my 97-year-old friend

Thursday, 17 July, 2014 - 3:56 pm


For a while last month I was making daily visits to a 97-year-old Jew who was staying in the Basel area, in a hospital hotel, and his acquaintances asked me to help him with something. It didn’t take me long to see that he was very lonely here.

One day, during my visit, some of the hotel staff came over to me and said sternly: “Rabbi, we need your help. That old man who is a friend of yours doesn’t eat anything except fruit, vegetables and cornflakes, and we’re concerned about his health.” I smiled at them and said, “He is, after all, 97 years old and feeling well. You want me to start educating him how to eat?” They had to smile back ruefully.

When I came to him, I asked him why he was barely eating. And this was his answer:

“I am not a religious person. I was born in 1917 and lived from war to war. But I am a proud Jew and I remember that it is forbidden to eat ‘Treif’, so many years ago I took upon myself not to eat cooked food if I’m not sure that it’s kosher.”

I was really impressed. Perhaps he had said, “Bli Neder” (thus not obligating himself completely), but it was something that he had taken upon himself and had kept strictly for many years.

On the 26th of Tammuz 5711 (1951), the Rebbe wrote a letter to someone in Chicago, and among other things he mentioned the interesting Halacha, that only in the laws of vows is attention paid to the speech and deeds of a person even before his bar or bat mitzvah. The vows of a girl from the age of 11, and of a boy from the age of 12 are considered like any vow of an adult woman or man, unlike other Halachic obligations, which begin only at age 12 for girls and at age 13 for boys.

The moral of this, said the Rebbe in his letter, is that vows are meant to be fences that a person accepts upon himself in order to avoid the possibility of failing to observe the Torah and the Mitzvos. Just like my 97-year-old friend, who took upon himself not to eat cooked food in order not to fail in observing the laws of Kashrut. The Torah obligates us in the laws of vows a year before we become “Bnei Mitzvah”, since the extra stringencies and fences are the most suitable preparation of a boy or a girl to be worthy of keeping the Torah and its Mitzvos, starting a year later, when they will be 13 and 12 years old respectively.

In many Siddurim (prayer books), including my own, there is a “Kaballah” – something that a person accepts upon himself – at the beginning of the day, even before the morning prayers. It goes like this: “I hereby accept upon myself the positive mitzvah of ‘You shall love your fellow like yourself.’” This is what we take upon ourselves every morning, because with this we will not be able to survive the day as a human being, as a relative, and certainly not as a nation that has to fight for its life from time to time.

For eighteen days, while the three boys were missing and known to be kidnapped, we were united in love of our fellow Jews, regardless of any dividing features. Immediately afterwards we merited miracle after miracle in the present war. I don’t know if there is a connection between these two facts, but facts they are.

Shabbat Shalom, and may we hear good news!


Zalmen Wishedski

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