Holocaust – halachah 1

Out of the tragedy of the Holocaust emerged inspiring acts of ahavas Hashem and mesirus nefesh. For Torah-true Jews of those times, the question was not how to survive but how to survive as a Jew. For example, even when there was once a possibility of escape from the Nazis by securing fake non-Jewish documentation, Torah-observant Jews inquired whether one could use Roman Catholic certificates to save one’s life, or whether this contravened the prohibition against identifying oneself as an idolater. Prior to hiding jewels inside false teeth, such Jews investigated whether such a tooth might invalidate one’s immersion in a mikveh. In thousands of instances, loyal Jews were as anxious about keeping every kutzo shel yud (minute detail of halacha) as they were in saving their lives.

For decades, the most comprehensive collection of Holocaust shailos was Rav Ephraim Oshry’s immortal “Shailos U’teshuvos MiMa’amakim,” partially translated into English as “Responsa from the Holocaust.” This situation changed two years ago when Bar-Ilan University and Netivei Halacha Institute, in conjunction with the Claims Conference, published a CD that contains hundreds of Holocaust teshuvos, penned by dozens of rabbonim before, during, and after the war. These poskim include both famous Torah giants, such as Rav Moshe Feinstein, the Steipler Gaon, Rav Mordechai Yaakov Breish of Zurich and Rav Yitzchok Weiss (the Minchas Yitzchok) of Yerushalayim, and other lesser-known rabbonim from the length and breadth of occupied Europe.

The shailos include situations about which no one would dream in normal times, such as whether it is permitted to deliver lectures and organize musical concerts in shuls. This unusual question was addressed to Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (the Seridei Eish), who served as head of the Rav Azriel Hildesheimer Bais Medrash l’Rabbonim until the Nazis closed it down after Kristallnacht. Germany and countries under German occupation had forbidden Jews to gather in any public place except shuls. Under these extraordinary circumstances, was it permitted to deliver a history lecture or hold a musical concert in a shul in order to raise the people’s spirits during those disastrous times? Furthermore, there was a danger that, in some locations, people might be tempted to attend such events in Conservative and Reform synagogues, and this might influence them to leave the religious fold altogether!

Citing opinions that people traditionally served meals to poor Jews in shuls because it is a mitzvah and considered a sha’as hadechak (an urgent necessity), Rav Weinberg argued that since history lectures and religious concerts could help strengthen Jews, they were theoretically permissible in this emergency. In addition, he cited the Gemara (Shabbos 103a) that permits discussing public needs in shuls and batei medrash. Nevertheless, he argued that concerts should be forbidden in deference to the Chasam Sofer’s objection in Responsa 24, that “our forefathers who arranged the order of prayer did not arrange it with musical instruments even though we originated this song [with instruments] in the Temple; nevertheless, our forefathers rejected it [on account of our mourning for the Temple]. This indicates that they did not want them because ‘from the day the Temple was destroyed, there is no joy before Him.’”

Another decree promulgated against Jews was a strict nighttime curfew. In Poland, for example, Jews were not allowed to stir outdoors from 9:00 p.m. in the evening until 5:00 a.m. in the morning. During 5701/1941, Rav Yitzchok Weiss was asked an unusual shailah regarding this situation. Tisha B’Av was due to begin on Motzoei Shabbos, and because of the wartime curfew, no Jew could venture outdoors after 8:00 p.m. Since the Levush rules that Megillas Eicha is supposed to be read in public, would it be permissible for the kehillah to pray Maariv after plag hamincha in order to read Megillas Eicha on Shabbos while it was still broad daylight? Rav Weiss objected that it is wrong to do things that seem strange to the public, and also that it is not good to begin a day early that has bad connotations.

When Jews had been deported to horrifying labor and concentration camps, the shailos became more desperate. Since matzos were generally unavailable in these places and Jews were forced to eat chometz, was it permissible for Jews to recite Kiddush over chometz? Rav Yehoshua Menachem Mendel Aharonberg (the Dvar Yehoshua), a Hungarian rav, who was later saved on Kastner’s train, was asked this question; he replied that there was good reason to assume that someone saying Kiddush over chometz would not fulfill the mitzvah even bedieved although the matter required further analysis.

An effective way of delaying deportation to labor and death camps was to get a secure job with the Nazis. The renowned poseik, Rav Yonasan Shteiff, who was also saved on the Kastner train and later moved to New York, discusses whether one may accept such work if it involved Shabbos desecration:

“During a time of oppression, when a person is afraid that he may be seized and sent far away to a dangerous place but he can avoid this by accepting work with them and, through this, it seems he can be saved from danger and receive other benefits from them through which he can be saved from danger, is it permissible to receive work that may entail desecrating Shabbos, G-d forbid? In general, we rule that all danger to life pushes away Shabbos, and even a sofek danger to life pushes away Shabbos. However, over there, the case is that the danger is already present… But if the danger is not yet present, and one is only afraid of danger that might come, perhaps in this case one may not desecrate Shabbos.”

He launches into a lengthy discussion of similar cases, such as desecrating Shabbos for a sick person who will definitely not die this Shabbos but might die on the following Shabbos, and fortifying a town against invasion on Shabbos even when the enemy army has not yet arrived.

Yet another Shabbos question involved the compulsory carrying of identity documents during wartime. As Rav Tzvi Kinzlicher of Hermanstadt, one of Transylvania’s leading rabbonim, writes about this issue:

“Since the government has decreed to not appear outdoors without identity documents and policemen patrol the markets and streets, and if they meet a Jew who does not have this document they take him to prison where he will be unable to fulfill various mitzvos, people now suggest publicizing that people may carry the documents under their hats, as this would be carrying in an unusual fashion [which is only a rabbinic prohibition] and as we do not have a proper public domain [of] 600,000 people passing through; if so, this would be a shvus (rabbinical Shabbos prohibition) on top of [another] shvus in a situation [where one wants to do] a mitzvah, like going to shul and likewise for the purpose of a mitzvah. Unfortunately, I cannot examine your words now when it is a time of trouble for Yaakov and each day’s curse is worse than before.”

Rav Kinzlicher concludes that although he agrees with the leniency, he is reluctant to publicize it since people may continue relying on it after the government decree is rescinded, and people may rely on it even when merely going out for a stroll.

Rav Mordechai Yaakov Breish of Zurich, (the Chelkas Yaakov,) who fled to Switzerland during the war, addressed another Shabbos shailah regarding the Jewish refugees sheltering in Swiss territory. About 22,500 Jews reached Switzerland between 5698/1938 and 5704/1944, about the same number as were refused entry or deported. Since there was nowhere for them to go, the Swiss interned the male Jews in work camps where kosher food was in short supply, and the inmates were expected to work on Shabbos although the Swiss did establish a special camp for observant Jews where they were provided with kosher food and exempt from working on Shabbos. It so happened that a number of non-observant Jews also lived in the frum camp. Due to the amount of people needed for a camp – at least a hundred refugees – and the fact that the number of observant Jews did not reach this amount, non-religious Jews were also included to reach the required number, an arrangement which suited the nonreligious Jews since they also wanted to go to this camp because the administration there was more benevolent.

“On one occasion,” he writes, “the government wanted, for some reason, to take five people from this camp and send them to another… The government did not know who were observant or not… thinking they were all observant… and the choice fell on five of the most religious people. Your question is whether you can try to make the government take five others [who are non-religious] in their place, and whether this would not mean that you are causing these five people to desecrate Shabbos and eat non-kosher food in the other camp… Would this be counted as causing [people to sin]?” Citing the Rashba and the Dogul Marvavah who argue about a similar issue, Rav Breish concludes that it is permitted to intercede on behalf of the observant Jews and ask the government to transfer the non-observant Jews instead. A life-and-death shailah that often arose was whether one could flee from a ghetto if this was liable to bring down vengeance upon the whole kehillah. As

Rav Yehoshua Greenwald (the Chesed Yehoshua) writes, “I sadly remember that when I was imprisoned in the ghetto under the Nazi oppressors with all the members of my destroyed Chust community, the question arose whether people could flee or help others to flee because Jews are responsible for each other and one person would commit a crime [by fleeing] as this would cause punishment to the whole community… Regarding this, the Mishnah (Gittin 45a) says, ‘We do not redeem prisoners for more than they are worth because of the benefit of society, and we do not help prisoners flee because of the benefit of society. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says, Because of the benefit of the prisoners.’”

Rav Greenwald concludes that not only was it permissible for a person to flee himself, but he is also permitted to help other people flee, explaining that “the ‘amendment of the world’ or the ‘amendment of prisoners’ is certainly irrelevant because the enemy wanted to kill them anyway and made new decrees every day in order to eradicate Yisroel. Therefore, it was a great mitzvah to help people flee so that at least a few should escape and the remnant of Yisroel should not be destroyed.”

It is mind boggling to think that had Rav Greenwald ruled otherwise, many Jews would have denied themselves the opportunity of escape in order to avoid endangering others. Iy”H, next week’s article will explore instances where Jews gave up the chance of survival rather than transgress Hashem’s eternal words.

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