Foolish Inconsistencies

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Life is messy. When the ideal system of halakhah is applied to real life situations, with all their complexities, disputes often emerge. Debates often spill over from one area to another, when a strict ruling here leads directly to a lenient ruling elsewhere. Requiring a large minimum amount for eating matzah on Pesach also allows for avoiding reciting the long grace after meals when less than that amount of bread is eaten on other days.

The adoption of conflicting lenient rulings — acting permissively in both situations (e.g. eating a small amount of matzah but only reciting grace after eating a large amount of bread) — is declared wicked by the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 14a-b), due to insufficient piety. Acting stringently in both situations, eating the large amount of matzah but reciting grace after the small amount of bread, according to the Talmud, is foolish. “The fool walks in the dark” (Eccl. 2:14) speaks of such a person.

However, a person can adopt contradictory stringent rulings for more than one reason. Are all defined as foolish? Rashi (Eruvin 7a sv. de-sasran) writes that the problem is when someone knowingly adopts different and inconsistent strict positions. This attitude of excessive piety is foolish and undesirable. Tosafos (Rosh Hashanah 14b sv. ha-kesil) state that even someone who adopts one view as law and then volunteers to follow the other view and act inconsistently strict also falls under the stricture of excessive piety. That is too much, Tosafos seem to be saying. Find an approach and stick with it.

However, Rashi elsewhere (Rosh Hashanah 14b sv. ve-ha-rotzeh) describes the person’s foolishness as an inability to recognize the contradiction. Arukh La-Ner (ad loc.) connects this explanation with that of the Ritva (Eruvin 7a) — he should have learned enough to understand when to be strict and when to be lenient. According to the Ritva and this view in Rashi, the foolishness is ignorant piety.

The difference between excessive and ignorant piety is not just about level of knowledge, that even a learned scholar can be excessively pious. It is about which intentions are desirous to God. According to the first view above from Rashi, piety requires moderation. In life we must avoid extremes, as the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Dei’os 1:4) famously advocates. Even careful mitzvah observance has a limit: inconsistency. According to the Ritva and the second view above from Rashi, excessive piety plays a role in Jewish life but it must be adopted with scholarly care. Perhaps we can suggest that it is a level of religiosity reserved specifically for scholars, those who have mastered the laws and can avoid foolish inconsistencies. Only after climbing the ladder of Talmudic mastery are you prepared for the mantle of piety.

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. 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.

27 comments

  1. You’re really pushing this elitist message these days, though this time it’s directed at the right instead of the left. For what it’s worth, I find it extremely implausible that anything pre-modern would advocate this: “Excessive piety plays a role in Jewish life but it must be adopted with scholarly care”.

  2. Let’s play this out with an example. Everyone knows about the halachot for sleeve and dress length for women to be tniusdik, right? Even Talmudically trained people like yourself expound this, despite the lack of textual support.

    On the other hand, on the 14 December OU Kosher webcast, RHS quotes Rav Mendel Zaks telling a story about the Chofetz Chaim having said “tznius cannot be measured with a ruler” [timemark 73:10 to 79:45 for the whole she’alah and t’shuva].

    Applying your principle that “Only after climbing the ladder of Talmudic mastery are you prepared for the mantle of piety” what should we make of the RW Orthodoxy position regarding sleeve and dress length: Ignorant piety? Excessive piety? Foolish inconsistency?

  3. “When the ideal system of halakhah is applied to real life situations,” huh? Torah is ideal and eternal; Halacha is the application of Torah in the real world – real life. Where does the notion of the “ideal system of Halacha” come from?

  4. >Where does the notion of the “ideal system of Halacha” come from?

    Brisk – or in my lingo – BeMachshachim Hoshivani – zo torata shel bavel.

  5. Ruvie – see the Halakhic Man, etc. That’s where it comes from. Whether that’s what he meant or not is different.

  6. I rhink that it is older than HM., and in one form or another goes back pretty far

  7. Yes, pesach and benching have always bothered me. However, many people like to say that in the case of a torah commandment you go stringent. So you are stringent to make sure you ate enough to fulfill matzah, and you are stringent that maybe you ate enough to say birkat hamazon.

    Is that really the best example for this principle?

  8. “>Where does the notion of the “ideal system of Halacha” come from?”

    Regardless of where it comes from, (ie. when the term was coined) it exists without brisker methodology.

    The most basic example is the difference between Lchetichila and Bdieved. Lchetichila is the ideal system of halacha, and Bdieved is the system as applied to reality.

  9. “Perhaps we can suggest that it is a level of religiosity reserved specifically for scholars, those who have mastered the laws and can avoid foolish inconsistencies. Only after climbing the ladder of Talmudic mastery are you prepared for the mantle of piety.”

    Oh, the hubris. Climbing the ladder of Talmudic mastery leads to knowledge of Talmud – maybe not even halacha. Can one even say today that it leads to מעשים טובים? Let alone any piety. As RAL once said the days are gone when our grandmothers can recite Tehilim and with there Emunah be religiously satisfied. So too the mastery of talmud – my addition. (Unfortunately, the mastery of Talmud is just that – maybe its the cynic in me of old age ( and reading the news)

  10. avi: Is that really the best example for this principle?

    I agree that it is not. Especially since there is an issue of berakhah le-vatalah. It’s just the one that came to mind while writing. Please feel free to suggest better examples.

    The most basic example is the difference between Lchetichila and Bdieved

    It isn’t clear to me that the concept of lechatchilah exists on a biblical level outside of kodshim.

    Ruvie: Oh, the hubris. Climbing the ladder of Talmudic mastery leads to knowledge of Talmud

    Of course, the underlying assumption is that derekh eretz precedes Torah and anyone without good deeds is not a talmid chakham.

  11. Ah, no true Scotsman.

  12. Ruvie: As RAL once said the days are gone when our grandmothers can recite Tehilim and with there Emunah be religiously satisfied

    I assume he meant ALL grandmothers. Some grandmothers can and are. I know them (my wife is too young to be a grandmother but her mother is one).

  13. Let me add that this post is not about all chumros. It is only about inconsistent chumros.

  14. It is only about inconsistent chumros.

    Precisely why I suggested Tzniut as the example. RHS’ tshuva (as above) has several points that can be used to illustrate inconsistent chumros in a material way (pun intended).

  15. “Precisely why I suggested Tzniut as the example.”

    I’m not sure how your example was a good one. Nobody can use a ruler to decide tzniut, and they still can’t. Below the knee, or at the ankle, or the elbow or wrist, is not something that can be defined by a ruler.

    ” Please feel free to suggest better examples.”

    I was asking in case you knew of any!

  16. “It isn’t clear to me that the concept of lechatchilah exists on a biblical level outside of kodshim.”

    What do you mean?
    That it didn’t exist before Brisk, or that it only exists in halachot d’rabanan?

  17. Avi — listen to RHS’ entire response. Another aspect of this example is men in black.

    http://matzav.com/video-ou-webcast-with-rav-belsky-and-rav-schachter-on-myriad-halacha-issues

    RHS on Tzniyus is 73:10 to 79:45, immediately followed by:
    RHS on Bus Segregattion: 79:45 to 81:08

  18. @avi, people _do_ measure tzniut with rulers. Please see http://dovbear.blogspot.com/2011/03/tznius-ruler.html for one device that’s on sale in Lakewood.

  19. “@avi, people _do_ measure tzniut with rulers. ”
    Are those people students or followers of Rav Shachter?

    The Lubuvitchers say not to trim a beard, the Star K says that certain electric razors are Kosher, is that “inconsistent chumros”? No, that’s just difference of opinion.

  20. Gil- “I assume he meant ALL grandmothers”
    Yes- it was a general klal about women in general and he was talking about women of two generations ago. Even though it was a private conversation ( maybe semi) he did not know my grandmother – but did know of my mother’s side of the family- the conversation – 10 yrs agoish- was on wtg and women learning gemera (? This comment was in regards to wtg). It seems things never change – topics that is.

  21. Avi: That it didn’t exist before Brisk, or that it only exists in halachot d’rabanan?

    That it only exists on a derabbanan level. I believe the Ritva in Sukkah says it.

  22. I can’t help but think of two genuine gedolim – The Netziv and R’ Chaim. R’HS tells the story that the Netziv was a very nervous individual always worried about whether he had done it right, the Netziv a more jovial personality. Could it be that the chumra path (“inconsistent”) might be driven more by personality than talmudic knowledge?
    KT

  23. I believe the Ritva in Sukkah says it.

    Ah, THAT Ritva. It’s not as important as the Ritva in Yoma though. Of course everyone here knows which one I’m talking about.

  24. Well if you are looking for a different approach to Humrah, one that acknowledges the importance of consistency, but also notes how Humrah can quickly degenerate into spiritual arrogance, you would do well to review the opinions of the Gaon, R. Yosef Messas. A good example would be his letter Taf-Shin-Sameh-Aelf (p155 of vol 3 of his letters) where he gives his pesak on the wearing of Talit (gadol and katan) and rules that when is not otherwise wearing a 4-cornered garment requiring tzitzit, wearing a talit katan is “hassidut mitoh hassidut” and if one is not a well recognized Hassid, is is arrogance and should be prohibited.
    Sadly, the authentic North African approach to these matters is nearly dead and has been replaced by something else.

  25. ” Lchetichila is the ideal system of halacha, and Bdieved is the system as applied to reality.”
    what is the word “system” doing there (or in the original)? I can be convinced that the idea of an “ideal halacha” in some form is probably old. it’s the idea of “the halachic system” that is new.

  26. MiMedinat HaYam

    The Lubuvitchers say not to trim a beard, the Star K says that certain electric razors are Kosher, is that “inconsistent chumros”? No, that’s just difference of opinion.

    not diff of opinion, but diff minhag / custom. (though i’ll admit in today’s environment, the particular charedim think its a halacha.)

    2. shouldnt we say shavers? (since there is a product called electric razor that more or less is a razor.)

    2b. r pruzansky / cby says all commercial shavers arer kosher, not certain ones are.

    3. joel r — i assume you meant r chaim was the nervous one.

    thats why the netziv was a shtut rav ( = rav of a town; in his case moscow) and r chaim was a rosh yeshiva. and a shtut rav (what we call a pulpit rabbi) should give psak, not a RY (except to his talmidim.)

  27. R’mmy
    correct
    KT

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