Over the last few years, there has been a new development that warrants analysis. I call it the “Reb Shaya ben Rav Moshe Religion.”
Every year, it gets stronger in intensity, and it is therefore important for the kavod of the great tzaddik Rav Shayaleh of Kerestir zt”l to analyze it and see what we can learn from it.
First a bit of background:
I have always been taken by the unique personality of Rav Shayaleh of Kerestir. Long before his name became a household one in Klal Yisroel, this tzaddik fascinated me. I first read about him close to thirty years ago in a unique sefer called Olamo Shel Abba, written by Rav Asher Anshel Yehuda Miller, a prominent rov in Romania, a gadol baTorah, and a talmid of the Shevet Sofer in Pressburg.
Olamo Shel Abba is unique because it gives the reader a real, unvarnished understanding of the communities of Hungary, Romania and Slovakia before the Holocaust. Sadly, the author, Rav Miller, found himself stuck behind the iron curtain after the Holocaust. As his kehillah dwindled due to age and the relentless campaign of kefirah that wreaked havoc with the younger generation, Rav Miller found himself isolated at home and wondering whether Yiddishkeit would be lost forever. Thinking that there may come a day when no one would even know about the kehillos in Hungary and Romania, he undertook to chronicle the history of those kehillos and their rabbonim based on his own experiences. In this fascinating book, he writes things the way they were, and one really gets a feel of what life was like in those pre-war kehillos.
I was particularly fascinated by his portrayal of Rav Shayaleh, both from what he had seen himself and what he had heard from others. Later, I read numerous other firsthand accounts of Rav Shayaleh and his tzidkus and ahavas Yisroel.
In last week’s Yated, I wrote an entire feature article on Rav Shayaleh, with several quotes from Olamo Shel Abba and numerous other reliable sources. His tzidkus combined with his love for Yidden, for Torah and for Hashem were truly unique and remarkable.
When talking about gedolim, however, it is always important to also portray the historical context of the period in which they lived, so that one can better understand what they did and why.
Rav Shayaleh lived in the pre-World War I era, during World War I, and then for about six years after World War I.
Those were difficult times. The world underwent earth-shattering changes that deeply impacted the Jewish world and the frum world. In Hungary, Romania and the nearby countries, there was a tremendous economic disparity throughout the Jewish communities: There was a class of very wealthy people, a class of middle-class people, and a very large group of poverty-stricken and mostly unlearned people.
Today, in America, in the age of food stamps, WIC, welfare, and numerous other safety nets provided by this medinah shel chesed, we have no way of comprehending how difficult the grinding poverty of that age was. There were many communities where the vast majority of children went barefoot because they simply couldn’t afford shoes. Poverty often meant literally going to sleep starving.
In Olamo Shel Abba, the author describes how thousands of destitute Yidden from the Marmurash region of Romania would come to the wine-growing area of Hungary near Kerestir during the harvesting season. Why? Because they got jobs stepping on the grapes to make wine. They were so poor that it was worthwhile from them to travel far away and spend several weeks in the fields not only stepping on grapes, but eating (cold food) and sleeping in the fields as well, just to make a few dollars to bring home. These Yidden would journey to Kerestir for Shabbos, because Rav Shayaleh took care of them, giving them the only hot meal of their week and providing them with a place to rest their weary heads.
In those days, the poor were looked down upon by many, viewed not as second-class citizens, but as fourth- or fifth-class citizens. They were abused and treated by many in the general communities and those who had more in a very disdainful, distrustful way. They were simple and were treated like dirt.
Rav Shayaleh saw the spark in every Yiddishe neshomah, loved them, and showed how every Yid is important.
Typical were stories of Rav Shayaleh spending the hafsakah before tekias shofar not learning Kabbalistic works, but rather cutting cake for the poor and hungry Jews who came from far and wide to daven with him on the Yomim Noraim, so that as soon as davening ended, they would have food to restore their hungry souls. Rav Shayaleh felt that feeding Hashem’s children – hungry and poor Yidden – would give Hashem far more of a nachas ruach than learning the Zohar before tekios.
Rav Shayaleh’s Legacy or Missing the Boat?
Over the last few years, Rav Shayaleh’s legacy has been used in order to give food to all and sundry on his yahrtzeit. While perhaps that is commendable at some level, it is also concerning on a different level. Let me explain before the angry letters start coming in to the Yated office.
Rav Shayaleh saw a crying need. He saw poor, destitute, neglected Yidden who were suffering from hunger and he stepped into the breach. Few were doing what he was doing at the time, and his heart ached for the suffering Jews. He was given large sums of money by the wealthy for his very potent brachos and turned around that money to give to the poor.
In our times, virtually everyone has food. When someone throws a party in a shul in honor of Rav Shayaleh that resembles a food orgy, with every possible indulgence, and labels it a mitzvah in the name of Rav Shayaleh, I am afraid that he is missing the boat.
Giving exorbitant amounts of food and delicacies to those who already have more than enough food at home and can afford to buy food is not the message of Rav Shayaleh.
If a person sincerely wants to follow Rav Shayaleh, perhaps he should invite meshulachim to sleep at his house for a week. Perhaps he should allow teenage boys and girls who are estranged from their families and need a place to live to enter his house and stay there.
Or, perhaps he should engage in other, more neglected mitzvos, such as investing time and money getting children into schools or finding shidduchim for older girls in the name of Rav Shaya ben Rav Moshe.
Now my pet peeve. If someone wishes to follow in the footsteps of Rav Shayaleh, he can perhaps stand up for the little guy who is neglected and use his influence to transform the planning and zoning boards that grant approvals for projects in our overcrowded Jewish centers that cost other ehrliche Yidden hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hours in wasted time per year as they sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic because of indiscriminate building approvals, given without first providing proper infrastructure.
“I Am a Poshute Yid” Syndrome
There is one more concern that exists as this “Rav Shaya ben Rav Moshe ideal” takes off to unprecedented levels. That is the strengthening of the misguided “poshute Yid” mentality that has gripped many in our communities. Being a “poshute Yid” who does the ratzon Hashem with emunah peshutah, davens, learns, does chesed and works hard is a wonderful ideal. But that ideal has been warped and abused by some to mean something totally different. It embraces and normalizes mediocrity in observance of Yiddishkeit. “I am a poshute Yid, so I don’t really have to invest time and effort into my davening.” “I am a poshute Yid, so I don’t have to daven while wearing clothing appropriate for davening.” “I am a poshute Yid, so I can suffice with learning a Mishnah or a few pesukim daily, even though I have had a yeshiva education and can certainly do more…”
Giving food to others is wonderful, but it should be viewed in context of all of the 613 mitzvos and not be elevated as some kind of ideal that enables one to think that he can suffice with letting that be the extent of his observance of Yiddishkeit, assuming that he is going in the path of the tzaddik to boot.
This idea that the greatest ideal in Yiddishkeit is to give someone a danish or throw a party with bagels, lox, pancakes, blintzes and omelet stations, doing this in the holy name of Rav Shaya ben Rav Moshe, is questionable. This does not elevate Yiddishkeit. It doesn’t do anything for the downtrodden in our time, but reduces Yiddishkeit to giving food to those who don’t even need it. It is a sad distortion of the holy legacy of the great tzaddik, oheiv Hashem and oheiv Amo Yisroel who was Rav Shayaleh of Kerestir.
This article is written l’illui nishmas Rav Shaya ben Rav Moshe.