World of the Sages: Hillel's hassidic court

The Almighty is not confined to a particular location; indeed there is no place that is empty of the divine presence.

Our sages debate the appropriate posture for the recitation of the Shema (M. Brachot 1:3): The School of Shammai maintained that there was a prescribed stance for each of the Shema readings. In the evening we are instructed to recline while reading Shema, and in the morning we must stand while reading the passage. The School of Shammai reached this conclusion based on its understanding of the biblical verse that is the source of the twice-daily reading of Shema: "And you should teach them to your children [recite them] when you stay at home and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you get up" (Deuteronomy 6:7). The verse refers both to the time of day and the appropriate stance. Thus Shema should be read once when you lie down, that is, while reclining in the evening, and once more when you get up, that is, while standing in the morning. On the basis of the same biblical verse, the School of Hillel ruled differently. According to the School of Hillel, the cited verse relates only to the time of day that Shema should be recited: in the evening when you lie down and in the morning when you get up. In this verse there is no dictate regarding required posture. The appropriate pose is given by a different phrase in the verse: "and when you walk along the way" - each person should read Shema in the position that he happens to be, even if he is in the middle of a journey. Thus according to the School of Hillel there is no mandated posture. The Mishna continues with a tale related by Rabbi Tarfon: "I happened to return by road and [in the evening] I lay down to read [the Shema] in accordance with the view of the School of Shammai, and I endangered myself [by lying down] because of bandits." Rabbi Tarfon's peers responded without sympathy: "You deserved to forfeit your life for you transgressed the words of the School of Hillel!" Indeed, normative law follows the opinion of the School of Hillel; no particular posture is mandated for the reading of Shema. The Talmud Yerushalmi notes that the sages' response is startling and incongruous (Y. Brachot 3b): Had Rabbi Tarfon not read Shema at all he would have forfeited the chance to fulfill one of the positive commandments. Regrettable though such a missed opportunity may be, this infraction does not carry the death penalty. Rabbi Tarfon did read Shema; alas, since he did so in a manner contrary to normative law, he was deserving of death. The importance given in this Mishna to the opinion of the School of Hillel provided room to see this school's position as fundamental to Jewish thought. Such an interpretation can be found in the writings of one lesser-known hassidic master. Rabbi Shlomo Haim Friedman of Sadigora (1887-1972) was a scion of the regal Ruzhin dynasty of hassidic masters. Born in the Ruzhin stronghold of Sadigora, his father and predecessor died when he was 19 years old. Together with his four brothers, Rabbi Shlomenyu - as he was affectionately known - began serving as a hassidic leader. With the outbreak of World War I, Rabbi Shlomenyu, together with many others, fled to Vienna. In Vienna, Rabbi Shlomenyu concluded that there was no need for another hassidic master in the city and he boldly relinquished his title. After the German troops entered Austria to enforce the Anschluss in 1938, Rabbi Shlomenyu made aliya. At first he settled in Jerusalem, but soon moved to Tel Aviv where other Ruzhin rebbes resided. In Tel Aviv, Rabbi Shlomenyu continued to refuse serving as a leader of a community, leaving the title of Sadigora Rebbe to his older brother Rabbi Avraham Ya'acov (1884-1960) known as the Avir Ya'acov and later to his nephew Rabbi Mordechai Shalom Yosef (1896-1979), known as the Knesset Mordechai. As an outward expression of his position, Rabbi Shlomenyu apparently did not even wear the customary shtreimel, the fur head covering donned by hassidim. After his brother passed away, he agreed to sit at the head of the table at hassidic gatherings in honor of his forebears' yahrzeits. It was at such a talk in 1962 in honor of his ancestor Rabbi Dov Ber, the maggid of Mezritch (1710?-1772), that Rabbi Shlomenyu used the opinion of the School of Hillel in this Mishna to explain the thrust of the hassidic movement. Beit Hillel was voicing a sense of divine permeation throughout our physical world: At every place, at every moment, in what ever situation - whether while lying down, whether while standing still, whether while walking - godliness is present. Whatever the scenario, the divine should be sought and the yoke of heaven accepted. The danger that Rabbi Tarfon found himself in was a spiritual danger: He mistakenly thought that accepting God's presence required a certain physical posture that was particular to the time of day - standing in the morning and reclining in the evening. In truth, God's presence permeates the world in all circumstances and without interruption. Rabbi Shlomenyu's interpretation was offered in explanation of a basic tenet of hassidic thought: The Almighty is not confined to a particular location; indeed there is no place that is empty of the divine presence. There are scenarios when connecting to that unlimited divine presence may be easier: when learning the hallowed texts of our tradition or when praying with the congregation the very same words that have seared the lips of our people for generations. The challenge is to connect to God even in places that are not - at least at first glance - considered holy abodes: the home, the workplace, the street. Rabbi Shlomenyu explained: Beit Hillel teaches us that the Almighty can be found in any situation; the hassidic challenge is to embark on this quest. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.