July 13, 2024
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July 13, 2024
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Italian Idyll V: The Chofetz Chaim Speaks Italian?

On every trip seasoned travellers take abroad, they usually leave some time unscripted, leaving to chance some aspect of the trip to allow for spontaneous, and often unexpectedly remarkable, occurrences. One such event took place on the Shabbat the Rabinowitzes spent in Fiuggi last summer. Prior to their departure from the U.S., Jake and his wife had listened to a memorable drasha in New Jersey to mark the beginning of the nine days mourning period (Shabbat Chazon), a period of reflection upon calamitous times for the Jewish people. Their local rabbi, Dovid Weiss, had spoken to their congregation on his favorite topic on this particular Shabbat Chazon: the teachings of the famous Torah scholar Israel Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933). Among other important works that he produced during his lifetime, the Chofetz Chaim was particularly known for stressing the importance of shmirat halashon (“guarding of the tongue”). In his work of the same name, he motivated his readers to be vigilant in how they addressed others and to take care to always express oneself in the most ethical manner possible. Rabbi Weiss’s words on that day had impressed Jake with the importance of choosing one’s words carefully and the corollary of knowing when to speak up and when to hold one’s tongue!

Now just a week after their rabbi had reminded them of the Chofetz Chaim’s lessons, the Rabinowitzes returned to Fiuggi on Friday afternoon to prepare for Shabbat Nachamu, the weekend after the fast day. To their utter surprise, they found their hotel filled with a large group of Jewish-American tourists who were also spending the Shabbat weekend in Fiuggi. Incredibly, in light of Rabbi Weiss’ speech in New Jersey the previous week, these travellers were all part of a 70-strong group representing the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation of New York. Their group was dedicated to those very principles of careful language Rabbi Weiss had preached to the Rabinowitzes the week before.

Because the Chofetz Chaim group had chosen to visit Rome this particular Friday, they had subjected themselves to weekend rush hour traffic once they had finished touring that day. Originally the hotel management had planned to greet the Sabbath early, but as a result of the Chofetz Chaim group delay, Sabbath services were rescheduled for 8:00 in the evening—more than two hours later than Jake had planned to pray.

“Wow, that’s unfair,” thought Jake to himself when he got the news from Belle in the lobby. “They shouldn’t have left for Rome so late this morning!”

Jake was certainly feeling un-Chofetz Chaim-like towards this group of strange fellow travelers who seemingly made travel decisions without considering the impact of their actions on others.

“We don’t have to wait for them, Jake, to make Shabbat, if you’re really hungry,” Belle correctly opined.

“I know, Belle, but it’s nicer to pray together.”

Jake, finally resigned to the delay, went upstairs, grabbed a book from the dresser, lay down on his bed and soon was fast asleep. He woke with a start to the sound of the key in the door:

“Good, you’re up!” said Belle. “The Chofetz Chaim group has arrived at the hotel and we can make Shabbos now.” It was 7:45 p.m. and Jake made his way down to the lower lobby area, which was set aside for prayer services. The room in which the guests were to gather was sizeable, seating close to 100 men and women (in separate sections as is customary among Orthodox Jews). When Jake arrived, he chose an aisle seat not far from the entrance to the room. At first he was alone, using the silence to reflect on the many places he had visited already in Italy during his first few days there. Across the room stood two or three open doors leading to a verdant garden outside with tall trees through which the setting sun shone in shades of light and dark. A gentle summer breeze wafted through the openings with the strong fragrance of mid-summer flowers reaching Jake across the room.

Soon the room began to fill up. The Chofetz Chaim contingent numbered some 70 men and women from Jewish communities throughout the Northeast, every one a supporter of the language ideals of Rabbi Kagan. Some nodded a greeting towards Jake, while others ignored him in their hurry to begin the evening prayer.

The Sabbath service took about a half-hour to complete. Following the services, the head of the Chofetz Chaim delegation walked to the podium at the front of the room and addressed the congregation in a friendly voice:

“Before we head to dinner, we have the opportunity to hear one of the great speakers on the topic of the importance of knowing when to speak out and when to hold one’s tongue, namely, Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro of North Miami Beach in Florida.”

Up stepped Rabbi Shapiro, a bearded man of 50 years, who began to regale the audience with anecdotes that revealed how a few timely words made all the difference in life outcomes. Jake was fascinated by this eloquent speaker. For a few moments, the rabbi cast a spell over the listeners. He capped his lecture with the following anecdote that brought many in the makeshift synagogue to tears:

“A few years ago somebody in Eretz Yisroel had a question, a bochur on a suggyah; his rebbe responded:

“Go to the library and see if somebody asked the question.”

He goes to the library and he sees somebody asked the question but he doesn’t like the answer the author of the sefer gave. The rebbe says:

“What do you want from me; go to the author and tell him you don’t like his answer!”

He looks in the opening page of the book and sees that the sefer was written by someone named Yosef; he sees the address in the sefer and he’s going to let Yosef know that he didn’t like the answer Yosef gave in his sefer. The student goes to the address and an elderly woman answers the door; the boy says:

“Can I speak to Yosef?”

She responds:

“He hasn’t lived here for 10 years, but here’s where you can find him.”

She gives him another address. The boy takes two buses in Eretz Yisroel to get there, has the sefer behind his back, rings the bell and the door is answered by a young man with very, very, very long hair, tie-died clothing, body-piercing off the kazoo and tattoos all over.

The boy asks, “You’re Yosef?”

The young man responds, “Yeah.”

“You’re Yosef who wrote the sefer?”


The kid doesn’t know if he should run or cry!

“What do you want?” asked Yosef.

The boy says: “I had a question on something you wrote; I didn’t like it.”

Yosef goes and puts on a yarmulke; he says, “What did you want to ask?”

The student asked his question. No sooner was the question out of his mouth, when Yosef becomes the lion that he was, the Ari, the lion like 15 years earlier, and he starts defending his answer and and fencing and fighting, and learning like it was his life. He wouldn’t budge; he was fine about his answer in the sefer. He then explained to the boy what happened to him and why he looks the way he does now.

Then he turns to the boy and says: “Tell me something. Do you have a copy of my sefer?”


Yosef says, “I don’t have a copy. Can I have yours?”

The boy gives Yosef his sefer.

The boy goes back to his yeshiva the next day and tells the rebbe what happened. The rebbe says: “The woman at the house you first visited to find Yosef, she is obviously the mother; call her and tell her what happened when you met her son.”

The student goes to a pay phone…and he dials and the woman answers and he starts to say:

“I’m the one who was by you a few days go.”

“Stop! Don’t talk! I don’t know who you are. But that young man that you went to after me is my son Yosef. I haven’t spoken to him in 10 years. We haven’t seen each other in 10 years. Don’t talk! He just called me and he said to me, ‘Ma! I’m coming home!’ And my son’s about to walk through the door thanks to you in the next few minutes!”

Rabbi Shapiro concluded his anecdote:

“And that’s how a mother and son were reunited. For when you light up someone’s night and you spend time talking and you show them that you care and you love them genuinely, when there’s no room for negativity and pessimism, miracles can take place.”

Jake sat in his chair for several minutes following Rabbi Shapiro’s remarks; he was deeply impressed by what the rabbi had said and soon at dinner he met many other members of the Chofetz Chaim Heritage foundation. Over the Shabbat Nachamu weekend, the Rabinowitzes were embraced by their newfound acquaintances. All in all this Fiuggi weekend with the Chofetz Chaim was a surprising, unplanned immersion in the world of shmirat halashon. To travel to Italy to be inspired by these important Torah insights was an immeasurable bonus of their trip, one that Jake and his family would long remember.

By Joseph Rotenberg

Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to the Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at Amazon.com. He is currently working on a follow-up volume of stories and essays.

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