Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies of the 16th to 21st Centuries, Part II

This is the continuation of the article I sent out last week. Although the news story for which this was written is no longer a hot topic, the halachic information is still germane and relates directly to Parshas Ki Seitzei.

In part I of this article, we explained that the Sanhedrin, which is also called the Beis Din Hagadol, is the final authority on all matters of halacha and that the interpretation by its 71 members of Torah shebe’al peh is both exclusive and authoritative. Any halachic issue that is questionable and disputed by a lower beis din is referred to the Beis Din Hagadol for a binding decision. We also noted that the Sanhedrin fulfills several vital political and administrative roles, including the appointment of the Jewish King and the judges who serve on the courts of the tribes (the shevatim) and the cities. Furthermore, many other halachos require the participation or agreement of the Sanhedrin, including a decision to wage war, or any attempt to expand the boundaries of the Beis HaMikdash or of the city of Yerushalayim (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1). Thus, the Sanhedrin is not only the supreme authority in matters of halacha, but it is also, quite literally, the “power behind the throne,” “the power behind the courts,” – and, at the same time, the court of final appeal. It has the final say in all matters, both worldly and spiritual. The Sanhedrin is also in charge of supervising the Jewish calendar through the appointment of a specially-designated committee. (In the absence of a Sanhedrin or Beis Din Hagadol, Hillel Hanasi established a calendar over 1500 years ago, so that the calendar can continue to exist, even during the interim that there is no Sanhedrin.

We also noted that among the many technical requirements that all members of the Sanhedrin must meet, there is a basic one: they must all be superior talmidei chachamim and G-d fearing individuals. In addition, all members of the Sanhedrin and, indeed, of all the lower courts must also receive the special semicha that Moshe bestowed upon Yehoshua, authorizing him to rule on all areas of Jewish law. We noted that there are several levels of semicha, and that all members of the Sanhedrin are required to have the highest level of semicha –one that authorizes its recipient to rule on capital and corporal cases (chayavei misas beis din and malkus) and to judge kenasos, penalties that the Torah invoked. This semicha can only be given to someone who is an expert in all areas of halacha.

We also studied the question as to whether the semicha can be reintroduced by us, and the controversy that developed in the 16th century about this matter. We noted that the conclusion was that the attempt to reintroduce the semicha then was not accepted on halachic grounds, for several different reasons. One of those reasons  was that the person receiving semicha must be a talmid chacham with the scholarship to rule on any subject in Torah.

How, then, will the Sanhedrin be reestablished?

The Radbaz, gadol hador of that generation, concluded either that Eliyahu HaNavi will issue semicha to others, as the harbinger of Moshiach’s arrival; or, that descendents of shevet Reuven may reappear who have semicha. A third option he suggests is that Moshiach, himself, will grant semicha and thus create a Beis Din Hagadol.

At this point, we continue our discussion:

SEARCHING FOR SEMICHA IN THE 1830’S

In the 1830’s, a leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon who had settled in Yerushalayim, Rav Yisroel of Shklov, made another attempt to restart semicha. Rav Yisroel was interested in organizing a Sanhedrin, but he accepted the ruling of the Maharalbach and the Radbaz that we cannot create semicha by ourselves. Instead, he decided to utilize the suggestion of the Radbaz of receiving semicha from the tribes of Reuven. Rav Yisroel charted out where he thought the Bnei Reuven were probably located, and sent a certain Rav Baruch, as his emissary, to find them (see Sefer Halikutim, in the “Shabsei Frankel” edition of Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11). Unfortunately, Rav Baruch did not succeed in locating the shevet of Reuven, and the plan came to naught.

It should be noted that Rav Yisroel raised the following question: How could the Bnei Reuven have kept the semicha alive, considering the fact that they were outside Eretz Yisroel and the semicha can be granted only in Eretz Yisroel? He answered that since the Bnei Reuven had been distant from the rest of Klal Yisroel before the decision that semicha can be only in Eretz Yisroel had been accepted, there is no reason to assume that they accepted this ruling, and they were probably still issuing semicha!! It is odd that Rav Yisroel assumed that although we paskin that semicha can be given and received only in Eretz Yisroel, he still held that a semicha granted outside Eretz Yisroel is, nonetheless, valid.

Rav Yisroel’s vain search to locate a musmach was an attempt to reintroduce the Sanhedrin, a far more ambitious plan than the Mahari Beirav had considered. Apparently, Rav Yisroel understood from the Gemara (Eruvin 43b) that the Sanhedrin must exist before Eliyahu can appear, a position that almost all poskim reject, as we pointed out above.

NAPOLEON’S SANHEDRIN

In 5567 (1807), Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, decreed the opening of what he called “The Sanhedrin,” consisting of 71 Jewish leaders, mostly Rabbonim, but including many communal leaders, many not religious.

This group had nothing to do with being a Sanhedrin other than that Napoleon had given them this name. Napoleon presented this group with a list of 12 inquiries to answer, all of which questioned whether the Jews were loyal to the French Empire and its laws, and about the interactions between Jews and non-Jewish Frenchmen. Of course, the “Sanhedrin” had to be very careful how they answered Napoleon’s questions to make sure that they were not guilty of treason. This Sanhedrin met many times in the course of about a year and then disbanded. It was never called into session again.

THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Those who call their modern organization the “Sanhedrin” base themselves on the Mahari Beirav’s opinion that we can recreate semicha today, based on the acceptance of most of the gedolei Yisroel. On this basis, they claim to have created semicha for one of the well-known poskim in Eretz Yisroel, who subsequently ordained a few others, who have ordained yet others, until they now claim several hundred “musmachim.

I spoke to one of the “dayanim” of the “Sanhedrin” about the procedure used to appoint their musmachim. He told me that the organization mailed letters to every shul and settlement in Israel requesting appointment of a certain well-respected Rav as musmach. They then counted the votes of those who responded and approved of their appointment. Since most of those who responded approved of the appointment, they have ruled that this Rav is now a musmach whose semicha qualifies people to serve on the Sanhedrin! To quote this “dayan,” “those who chose not to respond do not count. We have a majority of those who responded!?!”

Obviously, this system carries absolutely no halachic validity according to any opinion.

When I spoke to the “dayan,” he asked me if I was interested in becoming one of their musmachim. He told me that he would send me the information necessary for an appointment with their committee that approves musmachim. Consequently, I received a letter inviting me to the next meeting of their “Sanhedrin,” and a note that they had asked one of their members about me and, upon that basis, they were preparing a semicha with which to present me at the next meeting of the “Sanhedrin”!! I noted above that the Radbaz ruled that the person receiving semicha must be a talmid chacham with the scholarship to rule on any subject in Torah. Since I do not qualify for semicha on that basis, I am curious what criteria they are applying to determine a minimum standard for semicha. Unfortunately, I think I know the answer.

The group behind this “Sanhedrin” often implies that several different gedolim are behind their activities. This is highly misleading, since these gedolim refuse to be identified with this group’s activities. Any Jewish organization built upon falsehood is doomed to failure, even if it is well intentioned, since the Torah is Toras Emes.

When I spoke to the “dayan,” I told him that I had some questions about the halachic basis for their procedures. He answered that they prefer to reply to questions in writing, and he requested that I send my letters via e-mail. He promised that they would answer all my inquiries quickly. In a subsequent conversation, he told me that he had received my initial inquiry. I sent him two respectful letters, one asking several halachic questions about their procedures, the second asking for verification that some of the gedolim they have quoted have, indeed, endorsed their position. Although I sent each of these requests to them twice, I never received any reply from them.

Moreover, there are some serious issues that this “Sanhedrin” is delegating to itself. If I might quote from a list of their activities:

“Among the many topics the Sanhedrin intends to address are the bridging of the divisions between various communities of Jewish exiles who have returned to Israel; the establishment of authentic techeilet, the biblical blue thread Jews are commanded to wear amongst the fringes attached to four-cornered garments; the definition of the measurement of the ‘amah’ (the biblical cubit); the determination of the exact point of human death, so as to deal with the Jewish ethics of euthanasia; and the issue of agunot — women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce.”

I would like to point out that all these issues have been or are being dealt with by Klal Yisroel’s gedolei haposkim. (In other articles, I explained why most gedolei haposkim rejected the suggested sources of the techeiles dye.)

Recently, the group has gotten involved in several really serious issues. Apparently, they are exploring the location of the mizbeiach, the possibility of offering korban Pesach, and of appointing a king from the descendants of Dovid Hamelech. One of their meetings was, apparently, conducted on the Har Habayis itself! (Please note that most poskim prohibit ascending the Har Habayis.) The discussion about bringing korbanos is a well-trodden halachic discourse and, here also, all gedolei poskim have ruled that we cannot offer korbanos now. (Again, I refer the reader to an article on this subject that is available on this site.)

Based on what I have seen about this “Sanhedrin,” I pose the following questions to the reader:

Are the members of this “Sanhedrin” qualified to make decisions that affect Klal Yisroel? Are they qualified to make any halachic decisions at all? Is this not an attempt at arrogating halachic decisions from the Gedolei Yisroel and the Gedolei Haposkim? Are these the people who should be determining Klal Yisroel’s agenda? Doesn’t this organization cheapen the kedusha that the word Sanhedrin implies? Isn’t this organization an insult to anyone with Torah sensitivities?

The Gedolei Yisroel could organize a Sanhedrin today, if they considered it halachically acceptable. Clearly, they are of the opinion that the halachic foundation for such a move does not exist or, alternatively, that Klal Yisroel will not benefit from its creation.

We should all daven with more kavanah when reciting the bracha Hoshiva shofeteinu kivarishonah, “Return our judges like the ones we had originally,” as a result of Teka bishofar gadol licheiruseinu, “Blow the Great Shofar that will free us.”

Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies of the 16th to 21st Centuries, Part I

This article was written a number of years ago. Although the news story for which it was written is no longer a hot topic, the halachic background included is still very germane and relates directly to Parshas Shoftim.

The Anglo-Jewish press has been carrying occasional coverage of a group in Eretz Yisroel that calls itself “The Sanhedrin,” a group of 71 rabbis convened in Teverya claiming that they had the semicha necessary to create a Sanhedrin as specified by the Rambam. The group chose Teverya because the original Sanhedrin last met there. The “semicha” that they received was based on a semicha granted to one well-known talmid chacham who had received semicha from “many prominent rabbis.” In the opinion of those organizing this “Sanhedrin,” this talmid chacham is now considered to have received semicha as handed down from Moshe Rabbeinu, and, therefore, he is now qualified to give this level of semicha to the others. The goal of the group is to have a body of rabbis who convene and issue rulings on pressing issues relevant to Klal Yisroel. The issues that the group plans to discuss and rule upon are: how to unify Jewish practice across the spectrum, to determine and reestablish halachic techeiles, to define the measure of an amah, to find ways to deal with agunos, to determine precisely the point of human death, so as to deal with issues of euthanasia, and to find a way to offer the Korban Pesach once again.

This group’s claims have generated some serious halachic issues pertaining to what the poskim have written about how the semicha and the Sanhedrin will be reestablished.

This article will be devoted to an explanation of the various halachic underpinnings of the Sanhedrin, including:

What are the roles and responsibilities of the Sanhedrin?

What exactly is semicha, and why is it such a central factor in the creation of the Sanhedrin?

What attempts have been made throughout history to reconvene a Sanhedrin and reestablish semicha?

Does this new organization fulfill its title?

WHAT IS THE SANHEDRIN?

The Sanhedrin, also called the Beis Din Hagadol, is the final authority on all matters of halacha. Their interpretation of Torah shebe’al peh is authoritative.

Any halachic issue that is questionable and disputed by the lower batei din is referred to the Beis din Hagadol for a binding decision.

The Sanhedrin also fulfills several vital political and administrative roles. It appoints the Jewish King, as well as the judges who serve on the courts of the tribes (the shevatim) and the cities. Each shevet and each city was required to have a beis din of 23 that the Sanhedrin appoints. Thus, the Sanhedrin is not only the supreme halachic authority but it is also, quite literally, the “power behind the throne,” “the power behind the courts,” and, at the same time, the court of final appeal. It has the final say in all matters, both worldly and spiritual.

Many other halachos require the participation or agreement of the Sanhedrin, including a decision to wage war and expanding the boundaries of the Beis HaMikdash or of Yerushalayim (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1). (We are permitted to eat many holy items, including certain korbanos and maaser sheini, only in halachic Yerushalayim, which has nothing to do with its current municipal boundaries. Expanding the city requires a special procedure that includes participation of the Sanhedrin.)

In addition, several types of adjudication require the participation of the Sanhedrin, including the laws of eglah arufah, and prosecuting a false prophet, a city that went astray (ir hanidachas), a sotah, and a zakein mamrei, an elder who ruled against the Torah shebe’al peh (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1).

The Sanhedrin is also in charge of supervising the Jewish calendar, through the appointment of a specially-designated committee. (In the absence of a Sanhedrin or Beis din Hagadol, Hillel Hanasi established a calendar over 1500 years ago, so that the calendar can continue to exist even during the interim that there is no Sanhedrin.)

WHERE AND WHEN DOES THE SANHEDRIN MEET?

The Sanhedrin was open daily in its main headquarters, called the lishkas hagazis, inside the Beis HaMikdash. When they are involved in litigation, the entire Sanhedrin is present. When not in session, there must still always be 23 members of the Sanhedrin in the lishkah.

WHO QUALIFIES TO BE IN THE SANHEDRIN?

There are many technical requirements that all members must meet, but as a basic requirement, they must all be superior talmidei chachamim and yirei shamayim (G-d fearing individuals). In addition, all members of the Sanhedrin, and indeed, of all the lower courts, must also receive the special semicha that Moshe bestowed upon Yehoshua, authorizing him to rule on all areas of Jewish law.

DOESN’T EVERY RABBI HAVE SEMICHA?

There are several levels of semicha. The most basic semicha, called yoreh yoreh, authorizes the recipient to rule on matters of kashrus and similar areas. A more advanced level of semicha, called yodin yodin, authorizes its recipient to rule as a dayan on financial matters. A higher level, no longer obtainable today, is called yatir bechoros and authorizes its recipient to rule on whether a first-born animal is blemished and no longer appropriate to offer as a korban (see Sanhedrin 5a).

There was also a qualitative different type of semicha that could be obtained from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu until the time of the Gemara. This semicha authorized the recipient to rule on capital and corporal cases (chayavei misas beis din and malkus) and to judge kenasos, penalties that the Torah mandates. Only a beis din consisting exclusively of dayanim ordained with this semicha may judge whether a person receives lashes or the death penalty for his actions.

In earlier days, each city and shevet had its own beis din of 23 judges, all of whom were possessors of the highest level of semicha. In addition, all 71 members of the Sanhedrin must have this form of semicha.

HOW MANY DAYANIM GIVE OUT SEMICHA?

The highest level of semicha may be granted by a single judge who is, himself, a musmach of this level, although the grantor must be accompanied by two other people, who need not be musmachim themselves. He may grant semicha to as many qualified people as he chooses, The Gemara records that Dovid HaMelech (himself an expert judge and tremendous talmid chacham) once granted 30,000 semichos in one day!! However, semicha given by anyone is valid only when it is granted to someone who is an expert in all areas of halacha. Semicha given to a person who is not expert in all areas of halacha is not valid (Meiri, Sanhedrin 14a).

This highest level of semicha must be issued within Eretz Yisroel. Thus, even if a talmid chacham is highly qualified, he may not receive semicha unless the grantor of the semicha and the recipient are both in Eretz Yisroel (Sanhedrin 14a). For this reason, most of the Amora’im, the great talmidei chachamim of the times of the Gemara, never received this semicha, because they lived in Bavel and not in Eretz Yisroel.

THE STORY OF RAV YEHUDA BEN BAVA

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 13b) tells us the following fascinating story: The Roman Empire once decreed that issuing semicha was a serious crime, punishable by death for both the grantor and the recipient. Furthermore, they ruled that the town in which the semicha was issued would be destroyed, and the areas near it would be razed.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava realized that he was one of the last musmachim (recipients of this special semicha) alive after the execution of Rabbi Akiva, and that if he failed to grant semicha to some young scholars, the semicha would terminate. He therefore endangered himself and granted semicha to five surviving disciples of Rabbi Akiva: Rabbi Meir (the author of the original draft of the Mishnah), Rabbi Shimon (ben Yochai, author of the Zohar), Rabbi Yehudah (ben Ila’i), Rabbi Yosi (ben Chalafta) and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua – basically, to an entire generation of Torah leadership. In order not to endanger anyone else, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava brought them to a place that was midway between two major cities and was between two mountains. Thus, for the Romans to fulfill their decree, they would need to level two mountains.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava succeeded in this mission, although he paid for it with his life. Because of his supreme sacrifice, the semicha continued among the Jewish people for several more generations.

With the increased persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the Jewish population of Eretz Yisroel decreased considerably, and with time, ordination through this semicha ended. Thus, no one received the semicha that qualifies someone to judge capital, corporal, or kenasos cases, and this aspect of halachic life came to an end.

CAN SEMICHA BE REINSTITUTED?

The Rambam writes: “It appears to me that if all the chachamim in Eretz Yisroel agree to appoint dayanim and grant them semicha, they have the law of musmachim and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant semicha to others… If someone received semicha from someone who already has semicha, then he does not require authorization from all of them – he may judge penalty cases for everyone, since he received semicha from beis din. However, this matter requires a final decision” (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11).

Thus, the Rambam suggested a method whereby the semicha can be re-created. However, several issues need to be clarified before this project can be implemented:

  1. Did the Rambam rule this as a final decision or was it merely conjecture? What did he mean when he wrote in his closing words, “However, this matter requires a final decision”? Did he mean that he was uncertain about his suggestion, or was he referring to a different aspect of his comments?
  2. Assuming that the Rambam meant to rule definitely that semicha can be re-instituted, did he mean, literally, that this process requires all of the chachamim in Eretz Yisroel to agree, or does a majority suffice? Must the rabbonim involved all meet in one place, or is it sufficient if they are aware of the process and approve?
  3. Is the Rambam’s opinion on this subject universally held? And if not, do we rule like him?

THE 16th CENTURY CONTROVERSY- REINTRODUCING SEMICHA

After the Spanish expulsion, many Jews remained in Spain, practicing their Judaism in secret, while publicly appearing to be Christians. Thousands of these secret Jews eventually escaped to areas where they could return to the religion of their fathers, yet they were haunted by the sins that they had committed in their previous lives. Many were concerned that they would never escape the specter of their more serious aveiros, some of which carried the punishment of kareis. Although they had become true baalei tshuvah, they lived in fear of their ultimate day of judgment, when they would have to give a reckoning for their actions and face the serious consequences.

THE SOLUTION

The Mahari Beirav, Rav of Tzefas in the early sixteenth century, came up with an original solution to the problem. He proposed the creation of batei din that would carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases someone from the punishment of kareis (Mishnah Makos 23a).

There was one serious problem with this proposal. In order to create batei din that can exact these punishments, one must have dayanim who have received the special semicha that can be traced to Moshe Rabbeinu. Since this semicha had terminated over a thousand years before, the Mahari Beirav needed a different approach.

TZEFAS, 5298 (1538)

In 5298 (1538), based on the writings of the Rambam (Peirush Hamishnayos, Sanhedrin 1:3; Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11), 25 gedolim of Tzefas, at the time the largest Torah community in Eretz Yisroel, granted semicha to the Mahari Beirav. He then ordained four people with the new semicha, including Rav Yosef Karo, who had already written his monumental works Kesef Mishneh and Beis Yosef, and later authored the Shulchan Aruch, and Rav Moshe deTrani, the author of several major halachic works, including Beis Elokim, Kiryas Sefer, and Shu’t Mabit. Mahari Beirav also sent a semicha to the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Levi ibn Chaviv, known as the Maharalbach, who he assumed would be delighted to receive such a wonderful gift!

The Maharalbach was not happy with the gift and returned it. He took strong issue with their conferring semicha, for the following reasons:

  1. The Rambam’s closing words, “This matter requires a final decision,” show that he was not fully decided on this halacha, and therefore it cannot be relied upon.
  2. The Ramban (Sefer Hamitzvos, Aseh 153) disagrees with the Rambam, contending that semicha can not be reinstituted until Moshiach arrives. Thus, since the Rambam was uncertain about this halacha, and the Ramban was certain that there is no such thing, the halacha follows the Ramban.
  3. Even if we assume that the Rambam meant his ruling to be definitive, the Tzefas rabbonim had not fulfilled the procedure correctly, since all the gedolim of Eretz Yisroel must be together, in one synod. (This opinion is actually mentioned earlier by the Meiri, Sanhedrin 14a.)

Furthermore, Maharalbach is insistent that all the scholars must be involved in the active debate, and that all must agree. Furthermore, he argued that even if someone contends that a majority of gedolim is sufficient, the minority must be aware of the debate and participate in it. He further contended that creating such a synod now would not help either, since once the Tzefas rabbonim had ordained the Mahari Beirav, they now have a bias in their ruling (noge’ah bedin), which invalidates their opinion on the subject.

Maharalbach proved his opinion that the Rambam’s suggestion was not accepted as normative halacha from the fact that there had been numerous opportunities for gedolei Yisroel to create semicha , and yet, they refrained. Maharalbach concludes that semicha will not exist again until the arrival of Moshiach.

WHAT ABOUT THE CRYPTO-JEWS?

As for the baalei teshuvah that would be left without release from their kareis, the Maharalbach pointed out that if they performed sincere teshuvah, they would be forgiven for their sins, no matter how severe they were. Although it is possible that they may experience some suffering in this world for these aveiros despite their teshuvah, they would receive no punishment for their aveiros in the next world (Makos 13b).

On the other hand, the Maharalbach pointed out that he did not understand how semicha could accomplish what Mahari Beirav wanted, anyway, since beis din cannot punish someone for violating the Torah, unless several requirements are met, including:

The sinner must receive a warning immediately prior to his violating the commandment telling him that he is sinning, explaining to him that what he is planning to do is wrong, and what punishment he will receive if he sins. The sinner must acknowledge that he heard and understood the warning and then performed the sin anyway. Furthermore, beis din does not punish a sinner unless two adult male Jews witness the entire procedure and then testify in front of beis din. (Of course, consequently, this means that cases in which Beis Din punishes for violating a Torah mitzvah are quite rare.) Clearly, none of these crypto-Jews had received warning prior to performing the aveiros, and therefore they are not required to suffer malkus in beis din. Thus, how would these baalei teshuvah receive the malkus they desire, even if dayanim musmachim exist?

RESPONSE FROM TZEFAS

The Mahari Beirav responded to the Maharalbach’s arguments. As far as the punishment of malkus is concerned, the Mahari Beirav held that if someone voluntarily asks for malkus for his sin in the presence of an authorized beis din, the punishment is carried out, even though there were no warnings and no witnesses. Thus, the creation of a beis din of musmachim facilitates the atonement of these people.

As far as semicha is concerned, Mahari Beirav did not accept the Maharalbach’s criticism that his semicha program was invalid. Mahari Beirav explained that the Rambam’s ruling is definitive, not theoretical or suggestive, and he questions whether the Ramban disputes this opinion. Even if the Ramban does question it, the Mahari Beirav contends that the halacha follows the Rambam. Furthermore, the Mahari Beirav contends that a simple majority of gedolim living in Eretz Yisroel is sufficient to create semicha, since the halacha in all other cases of jurisprudence is that we follow the majority. Thus, since all the gedolim of Tzefas, who were a majority of the gedolim in Eretz Yisroel at the time, had appointed him as dayan, the semicha could be renewed on this basis. In addition, the Mahari Beirav contends that correspondence with the other gedolei Yisroel is a sufficient method to determine whether a majority favor renewing semicha, and that it is not necessary for all the gedolim to attend a meeting together for this purpose.

A lengthy correspondence ensued between the Maharalbach and the rabbonim of Tzefas, which is referred to as the Kuntros Hasemicha, and is appended to the end of the Shu’t Maharalbach.

Incidentally, the dispute between Maharalbach and Mahari Beirav as to whether the gedolim can reinstitute semicha dates back to the Rishonim. The Meiri (to Sanhedrin 14a) rules that semicha can be reintroduced by having all the gedolei Yisroel of Eretz Yisroel gather together and appoint someone to be a dayan. However, he rules that the gedolim must meet together in one group for this ruling, which precludes the Mahari Beirav’s method. The Rashba (Bava Kamma 36b) also cites Rambam’s opinion, although he rules the opposite, that renewal of semicha must await the arrival of Moshiach, following the opinion of the Ramban, as explained by Maharalbach. In addition, the Ritva and the Nemukei Yosef (both at end of Yevamos) state that semicha must await the arrival of the era of Moshiach.

Evidence to support the Mahari Beirav’s opinion, if not his method, can be drawn from the Gemara (Eruvin 43b), that states that Eliyahu will declare his arrival as the harbinger of Moshiach by coming to the Beis Din Hagadol. This Gemara implies that the Beis din Hagadol will precede the arrival of Eliyahu, and not the other way around (see Maharatz Chayes ad loc.). However, the Ritva and the Nemukei Yosef appear to hold that there will be no Sanhedrin until Moshiach comes.

THE RADBAZ GETS INVOLVED

Both sides appealed to the Radbaz, the acknowledged gadol hador, who lived in Egypt at the time, for a ruling. (The Radbaz later moved to Eretz Yisroel, but at the time of this dispute, he was outside of Eretz Yisroel and, therefore, had not been involved in the initial debate and discussion.)

The Radbaz ruled like the Maharalbach that the semicha was invalid, believing that the Rambam, himself, was not certain that semicha could be reinstituted by agreement of the Chachamim in Eretz Yisroel. Furthermore, universal acceptance of the semicha would be necessary, even according to Rambam’s approach. In addition, Radbaz felt that the person receiving semicha must be a talmid chacham with the scholarship to rule on any subject in Torah. He did not believe that his generation had any talmidei chachomim in this league.

HOW, THEN, WILL THE SANHEDRIN BE REESTABLISHED?

The Radbaz does discuss an issue: if we cannot create a new semicha, how, then, will we have a semicha in the future? As mentioned above, semicha is necessary to create a Sanhedrin, and the Sanhedrin is necessary to appoint the Jewish King and judges, and for many other community activities. Radbaz presents three methods whereby semicha can be re-established:

  1. Eliyahu HaNavi, who is a musmach (see Rambam, Introduction to Mishneh Torah), will issue semicha to others, when he arrives as the harbinger of Moshiach’s arrival. (Some poskim raise a question with this approach, pointing out that the Gemara [Eruvin 43b] reports that Eliyahu will announce to the Sanhedrin that his arrival is the harbinger of Moshiach. However, how could this happen if Eliyahu must first create the beis din? [Maharatz Chayes ad loc.] Many answers can be given to this question, but will have to be left for discussion another time.)
  2. Descendants of shevet Reuven who have semicha may reappear. Just because we are unaware of anyone with semicha, does not mean that members of other shevatim, who have been separated from us since before the time of the Churban, do not have semicha. (This approach creates a question. If semicha can only be given in Eretz Yisroel, how could members of these shevatim receive semicha, when we know that they were exiled from Eretz Yisroel? See below for an answer to this question.)
  3. Moshiach himself will grant semicha and thus create a Beis din Hagadol. Radbaz does not explain where Moshiach himself gets his authorization to grant semicha.

As noted above, Radbaz contends that no one in our generation qualifies in learning and yiras Shamayim to qualify. Specifically, he states that only someone who is qualified to paskin on any area of the Torah qualifies for this special semicha.

RESULTS OF THE TZEFAS SEMICHA

The Mahari Beirav passed away three years after the semicha project began. Although Rav Yosef Karo had received this semicha and actually ordained Rav Moshe Alshich (author of the Alshich commentary to Tanach), by all indications he never utilized the semicha in any other way. Nowhere does he refer to a renewal of semicha, and, furthermore, numerous places in Shulchan Aruch would be written differently, had its author assumed that a beis din of semuchim existed today. In all of these places, Rav Yosef Karo assumes that no beis din exists today that is authorized to rule on the laws of penalties and punishments. This is even more intriguing in light of the fact that, in his commentary Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 295), he records as definitive halacha the Rambam’s opinion that semicha can be renewed.

Although Rav Moshe Alshich ordained Rav Chayim Vital (Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 1:7), who was renowned as the primary disciple of the Ari, z”l, the semicha trail appears to end at this point. There is no indication of anyone continuing the semicha project after this time. From all indications, we can assume that the psak of the Maharalbach and Radbaz, that we should not introduce semicha on our own, was accepted. Thus, the issue was left for the next two hundred years. We will continue our discussion on this topic in part II of this article.

My Vows I Shall Fulfill

It is rather obvious why we are studying this topic this week – since the laws pertaining to vows are the first subject mentioned in Parshas Matos.

Question #1: Quiz question

Can performing a mitzvah become a liability?

Question #2: Is this a “klutz question?”

What does it mean that I am doing something “bli neder?”

Question #3: A sixty-thousand-dollar question

Yankel asks: “When I attended a Gemara shiur on Nedarim, I got the impression that performing hataras nedarim requires having a talmid chacham deliberate over the specific neder, until he concludes that there are grounds to release the neder. This seems to have no relationship to what we do on Erev Rosh Hashanah.”

Question #4: A frum question

“My friend Billy Nader* says bli neder on almost everything. Is this being too frum?

Answer: What Is a Neder?

Someone who recites a vow, an oath or a pledge is required to fulfill it (see Bamidbar 30:3). By virtue of the vow, oath or pledge, one creates a Torah obligation on oneself that one is, otherwise, not required to observe. For example, someone who declares that he will begin studying daf yomi every day is now obligated to do so, even on a day when it is inconvenient. Similarly, one who pledges tzedakah at yizkor or pledges a contribution to a shul upon receiving an aliyah becomes fully obligated min haTorah to pay the donation. In the case of a pledge to tzedakah¸ one must redeem it as soon as practical; otherwise, one risks violating an additional prohibition, bal te’acheir leshalmo, do not delay paying it (Devarim 23:22), as I will soon explain.

In general, one should be careful not to make vows or pledges. For one thing, he has now created a stumbling block for himself; since he runs the risk that he will not observe his commitment (see Nedarim 20a, 22a). Furthermore, one has created an accusation against himself, for by committing to observe something that the Torah did not require, he implies that he is so skilled at observing mitzvos that he can add a few of his own. The Satan can now level accusations against his occasional laxities in a much stronger fashion (see Nedarim 22a, based on Mishlei 20:25). (There are a few circumstances in which one is encouraged to make vows, but we will leave that topic for a different time.) For this reason, it is better not to pledge to contribute to tzedakah — if you have the money available, donate it; if it is not currently available, don’t pledge it! (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 203:4). It is very important that gabayim be in the habit of declaring that people’s pledges are bli neder, and a similar wording should appear on pledge cards.

Different Types of Obligations

There are six main ways that one may create an obligation upon oneself either to fulfill something or to abstain from doing something.

(1) Nedarim, vows

A neder, a vow, in which one declares that something otherwise permitted is now prohibited — such as, declaring that certain foods are prohibited.

Example:

In her desire to keep to her diet, Yaffah states: “I am going to prohibit all chocolate on myself.” Yaffah has now created a neder, which prohibits her, min haTorah, from eating chocolate.

(2) Shavuos, oaths

A shavua, an oath, in which one swears to fulfill or refrain from some activity — such as swearing that one will fast on a certain day, or that one will say Tehillim every day.

Example:

To repair his somewhat sloppy record at making it to minyan every morning, Shachar swears a shavua that he will be in shul for shacharis for the next three days. Should he fail to to make it to shacharis any of those days, he will be breaking his shavua, which contravenes a Torah prohibition.

Whether a specific declaration constitutes a neder or a shavua depends on halachic technicalities, usually contingent on how one makes the declaration. Several halachic differences result from whether someone made a neder or a shavua, including that violating a shavua is a more serious infraction (Ran, Nedarim 20a). Later in this article I will mention another important difference between them.

(3) Kabbalos mitzvah, declaring that one will perform a good deed

Someone who declares: I will arise early and study this chapter or that mesechta has declared a great vow to the G-d of Israel (Nedarim 8a). Someone intending to perform an exemplary act who expresses these plans has now obligated himself, even though he did not use the terms “vow,” “oath,” or “pledge” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 213:2).

Example:

Asking others to say certain chapters of Tehillim can create a stumbling block. One should be certain to specify that they are accepting bli neder.

(4) Kabbalas tzedakah, intending to donate charity

In the specific instance of contributing tzedakah funds, even deciding to give to tzedakah without verbalizing one’s intention creates an obligation to donate tzedakah (Rama, Yoreh Deah 259:13; see also Choshen Mishpat 212:8; based on Shavuos 26b).

(5) Performing a stringency

Someone who is aware that performing a certain hiddur in halacha is not obligatory, and begins doing so, intending to observe it regularly, becomes required to continue the practice as a form of vow. It becomes a binding obligation, requiring hataras nedarim, annulling vows, even if the individual fulfilled the practice only one time, and even if he did not declare that he intends to continue the practice (Nedarim 15a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 214:1).

Examples:

Someone who begins standing during keriyas haTorah, intending to continue the practice, becomes obligated to do so, unless he specified that he is doing so bli neder. He should perform hataras nedarim at the first opportunity, so as to avoid violating the prohibition of abrogating observance of a vow.

A woman began lighting a third Shabbos candle in her own home after her first child was born, and then did so the first time she visited her parents’ house. This now became an obligation. She asked a shaylah what to do and was advised to make hataras nedarim on the practice of kindling a third light, and, certainly, when she is a guest in someone else’s home.

(6) Three times

Someone who performs a stringent practice three times without saying bli neder must continue to fulfill the hiddur, even if he did not necessarily plan to always observe it (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:7).

Saying “Bli Neder

Should I not observe hiddurim? I want to do these mitzvos, but I certainly do not want to be punished if I fail to continue performing them! How do I avoid becoming responsible?

To avoid creating this liability, someone expressing intent to perform a good deed should be careful to say that he/she is acting bli neder, without accepting it as a responsibility (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:4). Similarly, someone who begins practicing a halachic hiddur should say that he is not accepting it as a responsibility.

Example:

Hadassah decides that she will eat only glatt kosher meat or will use only cholov Yisroel products, both meritorious activities. She should state that she is doing it “bli neder.”

Similarly, when pledging money during Yizkor, while making a mishebeirach or making any other oral commitment to donate charity, one should be careful to say bli neder. When others are pledging to tzedakah and one feels pressured to participate, specify that the pledge is bli neder (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 257:4).

Saying “Bli Neder” Even for a Non-mitzvah

Some authorities recommend saying bli neder on all one’s activities, even those that do not fulfill a mitzvah, so that the habit helps prevent one from inadvertently creating nedarim (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:4).

Example:

Chavah tells her husband, “I am planning to go to exercise class this morning, bli neder.” Although the statement that she plans to exercise does not create any obligation on her part, habituating herself to say bli neder is a good practice to develop.

We can now answer one of the questions asked above. “I have a friend who says bli neder on almost everything. Is this being too frum?” The answer is that your friend is being astutely cautious and following the advice of halachic authorities.

Don’t Delay in Paying

In addition to the above-mentioned concerns involved in pledging tzedakah, the Gemara rules that the mitzvah of bal te’achar, not to delay the donation of a korban, applies also to tzedakah (Rosh Hashanah 6a). This means that someone who pledges money to a charitable cause is required to pay the pledge as soon as he can.

To quote the Rambam: Tzedakah is included in the laws of vows. Therefore, one who says “I am obligated to provide a sela coin to tzedakah” or “this sela shall go to tzedakah” must give it to poor people immediately. If he subsequently  delays redeeming the pledge, he violates bal te’achar, since he could have given it immediately since there are poor people around. If there are no poor people, he should set aside the money until he finds poor people. However, if, at the time of his pledge, he specified that he is not intending to redeem the pledge until he locates a poor person, he is not required to set aside the money (Hilchos Matanos Aniyim 8:1).

Someone who declares that he will give tzedakah to a certain poor person is not required to give the money, until he sees that person (Rama, Yoreh Deah 257:3). However, someone who pledged to contribute to deprived people, without qualifying which poor people he meant, is required to fulfill his pledge immediately (Mordechai, Bava Basra 491).

What Is Hataras Nedarim?

Now that we realize that the obligations included in making vows is rather extensive, we want to find out, quickly, how to release ourselves from these vows.

Chazal derive from the Torah that there is a way one can be absolved from a vow, pledge or other such commitment, which is called hataras nedarim. Performing hataras nedarim does not in the slightest way diminish the reward that one receives for the good deeds one performed. It simply removes the continuing obligation to perform the vow from the individual who created it. Therefore, in the vast majority of circumstances, someone who made a neder should perform hataras nedarim, so that he does not violate the neder (see Nedarim 22a).

How Does One Perform Hataras Nedarim?

First, the person who made the vow or other commitment goes to three Jewish men who understand the logic of halacha and know the basics of how hataras nedarim operates (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:1 and commentaries). These three form a type of ad hoc beis din for the purpose of releasing vows. One of the three should be a talmid chacham proficient in the laws of hataras nedarim, including which vows one may not annul (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:14; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:8).

The nodeir, the person who made the vow, shares with the three (or, at least, the talmid chacham who is proficient in the laws of nedarim) the content of the vow, oath, or good practice from which he desires release and why he seeks relief. The talmid chacham will ask the nodeir several questions that must be answered truthfully. The talmid chacham thereby determines whether or not there are valid grounds to release the nodeir from the commitment (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:14). Only a talmid chacham who understands the very complicated laws of vows should undertake hataras nedarim, because there are many details that must be met for the hataras nedarim to be valid. (The details of what does and what does not constitute an adequate basis for hataras nedarim are beyond the scope of this article.)

Assuming that the talmid chacham feels that there are adequate grounds for hataras nedorim, the beis din declares the neder or other commitment annulled, by declaring mutar lach, mutar lach, mutar lach – the activities prohibited by the vow are now permitted. Of course, in the case of a vow to do something, the words mutar lach mean the reverse — you are no longer obligated to carry out the vow.

Someone who violated his vow prior to performing hataras nedarim has indeed sinned, and is required to perform teshuvah for his or her infraction.

The Difference between a Neder and a Shavua

There is a halachic difference between performing hataras nedarim to release someone from the obligation he created with a neder, and between performing hatarah after someone recited a shavua. Whereas in most instances one should arrange to release someone from a neder, one annuls a shavua only under extenuating circumstances (Rama, Yoreh Deah 203:3; Rambam end of Hilchos Shavuos). Explaining why this is so will need to wait for a future article.

May I appoint an agent to perform hataras nedarim for me?

No, one must ask directly to the beis din to release oneself from vows (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:16). If the members of the beis din do not understand the language that the nodeir speaks, they may use an interpreter to facilitate communication (Rama ad loc.).

There is one instance in which someone may make an agent to release nedarim. Sometimes, a husband may act as an agent for his wife to annul her nedarim. If a husband finds three people already gathered together — for example, they were performing hataras nedarim for him or for someone else — he may act as his wife’s agent to ask them to release her from her neder at the same time, if she appointed him to do so on her behalf (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 234:56).

How does a woman perform hataras nedarim?

A woman who has a specific oath, vow, or practice from which she wishes release should arrange to perform hataras nedarim with a talmid chacham or beis din. As I mentioned above, if she is married, she may ask her husband to be her agent to perform hataras nedarim at a time when he is doing so for himself (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 234:56).

Hataras Nedarim on Erev Rosh Hashanah

At this point, we can address Yankel’s question:

“When I attended a Gemara shiur on Nedarim, I got the impression that performing hataras nedarim requires having a talmid chacham deliberate over the specific neder, until he concludes that there are grounds to release the neder. This seems to have no relationship to what we do on Erev Rosh Hashanah.”

Indeed, Yankel’s question is extremely valid: hataras nedarim requires that one mention, specifically, the vow from which one seeks redress, and the beis din must deliberate whether this particular neder can be revoked. It is, therefore, unclear whether the generic hataras nedarim recited on Erev Rosh Hashanah, indeed, releases one from any commitments. The proper thing to do is to mention to an appropriate beis din every specific neder or practice that one wants annulled.

Mesiras Modaah

The Gemara mentions that should one declare at the beginning of the year that all the vows one makes in the course of the year are invalid; this pronouncement has some value. This declaration is called a mesiras modaah. The Gemara concludes that this statement has only limited value, and one should not, intentionally, rely upon it. In point of fact, the standard hataras nedarim procedure performed on Erev Rosh Hashanah includes a mesiras modaah.

Kol Nidrei

The Rishonim dispute whether the purpose of Kol Nidrei that we recite at the beginning of our Yom Kippur service is also meant to be a form of hataras nedarim, performed at a time when virtually everyone is in shul to include the maximum number of people, or whether it is a mesiras modaah. It is for this reason that there are three different versions of the text: one that has kol nidrei refer to the past year’s declarations, which means that it is hataras nedarim; one that refers to the coming year’s declarations, which means that it is a mesiras modaah; and one that mentions both the past and the future years, which means that it is meant to accomplish both.

There is another interesting difference in halachic practice that results from this last dispute: Should the congregation recite Kol Nidrei together with the chazzan? If it is a mesiras modaah, then one must declare it oneself, and each individual should read the Kol Nidrei together with the chazzan. On the other hand, if it is a form of hataras nedarim, then it should be declared by the chazzan alone accompanied by the two honored men alongside him who hold the sifrei Torah, so that they form a beis din that is annulling everyone’s nedarim. The Mishnah Berurah (619: 2) rules that we should consider it a mesiras modaah, and therefore concludes that each individual should recite Kol Nidrei softly along with the chazzan.

Conclusion

Now that we realize how serious our speech can be, we should reflect not only on the ideas of nedarim, but also on all the ramifications of our speech. As the pasuk (Mishlei 18:21) states, maves vechayim beyad lashon, Life and death are controlled by our tongues!

*Obviously, this is not his real name, but a nickname.

Bill’s Saga or The Power of a Single Word

Since parshas Pinchas discusses many of the relationships of Hashem and His people, I’ll share with you the following true story:

Bill’s Saga or The Power of a Single Word

There was a knock on the door to my shul office. I knew Bill, an active member of one of the large Conservative temples in the city. Bill and his wife were respected members of the non-observant Jewish community; involved Jews, they kept a kosher home, made kiddush and ate Shabbos meals, although they certainly were not Shabbos compliant.

The matter that brought Bill to my office this morning was obviously disconcerting. Usually a very relaxed and jovial fellow, Bill was today uncharacteristically agitated.

“Rabbi,” he hesitantly began, “I have a matter I want to discuss with you that I want absolutely no one to know about.” I assured Bill that I always assume matters I am told are confidential unless specified otherwise.

Reassured that his big secret would remain as confidential as he wanted, Bill blurted out his issue. Bill had been raised as a reform Jew; furthermore, he was unaware of any ancestors of his who had been shomrei mitzvah. He had gradually been finding his way towards more observant Judaism, and had married a woman who kept a kosher home and a semblance of a traditional, although certainly not fully observant, Shabbos.

“Rabbi,” he now got to his point, “I do not think I am Jewish according to halacha! I am fairly certain that my mother’s mother was not born Jewish. Since the family was never observant, how could she have had a proper halachic conversion? And, if she was not Jewish, neither am I.” With this confession accomplished, Bill breathed a sigh of relief.

After relaxing from the trauma of his introduction, Bill continued with his request. He wanted me to help him proceed with the path of becoming a proper Jew according to halacha, and he meant a 100%, correct halachic conversion. He made it quite clear that he was not pressuring anyone to convert him quickly; that would defeat his purpose. He was asking me to direct and guide him as to how to convert to Judaism in a way that I would be comfortable. He was quite frank that I should not proceed with steps for conversion until I felt he was ready.

I marveled at Bill’s honesty. Unfortunately, many people who are aware of this type of information choose to ignore it, pretending to be Jewish, although they realize deep inside that they are not. Bill realized, intellectually, the truth of Torah, and was eager to observe many mitzvos, such as brachos and tefillah. However, he was not ready to observe a fully Torah-observant life. He was in the spiritual throes of someone in the process of becoming observant: intellectually convinced of the truth of Torah, able and eager to observe some mitzvos, but not ready for others. This is the typical and healthy route for someone moving towards greater observance of halacha.

At the same time, Bill wanted his status to be kept an absolute secret. He did not mind people knowing that he was studying with the Orthodox rabbi in town, but he did not want ANYONE to know that his Jewishness was in question, and that he was thinking about pursuing an Orthodox conversion.

In the interim, since conversion to Yiddishkeit requires accepting all mitzvos, Bill was clearly not a candidate for geirus kehalacha. This led us to many interesting shaylos.

STUDYING TORAH

Since Bill was not Jewish, what Torah and halacha could he study? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 59a) prohibits a gentile from studying Torah, one opinion contending that since the Torah belongs to the Jewish people, a gentile studying it is “stealing” Jewish property. Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that one is permitted to teach Torah to Jews while a non-Jew is listening (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:132). Thus, I would not violate any halacha if Bill attended a class I was delivering. However, although Rav Moshe permits giving the class under those circumstances, if the gentile involved asks a shaylah, he should be told not to attend, since he is still “stealing” Torah that he should not be studying.

HALACHOS THAT APPLY TO A GENTILE

A gentile may study Torah in order to observe the mitzvos in which he is obligated, and he may study the basics of Jewish belief (Meiri, Sanhedrin ad loc.). This includes a rather extensive list of mitzvos, and according to many opinions even requires him to know all the laws of Choshen Mishpat, the entire body of halachic civil law, so that he can observe these mitzvos correctly. This is because many poskim contend that a gentile’s requirement to keep halachic civil law (dinim) requires him to keep the laws as the Torah instructed them (Shu’t Rama #10; Tumim 110:3; Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #91). However, other authorities contend that non-Jews are not required to observe Choshen Mishpat, but instead to create their own legal rules and procedures (HaEmek Shaylah #2:3; Chazon Ish, Bava Kamma 10:1; see Shu’t Maharam Schick, Orach Chayim #142; Shu’t Maharsham 4:86; Shu’t Avnei Nezer, Choshen Mishpat #55, all of whom contend that this is a dispute between amora’im in the Gemara). According to the latter opinion, one may not teach a gentile halachic civil law.

STUDYING FOR CONVERSION

The poskim dispute whether one may teach a non-Jew Torah if he is planning to convert. Meiri (Sanhedrin 58b) and Maharsha (Shabbos 31a s.v. amar lei mikra) rule that one may, whereas Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Shu’t #41) forbids it.

Was Bill really studying for conversion at this point? Although he strongly desired to be Jewish, he was not prepared to observe all the mitzvos. Since one cannot select which mitzvos one wants to observe, Bill was not really a candidate for conversion. Thus, teaching him Torah might be a problem, even according to the lenient opinions noted above.

Yet, Bill was very eager to study the laws of tefillah and brachos, both areas of halacha he was already observing to the best of his knowledge. Could I teach him these laws?

There is a basis to permit teaching him these halachos: One may teach a non-Jew the laws of offering korbanos if he intends to bring them, even though he has no requirement to observe this mitzvah. Nevertheless, once he decides to observe it, he should fulfill it correctly, and a Jew may instruct him how to proceed (Zevachim 116b; Rambam, Maasei HaKorbanos 19:16). Since a non-Jew may pray and recite brachos it follows that he may learn the laws of these mitzvos, to know how to observe them correctly (Meiri, Sanhedrin 58b).

COMING TO SHUL

At this point, Bill presented the following question:

“I once heard that Jews may not daven with a non-Jew in attendance. Would this present a problem?”

The authorities rule that someone outside a shul who can hear the prayers recited there may answer Amen and the other appropriate responses to their brachos and thus fulfill his responsibilities (Tur Orach Chayim 55). However, some authorities contend that one may not respond or fulfill the mitzvah if something ill-smelling or an idol is between the shul and the person listening (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 55, quoting Mahari Abohav). The idea is that the sanctity of the bracha becomes interrupted by something that prevents one from reciting prayer or learning Torah, and one may not recite a prayer near an idol or something with an unpleasant odor. The original sources imply that not only an idol, but also an idol worshipper, prevents the prayer from spreading beyond this point (Elyah Rabbah 55:18; cf. Magen Avraham 55:15, who is lenient).

However, it seems that only an idol worshipper is a problem, not a G-d-fearing person who is not Jewish. An idol worshipper ignores G-d’s presence, and thus, the prayer to   G-d is blocked; a G-d-fearing gentile is made in the image of G-d, and certainly does not block a prayer to Him from passing through (Shu’t Nimla Tal).

And so, life continued. Bill slowly increased his commitment to Judaism, yet was unable to make the commitments necessary to consider true geirus. In the meantime, I studied with him. It was a good lesson to me in working on my own middos; I tend to be impatient and like to have projects completed quickly. Here, I needed to resign myself to the fact that Bill might never become sufficiently committed for proper geirus, and certainly needed to proceed at his own pace, without any encouragement. For his own part, Bill seemed satisfied with his direction and had no timetable.

THE FAMILY HISTORY

One day Bill called, asking to see me as soon as possible.

We met, and he told me the following story:

He had decided to press his mother for the details of the Jewishness of her family history. His mother told him what she knew about the background, which was not a lot, but then shared with him an interesting tidbit: “You know, the rabbi who performed my sister’s wedding was Orthodox, and I know that she never had an Orthodox conversion.”

By now, Bill knew enough not to rely on his mother’s description of a rabbi as Orthodox; and his mother’s older sister, Susan, was long deceased, thus making it difficult to verify the story. However, Bill’s uncle, Susan’s husband, was alive and well and living in town. Bill decided to have a chat with Uncle, who was an eccentric sort of fellow, a bit of a recluse and also a notorious packrat. Bill’s idea proved to be wise, as we will see.

Uncle told Bill that indeed, he and his late wife had been married by an Orthodox Rabbi, a Rabbi Leibel Tabachnik*, an old Eastern European rabbi who had been the rabbi in the shul where Uncle’s parents had davened. “If it’s important to you, I’ll see if I can find some verification.” Bill wasn’t sure what information Uncle would locate, but decided to press his uncle for details anyway. Uncle promised to sift through his memorabilia that he stored in his massive basement and see what he could find.

A few days later, presented Bill with two very interesting pieces of memorabilia. The first was a copy of his late wife’s kesubah, a withered, sixty-five-year-old document that appeared to have been perfectly valid. The kesubah was indeed signed in Hebrew by Rabbi Leibel Tabachnik, who, apparently, had signed on the document with another witness of his own choosing to guarantee that the ceremony was 100% kosher. The rav had served as one of the witnesses, not an uncommon procedure when performing a wedding in a community of nonobservant people. He and the other witness had affixed their signatures, complete with family name and position.

Uncle produced another interesting tidbit; a fifty-year-old newspaper obituary of Rabbi Tabachnik. From the obit and the accompanying photo, it was apparent that we were discussing a bearded rav who had studied in the citadels of Torah in Eastern Europe. Moreover, he had clearly remained committed to Torah and mitzvos throughout his illustrious rabbinic career, notwithstanding the challenges of the profession in America in that era.

Bill was uncertain whether any of this information had any ramifications to his own status, but eagerly presented me with the data.

I carefully examined the data. Although newspaper obituaries are not primary sources for halachic decisions, this one corroborated the information of the kesubah. Rabbi Tabachnik had apparently been a knowledgeable rav who followed halacha meticulously, as one would expect from someone with his education. The importance of this fact was a significant and surprising bit of information that the kesubah supplied: The kesubah referred to the bride, Susan (Bill’s aunt), as a besulah, a designation which is halachically inappropriate to use, unless she had been Jewish at birth. However, this information conflicted with the original assumptions Bill had presented me. According to Bill’s information, Susan’s mother was a non-Jewish woman who had married a Reform Jew who, presumably, would not have had any reason to ask her to convert to Judaism according to the Torah. Thus, their children would not have been Jewish, according to halacha. If Susan had become Jewish at some point, the kesubah would say that she was a geyores, a convert to Judaism. The pieces of the puzzle did not fit together!

There was one obvious answer. Maybe Rav Tabachnik, esteemed scholar that he was, was unaware of Susan’s family background. Perhaps Susan was not halachically Jewish, or had converted to Judaism, and the rav was unaware of this.

There was another possibility: Bill’s information was completely wrong and his mother’s mother was in fact Jewish, either born Jewish or converted according to halacha, sometime before her daughters were born. Thus, the kesubah was perfectly accurate, and Bill was, indeed, Jewish! I stored this information but was uncertain what to do, based on the new evidence.

THE P’SAK

Shortly thereafter, I saw a well-known posek and eagerly discussed with him the details that I had. After hearing me out, the esteemed posek turned to me and said, “Rav Tabachnik would have known if this woman was not born Jewish. If he wrote in the kesubah that she was born Jewish, then she was born Jewish. End of discussion.”

If Susan, Bill’s mother’s older sister, was born Jewish, then Bill’s mother was also definitely born Jewish, and Bill was born Jewish, although we did not know any other details. To make sure I understood the ramifications of the psak I had just heard, I repeated:

“Does that mean, that Bill is 100 percent Jewish?”

The rav replied, “Absolutely.”

Suddenly I realized the power of a single written word. Somehow, Rabbi Tabachnik knew that Bill’s grandmother was Jewish, and he had conveyed this message to us through the carefully written kesubah.

Suddenly, Bill came out of hiding! He could now proudly count himself as a member of a minyan, and was obligated to keep all the mitzvos of a Jew – and to learn all parts of the Torah!

 

*all names in this article have been changed*

The Bankrupt Borrower

This week’s parsha, Behar, includes details about being honest in our business dealings. Is declaring bankruptcy to absolve one of one’s debts, considered honest according to halachah?

The Bankrupt Borrower

Mr. Gomel Chessed shares with his rav, Rav Chacham, the following predicament: “I loaned someone money, and I did not hassle him for payment when he told me that things were tough. Recently, I contacted him to ask if he is in any position to pay back. He replied that he was forced into bankruptcy and thereby absolved all his debts. Does he, indeed, no longer owe me for the loan?”

Gomel’s rav explains that although the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch do not recognize a concept called bankruptcy, there are authorities who contend that, at least in some circumstances, halachah requires that a bankruptcy court’s decision be honored. Gomel is eager to hear the full explanation, so his rav provides him with some background material to read until they make an appointment to discuss the matter at length.

Gomel truly enjoyed researching the topic, and discovered that he also wanted to know all the related subjects. As a result, he became somewhat of an expert on much of the halachic material germane to his question.

Responsibilities of a Borrower

One of the first topics Gomel researched was the extent that a borrower must go to pay his debts. He was surprised to discover how strongly halachah requires someone to repay his debts and to make his payments on time. In addition, it is strictly forbidden to claim that one is unable to pay a debt when he can, and it is similarly forbidden to hide money so that a creditor cannot collect. This is true even if the creditor is very wealthy.

It is forbidden to borrow money that one does not think he will be able to repay. According to some authorities, money borrowed under the false pretense that the borrower intends to repay it is considered stolen, and not borrowed, funds. The halachic ramifications of this distinction are beyond the scope of this article.

If a debtor’s loan is due and he cannot pay, halachah requires that he sell his house, his furniture and his other household items, if necessary, to repay the debt, unless he can convince his creditor to forgive the debt or to wait longer for payment (Graz, Hilchos Halvaah 1:5).

Since the debtor must use whatever money he has available to pay his debt, he is required to trim his expenditures so that he can pay his creditor. Until his debt is repaid, he may not make significant contributions to tzedakah (Sefer Chassidim #454). Furthermore, he may not purchase a lulav and esrog, but instead must fulfill the mitzvah by borrowing from someone else (see Pischei Teshuvah, Choshen Mishpat 97:8). It goes without saying that luxuries and vacations are out. Someone who uses his money to purchase non-essential items when he has an overdue debt demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Torah’s priorities. One who squanders money and therefore is unable to repay his loans is called a rosho (Rambam, Hilchos Malveh 1:3).

Systematic Collection

Having researched how responsible a debtor must be, Gomel next studied the following topic: If a debtor unfortunately owes more money than he can pay, how does the halachah decide that we divide the debtor’s limited financial resources among his creditors?

Gomel discovered that the halachos governing who collects first are highly complicated. He also discovered that, when there are insufficient financial resources to pay all of the person’s debts, halachah views the priorities of who receives, and how much, very differently from civil law. Here are some basic ideas.

The Gemara works with a concept called shibud by which most debts are automatically secured with property that the debtor owned at the time he created the obligation. When this system was followed, if a debtor defaulted on an obligation, a creditor who exhausted all means of collecting directly from the debtor’s holdings could collect these secured debts from real properties that the debtor once owned and had subsequently sold. The system in place allowed that potential purchasers could find out whether a property had a lien on it prior to purchasing it. (This would loosely parallel what we call today a “title search” performed before purchasing property to ascertain that the property is without any liens and that the seller has clear ownership.) The potential lien on all the properties of a debtor encouraged people to pay their debts so that they could sell their properties more easily, and also enabled people to borrow investment capital.

Who Collects First?

Under the Gemara’s shibud system, when there are two or more claims on a property whose value is less than the outstanding debt, the creditor with the earliest claim collects as much as he can, and, after his claim is paid, the creditor with the next earliest claim collects, and so on (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 104:1).

When Gomel asked contemporary halachic authorities if this system is used today, he was told that one would not be able to collect from such properties unless they were mortgaged.

Why did the halachah change?

Since today no one applies the system of the Gemara, the creditor did not expect to be able to collect from any properties after the debtor sells them. As a result, the creditor did not acquire shibud on any of the debtor’s properties (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:62).

Bad Talmudic Debts

When there is no shibud claim on any properties, then, under the Gemara’s system, the outstanding creditors collect, but not proportional to the amount that each is owed. According to most authorities, we still follow whose claim is earliest. Others rule that everyone is paid equally according to the availability of resources (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 104:13 and Sma). Either approach results in a major difference between the Gemara’s system and the modern approach. Under the modern approach, the court calculates what is the ratio of the available resources to the debt, and pays all creditors a percentage of the debt based on the result.

By now, Gomel has studied much of the Gemara and commentaries on the topic of debt collection, and he has a good idea how bad debt was collected in the time of the Gemara. After reviewing his studies with Rav Chacham, Gomel is ready to understand how and if bankruptcy fits into a halachic system. He soon discovers that he now needs to master a very complicated concept of halachah called dina demalchusa dina.

Dina Demalchusa Dina

In the time of the Gemara, most countries and governments were kingdoms. This meant that the people living in an area recognized one individual to be responsible to maintain law and order within the country and to protect the citizenry from external enemies and greedy neighbors. Without a government, people are in constant danger from the chaos that occurs when there is no respect for a central authority. To quote the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:2), “Pray for the peace of the kingdom, for if people are not afraid of it, one man will swallow another alive.” Anyone who has ever seen or read of the mass looting that transpires when there is a breakdown of authority knows exactly what this means.

The king or government requires an army to protect the country from its external enemies, a police force to uphold law and order, and royal palaces and government offices that are well maintained so that the king’s authority is respected. All this requires funding, and the people realize that they need to pay taxes so that the king and/or government can protect them (see Rashbam, Bava Basra 54b s.v. VeHa’amar). The halachah of dina demalchusa dina recognizes that the king and his properly appointed agents have the right to collect taxes (Nedarim 28a).

Din Melech

When the tribes of Israel approached their prophet, Shmuel, requesting that he appoint a king, Shmuel attempted to dissuade them by noting the tremendous power that a king has. He will draft the most talented sons to till his fields, harvest his crops and perform other services; he will draft their daughters as perfumers, bakers and cooks; and he will raise high taxes (Shmuel I 8:11-18). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 20a) cites a dispute as to whether a Jewish monarch has the extensive authority that Shmuel describes or if Shmuel was simply threatening the people in an attempt to dissuade them from having a king. The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 4:1) and most authorities rule that the king indeed does have this authority.

Some poskim understand that a non-Jewish king, also, draws his authority based on this concept of din melech. That is, the Torah reserved the rights described by the prophet Shmuel for any monarch. (Even for those who contend that Shmuel was merely threatening the people and that the king does not have this extensive authority, the concept of dina demalchusa dina is still accepted; they simply do not consider the din melech of Shmuel to be the source of the law of dina demalchusa dina.)

Democratic Taxes

Although the early authorities discuss dina demalchusa dina primarily in terms of the rights of a king, most later authorities understand that this halachic power exists equally in a democracy (see Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 5:63).

Gomel discovered that the vast majority of halachic authorities regard dina demalchusa dina as a Torah-mandated concept (see Shu’t Dvar Avraham 1:1; Avnei Meluim 28:2; Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #314), although there is a minority opinion that contends that dina demalchusa dina was introduced by Chazal (Beis Shemuel, 28:3).

Many authorities rule that a king may not arbitrarily create new taxes; he may only collect that which has been previously established (Ritva, Nedarim 28a; see lengthy list in Encyclopedia Talmudis, Volume 7, page 318, footnote 559). Why is this true? When people appointed the original king to protect them, they accepted certain taxes with which to pay him for his “services.” According to these rishonim, neither this king nor his successors have an arbitrary right to create new taxes or increase taxes without the consent of the governed.

Traffic and Safety Regulations

Thus far, we have seen that dina demalchusa dina governs the right of the king or the government to collect taxes. Dina demalchusa dina also requires obeying rules of the government, such as the prohibitions against smuggling and counterfeiting. However, dina demalchusa dina goes much further. Some authorities maintain that dina demalchusa dina requires everyone to obey government-created rules that are clearly for the common good (Ramban, Bava Basra 55a). One may argue that this includes traffic laws, and regulations governing sanitation, safety and health. Those who do not agree that dina demalchusa dina extends this far feel that dina demalchusa dina is limited to matters that more directly affect the government (see Maggid Mishnah, Hilchos Malveh 27:1). All opinions agree that dina demalchusa dina applies to matters which breach the authority of the governing parties (Igros Moshe op. cit.). The exact extent to which this is applied practically will affect Gomel’s original question, whether dina demalchusa dina applies to bankruptcy law.

No Government Influence

What areas of halachah are not subject to dina demalchusa dina?

Dina demalchusa dina does not replace the civil laws of the Torah (the laws of Choshen Mishpat) that govern the relationships between Jews (Shu’t Harashba 3:109, quoted by Beis Yosef, Choshen Mishpat end of Chapter 26; Shach, Choshen Mishpat 73:39). For example, dina demalchusa dina does not affect the laws of inheritance. These laws are governed by the Torah’s laws of yerushah.

Similarly, the laws of damages (nezakin), the laws of shomrim – responsibility for taking care of someone else’s property – and the property laws involved in  marriage are all areas of halachah in which Jews are required to follow the laws of the Torah. Therefore, when a Jew lends an item to another, the laws governing his responsibility are those of the Torah, not the local civil code. This is because it is no infringement on the government’s authority when people make their own arrangements as to how to manage these areas of their lives (Igros Moshe).

Government Influence

On the other hand, there are certain areas of contract law that are heavily influenced by dina demalchusa dina. For example, the laws of employee relations are governed by local custom (Yerushalmi, Bava Metzia 7:1), and these are usually heavily influenced by civil law.

What about Bankruptcy?

As I wrote above, the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch do not mention any concept of bankruptcy. Gomel began to research if anyone discusses whether or not halachah recognizes the laws of bankruptcy under the laws of dina demalchusa dina. Indeed, he discovered a dispute among great authorities of the late twentieth century whether dina demalchusa dina applies to the laws of bankruptcy. In a responsum, Rav Moshe Feinstein rules

that dina demalchusa dina applies only to matters in which the government takes an interest because they may affect the stability of the country. For example, if the country does not have consistent markets, this could create problems that the government wants to avoid. Therefore, the government has a halachic right under dina demalchusa dina to insist that its laws insuring stable markets are followed.

Rav Moshe concludes that the laws of bankruptcy are within the parameters of dina demalchusa dina, since the government has a right to insist that there be a consistent rule of law applied throughout the country regarding how bad debts are discharged.

In the case brought before Rav Moshe, a company had gone bankrupt, and the directors had paid one of its creditors for his outstanding debt in violation of the bankruptcy rulings. The question was whether the individual was required to return the money that he had been paid because of dina demalchusa dina. Rav Moshe ruled that if the company had already filed for bankruptcy when this money was paid, then the creditor is halachically required to return the money. This is because dina demalchusa dina establishes the regulations how one may pay once one has filed for bankruptcy.

We find responsa from two prominent European authorities, Rav Yitzchak Weiss (Shu’t Minchas Yitzchak 3:134), then the av beis din of Manchester (and later the Gaon Av Beis Din of the Eidah HaChareidis in Yerushalayim), and from Rav Yaakov Breisch of Zurich, Switzerland (Shu’t Chelkas Yaakov 3:160). (It is interesting to note that these two great poskim were mechutanim.) From the limited description of the cases that each responsum contains, it seems that they were asked concerning the same situation:

Reuven advanced Shimon a personal loan, and Shimon subsequently declared bankruptcy. As required by law, Shimon had notified all his creditors, Reuven included, that he had filed for bankruptcy protection and that Reuven had the right to protest the bankruptcy arrangements. Reuven did not protest the bankruptcy proceedings, which ultimately ruled that Shimon was required to pay only thirty cents per dollar owed to his creditors.

Subsequently, Reuven sued Shimon in beis din for the entire loan. Shimon contended that he is not required to pay Reuven any more than the thirty cents to the dollar that the bankruptcy court ruled that he was required to pay. Reuven, the creditor, claimed that he had never forgiven any part of the loan. He claimed that he did not protest the bankruptcy proceedings for several reasons, among them that he was unaware that a personal loan which was not meant for profit is included in bankruptcy proceedings.

The rav who was asked the shaylah referred it to these well-known poskim. They both contend that dina demalchusa dina does not apply to bankruptcy procedures. In their opinion, dina demalchusa dina never supplants an area of halachah where the Torah provides its own guidelines.

They do agree that if there was evidence that Reuven had accepted the court’s ruling, he would no longer be entitled to full payment, because he had been mocheil, forgiven, the balance of the loan. Once someone is mocheil a loan or part of a loan, he cannot afterwards claim it. However, they contend that in the situation at hand, there is no evidence that Reuven was ever mocheil the balance of the loan.

It would seem from Rav Moshe Feinstein’s responsum that he would have ruled differently and contended that once the court declared Shimon bankrupt, Reuven would have been obligated to honor the court’s decision because of dina demalchusa dina.

At this point, Gomel sat down to discuss with Rav Chacham whether his own debtor can claim protection from the balance of his loan because he has declared bankruptcy. According to the Chelkas Yaakov, the Minchas Yitzchak, and other authorities, the debtor has no basis for claiming bankruptcy protection. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, one would have to check with an attorney whether the debtor’s bankruptcy protects him legally from Gomel’s loan even though Gomel was not informed of the bankruptcy proceedings. Assuming that the bankruptcy proceedings can, indeed, protect the debtor, it would seem that, according to Rav Moshe and some other authorities, the debtor has grounds to his argument.

Conclusion

Lending money is a valuable mitzvah. When someone fulfills the mitzvah of lending money to a fellow Jew, he is not providing a gift, but a loan that he has a right to expect will be repaid. As the Tanna, Rabbi Shimon, notes in the second chapter of Pirkei Avos, “the evil path from which a person should distance himself” can be explained easily in the words of Dovid Hamelech: The wicked borrow and do not repay; whereas the righteous is gracious in his giving. Someone who borrows must always have a plan how he intends to return the funds.

The Saga of the Expired Ticket

PART I: The Saga of the Expired Ticket

Two yeshiva students, Beryl Bernstein and Aaron Adler*, make an appointment to discuss a financial matter with me. Thank G-d, there is no ill feeling between them, just a practical question regarding who is required to pay for a plane ticket. Here is the background to the story:

Beryl and Aaron were taking a brief trip to visit their families. Beryl purchased a round trip ticket, whereas Aaron had the return ticket from his previous trip and was planning to purchase a ticket back to Yeshiva from home. All went well on the trip there; however, shortly after their arrival, Beryl took ill and realized that he would be unable to return to yeshiva on the flight he had originally booked. The travel agent informed his parents that although it was impossible to transfer the ticket to a later flight, he could rewrite the ticket in someone else’s name with only a small transfer fee.

Beryl called Aaron, asking him if he had as yet purchased a ticket back, which indeed he had not. Aaron discussed the matter with his parents, who decided to help out the Bernsteins, since Aaron needed a new ticket anyway. Beryl’s parents instructed the agent to change the name on the ticket while leaving the billing on their credit card. The Bernsteins agreed that they will pay the change fee whereas the Adlers will compensate them for the price of the ticket.

All was fine until the morning of the flight. Aaron woke up sick; clearly he would not be flying today. The Adlers contacted the issuing travel agent to find out what he could do with the ticket. He responded that he could transfer the ticket yet again but needed the Bernsteins’ approval to change the billing on their credit card. The Adlers tried many times to contact the Bernsteins to arrange the change of ticket, but were unsuccessful at reaching them. Unfortunately, the ticket went unused and became worthless.

Later, both Aaron and Beryl purchased new tickets for the flight back to yeshiva. In the meantime, the Adlers have not yet paid the Bernsteins for the first ticket and have the following question: Must they pay for the ticket which they were unable to use, thus requiring them to pay for two tickets? In their opinion, all they were trying to do was to help out the Bernsteins from having the ticket go to waste, although unfortunately it did anyway. The Adlers contend that they had found a cheaper ticket and chose to help out the Bernsteins even though it was more expensive. They feel it unfair to expect them to compensate the Bernsteins for attempting to do a favor that backfired, particularly since they tried to reach the Bernsteins to make sure the ticket did not go to waste.

On their part, the Bernsteins contend that other people were interested in using Beryl’s ticket, and that they sold it to the Adlers for the Adlers’ benefit. Furthermore, they note that they were not home the day the Adlers called because they were away at a simcha and that they did have their cell phones with them.

Are the Adlers obligated to compensate the Bernsteins for the unused ticket or not?

PART II: Who Appears Before the “Judge”?

Aaron and Beryl came to me with the request that I resolve an issue germane to the payment of an airline ticket. Before hearing details of the case, I asked them who were the parties to the litigation. Were Aaron and Beryl assuming responsibility to pay? Both fine, young gentlemen respond that the parents are assuming responsibility. The bachurim noted that there is no ill will between the families, simply a true desire to do what is halachically correct. Both sets of parents felt that a rav near their sons’ yeshiva would be the easiest way to resolve the issue in an amicable and halachically proper fashion.

I pointed out to Aaron and Beryl that while asking a rav to clarify the halacha is indeed an excellent way to resolve the matter, at the same time, the situation was in one way somewhat unusual. Ordinarily, when two parties submit litigation to a rav or a Beis Din, each party makes a kabbalas kinyan (to be explained shortly) obligating them to obey the decision of that particular rav or Beis Din. In the modern world, the two parties also typically sign an arbitration agreement that they are accepting this rav’s or Beis Din’s adjudication. Although halacha does not require signing an arbitration agreement, this is done nowadays in order to provide simple proof that both parties accepted the particular Beis Din’s authority and to strengthen the Beis Din’s power as an arbitration board under secular law. (In most locales and circumstances, a civil court will accept the decision of a Beis Din as a form of binding arbitration.)

WHAT IS A KABBALAS KINYAN?

A kabbalas kinyan means performing an act that obligates one to fulfill an agreement. For example, prior to the signing of a kesubah, the chosson makes a kabbalas kinyan, usually by lifting a pen or a handkerchief, thereby demonstrating that he has accepted the responsibility to support his wife. Similarly, when appointing a rav to sell one’s chometz, one performs a kabbalas kinyan to demonstrate the authorization of the rav as one’s agent.

In our instance, a kabbalas kinyan demonstrates that one accepts the authority of this particular rav or Beis Din to rule on the matter at hand.

HARSHA’AH – POWER OF ATTORNEY

Beryl asked me, “Can’t I represent my parents in this matter?”

I answered him, “Certainly. One can appoint someone to represent him in halachic litigation by creating a harsha’ah. For example, let us say that it is impractical for the suing party to appear before the Beis Din in the city where the defendant resides. He can sue by appointing someone on his behalf and authorizing this by executing a harsha’ah, the halachic equivalent of a power of attorney.”

I returned to the case at hand.

“Therefore, in our case, the two of you could represent your parents by having them execute harsha’os appointing you as their respective agents.”

Aaron piped up: “I don’t think anyone really wants to make a full din torah out of this. I think we simply want to know what is the right thing to do according to halacha.”

Technically, without execution of harsha’os, either side could later claim not to have accepted the decision of the rav or Beis Din involved, and could avoid having the litigation binding. Nevertheless, in our situation, both parties seemed honorable and simply wanted to know the halacha. Both sons said that their parents had requested that they jointly ask a shaylah and that they would follow the decision. Thus, although following the strict rules of litigation requires both a harsha’ah and a kabbalas kinyan from each side, I elected to handle the situation informally, calculating that this would generate the most shalom.

PART III: Are They Parties or Participants?

Why didn’t I have the two bachurim each make a kabbalas kinyan binding themselves to my ruling?

Such a kabbalas kinyan would have no value, since the person making the kabbalas kinyan binds himself to accept the authority of the specific rav or Beis Din. However, the sons here are not parties to the litigation and therefore their kinyan would not bind either themselves or their parents unless they had previously executed a harsha’ah.

PART IV: Opening Arguments

Let us review the points made by each of the parties: The Adlers claim that they were simply doing a favor for the Bernsteins. They were willing to absorb a small loss for the sake of the favor, but certainly had no intention of paying the Bernsteins for a ticket that they would never use. They also feel that since they could not reach the Bernsteins to change the ticket, the Bernsteins were partially responsible for the ticket becoming void.

The Bernsteins are claiming that the Adlers purchased the ticket from them and that what occurred subsequently is exclusively the Adlers’ predicament and responsibility. Furthermore, the Bernsteins contend that the Adlers did not really save them money because there were other people who would have purchased the ticket from them. And regarding their unavailability, they were at a simcha, which is certainly a reasonable reason to be away, and they were reachable by cell phone. It is not their fault that the Adlers did not ask them for cell phone numbers.

Do the Adlers owe the Bernsteins for the ticket that they did not use? After all, the Adlers point out that they were doing the Bernsteins a favor, and that they tried to contact the Bernsteins before the ticket became worthless. Having discussed the background to this “litigation,” we need to address the halachos pertinent to the case.

PART V: In the Judge’s “Chambers”

At this point, we can consider the arguments and counter-arguments of the two parties. The Adlers’ contention that the Bernsteins were unavailable does not affect the issues at stake. The Bernsteins are not obligated to be accessible at all hours of the day, and cannot be considered as having damaged the Adlers through their unavailability. Thus, whether the Bernsteins could have been reached by cell phone or not, whether they should have remembered to supply the Adlers with their cell phone number or not, and whether they were away to celebrate a simcha or not, are all not germane to the issue.

WHO OWNED THE TICKET?

Essentially, the Adlers are contending that they assumed no fiscal liability for the ticket unless they used it, and were simply attempting to help the Bernsteins. Does this perception reflect what happened?

Certainly, if the Adlers had told the Bernsteins that they were not assuming any responsibility for the ticket unless they actually used it, they would not be liable for it. However, they did not say this when they arranged for Aaron to obtain the ticket. Rather, they had agreed that the ticket be reissued in Aaron’s name without any conditions.

The issue we need to resolve is, “Who owned the ticket when it became invalid?” Here we have a somewhat complicated issue, since the ticket was reissued, yet it remained billed to the Bernsteins’ credit card.

Someone who purchased an item that was subsequently damaged cannot claim a refund from the seller unless the seller was guilty of deception (Bava Metzia 110a). Once the item has changed possession, any damage that occurs is the loss of its current owner and he cannot shift responsibility to the previous owner. This occurrence is called mazalo garam, his fortune caused this to happen (see, for example, Rashi to Bava Metzia 103a, s.v. azla lei). This means that each person has a mazel that will bring him certain benefits and losses during his lifetime, and one must learn to accept that this is Hashem’s will. Specifically, the Gemara refers to children, life and sustenance as three areas dependent on mazel (Moed Katan 28a). [One can daven to change one’s mazel, but that is not today’s topic (Meiri, Shabbos 156).] Thus, if the Adlers indeed owned the ticket, the resultant loss is theirs, and they should chalk it up to Hashem’s will. (Colloquially, we very accurately refer to this situation as being bashert.) Thus, what we need to determine is whether the Adlers had halachically taken possession of the ticket.

KINYAN

According to halacha, for property to change hands there must be not only the meeting of the minds of the buyer and the seller, but also the performance of an act, called a maaseh kinyan, that transfers the item into the possession of the buyer. Although both the buyer and the seller agreed to transact an item, it does not actually change possession until the maaseh kinyan transpires. Therefore, if the item is damaged after the two parties agreed to a deal, but before a maaseh kinyan transpired, the seller takes the loss since the item was still his when it became damaged. Determining the exact moment that the act of kinyan takes place and that therefore the item changed possession is therefore highly significant.

[It is important to note that, although a deal may not have been finalized without a kinyan, it is usually forbidden to back out once the two parties have made an agreement. This is based on the verse in Tzefaniah (3:13) which states that a Jew always fulfills his word (see also Pesachim 91a; Bava Metzia 106b). Someone who has a question whether he is bound to an agreement must ask a shaylah to find out whether he may abandon the deal.]

What act creates the kinyan? There is a vast halachic literature devoted to defining what exactly constitutes a maaseh kinyan and under which circumstances these kinyanim work. For example, the methods of transacting real estate are quite different from how one acquires chattel or food.

How does an airline ticket change possession? Obviously, there is no Mishnah or Gemara discussion teaching how one acquires an airline ticket.

In reality, we should first analyze, what exactly does one purchase when one buys an airline ticket? The ticket itself is only a piece of paper, and is even less if it is an e-ticket and has no intrinsic value.

What one is purchasing is the right to a seat on a flight, and the ticket is basically a receipt verifying the acquisition. If our analysis is correct, then the purchase of a non-refundable ticket is essentially buying a right to a particular flight. So we now have a halachic question: How does one acquire such rights and how does one transfer those rights to someone else?

SUTIMTA

One way of acquiring property is called sutimta, which means using a method of acquisition that is commonly used in the marketplace. Since society accepts this as a means of acquiring property, halacha recognizes it as a kinyan. For example, in the diamond trade, people consummate a deal by a handshake accompanied by the good wishes of “mazel ubracha.” Since this is the accepted method of transacting property, the kinyan is binding and halacha recognizes the deal as complete.

Based on the above, we can reach the following conclusion: When the Bernsteins instructed their travel agent to transfer the ticket to Aaron’s name, they were asking him to change the ownership of the right to the seat on that flight from Beryl to Aaron. Once the agent followed up on their instruction and reissued the ticket, the right to that seat became Aaron’s, and the Bernsteins are exempt from any fiscal responsibility. Although Aaron was unfortunately unable to utilize this right and it became void, there is no basis to making the Bernsteins pay for the ticket once it was transferred.

Therefore, the Adlers should accept that Aaron’s illness and the resultant loss of the ticket is Hashem’s will which we do not challenge. Since the loss of this money is attributed to mazel, had the ticket situation developed differently they would have suffered this loss in a different, perhaps more painful way, and they should not be upset at the Bernsteins for the financial loss.

Knowing how some people react to these situations, there is a good chance that the Adlers may be upset at the Bernsteins for what happened, even though this anger is unjustified. To avoid this result, I suggested that the Bernsteins offer some compensation to the Adlers for the ticket. It is very praiseworthy to spend some money and avoid bad feelings even if such expenditure is not required according to the letter of the law.

A Jew must realize that Hashem’s Torah and His awareness and supervision of our fate is all encompassing. Making this realization an integral part of our lives is the true benchmark of how His kedusha influences us personally.

*Although the story is true, all names have been changed.

Is a Will the Halachic Way?

Would Yitzchak (and ultimately klal Yisroel) have been better off had he written up, in advance, a will, clearly determining how he wanted his spiritual and temporal properties to be divided?

Should one write a will?

May one distribute one’s estate differently from the way the Torah instructs?

SHOULD A JEW WRITE A WILL?

Before answering this question, we should clarify what would happen if one left no legally binding will. For example, who becomes the legal guardian of one’s minor children? The law may prescribe a very different solution than what one would want to happen, with potentially catastrophic results. After discovering this possibility, the need to have a will usually becomes obvious.

Another question to resolve is what happens to one’s property if one leaves no will. Each state and country has different laws determining who takes possession of the property of a person who dies without having left a will. One thing is virtually certain: The division followed by a court will not follow halacha. Probate court will almost certainly award part of or the entire estate to someone who is not halachically entitled to it. Since there is no reason to assume that the halachic heirs should want to forgo their rightful ownership, someone will receive property that is not rightfully his or hers.

SOME YERUSHA BASICS

In order to understand why the wrong person ends up with the property, we must first understand who should be the halachic heir. Many people are surprised to discover that halacha distributes inheritance very differently from modern legal procedure.

According to Torah Law, property is bequeathed as follows: Sons or heirs of sons inherit everything, even if there are daughters (Bava Basra 115a). (Yes, this means that a granddaughter who is the daughter of an already deceased son inherits Grandpa’s estate ahead of Grandpa’s own daughter, an anomaly that the Gemara itself notes [Bava Basra 115b].)

If there is more than one son, the father’s bechor, firstborn son, receives a double portion in much of his father’s properties, but not his mother’s. This means that if there are three sons, including the firstborn, the property is divided into four portions, and the firstborn receives two. (Who qualifies as a bechor for these laws, and in which properties he does or does not receive an extra portion, are topics to be dealt with a different time.) If there are no sons or heirs of sons, then the daughters inherit, and if there are no surviving daughters, then their heirs do (Bava Basra 115a). If the deceased left no surviving descendants, the father of the deceased is the beneficiary of the entire estate (Bava Basra 108b). If the father has already passed on, then the paternal brothers inherit; if there are no brothers, their progeny are next in line. If no brothers or offspring survive, then paternal sisters and their children are the heirs. If the deceased’s father has no surviving progeny, then the deceased’s paternal grandfather and his descendants become the beneficiaries, again following the same pattern.

HUSBAND INHERITING

There is one major exception to these rules of yerusha – a husband inherits most assets left by his deceased wife. (Again, I will leave the exceptions for a different time.) This is true even if she has children, and even if her children are from a previous marriage. There are many ramifications of this rule, which can be the subject of a full-length halachic/legal treatise, and certainly reflect a very different hashkafah, perspective, on fiscal decision making than what is politically correct in today’s world.

DAUGHTERS

Although daughters are not heirs when there are sons, minor daughters receive support from their father’s estate. In addition, the estate provides for the wedding and related expenses of all unmarried daughters. Beis Din estimates the amount of these gifts based on the father’s means and how much he provided, while still alive, for the older sisters’ weddings (Kesubos 68a; cf., however, Tosafos, Kesubos 50b).

A widow does not inherit from her husband; instead, her late husband’s assets provide for her, until she shows interest in remarriage. At that time, she may collect her kesubah.

PATRILINEAL RELATIVES

Note that all halachic heirs follow the father’s line and not the mother’s (Bava Basra 108a; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 276:4). Thus, if an only child, whose father is also an only child, died, his heir will be a cousin on his paternal side, and not his closer relatives on his mother’s side.

Yankel (not his real name) once asked me the following shaylah: “My half-sister, who is my mother’s daughter, passed on, leaving all her property to her caretaker. The family members are contesting the will, and would like me to join their lawsuit. May I?”

I noted that there is no halachic point in his participating in this litigation, even if Beis Din authorized the suit. Even assuming that the will is indeed worthless, Yankel has no halachic claim to the money, since only relatives on the paternal side have halachic claim to the estate, and he is related on her mother’s side. Therefore, any properties he receives would actually belong to someone else. In this instance, bitachon must teach one that although civil law may consider the property to be yours, the ratzon Hashem is that to keep it is tantamount to stealing!

CHOOSING ONE’S HEIRS

According to civil law, a person may choose his heirs and thereby distribute his earthly wealth after he passes on. However, according to the Torah, a person cannot technically choose his heirs, nor distribute property after his demise. When a man dies, the Torah instructs who owns his assets according to the laws of yerusha presented previously.

If a person cannot create his own heir, does this mean that it is impossible to influence who eventually receives his assets? No, since there are several halachically acceptable methods of transferring property to someone who is not a halachic heir. Most of the methods take affect by creating some form of gift while the benefactor is still alive. Exactly how each method works, and the relative advantages and disadvantages of each approach, is a complex topic, beyond the range of this article. Certainly prior to finalizing a will drafted by an attorney, one should ask one’s rav whether there are any halachic concerns with the will’s goals, and what needs to be added (or changed) to validate it halachically. It is even better to speak to one’s rav before drafting the will for direction on some of the halachic issues involved.

Let us now examine the second question I raised above:

MAY ONE DISTRIBUTE ONE’S ESTATE DIFFERENTLY FROM WHAT THE TORAH INSTRUCTS?

Granted that one can change how one’s estate is to be divided, is it halachically correct to do so? Does the Torah require us to follow its yerusha laws, or are these merely default procedures if someone made no other provisions?

We can answer this question by analyzing the following incident:

Rav Papa was negotiating a shidduch for one of his sons (he had ten) with the daughter of Abba Soraah. When Rav Papa traveled to discuss the dowry Abba Soraah would provide, he was accompanied by Yehudah bar Mareimar, who declined to enter Abba Soraah’s house. Rav Papa invited Yehudah bar Mareimar to join him, but Yehudah bar Mareimar declined the invitation.

Rav Papa then asked Yehudah bar Mareimar, “Why do you not want to join me? Is it because you feel that my negotiating violates Shmuel’s ruling, ‘Do not be among those who transfer inheritance, even from a sinful son to a good one, since one never knows – perhaps the bad son will raise fine children?’” Following Shmuel’s ruling, one should certainly not transfer property to the daughter that rightfully belongs to the son. “However,” continued Rav Papa, “this is not a correct application of Shmuel’s rule, since there is another rabbinic ruling of Rabbi Yochanan quoting Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai that encourages people to provide substantial dowries for their daughters.”

Yehudah bar Mareimar responded, “Indeed Rabbi Yochanan ruled that we encourage men to provide their daughters with dowries — but we do not pressure them to do so” (Kesubos 52b- 53a).

We can derive several principles from this passage:

1. One should provide for one’s daughter in order to encourage her marriage, even when this reduces the amount available for inheritance.

2. One should not pressure someone to provide a substantive dowry for his daughter’s shidduch.

3. Although one can disinherit an heir, Chazal discourage this practice, even if the heir is an evil person, since he may have righteous children who should not be deprived of their just portion. One is certainly discouraged from transferring the inheritance to someone who is not a halachic heir at all.

The Shulchan Aruch codifies this last rule: “The Sages are displeased with someone who gives away his property to others and abandons his heirs, even if they do not treat him properly” (Choshen Mishpat 282:1; note comments of Sm’a, and Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #153).

The authorities dispute whether this prohibition applies only to the testator or includes even others who assist him in transferring the inheritance. According to the Chasam Sofer, a rav who teaches how to transfer inheritance violates this rabbinic prohibition! (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #153; cf. Shevet HaLevi 4:116, who quotes authorities who disagree.)

 

SHTAR CHATZI ZACHOR

An old custom, dating back hundreds of years, was to draft a shtar chatzi zachor, which provided daughters with half of what their brothers inherit. (The words shtar chatzi zachor mean a document providing half that of a male child.) Several early authorities approve this practice, even though it transfers property from the male heirs, because providing for one’s daughters enhances their chance of finding suitable shidduchin (Shu’t Maharam Mintz #47, quoted by Nachalas Shivah 21:4:2). Although Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, quoted in the above Gemara, encouraged providing only a dowry for one’s daughter and made no mention of inheritance, these poskim contend that knowing that she will eventually inherit also entices a potential groom. (However, note that Shu’t Maharam Rottenberg #998 disagrees with this approach, implying that he would object to the practice of shtar chatzi zachor.)

CONTEMPORARY PRACTICE

It is now common for wills to provide equally for all children, both sons and daughters, and to ignore the bechor’s double portion. Contemporary poskim suggest that one should follow whatever practice is necessary to avoid a machlokes caused by unrealized expectations, and advise asking a rav for direction (Gesher HaChayim, 1:8; MiDor LeDor pg. 36). Many authorities recommend that one set aside a small amount of property to be divided according to the laws of yerusha (based on Tashbeitz end of 3:147, quoted by Ketzos HaChoshen 282:2).

The Gesher HaChayim records a story of a talmid chacham who wanted his estate divided exactly as the Torah instructs, legally arranging that his bechor should receive a double portion and that only his sons, and not his daughters, receive inheritance. Unfortunately, the result of this distribution was a legacy of machlokes that created a tremendous chillul Hashem. For this reason, the Gesher HaChayim recommends that a person divide his estate among his children in a way that maintains shalom.

ABANDONING HEIRS

Other than the two reasons mentioned above, (1) encouraging daughters’ shidduchin (2) maintaining harmonious relationship among family members, halacha frowns strongly on disinheriting the rightful heirs in favor of those who are not, and disapproves of providing more for one heir at the expense of another (Rashbam, Bava Basra 133b). In order to explain this better, let us examine the following case:

Mr. Rubinstein, who has no children, would like to divide his estate equally among all his nephews and nieces. However, only some of his nephews are his halachic heirs, those who are sons of his brothers. The nephews who are sons of his sisters are not halachic heirs, nor are any of his nieces. If Mr. Rubinstein divides all his property among all his nephews and nieces evenly, he has violated Chazal’s concept of not transferring inheritance, since he has given away his halachic heirs’ portion to those who are not his heirs.

Note that in this case, the two reasons that permit transferring inheritance do not apply. Mr. Rubinstein is not obligated to provide for his nieces’ marriages nor is it likely that limiting his will to his halachic heirs will create a family dispute.

May Mr. Rubinstein give most of his estate to his nieces and sisters’ sons, as long as he bequeaths some according to the laws of yerusha? The halachic authorities debate this question, some maintaining that one may give a large part of one’s estate to those who are not halachic heirs, provided that each heir receives some inheritance. According to this opinion, Mr. Rubinstein may dispose of his property any way he chooses, provided he leaves part of the estate according to the laws of yerusha.

Other authorities prohibit any action that deprives the halachic heirs of their rightful portion (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #151). Furthermore, it should be noted that the prohibition against transferring inheritance applies even when the heirs are not his sons (see Shu’t Chasam Sofer Choshen Mishpat #151; Aruch HaShulchan, Choshen Mishpat 282:3; Shu’t Shevet HaLevi 4:116).

TZEDAKAH

Is it considered abandoning one’s heirs if one bequeaths sizable amounts of one’s estate to tzedakah?

Some authorities contend that it is not, and one may leave even one’s entire fortune to tzedakah. The reason for this approach is very interesting.

A person has no obligation to acquire assets in order to fulfill the mitzvah of yerusha. Furthermore, one has the right to use up all one’s financial resources, while alive, in any way one chooses and leave nothing to his heirs. After all, as owner of the property he is free to do with it as he sees fit.

Donating tzedakah, reasons the Chasam Sofer, is using money for oneself, since all the merits accrue to the donor. Just as one may use his resources for himself however one chooses, so may one donate all the resources that he will no longer need to tzedakah, without violating the prohibition of transferring inheritance. The Chasam Sofer reasons that this is equivalent to the testator keeping the property for himself, since he receives all the reward for the tzedakah he gives (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #151). (From this perspective, you can take it with you!!)

However, although some earlier authorities (Rama, Yoreh Deah 249:1) concur with the Chasam Sofer’s conclusions, others contend that one should limit his tzedakah bequests to one third or one half of one’s assets (Rabbi Akiva Eiger ad loc., quoting Sheiltos; Chachmas Odom 144:12). Still others feel that one should not give substantial amounts of tzedakah at the expense of the heirs, unless the heirs are acting inappropriately (Shu’t Maharam Rottenberg #998).

CONCLUSION

It is important to realize that one’s legal rights and responsibilities are not governed by secular law. A Torah Jew understands that Hashem’s Torah is all-encompassing, and that it directs every aspect of one’s life. Thus, one should discuss with one’s rav all aspects of the important shaylah — how to draw one’s will.

Get Rid of the Stuff!

or

The Vanishing Importer and Other Tales

Dovid calls me with following shaylah:
”Several years ago, Yonasan asked permission to store some items in my basement for a few months. The items are still in my basement, and I have no idea where Yonasan now lives. I have tried to contact him without any success. How do I get rid of his stuff? I need the space for other things.”

People have often asked me this or similar questions, where someone ends up with someone else’s unwanted property on their premises. The issue is that two people’s rights are in conflict with one another. On the one hand, Dovid has a right to regain the use of his basement; yet, on the other hand, we cannot ignore Yonasan’s ownership rights.

We will see that although the halachos in these cases are complicated, we will be able to understand some of the rules involved.

In order to answer Dovid’s shaylah, we need to determine several halachic factors:

1. Was Dovid originally responsible for taking care of Yonasan’s items?

2. Assuming he was once responsible, is he still responsible?

3. If we assume that he is no longer responsible, or was never responsible, may he remove the items from his premises? What may he do with them if he removes them?

The Tanna’im (Bava Kamma 47) dispute whether or not granting someone permission to place belongings on my premises makes me automatically a shomer chinam, an unpaid watchman. The Sages contend that when I tell someone that he can place his items in my yard, the unstated assumption is that I am accepting responsibility for the items. If the item is subsequently lost or stolen through the homeowner’s negligence, he must pay for it, even though he was not paid to guard the item. Rebbe disagrees, contending that permitting someone to place items on my property is not equivalent to accepting responsibility for them.

Most halachic authorities conclude that if one offered to store items in his house, he has assumed some level of responsibility, but if he offered to store them in his yard, he has not assumed responsibility (Shach, Choshen Mishpat 291:8; cf., however Machanei Efrayim, Shomrim #4, who rules that he is not responsible in the house either). Thus, when Yonasan placed his items in Dovid’s basement, Dovid became a shomer chinam on those items, and is obligated to pay if he is negligent in taking care of them. As a result, if Dovid left the house unlocked one day and someone entered and stole Yonasan’s property, Dovid would be obligated to compensate Yonasan. By the way, Dovid could avoid this responsibility by simply telling Yonasan that although he may place items in Dovid’s house, Dovid is assuming no responsibility and is not a shomer.

HOW LONG DOES DOVID REMAIN RESPONSIBLE?

In our case, Yonasan asked permission to store his items in Dovid’s house “for a few months.” Assuming that Dovid really believed that Yonasan would remove his items at that time, he is no longer a shomer when the time is over and is no longer responsible for negligent damages (Machanei Efrayim, Shomrim #19). However, this does not mean that Dovid can now remove Yonasan’s items and place them on the street, because that would be considered as damaging Yonasan’s property, which is prohibited.

Let us compare this case to a fascinating anecdote of the Gemara:

THE CASE OF THE HAPLESS LADY

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 101b) relates the following episode. A businessman, whom we will call Mr. Wine, purchased a shipload of kosher wine and could not find a place to store it. When he asked a local woman, Ms. Storage, if he could rent warehouse space, she was initially unwilling to rent him the space, and only agreed after he consented to marry her. After this “marriage of convenience,” Mr. Wine promptly divorced Ms. Storage. She retaliated by selling some of the wine and using the proceeds to hire porters to move the wine into the street. When Mr. Wine summoned Ms. Storage to a din Torah for selling his wine to pay for the portage, Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, ruled that since he tricked her into storing his goods, he had no monetary claim against her, and that she indeed had the legal right to remove the wine from her premises at his expense. As we will see, it is unclear whether she could remove the wine from her premises if this would cause the wine to be stolen or damaged.

In the above situation, because Mr. Wine discovered immediately what she had done, he suffered no further loss. Would Ms. Storage have been liable to pay if the wine was stolen before Mr. Wine discovered that it was in the street?

The Rosh rules that although Ms. Storage may remove the wine from her premises, she is liable for any loss that occurs until she notifies Mr. Wine that she has removed the wine. Therefore, the Rama rules that she must notify Mr. Wine before removing his wine from her premises.

Obviously, this ruling places Ms. Storage in an unenviable position if Mr. Wine leaves town and cannot be contacted. Although he tricked her into storing her goods, she cannot remove his items and place them where they may be damaged.

Not all authorities agree with the Rosh’s opinion. The Taz (Choshen Mishpat 319) contends that if someone stored property on your premises without your permission and it is in a place that you need, you may remove his property without being concerned about the loss he suffers as a result. (This is based on his understanding of the Rambam; note that some other poskim interpret the Rambam differently.) According to the Taz’s approach, Ms. Storage could have placed the wine in the street without notifying Mr. Wine, without any financial responsibility or risk. The line of reasoning behind the Taz’s approach is interesting.

The Gemara (Bava Kamma 27b) rules that “avid inish dina linafshei,” a person has the right to protect his own property. Thus if a person or his animal is damaging my property, I may use necessary force to remove him or his animal from my property.

Similarly, the Taz contends that one may remove items placed in my property if I do not want them there. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:56) appears to disagree with the Taz, contending that one does not have the right to remove someone else’s property and place it in the street. Rav Moshe’s responsum is in the context of a different, interesting case.

THE CASE OF THE VANISHING IMPORTER

A distributor asked Rav Moshe the following shaylah: “An importer/supplier asked me to store some merchandise for a couple of months and I agreed; but I neglected to get his address and phone number. A year later, the importer returned, very apologetically explaining that he was delayed and thought he would return sooner. In the middle of the conversation, the importer said, ‘I must take care of something. I’ll be back in a few minutes.’ He disappeared once again and has not returned since. It is now months later and I need to make room for my own merchandise. What can I do with his property?”

Rav Moshe compares the distributor’s predicament to the Case of the Hapless Lady. He contends that even in that case, one may not remove the wine to a place where it could be stolen unless one first notifies the owner. He further concludes that if Ms. Storage cannot locate Mr. Wine, she may not move his wine to the street. However, Rav Moshe rules that she could move his wine to an alternative warehouse and sell some of the wine to pay the portage and rent. Similarly, Rav Moshe rules that in the Case of the Vanishing Importer, the distributor may sell some of the importer’s goods to pay the moving costs and rent a different warehouse.

The Pischei Choshen (Hilchos Pikadon:7:ftn6) disagrees with Rav Moshe, contending that instead of selling some of the merchandise to rent storage space, one should sell all of the merchandise and hold the money for the importer’s return. (Certain other details must be followed in carrying out this sale.) Both approaches assume that one may not sell the importer’s merchandise if the distributor has available storage space, but dispute which approach is better if the distributor has no available space. Even though the importer took unfair advantage, the distributor may not treat the importer’s possessions with disregard.

Rav Moshe’s dispute with the Pischei Choshen what to do with the importer’s goods hinges on which of the following two rulings applies in our case. In the Case of the Hapless Lady that we mentioned above, the Rambam rules that although Ms. Storage need not notify Mr. Wine, it is commendable (midas chasidus) for her to inform Beis Din that she will be removing his wine from her premises. The Beis Din then proceeds to sell some of the wine and thereby pay for the portage and storage. Rav Moshe explains that Ms. Storage may do this herself if she wants, but that if she does not want to bother, all she is required to do is to notify Beis Din that she will be removing the wine from her premises. If Mr. Wine cannot be located, either Beis Din or Ms. Storage may remove his wine to a secure warehouse, paying for the portage and storage from the merchandise.

The Pischei Choshen contends that one sells the merchandise to pay rent only when its owner knew he would be paying rent until he returns — therefore he has no major unexpected loss from using an alternative warehouse. However, this is qualitatively different from the Vanishing Importer who may not have realized that he would be paying rent. The Pischei Choshen therefore compares the Case of the Vanishing Importer to a different Talmudic discussion where a shomer is responsible for produce whose owner is unaware that it has begun to spoil. In this case, since the owner will suffer from an unexpected major loss, the shomer sells the items under the supervision of a Beis Din to try salvaging whatever he can, and then the shomer holds the money for the owner until his return (Bava Metzia 38a). (The halacha is that the shomer may borrow the money, obviously interest free, until the owner returns [Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 292:19].)

The Pischei Choshen contends that since the distributor is not obligated to store the importer’s items at a loss, and there is no place to store them for free, we are left with two possible courses of action, one of which we will eliminate:

1. Rent a storage facility paid for by gradually selling the merchandise. This will eventually erode the remaining value.

2. Sell the merchandise, thus recouping some value for the importer.

Since we cannot contact the importer, or know when he will return, the Pischei Choshen elects the second option as the correct halachic approach.

In Dovid’s original case, Yonasan had asked him to store his items for a few months, a timetable that passed several years ago. Thus, one can compare his predicament to the case of the Vanishing Importer, which would allow Dovid to follow one of the suggested procedures to save Yonasan from a loss: either to sell some of the property and thereby rent storage space (Rav Moshe’s approach), or to sell it all and hold the money (Pischei Choshen’s approach).

However, this is true only if the loss Yonasan would suffer is because Dovid must have the space available for some other purpose. If Dovid is simply annoyed by the cluttered basement, he has no halachic basis with which to remove Yonasan’s property.

Another complication usually occurs in these situations: If Dovid did not specify the length of time he is lending use of his premises, he is presumably still the shomer of Yonasan’s property and is still liable for any negligence, and certainly would be liable if he damaged the property. This is qualitatively different from the Case of Hapless Lady and the Case of the Vanishing Importer, where the homeowner is not a shomer.

The Pischei Choshen (Hilchos Pikadon:7:ftn5) asks whether in a case like this Dovid is required to be a shomer forever.

I attempted to find a source that would relieve Dovid of his responsibilities in this very common case. I have thus far been unsuccessful. The closest parallel I have found is the following case:

Yehudah agreed to be a shomer on someone’s property; now he wants to leave town and cannot take the item with him. What does he do? The Rambam (Hilchos She’eilah 7:12) rules that agreeing to watch an item does not make you a prisoner in your home; you have a right to leave. What does Yehudah do? He brings the item to Beis Din which then assigns it to the care of a reputable person.

However, this ruling is applicable only if the shomer wants to leave town and can no longer supervise the item. I have found no other halachic source that discusses how one can terminate one’s shmirah of an item when the shomer remains in town, and the owner is unaware that one wants to terminate responsibility.

THE CASE OF THE CARRY-ON LUGGAGE

This leads us to the following shaylah. What is the halacha in the following situation? At the airport gate, you agree to watch someone’s carry-on bag so he can use the comfort facilities. Forty-five minutes later, your plane is boarding, and the bag owner has not reappeared. Must I miss my flight because I agreed to watch his bag? What do I do with the bag?

In this carry-on case, I think one can assume that when someone asks me to watch an item at an airport gate, he knows that I can watch the item for only a brief period of time. If one needs to leave and the bag owner has not returned, I would recommend alerting airport personnel and letting them decide what to do, and at the same time leaving a note where you were sitting. Abandoning the bag will probably cause it to be stolen or impounded and destroyed by airport security, and I suspect that airport Lost and Found is also not a good alternative.

By now, I think we have become convinced of the necessity for clarifying our responsibilities in advance when someone asks us to watch their item or leave something at our house. Of course, realizing the complications that may result should not cause us to reconsider doing chesed for people; simply, we should be certain to do it in such a way that we do not create unnecessary entanglements.

What Are the Basic Rules of the Jewish Calendar?

clip_image002

 

Thirty Days has September, April, June, November, Tishrei, Shvat, Nissan, Sivan, Av and sometimes Cheshvan[1] and Kislev. Yet a reading of Mishnah Rosh Hashanah implies that whether a month has 29 days or 30 depends on when the witnesses saw the new moon and testified in Beis Din early enough to declare the thirtieth day Rosh Chodesh. In addition, the Gemara[2] notes that Elul could be thirty days long, something that cannot happen in our calendar. How did our empirical calendar become so rigid and predictable in advance? Come with me as we explore the history and foundations of the Jewish calendar!

The Torah (Shemos 12:2) commands the main Beis Din of the Jewish people, or a Beis Din specially appointed by them, to declare Rosh Chodesh upon accepting the testimony of witnesses who observed the new moon (Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 1:1, 7; 5:1). The purpose of having eyewitnesses was not to notify the Beis Din of its occurrence; the Beis Din had extensive knowledge of astronomy and already knew exactly when and where the new moon would appear and what size and shape it would have (Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 2:4; Ritva on the Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 18a). The moon’s location and speed is constantly influenced by many factors, but the wise scholars of the tribe of Yissachar calculated where and when it would appear.

The Molad

As the moon orbits earth, we on earth observe it as passing through its various phases, from the very smallest crescent until full moon, and then shrinking until it disappears completely. This monthly cycle occurs because the moon has no light of its own, and only reflects sunlight back to earth. As the moon travels around the earth, the angle at which it reflects light changes. This evidences itself in the moon’s changing phases. When the moon is on the side of the earth away from the sun, we see the full moon, because it is now at an angle whereby the entire side is reflecting light to us. However, when the moon is on the side of earth nearest the sun, we see no reflection of its light at all, and that is the point of every month when the moon disappears from earthly view. The molad is the point at which the moon crosses the plane between the earth and the sun, which means it is the beginning of a new cycle, called in English the new moon and in technical jargon the point of conjunction.

From the time of the actual molad you can calculate when the moon will become visible. Chazal always kept secret how one can predict when the new moon was to appear so as to avoid false witnesses abusing the knowledge of this information (Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh, 11:4).

The purpose of having eyewitnesses was not to notify the Beis Din of its occurrence; rather, the Torah required the Beis Din to wait for witnesses to determine whether the 30th day (of the previous month) would be the last day of the old month or the first day of a new month. If no witnesses to the new moon testified on the 30th day, then the new month does not begin until the 31st day, regardless of the astronomic calculations (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 24a). Thus, prior to the establishment of our current “permanent” calendar, any month could be either 29 or 30 days, dependent on when the new moon appeared and whether witnesses arrived in Beis Din to testify about this phenomenon.

By the way, we should be aware that the above description follows the opinion of the Rambam, that the preferred and original mitzvah is to declare Rosh Chodesh based on the testimony of witnesses. However, there are several early authorities, including Rav Saadyah Gaon and Rabbeinu Chananel, who hold that the primary mitzvah is to declare Rosh Chodesh on the basis of the calculations, and that use of witnesses was implemented because of certain circumstantial issues.

According to either approach, the calendar printers could not go to press until the Beis Din had declared Rosh Chodesh, which probably explains why calendar manufacture in those times was a difficult business in which to turn a profit. Perhaps this is why organizations mailed out so few fundraising calendars in the days of Chazal!

There is another commandment of the Torah – that Pesach must always occur in the Spring (Devarim 16:1). This seemingly innocuous obligation actually requires considerable manipulation of the calendar, since the months, derived from the word moon, are determined by the length of time from one new moon to the next, which is a bit more than 29 1/2 days. However, the year and its seasons are determined by the relative location of the sun to the earth, which is a bit less than 365 1/4 days. By requiring Pesach to always be in the spring, the Torah required that the calendar could not be exclusively twelve lunar months, since this would result in Pesach wandering its way through the solar year and occurring in all seasons.[3]

Among contemporary calendars, most make no attempt to accommodate the solar year and the lunar month. What we refer to as the common secular calendar, or the Gregorian calendar, is completely based on the sun. Although the year is broken into months, the use of the word “months” is borrowed from its original meaning and has been significantly changed since the months have no relationship to any cycle of the moon. Most of the secular months have 31 days, while the lunar cycle is only about 29 1/2 days, and even those secular months that have 30 days do not relate to any phase or change in the moon. Similarly, the length of February as a month of either 28 or 29 days has nothing to do with the moon. Thus, although the word month should correspond to the moon, the Western calendar is purely a solar one, with a borrowed unit “month” given a meaning that distorts its origins.

The Moslem calendar is purely a lunar calendar of twelve lunar months, some 29 days and some 30, but has no relationship to the solar year. In truth, a pure lunar calendar has no real “year,” since a year is based on the relative locations of the sun and the earth and the resultant seasons, and the Moslem year completely ignores seasons. The word “year” is used in the Moslem sense only as a basis for counting longer periods of time, but has no relationship to the sun. Thus the Moslem “year” is only 354 or 355 days long — almost 11 days shorter than a true solar year. Therefore, a Moslem who tells you that he is 65 years old is really closer to 63 according to a solar year count. He has counted 65 years that are at least ten days shorter. I trust that Guinness takes these factors into account when computing longevity, and insurance companies realize this when calculating actuarial tables.

To review: the Moslem calendar accurately tracks the moon and the months, but has no relationship to a true year, and the Western secular calendar is fairly accurate at tracking the year and its seasons, but has no relationship to the moon and its phases.

It is noteworthy that although the Moslem “year” does not correspond at all to a solar or western year, it closely corresponds to our Jewish year in a “common” year which is only twelve months long, and the Moslem month follows closely the Jewish calendar month. (We will soon explain why there is sometimes a discrepancy of a day or two.) Thus, for three years recently, Ramadan, the Moslem holy month, corresponded to our month of Elul, although this year Ramadan falls in Av. It is accurate to say that the Moslem year “wanders” its way through the seasons as it takes 33 years until a specific month returns to the same corresponding time in the solar year, and in the interim the month has visited each of the other seasons for several consecutive years. Thus, Ramadan will not coincide with Elul again this generation, but falls in Av for three years, with Tamuz for two years, and then with Sivan, etc.

However, when Hashem commanded us to create a calendar, He insisted that we use the moon to define the months, and yet also keep our months in sync with the seasons, which are dependent on the sun; to determine the dates of the Yomim Tovim. The only way to do this is to use the Jewish calendar method of occasionally adding months – thereby creating 13 month years, which we call “leap years,” to offset the almost 11 day difference between twelve lunar months and a solar year. The result of this calendar is that although each date does not fall exactly on the same “solar date” every year, it falls within a fairly close range relative to the solar year.

Who determined which year has thirteen months?

The original system was that the main Beis Din (also known as the Sanhedrin) appointed a smaller special Beis Din to determine whether the year should have an extra month added. This special Beis Din took into consideration:

1) Astronomical data, such as: When Pesach will fall out relative to the vernal equinox (the Spring day on which day and night are closest to being equal in length).

2) Agricultural data, such as: How ripe is the barley? How large are the newborn lambs and pigeons?

3) Weather: Is the rainy season drawing to a close? Is it a famine year?

4) Convenience – or more specifically, the halachic inconvenience of creating a leap year: Shemittah was never made into a leap year, and the year before shemittah usually was.

5) Infrastructure, such as: In what condition were the highways and bridges.

All of these points influenced whether the thirteenth month, the extra Adar, would be added.[4] When this system was in place, which was from the time of Moshe and Yehoshua until almost three hundred years after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the main Beis Din sent written messages notifying outlying communities of the decision to create a leap year and the reasons for their decision.[5]

By the way, after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the main Beis Din was not located in Yerushalayim, but wherever the Nasi of the Jewish people resided, as long as it was in Eretz Yisrael. This included several other communities at various times of Jewish history, including Teverya, Yavneh, and Shafraam.[6] Indeed, during this period sometimes the special Beis Din met outside the land of Israel — should the head of the Beis Din be in the Diaspora and there be no one of his stature remaining in Eretz Yisrael.[7]

This explains how the calendar is intended to be calculated.  Why and how our current calendar came to be will be discussed in a future article.


[1] Although the correct name of the month is Marcheshvan, we will follow the colloquial use of calling it Cheshvan.

[2] Rosh Hashanah 19b, 20a

[3] Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 4:1

[4] Sanhedrin 11a- 12a

[5] Sanhedrin 11b; Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 4:17

[6] Rosh Hashanah 31b

[7] Berachos 63a; Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 1:8

When There Is a Will, the Relatives May Complain

Yonasan, who was originally adopted by non-observant parents, called me with the following shaylah:

“My parents, meaning the couple who adopted me, eventually divorced, and later my father remarried, although there was a halachic problem with his second marriage. My adoptive father was a kohen, and his second wife, Martha, was a divorcee. Recently, my father passed away. My father’s final will, which was drafted when he was ill and very dependent on Martha, was completely different from his previous will, and left virtually all his property to her. Uncle Jack, my adoptive father’s brother, is very upset about the will, believing that this was certainly not my father’s intention, and that it can be overturned in court. This would make me the legal heir to my father’s estate, although halachically, I am not his son. Uncle Jack wants to file a lawsuit over the matter; however, he has no legal recourse to do so, since the civil law does not consider him my father’s heir. May I file a lawsuit to overturn the will?”

This shaylah is indeed as complicated halachically as it sounds, and actually involves three different areas of halacha:

I. Who is the heir?

II. What is the halachic status of a will?

III. May one file the lawsuit in secular court?

In addition, there is a fourth halachic issue that must be addressed, a question of yibum, which I will discuss later.

I will explain each area of halacha mentioned above in order to explain the procedure that I suggested that Yonasan follow.

I. Who is the heir?

Although civil law considers Yonasan the child of his adoptive parents for all matters, including his being their legal heir, the adoption did not make him their biological son. Indeed, the Gemara states that someone who raises a child is considered as if he had given birth to him;[1] however, the adopted child does not inherit, unless he receives the property as some form of gift, as I will explain.

Thus, although Yonasan is his father’s legal heir (from a civil law perspective, if we ignore the will), halacha does not consider him an heir automatically, unless his father gave him the property in a halachically correct will. Since the existing will made other accommodations, Yonasan receives nothing from his father’s estate halachically, neither as an automatic heir nor as the receiver of gifts through his father’s will. Thus, Yonasan cannot make a financial claim against his stepmother for his father’s estate, since it does not belong to him. If the will is valid, then the property belongs to Martha, his stepmother. If the will is invalid, the property belongs to Uncle Jack.

Why Uncle Jack?

If a man dies without biological children and makes no halachic provisions for his estate, then his closest heir is his father, who, in this case, is already deceased. The next closest relative is any surviving brother. In this case, there is one biological brother of the deceased, Uncle Jack. Thus, he is the halachic heir of Yonasan’s father, and if indeed the will is halachically invalid, the property halachically belongs to him, although he may not be able to take possession of it according to civil law.

Halachically, a woman does not inherit from her husband as next of kin. Instead, the Torah gives her the rights of the kesubah, provides that she may live in her late husband’s house and guarantees her income and support from his property. Martha is entitled to these financial rights if she was halachically married to Yonasan’s father, even if the marriage fell into the category of a halachically prohibited marriage. (One method whereby Martha and Yonasan’s father could have been halachically married in a prohibited marriage would be if they had deceived an Orthodox rabbi, dishonestly getting his agreement to perform their ceremony. There are others.) Thus, if Martha proves that she was halachically married to Yonasan’s father, she will be entitled to this support, even though she was a divorcee and he was a kohen.[2]

II. Is the will valid?

According to civil law, a person has the right to choose his heirs and thereby to choose to whom he distributes his earthly wealth after passing on. However, according to the Torah, a person does not have the ability to choose his heirs, nor can he arrange to give away property after death. When a man dies, the Torah instructs us how to distribute his assets, through the laws of yerusha.

How can someone leave his property to his adopted child?

There are methods whereby one can transfer his property to his adopted child, or to anyone else, for that matter, who is not a halachic heir. One method is to draw up a will, and then make a kinyan that transfers possession of the bequeathed property to the beneficiary of the will. (I mention this method as a possible illustration, since it does not work in all situations.) This can be done in a way that the person wishing to bequeath his property maintains ownership over it in the meantime and leaves him the right to change his bequest later. Some poskim, albeit a minority, contend that a legally valid will alone constitutes a kinyan. These authorities reason that arranging a legally valid will, knowing that the government will transfer property as a result, is halachically equivalent to making a kinyan.[3] However, most poskim maintain that a standard civil will is not halachically valid.

Yonasan’s father was not observant and did not have his lawyer make the will halachically valid. (Unfortunately, many observant Jews do not attend to this important matter either. Just as it is important for a person to have a will drawn up, it is important to make sure that it is halachically valid.) Therefore, many poskim would consider Uncle Jack to be the halachic heir of the estate, yet he cannot file a civil suit concerning the property, since he is not an interested party according to civil law. But before we even get to this step in the discussion, we need to discuss whether the Torah permits Yonasan or Uncle Jack to sue in civil court.

III. Arka’os, the prohibition against filing a suit in a secular court.

A Jew may not litigate against a fellow Jew in civil court,[4] even if both parties agree.[5] This is known as the prohibition against using arka’os. Someone who uses court systems not sanctioned by the Torah performs a chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s Name, because he demonstrates that he feels that G-d’s Torah cannot resolve his financial matters.[6] In the words of the Rambam,[7] “Whoever has his case judged by non-Jewish laws or courts, even if their laws are the same (as the Torah), is a rasha. It is as if he blasphemed and raised his hand against the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu.”[8] Someone who brought litigation to a secular court is invalidated from being a chazzan for Yomim Nora’im.[9] In addition, he will probably transgress the violation of stealing (gezel), since the property he receives is not his according to halacha.

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

This problem is, unfortunately, neither uncommon nor recent, and apparently occurred even at the time of the Gemara.[10] If this happens, the halachically correct procedure is for the plaintiff to have beis din summon the defendant. If the defendant fails to appear in beis din or indicates that he will not appear, the beis din authorizes the plaintiff to sue in civil court.[11] Under these circumstances, the plaintiff has not violated the prohibition of going to arka’os, since he acted according to halacha.

(It should be noted that even if someone is authorized to sue in civil court, he is only entitled to receive what halacha entitles him. It could happen that the civil court awards him more money than he is entitled to according to halacha. Therefore, he should ask a posek after winning the litigation how much of the award he may keep. The balance he would be required to return to the other party.)

Applying these rules to our case means that Uncle Jack may file a suit in beis din against Martha. Although Uncle Jack would like Yonasan to sue in civil courts, Yonasan may not sue according to halacha for two different reasons:

(1) One may not sue in civil court without permission from beis din.

(2) Yonasan has no halachic grounds to claim his adopted father’s estate since he is halachically not an heir.

Does this mean that this was the end of the case?

No. Yonasan explained to Uncle Jack the halachic background to the shaylah. Uncle Jack feels strongly that Martha took unfair advantage of his ill brother, which is the reason why he and his attorney feel that the will can be easily overturned in civil court. Uncle Jack then asked Yonasan if there is any way that Yonasan could proceed with the claim.

Harsha’ah

Enter harsha’ah, which is the halachic equivalent of a power of attorney, into the picture. A harsha’ah allows someone who is not an interested party in the litigation to sue as if he is an interested party. In this instance, Uncle Jack, as the halachic heir, can authorize Yonasan by means of a harsha’ah to sue Martha in beis din. If Martha ignores the summons or indicates that she will not respond to it, the beis din authorizes Yonasan and Uncle Jack to pursue the matter in civil court. The court will not accept Uncle Jack as a plaintiff against the will, since they do not recognize him as the heir. Although the court does not recognize Uncle Jack’s claim, Yonasan may now sue in civil court, based on the beis din’s authorization. Halachically, the basis of the civil suit is to save Uncle Jack the money that is his, even though neither the civil court nor Uncle Jack himself accepts that the money is his.

At this point in the discussion, Yonasan e-mailed me a further question:

“Dear Rav Kaganoff,

“In the event that my uncle does choose, with permission from a beis din, to sue my father’s widow in civil court, *should* I or merely *may* I act on his behalf?”

Indeed, this is a difficult question. In general, saving someone’s money is a mitzvah, and therefore, if someone sued in beis din and was ignored, it is a mitzvah to help him save his money in civil court, providing that this approach was properly authorized by beis din. This act of chesed is included under the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, returning a lost object to its proper owner.

In our instance, I was less certain if this is considered hashavas aveidah, since Uncle Jack does not consider the money his and is only planning to give it to Yonasan. Is Yonasan required to assist in helping Uncle Jack claim the money, knowing that Uncle Jack will probably assume that it is Yonasan’s and give it to him? Furthermore, since there might be poskim who feel that the money is legitimately Martha’s, one could certainly rely on their opinions to rule that it is not a requirement for him to be involved in the litigation. Thus, there are two different considerations as to why he may not be considered “saving someone’s money”:

(1) Can you say that he is saving someone else’s money, when that person intends to give it to him?

(2) According to some opinions, the money may not be Uncle Jack’s, but Martha’s. Although he is permitted to follow the opinion that the money is Uncle Jack’s, is he required to?

Another consideration: Chalitzah

At this point in the discussion, I introduced a new topic to Yonasan, that of the mitzvah of chalitzah. This requires some explanation. If a man dies without having biological children, there is a mitzvah for his brother to perform a procedure called chalitzah, which permits the widow to remarry. In addition, the chalitzah is a tremendous tikun neshamah for the departed. The mitzvah applies even if the widow is no longer of child-bearing age, and even if the couple married after she was beyond child-bearing age.

Many people do not realize that, if a couple has adopted children, but no biological children, the mitzvah of chalitzah still applies. Since Yonasan’s father had no biological children, his widow (assuming that they were halachically married, as she claims) is a yevamah, who requires chalitzah from Yonasan’s uncle to permit her to remarry.

I quote my letter to Yonasan:

“If your father’s marriage to his last wife was halachically valid, then there is a requirement/mitzvah for your uncle to perform chalitzah,[12] even if your father’s widow has no intention of remarrying and is not observant.”

Yonasan replied:

“I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me.  Question, though — even if they did get married with chuppah and kiddushin, she was a grusha, and he a kohen, so the marriage was forbidden.  He claimed to have asked a rabbi, who permitted the marriage on the basis that since he was disabled, he would not be allowed to perform the avodah, even if the Beis HaMikdash was standing. I did not think this is correct [indeed it is not], but I didn’t see any point in making an issue of it.  Was he right?  Assuming that his marriage was halachically unacceptable. Would that in any way impact on chalitzah?”

To which I replied:

“There is absolutely no halachic basis to any of the reasons he told you to permit this marriage. I presume that he mentioned these reasons to relieve his own conscience, and that he never asked a shaylah; halachically, he was prohibited from marrying a divorcee.

“A halacha-abiding rabbi would not perform such a ceremony, unless he was unaware either that your father was a kohen or that his wife was a grusha. However, even if there had been no proper halachic ceremony, they might have been considered married according to halacha, particularly since they considered themselves married. Thus, although this marriage was forbidden, there may be a requirement to perform chalitzah. The mitzvah of chalitzah applies even in the case of a kohen who marries a divorcee.[13] Is there anyone where they live knowledgeable enough to arrange this for them?”

Yonasan responded to my inquiry:

“There are some very prominent talmidei chachomim living near where both my uncle and my stepmother live.  However, they live a considerable distance from one another. I doubt that the widow is aware of the need for a chalitzah; I also doubt that she’ll object to it if it’s made easy for her. My uncle is, however, totally irreligious. How would I get him to agree to it and to travel the distance involved? He is unlikely to drop everything and fly to where she is to perform what he would see as an unimportant religious ceremony to help out a woman with whom he is upset.  What if he were to appoint someone else as a shaliach over the phone?  Would that be acceptable?”

To which I responded,

“Unfortunately, chalitzah cannot be performed through shelichus (agency). It sounds as if the most likely way for this to happen is to wait until a time that you know that they will be near one another  and then plan carefully how to present it to them. Alternatively, simply mention to them that chalitzah is a big tikun neshamah for your father, whom they both liked (I presume), and ask if they can keep it in mind in future travel plans.

“By the way, the mitzvah is your uncle’s mitzvah to perform, not hers.”

As of this writing, I do not know if Yonasan decided to proceed with the litigation over the will, and I presume that no action has resulted concerning the chalitzah. However, this situation affords us the opportunity to discuss halachos with which many people are unfamiliar, and it provides a tremendous opportunity to make people aware of a number of different mitzvos.

It is important to realize that legal rights and responsibilities are never governed by secular law. A Torah Jew realizes that Hashem’s Torah is all-encompassing, and that halacha directs every aspect of one’s life. Thus, halacha governs all financial aspects of our lives, and one should be careful to ask shaylos about one’s business dealings.

Indeed, through this entire halachic conversation, I was exceedingly impressed by Yonasan’s ability not to be swayed by financial considerations, but to be certain that what he did would be the perfectly correct approach halachically. In fact, he was shortly thereafter awarded a tremendous financial windfall – no doubt, for his adherence to halacha, despite whatever financial temptation existed.


[1] Megillah 13a; Sanhedrin 19b

[2] Mishnah Kesubos 100b

[3] Shu’t Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer 1:104

[4] Gittin 88b

[5] Ramban, beginning of Parshas Mishpatim

[6] Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim #3

[7] Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:7

[8] See also Rashi’s comments on Shemos 21:1

[9] Mishnah Berurah 53:82

[10] Bava Kama 92b, as explained by Rosh

[11] Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 26:2

[12] Mishnah Yevamos 20a

[13] Mishnah Yevamos 20a