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Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, 89, religious scholar, dies
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Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, 89, religious scholar, dies
By Albert Amateau
Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, leader for 50 years of the landmark synagogue Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on the Lower East Side and venerated among Orthodox Jews as a sage of the Torah and author of a five-volume religious response to the Holocaust, died on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 28 2003, the second day of the Jewish New Year, in Mt. Sinai Hospital at the age of 89.
He was revered for the influence of his character on succeeding generations of the congregation as much as for his scholarship. ÒHe was known as a Posek, a term bestowed on a man whom people can ask the difficult questions of life,Ó said Victor B. Zybernagel, a member of Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol at 16 Norfolk St. for 30 years.
Born in Kupishok, Lithuania, in 1914, Ephraim Oshry studied with the great rabbis of the day. He was interned in a concentration camp near Kovno, Lithuania, by the Nazi invaders during World War II. His first wife and their children died in the camps before the end of the war. In 1949, he married Frieda Greenzwieg, a survivor of Auschwitz, said his son-in-law, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum.
The volumes on the religious response to the Holocaust were begun while he was in the camp, written in Hebrew on bits of paper, which were buried and retrieved after the war, according to Zybernagel. It was the rabbiÕs life work. A one-volume version in English won a National Jewish Book Award several years ago, he said.
Rabbi Oshry and his wife left Lithuania and landed in Rome where the rabbi organized a yeshiva for orphaned refugee children. In 1950 he managed to bring all the yeshiva students with him when he moved with his family to Montreal. They came to New York in 1952 where he was invited to be the rabbi of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, a congregation founded in 1852. The family has long made its home in the Seward Park Co-op on E. Broadway.
For several years Rabbi Oshry ran two yeshivas, one for boys and the other for girls, in the East Bronx. He is also the patron of a yeshiva named after him in Monsey N.Y., Shaar Ephraim, run by a son-in-law, Zelig Greenberg.
Rabbi Oshry is survived by his wife, three daughters and six sons. He designated his son-in-law Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, to succeed him at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.
The funeral was at the synagogue on Mon. Sept. 29.
Oshry was a rabbinical scholar in Lithuania when the Nazis invaded in 1941. During the occupation, he held secret worship services for Jews and guarded a warehouse filled with books for a future exhibit of "artifacts of the extinct Jewish race."
After the war ended, Oshry used the knowledge he obtained from the exhibit to publish several volumes of religious analysis in which he interpreted Jewish law to answer questions of survival. For example, Oshry determined that even to save his own life, a Jew could not buy a Christian baptism certificate or commit suicide. Two of these volumes won National Jewish Book Awards.
Oshry also set up schools for religious instruction in Rome and Montreal. In 1952, he became rabbi at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, one of the oldest synagogues in New York City.
Responsa by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry in the Kovno Ghetto
Question: May it be explained whether it is permissible to save oneself, and thereby cause another to be killed.
I was asked the following in the Kovno ghetto, on 23 Elul 5701 (September 15, 1941): Jordan, accursed be his name, Commander for Ghetto Affairs in Kovno, had given the Altestenrat (Council of Elders) 5,000 white cards ("Jordan permits"), which were to be distributed among the craftsmen and their families, and only those who had cards would remain. At that time there were almost 30,000 Jewish souls in the ghetto, and among them about 10,000 craftsmen and their families. There was a great tumult, and those who were strongest snatched the cards from the Altestenrat.
And now the first question is whether it is permissible for the Altestenrat to take the cards and distribute them among the craftsmen in accordance with the orders of Jordan, accursed be his name? The second question is whether it is permissible for the craftsmen to snatch these cards and to push away their comrades among the craftsmen who will remain over and above the number of 5,000 cards, and what will be with them?
[Answer:] ...It is possible to say that in this case all the craftsmen are in a sense partners in all the cards, for it is conceded that they were given for all of them, and therefore all have a share in them. And if so, then each one may snatch who has a share in them. And later, when I came to write, I was shown by my distinguished friend, our Rabbi and teacher Israel Gostman, may he live good days, Amen, the head of the Torah School at the Yeshiva of Lubavitch, that the commentary of Rabbi Eliezer Edels (Maharsha) on the Tractate Baba Metzia [of the Talmud] 62 states: "If a flask of water (which can sustain but one person) belongs to two (men), then Rabbi Akiva accepts the position of Ben Petora, that in this case both should die rather than one drink and witness the death of his friend. This, therefore, represents a position opposite to the one we proposed, for if we consider them partners then they may not snatch [the permits], for that would make them as one who takes a thing from his fellow and saves himself by means of a thing that belongs to the other.
But while all this must be considered, it may be said that in this case the ruling does not apply, for it is not a matter of a specific person; it had been the intention of the evil ones, may they be accursed, to destroy all, but now there is a way to save a few by means of the permits that have been issued, and thus acceptance of the cards and their distribution becomes a matter of saving [persons]. Later I heard from the revered and learned Rabbi A.D. Schapira, may he be remembered as a just man and blessed, the head of the Rabbinical Court of Kovno, that when the order went out on 6 Heshvan 5702 from the evil ones, accursed be their names, to the Altestenrat that it should post a notice on 8 Heshvan 5702 (October 26, 1941) that all the occupants of the ghetto -- men, women and children -- be assembled at the Demokraten Platz, the Altestenrat came to ask the head of the Rabbinical Court what they should do in accordance with the laws of the Torah, for it was known that a great part of those who assembled would be doomed to die. After he had considered the matter, the head of the Rabbinical Court ruled as follows: if the order was made that a community in Israel be destroyed, and if by some means it was possible to save a small part of the people, then the heads of the community must gather up courage in their souls, and it is their responsibility to act and to save who may be saved. And therefore in this case it appears that taking and distributing the permits is also a matter of rescue and it is not appropriate to rule in this case according to the law for an individual and therefore the Altestenrat is required to accept the permits and to distribute them.
* * *
Question: Are infants subject to the commandment to sanctify the Name of God by martyrdom?
I was asked on 3 and 4 Nisan 5704 [March 27-28, 1944] in the Kovno Ghetto, in the days of the killing and loss and terrible fate for the glory of our offspring, concerning our children and infants, the children of Israel.
In their desire to save their children, the parents devised a way: they bought birth certificates from the unbelievers and abandoned the children at the orphanage of the unbelievers in order that the unbelievers might think that the abandoned child was also an unbeliever. The parents also gave the children to priests and wrote to the priests that the children had been converted from their faith. Is this permissible?
2. Is it permissible to give the children to the unbelievers to hide until after the war and the fall of Hitler, may his name be accursed, where there is doubt that the parents will remain alive and therefore the children will be bound to remain among the unbelievers and live in their faith and their ways?
[Answer:] ...If the child is not given to the unbelievers it is certain that it will die, and if they are among the unbelievers they will live, and it is possible that the parents may remain alive and take the child back and return it to Judaism, and it is possible that the unbelievers themselves may return the child to a Jewish institution, and there are many possibilities in favor. And the Almighty in His goodness will have mercy on the remnants of His oppressed people and not add further to their suffering, and we shall witness the consolation of Zion and of Jerusalem.
E. Oshry, Sefer Divre Ephraim ("The Sayings of Ephraim"), New York, 1949, pp. 95-96, 101-102.
Very few responsa written during the Holocaust have survived. In this environment of brutal decrees, persecution, and annihilation, both the questioners and the respondents were seriously inhibited; often Jews were simply unable to present their questions and decisors could not remit the answers. The most comprehensive collection of Holocaust-era responsa was written by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry in the Kovno Ghetto, between June, 1941, when the Nazi occupation of Kovno began, and August, 1944.
Oshry wrote his responsa on scraps of paper, which he buried in hopes
of returning and reclaiming them after the war.
Rabbi Oshry wrote a famous book in Yiddish entitled Khurban Lite (Churban
Lita, The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry). This book was replete
with the demographics of, and genealogy of, families in various Lithuanian
Shtetlach (towns). In an Appendix, the book also chronicled the experiences
of the Rabbi and of some thirty-odd others who lay concealed in a
"Ma-liy-ne" (underground bunker) in the Kovner ghetto --
until the ghetto was liberated by the Russians.
also wrote 5 volumes in Hebrew entitled Shaylos U'Tshuvos Mi-ma-a-ma-kim
(Responsa from the Depths (or "from the Pits"). [On the
the book is called She'elot Ut'shovot Mimaamakim. Incidentally the
above site is well worth visiting!]
By Jason Alpert;
Cassette Tapes of Rabbi Oshry's Shi'urim