Halakha: Truth or Convention?
- May I ask someone who does not follow my chumrot on Shabath to do something for me which I cannot because of the chumrot on Shabath? Why?
- If I consider that a specific Eiruv is not valid (halakha, not a chumra) but a different Jew considers it to be valid, May I ask them to carry for me on Shabath? Why?
- Your two questions are really one, viz. a general inquiry: What is Halakha? What is a humra? Or put another way: What is the relationship between objective truth and Halakha?
- Humra is understood by some to be the adoption of an Halakhic position that is more stringent than that practiced by most people. In other words: what most Jews do is the Halakha, whereas a humra is a private stringency. It follows that one may ask another Jew to do something which one chooses not to do; you are simply asking him to follow Halakha.
- This understanding is relativistic; it ignores the issue of which position is correct. It may be that the position most people follow is demonstrably true and one’s humra is unnecessary. The reverse is also possible: the practice of most people is based on a position which can be shown to be incorrect, and one’s ‘humra’ is not a humra at all. Many, many years of in-depth study of Talmudic texts and the commentaries of the Rishonim (the medieval commentators and decisors) are a prerequisite for being able to express an intelligent opinion in a given case.
- Some people practice a certain humra even though they admit that it is unnecessary, i.e. that the Halakha is not so. Regarding such cases I would ask: why? If it is clear that the accepted position is mistaken, it should not be dignified with the term ‘Halakha’, and in such a case the ‘humra’ may well be the correct position. If the humra is adopted simply because it is the most stringent opinion rather than because it seems to be the most correct, again: why? Some would answer that it is proper to act in accordance with all opinions. The facts are, however, that Hazal did not function in this manner, nor did the Rishonim, as any serious student of Tora Sheba’al Pe knows.
- Some people seem to believe that texts can be made to mean anything and therefore prove nothing. They claim that an opinion can be relied upon merely because it exists. Such a position divorces the Tora from truth and renders Halakha a societal convention. This is postmodernism at its worst.
- A truer definition of humra is this: a more stringent position adopted due to an inability to arrive at a conclusion based on available sources and knowledge. Hazal instruct us (TB ‘Avodha Zara 7a) to adopt the stringent position regarding a matter which involves a possible Tora prohibition (איסור מן התורה) and to adopt the lenient position regarding a matter which involves a possible Rabbinic prohibition (איסור מדברי סופרים). Rambam explains that this refers to a case where one cannot ascertain which is the correct opinion (הל’ ממרים סוף פרק א). Where it is possible to do so, explains Rambam elsewhere, we are to follow the opinion which, based on reasoned analysis, seems to best fit the Talmudic sources (הקדמה למשנה תורה אות לג). All the Rishonim thought and acted in this manner. I would add that although in certain cases more than one opinion may seem reasonable and it is thus difficult to argue that a particular view is the correct one, the fact is that in the vast majority of cases this is not so.
- Resolving to follow the opinion of a particular decisor (פוסק) in all cases – whether it be Rambam, Beth Yoseph, Rama, Gra, Mishna Brura or Ben Ish Hai – is appropriate for someone who is unable to decide for himself, i.e. the average Jew, and can be viewed as being in line with the words of the Mishna עשה לך רב (“Choose for yourself a teacher” – Avoth 1:15). It is completely inappropriate for a Hakham who is capable of studying the primary sources and arriving at the truth – see the Haqdama of R. Hayim of Volozhin to Be’ur HaGra and the Haqdama of MaHarShal to Yam Shel Sh’lomo.
- To return to your questions: If a person who is capable of studying the sources arrives at a definite conclusion, then that, by definition, is the Halakha. How could one then ask another Jew to do something which one knows to be wrong? This applies to all areas of Halakah, including ‘Eruvin; if one is convinced the ‘eruv is pasul, it follows that there is no ‘eruv.
Rabbi David Bar-Hayim