Gidon Rothstein

R. Moshe Feinstein’s Three Replies to R. Chaim Mednick on 10 Adar

Three teshuvot in Iggrot Moshe are addressed to R. Chaim Mednick and dated the tenth of Adar 1947 (I think he wrote him one letter and then published each in a place appropriate to it, different from other poskim, who publish their letter as written, with disparate topics).

Rabbi Mednick, tells me, was born in 1878 (making him seventeen years older than R. Moshe), learned in Mir and Slobodka, was one of the first students of R. Isser Zalman Melzer. He was a rabbi in Lechovitz and Pogust (Belarus), but fled the Communists in Russia in 1925.

Settling in Chicago, he became a shul rabbi as well as a faculty member at Hebrew Theological College (often known as Skokie Yeshiva), and passed away in 1954. Aside from the three 10 Adar teshuvot, which will take all our space here, R. Moshe included two other responsa to R. Mednick in his work.

I was struck by these teshuvot because they show R. Moshe as a relatively young man (late 40s, early 50s), before the first volume of Iggrot Moshe had appeared. Clearly, people were already turning to him with questions, and his responses were well-known enough (and daring enough to draw follow-up questions and challenges, including from older rabbis like R. Mednick.

Let’s watch R. Moshe’s responses.

Tefillin That Would Need to Be Burned

The first example responded to R. Mednick’s questions of an earlier ruling. That first ruling was published as Iggrot Moshe Orach Chayyim 1;4, R. Moshe’s reply to R. Yitzchak Hutner, then already working at (but not yet Rosh Yeshiva of) Yeshivat Chaim Berlin.

Dated 20 Adar 1944, R. Moshe ruled that a person who was being quarantined for a disease, in a hospital that burned all the possessions of the sick person when they left, could not bring tefillin with him. The Jew in question could not wear tefillin for the entirety of his illness.

This was a surprising ruling, because an explicit Gemara allows causing Hashem’s Name to be erased (but not doing it oneself). R. Moshe differentiated, saying that that Gemara was dealing with a case where only one Name was involved, whereas tefillin has many, or that Scripture is different. Causing the erasing of random written Names might be allowed, but once the question touches on Scripture, no such actions are permitted.

In this case, that’s not even the real issue, since he held that bringing tefillin to such a hospital qualified as actively destroying them. When the rule is that anything that goes into such a place doesn’t come out, bringing it there is itself the guarantor of its destruction.

The Reaction

This was neither obvious nor easy for others to accept—it forced anyone who caught one of these illnesses, even if he survived, to go for extended periods of time without the mitzvah or comfort of tefillin. R. Moshe published some of his correspondence around this issue, the third of which (Orach Chayyim 1;7) wsa to R. Mednick.

Rav Moshe opens the letter with the comment that there’s not much new in R. Mednick’s claims, which seems to me interestingly candid, perhaps more biting than we’d have expected from R. Moshe (although this is a letter he’s answering three years after the original). R. Mednick had argued that the tefillin case is similar to the difference between killing a person and tying someone up at night, so that the next day’s sun will kill him or her.

Rav Moshe answers that there’s not much of a distinction, even there. While the killer by sun will not incur the death penalty in a human court (R. Mednick had another example, inciting a snake to bite), it doesn’t mean the tying the person up isn’t an act of murder. It’s just not an act of murder that human courts have the ability to punish.

Besides which, since the health authorities have already made the law that all items brought to such hospitals have to be burned, it’s as if the destructive item were already present, the sun as already out there, the venom already in the snake’s mouth. There, even the Talmudic view was that it was a direct act of murder.

Last, R. Mednick had argued that the Gemara justifies violating Shabbat to save a life by saying that it is better to violate one Shabbat so that the person can keep many Shabbatot. That can imply that we can make a cost/benefit analysis, leading us to conclude that daily tefillin wearing for an extended recuperation is worth the eventual destruction of those tefillin.

Rav Moshe again rejects the claim, noting that Chazal prohibited blowing shofar and shaking a lulav when those holidays occurred on Shabbat out of the fear that someone might carry those items in a Shabbat-prohibited way. (The reasoning for saving a life, he is implying, isn’t just a matter of many being better than one, since then we should prefer the many acts of shofar blowing and lulav shaking to the occasional carrying on Shabbat).

Trusting Doctors

The second responsum with that date is a follow-up to Iggrot Moshe Even HaEzer 162, dated 16 Marcheshvan 5707 (1943), to R. Shmuel Aharon Pardes, editor of the journal HaPardes (first lesson for me: the journal was a pun on its editor’s name). A widow whose husband had died childless, which theoretically obligates her in yibum or halitzah, had a deaf-mute brother-in-law, which made halitzah impossible, but did not negate her obligation to have yibum or halitzah.

Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, over twenty years older than R. Moshe and the rabbi of Jerusalem by that time, had ruled that this was similar enough to the Geonic presumption that a woman whose brother in law has left the religion is not required to wait for yibum or halitzah should her husband pass away childless, because she never would never have married the deceased husband unless there was an implicit condition freeing her from that.

Rav Moshe rejects that, because Baba Kamma 110b raised that idea for a woman whose brother-in-law was a מוכה שחין, had a skin disease that made marital relations both unpleasant and unhealthy for the man. In that case, the Gemara says explicitly that her interest in being married was sufficiently strong that she apparently was willing to live with the possibility of having to have yibum or halitzah with this brother.

The Geonim were more lenient about a brother-in-law who had left the religion, R. Moshe believed, because he might insist on marrying her. Living with him would draw her away from proper observance (because, as R. Moshe and the rest of Judaism knew, whom we live with and among affects us, no matter who we are).  That was a more worrying possibility than either a diseased or deaf-mute levir (quite an assumption—that Jewish women would be averse to the risk of marrying someone who would endanger their observance than someone with physical issues), so we cannot apply the rule about an apostate to cases of a diseased or deaf-mute person.

The Road to Exemption

On the other hand, R. Moshe also disagreed with R. Frank’s conclusion that the original husband had to be considered to have been capable of child-bearing because he bore one of the signs the Gemara listed of not being a סריס, a person whose reproductive system did not function. R. Moshe disagreed because the doctors had identified a problem in his reproductive organs from birth, such that he could never have children.

Rabbi Frank’s position was that the presence of the signs of fertility the Gemara had established must mean the doctors were wrong, but R. Moshe countered that the Gemara’s signs were only in a case where we otherwise weren’t sure of his status. But where the doctors offer a sign of permanent inability to reproduce not contradicted by the Gemara, we go with the doctors. Says R. Moshe, and then shows that Chatam Sofer would seem to agree.

Belief in doctors is not a simple matter in halachah; Chatam Sofer actually only allowed that when they make a general rule, not when they’re addressing a specific case. In some specific cases, R. Moshe points out, we can trust them because their reputation is so clearly on the line that we can be sure they won’t lie. In addition, in this instance, the case was the application of a general rule, so it qualifies more as a general rule.

Rabbi Mednick: Focused on Signs of Infertility

Iggrot Moshe Even HaEzer 1;163 responds to R. Mednick’s suggestion that perhaps R. Frank had given credence to signs of the husband’s fertility that he shouldn’t have. (Perhaps, to be technical, hairs that R. Frank thought were a sign of sexual development had only appeared after the man had turned twenty, and were therefore not the sign he wanted them to be). That would allow us to say we have no evidence of the husband’s having developed, avoiding contradicting the Talmudic sign of such development to which R. Frank had given such credence.

Although that would help his argument, R. Moshe disagrees, because it was clear from the case that the hairs had developed earlier.

The Obligations of Ownership

The third 10 Adar 5707 responsum is printed in Iggrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat 1;94 (we’re only missing a responsum that appeared in Yoreh Deah for this correspondence to hit for the cycle; there are in fact two such responsa, written when R. Moshe was still in Russia, but not on 10 Adar 5707). R. Mednick had written about R. Moshe’s view that an owner’s obligation to pay for damage caused by his property stems from the ownership, not necessarily any failure to properly guard the object.

When a שומר, someone who agrees to watch an item for the owner, is held liable for damage that property causes, R. Moshe still held that was because the guard had undertaken to substitute for the owner in such obligations. In the responsum, he cites Rambam and Tosafot, each of whom had expressed themselves in ways that supported his reading.

It means that, from his perspective, part of owning an item or animal is being responsible for what it causes or does, independent of the obligation to watch it.

The three responsa expand our knowledge of the specific halachic issues, but more broadly give a sense of two accomplished Torah scholars, the younger one clearly outshinine the elder, also arriving at daring new conclusions, out of step with others of his time. Their friendly correspondence reminds us that finding the truth of Torah combines a no-holds-barred search for truth combined with affection and friendship for those sharing the journey.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.