Latest update: May 17th, 2013
Question: May someone who desecrates the Sabbath lead the services if he has yahrzeit? If yes, may he replace someone else who has yahrzeit?
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.
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.
We also discussed whether a Sabbath desecrator can lead prayer services. 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.
Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss (Minchat Yitzhak III 26:4) suggests a more lenient approach, differentiating between various categories of mechallelei Shabbat. Authorities differ on when a hidden desecrator is considered an apostate, and when he is still considered a Jew in good standing. Ultimately, different circumstances create different rulings.
Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Hodakov, zt”l, allowed Sabbath desecrators to lead services in extenuating circumstances, such as where there are few available candidates “because at that moment, when [the mechallel Shabbat] leads the congregation, is he desecrating Shabbos?”
It follows that we cannot compare a Sabbath desecrator leading prayer services with a “mitzvah haba’ah be’averah” – e.g., saying a blessing over stolen tefillin – for when a shliach tzibbur leads services, he is not desecrating the Sabbath.
We also examined the Gemara which discusses freeing one’s slave – a prohibition – in order to make up a minyan. We compared that act to including a Sabbath desecrator in a minyan. If a slave can make up a minyan, surely a Sabbath desecrator, who is obligated in mitzvot (unlike a slave) and who is doing nothing wrong at the moment, can be part of a minyan and lead the services.
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Earlier we discussed whether a Sabbath desecrator serving as a shliach tzibbur should be considered a mitzvah haba’ah be’averah and concluded that he shouldn’t. My colleague and fellow Jewish Press columnist Rabbi Raphael Fuchs questioned the very assumption. He argued that a true mitzvah haba’ah be’averah is someone, for example, who shakes a stolen lulav on Succos to fulfill his obligation. His performance of the mitzvah is defective because he is only able to accomplish it by having violated the prohibition of stealing. Additionally, every moment that the stolen object remains in his possession, he is guilty of theft. He is attempting to perform the mitzvah of arba minim with a lulav that is in his possession against the will of its owner.
A more compelling comparison to a Sabbath desecrator leading services would be the following:
The Gemara (Ta’anit 16a) quotes the following statement in the name of R’ Ada bar Ahava: “A person who has sinned and confesses his sin but does not repent, to what is he compared? To one who is holding a [dead] sheretz [an unclean creeping reptile or insect] in his hand. Even if he immerses himself in all the waters of the world, the immersion is of no consequence. However, if he throws it from his hand, as soon as he immerses in [the minimum of] 40 se’ah [of water – a mikveh], his immersion is immediately effective.”
Rashi writes that the sin is that a stolen object is in his possession. If he does not seek to make restitution, he is compared to one who is holding a defiled object in his hand while seeking purification at the same time. The Pnei Moshe (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 2:1) explains a similar Gemara as referring to one who not only is in possession of stolen objects and seeks to perform mitzvot with them, but one who also is plagued with sin. Such an individual should not pray until he has divested himself of his sins.
This scenario seems comparable to our situation of a Sabbath desecrator leading services. He presumably has not repented his ways, and yet he seeks to lead the prayers!
Yet, we see the greatness of Rabbi Hodakov and Rabbi Hecht, whom we quoted earlier, who believe that we look at the person as he is while praying. At that moment there is no “defiled creature” in his hand – i.e., he is not performing any prohibitive Sabbath labor. To the contrary, he is praying to Hashem and seeking to benefit the neshamah of his dear departed relative.
Indeed, it would seem that the gaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Kol Ram Vol. I on Parashat Shelach, recorded and edited by Rabbi Avraham Fishelis) has the same view: we are to look at a person’s present condition. (Rav Moshe is writing in reference to the meraglim.) Surely we can be kind enough to give one the benefit of the doubt when he is engaged in a matter that is of great merit – a benefit for the departed soul and also a benefit to the congregation that he is now leading in prayer.
G-d rewards pious behavior even if it is only temporary. And we, through our actions in accepting a Jew for who he is, are afforded yet another opportunity to draw one of the fold back to the proper path of Torah and mitzvot observance.
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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