Brooklyn, NY – Hamodia Interviews Noted Halacha Expert Rav Gavriel Zinner on ‘Pesach’


    Rav Gavriel Zinner ranks among the most sought-after halacha expert.Brooklyn, NY – The time approaching Pesach is usually filled with apprehension. There are pressing financial needs for most families. Food and clothing are needed. Then there is the added anxiety caused by the desire to follow not just halachah but also family stringencies and traditions.

    These days before the Yom Tov of Pesach is the busy season for Jewish book stores. Shelves are stacked with the newest editions of Haggados, and halachic guides of various levels of depth and practicality. The multi-volume set of sefarim entitled Nitei Gavriel by Rav Gavriel Zinner ranks among the most sought-after halachah-minhag guides. They are best-sellers throughout the year.

    Rav Zinner has authored over 30 volumes of the sefer, on the entire spectrum of topics discussed in halachah.

    Copies of his various sefarim are found at multitudes of Seder tables, sukkahs, simchos, or, lo aleinu, by those who sit shivah. Nitei Gavriel covers them all. For me, it was a privilege to enter into the Rav’s study on behalf of Hamodia and speak with the world-renowned author who kindly gave of his precious time to answer my questions. We talked at length about his approach to halachah, and about the appropriate time and place for chumros or kulos. Here are just a few of the Rav’s comments during his extensive interview with Hamodia.

    In your sefarim, you cite shitos, psakim and minhagim from all Gedolim and many communities. Whom do you personally consider your rebbeim from whom you were mekabel your derech in halachah?

    All my life, I have tried to adhere to the saying mikol melamdai hiskalti. Although I received hora’ah from my Rebbe [Rav Yosef Grunwald of Pupa] whom I was meshamesh [interned with] for over 20 years, I have established connections with many Gedolim, foremost among them Rav Yaakov Yitchok Neiman, who was the Rav in the Belz kehillah in Montreal. Rav Neiman himself had shimush chachamim from previous Gedolim.

    I was close to the Debreciner Rav; I am very close to Harav Shmuel Wosner and Harav Fishele Hershkowitz, shlita. In the many visits I have made to Eretz Yisrael, I have learned from Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l. He quotes from my sefer, and liked to talk with me in learning. I was also close to Rav Yisroel Yaakov Fischer.

    I have tried to maintain a kesher with Gedolim wherever they may be, even by correspondence if that is the only possibility, from all kreizen and chugim. I play no favorites; I honor everyone.

    Although there are 70 faces to the Torah and everyone has his own way, for me, in psak, my Rebbe was mekabel to go according to the Shulchan Aruch Harav [written by] the Baal HaTanya, and I follow that whenever it is appropriate. This was passed on to my Rebbe from his father, and to him in turn from his father, the Arugas Habosem.

    In our time, especially in Eretz Yisrael, it is common to follow the Mishnah Berurah.

    It’s not a contradiction. Gedolim say the reason the Chofetz Chaim was zocheh that the velt accepted his psak is that he was careful in the mitzvah of lashon hara. Still, the Mishnah Berurah is sort of a compendium and it is possible to conclude differently.

    To what would the Rav attribute the popularity of his sefarim?

    One should be praised by others, not by oneself. I try to follow the people’s needs.

    You say that personally you have a clear way, but the sefarim themselves encompass all shitos and all opinions. So how should the olam learn your sefarim?

    I try to cite opinions that are mainstream psak, what most poskim agree on — the Kitzur, Derech Hachaim from the Chavas Daas — with those shitos you never go wrong. Even if I cite another opinion, I don’t decide; how we pasken must be sound.

    Sometimes there is no specific tradition on how to rule; [in such cases] it is acceptable to follow the Kitzur or the Chayei Adam.

    Although one might have an opinion about various issues, in the end, we must follow the accepted psak of the Kitzur and the Chayei Adam. I stick to the accepted psak and do not deviate from the mesorah that has been handed down over the generations, both in stringency and in leniency.

    The great Reb Shlomo Kluger was asked, regarding tosfos Shabbos, if one should daven Minchah first, and he responded: “Why do you ask about my minhagim? My goal is to follow the customs of the plain pashute Yidden. Halevai I should be as worthy as them.” Reb Shlomo Kluger, the world-famous scholar who authored 375 sefarim, writes those words in his sefer Ha’elef Lecha Shlomo.

    Can a person choose a kula [leniency] from among the basic poskim – such as the Kitzur, Chayei Adam, Mishnah Brurah, Derech Chaim and Shulchan Aruch Harav — as the Rav mentioned. Can one alternate and choose for himself?

    Yes. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch writes in a letter that for his sefer, he chose to follow the derech of the Shulchan Aruch Harav, Chayei Adam and Derech Chaim. Thus we see that Gedolim had a similar approach to their sefarim.

    Many Rabbanim, including my Rebbe, the Pupa Rav, used to check the Ba’er Heitev — a tradition from the alte heim. Later, they, too, switched over to reference the Mishnah Berurah.

    I could tell you about five stringencies of the Chasam Sofer in the halachos of taharah, but those are not generally accepted, despite the fact that the Chasam Sofer is considered the Gadol of his generation. Being the greatest does not always mean that all his psakim are accepted.

    There is a famous teshuvah from the Gaon of Plotsk on the prohibition of chadash. How could he be lenient when the Vilna Gaon, who is considered the greatest, is so stringent? He responded thus: I know that the Vilna Gaon was great, but have you ever heard of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai? He was the greatest; but the Gemara says, “Ein halachah k’Reb Shimon,” the halachah is not always according to Reb Shimon.

    Yidden travel to Meron more than to any kever, but the halachah does not follow him. [Giving] psak and being a Gadol are two separate things.

    A case in point: the Gra says that Pesach at night you need only two matzos for the Seder [following the Rif] and the Mishnah Berurah — who always cites the Gra — doesn’t even mention the Gra’s shitah. He just cites the widely accepted minhag to [use] three matzos for the Seder.

    Take the minhag of Tashlich, which is opposed by the Gra; who doesn’t go to Tashlich? All Yidden go. The Gra also says we should not do kapparos. Still, he remains the Gra.

    But if one has an easy option to be machmir, should one choose to be stringent, particularly in the case of yashan?

    This is a separate question; it very difficult to say. Those who have a mesorah to be meikil do so because they hold that this is the halachah. Take the shitah of Rabbeinu Tam (72 minutes for Motzoei Shabbos). Those who hold the earlier zman hold that this is the halachah and there is no need to be machmir.

    If one has a mesorah to be lenient, is that a higher value than following a chumra?

    Yes, [and] it is not a contradiction; you could be machmir, but if you follow your mesorah, you can hold that there is no need to be machmir.

    The Chasam Sofer writes in one of his teshuvos: If we were to accept all chumros, we wouldn’t be able to eat bread or drink water. You can’t follow all stringencies, and you need siyatta diShmaya. For this reason, one needs a Rav to guide one on when one can change a tradition and when not.

    The Rav spoke about Pesach. What is the basis of the minhag not to ‘mish,’ that is, to avoid any prepared food unless it was prepared in one’s own kitchen?

    It is a minhag of chassidim for many generations. It is derived from the principle that on Pesach we are more stringent. It is ironic that, in our time, we have so many people going to hotels for Pesach, where many of these places use all kinds of products and flavors in order to serve ‘non-gebrokts.’

    These same people might not partake of a neighbor’s food — who might be a good, G-d-fearing, stringent Yid — because they don’t want to ‘mish.’ Pesach is a time that was always known for not having a wide variety of food. We say in the Mishnah every day that haPesach eino ne’echal… during Pesach we try to avoid eating extra varieties of products. It is preferable to give minor children homemade gebrokts rather than to feed them processed nosh made outside the home. This is a very important point.

    During the Seder, a few of the mitzvos depend on ‘shiurim’ [specific amounts], for example, matzah, or the size of a cup of wine. There are many shitos [opinions] on how much a weak or sick person should exert himself in order to fulfill these mitzvos.

    First, we need a base on what is a d’Oraisa and what is d’Rabbanan. In the case of a d’Oraisa, one must follow stringencies. According to all shitos, the k’zayis matzah is a d’Oraisa. The Chasam Sofer notes that this is the only mitzvah of ‘eating’ that is left for us, after achilas kodashim, that we can’t perform without the Beis Hamikdash.

    Generally, a healthy person should take a portion of matzah consisting of two zeisim [one for motzi and one for matzah], and it should be according to the largest opinion (Tzelach).

    That is approximately three-quarters of a regular hand shmurah matzah. There are many levels of leniency for sick or weak people. For the absolute minimum, it is widely accepted that a quarter of a [regular hand shmurah] matzah is sufficient.

    The Four Cups, however, are only a d’Rabbanan. It used to be widely accepted in Europe to require 75 grams. The Shinover Rav, who was a stringent Posek, also requires only 75 grams. Rav Avrohom Chaim Noeh held that it should be 86 grams. The accepted shiur for Hungarian Poskim was between 75-100 grams. For an average person to comply with all shitos, he should use a five-ounce cup and drink approximately three ounces. If one wishes to drink more, he may do so, as there is no upward limit. The Bnei Yissaschar had a much larger shiur.

    If someone has a problem with sugar, it is enough to take a cup that holds three ounces and drink a little more than one and a half ounces — that is the minimum. One can also add some water to the wine. Although there are rumors that winemakers add water, today winemakers do not add water to wine. Some add juice or grape concentrate. Since it is from grapes, water can be added to dilute the wine for a sick person.

    For those who have a hard time with any alcohol, is it preferable to drink a larger shiur of grape juice, or is it better for them to drink l’chatchila a smaller shiur of wine?
    According to the Tzelemer Rav, grape juice is acceptable even l’chatchilah [as a first option].

    Some people never get to learn halachos that pertain to the end of the Seder. What does it mean that it is a mitzvah to have a mezuman for the Seder?

    It is not about bentching. It refers to the verse “Hodu laShem ki tov” in Hallel. There should be at least two responding, as is the case in shul during Hallel. It is sufficient to have one’s wife and children responding, but you need to have at least two responders. That is the meaning of the need for ‘mezuman.’ There are at least three opinions on how this is done.

    It is important to be vigilant about eating the afikoman before chatzos. There are those who mistakenly cite the Chasam Sofer, who didn’t eat the afikoman before chatzos, but it must be realized that he started the Seder right after Maariv. It is not acceptable to waste precious time finding seating for sons-in-law, eineklach and so on and start the Seder late, relying on the Chasam Sofer’s minhag.

    It is important to prepare everything in advance so that the Seder will commence right after davening. Baruch Hashem, in following this practice, I have no problem eating afikoman on time.

    There is a tendency by many in the community to seek out non-Jewish storekeepers to buy chametz after Pesach. The sale of chametz [heter mechirah] used to be a matter of controversy among the Poskim, but in our time, the sale of chametz document is done in a way that satisfies all objections. Does this hiddur of buying from a non-Jew override the mitzvah of v’chai achicha imach?

    First, this stringency [of not relying on the heter mechirah] was held only by a few very special individuals.

    This minhag of not buying chametz is commonly held only until Shavuos. But chametz that was held by a Jew during Pesach is forbidden for the entire year. There is a letter from the Stretiner Rebbe that says that since the days of sefirah are elevated days with the kedushah of Chol Hamoed, one should be machmir. Obviously this chumra applies to a person such as the Stretiner Rebbe, who was stringent in all matters.

    A grocery dealer once told me that those who buy only from a non-Jew will never know who had the chametz during Pesach, as there are so many Jewish wholesalers and manufacturers, and many of them are not shomer Shabbos. Thus it is really of no use to anyone to follow this stringency up to Shavuos.

    It is much better to purchase chametz after Pesach from a frum person who sold his chametz in a valid way al pi Torah. We can’t cast doubt on that mechirah. There were many Gedolim who deliberately sold chametz — the Baal HaTanya, the Minchas Elazar, the Ropschitzer Rav, who sold his beer in order to have it on Motzoei Yom Tov immediately after the zman.

    We often see labels on baked goods that state “Baked after Pesach.” What do they do before Pesach? They sell the chametz ingredients and use them to bake after Pesach. So what is the advantage?

    One should be careful in these matters not to have a chumra that results in a kula. Forty years ago, only a few very special people were machmir on themselves. Ordinary ehrlicher Yidden who learn and daven every day were never stringent about this chumra. This chumra is a recent phenomenon that is a result of tumul and propaganda. There is a saying: Vamech kulam tzaddikim. Everyone imitates the Rebbes/ tzaddikim. [But] some things are appropriate only for a person on a higher plane.

    In the Mishnah in Maseches Sukkah [2:2], Rabi Elazar the son of Rabi Tzadok ate fruits outside the sukkah and the Tosafos Yom Tov brings down the Ran to show that a talmid chacham is allowed not to be a machmir and does not become “one who is not stringent in mitzvos.” In our time, when we see a person drinking outside the sukkah, some might call that person a kal sheb’kalim. This is not so, for the so-called machmir might not open a sefer the entire Chol Hamoed while traveling all over. That’s why a person needs a Rav — Asei lecha Rav.

    The first Belzer Rebbe, Rav Sar Shalom, ate soup from one [bowl] with his mother. While she broke matzah into the [bowl] and ate gebrokts, he just moved the matzah in the [bowl] to her side and continued eating with her, in her honor. This story is brought down by the Klausenburger Rebbe and also by the Pis’chei Zuta, as a matter of halachah on the precedence of kibbud eim.

    The Arugas Habosem writes about a parent who forbade his son to go to the mikveh every day. He ruled that even though we must disregard a parent’s wish if it is a clear mitzvah, mikveh is an act of chassidus and the parent’s wishes must be respected.

    Is there an issue of derech eretz in children bringing chumros into the home when parents might be offended?

    Hatzn’a leches [modesty] was once the hallmark of a truly frum person. It is not proper for a son to come home and embarrass his parents. Don’t they have their own mesorah? In Hungary, there were many Ashkenaz Rabbanim who traveled to Chassidic Rebbes but did not change their traditions. They went to learn a derech in avodas Hashem, not minhagim. They still ate in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeres and davened the same nusach. Today, we have a bilbul hamochos [confusion]; why would someone embarrass his own father?

    We often hear of men who contend that their wives do unnecessary cleaning for Pesach. What is the preferred path?
    In many sefarim, we find Gedolim commenting on not having access to their libraries because of the nashim tzidkaniyos who have exiled them from their rooms for Pesach cleaning. Although it might seem that they do more than is required, they are experts at finding chametz. We should not chas v’shalom denigrate their efforts.

    On the other hand, if a woman is weak because of childbirth, anxiety or other pressures, one should ask a Rav about where it is possible to be lenient.

    The ways of the Torah are sweet. Even if one has a tradition of being very stringent, one could say that this year we will be lenient.

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