Monday, Dec 6, 2021

The Mechallel Shabbos

Last week, I merited to bask in the presence of my rosh yeshiva, Rav Nechemya Kaplan, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Shaar Hatalmud in Yerushalayim. In his characteristic manner, Rav Kaplan shared with his talmidim currently residing in the United States warm words of hadrachah, providing an injection of chizuk for them to hold on to in the months to come.

Rav Kaplan highlighted the intrinsic holy nature of every Yid and the desire of every Yid to follow the ratzon Hashem, while holding himself up to and striving for the highest standards of adherence to the dictates of the Torah. Rav Kaplan related the following story that depicts the wholesomeness and integrity of a Yid.

Following his marriage in the United States in the 1930s, Rav Mordechai Yoffe moved to Europe, where he had previously learned for six years, spending time at the yeshivos of Lomza, Mir and Kamenitz. With the winds of war blowing, the American government issued warnings to U.S. citizens in Europe to return to American shores immediately. Rav Mordechai and his wife returned to America in 1939 together with a group of young American bnei Torah. Their first stop was in Boston. Rav Mordechai continued his learning there, while his wife, who was expecting their first child, remained with her parents in New York.

At the time, the embers of World War II were smoldering all across Europe, Japan, and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Nazi Germany was at its peak of power, stretching from the Atlantic to points deep in Russia. Torah Judaism, which had thrived in between these spots for nearly a thousand years, was going up in flames, save for pockets of yeshivaleit imprisoned in Siberia ahead of the oncoming German armies or those who were fortunate to escape to Shanghai or Eretz Yisroel.

After arriving in Boston and then making several stops, Rav Mordechai and his family moved, in 1942, to White Plains, NY, where he and some of his European contemporaries banded together and established a makom Torah based on the high level of learning they experienced in Europe. The makom Torah, the White Plains Kollel, was called Bais Medrash Govoah, and the kollel members included Rav Mordechai and others. Rav Mordechai ultimately moved to Lakewood on Shushan Purim 5703 with Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l.

After living in Lakewood for a few years, Rav Mordechai was offered a position in Detroit as a mashgiach at Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin. At the recommendation of Rav Aharon, Rav Mordechai subsequently opened a yeshiva in Kansas City, Missouri.

Rav Mordechai’s son, Rav Baruch Ber Yoffe, recalled a poignant exchange that took place between his mother and the great Lakewood rosh yeshiva.

“My mother told Rav Aharon that she’s concerned about the chinuch of her children in Kansas City. Rav Aharon listened to her concern and told her, ‘You have to be moser nefesh your children for Klal Yisroel, and when you do it lesheim Shomayim, everything will turn out fine.’”

With those words of encouragement from Rav Aharon, the Yoffes made the move to Missouri.

Kansas City, at the time, was home to numerous kosher slaughterhouses, and the very small frum community was comprised mainly of shochtim, former European yeshivaleit who were earning a parnassah out in Missouri.

The burden of covering the budget of the new yeshiva in Kansas City fell squarely on the shoulders of Rav Mordechai, who would travel to towns across the country raising funds. One time, during a visit to a particular town where he was told he could make an appeal for his yeshiva, Rav Mordechai was advised that the community wasn’t particularly religious, but there was one Jew who was scrupulous in kashrus and mitzvah observance at whose home he could stay for the duration of his stay.

Rav Mordechai made his way to the fellow’s house. Looking through the window, he saw a pious-looking Jew with a long white beard hunched over a Gemara. Rav Mordechai knocked on the door and explained that he was in town for Shabbos and had been directed to this address.

“I was told that you are an ehrliche Yid, who is careful with kashrus, and that you get kosher meat from New York,” said Rav Mordechai.

“Me?” asked the man innocently. “An ehrliche Yid? Why, I am a mechallel Shabbos! How can you stay at my home?”

Rav Mordechai was puzzled. He looked the man up and down – yarmulka, white beard and all – and politely asked what he meant. “You don’t look like a mechallel Shabbos,” said Rav Mordechai plainly. “And how could one who is so scrupulous regarding kashrus be a Shabbos violator?”

“Come inside,” said the man. “I’ll explain.”

Once Rav Mordechai was settled, the man proceeded to tell his tale.

“You see, when I came to the United States from Russia as a young boy of ten, the nisyonos of chillul Shabbos were very difficult, as you well know. I had an uncle in America who greeted me when I arrived and helped me settle down. He got me a job and I began working. I very quickly learned that in America, if one doesn’t work on Shabbos, he will have to find a new job every week. Every Friday, when I informed my boss that I would not be coming to work the next day, I was told not to bother coming on Monday either. Either I would work on Shabbos or I would be unemployed. This is the way it went, week after week.

“After a few weeks, my uncle rebuked me and told me that this could not continue. ‘You have to work on Shabbos if you are going to survive. You will starve otherwise,’ I was told. He then added, ‘And getting a new job each week will become harder and harder. As employers find out that you don’t work on Shabbos, they won’t want to hire you in the first place.’

“Realizing that I had no choice, I headed out and got a new job in a factory. That Friday, when I left work, I didn’t say anything to my boss. I planned on returning the next day. I felt that I had no alternative. I couldn’t starve.

“The next morning, I woke up early and, after davening, headed for the trolley, which would take me from the Lower East Side, where I lived, to upper Manhattan, where I worked. When I got to the trolley, I said to myself, ‘I have to go to work so that I don’t starve, but why must I desecrate Shabbos by riding the trolley?’ I decided instead to walk to my place of employ.

“When I got to the multi-story building that housed the factory, I was about to enter the elevator that would take me to the right floor. But I stopped. I said to myself, ‘I have to go to work so that I don’t starve, but why must I desecrate Shabbos by riding the elevator?’ So I walked the many stairs until I reached the floor of the factory.

“I slowly opened the door of the factory and was greeted by the sight of dozens of frum Yidden working at their machines – on Shabbos Kodesh. I froze. I couldn’t bear what I was seeing. I immediately slammed the door, turned around, and ran. I ran and I ran and I ran. I ran until I reached a park, where I collapsed on a bench, exhausted and shaken. I kept muttering to myself, ‘I won’t work on Shabbos. I won’t work on Shabbos.’ How could I have even contemplated working on Shabbos? I lay there, dazed and alone.

“A short while later, a man sitting on an adjacent bench spotted me, a young boy, forlorn and downcast. He asked me who I am and what I was doing there. I told him my whole story. I described the poverty I was experiencing and the difficulty of maintaining a job while keeping Shabbos. The man related that he owns a factory and can employ me. ‘This will be the end of your problems. You can work for me and you won’t have to work for Shabbos.’”

The man thus concluded his story, with Rabbi Yoffe hanging on to every word.

Rabbi Yoffe thought for a moment before turning to his host. “I am confused,” he said. “Where was the chillul Shabbos? Why did you say that you are a mechallel Shabbos?”

“Don’t you understand?” said the man. “True, perhaps I wasn’t actively mechallel Shabbos, but the entire Friday night that week, I slept with the knowledge that the next morning I would awaken and head out to work – on Shabbos. And Shabbos morning, as I was walking to the factory, I did so with the mindset that I was going to work on Shabbos. And as I headed up the steps of the factory building, I did so with the mindset that I was going to work on Shabbos. I entered the factory intending to work on Shabbos. At the last moment, the Ribono Shel Olam saved me and prevented me from working. But a mechallel Shabbos I am! How can you trust me and eat in my home?” the man asked with utter sincerity and purity.

This, concluded Rav Kaplan, is the beauty of Yid, who holds himself to such exacting standards, and who innately wishes to fulfill the will of his Creator, come what may.

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