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An Unexpected Check- And Other Fascinating Stories

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein was once asked the following shailah: A man from Eretz Yisroel had gone overseas on a trip, and since he had a large amount of cash in his home – a total of 110,000 shekels, or the equivalent of about $30,000– he asked a friend to keep the money in his own home until he would return. He knew that at least one member of his friend’s household would be home at all times, and that alone would deter any potential thieves. The friend agreed to keep the money in his house, albeit on one condition: He would be considered only a shomer chinom (unpaid guardian). A shomer chinom is exempt from paying for the theft or loss of an object that has been placed in his care. He is liable only in a case of negligence.

The owner of the money agreed to this stipulation, reasoning that the money was much more likely to be safe in an occupied apartment than in his own home, which would be empty until he returned. Unfortunately, though, the worst possible scenario came to pass. A week after his departure, he received a frantic phone call from his friend, who revealed that the money had been stolen. The thieves had also taken the homeowner’s cash, jewelry, and other valuables, but that was little consolation to the owner of the 110,000 shekels.

Up to this point, it seemed to be a simple enough case. The man who accepted responsibility for the money was a shomer chinom, and it was an ordinary case of theft. Therefore, he should have been exempt from liability. But then the story took an unusual turn: The homeowner remarked that he had kept the money in a room whose mezuzah hadn’t been checked for several years. After the theft, when the mezuzah was examined, he discovered that the letter shin in the word “hishomru” was missing. Upon hearing that, the owner of the stolen cash insisted that the shomer was liable to pay for the theft after all. Since the money had been placed in a room without a proper mezuzah, he argued, it had essentially been placed in an unprotected location. This was an act of negligence, for which even a shomer chinom is liable. The person who had taken responsibility for the money argued that the laws of mezuzah have no bearing on monetary halachos; the mitzvah of mezuzah, he insisted, is a mitzvah bein adam laMakom, and its observance has no bearing on the obligation to guard an object that has been placed in one’s care.

Rav Zilberstein relates that he discovered a similar shailah in the sefer B’Oznei Bincha. In that case, a rosh kahal was robbed while traveling. Along with his money, the thieves took other bundles of cash that had been given to him for safekeeping, and since he had not recited Tefillas Haderech, the rov ruled that he had been negligent and was obligated to pay for the losses. This p’sak had been reviewed by Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who approved of the ruling. “This person is considered to have neglected to guard the items in a normal manner,” he explained, “since ordinary people make certain to recite Tefillas Haderech when they are traveling.”

Nevertheless, Rav Zilberstein points out that the two cases are not entirely comparable. Tefillas Haderech is a prayer to be saved from various forms of harm that might occur on the road, including theft; the tefillah expressly asks Hashem to “save us from bandits.” A mezuzah, on the other hand, provides general protection. At the same time, the mention of bandits in Tefillas Haderech was a later addition to the tefillah. It does not appear in the Gemara’s version of the prayer, which refers only to protecting the traveler from bodily harm. With regard to this question, Rav Zilberstein goes on to quote Rav Moshe Feinstein in Igros Moshe, who states that a mezuzah does not protect the home from thieves. Rav Moshe’s teshuvah deals with a different issue: whether one may give – or sell – a mezuzah to a non-Jew who believes that it will ward off thieves if the non-Jew is liable to become angry and place the mezuzah in the garbage if he becomes the victim of a theft. But in any event, Rav Moshe states clearly that a mezuzah does not actually keep thieves away.

At the conclusion of his discussion, Rav Zilberstein relates that he presented this case, as well, to Rav Chaim Kanievsky. In response, Rav Chaim said simply, “A home without a mezuzah is not a home. Therefore, the money wasn’t protected and the guardian is liable to pay.”

• • • • •

The next topic discussed in the kuntres is the subject of dreams. We all have dreams – some of them more pleasant and some less so, some amusing and some downright frightening. Nevertheless, I would venture to say that most of us do not remember our dreams when we wake up in the mornings. But what should a person do if he does remember a dream and it was actually a terrifying nightmare?

The crux of this question is the issue of how much significance to attach to a dream. After all, there are entire passages in the Gemara that deal with dreams and the meanings of various dream images. There is even a concept of a taanis chalom, a fast observed in response to a disturbing dream. Rav Zilberstein’s response to the question is particularly interesting in light of the quote it includes from the Chazon Ish.

The question was asked by a young woman whose mother had passed away several years earlier and who suddenly had a dream in which her mother seemed to appear to her from the Next World. She related that she had hoped to see her mother in a dream. She was envious of her sister, who claimed that their mother had appeared to her several times, always with a radiant countenance. Unfortunately, though, she found the long-awaited dream to be disappointing. Her mother did not even say anything of substance. “What should I do now?” she asked the rov.

To the questioner, Rav Zilberstein responded simply that while some dreams are real, others are the product of one’s imagination and are created by the yeitzer hara in order to sow confusion. Nowadays, he added, the majority of dreams fall into the latter category. Nevertheless, in his kuntres, Rav Zilberstein explores the matter at much greater length.

The rov notes that the basic issue of the significance of dreams is the subject of an apparent contradiction in the Gemara. On the one hand, the Gemara states that dreams are completely meaningless and that their content makes no difference at all. On the other hand, the Gemara states that a person who experiences a bad dream should observe a fast on the very same day, even if it occurs on Shabbos.

Many explanations have been given to resolve this contradiction. Rav Zilberstein quotes the Chazon Ish: “I have had many such dreams, and I haven’t given a thought to it. It is proper to recite the Ribbono Shel Olam tefillah during Birchas Kohanim [the tefillah for one’s dreams to have positive meaning, which appears in the halachos of Birchas Kohanim, as well as in the Gemara].” The rov goes on to quote the Nachalas Avos, which explains that in earlier generations, when the people were holier, their dreams were closer to nevuah. In our times, though, dreams have no meaning.

Rav Zilberstein also quotes Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who relates that a person once told the Chazon Ish that he had experienced the type of dreams for which the Shulchan Aruch requires a person to fast. This person asked the Chazon Ish if he should indeed fast, to which the Chazon Ish replied, “Do you really think that you are so important that you would receive revelations from Shomayim?”

Rav Zilberstein adds, “Similarly, Rav Pinchos Schreiber zt”l related that he used to daven in the Chazon Ish’s minyan, and he regularly ate breakfast there after the minyan. Once, he wanted to leave the Chazon Ish’s home before the meal, and the Chazon Ish said to him, ‘Your breakfast has already been prepared for you.’ He tried to evade the question, but finally he admitted that he had had a dream for which he was required to fast. In response, the Chazon Ish ordered him to eat, and to pay no attention to his dreams. Since that time, he related, he stopped experiencing those dreams. The Chazon Ish had saved him from them.” Rav Zilberstein notes that Rav Schreiber was a Holocaust survivor, which may explain the disturbing dreams from which he suffered.

• • • • •

The next portion of the kuntres is dedicated to a number of fascinating shailos to which Rav Zilberstein responded. I will present some questions and answers in abbreviated form.

Here is the first question, as it is written: “My wife was about to give birth and I accompanied her to the hospital. When we arrived, there was a sign on the door warning kohanim not to enter the building, and I remained outside until it was removed. A man who saw me outside told me that he believed that I should have gone in with her. Since a husband is allowed to travel with his wife to the hospital on Shabbos in order to help her remain calm, he said, it certainly stands to reason that a kohein should be allowed to enter a hospital when his wife is giving birth. If one may desecrate Shabbos, which is a much more severe sin, a kohein should certainly be allowed to violate the prohibition of contracting tumas meis, which is a less severe prohibition and is sometimes only derabbonon, since the tumah will ultimately leave the building.”

Perhaps I should explain: In all the hospitals in Eretz Yisroel, a sign is displayed at the entrance to warn kohanim whenever there has been a death in the building. The warning is removed only after the body has been transferred to the morgue, which is invariably in a different building. That is how the hospitals protect kohanim from inadvertently violating the prohibition to be in the same building as a dead body. This question raised an interesting point: Since it is permissible to violate the Shabbos in order to help a woman remain calm during childbirth, shouldn’t the prohibition of tumas kohanim be waived for the same purpose?

Rav Zilberstein’s answer was quite surprising: As long as the woman knows that her husband – the kohein – is at the entrance to the hospital, and that she can call him on his cell phone in the event of an emergency, that alone is enough to assuage any fears she may have. Consequently, a kohein should indeed wait outside a hospital as long as there is a deceased person within the building, even if his wife is in labor.

The next question concerned a person who returned home from a grocery store and discovered that he had been undercharged by several shekels. He immediately telephoned the store to inform them of their error. The person who answered the phone, who identified himself as a cashier, informed the customer that he could keep the money. Does a cashier have the right to forgo payment that is owed to the store?

In this case, Rav Zilberstein’s answer took several different scenarios into account. If the cashier had accidentally taken the wrong amount of money from the customer, then he could certainly relieve the customer of the responsibility to pay. After all, at the end of the day, the cashier himself will have to pay out of his own pocket for any amount of money that is missing from his cash register. On the other hand, if it is a situation in which his error will not be discovered – for instance, if he neglected to ring up a certain item that the customer purchased – then the owner of the store will suffer a loss, and the cashier does not have the right to permit that loss. Nevertheless, Rav Zilberstein noted, the shift manager in a supermarket is generally authorized to forgo payment from customers.

A third question came from a person who woke up late one morning and arrived at shul as the minyan was about to begin krias haTorah. He was immediately faced with a dilemma: If he waited to daven until after krias haTorah, he would miss zeman tefillah. On the other hand, if he davened immediately, he would miss the Torah reading. Which of the two takes precedence?

Rav Zilberstein’s answer, in this case, was simple: The requirement to daven before the zeman is an obligation of every individual, whereas krias haTorah is a communal requirement. Therefore, davening Shacharis takes precedence, even if it will cause a person to miss krias haTorah.

A fourth questioner asked why the Birchos Hashachar do not include a bracha on the ability to hear, considering that Chazal instituted daily brachos to be recited on many other basic functions, such as the ability to see, to stand erect, or to get out of bed in the morning. There are a number of answers to this question, but the simplest explanation is that a person actually continues hearing even while he is asleep; the ability to hear is not an ability that returns when a person wakes up. This answer was suggested by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach as well, and he also offered an additional explanation: Hearing is not an ability that must be regained with an action in the morning. In order to see, a person must open his eyes after he wakes up. However, he begins hearing automatically as soon as he awakens.

• • • • •

In addition to the many fascinating shailos that come his way, Rav Zilberstein is constantly accumulating incredible stories to add to his already vast repertoire. Many of these stories involve displays of Hashgacha Protis, or events that are unquestionably miraculous. Here is one such story, which was shared with Rav Zilberstein by an American Jew from Boro Park.

“One night,” the man related, “I went to daven Maariv at the Shomrei Shabbos shul in Boro Park, when a man approached me and introduced himself as a visitor from Eretz Yisroel. He showed me a check that had been made out for a hefty sum, and he asked if I knew the person who had written the check. I confirmed that I knew the man. He is a wealthy financier who lives near the shul, but I also knew that he was not in the habit of giving out such large donations. ‘How did you get that check?’ I asked.

“The man told me a story that sounded completely fantastic. ‘I live in Eretz Yisroel and I have fallen into crushing debt,’ he related. ‘After being pursued incessantly by my creditors, I realized that I had no choice but to come to America to collect money, simply so that I could have a way to feed my family and to pay off my debts. I have been here for two weeks already and I barely managed to cover the cost of my airfare. Today was a particularly hard day, as I didn’t manage to collect even one cent. At the end of the day, I felt that I had reached the brink of despair. I knew that I couldn’t go home without having collected a decent sum. On the other hand, I couldn’t simply stay here forever. My family is waiting for me in Eretz Yisroel.

“‘For a while, I walked around in a state of utter despondence; I couldn’t imagine how I would extricate myself from my plight. Suddenly, a thought came to me: Am I alone in the world? I know that I have a great Father in Heaven and He can do anything. I decided that I would simply pour out my heart before Hashem. I came to this shul and I began to prepare for Maariv. When I began davening, I felt a sense of elevation, the sort of feeling I experience only during Maariv on Yom Kippur.

“‘When I was in the middle of the brachos of Krias Shema, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I didn’t even look around to see who it was; I was completely immersed in my davening. I davened Shemoneh Esrei with more fervor than I have ever felt before. I cried to Hashem that only He can save me, and that there is no true power in the world other than Him. When I finished davening, I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my heart. The next thing I did was to rub my eyes in astonishment: Right next to my siddur was this check, which was made out for the amount of money that I had hoped to collect throughout my stay in America.’

“This was the story that I was told by the tzedakah collector from Eretz Yisroel. I said to him, ‘I know the man who wrote that check very well and he is completely sound of mind. This is totally uncharacteristic for him. He is generous and he gives tzedakah, but he would never do something like this.’

“With that, I decided to make my way to the donor’s house and to find out the true story for myself. I mentioned the name of the visitor from Eretz Yisroel and asked if he knew the man, and he replied that he didn’t. ‘I saw this man with a check from you that was made out for a large amount of money,’ I told him, ‘and I wanted to find out if you really wrote that check.’

“When the man heard my question, he paled and his hands began to tremble. ‘What happened?’ I asked.

“In response, he told me this story: ‘I went to daven Maariv in Shomrei Shabbos and I saw a man standing off to the side and davening. It immediately occurred to me that he must be a visitor from Eretz Yisroel who had come to raise money. I presumed that he had probably left a family with children behind in Eretz Yisroel, and I imagined that he longed to be with his family, but his financial situation left him no choice but to remain here. It also seemed, based on his appearance, that he couldn’t have been very successful in collecting more than a small sum. I assumed that he was probably brokenhearted over his inability to raise more money, and I imagined his wife’s reaction when he returned home with only a meager pittance. I found myself overflowing with compassion for this person, and I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he had come from Eretz Yisroel, but he didn’t answer me. I decided to write a check and leave it on the table in front of him.’

“‘After I did that,’ he continued, ‘I started thinking about what I had done and I began wondering if it had been a mistake. Who said that that man was from Eretz Yisroel at all? How did I know that he was poor? What if he didn’t even have a family? I began feeling somewhat regretful for my rash action and I went somewhere else to daven Maariv. Even now, I am surprised at my own actions when I think about it.’”

Naturally, the narrator quickly corrected his host’s misimpression. “‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘The situation is exactly as you thought it was before you wrote that check. This is exactly like the story in the Gemara of the man who gave his friend the benefit of the doubt and who turned out to be correct about every detail. The man you saw in shul is indeed a talmid chochom who incurred serious debts to many creditors, but was very ineffective in raising money. It’s true that he was feeling broken and shattered, and your check came at precisely the right time. That check saved him. As soon as he received it, he began preparing to return to his family in Eretz Yisroel.’ This revelation made the wealthy man very happy.”

• • • • •

Many of the shailos that appear in this kuntres seem to highlight the amazing righteousness of the Jewish people. Only people of great sincerity and yiras Shomayim would even think to ask some of the questions that are cited here. The following is a selection of the shailos that appear in the section titled Vavei Ha’amudim, in the Av edition of the kuntres.

A young boy was standing at a busy intersection, attempting to hitch a ride with one of the many cars passing by. One motorist saw the bochur try to flag him down, but the man felt that it was too dangerous to stop his car in the intersection and he continued on his way. Several minutes later, the would-be hitchhiker was struck and killed by another car. The driver who had failed to stop for the boy related that he was consumed by feelings of guilt that kept him awake at nights. He was constantly troubled by the thought that the boy would still be alive if he had stopped to offer him a ride. How could he atone for his misdeed?

Rav Zilberstein gave a lengthy response to this question, analyzing the degree of the danger that would have been involved in stopping for the boy, and the extent to which a person is required to endanger himself in order to save someone else. He concluded that the man was not responsible for the hitchhiker’s death and that he did not have to atone for the incident. However, it would be proper to engage in some minor effort to attain kapparah, and therefore the man should learn Mishnayos in the boy’s memory and give tzedakah.

The next question concerned a young man who was about to get married and who suffered from a stutter. Since he was unable to utter the words “harei at mekudeshes li,” the mesader kiddushin wished to know if he could write the required formula on a piece of paper, rather than pronouncing it verbally. Rav Zilberstein responded that the verbal declaration is not necessary at all.

A family wished to go away on vacation during bein hazemanim, but they were unable to find a venue that adhered to their standards of kashrus. They asked if it was permissible for them to relax some of the standards that they observed at home. Rav Zilberstein’s response: Absolutely not! If they began accepting leniencies in kashrus, the food would have a detrimental effect on their souls, and instead of returning from their vacation with renewed energy, they would have fallen to a lower spiritual level.

Another question concerned an attraction that is typically open on Shabbos during the year, but closes on Shabbos during the month of Av so that it will not be boycotted by the chareidim. In Eretz Yisroel, religious families and bnei yeshivos do not patronize establishments that operate on Shabbos. A list of businesses that observe Shabbos is regularly published in newspapers and circulated in various pamphlets. Rav Zilberstein was asked about an establishment that closes on Shabbos only during the month of Av, where a yeshiva had already made reservations for its camp program. The question was if the reservations should be canceled, or if the yeshiva could maintain its plans, since the establishment in question refrained from being mechallel Shabbos at least during the month of Av. To that, the rov’s answer was unequivocal: The reservations should be canceled. “We should not give them stones during this month so that they can throw them at our Father in Heaven throughout the year,” he wrote. Naturally, the full text of the answer was much longer and more detailed than that.

Yet another question came from a man who was traveling with his family to spend Shabbos at his mother-in-law’s home, when he noticed that a friend of his had left a bouquet of flowers on the bus. He immediately called his friend, who told him that he was too far away to retrieve the flowers and that he could use the bouquet for his own purposes. His mother-in-law was pleasantly surprised by the offering, but the man felt somewhat guilty, and he wrote to ask Rav Zilberstein if he should have revealed to her that he had found the flowers and that he had not actually purchased them. Rav Zilberstein replied, “Of course not. If you received a gift from a store, would you also have to tell her that you didn’t pay for it?”

Another man wrote to Rav Zilberstein and related that he had gone to a grocery store and bought Pepsi Max, a diet soft drink, since the company that manufactures the beverage was distributing prizes to certain randomly selected customers who purchased the drink. When he emerged from the store, he was surrounded by representatives of the company, who informed him that he had indeed won a prize. Meanwhile, his wife was seated in their car, unaware of all the fuss, when she noticed that her husband had bought Pepsi Max instead of the regular Pepsi they usually purchased. Thinking that her husband had made a simple mistake, she returned to the store and exchanged the bottle for their usual soda. After they returned home and her husband discovered what had happened, he wrote to Rav Zilberstein to find out if they had done something wrong. Since he had received a prize for purchasing a bottle of Pepsi Max, were they not allowed to exchange it for regular Pepsi? Rav Zilberstein’s response boiled down to a simple instruction: “Calm down.”

A father wrote to Rav Zilberstein to inquire if it was permissible for him to teach his son martial arts, when part of the training involved striking the instructor – in this case, the father himself. Rav Zilberstein replied, “Martial arts? Teach him Torah instead!”

Another question came from a pharmacist, who was asked by a female customer to hide the vitamins she had bought so that her husband would not see them. Realizing that the woman was buying the vitamins without her husband’s permission, the pharmacist asked if this made him a party to theft. Rav Zilberstein responded that that was indeed the case. Although a husband is required to help his wife receive medical treatment, she is not permitted to take his money without his knowledge.

Finally, a person who had lent money related that the borrower had promised to intercede on his behalf in Shomayim after his death. Although the lender had been pleased at first by that promise, he became concerned that it might be a form of ribbis. Rav Zilberstein responded that even though giving a bracha is considered a form of ribbis, the same is not true of davening. Every borrower should daven for his lender, the rov explained, as a simple display of gratitude.

• • • • •

The kuntres also contains a series of questions that were brought before Rav Zilberstein’s bais din. One such question was asked by a person who had rented an apartment in Tzefas for the summer vacation and then discovered that a neighbor was conducting renovations that involved loud drilling. Was he permitted to renege on the rental? Another question pertained to two children who had exchanged bags of Bissli and then discovered that one of the bags contained a prize. To whom did the prize belong?

My purpose here is only to give you another taste of Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein’s wellsprings of wisdom. By now, I am sure you can appreciate his vast knowledge and Torah wisdom.