Saturday, August 26, 2023

A tzadik is born because of a clothes line - and other false stories

[See updates below] [ See Couple has baby after 25 years]
Where does Jewish hashkofa come from? It is interesting to note that the Chovas HaLevavos says that the Sanhedrin did not deal with hashkofa questions because they can be known through seichel. In fact many hashkofa principles are learned from the proper study of medrashism and agada. However perhaps the most influential source of hashkofa are not seforim written by gedolim but rather stories about gedolim. Unfortunately as the Satmar Rebbe and others have pointed out - there is a problem of stories about gedolim actually being made up to teach hashkofa. The consequences of this is that not only did the events not happen as reported - but often the hashkofa being taught is distorted or is incorrect. But who can argue with frum "reality?"

I recently observed a heated debate between a couple regarding the necessity of being m'vatar ( of not pressing ones legitimate complaints but instead responding passively). The wife (ironically) insisted that it was obvious that one should not be aggressive in demanding one's rights from the following often told story - whose truth has been attested by many. She said triumphantly said, "It is clear from this story that the highest level of response is to be m'vatar. One should not strongly protest and defend one's rights - but simply grin and bear it - and G-d will reward you. If it hadn't been for this attitude of being m'vatar then not only would this woman not have a child - but the Jewish people would have been deprived of the tremendous zechus of having the gadol hador - Rav Eliashiv!"

This story is discussed in great detail in the biography of Rav Eliashiv and the author proves the story is inaccurate in describing the facts of Rav Eliashiv's life - who was not born in Jerusalem. [deletion]. Nonetheless it still is being taught in Beis Yaakovs and repeated by preachers of all types to prove a point. [see Yated editorial for a more detailed version] There's a well-known story of a Yerushalmi woman who'd spent hours washing sheets, stringing up lines, and hanging out her family's wash. A short time later, her upstairs neighbor came home and was annoyed at the lines that had been temporarily strung. Angrily, she cut them down, and the clean laundry fell onto the muddy ground. When the first woman later went to take in her wash, she was dismayed to discover a disaster -- all the clothes were dirty and would have to be rewashed. It was obvious to her exactly what had happened.
However, she said nothing; she took the muddy sheets back into her house and began the whole laborious washing process once again.
When her husband returned home, she made no mention of the afternoon's aggravation. But late that night, there was a frantic knocking at their door. There stood the upstairs neighbor, in tears. Her child had a sudden high fever, and she was asking forgiveness for the laundry incident. The husband, who had answered the door, was surprised to hear about the event. His wife immediately and wholeheartedly forgave the woman and wished her child a full and speedy recovery.
About a year later, this righteous woman gave birth to a special son -- Rabby Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who today is the leading rabbi in Jerusalem.

Update September 9, 2013: First of I agree with some of the comments that the problem with the story is not its historical inaccuracy. 1) It must have happened in Lithuania and not Jerusalem. 2) The claim that his mother was childless for 17 years is problematic because that means that his father got married when he was 13 years. 3) Some versions say that as a result of this incident her great kabbalist father – the Leshem – gave her a beracha. But it only worked because of she restrained her upset. Other versions don't mention any beracha.

Of greater concern is that fact that Rav Eliashiv didn't seem interested in talking about the obvious greatness of his mother expressed in the story – but he just noted that the story wrongly claimed that he was born in Jerusalem! [Contrary what I had originally posted – he didn't claim the story was false.]

However there is something else that bothers me greatly about this story - something which has touched upon in some other comments. My concern is the great weight to miraculous events - or even positive events -  that are brought as proofs that a certain hashkofa or halacha is correct because of some observed differential consequences. 

It is clear that the story is told to prove the desirability of not responding when someone provokes. The "proof" for this assertion is that a woman whose wash was ruined but she didn't react or even comment – was rewarded with a child after 17 years. Not just any child but the gadol hador!

But does it in fact prove such a view? Obviously not. There are many factors that have been responsible for providing the merit of having a child. We simply aren't prophets.  

But doesn't it at least clarify what the ideal response is? The answer again is no!
The Yated's version: With much emotion, she related the story. She explained that the cruel actions of her neighbor had been too much for her to handle in her already fragile state and she couldn’t calm down. But rather than react with angry words to her neighbor, she went inside her home to express her pain in private. She told him how she then went and redid the laundry, without making a machlokes or telling anyone. “The fact that you didn’t respond to her and prevented this from becoming a fight,” said the father, “will be the merit you need to be helped. Your great deed will grant you a child who will be great.”
In fact if a person is hurt or suffers material loss because of the intentional acts of another – it is important to give tochacha. A Torah command. Such incorrect behavior needs to corrected – in a responsible manner. Repressing anger and hurt causes a transgression of "hatred in your heart" which we are told is worse than if we had hit the aggressor. Being m'vatair obviously has its place – especially when there is no constructive response possible e.g., if it causes greater aggression and anger. But acting as if nothing has happened is often not the appropriate response. If we accept  the "lesson" of the story then parent's whose child has been abused should just accept it and go on with life. This story incorrectly teaches that turning the other cheek is the ideal. [see Yoma 23a and Rambam in the comments section]

Another example of this "evidence" based Judaism would be a person who claims that her son's cancer went into remission because she stopped wearing a sheitel. Or a husband's bipolar disorder improved because his wife became a Taliban lady. 

Bottom line is we don't posken based on "simonim" as implied in Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 179). This is explicitly stated in Bava Metzia (59b) which rejects the validity of proofs from the miracles that R' Eliezer brought to prove that the halacha was according to his view.

Update Sept 10, 2013 There is a flip side to this approach "evidence" based approach concerning negative experiences. I remember one morning going to a auto parts store in Far Rockaway and hearing the owner lament the fact that he had just become frum that week. "I was never robbed before I became religious."

A more direct statement of my concern for "evidence" based Judaism is a story I heard regarding Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky from his son-in-law - Rabbi Diskind.
1948 was believed to be a special time for Mosiach coming according to Kabbalistic sources. In Toronto there was a campaign of certain chassidim to get as many Jews to be Shomer Shabbos before Moshiach came. Rav Yaakov was consulted regarding a storekeeper who found the promises very tantalizing and was about to become Shomer Shabbos because of the chance that they might be true. Rav Yaakov's response was that they should stop pressuring the storekeeper to become observant. "Right now he is not observant but at least he is not an apikorus. When the year passes and Moshiach doesn't come he will not only stop being observant but will deliberately reject belief in Moshiach."


  1. Your point is well taken, but I think this story is a bad example. As mentioned in the Artscroll biography on Rebbetzin Kanievsky, the Rebbetzin used to repeat this story as having taken place in Shavel, her father's birthplace. So it's not like someone just made up the story -- at most there was an innocent confusion regarding the detail of where the incident took place.

    What is your source that R' Elyashiv denied the veracity of the story? Did he say the whole thing was false, or perhaps just certain details?

  2. What evidence have you to assert the story isn't correct or that RYSE said it didn't occur?

  3. The story as retold here may have simply mistaken it taking place in Jerusalem rather than in Lita.

  4. My source is the 2 volume biography of Rav Eliashiv - Hashakdan

    It says there that someone once cornered Rav Eliashiv in a car and pestered him about the story. He didn't want to discuss it but just said that he was born in Lithuania not Jerusalem.

    1. IOW, Rav Eliashev corrected the place where he was born, but the story itself is still true.

  5. "He didn't want to discuss it but just said that he was born in Lithuania not Jerusalem."

    That is a very far cry from calling it a "false story"!!

  6. The whole issue is moot because

    (1) the story, as the wife's proof for savlanos, in no way shows a middah kneged middah that the child came to her because of this or any other deed -- just that one gadol's mother happened to be an exceptionally forbearing person prior to her son's conception;

    (2) no rabbinical maaseh is needed directly to teach this middah of forbearance; the Rambam codified it as halakha in a few places -- most directly in H' Deos 2:3, but also emphasizing it for talmidey chakhamim at H' Deos 5:13 & H' Yesodey haT' 5:11. I see from the Moznaim English edition that, as you note, the source is Aggadic: this halakha is rooted in the Sifre, Dev. 11:21, and is quoting a Gemara that occurs three times - at Shabbas 88B, Yoma 23A, & Gittin 36B.

    So the wife doesn't need this story to make her point, and the story, if used to make the point, is just silly.

  7. Rabbi Eidensohn,

    With all due respect, Izzy's two excellent points really make your post virtually irrelevant. The "point" of your post may be true, but again, as Izzy stated, your story is a horrible example. According to Izzy (1st post) that story is explicitly in the Rebbetzin Kanievsky biography, and secondly (to Izzy's other point), saying that he was from Lita is not at all commenting about the facts of the story in general rather just "upshlugging" a detail. How could you not be aware of that and still write your post? I respect your writing greatly, but that one lacked appropriate research.

    Secondly, your larger point about Gedolim stories and many of them being a bunch of balderdash is true, but again I wonder why this one bothered you so much. I agree saying that such and such a Gadol never had a yetzer hara for anything and was always learning does more harm than it does good. But a story like this, which really shows the value of being koveish your middos, and still a very high madreigah, I'm not sure why it bothered you so much. I agree that journalistic integrity is important and something that is lacking in many of our biographies, but for some reason I don't feel this story does much harm and I'm somewhat curious as to what really bothers you about it. Is it just journalistic integrity? I see this different than the biographies about many well-known Gedolim that portray them as other-worldly and like malachim. Please respond.

  8. Interesting, my family is also from Shavel.

  9. Stories like this undermine much of what Judaism is supposed to teach. Instead of faith in God and serving Him through learning and mitzvah performance we seek to shortcuts to Gan Eden. Then we understand God as a simplistic 2 dimensional deity who can be bought off. Stories like this simply encourage that.

    1. The Gemara says kol ha'maavir al midosav ma'avirin lo al kol pe'sha'av. The Ramchal brings it in Derech Hashem.

      If you think being mevater is an easy shortcut, you should try it sometime.

      (Of course this has nothing to do with the truth of this story (or non-story))

    2. The gemora clearly states that the desirable state of not reacting - being mevater - is when the other person is interested in reconciliation - as the Rambam poskens

      Rambam (Hilchos De’os 6:6): When a person sins against another don’t keep it hidden and be silent … rather it is a mitzva to inform the sinner and to say to him, “Why did you do this to me and why did you sin against me in this matter? The Torah says that there is an obligation to chastise your people. If the perpetrator repents and asks for forgiveness then it is necessary to forgive him. The victim should not be cruel…

      Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 2:10): It is prohibited for a person to be cruel and not to be placated. Rather he should be easily placated and difficult to anger. When his assailant comes to ask forgiveness, he should forgive him whole-heartedly. Even if the assailant distressed him and sinned against him a lot – he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge. This is the Jewish way with their proper heart. In contrast the idolaters – those of uncircumcised heart – are different and they hold on to the hurt forever. That is in fact what it says about the Gibonim – that since they refused to forgive the deaths caused by Shaul’s actions and they refused to be placated – they were not considered to be of the children of Israel even though they had converted to Judaism.

      Yoma(23a)1 R. Johanan further said in the name of R. Simeon b. Jehozadak: Any scholar,who does not avenge himself and retain anger like a serpent, is no [real] scholar But is it not written: Thou shalt not take vengeance nor bear any grudge?2 — That refers to monetary affairs, for it has been taught: What is revenge and what is bearing a grudge? If one said to his fellow: ‘Lend me your sickle’, and he replied ‘No’, and to-morrow the second comes [to the first] and says: ‘Lend me your axe’! and he replies: ‘I will not lend it to you, just as you would not lend me your sickle’ — that is revenge. And what is bearing a grudge? If one says to his fellow: ‘Lend me your axe , he replies ‘No’, and on the morrow the second asks: ‘Lend me your garment’, and he answers: ‘Here it is. I am not like you who would not lend me [what I asked for]’ — that is bearing a grudge. But [does] not [this prohibition apply to] personal affliction? Has it not been taught: Concerning those who are insulted but do not insult others [in revenge], who hear themselves reproached without replying, who [perform good] work out of love of the Lord and rejoice in their sufferings,3 Scripture says: But they that love Him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might?4 — [That means,] indeed, that he keeps it in his heart [though without taking action]. Rut Raba said: He who passes over his retaliations has all his transgressions passed over? — [That speaks of the case] that an endeavour was made to obtain his reconciliation, and his consent is obtained.

    3. I came across that gemara in ther daf a few days ago, and decided to give a quick check of the Artie. (yoma volume 1 23a2 note 15)

      1) That's only if a talmid chacham was insulted.
      2) Accordsing to Ritvah (based on gemarah in megillah 28a) even a TC is only permitted to hold a grudge in religious matters, where it's neccesary to uphold the faith
      3) According to the Rambam, if the matter took place in private- where this story allegedly occurred, even a TC would be mechuyav to forgive.

  10. Perhaps this is an even clearer example of "historical" gedolim stories that may or not be historically accurate, but teach the very worst lessons...

  11. Hallachcilly, I think there is a mitzvo of Tochacha, unless the person belittled is honestly willing to forgive.

    I think this is the relevant halacha in the Rambam Hilchos Dayos Perek 6:

    ז הרואה חבירו שחטא או שהלך בדרך לא טובה מצוה להחזירו למוטב ... המוכיח את חבירו בין בדברים שבינו לבינו.... צריך להוכיחו בינו לבין עצמו. וידבר לו בנחת ובלשון רכה ויודיעו שאינו אומר לו אלא לטובתו להביאו לחיי העולם הבא. אם קיבל ממנו מוטב ואם לאו יוכיחנו פעם שניה ושלישית. ...
    ח המוכיח את חבירו תחלה לא ידבר לו קשות עד שיכלימנו ... ולא יספר לפניו דבר שהוא בוש ממנו. במה דברים אמורים בדברים שבין אדם לחבירו. ...
    ט מי שחטא עליו חבירו ולא רצה להוכיחו ולא לדבר לו כלום מפני שהיה החוטא הדיוט ביותר. או שהיתה דעתו משובשת. ומחל לו בלבו ולא שטמו ולא הוכיחו הרי זו מדת חסידות לא הקפידה תורה אלא על המשטמה:

  12. The key point in this post was actually contained in the next-to-last paragraph. Stories of this type, true or not, cannot proscribe behavior or theology; they are only meaningful when they reinforce our beliefs. A story proving the opposite can be explained away, or more likely ignored. Of course, in the argument described the story is then used as further evidence of the underlying belief, which is when things get ugly.

    On Rosh Hashanah our Rabbi told a story of a man he knew who experienced a miraculous recovery from a terminal illness (after continuing an experimental course of treatment after doctors has deemed it a failure). One of the merits of of this person was that he had tried to keep quasi-kosher while serving in the US army in Japan, going so far as to disregard an MD's orders to eat some (non-kosher meat) during a period of illness.

    I know that the Rabbi's intended message was perseverance in the face of adversity (he quoted Churchill's famous 'Never Give Up' with a fine impersonation) but the thinking among us were left scratching our heads: Is ignoring medical advice at a time of danger a meritorious halachik value (implicitly worthy of miraculous reward decades later)?

  13. "Another example of this "evidence based Judaism" would be a person who claims that her son's cancer went into remission because she stopped wearing a sheitel. Or a husband's bipolar disorder improved because his wife became a Taliban lady"

    I think "anecdote based Judaism" would be a more accurate term for what you are describing.

  14. I believe there is a missing word in the story about R. Yaakov and the non-religious shop keeper; shouldn't it say "Rav Yaakov's response was that they should [stop]pressuring the storekeeper to become observant." Otherwise the story itself does not seem logical

  15. The Reb Yaakov story can't be true. He never lived in Montreal. He lived in Toronto.

  16. I agree with your position in "evidence-based" Judaism, which is in fact "partial observation Judaism" - they see part of a complex story and draw the conclusions they want. This happens a lot after tragedies. After 9-11 people told stories about the person who was saved because they were learning and were late to work...and were therefore saved. The problem is that this simplistic approach would apply negatively was well. What about the person who davened vosikin and learned and showed up to work on time...and died? Is there some simple explanation of what they did wrong to merit death? I think the people who take the simplistic "evidence-based approach" may be likely to also make the mistake that if you just have bitachon, the desired outcome will happen. We just aren't in the position to make these equations - we are missing too much of the data!


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