Q and A With Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein

Once again, I have received the latest compilation of piskei halacha in response to the shailos that were brought to the bais medrash of Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein in the largely secular city of Cholon. The shailos encompass a broad range of areas of the Torah, and some of them deal with extremely bizarre or unusual incidents. The shailos and teshuvos were culled from Rav Zilberstein’s shiurim on Gemara and parshas hashavua. The following is a selection of a few of these fascinating discussions.

It has been a long time since I last shared with you a collection of shailos and teshuvos from the desk of Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein – the rov of the Ramat Elchonon neighborhood of Bnei Brak and of Maayanei HaYeshua Hospital, a chavrusa and brother-in-law of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. In addition to all that, Rav Zilberstein holds another position as well, one for which he is less well known: He presides over Bais Dovid, a veritable empire of Torah in the city of Cholon, which includes a bais medrash, a kiruv institution, shiurim for baalei teshuvah, a kollel that caters to hundreds of yungerleit, a bais din, and a staff of talmidei chachomim charged with answering shailos.

Cholon is close to Tel Aviv, adjacent to the city of Bat Yam. Both Cholon and Bat Yam have undergone a spiritual revolution over the past decade. There are incredible numbers of baalei teshuvah in both cities. Today, a restaurant that isn’t glatt kosher wouldn’t stand a chance of surviving in either city. They may be adjacent to Tel Aviv in the geographical sense, but their mentalities are light years removed from it. Rav Zilberstein has played a major role in the revolution that has swept through both cities, particularly Cholon.

Rav Zilberstein’s shiurim, bais din, and bais medrash regularly yield a remarkable array of stories, shailos and teshuvos, and tales of hashgachah pratis. The following selection just manages to scratch the surface of the fascinating contents of this latest publication.

The Impact of Eating Treif

It is easy enough to identify the incident described in one of the shailos that were brought to the rov: “A non-Jew entered a place where a group of Conservative Jews had gathered, and he began to shout, ‘I hate Jews!’ He then proceeded to shoot at the assemblage and murdered 11 people. The Jews in that place were Conservative.

“A dispute arose as to whether it is permissible, or even necessary, to daven l’ilui nishmas the victims of the massacre. Since they were killed for being Jews, are they viewed as having died al kiddush Hashem? Rav Zilberstein replied that since these people were murdered by a gentile al kidush Hashem, they would receive atonement for their sins, especially since it is reasonable to assume that they engaged in teshuvah when they were gripped by the fear of death. Therefore, he asserted, it is permissible to daven in their memory.

Here is another shailah from chutz la’aretz that made its way to the kollel in Cholon: “My daughter flew from Eretz Yisroel to America with a stopover in Russia. Of course, she ordered kosher food for the flight. When her meal arrived in a sealed package, she removed the wrapping and began eating. In the middle of her meal, she realized that another observant woman who was sitting beside her was eating a meal with different packaging. When she noticed that a few other religious Jews had meals in the same package as the other woman, she stopped eating immediately and examined her tray. She was horrified to discover that she had been inadvertently given a treif meal! She was very disturbed about the fact that she had eaten nonkosher food, both because of the prohibition involved and because of the timtum halev that it creates. She would like to know what to do in order to rectify her actions, and in order to prevent timtum halev.”

Rav Zilberstein replied, “She should engage in teshuvah, and she should learn the procedure of a korban chatos or hire someone to learn it for her. She should also donate the value of a korban to talmidei chachomim who are learning the laws of korbanos, she should learn five minutes of mussar every day, and fast for half a day.”

A Shout in the Night

The next story that was sent to Rav Zilberstein concludes with a fascinating shailah: Is it necessary to bentch gomel when an apparent misfortune turns out to be a lifesaving miracle? “I travel frequently for business purposes,” the questioner wrote. “One day, when I was in the airport on the way to finalizing a business deal, two men suddenly pounced on me without any advance warning. I quickly discovered that they were policemen. Before I could say a word, they knocked me to the floor, handcuffed me, dragged me like a sack of potatoes to a waiting police car, and hauled me away to a detention center. They performed a painstaking search of my body and clothes, without even uttering a word to me about the reason for my arrest. It was only after a day had passed that I became aware of the serious charges I was facing.”

I will skip the remainder of the story and get directly to the point: One week after his arrest, the questioner learned that the plane he was on had exploded in midair and all of the passengers had been killed. His question was simple: Should he recite the brocha of hagomel to give thanks for the arrest that had spared his life?

Rav Zilberstein’s answer was terse and unequivocal: Since his life had been saved, he was required to bentch gomel.

Another questioner related the following story: “As the rov is probably aware, in recent times there has been a rash of thefts of electric bicycles. Many people recommend chaining electric bicycles to poles on the street, where they are less likely to be stolen. That is precisely what was done by a resident of the building across the street from my home.

“On Friday night, at 5:05 in the morning, my infant son began to cry. I picked him up and began pacing around my apartment with him. When I looked out the window, I was surprised to see a man across the street in the process of stealing the bicycle, which had cost its owner a small fortune.”

The questioner related that he had shouted at the top of his lungs, “Stop, thief!” The shout woke his neighbors, who complained to him angrily the following morning. One neighbor said that his wife was close to birth and had been terrified by the sudden shout; another complained that his children had been frightened. The man asked if he had done the right thing by shouting to frighten the thief, if he was obligated to continue watching through the window after the thief had fled to ensure that he did not return to complete his crime, and if it was permissible for him to remove the would-be thief’s tools, which had been abandoned on the street next to the bicycle, to prevent him from completing his work.

Rav Zilberstein responded: “1. The neighbors are selfish and wrong. 2. You are not required to stand watch over the bike. 3. You should have a gentile remove the tools.”

Marriage and Maturity

Another question came from a sensitive young man who had reached the age of shidduchim. “I am a bochur who is getting older,” he wrote, “and I would like to get married, but I have an older brother who is still unmarried. Shidduchim are proving to be very difficult for him. I asked his permission to begin seeking a shidduch for myself and he agreed, and one of the gedolei hador gave him a brocha to find his zivug quickly in the merit of his forbearance. However, I am concerned that if I become engaged before he does, in spite of the fact that he gave his consent, it might affect him negatively to the point that he will suffer a psychological crisis. I am concerned about being judged negatively in Shomayim for this, since it is virtually a matter of life or death for him. What does the rov advise me to do?”

Rav Zilberstein replied that the questioner should not be concerned about that possibility, since he is obligated to observe the mitzvah of getting married. Nevertheless, the rov added, he should make an effort to keep his own shidduch as unobtrusive as possible, to avoid causing pain to his older brother.

Also on the topic of shidduchim, another portion of the sefer contains several fascinating stories of hashgochah pratis. Here is one of those inspiring anecdotes: “A 25-year-old girl had been waiting for many years to find her zivug. Throughout those difficult years, she did not lose hope, as she continued davening fervently for Hashem to send her intended husband to her. At the beginning of Nissan in the year 5778, she received a phone call from a shadchanit who informed her that she had an excellent suggestion for her: a 23-year-old bochur who had learned in Eretz Yisroel for several years, in Rav Tzvi Kaplan’s yeshiva, and had returned to the United States. Both families began making inquiries, and everything sounded wonderful. Nevertheless, the girl was troubled by the fact that a 23-year-old bochur, who had just begun to entertain shidduch suggestions, was willing to hear about a girl who was two and a half years older than he was. Was the family hiding something?

“They called the shadchanit to ask this question, and she replied, ‘I don’t know the reason. I can tell you only that when I asked the bochur what sort of shidduchim I could offer him, he told me that he was interested in hearing only about girls who are older than he is. I expressed surprise, and he told me that he was following his rosh yeshiva’s instructions. Before he returned to the States, his rosh yeshiva had summoned him to his home and said, ‘I know that you are about to begin looking for a shidduch, and I suggest that you listen to suggestions only about girls who are older than you are.’

“This sounded very bizarre. Why would a rosh yeshiva give such an instruction to his talmid? The shadchanit called the boy’s father to ask about it, and he confessed that he had been puzzled by the idea as well. He decided to call the rosh yeshiva in order to question him about it.

In the end, it turned out that there had been a colossal misunderstanding. The rosh yeshiva had told the bochur to seek a girl who was “bogeret” (mature), not “mevugeret” (older). Since the young man was a very mature individual, the rosh yeshiva felt that only a girl with a similar level of emotional maturity would be compatible. Nevertheless, once the families had begun looking into the shidduch that had been proposed, the rosh yeshiva felt that they should not withdraw from it solely on account of the girl’s age. Sure enough, the shidduch progressed to the point that the couple celebrated their engagement shortly thereafter.

The moral of the story was clear: When Hashem decides that a particular shidduch is destined to take place, nothing in the world can prevent it.

The Deceitful Storeowner

One woman wrote to the rov, “I work in an eyeglasses store that is owned by two partners. One is a Gentile, and the other is a Jew who is not yet observant. When I am at work, I sometimes find myself virtually exploding with anger as I watch the Gentile partner swindling his customers. Sometimes he sells glasses and contact lenses at a much higher price than he should be charging. At other times, when the store is running a sale on a particular type of eyeglasses, if he sees that a customer isn’t aware of the sale, he will charge the usual price. Am I allowed to continue working in this store?”

Rav Zilberstein replied that the woman was not obligated to quit her job, since she was not personally deceiving the customers. Nevertheless, he felt that it would be a good idea for her to find different work, so that she would not grow accustomed to treachery.”

The next question and answer are somewhat disquieting. “Recently,” the questioner wrote, “my home has been invaded by mice. I know that mice come when a person isn’t careful about separating maasros, but we are very meticulous about taking maasros. We also make sure to give tzedakah appropriately. Nevertheless, the mice are continuing to plague us. What should we do? What sort of message is being sent to us from Shomayim?”

The rov replied, “Mice are evil, and this is a message to desist from evil and to try to be good. Similarly, it is in the nature of a mouse to forget things and to cause others to forget their Master in Heaven.”

Selling Shlishi

Another questioner, whose mother was sedated and intubated in critical condition, asked if he should give her a medication that would prolong her life. Rav Zilberstein’s response was unequivocal: “It is a great mitzvah to prolong a person’s life, even temporarily. That is even aside from the fact that it may enable a person to do teshuvah or to protect the world through his zechuyos.”

In a subsequent letter, the family informed Rav Zilberstein that the woman had experienced a miraculous recovery and had even been sent home from the hospital in good health. The doctors were astounded, and the family was certain that she had recovered in the merit of their compliance with the psak halacha they had received.

Another question was sent to the rov by the mispallelim in a particular shul. The gabbai of the shul habitually sold the aliyah of shlishi for three shekels, but the mispallelim felt that the practice was disrespectful to the Torah and to the aliyah. They demanded that the aliyah be given out for free, but the gabbai insisted that it was necessary to sell it in order to prevent the congregants from quarreling over the kibbud. Rav Zilberstein agreed with the mispallelim that it was a disrespectful practice; nevertheless, he said, in order to prevent machlokes, it is permissible even to cause degradation to a sefer Torah.

Then there was yet another fascinating shailah: “Is it permitted to invest in an American company that produces and sells marijuana (in places where the law permits) even for non-medical purposes?”

Rav Zilberstein’s answer was incredibly insightful: “This drug is forbidden not because it is illegal, but because it causes harm to people and brings destruction to the world. If Chazal teach that a person who gambles is disqualified to be a witness because he is not involved in making the world habitable, it is certainly forbidden to be involved in something that brings destruction to the world and has devastating effects on people’s health. These people also create danger for others.”

The Electric Cars of United Hatzalah

In the chapter dedicated to medical halacha, two interesting questions appeared that were submitted by the staff of United Hatzalah in Eretz Yisroel.

“In response to the need for psychological help for the families of people suffering from medical crises, United Hatzalah has established a unit called ‘Chosen.’ This unit is summoned to assist in cases that create trauma for the families, such as incidents of crib death, terror attacks, people suffering from shock or hysteria during wartime, or sudden deaths. The volunteers provide emotional aid and support for the victims and their family members, who often experience emotional trauma. If a paramedic is handling an incident on Shabbos and is forced to give tragic news to the family – such as informing them of the death of an infant, which causes one of the parents to suffer psychological distress, or in similar cases – is he permitted to call for the volunteers of Chosen? Is it permissible to be mechallel Shabbos for that purpose? Is there a distinction between prohibitions that are d’oraisa and those that are only d’rabbanon?”

Rav Zilberstein, who is an expert in medical halacha, replied, “When people faint in response to bad news, they generally recover; it is usually not a cause of life-threatening danger, except in the case of people who suffer from heart conditions, whose lives might be endangered as a result, chas v’shalom. Therefore, when we are uncertain if the parents will suffer life-threatening harm from receiving sudden tragic news, it is only a marginal risk that does not warrant chillul Shabbos.”

Another question dealt with a fleet of small emergency vehicles that assist the organization’s lifesaving work. The advantage of these vehicles is that they are powered by electricity, rather than gasoline. The use of these cars can prevent thousands of acts of chillul Shabbos, which is especially significant when the volunteers return from responding to an emergency. “These vehicles are charged by being plugged in to an electrical outlet,” the questioner wrote. “In general, the battery has enough power for an entire Shabbos. What is the halacha in a case when the battery is depleted, or when there are consecutive days of Shabbos and Yom Tov and it is necessary to recharge the battery in order for the car to be operated? Should the paramedic recharge the battery in order to be ready for the next incident, or should he refrain from recharging it and then use his regular, gasoline-powered car in the event that he is called to respond to another emergency, which will entail the violation of many more issurim?”

Rav Zilberstein replied, “If there is a reasonable chance, even if it is remote, that the car will be needed over the course of the day, the battery may be recharged with the use of a shinui. If a Torah-level prohibition is performed with a shinui, it becomes prohibited only mid’rabbanan, and the rabbanan did not impose their prohibition even if the chance of illness is extremely remote, and even if the illness is not life-threatening.”

In a postscript to his response, the rov added, “Praise is due to the people of United Hatzalah who invest money in order to purchase electric cars, which prevent thousands of acts of chillul Shabbos, especially when they return after an incident, for there is a major shailah as to how it is permitted to return.”

Catering Contentions

Another chapter is devoted to the cases that were brought before Rav Zilberstein’s bais din. The sefer describes each incident, followed by the claims presented by both sides, and then the bais din’s ruling and the sources it used to determine its position. I have no doubt that many people can relate to the following incident:

“I reserved a hall for my son’s wedding. I chose an expensive hall because I wished to show respect to the guests who came to share in my simcha, and to see to it that they were served high quality, fresh food. I paid a high price for every portion, and the owner of the hall promised me that all the food would be fresh. He even declared, ‘If there is even one portion that isn’t fresh, don’t pay me a penny!’

“The wedding was scheduled to take place on a Tuesday. On the night before the simcha, I visited the hall and saw that another simcha was taking place there. I waited until after the seudah, and when the waiters left, I saw that there were many portions of meat left over. I made a distinctive mark on several of the portions and took pictures with my camera, and then I left the hall. The next day, when I arrived at the hall, I approached the owner again and asked him if all the food had been prepared that day. He replied, ‘Of course. Didn’t I promise you that if you find even a single portion of food from yesterday, you won’t have to pay me for the wedding?’

“When the main course was served, I walked around the hall. It did not take much effort for me to find that some of the guests had been served the food that I had marked on the day before. I took those portions and put them aside. After the wedding, when I went to settle my account with the owner of the hall, he told me that the cost of the wedding was 30,000 shekels, and since I had given him an advance payment of 10,000 shekels, I had a balance of 20,000 shekels remaining. I said, ‘Before I pay you, I would like to show you a few pictures.’ I took out my camera and showed him the pictures I had taken in the kitchen the previous night. I showed him the marks that I had made on several of the portions that had been left over from the day before. ‘You see,’ I said, ‘those portions were placed on the tables today, and you told me that if there was even a single portion from yesterday, I would not have to pay even a penny. This isn’t just one portion from yesterday; there are several portions that were reused. I demand that you return the 10,000 shekels that I gave you as an advance payment!’”

Parenthetically, I myself had a similar experience. Several days after the wedding of one of my own sons, I was told by a few people that the caterer hadn’t served dessert at the wedding. Since I had paid for it, I complained to the caterer when I showed up to pay him. He was deeply offended and said to me, “Everything was recorded on camera. Let’s check the videos. If it turns out that you were correct, you won’t owe me a single penny. I won’t charge you for the meal at all, not just the dessert.” We looked at the footage together, and we discovered that, indeed, the dessert hadn’t been served.

In the case that was brought to Rav Zilberstein, the baal simcha said to the caterer, “I paid for an expensive hall so that all the food would be fresh, and you promised me that I would not have to pay you for the wedding if even one portion was not fresh. Therefore, I shouldn’t have to pay a single cent.”

The caterer replied, “In general, the food is indeed fresh. However, it happens sometimes that there is some food that is left over from the previous day. However, with today’s refrigeration technology, it is the same as a meal that was prepared on the same day. It was also only a negligible number of portions, and the vast majority were actually prepared on the day of the wedding. When I told you that there wouldn’t be even a single portion from the day before, it was just an exaggeration. I didn’t really mean it.”

You may find the bais din’s decision somewhat surprising: “The baal simcha is required to pay for all the fresh portions that were served, since the caterer’s promise was an exaggeration and was not binding. Nevertheless, he is not required to pay for the portions from the previous day, since he didn’t want to order them. However, the caterer may have the right to demand payment from the people who ate that food.”