Monthly Archives: June 2013

Some Thoughts on Commandedness

Today I started my last graduate class at BRGS on the philosophy of mitzvot.  This is a topic that I have heard Mori VeRabi Harav Aharon Lichtenstein Shlit”a speak about many times.  I was recently rereading a summary of a lecture he gave, translated by Rabbi Zeigler.  I just wanted to point out some passages which capture a few central themes.

Before I do – a note from the former Israeli Justice Minister, Haim Cohen:  When writing a book about human rights in Halacha, he correctly noted that “rights” are difficult to speak about in the context of the Torah.  Mitzvot are commandments – and Halacha is about duties, not rights.  While certain rights can be derived from those commandments (such as the “right to life,” which is derived from the prohibition of others to kill), the rights express themselves as responsibilities towards God which incidentally translate into the rights of individuals (i.e. I have a right to live because everyone else has a responsibility to God to not kill me.)  Obligations are the operative categories.  Continue reading Some Thoughts on Commandedness

Why a Siyum is a Simcha

In honor of the upcoming siyum daf yomi on Eruvin – a quick rundown of the sources for the minhag to celebrate the finishing of a מסכת.

The Gemara in Shabbos (118b-119a) quotes Abaye as saying that he would make a celebration for the rabbis when he saw a young scholar finish a masechta.  [There is a discussion in Rashi, Yam Shel Shlomo and Chavos Yair cited below why it was Abaye who made the celebration.]

  Continue reading Why a Siyum is a Simcha

Cheating, Lashon Hara, and Education

I came across a brief teshuvah by Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch about encouraging students to tattletale that takes on a famous teshuvah by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.  However, after close analysis, the two are not as far apart as Rabbi Shternbuch would have one believe.

First, a summary of Rabbi Shternbuch (Shut Teshuvos VeHanhagos 1:839):

If a teacher wants his students to tell on other students he must:

  1. Impress upon his students the gravity of the prohibition of lashon hara – gossip.
  2. When there is a benefit, what Chafetz Chaim calls lashon hara litoelet, it is not prohibited.
  3. Furthermore, explain that when “gossip” is for the benefit of the student, there is an obligation of the fellow students to tell the teacher so he can punish and educate the guilty student.  Continue reading Cheating, Lashon Hara, and Education

Why Poskim Must Poskan

A brief follow up to my post several days ago is in order.

Chazal reserved particularly harsh rhetoric for those who poskan when they are not worthy/sufficiently capable of issuing rulings.  The Gemara in Sotah (22a) lists many people who destroy the world.  One is a “child whose months are not completed.”

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף כב עמוד א

ת”ר: בתולה צליינית, ואלמנה שובבית, וקטן שלא כלו לו חדשיו – הרי אלו מבלי עולם…

The Gemara then offers two explanations of this phrase.  The first, is that it refers to a disciple who rebels against his teachers’ authority.  The second related possibility is that it refers to a disciple who is not qualified to poskan, but does anyways.

מאי קטן שלא כלו לו חדשיו? הכא תרגימו: זה ת”ח המבעט ברבותיו. רבי אבא אמר: זה תלמיד שלא הגיע להוראה ומורה

The Gemara then cites a statement that originated from Rav that provides the exegetical  – hook for this

דא”ר אבהו אמר רב הונא אמר רב, מאי דכתיב: +משלי ז+ כי רבים חללים הפילה ועצומים כל הרוגיה? כי רבים חללים הפילה – זה ת”ח שלא הגיע להוראה ומורה, ועצומים כל הרוגיה – זה ת”ח שהגיע להוראה ואינו מורה.

The following is a modified translation from Soncino:

What does the possuk mean when it says (Mishlei 7:26) “For she has cast down many wounded and all her slain are a mighty host?” ‘For she has cast down many wounded’ — this refers to a disciple who has not attained the qualification to decide questions of law and yet decides them; ‘all her slain are a mighty host’ — this refers to a disciple who has attained the qualification to decide questions of law and does not decide them.”
Continue reading Why Poskim Must Poskan

Who is a Posek

Rabbi Gil Student just published a wonderful piece summarizing different positions about the role of Rabbi.  One of the highlights of the piece was the Rav’s claim that a Rabbi’s job is much more than being a posek:

If the position of the Rav [community rabbi] were connected solely with halachah, Din Torah and the spreading of Torah knowledge, then the halachah that one may not appoint a leader without first consulting the community would not apply. Rabbinic appointment would in that case be in the category of the appointment of a Sanhedrin or a Judge, which is effected from above…

If, however, the Rabbinate finds expression in socio-political functions (care for general welfare, kindness, charity, representation and the like), then he is not only a Moreh Hora’ah and Dayyan but also a leader and his appointment requires the sanction of the community. It is unnecessary to stress that the history of the Rabbinate endorses the second definition. The Rav has never been only the Moreh Tzedek, but also the faithful shepherd of his flock…

What follows logically from this position is that just because someone is a shul Rabbi, and even a great shul rabbi, he may still not be a posek.  This point seems to have been lost in much of popular discourse, and the people inexcusably move from the claim that a Rabbi has roles that are more central than posek to the tacit assumption that if someone is a dynamic pastor, he is qualified to be a posek. Continue reading Who is a Posek

Not Naming a Boy Until the Bris Milah

At the Shalom Zachor of our son, one of my friends told a story about someone who invited everyone to the Bris of his son, with the name already in the announcement.  He footnoted the email with the comment that he knows of no source for the minhag to delay declaring the baby’s name until the Bris.  When one of friends became an uncle this week (Mazal Tov!), I was thinking about this question again – what is the source for the minhag?

As it turns out, the Tzitz Eliezer was asked this question, and he points out that the custom dates back over a thousand years to the period of the early Rishonim and even Geonim.  He cites R. Yaakov HaGozer, who was a mohel in the early thirteenth century who explains that any name given before the Bris Milah will be an impure name of the uncircumcised, so you want his name to be different after the Bris Milah.  The source cited is Avraham who changed his name from Avram after his Milah.  [Calling Avraham by his original name may be a violation of an Aseh – see the Magen Avraham Orach Chaim 156 and other commentaries there who discuss this lihalacha.]  He similarly cites the Siddur of ר”ש מגרמייזא , the Rebbe of Rashi who says that same.  He cites several other sources, and then adds some kabbalistic ones at the end.  The Tzitz Eliezer does not cite the Ibn Ezra in Shemos 4 who seems to cite the same custom from Shemuel b. Chofni (one of the Geonim, father in law of R. Hai Geon), though I’m not entirely sure where the quote starts and ends, so it could be Ibn Ezra talking, though I don’t think so. Continue reading Not Naming a Boy Until the Bris Milah

Teaching Me Something! But I’m Too Tired…

Sometimes you just have days where too many things are going on and you can’t concentrate.  In those moments, learning something complicated just seems impossible.  Trying to pull everything together on the verge of a move across the ocean has made it difficult to do what I should be doing today – reviewing basar bichalav and taarovos.   Luckily, the Gemara has some insight in how one can learn even under those trying circumstances. 

The Gemara in Taanis 7a records that R. Yirmiah once asked R. Zeira to teach him some Torah.  He responded that he wasn’t up to it.  In response, R. Yirmiah told him to teach him some Aggadata.  In other words, it is understandable to be exhausted, but not all of Torah is equally complex.  Just because one is not up to learning Yevamos doesn’t mean they can’t go through the Parsha.   On the one hand, that means that there is no excuse to not learn at all.  I know many Talmidei Chachamim who have relegated the lighter but crucial things they learn to when they are exhausted late at night.  This way, they reserve their focus for the parts of Torah that require the most energy, but set aside time for other things as well.  On the other hand, as one of Rebbeim in high school pointed out, one can be taken to task for learning something light when he or she could have been learning something more taxing.  His proof was the Gemara in Megillah 3a which says that one should be mevatel Torah to hear the Megillah.  Even if Krias HaMegillah is considered more of a public ritual reading than public study, there is surely a kiyum Talmud Torah for learning Tanach.  [Though as Rabbi Menachem Leibtag once quipped, in the age of Torah UMadda, it would seem the only thing that is bittul Torah is learning Tanach.]   As Rashi points out in the beginning of Bechukosai, guarding Hashem’s statutes requires ameilus baTorah – toiling, and it is the type of study that requires effort that is most rarefied. 

Recognizing the different amounts of effort required for various parts of Torah thus implies a dual obligation – to learn even when we may be drained, but making sure to have at least some time where we are not just learning, but we are sweating and toiling.  On that note, back to Yoreh Deah. 



The Unique Character of Shabbos Rosh Chodesh

By Alexander Tsykin

The Gemara in Berachos 49b rules that if you forget to say ya’aleh veyavo in benching on Rosh Chodesh, you need not repeat benching. The Rashba comments that this only applies on a regular Rosh Chodesh, but if Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbos you will have to repeat benching, even if you only forgot ya’aleh veyavo but not retzeih.

חידושי הרשב”א מסכת ברכות דף מט עמוד ב

והילכך ראש חדש שחל להיות בשבת כיון דעל כרחיה אכיל אפי’ טעה בשל ראש חדש בברכת המזון מחזירין אותו לראש הברכה דהיינו לנחמה, ואין צריך לומר בשלא פתח הטוב והמטיב שאומר ברוך שנתן, ואפי’ בכל ראשי חדשים נמי אומר ברוך שנתן.

While most Rishonim disagree with the Rashba, and his position is not accepted by Tur or Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 424), I think the theory behind his opinion may have resonance in our practice. Continue reading The Unique Character of Shabbos Rosh Chodesh

The Bar Ilan Responsa Project and Rebbeim

A friend of mine asked my several years ago what the role of tools like the Bar Ilan Responsa Project had on the role of poskim.  With unprecedented access to (searchable) classical sources through Bar Ilan, Otzar HaChochmah, Hebrew Books, as well as countless summary works, articles, and shiurim that are easily accessible, the classic role of Rebbe and posek has doubtless changed.

The truth is that this question has been dealt with many times by poskim, as these changes are not more drastic in nature than those that happened after the advent of printed books.  The Lechem Mishnah (Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:4) is often cited as saying that the prohibition of moreh halacha bifnei rabbo is no longer in effect as we learn most of our Torah from sefarim.  In truth, this position long precedes the Lechem Mishnah.  It is cited in the Semak MiTzurich (Mitzvah 111) citing the Ri.[1]  (The Semak MiTzurich is not to be confused with the Semak.  The Semak refers to the Sefer Mitzvot Ketanot written by Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yosef of Corbeil, who lived at the end of the thirteenth century in France.  The Semak MiTzurich was written by Rabbi Moshe who lived in the middle of the fourteenth century in Zurich.  The Semak MiTzurich is a commentary on the Semak  See Baalei HaTosafot by Efarim Urbach, Vol. 2, pages 574-5.) Continue reading The Bar Ilan Responsa Project and Rebbeim

A Different Model of Answering Halachic Questions

As many people know, I have an obsession with teshuvot, or responsa literature.  As opposed to Halachic codes which deal primarily with Halachic theory, teshuvot force the meshiv to apply and adapt the theory to the reality in front of him.  Rabbi Aaron Ross, on his blog “Learning Teshuvot”,[1] quotes Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet as saying “”There is no life without responsa literature, and there is no responsa literature without life.”

That being said, most teshuvot attempt to answer the question posed to the meshiv.  The shoel does not have the requisite knowledge or halachic insight, so he or she seeks the posek to provide guidance.  The posek normally provides a clear answer.  Admittedly, a good posek will do much more than that, and will use rhetorical and pastoral devices to accomplish other goals, such as calming the meshiv down, making them more comfortable with the psak, etc.  Rabbi Moshe Feinstein claims that his teshuvot are not meant to be universally binding, but rather as guides for other morei horaah, who can examine his teshuvot, assess his arguments, and accept them if they choose.  However, he does at least provide an opinion, and even the latitude he does give is for poskim, not laymen. Continue reading A Different Model of Answering Halachic Questions