Wednesday, September 13, 2006


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The frum world is still reeling with shock over revelations that a Monsey butcher was fraudulently selling non-kosher meat and chicken as kosher. While it remains unclear exactly what was taking place at Shevach Meats and for how long, there is no doubt that people were led astray on a massive scale.

People in Monsey stood on long lines kashering their utensils last week following the p’sak of local rabbonim, as printed in last week’s Yated. That p’sak advised that all utensils used for cooking and eating meat and poultry products purchased at that store require kashering.

Some stories are so sad that it is difficult to write about them. You want to believe that it didn’t really happen. You wait for someone to call you and tell you that it was all a massive misunderstanding.

For once, the cliché that something is “unbelievable” can be taken literally. The news of the betrayal of the public trust in such an egregious manner and in such a vital area of Jewish life is staggering. It has left tens of thousands of Jews dumbfounded, wondering how such a thing could have happened. The initial reaction of shock and horror has not worn off, as responsible leaders seek to determine the details of this case and whether the practice is more widespread.

Rabbonim in the Monsey area were kept busy paskening shailos on this matter as people went about taking stock of their pots and pans and determining which required kashering and which didn’t. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine such a thing would happen in their community. Rabbonim across the world addressed the issue in their Shabbos drashos as people searched for answers and direction.

One seeks to remember the last time something like this took place, bringing a michshol to this many people. We hope and pray that such an occurrence will never be repeated.

“How can it be? How can it possibly be? What are we missing?” asked people who are medakdeik b’kallah k’bachamurah. Erudite people were unable to answer.

You Couldn’t Miss
The Nobility

Huge crowds of Jews from all sectors were seen shlepping their keilim and waiting on line to do hagollas keilim all across Monsey. You couldn’t miss the nobility and self-sacrifice on the part of so many Yidden who threw out food and keilim and went to exceptional lengths to get rid of any shemetz of tarfus. You saw rabbonim standing for hours on site, answering questions as people stood in line with their pots, pans and flatware. Nobody took shortcuts in this tragedy, trying to get away cheap and easy. On the contrary, they were anxious to fulfill the halachic requirements and then some.

This Elul, people received a lesson in the power of the Yeitzer Hara and chet. We have been reminded to never be complacent or take anything for granted. We were reminded to ask questions; to be ever vigilant. In this land of plenty, where everything seems to come so easy, some reminisced of a world gone by where their mothers stood in their kitchens kashering chickens.

In a world of mass produced everything, certain customs are swept away by the engine of progress and it seems futile to hearken back to the days of yore. No one we know wants to go back to that laborious process, but as it was thrown out, so was a certain feeling for practical halacha. Yiddines would look at and examine the heiliger korkevan and bring their chickens to the local rov. Kitchen counters were lined with newspaper as poultry sat covered in kosher salt. A smell of broiled livers wafted through the tenements as Shabbos approached.

All this went out the window and will not return anytime soon. In truth, not all was well in previous generations, either. People involved in producing and providing kosher meat at the turn of the century were often less than upstanding. It required determined leadership and mesirus nefesh of rabbonim who put their lives on the line to stand up to them. Stories of Rav Yaakov Yosef’s battles with entrenched evil-doers during his tenure as Chief Rabbi of New York City over 100 years ago have become legendary. The Ridbaz writes quite emotionally in an introduction to one of his seforim of his travails as he attempted to raise the level of kashrus while he served as rov in America.

We have come a long way, yet there is always room for improvement in all fields of human endeavor, because man is not infallible. We should remember to be makir tov to the people who work long hours to provide us with kosher products. They slave away in hot kitchens and travel to far away places so that we can walk into virtually any supermarket anywhere in this country and find kosher products. This was not always the case. It was a long, protracted struggle with many setbacks along the way. As bad as things are, we ought to keep things in their proper perspective and be thankful for what we have.

The dust has not yet settled and all the facts in the meat scandal are not yet fully known. Let us wait until the rabbonim responsibly examine what went wrong and decide how to rectify the lapses that allowed it to happen. Let us not fall into the trap of sensationalism and gossip. Let not a communal tragedy become a pretext for further defilement. Let us use our time to study Shulchan Aruch and sifrei halacha so that we can be better and more complete frum Yidden.

Let us not fall prey to the temptation to exaggerate and embellish the most lurid and shocking aspects of anything under discussion or investigation. Let us employ the necessary self control, realizing the fruitless nature of endless and often erroneous analysis. Let us hope and pray that the scandal is not as deep as it appears to be. And let us once again reaffirm our fidelity to the halacha and not let superficial understanding of these matters interfere with the course of action that must be taken.

We are all experiencing a period of sadness and grief. We need to channel those feelings into something positive. As we reflect and engage in a period of introspection, we need to rise above the failures and work to achieve a more perfect state of affairs. When events such as these take place, we struggle, on a personal and communal level, to place it in the appropriate context. It is true that we don’t know why these events occur. But, as always, in the aftermath of such happenings, we must utilize such a tragic occurrence as an opportunity to take spiritual stock of where we are and how we can better ourselves in our eternal quest to be dovuk baHashem.

In the first of this week’s parshiyos, Parshas Nitzovim, the Torah tells us, “Hanistaros laHashem Elokeinu v’haniglos lonu ulevoneinu, the hidden [sins] are for Hashem, our G-d, but the revealed [sins] are for us and our children.” Moshe Rabbeinu reassures Klal Yisroel that hidden sins are the province of Hakadosh Boruch Hu alone, and he holds no one responsible but the sinners themselves. The Ramban adds that the posuk also refers to aveiros that are hidden from the perpetrator himself, as it often happens that people sin out of ignorance of halacha or regarding the facts of a situation. Such a chet belongs to Hashem, in the sense that he does not hold it against the sinner.

Perhaps the posuk is also hinting that if we want to ensure that Hashem does not hold us accountable for the hidden sins, we have to demonstrate adequate effort to rectify the sins and inequities that we are aware of. When Hashem observes us working to improve ourselves in areas that are “niglos lonu,” when it is clear that we are cognizant of the areas that need to be addressed and remedied, it is then that Hashem will ensure that there will be no hidden violations of halacha.

We are all aware of problems and concerns that are nigleh - they’re well known; they are out there in the open - yet we haven’t taken the proper steps and we haven’t mustered up the necessary courage to deal with the problems and resolve them.

On all matters which we know we are deficient in, in our own personal lives and as a community, we must demonstrate that we take these issues seriously and that we will do all we can, and then some, to provide effective and lasting solutions.

He Broke
Down Crying

Last week, amidst the tumult surrounding the scandal, I heard a story that drove home an important message regarding the calamity that has hit our community.

The story, as it was told, was that an elderly gentleman, who decades ago survived the concentration camps of Auschwitz, went to kasher his keilim after learning the p’sak of the rabbonim. As he stood there, handing over his pot to be dunked in the boiling water, he broke down in tears, weeping uncontrollably. He wasn’t burned by the steam or splashed by the boiling hot water, but his soul was seared and the pain was unbearable. He said to no one in particular, “All my years in the camps, I was literally moser nefesh not to eat tarfus. I risked my life, many times, just to have kosher food to eat, even as I existed on mere morsels of bread. Many times I starved. And now, so many years later, living in the land of plenty, I may have eaten treif.”

This man cried because, after a lifetime of nisyonos and challenges of all kinds, he understands the severity and the gravity of what has occurred. To a man who risked his life for kashrus, the possible consumption of non-kosher chicken is a cause for weeping, not a reason to gossip.

As many people indeed are, we should all be heartbroken over what took place. The tragedy should leave us speechless and not provide fodder for small talk at get-togethers.

We should focus on ensuring that we never, ever, become accustomed to a lack of fidelity in halacha. And in order to do so, we must learn halacha more often, in depth, with due diligence. We can’t live as frum Yidden without devoting hours upon hours plumbing the depths of Shulchan Aruch and the poskim. That goes for Orach Chaim, as well as Choshen Mishpot, Yoreh Deah and Hilchos Lashon Hara.

When The Stakes
Are That High

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik would often repeat the following thought from the sefer Be’er Mayim Chaim. The posuk recounts in Parshas Chayei Sorah when Avrohom Avinu sent Eliezer to find a proper shidduch for his son Yitzchok: “Vayomer Avrohom el avdo zekan beiso hamoshel bechol asher lo, sim noh yodcha tachas yereichi.” The Torah describes how much confidence Avrohom had in Eliezer, that he trusted him with everything he owned, as he controlled all of Avrohom’s possessions. Why is it necessary for the Torah to elaborate on that? And if the servant was so trusted, why did Avrohom make him swear that he wouldn’t go to the Bnos Canaan to find a wife for Yitzchok?

The Be’er Mayim Chaim answered with a moshol. If a person is traveling through a strange city and feels hungry, he goes into a restaurant, asks if it is kosher and sits down for a meal. Someone with higher religious standards asks who gives the hechsher before sitting down to eat. If he is even more G-d fearing, he first goes to the local shul and inquires as to where people eat out, and then makes his way to the restaurant. A traveler who is even more medakdeik b’mitzvos would make his way the local rov and ask him where he can eat in town before going to a food establishment.

What if the person is coming to town to loan $1,000,000.00 to someone with a heter iska? Would he content himself with asking the borrower if he is trustworthy and then engage in the deal? Would he be satisfied if a few people in the shul told him that he can trust the man? What if the rov told him that he can feel safe entrusting the local man with his million dollars? He would adopt all these safeguards and more. He’d ask questions, he’d meet the person, talk to him and check him out. Following all his inquiries, he would only then go into the deal if he had co-signers on the loan and a lien on the man’s house. He’d do everything he could to ascertain that his money would be safe.

The Be’er Mayim Chaim explains that the posuk goes to great lengths to illustrate that regarding Avrohom Avinu, the opposite was the case. When it came to finances, he trusted Eliezer with everything, but when it came to matters of Yiddishkeit, he said, “Sim noh yodchu tachas yereichi.” He made him swear that he would follow Avrohom Avinu’s instructions exactly as he was ordered, without deviating.

We have to learn to ask questions when we are unsure of the halacha. When things are incongruous, when something seems suspicious, we must probe for an explanation. If things don’t add up we must speak up. There is no shame in asking questions repeatedly until we feel safe and secure that what we are doing is proper and just. We have to take our Yiddishkeit as seriously as we do our finances if we want to be sure we are acting properly.

Part of the curse of golus is that we have no novi who can interpret for us the actions of Hashem, who can help us correct our ways and explain to us the reasons behind disturbing events. Thus, we are left in the dark, broken and despondent. Ain lonu novi v’ein lonu chozeh, v’ein lonu shiur rak haTorah hazos.

What took place felt like a 9/11 in the world of kashrus. Our response must be a re-dedication to Torah study and observance with a renewed enthusiasm, allegiance and vigor. In this merit, we will be spared further michsholim and the accompanying agony and sadness and merit a teshuvah sheleima.


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