When the Aruch HaShulchan could not Begin his Seder
RABBI MEIR BAR ILAN ZT”L
The youngest son of the great Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv), Rabbi Meir Bar Ilan was also the grandson of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, the legendary rabbi of Novardok and author of the Aruch HaShulchan. A prolific and powerful writer, Rav Bar Ilan wrote movingly and honestly about both his father and grandfather.
The following story about Rabbi Epstein is a translation of a passage from Rav Meir Bar Ilan’s autobiography, From Volozhin to Jerusalem, in honor of Rav Bar Ilan’s 74th yahrzeit, on the 18th of Nissan.
When the family asked Saba how it is possible to be a posek, when there are shivim panim l’Torah, seventy ways to understand every law, when you can always find a flaw in every proof, when every law can be interpreted in many ways, and a posek is likely to stumble and forbid the permissible or permit the prohibited, he answered:
“A person must focus his heart on paskening correctly, and beyond that – well, ‘the Torah was not given to angels,’ and if everyone is always worried that his understanding is incorrect, to whom, then, has the Torah been given to? A person must have good intentions and seek the truth, and the rest? ‘He is compassionate, He forgives iniquity.’”
His strength and self-confidence enabled him to not only become the greatest posek of his generation, but also of generations to follow. And when he sought to be lenient, he would do so with awe of heaven and confidence that his approach was correct, even as others ruled strictly in order to remove themselves from doubt.
One year, on the night of the second Seder, a woman came to ask my grandfather a question – a serious question that, if my grandfather ruled strictly, would have a dire impact not only on the Seder but which would render all of the food she had prepared for Pesach forbidden as chametz. This occurred as we returned from davening ma’ariv and were preparing the table for the Seder. My grandfather listened to her question, and instead of answering immediately as he normally did, he took a candle and walked into the room with all of the sefarim. The woman who came to ask the question stood waiting. Ten minutes went by, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes and more. Everyone was waiting to begin the Seder, and one of the grandchildren was sent to the room to call Saba to the table. Saba was immersed, looking through various books, and said “just a minute, just a minute, I’m coming.” A little more time passed, and Saba finally walked into the room – the table was all set, everything was decorated beautifully, only awaiting his arrival – and his face was aglow as he turned to the woman and said: “It’s kosher, go home to prepare your Seder. Next time, just be careful to avoid questionable situations.”
He then turned to the family and said: “How could I sit down to begin the Seder as long as this woman could not return home and celebrate the Seder with her own family?”