Posted on July 2, 2022 by David Gutbezahl
I first want to thank the community for inviting our group from Pardes to learn with you this week in Warsaw. We will be having classes on Sunday at the Polin Museum and all are invited to join us.
When I began to prepare this d’var I intended, of course, to use material from the Piezezner Rebbe, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto known as the Aish Kodesh. But while studying at Pardes this week on the subject of Minhag Ha-makom, the customs of a place, I came across a responsa, or a “shoot” (Shailah and Tshuvah), by R. Yair Bacharach.
Known as the Chavot Yair, Rabbi Bacharach wrote in the 17th century, in response to a question from a man who wanted to know if he was obligated to follow the minhag of his father regarding fasting on certain days. The Chavot Yair relied on the Gemara in Pesachim that we are learning with Rabbi Hirschfield which discusses minhag ha-makom, and specifically the applicable minhag when a person moves from one place to another.
I won’t go into the details of the Chavot Yair’s answer, (you can perhaps learn that by coming to Reb Hirschfield’s shiur this week) but the part I wanted to focus on was his reasoning regarding why one keeps the minhag when moving to a new location. In part, he states that the rationale is that even though one has moved, he may plan to return to the place he left, and thus it is incumbent to preserve the minhag of the place he left. People may move, but the community stays put.
The Chavot Yair goes on to note that there may be occasions where one is uprooted from a place involuntarily, and there especially the preservation of the minhag is important because surely one intends to return when possible. He says, the “sof d’var” (the bottom line) is that there is no “churban,” that is total destruction of a place, only temporary fleeing from danger or uprooting, for example, due to a natural disaster. And in any case, hashem looks out for the people to return them to their homes.
R. Bachrach was writing in the late 17th Century, and during the nine years war his community in Worms was devastated by an invasion, and in his writing he was surely trying to reassure the community that it would return (and he did return 10 years later), and so it should preserve the minhag of the place.
What struck me about his perspective was that the Chavot Yair did not foresee, could not have foreseen, a destruction the extent of the Shoah where communities in Poland and elsewhere were utterly destroyed, victims of a “churban” that wiped out the community. And yet, in such cases was the minhag of the place to be maintained?
Here, today we stand in a restored Warsaw, contrary to the expectations and explanation of R. Bachrach; a community utterly destroyed, and yet decades later Jewish life and Jewish inhabitants are restored. How does a community like this maintain its minhagim?
For this I turned to the Aish Kodesh, who wrote on this week’s parasha while confined in the Warsaw ghetto in July 1940. He comments on the verse in Numbers, Ch. 27, verse 15, which describes Moshe’s reaction after being told that he would not go into the Land of Israel. Moshe’s reaction was not (at that point) to beg for relief, or to feel pity for himself, but rather to beseech g-d for something else. In his devoted state of selflessness, Moshes states: “Let the omnipotent one appoint a man over this community. Let him come and go before them, and let him bring forth and lead them. Let G-d’s community not be like sheep who have no shepherd.”
I could only imagine how the Aish Kodesh felt writing those words from the Warsaw Ghetto, knowing that his own existence in this world was likely short lived. Would G-d provide a shepherd for the community he had been leading; would they survive at all to eventually continue the minhag of the makom from which he had perished?
The answer did not come until decades later, when the Warsaw Jewish community was re-established. We sit here today on a shabbat in the Nozuk shul in the presence of the leaders of the current community, Rabbis Shudrich, Rappaport and Ellis, the current shepherds of the community who have been supplied through near miraculous support. We are all grateful for their leadership, and their shepherding of this community to a restored Jewish life and practice of its minhagim.
And we from Pardes, who have come to learn with this restored Jewish community, hope to provide additional drops of leadership, to add a few drops of water to the “shoots” that have planted and sprouted with the restoration of Jewish life in Poland.