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Shabbat Parashat Chukat 5775

P'ninat Mishpat: Securing a Rabbinical Position Improperly

(based on Shut Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 19)

The following responsum is fascinating on many grounds, including historical ones.

Case: A rabbi was appointed to his rabbinical position by a (non-Jewish) authority without communal agreement. Is it permitted for him to continue at his post?


Ruling: Even if he is a great rabbi, he has done the wrong thing, as the gemara (Berachot 55a) states that Hashem made His appointment of Betzalel to lead the effort of building the Mishkan dependent on the people’s agreement. If Hashem’s own appointment of such a great man needed public approval, there must be a rule that one cannot be appointed to an important public position without some sort of democratic process. 

If [a competent] dayan was appointed improperly by the authorities, the appointment stands because the law of the land is the law. However, the appointee would be obligated to inform the authorities that he does not want to accept the role without public approval. If the authorities force him to accept the role anyway, he could function validly. But if he did not protest and certainly if he made efforts to obtain the position in that way, he may not function in the rabbinical role. Others should tell this to the noblemen, most of whom are humane people who want the best for the Jewish community [it is unclear to this editor whether the Chatam Sofer believed this or that it is written out of concern that it might reach the wrong hands.]

Even concerning a chazan who most but not all of the community wanted, the Mordechai (see Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 53) cites the Maharam that the non-Jewish authorities must have no part in religious appointments. That idea is even clearer regarding a position of real authority.

One could claim that for a rabbi, much of whose position relates to monetary adjudication, the authority’s jurisdiction in monetary matters should grant them the right to select [a rabbi who is halachically valid]. However, the Rashba (cited without censorship in the Rivash 271) says that it is only valid to receive the approval of the authorities after the community has selected him. When a dayan has acted with judicial impropriety (including having himself appointed in a manner to which a community has the right to object), he is unable to be a valid dayan (see Bava Batra 58a).

It is also clear that the nobleman’s appointment was based on a false assumption, for would that man, who is known for his kindness, have known the community’s opposition, he never would have appointed the rabbi. Therefore, the rabbi has nothing to rely upon. About such cases, there was even a formal ban made by the Maharam MiRutteneburg and colleagues. I suggest that you appeal to the Count, for he is famous for his help for the Jewish community. He will leave this matter up to the Jewish courts and will be blessed with a long reign for him and his family.

After writing this halachic ruling, I thought to suggest that you seek peace. Arrange that the community will not totally remove the rabbi from his position but let him remain at the head of the beit din, without being called the rabbi. If, in that role, he will earn the trust of the people, it will be possible to reappoint him as rabbi, and hopefully the kind Count will agree with the procedure.

The matter is even clearer in our times when the rabbi is supported from community funds. Whatever he receives without permission from public funds is considered stealing.

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