Jewish history is replete with unusual dinei Torah. One of the most famous disputes was between the Taz and his fatherin-law, the Bach, who had promised to provide a daily meat meal for him. When the Bach fell on hard times, he could only afford to pay for the lungs, and the Taz summoned his father-in-law to a din Torah. When the beis din ruled that the lungs were considered meat, the Taz was overjoyed.
“You see,” he explained, “it is possible that my learning might have been compromised slightly if the food was inferior. In Shamayim, this would be held against my father-in-law, who promised to provide me with meat. But now he is not at fault at all!”
Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson was a rav from Sanniki (near Warsaw) who was deported to the Konin labor camp and later to Auschwitz. His memoirs include details of a din Torah that never became as famous as the case of the Taz and the Bach, but I was struck by the strength of character it reveals.
In 1944, thousands of Hungarian Jews began arriving in Auschwitz, among them many distinguished rabbis. Rabbi Aronson noticed one special Jew named Rabbi Yisrael Ephraim Fischel Rothe, who was meticulous in his mitzvah observance. Rabbi Rothe also managed to care for his two young sons. But as the grueling labor began to take its toll, Rabbi Aronson saw that Rabbi Rothe’s days were numbered.
An idea formed in Rabbi Aronson’s mind. In his desperation, he turned to a Jewish kapo for help. The kapo oversaw the work assignments, and Rabbi Aronson pleaded with him to have Rabbi Rothe transferred to easier work. He used the same argument that Mordechai had used with Esther—that perhaps the sole reason the kapo had been appointed to his position was to save a Jew’s life. In addition, he would likely be saving the boys as well.
Rabbi Aronson described the kapo’s reaction to his plea: He was hesitant for a long time, wrapped in silence, before finally saying, “All right, I’m willing to take the risk. Tomorrow I transfer the rabbi to my ‘engineering detail.’”
Rabbi Aronson was relieved to see that Rabbi Rothe’s condition improved after just a few days at the new assignment. His two sons also benefited since their father was able to bring them more food; somehow, he managed to get portions of soup for them from the SS kitchen.
One night, Rabbi Aronson was surprised when the kapo approached him with a din Torah against Rabbi Rothe. The kapo was furious because Rabbi Rothe refused to eat the camp food. He said that he was risking his life to keep the rabbi alive so that this great Torah scholar could teach future generations.
“I am trying to save a Jewish life in order to earn a share in the World to Come,” stated the kapo. “But because this rabbi refuses to eat non-kosher food and therefore has no chance of surviving, I don’t want to risk my life for him.”
Rabbi Rothe then “took the stand” to defend his actions. He claimed that he was able to survive on bread alone, so there was no question of pikuach nefesh. He said he understood the kapo’s concern but felt that an individual should make the ultimate determination about whether his life was in danger or not.
Rabbi Aronson considered both claims carefully. The question touched on several aspects of halachah, and his ruling incorporated a compromise. He concurred with Rabbi Rothe that at the present time, eating bread alone did not pose a direct threat to his life. However, he was permitted to continue this practice only if his health did not deteriorate.
Regarding the kapo’s claim that he was not required to risk his life for someone who was not caring for his own welfare, Rabbi Aronson replied that reassigning Rabbi Rothe to a different work detail had still been a lifesaving act, and moreover, the kapo had also indirectly saved the lives of his two sons.
Sadly, Rabbi Rothe did not survive the war, but not because of his diet. He was killed with several hundred other Jews in a forest near Gleiwitz, Poland. In a book written after the war, Rabbi Rothe’s son states that despite the endless torment of hunger, his father never did eat nonkosher food.
Even in the darkness of Auschwitz, Yidden like this had one wish—to carry out Hashem’s will to the best of their ability. They engaged in a din Torah not to emerge victorious over a fellow Jew, but to ensure that their conduct would find favor in the Beis Din shel Maalah, the Heavenly Court.