The Ridvaz on Kashrus in America -by Avrohom Birnbaum -This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is posted here with their permission
A Fascinating Historical Feature Highlighting the Formidable Hurdles, Particularly in Kashrus, Faced by American Jewry at the Beginning of the Last Century
This week is the week of July Fourth, America’s Independence Day. America has been a profound medina shel chesed. It has served as a haven of freedom for oppressed Jews, affording them the opportunity to rebuild their lives, free of oppression. We, as Torah Jews, must continually be thankful to this country for serving as a refuge. Nevertheless, the “freedom” of America has not come without a price, especially in the early years of Jewish immigration. During that period the prevailing feeling among immigrants was that being an American was in direct contrast to being an observant Jew. It was for this reason that most of the children of immigrants did not remain observant. The areas of chinuch and kashrus were almost always the first casualties on the path to assimilation.
Currently, the America in which we reside, is one in which we can even find a hechsher on bottled water on paper plates. There was a time, however, in the not so distant past when it was all but impossible to keep kashrus in American even when buying food bearing a hechsher. Boruch Hashem, despite the occasional kashrus issues that crop up, today’s kashrus situation is far more organized and trustworthy than it was at the beginning of the 1900s. Then America Jewry was comprised primarily of immigrants who were struggling to financially establish themselves and therefore neglected to invest the requisite time, effort and resources into ensuring proper kashrus and chinuch for the children.
A fascinating, first-hand account of the situation facing observant Jews in America in the early 1900s was written by one of the geonei hador, the Ridvaz. The Ridvaz, Rav Yaakov Dovid Willowsky, came to America in the early 1900s and was primarily based in Chicago. While in America, he published a sefer entitled “Nimukei HaRidvaz” on Chumash. In the introduction to this rare sefer, the Ridvaz records an enthralling historical account of religious life in America and documents the difficulties facing observant Jews with regard to the kosher food industry that was rife with corruption and ignorance.
What follows is a free translation of excerpts from the Ridvaz’s firsthand account of the spiritual state of early 20th Century American Jewry as written in the introduction to his sefer “Nimukei HaRidvaz”.
Chief Rabbi of Chicago and Zekan Harabbonim of America.
The Ridvaz, Rov of the famed Lithuanian city of Slutzk, first visited the United States in 1900 for the purpose of raising funds for the publication of his monumental commentary of the Talmud Yerushalmi called the “Ridvaz”. It was then that he got his initial taste of the deplorable kashrus situation in New York. He visited Rav Yaakov Yosef, famed Chief Rabbi of New York and found the great gaon and tzaddik to be a broken, forsaken man. Rav Yosef suffered terribly as a result of his unsuccessful attempts to regulate the kosher meat industry in New York. The Ridvaz spent five months in American during which time he visited almost every major Jewishly populated center of the country.
In 1903 he returned to America and settled in Chicago. He was appointed Rov of several shuls there and was called the Chief Rabbi of Chicago. In addition, the Agudas HaRabbanim gave him the honorary title of “Zekan HaRabbanim of America.”
It was in Chicago that the Ridvaz set out to try and organize the kashrus standards amongst the slaughterhouses and the butchers. At the outset, the Ridvaz refused to accept a salary or even allow the kehilla to pay his rent saying, “Until I feel that I am able to make improvements with regard to Torah and yirah, why do I need the Rabbanus or the salary that goes with it? I did not settle in this country in order to earn a living. I was not lacking for anything back home.”
The Root Causes of the Kashrus Problem in Early 20th Century America
The Ridvaz incisively pointed out the root causes of the complete chaos that characterized kashrus and organized Yiddishkeit in America. He explained that the reason so many people are eating non-kosher meat in America is because “America is a country comprised of immigrants from all four corners of the earth. No one knows who the other immigrant is; no one knows his situation; no one knows what he was in his home land and what he did there; and no one knows how he was viewed in his community back home. Many people who, in their hometowns were known as Jews who had cast off mitzvah observance, came to America and grew beards in order to fool unwitting people who have no way of checking into their past. These charlatans with long beards and rabbinic garments deliver public drashos and display semicha documents ostensibly written and signed by great European Rabbanim.”
In a candid admission on how European Rabbanim unknowingly and unwittingly contributed to the problems facing American Jewry, the Ridvaz continued, “The masses in America do not know that one cannot rely on semicha documents issued in Europe over the past few years. European Rabbanim now give semicha to practically every young man who requests it. They are well intentioned when granting such semichos. They feel that by granting semicha they are thereby encouraging their petitioners to come closer to Torah. In truth, over the last years that has been a strengthening in Torah learning in Europe as a result of the more liberal distribution of semicha documents. It is for this reason that every avreich who knows a bit about the first section of the Yoreh Deah order of Shulchan Aruch, receives semicha. I too granted many such semicha documents. I did not even dream that these people were far removed from Torah and yiras shamayim. These people were eventually thrown out of their co mmunities in Europe because they were found to be involved in unfavorable conduct. They then fled to America where they came to shuls and began to deliver drashos. If they were good orators they were employed by the shul to deliver the Shabbos sermon. They then pulled out their semichos and called themselves Rov of the shul. There are many such “Rabbanim” throughout the country’s shuls.”
Then, with great passion and consternation, the Ridvaz decries the resulting kashrus problems emanating from the relationship of such ‘Rabbanim’ with evil butchers. He writes, “Similarly, reshoim gemurim, absolutely evil people came from Europe to America and assumed the role of butchers who sell “kosher” meat to Jews. These ‘Rabbanim’ have teemed up with the wicked butchers. For a substantial fee, the butcher retains the ‘hashgacha’ of the ‘Rov’ and then earns even more money by feeding tarfus to fellow Jews.
“In addition,” writes the Ridvaz, “The ‘shochtim’ come from homes completely ignorant of Torah. They know how to wield a knife and shows a ‘kabalah’ that authorized them to shecht, but in truth, they are kal shebekalim – they are people who make extremely light of all that is holy and display a cavalier attitude to Torah observance. This can clearly be seen by all. For example they will go to the theater even on Shabbos Kodesh and the like!
‘The Jews, however, show no interest in clarifying who their butcher is and who is the Rov who is being mashgiach over him. They rely on the well known advice, “Az mi ruft ehm Mendel, meg men essen fun zan fendel – if they call him Mendel, one can eat from his pot…”
“Everything is Kosher”
The Ridvaz explained that not every Rov in America is guilty of the above mentioned transgressions but the G-d fearing Rabbanim are powerless to stop the diabolical bond between the corrupt Rabbanim and the butchers. “I cannot deny that I also find Rabbanim in this country who are true Torah scholars and possess much yiras shamayim and there are even shochtim and butchers who are upright Jews. They, however, do not have the power to help. The reason is that due to the unscrupulous conduct of many “Rabbanim,” the honor of the rabbinate is at a low. The simple Jews cannot distinguish between one “Rabbi” and another, between one shochet and another, between one butcher and another and they have therefore lost their trust and honor for all Rabbanim making it all but impossible for the trustworthy among them to have any influence. It is impossible to discern which meat is kosher and which is not because every store window flaunts a sign that “kosher meat is sold here”. Everywhere one walks, one sees bold signs touting basar kosher to the extent that one cannot find anywhere in the country that sells treif. Everything is kosher!”
*All translations of the words of the Ridvaz are ‘free translations’, not literal translations. Sources: Nimukei Haridvaz, Olam Hachassidus, vol. 164