Photo Credit: archive

Do some of the messages you receive, in letters or on the Internet, make you feel uneasy? Promises are made that no one can guarantee: financial security, marriage, and other blessings that one person cannot bestow on another.

A parent once asked the Chofetz Chaim for a berachah: his children should grow up to be observant men and women. The Chofetz Chaim was taken aback: “Do you think this can be accomplished with a blessing? I’m devoting myself day and night to trying to raise my children well. Do you think a berachah will meet this challenge?”


Life is full of challenges. But we cannot give ourselves over to another person, asking him to run our lives because we are afraid to decide on our own.

Rabbi Shabtai Sabato, the head of Yeshivat Netivot Yisrael in Israel, where his Torah lectures and writings are well known, spoke to his students about this fearfulness. During the summer the community had learned that a man who asserted that he knew Kabbalah had preyed on vulnerable women and destroyed their marriages.

Rav Sabato warned his talmidim against being too credulous, too quick to believe in fraudulent claims of esoteric knowledge. Fortunately a student took notes and posted them on the Internet in Hebrew.

Because the student quoted Rav Sabato saying “I am speaking to you [the students] but this message must go out to the community,” I have translated Rav Sabato’s comments and enclosed them in quotation marks; I provide transitions between them.

The Torah forewarns us about the problem that besets us today: our community should not include “those who use divinations, soothsayers, enchanters…and necromancers” (Deuteronomy 18:10,11). Despite this admonition, some of us fall under the spell of people who claim to have unique powers. They tell us they are permitted to do actions we suspect are forbidden; they persuade us to do these actions ourselves. They convince us they can bless or curse us. If we are vulnerable, we silence the inner voice that tells us “this person is a fraud.” We go along until the deception is revealed, and if we are among the victims, our lives are shattered.

First, Rav Sabato said, “We must beware the phenomenon of admorut.” The acronym stands for adoneinu moreinu ve-rabbeinu; he is using it to signify regarding a human being as one’s “master, teacher, and rabbi.” He is not berating chassidim who use this term for their leader. He is critiquing the handing over of life-decisions to a person one venerates. He sees that “this phenomenon causes a multitude of damages”; to follow without questioning is dangerous.

“Every person has a mind, understanding, and good intelligence. A person is measured according to his free will, taking his destiny into his own hands.” We must use our free will; we cannot ask a rabbi to make our decisions.

The function of a rabbi is not to tell you what to do; “the function of a rav is to give you the tools so that you will be independent and decide for yourselves.”

Rav Sabato said this is how he functions in the rabbinate and in his yeshiva: “I don’t tell people what to do. I present both sides of an issue, and expect the inquirer to make his decision. I don’t want to take away your instinct for choice.”

I will add here two instances of roshei yeshiva who dealt with requests for advice in this way. A student came to Rav Avraham Yaakov Pam, zt”l, with a question. On his first date he had met a wonderful young woman; each time they went out together, he became more convinced he wanted to marry her. His only question was whether he was being carried away by the novelty of beginning to date. She had met other young men and had a basis for comparison and contrast but did he know what he was doing? Should he go out with one or two other women, or should he trust his instinct that he wanted to marry this woman? Rav Pam said there were two ways to look at this: one, he should gain a bit of experience to be sure he’s not being carried away by his first attempt at dating; two, he should be thankful that he was spared the uncertainty of calling – Does she want to see me again? Does she want to proceed with this relationship? – and thank Hashem that all went smoothly.

“Which approach should I take?” the student asked.

“That you have to decide,” Rav Pam answered.

When students asked Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, for advice on personal decisions, he recommended listing on a sheet of paper the positive and negative aspects of one alternative, then both aspects of the other alternative. The decision would become evident from the student’s own words. I saw this work when an extraordinary young woman consulted with my husband and me about her dilemma. She wanted to major in Jewish Studies and go on to a career in Jewish education, while her parents wanted her to have a more secure financial future by majoring in computer science. Because she wished to honor her parents, she did not know what to choose.

My husband recommended Rav Soloveitchik’s approach. She called afterward to tell us the result. For Jewish Studies she had written many phrases about how meaningful this would be, the joy of learning, finding fulfillment in teaching, and more. For computer science she could think of one word: boring. She shared the results with her parents, who only wanted to protect her, and is enjoying a brilliant career as a Torah educator.

As Rav Sabato put it, “A rav exists to teach Torah in the way of Hashem. He is not here to tell you whom to marry and the like. If you want to consult with him, it should just be a consultation, but you will make the decision according to your own weighing of the matter. When I’m asked what to name a child, the first thing I ask is: What name do you want? If parents want to discuss the possibilities I’ll point out the problem – for example, if a name does not have happy associations in Tanach. But to start with calculations, different names, and such – I am not so arrogant as to think that I know.”

The people Rav Sabato worries about are those who are in distress because of an unhappy marriage, their parents’ divorce, or any other situation that makes a person vulnerable. He observes that “A person who is in distress makes mistakes, and the biggest mistake is to entrust one’s decisions into the hands of others.”

Who is ready to take over another person’s life? People who say they have ruach hakodesh, that they are filled with a holy spirit and have special knowledge of the Divine – these are the people who are ready to take charge. Rav Sabato stated, “There is not one person on earth who has ruach hakodesh.”

He pointed out that in the summer of 2014, when Jews throughout the world were united in agony over the kidnapping of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, Hy”d, “there were those who said they knew through ruach hakodesh that the boys were alive and would be found in one place or another. When we had to face the reality that they had been murdered, was there any calling to account for misleading the community?”

Rav Sabato also worries about the loose application of another term: any individual who wants to can call himself a mekubal, a mystic who knows Kabbalah. He asked rhetorically, “What is a mekubal today? A person who can tell you how many children you have and what their names are – that’s a mekubal?” …Kabbalah is not a game. Don’t rush to study Kabbalah. There are many dangers here. No one has permission to transgress halacha, God’s commandments, not even mekubalim!”

Rav Sabato warned against segulot: omens, predictions, talismans – “all the nonsense that fills the newspapers; this is one of the causes of people stumbling.” We have to beware of people who tell us they can give a blessing if we give them money, or who pour lead into water and say the shapes can predict the future, a scam that goes back to ancient Greece.

“If one sees a rav doing something inappropriate, one must ask why. Is there fear of Hashem? The minute a person sees something out of order, he must ask. He cannot start trying to figure it out. He must act with respect and esteem.”

One cannot excuse the wrongdoing and let it pass. “Awe and love of Hashem together will prevent many downfalls, not only of students but of rabbis as well. This begins with people; if people will be attentive, rabbis will not fall. When things get revealed, ugly acts that were done in secret are stopped. This begins with people. Let us prevent downfalls.”

Rav Sabato ended on a positive note: “This generation is turning in the direction of love of God, and this is good. We must combine it with fear of God.”

A Hebrew expression sums it up: Respect him and suspect him. Treat a person with appropriate honor but don’t be overly trusting of him. Protect yourself – it’s your life.


Previous articleQ & A: Tzedakah (Part XIX)
Next articleDaf Yomi
Dr. Rivkah Blau is the author of “Learn Torah, Love Torah, Live Torah,” a biography of Rav Mordechai Pinchas Teitz; the Hebrew translation is entitled “V’Samachta B’Chayekha."