Physical and Spiritual Priorities

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Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by R. Aharon Ziegler

At the end of Sefer Shemot (35:2), at the very conclusion of GD’s command to Moshe regarding the Mishkan, HaShem once again appends a warning regarding keeping Shabbat. Rav Soloveitchik explained, in the name of his great grandfather, the Bet Halevi, (Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitcik-died May 1 1992). that there are basic necessities to maintain a physical life, and then there are luxuries which are greatly enjoyed but do not constitute necessities. In our spiritual life as well, there are Mitzvot which are basic to our existence as Jews, and there are other Mitzvot which, although beautiful, we can survive without, as a people, if necessary.

If a person becomes mentally deranged, he no longer differentiates between necessity and luxury. He will neglect his body, will not eat, and will not protect himself from the cold. In the same way, when our nation was of sound spiritual foundation, it was unnecessary to include a warning about Shabbat, and therefore, the command to build the Mishkan in Parashat Terumah did not include this warning. However, after our people worshipped the Golden Calf, we experienced a spiritual mental deterioration. No longer could we differentiate absolute necessity from luxury. It therefore became necessary for GD to warn us about Mitzvah priorities; GD must now emphasize that Shabbat supersedes the Mishkan.

If one reads the Shabbat Shuva drashot that were delivered to our people in Europe over the last few centuries, they never contained warnings to keep Shabbat, Kashrut, to wear Teffilin, or to give children a Jewish education. Such exhortations were unnecessary, as the people recognized that their very existence depended upon these fundamentals. Instead, these drashot contained warnings about Lashon HaRa, how one should not dress too luxuriously, and abour speaking kindly to one’s spouse and to those who are less fortunate.

Only in our generation, with our confused priorities, are exhortations regarding spiritual necessities required to be discussed. For example, reciting Kaddish over a decease parent, a relatively minor custom, is today considered more important than Shabbat or expressing rudeness and even hurting the feelings of other people. That’s a confused mind and needs special exhortations.

About Aharon Ziegler

Rabbi Aharon Ziegler is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Agudath Achim of Boro Park and the Dean and Rosh Kollel of Kollel Agudath Achim. He is the author of six volumes of Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

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