Sage Sensitivity to the Feelings of a Widow

Dear Friends,


Last week, we joined Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, and other leading sages representing the Old Yishuv on their outreach trip to various settlements of the New Yishuv. This week, we returned to Old Jerusalem, the heart of the Old Yishuv, and we met Dr. Moshe Wallach, the founder and director of Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem.


At this stage of our tour of Old Jerusalem, I will share with you the following story about Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, who became the Ashkenazic Rav of Old Jerusalem:
A chazan – cantor – is the person who leads the congregation in prayer. R’ Nachum Bergman served for many years as the chazan on the High Holidays in the Jerusalem synagogue where R’ Yosef Chaim dovened (prayed). R’ Nachman led the prayers during Musaf – the concluding section of the morning prayers. One year, R’ Nachman passed away eleven days before Rosh Hashanah. It was generally assumed that R’ 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 Festival. The reason for the custom of not permitting a mourner to lead the services on these holy days is out of respect for the feelings of the congregation, as the mourner’s sadness could mar the joyous spirit of these days.


R’ Yosef Chaim told the synagogue officials in charge of the services that they should not worry about who would serve as chazan on Rosh Hashana for Musaf. The officials therefore assumed that R’ Yosef Chaim would assume the role of chazan.
On the first day of Rosh Hashana before Musaf, R’ Yosef Chaim went over to the son of the departed chazan, R’ Shimon, and asked him to approach the podium and serve as chazan. The congregation was puzzled at the Rav’s unconventional action. After the services, R’ 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 be a chazan on Shabbos and the Festivals, he explained, is out of respect for the feelings of the congregation. Imagine, however, how the unfortunate widow would feel if, at the point in the service where she had heard her husband chant for so many years the introductory prayer of Musaf, she now heard a new and unfamiliar voice chant this prayer. The heart of this recently bereaved woman would certainly ache terribly; thus, the congregation would be causing pain to a widow, and causing pain to a widow constitutes a Torah prohibition! (Exodus 22:21)


R’ Yosef Chaim then added the following insight: 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.
Be Well, and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)
Related Comments:
1. The above story is found in the book, “The Guardian of Jerusalem” – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The author is Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld, a noted Torah scholar and writer who is a great-grandson of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The original Hebrew edition is titled, HaIsh Al Hachomah.


“The Guardian of Jerusalem” is a very moving and inspiring biography. In addition, it is an informative history book that enables us to understand the roots of the current conflicts in the Land of Israel. This book also gives us 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,” you can go to the following site:  
2. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld has also written a biography of Rabbi Yosef Chaim for children. For information, visit:

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