A yungerman I know well bought an old house about twenty years ago in Lakewood, NJ. Prior to his purchase, the home had served, like so many similar homes in that area at that time, as the squalid residence to various sleazy and questionable elements. Thus, before closing on the home, the yungerman made sure to examine the entire structure with a certified inspector to ensure that it was structurally sound.
As the two went through the home, the inspector, almost comically, kept pulling bottles of a particular brand of beer out of every nook and crevice of the premises. In the crawlspace? Beer bottles. Left among the decaying food in the refrigerator? Beer bottles. In the boiler-room/basement? Beer bottles. Even outside on a section of flat roof – more beer bottles!
Thankfully, the actual house was structurally solid, and with new flooring, new paint, new furnishings and a new kitchen, the yungerman was able to transform the wreck into a wonderful home. A few halachic questions came along with the house: mezuzah placement, where and how much to leave unpainted zeicher l’churban – and what to do about the tzeilems, the crosses, that were found left hanging behind every closet door.
There is a halacha, the yungerman learned, that actual avodah zorah, idolatrous objects, may not simply be thrown away by a Yid, but must undergo biur and be destroyed (burned, ground-up, etc.). The halachos are lengthy, depend on various factors, and this column is not the place for a full discussion. One basic question, though, was whether a cross is in any way an actual item of avodah zorah or not. Is the religion that uses the symbol classified as avodah zorah, and even if so, what does the tzeilem represent to them?
After asking a few local rabbonim, it became clear that there wasn’t necessarily a clear-cut answer. Those who use the tzeilem are themselves split into many different groups and fundamental beliefs, and within each group as well, some actually believe in their teachings while other merely pay it lip-service. All were in agreement that Rav Yisroel Belsky should be consulted, as he was uniquely proficient both in the halachos and in the practical details of the question.
The yungerman consulted Rav Belsky, discussing various angles of the general halacha with him. Rav Belsky then asked what sort of people had actually lived in the house. Their race, nationality, ethnicity and culture would generally point to which faith they belonged to and in what doctrine they believed.
When the yungerman informed him as to what sort of element had been inhabiting the premises, Rav Belsky laughed. “Oh, they believe in nothing besides their beer,” he said. “You have nothing to worry about. Had it been such-and-such people or members of this-or-that denomination (and he mentioned a few particular groups), you might have an actual question of biur. But these people? No. Their beer is their religion.”
The yungerman was floored. Rav Belsky wasn’t putting down any group or ethnicity. This was an objective discussion regarding which groups worshipped an actual deity, which saw their religious objects as mere symbols, and which saw religion as a social group and believed in none of its actual teachings. This was pertinent in figuring out how they viewed a specific religious item. Was it worshipped, revered, or merely a social statement?
Rav Belsky hadn’t gone through the house, pulling beer bottles from every corner. He hadn’t interviewed the inhabitants. Yet, his clear halachic analysis enabled him to understand exactly who believed in what, and what was important to whom. In his analysis of the sugya, he saw plainly what it took the yungerman hours of traipsing through a repulsive environment to discover.
It’s All Here
Most of us are familiar with stories about talmidei chachomim whose knowledge and understanding of worldly matters and secular subjects was astounding. The Chazon Ish famously drew a diagram for a neurologist showing him how to perform a particularly complicated brain surgery. Throughout the ages, though, there have always been innumerable gedolim who were renowned for their expertise not only on Jewish topics, but on virtually any subject under the sun.
From where, we wonder, did they gain such knowledge? Does Hashem simply implant it in their brains?
Indeed, there is a famous parable told in the name of the Vilna Gaon that explains that just as one who pays for an expensive item receives the gift-wrapping for free, so too, one who toils in Torah receives all other forms of knowledge as a free gift. One who wishes to buy rolls of gift-wrapping themselves must pay, however, and one who seeks to know only fields of knowledge other than Torah must study for them as well.
While this is true, what is often overlooked is that an overwhelming amount of worldly knowledge is found directly in the Torah. To a great extent, true talmidei chachomim need not receive worldly knowledge as “free gifts,” but rather glean them from the vast breadth of Torah study itself. One who studies the sugyos pertaining to avodah zorah, for example, learns to differentiate between various mindsets. The Gemara describes certain behaviors that indicate whether worshippers truly believe in an idol as a deity and whether they have abandoned that belief or transferred it to another idol. A thorough understanding of the sugya brings with it a deep understanding into the psyche of people.
That is as far as one particular topic is concerned. The sugyos are endless, though. Any 9th grader learning the sugyos of migui, modeh b’miktzas, lo chotzif inish and similar topics automatically gains an understanding into human behavior that secular students will struggle to learn in college classes on sociology and anthropology.
Rotzeh adam bekav shelo. A person would rather a small portion of something he worked for rather than a larger portion granted as a gift. Ein retzoni sheyihei pikdoni. Though I trust the other fellow, I am still only comfortable with you taking care of my item and not he. Agav churfei lo ayin bo. Sharp-witted thinking runs the risk of overlooking basic points. Kivein she’ovar adam… na’asis lo k’heter. The more one engages in questionable behavior, the less it bothers him. Kach umnuso shel yeitzer hara, hayom omer lo aseh kach, ul’mochor… People easily resist great temptations, but when it is “only” this, and then “only” one tiny step more, and then “only”…
These are merely a tiny sampling of the penetrating insights into man’s nature, thoughts and emotions that give any talmid chochom a huge head-start in the secular aspects of the fields of psychology and human behavior.
We haven’t even touched upon Chullin, and the sugyos of treifa, dam hatamtzis, bedikos etc., which provide one with a thorough understanding into many aspects of anatomy, biology, neurology, gastroenterology, and more.
Let us reiterate that we aren’t speaking here about some spiritual depth of understanding given to talmidei chachomim. Our focus is on the sheer amount of raw knowledge – in all areas – that is sprinkled throughout the length and breadth of Jewish studies, be it Torah, Nach, Mishnayos, Gemara, and words of Chazal wherever they may be due simply to the fact that Torah is the blueprint of life and therefore leaves virtually no field of study untouched.
Does this make every talmid chochom a doctor, engineer, or psychologist? No, it does not. It does, however, provide a vast understanding into many sciences from Torah sources, sources we can thus rely upon and being unquestionable, unimpeachable, objective and proper. Torah knowledge, after all, comes from Hashem, and no one can understand how people or the world works better than He Who created them in the first place.
Perhaps we can conclude with one fascinating siman in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, 170) that reflects one particular aspect of what we have been discussing. The siman is titled “Divrei mussar sheyinhag adam b’seudah – Items of behavior one must practice during mealtime.” Remember, this is in the Shulchan Aruch, not a mussar sefer.
The siman begins, “Ein masichin b’seudah,” one may not speak while eating, because this can cause food to go down the trachea rather than the esophagus (leading to choking).
Siman 2: If two people are eating together and one stops to take a drink, the other person should stop eating as well until the first person resumes his meal, i.e., it is not proper to just continue eating while your partner is taking a pause. However, if there are three people or more, the others need not stop for one person.
The Mishnah Berurah adds here that it is not proper for a talmid chochom to drink water in public (when he is not sitting at a meal) unless he turns his head to the side and drinks discreetly.
Siman 4: One should not look directly at the face of one who is eating, nor at his plate, so as not to cause him embarrassment (i.e., discomfort).
Siman 7: One should not bite a piece off a large chunk of food in his hand (the size of a k’beitzah), for such is the behavior of a glutton.
Siman 8: One should not drink down an entire (average-sized) cup in one go (that, too, is gluttonous). Derech eretz would be to drink an average cup in two attempts. Three (or more, i.e. taking small, ceremonious sips) is a show of haughtiness.
Siman 12: When more than one person sits down to a meal, the others should wait for the head of the household (or most elder or respected member) to eat first, before themselves beginning to eat.
The siman goes on to discuss the danger of sharing tableware with strangers, due to germs, the rule that guests should heed the wishes of the host, as well as numerous other items.
This one siman contains so much in terms of physical safety (choking, germs), behavioral propriety (not to stare at others, to wait one’s turn), as well as practicing self-control and derech eretz (not to eat or drink in a gluttonous or uncouth manner), and so much more. All because they happen to pertain to the halachos of how to behave during mealtimes. Nor are these “rules of etiquette,” which can change from society to society. These are rules of human behavior which are inherently proper, whether or not society agrees with them at this particular moment in time or not.
So much has been said lately about the excessive focus on materialism, food, and the normalization of gluttonous behavior and unbridled tayvah. Perhaps the first step in counteracting these influences should be to learn for ourselves and to teach our students – from the text itself – the halachos of basic human behavior during eating.