In today’s daf (21) of Nazir the Gemara discusses the statement in the Mishna that if a wife makes a neder to be a nazir and afterwards her husband says “ve’ani” to mean that he too would like to be a nazir, he can no longer release her from that vow. The Tosafos on 21b s.v. “ela” discuss why. They record two opinions:
1) He cannot release her from her vow because the manner in which he took his vow made his own nazirate vow dependent upon hers, therefore, by releasing her from the vow he would release himself also. This violates the rule that one may not release oneself from any vow (only someone else can release a person from a vow he took) in Chagigah 10a; or,
2) The Tosafos quotes the opinion of Rabeinu Elyakim that it is permitted to release oneself from a vow in this fashion but in this particular case by agreeing to take a vow contingent upon his wife’s vow, the husband effectively agreed that her vow should be binding. After doing so, he can no longer release her from its authority.
The opinion of Rabbeinu Elyakim makes a lot of sense. He’s not really releasing himself from his own vow. By releasing his wife, he indirectly causes the effect that his own vow would no longer maintain its force because it was contingent upon her vow, but that is something which is not relevant to the question of whether he can release her from her vow. It would be including in common parlance under the “law of unintended (or, in this case, intended) consequences”. However, how are we to understand the first opinion? We can understand it by assuming that the rule preventing a person from releasing himself from his own vow is not merely a detail in the complex laws of nedarim. It lies at the very heart of that system. If you could release yourself from a neder you took., then there would be no reason for the rules of nedarim to exist at all. The Torah dictated that if you make a vow, you must keep it. By making that vow you incurred a moral obligation to see it through. If you don’t, then you literally “profaned your speech” (see Rashi on Bamidbar 30, 3). Furthermore, I heard once from Rav Lichtenstein hk”m that the reason for laws which protect the sanctity of speech, ranging from this prohibition to that on lying, is Onkelos defines humans as possessing “רוח ממללא” or “the spirit of speech.” In other words, it is our very ability to communicate in words which defines us. As such, it simply cannot be that a person would so violate his responsibility to respect the sanctity of his own speech by releasing himself from a vow, even indirectly. If an action of his would automatically have that consequence, it must be that the Torah would not allow that action to take effect.
Tomorrow morning we will all release ourselves from any vows we might have taken over the last year. This ceremony seems incidental to the observances of the yamim noraim, and yet it lies at their very heart. By going before a panel to release ourselves from any vows we may have taken over the past year (even if we haven’t kept them through lack of knowledge), we are affirming the sanctity of our speech and our responsibility to respect that sanctity. May that awareness travel with us through the coming year and help us maintain the requisite level of holiness in all our words, not just when we make a vow.
There were many powerful eulogies delivered today in memory of Moreinu V’Rabbeinu HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zatza”l, hareini kaparat mishkavo, this morning. I want to share one thought from Rabbi Ezra Bick, a Ram in Yeshiva and a student of R. Lichtenstein’s for 50 years. He delivered a combination of a eulogy from the perspective of a student and a charge to R. Lichtenstein’s students moving forward. I hope I capture the basic sentiment, but if some of my own thoughts seep in or I miss some nuances of his presentation, you will have to forgive me (a transcript of sorts is available here). R. Bick was the last of eight speakers, all of which were moving but contributed to total emotional drain by the end of the day. Continue reading Eliyahu’s Mantle – Some Thoughts from the Eulogies for Rav Lichtenstein
Many of my friends and teachers have been posting memories and reflections on the passing of Moreinu V’Rabbenu Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. I’m not sure I’m ready to do that quite yet, nor am I sure I have something profound to say. While there will be eulogies here in Yeshiva tomorrow, today we are having several shiurim focusing on R. Aharon’s Torah, allowing his lips to continue to move even after his passing, as the Gemara so beautifully captures here: Continue reading Some Thoughts from, and about, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein
In our exploration of the role of the laity in psak, and that the balance of authority and autonomy in the Halachic system, I spent a shiur (here) exploring modern positions on Daas Torah.
In many ways, the different positions that are offered as to what Daas Torah is and to what extent it exists and is binding map onto the positions presented with regards to Lo Tasur. Of course, as we noted, the very notion that Lo Tasur/Rabbinic power extends to mundane or political matters is not obvious. Thus, it is important to keep in mind the topic of Lo Tasur generally as we attempt to map out the positions about Daas Torah. Continue reading Daas Torah – Modern Discussions
As we discussed in our shiur on Aseh Lecha Rav, one of the central roles of a Rav is to provide a posek that people are both obligated and permitted to rely on. On the one hand, having a posek limits what opinions one can rely on; on the other, one can rely on the kullot of his posek even when it may not reflect the consensus psak. We explored the authority and definition of a Mara D’Atra. The shiur is available here.
The Gemara downright celebrates the freedom that comes from having a local posek. While the majority opinion claimed that while brit milah can be done on Shabbat, all preparatory actions must be done before Shabbat, with no reservations it declares that in the place of R. Elazar, who permitted doing these action on Shabbat, that his position was followed. Similarly, the Gemara does not hesitate when it says that in the Galil, where R. Yosi was the posek, the people ate chicken and meat together. The Ritva notes that having a Mara D’Atra, a local posek, a master of the region, provides people with their own source of authority – to whom lo tasur applies.
However, the Rashba extends this idea beyond a local living posek. Continue reading Mara D’Atra in a Globalized World
For a little bit of a different kind of post…
It is well known that when asked to suggest a sefer of mussar, Rav Lichtenstein suggests The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, a brilliant book in which one demon instructs his nephew how to successfully tempt human beings. Each chapter is a letter in which Screwtape highlights human failings, which his Wormwood is supposed to take advantage of, but, the readers, are supposed to be wary of. For a bit of pre-Yom Kippur reading, I reread one of my favorite passages in that book – the first chapter. There he notes that in the modern world, the easiest way for people to be lost (or acquired by Screwtape’s “Father Below”) is not to distort or corrupt them, but rather to distract them. We are actually pretty good and seeing what we are doing wrong, as long as we don’t forget to think. As I noted a few days ago, the Meiri claims that the purpose of the Yamim Noraim is to force us to set aside some time to do introspection. Life is busy, and every day we have a million things going on, not to mention emails, calls, texts, facebook comments, tweets, you name it to respond to. Continue reading A Yom Kippur Thought from C.S. Lewis
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)
Last week we dealt with the topic of minhag. We discussed the different types of minhagim, the parameters of when they are binding, and the rationale behind their prominent place in the Halachic system. This shiur dealt with the other side of that coin – the prohibition of lo tisgodedu (לא תתגודדו). Chazal derive from the possuk prohibiting cutting oneself in mourning another issur – לא תעשו אגודות אגודות- don’t splinter into different groups. This prohibition in some circumstances binds people to the practices of the community to prevent them from splitting into factions. We will not get into the technical issues of how this is derived from the possuk and what its relationship is to the prohibition concerning mourning. I tried to give a framework to understand the legal and philosophical issues involved in this prohibition. Continue reading Schisms and Lo Tisgodedu (Halachic Methodology 14)
Another classic factor in psak that causes poskim to rely on positions they wouldn’t normally rely on is hefsed – monetary loss. Shiur and sources (including many summaries from Encyclopedia Talmudit) are available: here.
That the Torah cares about the economic stability of the Jewish people is clear. There are two formulations of this that are explicitly connected by the Yerushalmi (and many Rishonim and Achronim). Specifically, the notion of HaTorah Chasah al Mamonam shel Yisrael, the Torah had pity on the money of the Jews, and the dispensation found throughout Shas in cases of hefsed merubeh, great economic loss.
The former concept explicitly appears in Shas to explain why certain mitzvoth are patterned the way they are. For example, the Gemara explains that while the Kohen Gadol uses a golden shovel for the ketoret on Yom Kippur, during the rest of the year he uses a silver one, so as not to incur extra expenses for the Jewish people. The exact parameters of this principle are unclear. Continue reading God is Concerned about the Jews’ Money (Halachic Methodology 11, Shaat HaDechak 3)
Perhaps one of the most controversial issues in psak today is the nature of Kavod Habriyot and its function in psak. Shiur and sources (which are important to see inside are available: here).
Before beginning, I offered the following framing for the issue. It is well known that there are three cardinal sins for which a Jew must forfeit his life; all other sins are pushed aside for the sake of human life. At first glance, Tosafot and the Chinuch argue about the nature of these laws. Tosafot argue that intuitively one would know that all mitzvoth can be pushed aside for human life. The only reason the Torah provides a possuk to allow one to violate a law is so people will not extrapolate from the cardinal sins to all other sins. In other words – the given is that life is more important than mitzvoth, and one needs to prove otherwise. The Chinuch, on the other hand, when explaining the cardinal sins, writes that a good servant will give up his life for his master, and if we were not willing to do this for God, we would be derelict in our commitments. In other words, given is that all mitzvoth are cardinal. By God’s good grace, he does not require us to actually die for mitzvoth. I have suggested that there is not dispute. From God’s perspective, he values human life and therefore does not want us to give up our lives for most mitzvoth. From our perspective, we must be willing to. In practice, therefore, we rarely are asked to give up our lives, but when we are, we should recognize this is the exception and not the rule from God’s perspective. [This is fleshed out in my article in Beit Yitzchak 41.]
With regard to Kavod HaBriyot, I suggest a similar model. Continue reading Kavod HaBriyot (Halachic Methodology 10, Shaat HaDechak Part 2)