Rav Shteinman said to one of his confidantes that on shabbos when bentching, one is required to add the paragraph of "r'tzeih". If one forgot to say it, he would have to repeat the bentching. If he is unsure of he said it or not, he would also be required to repeat the bentching, because we would assume that he said the most common bentching he is familiar with, which is the weekday version not including R'tzeih, meaning we would assume he skipped it and therefore he must repeat it.I see how one can read this as a type of middat chassidus. (The question of whether such asceticism is a good or bad thing in Judaism is a separate question.) However, I am not so sure that it was intended that way.
Rav Shteinman continued, the question therefore is regarding me - I never eat bread during the week. So my regular bentching is one that includes r;tzeih. So if on shabbos I would bentch and be unsure whether or not I said r'tzeih, would the decision be any different?
Realizing that the question was not really relevant, one of the people present asked Rav Shteinman - how long has it been since the rav has not eaten bread during the week?
Rav Shteinman's answer: 70 years!
In Pirkei Avot, we read: כך היא דרכה של תורה פת במלח תאכל ומים במשורה תשתה ובתורה אתה עמל
It would seem that this would be the standard diet of deprivation. And this is even during the week! All of a sudden, bread is a luxury, such that one is depriving himself as a middat chassidut by avoiding bread?! And what does one eat instead? Surely he did not eat air and dirt, for 70 years. There are other foods available, certainly.
I can say about myself the same thing, by the way, that for many, many years on end, I did not eat bread during the week. This is not because I am such a righteous individual. Rather, this was based on the specific type of food my mother served, and then in college, the food that was served there. It was only on the rare occassion that I ate bread during the week. Of course, on Shabbos, there is challah or matzah, and an obligation to make hamotzi, and then bentch. I can further testify about myself that kegon ana, one such as myself, I did find that on the rare occasion I did eat bread during the week, if I was not paying careful attention, I did automatically begin to say retzei.
So maybe he did mean it as a middat chassidut, in which case I am not sure of the rationale. But it seems quite likely that it is not such, but the typical listener (in the shiur, the one who wrote the book, the one who read the book) who does eat bread during the week, and who is looking for inspirational practices from gedolim, this might well be considered a middat chassidut.
On the other hand, the next story does show that he holds by ascetic practices, such that the reading of it as an attempt at self-deprivation may well be correct.
In terms of the next story, I just don't know:
Similarly it is known that the rav only drinks hot water unflavored with tea, as drinking water flavored with tea is considered by him to be filling a desire. He would say "Why do I need to drink hot water that is colored brown?"He was momentarily persuaded by the doctor that it contains healthy nutrients. It would seem to me that indeed there are two conflicting values here. One is depriving oneself of the pleasures life affords (which is debatable as a value, but certainly does have its proponents in some Jewish sources), while the other is the Torah's command to take good care of one's health. And a life of deprivation may indeed reduce one's health, especially if one limits one's intake without regard to the health impact. It seems that for a moment, he was persuaded by the doctor's recommendation.
One time a doctor said to him that tea is good for his health, as it contains healthy nutrients. The doctor recommended he begin drinking tea. The rav agreed to drink a cup of tea. When he was about to drink the tea, he changed his mind and said,"For 90 years I have been fine without tea. Right now I have to start with new desires?"
And he did not drink the tea.
I am not sure what he means by "For 90 years I have been fine without tea. Right now I have to start with new desires?" One can read this as "for 90 years I have been healthy without tea." In which case this is not a very convincing argument. At different stages in people's life, they may become frailer than at other stages. And there is also the cummulative impact of the various ascetic practices over the years. And Rabbi Tzaddok did not refuse the fig from the doctors after the years of fasting. One can also read this as "for 90 years I have been perfectly happy without tea." In which case his focus would be on the asceticism, where perhaps he regarded the momentary health consideration to be a moreh heter.
At any rate, I don't find this particularly inspirational. I hold more by the position that:
רבי אלעזר הקפר ברבי אומר: מה תלמוד לומר (בנזיר), וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על הנפש"? וכי באיזו נפש חטא זה? אלא שציער עצמו מן היין. והלא דברים קל וחומר. ומה זה, שלא ציער עצמו אלא מן היין, נקרא חוטא, המצער עצמו מכל דבר ודבר על אחת כמה וכמה
In terms of the third story, of course Rav Mordechai Reimer felt guilt and anguish over the incident, and not just over the halachic aspects of it. But certain personalities which are immersed in Torah express this feeling in halachic terms, which is not dry and technical, but reflects an underlying morality. See my previous post about how to be a chassid.