Category Archives: Chofetz Chaim

Loshon Hora in the age of social media

Exploding Pillow from istockphoto

Exploding Pillow from istockphoto

A common textbook example of Loshon Hora, the Torah prohibition about speaking despairingly about someone, is the visualization of someone cutting open a pillow and then trying to collect all of the feathers as they blow away. With the ease of distributing information thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram this illustration of a pillow is almost outdated.

While it’s probably faster to use social media to “speak” Loshon Hora, the medium of choice is still talking to someone to old fashion way. It’s much more juicy  and enticing to simply pick up a phone or tell a friend some “news” while you are waiting to pick up your kids from camp or waiting in line for some kugel at a kiddush. Why? Because we still like to have actual conversations with other people.

You can PM (private message) your friend to tell them what you just heard about so-and-so, but typing the actual words isn’t a worthy substitute for speaking the words. It’s like the difference between reading about a great meal and actually smelling and tasting the meal. The object, be it a 5-course meal or insider news about someone in your community, can’t fully be replicated if it is transmitted by the written word. Go ahead try it. Go to Twitter or Facebook and write some Loshon Hora about someone. Don’t press SEND, please. Just look at the words and imagine saying them. It’s a different feeling.

Of course, I am not suggesting or advocating Loshon Hora is an acceptable thing to do. It isn’t. That being said, I am guessing that most people (not that they will ever read this) wouldn’t use social media to spread gossip about someone’s daughter, spouse, mother-in-law, school administrator, or doctor. The reason they would’t use Twitter or Facebook is because once it’s out there (unless you SEND and then DELETE right away) it can be traced back to the originator. With Loshon Hora of the spoken variety, as the originator you can always say, “I don’t remember who told me,” or, “I really can’t reveal my source, because it would be Loshon Hora.”

The bottom line is that talking about other people is hurtful, regardless of if it is the truth, half-truth, or completely untrue. Negative words about someone have the power to follow someone for years and also can reach someone’s ears before you even meet them.

The cold mikvah moshul

Once, when the Chofetz Chaim immersed in the mikvah, he found the water to be very cold. He questioned the caretaker, who insisted that he had heated up the water before adding it to the mikvah and even showed him the kettle he had used. The Chofetz Chaim first felt the kettle, then he put his finger into the water of the kettle, and found the water to be lukewarm. He explained to the mikvah attendant, if boiling hot water is added to the mikvah then the water will become warm. However, he noted, if the water is only lukewarm when it is poured into the mikvah, the water will remain quite cold indeed.

Similarly, if we are trying to ignite within our children an excitement and fervor for Yiddishkeit, we ourselves must be piping hot with enthusiasm. If our ardor for Torah and mitzvos is tepid and unenthusiastic, how will our children be energized and invigorated?

-From Rav Dovid Goldwasser, in the Spring 2012 issue of The Klal Perspectives Journal

In memory of Yosef ben Shlomo HaKohen a"h

I just read the article below (posted with permission from the author) by Rabbi Shafran about Reb Yosef, author of THE UNIVERSAL JEW, entering the Olam HaEmes. I am stunned. His sefer is a favorite of mine and I constantly find myself picking it up (after hearing about the sefer from R Gershon Seif years ago).

A MODERN-DAY PATRIARCH

Rabbi Avi Shafran
The first notice, shortly before Rosh Hashana, came from “Tehilla.” The subject box of the e-mail read: “Baruch Dayan HaEmet/URGENT, YOSEF PASSED AWAY!” and the message began: “I can’t believe this rabbi. I can’t believe he has left us. He was so concerned for me and my family….”
Tehilla is not her real name. She is a non-Jewish resident of a Muslim country, and is married to a Hindu man. But she is a “Noahide,” a person who has accepted the Torah’s universal “Seven Commandments” for humankind. In fact, she studies the works of, among others, the Chofetz Chaim, and pines for the day for when her adult sons, who are following in her path, will find wives ready to do the same. And for Moshiach’s arrival.
Yosef was Yosef ben Shlomo Hakohen, an American-born Jewish returnee to Judaism (his original family name was Oboler) who lived in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and who made it his life’s work to bring Jews closer to their heritage and to be a source of encouragement and direction to non-Jews who have found their way to realizing the Torah’s truth.
And so the anguish at Yosef’s unexpected passing was felt not only by Tehilla but by countless people around the world, in the strangest of places, who had benefitted from his writing—and, in many cases, his personal interaction with them.
I never had the honor of meeting Yosef in person but knew him from numerous electronic conversations we had. He was a remarkable man. In fact, I had begun asking him about his background and work, hoping one day to make him the subject of an Ami interview. Now, sadly, I can share only the few facts I came to garner; and, incomparably sadder still, not in an interview but an obituary.
Yosef, the child of leftist social activists, discovered Torah in his youth and was captivated by a deep desire to reach out to Jews who shared his parents’ convictions, to help them better understand the true raison d’etre of the Jewish nation. “I wanted,” he wrote me, “to help them to understand that it is through the study and fulfillment of the Torah that we make our contribution towards a better world.”

In 1995, Feldheim published Yosef’s “The Universal Jew: Letters To a Progressive Father From His Orthodox Son,” telling the tale of his parents’ dedication to the poor and underprivileged, and about his own personal journey, which led him to dedicate his own life to outreach. The following year, in a Jewish Observer article entitled “And He shall turn the Hearts of the Fathers to the Sons,” Yosef reprised some of that story. And he established “Hazon—Renewing Our Universal Vision,” a study program/Internet resource that touched untold numbers of hearts and minds.
In one of his many communications to his followers, Yosef quoted Rav Avrohom Yoffen, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Bais Yosef-Novardok, as noting the significance of the fact that our forefather Avrohom is the archetype of both kindness toward others and intolerance for idolatry. The latter, he explains, is based on a belief that various forces in nature are in competition with one another. That antagonism, he continued, is paralleled in, and connected to, human beings’ alienation from one another. Avrohom Avinu embraced lovingkindness to counter that disaffection, and he fought idolatry to undermine its root cause.
That well describes Yosef’s life-mission itself.
On Yom Kippur, “Tehilla” lit a yahrzeit candle for Yosef, who left no blood-relatives.

I remember how she expressed her feelings about meeting and corresponding with Yosef and other Jews who have offered her encouragement and guidance. “With all the sufferings [the world has] inflicted on you all,” she once wrote, “I still cannot fathom how magnanimous you all are in being a light to all nations.
“After meeting your people [by e-mail], I cannot understand how such a warm, compassionate and humane people can be so persecuted and so misunderstood.
“All I can pray is when Hashem decides it’s time for all your sufferings to be over, He will show us Gentiles the compassion we failed to show you all.”
“Soon G-d is going to say ‘enough’ to your tears…”
And to hers as well, may the day come soon.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE
[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]
The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.
Communications: rabbishafran@amimagazine.org

To receive essays like the one above when they first appear, as well as other columns I write, like”Gleanings” (a synopsis of some unusual media articles from the previous week with poignant comments appended) and “News and Analysis” (a detailed treatment of a recent news story) – not to mention a wealth of other interesting reading – subscribe to Ami at http://amimagazine.org/subscribe.html .

Excerpt from "Song of Teshuva

The excerpt below is from, Song of Teshuva, a commentary on Rav Kook’s Oros HaTeshuvah by Rav Moshe Weinberger and adapted by Yaacov Dovid Shulman.

The currents of teshivah- of the individual and of the community- surge forward.

This image of teshuvah as a flowing river comes from a passage in the Zohar: “There is a hidden place, which is the depth of the well.  And from it rivers and springs stream to every direction.   And that deepest of all depths is called teshuvah” (Acharei Mos 70).

A related idea is coveyed in by the fact that the Hebrew word for “river”, nakhal, is an acronym of the phrase, “nafsheinu khiksa laShem– “our soul hopes for Hashem” (Tehillim 33:20).

The currents of teshuvah flow- within the individual, community and the entire Jewish people- in the form of an inclination to chagne and improve.

Thus, the Gemara teaches that every day a heavenly echo calls out, “Return to God” (Pirkei Avos 6:2 and Hagigah 15a).  The Baal Shem Tov explains that this echo is not a loud proclamation, but our inner awareness of teshuvah calling to us.
Rav Kook believed that despite its many detours and difficulties, the world is spiritually improving, and he refused to accept a dark, negative and pessimistic outlook.  He saw this return to God as being woven into the very texture of the universe.  This view is not unique to Rav Kook.  Thus, when people told the R. Yisrael Meir Kagen, the Chofetz Chaim, that the Balfour Declaration marked the beginning of the redemption, he demurred and replied that Creation itself marked the beginning of redemption.  (Pages 106-107)

Why does mussar have such bad street cred?

I don’t get.  I know, this isn’t the best way to start of a blog post, but really, I don’t get it.
I am not a rabbi, academic scholar, historian, or an author of a book on the Mussar movement.  I am simply just writing down how I see things.  Others, who are much more learned than I or more intellectual might have a totally different spin on this.

Over the years and even as recent as last week, I’ve shmoozed with people about learning mussar and why I feel it has “worked” for me.  Those who have had a yeshiva high school background tend to have a very negative view of mussar or, as someone recently told me, feel that it’s meant to be studied on an individual basis and not as part of a group.  When I then ask these people about their opinion of mussar, it’s almost exclusively regulated to them being made to feel guilty, not good enough, or like they are “nothing”.  When suggesting to start a mussar va’ad (group dedicated to working on middos on a regular basis), the interest is slim to none.

This is the part that I don’t get.  Let’s take a look at a very short list of talmidim of the Slobodka school of mussar (Yeshiva Knesses Yisrael) and the yeshivos in America they were associated with (in no particular order):

  • Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner- RY, Chaim Berlin
  • Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky- RY, Torah V’Daas
  • Rabbi Aharon Kotler- RY,Beth Medrash Govoha (Lakewood)
  • Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz- RY, Chofetz Chaim
  • Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman- RY, Ner Israel
  • Rabbi Nissan Yablonsky -RY, Hebrew Theological Seminary (Skokie)
  • Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Lessin- Mashgiach, REITS (Yeshiva University)

Of course there are plenty more, but these represent the roots of some of the more “major” yeshivos in America.  These Rabbis were all products of Slobodka, where the concept of Gadlus haAdam, the greatness of man, was the modus operandi of the yeshiva.  Yet, time after time, mussar gets a bad rap.  Tochacha (rebuke) is mussar, but Mussar is not just rebuke, sort of like a square is a rhombus, but a rhombus isn’t… a square.

It could be argued that for some reason in America the “Novardok” derech didn’t really translate over in the United States.  If the thrust of Slobodka was to build one up and show them their own inner greatness, then how did Mussar become so negative?  I really don’t know.  I have an idea, but it’s based on me being an outsider.  I was zoche to spend a number of years learning in a yeshiva environment, post-high school, but I didn’t “go through the system”.  Teenagers,  by nature, rebel against authority.  Even the frummest of the frum rebels in some way.  It might be by taking upon chumros or by speeding or extending a shemoneh esray, but there’s some type of rebellion against the status quo going on.

I think most adults who when through the “system” probably got their mussar exposure at the wrong time.  Had they been taught and exposed during elementary school to the concept that there’s a desire to grow towards greatness and perfecting middos, then the “average” adult might have a different view towards mussar (and if you you don’t read this blog regularly, by “mussar” I mean any learning that makes you a better Jew).

If I were to approach you after shul and say, “You need to improve A,B and C”, you’d probably walk away thinking, “Who is Neil Harris to tell me what I need to improve upon?”
However, if you were to see a flyer in you shul that stated, “How can you not afford to spend 15 minutes working on making yourself a better person?”, then you might give it a thought. 

It’s not just the approach, it’s the timing.  There’s no quick solution.  No magic pill that will give you and your children what’s termed “good middos”.  It’s simply a willingness to accept a shift in effort.  I could easily spend two hours “beating” the levels on Star Wars Lego for Wii, but to sit for two hours and work on patience takes, well patience.

Working on who we are just doesn’t seem like it’s on the radar for the general observant public these days.

The best T-shirt ever for my Elul

I happen to like things that allow limited space for a given message, like t-shirts and bumperstickers.
On Wednesday I saw a brilliant T-shirt.  It captured an import foundation in personal growth.  Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l, the Mashgiach from the Mir (and a talmud of the Alter of Kelm, the Alter of Slobodka, and the Chofetz Chaim) said, “Woe to a person who is not aware of his faults, for he does not know what he has to correct. But double woe to a person who is not aware of his virtues, for he is lacking the tools for correcting himself“. 

What the Mashigach is saying is that if you don’t know exactly what your good points are, then you are lost. Without knowing exactly what those good points are, the things you excell at and make you who you are, then you can’t get anywhere.

When one reaches Elul, ok when I reach Elul, I usually attempt to figure out what I didn’t work on so much during the year. I look at my Cheshbon HaNefesh (I actually keep one online at http://www.joesgoals.com) and see what my “issues” and things I was struggling with were during the year and where I fell short. R Yerucham’s approach seems different. By focusing on our virtues we not only build up our confidence, but also become more aware of exactly what gifts Hashem decided to specifically give us. This idea is very in tune with the whole “Galus HaAdom” approach of Slobodka, finding the greatness within.

I think that using Elul as a time to bring out my strengths can only help me.  Usually my Elul is sort of a cannonball into a pool of introspection followed by endless laps by way of the Tikun HaMiddos stroke.  Using what virtues I might have to augment those things that I’m weak in brings me to the T-shirt.  Each of us has a “virture” or something that we are fairly good at.  If you don’t want to feel like a baal guyvah, then just accept that someone close to you feels that you are probably good at something.  Our goal is of figure it out and use that as a springboard in other areas.  Look at the T-Shirt below and think about how you would fill in the blank.

First hand details about the Alter of Slabodka

This building that might have been the
Yeshiva of Slabodka
“Knesses Yisrael”
(picture from here)

I almost had to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, when I download and started listening to the recording of an interview with former Slabodka talmid, and founder of Yeshiva Ner Israel, Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman zt’l.

The recording of R Ruderman is available here, at a fantastic website called closetotorah.com.  The mp3 is a series of questions and answers about the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel conducted by students from Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, prior to 1987 (when R Ruderman was niftar)

Topics discussed include:

  • Churmas/Being Machmir
  • Individuality
  • Limud haMussar in America
  • The Atler’s outlook
  • A personal story about the Alter’s reaction when R Ruderman bought a tallis katon
  • R Ruderman’s view of what needs the biggest tikun in America

Even if you are not so inclined to hear first hand memories about the Alter of Slabodka, it’s worth it to listen to this interview, so that you can hear and experience the love and kavod that a talmid has for his rebbe.

Food for thought

Before Rav Shimon Schwab left Europe he went spent Shabbos with the Chofetz Chaim in Radin. Shabbos night a group of students came over to the home of the Chofetz Chaim and he said:
We know the mun had the ability to take on whatever taste we wanted it to. What happened when the person eating the mun didn’t think about what he wanted it to taste like?
The Chofetz Chaim answered his own question: Then it simply has no taste.



This gets me every time. It’s one of my favorite d’vrei Torah. If I don’t think about my Avodas Hashem, then it has no taste. If I don’t appreciate the people my family, it’s like they don’t exist. How often does my learning or mitzvah performance seem like tasteless mun?


I know that I go through the motions quite often.  I’m aware of it and I attempt to work on it.  I’m sure that Rav Schwab heard the words of the Chofetz Chaim and it also gave him food for thought.


I often, especially lately, will see or read something and it hits me in the face.  Most recently, it was comic in the Forward that has become a bit of a bee in people’s bonnets.  I chose to contact the artist and got his side of the story.  If perception is everything, then we as a Torah observant community have our work cut out for us.  To eat the mun and not taste it, is up there with feeding the mun to someone else and they only tasting something bitter.


(The beginning of this post was originally posted here)

Q and A with Modya from madrega.com

I recently emailed a few questions to Modya Silver, the founder of madrega.com , “The online community for the Soul-full Jew”.  His answers will give you a little insight into why I think his website is unique and fills a big void for those who are looking to grow in character development.

1. How did the idea of Madrega.com come into being?

A number of years ago I developed my life goal to bring together 1,000 people in some meaningful way so that I can provide a conduit for their measured growth. I have worked in technology and also have a passion for middot (character trait) development. Finding a way to combine the two was a natural fit for my passions.

I then thought about how every Jew around the world, learns/reads the same Torah portion each week (except sometimes in Israel where they are off by a week, or maybe the rest of the world is off and Israel is on). I thought about daf yomi, the schedule by which everyone in the world learns the same page of Talmud every day. It made me think of the power of community and collective learning. A light bulb went on that if we all explore the same middah at the same time, there would be a tremendous opportunity to share ideas and experiences and, through that, grow more than if we worked in isolation. Imagine for example that 1,000 people are all working on developing lovingkindness for two weeks at the same time – all over the world. Imagine if 10,000 are doing that, or a million people. Wow, that would shake the world off its axis.

2. You mention “middot” development and not Mussar. Is madrega.com not a Mussar site?

I learned from my uncle a long time ago that “’ism’ isn’t any good”. So, I’ve always been reluctant to hook onto one school, one ideology for risk of devaluing other ideas and ideologies. When I set out, I thought that madrega.com would be a Mussar site since my middot teachers are within the Mussar tradition. Then I started to learn with a Slonimer Chassid. I also would meet frum Jewish men who, when they heard that I was into Mussar, would literally cringe. They had gone through a yeshiva system and for them Mussar was simply rebuke for doing something wrong, not a path for spiritual growth. It became obvious that the Mussar focus was fraught with potholes and so I broadened the scope to include all authentic Jewish paths that have something to say about middot. In this week’s reading on generosity for example, I quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. Other times I have quoted the Chofetz Chaim, the Malbim, the Netivot Shalom. Any number of sources, provided they offer useful and authentic teachings that are rooted in Torah.

3. How have you grown as a Jew since the web community started?

I’ve always had a strong sense of spirit and find it easy to do daily exercises that open my heart and soul to G-d. My difficulty has been in staying focused and staying the course in Jewish learning. I found that there are so many paths to travel down and often for me, those paths didn’t seem related to each other. I would lose my focus and stop learning. Writing a weekly piece for the madrega.com community and then thinking through all the comments that people post makes me traverse the many paths of Judaism and look for common threads. Last week for example, I was learning a piece of gemorra about when you reject myrtle for a lulav set. It seems like a remote teaching, because in practice, I buy my myrtle in a plastic sealed bag and to me it all looks the same. However, I asked myself how the teaching relates to me today and I found that the answer came through a middot view. There was something about whether I can affect change or whether it’s out of my hands and I need to “reject” my drive to affect change. That made me think hard about effort (hishtadlut) and when I have done all I can and need to let go and trust. I think that without the discipline of daily and weekly learning and reflection on madrega.com, I wouldn’t have seen the gemorra as a lesson for my life.

4. What obstacles have gotten in your way and how did you overcome them in creating the web community?

The middah that comes to mind here is anavah (humility). I had so many technical problems in building the site. I went through three development teams before we got it working. In the middle of all that I took on development myself (thank goodness I stopped that quickly). My question to myself all along was what was my role. I leaned on the way Alan Morinis so adeptly defines anavah as occupying the space that Hashem wants you to occupy. Nothing more, nothing less. My space was to create content and help build awareness of the community to increase our size and success. However, I kept wanting to step outside that role and do everything else. I overcame my drive to take it all on by constantly asking myself the question until I finally listened to the answer. It wasn’t easy to listen.

The second challenge which I still have is in community leadership. I know that in its early days I need to be the catalyst for activity and so I write and post and blog and discuss and create chants etc. However, I never wanted this to be the Modya Silver community. I wanted a more distributive, democratic community where everyone becomes equal participants and everyone’s voice is heard equally. I trust that we’ll get there within the next 12 months, but this remains an obstacle for me now and I find I bump up against my issues with anavah all the time because of it.

I’m feel very fortunate to have formed a nice friendship with Moyda thanks to many emails over the past few weeks.  Madrega.com allows you to work on a specific character trait for two weeks and post comments regarding the middah and post blogs about your growth.  It is “The online community for the Soul-full Jew“.