It’s easier to execute blessings than to represent a congregation

This might seem to be an odd topic to discuss but I will do so briefly as it comes up from time to time. The interested reader really should learn the laws in Orach Chaim 128 about a Cohen and Orach Chaim 53 about one who wishes to become a Chazan and lead the prayers.

A fundamental difference between the two is that the male who leads the prayers is a representative of the entire congregation. As such, if this is someone who is known to have sinned and has not repented faithfully then they should not be asked to lead the service. Of course, there is nobody who doesn’t sin. We are humans. The Halacha however focusses on someone who isn’t fit by virtue of them being known as doing the wrong thing when that “thing” is a more grave infraction. For example, someone who profanes Shabbos in public is not a person who we allow to be our chosen representative to lead the prayers. (I’m aware that there are Poskim who say that our generation is different and their breaking the Shabbos should not be seen as in the days of yore, however, this does not mean that we choose that person to lead the prayers!) There are many examples: someone who is married and is known to frequent other women is not permitted to lead the prayers; someone who has stolen money and not returned it, should not lead the prayers; someone who is unscrupulous in business etc. The list goes on. In general, the Gabbai (beadle) of a Shule chooses people who have requisite qualities (fear of heaven, being over 30, ideally married, understand what they say and be able to say it well, are capable of growing a beard, have children etc) as opposed to those with a serious question mark. Where there is an issue, one chooses a learned and pious person to lead the prayers, even if they have a poor (but not annoying) voice. Ideally, the voice should also be pleasant to listen to, unless there is nobody else. There is some subjectivity, and this is often an issue where a Gabbay must diplomatically consult the Rabbi. If someone questionable, who has not genuinely repented, insists on leading the prayers in honour of a Yohr Tzeit, this can become most unpleasant. Indeed, our Rabbis teach us that if the person leading the prayers has a serious question mark  concerning them, then all the blessings they make on behalf of the congregation metamorphose into curses (God forbid).

The Cohen is also performing a mini-leading of sorts. The Cohen, however, represents God in the Cohen’s positive Torah command to bless the congregation.  He and his fellow Cohanim are bound by various laws that pertain to their suitability. For example, they should not have killed. [ An interesting question arises about the Cohen who is a soldier in the army. In Israel today, there is in my mind no doubt that each war is a מלחמת מצווה, a war where Israel’s very survival is at stake, and for which even a Groom joins in the defence effort. Defence however entails attack and attack inevitably leads to killing another person.] Another issue is Cohanim with physical defects, but it is not my intent to agglomerate all the laws here.

One interesting qualifier of the Cohen is that when he blesses the congregation, this should be through a blessing of Ahavah; that is a love of their fellow Jew/congregation. A congregation that is unable to remove negative thoughts about a particular Cohen needs to make sure that this Cohen not bless them as part of a group of Cohanim who are blessing. The Aruch Hashulchan (128:21) explains the love pre-requisite of the priestly blessing based on the Zohar.

“Any Cohen who can’t bring himself to have Rachmonus (mercy) on the congregation that he blesses, or about whom the congregation can not muster Rachmonus on him” (should find another community to bless.)

This is brought by the Magen Avraham in his gloss 18 ibid.

In other words, without being able to feel Rachmonus on a community there can be no bounded blessing based on love between the Cohen as God’s representative and that community and that Cohen should bless a community where he does find himself comfortable. Rachmonus is needed because it is rare to discover a congregation where there isn’t a single congregant about whom a Cohen has some doubts, and vice versa.

It is likely a truism, that most people, including Cohanim, feel odium towards the behaviour of some of their fellow congregants. It may even be directly mutual. The key, however, is whether a Cohen is able to concentrate on a community and have positive feelings while he acts as a conduit to blessing the people on behalf of God. If he finds himself unable to muster Rachmonus, most certainly, he should try to remove this impediment in his character. If he cannot stop his thoughts wandering negatively, and the positive feelings do not envelope his blessings, then it is better that he not bless that congregation. At the end of the day, the Cohen is blessed by God himself, on account of the Cohen blessing the people.

He who leads prayers, however, is a single person, who must represent, all the people. In this way, his acts and past acts can serve to invalidate him from performing such representation.

Those who were not born with a voice that is appreciated by others generally don’t get asked and therefore don’t face this challenge of representative acceptance. Fobbing off the Gabbai when trying to avoid being chosen to lead the congregation, as its chosen representative, is also not encouraged.

What should a congregant do if he is convinced that a particular Shaliach Tzibbur is of dubious character? One should consult their Local Competent Orthodox Rabbi for advice.

What should a congregant do if they loathe a particular Cohen who is blessing the congregation? Again, they should ask, although they do have the option of leaving the Synagogue at that time.

These are most uncomfortable situations. Ideally, someone who has not performed as God would want, will confess and repent. A(n angry) Cohen who is unable to muster a feeling of congregational positivity-call it an attachment to the Tzelem Elokim of each Jew if you like-should also ask themselves whether they should be one of the group blessing that congregation.

[Please remember: nothing I write should be misconstrued as a replacement for consulting one’s Halachic decisor/Posek]

How many Jewish parliamentarians are there in the Australian parliament?

I do not know the answer to this question, but non orthodox feminists may be upset to find out that males do not pass on the irrevocable portion of membership of the Jewish religion.

The press tells us there are 5 Jewish members. Of course, there may be some who have legitimately converted in orthodox tradition. Others and/or their mothers may not have.

As I recall this was a Machlokes Tanoim?, and tradition/Mesora has unquestionably gone via the mother. I guess the egalitarians should be up in arms and demand equality: viz both parents should be jewish.

Of course those who follow the modern egalitarian/equality religion with sprinklings of traditional Judaic practice, you know, the one Moses didn’t bring down from Sinai, ought to really be arguing that being a Cohen or Levi should be a matter of choice for the child, just like male circumcision. Where the mother is the daughter of Cohen and the father is a Levi, say, you’d leave it to the child to decide, and I guess they could also change their mind depending on their spiritual development at a given point in time? Come to think of it they should call up their women as cohenet or levitate, or …  I’m of course tongue in cheek, but it follows for those for whom equality is their religion and Judaism is their cultural affiliation. I haven’t got the foggiest idea what their pronouncements are in such matters with respect to Trans or fluid genders. 

There are some in the USA who are intellectually honest enough to do away with Cohen, Levi and Yisrael and make them all equal. Then again, these are also the same Bernie Sanders types, who had every mention of Zion removed from prayer books (Reform Judaism).

I know Michael Danby gets Aliyos at Elwood where the Head of the Beth Din of Melbourne is the religious authority, and is Jewish, and that Josh Frydenberg is also halachically one of the tribe, but I don’t know enough about the other three to make claims either way with the same confidence that the ‘Beth Din’ of the Jewish News does. Does the Jewish News use the Nazi definition or the ‘I fought in the IDF definition’ or I have ‘latkes and dreidels with Father Xmas rule’? I’m not sure they have ever defined Jew.

I do know that Lee Rhiannon of the anti Zionist Greens is Halachically Jewish and her surname is/was Brown. Perhaps she should have called herself Lee Green. The worst political types are often fully Jews. Jon Faine the left wing national radio personality, of course is Jewish, but unlike his mate Waleed makes every effort to distance himself from the tradition of his parents ostensibly in the name of leftist equality. We Jews are very good at apologising for our identity by running away from it.

In the Victorian State parliament there maybe one person?  I guess the Australian Jewish News is the arbiter on such matters and promulgates its pronouncements to be gobbled up by the non Jewish Press as gospel. They may in fact be gospel!

I heard or read that Malcolm Turnbull may actually be Jewish? Is that true? I don’t know what the Beth Din of the Australian Jewish News has determined, as they don’t seem to have a formal responsa on the matter.

As a side note the great modern sages: Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soleveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn both foresaw the issue of Yichus as critical in a nation prone to assimilation and encouraged men to always note in their names that they were a Cohen or Levi.

Rabbi Stav of Tzohar is visiting Melbourne this week. Perhaps someone can inform him and ask him for an authentic halachic ruling as opposed to the ‘feel good’ or ‘kosher style’ approach of the Australian Jewish News where almost anything flies.

Beautiful D’var Torah on Shlach

[hat tip MT]

“And [the spies] began to speak badly about the land that they had explored.” (Num. 13:32)
A dispirited discussion took place at Beit HaRav, Rav Kook’s house in Jerusalem, not long after the end of World War II. The Chief Rabbi had passed away ten years earlier; now it was his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, who sat at the head of the table.
One participant at the Sabbath table had brought up a disturbing topic: the phenomenon of visitors touring Eretz Yisrael and then criticising the country after returning to their homes. These visitors complain about everything: the heat, the poverty, the backwardness, the political situation – and discourage other Jews from moving here, he lamented.
Rav Tzvi Yehudah responded by telling the following parable, one he had heard in the name of the famed Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, the rabbi of Bialystok.
The Failed Match
There was once a wealthy man who sought the hand of a certain young lady. She was the most beautiful girl in town, and was blessed with many talents and a truly refined character. Her family was not well-off, so they were eager about a possible match with the prosperous fellow.
The young woman, however, was not interested in the match. Rich or not, the prospective suitor was known to be coarse and ill-mannered. She refused to meet with him.
The father asked her to at least meet with the young man in their home, so as not to embarrass him. After all, one meeting doesn’t obligate you to marry him! To please her father, the young woman agreed.
The following Sabbath afternoon, the fellow arrived at the house as arranged, and was warmly received by the father. Shortly afterwards, his daughter made her entrance. But her hair was uncombed, and she wore a faded, crumpled dress and shabby house slippers. Appalled at her disheveled appearance, it did not take long before the young man excused himself and made a hurried exit.
What everyone says about this girl – it’s not true, exclaimed the astonished young man to his friends. She’s hideous!
Rav Tzvi Yehudah stopped briefly, surveying the guests seated around the table. Superficially, it would appear that the brash young fellow had rejected the young woman. But in fact, it was she who had rejected him.
The same is true regarding the Land of Israel, the rabbi explained. Eretz Yisrael is a special land, only ready to accept those who are receptive to its unique spiritual qualities. The Land does not reveal its inner beauty to all who visit. Not everyone is worthy to perceive its special holiness. It may appear as if the dissatisfied visitors are the ones who reject the Land of Israel, he concluded. But in fact, it is the Land that rejects them!
A thoughtful silence pervaded the room. Those present were stunned by the parable and the rabbi’s impassioned delivery. Then one of the guests observed, Reb Tzvi Yehudah, your words are suitable for a son of your eminent father, may his memory be a blessing!
Seeing the Goodness of Jerusalem
Rav Tzvi Yehudah’s response was indeed appropriate for Rav Kook’s son. When visitors from outside the country would approach the Chief Rabbi for a blessing, Rav Kook would quote from the Book of Psalms, “May God bless you from Zion” (128:5).
Then he would ask: What exactly is this blessing from Zion? In fact, the content of the blessing is described in the continuation of the verse: “May you see the goodness of Jerusalem.”
The rabbi would explain: The verse does not say that one should merit seeing Jerusalem; but that one should merit seeing ‘the goodness of Jerusalem.’ Many people visit Jerusalem. But how many of them merit seeing the inner goodness hidden in the holy city?
And that, he concluded, is God’s special blessing from Zion.

Halachic implications of a ‘Moon Boot’

Well, thank God, I’m out of the cast and am now in a moon boot (see below)

It was Thursday, and as my wife drove me home from the Hospital, I mentioned to her that there is now a question about me Duchening on Shavuos in one of these. My wife said “what could be wrong”.

Well, the issues as I saw them were

  1. I am in no physical condition to remove the boot. It’s early days, and I’m still in a fair bit of pain and can’t just stand on my socked foot
  2. Normally, I do the directional turns during Duchening as laid out in Shulchan Aruch. I don’t believe they are strictly necessary though
  3. There is some conjecture about non leather shoes and duchening. Rishonim hold that non leather shoes need not be removed (which is why some don’t remove their shoes on Yom Kippur Duchening)
  4. Some agree that one doesn’t need to remove non leather shoes, however, if the show has laces, then one could trip and miss duchening (and hurt oneself) so it’s better to remove shoes even on Yom Kippur
  5. This moon boot (or air cast as some call it) uses velcro so it is not going to undo itself by accident, and it’s not made of leather, so it would seem that one could leave the boot on during Duchening
  6. One of the reasons that a Cohen who has a blemish (בעל מום) doesn’t duchen, and is ineligible for the Avoda, is that people will turn their attention to the blemish and not properly concentrate on the Blessing itself.

My wife didn’t like reason 6, and said that she couldn’t understand why that should disqualify a Cohen. I noted that according to Rav Soloveitchik the success of the Bracha is through direct links between the Cohen and the congregation. For that reason we don’t say שומע כעונה (one Cohen can say the blessing on behalf of other Cohanim). Anyway, she wasn’t convinced, but I felt there was enough doubt about it to merit asking Mori V’Rabbi Rav Hershel Schachter his view. Thankfully, he replied before Shavuos.

In essence his answer was

  1. One could duchen in a moon boot
  2. Much depended on how freely the Cohen could move
  3. There is an issue of the Tararum (cacophony) such a Cohen could cause becoming a “celebrity” standing out from the other Cohanim. Again, that depended on the level of movement they could cope with.

In the end, he felt that it was probably best I didn’t duchen given I just got the contraption and was really unable and not permitted to walk freely without support. He suggested I leave the Shule without much fanfare, and I was able to do that easily as I sit in the back row of the Shteeble around the corner from me.

Excitedly, I mentioned to my wife (and to Rav Schachter) that these were my thoughts as well. Your Posek may have another view, but I felt it was important to put this down for the record. Hopefully, it’s never למעשה for another כהן!

(c) Yeshivah World. Rav Elyashiv ז’’ל on the left in discussion with Rav Schachter on the right.

Our holiday. Part 1: 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn New York

Dear Readers,

I’m starting with some (self-indulgent) prose, as this will more fully inlay context.

As ought to be inferred from blog postings on pitputim, my tendency is to inspirationally respond to more rationalistic approaches of Judaism. I recognise of course that one size does not fit all.

This predilection isn’t for pre-conceived ulterior motives or להכעיס. It is perhaps a natural inclination of my id as opposed to some super-ego. Perhaps a PhD, based on formal logic and a grounding in science affected (or infected) a tendency to align myself with certain of the 70 faces of Torah. At the same time, I have always had a love for פשוטו של מקרא and that is a natural follow on.

I am certainly not the first or last to procure a comprehension and meaning through this particular prism. In some ways, it is the prism of Brisk, where my grandparents on one side were married and lived close by. Undoubtedly this is a reason for a veritable love affair with more halachic aspects, and a disdain for pilpul. I have modified my approach after realising that this isn’t the taste of Torah my kids want to hear at the table 🙂 Indeed neither do most unless one happens to know of a specific היתר. For example, I held for 30 years that showering on Yom Tov is permitted. Now many Poskim agree with that. I am far from a Posek, but I can detect when there is a hungarian-style inertia stopping the obvious 🙂

I am technically a תמים although in reality פסול is evident. Being classified a תמים means one learned in a Chabad Yeshivah. Chabad made Melbourne, irrespective of what Adass or Mizrachi or Johnny-come-latelys may claim or dream. The previous two groups have made enormous contributions, but these have been upon the shoulders and foundation of people sent by the Rayatz and last Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע whose foresight was as prophetic as one can be, limited by the clouds of today’s גלות.

Many of us gained from the simple presence and הנהגות, primarily from the likes of (In no particular order) R’ Shmuel Betzalel Althaus, R’ Nochum Zalman Gurevitch, R’ Zalman Serebryanski, R’ Betzalel Wilshansky. Rav Perlov, R’ Isser Kluwgant (I never met R’ Abba Pliskin) and of course the late and great Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner זכרונם לברכה. Although I didn’t notice it in an active learning sense (except with Rabbi Groner) most of the דמות תבניתם passively infused my soul and the lessons are indelibly etched. Understandably, I didn’t understand or realise much or most of this phenomenon until I was older and less of a one minded חריף. Indeed, the older I become, the more I miss “the real McCoy”.

One of the lessons passively learned over time is an extreme disinclination towards those who speak or act in a degrading way concerning another Jew because of a perceived lowly position that other Jew seems to occupy in the ladder of Torah and Mitzvos. Unfortunately this is a hallmark of some and their philosophy. I understand it, but I vociferously disagree with it.

Chabad are masters at seeing and seeking the good and never being judgemental. I have a spine chilling aversion to the word חילוני or even בעל תשובה. Neither of these words rest easily with me. I actually abhor them. When one truly does a דין וחשבון over oneself, I don’t understand how those words can enter anyones vernacular.

While I admit that when I was fresh out of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, a Yeshivah which I will forever be indebted because it imbued me with a sense of genuine התמדה and יגיעת התורה, I tended to be much more of a black and white person, a real loner. I would have no problem in those days sitting for three hours by myself on two lines of a Tosfos. I refused short cuts. Life and its experiences have taught me that the approach of compartmentalising people as  “Chofshi” or “Yeshiva Leit” or “Nisht Frim” make me uneasy.

I was super sensitised when I returned from Kerem B’Yavneh to the extent that I literally hid in my car between lectures so that I would not be amongst the אומות העולם. Upon returning home from University, I used to lie on the couch in a semi-state of depressive stupor and did little homework. My mother confided years later that she and my father ע’’ה wondered and worried greatly whether they had made the right decision asking me to come home when I wanted another period to advance my learning. I listened to my parents, however, not for halachic reasons but because they are and were giants in my eyes. In all honesty this was happening subconsciously. I was sensitised to an extreme level.

Life is hard enough for any of us to climb up the ladder, and the higher one manages, the bigger even a little fall can potentially cascade one downwards into a spiral. We’ve all seen this sadly.

I discovered a love of Israel while at Kerem B’Yavneh and being in ארץ אשר עיני ה בה מראשית השנה עד אחרית השנה was super special. This was not something that was imparted to me in Chabad in Melbourne. The “Medina” wasn’t a word that was used. ארץ ישראל was mentioned scantily and mainly in the context of גאולה. In Chabad there was basically 770 (or as they call it בית רבינו שבבבל). This was their epicentre until משיח took them out.

I was a lad when the technology of live Sichos beamed through the Shule, and our Torah classes were suspended. Although there was a live translation, I didn’t understand much, and frankly, for most of us, we saw it as an indulgence for our teachers and an opportunity to “wag” or play ball. In hindsight, the teachers could have listened to a recording, but I digress.

This year we not only wanted to go on holidays we needed to. My wife and I were exhausted physically and mentally. The mortal body and the soul need  some rest and relaxation (although I ironically heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe speak against this concept 40 years later when I entered a room leading to his קבר. There was a recording playing when one entered the ante-room, and this was part of his topic.) Was he telling me I didn’t need a holiday? I don’t think so. My understanding was that Torah could not stop because one was on holidays, and it didn’t for me anyway. I found myself in many discussions of interesting issues. The Lubavitcher Rebbe himself was somewhat supernatural in that respect. He was tied to his room and his Chassidim, except for the daily beautiful visit to his loving soul mate to enjoy a cup of tea and a chat. Medically, both my wife and I needed a holiday.

When my father ע’’ה was in this world he wanted us around him in Surfers Paradise, his favourite holiday destination. I didn’t go the beach or walk around bare-chested like those, for whom holidays affords an opportunity to be a little lax. For me, I strolled around mainly sharing “love and other bruises” with my father. I cherish those days and our nightly “farbrengens” which were catered in a way that superseded usual holiday-based epicure-centred  compromises. We danced, we sang, we shared special moments and we were light-headed through the addition of ubiquitous Tamdhu whisky. These moments are vividly captured in pictures and videos and cherished by the extended Balbin family.

The body, soul and brain do need a rest. My wonderful wife and I hadn’t been in a position to have a holiday for seven years. After my band Schnapps performed magnificently and professionally at Rabbi Yossel Gutnick’s magnanimous yearly “Chanukah in the Park” and once I knew all was well from a medical perspective, we booked to leave the very next morning.

770 was really not my destination of choice, to be honest, I had been in the States only once before, when presenting a paper in Texas and spent some days in Manhattan. I loved listening to Jazz late into the night. The quality was stupendous, and I knew some Jazz players, who used to play in my band Schnapps before they moved to live in the States. I could easily have stayed in Manhattan again and wiled my evenings at good fress outlets followed by Jazz; the latter being something my wife shares with me. However, things changed. Through our exuberant Mechutonim and our children and children-in-law there was a familial connection to Chabad now. There were now a range of people whom I now knew and knew of who lived there and importantly, my wife enjoyed the ambience and vibrancy she experienced the year before when she dashed there (while I was an Avel) to be at the engagement of our daughter Batsheva to Yisroel Goldman (aka izzinism) the son of well-known and Choshuve Chabad families. I had spoken to to Yisroel’s maternal grandmother, the well-known Mrs Shula Kazen,IMG_1097

IMG_1193
Batsheva, Rabbi Levin’s mother, my wife and Iwhose son

whose son Yosef Yitzchok ז’ל was curiously one of the first frum Jews I “met” on the internet back in the days of soc.culture.jewish and Aarnet. We developed a long distance relationship and neither he nor I could ever imagine that my daughter would marry his nephew. Shula, with her ultra clear head, is a true foot soldier of the last Rebbe and she continues what she understands to be her Shlichus into her 90’s. She has no holiday! She spoke with me many a time in Melbourne from the USA, apologising that she could not come to the wedding. At her house, I also met her sister, who is the mother of the acclaimed Gaon, R’ Feitel HaLevi Levin.

I wanted to also meet the famous Rabbi Shimon Goldman,IMG_1094 may he have a Refuah Shelemah, having read his book on Shedlitz. He shared that town with Professor Louis Waller, whose family were rooted in Shedlitz, and whose son Ian, president of Mizrachi Melbourne married my sister Adina.

I have a natural affinity for older people; they project Tachlis and חכמה with real stories that resonate. Accordingly, I promised Rebbetzin Shula that on my first opportunity I would visit her in her apartment and chat face-to-face. I wanted to meet Rabbi Goldman and at least give him Bircas Cohanim as well as Rebbetzin Rivka Groner’s father (Rabbi Gordon) who isn’t as well as he should be.

Rabbi Gordon
Rabbi Gordon

Our friends,Avremi andRifka Raskin’s son Ari, was getting married at that time in freezing Montreal. We watched Ari grow up from a babe, and Rabbi andRebbetzin Raskin, as I like to refer to them, had always been more than magnanimous when it came to our children’s weddings. Their home was and remains open for the entire community. Their hospitality is infectious.

IMG_1320

 

Over the last few years, we also had the Zechus to farbreng in our Succah with R’ Michel

R' Michel Raskin in vainglorious style
R’ Michel Raskin in vainglorious style

and Danya Raskin. Michel was very sick at one stage, and I could see it was affecting Avremy in a major way. I did what I could to cajole the Aybishter to give R’ Michel a lease of life. Thankfully Hashem had his plans for R’ Michel and these included a recovery and his famous crushing handshake. R’ Michel (and a line of traditionalists) love my wife’s Galeh (he calls it Pecha) and I love to hear his stories about Russia. It’s a natural extension of my life-long love of talking to older people. I found his stories and history much more interesting than the Booba Mayses and simple Shikrus that now pervades the Yeshivah Succa on Shemini Atzeres. Oh, for the times when Rabbi Groner farbrenged on Shmini Atzeres-I stayed the entire time.

In truth, from a halachic perspective I would move inside the house if it was cold or pitter pattering with rain on Shemini Atzeres, but out of respect for R’ Michel and other guests, I couldn’t do that, despite the Halacha being clear (to me). There is also the concept of כבוד הבריות and there was a certain romantic feeling about the rain pattering while being regaled with stories of awe.

So, logically, my wife suggested we spend a few days in Crown Heights before heading for a few days to Ari’s wedding and eventually enjoying a holiday in Miami on the way home (as it was the closest warm place where one could be Maaleh Gerah with gluttonous and fiscal abandon)

A three inch high fat free medium rare steak. Who could resist that!
A three-inch high fat-free medium rare steak. Who could resist that!

[to be continued]

A Jewish mode of verbally induced meditation

This year, was a first for many a year, when I was not a שליח ציבור. I was also in a Shule where you could hear a pin drop. The combination of these two led to a slightly embarrassing moment on the first day of Rosh Hashana. Our Nusach, and that originally of my father ע’ה, is Nusach Sephard (not to be confused with the Nusach of Sepharadi Jews and their variations). My trusty Machzor, is small and was purchased decades ago when still a lad learning in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavne. I was excited to reuse it, and happy that unlike some of my Seforim which are lent in good faith, and seem to have found a new home, this Machzor was exactly where it should be, and readily accessible. It was easy to hold, not being thick with salubrious translation and commentary. It was plain, much-loved, but hardly used in over three decades; certainly for Shachris or Mussaf.

As a Shaliach Tzibbur/Chazan, I followed the Nusach of the Shule. This was Ashkenaz, and with the exception of the Avoda of Yom HaKippurim, the differences were not evident, as perhaps one might expect.

As I know most of the Tefilla by heart, I found myself sitting wrapped in a Tallis, keenly trying to concentrate on each word in a way that had not been amenable beforehand when I was the שליח ציבור. I was free to use as much time as needed to navigate the words and their meaning.

As I write, I remembered Mr Hoppe ז’ל, a family friend, and fellow Cohen, with a gutturally deep voice, who was an Alexander Chossid before the war with long peyos, and at whose home in Tomashov, the Aleksander Rebbe stayed on occasion. I remember him asking me one year after I had returned from Kerem B’Yavne,  (in yiddish)

“why are you davening so much, what are you saying, I don’t know how you can stand so long”

I recall that I didn’t answer. My reasons were private, I wasn’t able to answer anyway, and many of my thoughts remain private, until this day.

Hoppe+Dad
Mr Hoppe (left) and my father עליהם השלום

Because I am acutely sensitised to Nussach, and was davening in a Shule that used a Machzor based on the Ari (and finalised by the Ba’al HaTanya, I presume) there were times that I was juddered by a different word, or in some cases (such as at the conclusion of הנני העני ממעש) a set of additional lines that were not present either in Nusach Ashkenaz or Nusach Sefard when they suddenly entered the arena. I haven’t looked into their etymology.

Much of the time, my eyes were shut, and I was concentrating, as well as I could. There was the unusual fact that in Chabad there is no בעל מקריא to call out the Shofar notes. In fact, I was surprised that on the first day, the very first set of notes were not repeated as I felt (but I’m certainly no Rabbi) that they were questionably executed.

Ensconced in the repetition of the Amida (which ideally I should have stood for throughout, except that this would have disturbed my concentration) I waded off into the worlds of מלכיות , זכרונות and שופרות. I use the word waded because probably for the first time in my life I managed to control my thoughts and focus, almost subterraneously, on what was being sai, occasionally fluttering at the odd word that was different from the Nusach I was used to. Even then, my thoughts were trying to reconcile differences in my expectation.

I had always been jealous of people who were seemingly able to “meditate”. The jealousy stemmed from their ability to divest from what was occurring around them and focus solely on (often) something inane. It could be an exercise in mindfulness, or an approach that allowed one to concentrate on something else. I could never do it, despite many efforts and having five one on one lessons based on a non religious approach. My mind was forever bubbling and thinking, and I was unable to temper its tempestuous foray into areas that I did not want to go. I simply concluded that it was just one of those things: some could manage this exercise and other could not. I just wasn’t blessed to turn off, so to speak. I often joke with my students and alumni that my “off” switch is rusty, and can’t be repaired.

Amazingly, this year, while I was “unshackled” from responsibility, and was also in a conducive environment, I was able to turn off the switch controlling the outside world and immerse myself in Tefillah.

The embarrassing moment occurred when it came to שופרות. By that stage, the Cohanim, of which I am one, had left the Shule just prior and returned on time so they could ascend immediately after ארשת שפתינו. Alas, because I had been a שליח ציבור for so long, I was used to having a Levi bring me the Kvort and tissues, while someone else led the Cohanim. I was rooted to my spot on the Bima at all times, except that I jumped around to face the Kehilla. (And yes, I’m aware of different views in the Acharonim about this matter, but I have never lost my bearings and been unable to continue cleanly thereafter).

Suddenly, someone tapped me and pointed to the Machzor (one being unable to speak at that point). I was deep in thought and was literally startled. At first I thought it was a Pesicha, something which doesn’t interest me. Finally, I realised, after noticing the Cohanim ready to ascend, that I was too late. The Priestly blessings were about to commence!

I made a quick exit, as my hands hadn’t been washed, my shoes were not removed, and according to the Din, one is meant to make their move before רצה.

In a curious way, whilst I was later mirthfully called the absent-minded professor, or asked “were you sleeping?”, I was neither. I had actually succeeded for the first time in my life to meditate at some level.

Suffice it to say that on the second day, when I saw Rabbi Cohen walk past , I followed him and performed ברכת כהנים to the best of my ability, even though I had felt somewhat “disturbed” to leave the Shule for hand washing.

In summary, it was a strange experience, and I missed out on ואני אברכם on the first day, but I was surprised and pleased with myself that I had reached a level of obliviousness that brought me to Tefillah-based meditation.

Can or should an Avel perform Bircas Cohanim (part 3)

I was touched, and appreciated by the fact that the Dayan, with whom I am having a respectful Torah discussion on this issue decided to read and follow up my previous blog in a publication dedicated to Yud Tes Kislev: the Yom Hillula of Rav Dov Ber of Mezeritch, the father of all Chassidic Rebbes, and the occasion of the freedom from a short incarceration by the great Acharon, the Shulchan Aruv HoRav and Ba’al Hatanya.

The Dayan felt compelled to respond because a failure to do so might imply that he agreed with me. Chas VeShalom! Much of the material presented was a previous listing of the same Mekoros brought prior,  which are well known. We know from whence the Ramoh recorded the Minhag Ashkenaz, and we are well aware that this is related to the the Maharam MiRotenbug and the subsequent line of students after him, who had had identified this same minhag during their time.

We are also well aware that Minhag can uproot Halacha; the implication being that the Tri-Torah command of Bircas Cohanim can theoretically be supplanted by a Minhag. None of this is new and added no more to the discussion in my opinion. It is not a universally accepted anyway in this issue, despite the quotation of chosen latter day Acharonim. I’m surprised the Kitzur was quoted as a source. From the Hakdama of the Kitzur, we know his methodology of Psak, based on three acharonim. In my opinion, that adds nothing either.

It is important to note that the Dayan misquoted some of the sources in his original article. Indeed, a careful reading of these shows an omission of important facts. This will be expounded upon in due course. Much to my sorrow, I don’t have the time in the day to do such things in the proper academic way. I would have liked to be בבית ה׳ כל ימי חיי but it’s not my current Goral. I can’t wait till I can spend more time learning, and conducting shiurim. I have seen some of the material in its full form, and not the quoted parts in the Dayan’s original article, and it is clear and compelling and is somewhat not consonant with the Dayan’s proof.

As pointed out by the Gaon R’ Yekusiel Farkash in his Klolei Piskei Admor HaZoken, where there is no minhaga individuals need not  follow or adopt a Minhag (even quoted by Admor HaZoken). Perhaps the Dayan will consider Rav Farkash’s comments as invalid. I don’t know. Rav Farkash is a very widely accepted expert. Having heard his Shiurim, and read some of his Sforim, he is clearly a deep and careful thinker. If so, perhaps the Dayan should write to him. I might.

Ironically, the Dayan garnered some support from the Giant, R’ Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik inter alia. What the Dayan didn’t tell us is that the Rav Soloveitchik himself stated that an Avel should Duchen! This was also the opinion of his illustrious and legendary grandfather, the famed and revered Gaon, R’ Chaim Brisker. These are giants of the last few generations who knew the Ramoh and those who preceded him, very well. Admittedly, they aren’t as influenced by Acharonim, but this is an accepted mode of Psak. As the Rav once said when someone tried to tell him that his Psak was not the same as the Mishne Brura.

“Nu, I am an Acharon, and I have a license and may certainly argue. I don’t force anyone to accept my Psokim. If you want to follow the Mishne Brura, go right ahead.

Indeed, we don’t need to look to Brisk/Lita. We can simply list many examples where the Ramash (R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson) instituted Minhogim against the explicit ruling of the Admor HaZoken. A famous example is the Ramash’s campaign to ask females to light Shabbos candles before they were married. We all understand why he did this, and what a wonderful initiative it was, however, if we are to remain unfaltering fidelity to the Admor HaZoken and the Rishonim and Acharonim who preceded him, this is against the Psak of the Admor HaZoken and yet is accepted. One couldn’t imagine the Dayan quoting the Ramoh or similar to the Ramash and saying “you are contradicting an open Admor HaZoken”. Sure, all manner of justification has been tended about that Takono, but if we are to be intellectually honest, the Psak of the Ramash, which he is most entitled to enact as a Gadol B’Yisrael of the last generation, amounted to an expression consonant with exactly what Rav Farkash expressed. The Dayan knows there are many other examples of this type.

It is simply amazing when one reads that the Dayan is untroubled about the fact that the Avel can be involved, no, is enjoined to be involved in public expressions of Simcha during a Yom Tov, and yet on the matter of a blatant and obvious example of Aveylus D’farhesya, the Dayan resorts to a quasi-Hungarian mode of Psak, which is as immovable as Chadash Assur Min HaTorah, even if we don’t understand the reason. I am reminded of the (incorrect, according to many Poskim) Psak of the B’eer Moshe, the Debreciner, who said that any form of Bat Mitzvah celebration is Chukas Ho’akum and the act of Reshoim! This is of course plain wrong on many accounts, and has been shown to be so by many Acharonim, but it is indicative of the type of lack of response that the Dayan tended in respect of this issue. To say that once a Cohen leaves the Shule before Retzeh, there isn’t Farhesya, is incomprehensible! Farhesya has nothing to do with Akiras Raglov and the technical ramifications of someone who didn’t leave. Well before that, people ask me for special requests, and of course Cohanim leave the Shule to wash their hands! Everyone, especially in Lubavitch where they are Makpid to bring babies to get Birkas Cohanim, are most serious about this Mitzvah. To me, it not only allows me to be a conduit, but my ability to obtain a Bracha, something one especially craves in a year of Aveylus, is negated if I don’t perform it! Now that makes me sad!

Interestingly, Rav Marlow paskened explicitly that a Cohen Avel who finds himself in Shule at Birkas Cohanim, and was unable, or perhaps forgot, or was pre-occupied, MUST Duchen on Yom Tov. I heard this directly from a completely trustworthy source. It would be Aveylys D’Farhesya. Now, Crown Heights is a different scene to Melbourne’s comparatively empty Yeshiva Shule where there were only four Cohanim. The Cohanim are like rare movie stars! How could the Avel Dyuchen? He isn’t (can never be) B’Simcha UveTuv Levov! According the the Dayan, this alone seems to be the only relevant factor!

Next we need to consider the Dayan waving his hand regarding my argument that someone who has already Duchened multiple times, according to the Psak of (Chabad) Rabbonim who do not agree with the Dayan, imbues no important ingredient to the situation. Really? Imagine the following scenes:

A Cohen sits in the Dayan’s Shule, and has the well-supported custom not to sit in his usual seat. Should the Dayan instruct the Avel to go back to his seat as it is Minhag Chabad? I witnessed no such thing at Yeshivah. I saw some who did and some who did not. It was up to the Minhag of the Avel. Aveylus, is most definitely tied to subjectivity and personal Minhag. To dismiss those because there exists another Minhag not favoured by the Ramo, is ingenuous.

What of an Avel who dances B’Simha on Friday nights around the Bima during L’Cha Dodo (a minhag I haven’t seen brought in the Ramoh or indeed the Shulchan Aruch HoRav). Chadoshim LaBekorim? Should a Dayan intercede and advise the Avel that he is doing the wrong thing? What if the Avel retorted that he does this every Shabbos, and if he stopped it would be Aveylus D’Farhesya? Maybe we can use a guitar for Kabolas Shabbos if we raven early enough?

(Personally I don’t understand the new hanhogo of dancing in the middle of davening, even if it is before Barchu. Is this what Admor HaZoken paskened or approved?)

What of an Avel who refuses to do Hakofos as brought by many Acharonim. He saw this from his own father. I personally witnessed the Dayan’s father in law and brother in law encourage Hakofos by suggesting that they do so together with a few people who surround him. If the Avel doesn’t feel comfortable adopting this approach would the Dayan say that the Avel has done wrong and that he must adopt Minhag Chabad?

Dismissing the powerful arguments of the Gaon as not being necessarily consonant with Admor HaZoken, is fair enough, although I didn’t appreciate the tone of the sentence in the Dayan’s article. (On the other hand, for example Zman Krias Shema the Gra and Admor HaZoken do agree). One may choose not to follow the Gro and the Beis HoRav after him, as mentioned above, that is, those who share the Gra’s insistence that there is a Bitul of three positive Torah commands. But it becomes somewhat different when someone insists that in his Shule, a Minhag HaGro on Hilchos Aveylus cannot be practiced by an individual! Are we still in the time of the Cherem on Chassidim? Perhaps there is now a Cherem on Beis HoRav? Was it not the Ramash himself who said to the Rav (on Yud Tes Kislev?) that when they two got together as the Dor Hashevii of each of their illustrious lines of Beis HoRav that Moshiach would come?

Is there indeed a “Minhag Chabad”. We know very well that the psak of the Shulchan Aruch Admor HaZoken, doesn’t necessarily constitute Minhag Chabad at all. Many Chabad Rabonim duchen! It is a hazy issue, at best. Those Rabonim cannot be dismissed. They include Rav Hendel of Migdal Emek, and he writes about Chu”l.

Indeed, the Ramash expressly said that he would like to re-institute Bircas Cohanim each day in Chutz La’aretz, like Sephardim, but he doesn’t have the “ability” to do so. That in of itself is a puzzling comment. He could have instituted it in all Chabad owned/led Minyanim? Perhaps he felt he needed the agreement of other Gedolei Yisrael. I do not know.

Next, we move to the issue of “what if”. What if a Cohen Avel does duchen. He may have done so because he assumed it was Minhag Chabad anyway in that Shule, or he may have done so because he knew it was most definitely a valid approach as quoted (and ignored by the Dayan) in the Nitei Gavriel where he states that “most chassidim DO Duchen in Chutz La’aretz as Aveylim on Yom Tov. I wonder whether the Dayan will respond in a vitriolic fashion and raised voice against such Chassidim and tell them “It’s an open “din” in Shulchan Aruch HoRav or the Ramo”. To use the style of argument the Dayan has used “they know the Ramoh’s opinion” and yet they Duchen! How can this be? It’s a Minhag the Ramoh quotes, remember.

Next we move to the issue of: okay, an Avel just does it. Nu, so what happens to the Birkas Cohanim. Is it invalidated? If he is the only Cohen and does so, is it a Bracha Levatala. According to the Mishna Brura it most certainly is not. Does the Alter Rebbe say that a Cohen who does so is making a Bracha Levatala and/or his Bracha is useless?

The Dayan sets the Halachos of a Shule and answers the questions of those who seek his Psak. It isn’t at all clear, however, to me that the Dayan should seek to impose a Minhag, albeit based clearly on the Ramoh on someone who has Duchened, and castigate a person for doing so! Is there a Din Macho-oh here? I think not.

Hilchos Aveylus have limits on their objectivity. Much is subjective, and changed and changes with time, person and circumstance. As I pointed out to the Dayan, why didn’t he issue a Psak saying that Aveylim should not attend the Simchas Beis HaShoeva Farbrengens each night, with food and drink and great merriment. Furthermore, if an Avel did not do so, would he approach them and say that it’s “Minhag Chabad” to attend, and therefore you should attend. What is the Avel doesn’t feel comfortable! Is he saying that they aren’t B’Simcha? Shomu Shomayim!

Finally let me open up the can of worms which relate to an unmarried man (who is also NOT considered B’Simcha according to Shas Bavli and Yerushalmi because he isn’t married). The Dayan is well aware that this is a Minhag in Hilchos Aveylus which has definitely fallen by the way side, ואין פוצץ פה with convincing argument. The Shulchan Aruch HoRav has chosen not to give credence to the Kabala on this issue (and on the issue of Duchening). That of itself requires elucidation and an article of its own. He is of course perfectly entitled to do so as a most respected Acharon.

There is more, but this will do, for now. I am no Posek, but on such touchy issues, where the הלכה is כמיקל באבילות and there are many bluff procedures in place to enable simcha participation, I would (as has always been the case at Yeshiva) leave each Cohen to do as they see fit (unless they ask for a formal Psak Din from the Dayan/Rav, as was the case of the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Cohen, for whom there couldn’t be a bigger Aveylus D’Farhesya!).

I’m afraid I didn’t see answers to the powerful arguments laid out by R’ Shlomeleh Vilner despite the claim from the Dayan, that they were answered. Perhaps its my ignorance.

PS. If one can’t see the connection between happiness and the ability to proffer love in a Bracha, then I’d have to say they were somewhat Misnagdic; it’s not a chassidic approach.

PPS. I followed the Psak of Mori V’Rabbi R’ Schachter, and avoided the Shule on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah so as not to cause a Machlokes, and so in no way did I ignore the practice the Dayan wanted to see uniformly applied to all decreed unhappy Cohanim. As such, this really is a theoretical discussion, LeTorah U’Lehadira.

Can or should an Avel perform Bircas Cohanim: Part 2

Following on from what I had blogged here, a learned article appeared in הערות התמימים ואנ’’ש regarding this issue. A copy of this article was given to me בכתב prior. The author traces back the sources of the Minhag not to duchen as described by the רמ’’א. There are no surprises there, as there are no surprises in naming two students of Maharam of Rottenburg describing the same Minhag.

Unfortunately, whilst the learned author wrote about the general question, he chose not to consider the specific question that initiated the discussion and the article.

[By the way, the editors of that publication do no service when they are careless in their production. There are many printing errors in the article]

  1. What should a Cohen/Avel who has already duchened 9 times as an Avel for halachically valid reasons in a non Chabad Shule do when entering a Chabad Shule for Davening on Yom Tov? Given that the Gavra already has found himself in a position of Simchas Yom Tov that enabled him to Duchan with no issue, and with love, should he dispense with his existential Simchas Yom Tov, and assume he isn’t psychologically capable of a Bracha KiPshuto?
  2. When the entire Shule is aware of the specific issue, and there is no greater Farhesya, than 25% of the Cohanim effectively leaving in the guise of a single person, with everyone knowing the reason, how can that at all be reconciled with Hilchos Aveylus! How are we to understand Aveilus D’Farhesya? I note that Rabbis Feldman, Blesofsky and all the Gutnicks, did Duchan because they are Rabbonim, and if they had snuck out of  Shule, it could be argued that this is forbidden explicitly on account of Aveilus D’Farhesya, a basic tenet of all Hilchos Aveylus on Shabbos and Yom Tov.
  3. In a situation where a Cohen did Duchan, because he was not aware of “Minhag Chabad” (something that is not clear ) is it correct that the Rabbi explcitly not issue forth “Yasher Koach” in the same way that he always does?
  4. It cannot be argued that “one doesn’t pasken against a Minhag mentioned by the Ramoh”. We all know that not only do Acharonim do that even with a Din! Even within Chabad, the Shulchan Aruch HoRav refined his Psak through the aegis of the Siddur. One can play with words and say that the Shulchan Aruch HoRav didn’t change anything, but he most certainly didn’t always “go with the Ramoh/Magen Avraham” alone on each and every issue.
  5. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe himself found it appropriate, in our day and age to encourage, for example, younger girls to light Shabbos Candles, even though this is against the Shulchan Aruch HoRav. How so? I’m sure it’s discussed, but in the end he did decree thus, for what he saw were good reasons.
  6. I heard from an extremely reliable Rav, that Rabbi Marlow of Chabad ז’ל had paskened that if the Cohen leaving would cause Aveylus D’Farhesya (be noticed, or that he found himself in the Shule at that time) then he should duchen. If on the other hand, he could “slip out unnoticed” as a regular Cohen who perhaps required Tevilah would do, then he should.
  7. In what way is there a proof that the situation of Cohanim is the same as at the times of the Ramoh and thereabouts? How many Shules have so many Cohanim that you simply don’t notice if one is at Shule and doesn’t go up?
  8. I’ve been to the Ramoh’s Shule, and no doubt they didn’t Duchen. It’s tiny. Then again, I’d imagine the Shule was packed to the rafters and various Cohanim who weren’t necessarily regulars turned up, especially on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah.
  9. Despite the fact that Chabad owes no “allegiance” to the opinions of the Vilna Gaon in his glosses on Shulchan Aruch, the Gaon does opine that one should duchan and not annul three D’Oraysos, despite the Minhag described by the Ramoh. The Gaon’s  opinion (which is identical to the Mechaber) is identical to R’ Chaim Brisker, and R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. The Nefesh HoRav, who is Mori V’Rabbi, R’ Hershel Schachter, and is mentioned in the article, was simply quoting these views as well as the incredibly deep and vast Tshuva on this matter from the Dayan of Vilna, R’ Shlomoleh ז’ל in his Responsa.
  10. The author “bet me” that the Nefesh HoRav held that one should not Duchen. I disagreed and took the bet. What the Nefesh HoRav did tell me was to avoid Machlokes, and so I stayed away on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah (and duchened elsewhere) where ironically I was one of three Cohanim!
  11. Finally, I’d be interested to know whether according to the author, it is proper that Cohanim aren’t happy enough on Yom Tov to be a conduit for Bircas Cohanim, and yet, as Avelim, they are permitted to attend parties known as Simchas Beis HaShoayvo, where there is food, drink, merriment and Torah. Is this a Chiyuv for an Avel? When I asked this question, I was met with anger. Sure, any Seuda can be turned into a Seudas Mitzvah with Divrei Torah (and according to some opinions just singing). Would one conclude that the Ramoh et al and the Shulchan Aruch HoRav would say it’s fine to attend a Mishteh V’Simcha as an Avel, but despite the fact that the person has Bosor V’Yayin, one should assume each and every Cohen has a level of sadness that they couldn’t possibly bench B’Ahava?
  12. If they can’t be B’Simcha, I guess the Basar and Yayin are also a waste of time?
  13. What is the Minhag in Chabad when there is only one Cohen (an Avel)? Is there no Duchening? Why yes? What about the Aveylus/Sadness. It’s existential, no?
  14. What is the Minhag in Chabad when there are only two Cohanim (one who is an Avel) (See Mishne B’Rura 575:159)

In the end, like most Hilchos Aveylus, as explained to me by Rav Schachter, most are about intentions and feelings and motivation. If a person intends to immerse, for example, in a Simcha event, or similar, for the purposes of getting “happy” and/or “enjoying oneself” then it is forbidden (except where there are matters of Tzaar — pain — involved through acts, and only in certain situations). The Halacha of Aveylus is deeply personal, and I would have no problem with a Cohen/Avel who just didn’t feel right not doing duchening. Some refrain from Aliyos! Yet, others, run for Maftir each week and seek to Leyn as well.

I don’t need to mention the Nitei Gavriel who says that most Chassidim do Duchan.

Would it be so far fetched for a Shule to have the policy:

  • it’s not our minhag to Duchan, but if you feel up to it, go for it

or

  • it is our minhag to Duchan, but if you don’t feel up to it, slip out unobtrusively if you are able.

They certainly find workarounds for the parade of Hakafos!

I spoke with a number of Rabonei Chabad who said that even in the diaspora, they did not enforce any Minhag not to Duchan.

Enough on this topic from me.

Disclaimer: it is not at all my intention in any way to give the impression that I am detracting from the Psak of the author or his right to do so. This is Torah, however, and we are committed to learning and understanding from the one who chooses all his people ּבאהבה.