Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Sliding Scale of Rabbinic Authority (Halachic Methodology 21)

This week I actually touched on some issues that I have discussed on this blog before.  I spoke about varying levels of authority within Halacha and shared some suggestions about how classic models might have been affected in the moment we live in.  Shiur and sources available: here.

Classically, there are three issues that determine whether someone is allowed to issue a psak on a certain issue.  The first is the intrinsic capabilities of a posek, highlighted by Chazal’s warning that those who are not qualified to poskan cannot and those who can poskan must.  The second is the extraneous factors that may limit someone’s ability to poskan, such as proximity to one’s rebbe.  This is also seen in the limitations of setting up a Yeshiva or giving smicha when one’s rebbe is in the vicinity.  The third is the nature of the issue being ruled on and whether it is defined as a psak (usually requiring a novelty) or simply a case of spit back.  Issues which are explicit in poskim are not defined as psak, and one may prevent an issur from being violated regardless of whether one’s rebbe is around.  Continue reading The Sliding Scale of Rabbinic Authority (Halachic Methodology 21)

(Not) Drinking on Purim: A Test Case on the Role of Narrative and History in Psak (Halachic Methodology 20)

My last shiur was both a pre-Purim shiur and a test case in two methodological issues in psak.  It is available here.  We discussed the issue of drinking on Purim.

Without rehashing the entire sugya, as any basic summary will provide the range of positions, I want to make two points.

First, this sugya is a great example of the role that narrative in the Gemara can have in psak (an issue also touched on in a recent shiur by Rabbi J. J. Schachter available.)  As is well known, after the ruling of Rava in the Gemara that מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי, the Gemara then tells the story of when Rava/Rabbah killed R. Zeira in his drunkenness and subsequently resurrected him.  The next year, when he invited R. Zeira to his meal, he was turned down.  R. Zeira declared that “not every year a miracle occurs.” A three way dispute then follows in poskim what the role of this story is on the psak.  Rabbenu Efraim is cited by many Rishonim as ruling that this story shows that we reject the obligation to get drunk on Purim as it can lead to horrible things.  The Eshkol in the questionable Aurbach edition, as well as the Pri Chadash note that one can derive the opposite – if the halacha was indeed rejected, then R. Zeira would not have had reason to fear the following year.  The fact that he did fear meant they were going to get drunk again.  Of course, one could simply respond that Rava never changed his halachic position but R. Zeira indicates that the consensus view opposed him.  [Note that while the Pri Chadash believes that the story supports the position that one should get drunk, because of the terrible things that happen when people get drunk, he rules in accordance with R. Efraim anyways.]  The third possibility is that the story modifies the original ruling – that one should drink but not get that drunk.  Continue reading (Not) Drinking on Purim: A Test Case on the Role of Narrative and History in Psak (Halachic Methodology 20)

Akirat Davar Min HaTorah 2 (Halachic Methodology 19)

This is the second shiur on this topic and it is available here. As I mentioned in my last post on this topic (here), what makes the cases in which akirat davar min haTorah, and to a lesser extent pesikat halacha beshaat hadechak (here), is that they assume the result they need.  In the former case, even if it is against Halacha, the Beit Din/Posek or navi decides that it must be done so he temporarily suspends the law.  In the latter, the posek tries to remain within the bounds of interpretation, but allows for leeway than he normally would have.

Due to this similarity, when the notion of akirat davar min haTorah or its cognate, eit laasot la-Hashem heferu toratecha, is used in poskim, it is often unclear whether it is being used seriously or as rhetoric.  In other words, is the posek really relying on it, or he just making the point that in this case he has assumed his conclusion but is really relying on more tenuous legal arguments, and explaining why it was legitimate to treat this case as a shaat hadechak.  This is made more difficult because poskim often want to shy away from actually relying on akirat davar min haTorah by itself, as in the wrong hands it is disastrous.  You don’t want any rabbi to be able to decide the Torah shouldn’t, and therefore doesn’t apply when he wants to.  With these thoughts in mind, I discussed three cases when poskim use this mechanism in the twentieth century.

The first related to the issur of taking money to learn or teach Torah.  The Rambam famously opposed this strongly (Avot 4:5, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10-11).  The Kesef Mishna takes every one of the Rambam’s many proofs and attempts to refute them.  When he finishes, he writes that even if the Rambam were right, we have no choice – eit laasot la-Hashem.  If we didn’t allow teachers of Torah to take money for teaching, Torah would have been forgotten (alluding to the Gemara’s dispensation for writing down the Oral Torah).  This psak is recorded as one opinion in Shulchan Aruch, and is accepted by the Nosei Kelim (see Shach, for example).

R. Moshe Feinstein takes this farther.  He asserts that the basic argument remains true – if we did not allow people to take money to learn and teach Torah, Torah would be forgotten.  No one, he asserts, can both pursue Torah and a full-time profession.  He argues that anyone who claims they are being righteous and trying to be machmir like the Rambam is following his yetzer hara and just wants to be mevatel Torah.  His language is harsh, but the reason is obvious.  He thinks the assessment of reality, that it is necessary, remains true – therefore, he cannot allow for people to think that is room for another legal position.  Whether his assessment of reality was correct or remains correct is not my issue.  In the Kesef Mishna, Shach, and R. Moshe, you see the points I made above – a mixing of interpretation and eit laasot –making it unclear whether we are really relying on normal rules of law or not, a conviction that the result can only go in one direction, and an explanation of why the reality requires this psak.

The same can be seen in R. Ovadiah Yosef’s heter to marry Karaites.  This position I already mentioned in my shiur about Chilul Hashem in psak (here).  He cites Besamim Rosh (who he acknowledges is likely a forgery) as saying that would be worth uprooting the Torah rather than cause the Chillul Hashem of pushing away those who have lived and died as Jews.  However, here too, I’m not sure this is more than rhetoric. Both the Besamim Rosh and R. Ovadiah have other reasons to be matir – they just assert that even if it wouldn’t be mutar, they would have to prevent the Chillul Hashem that would have been caused by forbidding it.

The third example is the Sridei Esh’s permission for co-ed programming and his leniency for Kol Isha.  This teshuvah is often cited as a straight heter, but if you read it, you will see that on a pure Halachic level he is very uncomfortable with the heterim.  He does not accept the notion that “two voices cannot be heard” and the notion that shirei kodesh are mutar.  However, he is lenient for youth movements who asked him.  He writes at length about the dangers of assimilation and how the German rabbanim who were lenient in these areas managed to keep the youth frum, while the Hungarian rabbis who were machmir could not.  Thus, as the results prove the efficacy of the German method, their methods must be followed.  He accuses those who are machmir of not understanding the reality and how to deal with it.  He relies therefore on  eit laasot (and the authority of the German rabbis).   However, at the end, he notes the danger of using eit laasot, and backtracks, claiming that one can put together a heter without it.  However, the teshuvah purposely goes back and forth between the legal arguments and the eit laasot/sociological ones making it hard to determine which really drives the teshuvah.  What is clear is that he is convinced of his conclusion, no matter how he needs to get there.

I won’t get into too much detail – it is worth reading the teshuvot and seeing how poskim deal with difficult cases where they need a specific result, and how they mix interpretation and eit laasot, along with healthy rhetoric to create very powerful pieces.  In each case, also realize that if the reality were to change, so would their positions.  Thus, to apply the teshuvot, a posek would need to determine if the reality is the same.

And please – read the teshuvot, especially the Sridei Esh.  It is a masterpiece, whether you agree with him or not.

A Comment on Hefsed Merubeh and Paskening Based on Dreams

A few weeks ago, I discussed the issue of hefed merubeh  in psak (here), the dispensations that are allowed in order to prevent monetary loss.  I came across an interesting source, which while I had seen it before, I had not noticed its relevance to that context.  Tashbetz in one place discusses a case in which a dream encouraged him to rethink the permissibility of a food which he eventually accepted as prohibited for himself.  However, he did not impose this prohibition on others, because 1) other poskim had already ruled it was permitted and 2) therefore, he did not have the right to cause people monetary loss.  Thus, we see that monetary loss is a reason to allow reliance on an already issued kula (even if one questions its propriety to some extent).  This also may weigh in on our discussion earlier in the year about the ability of a posek to issue a chumra after someone else was already matir (here).  It may be that psak creates a status of heter that cannot be overturned, short of a gross mistake on behalf of the first posek.  Yet another factor that may have drove him is the conviction that people simply have a right to their money, and that is why dreams cannot force them to lose it.  This is basically the argument Tashbetz uses in another teshuvah.  There he argues that every dream is a safek whether it is to be believed or not.  Therefore, while in issurim we might be machmir, by monetary cases we will not overturn chazakot.   Below is the first teshuvah and a brief discussion of it from Simha Friedman’s article on Emunat Hakhamim, available: here.  The most relevant line was bolded by me.  Followed by that is the paragraph in the second teshuvah.  For further discussion of the issue of dreams in the Tashbetz and in general, see Yabia Omer 1 Orach Chaim 41-2.



שו”ת תשב”ץ חלק ב סימן קנט

ברש”ך לה”ר יוסף סעיד האל יעזרהו:

שאלת על ענין אומה [שנסרכ’] לדופן והית’ מכה בדופן ולפי הדין מותר’ אלא שהית’ הסרכא מתפשט’ חוץ למכה ובאמ’ שלפי דעת הגאונים ז”ל אסורה היא כמו שכתבת אבל בכאן הם נוהגין בו היתר ועוד הם מקילין בכאן שאפילו יש שם סי’ מכה כגון שניכר באחת הצלעו’ שנשבר’ וחזרה ונתקנה שהם מתירין אותה וכן נוהגין בספרד על פי הרא”ש ז”ל אבל הרשב”א ז”ל בתשוב’ הוא אוסר. ואומר לך מה שאירע לי לילה א’ הנני בחלומי אוכל דברים טמאים ועמדתי מרעיד ונפשי עגומה עלי והנה השליח הקונה לי בשר הביא לי בשר ביום ההוא ואמר לי כמצחק הנה הבשר נאסר והותר אמרתי לו ואיך אמר לי מצא סי’ מכה בדופן אז אמרתי זהו הדבר הטמא שהייתי אוכל בחלומי צויתיו להחזירו ומאז הייתי נזהר מכיוצא בזה ואוסר על עצמי ואין בי כח לאסור על אחרים מה שכבר נהגו בו היתר שלא לאבד ממונן של ישראל וכששואלין לי למה אני נמנע מזה אני משיב מפני שהיא בהמה שהורה בה חכם ומדרכי חסידו’ יש לו לאדם לפרוש ממנה (חולין ל”ז ע”ב) שמענה ואתה דע לך:

Further light is shed upon the subject of the limitations placed upon the validity of rulings which originate in a non-rational source by R. Simeon b. Zemah Duran (Rashbaz). R. Duran was asked a question concerning an adhesion to the wall of an animal’s lung, in which the wall itself was injured in such a way that the adhesion spread beyond the place of the injury, so that its signs were still recognizable even though the broken rib had healed. While according to the opinion of the Geonim and the Rashba the animal is prohibited in such a case, there were those who followed the opinion of R. Asher who permits it. Rashbaz addressed the issue as to which is the preferred opinion and wrote:

I shall relate to you what happened to me. One night, I dreamt that I was eating unclean things, and I awoke trembling and with a disturbed mind. The messenger who buys me meat had brought me meat on that day and said jestingly: “This meat was prohibited and was permitted.” I asked him: “How?” He said: “They found signs of an injury on the wall [of the lung]” [as in the case of the question he was asked]. And I said: “This must be the unclean thing that I was eating in my dream.” And I ordered him to return it. Since that time, I have been scrupulous about such things and prohibited it to my self, but have not the power to forbid it to others, so as not to cause monetary loss to Jews, it being already customary to permit it. And when I am asked why I refrain from this, I answer: “Because it is an animal concerning which a Sage has ruled and it is considered a pious act (mi-darkei hasidut) for a person to abstain from it [as the Talmud states in Hullin 37b-SF].” Hear and you shall know.14

Three points in this responsum are of interest to our discussion. First, the upset that was caused to the Rashbaz by his dream combined with the incident with the servant and his bantering remark. Second, he did not feel that he had the power to forbid this meat for other people because the Torah does not cause a monetary loss for Jews. Third, when he explained to others why he abstained from meat of this type, he did not mention the illumination he had received in the dream, but only the element of supererogatory piety which he felt obligated him to refrain from meat over which a rabbi had once ruled to be prohibited.

שו”ת תשב”ץ חלק ב סימן קכח

מעתה אחר שנתישב לנו מדברי חכמינו ז”ל והשכל מעיד עליו כי יש חלומות צודקים ראוי לחוש להם. ויש חלומות בלתי צודקים אין לחוש להם אנחנו מסופקים בזה החלום אם הוא צודק או הוא בלתי צודק אם יש לנו לחוש בדבר הראוי לחוש ושלא לחוש בדבר שאין ראוי לחוש כפי שרשי התלמוד. וידוע הוא כי בכל דבר שבממון יש לנו להעמיד הממון שנפל בו הספק בחזקתו ועל זה אמרו באותו שהיה מצטער על מעות מעשר שני שהניח אביו שאין לו לסמוך על החלום ויונח הממון ההוא בחזקתו כאשר הי’ קודם החלום דברי חלומות בכענין זה לא מעלין ולא מורידין להוציא הממון מחזקתו וכן כתוב זה בשאלתא דויהי מקץ וכן בההוא אפטרופא דהוי מזבין ארעא מספקא לא יהבי ליה רשותא למזבן בלאו דינא. אבל במי שנדוהו בחלום אם על ידי מלאך הוא הרי הוא מנודה ואם ע”י שד הוא אינו מנודה וא”כ זה ספק מנודה ספק אינו מנודה והרי זה כספק איסור’ אם אסור לספר ולכבס ולהתרחק מבני אדם ד’ אמות אם לא ומן הספק צריך היתר ככל ספק איסור’ שאפשר לצאת מידי ספק על ידי תקנה ויתירוהו עשרה שזה הוא מנודה לשמים. ומנודה לשמים נסתפק לבעלי התלמוד אם הוא חמור ממנוד’ לבני אדם או יותר כמו שהוזכר במס’ משקין (ט”ו ע”ב) ומ”מ צריך שלוחי המקום להתירו ובעשר’ יש שכינה זה הוא מה שעלה בידינו בענין זה. ובסוף הוריות (י”ג ע”ב) איכא מאן דחש לדברי חלומות ואיכא מאן דלא חש להו גבי עובדא דר’ מאיר ור’ נתן דאמרו להו בחלמייהו דליזלו לפיוסי לרשב”ג דר’ נתן אזל ור’ מאיר לא אזל משום דדברי חלומו’ לא מעלין ולא מורידין ומסתברא דר’ נתן מדמי ליה לנדוהו בחלום משום כבודו דרשב”ג ור’ מאיר מדמי ליה לשאר מילי כיון דלא אדכרו ליה שמתא:



Akirat Davar Min HaTorah Part 1 (Halachic Methodology 18)

Perhaps one of the most critical topics to understand the nature of the halachic process is akirat davar min haTorah, the ability of the courts, navi, or king to temporarily uproot a law in the Torah.  As we argued when discussion pesikat halacha bishaat hadechak, the parameters of making halachic decisions in extenuating circumstances, understanding Superman requires understanding Kryptonite – understand when the normal rules break down to understand the nature of the system.   As I was focusing on some of the broader issues, I unfortunately had to skip some of the more complicated theoretical issues.  The shiur and sources are available here.  The second shiur is available here.  Summary to follow.

The importance of this topic can be seen in another way.  Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chayes, the Mahartz Chayes, in his Torat Neviim explains why he wrote a book dedicated to this topic.  To this he responded that he was living in an age (the early years of the Reform Movement), when there were movements that were uprooting the Torah in the name of modernity.  He wanted to explain what circumstances warranted akirat davar min haTorah and reflected commitment to the system as a whole, and what circumstances showed rebellion.  Understanding this topic sheds light on the cognate topic mentioned above – when is trying to push the halachic system to its limits legitimate pesikah bishaat hadechak (here and following posts), and when is it rebellion, an attempt to jettison the word of God for other values.  Continue reading Akirat Davar Min HaTorah Part 1 (Halachic Methodology 18)