Don’t be Frum, be Ehrlich! – A Vort for Parshat Ki Teitzei

Too often we hear about dishonesty in business in the Jewish community. While this is a plague on the entire modern-day society, it is especially hurtful when it manifests in our own backyard. It’s interesting that in the “alter heim”, in Europe, one did not refer to a good Jew as “Frum”, religious.  The greatest compliment you could give a good Jew in pre-war Europe was to call them “Ehrlich”, honest.  For the simple reason that the defining characteristic of a Jew should be their honesty, especially in business.

Parshat Ki Teitzei underscores this fact.  The Torah tells us about how we are to conduct business: “A perfect and honest weight shall you have, a perfect and honest measure shall you have, so that your days shall be lengthened on the Land that Hashem your G-d gives you”.  We usually assume that the result of long life is a reward for being honest.  However, the Abarbanel in his commentary on the parsha explains that there is a much more simple reason for this reward.  No society can survive when people cheat each other in business.  Aside from the damage to the economy that results, it causes terrible interpersonal division.  Crooked business dealings have divided families, torn apart friendships, and ripped communities asunder.  The Abarbanel explains that this is why long life results from a “perfect measure”.  Only a society and community that acts in an “ehrlich” fashion will survive.  Communities that grow on the back of lies and cheating cannot survive.

Rav Yitzchak Blazer

What better time than Elul to focus on this ill in our own backyard.  Rav Yitzchak Blazer, a student of the mussar giant, Rav Yisrael Salanter, recounts that when he asked his rebbe what he should teach his community members in shul, Rav Yisrael gave one answer: laws of business.  Rav Yisrael supposedly said , “how can a Jew be truly observant if they do not know how to properly conduct their daily business dealings?”.  In fact,  a shochet once told Rav Yisrael that he wanted to change his career and open a store because he didn’t think he could be careful enough with the laws of slaughtering.  Rav Yisrael responded, “if you don’t trust yourself in the laws of shechita, there is no way you can keep the laws of business!”. (Reb Iztele Peterburger, chapter 7)

When we act with honesty, ehrlichkeit, we not only improve ourselves, we are guaranteed by our parsha continued quality of life with our family and community intact.  This year – don’t be frum, be ehrlich.

Shaila of the Week – Bicycles, Shabbos, and the Ben Ish Chai

Driving around the streets of Belle Harbor during the summer while trying to miss all of the bike-riders is like a video game.  The summer inevitably brings this question in my community: “Rabbi, can I ride my bike on shabbos?”

Bike-riding is one of those areas where letter of the law and the spirit of the law seem to intertwine.  For over one hundred years, poskim have sought to balance those two considerations and provide an answer to this question.

Three Considerations

Obviously, without an eruv any bike-riding is prohibited.  Our question is only when there is an eruv in the area.  The Tzitz Eliezer (1:21) outlines the three issues most poskim raise with bike-riding on shabbos:
1. One might ride out of the techum shabbos without realizing it
2. Bikes often have problems while riding (broken chain, flat tire, etc.) and one will come to repair it on shabbos, a biblical prohibition.
3. It constitutes uvdin d’chol, a weekday-type activity (similar to our colloquial saying, “not Shabbosdik”)

Many poskim take issue with the first two considerations because we, as a rule, do not institute new decrees after the close of the Talmud.  Therefore, the first two considerations would be difficult to uphold.  However, it is worth noting that Kaf Hachaim (403:8) implies that the custom in the Land of Israel was to forbid bike-riding for these reasons.

Uvdin D’chol

The final reason of uvdin d’chol does hold weight with many poskim, as it is an existing Talmudic decree (see Masechet Shabbat 143b). It is very sensible to maintain that riding one’s bike is very much an activity associated with the weekday.  In fact, Shu”t Chaim Birtzono (12) points out that the Talmudic decree against walking speedily on Shabbos (ibid 113b; Shulchan Aruch OC 301) is included in uvdin d’chol.  This decree, he maintains, was not merely because the way one walks quickly is problematic but because it brings one from one location to another too speedily.  This would certainly apply to a bicycle.  Tzitz Eliezer (7:30) also warns that allowing bike-riding could lead to allowing many other activities that are questionable and should not be allowed under any circumstances.

The Famous Opinion of the Ben Ish Chai

Some communities still allow bike-riding on shabbos based on a teshuva of the Ben Ish Chai.  In an answer to the Jewish community of Bombay, India, the Ben Ish Chai (Shu”t Rav Pealim 1:25) allowed riding bikes on shabbos.  In his long explanation he rejects all of the considerations raised above.  There are those Sefardic poskim that claim that the Ben Ish Chai rescinded this ruling (Kaf Hachaim ibid; Shu”t Yaskil Avdi).  However, Rav Ovadia Yosef (Shu”t Yabia Omer OC 10:55)  provides very convincing evidence that this claim is completely false and that the Ben Ish Chai stood behind his controversial ruling. Nonetheless, Rav Ovadia agrees that our generation should not rely on his leniency.


What Every Jew Can Learn from Ozymandias – a Vort for Parshas Shoftim

The famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley presented the vanity of basking in the glow of past accomplishments in his poem Ozymandias.  The poem describes, with a mocking undertone, a modern-day traveler viewing a dilapidated monument to the ancient “King Ozymandias” (which actually is the Greek name for Pharaoh Ramesses II).

The insignificance of monuments to the past is underscored in Parshas Shoftim.  The Torah tells us “Do not raise for yourself a matzeivah which is hated by Hashem your G-d”.  There is some dispute among the commentaries as to the exact identity of the matzeivah described here (see Rashi and Ramban).  Nonetheless, the simple meaning of matzeivah is a “monument”.  A monument is usually something made to commemorate a past event, past accomplishments, or a great individual.  In fact, monuments are not foreign to our religion.  Our forefathers made monuments at different moments in our history.  That is why Rashi points out (s.v. asher sanei) that monument were beloved to G-d in the days of the forefathers, but are no longer.  Why would the Torah forbid something as benign as a monument?

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Derash Moshe – Shoftim) teaches us that there is a very simple lesson to be learned from this pasuk.  Before the Torah was given to the world, past accomplishments mattered.  It was fitting and praiseworthy to build a monument as a memorial to all that was done.  In fact, one could even expect G-d to give them reward for their past deeds.  However, the Torah system changed all of that.  No longer would people be evaluated on what they did but rather on what they are doing.  The Torah wants no one to rest on there laurels and simply let old accomplishments carry them along.  We only achieve reward and cultivate meaning by doing the right thing now – even if we already did it in the past.  Rav Moshe says that the banning of monuments was to teach us that lesson.  Past accomplishments are as important in the greater picture of a Torah Jew as were the accomplishments of Ozymandias.  In the reality of Torah living it is what you do today – every little mitzvah – that really matters.

The students of Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook recount that their rebbe personified this lesson in his old age.  Even after a life filled with accomplishment (teaching thousands of students, publishing his father’s writings, spearheading the resettlement of Judea, Samaria, Gaza, and Sinai – just to name a few) he never passed up on an opportunity to do even the smallest mitzvah.  When his yeshiva, Merkaz Harav, moved to the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Yerushalayim, he began to take the bus everyday from his apartment in the Geulah neighborhood.  Although there was one bus line that stopped right in front of his building, Rav Tzvi Yehuda used to walk to Yaffo st., farther away, to catch a different bus.  Not only was this less convenient but Rav Tzvi Yehuda also experienced pain in one of his feet while walking.  One of his students once asked him why he did not take the line from in front of is building.  Rav Tzvi Yehuda explained that the closer bus was filled every morning with people going to work in the industrial area of Yerushalayim.  Whenever he would get on the bus, someone would invariably rise from their seat and give it to him.  This person who gave up their seat had to stand all day at the factory they worked at, whereas Rav Tzvi Yehuda would sit all day and learn.  He explained that he did not want to take away that short bus ride where some simple worker could have a few minutes of rest before their difficult day.  The bus from Yaffo St. was usually half empty so no one had to get up for him.  Rav Tsvi Yehuda said that small act of kindness made the walk worthwhile. (Mashmia Yeshua pg. 408)

Monuments are for ancient kings and forgotten rulers that the sands of time have taken from the world.  G-d doesn’t want monuments – not because they are essentially evil – but because they teach us that our past deeds are important enough to carve into stone.  What makes us great is who we are today.  Thousands of students and world-renowned fame is nothing compared to letting one worker have some rest before a hard day of work.  Why is this so?  Because the fame is based in the past – a monument of sorts, and the kind act is the present.  Perhaps that’s why the Torah teaches us: ואתם הדבקים ביהוה אלהיכם חיים כלכם היום “And you all who truly cleave to G-d are all living today” .


Vignette of a Famous Rabbi – In Honor of Gimmel Elul

Not many pass away on the very date they reached their life’s goal.  Rav Kook moved to Yerushalayim on the 3rd of Elul 5679 and passed away on the 3rd of Elul 1935 (note his matzeiva inscription).

So much has been written to define the giant that was the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel.  He was a Gadol Hador, tzaddik, posek, visionary, writer, philosopher, political activist, master administrator, etc.  The list is endless.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin

There is one vignette recorded about one year before Rav Kook’s passing by one of the great Rabbis of the postwar era that captures the very essence of Rav Kook in one word.  The following is a memory recorded by the world-renowned Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, prolific author and innovator of the Encyclopedia Talmudit:

“It was Shabbos in the summer of 1934. I was a recent oleh from the Red Kingdom (Soviet Union) and  I visited Yerushalayim for the very first time in my life.  I came for Yerushalayim but also for the “Rav”.  It was twilight towards the end of Shabbos when I entered Rav Kook’s home.  Was I in the house of the “Rav”?  No – it was the “Rebbe”. It was the heavenly Jerusalem.  A world of holiness.  Around Rav Kook’s table were the precious Jews of Yerushalayim and the divine presence was resting among them.  Their were tunes of D’veikus, Zemiros of longing for G-d – a unique other-worldly ambiance.  I said to myself: The only thing missing from a Rebbe’s Tisch here is the maamar (Torah discourse).  Suddenly, silence reigned in this majestic room.  Rav Kook began to speak.  Every idea – in fact – every word that he spoke was absorbed in your flesh.  His words were thought and emotion cleaving together – almost inseparable……since that day I did not merit to sit at his “shalosh seudos” ” (Ishim V’Shitos, Hotza’at Kol Mevaser pg. 216)

Rav Kook was many things to many people but most of all, as Rav Zevin put it, Rav Kook was the Rebbe.  He taught an entire generation how to achieve new spiritual heights and how to cleave to G-d in a rapidly changing world.  The desire to create the heavenly Jerusalem on earth was his ultimate goal.  His love for every Jew, obsession with Torah learning, stubborn commitment to tradition, love for the Land of Israel, and his pristine character all emanated from that one essential part of his identity – he was the Rebbe of the Jewish people.

Vingette of a Famous Rabbi – When Heavy Machinery is Music to the Ears

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop was one of the great Yerushalmi gedolim of the last century.  He became one of the closest disciples of Rav Kook and one of the molders of Religious Zionist thought.  It is said that Rav Kook used to tell people that Rav Yaakov Moshe was the only person that really understood him.

Rav Yaakov Moshe’s children recounted the following story:

In the last few years of his life, after the founding of the State of Israel, there was a tremendous amount of building in Yerushalayim.  Rav Yaakov Moshe suffered with many ailments and was in bed for the last few months of his life.  The heavy machinery was so loud in Yerushalayim, that Rav Yaakov Moshe’s children were concerned it would ruin their father’s rest and piece of mind.  They got together to discuss how they could get in touch with the contractor in the neighborhood to stop building so the famous Rabbi could live out his last few weeks in peace.  Rav Yaakov Moshe overheard them and called them in to his room.  He said, “I won’t live to see the rebuilding of Yerushalayim, at least let me listen to it……”  (Shirat Hayam – biography of Rav Yaakov Moshe)

I was in Israel this summer and woke up every morning to the sound of heavy machinery.  I never thought I would love the sound so much.

Shaila of the Week – Moving and Mezuzot

According to US census data, 50 percent of all moves occur during the summer.  During the summer months, I am often asked whether people can take their mezuzot with them when they move and another Jew will be moving in after them.

The Halacha

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 102a) states that when one leaves their home to be followed by another Jew, they may not take their mezuzot with them.  Why would this be the case?  The Rishonim provide three main reasons.  Tosfot (Ibid 101b s.v. lo) explains that since the Mezuzah serves as a protection for one’s home from Mezikin (evil forces) by removing the mezuah you are allowing them to enter.  In doing so, the next dweller will be endangered.  Ritva (Ibid 102a s.v. lo) explains that once the mezuzah is placed in the house one has actively placed the divine presence in that home.  By removing the mezuzah one forces that divine presence to leave, which is not appropriate.  Finally, in the She’iltot (parshat shelach 126) the explanation advanced is that this Gemara only refers to a case where the mezuzah will not be used again on a doorpost.  By removing it one shows a lack of honor by no longer using it for a mitzvah.  However, She’iltot would concede that if it was used on another doorpost after being removed there would be no issue.

Must the next owner pay for the Mezuzot?

There is a common misconception that that this obligation means the previous owner or renter must take a financial loss on their mezuzot.  However, the Rama (YD 191; see also Shita Mekubetzet Ibid) clearly states that the next dweller must pay for the mezuzot if the previous owner so wishes.  In fact, Rav Moshe Feinstein (igrot Moshe YD 4:44) explains that this payment is an absolute obligation upon the next dweller.

What if the next dweller refuses to pay?

Aruch Hashulchan (ibid) writes that if the next dweller will not pay, the owner of the mezuzot still cannot take their mezuzot with them.  However, this opinion is not accepted by many poskim (see for example Chelkat Yaakov YD 160).  Many poskim assume that if the next dweller does not fulfill their obligation to pay for the mezuzot, one can take the mezuzot with them.  This is especially true today when mezuzot are very costly.  Obviously, the offer of sale must first be made before the mezuzot are taken off.


The Book of Life is Not About Living

Thinking about death is uncomfortable for most people.  The holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur throw this into focus.  The entire point of these holidays is summed up in one very enigmatic Gemara:

Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah.  One of the totally righteous, another of the totally wicked, and a third of the average people [beinonim].  The absolutely righteous are immediately written and inscribed for life, the totally wicked are immediately written and inscribed for death, and the average people’s status is undecided until Yom Kipper – if they merit they are written for life and if they do not merit they are written for death (Rosh Hashanah 16b)

The Gemara presents to us the ideal ordered world – the one we learned about as kids.  Every year G-d decides during the Yomim Noraim who is righteous and who is not.  The good guys get life and the bad guys get death.  That’s  the reason we wish others to be written and inscribed for a good year,

You don’t have to be an atheist to be bothered by this Gemara.  It does not describe the reality of the world.  The “good” by no means have a year of life, nor do the wicked get punished.  In fact, that’s one of the most basic teachings of the Torah, rasha v’tov lo tzadik v’ra lo – many times the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.  Chazal even told us in pirkei avot (perek 4) that we have no way to explain the way punishment and reward is meted out to the righteous and the wicked in our world.

So what is Rosh Hashanah about?  On the page of this very Gemara, this question was addressed. Tosfot observes that very often the opposite of the Gemara is true:

Sometimes the completely righteous are inscribed for death and the completely wicked are inscribed for life (Tosfot ibid; s.v. v’nechtamin)

Tosfot’s answer is nothing short of shocking.  They explain that the judgement of Rosh Hashanah has absolutely nothing to do with one’s coming year!  In fact it has nothing to do with anything in your life at all.  Tosfot says that the entire judgment of Rosh Hashnah is actually about olam habah, the world to come.  We are not judged on Rosh Hashanah for what our year will be like. G-d decides each year whether we still merit our portion in the next world.  The Book of Life is for people that do, and the other book is for people that don’t.  That’s why we don’t see this Gemara come to fruition in our world.  It’s not supposed to. (see Ramban, Sha’ar HaGemul for alternative explanation)

If those that have a portion in the World to Come suffer in this world, then by wishing someone to be inscribed in the Book of Life (in the World to Come), we are actually wishing them to suffer during the next year! (see Tosfot HaRosh ibid)

While Tosfot’s jaw-dropper resolves all of our theological issues, one obvious question remains.  What is the urgency of Rosh Hashanah in our lives?  Everyone is so scared about the next year – health, livelihood, family well-being, etc.  If Rosh Hashanah really has nothing to do with any of those immediate issues, what is the meaning for us all?

Perhaps Tosfot’s explanation actually gives Rosh Hashanah much more meaning.  G-d might not be deciding life or death for the coming year but He is telling us the best way to deal with all of those life stresses.  He is reminding us that there is much more to the world than the struggles we have.  We are living for a much greater purpose than simply trying to curry favor with G-d for the coming year.  We are living to merit a time of total bliss and harmony for ourselves and the entire world – otherwise known as olam habah – the World to Come.  When we recognize on Rosh Hashanah that our whole purpose of being is to merit eternal life – accomplished through Torah, Mitzvot, and Gemilut Chasadim – the everyday worries don’t seem to be as intimidating.

Tosfot’s explanation is actually liberating.  Instead of the tears of terror that are often shed while davening for the future, our Rosh Hashanah tears can be transformed into tears of relief.

We just don’t get what happens here and why it can seem to be so unfair.  Tosfot tells us that while that thought is understandable, that’s no reason to be down this Rosh Hashanah.  Think about the great things you are doing – the stuff that really matters.  Cast off the burden of worry and let the ideal image of the World to Come fill your heart.  That perspective will pay off in this world and the next.