Laws & Stringencies (Halachot & Chumrot)

February 7, 2012

Over the years it has become fashionable in certain circles to become stricter and stricter in the application of the Halacha (Jewish Law).

I have tried to understand why this should be. In the Diaspora perhaps it was fuelled by the high rate of assimilation and out-marriage. In Israel the religious community is under siege. Attacked on all sides from a secular majority that is fearful that they will not be the majority for much longer. Democracy only works when they are the majority. The recently retired president of the Israeli High Court strongly opposed the appointment of one religious judge to the bench of nine judges – six of whom were left-wing anti-religious “liberals”. Over recent years they have been acting as an unelected second chamber whose purpose was to overturn every decision of the Knesset with which they did not agree!

In such an atmosphere, of a State for “Jews” rather than a Jewish State, one can understand why many of the religious are building walls rather than bridges.

But it was not always so.

The Talmud (Beitzah 2b) clearly states: “Ko’ach deHetera adif” the power of the person who permits is preferable.
To which Rashi in his running commentary on the Talmud explains why this should be. “It is preferable to teach us the power of the one who permits because he relies on his learning (and power of reasoning) and is not frightened to permit, whereas the power of the person who forbids is no proof (of learning or logic) for everybody can forbid even something that is permitted.

In Jewish Law, it is easier to say no than yes.

My illustrious teacher, the Rosh Yeshiva of Maalei Adumim, when he taught us this gemorrah (in London in 1979) added his own novel explanation as to why the rabbi who permits is superior to the rabbi who forbids.

The rabbi who forbids gains one benefit/reward. He applies the Din (law). For that he gets a reward in the World to come.
But the rabbi who can permit gets two benefits/rewards. He gets the reward in the World to come for applying the Din. But he also gets the benefit in this world from the thing that he has permitted.

Of course no rabbi can or may permit that which is forbidden.

Those of you who remember by blog from last week will remember the quote from Hullin;

Said Mar Ukva, in this matter (of waiting after meat to eat cheese or drink milk) I am like vinegar/sour wine compared to my father (who was like a good vintage wine!) If my father are meat today he wouldn’t eat cheese until the same time tomorrow (24 hours later) whereas I wouldn’t eat cheese after meat in the same meal but I wait until the next meal.

The question arises. Why didn’t Mar Ukva act like his father? Especially in the light of the verse: Listen my son to the instruction of your father, and do not turn aside from the teaching of your mother.

The Baalei Mussar (ethicists) explain. Mar Ukva’s father was acting strictly. Far beyond that which the Torah demands. That was ok for him as a personal choice. He was on that level. However, it is not for everybody. Not even his own son! Yes, everybody has to keep all the basic laws of the Torah. But a person has to know themselves and not try to fool themselves by acting in a way that really doesn’t suit them or serve any real purpose. Mar Ukva realised that much as he admired his father’s stricture, it was not for him.

The Or Hahayyim says the same thing on the famous first verse of the “Sedra “bechukotie” (Numbers 26:3)

“If you walk in my statutes and guard my commandments and keep them”

The Or Hahayyim wrote 42 explanations to this verse. How and why this came about is a great story in itself. Perhaps for another blog.

But he explains. Once you observe all the mitzvot i.e. the basic laws of the Torah, then, and only then can you start guarding them; that is to say by adding fences and strictures around the laws.

We find the same attitude from the Chida (Rabbi Chayyim David Azulai, born Jerusalem 1724) in his Laws of Pesach:

“Whoever wants to be strict, let him be strict on himself, within his own four walls, but not on the public”

It needs little explanation. The Chida isn’t against a person being strict on themselves but it shouldn’t be made public policy even for Passover!

Finally, I remember my own beloved teacher of Halacha , Rabbi Moshe Turetsky, of blessed memory, who taught the Shulchan Arukh daily. He said that people get the impression that the Shulchan Arukh is a strict code of law. But the more you study it the more that you see that this isn’t so page by page.

One day when we had finished a section and didn’t have enough time to start another, not to waste time he decided to test our powers of deduction and sharpen our minds.  He posed the following problem.

Is everything permitted except that which the Torah forbade? Or is everything forbidden except that which the Torah permitted. What would be the practical difference if any…

It was very late on a Thursday morning but I came up with a solution. If you found a new fruit in the amazon jungle that had never been eaten before would it be permitted? Only if hypothesis one was correct.
The discussion went round the table but our Rebbe seemed to like my hypothetical case. He also concluded that everything is permitted (in moderation of course!) except that which the Torah forbade. That is the default position and world-view of the Torah and so should be of it’s scholars and practitioners.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Meir Wise

Visiting London


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