Rav Yisroel Zev Gustman zt”l, On His 21st Yahrtzeit, Today, 28 Sivan

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rav-yz-gustmanRav Yisroel Zev Gustman was born in Tammuz of 1908 in the town of Skolka near Bialystock. He was the son of Rav Avrohom Tzvi, a pious merchant. The home was deficient in material wealth, but abundant in Torah and yiras Shomayim. His parents exerted great effort in raising their children to be great in Torah.

Rav Avrohom Tzvi would bring his children to see the Chofetz Chaim, with whom he would discuss matters pertaining to their chinuch. Once, while father and son were with the Chofetz Chaim, the Chofetz Chaim said to Rav Avrohom Tzvi, “You have a child with great potential. Have mercy on him and don’t give him too much to eat or allow him to sleep too much.” And so, Rav Gustman’s mother would awaken him in the morning by exclaiming, “I am waking you up because I have pity on you.”

As a youngster, Rav Gustman possessed a tremendous zeal and rare love for Torah. At age ten, he had already mastered Shisha Sidrei Mishnah. To those who later expressed astonishment at his apparent brilliance, Rav Gustman responded, “I was of average intelligence. It was due to my incredible love of Torah and my willingness to sacrifice and strenuously dedicate my entire being to Torah.” Rav Gustman maintained that those who attribute great achievements to brilliance are deflecting demands for accomplishment from themselves.

In describing how he managed to complete all of Mishnayos by age ten, Rav Gustman recounted that he learned during recess. During his free time at home, he said, would catalogue all the different Tannaic opinions and chesbonos found in Mishnayos.  Rav Gustman continued to downplay this accomplishment by pointing out how many youngsters have encyclopedic knowledge of sports due to their great love of the subject.

Another example of his diligence, related by Rav Gustman, was regarding his Gemarah seder.  He would take a Gemara, which he had never learned, and cover the Gemara, Rashi and Tosafos with a blank piece of paper. After learning the Mishnah thoroughly, he would create a mock Gemara, Rashi and Tosafos on the Mishnah. Before comparing it to the actual text, he would automatically possess the means to discern the true objectives of the sugya, thereby growing in his analytical approach to learning.


Rav Gustman was not yet 12 years old when he reached Rav Shimon Shkop’s yeshiva in Grodno. There began a new chapter in the formation of his towering personality. The policy in Grodno was for an older, more accomplished bochur to learn with a younger newcomer. Rav Gustman was privileged to learn first with Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l, who later became rosh yeshiva of in the Mirrer Yeshiva, and as an older bochur with Rav Shmuel Rozovsky zt”l, who later became rosh yeshiva of Ponevezh.  Rav Shmuel Rozovsky referred to Rav Gustman as “mori v’rebbi” all his life.

rav-gustmanAs the most popular bochur in Grodno, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz was sought after as a chavrusah by many younger bochurim.  Since Rav Gustman was someone he desired to learn with despite his other learning commitments, Rav Chaim and Rav Gustman would learn from 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. in a shul near the yeshiva. Often, the mashgiach would denounce Rav Gustman for his sleepiness and tardiness, the reason for which he was enjoined to keep secret. When the mashgiach became aware of his secret, he accorded him great respect.

Once, when Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt”l came to Grodno to deliver a shmuess, the mashgiach related the above matter to him. Impressed, Rav Yeruchom asked Rav Gustman if he would like him to bentch him with a future as a rosh yeshiva or a mashgiach. Rav Gustman did not respond, and Rav Yeruchom bentched him with both brachos.

A chavrusah of Rav Gustman related to Rav Elchonon Wasserman an explanation of Tosafos that he had heard from him. Rav Elchonon was greatly impressed, and he sent word to Rav Gustman the he would appreciate if Rav Gustman would learn with his son, the illui Rav Naftoli, who was then learning in Grodno.  In his humility, Rav Gustman refused. Rav Elchonon, not to be deterred, made a special trip to Grodno to personally make his request. Understandably, Rav Gustman obliged.

During his stay in Grodno, Rav Gustman expended great diligence in his learning, generally sleeping only two hours a day.  In Elul, he would only leave the bais medrash on Fridays. Rav Gustman was fluent in Shas Bavli and Yerushalmi by age sixteen. By the time he was eighteen, he had reviewed Shas three times!

Grodno talmidim from that period related that their rebbi, Rav Yosef Lis, would point to Rav Gustman and tell his talmidim that if they would apply themselves to their learning as lovingly as he did, and if they would be granted equal amounts of siyata diShmaya, they could also become as great as he.

Rav Shmuel Rozovsky related that the fear of asking Rav Gustman a question in learning was similar to the fear that was universally experienced when asking the rosh yeshiva himself a question.  He related how he was so afraid that he spent an entire night working up the “nerve” to approach him.


Rav Meir Basin, dayan and gadol in Vilna, was a scion of Rav M. Rivkash, the Be’er Hagolah. In 1930, his daughter reached marriageable age. Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky sent word to all the great roshei yeshiva of the era regarding the search being conducted for Rav Meir Basin’s daughter. Rav Shimon Shkop sent his son-in-law, Rav Feivel Hindis, to Rav Chaim Ozer. A witness present at the time related that Rav Feivel Hindis reported that there was a bochur in Grodno who was proficient in Shas and poskim, and had the potential to be the gadol hador. Rav Chaim Ozer requested that Rav Shlomo Heiman go to Grodno to test him. When Rav Heiman returned with a positive impression, Rav Gustman was requested to go to Vilna. Rav Gustman was reluctant to leave the yeshiva. Rav Shimon Shkop pointed out to him that going to Vilna and being in the surroundings of Rav Chaim Ozer was equivalent to remaining in Grodno  When Rav Gustman met Rav Chaim Ozer, they conducted a Torah discussion that lasted four hours.  Rav Chaim Ozer was extremely impressed with him, and Rav Gustman became engaged to the daughter of Rav Meir Basin. Tragically, Rav Meir Basin was niftar before the wedding.  Rav Chaim Ozer acted as a father to the new couple, and took care of their wedding arrangements. Rav Gustman was married with two gedolei hador in attendance, Rav Chaim Ozer and Rav Shimon Shkop. Rav Chaim Ozer was mesader kiddushin and Rav Shimon Shkop spoke words of parting. He stated that Rav Gustman had potential to be the greatest in his generation. He was all of 21 years old.

Immediately after the wedding in 1931, Rav Chaim Ozer appointed Rav Gustman as dayan in place of his departed father-in-law. Rav Gustman claimed that he was unworthy of serving in that role, since he had not learned Shas with the intention of deciding halachic matters. Rav Chaim responded that he would allow him two months to prepare. Rav Gustman proceeded to learn 67 dafm per day while sleeping a mere two hours each night.

Rav Chaim trusted the ruling of Rav Gustman to the degree that any written queries that he received, he referred to him. These queries were from all over the world, many of which were questions from great rabbonim.  Rav Chaim Ozer would review the responses and sign below.

In 1935, when Rav Shlomo Heiman, who was serving as rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Rameillis, Rav Chaim Ozer’s yeshiva, left for the United States, Rav Gustman replaced him. Rav Gustman served with Rav Yisroel, son of Rav Yeruchom Levovitz.

During the period before Rav Gustman assumed the position of rosh yeshiva, he had a chavrusashaft with a brother of the Chazon Ish in the ezras noshim of a shul. Once, while immersed in their learning, there was a knock at the door. They did not answer, and they then heard the voice of the Chazon Ish requesting permission to enter. He explained that he overheard the subject of their discussion and he had something to say on the matter. He remained with them for the duration of that time. At one point, the Chazon Ish‘s brother stopped attending the regular seder. The Chazon Ish replaced him, and they continued the seder, completing numerous mesechtos in Shas.

Rav Gustman also learned with Rav Shlomo Heiman and they would display their accomplishments before Rav Chaim Ozer every Friday. Rav Gustman would also learn Shev Shmaitza and Ketzos with Rav Chaim Ozer. Rav Gustman also maintained a close acquaintance with Rav Chanoch H. Aighish, the Marcheshes, who despite his seniority on the Vilna Bais Din would stand for Rav Gustman when he entered the Bais Din chambers.

Rav Gustman’s closeness to Rav Chaim Ozer was immense. Rav Chaim Ozer stated numerous times that he wanted Rav Gustman to succeed him after his passing. Rav Chaim Ozer used to tell Rav Gustman to treat him as a friend, not as a talmid. Rav Gustman responded that he had already experienced much honor that caused him great shame. He would not be swayed thereafter.

Immediately prior to the Holocaust, Rav Chaim Ozer prophesized that Rav Gustman would outlive both the Nazis and the Russians. Rav Gustman, wishing to placate his mentor, stated that Rav Chaim Ozer would also outlive them. Rav Chaim Ozer did not take too kindly to those words and admonished Rav Gustman, saying, “How do you know? You must not make such statements without having a basis for them.” (When asked about the fate of Klal Yisroel, Rav Chaim Ozer just closed his eyes and did not answer.)

Before the war, Rav Chaim Ozer took Rav Gustman for a walk in the forest and showed him what plants were edible and which were poisonous. Rav Chaim Ozer knew how this would save Rav Gustman’s life one day.

Upon learning of the crumbling of the Soviet Empire, Rav Gustman’s face glowed as he realized the complete fulfillment of Rav Chaim Ozer’s prophecy.

In Sivan of 1941, the Germans captured the city of Vilna. They compiled a list of its 19 rabbonim and set out to capture them.  av Gustman was living in Shnipshor with his wife, son and daughter. The Germans burst into his house and beat him until he fell, bloody to the ground. They then continued searching his home, leaving a guard at the door. Somehow, Rav Gustman managed to get past the guard and he escaped into the garden. When they realized that he was gone, they searched for him, and passed his hideout with no success. Rav Gustman would later express bewilderment at his miraculous escape. From then on, Rav Gustman hid his identity and experienced hundreds of miracles throughout the war. However, he was not spared the brutal suffering.

Rav Gustman would say that during the war, he was witness to all the atrocities mentioned in Kinnos of Tisha B’Av. While the Gustman family was in the Vilna ghetto, their only son, 6-year-old Mayerel, was murdered before their eyes.

The following harrowing experience exemplifies Rav Gustman’s passion for righteousness. The Nazis gathered men, women and children before a mass grave. The Nazis proceeded to throw the children above the grave while shooting them in mid-air.  The mothers were begging that they wished to be killed first. Playing on the “civility” of the Germans, Rav Gustman approached the captain and requested that they not subject the parents to unnecessary pain of witnessing their children’s death. The captain proceeded to beat Rav Gustman. Since his request had not been addressed, he got up and repeated his request. He was subjected to another murderous beating. The scenario repeated itself once more, and Rav Gustman miraculously survived the ordeal. He related that he said Vidui hundreds of times during the war, each time thinking it was his end.

There were times when Rav Gustman was in a line-up shooting in front of a mass grave, and the Nazis stopped when they reached him. Once, Rav Gustman even fell into the grave, and remained there for a while, thinking himself dead. He escaped the grave and practical death with a bullet protruding from the back of his head.

His being thrust from the idyllic wholesomeness of the bais medrash for his family’s and acquaintances’ survival magnified Rav Gustman’s hardship during the Holocaust. Rav Gustman related that while in the workers’ camp, at the beginning of the ghetto days, he heard that Rav Chaim Ozer’s wife was in one of the ghetto buildings. As a worker, he had more access to food, and he wished to share it with her. However, between the imposed curfew at night and his work obligations during the day, there was no time to get to her. He felt, however, that it was a matter of pikuach nefesh and went out after curfew. While on his way to her building, he noticed an old starving woman lying in the side of the road, teetering between life and death. He recognized her to be Rebbitzen Grodzensky and revived her somewhat with a carrot. Rebbitzen Grodzensky recognized Rav Gustman and praised him saying, “You know how much my husband held of you.” Afterwards, Rav Gustman would risk his life nightly to deliver food to the Rebbitzen.

Rav Gustman escaped the ghetto with his wife and daughter and they took refuge on the farm of a kind gentile. They hid in a pit for months. It was almost impossible to stand in it and all they had to eat were potato peels. Rav Gustman was able to complete Maseches Zevachim numerous times in that pit. When it became necessary to leave the farm, they escaped to the forest and joined a group of partisans. It was there that they subsisted on edible plants, grateful for the knowledge that Rav Chaim Ozer had imparted to Rav Gustman.

Despite R’ Gustman’s suffering throughout the war, he was able to attest that heaven and earth were his witnesses that he never doubted his belief and trust in Hashem.  Despite the great pain that remained with him throughout his life, Rav Gustman always appeared joyful. He once related to his son-in-law that he had no rest from his terrorizing memories. When his son-in-law told this to various acquaintances, they could not believe it, as he never let on how he truly felt.


After the war, Rav Gustman began a new chapter in his life in New York. It was a period of rebuilding and of fruitful devotion to limud haTorah. Upon arriving in the country, he was greeted by Rav Shmuel Greineman, amongst many other Torah giants. When he met Rav Moshe Feinstein, they immediately began to learn for many hours. Rav Moshe’s son-in-law, Rav Eliyahu Moshe Schisgal, became a close friend and chavrusa.  Rav Gustman also learned with Rav Yitzchok Hutner, with whom he maintained a deep bond.

Someone tried to arrange a position for Rav Gustman in Torah Vodaas. Upon finding out that one of the rabbeim on the faculty was uncomfortable with him joining, Rav Gustman turned down the offer.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe offered Rav Gustman a position in his yeshiva, which he accepted. Rav Gustman said shiur klali there until 1950, when he opened his own yeshiva, Netzach Yisroel of Vilna. The yeshiva was formed from former talmidim, as well as Americans.

Rav Gustman’s devotion to his learning during his years as rosh yeshiva was extraordinary. Even on Shabbos, he could be found entirely engrossed in learning, remaining awake all Friday night

The following unbelievable story was shared with those close to him. While he was learning the sugya of “mezuyaf mitocho,” he came across a great difficulty in the p’shat in the Rashba. He spent three nights trying to come to an understanding. During the third night, a tirutz that satisfied him enlightened Rav Gustman. Almost immediately, he fell asleep from exhaustion. During his sleep, he was treated to a vision of the Yeshiva Shel Maalah, where they were discussing the very sugya in which Rav Gustman was involved. The Ohr Sameach stood up and said, “I have an explanation to share with you all. However, there is someone in the Yeshiva Shel Matoh who found an even better explanation.” All those present wished to hear Rav Gustman’s p’shat from the Ohr Sameach. However, the Ohr Sameach declared that since Rav Gustman worked so hard on it, he believed that it would be his rightful honor to share it personally with the Yeshiva Shel Maalah – something for which they would need to wait.


In 1961, R’ Gustman moved to Eretz Yisroel.  He felt that traveling by plane was not enough preparation for going to Eretz Hakodesh. He therefore opted to travel by boat.  During his trip, he reviewed Seder Zeraim.

Upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel, he was accorded great honor by all who realized who he was.  Rav Gustman was asked to fill many different positions, all of which he refused. Rav Kahanemen requested that he serve as rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh, and Rav Chaim Shmulevitz requested that he say a shiur in the Mirrer Yeshiva. Rav Gustman also turned down an offer to join the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, as he had done in America.  The Eida Hachareidis was also disappointed that he refused to serve as Av Bais Din. Rav Gustman wished to learn undisturbed and to grow from the many gedolim in Eretz Yisroel.

Rav Gustman became close to many gedolim, and enjoyed an especially warm relationship with Rav Yechezkel Abramsky.

Towards the end of his life, from 1987 on, Rav Gustman suffered greatly. He eventually lost his power of speech and became paralyzed on his right side. One can only imagine Rav Gustman’s distress from not being able to speak in learning. Despite his great suffering, Rav Gustman was extremely careful not to cause people to trouble themselves for him. The following story illustrates this.

During the last two weeks of his life, Rav Gustman lived with his son-in-law. He requested that talmidim come and say divrei Torah. Rav Gustman was in a wheelchair and had a blanket covering his feet. (He was wearing socks, without shoes.) Once, one talmid came very close to Rav Gustman to say his chiddush. One of the family members was worried that perhaps this talmid was stepping on Rav Gustman’s feet. However, they pushed their worry aside, thinking that surely Rav Gustman would indicate somehow if the talmid were hurting him. When the talmid left, they picked up the blanket and noticed that Rav Gustman’s healthy foot was very red. The talmid had been standing on it the whole time, probably causing Rav Gustman agony, yet he just listened to him and never indicated that anything was wrong!


On the 28th of Sivan in 1991, Rav Gustman was niftar.

Rav Yisroel Zev Gustman served Klal Yisroel as a world- renowned rov and rosh yeshiva. By learning about his life of total dedication to Torah learning, we catch a glimpse of his greatness and are thereby provided with a faint glimpse into a world that was, the Torah world of pre-war Vilna.

The close relationship that Rav Gustman maintained with Rav Chaim Ozer and Rav Shimon Shkop brings these seemingly remote gedolim much closer to us. The unique relationship that Rav Gustman had with them, despite his youth, shows how much potential they saw in him.

Through Hashgacha and as a fulfillment of “ki lo sishkach mipi zaro,” the person who was best suited to transmit Rav Shimon Shkop’s shiurim and the one who Rav Chaim Ozer placed on his Bais Din in Vilna survived Churban Europe and was able to share the nearly decimated Torah and piskei halacha with Klal Yisroel.

Yehi zichro boruch.

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