Halacha and Ethics: Two Special Stories
Before the modern Zionist movement began at the end of the 19th century, there was already a Jewish community living in the Land of Israel, and this community was committed to the Torah path. This spiritual community later became known as the Yishuv HaYashan – the Old Settlement. Part of the Yishuv HaYashan had been living in the Land for many centuries. This ancient community was reinforced by the followers of the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon who came to the Land in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The majority of the members of this community lived in cities such as Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Tsfas (Safed); moreover, in Jerusalem – during the 19th and early 20th centuries - they began to build new Jewish neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City. During this period, they also began to establish agricultural settlements where people could work the Holy Land in the holistic spirit of the Torah. Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld became a major leader of this community, and he was very much involved in the efforts to renew and strengthen Jewish life in the Holy Land. As Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld said, the Land of Israel is “the Holy Land, to which God affords special supervision, from which blessing emanates to the rest of the world, and in which God’s prophets foresaw the future happiness of all humanity.”
Rav Yosef Chaim was born on the 6th of Kislev, 5609 (1848), and he passed away on the 19th of Adar II, 5692 (1932). In a previous series, we discussed his spiritual leadership in the Land of Israel. In this letter, I will share with you two stories which reveal his deep understanding of the ethical teachings of halacha:
1. It is written, You shall safeguard the matzos (Exodus 12:17). In Hebrew, the word matzos has the same letters as mitzvos; thus, the sages explain that the verse can be read as, You shall safeguard the mitzvos. In the following story, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld finds within this teaching of the sages an ethical message:
Rav Yosef Chaim took painstaking care when baking his matzos to ensure that everything should proceed according to the strictest standards, beyond the minimum requirements of the halacha. This stricter standard is known as mehudar. It once happened that one of those assisting him in matzoh baking pointed out to him that one of the workers who was kneading the dough was not doing such a good job in terms of the stricter standards. He suggested to Rav Yosef Chaim that the worker be admonished and told to work faster and more efficiently.
Rav Yosef Chaim declined, however, saying, “I refuse to distress a poor worker by admonishing him to work harder than he already does, just because I want my matzos to be a notch more mehudar! I, for my part, am willing to undergo the greatest effort and expense to improve the quality of my matzoh. Furthermore, I pray that God grant me the merit of having matzoh that meets the strictest standard, and I trust that God will accept my prayer, for He knows how intense my desire is to fulfill this mitzvah in the best possible manner. However, to obtain mehudar matzos at the expense of rebuking a poor laborer – the gain in terms of mitzvah quality would be canceled out by the loss!”
Rav Yosef Chaim did not want to achieve a higher standard of “kosher for Passover” matzoh at the expense of hurting the worker’s feelings. Consideration for someone’s feelings is also a mitzvah, as the Torah states, “You shall not hurt the feelings of one another” (Leviticus 25:17). Rav Yosef Chaim added that perhaps this is what the sages had in mind when they said that the words, safeguard the matzos, can be read as safeguard the mitzvos. This is to teach us, said Rav Yosef Chaim, to take the following approach: “When baking matzohs, one must remember that there are other mitzvos besides matzah in the Torah, and that care should be taken to observe them scrupulously as well!”
2. A “chazan” – cantor – is the person who leads the congregation in prayer. Rav Nachum Bergman served for many years as the chazan on the High Holidays in the Jerusalem synagogue where Rav Yosef Chaim dovened (prayed). He usually led the prayers during “Musaf” – the concluding section of the morning prayers. One year, Rav Nachman Bergman passed away at the end of the month of Ellul, just over a week before Rosh Hashana. It was generally assumed that Rav Nachman’s son, who although was quite capable of leading the service, would not succeed him that year, as there is a custom that someone who is in a period of mourning does not lead the services on Shabbos or on a Yom Tov (Festival). The reason a mourner is not permitted to be a chazan on these holy days is out of respect for the feelings of the congregation, so that the mourner’s sadness not mar the joyous spirit of these days. Rav Yosef Chaim told the gabbaim – synagogue officials - who were in charge of organizing the services that they should not worry about who would serve as chazan on Rosh Hashana. The gabbaim therefore assumed that Rav Yosef Chaim would lead the prayers that year.
On the first day of Rosh Hashana, Rav Yosef Chaim went over to the departed chazan’s son, Rav Shimon, and asked him to approach the podium and serve as chazan for Musaf. The gabbaim – along with everyone else in the congregation – were puzzled at the Rav’s unconventional action.
After the services, Rav Yosef Chaim explained to the wondering circle of people who gathered around him the basis for his decision not to follow the usual custom. The reason a mourner is not generally permitted to lead the services on Shabbos and Yom Tov, he explained, is out of respect for the feelings of the congregation, so that the mourner’s sadness not mar their spirit on these holy days. Imagine, however, how the unfortunate widow would feel if, at the point in the service where she had heard her husband chant with soulful tones the introductory prayer of Musaf, Hinnini HeAni MeMaas, she now heard a new and unfamiliar voice chant this prayer. The heart of this so recently bereaved woman would certainly ache terribly. What greater honor for the congregation could there be than for it to ease her sorrow by letting her hear the sweet tones of her son’s voice, so much like his father’s, take up the chant he had sung for so long.
Rav Yosef Chaim also told the congregants that the need to avoid causing added grief to the widow takes precedence over the usual custom, as causing pain to a widow constitutes a Torah prohibition (Exodus 22:21).
The above stories help to connect us to the loving holiness of this great sage. Through studying the lives and deeds of the great sages of previous generations, we become their spiritual children, and this connection becomes a source of blessing and merit for us.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. The first story is found in the book, “Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld on the Parashah (Torah portion of Each Week),” compiled by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld, a great-grandson of Rav Yosef Chaim. The author is a noted Torah scholar who served as a community leader; moreover, he has written on the history of Jewish life in Jerusalem during the era of his great-grandfather. For information on this book, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/YCPH
2. The second story is found in “Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld on the Parashah,” and it is also found in the book, “The Guardian of Jerusalem” – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. “The Guardian of Jerusalem” is not only a moving and inspiring biography; it is also an informative and powerful history book that enables us to understand the roots of the current conflicts in the Land of Israel. Reading this book gives one a deeper understanding of the spiritual and universal role of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel. For further information on “Guardian of Jerusalem,” visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/GUAH
3. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnefeld has also written a biography of Rav Yosef Chaim for children. For information, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/SOYP