Celebrating SUKKOT 5780

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A look at the groundbreaking Israeli institute seeking to raise awareness of the vitally important mitzvah of family purity.

In the early evening hours, a light knock on the door of a home in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood brings the wife to the door, curious as to who this could be.  She was not expecting any visitors that night.

She was not at all prepared for the surprise that awaited her at the door.

She could not believe her eyes when they beheld the robe of Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, accompanied by a distinguished-looking rabbi, who identified himself as the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rav Betzalel Zolty, zt”l.

The woman was not at all religiously observant.  But which Jewish heart would not be stirred by the sight of these two prominent figures, who stood before her like a poor man begging at the door, asking, “Would you perhaps agree to come to the new mikveh which was recently built here in the neighborhood?”?

Fortunately, the concept of immersion in a mikveh was not foreign to her.  Over a decade earlier, when she got married, she heard a thing or two about it.  But the pressures of day-to-day life swept her along and pushed to the side anything that was too difficult or overbearing, and she saw no need to concern herself with something which seemed like an excessively stringent religious practice.  But now, seeing how these two prominent rabbis took the trouble to come to her and extend a personal invitation, and that the mikveh itself, according to these rabbis, was new and welcoming, she thought to herself, why not look into it?

“He Cried From the Depths of His Heart”

These rabbis were following a tradition practiced by their illustrious predecessors. 

It is told that in the Chafetz Chaim’s later years, when leaving the house became an all-but-impossible undertaking, he nevertheless went through the trouble of leaving home and embarking on a grueling, dangerous trip to bring the message of family purity to remote communities.

Rav Nissim Naftali, shelit”a, a close disciple and aide of Rav Yehuda Tzadka, zt”l, said:

For years, I had the privilege of accompanying my master and teacher on his trips to lecture throughout the Land of Israel to raise awareness of the sacred and precious subject of family purity.  He cried from the depths of his heart when speaking to the masses, pleading to them not to neglect one of the foundations of the Jewish home.

He once went for a Shabbat retreat to the old city of Tzefat.  Throughout Shabbat, he dragged himself from one synagogue to the next, going even to remote neighborhoods, and wherever he went, he strengthened this sacred matter.

Indeed, the mitzvah of family purity is the most basic foundation of the Jewish home.  Throughout the generations, it has been strictly observed, with all its numerous details, and Jews made monumental sacrifices for this mitzvah.  The great Torah sages led the way in enduring there was a halachically valid mikveh in every community, and overseeing all aspects of its operation.

A Tragic Plague of Ignorance

There is an accepted practice throughout all Jewish communities, even in the Diaspora, that every bride and groom, before their wedding, attends at least ten sessions on the basic principles of family purity, the meaning of marriage in Judaism, and the way to properly build their relationship as a married couple.  Unfortunately, though, due to the influence of the state-run educational institutions, this mitzvah sits on a very low rung on the ladder of values for the typical Israeli.  We thus have a situation whereby specifically in Israel, something so sacred, precious and vital as family purity is disregarded. 

The information to couples before their wedding is provided through the auspices of the Religious Affairs Council, an arm of local municipalities, which, in most Israeli cities, are secular, and therefore, funding is granted for only two sessions per couple.  It is obvious that two sessions are not enough to cover this important subject, and the material is presented very briefly and hurriedly, just to get it over with.  In such a short period of time, there is no possibility of presenting the proper outlook and arousing the heart to fulfill this important mitzvah, as is necessary to overcome the temptation to neglect it, running the risk of grave Torah violations, Heaven forbid.

It is worth mentioning that any reputable halachic training center or kollel that deals with this topic devotes at least two years to full-time study of the laws of family purity.  And Rav Ovadia Yosef spent forty years writing his book Taharat Ha’bayit on this subject!

If wewould ask those in charge why such an important mitzvah has been pushed to the side, they would give the routine answer: “Couples in any event will not observe this mitzvah, so what purpose is served by going through the trouble to explain it to them?”

But this is a terrible mistake.  Experience has proven that when the teacher works with the bride lovingly, and speaks to her heart, carefully and delicately explaining to her with genuine love and affection the benefits of observing these laws, the words penetrate the heart and can trigger a complete transformation.

Nearly all the teachers involved in bringing this message door-to-door have reported experiencing each night the unpleasant situation of succeeding in bringing a woman to a mikveh after ten or twenty years of marriage, and the woman then turns to the teacher and asks, “Where were you twenty years ago?  Why didn’t you explain to me when I got married how important and worthwhile this is?”

There is no doubt that zechut avot – the merit of their predecessors – is what has enabled these women’s hearts to be open and receptive to this mitzvah, and to sense its unique sanctity.  Rav Yehuda Tzadka used to say that the merits of the grandmother who observed the mitzvah generations earlier have the effect of awakening the hearts of her descendants.

Midrash Bet Nasi

Rav Tzadka’s disciple, Rav Nissim Naftali, tells that the rabbi was once invited to sign the certificates of ordination for the students of a kollel who were tested on halachah.  The rabbi asked which subjects were covered.  The students said that they were tested on the laws of melihah (salting meat), basar behalav (the prohibition of eating meat with milk), and ta’arovet (mixtures of permissible and forbidden food).

“I wonder,” the rabbi replied, “how many times a year a woman comes to ask about the status of a dairy spoon that fell into a meat pot.  But questions about family purity can come up in a Jewish home each and every day, at any hour, day or night.”

He thus refused to sign their certificates of ordination until they were tested on the laws of family purity, including the laws of immersion.

This matter was so important to him that toward the end of his life, he instructed his student to work harder to strengthen family purity in the Jewish world.  Not long after his passing, Rav Naftali launched a large project to disseminate information and encourage observance of these laws.

Remarkably, shortly after he started this organization, a prominent philanthropist came to Israel and told him that Rav Tzadka had told him before his passing that if he sees this disciple – Rav Naftali – involved in projects to help the public, he should offer support and assistance.  Without any delay, this donor immediately gave a large sum for the construction of a beautiful site for Torah and prayer in western Rishon Letzion.  The institute is called Midrash Bet Nasi, the name of the bet midrash in Aleppo. 

Over the years, the institute has worked to strengthen the mitzvah of family purity by running numerous conferences throughout Israel which are attended by thousands of religious, traditional and secular women.  After hearing lectures about the importance of family purity, the participants fill out forms to receive guidance and instruction in their homes.  It is heartwarming to see such a large number of completely secular women seeking this guidance, as well as the large number of religious women who express interest in taking courses to train to become teachers.  Qualified candidates participate in classes, and after completing the course, they begin teaching classes to brides and married women about this exalted mitzvah.  In addition, the institute produces material in various languages that is disseminated throughout the world, and also has teachers going door to door to spread this message.

Bringing the Divine Presence Into the Home

An ingenious idea – which has produced phenomenal results – was to station a teacher at the Western Wall.  Thousands of women visit this sacred site, from which the divine presence has never departed, and they are driven to come by firm faith in Gd and the belief that He hears their prayers.  At these moments, when a woman’s emotion and Jewish spark are ignited, the teacher comes, embraces her with warmth and love, and explains that the divine presence can be felt every day even in the home, through committing to immerse in a mikveh.  These efforts have proven very successful, for, as our rabbis teach, “A person sanctifies himself…down below – he is then sanctified from above” (Yoma 39a); and, “Open for Me an opening…like the end of a needle, and I will open for you openings that wagons and carriages can go through” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah, 5).

Beyond all these programs, the institute arranges special Shabbatot in most Israeli cities, when Rav Naftali visits around ten synagogues on that Shabbat.  He says that each Shabbat, he draws strength and sees even more clearly how much thirst there is for these teachings, and how much ignorance abounds regarding the severity of the sin, as many mistakenly think that a wife’s immersion in the mikveh is just a matter of stringency, a measure of special piety.

The crown jewel of the institute, upon which it is currently focusing the bulk of its attention, is the establishment of a “Jewish Culture Center for Women,” within which all the aforementioned activities will be concentrated, and will also feature an especially magnificent mikveh.  This mikveh will feature a special “kallah section,” where a bride can bring her family and friends when she immerses for the first time.  The experience of immersion before the wedding will be enhanced through explanations, song and music, making it a special and unforgettable moment.  The bride will always remember that experience as she proceeds to build a beautiful Jewish home.

The institute hopes and prays that Gd will continue granting it the ability to raise awareness of this special and important mitzvah, and to successfully build a strong foundation of purity for each and every Jewish home…thereby building a strong foundation of purity for our entire nation.