Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch


Rabbi Fishel Shechter related the following story:
“I once met an elderly Slovakian man. He related to me that before the Second World War, the secular winds of enlightenment had a spiritually negative influence on him.
“One day, his father called him and his brother into a room. “There is going to be a war soon”, his father began. “No one knows what will happen or who will survive. But I want to tell you one thing: If you ever forget that there’s a G-d who runs this world and you send your children to a non-Jewish school, I don’t care what world I’m in, I’m going to find you and make sure you know that I am displeased.”
“Not long after that, the Second World War broke out, along with all the heinous evils that occurred. Somehow the man survived the war, though the rest of his family was destroyed. He emerged a broken, bereft, and angry person.
“For the first few months after the war, he found himself in the same Displaced Persons camp as Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, the Klausenberger Rebbe zt’l, who had also survived after losing most of his family during the war. The Rebbe would conduct tischen1 and try to strengthen the morale of the survivors.
“The man recalled that at that point he was angry with everything, especially with G-d. He was looking for a good fight so that he could vent some of his deep-rooted pain. He decided he would come to the Rebbe’s tisch and stand close to the table without a yarmulke. He would wait for the Rebbe to chastise him, so that he could yell back and start a commotion.
“He walked to the edge of the table with his arms folded haughtily and his long uncovered hair flowing. When the Rebbe noticed him he looked at him and calmly called out, “Are you not afraid of your father?!”
“The man recalled that upon hearing the Rebbe’s prophetic words recalling his father’s warning he melted. At that moment, all of the tears he had pent up poured from his eyes unabatedly. The man has been a Torah observant Jew ever since.”   

Human proclivity to sin and fall prey to the wily schemes of our Evil Inclination is as ancient as man. When Adam and Chava partook in the forbidden fruit in Gan Eden their sin had negative ramifications for their progeny for all eternity.
Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato notes before Adam ate from the forbidden fruit, his evil inclination was exterior, in the form of a serpent who spoke to him. When Adam ingested the forbidden fruit however, he ingested the evil inclination with it. Forevermore, the evil inclination became an internal component of man, initiating the perennial internal struggle between holiness and sin.
The Torah recounts that the serpent initiated conversation by asking Chava if she was not allowed to eat from any of the fruits in Gan Eden. Chava replied that although they were allowed to eat from all of the fruit in the garden, they were forbidden to touch the ‘Tree of Knowledge’. If they did they would touch the tree they would immediately die. As soon as Chava finished relating to the serpent about the prohibition, the serpent pushed her into the tree. When nothing occurred, he told her that just as nothing happened when she touched the fruit so too nothing would occur if she ate from the fruit.
Rashi comments that, in truth, G-d had never prohibited them from touching the tree. He had only warned them not to eat from the tree. Chava’s appendage to the prohibition ended up being the catalyst for her catastrophic sin.
The event seems perplexing. The first mishna in Avos teaches that one should always seek to enact ‘protective fences’ around the Torah, i.e. safeguards to protect himself from sin. It is not sufficient to follow the dictates of the Torah, but one must seek additional protective regulations that ensure that he maintains a spiritually safe distance from sin2. If so, how could Chava’s appendage to the prohibition be viewed as the catalyst for sin? Wasn’t it noble that she added to the original prohibition?
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky zt’l explains3 that herein lies a vital fundamental lesson regarding the practice of Torah and mitzvos. It is obvious that Chava did not add the prohibition about touching the tree on her own, for if so, the wily scheme of the serpent wouldn’t have worked. If she knew that she herself had made up the prohibition against touching the tree, she would not have been fooled by his wily scheme and she would never have progressed to actually eat from the fruit. Rather it was Adam who had told her that they were forbidden from merely touching the tree.
Avos d’Reb Nosson4 records that Adam’s intentions were noble. He wanted to ensure that Chava would not fall prey to sin so he added to the prohibition without telling her. But because he didn’t tell her that the prohibition against touching the tree was his own precautionary measure, when she was pushed against the tree she was under the impression that she had already transgressed G-d’s command.
Adding to G-d’s commands is a slippery slope. To safely enact spiritual safeguards, the line of demarcation between what is the actual prohibition and what is the added safeguard must be clear! Although we are charged to create spiritual safeguards in order to distance ourselves from sin, it must be very apparent what is the actual sin and what is our protective measure.
The Torah5 states, “Moshe called all of Yisroel and he said to them, ‘listen Yisroel to the laws, and the judgments that I am speaking in your ears today; you shall learn them and you shall guard them to do them’.” Rav Yaakov explains that the verse is instructing us that it is incumbent upon every Jew to study the mitzvos so that he has a clear understanding of what is a Biblical prohibition or commandment, what is a Rabbinic prohibition or commandment, what is a Rabbinic safeguard, and what is merely a familial or local custom. The only manner to guard and adhere to the mitzvos properly is by studying them, and becoming adequately familiar in this area.
Rabbi Yaakov continues that even if one’s father was a righteous scholar, it is not appropriate for a person to simply assume that by naively doing whatever his father did, he is serving G-d properly. If one does do so, he will not understand what is considered unequivocal law and what is merely tradition or family custom. The danger of not knowing the difference is that when one sees other Jews who do not practice the mitzvos in the manner that he does, he may begin to think negatively of them. He may begin to suspect their adherence to Torah and he may begin to question their level of observance.
The reason one must observe his family’s customs is based on the verse6 “Heed, my son, the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the guidance of your mother.” One is only required to observe a custom if it is indeed, ‘the guidance of your mother’. If it is not a family custom, there is no obligation to observe that custom. In fact, it is imperative that one observe the customs of his own family because, very often, different customs can blatantly contradict each other. Still, it is not an indication of the veracity of one custom over another.
The idea behind a custom is to strengthen a specific area of Torah observance. Therefore, one community may have accepted a custom to strengthen themselves in one facet of Torah observance while another community accepted a different custom to strengthen a different facet of Torah observance.7

The mistake of Adam was not that he enacted a safeguard, but that he didn’t inform Chava that it was a safeguard.
Customs claim a particular affinity in our hearts. Our family and communal customs connect us with our predecessors and our ancestors in a unique manner. Still-in-all, it is imperative that we recognize that our customs are not law and that Rabbinic law is not the same as Biblical law8. It is important to know what to do when one is confronted with a situation where there are two conflicting laws telling him to do opposite things. Only one who is familiar with the levels of law can recognize which one should gain superiority.9

Although it is always important to connect with one’s father, it is paramount that one connect himself with his Father in Heaven, by knowing what is actually His commandment and what was enacted to ensure proper adherence to those commandments!  

“The Tree of Knowledge… you shall not eat of it nor touch it…”
“Make a fence for the Torah”
1 meals on Shabbos with songs and Torah discourses
2 This is the basis for many of the Rabbinic prohibitions. They were implemented to protect the masses from transgressing a Biblical prohibition.
3 Emes L’Yaakov, Pirkei Avos
4 1:35
5 Devorim 5:1
6 Mishlei 1:8
7 Rabbi Yaakov offers two examples that elucidate this point: The Gemarah (Shabbos 11a) relates that Shammai and Hillel enacted eighteen decrees. One of them was that one should not read by candlelight on Shabbos because, while engrossed in his reading, one may absent-mindedly tilt the candle to ease the flow of oil into the wick in order to strengthen the light. In other words, since touching a flame or enhancing a fire is forbidden on Shabbos, they also prohibited reading by the fire’s light to prevent someone from inadvertently tilting the lamp. The question is what happened until Shammai and Hillel made their decree? Why was it permitted to read by candlelight until they prohibited it? If there truly is reason to fear that someone may tilt the candle, why was this prohibition not enacted until now? Also, why is there no concern of someone tilting the lamp on Yom Kippur, as there is on Shabbos?
The Mishnah (Damai 4:1) states that we suspect an ignoramus of not properly tithing his foods throughout the week and, therefore, it is forbidden to eat from the food of an ignoramus during the week. However, on Shabbos everyone is trustworthy and one is even permitted to eat from the food of an ignoramus who is generally not so scrupulous in his performance of mitzvos. The reason for the leniency on Shabbos is that in days of yore there was a deep appreciation and awe for the heightened sanctity of Shabbos. This respect was so prevalent that even an ignoramus who normally is not vigilant in regard to tithing his food, would not transgress the law during the holy day.
In a similar vein, there was no concern that one would tilt a lamp while reading on Shabbos, for the trepidation for the day’s holiness was so ingrained in the consciousness of even the simplest Jew, that there was no concern even for inadvertent transgression. However, in the generation of Shammai and Hillel they recognized that this sense of admiration for the holiness of Shabbos was beginning to fade. In their time, they noted that on Shabbos the masses were becoming somewhat derelict in their adherence to the laws. They sensed the need to add new precautions to ensure proper adherence to the laws. Yet, despite the fact that they felt a need to safeguard the sanctity of Shabbos, they did not deem it necessary to do so in regard to Yom Kippur. The admiration that the average Jew possessed for the holiness of the great and awesome Day of Judgment was still potent enough that added precautionary measures were unnecessary.
The second example involves the custom of conduct for Shabbos Chazon, the Shabbos before Tisha B’av. There were many communities throughout Europe who had the custom to wear weekday clothes to shul on Shabbos Chazon. They would sit on the floor as if already in mourning and sing slow somber tunes. Other communities treated Shabbos Chazon as they did every other Shabbos of the year, with nary a trace of the impending day of sadness later that week.
If one entered one of the former communities wearing Shabbos clothing, he would be seen as a heartless individual with no feelings for the exile and the destroyed Bais Hamikdash. On the other hand, one who would enter one of the latter communities in weekday clothes would be seen as one who has no respect for the sanctity of Shabbos.
The reason for the varying customs is based on where in Europe the community was situated and its level of affluence. In communities where they were well-off and comfortable, the Rabbinic authorities feared that there was a lack of sensitivity toward the mourning period. To stress the exile and the heightened sadness of the time, they enacted that even on the holy Shabbos, mourning would be communally observed. However, in communities where they constantly suffered from wicked marauders who inflicted pogroms and other horrific crimes against them, the potency of the exile was palpable and they didn’t require any added reminders. Therefore, they observed Shabbos normally. 
Rabbinic decrees, safeguards, and customs were enacted based on the time and place. Some were enacted as law for every Jew and some were decreed by the local courts as custom, but each was based on the Rabbi’s assessment of the spiritual level of adherence to the Torah by the community at large.
8 Although under normal conditions we are obligated to observe Rabbinic commandments with the same alacrity and precision as Biblical commandments
9 This is an incredibly important idea, that is often not realized. To give a contemporary example, as a community we struggle mightily with acceptance of modern technology versus keeping our families safe from potentially harmful effects. It is foolish in our circles to merely tell our children that all technology is evil, especially when we ourselves are busy with it constantly. Rather, we must inform them of the dangers involved and our own protective measures that we are taking to protect ourselves.


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