of these great people. Even though they have the access and ability to have their needs and desires taken care of, they still live within their means and they control their desires. If the story was about them at age 6 and they refraines, I'd be less inclined to be inspired. But at 90, when they could ask for anything and it would be provided is more impressive. In todays age of "gimme", their control is admirable.

  14. Sorry, whatshiname, I grew up in close intimate contact with two grandparents who survived Aushwitz, so I am much much more than familiar with what happened there and fully appreciate the horror that went on their because I grew up with it, at times on a daily basis. So please cancel your lecture on my lack of knowledge or appreciation of what went on in the Shoah.

    The reason I have a problem with the story (i've stated the reason twice, but it seems the sanctimony is gunking up your brain cells) is that the rav is more concerned with how to repay the man for a piece of bread then the idea that he hurt someone in the first place and that this story is held up as an example of leadership.

    Clearly you and Rafi disagree. Geh gezundheit, as they say.

  15. Commenter Abbi - don't mean to gang up on you, but... having grandparents who were there doesn't mean YOU were there. anyone who wasn't there has a lot of chutzpa to judge jews who were there. it is fine if you don't think it demonstrates gadlus - but cut him some slack!

  16. Abbi - I get your point. You are not criticizing how he got the bread, but thathe flt bad about the money but not about how he got the bread many years ago...

    I see that. But still, we have no idea how his mind compartmentalized that. That was somethign he had to do for survival. Could be in his mind that was put away as being ok.

    But I see your point.

  17. I don't understand why you think pushing him was worse than stealing his bread. The man obviously lived long enough that he thinks he should pay him back, he didn't die. But a piece of bread was a treasure. In fact i am not sure why r elyashiv is sure the man didn't need the bread to survive - i guess three slices left were enough for him to live for a bit, but maybe he could have saved the extra slice for the future and maybe he needed it then. It seems to me that everyone in the camps was more than three slices away from an issue of pikuach nefesh, so i suppose r elyashiv means for the moment he was ok. But stealing someone's bread in the camps was surely a very big deal, longer lasting than pushing someone, i would guess. I also don't know how he can pay back what bread was worth in the camp. OK, there are acc to chazal people shemimonom chaviv aleyehem yoser migufam, but most of us would give any sum we had to live, everything we owned. otoh, in the camps, who had money? maybe a slice of bread was worth a favor, not money. if the idea is what ppl would have paid were they free and had money, but still somehow starving in the camps, it would go to the highest bidder for who knows what astronomical sum. So i dont understand the cheshbon.

  18. I was also wondering how you would calculate the value... the story did not say.

  19. regarding the story of RAYLS, no one is asking you to follow in his exalted footsteps. No one is telling anyone else that this is THE way to live.

    What the story shows is how he is head and shoulders (and based on some of the comments taking one of the gedolei hador to task for refraining from fillign a taavah ????? - Id say a lot more than head and shoulders) above basically everyone else in the world on a ruchniyus plane.

    Dont tell me why what he does is wrong. Tell me that you think you could survive ONE year like that. Or 2 years. or 10 years.

    With this story, and many more like it - such as how he doesnt sit back against the back of the chair when he sits. Or how he sleeps sitting up, over his gemara - show that the Rosh Yeshiva is light years ahead of us in ruchniyus. A malach compared to us humans. This is Gadlus from pervious generations !!!

    That someone in this world isso "mufka" from gashmiyus is an inspiration to us all. Not to emulate. Not that everyone should stop eating bread. But just to fathom how high spiritually one can get.... wow...

    And regarding those that wonder why is he bragging? - Rav Levenshtein is known as one of the 2 closest people to the RY. Makes sense that the RY would tell him.

    And one more point, Rav Shmuel Aurbach, quotes his father, Rav Shlomo Zalman that he once called Rav Shach a tzaddik nistar. RSA was confused. Nistar? Hes the Gadol Hador? RSZA answered him - what we see is only a drop in the bucket of his tzidkus. The same can be said about RAYLS - this story is only a drop in the bucket

  20. That someone in this world isso "mufka" from gashmiyus is an inspiration to us all. Not to emulate. Not that everyone should stop eating bread. But just to fathom how high spiritually one can get.... wow...

    Just tell me please why with all of the issues we need chizuk about here in RBS RALS chose to come here and tell me what party to vote for in November.

    I can respect his learning, his tzidkus and humility. I am having trouble with what issue he chooses to be moser nefesh to come.

    It makes me think that someone else is pulling his strings.

  21. Regarding the comments of anonymous 1:35 AM, I was wondering why we would assume that someone's practicing extreme self-denial necessarily equates with great ruchnius.

    I am not asking that question as a slight in any manner, shape, or form to the particular godol described there, but I wonder why extreme self-denial = tzidkus = ruchniyus.

    I don't doubt for a second that RALS is a great tzaddik and great in ruchniyus, but wonder why the extreme self-denial demonstrates that, other than to show his great dedication and self-discipline, which are themselves very great qualities.

  22. anon 2:36 - in all honesty if you want an answer, why dont you go talk to RMG or REK, instead of looking for your answer on a blog - especially a blog which came out against that very das torah that you are trying to understand. seriosuly. By asking here, makes it look like youre not really interested in a real answer. You might be. But that is how it looks to me

    SD - I am not sure how the RY feels. I would he think he does not feel that he is denying himself. I would think he feels that he is conquering a taavah. That we call it self denial, it only bc we are so far away from that ability, that to think of it is to think he MUST be denyinghimself some basic need.

  23. Anon-

    I am not looking for an answer "on a blog". I am simply using a medium by which to present my confusion on this issue.

    I would approach either Rav Goldstein or Rav Kornfeld however:
    1) They brought him here and obviously thinkt hat the elctions were the most pressing issue for which to bring a 90+ year old Gadol and
    2) By expressing my concern to them I would be labled as an infidel and my sons and daughters would soon be asked to leave their schools, I would be looked at funny in shul and ruin my kid's shidduchim.

  24. anon, Im sorry thats a cop op
    I know for a fact that RMG does not ask names when someone asks him a shaila. Of course, this is his normal way of doing things, so i cant be sure that he wont do it with your shaila.
    However, he is not out to get anyone. He is far above that. You dont sound like you live in his shechuna, so you really have nothing to fear. You can go and ask him for an honest answer, as you want to learn the din here. you are not coming to fight, lekanter, rather lehavin. Hell treat you with respect and answer you fully

  25. Anon of 3:25,

    Not a cop out. I actually do live in the neighborhood and am well known to both REK and RMG.

    I would tend to agree with regarding RMG about being more fair and open.I don't daven in his shul. Perhaps I will ask him.

    Regarding REK...I have a much closer connection to him and he would consider me even more of an infidel than he already does.

    You see I am part of his Charedi group" yet I voted for TOV,"don't send my kids to "his" schools and actively support Lemaán Achai.

    In his eyes I'm probably not even kosher láidus.

  26. I love what floats your boat. I gave up cake about 2 decades ago when I was 15ish. I loved cake and sweets of all types. I gave up cake and that was that, not at simchas not at gatherings, no cake. Am I an inspiration of ruchnius as well?

  27. dan - you inspire me.

    just curious - why'd you give up cake? I eat very little of it, but that is because I dislike most baked goods. But i eat cake every now and then.

  28. Thank you Rafi,

    Cake, to me, feels like the ultimate symbol of dessert. It is the most common and recognizable. Maybe not everyone knows ambrosia but everyone knows cake.

    Throughout literature cake can be found with the phrase, 'ate greedily' or 'wolfed down' etc. gluttony is the purpose of cake. I can remember numerous times at a gathering where someone cut out a big goopy gooey dark beautiful piece of chocolate cake and said "here, you've got to try this, oh my god."
    So I thought what better to give up than cake?
    And after the first decade or so I finally got to a point, especially recently with my newfound enlightenment, where i am really happy that I gave it up and feel quite satisfied in not eating the cake. I watch people eating and enjoying their cake and I take joy in their joy and pleasure and yet internally I can also take that time for reflection and understanding.


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