Friday, April 12, 2013

Insensitivity to family: The Alter Rebbe admonished his son for being so engrossed in learning he didn't notice that his baby fell out of his cradle

In light of the discussion regarding Eiruvin (22a)  that a talmid chachom must be insensitive to his own needs and that  of his family - the following story raises questions. It is clear that the gemora in Eiruvin is not meant in an absolute sense. So what are the parameters? 

I would suggest that there is a constant obligation to be insensitive for the sake of Torah learning. However when a meis mitzva arises he must give up his learning until the mitzva is taken care of. In other words - Torah learning is the highest priority except in the face of a need which isn't being taken care of by others. Rashi says that one can be insensitive in providing food  - because G-d will provide. It would also following that if the wife or children can not accept living by bitachon - that this would also be a meis mitzva and the husband would have to give up his learning. However if the wife and kids can accept it - such as  the case of Rabbi Akiva's wife who accepted him leaving her for 24 years  - his obligation is to learn and not take care of his family.

Consequently the only reason the Alter Rebbe admonished his son - was that his son had accepted the responsiblity of watching the baby. It was a meis mitzva in regards to the son. Therefore doing anything other than the obligation to learn Torah is only a heter based on the immediate circumstances. Once the heter of meis mitzva goes away then the obligation of Torah learning is automatically reactivated
By the Grace of G‑d
13 Kislev, 5723
[December 10, 1962]
Brooklyn, N.Y.
Greeting and Blessing:

I was pleased to receive the news of your forthcoming Dinner on the 20th of Kislev, the day after the historic Day of Liberation of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch and founder of Chabad.

It is both timely and meaningful to recall the following episode from his life and teachings:
The Alter Rebbe shared his house with his oldest married son, Rabbi Dov Ber (who later succeeded him as the Mitteler Rebbe). Rabbi Dov Ber was known for his unusual power of concentration. Once, when Rabbi Dov Ber was engrossed in learning, his baby, sleeping in its cradle nearby, fell out and began to cry. The infant’s father did not hear the baby’s cries. But the infant’s grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, also engrossed in his studies in his room on the upper floor at the time, most certainly did. He interrupted his studies, went downstairs, picked the baby up, soothed it and replaced it in its cradle. Through all this Rabbi Dov Ber remained quite oblivious.

Subsequently, the Alter Rebbe admonished his son: “No matter how engrossed one may be in the loftiest occupation, one must never remain insensitive to the cry of a child.”

This story has been transmitted to us from generation to generation; I heard it from my father-in-law of saintly memory. It was handed down because of the lasting message it conveys, one which is particularly pertinent to our time. It characterizes one of the basic tenets of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—to hearken to the cry of our distressed Jewish children.

The “child” may be an infant in years, a Jewish boy or girl of school age, fallen from the “cradle” of Torah-true Jewish education, or it may be someone who is chronologically an adult yet an “infant” insofar as Jewish life is concerned, an infant in knowledge and experience of the Jewish religion, heritage and way of life.

The souls of these Jewish “children” cry out in anguish, for they live in a spiritual void, whether they are conscious of this or feel it only subconscaiously. Every Jew, no matter how preoccupied he may be with any lofty cause, must hear the cries of these Jewish children. Bringing these Jewish children back to their Jewish cradle has priority over all else.


  1. Someone I sit next to in one of the shuls I go to is a Psychologist, and professor in some field. I actually had a discussion with him about the issue of whether our psychology has changed. He seemed to agree with my claim that conditions have always existed, but are defined (or missed) differently as time goes forward.
    Now, what is the Alter rebbe saying, it is that the Jewish children will cry (za'aka). This was 250 years ago. Today it might be called abuse or neglect. But zaaka was also what we did 3500 years ago in Egypt. Te psychology of abuse is the same, the terminology is different.
    Now the argument against this aggadah (which so far you have not shown to appear in any codified halachic work)is that we were taken out of Egypt not to have the same abuse in the name of Torah study, but Torah is Darcheiha Darchei Noam.

    1. Eddie we still are not talking about the same thing. However I am glad to see that your respect the opinion of someone who is a psychologist and professor in some field. I am a psychologist and for a number of years was a professor of psychology in several colleges. Not sure what was said in your discussion with your psychologist - but if he actually disagreed with me - which I doubt - than my unsupported statements have the same weight has his.

      If someone cried 250 years ago or a 1000 years it doesn't tell us anything about the psychology associated with that cry. You keep saying it is - without offering the slightest evidence. A cry 250 years ago is not necessarily what we call abuse today.

      Do you agree that the psychology of a slave is different than a free man? The psychology of a man in traditional society is different than that of a woman. Western man's focus on self-actualization is different than primitive societies where the psychology involves physical survival

      Regarding codifiying the Avodas HaMelech cites this gemora as the source of the Rambam Hilchos Talmud Torah

      Avodas HaMelech (Hilchos Talmud Torah Chapter 1): Even a married person with children is obligated to study Torah. We see in Eiruvin (22a) concerning the verse in Shir HaShirim (5:11) Black as a crow – that Torah scholarship is found amongst those who blacken their faces like a crow [through deprevation and hunger]...and those who make themselves cruel to their children and wives like a crow...for example the one who was asked before leaving to study Torah how his children were to be fed? He answered that there were edible herbs in the marsh that they could eat.

    2. Here is an interesting citation from Moreh Nevuchim which agrees with Eiruvin 22a

      רבי מתתיה היצהרי על אבות פרק ג

      כתב הר"מ (במורה נבוכים) בפל"ד ח"א סבה המונעת השלימות, העוסק באשה ובנים. ולזה אמרו ז"ל בפרק פסין (עירובין כב ע"א) מאי דכתיב שחורות כעורב (שיר השירים ה, יא), אין התורה מתקיימת אלא במי שמשחיר פניו על דברי תורה כעורב. ר"א למי שמשים עצמו אכזרי על בניו כעורב. אמרו במדרש (תנחומא עקב ג) שהעורב רואה עצמו שחור וגוזליו לבנים סבור שאינם שלו, והש"י יזמין להם יתושים מתוך צואתם ונכנסים לתוך פיהם, והיינו דכתיב לבני עורב אשר יקראו (תהלים קמז, ט). גם זה יחשוב בשלמות נפשו יותר מפרנסת בניו. ובמסכת קידושין (כט ע"ב) הוא ללמוד ובנו ללמוד, הוא קודם לבנו, ואם היה בנו זריז וממולא בתלמוד ותלמוד[ו] מתקיים בידו, בנו קודם.

    3. Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 1:34):[[ Fifth Reason.--Man is disturbed in his intellectual occupation by the necessity of looking after the material wants of the body, especially if the necessity of providing for wife and children be superadded: much more so if he seeks superfluities in addition to his ordinary wants, for by custom and bad habits these become a powerful motive. Even the perfect man to whom we have referred, if too busy with these necessary things, much more so if busy with unnecessary things, and filled with a great desire for them-must weaken or altogether lose his desire for study, to which he win apply himself with interruption, lassitude, and want of attention. He will not attain to that for which he is fitted by his abilities, or he will acquire imperfect knowledge, a confused mass of true and false ideas. For these reasons it was proper that the study of Metaphysics should have been exclusively cultivated by privileged persons, and not entrusted to the common people. It is not for the beginner, and he should abstain from it, as the little child has to abstain from taking solid food and from carrying heavy weights.

    4. DT, you raise some very interesting points, which I need to research further.
      Let's put it this way, a cry for hunger is the same whether a child of a Talmid hacham, or someone in africa, or inner city in London.
      I was contrasting the ethic of Darchei Noam, which is from TeNaCh, with this extreme ethic of self denial. "Western man's focus on self-actualization" is nothing new, although it was coined by Avraham Maslow. You only need to read Koheleteh where Shlomo Hamelech describes the precise issue of the hierarchy of needs, and how each time he reaches "self actualisation" it is a transitory state, and he then again needs some new goal to aim for.
      So my interpretation of "ain chadash tachat hashemesh" is that he is not referring to physical technology, but to human psychology. Of course there are new things, each time a new computer or molecule it invented, it is new, and was not around 3000 years ago. The psychology, however was around. It cannot be otherwise.
      Slavery and freedom, these can be spoken in terms of one's locus of control, which is discussed in modern psychology.
      What was the reason the Israelites did not have emunah in Hashem even after crossing the red sea? In modern psychology, we can call it learned helplessness. The condition is not new, since it is described explicitly in
      the Torah, however, the terminology and rediscovery is new.
      One last thing, the professor I mentioned is also "mitnaged" to Psychoanalysis, just as you seem to be. On this I disagree with both Professors.
      Psychoanlysis in many ways is drawing from Jewish sources, both nigleh and nistar. For example, "projection" is a mechanism already discussed in the Talmud, where one who questions somebody else's lineage, we must suspect his lineage. So the same defence mechanisms like denial, existed 4000 years ago (eg Sarah laughed, then she denied).

    5. הלכות דעות פרק ה In Rambam

      כ [י] תלמיד חכמים, מכלכל דבריו במשפט, אוכל ושותה וזן את אנשי ביתו כפי ממונו והצלחתו, ולא יטריח על עצמו יותר מדיי.....

      כב ציוו חכמים ואמרו, לעולם יאכל אדם פחות מן הראוי לו לפי ממונו, וילבוש כראוי לו; ויכבד אשתו ובניו, יתר מן הראוי לו.

      Seems to oppose this concept completely.

  2. This is consistent with the general approach of Chabad chassidus today: although Torah study is course valued, it is considered most important to sacrifice even one's own spiritual advancement in order to engage in acts of lovingkindness toward one's fellow Jews. Male shluchim certainly study Torah, but they also help raise their children and do everything they can to help their fellow Jews. This is a more balanced approach than what is provided in the sources R' Eidensohn recently provided. As for sources supporting it, they appear throughout the Lubavitcher Rebbe's works.

  3. וכמו שאמרו, אם רואה אדם שיסורים באים עליו יפשפש במעשיו. פשפש ולא מצא יתלה בביטול תורה (ברכות ה). והדקדוש מפורסם באם יש בו ביטול תורה איך קאמר פשפש ולא מצא? אלא, יתלה בביטול תורה, הכוונה, שלא רצה לעסוק במצות ה׳, ובצרכי הציבור מפני שהתירא מביטול תורה, וזה עוון פלילי, כי כל התורה לא באה אלא ללמד לבני אדם להועיל ולהיטב לאחרים ולא להתיראות ולחוש לעצמו בלבד
    (Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, cited by ר' אברהם פרייס in
    אמרי אברהם פרשת חיי שרה, דרשה ב, אות יא)


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