Elul-Related Thoughts: Responsa of Rav Moshe Feinstein z”l

Teshuvot In a Geometric Progression: R. Moshe on 18 Elul

This week, I came across four responsa that R. Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, wrote on the 18th of Elul (that was this past Shabbat, when I gave a shiur on these matters at the Riverdale Jewish Center).  The teshuvot were written on the same calendar day, but two, four, and eight years apart (by the time sixteen years had passed, when he was due to write the next one, he had passed away).  Let me briefly review them.

Younger Brother Marrying First?

In Even haEzer 2;1, written in 5722 (1962), R. Moshe deals with a younger brother, not yet twenty, who has gotten engaged, and his future father-in-law wants the wedding to proceed quickly, so the groom will be married before his twentieth birthday (since the Talmud lists that as an important threshold for marriage—a topic for another time). The unmarried older brother says he will be embarrassed and hurt if his brother gets married first.

It is not surprising that R. Moshe allows the younger brother to marry, but some of his comments along the way seem, to me, particularly enlightening.  First, he notes that the older brother’s hurt and embarrassment are in his mind, and he can see the issue differently. There are many reasons a person is not yet married (up to a certain point, I suppose), such as wanting to study Torah without family responsibility, or to build a financial nest-egg as a foundation for supporting such a family.

R. Moshe also makes a point about marriage that I think has often been lost—he notes that if the older brother really wanted to get married, he could, by going down a level or two from whatever standard he thinks he deserves.  R. Moshe does not define the standards and levels (nor does he urge the brother to expand his search), but his point is that when people have trouble finding a spouse, they most often mean a spouse appropriate for them, someone who matches their sense of what they deserve. He does not object, but points out that that should take away any embarrassment from not yet being married—he is not unmarried because he’s a nebich, he’s unmarried because he chooses to stick to certain standards.

There is also, R. Moshe points out, an element of prohibited jealousy in the older brother’s position.  The same goes for the brother’s claim that he might become ill if his brother goes through with the wedding. As R. Moshe points out, we do not allow others’ qualms about our success to get in the way of that success, whether financial, spiritual, academic, or in our health. 

I like the responsum because I agree with many of its premises, so I am not the best judge, but I would repeat those basic ones here: we are not allowed to be jealous of others, we are not allowed to carp at others’ success because we have not yet succeeded, we are not allowed to let our embarrassment over our failures (which may itself be misguided, since others’ do not see those as failures) to get in the way of others’ happiness, and we can’t use emotional blackmail to try to hinder the positive progress of others’ lives.

Year-Round Storage and Shehechiyanu

The second responsum, Orach Chayim 3;34, wonders whether the year-round availability of fruit like apples changes their Shehechiyanu status.  One of the simple rules of the blessing for new fruits is that they need to be mitchadesh, seasonal, regardless of how frequently the individual eats them.  If apples are now available year-round, does that mean one would never say shehechiyanu on them?

I don’t have the room here to go through all of R. Moshe’s reasoning, but he makes an interesting distinction between means of preservation readily accessible to all—such as a cold cellar, where potatoes stay well—and those that involve technological innovation and expertise (such as storing apples well enough that they stay, or finding ways to transport them worldwide without spoilage). The former he sees as part of nature, and therefore would, in fact, change our picture of their growing season.

In addition, he argues that dietary staples are less likely to incur the blessing, since they are part of our lives at all times, than fruit, which are more like a snack, an enrichment of our dietary taste, but not a necessity.  That latter category, which also requires more sophisticated storage procedures, would then get a shehechiyanu each time its season ends.  (Meaning, I think, the local growing season).

Women’s Education: Can We Pay It Off With Ma`aser Money?

Four years later, in a responsum printed in Yoreh Deah 2;113, R. Moshe was asked about using ma`aser money—the one tenth of our income we try to give to mitzvah causes—for a daughter’s education. The questioner knew that we cannot use that money for pre-existing obligations (such as giving gifts to the poor on Purim), since that is a self-standing obligation, and therefore knew that boys’ schooling, which is mandatory at least for conveying to them the Written Torah, could not be included.  What about girls?

R. Moshe has two reasons why he cannot: First, while there is no obligation to teach girls Torah, per se, and there may not be a specific obligation to train them in observance of the positive commandments, there is an absolute obligation to raise girls to be God-believing and God-fearing, to know and care that a Jew’s life is meant to be lived in service to God, and to avoid prohibitions (a Mishnah in Yoma explicitly discusses the age at which a father has to teach his daughters to fast on Yom Kippur).  Since American law mandated a school education, the father’s choice is to send his daughters to public school, where they will be taught by non-Jews, or to a Jewish school, where they can learn about Jewish values and beliefs. Clearly, the father is obligated to do the latter, and cannot use ma`aser money for that.

On the other hand, R. Moshe notes that this questioner really did not have the money to pay tuition and give a tenth to charity (the definition of “did not have the money” is clearly fraught, and would need to be dealt with case by case); the father should therefore pay as much tuition as appropriate for his income and if the school demands more, he can use ma`aser money for both his sons and daughters, because the custom/ laudatory practice of giving ma`aser only comes into play once a person has enough for his basic needs, and this man clearly does not.

The Fundamental Error of Much of Orthodox Feminism

The last responsum Orach Chayim 4;49, was written in 1976, and answers a question about how to respond to women looking to expand their roles in the synagogue and in Jewish ritual life. R. Moshe’s answer seems to me still a manual for how to approach such questions: First, he notes that it is a fundamental tenet of the faith that the Written and Oral Laws were given at Sinai.  That means that those elements of the religion, at least, are divine and unquestionable, whether we think we know the reason behind them and dislike it, or see no reason for it.  (That is not to imply that it is ok to question Chazal and their de-rabanan laws, it is just that much of what the women were questioning back then was, in fact, Torah law).

The exemption from positive time-related commandments, including tsitsit and therefore tallit, was the central concern—the women were starting to wear tallitot and the questioner wanted to know how to react. R. Moshe notes that women are certainly allowed to perform mitzvot in which they are not obligated—and Ashkenazic women do so with the blessing—so that a woman who wants to wear a tallit may.

With one important caveat—if she is doing it for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah, as virtually all women today do for shofar, sukkah, and the like, R. Moshe has no problem with it.  If they are doing it to make a point about women, equality, and adjusting the Divine system to modern realities, then it is a significant problem and qualifies, according to R. Moshe, as a denial of the Divine origin of the Torah. 

R. Moshe closes with another crucial reminder, that the whole reaction to women’s role in Judaism stems from a flawed understanding of the religion’s priorities: our sanctity, our role and status as a people with a special relationship with God, our job of spreading knowledge of God in the world, all those apply equally to men and women.   And, R. Moshe notes, the only way to handle those who argue otherwise is to forcefully, consistently, and tenaciously recite these truths, that God gave the Torah, that God knows how to parcel out responsibilities within the broader picture of being a sanctified nation, and that fighting against God’s system is a repudiation of the system, however the person doing so phrases it.

And that was the 18th of Elul, on four occasions of R. Moshe’s rich life. Shabbat Shalom.

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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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