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There is a discussion in the Talmud (Makkot 22:b) about who is a ‘Gavra Raba’ – a great man or great talmid chacham. Rather than talk about their enormous knowledge of Torah, their piety or their moral values, Rava (270-350 CE) points out that their ‘courage to change’ the literal meanings of various mitzvot in the Torah makes them ‘Gavra Raba’.
He presents an example: in Devarim 25, 2-3 the Torah says that for certain offenses the court should administer forty lashes to the guilty party. Our sages reduced that number to thirty-nine. It might seem like a small difference but considering the fact that there is a specific number mentioned in the Torah the Rabbis took a brave step by reducing the stated amount.
This was the courage that Rava was referring to. They had the fortitude to change the literal meaning of the text. They realized that they had the authority (and, of course, the extensive Torah knowledge) to interpret the text within the framework permitted by the Talmud (the Oral Torah). This includes the obligation and the right, if a deeper meaning of the text is called for, to change the literal meaning of the sentence.
Another example is the interpretation of a conflict between two texts in the Torah. One refers to counting the Omer (the period beginning on the second night of Passover lasting till Shavuot) – and one refers to a seven week period i.e. 49 days. Our sages took the position of counting only forty-nine days with the fiftieth being Shavuot. By doing that they chose to disregard a specific commandment of counting fifty days. But there are more examples:
During the generation of Hillel, the pruzbol was instituted. This was a document that adaptedthe biblical commandment annulling debts because of shmita (fallow year) to the reality of the market. It was a revolutionary move that meant that the poor would still have lenders willing to help them out. Basically, a rabbinic decree cancelled out a mitzvah d’orita (a biblical commandment).
The Heter Iska (a specific type of business permit) was another major halachic change which permitted Jews to collect interest from fellow Jews. Again a rabbinic law overturned a biblical law.
In dealing with whether one can carry on Shabbat or not carrying on Shabbat – in certain situations it is forbidden – one condition for an area to be considered a reshut harabim (public domain), that it must include 600,000 people going through it – was based on a Tosafot (a group of 11 century Talmud commentators) and created a major problem. Even though it was a minority opinion the repercussions are heard today (BT Eruvin 6A).
When the Rama found a way for the Jews of Moravia to drink wine produced by non-Jews (normally prohibited), his decision was so remarkable and revolutionary that is was expunged from his work Teshuvot HaRama (mid-1500s) for centuries.
Going against rulings of the Talmud and most Rishonim, the Rama found a way for Jews who drank non-Jewish wine to still be acceptable as witnesses (meaning that they were still worthy people in spite of having done something improper) and limited his ruling just to that locale.
Rabbi Kook’s formula for shmita, the heter michira (permission to sell produce grown in Israel during the shmita year), is a more recent example of a ruling that took ‘real life’ situations and circumstances into account and made a major change within halachah. This opinion is accepted by many Orthodox Israelis but is under fire by many others.
The fear of today’s adjudicators stems in part from the edict of the Chatam Sofer (18 century sage), ‘Chaddash asur min haTorah’ (new ‘produce’ is forbidden from the Torah), a play on words of the agricultural law which he applied to halachah – that in effect said, halachic innovations are prohibited. But if we put the Chatam Sofer’s edict into the framework of the time in which it was issued we see a totally different picture. He spoke at a time when the Reform movement was challenging the Orthodox establishment of that time. Their ‘innovations’ were not to be accepted within the fold. Truly the opposite side of the coin.
THE MORE OR LESS 500 YEAR SHAKE UPS
If we could turn the clock back 500 years or so we’d be overwhelmed to realize the changes that have taken place in half a millennium. Not only in terms of scientific progress and quality of life – but in the area of philosophy and thinking.
Within that time period sages have given a wide range of answers to halachic questions. All based on a strong rabbinic foundation, but, obviously tailored to the specific question asked and relevant time period in which the question was posed.
The result was that over time the free ranging Jewish law system required codification.
This happened when the Mishnah was organized by Rav Yehudah Hanassi in about 200 CE. The various interpretations of the Mishnah were argued, discussed and adjudicated by some of the sharpest Jewish minds but rather than consensus, various schools of thought developed and diversity of interpretation reigned.
To help control the diversity and confusion, three hundred years later the Talmud was compiled by Ravinna and Rav Ashi.
Skip through the period of the Gaonim and another 500 years and we see that the Rambam (1135-1204) wrote his Mishne Torah- an attempt to put order into the turmoil of Jewish law. While today Mishne Torah is accepted by virtually every Jewish community and is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of halachic literature, in its day it was ostracized and banned by some communities.
The Arbah Turim of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher followed in the early 13th century. Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) wrote a commentary on the Arbah Turim entitled the Shulchan Aruch. A very orderly arrangement of Jewish law that came out of the chaotic state of halachah at that time.
Jump to the start of the 20 century and Rabbi Kagen, better known as the Chafetz Chaim writes the Mishnah Berura, the current major compendium of Jewish law.
There are certain common threads in terms of style, the areas of law chosen and the degree of editing that seem to have held true in virtually all the codes.
The tendency was to choose the more conservative and stringent opinions. Not necessarily because they were prevalent at that time or that this was always the majority stand. But rather with the idea that if leniency were to rule the day there’s no telling how far it would go. History had shown them that going back to a stringent starting point eventually, over a period of time, led to a more lenient trend.
And so the written word was stringent.
MAKING CHANGES TO KEEP JEWS WITHIN THE FLOCK
The underlying reason for why a particular question is asked is sometimes the key. There are occasions on which one poses a question because with all his heart he wants to understand and observe the commandment properly and is seeking a way in which to do so. Others are simply looking for ways to escape the burden of compliance.
Yaakov Katz in his most elucidative work “Shabbes Goy” (a gentile who performs work for a Jew on the Sabbath) goes into detail how rabbinic authorities labored to devise a sales document that would permit Jews to maintain their stewardship over a village in the name of the King and yet not violate the laws of Shabbat. These were people who sought advice about how they could maintain their livelihood without desecrating the Sabbath. Because their intention was positive, leading scholars of the time worked and re-worked various formulae to meet their congregants’ requirements.
Over the past 100-150 years some individuals, movements and congregations have sought a balm for their conscience- a ‘rabbinic proclamation’ absolving them from either a positive or negative commandment. This is very different from the case cited above.
(The Declining Level of the Generations)
If we are talking about piety, concern for others, possibly even greater understanding between one another, I can understand the concept of ‘meut hadorot’. But, if on the other hand, we are referring to intellectual ability I have a bit of a problem.
The question to be posed is: Did the Talmud become the authoritative source because it was accepted by all Jews or was it because the previous generations were smarter than we are?
Rambam (Maimonides, a 12 century sage) seemed to think it was the former. He believed that the Talmud became THE authority, because it was accepted by all Jews – not because the sages and the general population of the Talmudic era were smarter than the Jews of his day.
And if we then add that the material available to scholars today is infinitely greater than that available to scholars even a few generations ago, not to speak of the pre-printing press era, we must inevitably come to the conclusion that at least in terms of source material we are in a better situation today.
Add to that the intellectual and technological advancements of recent times – and there seems to be no reason to think that human intellectual ability and capability have diminished.
Today we face a more complex life style and many more perplexing questions than those that faced the Rabbis of yesteryear – and yet we find many authorities choose the fallback position of stringency, rather than opening the door to exciting, innovative application of halachah, giving meut hadorot as the reason. They claim they simply don’t have the ability, authority or capability to take a different train of thought than previous generations.
It is interesting to note that the conept of meut hadorat for men seems to be taking an diametrically opposite direction with women.
Whereas women previously were limited by rabbinic opinions from studying Torah at all – slowly but surely over the last centuries women have been ‘permitted’ to learn Torah more and more. In a most interesting article by Rabbi Chaim Navon (Techumim vol.28) about women studying Torah he spells out in detail the gidul hadorot (amplification or enhancement of the generations)
The law given at Sinai is the law – halachah is its application in real life. The resources of yesteryear were limited (as Rabbis and scholars had to depend solely on handwritten manuscripts, inaccurate time pieces etc.). Just compare those bygone days to the plethora of accurate material available today at the touch of a fingeraccurate texts, precise astronomic information and precision time pieces) and innovation based on precedent is certainly easier to implement and substantiate.
For two thousand years the Jewish religion has taken a strong stand against asceticism. Our Rabbis marry. Their congregants drink. No one has to avow poverty or celibacy. In fact the opposite is true.
But there are periods in the life of a Jew where some of these ascetic elements come into play – the time when one lives and studies in a yeshivah.
The fact that most yeshivot have a black pants/white shirt dress code is a good idea. It helps blur the line between the rich and poor who learn together in that institution or even in the same chevrutah (learning pairs). Class, wealth and power are not reflected in the clothes yeshivah boys wear. And they eat together as well, the same food, usually meals that are somewhat lower than gourmet. Their living quarters are not of 5-star hotel quality either.
During that particular time in their lives the somewhat ascetic way of life is understandable and accepted by most of the boys.
Yeshivah students are judged on their learning ability, intellectual capacities, piety and good deeds. This being a developmental period in their lives, the life style and its parameters serve as a ‘basic training’ time in their lives.
Issuing chumrot, whether by the Roshei Yeshivah and/or the students as well, is the prevailing mood and mode in the yeshivah world today. . They are the major instigators of chumrot today.
Chumrot tend to lead to asceticism. Since the yeshivah world is ascetic and it is good for them –logically then it must be good for everyone. Or so they think.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: For these sages (Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar and Samuel), becoming a nazirite is self-imposed asceticism – denying yourself the pleasures of the world. This means rejecting, or at least not celebrating, the world G-d created and calledgood. The phenomenon of the individual who withdraws from society and lives a life of self-denial is well known in many religions. Such people are usually regarded as holy. Judaism – according to Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar and Samuel – takes a different view. We serve G-d by enjoying the delights of life.
About the Author: Chaim Burg was born in New York and was strongly influence by the teachings of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Z.D. Kanotopsky. A graduate of Cooper Union, Burg spent most of his active business career as a communications consultant for major U.S. and international corporations. A well regarded author and lecturer, he mainly deals with thought provoking views on the evolution of Halacha. Burg made aliya in 1975.
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