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    Gedolim Pictures

    Many Jewish homes feature pictures of famous rabbis. Charedi newspapers and magazines, in particular, often have special sections for pictures of leading rabbis. Around thirty years ago, Gedolim cards–like baseball cards but with famous rabbis–were all the craze. Ten years ago, Gedolim sticker albums were a big thing for children. Reasons for these phenomena range from the mundane to the theological.

    I. Celebrity and Inspiration

    Some of this fascination with famous rabbis reflects secular society’s celebrity culture. Just like newspapers, television and the Internet offer endless coverage of sports, media, business celebrities and more, the Jewish community has its own celebrities who reflect Torah values. While I find the obsession bordering on unhealthy, for both the public and the rabbis, I also see it as reflecting positive values in contrast to those of secular celebrities.

    However, some of the preoccupation with celebrity rabbis emerges from a search for inspiration. The pictures of rabbis inspire us in our homes and schools. These rabbis represent Torah values that we wish to saturate our environment, to keep at the front of our minds. When a rabbi’s picture sits on our walls looking down on us, we hopefully think twice before speaking profanity or other forbidden words. Hanging up a rabbi’s picture in your living room creates a Jewish environment, enveloped with Torah.

    Some might find a source for this idea in Rashi’s explanation that Yosef refused Potiphar’a wife’s solicitation because he saw an image of his father rebuking him that if he sins, his name will not appear with his brothers on the priestly garments (Rashi, Gen. 39:11 from Sotah 36b). Just like the image of Yosef’s teacher, Ya’akov, inspired him to avoid sin, so too pictures of our rabbis and teachers save us. That may be true but this Rashi is not a clear source for the idea. Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky (Emes Le-Ya’akov, Gen. 39:11) emphasizes that Yosef drew inspiration from the image of his father. The role of a parent in religious training is sacred and must be preserved, therefore teachers should take care not to undermine parental respect among their students. If anything, this Rashi raises the importance of family pictures, not Gedolim pictures.

    II. Your Eyes Shall See

    A stronger source lies in the story of Rebbe (R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi) and his inspiration (Eruvin 13b). Rebbe said that the secret to his great success in learning was that he sat behind R. Meir in the study hall and saw him learn Torah. Rebbe added that had he seen R. Meir from the front, he would have reached even higher levels of Torah learning, as it says, “And your eyes shall see your teachers” (Isa. 30:12).

    According to this Gemara, there is a religious benefit to seeing your teachers. Does this advance the cause of Gedolim pictures? The Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 244:10) rules that we must all treat the greatest Torah scholars of the generation as if they are our teachers. Therefore, perhaps this Gemara tells us that we should hang pictures of our teachers and great Torah scholars. It depends on how we understand Rebbe’s intent.

    Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggados, ad loc.) explains that when you see someone teach, you understand him better than if you just hear him. Even seeing someone from behind, how his body and arms move, how his hand gestures, offers greater insight than just listening to a disembodied voice. If you see someone’s face, you gain additional insight from the facial cues. According to Maharsha, Rebbe was saying that he gained more from R. Meir’s teachings than most others because he saw the body language. However, if he had also seen the facial expressions, Rebbe would have understood R. Meir even more. Maharsha sees this story as a tale about teaching and learning. Strive for in-person interaction because you learn more that way. It has no relevance to the discussion of Gedolim pictures.

    However, Radbaz (Responsa, vol. 3 no. 472) sees in this Gemara a mystical lesson. In the context of a discussion about a breakaway synagogue, Radbaz emphasizes the spiritual and mental expansion that comes from calmness and support of seeing people you like and admire. You can learn better and pray better when you are with, and specifically see, people whom you admire. This mutual inspiration allows you to rise to greater spiritual levels. Radbaz associates this with the kabbalistic teachings he calls “sod ha-ibbur be-chayei sheneihem,” which seems to mean reincarnation while both are alive or soul connections of two living people. When you see your Torah teacher, your soul connects with his and you gain from his spiritual overflow. Your soul grows from this connection, and sometimes the overflow travels in both directions. Radbaz explains Rebbe’s enhanced learning from see R. Meir as a connection between their souls that allowed Rebbe to grow. Had Rebbe seen R. Meir’s face, their soul connection would have been even stronger, elevating Rebbe even more.

    III. Conclusion

    Do either of these explanations justify Gedolim pictures? According to Maharsha, seeing your Torah teacher allows you to better understand his lessons. This does not apply to an inanimate picture. According to Radbaz, seeing someone holy elevates your soul. Does this apply to a picture? I would assume that it does not, because a picture has no soul. However, I cannot claim insight into kabbalistic teachings so I leave this as a maybe. I do recall some rabbinic authorities objecting to picture taking on kabbalistic grounds. They would surely object to the phenomenon of Gedolim pictures.

    On the other hand, there is value in decorating your home with a Torah sensibility. If you find inspiration in Gedolim pictures, as many people do, then a judicious display of the people you admire most is highly appropriate. It remains questionable whether there is any halakhic or kabbalistic benefit but instead seems more a matter of taste.