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Dealing With Non-Halachoth

August 6, 2015

Question: How do you deal with the halachos that appear in Shulchan Aruch that you say are based on ideas you don’t hold of?

Answer: Some while ago I read an an article in the New York Times’ weekly “ethicist” column. Normally, I could not even give two hoots about what he has to say, but it caught my attention because the question was allegedly posed by a practicing pulpit rabbi who had left the faith, but stayed in the closet. Was he treading on unethical ground by helping his congregants discharge their perceived religious requirements in the synagogue? The answer was of course ludicrous, and in the intervening years, the internet has given way to many more such fakes and unfortunate souls who force themselves to live lives of lies. I thank God everyday that my crisis of faith is much more ironic and humorous: How does a faithful and committed Jew, who tries to study and uphold the words of the sages, deal with institutionalized halacha that is based on obvious mistakes? The best example that came up many years ago was this: hand washing for prayer and eating bread has very explicit talmudic rules. One of those rules is NOT the idea that one should wash his hands three times each, alternately, in order to remove the evil spirit that comes upon the hands due to sleeping. Many still make the bizzare claim that no matter the rationale for his particular facet of the ritual, because it found its way into the Shulhan Aruch, it became binding on all forever. Personally I don’t do it, but when I am among people who firmly believe that it is a matter of halacha, and I know that they are not capable of understanding why that particular facet of the ritual is unnecessary, I do like they do, just to avoid the hassle. As the whole solstice-water issue showed us, here is the general rule: anything in our culture that was based on discredited scientific knowledge can be disregarded, even if it appears in a halachic book. Often, the only reason things like not drinking water during the solstice appeared in halachic books was because of the author’s belief that hamira sakkanta me’issura, we have to be more strict with matters of safety than with regards to actual halacha.

Question: So why are you not afraid of eating fish and meat together?

Answer: For precisely the same reason. Look in Yoreh De’ah 116. The first halacha is the one concerning uncovered water. In the olden days, when poisonous snakes and scorpions were much more common, there was a concern that they would have left some poison in water left around the house. Rabbi Yosef Karo already acknowledged that in the mid 16th century there no longer was such a concern. Yes, the sages of the Talmud had mentioned the practice, but the concern was no longer relevant. Rabbi Karo did not abrogate the law as ordained by the sages, nor did he disagree with one of their rulings. He merely applied (un)common sense to their wise counsel. Now read the next two halachoth, were he brings the rule against eating meat and fish together. He did not get that rule from the sages, nor is it in any way connected to any body of halachoth. The only two permitted substances that combine to create a newly prohibited substance, the n’quda nifla’a, the amazing novelty, are milk and meat together. So why no fish and meat together? Because, to the Beth Yosef, it was dangerous to eat the two together, at least according to the conventional wisdom of the time. Today, he would of course not recommend against doing so, after it has been shown that there is no such risk. Insisting that we follow the Shulhan Aruch’s “rule” in this respect is actually highly disrespectful of the halachic system and of the Beth Yosef as an intelligent person. There is a very good reason why many codes make no mention of this “rule.” R’ Schachter was amused by those who are super careful not to place meat on a plate that has some fish residue on it but will eat all the sugary and artificial foods that are actually killing them, but I find it much more stressing that those same people won’t believe me when I tell them that it is wrong to keep caustic chemicals around the house or place an infant in one of those baby pods without strapping him in. In short, questions about fish and meat, tending to a newly-circumcised child, etc., are not halachic. We just get confused because they are brought up in halachic discussions or appear in halachic books.


From → halacha

  1. Does the Mishnah Brurah (173:4) not state that you should wash your mouth out and eat something else between fish and meat? It seems most contemporary poskim seem to uphold this particular ruling despite the reasons not to… How would you reconcile with that? I’m totally sympathetic to your position on this, but I’m curious how you would reply…

    • so? the mishna b’rura assumed like the shulhan aruch. it does not make it true that eating a fish-meat combo will give you tzaraath. By the way, see the source from P’sahim 76b. There, the implication of the gemara is that the majority opinion did not consider the combination dangerous. The question was if to allow eating meat -tainted fish with dairy, and mar bar r’ ashi interjected that the question concerning milk with meat does not even get off the ground because meat=tainted fish is dangerous. his rejection of the whole question is an after thought, that is noticeably not recorded by many subsequent decisors. Reconciliation: decsiors of the current centuries who fear meat and fish are doing so out of misplaced deference to the shulhan aruch. it’s a hashkafic issue, like everything else…

      • And you’re totally comfortable doing something despite the fact that rov poskim are not? I don’t disagree with your logic here, but I’d rather not be on the wrong side of that fence…

  2. i have not seen any indication that a vote was taken on the matter, but i do know that once upon a time, it was a rov against such a thing, and as i wrote, it would be wrong to assume that even the bet yosef would still hold that way if he were around today. as dr. schapiro pointed out with the water scandal, they held it was forbidden not because they understood why, but because it was there in a book, and we are not meant to think about why…

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