By Rabbi Nochum Shmaryohu Zajac
This past year, around the time of Yud Shvat, I published a newly-released letter from the Rebbe, taken from the archives of Rabbi Nissan Mindel (received through Rabbi Mindel’s son-in-law, Rabbi Sholom Ber Shapiro), in which the Rebbe responds to a number of rabbis from Manhattan, to clarify his position with regards to the institution of an eruv in Manhattan.
In this letter, the Rebbe does only not respond to the particular question of an eruv in Manhattan, but rather lays out in a detailed fashion his general outlook in regards to the question of instituting Eruvin.
Subsequently, an individual responded quite harshly to the publication of this letter. In this response, I am described as having presented a “misguided” interpretation and application of the Rebbe’s letter, and of “brazenly” misapplying the Rebbe’s words. He then went on to put forth his own interpretation of this letter, and alleged a number of general claims about the Rebbe’s position to Tikkun Eruvin (instituting Eruvin).
Originally, I did not feel inclined to respond to this, for various reasons. I did not believe it would be worth engaging in an argument with such an unreasonable position, and felt it would spiral into an endless and purposeless discussion.
However, since then, a number of people have reached out to me and requested clarification.
Additionally, the respondent has since published a Hebrew edition of his article on a Hebrew website in which the readers never got to see the original letter, and therefore were presented with a one-sided view of this matter. Therefore, I decided to pen a one-time response in order to clarify a number of matters, and attempt to set the record straight with regard to the accuracy of the facts, and then leave it as is, allowing readers to judge for themselves. This is written with the full knowledge that this individual may once again respond in an oppositional and harsh manner.
Click here to see the article and letter as they were published originally.
Background and Goal of this Article
Before I move on to the substance of this letter, I would like to make a general clarification. In my original article, I never intended to wade through the general Shita of the Rebbe on this topic. For that purpose, I have spent over two years preparing a comprehensive and exhaustive Sefer, detailing every facet of the Rebbe’s viewpoint vis a vis Eruvin, both from a Halachic and a Hashkafic standpoint. Included is also a detailed chapter dealing with the Rebbe Rashab’s view on Eruvin from a historical standpoint. With Hashem’s help I hope to release this work, later this year.
Being that this work is in the process of being published, I did not intend to get into all the details of the Rebbe’s outlook on this matter at this particular juncture. At this point, I will focus on clarifying a few specific aspects of this particular letter, with the hope that Im Yirtze Hashem we will all be able to accurately understand the Rebbe’s words.
One can also get a small glimpse into this matter and the Shita of the Rebbe by perusing the booklets written by my father, Rabbi Shmuel Zajac Shlita on this topic. While these booklets focus primarily on the views of the Alter Rebbe and Tzemach Tzedek, in a number of them, my father touches upon some of the Rebbe’s views on Eruv as well.
The following is but a short synopsis of my full-length response (which can be viewed by clicking here)
The Specific Relevance of this Particular Letter
The respondent claims that this letter of the Rebbe has already been published and does not bring anything new to the table. However, my original article explicitly states that a similar letter had been published previously (with an exact source cited) and also clearly explains what new and significant details were brought to light in this case, namely:
- We now know (and Rabbi Shapiro strongly stressed this to me) that the body of the letter was not sent to one addressee. Rather, this was a second letter, with the name of a different person and a new address. In other words, there were at least two such letters that were sent out, addressed to two separate people.
- This was never meant to be a private letter, but was supposed to be an open letter expressing the Rebbe’s viewpoint on this matter to a whole group of rabbis—in lieu of the meeting which they had requested—in order to publicly clarify the Rebbe’s position.
This should also put to rest the claim that the respondent makes a number of times, that we should not be learning general positions from the Rebbe’s private letters. Based on the above information, this letter was specifically drafted with the intention to publicly present the Rebbe’s position.
[This would also be an example (among other examples which are discussed in my Sefer) that explains the Rebbe’s reference to his previously publicized opinion on the matter of Eruvin (in the Rebbe’s words, “Mefursemes Daati”) i.e. in his answer to Melbourne. Some have wondered where we might have an indication that this matter was well known. However, a letter that was written in a manner that was explicitly meant for public circulation certainly provides such an indication.]
- In addition, we learn that this matter was of such urgency to the Rebbe, that he spent time working on this letter, even though it was Chol Hamoed (notwithstanding the fact that the Rebbe usually suspended dealing with correspondence during this time).
This important and illuminating information adds much necessary context, which I expounded upon in the introduction to my article.
Publishing and Accepting the Rebbe’s Letter as Is
In addition, unlike the respondent’s claim, I did not provide a personal interpretation of the Rebbe’s letter. Aside from my explanation of the new paragraph and sharing newly discovered context, the words of the letter were carefully copied verbatim.
As such, it seems that the writer takes issue not with my interpretation, but with the actual words of the Rebbe. To the contrary, he is presenting his own personal interpretation, even twisting the Rebbe’s words to comply with his desired explanation. I suggest to any interested reader to open up the original letter of the Rebbe along with my original article (and the response) and make a logical comparison.
The respondent claims that we have no choice but to reinterpret this letter, for 2 reasons.
- The existing context in which this letter was sent, including previous correspondence between the parties, prevents us from understanding the letter at face value.
- The letter as written does not comply with the words of the Shulchan Aruch, and the Rebbe would never write anything against the words of the Shulchan Aruch.
I am an avid proponent of taking into account the context of a letter, both in regards to the factual background of the matter as well as the Halachik background. However, it is obvious that we cannot wipe out entire letters and rewrite them. One has to be intellectually honest, and realize that the Rebbe’s words are unchangeable, and in the final analysis, any interpretation needs to coincide with the original letter.
I should point out, that this is a wrong approach not only in regards to Eruvin, but in any analysis of letters written by our Rebbeim. One should take extreme caution when providing one’s own personal explanation to these letters so as not to CH”V invent a new or different understanding than that which was intended for us by our Rebbeim (in which one can go and rewrite entire sections of letters in Shulchan Menachem or Igros Kodesh, to fit to the understanding as the reader perceives it). This is a path, which is both foolish and dangerous.
I would like to make one final point in this regard. It is well known that the Rebbe expressed concerns with regard to Eruvin in multiple reports and in written answers. Although the respondent attempts to brush off these other references, in this case with such a clear, lengthy, and detailed letter, it is quite far-fetched and presumptuous to even venture to do so.
The Rebbe Knows Shulchan Aruch
With regards to the substance of the claim (I will first deal with the second issue, and then deal with the issue of context):
The respondent writes that the Rebbe would never promote any concept which runs against Halachah, and therefore we cannot accept the letter at face value since it does not coincide with Shluchan Aruch. This is a form of circular logic, where one first claims that the letter clashes with Halacha, and then decides that therefore it is faulty and needs to be reinterpreted and exchanged for a newly invented letter.
As I will discuss in my Sefer, there are a substantial number of Rabbonim who have expressed a different view as to how we are supposed to understand the Psak Din which is stated in the Shulchan Aruch. This includes Rabbonim from over 100 years ago until today, who have similarly expressed concerns about various Eruvin.
One cannot claim that we should throw out the basic reading of a clear text (the Rebbe’s letter), just because one has decided that it is against the Shulchan Aruch. The respondent is entitled to disagree with the positions of certain Rabbonim, however he cannot claim that the Rebbe disagreed with them as well (thus forcing us to erase and reinterpret a black-and-white letter from the Rebbe). Rather a Chosid should try to clarify his own understanding of the Shulchan Aruch based on the words of the Rebbe’s letter.
Context of the Letter
With regards to the context of the letter:
The basis of the respondent’s claim is that the Manhattan Eruv relied on the surrounding ocean for its Mechitza (Eruv wall or partition). However, both in regards to the current letter at hand, as well as the letter that he quotes (see below regarding the letter of the Rebbe to Rav Moskovitch), this is unfounded.
He presumes that because there are Poskim (including the Rama and the Alter Rebbe) who hold that one cannot rely on the ocean for a Mechitza, that therefore this was the reason as to why the Rebbe opposed the Manhattan Eruv.
Additionally, the respondent claims that the Rebbe references to a previous correspondence of his (penned 6 years prior to Rav Yosef Dovid Moskovitch concerning the Manhattan Eruv at the time) which in general expressed opposition to using an ocean as a Mechitza, and then rereads the entire letter in this vein.
However, this is incorrect and is not factual.
I first want to point out that it is very clear from all the Rabbinic literature written at the time in support the Manhattan Eruv, that they did not only rely on the ocean for its Mechitzos, but rather they were also relying on actual existing physical structures.
The respondent states that we must rely on the letter of the Rebbe to Rav Moskovitch in regards to understanding the Halachik context of the Manhattan Eruv. However, in the Sefer of Rav Moskovitch (Perek 4), the Rav himself explains, that while relying on bodies of water as a Mechitza may possibly present an issue; however, in this case, there is no such concern since there are existing physical structures (in addition to the water banks) upon which one can rely.
Furthermore, in the letter to Rav Moskovitch, the Rebbe does not say that he opposes the Manhattan Eruv due to the fact that they were relying on the ocean for its Mechitza. This is a total misunderstanding of the letter (see at length in my article).
Therefore, it is impossible to say that the current letter is referring specifically to an Eruv that relied on the ocean for its Mechitza, as that was not the problem with the Manhattan Eruv.
Proper Understanding of the Letter’s Premise
In general, it is clear that we cannot assume that the Rebbe was referring to this specific letter in the first place as the contrast between the two is quite stark. The first letter, written to Rav Moskovitch, is written in strict Halachik terms, regarding a specific case in question. In the current letter, the Rebbe clearly says that he is not getting involved in the Halachik discussion, but wants to lay down a Hashkafic framework for approaching Eruvin in a general manner (more details and proofs can be found in the article linked below).
It is hard to believe that the Rebbe who always tried to be as clear as possible, would be vague and cryptic here about an important Halachik detail. This is especially true when it comes to the letters written by Rabbi Mindel where it is well known how careful he was to lay things out in the clearest manner possible.
I believe that it is the respondent (not I who first presented the letter) who “brazenly” presented a skewed picture of the context, inaccurately referenced a second letter of the Rebbe, and inserted unfounded interpretations to coincide with his personal views.
To conclude, I would like to mention one final point. There are still various points raised by the respondent that I did not address here due to space constraints. They encompass various general ideas and claims which don’t directly relate to the letters at hand, but which will be expounded upon at length in my Sefer Im Yirtze Hashem. However, one should keep in mind, that if one takes the time to understand the clarifications which are presented above, then he will surely realize that the other claims and opinions should also be re-analyzed and scrutinized in a similar vein (and with similar caution and skepticism), in order to ascertain their veracity and validity and the accuracy of their presentation.
To read my full-length response – click here