Saturday, October 23rd, 2021

Minority Views and the Role of the Mara De-Atra

August 31, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Talmud

R' Yose the Galilean's favorite sandwich?

Kosher in R' Yose Ha-Galili's Locale

Minority Views and the Role of the Mara de-Atra1

By Nathaniel Helfgot

 There is a tannaitic dispute regarding which aspects of the performance of a circumcision push aside the Sabbath restrictions: R. Akiva maintains that only actions that could not be prepared before the Sabbath are permitted to be done for a circumcision on the Sabbath; in contrast, R. Eliezer posits that one may even chop wood on the Sabbath to prepare coals necessary to later fashion the knife for the actual incision (Shabbat 19:1). The halakhah is in accord with R. Akiva (Shabbat 133a) and yet, the Talmud notes, quite positively in fact,2 that “In R. Eliezer’s locale, they would chop wood on Shabbat to make coals to fashion iron instruments (for circumcision)” (Shabbat 130a).  In a similar fashion, the Talmud mentions the dispute as to whether the rabbis extended the prohibition of eating milk and meat beyond the biblical parameters (Shabbat 130a).

The majority view that became normative halakhah is that the co-mingling of chicken and milk was forbidden by the rabbis as a protective fence. In contrast, R. Yosi the Galilean rejected this extension (Shabbat 130a). The Talmud thus states:  “In the locale of R. Yosi the Galilean, they would eat chicken and milk together” (Shabbat 130a). The Talmud thus affirms that though the majority, and even consensus, psak amongst the Jewish people had ruled in a certain issue in one fashion, the inhabitants of the locale of a dissenting authority were fully entitled to continue to maintain and practice their lenient behavior. This Talmudic statement is a sharp affirmation of the power of the local authority, the mara de-atra, to have full control and autonomy over the halakhic practices and customs in his bailiwick.3 

Expansion of the Principle by Rashba

 This Talmudic statement is cited and expanded in a number of responsa literature of the middle ages. Rashba, in a seminal responsum (Vol 1:253) makes it clear that the Talmudic statement as to locale should not be understood restrictively to those actually alive at the time of this authority’s life or who actually live in the locale of that particular rabbi. Rashba mentions that any community that has consistently adopted for itself the rulings of a specific authority, such as the rulings of R. Yitzchak Alfasi or Maimonides, is fully entitled to continue following those rulings even when they fly in the face of majority or consensus practice that is common amongst the rest of the Jewish community. This ruling of Rashba moves the concept beyond the limitations of specific time and place and makes the ideological and halakhic affiliation with a particular authority’s rulings at the center of the mandate.  One can plausibly extend this concept beyond the boundaries of any reference to geographic area as well. Once one claims that the concept of following the view of an individual scholar extends beyond his death or his actual place of domicile, the road is clear to an expansive reading of this notion.4 Thus, a Belzer Chasid who lives in Capetown, South Africa or a transplanted Washington Heights yekke who was a member of Kehillath Adath Jeshurun  and was now living in San Jose could continue to follow the practices and psakim that they felt loyalty to, in their day to day life.5

It is important to note that there were and continue to be dissenting voices who took issue with the broad ruling of Rashba and sought to limit the role of reliance on solitary views of the local rabbi or one’s rav muvhak in post-Talmudic settings.  R. Yosef B. Lev, for example, in a responsum, explicitly claims that

This principle was only operative in their era when each city and city had one rabbi who taught them all of their Torah…thus each city was obligated in the honor of their rabbi.  However, in our day and age, all the various rabbis and poskim from whose waters we drink are considered our rabbis, and, thus, we must follow the stringent view in area of dispute in biblical law.6

Basis for Mara De-Atra’s Authority

It is interesting to note that the rationale given by R. Yosef B. Lev for the principle of relying on the mara de-atra is respecting “the honor of their teacher- kevod melamdam.” If one bases the entire structure of the authority of mara de-atra on that logic, it would appear that there is great room to limit its application when, indeed, Jewish society is at a point when a plethora of rabbinic tomes have been written and are accessible to rabbis and laypeople throughout the world. Respect for rabbinic authority and the views of the bearers of the tradition should extend beyond the orbit of one’s local authority to encompass a wide swath of poskim.7

It would appear, however, the rationale for the authority of and the license to rely upon the view of one’s mara de-atra is rooted in much broader grounds. First, it is questionable if the conflict between the view of a local authority and others rabbinic voices, contemporary or not, really rises to the level of a “majority versus minority” debate. Hazon Ish, following in the footsteps of previous rabbinic authorities, claims that given that, in most circumstances, the mara-de-atra and those who took a differing viewpoint did not engage in dispute face-to-face there is no issue of majority rule: 

There is no concept of majority and minority when the scholars debating an issue are from differing eras or [are contemporaries] living in different locales. In a country where most of their Torah is based upon one rabbinic authority and his students and their students, they may follow the view of their rabbi even if the majority disagrees with them. And, in later generations, when specific books of the rabbis took up the lion’s share of the work of passing on the Torah to the present generations…they became the rabbanim hamuvhakim- primary teachers- of the generation and, in any area where there is a dispute, it was left to each scholar to determine whether to be stringent or to rely on certain well- known specific minority voices and follow them.8

Secondly, it would appear that the more cogent explanation for the authority of mara-detra is not based solely upon kevod melamdam but rather on the notion of haskamat ha-tzibur or yahid-the acceptance of the binding nature of this rabbi’s authority by the community or the individual.  Rabbi Yosef Karo, in a celebrated passage, points to this concept as the basis for the unique authority of the Talmud throughout the entire Jewish people.9 Similarly, one can argue that this is the basis for the concept of one’s obligation and license to follow one’s mara de-atra, broadly conceived, both stringently and leniently. Indeed, Rashba, in the responsum cited earlier, speaks of the countries that follow the rulings of the Rif or Rambam as “asu gedolim eilu kerabam,” which implies the notion of acceptance of the authority as the key underlying the principle.10

Different Authorities for Different Areas of Law

 A final point which requires more exploration is the possibility of having more than one authority upon whom one relies for psak in various areas of Jewish law.11 Rashba and others clearly speak of “a place where they are accustomed to do all their actions based upon the rulings of one of the great poskim…places which are accustomed to do all their actions based upon the writings of the Rambam,” indicating that one has committed himself to following the rulings of this authority consistently.12 At the same time, it can be argued that there still would room for multiple sources of authority, each having its own independent claim of adherence based on the model of haskamat hatzibur or yahid. This move is predicated on comparing the notion of the adherence to one’s authority or the concept of mara de-atra to the notion of the special respect due the rav muvhak- one’s primary teacher. In defining the category of rav muvhak and the concomitant honor due him, Maimonides and others speak of “rabo shelimdo rov hokhmato”- the teacher who taught him most of his knowledge. R. Yosef Karo, discussing the halakhah that a student must receive permission from his teacher before assuming the mantle of horaah, speaks of the requirement to receive permission- “mikol rabotav hamuvhakim”- from all his primary teachers.”13 Rema was troubled by this formulation and writes “the term here muvhakim should not be construed to mean [as it does elsewhere] ‘the teacher from whom one learned most of his knowledge’ for it is impossible that one can then have multiple rabanim muvhakim!”14  R. Shabtai Kohen in his comments there takes sharp issue with Remah and writes:

What Remah has written that one cannot have multiple “primary teachers” is incorrect for we find that Rashi, at the close of the second chapter of Bava Metzia, interpreted the phrase- rov hokhmato-‘whether referring to his teacher in Bible [from whom he learned most of his biblical knowledge], whether referring to his teacher in Mishnah or his teacher in Talmud’ … thus one can say that this person acquired most of his biblical knowledge with one teacher, and most of his knowledge of Mishnah with another person, and  most of his knowledge of Talmud from another person, and most of his knowledge of Midrash and agaddot from another, and most of his knowledge of Kabbalah from another.15

R. Kohen writes explicitly as to the reality of having various primary teachers in distinct areas of Jewish learning.  Logically, there should be no reason not to extend this concept to having various primary teachers in distinct sub-sections within one general area of Torah. Thus, one might have a primary teacher for the practical study of Hilkhot Niddah, while having had a different primary teacher for the analytical study of Talmud or issues dealing with writing Gittin. If that be the case, there certainly would be room to see a community or an individual taking upon themselves a multiplicity of authorities with regards to various areas of halakhah in which they needed direction and guidance. Choosing the various authorities might be based upon the recognition that different scholars have different areas of expertise. Moreover, depending on the circumstances various halakhic decisors may have greater or lesser appreciation of the unique circumstances of that community share in the world-view and realty of that community or individual or be otherwise more qualified to rule in a particular subset of halakhah.

  1. Below is one section of a lengthy essay on the role of Minority Opinions in Horaah that I am preparing for publication later this year. []
  2.  R. Yitzhak noted that the townspeople who followed the ruling of R. Eliezer, their local authority, lived long lives (Shabbat 130a). []
  3. The Talmud here does not, nor in the parallel sugyot, explicitly discuss the relationship of this concept to the halakhah of zakein mamrei which severely limits the autonomy of the individual authority. It would appear to this writer that the concept here of the full autonomy of the mara de-atra exists in the absence of any formal ruling by the Great Court in Jerusalem one way or the other. In instances when that court had definitively ruled on a subject there would be no room for the individual authority to continue to preach and advocate the practice of his contrary ruling. In the absence, however, of that specific body ruling on the subject the individual authority and the inhabitants of his locale would be fully entitled to continue following his rulings even in the face of consensus or the explicit statement of the Talmud to the contrary. []
  4. See the remarks of my revered teacher, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living, vol. 2 (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2004), 286-292.  It is interesting to note that R. Ovadiah Yosef uses the expansive concept of mara de-atra as articulated in the passage in Shabbat (130b) and Rashba to buttress the binding nature of the pesakim of R. Yosef Karo upon all sefaradim and on all inhabitants of Erez Yisrael.  See, for example, his comments in Yehave Daat, Vol. 5: 213-214. []
  5. It would seem, however, that public manifestations of a practice that fly in the face of the accepted custom of a specific town or in our contemporary contexts, synagogue would not be sanctioned. Such actions  would contradict the principles outlined in the fourth chapter of Pesahim that require one who moves to a new locale to accept the public practices of the community in which one is now residing, especially when public actions to the contrary would cause discord and strife. []
  6. Responsa Mahari B. Lev, Vol 1:75. []
  7. The more one builds the concept of mara de-atra of the concept of kevod melamdam there would great room to limit the license to rely on his solitary rabbinic voice only to his lifetime. []
  8. Hazon Ish , Yoreh Deah, 150:8. For further discussion, see R. Elisha Aviner, “Kelalei Horaah be-Halakhot Mesupakot” Maaliyot #19: pp.158-162 []
  9. Kesef Mishnah, Hilkhot Mamrim 2:1. []
  10. One can argue that, in a case when the actual rabbi is alive and we are speaking about an actual townsperson, both the concept of kevod rabo and the notion of tacit acceptance of his authority is in play, while after his death or the more expansive notion is operating only on the premise of acceptance of his authority. This nicely explains Rashba’s later comment in that responsum that, if a later scholar in a subsequent generation who is worthy of deciding halakhic matters rules against the practice of that community that had been based on the rulings of R. Alfasi or Rambam, for example, they should follow the ruling of the contemporary psak “for the scholars[ upon whom they relied] are not their actual teacher, for in the face of their actual rabbi, if they did not follow his ruling, they would be showing disregard for his honor.” []
  11. See R. Aviner,  “Kelalei Horaah be-Halakhot Mesupakot,” 163-165. []
  12.  How far this notion of consistency applies is a bit of an open question.  See, for example, the important remarks of R. Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith, vol. 2, 286-292. []
  13.  Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 242:7. []
  14. Gloss ad loc. []
  15. Siftei Kohen, Yoreh Deah 242:12. []
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