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The Words They Need to Hear

Rav Eliyahu Gut and Rav Ephraim Galinsky

Rav Moshe Elazar Lipka, who followed Rav Yisrael Zeev Gustman ztz”l to Eretz Yisrael, shares memories of his rebbi’s greatness and sets some records straight

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

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He had a firm rule about deciding halachah: first assess the person, and only after decide the halachah. To only repeat what the Shulchan Aruch says is not a psak, it’s only quoting a source. To pasken is the role of a moreh hora’ah, who is given special siyata d’Shmaya (Photos: Lior Mizrachi; Family archives)

S tories often tell as much about the teller as the subject of the story. They say something about the listener, too. For instance, there is this well-known story about Rav Yisrael Zeev Gustman, a spiritual giant who belonged to the generation before the Holocaust and afterwards established yeshivos in New York and Eretz Yisrael.

When Rav Gustman met Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, the Steipler Gaon, for the first time, he introduced himself as “Gustman from Vilna.” The Steipler asked him if his father was in Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky’s beis din. Rav Gustman answered no, and the Steipler pressed further. Perhaps it was an uncle or other relation? Upon receiving a negative reply to this as well, the Gaon realized that the young man standing in front of him was the dayan himself.

The story beautifully illustrates Rav Gustman’s greatness in Torah — he was chosen to serve as a dayan in Reb Chaim Ozer’s beis din when he was only 22 — and his humility. It’s easy to see why a mashgiach would want to include it in a shmuess.

But I happened to know the story wasn’t true. Some years ago my father-in-law, Rav Strauss, who served as the rav of Shaare Zedek Medical Center, told me that when Rav Gustman was hospitalized there, he started to ask him about “the story with the Steipler.” Rav Gustman cut him off and said, “Do me a favor and don’t mention the Steipler to me. It causes me agmas nefesh [anguish], because I didn’t merit to meet him.”

So, that’s what I believed for years. The anecdote about their meeting was made up — they never met. However, a few months ago I was told by a reliable source that the story did in fact take place — but not with the Steipler. It happened when Rav Gustman met the Tchebiner Rav for the first time.

Was this the last word?

When Rav Ephraim Galinsky and I had an opportunity to meet Rav Moshe Elazar Lipka — a confidant of Rav Gustman for many years, as well as the author of the foreword to the biography Rav Gustman, which was published in English earlier this year and will come out in Hebrew in Kislev — the first thing we did was check the veracity of this new version. Rav Lipka immediately confirmed that the incident occurred with the Tchebiner Rav — and that’s the way it appears in the biography.

Perfect Advice

Rav Lipka is today rosh kollel of Yakar Mordechai and rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Ziv Yisrael, which is named after his rebbi, Rav Gustman. Located in the Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood, the yeshivah serves both Israeli and English-speaking bochurim — a reflection of the path Rav Lipka’s own life has taken.

“He had knowledge about everything.” Rav Yisrael Zeev Gustman (R) with his talmid and confidant Rav Moshe Elazar Lipka

He was born in Marburg, Germany, where, after the war, his grandfather served as rav after being released from a displaced person’s camp. Rav Lipka immigrated with his parents to the United States when he was four months old. There he became a close talmid of Rabbi Avigdor Miller ztz”l, having been brought up in Rav Miller’s shul in New York. When he was 16, Rav Lipka went to learn at Rav Gustman’s Yeshivas Netzach Yisrael–Ramailes, which was located in Brooklyn.

“My maggid shiur at the time was Rav Yissachar Frankel ztz”l, a Yerushalmi illui,” Rav Lipka recalls. “I asked him which yeshivah to go to. He replied, ‘What’s the question? No one else even reaches Rav Gustman’s ankles!’ I had never heard of him until then.

“My father brought me for a farher to the Rosh Yeshivah, who asked me what we were learning. When he heard that it was Kiddushin, he asked me why the first mishnah lists a shtar [a marriage contract] as a way of creating a marital bond when it essentially is a form of kesef [money; marrying a woman by giving her something of monetary value]. There are various answers to the question and I said what Rav Frankel had told us, that Rashi on the gemara and Rashi on the Rif say two different reasons. He accepted me immediately.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 679)

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