When I read this story it made me feel truly privileged to have experienced what it means to be part of this tradition. For two years I sat in the shi'ur of Rav Dovid Lifshitz zt”l, the Suvalker Rav, a student of Rav Shimon's. And Rav Dovid's notion of a test was similar to his rebbe's.
YU required written finals. I think Rav Dovid once told me that he wouldn't have given them otherwise. In any case, the morning of the final, rebbe would ask us two questions that echo Rav Shimon's "fahrher":
First, he would want to know who had eight hours of sleep the previous night.
Second, he would ask who had breakfast that morning.
Rav Dovid’s primary concern was for the welfare of his talmidim who were often overextended during final week. How can he worry about how we would test when he wasn’t yet sure we were fully equipped to succeed at our learning?
Those who didn’t get a full night’s sleep were sent back to bed. Those who skipped breakfast were given $5 (mid-1980s money) and sent to the cafeteria. (At least, those who addmitted to it. Few people would raise their hands the second time around, and I know for sure at least some of us were just avoiding taking rebbe's money...)
Similarly, the question Rav Dovid most frequently asked me when he was mesader qiddushin at my wedding, "Are you hungry? Fasting today is at best a minhag; simchas chasan is deOraisa!"
There is an old saying,
יענעמס גשמיות איז בא מיר רוחניות.Another’s physical needs/wants are for me, spiritual.
To Rav Shimon and Rav Dovid, a talmid's gashmius was truly their ruchnius.
But I realized there is another layer to this attitude, one that makes it one of the fundamentals of Yahadus:
Why is there a gashmius to begin with?
Because the Creator wanted to provide us with a venue where we can interact with other people. Where things aren't perfect, and we must step in and take partnership with Him in completing their creation. A place where we can be givers, not just recipients.
In other words, the sole reason for this world is so that my ruach, my soul-as-will (ruach also means wind — the unseen power that moves the seen) can step in and provide for others their physical needs. This is why we were created such that sexual intimacy is of the greatest bonding forces. A the Torah says “Therefore man will leave his father and mother and bond with his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Bereishis 2:24) This is why we associate sharing a celebration with sharing a meal (such as the qorban Todah, for giving thanks, which was of a size too large for any one person or his immediate family to eat).
Another's gashmius is thus the reason for my soul being extended into this world. Beyond simply calling it a religious duty, it truly is my ruchnius.