Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Stories of gedolim are often fabricated for inspiration

 Originally published 6/14 - relevant to the current discussion of the Chofetz Chaim's Dybuk.

Rav Hillel Zaks (Mishpacha – "Living the Legend" page 55 June 2, 2014): Rebbetzin Faiga Chaya Zaks was once quoted as having said that 85 percent of the stories told about her father aren't reliable. In response, Rav Hillel and his brother Rav Yaakov Yehoshua asked, "How could di Mamme have said that? It's surely over 90 percent?!" 

In the family, the biography written by Rav Moshe Meir Yoshor is considered the most reliable of all that's been written about the Chofetz Chaim, in part because it was done during his lifetime. Reb Yisroel Meir once left a certain work on the Chofetz Chaim on the table just to see Rav Hillel's reaction to it. 

"You know, the writer of this book is afraid to face me," Rav Hillel remarked. 

"What's wrong with it?" Reb Yisroel Meir's wife asked. 

"Let me show you," said Rav Hillel. Opening to a random page, he read out loud a story about a Radin bochur who went to take leave of the Chofetz Chaim before going home, The Chofetz Chaim looked at him and said, "Is that the way a ben Torah looks when he goes home?" At that, he went into the back and came out with a jacket to replace the torn one the bochur was wearing. 

"Now, what do you think," Rav Hillel said. "The Chofetz Chaim had a rack of clothes in the back and said, 'You know, you look like a 45 regular'? The only part of the story that could be true is that somebody came in to say goodbye to him." 

Twenty-two years ago, Rav Hillel, Rav Yaakov Yehoshua, and Rav Yisroel Meir sat shivah in Yerushalayim for their mother. A visitor sat down in the front and said, "I know for certain that the Chofetz Chaim had a ramp in his house, which he'd practice running up and down in anticipation of the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash." 

Just then, the brothers heard someone in the back of the room say with obvious dry humor, "Mir dacht zich az der salon fun der Chofetz Chaim iz nit gevehn azoy groys ... [I don't think the Chofetz Chaim's living room was that big]." 

It was the voice of Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik.
======== update  6/20/2014
Rav Nosson Kaminetsky (Making of a Godol page xx):  (In composing this book, I have generally accepted as authentic stories about earlier generations even when they were not conveyed by my father or some other unusually reliable individual. I was reluctant, of course, to rely on reports that emanated from people whom I considered unable to judge events properly, but I did not suspect anyone of prevaricating intentionally. Similarly, unless the writer was blatantly' tendentious, I assumed that printed facts were credible. (I have this faith in people despite a report by R' Velvel Kercerg that Rebbitzen Feigel Zaks, the Chafetz-Chaim's youngest daughter, told him, "Eighty percent of what they tell about [my father] is not true." I cannot help but assume that in order to bring out bluntly the idea that not everything told about R' Yisrael-Meir Kagan, author of Chafetz Chaim, is true, his daughter exaggerated the percentage of untruths.)

Rav Nosson Kaminetsky(Making of a Godol page xxv):
R' Mordkhai Schwab, however, had a negative view of "storytelling" when he told me, "The Satmarer Rav, R' Yoilish Teitelbaum, never told stories because he said, 'You cannot educate through lies - sheker].'" R' Mordkhai agreed with R' Yoilish in reference to stories intended to glorify their principals while dehumanizing them. R' Yoilish echoed a statement by R' Yehoshua'-Yoseph Preil, Rav of the Lithuanian town of Krok. In a 5656 (1896) review of Toldos Yisroel of Zev Ya'avetz, published a year earlier in Warsaw, R' Preil set down the following ethic: "To create stories that never happened and present them as facts for the sake of teaching morals - woe is to the musar precept built on as brittle a foundation as a lie! '' Even hasidim, the celebrated story tellers who are more suspect than others in creating legends about their leaders (from whom the Satmarer Rav was evidently trying to distance himself by his statement), are careful in separating fact from fiction. I was told by R' Shimon Deutchy that he had asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R' Menahem-Mendel Schneerson, whether when writing about the arrest and release of his father-in-law, R' Yoseph-Yitzhaq Schneerson, he should mention or omit the fact that R' Yoseph-Yitzhaq's secretary, R' Hayyim Lieberman, was arrested and released with him. (R' Lieberman was opposed to R' Menahem-Mendel's ascendancy to the Lubavitch throne and did not recognize him as Rebbe after he assumed the position.) R' Menahem-Mendel responded, "History must be written   [true to its truth]" - and explained his redundancy: "This includes not polishing up any word.  Also Pulmus HaMussar  (The Musar Controversy), a book about the dispute in the late 5650's (1890's) in which most of the great Torah figures came out publicly against the Musar movement. The author, Musar adherent R' Dov Katz, tells how "many opinions were heard" by him "that we should avoid the entire affair "; but "several Musar personalities" including R' Yehiel-Yankev Weinberg and R' Hatzqel Sarna insisted not only that he should write about the controversy, but - as R' Sarna put it - that "he set down in writing the full affair without omitting any detail, be what it may." 


  1. I had this discussion with a family member over Shaboss. In my opinion nothing good comes from reading any of those questionable biographies for several reasons:
    1) Instead of taking a lesson, we are likely to take for granted the story is untrue.
    2) The stories leave the impression that the sages are too saintly to have the message apply to ordinary people.
    3) Midvar shecker tirchak
    4) It weakens the emunah of children. As we grow up, we realize the stories are nonsense. It can easily lead us to say how long have the writers been making stuff up? The results can be disastrous for our religion which is based on mesorah.

    I implore the writers of biographies. If you can't full up a book with good, accurate information, don't write the book. It's shecker, gnaivas das, gneiva, z

  2. Yes, and so are the "miracle" stories. They sell you on these miracle worker stories, but when somebody has real life problems, and you ask to see a rabbi, they tell you to daven or to see a secular expert.

  3. In my youth i read the 800 page artscroll book by yoshar and am ispired till today...
    The 6 volume מאיר עיני ישראל is also very reliable...

  4. Even making of a godol was good but rav alyashuv was right ... It should not have been published... It is none of our busines the intimate life of rav aaron kutler זצל
    Efriam... You must bee very sad...

  5. Rav Eliashiv did not say it should not be published

  6. 1) then what did RYSA and the others say?
    2) not everything said has to be printed , not ignoring tour מקורות...

  7. Please listen to Rav Nosson Kaminetsky comments on the matter

  8. Didn't Rav Elyashiv ban it? Hence the title "Making of a Ban".

  9. question for those who like gadol stories: what do you get out of them? do you believe them, even when told that they aren't true? same thing for people who like rebbe stories. you accept them at face value?

  10. Asher Pihem Diber ShavJune 9, 2014 at 2:28 PM

    There is a word in English that sums up this whole conversation. Legendary. Gedolim were legendary, People will tell over their legends. True or embellished stories of their deeds. People who are amazing or legendary in their deeds, tend to have people tell over their stories or legends. Some embellish, some don't. The same is with most stories of tzaddikim, rebbes, nowadays. He wrote with two hands, he counted the bricks on a house. May be true, may be embellished.

    This is only true of stories said about tzaddikim, by regular folk. The words of tzaddikim themselves were never embellished nor exaggerated, for if they were, they would not have been tzaddikim, rather liars and frauds.

  11. Rabbi Michael TzadokJune 9, 2014 at 2:51 PM

    It depends on what you mean by Gadol stories. True factual accounts of the Gedolim are very important. The Arizal writes, and Rav Ovadiah Hedayya expounds upon it at length in Deah V'Haskel, that learning the lives of Gedolim is like maaseh merkvah.

    The problem is that we have gotten into several bad habits. First we began telling mashalim as stories. Second there is this apparent need to make each successive Gadol at least as good as if not greater than the others. Third is simply the human tendency to exaggeration.

    Do I think that the Ben Ish Hai learned through Reishit Hokhma every month and attributed much of his success to that? Yes I do. I also believe that a few Rabbanim weret truly Baalei Ruah HaKodesh, and worked actual miracles. The problem is not the stories of miracles, but rather that they were tzadikim m'beten. Holy souls so divorced from normal humans as to show us our obvious inferiority.

    What do we gain from true Gadol stories? The inspiration to work harder. None of those great men achieved anything that is out of the reach of the rest of us if we would but properly devote ourselves.

  12. Rabbi Michael TzadokJune 9, 2014 at 2:54 PM

    Not so. While there are hidden tzadikim who will only deal with their own students and close associates, there are Rabbanim who have been known to give brakhot, and other spiritual remedies to the public, and what is more they did it free of charge. The Baba Sali, Rav Mordekhai Sharabi, Rav Kaduri, and the Shteipler were but a few that I know of.

  13. I was once in Lakewood on Purim and Rav Shneur Kotler z"l and Rav Sholom Schwadron z"l were there and they were telling stories of Gedolim. However, each story was prefaced by a genealogy of the source of the story so that it was not just a fable floating in the air but had a solid reliable history of who told the story and from whom they heard it.

    It is also well known that anyone who believes all the stories is a fool and whoever doesn't believe any of them is a kofer.

    I once heard from Rav Gershom Zaks z"l the grandson of the Chofetz Chaim that the story about the Chofetz Chaim chasing after a thief and yelling hefker, hefker was not to save the thief. When one has a taaneh on someone else for an evil done to himself, they will have a shaychus b'olom haba and the Chofetz Chaim didn't want to have anything to do with the ganev in the olam haemes.

  14. Perhaps in the past, but today, in Israel, you have the richest rabbis who are worth millions, and they are involved with a lot of business people. Talk about using the Torah as a spade to dig with.

  15. I disagree. I think your moniker applies to the authors of those gedolim books.

  16. Rabbi Michael TzadokJune 10, 2014 at 8:16 AM

    Never said that there weren't frauds. There were frauds even when Rabbanim like Rav Kaduri and the Shteipler were still alive. That is a major part of the reason that Rav Yaakov Hillel wrote his book Faith and Folly.

    Aside from that who says that the Richest rabbis are going to be the ones that Gedolim books are written about? Or more importantly those that will give brakhot and spiritual remedies to the public, free of charge.

    Rav Kaduri writes in his sefer Kedushat Yitzhak that any Rav that makes use of holy names for material gain is worthy of death. Such people are not Tzadikim, they are frauds.

  17. It depends on what you call a "fraud". If Rabbis say that a Tzaddik speaks, and his word is fulfilled, and that one should go to a Tzaddik for a brocho - then that is quite a strong statement to make. I personally believe this was the case when Elijah and Elisha were around, i.e. they could bring forward miracles. But i haven't seen any evidence that it is possible today. Even the Rebbe of Lubavitch, in his prime, could not work "miracles". Or better, did not. The stories are that he told people like Chaim Brovender to set up a yeshiva, or Jonathan sacks to become a Rabbi, rather than a professor of philosophy. But I have seen no credible evidence that he, or anyone else had the ability to work "miracles".
    R' Moshe ben Chaim notes that all the miracle stories are told in 3rd person, i.e. nobody ever says that they themselves observed such and such miracle , eg being cured from terminal cancer.

  18. Rabbi Michael TzadokJune 10, 2014 at 3:37 PM

    R' Moshe ben Chaim notes that all the miracle stories are told in 3rd person, i.e. nobody ever says that they themselves observed such and such miracle , eg being cured from terminal cancer.
    Go to the Baba Sali's kever on his hilula, you will find plenty of first person maricle stories. Same with the Shteipler.
    Most miracle stories are told in the 3rd person because the author of said book(assuming he is honest) collects first hand accounts via interviews and such and then writes them.

  19. so you first decide: this story i believe and this one i don't?

  20. Is there a Baba Sali or Steipler today?
    By going to the Kever, do you mean to ask the visitors about their miracles?

  21. Rabbi Michael TzadokJune 10, 2014 at 8:56 PM

    Is there a Baba Sali or Steipler today?

    There is if you know where to find them. To be on that level require a level of tzanua, that is quite rare. The Baba Sali and Steipler didn't attract large crowds in their life times. Likewise those talmidei hakhamim(true talmidei hakhamim) today that are on such a level live quietly and are not widely known.

    By going to the Kever, do you mean to ask the visitors about their miracles?
    Yes!!! I haven't been to the hilula of the Shteipler, but by the Baba Sali there are many people who have had amazing miracles in their lives. There is a man who hands out candles at the kever, who paralyzed before he got a bracha for a refua from the Baba Sali. He still carries the papers from the hospital with him to prove it.

    Hang around long enough and you will see dozens like that.

  22. Rabbi Michael TzadokJune 10, 2014 at 8:57 PM

    Something like that. I consider the source of story. Whether it is a first hand account or someone heard it from someone who heard it from someone.

  23. "Let me show you," said Rav Hillel. Opening to a random page, he read out loud a story about a Radin bochur who went to take leave of the Chofetz Chaim before going home, The Chofetz Chaim looked at him and said, "Is that the way a ben Torah looks when he goes home?" At that, he went into the back and came out with a jacket to replace the torn one the bochur was wearing.

    "Now, what do you think," Rav Hillel said. "The Chofetz Chaim had a rack of clothes in the back and said, 'You know, you look like a 45 regular'? The only part of the story that could be true is that somebody came in to say goodbye to him."

    This proves nothing. This story could have been true. The Chofetz Chaim could have had an old jacket to give him. Besides even if it didn't fit perfectly most people were living on poverty levels they weren't picky about sizes. Many of them were happy to have a jacket to wear!

    Im not saying I believe every story but Rav Hillel proved or debunked nothing with his comment.

  24. Rabbi Michael TzadokJune 11, 2014 at 1:21 PM

    Didn't the Chafetz Chaim own a store of some kind? Who's to say he didn't sell clothes in said store?

  25. The Chofetz Chaim's wife had a grocery store for a short time only

    Refusing the pulpit rabbinate, the Chafetz Chaim settled in Radin (Poland) and subsisted on a small grocery store which his wife managed and he did the "bookkeeping"-watching every penny to make sure that no one was cheated

    This is from the NY Times Obituary
    Despite his fame as “the uncrowned spiritual king of Israel”, the Chofetz Chaim was a modest and humble man. His career as a merchant was of short duration. Because of his popularity all the Jews of the town flocked to his store. The Chofetz Chaim thereupon closed the store on the ground he was depriving other Jewish merchants of a living.

  26. "It is also well known that anyone who believes all the stories is a fool and whoever doesn't believe any of them is a kofer."

    I hope to G-d that was mean tin humor. if it was you'll think me an idiot. if it wasn't...

  27. What do you get out of gadol stories in the g'mara? And surely you don't believe all of those are literally true? It's the same thing. It's often a cute way of reminding mus to look in our lives of khesed we can do or going the extra mile for others and hashem. Like the Chofetz Chaim story with the jacket. Maybe I can think about what stuff I have that could help others. That kind of thing. What else could possibly be the point?

  28. This is a good example of gadol stories that probably aren't true but teach you something. At the very least one of the privy stories is probably in error. I like the word privy. :)

  29. Is it really Shteipler? Serious Q.

  30. I am sure there are evil men ion every business, but before you judge are you sure these rabbis don't use the money for ts'daka rather than big screen TVs and zonot?

  31. I don't get your point. Ephraim is imploring the authors of the books not to repeat or make up legends.

  32. That gr"a thing was told to me by classmates in elementary school--is it actually in a book somewhere? Another big mythbuster is the golem. There is auhc a story, but it's not properly attributed to the mahara"l. Which means all those stories I heard as a kid in credulous wonder about the mahara"l's schul and the Nazis and all that was just lies. And I think I may have heard that from adults, as well. I can still remember myself asking puzzled why we couldn't just go to Prague and see (at least as a kid we had the Iron Curtain). I guess I still have that question about the maarat hamakhpela and all those stories.

  33. depends how cynical one is. if someone is really cynical, he could say that gedolim stories are simply there to impress people, to teach them that gedolim are qualitatively different and therefore one has no right to question them, their decisions, their rules (or their askanim).

  34. Rabbi Michael TzadokJune 20, 2014 at 4:45 PM

    Honestly not sure. Most of my time is spent with non-English speaking Israelis, and most of them insist it is pronounced Shteipler, since it is spelled in Hebrew with a ש.

  35. Do you deny the truth of the statement?

  36. Thanks for sharing this

  37. I learned in Torah Ohr years ago. There were a number of Bachurim who quoted Rav Scheinberg Ztz"l as being Matir shaving with a shaver even if the end result looked like as with a razor. So I decided why rely on rumors when The Rosh Yeshiva was sitting in his room downstairs. I went and asked him what his Shita was, and he told me that it's Muttar only if you don't press very hard, and that the end result will be that you can feel the hair when you feel your cheek going downwards, that way you know that you didn't cut too close.

    There was another time when Bachurim wanted to know what his opinion regarding wearing shorts was. I heard them ask him, and he said that they should put it on only in the field where they would play ball, because that is the Derech, but not to walk in them in the street because of Tznius.

    Shortly afterwards I heard Bachurim quoting the Rosh Yeshiva as saying there is no problem in walking out with shorts.

    There is a very interesting tape by Rav Yisroel Reisman on Gedolim Stories.

  38. The story of the grocery store comes from the NYTimes obituary, which r eliezer silver arranged.. thus, we see even that story is suspect, per the heading if this post.

  39. these aren't gedolim stories per se, just bad renditions of a psak. the same dynamic is true of any "telephone game".

  40. Rabbi Michael TzadokJune 23, 2014 at 1:07 PM

    What is worse is that all of these supposed "psakim" are simply meforash in the Sh"A, and have had consensus amongst the poskim for centuries... Does not speak well that such basic questions need to be raised to a Gadol.

    For instance:
    There were a number of Bachurim who quoted Rav Scheinberg Ztz"l as being Matir shaving with a shaver even if the end result looked like as with a razor.

    ש"ע י"ד קפא סאיף י
    אינו חייב על השחתת פאות הזקן אלא בתער אבל במספרים מותר אפילו כעין תער: הגה ומכל מקום נזהרין כשמסתפרים במספרים שיעשה היקף הגילוח בחלק העליון מן המספרים ולא בתחתון פן יעשה הכל עם חלק התחתון והוי כתער מיהו נראה דתחת הגרון אין לחוש בזה הואיל ואינו עיקר מקום הפאות

    To which the Shakh(S"K 7) says:
    ולי נראה דעת הר''ב עיקר, כיון דכל הפוסקים כתבו סתמא דבמספרים מותר אם כן הא דתרומת הדשן חומרא היא, והבו דלא לוסיף עלה

    See also the Beit Hillel(S"K 2) that explains that shita of the Trumat HaDeshen of which the Shakh speaks is regarding the necessity to use the top scissor only(which by the way is how electric shavers work). Both the Shakh and the B"H see this as a chumra, and not a necessity.

    So our electric shavers are essentially kosher l'chumra, and this is simply the reading of the Sh"A and the Nosei Kelim.

    So I am baffled as to why this is a question for a posek of Rav Scheinberg's character.

  41. "whoever doesn't believe any of them is a kofer"
    Which ikkar did they violate?

  42. We can start with kefira in Torah sebaal peh which has many miraculous maasim about gedolei Torah.

    The intent of the statement is that there were truly great men that did astounding things that were natural and many great people achieved some level of supernatural capability due to their closeness to Hashem yisborach and their greatness in Torah. To say that no one has reached any level of supernatural powers is a denial of the power and truth of Torah.

  43. It is not kefira to question or doubt these tzaddik stories. This is just your own construct. Rambam questions certain aspects of the Talmud and Midrashim, saying they should nto be taken literally. He even holds the view that the story in the Tenach of Shaul speaking toShmuel (after he was niftar) was an illusion. So are u accusing Rambam also of kefira?

  44. To base your argument on the unusual shita of the Rambam which is opposed to the vast majority of rishonim is ridiculous. Some have said that the Rambam did not intend these ideas for the hamon am but they were directed at certain people with hashkafa problems.

    What do you do with קם רבה ושחטיה לרב זירא and how about חמורו של פנחס בן יאיר . Is the story of Yehoshua stopping the sun a fairy tale? What about the toppling of the walls of Jericho?

    תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לג עמוד א

    הראוהו את חורו, נתן עקבו על פי החור, יצא ונשכו ומת אותו ערוד. נטלו על כתפו והביאו לבית המדרש. אמר להם: ראו בני, אין ערוד ממית אלא החטא ממית. באותה שעה אמרו: אוי לו לאדם שפגע בו ערוד ואוי לו לערוד שפגע בו רבי חנינא בן דוסא

    Another fairy tale? What is the point of all these stories?

    There are thousands of other instances.

    If you believe in evolution, you believe in a much greater fairy tale than any of the stories in shas.

    If you don't believe that Hashem can grant great people powers over nature in certain instances, you are missing a great principle of the power of Torah and its place in the world.

    How about the stories of Baba Sali? Are they all fake?

    Does tefilla sometimes effect miraculous cures or is it all an illusion?

  45. So frum newspapers, frum books , biographies. Are largely sheker.
    What about eduyot given to gedolim? Perhaps they are also false. And pashkevils are unreliable too.

  46. Well sure. If stories had to be true, Chasidim would have nothing to say about their rebbes.

  47. Story of navi like Yehoshua is not on the same scale as a midrash or baba sali.
    where is nevuah after 2nd beit mikdash? It was long gone.


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.