February 28, 2021

Pesachim 99

The opening Mishna of Chapter ‘Arvei Pesachim’ (Pesachim 10:1) which is found in today’s daf (Pesachim 99b) informs us that the needy in a community must be provided with sufficient funds before Pesach so that they have wine to drink four cups on wine on Seder night, and it is in this spirit that I’d would like to relate an oft-told story involving Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1891), the author of the famed ‘Beis Halevi’ Torah commentary who was also the Rav of Slutzk, Belarus (nb. while I have heard and read this story many times, here I include many details of this story that are often omitted but which can be found in full in Rabbi Chaim Karlinsky’s ‘HaRishon L’Shushelet Brisk’ pp. 173-175).
On the eve of Pesach, during the first year that Rav Yosef Dov had become the Rav of Slutsk, he was approached by a local resident who asked him: ‘Rebbi – it is possible to fulfil the mitzvah of the four cups [on Seder night] with milk?’.
Rav Yosef Dov looked closely at the questioner and responded: ‘You have asked a difficult question. Please can you wait here while I research the law’. Then, within a few moments, he said, ‘by the way, I am new to the city and sadly I don’t yet remember the names of everyone here. What is your name and in which part of the city do you live?’, to which the questioner replied, ‘my name is Sender the metalsmith, and I live opposite the metalsmith’s shul’.
Curious about the question, Rav Yosef Dov then asked Sender, ‘Are you asking this because you are unwell and therefore your doctor has told you that you may not drink wine?’.
Sender answered that he was blessed with good health. However, he then proceeded to explain how he and his eldest son work as metalsmith’s building and fixing tools for local farmers. However, due to the recent snow and the bad local roads, many of the regular farmers have not been able to reach his factory with their tools to get them fixed, and those who have ordered new tools have not been able to come to the factory to pay for them. Given this, he had no money and could not afford to buy wine for the four cups.
At this point, Rav Yosef Dov consulted a list that he had of the residents of Slutzk, which informed him that Sender had a family of six. As a result, Rav Yosef Dov asked Tzirel, the Rebbetzen, to bring 25 rubles to give to Sender.
Upon hearing this, Sender refused to accept any money. He emphasized how he had not come to the Rav with a request for financial support. In fact, he had never taken any money from anyone, and even this year, he had given tzedakah to the local charity collection. And whenever he and has family had lacked money, they had fulfilled the rabbinic dictum of ‘make your Shabbat like a weekday rather than rely on assistance from others’ (Shabbat 118a). As he continued, ‘Rebbi – I really appreciate the offer but you’ve yet to answer me my question – is it possible to fulfil the mitzvah of the four cups with milk?’.
To this, Rav Yosef Dov responded to both Sender and the Rebbetzen: ‘Reb Sender thinks that we’re relatives of the Rothschild’s and that we want to give him 25 rubles as a gift!’. He then turned to Sender and said, ‘this isn’t the case. This money is not from a charity fund, and it is not a gift. Instead, it is a loan that you can use until the monies that you are owed arrive. But please, as a resident of Slutzk and a beneficiary of your handiwork, let me do you the chessed of lending you this money.’
Sender’s eyes started to shed tears of appreciation and he offered many thanks to the Rav, who then suggested that, since it was Erev Shabbat, he’d better go to buy the wine and other requirements for the festival, and also not forget to burn his chametz. He then sent him off with blessings of a Chag Sameach – a joyful Chag!
Once Sender left, Rebbetzen Tzirel then turned to her husband and asked him: ‘wine for four cups for even a family of ten, shouldn’t cost more than 2 or 3 rubles. Why did you give him 25 rubles?’, to which Rav Yosef Dov replied that by asking whether he could fulfil the mitzvah of the four cups with milk, Sender indicated that he also didn’t have money for any meat for Yom Tov, and this is why he gave Sender 25 rubles to cover the cost of the meal and any other Yom Tov needs.
Reflecting on this story, Rav Moshe Leventhal (in his Serara Shehi Avdut: Sugyot B’Rabbanut HaKehillah Vol. 1 p. 287) explains how, oftentimes, the questions that people pose to a Rabbi are often a veil for deeper questions that are troubling them, and that when a Rav is asked a question, they need to listen to the question being asked, while also considering the question which lies behind the explicit question.
Interestingly, I was explaining this principle just a few days ago when I told someone that I provide online halachic consultations which often last between 30 minutes and an hour. The individual was initially surprised that I would afford such long time slots to questioners. But then I reminded them of this principle, and that what is often presented as a simple question often has a variety of personal and halachic considerations.
In this spirit, as we are less than a month away from Pesach, I just want to remind anyone who may have questions relating to Pesach or other matters, and who does not have a Rav available to them, that you can book a halachic consultation with me at https://rabbijohnnysolomon.com/coaching/.
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