Kollel Milhamta Shel Torah of Queens A Spiritual Home for Torah and Tefillah

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By: Yoseph Sosnow

Hacham Shalom Cohen, shlit”a, longtime Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Porat Yosef, the flagship Sephardic Yeshiva in Israel, and Nasi(Chairman) of the Shas party’s Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah, is not known for feely sharing personal information. In early January, however, at a special meeting in his humble apartment in the Jerusalem’s Old City, Hacham Shalom uncharacteristically spoke to those in attendance about his own Torah study.

The event was a siyumcelebrating the completion of the third volume of Mishnah Berurah – the renowned halachicwork by the Hafetz Haim. Those celebrating were participants of the Daf HaYomi B’Halacha program run by Dirshu, the international Torah organization that promotes accountable Torah study. The program had completed the study of the volume of Mishnah Berurah dealing with laws of Shabbat, learning a page of Mishnah Berurah each day.

Around Hacham Shalom’s table were many of his prize students who deliver public Daf HaYomi B’Halacha shiurimin their communities, and were celebrating their completion of the long, difficult volume on the laws of Shabbat.

Looking lovingly at his students, who have become prominent rabbis and Rosheh Yeshiva, Hacham Shalom said,“I must tell you something personal. I learned and completed the entire six volumes of the Mishnah Berurah when I was a teenager, just 16 years old. From then until today, I have not stopped learning and reviewing the book. I think it is incumbent on every Jew, regardless of his background, to attach himself to the Mishnah Berurah, to try his utmost to understand it. It is a tremendous zechut [source of merit] to be able to learn and understand the words of the Mishnah Berurah.

Even for Sepharadim!

The hacham then addressed the “elephant in the room” – the question of whether the Mishnah Berura, a halachicwork by an Eastern European, Ashkenazic sage, is relevant even for Sepharadim.

“Some might say that the Mishnah Berurah is a work written for Ashkenazim, and not for Sepharadim,” Hacham Shalom noted. “After all, we rule in accordance with Maran, the Bet Yosef[Rabbi Yosef Karo], and they rule in accordance with the Rama [Rabbi Moshe Isserles]. What then would be the point of learning the MishnahBerurah
when its laws are not written in accordance with the Sephardic halachicrulings?”

The hacham answered, “When one learns the Mishnah Berurah, one can truly understand the underlying premise of the halachah. I always tell my students that althoughwe Sepharadim do not rule like the Mishnah Berurah, they should first learn the Mishnah Berurah and then learn the final conclusion of the Sephardic poskim[halachicauthorities]. After all, the Mishnah Berurah teaches you how to understand the halachah, and not just what the halacha is. The Mishnah Berurah is unique in that it is totally comprehensive. After learning it, you understand the sources for the halachah, what the foundational arguments are. Certainly, we all have to consult the works written byour Sephardic rabbis to know how we should conduct ourselves in a practical sense, but the study of the laws of Shabbat is a completely different experience for any person who learns the Mishnah Berurah.

“Therefore,” Rav Cohen concluded, “it is a wonderful thing that Dirshu has instituted the learning of Daf HaYomi B’Halacha daily learning of Mishnah Berurah.”

When one of the scholars present began studying the final chapter of that volume of Mishnah Berurah, Hacham Shalom immediately engaged him in a complex discussion about the Mishnah Berurah’s opinion on the subject.

This meeting was not Hacham Shalom’s first exposure to Dirshu. In fact, the hacham was instrumental in helping establish over 50 Daf HaYomi B’Halacha shiurimin France. Those shiurimwere established in the aftermath of his visit to France three years ago for the siyumon the first cycle of Daf HaYomi B’Halacha, where he delivered the keynote address at the massive celebration held in one of the largest auditoriums in downtown Paris.

 Following the siyum, Hacham Shalom met with maggidei shiur (lecturers) and offered advice on what to emphasize in their shiurim. He also encouraged Dirshu to open additional shiurimin Daf HaYomi B’Halacha, and pledged to make himself available for guidance. Indeed, not only in France, but also throughout Eretz Yisrael, Hacham Shalom has encouraged the learning of Mishnah Berurah in Sephardic yeshivot.

“It’s a Beginning!”

One of Hacham Shalom’s students, Rabbi Michael Elbaz, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Shevut Yehuda, was asked to deliver a short speech before the actual siyumwas made. Rabbi Elbaz spoke about the transformative impact the Dirshu Daf HaYomi B’Halacha has had on his students.

“Over the last three years, my students have learned and been tested on the first three volumes of Mishnah Berurah,” he proudly related. “The climax, of course, is the current siyumon the third volume that covers the difficult, complex laws of Shabbat that are relevant every week. One cannot properly observe Shabbat, the Mishnah Berurah says in the introduction, if one does not study
the halachot.”

Rabbi Elbaz then added, “We are celebrating what is called a siyum, a ‘completion’ of the laws of Shabbat, but thetruth is, this is not a completion. It is a beginning! Hacham Shalom has taught us and repeated many times, that learning something is just the beginning. Once one studies it, he must review and review it again. This constant review makes a person realizehow the first time he had just touched the tip of the iceberg. Review enables a person to understand the halachahbetter, and he then realizes that there are so many new things that he didn’t know. This is the ultimate enhancement to the observance of Shabbat.”

Rabbi Mordechai Ben Sadon, one of Hacham Shalom’s students who has been delivering a daily shiur in Mishnah Berurah for years, was given the honor of making the actual siyum, completing the final passage of the volume. Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Cohen, shlit”a, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva Ma’or Haim and a Daf HaYomi B’Halacha maggid shiur, was then given the honor of beginning the fourth volume of Mishnah Berurah, which deals with the complex halachot of eruvin. Rabbi Cohen noted that his students learn the Dirshu program each day in the yeshiva, and they even have classes on Friday and Shabbat, so that not a single day is missed. The boys in the yeshiva take the tests, and they find that the accountability has brought their knowledge and desire to study to a new level. By providing opportunities and a framework for acquiring halachicknowledge, in the form of a daily schedule of learning and review followed by monthly tests, Dirshu has truly changed lives and created a new kind of Jew, a Jew who lives his entire life with a constant, keen awareness of halachah.

“Longing” for Shabbat

The event reached its dramatic climax of when Hacham Shalom Cohen himself spoke.

The elderly Rosh Yeshiva seemed to get younger as he started speaking, opening with an in-depth discourse on the foundational role of Shabbat in Jewish life. Citing the Ramban, Hacham Shalom explained that Sefer Bereishit, the first book of the Torah, is called Sefer Yetzirah– the Book of Creation, telling us about the world’s creation and about the lives of our patriarchs and their children. However, the Ramban teaches that all this serves merely as an introduction to Sefer Shemot, in which the Jewish People become a nation and are commanded to build a Mishkan(Sanctuary) where Gd’s presence would rest among them. Only once we had the Mishkanin which we would serve Gd could we truly be considered a nation of Gd’s faithful servants.

“If there is no Mishkan,” Hacham Shalom said, “then we are not considered redeemed. Only when Hashem has His presence rest among us through the Mishkanare we considered to be redeemed. Otherwise, we are still slaves to Egypt!

“That being said, despite the colossal importance of the Mishkan, there is something that the Torah tells us is even more important than the Mishkan, and that is…Shabbat!”

The rabbi explained: “In Parashat Vayakhel, when the Torah tells us about the actual construction of the Mishkan, the first thing that the Torah says even before the construction of the Mishkanis that one must observe the Shabbat. The Shabbat comes first!

“Everyone here has stressed the importance of proper observance of Shabbat, and I don’t want to repeat what they said. Let me just mention that when we say a person is a ‘shomer Shabbat,’ the word ‘shomer’ means ‘watcher’ or observer of Shabbat. In other words, he keeps Shabbat and observes the myriad halachotassociated with Shabbat. But the word ‘shomer’ has a different translation, as well. ‘Shomer’ can mean ‘waiting for,’ ‘anticipating,’ or ‘longing for’. Thus, ‘shomer Shabbat’can also mean ‘one who waits for the Shabbat,’ who longs for the Shabbat. Every day throughout the week, we should be longing for the Shabbat, we should say to ourselves, ‘When is Shabbat coming already?’ The way to develop a longing for Shabbat and a deep desire for Shabbat to come already and bask in its warmth is by studying the laws of Shabbat. The more one learns about what is permitted and what is prohibited on Shabbat, the deeper his relationship with Shabbat will be.”

“Fix Friday and Shabbat!”

Hacham Shalom then proceeded to speak about his own Shabbat experiences with his family.

“Let me tell you what I used to do at my own Shabbat table when my children were young. I would learn the work Ben Ish Haion the halachotof Shabbat every week. We studied the Ben Ish Haiand reviewed it. First of all, our children learned many halachotas a result. The second thing the studying accomplished was that it gave structure to the Shabbat meal. Our children saw that a Shabbat meal wasn’t just a time for gossip or to talk about unimportant and sometimes foolish matters. The meal was injected with the unique flavor of Shabbat.”

Rav Cohen highlighted the importance of utilizing Shabbat properly by sharing another anecdote,
a fascinating conversation he once had with Rav Elazar Shach.

“I remember many years ago,” he recalled, “a number of Roshei Yeshiva of prominent yeshivotcame to me complaining, ‘The yeshivot have such a long break for Pesach. The entire month of Nissan! That is a long time for students to be off from Torah study. Perhaps we should shorten the break?’

“I did not want to undertake a decision of such magnitude on my own, so I went to consult with Rav Elazar Shach, Rosh Yeshiva of Ponovezh and the oldest Rosh Yeshiva at the time. Do you know what he answered? He instructed me to tell the Rosheh Yeshivot that before fixing the month of Nissan, they should fix Friday and Shabbat. ‘Those are two full days every week that are often not utilized properly,’ he said. ‘Let us fill those days with structure and Torah study first!’

Baruch Hashem, for 60 years I am delivering shiurimon Fridays and Shabbat. On Friday, we have a shiur on the laws of Shabbat, and on Shabbat, on Mishnah Berurah.”

Rabbi Cohen then extended his blessing to Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter, shlit”a, Nasiof Dirshu, for creating and facilitating such an enormous amount of Torah study, and especially, the study of the laws of Shabbat.

“Hashem should help that we should only perform His will without any ulterior motives whatsoever,” he said. “I am accustomed to praying that Hashem should open the hearts of those who study Torah and grant them that they have yirat Shamayim[fear of Heaven], to truly understand, to ask questions, to answer questions, and most of all, that they should love Torah, love to learn Torah.” Turning his attention to the numerous rabbis around the table who deliver shiurim, he concluded, “But the main thing is that the rabbi giving the class should prepare and know the material perfectly. In this way, those who listen will learn to love the Torah!”

Countering the Satan

Rav Cohen’s remarks were followed by short words of blessing from the Nasiof Dirshu, Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter. He noted that before Yaakov Avinu went down to Egypt with his family, he sent his son Yehuda ahead of him, and Rashi explains, based on the Midrash, that Yehuda went first in order to open a place of study “from where Torah rulings would come forth.” The Midrash is telling us that we need not only a yeshiva, but also a place where scholars will reach practical halachicrulings. Whenever Jews arrive at a new place, our sages are telling us, they must have a yeshiva and a place where one can receive halachicrulings and halachicguidance from our sages.

 “Why,” Rabbi Hofstedter asked, “did Yaakov Avinu specifically send Yehuda? If he wanted to build a yeshiva, he should have perhaps sent an architect and a developer!”

The rabbi answered, “Yehuda is the power of malchut, the power of a king. Whenever there is something good happening, theSatan, the yetzer hara[evil inclination], tries to get in the way. Yehuda has the power of malchut, a power that can counter the yetzer hara’s diabolical plans.

“This, too, is why we feel so fortunate to be here at the home of the Rosh Yeshiva, and why Dirshu is fortunate to have the blessing and constant support of the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Cohen, and other leading gedoleh Yisrael[spiritual giants]. With their backing, their merit and their tefillot[prayers], we will certainly overcome any hurdles that the yetzer haraplaces in our way!”

Hacham Shalom closed the event by congratulating all of those learning the Mishnah Berurah, proclaiming, “One must know how to learn the Mishnah Berurah. Every line in the Mishnah Berurah is worth so much! There is no greater zechutthan studying the Mishnah Berurah!”