The Radical Role of the Halachic Personage: Part Two

Introductory note: The Hebrew term for "rabbi" is rav.



 Dear Friends,


As we have begun to discuss in this series, our task as a people is to study and fulfill the halacha of the Torah path so that we can serve as a spiritual model for all the peoples of the earth. Rabbis – the teachers of Torah and its halacha - are to guide us in this process, and they therefore serve as leaders of our people.


The rabbis are not only given the responsibility to teach the halacha to the people; they are also given the responsibility to judge the people according to the halacha. In his role as teacher and judge, the rabbi is to be an Ish Ha-Halacha – Halachic Personage, and regarding this role, Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik writes:


Ish Ha-Halacha does not quiver before any man; he does not seek out compliments, nor does he require public approval.” (Ish Ha-Halacha)


In other words, the Ish Ha-Halacha does not fear the wealthy or powerful, nor does he take a poll in order to check his approval ratings. His role is to serve as a representative of Torah – the Divine Teaching. And when he makes a decision based on the truth of the Divine Teaching, he does not check to see if his decision is “politically correct” according to whatever beliefs and values are currently fashionable in the general society.


According to our tradition, our greatest Ish Ha-Halacha was Moshe Rebbeinu - Moses, our Teacher; moreover, Moshe Rebbeinu is to serve as a model for all the judges of Israel. For example, Maimonides writes that the judges of Israel should have “strong and fearless hearts to rescue an exploited or victimized person from the one who oppresses him” (The Laws of the Sanhedrin 2:7). The model for this type of courage on behalf of Divine truth and justice, says Maimonides, is Moshe Rebbeinu. And he cites as an example the story of how Moshe rescued the daughters of Jethro from the Midianite shepherds who were persecuting them, as it is written: “Moshe rose up and saved them” (Exodus 2:17).


In the previous letter, we mentioned that Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk was asked what the function of a rabbi is. Rav Chaim replied: “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.” As long as Jewish communities were governed by Torah, the rabbis were able to use their power - according to halachic guidelines - on behalf of the poor and oppressed. There are many stories of how rabbis in each generation courageously fulfilled this role. For example, Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik – the author of Ish Ha-Halacha - tells the following story about Rav Chaim, his grandfather:

“Once two Jews died in Brisk on the same day. In the morning, a poor shoemaker who had lived out his life in obscurity passed away, while about noon, a wealthy, prominent member of the community passed away. According to the halacha, in such a case, the one who died first must be buried first. The members of the burial society, however, who had received a handsome sum from the heirs of the rich man, decided to attend to him first, despite the fact that he had died later, for who was there to plead the cause of the poor man? When Rav Chaim was informed about the incident, he sent a messenger of the rabbinical court to warn the members of the burial society to desist from their disgraceful behavior. The members of the burial society refused to heed the directive of Rav Chaim and began to make the arrangement for the burial of the rich man. Rav Chaim then arose, took his walking stick, trudged over to the house of the deceased, and chased all the attendants outside. Rav Chaim prevailed – the poor man was buried before the rich man.” (Ish Ha-Halacha)


There are some inspiring stories about Rav Chaim which are found in the book “Giants of Jewry” by Aharon Surasky. For example, in 5665 (1905), a wave of strikes broke out in the cities of Czarist Russia, and the factory workers of Brisk threatened to go on strike if certain demands were not fulfilled by their employers. One of the roles of a community rabbi is to help settle communal disputes according to the principles of the halacha. Rav Chaim therefore intervened in the dispute and influenced the manufacturers to recognize the legitimate demands of the workers, who were happy to have the Rav serve as a mediator between them and their employers. As a result, the strike was avoided.


There is a mitzvah in the Torah to rescue someone whose life is in danger, as it is written, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). The following story is an example of how Rav Chaim fulfilled the halacha of this mitzvah: Once a Bundist - a member of a Jewish socialist group - was arrested by the Czarist government for the crime of “revolutionary” activities. The man's life was in danger, as revolutionaries were usually sentenced to death; moreover, anyone who intervened on behalf of a revolutionary would also be in serious danger. Despite the risks to his own safety, Rav Chaim intervened with the authorities on behalf of the prisoner. When one of his associates tried to dissuade him, due to the possible danger to the Rav's own life, Rav Chaim responded: “The prisoner's peril is a fact. The possible danger to me is no more than speculation. Doubt does not supercede certainty!”


With regard to the mitzvah of saving a life, Rav Chaim used to say: “Do not trust in cold, sober logic. You must act contrary to all human calculations and to proceed as if you yourself were in danger. Clutch at every straw just as you would to save yourself.” When Rav Chaim was living in Volozin, a serious fire broke out in the city, and during the emergency, he demonstrated unparalled vigor and zeal.  For example, he ran from street to street seeking lost children who had wandered away from their parents during the panic. When he found lost children, he would place them on his shoulders, one on his right and one on his left, and carry a third on his arms, while a fourth tagged along. After bringing them back to their parents, he would again run to search for other lost children. In the midst of the fire-fighting effort, Rav Chaim vanished. Fearing for his safety, people began to search for him. Suddenly, they saw him rush out of a flaming house with two small children in his arms. Their cries from inside the burning house had reached his ears, and he risked his life by springing into the fire to save them.


After a great fire in the city of Brisk where he served as Rav, he worked day and night to reestablish the homeless families. In the days after the fire, Rav Chaim did not sleep at home, but on the floor of the sloping hallway of the synagogue. All the entreaties of his family that he rest at home in his bed were of no avail, for he refused to sleep on a bed when so many people still did not have a roof over their heads.


Rav Chaim’s home was a refuge for the impoverished and broken of spirit. For example, beggars would come to his house, empty their bags of the food items that they had collected, and cook their meals in his kitchen. They would then lay themselves down to sleep in one of the rooms.


Rav Chaim lived in an age when the vast majority of Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia were poor, and many were forced to wander in search of food and sustenance. In order to understand the loving way in which he opened his home to all those in need, we need to remember that the wandering Jewish poor were not prone to violence; thus, it was quite common among Jews to take in strangers and give them a hot meal and a place to sleep without the hosts worrying that their lives would be in danger.


Such hospitality is in the spirit of the halacha. As the Compassionate One proclaimed: “Surely you should break your bread for the hungry, and bring the moaning poor into your home” (Isaiah 58:7). And the Mishnah teaches: 

“Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem says, ‘Let your house be open wide for relief, and let the poor be members of your household.’ ” (Pirkei Avos 1:5)


Rebbenu Yonah, a leading 13th century halachic authority, offers the following commentary on the above Mishnah: One should make poor guests feel totally at home by showing them a happy face and by giving them free reign of his home, just as one does with the members of one's family. In this way they will not feel embarrassment through receiving hospitality.


The downtrodden souls that entered the home of Rav Chaim felt like members of the family. Rav Chaim treated them with such genuine, brotherly love that they talked to him like a brother. Instead of referring to him as “the Rav,” they affectionately called him Chaim'ke.


He was not a wealthy man, but he and his wife shared with the needy whatever they had. His behavior was consistent with the teaching of the Chofetz Chaim, another leading halachic authority of that generation, who said that when the Mishnah tells us to “let the poor be members of your household,” it is telling us not to think that we are excused from this mitzvah if we don't have fancy food and accommodations to offer. What is most important is to allow our needy guests to feel as members of the family, even if all we have to offer is simple fare.


I want to conclude by mentioning that the warm hospitality shown to me by my own Torah teachers – inspiring halachic personages - had a major role in my spiritual growth and commitment. I would often spend an entire Shabbos or Festival in their homes where I was treated like a member of the family, and I will always be grateful for the love they gave me.



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


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