By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
There are real heroes among us.
There is the story of the elderly Far Rockaway gentleman who did not wish to burden Hatzolah and felt that he could get out himself, only to discover that the rate at which the water was rising was too quick. A local young man, with a big truck, came to his rescue. He had to dive into the water to release the man and carry him to safety.
Those involved in the rescue do not want fame or glory. A request was made for anonymity, and that will be respected. But the story must be told.
And then there is another story, of a family that had just moved in to one of the houses near the beach. Here too the water just rose too quickly. Another man came to their rescue, this time pulling them upward to safety on a second-floor dwelling.
And then there is the story of the people that desperately tried saving seforim. The water was rising in two shuls, Congregation Shomrei Shabbos in Far Rockaway and the Bayswater Agudah. Desperately they tried to save the seforim, and they did save thousands. But there were just too many, and eventually they had to leave.
There are the people who are volunteering on patrols to keep the neighborhood safe. Already there have been break-ins. One family lost their recent bar mitzvah gifts. A local sheitel-macher also suffered a burglary. The local precinct has no electricity, so they only handle emergency calls now. Not so the people patrolling.
There are the heroes who trudge out in utter darkness at 6:20 a.m. to attend the daf ha’yomi, making their way with flashlights. And there are those who prepare to teach the daf ha’yomi who do so by flashlight even earlier or at night.
And then there are the owners of homes in those areas of Five Towns that are lucky enough to have electricity. These people are housing entire classes of a number of yeshivas in Far Rockaway, so that Torah can continue to be learned.
Yes, baruch Hashem, there are heroes. We should all be thankful.
When Seforim And Shuls Are Destroyed
The recent losses that occurred in at least two shuls in our community are indeed devastating. It seems that the Agudah of Bayswater was completely inundated, and that Congregation Shomrei Shabbos in Far Rockaway had at least 4 feet of water. The full cost of replacing and rebuilding have yet to be determined.
There is another aspect of all this that we must consider as well. Our obligations vis-à-vis the seforim involved and the physical items of the shul itself are also something that should not be ignored. The issue is rather poignantly discussed in the Sefer Chassidim, Siman 97. (The Sefer Chassidim was written by Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid of Speyer, Germany. He was born in 1140 and was the rebbe of the SMaG and the Rokeach. Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid is the source for many of our Ashkenazic customs.):
“There was an incident involving a certain pious individual. He commanded his son not to benefit excessively from this world and not to allow 30 days to pass without fasting. [Yet] when he passed away [after he was buried, his grave was defiled and] his remains were removed from the grave and were beaten. Many were very pained by the incident.
“Afterward, he appeared in a dream at night to one individual and told him: ‘This happened because when I would see seforim that were erased and ripped or destroyed, I would not make it my business to bundle them and place them in sheimos.’”
The words of this Sefer Chassidim underscore our obligations here. Indeed, the obligation to save seforim is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 334:12) itself. The Shulchan Aruch discusses this obligation to save seforim from a fire even on Shabbos. He expands the obligation to include otherwise unprotected seforim. Although the reference is to their being vandalized when in an open place, it is clear that the halachah also refers to flooding. Thus, there is an immediate obligation to deal with seforim that are about to be flooded. The obligation lies upon everyone. There is an additional obligation to prevent further damage, and an obligation to deal with the seforim that were damaged. The obligation applies to Hebrew and English seforim alike.
The source of this halachah stems from a verse in the Torah itself: “Do not do thus to Hashem your G‑d” (Devarim 12:4). The verse states this in contrast to the obligation of removing avodah zarah in Eretz Yisrael. The obligation, according to many poskim, is d’Oraisah, at least in regard to seforim with Hashem’s name or with pesukim.
The issue of properly handling seforim that have been flooded or otherwise ruined extends also to other items in the shul—even to the building materials. There are three levels of holiness of items. There are items which are kadosh themselves (such as a sefer Torah), and there are items that may be classified as tashmishei kedushah, in other words items (such as the wooden scrolls of the Torah) that serve something that is holy. The third category is items that are tashmishei d’tashmishei kedushah; they serve something that serves something that is holy. Many items in a shul itself fit into either category three or category two. But even category-three items must be disposed of properly, when necessary.
Rav Feinhandler in Sefer Ginzei haKodesh (p. 175) cites a fascinating ruling from Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, in regard to these shuls. He rules that the destroyed remnants of a shul must first be sold to someone else for a minimum amount by the officers of the shul, before they may be disposed of. The moneys must then be used for the shul restoration. The reason is that the materials are still part of the shul which is holy and cannot be relegated to a mundane use without a previous pidyon—redemption. (This is in accordance with the stricter view of the Maseis Binyamin responsa #33. It must also be noted that Rav Elyashiv’s view here, which is based upon the Maseis Binyamin, is based upon the Ran’s reading of the Gemara in Megillah 27a, but according to the Ramban’s reading there is no issue. Also, the Magen Avraham is unsure as to whether the Maseis Binyamin’s view is authoritative.)
Thus, the upshot of Rav Elyashiv’s view is that one cannot merely allow a contractor to order a container to dispose of the wood and other material that was part of the shul. A formal sale of the material must be made. The moneys from the sale must go toward the building fund.
It is this author’s opinion that, depending upon the shul, it may not be sufficient just to have one or two officers of the shul making the financial decisions, but there may be an obligation to have at least seven shul officers doing so. If the shul is a public shul open to everyone, then it would require a full seven. If it is a private shul, belonging, say, to a select group such as butchers or tailors, etc., then three officers may be considered like the seven (see Yerushalmi Megillah chapter 3, halachah 3). This is all based on the view of the Mishnah Berurah and Biur Halachah in Orach Chaim Hilchos Beis HaKnesses (153:7). The question boils down to this: Does the membership fee assessed and the charters of our shuls make us into a public shul or a private shul?
Of course, each kehillah should consult with its rav and poseik regarding exactly how to proceed, but it should be known that there are serious halachic issues involved in these decisions. v
The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.