The Radical Role of the Halachic Personage: Part Three

In this letter we will discuss the communal role of the Halachic Personage with regard to “tzedakah” – the mitzvah to share our resources with those in need.


Dear Friends,


As we mentioned in the previous letter, 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. The leading halachic authorities of the generation served on the Supreme Court of our nation, and this court also had the power to make decrees which would enhance or protect Torah observance. There were also lower regional courts that served the people.  


There is a special mitzvah in the Torah which indicates that these halachic authorities had an awesome responsibility regarding the communal observance of tzedakah. This mitzvah involves a case where the body of someone who was murdered is found in a field, and it is not known who the murderer is. Representatives of the Supreme Court must determine which city is closest to the place where the body was found. The judges of the city closest to the site must then bring an atonement offering and publicly proclaim the following words: “Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see him” (Deuteronomy 21:7).


Regarding the above statement of the judges, the Talmud asks: “Would we ever have imagined that the sages of the court are shedders of blood?”

The Talmud replies that their statement is referring to their possible responsibility for causing the circumstances which led to the crime. What their statement implies is: “No one came within our jurisdiction whom we discharged without food, and whom we did not notice and thereby neglected to provide him with an escort” (Sotah 46b). The classical commentator, Rashi, explains the words, “No one came within our jurisdiction whom we discharged without food,” in the following manner:


“He was not killed through us, because we sent him away without food and so forced him to become a highwayman, through which he was killed.”


In other words, the members of the court must proclaim that this person's death was not caused by the failure of the governing institutions of their city to provide tzedakah for a needy traveler.


Each individual is obligated to give tzedakah; however, the judges of a community, together with the local officials, have a responsibility to make sure that this mitzvah is being properly fulfilled in their community. For example, Maimonides, in his classical halachic work, Mishneh Torah, discusses the community tzedakah fund:


“Every city which has Jews is obligated to appoint officials who are well known and trustworthy, who will go among the people during the weekdays and collect from each one what is appropriate for him to give and what has been assessed of him (according to his income)...We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which does not have such a fund for tzedakah.” (Zeraim, Gifts to the Poor, chap. 9:1-3)


What if a person has money, but selfishly refuses to give to the community fund? According to the halacha, the judges of the court can force him to give, as a classical code of halacha states:


“They have a right to seize his assets for the amount of his debt to the tzedakah funds.” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah, section 248)


In the previous letter, we told some stories about Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. In this letter, we will tell some stories about his father, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. He is the great-grandfather of the Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik who authored Ish Ha-halacha. The sages of this family are  members of the Tribe of Levi, a tribe which is dedicated to the study and teaching of Torah (Deuteronomy 33:10).


Rav Yosef Dov became the Rav of the city of Slutzk, but his position was far from a bed of roses. As the city’s Rav, he had to contend with highhanded parnassim (community officials) and powerful landowners.  True to his character, he refused to kowtow to them, and he championed the rights of the poor when he felt that the parnassim had treated them unjustly.


Rav Yosef Dov first demonstrated his powerful leadership abilities at his inauguration ceremony. This ceremony, which was held in the shul (synagogue) of the parnassim, was attended by the trustees of all of the prominent shuls in the city. Conspicuously absent, however, were the trustees of the tradesmen's and laborers’ shuls. Rav Yosef Dov noticed this intentional oversight immediately. He therefore asked that the trustees of the workmen’s shuls be invited to the ceremony, and personally saw to it that this request was duly implemented. When these trustees arrived at the shul, Rav Yosef Dov greeted them warmly and with great honor, much to the annoyance of the wealthy and prominent trustees already there.


The following day, he toured the city’s chadorim (Torah schools for children), spending much time in the cheder where the city’s poorer children studied. In particular, he examined the children’s lunch bags and was astounded by their meager content and, in certain cases, by their emptiness. Then and there, he gave the teacher money to buy the children food for their immediate needs, as well as a large sum to be used on a long-term basis for lunches and dinners for them.


After assuming his position, Rav Yosef Dov was informed by a community activist that there was a wealthy miser in Slutsk who refused to give to the various tzedekah projects which serviced the needy; moreover, previous attempts to get this wealthy miser to change his attitude had failed. (In such a situation, where a person stubbornly refuses to give, the halachic authorities of the town are allowed to publicly embarrass him, in order to pressure him to fulfill his obligation.) The Rav remarked: “Leave him to me. I will be having a special mitzvah meal in my home, and there will be many guests. Invite him to the meal, and you will see how I deal with him.”


The wealthy man was flattered by the Rav’s invitation. Sitting near the head of the table among the dignitaries, he quickly became involved in a conversation with Rav Yosef Dov. Moving from one topic to another, they came to the subject of the Egyptian sorcerers who had performed wonders. Rav Yosef Dov painted such a fascinating description of the sorcerers’ wondrous powers, that the man’s curiousity was aroused, and he asked how they had performed their wizardry.


“Why are you amazed?” scoffed the Rav, “If you like, I can also perform wizardry.”


“Really? I am truly anxious to see some wizardy,” said the rich man.


“Okay,” said the Rav, “We'll have a bowl placed at the center of the table. Then you put one bill of 25 rubles under each of the four legs of the table. I will then pronounce one sentence, and all four bills will suddenly be in the bowl.”


The man’s face showed disbelief. “Impossible!” he exclaimed. The Rav replied: “Let’s make a deal. If I cannot perform this feat, I will donate a hundred rubles for the city's needy residents, but if I do perform the feat, you must donate a hundred rubles to this cause.”


The wealthy miser hesitated to accept the Rav's challenge, for he was worried that he might lose a hundred rubles! He was too embarrassed to refuse, however, and he accepted the bet. Immediately the bowl was brought and placed in the middle of the table. The man drew from his wallet four 25-ruble bills and with trembling hands, placed them under the four legs of the table. Suddenly, Rav Yosef Dov uttered one short sentence: “Chaim, put the bills into the bowl!” His son Chaim arose, swiftly gathered the four bills from under the legs of the table, and placed them in the bowl. Unhesitatingly, Rav Yosef Dov took the bills and handed them to the treasurer of the tzedakah fund for the town's needy.


“What? What is this?” stammered the rich man. Smiling, Rav Yosha Baer responded: “Didn't I keep my word? I said only one sentence, and the bills were immediately in the bowl.”


“But,” protested the rich man emphatically, “there was no wizardry.”


“Really?” the Rav replied with his warm smile, “Behold, a miracle second to none occurred before our very eyes! Taking a hundred rubles for tzedakah from a miser like yourself - there is no greater wizardry than this!”


And the poor benefited!


Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

And have a Chodesh Tov – A Good Month!

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Additional Teachings and Comments:


1. This Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh Shvat – the beginning of the month of Shvat. According to our tradition, this is the beginning of a period which is  especially suited for inner renewal through Torah study and the fulfillment of mitzvos. It was on Rosh Chodesh Shvat that Moshe Rebbeinu – Moses, our Teacher - began to speak to us the words of the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). The Ramban, in his introduction to the Book of Devarim writes: “This book is known to constitute a review of the Torah, in which Moshe Rebbeinu explains to the generation entering the Land most of the mitzvos of the Torah that pertain to Israelites.” It was during this period that we also renewed the Covenant to study and fulfill the Torah. Moshe continued to study Torah with our people until the seventh day of Adar, when he left this world. During the month after Adar – Nisan, the month of spring - we entered the Promised Land.


The deeper significance of this month is discussed in “The Book of Our Heritage” – a classical work on the seasons and their festivals by Eliyahu Kitov, (Feldheim  Publishers:  ).


2. I am collecting money for a needy and worthy family in Jerusalem. The father is a gifted teacher of Torah who serves as an example of the universal vision of the Torah, but his current work does not give him enough income to alleviate the family’s financial crisis. He is seeking additional teaching work, but in the meanwhile, the family needs emergency contributions. If you would like to help, please send a contribution of whatever you can afford to my address, and I will pass the money on to this family:

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen, P.O.B. 16012, Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, Israel. (Payable to Yosef ben Shlomo Hakohen)


3. The opening stories in this letter about Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik appear in a moving article about his life which was published in the American edition of the weekly newspaper, Yated Ne’eman.  The following is a link to this recommended article, which has additional amazing stories:


The closing story in this letter is from the book “Giants of Jewry” by Aharon Surasky.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision