Jewish Publications in Halakhah

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by R. Gil Student

Jewish newspapers and magazines bring together communities in multiple ways. They may include family updates — notices of births, weddings and more. They might showcase local politicians and charity efforts. Readers learn about neighborhood businesses, bringing a face and name to a storefront. This all offers busy people more familiarity with their surroundings, fostering a neighborly attitude that can be lacking in this digital age.

On a religious level, the newspapers and magazines inform readers about synagogue calendars and special events. Additionally, the Jewish periodicals include multiple Torah columns which add spirituality to the local features.

I. A Father’s Manuscript

A man in Israel once dedicated a sum of money to celebrate the memory of his father, who was a Torah scholar. After careful investigation, he determined that he had two options. Either he could pay an editor to prepare his father’s notes for publication and publish them as a book, which probably would be read by only a few family members. Or he could sponsor the purchase of basic Torah texts for use in busy study halls (batei midrash). He asked Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein which option is religiously preferable.

Rav Zilberstein (Chashukei Cheimed, Sanhedrin 24a) quotes the Gemara (Yevamos 96b) which says that a Torah scholar whose insights are quoted after his death gains additional merit, as if his lips move in the grave. However, that refers to quoting him orally. Publishing his insights adds another layer of complexity to the question.

Originally, the Written Torah (Bible) was intended to be written while, in contrast, the Oral Torah was allowed to be transmitted only verbally. These complex traditions and explanations can be taught best in a face-to-face interaction. However, due to persecution and a reduction in students, the Sages wrote the Oral Torah in order to prevent its loss (see the Rambam’s introduction to Mishneh Torah). They deduce permission from the verse that can be read as saying: “It is a time to act for the Lord (la-Shem), violate the law” (Ps. 119:126). In order to preserve the Torah in general, the Sages permitted violating the rule against writing down Oral Torah (Gittin 60a).

II. Is Publishing a Mitzvah or Forbidden?

Rav Moshe Sofer (Responsa Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim 206) writes that we are only allowed to write down Oral Torah if our intent is purely for the sake of Heaven (la-Shem). If we write to gain honor or for other reasons, we still violate the prohibition. Somewhat similarly, in a letter to his son explaining his hesitance over publishing his responsa (introduction to Responsa Chasam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah), Rav Sofer says that he will answer anyone’s questions and that he allows everyone to copy from the responsa manuscripts he keeps in his home. He says that there is no obligation to publish and, to the contrary, doing so might imply a desire for honor. (Thankfully his son still published the responsa as a book.)

Rav Betzalel Cohen, one of the two great Cohen brothers who served as dayanim in Vilna, takes a very different attitude. In the introduction to his Responsa Reishis Bikkurim, Rav Betzalel Cohen writes that he believes he can fulfill the mitzvah of teaching Torah by publishing his insights. In contrast to Rav Sofer, who said that there is no obligation to publish his responsa, Rav Cohen thinks one fulfills a biblical mitzvah by doing so.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (introduction to Dibberos Moshe, Bava Metzi’a) goes further. He says that we are obligated to teach Torah to as many people as possible. If you can teach 100 people but only teach 50, you have not fulfilled your obligation. Therefore, if by publishing your Torah insights you reach more people, you are biblically obligated to publish them as part of the mitzvah to teach Torah. According to Rav Feinstein, a Torah scholar is obligated to publish his insights in a book.

III. Public Need

Rav Zilberstein quotes these sources and adds that the obligation which Rav Feinstein invokes only applies to someone whose teachings are needed and desired by the public. If you publish a book that almost no one will read, you have not fulfilled any obligation. Similarly, Rav Zilberstein quotes his father-in-law, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who ruled that a Torah scholar may use his ma’aser charity money to publish a book of Torah insights only if there is a public need for the book.

I suspect that something similar applies to publishing a Jewish newspaper or magazine. If there is a need for the periodical, its publication is a mitzvah. The Torah and inspirational content consists of lessons and perhaps the other necessary material achieves different forms of chesed. The publication enables residents to patronize local establishments, enhance their appreciation of their neighbors and learn Torah. This is quite an accomplishment.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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