Thursday, March 30, 2023

Usually, at a birthday or an anniversary, I think about how hard it is to believe that so much time has passed. As we celebrate The Jewish Link’s 10th anniversary, I find it hard to believe that the newspaper and its amazing staff have accomplished so much in so little time. The newspaper has grown—not just in terms of weekly pages, but also in its scope and reach. From humble beginnings, the newspaper has grown into a communal institution.

As we celebrate this anniversary, it is worth thinking about the religious value of publishing. A local publication of this nature brings the community together in multiple ways. It includes family updates—notices of births, weddings and deaths. The newspaper showcases local schools and charity efforts. Readers learn about neighborhood businesses, bringing a face and name to a storefront. This all offers busy people more familiarity with their surroundings, fostering a neighborly attitude that can be lacking in this digital age.

On a religious level, the newspaper informs readers about synagogue calendars and special events. While everyone should have a primary synagogue they call home, they should feel comfortable stopping by other synagogues on occasion. Additionally, the newspaper includes multiple Torah columns, which adds spirituality to the local features.


I. A Father’s Manuscript

A man in Israel once dedicated a sum of money to celebrate the memory of his father, who was a Torah scholar. After careful investigation, he determined that he had two options. Either he could pay an editor to prepare his father’s notes for publication and publish them as a book, which probably would be read by only a few family members. Or he could sponsor the purchase of basic Torah texts for use in busy study halls (batei midrash). He asked Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein (cont., Israel) which option was religiously preferable.

Rav Zilberstein (Chashukei Cheimed, Sanhedrin 24a) quotes the Gemara (Yevamot 96b) which says that a Torah scholar whose insights are quoted after his death gains additional merit, as if his lips move in the grave. However, that refers to quoting him orally. Publishing his insights adds another layer of complexity to the question.

Originally, the Written Torah (Bible) was intended to be written while, in contrast, the Oral Torah was allowed to be transmitted only verbally. These complex traditions and explanations can be taught best in a face-to-face interaction. However, due to persecution and a reduction in students, the Sages wrote the Oral Torah in order to prevent its loss (see the Rambam’s introduction to Mishneh Torah). They deduce permission from the verse that can be read as saying: “It is a time to act for the Lord (la-Shem), violate the law” (Tehillim 119:126). In order to preserve the Torah in general, the Sages permitted violating the rule against writing down Oral Torah (Gittin 60a).


II. Is Publishing a Mitzvah or Forbidden?

Rav Moshe Sofer (19th century Hungary; Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chaim 206) writes that we are only allowed to write down Oral Torah if our intent is purely for the sake of Heaven (la-Shem). If we write to gain honor or for other reasons, we still violate the prohibition. Somewhat similarly, in a letter to his son explaining his hesitance over publishing his responsa (introduction to Responsa Chatam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah), Rav Sofer says that he will answer anyone’s questions and that he allows everyone to copy from the responsa manuscripts he keeps in his home. He says that there is no obligation to publish and, to the contrary, doing so might imply a desire for honor. (Thankfully his son still published the responsa as a book.)

Rav Betzalel Cohen, one of the two great Cohen brothers who served as dayanim in 19th-century Vilna, takes a very different attitude. In the introduction to his Responsa Reishit Bikkurim, Rav Cohen writes that he believes he can fulfill the mitzvah of teaching Torah by publishing his insights. In contrast to Rav Sofer, who said that there is no obligation to publish his responsa, Rav Cohen thinks one fulfills a biblical mitzvah by doing so.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (20th century, U.S., introduction to Dibberot Moshe, Bava Metzi’a) goes further. He says that we are obligated to teach Torah to as many people as possible. If you can teach 100 people but only teach 50, you have not fulfilled your obligation. Therefore, if by publishing your Torah insights you reach more people, you are biblically obligated to publish them as part of the mitzvah to teach Torah. According to Rav Feinstein, a Torah scholar is obligated to publish his insights in a book.


III. Public Need

Rav Zilberstein quotes these sources and adds that the obligation which Rav Feinstein invokes only applies to someone whose teachings are needed and desired by the public. If you publish a book that almost no one will read, you have not fulfilled any obligation. Similarly, Rav Zilberstein quotes his father-in-law, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who ruled that a Torah scholar may use his charity Ma’aser money to publish a book of Torah insights only if there is a public need for the book.

I suspect that something similar applies to publishing a newspaper. If there is a need for the newspaper, its publication is a mitzvah. The Torah and inspirational content consists of lessons and perhaps the other necessary material achieves different forms of chesed. The newspaper’s publication enables residents to patronize local establishments, enhance their appreciation of their neighbors, find their way around the community and learn Torah. This is quite an accomplishment.

Mazel tov to Moshe, Mendy, Elizabeth and all of my other friends and colleagues at The Jewish Link. May you continue to inspire me and so many others for many years to come.

By Rabbi Gil Student
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