Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Illustrious Litvishe Roots of UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, רב יעקב צבי זקס ז"ל

 Last מוצאי שבת we learned of the passing of the renowned רב יעקב צבי זקס, aka Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in the UK. Accolades and הספדים poured in afterward from around the globe, from non-Jews as well as Jews.

But who was this man that brought forth such a torrent of tributes and emotions? And what were some of the great Jewish influences on him?

In terms of decisive influences, some pointed to his רבי, R. Nachum Rabinovitch z"l. Others mentioned Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik of Boston & New York, z"l, who he met as a young student. Lubavitchers, of course, mentioned his meeting with their Rebbe. Lord Sacks himself, in an interview, mentioned the great effect the six day war had on him.

But before all of those, he had a family which raised him. Who were they? His father, was born in Kielce, Poland. His mother, ליבא, Libby Frumkin Sacks, born in the UK, came from a renowned Litvishe family. She was a granddaughter of the famous R. Aryeh Leib Frumkin ז"ל (Hebrew Wikipedia entry here), a well-known Litvishe תלמיד חכם, mechaber of ספרים, and activist. At her funeral, her בכור, Lord Sacks, mentioned how proud she was of this zeide. So it was not a fact that was unknown to the young יעקב צבי. This ר' ארי' לייב פרומקין, son of R. Shmuel Kelmer, was himself in turn a descendant of the חכם צבי, לבוש, של"ה, מהר"ל מפראג, ולמעלה בקודש, as well as having family connections to other gedolim, such as R. Yisroel Salanter, זכר צדיקים לברכה.

So even though he went to general schools as a child, he still knew well whence he came, and when he got older he was עולה לגדולה, went to learn תורה הקדושה on a higher level, and became a Rav with progressively greater השפעה on קרובים ורחוקים as years went by.

As we are taught by Chazal, תורה מחזרת על אכסניא שלה, Torah returns to where it is hosted.

תהא נפשו צרורה בצרור החיים

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Litvishe Approach to Tehillim - It's Not Just Lip Service - Don't Just "Daven it Up"

תהלים is something that is an important part of our lives year-round, of course. However, at certain times there might be additional attention to it. 

But how should it be approached? Does הקב"ה need more lip service, עבודת הפה rather than עבודה שבלב?

The answer is emphatically no. Rather, כוונת הלב is what is sought and needed.

Rav Avigdor Miller z"l, in last week's תורת אביגדור booklet (p.7), gives some guidelines for its proper reciting. Say it slowly, with understanding and emotion (click to see what Rav Miller brings from the חובות הלבבות, and more, under the headline "How to Say Tehillim", on p.7 there).

 Elsewhere, in the excellent biography of Rav Miller, it is related that in his youth in Baltimore he would go to a Shul (although not explicitly stated there, based on other sections of the book, where it speaks about Rav Miller's youth in Baltimore, I think that the simple assumption and understanding is that it was a Litvishe Shul - if it was otherwise that would likely have been noted IMHO) where the men said Tehillim together with a beautiful melody (p.43). On Shabbos after סעודה שלישית they would sing the entire chapter 119 (תמניא אפי, the longest kapitel in Tehillim), the saying of which was a widespread minhag in ליטא, and considered a סגולה for חשק ואהבת התורה.

May we be זוכה to meaningful recitations, and כתיבה וחתימה טובה.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Search for Meaning & Passion in Neo-Chasidus - Testing the Limits of Tradition

In the past, when questions were raised about Neo-Chasidus, a response given was along the lines of we do things the same way you do, except that we also want to have a relationship with Hashem (as if regular Yidden don't have such a relationship ר"ל).

And perhaps in the past they were more careful not to innovate in the area of practice. But lately they seem to be more feeling more confident, and more questionable practices are being seen.

Two recent examples illustrate this point quite clearly.

Firstly, ט' אב services at a congregation on Long Island, NY.

In the previous post, before 9 Av, we discussed the advertised Tisha Be'Av kumzitz

I figured that I should check firsthand to see what was going on, בשעת מעשה, at the places I wrote about, after all, that is only proper, as Rashi brings in בראשית.

When I checked out the תשעה באב morning קינות at Congregation KMH, led by Rabbi Yussie Zakutinsky, a close disciple (he is one of a few carefully chosen founding members of Rabbi Weinberger's new Kollel Emek Hamelech) of Yeshiva University Mashpia and Rabbi of Congregation Aish Kodesh of Woodmere, NY, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, with assistance from talented singer Joey Newcomb, I discovered even more than I was expecting.

The abbreviated קינות service was accompanied by a significant amount of singing. And that does not mean that they just sang בצאתי ממצרים and אלי ציון a little more than in other places. Rather there were actual distinct songs between קינות.  You don't have to take my word for it, you can see for yourself, via the links below.

Selection one.

Selection two.

Selection three.

Selection four.

Selection five.

Selection six.

Selection seven.

Selections eight, nine, and ten.

Selection eleven.

Definitely very different than typical ט' אב services at both Non-Chasidic and Chasidic congregations.

The second example is the recent extensive singing (for almost an hour) at the funeral of the well known Lubavitcher scholar and writer, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Perhaps it could even be called a funeral farbrengen. 

As with the first example, this is something that is not typically seen at such events, whether typical Chasidic or Non Chasidic ones. Neo-Chasidus is doing its own thing.

I like the idea of doing things with more כוונה, and making observances more meaningful. But does that give an unlimited carte blanche license for innovation? I don't think so.

May הקב"ה give us the wisdom to infuse our observances with meaning and passion without transforming them excessively.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Tisha Be'Av Kumzitz - The New Normal?

An advertisement for a Tisha Be'Av night Kumzitz (along with another one the following day) came to my attention recently, and I was quite surprised to see it. The congregation offering it is neo-Chasidic congregation on Long Island, NY, under the leadership of a Rabbi Yussie Zakutinsky, a close disciple of Rabbi Moshe Weinberger of Woodmere, NY (mashpia at Yeshiva University, and Rabbi of Congregation Aish Kodesh).

Note - I subsequently learned that Congregation Aish Kodesh of Rabbi Weinberger had their own kumzitz on Tisha Be'Av night, although it was not advertised as the Lawrence congregation one was. A video of it, with Eitan Katz, can be seen here.

Now the three weeks period, between the observances of יז תמוז and ט אב, can be a challenging time for many people. Especially in the COVID-19 era. For Chasidim and Neo-Chasidim, it can be even more so, since they put so much stress on שמחה.

It seems that for years Tisha Be'Av 'kumzitz'en of sorts have taken place on/around Tisha Be'Av in Eretz Yisroel, especially around the כותל המערבי. However, it seems that they were usually done by groups like NCSY, and also more toward the end of Tisha Be'Av, rather than in the beginning of it. Now by longstanding widespread custom, toward the the end of Tisha Be'Av, there is a shift in the mood, for example, after חצות היום most people sit regularly rather than down low, so such things are not so surprising toward the end of the day. However, to see it advertised in a Shul setting for the beginning of Tisha Be'Av, and in חוץ לארץ too, was surprising.

Another such innovation, coming from the same or similar circles it seems, is to sing together אני מאמין באמונה שלמה בביאת המשיח on Tisha Be'Av night after davening. I have seen that practiced at Cong. Aish Kodesh in Woodmere of the aforementioned Rabbi Weinberger.

Now we can assume that people have good intentions with these innovations. But nevertheless, the question can be raised, are they a good idea, and consistent with our מסורה?

Personally, I don't think so, I think they are definitely a departure.

An excellent article related to this was written a few years ago by Prof. Chaim Saiman.

If people feel an overwhelming need to do such things, esp. in a congregation of youngsters, or a kiruv group, perhaps there is room for leniency for some singing under rabbinic guidance. But does it need to be labeled as a kumzitz and formalized?  To institutionalize them, especially at the very outset of the day, seems problematic.

Additionally, the idea of singing together of אני מאמין באמונה שלמה בביאת המשיח on Tisha Be'Av night after davening seems inconsistent with the theme and mood then, which seems to be describing and bemoaning the terrible, massive חורבן and calling for תשובה, repentance, to remedy the great breach that developed between הקב"ה and כלל ישראל. But if people start singing then that they believe in the coming of משיח no matter what, even if he tarries, that seems to dilute and take the focus and urgency away from תשובה as the answer to חורבן and גלות, because it is implied that משיח is coming anyway.

Those are some thoughts that came to me when contemplating these matters. תורה היא וללמוד אנו צריכים.

May we be זוכה to תשובה שלמה and גאולה שלמה, בקרוב.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Great Litvish-Chasidish Purim Divide

There are significant differences between Chasidic and Litvish approaches to פורים.

Two areas where differences are quite evident are with regard to drinking (עד דלא ידע), and the view of the special nature of the day with regard to davening and ישועות.

What is the preeminent position of the great Litvishe גדולי ישראל re imbibing on Purim?

In the current issue of Yated Ne'eman (USA), we learn the following of the Purim conduct of מרן ר' אהרן לייב שטיינמאן ז"ל.

1) Rav Aharon Leib drank more than usual, even more than one becher-full of wine (note - not even two bechers, just more than one. So in reality not much.) (p.50).

2) Rav Aharon Leib chastised a talmid who had already had too much to drink, but sought dispensation to drink more, by asking him, do you really want to become drunk? Did Rav Shach do so? The Brisker Rav? The Chazon Ish? (p.52)

Earlier in the same issue (p.48), we are told that after a certain incident The Steipler ז"ל resolved that he would not drink excessively even on Purim.

From the USA and Slabodka, another Litvishe gadol, Rav Avigdor Miller ז"ל, spoke out very strongly against inappropriate excessive Purim drinking as well. See here and here, for example.

So there you have a row of great Litvishe leaders of our era that strongly put the brakes on taking the inyan of עד דלא ידע too far. More examples exist of course, but I am sticking to easily available written testimony here.

On the other hand, among some Chasidim, the matter is viewed differently, and sometimes they drink עד הקאה, ועד בכלל, ואפילו יותר (for more on this, including very strong quotes from a Karliner Rebbe and the Nesivos Shalom of Slonim, see the section מספר חכמים יהודיים שדווקא תמכו בהשתכרות בפורים here. Also, note the ninth comment after the post there by בצלאל א about extreme Purim drinking in Breslov.)

Davening on Purim - Not a blank check

Another ענין where confusion is rampant is with regard to davening on Purim. Many promote ideas that on Purim a person can ask anything of Hashem (which can be done all year actually), and give the impression that one is assured to get anything requested through davening on that great day. On the other hand, a Litvishe view is that while תענית אסתר and/or Purim are enhanced ימי רצון for תפילה, there is no absolute guarantee that one will get what one davens for, even then. רחמנא ליבא בעי.

As time goes by, occasionally we see that some Litvishe have come under Chasidic influence in these areas. That is due to more mixing between the groups, such as Litvishe people davening in Chasidic places, marriages between the groups, and other interaction. They are therefore left confused about such things. Which is why educational initiatives such as this are important.

May Hashem help us keep to our דרכים, under the leadership of our גדולי עולם, and in that זכות we should be zoche to רפואות, ישועות, וגאולות.

א פרייליכען פורים

P.S. Important past Purim related posts are still here for חזרה. For example,

The Old-Fashioned Purim of a Litvak - Common Modern Purim Misconceptions Debunked

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Litvish Simcha Hacks - Rock Solid Eitzos

                                            לכבוד חודש אדר, משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה

Yes, you read correctly. Litvishe simcha hacks. They don't exhaust the subject, but give some important fundamentals. Gives you an idea of some Litvak approaches to the ענין. Check out the links along with the text below for more details.

1) מזל טוב, you are alive!

In last week's תורת אביגדור booklet (p.13), a story was related re the משגיח at Lomza yeshiva. When he saw a sad-faced bochur, he went over to him and wished him מזל טוב enthusiastically. Mazal tov! You're a lucky fellow! Everyone should envy you! He continued in that vein for a time, while the תלמיד looked on quizically, trying to understand what the simcha was. Finally the mashgiach explained it to him - Mazal Tov - you're alive!

2) The secret to happiness.

Realize and enjoy all the gifts and luxuries that you have. Almost all of us today have luxuries that even royalty and very wealthy people lacked not long ago.

3) An approach to Adar happiness.

4) There is a story regarding the חזון איש ז"ל, who was visited by a bochur who was feeling down. The Chazon Ish asked him, did you say ברכות התורה this morning? The bochur answered, yes. To which ר' אי"ש reportedly responded, I don't understand, you said אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו can you not be happy?

5) Since תורה is such a great source of שמחה, if someone is learning, but not feeling it, what should he do?

Answer: פשטות in such a case we can assume that something is out of whack in their study. Perhaps they are not attaining clarity in their learning. Perhaps they are learning a לימוד that is beyond their level, or doesn't appeal to them at that time. מאי תקנתיה? What is the solution? They should learn something that is במקום שלבם חפץ, and not too difficult or complicated for them. And then digest and understand it well (as per the pshat of the גר"א on אם אין קמח אין תורה - that Torah must be ground up - broken down - finely, as wheat is, to become the staff of life, nutritious bread, which it is compared to). So they can taste and savor it.

א פרייליכען חודש, a joyous Adar, און א גוטען תמיד, and overall good wishes as well.

Note - the above is not meant to be a complete treatment of the subject, nor to preclude other means of dealing with the matter. The two stories (in #1 & #4) were with yeshiva bochurim, a special subgroup, which is not identical to all others. A person should try to help someone who is in need, not just give them a מוסר shmooze. ה' יהי' בעזרנו.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Learning Guidance from a Classic Rosh Yeshiva - Old-Fashioned, Deep Litvishe Wisdom

Recently, an English version of an important interview with ראש ישיבת חברון בירושלים, הרה"ג אברהם פרבשטיין ז"ל was published in the Yated Ne'eman (USA) newspaper.

It is well worth looking at, as it clarifies many fundamental points related to yeshiva study, חינוך, and לימוד התורה בכלל, some of which are unfortunately insufficiently known today, and often misunderstood. It shows the deep wisdom and humanity of a great ראש ישיבה of the past. It also explodes and demolishes various misconceptions, stereotypes, and caricatures regarding the proper derech of ליטא in לימוד תורה הקדושה.

To whet your appetite, I will share some points from it, and invite you to see the article itself for a much more extensive treatment.

1) Question: What is the purpose of a yeshiva? 

Answer: Not to create a למדן. Rather to make a בן תורה.  Two different things.

2) Question: Should a yeshiva have a one size fits all approach to its talmidim?

Answer: No, a yeshiva is not a סדום bed. Individualized spiritual guidance is necessary for success.

3) Too much pressure on a talmid can have terrible repercussions, ר"ל.

4) Learning too many מפרשים can be counterproductive and confusing (in modern lingo, "information overload", see Wikipedia's interesting overview of the matter). Beware of that dangerous pitfall.

5) A minimum of forty blatt per zman should be learned.

ואידך, זיל גמור

Thanks to the publisher and writer for the important contribution, for all those who have lost their way and gotten mired in confusion.

א גוטען חודש