The Other Side Of The Picture
Like Proust’s madeleine, the 5TJT cover portrait of a rebbe examining an esrog with a magnifying glass (meant to convey an image of the then upcoming festival of Sukkos) seems to have brought forth a flood of associations for letter-writer Guy Tsadik. However, unlike Proust’s remembrances, the associations that Mr. Tsadik finds are negative ones. In two lengthy letters (October 12 and October 19), he sees the cover image as a portrayal of something that has gone very wrong in Orthodox Judaism: a lack of proper perspective culminating in an obsessive-compulsive chase to detect and vigilantly eliminate any hint of sinfulness, to the extent where we’ll all one day be wearing masks to prevent possibly inhaling microscopic bugs.
I did not have that take from the cover image. In my mind, the portrait was missing two people: an ordinary Orthodox Jewish man and his son, not too well off financially, who have brought their newly purchased esrog to the poseik, hoping that the black spot (which made this esrog affordable for them) does not render it pasul. Anxiously they await their rebbe’s verdict, like a plain housewife with a suspect chicken, hoping that the rebbe will indeed declare that everything is kosher. With sensitivity and understanding, the rav gravely takes out a magnifying glass and polishes the lens, showing the poor man and his son that he has the greatest respect for them and for their halachic query, no less than if the biggest gvir in town walked in holding the costliest esrog one can buy. The studious concern of the rav, peering through the magnifying glass at the tiny spot, is then no longer a symbol of hyper-fanaticism; rather, it becomes an example of derech eretz and kavod ha’briyos. Taking time in considering and answering the poor man’s she’eilah, to the extent of whipping out a magnifying glass, enhances the man’s wisdom in his son’s eyes (“Tatty asked such a good question! The rabbi looked so carefully over our esrog!”).
The greatest rabbanim of our people spent time and effort, not only in answering the smallest she’eilos and the lowliest concerns of our people, but in making sure that the questioners were treated respectfully, in a dignified manner. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, was universally acknowledged within the Orthodox Jewish world as the gadol ha’dor; nevertheless, every Friday when an elderly Jewish woman called him to find out licht-bentschen time, he would tell her. It was related in his biography that when officiating at a chalitzah (requiring the donning and untying of a special shoe), Rav Feinstein did not hesitate to personally wash the man’s foot, so there should be no halachic concerns about any foreign objects creating a barrier between the shoe and the man’s foot. This was not an expression of OCD, or an obsession with minutiae; rather, it was the expression of a complete Torah personality, someone devoted to fulfilling the mitzvos, in being an eved Hashem.
Likewise, after the passing of the beloved Rav Avraham Blumenkrantz, zt’l, one woman who had been his student at Prospect Park High School remembered how Rabbi Blumenkrantz so respectfully dealt with the girls’ she’eilos about whether they could use their makeup on Shabbos, taking the cosmetics in question and crumbling the texture in his fingers, peering at it and finally letting the girls know whether that particular brand was asur or mutar for Shabbos use. A true gadol, sensitive and caring for his students and their devotion to mitzvos.
If Guy Tsadik wants to encourage the local Jewish community to observe mitzvos more correctly, beginning with sleeping in the sukkah, more power to him. Start a “cot gemach,” lending out sleeping bags, foldable cots, army blankets, ground tarps . . . anything and everything to better observe this mitzvah. There are families that have a second sukkah set up just for sleeping, aside from the main sukkah for eating. Sometimes for safety the “sleeping sukkah” is set up upstairs, on a small porch outside the bedroom window, as opposed to the main sukkah standing in the yard. Mr. Tsadik has ten months to carry out this project. Just imagine the zechuyos he will gain in Shamayim by enabling many Jewish men to properly fulfill the Divine command: “And you shall dwell in them seven days.”
Lastly, I cannot share Mr. Tsadik’s antagonism toward “shlissel challos.” Jewish women don’t whisper incantations over their ovens, nor do they offer up loaves to idols. There’s no witchcraft or avodah zarah involved. Rather, the key baked in the challah exemplifies the idea that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the One who holds the key to parnasah. It strengthens (rather than weakens) Jewish observance, particularly if women bake their own challos and perform their special mitzvah of “l’hafrish challah,” separating the portion of the dough, with the proper berachah. And we’re not talking every week here: shlissel challah is baked one Shabbos each year, right after Pesach. If you violently disagree with this minhag, don’t observe it: eat pitas or wraps or leftover matzos for shtei lechem that Shabbos.
Guy Tsadik has made some very good points about correcting the focus of our frumkeit: worrying about the practical and tangible rather than the impractical and invisible, slaying genuine dragons rather than imaginary demons. I think, however, one could choose better targets than those rabbis who treat she’eilos on esrogim (particularly by Jews unable to afford the finest) quite seriously, and those women who bake challah with a key inside, to remind us to have bitachon that the key of parnasah rests in the hand of G‑d.
Sincerely, Judy Resnick
Guy Tsadik Responds
Dear Mrs. Resnick,
I am delighted to respond to your letter. Although we might not see eye-to-eye on some points, I hope our letters will help refine the essence of my original message. Thankfully, I don’t have to allocate a portion of this letter in defending the explicit Torah mitzvah of sleeping in the sukkah. I have received many positive comments on my past two letters, though there were a few who attempted to attack me on this mitzvah, which is absurd. I absolutely agree with your point regarding our great sages’ complete dedication in serving community needs. However, we have to understand these same chachamim were likewise completely dedicated and meticulous in applying the genuine halachah.
Your comments of “With sensitivity and understanding, the rav gravely takes out a magnifying glass and polishes the lens, showing the poor man and his son that he has the greatest respect for them and for their halachic query” and “Taking time in considering and answering the poor man’s she’eilah, to the extent of whipping out a magnifying glass, enhances the man’s wisdom in his son’s eyes,” although moving, are misleading and distort the truth. I don’t feel the community shares the impression that the rebbe was trying to resolve a question of hiddur esrog for Jews in financial despair. There is absolutely nothing apparent in the picture that would make an objective observer come to that conclusion, nor is it a reasonable assumption. Our great rabbanim used every opportunity to further understanding and knowledge of our Torah. Surely you can agree that they could have made the poor man and his son feel respected without performing an activity that is foreign to halachah.
I appreciate your comments regarding the encouragement of making the mitzvah of sleeping in the sukkah more popular. In fact, this past Sukkos I donated a large sukkah to a needy family through our local tzedakah organization, Achiezer, along with lending another sukkah to a family member. Although I would be happy to sponsor and pay for sleeping needs for those who can’t make do, I don’t think starting a “cot gemach” is an answer to the problem. My point was and still remains that we have an issue with leadership. The focus has become on performing outward and superficial activities, some of which are completely foreign to halachah. The only way to resolve the issue is through leadership by example and clear direction from the rabbanim and roshei yeshiva, along with a conviction to speak the truth no matter the political ramifications.
In this same light, I do have to take issue with the rationalizations or justifications you try to make for “shlissel challos.” While it is true that women who separate the portion of the dough are engaged in a genuine mitzvah of hafrashas challah, it is likewise true that this relatively new practice of inserting a key is not authentic and has its roots in Christian and possibly pagan cultures. In an academic paper named “The Loaf of Idolatry?” Shelomo Alfassa writes, “At least one old Irish source tells how at times when a town was under attack, the men said, —let our women-folk be instructed in the art of baking cakes containing keys” (O’Brien, Flann. The Best of Myles. Normal, IL; Dalkey Archive Press, 1968. 393). Keys were traditionally manufactured in the form of a cross, the traditional symbol of Christianity, a physical item all Christian commoners would possess in their home. On Easter . . . they would bake the key shaped like a cross into or onto a rising loaf.”
Shelomo Alfassa also writes, “While the custom is said to be mentioned in the writings of Avraham Yehoshua Heshel (the Apter Rav, 1748–1825) and in the Ta’amei HaMinhagim (1891), there is no one clear source for shlissel challah! And while people will say there is a pasuk attributed to it, there is not. And, even if there were, a pasuk that can be linked to the practice is not the same as a source. Micha Berger, founder of the AishDas Society [Orthodox], calls this type of logic ‘reverse engineering.’ It’s like drawing a circle around an arrow in a tree, and subsequently declaring the arrow is a bull’s eye. The idea of baking shlissel challah is not from the Torah; it’s not in the Tannaitic, Amoraitic, Savoraitic, Gaonic or Rishonic literature.”
This key can be construed as nichush (good-luck charms). I don’t see a significant difference between a rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe, a key placed in challah, or a red bendel. The red string has been around for so long that the Tosefta Shabbos (7th perek) specifically singles it out as prohibited under the prohibition of darchei Emori or the way of the Amorites. A rabbi who lives in West Hempstead I pray with on the Yamim Noraim also said in e‑mail, “It’s a sad commentary on the state of Jewry today that such a custom [shlissel challah] has become so widespread and accepted; moreover that there are not more contemporary Torah leaders decrying this practice.”
In summation, I think we have come full circle to the original purpose of my letters. It is clear that the current trend has us seek spiritual security on superficial activities that are foreign to halachah and our mesorah. Our bitachon must come from G‑d alone, plain and simple. Tefillah is and remains the only authentic tool in which we connect with the Divine. We all must reject and abandon the tempting easy fixes in keys, bendels, loops, and the thinking that we can “enhance” our adherence to mitzvos by adding foreign and un-Jewish elements to mitzvos.
If we do this, we can honestly fulfill the pasuk and the will of G‑d and be a true light unto the nations as the Torah says in V’Eschanan: “Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”
Election: A Survivor’s Wisdom
Over the past few months I have read many articles and listened to many speeches by many prominent and educated people concerning the upcoming presidential election. I am also an educated person, though I doubt that my education came from the same place of wisdom that these writers and speakers received theirs. They were fortunate to receive their education, and I am unfortunate in mine. I was educated with Holocaust wisdom and it is from my unique perspective that I would like to share my thoughts about the upcoming election.
I am a Holocaust survivor, the only one from my large family to endure this horrible period of world history. I remember life before the political tides turned in Eastern Europe and also the horrors of the regime change when Hitler (yemach shemo) came to power.
Jews and gentiles had lived and worked side by side. Many of my neighbors in Chrzanow would leave to do business for the week and would return home for Shabbos. I remember hearing the whistle of the “Shabbos train” that would arrive from Katowic a half hour before Shabbos.
Our world turned upside down around the time I was ten years old. Germany was in an economic recession, and unemployment and poverty were prevalent. Along came a very charismatic political candidate who was a dynamic speaker and offered the German people an excuse for their problems. Hitler (yemach shemo) targeted the successful and prosperous businessmen and convinced the desperate and unemployed that if they got rid of these flourishing citizens, their lives would be turned around and there would be a German economic recovery.
I cannot help but apply the principle “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.” As I listen to the presidential candidates offer solutions and proposals to reverse the recession that we are experiencing in America, one offers positive, pragmatic, and concrete solutions and the other seeks to vilify the rich and to suggest taking away from some to enable the livelihood of others.
When I came to America, the goldeneh medinah, the land of “liberty and justice for all,” I could not believe that such freedom could exist. I am so grateful to America for all the grand opportunities that were available to me. From the ashes of my life in Europe, my husband and I were willing and able to work hard, save money, and build a life for our children and grandchildren. America was good to us, not because it gave us entitlements or handouts in any way, but rather because it provided us with a capitalistic economy that rewarded our hard work and dedication to improve ourselves.
Imagine my dismay to feel that America, the country that saved me, my husband, and all of us who fled from war-torn Europe all those years ago, is being led in the direction of the European countries that are succumbing to the taunts of anti-Semitism and realities of fiscal crisis. I am haunted by the memories and cannot help but be wary of the danger we might, G‑d forbid, confront if we do not staunch the threats.
I fear for the survival of the State of Israel, America’s only ally in the Middle East and the only other place of salvation for the Jewish people. I am so proud of the placement in the world that Israel enjoys: foremost in technology, startup businesses, education, and military intelligence and advancements. Until recently, Israel and America enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship and our leaders of state were on excellent diplomatic and affable terms.
I am terribly distressed to see this turn of events in the past few years. Whatever satisfaction I have felt since I came as a war refugee so many years ago, I am losing in the face of the current situation in America.
As one who was educated in the School of Holocaust Wisdom, I beseech you dear voter to cast your vote with the candidate who is offering positive solutions and opportunities for growth, and not with the candidate who, despite his campaign promises, has led us to be Hopeless and Unchanged.
Sincerely, Mrs. Fran Laufer Founding President, Rivkah Laufer Bikur Cholim
Author, “A Vow Fulfilled”