The Unbroken Blast
There is no doubt that the imminent arrival of Rosh Hashanah is the dominant concern for all of us. After all, it is on Rosh Hashanah that the future of the coronavirus pandemic will be decreed. The books of the living and the dead will be opened. Every believing Jew prepares for Rosh Hashanah in the same way he would prepare for a major criminal trial. But as the baalei mussar teach us, we have no need to panic, for the Judge in this trial is also our Father in Heaven.
We hear the blasts of the shofar every morning, and it would take a hefty dose of apathy to feel no trepidation when it is sounded. We will begin reciting Selichos this motzoei Shabbos, and before long we will be hearing the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah. Of course, since the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbos this year, there will be fewer tekios than in an ordinary year.
I always try to enrich my knowledge, and with every new year I find myself eagerly seeking new machzorim with enlightening commentaries and discussions of the relevant halachos. This year, I discovered Kuntres HaTekios, a new sefer released by the renowned mashgiach Rav Don Segal, which consists of chiddushim on the subject of the tekios, in-depth analyses of the halachos, and a section on practical halacha. In a brief introduction, the mashgiach writes, “I must give thanks to Hashem with all my heart for allowing me to taste the sweetness of His holy Torah [in the sugya of] the mitzvah of shofar, and for performing great kindnesses for me and giving me the privilege of writing and publishing these ideas. Although I know my own worth, I hope that these things will be beneficial and will foster the dissemination and honor of the Torah…. May we soon hear the sound of the shofar of Moshiach, and may the entire land be filled with knowledge of Hashem as water covers the sea.”
The sefer introduced me to many new and fascinating ideas. For instance, there is the following: “The tekiah is an unbroken sound; therefore, the Gemara terms it ‘peshutah’ (straight). The Maharil Diskin was reportedly very meticulous about ensuring that the tekiah was a completely uniform sound, and that it did not rise or fall at all. Nevertheless, the Chazon Ish and the Steipler were not particular about this matter, and they ruled that even a blast that rose and fell in the middle was acceptable.”
Rav Don offers three possible explanations for the Maharil Diskin’s view: First, if the sound of the shofar varies in pitch, it would not be considered a “straight” sound and therefore would not qualify as a tekiah. Second, the Maharil Diskin might have wished to satisfy the view that a shift in the middle of the blast would convert the tekiah into a shevorim. Finally, it is possible that the shifts in the sound would be considered interruptions in the blast. Rav Don adds that according to the third explanation, it is possible that if a tekiah is longer than necessary, it can still fulfill the obligation even if the sound rises or falls toward the end of the blast.
I cannot pretend to have a grasp of the halachos of tekias shofar with all their nuances, but I can certainly share the good news of the release of this new sefer. I have no doubt that Kuntres HaTekios will gain enormous popularity and will be considered an indispensable aid for the understanding and appreciation of the tekios. The staff of Machon Torah Vodaas, the publisher of this sefer, deserves accolades for enriching our world with the teachings of Rav Don Segal. May we all have a good and sweet new year.
The Red Cities
But there are many major questions that remain unresolved as Rosh Hashanah rapidly approaches: Where will we daven? How will we daven? Will the tefillos be held in shul as in an ordinary year? Will we be davening outdoors or in private homes? So far, in Israel we have all been inundated with confusing and contradictory pieces of information. The truth is that no one knows what will happen from one day to the next, and we certainly cannot predict what will happen on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkos. The situation is complicated, and the statistics are grim. This week, Yediot Acharonot imitated the New York Times and published the names of COVID-19 victims on its front page. The numbers of positive corona tests, coronavirus patients, intubated patients, and fatalities are all rising.
This week, the government planned to impose a lockdown on all the cities that have been designated “red” cities. Roni Gamzu, the project manager of the battle against corona, divided the country into various color-coded areas, with red representing a high level of contagion, yellow an intermediate level, and green a low level. He planned to call for a lockdown in all red cities starting in the middle of the week. Now, which cities were designated red zones? You guessed it: Most of the cities are inhabited by chareidim or Arabs! Here is the list of red cities as of the middle of this week: Umm al-Fahm, Elad, Bnei Brak, Tira, Kfar Kasm, Beitar Illit, Emanuel, various neighborhoods in East Yerushalayim, various neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh, and certain neighborhoods in the Arab settlement of Lakia. I presume that you spotted the common denominator between these locales: They are all either Arab or chareidi communities. And that gives rise to many questions: Is this merely a coincidence? Was this list based on purely professional calculations? Were there no ulterior motives involved? At the last possible moment, the Health Ministry announced that the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Eilat might also qualify for “red” status. Was that meant merely to appease the chareidim and the Arabs? There is no way to be sure….
At this point, the chareidi community (and, to the same extent, the Arab community) has lost faith in the government. They do not trust Gamzu, who sets the rules and health guidelines—or, at least, tries to set them. Nor do they trust the prime minister, who has given Gamzu his total backing. There is a coronavirus cabinet consisting of various ministers of the government, including Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, and there is also a Constitutional Committee, headed by MK Yaakov Asher of Degel HaTorah, which is supposed to ratify the cabinet’s decisions. Both of these groups are asking all the right questions of Gamzu, who has struggled to answer the satisfactorily. There are also other groups who have been asking tough questions, realizing that something does not seem right.
Gamzu has rightly earned the distrust of the chareidi community, especially in light of the letter that he sent (on his own initiative and, if he is to be believed, with the tacit agreement of the prime minister) to the president of Ukraine, asking him to prevent Breslov chassidim from traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. This was a breach of protocol. Gamzu had no right to send such a letter to a foreign head of state, certainly not without consulting with the chareidi community and its leaders, as well as with the leaders of the Breslov chassidus. The episode reflected poorly on Prime Minister Netanyahu as well, since he had personally met with representatives of Breslov (as I mentioned last week) and had assured them that he would examine their plan to permit the annual event in Uman, which would include the institution of capsules, coronavirus testing, and special hotels for those who were found to be ill or required quarantine. The bottom line is that there is now a complete disconnect between the chareidi community and Roni Gamzu, and it is impossible to fight any battle, including the battle against the coronavirus, under such circumstances.
As of this writing, the pressure exerted on the government was effective and the lockdown has been canceled. On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Ministers Deri, Edelstein, and Litzman, along with Roni Gamzu. The result of that meeting was a different arrangement: a nighttime curfew in the 40 red cities throughout the country, from 7:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m., and the closure of schools in those areas. Businesses will be allowed to remain open until 7:00 p.m., and the restrictions will remain in place for two weeks.
Casting Doubt on the Official Statistics
According to the rules, before a lockdown is imposed on a city—since it is a brutal, drastic, and oppressive measure—the government must conduct a hearing with the mayor of that city, allowing the mayor to present his arguments against the lockdown. In some cities, for instance, the local governments have claimed that the official statistics are not accurate. For example, the Old City of Yerushalayim was included on the list of locales slated to be placed under lockdown this week. A resident of the Old City named Yitzchok Pindrus, who happens to be a member of the Knesset as well, pointed out that there were only four coronavirus patients in the entire area. How was it possible, he demanded, that the Old City had been labeled a red zone?
The mayor of Bnei Brak, Avrohom Rubinstein, had another argument: The reason for the large number of cases in his city was the fact that they had decided to conduct thousands of coronavirus tests. The increased testing led to the discovery of more people who had been infected with the virus. If testing were conducted anywhere else on the same scale, he argued, that locale would be seen as having the same level of contagion as Bnei Brak. This was an eminently logical argument, and perhaps the reason that Rav Chaim Kanievsky told the residents of Bnei Brak this week that they should not hurry to be tested—since the government would use the test results to their detriment.
The mayor of Bnei Brak also argued that the supposed high infection rate in Bnei Brak included talmidim in the yeshivos in the city who had been found to be infected with the coronavirus. He argued that although these bochurim are present in the city, they are learning in closed capsules and do not have any interaction with the city’s populace.
In short, there are many valid arguments against the allegedly professional calculations made by the Ministry of Health.
Aryeh Deri, the Minister of the Interior, is considered an expert on all corona-related matters. During the first wave of the coronavirus, he was responsible for the chareidi and Arab communities. In effect, he played the role that has been assigned to Professor Gamzu. Deri also decided to impose lockdowns in various locales, and the people of Israel accepted it with understanding. Indeed, his efforts led to a lowering of the infection rate. It was also Deri who collaborated with the Home Front Command to open coronavirus hotels for chareidim. This, of course, was the correct thing to do during the first wave. This week, Aryeh Deri declared in an interview that he would vote against a lockdown on chareidi and Arab cities in the coronavirus cabinet. He explained that the government must either impose a general lockdown on the entire country (which is precisely what they intend to do during the Yomim Tovim) or do nothing at all. He does not see any benefit in declaring a lockdown on specific municipalities now and then shutting down the entire country afterward. Deri emphasized that he is required to respect the decisions of the cabinet (which did not accept his view), but that he wished to share his personal perspective. Of course, this also added to the general distrust of Gamzu and the cabinet.
Chareidi Mayors Write a Harsh Letter to Netanyahu
The distrust became so pronounced that United Torah Judaism took the almost unprecedented step of writing a letter to the prime minister, signed by all of its Knesset members, that called for the dismissal of Roni Gamzu. This week, the party made another show of its indignation by deciding that the weekly party meeting, which takes place in the Knesset building every Monday, would be held in Bnei Brak instead. An official statement released by the party declares, “The United Torah Judaism party identifies with the struggles of the chareidi cities and their tens of thousands of residents, and protests against the imposition of a lockdown. We will therefore meet tomorrow, in an exception to the norm, outside the Knesset, in the city of Bnei Brak.” The mayors of Bnei Brak, Elad, Beitar Illit, and Emanuel were invited to join the MKs at their conference, which was held in the conference room in the Bnei Brak municipal building. The move was meant to express their ire at the government’s use of disproportionate steps targeting some of the chareidi municipalities, and to show solidarity with the tens of thousands of innocent individuals, families, and business owners who will suffer terribly from a lockdown.
At the same time, the chareidi mayors sent a long letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu attacking him for his actions and expressing their pain at his betrayal. Here is a brief excerpt: “As the person who has been managing this crisis, you never made the effort to hear our voices, to understand our distress and to try to implement substantive efforts to flatten the curve of infection. You were not attentive to us, and you made no effort to ask, understand, or study what characterizes a significant segment of the Israeli populace that is struggling in every area: economically, socially, and in the media. To our great dismay, you did not send a single person on your behalf to hear directly about our work and about the various steps that must be taken successfully for constant, respectful dialogue with the spiritual leadership of this community. Instead, you chose to use straw men such as the coronavirus coordinator and others, while you were actually the person making all the decisions. The voice is yours and the decisions are yours, for you are the one who leads, directs, and decides. Time after time, you have placed one lockdown after another on chareidi cities. These measures never produced actual change; otherwise, we would support them enthusiastically and implement them on our own. Every lockdown of this nature has brought a lack of trust and has set us back ten steps in the citizens’ willingness to be tested, to observe the rules, and to obey the health guidelines, so that we found ourselves starting over again from the beginning when the restrictions were lifted. In the face of this challenge and the reactions of outrage, you made the criteria for the ‘traffic light plan’ even more rigid, adding a series of criteria that are irrelevant and do not reflect even the slightest trace of understanding of the tapestry of life in the [chareidi] sector and the way to create change. With the decisions you have made—and it was you, with your own voice, above our heads, even if you hid behind the names of the cabinet members or the corona coordinator—you have turned the chareidi community into the punching bag of the entire state. Without giving a moment’s thought to the suffering of tens of thousands of people, you have presided over these decisions time and again, with the goal of making a show of controlling the situation and restoring a normal, comfortable routine for the residents of the entire country.”
And the letter did not end there. The mayors continue, “During these days, you have once again led a deliberate effort to impose a closure on the chareidi cities immediately before the Yomim Tovim of Tishrei. With pain and anger, we have watched, day after day, as the honor of the gedolei Torah, of the lifestyle of Torah, and of the leaders of our communities, as well as the traditions of most of the Jewish residents of this country, have been trampled by you in an unprecedented way.
“We hereby inform you,” they conclude, “that we will cease all collaboration with the authorities on anything related to the lockdown. The national authorities are invited to operate on their own, just as they operate above our heads in any event. All of you—and you personally, as the prime minister—must take responsibility for making the change and carrying it out. We hereby inform you that the chareidi community will never forget the injustice that has been done to it. We will never forget who was the man who personally signed, time and again, measures that turned us into carriers of disease and enemies of the people, and on the selective punishment of tens of thousands of families within the chareidi community. We consider you to be the sole person who is to blame for these punitive measures, for lowering respect for our tradition and for us as legitimate citizens in this country. We cannot remain silent any longer.”
The mayors stated that they consulted with gedolei Torah before sending the letter, which is absolutely unprecedented. The letter is signed by Avrohom Rubinstein of Bnei Brak, Meir Rubinstein of Beitar Illit, Yisroel Porush of Elad, and Eliyohu Gafni of Emanuel.
As I mentioned, this pressure bore fruit—or, at least, half a fruit. By the end of the week, we will know more about its results. Let us hope that the infection rate will drop and that we will not be under lockdown during the Yomim Tovim.
Tallis and Tefillin in the Defense Ministry
Of course, there are plenty of people who have seized this opportunity to demonstrate that they, unlike Netanyahu, care for the needs of the chareidi community. Naftoli Bennett, who has become euphoric after his popularity soared in the polls, hurried to visit the city of Elad and to declare that the chareidim were the victims of injustice. Even Ofer Shelach of Yesh Atid (see below regarding his recent challenge to Yair Lapid) visited the municipal government of Bnei Brak this week. Shelach, who served previously as chairman of the Coronavirus Committee, emerged from his meeting with Mayor Rubinstein of Bnei Brak and announced, “We tried to determine if there are any alternatives to the lockdown that is threatening the city. Based on the information possessed by the municipality, immediate action in several areas, especially halting large simchos, is likely to lower the infection rates and remove Bnei Brak from the map of red cities.”
Benny Gantz also visited Bnei Brak, after issuing a statement to the press. As the old saying has it, if something is done without publicity, it is as if it was never done at all…. “In the course of making certain the defense apparatus is prepared,” his statement announced, “Defense Minister Bennny Gantz will visit the Bnei Brak municipality at 6:30 p.m. today, along with Mayor Avrohom Rubinstein. At the end of his visit, Gantz will make a statement to the media outside the municipal building. Reporters should arrive no later than 6:00 p.m., in order to undergo the appropriate security inspections, and should bring their press passes and another form of identification.” With all these security instructions, Gantz is behaving as if he has already become the prime minister….
At this time, however, Benny Gantz ought to be treated with respect. There is a prevailing sense that he, more than anyone else, will support the chareidi community when the moment of truth arrives. And that moment is near.
For the chareidim, the issue of the military draft is no less significant than the challenges posed by the coronavirus—and it will soon be necessary to contend with that issue. The previous draft law was overturned by the Supreme Court, and the repeated elections have made it impossible for any far-reaching decisions to be made. Nevertheless, a new law will have to be passed soon to deal with the issue, and it will have to be a law that will satisfy the Supreme Court yet be tolerable to the chareidim. For that purpose, the Ministry of Defense, which is currently headed by Benny Gantz, will play an indispensable role in the process. And there is an undeniable sense that the chareidim have recently developed warmer ties with Benny Gantz and his party, Blue and White. This certainly might be associated with their estrangement from Netanyahu.
Several days ago, a photograph was published showing a meeting in Gantz’s office in the Ministry of Defense. The chief of staff of the IDF is visible in the photograph, along with several senior officers in the army, although it is difficult to identify the men due to the masks that obscure their faces. But the more sharp-eyed observers could not fail to pick up on an interesting detail: Gantz’s tallis and tefillin are visible in a bag behind him. In fact, when Gantz recently underwent an operation, a picture was published showing him wearing his tallis and tefillin before the surgery. This may not be the most dramatic revelation in the world, but there is some significance to it. And you will never catch Netanyahu with a tallis and tefillin….
Is Yesh Atid Crumbling?
It has been an eventful week in other areas as well. One thing that must be mentioned is the uprising within the ranks of Yesh Atid. Ofer Shelach, who holds the second highest position in the party—directly under Yair Lapid—has challenged Lapid’s leadership of the party. Shelach claims that with its current makeup, it is impossible for Yesh Atid to become the ruling party. He believes that if he assumes the leadership of the party, he will be able to lead Yesh Atid to become an alternative to the current regime. This is somewhat presumptuous, since Shelach is a radical leftist and in our government, boruch Hashem, the left is still in the minority. Nevertheless, the party was shaken by Shelach’s challenge, and Yair Lapid began to feel threatened. This internal battle certainly has the potential to destroy the entire party.
Shelach’s actions also smack of injustice. Yair Lapid personally built the Yesh Atid party from its foundations; it is somewhat unjust for another member of the party to challenge him. On the other hand, Lapid conducts himself like a tyrant. He is the chairman of the party and exerts absolute control over it; he personally selects its Knesset members, and ejects any party member who speaks against him. While Shelach has called for primaries to be held, Lapid claims that such a move would invite corruption. He fears that Netanyahu will have a few thousand of his loyalists register for the party, and that they would elect a Likud member as the leader of Yesh Atid. Shelach responded that according to the polls, if Yesh Atid is headed by Yair Lapid, the party does not stand a chance of replacing the current government. “Yair Lapid has secretly promised himself the leadership of the party until the 26th Knesset,” Shelach added. “His claim that primary elections for the party leadership would create the potential for corruption is absurd.”
Lapid has announced that even if a primary election is held and Shelach wins, he will remain a member of the party. This is clearly disingenuous, since there is no chance that Shelach will win. At the same time, Shelach has certainly managed to evoke anxiety in Lapid, and he has also managed to create the widespread impression that Lapid behaves like a dictator within his own party. Recent polls indicate that Lapid will defeat Shelach by a broad margin in any primary election, but even a few votes for Shelach would constitute a ringing slap in the face to Lapid. Of course, the religious parties are enjoying this spectacle. The more Lapid is forced to sweat and squirm, the better it is for them.
A Resignation and a Diatribe
Last week, Shaul Meridor, the head of the budget department in the Finance Ministry—which is a position of great seniority—resigned from his post after penning a letter that served as a scathing indictment of Finance Minister Yisroel Katz. The resigning official criticized Katz harshly for his management of the current crisis, one of the greatest calamities ever to befall the country. Meridor’s letter complained about the decision-making process in the ministry, lambasting the “narrow interests” that drove many of the decisions, the manner in which the budget framework changed without any discussion or long-term planning, and the attacks of Likud party members and the finance minister himself against Meridor himself and his colleagues. This letter summed up four months of bitter conflict within the ministry, a conflict whose existence was known to everyone and that took place alongside an aggressive campaign conducted by Prime Minister Netanyahu against Shaul Meridor, son of his political rival, former minister Dan Meridor.
In spite of the letter’s sensitive timing, coming as it did in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, some people were not surprised by it at all. “I am only surprised by the fact that it didn’t happen earlier,” said one official who had been present at meetings in the Treasury. “For the past four months, there was been a complete lack of trust between them, which was evident at every meeting. Katz consulted with other people; he did not consult with the staff of the budget department, and he certainly did not consult with Shaul. During the meetings when both were present, Katz would completely ignore Shaul’s comments. There was terrible tension between them. Yisroel Katz is not a person to whom one can say no, because anyone who opposes his views is immediately marked as suspicious. That is where this began.”
Anyone who reads Meridor’s letter could easily have concluded that it was written by a megalomaniac. Many officials in the Treasury, Shaul Meridor included, live with the belief that they should rightfully be the decision makers in the country; they cannot accept the fact that they are government employees rather than elected representatives of the people. But what makes Meridor’s actions even less noble than they seem is the fact that the finance minister had met with the attorney general shortly before Meridor’s resignation … to ask for permission to fire him. Meridor had simply quit his job in order to avoid being handed a letter of dismissal.
An Ineffective Fence
Another topic of discussion this week was the issue of infiltrators. In America, you have President Trump’s famous wall which is going up between the United States and Mexico. Here in Israel, we have a “wall” of our own: the security fence that is intended to prevent infiltrators, mainly from Egypt and Jordan, from entering the country. The fence, which cost Israeli taxpayers the massive sum of 15 billion shekels, has many holes, and it has been discovered that thousands of Palestinians enter the country every day through the holes in the fence. The resultant problems extend beyond the fact that these infiltrators take up residence in Israeli cities, especially south Tel Aviv. Even worse, they pose a security threat to the country; some of them might be terrorists, although most of them come to Israel to escape from the Arab countries. For these people, Israel is a veritable paradise, just as the United States seems to be a utopia for Central American immigrants. There is a highly organized network of smugglers on the Israeli side of the fence, with access to various forms of transportation and anything else that the infiltrators might need in order to enter Israel easily and without detection.
There are also infiltrations from the Palestinian Authority. These Palestinians do not come to Israel to settle here; instead, their intent is to work, earn money, and return home. In spite of the closure between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which has been in place since the coronavirus outbreak, thousands of Palestinians have been entering the country regularly, as if the border crossing had never been closed. During the summer months, many Israelis related that hundreds of Palestinians were crowding the beaches in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Bat Yam, and even Tel Aviv.
A recent document from the Ministry of Internal Security illustrates the government’s powerlessness to contend with this challenge. “Until now, the ministry has accepted the position of the IDF that the breaches in the fence will not be repaired, since the fence is breached again after every repair,” the document states. “In the past, the IDF stationed soldiers near the breaches in order to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country; however, those operations have ceased, for reasons that are not known.”
Fake Statistics Gain Traction
The business newspaper Globes contains a column that reviews and checks the accuracy of statements made by politicians. The column recently ridiculed Avigdor Lieberman for his claim that “17,000 avreichim from Brooklyn” would be arriving in Israel for the new zman. This week, the editors tried to subject Betzalel Smotrich to a similar treatment, when he remarked in a debate over the “grandchild clause” that the rate of intermarriage in Europe and the United States had reached 70 percent. The editors of Globes claimed that the figures are actually much lower, and that the intermarriage rate is no greater than 58 percent. Perhaps, they suggested, the figure of 70 percent is accurate in Russia or among Israeli Jews who have moved to the United States.
As it turns out, though, Globes was basing itself on statistics from the year 2013. Since that time, the intermarriage rate has soared as an entire segment of the Jewish people has turned its collective back on its religion. Moreover, I cannot exactly understand why they find their own figures reassuring. Even if the intermarriage rate were “only” 58 percent, wouldn’t that be good reason for alarm?
In addition, I noticed a peculiar statement in the article, in which Globes appeared to be implying, through some artificial calculations, that the intermarriage curve has been flattened: “In a poll from 2013, it was found that only 44 percent of Jews lived with non-Jewish spouses. If we subtract the approximately one million Americans of Jewish extraction who identify themselves as not affiliated with any religion, the number would drop to only 36 percent.” This reasoning is utterly incomprehensible. If we ignore all the Jews who have completely assimilated, the newspaper suggests, then the percentage of intermarried Jews will be much lower. But isn’t it a tragedy in its own right that one million Jews no longer consider themselves Jewish at all?
Meanwhile, Lieberman’s false claims about the Orthodox visitors from Brooklyn have become further entrenched in the Israeli consciousness. The ersatz statistic has been echoed not only by journalists (including Nechemiah Strassler, who is considered an enemy of the religious community, as well as Yossi Verter, who is generally considered fair) but by others as well. Professor Gabi Barbash, the former director-general of the Ministry of Health, recently remarked, “With my temperament, I would have resigned from the post three times by now,” adding that one of the things that would have triggered his resignation was “the entry of 17,000 talmidim from abroad.” MK Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of the Mossad, penned an urgent parliamentary query (which was approved) on the subject of “the entry of non-Israeli avreichim to the country.” He was not concerned about the participants in programs such as Naaleh or Birthright; the only thing that troubled him was the arrival of kollel yungerleit. Evidently, Lieberman’s slander has sprouted wings.
Meanwhile, I have another important observation to make. This week, I inquired about the talmidim in a particular American yeshiva who had come from the United States and had remained in quarantine for the required two weeks after their arrival. When I asked how many of the talmidim had been found to be sick, I was told that not even one single talmid became ill!
The Baba Sali and the Hijacked Plane
It was Elul 5730/September 1970. The Jewish world had woken up in the morning to a dreadful report: A TWA plane en route from Frankfurt to New York had been hijacked by Palestinians, and one of the hostages was Rav Yitzchok Hutner, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. Rav Hutner was being held captive on foreign soil, along with his wife, daughter, his son-in-law. The plane with hundreds of passengers aboard, had been brought to Jordan, which was an actual enemy country at the time. Jordan may have been less hostile and threatening than a terror organization, but it was still in a state of war with Israel. On the other hand, King Hussein’s hostility toward terror organizations was advantageous to the Israelis.
The phenomenon of airplane hijackings was new at the time. Even President Richard Nixon was uncertain of how to respond to it. In airports throughout the world, the workers did not know how to prevent weapons from being smuggled onto airplanes. Metal detection technology wasn’t sufficiently advanced, nor were the security measures particularly sophisticated. It was all too easy to bring a weapon onto a plane, or even something that resembled a weapon, and even a fake weapon would have been enough to subdue the flight crew of a plane. Airplane crews had been given clear instructions: They were not to endanger the lives of hundreds of passengers, as well as the flight crews, to fight two or three hijackers armed with weapons, even if there was a chance that the weapons were not real.
The Torah world was plunged into apprehension. The gedolim called on the public to daven for the hostages’ well-being, and Jews everywhere davened fervently. America was in a panic, and Rav Hutner’s colleagues, especially Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, launched a campaign that included an appeal to Prime Minister Golda Meir and to the leaders of the American government, President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It was clear that there was a need to exert pressure on the terrorist leaders and to pressure King Hussein of Jordan as well, since the drama was unfolding in his country.
Meanwhile, the following scene unfolded in the home of the Baba Sali, Rav Yisroel Abuchatzeirah of Netivot: “The news of the hijacked plane arrived in the morning, and the Israeli people listened to the reports with great concern. In the morning, it was already known that the plane had landed in Jordan. At that time, the Baba Sali completed his davening, and his faithful attendant, Rav Eliyohu Elfassi, brought a cup of tea into his room. As the rov began drinking, Rav Eliyohu told him about the news and asked him to daven for the passengers, who were being held captive by terrorists, to be brought home in peace. The rov listened and then immediately put down his cup of tea. ‘I can’t drink,’ he said. He rose from his seat and took several large candles and lit them. When he returned to his seat, he said, ‘B’ezras Hashem, before the candles go out, we will hear good news about them.’ Then he sat in his place and began davening, sobbing as he did so. That day, he did not receive any visitors, nor did he eat or drink; he merely sat in one place and davened.”
This is an account that I heard personally from Rav Eliyohu Elfassi, who served the Baba Sali faithfully for many years. And this is the conclusion of the story, also in the words of Rav Elfassi: “At 4:00 in the afternoon, the good news began to arrive. First it was announced that the foreign citizens had been released. Then the women in the group were freed. After some time, they announced that all the captives had been freed. The Baba Sali’s family members entered his study to tell him the news, and his face began to shine as he let out a sigh of relief. ‘You may extinguish the candles now,’ he said. His family members hurried to put out the candles, but it turned out to be unnecessary. The wax had melted completely, and the flames were sputtering and clearly on the verge of going out.