What I Borrow, I Must Surely Return

In Parshas Mishpatim, the Torah teaches us the responsibilities we assume when watching or borrowing other people’s property. Personal experience has demonstrated that most people are unfamiliar with the halachic obligations entailed in borrowing.

SHE’EILAH VS. HALVA’AH

Hebrew uses two different words for borrowing, she’eilah and halva’ah, which describe two different types of transactions with major legal distinctions. She’eilah means borrowing an item that will itself be returned. In a she’eilah, the pikadon, the item loaned, remains the property of the lender, and the borrower has rights to use it. (The borrower is called the sho’el and the lender is called the mash’eil.)

Halva’ah, on the other hand, refers to an item that will not be returned. Rather, the borrower uses the item and returns its value or a replacement item. Although often people think that only borrowing money is considered halva’ah, borrowing eggs is also halva’ah since they will be eaten and different eggs will be returned. Similarly, borrowing any item that will not be returned intact is halva’ah. In a halva’ah, the borrower becomes the owner of the loaned item and assumes financial responsibility to repay the lender. Once the borrower receives the loaned item, the lender loses his legal right to ask for the item back. (An exception to this is if the item is loaned in error, for example, if I loan someone an item that is more valuable than I intended.) This is in contrast to an item given as a she’eilah where the borrower assumes responsibility to care for the item and returns it intact when the loan is over.

At times, borrowing money can be she’eilah and not halva’ah. For example, if I borrow a rare coin for an exhibit, it is understood that I do not intend to spend it and that I will return the same coin. Therefore, it has the laws of she’eilah.

OTHER DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SHE’EILAH AND HALVA’AH

There are many other halachic differences between she’eilah and halva’ah. For example, the borrower of a halva’ah that has no specific repayment deadline automatically has 30 days to repay the loan (Choshen Mishpat 73:1). However, an item lent as a she’eilah without specifying a length of time must be returned as soon as the owner wants it back (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 341:1).

Charging money for she’eilah is not prohibited; this is called rental. In this case, the “borrower” is now a “renter” and is less responsible for the item than a borrower is.

However, charging for a halva’ah is considered interest and is prohibited because of ribbis. It should be noted that in the case mentioned above where a coin was borrowed for an exhibit, one may charge a rental fee for the coin without incurring the prohibition of ribbis since it is a she’eilah and not a halva’ah (Yoreh Deah 176:1). (There are specific other rules that must be followed in these circumstances to avoid ribbis that are beyond the scope of this article.)

The following story illustrates a case where money was loaned as a pikadon and not as a halva’ah.

Reuven was negotiating a business deal which required investing a significant amount of his capital. The potential partner insisted on proof that Reuven could produce the required funds. Although Reuven had sufficient resources for this purpose, it was easier for him to “rent” money from a third party as a pikadon. The agreement was that he would not use the money and would return the very same banknotes to the lender.

Two shaylos are involved in this case. 1. Is this act geneivas da’as, deception, since Reuven is showing the partner someone else’s money? (This shaylah will, IY”H, be discussed in a future article.) 2. Is there a problem of ribbis?

Reuven may rent the money because he does not have the right to spend it; rather, he must return it intact. Therefore, the transaction is a she’eilah and not a halva’ah, and there is no ribbis prohibition.

We will discuss the halachos of ribbis at a different time, I”YH. For the rest of this article, we will focus on the halachos of sho’el, someone who borrows an item that will itself be returned.

RESPONSIBILITIES OF A BORROWER

In general, someone who borrows an item becomes fully responsible for its welfare. As the Torah says, if he borrowed an animal and it became injured or died, the borrower must repay, even if he was not negligent.

I borrow a friend’s laptop computer for a business trip. I take exceptional care of the laptop since it is someone else’s property, even making certain to put it in the hotel safe when not using it. While I am away one day, a fire breaks out in the hotel and the computer is irreparably damaged. Although the damage was accidental, I am still obligated to pay for the computer.

But why should I be obligated if something happened that was beyond my control? The damage was no fault of mine!

Although the details of hilchos sho’el are basically a g’zeiras hakasuv, a declaration of the Torah, there is a rationale behind these rules. When I borrow something, I receive a pure gain from the transaction since I can use the item without giving the lender anything in exchange. Therefore, the Torah obligates the borrower to ensure that the owner receives his item back, even when the borrower is not responsible for the damage (see Gemara Bava Metzia 94b; Shu”t HaRan #20).

We will later discuss two circumstances where the borrower is not responsible to compensate for the loss.

CAN I LIMIT MY RESPONSIBILITY?

Someone wants to borrow my car, but does not want to be responsible for anything that might happen to it. According to halacha, while he is borrowing my car, he is responsible if it is stolen, suffers damage from a storm or fire or is hit by another car.

Can we arrange to absolve the borrower from this responsibility?

Yes. The two parties can agree to limit the borrower’s responsibility to whatever level they are comfortable with. This is referred to as a tnai she’b’mamon, condition included in a business agreement, which is fully valid in halacha. The Mishnah states that a borrower may stipulate that he is not responsible to pay for damages even if he is negligent (Bava Metzia 94a).
SOME INTERESTING SHAILOS

Someone once asked me the following shaylah. Their yeshivah bachur son traveled back and forth between their hometown and his yeshivah, often transporting automobiles for a frum car dealer. Each side considered this an ideal arrangement – the son had free transportation and the dealer had his shipping needs serviced very inexpensively. However, I pointed out that although the son is not considered a “sho’el” (who is responsible even for accidental damage, as explained above) since the dealer also gains from the arrangement, the son is still responsible for the total value of the car if he acts negligently. (Whether he is responsible to replace the car if it is stolen is dependent upon details that are beyond the scope of this article.)

Needless to say, his parents were rather concerned about their son assuming this level of financial responsibility. I explained that their son should negotiate with the dealer exactly how much responsibility he was accepting.

My wife was once asked to transport a large sum of money on a journey. Although she was doing the other person a complete favor, she would still be responsible for negligence. We told the person that she was assuming no responsibility whatsoever, and he agreed. Since we made this condition, she could not be held responsible no matter what happened.

Similarly, someone who borrows an item may specify to the owner that he is not assuming full responsibility for the borrowed item, and this absolves him if the owner agrees. Of course, the owner may not want to lend the item if the borrower does not assume full responsibility.

DOES THIS ARRANGEMENT NEED TO BE IN WRITING?

No, an oral agreement or understanding between the two parties is perfectly sufficient. The main advantage of a written agreement is to prevent misunderstanding or disagreement about the terms of the agreement.

But one second! Doesn’t the Torah require the sho’el, borrower, to pay for damages? How can the Torah’s instructions be pushed aside?

There is a major difference between the financial rules established by the Torah and its prohibitions. In business arrangements, two parties may create their own terms. Thus, an employer can agree to give his employee benefits beyond what halacha requires and be obligated to provide them. Similarly, when a couple marries, the husband assumes responsibility to support his wife. However, if the two choose to marry without this responsibility, they may do so (Gemara Kiddushin 19b).

However, two parties cannot make a business agreement that violates a Torah prohibition. Therefore, one cannot create a contract that charges interest, ignores the Shmittah time limit for collecting debts or authorizes using non-halachic courts for adjudication. These cases all involve Torah-ordained prohibitions, and therefore cannot be eliminated by a “deal” between the two parties.

WHEN IS A BORROWER NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR DAMAGE?

I mentioned above that there are two circumstances whereby the borrower is absolved from paying for the damage. The Gemara calls these two cases “be’alav imo” literally, “the owner is with him,” and “meisah machmas melacha,” which means “the loaned animal died because of the work.”

The basis of each of these two pturim, absolutions, is totally different and both need to be explained.

BE’ALAV IMO

Be’alav imo means that if the lender was working for the borrower when the pikadon was borrowed, the sho’el is absolved from paying for any subsequent damage. According to the halacha, this applies only if the owner was working when the she’eilah began. However, if the owner began work after the loan was begun, the borrower is fully responsible (Bava Metzia 94a).

This rule sounds very strange. What is its rationale?

We generally divide mitzvos into two categories, bein adam lachaveiro, mitzvos between us and our fellow men, and bein adam laMakom, mitzvos between us and Hashem. We are not surprised when mitzvos bein adam laMakom are beyond our comprehension and based on gezeiras hakasuv, decrees of Hashem in His Torah. For example, we never question why the Torah commanded holding an esrog on Sukkos and not a lemon – we know that the Torah’s mitzvos are beyond our comprehension. Nor do we ask why the flimsy schach on a sukkah must come from plant growth. We understand that these halachos are gezeiras hakasuv.

However when we it comes to bein adam lachaveiro, we expect to understand them. Indeed, most halachos of civil law are very comprehendible and include relatively few halachos based on gezeiras hakasuv. However, there are some exceptions and the rule of be’alav imo is one of them. The Torah states that under these circumstances, the borrower need not pay, even though we cannot comprehend the difference.

Nevertheless, several rationales have been suggested for the law of be’alav imo. In other words, even though it is a gezeiras hakasuv, we can derive certain hashkafic concepts from these laws. However, we must realize that these rationale should not be considered as “reasons” for the mitzvah. After all, do we think that we can comprehend the reasons for Hashem’s mitzvos? As the Sefer HaChinuch explains, the words ta’am hamitzvah should be translated as the taste of a mitzvah, rather than the reason for a mitzvah. This is because we can never explain why Hashem gave us mitzvos. We can only suggest ideas that will help us grow while we observe the mitzvos that Hashem has granted!

Similarly, the ta’amim given to explain be’alav imo should be understood as tastes, ideas that illuminate these halachos.
That being said, we can now present a ta’am suggested for the law of be’alav imo. Some explain that since the owner is being employed by the borrower, the borrower does not assume that he is responsible for the item borrowed. Rather, he assumes that the owner is taking care of his own item (Chinuch, Mitzvah 60). Under these circumstances, the Torah does not require the borrower to pay for damage done to the loaned item.

MEISAH MACHMAS MELACHA

The other occasion when a borrower is absolved from paying is “meisah machmas melacha,” literally, “the loaned animal died because of the work.” This is based on a logical concept that if the borrower had express permission to use the borrowed item for a certain purpose, he should not be penalized for utilizing it for that purpose (Tosafos; Nimukei Yosef).

There is an alternative explanation for meisah machmas melacha that contends that the borrower has the right to assume that a borrowed item can withstand normal wear and tear. If the pikadon did not withstand normal use, then we presume that it was inferior and the borrower is not responsible for the loss (Ramban; Sma 340:3).

A LOANED CAT

The Gemara discusses a strange case of someone who borrowed a cat to rid his house of unwanted mice. A din Torah was called when the mice killed the cat instead and the mash’eil claimed that the borrower must pay him for his loss! The Gemara concludes that the borrower is exempt because there must have been something wrong with a cat that was overpowered by mice (Bava Metzia 97a).

The following case is discussed by poskim. The residents of a threatened town borrowed weapons to defend themselves. They were defeated and the weapons were confiscated. Must they pay for the weapons?

The poskim dispute this issue. Some rule that they are exempt because the items were borrowed specifically for use in self-defense and the loss is categorized as meisah machmas melacha. Others contend that they are obligated to pay since the weapons were not inferior (Sma 340:8 and Shach ad loc.).

I was recently asked a shailah about someone who borrowed a power saw that was damaged during use. Is this considered meisah machmas melacha?

The halachic issue is to determine whether the borrower used the saw in a normal fashion, in which case he would be exempt from paying, or whether he perhaps abused the appliance, in which case he is obligated.

A FEW UNFAMILIAR HALACHOS ABOUT BORROWING

I have discovered that there are several halachos of which even knowledgeable people are unaware.

If I borrowed an item for a specific purpose, may I use it for something else?

In most instances, the answer is no. It is prohibited to use the pikadon for a different job without permission, even for a job that involves less wear and tear than the task for which it was borrowed (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 341:7). Some poskim permit using the pikadon for a job that is clearly less taxing on the tool, but all agree that I may not use it for work that might be equally stressful (Taz 340:1; Sma 341:20).

RETURNING THE BORROWED ITEM

Many people are unaware that a borrowed item is not considered returned until the lender knows about it (Choshen Mishpat 340:8). Therefore, if I borrow a hammer from my neighbor and return it to his house, I have not discharged my obligation until he knows that it has been returned. If it becomes damaged in the interim, I am still responsible to pay!

I borrowed a sefer from someone. When I came to return it, his children told me that the owner had gone on vacation. Consequently, I am responsible for the sefer until he finds out that I have returned it to his house.

BORROWING COLLATERAL

Reuven borrowed money from a non-Jewish bank and placed a valuable painting in the bank’s vault as collateral. Knowing that the painting was worth far more than the loan, Shimon asked Reuven if he could borrow some money from the bank, using the painting as collateral for his loan as well. Both Reuven and the bank agreed. Subsequently, a massive explosion at the bank destroyed the painting. According to secular law, neither Reuven nor Shimon were obligated to pay back the loans since the collateral was not returned. (Incidentally, according to halacha, if the lender was Jewish, he would be obligated to repay the loan since the lender was not at fault for the loss.)

However, Reuven wants Shimon to compensate him for the painting, claiming that Shimon benefited from his loss. Reuven claims that Shimon “borrowed” the painting as collateral, since without it Shimon could not obtain his loan. Therefore, Shimon should have to compensate Reuven since he borrowed an item that he did not return. Does Reuven have any basis for his claim?

According to halacha, Shimon has no responsibility to compensate Reuven. The painting was in the bank’s vault because of Reuven’s loan, not because of Shimon’s (Mordechai, Bava Metzia #371; Rama, Choshen Mishpat 340:1).

However, if Reuven had never borrowed from the bank, but Shimon had used the painting as collateral, Shimon would indeed be responsible for it.

We have touched on some of the halachos involved when borrowing. This certainly indicates how much we have to know in order to observe them correctly. We should always bear in mind that the Gemara advises someone who wants to become a great tzaddik to ensure that he is highly familiar with all the halachos of damages!

The Dry Cleaner and the Gown

The female voice on the other end of the line sounded very familiar. Her voice was full of anger and disappointment. It took me a few minutes to discern what she was trying to communicate.

Once I identified the voice, I realized that it was that of a woman I knew well who is usually very rational. I also began to understand why she was so upset. Mrs. Stein had been expecting to wear a specific, elegant dress for a family simcha and had brought it to the dry cleaner to get it ready. While she was there, she pointed out some stubborn spots on the delicate fabric.

“The dry cleaner managed to remove the stubborn stains,” Mrs. Stein told me, “but my gown’s color washed out in the process! The gown is now absolutely unwearable!  I want the cleaner to pay for the damage in full!”

“I try not to judge a business dispute without hearing the other person’s side of the story,” I told her.

“That’s fine,” she responded. “I’ll ask the cleaner to call you up to explain his side of the story.”

“Are you willing to accept my ruling in this situation?” I asked her.

“Certainly!” she replied.

While awaiting the cleaner’s call, I reviewed the appropriate halachos. If someone hires a workman or artisan to process or repair an item and the workman damages it in the process, he is obligated to pay for its full value and he does not receive payment for his work (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 306:2; 3). As an example of this halacha, the Mishnah discusses the case of someone hired to dye cloth who left the cloth too long in the dye vat and damaged the cloth. The dyer must pay for the value of the cloth he ruined (Mishnah Bava Kamma 100b).

OTHER EXAMPLES

If you hired a builder to demolish a property, and specified that you want to reuse the stones in the subsequent reconstruction, if the builder destroyed building stones in the process, he must repay the value of the stones (Rama, Choshen Mishpat 306:2).

If you hire a carpenter to repair a cabinet, and the carpenter breaks it, he must pay for the damage (Rambam, Hilchos Sechirus 10:4; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 306:2).

Therefore if the cleaner damaged the gown, he is indeed responsible to compensate Mrs. Stein for its full value. This is assuming that the cleaner has no notice posted in his shop that he is not responsible for garments that he damages. According to halacha, if the repairman notified his clients in advance that he does not assume responsibility for damage, he absolves himself of responsibility.

THE CLEANER VERSION

The dry cleaner’s phone call interrupted my research. His version of the events was somewhat different from Mrs. Stein’s.

“Mrs. Stein pointed out the stains she wanted removed,” he told me. “In retrospect, I regret that I did not specify to her that the solvents used to remove the stains could change the gown’s color. I do not remember whether the garment was wearable with the stains or not, but I know that people do not usually leave stains on their nice garments.”

“Was the garment ruined?” I asked the cleaner. “Not at all,” he answered, “I am willing to show it to any expert on women’s clothes. We saw the stains and assessed that the best way to remove them was to clean the entire garment evenly with a specific solvent. This is a standard procedure in this type of situation. When you dry clean this way, if the color is affected, the entire garment changes to a consistent new color. I would love to show you the garment to see the masterpiece we created!”

The dry cleaner’s interpretation of events had us dealing with a very different shaylah! He contended that he used his best professional judgment in removing the stain, and the result was an altered, but perfectly satisfactory and useful garment. According to this understanding, he is entitled to full compensation for his efforts since he did what Mrs. Stein hired him to do and there was no damage to the gown, according to him, but rather, an improvement!

I now found myself in a predicament. I knew this dry cleaner well, and as far as I know, he was a very reputable person. Although he could have been covering up for his mistake, I had no reason to suspect him. On the other hand, Mrs. Stein was also a person I respected; a tremendous baalas chesed – the classic “pillar of the community.” Should I suspect that one of them is not telling the truth?

The fact that I heard two very different versions of the events from the two parties did not mean that either one of them was, G-d forbid, lying or dishonest. Each of them saw the events that transpired his or her own way. This is human nature; we tend to see and color events through our own eyes, regardless of the fact that someone else’s interpretation may vary considerably from ours.

This is the reason why it is very important for every person to have a good friend who gently challenges our assumptions. It is difficult, and maybe even impossible, for us to be objective about ourselves. A good friend can help us regain our objectivity when we become emotionally wrapped up in ourselves. In this case, if Mrs. Stein had asked a good friend for an honest evaluation, perhaps the friend could have helped her calm down. Similarly, the dry cleaner may have benefited by having someone point out to him that his interpretation of the events and facts may have been somewhat flawed.

Although this helped me understand the human side of the dry cleaning interaction that took place, it did not help me establish the facts. The question still remained – did the cleaner damage the gown or not?

There was indeed one other possibility, that both sides were right. The dry cleaner did what he thought was best, which was to clean the gown even though its color might fade slightly. However to Mrs. Stein, this result was unacceptable. It is possible that had she been told that her gown might fade she would have rejected this method of dealing with the problem.

If so, a third set of halachos applies – where the artisan did perfectly good work, but it was not what he was hired to do and not what you want. Perhaps our case is comparable to the case in the Mishnah (Bava Kamma 100b) of someone who hired a worker to dye cloth red and he dyed it black.

In that case, the resultant product is worth more than it was when he started, but the owner did not want black cloth, just as Mrs. Stein did not want a faded gown.

Does the worker receive compensation in this case? Is he liable for all damages?

The above mentioned Mishnah cites a dispute about someone who hired a worker to dye cloth red and he dyed it black. Rabbi Meir rules that the worker pays the hirer for his cloth and keeps it, regardless of whether the finished product is worth more or less than the original cloth. Rabbi Yehudah disagrees, contending that this arrangement benefits the negligent worker too much. Let us assume that the finished black cloth is worth far more than the original un-dyed cloth was worth. According to Rabbi Meir, the dyer would benefit from all this profit. Rabbi Yehudah contends that this is unfair – the worker should not benefit from his negligence. Instead, Rabbi Yehudah contends that any benefits go to the owner, and this is the final halacha. (The actual formula whereby we determine how much, if anything, the worker gets paid is somewhat halachically complicated, see Rambam and Raavad, Hilchos Sechirus 10:4; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 303:6.)

Thus, we now have three possible interpretations of what happened.

1. The dry cleaner ruined the garment and should pay damages (Mrs. Stein’s version).

2. The cleaner did the best possible job possible under the circumstances and made an unusable gown perfectly usable. Therefore, Mrs. Stein should pay him in full (the dry cleaner’s version).

3. That the cleaner exceeded what Mrs. Stein authorized him to do, in which case he would be entitled only to whatever increase in value there is. According to Mrs. Stein, there is none, the gown is not worth more than it was in its stained but un-faded phase.

But I am a rabbi and not a prophet. What was I to do? How could I possibly determine what happened?

Furthermore, there was a more important issue at stake. Whenever I am involved in these types of litigation, I am not satisfied to simply determine the halacha, but I want the two parties to leave b’shalom. To me, this is the most important result – that there should be no lasting ill feeling afterwards.

I thought of a course of action that would accomplish this purpose. First, I asked my wife if she would be willing to look at Mrs. Stein’s gown to see whether she considered the garment un-wearable. Of course I realized that although I value my wife’s opinion, she was not going to make the final halachic decision. However, I was looking to see what she thought and consequently which direction I might take in resolving this shaylah.

In truth, this was the most difficult part of the shaylah. How was I to determine whether the gown was now ruined goods or not? For one woman a garment may be un-wearable and to another it could be perfectly fine. The halacha in such a dispute places the burden of proof on the person who wants to collect the money.

I also asked my wife the following question, after first explaining to her that there was a halachic reason why I needed the information (and therefore no loshon hora was involved). I asked her, “Is Mrs. Stein the type of woman who would be bothered by things that others would not notice?” My wife answered that Mrs. Stein is a very discerning dresser. Thus, I realized that it might be that even if the dry cleaner did what most people would consider the correct course of action, Mrs. Stein would not be happy with the results. On the other hand, it might be that the dry cleaner assumed that the garment was fine, but most people would consider it damaged.

Then I called Mrs. Stein to see if she would mind showing the damage to my wife. My wife felt that although the gown was definitely faded, most women would have worn the garment as is, although a discerning dresser like Mrs. Stein might find the new color unacceptable.

I called the dry cleaner and asked him whether he would be willing to bend over backwards to placate a customer.

“Of course,” he responded, “I never gain anything from an angry customer. Do you know how many people might hear a story like this?”

I assured him that I would try my utmost to be sure that Mrs. Stein obeyed the rules of loshon hora. She is a very fine woman and meticulously observant of halacha.

Mrs. Stein agreed to come to my office to discuss the matter. First I engaged her in some small talk, and then moved the conversation over to the matter at hand. I knew Mrs. Stein to be a woman who was cautious of loshon hora. I just hoped that she did not forget to be careful while she had been so agitated about her damaged gown.

Indeed, she told me that she had told only one person, other than me, about the ruined gown. She had deliberately decided to tell a friend who does not know where she takes her dry cleaning so that there would be no loshon hora problem. I was extremely impressed about her care in observing halacha under this highly stressful circumstance.

Baruch Hashem, there had been no loshon hora said about this matter. Now to make shalom

I explained to her that I had spoken to the dry cleaner, and that he regretted having not asked her before he used the particular cleaning solution. I also told her that he had used it evenly on the entire garment so that if it would discolor the garment it would leave it in a pretty shade. I then added that I felt the dry cleaner was not guilty from a halachic point of view, but that he was eager to make some restitution anyway because he did not want her to be angry with him.

Mrs. Stein stopped and thought about it. “You know, he has always been so accommodating. I was just surprised and disappointed by him. I suppose not everyone is as fussy as I am. I would be very satisfied if he would make sure to hang up a note to himself in his shop to make sure that he asks every customer before he does something like this again!!”

I had not expected that making shalom would be so easy. I guess that sometimes when you try to do a mitzvah, Hashem makes it easier! And my wife tells me that Mrs. Stein wore a different outfit to the simcha, which was absolutely stunning.

A Critical Review – The Halachos of Book, Wine, and Restaurant Reviews

Recently, someone sent me the following series of shaylos:

“Dear Rabbi Kaganoff,

“1. Is a person allowed to write balanced reviews of books? This question concerns hashkafah-type works, halachic works, self-help books, as well as novels.

“Obviously, there are many halachic ramifications, including loshon hora, etc. I would specifically like to know if one is allowed to “pan” (to review unfavorably) a work that the reviewer finds seriously lacking.

“2. May one write reviews of other products, such as wine or restaurants? I am concerned primarily when the owner is Jewish.

“3. If a person asks my opinion of a book, a wine, or a restaurant, may I answer truthfully even if my personal negative opinion may result in the person choosing another product?

“With much thanks in advance,

“Aaron Bernstein”

Before I answer Aaron’s question, I must first present the halachos of loshon hora that apply here.

Saying something true that may damage someone’s professional or business reputation, or causes him financial harm, constitutes loshon hora, even when nothing negative is intended (Rambam, Hilchos De’os 7:5). Thus, random schmoozing about the quality of different workmen’s skills, the halachic prowess of different talmidei chachomim, or the quality of education provided by a certain school constitutes loshon hora.

However when I need certain information, I may ask people who might know. For example, if I need to do home repairs, I may “ask around” what experience other people have had with various professionals. I should tell them why I need to know, and they should tell me only what is relevant to my needs.

Examples:

1. Gilah hired a home improvements contractor who was skilled and efficient, but inexperienced in certain plumbing work. Ahuva asks Gilah whether the contractor was good. Gilah should reply that he was skilled and efficient, but does Ahuva intend to include any plumbing? If the reply is negative, Gilah should say nothing, since Ahuva understands that if she changes her mind and decides to include plumbing, she should discuss it with Gilah first. If the reply is that there is plumbing to be done, Gilah should tell her that the contractor’s work was excellent and efficient, but that he seemed somewhat inexperienced in plumbing. Perhaps by now he has the experience, or Ahuva should mention to him that she would prefer if he subcontracts out the plumbing.

 2. Yaakov moves to a new neighborhood and asks Michael who the local poskim are. Michael can mention one, some, or all of the local available poskim, but should not mention any disqualifying factors about them, such as, Rabbi X is curt, Rabbi Y is very machmir, or Rabbi Z’s shiurim are unclear. Michael may ask Yaakov what qualities he is looking for in a Rav and then make recommendations based on Yaakov’s answer.

WHAT IF I KNOW THE MECHANIC IS DISHONEST?

Yitzchok and Esther just moved to the neighborhood and mention to me that they are planning to bring their car, which is making unusual noise, to Gonif’s Service Station. My personal dealings with Gonif’s have been highly negative; I have found the proprietor very dishonest. May I say something to Yitzchok and Esther?

The halacha is that not only may I say something to them, but I am obligated to do so (Chofetz Chayim, Hil. Issurei Rechilus 9:1). This is because I am responsible to make sure that Yitzchok and Esther are not hurt financially by the crooked repair shop. This is included in the mitzvah of lo saamod al dam rei’echa, do not stand by idly while your friend becomes injured (see Be’er Mayim Chayim ad loc.).

However, exactly how I impart this information to Yitzchok and Esther depends on the circumstances.

Why is this?

In any situation where I must protect someone from harm, whether it is a potentially harmful shidduch, damaging chinuch, or a bad business deal, there are five rules that govern what I may say:

1. IS IT BAD?

Be certain that what may transpire (if I do not intercede) is indeed bad. Often, one thinks that something is bad, when it is not really that bad. Later in this article I will describe a case that appears bad, while halachically it is not considered bad. In the case at hand, I am responsible to see that Yitzchok and Esther are not deceived by the repair shop. Therefore, I have fulfilled the first rule.

2. NO EXAGGERATING

Do not exaggerate the situation as worse than it is. In this case, even if I need to describe Gonif’s dishonesty (which I can probably avoid, as we will explain later), I should describe only what I personally know, and I must be careful not to embellish or include hearsay.

3. GOOD MOTIVATION

One’s motivation must be to protect the innocent person from harm, not to bring retribution on the person doing the harming. In our case, this means that my goal is to protect Yitzchok and Esther from harm, not to “get back” at Gonif’s. The reason for this condition is that one violates the prohibition of saying loshon hora if one has evil intent even in a case when one may say the loshon hora (see Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hil. Issurei Rechilus 9:3).

4. NO OTHER CHOICE

Can I accomplish what I need to without saying loshon hora? The answer to this question depends on the situation. What do I need to accomplish? In the case of the crooked repair shop, my goal is that Yitzchok and Esther should not be victi miz ed by the shop. I can accomplish this in several different ways, some of which do not require tarnishing the repair shop’s reputation. For example, if Yitzchok and Esther will heed my advice to take their car to “Careful and Honest Repairs” instead, then I have no need to tell them that Gonif’s is a dishonest shop. In this instance, I have accomplished my purpose without mentioning the dishonest acts I witnessed.

 5. TOO DAMAGING

Will the result of my sharing the negative information be more harmful to the perpetrator than he should suffer according to halacha? For example, I know that Reuven’s professional work is sometimes substandard, and I discover that Shimon, who is known to back out on deals he has committed to, contracted Reuven to do work. Although under other circumstances I would not only be permitted, but even required to notify someone of Reuven’s lack of professional skill, in this situation I may not notify Shimon because he may back out on Reuven in a way that contravenes halacha.

WHEN IS SOMETHING NOT REALLY BAD?

In condition #1 above, I mentioned that there are situations that someone considers bad, but which are not considered bad according to halacha. The background behind this shaylah will impact directly on our original shaylah about reviewing books, wines, and restaurants.

What is an example of this situation?

Chani sees Miriam, who is new in the neighborhood; about to enter a grocery store that Chani knows is expensive. May Chani tell Miriam that this store overcharges slightly? The Chofetz Chayim rules that one may not reveal this information (Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus, 9:27).

Why is it not permitted to save Miriam from overpaying?

The Chofetz Chayim rules that overpaying slightly for an item is not considered a “bad thing,” provided the storekeeper is within the halachic range of what he may charge. (A full explanation of how much the storekeeper may charge is beyond the focus of this article.)

WHY IS BEING OVERCHARGED NOT CONSIDERED BEING HARMED?

Since the storekeeper who charges higher prices is not doing anything halachically wrong, one may not hurt his livelihood by encouraging someone to purchase elsewhere. And if one does, this is loshon hora, which includes hurting someone’s livelihood.

Thus, there is a major difference between a dishonest store and one that is more expensive. It is a mitzvah to steer someone away from a dishonest store, but it is forbidden to steer him away from a Jewish store that charges more.

What happens if someone new moves to town and asks me where he can find kosher groceries?

You should tell him which local groceries sell kosher products that have the hechsherim he wants. You do not need to supply a complete list of the stores in the neighborhood, but it is permissible to mention only the stores that are less expensive. However, you may not tell him which stores are more expensive.

If someone knows that a third party plans to purchase an item from a store that tends to be expensive, do not say anything. Even though the purchaser could save money by buying elsewhere, the storekeeper is losing from your actions. One should not get involved in saving one person’s money at someone else’s expense (see Be’er Mayim Chayim, Rechilus 9:27 and commentaries). However, if the proprietor of the store is not an observant Jew, you may warn the purchaser about his overcharging.

On the other hand, if the storekeeper is doing something that is halachically prohibited, such as selling defective or misrepresented products, one may and should warn someone about it.

BOOK REVIEWS

With this background, we can now discuss Aaron Bernstein’s first shaylah: “Is a person allowed to write balanced reviews of books?”

What does the review accomplish?

This depends on the type of book being reviewed. Let us begin with one category: Jewish novels.

Why do secular sources review books?

So that people can decide whether they will enjoy the book and whether they should spend the money to purchase it.

May I do this? What “harm” am I protecting someone from by telling him or her to avoid purchasing this book? On the other hand by warning people away from the book, I am hurting the livelihood of those who have invested time and money feeling that this book will provide them parnasah.

Is it not parallel to the case where one Jewish storeowner, in his desire to make a living, charges a bit more than his competitors? The halacha there is that I may not tell someone to avoid his store, since I am harming the storekeeper. Similarly, I may not tell people to save money by avoiding the purchase of a book. One may however, publish a review that describes the positive aspects of a book.

However, if a work contains flaws in hashkafah, then one is required to refute the author’s mistakes.

Similarly, if a halacha work is flawed, one should write a review to clarify that the work contains errors.

EXAMPLE:

Many years ago, I was asked by a well-known Jewish publication to review a particular halacha work. When I read the work I felt it sorely lacking in certain areas- particularly hashkafah, and that it could easily be used as a resource for someone who would then behave in a questionable or non-halachic fashion. I pointed out these concerns of mine in the review, because in this situation it was very important to avoid serious halachic mishaps.

If the work reflects an approach to halacha different from one’s own, then it depends – if the halacha quoted is reliable, one may identify that it reflects a different halacha approach.

Of course, this means that the most standard book reviews and other reviews common in secular contravene halacha guidelines. One may include a book review column only if it merely informs people of new publications but does not provide critical negative review.

Now we can look at the second question:

“2. May one write reviews of other products, such as wine or restaurants?”

Already, we know the answer to this question. If the purpose of the review is to discourage people from buying a product or eating in a restaurant, one may not write the review. But one may publish a review that contains the positive aspects of the product.

WHAT IF SOMEONE ASKS ME MY OPINION OF A CERTAIN WINE OR RESTAURANT?

If you have a poor opinion of the wine, restaurant or book, you should inquire, “What are you looking for?” Then based on what the person describes what they want, direct them to the product that most satisfies their needs and interests. If the wine or restaurant in question may not be what they want, then explain to them what aspects would meet their needs, and what might not. This is permitted because they have come to you to ask for information about the item. However, one may not simply put this information in the media for everyone, including readers who have no need or interest in the information.

For example, you do not have a positive opinion of a restaurant. Why? You think the service is poor. Would that be a factor to this person? If you are not certain, but you think there are other redeeming reasons why this person may want to eat in this restaurant anyway, say it in a way that does not reflect too negatively, such as, “Once, when I was there, the service was a bit slow. But I don’t dine there very often.”

One of the rabbonim to whom I sent this article for their opinion wrote me the following: “I don’t agree with what you wrote about restaurants. If one has a criticism that doesn’t necessarily make it an undesirable place for the one asking, I think that it is better to just say that ‘I don’t go there too often.’ The person won’t suffer by trying and he will decide if he is happy with it.”

According to halacha, may one publish a magazine like Consumer Reports?

Although the editors of this magazine have not sought my opinion, I think that they may publish the results of their research if they are read only by people interested in purchasing these items, and not by a general audience.

COULD THERE THEREFORE BE A FRUM KOSHER WINE REVIEW?

Possibly, but only if its readership was limited to people who are shopping for wines and looking for advice.

In conclusion, we see that halacha approaches this entire issue very differently than contemporary society. We must remember that we examine our behavior through the prism of halacha and not through the eye scope of modern society.

Practical Halachos of Civil Litigation

A Jew lives his life hoping to manage his business relationships without ever resorting to litigation. Someone involved in a “misunderstanding,” should try to discuss the matter with the other party and if the matter remains unresolved, he should try discussing it with the guidance of a third party, possibly a Rav.

However, what happens if someone tried doing this and the problem remained unresolved? For such situations, the Torah commands us to establish batei din.

One may use either of two kinds of batei din. Either the parties can bring their litigation to an existent beis din or alternatively they can create an ad hoc beis din using a system called zabla. Zabla is an acronym for zeh borer lo echod, which means that each party chooses one of the dayanim who will judge the case, and then the two dayanim choose a third person to join them and form a beis din (Sanhedrin 23a). In either system, the two parties agree that they will be bound by the decision of the beis din that they use.

The Gemara (Gittin 88b) teaches that a Jew may not submit litigation against a fellow Jew to a secular court. This violation exists even if both parties agree (Ramban, beginning of Parshas Mishpatim), and is known as the prohibition against using Arkaos, secular courts. Using court systems not sanctioned by the Torah creates chillul Hashem, a desecration of Hashem’s name by implying a denial of Hashem and His Torah (Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim #3). Because the Torah created a system of courts, someone who uses a non-Torah source of litigation acts as if he denies the authenticity of the Torah, chas visholom, and the authority of He who commanded us to set up Torah courts.

In the words of the Rambam (Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:7), “Whoever has his case judged by non-Jewish laws or courts, even if their laws are the same (as the Torah), is a rosho. It is as if he blasphemed and raised his hand against the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu”. (See also Rashi’s comments on Shmos 21:1). Someone who brought litigation to a secular court without halachic permission (as described later) may not serve as chazan for Yomim Norayim (Mishnah Berurah 53:82). In addition, he will invariably end up with property that is not his according to halacha and transgress the violation of gezel, stealing!

What if the Other Party Refuses to Go to Beis Din?

This problem is unfortunately neither uncommon nor recent, and apparently occurred even at the time of the Gemara (see Bava Kamma 92b, as explained by Rosh). When such an unfortunate event happens, the aggrieved party follows the following procedure: The plaintiff files with a beis din, which now summons the defendant to appear in beis din. If the defendant fails to appear in beis din or indicates that he will not appear, the beis din authorizes the plaintiff to bring his suit to secular court (Choshen Mishpat 26:2).

Under these circumstances, the plaintiff has not violated the prohibition of going to civil courts since beis din authorized his suit. Rav Sherira Gaon notes that, in his community, the custom was to summons the defendant three times before authorizing the plaintiff to sue in secular court (cited by Beis Yosef and Sma to Choshen Mishpat, Chapter 26). This is the usual practice, although it is not required.

It should be noted that even someone who was authorized to sue in secular court is still not entitled to more than he would have been entitled according to halacha. Therefore, after winning his case in secular court, he should ask a posek whether he may keep the entire award and/or how much of it he may keep.

What Happens if I am Summoned To Beis Din?

The answer is very simple: Respond to the summons. A person who receives a notification summoning him to beis din, is halachically obligated to respond. In the vast majority of cases, he has the right to request that the case be heard in a different beis din where he may feel more comfortable. He may also request that the matter be decided via zabla.

Being summoned to beis din may be an unpleasant experience, but that gives a person no right to ignore the summons.

Question I have been Asked:

“Someone told me that the prohibition against secular courts is only if the judges are idolaters. Is there any basis to this?

No. The poskim explicitly rule that it is forbidden to go to any secular court and that there is chillul Hashem every time one goes to a court that does not recognize Torah as its law system. (See for example, Tashbeitz 2:290; Chazon Ish, Sanhedrin 15:4).

May I Go to A Secular Court If the Judge is Jewish?

To answer this question I will quote the Chazon Ish: “There is no difference in halacha between going to judges who are not Jewish and going to Jewish judges who use non-Torah laws. As a matter of fact, it is far worse to go to Jewish judges who have traded away a Torah system for a worthless, vain system. Even if the city residents have accepted this court’s system and authority, their agreement has no validity. To force someone to follow this system has the status of stealing from them and raising one’s hand against the Torah given to us by Moshe Rabbeinu” (Chazon Ish, Sanhedrin 15:4). The identical ruling was issued by Rav Pesach Frank and Rav Yitzchok Herzog (see Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer 12:82).

But I Thought that Dina Di’malchusa Dina means that the Civil Law Determines Halacha in Business Matters?

This is an incorrect understanding of dina di’malchusa dina. Dina di’malchusa dina requires us to obey rules of the government such as paying taxes and obeying traffic and safety regulations, and prohibits us from smuggling and counterfeiting. Dina di’malchusa dina does not replace the civil laws of the Torah (the laws of Choshen Mishpat) that govern the relationships between Jews, nor does it supplant the responsibility incumbent upon the Jew to bring his litigation to a proper beis din.

Dina di’malchusa dina should not be confused with the following application. In some areas of halacha, particularly the contract law rules for buying and hiring, there is a concept of minhag hamakom – that normative business practice determines what is halachically accepted. For this reason, the halacha regarding sales and employee rights are often governed by what is accepted normal practice. Since normal practice is heavily influenced by secular law, the halachic practice in these areas is influenced by the secular law. This is not because halacha recognizes the secular law but because accepted business practice is influenced by secular law.

However, there will always be interpretations, questions of applicability, and various other halacha considerations that must be done via beis din. Beis din will take into account when and how to apply the rules of dina di’malchusa dina.

It should be noted that areas of halacha such as laws of inheritance are not affected by secular law at all (Shu”t Rashba quoted in Beis Yosef, Choshen Mishpat end of Chapter 26).

May a Lawyer File a Lawsuit in Civil Court on Behalf of a Jewish Client?

This is unfortunately very common. A Jewish lawyer represents a Jewish client who has litigation against another Jewish client. May the lawyer file a lawsuit in secular court? Rav Pesach Frank ruled that it is absolutely prohibited for the lawyer to file suit in secular court, and that it is a tremendous chilul Hashem to do so.

However, this situation provides the lawyer with a tremendous opportunity to perform a kiddush Hashem. He can explain to his not-yet-observant client the advantages of going to beis din – that it is less expensive and usually far more efficient. (Most frum communities have batei din where a din torah can be arranged within days.) Of course, to an observant Jew, the only selling point necessary is that this is what Hashem wants us to do. Certainly, the reward for proceeding according to halacha is millions of times greater than anything gained by going against halacha. However, since the non-observant client may not appreciate these considerations, the lawyer may convince his client by pointing out advantages of going to beis din that the client understands.

If the defendant fails to respond to the summons of the din torah, then the beis din will authorize the plaintiff and his lawyer to take the case to secular court. This action will be permitted because it was authorized by the beis din, as I explained above.

What Can I Do if I think that the Defendant will not Obey the Ruling of Beis din?

Beis din proceedings can be made be binding on the parties using an “arbitration agreement” that is recognized in civil law. Once the parties agree to use beis din for their arbitration, if one party subsequently fails to honor the psak of the beis din, beis din will enforce its ruling through the use of secular authorities if necessary. This will be binding in secular court because the litigants accepted the authority of the beis din as binding arbitration.

May One Testify in Secular Court That a Case was already Decided in Beis din?

Yes, it is permitted to do. Furthermore, it is even permitted and a mitzvah for the dayanim of the beis din themselves to testify in secular court regarding their adjudication. There is an interesting discussion in poskim whether it is a lack of kovod haTorah for the dayanim to testify as witnesses in a secular court. The Chasam Sofer permits it as long as the secular court is honest (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #3).

May A Lawyer Defend A Client in Secular Court?

If someone is sued in secular court, it is a mitzvah to defend his case to the best of one’s ability, since the suing party violated halacha by suing in civil court.

What Should I Do if the Defendant is Not Jewish?

A Jew is permitted to sue a non-Jew in secular court. Therefore, a lawyer can represent a Jew in his suit against the non-Jew.

What Happens If I Live Far Away from a Beis din?

The simplest solution is to have the representative of a beis din (usually called the mazkir beis din) contact the defendant to explain to him that he is required to have the matter adjudicated by a beis din. If the defendant refuses to accept the authority of beis din, then the beis din will authorize the plaintiff to submit his matter to a secular court.

Can I Submit the Matter to an Arbitration Board?

If beis din has authorized that the matter be brought before a secular court, then it is permitted to submit the matter to an arbitration board as well. (There is a dispute among poskim whether one may submit a case to a non-Jewish arbitration board without authorization from beis din. Shach 22:15 and Aruch HaShulchan 22:8 seem to permit this if the arbitrator bases his decision on common sense and fairness, rather than on a non-Jewish system of law; Nesivos HaMishpat prohibits even such a circumstance. However, a simpler solution to this issue is to summon the defendant to beis din, and get permission to adjudicate the matter through a secular court or arbitration board.)

Unfortunately, there are even frum people who sometimes assume that legal rights and responsibilities are governed by secular law. A Torah Jew must realize that Hashem’s Torah is all-encompassing, and that every aspect of his life is directed by Torah. The true believer in Hashem and His Torah understands that every aspect of his life is directed by Hashem and that the only procedures we follow in any part of our lives are those that the Torah sanctions.

Pesukei Dezimra: Fulfilling Hashem’s Only Desire

Ron Goldstein, who is seeking to find his way into observant Judaism, is having a casual conversation with Yosel Schwartz, an Orthodox accountant who often invites him over often for Shabbos. As usual, Ron is peppering Yosel with questions:

“Recently, I began praying daily, and I have even begun to attend synagogue occasionally. I have many questions regarding both the prayers and the practices I see there.”

Of course, Yosel is more than happy to answer Ron’s questions.

“I would really appreciate it if you could provide me with background to some of the prayers. I see that there is a lot of structure and that various sections of the prayer are very dissimilar from one another. Some parts are consecutive blessings, others include extensive Biblical passages; some are praises, others are straightforward supplications. I have been told that the two most important parts of the morning and evening prayers are the Shma and the Shemoneh Esrei, and I have been reciting these parts for a few months now. But at this point I would like to understand some more about some of the other parts of our prayer. Could you help me?”

“Certainly; where would you like to start?”

“I am really curious to know more about the Psalms we read towards the beginning of the prayers. Psalms are really inspiring. But I also know that the Book of Psalms is fairly large. Why do we always recite the same ones every day; why not just read consecutive passages each day as an introduction to the prayer? This would familiarize people with the whole beautiful book.”

It is interesting that Ron noticed the beauty of the Psalms David Hamelech bequeathed to the Jewish people. Indeed, it seems that David Hamelech was aware of the tremendous responsibility Hashem placed upon him to provide a link between Man and Hashem. This is evidenced in the following verse: “For an eternal covenant He placed in me” (Shmuel II 23:5). Although most commentaries explaing that this verse refers to the eternity of his royal dynasty, which will soon return with Moshiach, it certainly also alludes to David’s unique role as the Psalmist of mankind.

Tehillim Each and Every Day, makes Certain we do not Stray

Yosel points out to Ron that the Psalms have indeed been organized into daily readings that enable one to complete them every week or month. Ron sounds interested in making this a regular practice, certainly a laudatory observance. Yosel points out that the purpose in reciting parts of Tehillim during davening is not to create familiarity with the entire book, but something else altogether. In Yosel’s own words:

“To answer your question, I need to provide you with some background to this part of the prayer, which is called Pesukei Dezimra, Verses of Song. Two Talmudic references provide the earliest basis for this part of our daily prayer.  One source teaches that reciting Psalm 145 every day guarantees one a share in olam haba, the World to Come (Berachos 4b).” (Yosel is aware that an alternate reading [girsa] of this Gemaraattributes the reward to someone who recites this psalm three times every day. This is why we recite Ashrei, which includes this Chapter of Tehillim, three times a day, twice in Shacharis and once during Mincha.Yosel did not want to sidetrack the conversation with this information.)

Hashem Provides for All, even those without Wherewithal.

“What is unique about this Psalm that its recital merits such a special reward?” Ron inquired.

“The Gemara explains that this Psalm includes the verse beginning with the words Posayach es yodecha, which praises G-d who opens His hands to provide for all creatures. One must make sure to recite this verse with much focus (Tur, Orach Chayim 51), as we thereby internalize the fact that Hashem supervises over all his creatures and provides all their needs.

“In addition, the alphabetical acrostic of this Psalm demonstrates that King David intended that it be easily memorized and utilized by all of mankind (Rav Hirsch, Tehillim 25:1).

“The verses of this chapter that follow Posayach es yodecha also include many basic tenets of Judaism. They note that Hashem’s deeds are also justified; and that He is close to all who seek him truthfully, fulfills their desires, and protects them. It is critical to recite these passages with full focus on their significance. One who recites the verse Posayach es yodecha without thinking about its meaning is required to read it again, since he has missed the message of the passage. Some authorities conclude that if he completed the Psalm, he should repeat from the words Posayach es yodecha to the end of the Psalm (Mishnah Berurah 51:16).”

Begin the Day with G-d’s Praise, so that we Merit the Sun’s Rays

Ron replied: “This is really a nice, meaningful passage, and it certainly sets the tone for devotion and interacting with G-d, which is one of the beauties of Judaism. However, according to my references, this is only one Psalm among several others that we read.”

Yosel continues his explanation: “True. In another Talmudic passage, the great scholar, Rabbi Yosi, mentions his yearning to receive the special reward granted to those who recite the Pesukei Dezimra daily (Shabbos 118b). Also, reciting these praises with the proper awareness guarantees that our subsequent prayer will be accepted (Abudraham).

“The early authorites dispute how many Psalms Rabbi Yosi included in his Pesukei Dezimra. While Rashi mentions only Psalm 148 and Psalm 150 (presumably in addition to 145), the Rambam includes all of the last six Psalms of Tehillim as the kernel of Pesukei Dezimra. Accepted halachah follows the Rambam (Tur, Orach Chayim 51), and therefore we recite all six Psalms, but in extenuating circumstances we follow Rashi’s opinion. For example, someone with insufficient time to recite the entire Pesukei Dezimra with the tremendous focus it deserves and still be ready to begin the Shemoneh Esrei together with the congregation may omit the three extra Psalms that the Rambam includes and rely on Rashi’s opinion. We actually rule that one may delete even more sections of Pesukei Dezimra to enable one to begin the Shemoneh Esrei together with the congregation.”

Together we shall Pray, and then look Forward to a Wonderful Day!

“Why is it so important to begin the prayer together with everyone else?”

“Unfortunately but realistically, we sometimes do not focus when we recite our prayers. In reality, prayers recited without proper thought should accomplish nothing and may even be harmful. Imagine someone who has the opportunity for an audience with a human king and arrives late, out of breath, and distracted. If his conversation is unfocused, he will probably be thrown into a dungeon for his disrespect! How much more so when talking to the King of kings!

“When our prayers fall short of what they should be, we deserve to have them rejected. There is one consolation, however. When a community prays together, G-d always accepts their prayers (Gemara Berachos 8a).”

Concentrate on Ashrei, and we will Focus while we Pray

“I now understand why Ashrei is an important prayer,” said Ron, “But I see in my Siddur that besides Psalm 145, that the Ashrei prayer also includes three other verses from Psalms, two before Psalm 145 and one after.”

“I see you’ve been paying a lot of attention to the prayers.”

“The Siddur I use notes the Biblical source of every prayer, so it does not really involve a lot of paying attention. Praying the way you are describing does require a lot of concentration. But I am eager to try. After all, for many years G-d meant little in my life – now that I understand how important He is to me, I am trying to pray daily with meaning. I truly enjoy these six Psalms because each one emphasizes a different aspect of G-d’s magnamity. But could you explain why we begin with the verse Ashrei, which is ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere in the book?”

“The Halachah recommends spending some time in quiet meditation prior to praying (Berachos 30b). This makes it easier to focus on the essence of prayer and what we are trying to accomplish.The source cited for this law is the verse Ashrei, usually translated as ‘Happy is he who dwells in Your house; he will continually be able to praise You.’ I would note that Rabbi Hirsch, a great Nineteenth Century scholar, explains the word Ashrei a bit differently. According to his explanation, the verse means: ‘He who dwells in Your house is constantly striving forward in his life; providing his life with more meaning.’ Either interpretation emphasizes the importance of not racing into our prayer, but spending time meditating over the smallness of man and the greatness of G-d before we approach Him with our daily requests.

Pesukei Dezimra Every Day and one’s Concerns will go away.

“My own experience is that involving oneself in Pesukei Dezimra not only helps one daven the entire tefilah on a completely different level, but also rouses one’s sense of bitachon. In David Hamelech’s own words “The G-d of Yisroel told me… the righteous will rule over man, he will prevail through his fear of Hashem” (Shmuel II 23:3).

“In modern Hebrew, bitachon means security or defense; and bituach means insurance. Both of these uses cloud the issue:

Yisrael Betach BaHashem, the Jewish people can trust only in Hashem. Only through arousing our sense of Hashem’s power and providence can we possibly find any comfort. In the words of the Chovos HaLevavos, ‘He who does not trust in Hashem, places his trust in something else.’”

“I certainly identify with this, perhaps more so, since I am so familiar with the way people live ‘out there.’ I find these Psalms extremely powerful.”

Baruch She’amar – A Song of Desire

Ron is ready with his next question: “I notice that while the Pesukei Dezimra contains only Biblical quotes, my Siddur notes no Biblical quotes in the introductory passage.”

“Because these passages are so important and comprise their own special mitzvah of praising G-d, we introduce and conclude with special blessings, just as we recite blessings before and after eating, and before performing mitzvos. The introductory prayer, which begins with the words Baruch She’amar, begins by blessing G-d ‘who said and made,’ a quality unique to Hashem. He both says and performs, whereas all else in the world either orders or acts (Avudraham). Baruch She’amar includes hints to all of Creation by alluding to the Ten Statements with which Hashem made the world. To quote the Tur (Orach Chayim 51): ‘One must recite Baruch She’amar with song and sweetness because it is a beautiful and desirous song.

The concluding blessing of Pesukei Dezimra begins with the word Yishtabach. In order to avoid any interruption between these berachos, one may not interrupt from the time one recites Baruch She’amar until the end of davening (Shulchan Aruch 51:4). The Medrash reports that when the verse speaks of someone ‘who is afraid because he has sinned’ it refers to a person who spoke during Pesukei Dezimra.”

Singing David’s Song will keep us from Steering Wrong

Ron notes that while Baruch She’amar states that we use the songs of David, Your servant, to praise Hashem, not all the verses in Pesukei Dezimra come from Psalms.

“Although a few passages in Pesukei Dezimra are from other authors, the vast majority were written by King David. Even the two sections taken from Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles) are actually quotes of King David that appear in those books.

“Among the notable exceptions is the very end of Pesukei Dezimra where we recite Az Yashir, the Song that the Jewish people sang after miraculously crossing the Red Sea. This epic is considered the song of praise of the Jewish people and therefore merits its special place in the daily Pesukei Dezimra. It is singled out as such a special praise, that halacha requires one to sing  it daily as if one personally  experienced this miraculous manifestation of G-d’s presence.

“Notwithstanding all its wondrous virtues, there is still somehalachic controversy whether it should be recited as part of Pesukei Dezimra or not.”

“How so?”

“The Rambam, perhaps the greatest scholar of the last thousand years, mentions the recital of Az Yashir after Yishtabach, not before. Apparently, since King David did not author Az Yashir, the Rambam feels that it should not be included between the two blessings; only passages that are authored by King David should be included. I am personally unaware of any community that currently follows this practice.”

Hodu – Before Baruch She’amar or After?

Ron is ready with his next question: “I have noticed that some congregations begin Pesukei Dezimra with Baruch She’amar, while others begin with a different passage. What is the rationale behind these two different approaches?”

“King David taught this song to be sung on the day that Aron, which held the Ten Commandments, was brought to the City of David, in the city of Jerusalem (Divrei Hayamim I 16). Later they were sung to accompany the daily offerings in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, until the Beis Hamikdash was built (Seder Olam, Chapter 14). Thus, they are praises that are directly associated with the offerings of the Jewish people and at the same time they are beautiful praises that reflect on the early history of the Jewish nation.

The question is whether we should recite them as part of the regular Pesukei Dezimra, albeit it placing them closer to the part of the prayer when we discuss the offerings, or whether they are said as a sequel to korbanos and prior to Pesukei Dezimra. Ashkenazic practice follows the first approach and Sefardic the latter – two old customs, both cited by early authoritative sources (Tur).”

Pesukei Dezimra: Fulfilling Hashem’s Only Desire

“Could you sum up in a few words what we have learned today?”

“Rather than my words, I will cite a great early scholar, the Ramban: ‘All that Hashem desires from this world are that man should thank Him for creating him, focus on His praise when he prays, and that the community pray together with concentration: Mankind should gather together and thank the Lord who created them, broadcasting: We are your creations!’” (Ramban, Shemos 13:16).

To this Ron replied : “You just mentioned that the community should recite the praises together. In my visits to different synagogues, I have noticed that in the Sefardic community the entire congregation recites these prayers in unison. In many other synagogues, someone begins and ends each passage aloud so that everyone can read from the same place. It seems from your description that this is the proper way one should recite these prayers.

“However, in some shuls that I frequent the prayers seem far more chaotic. Although these shuls are, thank G-d, very crowded and well attended, people arrive at different times and each person starts praying by himself. No one leads the services until after Pesukei Dezimra is complete, and they are certainly not said in unison. I must admit that I do not find this part of the services very attractive. It certainly does not fit the beautiful description you just gave me.”

Yosel shifted uncomfortably, realizing that Ron is absolutely correct. “It is embarrassing to admit that we are not doing what we should be,” he began. “Your criticism is extremely well founded. Would you be willing to come with me and speak to the Rabbi of our congregation about the problem? I admit that the problem has bothered me for a while, but I have not had the gumption to do anything about it. Perhaps you can help me?”

Ron realized that he had turned the tables. He had come as an outsider sharing something that bothered him. He had expected to receive an answer that he would not foresee; similar to Yosel’s other brilliant answers. He did not expect to be the person Yosel would appeal to for help in what appeared to be some type of crusade. But Yosel’s face indicated that he was sincere in his request. Not knowing the rabbi, Ron was uncertain what to expect, but at the meeting hefound the rabbi more than accomodating.

“I have wanted to introduce this in the shul for a long time,” the rabbi said after listening to their complaint. “The old minhag in all communities always included someone leading the services from the very beginning of Berachos. Why and when this practice changed is not for our discussion now, but I would like your help in changing the practice in our shul.”

In Conclusion, the Congregation’s Resolution

Ron became a very active member of the shul, although his attire initially looked fairly dissimilar from most other members. His input as an “outsider” was happily accepted. And as Ron morphed into Reuvein and learned how to use the Hebrew Siddur fluently, his unflagging enthusiasm for Pesukei Dezimra spurred major change not only in himself and in his good friend Yosel, but also to Congregation Bnei Torah. Ultimately, his enthusiasm and initiative spiritually permeated the entire world.

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