Monthly Archives: August 2017

Aseh Lekha Rav and the Right to Second Halakhic Opinions

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Must one ask all one’s halakhic shaylahs to the same posek?  Is it forbidden to check the answers one receives with other poskim?

Asei lekha rav”, meaning that one should seek to have a primary Torah mentor, is often excellent advice.  However, “primary” is not the same as “exclusive”.  The Torah never permits any human being to completely abandon the exercise of moral and religious judgement.  Moreover, pretending that such a relationship exists when it really doesn’t can do great harm.

In its original contexts (Pirkei Avot 1:6 and 1:16), aseh lekha rav does not relate to laypeople asking live halakhic sheilot.   Here for example is R. Ovadiah miBartenura’s commentary to 1:6

“Asei lekha rav” – 

meaning that he should accept upon himself one rav to learn from constantly, 

rather than learning today from one and tomorrow from another.  

Even though in Tractate Avodah Zarah (19) they said: 

One who learns Torah from only one Rav never sees signs of blessings in his learning, 

they have already explained that these words apply to reasoning, 

that it is good for him to hear the reasoning of many, 

but with regard to memorizing settled law, one rav is preferable, lest his formulations become corrupted.

In other words, asei lekha rav applies only to a specific form of learning – the memorization of halakhic statements.  It has no application to asking shaylahs.

The Rav miBartenura provides a different context-appropriate explanation in his commentary to 1:16:

“Asei lekha rav” – this statement refers to poskim who issue rulings in difficult cases.

If an issue of law comes before you, and you are in doubt regarding it,

“asei lekha rav vehistalek min hasafek”

rather than deciding the issue yourself,

just as Rava,

when a case of a possible treifah was brought before him,

gathered all the butchers of Mata Mechasya,

saying: Let us receive only a splinter of the plank”.  

In other words, asei lekha rav requires shared responsibility and serious consideration of others’ opinions.

The mistaken insistence on asking all shaylahs to the same rabbi is often supported by a concern about shitah-shopping.  This concern is grounded in a beraita cited on Eiruvin 6b:

The law actually follows Beit Hillel

But one who wishes to act according to Beit Shammai – may do so;

According to Beit Hillel – may do so.

From the leniencies of Beit Shammai and from the leniencies of Beit Hillel – he is wicked;

From the stringencies of Beit Shammai and the Stringencies of Beit Hillel – 

of him Scripture says: “the fool walks in darkness”.

Please note, however, that the beraita has no general objection to asking different questions to multiple rabbis.  The beraita discusses only circumstances in which the answers of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel were known in advance, and where the primary ground for choosing among them was leniency.  This bears no relationship to directing particular questions to poskim who are experts in the relevant fields, or who know your mind and soul better with regard to specific issues, or who share your values in particular areas.

Furthermore, a key marker of authentic Torah is that “All her ways are pleasantness”.  It violates the nature and purpose of halakhah when a psak causes unnecessary moral discomfort or emotional anguish, let alone harms a marriage.  We each have a responsibility to prevent this.  One way of accomplishing this is to ask for a second opinion when a psak seems not to meet the “pleasantness” standard.

This is not a descent into “shitah-shopping”. Tosafot Niddah 20b (see also Tosafot Chullin 44b and AZ 7a) concludes that halakhah does not constrain people from asking, so long as they are transparent with the second posek; rather, it gives guidelines to halakhists as to when they can overrule the previous answer.

the objection is not on the asker but rather on the sage

but the asker – should ask everything he wishes

since as a result they will be rigorous on the issue

and sometimes the first will have erred, and this way the matter will be seen in its true light

Tosafot Bava Kamma 100a makes a stronger claim.

This is not like showing a dinar-coin to a banker (to determine its authenticity)

where once he showed it to the banker, he should not have shown it to another

but regarding a cow

when this sage forbade it to him (=declared it not kosher), 

he should not have hurried to feed it to dogs . . .

rather he should yet have asked it another sage.

(This position of Tosafot is cited as law by Shakh Choshen Mishpat 25:5.   See also Yam Shel Shlomo Chulin 3:8, ad the article by Rabbi Chaim Yosef Shaanan in the journal Tzohar, vol. 16.)

One 20th century posek explained the principle on the basis of a competitive market improving products:

The questioner Is obligated to ask the question to several sages,

 because thereby each sage will be more rigorous about the matter, 

and the matter will emerge in its true light, 

as the more sages they ask, and the more that sages know that they will ask others, 

the more and more rigorous they will be before issuing rulings, and not rely on themselves.  

From here it is also clear

 that a sage has the obligation to express his opinion and disagree with his colleagues 

if he believes that the halakhah is not in accord with their opinion.

In Reshimot Shiurim to Bava Kamma, Rav Herschel Reichman presents Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s integration of this principle into an overall philosophy of Torah.

that the hora’ah of a sage is given over to further clarification,

 because every hora’ah of a sage is an object=cheftza of Torah 

and part of the tradition=Masoret of Torah, 

and the Torah is given over to clarification via the back-and-forth among sages.  

Therefore the owners should not have relied only on the sage they asked first, 

because it is plausible that in the course of clarifying the law with other sages 

that his hora’ah would change or become a nullity.

All this makes clear that laypeople have not only the right, but often the obligation, to ask for a second halakhic opinion when the first answer they receive feels wrong.  As the motto of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership has it, we all need to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR TORAH.

Shabbat shalom

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Authorized and Unauthorized Additions

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

אֵ֣ת כָּל־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֹת֥וֹ תִשְׁמְר֖וּ לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לֹא־תֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֔יו וְלֹ֥א תִגְרַ֖ע מִמֶּֽנּוּ:

Everything that I am commanding you – that is what you must observe, to do.  You must not add to it; and you must not subtract from it.

Devarim 13:1 can be read as a free-standing and self-sufficient sentence, which is why it starts a new chapter.   However, the traditional Jewish punctuation reads it as the true conclusion of the preceding chapter, which ends:

לֹא־תַעֲשֶׂ֣ה כֵ֔ן לַיקֹוָ֖ק אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּי֩ כָל־תּוֹעֲבַ֨ת יְקֹוָ֜ק אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׂנֵ֗א עָשׂוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם כִּ֣י גַ֤ם אֶת־בְּנֵיהֶם֙ וְאֶת־בְּנֹ֣תֵיהֶ֔ם יִשְׂרְפ֥וּ בָאֵ֖שׁ לֵֽאלֹהֵיהֶֽם:

Do not do the same for Hashem your G-d, because it was all the abominations of Hashem that He hates that they did for their gods; yes, they would even burn their sons and daughters in fire for their gods.

Seforno uses this connection to make the startling claim that the prohibition against “adding to” is needed to prevent Jews from voluntarily instituting child sacrifice for the sake of Heaven.

“לא תוסף עליו” – כי אולי תוסיף דבר נמאס אצלו יתברך, כמו שיהיה אם תרצה להוסיף מיני עבודות לא-ל יתברך, שלפעמים תהיה העבודה הנוספת דבר נמאס אצלו ית’, כמו שריפת הבנים.

“You must not add to it” – because perhaps you will add something that is revolting to Him May He be Blessed, as would happen if you wanted to add forms of service to the Divinity May He be Blessed, that on occasion the added service would be revolting to Him May He be Blessed, like the burning of sons. 

Seforno’s shocking suspicion also implies an important liberalism: G-d does not reject humanly conceived and initiated worship out of hand.  If we could be trusted to choose actions which pleased Him, perhaps He would even prefer such freely-chosen worship above obedient service.

By contrast, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch reads our verse as rejecting human religious autonomy in principle.

“Everything” the parshiyot-division of the Masorah shows that this verse is the conclusion of what is said before it, and this is its meaning: For this reason, you must not produce for yourself new ways of Divine service, you must not seek to ingratiate yourself before your Divinity in ways different from those that were established by Him.  Only if you faithfully perform that which he commanded will you express the submission which He is expecting from you.  He imposed mitzvot on you and taught you how to fulfill them, and these mitzvot and these ways of fulfilling them express His will. 

Rav Hirsch seems to believe that worship in a freely-chosen form is oxymoronic.

This profound philosophical dispute between Seforno and Rav Hirsch may reflect an even deeper disagreement about the nature of the Oral Law.  Why doesn’t the rabbinic corpus constitute an illegitimate addition?

For Rav Hirsch, the Written Law is famously the “lecture notes” for the Oral Law.  This means that the Oral Law actually came first – the Written Law is just a way of encoding it.  There is nothing creatively human about the Oral Law.  Even the most brilliant rabbis were merely answering complex crossword clues correctly.  This tracks with his absolute prohibition against adding.

By contrast, Seforno may acknowledge that while the Oral Law is under the authority of the Written Law, it is the product of an unscripted human encounter with the Divine Will, and may reflect genuine creativity.  For Seforno, the prohibition is against undisciplined adding.

This theme is elaborated by Rabbi Pinchas Halevi Horowitz (1730-1805) in his Panim Yafot.  Rabbi Horowitz reads the opening of the verse as a reference to the Oral Law – “Everything that I am commanding you” includes matters that are not explicit intentions of the text.  He embraces the paradoxical formulation on Megillah 19b that G-d showed Mosheh everything that the Soferim would eventually originate.  The Talmud says that this refers specifically to the rabbinic mandate to read the Megillah on Purim, but Rabbi Horowitz reads it more broadly.

He then adds an important excursus on the nature of Torah study.

שלימוד התורה הוא בכל דור בשני פנים

האחד ללמוד התורה שכבר נתון בכתב ובע”פ בכל הדורות הקודמין, וזה הלימוד מקרא ומשנה,

והלימוד השני הוא עיון והשכל הטוב חלקו מאת ה’ בתורה, כמ”ש ותן חלקינו בתורתיך,

. . . כי שתי הפנים האלה התחלפו בימי שנות האדם

בילדותו א”צ כ”כ שקידה וזיכרון הטוב,

כמ”ש [שבת כא ב] בגירסא דינקותא עולה לזיכרון יותר מבימי הזקנה,

אבל בעיון השכל הוא בהיפוכו כי דעתם מתיישבת עליהם,

. . . the study of Torah in every generation has two aspects

The first is to lean the Torah that has already been given, in writing or orally, in all the previous generations.  This learning is called mikra and Mishnah.

The second type of learning is ?analysis and excellent comprehension? which is his portion given out by Hashem in the Torah, as is written “and give our shares in Your Torah”.

. . . These two aspects reverse during a person’s years

In his youth he does not need so much diligence and good memorization, 

as per Talmud Shabbat 21b that the learning of youth arise in memory more than that of old age,

but the investigation of the intellect is the reverse, because their mind becomes settled . . .  

According to Rabbi Horowitz, the human “share” in G-d’s Torah is not what we take out of the text, but rather what we put into it.  It is our creative contribution.  But such contributions must be built on a solid basis of knowledge of the written Torah and all its previous interpretations, including those once regarded as creative.  In turn, our successors will be required to memorize our creative contributions by rote before being allowed to attempt such contributions themselves.

Rabbi Horowitz thus sets out a model for the discipline that Seforno sees as the difference between legitimate creativity and illegitimate adding.  Creativity must go hand in hand with genuine commitment to and respect for the past.  Moreover, creativity is not an end in itself; rather, its value is predicated on being filtered via sound and mature judgment.

Let us be frank – this model may not be useful in real life.  There is no formula for determining the genuineness of commitment to the past.  Making memorization a requirement simply privileges those with superior memories.  Similarly, good and mature judgment are often not recognized, especially by those who lack them.

What may help is an acknowledgement and keeping-in-mind of the Torah’s caution that creativity can lead to human sacrifice.

The Kotzker Rebbe reportedly asked:  Why did the angel call out to Avraham two commands-to-stop at the Binding of Isaac?  Wouldn’t Avraham have stopped once G-d said “DO NOT send your hand forth against the child”?  Why did He need to add “and do nothing at all to him”?

More astonishingly yet, Rashi claims that Avraham did not stop in response to “DO NOT send your hand forth”; rather, he asked for permission to at least wound Yitzchak, which is why G-d continued “do no meumah (a pun on mum=blemish) to him”.  Why would an apparent sadistic streak emerge, rather than a joyous celebration of the reprieve?

The Kotzker replied: The most difficult temptations are those which convince a person that letting his or her worst evil inclinations flourish is actually a fulfillment of the Divine Will.  We may convince ourselves that the very absurdity of an action is what proves its religious origin: who but G-d would think of such a command?  Or we may convince ourselves that only the most ethically counterintuitive actions can prove that we are acting out of genuine religious devotion, that we are utterly engaged in the fulfillment of His will rather than our own.  Thus the true test of the Akeidah was not whether Avraham was willing to sacrifice Yitzchak, but rather whether he was able to abort the sacrifice when G-d revealed his error.  And, the Kotzker concludes, even Avraham was unable to stop immediately, even when presented with an angel telling him to stop – the angel had to tell him twice to keep him from drawing blood.

A reasonable argument can be made that the popularity of creative stringencies in contemporary Orthodoxy stems precisely from this impulse, especially in the areas of conversion and agunot.  There is real and culpable inconsistency in celebrating creative leniencies while denigrating creative stringencies.  At the same time, we should be hypersuspicious of any creativity that seems to draw strength from the number of victims it claims.

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Madison & Rava

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Jonathan Mansfield

Devarim 14:1 includes an apparent prohibition against self-cutting as an expression of mourning.

בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ וְלֹא תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם לָמֵת:

You are the children of the Lord your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.

But the Gemara (Yevamos 14a) interprets תִתְגֹּדְדוּ as referring not to self-cutting, but rather to forming communal factions, אגודות אגודות. And it is easy to feel these days that factionalism casts an overwhelming and worrisome shadow on both religious and civic life.  Which makes it worthwhile to inquire: What is the nature of the Torah’s prohibition against factionalism?

One of the most famous treatments of the problem of faction shows up in the Federalist papers. In Federalist No 10, Madison explains his approach to factionalism:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

Under the heading of removing the causes of factionalism, Madison notes that we either:

destroy the liberty which is essential to its existence…or give to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

Neither of these solutions being very palatable to a liberty-loving people, he concludes that it is hopeless to try to prevent faction. In his words:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man

and thus the only way of protecting against the danger of faction is to accept its inevitability and guard against its bad effects.

But did Chazal share Madison’s view that factions are inevitable?  On first glance, it seems they did not.  The simple meaning of the drasha is לא תתגודדו = לא תעשו אגודות אגודות, “you shall not make factions”!  But to properly understand the nature of the prohibition, we need to look a little deeper into the Gemara.

The Mishnah in the first Perek of Yevamos (13a, bottom) discusses different relationships which would exempt a woman from Levirite marriage. There are 15 basic relationships — so to take a somewhat famous example, if a niece married her uncle, who then died, she would (obviously!) be exempt from levirite marriage with her own father.  Marriage in exempt cases is forbidden as incest, and the children of such marriages are mamzerim, unable to marry within the Jewish community.   

There are disagreements between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel about exactly who is exempt.  Beit Shammai require levirite marriage in many cases that Beit Hillel exempts.  In such cases, Beit Hillel would consider the progeny from women who followed Beit Shammai to be illegitimate. The Gemara therefore asks: How could Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree on something that would perforce split the community in the realm of marriage — isn’t this a problem of factions?

The Gemara (14a) records that some Amoraim took this problem so seriously that they contended that Beit Shammai never implemented their own theoretical positions.  But other Amoraim found this implausible.  How did they solve the problem of factions?

The gemara offers two possible limitations on the scope of the prohibition against factionalism:

(1) According to Abbaye, the prohibition applies only when two courts in the same town render competing decisions, but in separate towns there is no problem of factions.

If two courts ruled differently in a single town, this would undermine the authority of Torah, since it would appear like there are two Torahs. But this is not a concern if each court rules for its own community, and the two communities do not mingle.  It seems that in Abbaye’s view, the presence of a distinct minority within a single community is ipso facto intolerable — the problem of faction is its mere existence, not any particular effect it generates.

(2) Rava, however, contends that the presence of distinct minorities within one community is not a problem per se — after all, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai themselves lived in one community!  Rava therefore declares that two courts can always disagree, even if they share a town; the problem of factions is only when a single court is split by dissent.

But this view is difficult to understand. What is Rava worried about in the case of a single court that is not a problem for two distinct courts? 

Perhaps having two distinct courts that disagree on a whole variety of different matters is really equivalent to having two separate ideological communities, which for Rava is not a problem.  Trouble occurs when when you have a single court that agrees on nearly everything except for one issue, and that one issue generates schism, machlokes.

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed on a panoply of issues, and according to Rava, that sort of difference of worldview is acceptable even within a single geographic community. Rava is not worried about the perception that there are two Torahs due to competing ideologies; rather he’s worried about destructive fights within a single ideological camp. For Rava, the presence of faction is not itself a threat, it’s the type of faction that viciously divides an otherwise united camp which the Torah warns against. (For more on this approach, see שו”ת אהלי תם סימן קסח)

(It seems that Rava’s approach is accepted as the halacha.  In general we have a rule that when Rava and Abbaye disagree, except in certain instances, we follow Rava’s view. And in this case, nearly all of the major poskim do so, with the important exception of the Rambam. But against the Rambam stand the Rif, the Rosh, the Ramban, Rabbeinu Yerucham, the Sefer haChinuch, the Sefer Agudah, the Ravaan, the Meiri, the Tashbetz, the Rid and later still R. Yosef Karo, the Shach, and the Magen Avraham.)  

But isn’t there something naive about Rava’s view? Unlike Abbaye, the Madisonian Rava seems to accept that faction itself is part of human nature. But just as faction is inevitable in human society, isn’t it equally inevitable that when you have two ideologies outwardly expressed in a single community, there will be friction and enmity and ultimately fighting? How realistic is it to allow faction but proscribe the inevitable friction? In other words, what is Rava’s recipe for treating the bad effects of faction?

The example of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel can give us some hint of an approach to navigate this precarious situation. How did Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai live together despite their enormous differences in a most serious areas of law?

The mishnah that we started with concludes with the following statement (13b, top):

אע”פ שאלו אוסרים ואלו מתירין, אלו פוסלין ואלו מכשירין, לא נמנעו בית שמאי מלישא נשים מבית הלל, ולא בית הלל מבית שמאי. כל הטהרות והטמאות שהיו אלו מטהרים ואלו מטמאין, לא נמנעו עושין טהרות אלו על גבי אלו

Though these forbade what the others permitted and these regarded as ineligible what the others declared eligible, Beit Shammai nevertheless did not refrain from marrying women from the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from the families of Beit Shammai. Similarly, with respect to all questions of ritual cleanness and uncleanness, which these declared clean where the others declared unclean, neither of them abstained from using the utensils of the others for the preparation of food that was ritually clean.

It seems that despite the danger of friction and machlokes, in actuality an almost unbelievable comity prevailed. The Gemara explains (14a, bottom) that דמודעי להו ופרשי, that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel each held by their own views, and insofar as they could cooperate, they did, but “they informed each other” when their conflicts were irreconcilable and in those cases “went their separate ways”. Where their views conflicted, they did not marry each other, nor did they use each other’s pots and pans. But they had the combination of confidence and trust to inform each other where they could not unite, rather than trying to coerce each other into an artificial unity. 

Rava’s Madisonian approach places the enormous burden of pluralism on our shoulders. By rejecting Abbaye’s view of unity above all, Rava makes a far more challenging demand on us — to live together with ideological adversaries and not be tempted by the urge to coerce communal unity in the name of some higher principle, nor by the urge to denigrate and malign those with whom we disagree. But this means mustering the inner confidence in our own approaches, so that we can we can rely on those with whom we disagree in some areas and go our own way in others without having to write them out of religious and civic communities entirely.  

Rava’s approach to the problem of faction is also indicated in the very verse we began with. The verse, on its plain meaning, proscribes cutting oneself in mourning. The Maharal explains (in Gur Aryeh) that

דודאי שייכי שפיר יחד, שכמו שהגדידה מחלק גוף האדם – עד שאין בשרו אחד ושוה, כך כשנחלק הבית דין שהוא בעיר אחת, חציים מורים כבית הלל, וחציים כבית שמאי, כאילו גופו של אדם מחולק

Certainly the two meanings of תתגודדו are related: just as cutting one’s flesh in mourning separates the body until the flesh is no longer one, so too when there is a schism in a single Beit Din, it is as if the body of a human is divided.

What the Maharal doesn’t say, but his analogy makes clear, is that cutting the flesh is not merely dividing parts of the body up, as might occur in a necessary surgery — rather we are talking about a painful and unnecessary self-injury. And that is what Rava was worried about: not merely division of collective selves, but division which is painful, division which is unnecessary. And thus the challenge of לא תתגודדו is somewhat counter-intuitive: to live with the healthy division, to embrace our ideological opponents not malign them, to remain confident enough to value the divisions as much as the unity. 

Jonathan Mansfield (SBM 2003) lives in Washington, DC and works for the Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC).

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2017 Summer Beit Midrash Shayla

After five weeks of learning about Mental Disabilities in Jewish Law, the SBM fellows have been posed the following Shayla. Stay tuned for R’ Klapper’s response!

Kaila Adamah Jellison was a junior at Samuel Myerson High School when she suffered her first attack of manic-depressive illness.  

It began with exhilaration.    I had always been a highly competent and painstaking student, but prone to two-dimensional readings of texts and human beings.  Suddenly I could see into the depths of literature and people, made giant intuitive leaps, and everything made so much sense!  I still experience the world more richly as a result of that first week.  But the crash came soon after.  My limbs became concrete; my mind, an uncomprehending blank.  Nothing made sense; nothing interested me.  Then came an obsession with death – I wandered through the local cemetery for several nights in a row writing endless morbid poems and reciting kaddish at each gravestone that seemed to have a Jewish name . . . But no one in school seemed to notice anything amiss; I still don’t understand how.

A second attack came in graduate school, soon after her marriage to Marcus.  This time the manic phase led to uncontrolled spending and impulsive rule-breaking; the depressive phase almost killed her.  

I bought fountain pens – tens of fountain pens, because my ideas deserved to be expressed in perfect calligraphic form.  I shoplifted some of them because the line at the store was too long.  Then I started collecting wild turkey feathers and sharpening them into quills so that I could write the perfect Megillat Esther – and I did! . . . a few days later I was hallucinating, and thinking suicidally in very specific ways …

A psychiatrist put her on lithium, which worked.  But for several years she would stop taking the pills whenever she felt good enough for a while – the highs were too seductive, and the lows no longer seemed real.  She thought she could take them in time if her moods seemed to be spiraling out of control; but she was constantly in danger of falling completely over one cliff or the other.      But one day in Elul, Marcus came home to find her in the grip of a paranoid/grandiose fantasy.  

The world was out to get me; or maybe the world was broken, and only I could fix it, by repenting properly on Yom Kippur.  But my whole community was conspiring to stop me . . .

Kaila was hospitalized on 28 Ellul, in a facility well out of walking distance of any motel or Orthodox community and with no space for guests and limited visiting hours.  She is prescribed medication that makes her ravenously hungry.  Her doctors say that while it is almost certain that she will return to normal moods soon, having caring visitors daily will probably lead to a significantly faster return to normalcy.  They also warn that this is remission, not recovery, and that this cycle will happen again unless she succeeds in staying on her meds.

As you are a close friend of the family, and an informal halakhic authority of some repute, it is not surprising that when you visited that night, both Kaila and Marcus had questions they want to ask you:


  1. Is the megillah kosher?
  2. If I blow shofar for myself, can I make the berakhah?
  3. Should/may/must I fast on Yom Kippur?


  1. Can I take a cab to visit her on Shabbat and yom tov?
  2. Our minhag has always been for her to make the hamotzi on Friday nights.  Can I be yotzei with her berakhah while she is hospitalized?  (Was I yotzei with her berkakhot during these interim periods?)  

Sometime before Pesach, with Kaila having been out of the hospital after Sukkot and medication-compliant since, she decides to write a magazine article about her experiences for the OUs Jewish Action, with the goal of destigmatizing mental illness in the Orthodox community.  Jewish Action accepts the article and asks you if you’re willing to write up the answers you gave her, with your reasoning, so they can either publish or link to it.  They also pass on that several rabbis on their advisory board expressed deep interest in reading as fully developed a teshuvah on the questions as you can produce.  

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Halakha as Going from Is to Should

Guest Post by Rabbi Francis Nataf

CMTL is pleased this week to feature the work of my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Francis Nataf. Rabbi Nataf models the virtues of integrity and thoughtfulness so central to CMTL’s work. To subscribe to his parsha newsletter, click here, to subscribe to his monthly newsletter with links to his essays, news and books, click here. I also encourage you to browse his website,

The source for saying Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) may not be as obvious as we normally assume. Our likely assumption comes from being accustomed to reading the first three words from Devarim 8:10, “Ve’achalta, vesava’ata ou’verachta (You shall eat, and be satiated and bless),” in isolation – as we find them in Birkat HaMazon itself. Read that way, it seems pretty clear that the Torah is telling us that when we eat properly, we should bless God. Significantly, this conclusion is not just liturgical, but it underlies the halacha as well.

Taken in context, however, it is less clear. Ramban is aware of this and tells us not to read the second part of the verse in its most obvious way – as the rest of the verse tells us that the blessing that we are supposed to give to God after we have eaten, is specifically for the land He has given us. Ramban however tells us to read it as if there was a conjunction between our first three words and the rest of the verse. Hence, we should bless God more generally and bless Him for the land, as well. But not only is that not the simplest reading of the verse, it seems to take the verse out of its context, which is all about the great land that God is giving the Jews.

On the one hand, the notion that the halachic understanding of the verse can disagree with its simple reading has always been a controversial point – especially when we can be sure that the rabbis meant their understanding to be a bona fide interpretation of the text and not just what we call an asmachta be’alma (a memory device). On the other hand, Jews have traditionally been comfortable with the idea that there is more than one valid way to read the text – as the Divine words invariably contain much more content than can be subsumed under just one reading.

In the case of the verse in question, I would not only suggest that the halakhic reading of the verse is a valid – if less obvious – one. I would go further and suggest that this reading is finding a way to make the descriptive (what is) into the prescriptive (what should be), which is really what halacha is about, more generally. I will explain:

Shadal has already pointed out that the simple reading is speaking about blessing God as a natural response to the bounty that the Jew will encounter in the Land of Israel. Any slightly religious individual will be familiar with this response to overwhelming bounty. When we receive more than we could ever imagine, it is natural to want to thank God. While this is a good and healthy response, it can hardly be a major pillar of religious life. For how often is the average person overwhelmed in this fashion? In fact, Shadal points out that the verses that follow this speak to the more common situation that will happen over time, as the Jews become more used to the bounty of their land. Though the land will continue to serve them well, they will be likely to forget God’s involvement with it altogether. And what of those that (like almost all of us today) are not connected to the land at all? While any bounty gives us cause for thanks, we are more able to see God’s hand in the production of food from the clearly natural world that He created. If one accustomed to the land’s bounty is likely to forget his gratitude, someone off the land is even more likely to do so. That is what is.

But the rabbis understood that the highly appropriate response that the verse speaks about reflects a latent appreciation that is with us more commonly. When reminded that my food or my paycheck comes from God, I am also appreciative. The only difference is that I need the reminder. But the feeling of gratitude when I bless naturally and when prompted by the reminder is ultimately the same. Accordingly, the rabbis understood that once natural gratitude is established by this verse, it reflects an attitude even more than it does an action. That is to say that the verse shows us that man is naturally grateful and knows how to express that gratitude on his own. At that point, it becomes clear to not only read the verse for the expression of gratitude that always does happen, but also for the latent expression that always can happen. As both are ultimately the same expression of the same attitude.

Hence the rabbis knew that the possibility of going from that which people do to that which they should do is all part of that which the verse communicates to us. And through such a halachic reading, they were able to translate an occasional positive action into the pillar of faith that the constant expression of gratitude to God –when done properly and sincerely – can actually become. And that is what should be.

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Purposeful Suffering

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Leah Sarna

:דברים ח:ה – וְיָדַעְתָּ֖ עִם־לְבָבֶ֑ךָ כִּ֗י כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יְיַסֵּ֥ר אִישׁ֙ אֶת־בְּנ֔וֹ יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ מְיַסְּרֶֽךָּ

Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son. (NJPS, Deuteronomy 8:5)

Most of our traditional commentators fall into line with the JPS’s translation of ייסר. Onkelos goes so far as to translate the line as:

.כְּמָא דְּמַלֵּיף גּוּבְרָא יָת בְּרֵיהּ, יְיָ אֱ-לָהָךְ מַלֵּיף לָךְ

As a father teaches his son, the Lord your God teaches you.

The Ramban understands the pasuk in a very similar way. He suggests that the verse means– שיתן עליו לטובתו עול מוסר, that a person should put upon their child the yoke of discipline for his betterment. We can assume that to these commentators, education and discipline were quite similar, if not synonymous.

However, the word that the NJPS and most Rishonim understand as “discipline” or in Onkelos’ version, “education” could also be translated as “causes to suffer.” The Midrash, in a fascinating line, (ספרי דברים פרשת ואתחנן פיסקא לב ד”ה רבי עקיבה ) seems to understand our pasuk this way.

רבי מאיר אומר הרי הוא אומר (דברים ח ה) “וידעת עם לבבך כי כאשר ייסר איש את בנו ה’ א-להיך מיסרך,” אתה ולבך יודעים מעשים שעשית ויסורים שהבאתי עליך שלא כנגד מעשיך שעשית הבאתי עליך

Rabbi Meir says: the verse says “Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son.” You and your mind know the actions that you did and the suffering that I brought upon you – the suffering I brought upon you was not commensurate with your actions.

Discipline is definitionally conditional, responsive to particular actions. Here Rabbi Meir interprets this pasuk to say that that the suffering endured by the Jewish people is not in response to their actions. It is disproportionate. But the direction of the disproportionality is left opaque. We usually think of Hashem as רחום, gentle and compassionate. But Rabbi Meir’s words here also leave open an opposite possibility: that the punishment was overly harsh. Support for this reading comes from a thesis statement put forward by the midrash a few lines earlier– and our statement by Rabbi Meir is part of a compilation of rabbinic statements brought in discussion of the following line:

ועוד יהא אדם שמח ביסורים יותר מן הטובה שאילו אדם בטובה כל ימיו אינו נמחל לו מעון שבידו ובמה נמחל לו ביסורים

And further, a person should be more glad in their suffering than in their good experiences, for were a person only to experience good things all of his days, he would not be forgiven from the sins he bears. How are his sins forgiven? Through suffering.  

Rabbi Meir’s reading of our verse is brought as part of a suggestion that a person should be delighted by suffering, for it brings forgiveness. This touches on one of the largest theological questions: צדיק ורע לו. The suffering of a righteous person. Rabbi Meir looks at the problem of צדיק ורע לו and says “that Tzaddik should be grateful because he has achieved forgiveness.”  

We must then go back and try to understand how Rabbi Meir is reading our pasuk in Devarim. He seems to be saying, “Bear in mind that the Lord your God causes you to suffer just as a man causes his children to suffer” – but with the intention that suffering is a gift, for it gives the other an opportunity for his sins to be absolved.

There is something quite relatable about Rabbi Meir’s seemingly strange read of the pasuk. First of all, it eliminates the equation of education with punishment, which is an assumption of the read put forward but Onkelos and others. Second, it owns up to the fact that intimate relationships sometimes cause disproportionate harm. Parents inevitably cause suffering for their children, most of the time through their good intentions. And so too, maybe, Hashem.

The difference lies only in the accidental nature of the suffering. In the theology of Rabbi Meir, when a parent inadvertently causes their child to suffer, the parent is not causing the child to suffer so that the child will be forgiven– only Hashem does that. (This makes for a reading of the verse that is slightly defective in its parallelism, but so are most comparisons between humans and Hashem.)

One can imagine that a Jew listening to Moshe’s speech in Sefer Devarim looks back with resentment on the many times that Hashem punished the Jews harshly during their wanderings in the desert. Perhaps their relative was killed after the golden calf. Another was involved in the Korach ordeal. A third was just really hungry, he had some slav. The nation endured great suffering in the desert, even while Hashem was taking care that they have food and clothing. Rabbi Meir suggests that Moshe here addresses that suffering: you suffered the way all children suffer. Suffering is inevitable. But suffering is positive, look back on suffering not in resentment but in gratitude, for ultimately it is a gift– it brings forgiveness.

Obviously, it would be insensitive to tell someone who is suffering, “your suffering is for the best” or “your suffering is bringing you forgiveness, smile!” I think Rabbi Meir’s read of the pasuk takes Moshe’s audience into consideration. Moshe is speaking to people who have endured suffering and who have seen others endure even greater suffering, but they are not currently suffering. They are sitting in Arvot Moav, waiting expectantly to finally to enter the land of Israel. The theology that Rabbi Meir attributes to Moshe here is a type that might very well serve a person who is resentful. It might help them look back and make meaning of their past.

Leah Sarna (SBM 2014) is a student at Yeshivat Maharat and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She is the Congregational intern at the Hebrew Institute of White Plains. 

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Reclaiming Tu B’Av

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Sarah Robinson

In anticipation of the celebration of Tu B’Av next Monday, allow me to present a question (and tentative answer) about or celebration of that day.    

It is curious that the gemara in Taanit 30b and other rabbinic texts provide no less than seven possible reasons for celebrating Tu B’Av. Why so many? Perhaps there might be a unifying factor among the seven; allow me to present them  in chronological order of Jewish history:  


  1. After God ruled that Benot Tzelafchad could indeed inherit their father’s land, Shevet Menashe protested (Bamidbar 36:1-9), fearing that such women would marry out of the tribe and taking the land with them — thus reducing the overall tribal apportionment to each tribe.  The resolution  was for the Benot Tzelafchad and other women in this tragic circumstance would marry only within their tribe, thus enabling  them to simultaneously inherit their father’s land while maintaining the overall apportionment to each Shevet. It was then on Tu B’Av that it was determined that this ruling was relevant only for the Dor Hamidbar, thereby enabling future women in this circumstance to freely marry members of other shevatim. (Ta’anit 30b)
  2. Rashi to Taanit 30b d”h “shekulo mitei midbar” brings a midrash that following the Cheit HaMeraglim on Tisha B’Av, every night, the men between 20 and 60 would dig their graves  in anticipation of their potential death; those who woke up in the morning would then continue on the journey to Eretz Yisrael. Beginning on the 40th year on Tisha B’Av, all the men awoke the following morning. This continued for a number of days. By Tu B’Av, the men realized that they would not die in the Midbar like their parents and would merit to enter and conquer the land of Israel.
  3. Following the gang rape and death of the Pilegesh B’Givah, Am Yisrael nearly eradicated the perpetrator tribe, Shevet Binyamin, in a civil war.  They also  vowed that they would not marry their daughters to the remaining survivors of the tribe (Shoftim 20 and 21).  Regretting the enormity of their actions, Am Yisrael sought a legally permissible means to re-populate the tribe. On Tu B’Av, the Beit Din reached a solution:  women could dance in the field and be kidnapped and marry their kidnapper, thereby enabling them to marry and create children for the tribe of Binyamin (Ta’anit 30b)
  4. After the kingdoms split between Malchut Yisrael and Malchut Yehudah, it was finally on Tu B’Av that the Shavtim in Malchut Yisrael could now go to the Mikdash in Malchut Yehudah (Taanit 30b, Melachim Alef 12:26-31 and Melachim Bet 17:1-2).
  5. Following the failure of the Bar Kochva revolt, the Romans prevented the Jewish soldiers from entering Beitar to bury their dead. Many years later on Tu B’Av, Jews were given permission to bury the dead, and to their surprise, the bodies had not decayed. Thus this day contained a double blessing — the permission to bury and to bury them whole.
  6. Tu B’Av signified the date when woodchoppers who collected wood for the mizbeyach would cease that activity, indicating the shortening of days and the anticipation of the winter ahead.  (Tannit 30b)
  7. Perhaps the most well known reason is recorded in the Mishna Ta’anit 4:8. The Mishna explains that there was “no more joyous a festival than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur,” for maiden women would dress in borrow white dresses (so as to financially equalize one maiden to the other). As they danced, they enticed the male suitors with the promise of a good family. Thus a celebration for Jewish continuity and a marriage predicated on family values.

When I consider all seven of these reasons — I have to wonder — why are there so many? And why are they so different from each other? Perhaps, as Rav Yaakov Medan of Yeshivat Har Etzion would tell us in Migdal Oz — when the rishonim present a huge number of potential readings to a narrative (like the story of Nadav V’Avihu), it is an indication that none of the answers are particularly compelling and we therefore need to cull all of them together to make sense of it. Is that what’s going on here? Does the gemara need to suggest seven reasons because, alone, one reason is not enough to justify a celebration? After all, we are familiar with tens of rabbinic sources giving wildly different reasons for the Churban, so it wouldnt be outside the realm of possibilities that Tu b’Av could also be celebrated for a multiplicity of smaller victories.

Allow me to suggest another reason. There seven reasons all relate to: life and death (burying the dead of Beitar, stop dying in the midbar), marriage (orphaned women following the generation of Benot  Tzlafchad can marry outside their tribe, marrying the survivors of Shevet Binyamin, and the practice for women in white dresses to dance in the fields), and the mikdash (Jews from Malchut Yisrael can now go to the mikdash in Malchut Yehudah, and stopping the wood chopping for the mikdash).

So what do these three themes — life and death, marriage, and mikdash have to do with each other?

Perhaps the celebration of Tu B’Av is meant to indicate what a Jewish marriage is all about. The couple’s private joy is situated in the context of the Jewish community and Jewish continuity.

So on Monday night when Millennials go to their White Only parties in this reclaimed, niche holiday, let us remember what the day is really all about: the joy of continuing the Jewish people through Jewish marriage and the building of Mikdash, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days.

Sarah Robinson (SBM 2012, 2013) is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University’s women’s talmud and halacha program called GPATS; in the fall she will be teaching limmudei kodesh in the Rae Kushener Yeshiva High School. 

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