Elul-Related Thoughts: Hatam Sofer and Tsits Eliezer

Two Elul Teshuvot About the Balance Between Personal Rights and Public Needs

In responsa written 150 years apart (both during Elul), Hatam Sofer and Tsits Eliezer addressed questions that balance personal and communal needs.  In the earlier one, Hatam Sofer (Yoreh Deah 2; 7) was asked about a man who served both as ritual slaughterer and as the Yamim Noraim chazzan in his community. Otherwise well-qualified for his job, he had begun to have some kind of seizures or fainting spells, most often during the morning, leading the doctors to attribute them to his failure to eat.  The incidents were upsetting to those around him and raised questions about whether he could continue in his positions.

Cut Away, Ritual Slaughterer

For ritual slaughter, one general standard is that anyone who qualifies as a shoteh, someone not in his right mind, can also not perform shechitah, ritual slaughter.  In the middle of his episodes, this man clearly failed to meet that standard, but did it carry over to when he was not suffering an event?  The questioner assumed that once he was defined as a person who had such episodes, he might be no longer fit even when he was healthy.

Hatam Sofer rejects the assumption, and answers based only on whether we can verify the propriety of the killing of the animal itself.  He notes that Rashi assumes such episodes start and stop suddenly, so unless we witnessed one, we need not worry about it; Rambam, however, assumed there was a gradual onset and aftermath of the episodes, during which his shechitah might also not be valid.

Hatam Sofer adds that the rabbi who had asked the question had already arranged to have people watch him during and after the shehitah, and since it took time to kasher  meat (soaking and salting, for example), thought that was ample enough to verify the man had been fine throughout.

Who Represents Us on the High Holidays?

The next question was whether he could or should serve as chazzan during the High Holidays, a time when we try to put our best foot forward in speaking with God. The questioner wondered whether this didn’t qualify as a mum, a blemish, that would disqualify the chazzan (either as a technical matter or because it was simply inappropriate to send a damaged person as our representative to God). 

Hatam Sofer expresses his amazement at the notion that any blemish that disqualifies a priest from serving in the Temple should also disqualify a chazzan—we don’t, for example, disqualify lefthanded people, even though that is, in fact, a mum in terms of the Temple service.  He recognizes that an earlier authority, Shvut Yaakov, thought the chazzan on Yom Kippur should not have two wives (one was incapacitated by insanity, and the man secured permission to marry another), since the High Priest was not allowed to have two wives; Hatam Sofer rejects the comparison. 

Especially since this man had young children who relied on him for their livelihood (as we had seen with R. Moshe last week—apparently, ritual slaughterers tended to have young children), Hatam Sofer thinks the man would actually be a better representative, since his heart would be broken within him, knowing that if he lost this job, he and his family would suffer hardship.  To avoid or alleviate the seizure problem, Hatam Sofer allows the man to eat before daybreak or, if that is insufficient, to eat after shacharit, before the first set of Shofar blasts.

Limits to Our Flexibility

Until this point, then, he has found solutions, and saved his job. Yom Kippur, though, is different. There, with no way to let him eat early, the possibility of an episode was real.  Hatam Sofer suggests he should lead Kol Nidre and Maariv instead of Mussaf (since he would have just eaten), but adds that during the day of Yom Kippur, he should pray in a side room, so he would be out of the sight of the community should he have an episode.

On the one hand, then, Hatam Sofer does all he can for him, but also validates community members’ discomfort with witnessing his episodes, does not place the burden of adjusting entirely on them. 

Tsits Eliezer on Public Smoking

The other responsum is less directly Elul related, so let me handle it briefly.  In 17;22, Tsits Eliezer was asked about an earlier responsum (15;39), in which he had ruled that one may smoke in front of other people, but they have the right to object.  The teshuva was written on 4 Elul, 1985, and the questioner couldn’t understand how he could be so permissive, since we know that smoking is damaging, to the smoker and anyone around (from secondary smoke).

Tsits Eliezer agreed with the questioner, but noted that observant smokers have various leniencies that allow them to smoke—either because they deny the science, or because it’s a delayed form of damage and therefore not prohibited each time, or because many people do it and don’t get sick from it, so there is room to assume that this smoker, too, will not. 

He might have said that we have to respect that man’s right to his opinion, which is why he is allowed to light up, but he doesn’t; what he says is that the people around the smoker might share that view, so there is no reason to prohibit him from lighting up unless we know otherwise.  In other words, there are smokers in the world, but even among non-smokers, some buy into the smokers’ view, just happen not to smoke.

While it might be polite to ask before lighting up, Tsits Eliezer was pointing out that it’s not obligatory—he can assume everyone around him is like him, unless they speak up. (And they clearly have the right to speak up).  This is all the more true, he says, since secondary smoke doesn’t damage as obviously, directly, or immediately as actual smoking.

On the other hand, Tsits Eliezer notes in passing that he does not believe it is permissible to give the smoker a light, should he ask, since he (Tsits Eliezer) thinks that would be helping the man or woman damage him or herself.

The big losers of the teshuva, by the way, are those people who are averse to inconveniencing others, would prefer that people not smoke in their presence, but don’t like to make a fuss. Such modest, humble people will suffer—and a smoker might want to take them into consideration—but that is not enough for Tsits Eliezer to prohibit.

What I find most interesting about this responsum is the seriousness with which it takes the question of differing views of an issue—for all that his questioner is confident that smoking kills and is completely prohibited, and Tsits Eliezer personally agrees, he has to accept that there are other views, and make room for them in his construal of the case.

And then of course, in both cases, we are shown the kinds of real compromise that are the essence of what community, to me, seems to be about—making as much room for each other as we can, while also being aware of each other’s needs, so that we can all live together in peace and friendship.

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Mr. Martin Kaufman was educated at Yeshiva Universty and New York University"s Graduate School of Business Administration. Was Chairman and CEO of Philipp Brothers, formerly one of the world's largest commodity trading companies. He is a global consultant to entities in the financial and natural resource sectors all over the world. Mr. Kaufman has lectured extensively in numerous Adult Education programs for many years and presently gives shiurim in the New York City area. He has also served on two boards of Yeshiva University, amongst many other Boards. Mr. Kaufman lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children.

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