• September 21, 2020
  • 3 5781, Tishrei
  • פרשת ויגש

Lesson 4

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur on Kiddush Hashem we studied the teshuvah of Rav Oshry zt”l regarding the events in the Kovno ghetto.

In the Kovno  ghetto, there were 30,000 Jews. The commander of the SS ימ”ש came to the Jewish council with the announcement that except for 5000 workers the entire ghetto was to be evacuated. The SS officer then gave the council 5000 cards that would permit the bearer to remain the ghetto.

Rav Oshry was one of the rabbis of the ghetto and he assisted the great gaon, Rav Avraham Kahana-Shapriro. The rabbis asked Rav Shapiro what should be done with the passes. On the one hand there is the Yerushalmi which we studied last week. The Yerushalmi says that if gentiles demand that the Jews hand someone over to be killed it is forbidden to accede to the demand unless the person in question is actually  חייב מיתה . The Rambam and Rema in Shulchan Aruch rule like this Yerushalmi. In the case of the passes it was clear that by distributing the passes to 5000 people the council members are sending 25,000 to their deaths. Rav Oshry wrote that initially he fwlt that based on the Yerushalmi the council could not have anything to do with distributing the passes.

However, upon reflection Rav Oshry changed his mind. He thought that based on the ש”ך in Choshen Mishpat the cards may be distributed. The ש”ך quotes the 16th century authority מהריב”ל who wrote about a similar situation ( though his question was one of taxation and of selecting who shall live).

מבריב”ל discusses a despotic ruler who is going to raise taxes on certain people. מהריב”ל wrote that if the king made a list of individuals whose taxes will be raised it is forbidden for someone to persuade the despot to remove a particular name. The reason is that for every name removed another name will be added and no one may be saved at the expense of someone else. But then the מהריב”ל discusses a different scenario. If the despot has only begun to plan the tax increase and no names have been placed on a list as yet, then it is permitted to persuade the king not to add a particular name to the list. The מהריב”ל  distinguishes a situation where people are already “trapped in the king’s net”- “ונלכדו ברשתו” and a situation where no one has been singled out.[1]

Rav Oshry zt”l held in his final analysis that the situation facing the Jews in Kovno resembled the second case of  מהריב”ל . The Germans ימ”ש had not selected specific people to be sent out of the ghetto. In essence everyone in the ghetto faced deportation. The Germans merely said that whoever has a permit to remain will be allowed to remain. Therefore by giving out permits to 5000 people the council was not creating a new situation for those not receiving a permit.

Rav Oshry did not feel qualified to rule on this matter on his own so he consulted the aged Rav Avraham Shapiro who was the Rav of Kovno.[2] Rav Shapiro spent the entire night thinking the matter over. He ruled that since the entire ghetto is threatened there is no choice but to accept the Germans’ offer and distribute the 5000 passes. To do otherwise was to risk the extermination of the entire population of the ghetto.

Rav Oshry zt”l  survived the war. He came to live in New York and he published the teshuvot that he gave while in the ghetto with the title שו”ת ממעמקים. This collection is a remarkable testimony to the moral heights that the prisoners in the ghetto reached. Despite being terrorized and suffering the barbarous treatment they still remained loyal to the Torah and sought out the Torah’s teachings. Their example is the truest form of  קידוש ה’ that I can imagine.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the class.

Stuart Fischman

[1] The distinction is based on a Gemarah in masechet  Yevamot from where we can learn that if no one has yet been selected for a punishment one can act to prevent an individual from being selected.

[2] I would add here a remarkable story. When the war broke out, Lithuania was conquered by Russia. Rav Shapiro at that time was in Switzerland. The son of Rav Shapiro resided in the United States and sent visas to his father allowing to flee the war and to live in safety in the United States. Despite the pleas of his son, Rav Shaprio refused to travel to the United States and he returned to Kovno. He told his son that as the Rav of Kovno he is like the captain of a ship, and when a captain’s ship is in danger his place is on board his ship. Rav Shapiro died in the ghetto.