Question: What should a student do if he sees his rebbe muvhak at the mikvah?
Short Answer: While a student should not go together with his rebbe to a mikvah where people walk around fully unclothed, if the student is already at the mikvah when his rebbe muvhak enters, many poskim allow the student to remain in the mikvah.
I. The Source
The Gemara (P’sachim 51a) states that a student may not wash together with his rebbe. The only exception is where the rebbe needs the student’s help (i.e. the rebbe is elderly).
The Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:6) codifies this halachah in the Gemara but only lists that it is forbidden for the student to “enter into the bathhouse” together with his rebbe. The Rambam does not list the leniency for where the rebbe needs the student’s help. The Kesef Mishneh (ibid), however, explains that the Rambam certainly agrees that the student is permitted to enter the bathhouse together with his rebbe where the rebbe needs the student’s help. The Rambam does not say this expressly, as the Rambam previously ruled that a rebbe may waive any “right” of kavod, and the student helping the rebbe is simply an application of such waiver.
Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 242:16) rules that a student may not enter a bathhouse together with his rebbe, unless the rebbe needs the student’s help.
II. Who Is There First?
But what about when the student is already in the bathhouse or mikvah and then the rebbe enters?
The Rama (Yoreh Dei’ah 242:16) adds a few leniencies. First, if the student is already in the bathhouse or mikvah and then the rebbe enters, the student need not leave. Second, the entire prohibition is only where the custom is to walk around fully unclothed in the bathhouse or mikvah. Third, the clear minhag nowadays is to enter the bathhouse or mikvah with your rebbe (or father or other relative), presumably because people are partially clothed there.
It thus appears clear that the Rama does not require a student to leave a bathhouse or mikvah when his rebbe subsequently enters.
The Shach (31) disagrees. He notes that the basis of the Rama is the opinion of the Mahari Veil, who relies upon the ruling of the Mordechai, permitting a Jew to remain in a bathhouse after an akum enters, since the Jew was there first. However, the Shach distinguishes between the case of the Mordechai, where the Jew is permitted to remain because the akum was “ba bigvuli” (entered into the Jew’s area) and may thus not forbid the area to the Jew. Here, however, by the rebbe, no such leniency exists. The student may not claim that he is permitted to remain because the rebbe entered his area, as, regardless, the student must honor the rebbe.
The Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh Dei’ah 242:42) defends the Rama. It is not a lack of kavod for the student to remain in the bathhouse or mikvah after his rebbe enters, as the student was not the “goreim,” the cause of the discomfort to the rebbe. It was the rebbe who caused the lack of kavod to himself by entering the bathhouse and mikvah with his student.
The Aruch HaShulchan (ibid) explains why the custom is not to be careful about this halachah nowadays, even though people are totally unclothed in our mikva’os. Because our mikva’os contain separate rooms, the student won’t come to view his rebbe unclothed. However, the Aruch HaShulchan concludes that, ideally, we should be machmir in such a halachah that is listed in the Gemara, and which may apply even if the student doesn’t actually see his rebbe unclothed.
The Minchas Yitzchak (4:62) likewise addresses why the custom is not to be careful about this halachah nowadays. He suggests that perhaps people rely on the debunked opinion cited in the Mordechai that there is a distinction between large and small bathhouses. In other words, the prohibition does not apply in public, large bathhouses. The Minchas Yitzchak vehemently disagrees with this debunked leniency, as it was rejected by all the poskim. The only potential valid leniency is that of the Rama, that people are generally partially clothed in the mikvah. Indeed, immersion in the water may constitute being “clothed” for this issue. Nevertheless, the Minchas Yitzchak concludes that it is preferable to be machmir. See Toras Chacham (Vol. 2, p. 879).
Notably, the Kinyan Torah (2:34) does appear to rely on this distinction between large and small bathhouses. See also Avnei Derech (10:111).
Next Week’s Topic: When a rebbe causes financial loss to a student, may the student sue the rebbe for damages?