The Basics of Birchas Hagomeil

Among the many topics covered in this week’s reading are the mitzvos of the woman who just gave birth. This provides an opportunity to discuss the basics of Birchas Hagomeil:

Question #1: An offering or a blessing?

“The Torah describes bringing a korban todah as a thanksgiving offering. How does that relate to the brocha of birchas hagomeil? Did someone recite birchas hagomeil while offering the korban?”

Question #2: Blessing at home?

“May I recite birchas hagomeil if I will not be able to get to shul for kri’as haTorah?”

Question #3: Exactly ten?

“Our minyan has exactly ten people today. May someone recite birchas hagomeil?”

Answer:

There are two mitzvos related to thanking Hashem for deliverance from perilous circumstances. In Parshas Tzav, the Torah describes an offering brought in the Mishkan, or the Beis Hamikdash, called the korban todah.

There is also a brocha, called birchas hagomeil, which is recited when someone has been saved from a dangerous situation. The Rosh (Brachos 9:3) and the Tur (Orach Chayim 219) explain that this brocha was instituted as a replacement for the korban todah that we can no longer bring, since, unfortunately, our Beis Hamikdash lies in ruin. Thus, understanding the circumstances and the laws of the korban todah and of birchas hagomeil is really one combined topic. This article will discuss some of the basic laws of birchas hagomeil.

Tehillim on Salvation

The Gemara derives many of the laws of birchas hagomeil from a chapter of Tehillim, Psalm 107. There, Dovid Hamelech describes four different types of treacherous predicaments in which a person would pray to Hashem for salvation. Several times, the Psalm repeats the following passage, Vayitzaku el Hashem batzar lahem, mimetzukoseihem yatzileim, “when they were in distress, they cried out to Hashem asking Him to deliver them from their straits. Hashem hears the supplicants’ prayers and redeems them from calamity, whereupon they recognize Hashem’s role and sing shira to acknowledge Hashem’s deliverance. The passage reflecting this thanks, Yodu lashem chasdo venifle’osav livnei adam, “they acknowledge thanks to Hashem for His kindness and His wondrous deeds for mankind,” is recited four times in the Psalm, each time expressing the emotions of someone desiring to tell others of his appreciation. The four types of salvation mentioned in the verse are for: someone who successfully traversed a wilderness, a captive who was freed, a person who recovered from illness, and a seafarer who returned safely to land.

Based on this chapter of Tehillim, the Gemara declares, arba’ah tzerichim lehodos: yordei hayam, holchei midbaros, umi shehayah choleh venisra’pe, umi shehayah chavush beveis ha’asurim veyatza, “four people are required to recite birchas hagomeil: those who traveled by sea, those who journeyed through the desert, someone who was ill and recovered and someone who was captured and gained release” (Brachos 54b). (Several commentators provide reasons why the Gemara lists the four in a different order than does the verse, a topic that we will forgo for now.) The Tur (Orach Chayim 219) mentions an interesting method for remembering the four cases, based on words from our daily shmoneh esrei prayer: vechol hachayim yoducha selah, explaining that the word chayim has four letters, ches, yud, yud and mem, which allude to chavush, yissurim, yam and midbar, meaning captive, the sufferings of illness, sea, and desert: the four types of travail mentioned by the verse and the Gemara. (It is curiously noteworthy that when the Aruch Hashulchan [219:5] quotes this, he has the ches represent “choli,” illness [rather than chavush, captive], which means that he would explain the yud of yissurim to mean the sufferings of captivity.)

Not all troubles are created equal!

Rav Hai Gaon notes that these four calamities fall under two categories: two of them, traveling by sea and through the desert, are situations to which a person voluntarily subjected himself, whereas the other two, illness and being held captive, are involuntary (quoted by Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #51). Thus, we see that one bensches gomeil after surviving any of these types of dangers, regardless of their having been within his control or not.

Some commentaries note that the Rambam cites the Gemara passage, arba’ah tzerichim lehodos, “four people are required to thank Hashem,” only in the context of birchas hagomeil and not regarding the laws of korban todah. This implies that, in his opinion, korban todah is always a voluntary offering, notwithstanding the fact that Chazal required those who were saved to recite birchas hagomeil (Sefer Hamafteiach). However, both Rashi and the Rashbam, in their respective commentaries to Vayikra 7:12, explain that the “four people” are all required to bring a korban todah upon being saved. As I noted above, the Rosh states that since, unfortunately, we cannot offer a korban todah, birchas hagomeil was substituted.

Thus we can answer the first question asked above:

“The Torah describes bringing a korban todah as a thanksgiving offering. How does that relate to the brocha of birchas hagomeil? Did someone recite birchas hagomeil while offering the korban?”

At the time of the beis hamikdash, birchas hagomeil had not yet been invented. We look much forward to its rebuilding so that we can again offer the korbanos and thereby become closer to Hashem this way. (However, note that the Chasam Sofer shares another possible way which disagrees with this interpretation of the Rosh and the Tur.)

A Minyan

When the Gemara (Brachos 54b) teaches the laws of birchas hagomeil, it records two interesting details: (1) that birchas hagomeil should be recited in the presence of a minyan and (2) that it should be recited in the presence of two talmidei chachamim.

No Minyan

Is a minyan essential for birchas hagomeil, as it is for some other brachos, such as sheva brachos? If someone cannot arrange a minyan for birchas hagomeil must he forgo the brocha?

The Tur contends that the attendance of a minyan and two talmidei chachamim is not a requirement to recite birchas hagomeil, but only the preferred way. In other words, someone who cannot easily assemble a minyan or talmidei chachamim may, nevertheless, recite birchas hagomeil. The Beis Yosef disagrees regarding the requirement of a minyan, feeling that one should not recite birchas hagomeil without a minyan present. However, he rules that if someone errantly recited birchas hagomeil without a minyan, he should not recite it again, but should try to find a minyan and recite the text of the brocha while omitting Hashem’s Name, to avoid reciting a brocha levatalah, a blessing in vain (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 219:3). The Mishnah Berurah follows an approach closer to that of the Tur, ruling that if one will be unable to assemble a minyan, he may recite birchas hagomeil without one. However, someone in a place where there is no minyan should wait up to thirty days to see if he will have the chance to bensch gomeil in the presence of a minyan. If thirty days pass without the opportunity, he should recite the birchas hagomeil without a minyan and not wait any longer.

When do we recite Birchas hagomeil?

The prevalent custom is to recite birchas hagomeil during or after kri’as haTorah (Hagahos Maimaniyos 10:6). The Orchos Chayim understands that this custom is based on convenience, because kri’as haTorah also requires a minyan (quoted by Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 219). The Chasam Sofer presents an alternative reason for reciting birchas hagomeil during or after kri’as haTorah. He cites sources that explain that kri’as haTorah serves as a substitute for offering korbanos, and therefore reciting birchas hagomeil at the time of kri’as hatorah is a better substitute for the korban todah that we unfortunately cannot offer (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #51). He concludes nevertheless that, under special circumstances, one may recite birchas hagomeil without kri’as hatorah, which answers the question asked above: “May I recite birchas hagomeil if I will not be able to get to shul for kri’as haTorah?” The answer is that, when there is no option of hearing kri’as hatorah, one may recite birchas hagomeil without it.

Do we Count the Talmidei Chachamim?

I quoted above the Gemara that states that one should recite birchas hagomeil in the presence of a minyan and two talmidei chachamim The Gemara discusses whether this means that birchas hagomeil should be recited in the presence of a minyan plus two talmidei chachamim, a minimum of twelve people, or whether one should recite birchas hagomeil in the presence of ten people which should include two talmidei chachamim. The Rambam (Hilchos Brachos 10:8) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 219:3) rule that the minyan includes the talmidei chachamim, whereas the Pri Megadim rules that the requirement is a minyan plus the talmidei chachamim. Notwithstanding the Pri Megadim’s objections, the Biur Halacha concludes that one does need more than a minyan including the talmidei chachamim.

No Talmid Chacham to be found

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 219:3) then adds that someone located in a place where it is uncommon to find talmidei chachamim may recite birchas hagomeil in the presence of a minyan, even without any talmidei chachamim present.

Ten or ten plus one?

There is a dispute among the authorities whether the individual reciting the brocha is counted as part of the minyan or if we require a minyan aside from him (Raanach, quoted by Rabbi Akiva Eiger to 219:3). Most authorities rule that we can count the person reciting the brocha as one of the minyan (Mishnah Berurah 219:6). Shaar Hatziyun rallies proof to this conclusion, since it says that one should recite the brocha during kri’as haTorah, and no one says that one can do this only when there is an eleventh person attending the kri’as haTorah.

Thus, we can answer the last question that was asked above:

“Our minyan has exactly ten people today. May someone recite birchas hagomeil?”

The answer is that he may.

Conclusion

Rav Hirsch (Commentary to Tehillim 100:1) notes that the root of the word for thanks is the same as that for viduy, confession and admitting wrongdoing. All kinds of salvation should elicit in us deep feelings of gratitude for what Hashem has done for us in the past and does in the present. This is why it can be both an acknowledgement of guilt and thanks.

We often cry out to Hashem in crisis, sigh in relief when the crisis passes, but fail to thank adequately for the salvation. Our thanks to Hashem should match the intensity of our pleas. Birchas hagomeil gives us a concrete brocha to say to awaken our thanks for deliverance. And even in our daily lives, when, hopefully we do not encounter dangers that meet the criteria of saying birchas hagomeil, we should still fill our hearts with thanks, focus these thoughts during our recital of mizmor lesodah, az yashir, modim or at some other appropriate point in our prayers.

Saying Amen to My Own Beracha

The beracha of Ga’al Yisrael, which commemorates our Exodus from Egypt, is one of the blessings whose laws are discussed in this article, and therefore this topic is very appropriate for parshas Bo.

Question #1:

“Why do Ashkenazim recite “amen” after the beracha of Bonei Yerushalayim, but not after any other beracha that we recite?”

Question #2:

“Why do Sephardim follow a different practice? And, why do they appear to be inconsistent?”

Question #3:

“Someone once told me that some authorities rule that one may recite “amen” after reciting the beracha of Ga’al Yisrael right before Shemoneh Esrei, and that this does not constitute an interruption. Can this possibly be true?”

Answer:

The Gemara (Berachos 45b) quotes two apparently contradictory statements whether one should recite “amen” after one’s own beracha; one Beraisa stating that it is meritorious to do so, and the other frowning on the practice. To quote the Gemara:

“It was taught in one source, ‘Someone who responds “Amen” after his own blessings is praiseworthy,’ whereas another source states it is shameful to do this.” The Gemara explains that the two statements do not conflict, but refer to two different situations. The Beraisa that declares that it is praiseworthy to recite amen after one’s own blessing is referring to reciting amen after reciting the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim in bensching, whereas the Beraisa that asserts that reciting amen after one’s own beracha is shameful refers to someone reciting amen after any other beracha. The halacha concludes that one who completes a beracha at the same time as the chazzan or anyone else may not recite amen to the other person’s beracha, since, in doing so, he recites amen to his own beracha. For example, when reciting Baruch She’amar, if one completes the beracha at the same moment as the chazzan, one may not recite amen (Elyah Rabbah 51:2).

Why Bonei Yerushalayim?

What is unique about the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim that one may recite “amen” after one’s own beracha?

The Rishonim note that it is not the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim that makes its law special; rather, it is its location, as the last of the three main berachos of birchas hamazon. (Although there is still another beracha afterwards, this last beracha is not part of the series, since it was added later. The fourth beracha of birchas hamazon, which Chazal call Hatov vehameitiv, was added hundreds of years after the Anshei Kenesses Hagedolah wrote the rest of the birchas hamazon as a commemorative to the burial of those who had fallen in the destruction of Beitar. This is a topic that I will leave for a different time.

Because it is not part of the series, it begins with a full berachaBaruch Ata Hashem Elokeinu Melech HaOlam, whereas berachos that are part of a series do not begin with these words [Pesachim 104b].) Reciting amen after Bonei Yerushalayim demonstrates the completion of a series of berachos (Rambam, Hilchos Berachos 1:17, 18). On the other hand, reciting amen after one’s own beracha any other time implies that one has completed a unit, which is not true (Rabbeinu Yonah). We find a similar idea that upon completing the pesukei dezimra where we repeat the last pasuk (both at the end of Chapter 150 and at the end of Az Yashir) to demonstrate that this section has now been concluded (see Tur, Orach Chayim Chapter 51).

Is Bonei Yerushalayim unique or simply an example of the last beracha of a sequence? If the latter is true, are there other instances when it is praiseworthy to recite amen to your own beracha at the closing of a sequence?

Rashi, in his comments to the above Gemara, indeed mentions that one concludes “amen” after reciting the last beracha of the birchos kerias shema, those berachos that surround the daily kerias shema that we recite every morning and evening. These two “concluding” berachosGa’al Yisrael in the morning, Shomer Amo Yisrael La’ad in the evening — would then both be followed by the word “amen” to indicate the end of the series. (The beracha that begins with the words Baruch Hashem Le’olam, recited after Shomer Amo Yisrael La’ad on weekdays by Nusach Ashkenaz outside Eretz Yisrael, is a later addition added in the times of the Geonim, and technically not part of the birchos kerias shema.) Many other Rishonim advise reciting amen at the end of any sequence of berachos, adding to Rashi’s list also Yishtabach, considered to be the end of a “sequence” of two berachos that begins with Baruch She’amar; and the closing beracha of Hallel, considered the sequel to the beracha beginning Hallel (quoted by the Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 66). Rabbeinu Hai Gaon goes even further, advising the recital of amen after every “after blessing,” considering it the end of a series begun with the beracha recited before (cited by Rabbeinu Yonah).

Ashkenazim all realize that there is something more to the story. Whereas Ashkenazim always complete the beracha of Bonei Yerushalayim with amen, we do not follow this procedure for any of the other berachos mentioned. This specific practice is very old and is already mentioned by Tosafos.

To explain this practice, we will first see what other Rishonim have to say about it. For example, although accepting the premise that we may recite amen following the last beracha of a series, the Rambam appears to dispute what we have quoted above as to what is considered a succession. He appears to hold that if anything interrupts in the middle, the berachos are no longer considered a series – thus, Yishtabach, the latter beracha of Hallel and the beracha of Ga’al Yisrael are not considered the ends of series, although the berachos immediately before kerias shema are (see Hilchos Berachos 1:17, 18, as explained by Beis Yosef). The pesukim recited in the middle break up the succession, and therefore one should not recite amen. Those who dispute with the Rambam contend that both Yishtabach and the ending beracha of Hallel are considered the end of a series, since they connect back to the original beracha.

How do we rule?

The Shulchan Aruch, reflecting Sefardic halachic practice, rules a compromise position; contending that after Yishtabach one may add amen after his own beracha, but one is not required to do so (Orach Chayim 51:3). It is curious to note that in another place (Orach Chayim 215:1), the Shulchan Aruch mentions that Sefardic custom is to recite amen after Yishtabach and the last beracha of Hallel, and the Rama there notes that, according to the Shulchah Aruch’s conclusion, one should also recite amen after concluding the beracha Shomer Amo Yisrael La’ad, the last beracha of the evening kerias shema series.

Although Ashkenazim agree that one may recite amen after these berachos, we usually do not do so. However, if one hears the closing of someone else’s beracha when completing one of these berachos, one answers amen to the other person’s beracha (Elyah Rabbah 51:2). Thus, we see that there is a qualitative difference between berachos that complete a sequence and those that do not. After the first group, one may recite amen after his own beracha, whereas after the second group, one may not.

However, we have still not answered the original question: Why single out the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim? If, indeed, one may recite amen after the last beracha of any series to signify that the series is completed, why does the Gemara mention this halacha only regarding the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim? And, furthermore, why is the prevalent Ashkenazic custom to recite amen, almost as if it is part of the beracha, only after the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim, but not after other closing berachos?

Both of these questions can be answered by studying a different passage of Gemara (Berachos 45b), which cites a dispute between Abayei and Rav Ashi as to whether the word amen recited following Bonei Yerushalayim should be said aloud. Abayei used to recite this amen aloud, in order to let everyone know that he had completed the first three berachos of birchas hamazon. He did so in order to remind workers employed by other people that it was time for them to return diligently to work. That is, although Chazal had instituted a fourth beracha to birchas hamazon, they specifically exempted those working for others from reciting this beracha, thereby emphasizing the responsibility of an employee to his employer to observe a full day of work. (In today’s environment, where it is assumed that workers take off for coffee and rest breaks during the workday, an employee is required to recite the fourth beracha of birchas hamazon.) Abayei recited “amen” aloud at the end of the third beracha so that everyone would realize that the fourth beracha is not part of the series and is treated differently.

Rav Ashi, on the other hand, deliberately recited amen softly, so that people would not treat the fourth beracha with disrespect. It appears that the practice of reciting amen after the third beracha of Bonei Yerushalayim is a carryover of Abayei’s practice – that is, we choose to emphasize that the fourth beracha is not min haTorah.

At this point, we understand the laws applicable to whether one recites amen after Bonei Yerushalayim, Yishtabach, Shomer Amo Yisrael La’ad, and the end of Hallel. Sefardim recite amen after all these berachos. Ashkenazim hold that this is permitted, but do so only when reciting amen to someone else’s beracha at the same time.

However, the Beis Yosef and other early Sefardic authorities note what appears to be an inconsistency in Sefardic practice: whereas they recite amen after the above-mentioned list of berachos, they do not do so after other series of berachos, such as the morning berachos, or sheva berachos. The answer is that a series for our purposes means a group of berachos connected into a unit in a way that it is forbidden to interrupt between them. Thus, although morning berachos, and the berachos of sheva berachos are recited as a group, they are technically not a unit. The designation of a group of berachos as a unit is limited to cases where one may not interrupt between the berachos, such as in Hallel, pesukei dezimra, birchos kerias shema and birchos hamazon.

Performing a Proper Hesped

Question #1: I have heard eulogies where the speaker seemed more interested in demonstrating his speaking prowess or saying clever divrei Torah than in commemorating the departed. Is this the proper way to eulogize?

Question #2: I was told that sometimes one obeys the request of a person not to be eulogized, and sometimes one may ignore it. How can this be?

Question #3: Is it true that one may not schedule a hesped within thirty days of a Yom Tov?

Our Parsha

Both the hespedim for Yaakov Avinu and for Yosef Hatzadik are mentioned in this week’s parsha, providing an opportunity to discuss the mitzvah of eulogizing. People often avoid writing halachic articles about hespedim in favor of more exciting or popular topics, leaving many unaware that there is much halachah on the subject. Are there rules to follow when organizing or delivering hespedim? Indeed, there are many, as we will soon see.

The Mitzvah

Most authorities do not count performing eulogies as one of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah since they consider it only a rabbinic mitzvah. Nonetheless, the hesped accomplishes the Torah mitzvah of ve’ahavta le’reicha komocha, loving one’s fellow as oneself, since a properly delivered hesped is a very great chesed. To quote the Rambam:

“It is a positive mitzvah of the Sages to take care of the ill, to console mourners… to be involved in all aspects of the burial… to eulogize… Even though all of these mitzvos are rabbinic, they are all included in the mitzvah that one should love one’s fellow as oneself. Anything that you want someone to do for you, you should do for your fellow who also keeps Torah and observes mitzvos” (Hilchos Aveil 14:1).

As the following passages demonstrate, our Sages strongly emphasized the importance of performing this mitzvah properly:

“When a Torah scholar passes away, the entire nation is obligated in his eulogy, as it states: ‘and Shmuel died, and all of Israel eulogized him’” (Mesechta Kallah Rabbasi Chapter 6).

“Whoever is idle in carrying out the hesped of a Torah scholar does not live long” (Yalkut Shimoni, Yehoshua 35).

“Whoever is idle in carrying out the hesped of a Torah scholar deserves to be buried alive” (Shabbos 105b)!

“A voice from above declared, ‘Whoever was not idle in participating in Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi’s eulogy is assured of life in the World to Come” (Koheles Rabbah 7).

“If someone cries upon the passing of an adam kosher (a halachically observant person) Hashem counts his tears and then stores them away (Shabbos 105b).”

From this, we see that the responsibility of hesped applies both to the person saying the eulogy, and to those who attend, and that this obligation sometimes applies to each individual. Furthermore, we see that the reward for fulfilling this mitzvah properly is very significant, both physically and spiritually, and that the eulogy and the crying associated with mourning are both highly important.

A “Kosher” Person

Above, I cited the statement: “If someone cries upon the passing of an adam kosher, Hashem counts his tears and then stores them away.” I translated adam kosher as a halachically observant person.

Who qualifies as an adam kosher?

The Rishonim discuss this question. Although the Rosh (Moed Katan 3:59) notes that his rebbe¸ the Maharam of Rottenberg, was uncertain what the term means, he himself concluded that it refers to someone who observes mitzvos properly, even if the person is not a talmid chacham and one sees nothing particularly meticulous about his religiosity. The Shulchan Aruch follows this definition.

Others explain that this is not enough to qualify as an adam kosher. Rather, the title applies to someone who, in addition to observing mitzvos properly, also pursues opportunities to perform chesed (Shach, Yoreh Deah 340:11, quoting Rabbeinu Yonah, Ramban and Bach). According to either approach, one should cry at the funeral of an adam kosher.

What is a proper hesped?

“It is a great mitzvah to eulogize the deceased appropriately. The mitzvah is to raise one’s voice, saying about him things that break the heart in order to increase crying and to commemorate his praise. However, it is prohibited to exaggerate his praise excessively. One mentions his good qualities and adds a little… If the person had no positive qualities, say nothing about him (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 344:1).” (I will soon discuss why one may exaggerate “a little,” even though, it would seem, a small lie is also a falsehood.) The eulogy should be appropriate to the purpose and extent of the tragedy. For example, a young person should be eulogized more intensely than an older one, and a person without surviving descendants should be eulogized more intensely than someone who had children (Meiri, Moed Katan 27b). Also, the crying of every hesped should not be to excess (Meiri, ad loc.).

In summation, we see that the purpose of a hesped is to cause people to cry over the loss of a Jew who observed mitzvos properly. On the other hand, it is forbidden to eulogize someone inappropriately.

At this point, we can answer the first question: “I have heard eulogies where the speaker seemed more interested in demonstrating his speaking prowess or saying clever divrei Torah than in commemorating the departed. Is this the proper way to eulogize?”

Despite its frequency, such eulogies are halachically wrong. This sin of eulogizing for one’s own self aggrandizement or exaggerating excessively, is so serious and apparently is so commonplace that there were places that developed a custom never to eulogize and to forgo the mitzvah altogether, despite its importance (see Gesher HaChayim 1:13:4).

Why Do We Eulogize?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 46b) raises a halachic question: Do we eulogize out of respect for the deceased, or in order to honor the surviving family members? In other words, is the chesed of this mitzvah due to the posthumous dignity granted to the departed, or is it due to its inspiring people to realize the extent to which the surviving family members have been bereaved? The Gemara devotes a lengthy discussion to proving which option is correct.

Do any variations in observance result from this question?

The Gemara notes two such differences:

No Hespedim for Me!!

I. What is the law if someone requests not to be eulogized?

If the purpose of a eulogy is to honor the deceased, the deceased has a right to forgo the honor and request that no eulogies be recited. Since the hespedim are in his/her honor, he/she has the right to forgo the honor, and we respect this request. However, if the purpose of a eulogy is to honor the surviving relatives, a request of the deceased does not negate the honor of the survivors, and we will eulogize him/her anyway, if the family so desires.

Paying for a Speaker

II. A second halachic difference resulting from the above question (whether the mitzvah is to respect the deceased or to honor the surviving family members) is whether one may obligate the heirs to pay for the eulogy.

In many circles and/or eras, it is or was a common practice to hire a rabbi or other professional speaker to provide the eulogy. May one hire such a speaker and obligate the heirs to pay his fee? If the mitzvah is to honor the deceased, and hiring a professional speaker is standard procedure, then one can obligate the heirs to hire a speaker, just as one can require them to pay for the funeral. If eulogizing is for the sake of the bereaved, one cannot obligate them to pay for professional eulogizers, if they prefer to forgo the honor.

The Gemara rallies proof from parshas Chayei Sarah that the mitzvah is in honor of the deceased. As the pasuk clearly mentions, Avraham Avinu was not present when his wife Sarah died. The Gemara asks, why did they wait until Avraham arrived to eulogize her? If the reason for the hesped is indeed to honor the living, Sarah should not have been left unburied until Avraham arrived. On the other hand, if the mitzvah is to honor the deceased, then Sarah was left unburied so that Avraham should honor her with his hesped.

Although the Gemara rejects this proof, it ultimately concludes that the purpose of a hesped is to honor the deceased. Therefore, if the deceased requested no eulogies, we honor his/her request, and also, heirs are obligated to pay for eulogies where appropriate.

Pre-Torah

You might ask, how can we derive halachos from events that pre-date the Torah? Didn’t the mitzvos change when the Torah was given?

The answer is that since this mitzvah fulfills the concept of ve’ahavata lereiacha kamocha, love your fellow as yourself, we can derive from its mode of performance whether its purpose is to honor the deceased or, alternatively, the surviving family members.

Exaggerate a Little

The hesped should be appropriate to the deceased; one may exaggerate slightly (Rosh, Moed Katan 3:63). You might ask, how can any exaggerating be permitted? Isn’t the smallest exaggeration an untruth? What difference is there between a small lie and a big one? (See Taz, Yoreh Deah 344:1)

The answer is that there is usually a bit more to praise about the person than we necessarily know, so that, on the contrary, adding a bit makes the tribute closer to the truth (based on Taz, Yoreh Deah 344:1).

Ignoring a Request

I mentioned above that the Gemara concludes that if the deceased requested no eulogies, we honor his/her request. However, this ruling is not always followed. When the Pnei Yehoshua, one of the greatest Torah scholars of the mid-eighteenth century, passed away, the Noda BiYehudah eulogized him, even though the Pnei Yehoshua had expressly requested that no eulogies be given. How could the Noda BiYehudah ignore the Pnei Yehoshua’s express request?

The answer, as explained by the Noda BiYehudah’s disciple, is that for a gadol hador to be buried without proper eulogy is not simply a lack of the deceased’s honor, which he has a right to forgo, but also a disgrace to the Torah. Even though a talmid chacham may (in general) forgo the honor due him as a Torah scholar (talmid chacham shemachal al kevodo, kevodo machul [Kiddushin 32b]), this applies only to forgoing honor. He cannot allow himself to be disgraced, since this disgraces not only him but also the Torah itself (Shu’t Teshuvah Mei’Ahavah, Volume I #174; see also Pischei Teshuvah 344:1).

We now understand why there are times when one obeys the request of a person to omit his hesped, and times when one may ignore it. Usually, we obey his/her request because of the general principle retzono shel adam zehu kevodo, the fulfillment of someone’s desire is his honor. However, if a gadol hador requests omission of eulogies, and major authorities consider this a breach of respect for the Torah itself, they may overrule the gadol’s request out of kavod for the Torah. (Of course, this implies that the departed gadol felt that the absence of hesped would not be a disgrace to the Torah, and that his halachic opinion is being overruled.)

At this point, we can now address the third question raised above: Is it true that one may not schedule a hesped within thirty days of a Yom Tov?

Hesped before Yom Tov

The Mishnah (Moed Katan 8a) forbids scheduling a hesped within thirty days before Yom Tov for someone who died over thirty days before Yom Tov (as explained by Rosh ad loc. and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 347:1). What is wrong with scheduling this hesped, particularly since performing a proper hesped is such a big mitzvah?

The Gemara cites two approaches to explain this ruling, both explaining that some form of Yom Tov desecration may result from such a eulogy. Rav (according to our version of the text) explained the reason with an anecdote:

“A man once saved money in order to fulfill the mitzvah of aliyah la’regel, traveling to the Beis HaMikdash for Yom Tov. A professional eulogizer then showed up at the man’s door, and convinced his wife that her recently departed relative deserved another eulogy. She took the money her husband had saved for aliyah la’regel and gave it to the eulogizer. (This indicates that ambulance chasing is a time-hallowed profession.) At that time, Chazal decreed that one should not make a post-funeral hesped during the thirty day period before Yom Tov.”

The Gemara then quotes Shmuel, who cited a different reason for the ban: Usually, thirty days after someone’s death, he or she is sufficiently forgotten for people not to discuss the death during Yom Tov, which would diminish the festival joy. However, performing a eulogy during these thirty days refreshes people’s memories, and as a result, they discuss the passing during Yom Tov and disturb the Yom Tov joy (Moed Katan 8b).

The Gemara notes that there is a practical difference between the two approaches. According to the first approach, our concern only applies if someone hires a professional speaker, and there is no stricture against conducting voluntary eulogies. However, according to Shmuel, one may not conduct even an unpaid eulogy, since this may revive the loss for the close family and result in a desecration of Yom Tov.

Contemporary Problem or Not?

Some raise the following question: Why doesn’t the Gemara point out yet another difference that results from the dispute: According to the first approach, the prohibition would have existed only when the Beis HaMikdash was standing, and there was a mitzvah of aliyah la’regel. Today, however, when we unfortunately cannot fulfill this mitzvah, one should be permitted to hire a professional speaker to eulogize within a month of Yom Tov, even after the funeral (Ritz Gayus, quoted by Ramban and Rosh)? Obviously, according to Shmuel’s approach the same concern exists today that existed when the Beis HaMikdash still stood. Yet the Gemara does not mention such a halachic difference between the two opinions.

The Ramban explains that the first opinion agrees that the prohibition exists even today. Since the story mentioned in the Gemara happened during the time of the Beis HaMikdash, the Gemara cites a case of someone saving up for aliyah la’regel. Thus, even though we have no Beis HaMikdash, the reason for the prohibition still applies, since people save money in order to be able to celebrate Yom Tov. Thus, the concern still exists that in order to pay for the eulogy, one might take from one’s Yom Tov savings.

What about Rosh Hashanah?

Does this law apply even within thirty days of Rosh Hashanah, or only before the festivals of Sukkos, Pesach, and Shavuos?

Since the Gemara mentions that the person spent the money set aside for aliyah la’regel, a mitzvah that applies only for Sukkos, Pesach, and Shavuos, this implies that our concern is only about the special Yom Tov expenses associated with the three regalim festivities, and not Rosh Hashanah, =when there is no mitzvah of celebration (Yeshuos Yaakov, Orach Chayim 547:1).

Eulogizing Children

Does one recite eulogies for children?

Theoretically, one could argue that since the purpose of a hesped is to honor the deceased, perhaps children do not require this type of honor. Nevertheless, the Gemara states that one does perform a eulogy for children of a certain age.

From which age does one perform a hesped?

“Rabbi Meir, quoting Rabbi Yishmael, said that the children of poor people should be eulogized when they are only three years old, whereas the children of wealthy people are eulogized only if they are five. Rabbi Yehudah quoted Rabbi Yishmael differently: the children of poor people at five, and the children of wealthy people at six. The halachah is according to the last opinion quoted (Moed Katan 24b).

Both opinions agree that the age is earlier for the child of a poor family than for the child of a wealthy family. What is the reason for this difference?

Rashi explains that a poor person, who has nothing in the world but his children, suffers the loss of his children more intensely, and the need for a hesped is greater. One might challenge that answer: since the conclusion of the Gemara is that a hesped is for the honor of the departed, why is it a halachic concern that an impoverished family suffers the loss of a child more? The hesped is not for their benefit, but for honor of the departed. I have not found this question discussed anywhere, although one later authority notes that the custom (at least in his time and place) was not to eulogize children at all (Beis Hillel to Yoreh Deah 344:4).

Conclusion

The Torah begins and ends by describing acts of chesed that Hashem performed, the last one entailing His burying Moshe Rabbeinu. Our purpose in life is to imitate Hashem in all activities until our personality develops to the point that we instinctively behave like Hashem. Fulfilling the mitzvah of hesped correctly, whether as a speaker or as a listener, develops our personality appropriately, and thus fulfills another highly important role in our Jewish lives.

Can a Sheitel be Prohibited Because of Avodah Zarah?

Although Eisav’s wives presumably did not wear sheitlach made of Indian hair, according to Chazal, they were idol worshippers. But what would have happened if they had used sheitlach made from hair used in idol worship?

A Background Discussion of the Halachic Issues Involved in the Use of Indian Hair

This article was written originally several years ago, around the time that there was a huge ruckus concerning the halachic permissibility of wearing sheitlach manufactured from hair of Indian origin. The purpose of this article is to provide background to some of the halachic issues and considerations involved.

Introduction to the Laws of Avodah Zarah

In addition to the cardinal prohibition against worshipping idols, the Torah distanced us from any involvement with or benefit from Avodah Zarah. Furthermore, money received in payment for Avodah Zarah is also tainted with its stigma and may not be used. As will be described later, this money must be destroyed in a way that no one will ever be able to use it.

Chazal prohibited benefit even from the wages earned for transporting an item used in idol worship. Thus, the wages of a person who hired himself to transport wine used in idol worship are prohibited (Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 62a). He is required to destroy whatever he received as payment in such a way that no one else can use it. The Gemara rules that if he received coins as payment, he must grind up the coins and then scatter the dust to the wind, to guarantee that no one benefit from idolatry.

In this context, the Gemara recounts the following story: A man who had rented his boat to transport wine owned by idolaters was paid with a quantity of wheat. Since the wheat may not be used, Rav Chisda was asked what one should do with it. He ruled that the wheat should be burned and then the ashes buried. The Gemara asks why not scatter the ashes, rather than burying them? The Gemara responds that we do not permit this out of concern that the ashes will fertilize the ground where they fall. Thus, we see how concerned Chazal were that we not gain any benefit from idols, even so indirectly.

Among the mitzvohs concerning idol worship is the prohibition against having an Avodah Zarah in one’s house (Avodah Zarah 15a). This is based on the verse Velo savie soeivah el beisecha, You shall not bring an abomination into your house (Devarim 7:26). In addition, we may not benefit from that which decorates an Avodah Zarah, and we are prohibited from providing benefit to the Avodah Zarah (Gemara Avodah Zarah 13a). Thus, it is prohibited to make a donation if a neighbor or business contact solicits a contribution for his Avodah Zarah.

There is also a positive mitzvah to destroy Avodah Zarah. This is mentioned in the verse, Abeid teabdun es kol hamekomos asher ovdu shom hagoyim es eloheihem, “You shall completely destroy all the places where the nations worshipped their gods” (Devarim 12:2). According to Rambam, the mitzvah min haTorah applies only to destroying the Avodah Zarah itself and that which decorates and serves it. There is no Torah requirement to destroy items used in the worship of Avodah Zarah (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:1-2, as proved by Kehilos Yaakov, Bava Kamma end of #3). However, as mentioned above, one is required miderabanan to destroy anything that is prohibited to use, to make sure that no one benefits from the Avodah Zarah items (see Avodah Zarah 51b; Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 8:6).

Tikroves Avodah Zarah – An Item Used to Worship an Idol

One of the laws relating to idol worship is the prohibition against using tikroves Avodah Zarah, that is, not to benefit from an item that was used to worship Avodah Zarah. According to the accepted halachic opinion, the prohibition against using tikroves Avodah Zarah is min haTorah (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:2; cf. Tosafos Bava Kamma 72b s.v. de’i, who rules that the prohibition is only miderabanan).

It should be noted that one is permitted to use items that are donated to Avodah Zarah, provided these items are not used for worship. Thus, gold, jewelry, and other valuables donated to a Hindu temple may be used.

Some Background Facts in the Contemporary Shaylah About Indian Hair

The Indian sub-continent is the home of the largest population of Hindus in the world. Hinduism is a religion that falls under the category of Avodah Zarah.

Most Hindu sects do not cut their hair as part of any worship. However, there is one large sect of Hindus that shave their head as an acknowledgement of thanks to one of their deities. This practice is performed by thousands of Hindu men, women, and children daily at their temple in Tirupati, India. The temple then collects what is cut and sells the women’s hair for wig manufacture.

An important halachic issue is whether the hair-shaving procedure that takes place in this Hindu Temple constitutes an act of idol worship, or whether the hair is simply donated for the use of the idol. This distinction has major halachic significance. As mentioned above, it is permitted to use an item that was donated to an Avodah Zarah. Such an item does not carry the halachic status of tikroves Avodah Zarah, which is prohibited from use. However, if the shaving is an act of idol worship, then the hair may not be used.

The Earlier Ruling

Many years ago, Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, ruled that there is no halachic problem with using the hair from the Indian temples. This responsa is printed in his Kovetz Teshuvos (1:77). The person who asked Rav Elyashiv the shaylah provided him with information based on the opinion of a university professor familiar with the Hindu religion. According to the professor, the Hindus who cut their hair do so only as a donation, just as they also donate gold, jewelry and other valuables to the temple. Although there is presumably still a prohibition in purchasing the hair from the temple (because of the prohibition against providing benefit to an idol), Rav Elyashiv ruled that there is no halachic prohibition to use this hair.

However, several years later, Rav Elyashiv and other prominent gedolim ruled that the hair sold by this Hindu temple is prohibited for use because of tikroves Avodah Zarah.

What changed?

As explained above, the critical question is whether the hair-shaving ceremony in this temple is simply a donation or is a form of worship. At the time of Rav Elyashiv’s earlier responsum, he was told that the haircutting was not an act of idol worship. When the second controversy erupted, he was told that the ritual does constitute Avodah Zarah.

It should be noted that Rav Moshe Shternbuch, shlit”a, currently Rosh Av Besdin of the Eidah HaChareidis in Yerushalayim, published a tshuvah prohibiting the use of any sheitel produced with Indian hair, because of tikroves Avodah Zarah. This was published about the same time that Rav Elyashiv had published his lenient ruling.

Bitul — Nullifying the Prohibited Hair

What happens if the Hindu hair is mixed in with other hair? This is a very common case, since Indian hair is much less expensive to purchase than European hair and at the same time is not readily discernable in a European sheitel. (As a matter of fact, it has been discovered that some manufacturers add Indian hair on a regular basis into their expensive “100% European Hair” Sheitlach.)

Assuming that hair shorn in the Hindu temple is prohibited because of tikroves Avodah Zarah, does that mean that any sheitel that includes any Indian hair is prohibited to be used? What about the concept of bitul, whereby a prohibited substance that is mixed into other substances in a manner that it can no longer be identified is permitted?

However, the concept of bitul does not apply in most cases when Avodah Zarah items became mixed into permitted items. Chazal applied different parameters to the concept of bitul as applied to Avodah Zarah because of the seriousness of the prohibition. Therefore, if a sheitel contains hair from different sources, such as hair made of European hair with some Hindu hair added, the sheitel should be treated as an Indian hair sheitel. Thus, according to Rav Elyashiv, this sheitel should be destroyed in a way that no one may end up using it. It is not necessary to burn the sheitel. It would be satisfactory to cut it up and place it in the garbage.

However, there is some halachic lenience in this question. Since the concept that Avodah Zarah is not boteil is a rabbinic injunction and not a Torah law, one may be lenient when it is uncertain that there is a prohibition. This is based on the halachic principle called safek derabanan lekula, that one may be lenient in regard to a doubt involving a rabbinic prohibition.

Thus, in a situation where a sheitel is manufactured from predominantly synthetic material, or predominantly European hair, yet there is a concern as to whether some prohibited hair might have been added, the halacha is that the sheitel may be worn.

It should be noted that, when attempting to determine the composition of a sheitel, one cannot rely on the information provided by a non-frum or non-Jewish manufacturer. In general, halacha accepts testimony from these sources only in limited instances.

Hairs and Sheitlach of Undetermined Origin

What happens if one has a human hair sheitel, but cannot determine the origin of the hair used in it? In this situation, the determining factor is the status of most sheitlach. If most sheitlach contain non-kosher hair, then the sheitel of indeterminate origin may not be worn. However, if most sheitlach are permitted, than this sheitel is also permitted.

Many synthetic sheitlach contain some natural hairs to strengthen the sheitel. In this instance, there is an interesting side shaylah. One can determine whether there are human hairs in these sheitlach by checking the hairs of the sheitel under a microscope. The human hairs will look different from the synthetic material. However, there is no way that this inspection can tell us the country of origin of the human hairs, and it certainly cannot tell us whether the hairs were involved in any worship. Is one required to check the hairs of a synthetic sheitel under a microscope to determine whether there are any human hairs? All the poskim I have heard from have ruled leniently concerning this issue – one is not required to have the sheitel checked.

Color of Sheitel

I have heard people say that there should be no halachic problem with blond- and red- sheitlach, since Indian women have dark hair. Unfortunately, based on my conversations with sheitel machers, there does not seem to be any basis for this assumption. In most instances, the hair used in sheitlach is bleached and then (much later in the process) dyed to a specific color. Thus, there is no reason to assume that simply because a sheitel is fair, the hair from which it is made cannot have originated in a Hindu temple.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this critique was written to supply background material to the question that became a big controversy several years ago. To the best of my information, this issue is not a major problem now. However, I would like to close the article with an unedited part of the original article I wrote then.

“Had someone told me six months ago that I would be dealing with a shaylah pertaining to Hilchos Avodah Zarah, I probably would have laughed. Who could imagine that in the modern world, shaylos about these issues would affect virtually every frum household? It goes to show us how ayn kol chodosh tachas hashemesh, There is nothing new under the sun (Koheles 1:9).”

Hunting for Kosher Meat

Question #1:

Shem, the son of Noach, was traveling one day and realized that he had not packed enough peanut butter sandwiches for the trip. Now hungry, he witnessed a travel accident, the result of which was that an animal had been killed. Was he permitted to cook the carcass for lunch?

Question #2:

Shem’s descendant, Linda, lives in the modern era, and is Jewish. While traveling in an unfamiliar area, she hunts for kosher meat, discovering some with an unfamiliar supervision, and calls her rabbi to ask whether he recommends it. What factors does he consider in advising her whether to use this product?

Question #3:

In a previous position, I was responsible for researching sources of meat that our local Vaad HaKashrus would accept. I traveled to many cities, and visited many meat packing facilities. People have often asked why sometimes my hunt resulted in a new acceptable source, and why sometimes it did not. What was I looking for?

Before answering these questions, we need to understand what the Torah’s requirements for allowable meat are.

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Here is the continuation of the article:

When Noach emerged from the teivah (the ark), Hashem told him that he and his descendants may now eat meat for the very first time. According to some authorities, prior to this time, no one was permitted to sink his teeth into a steak or even a schnitzel (Sanhedrin 59b, based on Bereishis 1:29-30, 9:3; as interpreted by Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 9:1 and Gur Aryeh, Bereishis 1:29). In actuality, not all authorities agree that Adam and his pre-mabul descendents were required to be vegetarian – some maintain that they were permitted to eat the meat of animals that had already died, and were forbidden only from killing animals for meat (Tosafos, Sanhedrin 56b s.v. achal; Rashi, Bereishis 1:29 and Sanhedrin 57a s.v. limishri basar, as understood by Mizrachi, Bereishis 1:29, cf. Gur Aryeh ad loc.). According to this opinion, pre-Noach mankind may have eaten a steak or schnitzel provided that they did not take the animal’s life.

Thus, whether Adam could barbecue road kill depends upon whether he held like Tosafos, in which case he could, or like the Rambam, in which case he could not. Otherwise, he was restricted to a vegetarian diet, which may have included the responsibility to check that his veggies were insect-free. Presumably, he called the local Vaad HaKashrus to determine how to check each type of vegetable. I wonder what he did when he wanted to eat Brussels sprouts, particularly since he probably lived before the invention of the light box!

However, when Noach emerged from the teivah, he and his descendents were permitted to give up their vegetarian lifestyle, provided that they ate no meat that had been removed from an animal while it was still alive (eiver min hachai). Just think, had Sheis lived after the time of Noach, he could have included some tuna sandwiches in his lunchbox, or picked up a few tins of sardines at the local grocery, instead of going hungry!

When the Torah was given, it both limited the species that a Jew may eat and created many other regulations, including the requirement that kosher meat and poultry be slaughtered in the halachically-approved way (shechitah) and that they may be eaten only if they are without certain defects that render them tereifah. Even after ascertaining that the animal itself may be eaten, one must still remove from sheep, goats, cattle and other “beheimos[1] certain fats called cheilev, and one must remove the blood, and the sciatic nerve (the gid hanasheh) from all kosher animals, both beheimos and chayos. (The gid hanasheh of fowl is permitted.)

In the contemporary world, guaranteeing that one’s meat is appropriate for the Jewish table involves several trained and G-d-fearing people, including shochatim, bodekim, menakerim, mashgichim, and knowledgeable rabbonim to oversee the entire process.

THE SHOCHEIT’S JOB

Aside from the shocheit’s obvious responsibility to slaughter the animal the way Hashem commanded, he must also fulfill another very important task: following the slaughtering, he must verify that he performed the shechitah correctly. This is a very important step – without this inspection the animal or bird must be considered non-kosher – it will be acceptable for the table of Bnei Noach, but not for Klal Yisroel.

A common controversy in today’s modern packing facility is the use of a hydraulically-powered pen to restrain the animal while it is slaughtered. Although this pen usually makes the job safer and easier for the shocheit, there are concerns that the pen itself may render the animal a tereifah prior to its being slaughtered (Besheveilei Shechita). For this reason, no hechsher in Israel allows use of a pen during shechitah, but a different, equally safe and humane, system to restrain the animal is used instead.

Next, the animal or bird is examined to ensure that it is not tereifah. Although common use of the word “treif” means non-kosher for any reason whatsoever, the technical meaning of the word refers to an animal with a physical defect that renders it non-kosher even if it was the beneficiary of a proper shechitah.

THE BODEIK

In a meat packing plant (beef, veal or lamb), the individual accountable to check for these defects is called a bodeik (pl. bodekim). Most bodekim are trained shochatim, and, indeed, in many plants the bodekim and shochatim rotate their tasks, thus making it easier for them to be as attentive as the job requires. As a result, a person licensed both as a shocheit and as a bodeik is usually called a shocheit, although technically he should be called a shocheit ubodeik to truly reflect the extent of his training.

THE SECOND BODEIK

The responsibility to check for tereifos is divided between two bodekim. The first, the bodeik pnim, checks the lungs in situ, which is the only way one can properly check that the lungs do not adhere in an improper way to the ribs, the membrane surrounding the heart (the pericardium), or to themselves, all of which render the animal non-kosher. This checking is performed completely based on feel. The bodeik gently inserts his hand, and runs his fingers carefully over all eight lobes of the lung to see if he feels any adhesion between the lung and one of the other areas.

The second bodeik, the bodeik chutz, rechecks the lungs based on the report of the bodek pnim and makes a cursory check of other organs, particularly the stomachs and intestines, upon their removal from the carcass, for swallowed nails and for various imperfections that render the animal non-kosher.

After the two bodekim are satisfied that the animal is kosher, the second bodeik or a mashgiach tags or stamps the different parts of the animal as kosher. In many packing houses, the bodeik or a mashgiach makes small slits between the ribs that specifies the day and parsha of the week to identify that piece as kosher. A mark made when the meat is this fresh appears completely different from one made even a few hours later, making it difficult to counterfeit. Of course, this mark is not sufficient alone to verify that the meat is kosher, but it is an essential crosscheck, since tags can be tampered with.

The modern kosher poultry plant is organized slightly differently: The shochatim only perform shechitah, whereas the bedikah inspection is performed by mashgichim trained to notice abnormalities. If they notice any, they remove the bird from the production line; a rav or bodeik then rules whether these birds are kosher or not.

For both animals and birds, one needs only to check for commonly occurring tereifos and not for uncommon problems. For example, the established halachic practice is to check an animal’s lungs because of their relatively high rate of tereifos, and today it is common in Israel to check an area called the tzumas hagiddin on chicken thighs for specific kashrus problems. Animal lungs frequently have adhesions called sirchos which render them non-kosher (Chullin 46b), although Ashkenazic custom is that easily removed adhesions on mature animals do not render them treif (Rosh, Chullin 3:14; Rama, Yoreh Deah 39:13). An animal without any sircha adhesions is called glatt kosher, meaning that its lung is completely smooth – that is, without any adhesions, even of the easily removable variety. (I have written an article, What Makes Meat Kosher, which explains more about the complicated topic of glatt kosher, that is available on the website rabbikaganoff.com or that can be sent on request via e-mail.)

The rav hamachishir’s responsibilities include deciding which problems are prevalent enough to require scrutiny and what is considered an adequate method of inspection.

Depending on the factory, the next steps in the preparation of beef, veal or lamb are performed either in the same facility where the shechitah was performed, or at the butcher shop.

TRABERING

Prior to soaking and salting meat to remove the blood, certain non-kosher parts of the animal, including the gid hanasheh (the sciatic nerve), non-kosher fats called “cheilev,” and certain large blood vessels must be removed (Yoreh Deah 65:1). The Hebrew word for this process is “nikur,” excising, and the artisan who possesses the skill to properly perform it is called a menakeir (pl. menakerim). The Yiddish word for this process is traberen which derives from tarba, the Aramaic word for cheilev, the non-kosher fat. This step is omitted in the production of poultry, since it is exempt from the prohibitions of gid hanasheh and cheilev, and its blood vessels are small enough that it is sufficient to puncture them prior to the soaking and salting procedures.

Early in its butchering, a side of beef (which is half its carcass) is divided into its forequarter and hindquarter. Since the gid hanasheh and most of the cheilev are located in the hindquarter, trabering it is a tedious process that requires a highly skilled menakeir. (I have written an article on the history and halachic issues germane to this practice, which is not yet posted on the website, but is available from me directly. This article will iy’H be posted in the near future.) The forequarters must still be trabered prior to soaking and salting to remove blood vessels and some fat (Rama, Yoreh Deah 64:1; Pischei Teshuvah 64:3). Although a relatively easy skill to learn, Linda’s rabbi might need to check whether one can trust this hechsher as to the proper performance of this procedure, as the following story indicates:

I once investigated the kashrus of a certain well-known resort hotel, one not usually frequented by frum clientele. I called the hotel and asked who provided their hechsher, and was soon on the telephone with both the resident mashgiach and the rav hamachshir.

I began by introducing myself and the reason for my phone call, and then asked about the sources of the meat used in the hotel. In the course of the conversation, it became evident that neither the rabbi nor the mashgiach knew the slightest thing about traberen, although they were officially overseeing a staff of in-house butchers, none of whom was an observant Jew. I realized that the rather poor kashrus reputation of this establishment was indeed well deserved. The rabbi overseeing the hechsher himself did not know trabering, nor did he have anyone else halachically reliable supervising. What was he overseeing?

Indeed, I have discovered many facilities that do not traber meat properly or even places that do not bother to traber their meat at all. Thus, we have another reason why some products may not be approved for use.

SOAKING AND SALTING

Returning to our brief overview of the proper preparations for kosher meat — after the meat has been properly trabered, it is ready to be soaked and salted to remove its blood. In earlier generations, this process, usually called kashering meat, was performed exclusively at home, but today common practice is that this is performed by the butcher or at the abattoir. Almost all kosher poultry operations today soak and salt the meat immediately after shechitah, and this approach is now becoming increasingly more common in beef operations.

To kasher meat it should be rinsed well, soaked in water for half an hour, drained properly, salted for an hour, and then rinsed three times (Rama, Yoreh Deah 69:1, 5, 7). The halacha requires that the meat be covered with salt on all exposed surfaces (Yoreh Deah 69:4). Most packing plants that I have seen perform this part of the job effectively, although I have seen places where the salting was inadequate — entire areas of the meat were not salted. This is probably simple negligence; although when I called this problem to the attention of the mashgiach he insisted that it had been performed adequately, notwithstanding my observing the contrary. Needless to say, I did not approve this source.

Sometimes, there is also concern about the koshering of poultry. Poultry must also be salted with its meat covered with salt on all its exposed surfaces. There is a dispute among authorities whether a bird’s abdominal cavity must be opened fully to guarantee that it is salted properly (Beis Lechem Yehudah 69:20; Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 69:15). Many contend that in modern facilities one should not rely that the employees, many of whom are not Jewish or are not observant of the laws of kashrus, will make sure to salt all exposed areas inside the bird’s cavity. To avoid this problem, one can either have observant staff be responsible to salt the meat, or alternatively, to have a mashgiach check that everything is done properly.

WASHED MEAT

The Geonim instituted a requirement that meat be soaked and salted within 72 hours of its slaughter (Yoreh Deah 69:12). This is because of concern that once 72 hours have passed the blood becomes hardened inside the meat and salting no longer removes it. If more than 72 hours passed without the meat being salted, the Geonim ruled that the meat may be eaten only if it is broiled since this process will still remove the blood (Yoreh Deah 69:12).

A question that developed with time was whether wetting the meat prevents the blood from hardening inside. Some early authorities permitted soaking meat to extend the 72 hour period (Shach 69:53). However, this leniency often led to highly liberal interpretations. I have seen butchers take a damp rag and wipe the outside of the meat and considered it washed. Thus, there are two different reasons why most reliable kashrus operations do not allow the use of “washed meat,” either because they do not accept this leniency altogether, or because of concern that once one accepts hosed meat, it becomes difficult to control what type of washing is acceptable.

THE RAV HAMACHSHIR

Thus far, I have described the tremendous responsibilities of most of the staff necessary to guarantee that the meat is of the highest kashrus standards. One person that I have not adequately discussed is the rav hamachshir, the supervising rabbi, who has the final say on the kashrus standards that the meat packer and butcher follow. Although a rav overseeing meat kashrus does not necessarily have to be a shocheit or a trained menakeir himself, he certainly must be expert in all of these areas, both in terms of thorough knowledge of halacha and in terms of practical experience. For most of Jewish history, the most basic requirement of every rav required him to be proficient in all the halachos of kosher meat production. As the local rav, all shechitah and bedikah in his town was his responsibility.

However, in the contemporary world of mass production and shipping, the local shul rav is rarely involved in the details of shechitah, and often has limited experience and training in these areas. Depending on the semicha program he attended, he may not have been required to study the laws of shechitah and tereifos. Thus, what was once the province of every rav has now become a specialty area, and sometimes rabbonim involved in the giving of meat hechsherim lack the proper training.

I was once given a tour of a meat packing plant by the supervising rabbi of the plant. During the course of the tour I became painfully aware of the rabbi’s incompetence in this area of kashrus. For example, he was clearly unaware of how to check shechitah knives properly, certainly a basic skill necessary to oversee this type of hechsher. Would you approve this meat supplier for your local Vaad HaKashrus?

At this point, I want to address the third question I raised above: Sometimes my visit to a meat packer resulted in a new acceptable source, and sometimes it did not. What was I looking for, and why would I disapprove a source that a different rav was approving?

The answers to these questions are sometimes subjective, but I will provide you with some observations of mine.

IS THE SYSTEM WORKABLE?

There are many subtle and not-so-subtle observations that a rav makes when examining a meat packer. I could not possibly list in one article all the types of problems I have seen, but I will mention certain specific concerns for which I would always be attentive.

Is the production line too quick for the shocheit or mashgiach to do his job properly? Are the shochatim or mashgichim expected to perform their job in an unrealistic manner, either because of a shortage of trained manpower or because of the speed or arrangement of the production line?

QUALITY OF PERSONNEL

Are the shochatim knowledgeable? Do they appear to be G-d fearing individuals? Although it is impossible to know whether someone is indeed a yarei shamayim, it is unfortunately often very obvious that he is not. It can indeed happen that one rav has questions about the staff – for this reason, he does not approve a source of supply.

I will give you an example that will better elucidate this problem. While visiting a plant to determine whether we should allow this shechitah, the conversation of one of the shochatim showed a shortcoming in tzniyus within his family. Although one cannot point to a specific law that disqualifies him as a shocheit, I personally was uncomfortable entrusting him with decisions that would affect what I eat. After discussion with the other rabbonim in our community, we decided not to accept meat from this shechitah.

Does this mean that we considered this meat non-kosher? G-d forbid. It simply means that we were uncomfortable allowing it and decided that we have that responsibility as rabbonim of our community.

Thus, it could indeed happen that what one rav considers acceptable another rav feels is not. The differences may be based on the interpretation of halacha, or they may result from a rav’s opinion as to how a plant should be run.

CONCLUSION

Based on the above information we can better understand many aspects of the preparation of kosher meat and why it is important to use only meat that has a proper hechsher. We can also gain a greater appreciation of how hard rabbonim and shochatim work to maintain a high kashrus standard. Now that we recognize the complexity involved in maintaining kosher meat standards, we should always hope and pray that the food we eat meets all the halachic requirements that the Torah commands us.



[1] Kosher land animals are divided into two categories, beheimah and chayah. Although beheimah (pl., beheimos) is often translated as domesticated species and chayah (pl., chayos) as wild species, these definitions are halachically inaccurate since whether a species is categorized as a beheimah or as a chayah has no bearing on whether it is domesticated or not. Reindeer, although domesticated, are clearly a chayah since they have branched antlers, whereas there are non-domesticated species, such as bison, that are almost certainly beheimah according to halacha.

The Written Torah did not indicate the defining characteristics distinguishing beheimos from chayos, leaving these rules to the Torah sheba’al peh, the Oral Torah. The Gemara (Chullin 59b) mentions several characteristics, mostly dependent on the animal’s horns: A branched horn defines its species as chayah, whereas non-branched horns may indicate either a chayah or a beheimah depending on whether they grow in layers, are grooved, and whether their tips are curved or straight (Rashi ad loc.; cf. Rabbeinu Chananel). Therefore, any species possessing branched horns or antlers like those found on most deer is a chayah, whereas those with straight horns may be either chayah or beheimah depending on the other criteria. Since all antelope (a general category that includes several dozen species) have un-branched horns, one would need to examine the horns of each species to determine whether it is a beheimah or a chayah. (Technically speaking, the difference between deer and antelope is that deer have antlers that shed and re-grow annually, whereas antelope have permanent un-branched horns.)

A Fishy Tale (and Scale)

In this week’s parsha, the Torah teaches that every fish that has fins and scales is kosher. The Mishnah (Niddah 51b) notes that all species of fish with scales also have fins. Thus, one may assume that a slice of a fish with scales is kosher even if one sees no fins.

The Gemara (Chullin 66a) states further that a fish species that has scales at any time during its life is kosher. Therefore, a fish is kosher even if “it has no scales now, but they will grow later, or it has scales and they fall off when the fish leaves the water.” Thus, sardines are kosher even though sometimes they are caught before scales develop. Similarly, certain herrings that shed their scales upon harvest are also kosher.

The early Acharonim discuss a variety of fish, or more accurately some type of legged sea creature, called the Stincus marinus that inhabited the seas near Spain and was reputed to have scales but no fins. The Tosafos Yom Tov, in his commentary to the Rosh (Chullin 3:67, Maadanei Yom Tov #5) records that when he was a rav in Vienna he was shown a specimen of this fish, which is naturally toxic, but the toxins can be removed and it can (and was) used for food and medicine. Maadanei Yom Tov presents a few possible explanations why this creature does not defy the rule established by the Gemara.

Some poskim ruled that this creature is unquestionably non-kosher, and that the Gemara means that there are very few sea creatures that have scales and no fins. One may assume that a fish or other sea creature one finds with scales is kosher; however, if one knows that it has no fins it is non-kosher (Kereisi 83:3; HaKsav ViHakabalah, Vayikra 11:9). Other poskim contend that the Gemara’s rule is inviolate and without exception (Pri Chodosh YD 83:4). In their opinion, Stincus marinus must have fins, but they fall off in the sea or when they are young; and it is indeed kosher.

What is very curious is that according to our contemporary scientific data, the creature that the Maadanei Yom Tov was referring to is probably a type of lizard and not really a sea creature at all.

To summarize, one may assume that any fish one discovers with scales is kosher, and it suffices to check an unknown fish for scales in order to verify that it is indeed kosher (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 83:3).

The word used by the Torah for scales, kaskeses, refers to a scale that is removable from the skin (Rama, Yoreh Deah 83:1). Thus, fish like sturgeon whose scales cannot be removed from the skin are not kosher (cf. Noda BiYehudah).

SHOPPING FOR FISH IN A NON-KOSHER STORE

I live in a town without a kosher fish market. May I purchase fish fillet from a species that I know is kosher?

Halachically, one may only use skinned fish that was supervised from the removal of its skin until it was sealed as kosher (Gemara Avodah Zarah 39b). Once the skin has been removed, one may not use it without proper seals because of concern that the fish is not the kosher species one thinks it is, but a similar looking non-kosher fish.

What if a non-Jew or a non-observant Jew guarantees that this is a kosher fish?

The halacha is that one may not rely on the non-Jew and the product must be sealed by an observant Jew (Gemara Avodah Zarah 39b). However, there is one instance where we may rely on a non-Jew’s testimony – when he knows that he will lose financially if he is caught deceiving us (Taz, Yoreh Deah 83:9). Therefore, if the non-Jew knows that we can independently verify his information, we may rely on him.

However, one is usually unable to verify the information provided by the person behind the counter in a non-kosher fish market. Therefore, since he is unafraid that we will catch him lying, one may not rely on his authority.

The poskim of a generation ago disputed whether one may purchase fish without skin from a non-Jewish company that has business reasons to produce only a certain type of fish that is kosher. May one use fish from a plant without having a mashgiach check every fish? This question affects production of canned tuna or salmon. Does it require a round-the-clock mashgiach checking that every fish is kosher, or can we rely on the fact that the company has its own reasons to pack only the type of fish stated on the label?

Some poskim hold that one may rely on the company’s business reasons because of the halachic principle, “uman lo marei umnaso,” a professional does not damage his reputation. According to this approach, we may assume that a company would not mix a different, non-kosher species into its canning operation because it is detrimental to itself (Rav Aharon Kotler; Shu”t Chelkas Yaakov 3:10). Other poskim contend that Chazal did not permit this lenience in the production of kosher fish but require full-time supervision under all circumstances (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3:8; Kisvei Rav Henkin, 2:53). Many of the major hechsherim in the United States follow the lenient opinion.

WHITEFISH SALAD

According to the lenient opinions cited, could one allow a company to produce whitefish salad without a mashgiach? After all, whitefish is a kosher fish.

This is disputed by contemporary poskim. Some contend that this is prohibited according to all opinions of the earlier generation, since the company can mix small amounts of less expensive non-kosher fish into the whitefish salad without it being discerned. Thus, the company’s professional reputation is not at stake. Other poskim maintain that it suffices to spot-check that no non-kosher fish is in the factory since the company’s professional reputation is at stake.

WHAT IF SOMEONE LIVES IN AN AREA WITHOUT A KOSHER FISH MARKET?

How can someone purchase fresh fish if he lives in an area that does not yet have a kosher fish market? Since he may not rely on the fishmonger’s assurances, must he forgo purchasing of fresh fish?

There is a perfectly acceptable halachic solution. Once should go to the fish store, identify a fish that still has its skin on and identify the scales. One should then provide the store with one’s own knife and supervise the fish’s filleting.

WHY MUST HE BRING HIS OWN KNIFE?

The fish store knives usually have a thin layer of grease from other, possibly non-kosher, fish (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 96:5). One cannot assume that the store cleans the knife between fish to the extent halacha requires to guarantee that it is totally clean (ibid.).

In the rare instance that the shop is reticent to allow the use of private knives, then you should supervise that the knives are scraped extremely clean. Standard cleaning does not guarantee that the grease has been removed from the knife.

SALMON STORY

Salmon is a very healthy fish, high in omega oils. It is also a kosher species.

Many years ago, I attended a conference of rabbonim where a highly respected posek stated that one may assume that salmon fillet is always kosher, even without its skin. He explained that salmon meat’s red or pink color does not exist in any non-kosher fish species. Therefore, he contended that one may safely assume that red or pink colored fish is kosher (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3:8).

I did some research on this subject. There is a basis to this statement, but it is not as simple as had been presented at the time. Indeed, there are several non-kosher fish, including some varieties of shark and catfish, that have a pink pigment. However, there are distinct shades of red and reddish pink that belong only to salmon and to certain varieties of trout that are also kosher. One should not rely on determining that a certain fish is kosher based on its hue without training.

Although this halacha was presumably true at that time, I am uncertain whether one may still make this presumption because of an unusual snippet of news I discovered.

I recently read an article comparing the environmental benefits of commercially sold Pacific salmon to those of Atlantic salmon. Pacific salmon are wild fish that roam the oceans and pick up their red or pink color from their natural diet that includes red crustaceans. (The fact that a fish consumes non-kosher creatures does not affect its kashrus.) However, commercially sold Atlantic salmon, the source for fillets and steaks, are bred in fish farms that populate the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and its inlets. (Atlantic salmon is no longer harvested directly from the sea because of decreasing wild populations.) These fish eat a diet that does not make their flesh pink. To give the fish their trademark hue, the farmers add colorant to their diet.

It seems that any fish wandering into these farms and sharing the salmons’ diet would also develop pink flesh, which would destroy the theory that every pink fish must be kosher. Indeed the fish could be non-kosher but have devoured significant amounts of red color.

After further research, I discovered another reason why salmon and trout have a distinctive color not found among other deep sea fishes. When most sea creatures eat colored crustaceans, they store the excess pigment in their skin. Only salmon and trout store the color in their flesh. Thus, many respected rabbonim still maintain that fish with the distinctive salmon color must be kosher since only salmon and trout are able to convert their food coloring to their flesh.

However, a research scientist I spoke to dismissed this argument for two reasons: First, he pointed out that it is virtually impossible to prove that no other fish has this ability. To do this, one would have to conduct research on every fish variety worldwide which is an impossible task. Furthermore, he pointed out that the ability to transfer food color to flesh is an inherited characteristic that the salmon possesses in its DNA. It is feasible that someone has isolated this gene, and that some fish farmer is marketing a different species of fish as salmon fillet. Thus, our question whether one may assume that all red or pink fillet is kosher remains valid.

Nonetheless, I personally side with the lenient ruling. Since we have no evidence of a non-kosher, reddish-flesh fish, I think that we may still assume that any fish with this distinctive color is salmon until evidence appears that someone has isolated the gene that allows the color to be stored in the flesh and transferred it to a non-kosher species. Until we have such evidence, if the fish looks like salmon and smells like salmon we will assume that it is salmon (see Shach, Yoreh Deah 83:27).

OTHER CANNERY ISSUES

Are there any other potential kashrus issues with canned fish?

Fish factories often produce non-kosher products that would render the tuna or salmon non-kosher. Additionally, even if the factory only cans kosher fish, it might use non-kosher ingredients. Most fish is processed in oil, which can be non-kosher or be produced on non-kosher equipment.

There is also a discussion among contemporary poskim whether canned tuna or salmon is prohibited because of bishul akum, food cooked by a non-Jew. Explaining this complicated subject will be left for a different article.

What other halachos pertain to fish?

FISH AND MEAT

Chazal advise that consuming fish and meat together is harmful to one’s health (Gemara Pesachim 76a). To avoid swallowing fish and meat together, one should eat and drink something between eating fish and meat in order to clean the mouth from residual particles (Rama to Yoreh Deah 116:3). Sefardim are more stringent and follow the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch who rules that one must wash one’s hands and mouth carefully between eating fish and meat (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 116:3).

Question:

I have never noticed anyone getting sick from eating fish and meat together. Furthermore, the American Medical Association does not consider this harmful. Does this affect halacha in any way?

Some prominent poskim contend that although mixing fish and meat was unhealthy in the days of Chazal, today the nature of the world has changed and it is no longer unhealthy (Magen Avraham 173:1). This concept is referred to as “nishtaneh hateva,” that nature has altered since the days of Chazal (see Tosafos, Moed Katan 11a; Gemara Niddah 3a). Others contend that Chazal were concerned only about a specific type of fish that is dangerous to mix with meat, and that their concern does not extend to other varieties (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #101).

Other poskim rule that one should still not eat fish and meat together since Chazal may have been aware of a medical issue unknown to modern medicine (see Shu”t Shvus Yaakov 3:70; Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #101). The accepted practice is to be stringent (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 116:3).

SCHNAPPS AFTER THE FISH

Chassidim have a minhag to drink schnapps after fish. Does this practice have a halachic source?

Indeed it does. Some poskim cite that it is dangerous to drink water immediately after fish (Tosafos, Moed Katan 11a; quoted by Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh Deah 116:10; another source one could possibly quote for this minhag is a Shla, quoted in Darkei Teshuvah 116:31, who implies that one should drink a beverage after fish, but not water). In earlier generations, there were not too many beverages available; often water, wine, and schnapps were the only choices. Thus, when wine was expensive, and one did not want to drink water after fish, schnapps was the most practical alternative. I suspect that this is the origin of washing down fish with schnapps (see Shaar HaTziyun 174:46). Today, a wine connoisseur can substitute white wine and a teetotaler, juice, for the same purpose. (Someone asked me whether one can use soda or reconstituted juice for this purpose, since both are predominantly water. To this date, I have found no halachic discussion about this shaylah.)

THE FISH POT

Question: My bubbie had a special pot that she used only to cook fish. Is there halachic significance to this fish pot?

Although most poskim contend that there is no halachic or safety problem with cooking fish in a fleishig pot, some poskim are stringent (Taz, Yoreh Deah 95:3; Shu”t Shvus Yaakov 3:70). Based on this concern, many people have a family custom to cook fish only in a pot that they never use for meat. However, the common practice is to allow the cooking of fish in meat pots.

FISH AND MILK

Based on certain halachic sources, some people, most commonly Sefardim, have the practice not to mix fish and milk products together (Pischei Tshuvah, Yoreh Deah 87:9). This is important for an Ashkenazi to know when he invites Sefardi guests for a milchig meal.

WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE ON MY FISH

People often ask the following question: Some steak sauces or Worcestershire sauces have anchovies or other fish products among their ingredients. I have noticed that some hechsherim place a notation next to their hechsher symbol identifying that these items contain fish, whereas sometimes they do not. Is this an oversight?

The answer to this question requires an introduction. Poskim dispute whether any admixture of fish and meat is dangerous or whether it is dangerous only if there is enough fish and meat to taste both (see Taz Yoreh Deah 116:2; Pischei Tshuvah 116:3; Darchei Tshuvah 116:21). Thus, many poskim permit eating a small amount of fish mixed into a meat product. For this reason, and because of the above-mentioned opinion of the Magen Avraham that mixed fish and meat is no longer dangerous since nature has changed, many poskim allow eating a small amount of fish mixed into a meat dish (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #101; Pischei Tshuvah 116:3). Upon this basis, some hechsherim do not require listing fish in the hechsher when it constitutes less than a sixtieth of the product.

The Midrash (Breishis Rabbah 97:3) points out that Klal Yisroel is compared to fish. Just like fish, who are completely surrounded by water, rise excitedly to the surface at the first drops of rain to drink fresh water, so too Jews, although surrounded by Torah, run enthusiastically to hear a new chiddush of Torah, “drinking” it thirstily as if this was their first opportunity to learn. May we indeed live up to our reputation!

What Will the Neighbors Think? – Understanding the Halachos of Maris Ayin

When Yehudah’s friend the Adulami was unable to locate Tamar, Yehudah reacts: “What can I do? This will lead to an embarrassing situation.”

This sounds like a good week (parshas Va’Yeshev) to study the halachos of maris ayin.

Question # 1:  My boss asked me to attend a lunch meeting with a new client in a non-kosher restaurant. May I attend the meeting, or do I violate maris ayin if I am seen in a treif restaurant? If it is permissible to attend the meeting, may I order a cup of coffee or a fruit plate?

Question # 2: When I serve coffee after a fleishig meal, I like to put non-dairy creamer on the table in a small pitcher because the original container is unsightly. Recently, someone told me that I may not place the creamer on the fleishig table unless it is in its original container. Is this true?

Question # 3: Hyman Goldman would like to retire and sell his business, Hymie Goldman’s Bakery, to a non-Jew who will keep it open on Shabbos. Must he require the gentile to change the shop’s name?

Question #4: My not-yet-observant cousin is making a bar mitzvah in a Reform temple. We have a good relationship, and he is very curious about exploring authentic Judaism. May I attend the bar mitzvah?

Answer: Most of us are familiar with the prohibition of maris ayin, avoiding doing something that may raise suspicion that one violated halacha. However, most of us are uncertain when this rule applies, and when it does not.

Here are some examples of maris ayin mentioned by the Mishnah and Gemara:

A. One may not hang out wet clothes on Shabbos because neighbors might think that he washed them on Shabbos.[1] This is true even when all the neighbors realize that he is a meticulously observant individual.

B. Officials who entered the Beis HaMikdash treasury did so barefoot and wearing garments that contained no hemmed parts or wide sleeves, and certainly no pockets or cuffs, so that it would be impossible for them to hide any coins.[2] The Mishnah states that this practice is derived from the pasuk vihiyisem nekiyim meiHashem umiyisroel,[3] — Do things in a way that is as obviously clean in the eyes of people as it is viewed by Hashem. Rav Moshe Feinstein contends that some types of maris ayin are prohibited min haTorah![4]

C. Tzedakah collectors should get other people to convert their currency for them and not convert it themselves, because people might think that they gave themselves a more favorable exchange rate.[5]

A Curious Contradiction

The concept of it being a mitzvah to avoid a situation of maris ayin is a fascinating curiosity, because it contradicts another important Torah mitzvah – to judge people favorably. This mitzvah requires us to judge a Torah Jew favorably when we see him act in a questionable way.[6] If everyone were to judge others favorably at all times, there would never be a reason for the law of maris ayin. Yet we see that the Torah is concerned that someone might judge a person unfavorably and suspect him of violating a mitzvah.

Indeed, a person’s actions must be above suspicion; at the same time, people observing him act in a suspicious way are required to judge him favorably.

Entering a Treif Restaurant

May I enter a non-kosher restaurant to use the bathroom, to eat a permitted item, or to attend a professional meeting?

A prominent rav once gleaned insight on this shaylah from early poskim, who discussed the kashrus issues of Jewish travelers. In the sixteenth century, there was a dispute between the Rama and the Maharshal whether a Jewish traveler may eat herring and pickles prepared and served in non-kosher inns.[7] The Rama ruled that, under the circumstances, a traveler could eat these items on the inn’s non-kosher plates, whereas the Maharshal prohibited using the inn’s plates. However, neither sage prohibited either eating or entering the inn because of maris ayin; from this, the rav inferred that entering a non-kosher eating establishment does not violate maris ayin.

However, Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that entering a non-kosher eatery is a violation of maris ayin.[8] Why does he not compare this law to the inn of the earlier poskim?

The answer is that in the sixteenth century, the inn functioned as a place of shelter and lodging, not only as a place providing food. Therefore, someone seeing you enter the inn would have assumed that you were looking for a place to sleep, and that you had no intention of eating non-kosher food there. Thus, the sixteenth-century inn is comparable to a twenty-first century hotel that contains non-kosher restaurants. There is certainly no maris ayin prohibition to visit a hotel, since a passerby would assume that you are entering the hotel for reasons other than eating non-kosher food. However, the primary reason people enter a non-kosher restaurant is to eat treif food. Therefore, Rav Moshe rules that it is prohibited to enter a treif restaurant because of maris ayin.

Likely? Or almost likely?

This leads us to a practical question. May one do something that could be interpreted in different ways, one of which involves violating the Torah and the other not? Is this activity prohibited because of maris ayin? For example, someone hanging up wet clothes on Shabbos may have just washed them, or he may have just accidentally dropped them into a basin of water or used them to mop up a spill. Yet the halacha is that this is prohibited because of maris ayin. This implies that since the most common reason for hanging out clothes is that they were recently washed, the activity is prohibited because of maris ayin.

Similarly, there are many reasons why one might enter a treif restaurant: to attend a meeting, to use the comfort facilities, or to drink a cup of water. On the other hand, the most common reason people enter a non-kosher restaurant is to eat non-kosher food. This is why Rav Moshe prohibits entering a treif restaurant.

However, Rav Moshe rules that under highly extenuating circumstances, such as when one is famished and there is nowhere else to eat, one may enter a treif restaurant. This is based on another principle of Chazal that when one suffers a great deal, one may override a rabbinic prohibition to alleviate the pain.[9] For this reason, Rav Moshe permits someone who is famished to eat kosher food in a non-kosher restaurant. Based on his ruling, one could presumably permit entering a treif restaurant to use the restroom, if it is the only one readily available.

The Company Cafeteria

Many workplaces provide a cafeteria where one can purchase (non-kosher) food or bring in one’s own food. Alternatively, some cafeterias have packaged kosher food available. In either of these situations, there is no concern for maris ayin, since people enter the cafeteria to eat kosher food also.

May I Attend a Meeting where they will serve Non-Kosher food?

Rabbonim rule differently on this issue; therefore, one should ask a shaylah of his own rav. Personally, I believe that the answer depends on how secure one is at one’s employment. If you feel that skipping the meeting might jeopardize your employment, then you may attend, since losing your job entails a great amount of suffering. However, if you feel that it will not jeopardize your employment, you may not attend.

Are there new Maris Ayin cases?

If a situation exists that could be a case of maris ayin, but is not mentioned by Chazal, is it prohibited because of maris ayin? There is actually an early dispute about this question, between the Rashba and the Pri Chodosh. A little explanation is necessary before we present this case: Chazal prohibited placing fish blood, which is perfectly kosher, in a serving bowl since someone might confuse it with animal blood.[10] Based on this Gemara, the Rashba prohibited cooking meat in human milk, even though human milk is halachically pareve.[11] Similarly, the Rama prohibits cooking meat in “almond milk” — a white, milk-like liquid made from almonds that probably looked similar to our non-dairy creamer or soy milk — because of its similar appearance to cow’s milk. One may cook meat in almond milk and serve it only if one leaves pieces of almond in the “milk” to call attention to its non-dairy origin.[12] The Pri Chadash disagrees with the Rama, contending that we should not create our own cases of maris ayin and one should prohibit only those items that were prohibited by Chazal.[13] The consensus of poskim is to prohibit these new maris ayin cases, following the position of Rashba and Rama.

Based on this ruling, some contemporary authorities contend that one should not serve pareve, non-dairy creamer after a fleishig meal, since someone might think that something milchig is being served after a fleishig meal. They permit serving the “creamer” in the original container that clearly identifies it as a pareve product, similar to serving the meat cooked with almond milk, provided there are some almonds in the “milk.”

However, other poskim contend that today no maris ayin issue exists germane to these products, since the average person knows about the ready availability of pareve creamers, cheeses, ice creams, margarines, soy and rice milk, and the like.[14]

This leads us to a new discussion —

Maybe this is no longer Maris Ayin?

If something was prohibited as maris ayin in earlier generations, does it become permitted if there is no longer a maris ayin issue? Can we prove that the prohibition against maris ayin disappears if the issue is no longer a concern? Is it correct that although, at one time, one could not cook meat in almond milk, today one may cook meat in soy milk, since pareve milk substitutes are readily available? Similarly, may one serve margarine at a fleishig meal?

We can gather proof for answering this shaylah from the following case:

One may not hire a gentile to perform work on Shabbos that a Jew may not do. However, a non-Jew may operate his own business on Shabbos, even if he rents his facility from a Jew.

The Gemara rules that a Jew may rent his field to a non-Jewish sharecropper, since the gentile is not his employee. However, a Jew may not rent his bathhouse to a gentile, since the non-Jew may operate the bathhouse on Shabbos.[15]

How is a Bathhouse different from a Field?

Why may I rent the non-Jew my field, but not my bathhouse? What is the difference between the two?

At the time of the Gemara, it was common to rent fields, and thus someone seeing a gentile work a Jewish-owned field on Shabbos would assume that the gentile rented it. He would not think that the Jew hired the gentile to work for him, which would constitute a violation of the laws of Shabbos.

However in antiquity, it was uncommon to rent out a bathhouse. The person who owned the bathhouse hired employees to operate the business for him. Therefore, someone seeing a gentile operate a Jewish-owned bathhouse on Shabbos might assume that the Jew hired gentiles to operate his bathhouse on Shabbos, which violates halacha. Because of this, Chazal prohibited renting a bathhouse to a gentile, because it would result in maris ayin when people see the gentile operating the Jew’s bathhouse on Shabbos.[16]

Shulchan Aruch[17] rules that if it is common in a certain city for people to rent out their bathhouses, one may rent one’s bathhouse to a gentile, despite the Gemara’s ruling. There is no maris ayin, since people in this city will assume that the gentile rented the bathhouse from its owner. Thus, the maris ayin prohibition of the Gemara is rescinded in places and times when the concern of suspicion no longer exists. Similarly, we can conclude that nowadays, someone seeing non-dairy creamer served at a fleishig meal will assume that it is a pareve milk substitute, and that there is no issue of maris ayin.

Question # 3: Hyman Goldman would like to retire and sell his business, Hymie Goldman’s Bakery, to a non-Jew, who will keep the business open on Shabbos. Must he require the non-Jew to change the name of the shop?

First, some background to this shaylah.

Rama permits renting a business that people do not associate with a Jewish owner to a gentile.[18] Thus, a Jew may buy the regional franchise of a non-Jewish company and rent or franchise out the individual stores to gentiles. Acharonim dispute whether he may do this even where the Jew is sometimes involved in the management of the stores.[19] Similarly, a Jew who owns a shopping mall may rent the stores to gentiles, since people assume that each business is owned individually. However, if the rent includes a percentage of sales, he might thereby be receiving sechar Shabbos, profits from work performed on Shabbos. One should ask a shaylah, since the halacha in this case depends on the specific circumstances involved.

However, although a Jew may rent his facility to a gentile tenant, it is unclear whether he may sell the business to a gentile who will keep the Jew’s name on the business and have it open on Shabbos. Even if passersby realize that there are now exclusively non-Jews staffing Hymie’s, they may think that Hyman still owns the shop and is hiring gentiles to operate the business for him. I discussed this shaylah with several different rabbonim and received different answers.

Here is another interesting maris ayin shaylah:

“I will be working in a town with very few observant people. There is an observant woman in town who lives alone, who will be away the entire time I am there. She is very willing to let me use her house while she is away. Is there a problem that people may not realize that she is away, and they might think that we are violating the prohibition of yichud – being secluded with someone of the other gender to whom one is not closely related?”

Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses this almost identical shaylah. Someone wants to sleep and eat at a widow’s house when she is out of town. Is there a concern of maris ayin, because people will think that he is staying at her house when she is home, and that they are violating the prohibition of yichud? Rav Moshe rules that it is permitted, reasoning that since there are many ways to avoid yichud, we need not assume that people will think that he is violating the halacha.[20]

This is not Maris Ayin

Rav Moshe Feinstein notes that maris ayin does not include doing something permitted that people might mistakenly think is forbidden. Maris ayin means that someone thinks I violated something – he thinks that I misappropriated someone else’s money, washed clothes on Shabbos, ate something non-kosher, etc. However, it does not include doing something permitted that people might mistakenly think is forbidden.

Thus, Rav Moshe discusses whether there is any prohibition in traveling a short distance by car on Friday evening after candle lighting time, when you will certainly not come to desecration of Shabbos. He rules that one may do this, since there is no prohibition against doing work after candle lighting time, even if ignorant people think that there is.

Question # 4: My not-yet-observant cousin is making a bar mitzvah in a Reform temple. We have a good relationship, and he is very curious about exploring authentic Judaism. May I attend the bar mitzvah?

Rav Moshe rules that one may not enter a reform temple at the time people are praying there, because someone might think one prayed there, which is prohibited according to halacha. Alternatively, someone might erroneously learn from this person’s example that it is permitted to pray with them. Someone faced with the above predicament should discuss the issue with his rav, how to develop the relationship with his cousin, without entangling himself in any halachic issues.

Conclusion:

By examining the parameters of maris ayin, we become aware of the importance of the impression that our actions make. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that it does not matter what others think of us. Our behavior must not only be correct, but also appear correct. In general, our lives should be a model of appropriate behavior and kiddush Hashem. Let others look at us and say, “He is a frum Jew – he lives his life on a higher plane of honesty, of dignity, and of caring for others.” — As Chazal say in Pirkei Avos: “Kol she’ruach habrios nocha heimenu ruach hamakom nocha heimenu, One who is pleasing to his fellowman is pleasing to his Creator.


[1] Mishnah and Gemara Shabbos 146b

[2] Shekalim 3:2

[3] Bamidbar 32:22

[4] Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:82

[5] Bava Basra 8b; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 257:2

[6] For further information on the mitzvah of judging people favorably, see Shaarei Teshuvah of Rabbeinu Yonah, 3:218.

[7] Yam shel Shelomoh, Chullin 8:44; quoted by Taz, Yoreh Deah 91:2

[8] Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:40

[9] see Kesubos 60a

[10] Kereisos 21b

[11] Shu’t HaRashba 3:257

[12] Rama, Yoreh Deah 87:3

[13] Yoreh Deah 87:6

[14] Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 3:59

[15] Mishnah Avodah Zarah 21a

[16] Avodah Zarah 21b

[17] Orach Chayim 243:2

[18] 243:2

[19] see Mishnah Berurah 243:14

[20] Shu’t Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer 3:19

Life Insurance: To Buy or Not to Buy?

In parshas Va’Yishlach, Yaakov needed to make very important and practical life decisions with major long-term ramifications, when he heard that Esav was approaching with his army of 400 men; these decisions were made based on his halachic and hashkafic background. We also have similar decisions to make. With this introduction, I bring you:

Question #1:

Chaim knows that, as the head of the family, he has the responsibility to care for his wife, Fruma, and their children. He feels that this responsibility obligates him to acquire an adequate amount of life insurance should something chas veshalom happen to him. Fruma’s upbringing was that even discussing this matter can cause bad things to happen. Who is right – Chaim or Fruma?

Question #2:

Miriam calls her rav with a shaylah. “My husband and I would like to buy life insurance, but we’re concerned that it might show a lack of bitachon that Hashem always does what is best for us. Is that correct?”

Question #3:

Tzadok is one of the city’s biggest tzaddikim. He teaches, voluntarily oversees some local tzedakah projects, not to mention his incredibly solid kevi’us itim.  He is a talmid chacham and is raising his own large family. One of the ba’alei batim has offered to purchase a life insurance policy on his behalf, but Tzadok questions whether doing so might jeopardize him, since his family would no longer be dependent on his support. Is his fear founded?

Answer:

At times we have heard someone opposing life insurance –claiming that it reflects a lack of bitachon, or that its acquisition could actually be to one’s detriment. Let us understand what the halachic authorities say about this subject. Indeed, are there halachic or hashkafic concerns about purchasing life insurance? From a Torah perspective, should this practice be encouraged or discouraged ?

The three situations I presented above demonstrate three different issues that poskim discuss when analyzing whether there is a halachic problem in purchasing life insurance. They are:

I. Creating a Devil’s Advocate

The Gemara[1] states that one should not say something that might cause evil to occur. Al yiftach adam piv l’satan – Do not create an opportunity for Satan to mix in! Is purchasing life insurance not considered encouraging the evil Satan to do something nefarious?

II. In G-d We Trust

If we really believe that Hashem provides for all of our needs, doesn’t purchasing life insurance demonstrate that we are worried about the future and lack trust in Hashem?

III. Succeeding in Divine Judgment

As opposed to a human court, Hashem’s judgment and decisions are perfect, and take all ramifications into consideration. The Heavenly Tribunal will not recall someone unless all the consequences of his disappearance are calculated. Based on this, perhaps purchasing life insurance jeopardizes the insured, since his family is no longer as dependent on his support, thus minimizing the merits he has when judged by the Heavenly Tribunal?

Let’s analyze each one of these issues individually, in order to determine whether or not purchasing life insurance should be allowed or even encouraged.

Issue #1 — Creating a Devil’s Advocate

Al yiftach adam piv l’satan literally translates as, “A person should not open his mouth for Satan.” One should be careful not to say something that might provide Satan with ammunition. The Gemara[2] applies this rule to forbid a person from saying, “I sinned a lot, but Hashem has not punished me.” The admission that one is guilty and deserves punishment gives Satan a chance to prosecute one in the Heavenly Tribunal. According to the Magen Avraham,[3] the main concern here is that the words “Hashem has not punished me” imply that one anticipates the punishment, although this is clearly not what the speaker intends. However, when Satan prosecutes, he might take the speaker’s words out of context.

The question is whether purchasing life insurance provides Satan with such an opportunity to prosecute.

A different Talmudic discussion implies that it is absolutely permissible to make arrangements for oneself in the event of one’s demise, and that doing so is not considered opening one’s mouth to Satan. The Gemara[4] discusses whether someone who prepares for himself shrouds (tachrichim) that are four-cornered is required to attach tzitzis to their corners, implying that it is, indeed, permitted to prepare shrouds for oneself. In other words, planning for one’s death does not constitute violating the warning al yiftach adam piv l’satan and does not provide the Satan with any ammunition.

Indeed, this Gemara’s discussion is rallied as a source in the following situation. Maury Bond is lying on his deathbed on a hot Friday afternoon. There is concern that if he dies before Shabbos, his corpse will begin to decompose and smell unpleasant before it can be buried after Shabbos, which would not be a kavod for the departed. (Remember that earlier generations did not have ready access to refrigeration.) The authorities debate whether it is permitted to dig Maury’s grave while he is still breathing, so that, should he die on Friday, he could be buried quickly before Shabbos. Most authorities[5] permit digging the grave while Maury is still living; the dissenting opinion prohibits this out of concern that Maury might find out that his grave is already dug, which will distress him, and this itself could lead to his premature demise.[6] However, none of the authorities debating this case is concerned that the efficacy of digging Maury’s grave while he is still alive violates al yiftach adam piv l’satan and provides Satan with the opportunity to clamor for Maury’s swift departure. Some of the authorities who discuss this question explicitly state that it is perfectly acceptable for a healthy person to arrange the digging of his own grave and to prepare his own shrouds, as we see from the above-quoted passage in the Gemara. One highly respected authority expressly approves the practice of purchasing adjacent burial plots for a couple, the fact that at least one member is still alive notwithstanding.[7]

Thus, we see that it is not considered al yiftach adam piv l’satan when a healthy person makes funeral arrangements for himself, since he is not mentioning his sins and giving Satan any reason to prosecute him. Based on this, several authorities rule that purchasing life insurance is also not a violation of al yiftach adam piv l’satan.[8]

However, I would like to note that there are two sources from which it seems that al yiftach adam piv l’satan applies in some other cases. In Kesubos 8b, the Gemara states that a person should not make the following declaration, “Many will drink the cup of mourning” because of the concern of al yiftach adam piv l’satan. This source implies that there is concern of al yiftach adam piv l’satan even when one’s statement does not imply that one has sinned and deserves punishment. Similarly, a different Gemara passage states that upon entering the bathhouse (which in those days involved a moderate degree of danger), one should not say “if something goes wrong, my death should atone for my sins” because of al yiftach adam piv l’satan.[9]

Thus, we need to resolve why the halachic authorities who discuss making shrouds, digging a grave, or purchasing a burial plot for a living person do not prohibit these actions because of the principle of al yiftach adam piv l’satan, even though the statements “many will drink the cup of mourning” and “if something goes wrong, my death should atone for my sins” are prohibited for this reason.

The answer appears to be that these last two cases are a concern only because one is expressing the possibility of one’s passing, which fits the words of Chazal: a person should not say, “I sinned a lot, but Hashem has not punished me.” Assuming our solution is correct, arranging plans for one’s demise, including writing one’s will and purchasing life insurance do not violate al yiftach adam piv l’satan, provided that one does not express verbally the possibility of one’s death.

Issue #2: — In G-d We Trust – Exclusively

A Jew is obligated to believe that although he makes an effort to earn his livelihood, parnasah, it is ultimately Hashem alone Who provides it. The question is whether there is a difference between working for one’s daily needs and working to save money for future expenses. Is it a shortcoming in bitachon to save for the future? Does purchasing life insurance imply lack of confidence that Hashem will provide for his family?

To answer these questions, we must first examine the halachic relationship between parnasah and bitachon.

Is there a Dispute in the Mishnah?

The Mishnah quotes two ostensibly dissenting opinions. Rabbi Meir is quoted first as saying: “A person should teach his son a livelihood that is easy (to learn) and free of potential sin. (At the same time, he should) pray to Him Who is the source of all wealth and property. (Always realize that) there is no profession that does not have its vicissitudes. Poverty and wealth are dependent on his merit.” We see that Rabbi Meir advocates teaching one’s child a livelihood, while simultaneously acknowledging that livelihood comes from Hashem and not from our efforts.[10]

On the other hand, the very same mishnah quotes Rabbi Nehorai as saying, “I abandon all means of livelihood and teach my son only Torah.”

Thus, we appear to have a dispute between two tanna’im as to whether one should take time from teaching one’s son Torah in order to provide him with vocational training. However, this analysis cannot be accurate for the following reason:

The Gemara[11] teaches that Rabbi Meir was an alternate name for Rabbi Nehorai, because his teaching of Torah produced so much light. (Meir means “He who gives light,” and the word Nehorai also means “light”.) How could Rabbi Nehorai disagree with himself?

Resolving the Dispute

One answer to this problem is that Rabbi Nehorai’s statement that he would teach his son nothing but Torah was personal – Rabbi Nehorai himself had no worldly concerns, because he placed complete trust in Hashem. Someone at this level should indeed not teach his son any worldly occupation. However, most people do not reach this level of trust and must provide their son with a livelihood, while emphasizing that parnasah is from Hashem.[12]

Rav Moshe Feinstein[13] presents an alternative answer to the contradictory statements of Rabbi Meir. The two statements are discussing different stages of life, one before the son must begin supporting his family, and the other when he has to support his family. Rabbi Nehorai’s statement that “I teach my son only Torah” applies before the son needs parnasah. Until then, he should learn only Torah. The other statement refers to a son who has to earn a living. At that point, his father should teach him a livelihood that involves few halachic challenges and is easy to learn, while at the same time teaching him that his vocation is only hishtadlus, one’s feeble apparent attempt, and that parnasah comes only from Hashem.

There is a halachic difference between the two approaches. According to the first approach, someone with total trust that Hashem will provide for him, even if he makes no hishtadlus, should not make any effort toward parnasah. According to Rav Moshe’s approach, even a person with total trust in Hashem is required to have a livelihood. Rav Moshe brings evidence from several sources that it is inappropriate to rely on miracles for one’s parnasah. Furthermore, he considers having no livelihood as equivalent to relying on miracles.[14]

On the other hand, Rav Vozner rules,[15] similarly to the first approach, that a pure baal bitachon is permitted to rely totally on Hashem for parnasah; however, he agrees that this applies only to rare individuals. There are stories about Gedolim, such as Rav Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld, who made no conventional hishtadlus to attain parnasah. These Gedolim, too, must have had the same opinion as Rav Vozner. According to Rav Moshe’s approach, one may not deliberately adopt such a lifestyle.

Both Rav Moshe and Rav Vozner rule that, generally speaking, people are required to have some type of parnasah, and that it is not a lack of bitachon to do so. Unless he is a great tzaddik, no one should assume that he has sufficient zechuyos (merits) to expect Hashem to provide his parnasah with no hishtadlus whatsoever on his part.

The poskim bring evidence from Tosafos that it is not a shortcoming to make arrangements to take care of one’s financial future. The Gemara[16] rules that although a father has the halachic ability to marry off his daughter while she is a minor, he is prohibited to do so out of concern that when she grows up, she may not like her husband. In Tosafos’ time, however, underage daughters were married off, which appeared to be a violation of this halacha. Upon what basis was there a practice contrary to the Gemara’s ruling?

Tosafos explains that in his turbulent times (the Baalei Tosafos lived during the period of the Crusades), a man who had sufficient means to provide his daughter with a dowry, should arrange her marriage to someone appropriate. If the father delayed, he risked losing his money, which could have been tantamount to his becoming unable to marry off his daughter. Tosafos does not contend that a person should have bitachon that he will have the means to be able to marry her off later.

Similarly, someone who can purchase life insurance, an annuity, or other means for making his life or the lives of his dependents more secure, may do so.[17] Bitachon does not require someone to ignore future needs. Bitachon does require that a person realize that everything that happens is under Hashem’s supervision and control.[18]

What will I eat tomorrow?

But doesn’t this approach violate the statement that “Someone who has (today’s) bread in his basket, and asks, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ lacks faith”?[19] Aren’t Chazal teaching us that someone who plans for tomorrow’s livelihood lacks proper trust in Hashem?

The answer is no. This last passage is discussing people’s beliefs. Everyone must believe that Hashem provides for him and that whatever happens is under His control. One may not say, “What will I eat tomorrow?” thereby ignoring Hashem’s supervision. However, this does not mean that making practical plans for the future is a violation of bitachon, provided one fully realizes that everything comes from Hashem and is dependent on Him.

The Manna

However, there is another passage of Gemara[20] that may indicate otherwise:

“Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai’s disciples asked him, ‘Why did the manna not fall for the B’nei Yisrael once a year (for the entire year)?’ He answered them, ‘I will give you a parable. A human king once provided his son with support on an annual basis. The son visited his father once a year to receive his allowance. Wanting to see his son more often, the father altered the system and began providing his son with support on a daily basis. Thereafter, his son visited his father every day. Similarly, the head of a large household worried that no manna would fall on the morrow; thus he would pray daily for sustenance.” Doesn’t this Gemara imply that it is better for one’s parnasah to arrive one day at a time than to plan for the future?

The halachic authorities provide two answers to this question that are dependent on the dispute between Rav Vozner and Rav Moshe mentioned earlier. According to Rav Vozner, this Gemara reflects the ideal: a great tzaddik should indeed receive his parnasah one day at a time. However, most people are not at this level of faith and may plan for the future. According to Rav Moshe’s approach, the Gemara means that a person should mentally acknowledge every day that Hashem provides for all his needs; however, he is permitted and required to make hishtadlus, which includes planning for future needs. It should be noted that all the poskim that I have seen discussing this issue rule that purchasing life insurance qualifies as normal hishtadlus.

In this context, it is worthwhile to quote a Midrash that demonstrates the obligation to make hishtadlus. Quoting the pasuk,[21]L’ma’an yevorechecha Hashem Elokecha b’chol ma’asecha asher ta’aseh,” “So that Hashem Your G-d will bless you in all your deeds that you will perform,” the Midrash points out that the last two words of the posuk, “asher taaseh,” “that you will perform” are seemingly superfluous, because the Torah already stated, “b’chol ma’asecha,” “in all your deeds.” What is added with the words, “that you will perform?”

The Midrash[22] explains, “The Torah states, ‘Keep the mitzvos.’ I might think that he should do nothing and expect his parnasah to come automatically? Therefore, the Torah repeats, ‘that you will perform.’ If you work, you will receive blessing, and if you do not work, you will not receive blessing.” This Midrash proves that one has a responsibility to earn parnasah.

Issue #3  — Succeeding in Divine Judgment

I have heard people give yet another reason why someone should not purchase life insurance. What happens if a husband does not have the personal merit to guarantee longevity, while his wife and children do have the merit or the mazel (fortune) to live financially secure lives? In a case like this, the husband would live a long productive life as their provider. By purchasing life insurance, which guarantees their sustenance even without his presence, he jeopardizes his life, since his dependents are now provided for should something bad happen to him.

In the one halachic source that I saw mention this concern, the author, Rav Yitzchok Sternhell zt”l, quoted the exact opposite approach in the name of the Shinaver Rav (Rav Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam zt”l, author of Divrei Yechezkel), who was one of the greatest halachic authorities of his day in Galicia. The Shinaver contended that buying life insurance should provide longevity. He argues that since the mazel of the people who own insurance companies is to become wealthy, their mazel will prevail and prevent them from losing money by having to pay out life insurance policies. Thus, purchasing a policy actually rallies mazel to one’s side and does not jeopardize one’s life.[23]

Another counter-argument runs as follows: If loss of merit is a concern, then there is valid reason to refrain from accumulating any wealth. The family members of a man who ekes out a daily existence are far more dependent on their breadwinner than are the wife and children of a wealthy man, since he will leave them with an appreciable inheritance should something happen to him. Thus, one could argue that accumulating wealth is not in one’s best interest, an approach that does not have too many advocates. I have never seen anyone refrain from accumulating wealth because of this concern, and neither have I seen any halachic authority suggest this as a reason to avoid affluence. Therefore, I conclude that this is not a factor in the question of purchasing life insurance.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I am aware of thirteen written teshuvos[24] (responsa) on the purchase of life insurance or annuities, written by authorities representing Litvishe, Chassidishe and Sefardic approaches. All thirteen teshuvos permit purchasing life insurance, and some encourage the practice strongly.

Rav Meir Shapiro, the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, had a very large life insurance policy, even though he unfortunately had no children. His reason was that since fundraising for the yeshiva was completely on his shoulders, he was concerned that in the event of his premature death, the yeshiva would be forced to close. We see that he was not concerned with any of the above issues and felt that purchasing insurance was an appropriate course of action.

May we all be blessed with long years and good health.


[1] Kesubos 8b

[2] Berachos 19a

[3] 239:7

[4] Menachos 41a

[5] Beis Yosef, Bach and Gr’a to Yoreh Deah 339; Mishneh LaMelech, Hilchos Aveil 4:5

[6] Shu’t Rivash #114 as explained by Bach, Yoreh Deah 339

[7] Shu’t Rivash #114

[8] Shu’t Be’er Moshe 8:118, quoting Shu’t Lechem Shelomoh by Rav Shelomoh Zalman Ehrenreich, #68; Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 3:85

[9] Berachos 60a

[10] Kiddushin 82a

[11] Eruvin 13b

[12] Sefer HaMikneh, Kiddushin 82a. See Kochavei Ohr of Rav Yitzchak Blazer (colloquially called Rav Itzele Peterburger, because he once served as the Rav of St. Petersburg), the disciple of Rav Yisrael Salanter, Chapter 11, for a description of the difference between these two types of people.

[13] Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:111; see also Orach Chayim 4:48).

[14] We should note that Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch also follows this approach numerous times in his commentary on the Torah.

[15] Shu’t Shevet HaLevi 4:1:2

[16] Kiddushin 41a

[17] Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 3:85; Shu’t Kochavei Yitzchak 1:22, both quoting several other authorities.

[18] Both Shu’t Be’er Moshe 8:118 and Shu’t Teshuvos VeHanhagos 4:325 also reach the same conclusion and bring support to this conclusion from several other Talmudic passages and concepts. To keep this chapter reasonably small I have omitted his proofs. In addition, Shu’t Teshuvos VeHanhagos provides sources that a person cannot selectively apply bitachon to say medical issues. One should be consistent in how he bases his decisions on bitachon. The reader is encouraged to read their responsa on the subject.

[19] Sotah 48b

[20] Yoma 76a

[21] Devarim 14:29

[22] Midrash Shocher Tov, cited by Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 3:85

[23] Shu’t Kochavei Yitzchak 1:22

[24] In addition to the above quoted sources and sources that they quote, see Koveitz Teshuvos 1:19 a letter from Rav Elyashiv to Rav Elya Svei and Rav Malkiel Kotler encouraging Torah institutions to provide their educators with life insurance policies.

Grave Issues about Graven Images

When reading the parsha in which Rochel "stole" her father’s idols, I thought it appropriate for us to study:

Miriam recently asked me these two questions regarding avodah zarah:

1) I received some figurines from a museum shop which resemble various Egyptian gods. May I keep them to demonstrate at the Seder what silly gods the Egyptians worshipped?

2) My non-observant, but very respectful, father has a rather eclectic collection of various art objects — including a four-foot-tall bronze statue of some Hindu figure. Do I have any obligation to say or do anything?

Zev, a chess enthusiast, asked me the following:

3) “I just received a present of a very nicely carved chess set. Unfortunately, the king has a cross. May I keep the set as is, or must I break off the cross on the king?”

Jack, an archeology student, sends me an e-mail:

4) "As part of my studies, I will be joining a dig. What happens if we find an idol? Even though it is not worshiped today, would the mitzvah of destroying it still be applicable? Also, in examining the object, one has to gaze on and familiarize himself with the piece. Does this violate the prohibition of gazing at avodah zarah?"

Each of these actual shaylos that I was asked revolves around the question of whether a Jew may own an item that has idolatrous overtones, even though he has no idolatrous intention. Is this lack of intent sufficient to avoid any Torah violations?

As we will see, there are several potential shaylos that we must analyze to determine the halacha:

I. May a Jew look at an icon?

II. Does it make a difference whether it is still worshipped?

III. May a Jew own an icon that represents an idol, even if it was never worshipped?

IV. If owning this icon infringes on no other prohibitions, does it violate maris ayin, doing something that arouses suspicion?

In Parshas Eikev, the Torah commands: “Burn their carved gods in fire. Do not desire and obtain the silver or gold that is upon them, lest you become ensnared by it, for it is repugnant to Hashem your G-d. Nor shall you bring this abomination into your house; rather, you should ban it. Abhor it and revile it, for it is banned.”[i]

This pasuk includes the following mitzvos:

1. Burn their carved gods in fire commands us to destroy avodah zarah.[ii]

2. Do not desire and obtain the silver or gold that is upon them prohibits benefit even from the decorations on an idol.[iii] One may not own or sell idols, even if one thinks that they are the silliest things on earth, since he gains financially or in other ways.

3. Nor shall you bring this abomination into your house bans bringing an idol into your house and also forbids benefiting from idolatry,[iv] since this is considered "bringing" the idol into your use and possession.

4. Furthermore, the Torah states al tifnu el elilim, do not turn to idols.[v] What is included in this proscription? Does it include looking at idols or images that represent idols?

The Sifra[vi] quotes two interpretations of this verse. One prohibits studying idolatry, including its beliefs and how the idol is worshipped. A second approach understands the verse to forbid even looking at idols.[vii] The poskim rule that both approaches are accepted halacha: the Torah thus prohibits studying idolatrous practices and beliefs, as well as looking at icons.[viii] (The Rambam states that one receives malkus for violating this prohibition.[ix] Therefore, someone who violates either interpretation of this mitzvah is halachically invalidated for providing testimony, even if he has no idolatrous intent.)

DOES THAT MEAN THAT EVEN GLANCING AT AN IDOL IS A TORAH VIOLATION?

The Magen Avraham[x] explains that the Torah prohibits only gazing at an idol, but does not prohibit glancing at it: seeing it is not prohibited, but intentionally looking at it is.

THE ICON OR ONLY THE IDOL?

Is it prohibited to look at articles that merely represent the actual idol, even though they are not themselves worshipped (icons), or is the prohibition limited to idols that are themselves worshipped? The answer to this question depends on how one understands the following passage of Gemara.

One may not look at the image itself, even on weekdays, because one thereby violates ‘Do not turn to idols.’ How do we derive this law from this verse? Rav Chanin explained, ‘do not face figures created by man.’”[xi] This unclear passage implies that one may not look at any image, even one not worshipped.

On the other hand, elsewhere, the Gemara praises the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Menachem ben Sima’ie as a holy man, because he never looked at the images that one finds on coins.[xii] This implies that an especially holy person does not look at likenesses, but a person who observes halacha without stringencies may do so. Thus, we are faced with a seeming inconsistency: one Gemara statement prohibits looking at any image, the other implies that one may (although it is meritorious to avoid it).

The rishonim suggest many different approaches to explain the Gemara in Shabbos. Here are two differing approaches that resolve the above quandary in very different ways:

1. First opinion: Some contend that the prohibition of looking at an image applies only to one that was manufactured for worship, and the image on a coin is not worshipped. According to this opinion, although the Gemara seems to derive that one may not look at any portrait or image whatsoever, it really means to limit the prohibition to actual idols. Nevertheless, it is praiseworthy not to look at any portraits or images at all.[xiii]

2. Second opinion: Others understand that one may not look at any image whatsoever.[xiv] If this approach is correct, why does the Gemara in Avodah Zarah imply that Rabbi Menachem ben Sima’ie’s acts are meritorious, but not required, when the Gemara in Shabbos prevents looking at any image?

To answer this question, some authorities explain that although it is prohibited to look at any image, this applies only when one’s attention is diverted to the image. Since coins are in common use all the time, glancing at them is not considered a diversion.[xv]

EGYPTIAN FIGURINES

Whether one may own a replica of an ancient Egyptian icon depends on the above-quoted dispute among the rishonim. According to the first opinion quoted above, since these icons were meant for educational purposes, rather than to encourage worship, it is technically permitted to look at them (although it is meritorious to refrain). On the other hand, according to the second opinion, even looking at these pieces violates the Torah’s mitzvah, since only items as common as coins are excluded. Certainly, owning these items is problematic.

How does the Shulchan Aruch adjudicate this question?

Surprising as it may seem, the two statements of Shulchan Aruch appear to contradict one another. In Orach Chayim[xvi] he cites the above-mentioned Gemara in Shabbos in a way that implies that he prohibits looking at any image at all. On the other hand, in the laws on idolatry, he limits the prohibition to looking at bona fide, worshipped idols. We should also note that there he cites a different reason to prohibit looking at idols: enjoying the artwork is considered benefiting from idolatry.[xvii]

However, the major commentators on the Shulchan Aruch in both places note that the accepted practice is to prohibit only icons manufactured for worship.[xviii]

COLLECTING ICON STAMPS

A stamp dealer-collector asked Rav Moshe Feinstein whether he could own, buy and sell stamps that contain crosses and other idolatrous images. Rav Moshe ruled that since stamps are a common item, like coins, one may own or sell their images, and may also look at them. Rav Moshe mentions that it is meritorious not to, presumably for the same reason that Rabbi Menachem ben Sima’ie of the Gemara avoided looking at coins.[xix]

ZEV’S CHESS SET

According to the reasons we have applied so far, Zev may be able to keep his fancy carved chess set. No one worships the cross on the king, and one could, perhaps, argue that this is familiar enough that no one is led astray by these pieces. As mentioned above, it is meritorious not to have any images at all, and certainly not to have anything that is reminiscent of idolatry. Thus, there is good reason for the custom to break off the cross of such chess pieces.

Miriam’s Dad’s Hindu statue involves a more serious halachic problem. Firstly, if this image was manufactured for worship, all opinions prohibit looking at it and having any enjoyment from it. Furthermore, if it was once worshipped, then several other Torah violations are involved, including that of having an avodah zarah in one’s house and benefiting from avodah zarah (because he enjoys looking at the artwork). In addition, there is a mitzvah to destroy it.

SHOULD WE ASSUME THAT THIS STATUE WAS WORSHIPPED?

Are we required to assume that the Hindu statue was worshipped? After all, it looks as if it was created as a collector’s item, not for worship.

The answer is that if this statue was manufactured in a place where images of this nature are worshipped, he must assume that this icon is a bona fide idol.[xx]

IS IT MARIS AYIN?

In addition to the halachic problem of looking at these idols, the Gemara raises an additional factor to take into consideration:  Is there concern that someone might suspect that the owner worships them.[xxi]

Are we, today, still concerned that someone might worship idols?

The answer to this question goes back to understanding the basics of maris ayin. Doesn’t the concept of maris ayin conflict with the mitzvah of judging people favorably? If everyone always judged others favorably, there would never be a reason for maris ayin. Yet, we see that the Torah is concerned that someone might suspect a Torah Jew of violating a mitzvah and judge him unfavorably.

Indeed, although people are required to judge us favorably, we are also not permitted to do something that others may misinterpret as violating halacha. Therefore, a person’s actions must be above suspicion. In other words, a person should not rely on his sterling reputation to allow him to do something that might be misinterpreted.

However, if circumstances dictate that people will assume that nothing wrong was done, there is no violation of maris ayin. (I have written a different article entirely on the subject of maris ayin in which I discussed these details.) Indeed, even in cases where there was maris ayin at the time of the Gemara, the prohibition is rescinded in places and times when the concern no longer exists.

Concerning maris ayin and the prohibition of avodah zarah, the poskim conclude that if no one worships these icons anymore anywhere in the world, one need not be concerned about suspicion that they are being worshipped.[xxii] As long as these idols are worshipped somewhere, one must be concerned about maris ayin.

Thus, it makes a difference whether this particular idol is still worshipped somewhere in the world. Since, unfortunately, Hinduism is still being practiced in the world, one may not own an idol that they might worship, because of the prohibition of maris ayin, even if no other prohibition to its ownership exists. On the other hand, since no one worships the ancient Egyptian idols any more, it is not maris ayin to own these figurines.

TEACHING ANCIENT RELIGIONS

I mentioned above that the Sifra rules that studying idolatry, including the religious beliefs and how the idol is worshipped, is prohibited min hatorah as part of the mitzvah of al tifnu el elilim, do not turn to idols.

Does this include studying ancient religions or archeology? Does this prohibit reading mythology as a form of literature?

In Nisan 5740 (1960), Rav Yehudah Parnes, a prominent Rosh Yeshivah, asked Rav Moshe Feinstein a shaylah regarding an observant public school teacher, whose required ancient history curriculum included teaching the beliefs of ancient Greece and Rome. Rav Parnes inquired whether the fact that these religions are not accorded respect in the modern world validates studying and teaching their beliefs. Do we therefore permit teaching these religions, since one is pointing out how invalid they are, or is this teaching and studying still prohibited?

Rav Moshe rules that the prohibition of studying idolatry exists, regardless for what reason one studies the religion. This also prohibits reading mythology that includes idolatry, even as a study of ancient literature.

However, Rav Moshe contends that the Torah prohibits studying only what is authored by a proponent of the religion. One may study something written by someone who scoffed at the religion, just as we see that even the Torah sometimes describes the way idolaters worshipped in order to ridicule the practice. Rav Moshe rules that one may study these subjects only if the teacher derides their beliefs and does not have the students read texts written by those who believe in the idols.

Rav Moshe points out that the students may even benefit from this instruction, if they realize that, although most of the world’s population once accepted these ridiculous beliefs, this does not demonstrate that they are true. Similarly, the fact that millions of people accept certain other false notions as true is not evidence of their veracity.[xxiii] Truth is not determined by democratic means!

In conclusion, in reference  to our original questions, Miriam may save the Egyptian figurines, although it is praiseworthy to dispose of them, but her father may not hold onto his Hindu statue, even as art, or in order to mock it. Zev may keep his chess set. Jack is prohibited from gazing at an idol that he unearths, and furthermore he would be required to destroy such an idol. Since I presume this could get him into trouble with the authorities, he would have a different question – is he required to destroy the idol, knowing that he may get into legal trouble? This is a topic for a different time.

Our belief in Hashem is the most basic of mitzvos. Praiseworthy is he who stays far from idols and their modern substitutes and directs his heart to Hashem.


[i] Devarim 7:25-26

[ii] Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:1.

We should note that this mitzvah is also mentioned in Devarim 12:2.

[iii] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 428

[iv] Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:2

[v] VaYikra 19:4

[vi] VaYikra 19:4

[vii] Yerushalmi, Avodah Zarah 3:1

[viii] Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 2:2; Sefer HaMitzvos, Lo Saaseh #10; Chinuch #213

[ix] Sefer HaMitzvos, Lo Saaseh #10

[x] 307:23

[xi] Shabbos 149a

[xii] Avodah Zarah 50a

[xiii] Tosafos, Shabbos ad loc.

[xiv] Rashi; Tosafos Rid

[xv] Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 50a

[xvi] 307:16

[xvii] Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 142:15, quoting Rabbeinu Yerucham

[xviii] Shach; Magen Avraham

[xix] Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:69

[xx] Rama, Yoreh Deah 141:3 and Shach ad loc. 17

[xxi] Avodah Zarah 43b

[xxii] see Rama, Shach, and Gra, Yoreh Deah 141:3

[xxiii] Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:53

How Are Tefillin Retzuos Made?

Iclip_image002n this week’s parsha, Avraham tells the King of Sodom that he (Avraham) will not keep "even a thread or even a shoelace" from the booty of Sodom, although all of Sodom and its populace are rightfully his property as spoils of war. The Gemara teaches that as a reward for this, Avraham’s descendents were given two mitzvos, the techeiles thread of tzitzis and the strap of the tefillin. As I have written several articles on the topic of techeiles in the past, this article will discuss the halachos of tefillin straps, and what one should ask about when purchasing them.

Although a good quality pair of tefillin should last a lifetime, the straps on the tefillin do wear out and need replacement periodically.

Of what are Tefillin made?

All parts of tefillin and all other devarim she’bi’kedusha (holy items) must come from kosher species, although not necessarily from an animal that was slaughtered in a kosher way (Shabbos 108a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 32:12). The different parts of tefillin come from dissimilar parts of the hide of the animal, the variation being the thickness of the hide and how it is processed.

Tefillin have three major components:

1. The Parshiyos (singular, parsha). These are the parchments, which are the processed skin on which the sofer carefully writes the four sections of the Torah that are inserted into Tefillin. For the tefillin shel yad (arm tefillin), all four parshiyos are written on one piece of parchment, whereas for the tefillin shel rosh (head tefillin), each parsha is written on a separate piece of parchment.

2. The Batim (singular, bayis). These are the housing of the parshiyos and are made from thick hide. The bayis itself has three subcomponents. (a) The Ketzitzah, the cube-shaped box inside which the parshiyos are placed. (Note that it is perfectly kosher and sometimes preferred for the height of the ketzitzah to be greater than its other two dimensions; however, most pairs of tefillin are made with a cubic ketzitzah. I have written another article in which I explained this issue more thoroughly.)  (b) The Titura, the square base on which the ketzitzah rests. (c) The Ma’avarta (Aramaic for “bridge”), the extension of the titura through which the straps are inserted. In good quality tefillin, the entire bayis, that is the ketzitzah, titura, and ma’avarta, are all made from one piece of hide.

3.  The Retzuos (singular, retzua), the straps, which are made from softer leather than that used for the batim.

For the sake of Tefillin!

Tefillin must be manufactured “lishma,” for the sake of the mitzvah. In practical terms, this means that an observant Jew begins each process and declares that the production is for the sake of the mitzvah of tefillin (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 32:8).

The contemporary process of tanning hide for parchment, batim and straps is a multi-stage process, similar to the method used to tan leather for mundane uses, such as belts, shoes and handbags. However, as I mentioned above, the parchment, batim and straps for tefillin must be tanned lishmah, for the sake of the mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 32:37 and 33:3). For this reason, it is preferable that each step be performed, or at least begun, by an observant Jew lishma. Because of this, one of the questions to be ascertained when purchasing tefillin is to what extent an observant Jew was involved in the processing of the hide. This issue impacts on the question of machine-made vs. handmade retzuos, which I will discuss shortly, and on many other important questions of tefillin manufacture.

Painting

After the tanning of the retzuos is completed, they are painted jet-black to fulfill a halacha le’Moshe mi’Sinai (Menachos 35a). The paint used may contain only kosher ingredients, and the painting of the retzuos must also be performed lishmah (Mishnah Berurah 33:18).

Is there a halachic preference for handmade retzuos?

In earlier days, tanning retzuos and other leather items involved salting the hide and then soaking it in lime wash. Today, although both salt and lime are used in the tanning process, most of the tanning of retzuos is usually accomplished by the gradual, automatic adding of other chemicals to the soaking leather after the salt and lime have been rinsed out. Thus, although early poskim ruled that placing the lime into the water lishmah is sufficient to make retzuos lishmah, this may not be true today. For this reason, most contemporary poskim rule that one should use “avodas yad” retzuos, meaning that the extra chemicals added to the water were done lishmah by a Torah-observant person (Zichron Eliyahu). However, most retzuos sold for tefillin are not avodas yad.

According to my information, most retzuos are painted by transporting them on a conveyor belt through a large, electrically powered paint sprayer. This provides an additional reason to use only avodas yad retzuos. Most Torah-observant Jews use hand matzos for the seder because of concern that machine matzos are not considered lishmah. (I am not ruling that machine matzohs are a problem for Seder use. Most poskim contend that they are fine.) In all likelihood, the manufacture and painting of machine made retzuos has greater halachic concerns than the shaylos involved in machine matzos, because of several facts, including that the processing of retzuos is not one continuous process, as I explained above. (In addition, there are and were halachic authorities who preferred use of machine matzohs because they are baked much faster, and therefore might reduce the chance of chometz. This is not a factor in the manufacture of tefillin retzuos – there is only an advantage to use of handmade retzuos, and, to the best of my knowledge, no disadvantage.) When one realizes that the mitzvah of eating matzah is only once a year, yet most people use only hand matzohs rather than machine-made, whereas the tefillin will IY”H be worn daily for decades, I believe the choice is obvious.

Checking one’s retzuos

It is important to check periodically that the retzuos on one’s tefillin are still completely black and are not cracked or faded. The Mishnah Berurah, whom many people consider the final halachic authority in these areas of halacha, rules that the entire length of the retzua must always be black (Biur Halacha 33:3 s.v. retzuos). (There are authorities who disagree, most notably Rav Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld, who contend that it is adequate if most of the retzuah is black.) Also check that the retzuos are black all the way to their tip. Be particular to check that they are black near where the knot is tightened, because at that point the paint often rubs out. One should also check that the retzua is still wide enough near the knot and that the knot of the shel yad is touching the ketzitzah of the tefillin. If it is not, this can be corrected by a knowledgeable sofer.

While checking the retzuos, check that the batim, titura, and stitches are all perfectly square. This means that the width and the length appear to be the same length to the naked eye, and that there are no dents, nicks, or projections along the sides or in the corners of the bayis. The back corners of the batim often become rounded because of hats or taleisim that are constantly rubbing against them.  By the way, the edges of the Ma’avarta do not need to be square.

If the stitch of the titura is not taut or it loops in the middle, it is not kosher, and you should contact your batim expert. With time or damage, the stitches often loosen or move, or the batim get banged or nicked and are no longer properly square. Your local batim expert has the equipment and know-how to repair them.

Know a batim macher or batim repair expert. Every major Jewish community should have at least one person who is trained and has the equipment to repair batim. Just as the community has shatnez testers, a mohel, a butcher, a mikvah for dishes, sefarim stores, and talmidei chachamim who are trained to check mezuzos, a community must have a talmid chacham who is trained properly in the repair of batim.

If the retzuos are no longer fully black, blacken them with kosher tefillin paint. Everyone who wears tefillin should have access to kosher tefillin paint or markers.

Depending on where you live, this might be an easy item to purchase and usually comes either in a pen looking like a marker or in a small container reminiscent of correction fluid.

If someone’s retzuos are cracking in several places, he should consider replacing them.

Before painting the retzuos, one must state that he is doing it l’sheim kedushas tefillin. I once wrote a halachic teshuvah (in Hebrew) in which I concluded that someone who painted the faded parts of their retzuos, but forgot to say that they were doing it lishma, has not invalidated the tefillin and they may be worn as they are. Still, one should lechatchilah (the preferred way) be careful to say that one is blackening them l’sheim kedushas tefillin.

Must the side of the retzua be black?

The side of the retzua that lies on the skin need not be dyed at all. There is an opinion that the edges of the retzuos should also be painted black (Keses HaSofer 23:2). However, this opinion is not accepted in halachic practice (see, for example, Mishnah Berurah 33:24 quoting Pri Megadim in Eishel Avraham 33:7).

Thoroughly black

Some manufacturers of tefillin retzuos soak the entire leather in a kosher black solution so that the entire thickness of the strap is now black. From my own observation, how black the inner part of the retzua gets when this is done varies tremendously from batch to batch. Although I see no halachic requirement in this additional process, there is a practical advantage that is up to the consumer to decide. As the retzuos age, they develop more cracks. If the retzua was originally soaked in black solution, then when the leather cracks, the retzua still appears black and does not require painting. However, if the retzua is not soaked, the cracked area now appears light colored and requires painting. I have found constantly checking to see whether my retzuos are still black to be annoying, and therefore, when I purchase retzuos, I ask for those that have been soaked black to avoid this issue. From a consumer perspective, I think the added price is worthwhile, because it is probable that these retzuos can be used for a longer period of time before they become so difficult to paint constantly that one replaces them.

How wide are my retzuos?

The retzuos should be about ½ inch wide. When purchasing new retzuos, they should be wider, so that they remain the proper width even after they become stretched out.

Where should I buy my tefillin?

The individual selling tefillin and tefillin accessories (such as replacement retzuos) should be a halachically reliable person, and preferably a talmid chacham. Furthermore, he should be fully familiar not only with the halachos of tefillin, but also with the details of tefillin manufacture. From my personal experience, it is not uncommon that a person selling tefillin, although extremely ehrlich, is totally unfamiliar with the halachic issues and concerns involved. Unfortunately, many sofrim and rabbanim lack sufficient training in the practical details of tefillin manufacture.

Where not to buy your tefillin!

I’ll share with you one frightening story of my personal experience. I was once "tipped off" by someone about a manufacturer of tefillin batim who was personally not observant. Shortly thereafter, I realized that an errand would require me to be in the same city in which this manufacturer was located. I presented myself to the owner, who was clearly not observant, as a rabbi from America looking for a supplier for tefillin for his congregation, but who would like to familiarize himself with the process of how tefillin are made. One might think that the manufacturer might be interested in the possibility of making some sales, but, indeed, he would not even let me past his front door! When one realizes the myriad details involved in tefillin manufacture that require yiras shamayim, one grasps how unlikely it is that these tefillin were kosher. Yet, lots of people are purchasing these tefillin.

Ask for what you want

Assuming that one is purchasing tefillin from someone familiar with the halachos and practical aspects of tefillin manufacture, be specific what level of tefillin kashrus you are looking for. If you don’t tell him that you want tefillin that are kosher lechatchilah, you might receive tefillin that only meet the very minimum standards of kashrus. A person who discriminately buys food with high kashrus standards should not settle for less when purchasing tefillin. Such a person should order “kosher mehudar tefillin,” or “kosher tefillin with extra hiddurim.” These descriptions may also affect other questions that we have not discussed in this article, such as the quality of the writing of the parshiyos or the source of the batim.

How to maintain your tefillin

Maintaining your tefillin is fairly easy. Never leave your tefillin in direct sunlight, in a very hot place, or inside your car during the daytime. As much as possible, your hair should be dry while wearing your tefillin. Protect the corners of the batim by leaving the cover on the shel yad. (It should be noted that some poskim contend that one should not place these covers on the shel yad while one is wearing them or while making the bracha. However, since most poskim permit leaving these covers on, one may be lenient.)

Tefillin are one of the special signs that Hashem gave the Jewish people, and we should certainly excel in treating this mitzvah with the appropriate dignity. When Yidden request that their tefillin be mehadrin only, they demonstrate their reverence for the sign that bonds us to Hashem.

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