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The Missing Plumba


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Nathan Mark, Esq., who passed away recently, spent many years working as a civil servant for the State of New York, first with the Human Rights Division and later, with me, at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

It is not well known, but Judge Mark was instrumental in gaining the acquiescence of a large insurance company, against the direct orders of his supervisor, to cease discrimination against Orthodox Jewish employees. This settlement created a wonderful precedent for the rights of shomrei Shabbos. He worked behind the scenes at the Human Rights Division and never claimed credit for his achievements there for observant Jews.

As strange as it may seem, at DMV he and I had almost identical cases in which we both reacted the same way. While the following story is true, I have changed the motorists’ names and identifying details to protect their privacy, and I have combined the details into one story, telling it in the first person as I recall the incidents.

I ascended the judge’s bench and saw on the calendar a scheduled trial for “driving uninspected vehicle.” There are very few not guilty pleas for this violation. It is a traffic violation to drive a vehicle without a valid inspection sticker properly affixed to the windshield. (One may also receive a parking ticket for parking a similar vehicle on a public street.) Most motorists with uninspected vehicle tickets plead guilty with an explanation, and present proof that the vehicle was inspected immediately after the ticket was issued. They then offer an explanation of some sort for not having the inspection done on time. In this case I recognized the motorist’s name – he was a prominent local rabbi, who was also an attorney.

Before any cases were actually ready for trial with the police officer present, I called the motorist up to the bench and asked him to explain his reason for pleading not guilty.

He said that the car had been thoroughly checked and worked on by his mechanic just a few days before the ticket was issued and was in perfect condition. He presented a bill marked “paid in full” for the work.

“Rabbi Goodman,” I asked, “Why was there no New York State inspection performed?”

“The mechanic told me he had run out of stickers and was waiting for a new supply from Albany. He said he would call me as soon as he got the stickers, and he did. Here’s the proof that the car was inspected two days later,” he said, handing me a statement from the mechanic and the stamped registration.

“That is all well and good, Rabbi,” I said. I thought quickly for a response that would appeal to a rabbi-lawyer and convince him that he was actually guilty of the violation, albeit with a good excuse.

“Rabbi,” I said, “You should remember that around the turn of the [20th] century there was a controversy in New York City about kashrus and specifically about kosher chickens. At that time, the local Vaad Horabbonim made a takanah that every kosher chicken must have a metal plumba on it, with the one-cent fee going to pay for the hashgacha. No chicken without a plumba would be allowed to be sold as kosher.

“Now, Rabbi, suppose a woman came to you with a question about a whole chicken that she bought in a recognized glatt kosher shop. She tells you she got home with the chicken and could not find a plumba on the whole chicken. You know the shop and its supervision and poultry supplier. Further, you look at the chicken and you seen no reason for a ruling that the chicken is treif. What would you do?”

“I would have to honor the takanah of the vaad and declare the chicken assur, even if it was kosher,” Rabbi Goodman said.

“Rabbi, the same is true of your car. The sticker on the windshield is the plumba that makes it muttar [permissible] to drive the car. The car can be in perfect condition; without the valid inspection sticker – the plumba – it is assur to drive that car. Do you understand this and wish to change your plea to guilty with an explanation?’

After thinking for a few seconds, he replied, “I see. Yes, of course. What is the fine?”

“If you truly understand your technical guilt, I accept your explanation. We are not here to punish – but rather to see to it that people obey the law. There is no doubt in my mind that you now understand the function of the inspection sticker, and that the violation was only technical as the vehicle was in fact in good working order and would have easily passed inspection. Therefore, the payment of a fine is suspended. If you wish to celebrate your newly acquired understanding, you may of course contribute the amount of the scheduled fine to any tzedakah that you deem worthwhile.”

Half under his breath, Rabbi Goodman asked, “Who are you?” But I did not respond further.

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