MaRan HaRosh Yeshiva HaRav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman zt"l
On Tuesday 24 Kislev the entire Torah world went into mourning at the sudden passing of its leader, MaRan HaRosh Yeshiva HaRav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman zt"l. After many months of declining health, and intense prayers of the Torah community around the world, he passed away at around 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
The levaya was called for 12 noon. The news traveled very fast and soon the roads were filled with many thousands streaming towards Bnei Brak from all over Israel. The levaya was attended by hundreds of thousands from all over Israel. The levaya left from the home of Maran on 5 Chazon Ish street, and traveled only the short distance down the street to the cemetery at the edge of Bnei Brak.
In his Tzava'ah, Maran had asked the burial to take place as soon after death as possible. Accordingly, there were no long hespedim. The tzava'ah was read and the mittah left quickly in an ambulance, passing through the dense crowds that filled the entire area. It reached the cemetery before 1 p.m. and the burial took place soon, after the taharah.
Maran Rosh Hayeshiva was born on 14 Marcheshvan 5675 in Kaminetz. His father was HaRav Noach Tzvi Shtiman. The family had lived in Brisk but fled to Kaminetz to escape the fighting of Work War I. His mother was Gittel Feige, o"h, the youngest daughter of HaRav Moshe Eliahu Giboronovsky, who was one of the leading geonim of his city and learned bechavrusa with HaRav Yitzchok of Ponovezh. Later, for technical reasons, their name was changed to Shteinman,
In Brisk they had been neighbors and friends of HaRav Yitzchok Zeev Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rov. The sandek at his bris was the rov of the city and he was named for his two grandfathers: Rav Aharon and Rav Yehuda Leib.
Life was very difficult in those days for most Jews. The fighting of the first World War wreaked havoc on the Jewish communities of Europe, bringing golus, famine and pestilence. His younger brother died at the age of a year and a half of hunger. He once said that when he was four years old they stayed with a family and when they brought him a cup of milk he asked what that white liquid was because he had never seen milk before.
When conditions settled down he began to learn in the Talmud Torah of Brisk. His mother used to walk him to school since it was some distance from their home.
His talent and dedication soon became evident and since he was so successful in his Torah studies he did not attend the limudei chol that they had. Despite his poverty, his father hired a special tutor to teach him Tanach in those hours.
After he was ten years told, the character and style of the Talmud Torah became almost like a yeshiva and they used to learn gemora be'iyun. He remembered the melamed Rebbi Yaakov who was a talmid chochom who was almost blind but remembered the gemora by heart. He learned maseches Kiddushin with him until daf 50, and remembered it well many years later as girso deyankuso.
Even before his bar mitzvah his reputation spread in the area and all foresaw a great future for him, and some said that another Chofetz Chaim was growing in their midst. He joined yeshivas Toras Chesed lead by moro verabo HaRav Moshe Sokolovsky zt"l, author of Imrei Moshe. When he arrived the Rosh Yeshiva said he did not need to test his knowledge since he had once tested him in the Talmud Torah and was very impressed. When he entered the yeshiva they were learning maseches Yevomos and he learned it diligently until he mastered it.
At first other bochurim snubbed him because he was so unusually young to be in yeshiva. The Imrei Moshe saw his social problems and he told him to continue along his path and to ignore the other bochurim. However when the others saw how diligent he was and how little he slept — he slept only three hours a night — their attitude changed and they began to speak with him and even sought him as a chavrusa.
He later said that he felt that he owed his main growth to the efforts of his rebbe the Imrei Moshe, and even in recent years he asked to name a yeshiva ketana in Yerushalayim that he founded after his rebbe, saying that his rebbe had no descendants and he feels that he owes him a great debt of gratitude and therefore he would like to name the yeshiva after him.
He also became close to the mashgiach of the yeshiva, HaRav Avrohom Yaakov Gordon zt"l.
His father used to take him each month to be tested by the Rov of Brisk. When he was learning Yevomos and Gittin the Griz said that he asked the youth the same questions that his own father HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik used to ask him when he was 12 years old.
Later he learned bechavrusa with the son of the Brisker Rov, HaRav Yehoshua Dov who was younger than he was. HaRav Yehoshua Dov used to hear chidushim from his grandfather HaRav Chaim, and tell them over to his chavrusa who thoroughly enjoyed the enlightening insights. One time the Griz came in behind then and listened to their learning and then interrupted to tell them how he had approached the sugya.
HaRav Shteinman also used to visit the dayan HaRav Simcha Zelig Riger zt"l who used to live in a small room above the apartment of the Brisker Rov. The mother of HaRav Riger, Pessia, was the sister of the grandmother of Maran Rosh Hayeshiva. As a result he was warmly welcomed and he used to follow his rulings.
HaRav Riger once said that people say that he was lenient in his rulings, but he was only following the Rosh in Chulin who wrote that one should be machmir to himself but be meikel to others.
Rabbenu said that once he put his foot into his boot and a metal pin entered his heel. It became stuck in the bone and did affect the blood which could have been very dangerous, but nonetheless no one could figure out why he had tremendous pain for six weeks. One medic suspected something and took him by train to a hospital where and X-ray revealed the pin stuck in his heel, and they immediately removed it from his foot. There was no room to stay in the hospital so they had to go back the same day in a horse drawn wagon.
In Elul 5690 (1930) he went to yeshivas Kobrin led by HaRav Pesach Pruskin zt"l. At 15 he was one of the youngest talmidim and he slept in the same room as HaRav Reuven Yosef Gershonovitz, however the two were so involved in their learning that they hardly spoke.
At the end of 5691 the yeshiva could no longer afford to continue with all the bochurim and he went back to Brisk. He wanted to go to Kletzk to the yeshiva of HaRav Aharon Kotler who turned him down because of the difficulties that the yeshiva was facing. HaRav Moshe Reuven Golevsky, the son-in-law of HaRav Riger, sent a special letter to HaRav Aharon asking to accept the young talmid, which he agreed to do.
He arrived in Kletzk on Tu BeShevat 5692 when they were learning the sugya of Baal Chov Goveh Shvach. He remembered that HaRav Aharon gave a series of four shiurim on that and he arrived after the first two so that he had a very difficult time with the next two. Later when HaRav Aharon said his shiur no Yiush Shelo Medaas Rabbenu said that after an hour-and-a-half shiur he filled up an entire notebook because the Rosh Yeshiva spoke so quickly and said so much. He said it was very hard for him to follow since he went to fast.
He later said that in the half year he learned in Kletzk he ate at the home of baalei batim of the city and he often ate only potatoes boiled in water so he got used to that. That used to be his diet on Pesach.
When Rabbenu returned to Brisk there was a big effort on the part of Polish authorities to draft every young man until the age of 24. Rabbenu did get a draft order and the danger was very great.
The best possibility seemed to go to Switzerland. Bochurim who were accepted to an institution there were allowed to leave Poland. He needed a letter of recommendation to the Swiss authorities and he asked his friend HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik, who also needed such a letter, to include him as well. They got a letter from HaRav Boruch Ber who recommended them bother to HaRav Eliahu Botchko in Montreux to teach in his yeshiva.
HaRav Botchko took the trouble to have the acceptance letter signed by the city of Montreux since his yeshiva was not recognized by the Polish authorities, and the Hashgocho was that the Polish authorities, when they saw the official seal of the city of Montreux, allowed the two bochurim to leave even though they did not understand what the letter said. Thus their lives were saved from the awful events that followed in Poland.
Before he left, Rabbenu cast the Goral HaGra. The posuk that came out was: "The morning was light and the men were sent away..."
One time Rabbenu said that there were many reasons that I should stay in Brisk. By father wanted me to learn with the Brisker Rov. Because I was so young I was embarrassed to go in to his shiurim. But I have no doubt that if I had been in one of his shiurim, even one, I would have stayed in Brisk to hear his shiurim. But no one who stayed there survived the war.
His son HaRav Moshe Shteinman once explained how amazing the Hashgochoh was: Poland was considered a backward nation in those days and Switzerland was considered an advanced nation. So Switzerland was reluctant to agree to allow teachers to be imported from Poland and they had to be convinced. For Poland, on the other hand, it was a great honor to be asked to provide teachers for Switzerland.
Thus, when the letter from the yeshiva in Montreux arrived requested the two as ramim in the yeshiva, the Polish authorities were predisposed to allow it. Nonetheless, the whole process usually took three months. Moreover the letter from Switzerland was written in Swiss, and the Polish clerk who received it had no idea what it said. However he did not want to admit to his superiors that he did not understand the letter, so he decided to sign it and mark it "Approved" in Polish right away, without his having understood what it said.
A similar thing happened when the letter was received in Switzerland. The Swiss clerk did not understand the meaning of the work "Approved" as written in Polish, but he was too proud to look for a translator. So he immediately signed it and approved it and sent it back to Poland. As a result the time from request to approval was only ten days and he reached Switzerland in Iyar 5697 (1937).
On the way he passed through Warsaw where he met HaRav Shimon Shkop who was there for medical reasons. The meeting left a very deep impression on him. He traveled on through Berlin where he had to wait half a day to take the train onward to the west.
He went to Basel in Switzerland and then on to Arosa. Right after Shavuos 5697 he arrived in Montreux and joined the Eitz Chaim yeshiva of HaRav Botchko.
He later said that his friends in Brisk had planned a mesibas preida but the person who was to help smuggle him over the border suddenly said that he had to leave immediately. The mesiba was held on 27 Sivan from HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik who could not leave with him. Later the showed him a picture of the mesiba.
Rabbenu was very alone in the Montreux at first since HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik was held up half a year. After the approval of Rabbenu, the authorities were reluctant to approve long term stays. So Rabbenu had no colleague in the yeshiva.
Rabbenu was very lonely and homesick for his family and friends in Brisk. On Parshas Nosso they used to sing Yigdal Elokim Chai with a special niggun. When he heard the song, just a very short time after he arrived in Montreux, he thought about the words and he managed to transfer all his feelings of longing to the Borei Olom. His longing for his earthly connections ceased. A few years ago, one of the mispallelim in the house in Bnei Brak managed to find the niggun that was sung then, and since then the family began to sing this melody of Yigdal on Motzei Shabbos before Ma'ariv.
After HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik arrived they learned together days and nights.
At the end of 5699 they left the Eitz Chaim Yeshiva in Montreux and moved to a nearby village. On Rosh Hashana 5700 (1939) there is a report that they davened on Rosh Hashana with HaRav Isaac Sher. HaRav Moshe tried to blow the shofar and only after many and long efforts did he manage to fulfill the obligation of teki'os. It was a hint that it would be a difficult year and in fact the real fighting of World War II had just begun.
The Swiss government collected all the alien citizens and Rabbenu was sent to Camp Shoenberg, near Basel. The inmates were expected to work paving a road, but when the supervisor saw how weak Rabbenu was he absolved him of hard labor, and HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik agreed to take part of his obligations. So Rabbenu had time to study and pray.
Rabbenu and others managed to arrange for them to be allowed to eat only dairy food so they did not have to worry about many kashrus problems including mixing meat and milk. Even then Rabbenu made do with very little and he used to give away much of his portions to others. Some said that this saved their lives.
Later Rabbenu contracted pneumonia and they put him in a ward with people who were suffering from tuberculosis. Someone who was helping Rabbenu asked one of those to give a sample of saliva when they came around to test for tuberculosis, hoping that Rabbenu could be sent away. However the attending doctor could not find any symptoms of tuberculosis when examining Rabbenu, and noted in the discharge report that the examination and the lab results were contradictory. Rabbenu was unsure if he should show this report to the supervisor, but decided that he sees Heavenly intervention in his life and he would just do the obvious. When the supervisor saw the report, he decided to free Rabbenu rather than take any chance that he might infect the entire camp.
Rabbenu very happily went to Lucerne, where he taught a group of former talmidim of the yeshiva in Montreux organized by Yitzchok Herz. Rabbenu stayed in the home of Rav Leibush Rubinfeld and was deeply involved in learning and nothing else.
At the end of 5703 (1943) Mrs. Sternbuch suggested a shidduch for him with Tamar Kornfeld who also came from Poland. Even though she was five years older, when he heard about her middos he agreed to meet her. They were married on 13 Teves, 5704 in a small hostel in Zurich with a minyan that was invited to the seudas mitzvah.
After the end of the war, Rabbenu received that awful news that his entire family was lost al kiddush Hashem. He kept their yahrtzeit according to the report that the entire community of Brisk was wiped out on 4 Marcheshvan, 5702 (1941).
After the war, Rabbenu only wanted to go to Eretz Yisroel, considering the Holy Land to be the great spiritual center of the world. R' Wolf Rosengarten managed to secure certificates of aliya for the family. At first they said they only wanted bachelors, but R' Rosengarten said that if they would not give HaRav Shteinman, to whom would they give? And they agreed.
On their way to Eretz Yisroel they went through Geneva. The Rebbetzin went to see the Satmar Rov to get a brochoh from him. The Rov said he was worried about the spiritual dangers of going to Eretz Yisroel, but the Rebbetzin said that her husband was in no such danger since he was so deeply involved in Torah. The Rov asked to see him. When he came they spoke for three hours, after which the Rov said they could go to Eretz Yisroel with no worries. He even asked Rabbenu if Rabbenu thought that the Rov should also go to Eretz Yisroel or to America.
After Shavuos 5705 they left Switzerland for France. They stayed there a week eating only potatoes because of kashrus issues. They then went to Barcelona where they had to wait for ten days for their ship to Eretz Yisroel.
When they arrived the British authorities put them in to a detention camp in Attlit, but their relatives managed to get them out. They would up in a small store room in Petach Tikva where they lived in abject poverty.
Rabbenu was accepted to the Kollel Toras Eretz Yisroel in Petach Tikva where he learned bechavrusa with HaRav Chaim Shimon Karelitz. He became friendly with HaRav Eliahu Dushnitzer, and learned Kabboloh with HaRav Ovadia Hadaya.
In the summer of 5706 Rabbenu was appointed Rosh Yeshiva of yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Kfar Saba, on the recommendation of the Chazon Ish. The family moved to be near the yeshiva, and Rabbenu worked hard to build up the Torah community there.
In Elul 5715 Rabbenu was asked to found the Ponovezh Yeshiva Ketana (high school) by the Ponovezher Rov. At first he lived in the dormitory and went to Kfar Saba for Shabbos. After some time he managed to buy the apartment on 5 Chazon Ish Street where he lived for the rest of his life.
In 5725 the Ponovezher Rov asked him to head the kolel that he had founded for graduates of the Ponovezher yeshiva.
In 5738 Rabbenu founded the Gaon Yaakov yeshiva, and in later years he went on to found other yeshivas such as Orchos Torah (5758) and also to encourage the expansion of kollel networks such as Yissochor Be'Oholecha and Ateres Shlomo.