Sanhedrin

Sanhedrin 104a: Learning Torah is Better than Kaddish

Sanhedrin 104a: Why didn’t Amon lose his share in Olam Haba? Because of his son Yoshiyahu. If so, Menashe should also have a share due to his father Chizkiyahu! – A son can bring merit to his father, but a father cannot bring merit to his son.

סנהדרין קד ע”א. מפני מה לא מנו את אמון ־ מפני כבודו של יאשיהו. מנשה נמי לא נמני מפני כבודו של חזקיהוִ ־ ברא מזכי אבא. אבא לא מזכי ברא, דכתיב (דברים ל״ב) ואין מידי מציל, אין אברהם מציל את ישמעאל, אין יצחק מציל את עשו.

When Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman was 14 years old and learning in Slobodka, then exiled in Minsk, he displayed amazing hasmadah. When word reached the yeshiva a week after Sukkos that the young man’s father had died, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka, decided to withhold the information from him until Pesach. The Alter was afraid R’ Yaakov Yitzchok’s diligence might slack and he might not fulfil his Rosh Hashanah resolution to complete Shas that winter (according to other versions of the story, it was Seder Nezikin or Seder Kodshim).  The Alter ruled that the orphan’s study of Torah was a greater Kiddush Hashem than the reciting of Kaddish on which he was missing out.

The Alter used a similar approach with R’ Reuven Grozovsky, saying, “Why should we tell Reb Reuven that his father died? So that he should say Kaddish? He says Yisgadel V’yiskadesh Shmeih Raba 24 hours a day!”

When Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky told this story about Reb Reuven, he added, “I want this story to remain for generations.”

Source: Making of a Godol p. 165

[The Rema in Yoreh Deah 376 says that the source for saying Kaddish is a story in the Midrash about Rabbi Akiva. The Kol Bo and the Rivash quote it from the Tanchuma and Sifri, but I was unable to locate these sources. The Rabbeinu Bachya quotes it from Maseches Kallah Chapter 2.

רמ”א יו”ד שע”ו ס”ד: ונמצא במדרשות לומר קדיש על אב (כל בו וריב״ש בשם תנחומא וספרי ובחיי בשם מסכת כלה וב״י בשם הזוהר ובא״ז בשם תנא דבי אליהו רבא).

Maseches Kallah 2: Rabbi Akiva went out to a certain place and found a man carrying a load on his shoulder that he was unable to bear, and he was crying and groaning. He asked him, “What happened to you?” He said, “I committed every sin in the world while I was alive, and now there are guards over me and they do not allow me any rest.” Rabbi Akiva said, “Did you leave a son?” He said, “By your life, do not ask me, because I am afraid of the angels who are beating me with fiery lashes and saying, why can’t you get the work done faster?” He said, “I will tell them to leave you alone.” He said, “I left my wife pregnant.” Rabbi Akiva traveled to his city and said, “Where is the son of so-and-so?” They said, “May the memory of his ground bones be erased.” He said, “Why?” They said, “He was a robber who killed and harmed people, and he consorted with a betrothed girl on Yom Kippur.” He went to his house and found his wife pregnant. He waited until she gave birth, and made a bris for the child. When he was old enough, he brought him to shul to say blessings in public. Later Rabbi Akiva returned to that place and the man appeared to him and said, “May your mind find rest, for you have allowed me to rest.”  

ר׳ עקיבא נפק לההוא אתרא אשכחיה לההוא גברא דהוי דרי טונא אכתפיה ולא הוה מצי לסגויי ביה והוה צוח ומתאנח א״ל מאי עבידתיך א״ל לא שבקנא איסורא דלא עבידנא בההיא עלמא ועכשיו איכא נטורין עילוון ולא שבקין לי דינוח א״ל רבי עקיבא שבקת ברא א״ל בחייך לא תשלין דדחילנא ממלאכי דמחו לי בפולסי דנורא ואמרין לי אמאי לא תיתי בפריע א״ל אימא ליה דקא ניחותך א״ל שבקית אתתא מעברתא אזל ר׳ עקיבא עאל לההיא מדינתא אמר להו בריה דפלוני היכא אמרו ליה יעקר זכרו דההוא שחיק עצמות א״ל אמאי אמרו ליה ההוא לסטים אכל אינשי ומצער בריתא ולא עוד אלא שבא על נערה המאורסה ביום הכפורים אזל לביתיה אשכח אתתיה מעוברתא נטרה עד דילדה אזל מהליה לכי גדל אוקמי׳ בבי כנישתא לברוכי בקהלא לימים אזל ר׳ עקיבא לההוא אתרא איתחזי ליה א״ל תנוח דעתך שהנחת את דעתי.

The Beis Yosef quotes it from the Zohar:

כתב הכלבו על מה שנמצא בהגדה שפעם אחד פגע רבי פלוני באחד שהיה מקושש עצים וכו’ אמר ליה אין מי שיצילני אם לא שיאמר בני קדיש א’ או יפטיר בנביא על זה פשט המנהג לומר בנו של מת קדיש בתרא כל י”ב חדש וגם להפטיר בנביא ויש שמתפללין כל מוצאי שבת תפלת ערבית לפי שבאותה שעה חוזרין הרשעים לגיהנם ואיפשר שתגן עליהם אותה תפלה והמעשה הזה הוא בזוהר בסוף פרשה אחרי מות.

The Zohar is the Zohar Chadash at the end of Acharei Mos, 60b. There the end of the story is:

“The dead father of the child, who had been punished, came to the sage in a dream and said: Rabbi, may Hashem comfort you as much as you comforted me. When my son said the Haftarah in public, they released me from punishment. When he led the prayers and said Kaddish, they completely tore up my decree. When he became a scholar, they gave me a portion in Gan Eden, and they granted me entrance into the yeshiva of tzaddikim. And when he became an even bigger scholar and they called him Rabbi, they crowned me with the crown that tzaddikim wear, and they gave me from the pleasure of the shine of the Shechinah.”

This Zohar supports the Alter’s contention that learning Torah is more valuable than saying kaddish.

However, there is a second issue here: how could the Alter make Rav Ruderman miss out on sitting shiva in favor of learning? Clearly if Chazal say an aveil should not learn, they are teaching that aveilus is better for the neshamah than learning.

This would depend on whether aveilus is for the dead person, or for the live person. Perhaps it is for the live person’s comfort or emotional health. If so, in this case where the aveil doesn’t know he is an aveil, there would be no problem in missing it.

This question is discussed in Yoreh Deah 344:10. The Rema quotes Rabbeinu Yerucham who says that if a father instructed his children not to sit shiva for him, they must sit shiva anyway. Rabbeinu Yerucham must have understood shiva as being for the sake of the living people. But Rabbi Akiva Eiger argues that in the following siman (345:1) the halacha is that we don’t sit shiva for someone who committed suicide. This halacha comes from Aveil Rabasi, where it says that for a suicide we don’t do anything that is for the honor of the dead, but we do things that are for the honor of the living. The Rambam classifies shiva as the honor of the dead, while the Ramban classifies it as the honor of the living. Since we pasken like the Rambam, the Rema should not have paskened like Rabbeinu Yerucham.

The Alter’s choice to deprive Rav Ruderman’s father of shiva would thus make sense only according to the Rema. However, it could be that he held that since other relatives were already sitting shiva, the honor of the dead was fulfilled, and there was no need for Rav Ruderman to sit shiva as well. Alternatively, perhaps he held that for the honor of the dead, it would be enough to sit for a short time several months later (שמועה רחוקה).

In the Gemara we began with, Chazal derive the idea that a righteous father cannot save a bad son from the posuk in Haazinu ואין מידי מציל – “No one can save from My hand.” Seemingly, this doesn’t prove anything because the posuk could just as well have been applied to a son saving a father. Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l, in Taama Dikra, gives a simple answer: the more of a tzaddik the father is, on the contrary, the more of the son should be blamed for leaving the path of Torah. But if a bad father has a son who becomes a tzaddik, that shows that the father must not have been so bad, since he tolerated or perhaps encouraged his son to do teshuva. Thus the son saving the father is logical and is not called הצלה, so it doesn’t contradict the posuk ואין מידי מציל. Only the father saving the son would be illogical and could only work through prayer and intervention. On this the Torah says: there is no intervention with My punishment.]  

Chagigah

Chagigah 11b: What is the moon made of?

Chagigah 11b: One may not explain Maasei Bereishis in front of two students, only one, but the Merkava one may not explain even to one, unless he is wise and understands on his own.

Rambam Yesodei Hatorah 3:9: All the stars and celestial spheres have a soul and mind and understanding, and they are alive and recognize the Creator. Each one according to its level praises and glorifies its Creator as the angels do. And just as they recognize the Holy One, blessed is He, they recognize themselves and the angels that are above them. The stars and spheres’ level of understanding is lower than the angels, but greater than humans.

Rambam Yesodei Hatorah 4:10: What I have said in these Chapters 3 and 4 is called Maasei Bereishis, and the early sages ordered that these matters not be taught in public, only to one person at a time.

חגיגה יא ע”ב:  אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה, ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים, ולא במרכבה ביחיד, אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו.

רמב”ם יסודי התורה פ”ג ה”ט: כל הכוכבים והגלגלים כולן בעלי נפש ודעה והשכל הם, והם חיים ועומדים ומכירין את מי שאמר והיה העולם, כל אחד ואחד לפי גדלו ולפי מעלתו משבחים ומפארים ליוצרם כמו המלאכים, וכשם שמכירין הקב״ה כך מכירין את עצמן ומכירין את המלאכים שלמעלה מהן, ודעת הכוכבים והגלגלים מעוטה מדעת המלאכים וגדולה מדעת בני אדם.

ושם פ”ד ה”י: וביאור כל אלו הדברים שבפרק שלישי ורביעי הוא הנקרא מעשה בראשית, וכך צוו החכמים הראשונים שאין דורשין בדברים האלו ברבים אלא לאדם אחד מודיעין דברים אלו ומלמדין אותן.

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky sought out someone with a television set on Sunday, July 20, 1969 in order to watch astronaut Neil Armstrong land on the moon. He later wrote about this in Emes Leyaakov (Bereishis 1:1) and explained why he held that this historic event proved the Ramban correct and the Rambam incorrect.

The Ramban on the first posuk in Bereishis says that at first, Hashem created from nothing a formless material called hiuli (tohu); then He formed everything from that material. Later, the Ramban clarifies that the heavens were made from one type of hiuli, and the earth was made from a second type. In his comment on posuk 8, the Ramban says, “The heavens mentioned in the first posuk are the upper heavens – not the celestial spheres, but rather above the Merkava. The Torah does not tell us anything about their creation, just as it does not mention the angels, the chayos of the Merkava, or anything that is not physical. It just mentions that the heavens were created from nothing.”

Reb Yaakov said we see from this Ramban that everything in this world – not just the planet earth but all the heavenly bodies too – are included in “haaretz” – since they are all physical. It is only spiritual beings that are the “shomayim” of the first posuk.

“It was these words of the Ramban that stood by me,” he continued, “when we watched people climbing out of the spacecraft down the ladder and onto the moon. And I thought in my heart, what will the Rambam answer now? The Rambam wrote that the moon has a spiritual form. And I thought: now Kabbalah has defeated philosophy. So I took comfort in these words of the Ramban.

“But I could not make peace with the idea that the Rambam erred. If the Rambam could be wrong in Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah, why can’t he be wrong in Hilchos Shabbos and the like?”

He goes on to ask how the Rambam could have written about “Maasei Merkava” in Chapters 1 and 2, and “Maasei Bereishis” in Chapters 3 and 4, if Chazal say (and the Rambam quotes it himself) that one may not teach these matters in public. His answer is that the source for the ideas in these four chapters is not the Torah, but the Rambam’s own philosophy. When he was shown later by Rabbi Yitzchak Perman that Rabbi David Arama writes similarly in his commentary on the Rambam, Reb Yaakov exclaimed שישו בני מעי (echoing R’ Elazar’s joy at finding out that his legal decisions were correct – Bava Metzia 83b).

Source: Emes Leyaakov p. 15; Making of a Godol p. 157

[There are a number of questions about this story:

  1. Reb Yaakov assumes that when the Rambam wrote that “all the stars and celestial spheres have a soul and mind,” he meant that the moon is not a physical ball of rock, and thus it would be impossible to walk on it. But what is the indication that the Rambam meant that? Maybe he meant the moon is physical but it has a soul and mind – just like a person is physical yet has a soul and mind.
  2. Even if the Rambam’s scientific statements were disproven, why would that mean that “kabbalah defeated philosophy” (where philosophy has the broad connotation it had in the ancient world, which included science)? It would only be the Rambam’s particular version of astronomy that was disproven.
  3. Reb Yaakov asks a very good question about how the Rambam wrote about matters that Chazal forbade to teach. How does Reb Yaakov’s answer – that the Rambam did not get his information from Chazal – resolve this question? If the Rambam indeed held that Merkava means philosophical analysis of G-d’s attributes, and Bereishis means astronomy, then he was teaching what is forbidden to teach.

On this last point, I think the answer lies in Yesodei Hatorah 2:2: “What is the way to reach love and fear of Hashem? When one meditates on His amazing and great actions and creations, and sees from them His boundless wisdom, immediately he loves and praises Hashem and has a great desire to know Him, as Dovid said, ‘My soul thirsts for G-d, for the living G-d.’ And when he thinks of these things, immediately he falls backward and feels fear, knowing that he is a but a small, insignificant creature, with tiny knowledge, standing before the Perfect Mind. As Dovid said, ‘When I see Your heavens… what is man that You are mindful of him?’ And based on these words, I will explain general principles about the work of the Master of the Universe, so that they might be a starting point for a wise person to love Hashem.

We see here that the Rambam does not start down this road with the goal of teaching Maasei Merkava and Maasei Bereishis. He is only outlining a few general points to inspire fear and love of Hashem. The prohibition is only violated when one teaches it in detail.

Similarly, in 2:11-12 he writes, “These things that we have stated in these two chapters are like a drop in the ocean of what should be explained in the subject. And the explanation of all the principles in these two chapters is what is called Maasei Merkava. The earlier Sages commanded not to expound these matters to more than one person, provided that he is wise and can understand on his own. Then one can tell him the beginnings of the subjects (ראשי הפרקים) and a bit (שמץ) of the matter, and he understands on his own and knows the end of the matter and its depth.

There is clearly a difference between “a drop in the ocean” – which is allowed to state publicly – and “a bit” – which is forbidden.

Similarly, in 4:10 he says, “All these things that we have spoken on this subject are like a drop in the bucket, and they are deep matters. And the explanation of all these matters of chapters 3 and 4 is what is called Maasei Bereishis.” 

A “drop in the bucket” is allowed to state publicly; “the explanation of all these matters” is not.

But if we say this, we no longer need Reb Yaakov’s answer, that the Rambam’s source was not the Torah or Chazal. Even if his source were the Torah, since he only gave us a drop in the ocean, it would be permitted. So what did Reb Yaakov’s answer accomplish as far that question?

It does, however, explain how the Rambam could have been wrong about the moon. I don’t have access to the commentary of Rabbi David Arama, but the anonymous commentary on the side of Yesodei Hatorah 2:1-2 writes, “These rules that the Gaon (the Rambam) states – some of them are apparent to the eye, and some of them can be proven using science and mathematics. Therefore we believe the words of the Gaon z”l, who knew these matters through proofs. And whoever wishes to know the proofs to his words should go and study the branches of wisdom, until he knows the creations of Hashem well.” This seems to support Reb Yaakov’s contention that the Rambam’s source was not Chazal.]

Bava Metzia

Bava Metzia 97a: Who Decides What Masechta to Learn

Bava Metzia 97a: Rava said: A melamed, a planter, a shochet, a doctor and a barber are all considered working for their customers, so that if the customer were to borrow an item from them while they worked for him, and it broke, he would be exempt under the rule of בעליו עמו. The students said to Rava: “You are then working for us!” Rava was upset and said to them, “Are you trying to make me lose money? On the contrary, you are working for me, because I could switch you from one masechta to another, but you cannot.”

בבא מציעא צז ע”א: אמר רבא: מקרי דרדקי, שתלא, טבחא, ואומנא, ספר מתא ־ כולהון בעידן עבידתייהו כשאילה בבעלים דמו. אמרו ליה רבנן לרבא: שאיל לן מרִ. אקפיד, אמר להו: לאפקועי ממונאי קא בעיתו? אדרבה, אתון שאילתון לי. דאילו אנא מצי אישתמוטי לכו ממסכתא למסכתא, אתון לא מציתו לאישתמוטי.

Because he had his own original approach to study, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman did not follow the standard practice of other yeshivos in choosing the tractates to be studied. He refused to confine himself to Nashim and Nezikin alone, and then, instead of only covering the first few chapters of the masechta, he would cover each masechta to the end. He regarded this approach as vital to the wellbeing of the students. He took into account that his yeshiva was a preparatory division for younger students, from which they would proceed to the senior yeshivos, where deep and intensive scholarship is devoted to the limited area of Nashim and Nezikin. Consequently he would say, “If not now, when? If you do not acquire a basic familiarity with at least a large portion of the Talmud, and if you will not cover each assigned tractate from beginning to end, then you are liable never to study these Gemaras at all.”

Accordingly, he instituted in the yeshivos where he taught that each semester a new masechta be started and covered to the end, the exception being Bava Basra, which was very large and thus required at least a full year – two semesters. Here, too, however, his approach was original. He would begin with the eighth chapter, Yesh Nochalin, rather than the first, Hashutfin. Only after he had reached the end of the tractate did he revert to the beginning and teach from Hashutfin until Yesh Nochalin. His assumption was that if he began with the first chapter, it was very doubtful whether his students would ever reach the end of the lengthy masechta. They would tire in the middle…

When he attempted to introduce this innovation into the Brisk Yeshiva, the talmidim protested that it was unheard of to reverse the order. They were unwilling to adopt a practice so different from that of all other yeshivos. Reb Elchonon immediately proposed that they and he submit their arguments to a Din Torah to be judged by Reb Chaim, the Rav of the town.

Reb Elchonon contended that a rosh yeshiva had the authority to select the masechta to be studied, as Rava states in Bava Metzia 97a. The talmidim argued that Tosafos on Bava Metzia 2a say, “Rebbi did not follow the order of the masechtas, but taught in accordance with the wishes of the talmidim” (and therefore, when a dispute appears in one masechta and then an anonymous mishnah taking one of the sides appears in a later masechta, this does not mean that Rebbi decided the dispute, because perhaps the later masechta was actually taught by Rebbi first).

“That is a good argument,” Reb Elchonon replied in the presence of Reb Chaim, “but in truth there is no contradiction. When are students subject to their teacher’s wishes? When it makes a difference to the teacher which masechta he teaches.” (Rashi explains that Rava’s motivation for changing masechtas was that he was worried about forgetting a particular masechta.) “To Rabbeinu Hakadosh, there was no difference. He knew everything and could always teach the masechta that appealed to his talmidim.

“To me, too, it makes no difference,” Reb Elchonon continued. “You, however, are not interested in any particular masechta, but merely in following a certain procedure – that we should start at the beginning. Your argument, then, has no basis. The chapters beginning with Yesh Nochalin deal with the laws of inheritance and are like a new masechta, having no connection with the beginning of Bava Basra, which is concerned with the laws of partners, neighbors and presumptions of ownership. All that is necessary is to enclose the word “Yesh” in a decorative box.”

Reb Chaim upheld Reb Elchonon’s view, and ruled accordingly. The talmidim had to accept the verdict and open their Gemaras to Yesh Nochalin.

  •  

Many years later, in 1937 in Baranovitch, a similar dispute arose: The yeshiva had just finished Beitzah and Reb Elchonon wanted to learn another Moed masechta, while the talmidim wanted to learn a yeshivishe masechta from Nashim or Nezikin. They cited the above Tosafos which says that Rebbi taught his talmidim whatever masechta they wanted to learn. Reb Elchonon replied, “Rebbi considered what was best for his students and acted as he did. We also know very well that it is better for you to learn Moed.”

The talmidim also argued that the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 19a) says, “A man can only learn Torah in the subject that his heart desires.” Reb Elchonon responded, “Chazal did not intend that this should apply to young students who have never studied the masechta I wish to teach them. Hence they cannot know properly what to want and what not to.”

The case was submitted to the mashgiach, Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, who ruled in favor of the talmidim.

Source: Reb Elchonon (Artscroll), pp. 74-76

Berachos

Berachos 61b: Fish Were Created for the Water

Berachos 61b: Once the evil government decreed that Jews were forbidden to study Torah. Papus ben Yehuda found Rabbi Akiva gathering groups in public and teaching Torah. He said to him, “Akiva, aren’t you afraid of the government?” He said to him, “I will give you a parable: A fox was walking on the bank of the river, and saw the fish gathering in one place and then another. ‘Why are you fleeing?’ he asked them. ‘From the nets cast by men,’ they said. He said to them, ‘Would you like to come up onto the dry land, and I will live with you just as my fathers lived with your fathers?’ They said to him: ‘Are you the one they call the wisest of the animals?’ You are not wise, but foolish. If in our element of life we are afraid, all the more so in our element of death!’ So too with us: if now, when we study Torah, our life and the length of our days (Devarim 30:20), we are killed, all the more so if we ignore Torah study!”

ברכות סא ע”ב: תנו רבנן: פעם אחת גזרה מלכות הרשעה שלא יעסקו ישראל בתורה, בא פפוס בן יהודה ומצאו לרבי עקיבא שהיה מקהיל קהלות ברבים ועוסק בתורה. אמר ליה: עקיבא, אי אתה מתירא מפני מלכות? אמר לו: אמשול לך משל, למה הדבר דומה ־ לשועל שהיה מהלך על גב הנהר, וראה דגים שהיו מתקבצים ממקום למקום, אמר להם: מפני מה אתם בורחים? אמרו לו: מפני רשתות שמביאין עלינו בני אדם. אמר להם: רצונכם שתעלו ליבשה, ונדור אני ואתם כשם שדרו אבותי עם אבותיכם? אמרו לו: אתה הוא שאומרים עליך פקח שבחיות? לא פקח אתה, אלא טפש אתהִ ומה במקום חיותנו אנו מתיראין, במקום מיתתנו על אחת כמה וכמהִ אף אנחנו, עכשיו שאנו יושבים ועוסקים בתורה, שכתוב בה (דברים ל׳) כי הוא חייך וארך ימיך ־ כך, אם אנו הולכים ומבטלים ממנה ־ על אחת כמה וכמה.

Before Theodor Herzl became a Zionist, he contemplated assimilation as a solution for anti-Semitism. He thought that Jews had devised the Jewish religion as a response to their rejection by the hostile outside world. Now, however, the outside world had since changed for the better, granting equality to the Jews, yet the Jews remained separate; this aroused anti-Semitism. The solution, therefore, was for Jews to assimilate.

In a conversation with his friend Ludwig Speidel, he compared Jews to seals which, according to the theory of evolution, were originally land animals that evolved to live in water. They could therefore evolve back into land animals again.

“However, anti-Semitism, which is a strong if unconscious force among the masses, will do the Jews no harm. I hold it to be a movement useful for the development of Jewish character. It is the education of a group by the surrounding populations and will perhaps in the end lead to its absorption. We are educated only through hard knocks. A sort of Darwinian mimicry will set in. The Jews will adapt themselves. They are like the seals, which a natural catastrophe cast into the ocean. There they took on the appearance and property of fish, which of course they are not. If they ever return to dry land and are allowed to remain there a few generations, they will do away with their finny feet.” (The Diaries of Theodor Herzl, p. 10)

Amazingly, Herzl’s argument is exactly that of the fox in Rabbi Akiva’s parable. The fox says, “Come and live on the land with me, just as my fathers lived with your fathers.” In other words, the fox is arguing that the fish were not really created for the water. They originally lived on land, and only adapted to live in water due to the circumstances.

The fish’s response, and our response to Herzl is no! The Jewish people were created to live by the Torah. The Torah is not just a temporary response to circumstances. Therefore, leaving the Torah is like a fish leaving the water. Without Torah, the Jewish people would be unable to breathe and would certainly die out. Herzl thought you can take away Judaism from the Jews, and they can continue to be Jews. With his subsequent idea of Zionism, he, and his successors, continued to think the same way, except that the abandonment of Torah would take place on a national scale. The response to him is that Torah is the defining feature of Jews, and without it, there will be no Jews.

But there is more. The fish made a “kal vachomer” – they told the fox that coming onto the land would solve nothing as far as the fishermen, and it would create the additional danger of lack of oxygen. Here too, time proved that Jews who assimilate – whether on a personal or a national level – are still attacked by anti-Semites, and even if they escape, die out spiritually. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, died personally at the hands of the Romans, but kept Klal Yisroel alive by passing down the Torah to the next generation.

Gittin

Gittin 77b: The Brisker Get

Gittin 77b: A man on his deathbed wrote a get for his wife on Friday afternoon, but did not manage to give it to her before Shabbos. On Shabbos day, he felt his end was near, so they asked Rava what to do. He said, “Go tell him to transfer to his wife ownership of the room where the get is lying, and let her go and close the door or open it, making a kinyan chazakah.”

Tosafos: Isn’t this similar to the case of the wife picking up her get from the ground, which is invalid because the husband must hand it to her? The answer is that since the get is coming from the domain of the husband to her domain, it is as if he handed it to her.

גיטין עז ע”ב: ההוא שכיב מרע דכתב לה גיטא לדביתהו בהדי פניא דמעלי שבתא ולא הספיק למיתביה לה, למחר תקף ליה עלמא, אתו לקמיה דרבא, אמר להו: זילו אמרו ליה ליקניה ניהלה לההוא דוכתא דיתיב ביה גיטא, ותיזל איהי ותיחוד ותפתח ותחזיק ביה.

תוס’: ולא הוי כמו טלי גיטיך מעל גבי קרקע דכיון שהגט בא מרשות הבעל לרשותה הוי כאילו נתנו לה.

It once happened in Brisk that a husband wanted to give his wife a get, but she was unwilling to accept it. So he devised a trick: he put the get in an envelope, dropped it on the table and said, “You got a letter from your brother.” She picked it up, opened it and discovered that it was a get. The dayan paskened that it was invalid because of “tli gitech” – the husband must hand the wife the get; she may not pick it up herself.

Reb Chaim, however, said it was not so simple. The envelope has the status of a room or courtyard, so when the husband transfers ownership to her, it is considered that he handed it to her; it makes no difference that the final act of acquisition was done by her, as in the Gemara on 77b. On the other hand, maybe here it is worse than the Gemara’s case, because she is picking up the get with her hand and can obtain it with kinyan yad (acquiring an object by virtue of hold it in one’s hand), even without the husband’s willingness to give her the envelope. This depends if kinyan yad works when there is a chatzitzah (something separating the object from the hand, in this case the envelope). Therefore, Reb Chaim concluded, the woman is sofek megureshes – she may or may not be divorced.  

Source: Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, shiur on Gittin

[Another version of this story appears in the new Chiddushei Hagrach Al Hashas, p. 246. There it does not mention that the wife was refusing the get. Also, it says that Reb Chaim’s sofek was about כליו של מוכר ברשות לוקח – whether a person can acquire an object by lifting or dragging it when it is inside a container that still belongs to the seller. This is an unresolved question in Bava Basra 85b. If she cannot acquire the get without owning the envelope, then she needs the husband to willingly give her the envelope, and it is considered as if he is handing her the get. If she can acquire the get without owning the envelope, that means she took the get herself without the husband’s giving.

The Imrei Moshe (end of Siman 21) brings this same version, and proceeds to question Reb Chaim’s logic. A get only needs to be in the wife’s hand, he says; no kinyan is necessary. So even if one cannot acquire an object while it is in the container belonging to the giver, here she is holding the get and does not need the husband’s willingness to grant her the envelope. Therefore the get should definitely be invalid.

Putting the two versions together, it emerges that there are two reasons to cast doubt on the validity of this get:

1) She picked up the get herself with kinyan yad.

2) Even if you say that kinyan yad doesn’t work due to the chatzitzah, she could be koneh the get with hagbo’oh. But that would depend (if the story took place in her house) on the question of keilav shel mocher.

According to the version that the wife was refusing the get, there is another question we could ask on Reb Chaim. What is the logic behind the possibility that the get was valid? Only because the husband had to be makneh to her the envelope, which is like a chatzer. But if she did not wish to acquire the get at all, the kinyan would not work. She picked it up and made the kinyan thinking it was a letter, but since it was actually a get, the kinyan was done on a false assumption and is therefore invalid.]  

Yevamos

Yevamos 62b: When to Do Kiruv

Yevamos 62b: Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Gevas to Antipras, and all of them died in the same period, because they did not treat each other respectfully. And the world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our rabbis in the south… and they were the ones who built back the Torah at that time.

Bereishis Rabbah 61:3: Because they were stingy with each other. And in the end he established seven disciples… he said to them, “My sons! The first ones died because they were stingy with each other. Be careful not to do what they did.” They arose and filled all of Eretz Yisroel with Torah.

יבמות סב ע”ב: שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא, מגבת עד אנטיפרס, וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה, והיה העולם שמם, עד שבא ר״ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום, ושנאה להם ר״מ ור׳ יהודה ור׳ יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע, והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה.

ובבראשית רבה סא,ג מסיים: למה? שהיתה עיניהם צרה אלו באלו. ובסוף העמיד שבעה וכו’ אמר להם בניי, הראשונים לא מתו אלא שהיתה עיניהם צרה אלו לאלו תנו דעתכם שלא תעשו כמעשיהם, עמדו ומלאו כל ארץ ישראל תורה.  

In June of 1999, Michael Kaufman, founder of VISA (Visiting Israel Students Association) and today a lecturer at Aish Hatorah, brought 25 college age young men and women, with little or no Jewish background, to attend kiruv programs in Jerusalem. Unlike VISA’s usual “foreign exchange” students, this group had not been attracted to the country in order to study at universities, but only because the tour was heavily subsidized, costing them very little.

At the end of the tour, Michael had the idea to bring them to see the Mirrer Yeshiva. The other leaders of the tour thought it would be a turn off, but he persisted. They first visited the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who asked them each about themselves, their families and hometowns. Then they walked through the beis medrash and watched the hundreds of talmidim learning, most of whom paid virtually no attention to the visitors. Everyone was awed by the experience.

As they went out, two of the boys came over to Michael and said, “We want to learn here.” When he recovered from his shock, Michael said, “You know, of course, that what you’re saying might be akin to children in kindergarten announcing that they would like to take courses in nuclear physics.”  “If what they learn there is the Jewish nuclear physics, then that’s exactly what we want to do,” replied the boys.  

Michael consulted with Reb Nosson Tzvi, who gave his approval. While the rest of the group flew back to the States, arrangements were made with a number of American bachurim to leave their regular chavrusas for one hour every day, in order to learn with these two novices in a non-structured manner for the next two months. At the end of this period, the two college students concluded that it would be best to learn in a yeshiva that catered to their backgrounds. So they left Mir to attend institutions for baalei teshuva in Jerusalem, where they stayed for a number of years. Today both are married with children; one is learning in a kollel in Jerusalem, and the other works in kiruv in a western American city.

Michael came to Reb Nosson Tzvi again after that summer and commented that several of the Mir bochurim showed great potential in the field of kiruv. He suggested that they attend a 90-minute class each week, for six weeks, on kiruv techniques. “Absolutely not!” said Reb Nosson Tzvi. “Their job here is to learn Torah – not to be involved in anything else but the study of Torah!”

“But,” Michael protested, “the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 61:3) says that Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim died because they were stingy with each other. This is usually explained to mean that they were concerned only with learning Torah for themselves, and not with others.”

At this point the Rosh Yeshiva recited the continuation of the Midrash from memory: “And Rabbi Akiva subsequently appointed seven talmidim –  Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov… and said to them: ‘My sons, the first disciples died only because their approach to Torah was narrow. Make it your business not to emulate them – don’t learn Torah only for yourselves, but rather go out and teach it to others. Therefore, they went out and filled all of Eretz Yisroel with Torah.”

Reb Nosson Tzvi then smiled and said, “The seven talmidim whom Rabbi Akiva sent out were established talmidei chachomim. Our talmidim are not yet in that category. Their task is to learn Torah and to grow in Torah until they attain the status of talmidei chachomim. Until that time, they must remain within the walls of the beis medrash.”

Sources: In One Era, Out the Other, by Michael Kaufman p. 436-442; quoted in For the Love of Torah, by Hanoch Teller, p. 214-218

[To be sure, the seven Tannaim mentioned were already great talmidei chachomim before they began to spread Torah. But how did Reb Nosson Tzvi deduce that the earlier 24,000 were on such a level? Perhaps they were young beginners, and still they were faulted for not sharing whatever they knew with others! – Apparently, Reb Nosson Tzvi reasoned that since the Midrash compares the two groups, they must have been on a similar level.

But we can conjecture that Reb Nosson Tzvi’s position was based on his own wisdom and experience, not only on the Midrash. He held that yeshiva talmidim should not go into kiruv until they have accumulated enough Torah knowledge to answer the questions posed by Jews who have grown up in the modern secular world, instead of just repeating what they have been taught to say, or referring the questioners to others. Also, he was concerned that kiruv workers should be strong enough in their own knowledge and emunah not to be influenced by the people and material they may encounter.]  

Yuma

Yuma 85a: Being Mechalel Shabbos for Kiruv

Yuma 85a. The question was asked of the Tannaim: From where do we learn that saving a life supercedes Shabbos? Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia said, “And the children of Israel shall keep the Shabbos.” The Torah says: Violate one Shabbos for him, so that he may keep many Shabbosos. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: Had I been there, I would have given an answer better than all of them: “Live by them” – and not die by them. Rava said: All of the arguments can be refuted except that of Shmuel, because the Tannaim’s arguments only work when one is certainly saving a life, but Shmuel’s works even when one is possibly saving a life.

יומא פה. נשאלה שאלה זו בפניהם: מניין לפקוח נפש שדוחה את השבת? …. רבי שמעון בן מנסיא אומר: (שמות לא) ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת, אמרה תורה: חלל עליו שבת אחת, כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה. אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל: אי הואי התם הוה אמינא: דידי עדיפא מדידהו, (ויקרא יח) וחי בהם ־ ולא שימות בהם. אמר רבא: לכולהו אית להו פירכא, בר מדשמואל דלית ליה פרכא… אשכחן ודאי, ספק מנלן.

A man came to Rabbi Naftali Jaeger, Rosh Yeshiva of Sh’or Yoshuv, and asked the following question: The Rema (Orach Chaim 306:14) says that someone whose daughter was kidnapped by the priests for forced conversion must violate Shabbos to save her. In other words, saving someone from shmad has the same status as saving a life. If so, it should be allowed to violate Shabbos in order to do kiruv, for example driving to give shiurim or participate in a kiruv event. He said he had asked the question to many rabbis and no one had been able to answer.

Rabbi Jaeger did not have an answer either. But some time later, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro came to New York, and Rabbi Jaeger brought him to visit this man. The man presented his question, and Rabbi Shapiro answered immediately.

The Gemara in Yuma says that there are two reasons to violate Shabbos when saving a life: 1) “Violate one Shabbos so that he may keep many.” 2) Vachai bahem – “Live by them.” Rava then states that the principle of “violate one Shabbos” works only if the life will certainly be saved, but “vachai bahem” works even in a case where there is only a possibility of saving a life.

The Netziv (Haamek Sheilah 167:13) shows that there are cases when only “violate one Shabbos” works but not “vachai bahem.” In Bava Metzia 114b, the story is told that Rabbah bar Avuha met Eliyahu Hanavi in a non-Jewish cemetery. He asked, “Isn’t the Master a kohein?” Eliyahu replied that the graves of non-Jews do not contaminate their airspace. Tosafos asks: If Eliyahu was a kohein, how could he have touched the boy he brought back to life? Tosafos answers that he was certain that he would succeed in resurrecting him, so it was permitted for pikuach nefesh. The question is: if resurrecting a dead person is considered like saving a life, why did Tosafos have to say Eliyahu was sure he would succeed? Even if there was only a small chance of success, it should be allowed, just like pikuach nefesh pushes aside Shabbos even when there is a chance of success. The Netziv answers: “Vachai bahem” doesn’t apply when the person is already dead. But “violate one Shabbos” does – because indeed, after he comes back to life, he will be keeping many Shabbosos. And as Rava said in Yuma, “violate one Shabbos” works only in a case of certainty.

“Now we can answer your question very simply,” concluded R’ Moshe Shapiro. “Saving the girl from the priests may or may not be successful. But since she is still a religious Jew now, she is considered spiritually alive. The rule of ‘vachai bahem’ thus applies and one may violate Shabbos to save her. The secular Jews who are the targets of kiruv, on the other hand, are already spiritually dead. We are trying to bring them back to life. For bringing back to life, we don’t use ‘vachai bahem.’ The only reason to do it would be ‘violate one Shabbos so that he may keep many.’ And since we have only a chance of success, this principle doesn’t apply!”

Source: Shiur by Rabbi Naftali Jaeger, 7 Teves 5778

Niddah

Niddah 30b: The Innate Ability to See All

Niddah 30b: Rabbi Simlai expounded: What does a fetus in his mother’s womb look like? Like a folded writing tablet, his hands on his temples, his elbows on his knees, his two heels on his two buttocks, and his head between his knees. His mouth is closed and his navel is open, and he eats from what his mother eats, drinks from what his mother drinks, and does not eliminate waste, lest he kill his mother. And once he emerges into the air of the world, that which was closed opens and that which was open closes, for if not, he would not be able to live even for a short time. And there is a candle burning above his head, and he gazes and sees from one end of the world to the other, as it is written (Iyov 29:3), “When He lit His candle over my head; by His light I would go through the darkness.” And do not be surprised, for a person can sleep here and dream about Spain.   

נדה ל ע”ב: דרש רבי שמלאי: למה הולד דומה במעי אמו ־ לפנקס שמקופל ומונח. ידיו על שתי צדעיו, שתי אציליו על ב׳ ארכובותיו, וב׳ עקביו על ב׳ עגבותיו, וראשו מונח לו בין ברכיו, ופיו סתום וטבורו פתוח, ואוכל ממה שאמו אוכלת, ושותה ממה שאמו שותה, ואינו מוציא רעי שמא יהרוג את אמו. וכיון שיצא לאויר העולם ־ נפתח הסתום ונסתם הפתוח, שאלמלא כן אינו יכול לחיות אפילו שעה אחת. ונר דלוק לו על ראשו וצופה ומביט מסוף העולם ועד סופו, שנאמר (איוב כ״ט) בהלו נרו עלי ראשי לאורו אלך חשך. ואל תתמה, שהרי אדם ישן כאן ורואה חלום באספמיא.

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman said that the Chofetz Chaim possessed miraculous spiritual intuition, to the extent that he knew the next person’s thoughts and general situation. He added, in explanation, that the human personality was created with the capacity of seeing and knowing everything. And so we find in Niddah that a child in its mother’s womb looks and sees from one end of the world to the other, for such is the nature of the soul which the Holy One, blessed is He, has molded, and every Jew has such a soul. The trouble is the soul resides within a corporeal body, which acts as a barrier and blocks our vision. The body of a person whose every action is performed for the sake of Heaven, however, becomes so purified as no longer to constitute a barrier. Everything becomes transparent to him.

Rabbi Aharon Kotler was with the Chofetz Chaim at the Warsaw conference in Shevat 5690 (1930). Before leaving to return home, Reb Aharon went to take leave of the Chofetz Chaim, who took him by the hand and talked about the problems discussed at the conference. In the course of the conversation, he remarked: “It should also be known that once a masechta is begun, it should be completed.” And then he reverted once more to the topic of their conversation. Reb Ahraon was shocked, since just at that time of year he often had begun the study of an additional masechta besides the one he taught to his yeshiva in Kletzk, but did not complete it. He himself had not mentioned the subject to anyone else. The Chofetz Chaim could only have known this because “G-d reveals His secrets to those that fear Him.”

When Reb Aharon related the incident to Reb Elchonon, the latter revealed that this had happened to him as well. Once, the Chofetz Chaim had said to him, quite unexpectedly: “We consider ourselves lomdim. How is it possible to think so, if we omit a single masechta, like Nazir or such-and-such?” Until then, for some reason or other, Reb Elchonon had neglected studying in depth Nazir and the other tractates mentioned by the Chofetz Chaim.

Rabbi Mendel Kaplan related that whenever Reb Elchonon would return to Baranovich from a visit in Radun with his Rebbe, he would be in a festive spirit and would hardly stop speaking about what he had seen and heard on his visit to the Chofetz Chaim. But on one occasion, he hardly spoke. Instead, he remarked with deep emotion, “The Chofetz Chaim looks and sees from one end of the world to the other… I heard terrible things from him… and were I permitted to divulge to you what he said, you yourselves would certainly be convinced that he observes and literally sees from one end of the world to the other.” Reb Mendel later conjectured that the Chofetz Chaim had spoken about the impending Holocaust, to which he had alluded beforehand on several occasions.

A remarkable personal anecdote was related by Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky: “In August 1930 I was sent to prison by the Russian Bolsheviks for engaging in religious activities. I was tried and sentenced to five years of hard labor in exile in Siberia. For almost 14 months I was kept in prison and persecuted. On Erev Yom Kippur 1931, they suddenly came to me and informed me that I was to be freed, and was to leave Russia within one month… When I escaped and traveled by train from Moscow to Riga, the first person to greet me in the railroad car was Reb Elchonon of Baranovich, who fell on my neck with tears of joy. And after I had settled in London, I was privileged once again to meet Reb Elchonon, who was there in the interests of his yeshiva. This time I met him on the platform of the railway station. And while we were standing there, we talked Torah and spoke of the Chofetz Chaim. Then Reb Elchonon told me: “On Erev Yom Kippur of that year, I was staying in the Chofetz Chaim’s home. We were studying together. Suddenly he interrupted the subject of our discussion, and without any connection with what we had been talking of beforehand, he announced again and again, triumphantly, raising his hands: ‘The Bolsheviks didn’t accomplish anything; the Bolsheviks didn’t accomplish anything. They were forced against their will to release the Slutzker Rav.’ Then he resumed his studies. Reb Elchonon looked at his watch and noted the time. Years later, he learned that this was the very moment when I was given my liberty.”  His son, Rabbi Mordechai Ezra Abramsky, added that during the entire period of his imprisonment, the Chofetz Chaim would recite eight chapters of Tehillim each day after Shacharis to pray for his release. On the day of the release itself, however, he did not.

Source: Reb Elchonon (Artscroll), pp. 52-54

Bava Kama

Bava Kama 78b: Making Restitution with a Cheaper Esrog

Bava Kama 78b: Rava asked: If a man vowed to bring an olah, and set aside an ox, and someone stole it, can the thief make restitution with a sheep (or a bird according to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah who holds that one making a vow without specifying the size of the animal can use a bird)? Do we focus on the vow which was to bring any olah, or can he demand an ox on the grounds that he wishes to perform the mitzvah in the best way? Rava answered his own question: He may make restitution with a sheep or a bird.

בבא קמא עח ע”ב: בעי רבא: הרי עלי עולה והפריש שור, ובא אחר וגנב, מי פטר גנב נפשיה בכבש לרבנן, בעולת העוף לר׳ אלעזר בן עזריה? דתנן: הרי עלי עולה ־ יביא כבש, ר״א בן עזריה אומר: יביא תור או בן יונה, מאי? מי אמרינן שם עולה קביל עילויה, או דלמא מצי א״ל אנא מצוה מן המובחר בעינא למיעבד? בתר דאיבעיא הדר פשט: גנב פטר עצמו בכבש לרבנן, בעולת העוף לר׳ אלעזר בן עזריה.

In 1903, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman began his first position as rosh yeshiva in Mtsislavl. One of his talmidim from that period, Rabbi Shmaryahu Nochum Shushenkin, kept a diary in which he described Reb Elchonon’s teaching method. “It was Reb Elchonon’s practice to stop delivering his shiur for a day or two after the completion of a Perek, or half a Perek, if it was lengthy, to allow the students to review what they had learned so far. For this he would organize groups of four or five students with similar abilities. Because of his erudition in the writings of the Acharonim, he was capable of sharpening and testing his students by means of an interesting device. He would pose questions to them which had been answered by the Acharonim, for instance Noda Beyehuda, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Chasam Sofer and others, by reference to the Gemara or Tosafos which the pupils had been studying. If the Gemara or Tosafos had been thoroughly assimilated and retained in the student’s mind, he would discover the answer to Reb Elchonon’s questions in the Gemara he had been studying that day or the day before.

“I remember one question posed to us by Reb Elchonon. Someone had stolen an esrog of superior quality. Could he make restitution by giving the owner a kosher, but not so beautiful esrog? We found the answer in Rava’s remark in Merubah. There the case is mentioned of someone who had vowed to bring a korban olah and had set aside an ox for the fulfillment of his vow. A thief stole the ox. According to the Sages, the thief can free himself from further obligation by restoring a sheep, and according to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, even by a bird suitable for a korban olah. Similarly in our case, the thief may free himself of further obligation by restoring an esrog of inferior quality, as long as it is kosher. The plaintiff’s argument – “I want to perform a mitzvah in the most elegant manner” – has no validity.

Source; Reb Elchonon (Artscroll), p. 41

[The comparison between a korban and an esrog is surprising. A korban does not belong to the vower, and the thief is only paying because of Rabbi Shimon’s rule that דבר הגורם לממון כממון דמי (something that causes you to lose money is like your money), as Rashi says. Since if the thief were not caught, the vower would only have to bring a sheep to replace the ox, the thief too need only pay for a sheep. But an esrog is not consecrated to hekdesh, and it is the regular property of the owner. How then can a thief make restitution with something worth less than what he stole?

It seems that Reb Elchonon was saying a tremendous chiddush here: an esrog is not intrinsically worth the amount of money you pay for it. It is valuable only as a דבר הגורם לממון, and is therefore only worth the amount that you would have to pay to do the mitzvah at the simplest level.

Of course, this would only apply to the person planning to use the esrog for the mitzvah on Succos, not to a merchant. Thus a thief who stole a $100 esrog from an esrog store could not make restitution with a $50 esrog. (See the article “Purloined Esrogim” by Rabbi Meir Orlian of the Business Halacha Institute, in which someone stole expensive esrogim from a merchant before Succos and returned them after Succos. The psak there was that he must pay their full pre-Succos value.)

The Chazon Ish (Bava Kama 6:3) similarly rules that if someone damages a person’s house, the amount he pays would depend on what the owner intends on doing with the house. If he plans to fix the damage, he would pay the cost to fix it, but if he plans to sell it, he would only pay the negligible amount by which the house dropped in value.

However, the Chazon Ish there quotes a Rashi that seems to contradict all of the above. Rashi in Gittin 53a says that if kohanim ruin a korban through pigul, they have to pay even if the korban was a nedavah, an optional korban for which the owner is not responsible if lost. Even though they didn’t cause the owner any loss, he can argue that he wanted to bring his korban and thus suffered a loss. How does this fit with Reb Elchonon, and indeed, with the Gemara we began with in Bava Kama 78b? Maybe Rashi means that he will not replace the korban at all, so he is demanding compensation for his disappointment at not bringing any korban. In our case, however, he is replacing the korban (or esrog), albeit with a less expensive one.

As an aside, we can learn from Reb Elchonon the great value of analyzing stories and real life cases in order to better understand the Gemara.]

Sanhedrin

Sanhedrin 61b: Was the Emperor Hirohito Considered an Avodah Zarah?

Sanhedrin 61b: If one worships an idol out of love or fear, Abaye says he is liable, Rava says he is exempt. Abaye said: I can prove my opinion from the following Baraisa: The Torah says, “You shall not bow down to them.” To them you shall not bow, but you may bow to a fellow man, unless he is worshipped like Haman. Now, Haman was worshipped out of fear, yet it says you may not bow to him. Rava replied: The Baraisa only cites Haman as an example of a person who was worshipped, but in Haman’s actual case, it would have been permitted to bow down because he was worshipped only out of fear. Only in a case when the people worshipped a human being not out of fear but out of real belief, would the Baraisa prohibit bowing.

Tosafos begins by assuming Rashi’s explanation of the Gemara: that we are discussing an idol that has real believers, but this particular Jew does not believe and is only bowing to it out of love for a person or fear of a person. Tosafos asks: isn’t a Jew forbidden to bow to an idol even when threatened with death? Obviously, if he bows at gunpoint, he doesn’t actually believe and is only bowing out of fear, yet the rule is “be killed rather than transgress” – יהרג ואל יעבור.  How can Rava permit this?

Tosafos answers that, true, one is forbidden to bow at gunpoint, and Rava only meant that if he does so, he is not liable to punishment. (According to this, Abaye would hold that he is punished even if he bowed at gunpoint. The halacha, brought by the Rambam in Yesodei Hatorah 5:4, that one who failed the trial of Kiddush Hashem and bowed to the idol is not executed by Beis Din, would be true only according to Rava.)

Then Tosafos offers a second answer that revises our understanding of the whole sugya: that the case of the Gemara is where no one actually believes in the idol; all of them bow only out of love or fear. In this case Rava permits bowing along with them. The Baraisa cites Haman as an example of someone worshipped only out of fear, and Rava says that in Haman’s exact case, it would have been permitted to bow. Why then did Mordechai refuse to bow? Because Haman had an idol on his heart, or because Mordechai wished to go beyond the call of duty and made a Kiddush Hashem.

Although Rashi and the first opinion in Tosafos do not learn the sugya this way, there is no reason to assume that they would disagree in halacha if such a case – where no one actually believes in the idol – were to arise.

סנהדרין סא ע”ב: איתמר, העובד עבודה זרה מאהבה ומיראה, אביי אמר: חייב, רבא אמר: פטור. אביי אמר: חייב, דהא פלחה. רבא אמר: פטור, אי קבליה עליה באלוה ־ אין, אי לא ־ לא…. אמר אביי: מנא אמינא לה ־ דתניא: (שמות כ׳) לא תשתחוה להם, להם אי אתה משתחוה, אבל אתה משתחוה לאדם כמותך. יכול אפילו נעבד כהמן ־ תלמוד לומר (שמות כ׳) ולא תעבדם. ־ והא המן מיראה הוה נעבד. ־ ורבא: כהמן ־ ולא כהמן. כהמן ־ דאיהו גופיה עבודה זרה, ולא כהמן ־ דאילו המן מיראה, והכא לאו מיראה.

תוספות: אע״ג דבפ׳ בן סורר ומורה (לקמן דף עד.) אמר בעבודת כוכבים יהרג ואל יעבור י״ל נהי דחייב למסור עצמו לכתחלה מ״מ היכא דלא מסר את עצמו לא מיחייב מיתה וכו’ וי״מ הא דאמר יהרג ואל יעבור היינו בסתם עבודת כוכבים והכא איירי בעבודת כוכבים שהכל עובדים מאהבה ומיראה דומיא דהמן דמייתי וכו’ וא״ת לרבא אמאי לא השתחוה מרדכי להמן וי״ל כדאמר במדרש שהיו צלמים על לבו אי נמי משום קידוש השם כדאמרינן בירושלמי דשביעית (פ״ד) כגון פפוס ולוליינוס אחים שנתן להם מים בזכוכית צבועה ולא קיבלו:

During WWII, Harav Aharon Kotler spent time in Japan. There was a law in Japan that if ever the Emperor’s vehicle drove through a street a siren was sounded and anyone in the area had to immediately fall to the ground – a law which was enforced instantly and forcefully. One was not required to bow directly towards the Emperor, rather to just fall to the ground as a matter of respect, and it seems even Yeshiva men complied. The Rosh Yeshiva in general refrained from walking in the street as much as possible, but one day he had to go to the bank and did so accompanied by a certain Reb Moshe Cohen. Sure enough, the Emperor appeared. Everyone, including Reb Moshe Cohen, fell immediately to the ground. Everyone that is, except the Rosh Yeshiva, who feared that the show of respect was connected to the Japanese belief in the divinity of the Emperor. Immediately the Rosh Yeshiva was clubbed on the back by a policeman so hard that he was laid up in bed for days. When he next saw his companion he berated him. “R’ Moshe, Hayitochen? How could you fall? Abizraya d’avodah zarah! There was a taint of avodah zarah involved.”

Source: The Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler, p. 437, related by Rav Zvulun Schwartzman.

[The Japanese fascist government of that period encouraged emperor worship in order to unify the people and motivate them to fight to the death in World War II. During earlier periods, as well as today, the emperor was not worshipped, although he was believed to be descended from the sun. 

The dispute between Reb Aharon and the others seems to hinge on the above Tosafos. Reb Aharon feared that the Japanese people really believed in the divinity of the Emperor, while the others held that even the Japanese only bowed out of love for their country, dedication to the Emperor and fear of the police.

How many Japanese would have to view their emperor as a god in order for Reb Aharon to be correct? Tosafos says:

והכא איירי בעבודת כוכבים שהכל עובדים מאהבה ומיראה

“Here [that Rava says it is permitted to bow down] we are talking about an idol that everyone worships out of love or fear.”

The implication is that if some people, even a small number, actually believe in the idol, it is forbidden to bow.

However, the Piskei Hatosfos (123) says:

ע”ז שדרכה לעבוד מאהבה ויראה או שמפרש מאהבה ויראה פטור עליה

“If an idol is normally worshipped out of love and fear, or when the Jew bowing states explicitly that he is only doing so out of love or fear, he is exempt.”

The first part of this quote indicates that what is usually done is the determining factor; it does not matter if there is a small minority of believers. The second part, that the Jew’s statement helps, comes from Tosafos in Shabbos 72b. In fact, it seems that the reason why “usually” is enough is precisely because it allows us to assume that that is the Jew’s intent too even without him making an explicit statement.]