Rav Lazer Shach – the Transmitter of Mesorah

In honor and memory of Rav Shach, whose yahrzeit is on the 16th of MarCheshvan, I am sending this article.

The yahrzeit of Rav Elazer Menachem Man Shach falls on the 16th of MarCheshvan. Rav Shach was the last surviving member of his generation of gedolei Yisrael, and as such was the link to gedolei Yisrael of over 100 years ago, whom he knew well and whose approach to Yiddishkeit he taught.

Rav Shach’s birth date is usually reported as Erev Rosh Chodesh Shvat, 5655/1895, although the exact year of his birth is uncertain. He was born in the village of Vaboilnick, Lithuania, at a time when all of Lithuania and Eastern Poland were under the rule of the Russian Czar. His family was wealthy in yiras shamayim, but destitute in worldly possessions.

Rav Shach would often point out that the gedolim of his generation developed because of the tremendous sacrifice they had for Torah and their lack of material wealth. Indeed, his early years are reflective of the tremendous difference between his generation and ours.

HIS FIRST YESHIVAH PONEVITZ

Rav Shach developed a deep attachment to Torah at a very young age. When he was eleven years old, Rav Shach left his home and his hometown to go to the Yeshivah Ketanah in Ponevitz. At this period in history, it was very common for eleven-year olds to be apprenticed for work. Poverty among Jews in Czarist Russia was rampant; government anti-Semitism made it almost impossible for Jews to earn a living. They were banned from most professions and trades, and generally tried to eke out a living from manual labor, small trade or farming, although a fortunate few had small businesses.

Out of necessity, children as young as eleven and twelve were commonly apprenticed to skilled and semi-skilled craftsmen. There was often not enough food at home to feed them, and if they were apprenticed, at least they were fed and clothed, albeit poorly. A lucky, young apprentice might even earn enough money to buy a pair of shoes to help him through the harsh Russian winter.

Some dedicated youngsters ignored the relative security of apprenticeship and left for yeshivah at a very young age. This usually meant going to the nearest large town or city, where a prominent talmid chacham headed a yeshivah that was conducted in a local, unheated shul building.

The conditions that Rav Shach and the other young talmidim endured in no way approximated current yeshivah conditions. These yeshivos had no kitchens, dining rooms, or dormitories. The student body was comprised of bochurim learning in a shul or beis medrash, guided and taught by a local rav when he was not occupied with his communal responsibilities.

Many yeshivah bochurim came from very poor families that could not afford to send them any money. With no funds, they slept in the beis medrash where they learned day and night, or found work as night watchmen in unheated factories or warehouses. This at least provided a roof over their heads during the bitterly cold Russian or Polish winters and a little money to buy food.

Bochurim with no money to buy food usually ate “teg.” Every day (tog) of the week, they were assigned to eat with a family, who often did not have sufficient food for themselves. As a result, many bachurim went days on end without a proper meal. Rav Shach used to describe the embarrassment and deprivation he suffered during his yeshivah days.

STORIES FROM PONEVITZ

Rav Shach often told stories from his years in Ponevitz, thus preserving for our generation the mesorah of Ponevitz Yeshivah and the gedolim who lived and visited there. (The Ponevitz Yeshivah in Bnei Braq was founded by Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, who was the last rav of Ponevitz before it was destroyed by the Nazis.)

When Rav Shach arrived in Ponevitz Yeshivah Ketanah as an eleven-year old, Rav Itzele Rabinovitch, who was known as Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, was the rosh yeshivah and the rav of the town. Rav Itzele was famous as the genius of his generation, a rather impressive title, considering that it included such Torah luminaries as Rav Chayim Brisker, Rav Dovid Karliner, the Ohr Somayach, the Divrei Malkiel, the Rogatchover Gaon, the Avnei Neizer, Rav Chayim Ozer, the Chofetz Chayim, and the Aruch Hashulchan.

Rav Itzele’s hasmadah (diligence in Torah study) was legendary. He would learn until his last ounce of energy was exhausted and, invariably, fell asleep with his boots on, even when they were covered with mud. (The streets of Ponevitz were as yet unpaved.) As Rav Shach expressed it, if Rav Itzele had enough energy to take off his boots before falling asleep, he would not have used the strength to remove his boots, but to learn more Torah!!

Rav Shach illustrated Rav Itzele’s tremendous fear of sin with the following story. When a Jew opened his business on Shabbos in Ponevitz, Rav Itzele resigned from his position as rav, explaining that he was petrified to go to the Beis Din shel Maalah (the heavenly tribunal) as the rav of a community where Shabbos was publicly desecrated. Eventually, the chevrah kadisha forced the storeowner to close on Shabbos, by refusing to bury his father until he agreed to close the store on Shabbos!

Rav Shach quoted this story to point out the awe of Hashem of earlier generations. How many modern day rabbonim would resign their position because someone in their city desecrates Shabbos?

Another aspect of Rav Itzele’s righteousness that affected Rav Shach was his tefilah. Rav Itzele would daven with a burning passion. This made a tremendous impression on the young, budding scholar.

Rav Shach pointed out that Rav Itzele’s innovative style of learning was praised by some and criticized by others. He quoted Rav Chayim Brisker criticizing Rav Itzele as being expert in three Talmuds, the Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, and Talmud Rav Itzele. In other words, Rav Chayim considered Rav Itzele’s approach to learning as more conjectural than analytic. Others disagreed with Rav Chayim, contending that Rav Itzele’s shiurim were total brilliance.

Unfortunately, very few of Rav Itzele’s brilliant chiddushei Torah were saved for posterity, other than a small sefer titled Zecher Yitzchok. Rav Itzele’s talmidim included Rav Naftoli Trop, who later became the rosh yeshivah of the Chofetz Chayim’s yeshivah in Raden, and Rav Boruch Horowitz, who later became a magid shiur (Talmud Lecturer) in Slabodka.

SLABODKA

After several years, Rav Shach left the Ponevitz Yeshivah Ketanah for the Yeshivah Knesses Yisrael in Slabodka, which was the “mother of yeshivos” in those days. Most of the gedolei Yisrael of Rav Shach’s generation were educated in Slabodka.

Slabodka was a suburb of Kovno and stood on the opposite bank of the Vilaya River from Kovno. Although Kovno was politically and economically far more important (between the two world wars, it was the capital and largest city of Lithuania), Slabodka was clearly the Torah capital of Eastern Europe. It was the home of not one, but two major yeshivos, at a time when there were very few large yeshivos. Surprisingly, both these yeshivos were created by the same gadol, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, always referred to as the “Alter from Slabodka.”

The older of the two yeshivos, Yeshivas Knesses Beis Yitzchok, (named after Rav Yitzchok Elchanan Spektor, the rav of Kovno and the posek hador when Rav Shach was born) was a non-mussar yeshivah. The yeshivah schedule was devoted exclusively to learning, and no official time was set aside for mussar and personality development. The yeshivah’s hashkafah (philosophy) was that a student immersed in Torah did not require structured mussar, and that, on the contrary, it might even stunt his growth in Torah learning.

When Rav Shach arrived in Slabodka, the rosh yeshivah of Knesses Beis Yitzchok was Rav Boruch Ber Levovitz. In addition to being a tremendous gaon in learning, Rav Boruch Ber was also a tzaddik who never looked up when walking in the street and was completely unconcerned with the mundane world.

The other yeshivah in Slabodka was the mussar yeshivah, Knesses Yisrael, which was named after Rav Yisrael Salanter. Its rosh yeshivah was Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein. (It is interesting to note that both Rav Boruch Ber and Rav Moshe Mordechai had studied under Rav Chayim Brisker, when he was a magid shiur [a lecturer] in the yeshivah of Volozhin. Thus, Rav Shach absorbed Rav Chayim’s methodology through them.)

The two yeshivos of Slabodka were in excellent rapport with one another, as one would expect when the yeshivos are run by great tzaddikim. Students of one yeshivah attended shiurim at the other and sought out its magidei shiur and roshei yeshivah to “talk in learning.” Thus, although Rav Aharon Kotler officially studied in Knesses Yisrael, he and others regularly attended Rav Boruch Ber’s shiur at Knesses Beis Yitzchok. The attitude of the great luminaries running these yeshivos was that the more Torah institutions there were, the more Torah would be learned. This attitude influenced many of Rav Shach’s later decisions about opening new yeshivos.

Rav Shach attended Knesses Yisrael, the mussar yeshivah, whose guiding spirit was its mashgiach, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the famed “Alter of Slabodka.” (His title, the “alter” [the older mashgiach], distinguished him from the other mashgiach, Rav Ber Hirsch Heller, who was his junior by a few years. Rav Heller later became the father-in-law of Rav Yaakov Kaminetski, one of the yeshivah’s many talented students. Many decades later, Rav Yaakov and Rav Shach, who knew one another from their Slabodka days, renewed their acquaintance as gedolei and manhigei klal Yisrael, when they met in Yerushalayim to discuss community concerns.)

The Alter held that a rosh yeshivah or mashgiach must devote all his energy to his talmidim. A wealthy man once brought his only son to study in Slabodka. As he presented his son to the Alter, he begged him, “Please take good care of this boy. He is my ‘ben yochid’ (only son).” The Alter replied, “Every talmid of the yeshivah is my ben yochid.” This was not mere rhetoric, but the Alter’s way of life. For example, Rav Shach related that the Alter fasted when a bochur failed to learn or grow in his Yiddishkeit. This approach to chinuch influenced Rav Shach’s leadership not only of his talmidim, but also his relationship to people who came to seek his advice.

To appreciate what Rav Shach absorbed in Slabodka, we need to understand the Alter, who was an indirect disciple of Rav Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement. The Alter developed the teachings of Rav Yisrael and his early disciples to meet the challenges of his time. Furthermore, he was brilliant at understanding talmidim and nurturing them to their greatest potential.

The Alter’s original contribution to the Mussar Movement was his emphasis on “Gadlus Ha’Adam” – that a person should develop with his own unique abilities in order to serve Hashem to the maximum.

The Alter nurtured an impressive list of gedolei Torah including Rav Shach, Rav Aharon Kotler of Lakewood, Rav Yaakov Kaminetski of Torah Voda’as, Rav Reuvain Grozovski of Beis Medrash Elyon, Rav Yaakov Ruderman of Ner Yisrael, Rav Yizchok Hutner of Chayim Berlin, Rav Moshe Chevroni of Yeshivas Chevron. As Rav Shach used to say, an entire generation of gedolei Yisrael, both in America and in Eretz Yisrael, was trained by one man: the Alter from Slabodka.

Each of these gedolim was a tremendous talmid chacham and a gadol in learning, leadership, and mussar. The Alter developed each one of them in his own unique way. Thus, Rav Hutner was a brilliant leader of men, and his talmidim also excel in hashkafah, Torah machshavah (Jewish thought), and the writings of the Maharal. Rav Yaakov Kaminetski’s greatness as a gadol manifested itself in his unusual expertise and perception in giving advice. Furthermore, he was especially gifted in poskim, Tanach, and dikduk. Rav Ruderman was a person who could quote verbatim virtually every early sefer ever published – and at the same time train a young talmid to think for himself. In addition to his lightning-fast mind and brilliance in learning, Rav Aharon Kotler became the community leader who motivated people to work for the kahal (community) in areas where no one else was successful. He has been described as “fire on earth.”

A common thread of the talmidim of Slabodka was that, although they were totally committed to learning, when the need arose, they involved themselves in community responsibilities. Rav Shach, too, would happily have spent all his time learning and teaching Torah, but he unhesitatingly assumed community responsibility when it became necessary.

Following the Alter’s teachings, Rav Shach developed into the proactive leader of klal Yisrael, both collectively and individually. When the time came, he was totally willing to render decisions on any issue – political, religious, educational, kashrus, organizational. Although he always emphasized and demonstrated that nothing is more valuable than learning Torah intensely to the best of one’s abilities, he assumed the mantle of communal leadership and made crucial decisions when it was necessary.

Slabodka had a tremendous effect on Rav Shach, although he was able to remain there for only two years, until the outbreak of World War I. The eastern front of the war, between Russia and Germany, raged through the areas of heavy Jewish settlement in western Russia. All the yeshivos fled, most of them deeper inside Russia.

RAV ISSER ZALMAN AND RAV AHARON

Details of Rav Shach’s travels during the war are unclear, but we know that he found his way to Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer’s yeshivah in Slutzk. Rav Issar Zalman had also studied under Rav Chayim Brisker in the yeshivah of Volozhin, and he then proceeded to develop his own style of learning. Rav Shach used to quote Rav Chayim as saying, “Had Rav Isser Zalman followed completely in my footsteps, he would have become the master of my style of learning. Instead, he became the master of his own style of learning.” Rav Shach approved highly of this approach and never insisted that talmidim should absorb his style of understanding Gemara. It was far more important to him that they develop their own derech in learning.

In Slutzk, Rav Shach became the chavrusah of Rav Aharon Kotler, who had married Rav Isser Zalman’s daughter, Perel. Eventually, Rav Aharon became a magid shiur in the yeshivah and later the rosh yeshivah.

In 5684/1923, Rav Shach married Gittel Gilmovski, Rav Isser Zalman’s niece. For the next five years, he continued toiling in Torah day and night. In the meantime, the Communists seized power in Russia and Rav Aharon moved the yeshivah to Kletzk, Poland, which was free of Communist rule.

In 5689/1929, Rav Shach became a magid shiur in Kletzk and began his lifelong career as a Torah teacher. Until the Second World War broke out ten years later, he was a magid shiur or rosh yeshivah of several yeshivos, , first in Kletzk, next in Novardek and afterward, for four years as rosh yeshivah of the chassidishe Yeshivas Karlin in Lunenitz. Subsequently, he returned to Kletzk.

Rav Shach related that, shortly after the Second World War broke out, the invading Soviet army was approaching Kletzk from the east. It was obvious that the yeshivah needed to relocate quickly, and Rav Shach went looking for potential sites. In one town, he met an old Jew who was a grandson of Rav Yisrael Salanter. Rav Shach asked him whether the town had an appropriate beis medrash or shul large enough for the yeshivah, whether the local people would help support the yeshivah, and whether they could provide lodging for the talmidim.

Turning to Rav Shach, the old man retorted, “Why are you delaying? First, bring the talmidim here, and set up the yeshivah. Do you think that the people will allow the talmidim to sleep in the street? You don’t need extensive planning, but you do need quick action!”

“From that yid,” said Rav Shach, “I learned a tremendous lesson. In times of emergency, don’t raise questions. Act!”

It was characteristic of a baal mussar like Rav Shach to tell a story in which he himself was the target of the message.

THE CHOFETZ CHAYIM

After Rav Isser Zalman moved to Eretz Yisrael in 5685/1925, he often sent inquiries to Rav Shach to bring to the Chofetz Chayim. Rav Shach used these opportunities to become well acquainted with the Chofetz Chayim’s way of observing and understanding the world.

Years later, when important communal matters came up, Rav Shach often said, “I don’t know anything about this subject, but I understand from the Chofetz Chayim that this is what should be done,” or “I have not heard anything about this matter, but I have no doubt that the Chofetz Chayim would decide such-and-such. Since the Chofetz Chayim is no longer alive, I must make that decision for our generation.” Thus, by sending Rav Shach to the Chofetz Chayim with his questions, Rav Isser Zalman was grooming a future gadol hador.

ERETZ YISRAEL

In 5701/1941, Rav Shach escaped the inferno of Europe for Eretz Yisrael. Before he found his position as rosh yeshivah in the Ponevitz Yeshivah, he was a magid shiur in several yeshivos in different cities, including Petach Tikvah, Rechovot, and Yerushalayim. During this time, he lived in Yerushalayim and developed a relationship with the Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchok Ze’ev Soloveichik (the son of Rav Chayim Brisker), who transferred the mesorah of Brisk to Yerushalayim. (The current rosh yeshivah of the Brisk Yeshivah in Yerushalayim, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveichik, is the Brisker Rav’s grandson, while Rav Meshulam Dovid Soloveichik, rosh yeshivah of another very prominent Brisk yeshivah, is a son of the Brisker Rav. The “Brisk”-type yeshivos are headed by descendants of Rav Chayim Brisker or by their talmidim.)

The Brisker Rav was known for his meticulous observance of mitzvos. Rav Shach noted that while many people purchase new suits in honor of Pesach, the Brisker Rav would buy a new jacket to use at the table, in order to be absolutely certain that his clothes were chometz-free!

In 5711/1951, Rav Shach was invited by the Ponevitzer Rav, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, to become rosh yeshivah of Ponevitz Yeshivah in Bnei Braq, and he held this position until his passing, fifty years later. During this time, he gradually became acknowledged as the gadol hador. Thousands of people sought his guidance, dozens of yeshivos asked him for direction, and he was the active leader of the chareidi world, making decisions on the many challenges that affect Torah life in a modern world. He charted the Torah path in dealing with a secular, modern state. Never hesitant to issue decisions and opinions on public matters, whether popular or not, Rav Shach ruled according to the mesorah he had received from gedolei Yisrael. Torah was not to be a public relations tool, but the seal of truth.

AVI EZRI

In 5708/1948, Rav Shach published the first volume of his sefer, Avi Ezri. This sefer is organized according to the order of the Rambam, although in many places it contains his chiddushei Torah (original ideas) on Gemara. His approach is to answer difficult questions on the rishonim in a clear, deceptively simple way. Although the sefer is relatively easy to read, it should be used only by someone who has studied the subject matter in depth. Otherwise, he will fail to see the sefer’s greatness.

Unlike many other authors, Rav Shach did not collect numerous haskamos (approbations) for his sefarim. His first volume carried only one haskamah — from his wife’s uncle, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer. His second volume, published in 5716/1956, also has only one haskamah — from the Brisker Rav (Rav Isser Zalman had passed away by then).

The sefer is built on intellectual honesty. Sometimes, in a later volume, Rav Shach will contend that what he wrote in an earlier volume isincorrect. In his hakdamah (introduction) to thefirst volume, he describes the extreme honesty that one must apply to learning — a manifestation of the training he received in Slabodka and from Rav Itzele.

In the hakdamah, Rav Shach questions whether one has the right to publish sefarim if he is not convinced that he has researched the subject thoroughly. How can one claim that he has studied the subject to its greatest depth? Furthermore, if one republishes a sefer (the first volume of Avi Ezri was published four times in Rav Shach’s lifetime), one should ostensibly relearn each sugya, to see if one still agrees with what one wrote before  – just as a rav may not pasken a shaylah that he has ruled on previously, without reviewing the question once again.

Rav Shach closes his hakdamah with a realistic conclusion. If we published only those sefarim written totally lishmah, exclusively for the sake of Torah, we would never produce any sefarim at all, and Torah learning would be severely hampered. We are permitted to produce sefarim that increase Torah learning, which is our goal. Hesitating to publish a sefer would minimize Torah learning and leave more opportunity for the intrusion of non-Torah hashkafos.

A FEW VIGNETTES

Everyone finds much to identify with in Rav Shach’s stories and mussar. I will share with you some of the stories that I find particularly touching.

A well-known talmid chacham was offered the position of magid shiur in a yeshivah where the previous holder of the position had been unsuccessful. Before taking the position, he came to ask Rav Shach for advice and a beracha. Much to his surprise, Rav Shach recommended that he turn down the position. Rav Shach explained that, although it is permitted to accept the position, it is inadvisable to accept a position that will cause a talmid chacham to feel bad because someone else replaced him.

Rav Shach was annoyed at the common practice of yeshivah students setting aside time for a daily nap. “When you get tired,” he said, “put your head down for a few minutes. But there is no reason to devote a specific time in the day for this purpose.”

He was once asked to be the sandek for one baby of a set of twins, while the grandfather was to be sandek for the other twin. Rav Shach insisted that he either be sandek for both twins or for neither. He pointed out that later in their lives, the two twins might compare themselves, and one would point out that Rav Shach had been his sandek and not his brother’s. He did not want to be party to something that could lead to ill feeling between two brothers.

Often, Rav Shach pointed out that the pace of learning in the European yeshivos that produced gedolim was much quicker than is common today. He noted that in Slabodka, they regularly studied ten blatt of Gemara a week. Rav Shach remarked, “Even if we did not understand the sugya properly at first, we would understand it better the next time around.”

Through Rav Shach, a generation of yeshivah students was connected to the mesorah of the Chofetz Chayim, the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Chayim Brisker, Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, Rav Yisrael Salanter and the Mussar Movement. Ye’hi Zichro Baruch.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The subject of this article is Rav Shlomoh Levitan, whose yahrzeit falls out this week.

Question #1: May a Mechalel Shabbos Duchen?

“The only kohen in our shul operates his business on Shabbos. Until recently, he had never duchened, and the rav was comfortable with that. Recently, the shul’s chazzan encouraged the kohen to duchen, and he began doing so. Should we stop him?”

Question #2: The Strength of a Rock

How did a tremendous talmid chacham, a correspondent of the Rogatchover Gaon, a close talmid of both the Chofetz Chayim and Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, become the Rosh Av Beis Din of the thriving Jewish metropolis that included Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa?

Answer:

Our opening question was asked of Rav Moshe Feinstein by a first-class talmid chacham, Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan, then rav of Rock Island, Illinois. Rav Moshe’s response is published in Shu”t Igros Moshe, Volume 1, Number 33. Igros Moshe does not include the full correspondence on the topic, for which one needs to find a copy of Rav Levitan’s teshuvos, Yeri’os Shlomoh, where it is included as Siman #6.

Who was Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan, and what was he doing in Rock Island, Illinois?

Rav Ben Zion Levitan

Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan’s father, Rav Ben Zion Levitan, was one of the foremost poskim in Lithuania in his time. The older Rav Levitan had been the rav of Tzitavian, the tiny Lithuanian shtetl that, at different times, boasted several prominent gedolim as its rav, including, much later, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky.

Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan studied in the Chofetz Chayim’s yeshivah in Radin. His entire life, he viewed the Chofetz Chayim as his primary rebbe. While a student in Radin, he was appointed as a rebbe to younger students. He also studied in the famed mussar yeshivah of Kelm (which, later, was the main yeshivah where Rav Eliyahu Dessler studied).

Rock-solid lamdus

Subsequently, Rav Levitan studied in the yeshivah of Ponevitz, Lithuania, under the famed tzadik and gaon, Rav Itzele Rabinovitch, who was known as Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, because he was also the rav of the city.

To illustrate Rav Itzele’s tremendous yiras shamayim, Rav Shach used to tell the following story: When, for the first time in Ponevitz, a Jew opened his business on Shabbos, Rav Itzele, whose sole income was from his position as rav, resigned from the position, explaining that he was petrified to go to the Beis Din shel Maalah (the heavenly tribunal) as the rav of a community where Shabbos was publicly desecrated. (Eventually, the chevrah kadisha forced the storeowner to close on Shabbos by refusing to bury his father, until he agreed to keep the store closed!)

Rav Itzele’s hasmadah (diligence in Torah study) was legendary. He would learn until his last ounce of energy was exhausted and, invariably, fell asleep with his boots on, even when they were covered with mud. (In his era, the streets of Ponevitz were unpaved.)

Rav Itzele was considered by many to be the genius of his era, a generation that included much competition for that distinction since it contained such luminaries as Rav Chayim Brisker, Rav Dovid Karliner, the Ohr Somayach, the Rogatchover Gaon, Rav Chayim Ozer, and the Aruch Hashulchan. Indeed, Rav Itzele and Rav Chayim Brisker had been chavrusos (study partners) for a few years, shortly after their marriages (in the 1870’s). Rav Itzele was a discipleof Rav Chayim’s father, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichek, the Beis Halevi. Unfortunately, very few of Rav Itzele’s brilliant chiddushei Torah were saved for posterity, other than a small sefer entitled Zecher Yitzchak.

Thus, Rav Levitan’s two main rabbei’im, the Chofetz Chayim and Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, were both renowned gedolim, known both for their tzidkus and theirlomdus.

The rock of the yeshivah

After his years of study in these yeshivos, Rav Levitan taught in the yeshivah of Brisk, at the same time that Rav Elchonon Wasserman was also a magid shiur there. (This was prior to Rav Elchonon opening his yeshivah in Baranovitch.) Rav Levitan then became a magid shiur in the yeshivah in Shavel. Eventually, Rav Levitan became rav of Tver, Lithuania. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky used to say that, in the Lithuania between the wars, the period of time that we are now discussing, there were at least 200 shtetlach and towns, each of which boasted a rav who was a complete baki in shas and poskim. The difference between the highly respected posek and one who was considered a rav of “ordinary” status was the depth to which the highly respected posek understood shas!

Between a rock and a hard place

Where is Rock Island? How did it get its unusual name? And, germane to our article, how did a gadol of Rav Levitan’s stature become rav there?

Rock Island is in western Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Davenport, Iowa. Although a visit there today would never reveal this, there was once a strong frum community there of immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe. It was a shul in this community, Bnai Jacob Congregation, that hired Rav Levitan as its rav after his arrival in the United States in the 1920’s. He remained the rav of the community for 38 years, until almost his last days, eventually becoming the rav of the other shul in the city, Beis Yisroel, and also of Congregation Anshei Emes of Davenport. He retired in 1965, two and a half years after his rebbitzen had passed away on the seventh day of Chanukah, 5723 (December 28, 1962). He was respected as one of the top rabbonim in the United States.

In 5724 (1964), Rav Levitan published a sefer, Siach Chein, droshos on the parshios, yomim tovim and special occasions. His sefer halachah, Yeri’os Shlomoh, from whose introduction the biographical information for this article was gleaned, was published posthumously by his children, and contains dialogues in halachah between Rav Levitan and a Who’s Who of gedolei Yisroel, including the Rogatchover Gaon and Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Levitan passed away on the sixteenth of Elul, 5726 (September 1, 1966).

On the rocks

Why is the city named Rock Island? Rock Island was the original name of what is now called Arsenal Island, the largest island in the Mississippi River. One of the largest employers in the area is a US-government-owned weapons’ manufacturing facility, which gave Arsenal Island its new name, but Rock Island remained the name of the city on the eastern side of the Mississippi. The metropolitan area of Davenport and Rock Island includes several other cities, and the current population estimate of the metropolitan area covering both states and both sides of the Mississippi is 380,000.

Rock bottom

Although the core of the community of Rock Island was solidly frum when Rav Levitan arrived, with time, the older generation of committed Jews passed on, and the younger people either moved away or did not remain staunch in their Yiddishkeit. Several of Rav Levitan’s teshuvos reflect the sad reality of being rav in a community that is slowly disappearing. Among these questions is a teshuvah concerning whether one may build a mikveh in a boarded-up, no longer functional shul.

Rock kohen echad

The halachic question that opened this article reflects another manifestation of this problem. In 1949, when Rav Levitan sent this question to Rav Moshe, the shul no longer had any shomer Shabbos kohanim, and there was no longer any duchening. There was one kohen who came to shul on yomim tovim, a man who owned and operated a store on Shabbos. He had not been duchening until the chazzan of the shul encouraged him to do so. The question was whether it was permitted to allow the kohen to continue duchening or whether Rav Levitan must insist that the kohen stop. He wrote a lengthy missive detailing the aspects of the question and mailed it to Rav Moshe Feinstein for the latter’s opinion. Here is the halachic background:

Rocky conflict

At first glance, whether a sinner may duchen appears to be a dispute between the two Talmudim, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Gittin 5:9) states: “Don’t say, ‘this man violates prohibitions like arayos’, or ‘he is a shedder of blood –and he should bless me?’ The Holy One, blessed is He, said: ‘Who is blessing you? I am blessing you.’” This passage of Yerushalmi implies that even someone violating the most serious of crimes may recite the duchening.

However, this Yerushalmi seems to conflict with a ruling of the Talmud Bavli (Brochos 32b), which states that a kohen who killed someone should not duchen. The Kesef Mishneh (Hilchos Tefillah u’Birchas Kohanim 15:3) clarifies that the Yerushalmi may be understood in a way that it does not conflict with the Bavli. He explains that the Yerushalmi refers to a case where we do not know for certain whether the kohen actually sinned, but that there is a persistent rumor of his violating very serious sins. Even according to the Yerushalmi, the halachah is that were we certain that the kohen killed someone or worshipped idols, he would not be permitted to duchen, as stated in the Bavli.  However, definite knowledge that he committed other sins does not preclude his duchening, nor do rumors that he committed violations such as arayos or murder.

This approach is supported by the ruling of the Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah u’Birchas Kohanim 15:3, 6): “A kohen who killed someone, even if only through negligence, and even if he subsequently did teshuvah, should not duchen… a kohen who worshipped idols, even if he did so under coercion or negligently, may never duchen again, even if he did teshuvah… However, other sins do not prevent him… A kohen who does not have any of the things that prevent him from duchening, even if he is not a Torah scholar, is careless in his mitzvah observance, has a scandalous reputation, and his business dealings are dishonest, should nevertheless duchen. We do not stop him — because it is a positive mitzvah for every kohen who may duchen. Do not say to an evil person, ‘add more iniquity by not observing mitzvos.’”

Thus, the Rambam rules that a kohen who killed someone or worshipped idols may not duchen, but a kohen who violated any other mitzvos of the Torah may and should still duchen, even if his sinning was intentional and he has as yet not done teshuvah.

All of this does not present any reason to exclude a kohen who desecrates Shabbos from duchening. Although he performs heinous sins, even sinners, with very few exceptions, are encouraged to duchen. However, to understand Rav Levitan’s question, we need to do some more research.

Worshipping rocks

The Gemara (Chullin 5a) says that we accept korbanos from Jewish sinners, in order to encourage them to do teshuvah. One can infer that these sinners are treated just as the sinning kohanim whom we allow to duchen – even though they sin intentionally and have no thought of doing teshuvah!

Notwithstanding this “liberal” attitude to treating sinners, the Gemara makes two exceptions whose korbanos are not accepted — someone who worships idols and someone who desecrates Shabbos openly. We do not accept the korbanos of these two categories of sinners.

On the basis of this Gemara, the Pri Chodosh (Orach Chayim 128:39) explains that just as an idol worshipper is not permitted to duchen, so, too, a mechalel Shabbos in public may not duchen. In other words, although sinners are both permitted and encouraged to offer korbanos and to duchen, there are certain sins that place a perpetrator beyond the pale of permitting him to duchen. Since we see that a Shabbos breaker may not offer korbanos, because he is compared to an idol worshipper, so, too, he is prohibited from duchening. This position is shared by several other prominent acharonim (Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 128:39; Rav Shulchan Aruch 128:52; Mishnah Berurah 128:134; Kaf Hachayim 128:217).

Thus, Rav Levitan was in a predicament. Now that the storeowner had begun to duchen, it would create a major ruckus to stop him. If the halachah requires that he be stopped, then there is no choice. On the other hand, if this kohen may duchen, there would be no reason to turn the situation into a battleground.

Rock of Gibraltar

This was the question that Rav Levitan sent to Rav Moshe, including an analysis of the sources in halachah on the topic. In his response, Rav Moshe noted that although the Gemara compares a Shabbos desecrater to an idol worshipper and rules that, in both instances, we do not accept their korbanos, there is, nevertheless, a qualitative difference between the gravity of these two aveiros. The possibility exists that, although someone who committed idolatry may not duchen, a blatant mechalel Shabbos might be permitted.

Rav Moshe then notes that this distinction can be proved. The Rambam rules that an idol worshipper may not duchen, even after he has done teshuvah, whereas Rav Moshe contends that a former Shabbos breaker who has done teshuvah may duchen. There is a qualitative difference between idolatry and desecrating Shabbos.

Rock of ages

Here is an even stronger proof that a Shabbos desecrator may duchen. The Mishnah (Menachos 109a) rules that “kohanim who served in the Temple of Chonyo may not serve in the Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim, and certainly those who once served avodah zarah may not… They are treated like blemished kohanim, who may receive a portion of the meat of the offerings and eat it, but they may not offer korbanos.”

What was the temple of Chonyo? Chonyo, who had been passed over as kohen gadol, built his own altar in Alexandria, Egypt (Menachos 109b). Constructing this place of worship was a clear violation of halachah, although the Mishnah concludes that Beis Chonyo, as it refers to this structure, was not a house of idol worship. Nevertheless, any kohen who ever served in Beis Chonyo was forever banned from serving in the Beis Hamikdash, even if he subsequently did full teshuvah for his sins.

Rock Gornish

Notwithstanding the Mishnah’s statement that anyone who served idols may never again serve in the Beis Hamikdash, the Gemara draws a distinction between how he served idols. Although slaughtering for an idol is a sin that merits capital punishment (Sanhedrin 7:6), the Gemara (Menachos 109a-b) rules that a kohen who slaughtered an animal for avodah zarah, but never performed any other idol worship, and who then did teshuvah, may perform the service (avodah) in the Beis Hamikdash (see Rashi). Slaughtering for idols is treated more leniently than other violations of idolatry, such as offering to the idol, which invalidate the kohen forever from serving in the Beis Hamikdash or duchening. Certainly, a kohen who slaughtered for avodah zarah and did teshuvah may still duchen, just as he may still serve in the Beis Hamikdash, in spite of the severity of his sin.

Rav Moshe notes that although flouting Shabbos publicly is as sinful as venerating idols, not all forms of idolatry invalidate the perpetrator from ever again offering korbanos or from duchening. Thus, although desecrating Shabbos is a grievous sin, we cannot prove that it invalidates the perpetrator from duchening. It may be parallel to slaughtering for idols, which does not invalidate the perpetrator from duchening. Rav Moshe notes that this ruling of his runs against the consensus of the acharonim on the subject.

Rav Moshe then adds another logical reason why a Shabbos desecrator may still duchen. The Gemara states that someone who brazenly desecrates Shabbos is treated like an idolater. The halachah is that only someone who desecrates Shabbos openly has this status, not a person who defiles Shabbos only behind closed doors. Why do we draw a distinction between violating Shabbos overtly and doing so clandestinely? The transgression is the same, and, truthfully, transgressing covertly is a more serious offence since it implies greater concern about what people think than about what Hashem knows!

Rav Moshe explains that someone who is mechalel Shabbos openly is considered an idolater because public chillul Shabbos is a colossal chillul Hashem. Rav Moshe suggests that perhaps it is such a colossal chillul Hashem only when the reason for the sin is his disdain for mitzvos, not when his motivation is for profit. Although Shabbos desecration for monetary gain is grievous, it may not be tantamount to idol worship, even when performed blatantly.

Rocking the boat

Rav Moshe then rules that, although it is permitted for the recalcitrant storeowner to duchen, the rav has the right to ban him from duchening in order to discourage chillul Shabbos, even when this ruling will discontinue duchening in shul. Nevertheless, Rav Moshe concludes that the rav should not ban a mechalel Shabbos from duchening if the chazzan recited the word kohanim aloud, or someone invited the kohen to duchen, since now it might be required min hatorah for him to duchen. In any instance, Rav Moshe suggests that one not “rock the boat” should a mechalel Shabbos want to duchen.

In conclusion – Falling from the rock

When I was a rav in a Buffalo, New York, suburb, I often had occasion to drive through the small towns in the area. In most of the towns, there was a building that one could easily identify as having once been a frum shul. Unfortunately, none of these towns has any frum presence anymore, and few have any recognizable Jewish presence, although, at one time, there may have been prominent rabbonim and talmidei chachamim living there.

The main reason that these cities disappeared Jewishly was the lack of chinuch. In the 1950’s, Torah Umesorah was created, with the mission of creating Jewish day schools in every town possible. Largely, the cities that today have frum communities are those that had day schools created in that era. We see how Torah education is of such paramount importance. The communities that flourish today survived because of their commitment to chinuch.

The Torah of Rav Yehosef Schwartz

Since this parsha, Re’eih, discusses the different species of kosher animals, a topic that will be included in this article, it provides an opportunity to learn about a very unique talmid chachom and tzadik, Rav Yehosef Schwartz.

The Torah of Rav Yehosef Schwartz

Question #1: Which minyan?

“In the minyan factory shtiebel that I often attend, it sometimes happens that most of my minyan has already heard the entire Chazoras Hashatz and answered Kedushah and Kaddish before we assemble to daven. Does this present us with any halachic questions?”

Question #2: Which chayah?

“A gnu is not listed in the Torah among the seven chayos, kosher wild animals, although it has split hooves and chews its cud. Why is it not listed?”

Question #3: Which borders?

“Where exactly are the borders of Eretz Yisroel?”

Question #4: Which question?

“What do the preceding three questions have to do with one another?”

Answer:

Rav Yehosef Schwartz, an outstanding talmid chochom and oveid Hashem, was also probably the greatest cartographer of Eretz Yisroel in history. We will study some background of this very unusual personality, and learn some of his Torah.

Rav Yehosef Schwartz was born in 1804 in a small Bavarian village where his antecedents had dwelled for many generations. A contemporary of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, he shared many of Rav Hirsch’s characteristics. Both men identified themselves as having a very specific, particular mission in serving Hashem, and pursued it despite living among people who neither shared nor necessarily understood their vision. Both maintained total humility, notwithstanding their considerable accomplishments, personal and communal. Both ended up becoming prolific and original authors on Torah subjects, in spite of the fact that neither had intended to do so early in life. Both married women whom they recognized would assist them in fulfilling their life’s goals, notwithstanding the difference in age between them. Both attended German universities with the specific goal of attaining knowledge they felt was necessary for them to fulfill their mission, yet neither one of them completed the requirements for the coveted doctoral degree. Both were involved extensively in providing chesed for their brethren, both journeyed widely to execute this goal, and both relocated to accomplish what they saw as their specific mission in fulfilling Hashem’s will. Both studied kabbalah, yet couched their knowledge in ways that their readers would not realize that they had drunk from those springs. Neither was always understood by the great halachic authorities of their generation, but both were highly respected gedolim, whose original contributions have withstood the test of time.

Early Life

Rav Yehosef Schwartz was born in Flos, a small Bavarian town, where, already as a youth, he distinguished himself for his hasmodah and sincerity. After studying in yeshiva, he attended the University of Wurzburg for several years, studying the subjects he felt he needed to augment his Torah knowledge: astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences and classical languages. He had already become an exceptional talmid chochom with extensive knowledge of Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, poskim, and midrashic literature. Rav Schwartz is known primarily for his encyclopedic and original work in mapping out Eretz Yisroel, but as we will soon see, this reflects only a small aspect of his greatness.

While quite young, he had already developed a profound love for Eretz Yisroel. At age 24, in 1829, while still living in Germany, he published his first map of the Holy Land. He revised this map twice before he left Europe for Eretz Yisroel.

Go East, My Son

When he was in his late 20’s, he had become convinced that his personal tikun was to move to Eretz Yisroel, no small endeavor at the time, which he proceeded to do despite strong family pressure. Because of various wars and other difficulties, the trip from Germany to Eretz Yisroel took him two years to complete. He finally arrived in Eretz Yisroel on the 13th of Nissan 5593 (1833).

He had originally planned to settle in Tzefas, presumably because of the kabbalistic orientation of the community, but upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel, he was invited to visit Yerushalayim. Once he arrived there, he decided to take up residence there, and he remained there for the rest of his life.

As was not uncommon among Ashkenazim who lived in Eretz Yisroel at this time, he adopted the local Sefardi dress and many of their customs, yet he maintained his very Ashkenazi family name. He never became a member of any of the various kehillos to the exclusion of the others, but considered himself part of all communities.

Upon after arriving in Eretz Yisroel, he taught himself two more languages, Ladino and Arabic, both of which would help him in his future research.

Personal Life

Shortly after moving to Yerushalayim, he married a twelve-year-old orphan. He was 29 years old at the time. They had eight children, four sons and four daughters; unfortunately six of their children perished during Rav Schwartz’s lifetime from the rampant diseases that plagued the country. Rav Schwartz merited taking only one daughter of his to the chupah; a younger daughter married the year after his passing. Although only two of his children survived him, a large number of his descendants are living today.

For the rest of his life, his livelihood was provided by his family, particularly by his older brother, Rav Chaim Schwartz, a rov in Europe who eventually even provided for Rav Yehosef’s widow after his passing. Rav Yehosef kept an active and lengthy correspondence with this brother, who often published the letters he received from Rav Yehosef in various periodicals in Europe. Rav Chaim Schwartz encouraged Rav Yehosef to write and publish his seforim, and arranged that many of Rav Yehosef’s works were translated into German and published in Europe, shortly after they were written.

Rav Yehosef, himself, was known as a great provider of tzedokah, notwithstanding that he and his family always lived in dire poverty and that he, personally, followed a very ascetic lifestyle. He fasted frequently and slept little. He and his wife were heavily involved in many chesed projects, including much hachnosas orchim and providing for widows and orphans.

His Mussar

Many of the observations shared by Rav Schwartz show us his perspective of “mah rabu ma’asechah Hashem.” For example, he notes the tremendous chesed that Hashem provides for us daily by having night very gradually turn to day, and having day so gradually darken to become night. If the day were to change suddenly, we would find the results blinding.

His Travels

Rav Schwartz devoted much of his life to traveling extensively throughout Eretz Yisroel, although we see from much of his correspondence that this travel involved a great deal of danger. We also know that, on at least one occasion, he traveled to England and the United States to attempt to raise funds for the yishuv in Yerushalayim.

His Research

Despite his fame for this area of research, it represents only a small part of Rav Schwartz’s published material. One of his areas of extensive study was to accurately determine the halachos of halachic daybreak, sunrise, sunset and nightfall, a topic to which he devoted an untold number of trips to check how long it took to get light and to get dark. He writes that both in Eretz Yisroel and in chutz la’aretz, he checked the physical features of sunrise over 4000 times in order to understand the topic well. He noted that calculating how much time it takes from dawn to sunrise and from sunset to nightfall depends on one’s location. He also demonstrates that one can prove, by observation, that the earth is round.

He was original in his approaches. In numerous places, he quotes great earlier halachic authorities such as the Ibn Ezra, the Radak, or the Gra, and then rallies proof to show why he feels that their interpretations of the halachic sources or their mathematical calculations were inaccurate.

His Published Works

For many years after Rav Schwartz arrived in Eretz Yisroel, he did not write or publish anything, despite his brother’s entreaties that he do so. Eventually, he produced numerous works, some published in Hebrew and printed in Eretz Yisroel, others printed in various European languages, mostly translated abridgments of his Hebrew works. Rav Hirsch quotes Rav Schwartz in his commentary to Devorim Chapter 11, Verse 29. Some of Rav Schwartz’s published material was used during his lifetime to produce educational materials for religious schools in Europe, particularly in Germany.

In his lifetime, Rav Schwartz published seforim on the following topics:

Tolodos Yosef, on astronomy and the halachos of zemanim. This work is full of charts and other demonstrative evidence.

Tevuos Ha’aretz, on the details of the land of Israel. This work places particular emphasis on its borders, and it is replete with many of his own original maps and drawings.

Ma’asei Ha’aretz, a history of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisroel from the time of the churbon to his time, in which he divided the history into various eras. He included highly detailed descriptions of the different rishonim who lived in Eretz Yisroel and the communities in which they lived. He includes all his sources.

He also wrote on linguistics, philology and phonemics, but always with a Torah perspective on how this research demonstrates the correctness of one halachic practice over another, or how we can thereby understand a passage of Gemara or Midrash.

In addition, he published a volume of his own responsa, called Rosh Hashoni, on a very eclectic list of topics. For example, he wrote a teshuvah discussing whether someone traveling through several dangerous areas, as was the situation in Eretz Yisroel in his day, bentches gomel only upon arriving at his final destination, or whether each day he should bentch gomel upon safely arriving for the night at a different community (#58). He explains why we find no dispute in Chazal regarding when the day begins, although we find much dispute when the day ends (#19). He asks if someone who says his prayers in a vernacular may say the name of Hashem in Hebrew while doing so (#35). In another teshuvah, he discusses whether the Rambam changed his mind about the fact that Judaism has 13 ikorei emunah (#57). The basis of this question is that although the Rambam devotes much discussion to this topic in his commentary on the Mishnah, which he wrote in his youth, he makes no mention of this basic topic in the Mishneh Torah.

Some of Rav Schwartz’s responsa answer contemporary questions. For example, he was asked the following shailah about a shul that has several daily Shacharis minyanim: The people who daven at the later minyan have already arrived in shul while the earlier minyan is still davening and thus, they have already answered Borchu, and answered Kedushah. Do they still have a minyan to daven the regular Shacharis? Is it considered that they have already fulfilled the requirement of tefillah betzibur by listening to Chazaras Hashatz and therefore cannot repeat Shemoneh Esrei for that davening (#55)?

Mussaf Before Shacharis?

Here is another, even more contemporary, question that Rav Schwartz addresses. Someone arrives late for shul on Shabbos, and the tzibur is ready to daven Mussaf. Should he recite Mussaf together with the tzibur, so that he has the merit of tefillah betzibur, and then daven Shacharis, or should he daven in the proper order, Shacharis and then Mussaf (#30)? He concludes that someone in this scenario should join the minyan for Mussaf and then daven Shacharis.

Several of the questions he talks about are discussed extensively by other authorities of his time. For example, he discusses the situation of a gentile in the process of conversion who has undergone bris milah, but did not yet have the opportunity to immerse in a mikvah to complete his geirus. Is he still required to break Shabbos?

An interesting question Rav Schwartz discusses that I have found in no other responsa work is as follows: There are two people; one is a perfect tzadik, whereas the other was born with very bad traits and is striving to improve. Which of the two will be rewarded in greater measure by Hashem? (#34)

When Rav Schwartz passed on, he left behind, in addition to his published works, extensive notes, notebooks, and even several works ready for publication.

The Four Questions

At this point, we can now address our opening four questions:

Question #1: Which Minyan?

“In the minyan factory shtiebel that I often attend, it sometimes happens that most of my minyan has already heard the entire Chazoras Hashatz and answered Kedushah and Kaddish before we assemble to daven. Does this present us with any halachic questions?”

Question #2: Which Chayah?

“A gnu is not listed in the Torah among the seven chayos, kosher wild animals, yet it has split hooves and chews its cud. Why is it not listed?”

Question #3: Which Borders?

“Where exactly are the borders of Eretz Yisroel?”

Question #4: Which Question?

“What do the preceding three questions have to do with one another?”

As I am sure you surmised, the first three questions are discussed in Rav Schwartz’s writings. He devotes one of his responsa (#55) to the first question. Apparently, already in his day Yerushalayim had a shtiebel in which minyanim took place in different parts of a large beis medrash. Frequently, a group of people would have heard the entire repetition of Shemoneh Esrei before a section of the beis medrash was available for them to conduct their minyan. Can one still conduct Chazoras Hashatz, when every member of the assembled group has already heard a repetition of Shemoneh Esrei, albeit without having yet davened themselves? Rav Schwartz concludes that if the minyan assembled does not have six people who did not yet hear the repetition of Shemoneh Esrei, they cannot have a Chazoras Hashatz for their minyan. If you are faced with the same question, I suggest consulting your rav or poseik.

What’s Gnu?

The gnu, also known as a wildebeest, is a variety of antelope native to Africa. Since the gnu both chews its cud (ruminates) and possesses split hooves, seeming to be a kosher animal, Rav Schwartz was asked as follows: The Torah lists only ten varieties of kosher animals: three beheimos and seven chayos. Which one is the gnu?

Rav Schwartz answers that the gnu is the yachmur. He writes that he has correctly identified the nine other kosher animal species mentioned by the Torah, and writes which species they are. The only one left unidentified is the yachmor, which, by process of elimination, must be the gnu.

(Personally, I would suggest a different approach to answering this question, since there are, according to my information, 91 species of antelope known to mankind, all of which ruminate and have split hooves. One is probably forced to say that some of the terms of the Torah include far more than what we would consider to be one species.)

Responsa from Early Nineteenth-Century America

Rav Schwartz wrote several teshuvos based on questions he was asked during his trip to England and the United States. One question was whether a citrus fruit native to the West Indies qualified as an esrog. He first writes that there was no question that this fruit had never been grafted onto another species, since such fruits grow in the wild in an area where the local native population has no interest or knowledge about grafting, nor do they have related species on which to graft it. The remaining question was whether this fruit, which looked very different from any esrog he had ever seen, qualified as an esrog. He ruled that it did qualify, and reports that he used it to fulfill the mitzvah during his stay in North America.

The End

Based on our contemporary understanding of the report of Rav Schwartz’s physician, he contracted scarlet fever, which developed into meningitis and took his life when he was 61 years old. Thus ended the life of an intense oveid Hashem, who devoted himself to becoming a master of areas of Torah that had been completely untrodden before him. Yehi zichro boruch.

 

 

Chumash and the Fall of the Ghetto, part II

This article is for the occasion of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s yahrzeit, on the 27th of Teiveis.

Chumash and the Fall of the Ghetto, part II

Last week, I presented the first part of this article, which was an introduction to the commentaries on Chumash of the Malbim, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Hakesav Vehakabalah, by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg. We continue our review of Rav Hirsch’s commentary from where I left off.

Rav Hirsch’s commentary has a component that the other two do not. The focus of his commentary was not only to prove the accuracy or authenticity of Chazal’s understanding of Torah, but, also, to demonstrate how Torah provides for man’s growth in spirituality, the development of his personality, and his worldview. Thus, he rarely comments simply for the sake of explaining a difficult verse.

Ta’amei hamikra

Rav Hirsch emphasized that his commentary is based on a careful reading of the words of Chumash. Included in this was his study of the ta’amei hamikra, which are meant to teach how to break a pasuk into smaller units for proper understanding. As an example, his interpretation of the pasuk in shiras Ha’azinu, shicheis lo lo, banav mumam, reflects the accentuation implied by the ta’amei hamikra, whereby this is one sentence with only a small break (a tipcha) after the second word lo (with an alef). Thus, disagreeing with all the previous commentaries that I have seen, he translates the sentence as: Their moral frailty has corrupted it to become non-children.

Grammar — Dikduk and shoresh

Rav Hirsch developed an understanding of Torah ideas upon the principle of shorashim where there are phonetic cognates. This idea, which has sources in Chazal and the rishonim,[i] is that different consonants that are articulated by using the same part of the mouth are related to each other.[ii] Thus, there is a relationship among the guttural consonants (א ה ח ע) that can be used to explain the meaning of related roots in which they appear. The same is true for the palatals (ג י כ ק), the dentals (ד ט ל נ ת),[iii] the sibilants (ז ס צ ר ש), and the labials (ב ו מ פ).[iv] Based on similar roots, Rav Hirsch develops a philosophic underpinning of the comparative roots, and then creates an associative meaning for each root. For example, the roots ברא (to create, which means to bring into reality that which previously existed only in one’s mind), ברח, to escape, פרא, to be undisciplined, פרח, to flower and פרה, to reproduce, seem to be unrelated verbs. However, the first letter of the root in each instance is a labial, the second is ר , and the third is a guttural. There is an underlying idea in all of these roots – getting out of a state of being constrained.

Often included within this system is a relationship pattern between similar consonants. For example, the tzadi often reflects a more intensive version of the other similar sounds, such as the sin. Thus, there is a conceptual relationship between יצר, which means to limit something for a specific purpose, and יסר, which educates, shapes and disciplines the spirit. In literally hundreds of applications of these ideas, Rav Hirsch demonstrates an entire world of educational themes.

In Rav Hirsch’s view, the shoresh of a word can often provide educational and religious lessons. For example, in describing Avraham Avinu’s travels in Eretz Canaan, the Torah uses the unusual word ויעתק, which Rav Hirsch translates as He gave orders to move on.[v] Rav Hirsch notes that the common thread of the usage of this root in Tanach is that someone or something is moved unexpectedly or forcibly to another setting. Rav Hirsch thereby explains that Avraham realized that in order to succeed in educating his followers, they needed to be isolated from the society around them, but he needed to overcome their resistance in doing so. Thus, the root of the word used teaches us about Avraham’s pedagogic approach.

Controversial Aspects

Probably the most controversial aspect of Rav Hirsch’s commentary on Chumash is his view that even our greatest leaders are not beyond reproach, and that a late Torah commentary can include lessons for us to learn from their shortcomings and errors. Indeed, the Ramban, whom Rav Hirsch quotes in this context, also felt that we have the right to criticize our greatest Torah leaders, even in places where Chazal did not. Rav Hirsch’s critiques of Yitzchak and Rivkah’s raising of Eisav, of Yosef’s relationship with his brothers, of Moshe, Tziporah, and others have certainly raised more than one eyebrow. Yet Rav Hirsch’s position in all these cases is clear. Only Hashem is perfect. The fact that the Torah goes out of its way to show the errors made by our greatest leaders demonstrates that Torah is true and Divine. Man’s purpose in this world is to learn and to grow, and we can do so both by emulating the great actions of our greatest leaders and also by noting their errors.

Did Rav Hirsch Use the Hakesav Vehakabalah or Hatorah Vehamitzvah?

In his beautiful essay introducing the first edition of the first English translation of Rav Hirsch’s commentary to Chumash, Dayan Dr. Isaac Grunfeld writes: “When Samson Raphael Hirsch began his commentary in 1867, he had the works of Mecklenburg (Hakesav Vehakabalah) and Hatorah Vehamitzvah of Malbim in front of him.” I presume that Dayan Grunfeld has some mesorah to substantiate his comment. However, from my work on Rav Hirsch’s commentary, and after comparing this work to the other two, I, personally, am not convinced that this statement is accurate, for the following reasons.

When Rav Hirsch felt indebted to an earlier commentator, he always quoted his source. In the course of his commentary of Chumash, he quotes a wide variety of sources, including the rishonim, his rabbeyim, Chacham Bernays and Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, the Aruch Laneir, and works published shortly before his time, such as Harechasim Levik’ah and the writings of the highly controversial Naftali Wessely. Yet, there is not a single reference anywhere in his commentary to either Hakesav Vehakabalah or Hatorah Vehamitzvah.

There are places in which Rav Hirsch presents no explanation, while Hakesav Vehakabalah presents approaches that lend themselves perfectly to Rav Hirsch’s style of commentary. For example, Rav Hirsch offers almost no commentary to the lengthy list of travels that the Bnei Yisroel made through the desert. Yet, Hakesav Vehakabalah has a beautiful explanation of the place names along the route of these travels. Had Rav Hirsch read Hakesav Vehakabalah, I presume that he would have used his approach here to develop musar haskeil, just as Rav Hirsch, himself, does in explaining the list of names of the descendants of Sheis. Had he been as familiar with Hakesav Vehakabalah as Dayan Grunfeld suggests, it is indeed puzzling why he would not use the opportunity to include these lessons in his Torah commentary, and attribute them to Hakesav Vehakabalah. Although it is always difficult to prove anything on the basis of it not being present, Rav Hirsch’s omission of any musar haskeil here, when use of Hakesav Vehakabalah would provide this, certainly implies that he did not use the commentary on any regular basis.

On the other hand, Hakesav Vehakabalah used approaches to explain pesukim that Rav Hirsch would never accept. For example, Hakesav Vehakabalah explains that the source for the word asheirah is yashar, straight, and suggests that it was originally used to mean a straight, tall tree.[vi] Rav Hirsch provides a much deeper insight into the meaning of the word asheirah and its apparent root א ש ר, which means growth and striving. Thus, the word asheirah means a tree “that was considered to be under the special protection of a god, whose presence and influence supposedly could be obtained through the growth and thriving of this tree.”[vii]

Conclusion

Rav Hirsch viewed his commentary as a means of showing how to use Chumash as a springboard for mussar and hashkafah. From a mussar perspective, Rav Hirsch’s Torah commentary can provide a complete life-instruction manual on its own. One can learn from it a Torah perspective of hashakafah, and detailed lessons in mussar.

We understand well why Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz told his students at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas that it would be worth their investment of time to learn to read German, just for the sake of being able to read Rav Hirsch’s commentary on Chumash, which, at the time, was not available in translation.

 

[i] For example, see Rashi, Vayikra 19:16, where he explains that the word רכיל stems from the word רגל. See, similarly, Ra’avad, Eduyos 4:3; Ramban, Shemos 15:10; Vayikra 19:20, Devorim 7:12; Rash, Peah 6:1

[ii] Language specialists use the term homorganic consonants to describe these words.

[iii] While I was preparing this article for publication, a reviewer noted to me that a rearrangement of these letters ד נ ט ל ת  can be read as dentals.

[iv] Those interested in seeing a systematic dictionary of Rav Hirsch’s work in this area are referred to Matityahu Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Feldheim Publishers, which Rabbi Clark writes is “based on the commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.”

[v] Bereishis 12:8. Translation is from the Haberman edition.

[vi] Hakesav Vehakabalah, Devorim 16:21.

[vii] Commentary of Rav Hirsch to Shemos 34:13. Translation is from the Haberman edition, page 809.

Chumash and the Fall of the Ghetto

This article is for the occasion of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s yahrzeit.

Chumash and the Fall of the Ghetto

With the falling of the ghetto walls that had kept the Jews in central Europe isolated from the world around them, many Jews began to assimilate into the surrounding environment and distance themselves from Judaism. Although it was far more difficult for Jews in Eastern Europe to assimilate fully into non-Jewish society, different forces, the haskalah, socialism, Communism and various other movements similarly severed many Jews from keeping mitzvos. Among those who abandoned Torah observance were Jews who felt that Chazal’s interpretation of the mitzvos was not based on the Written Torah.

In response, several new and original commentaries on Chumash appeared. Among them, we find Hakesav Vehakabalah, by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, the commentaries[i] of the Malbim to Tanach, the commentary of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, and the Ha’ameik Davar, the commentary of Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (also known as the Netziv). All four of these commentaries, although very different from each other in important ways, were written to explain the Written Torah in the spirit of Chazal.

Hakesav Vehakabalah

Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg was a disciple of Rabbi Akiva Eiger and served as the rav of Koenigsberg, Prussia (today, Kaliningrad, Russia), for thirty-four years. Koenigsberg was in the far east of Germany, giving Rav Mecklenburg a clear view of the challenges posed by the rise of the Reform movement in Germany and the haskalah and other anti-religious movements in Eastern Europe. Hakesav Vehakabalah, first published in 1839 and followed by three more editions in the author’s lifetime, was intended as a response to attacks on Chazal’s understanding of the Torah.

Hakesav Vehakabalah carefully analyzes the root meanings and grammar of the words of the Chumash, using them to provide a clear interpretation of the pesukim. Although his approach is highly original, he also often cites the different approaches of the earlier commentaries, opting for the one that he demonstrates to be the most accurate.

The Malbim

Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, known by his acronym, Malbim, served as the rav of many different Eastern European communities. A brilliant talmid chacham and a warrior against the haskalah, his magnum opus is his commentary to Tanach and accompanying essays. [ii] His first work, a commentary on Yeshayah, includes an introduction in which he elucidates the principles that form the basis for his commentary to Tanach as a whole.

Two such principles are that no two words in Tanachic Hebrew have precisely the same meaning, and that there are no repeated phrases or clauses — each word in Tanach was chosen to provide a very specific nuance of meaning.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch held rabbinic positions in Oldenberg and Emden, Germany, and as Chief Rabbi of Moravia, before returning to Germany to establish a modern, Torah-committed community in Frankfurt. Toward the end of his life, he produced his commentaries to the Chumash, Tehillim and the Siddur.

The Netziv

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin married the daughter of Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin, the son and successor of the founder and Rosh Yeshivah of the famed yeshivah in that city, Rav Chayim of Volozhin, the esteemed disciple of the Vilna Gaon. The Netziv eventually became Rosh Yeshivah of the yeshivah in Volozhin, a position he held for almost forty years, until its closing in 1892. The Netziv authored many works, including responsa and commentaries on Chumash, Shas, the She’iltos of Rav Achai Gaon, the halachic midrashim.

Linking Torah shebiksav to Torah shebe’al peh

Both Hakesav Vehakabalah and Malbim write that a major purpose of their commentaries is to demonstrate the unity of Torah shebiksav and Torah shebe’al peh. In the introduction to the first volume of commentary he wrote on Chumash, Vayikra, the Malbim mentions specifically the tragedy of the Reform convention that had taken place in 1844 in Braunschweig (called Brunswick in English), a city in Germany about 40 miles southeast of Hanover. The Malbim writes that when he heard of the disgraceful attitude toward Torah that had been demonstrated there, he realized that klal Yisroel required a new commentary on Tanach, written according to the mesorah. He notes many rules that he will be following in his commentaries, one of which is to show the unity of Torah shebiksav and Torah shebe’al peh.

Although Rav Hirsch’s very brief introduction to his commentary does not emphasize this relationship between Torah shebiksav and Torah shebe’al peh, this foundation shows up literally hundreds of times in his commentary.[iii] Rav Hirsch, too, maintained that proper study of Torah shebiksav leads directly to the conclusions of Torah shebe’al peh. Among examples where he demonstrates this are when he explains that Chazal’s understanding of “an eye for an eye” as financial remuneration (Shemos 21:24) is indeed the only proper way to understand the pasuk, and that no halachic requirement exists to name the firstborn child of a levirate marriage (yibum) for the deceased brother (see Devorim 25:6).

Rav Hirsch noted that the Torah shebe’al peh was actually taught to the Jews first.[iv] Moshe received all the laws of Torah shebe’al peh at Har Sinai and taught them to the Jewish people gradually. The completed Torah shebiksav, by contrast, was not received by the Jews until the very end of Moshe’s life, immediately prior to the Jews’ entering Eretz Yisroel, or forty years after they had received the Torah shebe’al peh. This explains numerous passages in the Torah, including the commandment to slaughter animals ka’asher tzivisicha “as you were instructed,” meaning the sets of regulations that had been transmitted to Moshe at Har Sinai and previously taught to the Bnei Yisroel.

Uniqueness of Rav Hirsch’s commentary

The most obvious difference between Rav Hirsch’s commentary and the others is the language in which it was written. Whereas the other commentaries are written in traditional rabbinic Hebrew, Rav Hirsch published his commentary on Chumash and, indeed, all of his works, in German. Long before Rav Hirsch’s time, many Torah works had been authored in the vernacular, such as all of Rav Saadiya Gaon’s writings and those of the Rambam, with the exception of the Mishneh Torah.

Yet, sefarim in the vernacular had fallen into disuse in the hundreds of years since the era of the rishonim. As a young rabbi in Oldenberg, however, Rav Hirsch recognized the need to present Torah teachings in German, in order to reach his generation and impress upon them Torah’s eternal relevance.

In Rav Hirsch’s commentary, there are various instances in which he includes a comment in Hebrew. Invariably, these are the comments of a Torah scholar on a point in Talmudic discussion which was not appropriate to make for the general audience for whom his work was intended. Yet, he was concerned that posterity not lose the important halachic point he had realized. To accommodate this, he chose to write these points in scholarly, rabbinic Hebrew.

Aside from his use of the vernacular, there are many other novel features in Rav Hirsch’s approach. Beyond being an interpretation of Chumash, Rav Hirsch uses his commentary to demonstrate how to use the Torah as the primary educational tool for man to grow as a human being. There is virtually not a comment of his on the Torah that does not provide a moral lesson, or musar haskeil.

Indeed, there are many occasions when he did not comment upon questions about pshat in a verse where it would appear appropriate for him to have done so. Clearly, he refrained from providing commentary where the conclusion would not provide any lesson one can utilize for personal growth.

Rav Hirsch called his Torah hashkafah by the term Torah im Derech Eretz, the details of which he developed in different places in his commentary.[v] Although the expression is often misunderstood, Rav Hirsch used it to mean that Torah and its observance must always be the primary focus of a Jew’s life, and that this can and must pervade a Jew’s behavior in all places, times and situations. Everything else that this world has to offer, including livelihood, education, culture, and social mores, must be subsumed within a Torah framework.

Reasons for mitzvos

One of Rav Hirsch’s great innovations is his explanation of the ta’amei hamitzvos. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that the term ta’amei hamitzvah means the taste of a mitzvah, not its reason, and it is this taste that Rav Hirsch sought to provide.

The concept of deriving educational reasons for mitzvos was certainly not originated by Rav Hirsch. Rav Hirsch himself quotes dozens of places where Chazal discuss what lesson one can derive from the observance of the mitzvos, and rishonim like the Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim, Ramban in his commentary on the Torah, and the Sefer Hachinuch devote much space to this study.

However, Rav Hirsch added several dimensions to the concept of ta’amei hamitzvah. For Rav Hirsch, an explanation of a mitzvah must always fit in with every detail of the halachos of that mitzvah. For this reason, Rav Hirsch first develops and explains all the halachic details of the mitzvah and then weaves an explanation for the mitzvah that comports with all those details. At times, this required him to first resolve halachic details regarding the laws of the mitzvah.

Here is an example in which we see the difference between the approach of Rav Hirsch and that of his predecessors. The Ramban explains that the reason for the mitzvah not to mix meat and milk together is because cooking a newly slaughtered kid in the milk of its mother will create cruelty in the person who does this.[vi] However, this reason for the mitzvah has little to do with the halachos of this mitzvah, which prohibit any meat and any milk of two kosher species cooked together.

Rav Hirsch, on the other hand, first explains the laws of the mitzvah, and then demonstrates why the Torah’s description of cooking a goat in the milk of its mother is the simplest way to express these ideas. He subsequently proceeds to explain a philosophic reason for the mitzvah that we can appreciate and that can teach us a moral lesson, while observing the mitzvah. In this instance, Rav Hirsch provides a brilliant and extensive seven-page essay presenting why this prohibition is limited to the meat and the milk of kosher, domesticated animal species, and why it includes not only the consumption, but also the cooking of and benefit from this mixture.[vii]

Here is another example. The Torah forbids planting any trees near the mizbei’ach.[viii] As an explanation of this mitzvah, the Ramban explains that even though one is planting a shade tree that will enhance the area of the Beis Hamikdash, this is still prohibited, since it was the custom of the idol worshippers to plant trees near the entrance to their temples.

Rav Hirsch is not satisfied with approaches like this to explain mitzvos. Instead he notes that the thriving of a tree near an idol was considered a sign of the influence of the god. This idea fits very appropriately to the heathen notion that gods are primarily forces of nature, whose rule manifests itself in the phenomena of the physical world. However, such notions are diametrically opposite to the Jewish concept of G-d. A Jew is obligated to subordinate all his aspirations, including his moral and spiritual world, to the sphere of G-d’s sovereignty. Only through this can he expect to succeed in the physical world.[ix]

Frequently, Rav Hirsch presents highly original approaches to ta’amei hamitzvos, such as his explanations for the mitzvos of arayos, keifel, arachin, and tum’ah and taharah, and the disqualification of blemished animals and blemished kohanim from the service of korbanos. Regarding tum’ah, for example, he notes that the foundation of most religions is the fear of death, and it is at this time that the priest assumes his greatest role. The Torah, in contrast, bans the kohen from being involved with the dead, to demonstrate that the Torah’s goal is that we grow and develop throughout life – when we are in our best health. To emphasize this, the kohen, whose role is to educate how to live as a Jew, is distanced from death.

Rav Hirsch uses the same concept to explain why a kohen with a physical blemish or injury is forbidden to serve in the Beis Hamikdash and why a similarly impaired animal is prohibited as a korban. This emphasis on physical beauty or selectivity seems to run counter to the Torah’s idea of equal access for all to a relationship with Hashem.

Rav Hirsch explains that religions generally become the home of the marginalized and alienated in society. By prohibiting the physically impaired from performing the service in the holiest of places, the Torah emphasizes that its goal is to foster in all Jews the development of a relationship with Hashem, rather than to simply provide a refuge for the disenfranchised.

For the continuation of this article, see here.

 

[i] I refer to the commentaries of the Malbim because, although he wrote on almost the entire Tanach, a rare accomplishment, his treatment of different parts of Tanach is so varied as to make it difficult to refer to it as one commentary.

[ii] On Chumash, the Malbim follows two different styles. As I mention in the article, his commentary on Vayikra and parts of Devorim is an explanation of the midrashei halachah, the Sifra and the Sifrei, in which he delves into Chazal’s method of understanding Torah Shebiskav. On the other hand, his commentaries to other parts of Chumash bear close similarity to the commentary of the Abarbanel, which, as he says himself, he used. He presents many questions on the topic at hand, and then weaves an explanation to answer them. Yet another style is presented in his commentaries to Esther and Shir Hashirim, in which he presents his own midrashic-style approach to these works.

[iii] This point is the main thrust of Dayan Isaac Grunfeld’s introduction to Rav Hirsch’s commentary, which I will quote in the sequel of this article.

[iv] Commentary of Rav Hirsch to Bereishis 1:19.

[v] See, for example, commentary of Rav Hirsch to Vayikra 18:4.

[vi]  Ramban, Devorim 14:21.

[vii] Commentary of Rav Hirsch to Shemos 23:19.

[viii] Devorim 16:21.

[ix] Commentary of Rav Hirsch to Devorim 16:21. Based on the Haberman translation.

Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, part II

A few weeks ago, we began reading about Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra. This is a continuation of that article.

Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, part II

Question #1: The Right Bensch

“What is the correct text of our bensching?”

Question #2: Contract Law

“I signed a five-year employment contract, and now, three years later, I have an offer that is much better for me. Am I halachically required to turn down the new offer?”

Question #3: Pidyon Haben

“When should I schedule the pidyon haben of my son?”

Question #4: Touching Kuf

“If a sefer Torah was written in which the two parts of the letter kuf touch, is the sefer Torah invalid?”

Question #5: What is going on?

What do the previous questions have to do with one another, and with the title of this article?

Introduction:

Rav Avraham ibn Ezra, one of the early rishonim, is known as a commentator on Tanach, for his massive knowledge of Hebrew grammar (dikduk), philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, and for his skills as a paytan, a poet. In the first installment of this article, we discussed what we know of his personal history and his scholarship. At this point, we will discuss other aspects of ibn Ezra’s many contributions to Torah knowledge and observance.

Ibn Ezra and Kalir

One of ibn Ezra’s controversial positions was his strong opposition to the piyutim of Rav Elazar Kalir, the preeminent, prolific and perhaps earliest of the paytanim. In an essay incorporated in his commentary to Koheles (5:1), ibn Ezra levels harsh criticism against the piyutim authored by Rav Kalir. He divides his arguments into four categories.

Simplicity of language

Ibn Ezra notes that prayers should be recited in simple language. After all, a person should understand the prayers he utters. Since piyutim are usually intended as a form of prayer, one should not recite piyutim whose intent is not clear. Because of this, ibn Ezra advises reciting the piyutim written by Rav Saadyah Gaon, which can be understood literally.

Mixed language

Ibn Ezra’s second criticism of Kalir is that he mixed the Hebrew of his piyutim with vocabulary whose basis is in the Gemara, treating Talmudic language as if it were on the same level as the Hebrew of Tanach. As ibn Ezra notes, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 58b) says “loshon Torah le’atzmah, loshon chachamim le’atzmo” which he understands to mean that the Hebrew used by the Gemara should be treated as a different language from that of Tanach. Therefore, one should not mix these two “languages” when reciting prayers.

Grammatical creativity

The third criticism of ibn Ezra is that he is unhappy with Kalir’s creative approach to Hebrew grammar and structure, allowing poetic style to influence the Hebrew that he used. Ibn Ezra also criticized Kalir’s creation of new words by changing masculine words to feminine, and vice versa, for poetic effect or to accomplish his allusions.

Use of midrashim

Ibn Ezra’s fourth criticism of Kalir is that his piyutim are filled with midrashim, which ibn Ezra contends should not be included in prayers.

Ibn Ezra notes that when Rav Saadyah wrote piyutim, he steered clear of these four problems. In fact, Sefardim do not recite piyutim of Rav Kalir, whereas among Ashkenazim he is the most commonly used paytan.

Ibn Ezra notes that there were those who took issue with him for criticizing Kalir, since the latter had passed on many years before and was unable to respond.

Response to ibn Ezra

We should note that Shibbolei Haleket quoted very selectively from this essay of ibn Ezra, omitting any mention of ibn Ezra’s criticism of Rav Kalir’s writings.

Furthermore, none of ibn Ezra’s criticisms should be taken as casting aspersion on Rav Elazar Hakalir’s greatness. Shibbolei Haleket records that when Rabbi Elazar Hakalir wrote his poem Vechayos Asher Heinah Meruba’os (recited in the kedusha of musaf of Rosh Hashanah), the angels surrounded him with fire (quoted by the Magen Avraham at the beginning of Siman 68). Similarly, Rav Chaim Vital writes that his teacher, the Arizal, recited only the piyutim written by the early paytanim, such as Rav Elazar Hakalir, since they are based on Kabbalah.

Mules, Megillas Esther and ibn Ezra

The Book of Esther uses a few words that appear to be transliterated terms of Persian origin. In some instances, the commentaries grapple with understanding the meaning of these words. For example, the Megillah describes how the “achashteranim benei haramachim” were sent to deliver an urgent message. But what do these words mean? The Gemara (Megillah 18a) mentions that the amora’im were unaware of the exact translation of these words. One of the halachic rishonim, the Rivash, concludes that the word achashteranim is a composite word meaning “mules whose mothers are mares,” citing ibn Ezra as his source (Shu”t HaRivash #390).

Ibn Ezra and halachah

Although ibn Ezra is noted primarily for his abilities in language, commentary, mathematics and astronomy, there are many places where he is cited by later authorities as a halachic source. For example, he is quoted authoritatively by the Avudraham, the Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 188) and later authorities regarding a controversy surrounding the correct text of our bensching. He is also quoted by authorities in regard to the correct pronunciation of the name of Hashem (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 124).

Here are some other areas of halachah in which the ibn Ezra is quoted:

Contract law

“I signed a five-year employment contract, and now, three years later, I have an offer that is much better for me. Am I halachically required to turn down the new offer?”

There is discussion among halachic authorities about this topic, including several rishonim, the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 333:3) and the Shach (ad locum 333:17). In this context, ibn Ezra’s comments on Chumash are quoted as halachic authority. He understands that an eved Ivri, a Jewish slave, who is purchased for a maximum of six years, has worked mishneh s’char sachir, twice the amount of time usually allowed for a worker to commit himself. This means that the Torah does not recognize an employment contract that is longer than three years. His exact words are: “We find written ‘three years as the duration of a hired hand’ (Yeshayahu 16:14), and this is proof that a person does not have authority to hire himself out for more than three years. Furthermore, the one paying the wages cannot hire him [for more than three years]. And this is the reason [in the pasuk regarding the eved Ivri] for the word ‘mishneh – double’” (commentary to Devorim 15:18), since a Hebrew slave can be purchased for up to six years, or twice as long as an employment contract normally allows.

Inheritance of positions

In an interesting discussion germane to the laws of inheriting positions, ibn Ezra is quoted as supporting the right of a son-in-law to his late father-in-law’s rabbinic position, where no direct descendants are appropriate for the post (Shu’t Doveiv Meisharim Vol. 4). This is based on ibn Ezra’s comment that, at times, a son-in-law is referred to as a son (Bereishis 19:12).

When to redeem?

There is a discussion among halachic authorities as to whether the proper time to perform the mitzvah of pidyon haben is on the 31st day after birth, or after a lunar month equivalent (29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3.3 seconds) has passed since birth. In this context, some authorities quote ibn Ezra in support of the second approach (Shu’t Shevus Yaakov 2:87).

When is nightfall?

Ibn Ezra is perhaps the earliest authority to determine when nightfall occurs on the basis of astronomical calculation. He notes that the length of time between sunset and nightfall varies from place to place and is dependent on how long it takes the sun to reach a certain point beyond the horizon – what is called today the solar depression angle.

Matzoh and Hagadah

Ibn Ezra is quoted among the list of authorities who contend that eating matzoh on Pesach after the first night fulfills some level of mitzvah. Another halachah quoted in his name is the mitzvah of reciting the Hagadah the entire night of Pesach. Ibn Ezra cites an approach that the words leil shimurim, describing the Seder night, mean that we are supposed to be shimurim, not that we are the ones being protected. He explains this to mean that one should be alert and “on guard” throughout the night, using the night exclusively to thank Hashem and to retell the wondrous deeds He performed leading to and including our exodus from Egypt. This interpretation is also quoted in his name by poskim (Shu’t Seridei Eish 1:47).

Ibn Ezra and the physician

Another interesting halachic insight is quoted in his name. The Avnei Neizer, one of the greatest poskim of the late nineteenth century, was asked the following: A person is seriously ill, and the physicians have recommended that he take a medication that is non-kosher. Granted that this is pikuach nefesh, a life-threatening emergency, and therefore supersedes the requirement to keep kosher, is the patient permitted to be stringent and not take the medicine, or does this violate the Torah’s laws?

Ibn Ezra contends that the Torah’s instructions to heed medical opinion apply only to external injuries, but not to an internal medical condition. He states that in the era of prophecy, a prophet’s opinion about what was happening inside the body was more accurate than a physician’s. A result of this idea is that one is not required – and perhaps, according to ibn Ezra, not permitted – to violate a mitzvah for an internal remedy advised by a physician.

Together with other halachic reasons and bases, the Avnei Neizer rules that the individual does have the right to rely on these opinions and not consume non-kosher (Shu’t Avnei Neizer, Choshen Mishpat #193).

It should be noted that the late Klausenberger Rebbe ruled that today, since we now have various methods for checking what is going on inside our bodies, what would have been considered an internal matter in earlier days is now under the heading of something that doctors should treat, even according to ibn Ezra – and that, therefore, a person should definitely follow doctor’s orders (Shu’t Divrei Yetziv, Likutim #114).

Aliyah la’regel

In an interesting responsum of Rav Moshe Feinstein to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Moshe rules that the mitzvah of being oleh regel, to visit the Beis Hamikdash grounds on the Yomim Tovim and offer korbanos, does not require that one walk to the har habayis, but that one may travel there in a different way (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Kodoshim #21. This responsum is located at the end of the first volume of Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim I). Rav Moshe brings support for this approach from the commentary of ibn Ezra.

Ibn Ezra and the kuf

One of the rishonim quotes ibn Ezra as the halachic authority to resolve the following question: If a sefer Torah was written in which the two parts of the letter kuf touch, is the sefer Torah invalid? The Tashbeitz, who was asked this question (Shu”t Tashbeitz 1:51), brings evidence from ibn Ezra that he held that it is perfectly fine, and even preferable, to write a sefer Torah this way. Although we do not follow this ruling, the Tashbeitz, based on ibn Ezra, did.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we see that ibn Ezra made many contributions to the halachic knowledge of Klal Yisroel. The main lesson to be learned from his life is that one should strive to grow in prayer and in studying and teaching Torah to the extent of one’s ability, notwithstanding the adversity of personal circumstances.

 

Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra

Those who would like to read articles about Shabbos Rosh Chodesh should note that there are several articles on the subject on this website.

Among the rishonim in this week’s parsha, we find a dispute as to when the rainbow was created. The pesukim imply that the rainbow was created after the mabul as a covenant, and, indeed, the Ibn Ezra explains the verse this way, disputing an earlier interpretation of the posuk from Rav Saadyah Gaon. However, the Ramban contends that the rainbow was created during the six days of Creation. This provides us with an opportunity to discuss a great rishon, about whom most people know very little.

Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra

Question #1: The Right Bensch

“What is the correct text of our bensching?”

Question #2: Contract Law

“I signed a five-year employment contract, and, three years later, I have an offer that is much better for me. Am I halachically required to turn down the new offer?”

Question #3: Pidyon Haben

“When should I schedule the pidyon haben of my son?”

Question #4: Light Refraction

“When did water begin to refract light?”

Question #5: What is going on?

“What do the previous questions have to do with one another and with the title of this article?”

Introduction:

Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra, one of the early rishonim, is known primarily as a commentator on Tanach, for his massive knowledge of Hebrew grammar (dikduk), philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, and for his skills as a paytan, a poet. Since this is a halachah column, the second part of this article will discuss his little-appreciated contribution to halachic knowledge. But, first, I will share some details of his very tragic personal life.

According to the estimate of historians, ibn Ezra was born in Moslem Toledo, Spain, about the year 4853 (1093), or perhaps a bit earlier, and passed away about 4927 (1167). In his younger years, in Spain, he was a close friend of Rav Yehudah Halevi, the author of the Kuzari and many piyutim and kinos, including the poem Yom Layabasha, traditionally sung at brissin and as part of davening on the seventh day of Pesach.

In addition to ibn Ezra’s famous work on Tanach, he also authored many works on Hebrew grammar, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. One of his works, Sefas Yeser, is a defense of Rav Saadyah Gaon’s approach to dikduk that was challenged by Dunash ibn Labrat. Dunash, who is quoted by Rashi dozens of times, was a grammarian, Hebraist and Tanach expert who lived in the tenth century, and was himself a talmid of Rav Saadyah. Notwithstanding this, he often disagreed with his rebbe, and he even wrote a sefer delineating his points of dispute. Ibn Ezra wrote a response to this work, in which he explained why he felt Rav Saadyah was correct. By the way, Dunash is also known for his poetry. We are all familiar with two of his compositions, Dror Yikra, the Shabbos zemer, and Devei Haseir, recited at weddings and sheva brachos.

Ibn Ezra was highly respected, both by his contemporaries and by other great Torah leaders. For example, in a lengthy letter written to the Rashba by a talmid chacham from Provence, ibn Ezra is described as “a tremendously wise, well-known scholar, whose understanding of the truth, intensity in his pursuit of wisdom, and distancing errors in faith in the Torah and the writings of the Prophets surpassed all those who preceded him. Our forefathers told us of the rejoicing of the great scholars of our area when he passed through our area. For their benefit, he wrote commentaries on the Torah and the Prophets, and wherever he noticed something that required clarification, he pointed this out, sometimes with a full commentary and sometimes with just a short hint, depending on the need. He also wrote a short book called Yesod Hamora, explaining the reasons for the mitzvos and briefly alluding to deeper nuances of words. He wrote another book, explaining the secret of the Holy Name…. He also wrote works on Hebrew grammar, punctuation and the proper writing of the letters, and short works on engineering, language structure, mathematics and astronomy” (see Shu’t HaRashba 1:418).

Ibn Ezra wrote much poetry, including two of our standard Shabbos zemiros, Tzomoh Nafshi and Ki Eshmera Shabbos.

His primary fame for most talmidei chachamim is his commentary to Tanach. The Ramban writes, in the introduction to his own commentary on the Torah, that he used two commentaries, those of Rashi and of ibn Ezra, and he does not comment on a posuk that they already explained unless he has something to add.

Ibn Ezra and Chumash

In his poetic introduction to his commentary on Chumash, ibn Ezra mentions numerous commentaries on Chumash, most of which would otherwise be completely unknown to us, and notes their widely varying styles. There, he categorizes them into five styles of commentary, and he criticizes four of them, either for not being relevant to understanding the chumash, or for errors in their comprehension of Hebrew grammar. He saves his most scathing attacks for the Karaite commentaries, several of which he mentions by name, and strongly refutes their scholarship.

Ibn Ezra often quotes from Rav Saadyah Gaon’s commentary to Chumash, always translating Rav Saadyah’s Arabic commentary into Hebrew. In ibn Ezra’s commentary to Tanach, he utilizes his vast understanding of dikduk, and also his knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and geography.

Ibn Ezra held that studying Chumash or Tanach requires one to understand the exact meaning of the verses, even when the result of this study conflicts with the midrashic interpretation of Chazal and even if it does not agree with halachah. This is how he understood the axiom, ein mikra yotzei midei peshuto, every verse should be explained on the basis of its literal meaning. In this approach, he differed with Rashi and the Ramban, both of whom reject any interpretation of a posuk that conflicts with halachah. Although the rishonim accepted ibn Ezra’s right to differ with them in this policy, not all Gedolei Yisroel were happy with his approach. For example, the Maharshal, who lived hundreds of years later, writes very strongly against those who explain pesukim not according to halachah, singling out ibn Ezra for his criticism (Introduction to Yam shel Shelomoh commentary to Chullin).

It is interesting to note that we find this dispute among rishonim reflected among the later commentaries on Chumash written in the nineteenth century. Whereas the Kesav Vehakaballah, Hirsch and the Malbim all follow the approach of Rashi and the Ramban that every interpretation of Torah shebiksav must fit perfectly with Chazal’s understanding of the Torah shebe’al peh, the Netziv, in his commentary Ha’ameik Davar, occasionally accepts or offers a commentary that is not necessarily reflected by the Torah shebe’al peh, thus following the general approach of ibn Ezra regarding this issue.

Ibn Ezra and the Nochosh

In some instances, we are indebted to the ibn Ezra for providing us with background to the writings of early Gedolei Yisroel that would otherwise have become completely lost. For example, in his commentary to Bereishis (3:1), he reports that Rav Saadyah Gaon held that the nochosh walked on two feet and was an intelligent animal, smarter than all the other animals except for man, but smart enough to have a conversation with man. Ibn Ezra then quotes a debate on this topic in which Rav Shmuel ben Chofni, son-in-law of Rav Hai Gaon, disagreed with Rav Saadyah, and in which Rav Shelomoh ibn Gabirol came to the defense of Rav Saadyah’s position. This entire debate was saved for posterity due to its inclusion in ibn Ezra’s commentary.

Ibn Ezra on Tanach

We have access to ibn Ezra’s commentary on all of Tanach, except for the books of Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel. It remains historically unresolved whether he never wrote on these books or whether he did write commentaries but they were lost.

Although he was obviously quite fluent in Arabic, he wrote his works in Hebrew, although until his time most works on Hebrew grammar or philosophy had been written in Arabic. He thereby became one of the earliest sources of bridging the Torah that was spread in Spain and North Africa, which at the time were Arabic speaking areas, to the Ashkenazic communities of France and Germany and to the communities of the Provence. (The Jews of the many communities of the Provence, in southern France, such as Montpellier, Lunel, Marseille, Narbonne and Posquieres, were technically neither Ashkenazim nor Sefardim. The customs prevalent there represented their own unique minhagim. For example, the communities of the Provence began reciting V’sein Tal Umatar on the seventh of Marcheshvan, which we know as minhag Eretz Yisroel, but which reflects neither Ashkenazic nor Sefardic normative practice.)

Ibn Ezra had very strong opinions about the role of piyutim and selichos in our liturgy. In his commentary to Koheles (5:1), he takes very strong umbrage at the piyutim of Rav Elazar Hakalir. Aside from ibn Ezra’s objection to the grammatical liberty that Kalir takes in constructing new words and new usages, ibn Ezra also objects to the writing style of Kalir – often, his words allude to ideas and events but have no obvious meaning. Ibn Ezra notes that piyutim and selichos are prayers, and as such, the main focus should be ensuring that people understand what they are saying, something very challenging in Kalir’s works. Instead, ibn Ezra recommends the piyutim of Rav Saadyah, which can be understood easily because they are written clearly.

In this, ibn Ezra influenced the style of the Sefardic piyutim, where the poetry is easier to understand, and is therefore often very different from that of the Ashkenazim, which is heavily based on and influenced by the poetry of Rav Kalir. This difference is noted by many authorities. For example, Shu’t Maharshdam (Orach Chayim #35), writes that he prefers the piyutim of the Sefardim, written predominantly by Rav Yehudah Halevi, ibn Ezra and Rav Shelomoh ibn Gabirol, because they write in a clear way that is easy to understand. (The Ashkenazic use of Rav Kalir’s writings is somewhat influenced by the opinion of the Arizal, who, although he lived among Sefardim, himself used the piyutim of Kalir which, he said, are based on deep kabbalistic understanding [see, for example, Shu’t Minchas Elazar 1:11].)

Had ibn Ezra’s approach been accepted, our Tisha B’Av kinos, most of which are taken from the writings of Kalir, would be far more comprehensible. The same can be said for much of our piyutim on Yomim Nora’im and, for those who recite them, on the other Yomim Tovim.

His Personal History

In addition to his prolific writings of piyutim and selichos, ibn Ezra authored much personal poetry, in some of which he describes aspects of his difficult life. He was born and lived his early life in Moslem Spain, but was forced to flee Spain during an uprising and civil war between rival Moslem groups. (Does any of this sound familiar?) His travels at this time took him wandering through Italy, France, England, and back to France. He lived in dire poverty, and it appears that he spent the rest of his life wandering from community to community. There is evidence that he may at one time have traveled as far as Eretz Yisroel and Egypt. For example, he is very familiar with Egyptian geography, describing in detail the distance between the land of Ramses and the government headquarters at the time prior to the Exodus, which he notes was a distance ofe six parsa’os, or about 4.5 miles (commentary to Shemos 12:31). He understood that the purpose of some of the pyramids was to store the grain in Yosef’s day (commentary to Shemos 12:31).

He suffered much great personal tragedy, including the loss of his wife as a young woman and several of his children. While ibn Ezra was wandering through Europe, one son, Yitzchak, apparently a talmid chacham of note, fled to Baghdad, where he was forced to convert to Islam. When he was able to, he returned to Judaism, and wrote that he had always observed the mitzvos and made a statement recognizing Islam only in order to avoid being killed. Shortly thereafter, Yitzchak passed on. Meanwhile, his father, back in Europe, was unaware of these events, and found out about them some three years after his son’s passing.

We have no idea where ibn Ezra was when he died, or where he was buried.

Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Tam

During his travels in France, ibn Ezra made the acquaintance of Rabbeinu Tam, and they continued their correspondence afterward. In two places (Rosh Hashanah 13a s.v. De’akrivu and Kiddushin 37b s.v. Mimacharas), Tosafos mentions Torah discussion between ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Tam. In a third place (Taanis 20b s.v. Behachinaso), Tosafos mentions ibn Ezra in an interesting context. Tosafos there explains the concept of family names, something unheard of among Ashkenazic Jewry in their day, whereas ibn Ezra was, indeed, a family name. As Avraham ibn Ezra, our hero, mentions in the introduction to some of his works, his father’s name was Meir.

We will continue this article about ibn Ezra in a few weeks, be”H.

 

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, an Appreciation

Why do some people who keep cholov Yisroel use products made with regular powdered milk?

Can I wear a talis koton made out of nylon?

May one build an eruv around Manhattan?

These and thousands more shaylos were asked of the rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, whose yahrzeit is on the 21st of Kislev.

First, I will provide a brief biography of Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, zt”l, followed by a discussion of some of his piskei halachah.

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank was born in Kovno, Lithuania (then part of Russia), on the 4th of Tishrei, 1873 (5634). Kovno was a city full of talmidei chachamim, including Rav Tzvi Pesach’s father, Rav Yehuda Leib Frank. Rav Yehuda Leib had studied in the Volozhin Yeshiva for many years and, after his marriage, his wife supported the family while he continued to learn. As a youth, the young Tzvi Pesach outgrew the town’s melamdim at a young age and he continued to learn by himself in the shul, among married men much older than he.

Rav Tzvi Pesach’s early years were enriched by the contact he had with Rav Yisrael Salanter, who visited Kovno periodically to give shiurim, as well as by contact with Kovno’s rav, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spector. He later studied in the yeshivos of Rav Itzele Rabinowitz, known in Yeshivah world as Rav Itzele Ponovitcher, and in Telz, where he learned under Rav Shimon Shkop and Rav Leizer Gordon.

In 1892, Rav Yehuda Leib, Rav Tzvi Pesach’s father, decided that the time had come to move to Eretz Yisroel. He was particularly concerned for the welfare of his two older sons, Tzvi Pesach and Tanchum, who were in danger of being drafted into the Russian army. The two boys were therefore sent to the Holy Land ahead of the rest of the family. Rav Tzvi Pesach and Tanchum, together with a cousin, arrived in Yerushalayim in the fall of 1892.

Three years after he came to Yerushalayim, Rav Tzvi Pesach married. Two years after his marriage, several students of the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, opened a Beis Mussar in Yerushalayim, and Rav Tzvi Pesach joined it. The Beis Mussar developed a kollel, where Rav Tzvi Pesach continued to grow in his learning.

THE YERUSHALAYIM BEIS DIN

The first Ashkenazi beis din in Yerushalayim was established in 1841 by Rav Shmuel Salant, the city’s rav. In 1907, Rav Tzvi Pesach, who had already begun teaching in Eitz Chaim Yeshiva, was appointed to the Yerushalayim Beis Din. He was to serve on this beis din until an advanced age, and from the start he was a well respected and astute dayan. When the Rabbonim and Beis Din of Yerushalayim organized the first modern Otzar Beis Din for Shevi’is in 5670 (1910), Rav Tzvi Pesach was one of the dayanim who signed as a member of the Beis Din.

He was a dayan and a poseik in Yerushalayim for over 50 years, the rav of Yerushalayim for 36 years, and a member of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate in Eretz Yisroel since its inception. In all these capacities, Rav Tzvi Pesach led and guided Klal Yisroel, teaching them what the Torah expected, even in the most challenging situations.

In the difficult years of World War I, he would not let hunger or worry distract him from learning. Quoting the sefer Akeidas Yitzchak, he said, “When a person is found in a situation of poverty, he will be able to learn and grow in Torah.” Following this teaching, Rav Tzvi Pesach gave shiurim and clarified halacha, even when there was no food to be had. He would sacrifice a bit of oil from his daily diet in order to learn by lantern, at night. When he lacked even this oil, he would learn by moonlight.

The Jews of Eretz Yisroel, and the rest of the world, rejoiced when the British captured the country from the Turks. The Balfour Declaration, which promised the Jews that Israel would become their national homeland, gave new hope to the war-weary people.

Anticipating new waves of aliya, Rav Tzvi Pesach began encouraging roshei yeshiva in Europe to move their yeshivos to Eretz Yisroel. Eventually, Rav Tzvi Pesach’s efforts bore fruit, and the Slobodka Yeshiva (under the leadership of Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel) moved first to Yerushalayim and then to Chevron, while the rosh yeshiva of Slutzk, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, moved to Yerushalayim.

DEVELOPING THE HOLY LAND

In the years following World War I, the Chief Rabbinate was established in Eretz Yisroel. It was viewed with mixed feelings by the religious community. Rav Tzvi Pesach joined the organization with the hopes that it would represent the Torah beliefs on different aspects of life in Eretz Yisroel. In 1918, he became the head of the Yerushalayim Beis Din.

Rav Tzvi Pesach’s love for Eretz Yisroel knew no bounds. He encouraged the creation of agricultural settlements, particularly among frum Jews, and he was always pained by the sight of settlements that did not keep the halachos pertaining to the Land properly. The way to improve the situation, he believed, was to increase the awareness and knowledge of these halachos.

In a letter, he explained his position clearly: “We must establish regular shiurim on these halachos, as our master and teacher, the gaon Rav Yisrael Salanter, wrote in his letter of mussar — the most exalted and fundamental cure…for the wiles of the evil inclination is to learn the Gemara and poskim on the subject vigorously and with great depth….”

Rav Tzvi Pesach also encouraged the purchase of Jewish products over non-Jewish products.

RAV OF YERUSHALAYIM

In 1935, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook passed away, leaving the positions of rav of Yerushalayim and chief rabbi of Eretz Yisroel vacant.

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank was considered the best candidate for these positions. However, when he was approached with the request that he fill the roles, he declined the offer. He felt that the job of chief rabbi would involve too much time that could better be spent learning. In the end, he agreed to become the rav of Yerushalayim, but not to accept the rabbanus of Eretz Yisroel, which was eventually filled by Rav Herzog.

One of the most difficult things that Rav Tzvi Pesach had to contend with was chillul Shabbos. There had been virtually no chillul Shabbos in Yerushalayim prior to World War I, so the desecration of Shabbos in the holiest city on earth pained him terribly. He tried to minimize it, however he could.

In the days of the British Mandate, Rav Tzvi Pesach wrote letters to the British rulers, begging them to enact a law against public Shabbos desecration. He wrote them that his goal was not to compel every individual to observe Shabbos, but that he wanted stores to be closed and that the Hebrew radio hour should not be broadcast on Shabbos.

WAR AGAIN

In 1939, World War II broke out, bringing with it the destruction of European Jewry. Rav Tzvi Pesach, in Yerushalayim, organized days of prayer and fasting on behalf of the Jewish people. He urged his fellow Jews to improve their service of Hashem, in the hope that this would avert disaster. In a letter, Rav Tzvi Pesach wrote comfortingly, “For the Jews, a day is composed of night and then day. For non-Jews, a day is a day and a night. Why is this so?

“The main realm for Jews is the World to Come. Therefore, darkness precedes the light, and we consider a day to begin with the night and end with the day. Non-Jews, however, enjoy only this world, and afterwards they will be in darkness. They experience first day, and then night.”

LEADER OF A FLOCK

Later, as the fledgling country of Israel began to develop, organizing its government, army, industry, economy, education and health care, Rav Tzvi Pesach emerged as one of the, and perhaps the foremost, halachic authorities of his generation. He answered numerous shailos on technology, medicine and industry, covering every subject from powdered eggs to hydroponics.

At this point, let us examine some of his well-known halachic positions:

POWDERED MILK

Those who allow use of non-chalav Yisroel powdered milk follow the opinion presented by Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank. Rav Frank assumed that the halacha follows the Chasam Sofer, who requires Jewish supervision to permit non-Jewish milk, and did not accept the heter of the Pri Chodosh (Yoreh Deah 115:15), who understands that one needs to be concerned about chalav akum only when the non-kosher milk is less expensive than the kosher variety, nor the heter of the Igros Moshe and the Chazon Ish that the takanah did not specifically require that a Jew attend the milking, but that it is permitted when one is completely certain that there is no admixture of non-kosher milk (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:47). Nevertheless, Rav Frank permitted powdered milk from an unsupervised gentile source for a different reason.

The poskim permit using cheese that is gevinas Yisrael and butter (I explained  both these topics in other articles), even when these products were made from unsupervised milk. Why did they permit this? Because non-kosher milk is low in casein; it does not curd, which is the first step in producing cheese; and it is also low in milk fat (also called butterfat or cream), which makes it non-profitable to make butter from non-kosher milk.

Rav Frank notes that there is a significant qualitative difference between cheese and butter, on the one hand, and powdered milk, on the other, in that there is an inherent problem with making cheese and butter from non-kosher milk, whereas one can powder any milk. Thus, one could argue that the leniency that applies to cheese and butter should not apply to milk powder, as indeed the Chazon Ish concludes.

However, Rav Frank quotes the Ritva (Avodah Zarah 35b), who pointed out that, technically, one could make cheese even from non-kosher species, but the cheese yield from these milks is very poor, and when the milk curds, most of it becomes whey. Thus, although it is theoretically possible to make cheese or butter from non-kosher milk, the halacha does not require one to be concerned about this. Rather, one may assume that a gentile would not adulterate this milk.

Rav Frank concludes that what permits the unsupervised milk used in cheese and butter is not that it is impossible to use non-kosher milk for this process, but that it is unlikely. Thus, he reasons, although one could powder non-kosher milk, the prohibition of chalav akum was limited to fluid milk and other products available in the days of Chazal which could easily be made from non-kosher milk. Since powdered milk did not exist in the days of Chazal, and since we are certain that standard, available powdered milk is of bovine origin, the prohibition against chalav akum does not apply to milk powder, just as it does not apply to butter and cheese.

NYLON TZITZIS

Another responsum authored by Rav Frank (Shu’t Har Tzvi, Orach Chayim 1:9) discusses whether one fulfills the mitzvah of tzitzis with a four-cornered garment made of nylon. He discusses whether nylon should be comparable to leather, which is exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis. Rav Frank concludes that leather is not obligated in tzitzis, because it is not woven. He then notes that there are two types of nylon garments, one made from woven nylon thread, which he rules would be required to have tzitzis, and one made from sheets of nylon, which are not woven and are therefore absolved from the mitzvah of tzitzis, just as leather is.

DRINKING BEFORE YOUR ANIMALS

Why should drinking be permitted before one feeds one’s animals when it is forbidden to eat, and, according to many authorities, even to have a small snack? Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Shu”t Har Tzvi, Orach Chayim 1:90) provides two reasons for this distinction. First, suffering from thirst is far more uncomfortable than suffering from hunger, so the Torah did not require one to remain thirsty in order to make sure that the animals are fed. Second, the Torah forbade eating before feeding one’s animals out of concern that once one gets involved in eating, he may forget to feed his animals. Drinking does not create this concern, since it takes less time.

COTTONSEED OIL ON PESACH

Rav Pesach Frank (Sefer Mikrai Kodesh, Hilchos Pesach vol. 2 pg. 206) permits the use of cottonseed oil on Pesach, and quotes that Rav Chayim Brisker permitted its use. Cottonseed is not a food at all and, also, does not grow in any way similar to grains, unlike canola that grows similar to the way grains grow. However, Dayan Yitzchak Weiss of the Eidah Hachareidis writes that he is uncertain whether cottonseed oil may be used on Pesach. He cites sources that the prohibition against kitniyos includes any item stored the way grain is stored and forbids eating any seeds, grains, or anything derived from them (Shu’t Minchas Yitzchok 3:138:2 and 4:114:3). As a result, many hechsherim in Eretz Yisroel, for example, the Eidah HaChareidis, treat cottonseed oil as kitniyos, whereas the prevalent practice in the United States allows it.

DESTROYING A FRUIT TREE

Here is another psak of Rav Frank:

“We just moved into a new house, and the only place where we can put a sukkah is in an area which is shaded by a fruit tree. May we chop down the tree, in order to have a place to build our sukkah?” Rav Frank analyzes the topic and is inclined to be lenient, reasoning that the performance of a mitzvah cannot be considered a destructive act. He concludes that one should have a gentile remove it, but not as an agent for a Jew (Shu’t Har Tzvi, Orach Chayim II #102).

ERUV IN MANHATTAN

Rav Menachem Kasher asked Rav Frank whether one could build an eruv in Manhattan. Rav Frank answered that he was not in a position to answer the question specifically, but that, in general, he was in favor of the concept (Shu’t Har Tzvi, Orach Chayim II #24). In this particular psak, he followed a position that was disputed by many of the famed poskim and gedolim of the New York area, including Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Aharon Kotler, both of whom published teshuvos to the contrary.

Rav Frank’s teshuvos tend to be on the short side, and are written by explaining the sources of the halachos involved and the basis of his psak in a very clear way. He does not quote many later sources, but, rather, explains clearly how to understand the central issue of the topic and prove why the approach he is following is correct.

Always learning, always clarifying halachos — to his last days, Rav Tzvi Pesach remained the leader of his people in Yerushalayim and the rest of the world. He passed away on 21 Kislev, 1960 (5721), after over half a century of dedicated learning and serving the Klal.

 

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