Holocaust – halachah 2

publication of the Bar-Ilan Holocaust Responsa opened a window into the heroic dedication of Jews who strove to keep halacha under impossible circumstances.

Unlike the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe who refused to save himself by purchasing conversion certificates for himself and his family, resulting in the death of his wife and his eleven children, some people utilized this path of escape, and the question arose whether or not to penalize them for their misdemeanor. The Pressburg Beis Din wrote to Rav Yissochor Shlomo Teichtal (author of the Mishnah Sachir), informing him that they were denying aliyos to people buying such documents but that this was causing a lot of dissension. Should they continue penalizing these people?

The Mishnah Sachir (3:111) replies: “When the epidemic of buying these certificates began… I immediately spoke publicly and informed people of the severity of this prohibition and of the halacha that one may not buy such a certificate, stating that it is included in the law of hareig ubal ya’avor (die rather than transgress). For, through this, one is admitting that he acknowledges a false religion and is like one who publicly declares he is an idolater.

“This is the wording of the Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvos: ‘But we must allow ourselves to be killed and not deceive [the non-Jew] into thinking that we have denied [G-d] while, in our hearts, we believe in Him.’ We see that the Rambam writes explicitly that one is obligated to allow oneself to be killed even if he believes in the Holy One and is only deluding the non-Jew into thinking that he denied the Holy One, G-d forbid.”

Nevertheless, the Mishnah Sachir did not object when such people were called up to the Torah, as the Minchas Chinuch (Mitzvas Asei 296) writes that one does not transgress the negative command of ‘Lo sechalelu,’ ‘Do not desecrate My holy name,’ and the positive mitzvah of ‘Venikdashti,’ ‘I shall be sanctified, etc.’ unless he denied Hashem among ten Jews. If there are not ten Jews, it is [considered] a private act and one only transgresses the positive precept of ‘Ve’ahavta,’ ‘You shall love G-d,’ for which one is not obligated to give one’s life.

“Therefore,” Rav Teichtal concludes, “regarding those who buy certificates, which are only to show to gentiles on demand, and generally ten Jews are not present at such times, a person only transgresses the positive mitzvah of ve’ahavta, which is certainly insufficient to give him the status of a non-Jew and he is considered a kosher Jew regarding all matters. Therefore, so as not to cast a stone on top of a falling person, I think it is better to keep silent.”

What would be the halacha if a person does not want to buy a conversion document but merely to forge the initials R.K. (Romisch Katolisch – in other words – Roman Catholic) on his travel documents? The Mishnah Sachir rules leniently in this case, citing the following incident mentioned by the Toras Chaim (Avodah Zarah 17): “A great rabbi came to a place where there was a decree against [the presence of] Jews and they asked him if he was a Jew. He replied, ‘Kein Yid,’ (German for ‘not a Jew’), having intent [that kein should mean “yes”] as in the verse (Bamidbar 27:4), ‘Kein bnos Tzelafchad dovros,’ ‘The daughters of Tzlafchad are speaking correctly.’ They, however, thought that he meant ‘not a Jew.’

“This was like the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch that one is permitted to say an ambiguous expression,” the Mishnah Sachir concludes. “If so, in our case since there are only the initials R.K., the person can have intent that they stand for the verse (Devorim 4:9) , ‘Rak hishamer lecho ushmor nafshecho me’od pen tishkach es Hashem Elokecho,’ ‘Only you be careful and guard your soul very much, lest you forget Hashem your L-rd.’ And they will understand as they understand.”

Someone approached Rav Moshe Feinstein (Yoreh Deah 2:129) with another idolatry-related shailah after the war ended, that involves a woman and her daughters who were hiding from the Nazis in a non-Jew’s house.

“After a while, he forced her to accept the Christian religion otherwise he would hand her daughters to the Nazis to kill them and she could not withstand this great trial and agreed… Immediately after Hashem’s salvation, they publicly returned to the Jewish faith… You are asking if they require shaving of the hair and immersion [demanded of someone who repents from idolatry].”

Rav Moshe replies, “You rightfully conclude that they do not need to, as is explicit in the Pischei Teshuvah. The reason is obvious, since, as the Rambam writes, people who serve idolatry under threat of death are exempt from punishment. Even though the halacha was that they should have let themselves been killed rather than transgress, we do not consider them as mumrim [people who left Torah observance]. The wording of the Rambam implies that this does not involve the prohibition of idolatry as he writes, “…He desecrates G-d’s name,” and does not write that he transgresses that sin [of idolatry] and also desecrates the name….”

Rav Moshe concludes that the woman only needs to repent for desecrating G-d’s name. She should strive to sanctify Hashem’s name as much as possible through her behavior and actions.

Another post-war shailah Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Yoreh Deah 4:57) addresses, is whether children have an obligation to set up a monument in memory of their parents whose burial location is unknown. He points out that the practice of putting up monuments is found nowhere in the Gemara or poskim, probably because setting up such monuments is not regarded as any particular honor. If children wish to honor their parents, they can follow the widespread custom of donating money to a shul or yeshivah and having their parents memorialized on a plaque on the wall, and “it is certainly very good for someone who can afford it, to dedicate a complete building named after his father and mother as a place of Torah and prayer.”

Elsewhere (Orach Chaim 4:38), Rav Moshe discusses whether it is permitted to place Sifrei Torah desecrated by the Nazis on display as memorials. He concludes no denigration is involved in this, adding that there is an allusion to this in the Mishnah in Middos (1:6) that says, “Northeast [of the Temple courtyard is a room] where the sons of the Chashmonaim stored the stones of the altar that the Greek kings had desecrated.” Why weren’t these stones buried in the earth like every other item that needs genizah? It seems that they did this in order to remember the Greeks’ wickedness and to thank Hashem for saving them from their hands.

Rav Moshe points out that there is no obligation to tear one’s clothes upon seeing desecrated Torah scrolls since the obligation of tearing only applies if one actually witnesses the denigration as it occurs, “but the people who see afterwards how the Torah scroll was burnt, torn or erased, even though it is known that this was done by wicked people, do not have to tear.”

What about the time-honored custom of giving children the names of deceased relatives? May one name children after victims of the Nazis? Rav Yitzchak Elbaum of Toronto argues that this is permitted, despite the minhag of not naming children after someone who died at a young age. The rationale of this custom is that a person’s early death indicates that he had a bad mazal, which might impact negatively on the person receiving his name. But it is obvious that one cannot blame people’s mazal for a churban that affl icted the whole Jewish people. Thus there is no reason not to give people their names. “On the contrary,” he concludes, “[it is good] to bear their names as an eternal memorial. Nevertheless, I wrote that it would be better to give two names (i.e., an additional name as well)…”

Many teshuvos are devoted to memorializing the Nazis’ infamy; Klal Yisroel should forever remember how Hashem saved us from such a cruel, violent enemy.

As an example, can one use a Nazi gallows-rope as a prayer belt? The sefer, Kol Mevaser, rejected this idea outright!

“Concerning a rope with which martyrs were hanged in the exile, which the prayer leader in Har Zion [Shul] uses as a prayer-belt during his prayer. Also regarding the question of the Har Zion council concerning a thick rope brought by immigrants, which was removed from a tree in a Polish town from which Jews were hanged. The council directors had introduced the custom that when people gathered to pray in their shul on the [fast of] the Tenth of Teves and remember the souls of the martyrs, the prayer leader wore this as a prayer-belt. Now they are asking whether there is not a possibility that this may be forbidden.”

The Kol Mevaser prohibits the practice just as one may not enter shul with a long knife since prayer lengthens a person’s life and a knife shortens it. After the war, a number of Jews wanted to perpetuate the memory of Nazi evil to such a degree that they suggested a ban against treading on German soil for perpetuity, claiming that a similar decree was enacted against Spain after the Spanish exile of 5252/1492. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Volume 7, Yoreh Deah 14) cites a response that “this suggestion is halachically incorrect… because we have no power in this generation to make a ban and decree a new prohibition of all the Jews worldwide… Regarding people’s claim that the Spanish exiles made a ban against returning to Spain, I found it in no sefer and it seems to me that this report is groundless. Even if this report is correct, it is no proof to this case because the Spanish exiles could decree on the people of their country and accept on themselves to not return to Spain. In our case, however, how can we enact a decree on all Yisroel?”

These past two articles have touched on only a fraction of the shailos discussed in the Bar Ilan database. In addition, many of them were too heart wrenching and upsetting to be discussed in this venue. May the study of these shailos connect us to the pure souls who died al kiddish Hashem.

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