Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Learning Longevity From Litvak Luminaries

Maran Rav Aharon Leib Steinman z"l just passed away, reportedly at the age of 103. Five plus years prior, Maran Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv z"l passed away at a reported age of 102. Approximately a decade prior to that Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Schach z"l passed away at a reported 102 (if not greater age) as well.

A group of gedolim, manhigei hador, born in Lita, who lived most of their years in Eretz Yisrael.

Oustanding gedolim with outstanding longevity.

הלא דבר הוא - worthy of note.

What can we glean from their extreme years?

Al pi derech hateva (looking at it from a natural perspective), they lived very healthy (spartan we might even say - pardon the expression :) lifestyles - not smoking, eating little (cf the teaching of Rambam that most sicknesses come from overeating, IIRC), eschewing luxuries, living very modestly. Spiritually, they lived rich, meaningful lives, with a wealth of Torah and mitzvos. Of course, they benefited, especially at the end of their lives, from excellent personalized medical care, as well.

Of course, when considering such things, we should examine Torah sources regarding arichas yamim. A fundamental one is the posuk in Mishlei which tells us that יראת ה' תוסיף ימים ושנות רשעים תקצרנה, yiras Hashem adds days to a person. See the beautiful pshat of the holy Vilna Gaon there.       

They are exceptional cases, and longevity is not limited to those with their exact background. Rav Shmuel Wosner, a fellow Bnei-Brak gadol, from a Vienna reportedly lived to 101as did Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg z"l of Yerushalayim, who differed from the above by virtue of living in America for many years (although he was born in and lived in Europe as well). The Chofetz Chaim, a gadol of an earlier era, when modern medicine and health science was far less advanced, lived well into his 90's. There are non-celebrities of extreme age living quietly in nursing homes, with family, and elsewhere. There are cases of people of other faiths living extremely long as well. However, some, many, or most of them, seem to be relatively sheltered, and not too active. Whereas the gedolim above continued, B"H, to be active in their leadership roles (with vital assistance of course) to their last days, more or less.

In general, there are more people today living longer, b"H. I recall reading or hearing some time ago that more people are over one hundred years of age now than ever before in human history.

Takeaway - Those interested in longevity might contemplate living a lifestyle akin to their's. One needn't run daily for miles.

A freilichen and lichtigen Chanukah.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Litvak Caveman - Modern Historical Development of a Polemical Stereotype

Years ago, a controversy erupted when a past President of Yeshiva University and Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS, in an attempt to delineate and distinguish between his yeshiva and those of the more right wing Yeshiva world, stated, that unlike at some other institutions, his students were not cavemen.

Some right wing Yeshiva world elements then reacted with furor, seemingly thinking that the caveman reference was to a neanderthal type creature. Actually, however, the learned speaker and masterful darshan was referring to the famous gemara that tells of R. Shimon ben Yochai and his son R. Elazar staying for years buried in earth in a cave, when they were fugitives from governmental tyranny and religious persecution, with the speaker meaning that his students interacted with the outside world more than those of more insular institutions.

Over time, that speaker retired from Yeshiva University, and the controversy became a piece of history, past rather than present, for a while.

More recently however, the caveman stereotype has reemerged in a new form, with Hasidic figures at YU and elsewhere invoking it more broadly, not just against YU's right wing rival yeshivas, but as a rhetorical tool against Litvaks in general.

In the new form, Litvaks are carricatured as monkish types who do not engage with, or even reject the world, rather remaining isolated studying Torah all day. In other words, unbalanced people, who's lifestyle is a departure from Jewish tradition. On the other hand, Chasidim are portrayed favorably as people who engage with the outside world rather than cower from it, who believe in בכל דרכיך דעהו.

Exhibit one of this new form of the polemic - A few years ago, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Rabbi of Cong. Aish Kodesh, and RIETS Mashpia, basing himself on Rabbi Mottel Zilber (aka Rabbi Mordechai Silver), a (one of two) Stutchiner Rebbe (son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, spiritual leader of Cong, Emunas Yisrael of Brooklyn, NY, and mashgiach of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath of Brooklyn), attempted to propagate it in a talk at YU, under a guise of 'A Chasidic View of Parnasah', as part of his 'introduction to תורת הבעש"ט' series there.

Exhibit two - Rabbi Hershel Reichman, RIETS Rosh Yeshiva and neo-Hasidic pioneer, in a just published message, reflecting on neo-Hasidism at YU/RIETS (interestingly he expresses some reservations about it there now, entertaining the possibility that it has gone too far), says (last paragraph) that Hasidism is a seamless fit with Modern Orthodoxy, because they both see opportunities for avodas Hashem in every area of life, as per the fundamental Torah teaching of בכל דרכיך דעהו. As if Litvaks have excised that from their Yiddishkeit!

What is the problem here? Does anyone else realize what is wrong with this rhetoric? May I suggest a few points to ponder.

1) Litvaks as a whole are being conflated with a certain type of modern yeshiva/kollel (long term/indefinite "Torah-only" study for the masses) lifestyle, and its constituency.  As if such a thing ever existed in Lita, Jewish Lithuania, the 'old country' for them where the amount of kollel students pre-WWII did not even get close to three digits, and where the typical man, with rare exception, was a 'balabos' (בעל הבית) rather than a kollel yungerman. The fact is, though, that Litvish in general is not totally identical with Yeshivish. Yes, there is overlap, and common cause, and collaboration at times, but they are still distinct identities and categories.

2) Chasidim nowadays have gone into kollel in a big way, and now have some of the largest kollelim in the world (in Kiryas Joel, New Square, etc.).

3) Pre-WWII Chasidim had similar things to kollel, even if the term was not used by them (e.g. the famous Belzer 'yoshvim' system).

4) Many of the most extremely insular segments of the contemporary Jewish world are actually Chasidic communities.

5) I don't recall this argument/polemic being raised in the days of when the Chasidic-Misnagdic clash was in full swing 200+ years ago. Chasidim then did not (IIRC) accuse Litvaks of being monk-like cavemen. Why not? Simple. Because it would have been ludicrous. There was no such thing! There was no kollel movement in Lita, Jewish Lithuania and environs, at that time, in the time of the Vilna Gaon! It is a modern invention, which became a mass movement only in recent decades. That itself shows that there is a problem with a polemic linking such a lifestyle to core Litvak ideology and identity.

I wonder, would Rabbi Reichman have proclaimed such drivel in front of his late rebbe Rav Soloveitchik z"l, or Rabbi Weinberger in front of his (alleged - I don't know if I have ever heard him say over Torah from the Suvalker Rav z"l despite listening to quite a few of his talks - if he ever does, it definitely seems to be quite rare) rebbe Rav Dovid Lifshitz z"l, and other past Litvishe RIETS greats? I seriously doubt it. Now, however, after their passing, these people feel free to spout anti-Litvish rhetoric openly in the institution where their teachers taught Torah for so many years.

Let us speak out strongly against this grotesque carricature of the Litvak being propagated by some to promote aims of their own, in which the Litvak is a Christian monk like figure, who doesn't believe in בכל דרכיך דעהו.

It is time for this defamation campaign to be exposed and retracted. The contemporary figures propagating it should be challenged for their words, and held accountable for the ugly stereotyping. Issues can be debated, but leave the broad brush stereotyping out please. Hopefully those responsible will consider their words more carefully in the future, and refrain from such talk, restoring a measure of peace among us.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Comprehensive Look At The Modern Lulav Industry - Great New Video and Article

In the previous post, we showed how people not familiar in a comprehensive way  with lulavim used for מצות ארבע מינים, erred and took a 'lulav' from a different type of (non-date) palm tree, departing from the tradition of כלל ישראל with regard to what a lulav is.

To get a better idea of, and actually see how lulavim grow and are harvested in general, while also learning of modern and recent innovations in the industry, I highly recommend this article and video taken in ארץ ישראל recently.

Even though this year's Sukkos has just passed, and the next year's is many months away yet, learning related to a mitzvah is always in season.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

When a Lulav Is Not Kosher - The Giant "Perfect Lulav" - An Open Orthodox - Lubavitch PR Scam

A Lubavitcher website is reporting a joint effort of an 'Open Orthodox' (OO) spiritual leader from Washington DC, Shmuel Herzfeld, and a Lubavitcher shliach in California, Yossi Cunin, to get a giant lulav for the OO leader to use at his house of worship.

The (Los Angeles) Jewish Journal has as an article by Herzfeld about it, Best of Friends, Best of Fronds: A Lulav Story.

According to the reports the story had a happy ending when the shliach sent the OO leader a giant lulav from his own garden in California.

There appears to be one major problem though. It seems quite clear that the tree the lulav involved came from is not the traditional date palm where lulavim for arba minim come from.


The traditional date palm has a wider, rough trunk, due to persistent leaf bases of dead leaves. The palm involved here, shown in the video at the Lubavitcher website, has a plainly smoother and thinner trunk, and different appearance.

Caveat emptor - buyer beware.

Just because something seems like a cute story doesn't mean it is correct, or על פי הלכה.

A bracha should not be made on that lulav.

Why the Chofetz Chaim Did Not Hold or Shake His Lulav During Hallel One Year in Radin

This beautiful story, showing the great sensitivity of the Chofetz Chaim z"l, appeared in the Yated Ne'eman (USA) recent Rosh Hashanah edition (p.44), in an interview by Avrohom Birnbaum of Rav Chaim Walkin.

Rav Walkin shlit"a related that he heard the story from his zeide, Rav Shmuel Dovid Walkin z"l before he was bar mitzvah.

One year, in Radin, there was only one lulav and esrog, for which a dear price was paid, and it was in possession of the Chofetz Chaim. At the first day of Yom Tov davening there was a significant crowd in attendance, including greats such as Rav Elchanan Wasserman Hy"d, Rav Moshe Londinsky z"l, and Rav Naftali Trop z"l. People waited to see what the Chofetz Chaim would so, and how he would advise people to fulfill the mitzvah of daled minim.

Before Hallel, the Chofetz Chaim took the lulav and esrog, made the brachos, shook the lulav briefly, and then passed it on to another person to do the same. And so it went for all the men there. Then the Chofetz Chaim announced in front of the congregation 'This year we will not hold the lulav or shake it during Hallel, myself included.' He proceeded to explain, 'It is impossible to give the lulav and esrog to everyone during Hallel. There are too many people. If we give it to some and not to others, it might make some feel slighted. To cause someone else pain or suffering is an issur deoraysa, a Torah prohibition, while shaking the lulav during Hallel is a minhag instituted by the nevi'im. It is far better to be doche a minhag nevi'im than to even entertain the possibility of transgressing an issur deoraysa.'

A beautiful story (there are others in the feature as well, if you can get a copy), which shows us the gadlus of true gedolim, talmidei chachamim, and tzadikim. With such stories, it is no wonder the Chofetz Chaim was/is so beloved among various segments of Klal Yisroel.

A kosher and freilich Yom Tov.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Great 5778 Hadassim Scare Debunked - Healing Hadassim Hysteria with Halachic Clarity

A few days ago, an explosive article with inflammatory language was published online at a prominent website, as well as in a widely circulated newspaper in the NYC area, claiming that a Hadasim scam and scandal exists, with most hadassim sold (for Sukkos, ד' מינים) not being kosher for that purpose.

While the author discusses various issues that can arise with hadassim, his main allegation is that, in his view, there is a widespread deficiency in the area of having leaves that are משולש. He defines meshulash narrowly. In his view, people should inspect the nodes on the hadassim to see that they are closely aligned.

But is such a measure really necessary, appropriate and realistic? Is the situation really so dire? Must a person spend a great amount of time inspecting every node and leaf of multiple hadasim closely?

It appears that his standard is overly narrow, not necessary, not realistic, and not in accordance with mainstream halacha. Consequently, the article is misleading and alarmist.

Let me explain, and share some of my research.

1. Rav Avrohom Reit שליט"א is a choshuve talmid chochom in NY, who has, in recent years put out some excellent publications on various inyanim such as tekias shofar, chalitza, arba minim, etc. He specializes in clarifying, to a high level, the realia, the physical reality of a situation, the metzius that halacha is applied to. If someone doesn't know this metzius well, serious difficulties can develop in havonoh, understanding, and application of halachah.

In his excellent sefer Lekicha Tama: The Lulav and Esrog Buying Guide, Rabbi Reit writes about meshulash (which he calls "whorled" in English) (emphasis mine)

"two issues must be clarified: 1) is it the leaves, leafstalks, or nodes that must be whorled and 2) how closely aligned must they be to be considered whorled?

Whorled has traditionally been understood to mean the leaves appear as one set, with all the leaves at the same level. The focus is on the leaves themselves, not on the leafstalks or nodes. This is the standard of the pre-packed hadasim, of the old Yerushalmi experts, and this is how we were taught as children."

Practically speaking - מעשה רב מגדולי הדור

"When (Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zatzal) inspected hadasim he looked only at the general appearance of the hadas - not at the stem [הליכות שלמה פרק י' אות י' ובארחות הלכה 43]"

להבחל"ח

"when...Reb Dovid Feinstein shlita checks hadasim for the public, he gives a cursory glance at the leaves without touching them (he does not examine the leafstalks or nodes)."

With permission of Rabbi Reit, I post below images of relevant section of his sefer where the above words appear, along with further elaboration. 


2. Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman is editor of the prestigious ישורון Torah journal, a fine talmid chacham, and marbitz Torah.

In a shiur he gave about hadassim last year (bottom of page) he seems to also differ with the article (certainly in tone) (14:00-). He states that even the renowned machmir, the Brisker Rav, was not makpid to have all the nodes aligned exactly (if that were even possible).

May we merit clarity in Torah knowledge, and a joyous zeman simchaseinu.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Trashing Kapporos - Kapporah Gain, or Kapporah Deficit?

There has been much debate over the Kaparos custom for many years.

Some of it has been about the very basis, the theory of the matter (e.g. is there a question of foreign Darkei Emori practice, as the mechaber of Shulchan Aruch maintains), while other parts of it was about the actual activity, how things worked out on the ground (e.g. was the shochet tired, calling the shechita into question, tzaar baalei chaim concerns). Now, it seems that there is a new issue raising additional concern about the practice. 

Evidently, in some places, the chickens, after shechita, are just treated as refuse.

While in the past it was assumed that the chickens were ultimately used as food, which seems to have usually been the case, when people were not so affluent, and were used to kashering (salting, removing blood, etc.) chickens at home themselves, nowadays, on the other hand, most people are used to the modern convenience of buying pre-kashered chickens and are not versed in, or comfortable with dealing with kosher fowl preparation themselves. The chickens nowadays are relatively inexpensive as well, due to mass production, and modern scientific advances, with G-d's bounty.

An additional difficulty is that most kaporos centers are not near the giant poultry plants where kosher fowl is usually prepared. So even if people would want to give their chickens to the plants for the balance of the necessary preparation, distance and other difficulties present significant barriers to such action.

So now that it has been revealed that fowl (the extent is not known, but a significant amount of chickens have evidently been involved in the past) are trashed after the ritual, which invokes the issue of Bal Tashchis, the prohibition against wasting things, particularly food, should those people who do it with chickens reconsider their participation?

This question was the subject of heated debate recently at a Chabad-Lubavitch website.

One writer called for using money instead of chickens, as some others have done for years. Another writer claimed, in response, that trashing the chickens does not invalidate successful kaporos.

Many commenters weighed in with various thoughts and suggestions.

Let us hope that people take such considerations into mind, and avoid a situation of יצא שכרו בהפסדו (gain outweighed by loss) in this season of repentance.

P.S. After Yom Kippur we learned of a new Kapporos scam - Halal Kapparos.