Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Rav Yisroel Zev Gustman, zt"l - 20 Years

Rav Yisroel Zev Gustman, pictured above between my grandfather and great-grandfather at the former's wedding, was once described by a certain Rav as "the most under-rated gadol of the 20th century." At first I thought this to be a strange depiction of any person, no less a gadol b'Yisrael. But after discovering that Rav Gustman learned b'chavrusa with Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, and had earned the respect of the Chazon Ish, Rav Chaim Brisker, and his Rabbeim Rav Shimon Shkup and Rav Chaim Ozer, and yet does not have an Artscroll biography or Wikipedia page about him, I realized that this Rav may have a point.

There are many stories about Rav Gustman, and unfortunately so few in writing. I will just share a few that come to mind, as well as some personal ones from my grandfather (and father).


It is known that the Holocaust affected Rav Gustman tremendously. He once remarked that he needed to relearn all of the Torah that he learned before the war, because the fear and flight erased it all from memory.

He was absolutely devastated by the death of his young son, Meir. It is told that he took the shoes from his son, sold them, and used the money to buy a carrot. He broke it into pieces and fed it to his family, saying that it was a fulfillment of "va'achaltem b'sar b'neichem," "you will eat the flesh of your sons," from the tochacha portion.

Another well-known story describes how Rav Gustman's talmid, Professor Aumann (Nobel prize winner), lost his son Shlomo at war in Israel. Rav Gustman went to pay a shiva call, and comforted Professor Aumann by joining in his pain, and telling him that their children, Meir and Shlomo, were together in Shamayim. [There are several different versions of the exact details of the story. The most popular one seems to be The Rabbi and the Professor].

Another popular story describes how Rav Gustman lived during the war. At a young age, he was appointed by Rav Chaim Ozer to join him on the Vilna Beis Din. [He once remarked that at one point, upon entering a room to serve on a beis din, the Chofetz Chaim stood up for him. After that, he no longer had any temptation for kavod; no kavod could ever compare with the Chofetz Chaim standing up for him]. After developing a close relationship with Rav Chaim Ozer, they once went for a walk together, presumably to discuss Torah topics. However, much to Rav Gustman's surprise, Rav Chaim Ozer was much more interested in discussing nature. As they continued to walk through the fields, Rav Chaim Ozer would point to different plants, seemingly arbitrarily, and clarify which were poisonous and which were healthy. Rav Gustman was confused at best, frustrated at worst. Not so many years later, after Rav Chaim Ozer had died, Rav Gustman spent two years running during the Holocaust, and managing to survive based on his Rebbi's prophetic insights into the edibility of the vegetation.


My grandfather happily told some recollections of the great Torah luminary. Rav Gustman welcomed him into the small Yeshiva, and occasionally learned with him b'chavrusa. Before they found a bigger building, the "kol Torah" of the makeshift beis medrash disturbed some of the neighbors to the point that they complained. Rav Gustman became very upset and said "meisir azno mi'shmo'a Torah, gam tefilaso to'evah," a person who removes his ear from hearing Torah, his prayers are also abominable. He understood that Torah learning developed a person into a proper mispaleil. He didn't only believe this, but he practiced it as well. On Rosh HaShana, he ordered the students not to wait for him to finish Shemoneh Esreh before beginning Chazaras Ha'Shatz, but they could not help but stare with awe, as their revered Rebbi melted away into another world.

A True Rebbi

Rav Gustman always participated in the personal life of the talmidim. He met my grandmother and approved of the shidduch before my grandfather got engaged. He then followed as the misader kiddushin, and insisted that my grandfather prepare an elaborate shtikel Torah to say at the chosson's tisch. He was very angry at his students when they constantly overpowered my grandfather with nigunim (as per the minhag) and never let him finish the thought. When my father was born, my grandfather asked him to be the sandak, but he replied (in Yiddish) "it belongs to your father. For me to take it would be hasagas gevul. If you have another son, give me a call" (which he did).

When my great-grandfather died, Rav Gustman not only served as a comforting voice, but worked tirelessly to try and get a funeral arranged on December 25th. He stood at the levaya, and ultimately stopped my grandfather's hesped, reminding him that it was Chanukah. My grandfather complained that his father was his Rebbi, and a talmid chocham, and he needed to be maspid. Rav Gustman replied that only for those reasons had he let him already say so much.

At another instance, my grandfather hired a Rebbi to teach at Ashar for the following school year. At the last minute, the boy's Rosh Yeshiva told him not to go. My grandfather called up this Rosh Yeshiva and asked him to at least look at the school before dismissing it as a teaching option for his students, but the Rosh Yeshiva refused. Disappointed, my grandfather called his Rebbi Rav Gustman who told him two things. First, not to worry about his image because Rav Gustman himself approved of his avodas ha'kodesh, and no other opinion on the matter made a difference. Second, stay far away from machlokes. If this Rebbi left, move on, and look for other people, without getting down or upset at other people's opinions.

Oheiv Yisrael

In the later years, when Rav Gustman moved to Eretz Yisrael, my grandfather made it his business to visit whenever possible. His Rebbi always greeted him with excitement, and encouraged him to stay for the shiur. Right before it would begin, Rav Gustman would say to my grandfather, "you want to see something special?" Just then, tons of people - Chassidim, Misnagdim, Charedi, Mizrachi - would gather together to hear the Rosh Yeshiva's long involved gemara shiur. He took a special pride in the great unity displayed in the audience of his shiur.

A Superb "Mentch"

Just a few years ago, my father was visiting in Israel and learning daily in Netzach Yisroel, the yeshiva that Rav Gustman founded in Eretz Yisrael. He encountered a chiloni young man who owned a nearby kiosk, just a few hundred yards from the yeshiva. They got to talking, about the beautifully renovated yeshiva building, and my father mentioned that the Rabbi who had founded the yeshiva had actually ordained his father (i.e. my grandfather) some 50 years ago. The kiosk vendor told my father he had an interesting story to tell him. He hesitated, looked furtively around, as though to check that no one was listening. In a soft voice he related that his father had "founded" this kiosk business years ago, as a young Israeli man. Among the items his father sold - prominently displayed - were "journals" i.e. inappropriate magazines with pictures and content that was "adult" and frankly pornographic. The yeshiva boys from nearby Netzach Yisroel came and protested, demanding that he desist from selling such material, they came to blows ("makkot"), it got ugly ("haya kon milchama!"). One day his father received a message: the Rov (Rav Gustman) wants him to come to his study for a meeting. My father asked him: did your father go? To which he replied: "Betach! HaRav mivaksh she'tavo, ein b'reira!" Rav Gustman told the father that he understands that the magazines represent the man's parnasa, he is not asking him to stop selling them - he should continue! But he asks only that, out of respect, he keep the magazines inside the kiosk, in a drawer, not visible from the street, and that those who wish to purchase them could request them at the kiosk/newsstand window. That evening the father was quiet at his dinner table. He announced quietly to his family that he has decided to stop selling these magazines altogether. Says the son to my father: "Ata ro'eh mah zeh ben-adam pike'ach! Eizeh chochmah!"

The son continues to relate that some years later, a large crowd assembled for Rav Gustman's levaya. By this time, the vendor had joined his father in operating the kiosk. He is overwhelmed by the large crowds of people and he tells my father how much money they could have made that day by selling drinks and refreshments to the throngs of people. But they decided to....close the kiosk! Out of respect: "Adam ka'zeh niftar, v'anachnu na'aseh mi'zeh bizness?!"

I cannot testify as to the validity of the story (with the magazines, as related by the son), but one thing is for sure: his father left his encounter with Rav Gustman with a positive taste of Judaism in his mouth.

This Wednesday night, 28 Sivan, marks his 20th yahrtzeit. Allow us to humbly add to the small amount of "literature" available about such an important and impressive gadol. Yehi Zichro Baruch.


In the few weeks since publishing this post, I was excited to find tributes to Rav Gustman in Mishpacha Magazine, Matzav.com, and an old piece in Artscroll's Torah Luminaries (pp. 12-24). [Based on some of these pieces I corrected one of the stories to the Chofetz Chaim standing up for Rav Gustman, not Rav Chaim Brisker].


  1. Avi,
    R' Yitzchak Hirschsprung (Aka: Chippy) learned by Rav Gustman! Tell him some stories he doesn't know (stories about your family)and I'm sure he'll give you some. Also, send him my warmest regards.

  2. A similar story is told about Reb Shlomo Freifeld who offered to buy the entire stock of such magazines (then dispose of them) from a proprietor in Woodridge, NY. I believe the store stopped selling them subsequently based on this encounter. I believe this story is found in the Artscroll biography Reb Shlomo by Rav Yisroel Besser.