Occupying a seat in the front row of the Etz Chaim Yeshiva in Volozhin attested to rare genius, and young Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892) was a perfect example. He spent his days poring through thick volumes, his aptitude for study legendary. He is remembered as the rabbi of Brisk, which remains associated with his unique style of study until this very day.

While he had no trouble navigating Talmudic waters, halacha and its real-world ramifications still felt somewhat foreign to him. It was this strong desire to master the practical application of his Talmudic acumen that ultimately pushed him outside the yeshiva walls.

Word of Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (1785–1869), a leading halachic authority with a reputation for being unashamedly bold, blunt, and passionate, reached him. Although he lived in Brody, questions from all over Europe streamed his way. Yosef Dov longed to meet him.

But a vast distance separated him from his dream. Yosef Dov was in Volozhin, a Belarussian town, and Brody lay down south in Ukraine. He owned nothing but the clothes on his back, and hiring a wagon for such a long trip was a luxury reserved for the wealthy. But at last Yosef Dov formed a plan. Dressed in a peasant’s outfit he managed to obtain, he approached the market frequented by coachmen and loudly offered his apprenticeship in exchange for a trip to Brody.

But it was worth it: a merchant soon hired their wagon for a trip to Brody.One driver agreed to the proposal and immediately began to make good use of his new apprentice. The wagon axles required a fresh layer of grease and the horses needed to be groomed and fed. Everything proved difficult for Yosef Dov, who didn’t know the first thing about wagons or horses, and it took repeated attempts before he satisfied the critical eye of his employer. Reeking strongly of horse, with grease-streaked arms, Yosef Dov had lost any semblance of a yeshiva student. But it was worth it: a merchant soon hired their wagon for a trip to Brody.

Hardly able to contain his excitement, Yosef Dov bridled the horses, thinking: “Soon I will meet Rabbi Shlomo Kluger!”

From his perch on the wagon, Yosef Dov occupied himself with Talmudic topics, barely paying attention to the rolling landscape. A loud bark pulled him out of his reverie when the driver stopped the wagon and shouted at him to take the reins while he snatched a nap. As the horses trudged along the worn path, his excitement continued to bubble. He could barely focus on the road. He was going to meet with Rabbi Shlomo Kluger!

What should they talk about?

The possibilities buried in the Talmud and its pages of commentaries stole Yosef Dov’s attention rather easily. He no longer felt the pull of the horses nor heard the clopping of hooves. Even as the horses veered off course, Yosef Dov held the reins limply and continued to stare ahead, happily lost in his own head.

His turn at navigation came to an abrupt end when the wagon struck a ditch on the side of the road, and the rudely-awakened wagon driver realized why he was unfamiliar with this part of the road to Brody: It wasn’t the road to Brody.

He began to bellow scathing insults, swinging his fists, and hammering the young man who was still oblivious to the trouble he had caused.

“You’ll never be a wagon driver!” he shouted as he slapped the young man’s hands off the reins.

Yosef Dov lowered his head and said nothing. The wagon driver was right. He had neglected his responsibility and disrupted the journey.

When Yosef Dov finally disembarked in Brody, parting with a murmured apology, he started asking passersby about the famous rabbi. But his questions (and filthy attire) were met only with raised eyebrows. Clearly, no one sympathized enough with the urgency of a coachman’s apprentice who wished to meet their rabbi.

When he finally managed to locate the home, Rabbi Kluger invited him inside. Yosef Dov’s thoughts came spilling out, and an excited conversation revolving around a difficult Talmudic topic ensued. Rabbi Kluger soon saw that the young man before him was no simple apprentice, but a brilliant prodigy. He invited Yosef Dov to remain as his guest and also provided him with a fresh change of clothes.

On Shabbat, Rabbi Kluger tried to convince his guest to address the crowd of synagogue-goers, but Yosef Dov demurred. He wasn’t much of a speaker. Rabbi Kluger, however, insisted, and Yosef Dov acquiesced.

His erudite and engaging talk created a favorable impression; a throng lined up to shake his hand in admiration when services were over. One man approached with tears in his eyes and had trouble meeting Yosef Dov’s eyes.

“You were right, after all. It’s hard to imagine me being a wagon driver!” “Please, forgive me,” muttered the wagon driver from Volozhin. “I had no idea who you were, and I request forgiveness for wronging you.”

“There is no need for forgiveness,” said Yosef Dov warmly. “You were right, after all. It’s hard to imagine me being a wagon driver!”