When Can You Poskan For Yourself?

Can you poskan for yourself? Does making decisions for yourself have the same limitations of general psak? I dealt with this issue in two parts.  The first shiur is available: here, and summary below. For now, I will ignore the questions of bias, and return to that in my next summary (the shiur is available: here).

In general, when ruling on a question, there are three factors that must be taken into account (we have discussed this previously: here):

  1. Are you qualified?
  2. Are there external reasons (such as Kavod HaRav) that prevent you from answering?
  3. Is what you are saying considered psak?

We have discussed these issues before, so just to focus on some aspects we had not covered. What qualifies someone to be a posek? Well, classically, to be a member of Sanhderin, for example, one needed to know everything. Rambam, based on the Yerushalmi, thinks that you need to be capable of poskaning on any shayla to get smicha, even if you are only getting smicha in one area. The reason that I have heard from R. Rosensweig several times, is that true psak requires one to have an intuition about Torah – something that only comes from knowing all of it. It is not clear, however, that the Bavli sets the standard so high. The Kesef Mishna, questions the Rambam, and the Rosh seems to move away from the Rambam in his comments to Sanhedrin 5a-b. There, we see partial permissions being given out, which for some indicate that the Bavli thinks that one can be qualified to poskan on local issues.

Even if one parries this, one can argue that the Rambam’s argument is limited to one who would be a member of Sanhedrin, or wanted classic smicha. Intuitively, I would argue that what we call psak does not require this level of expertise. Rather, I would take pragmatic approach – global/difficult questions need gedolei hador. Difficult questions which are a bit less far reaching and complex need serious poskim, but not necessarily gedolim. Simple questions just need someone who is competent. We could go on. I think this approach, besides for being intuitive, is evident in several sources. For example, the Smak, in his mitzvah to poskan, says that even someone who is not “higiah lehoraah – actually qualified to poskan”, is commanded to answer a question if he knows how. This means he posits a category of someone who is answering Halachic questions who has not reached the level of true psak. The Ri Migash, in a famous teshuva, says that someone is well versed in the teshuvot of the Geonim but not Shas (similar to being versed in Shulchan Aruch and poskim but not Shas), is more qualified to poskan than one who knows Shas, but has no familiarity with poskim. Though is personally less qualified, he will be able to get the answer right based on channeling the psak of others. He clearly takes a pragmatic approach – sometimes someone is not a posek in the truest sense of the word can be qualified to answer questions. The Pitchei Teshuva similarly argues that while one cannot poskan just knowing Shulchan Aruch (as he will misunderstand the reasons for halachot and thus misapply the laws), he can poskan with Shulchan Aruch and Nosei Kelim who will explain the reason for the laws. The clear implication is that the person in question does not know the primary sources well. Yet, he claims that they can poskan. There are other indications of this, but the general thesis I would suggest is that psak is a sliding scale – and not every questions needs a world class posek. That being said, there would be room to argue that one should be able to know where they are on the scale, and at least in theory, poskan questions that they are qualified to poskan for themselves.

Another aspect to this is whether poskaning for yourself is just excluded from some of the laws of psak. For example, you are not allowed to poskan in front of your Rebbe. Does that apply if you are only poskaning for yourself? The central text that must be considered is the Gemara in Eruvin 63a that says that a Talmid Chacham can check his own shchita knife and does not have to show it to the local Chacham, even if that is what is normally done. The Rosh and other Rishonim claim checking shchita knives is not real psak – it is just a way of showing honor to the local Chacham. Thus, if you are not ruling for others, there is no reason to go out of your way to show it to him. However, real psak, you cannot even decide for yourself if you Rebbe is around or he is in your vicinity. This position indicates that poskaning for yourself as all the same limitations as regular psak. This seems to be the conclusion of Shulchan Aruch and Pitchei Teshuva as well. However, there are many Achroninm who challenge this. The Chavot Yair, Aruch HaShulchan, Rishon L’Tziyon/Orach Chaim, Gilyon Maharsha, Daat Torah, R. Wosner all rule that poskaning for yourself is not considered psak. Some even argue that Shulchan Aruch agrees with this, and only qualified poskaning for your family as psak. The Rishon L’Tziyon suggests that the reason the Gemara had to say you can check your own knife is because you might have thought it was like psak, as it is a recognizable, significant act. He seems to be saying one might have thought it would be more machmir, but it turns out it is not. This can have far reaching implications, as it would suggest that one would have much more latitude when it comes to personal Halachic decisions than one would in general.

However, there would be exceptions to this. For example, as the Rishon L’Tziyon noted, things which are public would seem to not be considered personal psak (it just turns out the checking shchita knives is the exception.) I would argue as follows – any act that is public or communal in nature is by definition not a private act. I can not say “I choose to go to questionable minyan/shul X” and claim that is a private act. The leniency that is suggested with regards to poskaning for yourself assumes that it is less of a slap in the face is other poskim if you are only making a decision for yourself. However, any act which you do which relates to a communal controversy or will influence others obviously is different.

In conclusion – I would say that the sources indicate that if one is qualified, a good argument can be made for people, being honest about their own level, to make decisions for themselves, even if they are not expert poskim. However, they must be sure they are qualified and that their actions are not going to encourage others to act as well – the level of expertise required to rule for others is greater than that needed to make your own private Halachic decisions.

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