I. Disputed Practices
The eighteenth century polemic surrounding the emerging Chasidic movement took place on multiple levels, among them halakhic. One important anti-Chasidic disputant was R. Yechezkel Landau (link), whose scholarship was so massive that he continues to be a major force in Jewish law even two centuries later. A number of his halakhic rulings can be seen as disputing Chasidic practices, such as his responsum forbidding the recitation of a “Le-Shem Yichud” formula before performing a mitzvah (Noda Bi-Yehudah, vol. 1 Yoreh De’ah no. 93 – link). Another is his forbidding the common Chasidic practice of visiting one’s rebbe on holidays (Noda Bi-Yehudah, vol. 2 Orach Chaim no. 94 – link).
The polemic context of these rulings do not diminish from the cogency and authority of these rulings, and scholars continue to discuss their theoretical underpinnings. In his recent book The Commentators’ Shavuos (pp. 283-294), the formidable R. Yitzchak Sender examines the latter example above.
II. Visiting Your Mentor
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) states that you are obligated to visit your mentor, your rebbe, on festivals. R. Landau, in response to a query why this obligation is omitted from the halakhic codes, states that this mitzvah only applies when the Temple in Jerusalem is standing. In those times, when you visit God in Jerusalem on the festivals, you must also visit your rebbe.
However, you may not show your rebbe more respect than God (see Kiddushin 33b). If you do not make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem then you may not visit your rebbe either. Therefore, R. Landau argued, the codes omitted this obligation because in contemporary times the practice is forbidden.
III. Shabbos Visits
R. Sender asks two question on R. Landau’s position. First, the Gemara (Sukkah 27b) concludes that if a student lives close to his mentor then he must visit him every Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh. This would certainly be more frequent than he visits the Temple in Jerusalem. According to R. Landau, this should be forbidden as an affront to God.
R. Sender responds on R. Landau’s behalf that an affront can only occur when both obligations apply. If a person is obligated to visit both the Temple and his rebbe on a festival but only visits his rebbe, he is detracting from his respect shown to God. However, if, because of proximity, a person is obligated to visit his rebbe every Shabbos, these visits are not an affront to God whom one is not required to visit so frequently.
IV. Talmudic Visits
The second question is that we find sages of the Talmud who lived after the Temple’s destruction visiting their rebbe on festivals. Rav Chisda and Rabba bar Rav Huna (Sukkah 10b), R. Ilai (Sukkah 29b), and R. Yochanan ben Broka and R. Elazar ben Chismah (Chagigah 3a) all visited their mentors on a holiday. Does this not undermine R. Landau’s entire argument?
R. Sender suggests that visiting your rebbe to learn Torah was allowed, just visiting for the sake of greeting him was forbidden. However, that was in the time when Torah was only taught orally. After the advent of the printing press, even visiting for the sake of learning Torah is forbidden.
V. Reasons For Visiting
R. Sender offer multiple possible reasons for this obligation, regardless of whether it currently applies. R. Landau suggested that a teacher receives unique inspiration on a festival and is therefore better able to influence his students. Another possibility is that this is simply a form of showing respect to Torah scholars. Or perhaps it is for the sake of studying Torah. In the time of the Temple, people would often save their halakhic questions for the festivals, when they visited the Temple and could consult with senior scholars.
Another explanation is that such a visit inspires you to greater fear of God. Or perhaps visiting your rebbe adds to the joy of the holiday.
Today, when we lack the Temple in Jerusalem, we also lack the ability to properly fulfill this mitzvah of visiting your rebbe on the festivals. Until the Temple is rebuilt, our holidays will remain lacking this significant and meaningful element.