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Letter to A Friend: Enlightening the Masses

December 25, 2016

Dear *****,

I would just like to add another point to an earlier email  I wrote to you, namely about the nature of minhag (custom). I have shown how Maimonides and The Vilna Gaon followed our sages and used the halachic term minhag very strictly, and I showed you how Rabbi Soloveichik’s view (as formulated by R’ Schachter) and Rabbi Rabinovitch’s view were similarly limited. Not every innocuous Jewish practice enjoys the privilege of hallowed practice. The question was, when, as those consulted by laymen, do we permit that which was considered prohibited? I sought to show you the rules as implied by the cases in in the fourth chapter of P’sahim, and recently I was delighted to find the following rule of thumb in the name of Rabbi Eliezer in the name of Rabbi Abun in YT Ta’anith 1:6: Anything which someone mistakenly treats as forbidden but is actually permitted, then if he asks [the rabbi], he gets permission, but anything which he knows is [really] permitted, but is treated as forbidden [lest it lead to an actual prohibition] then if he asks, he does not get permission. This might sound familiar, because I was saying something along similar lines last year, and with this rule in mind we can understand, for example, why for example, the yarmulke case would be something we could permit, whereas the qitniyoth case could not be automatically permitted. In the yarmulke case, the idea that it is forbidden to walk around with a bare head can not be shown to be based on some concern that walking around bareheaded would lead to violation of some prohibition. (And incidentally, if there were some sort of of actual prohibition based on a real concern, then women, including single women, would be just as obligated as men.) In the qitniyoth case, everyone, including those who do consume cooked rice, etc., on Passover, agrees that there is a concern that there may  be a kernel or two of grain in the rice, and therefore the rice can not just be eaten without at least checking it. The various practices, to check the rice thoroughly, or to eat it without water, or to just avoid it entirely, all have an underlying reason.

I believe that there is more to this teaching than the technical analysis of the practice in question, and that is the idea of consultation. The sages were referring to situations where the rabbi is consulted, but perhaps it is not the rabbi’s role to offer his unsolicited opinion, i.e., it is not his prerogative to just tell people, “by the way, you can walk around bareheaded,” or whatever it may be. And to this rule I would note an exception: if he were to be giving a regular shiur in Mishna Berurah, for instance, and he started from the begining of the book and plans to go through all the halachoth in order, then he may bring up these points in their places, for example, when he gets to the rules of dress in prayer he can mention that the aharonim do not simply declare that one must wear a hat during prayer, as many believe.

Most importantly, I do believe that in a situation in which the layman is suffering due to his allegiance to a mistaken halachic belief, then it is proper to inform him of his error even if he does not solicit a dispensation. By “suffering,” I mean loss of livelihood, or conflicts with his spouse, and the like. Examples that come to mind come from my own experience, like telling someone who believes that it is wrong to get an education or a job that those are actually obligations of the Torah, or that someone does not have to give a high percentage of his net income to charity if he does not make a decent living. In such cases, it is meritorious to inform the laymen and spare them their suffering, if, of course, they are the types who respect your opinion and would heed your advice.

 

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From → halacha, original

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