Sensitivity to Widows

Kol Almanah v’Yasom Lo Se’anun (Shemos 22:21)

Parashas Mishpatim contains the prohibition against afflicting or causing pain to a widow or orphan. Although it is forbidden to abuse any Jew, the Torah singles out the widow and orphan due to the fact that they are particularly sensitive and vulnerable as a result of the loss they have experienced, and we must therefore be exceedingly careful in our interactions with them. Throughout the generations, our Rabbis have gone to great lengths to avoid causing suffering to widows and orphans, as demonstrated in the following powerful story related by Rabbi Yissocher Frand.

Harav Aharon Bakst was a Rav in Europe in the early 20th century. He was an extremely learned and erudite Torah scholar who served as the Rav in several communities until he was murdered by the Nazis in 1941. While Rav Bakst was well-respected by his contemporaries, he did not receive the universal name recognition that his scholarship and piety warranted, as he had the opportunity to do so but declined.

There was a very wealthy businessman in the town of Kovno named Shraga Feivel Frank. In addition to his material success, he was also known for his piety and respect for Torah scholars. He became a devoted follower of the mussar teachings of Harav Yisrael Salanter, who used to teach his closest disciples in Reb Shraga Feivel’s attic. At the time of his death from pneumonia at the age of 43, Reb Shraga Feivel had four unmarried daughters. In his will, he instructed his wife to seek out the greatest Torah scholars she could find to marry each of his daughters, and to use his estate to provide them with their material needs.

His widow, Golda Frank, took the directive seriously and thoroughly researched each potential candidate. The oldest daughter married Harav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, who went on to become the Rosh Yeshivah in Slabodka and Chevron. The second daughter married Harav Isser Zalman Meltzer, who eventually became world-renowned as the Rosh Yeshivah in Slutzk and Eitz Chaim in Yerushalayim, and was the father-in-law of Harav Aharon Kotler, Rosh Yeshivah of Beis Medrash Govoha in Lakewood. The third daughter married Harav Boruch Horowitz, who was a Rav in Lithuania and was later appointed Rosh Yeshivah in Slabodka. The fourth daughter married Harav Sheftel Kramer, who served as the Rosh Yeshivah in Slutzk and later as the Mashgiach of the yeshivah in New Haven, Connecticut, and was the father-in-law of Harav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, the founder of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore.

The widow Golda Frank clearly chose wisely and such illustrious descendants were a fitting legacy for her righteous husband. However, before marrying Harav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, her oldest daughter was first engaged to Harav Aharon Bakst. During the engagement period, Rav Bakst came to visit her family, and he tried to help them out by packing up some of the merchandise in their factory, which he proceeded to tour.

When Mrs. Frank heard about this, she began to have doubts. Even though she had been assured about her future son-in-law’s diligence and serious commitment to his Torah studies, he seemed to be showing an interest in mundane business dealings. She was worried that this side of him would become even more prominent after the wedding and would slowly pull him away from the beis medrash, which was certainly not what her husband had in mind. After consulting with a Rav, Mrs. Frank felt that she had no choice but to call off the engagement, and her daughter went on to marry Harav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, one of the top students in the Volozhin yeshivah.

Meanwhile, Harav Aharon Bakst returned to his studies in the Slabodka yeshivah and developed into one of its prized students. When the position of Rosh Yeshivah became vacant, the Alter of Slabodka offered it to Rav Bakst, but he declined. When the Alter pressed him for a reason, he explained that if he was appointed Rosh Yeshivah of the renowned Slabodka yeshivah, Mrs. Frank would realize what a tremendous mistake she had made in canceling the engagement due to her concern about him becoming a businessman. When she saw the true potential of the man who could have been her first son-in-law, she would be devastated, and Rav Bakst elected to forego the position to avoid causing pain to a widow. Instead, the job was given to Harav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, the man who married his ex-fiancée.

Most people in such a situation would leap at the opportunity to avenge their reputations and hurt egos by showing the woman what a foolish and impetuous mistake she had made, but Rav Bakst was willing to give up the opportunity to serve as the head of one of the most prestigious yeshivos in the world, all to avoid causing suffering to a widow who had already endured so much.

Q: If a minor child breaks something, is he required to pay for the damage after his bar mitzvah?

A: The Bach quotes the Ohr Zarua as maintaining that the child must indeed pay for the damage after he legally becomes an adult. The Bach disagrees and argues that according to the strict letter of the law, the child is exempt even after his bar mitzvah. However, he adds that although he isn’t held responsible for actions he committed in his youth, the impact of a sin still leaves an impure stain on his soul, and it is therefore advisable for him to rectify any sins he committed, whether against Hashem or another person. This is also the opinion of the Taz and Mishnah Berurah, who adds that if he stole something and the item is still extant, he is obligated to return it. The Vilna Gaon notes that the position of the Shulchan Aruch also seems to be that he is exempt according to the strict letter of the law.


 

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.