I have been very behind on summaries, but perhaps now that we approach bein hazemanim I will have more time. Appropriately, as Pesach is around the corner, I will summarize my shiur on the nature of Chumra (available here). As the goal of this year has been to analyze the place of the laity in psak, one topic that needed to be tackled was chumrot- when it is a good idea to initiate a practice that is not mandated by Halacha? When is it neutral? Negative? What is the nature of chumrot? We have dealt with different aspects of chumra before, so here I focused on a very specific discussion. The Yerushalmi (Berachot 2:9) says that anyone who does something they are not obligated in is called a hedyot, a fool. This is quoted by many poskim in varying contexts. Yet, there are contexts where we say hamachmir tavo alav beracha – that one who is stringent is blessed.
The suggestions of the meforshim as to when each maxim applies helps set up a framework for what proper and improper stringencies are. I will draw the general picture, but the sources and argument can be found in the shiur and source sheets.
One significant direction that I find most promising is to distinguish between cases where there is inherent value to the chumra and cases where there is not. Thus, many (and this is sharpest in the formulation of the Gra), distinguish between things which are “mitzvot b’etzem” – fundamentally valuable and you happen to be exempt from, and things which are not mitzvot. Thus, for example, if one is exempt from eating in the sukkah because the act of eating is not significant enough to force you to eat there (ex. Drinking water), then choosing to eat in the sukkah makes sense – you may not be obligated, but drinking water is also a form of living in the sukkah. On the other hand, if it raining, and the sukkah ceases to be a place where the mitzvah applies, it is absurd to eat there. The Beer Sheva suggests that if you take on a chumra to distance yourself from sin, that is valuable. In a different formulation, he say that it is only problematic to take on a stringency for the take of taking on a stringency – but not because you have an objectively good reason to do this (ex. Scraping lines into klaf for kitvei hakodesh that don’t need it to allow you to write straighter). The Meiri says that anything the helps you refine yourself is a good chumra. The Chida says that in all interpersonal commandments, it is valuable to be “stringent”. All of these distinctions make sense – if you are worried you will violate a prohibition, want to improve your character, or you want to help someone in need, going above and beyond is laudatory. It is for this reason that most poskim think that women, under most circumstances are encouraged to fulfill time-bound positive commandments – those actions are clearly valuable, even if the women are exempt. There are possible exceptions to this rule but that is not for us now. There are some who deny the equation of the above types of chumrot and this case, claiming that in this case, to not take advantage of the exemption is to not appreciate the system God set up, but I think this is a minority view.
There is a dispute whether the existence of a machloket is good reason to be machmir or not. One can readily see how this could fall on either side of the above distinction.
Another direction is to say that chumrot in general are positive, or at worse neutral, unless they lead to negative results. For example, and case where there is a problem of yuhara, religious presumptuousness, it is problematic to be stringent. We have dealt with this topic at length in the past (here), so we will not return to that here. The Taz and others, for example, suggest that it is problematic to sit in the sukkah in the rain because it prevents you from fulfilling the mitzvah to enjoy Yom Tov.
Others claim that it depends on the type of person you are. People who are always meticulous about their observance have the right to be stringent – but people for whom being stringent is not consistent with who they are should avoid it. The Mordechai and Shevut Yaakov offered different versions of this argument, and R. Amital zt”l was famous for it (not everyone is a “baal nefesh…”).
There are some more general points that should be made as well.
In this context, we should also mention that at some level going beyond the letter of the law is part and parcel of Judaism, and the Ramban emphasizes in his comments about Kedoshim Tihyu and V’Asita HaYashar VeHaTov. On the other hand, in addition to the local arguments made above, there are more general reasons to be wary of chumra. For example, as Dr. Haym Soloveitchik notes, sometimes more external chumrot are taken on to replace real religious experience, rather than as an expression of it. R. Amital warned that if one is too machmir, it threatens to drain the joy out of religiosity and replace it with fear. There is also the potential problem of casting aspersions on those who were not machmir.
Taken together, there are times and places to be machmir, and times to avoid chumra. As R. Lichtenstein notes, (almost) all kulot are also chumrot, and almost chumrot are also kulot. The key is to understand the competing values and to properly balance them.