Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The subject of this article is Rav Shlomoh Levitan, whose yahrzeit falls out this week.
Question #1: May a Mechalel Shabbos Duchen?
“The only kohen in our shul operates his business on Shabbos. Until recently, he had never duchened, and the rav was comfortable with that. Recently, the shul’s chazzan encouraged the kohen to duchen, and he began doing so. Should we stop him?”
Question #2: The Strength of a Rock
How did a tremendous talmid chacham, a correspondent of the Rogatchover Gaon, a close talmid of both the Chofetz Chayim and Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, become the Rosh Av Beis Din of the thriving Jewish metropolis that included Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa?
Our opening question was asked of Rav Moshe Feinstein by a first-class talmid chacham, Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan, then rav of Rock Island, Illinois. Rav Moshe’s response is published in Shu”t Igros Moshe, Volume 1, Number 33. Igros Moshe does not include the full correspondence on the topic, for which one needs to find a copy of Rav Levitan’s teshuvos, Yeri’os Shlomoh, where it is included as Siman #6.
Who was Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan, and what was he doing in Rock Island, Illinois?
Rav Ben Zion Levitan
Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan’s father, Rav Ben Zion Levitan, was one of the foremost poskim in Lithuania in his time. The older Rav Levitan had been the rav of Tzitavian, the tiny Lithuanian shtetl that, at different times, boasted several prominent gedolim as its rav, including, much later, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky.
Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan studied in the Chofetz Chayim’s yeshivah in Radin. His entire life, he viewed the Chofetz Chayim as his primary rebbe. While a student in Radin, he was appointed as a rebbe to younger students. He also studied in the famed mussar yeshivah of Kelm (which, later, was the main yeshivah where Rav Eliyahu Dessler studied).
Subsequently, Rav Levitan studied in the yeshivah of Ponevitz, Lithuania, under the famed tzadik and gaon, Rav Itzele Rabinovitch, who was known as Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, because he was also the rav of the city.
To illustrate Rav Itzele’s tremendous yiras shamayim, Rav Shach used to tell the following story: When, for the first time in Ponevitz, a Jew opened his business on Shabbos, Rav Itzele, whose sole income was from his position as rav, resigned from the position, explaining that he was petrified to go to the Beis Din shel Maalah (the heavenly tribunal) as the rav of a community where Shabbos was publicly desecrated. (Eventually, the chevrah kadisha forced the storeowner to close on Shabbos by refusing to bury his father, until he agreed to keep the store closed!)
Rav Itzele’s hasmadah (diligence in Torah study) was legendary. He would learn until his last ounce of energy was exhausted and, invariably, fell asleep with his boots on, even when they were covered with mud. (In his era, the streets of Ponevitz were unpaved.)
Rav Itzele was considered by many to be the genius of his era, a generation that included much competition for that distinction since it contained such luminaries as Rav Chayim Brisker, Rav Dovid Karliner, the Ohr Somayach, the Rogatchover Gaon, Rav Chayim Ozer, and the Aruch Hashulchan. Indeed, Rav Itzele and Rav Chayim Brisker had been chavrusos (study partners) for a few years, shortly after their marriages (in the 1870’s). Rav Itzele was a discipleof Rav Chayim’s father, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichek, the Beis Halevi. Unfortunately, very few of Rav Itzele’s brilliant chiddushei Torah were saved for posterity, other than a small sefer entitled Zecher Yitzchak.
Thus, Rav Levitan’s two main rabbei’im, the Chofetz Chayim and Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, were both renowned gedolim, known both for their tzidkus and theirlomdus.
The rock of the yeshivah
After his years of study in these yeshivos, Rav Levitan taught in the yeshivah of Brisk, at the same time that Rav Elchonon Wasserman was also a magid shiur there. (This was prior to Rav Elchonon opening his yeshivah in Baranovitch.) Rav Levitan then became a magid shiur in the yeshivah in Shavel. Eventually, Rav Levitan became rav of Tver, Lithuania. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky used to say that, in the Lithuania between the wars, the period of time that we are now discussing, there were at least 200 shtetlach and towns, each of which boasted a rav who was a complete baki in shas and poskim. The difference between the highly respected posek and one who was considered a rav of “ordinary” status was the depth to which the highly respected posek understood shas!
Between a rock and a hard place
Where is Rock Island? How did it get its unusual name? And, germane to our article, how did a gadol of Rav Levitan’s stature become rav there?
Rock Island is in western Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Davenport, Iowa. Although a visit there today would never reveal this, there was once a strong frum community there of immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe. It was a shul in this community, Bnai Jacob Congregation, that hired Rav Levitan as its rav after his arrival in the United States in the 1920’s. He remained the rav of the community for 38 years, until almost his last days, eventually becoming the rav of the other shul in the city, Beis Yisroel, and also of Congregation Anshei Emes of Davenport. He retired in 1965, two and a half years after his rebbitzen had passed away on the seventh day of Chanukah, 5723 (December 28, 1962). He was respected as one of the top rabbonim in the United States.
In 5724 (1964), Rav Levitan published a sefer, Siach Chein, droshos on the parshios, yomim tovim and special occasions. His sefer halachah, Yeri’os Shlomoh, from whose introduction the biographical information for this article was gleaned, was published posthumously by his children, and contains dialogues in halachah between Rav Levitan and a Who’s Who of gedolei Yisroel, including the Rogatchover Gaon and Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Levitan passed away on the sixteenth of Elul, 5726 (September 1, 1966).
On the rocks
Why is the city named Rock Island? Rock Island was the original name of what is now called Arsenal Island, the largest island in the Mississippi River. One of the largest employers in the area is a US-government-owned weapons’ manufacturing facility, which gave Arsenal Island its new name, but Rock Island remained the name of the city on the eastern side of the Mississippi. The metropolitan area of Davenport and Rock Island includes several other cities, and the current population estimate of the metropolitan area covering both states and both sides of the Mississippi is 380,000.
Although the core of the community of Rock Island was solidly frum when Rav Levitan arrived, with time, the older generation of committed Jews passed on, and the younger people either moved away or did not remain staunch in their Yiddishkeit. Several of Rav Levitan’s teshuvos reflect the sad reality of being rav in a community that is slowly disappearing. Among these questions is a teshuvah concerning whether one may build a mikveh in a boarded-up, no longer functional shul.
Rock kohen echad
The halachic question that opened this article reflects another manifestation of this problem. In 1949, when Rav Levitan sent this question to Rav Moshe, the shul no longer had any shomer Shabbos kohanim, and there was no longer any duchening. There was one kohen who came to shul on yomim tovim, a man who owned and operated a store on Shabbos. He had not been duchening until the chazzan of the shul encouraged him to do so. The question was whether it was permitted to allow the kohen to continue duchening or whether Rav Levitan must insist that the kohen stop. He wrote a lengthy missive detailing the aspects of the question and mailed it to Rav Moshe Feinstein for the latter’s opinion. Here is the halachic background:
At first glance, whether a sinner may duchen appears to be a dispute between the two Talmudim, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Gittin 5:9) states: “Don’t say, ‘this man violates prohibitions like arayos’, or ‘he is a shedder of blood –and he should bless me?’ The Holy One, blessed is He, said: ‘Who is blessing you? I am blessing you.’” This passage of Yerushalmi implies that even someone violating the most serious of crimes may recite the duchening.
However, this Yerushalmi seems to conflict with a ruling of the Talmud Bavli (Brochos 32b), which states that a kohen who killed someone should not duchen. The Kesef Mishneh (Hilchos Tefillah u’Birchas Kohanim 15:3) clarifies that the Yerushalmi may be understood in a way that it does not conflict with the Bavli. He explains that the Yerushalmi refers to a case where we do not know for certain whether the kohen actually sinned, but that there is a persistent rumor of his violating very serious sins. Even according to the Yerushalmi, the halachah is that were we certain that the kohen killed someone or worshipped idols, he would not be permitted to duchen, as stated in the Bavli. However, definite knowledge that he committed other sins does not preclude his duchening, nor do rumors that he committed violations such as arayos or murder.
This approach is supported by the ruling of the Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah u’Birchas Kohanim 15:3, 6): “A kohen who killed someone, even if only through negligence, and even if he subsequently did teshuvah, should not duchen… a kohen who worshipped idols, even if he did so under coercion or negligently, may never duchen again, even if he did teshuvah… However, other sins do not prevent him… A kohen who does not have any of the things that prevent him from duchening, even if he is not a Torah scholar, is careless in his mitzvah observance, has a scandalous reputation, and his business dealings are dishonest, should nevertheless duchen. We do not stop him — because it is a positive mitzvah for every kohen who may duchen. Do not say to an evil person, ‘add more iniquity by not observing mitzvos.’”
Thus, the Rambam rules that a kohen who killed someone or worshipped idols may not duchen, but a kohen who violated any other mitzvos of the Torah may and should still duchen, even if his sinning was intentional and he has as yet not done teshuvah.
All of this does not present any reason to exclude a kohen who desecrates Shabbos from duchening. Although he performs heinous sins, even sinners, with very few exceptions, are encouraged to duchen. However, to understand Rav Levitan’s question, we need to do some more research.
The Gemara (Chullin 5a) says that we accept korbanos from Jewish sinners, in order to encourage them to do teshuvah. One can infer that these sinners are treated just as the sinning kohanim whom we allow to duchen – even though they sin intentionally and have no thought of doing teshuvah!
Notwithstanding this “liberal” attitude to treating sinners, the Gemara makes two exceptions whose korbanos are not accepted — someone who worships idols and someone who desecrates Shabbos openly. We do not accept the korbanos of these two categories of sinners.
On the basis of this Gemara, the Pri Chodosh (Orach Chayim 128:39) explains that just as an idol worshipper is not permitted to duchen, so, too, a mechalel Shabbos in public may not duchen. In other words, although sinners are both permitted and encouraged to offer korbanos and to duchen, there are certain sins that place a perpetrator beyond the pale of permitting him to duchen. Since we see that a Shabbos breaker may not offer korbanos, because he is compared to an idol worshipper, so, too, he is prohibited from duchening. This position is shared by several other prominent acharonim (Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 128:39; Rav Shulchan Aruch 128:52; Mishnah Berurah 128:134; Kaf Hachayim 128:217).
Thus, Rav Levitan was in a predicament. Now that the storeowner had begun to duchen, it would create a major ruckus to stop him. If the halachah requires that he be stopped, then there is no choice. On the other hand, if this kohen may duchen, there would be no reason to turn the situation into a battleground.
Rock of Gibraltar
This was the question that Rav Levitan sent to Rav Moshe, including an analysis of the sources in halachah on the topic. In his response, Rav Moshe noted that although the Gemara compares a Shabbos desecrater to an idol worshipper and rules that, in both instances, we do not accept their korbanos, there is, nevertheless, a qualitative difference between the gravity of these two aveiros. The possibility exists that, although someone who committed idolatry may not duchen, a blatant mechalel Shabbos might be permitted.
Rav Moshe then notes that this distinction can be proved. The Rambam rules that an idol worshipper may not duchen, even after he has done teshuvah, whereas Rav Moshe contends that a former Shabbos breaker who has done teshuvah may duchen. There is a qualitative difference between idolatry and desecrating Shabbos.
Rock of ages
Here is an even stronger proof that a Shabbos desecrator may duchen. The Mishnah (Menachos 109a) rules that “kohanim who served in the Temple of Chonyo may not serve in the Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim, and certainly those who once served avodah zarah may not… They are treated like blemished kohanim, who may receive a portion of the meat of the offerings and eat it, but they may not offer korbanos.”
What was the temple of Chonyo? Chonyo, who had been passed over as kohen gadol, built his own altar in Alexandria, Egypt (Menachos 109b). Constructing this place of worship was a clear violation of halachah, although the Mishnah concludes that Beis Chonyo, as it refers to this structure, was not a house of idol worship. Nevertheless, any kohen who ever served in Beis Chonyo was forever banned from serving in the Beis Hamikdash, even if he subsequently did full teshuvah for his sins.
Notwithstanding the Mishnah’s statement that anyone who served idols may never again serve in the Beis Hamikdash, the Gemara draws a distinction between how he served idols. Although slaughtering for an idol is a sin that merits capital punishment (Sanhedrin 7:6), the Gemara (Menachos 109a-b) rules that a kohen who slaughtered an animal for avodah zarah, but never performed any other idol worship, and who then did teshuvah, may perform the service (avodah) in the Beis Hamikdash (see Rashi). Slaughtering for idols is treated more leniently than other violations of idolatry, such as offering to the idol, which invalidate the kohen forever from serving in the Beis Hamikdash or duchening. Certainly, a kohen who slaughtered for avodah zarah and did teshuvah may still duchen, just as he may still serve in the Beis Hamikdash, in spite of the severity of his sin.
Rav Moshe notes that although flouting Shabbos publicly is as sinful as venerating idols, not all forms of idolatry invalidate the perpetrator from ever again offering korbanos or from duchening. Thus, although desecrating Shabbos is a grievous sin, we cannot prove that it invalidates the perpetrator from duchening. It may be parallel to slaughtering for idols, which does not invalidate the perpetrator from duchening. Rav Moshe notes that this ruling of his runs against the consensus of the acharonim on the subject.
Rav Moshe then adds another logical reason why a Shabbos desecrator may still duchen. The Gemara states that someone who brazenly desecrates Shabbos is treated like an idolater. The halachah is that only someone who desecrates Shabbos openly has this status, not a person who defiles Shabbos only behind closed doors. Why do we draw a distinction between violating Shabbos overtly and doing so clandestinely? The transgression is the same, and, truthfully, transgressing covertly is a more serious offence since it implies greater concern about what people think than about what Hashem knows!
Rav Moshe explains that someone who is mechalel Shabbos openly is considered an idolater because public chillul Shabbos is a colossal chillul Hashem. Rav Moshe suggests that perhaps it is such a colossal chillul Hashem only when the reason for the sin is his disdain for mitzvos, not when his motivation is for profit. Although Shabbos desecration for monetary gain is grievous, it may not be tantamount to idol worship, even when performed blatantly.
Rocking the boat
Rav Moshe then rules that, although it is permitted for the recalcitrant storeowner to duchen, the rav has the right to ban him from duchening in order to discourage chillul Shabbos, even when this ruling will discontinue duchening in shul. Nevertheless, Rav Moshe concludes that the rav should not ban a mechalel Shabbos from duchening if the chazzan recited the word kohanim aloud, or someone invited the kohen to duchen, since now it might be required min hatorah for him to duchen. In any instance, Rav Moshe suggests that one not “rock the boat” should a mechalel Shabbos want to duchen.
In conclusion – Falling from the rock
When I was a rav in a Buffalo, New York, suburb, I often had occasion to drive through the small towns in the area. In most of the towns, there was a building that one could easily identify as having once been a frum shul. Unfortunately, none of these towns has any frum presence anymore, and few have any recognizable Jewish presence, although, at one time, there may have been prominent rabbonim and talmidei chachamim living there.
The main reason that these cities disappeared Jewishly was the lack of chinuch. In the 1950’s, Torah Umesorah was created, with the mission of creating Jewish day schools in every town possible. Largely, the cities that today have frum communities are those that had day schools created in that era. We see how Torah education is of such paramount importance. The communities that flourish today survived because of their commitment to chinuch.