Rabbi Reuvain Mendlowitz clarifies his position on Ksav Chabad (and my final thoughts)

Last week I posted some thoughts in response to a public lecture given by Rabbi Reuvain Mendlowitz regarding  Ksav Chabad (the Alter Rebbe's ksav). I felt he did not represent the issue fairly, and since I had received questions about it from a number of people I felt it made sense to write a general response.

After I posted my response on this forum, Rabbi Mendlowitz reached out to me by email and we ended up having a respectful and productive email exchange regarding the relevant issues surrounding Ksav Chabad. His position is a lot clearer to me now, and I think he also took certain things on board that I clarified with him.

The purpose of the Stam Forum (at least back in it's heyday before all the whats app groups took over)  was to connect sofrim from around the world, to promote achdus and build bridges, as well as to offer support and advice. In that spirit, I felt  I should write a follow up post, to clarify some of the issues and misconceptions. Rabbi Mendlowitz is not a member of this forum but he was happy for me to clarify his position, as well as for me to relay some of my further thoughts on the issue.

Firstly, Rabbi Mendelowitz was quick to admit that in the lecture he gave at YU he did not use the right choice of words and the manner in which he expressed his opinion was "less than ideal".

He readily told me several times that he believes that when Ksav Chabad is "written properly",  by a sofer mumche (expert), it is one hundred percent kosher and mehudar. Not only for Chabad, but for everyone. (Obviously a Litvak who takes Beis Yosef and a Sephardi who takes Velish would want to follow their own minhag, but for anyone who normally uses Arizal (Chassidim and Nusach S'fard)  it would be just as good as a mehudar Arizal.)

"Written properly" means the way it is indeed supposed to be written,  according to the tzuros haosiyos that Chabad use as their template, namely the parshiyos of Reb Reuven, the sofer of the  Alter Rebbe. Most, if not all sofrim attempting to write Ksav Chabad today use that template, and while everyone tries to write it to be as close to the original as possible, not everyone is completely successful. As discussed in my original article, it is an extremely technical and difficult ksav to write , much more complex than any other written today. Consequently, if a sofer is not a mumche,  he can certainly write in a way that detracts from both hiddur and kashrus (this is well accepted in Chabad).

So it is not the "etzem ksav" itself that Rabbi Mendelowitz was objecting, but rather the fact that it may be written poorly, by novices and less expert sofrim. This fact was not clear, at least to me, from the audio that I heard.

Furthermore, Rabbi Mendlowitz also told me several times that, when written properly "the ksav is more beautiful than any other ksav" and that he "loves it". 

So I really can't say that I disagree with him on any of the above. As a matter of fact I agree with him completely so far.

Another point that we discussed was this idea of something being kosher for Chabad, but not for anyone else. As explained in my original article, Chabad sofrim have to follow the same halachos as all sofrim do. There may be a slight variation between Mishnah Berurah and Shulchan Aruch Harav with regards to certain halachic nuances, but 98% of the laws are the same. The Keses Hasofer is universally learned and accepted by all sofrim, it doesn't matter if you are Chabad or Litvish.

The fact remains that if there is a beis that looks like a chof, or any other letter that has a shinoy tzurah (change from it's kosher form) it would be a problem for Chabad the same way it is for everyone else. Chabad does not have a strange mesorah that allows letters to be written lechatchillah in a problematic way. It is clear to me, after our discussions, that Rabbi Mendlowits does not think that this is the case either. 

So where do we disagree? In actual fact we do not disagree with anything theoretically, or halachically. Only practically.

Rabbi Mendlowitz believes that, in his experience,  the majority of sofrim out there trying to write Alter Rebbe / Ksav Chabad are not skilled or mumche enough to write it properly. The reason for this is  because the ksav lends itself to problems due to its complexity and ornateness,  and this is why he has developed such a negative opinion (in my view, extreme opinion) with regards to Ksav Chabad.

On this, I have to disagree with him emphatically. I believe that many write it beautifully, most write it well, and some can have problems. (This is true with any ksav). 

If the majority of sofrim were writing the ksav in a problematic manner, it would not have a Chezkas Kashrus. Not in Chabad, not anywhere. It would have been deemed a michshal and long ago been stopped. Many top rabbonim in the Stam world, (including those of the Vaad Mishmeres Stam) regularly give kaballah (ordination) to Chabad sofrim writing this ksav. If they felt it did not have a Cheskas Kashrus, there would be no way they would be doing this, as they would be contributing to this michshal. For that matter, neither would any Chabad rabbanim. Why would they want to expose their own kehillos to such problems? It would simply be relegated as too difficult, too problematic and would have lost favour many years ago.

I  have been around the Stam world for over 20 years and never heard a posek of note take such an extreme position.  Even now, when trying to understand Rabbi Mendlowitz's position, I contacted some of the big guns (including rabannim of the Vaad) as well as some non Chassidic poskim I know. No one else said they felt this was this was the case. I sincerely feel that Rabbi Mendelowitz is a daas yochid on this.

Again, it is not to say that there isn't poorly written ksav Chabad out there. It happens. Every ksav has "the good, the bad and the ugly". We have even posted some examples of problematically written Ksav Chabad on this forum. I am in no way pretending that it does not exist. Many Chabad consumers are aware of and follow the golden rule of the Alter Rebbe's ksav: Only buy it if it is written by an expert and is of good quality. Otherwise, stick with Arizal. Some sofrim have unfortunately caused damage to the reputation of the ksav and this is indeed unfortunate.

But these are dwarfed by the majority who are very good at what they do. Usually, only a sofer who has mastered writing a high level Arizal and shown a lot of talent and skill will move on to the more difficult Ksav Chabad. It is an elite, boutique ksav, even within Chabad.  Over the last 40 or so years, as the ksav has become more popular and commonplace,  many, many Chabad sofrim have mastered it to a level which is indeed highly admirable. We know who they are are. Chabad is not that big. There are probably only a few hundred established sofrim today who write the Alter Rebbe's ksav commercially. Most of them are in Israel . Those in the industry are always looking for a new name, a new ksav.  I personally have close to 100 highly sought after names and samples in my database, an accumulation of 20 years. 

Rabbi Mendelowitz says he only knows of two sofrim that write Ksav Chabad nicely. Both live on his street or in his neighborhood (he does not live in a Chabad neighborhood). I tried to impress on him the fact that just as he has two excellent Chabad sofrim living nearby -  there are bigger, more established Chabad neighborhoods that have ten or twenty times that amount. Not to mention dozens outside of Israel, such as in New York and even in Europe. Many established Chabad families are connected to a reputable sofer that they swear by, and they manage to find good schorah when they need it. 

I don't expect Rabbi Medelowitz to be too familiar with the ksav Chabad scene. He readily admits in our email exchanges that his experience of Ksav Chabad is rather limited, and "his exposure to the ksav is dwarfed by mine".  The fact that he is a Litvisher sofer, magiha and posek would mean that he does not have mainstream Chabad anash bringing him their Stam to check. I am not trying to be presumptuous, I am just stating that, by his own admission, this is the reality.

I know that Rabbi Mendlowitz merited to spend many years doing shimush with Rav Mordechai Freidlander, and in that time he saw examples of poorly written Ksav Chabad that came in for shailos. Yet one should remember that the silent majority of beautifully and expertly written ksav does not end up with many shailos. They are few and far between. On the other hand, poorly written ksav may constantly present with shailos, giving it disproportionate exposure and a skewered perception of the reality.

Furthermore, Rabbi Mendelowitz conveyed to me that most of what he has personally seen in Ksav Chabad  (being that he does not directly serve Chabad clients) are random, sporadic Chabad items such as  "Gemach tefillin" and "very often brought by Baalei Teshuva who became frum through Chabad and subsequently find themselves part of other communities". (He also said that sometimes that are brought in by people who are not Chabad and  don't even know that they have Ksav Chabad.)

Now I mean no disrespect but I know from my own experience that many new Baalei Teshuvah will shop online or at any random Judaica store and ask for "Chabad" tefilllin, without realising that if they want proper  Ksav Chabad, they should not be buying it from a random retailer but from a source that is able to procure good Ksav Chabad. This will also likely be a lot more expensive, and many new Baalei Teshuvah are students, with limited budgets. It is for these reasons that there is a good chance that they will end up with an inferior product. 

So too with "Gemach" tefillin (or mezuzos), I know know that gemach tefillin are usually comprised of  lower grade parshiyos (not the cream of the crop) , the type of thing nobody wants and not worth much money. If gemach tefillin (or mezuzos) happened to be written in Ksav Chabad, one would hardly expect it to be too amazing. So too someone who "accidentally" ended up with Ksav Chabad: If one was purchasing it from a reliable source, they would know about it (at least from the price tag!).

I want to publicly acknowledge that at the time of my writing my initial article I felt Rabbi Medelowitz had an "overt bias" against ksav Chabad. While I still feel this is the case, I don't think it is malicious, but likely due to a disproportionate, limited and myopic view of the reality of the situation. (This could also explain his description of Ksav Chabad as "spidery",  a word I often use to describe messy, low quality ksav.) If he had mainstream Chabad people bringing him their mehudar Stam on a regular basis (in addition to the sporadic, largely low grade items he has been exposed to)  I have no doubt that his opinion would be completely different.

In conclusion I want to say that I firmly believe that Rabbi Mendlowitz is a rising star in the world of Stam. I wish him a huge amount of hatzlocha in his holy work of bringing hilchos Stam to people in a palatable and authentic manner through his books and lectures. Throughout our correspondence, we both kept saying that the common goal we all share is to help as many people as possible fulfill the special mitzvos of Stam in the best possible way.  Indeed, may this be Hashem's will.


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