Question: Who should resolve halachic dilemmas?
Response: The Talmud (Ta’anit 23) relates that in his older years, Choni HaMagal entered a Beit Midrash after an absence of many, many years. He heard the rabbis present complaining that they lacked the clarity in their studies that they had when Choni was with them and answered all their questions. Upon hearing this complaint, Choni announced, “I’m Choni, I’m still here.” Because he had been away for so long, however, the rabbis did not believe him, and Choni left disheartened and depressed.
Rav Chaim Shmuelovitz, zt”l, the late rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Mir in Yerushalayim, posed the following astute question: What makes a person into a gadol hador, a “great man of his generation”? Isn’t it his vast knowledge of Torah? If yes, why didn’t Choni tell the rabbis to test him so that they could see that he could answer questions just as well as he could in the past? They also, thereby, would learn that he was indeed Choni?
Rav Chaim answers that a gaon from a previous generation cannot rule on contemporary problems and should not be asked about them. Only the great rabbis of one’s own era can rule on such matters. The fact that Choni was away for a long period meant that new leaders (and poskim) had emerged who had the authority to decide contemporary issues and to whom the rabbis owed allegiance. (See Sichot Musar Sh’nat 5731, Ma’amar 19.)
This response, however, needs clarification. Indeed, some may maintain that, just the opposite, it is preferable to seek a scholar from a past generation to resolve contemporary issues. Even should one agree with Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, the rationale as to why it is wrong to ask questions of rabbis of a previous generation must be analyzed. Is it due to the fact that they lack complete understanding of contemporary problems? Or is it due to the mandate to listen to one’s own rabbis?
Rabbi Cohen, a recipient of the prestigious “Jerusalem Prize,” is the author of several books on Jewish law. His latest, “Shabbat The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas” (Urim Publications), is available at Judaica stores and at Amazon .com.