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Aaron Berger

Klal Perspectives, The Ben Torah Baal Habayis

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Addressing the Baal Habyis’s Challenge – a Baal Habayis’s Take

I must first express my appreciation to Klal Perspectives (KP) for soliciting thoughts from regular baalei batim (Jewish laymen) such as myself on serious topics such as the ones addressed in this issue. Since practical answers on topics of such import surely require rabbinic approbation, this article is intended primarily to trigger discussion in the vast virtual living room that is KP. The article’s inherent value, if any, is in presenting an earnest voice.

The Introduction and Questions to this issue builds a solid case that the sincere ben Torah baal habayis commonly has feelings of inadequacy and frustration at not possibly being able to meet the expectations imposed upon him by his community, or that are self-imposed. After all, how could someone not feel frustrated and inadequate when the task is so great and the day is so short? In fact, I found this thesis so compelling that when I concluded reading the Introductions and Questions, I began to feel desperately inadequate. This feeling, however, was not triggered by disappointment in my performance as a baal habayis, but rather precisely because I have not, until now, thought myself to be inadequate. I have not been walking around as an “ich bin ah gornisht” (I am a nothing), which, having now considered the KP Introduction, is exactly what I should have been doing all along. Unless I could claim that I had figured out how to perfectly execute all my baal habayis responsibilities (which clearly I could not), what right did I have to not feel miserably discouraged and inadequate?

Upon further reflection, I realized that my lack of disappointment resulted from two factors. First, I may not be taking my baal habayis responsibilities seriously enough, but second, I am not fully sold on all the assumptions that underpin the thesis of the Introduction. However, had KP done nothing more than raise the awareness of baalei batim like me that we, in fact, have such deep and profound responsibilities, dayenu! That awakening would have been reason enough to be grateful, since the recognition of a challenge (which I am not convinced we all knew we had) is the first and perhaps most important step toward addressing it.

Addressing the Issue

While I defer to the esteemed rabbinic professionals to guide the baal habayis in his struggle to prioritize among competing responsibilities, I have developed, with a small group of peers, several ideas that may assist the thinking of the baal habayis as he confronts these challenges. What can the individual do to successfully embrace his role as a baal habayis, and what can the community do to support him?

Accepting the Challenge – To the extent that baal habatim have given up on the goal of growing vigorously in avodas Hashem, the abandonment of this aspiration is due in no small part to the message, real or imagined, that becoming a baal habayis represents a monumental failure, reflecting a paucity of yiras Shomayim (fear of Heaven) or idealism. It is vital that efforts be made to militate against that kind of negative thinking. It is my understanding that one is not consigned to a lower level of avodas Hashem by pursuing a career in the secular world rather than remaining in the bais hamedrash. Bottom line here is: Adam muad le’olam – we are obligated to rise above anything we have heard that would lead us to lesser ambitions and lesser goals in avodas Hashem.

Fashion and Follow a Plan – The frustration of the baal habayis is in many ways the same as anyone’s frustration when they find themselves distant from their most important goals. In fact, when one fails to delineate exactly what one is trying to achieve and whether or not there is a reasonable plan to get there, frustration follows.

In private industry, every year, department heads strategize on how to allocate their budget to best achieve their intended goals. The baal habayis should employ this same common-sense approach when dealing with his most precious commodity, his time.

The rather simplistic chart below is intended to illustrate the initial steps of a plan. Categories of activity should be listed, each weighted in priority and available focus. Perhaps in consultation with a Rav, each baal habayis should divide the pie chart in accordance with his personal needs and priorities.

This time allocation exercise can be pursued, however, only after investing in the hard work of formulating a set of goals and associated priorities. How is such an exercise pursued? A colleague of mine calls it “right-to-left-planning.” To know what to do now (the “left”), we must first envision where we need to be by the target date (the “right”). This is in line with the Ponovezher Rav’s statement that he had “backed into” all his activities when building his mega yeshiva in Bnei Brak.

It is no wonder that Daf HaYomi has been so successful in inducing so many of us to actually spend an hour or two every day learning gemara. Daf Yomi’s attraction is that it is based on definitive, concrete milestones that lead to a definitive, concrete objective – to finish shas. To reach that goal, one must obviously finish the mesechta, and to finish each masechta, one must do whatever it takes to get through today’s daf.

Applying this specific example to the broader range of life goals, we should envision how we, as baalei batim, will look and live once all is said and done (i.e.; retired and moved to Lakewood and/or Carriage House and/or 22 Pinsker). This “right to left planning” should produce a set of objectives, which should then yield an action plan to achieve them. I can almost guarantee that no one’s plans will be directly on the mark, and that most people will adjust them quite a bit as time goes on. Designing a plan, however, will significantly increase the chances of staying focused on achieving those accomplishments that one really cares about.

Each individual’s plan will be quite unique and personal. It may be helpful to take counsel with a spouse, close friend or Rav when attempting to define the right vision for oneself and to allocate time and focus responsibly. But even then, it is wise to prepare a first draft on one’s own, and only then seek the input of others.

Engaging a Rav as a Support System

If we were to track the life journey of an archetypical baal habayis, we would discover that he establishes a series of mentor relationships at the various stages of his development. Each relationship is valuable, but they are generally disjointed and typically become either unavailable or less meaningful as life goes on. As an adult, he may occasionally solicit advice from a “gadol” who, while rich in Torah foundation, is often relatively unfamiliar with his personal context, family background, strengths, challenges, goals and affinities. Since such advice is so often more generic than tailored, it often fails to resonate, or the baal habayis deems the advice unrealistic, leaving him with further feelings of isolation and inadequacy.

The baal habayis would benefit greatly from a constant mentoring resource, who would help tie together the various phases of his growth. As a thought for consideration, perhaps the family shul Rav can serve this role, becoming a key resource as he supports the baal habayis from childhood through the balance of his journey. Who is better qualified than the Rav, whose ever-growing Torah knowledge is complemented by his deep, personal, life-long familiarity with the baal habayis? The Rav can offer a perspective that puts the aggregate set of advice the baal habayis had received from his many mentors into a context that is relevant and meaningful in the “here and now,” helping keep the baal habayis centered and secure. The baal habayis would be at liberty to absorb messages that balance what he learned in yeshiva with new ideas appropriate to his current situation.

This suggestion implies a fundamental shift in the expectations of a Rav and his role. If this approach would be employed, the Rav’s relationship would necessarily be with his congregants’ entire family. He would be expected to strive to develop substantive relationships with the youth of his shul and commit himself to their long-term growth. These job requirements may affect a congregation’s “checklist” of qualifications when choosing a Rav in the first place. The broadened responsibilities would also put additional demands on the Rav’s time. The congregant would not think of the rabbi as a mere service provider, to be utilized for quick inspiration, for a halachic psak or for pastoral duties. The Rav would rather be embraced as a partner in his family’s overall growth. It may behoove a family to actually factor in a prospective Rav’s long-term potential in serving them when choosing a shul, much as they may factor a doctor’s ability to be there for long haul (I know I do this). Notwithstanding that the cradle-to-grave, or even fountain pen-to-grave, rabbi-concept will rarely play out according to script, I submit there is much potential value in broadening the rabbi’s role and leveraging his talents, holistically.

The rabbi-for-life concept is actually not innovative at all. This model already has been established for quite some time in the Chassidic world. In the yeshiva world, of course, the role of the shul Rav is limited in favor of the rosh yeshiva, and often compromised as people move from place to place, and thus from shul to shul. The Chassidic model, by contrast, is all about the centrality of the Rebbe. The Rebbe relationship, at least in theory, provides the kind of continuity I am suggesting, and goes even further in that the Rebbe himself delivers the guidance; he is not just orchestrating the seamless melding of the various threads of advice. Disclaimer: I do not know how this is, or ever was, implemented in practice. I am simply suggesting that we need not start from scratch in envisioning this model. No matter how the Chassidic Rebbe model actually works, here are some characteristics of how I think the “pulpit Rebbe” needs to work:

  • Capacity to Engage – The rabbi needs to have sufficient time and focus to maintain meaningful relationships with his flock. [I suspect this may not be the case with the Rebbe model]
  • Partnership Approach – A mutual relationship must be created in which the rabbi partners with the congregant to form strategies that the congregant ultimately owns and implements. This differs from a one-way relationship in which the rabbi simply directs his congregant as to how to act, [I suspect the Rebbe model might lean more to the one-way approach]
  • Individual-Focused – The nature of the rabbi’s advice must be tailored to the individuality and unique circumstances and history of each congregant. It must be immediately evident to the congregant that the advice being offered is suited to him as an individual, without the influence of broad, klal-level agendas that are not in his interests.

Depending on the Rav’s age at the outset of a relationship, the Rav could theoretically be there for the baal habayis into his 30’s, 40’s and beyond. As an illustration of the beauty and effectiveness of this dynamic, I will describe such a 47-year relationship that I have merited to have with a head of school, and that is still ongoing – thank G-d, bli ayin hora.

Allow me to bring you back a few decades. I have a clear memory of my first day of school at HANC (Hebrew Academy of Nassau County) in 1967. Approaching the half-flight staircase up to my first grade classroom in HANC’s split level building (building and stairs still there in West Hempstead!), I was greeted by a kindly man, a 40-ish Rabbi Meyer Fendel, the founder and principal, who, with a warm and gentle smile, wished me a good first day at school. This memorable interaction turned out to be an introductory step to a lifelong relationship with this chinuch giant and his family that I continue to cherish. Fast forward 47 years. I conferred with Rabbi Fendel as recently as this past summer on how to approach a challenging life situation. His guidance was spot-on and useful, and I found myself equally open to accept it. Why? Because not only did I respect the rabbi’s qualifications as a rabbi and wise man, but I also knew that he really knew me, cared deeply about me and understood the context of my situation in depth. Obviously, not every rabbi is a Rabbi Fendel, and there were clearly other factors that enabled me to maintain my connection with him. But this nostalgic divergence illustrates that a long term relationship is possible and the rewards immeasurable.

Tweaking the Messaging – The yeshiva system’s messaging is clearly ‘up’ on learning and, if only by inference, ‘down’ on working (notwithstanding statements that there’s nothing wrong with it). I don’t think yeshiva leaders would deny, or even want to deny, this view. Fueled by the holy passion of Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, yeshiva leadership has done an unimaginably impressive job of firmly implanting Torah’s primacy as a core value into an American Orthodox community, for whom such concepts were once foreign and even unwelcome.

Alas, for the majority of the yeshiva system’s subjects, who do not stay in learning, an unfortunate side effect of this message is a feeling of never quite measuring up. I have confirmed with friends on the right end of the yeshivish spectrum that this is their feeling, though one was quick to add that he sees movement away from the “learning for everyone” approach. Another observer pointed out that, while the anti-work messaging today is not as strong as it was twenty years ago, there still is an inherent inconsistency between the yeshivas’ messaging to baalei batim and the message directed toward and about their sons. “It’s OK that you are working, but surely you want what is ‘best’ for your son.” The message is that since you want better for your child than you yourself could achieve, you should groom him to be a full-time learner.

If the communal goal is to adopt a culture in which each person’s role has equal beauty to HKB”H, our messaging would have to change from early in the educational process. Mechanchim would need to refrain from sending signals that life in the working world is necessarily spiritually diminished. Schools would need to resolve, in their hearts, that it is noble and lechatchila to be a frum baal habayis, and the messaging imparted to their students would have to be consistent in reflecting this view.

As it would be silly for me to expect that the yeshivas transmit a message that they do not actually believe, my associated request to yeshiva leadership is to consider whether they really do not believe in the message, at least for most talmidim, and whether the strong anti-work messages are there to ensure the standard is not diluted.

Here are some quick thoughts of how schools could update their messaging:

  • A rebbi, giving an example of a job his student might someday have, would no longer shy away from saying. “So one day, when Yankel is a lawyer…”
  • The school would have a career day and have fathers come in and describe what they do for a living. They might even discuss head-on how they navigate the challenges of avodas hashem while succeeding at a job.
  • Rabbeim in yeshiva would have open discussions with their students on career options, obviating the need for students to go elsewhere for these discussions, for fear that all he will hear from his rebbi is “don’t leave yeshiva.”

I am sure that schools could each come up with their unique manner of conveying that it is a fine alternative for a ben Torah to be a baal habayis.

Acknowledging the Yeshiva System’s New Role

Why should the yeshiva system dial down its passion for Torah? After all, Torah is what they do. Medical schools are all about medicine, law schools about law and culinary schools are obsessed with the perfect crépe.

Well, perhaps contemporary American yeshivas are actually not only about limud Torah; perhaps in today’s America, where nearly every bochur from a frum family attends yeshiva, the yeshiva is actually a preparatory staging ground for being a frum adult in America, regardless of one’s long term career.

In Europe, the yeshiva system was designed to transform high-potential talmidim into gedolei Yisrael, just as medical schools, lehavdil, measure their success by how well they train their students to become excellent doctors. But does today’s yeshiva honestly anticipate that all frum young men will spend their lives in kollel? Yeshivos must rethink their role regarding these segments of the student body, and update their curriculum to include practical life training. Corporations have learned to segment their customers by taking a hard look at the nature and needs of the customers being served and defining corresponding archetypes, each with its own personality, needs, style and buying patterns. This insight allows companies to serve each respective segment appropriately.

In recognition of the broad spectrum of talmidim, yeshivas should offer workshops on the mission of the baal habayis, how to define success, how to set time priorities, and so on. No doubt, the historical culture of the yeshivas and their leadership, and the traditional single-minded commitment to producing Torah giants, makes the introduction of such dramatic alterations extremely challenging. Moreover, there is certainly a legitimate concern that endorsing alternatives to the all-encompassing value of Torah lishma, if even only for some, threatens to compromise the commitment to Torah study of those who should be the future Torah leadership. These are surely valid points, and I identify with them.

But, can Torah really be built on the shattered idealism of those who do not properly belong in long-term Torah study? The same Torah giants who embrace and preserve Torah surely are equally committed to introducing methods by which the greater portion of the Torah community can grow in their holy role in Klal Yisroel. Perhaps we need different types of yeshivas, each with a curriculum that matches its student body, or perhaps each institution should have separate tracks. We can, and should, maintain the “Toraso Umanuso” (Torah as a profession) type yeshivos, but they should not be the only, or even dominant, style considered le’chatchila (first choice). Perception is key to the success of this idea.


We live in a very special time. In some ways, we face unprecedented challenges, but in others we enjoy unprecedented opportunities. We have a burgeoning community of bnai Torah who are full time Torah students, and an ever increasing community of bnai Torah baalei batim. Each has its own challenges, and each needs chizuk (strengthening) and hadracha (guidance).

I humbly observe, however, that whether or not the ever growing community of yeshiva graduate baalei batim remain loyal to the values and aspirations that they embraced before leaving yeshiva will depend upon how they view their rebbeim in retrospect. Did they prove to be life-long mentors or does it seem they were really only interested in those who would remain in full-time learning?

If they can come away from yeshiva with a vision of avodas Hashem that is naturally applicable to them throughout their lives, they will surely continue to build on their years of yeshiva throughout their lives, becoming a true source of strength for their families and communities far into the future.


Aaron Berger attended the Shaalvim, Ner Israel and Mir Yeshivos, works in IT strategy for EMC Corporation, and lives in Passaic, NJ with his baalas bayis and children.

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