The Jews are a people full of questions. We are asked a question, and we will sometimes respond with another. There are times when we encourage questions en masse. As we recently celebrated the holiday of Passover, this tidbit is no doubt fresh in our minds. Pesach is a time when we not only desire questions, particularly from the children, but we organize the night in such a roundabout way that, naturally, questions are evoked. Conversely, there are often times when we are taught not to question. These are generally more painful commands. When a tragedy occurs, when someone is taken too early from this world, we are sometimes given the missive of “we do not question the Almighty” as we remain in the aftermath to pick up the pieces and move on.
This idea of asking questions has spawned a fascinating avenue in the form of sheilos u’tshuvos, Jewish responsa literature. Literally how the rabbis respond to our queries over Halachic matters. Rabbis today know that a major part of their time in the rabbinate is spent fielding shailos. In turn, they may themselves need to reach out to their own rebbeim and mentors, or outside rabbinic experts in order to know what to respond. There are volumes and volumes of rabbinic literature dedicated to answering our questions, and new volumes continue to be put out annually.
Sheilos u’tshuvos sefarim are something that I find to be riveting, although I do not often plumb the depths of many of them. In addition to the line of thinking used in giving the proper response, I’m curious to know about the mindset of the petitioner. What are they thinking? What’s going on behind the scenes that serves as the impetus for this shaila? There is one particular work that strikes me whenever I come across it are the responsa penned by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a tremendous Torah mind who lived in Lithuania when the war broke out. He eventually survived the horrors of the Shoah and wrote up the shailos that he received during this time. A one volume English work was published and the responsa, preceded by the stories behind each of them, are hard to imagine.
A hoarse Kohen wanting to know if he could still “duchen” with the other Kohanim.
Using garments of martyred Jews.
A Sukkah built with boards stolen from Germans.
Yet, the shaila that hit me like a ton of bricks is a more well known one. It was asked to Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels, the Rav of Veitzen (Hungary), who also managed to survive the war and compile a collection of the petitions asked of him during the years of terror. In the introduction to his sefer, Mekadshei Hashem, he writes that on Rosh Hashannah 1944, there was a tremendous “selection” of 1600 boys. Those between the ages of 14-18 of a certain height would be spared and forced to endure hard labor. The others would be met with death. It somehow had become apparent to concerned parents of these boys that the Kapos (yemach shemam) would be willing to accept bribes from what the Jews were able to smuggle on their person in order to extract their child from the group. However, it also became clear to them from the Kapos that there would immediately be another boy taken in his stead to be slaughtered. A father with little money or possessions was able to scrape together enough to fulfill the ransom for his only son. He asked of Rav Meisels: would it be permissible for him to pay off the wicked Kapos in order to save his son knowing that another boy would meet his demise due to this action? Rav Meisels was trembling. He demurred, and said to this holy Jew that he was not equipped to answer at that moment and that in the times of the Temple, the entire Sanhedrin would need to be convened for such capital cases. He continued that it would be hard for him to answer such a question in Auschwitz as he did not have any of the relevant sefarim to guide him. While Rav Meisels hemmed and hawed in his mind about the various issues pertaining to this request, he nevertheless implored the father of this son to not ask this question. The father was not placated and did not accept this answer. Whatever answer was offered to this shaila, the father would obey. Rabbi Meisels again tried to deter the father, telling him that he cannot possibly render a Halachic conclusion without first consulting any sources. The father responded: “Rabbi Meisels, if this means that you can find no heter for me to redeem my son, so be it.” The Rav protested. “My beloved brother, I did not say that you could not ransom your child, and I cannot rule yes or no. Please do what you wish, as if you never asked me.”What cuts me to the core is that Rabbi Meisels points out in his sefer that the petitioner noted that this query was one of Halacha l’maaseh (see above), a practical question. Halacha l’maaseh? We today typically associate Halacha l’maaseh with something significantly more trivial. It used to be “is this chicken Kosher?,” or “my meat spoon was accidentally used to stir my chocolate milk.” These are what we think of as practical questions of Jewish law pertinent for our everyday lives or our lives at that very moment. Would it be permissible for him to pay off the wicked Kapos in order to save his son knowing that another boy would meet his demise due to this action? 100 out of 100 rabbis would never rattle this case off as a Halacha l’maaseh case when pressed for one. The fact that the text above denotes those words, enlarged, makes my stomach churn and my head spin. The churning and spinning continue when I ponder about what will be in the next few years. In a time where we have more access to information and the ability to educate ourselves more than ever before, the memories are still fading. This year, Poland outlawed shirking any blame to their country for crimes committed during the Holocaust. To say that there was no involvement on their part is to say that you did not breathe yesterday. This above account described by the Veitzener Rav is only one of thousands. These atrocities did not happen hundreds of years ago with no one left in the wake to remember the exact details of what transpired. The holy survivors still are among us! On this Yom HaShoah, even more than we owe it to ourselves to pass along their stories, we owe it to them. Over the course of now until the next Yom HaShoah, we will no doubt lose more of these unbelievably heroic individuals. Where will that leave us? What will we do? The next generation will have questions, and we are no doubt tasked to answer them.