With this type of malaise, no wonder American assimilation is at 70% amongst non Orthodox

There are lots I don’t understand. One of the things I could never understand was the Jewish connection to Chanukah by those who otherwise have diminishing Judaism in their lives. The answer isn’t the massive Chanukah Menorah’s put up by Chabad, but they certainly are needed and help enormously. The assimilated Jew has his Pintele Yid, his Jewish Soul, so overcome by the goings on in a multicultural or Xtian dominated society, that they make the same types of rationalisations that they do with their diminishing Jewish identity. Let’s be clear. Identifying with Israel, which was such a positive force post holocaust, won’t wash with our tree-hugging, tikkun olam, social justice types. We now have the abhorrent New Israel Fund which is a direct outcome of this type of feeling. They hold onto the hope of a “two state solution” when one side (Abbas and Co) will simply never recognise Israel as a Jewish State, a home for Jews.

That being said, we must hang on and enhance those elements of truth, which emanate from the truly Jewish soul, and provide meaningful alternatives to counteract the cultural pressure so many seem to feel.

I was rather radical. For over 20 years, when they put up all the Xmas decorations in our University Department office, I refused to step in. I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t feel comfortable because they were Xtian symbols, but I felt uncomfortable that the money funding these things were the public purse, and that other days, from other religions weren’t able to acquire equal opportunity.

If someone wants to have a picture of Yoshke or a cross next to their desk, that’s none of my business. I avert my eyes and concentrate on the reason I came to speak with them.

Do we really believe that Chanukah means what it does to the almost assimilated? The miracle of Chanukah is debated among our Rabbis, and there are places where the WAR is the main miracle. There is even conjecture whether they lit Chanukah candles after Chanukah for some time, and whether that was a later custom which became incumbent on us all.

Ironically, Chanukah represents the triumph of those who want to INFILTRATE our culture (perhaps without intention these days unless they are missionaries). Can you imagine if Chanukah didn’t involve lights? It’s almost as if the almost assimilated, are relieved that they can find some link between the pagan Xmas tree lights and their religion, and luckily for them it turns out around the same time.

Nothing is by coincidence. Chanukah represents the challenge of not letting go of what gives us our own identity. Yet, like many challenges God gives us, he dresses them with an outer shell, and if we want to we can break that shell, and find the Jewish element, which represents the truth, as aligned with our heritage.

It took years of quiet diplomatic action, when I used to wish people a happy holiday break, or joked they shouldn’t eat too much at their parties, that they eventually realised I wasn’t joining them in their Pagan-cum-Xtian festival.

I greatly appreciate it when someone recognises this now, and doesn’t say “Merry Xmas”, and engages their brain. I notice that Muslims are less touchy are about this because they consider Yoshke some prophet (but of course lower than Mohammed) so they don’t have a problem saying that (at least in Melbourne). In Egypt, of course the Coptic Xtians are persecuted mercilessly and the world just stands by, as they do to Syrian atrocities. We live in a world of lies and fake feel good emotions.

One can feel good, and even better, simply by being a Mentch, and not being offensive, but religiously embracing Chanukah and Chanukah only.

Does anyone thing that those don’t South in the USA would even remotely contemplate adding Chanukah to their Xmas. Forget it. It is only the Schmaltz belts where people have compromised their values and heritage and succumbed to the gods of Mamon and Acceptability, that such morals outrageous posts, from the Times of Israel, even get published. By publishing this, I struggle with understanding what they achieve. Do they tell us a new reality or perhaps would they be better off encouraging Xtian friends to come to a latke and Ponchke night with candle lighting, but with ABSOLUTELY no hint of capitulation to either religious or capitalist opportunism afforded by the “necessary gifts” and the stress these seem to cause people.

Read the blog post below. Am I over reacting?

Imagine running an education evening entitled “the intersection between Chanukah and Xmas is that your kids are less likely to be Jewish” and having that run by Rabbinic orators and educationists of standing. I’d rather see articles from fellow bloggers like Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo on these topics then some of the more esoteric ones he chooses.

This isn’t a case of mixing solid מין במינו … this is a דבר המעביד within two different מינים and is Treyf, לכל הדעות.

Oh, and PLEASE don’t forget, we give Chanuka Gelt and not presents.

As to “Sylvester” and “New Years Eve”, are we meant to celebrate two days because of Sfeka DeYoma? Yuck.

They say in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, that a little light dispels darkness. I heard Mori V’Rabbi say that this is true, but often you need lots of light to get rid of the rampant thick darkness, and you can’t see to far ahead with minimal light. So to all wishing to reveal the light of the Neshoma, I wish you only success.

I will do my part at this year’s Chanukah celebration with my band Schnapps, as I have for many years. Everyone should try to be at the annual big celebration, sans any reference to Pagan rituals.

PS. We do not say Chag Sameach on Purim or Chanukah. We only say that when there was a Korban Musaf. Try Freilichen Purim, or Purim Sameach, or Chanuka Sameach or some other phrase.

I celebrate Hanukkah, but I love Christmas
Dilute that most wonderful time of the year into a Jewish minor holiday? No thanks, he’d rather enjoy the real thing

I grew up in suburban Chicago surrounded by my fellow Jews — at school, at camp, on the weekends, at my parents’ friends’ houses, in the streets and parks of my neighborhood.

Even then, I knew that Jews made up less than 2 percent of America’s population — but in my childhood world, we were the 99%. If you had stopped 11-year-old me on the street and asked, I could have recited lengthy Hebrew prayers by heart, or told you about the codifying of Jewish law in 200 CE. But when it came to Christianity, I had a basic idea of what Easter was, and could probably have provided a brief bio of Jesus, culled mostly from popular culture. That was about it.

Until December rolled around, that is. Christmas was inescapable — and I loved it. I still do.

Christmas is everywhere. It’s at the malls, in the candy aisle of the grocery store, on the radio and TV, and in the movie theater. And I get how it can all be overwhelming. I understand how it’s a bit much for people to be bombarded starting from Thanksgiving — make that Halloween — with carols and candy canes and Santa and reindeer and manger scenes and ornaments and mistletoe and trees. And I know that for lots of people, it’s bit much how everything is red and green, especially if it’s not even your holiday. Plus — on an intellectual level, at least — I object to the commercialism, the conspicuous consumption and the tackiness of it all.

But if I’m being honest: I love the tackiness. I love the manufactured happiness. I love feeling snow on my shoulders, walking into a heated cafe, sipping hot cider and hearing a Christmas song — probably written by a Jewish composer — on the speakers. I love the contrast between the terrible weather and the enveloping cheer, however artificial it is. I love being able to enjoy the Christmas spirit without having to worry about how it affects the way I celebrate Christmas.

Because I don’t celebrate Christmas. See, we Jews have our own winter festival — it’s called Hanukkah.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Hanukkah. But in America, it’s kind of weak sauce. If Christmas is a thick, juicy hamburger on a sesame bun, American Jews have tried to make Hanukkah into a black-bean burger — something that’s perfectly edible but, really, nothing like the real deal. Hanukkah, like black beans, would be fine as its own separate thing. But instead we’ve flattened it into a cheap imitation of something else.

I’m Jewish, so of course I celebrate Hanukkah. I’m down with the story, the victory of the weak over the strong, the faith fulfilled when a small flask of oil lasted eight days. I’ve even nerded out over the two alternate Hebrew spellings of “Maccabee” and how they correspond to today’s religious-secular divide in Israel.

But I’ve never liked how American Hanukkah in certain ways becomes a diluted, Jewish version of Christmas. So the Christians give presents for Christmas? Sure, we’ll give Hanukkah presents, too. They have tinsel? Sure, we’ll have tinsel, too. They have holiday sweaters? Sure, we’ll have those, too.

Just as I can enjoy the Christmas spirit because I don’t feel personally invested in the holiday, I feel disappointed in Hanukkah precisely because I am invested in it. And in any case, Hanukkah is a minor holiday. I don’t begrudge its significance for anyone, but in Jewish tradition, it’s treated as less important than Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and a couple others.

That’s why in Israel, where I lived for five years, Hanukkah is certainly celebrated, but doesn’t receive top billing. There are decorations, menorahs in the windows and sufganiyot — doughnuts filled with jelly or cream — on bakery shelves. Kids get a few days off to sing and play. Giving Hanukkah presents isn’t really a thing there.

Contrast that with the season that runs from Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot and Simchat Torah, a series of festivals and holidays that ended several weeks ago. In Israel, before Rosh Hashanah, supermarkets are stocked with apples, honey and pomegranates, and temporary stands sell greeting cards on the sidewalks. On Yom Kippur, the streets and shops are all closed. Religious people wear white and gravitate en masse to synagogue, while those who aren’t fasting crowd the empty streets with bikes. On Sukkot, there are temporary huts seemingly everywhere, from people’s porches to public squares.

For close to a month, little business gets done. Need to schedule a meeting or start a work project? “After the holidays” is the common refrain. The Jewish holidays there are celebrated on their own merits, not judged against the overwhelming dominance of another religion’s season.

So spare me your Chrismukkah and your Hanukkah bush, and let me culturally enjoy the most wonderful time of the year the way America clearly wants me to.

After all, if Bob Dylan can rock out to an album’s worth of Christmas music, so can I.

It started with a snippet from a sheltered letter

My journey has almost done a full circle. The topic concerned two of the greatest leaders of our generation: the Rav (Soloveitchik) and the Rebbe (Lubavitcher).

It was 2011. I conveyed some thoughts back then in this blog post. My impression was that the Rebbe was not at one with the Rav’s approach to Yahadus, as exemplified by an issue which was the subject of a revealing letter published in that post and reproduced again below.

Certainly the Rav wasn’t a Chossid; he had a strong connection with Chabad through the Rayatz, the Rebbe’s father in law and this also stemmed from his youth in a Chabad town. There are many anecdotes and written accounts of a certain closeness. I would tend to categorise it as mutual admiration and respect. I don’t think the Rebbe and his romantic nostalgic relationship with Chabad were the same notion. The Rebbe was  single-minded in his approach. The Rav, ironically given his heritage, had a more pluralistic acceptance of different segments of Orthodox Jewry, and was often a featured as the star orator. The Rebbe could be described as reclusive or too busy, at the same time he was warm and insightful. He was tethered to his headquarters in 770 to the extent that he eventually decided he would not leave 770 for various purposes, apart from the daily cup of tea with his dear wife, and rare occasions. There are those who surmise that each of these revolutionary Rabbis’ wives were their only true confidants. The Rav’s wife had a PhD and was an educator whose mission revolved around the excellence of the Maimonides School that was established to resuscitate the Boston she and the Rav met on their arrival. The Rebbetzin was ever reclusive and kept to herself in an understated way.

One day, I became privy to what I (and  others) considered to be some clearer views from the Rebbe about the Rav in the form of a snippet from a letter. This letter, as I understand it, was not known and rather sequestered. I surmise with some confidence based on the secrecy, that it was placed under an unofficial embargo. What made the snippet  so interesting to me? As noted in that blog post, it clearly implied that the Rebbe had his differences and criticisms with the Rav (from the vantage of the Rebbe’s Weltanschauung and approach).

The Rebbe was a Manhig, a global director with firm views, and was not limited to Crown Heights, Brooklyn or the USA. The Rav described himself a “Melamed.” Everyone knew this was a self-deprecating description of a most brilliant Torah Rosh Yeshivah steeped in the Brisker tradition of his illustrious family. The Rav described how he was struck  and impressed by the Lubavitcher Chassidim who lived in the town where his father, Reb Moshe, the elder son of Reb Chaim Brisker, was Rav for a few years. The Rav experienced  the Chassidim’s Emesdike, heart-felt, even romantic approach to Judaism, though many were not apparent scholars (the antithesis of the highly intellectual Brisk he had been exposed to). That’s not to say that Chabad didn’t include high calibre Talmidei Chachomim, rather, they also embraced simple people within those people’s abilities and made them all realise that they could achieve plenty. They managed to produce outcomes that were somewhat foreign to Beis HoRav, Volozhin and Brisker tradition. Whilst Rav Chaim, the Rav’s grandfather was far from a “snob” and embraced the impoverished with all his might and kindness, Chabad made them feel holy.

I speculated more about the relationship between the Rav and the Rebbe in another blog post of 2011. The letter below  appeared (and I might say curiously) later as a page in a pamphlet given out as a wedding memento (of all things).

Letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז'ל mentioning the Rav ז'ל
Letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז’ל mentioning the Rav ז’ל

The cat was out of the bag through that snippet. Would anyone notice it or comment, I thought.

The central questions given the letter  were,

  • how was a Lubavitcher now meant to relate to the Rav, and vice versa,and
  • how was someone from Yeshivas Yitzchak Elchonon meant to relate to the Rebbe, given what had been written.

I was unable to advance knowledge of the context of the letter and those who I asked from both sides, seemed unaware or were reluctant. I suspect in Lubavitch some were aware, but I doubt that this snippet was ever seen by the Rav or indeed his Talmidim.

An anonymous Chabad researcher of note, recently revealed the issue as being in the context of the Rebbe writing disapprovingly of the Rav’s alleged predilection to “change his mind on matters of Halacha“, for various reasons, although the “Rav himself is a complete Yiras Shomayim.”

The study of Chabad Chassidus was growing. It appeared in some Hesder Yeshivos over the last ten years, and before long there were  students who studied Tanya. This was not surprising given that the current generation of some youth seemingly less pre-occupied with minutiae and seeking a more mystical understanding of their faith. My Posek, Rav Schachter, a Talmid of the Rav, often quotes the Tanya, so it was certainly an important Sefer in Yeshivas Yitzchak Elchonon.

More recently, Yeshivas Yitzchak Elchonon (RIETS) had no issue with a Tanya Chabura, and past lectures can be heard online and were taught by YU Rabbonim. Certainly, Rabbi Reichman, one of the Roshei Yeshivah has been teaching a variety of Chassidus for many years, even though he describes himself as a Litvak. One of his sons has studied Tanya in Israel through both Lubavitch and non Lubavitch spectacles (if I’m not mistaken he studied it also with another Chassidic Rebbe, one on one)

A Symposium was held at YU on the Rav and the Rebbe. I blogged about that symposium. Again, I felt that to talk about this topic and not  mention this letter left a gaping hole. The academic in me felt it was verging on dishonest because I was sure the Chabad speakers knew about the letter. Its absence could be considered, purposefully misleading. Rabbi Yossi Jacobson disagreed with me on that point in private correspondence.

A new book was recently announced on the Rav and the Rebbe by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin. I reviewed the book. Rabbi Dalfin knew about the letter and had asked me a while back if I knew more about it. I did not. The letter existed, however, and he knew about it. The letter was not mentioned in Rabbi Chaim Dalfin’s book. In subsequent correspondence with me, Rabbi Dalfin claimed that without knowing the full letter and its context he didn’t think he should include it. I disagreed vehemently. Perhaps that’s due to my academic training. Whichever way one looks the Rebbe makes clear statements. I appreciate that a Chassid doesn’t want to double guess what their Rebbe meant.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin
Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin ז׳ל

The mystery is now revealed. The letter was addressed to the famous Rav Zevin, the master editor and compiler of the earlier volumes of the Encyclopaedia Talmudis. [ Later volumes, whilst very good, don’t quite reach his enormous ability and articulate summarisation]

It can be argued that there are other things in the letter, but that is immaterial, at least, to me. If it had to do with the same issue it would also have been published (unless it said worse things!). Either way, choosing not to include this snippet can be viewed as a form of sublime revisionism, parading behind a façade of ‘I need full research on the letter’.

The reality is that the comments addressed in the letter were known in Chabad, but kept quiet. I again surmise that it was kept quiet because nobody wanted such comments in the public sphere.

As I have written, a full understanding of the Rav, encompasses his enormous strength and integrity in being able to change his mind if he felt a situation was different, or he felt a compelling new reason. This makes him stronger in my eyes; not wishy-washy by nature, as seemingly implied in the letter. That being said, it would seem that was not even the case here, anyway.

Let’s call a “spade a spade”, and I don’t just mean Rabbi Dalfin. I include Rabbi Jacobson. Who are we kidding? When Lubavitch poached the head master of Maimonides in Boston there was  acrimony that lasted some ten years. The Rav would never have allowed this in reverse in this way. The Rav went to Chinuch Atzmoi as a Mizrachist, albeit a nuanced variety thereof.

As to the Rav being some type of closet Chabadnik. The Rav stated many times he was a Litvak, who liked lots about Lubavitch and had a romantic attraction to them stemming from his youth. He was also a big fan of the writings of the Alter Rebbe.

The agenda of Rabbi Dalfin’s book was to gloss over these things and convince the reader through some dubious logic that they were much closer than they were (even though the Rebbe wrote a letter saying they were closer than people knew). The Rav’s head was in Shas and Poskim, all his life. Only certain Rishonim mattered, and he didn’t read the others. Philosophy was a wrapper to make sense of Judaism through a modern prism and paradigm.

[Hat tip anonymous] The snippet was about the Zim Israeli Shipping Company controversy. Zim proposed to sail also on Shabbos. In response to the fact that sailors, engineers etc would have to be mechalel shabbos to do so, Zim claimed that the ship could travel on auto-pilot. The Lubavitcher Rebbe completed an Engineering degree in a Paris College (not the Sorbonne) and, as the Ramash, worked in the Naval Shipping Yards in the USA as an engineer when he arrived. The Rebbe clearly had technical scientific expertise and of course was also a Gaon in Torah. As such, he vociferously held, and mounted a wide campaign to stop Zim, enlisting the help of many other Rabbis of note, including Rav Hertzog the then Chief Rabbi. According to the Rebbe, it was impossible for the ship to travel in “auto pilot” without some chillul shabbos from staff.

[Hat tip DH and AR] The Rav was asked to offer his view. The Rav had a policy of not paskening about matters pertaining to Israel. He felt that this was the domain of the Chief Rabbinate and not that of a resident of Boston and Rosh Yeshivah in RIETS. He also held the policy that Rabbis must consult experts in questions of Halacha involving matters that were not known by them. This is reflected in his view that the question of returning territories was a matter of Pikuach Nefesh that had to be determined by Generals and not Rabbis or Politicians. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a Rebbe and Manhig and proffered his Halachic opinion that no inch of land be ceded. The Lubavitcher Rebbe had a different approach.

Unless someone has more information: I have consulted world-wide authorities on the Rav, and  knowledgeable people about the Rebbe, I cannot understand how the Rebbe could come to his conclusion about the Rav. The Rebbe obviously expected the Rav to join him, as he knew this would be very powerful. The Rav was always his own man. He had views  on protests for Russian Jewry as did the Agudah, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe had different views. This, however, does not make him prone to change his opinion, as implied by the snippet.

I have already covered the microphone issue, and that is a long bow. I can’t find the blog post though 🙂

In conclusion, those who wish to argue that they were close, can do so, but my view is that they held fundamentally opposing approaches and views and to intimate a special bond through a symposium or through Rabbi Dalfin’s book doesn’t stand up to academic muster.

Accounts of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s campaign re Tzim and influencing the Chief Rabbinate can be seen here and here and here (in Ivrit).

Unfortunately, in correspondence from Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet, he advised me that the two people who would have known more details about the Rav’s involvement have both passed away. He referred me to a son who shed some light.

If anyone can elucidate with any more material on this I’d be interested. At this stage, I stand by the feelings expressed in blog posts dating back to 2011.

The situation regarding the Central Chabad Organisation in Melbourne

I should say, that I have held off making any comment on this issue, as I don’t think my comments would help in any way. I’m viewed as an outsider. That being said, neither will this post contribute. But, it’s been on my mind, so I now give it voice through my blog.

I am not a member of the organisation, although we do have two seats for historic/emotional reasons. I didn’t join as I tend not to join things generally and I didn’t understand the complicated structures anyway.

On the issue of a history of offences of a sexual nature perpetrated by low lives and sick people and blind observers who perhaps medicine will one day discover a way to ‘control’, my wish is that we never hear of such occurrences in the future in any School or Institution, and where there is some remote suggestion that something may have happened, this be reported to the justice system to test, immediately.

It is true, that some lay and non lay people were members of  committees when offences were alleged to be occurring. Governance would suggest that unless there was a cone of silence that precluded them knowing, that they now give consideration to new people to take their place, simply on that basis. Those new people should not be “angry ones” or those with a vendetta. They need to be level-headed, thinking, and respected Ba’alei Batim with Chabad’s interests at heart.

It is also true that nobody can fully understand the victim who still suffers, and all assistance—psychologically and financially and apologetically—to help re-route especially those whose lives have fallen apart “back to a happier road” and that must be completed. Some of this has taken place. No doubt some has not. Having never been in the shoes of this type of victim, I am in no place to comment on the effects nor the approaches required to help lessen these effects or give advice.

It may be the result of the Royal Commission, or presumed result of that commission, but I’ve seen snippets of a new constitution and various concerned parents’ minutes. To be honest, I haven’t paid much attention to the details as they seem legalistic structures that are not my forte and I also lost interest and respect when someone close to me was scandalously marginalised within the School system, but not over anything related to the above. Those are matters for the new “structure” whatever that structure means in practice.

So why I am writing this post, and what is my message?

To me, Chabad is the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe is Chabad (a continuation of previous Rebbes agenda). It is a top-down hierarchy with the top now missing. I always had the very strong feeling that he had a finger on the pulse of any issue brought to his attention. He was a moral, unimpeachable genius who I am sure would have provided correct Halachic and personal advice if consulted. What actually transpired is anyone’s guess, but I certainly don’t hold him responsible and it doesn’t affect Chabad’s powerful philosophy and approach to Judaism and successes.

Democracy is a great thing—ask Donald Trump. Chabad or indeed any Chassidic group or institution cannot by definition be run by a vote of mass hands. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, upon the death of his Rebetzin, wrote a powerful Sicha, entitled בואו ונחשוב חשבונו של עולם. This Sicha, which was short and very powerful was not published or provided for his proof-reading. It was hidden from him a few times. People didn’t want it coming out. He lays out guidelines about how Chabad and private people should function should he pass on before Moshiach (but he didn’t say that fact explicitly). I don’t have a link to the Sicha, it is now printed at the back of Toras Menachem, but there IS a Video of him saying it on the stairs leading down, at 770, and those who were there were in shock. If someone finds it and posts the link, I will update the post. I don’t know if it’s been translated.

Accordingly, I would not deviate one iota from his wishes and those of his forebears. He asked that a committee of three unimpeachable expert and universally recognised Chabad Rabbis/Mashpiim oversee major decisions. They could be in different countries. Someone correct me if I have misunderstood. I can think of suitable apolitical candidates in other countries who are not part of the current power boards of Chabad.

There is now power play, politics and “rights of Yerusha” in Melbourne for there to be anyone unbiased in Melbourne that could consider this, as a group of three. They would not need to build a tome of complicated constitution, but would certainly need to lay down the guidelines about how voices from the Kehilla would be considered and respectfully responded to.

Nepotism must be eradicated. It is a plague. Excellence should be the only criteria.

There was, to my knowledge, never an instruction to insert a letter into his Igros and derive a conclusion about how to go ahead. We all know of “incredible” cases where direct advice was on the page, but we also know of the myriad of people who found nothing remotely connected, and that didn’t have anything to do with their lack of knowledge or depth. You can say the person wasn’t fit or ready, but you can also say anything.

I’m most disappointed that Chabad, which should be cohesive, has factionalism. They can’t even close down unsanctioned infamous Melbourne CBD “Chabad houses”, let alone expel the Tzfatim from 770. This is the anti-thesis of Hiskashrus. Sadly, we have too few great and straight Chassidim in Melbourne to look at the issue dispassionately, and through proper Halacha, which I have no doubt who would also comply with secular requirements, sans ego.

I also see strange “innovations” ever-creeping into the main Shule, none of which I saw in 45 years, and which are on the rise. These emanate mainly from those who are new to Chabad (not born into the dynasty) and I find them most alienating to those who are mainstream mispallelim davening in a Chabad Shule. Rabbi Groner never made someone feel alienated in the Shule. He even allowed a pregnant pause so people could say Veshomru on Friday night. This pause is now proudly circumcised as a sign of purity.

On Shemini Atzeres, at Hakafos in the main Shule, the audible calling up of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to “say” the first Hakofo occurred. I know some long term mispallelim who left the Shule at that point in disbelief. This is too much and is far removed from normative Jewish practice. Everyone will recall the Gerrer Rebbe encouraging Breslaver Chassidim to give Rav Nachman Hagbah.

There may well be a valid feeling that a Chassid feels internally that he would like nothing more than the Rebbe saying the first Hakofa. Have that feeling. Internalise it, and if it doesn’t happen, go home and weep, by all means, or find strength. But as part of a formal Tefilla and practice, I find it very hard to cope with and I’m not aware of a Halachic source for such a practice. Someone enlighten me.

I have a soft spot for the Shemini Atzeres Farbrengen  at Yeshivah which was always regaled by Rabbi Groner and whilst the format was new this year, I was interested. I was upset though that when the elderly R’ Mendel New got up to say a few words, albeit in a weak voice, there was a cacophony. Silence—complete silence, is what should have taken place, and there was nobody of authority to make sure that such should take place. He was talking about keeping Shabbos in the old days. Rabbi Groner would have yelled out (as he used to do with waiters at Simchas) that everyone zip their mouths. I was embarrassed, and moved right up to R’ Mendel and listened to his story, though I had heard it.

There were a few very learned Rabbis close by where I sat, and they are not drinkers. After kiddush on Vodka, as is the custom, though, it went straight to their heads. The result? Inhibitions were discarded and they started singing “Yechi”.  I left the farbrengen immediately, although discretely. It’s a great turn off for me and legions of others, but Chabad don’t care (though the Rebbe did). Ditto with the signage in some Shules and the other useless paraphernalia.

“Yechi” needs to become an internalised hergesh/feeling that materialises into positive action that people feel genuinely and materialise into lamplighters. Gyrating and singing the song, or plastering signs up in Shules only achieves acrimony from those who find this

  • not part of davening, before or after
  • not part of a shule’s decoration.
  • well passed its use by date

Is this the Chabad “Na Na Nachman”. What has that achieved apart from party revellers joining in.

I have grandchildren in the School, and I only pray that the place returns to becoming a bastion of normative behaviour with a Chassidic bent, staffed by honest, talented, trustworthy people with no other agenda except quality education (yes, and I include secular education). People who don’t live to fill their egos.

‘The Rav and the Rebbe’ a book by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin: some comments

I’ve thought about how I will comment on this book. I decided not to review it from a purely academic perspective, as I don’t see the book in the more traditional academic light; there is abundant speculation and innuendo, interspersed both under the surface and visibly, for it to be considered as such. An academic work would seek to start with no or few assumptions let alone perceived bias, and would attempt to conclude and prove on the basis of “raw” facts, without an undercurrent that seems to be attempting to convince the reader to embrace a particular approach a priori. To be fair, towards the end of the book, the author doesn’t deny this and is honest. The author has tried his best.

That’s not to say that the book doesn’t contain useful information; it does: I am always (addictively, one might say) interested in discovering new things about Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik (the Rav) and Rav Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (the Rebbe), although not so much in the sole sense of their relationship, but rather their philosophies, deeds, accomplishments, and advice for living a fulfilling Torah life. These were two unparalleled leaders of our time with enormous accomplishments. Sadly, I didn’t possess the maturity or have the opportunity of interaction to appreciate them while they were living in our world. Perhaps I’d be less perplexed or even less universalistic than I tend to be.

As background, it behoves me to re-state that I studied in Chabad during my entire schooling and am thankful for the Rayatz for setting up a School in the antipodes which served the children of Holocaust survivors. I gained a methodological approach to “learn” at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel after that. These days I attend varied Shules that follow Nusach Chabad (I used to go to Mizrachi and Elwood, mainly, as that is where my father davened, and I was also Shaliach Tzibbur on Yomim Noroim). One is often influenced to be where their grandchildren are. It is good for them to see Zayda at Shule. I need to do more of that.

A keen sense of Chabad doesn’t elude me, having three sons-in-law and a son who consider themselves Chabad Chassidim of various shades. I don’t have any problems with that, and I hope they don’t have any problems with me having my own approach. In fact, I encourage them to adhere to their principles.

I only visited 770 once, a few years ago, and although I was in New York many years prior, never felt a sense of self-importance to go to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  At that time I convinced myself that I had nothing burning to justify disturbing a busy Rebbe. I did enjoy the shtetl-like Crown Heights and managed to speak with many of the older, well-known personalities. This is another penchant of mine as they are a fountain of experience and wisdom.

The Rav, on the other hand, wasn’t part of my life until much later. I wouldn’t have asked him for a Brocha per se if I’d seen him. He was not a Rebbe. More likely, I would have taken a back seat and listened and tried to absorb. He had passed away by the time I felt the magnetism. I was and am exposed to him through his writings, talks, and the material from his students: one of whom is my primary Posek. The Rav is a source of fascination. A brilliant Brisker Talmudist, primarily, who taught a solid Mesora to legions of Rabbis, he also acquired a PhD in Philosophy (which he originally wanted to write about the Rambam but could not, as there wasn’t a qualified supervisor willing to supervise him in Berlin). My own career in University, although not in Philosophy, may be a factor in that attraction, but I’m not sure of that.

I have written a few blog posts on the topic with some documentary evidence and my own speculation. There should be no doubt, however, that the Rebbe had halachically and personally derived respect for the Rav. He stood upright at a Farbrengen as the Rav walked in, and remained standing when the Rav left. This has its roots in Halacha, and is most significant, even for a Chassid. I do get offended when the Rav is referred to as “J.B”. I hear this from Lubavitchersand some others. I find this an enormous Bizayon HaTorah, and make my feelings known vociferously. Can one imagine calling the Rebbe “M.M”? It’s a Chutzpah.

This was some background. I felt it important to mention, lest it biased my reading. It’s up to other readers to decide that, though, and I welcome any of their reflections.

Rabbi Dalfin’s book was been proof-read, and although there are some English errors, I sense English expression isn’t his forte. It reads more as a communicative attempt to search for commonalities, even obscure, irrelevant, and quite subjective ones, as a means to unite the two giants.

The purpose of this attempt at uniting and attempt at commonality is clear: it is to make Chabad more palatable or desirable for YU-style Talmidim. I didn’t find, though, any reciprocal exhortation or suggestion that someone from Chabad read, for example “Abraham’s Journey” while we are in the midst of B’Reishis. It’s a very good read, by the way.

I have never met Rabbi Dalfin, and that is probably good, as I maintained an open mind. I am acquainted with his ex-Melbournian wife and know his famed mother-in-law, but that is tangential. Notwithstandingly, the book I see the book as a pseudo-academic work designed to also function as a soft and diplomatic/disguised approach to convince the non Chabad students of Toras Rav, that:

  1. the distance between Chabad and the Rav’s Mesora is closer than they think;
  2. since the Rav was exposed to Chassidus as a child it not only affected his vista of Yahadus, but the Rav’s Talmidim should do likewise; and
  3. the Rav continued being an avid reader of Chassidus.

Rabbi Dalfin is aware that these accusations would be forthcoming and I feel he did his best to submerge them. In the process, I am sure (or hope) Rabbi Dalfin also gained an enormous respect for the Rav. At the end of the day, though, Rabbi Dalfin is a Chabad Chassid first and last, and that commits a person to clear boundaries and conclusions. It’s not my way, but it’s a valid approach.

Rabbi Chaim Dalfin
Rabbi Chaim Dalfin


There has been a group in YU who learn Chassidus already for some years. This also manifests itself amongst some in Yeshivot Hesder. Rav Hershel Reichman, one of the Roshei Yeshivah, has taught Chassidus for eons and visited the Rebbe at least three times, and one of the newer Mashgichim at YU is the charismatic Eish Kodesh of Woodmere, a fully-fledged Chassid (but not of Chabad per se). One can even download on yutorah.org (I think two) sets of Shiurim on the complete Tanya.

None of this is surprising due to the fact that at YU and RIETS, one isn’t shackled. In Chabad, one is more limited to a pre-defined set of Seforim. Individual Chabadniks, often the most impressive messengers of Chabad’s mission, are the ones who have also read more widely. The stock standard Chassid limits themselves safely to Toras Chabad and Torah She Baal Peh and Biksav. Personally, I appreciate it when someone tries to imbue a new insight, irrespective of what it’s based upon.

Chakira-philosophically styled works-is not encouraged in Chabad institutions today to my knowledge, and yet, I believe the original students of the famed Tomchei Temimim needed to know Kuzari and Moreh Nevuchim, before being admitted. The argument might be that in our day, people are not at that level and not equipped to deal with the challenges. This is cogent, but is it universally effective? Alternatively, the Lubavitcher Rebbe provided a comprehensive and firm formula relating to Jews which navigates around these types of seforim and provides an alternate approach, even though an enquiring mind may want to dip their toe into philosophical questions. Lubavitch emphasises Bitul, and Chakira involves questioning. Are they mutually exclusive?

For Chabad, there is only Chabad Chassidus, and it is often referred to as the Shaar HaKollel, the gate that all and everyone should enter, and Chassidus must be spread far and wide as a pre-condition for Moshiach. I don’t even think Rabbi Dalfin would agree that this was the view of the Rav or his Talmidim! In that sense, the Rav and the Rebbe were worlds apart. Perhaps they completed each other? One manifested their inherent gifts as a “Melamed/Rosh Yeshivah/Posek for the RCA” and the other as a “Manhig for all Jews”. They are different categories of leadership and contribution. Both were intellectually and intuitively well advanced over stock Rabbis in their generation, and were the subject of unfound criticism, as a result. That has been a hallmark of Rabbinic history, sadly.

I found that there was repetition thoughout the book, and that it could have been cut down by perhaps one third. The most interesting things = were footnotes where the author had sought interviews with people, whom I had not heard of or read about. For this alone, it was certainly worthwhile, especially for a somewhat addicted one to these personalities.

I now make some non-exhuastive comments on various parts of the book. While I was reading, I placed an ear mark against something I felt warranted comment. I now go back to each ear mark and try to remember why I did so!

The Rav (second from left) with Rav Shmuel Walkin

On page 43, Rabbi Dalfin notes that the Rebbe met Rav Hutner. I would expect that Rabbi Dalfin also knows that when Rav Hutner wanted to learn Chassidus, eventually he had a Friday night session with the Lubavitcher Rebbe (who was the Ramash at the time) at the explicit direction of the Rayatz, the Ramash’s father-in-law. The other brother in law, the Rashag, who was an important personality, was the original Chavrusa, but Rav Hutner needed more. Rabbi Dalfin didn’t need to tell us this, but it is an interesting historical fact.

I do not know where Rabbi Dalfin has information that the Rav ever spoke to or had anything to do with Nechama Leibowitz, even though she was there. She apparently sat in the library behind a mound of books. No doubt he would have nodded his head in passing. We do know, that the Lubavitcher Rebbe and others were in a tutorial with a series of august Rabbis, and were taught by Rav Aharon Kotler’s more controversial sister (this is documented in ‘The Making of a Gadol’ by Rav Kaminetzky, where she is alleged to have said who she thought was “smartest” of the talented group studying in Berlin).

As far as I know both the Rav and the Rebbe attended Rav Chaim Heller’s shiurim quite often. Rav Heller, however, maintained his relationship in the USA with the Rav, and the Rav’s hesped for Rav Heller was like a son for a father. It is one of the Rav’s classic hespedim.

The Rebbe in the early years, as the Ramash
The Rebbe in the early years, as the Ramash

The interchange about the Rambam at the Shiva call, seems to be questionable, or at least there are two versions. It would have been good if the actual letter from the Rebbe to the Rav was reproduced in the book. I’m sure it exists. The traditional story I read about and heard was that they discussed the laws of an Onen and Trumah and at one stage the Rebbe said “it is an open Rambam”. The Rav replied “there is no such Rambam”. Most of the discussion was in half sentences which the bystanders could not follow. One would start a Ma’amar Chazal, and the other would counter before they had finished their sentence. Subsequently, the Rebbe noted in his letter that it wasn’t actually in the Rambam’s Halachic writing, but appeared in the Rambam’s earlier glosses on Mishnayos and apologised for the misunderstanding.

On page 44, Rabbi Dalfin seems to be apologetic when saying that the Rebbe did not reciprocate a shiva call to the Rav because he stopped leaving 770 except to visit the grave of his father in law, the Rayatz. This may be true. Rabbi Dalfin notes however the phrase “with very few exceptions” that he did leave. I have little doubt that each such exception (prior to the early days when the Rebbe performed Chuppa/Kiddushin) were for important Chassidim or special cases/incidents. There were exceptions, though, and this can’t be glossed over: the Rav’s Aveilus was not one of them, though the thesis is that they were good friends. The Rebbe wrote as much. Clearly, visiting the Rav for a Shivah call was not one of those exceptions; the Rav saw it at least as an Halachik obligation to console the Rebbe personally. Indeed, the Rebbe subsequently wrote to the Rav, proposing that it might be possible to console a mourner through the written word. The Rebbe, also being felicitous to Halacha felt that he needed to explore and justify that one can be Menachem Avel through a letter. [I do not know if the Rebbe rang the Rav. If he did not, why not? If he did, I may have missed it in the book]

Page 46 (and other pages) In reference to the meetings of minds between the Rav and the Rashab at the Kinus HoRabonnim in Warsaw to oppose secular studies in the Yeshivas, as proposed by the Soviets, there seems to be no mention about the other recorded tradition. The Rashab was allegedly depressed because he felt he and Rav Chaim would lose the vote, being in the minority. The Rashab was weeping. Rav Chaim approached him and told him that he shouldn’t weep. Rav Chaim assured him that it would not happen. As I recall reading, just as the discussion/vote was to start, Rav Chaim rose and ascended to the Bima, banged his hand, and issued a formal Psak Din, that it was forbidden to listen to the Soviet proposal. None of the great Rabbonim who were present, was game to challenge Rav Chaim, even though they were great, and the meeting was over. I’m not sure why this version which has appeared in other places, isn’t mentioned.

On page 49, Rabbi Dalfin states that the Rav was a studious admirer of the Baal HaTanya. The Rav was certainly studious and was an admirer, but one needs to bring some evidence that the Rav learned Tanya regularly or semi-regularly following his youth to come to some of the conclusions Rabbi Dalfin seems to suggest. The Rav certainly knew the Tanya, as he did the Nefesh HaChaim of his ancestor, and he is one of the few who understood the differences. Unlike the noble recent translation of the Nefesh Hachaim by Avinoam Fraenkel, the Rav and the Rebbe both felt that the approaches to Tzimtzum were not the same. Either way, Tzimtzum isn’t something on my lips on a regular basis and I can’t say I think about it much. Ironically, I do when engaging a non Jewish students who wishes to talk!

The Rav was also a philosopher, yet Rabbi Dalfin states that in the Rav’s speech extolling the Rayatz, the Rav’s use of comparison between the Rayataz and Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, was inspired by the writings of the Alter Rebbe in Tanya. Supposition?  The Rav knew Tanya and it’s there, he would have seen it and in Chazal. If he didn’t know Tanya, then he would have known the Chazals. It shouldn’t be remotely claimed that the Rav applying this praise to the Rayatz, was some type of pseudo plagiarism or an imperative derived from the Tanya. I got that message and didn’t appreciate it. Perhaps it is what gave the Rav the initial idea to create such a masterful Drosha, but the Rav was not a regular copyist (in fact, when he visited Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky he was quite upset as he perused Rav Chaim Ozer’s Seforim, because he saw many of his Chiddushim has been published by others, and he had not seen those Seforim until then).

The Rav was a Master darshan in his own right and had plenty to call upon. He didn’t need Tanya to construct his positive comments about the Rayatz, and one doesn’t need to justify saying something that appears in many places! By the way, to buttress my point, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner told me that he was present for this particular Derosha from the Rav, and it was the best Drosha he had ever heard. Rabbi Groner was well acquainted with the Rayatz and the Tanya and the Rebbe.

On page 50, we come to a quandary. If the Rav was so infused with Chassidus Chabad, why did it apparently take his recovery from an illness to teach Chassidus for 15 minutes as a measure of Hakoras HaTov. Before the Hakoras HaTov, he didn’t find it important enough?

I don’t recall Rabbi Dalfin mentioning the Rav’s comment extolling that a unique greatness of the Rebbe was his ability to take Yahadus into Reshus HoRabbim and that this was something the rest of the Rabbinical world could not or would not do, with fervour, organisation and single mindedness. Many kirov organisations try to emulate the approach, but aren’t quite as effective due to the Mesiras Nefesh of the Chassid.

On page 53, Rabbi Dalfin brings no source for the alleged knowledge of Sam Cramer. If it is true, then the Rayatz’s wife and daughter would have known about it, in the least!

On page 59, Rabbi Dalfin mentioned Rav Mendel Vitebsker seemingly nonchalantly as someone who accompanied the Alter Rebbe to see the Gaon of Vilna (others say it was the Berditchever, as Rabbi Dalfin mentions later). Rabbi Dalfin will know that Rav Mendel, also known as R’ Mendel Horodoker, was explicitly referred to as Rebbe by the Baal HaTanya himself, and the Baal HaTanya followed his Rebbe physically as a chassid to Israel, until told to turn back by R’ Mendel and look after the diaspora in Russia. It has always been a mystery to me why Rav Mendel isn’t considered a Rebbe before the Baal HaTanya in the chain of Chabad lineage, given that the Baal HaTanya considered and wrote of him as his Rebbe. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t related to the Schneersohn dynasty. Either way, that is a side issue, but one that has intrigued me. Indeed, when I spoke to the late and great Chassid and friend, R’ Aharon Eliezer Ceitlin about this point, he mentioned that someone had once asked the Rebbe this question at a farbrengen, and the Rebbe replied that “it was a good question”. Take it for what it’s worth. I’m repeating what I was told. There is probably another reason.

On page 61, Rabbi Dalfin concludes that early tradition guided much of the Rav’s acceptance of Chabad. I see no logical conclusion for that. The Vilna Gaon went into exile for months, climbing through a window and issued a Cherem! Yes, the Vilna Gaon may have been misled, but a better proof would have been from the Rav’s relative, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, who pointedly did not sign the Cherem, even though he wrote it!

On page 63 Rabbi Dalfin argues that the Rav wasn’t a traditional Misnaged. He doesn’t define Misnaged. They come in different modes today. He needs to. A full misnaged is opposed to all Chassidic groups! My Rov, Rav Boruch Abaranok used to say, “Halevai there were Misnagdim today and Halevei there were Chassidim”.

Rabbi Dalfin surmises that the Rav didn’t go to the Mikva every day “perhaps because learning was more important”. The Rav was the quintessential Halachic man. Perhaps he saw no Halacha vis a vis Takonas Ezra requiring him to go Mikvah. On the contrary, one could conclude that Chassidus had not enough effect on him when it was weighed against Halacha Peshuta and his Brisker Mesora. (Apart from the fact that the Rav presumably showered and according to his student Rav Schachter and others, this suffices for those who wish to keep Takonas Ezra today). In those days, Mikvaos were also the central place to have a Shvitz and a clean up of sorts.

I do not know what is meant by the misnaged approach to practical Halacha that Rabbi Dalfin writes about. If anything, Brisk was highly critical of the Litvishe Yeshivas engaged with Pilpul and not drilling down to Halacha. The Rav was quite sharp in criticising that aspect. This was also the view of Rav Kook who never finished the books he wanted to write (as opposed to the snippet of diary entries which have been morphed and altered into books and are therefore mired in controversy).

On page 64, Rabbi Dalfin concludes based on David Holtzer’s book that the Rav did not think much of Polish ChaGaS. The Rav was despite his strong persona, extremely tolerant. His views were firm, but if there was a Yid for whom ChaGaS was a major ingredient and perhaps suited their personality, I cannot imagine from the Rav’s writings, that he would have an issue with it, let alone tell the person to abandon ChaGaS. The Rav wrote what affected him. I am not sure he wrote to convince others to change their approach to Yahadus.

The Rav had a lot of time for the Tehillim Yidden in Khaslavich. These were indelible memories. Yet, saying Tehillim was not the Brisker way. Brisk were the elite. I’d venture to say that Rav Moshe, the Rav’s father was more elitist (call it extreme masoretic) than the Rav, but the Rav was not, even though he maintained a personal unshakeable fidelity. Rav Moshe preferred Mishnayos, as is known by the practice between the two on Rosh Hashona.

Rabbi Dalfin relates that the Rav was allegedly eventually convinced of the emotional style of attracting Jews practiced by the Bostoner Rebbe, with whom he was close. But, the Rav had an open mind, and when he saw it had a place for certain types of Jews he accepted it. I don’t find it surprising. Evidence is a powerful ingredient. [On taking fringe ground: Both the Rav and the Rebbe gave Rabbi Riskin permission to develop Lincoln Square Synagogue, but this was not advice for others.]

This is in stark contradiction to the general approach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe adhered to one way; Toras HaBaal HaTanya as successively elucidated and revealed by successive Rebbes. I can’t belittle such an approach. Why would I? I know many who are consumed by it. The Rebbe never deviated from it, and when in doubt, he followed what his father-in-law (as opposed to his more Kabbalistically inclined father) did. He was completely beholden to his father-in-law until his last breath, and felt he was an extension of his mission (in my opinion). In this sense the Rav and Rebbe were chalk and cheese. The Rav and Rav Moshe weren’t exactly kindred personalities but they had an understanding, a bond, perhaps a quietest bond void of emotions. The Rav, though, was not the pure extension of his father. That being said, he trembled to teach a Masechta that he had not learned with his father.

I recall reading a story that the Rav was to be a Sandek at a bris where they were going to do Metzitza using the mouth. The Rav who was Sandek, informed the Chassidic Mohel, that he forbade him to do so. The Rav was concerned for health reasons, and this was a matter of Halacha. Brisk are notorious for their stringency on matters of health, which results in leniencies. Two or three times they argued back and forth, and the Mohel refused to budge (he obviously didn’t think much of the Rav; Chassidim dismiss him as out of hand, but quietly admit that he was the inheritor of R’ Chaim’s brilliant mind). At that moment the Rav told the Mohel, “you are lucky that my father isn’t the Sandek. He wasn’t as tolerant as me. He would have walked out and refused to move one iota”. In this sense, I think Rav Moshe, the Rav’s father, was more like the Lubavitcher Rebbe showing a more singular unshakeable approach. He followed his Beis HoRav to the minutest detail [although in his later years he adopted the Tachkemoni approach, which didn’t work out for various reasons]. The Lubavitcher Rebbe had his singular vision and methodology and that could not be compromised and was a faithful brilliant continuation from the 1st Rebbe of Chabad.

On page 77, Rabbi Dalfin writes of an interchange with the venerable Rav Mendel Marosov regarding Mussar and Chassidus. One need not read the interchange in the way that Rabbi Dalfin interpreted it. Rather, the Rav could easily have been saying “Rabbi Marosov, you are a Chassid, you should be asking me not about Mussar but about Chassidus“. Neither implies that the Rav held that his Talmidim had to learn either. In Brisk they had a disdain for mussar (some called it Bitul Torah), and didn’t know of Chassidus. The Rav was exposed to Chassidus, and it gave him a non Brisker Geshmack in the same way that his mother did for the emotional side of Judaism and the secular scholarship of the world, in contrast to the more limited approach of his father.

Rabbi Dalfin states,

“if we truly respect the Rav and wish to fulfil his wishes(!) then Chassidus should be taught and studied at YU”.

This is a very long bow. Many of the Rav’s best Talmidim don’t study Chassidus regularly or at all, and were never asked to do so by the Rav! Certainly Rav Schachter quotes both from the Baal HaTanya and the Nefesh HaChaim and considers them both important Seforim. The thing I infer is that the Rav wanted to create original, halachically, sound-thinking, critical-thinking Rabonim, bound by a Mesora that behoved them to consult their Chaveirim if they had a Chiddush in Halacha, and then to do a PhD to enhance their ability to research with an academic nuance and think methodologically with the rigour he was exposed to in his University studies (and also relate to the new American, who spoke a different language).

On Page 86 Rabbi Dalfin notes “Some have criticised the Rav for being indecisive”. With this statement I believe Rabbi Dalfin is evasive for diplomatic or other reasons in order to further part of his agenda, and perhaps it indicates he doesn’t appreciate fully the Rav’s way. In fact it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself who noted the Rav was prone to sometimes change his mind.

Letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז'ל mentioning the Rav ז'ל
Letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז’ל mentioning the Rav ז’ל

In an interchange with Rabbi Dalfin, I criticised him for consciously leaving this letter out of his book and addressing it. He responded that he didn’t have the full context of the letter (and neither did I) and had consulted others as to whether to include it. It could well be that the rest of the letter had nothing to do with these comments, but it’s hard to imagine that the letter would be an expansion of what the Rebbe said, or a self-softening of what he said. My view is that they were intrinsically, also different.

Anyone who has seen Rav Schachter during Summer in Tannersville, knows that when he starts learning Gemora on his porch, he tells the many who wish to join him, that they must remove all their previous thoughts and knowledge about the Gemora and think originally again! This was what he learned from the Rav. It was about never being afraid to revisit an issue and conclude differently” (as did Rav Chaim Brisker famously in his inaugural lecture in the Volozhiner Yeshiva).

Some might say this indicates that the Rav vacillated, or was weak. [The episode of Kashrus in Boston, which Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky’s father experienced put paid to that. The Rav didn’t budge an iota when the Halacha was as clear as could be, and suffered (in his words) with the attempts to discredit him in court] To do so, in my opinion is to not understand his halachic honesty and his self-sacrificial fidelity to Mesora, that “every day it should be in your eyes, like something afresh”.

To Rabbi Dalfin I say, you should have published the part of the letter, translated it, and then made whatever comment you could or could not make. You could even have even left it to the reader.  To leave it out, is not the way, and the book is poorer for not mentioning this. I was also critical of both Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky and Rabbi Yossi Jacobson for not addressing this letter in a forum about the Rav and the Rebbe at YU (such a forum wouldn’t happen at 770 🙂 and I corresponded with Rabbi Jacobson on this matter, privately. As I recall, we agreed to disagree.

The Rebbe and the Rav
The Rebbe and the Rav

The fact is that this letter was hidden, and only known about by few. I don’t usually look at statistics on my blog, as they don’t interest me; I write because I feel a need to, at times. The statistics spiked when I published the letter) wordpress had sent me an email. Note also that anything personal could have been redacted, and the entire letter published. Everyone knows the librarian at 770, and they can obtain this letter from him and do the needful, unless there was a specific command for the librarian not to release it (and if there was, one needs to ask why). There are other cases where Chassidim (not the Rebbe) tried to prevent the publication of something he said.

My view is that this letter does not mean the Lubavitcher Rebbe was not fond of or friendly with the Rav, but it does mean that aspects of the Rav’s Derech HaTorah were not in tune with the Rebbe. I believe this fact is inescapable.

The Rav was also misunderstood. Many a time a Talmid would come to “ask a Shayla”. The Rav nodded. When asked why he nodded when he was against the proposal put forth by the Talmid, the Rav said, that [young modern Rabbi, as Rav Hershel likes to put it] did not come to ask me a Shayla. He already had decided. He had some contorted opinion to rely on, but the Rav did not agree with it LeHalacha U’LeMaaseh. He was, however, not interested in the Rav’s Psak. Someone of this type doesn’t come to the Rav as a Talmid to a Rav.

There are many stories of people asking the Rav if a woman has to wear a head covering. The Rav answered “yes, definitely”. They were “smarter” than the Rav, and thought he was just giving a dry diplomatic answer given that his own wife didn’t wear one (for reasons I’m sure she could explain). The Rav answered honestly, I have no doubt, and this is what he held.

On page 87, Rabbi Dalfin states that the Rav tried to be lenient on some rulings! I don’t buy this for one second. The Rav paskened according to what he firmly concluded was Halacha, and like all Poskim, specifically for the person asking the question, and the circumstance. His grandfather used to find lenient positions to make a Chicken Kosher. Did this make Reb Chaim a Kal? The strength of a Hetter is more powerful. The Rav would never pasken unless he was confident and if something new (technologically or fact-wise) came to light, he was intellectually honest enough to change his ruling. This happened with electricity and microphones, for example. He wasn’t the only one. He saw no contradiction with that. It was an imperative. Rabbi Dalfin hints at this in the footnote, but that sort of comment is for the text, not a footnote.

I am sure that Rabbi Dalfin also knows that when it came to questions of Yichud and adopted children, the Rebbe often suggested the couple go to see the Rav in Boston for a Psak, rather than ask the Rebbe. Why would the Rebbe do that if he didn’t respect the Rav as a Posek with broad shoulders?

The Rashab
The Rashab

On page 102, Rabbi Dalfin takes a long bow and attempts to extrapolate that the Rav “learned from Chabad” that a simple Jew should fuse the spiritual and the mundane. Does this mean Chabad follow Torah U’Madda or Torah Im Derech Eretz? Absolutely not. Chabad astonished the young Rav when he observed that simple Jews displayed real Yiras Shomayim and yet did so without great Torah knowledge. This contradicted his Mesora. It’s irrelevant anyway now. Both Chabad and YU stress the need for great Torah knowledge, (Chabad still maintained its Mesorah for saying Tehillim, and Rav Moshe would still have encouraged learning Mishnayos)

On page 125, it is noted, that the Rav was not in the habit of going to hear Torah from a Torah Genius. It is true, he didn’t go to other tishes or farbrengens. He didn’t even learn in a mainstream Yeshivah. Today’s Yeshivas would have thrown him out! Look at the way the Aguda spitefully treat Rav Schachter at the Siyum Hashas. He is seated at a back table, despite the fact that he likely knows more than all those at the head dias. This is Kavod?

What would the Rav learn in Viznitz or Belz! He did go to Rav Chaim Heller, as did the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rav Heller was a genius but was not gifted as an orator and those around him often didn’t understand what he was saying. The Rav would elucidate. This doesn’t contradict Rabbi Rakkefet’s comment brought in the footnote that the Rav would interrupt, as if to imply he didn’t have respect for Rav Heller’s Torah or think it was worthwhile attending! The Rav, however, had very firm views of the standard of Torah of others. Rav Shimon Shkop was a Rosh Yeshivah at YU until his students sadly cajoled him to go back to Europe. The Rav didn’t feel at all inferior to the Rav Shimon Shkops and other luminaries at YU. He taught his way.

The Rav discussed Torah with Rav Aharon Kotler and Reb Moshe Feinstein, and visited sick Gedolai HaTorah who were in hospital who were visiting from overseas, and lifted their spirits through Torah interchanges. He was also the Chairman for the Chinuch Atzmoi at the behest of Rav Kotler because even though he had moved philosophically towards the vision of Mizrachi, he never minimised the importance of Rav Kotler’s work, and he also used to interchange Toras HoRambam with his Uncle, Reb Velvele (although the shameful ones removed the Rav’s name as the author of the letters). The Rav used to ironically send money to his Uncle to support his institutions! He was tolerant to those who learned Torah; even the Neturei Karta.

One can conclude that the Rav thought enough of the Rebbe based on personal interaction that he would come to part of an important farbrengen. It is not surprising that hearing the Torah there, he stayed as long as he felt well enough. Why wouldn’t he? The Rebbe was a genius. I don’t think that had to do with friendship per se. There was some Hakoras HaTov, but in the main, he was attracted to what he was hearing.

There is a theory, I think Rabbi Jacobson mentioned it, that the Rebbe tailored what he was saying, to respond to some of the issues the Rav had written about in the Rav’s Seforim. I’m not at the level to understand that. If I ever meet Rabbi Jacobson, I’d be interested to try and understand.

I wish to note another comment that I read in Rabbi Sholem Ber Kowalsky’s book, which I bought for some reason. He had been in the car, as I recall. Someone “borrowed” the book from me, and I haven’t seen it in years. Bring it back! In addition to what the Rav said in the car on the way back as reported by Rabbi Dalfin, the Rav also is reputed to have said that “Er meint az er iz Moshiach”, that the Lubavitcher Rebbe thought he was Moshiach. I know there is a JEM video with Rabbi Kowalsky and I don’t recall him saying that phrase in the video, but I clearly remember reading it, as it hit me between the eyes at the time. I don’t have a clue if it bothered the Rav in any way; I doubt it. I think his mind would be on the Shiurim he was to deliver.

Rabbi Dalfin seems to associate the Rebbe standing when the Rav entered the farbrengen as some sort of reciprocation. How does Rabbi Dalfin know that the Rebbe reciprocated because he saw the effort the Rav made (as a sick man who found it difficult to sit with sciatica) to come. Does Rabbi Dalfin, a Chabad Chassid not consider that the Rebbe stood because that is the Halacha for people of the calibre of the Rav!?! I guess for a Chassid, that just doesn’t work.

1. Rav Dovid Lifschitz, Suwalker Rav, 2. Rav Moshe Shatzkes, Lomza Rav, 3. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, R”Y RIETS, 4. Rav Chaim Heller, R”Y RIETS, 5. Dr. Shmuel Belkin, Presiden of RIETS
1. Rav Dovid Lifschitz, Suwalker Rav, 2. Rav Moshe Shatzkes, Lomza Rav, 3. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, R”Y RIETS, 4. Rav Chaim Heller, R”Y RIETS, 5. Dr. Shmuel Belkin, Presiden of RIETS

The size of the Shule that the Rav davened in as described in page 170 was small. The Rav wanted to teach students how to learn according to his Mesorah. He wasn’t a Rebbe, and saw no need for them to follow his personal Minhogim and styles. The Rav davened quickly, for example.

Both the Rav and the Rebbe were snappy dressers in Berlin. For the Rebbe, this was a negative amongst older Chassidim who were displeased that he wore white gloves to the Seuda for his Wedding, and had removed his Kapote, as described in the Warsaw press, at that time in the early hours of the morning. (The article from the press appears in “Larger than life” and is very detailed; it was a big story). I have both volumes of Larger than life if anyone is interested. I know the author is derided.

On page 140, Rabbi Dalfin claims that they had a different view of active messianism. I’m not sure why there is at least no footnote of evidence to support this statement. Rabbi Dalfin seems to forget that studying Kodshim, which is a Brisker emphasis, has plenty to do with being ready for the immanence of Moshiach. It is a Torah-study based activism and preparation (the same view was held by the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Kook). I’m not arguing the point, but just wondering if he had evidence that the Rav was opposed to the Rebbe’s approach. Could they not be complementary? After all, the Rebbe inaugurated the learning of the Rambam daily because it covered all aspects of Halacha and was unique, including the times of Moshiach and Kodshim and Tahara etc

On page 142, it is claimed that the Brisker tradition meant that the Rav may have been “less forgiving” in dialogue with visitors than the Rebbe. I think Rabbi Dalfin forgets that Rav Chaim left a specific command that only “Ish Hachesed” should be left on his tombstone. Rav Chaim was known to be very soft with the people, but tough in Torah discussion. The Rav was no Rogatchover firebrand with visitors, although he burned with Torah, and indeed, the Rav was very different to his father, possibly on account of the influence of his mother. Whilst in the early days of Shiur, the Rav “took no prisoners”, I’m not aware that he treated each person who came to his house with pure graciousness as per Halacha. If Rabbi Dalfin has evidence to the contrary, it should be presented.

On page 143, there is not enough evidence for the claim that the Rav studied the Moreh Nevuchim (regularly or semi-regularly). Of course he had studied it. We know he gave a year-long shiur on the topic that has been masterfully put together into a book by Professor Lawrence Kaplan recently, however, in the scheme of things, the Rav was much more of a “Melamed” of Shas and Poskim, then a teacher of philosophy. I wonder how often he picked up the Moreh Nevuchim later? How many of he Rav’s shiurim diverged into Philosophy or Chakirah? Do they sit in a filing cabinet?

Asking what the Brisker fascination with the Rambam was, is like asking why the Lubavitcher Rabbi had a fascination with every nuanced word of Rashi on the Torah. What about it? The Rambam was unique, as expressed by the Beis Yosef himself. There is no doubt about that. Indeed, at a Shiva call, the Rebbe asked the Rav, what his opinion was about the Philosophy of the Alter Rebbe, given that the Rav was ‘a philosoph’. The Rav responded that since the Rambam, there has been no greater Jewish (or non Jewish) philosopher than the Alter Rebbe. I heard and saw this stated from the mouth of Rav Hershel Reichman, who was in the room at the time, and is one of the Roshei Yeshiva at YU.

Rav Sholom Ber Kowalsky
Rav Sholom Ber Kowalsky

On page 170, Rabbi Dalfin seems surprised that Mori V’Rabbi Rav Hershel Schachter didn’t “hang out to daven” wherever the Rav was davening. I’m not sure why Rabbi Dalfin was so surprised. Prior to the current Litvishe Rabbis effectively imitating the ways of the Chassidishe Rabbis in that they became the locus of all activity, the Rav did not like anyone simply following his practices because he did them. He respected that there were family customs; his job was to teach Torah. He wasn’t taking the place of his father or grandfather and expanding the Shule he attended into an enormous gathering of Chassidim. Chassidim emulate every aspect of their Rebbe. They even clap their hands in the same style, and reshape their hats with a Kneich in the same way. This is totally foreign to a Brisker Litvak like the Rav.

Rav Moshe Soloveitchik

On page 175, Rabbi Dalfin describes the non Brisker message the Rav derived from the simple Chassidim of his youth. The Rav has written about it. Nowhere did I find support for Rabbi Dalfin’s comment that this was attained through attending farbrengens! I can’t even imagine Reb Moshe allowing his son to attend. If I recall, the Rav retells how at Melave Malka he experienced the longing of Chassidim to extend the Shabbos and how that impressed him greatly (and yes, the Rav kept Rabbeinu Tam’s times for Shabbos). I haven’t read anywhere about the effect of any farbrengens per se on the Rav.

On page 198. Rabbi Dalfin quotes an exchange with Rabbi Fund. It is interesting, but I don’t think Rabbi Dalfin sees the message adequately, that when the Rav learned Likutei Torah, Rabbi Fund states that he only elaborated on topics that he recognised, and that he didn’t use Chassidic language. Most importantly, contradicting the undertones of Rabbi Dalfin’s book, is that Rabbi Fund states that

“His [the Rav’s] exposure to Chassidus was limited

Rabbi Dalfin attempts to connect the teaching styles of Reb Yoel Kahn and the Rav. I once tried to listen to Reb Yoel Kahn, and found his delivery very difficult to follow. I think this was due to a speech impediment. The Rav was an orator. But more to the point, the Rav was a Mechadesh. Does anyone in Chabad think that Reb Yoel Kahn said or wrote original Chidushim in Chassidus? Surely he crystallised the thoughts of the Rebbes for the masses and is most influential in that way.

On page 225, Rabbi Dalfin recounts the Shavuos meal shared by the Rashab and R’ Chaim as retold by the Rayatz. I do not understand why Rabbi Dalfin didn’t mention that in response to the Rashab, R’ Chaim provided his own Torah in response, let alone reflect on what R’ Chaim was trying to say )I read this in Nefesh HoRav, I believe). I read the episode as two Torah giants exchanging Torah at a meal with mutual respect. I’m not sure how one reads Rabbi Dalfin or the Chassid with whom he discussed it and the novel explanation, without the context of R’ Chaim’s Torah at that same time. In addition, was there any evidence of “push back” from the Rav to learning Chassidus. I know that when he did take that initiative, he stopped Likutei Torah, and tore strips off Rabbi Menachem Genack, and said that this study was not for those who couldn’t use their heart, and stop focussing on the Rav’s brain.

On page 230, Rabbi Dalfin seems to imply that there is a paucity of “mimic acceptance” amongst Chassidim. My understanding is that Chassidim first do accept anything the Rebbe says or does, and then try to understand it (if they are successful). The Rav, was a great supporter of mimetic tradition, when it came to Mesorah (his son R’ Chaym famously writes about the concept in Tradition), but when it came to learning the truth of Torah, he had no place for non-critical regurgitation. One needed to personally work to come to sound conclusions. This was his definition of proper Torah study LiShma. Indeed, as a simple example, the Rav never accepted the new Techeles, not because he had some scientific or halachic objection, but because a Mesora had been broken. Yet, his student, Mori V’Rabbi Rav Hershel Schachter, does wear Techeles, and brings cogent arguments as to why one should do so as a Halachic preference. The Rav would have had no issue with a Talmid Muvhak, deciding in this way.

On page 236, Rabbi Dalfin wonders how the left of the RCA were becoming more dominant. For one, the left has effectively gone to YCT and has been rejected by the RCA. Secondly, to conjecture that this is the Rav’s fault because he encouraged individualism, is to ignore that the Rav over-rode individualism on matters of great importance, and the RCA does the same to this day. Furthermore, this line of argument, is akin to claiming that the plainly lunatic meshichist elohisten who stand in line for Kos Shel Brocho and think the Rebbe is literally alive, are the fault of the Rebbe because he should have been more forthright in stopping Rav Wolpe from writing his book on Moshiach. I heard that exchange on video, and I can’t see what the Rebbe could have said with more intent. Rav Wolpe though thought and thinks he knows what the Rebbe wanted and went ahead, even though the Rebbe told him to desist. There are many examples of Chassidim (with Hiskashrus) who do things today that they never would have done in the days when the Rebbe was in this world. One could “blame” the Rebbe or “blame” the Rav, but I think this is too simplistic. We are responsible for our actions. That being said, Open Orthodoxy is the new Conservative, and there have been some good articles exposing them of late. On that matter I have concerns for some Shules in Melbourne that are left wing enough to gravitate to a YCT-style approach.

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik

On page 237, Rabbi Dalfin notes that the Rav didn’t visit the graves of his father or grandfather to communicate with them in the way the Lubavitcher Rebbe always went to his father-in-law’s grave. I think that Rabbi Dalfin has forgotten one thing: Brisker do not visit graves. They consider them Avi Avos HaTuma, and Halachically, they are not places one should frequent or expose themselves to. Mori V’Rabbi Rav Hershel Schachter doesn’t visit the cemetery. The Rav himself broke the rule when his wife passed away and admitted he allowed his emotions to rule (he did jokingly justify it with a positive outcome for the Yeshivah).

Rabbi Dalfin discusses Lubavitch and Women in respect of half, full or otherwise ordination and says it’s not even on an agenda. He is right. Traditional titles will never be used in Chabad. However, Chabad has its own title, namely, Shlucha. Depending on the Shlucha, who is as important as the Shaliach in respect of a Chabad house, many of the activities of the Shlucha share a commonality with the pastoral care that some women assume as their roles assisting a Rabbi. This used to be the role of a Rebbetzin, however, sadly, many Rebbetzins don’t see it that way any longer and their roles have changed, and some were not as learned. For the record, I am pro Yoatzot Halacha, as in those who study in Nishmat under Rav Henkin, but I draw the line there. A Yoetzet Halacha doesn’t pasken. She transmits a psak according to the case, and asks Rav Henkin when she does not know or is not sure.

On page 238, Rabbi Dalfin claims contradictions between the Halachic and philosophical positions. I am not sure what he is driving at, in the context of the relationship with the Rav. If his point is that there were no contradictions between the Rebbe’s halachic stances and the Rav’s philosophy, the two were writing in two completely different loci. One was expounding chassidism, while the other also related the conceptual illumination of philosophy to Halachic imperatives. The Rav, was also refreshingly open about his personal feelings. The Rebbe, in the words of the Rav, was a Nistar by nature. One would imagine that he only discussed private matters with his wife when they shared a cup of tea each day. The Rav and Rebbe were chalk and cheese on matters of self, and expressing their personal struggles.

On page 241, Rabbi Dalfin quotes from the Rayatz and the Rebbe, regarding R’ Chaim being someone ‘who did as much as humanely possible and then leaving the rest to God’. The Rashab, wasn’t satisfied with that. The Rebbe saw in this R’ Chaim exercising a halachic view. I am not here to argue with the Rebbe’s interpretation, however, when Brisk burned down, and they rebuilt it, the last person to move into their house was R’ Chaim, even though it was immediately rebuilt. He slept in the street until every pauper had their house rebuilt. According to Halacha he didn’t need to do that! An equally plausible explanation is therefore that R’ Chaim wasn’t saying there is nothing more to do, but rather, we need Siyata Dishmaya to achieve more. I see nothing untoward in such a thought. I also read that the Rashab couldn’t believe that R’ Chaim’s Shamash (and paupers) often slept in R’ Chaim’s bed forcing the Rebbetzin to sleep in the kitchen. He had a rule with his Shamash: whoever went to bed first, slept in the bed. That doesn’t sound like man who pursued honour to me. The Rav also didn’t pursue honour. He knew his task, and gave his life to fulfil it.

On page 254 Rabbi Dalfin mentioned the Chabad-YU conference on the Rav and the Rebbe. I ask Rabbi Dalfin would such a thing ever be held at 770 in the Zal?

I find Rabbi Dalfins comment that

“More young Israel congregations should hire Chabad Rabbis and Chabad must start to include more young Israel Rabbis as speakers and teachers at their events

one of the most revealing biases in the book! Chabad’s strength is with the non-affiliated using their non judgmental approach. Many a Chabad Rabbi is ill-equipped to lead a young israel shule. They do not have the secular background to connect, and it is only the crème de la crème that can do so. Having said that, this comment is demeaning and I don’t think Rabbi Dalfin would agree that the Rav would agree with it! And why aren’t young Israel Rabbis more than speakers! Their Smicha is excellent and includes important new training.

Finally, Footnote 519 lists Rabbis Boruch Reichman. It fact it was his father Rav Hershel Reichman who was in the room and heard the statement.

Here is a Pesach letter from the Rav to the Rebbe, and this is a letter from the Rayatz extolling the Rav. Apologies for any typos, but I don’t spend much time re-reading what I wrote, especially when it’s this long, and I’ve probably lost the reader already.




How do you deal with the name Zelig זעליג?

This sounds like a strange heading for a blog post. Let me explain. In the last few months, we merited having two grandsons born to my younger two daughters. They and their husbands named both their sons Shaul Zelig, שאול זעליג after my dear father ז׳ל. I was honoured and, of course, this was due to my father’s very close relationship with each and every one of his grandchildren.

In the 1600’s, Rav Eliyahu Shapira in his famous work Eliyahu Rabo, quotes the Beis Yosef, Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, that just before saying the Oseh Shalom עושה שלום of Shemoneh Esreh, one should say a Pasuk from Tanach whose first letter corresponds to the first letter of one’s  name, and such that the passuk ends with the last letter of one’s name.

One of my sons-in-law, had quickly taken on the custom to say his new son’s Pesukim for both שאול and זעליג as well as his own, until his son was old enough to do so. The other soon followed. I did not know but he had asked some Rabonim in Shule because he could not find a single Passuk in Tanach which started with letter Zayin and ended with a Gimmel. Eventually, it was concluded, thanks to computers, that there was no such Passuk. The question then arose, so what does one say if they practice this custom?

The Arizal and the Shelah Hakadosh both write about this concept and the latter mentions in his Sefer, that it is a tool or device to help one after 120 years, when facing God, and when asked their name (this would be something mystical that is beyond me). We will be in fear and the saying of this Passuk will jog our memory from its expected momentary freeze. (Some say the Passuk 18 times by the way). It is clearly a Kabbalistic/Mystical notion, however, I am accustomed to saying my name as well, because that’s what I was taught when I was a boy, and assumed this was mainstream practice. I don’t know whether Germanic, Oberlander or other Ashkenazic traditions also have this Minhag/practice. I would imagine that Sephardim do.

Either way, the advice one son-in-law was given was a bit of a compromise. He was to say a passuk that had a word in it that began with zayin and ended in gimmel. That’s not to say it wouldn’t work. I saw some opinions that indeed suggest this.

I was intrigued when I learned about this reality and started scouring (I don’t have Bar Ilan or Otzar HaChochma databases though). I found that some have a custom to say one passuk which would starts with a Shin for Shaul and ended with a Gimel for Zelig. This was legitimately sourced, however, both my sons-in-law both follow the Chabad custom, so I set about to find out what, if anything, Chabad does in such a situation (or indeed any group that says two Pesukim for two names).

I immediately thought to ring Dayan Usher Zelig Weiss, Rav of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital and a world-famous Posek. After all, his middle name is Zelig, and I have spoken to him before. I got an answer almost immediately that the Passuk that should be used is:

זָרַח בַּחשֶׁךְ אוֹר לַיְשָׁרִים חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם וְצַדִּֽיק

which is from Tehillim (112:4)

The reasoning is because in pronunciation the Gimel actually sounds like a Kuf. Indeed it does. I can still hear my father say it that way unwittingly.

Certainly, in Hilchos Gittin, where names and nicknames are most critical, I could see this as being significant. There are various theories about the origin of the name Zelig. In my father’s case (I surmise Dayan Usher Zelig Weiss, the Zelig was considered a coupled/translation of Osher (Usher) as in Dov Ber, Yehuda Aryeh Leib, Menachem Mendel, etc. I knew my father’s middle name came from his grandfather who was also called Osher (who was Yitzchak Osher Amzel or Reb Yitzchak Bogoshitzer) but since my father’s other grandfather was named Yitzchak, and was still alive, he couldn’t get the name Yitzchak Osher. I got the name Yitzchak later, as did my cousin Ya׳akov Yitzchak Balbin ז׳ל.

An oracular friend in the USA, Rabbi Michoel Seligson, sent me the following letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe in response to someone who asked exactly this question (it’s reprinted from a couple’s wedding booklet gift to their guests).

image001And to add, see
where the Kav Noki quotes the Mahari Mintz (need time to look at that) supporting equivalence as in soundex. Clearly, soundex was extended to the Possuk as well, as a device for memorisation.

Zelig more  recently was the same as Germanic Selik or Selig. Rabbi Selig Baumgarten comes to mind. Again, accents/pronunciation are evident. Zelig seems to be derived from Old German meaning “chosen” or “blessed”. It is also found in Old English and may have become the word “select“.

We also find it in Yiddish with this meaning  as in “a zointz un a zelig(ch)s”

Back to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

I am intrigued by the last words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe above which state that this is the Pasuk “until you find an exact pasuk”. I thought to myself, there are a finite number of Pesukim. Either it exists or it doesn’t exist. What possibly could the Lubavitcher Rebbe have meant “until you find“. You’d never find it! One could surmise he was hinting that when saying Pesukim in general, never stop paying careful attention to each letter of each Passuk.

I had another thought, for which I have no support. The tradition is that when the Moshiach comes a “new Torah” will sprout תורה חדשה. Perhaps, given the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s single-minded focus on causing Moshiach to come sooner, he was hinting that such a Passuk may come into existence in times to come? I don’t know. I’m certainly not qualified to double guess what he meant. It might be an explanation.

Either way, I found it an interesting tidbit, especially for those who have the name זעליג!

Oh, and here are our two treasures:


Pure Tipshus (stupidity)

[Hat tip BA]%d7%a9%d7%92%d7%a2%d7%95%d7%9f-%d7%9e%d7%a9%d7%99%d7%99%d7%97%d7%99%d7%a1%d7%98%d7%99-%d7%97%d7%93%d7%a9

I thought I’d seen just about everything, but this just goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. Oh, and if you are wondering whether I’d call out a Tallis that had a Magen Dovid or something woven in the same way on the back, I would do so, if the purpose wasn’t decorative.

In my opinion, and I know this is shared by others in the main Yeshivah Shule in Melbourne, the sign up the back has passed its use by date. Indeed, I heard Rabbi Telsner last week in a speech refer to the Lubavitcher Rebbe as Nishmoso Eden נ׳׳ע … given he is a Meshichist, my ears were sensitised. The final decision rests with Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner in my opinion, and it’s time the Shule was normalised to look like Shules always looked, without placards etc.

On my sole visit to 770, I didn’t go downstairs because that Minyan, the main minyan, is just surrounded by placards. Chabad agonise about putting a Tefilla on a wall as it’s not considered Minhag Chabad. Enough of this. If he turns out to be Moshiach, it doesn’t bother me. If it turns out that he’s not, then it doesn’t bother me. In the meanwhile can we give all this constant advertising and chanting a rest? If someone really feels that removing these things is tantamount to a cutting off of their Hiskashrus (connection) to the Rebbe and/or not recognising him as their Manhig, I’d suggest that they concentrate on being a proper Chassid and not being part of all this Chitzoniyus (external stuff) which you are more likely to find in the non-Jewish world, or on bill boards daily in Meah Shearim.

Move on. Bring Moshiach, but move on.

New book on Rav and the Rebbe by Chaim Dalfin

I was contacted by the author, Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, to make known his latest publication. I don’t normally post advertisements, but I am a fan of both the Rav and the Rebbe, so can’t help myself. I don’t know Rabbi Dalfin personally, but I certainly knew and admired his Shver, the late Reb Chaim Serebryanski. I ordered the book about a week ago, and he sends to Australia too. I don’t believe it will be available in bookshops.

It is available online if you follow this link. Of course, I have no opinion on it until I read it 🙂


The Gay Pride March in Jerusalem

If one is Orthodox and as a matter of belief, the Torah is the word of God, then one cannot escape that certain acts of sexual relations are forbidden, including some of those being exposed through a march.

In Halacha, there are several categories of people who perform acts which constitute sin, many unrelated to sexual acts, where their capacity to act as Torah ordained witnesses is diminished. There are some who do this out of want, and others who do this out of rebellion against the Torah.

I have no doubt that there are many people who struggle with the fact that their desires, sexually, are considered a matter of shame to the extent that they don’t wish to disclose this information, except in trusted (safe) environments. Berating someone for having such desires, or call it a disposition (research on this will emerge over the next ten years, have no doubt), is not of value in this day. Indeed, it could cause someone to feel that they are so hopeless, that they make take their own life in the worst case, or become so depressed that they cannot function as a human being.

It is known that many contemporary sages have said that we no longer have the skill of “telling someone off” for straying from Torah. I believe this is true. The best way to influence someone is to be a living and shining example of what a Jew with unconditional belief, and intellectual submission to the Torah means, and that such a person can be pleasant and sensitive, as can the Judaism they practice.

Intellectual submission to Torah in the form of Emunah is something that is axiomatic for the practicing Orthodox Jewish person. Belief, by its nature transcends intellect. Reasons for commands are there primarily to explore the “what can be derived” from Judaism, as Rav Soloveitchik explained, however, reasons, do not have a place in the “why must I do this command”. The why question exists only when there isn’t submission. In Chassidic terminology this may be termed Bitul.

I understand, and I am happy to be corrected that there may be two motives for a parade of this sort:

  1. To promote the life style as being acceptable
  2. To express the view that nobody should live in fear, or be cut off, as a result of their orientation.

Promotion of such a life style is not compatible with Torah. To put it crudely, one would also be against a march which said “It’s okay to do away with Shabbat”. The common element is that they are immutable Torah imperatives, and the quest to seek adherents to such views is anathema to a Torah observant Jew. Indeed, we find great Halachic difference in the Jew who breaks the Sabbath in private versus the one who honks the horn when passing the Rabbi walking to Shule, with the aim of showing that “I don’t care about Sabbath”, or the person who eats prawns because they “just love the taste”.

In terms of the Gay Pride march, if the aim is point 2 above, then I think its existence transcends religion. There are various types of people who don’t accept this reality for other reasons. It is important to make sure that all those who have predilections and quandaries, are not made to feel that they are “outside the tent”. They are in the tent. A more sophisticated approach would be how to engage them, should they personally wish to be engaged on the topic, and make them feel that there are hundreds of Mitzvos that are applicable to them, as much as anyone else. On this point, it would be useful if Rabbis of skill got together and devised some guidelines.

With that in mind, I felt the statements of some 300 Religious Zionist Rabbis achieved nothing positive in respect of the marchers, except for Nir Barkat choosing to remain Pareve and not attend for what he called “sensitivity” reasons. If those Rabbis thought that there was a lack of knowledge about various sins and how they are treated in Judaism, then there are other ways to interact with the various groups. The religious group need a different approach than the one of the non practicing variety. Those approaches need to be advanced and not simple. Quoting a verse, for which the irreligious marchers have no regard, is a waste of time. Do they not know this already?

Point 1 though is something that I do not think should happen from a Halachic viewpoint. I do not see a reason to seek recruits to swell the numbers engaging in such a life style.

The gay pride movement is not without blame here, either. They have much to answer for. Jerusalem is the Holiest City, as such, sensitivity, indeed the same sort of sensitivity they demand when respecting their sexual orientation, should imply that this is definitely not the City where one chooses to march. In the process, they are trampling on sensitivities that they do not understand and in some cases are antagonistic towards. Why do this? It only creates antipathy and division. Of course, this does not mean that there are people in Jerusalem who are confronted with the issue of being gay (or GBLTIQ). They are in Rishon LeTzion, Haifa, and not confined to some geographic point in Israel.

If they have had an Israel march in Tel Aviv, then it’s happened. It can be marketed as such: the location of the march doesn’t signify that it is only for those who live in Tel Aviv. There is no need to offend the Torah based sensibilities in Jerusalem, the Holy City, when sensible alternatives which achieve the same aim are possible. Some of the responsibility for the rhetoric that has occurred, rests with those who also wish to remove the notion that Jerusalem is any holier a place, in Israel. Ironically, that’s what the Arabs do. It is not what Jews do: be they practicing orthodox or otherwise. If they throw a spark into flammable material, then expect a raging fire.

I would have liked to have seen two outcomes from the march:

  1. Jerusalem is considered a no go zone for such marches as the outcome is to cause more antipathy, and that’s precisely what they are trying to overcome. It will actually heighten the problem for GBLTIQ people who will feel minimised.
  2. The Rabbis, need to be more sophisticated in the statements that they put out in response to such events. There should have been meetings beforehand between the organisers and Rabbinic leaders and I expect that a better outcome would have occurred. Of course any Orthodox Rabbi will quote the Torah here if asked. The Torah’s views are not hidden, nor are they unknown. However, I do not know what is achieved by calling such people names as a method to reduce the occurrence of people performing forbidden acts of the Torah.

It is a democracy. That also implies that the Jews of Jerusalem should have a say about the compatibility of the event occurring also in Jerusalem. If the motive is to preach secularism, then it is secularism, not being Gay, that is the issue here. Silent peaceful marches against creeping secularism where Israelis are identifying as nothing different to a non-Jew who lives in Israel (and sees Israel as their secular home country). This may even come to resemble the French Republican model.

It is at times like this, that we need the wise counsel of the lover of all Jews in Israel, Rav Kook. He knew how to ignite the spark of Judaism in Jews who were adopting other isms in Israel and he did so through positive acts. It is time the Rabbis examined their methods of protest and became more advanced in their way of expounding the real basis and foundation for which Jews live in Israel in the first place.

Some will sophomorically claim that this is just the Charedi Leumi section of Religious Zionism, and that they are no different to other Charedim in 90% of their outlook. Rav Kook was a Charedi; there is no doubt about that. One does not have to become a wishy-washy, left-wing, tree-hugging, apologetic Rabbi with a community of people who are lax in increasing numbers, to be qualified to respond to these events.

Unfortunately, our generation doesn’t have a Rav Kook. It doesn’t have a Lubavitcher Rebbe or a Rav Soloveitchik. Apart from Rabbi Sacks who is wonderfully adept at expressing Torah views without causing others to become anti-Torah, we are lacking Rabbinic leaders who understand people, and not only the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch.

Happy Lag L’aomer, or Lag B’aomer?

I seem to have unanswered questions on the 33rd day of the Omer. The Gemora in Yevamos tells us that on this day the Talmidim of Rabbi Akiva ceased to die. I haven’t yet understood why that should be a happy day. Why? Well, if they started dying again the next day (assuming the Ashkenazi tradition) then who would be “happy” that there was a day of remission to the extent that it has morphed to. Note: this is, to my knowledge, the only source in Torah Sh’Baal Peh (Gemora) describing this day. Someone sent me a page of the Chidushei Agados of the Maharal on this Gemora. I have it at home, but can’t recall ever looking that up. The Maharal has a really nice explanation. He says that on this day the decree was lifted. Yes, it’s true that those for whom the decree had already been decided continued dying until presumably Shavuos, but I still had problems with this answer. Firstly, assuming that it is the reason, I would have thought that it would have been really hard to “get happy” knowing people would continue dying? Secondly, all but a handful died. It was a potential disaster for Torah She’Baal Peh.

Tradition has it amongst some that this is also the Yohr Tzeit/Hillula of the Rashbi. The Rashbi, is considered to be the author of the Zohar (or if you follow some views, most of the Zohar, but let’s not go there). The Zohar is Toras HaNistar, the hidden Torah, or perhaps the more esoteric metaphysically modelled face of Torah. The Zohar wasn’t and isn’t anathema to Misnagdim or Litvaks (most), but is of course anathema to the DarDaim (of which Rav Yosef Kapach was prominent) who believe to this day that it’s not part of Torah. Either way, the issue of it being associated with Toras HaNistar is agreed, and yet, the Ari Zal, for example, never wrote that on this day Rashbi passed away.

The Aruch Hashulchan and others note that this is the day that the Rashbi emerged from the Cave he had been hidden in for 13 years. That was a day of Simcha because with his emergence, so did the emergence of the Zohar, and the continuation of the chain of Torah SheBaal Peh.

Even assuming it wasn’t his Yohr Tzeit, I understand happiness at his emergence. (The Chasam Sofer mentions that on this day the Manna in the desert started to fall). I also understand that being morose for long periods without a break isn’t the best thing, especially today where the importance of positive thinking and talking is stressed even by secular psychologists. The glass is always “Half Full”. I’m not getting into that topic because like anything, if one over-does this approach in educating their children, I feel it shields them from reality, although I do accept that it should be, especially today, the de jure approach to education.

The Eidot HaMizrach have a different understanding. Yes, according to that Gemora in Yevamos 62B, the students stopped to die. They therefore cut off all Sefira mourning on midday of the next day (although this year being Erev Shabbos is likely more lenient — note, I’m writing this blog without looking things up, which is a bad thing, so remember that! Do your own checking up on what I claim 🙂 That approach makes sense to me, and always did. It’s also not as if the Beis Yosef as a father of Eidot HaMizrach wasn’t a Mekubal. He definitely was. Whether the Rambam was is an issue of contention. I have a book by Professor Menachem Kellner on this general topic, and I know (but haven’t seen) that the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote a piece proving that the Rambam had access to the Zohar. Again, I digress.

Another question is why we don’t call it Lag Laomer, consonant with the way we count every night. A Rav pointed to a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe where he says that we say Lag Baomer is because the numerical value of Lag Baomer is the same as Moshe, and just as Moshe Rabennu revealed the Torah Shebiksav, and Torah Shebaal Peh (Halocho LeMoshe MiSinai) the Rashbi was permitted to reveal the secrets of the Zohar, and the Rashbi was a spark (Nitzutz) of Moshe Rabennu, if you will.

Artists rendering of the Remo

In Shiur today, I made another observation. Tonight, Lag BaOmer, is the Yohr Tzeit of the great Remoh (רמ’’א) who is known to have written 33 Seforim (but it is contentious that he died at the age of 33 as well). The Remoh’s name was MOSHE and he was the greatest Posek Rishon for Ashkenazi Jewry through his glosses on the Tur in Darkei Moshe, but more importantly his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch proper, adding the Ashkenazi view where he disagreed with Rav Yosef Karo. Nu, I suggested that his name was Moshe, and it is fitting that also in PSAK, that perhaps a Nitzutz of Moshe who had the same name, passed on high on this day.

My father ע’’ה in the Remoh's Kloiz in Kracow
My father ע’’ה in the Remoh’s Kloiz in Kracow

Food for thought. Happy for anyone to shred what I have written to ribbons as I have not opened a few Seforim which might help me and make this a better post.

If you haven’t noticed. These are Pitputim. No more.

An Eruv in Crown Heights?

There is an existing Eruv supervised by Rabbi Unsdorfer which covers North Crown Heights. This doesn’t include Chabad. While there have been Eruvin in Chabad (in Liadi and Lubavitch itself) times have changed, and the last Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע stated clearly that he was against Eruvin today and an example is Melbourne. Let me qualify that. One cannot be against Kosher Eruvin in the sense that they think an Eruv is an unnecessary concept. That is a view likely held by Reform or “reconstructionist/new age” Jews. I would like to think that those who are less practicing but when they do practice, do so, according to traditional Orthodox Judaism also have no issue with the concept of a Kosher Eruv and would consider supporting such.

I was privy to details of the first (unkosher) Eruv constructed in Melbourne many years ago through the office of the then Mizrachi Organisation’s Rabbi (not the venerable Rav Abaranok ז’ל), and heard the tapes of Rabbi Groner ז’ל discussing the issue forcefully with Rabbi M.D. Tendler and read booklets from Rabbi M. Krasnjanski and Rabbi Yosef Bechoffer and more.

Melbourne now has a world-class Kosher Eruv, which is, I believe, under the supervision of Rav Gavriel Tzinner (who has mashgichim here through the Council of Orthodox Judaism of Victoria) and visits these shores from time to time. It is trusted by those who avail themselves of its facility, and this includes the ultra orthodox, generally secessionist, Adass Israel Congregation.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe did not issue Halachic decisions as a rule, but did do so from time to time if he felt it was important to identify and/or stress a Chabad custom, or if he deemed the matter to be of a level of importance to the extent that he did so.

On the issue of Eruvin, as I understand it, the Lubavitcher Rebbe preferred to build a quiet unannounced but strictly Kosher Eruv for the purposes of minimising the possibility of someone carrying by accident. I understand that he was concerned that, in our day, a proliferation of Eruvin would imply that ordinary Jews would forget there was a prohibition to carry. Indeed, on several occasions I have witnessed Jews, especially from Israel where there are Eruvin all over the place, not even be aware that one should not carry on Shabbos, as a matter of Torah law.

Since the Lubavitcher Rebbe passed away, as I saw in videos and written material, and as affirmed in the book by Rabbi Eliezrie which I happened to finish one week prior to this post, the LR specified that issues in “the future” for Chabad Chassidim (which undoubtedly included the possibility that he would not live to see the redemption before he passed away)  should be decided by Vaad Rabbonei Lubavitch or Mercaz etc depending on the type of issue. I do not recall reading or hearing the notion that one decides based on opening a random page of his Torah, a practice which many Rabbis forbid or do not encourage, including some Chabad-ordained Rabbis, since even the Goral HaGro (and yes there is also a Gemora גיטין דף סח)  was only used with Tanach.

I therefore close with my opinion that those who are now starting a public campaign to raise money for a more expansive Eruv in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, should only be doing so if they are not Chabad Chassidim, or they have express permission from the aforementioned Beis Din of Lubavitch.

I am not here to discuss the merits of an Eruv. In days gone by Eruvin were critical. They allowed one to bring home the pot of choolent, which was warming in the baker’s oven (I presume the baker had a fleshig section or the heavy pots never had enough to overflow 😦 ) for lunch after davening. It is a halakhic requirement to have something warm on Shabbos, and from there, Choolent, Chamin and the like emerged (in my opinion). As an aside, PLEASE don’t use the term Pareve Choolent. There is no such thing. Call it Potato Stew or slow cooked Potato or whatever. A choolent without meat, was unfortunately something which the poor suffered who couldn’t even get bones to put in their choolent.

Back to the issue. My view on the online appeal for money to support a wider Eruv in Crown Heights are:

  1. It should not be supported publicly by Rabbonei Lubavitch
  2. It should not be used by Chasidim of Chabad
  3. It should be constructed by a Rabbi of world-renowned expertise in Eruvin
  4. Others should follow their own Posek, and if their Posek allows it, by all means, use it
  5. Those who are not of Chabad persuasion who want to be personally stringent should only do so for themselves. They should not impose the stringency on their family. If they wish to change their mind and use the Eruv later on, they will need Hatoras Nedorim (annulment of vows, given the views of the Rambam on Reshus HoRabbim D’Orayso, which is also a Chumra of Briskers and I believe the Rav was also reluctant to use Eruvin)

In summary, it would have been better, given the relative paltry sum required from the vantage point of a Gvir, to have done this without fanfare, if one followed the late and great Lubavitcher Rebbe. Indeed, who knows if an Eruv was built in secret. It’s not in any book I’ve read (and I have read four relatively good ones on Chabad in the last year, especially when compared with the poor book by Heilman et al which was taken apart by Rabbi Rapoport of England)

Disclaimer: I aspire to be an ordinary Jew. I am not a card-carrying member of any group, although  I would be most inclined to follow Rav Soloveitchik if he were בעולם דידן. One can only surmise if the Lubavitcher Rebbe would have a different opinion. Those who try to second guess him, should give up now. There is no ability to do that. Like the Rav, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a super genius.

Carlebach, R’ Moshe Feinstein and Chabad

I know there are many people who feel uplifted by his tunes. However, the Halachic perspective on this controversial figure, needs to be known.  I am aware that Vicki Polin had been accused of many things including hyperbole, but it cannot be argued by anyone who has a fidelity to historical fact, that as years progressed he became more “progressive” and there were serious accusations.

Reb Moshe Feinstein wrote an opinion in among a section of his writings one would not normally read Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer Vol. 1, No 96. In that, my reading is that until he became more progressive, his songs were fine. After that, they were to be avoided.

One Shabbos Shachris, without much forethought, I chose a Carlebach tune for Kel Adon. (Let me say that it is Halachically very problematic to sing Kel Adon in any tune, unless one does this in a form of Aniya (answering). The Chazan says a stanza and the Kahal repeat it. The same is true of Lecha Dodi. There is a special Kedusha and Mesora to this form of Answering which is an endangered species and I urge Ba’alei Tefilla and Chazonim to re-introduce it, even with song. This was the very strong opinion of the Rav).

I finished davening, and Rabbi Groner ז’ל as was his custom, thanked me for the שחרית and then asked me to sit down. He relayed a story between he, the LR and R’ Shlomo Carlebach. Rabbi Groner had been a friend of Carlebach, and had learned with him. After Shlomo went down certain paths, Rabbi Groner wondered what approach he should take vis a vis his relationship with Shlomo and inter alia his music/influence.

Rabbi Groner told me that the LR was very firm. Although the LR always stressed Kiruv (bringing people closer to God), he did do so again in respect of Shlomo. The LR instructed Rabbi Groner that all efforts should be made to be warm to Shlomo, however, and this was a big however, this was never to be done within the Mosdos (institutions) of Chabad. One should find other ways.

Rabbi Groner then regaled me with stories of Shlomo and his brother’s brilliance in learning, but he asked me not to do this again. Suffice it to say, that within a Lubavitch Mosad, I never sang a Carlebach song during Tefilla. I admit, I was also influenced by R’ Moshe Feinstein’s Tshuvah, which although is kind, and doesn’t mention Shlomo by name, is known by his Talmidim, to have Shlomo in mind.

I’m not here to judge Shlomo. However, I do think that anyone with a fidelity to Chabad absolutely must follow the LR’s instructions. Some will not know, others I know ignore these instructions. I mentioned my conversation with Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner, and he affirmed that he had heard it from his father himself as well. R’ Chaim Tzvi will quietly discourage Shlomo’s tunes in his Chabad House.

Make up your own mind about those who choose to not follow the LR’s very clear dictum. Do they know better?

Two Views on Rabbi Riskin

It was predictable, that the hard-hitting and often “on the money” Isi Leibler would come out in full support of Rabbi Riskin. Isi, if I’m not misquoting him, is also a supporter of Rabbi Benny Lau, who is a controversial figure.

What Isi fails to notice is that Rav Soltoveitchik was a Charedi in his outlook on Torah and Mitzvos. The difference was that Rav Soltoveitchik could make a Psak (many were often contradictory for good reasons) and “take on” any Gadol BaTorah in the entire world and flatten him with his learning and brilliance. His use of the philosophical world was to broaden the understanding of Torah.

Rabbi Riskin is a very impressive man. I enjoyed his latest book immensely. One thing that was clear though that Rabbi Riskin, when in doubt, always went to seek advice from some mentors. He used to go to Rav Soltoveitchik and then to the Lubavitcher Rebbe (especially when the latter enfranchised him to work underground for Soviet Jewry).

Now, Rabbi Riskin is his own man. He is not young. He got one-off Hetterim from both Rav Soltoveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe for certain activities. In his fantastic book he is clearly in awe of them, and if you asked him today whether he reached either of their ankles, he would tell you “No way in the world”. That being said, unlike another moderates like Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ז’ל, Rav Aharon actually also had a posek. That Posek was none other than Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ז’ל, a cousin of Isi’s wife, Naomi. The saintly Rav Avigdor Nevenzahl also went to discuss difficult matters with Rav Shlomo Zalman. Why? Because whilst being a Charedi, Rav Shlomo Zalman was not behoved to any politics or political machinations. He was an independent, a pure soul, who understood both Rav Aharon, and Rav Avigdor (and like Rav Elyashiv would get angry at anyone who remotely said anything negative about Rav Kook ז’ל)

I feel that Rabbi Riskin is now missing his mentors. Who isn’t? His last few more controversial steps are argued among the real students of Rav Soloveitchik, of whom I consider Rav Hershel Schachter שליט’’א, the carrier of Rav Soloveitchik’s Torah Mesora and דרך הלימוד ופסק par excellence.

Far be it from me to be one to proffer advice to Rabbi Riskin, (I don’t come to his ankles) but the one Rabbi I would go to discuss issues of grave halachic import in Israel with, is actually Rav Shlomo Zalman’s son in law, Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg. He is very much attuned with the real world, as was Rav Shlomo Zalman himself. He is a wise man, very attuned to the real world, and void of politics.

I’ll close with Isi’s article, and that of Rabbi Gil Student. You decide. Regarding the Chief Rabbinate, I agree. The calibre of Rabbi is not what it should be. Rav Ovadya Yosef was recently described as מיוסף עד יוסף לא קם כיוסף where the first Yosef is R’ Yosef Caro the author of the Shulchan Aruch. I agree with this whole heartedly. Sadly, political appartchiks are now in the seat.

Indeed, reading what Rav Soltoveitchik wrote about the Chief Rabbinate, is as true now as it was 30 years ago. He was utterly opposed to the concept.

Here is Isi’s article, followed by R’ Gil Student.

The despicable effort by the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate to purge Rabbi Shlomo Riskin because he does not conform to their stringent halachic approach may prove to be a blessing in disguise. The anger this outrageous initiative generated could be the final straw needed to dissolve this corrupt institution, which is held in contempt by most Israelis — including, ironically most haredim.

Rabbi Riskin is one of the outstanding role models of the religious Zionist community. I am privileged to have known him for over 30 years and consider him one of the greatest and most beloved Modern Orthodox rabbis of our generation. He is also an extraordinary creator of Jewish institutions.

A student of the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in 1964 Riskin became the rabbi of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, which he transformed into one of New York’s most successful Orthodox religious centers.

In 1984, at the peak of his career, he moved to Israel and became founding chief rabbi and a leading developer of Efrat, which is today a highly successful community.

In addition to acting as a communal rabbi, he launched the Ohr Torah Stone institutions, which include one of the best networks of Modern Orthodox schools in Israel, ranging from junior high school through to graduate programs. He also created a special program to inculcate young men with the knowledge and skills to be effective rabbis and educators throughout the Jewish world.

He displayed innovation by seeking to blend Halachah with the requirements of a modern industrial Jewish state.

He strove to upgrade the status of women and to this effect launched Midreshet Lindenbaum, a college designed to educate religious women. He also created a five-year program designed to train women to act as religious advisers paralleling rabbis. This and his efforts to address the issue of agunot (women in unwanted marriages whose husbands are unwilling or unable to grant them divorces) outraged the ultra-Orthodox.

Rabbi Riskin also had a major impact in the field of marriage, divorce and above all, conversion, where he established independent conversion courts that were bitterly challenged by the haredi establishment. Riskin considers the issue of conversion — especially related to immigrants from the former Soviet Union — as one of the greatest religious, national and societal challenges facing Israel.

He was at the forefront of efforts by the moderate Tzohar Rabbinical Council to decentralize the appointment of rabbis and provide Israelis with choices beyond the extremist ultra-Orthodox candidates appointed by the Chief Rabbinate.

When at the age of 75, Rabbi Riskin’s tenure came up for a five-year extension — an automatic procedural formality, the Chief Rabbinical Council took the unprecedented step of refusing to reappoint him. It was only due to a plea from the recently elected chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Stern, that the council reluctantly agreed to interview him. He only learned about his provisional rejection from the media.

This was not merely an attempt to publicly humiliate one of the doyens of Modern Orthodoxy. It was a ploy by the ultra-Orthodox fanatics to assume unprecedented total centralized control of religious leadership and to marginalize those with different approaches.

But choosing to impose their agenda on Efrat, a bastion of national religious Zionism, is likely to backfire and the crude effort to oust Rabbi Riskin against the wishes of his community, exposes crude agenda of the Chief Rabbinate.

As far back as the Mishnah, there were robust debates in the interpretation of Halachah between the more liberal Beit Hillel and more stringent Beit Shamai schools. And this process of debating the “70 faces” of Torah ensured that a plurality of interpretations prevailed at all times. Now even the ultra-Orthodox compete among themselves to impose the most stringent interpretations of implementing Jewish laws.

This is being extended to the Diaspora with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate insisting that that conversions to Judaism by Orthodox rabbis lacking their endorsement should no longer be recognized as Jews by the government of Israel and thus ineligible for aliya.

This is outrageous and entirely beyond the jurisdiction of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Former chief rabbis like Rabbi Isaac Herzog, Rabbi Shlomo Goren and others were outstanding religious scholars, moderate and devoted religious Zionists in stark contrast to the mediocrities and corrupt individuals who succeeded them when the haredim hijacked the Chief Rabbinate.

It is significant that the current Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau ensured his election by giving an unqualified undertaking to haredi groups that he would resist any proposed reforms relating to conversions or rabbinical administration without their prior approval.

To make matters worse, the level of corruption and scandals associated with the Chief Rabbinate reached bedrock when the former chief rabbi (whose appointment was orchestrated by the haredim to block a national religious candidate of genuine stature) was arrested and charged with purloining millions of dollars from illegal activities and corrupt practices.

Not surprisingly, the attempts to humiliate Rabbi Riskin created enormous outrage. The Tzohar Rabbinical Association stated that “above any effort to depose Rabbi Riskin flies a clear red flag of revenge directed against his positions and halachic decisions” and accused the rabbinical council of initiating this solely “for political considerations and to enable them to appoint insiders in his place.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party, stated that the Chief Rabbinate was behaving in an “unacceptable” manner and that he would not stand by and permit this.

Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, described Riskin as “a Jewish leader and an Israeli patriot,” insisting that there can be “no questions about his qualifications for his continued service.”

The Efrat municipal council unanimously voted to extend the rabbi’s tenure and condemned the intervention. Rabbi Riskin made it clear that if necessary, he would appeal to the Supreme Court but that so long as the Efrat community wished to retain him, he would continue to serve them as rabbi without payment.

The abject silence of Diaspora Orthodox institutions was disappointing, encouraging Rabbi David Stav, the head of Tzohar, to call on Jewish communities in the U.S. to stop inviting Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef as their guests if the Riskin provocation is not withdrawn.

The Rabbinical Council of America, once a robust Modern Orthodox group, expressed the hope that the differences would be amicably settled. One of its executive officers, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, actually accused Rabbi Riskin “of violating the trust of his employer and contravening the rulings of the most pre-eminent halachic authorities of this and previous generations,” alleging that “the employer had more than ample reason to maintain that his employee was not adhering to the policies and values that he was hired to uphold.” This obscene depiction of Riskin as an employee of the Chief Rabbinate reflects the distorted mentality of those currently controlling the institution.

In view of the waves of protest, there is every probability that the Chief Rabbinate will back down. But now is the time for Israelis and Orthodox Jews throughout the world to raise their voices and say enough is enough. Despite the repercussions of a division, breaking away and setting up independent religious courts directed by moderate Zionists is the only means by which to terminate the exclusive control of the haredim.

Throughout the Exile, the rabbinate never imposed centralized religious control and there was always a plurality of differing halachic interpretations. The issue is not whether we should be more or less stringent in the application of Jewish law. Any Orthodox community should be entitled to select its choice of spiritual leader. Haredim are entitled to practice their religion as they see fit. Indeed, there are aspects of their spirituality and lifestyle that our hedonistic society could benefit by emulating. But that does not provide a license to enable the most extreme elements to impose their limited worldview on Israeli society.

The Chief Rabbinate is regarded with contempt and despair by the vast majority of Israelis, including most haredim, who merely exploit the institution for their own purposes. The greatest impediment to the current religious revival is the deplorable status of the rabbinical bureaucracy, which alienates rather than attracts Israelis to their Jewish heritage. The scandalous effort to degrade one of the most beloved and successful Orthodox rabbis of our generation should be a wake-up call to introducing highly overdue, radical changes in the rabbinate.

Here is Rabbi Gil Student’s take:

If you want to know why Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is apparently being forced into retirement by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, you have to read his recent book, The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy. I don’t claim any insight into the complex politics of Israel’s governmental organizations, of which the Chief Rabbinate is one. I don’t know enough to understand the power struggle that is occurring. However, in terms of ideology, I see why the Chief Rabbinate Council would express concern over R. Riskin. His book is more radical than many might expect. This is not the same Rabbi Riskin you may remember from the 60’s and 70’s.

The most surprising thing about the book is what is missing from it. On multiple occasions, R. Riskin wrote programmatic essays about what Modern Orthodoxy needs to do to succeed. These were essays full of passion, exhorting both faith in God and Torah as well as devoted observance of the commandments. While the book consists almost entirely of previously published articles, these programmatic essays were replaced with a new introduction titled “What is Modern Orthodoxy?” This introduction is a call for radical change in halakhic decision-making. For example (p. xiv):

The Modern Orthodox decisor must orchestrate the interplay between both of these directives, taking into account the guiding principles used by the sages of the Talmud in their religio-legal discussions, the meta-halakhic principles such as, “for the sake of the perfection of the world,” “in order to respect the integrity of the human being created in the divine image,” “for the sake of freeing a wife chained to an impossible marriage the sages found leniency,” “in order to provide spiritual satisfaction for women,” and “you must love the stranger and the proselyte.”

If you are familiar with rabbinic literature of the past century, you will immediately recognize that these are legitimate principles that can and have been (ab)used to overturn wide swaths of Jewish law. The essays in the book provide many examples of R. Riskin’s applications of these principles. There are two things going on here. First, R. Riskin is promoting his own fairly radical agenda, as would be expected. Second, he is setting the stage for future rabbis to make even more changes to Jewish practice according to their own understanding of what is needed, regardless of what traditional texts allow.

Another troubling trend I find in this book seems to be the result of an editorial oversight. Most of the essays were written over the course of decades, as R. Riskin’s experiences and outlook changed. While the essays were edited for consistency and maybe updated a little, the conclusions were largely left intact. Here we see a troubling difference in how R. Riskin reaches conclusions. Regarding changing the daily blessing “Who has not made me a woman,” R. Riskin writes: “I would not permit even so minor a change without the approval and approbation of several leading halakhic authorities” (p. 159). While R. Riskin advocates annulling marriages, he does not plan on doing so unilaterally. Rather, “this should be effectuated by a special Beit Din for agunot in Jerusalem with impeccable halakhic credentials who would render judgments, and rule on urgent issues of mesuravot get throughout the world” (p. 188). In his call for theological interfaith dialogue with Christians, R. Riskin repeatedly invokes Rav Soloveitchik, albeit in what I believe is a twisting of his words but at least as an appeal to an eminent authority.

However, in his essay on women halakhic scholars and judges, R. Riskin does not submit his proposal to leading authorities. The most he does is quote a responsum of Rav Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, who is alive and well and could be consulted. Instead, R. Riskin started a program for ordaining women on his own. (R. Riskin writes that his program’s first two graduates published a book of responsa that “has received much praise, and — at least to my knowledge — no negative reviews” (p. 132). We published a negative review by Rav Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer to which one of the authors responded.)

When it comes to women dancing with a Torah scroll on Simchas Torah–which I acknowledge lacks the gravity of some other issues under discussion–R. Riskin likewise does not mention consulting with other scholars. When discussing establishing a Hesder yeshiva for women–a matter of great communal importance–R. Riskin also omits discussion with great authorities.

What I see is a rabbi whose agenda has become increasingly radical. Realizing that he was engaging in activities for which he would not gain approval of his elders, he stopped asking. Instead, he moved forward on his own authority. A young R. Shlomo Riskin regularly consulted with Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. When they passed away, he was no longer restrained.

In America, R. Riskin was a defender of Orthodoxy against the Conservative movement and a defender of Judaism against Christian missionaries. That is not the R. Riskin you will find in this book. Maybe in Israel he found himself in a different situation which has given him a new perspective. He now has Christian supporters in his role as a defender of modernity against Charedi Judaism. Maybe he simply underwent a personal evolution.

However, this is all speculation. Regardless of why, R. Riskin has taken some communally radical actions and created surprisingly unorthodox institutions entirely on his own initiative. Some people love him for it. We should not be surprised that others believe he has gone too far on too many issues. Whether that is cause for him to be forced into retirement I leave to his employers and constituents.

Disclaimer: Isi’s son is my brother-in-law.

Letter from Lubavitcher Rebbe נ’ע to the Rav נ׳ע before Shavuos

(hat tip Sh)

The letter and beautiful explanation is Here

I don’t have time to translate it but the Rebbe wishes Rav Soloveitchik a good Yom Tov using the language of his father in law the Rayatz which included accepting the Torah happily. When he came to sign the letter he explained the word happily ie בשמחה

The difficulty is we are meant to be in fear. What does the emotion of happiness have here. Based on a Gemora in Brachos, Rishonim and the language of the Shulchan Aruch HoRav, it is explained that fear most certainly has its place during learning Torah, but at three other stages the emotion of happiness is appropriate. One of these is on Shavuous when we accept the Torah.

The Rav, the Rashag, the Rayatz, and the Ramash (the future and last Lubavitcher Rebbe)


Klipas Nogah

What the heck is it? I use it in my iPhone email signature. One of my respectful readers asked me to explain what I meant by קליפת נוגה. To trace the concept historically, perhaps its earliest appearance is in the  זוהר חדש יתרו מ”ד ע”ב and I am happy to be corrected by those who live and learn these concepts regularly. I don’t understand Kabbalistic concepts and find them and Chassidus rather impenetrable. That’s just me. Nonetheless, we have Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 203 (hat tip RMS) telling us something very profound

אם אי אפשר לו ללמוד בלא שינת צהריים – יישן.

הגה: וכשניעור משנתו, אין צריך לברך “אלהי נשמה” (בית יוסף). ויש אומרים שיקרא קודם שיישן “ויהי נועם” (כל בו).

ובלבד שלא יאריך בה, שאסור לישן ביום יותר משינת הסוס, שהוא שיתין נשמי. ואף בזה המעט – לא תהא כוונתו להנאת גופו, אלא להחזיק גופו לעבודת השם יתברך.

וכן בכל מה שיהנה בעולם הזה, לא יכוון להנאתו אלא לעבודת הבורא יתברך, כדכתיב: “בכל דרכיך דעהו” (משלי ג ו), ואמרו חכמים: כל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמיים, שאפילו דברים של רשות, כגון האכילה והשתיה וההליכה והישיבה והקימה והתשמיש והשיחה וכל צרכי גופך, יהיו כולם לעבודת בוראך, או לדבר הגורם עבודתו. שאפילו היה צמא ורעב, אם אכל ושתה להנאתו – אינו משובח, אלא יתכוין שיאכל וישתה כפי חיותו לעבוד את בוראו.

וכן אפילו לישב בסוד ישרים ולעמוד במקום צדיקים ולילך בעצת תמימים, אם עשה להנאת עצמו – להשלים חפצו ותאותו – אינו משובח, אלא אם כן עשה לשם שמיים.

וכן בשכיבה, אין צריך לומר שבזמן שיכול לעסוק בתורה ובמצוות לא יתגרה בשינה לענג עצמו, אלא אפילו בזמן שהוא יגע וצריך לישן כדי לנוח מיגיעתו – אם עשה להנאת גופו אינו משובח; אלא יתכוין לתת שינה לעיניו ולגופו מנוחה לצורך הבריאות, שלא תיטרף דעתו בתורה מחמת מניעת השינה.

וכן בתשמיש האמורה בתורה, אם עשה להשלים תאוותו או להנאת גופו – הרי זה מגונה. ואפילו אם נתכוין כדי שיהיו לו בנים שישמשו אותו וימלאו מקומו – אינו משובח, אלא יתכוין שיהיו לו בנים לעבודת בוראו, או שתהיה כוונתו לעבודת הבורא או לדבר המביא לעבודתו.

כללו של דבר: חייב אדם לשום עיניו וליבו על דרכיו ולשקול כל מעשיו במאזני שכלו, וכשרואה דבר שיביא לידי עבודת הבורא יתברך – יעשהו, ואם לאו – לא יעשהו. ומי שנוהג כן, עובד את בוראו תמיד.

In other words there is a class of our actions that can be used for mundane/selfish or even sinful purposes but that group is not in of itself an irredeemable or innately bad category. It is a behavioural manifestation that depends on us. If we use it for good, it can be raised to holiness. If we misuse it, it can transform into a negative force.

When we consider many aspects of life, be they secular, seemingly mundane, or even holy, they can be a positive force or they maybe a negative sapping energy.
There are, of course, things which are innately evil or lacking קדושה and are simply impure. These are defined to us by Shulchan Aruch. But ultimately, many things are (in the words of a friend in Miami) Pareve. You can turn them into fleshig or milchig. What you do, depends on your intention and  actions: do you seek to have a positive emanating light or are you fooling yourself, or are you, God forbid, misusing what has been given to you.
iPhone, the internet, and other devices have been slammed by many righteous people and some Poskim. It is  my belief that they fall into the class of קליפת נוגה. In other words, they are not innately bad. They are a communication device but are able to aid in other ways. Of course, like many other appliances, they can be misused for the wrong thing(s). At the same time they can be a source of extreme קדושה.
In my own case the advent of the iPhone opened up a world to me that I would never have experienced. Although I am a musician, I have little music on my iPhone. I only insert the odd song that I need to learn for my band. Currently I have 50 Gigabytes of Shiurim on my iPhone. When I drive to work, and drive home, most commonly I am listening to a Shiur (and usually it’s from Rav Schachter). The internet as stored or accessible on my iPhone which is shining from a parve state to one which I have found  exalted. My own Posek was actually “sourced” from learning via my iPhone. I had the recent pleasure of spending a full day of Yarchei Kallah at YU, together my wife. and I had the merit of hearing two shiurim directly from Mori V’Rabbi Rav Schachter, and also spoke a little with him. The iPhone was the derech that I discovered him and his Torah.
Dayan Usher Weiss is another who I occasionally listen to. He knows me now. Just this week I spoke to him about a difficult Shayla which I became involved in, only because I was asked, and I knew that his standing would be able to influence those on the other end. (My son just brought back the second chelek of his Shaylos and Tshuvos for me).
To perhaps put the concept in more concrete terms. I will quote from a very good book I was given, named “GPS for the soul”, by Rabbi Nadav Cohen. It’s essentially a rewrite of Sefer HaTanya in a form that is palatable for simpletons like me. I haven’t read it from cover to cover, but do look therein when there is a concept that doesn’t cleanly penetrate my head due to the way it’s been explained to me before. Here is an embellished quote

From a verse in Yechezkel 1:4 “And I looked and  behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, a burst of flame, and a glistening (נוגה) around it, we learn there are four kinds of Kelipa (outer shell): “a stormy wind, a great cloud, a burst of flaming and a glistening (the latter is what I think is Klipas Noga)

These four Kelipot subdivide into two main groups: a lower level and a higher level. The lower level which is referred to as a stormy wind, a great cloud, and a burst of flame is called the three impure Klipot and they are responsible for infusing vitality into all forbidden things.

The remaining Kelipah (“a glistening“) is called kelipat nogah and  is responsible for infusing vitality into all permitted things-meaning, anything that isn’t forbidden or (already) a Mitzvah

Sefer Hatanya formally states (chapter 7)

קליפה רביעית הנקראת קליפת נוגה שבעולם הזה הנקרא עולם העשיה רובו ככולו רע רק מעט טוב מעורב בתוכה [שממנה באות מדות טובות שבנפש הבהמית שבישראל כמ”ש לעיל] והיא בחי’ ממוצעת בין שלש קליפות הטמאות לגמרי ובין בחי’ ומדרגת הקדושה ולכן פעמים שהיא נכללת בשלש קליפות הטמאות [כמ”ש בע”ח שער מ”ט ריש פ”ד בשם הזהר] ופעמים שהיא נכללת ועולה בבחי’ ומדרגת הקדושה דהיינו כשהטוב המעורב בה נתברר מהרע וגובר ועולה ונכלל בקדושה כגון ד”מ האוכל בשרא שמינא דתורא ושותה יין מבושם להרחיב דעתו לה’ ולתורתו כדאמר רבא חמרא וריחא כו’ או בשביל כדי לקיים מצות ענג שבת וי”ט אזי נתברר חיות הבשר והיין שהיה נשפע מקליפת נוגה ועולה לה’ כעולה וכקרבן. וכן האומר מילתא דבדיחותא לפקח דעתו ולשמח לבו לה’ ולתורתו ועבודתו שצריכים להיות בשמחה וכמו שעשה רבא לתלמידיו שאמר לפניהם מילתא דבדיחותא תחלה ובדחי רבנן. אך מי שהוא בזוללי בשר וסובאי יין למלאת תאות גופו ונפשו הבהמית שהוא בחי’ יסוד המים מארבע יסודות הרעים שבה שממנו מדת התאוה הנה ע”י זה יורד חיות הבשר והיין שבקרבו ונכלל לפי שעה ברע גמור שבשלש קליפות הטמאות וגופו נעשה להן לבוש ומרכבה לפי שעה עד אשר ישוב האדם ויחזור לעבודת ה’ ולתורתו כי לפי שהיה בשר היתר ויין כשר לכך יכולים לחזור ולעלות עמו בשובו לעבודת ה’ שזהו לשון היתר ומותר כלומר שאינו קשור ואסור בידי החיצונים

So, in summary, what I say in my “iPhone email sign off”, is that like the Television that is wheeled out each Motzei Shabbos in the Shule I daven at on Motzei Shabbos and is used to show DVDs of Torah, that TV is Klipas Nogah. It can glisten and shine and emerge from pareve.

Think of classical music, for example, it can be used to soothe nerves. It can’t be considered as forbidden in my world view.
I recognised the more right-wing sheltered types will see no glistening in such devices. הנח להם … I leave them to their philosophy with which I disagree.
Even the University education of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Rav, in my opinion was Klipas Noga. They used it to shed light and infuse the particular type of modern Jew for whom this was “the key”.

Our holiday. Part 2: 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn New York

Dear Readers,

Herein part 2.

As stated in part 1, our trip, although planned, was somewhat up in the air awaiting various confirmations. As it turned out, Baruch Hashem these came through and we arrived on a Wednesday in Crown Heights, New York, for the first leg. I had never been to crown heights, nor, as I have stated did I ever have a great interest in visiting there. And this, despite the fact that I went to a Chabad School, and daven in Chabad. I’d heard things about the place, but admittedly, I really only listened with one ear, but for me, spending time in Yerusholayim, Ir HaKodesh, was and remains the focus of my heart and mind. Our son, Yossi is currently learning in Israel, and both my wife and I felt that despite our yearning to visit Israel once more, it would be better not to disrupt Yossi’s progress with our ever presence for a few weeks. So, based on my wife’s previous year’s experience, and her suggestion I acceded without rancour to a visit to Crown Heights en route to Montreal, and then our holiday in Miami.

It was difficult to pack because one encountered  the cold winter cold of Crown Heights and colder winter of Montreal and then the physical warmth of Miami; a contradiction in weather patterns, it say the least. My wife expertly found us what is known as a ‘basement’ for our lodging. Observing the architecture, it became clear that basements are a regular fixture of narrower houses that invariably are built on an incline. I was reminded of parts of Sydney. Down the steps we went, and into a basement. It was nightfall already, and the flight via Hong Kong had been longer than expected because our Melbourne to Hong Kong leg departed late, and we missed the connecting flight. I did enjoy a few scotches in the Cathay lounge in stuporous compensation. Marc Schachter was also present, and he was a more experienced flier to these regions, providing sound advice. It was impossible to get food into the airport, and while there was the usual sprinkling of OU Nash, that wasn’t exactly what we were after. This also meant there was no Kosher food on the long missed subsequent leg to New York, as they require 48 hours notice. That God, my wife had a few Wurst Sandwiches which we devoured early on the flight. I did contact Chabad close by, but there wasn’t enough time to effect any changes.

Arriving in Crown Heights, New York, the basement was neat and clean and had amenities for those who maintain a fidelity to Halacha. We quickly grabbed a sandwich from a 24 hour place near vt. It was overpriced, but tasty nonetheless and we were hungry. I mentioned to my wife, that despite sleeping on the plane, I had no idea what time I would wake in the morning and hopefully it wouldn’t be too late for a minyan.

As it turned out, I managed to wake in the morning hours at a reasonable time, grabbed my tallis and  tefillin and noticed lots of chassidim in the street walking in a particular direction. I followed them and then found myself literally 2 minutes later standing in front of 770. We were obviously very close to 770. I recognised it, ironically, from the 770 facade in Caulfield!

I wasn’t sure what to do. I am not comfortable davening with meshichisten, and I wondered if I would end up in a Shule therein bedraped with signs, people taking dollars from nobody, drinking Kos Shel Brocho from nobody, or pretending to make a pathway for nobody to walk through. These are scenes I don’t want to be ever be connected with. I become aggravated weekly from the unnecessary single sign at the back of Yeshivah in Hotham Street Melbourne which effectively states that there cannot be a Moshiach other than the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. This is a nonsense by any stretch of normative Judaism. There is nobody who can or should state who the Moshiach must be. It isn’t part of our Mesora to do that. I am not going to get into the issue from a learned perspective, but an interested and serious reader would do well to read the work of HaRav HaGaon R’ Yechezkel Sofer in his important Kuntress Yisboraru Veyislabnu, for which he was ridiculed and called R’ Yechezkel Kofer (a disgusting pejorative).

That sign grates on many people, but remains up because the Chassidim who run the Shule in Melbourne, including the clergy, don’t actually follow the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s directives which included the point that if such a thing causes one person not to come in or feel comfortable, then they should be discarded as they are not the essence of Chabad. Those people have their own rules for what is term Hiskashrus and that concept seems to supersede even what their own Rebbe stated clearly and plainly. I will stop there on that topic.

All these thoughts were in my mind as I stood at the doorway, wondering whether I should go in. I knew I’d be able to find another Shule, but my sense of direction is so woeful, I feared walking further. In addition, I had just finished reading the three recent books about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and these had an effect on me. I decided to brave matters and enter.

Opening the door and there was a narrow corridor, and I noticed some people milling about. I recognised Rabbi Shem Tov; he has distinctive eye brows! He was rather self-effacing and pointed to a room and said a minyan would start there in 15 minutes. I searched for a place to put my coat, such that I might find it again and then the door opened and I walked in and readied myself for davening. I noticed that it was an office and that the bookshelves has been sealed. In front of me was a small desk, and it then became obvious that I was in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office, the room where many a famous yechidus/discussion took place. When a few men turned around and briefly eye-balled me, I realised that the Rebbes’s three secretaries were also in this minyan. My mind wandered to the many stories described in the three books (a draft review of which I have had for some time but have not managed to complete) It was a surreal experience finding myself in that very room. Some people strangely were davening just outside the room even though there was space therein. I was to learn later that this was their way of according respect, because they had no “permission” to enter. Not being a Chabad Chasid myself, I didn’t feel uncomfortable davening in the office and entered as I would in any circumstance.

I looked at the chair, and felt some sadness that there was nobody occupying it. At the same time I was made to feel very welcome. There were no shrieks of Yechi here, no emblazoned Yarmulkas, and no yellow lapel badges, all of which continue to annoy me as they are expressions of a false reality. Instead, call it by divine providence, my first encounter was with those who I consider “normal,  level-headed” Chassidim who were no less connected to their late Rebbe than the type who feel the need to advertise their views. We are lucky that tattoos are forbidden. If not, I would imagine Hiskashrus would be akin to tattooing the Rebbe on one’s back, forehead, and anywhere else.

Being a Thursday, there was layning. It was also Chanuka. The Gabbay, whose son-in-law is the Rabbi of Central Synagogue in Sydney, is a warm man, and when he called out “is there a Cohen”, I answered in the affirmative. I follow the Psak of Rav Soltoveitchik that these days, it is highly questionable whether one should make a Brocho of Gomel after flying as it happens to be safer than crossing a road (statistically). I am a stubborn type in the sense that I don’t like to deviate from what I have been taught to be clear halacha. Accordingly, I made the Brachos on an open sefer torah (and not closing it as per many including Chabad). The Baal Koreh didn’t interfere, and I respect him for that. I felt a bit cheeky doing so, but it is how I do it naturally. When I finished the second bracha, I decided that I would bench Gomel. When I think back why I did so, I think the primary reason was that it was a tad fortuitous and pre-ordained that I should immediately be in the Rebbe’s Yechidus Room, and I felt that Minhag Hamakom should prevail. I wasn’t consistent, because I used the Brocho of Gomel of Nusach Sfard instead of Chabad, but impressively, not a single person blinked an eye lid or issued any complaint. This seemed to be the type of inclusive environment I was used to as a youth, and although my actions were contradictory, I felt a feeling of “acceptance”. At the conclusion of davening, which was undoubtedly more meaningful for me because I was, where I was, and thereby able to commune more effectively with God, I was asked who I was etc.

I couldn’t really answer in any meaningful way except to say I was a Mechutan of Rabbi Yossy Goldman and Rabbi Shabsy Chaiton, both of whom everyone seemed to know. It probably sounded like I was trying to brandish Yichus, but that wasn’t my intention at all. Isaac Balbin, is a meaningless name, although I was to find out that a few people were readers of my blog and enjoyed it. That’s a bonus, but not the reason I write. Indeed, I am writing now, after visiting my father’s Tziyun at Springvale, and whilst I should be learning more Mishnayos, this post is what I am capable of doing at the minute  in my state of mind.

I continued returning to this Minyan later for Mincha etc. It seems it isn’t always available but being Chanuka, I was fortunate. I love the haunting Haneyros Halolu from Chabad, and enjoyed that immensely. Each time I noticed a few more rooms and then it dawned on me that one had to go downstairs to see the “main shule”. I forgot that everything is below ground here!

I didn’t want to go there. I had seen pictures. I had seen the Tzfatim outside, and that atmosphere as opposed to the one where I davened, provided no attraction to me. I didn’t go downstairs.

Shabbos was looming, and Ari Raskin’s aufruf was also to be upstairs, and that was lucky (for me at least). That day is a Parsha in of itself and will be Part 4 of the trip.

What can you “say” at a grave

לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי ר׳ שאול זעליג הכהן בן ר׳ יהודה הכהן,  מקדושי ניצולי השואה האיומה בשנה ב׳ להסתלקותו לרקיע השמימא

My father, Shaul Zelig HaCohen ז’’ל
My father, אבי מורי,  R’ Shaul Zelig HaCohen ז’’ל ּBalbin

(At least) One of my readers, is a Talmid Chochom, and a genius. I don’t have permission to publish his name so I will not do so. However, on this particular matter I disagree with him perhaps, and I believe that my opinion is the accepted one, and his thinking is somewhat skewed for whatever reason (which is generally not like him).

There is a הלכה that say אין דרורשין על המת one doesn’t “ask from” the dead.

It is an ancient tradition to visit the graves of Tzadikim. For example, Kalev prayed at Meoras ha-Machpeilah before confronting the meraglim (Sotah 34b). See also Ta’anis 23b.

There are also Minhagim brought in Shulchan Aruch and many other places to go on fast days, Erev Rosh Hashono, Yom Kippur etc since going at such times can affect the person to repent and minimise their own self-importance.

The Gemora in Taanis also mentions a second reason (16a) and that is to ask the dead to pray for mercy on our behalf. Reading this one would automatically assume one may ask a Tzadik to pray on our behalf  at auspicious times, according to various Minhagei Yisroel and Mesorah/tradition.

It would seem that according to this second explanation, one may pray to the dead in this fashion. Yet, we are also taught that it is strictly forbidden as a Torah Law! One who prays with such a singular intention transgresses the Torah command of “You shall not recognize the gods of others in my presence (see the authoritative Gesher ha-Chayim 2:26). One may also be transgressing the Torah command against “one who consults the dead” (see Shoftim 18:11 and Eliyohu Rabbah 581:4).

Now, the Pri Megadim Orach Chaim 581:16 (and others) explain this conundrum as meaning that  it is okay to speak directly to the dead to ask them to daven or beseech to Hashem on our behalf. This is in keeping with the style of Selichos that we recite and whose authors were not plain poets. Some also ask Malachim (intermediaries) to beseech Hashem on our behalf. The Melachim aren’t able to do anything but they can be a more effective mouth piece according to Mesorah/tradition. Others don’t accept this explanation and say that even this is forbidden (see Bach and Shach Yoreh Deah 179:15) and the authoritative Maharil, Hilchos Ta’anis as quoted in the Be’er Heitev Orach Chaim 581:17).

Instead, their take on this is we pray directly to Hashem that in the merit of the Tzadik/Dead person, Hashem should extend mercy to us. We are inspired to visit graves to “remind” Hashem of the holy tazddikim who are physically buried there. This view is accepted as normative Halacha by a bevy of Acharonim including the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Be’er Heitev, Chayei Adam, Mateh Efrayim and others.

The Chofetz Chaim in the Mishna Brura (581:27) says that we visit, because a cemetery where tzaddikim are buried is a place where Tefillos are more readily answered. But one should never place his trust in the dead themselves. He should instead just ask Hashem to have mercy on him in the merit of the tzaddikim who are interred here.

That being said, the Munkatcher Gaon, the great defender of Chassidishe Minhohim, the  Minchas Elozor, who was a great defender of Chassidic customs, and is commonly quoted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, seeks to defend those who use a more direct discourse with the dead (see his Teshuva in 1:68). He, of course, makes reference to the Zohar and says that this is a positive practice.

Practically speaking, all opinions agree that it is strictly forbidden to daven directly to a dead person or Malach so that they should help us. The most that is permitted is to ask them to act as emissaries to Hashem, so that Hashem will look favourably upon us.

The Maharam Shick, Orach Chaim 293, and prime student of the Chasam Sofer, explains this nicely. He explains that there must be nothing between a Jew and Hashem. However, it is permissible for a Jew to ask another Jew to be an intermediary between him and Hashem.

The Maharam Shick goes on to  explain the apparent anomaly in the name of his teacher: When one Jew approaches another and tells of the pain he is suffering, the other Jew feels it just as he does. Now they are both in need of prayer. The Jew does not feel he is praying for an “other”–he is praying for himself.

In other words, all Yidden are Guf Echad (one body) so that if the toe is hurting, it needs the head and the heart to help it. So too, if we are in need, we can call upon all other Jews–and especially those who are the head and the heart of our people—to pray for us as well. Because if one Jew is hurting, we are all hurting.

According to the Talmud (and the Zohar), those righteous souls who have passed on from this world are still very much in touch with their students and family and care for them and their problems. We petition them to pray on our behalf—and they do and often their prayers are more effective than our own.

Praying at a gravesite does not mean you are asking the dead to rise from the grave and appear before you. That is the abomination to which the Torah refers. Neither are you, God forbid, praying to the dead—a practice that is most certainly forbidden. But you are able to connect with these souls, since, when it comes to the soul, all of us are truly one.

One is simply expressing faith that the Tzadikim never really completely die, and a grave cannot prevent one from connecting to their teacher. Just as this tzaddik cared and took care of others during his lifetim—not as “others” but as he cared for his own soul—so too now, his Neshoma still can feel your pain and pray with you but this is directly to Hashem.

The Zohar tells us that the tzaddik is here with us after his passing even more than before. In life, he ignored the boundaries of “I and you,” so now he can ignore the boundaries of life and afterlife.

This is the fundamental reasoning behind beseeching those in the grave to intercede on our behalf and assist. And this, in fact, has been the common practice in Jewish communities around the world (although not all, for example Beis HoRav (Soloveitchik)  based on the view of the Gaon that all this can be achieved in other ways and not in essentially a Makom Tumah.

Rabbi Chaim Paltiel of Magdeburg (Germany, fourteenth century) a Rishon, said that the burial-place of a Tzadik is Holy. Regarding Chabad in particular, I found this comprehensive piece which is of interest

In addition, some quotes from the last Rebbe זי’ע

אלו שביקרו באהלי צדיקים יודעים שישנם “אוהלים” שמעוררים קו מרירות וכיווץ, וישנם “אוהלים” שפועלים קו השמחה ועלי’. האוהל של כ”ק מו”ח אדמו”ר הוא מסוג זה, שבהגיע לאוהל, הנה עוד טרם שמתבונן, כבר פועל עליו האוהל עלי’ והגבהת הרוח ששייכת לשמחה מפני עבודתו שעבד בה כל ימי חייו הי’ באופן כזה שקירב והרים  כל יהודי אף הבריות, בדרכי קירוב ונועם, עם הכוונה לפעול בהם גם “ומקרבן לתורה” )לקו”ש ח”ב 50

The broadly respected Chabad Halachist and Chassidic Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek. said as per the testimony of the Rayatz, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe that:

בדרך כלל יש ה’ מדריגות, הא’ מה שמבואר
בשו”ע או”ח הל’ ט”ב וז”ל ומה שנוהגים לילך על הקברות הוא כדי לעורר האבילות ולהכניע היצה”ר ולשוב בתשובה. והב’ הוא ג”כ נזכר בשו”ע הל’ ר”ה נוהגים ילך על הקברות ולהרבות שם בתחתנונים. ושם הטעם משום דבית הקברות הוא מקום מנוחת הצדיקים, ומתוך כך הוא מקום קדוש וטהור והתפלה מתקבלת שם ביותר כו’. והג’ מה שהולכים אל מקום מנוחת אביהם וכדומה שמעורר הבכי’ והספד ועושה פתיחות הלב לגמרי עד שיוכל לבכות על חטאיו ממש ג”כ בלב נשבר ונדכה ובבכי’ רבה ויכול לבוא לידי תשובה שלימה. והמדריגה הד’ הוא מה שהולכים על קברי צדיקים שהיו יודעים ומכירים אותם בהיותם חיים אזי מצד תוקף האמונה שהי’ מאמין בו בעודו בחיים חיותו שהוא איש אלקי וכמו”כ כשהולך על מקום מנוחת קדשו מתבטל שם

This morning, before Shachris, I briefly looked this issue up in the Encyclopaedia Talmudis, a Sefer that is also quoted extensively by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe and looked well worn in his Yechidus room when I was there. Rav Zevin emphatically classes Dorshin Al HaMeisim as a clear Issur. I won’t go through it, one can look it up. It’s under the second Chelek of  Daled and is beautifully set out as per Rav Zevin’s genius.

In summary, the way I see it, you ought not only go to a grave or write a letter and “speak” to the dead. This is pagan.

Sending a letter is long distance travelling to a grave, but the wording needs to include Hashem and comply with accepted Halacha

One can either ask for help from the Tzaddik or allow oneself to be either B’Yirah or B’Simcha to the extent that they are more enthused to engage separately or together with the Tzaddik, but this must always involve Hashem.

I haven’t read this article from Hakira Journal (yet), but just found it. It seems germane.

Finally, it’s aptl to close with the beautiful and apt prose of Rabbi Jakobovitz, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth:

The Emeritus Chief Rabbi, Jakobovits, in the foreword to the then new Singers Prayer Book, contemplates “The Jewish idea of prayer” and disapproves of petitional prayers. He wrote “What purpose can be served by formulating our pleas to God? Does the all-knowing God, who knows our needs better than we do, require their articulation of what we feel in our hearts? Still more difficult theologically, how can we hope by prayer to change His will? Our very belief in the efficacy of our petitions would seem to challenge God’s immutability, and (they) even question His justice, since we should assume that whatever fate He decrees for man is essentially just; why, therefore, do we seek to reverse it?” “But such questions are based on a false, indeed pagan, understanding of prayer as a means of pacifying and propitiating the deity and thus of earning its favours. It was against these perverse notions that the Hebrew Prophets directed their denunciations so fiercely when they fulminated against the heathen form of sacrifices, the original form of worship later replaced by prayer.” “Like sacrifices, prayer is intended to change man not God. Its purpose is to cultivate a contrite heart, to promote feelings of humility and inadequacy in man, whilst encouraging reliance on Divine assistance. Through prayer, the worshipper becomes chastened, gains moral strength and intensifies the quest of spirituality, thereby turning into a person worthy of response to his pleas.

Our holiday. Part 3: 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn New York

Dear Readers,

I’ve scribbled out part 1 (and thanks to a reader for the english correction wherein I learned that I had understood a word incorrectly all my life!)

I’m jumping to Part 3 before Part 2. Why am I doing so? Perhaps you will understand when I have finished writing. I apologise as always for errors but I don’t proof-read much if at all.

My dear father’s 2nd Yohr Tzeit is on Friday. Leading up to that has been somewhat teary. A way to cope is to try to divest from  thoughts and memories and ever presence. It only helps partly. Every which way life turns, the touch and influence of his Neshoma and memory is raw and palpable. Call it second generation holocaust survivor syndrome. It’s my existential reality; I can’t escape it.

This morning I had five injections in my feet (for plantar fascia) after enduring pain for way too long. The specialist kept saying, “this is going to hurt, this will hurt a lot more etc as he dug the needle and spread it around while squirting in places where needles don’t normally wander”. I answered each time. It doesn’t hurt. Just do what you have to do. When the procedure was finished and my feet felt like they had fallen asleep from the block used in my heels, he was ready to move on quickly (too quickly to his next patient). I stopped him and explained that nothing any doctor could do would cause me to show pain. He asked why? I replied that my parents are holocaust survivors in a world of insulting and sick denial, and their pain was far worse than anything I could ever imagine. Accordingly, I stridently refuse and refused to show visible pain; what I experienced was a drop in the ocean.

He stood there somewhat speechless. He asked me if my parents had passed away. I said my father had “just” passed away. That’s not true of course. His second yohr tzeit is in a few days and ברוך השם he is weaving his magic 2005-10-09_14-47-22 with השם and cajoling him to shower our family and wider family with Simcha after Simcha. To me though, it is like yesterday, and hence my instinctive but unintentionally dry incorrect answer.

So what has this to do with Crown Heights and Part 3 of a holiday? Is Isaac Balbin off on yet another emotional outpouring? Maybe he needs to see a shrink. Maybe I do need to see a shrink but not because of this 🙂

We were only in Crown Heights for a few days. The truly wonderful Tzirel Goldman led us on a walking tour of important places, and then our Mechutonim graciously took Leonie and I out to a very nice restaurant. Unfortunately due to a gig, I couldn’t make the wedding of their son, which had just taken place.

I felt an “agenda” happening yet I wasn’t in usual control. I was moving from place to place. The area was buzzing from Chanuka to Hey Teves (& silly meshichisten) and it was on for young and old. Let’s not forget to mention the aufruf I was looking forward to attending (oh and the Kiddush in Getzel’s Shule, someone I had heard lots about)

Suddenly, our Mechutonim, the Goldmans said, let’s go and introduce you to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. I had momentarily forgotten he was their brother-in-law. I keep getting mixed up between Duchman and Kotlarsky for some reason, and Mendel Duchman (who I also met on this trip in Montreal) is also a Mechutan of the Chaitons.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky

I recognised his face, had seen him in Melbourne, and was aware that he supervised the shlichus operations for the Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע. “Fine, I responded thinking perhaps I might just say a few niceties and perhaps share a tiny piece of Torah”. We came into his room and he is a big man in several ways. His office looked organised and tidy. Emails were constantly flowing in. He looked tired and weary as if the world was on his shoulders. We shook hands and I sat in front of his desk, with Rabbi Yossy Goldman, and the lady folk including Rabbi Kotlarsky’s wife (who is my mechuteniste’s sister), Leonie et al on the side.

After the usual platitudes. I mentioned to him things he (made out he didn’t know) about Rav Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg הי’’ד

The horrid Holtzberg Kvura

and we immediately had a rapport based on our collective experiences with these special korbanos tehoros. He asked me if I had been back to see what they had done to Nariman House. My response was “no” and I wasn’t sure I could anyway. On my last trip, I somehow managed to get into the bullet-riddled, blood-stained building and took a video, which I won’t show, as it is nauseating. I mentioned my chelek in the miracle that is Moshe Holtzberg and he nodded, seemingly knowingly. I had the impression that this figure knew a heap more than he was letting on. Nonetheless, I told him how Rav Gavriel’s parents majestically appeared in Melbourne for our daughter Talya’s wedding to Zalman Bassin. The others were moved, but he seemed to show less emotion. I had the feeling that he was “used to” these types of happenings and for him, they were but another confirmation of what he had experienced and what was driving him with a sense of unstoppable purpose.

Suddenly he turned to me and asked “Have you been to the Ohel?” 

I answered truthfully. A בית החיים gives me the heebee geebies and I avoid them. As a Cohen I am somewhat cocooned but that came to an abrupt end when my father passed away and a scene I had never been close to, invaded me with shock. I mentioned the opinion of the Gro and Beis HoRav (Soltoveitchik) and Mori Rav Schachter and explained I was a soul with a foot from Brisk and a foot from Amshinov. It’s a contradiction in terms, which might explain my often ebullient meshugassen and eccentricity (well maybe not, but it’s a good try :-). I explained that I find it very difficult to go to my father. I unashamedly attend the least of my entire family. He asked me for the reason, and I explained that I was ממש a nothing compared to him and feel emotionally distraught even from the distance, after which I would be disturbed for days. He asked why? “That’s a good Midda to have. One should feel useless when standing next to giants”. I countered that the giants are around even outside the בית החיים and that is a fundamental. Why did one need to effectively go to a “sack of bones” which was even Tomei to experience their special presence. I suggested that maybe people can achieve things in different ways.

He cajoled me undoubtedly through his demeanour and presence, to “not” leave Crown Heights without a visit.

I launched into the issue of Doresh Al HaMeisim (I can make grown Rabbis scream, but he was very calm) and that I had no Minhag to go to Mikvah, wear slippers and knock on doors. He responded that’s all unnecessary. You can go in the way you feel “comfortable”. I said that DAVKA at a Tziyun, there is a natural tendency to “ask” from the Niftar, and tried to side track him with Brich Shmei and Shalom Aleichem which aren’t said by some for similar reasons. He then said, “Nu, take a simple Maaneh Loshon and say that”. I heard what he said, and understood him well. He had more than a touch of charismatic “Rabbi Groner” about him.

When I go to my father’s Tziyun, I say very specific Tehillim. I do that to stop myself from ASKING my father to do things. You can’t do that, but it’s a very natural tendency. I said I’d consider it seriously, but if I did go, it would be a very great mental strain to stop myself from lapsing into Doresh Al Hameisim when standing in front of two people who were responsible for my Torah education and much more.

In another part, I will explain what eventuated in terms of decision time.

I then mentioned that I had written but once to the Lubavitcher Rebbe yet had never received a reply. He didn’t ask what I had written, but I was comfortable saying it. I said that Melbourne was going through a particularly difficult and potentially splitting moment where two icons were jousting and Lubavitch was splitting. I had mentioned my family history, and made it clear that I could not be considered a Chosid in any shape, but I knew that the only person who could resolve the issue was the Rebbe himself and I asked him to. I never got an answer, and the Rebbe then had a stroke. I always assumed that the reason I hadn’t received an answer was because the Rebbe was B’Sakono and wasn’t in any position to respond with the same immediacy and wisdom as people were accustomed. I left it as a תשבי. One day I’d find out.

At that moment, Rabbi Kotlarksy said but you did get an answer, you just didn’t know it. I will now tell you what happened. As a result of the momentum of letters such as mine (I don’t claim any special powers!), he was summoned immediately to the Lubavitcher Rebbe who instructed him to travel to Melbourne and sort out the “mess”.

Rabbi Kotlarsky then told me how he sorted it out, and he did so quickly. I was very impressed by the ביטול of Rabbi Y.D. Groner ז’’ל about whom I could never imagine as “lower” than anyone, given his towering presence. That was a new greatness that I discovered. I was blown away by what Rabbi Groner had done. I was also blown away by the fact that on this particular trip after our daughter married into a well-known family, I had about an hour with someone who I never expected (or had a desire/need) to meet. I had no common business, so to speak.

But “the Aybishter Firt Der Velt”, and it was השגחה that I was to unravel a long mystery. I liked Rabbi Kotlarsky. He gave me the impression that he’s someone who I could sit for five hours listening to at a farbrengen. His finger was literally on the Chabad pulse.

We said our good byes, and I thanked him for allowing us to interrupt his very busy schedule. He was due to spend Shabbos at the Ohel for Hay Teyves and seemed to always be on planes, in cars and any vehicular transport, as he explained to me.

I’ve obviously not gone into all details, as they aren’t necessary and help nobody today.

So I come home to the Golus of Melbourne, and I’m due to now go the Tziyun of my dear father. I’ve had a practice run, so to speak, and it was mentally draining for me to keep my thoughts halachically sound and emotionally relevant.

I have to admit, that I am still implacably against people who write “to” the Rebbe as I noticed in many letters (even though they were torn) the people either didn’t know the Halacha, or were never taught it properly by some single-minded teachers who probably assumed something transcending Halacha. I don’t change my views on that and don’t apologise. I understand Chassidim emulate, but I am sure that the Lubavitcher Rebbe never ever was Doresh directly of his father in law. He was a Medakdek B’Mitzvos K’Chut Ha’saaroh and could not be questioned on such issues. I feel this was also why he had a common thread with the Rav, who is also known as the איש ההלכה.

So, until my next post, I will try to do the things one should do to give my dear father’s Neshoma nachas, although I can’t help but feel that there ought to be a motive to pile these up during the year, and just unload so to speak on the Yohr Tzeit when the Neshoma will go up a level (or levels).

I hope I haven’t bored you too much, but most of my posts are rather selfish. I heal myself through writing them.

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

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.



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]

The Admor of Amshinov, Rav Sholom Shimon Kalisch זצ’’ל

In another blog I was asked to post the picture by a commentator, but I can’t recall the article! Anyway, I have in our dining room a picture of the Rebbe זי’’ע. I just took a picture of it with my iPhone. He was very well-known. In Lubavitch he is known because the Rayatz instructed his Chassidim, when the Rayatz was in hiding from the authorities, and unable to respond to their questions to only ask R’ Sholom Shimon. In addition, at the wedding of the last Rebbe, R’ Sholom Shimon walked into the Simcha in the wee hours of the morning while the Rayatz was saying a Ma’amar Chassidus. He must have sensed R’ Sholom Shimon had come in, because in a very rare occurrence, he actually stopped saying the Ma’amar Chassidus until the Rebbe from Amshinov had sat down. In Amshinov, there is also a tradition which I have seen written, that says there is only one sefer that has to be learned to understand all Chassidus, and that is the Tanya of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Interestingly, I heard Rav Schachter saying that a Scholar is now working on an important Sefer comparing the Tanya to the Nefesh Hachaim of R’ Chaim Volozhin, the prime student of the Vilna Gaon (who did not sign the Cherem against Chassidim). The word is that he finds the thoughts and approaches close to identical. I also heard the Rav (Soloveitchik) say this, although he qualified it by saying that the differences are advanced and he doubts many actually understand the differences. The Rav was unique of course in the sense that he knew both those Seforim inside out, and had been taught Tanya by his Lubavitcher Melamed when a boy (but that didn’t matter because the Rav had a superior intellect, as is well known).

As for me, I know nothing about either! The current Amshinover Rebbe in Bayit Vegan,  is well-known as one of the Tzadikei HaDor. He doesn’t get involved in politics, and is a truly incredible Oved Hashem. My only connection is a nostalgic familial one, because my grandmother, Toba Frimet Balbin ע’’ה (née Amzel), who I loved very much and was the engine behind the Balbin family, was from Amshinover Chassidim. She and my Zeyda Yidel are buried in Israel, and I still remember Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner ז’’ל speaking about her before her coffin left from Essendon Airport. Rabbi Chaim Gutnick ז’’ל told me that she used to bring him a present every Purim. I never knew that, and he told me they were all around his house!

PS.  I got this picture from Chayi Glick (nee Rotter), whose mother I believe stems from Amshinov and whom I cajoled incessantly to bring back the picture from New York.


Shmuley Boteach’s confused understanding of the Jewish World

The (I’m advised sincere) but confused article by Shmuley Boteach should not remain without counter-comment.

I will copy his article below and intersperse my comments.

The magnetism of Chabad messianism

Messianism is the world’s most powerful idea, humanity’s most compelling vision.

Messianism, which presumably is a word used because it over-focuses on WHO may be the Messiah, as opposed to the condition of the world at such a time, is not the world’s most powerful idea nor humanity’s most compelling vision.

The redemption itself, but more nuanced than that, the condition extant at the time of the redemption are a vision which we pray for three times a day. The days when the wolf will live with the lion, and the temple and it’s influence of unity and concentration and holiness are the reality, not vision, which Jews pray for every day. I do know that there are multifarious views of other religions now. I am not terribly interested in these, except in as much as דע משתשיב

Not only is it the underpinning of the world’s most populous religion, Christianity, it is also the engine for human progress itself.

If Jesus is the underpinning of the world’s most populous religion, that person (as opposed to the euphemistic messianism) then that is what it is. It is no more than that. If it means that people act in a certain way, which can be considered moral and ethical, and most importantly not missionary, then that is good. There is no evidence in Boteach’s statement that it is the engine for human progress. This is a statement without a presentation of any illustrative proof.

Only through a belief that history is not cyclical but linear, that positive steps in human advancement are cumulative rather than short-lived, that as a race we can step together out of the shadows and into the light, can there hope for collective human progress.

There are some mixed metaphors here. History is indeed cyclical. Boteach’s mistake is that if one proceeds in a circle, one cannot increase energy. This is of course demonstrably wrong. It is as wrong as assuming that one who travels in a line, is “growing”. They may in fact be dying, and reaching their end point.

Boteach again uses the term progress. He calls it “collective human progress.” He has not, however, seemingly made any effort to define what he means.

It is therefore fascinating to witness – once a year – the tremendous energy unleashed by the Chabad messianic movement as it congregates and detonates at world Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn.

Having never been there, I have heard that it certainly used to detonate a special extended holiness, however, anyone who has been in the State of Israel, and experienced Succos in Jerusalem, Hevron and the surrounds cannot help but know that they are actually on holy ground, enveloped by a sweeping holiness. that is unleashed and detonated. The same can be said for the “second hakafos” in Israel. That being said, I would posit that even Boteach acknowledges that Brooklyn now, is not the Brooklyn of 25 years ago, and the shining star that illuminated that section of the world, is sadly in another place. There is now much binge drinking where people either drown their sorrows or try to reach moments of detached ecstasy as a substitute. In Melbourne, I haven’t heard a good farbrengen, for example, since Rabbi Groner and those before him departed. Let me know where one is, and I’d love to be enthused by an outpouring of the Torah of Simcha.

The Jewish festival of Sukkot brings together two very different strands of the global Chabad movement. On the one hand, there is mainstream Chabad comprised of residents of Crown Heights – the global hub – together with the worldwide network of Chabad emissaries. Their strength is their professionalism, dedication, and impact.

On the other hand there are the Chabad messianists, a minority to be sure, but vocal, visible, determined, and brimming with life.

Here I assume Boteach defines a Chabad Messianist as either a chanter of one line mantras, or one who imagines he is receiving wine from nobody, or perhaps one who refuses to believe there is a filled grave. It would be helpful if Boteach defined his terms. There are many silent ones who pine for redemption. Some will internally hope that by some Divine rule it will be their Rebbe. Others (a very very small minority) will think this issue of identifying the Messiah, is actually a thorough and useless waste of time. I assume he speaks not about the elohisten.

Mainstream Chabad is uncomfortable with the messianists, believing they give both the movement and the Rebbe himself a bad name. The messianists are millennial, apocalyptic, and, to many minds, irrational. They want to push both Chabad and Judaism into the end of days.

I don’t see them as irrational (but note, I don’t know which category Boteach refers to). I see many of them as post-justifiers. They will cut and dismember Jewish tradition as espoused by the Rambam and acknowledged by the rest of Jewry. Those who think there is nothing in the grave, need psychiatric help.

But there can be no denying that they have tapped into an energy source that appears near infinite.

I do not know what “near infinite” means, let alone in this context.

When I was a young Chabad student in Crown Heights what I remember most was the limitless energy we all experienced in the Rebbe’s court. On Sukkot we could dance nine days running without tiring. We could go for a week with barely any sleep. The Rebbe – then in his eighties – set the pace with superhuman strength and inexplicable vigor.

Although I was not and am not a Chabadnik, I agree, based on the books I have recently read and some videos that I have watched, that it would have been an experience to remember.

That was more than twenty years ago.

Since then, Chabad has conquered the world and gone mainstream, sprouting educational centers in every point of the globe. My wife and I recently spent Shabbat with Chabad of Korea right after I spoke at Seoul’s Olympic Stadium at a global peace summit. A few weeks earlier I had spoken at Chabad of Aspen, Colorado. The local Chabad centers in these two very different places had in common the outstanding young Chabad rabbis, true soldiers of the Jewish people. Watching their impact on their respective communities was inspiring.

I think that Chabad has sprouted and grown, but I don’t know about conquered the world. If there was one word that I was left with after reading the three recent books about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it was either the word dedication or positivity. I think Chabad has influenced many in that direction.

But for all that, Chabad today – as a movement that has now gone mainstream – has learned to eschew controversy. Gone are the days when Chabad agitated for the territorial integrity of the State of Israel and public stands against trading land for a fraudulent peace.

Those days aren’t gone!?! I hear this message constantly and unwaveringly today.

Gone too are the Chabad emphasis on messianism as being central to Judaism and the Jewish future.

This depends on the Shaliach. Some have adapted to their clientele while others will unwaveringly soldier on with the original message in all it’s vigour and yellow paraphernalia.

Chabad today is effective if not conventional, essential if not somewhat predictable.

It is predictable because it is a continuation of a message. There is no more central figure to initiate new ideas that are to be brought to the world. That is sad; but true. At the same time, there is an enormous corpus that may be applied to today’s world, without change.

Its focus: opening nurseries and day schools, synagogues and mikvehs, looking after special needs children (Friendship Circle) and the elderly, running Sunday schools and day camps. And to quote Carly Simon, nobody does it better.

This is also necessary for the mainstream. Jews are abandoning Shules. The latter can’t survive. They must generate income from nurseries etc simply to survive financially!

It is to this side of Chabad that I adhere and this vision for the building of Jewish life that I am dedicated. Chabad justly evokes in every Jew on earth a feeling of both awe and gratitude.

Which side exactly does Boteach not adhere to? Those that yell Yechi, or those that think it, or someone else?

Without Chabad the Jewish world would be up a creek without a paddle.

I don’t second guess God, nor do I know what he would have done, but there can be no doubt Chabad’s influence has been very significant.

But even as someone who prides himself on his rationality,

I do not know how a Chabad Chossid prides himself on rationality. My understanding is that there is higher level, called Bittul.

I cannot help but be somewhat jealous of the go-for-broke mentality of the other side of the movement, the messianists. The belief that humankind can attain an age of perfection, a belief that Judaism has a global, universal vision that is not limited to Jews, a dismissal of money and materialism in favor of a purely spiritual calling, and placing faith in a great leader who prompts us to embrace that era.

I am not jealous of them. Those that think that they have a minyan with two people and eight pictures, or eat on Tisha B’Av have broken with Jewish Mesorah. If Boteach is saying that he admires their perspicacity, ok.

To be sure, I follow the ruling of Maimonides that the Messiah must be a living man who fulfills the Messianic prophecies which rules out anyone – however great – that has passed from this world without ushering in an age of universal peace, rebuilt the Temple, and gathered in all Jewish exiles. That would exclude my Rebbe as it would exclude all the other great leaders of the Jewish people through the ages however much they have devoted their lives to our people.

It does, but that same Maimonides said, we don’t really know how things will unfold exactly. Which means I agree with Boteach, but I think he may be selective as a Chabadnik.

But that does not change my clear memory of the Rebbe’s incessant and unyielding public calls for Jews to work toward a messianic future, to dedicate every positive deed toward his coming, and to never fear controversy in the pursuit of every aspect of Jewish belief.

I once wanted to visit him for a Yechidus when I was younger. However, I felt that I was not worthy of saying anything of substance nor did I have a particular issue that I wanted to raise. As a Cohen, I also knew that if I blessed Jews with love, God himself would bless me. Not withstanding that fact, after reading the three books, I probably would have gone in if I had my chance again, and simply asked for “an appropriate brocho” Those three words. No more, and no less.

A tribute night for the Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע

Today was the יום הילולא of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe (LR). I’m presently ensconced in three books describing him and will offer my thoughts on these when I have finished.

They are certainly impressive pieces of work, each in their own way. In a recent private email exchange I had with Rabbi Yossi Jacobson in reference to this post, I mentioned that one of the things that attracted me to the Rav, Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik ז’ל was the refreshing ease with which he was able to write about his personal feelings on various matters, some of which were the result of his private life and the emotional struggles surrounding these. Rabbi Jacobson, if I’m not misquoting him, was of the opinion that the LR also expressed his personal feelings. I felt that the LR wasn’t expressing his own private issues, but was always focussed on what the movement and it’s Chassidim needed to achieve.

The Rav, however was not, and never saw himself, or his task in life, as that of a Manhig Yisrael. In his own words he was a מלמד. Certainly that was a self-deprecating description of someone, often described by others as the למדן הדור. We should all aspire to be such a “מלמד”! In other words, the Rav dedicated his life to interacting with the challenging American reality and transmitted the Brisker method of Lomdus and Mesora that he had digested from his illustrious  grandfather, R’ Chaim Brisker, father, R’ Moshe, and Uncle R’ Velvel, to a challenged generation for whom such sophisticated analysis of Torah, enmeshed in the vernacular of the day, was intellectually challenging and advanced in its conceptualism and oratory. The Rav ordained more Rabbonim than any other Rav in the history of Judaism (it would seem).

As time goes by, his greatness, like many who pass away, is amplified, and the fact that I “discovered” him relatively late in my life, is a source of sorrow. How I would have loved to have participated in a Shiur, or listened live to his majestic droshas.

Enter his famed University colleague from Berlin the LR. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until I (partly) read the books about the LR, but I now have a fuller appreciation of the LR’s role and personality. In many ways, they were both became fully equipped educationally and culturally to interact with the needs of American Youth in a so-called modern society. They had both studied at University level, and were aware of the so-called European/Western Culture and thought. I do not think either of them saw that culture as some sort of enlightening factor, but it enabled them to interact at the highest levels using the modern vernacular and conceptualisation of our times, within the context of acutely high levels of grey matter.

דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם

found a new home among these giants.

Whilst I was not brought up with a deep understanding of the “Torah Im Maddah” approach or YU, I found it easier,unsurprisingly, to speak and digest that language. A more universalistic approach to different paths has always appealed to me.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, was an enigma. Here was this powerful genius with a photographic memory and acute ability to link and understand the seemingly disparate thoughts at his disposal, through the prism of the metaphysics of Chassidus, with brilliant insights and a paucity of notes. Yet, I guess I felt remote from him because there seemed to be no outward human frailty that he ever allowed to be shown, except when he was afflicted by that terrible stroke which ultimately led to his departure from our world and when his beloved wife passed away. Furthermore, while the elder Chassidim stressed the Chabad Chassidic approach, the younger Chassidim seemed more pre-occupied with his personage. To be sure, Chassidim would say “you must have a Yechidus”, “you have to immerse yourself in Chassidus to appreciate him” but that didn’t prick me into action. I never felt that I had anything meaningful to say or ask, and I wasn’t the type of tourist to invade an important Gadol’s time just because it was the done thing.

I have only been to the USA once, and I never went to 770. I simply didn’t know or comprehend what I might get out of it. These days, I’d be most apprehensive to go there given that it is controlled largely by the more radical Meshichist types, whose philosophy I do not consider to be Masoretic, but rather a backwards-pointing justification for an already concluded premise.

People will read what I have written and say, stop saying “I” … it’s not about you. One has to be בטל,  somewhat constricted within their personal ego to appreciate what was being effected in a Yechidus. Perhaps I was too ego-driven or cock-sure of where I stood in life vis-a-vis my Avodas Hashem and perspective on Torah. I may have even been wrong. It is what it was, and remains that way.

After reading most of these books, I have discovered through the über romantic, carefully chosen words of Rav Steinsaltz, and the meticulously researched tome of Rabbi Telushkin (Chaim Miller is next), that I have a better appreciation of this extraordinary leader. I didn’t learn much from earlier books, including those of academics and more. I felt that they started their books with a (negative) premise, and then sought to prove this premise, and not undertake a clean, academic unadulterated look at the facts.

Now, a leader can only try and do his best to make sure that his Chassidim conduct themselves in the way which he approves and/or legislates. The LR was no different. At times his exasperation was palpable.

One can certainly find a bevy of Shluchim who are seemingly pre-programmed automatons lacking the very gift that the LR had—the ability to connect individually with the person talking to them. There isn’t and wasn’t a magic formula. It was an action/reaction experience. Some have this gift; many, I dare say, do not.

Even last Shabbos, when I spoke to stranger who was wearing a Yechi Yarmulke, and asked why he wore that outward advertisement, he accused me of hating him simply for asking. I suggested that concluding that I hated someone because I asked a question was shallow, and when I referred to the classical work of R’ Yechezkel Sofer on the topic (which he described as “garbage”) this represented a problem with his own eyes, and not mine.

After reading the books I felt real sadness for the LR. He was clearly a very reluctant leader initially, almost a recluse whose favourite times were with his wife, father in law, parents or his seforim. His personal life was zealously guarded from the masses or even to the few in constant contact. He was a truly selfless man who pushed himself to extraordinary limits. He did not compromise on an iota, and mission, as summarised by Rabbi Sacks, was to ignite the soul of every person who the Nazis had attempted to extinguish and towards whom society was threatening with their often depraved value systems. He was as singularly minded in his pursuit of re-igniting souls to hasten the redemption as anyone we have seen.

As such, I find myself asking the question: what would he have said about a “tribute night” in his memory. Based on what I’ve read, I posit that he would be embarrassed by the word “tribute” to describe such a night. He would not want anyone to focus on him per se. He appeared to vehemently dislike cultish worship. Rather, the essential task was all about the missions and initiatives that he worked tirelessly to introduce and strengthen, all with the aim of bringing the redemption quicker.

It’s a paradox. On the one hand he was reaching out, and yet at the same time, he was enigmatically private.

So, why do his Chassidim engage in tribute nights? Certainly there is the practice that one should remember and talk about the deceased on the day of their Yohr Tzeit. One fasts, and learns Mishnayos. I don’t know how many Chassidim today do that today. But, it is more than that. In the absence of a leader to actively direct a movement in 2014, I feel he would only approve of such a gathering if it was about people taking strength and renewal and redoubling their efforts to carry out (genuinely) the tasks and processes that he had inaugurated.

In that vein, I will agree that a tribute evening potentially can invigorate. At the same time, it can also fail to do so—if people concentrate on the person and not the task to be achieved.

How much time do Rabbis put into their Drashos?

I have had recent and distinct pleasure reading the magnificently articulated and profoundly original drashos of Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm (may he have a speedy recovery). It struck me that I’ve probably never heard that style of quality Drosho in Melbourne. I was exposed to the emotionally laden but never judgemental tantalising drashos of Rabbi Chaim Gutnick ז’ל and the fire and brimstone and sometimes judgementally powerful drashos of Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Groner ז’ל. I listen to their sons, and there are semblances of their father’s styles (this is natural), but in essence I haven’t experienced true uniqueness.

I enjoy the care, research and effort that Rabbi Sprung puts into his Drashos (on the occasions that I hear them). I am not attracted to the style of Rabbi Genende. It’s almost apologetically left-wing and seems to use external sources for no other reason than to show that they have been read and incorporated. Rabbi Lamm also uses external sources, but it flows ever so naturally and augments his broad Rabbinic knowledge.

Many other Rabbis effectively parrot or paraphrase a nice thought from the Lubavitcher Rebbe or the Baalei Mussar, which whilst authentic, I sometimes find lazy. Some like to use cute stories. Unfortunately, many of them are hagiographic. I have heard Rabbi Kennard once and found him succinct, clinical and well-organised, but perhaps (at least for me) lacking an element of emotion, call it fire-power. No doubt that’s a natural stylistic phenomenon. If I am to hear a Drasha that isn’t emotionally laden, then I’m awaiting a brilliant unique insight. I don’t have time for the joke a minute style of Drosha either.

To be fair, I am an outlier. Most people are probably very happy with the Drashos they hear. I like to ask myself two questions:

  1. Have I been inspired to actually do or try to do something that I haven’t done, or being doing well, after the Drasha
  2. Have I been inspired to research the topic myself after the Drasha

If the answers are no, then those Drashos disappear like a distant memory.

Perhaps I have been spoiled by the internet. My iPhone brims with super quality drashos and insights. If we are to grow as a community, I feel that some Rabbis perhaps need to put much more time into their Drashos, and, yes, even publish these. They also have to realise we aren’t dumb. I know when I’ve heard it a few years before 🙂

How much world-standard Torah is actually published in Melbourne? Do we have a ‘Chief Rabbi’ in Australia capable of such or are we more caught up in Askonus.

It is true, that not all Shule Rabbis are born orators. Do they have to be in today’s day and age, or is it more important to excel in pastoral care and impart that “feel good” image?

I admit, I undoubtedly have a bias. I like a Chidush, a new insight. In the least, I enjoy being mesmerised by the sheer breadth of halachic knowledge that some impart on a weekly basis emanating from the Parsha (e.g. Rav Schachter or Rav Usher Weiss). Undoubtedly, I am an outlier and atypical.

Don’t even get me started on the lack of simple manners (forget Kavod) that exist primarily at religious functions when a Rabbi/Rov/Roov gets up to speak for a few minutes.

My thoughts on the Rav and the Rebbe event

When I became aware that this event was being planned, I quietly contacted the organisers, and asked that either the Chabad speakers (I didn’t know who they might be) and/or the YU speakers might address the telling letter where the Rebbe זצ’ל chose to write some of his personal thoughts about the Rav.

I felt that the YU speakers were generally “polite”, reminiscing and respectful. There is and was no problem (to my knowledge) in a pluralist place like YU to condemn anyone who decided to learn Chassidus (of any type) that I am aware of. In the same way, although Mussar was not seen as a useful use of one’s time according to the Beis HoRav (through R’ Chaim) it would be hard to imagine YU or the Rav condemning or putting a stop to someone for whom learning Mussar was part of their daily regimen. Talmidim had to know all about the Shiurim that they attended, and in particular, those who went to the Rav’s shiur, say, as opposed to those of R’ Dovid Lifshiz ז’ל were exposed to the method of trying to learn what is in-between the lines. R’ Dovid, the Suvalker Gaon, had a different approach. The Yeshivah co-existed with different viewpoints, but the Rav’s charisma and enormous depth in learning, naturally attracted many now esteemed Talmidim.

I received some replies from the organisers about the source of the letter I presented in an earlier blog post in which the Rebbe clearly expressed a form of misgiving about what he considered to be character traits of the Rav. I responded that if this was to be a true event where the relationship was to be studied openly and honestly, that the organisers should approach Chabad about the authenticity of the letter (not that this can be questioned, it’s very clearly the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s handwriting) and be ready to analyse and comment on it.

I didn’t hear back for months, and I just assumed that the organisers would pass the letter onto the Chabad speakers, and we’d hear a perspective, at least, in due course. Perhaps the organisers did pass on the letter, and Rabbis Krinsky and Jacobsen decided that they wouldn’t “touch it” because it might introduce controversy. I don’t know. I may email the organisers and ask them.

I’m an academic. If this was a colloquium or extended seminar and it failed to discuss the contents of the letter (they are of course entitled to disagree entirely with my personal interpretation) then it was deficient because it seemed to be ignored.

Perhaps I am oversensitive because the Rav has become such an important ingredient in my ability to make sense of the world through the prism of Yahadus, but I felt that Rabbi Krinsky, continually referring to him as “Rabbi” Soloveitchik was (perhaps unwittingly) derogatory. The Rav described himself as a Melamed, but given the number of Rabbinic folk in Chabad who get Smicha and call themselves “Rabbi” XYZ, I felt this was a come down. He could have been called “the Rav”, or even R’ Yoshe Ber, especially since the event was being held at YU. (I find those who refer to him as “J.B” rude). Can you imagine for one minute if someone from YU spoke at a Chabad event at 770 and referred to the Rebbe as Rabbi Schneersohn? I know people are even sensitive to the acronym Ramash, because acronyms are usually applied once someone has passed away and is in גן עדן מקדם or in עדן itself. I found Rabbi Krinsky’s anecdotes interesting, but I didn’t find them academically incisive or revealing. Certainly his recollection of the Rambam in Pirush Hamishnayos when the Rav came to be Menachem Avel to the Rebbe, was enhanced by Rabbi Jacobson and more detailed than what I head read in (I think) Nefesh HoRav.

Rabbi JJ Schechter, not to be confused with the Rav’s Talmid Muvhak, R’ Hershel Schachter שליט’’א  is a fine scholar, and I have read a number of his articles, books, and listened to his talks. However, here, I felt he (perhaps diplomatically, or influenced by his late father, the other Rabbi Hershel Schechter ז’ל) provided more of a sociological talk which, while entertaining, wasn’t overly enlightening (at least to me).

I felt the most dynamic speaker was Rabbi Jacobson. His reputation as a speaker precedes him. He, at least, tried to link the contents of the Sichos which the Rav heard, with his interpretation that they were an “answer” to the Rav’s lonely man of faith, halachic man, etc. Nobody seemed to mention that the Rav went to the farbrengen as an expression of HakoRas HaTov as described by close Talmidim. To look at Rabbi Jacobson’s thesis, and he was second guessing his own Rebbe, one would have to study those Sichos and see whether in the gamut of other Sichos or Ma’amorim at farbrengens, these were indeed somewhat out of left field, and directed as a theological approach by the Rebbe to assuage the original thoughts of the Rav, as expressed in his published works to date. I certainly am not in a position to comment on that thesis, as I do not have the knowledge of the Rebbe’s general style and content at such a Farbrengen, let alone those Sichos.

I am surprised that nobody took the opportunity to mention that the Rav wrote a Pirush on the Tanya in Ksav Yad, that remains unpublished, as claimed by Rabbi Kenneth Brander on his recent visit to Melbourne. It’s certainly indicative of the Rav’s attitude to Chabad, as opposed to the Rebbe in particular.

To summarise, what I considered, a few years ago, to be a letter which provided potentially important insight, was seemingly wilfully? ignored. As such, I felt it was a “feel good” evening in American style, where the YU people stressed that the Rav had enormous respect for the Rebbe (which needs to be tempered by statements recorded in Rabbi Holtzer’s book, and statements attributed to the Rav’s own son Prof Chaym Soloveitchik)

So, in conclusion, congratulations on a great idea, but I would have preferred a more academically inclined approach than the “slap on the back” style which seemed to permeate most speaker’s style of delivery. Then again, maybe that was the aim of the organisers, and my issues are misplaced in context.

The Goral HaGro, Mekubalim, and advice for the unsure

Life has its ups and downs. Some people cope better than others with the downs while others simply can’t cope with the ups, even though they think they do. Every day presents new challenges and questions, as well as solutions and achievements.

It is common to see advertisements from so-claimed clairvoyants. These are people who seem to have an ability to foresee some future event or reflect on a past event.

The Torah is very explicit in its instructions. We are forbidden to be involved in things involving “foretelling the future” or in the words of the Torah  (Vayikra 19) לא תנחשו ולא תאוננו. I’m not happy with the phrase “foretelling the future” but it will do for this context. Of course, this is also explicit in Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah קעט) as a Torah prohibition, quoting the Rambam.

Now the term Goral HaGro, which means the “lottery” of the Vilna Gaon, is almost certainly nothing to do with the Vilna Gaon. There is, to my knowledge, no provable record, of the Gaon ever performing a specific methodology which enabled one to make a future determination. Certainly though the term/technique has continued and is mentioned by those who identify themselves as followers of the Gaon. Fundamentally, on the Pasuk in Vayikra

‘תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלקיך’

Be complete/pure [in the path] with Hashem your God

Rashi says

התהלך עמו בתמימות ותצפה לו ולא תחקור אחר העתידות, אלא כל מה שיבוא עליך קבל בתמימות ואז תהיה עמו ולחלקו

Which plainly means that one should accept one’s lot and not seek to determine the path they will take based on seeking out the future before it happens.

Yet, despite this, we know that “lots” have a place in Judaism. For example, in deciding which of the two animals will be thrown off a cliff on Yom Kippur. Here, the lottery is part of the avoda and is commanded.

The Gemora tells us that when Tanoim were unable to decide what to do, and here I assume that this means not that they could not decide the Halacha, but rather whether one should do X or Y where both X and Y do not contradict a Halacha and cannot be determined via Psak, they asked young children פסוק לי פסוקיך … “Tell us what Pesukim [in the Torah] you are currently learning”. Based on what the children answered, if the Pasuk shed light on whether to pursue X or Y, they chose the one which was hinted at by the Pasuk. It isn’t clear to me whether that could always be determined by the Pasuk, but perhaps depending on the Wisdom of the person asking the children, they were able to derive X vs Y.

Does this Gemora contradict the aforementioned Halacha? It would seem not. There is no attempt to seek out the future through some supernatural (whatever that is) means, but rather, when something can be both X or Y and it is not a matter of Halacha (I presume) the Pasuk sheds light on those deserving and discerning such light.

There have been famous examples of the use of this method: viz, opening a Pasuk from the Tanach and using it when there seems to be no other approach to take. One, is the case of the famed R’ Aryeh Levin, the Tzadik of Yerushalayim and super Talmid of Rav Kook, who used this method to identify the corpses of 12 holy soldiers who were killed during the war of independence in Gush Etzyon. Using a particular format of the Chumash page flipping  eventually a particular verse was chosen. In each case, the verse chosen clearly identified a fallen soldier with a particular body (See “A Tzaddik in Our Time: The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin,” pp. 111-117).

Some commentators would term this a נבואה קטנה a minor prophecy (this is the opinion of the Shach ibid). There are other examples of course. R’ Aron Kotler wasn’t sure whether to go to Israel or the USA when escaping the Nazis. Clearly, if R’ Aron wasn’t sure, he must have held that Halacha didn’t have a clear answer for him. I can’t guess what his thoughts were, but one would imagine that on the one hand, there was Israel which involved a Mitzva of going there and building it up versus the USA where there was a Mitzva to build Torah. Both had issues. Israel was under siege and there was a Sakana and the USA would have presented a spiritual Sakana (danger). R’ Moshe Feinstein begged him to come to the USA. Apparently the Pasuk in Chumash was Shmos 4:27 which suggested he (R’ Kotler go to Moshe (Feinstein) in the desert (USA). It’s eery and scary, to say the least, at least for me!

While such devices will “work” for especially holy people it isn’t clear to me that it’s going to work for every Tom, Dick and Mary. Furthermore, knowing if one should use the device or not, is a major question itself. My understanding is that in keeping with  ‘תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלקיך’ one would need to consult a Rabbi of great stature first before embarking on this path.

There was a story reported that Rav Shteinman used this method to decide whether a Shiduch should go ahead when a Groom pressed him incessantly. On the other hand, the Steipler Gaon, suggested we stop using Goral HaGro because we don’t know how to do it exactly and it’s better to be consistent with the Pasuk of Tomim Tihye.

There is another story, and I don’t know if it’s true or a piece of historiography, that the Griz (Rav Chaim Brisker’s younger son and Rav Soloveitchik’s Uncle) once did this Tanach flipping (Goral HaGro) and the Pasuk he landed on was ‘תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלקיך’ !!!

There are a lot of things we don’t understand, and most of these are in the domain of the exalted ones.

I have to admit that for a time, at the behest of my wife, I spoke with a Kabbalist who is not known, does not take money, and has a very good “hit rate” seeing the future. In fact, the first time I called him, I was in Melbourne at 3am, and it was a “cold call” to him in Israel. Please don’t ask me his name, as he doesn’t seek notoriety or attention. He told me things about myself that literally made me convulse. I went to see him in his remote shanty house in the far north of Israel on a subsequent visit, and again he made some remarkable comments. I won’t go into details, but he noted, for example, that we had issues with some trees in our house and he drew the location. He was right. On the other hand, there are a number of things that he told me that one could say he wasn’t right. I asked him how he knew. He said he couldn’t explain it but that he saw things in the future like on Television (i.e. an external screen with events unfolding). There are lots more stories I can tell about him, but this suffices. My wife still wants me to call him when there is a really major extra-halachic issue, but I have quietly stopped doing so.

I spoke with Mori V’Rabi R’ Schachter, and of course I didn’t identify the Mekubal, and he responded that I should not consult and I should be guided by ‘תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלקיך’ alone.

Interestingly, over Pesach, I read a story from R’ Schachter where he retold how the Rav, R’ Soloveitchik set out one day to convince R’ Aron Kotler to change his mind about a particular issue, and went to visit R’ Aron. On the next day, during Shiur, the Talmidim noticed that the Rav had problems with his arm, and was in some pain. They asked him what was wrong. The Rav said that when he was on the way to Rav Aron Kotler, he slipped on the icy snow and fell on his arm and had hurt it. The Talmidim then asked the Rav, but we know that Shluchei Mitzvo Ainom Nizokin (those who are messengers for a Mitzvah are not harmed) and since the Rav felt the issue was important enough to approach R’ Aron Kotler he must have felt that the mission was a Mitzvah, and if so, how could he be hurt. The Rav immediately responded “Nu, that’s perhaps a sign that I was wrong on this particular issue and R’ Aron was right”!

In our days, it is commonplace since the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that some of his Chassidim use this technique. They tend, as I understand it, not to do so using Tanach, but rather use letters that had been published in the past in volumes (אגרות קודש). I have heard various incredible stories in this regard, and I’m sure there are plenty of examples (although these won’t be publicised) where there was no clear indication of how to proceed. I know that R’ Schachter limited the definition of the Goral HaGro to Tanach per se and not Gemora, Medrash etc as he felt there was no Mesora/tradition to use anything other than explicit Psukim. Of course, a Pasuk could be quoted in a letter.

Either way, I tend to be of the view that one must first go and speak to an authoritative Rav/Posek before using this technique willy nilly (so to speak).

I probably haven’t elucidated much in this pitput, except to say that I tend to the view that where a matter is one of Halacha, one follows Shulchan Aruch (or asks a Rav if one cannot see the Halacha or it is not clear or a difficult question). For extra-halachic matters, I guess it’s a matter of what your own Rav HaMuvhak advises you in context of your family and circumstance and that may also be “no specific advice!”

As I finished writing this I found this video if the topic interests you, which I had heard driving in my car a few years ago, and which obviously influenced me!

On Kennard, Shochet, Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy

The community in Melbourne, and abroad, has been buzzing about a series of articles/indirect interchanges between Rabbi James Kennard, principal of Mount Scopus College and Rabbi Yitzchok Shochet of the UK. I caught the tail end as we were heavily involved in planning and enjoying the wedding of our daughter! I had a moment after the Shabbos Sheva Brachos to quickly read Rabbi Kennard’s second article (I haven’t seen the first) in the Australian Jewish News, and formed some thoughts which I now have a moment to put down.

Firstly, the usual disclaimers and context:

  • Three of our children married into Chabad families. Our fourth will also do so in a month or so.
  • I attended a Chabad school, Yeshivah College in Melbourne
  • I did not attend a Chabad Yeshivah after year 12, I went to Kerem B’Yavneh, a religious zionist yeshivah (call it Chardal if you like)
  • I was Rosh Chinuch at B’nei Akiva for a few years, and my wife was a Meracezet in Sydney
  • None of our children attended a Chabad Yeshivah or Seminary after their Schooling.
  1. There is little doubt that a follower of Chabad, who considers themselves a Chosid, needs to effect the wishes and approach of the late and great Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Ramash נ’ע
  2. There is little doubt that the philosophy of Chabad is that the Geula (Moshiach) will be effected when Yidden will augment their Torah with Chassidus Chabad. אימתי קאתי מר
  3. There is little doubt that where a person has no known minhag because their family practices have lapsed, that Chabad will only introduce Chabad minhagim to that person, and will in general not make an effort to find out what a family practice might have been. This is because Chabad philosophy considers their approach as one which subsumes other approaches, and is superior at this time. שער הכולל
  4. There is little doubt that Chabad has indeed changed its approach to Zionism, in practice. Whereas the Rashab spoke with vitriol in a manner not too different to Satmar, the Ramash’s language became far more sanguine and displayed an acceptance? of historical reality (to use the words of the Rav, “History has paskened that the Aguda was wrong”)
  5. Chabad never saw the establishment of the State as the moment of the beginning of Geula. On the other hand, the establishment of the State certainly occurred during the time when the Geula was imminent, according to Chabad philosophy.
  6. In general, unlike many groups, Chabadniks do not spend their lives in Kollel. They either go out and get a job/study, or they become Shluchim. That’s not to say they embrace Torah Im Derech Eretz as a particular philosophy. Rather, it’s how one survives and lives.
  7. Chabad was and still is a leader in Jewish outreach, and this stems from extreme! Ahavas Yisroel, as stressed in Chassidus Chabad, where the Neshomo Elokis of a Yid is what counts, at the cost of all other considerations. This is a good thing!
  8. The Rav himself stated that Chabad taught the world how to bring Yiddishkeit into Reshus HoRabbim as opposed to Reshus HaYochid.
  9. The Rav noted that the differences between the Tanya and Nefesh Hachaim were semantic nuances that most did not and could not understand. The Rav did, of course. Indeed, Rabbi Brander mentioned that the Rav wrote a Pirush on Tanya which is still בכתב יד!

Until now, I have written about Chabad. Of course, like every group, there will always be a mismatch between the philosophy and some of the implementors (call them Chassidim) of that particular philosophy. Some Chassidei Chabad are what one might call “more tolerant” of difference, whereas others (often these are newer chassidim) range from less tolerant to downright intolerant of anything which isn’t in immediate accord with the Chabad approach to life. In this, one could argue that Chabad are no different to others. I would argue, however, that Chabad are different. Their difference lies in the fact that they absolutely revere and adhere to their approach to Yiddishkeit and do so with Mesiras Nefesh. Any student of history or sociology will have noticed that elements of this reverence have rubbed off on so called Misnagdim, who now have Rebbes in everything but name. “Gadol HaDor” anyone?

I agree with Rabbi Kennard that there isn’t only one way. I have always felt that way. Indeed, when I was a student and introduced to Tanya, I had a “stand up” with my teacher who said that Moshe Rabbeinu was a Lubavitcher. I said this was absurd and he called me a “Moshchas”. I think that’s where I started going down hill 🙂

It is a well-known Gemora (I think in Taanis) that says that Hashem will, in the future, create a circle of Tzaddikim (in plural) who will dance around him and point to the epicentre of truth, which IS Hashem, בעצמותו. Many have repeated the interpretation (two which readily come to mind are Rabbi Akiva Eiger (whose grandchildren were Chassidim) and Rav Kook (whose mother came from Chabad)) that a circle was chosen rather than a square or indeed a line (dance) because each Tzaddik represented a different but equal approach to Avodas Hashem: call it a different perspective.  The  point of this Gemora (I think it might even be a Mishna, but I’m writing without looking as I have little time at the minute) is that each approach is equidistant to Hashem. Each is valid. Each is correct.

How can they all be correct? Simply because it’s a matter of perspective. Two people can be in the same room and the same spot, and witness or observe the same thing from two perspectives. Both are right. Both see truth. One of my sons is very talented in design. I have zero talent in the area in which he excels. I will not see what he sees. At the same time, I’m perhaps extra-logical. My PhD intersected with formal logic. My son won’t see or be bothered by what I see or am influenced by. Undoubtedly, this also extends to the concept of education, where we are enjoined to teach each child according to that particular child’s needs and expectations, approach and ability. חנוך על פי דרכו

No doubt, the Chabad perspective on the Tzaddikim in the circle will be that they consist of the line starting from the Baal Shem Tov through to the Ramash, and the reason they are equidistant is that they represent the same spark of Moshe Rabeinu, and that is a super soul which incorporates the souls of all of us. (This is not entirely correct though because the Ramash inherited the greatness of the Rayatz who inherited the greatness of the Rashab etc)

Personally, despite my background, I have not developed an understanding or appreciation of Chassidus Chabad or any other Chassidus. When I was introduced to Mussar, I disliked the  almost “abusive” approach of reproach. I learned Kuzari (which Rabbi Kennard might be interested to know was originally something that Chabadniks had to know together with Moreh Nevuchim!) but found it outdated.

I was attracted to the Rav, and elements of Rav Kook, in the main. That’s just me. That being said, I don’t know if so-called “modern orthodoxy”, which is a term the Rav did not like, is what is “needed” by the congregants of the Great Synagogue. I do not know how Rabbi Kennard knows that either. If he does know it, then I would hope that he flew to Sydney and addressed the board and congregation of the Great Synagogue and explained to them why that style of philosophy was the correct one for the Great Synagogue.

Perhaps I am spoilt. I saw a Chabad at Elwood Shule in the frame of Rabbi Chaim Gutnick. The Shule davened Ashkenaz, and still does. In fact, I inserted that expectation into the constitution of the Shule! Rabbi Gutnick was a master orator and a Chabad Chossid, however, I never witnessed him pushing Chabad down the throats of his congregation. Occasionally, he would refer to his master and teacher, the Ramash, but in the end, he related to people כמות שהם, “as they were”. His son, R’ Mottel follows in exactly the same footsteps as his father, although he does mention the Ramash more often than his father. Some may call this “Chabad Light”, but I beg to differ. It’s what you achieve that matters. I know that Rabbi Chaim Gutnick discussed his approach and issues with the Ramash on several occasions, and the latter called him הכהן הגדול מאחיו

At the other end of the spectrum was the late and great Rabbi Groner. He wasn’t the Rabbi of a non Chabad Shule. He was the Rabbi of a Chabad Shule. He was the head Shaliach of the Rayatz and then the Ramash. He certainly projected Chabad through a more defined prism, however, at the end of the day, he too never shoved Chabad down my throat, and I was known to be vocal on issues  I might have. I often heard him give a drasha based on a vort he read from someone other than the Ramash (not that it contradicted Chabad philosophy).

I attend a great shiur by R’ Yehoshua Hecht. He has no problem with saying “the Rebbe Nishmoso Eden“. He is as strong a Chosid as anyone else, and speaks without fear or favour.

I am aware, though, of some who are “not as well read” or “not as exposed” to the different Jewish world views and people who exist. As such, they are certainly less tolerant, more narrow-minded, and frankly, less likely to succeed! (in my opinion).

The point I am making, of course, is that it is more about the Chosid him or herself, than the Chassidus itself.

I recall coming back from learning in Israel, and R’ Arel Serebryanski asked me at a Farbrengen (yes, I do enjoy a good farbrengen, but sadly there aren’t many good ones these days) to learn Tanya with him. I responded that I would do so if he agreed to learn Chazon HaGeula from Rav Kook with me in return. He promptly averred. That’s fine. R’ Arel has his Chassidim and his circle of influence, but I’m obviously some type of “Klipa” that is in the too hard basket 🙂

So, while I don’t learn Chabad Chassidus per se, I have to say that their approach of love and being non judgemental as a primary mode of returning Jews to their roots, is something that is inspiring and we all can learn from. Clearly, places like Aish HaTorah have adopted this approach. It’s the only approach that can work in my opinion. The days of chastisement  and admonition have long passed their expiry.

I did not like Rabbi Kennard introducing the issue of child abuse in the context of his article. I felt that this was completely out of context and in boxing terms a hit below the belt. Rabbi Kennard is not a fool, and he knows full well, as we all do, that actions speak louder than words, and words unfortunately seem to fall in the domain of lawyers and those who are litigious by nature. When the Labor Government came into power they promised an apology to the indigenous population of Australia. Speak to any indigenous person. They will tell you that an apology is meaningless in the context of a void of action. Action is the key, and like Rabbi Kennard, I have no doubt that action has and continues to be taken to make sure that world’s best practice of prevention is implemented in the School in question.

I think it was unwise for Rabbi Shochet to debate Rabbi Kennard on this matter. Did he really think that he could argue cogently with the points that Kennard had made?

I also think it was unwise for Rabbi Kennard to make a call on the Great Synagogue’s needs in the Australian Jewish News, when in my opinion there are much more important issues threatening all Orthodox approaches in the circle I mentioned above. The Jewish world is buzzing about “egalitarianism” and the actions arising out of that fever. There is a growing Shira Chadasha, a private Hechsher that is causing waves of discontent, Ramaz’s issues with Tefillin in the women’s gallery (will Rabbi Kennard allow that at Scopus?), the Maharat debate and more.

Yes, I agree with Rabbi Kennard that there is more than one way. Yes, I agree with Rabbi Kennard that Chabad (like others) think that their way is the best way, but I am interested to know where the issue of Chabad and the Great Synagogue’s choice of Rabbi sits in terms of importance to the Jewish world, vis-a-vis the issues I outlined above (and more).

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


  • 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.

Shape of the Menora

In more recent times, Chabad have pushed the line based on a sketch from the Rambam (and a possible interpretation of Rashi), that the (main) Menora didn’t have curved arms, but looked like this (with straight arms)

Chabad style Menora

The common view however has always been that these sketches were not exact and that the Menora’s shape is as per the traditional Jewish Mesorah and looks like this:

Traditional Menora

There have been various archeological discoveries which support the traditional Menora, but perhaps the most significant one was just discovered in Jerusalem.

Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar displays the 10-cm gold medallion discovered at the foot of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Picture: Ouria Tadmor Source: Supplied

Dr Mazar said he believes the gold was abandoned during a Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614AD.

She has called the find “a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime discovery.”

“We have been making significant finds from the First Temple Period in this area, a much earlier time in Jerusalem’s history, so discovering a golden seven-branched Menorah from the seventh century AD at the foot of the Temple Mount was a complete surprise.”

The 10cm medallion is etched with the Temple’s logo a menorah candelabrum as well as other religious iconography such as a shofar (ram’s horn) and a Torah scroll. Attached to a gold chain, its discoverers believe the medallion was an ornament attached to a Torah.

I recall Rabbi Seth Mandel writing on this topic. Here is what he wrote:

The subject of the exact shape and structure of various kelim used in
the Beis haMiqdosh (BhM) has not been traditionally a matter of much
concern to Jews who learned. In most communities, Jews concentrated on
the sections of the g’moro that had practical relevance, such as
B’rakhot, Seder Mo’ed, Seder Nashim, Seder N’ziqin, Hullin, and sections
of M’nahot. The rules of z’ra’im, qodoshim, and taharot were mostly
abandoned, left, as the Rambam says, as a stone that no one turns over.
Included in qodoshim were the rules of the qorbanot and the rules of the
structure of the BhM, its kelim, and bigdei k’hunna. This was true of
all communities, including the S’faradim and Teimanim. There were only a
few in K’lal Yisra’el who bothered with the issues, mostly chaburos (in
all the communities) who learned mishnayos, or the Teimanim, who
traditionally had a seder limmud every day in the Mishneh Torah, or
individual talmidei chachomim who learned the entire Torah, regardless
of practical relevance.

Indeed, there seems to be little practical relevance nowadays to the
dinim of k’lei haMiqdosh. Without the prospect of rebuilding the BhM,
there is no need for the kelim or the bigdei k’hunna. There was a short
period of excitement before the founding of the State of Israel, when
there was a lively discussion among the g’dolim of Y’rushalayim about
the possibility of renewing the offering of at least some qorbanot.
Outside of that time, the halokhos of the BhM were never discussed from
a practical point of view, either because some held that the Third
Temple would be and could be set up only miraculously, or because
political realities seem to preclude any foreseeable prospect of

However, about 20 years ago, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe ob’m instituted
a seder limmud of the Mishneh Torah among his chasidim. He periodically
gave shmuessen about certain sections of the Rambam that was being
learned. In one, in 1982, he explained to his chasidim that according to
the Rambam the Menorah of the BhM did not have rounded arms, as
traditionally depicted, but had straight arms, going up from the side of
the main pole of the menorah at a 45 degree angle to vertical. This
still would have remained within the area of his chiddushim on the
Rambam and of only theoretical interest, were it not for the idea that
the holders for chanuka candles, called Chanuka menoras or, in modern
Hebrew, khanukiyot, should be in the shape of the Menorah of the BhM. In
Likkutei Sichos vol. 21, p. 169 the Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “Based on
this, the menoros used on Chanuka should also be diagonal.” A Lubavitch
web site claims that some of the Rebbe’s chasidim built a new menorah
based on what their Rebbe had said and put it into 770 Eastern Parkway
during Hanukka 1982 (prior to that time, the Rebbe had used a wooden
menorah, which had arms that went out horizontally and then bent up at
90 degrees to the vertical). In any event, I do not know the source for
the idea that the taqqono of Hazal of neros Hanukka in any way derives
from the halokhos of the Menorah of the BhM; it has no source in the
g’moro nor in the rishonim. Neither the time of lighting, nor the place
of lighting, nor method of lighting, nor the substance to be lit, nor
the holders of the candles are derived by Hazal from the rules of the
Menorah of the BhM. Indeed, regarding the last item, namely the holders
of the candles/oil, there are no halokhos at all. According to Hazal and
the rishonim, you could light in whatever you chose: 8 separate candle
holders, one large bowl with 8 carefully distinguished wicks (by placing
a cover over the bowl), or with one object with 8 holders for candles or
oil. Archeological evidence seems to support the idea that most Jews in
the time of Hazal lit by putting out the appropriate number separate
clay oil holders. But Jewish communities from the medieval period on
used various mostly standardized forms that held candles, made out of
tin, brass, or pottery. Jewish museums hold hundreds of these; it is
very easy to establish that although various depictions, such as a lion,
were common, none that anyone has ever discovered were designed to
imitate any shitta of how the Menorah of the BhM was shaped. Such an
idea, that whatever is used to hold the lights in the house should
imitate the BhM, has no basis either in Jewish tradition nor in Jewish
law. (The g’moro says explicitly that whereas certain oils are preferred
and certain forbidden for Shabbos, there is no preference whatsoever for
Hanukka. There was a custom of some to light with olive oil (not minhag
Ashk’naz, which was to light with wax), but some rishonim interpret that
as having to do with the brightness of the flame. I plan to discuss this
at greater length in a subsequent post, b’n).

Ignoring that for the moment, the question I would like to discuss is
the shape of the Menorah of the BhM.

Rashi, on Sh’mot 25:32 says “Yotz’im mitziddeha: l’khan ul’khan
ba’alakson, nimshakhim v’olim.” Since ba’alakson means “diagonally,”
Rashi appears to indicate that the arms of the Menorah were straight.

However, Ibn ‘Ezra (ha’arokh) says on Sh’mot 25:32 “qanim: ‘agulim
‘arukkim,” and in 25:37 (haqatzar) “hashisha ne’erakhim zeh ‘ahar zeh
bahatzi ‘iggul.” So it is clear that he thought that the arms were
round. That indeed was the traditional idea, as far as I can tell, for
most people. The fact that the famous arch of Titus depicts a menorah
with semi-circular arms may have something to do with that, but it is
simply a fact that all Jewish drawing of menorahs from the time of
printing (and they were printed in hundreds of s’farim) had not
straight, but curved arms. (See, for example, 4 Medieval drawings of the
Menorah in the BhM in vol. 5 of R. Daniel Sperber’s Minhagei Yisrael,
pp. 69-72.)

The Rambam drew a picture of the menorah in Perush haMishnayot (“PhM:)
(M’nahot 3:7) and in the Mishneh Torah (Hil. Bet haB’hirah 3:10) as well
(in both places the original text says “and this is its form”), but
these were not known in the European Jewish world. The printed versions
of the Mishneh Torah omitted the drawing and even excised the words
“v’zo hi tzuratah”, and the printers of the PhM made up a picture based
on their own ideas of what the menorah looked like (with round arms,
because, as I said, it was accepted that the arms were round). More
accurate representations of the Rambam’s own drawings, however,
continued to be reproduced by the Yemenite scribes in their copies.

The turn in the European Jewish world came when European scholars and
talmidei chachomim started looking in mss. of the Rambam, in old mss. of
the Mishneh Torah, in his writings in the original Arabic, and in
writings of his son R. Avraham, which also were also in Arabic (all of
this happened in the mid-19th Century). All of the above sources showed
that the Rambam drew the Menorah as having straight arms. Yemenite and
very old mss. of the Mishneh Torah, all the copies of the PhM in Arabic
(which were again either Yemenite or old) and a mss. of the PhM which
apparently is was written and drawn by the Rambam himself also shows
that. And in R. Avraham’s Perush on the Torah, he specifically says that
the arms were “straight, as my father and teacher drew it, not circular
as others have drawn” (e.g. Ibn ‘Ezra, which R. Avraham was aware of,
but I am sure there were many others). Originally only scholars and
talmidei chachomim were aware of the new information, but gradually it
spread. In particular this was thanks to R. Yosef Qafih’s edition of PhM
(originally with the Arabic original and the Hebrew translation, but the
Hebrew translation published alone was widely accepted, even in chareidi
circles, because R. Qafih was accepted in the chareidi world and because
his Hebrew was so much clearer than earlier translations). R. Qafih
published a picture from the Rambam’s own ms. of the PhM, reproduced
here at http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/faxes/menorahRambam.jpg (my thanks
to R. Shlomo Goldstein and R. Micha Berger for setting it up). Once this
idea of straight arms became known and accepted people then looked at
Rashi and said “he must agree” (although that does not seem to have
occurred to anyone that I have seen before the Rambam’s drawings were
promulgated in the mid 19th Century: one would have thought that one of
the many g’dolim who published books with pictures of the Menorah would
have noted that that is not according to Rashi).

There is no direct qashya with believing that the Rambam held that the
arms of the Menorah were straight. Indeed, the description in the T’NaKh
concentrates mostly on the numbers and placement of the arms and the
various g’vi’im, kaftorim and p’rahim, but does not describe any of them
in detail. The G’mara adds measurements and more halakhot about the
Menorah (such as “what if one gavia’ is missing”), but also does not
describe them in detail. So the Rambam’s description of the arms, or his
description of a gavia’ as a “makhrut ustuwaana,” a cone, contradicts no
sources that we know of.

However, there are 2 main problems with the standard interpretation of
the Rambam and his drawing.

1.. Virtually all drawings of the Menorah from ancient sources show
rounded arms.
2.. It is impossible that the Rambam’s own drawing represents
accurately the shape of the Menorah (even according to the Rambam
Let me discuss each of these problems, and then we shall see that the
solution to one will solve the other.

1.. Virtually all drawings of the Menorah from ancient sources show
rounded arms.
Long before the Magen David (originally a decorative emblem and a
magical symbol used by both Gentiles and Jews) became a specifically
Jewish symbol (probably starting in the 14th Century), the Menorah was
one of the primary Jewish symbols. In hundreds of coins, synagogue
paintings and mosaics, and ossuary decorations from the time of the
Hasmoneans through the Byzantine period the primary Jewish symbols were
the Menorah, a lulav and etrog, sometimes a shofar. So there are many,
many drawings and paintings of the Menorah from Jewish sources; we
cannot blame this on a Gentile Roman artist who sculpted the Arch of
Titus. Virtually all show the Menorah with curved arms.

Let me confine my discussion to examples that are the most readily
accessible to people (which I assume the Jewish Encyclopedia [“JE”]and
R. Daniel Sperber’s Minhagei Yisrael [“MY”, all citations from his
volume 5] are), I will discuss the following examples:

1.. the coin of Mattitya Antigonos, JE 11:1357 (= MY pp. 172, 174, 176
2.. wall drawing from a house in the Old City, JE 11:1358 (= MY p.178 #4)
3.. paintings from the walls of the Dura-Europos Synagogue, 1) JE 6:301, plate 6 (= MY p. 192), 2) JE 6:277, fig. 3, 3) JE 6:285, fig. 15 (= 6:300, plate 8 = MY p. 183)
4.. a drawing found in a catacomb in Venosa, Italy, dating back to the
first century, at http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/faxes/menorahVenosa.jpg
5.. the Arch of Titus, JE 6:1355 (= MY pp. 185-187, 189-190) My remarks will be applicable to other drawings as well.

a) and b) in this regard (as well as the rough sketches at the Tomb of
Jason in MY p. 178 #5) are the most important for our purposes, because
they were made by Jews at the time when the BhM was still standing. e)
is next in chronological order, sculpted either in 81 or 94 of the
Common Era, according to MY p. 184: at least a decade after the
destruction, but soon enough after that the sculptor can be assumed to
have seen the original. The pictures at Dura-Europos, OTOH, are from 275
of the Common Era, a couple of centuries later, but they are done by
Jews (the JE brings other representations from the 3rd Century in 6:1357
fig. 3 and 1360-1361). The picture from Venosa may date to the first
century or may be somewhat later.

The first and most crucial question to be addressed is whether the
Menorah in the drawings is indeed supposed to be the Menorah in the
Hekhal of the BhM. R. Qafih is forced to argue that it is not, and is
either a different menorah used somewhere in the BhM or a menorah not
used there at all.

Regarding a) (from 37 BCE, a century before the destruction!), the
political background of the coin is crucial to understand. As R. Sperber
notes on p. 173 note 5, Matitya Antigonos is the successor to Yonatan
Hyrkanos II, who did _not_ claim to title of king (basileus), just to be
the Kohen Gadol. The inscription on the coin, however, says on one side
Matitya haKohen haGadol v’Haver haY’hudim (the latter, literally meaning
“friend of the Jews,” at that time had a specific political meaning,
something like “Head of the Jewish Protectorate”). On the other side it
says Basileoos Antigonou [transliterating omega as a double o], Greek
for “of the King Antigonos,” meaning the coin was coined under the rule
of King Antigonos (the nominative, “King Antigonos,” would normally be
accompanied by a visage or other representation of Antigonos). Matitya
Antigonos (which is the combination of his Hebrew and his Greek name,
although he would never have been called that, any more than R. Velvel
Brisker would have been called Yitzhaq Z’ev Velvel) was emphasizing his
claim to kingship on the coin. It only makes sense, then, for him to use
symbols representing Jewish sovereignty over the Temple. In that
context, he would not use Jewish symbols, say a lulav and etrog, found
on other coins, but only artifacts that represented the BhM. If there
had been another menorah in the BhM that would prove sovereignty other
than the Menorah in the Hekhal, we know nothing about it, and surely
Hazal would have mentioned it somewhere were it so important. In
particular, the Menorah had acquired the connotation of Jewish
sovereignty at the time of the Matitya ben Yohanan and the Hanukka
miracle; Matitya Antigonos, named after his ancestor and a Hasmonean,
would naturally have used the Menorah in the Hekhal as THE symbol of
Jewish sovereignty.

So menorah must be intended to represent the Menorah in the Hekhal. To
be sure, this is a coin, and there is no room for details, like
kaftorim. But, as R. Sperber points out, this is not just a schematic
representation: its dimensions match the dimensions that Hazal gave to
the Menorah in terms of the ratio between the area with the arms vs. the
base below. And what is the shape of the arms? Curved, but by no means
circular like the ones on the Arch of Titus. Rather, they are more like
the arc of an ellipse: they curve most sharply at the bottom and then,
about a third of their length, they become almost straight. You can see
this by comparing the space between the tops of the 7 arms, where the
candles were. On the coin, the tops are all equidistant from each other,
most importantly the two curved arms on either side of the central arm
are the same distance from the central arm as all the other arms are
from each other.. Compare this to e), where the arms are semicircular,
and so the two curved arms nearest the center are further away from the
central arm than the other arms are from each other, and to the Rambam’s
drawing (and any other with straight arms, e.g. c3).

The base itself may have had three legs, like both Rashi and the Rambam
say, and all Jewish representations show (see a discussion in MY pp.
177-183), but the coin is rubbed out at the bottom. In any event, it is
clear that it did not have the double-hexagonal base shown in e).

Next is b). This is from a house in the very wealthy, upper class area
of the Upper City of Y’rushalayim, one from which the BhM was actually
visible; the house was destroyed at the time of the Destruction of the
Temple from all indications. Thus it is a representation from the time
that the Menorah still existed. The fact that it is depicted next to a
representation of the Shulhan of the Lehem haPanim proves that it is
meant to be the Menorah in the Hekhal, as do the decorations of
elliptical (egg-shaped) objects on the arms, presumably the kaftorim.
Again, it is not completely detailed (the numbers of the g’vi’im and
kaftorim are not correct, and there are no p’rahim), but the same
comments about a) apply: its relative dimensions are exactly correct; it
shows the same relative size of the tripod base to the arms as does a),
both in terms of height and width, and the arms are curved, but not
semicircular. In fact, they are remarkably similar in shape to those
depicted in a): they are all equidistant from each other, they curve at
the bottom, and about a third of the way up they become almost straight.

Thus we have two depictions, one from a Hasmonean king and one, done 40
to 100 years later, from a man residing in the most prestigious part of
Y’rushalayim overlooking the BhM, both from the time when the Temple
existed, that agree almost exactly in terms of relative dimensions and
the shape of the arms. For this to be a coincidence strains the

Proceeding to c), from a synagogue (i.e. Jewish) 200 years later, we
find 3 different drawings. c1) and c2) are virtually identical. The
relative dimensions of the height of the menorah are almost the same as
in a) and b). The base is very clearly much like the Rambam’s depiction
(with the caveats that I shall discuss below about the latter) and the
description of Rashi in Sh’mot 25:31, showing three legs underneath a
small dome-shaped base supporting the central arm. The arms are
decorated with knobs and some other things, presumably a representation
of the g’vi’im and kaftorim (and perhaps the p’rahim, although it is
difficult to make out precise details), although, as in b), the numbers
are not correct and they cover the entire arm, whereas in reality the
decorations would only have covered the upper part of the outer arms.
Although the arms are more semicircular than in a) and b), that is true
only of the outermost arms. The arms closer to the central arm are
clearly not semicircular, and, indeed, are very like the shape in a) and
b): curved sharply at the bottom and then almost straight toward the
upper part. c3), OTOH, is very different. Its arms are almost straight
(but are _not_ completelystraight, and the two inner arms are further
from the central arm than the other arms are from each other. The
decorations on the arms are different (although again they do not match
the number of g’vi’im and kaftorim given in the Torah). The base has
three podes, but they seem to be composed of balls. Most importantly,
the central arm does not extend to the base. Rather, it stops partway
down and has a rather large bottom part, consisting of a vase-shaped
part and below it four circular disks, each bigger than the one above.
It is also noteworthy that it is placed next to a lulav and etrog, in
contradistinction to c1) and c2), which are both shown standing before
the entrance to a hall with no lulav and etrog. I would argue that c1)
and c2) are meant to be depictions of The Menorah in the Hekhal
(particularly since c2) is next to a depiction of a figure labeled
Aroon, the Greek version of Aharon), whereas c3) is a stylized Jewish
symbol, based on the Menorah, to be sure, but not meant to be an exact
depiction. I would make the same remark about most of the hundreds of
other drawings of menorahs meant as Jewish symbols: although probably
based on the Menorah in the Hekhal, they are not drawn as accurate
sketches, but as stylized drawing of a symbol. See, for instance, d), a
picture discovered in a catacomb in Verona, Italy, that dates back to
the first Century of the Common Era. To the right of the menorah are a
shofar and a lulav, to its left an etrog and something else. The lulav
is obviously a stylized representation of one; no palm fronds curve
around as that one does. Similarly, we can say that the drawing of the
menorah shows that the arms are curved, that it has a tripod for a base,
that the base is smaller than the rest of the menorah. Possibly we could
use relative sizes of the elements as a general indication. But it would
be foolish to measure the arcs of the arms, count the knobs on the arms,
or any other details, since the artist was not interested in making an
architectural sketch.

d), OTOH, is clearly different from a), b), and any of the c)s. The base
is entirely different, and out of proportion with the rest of the
menorah. The arms are all semicircular (as they are in some 3rd – 4th
Century representations from Jewish synagogues shown in JE 11:1357-1361)
and therefore the space between the inner arms and the central arm is
noticeably greater than the distance between the other arms. It has
clear kaftorim and p’rahim, although in the wrong number (not covering
the entire arms, but a greater number on the outside, longer arms). It
is not clear what the g’vi’im are meant to be: they seem to be flattened
bowl-shaped objects above and below the kaftorim, but the concave faces
of each face the kaftor, so that the concave part of the upper bowl
faces down and the concave face of the one below faces up. The central
arm appears to be wrapped with some decoration below the outer arms, and
the base is two giant hexagons, the top one larger than the lower one,
with decorations on the side panels. Examination of the panels of the
hexagons shows that the central one on the upper hexagon has a picture
of two eagles holding a (laurel?) crown. To its left and right are
panels showing a ketos, a aquatic monster usually with a serpent body
and the head of a bird or other animal. In the lower hexagon are three
panels with various kete (plural of ketos). A ketos is called drakon by
Hazal; in the Mishna Avodah Zara 3:3 it shows that a drakon was suspect
of being a symbol of AZ. How would that get into the Temple? Even worse,
the eagle was the symbol of Imperial Rome, and as such was an anathema
to Jews longing to be free of Roman rule.

However, the picture cannot be simply an invention of a Roman artist.
The arms are are equidistant from each other, and the distance equals
the width of the arms (another universal characteristic of Jewish
sources), they all go up to an equal height, and even the ratio of the
distance from the base to the lower arms to the rest of the height
matches the ratio given by Hazal. And there are clear g’vi’im, kaftorim
and p’rahim on the arms. This must be a representation of the Menorah of
the Hekhal. So how can we explain the base?

R. Daniel Sperber gives the correct answer, IMHO. He notes that usually
a ketos has a nymph perched on its back, and scales on its neck, and
shows pictures of a very similar from a Roman temple in Didyma with such
a nymph. In e), there is no nymph and no scales on the neck. He quotes
the g’moro AZ 43a that a drakon that is osur has scales on its neck, and
the Tosefta in AZ that says “if the neck was smooth, it is muttar.” This
evidence, that the base was made showing the symbol of Imperial Rome and
avoiding AZ, matches Herod the Great. He was put in his position, after
Matitya Antigonos, by the Roman, and Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews
tells us that he erected a great golden eagle over the gates of the
Temple, an act that angered the Jews. OTOH, he always was careful to
portray himself as King of the Jews and avoided any outright AZ. So, R.
Sperber concludes, it must have been Herod who put on the base. Why
would he have monkeyed around with the Menorah? Probably because shortly
before his reign the Parthians entered Y’rushalayim and plundered it.
The Menorah may well have been broken at its weakest point, its small
base, at that time, and Herod, whose mark was large construction
projects many of which were for the benefit of the Jews while at the
same time reminding everyone of Roman sovereignty (as he did in his
reconstruction of the BhM), would naturally have made a large new base,
for the good of the Jewish Temple but with Roman symbols.

So it is extremely probable that e) was actually drawn from someone who
saw the Menorah as it was paraded through Rome in 71 and perhaps later,
wherever it ended up. But some of the exact details, like the exact
number of kaftorim, or the exact curve of the arms, is wrong, because
the sculptor no longer had the Menorah in front of him.

In summary, all depictions of the Menorah in the Hekhal, from Jewish and
Roman sources from the time of the BhM and the following couple of
centuries (as well as medieval Jewish sources) show the Menorah with
rounded arms. (It is worth mentioning that the 4 Medieval Jewish
drawings of the Menorah in MY pp. 69-72 all show arms like in a) and b):
curved at the bottom, but straight in the upper part.)

1.. It is impossible that the Rambam’s own drawing represents
accuragtely the shape of the Menorah (even according to the Rambam
Let me begin by quoting him in PhM [my translation from the original]:
“it had three legs. A gavia’ is the form of a solid [i.e. not hollow]
cup, except that it gets narrow toward the bottom, or, if you wish, [it
has] the shape of a cone whose tip has been cut off. A kaftor is the
form of a sphere that is not exactly circular, but somewhat elongated,
close to the shape of a bird’s egg. A perah is the form of the blossom
of a lily. And now I will draw for you in this drawing the g’vi’im in
the shape of a triangle and the kaftorim as a circle and the perah as a
semicircle in order to make the drawing easier, since my intent in this
drawing is not that you should know the exact form of a gavia’, since I
have just explained it to you. Rather my intent is to show you the
number of the g’vi’im, the kaftorim and the p’rahim, and their
placement, and the length of places of the arms of the Menorah that are
empty and that of the places that have kaftorim and p’rahim, and its
general appearance [lit.: how its generality was]. And here is the
drawing of all of these.” He says explicitly that you should not pay too
much attention to all the details of the drawing. On the contrary, he
says it is a schematic drawing, representing the kaftorim and other
parts by geometric shapes that are easy to draw. In particular, note his
last words here: “w’aljumlah kayfa kaanat,” “its general appearence.” I
believe that that applies not just to the shapes of the kaftorim etc.,
but to the entire drawing: it is schematic, and was meant only to be

But if the arms weren’t exactly straight, why did the Rambam draw them
that way? Well, why did he draw the kaftorim as a circle? Because he
drew everything with a ruler, a compass and a protractor (much as an
electrical schematic drawing is done with straight lines). Note that all
the kaftorim are drawn not as free-form circles, but are perfectly round
(even though the real kaftorim were not). Similarly, the top of the
base, above the three legs, is a perfect arc clearly drawn with a
compass. The distances are also schematic: the space occupied by the
gavia’, kaftor and perah above the base are one tefah, as the note on
the drawing next to them states, whereas the empty space above them and
below them are both two t’fahim, also clearly noted (“t’fahayim”) on the
drawing, yet those latter spaces in the drawing are much less than the
space taken by the g’via’, kaftor and perah.

As a matter of fact, the drawings of Yemenite scribes, their attempts to
reproduce the Rambam’s drawing, most clearly differ in the fact that
whereas the Rambam used a ruler, compass and protractor for everything,
the Yemenite scribes made free-hand drawings. Their triangles are not
exactly triangular, their circles are not exactly circular, and their
straight lines are not exactly straight, including the shape of the
arms. See one of them reproduced by R. Qafih in his edition of the
Mishneh Torah, page 54.

Another proof that the Rambam’s drawing is not meant to be schematic and
not accurate in its details is the placement of the g’vi’im, kaftorim
and perahim on the arms. The Rambam, again for ease of drawing, put them
all at the bottom of the arms, and since the outside arms are longer
than the inside ones, these items were not lined up next to each other.
Everyone knew that this was not meant to be accurate, and so even the
Yemenite scribes changed it in their free-hand drawings, putting the
g’vi’im, kaftorim and perahim at the very top of all of the arms. R.
Qafih knew this as well; in his “corrected” drawing in his edition of
PhM he not only drew these items on the tops of the arms, he also
thought that the Rambam drew the g’vi’im upside down: the Rambam drew
them with the narrow end pointing up, whereas R. Qafih redrew them with
the narrow end pointing down (as is the common view, that these “cups”
were on the Menorah with the “bottom” of the cup down). Although R.
Qafih changed his mind about the direction of the pointed end by the
time he put out his edition of the Mishneh Torah, my point is not which
way is correct, but that he himself thought that the Rambam did not
necessarily mean that all details of the drawing were accurate, and so
did not consider minor changes to be against the Rambam’s view.

As for the comments of R. Avraham, the son of the Rambam, that the arms
were straight, let me note that he says explicitly “as my father and
teacher drew them.” Not “as my father told me” or “as my father said.” I
believe that R. Avraham was basing himself on the drawings of the
Rambam, rather than having had a discussion with his father about the
subject. This is not the only time that R. Avraham made statements based
on what his father had written that may not accurately reflect his
father’s exact view, and most scholars agree that R. Avraham’s
statements about his father’s view must be treated cautiously. There is
little question about his transmission of things that he says he heard
from his father, but things he read from his father he may not know more
about than anyone else.

Now even in a schematic drawing, if the arms were semicircular arcs, as
they are on the Arch of Titus, the Rambam would have surely drawn them
that way, using a compass. But what if the arms were not semicircular,
but were curved somewhat? What, as a matter of fact, if they were like
the arms shown in a), the coins of Matitya Antigonos or the arms shown
in b), the drawing on the wall of the house discovered in the Old City,
that were partially curved and partially straight or almost straight? I
would argue that in his schematic drawing, the Rambam would see nothing
wrong with drawing them with a ruler as a straight line. After all, as
he says, “my intent in this drawing is not that you should know [i.e. I
should draw] the exact form. Rather my intent is to show you the number
of the g’vi’im, the kaftorim and the p’rahim, and their placement, and
the length of places of the arms of the Menorah that are empty and that
of the places that have kaftorim and p’rahim, and its general

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam does not discuss all of the details of
his drawing that he did in the PhM; he does not even explain that the
triangles are g’vi’im and the circles are kaftorim. So the Mishneh Torah
does not add anything new.

I would also argue that Rashi’s statement of alakson could also fit the
drawings Medieval Jewish sources, discussed above. As I have said, it is
inconceivable to me that rabbonim drawing pictures of the Menorah in the
14th Century would not have noted that Rashi disagrees.

One may ask: why am I even trying to reconcile the Rambam to the
historical drawings. Is it not possible that the Rambam was simply wrong
about historical facts?

The Rambam may have been in error about historical facts; he dealt with
the best information available to him, and he did not have all the
knowledge we do now. He did not know Greek, for example, as far as we
can tell, and so does not realize when some words are Greek. But the
Rambam was well aware of archeological findings and did not dismiss
them. In one of his t’shuvos he even gives an ingenious explanation of
why all the inscriptions on coins are in K’tav ‘Ivri, rather than K’tav
Asshuri, when he holds that the Torah was given in K’tav Asshuri. It is
highly likely that the Rambam saw some of the many drawings of the
Menorah on coins and other artifacts, and since there is no clear
evidence from the g’moro or other Rabbinic texts that we know of, he
would not have rejected the drawings out of hand as all being a mistake.
Furthermore, the Rambam is one of the greatest of the Rishonim and the
only one who paskens lahalokho about the structure of the BhM; coins and
pictures are halakhic sources. I believe it is proper methodologically
to reconcile the g’dolei rishonim with non-halakhic depictions as much
as possible.

In conclusion, I have argued that no one thought that the arms were
exactly straight; that the idea came into being only in the 20th Century
after the Rambam’s drawing became common knowledge, but does not have a basis in a careful reading of the Rambam and a comparison to Jewish
depictions ranging from the time of the Temple to centuries later.

I shall defer a detailed discussion of the idea that the shape of
Hanukka menorahs should be based on the shape of the Menorah in the BhM
for another time. However, I repeat again that it has no basis in Hazal
or in the rishonim or in common Jewish practice for hundreds of years in
the construction of menorahs used to fulfill the mitzva of neros

For the Chabad view, please see here

Of course, for Chanuka, one doesn’t need a Menora, one can just use silverfoil as a base, for example.

Litvishe/Misnagdishe poor taste

I chanced upon Matzav.com yesterday. As always, they had a piece on the Yohr Tzeit of R’ Schneur Kotler ז’ל, complete with pictures of him beardless. I looked further down the page, and found it was also the Yohr Tzeit of

Rav Yaakov Sapir, author of Even Sapir (A Journey to Yemen), a collection of stories of his travels through India, Australia, and Yemen”

I was flabbergasted that they seemingly couldn’t bring themselves to note that it was also the Yohr Tzeit of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע

I commented on the blog and asked why they didn’t report it. My comment was not published: silly censorship.

I made a further comment about kosher bourbon production in another article, and that got through Matzav’s censors.

Now, to be fair, I don’t think Chabad would ever mention R’ Kotler’s Yohr Tzeit either, but what about the Emes and Kavod HaTorah. Can’t people be civil?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was an exalted Gaon, a Manhig, and a source of inspiration for many. How can one simply “forget” he existed on his Yohr Tzeit?

Is this what the Torah wants and advocates? Matzav call themselves the voice of “World Jewry”. Hardly. Och und Vey.

Even Yeshivah World News, which is usually more right wing than Matzav, had a feature.

Both also reported the sad Petira of R’ Neuwirth, the author of Shmiras Shabbos K’Hilchoso, which revolutionised the presentation and psak of Hilchos Shabbos in an unparalleled manner.


So as not to end on a negative. One of the Mispallelim in Elwood Shule, has his birthday today on Daled Tamuz. He is one of two emigres from Russia who devote themselves to the Shule 24/7 and are regular daily attendees. His name is Alex (aka Chanan aka Sasha) Livshiz. There was a Kibbud on the table after  davening, and I asked  aloud “who has yohrtzeit today”. Alex was in the middle of davening (I assume Krias Shma) and put his hand up. It transpired that it was his birthday and he had decided to wear Rabbeinu Tam’s T’fillin for the first time. I pointed out that Daled Teves is also the Yohr Tzeit of Rabbeinu Tam himself! Hashgocho Protis?

Of course, in Melbourne, it is also known widely as the Yohr Tzeit of R’ Yitzchok Dovid Groner ז’ל who devoted his entire life to building up the community and was held in the highest esteem by most, including me.

Rosh Chodesh at Elwood Shule: tale of twin survivors

Shabbos morning began in the usual way. I awoke, enjoying the extra hour afforded by Shabbos and headed quietly downstairs to the kitchen to enjoy a cup of coffee before davening. I usually read/learn a sefer with my coffee, and this Shabbos was no different. My concentration hasn’t been what it should and I can’t claim too much registered, even while I read “דברי הרב’’.

I experience various sources of stress at the minute, and I have come to realise that it’s more difficult to concentrate when one’s mind is somewhat diverted, even subconsciously. Nights can be the worst, as one is unable to consciously control the flight of mind and emotion.

Since my father הכ’’מ passed away, I’ve needed to cope with new and significant contributors to higher stress levels and, although I’ve always seen myself as relatively impervious to the rougher waves that life can dispense, I’m not as water-proof as I had previously imagined in delusion.

Stepping out into the brisk Shabbos morning air, I began the weekly long and lonely walk to Elwood Shule for Shachris. Elwood is but a shard when compared to its former exalted beauty and glory; but Elwood was my father’s Shule. It was our Shule. I am the Chazan on Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur, and I daven there daily. My parents were married at Elwood. It was Rabbi Chaim Gutnicks ז’ל first wedding at Elwood. I was Bar Mitzvah’d there, as were my sons. It is, therefore, only natural, if not magnetic, that despite the almost empty and ghost-like pervading atmosphere, I continue this heritage; only now I speak to my father on the occassion, and ask why he isn’t walking with me. I don’t merit answers.

It hadn’t been a great week. Two friends recently lost their parents, one to the same dastardly illness as my father. In addition, my workplace is in some turmoil due to an internal managerial episode. I sense my wife and children see my ups and downs, and they are sensible enough to know when to speak and when to stay silent. I thank them for this.

As I approached the gates of the Shule, I recalled that it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s זי’ע Yohr Tzeit and no doubt the handful of Chabad Chassidim at Elwood would seek to be called up, as is the custom in Chabad. It was also R’ Zalman Serebryanski’s ז’ל yohr tzeit as well as Rabbi Groner ז’ל: a momentous ensuing week.

Elwood was rather more vacuous than usual. It seems that not too many had decided to come early. There was hardly a person under the age of 50. Where were all the young people? What is happening to our generation? Many attendees are “JFK” style attendees: that is, they arrive Just in time For Kiddush. What would happen if we didn’t have a delicious Kiddush catered by Peter Unger each week?

I’m not a contemplative davener. In fact, I’m now a poor davener. My dialogue with God is quick and lacks a previous more qualitative element. I usually grab a Sefer/Holy book from the Beis Medrash and learn while davening stretches out.

I sit in a barren area. It wasn’t always this way. There is nobody in my row, save a plaque remembering my dear father, and the ten rows behind me are void. I (now) make a point of going around the Shule and shaking each person’s hand. It’s what my father used to do. My father הכ’’מ was a far better person than me, though.

At that time, I noticed that one elderly gentleman, Mr Tuvia Lipson, had not yet arrived. Tuvia attends weekly. Apart from being a holy holocaust survivor, Tuvia enjoyed a stellar history after the war, joining the Israeli army, and rubbing shoulders with Shimon Peres and others. Tuvia remains an active and positive man. Despite losing his wife many years ago, he picked himself up and continued spreading the mantra that is emblazoned weekly in gold on his lapel, “זכור”-Remember.

At one stage of Layning, I noticed Tuvia entered Shule and I approached, wishing him Good Shabbos. Tuvia was shivering and complained that there was a cold breeze running across his back. Asking him to join me in my row, where the heating seemed to be more effective, he readily agreed. So, for the first time, Tuvia and I sat together, he sitting on my father’s seat alongside me. Tuvia whispered that my father used to call him “Pan Parantchik” which means “Mr Captain” in Polish, because Tuvia had apparently been a Captain in the Haganah.

Between Aliyos, Tuvia informed me that he had been in Bendigo for a few days. “Bendigo?”, I asked inquisitively. “Were you looking for gold? It’s cold over there”. Tuvia responded that he had visited the schools in the area and had spoken about his Holocaust memories and thereafter. This was part of his activities in the courage to care campaign. I shook my head in disbelief, after which he pulled out a wad of little notes and handed them to me. Korach suddenly became less significant, and I was mesmerised by the honesty and integrity of the short vignettes the school kids had penned in appreciation.

At that point, I thought to myself, this Shabbos, had already been more significant. It was then that Tuvia proffered another story: one that I had not yet heard.

Tuvia Lipson (centre) with three generations. Picture from jwire

Tuvia had decided one day to attend the “march of the living” with a son (Jack) and grandson (Jason). A former resident of Łódź, Tuvia suddenly informed his sons that they were going to try and see if his orginal family home was still standing. Tuvia had been born in that house, there being no hospital at the time for such events. Knocking on the door, an elderly woman answered and asked how she could help . Tuvia explained in Polish that he was born in that house, in a particular room, and if she would be so kind, he’d appreciate if she had no objection to him showing his son and grandson that particular room in which he was born. Rather surprisingly (based on other stories I had heard, where Polish owners are disquieted by the fact that “jews are returning to take back their houses”) this woman immediately ushered them in and agreed. As they walked towards the room, the woman stopped and said:

“I  know what you have been through and fully understand”

Tuvia was taken aback. How could she know what he had been through. Yes, she had the best intentions, and was willing to let them enter, but she wasn’t Jewish. She hadn’t been persecuted and subject to a policy of mass murder.

Tuvia retorted:

“With the greatest respect, you cannot know what I went through”

Upon returning from the room, they thanked the woman for her positive disposition and were about to leave when she said

“Would you like to have a cup of tea with me, so that I can explain why I do know what you went through?”

Inquisitively, Tuvia et al agreed and sat down to hear her story. She had been a little girl of 7 or 8 during the war, and her parents had concealed a little Jewish girl of the same age, under the floor boards of the house. Each day they would feed the young Jewish girl, and in the evening the little Jewish girl would emerge to wash. One day, after two years of hiding, word got out that the parents were hiding a Jew. That, of course, was a cardinal (sic) sin. Suddenly, out of the blue, there was a firm knock on the door, and two Nazi SS officers ימח שמם וזכרם entered demanding to know where the Jew was hiding. Frozen by fear, the lady’s father denied any knowledge of a Jew in his house. One of the Nazi officers became angry, and gave the father 10 seconds to reveal the location of the hiding little Jewess. During this episode, his own daughter, now the older lady, was hiding behind a wardrobe door and watched in horror at what was transpiring.

Suddenly a shot rang out and her father slumped to the floor—dead. The SS officer then turned to the girl’s mother and demanded

“now you tell me where the Jew is hidden, or I will kill you in the same way”

The lady’s mother also stood firm, and after a few moments another shot rang out, murdering her mother before her very own eyes.

At this point, the little girl ran out from behind the cupboard door and started attacking the two Nazi officers and cursing them for killing her parents. The officers were cruelly and clinically cold and ignored her entreaties and protest, as they walked imperiously towards the front door. Almost predictably, the Chief officer issued the chilling command to his underling:

Shoot the litte girl as well

They left through the front door and the underling trained his gun on the little girl and shot— only at the last-minute aiming his gun upwards to miss the target. The Chief Officer, thinking that she too had been eliminated left together with his underling, “satisfied” with his cruelty beyond human belief and sensibility.

At this point, the woman revealed to Tuvia, that she was the little girl who had experienced this near death experience. When the Nazis left the house, she descended below the floor boards and both she and the little Jewish girl escaped to a non-jewish relative and hid for a further two years until the war was over. At that point, Tuvia was taken aback and fully understood why she had originally stated

“I know how you feel”

Immediately, Tuvia approached Yad Vashem and had the story verified. In fact, the Jewish girl who survived was now living in Haifa and was in yearly personal and close contact with the woman, her saviour. Tuvia organised that a fitting memory  be established for the Polish mother and father, who had been murdered as חסידי אומות העולם—righteous gentiles and who are certainly occupying Gan Eden today.

I sat there both numb and cold. Had I not asked Tuvia to come and sit with me, perhaps I would never have learned this story. The last past of the Parsha failed to register as this story enveloped my psyche.

I don’t have any more to add. I remain in shock and awe. What was designated and planned as a standard walk to Elwood Shule, turned into (yet another) momentous privilege which perhaps served to help me place my own stressors into a more realistic context.

Tachanun on Yom Ha’atzmaut

I understand but do not accept the view of Hungarian Satmar, Toldos Aron, Shomer Emunim and similar, that the establishment of a State for Jews is the work of Satan and should be rejected. Such a view, in the opinion of many great sages is not justifiable, and its tenuous reliance on the three oaths is seen as an halachic fiction.

I understand, but do not agree with the view of Chabad and some other Chassidim and Misnagdim, that “it is what it is”. They contend that the establishment of the state wasn’t a necessary event in the development of events leading to the Mashiach. However, given that the State is a reality, they will support the people within the State. Chabad, for example, refrain at all costs from saying the State of Israel. Listen carefully. They will always say Eretz Yisroel, following the practice of the last Rebbe, who I believe only referred to it as the “State of Israel” but once.

I understand and accept the position of those who see the State of Israel as being an eschatological reality created by Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and that it will eventually lead to ובא לציון גואל, but who will either

  • not say hallel
  • will say hallel without a bracha
  • will say hallel with a bracha

They do not disagree with the metaphysical importance of the State, but have halachic techno-legal reasons for their particular practice. For example, the Rav didn’t say Hallel and at Kerem B’Yavneh we said Hallel without a Bracha.

I do not understand why people who do not agree that the establishment of a State for Jews is the work of Satan (e.g. Satmar) or who are passively ambivalent about the eschatological significance of a State (e.g. Chabad) not only say Tachanun, but insist on saying Tachanun. It is related that the Chazon Ish, who was saved from the events of the Holocaust by no less than the efforts of Harav Kook ז’ל, insisted on saying Tachanun.

In Melbourne, a number of years ago, when a Bris occurred at the ultra-orthodox Adass Yisrael congregation, Rabbi Beck insisted that Tachanun be said davka because it was Yom Ha’atzmaut and that it would be entirely wrong for someone to come away with the impression that Tachanun might not have been said on Yom Ha’atzmaut.

It is well-known, that Chizkiyahu the great King, in whose generation the Gemora tells us (in Sanhedrin from memory) that Torah study and knowledge was in a high and unprecedented state, failed to materialise the Geula because Chizkiyahu became too haughty and felt that it was unnecessary to utter special praise (Shira) to Hashem and thank him for the miracles that Hashem wrought on Am Yisrael.

Shira, praise and thanksgiving, is the power to see the illumination of the future in the present. It is the power to perceive our existence as a link between the past and the present, and the power to raise everything towards an all-encompassing Geula.

Therefore after crossing the Red Sea, in “Shirat Ha’Yam” – it states: “Az” Yashir. Az– “Then,” past tense, is a reflection on the past, “Yashir” – “will sing praise” in the future tense. There is the joining and encapsulation of the past and the future, thereby giving meaning to the present.

The Torah is also referred to as “shira.” We seek to find Hashem in every nook and cranny and aspect of life—in every corner. This is the approach to Torah that elevates the world. Torah that creates a superficial division between the Yeshivah and the external, real world, is not the ideal.  Yahadus desires to interpret everything, and of course, especially the manifestation of God’s name

It is possible to study Torah as in the days of Chizkiyahu, to the extent that even the children are expert at the laws of tumah and tahara, yet still the Geula is hindered and delayed.

Yeshayahu expected Chizkiyahu to offer praise, and sing shira to elevate the entirety of reality. Chizkiyahu failed and the world was set back in reaching its goal.

One’s individual Torah, despite it’s great value and benefits, is not termed Shira. Only the transcendent Torah that strives to see how everything is bound to Hakadosh Baruch Hu is described as shira.

Those who separate the Torah from the State as if they are two entities are not singing.  This is how Rav Kook explained the criticism of Chizkiyahu. “That in his days briers and thorns covered Eretz Yisra’el,” for Chizkiyahu did not demonstrate how the Torah is also connected to the land.

In justifying Chizkiyahu, some have posited that the miracle of his victory over Sancherev was not as great as the sun standing still (in the days of Yehoshua) and that is why Chizkiyahu didn’t sing Hashem’s praises. Mortals, however, are not qualified to  judge which miracle is greater or more substantial. Judging such things is an expression of haughtiness, and this is what Chazal meant.

Shira dissolves the temporal manifestation of ingratitude, as supplied by the Yetzer Horah.

What is most puzzling to me is that even those who don’t recognise the need to especially sing to Hashem still insist on making this a day like any other and continue saying Tachanun. Yet, on their own days of celebration (e.g. a special day in a Chassidic court), they suspend the saying of Tachanun.


Distasteful, Disrespecting and simply wrong

The following poster has begun to appear

I am on record as vigorously opposed to the antics, utterances and public displays of Meshichisten. I will also go on record here as vigorously opposed to posters, such as the one above. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe ז’ל was an undeniable Tzadik, Gaon and led a highly successful Chassidic movement that is still buzzing along. To equate the antics of a section of his Chassidim as “dangerous” or proposing an “existential threat” to Judaism is an insulting canard and materialistically false. I am most saddened when I see his visage plastered on billboards; it is demeaning.

One thing is clear: this is not the work of Chabadniks. It is the work of co-religionists who were and always have been opposed to Chabad, with or without Meshichism. This is the work of so-called Misnagdim. Like Meshichisten, they too should get a life and visit us on our planet.

Light and Darkness II: Guest post from P. Hasofer

The following was posted as a comment to my earlier blog post on this topic by P. Hasofer. He hasn’t asked for a guest post, but I am posting it as it is a little long for a comment, and worth reading. Yes, I have little knowledge of Chassidus in general, including Chabad Chassidus. Allow me to bring to the table, a different perspective (similar to that of R’ Hershel Schachter  and no doubt from where he derived it) by R’ Chaim Volozhiner ז’ל (the successor and lead student of the Vilna Gaon) in his Nefesh Hachaim. See the words of the Nefesh Hachaim  here.

Dear R’ Isaac Balbin:

To understand what the Rebbe, Zechusoi yogen oleinu. is explaining here, please let me give you a short introduction with which will make things more understood, You have written in the past that you don’t have much knowledge in Chabad Chassidus, so this will hopefully help you understand this Inyan.

This idea is explained at length in Chabad Chassidus starting from the Alter Rebbes Tanya.

There are 3 general elements in our world. 1. Kedusha 2. Klipas noga 3. Sholosh Klipas Hatmeos:

Kedusha doesn’t really need to much explanation I hope, its basically anything holy, Torah and Mitzvos, Shabbos, Tefillin etc.

Klipas Noga, is the middle area, which includes everything mundane, anything that is kosher, or just simply not Kedusha, for example – all kosher foods etc, which can be elevated to Kedusha, by either using it Leshem Shomayim, or Making a brocho before eating the food, and having the intention to use the energy derived from the food, for Torah study or the keeping of Mitzvos.

Sholosh Klipos Hatmeos are all those things which are forbidden or Not Kosher, and cannot be elevated or used for Kedusha, or Lesham Shomayim, we are prohibited to have anything to do with them, and through pushing it away, that is its redemption and purpose. “Ibudo zehu tikuno”

The second level, Klipas Noga, is clearly not Kedusha at all, and can be used against Kedusha, or be elevated to the realm of Kedusha, it is therefore our mission to elevate the “nitzus” (holy spark) which is inside these creations, and bring them to the realm of Kedusha.

Now onto our subject, the transformation or effect that Kedusha – light can have on Klipa – darkness.

Lets separate this into 3 parts:

  1. The effect the light of Torah “Or Hashemesh” has on the darkness – “klipa” in the world that surrounds us.
  2. The effect Mitzvos “Or Haner” has on the darkness (Klipa).
  3. The effect a Baal Tshuvah has on the darkness (Klipa).

“Ki Ner Miztva VeTorah Or”

The effect of the light of the sun – Or Hashemesh on the darkness – it pushes away the darkness, when the sun comes up, it disperses the darkness. It does not transform the darkness into light, it merely pushes it away, and overpowers it, by its mere existence and nature.
On the other hand, the light of a candle is quite different by its mere nature, not only does it disperse the darkness, depending of course how big the candle is, but it has another advantage. As explained above, the sun light pushes away the darkness. The candle however not only pushes away the darkness, but it also transforms the wick and oil etc, into light, it transforms what is not light, into light.

So too, in our Discussion:

Torah is like the sunlight, it pushes away and disperses any darkness in reach, it pushes away the Darkness and Klipas around us, and inside us.
Mitzvos have the same effect, but with an additional advantage, Mitzvos do not only push away the darkness and klipa, but with its intense light it has the power to transform that which is not light – that which is not holy, the mundane, the Klipas Noga. It transforms the Physical objects and energy used in the fulfillment of the Mitzva into Light, into Kedusha. (it must be noted that Torah also transforms the persons energy used to study Torah, into Kedusha, but it is specifically the Mitzvas Talmud Torah which has that effect.)
When affecting or transforming the Darkness – the Klipas, the light can only have an effect on the darkness which has the capability to be transformed into light – into Kedusha. Just like the candle can only burn and transform into light those materials which are possible to burn and become light, the oil and wick etc. must be suitable to burn. Meaning: Torah and Mitzvos can only have an effect on Klipas noga, which has the ability, and is suitable to become Kedusha, one cannot elevate Sholosh Klipas Hatmeos into Kedusha.

A Baal Teshuva though, through their Teshuva (and each of us as well, with our own Aveiros, in which we are can be a Baal Teshuva in our own way) not only transforms the mundane, the Klipas Noga, but effects the Sholosh Klipas Hatmeos, they with the power of Teshuva, transforms their sins – the ultimate darkness and Klipa, into Kedusha, “zdonos nasu lo Kezochios”

To Summarize: there are 3 ways of effecting the darkness – Klipas.

Torah: Pushes away the darkness – Klipas, but only that which is possible to push away – Klipas Noga.

Mitzvos: Transforms the Klipas Noga, and elevates it into the realm of Kedusha.

A Baal Teshuva: Transforms even the lowest darkness – Sholosh Klipas Hatmeos into Kedusha.

Lighting up the darkness

It is a long-standing Chabad metaphor, repeated by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, that his Chassidim need to be lamp lighters. One of their tasks is to create light in a dark world, so to speak. In advice allegedly also given to Binyamin Netanyahu, he had said

“even in the darkest hall, the light of a single candle can be seen from a great distance”

Netanyahu had taken to using this metaphor in many speeches and discussions. If I’m not mistaken, he also used this metaphor in his famous recent speech to the UN. The metaphor is apt an powerful, and certainly justifies the lighting of the Jewish soul, if you wish, by Chabad emissaries throughout the world.

Recently, I was listening to a shiur by R’ Hershel Schachter. He mentioned the Pasuk

כי נר מצוה ותורה אור

For Mitzvos are a candle and Torah is light

He made the point (unrelated to Chabad) that whilst its true that a little light can illuminate “big” darkness, that Mitzvos are limited in that they are but the light of the candle. It is not effective on the larger scale, so to speak, of vast darkness. They light up the immediate surround, but are pretty limited as one moves away. Torah, however, is light itself. Accordingly, says R’ Schachter, if one wants to really illuminate and disperse the darkness, one needs to increase in Torah learning, whose light is Or itself.