A Key Debate

Dear Editor,

I usually enjoy Rabbi Yair Hoffman’s lucid and insightful halachic expositions in the Five Towns Jewish Times, which is why I am all the more perplexed that he offered such a vigorous defense of the strange custom of the schlissel challah (“Unlocking the Custom of Schlissel Challah”). Rabbi Hoffman makes two basic claims in his article: (1) that schlissel challah does not find its origins in Christian practice, and (2) that it is wrong to discourage the minhag of schlissel challah.

Regarding the first issue, the question of the schlissel challah’s connection to Christianity, I found it odd and out of place that Rabbi Hoffman plucked a paper by Mr. Alfassa out of relative obscurity and used a general-news Jewish weekly as the forum to offer criticism that seemed more suitable for an academic publication.

Though I can’t speak for Mr. Alfassa, and though it is difficult to provide a full rebuttal to Rabbi Hoffman’s arguments in a letter to the editor, suffice it to say that the specific sources in Mr. Alfassa’s paper that Rabbi Hoffman criticized were meant to provide a general sense that the superstitious practice of making markings on bread with various instruments, including keys, is one that was found among the Christians.

To me, the very simple and well-documented fact that for hundreds of years Northern European Christians have, during the Passover season, produced Easter breads (Osterbrot or Osterkuchen) and “cross buns” with various markings on their surface is enough to at least create a suspicion of its possible connection to schlissel challah. (After all, the first mention of the minhag, attributed to Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro of Koretz, was to merely mark the challah with a key–“menakvin bamafteiach”–not to actually bake it in the bread or take the form of the bread.)

As for the second issue, the propriety of practicing schlissel challah today, Rabbi Hoffman offers no justification other than to quote a few chassidishe seforim and say that it is the minhag of many, many chassidim. Does Rabbi Hoffman mean to claim that all the various bizarre segulos brought down by chassidishe sources are worthy of the same defense?

As but one of a myriad examples, in Taamei HaMinhagim, one of the chassidishe sources quoted by Rabbi Hoffman, the following segulah is recommended for one who wishes to reveal the identity of a thief: Write the words “ofe, ofe, ofe” on a klaf that was designated for a sefer Torah or tefillin and then hang it around the neck of a white rooster, and it will immediately run to the thief or bite him. Alternatively, write the names of the suspects on separate pieces of kosher klaf and place them into a water-filled earthenware vessel. Recite Tehillim 19 three times and the parchment upon which the name of the guilty party is written will sink to the bottom (p. 569).

Fortunately, as far as I can tell, these and other similar abhorrent rituals have not become widespread among Klal Yisrael, and I trust and hope that Rabbi Hoffman does not lend similar support for them. For some reason, however, schlissel challah has gained more popularity. It is the responsibility of our great rabbanim to decry such practices and follow the example set by Rabbi Hershel Schachter in a public shiur last year, when he said the following:

“The rebbetzin from the neighborhood called her [my wife] up on the telephone that she has to bake the challahs this Shabbos and put in a key–schlissel challah. So I said, ‘Don’t you dare put any key in! It’s mamash nikush! What kind of baloney is this?’” (www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/772117/Rabbi_Hershel_Schachter/Segulas,_Superstition,_and_the_Ayin_Hara at minute 39)

In conclusion, the Torah asserts that the peoples of the world will look at the practices of Klal Yisrael and remark that “this great nation is nothing but a wise and understanding people” (Devarim 4:6). Unfortunately, I am fairly certain that they will reach the opposite conclusion when they observe such abhorrent customs practiced among our people.

Rabbi Yossi Azose

West Hempstead

Rabbi Hoffman Responds

Dear Rabbi Azose,

Thank you for your letter. I would, in the interest of clarity, like to make two modifications to the “two basic claims” you enumerate.

The first is that making a claim of darchei Emori is not something that can be made lightly when gedolei olam–yes, gedolei olam–have such a minhag. There are explanations to this minhag found in seforim that are quite inspirational. This is not to say that it is impossible for such a thing to happen, but strong and rigorous proofs must be brought. In the second response in last week’s paper, I argued that no proof has been brought that schlissel challah came from Christian practice. I also addressed the issue of a repercussion. When a minhag develops as a repercussion, it is not to be considered halachically as darchei Emori.

It could very well be that Christians were baking crosses and Jewish bakers responded, “We bake things differently. We will bake in the shape of a key to our synagogues.” This is an example of just such a repercussion and one that strengthens Jewish identity. Indeed, such a reference is in fact made in 18th-century seforim.

How are people so sure, with no evidence, that this is darchei Emori?

As far as the second point, I should have clarified things a bit better. It is wrong to discourage the traditional observance of schlissel challah where it reminds us of our obligation to honor Shabbos and to focus our tefillos toward HaKadosh Baruch Hu, as the seforim all write. I fully agree that this minhag should not be observed without thought and as a mere “segulah that brings parnassah.” The observance of our minhagim, indeed of our halachos, should be directed toward greater dveikus Bashem, something that, unfortunately, needs some serious recalibration in our times.

As far as plucking a paper out of obscurity goes, this faulty paper had unfortunately made its rounds. It has been quoted online in numerous venues, and needed to be corrected. An honest assessment of the arguments made against it will show the errors.

As far as Rav Hershel Schachter’s quote is concerned, there is no question that he is an extraordinary scholar with remarkable midos. I strongly doubt, however, that he truly would rule that this is “mamash nikush,” notwithstanding the audio recording you referenced.

The Rambam in Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:14 rules regarding nikush: “Similarly, one who makes signs for himself–if such and such will happen to me, I will do a certain thing; and if it will not happen to me, then I will not do it–like Eliezer, the servant of Avraham . . . this is forbidden. Anyone who does something because of these matters incurs lashes.”

I can hardly imagine the following scenario: Rav Hershel Schachter is heading a beis din where the Satmar Rebbe, the Apter Rav, and the Klausenberger Rav have been brought before him on account of their practice of schlissel challah. I can hardly imagine that Rav Schachter, shlita, would rule, “Mamash nikush. Give them lashes.”

I imagine, rather, that Rav Schachter’s point was that it is wrong to approach such things in the form of nikush or superstition.

Are there customs with strange origins? Of course. But do Sephardim attack the Rema for kapparos, even though the Bais Yoseph held that the custom is of foreign origin? They do not. There is much that we can learn from chassidim and chassidus in terms of dveikus Bashem. Rather than bash, we should focus our energies on achdus and how we can better reach and educate our children in the great spiritual heritage that we all share, in our birthright of Sinai.

Yair Hoffman

A Timely Article

Dear Editor,

Thanks to Rabbi Hoffman for shedding light on the custom of schlissel challah. I had just read Alfassa’s article and was concerned about the claims he was making. I enjoyed reading Rabbi Hoffman’s well-researched article and appreciate his efforts in setting the record straight.

Name Withheld

Great Neck Ready

For Honesty

Dear Editor,

For years, The Jewish Week, as well as local Great Neck publications, have provided excessive space to Rabbi Jerome Davidson, who, in this week’s edition, was joined by Rabbi White of Temple Sinai in a condemnation of Great Neck Synagogue for hosting a forum on Islamist extremism, with Pamela Geller as a participant.

Some context is needed. I cast no aspersions on any of the movements in Judaism, except if individual synagogues operate in a manner injurious to the rest of us or the State of Israel, which Rabbi Davidson and some of his members have certainly done.

Why is it impermissible to openly discuss a grave illness in a substantial minority of the Muslim world? Does not ADL detail the hundreds of violent anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. alone and verify that anti-Semitism is the most prevalent bigotry? ADL, to which I have contributed, puts forth the symptoms yet partners with extremists like CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), a faux “civil rights” group which is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land terrorist trial and an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, as is the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Students Association, which torments our Jewish kids on campuses nationwide, and others.

I have had entanglements with Rabbi Davidson, most prominently just after the 9/11 mass murders when I publicly questioned how he could engage with mosque members in non-substantive dialogues when a then-officer of the mosque, Gazi Khankan, spoke there and proclaimed 9/11 a plot concocted by Israel and our CIA to “shame Islam.” Khankan said, “You must see who benefited from 9/11.” Additionally, supporters of Hamas have spoken unhindered at the mosque. There is a reason that Representative Pete King, in discussing the radical Islamist threat, has mentioned an extremist element in that very mosque.

Understandably, Sunday morning’s event will deal with Islamist growth in Europe and its threat to the Jews there, the extermination of Christendom in the Middle East (now that, outside of Israel, they’ve basically run out of Jews to kill in the Levant), intimidation of Jewish students on our campuses, denigration of persons exercising their right to address such threats, and related matters.

Overwhelmingly, we have received both public and sotto voce support for this engagement. It is our collective obligation to be informed–to join with the Zuhdi Jasser, Raymond Ibrahim, Khaled Abu Toameh, Hirsut Ali, and other brave Muslims who are more or less excluded and marginalized in their communities.

One more thing: One’s worldview is critical to understanding motivation and credibility. Jerome Davidson is not the dominant religious figure in the community that he may once have been. Orthodox synagogues outnumber all others by 3 to 1 in the area, along with their attendant memberships. When Chabad came to the area and received permission to erect a menorah on the village green alongside the Christmas tree, Rabbi Davidson complained bitterly that the menorah is a religious symbol and the tree was a “seasonal symbol.” He testified to that at the village board. He said that “next thing there will be a crèche on the green.” How disgraceful. I do not believe that the current rabbis at Beth-El, Rabbis Feldman, would have responded in so vile a manner towards our Christian neighbors. We have never heard him discuss Islamist extremism.

Today’s Great Neck wants honest, open discussion. And yes, it is not a seasonal tree; it is a Christmas tree and we’re happy to have it.

My former mentor, Ed Koch, best encapsulates on his cemetery monument what this discussion is about. Says he, quoting the last words of Daniel Pearl, as he was beheaded by Muslim terrorists: “My father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew, I am a Jew.”

Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld

Great Neck, NY

Battle Gear No More!

Dear Editor,

The harsh rhetoric, damaging statements, and arrow-throwing between Jews has started earlier than usual this year. With the Israeli election season over and coalition-building terminated, words of anger, disdain, and hostility are the pen strokes of the day. Hardly a day passes without some criticism aimed at the “other.”

The precarious days of Sefirah, highlighted by the death of 24,000 talmidim of Rabbi Akiva, seem to reappear yearly in the ongoing “wars” of late Nissan and Iyar.

Battle begins with Yom HaShoah–why in Nissan rather than Av? Why a goyish siren? On whose side was Rav Ziemba, zt’l? Why visit the anti-chareidi Yad Vashem? Why use the word “shoah” (as the Bluzhever Rebbe preferred) and not churban (as Rav Hutner preferred)? Hallel on Yom HaAttzmaut, with a beracha or without (like saying Tehillim)? Tachanun or not? Miracle or sitra achra? Hashem “winked” at us, end of galus, or beginning of redemption? Sefirah–yes recorded music, no music at all, a cappella? No shave, shave for Shabbos, or never shave? Then comes Yom Yerushalayim–national holiday or a touch of religious hakaras ha’tov? Hallel maybe yes, maybe no, or whatever.

Perhaps we can initiate a new trend by minimizing the verbal attacks and written know-it-all posts and articles. Have you ever encountered a person with a changed opinion due to the screaming, yelling, or bellicose nastiness? Maybe the time has arrived to remove some of the battle fatigues and get out there to meet the “other.”

Chodesh tov,

Mrs. Caren V. May

Yom HaShoah

In The Five Towns

Dear Editor,

This past Sunday our community observed Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. As has been our custom, the gathering took place at Congregation Beth Sholom. This year, as always, the program was moving and participation overwhelming.

Yom HaShoah was conceived by the Chief Rabbis of Israel together with the government of Israel in the early 1950s. It was designated as the day that the people of Israel and Jews worldwide pause and remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis in the cruelest of ways. Laws were enacted to prevent any desecration of the day. Cafés are closed, as are all places of entertainment. The country is in a state of mourning and remembrance for 25 hours.

Needless to say, no weddings, bar mitzvahs, or any other celebrations ever take place Yom HaShoah.

Even the chareidi community in Israel acknowledges the day and respects it, understanding the extreme significance.

This brings me to ask the question, “Why not here?” It is my understanding that this past Sunday night numerous celebrations took place in our community.

I would like to ask all of our community rabbis to announce to their congregations that going forward it would be inappropriate to schedule any sort of simcha on Yom HaShoah. I would love for our community rabbis to go a step further and announce that they will not attend nor officiate if somebody chooses to make an affair on Yom HaShoah.

I am hopeful that someone will take the lead. Let us follow the example that the people of Israel adopted many years ago. It is the right thing to do.

Josh Glikman

Not Perfect Either

Dear Editor,

I just had a few things to say to the person whose letter was published this past week in “MindBiz,” in which she asked whether she could become a therapist even though she faced many problems in her own life.

First, I would like to say that as much as you feel you are the only one in this predicament, you should know you are not alone. When I read your letter I felt like I had actually written the letter, with a few exceptions. I am in my early forties and wish that I had more guidance when I was going to college and had to make big life choices. I had wanted to study nonverbal communications but couldn’t. Now I feel stuck in the same way as you but mostly because I feel too tired to go back to college again. I do sometimes feel my life is such a mess, how can I guide anyone else?

What I can tell you (and tell myself) is that because of the things we have and are going through in our lives we can help others. Even though I am not a therapist in an official capacity, I talk openly about certain issues in my life that I think will help people in my own way. I have learned that everybody has issues they are struggling with, and if people can feel comfortable talking about it with someone who understands them it makes a world of difference.

I have a friend who has a son with issues and sees a therapist. We always talk about two things we want in a therapist: someone who is older and has actual experience in raising a child and someone who doesn’t necessarily have a perfect life. Who wants to sit in front of someone who cannot understand what it feels like to have a crazy family, who cannot provide any kind of support? I have taken all the challenges that Hashem has given me, not just as a test for my family and me, but also as a way to help other people.

In my very humble opinion, I agree with everything Mrs. Mann has advised you, not as a professional but as someone who would seek out a therapist. I wish you siyata d’Shmaya in everything you do. May Hashem guide you and give you the strength to take all that He has given you and use it positively.


Someone Who Empathizes


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