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.

HaRav Abba Berman zt”l, An Appreciation

This Shabbos is the ninth yahrzeit of Rav Abba Berman, zt”l. I decided to send the hesped that I wrote shortly after his passing.

Rav Abba Berman once explained that superficial learning is like watching the hands of a clock move around its dial. In-depth learning, which he felt is the goal of all learning, is like “opening the back of the watch to see what makes it tick.”

What did he mean by this mashal?

The goal of learning is to understand the ideas and concepts of Torah – in its totality, what its “parts” are, and how the parts integrate to produce the result. Rav Abba was vexed by those who gave over ideas without understanding the concepts thoroughly. He devoted himself and his shiurim to develop a deeper and broader understanding of Torah. His yeshiva and the seforim he wrote were called Iyun HaTalmud because that is exactly what his goal was; one must strive to understand why the concepts and ideas of Torah are what they are. Even a gezeiras hakasuv, a Torah decree, must be understood, according to Rav Abba, – what exactly is the concept that the Torah is introducing to us, how does it work, and what are its ramifications.

In his own words, his shiurim tried to define the mechanism of how Torah concepts work, to understand what “makes the din tick.”

In the words of a close talmid, “Two people look at and appreciate a beautiful flower. Although both of them appreciate the beauty, one of them may be able to appreciate the subtleties, intricacies and complexities of the flower, compare it to other species and varieties, and savor the subtleties of its fragrance. So, too, Rav Abba taught how to be a Torah connoisseur – how to appreciate the depth and breadth of Torah, how to understand its beauty and ramifications in greater and greater ways.”

With this introduction, we can begin to appreciate the greatness of HaRav Abba Berman zt”l.

AS A YOUTH

He was born on Tu B’Shvat 5679 (January 16, 1919) in Lodz where his father, Rav Shaul Yosef Berman, a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, was Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Chesed. Rav Abba’s rebbe was his father, whose influence lasted for the rest of his life.

Without any question, Rav Abba was a child prodigy, yet I hesitate to tell the astounding story of his meeting as a six-year-old with the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim tested the young child on all of Perek HaMafkid in Gemara Bava Metzia and then gave him a bracha and some advice to his father. However, in a way it is a disservice to relate this story because one might assume that Rav Abba was too brilliant a genius for us to learn from. This was the exactly the opposite of what Rav Abba desired in life, which was to teach people to toil attentively and honestly over a sugya of Gemara with common sense, constantly delving into a deeper understanding of the subject.

At the age of 14 he left Lodz to attend the Mir Yeshiva in Poland. He developed a close relationship with the mashgiach, Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l, possibly the greatest mussar personality of his generation. Although Rav Yerucham passed away when Rav Abba was only 17, he always considered himself a talmid of Rav Yerucham, whose worldview he absorbed.

SHANGHAI AND CHIDDUSHEI RABBEINU CHAIM

During the war years, Rav Abba was part of the Mir Yeshiva exile in Shanghai. Although he grew tremendously in learning during his years in Shanghai, those years took a tremendous toll on his health, which affected him the rest of his life. He had prodigious achievements in learning and teaching Torah despite the fact that he always suffered from medical problems that needed constant attention.

In Shanghai, he began developing his distinctive derech halimud (approach to learning). There he became absorbed with the sefer Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim HaLevi of Rav Chaim Brisker. Rav Abba drew upon and developed concepts from Rav Chaim and incorporated them into his understanding of the Gemara and Rishonim.

It was known in Shanghai that if you did not understand something in the works of Rav Chaim Brisker, the address to seek was Rav Abba Berman, then known as “Abba Lodzer,” after his birthplace, as was common in that era. In Shanghai he developed into one of the Gedolei Yisroel.

Due to his own profundity, his diligence, and his application, Rav Abba often recognized deeper concepts in the writings of Rav Chaim than others did. He considered himself a disciple of Rav Chaim, because studying Rav Chaim’s sefer deepened his own understanding of the concepts of Shas. One might say that the entire publication of the Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim was worthwhile just to make it available to Rav Abba Berman.

ROSH YESHIVA

After the war, Rav Abba joined the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, married, and gave chaburahs and said shiurim there. After giving shiurim in Kaminetz and other yeshivos, he then opened his own yeshiva, Iyun HaTalmud, first in Brooklyn, then in Bnei Brak, Far Rockaway, and later in Monsey. In Elul 5739/1979 he moved the Yeshiva back to Eretz Yisroel, to Yerushalayim. Later he moved it to Kiryat Sefer. Although he was offered positions in many yeshivos over the years, he preferred (until his last years) having his own yeshiva where he could alone decide what, how, and where to teach.

He once told a talmid that he had considered naming the Yeshiva “Yeshivas VeHa’er Eineinu B’Sorasecha,” “Open our eyes in Your Torah,” which describes our goal to appreciate Hashem’s Torah in deeper and deeper levels. However, because the name was a bit long, he decided instead to name the Yeshiva “Iyun HaTalmud,” which emphasizes the method — appreciating Hashem’s Torah by utilizing our own efforts to delve into it deeper and deeper. His view was that man accomplishes his greatest purpose on Earth and fulfills ratzon Hashem by learning the concepts of Shas as deeply as he can.

A seasoned talmid chacham who came to study under Rav Abba found that it took him several years until he could understand Rav Abba’s profound shiur. However, during the same period of time he would regularly attend the chazarah shiur, which reviewed Rav Abba’s shiur in a simplified way, but for years he could not see what the chazarah shiur had to do with the shiur he had heard earlier in the day from the Rosh Yeshiva. After many years of hearing Rav Abba’s shiur, and as the depth of his own learning developed immeasurably, he began to understand Rav Abba’s shiur. After several more years, this talmid chacham began to give the chazarah shiur, although he relates that it took him approximately six hours to review Rav Abba’s 1¼ hour-long shiur until he felt ready to repeat the shiur! Yet he felt the investment of most of his day extremely worthwhile because that was how he achieved proper understanding of Torah.

A talmid once spent the month of Elul studying in Rav Abba’s yeshiva, but he missed the bekiyus (breadth of Torah knowledge) style of his previous yeshiva. He went to discuss the matter with Rav Nochum Pertzovitz, Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir, who advised him to remain learning in Rav Abba’s yeshiva, saying “What could be greater bekiyus than mastering the basic understanding of Bava Kamma.”

(One should not get the impression that Rav Abba was opposed to bekiyus. Quite the contrary, he himself reviewed Shas and Rishonim until most of it was in front of his eyes. However, Rav Abba viewed bekiyus as the foundation with which to understand Amkus HaTorah, the deep true understanding of Torah, which was his passion.)

To Rav Abba, all of Torah is one contiguous whole. It was anathema to develop an idea that was inconsistent with a principle elsewhere. Quite the contrary, a concept that elucidates one part of Shas might clarify a seemingly unrelated subject. In so doing, he developed his own nomenclature and his own system of understanding.

Rav Abba was a master of saying things punctiliously and was extremely careful in his choice of words when he gave a shiur. He only included a line of logic in a shiur if he was convinced that it was completely accurate. He once remarked to a talmid that he would think through a svara 30 or 40 times before saying it over in a shiur.

Rav Abba used the late commentaries and the published shiurim of the Roshei Yeshiva judiciously. Sometimes he began with their concepts and then developed the idea into a brilliant analysis of the concepts. At other times, he would spare no words in pointing out that he felt the true understanding of the sugya lay elsewhere.

GOALS OF LEARNING

It was not Rav Abba’s goal to have talmidim memorize his shiur; he wanted them to absorb his approach at analyzing the Gemara to its deepest concept.

In the week after his passing, two talmidim were discussing a shiur that one had delivered in the Yeshiva where he is currently a Rav. The Rav mentioned that he had given a shiur based substantially on a shiur printed in one of Rav Abba’s seforim, then added, “Assuming I understood the Rosh Yeshiva correctly.” The other talmid replied, “Either you told over Rav Abba’s Torah, or you explained what you thought is the correct understanding of the sugya. The latter is what Rav Abba wanted even more, and is a greater achievement of his goal.”

Rav Abba did not tolerate lazy thinking. One must fully understand what one says. A talmid chacham interested in joining Kollel Iyun HaTalmud told Rav Abba a shiur that he had delivered in his previous kollel. Rav Abba heard his shiur and then responded, “If you would learn by me, you would never talk like this.” The kollel scholar was baffled by the response, because the shiur had been well received in his previous kollel. He requested to share with Rav Abba a different shiur he had delivered and received the same response.

Ultimately, Rav Abba accepted this talmid chacham into his kollel. Years later, when he told me the story, he explained, “I thought that I understood what I was saying. But when I began to study under Rav Abba, I realized that this man REALLY knows what he’s talking about – and that I had been totally superficial in my understanding without realizing it. I may not understand him, but I know that he knows what he is talking about. After years of studying under Rav Abba I realized that my whole thought process had changed. Rav Abba taught me how to truly understand what I was learning.”

His talmidim usually spent many years studying in his yeshiva. His yeshiva was always small, but it included a very impressive group of top talmidim, who today are accomplished roshei yeshiva, roshei kollel, magiddei shiur, and dayanim.

HIS IMMERSION IN LEARNING

To say that Rav Abba was a tremendous masmid is not sufficient. It is more appropriate to say that he was totally immersed in learning and that he constantly applied himself to delve deeper and deeper into understanding Shas. He thought in learning constantly — his lips were constantly moving. Presumably, he was constantly thinking of a deeper way to understand the sugya that he was learning at the moment.

MUSSAR

Rav Abba was a true talmid of the mashgiach, Rav Yerucham zt”l, and delved into hashkafah subjects with the same enthusiasm and analysis that he studied halacha and lomdus. He taught how to be deep in one’s hashkafah and how to intensify one’s avodas Hashem. For many years he gave chaburos on emunah, hashkafah, and philosophical subjects on Shabbos afternoon. In his younger years, he also gave mussar schmoozen in the Yeshiva. His schmoozen were not fire and brimstone, but shiurim on deep machshavah. He would devote a series of schmoozen to developing one’s thoughts on a specific topic.

He was also readily available and accessible to his talmidim to discuss any topic at all. Although his own world was totally devoted to understanding Shas better, he was a big pikeach in understanding people.

HIS SEFORIM

Five volumes of Rav Abba’s shiurim were published in his lifetime, under the titles Shiurei Moreinu HaGaon Rabbi Abba Berman or Shiurei Iyun HaTalmud. Technically the seforim were authored by his talmidim based on notes and tapes of his weekly shiur klali, but I was told that Rav Abba reviewed the shiurim before publication. This does not include the “blatt shiurim” that he gave, nor is it more than a fraction of the shiurei klali that he delivered, and certainly does not include notes on other parts of Shas. Hopefully, we will be zocheh to see the publication of many more volumes of his shiurim.

One of the five volumes is unique. Although all of his years as Rosh Yeshiva he gave shiurim only on Nashim and Nezikin, his personal favorite seder was Kodashim. At one time, a chaburah of advanced talmidim in his kollel learned Kodashim, and then he gave chaburos to them on Mesechta Zevachim. One volume of his published chiddushim is taken from these shiurim.

HIS FAMILY

Rav Abba and his Rebbitzen, tichyeh, created a European-type home in the United States at a time when the prevailing environment, even among frum Torah Jews, was highly permissive. His daughters were taught to stand up for him as is correct according to halacha. They were taught to plan their schedules so as not to disturb his learning. They absorbed none of the liberal attitude towards Yiddishkeit of the “frum” world around them — and this is manifest in their own highly notable achievements.

Rav Abba had six daughters. In a humorous moment, Rav Abba once quipped to a talmid, “You get to choose your sons-in-law but not your sons.” His six sons-in-law are all tremendous talmidei chachomim, marbitzei Torah, magiddei shiur and roshei yeshiva in yeshivos in America and Eretz Yisroel. His daughters are all n’shei chayil, well-recognized and respected as top mechanchos.

Essentials of Tochachah

Question #1: Cross-gender Tochachah

“The Mishnah states that a man should not converse unnecessarily with a woman. At my workplace, there is a girl who is ostensibly observant, but I see inconsistencies in her observance level. Am I supposed to try to help her become more committed?”

Question #2: Ignored Admonition

“Is there a mitzvah to admonish someone when I know that he will ignore me?”

Question #3: Admonisher or Enemy?

“I know that there is a mitzvah to be mochiach, but I am always concerned that I will make these people into my enemies. Should I be concerned?”

Answer:

In this week’s parshah, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, by saying the immortal words, ani Yosef, ha’od avi chai? “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” According to many commentaries (Ha’amek Davar, based on Chagigah 4b), Yosef intended these words as admonition, tochachah, to his brothers: Why are you suddenly concerned about how your father will react to Binyomin’s disappearance, when you were not concerned how he would react to my disappearance?[1] This provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the laws of tochachah, the requirement to reprove someone for misbehavior, a frequently misunderstood mitzvah.

The underlying principle of tochachah is the realization that fulfilling Hashem’s mitzvos is not merely an individual pursuit – it is a responsibility that I share with all of Klal Yisroel (see Sefer Hamitzvos #205). In explaining the reason for the mitzvah of tochachah, the Shaarei Teshuvah (3:19) notes that a devoted servant or employee performs his own work diligently and also tries to see that his co-workers do their jobs conscientiously. We are all members of the same people and share a common, collective mission.

The mitzvah of tochachah applies whether the sin perpetrated is between man and his fellowman or whether it is between man and Hashem (Sefer Hachinuch #239). Furthermore, the mitzvah applies equally to men and women – both have a requirement to be mochiach, and both should be admonished when they violate the Torah (Sefer Hachinuch #239). In addition, tochachah is a mitzvah that one should fulfill cross-gender; that is, a man is required to be mochiach a woman, and a woman is required to be mochichah a man. We can demonstrate this principle through the following passage:

Eili and Channah

The pasuk describes how Channah went to Shiloh, the location of the Mishkan, at the time the primary religious headquarters of the Jewish people, and prayed to Hashem that she merit conceiving and bearing a child. She prayed at great length to Hashem, and Eili was watching her mouth. Channah spoke in an undertone, with only her lips moving but her voice inaudible, and Eili thought that she was intoxicated. So, Eili told her, “For how long will you continue to be intoxicated? Remove your wine from yourself!” Channah responded, saying, “No, my lord, I am a woman who is greatly distressed. Wine and other intoxicating beverages I have not imbibed. I am pouring out my soul before Hashem (Shmuel I, 1:12-15).

Based on Eili’s reproof of Channah, the Gemara derives that the mitzvah of tochachah includes not only admonishing someone for sinning, but even for inappropriate behavior that is not sinful (Brachos 31b, as explained by Tosafos ad loc.) After all, Eili was admonishing her not for doing something specifically sinful, but for behaving in an inappropriate manner.

The cardinal rule of tochachah

The most basic rule of tochachah is that the mochiach, the person who is reproving, must truly care for the offender. Being sincerely concerned about the other person’s welfare is a condition which must be met, if the reproof is to be successful. Thus, tochachah is an extension of Ahavas Yisroel, loving our fellow Jew. The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 6:7) writes that the mochiach should explain that he is helping the offender earn a greater share in olam haba. To quote him: “One who sees his friend sinning or following a lifestyle that is not good has a mitzvah to influence him to return to the proper way and to inform him that he is harming himself… The one who rebukes must do so privately, with a pleasant manner and a soft voice.”

So, how do I influence someone if I do not love him? The answer is that I am required to teach myself to love him, both to observe the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel and in order to fulfill the mitzvah of tochachah.

That tochachah must be performed in a pleasant manner is again borne out in the following Talmudic passage: the Mishnah (Shabbos 34a) rules that shortly before Shabbos begins, a man is required to ask his family members whether all maasros and challah portions have been separated and whether the eruv has been set up. He then instructs them to kindle the lights in honor of Shabbos. The Gemara makes a point of noting that one should say all these things in a soft voice. These instructions are, in a way, very similar to admonishing one’s family members.

One size does not fit all

Prior to admonishing someone, the mochiach should analyze carefully what will be the most effective way to influence the offender. The tochachah should be tailor-made to the person receiving it and presented in a way that it is most likely to influence him or her to change. One should use stories, parables, and/or logical proofs, depending on what will speak most convincingly to the heart of the person one seeks to persuade (Sefer Chassidim #5).

Example:

Yitzchak is aware that he is required to influence his next-door neighbor, Benny, to be more observant. Yitzchak realizes that, to draw Benny closer to mitzvos, Yitzchak must sincerely care about him. Thus, Yitzchak’s first step is to truly care for Benny and to use every opportunity to develop a friendship. Once Benny feels that Yitzchak truly cares, he will be open to listening to what his friend has to say. At this point, Yitzchak can begin to explain the benefits Benny reaps by observing mitzvos carefully.

We can now understand the following, somewhat rhetorical, declaration of the Gemara: Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said: I would be astounded to learn that there is anyone in our generation who knows how to admonish” (Arachin 16b).

Notwithstanding this observation, the halachic authorities rule that there is still a mitzvah of tochachah, and that one is required to strive to observe it (see Le’reiacha Kamocha pg. 286, quoting numerous authorities).

It is axiomatic that admonishing someone should not embarrass him (Arachin 16b; Toras Kohanim to Parshas Kedoshim). The recipient of the tochachah must be taught that it is in his best interest to improve, something that cannot usually be accomplished in an antagonistic interaction.

On the other hand…

Whoever has the ability to protest the misdeeds of members of his household and fails to do so is accountable for what they have done. The same is true for someone who could protest the misdeeds of the residents of his city and even the entire world and fails to do so. Therefore, the household of the Exilarch (Reish Galusa) is accountable for the misdeeds of the entire world (Shabbos 54b). Similarly, the entire Jewish people were punished in the days of Yehoshua for the crime of one individual, Achan (Yehoshua 22:20). Again, we find that the Kohen Gadol was responsible for the entire Jewish people. If one man sins, the entire nation will be punished, because of their failure to reproach him (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:72).

However, someone who admonished the evildoer appropriately has fulfilled the mitzvah of tochachah and will not be punished for the sinner’s evil deeds (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:72; Sefer Chasidim #5). To quote the Navi, Yechezkel: Because you warned the evildoer to repent from his way, even though he did not repent – he will die for his sin, but you have saved your own life (Yechezkel 33:9).

Tochachah that will be ignored

However, the halachah is that when it is clear that a sinner will ignore any reprimand, one should not attempt to admonish him, as it says in Mishlei (9, 8): Do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he come to hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. As the Gemara expresses this idea: Just as it is a mitzvah to say something that will be heeded, so it is a mitzvah to refrain from saying that which will be disregarded (Yevamos 65b). In these instances, censure will cause the evildoer to sin more, rather than to do teshuvah, and, therefore, it must be avoided.

Who qualifies as a scoffer?

This question is discussed in a different passage of Gemara (Shabbos 55a), where we find the following conversation:

Rabbi Zeira said to Rabbi Simon: “The master should chastise the members of the Reish Galusa’s household.”

Rabbi Simon responded: “They will not listen to me.”

To this, Rabbi Zeira retorted: “Even if they will not listen, admonish them.”

Rabbi Zeira then quoted an Aggadic passage, in which a conversation transpired between Midas Hadin, the attribute of justice, and Hashem. At one point in this “conversation,” Midas Hadin challenged Hashem to punish the righteous for not protesting the evildoings of the wicked. Hashem answered: “I know for certain that even had the righteous protested, the wicked would not have listened.” To this, Midas Hadin retorted: “You knew that the wicked would not have listened. But how did the righteous people know?” And since the righteous had no way of knowing that the evil would not listen, they should be punished for not having attempted to influence them.

We can therefore conclude that only when it is absolutely certain that the sinner will not listen is there no mitzvah either to rebuke or to protest. However, as long as the possibility exists that the sinner might listen, one is required to rebuke him.

Mutav sheyihyu shogagin

There are other instances when one should not rebuke someone who is sinning. This is when one is certain that the sinner will not change after being admonished and, also, he may not know that the activity is forbidden (Sefer Chasidim #413). This halachic status is called Mutav sheyihyu shogagin ve’al yihyu meizidin, “Better that they sin out of ignorance than that they become intentional sinners” (Beitzah 30a; Bava Basra 60b). For brevity’s sake I will refer to this status as “mutav.”

In this situation, the tochachah will probably accomplish only that the person will now be sinning intentionally, instead of out of a lack of knowledge. Since the result of the reproach is not constructive, it should be avoided.

The law of mutav, better that they sin unintentionally than intentionally, is true even when the prohibition is quite clear and could easily be discovered by the sinner. In other words, the sinner is considered shogeig, uninformed that what he is doing is forbidden, only because he does not want to know the truth. For example, even when all halachic authorities discuss the matter and prohibit the activity, the sinner is still considered one who acted out of ignorance rather than with intent. One should avoid telling him of his error when one assesses that knowledge of the sin will not affect his behavior.

This background allows us to understand a passage of Gemara that otherwise seems extremely strange:

A person should always live in the place where his rebbe does, for as long as Shimi ben Geira [Shlomoh Hamelech’s rebbe] was alive, Shlomoh did not marry the daughter of Pharoah. [Rashi notes that the verse mentions Shlomoh marrying Pharoah’s daughter immediately after it mentions Shimi’s death, see Melachim I, 2:46 – 3:1.] However, there is a beraysa that says that one should not live in the place of his rebbe. [Thus, we have two halachic statements that seem to say diametrically opposite ideas.] These two statements do not disagree. One is discussing someone who listens to the rebuke of his rebbe and therefore being proximate to his rebbe will prevent him from sinning. The Beraysa is discussing someone who does not listen to his rebbe (Brachos 8a).

As Rashi explains, someone who does not listen to his rebbe is better living distant from his rebbe, so that he is considered negligent when he does not hear his rebbe’s admonition. This is less severe than someone who ignores the admonitions. The latter person will become an intentional sinner when he ignores his rebbe’s admonition. The rule of mutav applies notwithstanding his having moved a distance from his rebbe so as not to be reproached for this misdeed!

Probably won’t listen

Should one reproach an ill-doer when you know that he probably will not listen? The halachah of mutav applies only when one is certain that the offending party will not listen. When one thinks that he will probably not listen, but it is not certain, one is required to admonish the offender (Tosafos, Bava Basra 60b s.v. Mutav).

We will continue our discussion about the mitzvah of tochachah next week.


[1] For a halachic explanation of the sale of Yosef, see the chapter on this topic in my book From Buffalo Burgers to Monetary Mysteries.

Rav Lazer Shach – the Transmitter of Mesorah

Since Rav Shach’s yahrzeit is this coming Sunday, I am sending this article this week rather than our usual halachah article.

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

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

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

HIS FIRST YESHIVA – Ponevitz

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

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

Some dedicated youngsters ignored the financial security of apprenticeship and left home for yeshiva at a very young age. This usually meant going to the nearest large town or city where a prominent talmid chacham headed a yeshivah.

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

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

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

STORIES FROM PONEVITZ

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

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

Indeed, Rav Itzele and Rav Chayim Brisker were chavrusos (study partners) for many years shortly after their marriages (in the 1870’s). Rav Itzele was a disciples of Rav Chaim’s father, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichek, the Beis HaLevi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SLABODKA

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

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

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

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

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

The two yeshivos of Slabodka were in excellent rapport with one another,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAV ISSER ZALMAN AND RAV AARON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE CHOFETZ CHAYIM

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

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

ERETZ YISRAEL

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

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

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

AVI EZRI

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

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

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

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

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

A FEW VIGNETTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Legacy of Horav Shlomoh Wolbe

The seventh yahrzeit of Rav Shlomoh Wolbe, the most published mussar and hashkafah author of our generation, falls on the 17th of Nissan. I would like to share with our readers what I wrote at the time:

Rav Shlomoh Wolbe passed on to the yeshiva shel maalah during Chol HaMoed Pesach, leaving the following tzavaah:

“I request and command that I not be eulogized in any format whatsoever. Furthermore, I should not be described by any title or honor, not as a “gaon,” and not as a “tzadik,” not even by initials such as zt”l.”

In keeping with the Rav’s wishes, we are providing a brief sketch of his life, followed by a description of part of the rich legacy of writings he left behind, but we are omitting the appropriate hesped.

Born in Berlin shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Rav Wolbe’s early education was in Berlin, in the Frankfurt Yeshiva, and then in Rav Botchko’s yeshiva in Montreux, Switzerland. In the 1930’s, he decided to attend Yeshiva in Eastern Europe, spending several years in Mir, Poland, where he became a close talmid of the mashgiach Rav Yerucham Levovitz, and, after Rav Yerucham’s passing, of Rav Chatzkal Levenstein, his successor. Throughout Rav Wolbe’s life, he viewed himself as a talmid muvhak, a disciple, of Rav Yerucham, and as a transmitter of the mussar tradition that traces back to Rav Yisroel Salanter.

THE WAR YEARS

When the Soviet armies overran the town of Mir in the opening weeks of World War II, the Yeshiva fled to Lithuania. Rav Wolbe, who was a German national, was forced to separate from the Yeshiva and spent the war years in neutral Sweden. While in Sweden, Rav Wolbe lectured to the local Jewish population, in essence creating what was possibly the first kiruv rechokim program in the modern world. He and Rav Wolf Jacobson, the local Rav, became the Swedish contacts for the Vaad Hatzalah and also created a seminary for young women who had survived the inferno of Europe, usually without any surviving family members. During this period of his life, Rav Wolbe authored hashkafah seforim in both Swedish and German for outreach purposes.

After the war, Rav Wolbe moved to Petach Tikvah, Eretz Yisroel, where he married his rebbitzen, tichyi, who is a daughter of Rav Avraham Grodzinsky, Hy”d, the last mashgiach of Slobodka. Through his rebbitzen, Rav Wolbe was a nephew of HaRav Yaakov Kaminetzky, zt”l, and a brother-in-law of HaRav Chayim Kreiswurth, zt”l.

AS A MASHGIACH

In 5708\1948, Rav Wolbe joined Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, shlit”a, in opening the Yeshivah Gedolah of Be’er Yaakov. Rav Shapiro became the Rosh Yeshiva, and Rav Wolbe, mashgiach, a position he held for over 35 years. Later, he served as mashgiach in the Lakewood Yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel and he opened Yeshivas Givat Shaul. Rav Wolbe gave “mussar shmoozen,” “vaadin” (more informal lectures, usually to smaller groups), and lectures in many yeshivos and other public and private forums. He also created batei mussar, where he delivered shmoozen and vaadin to long-standing talmidim, seasoned talmidei chachomim who developed into great gedolim and mussar experts themselves.

Rav Wolbe published the substance of many of his lectures in several seforim on a wide variety of topics. In each volume, he wrote a forward explaining the purpose for that particular sefer and the place and context where he had delivered the original lectures, shmoozen, or vaadin. His name does not appear in any of his seforim.

DERECH HALIMUD- LEARNING STYLE

Rav Wolbe himself points out a key component to much of his teaching: “One must learn how to approach a statement of Chazal – to study the depths of its pshat and to experience it until the hidden light of Chazal’s statement illuminates you” (Alei Shur, pg. 9).

What did he mean? This sounds a bit like confusing rhetoric.

Often, the simple meaning of Chazal’s statement is unclear. Yet, if we review the statement over and over, suddenly we realize a deeper and truer understanding of what Chazal meant. At this point, the meaning of the statement illuminates us –whereas before, it had eluded us.

ALEI SHUR

Rav Wolbe published his first Hebrew work, Alei Shur, to provide today’s Yeshiva student with a basic guide to assist him to become a ben Torah. This book, which the author spent thirteen years writing and revising, clarifies the basic areas to concentrate working on in order for a person to ascend to higher levels in his personal service of Hashem. It swiftly became a classic and is a standard studied text.

Alei Shur defines a yeshiva as a place where one learns to live, not just to learn (pg. 31). Based on sources in Chazal, Rav Wolbe contends that learning Torah with bad midos such as hate, competition, or jealousy, is not considered learning Torah. Learning Torah must assist in the development of one’s midos, or it is without value.

In the same context, Rav Wolbe quotes the Rambam who notes that the word “chaver” carries two different meanings. It means a close friend, but it also means a talmid chacham (see Rambam, Peirush HaMishnayos, D’mai 2:3). This is because talmidei chachamim become the only true close friends, since their bond to others is based on their essence as giving people. Thus, someone intensely involved in learning Torah will be extremely careful that all interactions he has with people are pleasant.

WHY DO WE KEEP MITZVOS

Rav Wolbe points out the following anomalous problem that sometimes afflicts Torah Jews. Many people observe mitzvos because of habit – that is how they grew up – but not because they enjoy observing the mitzvos. If you ask them, “Why do you keep mitzvos?” their true answer is, “Because that’s how I was brought up.”

Rav Wolbe notes that this answer is equivalent to asking someone, “Why are you eating lunch?”, and he answers, “Because that’s how I was educated.” This answer is obviously ridiculous. We eat because we are hungry.

Similarly, we should be observing mitzvos because we are hungry for these mitzvos. Therefore, we should perform mitzvos with enthusiasm, because we enjoy them (Alei Shur, Pg. 51).

ALEI SHUR AS A GUIDE

Rav Wolbe felt a yeshiva bachur must develop expertise in four basic areas aside from the regular Gemara curriculum of the Yeshiva.

1. He must know the halacha that affects him. In Rav Wolbe’s interpretation, this means he should learn all of Mishnah Berurah.

2. He should know Chumash with Rashi and Ramban. This forms the basis for one’s hashkafah on Yiddishkeit.

3. He should know Pirkei Avos, with the commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah. Chazal gave us Mesechta Avos as a basic primer in midos, and Rabbeinu Yonah’s commentary on Avos is the best method for internalizing this primer.

4. He should be conversant in Mesilas Yesharim, which Rav Wolbe calls “the dictionary for midos.”

Rav Wolbe contends that one who devotes a small amount of his Yeshiva learning to each of these pursuits consistently will complete all four projects within four years.

This assumes, of course, that the person is highly organized. Rav Wolbe believed strongly in being structured. In his own words, “The greater the person is, the more organized is his life” (Alei Shur, Pg. 68).

TEFILLAH

In the Second Chapter of Alei Shur, Rav Wolbe discusses the importance of tefillah to a human being. “The ability to pray defines a human being. Animals also wage war, construct homes, and live social lives. But only mankind can relate to the Ribono shel Olam and daven” (Alei Shur, Pg. 27). Thus, someone who does not pray properly does not perform any daily activities different from an animal. Only one devoted to tefillah demonstrates the uniqueness of the human being.

“Each davening performed with understanding is a qualitatively different experience and has its own unique feeling and quality. It is indeed impossible that two tefillos should be identical — even though the words are identical. One can compare this to riding a train watching a beautiful landscape. Although the scenery may appear the same, the experience is different from moment to moment. At each moment, one sees the scenery from a different perspective.

Similarly, someone davening should constantly see himself and his relationship with Hashem from a different perspective — just as the traveler is looking at the scenery with a different, fresh perspective.”

UPS AND DOWNS

Alei Shur even addresses the emotional ups and downs of the typical yeshiva bachur.

Chapter 6 consists of a correspondence with a yeshiva bachur going through a difficult time, where he sees no success in his learning — he is not remembering what he learned, nor is he focusing enough to understand the shiur or the sugya.

Rav Wolbe points out that a person goes through cycles. There are times when one is not learning well, and one’s davening and midos also suffer. Rav Wolbe notes that the source of this difficulty is usually to be found in comparing oneself to others and coming up short. Instead, acknowledging one’s skills and qualities, and recognizing one’s shortcomings helps one realize that comparing one’s share in learning and avodas Hashem to another’s is counterproductive. Although I may not remember a sugya as well as others do — if I need to review it many times to retain it, I will have a much greater kinyan on the information than do those who absorb the information quickly. (Apparently, Rav Wolbe wrote thousands of such chizuk letters during his lifetime!)

Rav Wolbe focused on his talmidim’s needs, both individually and as a group. He directed his topic and the intensity of his delivery to his audience. One talmid related that he returned to Yeshiva Be’er Yaakov many years after he had studied there in the ‘50s and noted that Rav Wolbe’s shmooze was less intense. When he asked the mashgiach about this, Rav Wolbe answered: “You belong to a different generation. The generation born before the war received shmoozen that were very intensive experiences. Today’s generation cannot tolerate this type of shmooze.”

Yet, when Rav Wolbe published the second volume of “Alei Shur,” thirty years after the first, he notes that the style of the second volume is more intense — since the audience for these shmoozen were his older, more seasoned talmidim. Thus, there is a vast difference between Volume 1 of Alei Shur, which is general hadracha for a ben Torah, and volume 2, which reflects the result of “workshop vaadin” for developing elevated midos.

A talmid once asked Rav Wolbe how long it takes to prepare a shmooze. He answered: “It takes five years to learn how to give a schmooze, five years to learn how to give a vaad, and five years to learn how to talk to someone.”

This was indeed another facet to Rav Wolbe’s personality – the ability to empathize with the suffering of another. Someone bringing him a problem could see the intensity and anguish on his face as he identified with the questioner’s difficulty. Recently, someone related that he was unable to discuss a personal matter with Rav Wolbe because of the latter’s weak condition, and instead discussed the matter with one of Rav Wolbe’s talmidim. He described how he witnessed the same intensity and anguish on the talmid’s face that he was familiar with seeing on Rav Wolbe’s. Thus, Rav Wolbe has successfully trained a new generation of leaders of mussar for Klal Yisroel.

EDUCATING A GENERATION

Among his many works, Rav Wolbe authored two very important guidebooks, one which is now used everywhere to teach chassanim how to be good husbands, and the other, “Zeriya Ubinyan Bechinuch,” on the Torah’s fundamentals of childrearing. In both instances, the purpose of publishing the sefarim is to spread the principles that he taught to a larger audience.

Rav Wolbe noted that sometimes people think they are giving their children proper chinuch, but in reality just the opposite is happening.

He provides the following examples:

Insisting that a child remain at the Shabbos table when he is too young. In this instance, although the parents feel that this is important for the child’s chinuch, it is totally counter-productive to force a child to do what he is not ready for. The expectations for a child must always be appropriate to his age.

Parents who grew up in impoverished homes often raise their children by spoiling them- to “make up” for their own impoverished origins. However, this is counterproductive for the child’s needs.

Often parents say, or imply, that their child should achieve what the parents accomplished, or what the parents aspired to accomplish – even when this may not be within the child’s capabilities or inclinations. The parents may want their son to be a Rosh Yeshiva or at least to be involved in full-time learning, but the child’s personality is more appropriate to being an elementary school rebbe, an outreach professional, or a frum businessman!

The result is that the child never learns to serve Hashem in his own unique way. He is being forced to be what he cannot be, and therefore will not be successful at it — while at the same time, he is being hampered from developing to his own greatest potential. In the end, he ends up becoming a non-success.

Timing is everything in child-rearing. One should neither start too early nor wait until too late. Also, there must be a tremendous balance between too much involvement in the child’s growth and too little.

Rav Wolbe was opposed to hitting children, both by parents and by mechanchim. He had his own original way of explaining the passage from Mishlei “Chosech shivto soneh bno,” “One who withholds the rod, hates his child.” To fully appreciate Rav Wolbe’s explanation of this passage and his approach, I refer you to read what he writes himself. (The book is available in English translation.)

OUTREACH MANUALS

Possibly the most unusual of Rav Wolbe’s writings are his books “Bein Sheishes Le’asor,” and “Ohr LaShav” which are based on lectures he gave to non-observant audiences after the Six Day War.

During the Six Day War a new teshuvah movement began, as many secular people recognized the miracle of the war. Rav Wolbe asked a shaylah from Rav Chatzkal Levenstein, who was at the time the mashgiach in Yeshivas Ponevitz, whether he should become involved in outreach in addition to his other responsibilities. Rav Chatzkal ruled that whoever is capable of being involved in kiruv rechokim is obligated to do so, and that Rav Wolbe should be involved to the extent that it did not disturb his responsibilities in the yeshiva.

As a result, Rav Wolbe gave lectures on the basics of Jewish belief at army bases, in secular Kibbutzim, and to academic audiences. Rav Wolbe began his first lecture with these words, “You invited me to tell you about Judaism, and why the religious parties often create problems for the general public.” (Bear in mind that non-observant audiences in Israel are, unfortunately, often hostile to Torah and observant Jews.) Another lecture began, “Many ask, is it possible to change halacha to accommodate the modern world, and how can a modern world be run according to halacha?”

Notice that he was unafraid to deal with controversy and felt that he could convince his hostile audience of the beauty of Torah. As a well-known mechanech once told me “I doubt that there is a baal teshuvah today who is not influenced by his teachings.”

In these lectures, Rav Wolbe blended halacha and hashkafah in such a way that someone who was totally non-observant would be drawn to the beauty of Yiddishkeit, while, at the same time, someone halachically committed would suddenly gain new insights into his observance of mitzvos. A secondary purpose in publishing these lectures was to teach frum people how they could influence others and be mekareiv rechokim.

Rav Wolbe’s scientific knowledge of the world shows through in these lectures, as well as the importance he placed on being able to communicate the beauty of Torah in a sophisticated way. Indeed, a talmid told me that he once gave a vaad in the Yeshiva on the correct way to write a letter!

BECOMING A “BAR DAAS”

Personally, I have found one of Rav Wolbe’s smaller seforim to be even more powerful. A few years ago, he published a volume entitled “Pirkei Kinyan Daas,” “Chapters on Acquiring Daas.” (I have intentionally not translated the word “daas,” because I think translating it here defeats the purpose of Rav Wolbe’s work.) This book is based on seventeen lectures (shmoozen) given over a period of 40 years.

Rav Wolbe notes the following:

To grow as a Torah Jew, a person must have daas.

Most individuals do not have a natural sense of daas and need to be taught. Our generation is particularly short on daas. This can be demonstrated by the following:

1. The rampant problem today of lack of self-confidence, which he contends is a modern phenomenon.

2. People being frozen into indecision by their “feelings.”

3. Accepting certain realities that we should endeavor to change, while at the same time attempting to change things that we should accept.

4. Overreaction to frustration.

5. Lack of marital stability.

What is daas and how does one achieve it? This is the subject of the sefer, which is a “must read.” But then, all of Rav Wolbe’s writings are “Must Reads!”

Much of Rav Wolbe’s thought was never published, and we hope to see further dissemination of his machshava in the near future, so his works can impact a wider audience. Tehei Nafsho Tzerura Bitzror HaChayim. May he be a meilitz Yosher for Klal Yisroel, a People he truly loved, collectively and individually.

Life Insurance: To Buy or Not to Buy?

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

Question #1:

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

Question #2:

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

Question #3:

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

Answer:

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

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

I. Creating a Devil’s Advocate

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

II. In G-d We Trust

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

III. Succeeding in Divine Judgment

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

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

Issue #1 — Creating a Devil’s Advocate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a Dispute in the Mishnah?

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

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

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

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

Resolving the Dispute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will I eat tomorrow?

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

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

The Manna

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

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

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

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

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

Issue #3  — Succeeding in Divine Judgment

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


[1] Kesubos 8b

[2] Berachos 19a

[3] 239:7

[4] Menachos 41a

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

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

[7] Shu’t Rivash #114

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

[9] Berachos 60a

[10] Kiddushin 82a

[11] Eruvin 13b

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

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

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

[15] Shu’t Shevet HaLevi 4:1:2

[16] Kiddushin 41a

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

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

[19] Sotah 48b

[20] Yoma 76a

[21] Devarim 14:29

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

[23] Shu’t Kochavei Yitzchak 1:22

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

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