A Public Servant
‘You, Our Master, Are On Loan To Us…’
(Bava Metzia 97a)
Our sugya states that if a community hires a talmid chacham to teach halacha, he becomes “subject” to the community. This classification has halachic ramifications. If, for example, the talmid chacham’s students borrow something from him while he is teaching, they are exempt from paying for any damages that subsequently accrue to the item since the Torah stipulates: “If its owner is with him, he does not pay” (Shemos 22:14).
The Aruch HaShulchan (346:17) stresses that this halacha only applies while the talmid chacham is teaching. If a community’s rabbi, for example, only answers question during certain hours, his students are only be exempt from paying for damages that accrue to the borrowed item during those hours.
A Prompt Response
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Mishpatim 349) states that a rabbi is duty-bound to respond to all questions without delay. When Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael were being led to their execution. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, “My master, I fail to understand for what sin I am being killed.” The latter replied, “Did it never happen that someone came to ask you a question or present a claim and you made him wait until you finished drinking or putting on your sandal or donning your tallis?” The Torah says, “If you torment him…” Tormenting someone a lot or a little amounts to the same sin.” Upon absorbing Rabbi Yishmael’s answer, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, “You have comforted me.”
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, stresses the importance of a rabbi answering questions in the preface to his Iggros Moshe, citing the Gemara (Berachos 4a), which states that even King David did so. The Gemara asks how David could declare, “For I am pious” (Tehillim 86:2) and explains that he even answered people who brought him questions about their wives’ tahor status rather than referring them to other talmidei chachamim available in Yerushalayim.
The Din Torah In Galanta, Hungary
A stormy din Torah took place in Hungary in the late 1800s that turned on the nature of a rabbi’s obligations to his congregants. Rabbi Shimon Friedman, the rabbi of Galanta, passed away in 5651 (1891) and his son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Feldman, sought to take his place. Some people, though, objected, pointing to a regulation in the community charter that anyone “subject” to the congregation (i.e., appointed to a public post) may not have relatives in the community. Rabbi Feldman, though, had a brother-in-law living in town.
Rabbi Feldman’s supporters argued that he was exempt from this regulation because the chief rabbi of a city is not “subject” to his community. In fact, the opposite is true: the members of the community are subject to him and must respect his position.
Both sides to the dispute agreed to settle the issue in a beis din that was comprised of the most experienced dayanim in Hungary. Rabbi Shraga Zvi Tannenbaum (1826-1897), Chahter Rav and author of Neta Sorek, served as av beis din and, in a long and thorough dissertation, ruled that a rabbi is subject to his community to instruct them in proper behavior and admonish them when necessary.
His large volume of proof included Rashi’s comment on Yaakov Avinu’s blessing to Yissachar: “…they will pay a tax by working” (Bereishis 49:15). Rashi explains “tax by working” means “decide rulings of the Torah.” We thus see that a rabbi is called a worker. Rashi also comments on “I commanded your judges” (Devarim 1:16) by writing, “In the past you [judges] belonged to yourselves. Now you are enslaved to the public.”
As further proof, Rabbi Tannenbaum cites the custom to call people who provide religious services “rachash,” which is an acronym for rav, chazzan, and shochet. Evidently, then, a rabbi is similar to a chazzan and shochet, people who are subject to the community.
Rabbi Yosef Zvi Dushinsky (1865-1948), later chief rabbi of the Jerusalem Eidah Hacharedis, was subsequently appointed rabbi of Galanta. These and other details appear in Pesak Din Torah deGalanta.