An Erev Yom Tov Call
It is a magnificent story about Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik recounted by my cousin Rav Aharon Adler in his new outstanding work “Seventy Conversations in Transit—with HaGaon HaRav Joseph B. Soloveitchik.” A Boston community member constructed an eruv in his backyard for the Shabbat of Sukkot to enable him to carry food to and from his sukka (a city-wide eruv was not created in Boston until the 1990s; Rav Soloveitchik was not enthusiastic about making a community eruv in Boston). He called Rav Soloveitchik on Erev Yom Tov to see if he built the eruv correctly.
The Rav could not wholly understand the question from the congregant’s verbal description of the structures he created. Indeed, rabbanim typically have difficulty ruling on the kashrut of an eruv based solely on a phone call. Today, however, it is dramatically easier to conduct a remote eruv review with the aid of Zoom, but this, of course, was not an option in the 1970s when this incident occurred.
Rav Soloveitchik decided to make the trip to see the eruv for himself. The Rav followed the lesson set forth by Rashi (to Bereishit 11:5 and 18:21). A rabbinic judge should make a site inspection to accurately assess the situation, just as Hashem did when judging both the Dor HaPelaga and Sedom. The Rav made the journey even though it was an hour trolley ride in each direction on a day that must have been exceptionally busy for the Rav.
The Rav recounted this story to Rav Aharon Adler and explained that he does not mean to brag. Instead, he told the story to teach that a rav must never be lazy. He also took the opportunity to provide some instruction on constructing an eruv to the community member. The Rav told Rav Adler that a rabbi should seize every opportunity to teach his congregants about proper Torah observance.
My many years of involvement with eruvin, especially with questions posed on the phone before Zoom became an option, adds another dimension to the story. Based on my experience, it seems to me that Rav Soloveitchik was likely to have been 90% sure that he correctly understood the situation from the phone call. When he arrived on the scene, he realized the eruv was kosher as he thought from the telephone conversation.
Nonetheless, Rav Soloveitchik did not take the more convenient route of mainly being convinced of his ruling. Instead, he took a considerable amount of time on a hectic day to render a proper halachic decision with certainty.
This story serves as a model of yirat shamayim and devotion to Hashem. The Gemara (Bava Kama 62a) distinguishes netiruta d’dahava from netiruta d’kaspa, guarding gold and guarding silver. One protects gold in a much more zealous manner than he watches silver. For Rav Soloveitchik, ensuring proper halachic observance is comparable to safeguarding gold. For silver, 90% certainty suffices. Not so with gold. Nothing less than 100% is acceptable.
Rav Soloveitchik, as we all know, was not only a leading rabbi of his day. He is one of the top rabbis of the millennia. Think of what he could have accomplished in those two hours he devoted to addressing his congregant’s halachic question. The Rav easily could have convinced himself that his ideas are needed for the ages and could not expend two hours from developing his precious legacy to achieve 100% certainty about a matter involving rabbinic law.
Nonetheless, for Rav Soloveitchik it was time very well spent. He modeled for the generations thereby that halachic observance is precious and well worth making an extraordinary effort.
Conclusion: A Chodesh Elul Role Model
Rav Soloveitchik is a hero to us in the Modern Orthodox community. His Torah genius coupled with worldly sophistication inspires and supports us in our Torah lifestyle. However, it is not merely genius and sophistication that he continues to teach us decades after he left this world. It is his yirat shamayim, fear and respect for heaven, that uplifts us as well.
Our story is a beautiful message as we begin our Chodesh Elul introspection. It is an excellent time for us to consider whether we treat Halacha as silver or gold. The Rav inspires us to go for the gold and settle for nothing less!
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.