Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Gustman, and the Legend of the Milkman

For years there has been an urban legend circulating about a chance meeting between two great Talmudic scholars. The story is usually told as follows:

During the Yom Kippur war, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Harav Aharon Lichtenstein ZT”L, felt compelled to help in the war effort. His students were fighting valiantly at the front, and he felt the need to pitch in. Rav Aharon approached the Home-Front Command (or, in some versions of the story, the Jerusalem Municipality) and volunteered his services. A local milkman had been called up as an IDF reservist, and Rav Aharon gladly took over his delivery route.

One of the people he met on his route was the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Rameilis - Netzach Yeshiva, Rav Yisrael Ze’ev Gustman ZT”L. During this serendipitous meeting, the two Talmudic titans began discussing Talmud. Rav Gustman had no reason to believe that the clean-shaven milkman was, in actuality, a prominent Rosh Yeshiva. Duly impressed, Rav Gustman later remarked to one of his students how lucky he was to live in Jerusalem – where even the milkman is a “baki b’shas” (well-versed in the entirety of Talmud).

There are several problems with this story, the most serious of which is that the meeting it describes never happened. Here are some historical facts to consider:

  • Rav Aharon never volunteered as a milkman.
  • Rav Aharon and Rav Gustman were well acquainted long before this story supposedly transpired. When the Lichtenstein family moved to New York they lived in close proximity to Rav Gustman; Rav Aharon first met Rav Gustman when the former was still quite young. If memory serves me well, I was told that Rav Aharon  “inherited” his approach to some of the laws of blowing the shofar from Rav Gustman. Rav Aharon accepted as authoritative the sounds he had heard in his youth in Rav Gustman’s Beit Midrash.
  • Rav Aharon was well-known throughout the yeshiva world as a prodigy. Having grown up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where Rav Gustman lived and taught, it is highly unlikely that Rav Gustman did not know who Rav Aharon was. Additionally, Rav Aharon was a leading student of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, who was a very close friend of Rav Gustman; it is unlikely that the two Roshei Yeshiva did not discuss Rav Hutner’s brilliant young student.
  • My brother, Rav Yair, told me that on one occasion he went to speak with Rav Gustman about a complicated Talmudic passage. Rav Gustman asked him where he learned; when he informed him that he was a student at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rav Gustman responded, “Your Rosh Yeshiva is a great Talmud Hacham. Why are you asking me? You should be asking Rav Aharon.”
  • I personally recall seeing Rav Gustman at the Bar Mitzvah celebration of one of Rav Aharon’s sons.
  • Rav Aharon’s son told me that on Simhat Torah in 1973, while the Yom Kippur war was still raging, Rav Aharon took him and his brothers to the Netzach Yisrael Yeshiva for Hakafot. (As a Hesder yeshiva, Rav Aharon’s Yeshivat Har Etzion was empty: all the students were at war.)

All of these facts would seem to indicate that the story is no more than an urban legend. On the other hand, I was told many years ago that during the Yom Kippur war Rav Gustman had volunteered in a local hospital. The hospitals were short on staff, and Rav Gustman would spend his nights in the hospital, lending a hand and doing whatever he could to help out. This was his way of taking part in the war effort in a constructive way.

As I heard it, Rav Gustman came to the hospital every night. He helped change sheets, transported patients to and from operating rooms, and whatever else was needed. Before long, Rav Gustman struck up a friendship with one of the other young men who had come to volunteer, an earnest yeshiva student from overseas. This young man brought his Gemara, and when there was a lull in activity, he opened his Gemara and started to learn. Glancing up from his book, he noticed the elderly volunteer and asked if he would like to learn with him. The young man then proceeded to “teach” Rav Gustman Gemara during those precious moments of down-time in the hospital.

A few weeks later, this young yeshiva student received a warm recommendation from a fellow student, who told him about an exceptional Talmudic genius who had survived the Holocaust and was currently a Rosh Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The scholar, he was told, had been a dayan in the Beit Din of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski; in fact, he was the youngest scholar ever appointed to the famed Beit Din of Vilna.  The young volunteer seized the opportunity and went to hear a shiur from this great scholar. When he entered the Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Netzach Yisrael, he was shocked to see that the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva was none other than his chevrusa from the hospital.

Both of the stories repeated here are plausible, possible - and in the case of the second story, actually true – because they share one underlying element: the unassuming bearing and immense modesty of both Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Yisrael Zeev Gustman. I consider myself profoundly fortunate to have studied with both of these great men.

But what of the milkman? Recently, when I visited the home of the Lichtenstein family to pay a condolence call, I expressed my skepticism regarding the veracity of the milkman story, and asked Rav Aharon’s family if they had any idea how this urban legend got started. Was there another unassuming, clean-shaven baki b’shas wandering the streets of Jerusalem?

I was given the following answer:

When Rav Aharon Kotler came to visit Israel (where his father-in-law Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer was a leading rabbinic figure), there was some pressure placed upon him to stay and take on a post as a Rosh Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rav Aharon (Kotler) responded that he had met a milkman that morning in Jerusalem, and the man was proficient in all of Shas. Rav Aharon opined that in Lakewood, where the public is generally ignorant, he would be able to be a Rosh Yeshiva, but in Yerushalayim, where even the milkmen know all of Shas, he feels out of his league.

Apparently, “Rav Aharon” (Kotler), the protagonist in the original milkman story, was exchanged for Rav Aharon (Lichtenstein) in the later version of the milkman story; such is the nature of storytelling. Whether there ever was such a milkman or not – only Rav Aharon knows.