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Have Halakha Handbooks Changed Pesikat Halakha? Laws We Don’t Teach in Public

Posted By Shlomo Brody On September 7, 2009 @ 12:34 pm In Halakha,Talmud | 15 Comments

Have Halakha Handbooks Changed Pesikat Halakha?   The Case of Halakha Ve-Ein Morin Ken Be-Rabim

by Shlomo Brody

Introduction:  The Proliferation of Halakha Handbooks

One of the most important developments in halakha over the past couple of decades is the proliferation of halakha handbooks.  Following the model of Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata, dozens of books, in many languages, have appeared to give clear and concise guidance in almost every area of halakha, from tefilla to pidyon ha-ben.

Given the influence of these works, it behooves us to examine the costs and benefits of this genre.  On the one hand, they provide a tremendous service in providing easy-to-use guidance for many complex areas of law.  This genre has helped “democratize,” moreover, people’s access to halakha and empower them with the knowledge necessary to fully observing halakha. 

On the other hand, these books, perhaps to gain the haskamot of more gedolim and become accepted by a wider audience, tend to err on the stringent side, especially in cases of makhloket poskim.  This might be reasonable given their agenda, but I hope that discerning readers know that they should consult with their posek in cases of doubt or sha’at dechak.   

Another potential impact, which I tend to view negatively, is that many poskim today do not end up writing full-length treatments of given topics, which are then published in an organized fashion, but instead give psakim that are quoted in these books (sometimes without full argumentation, even in the footnotes).  This makes it difficult to understand their reasoning, and moreover, deprives us of important literature.  In a few cases, seforim are now being written to collect the psakim given for these handbooks – see many of the entries in Halichot Shlomo of R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, for example.   

The impact of this genre deserves greater treatment.

Halakha Ve-Ein Morin Ken –

One interesting application of this phenomenon is the judicial principle of “Halakha Ve-Ein Morin Ken,” a principle which dictates that poskim should not publicize certain laws or ruling because they will be abused or belittled.   This concept, which comes up in Shabbat 12b, Menachot 36b, and in many other places, is a remarkable statement that poskim must take into account how their ruling will be understood.  Furthermore, it also creates a situation where poskim might rule one way in a private, more-controlled environment, and rule differently in the public sphere.  For more information on this concept, see this shiur [1] by Rav Yoel Amital, but as with all matters of halakhic process, one should really consult the writings of Maharatz Chajes on this topic (See Kol Kitvei Maharatz Chajes, Vol 1, p. 217-221).    

There is, of course, something ironic about putting in writing halakha ve-ein morin ken laws.   Once they are written down, they lose some of their esoteric nature, since they now become accessible to anyone who can read the work.  While perhaps in earlier eras, manuscripts were guarded tightly, this is certainly not the case with modern printing.  (In general, this trap applies to all esoteric teachings – if you want to preserve it, you need to write it down, since oral transmission is too hazardous; but once you write it down, it loses some of its esotericism.  For more on this, see Moshe Halbertal’s Concealment and Revelation)

The Rav and Kraft Cheese

Rav Soloveitchik zt”l offered an interesting solution to this conundrum to explain his opinion with regard to consuming Kraft cheese and other “gevinat akum” (non-Jewish cheese).  As is well known, the Rav, following the Rama (YD 115:2), ate Kraft cheese when no or little Jewish produced cheese was available, since the curdling process of the cheese was not done inside an animal-skin sac.  It has been reported in Rav H. Schechter’s Me-Peninei Ha-Rav (p. 153-154) however, that while the Rav told his talmidim in shiur of this leniency, he would not publicize it to ba’al ha-batim (lay people) who asked him this question, as he considered it to be a case of halakha ve-ein morin ken be-rabim, since it went against the psak of the Shulchan Aruch.  One talmid, however, questioned the Rav’s logic, as he had already publicized the heter in shiur.  The Rav responded by quoting a kulah found in Rashi’s Talmud commentary (Ta’anit 13a) in which Rashi would allow work to be done on Tisha Be-av night, but asserts that this kulah should not be publicly spread.   

כשאמרו אסור [במלאכה] – גבי תענית צבור לא אמרו אלא ביום, אבל בלילה מותר, מהכא משמע דבלילי תשעה באב מותר במלאכה ואין ביטול אלא ביום, אבל אין מפרסמין הדבר.

Rashi, the Rav noted, was of course publicizing this kulah by writing it in his commentary, but apparently felt that anyone who would be learning gemara and his commentary should be considered one of the “tznuim” who be trusted to use the heter appropriately.  Similarly, his learned and committed talmidim could be trusted with the Kraft cheese heter, but it was inappropriately to announce it publicly.  In other words, those (elite?) who can learn the heter inside the seforim can be trusted, while others cannot. 

If this is indeed the correct distinction – that we can publicize the lenient halakha to the learned who have access to the mekorot  – then how does this work with contemporary halakha handbooks?  On the one hand, one might assume that anyone is opening the book must care about halakha, and therefore could be trusted with the kulah.  On the other hand, the fact that they are resorting to a halakhic handbook might indicate that they are not learned enough to find the kulah inside primary sources, and therefore perhaps are not trustworthy enough.  To a certain extent, this relates to the basis of the “heter” for those who can learn the sefarim:  does their trustworthiness stem from their erudition, or their effort in learning the sources?  (Or to put it lomdishe terms:  Is their learning a sibah for the heter, or just a siman for their loyalty to halakha?)

Two Contemporary Examples:  Pregnancy & Niddah and Shabbat & Koraya

Two sources indicate different directions on this matter.

The first stems from a teshuva of Rav Moshe Feinstein regarding the necessity of pregnant women to separate from their husbands on their scheduled onah day within the first 3 months of pregnancy.  While the gemara assumes that it taken 3 months of pregnancy until we can assume that a woman is mesuleket damim and will not see blood, contemporary science can clearly determine at an earlier stage that a woman is pregnant and will not menstruate.  In a couple of teshuvot, Rav Moshe clearly paskened, against some early acharonim, that we recognize that “nature has changed” (hishtanu ha-teva’im) and that therefore a pregnant woman in her first trimester can indeed follow her doctors and assume that she will not menstruate. 

שו”ת אגרות משה חלק יו”ד ג סימן נב

א’ הנה בדבר אשה שכבר ברור שהיא מעוברת ע”י הרגשתה בעצמה באופן ברור או ע”י בדיקות הידועות לרופאים אבל עדיין לא עברו ג’ חדשים שלא הוכר עוברה, ודאי דמדינא דגמ’ דוקא אחר שעברו ג’ חדשים היא בחזקת מסולקת דמים כמפורש בגמ’ בנדה דף ז’ במתני’ לענין דיין שעתן שהוא משיודע עוברה ומפורש בברייתא בדף ח’ סומכוס אומר משום ר”מ ג’ חדשים ומטעמא דאר”ז דהוא משום דראשה ואבריה כבדין עליה, וכן גם איפסק בש”ע /יו”ד/ סימן קפ”ט אבל הוא מהדברים שנשתנו הטבעים זה איזה מאות שנה שתיכף משנתעברה פסקו דמיה, וידיעת רוב הנשים וכמעט כולן שחושבות ירחי עיבורן משעת הפסקת ראיית הדם בזמן וסתן בערך, וגם סומכין ע”ז לדינא להרבה ענינים

However, when Rav Shimon Eider asked him about this question while writing his halakhic handbook to Hilchot Nidah, Rav Moshe ruled stringently!

שו”ת אגרות משה חלק יו”ד ד סימן יז

תשובה זו נכתבה להרה”ג ר’ שמעון איידער שליט”א, שבשעה שכתב את ספרו באנגלית על הלכות נדה שאל את מרן זצ”ל כמה שאלות, וזה אשר השיב לו מרן זצ”ל.

… נמצא שבעצם אין טעם להחמיר לחוש לשמא ראתה במעוברת בזמננו, גם קודם הכרת העובר, כי ליכא שום ראיה לזה, ואדרבה איכא ראיה שאין להחמיר אלא בראתה. אבל מ”מ למעשה, כיוון שרעק”א מסתפק בזה ובאב”נ כתב בפשיטות שאסור, אין להקל ובספרו צריך כתר”ה לכתוב בלשון הזה, מעוברת קודם הכרת העובר צריכה לבדוק כשהגיע זמן וסתה.

Why did Rav Moshe instruct Rav Eider to pasken this way in his book?  The editors of Igrot Moshe (volume 8) promptly explain:

(מרן זצ”ל הוסיף על – פה, שהטעם שצריך לכתוב כך בספר קיצורי הלכות נדה באנגלית, הוא שהספר נכתב גם עבור בעלי תשובה, שאינם רגילים בדרכי הגמרא והפסק. ועניין שינוי הטבעים – הגורם לשינוי ההלכה – יהיה מוזר ובלתי מובן עבורם. עם זאת פסק מרן תמיד, בבירור, כמו שביאר לעיל, שאין מעוברת צריכה לחשוש לווסת, מן הרגע שנתברר עיבורה על ידי בדיקה רפואית. וע”ע באגרות יורה דעה חלק א’ סימן צ”ז ענף ב’, ואבן העזר חלק ב’ סימן ה’)…

In other words, Rav Moshe did not believe that one could publicize this heter to the unlearned, who were not familiar with the ways of gemara and psak, and who would be confused by the concept of hishtanut ha-tevaim.  But those who were in the know, or alternatively, came to ask him for an oral psak, would certainly be told that they could be mekil, as Rav Moshe indeed ruled in his other teshuvot.  Rav Moshe, it appears, distinguished between primary sources and halakhic handbooks, the latter of which was included in works to which the principle of halakha ve-ein morin ken still applied.

A contrasting viewpoint, however, seems to be taken by Rabbi Dovid Ribiat in his 4-volume  The 39 Melachos.  This is a very good book that provides both background explanations to each melacha as well as practical applications.   While discussing the prohibition of koraya (tearing), Rabbi Ribiat explains that cutting rope or cords cannot violate koraya, since this melacha is only violated with materials that are sown or glued when torn, as opposed to rope or thread that is repaired by tying ends with a knot.  As such, “One may cut the string of plastic threat connecting price tags and the like to a new garment, if he forgot to do so before Shabbos” (Vol. 3, p.828).   He then goes on to write,

“However, these halachos should be applied discreetly, and not in the presence of unlearned persons who are liable to develop a lax attitude toward Shabbos restrictions when witnessing leniencies…  Persons who are not well versed in these halachos incorrectly perceive that cutting string is a Shabbos desecration, and one must be circumspect before applying this well-founded but poorly-understood leniency.”[1] [2]

There a number of differences between the case of Rav Moshe and Rabbi Ribiat.  The former is dealing with the complex legal concept of hishtanut ha-tevaim, which relates to the nature of the halakhic process, while the latter is dealing with a complicated halakha that operates within common halakhic reasoning.  One might further argue that whereas Rav Eider’s books were “first-generation handbooks” which encountered a less traditional population, Rabbi Ribiat is writing for a more committed audience. 

I’m not sure that these distinctions are sufficient to explain the different approaches.  In any case, they clearly exemplify the ways in which the nature of pesikat halakha changes in an era of halakha handbooks intended for a wide audience. 

If anyone has more examples of this phenomenon, I’d appreciate you sending them to me.


[1] [3] As proof to this point, he cites the following sources in his footnotes:

שולחן ערוך יורה דעה סימן רמב סעיף י

יש מי שכתב שאסור לחכם להתיר דבר התמוה שנראה לרבים שהתיר את האסור

רמ”א, שולחן ערוך אורח חיים סימן שיז סעיף ג
ויש מתירין בתפירה שאינה ש”ק, ואין להתיר בפני ע”ה (ב”י).
משנה ברורה סימן שיז ס”ק ז
דינו כמו וכו’ – ר”ל דאם הוא קשר שחייבין על קשורו חייבין על התירו וכל שהוא פטור אבל אסור או מותר לכתחלה גם בהתירו כן הוא [רמב"ם] וכל קשר שמותר להתירו אם אינו יכול להתירו מותר לנתקו אם הוא לצורך ואין לעשות כן בפני ע”ה שלא יבא להקל יותר [אחרונים בשם היש"ש]:


15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Have Halakha Handbooks Changed Pesikat Halakha? Laws We Don’t Teach in Public"

#1 Comment By Big Maybe On September 8, 2009 @ 7:55 am

On Rabbi Felder’s tapes on Muktza, he discusses moving a flowerpot on Shabbos. Rabbi Felder thought it should be permitted, but in Rabbi Bodner’s book on Muktza, it is prohibited, sourced as “heard from Reb Moshe”.

When asked, Rabbi Bodner said that Reb Moshe also held it was permitted, but nevertheless he didn’t think it should be permitted in a book on Muktza for the English-reading public.

#2 Comment By Joel Rich On September 8, 2009 @ 9:18 am

IMHO this just another piece of a process which hastens the convergence of the system to chumrah.


#3 Comment By Dov On September 8, 2009 @ 10:13 am

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Laws of Friday Night Kiddush, #6:

וכיון שהנשים חייבות בקידוש היום מן התורה כמו האנשים יכולות להוציא את האנשים ידי חובתםלה אלא שלכתחלה אין להורות כן לשואל הלכה למעשהלו (שלא יבאו לזלזל במצותלז):

#4 Comment By Shlomo Brody On September 8, 2009 @ 11:25 am

Thanks for the 2 examples – keep them coming.

Big Maybe: Can you further clarify the circumstances of your example? Is this the case: Rabbi Felder (which one? where is this tape?) stated that he was mekil, but then asked Rabbi Bodner why he wrote le-chumra, and he got that answer?

#5 Comment By Big Maybe On September 8, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

Reb Shmuel Felder of Lakewood NJ. I don’t have the tape number (part of a series on Hilchos Shabbos, specifically muktza), but I do know it was taped about 15 years ago. Presumably it is still available from the BMG Tape Library. (Don’t know if it still just costs a buck :).

IIRC, this was a discussion of bosis, and the flowerpot containing earth would seem to be a problem. He explained why it is in fact not a problem. (He also deals with the ketzira aspect of the shayleh). He quoted Reb Bodner’s book which ruled otherwise, and he recounted a personal conversation he had with Reb Bodner regarding same.

#6 Comment By Big Maybe On September 8, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

Actually, now that I think about it, maybe this was a tape about ketzira, and the bosis shayleh came up tangentially. If you do go poking around in the tape library, I would ask for the tape on siman 336.


#7 Comment By David Brofsky On September 8, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

R. Brody, thank you for an interesting post.

R. Moshe himself applies this logic regarding korea- in the Iggerot Moshe itself. While fundamentally R. Moshe takes a very lenient stand on opening packages, ruling that most packages are “chotlot” and therefore may be ripped open, he warned not to do so because we life in a “weak” generation. R. Moshe also alludes to such an approach regarding turning off gas stoves on Yom Tov.

In general, I certainly believe that when writing for a broader public, one is more likely to either mainstream the more stringent opinion, which often occurs in Shmirat Shabbat Ke-hilchata, for example, and other compendiums, or simply be less inclined to rule leniently, even though personally, one may find more merit and may even follow a more lenient ruling. I find this countless times in my research, and I grapple with these issues constantly in my own classroom, and in my written halacha shiurim. I think it is an inherent problem in teaching halacha to the greater public, and I would also warn against the common cynicism associated with this issue by some. I wonder whether the Rema, and Mishna Berura, demonstrate similar tendencies.

I think there are other issues worth raising regarding halachik compendiums:

1- I find that often, once one person does the research and presents his opinion regarding a certain issue, all future compendiums are working off the research of the first one, seeing the topic through his lenses, and often intuitively concur with the rulings of the first author, without a fresh look at the issue. Incidentally, one can make the same observation regarding the research of R. Ovadya Yosef, as well as R. Henkin, in certain areas.

2- Many compendiums are a function of which “Gadol” the author consults, and indirectly a certain rabbinic figure’s influence can extend beyond his “natural boundaries”. Suddenly, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, or R. Elyashiv, or even R. Shternbach or R. Scheinberg, etc. etc. becomes my address for all mukse , berakhot , shabbat, etc. questions, and consequently their opinions regarding other matters become authoritative. The authority of local rabbinic figures is indirectly diminished. For many of these questions, one might be better off consulting someone who lives in the same country, or same society, or one who shares a similar outlook, as opposed to consulting with someone whose world is so radically different than ones’ own. Of course, each question is different, and whether to make a beracha on salad during the meal is certainly different then questions relating to family life, gender issues, adoption, marriage issues, etc.

3- Similarly, the choice of an author’s rulings and how they are presented indirectly affects thousands, as many shul rabbis, teachers, rebbes etc. prepare from these works. The rulings of these book, in short time, become the “norm”, and those who act differently, often based upon older “mesorot”, are viewed as adhering to minority opinions. I believe, for example, that the psakim of R. Moshe Feinstein have been pushed aside for the “Eretz Yisrael” gedolim. Making tea in a keli shelishi, for example (I believe there are many) , which was a classic American psak, based upon R. Moshe Feinstein, barely makes a footnote in some compendiums!

It goes without saying that the obvious comments about this genre, like the disproportionate weight given to certain issues, or even given to practices which aren’t observed (or never were!), are also worth discussing.

These all generate clear “changes in pesikat halacha”. Needless to say, I do not deny the enormous value and contribution made by many of these works. As you wrote, “it behooves us to examine the costs and benefits of this genre.”

I look forward to reading more interesting posts.
David Brofsky
Alon Shevut

#8 Comment By Dov On September 8, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

“…as well as R. Henkin, in certain areas.”

I’m curious to know what areas you’re thinking of.

#9 Comment By Steve Brizel On September 8, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

Thanks for a fascinating article. Halacha handbooks, especially the footnotes, add to our appreciation of the complexity of Halacha and help set forth an awareness of the issues implicated. R David Brofksy wondered whether one can find examples in the Rema and MB. In the Biur Haloacha on the Siman of SA”OC that deals with Hachzarah and Sheiyah and Bishul, the MB quotes a Shitas HaRosh that one can place otherwise uncooked meat on a blech very close to Erev Shabbos , but views the same as not to be followed on a practical level.

#10 Pingback By vertical vs horizontal « But Mostly Hers On September 8, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

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#11 Comment By Chortkov On September 9, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet in his Mekorot Halcha series (back in 1993)already wondered whether we have left the Achronim phase of our history and have entered what he coined the “Milaktim” or “Misadrim” period of Jewish Halachik scholarship.

I thank you for this most wonderful post.

#12 Comment By me On November 10, 2009 @ 6:35 pm

I’m not sure what point the article is making about R Ribiat’s book. Isn’t he simply repeating what the rema says – not to do this in front of the unlearned? If that’s what the rema says, that’s what he has to write one should do – is there some implied criticism here and if so, what’s the criticism? What else should he write but what the rema holds?

#13 Comment By AB On November 16, 2009 @ 7:12 am

Same mechanism, though in a slightly different area:

Moshe Benovitz has a review of two “Modern Orthodox” Niddah handbooks, by Deena Zimmerman and E. Knohl, in Nashim 12 (2006) 309-329. He notes in both cases how minhagim get…upgraded?, to “takana” or “gezera”, while rabbinical enactments (or prohibitions whose strength is a matter of medieval dispute) are treated as Biblical prohibitions. (Specifically regarding 7 Clean Days and ‘Negiah’ – on the former, see Simche Emanuel’s “שבעה נקיים :פרק בתולדות ההלכה” תרביץ עו, א-ב (תשסז) 233-254 et al).

Also, I have never seen written the fact that a man and single woman may touch, provided that she is tehorah (admittedly a rare state of affairs, with a yihud prohibition as well), but which I learned from my YD rabbi at RIETS.

#14 Comment By Another Dov On December 4, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

Your point is well taken, as ruba deruba of the poskim bdorienu are primarily being mlaket dinim. However, when one hears a shiur in halacha from certain yechidim, you definitly feel that there are still some “achronim” out theresuch as R’ Tuvia Goldstein or R’ Betzalele Radinsky

#15 Comment By Another Dov On December 4, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

That comment was for Chortkov

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