Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Encounter With The Lubavitcher Rebbe & Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ZT’L

Regarding tefillin, the black leather casing donned by Jewish men during prayer, the Torah commands (Deut. 6:8): “Bind them as a sign upon your arm and they shall be for tefillin between your eyes.” Tefillin, which contain the four Scriptural passages mentioning this mitzvah, are worn differently, according to custom and community, and the “Rashi” tefillin was the pair for a Lubavitcher boy becoming bar mitzvah. However, during a public talk in 1976, the Rebbe mentioned the importance of donning two pairs of tefillin instead of one – a practice commonly known as “tefillin d’Rabbeinu Tam.”

This practice was slowly integrated into the Lubavitcher community. But there were those outside of Lubavitcher circles who adopted the practice as well—among them Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), the most prominent scholar and authority of his day, whose Igrot Moshe, a compilation of responsa, addressed numerous legal and ethical issues. Who encouraged Rabbi Feinstein to follow the Rebbe’s directive? The following story contains fascinating details of this came about thanks to one of the Rebbe’s ardent supporters.

The Rebbe Archive presents two newly released photos of the Rebbe from 6 Tishrei 5732/ 1971, with special thanks to the Minkowitz family.

Good Shabbos

The Rebbe's Announcement

It was Purim, 5736/1976. The farbrengen, the Chassidic gathering, was in full sway, and the listeners were particularly festive, given the celebration of that glorious ancient holiday. It was enough to hear the Rebbe’s words extolling the triumph of Esther and Mordechai to feel the joy and energy.

Suddenly the Rebbe changed the topic and began to speak about the merits of putting on Rabbeinu Tam tefillin (in addition to the more widely used Rashi tefillin). On the tape recording one can hear the Rebbe say (in a voice that is especially mellifluous), “This is the place to clarify and respond to a question many have … the question of whether to put on Rabbeinu Tam tefillin. My view is clear that now is the time to put on two pairs of tefillin . . . . It is obligatory, during the times of the footsteps of Moshiach, to also put on Rabbeinu Tam tefillin . . . . Whoever wishes to should put on Rabeinu Tam tefillin in addition to Rashi tefillin will be blessed.”

To those gathered at the farbrengen, it was quite a shock. Although the Alter Rebbe (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi) writes in Piskei Ha’Siddur that every G-d fearing man should lay Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, Chabad Chassidim waited for the Rebbe’s permission, and not till after their wedding. Rarely—and only with authorization—did bar mitzvah boys do so! Nevertheless, in the sicha of parshat Va’eschanan 5749/1989, the Rebbe advised that they be worn even in the two months prior to the bar mitzvah.

Gradually, as a result of the Rebbe’s instruction, his followers began to don Rabeinu Tam tefillin. Yet, surprisingly, they were not the only ones. The legal authority of the time, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l, then Rosh Yeshivat Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem (MTJ) on the Lower East Side, also decided to take on this practice, despite not having heard the Rebbe directly. There is a fascinating story behind this that is being shared to mark the 41st year of Mitzvah Tefillin, which the Rebbe initiated on Lag B’Omer 1967.

In the years after Mitzvah Tefillin was introduced, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Spritzer worked assiduously to influence Jews to put on tefillin. In order to facilitate the daily practice, he would persuade them to buy a pair of tefillin, which ranged from $30 to $40 (the equivalent of $250 today), and strived to get the lowest price by purchasing the four Scriptural verses (parshiot) from a sofer (scribe), the battim (casings) from someone else, and the straps from yet a third person.

In 1974 the Rebbe announced Mitzvah Mezuzah, where he asked that every Jewish home have kosher mezuzos. The Rebbe compared a mezuzah to a helmet that protects one from harm. Rabbi Hershel threw himself into this campaign too, and made sure that affordable mezuzos were put up in hundreds of Jewish homes.

Fateful Encounter

One year, on the plane back from Eretz Yisrael where he had visited his father, a distinguished Belzer Chassid, Rabbi Hershel took out a sefer and invited his seatmate to join him. When this seatmate introduced himself as Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s son-in-law, Rabbi Spritzer thought this a good opportunity to reach Rabbi Feinstein. Describing the Rebbe’s mitzvah campaigns he asked, “When were Rabbi Feinstein’s mezuzos last checked?”

Rabbi Dr. Tendler was taken aback. He didn’t know what to say. He was unaware of when they were last checked and who had checked them. Despite his father-in-law’s having the finest mezuzos, they, like all mezuzos, needed to be checked periodically. Rabbi Hershel offered to do this and return them as quickly as possible.

A day or two later, Rabbi Hershel went to the home of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to collect the mezuzos and bring them to the scribe. He then submitted a report of his activities to the Rebbe. Since the Rebbe had spoken of the importance of putting on Rabeinu Tam tefillin, Rabbi Spritzer considered discussing this with Rabbi Feinstein and the next day made an appointment, scheduled for a Wednesday a few weeks later.

Avid Listener

When he met Rabbi Feinstein and brought up the subject, he was surprised to learn that the sage had put on Rabbeinu Tam until age eighteen but then stopped. Rabbi Feinstein asked, “What did the Rebbe say at the farbrengen?”, and added that he would happily comply if the Rebbe were involved in their procurement—picking the scribe to write the verses and giving his opinion on the other details.

At Rabbi Feinstein’s request for the Beis Yosef script, Rabbi Hershel went that very day and asked Rabbi Eliezer Zirkind, a friend and scribe in Crown Heights, whether he could oblige. After Rabbi Hershel explained who the tefillin were for and the importance of having the revered leader put on Rabbeinu Tam, Rabbi Zirkind agreed to write them in Beis Yosef script specially for Rabbi Feinstein.

Rabbi Hershel immediately wrote to the Rebbe about the developments. A few hours later, at midnight, the phone rang at Rabbi Zirkind’s house. Mrs. Zirkind answered the phone.

The Rebbe’s secretary Rabbi Hodakov, asked, “Is Rabbi Zirkind awake?”

When a groggy Rabbi Zirkind came to the phone, Rabbi Hodakov asked whether he could come to the office right away. Shortly after, Rabbi Zirkind knocked on Rabbi Hodakov’s office door at 770.

“The Rebbe asked that you meet with Rabbi Feinstein to discuss the details of the
writing of the tefillin,” Rabbi Hodakov explained. “The meeting has already been arranged. Tomorrow at nine, Rabbi Feinstein will be waiting.”

The next day Rabbi Zirkind met with Rabbi Feinstein and introduced himself as the sofer who met the Rebbe’s approval and was proficient in Beis Yosef script. Rabbi Feinstein, greatly pleased, began discussing the writing. One of Rabbi Feinstein’s requests regarded the way in which Rabbi Zirkind should write the tefillin. Based on Kabbalah, Rabbi Zirkind generally wrote tefillin without interruption, not even speaking until after placing the verses into the boxes. The process took at least eight hours. Rabbi Feinstein asked that, given the Beis Yosef script, which Rabbi Zirkind didn’t usually write, each section be written separately. Rabbi Feinstein wanted to inspect each one upon completion before the next would be written.

Rabbi Zirkind sat down to write the first verse the very next day. When he was done, he sent it to Rabbi Feinstein, then went on to the next section.

The writing of the tefillin was completed two days later, on a Sunday afternoon. After Rabbi Feinstein approved all of the sections, Rabbi Zirkind brought them to him in size four by four-inch boxes, according to Chabad custom. After placing the tefillin on his head to check the size, Rabbi Feinstein asked for smaller boxes, since a small part of the base did not lay flat on his forehead. The boxes changed, Rabbi Zirkind brought the tefillin to Rabbi Feinstein, who resumed laying Rabeinu Tam that very same day.

The Rebbe's Letter

A letter from Rabbi Feinstein, dated Erev Shabbos Shekalim 5740, to the Rebbe appears in volume eight of Rabbi Feinstein’s Igros Moshe in which Rabbi Feinstein thanks the Rebbe for his help and mentions that in his youth, when he lived in Lublin, he had put on Rabbeinu Tam regularly. “I put them on after davening but on condition that it would be bli neder [without a promise]. But when questions arose about whether one could fulfill the mitzvah according to the view of Rabbeinu Tam, I did not do so anymore.”

Rabbi Feinstein humbly thanks the Rebbe for urging the wearing of Rabbeinu Tam tefillin. “And now, when I was informed in the name of the Rebbe that there are parshiyos of tefillin d’Rabbeinu Tam for me, to my specifications, this is a great thing, aside from being able to also fulfill the mitzvah of putting on tefillin d’Rabeinu Tam as I was accustomed to doing. As for the money, I thank Hashem Who helped me and will help me pay the sofer what he asks for, and the sofer will get good battim … and surely the sofer will also write ksav Beis Yosef.” Rabbi Feinstein ends the letter with the salutation, “who greatly esteems him [the Rebbe].”

A few days went by and Rabbi Feinstein received a response from the Rebbe in which the Rebbe acknowledged his letter and made some points about tefillin Rabbeinu Tam. In the letter, the Rebbe writes (free translation):

The Rabbi and Gaon… Rabbi Moshe Feinstein

Subsequent to inquiring after Shalom Toraso!

Recently, I received two letters from Kvod Toraso (of 27 Shevat and Erev Shabbos Shekalim) and am responding with haste to thank and bless you for the brachos and wishes, etc. And mainly as it says explicitly in the verse: “I will bless those who bless you” – Hashem with His blessing and His addition to the blessing, which is greater than the original (Devarim Rabba 1:13) and in Berachos (55a) – that you should live long, good days and years. And especially, since you attached a response discussing a number of matters regarding tefillin and the conclusion regarding the actual practice of tefillin (d’Rabbeinu Tam). And being that the middah [trait] of HaKadosh Baruch Hu is measure for measure with (but many times more), then according to this, (an increase in) one who puts on tefillin (brings an increase in the reward of) lengthens his days as it says, “Hashem is upon them, may they live… and He should fortify me (with health) and grant me life (end of Menachos 44a).” Particularly as regards (the arm that is opposite) the heart and (the head that is opposite) the brain – Chabad of our Holy Torah all the way to drawing conclusions according to halacha.

With honor and esteem and manifold blessings,
M. Schneersohn