Unpacking the Iggerot: Breaking Away & Crossing Lines

Moshe Kurtz Tradition Online

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Breakaway Minyanim and Hasagat Gevul / Iggerot Moshe, H.M., vol. 1, #38

Summarizing the Iggerot

Back in the “olden days,” before there was a shtiebel on every street corner of Brooklyn, a synagogue was understood to establish its own territory. When a notable segment of a certain synagogue’s membership became disenchanted with their rabbi, they broke off and established their own minyan within reasonable walking distance to the original. In a 1957 case that came before R. Moshe Feinstein, a rabbi contended that his breakaway congregants were not simply disloyal but were depriving him of his livelihood and also compromising the property value of the synagogue itself.

The former congregants, however, defended their decision on the grounds that this particular synagogue employed “changes in the format and tunes of the liturgy” that disconcerted them, and that the rabbi was purportedly inclined to threaten and speak derisively toward the congregation.

The rabbi vehemently rejected these claims and explained that there was only one occasion on which he spoke ardently to protect himself from defamation, and the other instances were merely hitorerut be-alma, to elicit general motivation to follow the Torah. R. Feinstein ruled in favor of the rabbi on three grounds:

(1) Hasagat Gevul: The Talmud (Bava Batra 21a-21b) prohibits one from entering the profession of another party in a manner that will not just compete, but deprive him of livelihood. However, there is a countervailing consideration of kinat sofrim tarbe hakhma, which establishes that even extreme competition within the realm of proliferating Torah learning is commendable as each party will be compelled to outperform the other, thereby increasing the level of Torah study and commitment.

R. Feinstein, undeterred by this factor cites Hatam Sofer (Y.D. # 230; cf. Pithei Teshuva Y.D. 245:11), that nowadays when rabbis are hired and go through the trouble of relocating to serve a community, another rabbi who later comes and infringes on the former’s duties (and resultant honoraria, that is, the income rabbis of old would receive for certain services) would potentially be committing bona fide theft. Moreover, R. Feinstein argues that kinat sofrim tarbe hakhma only applies to the pure proliferation of Torah learning, not to a synagogue, as is the case in the scenario above (see Tur H.M. 156:8, Beit Yosef and the Shirat Devora edition’s Hagahot ve-He’arot, ad. loc., fn. 7, regarding whether this applies to all mitzvot or exclusively to Torah study). With harsh words of rebuke, he adds that that the rabbi would not be required to forgive the former congregants until they appease him with some form of financial restitution.

(2) Darkhei Shalom: R. Feinstein further argues that the existence of a breakaway minyan implicitly casts aspersions on the rabbi of the original minyan. This is supported by Maharik (shoresh 113) who extrapolates from the right of the original host of the eruv (the box of matza which serves as the conduit joining the reshut ha-rabim into a unified communal space) to continue to maintain it in his home (see Gittin 60b), that the same would apply to a pre-existing minyan arrangement. Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 153:17) codifies: “One who had a synagogue in his house for a long time—the community is not permitted to move it to another house.”

(3) Lifnei Iver: R. Feinstein concludes the responsum by conceding that it would be permissible for the disgruntled congregants to attend the minyan at the Yeshiva of Brooklyn, which was a pre-established institution and at a significant enough of a distance from the synagogue in question. He cautions that even in an instance when it would be permissible to attend a different synagogue, to actively poach members from the original minyan would constitute hasagat gevul and carry an additional violation of “placing a stumbling block in front of a blind person” by causing others to unwittingly engage in the abandonment of the initial synagogue.

Connecting the Iggerot

This is certainly not the only instance that R. Feinstein opined on matters of hasagat gevul. In a later responsum (H.M., vol.  2, #31) he ruled that a second Judaica store that opened in a town that was only able to support one would be required to cease its operations. Though, perhaps there is something broader we are witnessing in our scenario than just another example of hasagat gevul

R. Feinstein did not only come to the defense of pulpit rabbis, but also took a very protective stance on the employment of rebbeim who taught in bati midresh and yeshiva day schools alike. In a pair of responsa to R. Mordechai Pinchas Teitz zt”l, the pioneering rabbi of Elizabeth, NJ, R. Feinstein (H.M., vol. 1, #76-77) asserts that a school may not dismiss a teacher, even if his contract has already expired. Should they believe they possess a compelling rationale to not renew the teacher’s contract they would require formal authorization from a beit din (see H.M. 2:34). With this context, perhaps we can read our original scenario as having less to do with the nature of hasagat gevul than R. Feinstein’s overall interest in protecting vulnerable teachers of Torah.

Challenges to the Iggerot

R. Yonason Rosman (Petihat Ha-Iggerot, p. 621), cites the Responsa Marot Yesharim (1:36), who contends that R. Feinstein’s position on unfair competition was far too restrictive. The Talmud itself states:

A man may establish a shop alongside the shop of another, and a bathhouse alongside the bathhouse of another, and [the other] cannot protest, because [the newcomer] can say to him: You operate in your [space], and I operate in my [space] (Bava Batra 21b).

So long as the breakaway minyan is operating in a separate building its members would have the right to respond to the previous rabbi: “You operate in your shul, and we’ll operate in our shul.” That is because the former congregants are no longer infringing upon the gevul (lit. “boundary”) of the other rabbi, therefore this case, by definition, does not constitute hasagat gevul.

However, as noted by R. Feinstein (and Hatam Sofer he cited) there is another factor at stake here in addition to the rabbi’s livelihood. This breakaway minyan potentially constitutes an affront to the dignity of the original rabbi’s serara (authority) of that particular community. Nonetheless, the Pithei Hoshen (Sekhirut, ch. 10, fn. 35) rejects this framing by noting that in most large cities there is no longer a definitive mara d’atra or singular rabbi of the town. This point seems especially compelling in recent years as we have witnessed the further proliferation of synagogues in many Jewish communities which just a generation ago, to say nothing of the 1950s, could not have imagined multiple shuls as “numerous as the stars of heaven” (Gen. 26:4).

While a similar logic could potentially be applied to rebbeim who teach in schools, the Pithei Hoshen does concede that perhaps a rosh yeshiva retains some form of implicit serara (authority) and tenure which cannot so easily be done away with.

Reflecting on the Iggerot

R. Yisrael Grossman (Responsa Netzah Yisrael 8:1) notes that R. Feinstein’s protective rulings vis-a-vis rabbis and teachers were not limited to religious occupations but were applied to factory workers and virtually any form of employment. It is therefore possible to re-conceptualize the common theme in R. Feinstein’s rulings as having less to do about protecting his fellow rabbis, but as a more universal concern for employees’ “right to work.”

In a society in which the survival of working class people are subject to the whims of their employers, R. Feinstein exhibited a sensitivity and argued that halakha provides protections for all workers regardless of their socio-economic standing. This is an important point to contemplate as we observe a revived popularity and potency of workers’ unions in the United States. (It is also worth considering R. Feinstein’s openness to workers’ unions, found in Iggerot Moshe, vol. 1, #58.)

Endnote: For more about hasagat gevul and employment laws see Hazon Ish (H.M. Bava Kamma 23:2; Responsa be-Tzeil ha-Hokhma # 8, par. 17; Pithei Hoshen (Nezikin u-Shekheinim, ch. 9, Sekhirut, ch. 10 and esp. the footnotes on par. 10-1. Also, see R. Chaim Cohen’s recent Sefer Dinei Mishpat (pp. 442-466) and R. Chaim Jachter’s “Hasagat Gevul: Economic Competition in Jewish Law” for a general overview of the topic.

Moshe Kurtz serves as the Assistant Rabbi of Agudath Sholom in Stamford, CT, is the author of Challenging Assumptions, and hosts the Shu”T First, Ask Questions Later podcast.

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