Of Baptisms and Half-Slaves

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

Wichita Falls, Texas, is home to Sheppard Air Force Base. A Strategic Air Command Operational Wing of B-52 bombers was located there in the ‘60s. The 494th Bomb Wing was located there until 1965. In its heyday, Sheppard Air Force base had a population of over 21,000 people. With such a large number of military personnel, there were bound to be more than a few Jewish servicemen. Enter Cedarhurst resident (and my uncle) Rabbi Benjamin Samson (father of Five Towns internist Dr. Israel Samson). Soon after receiving his semicha from Yeshiva University, he was issued orders on July 28, 1960. He became a chaplain, First Lieutenant, at the Air Force base. (When he left there, he had attained the rank of captain.) He held services and taught classes for the Jewish personnel. To be able to properly attend to the airmen of the Strategic Air Command, he was given secret clearance. On Sukkos, he built a sukkah on the base; one of the Jewish servicemen was an engineer and helped design it. The children of the Jewish servicemen who were stationed at the base were able to receive a more formal Jewish education at the Hebrew School of the local community. One Shabbos afternoon, Chaplain First Lieutenant Benjamin Samson was trying to relax at his home on the base, but his phone was ringing off the hook. He didn’t answer it because it was Shabbos. However, a visitor soon appeared at his door. He said that there was an emergency phone call, and he asked if the chaplain would answer his phone. Rabbi Samson agreed. Wondering what type of emergency this could be, he picked up the phone and listened to a woman from Baltimore plead for help. It was the sobbing of a heartbroken and desperate Jewish mother: “My son is stationed at the base, and he told me that he is going to be baptized after Shabbos.” Immediately, the chaplain sent a message to the woman’s son, Richard, an Airman Third Class, if he could kindly come and see him.

As requests of higher-ranking officers are generally heeded, Richard came (with his non-Jewish friend). Richard was still young and impressionable. He was lonely and needed a friend. Enter this devout gentile who viewed it as his mission on the base to convert as many personnel as he could. Rabbi Samson asked the gentile friend to wait outside while he conversed with Richard. Rabbi Samson tried to dissuade Richard from going ahead with the baptism ceremony with a two-pronged assault. “First, a major life-changing decision such as this should be done at home after you’ve left the service. Second, how much do you know about Judaism?” “Not much” was the reply. Rabbi Samson responded, “So why don’t you find out a little more about the religion you’re leaving before you give it up?” Richard acceded to his request and delayed the ceremony for two weeks. Meanwhile, he began learning privately with the chaplain all about Judaism. At one of their learning sessions, Rabbi Samson mentioned that he thought it was time for Richard to stop attending church services. Richard replied, “I was wondering when you were going to ask me to stop.” And stop he did. The intended ceremony was canceled. Richard grew by spiritual leaps and bounds. Over time, Richard became deeply committed to Yiddishkeit and he developed close personal ties with Chaplain Samson. Rabbi Samson, though, has since lost track of him. (Maybe he lives here in the Five Towns and is reading this article.) A halachic query that can be raised is: Was the Jewish mamma allowed to call the chaplain on the phone on Shabbos to enlist his help in dissuading her son from going forward with the baptism ceremony? A Mishna in Gittin (41a) discusses the halachic oddity of an individual who is half-eved and half-freeman. (The slave that is being discussed is an eved Canaani; such an eved is obligated in some mitzvos but is not allowed to marry a bas Yisrael.) One way for this oddity to come into being is by having a slave who is owned by two partners; one partner then frees his share of the slave.

Ergo, we have It was the sobbing of a heartbroken and desperate Jewish mother: “My son is stationed at the base, and he told me that he is going to be baptized after Shabbos.” a half-slave and half-freeman. The Mishna rules that we force the master to free his half-slave to enable him to marry. Tosefos, though, point out that freeing an eved Canaani is a violation of a mitzvas aseih, “You shall work with them” (Vayikra 25:46). They question how we can force the half-owner of the slave to free his portion and violate a mitzvah in order that the slave should be able to fulfill a different mitzvah, of procreation. Do we ever advise someone to do an aveirah to help someone do a mitzvah? The Gemara in Shabbos (4a) says, in fact, that we don’t. Someone forgot it was Shabbos and placed dough in an oven to bake. He subsequently left, and a different person entered the room, smelled the aroma, and realized what happened. If he takes the dough out in time, he can potentially stop the melachah of baking from occurring. But taking the raw dough out of the oven on Shabbos involves a rabbinical prohibition. May one violate a rabbinical prohibition to save his friend from the more serious Biblical violation of baking on Shabbos? No. Tosefos, therefore, wonder: How can we force the owner to free his half-slave and violate a mitzvah in order help the slave fulfill his mitzvah? Tosefos in Shabbos offer two possible answers. One answer is that procreation is considered a mitzvah rabbah, a great mitzvah. For the sake of the half-slave being able to perform a mitzvah rabbah, we will force the owner to violate a positive precept. The other answer offered is that the individual who forgot it was Shabbos and placed his dough in the oven was negligent. The slave, on the other hand, entered into a sticky situation not due to any fault of his own. One half-owner freed him, thereby leaving him with an identity crisis. Since the half-slave himself bears no responsibility for his predicament, we allow the other owner to violate a less serious mitzvah, to help the half-slave fulfill a bigger mitzvah.

The negligent baker, though, gets his just desserts and must stew in his own juice. The Beis Yosef (O.C. 306) extrapolates from this Tosefos that if someone was informed on Shabbos that his daughter has been kidnapped by a priest with the intention of raising her as a gentile, one may even violate Biblical prohibitions of Shabbos to rescue her. This is true even if one is assured beyond the shadow of a doubt that his daughter is not in any physical danger. Moreover, we physically compel the father to rescue his daughter. The Mishnah Berurah points out that even a non-relative may violate the Shabbos to save the daughter, although only a relative is coerced to do so. The logic of this halacha is that one may violate one Shabbos to ensure that his daughter does not violate many Shabbosos by living her life as a gentile. The difficulty, though, is regarding a Jewish individual who willingly approached a priest to forsake his religion. Can one violate Shabbos to rescue him? (Once again, this question is based on a theoretical assumption that there is no absolutely no chance of him being physically harmed.) The answer depends on the forecited Tosefos. Why do we not remove the bread from the oven before it bakes, thereby violating a rabbinic injunction, in order save the forgetful baker from violating a Biblical Shabbos prohibition?

If the reason we don’t help him is because he was negligent, this individual, too, was negligent by approaching the priest in the first place. If, however, we don’t help the absent-minded baker because we are not helping him perform a mitzvah rabbah, here we could potentially help a person live his entire life as a Jew, which is certainly a mitzvah rabbah! Since it is a matter of doubt, we are stringent, and we only violate Shabbos when both conditions are met: (a) the individual was not negligent; and (b) we are helping him perform a mitzvah rabbah. However, the Elya Rabbah says that one may violate a rabbinic prohibition for the spiritual rescue of even a negligent individual. So let us return to Wichita Falls. The question was whether or not the airman’s mother was permitted to initiate a call to the chaplain to get him to speak to her son before the baptism ceremony. Initially, it would appear that the airman, being of sound mind and body, made a voluntary decision to be baptized. In such a case, only a rabbinic prohibition may be violated for the mitzvah rabbah of ensuring that he remains observant for the rest of his life. According to many poskim, the use of a phone on Shabbos only entails a rabbinic prohibition. It would therefore seem that the mother acted correctly. HaRav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l, concurred that the mother’s decision was correct. He further questioned whether someone with a very limited Jewish background who was put in the same place as a quasi-missionary can truly be deemed to be negligent. Perhaps he can be considered someone who was ignorant since birth, a tinok shenishba. If that would be true, then perhaps even a d’Oraysa could be violated. However, Rav Dovid continued that this discussion is mostly academic. He said that if anyone asked him a similar question, he would instruct the individual not to violate Shabbos, because it is not clear that violating the Shabbos will help the situation (as opposed to rescuing a child from a monastery, which will definitely help.) In hindsight, being what it is, it is clear that this mother’s phone call was effective and therefore permitted.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@ gmail.com.

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