Rabbi Avraham Aharon Burstein, Gaon in Torah was the head of the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva for a very short period of time, but during this period, until his passing on Kislev 19, 1925, he took a central role on the staff in light of his experience as Rosh Yeshiva and extraordinary scholarship. The Rabbi from Tavrig excelled in his extensive knowledge in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud and in the methods of Halachic authorities. He gave his life to the Torah even during times of famine and deprivation, and studied diligently for almost twenty hours each day. For ten years his name was known in the Torah world as “the genius of Moisuka,” and he served as rabbi and educator the Slobodka Yeshiva and the Bogorodisk Yeshiva near Moscow. He also served congregations in Sar Sitivan near Kelm, Ritov, and Anikstotz’rksi. In his later years served as head of Mercaz HaRav.
Rabbi Aharon Burstein was born on the 15th of Shvat 5737, in the city of Kamenetz, Lithuania to his father Rabbi Yehoshua HaKohen Blumenthal, who served as Av Beit Din. He started learning in cheder at a very young age and during that period, his incredible abilities and diligence in Torah was revealed.
His father passed away before he turned thirteen years old. When his period of mourning was over, he wanted to study at the Volozhin Yeshiva, and when that wasn’t possible, he went to study in his mother’s hometown, Sucovolia, and stayed there for about six months. When he returned, he was only sixteen years old, and was loved by Rabbi Leib Kidner, known as Reb Leibchik Charif, who served as Av Beit Din in Visoko, Lithuania. Rabbi Leib Kidner arranged a match between Rabbi Burstein and his youngest daughter.
A year and three months after the wedding, his father-in-law died. In these days he sacrificed his life to Torah with hunger and deprivation. He left Wisk and went to Kidan in the Kovno district, the hometown of his great father-in-law. He studied with great diligence, almost twenty hours at a time. His enormous diligence weakened his body and caused heart disease, which caused him difficulties all his life.
The Genius from Moisuka
When he was eighteen years old, he known in the Torah world as “the Gaon from Moisuka” (where his father-in-law lived) and he served as rabbi and educator at the Slobodka Yeshiva. Differences of opinion between him and the yeshiva administration regarding the nature of the yeshiva’s arrangements led him to leave the yeshiva. He moved to Kelm where he sat and engaged in Torah with suffering and sorrow. When he was twenty-four years old, he was accepted as a rabbi in the city of Sar Sitivan near Kelm, and after a year and a half he was accepted as the rabbi of Britova.
This was after a discussion in the court of Rabbi Elchanan Spektor in Kovno, since the community of Gorzad also wanted him to be the rabbi in their city. Five years later, he was accepted as the rabbi in Anikshet, Tavrig.
World War I caught up to Rabbi Burstein when he was staying in one of the German spa cities. After many adventures, he moved to Schavel with his family. As usual, he did not cease from his learning, nor did he pay attention to the change of authorities in the city. Once when the Cossacks broke into the city, they saw him sitting and moving and shouting out loud. They accused him of being a spy, arrested him and brought him before the general. Judgment was passed immediately to hang him, and in the meantime he was imprisoned in the cellar. When they asked him if he wanted food, he replied: “Bring me the Rambam, and if I die, I will die for the Rambam.” In a great miracle, the error was discovered and the Gaon was released, provided that he immediately leaves the city. He was sent to Unikshet and from there to Globoka. On another occasion, he was sitting down to explain a contradiction of the Rambam, when they entered his home and looted it and wanted to kill him. He told them, “Kill me, but first let me resolve the Rambam.” The looters, surprised by the request, agreed to leave him for a few minutes, but made it clear to him that if they thought it was an attempt to evade them, they would kill him on the spot. Before he could reconcile the Rambam, a voice was heard that saying the Russians had entered the city, and the looters fled.
After the War
Rabbi Burstein grew famous throughout Russia for his great diligence in learning Torah and he was called to serve as rabbi and educator in a yeshiva in the city of Bogorodisk near Moscow. This yeshiva was unique because the language of its studies was in Hebrew meeting was the fact that the language in which it was taught was Hebrew, but this fact, together with historical circumstances, mainly pogroms against the Jews of Ukraine and its surroundings, led to its closure.
The Gaon left there and was accepted as a rabbi in the city of Cherkassy. However, the terrible dangers to Ukrainian Jewry reached there as well. He changed his direction and moved his family to Tavrig, Lita, where he taught the Talmud Yerushalmi to a group of select students from the Slobodka and Telz yeshivot. The harsh journeys he had experienced during these troubled days had diminished his strength and increased his illness. His doctors advised him to immigrate to Eretz Israel where it might be better for him.
Immigration to the Land of Israel
On the 26th of Elul, 1926, Rabbi Burstein immigrated to Israel and settled in Tel Aviv. Rabbi Kook, who had founded his yeshiva at the time, invited him to serve as an educator and Rosh Yeshiva in the “Central Yeshiva.” Yeshiva students from all over Jerusalem came to his unique classes, despite their reservations with the Zionist ideology of the yeshiva.
Rabbi Burstein’s spiritual leadership and his unique shiurim influenced the yeshiva to such an extent that after his passing, his students continued to hold a class in his memory and share his foundations of the learning.
Unfortunately, he did not merit to teach Torah in the Holy Land for many days, and a year later, on the 19th of Kislev, 5655, his soul ascended to heaven.
The text engraved on the gravestone was written by Rabbi Kook and reflects the special manner that he was viewed at the yeshiva:
Cedar of Lebanon mighty in the Torah
The most brilliant of the time …
Rosh Yeshivot upholding the light
The real genius and glory of the generation
Maran Avraham Aharon of the Gaon Rabbi Yehoshua HaKohen Burstein
The Av Beit Din of the Congregations of Tavrig is known
His wisdom was in the sanctuary and the pitcher of his flow was shattered
Everyone who heard trembled …
He was desired at the Yeshiva Shel Maaleh
19 Kislev 5665, Yerushalayim Ir HaKadosh.