I love gadol biographies, I find myself sitting in shul most every shabbos delving into the stories, lies, fabrications, and mythology surrounding the stories of the shtetl and all those illui’s who knew shas by the age of 13 and became the next gadol hador. If you read enough gadol biographies, you start to notice that many of them contain rehashed versions of the same stories involving their favorite gadol. I find it hard to believe that the Chofetz Chaim, Baruch Ber Leibowitz, and Rav Shimon Shkop all had the exact same childhood experiences. Yet, I’m consistently shocked into submission because the stories are so damned good, no matter how foolish they sound. I’ve pretty much read every Artscroll gadol novel there is and I’ve been onto the more obscure ones now. My favorites are the one for Rav Yaakov, Rav Yehuda Zev Segal, and Elchonon Wasserman.
For all of these stories you can insert your favorite Gadols name and you can pretty much guarantee that someone will have heard the story before.
1) One of the Gadols former talmidim sent a request for a letter of recommendation (or semicha, or shidduch, or job, etc…) and the Rosh Yeshiva called me into his office to look over the letter. It was so perfect, I wondered why he would have called me in. He explained to me that this talmid wronged him in some way and he didn’t want it to affect his letter.
Another version of this story is that the gadols daughter was engaged to this former talmid, broke off the engagement and then requested some sort of letter of recommendation.
2) When this gadol was a kid, he was once playing with some friends and they all stole apples in the market. Coincidentally, he learned about geneiva and went to the lady to pay for an apple, he than put the apple back and ran back to his study of shas.
3) Random gadol was too small and young for the big learned boys in Slobodka or Mir or Kaminetz and he persisted until one day the rosh yeshiva said “get out of here, come back when you’re bar mitzvah” and this gadol responded that he was here to learn, not make a minyan. Other versions of the story include sneaking into shiurim and responding with novel chiddushim that made this 11 year old the envy of all the other boys.
4) When traveling to America to raise funds for the yeshiva (which was so poor that we can’t even imagine the mesiras nefesh) the gadol refrained from honors, but was told that this was the only way to raise money. Then at some point on the trip they collected a large sum of money, only to be told that the shul had mixed dancing or that the president didn’t keep shabbos. The gadol tore up the check right there, to the shock of their hosts who tried to convince them to take the money because they needed all the mitzvahs they could get in the treife medina.
5) The gadol smelled the winds of Haskallah and when someone tried to open a gymnasium (modernishe school that taught things other than mussar or gemara) the gadol gave a fiery speech about how damaging this would be for our yiddishe neshamas. He knew of several yeshiva guys who were spreading haskallah around and he promptly told them that they had to dedicate their lives to the yeshivas gospel or leave the yeshiva. The ones who stayed became great talmidei chachamim and the ones who left, all became reform and their children married shiksas and died young.
6) The gadol once told several students that it was better to break shabbos to avoid the draft than to attend university. At least breaking shabbos wasn’t putting yourself into a place of avodah zorah.
7) Back in the day when they used to do essen teg (which was when guys used to eat at families in the community) this one gadol would eat at this ladies house every day because she was honored to have such a genius at her table. Later on when he took his wife there she mamish couldn’t eat the food for it was inedible. His wife couldn’t believe that her husband ate there for so many years and never tried to get a different place to eat.
8) Once the gadol was stranded somewhere on pesach and he didn’t trust his hosts kasharus standards so he told him that he didn’t eat gebrokts. He spent that whole pesach eating potatoes and matza. He actually did eat gebrokts, but he didn’t want to embarrass his host and so he adopted the minhag of non-gebrokts. There are a million versions of this story.
9) The evil government passed a law that made all the schools, including yeshivas, teach the language of the land to its students. Rather than force their native language upon the yeshiva, the gadol closed the yeshiva. He foresaw the destruction and negative influences that would come if the yeshiva guys could read a menu or newspaper. The story can also be about secular classed as well.
10) The gadol and his family suffered abject poverty for the sake of Torah. Even when he was offered positions as Rav of random towns, he turned them down because teaching Torah he deemed as more important. His wife stood behind the decision to starve the family and kill them off young, in exchange for Torah. Because who needed food when you had Tosfos and the Rosh.
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