COVID-19: Chassidim vs Non Chassidim

Sadly, perhaps even surprisingly, there are reports of clandestine Rosh Hashana minyanim that took place across the houses of Melbourne despite these being against Government rules. Perhaps it’s a function of my circles, but it appears that these Minyanim involved Chassidim or those who identify themselves as Chassidim.

Prior to Rosh Hashana, the word was out that such Minyanim were being established or considered. Though various voices of “the Rabbinate” were heard clearly in the press and e-news/social media, I likely missed new strong warnings to reinforce that

“though it is heart-breaking and unprecedented for Melbourne’s Shules to be locked for Rosh Hashono and the ensuing Yomim Tovim, we stress and re-stress that it is forbidden to flaunt the Government rules and establish clandestine minyanim.”

I did come across other communication:

  1. Useful compendiums describing what should be said, not said, how, and when.
  2. Laudable pre and post shiurim and recordings designed to inform and migrate people “into the mood”
  3. Comparatively banal interviews with football coaches mischaracterising the Yomim Noroim as a Grand Final series, coupled with the now ubiquitous indiscriminate use of the Shofar as the “Jewish digeridoo”
  4. Opportunistic perversions of the Halachic process by a tiny minority of misaligned rabbis who deemed it sufficiently populist to kasher electronic conferencing.
  5. Clear opinions, such as from the Non-Chassidic Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of the StarK who opined that the sham support group minyanim concept was a Chillul Hashem in the making, for which Yom Kippur would not atone.

At this stage, you may be thinking that I am alluding to Chassidic groups identified by the “Vayatzev Avruhom” shtiebel-Satmar and Munkatch Chassidim who broke away from Adass Israel and whose “exploits” were splashed over the secular press, creating a Chilul Hashem.  I don’t have any information about this group vis a vis the Yomim Noroim, but I would be pleasantly surprised if their need for “support group sessions” somehow abated.

Sadly, I am referring to pockets of minyanim whose membership is seemingly from other Chassidic groups. To be sure, these are not sanctioned by local poskim of the same persuasion and are “unofficial”.

Notwithstanding that fact, one might well ask some questions:

    1. Is there something peculiarly Chassidic or grounded in Chassidism which compels people to ignore Government Health regulations? (and no, it isn’t the case that Chassidim aspire to be “imprisoned and released” as some process of redemptive purification)
    2. Is there a continued antinomian-style approach to Halacha which somehow “supersedes” the will of Shulchan Aruch and perhaps their own Poskim?
    3. Is the binary phenomenon of “Level 1” for a Rebbe and “Level 0” for everyone else responsible for “every man for himself”?
    4. Are there some under intentionally quiet clandestine Rabbis associated with these groups who are ultimately responsible? Who are these Torah Giants who so confidently claim that it is not necessary to worry about the ספק סכנה and whose learning exceeds Poskim like Rav Hershel Schachter and Rav Osher Weiss and others?
    5. Is it that non-Chassidim are less likely to pick and choose a local orthodox Rabbi and focus instead on a quasi-official “Daas Torah”?
    6. Do some Chassidim consider themselves better informed, to the extent that they just know it really is God’s wish that they stand apart and ignore Health directives and שומר פתאים ה׳. (Rav Osher Weiss is a Chassid).

I don’t know the answer to these questions.

I am definitely not inviting people to “name and shame” or “dob in” those who have been involved in such.

PS. On a more personal note: like many, I struggled to teleport a communally inclusive Rosh Hashana davening into the lonely experience of a private Yom HaDin. Screened by the privacy of the four walls of the dining room, if anything, I probably shed more tears, to the extent that experiencing Simcha on Rosh Hashana was comparatively daunting. Then again, I am also an Avel, mourning my dear mother הכ’’מ and that is a factor.  I doubt I was alone or that my experience was in any way unique.

A Jewish mode of verbally induced meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Hoppe (left) and my father עליהם השלום

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not sure why, but this Selichos is enchanting

There is something so genuine about Sephardic davening. I was most exposed to it in Bombay. (I once was in Bombay on Selichos on Motzei Shabbos in the original old Chabad House of R’ Gavriel and Rivki הי’’ד.

I guess if I had to put my finger on it, it is the constant involvement of individual Mispallelim (or should that be Mitpallelim) and less of a focus on the Hazan. The latter, of course, is more like the leader and not a sole performer, operatic or otherwise, and will not necessarily stand at the front like Ashkenazim. (Hat tip MT). There is also more audience participation, from all types, and there are colours other than black.

Certainly beats the rushed reading of the sets of Anenu’s, as you hit the home stretch before finishing.

Slichos with a guitar and other shticks?

Call me old-fashioned, but the איש ההלכה, the quintessential בעל מסורה, cannot digest a ceremonial alternative indie style of davening. This is not supported by the Rav, Rav Soloveitchik who was implacably opposed to innovations which essentially mimic the אומות העולם at the expense of מסורה.

Yes, there are clearly delineated sections of davening where one is permitted to innovate musically and use a tune of choice. This is a positive thing. However, הלכה does not tolerate the decimation of נוסח and I am vehemently opposed to anyone who feels that reinventing נוסח is even in their purvey.

Personally, when I was a boy, I didn’t enjoy Selichos at Elwood even though people came from everywhere to hear my teacher Chazan Adler (Selichos allowed anyone to drive and listen). It was a tad too operatic for me, and no doubt I was tired and wanted to go to sleep. Later, I preferred listening to Rabbi Groner ז’ל with his Nusach derived from רעים אהובים in Brownsville, NY, where he davened as a youth. חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין

I copy a piece from Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz (recently retired Av Beis Din of America). There is plenty of other material, including a description of exactly which sections are “free” and which may simply not be changed.

The diversity of Jewish communities in different parts of the world has had its effect on the application of halakhah and the establishment of minhagim particular to each community. Especially in the matter of customs relating to the nusah and modes of prayer there are many distinct differences. We are all aware of the main streams of nusah known as Ashkenaz and Sephard and the reality that even in these two divisions there are nuances and changes that are ascribed to the different groups of each respective general nusah. Ofttimes a hazzan is caught in the center of controversy over proper nusah or sequence of tefillot and even in the matter of traditional tunes acceptable to the congregation. During the course of this article an attempt will be made to give some guidelines and insights relating to minhag regarding niggunim in their traditional forms and whether changes are permitted to be made. The major source cited by Poskim regarding the fixing of the norms of tefillah is from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Eruv. III, 9.),’ “Rabbi Yose sent and wrote to them (i.e. to the people dwelling in the Diaspora), although they (Le. the sages in the land of Israel) wrote to you the order of the prayers of the holidays, do not change the custom of your fathers whose souls repose in place.” This is the version cited by the Haga’ot Maimoniot (Seder Tefillot Kol Hashanah, 5) and the Magen Avraham 68. However, another version reads: “… although they wrote to you the order of the holidays do not change the custom of your fathers, etc.” In this textual change the meaning refers to the observance of the two days of Yom Tov outside of Eretz Yisrael. This textual variance is extremely important due to the divergent opinions which arose concerning the possibility of changing from one nusah to the other. This divergence is pointed out by the Gaon R. Yisroel of Shklov, one of the great talmidim of the Vilna Gaon, in his work Pe’at Hashulhan.( Hilkhot Eretz Yisrael III, 31.) He cites the responsum of R. Shmuel Demedina of Salonika (She’eilot u-Teshuvot Marashdom, Orah Hayyim, 35.) who ruled that any community may change its nusah of tefillah if the majority so desires because the prohibition of Shinui Minhag only applies to the category of issur, that is, prohibitory laws etc., and not in regard to such a category as tefillah. Consequently he ruled that the Ashkenazic community in Salonika may change to Sephard if the majority of its constituents are in favor of the change. Yisroel of Shklov comments that according to the version in Yerushalmi that prohibits the change in the mode of prayer, this ruling is not acceptable. He quotes the aforementioned Magen Avraham and the Ari Hakadosh who were opposed to any change based primarily on the Yerushalmi, especially since the Haga’ot Maimoniot mentions the text as restricting any change in prayers. The Pe’at Hashulhan attributes Meharashdom’s decision to allow such a change because he must have had the version proscribing any change in the status of the two days of Yom Tov in the Diaspora. It is interesting to note that R. Menachem Hame’iri of the thirteenth century preceded R. Shmuel Demedina in stating that there is no prohibitory regulation for changing the nusah of tefillot for the individual, and publicly if the minhag was different he should not pray differently than the tzibbur, implying that if it was the will of the congregation to change, they could. (Teshuvat Hame’iri, Magen Avot, II.) However, since the Magen Avraham also mentions in his above statement that the verses one says in the piyyutim should be sung in the matter one sings the kerovot (I.e. the piyyutim chanted in the Amidah), he is indicating that he is including within the context of not changing any nusah that one should not change the tune also. This inclusion of niggun as part of the rules prohibiting shinui or change in nusah is in keeping with the clearly stated ruling of the Maharil cited by Rema, (Orah Hayyim 619,1.) “One must not change from the custom of the city even in regard to the melodies and piyyutim that are recited there.” However, the Magen Avraham comments on the Maharil, saying that such a change should not be made because the change of tune will “confuse the congregation.” It would seem from this observation of the Magen Avraham on the Maharil’s ruling that if the tzibbur were not confused or upset by any change in niggun by the hazzan, there would not be any restriction. This raises the question on the Magen Avraham himself who has accepted the version of the Yerushalmi, as mentioned, rigorously opposing any change in tefillot. Perhaps the Magen Avraham interprets the Yerushalmi as meaning that if one is certain about the minhag of his forefathers then he is not permitted to deviate, but if there is uncertainty then it would be permissible. Thus, in communities where doubt and even prevailing ignorance as to the mode of prayer exists as to any definite tradition, changes would be acceptable as long as no violation of halakhah takes place and there are no consequences of bilbul da’at hakahal (confusion in the congregation). (Cf. Teshuvat Minhat Eliezer I, 11, for a novel interpretation of the Yerushalmi and an extensive discussion of changes from Ashkenaz to Sephard, etc.) However, where a change of niggun for example, would cause upheaval, then the words of Maharil and Magen Avraham would apply to all services and not necessarily for Yamim Nora’im, since the primary sources do not differentiate in regard to any particular season. Tangential to this, may I mention an interesting incident which happened to the Ga’on and Tzaddik Reb Zalman Bardn of Yerushalayim of blessed memory, who, once, while attending a Shabbat Minhah tefillah in a shul that had no regular hazzan, heard someone davening as the sheliach tzibbur using a chant that had no relationship whatsoever with the known niggun for the Shabbat Minhah. After waiting for the hazzan to finish, he left the shul and entered another shul to hear the repetition of the Amidah in the traditional mode. He went so far as to say that the “niggun of Shabbat should not be the niggun of the weekdays”! (Paraphrasing the statement of: “Your speech on Shabbat should not be for weekday speech”).(Shabo 113; Macy Nulman apprised me of this excerpt from Eliyahu Kitov’s Hassidim and Anshe Ma’aseh, Sefer Revi’i, p. 160.) This would perhaps be an example of an aspect of bilbul da’at hakahal because of the reaction incurred. As to the type of niggun introduced into prayer that would not cause any bilbul da’at hakahal, it definitely cannot be one that is identified with any non Jewish worship. This is clearly prohibited by many Poskim (Darkhay Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ab 142,27 citing several sources.) Even a tune that, although not connected to any non-Jewish worship, but is recognizable as belonging to a prevailing non-Jewish culture, would not be acceptable. This would be indicated as improper, especially in the synagogue, based on the Talmud’s criticism of Elisha ben Abuya or “Acher” as constantly singing Greek tunes, even when not in the synagogue. (Hag. 15b, viz. Rashi also.) If a shul is faced with the question ofengaging a cantor who does not know the traditional niggunim, known as scarbova nusah, if the makeup of the congregation is such that they willaccept the prayer leadership of such a hazzan and if there is no controversy regarding his being engaged, then it would be permissible to do so. The principle of merutzah lekahal (acceptable to the community) is enumerated by the Rema (Orah Hayyim 581,1.) regarding the qualifications of a sheli’ah tzibbur, although he may not meet the high standards of piety and sincerity demanded for this position. Disputes over this must be avoided. (Cf. Mishneh Berurah, ibid., 11). It is most interesting to note that in the enumeration of conditions pertaining to a sheli’ah tzibbur, the emphasis is placed on the individual’s piety, sincerity, and Torah knowledge and no mention is made of knowledge of niggunim or musical inflection. (Eleph Hamagen to Matteh Ephra’im 581,54.) However, knowledgeable congregations should seek the combination of piety and a mastering of traditional musical nusah which is part of the spiritual fabric of tefillah, particularly on the Yamim Nora’im. The absence of these hallowed niggunim during the davening would be unthinkable to any worshiper who has an inbred affinity for the feelings and stirrings of the heart, rendered by the proper nusah. Just as the Avodah in the Bet Hamikdash was accompanied by a certain order of shir or music, primarily vocal. (Ar. 11a.) so must our Avodah in the synagogue maintain a proper contact and order of shir, of niggun and nusan as we, in our way, make our offerings of prayer.

The Sound of a Broken Heart

From Machon Tzomet (c)

By Zeev Kitsis, Kibbutz Hadati Yeshiva and Bar Ilan University

I have the privilege of being named after one of my ancestors who was a member of the holy group of students of the Baal Shem Tov. The name of Reb Zev-Wolf appears together with the Baal Shem Tov in several stories, in such books as “Shivchei Ha’Besht,” and others. The most famous story about him involves blowing the shofar for the Baal Shem Tov. The following is the earliest version of the story:

“One time the Baal Shem Tov commanded his disciple Reb Zev-Wolf to prepare himself and learn the mental intentions of the shofar blowing, because he would blow the shofar for the Baal Shem Tov. Reb Wolf studied all the proper intentions (“kavanot”) and wrote them down on a piece of paper so that he would be able to look at it while blowing the shofar. He hid the paper in his pocket. Reb Wolf didn’t know that the Baal Shem Tov made sure that the paper would be lost. When he rose up to blow the shofar he looked for the paper everywhere, but he could not find it. Reb Wolf was so upset that he blew the shofar with a very heavy and broken heart, without any special intentions.

“Afterwards, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: In the Palace of the King there are many rooms and halls, and each door to a room or a hall has a different key. But there is a better way to enter than to use the key, and this is to use an ax, which can open the locks of all the doors. The same is true of proper intentions. They are the keys to each and every gate, and every opening has the proper intention for it. However, the broken heart is an axe. It allows every person to enter all the gates and the halls of the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.”

[Moshe Chaim Kalman, Or Yesharim, Warsaw, 5684 (1924), pages 104-105].

Every year I feel a special magic in the moments of silence, when we pause for a brief second in reciting the long prayers of Rosh Hashanah, during which the raw sound of the shofar rises up. The shofar itself expresses a simple sigh, the basic sound of the soul, before it has been fashioned into words or “intentions.” The Baal Shem Tov describes this simple concept for his disciple in terms of the allegory of the keys and the axe. The keys – that is, the unique Kabbalistic intentions – must be precise and executed with great care. In this way, slowly and cautiously, a person can approach the King – the King of the Universe. This corresponds to the detailed description in the ancient book about Kabbalah by Reb Yosef Jiktilia, Shaarei Orah, which gives details about how the involvement with intentions can help one very carefully enter the Palace of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The axe stands apart. This is compared to a broken heart, and it has the power in a single moment to shatter all the locked gates of the King. There is no longer any need for the intentions, the kavanot, there is no need for careful weighing of the intentions, there is no need for any knowledge and written words on a piece of paper. The only thing that is needed is the most important “intention” of all: the broken heart of a man.

However, I would still like to ask a question about this nice allegory by the Baal Shem Tov. Can one really appear before the King carrying an axe? After all, the whole essence and the task of the “Palace,” of the rooms and the halls, of the gates and the walls – is to block the entrance of anybody who does not have the proper keys and to block the way of the axe! Just imagine how a human king would react if while sitting in his palace he would suddenly hear the sound of an axe shattering the glorious locked doors. How can the Baal Shem Tov compare the two possible ways of entry into the palace – one of which is acceptable and legitimate, while the other is absurd and totally forbidden?

The Baal Shem Tov spent the last twenty-four years of his life close to a fortified palace. The small wooden Beit Midrash where the Baal Shem Tov met Reb Wolf and the other members of the group was at the center of the street of the Jews in Mezibuz. At the end of the street, a short distance from the Beit Midrash, stood one of the most impressive fortified palaces of the Ukraine, as it still stands today. At the time, Mezibuz – which today is a neglected village – was an important regional center. The mighty red walls and the watch towers of the fort protected the city and the roads leading to it from an attack by the Turks. About a year ago, as part of a group of students and teachers, we entered this fortress, without any need for keys or an axe, as formal guests of the director of the museum at the site.

I have no doubt that the high walls and the mighty locked wooden gates were in the Baal Shem Tov’s view when he told the above allegory and others, which tell the story of shattering walls and how a man can enter into the chambers of the king. But can we then suppose that the Baal Shem Tov didn’t know that a person could not use an axe to get close to the king? Didn’t he know that one needed a formal invitation and advance notice in order to be allowed to enter?

The allegory of the Baal Shem Tov makes sense only if we make an assumption – that the King hidden in the palace was waiting for somebody to come and shatter the walls that hi d him from view. The King Himself wants to see the action of an axe. The walls with which the King surrounded Himself, by which He distances himself from us and hides, serve as a test of courage, to see if we will make an effort to enter through a locked door. And in this case we can hear the simple voice of the Chassid, who does not take into account the infinite distance between man and G-d. The Chassid declares that the King is also his Father, his lover who waits for him. In this way, we can all cry out in a simple voice: “Our Father, Our King