The Rabbi’s Secret Rules

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Rabbinic judgment calls are adjudicated based on more than acquired wisdom and personal proclivity. When required to decide halakhah in ambiguous cases or when authorities disagree, a rabbi will utilize implicit and explicit principles he has learned from teachers and texts. These are guidelines rather than hard rules, the proper direction in which to head albeit taking into account the unique situation of the questioner and the details of specific question.

The following is R. Shlomo Zalman Braun’s description of some of these guidelines in his Kuntres Seder Toras Ha-Limmud, Toras Ha-Hora’ah Ve-Ha-Minhagim (back of volume 1 of She’arim Mtzuyanim Ba-Halakhah), par. 24:

After hearing all this, we have strong principles on the laws and customs that our sages established from the Talmudim and great decisors, based on which all decisions are rendered and from which we will learn to balance the just on the scales of our intellect. We rely on these principles, which determine when we lean toward those who are strict and when to lean toward those who are lenient on matters that arise every day. These are the principles:

  • We lean toward stricture regarding: forbidden foods and drinks coming from non-kosher animals, improperly slaughtered animals, and animals that died without slaughter, all of which sully one’s heart (Yoma 39a). See the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 81) that you should not feed a child non-kosher food because it will damage him even when he is older… However, food that is forbidden because of a time do not sully the heart (Tosafos, Pesachim 106b)… The Magen Avraham (269:1) writes that children, even old enough to learn, may taste food before kiddush
  • Regarding the times of prayer: we lean toward leniency for those who need it. See Rashi and Tosafos (beginning of Berakhos) and commentaries on Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 58, 89, 233). We also lean toward leniency regarding the times for performing commandments, even of biblical origin, for those who need it. It says in Berakhos (30a) that one who rises early for travel may blow shofar, shake a lulav and read the megillah from dawn [rather than sunrise], and so is it codified in Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 588, 652, 687).
  • Regarding the forbidden labors of Shabbos which are Biblical: we lean toward stricture because Shabbos is as serious as idolatry (Chullin 5a)… But regarding the rabbinic prohibitions of Shabbos we lean toward leniency…
  • Regarding eruvin: we lean toward leniency, as explicit in the Gemara (Eruvin 46a) that the law follows the lenient on an eruv
  • The rules of mourning: are similar to eruvin, about which we follow the lenient view…
  • The laws of Tisha B’Av: more lenient than mourning, because it is long-delayed mourning…
  • The four fasts: one should be lenient for someone sick (non-life threatening), weak or old. But on Yom Kippur one can only be lenient for an actual threat to life.
  • Questions of chametz: one should be strict for oneself according to all the opinions, as the Arizal wrote, but follow standard rules of halakhah for others…
  • Living in a sukkah: be as strict as possible for oneself but follow the standard law for others…
  • Matters of nidah: struggle to be lenient based on the codes in order to permit a woman to her husband… source in Berakhos (4a).
  • Mikvahs: we lean toward those who are strict… if possible, we are according to all opinions…
  • Vows and oaths: …we are strict but follow common language.
  • Business matters: we follow common language… and one who wishes to force another to pay must prove it.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

20 comments

  1. Typo: teachers and texts.

  2. “Questions of chametz: one should be strict for oneself according to all the opinions, as the Arizal wrote..”

    1) What does this mean? To take one example, should one be strict for oneself according to those who say that machine matzah has less chashash of chometz and is therefore preferred over hand matzah?

    2) Is this standard pesak or more like a Hungarian or Chassidic view? I assume the latter, as that was the background of Rabbi Braun.

    The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch was the work of R. Shlomo Ganzfried of Ungvar (a kehillah that davened nusach Ashkenaz then, not Chassidic like the Ungvar of today). As is known, the approach of the Kitzur was different than that of others, e.g. what we could loosely call the Litvishe school. So it is not surprising that someone of similar background would write a work on it. But people should be aware that it may not always be reflective of their tradition. So CYLCOR (consult your local competent Orthodox Rabbi).

  3. “Rabbinic judgment calls are adjudicated based on more than acquired wisdom and personal proclivity. When required to decide halakhah in ambiguous cases or when authorities disagree, a rabbi will utilize implicit and explicit principles he has learned from teaches and texts. These are guidelines rather than hard rules, the proper direction in which to head albeit taking into account the unique situation of the questioner and the details of specific question”

    Agreed-thus a computer is not a posek and the essence of a good posek is not having an encyclopedic knowldege of halacha-although knowledge of halacha is necessary just not sufficient.
    Re the rules that R. Shlomo Zalman Braun mentions- to the extent that they represent psak OK-but some appear to have mystical principles rather than halacha behind them.

  4. I dont know what is “secret” about these rules.
    Also significantly, some of them seem to be widely ignored these days. e.g. being meikil in eruvin.
    Finally the word is “oaths” not “swears”.

  5. Almost all of these can be summarized by the rule “deoraita lechumra, derabanan lekula”.

  6. “Also significantly, some of them seem to be widely ignored these days. e.g. being meikil in eruvin”
    Brisker influence

  7. “that you should not feed a child non-kosher food because it will damage him even when he is older… However, food that is forbidden because of a time do not sully the heart ”

    So chametz on Pesak which is an issur Kares is not as bad as the issurei lavin-standard halachic practice?

  8. After hearing all this, we have strong principles on the laws and customs that our sages established from the Talmudim and great decisors,
    ======================================
    but of course applying those to changing situations requires a halachic heart/daas torah application of what was behind the Talmudim and great decisors thought process in establishing these rules. I have to admit my thinking on such was greatly influenced by reading the Asimov trilogy as a youth.
    KT

  9. Shalom Rosenfeld

    Possible typo, R’ Gil?

    You meant shake lulav etc. at dawn [alos] instead of waiting for sunrise [zricha], right?

  10. Yes, thank you Shalom, Moshe and HAGTBG for the corrections. It’s tough to write accurately on Purim.

  11. “We also lean toward leniency regarding the times for performing commandments, even of biblical origin, for those who need it. It says in Berakhos 30a) that one who rises early for travel may blow shofar, shake a lulav and read the megillah from sunrise [rather than dawn], and so is it codified in Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 588, 652, 687).”

    Are you sure this is translated properly or am I missing the leniency? Dawn (alos ha shachar) is before sunrise (netz)…

  12. Yes, someone going on a trip or otherwise busy needs to daven, etc. BEFORE he leaves. This is a leniency that allows him to.

  13. Shouldn’t it say “before sunrise” rather than “from dawn”?

  14. Or “from sunrise”?

  15. The real “secret rules” are the methods used by rabbis that they did not learn from their teachers or texts.

  16. Larry Lennhoff

    We lean toward stricture regarding: forbidden foods and drinks coming from non-kosher animals, improperly slaughtered animals ….

    So much for all those stories about rabbis struggling to find a way to declare a poor person’s chicken kosher … Or perhaps there is another unwritten set of rules that still hasn’t been written down?

  17. The two secret rules that I had hoped to find were to also use (a) common sense and (b) compassion.

  18. Aw, this post should have been titled “How to pasken in given situations.” From the first sentence, I thought it meant “how do you pasken when the Halacha doesn’t really tell you how,” like in the following example:

    In Bava Basra, 58a the Talmud relates certain rules relating to the actions of a dayan. “A certain man was reputed (muchzak) to have many sons and was informed just before his death that only one of those sons were his and he left all his property to that son, and R. Bun told all of the sons to beat the grave until the corpse was uncovered and they all went, but one did not go and R. Bun declared he was the son.” Meiri explains the Gemara in a surprising manner: “Similarly an experienced (muflag) judge must sometimes decide according to umdena according to the path whereby Solomon sometimes judged, as is well known with the two women who came before him…these matters and similar situations are only given to a wise king or a sage of exceptional wisdom and pilpul and sharpness much greater than all the other sages of his generation in all types of knowledge.”

    This idea is also cited in Beis Yosef Choshen Mishpat 15 in the name of Rosh, Teshuvot 107:6 and is also mentioned by Rambam Hil. Sanhedrin 24:1.

  19. I thought that the list was interesting, but did not reflect the fact that there are many different kinds of Halachos that are defined in a far more complex manner, especially in terms of how the same are derived-Mfurash BKra, Halacha LMoshe MiSinai, Hekesh, Gezerah Shaveh, that are considered as well in determining whether the Psak is LChumra or LKula, especially in a case of Safek. The Psicha HaKolleles of the Pri Megadim explores these issues in detail.

  20. Just to point out that Machlokes in Eruvin goes Lehakel, the Gemara explicitly says that only applies to *Eruvin* (as in Eruv Chatzeiros) not Mechitzos.

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