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March 28, 2015 / 8 Nisan, 5775
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Q & A: A Sabbath Desecrator Leading Services (Part VI)


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Question: May someone who desecrates the Sabbath lead the services if he has yahrzeit? If yes, may he replace someone else who has yahrzeit?

Hayim Grosz
(Via E-Mail)

Answer: Exodus 31:16-17 is the source for our Sabbath observance. The verses explain that Shabbat serves as a sign between G-d and the Jewish people of our uniqueness before G-d. In parshat Bereishit we see that Shabbat bears testimony to the creation since G-d abstained from creating the world on that day.

Many Jews throughout the generations have exhibited tremendous self-sacrifice to observe Shabbat. While today there are many laws to protect Sabbath observers, this was not the case generations ago. Therefore, it became de rigueur for Jews to refer to themselves with the appellation “shomer Shabbat” as opposed to, for example, “shomer Torah u’mitzvot.” Although the observance of Shabbat is just one aspect of Judaism, it is one that clearly identifies the Jew and is an unmistakable indicator of his or her level of commitment.

The Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvot) discusses Shabbat both in his positive commandments section (sanctify the Sabbath) and in his negative commandments section (don’t do any labor on Shabbat). Rabbi Dovid Ribiat in “The 39 Melachos” presents the 39 forbidden labors in an easy-to-understand yet comprehensive manner with modern-day, up-to-date applications.

We examined the qualifications of a shliach tzibbur, who must be able to pronounce each letter and vowel correctly. The Mishnah Berurah explains that a shliach tzibbur must be a tzaddik ben tzaddik. However, even if one is not from a distinguished family, one may serve as a shliach tzibbur as long as he is not a tzaddik ben rasha.

Last week, we discussed whether a Sabbath desecrator can lead prayer services. We studied the concept of “mitzvah haba’ah be’averah” – a precept discharged through the violation of a prohibition – and whether it is permitted to make a blessing over a stolen item. Psalms 10:3 indicates that to do so would blaspheme G-d. The Shulchan Aruch writes that saying a blessing over a stolen pair of tefillin is forbidden. Thus, a Sabbath desecrator leading services is not blessing G-d but blaspheming Him. We thus might classify such a tefillah as a mitzvah haba’ah be’averah.

* * * * *

In discussing Sabbath desecrators, the gaon, Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss (Minchat Yitzhak III 26:4) suggests a more lenient approach. Rabbi Aharon Westheim of Paris had written to Rabbi Weiss noting the following:

“There are many different categories of mechallelei Shabbat. There are some who are completely unaware that there is a prohibition to perform labor on the Sabbath, especially regarding hotza’ah [carrying from one domain to another]. There are others who have heard of the prohibition against doing any sort of labor on the Sabbath, but are completely unaware of the gravity of the situation, especially in regard to such labors as turning on an electric appliance and hotza’ah, for the [vast majority of the] people do not understand what [specific] labor is involved in such activity. We might compare this to the Gemara (Shabbos 69a) where R’ Yochanan addresses an accidental violation of the Sabbath. R’ Yochanan states that if one erred [in regard to the punishment one receives for the violation], he is not liable even though he sinned intentionally.

“There is another type of individual who is knowledgeable about the entire matter of hotza’ah. However, due to his conceit and obstinacy, he continues to carry on the Sabbath, ignoring all reprimands in this regard. There are still others who, even while aware of the transgression, attempt to conceal their desecration of the Sabbath from others. The Gemara (Erubin 69a) refers to someone who was carrying a jewel on the Sabbath, but when he saw R’ Judah the Prince, he sought to conceal it. R’ Judah considered such a person to be a Jew in good standing, and not a mummar (an apostate).”

Rabbi Westheim then asks what the rule would be regarding all the above categories of Sabbath desecrators when it comes to letting them touch kosher wine, including them in a minyan, and – relevant to our situation – allowing them to serve as a shliach tzibbur, among other situations.

In his response, Rabbi Weiss notes that some rule leniently while others rule more stringently. Based on Erubin 69a, the Sefer Tosefot Shabbat (siman 385, citing Torat Chayim) rules that a person is only a considered a flagrant Sabbath desecrator if he wouldn’t hide his misdeed in the presence of a sage. If he would, we refer to him as a hidden desecrator.

However, the Darchei Teshuva (Yoreh De’ah 119:34) cites the Taharat Yisrael to the effect that this rule only refers to someone violating a rabbinical law. In regards to biblical laws, a person is already considered a flagrant desecrator if his misdeed is known to 10 individuals.

The gaon Rabbi Moshe Stern, zt”l, discusses whether a mechallel Shabbat lete’avon (one who desecrates the Sabbath in order to satisfy his desire) can serve as a mohel if he acts Jewish to some degree (e.g. he dons tefillin, allows his sons to be circumcised, and prays in a synagogue). Rabbi Stern (in Responsa Ba’er Moshe, vol. 5:94) writes that such a person may serve as a mohel due to the importance of performing a brit milah at its proper time. If the person intentionally violates the Sabbath and is not seen observing other mitzvot, however, then it is better to delay the circumcision for a day in order to find another mohel to perform the circumcision.

Rabbi Stern qualifies his ruling by stating that it was issued in the Hungarian city of Debrecen, where the rav and congregation were closely regulated by state authorities. In places like the U.S., however, where we are free to accept or reject whomever we wish, there is no reason to be lenient.

Rabbi Sternbuch addresses a similar question in another teshuvah. He was asked (Teshuvot Ve’Hanhagot, vol. I, Yoreh De’ah 474) about a remote community where, due to an emergency, the only two people able to lead services were a Shomer Shabbat kohen who lived with a gentile woman and a blatant Sabbath desecrator. Rabbi Sternbuch argued that it was preferable to choose the Sabbath desecrator for at least his leading the services would not directly lead to Jews intermarrying. Yet, he added, “Woe to us that we have sinned so much that we have to deal with such questions.”

Similarly, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Hodakov, zt”l, who was the longtime secretary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l, said in a speech at a shluchim convention some years ago that he would permit a Sabbath desecrator to lead services in extenuating circumstances – such as if one is running a shul in the American heartland (where there are fewer people available to fill the role of chazzan) “because at that moment, when [the mechallel Shabbat] leads the congregation, [one must ask] is he desecrating the Shabbat?”

Recently, klal Yisrael lost one of its forceful leaders, Rabbi Abraham Hecht, zt”l, who served as the catalyst in the development and exponential growth of Brooklyn’s Syrian Sephardic community in his capacity as rabbi of Congregation Sha’are Zion for over 50 years. At the Hashkavah– the Sephardic memorial at the culmination of shiva – his son Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht, rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue, Norwalk, CT, recounted the following incident:

In the early years of the community, before the construction of the beautiful Sha’are Zion Synagogue and when Sabbath observance was still very weak, Rabbi Hecht lead the Magen David congregation in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. On Shabbat mornings, young Yehoshua and several of his siblings would accompany their father on the long walk from their home on Ocean Parkway to the synagogue in Bensonhurst. One week, as they walked to the synagogue, Yehoshua suddenly became aware that their usual route was not the most direct. He asked, “Daddy, why don’t we go down Ave. P? It’s the shortest way to the shul.” Rabbi Hecht did not hesitate with his explanation: “Those stores that we would pass, unfortunately, are run by our people. When I see them in shul on Shabbat, I would rather not know what transpires in their stores.”

In analyzing the theory of mitzvah haba’ah be’averah in light of Rabbi Hodakov’s statement (as well as Rabbi Hecht’s answer to his son), it becomes evident that we cannot compare a shliach tzibbur who is mechallel Shabbos with someone who, for example, wishes to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin by stealing a pair and wearing them. The latter person is fulfilling a mitzvah by dint of performing an aveirah. The former, however, is doing nothing wrong – he is not violating the Sabbath – at the time that he’s serving as a shliach tzibbur. Nor did he do anything wrong to become the shliach tzibbur.

(To be continued)

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.


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