May 20, 2024
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May 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Eruv Planning Lessons From Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai and the Churban

This past Sunday, I was reviewing an eruv in Long Island where there was much utility pole construction underway along the eruv route. The community’s rabbi mentioned how he had a strong relationship with the local utility company. The rabbi told me that the company had even made some repairs to the eruv free of charge. This was not the first time I heard of a utility company extending such courtesy. I heard similar reports in communities in Michigan and Massachusetts.

I wondered as to whether the community could leverage the positive relationship with the utility company to ask a huge favor. I asked if the community could ask if the utility could wire the new poles along the eruv route so that they create an eruv without the Jewish community having to make any additions to the pole. Wires that run over the pole, and perhaps even if the cable runs through the pole, are acceptable components of an eruv.

The local rabbanim were not eager to present such a big ask from the utility company. They felt if they made such a broad request it would jeopardize their relationship with the public service provider, and the company would no longer extend even relatively small favors.

This exchange with the Long Island rabbis brings to mind a crucial interaction that occurred during the period immediately before the Churban Bayit Sheni (destruction of the Second Temple).

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai’s Fateful Meeting With Vespasian

(translation of this story is adapted from )

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people at the time of the second Churban, managed to escape the Roman siege of Jerusalem in an attempt to meet Vespasian, the general leading the Roman forces attacking Jerusalem. When the Jewish party reached the Roman camp, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai greeted the Roman general Vespasian, “Peace is unto you, O King! Peace be unto you, O King!” To which Vespasian responded, “You have incurred the death penalty. You have called me King, and I am not the King!”

At this point, an imperial messenger arrived from Rome and announced, “Arise, for the emperor has died and Vespasian has been selected to succeed him.” Vespasian said to Rabban Yochanan, “I will leave now, to return to Rome. But I will dispatch someone to take my place. Before I go, ben Zakkai, you may make a request, which I will grant you.”

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai responded with this historic three-fold request:

1) That the Romans guarantee the safety of the scholars of Yavneh, where the new Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court) would be located.

2) That the Romans ensure the survival of the family of Rabban Gamliel, a descendant of the House of David.

3) That the Romans allow their physicians to restore the health of Rabbi Tzaddok, who had fasted for 40 years to pray for the safety of the city and the Temple. Rabban Yochanan felt that the presence of Rabbi Tzaddok would be necessary to guarantee the maintenance of the Jewish spirit in the face of the overwhelming catastrophe about to befall the nation.

Rabbi Yosef, and some say Rabbi Akiva, comment that sometimes “God makes the wise foolish” for Ben Zakkai should have requested the preservation of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, and that the Jewish people should be given a “second chance” to prove their loyalty to Rome.

But the Talmud, in defense of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, explains his thinking, namely that events had gone too far for such a request to be honored. In order, therefore, to preserve the Torah, for that is the “reason for being” of the Jewish people, it would have to relocate temporarily, if that was God’s will.

Hatzala Purta

Rabban Yochanan, the Gemara explains, sought a “hatzala purta,” a modest accomplishment, for if he were to attempt extraordinary attainment, he risks ending up with nothing. Rabban Yochanan serves as a potent life lesson that sometimes we are better off choosing a modest gain instead of risking more in an attempt to make a very high gain.

This strategy brings to mind a phrase I heard was commonly used in Great Britain’s Royal Air Force: “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots; however, there are no old and bold pilots.” This idea has manifold ramifications in a wide variety of situations, such as sports and investments (where conventional wisdom is that “bears” and “bulls” make money, but “pigs” get slaughtered).

Hatzala Purta:
The Secret to Jewish Survival

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai’s approach has proven to be a prudent course of action. Rabbi Akiva, who might have criticized Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai’s conservative
approach, helped bring disaster for our people by supporting the Bar Kochva revolt. The vast majority of chachamim did not support Bar Kochva (at least not to the extent of support extended by Rabbi Akiva) and adopted Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai’s conservative approach. Rabban Yochanan’s hatzala purta strategy has served as a successful model for our people for the past 2,000 years of exile and tribulation.

The rabbis in Long Island continued the 2,000-year-old strategy to limit the favors requested from the local utility company to modest ones. Hatzala purta, in our case, is asking the utility company for their help with the occasional eruv repair (done free of charge). Prudence dictates that we refrain from making too large of a request.

By contrast, the current Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Rav David Lau relates that he has coordinated with Israeli utility companies so that they set up their poles and wires to conform with the laws of eruvin. However, Israel is our homeland.

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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