Has Work Become Kosher in the Israeli Yeshiva World?

Last week, Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, the co-Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka in Bnei Brak, issued what appears to be an extremely significant mid-course correction for the charedi yeshiva world in Israel.

With Rav Dov Landau (who is seen as the senior figure guiding the Litvish yeshiva world) sitting at his side, Rav Hirsch spoke via video to a gathering of working charedim in Yerushalayim. He told them that they were part of the charedi world, and should continue to see themselves as proud charedim, rather than outsiders.

If this strikes you as not quite newsworthy, think again. Until now, one of the seemingly immutable principles of the yeshiva world in Israel is that working for a living is incompatible with the appellation “charedi.” If you worked, you were not welcome in some charedi neighborhoods. Your kids would not be accepted in charedi schools. If you got together with some like-minded friends to set up an evening program of learning, you could not find a local beis medrash that would host you. The term “working charedi” was considered an oxymoron. Real yeshiva men learned full-time, for their entire lives. Working made you a pariah. (All of this applies only to the Lithuanian branch of the charedi world. Neither chassidim nor Sefardim shun employment.)

There was limited outreach to these “blue-shirts,” as they were pejoratively called – mostly after it was realized that political parties other than Degel HaTorah were successfully recruiting them as voters, since those parties were at least willing to talk to them. The fundamental shunning of charedim who worked, however, continued unabated.

Rav Moshe Hillel’s remarks may change all of that. He reviewed the history of the last century, as seen though a charedi lens. Really, he said, citing R. Aharon Kotler zt”l, everyone ought to be learning full time, without the distraction of other responsibilities. That, of course, is not really possible. What is possible – and necessary – is for there to be some part of the Jewish people that does.

The place that this happens, said R Moshe Hillel, is Israel. That is where this elect minority gathered, and where they established a standard for the entire country. Those who did not follow the expectations of this model often left the community altogether.

Things have changed in the last twenty years, he said. More and more people have found it necessary to earn a livelihood. Their increasing numbers should not have to exit the community; they need to be welcome within it. Batei medrash should set up learning programs for them. They, in turn, should not regard themselves as baalei batim, but as full bnei Torah – albeit working ones. They should insist on regular hours of Torah study, and continue to strive for growth in their learning. Their commitment to the fine details of halacha should continue in full force. They can allow themselves an upgrade in their life-styles, commensurate with their income.

Surprisingly, he made several references to working charedim in the US. Till now, Americans learning in Israel were subject to derision, as introducing ideas foreign to the Israeli system. It was strange to see them – the Americans who hold jobs, yet rush back to the beis medrash after-hours, some of them even writing seforim – held up as a positive model. (Not totally surprising. Rav Moshe Hillel is a native American, a fact not lost on at least one commenter. He lamented what had become of Torah Yiddishkeit in Israel when someone who speaks Hebrew with a strong American inflection can dictate policy that can destroy the sanctity of the accepted outlook on a life of Torah.)

Rav Moshe Hillel’s words potentially can produce major changes in the face of the charedi community. It has long been realized that there are a very great number of young people not cut out for full-time learning, and frustrated by their lack of options within a system that is one-size-fits-all. This might allow new options to open up for them. Of course, his words may just as easily wind up being walked back, or simply ignored.

It was courageous of Rav Moshe Hillel to say what he did. Those who spoke to him through the years found him privately saying the same thing, but arguing that he could not be the one to state them publicly. He now has found the ability to do just that. Looking to the American model is also a courageous move. Let us hope that Israel can capture its positive points, and avoid its mistakes. A good beginning would be to bring about a Hebrew translation of Rav Aharon Lopiansky’s modern classic, Ben Torah For Life.

Some will find in the Rosh Yeshiva’s words a forced capitulation to reality, and a sign of the weakness and unsustainability of the present system. Possibly – and it is virtually impossible to deny that it is unsustainable – but the opposite should not be dismissed. Rav Moshe Hillel may have been speaking from strength. The strength of conviction that learning Torah must be placed on the highest pedestal, from where it will not be toppled (as previously feared) by parts of the community involved in other endeavors. The sterling luster of the Torah community will be preserved by the minority of the most gifted, who will continue to lead lives of complete devotion to Torah learning. They will not be shaken loose from their commitment by others in their community leading more bourgeoise lives. They will continue to be exemplars of Torah virtue, admired by the rest of the community.

Kind of what Rav Aharon talked about. It’s hard to ignore Rav Aharon. Even if Lakewood is in America.

[NOTE: Comments to this post will be restricted to the immediate topic, i.e. the potential impact of Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch’s remarks. Comments about the general issues of kollel, full-time learning, charedim vs. non-charedim etc will not be accepted.]

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32 Responses

  1. Natan Slifkin says:

    If he was speaking to an audience that is already working, that unfortunately lessens its significance.
    Also, he apparently didn’t say anything positive about the idea of being self-supportive, as Chazal did. It seems that the ideal is still to be supported by others.

    • The ideal is not to be supported by others, but the kollel lifestyle is definitely more ideal than a self-supporting worker, as Chazal tell us (see Tashbatz 142-148). However, the ideal kollel lifestyle is a self-supporting one, if that is possible.

      • william gewirtz says:

        You need to pay attention to mimetic traditions; absent such traditions the written word can be badly misunderstood.

      • YL says:

        There are Mekoros on the other side (that predate the Tashbetz): “Aseh Shabascha Chol…”, “Yafa Torah im Derech Eretz” …

      • Rav Gewirtz, the Tashbetz and Kesef Mishna and Rama are partially based on mimetic traditions. There is no mimetic tradition against taking money for learning.
        Rav YL, the Tashbetz himself brings many mekoros from Chazal such as
        ירולשמי מעשר שני פ”ה מ”ג ה”ז
        רִבִּי יוֹנָה יְהַב מַעְשְׂרוֹי לְרִבִּי אָחָא בַּר עוּלָּא לֹא מִשׁוּם דַּהֲוָה כֹהֵן אֶלָּא מִשׁוּם דַּהֲוָה לָעֵי בְּאוֹרַיתָא. מַה טָעֲמָא וַיֹּאמֶר
        לָעָם לְיוֹשְׁבֵי יְרוּשָׁלֵם לָתֵת מְנָת הַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַלְוִיִּם לְמַעַן יֶחֶזְקוּ בְּתוֹרַת י֙י.
        מסכת שבת דף קיד ע”א
        וְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: אֵיזֶהוּ תַּלְמִיד חָכָם שֶׁבְּנֵי עִירוֹ מְצֻוִּוין לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ מְלַאכְתּוֹ — זֶה שֶׁמַּנִּיחַ חֶפְצוֹ וְעוֹסֵק בְּחֶפְצֵי שָׁמַיִם. וְהָנֵי מִילֵּי לְמִיטְרַח בְּרִיפְתֵּיהּ.

  2. caren May says:

    Baruch Hashem for the haskoma of Rav Hillel and may the yungeleit and marrieds that are working continue to do so Lshem Shamayim. What is Rav Landau’s read on the subject? Do you imagine that some subjects will be introduced within the Mesifta years of education, whether it is English Language or Mathematics?

  3. LG says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Can you please share a link to the original speech/video/recording and where there are comments?

    Although the “greying” of the Israeli Torah world also includes some negatives, I think Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch is offering a way forward that has a potential to mitigate those negatives while amplifying the positives.

    The trend has been building for a while, but with leadership that supports working Bnei Torah, instead of making them “chutz min hamachaneh”, we will have a stronger chareidi world – as well as one better equipped for the role they need to play as an increasingly large minority of Israelis. Just in time for a potential ingathering of chutznikim fleeing the onslaught of hatred.

    • Caren May says:

      I agree with Rabbi Slifkin, it was a welcomed point of view yet speaking to a mixed crowd of full time learners & half time / working charedim would make a stronger impact.
      Times have changed, Aliyah is more popular, new Anglo communities have been established and the range of yeshiva katanos /beis Yaakov are expanding . Working Charedim will become more & more popular especially with remote employment options.

  4. joel rich says:

    So given the decades of the message , ” that working for a living is incompatible with the appellation “charedi.””, what is the change management plan? At the granular level who will tell the yeshiva guys (and the community) that kollel is not for them but not to feel a failure? This is an important statement nut unless there is follow up it is unlikely to change the vision of the community.
    bsorot tovot

  5. Dr. E says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein:

    A few reactions and questions:

    (1) This presentation was given to a group of working Chareidim, assumingly to validate their tafkid. What about a similar presentation to Bochrim and Avreichim to validate an exit strategy before the fact?

    (2) Are these Roshei Yeshiva and others prepared to develop an infrastructure for pathways toward parnassa?

    (3) Would these Yeshivot be prepared to allow their “metzuyanim” (who are cut out for full-time learning) to go down these pathways if their value to Klal Yisrael would be optimized by working as programmers, lawyers, accountants, or doctors? Would this considered a l’chatchila or merely an acceptable b’dieved? There is a significant difference in those two self-perceptions, that might lead to divergent self-fulfilling prophecies.

    (4) Would the heads of the Chareidi Chinuch institutions for young women be inclined to also make a mid-course correction and endorse a lifestyle that would find valid Hashkafic space for husbands to be not learning full-time indefinitely?

    • 1) Not so likely. The best we can hope for is someone with cash coming along and publishing R Aharon Lopiansky’s book in Hebrew
      2) Very unlikely. Maybe R Dovid Laibel, but he is rejected by the others
      3) Probably not necessary. Most have been bitten by the practicality bug already, which is why they are avoiding seeking positions in chinuch, and opting for training in high-tech, architecture, and accountancy. They are doing that to be able to support husbands, but once
      they are looking at realities of life, they may realize on their own that not everyone is cut out for full-time learning, and seeking dignified employment with regular kevias itim for serious learning is exactly what is right for them

  6. MK says:

    I’ve never met Rav Hirsch but I know many people who know him well. He is a very wise man and very normal! He showed his wisdom by measuring his words and not attempting to overthrow the system. That would risk , at best , his message being dismissed and , at worst, his becoming marginalized. Both can be easily done by labeling him “an American”. He’s interested in effecting change, not in being a martyr!

  7. Steven Brizel says:

    What we are seeing in all sectors of Klal Yisrael since 1O/7 is a reconsideration of long held values on a wide range of issues .This is clearly taking place in the Charedi world as well.

  8. william l gewirtz says:

    It is admirable but not surprising that after some capable Hareidim have entered the workforce to acknowledge that they are still a part of the Hareidi world. Jacob Katz OBM was correct. However, many more events must occur (broadly) before this phenomenon receives the necessary support it requires. The incorporation of secular studies in the elementary-level education system and learning programs targeted to those working are just two. Much more is necessary and combatting the opposition that will undoubtedly occur will require skill.

  9. Igor ribnitser says:

    What I really do not understand is why working people has to be a פירכא . That’s how we lived for 2 thousand years in golus!!!And survived. I think the הסבר is needed on kolel yungeleit whose wifes work and have no כח to take care of the house and kids.

  10. Blackrock says:

    Rav Aharon Kotler? How about Pirkei Avos and the Shulchan Aruch? The current Chareidi reality in Israel is a bizarre social and historical aberration. It’s sad that that they so utterly ignorant of 3,000 years of Jewish history, but I suppose it is progress that this blindingly obvious truth is slowly dawning on them.

  11. lacosta says:

    wonder if in another 30 years their will be a haredi modus operandi for army service . or if that is too big an ask.
    my friends in the know say 50% of kindergarteners are haredi . that sounds like a recipe for hilonim to go elsewhere , and test the premise that 24-7 torah supplants the need for a military . [and unfortunately the non-haredi communities are being devastated on the front lines — and that is while the war is still only on one front….]
    i think these cosmic questions will require mashiach to arrive earlier than planned [ v’yemarreru chayeihim leading to a geula on a much lower level than anticipated… ]

  12. Mordecai Plaut says:

    “The term “working charedi” was considered an oxymoron.” This is not true now and has never been true. This comment and the preceding sentences are a caricature and were never reality.
    The criterion for acceptance by the chareidi community has always been being a ben Torah. Working chareidim who remained bnei Torah had no trouble being accepted anywhere in the chareidi world,
    Unfortunately. all too often, those who go to work do not remain culturally and ideologically chareidi. They may adopt a chareidi “lifestyle” so some extent, but it is superficial. Such people are generally recognized for what they really are and not accepted. They (and others like apparently the writer) attributed their social difficulties to the fact of their working for a living, but that was never the case.

    • Igor ribnitser says:

      I might be stupid(last time i checked my iq it was in low 100’s)-can you explain me the word “Charaidi”.I do not remember it from Russia-and i knew talmidim of Chofets Chaim, Rogatchover, Rashab, Rav Tzilreson etc

    • YL says:

      That sounds very welcoming. 🙂

  13. Shades of Gray says:

    The potential impact of Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch’s remarks can be understood with the background of an insightful article which Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in the Summer 2004 Jewish Action(“Israel’s New Economic Reality: Will Israel’s Chareidi Population Have to Reinvent Itself?”). Written in the context of the Shinui Party’s influence on the Sharon government, the Jewish Action presented it as one of two views about the adaptation of the Charedi community. These are some of his key points:

    • The Chareidi community is by nature an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, one. What changes take place will come in an incremental fashion, primarily generated by pressures from below.…In their insistence on incremental change, the gedolei Torah are on solid ground. An entire body of social science literature documents the disastrous consequences of many efforts at social and ecological engineering, and the frequency with which those efforts generate consequences far more grievous than the problems they are designed to cure.

    • No one educational model can possibly satisfy the needs of all the children in a large community, and the attempt to force one model upon all can only result in many being lost altogether to the religious world… The challenge the Chareidi community confronts today is how to preserve the ideal of Torah learning as its paramount value while adjusting to changing circumstances, both internally and externally. That will not be a simple task.

    • Another crucial determinant of the openness of the Chareidi world to change will be the attitude of the secular world. The more the Chareidi world feels itself under siege, and feels that the government seeks to uproot the world of Torah, the more it will circle the wagons and resist all change with determination.

    Rav Hirsch said in his remarks that the trend of working Bnei Torah had started twenty years ago, which would indeed date back to the changes of the Sharon/Shinui government of 2004(when Bibi headed the Finance Ministry), the period which Jonathan Rosenblum was discussing. The VIN article by R. Yair Hoffman also mentioned the economic situation brought about by the Gaza War as the reason for the Binyanei HaUma gathering addressed by R. Moshe Hillel Hirsch. Not being a navi, Jonathan Rosenblum could never have anticipated such seismic events as the Coronavirus pandemic, the Meron disaster, the Chaim Walder affair, and now the Simchas Torah war, though any social or economic effects of these events are added to the incremental “pressures from below,” which Jonathan Rosenblum referred to.

    The potential to “circle the wagons” or for pushback to Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch’s remarks can be seen from the reaction to those of R. Dovid Leibel, head of the Achvas Torah kollel network, who was criticized by certain Israeli Chareidi media outlets for saying this summer that joining the workforce is lechatchilah(see R. Slifkin’s “The Rabbi who Murders Gedolim” 6/20/23). Hopefully, R. Moshe Hillel Hirsch would be able to withstand any form of pressure and will not need to walk back his words.

  14. Yehoshua Kahan says:

    I disagree that Rav Hirsch’s remarks are revolutionary. As a long-time member of the Israeli Litvish world, having moved here from America in 1997, I find Rabbi Adlerstein’s comments and characterization of the community to be far off-base. I spent many years in yeshivos and kollelim; I spent many years in neither of those frameworks. At no time did anyone (aside from commentators on this blog) question my right to call myself a charedi Jew.

    The idea that the Israeli Litvish community demands that every single man spend his entire life in kollel seems to be to me rather a cartoon than a reality.

    I would remind commentators on this blog that the halachos of lashon hara do apply in full force to comments on the Internet (whether in the form of blog posts or replies to blog posts), they apply in full force to communities, and that it is not enough to tell yourself that “it’s true” or “I would say it to his face” to permit a derogatory remark about frum Jews.

    • ben dov says:

      If so, what was the need for Rabbi Hirsch’s speech in your view?

    • Bob Miller says:

      “The idea that the Israeli Litvish community demands that every single man spend his entire life in kollel seems to be to me rather a cartoon than a reality.’

      On what grounds do they gladly allow exceptions, and roughly what percentage of men would these apply to?

      • Mark says:

        “On what grounds do they gladly allow exceptions, ”

        These are not children. No one needs to “allow” them to do anything. This is so reflective of a grievous mis-portrayal of the community. No one exercises this level of control over people in the community. These are adults and they make their own decisions.

        Is there some sort of social pressure to behave in a certain way? Certainly – but there’s plenty of precedent for someone to take his own road and many do.

  15. Mark says:

    “If you worked, you were not welcome in some charedi neighborhoods. Your kids would not be accepted in charedi schools. If you got together with some like-minded friends to set up an evening program of learning, you could not find a local beis medrash that would host you. The term “working charedi” was considered an oxymoron.”

    I lived in Israel for more than five years – 35 years ago – and none of this was true then, and even less so now. I lived in neighborhoods such as Ezras Torah and Mattesdorf, two bastions of Lithuanian Yeshiva world-type charedim, and there were many men who worked. There is a kollel in the main Ezras Torah shul – in the downstairs Ashkenaz minyan – for working men. It’s packed every day from 5-7. There’s another one at night.
    All of their children attended the most mainstream chadorim. They were and are prominent members of the community who enjoyed full acceptance and respect.

    What Rav Hirsch shlita said is only revolutionary to those who wished to believe the false image that was painted in this article and many who write and say much worse about the Charedi community. I’m certain the above was not intended maliciously but it is certainly devoid of fact. (And if you can point to a small group in Bnei Brak where some elements of this may be true, that’s the exception in every sense.)

    • Benshaul says:

      I can only echo Mark and others comments. Its been a number of years that there has been a framwork in place for kollelim for working charedi men, so the idea that this is new or a chidush is odd.
      I believe the issue is more in line with the charedi light, and trying to bring them back in the mainstream charedi world, and encouraging them to set a “kevias itim litorah”.

      Regardless, I think the point made by MK is correct. You can be more effective if your not seen as changing the system, but making an adjustment . RMHH is a wise person, knows his audience and above all wants to be effective.

      • I’m with you on being more effective if you are working within the system, and not seen as changing it. The chidush here is that I know someone who went to him a few years go to make the same points, and he responded that he agreed, but he could not be the one saying it publicly.
        Now, apparently, he can. (Do note, however, that he still had to use the word “bedieved,” which is a far cry from the position that Rav Aharon Lopiansky takes in Ben-Torah For Life.)

  16. MK says:

    I would assume that R Hirsch’s intro of the position of R Aharon Kotler, that all should really spend their entire life in full time learning, was meant to avoid backlash. However, it did make it highly unlikely that significant change will happen. In addition, I have never heard that presented as RA’s position.
    If R Hirsch was 40 years old, in good health and not a lone voice, there would be a place for optimism over time. But, sadly, that’s not the case.
    It is true that his “bi’deved” is a far cry from R Lapionsky. But its important to stress that RL is not “revolutionary”. Besides the Torah sources that he presents, virtually every American
    Gadol of the previous generation agreed that long term full time learning was not for the masses, but for the extraordinary.

  17. Caren May says:

    ברוך אתה הי…………….שעשני כרצונו!!!!

  18. Steven Brizel says:

    R Hirsch’s comments are all part of the rethinking of views within various sectors of Klal Yisrael that were clearly close to being non-negotiable demands and rigidly held hashkafic and ideiological positions prior to 10/7 and which now are changing -The bottom line of R Hirsch is that being a learner/earner is a lchatchilah position.

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