My Take on the News

The Chillul Shabbos Continues

The ongoing chillul Shabbos in Eretz Yisroel continues to remain a subject of concern here in this country. In addition to the upcoming ruling from the Supreme Court regarding the businesses that operate on Shabbos in Tel Aviv, we are also embroiled in a constant battle against the Israel Railways company, which has virtually turned Shabbos into an ordinary day of the week. All of the construction work that is necessary for the upkeep of the railroad is carried out on Shabbos – as if the weekly day of rest, which is defined as such in the laws of the country as well, is actually the weekly day of renovations. The maintenance work cannot be described as pikuach nefesh by any means. There is no reason that it would endanger any lives if the work were performed during the week. That argument isn’t always true even when it is made, but in this case, the railway company did not even make that claim. They have simply adopted the attitude that they can do as they please, scheduling construction whenever they see fit.

The leaders of the chareidi parties have met with the prime minister and explained to him how painful this phenomenon is to us, and how egregious an offense it is on every level. They added that it is a flagrant violation of the status quo, and they pointed out that the coalition agreement stipulates that this status quo will not be violated and that he, as the prime minister, is obligated to uphold the agreement. Yet all of their explanations and remonstrations have fallen on deaf ears. It is like the famous joke: Before the elections, the walls in this country “talk” to you through the many posters and notices plastered across walls and message boards everywhere. After the elections, though, you find yourself talking to the wall! In this case, though, the joke is not only at our expense, but at the expense of Shabbos itself.

Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu instructed the chareidi party leaders to speak to the Minister of Transportation, Yisroel Katz, under whose jurisdiction the railway company operates, and to the Minister of Labor and Welfare, Chaim Katz, who is authorized to grant Shabbos work permits. (In Israel, any person who wishes to work on Shabbos must submit an explanation to the Ministry of Labor and Welfare, which issues official permits for the work to take place.) Each Katz proceeded to refer them to the other, and a committee of four Knesset members from Shas and UTJ was formed (its members were Eichler, Maklev, Ben-Tzur, and Malchieli), and they met again with both Yisroel Katz and Chaim Katz.

Last Shabbos, the chillul Shabbos continued on a large scale, leading to a massive outcry. The prime minister was forced to intervene, and Yaakov Litzman, the Minister of Health, announced that the situation might impel him to resign from the government. It is difficult to believe that that will happen, though, and the prime minister knows it. We don’t have a genuine recourse in this situation, but we still have a responsibility to protest. In any event, all three councils of gedolim – of Degel HaTorah, Agudas Yisroel, and Shas – convened to discuss the issue. It isn’t clear what they will decide, but the mere fact that they convened was meant to demonstrate to the prime minister just how much we are pained by this issue.

 

The Judges Continue to Interfere

As for the Supreme Court case concerning the businesses in Tel Aviv, that has already been discussed at length in these pages. As you may recall, the Tel Aviv municipality decided to pass a bylaw permitting hundreds of stores to open on Shabbos. But while you might think that the municipal government has the right to decide what may be done in a city, any bylaw requires the approval of the Minister of the Interior, who presides over all of the local governments in the State of Israel. That is where the situation became complicated, since the office of Interior Minister has changed hands repeatedly with dizzying speed over the past few years. Gideon Saar, for example, who served as Minister of the Interior for a short time, is also a resident of Tel Aviv and refused to accept or veto the bylaw for that reason. Saar also argued that if he approved the law for Tel Aviv, it would lead to a wave of similar bylaws being instituted in other cities, and the Shabbos day would turn into an ordinary day of the week throughout the country. That would make it a national issue, rather than a municipal one. This case dragged on for a while, as the Supreme Court first ruled against the Tel Aviv municipality and then ruled in its favor. Finally, the newly appointed Interior Minister, Aryeh Deri, informed the court that he had a clear position on the issue: He was opposed to the bylaw, and he would not approve it. But Deri’s decision came too late, since the court had already had its say. Moreover, the attorney general announced that he disagreed with Deri’s position. The situation thus grew increasingly thorny and complex.

Elyakim Rubinstein, the recently retired Supreme Court justice, decided just before his retirement that he would accept Deri’s request for the court to review the issue again, this time with a panel of seven justices. The first discussion of the subject took place two weeks ago. The storeowners from Tel Aviv who petitioned the court against the bylaw cited social considerations, rather than religious issues, as the basis of their opposition. These small business owners argued that they are entitled to a day of rest every week, but if the large chains open on Shabbos, it will force them to keep their own establishments open in order to maintain their own businesses, and to avoid losing clients who will begin shopping in the larger supermarkets during the week as well.

One organization of storeowners is being represented by attorney David Shub. For an idea of how the case is progressing, it was sufficient to hear the judges’ harsh responses when Shub presented his arguments. Here is a selection of the judges’ comments during his arguments:

Chief Justice Miriam Naor: “In light of the history, I would suggest that the counsel choose his words carefully.”

Justice Hendel: “The counsel may make additional arguments, but not this argument.”

Naor: “Let us be clear. Is the counsel suggesting that the position of the Minister of the Interior is the only reasonable position on this subject?”

Justice Barak-Erez: “There are many assumptions here that I do not believe are logical. If we are referring to a family, can’t they rest in the middle of the week? That is one of many assumptions.”

Naor: “I wanted to understand your position; that is why I asked. Our answers will be given only in our verdict.”

Barak-Erez: “Does the Minister of the Interior support this position? We have not heard that the Minister of the Interior is in favor of the Gavison Covenant. Does the minister support the opening of movie theaters on Shabbos?”

Naor: “Attorney Leshem is the only party authorized to convey the position of the state. Anyone else may argue from his own point of view.”

Naor: “Sir, do not worry about us or about the municipality. We are in a hearing in court, and we are not dealing with the question of what the mayor said at any given time. I would like to request that you complete your arguments.”

Barak-Erez: “The counsel has opened an important question: Is freedom not a value?”

Finally, Chief Justice Naor rebuked the attorney once again, “The counsel is straying into the realm of defamation. The counsel will sit down, and we will hear from Attorney Feingold.”

Feingold, who represents about ten other business owners, was subjected to a similar barrage of interruptions and caustic remarks. At the height of his fervent pitch, he was interrupted by Naor: “It is our decision whether or not a new policy will be created here. The counsel has asked for the court to hear the case again, and now he is asking us not to create a new policy. That is somewhat strange. If you would like to withdraw your request, please do so.”

At some point, Feingold used the term “judicial error” and Judge Danziger interrupted him, stating, “A judicial error is when the counsel dictates to us what we are allowed to decide and what we are not allowed to decide. As the counsel has already heard from my colleague, the chief justice, he is to continue with his arguments without dictating to us what is within our jurisdiction.”

 

The “Right” to Shop on Shabbos

The sparring did not end there. At a certain point in the discussion, Miriam Naor demanded an explanation for why the status quo should be a factor in the court’s decision. Feingold argued, “If a single hole is made in a dam, the entire dam will burst.” He also asserted, “There is no such thing as a citizen’s right to go shopping every day of the week. The law does not recognize that right. Nor does every citizen have the right to design his weekly day of rest as he pleases… We maintain that museums and movie theaters are fine, but not buying diapers…”

“Why doesn’t a citizen have that right?” Naor demanded.

“The right to buy diapers is not part of a citizen’s entitlements,” Feingold replied.

“Who will make that determination?” she asked.

Before long, Naor’s patience ran out. “The counsel has ten minutes to conclude his arguments,” she announced.

“I am asking for these ideas to be reflected in the court’s decision,” Feingold said, and was immediately rebuffed by Naor: “The counsel has no need to tell us that!”

The representatives of the government, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of the Economy likewise faced withering criticism from the judges. The judges also repeatedly brought up the attorney general’s comment that there are “difficulties” with the Interior Minister’s position, to the point that his emissaries to the court were forced to call him and ask him to clarify his position. The attorney general finally explained that there are indeed difficulties with the minister’s position, but he favors that position anyway.

In the atmosphere that prevailed in the courtroom, with the sense of unbridled hostility emanating from the judges, it was very difficult for anyone to present the relevant arguments logically, although it must be noted that the attorneys were not intimidated by the judges. Nevertheless, Naor made a point of emphasizing, “We will decide.” And that is precisely what concerns us. The proceedings did not seem to bode well for the future. The wind is unmistakably blowing in a very specific direction, although I certainly hope that I will be proven wrong on that point.

On another subject, the Supreme Court is also due to issue its ruling soon on the Reform movement’s demand for an area of their own at the Kosel; may Hashem protect us from that eventuality. As you probably recall, the government originally decided to settle on a compromise with the Reform movement, but the chareidi community then withdrew its support for the agreement, and the government informed the court that the arrangement had been frozen. Of course, the court now has the ability to make any decision it chooses. They could even, chas veshalom, grant the Reform movement a space equal to the one we possess, directly alongside ours. Meanwhile, the Reform Jews have announced that they, too, have withdrawn their support for the compromise. They now want everything instead.

 

Missing Soldiers, Pained Parents

There have been other major stories this week as well. One of those was the controversy over the Braekel bird. However, I understand that subject about as much as a chicken understands people. I will therefore move on to a different subject: One of the most distressing events of this past week was the resignation of Colonel Lior Lotan, who had been overseeing the negotiations for the return of captured or missing Israelis. This includes the remains of two soldiers who were killed in the war in Gaza. The bodies of these two soldiers remain in the hands of our enemies, who are now cynically using them as bargaining chips. Hadar Goldin’s parents have recently been waging a battle against the Minister of Defense, claiming that he is not doing enough – or perhaps not doing anything at all – to retrieve the remains of their son and the other fallen IDF soldier, Oron Shaul. Lotan’s resignation served to fuel the family’s arguments even more. They labeled Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman as “weak and cowardly,” accusing him of failing to back up his words with the appropriate actions.

The crux of the issue is actually quite simple: Should the government release thousands of Palestinian prisoners, some of them wretched murderers, in exchange for the body of a soldier?

You may remember that kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit was freed in exchange for one thousand Palestinian prisoners. It was a very controversial step, and there is no question that the massive protests at the time were the factor that led the government to agree to the deal. In October 2011, five years and four months after Shalit was captured by Hamas, Israel reached an agreement with the terror organization whereby 1,027 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners were released in exchange for Shalit. Hundreds of those prisoners had been sentenced to life in prison for planning and carrying out the murders of Jews. The deal was brokered by German and Egyptian mediators and was signed in Egypt on October 11, 2011. During the first stage of the exchange, which was carried out on October 18, 2011, Israel released 450 of the prisoners and Hamas transferred Shalit to Egypt. He was then brought from there to Israel. During the second stage, which was carried out in December of that year, Israel released an additional 550 prisoners. Was that the right thing to do? It can definitely be argued that Israel’s actions led to an increase in terror, since the murderers now knew that they would eventually be released even if they were captured. On the other hand, the country has an obligation to do everything possible to bring its soldiers home, whether they are alive or dead.

Parenthetically, Lotan did not advocate freeing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. Rather, his idea was to return the bodies of Arab murderers to Hamas. On the other hand, he was in favor of releasing live prisoners in exchange for the safe return of three Israelis who crossed the border into the Gaza strip and are presumed to still be alive and held by Hamas. In any event, it is a very sad situation.

 

“Favoritism,” Prison-Style

I have always known that Maasiyahu Prison, which is located on the border between Ramle and Lod in the center of the country, is not a vacation camp. Nevertheless, on my recent visit there, I saw something that struck me as odd: The wardens seemed to be openly showing favor to one visitor over all the others. It seemed to be nothing short of overt discrimination, in full view of the public. How could they do such a thing?

Let me explain. I visited the prison not long ago in order to see a friend. (I will probably write about his story in the future.) Outside the prison walls, I waited my turn to be admitted, along with a wide assortment of other human beings. One visitor told me that he was there to see his son, who had been incarcerated for several years for refusing to grant a get to his wife. I will certainly never understand the son’s intransigence. An elderly woman informed me that she had come from the city of Cholon, making the trip by four different buses, in order to visit her son in prison. From the train station in Lod, she related, she had walked the rest of the way on foot.

A bulletin board outside the entrance contains a list of the items that may not be brought into the prison. It would have been simpler, though, for them to list the items that are permitted to be brought inside, which amounts to about nothing at all. When you visit the prison, all your personal effects must be deposited in a locker, for which you must deposit five shekels in a slot. One of the lockers wasn’t working; I saw four people lose their respective five-shekel coins, and then I warned the following visitors not to attempt to use it.

The next step is to hand your ID card to a guard stationed behind a one-way mirror. As you slip it under the sheet of reflective glass, you are aware that you are visible to him, but you see nothing on the other side. The sound, meanwhile, works in the opposite direction: When it is your turn to enter – if you are admitted, that is – your name is called over the loudspeaker, but there is no one for you to talk to. One of the visiting mothers had brought six photographs of her children to show to their father. The guards at the entrance told her that she could bring in only four of them. Why? The guards offered no explanation. The prison is a place where there are many questions that go unanswered.

Most of the people outside were smoking as they waited for admission. Visitors are not allowed to bring in their own cigarettes either, although the items are available for purchase at the canteen inside the prison.

Everyone seemed calm. I was told that the warden in charge that day, Leah, was relatively kind.

As I waited, a man who seemed completely out of place in those surroundings suddenly appeared. He hurried to the desk, and within a minute he was allowed to enter the prison. Of course, this was met with shouts of protest from all around. Why did this visitor deserve special treatment? Why wasn’t he forced to wait his turn along with the rest of us?

One of the veteran visitors laughed. “Calm down, everyone,” he said. “That man isn’t a visitor at all. He is a prisoner returning from his furlough.” He explained that the man had arrived at the last possible moment, which accounted for his sense of urgency. If he was late, a reprimand would be recorded in his file, and he would lose the opportunity to be released after serving two-thirds of his sentence. As a result, he rushed into the prison at high speed. I can attest to his clear desperation to pass through the gates and return to his incarceration. I will leave you to figure out the mussar haskel on your own…

 

Can a Person Vote Against Himself?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about an unusual mishap that took place in the Knesset at the end of a long day. Yaakov Margi had submitted a motion for the agenda regarding a commander in Prison Four who had brutally abused a young religious inmate. Then, when the time came to vote, Margi accidentally voted against his own motion. There were only three members of the Knesset present at the time, and all three of them voted: Yoel Hasson, who was chairing the session, supported Margi’s proposal to transfer the subject to a committee for discussion, while Deputy Defense Minister Eliyahu Ben-Dahan voted for it to be removed from the agenda. Yaakov Margi, out of confusion, inadvertently voted in favor of Ben-Dahan and against himself. When the results of the vote appeared on the screen in the plenum, Margi protested vociferously, but the chairman informed him that he could not change the results. At the time, I argued that he was indeed able to change the results of the vote, and he was even obligated to do so in light of Margi’s clear error.

Indeed, both the Knesset legal advisor and the Knesset secretary agreed with me. However, they claimed that it was possible to change the results only when the error occurred, and not at a later date. The Knesset regulations state, “A Knesset member who wishes to change his vote because of an error should give notice of that immediately after the vote. The chairman of the sitting should weigh the request and immediately announce both the request and his decision.” That is exactly what should have been done in this instance. I told Yoel Hasson about this, and he replied, “If you are right, I am always happy to learn something new.”

 

Rav Boruch Ber’s Sensitive Constitution

Rav Yosef Fogel of Rechasim is a man of many accomplishments, one of the foremost activists in the battle for the souls of Jewish children in Eretz Yisroel, a veteran kiruv worker, and a man who is perhaps the primary force behind Yiddishkeit as it exists in northern Israel today. From time to time, he publishes booklets based on the shiurim delivered to yungeleit and yeshiva bochurim at Yeshivas Maoz Chaim in Kiryat Atta. He is a heroic individual. When he speaks, it is clear that every word he utters is heartfelt. This week, I received a kuntres that he published on the subject of emes, which includes a remarkable story told by Rav Shalom Schwadron. Rav Shalom related that he had heard the story, which concerns Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, from Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman. It is an account that illustrates Rav Boruch Ber’s powerful aversion to kavod or praise of any kind. This, Rav Shalom explained, was due to his great humility, which led him to fear that when he was praised, the accolades heaped upon him might be untrue.

The incident took place when Rav Boruch Ber visited America in the context of his fundraising efforts on behalf of his yeshiva in Kaminetz. One of his talmidim organized a dinner in his honor in the United States, and in his address to the philanthropists who attended the event, that talmid began speaking effusively about his rebbi’s greatness in Torah and his extraordinary piety. As Rav Boruch Ber listened to the address, he began displaying signs of impatience; in his tremendous humility, he could not tolerate hearing the praises that were showered upon him. With every passing moment, he became increasingly ill at ease, until he suddenly rebuked the speaker, “What you are saying is sheker!”

The talmid leaned forward and whispered to Rav Boruch Ber, “Rebbi, you came to America in order to raise money and to convince the people to donate to the yeshiva. Here in America, we have to speak this way; otherwise, we do not have a chance of succeeding. The more you are praised, the more donations you will receive.”

Rav Boruch Ber listened and made a gesture of reluctant agreement. “All right,” he said, “you may speak.” Nevertheless, he covered his ears with the edges of his sleeves in order to block out the speaker’s voice, and he remained sitting that way until the speech had ended. The same scene repeated itself at another dinner that was held in his honor, and after the event, Rav Boruch Ber bemoaned the “bitter” fate he had suffered

The story, however, does not end there.

When Rav Boruch Ber reached the home of his host, Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman, he was told that the fish that was served at dinner that night wasn’t particularly fresh, and that it might not be advisable for him to eat it, especially if he had a sensitive stomach. Rav Boruch Ber ignored the warning and partook of the fish. At the end of the meal, he retired to his room and went to bed, as did the rest of the family. In the middle of the night, Rav Herman awoke and heard Rav Boruch Ber moaning in pain. He approached the door of his guest’s room, and he discovered that his distinguished guest was vomiting. Rav Yaakov Yosef entered the room and said respectfully, “Didn’t we warn the rov not to eat the fish if he has a sensitive stomach?”

Rav Boruch Ber waved a hand dismissively. “It isn’t the fish that has made me sick, not at all,” he asserted. “I am sick from the praises that I heard.”

Here is another story from the same kuntres: Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin was a member of the Polish Sejm. Once, he went to Warsaw to attend a session of the Polish parliament, and he took a room in a hotel where other Jews were staying. While he was there, a peddler entered the hotel, offering to sell socks to the guests. Rav Shapiro attempted to give the man some money, but the peddler refused to accept a handout. He insisted that he would take money only from a customer who would purchase some of his wares. Rav Shapiro replied, “You have to understand: No one here needs socks. The legislature deals with politics and diplomacy, and since sheker has no feet, it has no need for socks…”

 

An Insight into the Meaning of Elul

The name of the month of Elul has been interpreted as an acronym for many different phrases. The most famous, of course, is “Ani ledodi vedodi li.” Another well-known interpretation of the name is that it stands for the words “Es levovecha v’es levav,” a portion of a posuk that states, “Hashem, your G-d, will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring.” Is there any connection between these two allusions in the name of the month? Chacham Yehuda Tzadkah, rosh yeshiva of Porat Yosef, offered a fascinating insight into this subject.

“There are two types of people in the Jewish nation,” he explained. “One is the type of person who is clean and pure throughout the year, who is always learning Torah and performing mitzvos. For those people, the name of the month of Elul alludes to the concept of ‘ani ledodi.’ It indicates that during the month of Elul, there will be an increase in kedusha and good deeds, and a person’s thoughts and energies should be focused on Hashem. For these people, Elul is a time to add to their devotion and to perfect themselves further. The second type of person, though, is one who has spent the year committing aveiros, neglecting his Torah learning, and doing other things that he should not have done. For these people, Elul is a time to rectify their misdeeds, to cleanse themselves of all the impurities they have accumulated over the year. For these people, we have the second allusion: ‘Hashem, your G-d, will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring.’ For them, the month of Elul is a time to mend their ways and rectify their wrongs. Lest a person think that he can repair these things on his own, though, the posuk states that it is Hashem Who will circumcise our hearts, as Chazal teach that a person who comes to purify himself will be assisted. A person must merely begin the process, and it will be completed for him from Heaven.”

Rav Yehuda also used this approach to explain a statement of Chazal in Maseches Yoma: “Fortunate are you, Yisroel, for before Whom do you purify yourselves, and Who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven.” Our obligation, he explained, is simply to begin the process of purifying ourselves, to have the desire to cleanse ourselves; completing the process on our own, though, is virtually impossible. We must simply take the first step in the right direction, and then we will receive Divine assistance to carry out our intentions. Thus, the Mishnah begins by asking before Whom we purify ourselves, but then it adds that, in truth, we are not the ones who perform the actual cleansing. Rather, it is Hashem Who truly purifies us.