Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
There's No Compromise in Compromise
"And these are the laws that you shall place
before them." (21:1)
The venerable gaon, Rabbi Shalom Mordechai HaKohen Schwadron
of Brezan zt"l, known as the "Maharsham" (an acronym for "Moreinu
HaRav Shalom Mordechai"), was renowned for his brilliance in
halachic adjudication. His halachic responsa, the nine volumes of
She'eilos Ve-Teshuvos Maharsham, are studied to this day.
Normally, one thinks of adjudication as the process of determining
who's right, and who's wrong. A dayan (Jewish judge), many assume,
is meant to render halachic decisions, not to promote compromise
and moderation. Some even go as far as to say that for a judge to
encourage compromise is a sign of weakness; he lacks the true
knowledge to determine who's right. The following episode, however,
demonstrates that to rule in halacha requires great sensitivity to the
feelings of both parties.
In the winter of 5668 (1908), the Maharsham's student, Rabbi Chaim
Bloch, was in Brezan on business, and happened to be present at an
amazing mishpat (halachic trial) that took place in the home of his
A shul in Hamburg had sent a committee of its congregants to bring
the following case before the Maharsham: The founders of the shul
were G-d fearing Ashkenazim of Hungarian, Galician, Russian, and
Polish descent. For many decades, they had prayed using nusach
Ashkenaz (the version of prayer followed by those of German
descent). Lately, however, there had been a large influx of Galician
and Polish chassidim into Hamburg, who had quickly become the
majority in the shul, and it had not taken long for the newcomers to
suggest that the prayers be changed to nusach Sefard, favoured by
the chassidim. A fierce disagreement broke out between the long-
standing native residents of Hamburg, and the newly arrived
When the representatives of the opposing sides had finished
presenting their cases, he said: "Baruch Hashem, our brothers in
Hamburg have come to judge a matter of nusach! This is a sign that
they are G-d fearing." He then related the following story that had
happened to the gaon, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson, author of
One summer, Rav Yosef Shaul visited the town of Skolya. Skolya at
that time boasted the residence of several hundred Jewish families
and a handful of shuls where prayers were held according to nusach
Sefard. During the summer months, however, many residents of Lvov
(who davened nusach Ashkenaz) would come to Skolya to vacation
in the scenic town lodged among the majestic Carpathian mountains.
One Friday night, as the chazzan (prayer-leader) began to recite the
prayer Ke-Gavna (a kabbalistic prayer said just before Maariv
according to nusach Sefard), the visitors from Lvov raised a
commotion, and began reciting aloud Ba-Meh Madlikin (the parallel
prayer in nusach Ashkenaz). This upset the local residents, who
shouted, "We are the residents here - you are only the guests!" To
this, the visitors from Lvov countered, "You earn your livelihood for
the entire year from our stay here during the summer! We also
donate large amounts toward the upkeep of the shul. So we are
entitled to pray according to our custom!"
Rav Yosef Shaul was present. All eyes turned to him to render the
correct halachic opinion. "Know my dear brothers," he began, "that
when you gather to pray, the yetzer hara cannot stand it, so he plots
various strategies to undermine your prayers. First, he advises the
people of Lvov to say 'Ba-Meh Madlikin - How do we light?' That is,
how can we kindle the fire of discord between us? Then, he
persuades the people of Skolya to shout: 'Ke-Gavna - this is the way
they become unified!' Let us join forces and fight them the way they
fight us! Believe me, my brothers, this is not what our Sages had in
mind when they composed these beautiful tefilos.
"When Mashiach will come, he will clarify this matter. If Mashiach will
say Ke-Gavna, then we too will say Ke-Gavna, 'This is the way one
man joins together with his fellow Jew - in total unity!' If Mashiach will
say Ba-Meh Madlikin, then we too will say with great enthusiasm,
'How can we kindle the sparks of love between man and his fellow
All those present, residents and visitors, were taken aback by his
words. "Really," they said to one another, "what difference does it
make. The main thing is to direct our hearts in prayer to Hashem!"
The gaon then told them, "As far as the strict halacha is concerned,
it is as follows: When the residents of Skolya visit Lvov, and daven in
the local shul, they may say Ke-Gavna quietly to themselves. And the
natives of Lvov, while in Skolya, may whisper Ba-Meh Madlikin to
themselves. And if it happens that someone from Skolya says Ba-
Meh Madlikin while in Lvov; or if, while vacationing in Skolya, a Lvov
native recites Ke-Gavna, then I take their punishment upon myself.
The most important thing, my dear brothers, is that there should be
When the Maharsham finished telling his visitors from Hamburg the
story, he advised them as follows: "Since the number of mispallelim
in Hamburg has, Baruch Hashem, grown, I suggest the following
compromise: The "Ashkenazim" shall conclude their prayers by ten
o'clock. Afterwards, the "Sefardim" can daven for the rest of the day.
As for Mincha, let all congregants conduct themselves with quiet
discretion, in the manner suggested by R' Yosef Shaul Nathanson.
The main point is that harmony and peace rest among you."
[Maharsham, HaPosek HaAcharon p. 15, quoted by Aaron Perlow,
HaModia 12 Shevat 5759]
Mefarshim explain that it is for this reason that this week's parshah
begins, "And these are the laws that you shall place before them,"
and not "before him." A judge, if at all possible, should seek not
simply to point a finger at the wrong party, but rather to find a
compromise that both sides are happy with, thereby promoting peace
and harmony among Klal Yisrael.
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.