Sunday, January 17, 2010

Not exactly a Gadol story

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

At one point during my trip to Israel last week, I walked past Netzach Yisrael, the yeshiva where Rav Gustman, zt”l, was the rosh yeshiva for many years.

Rav Gustman was talmid and then chavruta of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz decades ago, in the World War II era of the Mir Yeshiva. It’s reported that the two of them had a game they played in the wee hours of the morning, when they were tired: One would mention a page number, and the other would launch into a listing of the topics discussed on that page in every volume of the Talmud.

Rav Gustman went on to head yeshivot in New York and Israel. He authored talmudic commentaries published under the name Kuntresei Shiurim, and was a world-class talmid chacham. For more about Rav Gustman, look here and here. He passed away about 15 years ago.

So here’s my “not exactly a gadol story” story, involving Rav Gustman:

One Shabbat afternoon some twenty years ago, I was sitting with a group of friends at Seudah Shlishit, in a Rechavia apartment down the block from Netzach Yisrael. It was during my first year of post-high school yeshiva in Israel. One of my friends mentioned that Rav Gustman was a staunch proponent of wearing a hat for davening; one could not be part of the yeshiva if he did not wear a hat for davening.

I, at the time, was a young punk who, needless to say, did not wear a hat for davening. [I do now, but that’s another story.] I had learned the sources on my level , and thought I understood them, and felt the need to defend my stance. So, I accepted the inevitable dare: To ask Rav Gustman why he required a hat for davening.

We trooped down the block to Netzach Yisrael; they were between Minchah and Maariv, and the legendary Rav Gustman was sitting at his shtender. I was, of course, quite intimidated, but Rav Gustman’s son-in-law – I believe his name was Rav Michel Bernike – encouraged me to go ask my question.

So I skittered up to the Rosh Yeshiva and hesitantly asked, “האם יש חיוב ללבוש כובע לתפילה? [Is there an obligation to wear a hat for prayer?]”

Rav Gustman eyed me for a moment, then said, “כן. [Yes.]” And I skittered back to join my friends and apprise them of the guidance I had received.

Of course, this was not sufficient; we had to push one step further, and I took the bait because I was young and foolish. I went back to Rav Gustman and asked, “האם הראש ישיבה יכול לתת מראה מקומות על זה? [Could the Rosh Yeshiva give source references for this?]”

To which Rav Gustman replied, “אני לא יודע. [I don’t know.]” And I skittered back, never to return. That was it.

Clearly, when Rav Gustman says, “I don’t know,” and particularly on an issue of straight halachah, not to mention part of his platform, he doesn’t mean to claim ignorance. “I don’t know,” in this case, meant, “Go away, kid.”

To this day, I wonder what punishment I will receive for having wasted the time, breath and attention of Rav Gustman. More than that, I wonder what I deserve for having wasted the opportunity to speak to a giant of the previous generation. I could have asked him anything in the world – and this was what I came up with. I was such a dork.

Silver lining: At least the experience was valuable for me on one level: I’ve learned to be patient with kids who remind me of what I did at their age.


  1. There are similar stories about R'YBS but I've never liked them. I'd much rather the response be go ask your own rebbi, or enroll in my Yeshiva....
    BTW just the mention of R' Gustman's name makes me cry- the story with Dr. Auman's shivah for his son:
    Rav Gustman entered and asked to sit next to Professor Aumann, who said: "Rabbi, I so appreciate your coming to the cemetery, but now is time for you to return to your Yeshiva." Rav Gustman spoke, first in Yiddish and then in Hebrew, so that all those assembled would understand:

    "I am sure that you don't know this, but I had a son named Meir. He was a beautiful child. He was taken from my arms and executed. I escaped. I later bartered my child's shoes so that we would have food, but I was never able to eat the food -- I gave it away to others. My Meir is a kadosh -- he is holy -- he and all the six million who perished are holy."

    Rav Gustman then added: "I will tell you what is transpiring now in the World of Truth in Gan Eden -- in Heaven. My Meir is welcoming your Shlomo into the minyan and is saying to him ‘I died because I am a Jew -- but I wasn't able to save anyone else. But you -- Shlomo, you died defending the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.' My Meir is a kadosh, he is holy -- but your Shlomo is a Shaliach Zibbur – a Cantor in that holy, heavenly minyan."

    Rav Gustman continued: "I never had the opportunity to sit shiva for my Meir; let me sit here with you just a little longer."

    Professor Aumann replied, "I thought I could never be comforted, but Rebbi, you have comforted me."


  2. Joel-
    Yes, I much prefer that story, as tear-jerking as it is.

    I didn't think my story was lashon hara when I wrote it; I see it as more about a flaw in me than a flaw in him. How do you see it?

  3. Allow me to generalize and not address a specific situation concerning which I don't know the details. Certainly about individuals in whose circle I could not dream of being.

    My preference (kach mkublani mbeit avi abba) is for the truth - delivered as nicely as possible.

    Thus I don't like stories where even an individual who shouldn't have asked is misled (to put it kindly) rather than dismissed or invited to bring their knowledge up to date elsewhere and then return.

    Joel Rich

  4. 1. I think that as חטאות נעורים, which can be forgiven, go, this חטא is a pretty good one. I'm sure the opportunity to have spoken with such a great man changed you, and by extension, influenced many people with whom you have come into contact.

    2. In our world, RHS is famous for doing this - depending on how a question is phrased to him, he'll often say, I don't know. Good point - when clearly, he does know, and often, it's not a good point.

  5. jeremy,
    and what roshem does that leave? and how many people act on it?
    joel rich

  6. By answering, אני לא יודע
    it could mean halachic sources might be hard to find, but as "mesorah" R Gustman zt"l felt there was an obligation to sport a hat.