The Radical Role of the Halachic Personage: Part Four

In this letter, we will tell the story of a noted Ish Ha-Halacha whose life was a loving example of how the spiritual leaders of our people have a responsibility to ensure that we properly fulfill the mitzvah of tzedekah – the Divine mandate to share our resources with those in need. I dedicate this mailing to the memory of my parents, as it was they who first taught me to appreciate the value of tzedekah:


Dear Friends,


Maimonides writes in his “Mishneh Torah” (Gifts to the Poor, 10:1):


“We are obligated to be more careful about the mitzvah of tzedakah than about all the other mitzvos of action, for tzedakah is a distinguishing characteristic of the descendants of Abraham, as it is written: ‘For I have loved him because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Compassionate One to do tzedakah and justice’ (Genesis 18:19).”


Today we are going to tell stories about the loving sage of Ponevizh - Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, Hakohen - whose life was an example of the above teaching of Maimonides. Rav Yosef Shlomo's grandparents lived in the Lithuanian village of Kuhl, and their home was a refuge for the wandering poor, especially during the cold and bitter winters. His grandmother, Fraidel Kahaneman, would welcome her guests and remove their “poor man’s boots” - the rags they wrapped around their feet as shields from snow and rain. These putrid rags were soaked with mud and other filth, yet Fraidel would wash them and then hang them up to dry so that her guests could wear them again in the morning. This legacy of lovingkindness and devotion was passed down to the young Yosef Shlomo - a future leader of his people.


Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman was appointed the head rabbi of the Lithuanian town of Ponevizh after World War 1, a town full of poor refugees as a result of the war. A title of distinction for a rabbi is “Rav”; thus, when Rabbi Kahaneman became the rabbi of the town, he became known as the Ponevizher Rav. The day he took office, he began to organize the Jewish community in order to provide assistance for the victims of the war. This was a challenging assignment, as the community was divided into various factions; moreover, there was growing tension between those residents who were still loyal to the path of the Torah and those who had begun to stray from this path. With diplomacy, resolute leadership, and a sharp focus on a common goal, he managed to persuade all the factions to unite for the common good. The Ponevizher Rav mobilized aid for all the needy, and the results of his efforts sustained the lives of countless individuals. He knew no rest until everyone was appropriately housed and fed. No matter what the needy person’s background, religious beliefs, or allegiances, the Ponevizher Rav was there to provide assistance. He therefore gained the love and respect of all the Jews of Ponevizh. In fact, the Rav’s house became a focal point of the town, and the warmth that had glowed in his grandparents’ and parents’ home radiated just as intensely in his hearth. Every day men and women flocked to Rav Kahaneman to ask a question, seek advice, or to get some encouragement and/or comfort.


Rav Kahaneman also spearheaded the establishment of a high quality hospital to serve all the residents of the region - Jew and non-Jew alike. He made sure that the finest medical staff was hired. According to the policy that he instituted, doctors were entitled to receive payment from those who could afford medical care, but the poor were to be treated free of charge.


The Rav insisted that the tzedakah funds be distributed to the needy in a respectful, dignified, and discreet manner, as the halacha demands. The recipients were always shielded from the providers, which meant employing a host of techniques to protect anonymity. A favorite method was to credit a bank account with funds that could not be traced. Most Jews in the town had relatives and friends who immigrated to America and other lands; thus, a recipient could imagine that the money had been transferred from someone overseas, never imagining that it was of local origin. The Rav organized collections from the residents of the town, and even the very poor would make a contribution, for they did not want to lose an opportunity to do such an important mitzvah. Since the Rav was careful to protect the privacy of each recipient, it often happened that the beneficiary of a collection would contribute to a cause without knowing that he was contributing to himself!


The Rav was also in charge of the Passover fund, and each family was asked to give a specific amount, based on their income. One year, a wealthy man who owned a food production plant did not give the full amount that the Rav had set for him. (See our previous letter which discusses the halachic responsibility of the rabbinical leadership of a community with regard to tzedakah.) When the rich man still refused, the Rav warned him that if he did not give a proper contribution, the kosher certification for his food production plant would be withdrawn. The rich man did not believe that the Rav would publicly challenge him, and he decided to ignore the warning. The Rav then made a public announcement that the kosher certification was withdrawn. Shortly afterwards, the man paid the full amount to the Passover fund.


The rich man’s temporary rebellion was a rare event in Ponevizh, for the vast majority of the Jewish men and women of the town responded to the Rav’s call for contributions with a loving and generous spirit. Tzedakah is a central pillar of Jewish tradition, and a major reason for the Rav’s success was the respect that most members of the community had for Jewish tradition. This was true even among those who were no longer traditionally observant. For example, the Jewish stores in Ponevizh would be closed on Shabbos, and even those who were no longer keeping Shabbos in their homes would close their shops on this sacred day. In their public behavior, they showed respect for the Shabbos and other aspects of Jewish tradition. There was one “capitalist” barber, however, who felt that making extra money was more important than respecting the Shabbos Queen. He therefore decided that his business would be open each day of the week, including Shabbos. The Ponevizher Rav understood that this public desecration of Shabbos would harm the spiritual atmosphere of the community, especially if some other merchants and store owners would be tempted to follow the example of this barber. The Rav understood that keeping the Shabbos reminds the community that the earth and all its resources - including the resources in our possession - belong to the Creator; thus, we are only the custodians of the resources in our possession, and we therefore have the responsibility to share them with those in need. After several private appeals to the barber which did not succeed, the Rav decided on a course of action. One Friday night, the Rav entered the barbershop and took a seat without saying a word. The few Jewish patrons who were there were too embarrassed to have their hair cut with the beloved Rav of the town sitting right there. The barbershop quickly emptied out, and no new customers dared enter. Defeated, the proprietor asked the Rav to leave so that he could close the shop, but the Rav was in no hurry to depart. Finally, with what appeared to be genuine contrition, the barber promised that he would never again publicly desecrate the Shabbos.


After Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany, the Lithuanian government was very unhappy that fleeing Jewish refugees were entering Lithuania, and government leaders asked the Ponevizher Rav to serve as Lithuania’s “ambassador” to persuade the United States to authorize the immigration of all stateless Jewish individuals. The Lithuanian government also hoped that American Jews would bring their influence to bear upon Washington regarding the rescue of their brethren. (As we shall discuss in the next letter, the assumptions of the Lithuanian government were naive.) The Rav was given a special diplomatic passport, and the day arrived when the Rav had to part from his family, the students at the yeshiva he had established, and all the Jewish residents of Ponevizh. All the Jewish men, women, and children of the town escorted their beloved Rav to the train station, and just as he was about to board, the children began to chant, “Rebbe, Rebbe, nemt unz mit - Rebbe, Rebbe, take us along!”


Soon the chant caught fire and everyone joined in the refrain. The Rav later said that this chant would stay with him forever. When the Germans invaded Lithuania, he was unable to return, and the Germans, with the enthusiastic help of many Lithuanians, murdered the Jews of the town, including the Rav's wife and children - with the exception of one son who survived. But that is not the end of the story. The Rav managed to come to the Land of Israel during the war, and he immediately began to rebuild the institutions of Torah and tzedakah that were destroyed by the Germans. And when he rebuilt the Ponevizh Yeshiva in the Israeli city of Bnai Brak, he had the following verse carved into the front wall of the new building:


“On Mount Zion there will be a refuge, and it will be holy.” Obadiah 1:17)



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (see below)


P.S. The above stories can be found in the book “Builders” by Hanoch Teller (distributed by Feldheim:  ). This book contains moving biographies of Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, and Sarah Schenirer.

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