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Midrash Bottom

The Parsha states;

"According to the Torah that they teach you and according to the judgment that they tell you, so shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left… "

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 17:11

"You must obey the decision of the courts even if you are convinced they are wrong, even if they seem to be telling you that right is left and left is right - (and certainly you must obey if it is clear to you that the decision is correct)."


One wintry Friday afternoon in the town of Vilna, the wife of a poor tailor had a halachic question concerning the chicken dish she was preparing for her family Shabbat meal. She quickly sent one of her older children to the Vilna Rav, (the chief rabbi of the city), to ask for his ruling whether it was permissible to eat the chicken dish.

Unbeknownst to the wife, her husband also sent an older child to the Gaon of Vilna who lived close by, to consult him on this very same matter.

By general consensus (then and now), the Gaon of Vilna was a Torah giant on the level of the Rishonim, even though he lived in the 1800s. He was not only the greatest Torah authority in the city of Vilna, but was accepted as the greatest Torah authority of the last 500 years.

With regret, the Gaon informed the child that the chicken dish had been rendered unfit for eating. Soon thereafter, the other child returned from the Vilna Rav with great joy. The Rav had ruled that the chicken dish was permissible and fit for eating!

The couple was confused. What should they do now? The wife turned to her husband.

"Run as fast as you can to the Rav and seek his advice."

The husband ran to the Rav to ask him what to do under the circumstances. The Rav told him;

"Go home and enjoy your Shabbat. Tell your wife to serve the chicken dish. To prove that I am right, the Gaon himself will join me at your Shabbat table to partake of your chicken dish!"

After the Friday evening services, the Rav called upon the Gaon and explained that while he fully realized that in terms of halachic expertise he was as dust beneath the feet of the Gaon, nevertheless he was the Chief Rabbi of Vilna. Under Jewish law, it was his ruling that should be followed unless it was clearly a mistaken ruling, which it was not, because the issue turned on a matter of opinion.

In his opinion, which was halachically defensible, the chicken dish was permissible. Even the Gaon was therefore subject to his ruling as a member of the congregation of Vilna. And to avoid violating the prohibition of "…you shall not deviate…" contained in Parshat Shoftim, he was asking the Gaon to submit to his ruling and demonstrate this submission by coming with him to the home of the tailor and his wife to partake of the chicken dish.

The Gaon agreed, and the poor tailor and his wife were overwhelmed. Never before in their lives had any Rabbi sat at their table. Now they were being honored by the visit of Jewish Vilna's two most prominent citizens. The two leading Rabbis of the town were with them for their Friday night meal.

The Gaon and the Rav sat down at the Shabbat table. In her anxiety to treat her revered guests with the honor they deserved, the wife stumbled as she brought the dish to the table and knocked over the candlesticks. In those days cheap candles were made of non-kosher animal fat and dripping fat fell straight into the chicken dish! This time, there was no doubt whatever that the food was halachically forbidden to eat.

The Vilna Rav turned to the Gaon.

"Please forgive me, for heaven has convinced me that I erred in my judgment and you ruled correctly in declaring that the chicken dish was unfit for eating."

"On the contrary" said the Gaon, "you are the Rav of this town, and according to the Halacha, I accept your ruling. However, heaven was on my side in saving me from having to eat of the food that I myself declared to be halachically forbidden."

The point of the story, however, is that the Gaon was willing to partake of it. With all due modesty, it was clear to all parties involved that he was a much greater expert in Halacha than the local Rav. Yet, he held himself enjoined by the commandment that one must follow the ruling of a lesser sage who is the local autonomous rabbinic authority. The Gaon of Vilna could certainly not be held suspect of agreeing to partake of a treif (non-kosher) chicken dish for whatever reason. If the chief rabbi ruled that the chicken dish was kosher, it truly was permissible under Jewish law for all the members of the Vilna Congregation.

Why should the candles have fallen into the chicken dish?

Even though the Halacha was on his side, the Rav of Vilna was nursing doubts in his mind. Perhaps he had ruled incorrectly, perhaps the Gaon was right and they should not be eating any of the chicken dish. So the Rav was sending out negative vibes. The Gaon of Vilna was apprehensive of having to eat of food that he had declared unfit for consumption, so he too was sending out negative vibes. The disturbed signals sent out by the tailor and his wife reinforced the negative energies in the room. The atmosphere was charged with the ingredients for the event that brought relief to both the Rabbis.

Thank Heaven for falling candles.

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