About Me

Rabbi Chaim Coffman
Rabbi Coffman has helped people from all across the spectrum to prepare themselves properly for Orthodox Conversion to Judaism. His students admire his vast knowledge and appreciate his warm, personal attention and endearing sense of humor.
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Welcome to Rabbi Chaim Coffman's Blog!

I would like to thank you for visiting my blog, Beyond Orthodox Conversion to Judaism.

The conversion process can be a lengthy and daunting one to say the least and I want you to know that I am here to help you through it.

I have been teaching newcomers to Judaism for over a decade and over the last few years I have seen that conversion candidates really lack the support and knowledge they need to navigate the conversion process and successfully integrate into the Orthodox Jewish community.

I created my mentorship program in order to help make this whole experience as smooth and as painless as possible! (Can't do much about the growing pains, though ;)

Feel free to get to know me a little through the posts on my blog and visit the mentorship and syllabus page if you are interested in possible joining us.

I sincerely wish you all the best in your search for truth and spiritual growth.

Looking forward to meeting you,
Chaim Coffman

My Rebbe, Rav Moshe Sternbuch

In case you were wondering why I have all of these articles written by Rav Moshe Sternbuch, he is my Rebbe, and one of the gedolei hador (greatest Rabbis of our generation).

Rav Sternbuch fully endorses me and supports my mentorship program.

He is the address for all of my halachic or hashkafic (practical and philosophical) questions that I or my students may have.

The articles are based on his weekly talks on the Torah portion that the Rav gives in Jerusalem in his kollel. As a member of the kollel I get first dibbs on the photocopies and I type them up for my blog so you can all benefit from the Rav's erudition and insight.
Sunday, October 23, 2011

Shailos Uteshuvos with Rav Moshe Sternbuch, Rosh Av Bais Din of Yerushalayim

Bloody Hands

Question: What is the Torah outlook on the recent prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit?

Answer: Pidyon shevuyim, redeeming Jewish captives, is one of the most important mitzvos in the entire Torah. However in this specific case it is forbidden to free terrorists who vow to spill more Jewish blood after they are released. Aside from the danger they pose to killing Jews, such a trade strengthens the moral of the enemy and puts all of Klal Yisrael in danger.

Freeing Captives

Pidyon shevuim, freeing Jewish captives takes precedence over supporting the poor, and there is no mitzvah greater than freeing captives. Therefore if money was collected previously for any other cause it may be used afterwards for pidyon shevuyim. This is even the case if money was collected to build a Beis Hakeneses…

…Someone who ignores the mitzvah of freeing captives transgresses the prohibitions of “not hardening one’s heart” and “one should not close one’s hand [to help others]” and “one should not stand idle by his brother’s blood”…In addition he transgresses the mitzvos of “You shall surely open your hand to help your brother” and the mitzvah of “You should insure that your brother lives with you” and “You should love your neighbour as yourself”…

…There are many other transgressions and mitzvos that relate to pidyon shevuyim. Delaying pidyon shevuyim is considered to be a very serious transgression, and whoever is able to free captives and does not do so is considered to be a murderer (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 252, 1- 3). From the words of the Shulchan Aruch we see the great significance that Chazal gave to the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, redeeming Jewish prisoners.

Future Ramifications

Albeit the great importance that Chazal viewed the mitzvah of freeing Jewish captives, it was not without limits. There are certain cases where our Sages forbid doing so. They understood if we would go to any extent to get them out the future ramifications could be disastrous.

The Mishna writes “It is forbidden to free captives for more than their value, as a decree for the sake of tikun haolam, maintaining law and order in the world”. There are two major negative ramifications that could come from overpaying for pidyon shevuyim. On one hand this could cause the non-Jews to make a business out of taking Jewish captives, and furthermore this could drain the Jewish community from funds if the constantly have to pay for the release of captives (Gittin 45\a).

According to the first reason that we are worried about future captives, even if a family member wants to free the captives he should not overpay lest this lead to other acts of taking hostages. However according to the second explanation one may free his family members as long as he is using private funds, for this is not placing a strain on the rest of the community. The Shulchan Aruch rules like the first reason(Yoreh Deah 252, 4).

If the captive himself is putting up the funds, Chazal did not limit the amount of money a person can spend to free himself (Tosfos and Shulchan Aruch ibid.). So too, if the hostage is a talmid chacham or a future great Torah scholar, one may pay any price to get him out. However even this case is not simple, and the Mahram Rotenberg died in jail rather than letting himself be redeemed at an exorbitant price.

The Assessment of a Gadol

All of the above guidelines apply when money is being asked in exchange for a Jewish prisoner. The main concern is that such an exchange could lead to future monetary problems for the Jewish people. It does not take into account other factors.

What happens if captors are asking for the release of other prisoners who are murderers? In such a case the ramifications are much more serious. Freeing them could likely lead to the death of many other Jews, for these murderers have vowed to continue their work when they leave the confines of prison.

Rav Sternbuch ruled that one may not go ahead with the exchange, because of the grave danger that such an agreement poses to Klal Yisrael in the future. In all circumstances it is forbidden to make a deal which involves freeing murderers who have vowed to kill Jews. Whoever is involved with such an agreement is putting the lives of Jewish people in jeopardy.

The rav explained that this halacha would not change even if the prisoner was a great talmid chacham. Since Jewish lives are at stake there is no room for compromise in these areas. Even if the captive was the Gadol Hador, such an exchange would be forbidden.

Rav Sternbuch added that even more dangerous than the danger of future killings is the psychological boost that this massive trade-off provides for the Palestinians. These people are not just terrorists; their religion is killing Jews. Making such a deal with them encourages them to continue their activities on an even larger scale.

Furthermore, if they would know that there was a definite deterrent for their actions, like a lifetime jail sentence, they would think twice about their activities. Once the opportunity exists to commit massive terrorist attacks, and be released a few years later, there is nothing stopping them from spilling Jewish blood. These terrorists have not even agreed to curb future attacks on Jews.

One might argue that there are already many terrorists who are willing to kill Jews; how much of a difference does it make to release more? Rav Sternbuch said that while there are others who have threatened to kill, we do not know if they would actually go through with it. Many of the terrorists who are being freed have killed before, and have shown that they are ready to put there life in danger to kill Jews.

In regards to such a situation we should adopt a stance of total empathy with what the prisoner and his family are going through. Yet at the same time we must realize that we are bound to the will of the Torah, and in this situation personal considerations should be put aside for the sake of the Jewish people as a whole. Gedolei Torah gave up their own lives rather consenting to agreements which would cause serious harm to the Jewish people.

A Jew must always be cognizant that the Torah expects us to abide by its will in all areas of life, no matter how difficult it may be. We are forbidden to let our emotions override the dictates of the Torah, and entice us to agree to acts which are tantamount to sanctioning murder and causing great danger to Klal Yisrael. If we instead, act according to the rules that the Torah lays down, we will merit seeing the final redemption quickly.
Saturday, October 8, 2011

Shailos U'Teshuvos with Rav Moshe Sternbuch, Rosh Av Bais Din of Yerushalyim

Question: I grew up as a secular Jew and only recently have found my way to Torah observance. I must say that I am overwhelmed by the vast number of mitzvos and feel ashamed at the way I acted beforehand. Yom Kippur is coming up and I do not know where to even start in regards to doing teshuvah.

Answer: A person cannot change his life around overnight and you should work with a rav to advise you. As far as your previous way of living, you should not focus on it. Rather, you should try and forget about it and get a fresh start as a Torah observant Jew.

Mastering Teshuvah

A baal teshvuah is literally someone who has "mastered" teshuvah. Only a person who has achieved complete self-control can be considered a baal teshuvah. Before reaching that pinnacle, one must be very careful to avoid pitfalls that can block him from getting there.

Rule No. 1 when doing teshuvah is to live in the present with a view on the future. Although doing teshuvah entails charatah, regret over one's past transgressions, dwelling on one's mistakes can lead to depression and is counterproductive. Every mitzvah must be performed with simcha (joy), and indeed the greatest joy can come from the knowledge that you are renewing your relationship with Hashem.

Because of the greatness of the mitzvah of teshuvah, the yetzer hara will stop at nothing to stand in our way. At times, it may argue that our friends and family will ridicule us, or that our attempts at teshuvah are feeble and will not succeed. Alternatively, the yetzer hara may argue that a person has reached such a low level that teshuvah will no longer help him.

Sometimes, the yetzer hara will acknowledge the importance of teshuvah, but argue that it should be postponed for another, more opportune time. We must keep in mind that every moment that one delays doing teshuvah, the tumah (impurity) that accompanies the transgression gets stronger and stronger. This tumah prevents us from changing our ways and returning to Hashem.

As soon as one transgresses, one should strengthen one's heart to immediately do teshuvah. If a person lives likes this, his life will be raised to a new dimension. He will taste the true sweetness of life and will experience true simchah.

The seforim (holy books) discuss difficult regimens for those who want to do teshuvah. In today's reality, these prescriptions for fasting and self-denial are unnecessary. Battling the overwhelming temptations that the world around us seeks to drag us down with at every moment is a sufficiently rigorous challenge for anyone who sincerely desires to do teshuvah. Until one has mastered teshuvah completely, he should not thing about taking any drastic measures.

In front of the King

In order to do teshuvah, one must first admit that one did something wrong. At the start of Hilchos Teshuvah, the Rambam advises that we confess as follows: "Please Hashem I have sinned, transgressed and rebelled in front of You, in doing the following actions…I am embarrassed and regret my misdeeds and I will never return to these ways.

The Rambam stresses that one must mention that one sinned "in front of You." Transgressing the King's command in the King's very Presence is particularly severe, and under such circumstances even the slightest act of of disregard may be considered full fledged rebellion. When a person internalizes the gravity of this situation, he grasps the significance of what he has done and his teshuvah becomes acceptable to Hashem.

The novi Hoshea emphasized this point when he said, "Return (Shuvah) Yisrael to Hashem, your G-d, for you have stumbled in transgression…We will not consider the work of our hands to be G-d" (Hoshea 14:2,4) Every aveirah (transgression) is a temporary lapse in one's awareness of Hashem's absolute control of the world, generated by a feeling that the person guides his own destiny. In order to repair this, a person must strengthen his recognition of Hashgacha Protis, the awareness that Hashem knows the thoughts and actions of man, and that He alone directs everything that transpires in this world.

For this reason, on Rosh Hashanah, we recognize hashem's Kingship before we ask for forgiveness during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. Only after we have accepted Hashem as the Absolute Authority in the world can we come before Him on Yom Kippur and ask for complete forgiveness. Without recognizing Hashgacha Protis and strengthening emunah, our teshuvah is lacking the most basic element - the recognition that we have transgressed before the Master of the Universe.

It is for this reason that we precede our teshuvah with the words, "And Hashem Please Hashem". In doing so, we show that He does not need or have to accept our teshuvah. Rather, we plead in front of Hashem that He should accept our request and forgive us at His discretion.

If you follow these above guidelines, and try and forget about your past and focus on the future, while at the same time infusing Hashem's Kingship into your personal life, you will be successful in your endeavors to do teshuvah.

Teshuvah: A drasha for Rosh Hashanah

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

On Rosh Hashnah and Yom Kippur there is no mitzvah of aliyah leregel (traveling to Yerushalyim and the Bais Hamidkash - Temple). This is because Hashem is so close to us during this period that He, kevayachol, comes to each and every one of wherever we are. This special closeness is a wonderful gift, but it also imposes an obligation on us to utilize it to the utmost. Teshuvah is effective throughout the year, but sometimes it is not accepted, because Hashem asks why we did not make the most of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah (10 days of repentance). The Meiri says in Maseches Rosh Hashanah that if someone is negligent in performing the mitzvah of teshuvah on Rosh Hashanah, he has no part in the G-d of the Jews.

The main aspect of teshuvah is the realization that we have transgressed before Hashem ("Poshati lefoncecha"). For this reason, the emphasis on Rosh Hashanah is on "crowning" Hashem. By doing so, and by crowning Hashem not just over all the upper worlds but over all our limbs and all aspects of our personal lives, we are in effect, repenting as a prelude to Yom Kippur without actually performing the more formal aspects of the mitzvah of teshvuah.

Bnei Torah (religious Jews) are judged first (mishpat avdo) and are subjected to more exacting standards than the rest of the nation, because more is expected of them. A ben Torah is required to show how many masectos (Talmudic tractates) he has learnt, reviewed and mastered. Every Jew has a portion in the World to Come, except an apikores (heretic), such as someone who is able to learn Torah but does not do so. A ben Torah must make sure that he is not guilty of this to any extent.

He must also be especially careful to avoid any chillul Hashem, which even Yom Kippur does not atone for. Even a seemingly small act, such as coming late to shul, which influences others for the worse, can come within the category of chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d's name) regardless of whether any such result was intended.

After the judgment of benei Torah, a judgment takes place of the rest of the nation (mishpat amo Yisrael).On Rosh Hashanah, Hashem not only decrees whether we are to remain physically alive, but He also investigates the vitality of our neshamos and whether they are still "alive." Let us make man in his image". A person creates himself and determines the way his soul appears based on the quantity and quality of the Torah and avodah with which he "feeds" his neshamah.

Rav Elya Lopian zt"l would stress the importance of dedicating oneself to the public by undertaking actions to help the klal (general populace), since then, even if one's actions are wanting, Hashem will grant the person more time to do teshuvah, since punishing him at this stage would have an unwanted effect on his public activities. It must be borne tin mind, though, that for a yeshiva bochur, for example, the best thing he can do for the public may well be to remain next to his shtender and intensify his learning schedule.

When Rav Sternbuch was still in Johannesburg, a religious person came up to him and asked for a blessing that Hashem should not get involved with his business, and that it should continue to flourish. He explained that his business was, thank G-d doing well, and his sole request was that the situation should continue and nothing (including Hashem!) should get in the way of his material success. What he failed to realize was that on each Rosh Hashanah we have no more credit left in our spiritual account in Shomayim (heaven) and everything starts again from scratch. There is no such concept as a continuation of the current situation. Nothing can be taken for granted in any aspect of our lives. Unfortunately, many people have the same misconception as this person. Until Yom Kippur, we still have time to make the most of Hashem's unique closeness to us during this period.

We do not know what the coming year has in store for us. However, if any gezeiros (decrees) have been decreed for Eretz Yisrael, chas veshalom (G-d forbid), every Jew must realize that such gezeiros are for the whole Jewish nation, and can affect every Jew wherever he is. It is so much easier to obviate gezeiros in advance than it is to annul them once they start to be fulfilled. Let us do what we can now to avoid any deterioration in our situation.