Monday 27 July 2015

056) The Nonexistent Memorial...

I draw once more from the writings of Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz[1] whose compelling arguments are difficult to ignore. He believes that the post-war generation of Jews (particularly the religious communities) have never done enough to acknowledge the Holocaust. Sadly, the less religious communities are more respectful at commemorating the Shoa than their religious counterparts, who in many instances seem to ignore it completely.

He contrasts this ‘callous and cruel silence’, with historical (halachik) reactions to earlier tragedies, and wonders why an event which suffered far more deaths than any previous catastrophe, has been so discounted.

After the Chmielnitsky massacres of 1648-49, known as Gezeiros Tach veTat, the great commentator on the Shulchan Aruch , the Shach, composed Selichos to be recited on the twentieth of Sivan, a day chosen as an annual fast day commemorating that event. The Shach writes that the number of Jews killed was around 100 000, and referred to it as the ‘Third Destruction’, following that of the First and Second Temples. 
The Taz[2] also endorses this fast and mentions that it was observed by all the Jewish population of Poland, because most families were affected by the massacres. 
One hundred and thirty years later, the Pri Megadim[3] writes that the fast was still being observed, and taken even more seriously than all the other fast days of the year.

Yet the Holocaust, which saw sixty times more that number, has been largely ignored by our religious leaders.

As is commonly understood, the halachic justification for this inaction is simply that there is no person in our times great enough to ‘innovate’ a new practice. 
This is amazing. 
Take a look at the list of things, in the last few decades, that have been commented on, banned, or restricted in some way by our leadership. We have had people ‘great enough’ to tell us what to do with television, the internet, and smart phones. We have input on appliances and time switches on Shabbos. We know how to kosher a microwave. At least three ‘gedolim[4] have told us that women are not permitted to drive cars. 
Yet no one is ‘great enough’ to apply their minds to the issue of halachically commemorating the most terrible death tragedy in our history!

There is in fact a source substantiating the belief that no one is ‘great enough’ to introduce a new ‘innovation’ such as a new fast day. It is the Mateh Levi, a commentator on Kinot for Tisha BeAv, who draws our attention to the persecutions perpetuated by the Crusaders in 1096. He explains that the reason why the Crusaders are remembered on the already established fast of Tisha BeAv, although their attacks technically took place over Shavuot, is because we lack the authority to ‘add an extra holiday’.  

Rabbi Schwarz’s response to this is quite simply “Can the comments of one who annotates prayer hymns ...supersede...the Shulchan Aruch, Magen Avraham,the Taz and the Shach, who enacted precisely such an extra day of mourning...for the persecutions of 1648?”[5]

The Radbaz[6], writing about someone who never shed a tear on the passing of a loved one, says that this “is indicative of hardheartedness, and an evil quality of the soul. It is a trait of cruelty...” Rabbi Schwarz asks “how much cruelty does one reveal” when we fail to remember millions of people who were brutalised?

Basing himself on the Rosh[7], he says that if any congregation agrees to undertake a fast, it becomes as binding as any other ta’anit tzibur (public fast). In other words, halachically, a fast does not require ‘great people’ to determine its veracity.  All it needs is acceptance by a community. And by community is meant any group of ten or more men, even if they are unlearned! 
Such a fast day is considered binding to the extent that they say Aneinu and read Veyechal, as they would on any of the other fast days.

If this is the case, why have more people not even suggested a discussion about the establishment of an annual day of fasting (or even something else, like halachically endorsing some form of symbolism) to reaffirm our humanity, in the aftermath of the ‘Fourth Destruction’, where the degree and magnitude of our suffering was unimaginably greater than we have ever experienced before?

[1] See Kotzk Blog 55 for a description of Rabbi Schwarz. See EYES TO SEE – Recovering Ethical Torah Principles Lost In The Holocaust,by Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz, published by Urim, 2004.
[2] 566, 103.
[3] Mishbetzot Zahav 566,3.
[4] See Update to Kotzk Blog 42.
[5] Rabbi Schwarz actually refers to the ‘no one is great enough today’ theory, as “nonsense’.
[6] Vol.3, 585.
[7] Ta’anit ch.1, siman 20.

Sunday 19 July 2015

055) The Holocaust Didn't Just Kill Jews...

Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz
One of the less known Torah giants of our generation must be Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz. He is a holocaust survivor, who seems to have made it his mission to point out how the Torah world we know today, has dramatically changed in comparison to the pre-war Judaism he remembers. He studied at Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, and at the age of 16 was asked to check his Rosh Yeshiva’s[1] halachik responsa prior to publication.

After his inhuman suffering in the concentration camps, he became an expert at the then very important question of aggunos[2], for whom special courts were created. He later settled in America but shied away from public office and religious/political affiliation, a trend which had become popular in the rabbinical world at that time. 

Although he kept to himself, in 1958, Rabbi Yaakov Kemenetsky referred to him as one of the ‘gedolei doreinu’ or greats of this generation. 

In 1974, when he published his Ma’aneh LeIgrot, which fearlessly criticised many of Reb Moshe Feinstein’s halachik rulings, people began to take notice of him. Since then he has been consulted by many leading rabbis on important issues of halacha that many other authorities were reluctant to get involved with[3].

In his book, Enayim Lirot[4], he recalls how before the war, a European city may have had different religious communities each with different synagogues and customs. But a single rabbi acted as the Rav of the community which was essentially united in its diversity. Also, and perhaps more importantly, there was non-sectarian Torah education for all the children. Students from all ‘denominations’ generally went to the same school. The fact is that throughout most of our history, Jewish communities never even had elementary schools.  Typically, a melamed or tutor was hired privately to teach small groups of younger children.

“After the Shoah, however, a new social order – unlike any other in our nation’s history – began to evolve as our nation became splintered into different factions, each of which functions almost like a separate nation...”

Now, for the first time in Jewish history we have a separate school for each religious sect. This sows seeds of division which is subliminally inculcated into our young children from the moment they are able to learn. I go to this school but you go to that school. One of us must be better than the other. This creates an illusion of elitism in Torah education, something which never existed before.
 “And when these children grow up and become eligible for marriage, they will hardly ever marry someone from another group. In the Holy Land, each sect even has its own neighbourhood, led by a rabbi whose entire upbringing and education took place within the confines of that sect’s yeshiva system.”

Now the factionalism is perpetuated into the next generation, consolidating the misleading impression that this is how Jewish communities were always structured.

In times gone by, if a person wanted to become an expert scholar, he would never just study under one rabbi. Instead he would travel to a variety of teachers to be exposed to a variety of views[5]. This ‘cross pollination’ is severely discouraged in modern Torah society. But Rabbi Schwarz believes this ‘new practice’ which encourages students to only study at one ideological institution, has a detrimental effect on scholarship in general, because a gifted student is led to believe that all meaningful learning can only take place within his present environment. The student thus insulates himself from further potential spiritual and intellectual growth.

 “It has also become customary for all members of a particular group to follow a unique dress code – marked by subtle distinctions in various articles of clothing such as a hat or overcoat – which identifies them as being members of that group and no other.”

Rabbi Schwarz then goes on to explain that while it is true that in Egypt, the Jews dressed differently from their Egyptian counterparts. - that was in order to differentiate them from the Egyptians. We are now differentiating ourselves from our fellow Jews
Although dress codes obviously pre-dated the holocaust, by analysing photographs of those older communities, it was clearly nowhere near the extent that it is today.

“Thus, in the ultimate of ironies, the very means used by our forefathers in Egypt to keep the Jews now being used by these groups to separate themselves from all other Jews... We should not be inventing new practices that perpetuate division...”

He traces this new thirst for factionalism directly to the generation surviving the holocaust which was young, orphaned and had no fixed tradition or long lines of links with the past. Whatever they had absorbed before the war was quickly forgotten, and only the major milestone observances were remembered without the subtle nuances of meaning and ethics that were once so tangible. When they transmitted these external demonstrations of faith to their children, it was much like a body without a soul. In a sense this was an unprecedented break in the mesora of Torah transmission, in that unlike earlier times where “a segment of the population in each new generation will have lived half their lives in the outgoing generation”, this did not happen after the war.

Although we have suffered many horrific calamities in our history, we were always defiantly quick to recover, and often experienced periods of great growth afterwards.  After the terrible persecutions of 1648, for example, the great commentators to the Shulchan Aruch[6] wrote their monumental works. Amazingly these works abound not just with legalities, but with amazing ethical insight and with respect for interpersonal relationships.

The difference was that in the past there were always surviving elders who had grown up in the spirit not just the letter of the Torah, and they were able to transmit that spirit to the next generation. Not so with the generation surviving the holocaust, where even those who did survive were “old, shattered and broken.”

It is no wonder then, that “hardly a week goes by without some story appearing in the non-Jewish media about yet another case of corruption, or some other shameful act committed by an observant Jew, causing a tremendous chillul the Talmud declares...the non-Jews will then say ‘This person has learned the Torah and its commandments, yet his conduct is more corrupt and shameful than that of a descent gentile.’[7]

Like a modern day Kotzker, Rabbi Schwarz daringly argues for the religious world to re-evaluate their insular view of non-religious Jews, as well as of non-Jews. He pleads with religious Jews to become kinder, more compassionate, and conscious of creating a kiddush Hashem by their unconscious public behaviour. And he strongly advocates for a re-appraisal of fundamentalism and factionalism which he says has become a hallmark, plaguing the modern religious world. This never existed in pre-war Judaism, on the scale that it does now. As a result, the common cultural religious Judaism practised today, is in his view, skewed - notwithstanding the unprecedented growth of yeshivas and other learning institutions that abound.

Maintaining and growing the status quo, will not course correct us back to how we used to be. That can only be achieved through a powerful re-injection of the value of ethics back into the scholarly curriculum. For that we need massive buy-in from all our leaders, who would first have to become aware of the problem... 

In short, he believes the holocaust killed not just Jews, but sadly some of the most important aspects of Judaism as well.

[1] Rabbi Frommer, known as the Kozhiglever Rav.
[2] The sad predicament of many women whose husbands were ‘missing’ during the holocaust, and were still considered to be legally married, and therefore unable to remarry as they did not have a divorce.
[3] A case in point is kidushei ketana, where an unpleasant divorce led a man to ‘betroth’ his eleven year old daughter to an undisclosed man. Rabbi Schwarz was able to invalidate the ‘marriage’ and remove this cruel manipulation of law from becoming a precedent.
[4] EYES TO SEE, published by URIM in 2004, p36 – 54.
[5] The original ‘chareidim’ who would ‘tremble’ in order not to make a mistake in halachik rulings, would travel from sage to sage until they were satisfied they had explored every conceivable angle of a concept in question. See Bava Metzia 33b and the relating Rashi who says they ‘studied under many chachamim...since they were not all expert in all subjects.’
[6] These included the Shach, Taz, Be'er HaGolah and Magen Avraham. The Chmielnitsky uprising of 1648-49 (known as the Gezeiros Tach veTat), saw Cossaks murdering tens of thousands of Jews and displacing hundreds of thousands of other Jews, in Poland and Lithuania.
[7] Yoma 86a.

Thursday 9 July 2015

054) What You May Not Know About Your Yarmulka

The story of the yarmulka is indeed a very intriguing one. Being perhaps the greatest universal symbol of religious Judaism, the journey from its simple halachik origins to the status it enjoys today is remarkable, though little understood. Much of this article has been taken from Dan Rabinowitz's brilliant research in his 'Yarmulka: A historic cover up?'

300 - 400's CE:

We start in Talmudic times with a Gemora[1]  singling out Rav Huna for his exceptional pious behaviour, as he never walked a distance of four cubits without a head covering. From this it is evident that his practice was rather unusual and not the norm for that era.

Another Talmudic source[2] tells of mother who was concerned about raising her son to be G-d fearing and not to develop a propensity for stealing. She was advised to encourage her child (who turned out to be Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak) to pray, and also to keep his head covered. This too, indicates that head coverings were surprisingly not common, even in Talmudic times.

Centuries later, the Rambam writes that; “Our great sages were careful to prevent their heads from being uncovered”[3], the implication is that this was the practice of ‘great sages’, and not necessarily the practice of the masses[4].
What is certain is that there is no Torah imperative to wear a head covering, nor is there any indication of a halachik obligation to do so in any of the early sources we have mentioned.

1500's : 
Rav Yosef Karo writes in his Shulchan Aruch[5] that one should not walk four cubits without a head covering[6] - implying that he was not intending to write a head covering into law. He did, however, encourage it as a ‘should’, but not as a ‘must’.

1600's :

Surprising, in the mid 1600’s, the Taz wrote in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch[7], that in his view the wearing of a head covering may actually be in keeping with a Torah command ‘Do not follow in their ways’. The Taz draws our attention to idolaters who, when sitting down to eat intentionally removed their hats. Not wanting to follow their practices, he suggests that Jews specifically needed to cover their heads, and he gives this practice the status of a biblically ordained law[8].  His view certainly stands out from all the others as being exceptional.

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh of Modena[9], an interesting character in his own right, used to go bare headed, as was the custom of Italian Jews at that time. When one of his books was published in 1637, it had a portrait of him on the cover, clearly without a head covering.
The author of the Torah commentary Melechet Machashevet, Rabbi Gentili[10], similarly had his portrait on the front cover of his book when it was published in 1710.  However, in the second edition which was published a hundred and fifty years later, a large yarmulka suddenly appears on his head.


In a landmark ruling, the Vilna Gaon, or Gra, maintained that there is never an obligation to wear a head covering, even when reciting a beracha[11]. Of course this does not mean that one shouldn’t wear a head covering, it’s just that we need to understand its halachik status is one of laudable but not obligatory. For some reason, the Gra, who usually makes use of short responses, is particularly long winded in support of his thesis in this regard.


Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann[12], who taught in the academy of Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch, noted that the students sat bareheaded for secular classes and only wore head coverings for Torah study. This section of his book was censored[13] in subsequent publications. He writes (in the uncensored version) “that today, amongst the Hungarian rabbis, they are extremely strict with regard to covering one’s head. However the Gra in his notes says that there is no prohibition to cover one’s head even when saying G-d’s name, and that doing so is only a midat chassidut, or pious custom.[14]

[The responsa of Rabbi Yehudah ben Asher[15] records the question; “Does one need to wear a head covering while studying?” To which he responds; “It is best to cover one’s head...but, because of the heat, I do not do so.”[16]  About five hundred years later, Rabbi Hildesheimer pointed out that according to one manuscript in his possession, the correct version should have read; “I myself sit with a lighter linen head covering during the heat.”  This is another example of a text being censored one way or another to push for or against the necessity to wear a head covering.]


R Yisrael Brodsky was a wealthy supporter of the Volozhin kollel. In a photograph of him, which is probably the only one in existence, he can be seen without a head covering. However, in a recent publication of that same picture, he can be seen with an added yarmulka adorning his head.

An amazing picture of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, apparently taken during his official registration at university, shows no yarmulka.  (I am not saying he never wore one at the time, it’s just that no yarmulka is visible. It may have been official policy to have no head coverings on registration photographs.) But in a later publication of the same photograph, a large yarmulka is now evident.

A lovely example of censoring gone too far, is a recently published illustrated Mishna, showing a cohen with his hat removed. This was done as part of the lottery process which took place in the Temple.  In the illustration, the cohen has his hat off, but underneath is a yarmalka. In the publisher’s enthusiasm to promote head coverings, an embarrassing oversight was made – namely, that by wearing a yarmulka, that cohen would have been guilty of the capital offense of altering the priestly garb.


Generally, when not specifically in shull, the vast majority of sources do not ascribe any legal obligation to the wearing of a yarmulka other than the fact that is only a minhag chassidut, a pious custom. However, when entering a shull, or when about to say a beracha or study Torah, there may be a rabbinic requirement to wear a head covering[17].


The Maharshal[20] writes five hundred years ago (as if it were today); “Come and see the hypocrisy of the Ashkenazim. If he is wealthy, he can drink wine in a non-Jewish tavern, eat non-kosher foods, and people will show him respect. But one who keeps kosher and does not wear a head covering is considered as if he has left the fold.”[21]

Notwithstanding all the sources we have looked at, the fact remains that the Yarmulka has become one of the most powerful symbols of religious Jews today.  Why this is so remains a mystery. Was is by design, or did it just evolve so over time? Perhaps it shows our commitment by taking something that is only a pious custom, and elevating it to the level of a non- negotiable.

Whatever the reason, it is a most visible sign to the outside world (although unfortunately not to ourselves, as no one can see his own yarmulka) – yet we need to intentionally become especially conscious of it, so as not to let the rest of our people down by bad behaviour or chillul Hashem
On the contrary, a Jew who wears his yarmulka and makes a positive contribution to society, becomes a proud ambassador of our people and makes a kiddush Hashem.  

One thing is certain, no observer sees a yarmulka and walks on by without making a call one way or the other.

[1] Shabbat 118b. See also Kidushin 31a.
[2] Shabbat 156b.
There is however, a source in Sofrim 14, where a view is presented requiring one to cover the head whilst reciting G-d's name. Rabbenu Yerucham, one of the leading Rishonim, ruled according to this view. See also Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, p. 169. 
[3] Moreh Nevuchim 3,52.
[4] The Zohar also says that a Torah scholar may not walk four cubits without a head covering. Zohar Parshat Pinchas p.245.
[5] Orach Chaim 2,6.
[6] His word choice is significant because in the same sentence, he uses the words ‘asur leylech bekoma zekufa’, it is forbidden to walk with an arrogant posture – and then velo yelech daled amot begiluy harosh’, one should not walk four cubits with an uncovered head, in relation to a head covering. The juxtaposition of both terms shows that the first was meant as law while the second, although laudable, was not.   
[7] Orach Chaim 8,3.
[8] The Taz does preface his comment with ‘venireh li’, it appears to me. But he also says that it may be an ‘issur gammur’, a serious prohibition to go bare headed, under a general Torah prohibition to be separate from idolatrous practices. The Neta Sorek, however, is surprised by the Taz’s ruling and believes he was only referring to a Jew who intentionally removes his head covering when performing a Jewish religious practice, such as davening. He takes this view because he says we have no precedent for a head covering to be a religious requirement as say, tzitzit.
[9] 1571-1648. He wrote a commentary on Ein Yaakov, and sat on the Beit Din of Venice. See the brilliant article; ‘Yarmulke: A Historic Cover-up?’ by Dan Rabinowitz, who points out that at the age of just 13, Rabbi Modena wrote a book against gambling, entitled Sur MeRa, but who ironically became a gambler himself later on in life.
[10] 1663-1711.
[11] See Biur HaGra Orach Chaim 8.6. He does say, however, that a head covering should be worn in the presence of great rabbis, but that even so only as midat chasidut.
[12] 1843-1921. Author of Melamed LeHoil.
[13] See Kotzk Blog 52.
[14] See Melamed LeHoil vol.2, 26.
[15] 1270-1349
[16] Dan Rabinowitz points out that in the Middle Ages, head coverings were elaborate and uncomfortable, as opposed to the smaller yarmulkas of today.
[17] See Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah 5. See also Peninei Halacha, Likkutim 1, p 169, who writes that the source for the rabbinic imperative to cover the head in shul or while reciting prayers, is in Masechet Sofrim 14. A view is brought there that it is forbidden to say Hashem's name without a head covering. Rabbenu Yeruchum, a Rishon, brings this view as Halacha.
[18] Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4,2.
[19] Rabbi Feinstein explains that although, nowadays, the yarmulke has assumed an ‘obligatory’ status, the threat of financial loss would push aside that status. (Fascinatingly, the threat of financial loss even sometimes can be applied to a Torah obligation, such as Lulav, where one is not required to spend more than one fifth of his wealth on the mitzvah.)
[20] Rabbi Shlomo Luria 1510-1573.
[21] She’elot Uteshuvot 92.