I. Rashbash and Chumra
Religious life tends toward conservatism, retaining the practices and rhythms of prior years. New stringencies are often derided as fanaticism, an offensive rejection of earlier generations’ religiosity. While this may sometimes be the case, this hesitance cannot allow for ossification. New circumstances demand a renewed application of religious law that smoothly accounts for the present yet respects the past.
An example is found in the responsa of Rashbash, R. Shlomo ben Shimon Duran (bio). The fifteenth century son of a Spanish emigre rabbi, both of whom became leading authorities in the ancient Jewish community of Algeria (link), consciously changed long-standing practice toward stringency and defended his right to do it.
II. Respect for a Shul
The Gemara (Megillah 28a-b; Berakhos 62b) lists disrespectful actions that are incompatible with the honor due a synagogue. You may not eat or drink in one (see this post: link), nor use it as a shortcut or a place to stay dry from the rain. A synagogue is a holy place, intended for connecting with God. We must treat it appropriately.
Rashbash (no. 285 – link) explains that there are two kinds of respect and disrespect. The ultimate, true type is entirely spiritual. However, even the apparent kind, which is subjective, must be maintained. The definitions of this kind of respect and disrespect are bound by time and geography. Proper behavior depends on contemporary attitudes, what people consider respectful and not.
Therefore, Rashbash concludes, in Muslim countries you may not enter a synagogue while wearing shoes. Since people in those places consider entering a home while wearing shoes disrespectful, and certainly when appearing before a king, they must accord even greater respect to a synagogue. In Christian countries, however, you must wear shoes in a synagogue because, in those places, that is considered proper behavior.
Prior to the Rashbash, Tosafos (Shabbos 10a sv. rami) had ruled unequivocally that you must wear shoes while praying, except for Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av when we are restricted regarding footwear. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Tefillah 5:5) writes that it depends on what people in that place consider respectful. Surprisingly, only after a lengthy analysis, Rashbash quotes the Rambam. Apparently, he independently arrived at Rambam’s approach and reaches the appropriate conclusion for fifteenth century Algiers.
In subsequent literature, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 91:4) adopts Rambam’s language and later authorities generally accept it. Magen Avraham (91:5) quotes a responsum from R. Moshe Mintz (no. 38), who also ruled that people may not enter a synagogue while wearing sandals. However, on further examination it is clear that this German-Polish rabbi meant that people must wear shoes rather than sandals (link). Birkei Yosef (Orach Chaim 91:5, 151:8) quotes Rashbash at length, as does Kaf Ha-Chaim (91:25). Somewhat anomalously, Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 91:5, 151:9) insists that the entire discussion centers on wearing socks but not shoes. Everyone, he claims, requires one or the other because otherwise you appear to be following a Muslim practice. Rashbash, however, seems to base his entire argument on Muslim practice.
Rashbash’s ruling seems to mirror R. Ahron Soloveitchik’s view that nowadays all men must pray while wearing a tie. Since that is how we greet the President, we should show God at least that much respect. I know only a few people who follow that ruling. For whatever reason, it has not caught on.
IV. Chumra or Proper Application?
Rashbash is particularly concerned with the accusation that he is overstepping his bounds by forbidding a long-standing practice. Rather, like R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi (see Chullin 6b-7a), Rashbash was merely filling a role that previous generations had left for him. The Mishnah and Gemara, he argues, are replete with cases of later authorities forbidding something earlier rabbis had allowed. We never say that later rabbis must remain silent simply because earlier rabbis did not say something.
This logic should apply to both leniency and stringency. We must follow the proper application of halakhah in whichever direction it leads. R. Hershel Schachter is fond of saying that sometimes following the practice of prior generations is the biggest deviation. When circumstances change, earlier generations would have practiced differently and we must as well. Rashbash teaches us that this leads not only toward leniency, but also the occasional stringency.