Halachic Process, addenda

With this post, I am closing the series (for now) with three other thoughts that came up during the Avodah discussion, but aren’t part of my core thesis.


The concept of minhag hamaqom impacts two different things — actual minhagim and local pesaqim. I’m now addressing only the latter. A community can’t survive with too much variation, so we standardize local pesaq on many issues.To my mind, this means that a kehillah’s members are limited in the “angle” at which they look at the Torah. One is obligated to follow minhag hamaqom, and if one is going to be consistent, one is limited to derakhim that include that element in their “shadow”.Nowadays that tends to run in the reverse — people who have strong opinions one way or the other pick their kehillah. Someone chooses to be chassidish or to join Rabbi Soloveitchik’s followers at YU, I even heard of people leaving “Breuer’s” (!), and the pesaqim follow.

This also impacts the parameters of pesaq shopping. If one isn’t careful, one could be left with an inconsistent set of rulings. The image they live by doesn’t represent Devar H’ because they have bits of a shadow as seen from one lighting, and bits as seen from another — producing something that could never be cast by the actual object.

A second problem with pesaq shopping is not only must a person be consistent, an object can assume a particular chalos (halachic state). And because we all share the same universe (within limits, pace REED or Slabodka hashkafos), that state can only be one thing. When a rav is proclaiming a chalos, pesaq shopping is impossible. When he is proclaiming only a duty or a prohibition on the person (and not a chalos that causes them) you have some lattitude.Personally, I would think that latitude would require:(1) One must be motivated to perfect one’s avodah rather than adding ease (or glory of being more machmir than the neighbors).(2) One still must go back to the first rav to close the circle. This isn’t so much a chiyuv direcly because of the rules of pesaq, but midinei kavod harav one is better to be inconsistent than to imply disrespect of the first rav.


Chana Luntz (RtCL, in Avodah-speak) introduced the notion of bottom-up pesaq. In one post she writes:

In Yevamos 116b the gemora brings a mayse shehaya about a woman whose husband was bitten by a snake when he went out to the wheat harvest, and she came and testified to beis din that her husband had died, and they went and checked it out and indeed he had died, and at that point they legislated that a woman is believed if she comes to beis din and says her husband has died to allow her to remarry. And the Mishna there brings a machlokus between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai regarding whether or not they believe a woman just in a case similar to the mase shehaya or not – for example if the woman and her husband went to midinas hayam and she testified about his death there, with Hillel saying no it must be similar to the mase shehaya and Beis Shamai saying not necessarily, and Beis Hillel eventually retracted and agreed to the position of Beis Shamai.

And in another:

… I find that while your argument that pessaq worked and sometimes may still work (that needs further analysis) partly bottom up, this in no way justifies the shoel looking for a particular outcome.

In fact, from another sugya, in Ketubot 23a, about a woman, and later two who says that she was imprisoned but remained tehorah, we see how it was preferable to manipulate the reality (making sure that the daughters of Mar Shemuel came to beit din while the captors were kept at a distance — a weird situation, where the captors would be willing to wait at a distance. Either the captors had been caught, or they were government forces confident that the women could not disappear under their watch, having numerous forces with them. The latter is indicated by Rashi s.v. Deatyyan liNharda’ah, where he explains that the women came to be redeemed).

AIUI, “bottom-up” here is used to refer to two elements:

1- Building a pesaq based on case law, rather than starting from Divrei E-lokim Chaim and applying to the case.Here I would say it is “bottom up”, but it’s not instead of top-down. If we accept the Maharal’s notion that pesaq is the art of mapping DEC to a finite reality, then we will map things differently as our reality, knowledge of reality, and attitude toward reality change.

When the woman’s report that her husband was killed by a snake was proven to be true, Chazal realized they until then had a gap in their knowledge of how women behave, and whether the report would in general be reliable. The lenient ruling wasn’t a breach of applying divrei E-lokim Chaim downward as much as a shift in what that downward was understood to be.

So, I still think halakhah is more like Platonic Idealism than Aristotilian Realism. Truth becomes a set of instances, rather than one collects instances, finds a pattern, and constructs a truth. What changed is how one does the “becomes” as one knows more, not the direction of application.

2- Taking the human cost into account.

Personally, I wouldn’t consider this different in kind to “top down”. One factor that needs to be weighed, residing well within our “triangle”, is human cost. Mar Shemuel isn’t taken to task for applying strict ideals without accommodating the human reality as much as ignoring a whole subsection of those ideals. Whether it’s the textual rule of hefsed meruba (undo personal cost) or of not needing to spend more than 20% on an asei, there are many such formalizations. In the realm of aggadic values, it’s easy to see cases where the person’s sacrifice offsets any climbing up the spiritual ladder one might gain by being machmir. And of course, there could well be a pragmatic history that in this case we protected the person. It isn’t a concern from the bottom that we are imposing upwards, but part of the ideal the poseiq is trying to cast onto the situation.


I’m not sure what if anything we should assess about how conclusions were reached from the phrasing of the mishnah. (Another issue raised by RtCL.) This is a style of composition that values rememberability over everything, even precision (chesurei mechasra vehakhi ketani; or bameh devarim amurim, without the “meh‘ written in; etc… a mishnah can have elided words, or be discussing a particular unnamed situation to the exclusion of others). Why would we think that it reflects the actual process used to reach the conclusion?

Halachic Process, part II

So far, I’ve discussed how I think halakhah works, and how I think it doesn’t. To refresh — fitting devar Hashem into this world an our minds requires simplifying modeling, “shadows” that only capture aspects of the fuller truth. These models can conflict, leading to machloqes. It also means that living by halakhah will requires assessing conflicting priorities. Ideally this should be made by someone immersed in the culture. As we lose the Sinai culture, the poseiq has to rely ever more heavily on formal rules. However, the purpose is to clarify the issues to be weighed; halakhah is a heuristic process to find an acceptable balance.

Thus, machloqes initially comes from different rabbis giving different issues different weights. Approaching the same goal from different directions. But there is also a second effect — the process itself is halakhah, and subject to machloqes. Thus, “correct process” diverges over time, and decisions could be made off weighing different formal rules. (But the existence of those differences in rules originate in differing weights.)
Therefore, at this point in time, the outermost layer of the onion might look different in different people’s hands.

Some of the thornier problems of eilu va’eilu come the self referential nature of halakhah. One paradox discussed here before is that the range of opinions about which one can say eilu va’eilu is itself subject to eilu va’eilu. But how can I say that I accept someone’s position as a “va’eilu“, an expression of the word of G-d, when part of that position is not to accept mine?

This is true both of the issues, and in how one weights them. They must make sense in relation to the halakhos of halakhah-making (hora’ah). To take an extreme case: A process that values a 15 minute interruption (perhaps on the ground of tirkha detziburah — bothering the community) more than a fundamental issue like mamzeirus would not be considered halachic. And this notion has profound consequences on aggadic issues — whether one considers a particular religious feeling to be a desideratum or as assimilationist would be the difference between mandating and prohibiting!

Let’s say we define a valid “eilu” as one produced by a proper use of the halachic process. Well, since that process itself is subject to dispute, there are bound to be decisions that aren’t in my range of “va’eilu” because they follow a different set of rulings about how to make halakhah than I follow. But those pesaqim too came from the process… at some point there must have been a common ancestor, and it could very well be that if we look at this metaprocess, both sets of pesaqim-about-making-pesaqim are valid after all. A self-denying paradox, depending on how deep you look at rules for making rules or the rules for making the rules by which we make the rules…. If so, there is no end (im kein ein ladavar sof), no?

These various factors that the poseiq must weigh come in three general areas: legal procedure, minhag and aggadah.

Legal Procedure: Not only do the formal halachic texts spell out the various values for consideration, the process itself is an issue that suggests how they are weighed. The difference in authority based on the era in which the idea is first articulated — tanna, amora, rishon or acharon. Within an era, where two sides can be considered worthy disputants, the notion of ruling according to the latter. Or one’s rebbe. Or the majority. Etc…

Here are some examples of halachic procedural issues and how they play out.

1- The Gra and Brisk place the greatest emphasis on sevarah and the mechanics of the halachic rules as laid out in various texts.Within that basic orientation, the Gra has a strong emphasis on Ravina veRav Ashi sof hora’a that true halachic decision-making ended with Ravina and Rav Ashi, the compilers of gemara. There is also a story in which one of his students told another that their rebbe was like a tanna. The Vilna Gaon overheard that conversation and corrected him. “Not at a tanna, only one of the later rishonim.” In any case, someone with the authority to engage in a dispute with anyone else after the close of the gemara. The Chazon Ish also accords the Gra the authority of a rishon. (And among Chassidim, the same is said of the Ba’al Shem Tov.)

2- Rav Moshe Feinsteinzt”l was asked by the New York Times how he rose to prominence as America’s premier halachic decisor. Rav Moshe explained that he simply answered one student’s question, and then another, and word of mouth lead to consensus. This is a derivative of the notion of following majority, and one of following one’s rebbe, not quite either. Therefore, it lacks the effectively absolute weighting of a majority counted in Sanhedrin, or following one’s primary rebbe. But similar enough to lend Rav Moshe’s position great authority. Thus, this is the weighting of Rav Moshe’s a formal ruling, not an absolute rule itself.

3- A longer example of differences in procedural concerns: The Rif (end of Eiruvin) states that the greater authority of the Talmud Bavli over the Yerushalmi is an application of the rule that halakhah kebasra’i, the law follows the later authority, since he represents a later development of the law, taking the earlier into consideration. And that is what we generally see in Sepharadic practice. Ashkenazic practice has more exceptions, cases where the norm of early Ashkenaz is defended and continues through to this day despite running against the gemara. The rule is simply less central to Ashkenazi weighting systems.

Professor Agus traced a number of Jewish practices, Hebrew pronunciation and population flows. He concluded that the immigrants that became the Sepharadi community came almost exclusively from Bavel. Ashkenaz was formed by a richer mixture of Babylonian and Israeli refugees. This would explain why so many Ashkenazic practices that Tosafos and other rishonim have to creative defend against the Bavli find their sources in the halachic midrashim and the Yerushalmi. Israeli sources. This would explain the lesser Ashkenazi weighting for the Bavli as being about local ruling and following one’s own rabbeim. Having these stattered sources rather than the Sepharadic tradition based on the same sources as the single text of the Bavli means that Ashkenazi rishomin perforce had to value minhag avos more, whereas Sepharadim would not cause the same upheaval by being textualists.

There are two reasons given for washing mayim achronim before benching. The gemara explains that (1) one’s hands should be washed of before benching, no less than one does before eating hamotzi. A naive read would seem to imply this is about tum’ah, just as the initial washing is. And (2) they used to use a kind of salt from the Sodom area which could injure the eye. Therefore, for health reasons, one should wash one’s hands at the end of every meal.

Tosafos start their discussion with the realization that in practice, Ashkenazim do not wash mayim achronim after every meal. They do not make the implication from the comparison to washing before the meal that this washing is related to tum’ah. And since we no longer use Sodom salt, there is no motivation any more to wash. In other words, we have minhag avos saying don’t wash, and the Bavli could be read in a way as to not imply that we today need to wash. And so they rule we do not need to wash. In fact, this could be said as following the Yerushalmi, which only mentions the salt problem and doesn’t make the comparison to washing off tum’ah before the meal altogether.The Vilna Gaon and Shulchan Arukh haRav, who both share a textual focus that centers on the Talmud Bavli, both recommend washing mayim achronim. But since the gemara’s conclusion is escapable, only as custom, not as law. As law, and as practiced by Sepharadim, the obligation would be like washing before bread — applying to women no less than men. The custom, however, was only accepted by men.

Minhag: Among Yekkes, in contrast to the Litvisher yeshiva’s focus on textual sources and authority, far more emphasis is placed on minhag avos, following the ruling upheld in practice by the community. Every community gives some priority to existing pesaq, but among some it is more pronounced. Leading to differences in when to follow consensus or informal majority, or some other procedural gray area (even if the gray might be quite dark or almost off-white).

One also sees this distinction in tendencies in the Mishnah Berurah vs. those of the Arukh haShulchan. The Mishnah Berurah rules according to halachic mechanics, often coming up with conclusions not actually in practice by any community. His general approach is to follow the majority of later published opinions, focusing on the development of halakhah after that implied by the standardization of the part of Shulchan Arukh with the Bach and Taz. (Looking at the introduction, it was not the Chafeitz Chaim’s intent to produce a book of pragmatic rulings, but rather a survey of these later opinions that came out after the last book readily available to most Jews — the standard edition Shulchan Arukh. However, this distinction only shifts the point from the Chafeitz Chaim’s intent in writing it to those rashei yeshiva who did shift the use of the Mishnah Berurah to the pragmatic plane.)

The Arukh haShulchan, on the other hand, gives emphasis to what was the local minhag, and will consider factors like the minority opinion if that justifies the halakhah as practiced. Because, as noted above, the rule to follow majority only loosely applies to counting published texts. And besides, does not common practice imply that many unpublished rabbinic opinions did support it?

Rav Dovid Lifshitzzt”l‘s advice to me when I was setting up my home was to follow the Arukh haShulchan as a pragmatic guide, as it best represents the halakhah as followed by my ancestors in Litta. R’ Henkin and R’ Yaakov Weinberger are recorded by students as telling them similarly. Someone who follows this preference for the Arukh haShulchan is likely to have a minhag avos orientation; although following it over the Mishnah Berurah isn’t itself an example of such behavior. What Rav Dovid taught me to do is follow a formal ruling, a text, written by someone with a strong belief in the authority of minhag. That is different than accepting halakhah as a culture passed from parent to child, and not requiring this formal analysis. A difference between seeing halakhah entirely as law, or also acknowledging it as “Orakh Chaim“, (literally) a “lifestyle”.

This is also a paradox in following the Chasam Sofer’s motto of “chadash assur min haTorah“. (“The new is prohibited by Torah law”, a motto taken from a quote about the law of using the new year’s grain for one’s own food before the omer offering.) This path calls for one to consciously imitate a kind of Judaism that wasn’t founded on conscious imitation of the past! It itself is “the new”! And in fact, because it is lifted to formal process, and a conscious attempt to preserve, the result is less fluid than the pre-declaration lifestyle they are trying to preserve.

I didn’t mean this “paradox” as a disproof. Rather, just pointing out that “chadash assur min haTorah” is an equal and opposite reaction, and not (as it seems at first glance from the words) a preservation of pre-Haskalah life. Like Chassidus, neo-Orthodoxy, the Yeshiva movement or Mussar, it too is a shift away from minhag avos to reliance on a formalization. Which was inevitable; the ghetto lifestyle had no equivalent anymore.

Aggadic Values: When multiple solutions are supportable, the poseiq may choose the conclusion that best satisfies the questioner’s quest to be holy and whole. There are numerous examples of such rulings from Chassidic or Mussar sources. Such as: Chassidim permitting hand-clapping to enhance one’s singing and Shabbos experience. The preference to prohibit that one would be left if considering only textual sources of formal halachic codification is outweighed by the aggadic value of having a more passionate ecstatic Shabbos experience. Similarly, Mussar stories of Rav Yisrael relying on a lenient ruling on how much water to use for hand washing rather than be stringent at the expense of demands the ultimately fall to water drawer or the maid who brings the water to the table. It reflects a different prioritization of the values that the situation brings into conflict.I feel R’ Dr Haym Soloveitchik neglected this element of aggadic value in his famous essay “Rupture and Reconstruction” (Tradition Magazine, Summer 1994). Dr Soloveitchik creates a dichotomy between an intellectualized formal halakhah, and a felt halakhah of culture. With the rupture in culture caused by the Holocaust, we shifted to relying more on texts and formalization. And Dr Soloveitchik associates this with his father, R’ JB Soloveitchik’s lament about the loss of the erev Shabbos Jew; the Jew who not only keeps the precise details of Shabbos, but can feel the anticipation of its arrival on erev Shabbos. As R’ JB Solovetichik describes experiencing as a child in Chaslovitch, a town with a Litvisher rav and a primarily Chabad community.

However, to my mind, one misses something by conflating cultural observance with the cultural transmission of values. One of the dangers we all face in our observance is falling into the trap of mitzvos anashim meilumadah, following the law simply because it is how we were raised, with no underlying belief or quest for holiness. Similarly, the first generation of Chassidim changed their practices in accordance with their new path to holiness without a mimetic tradition, and in fact, despite it. These two factors are distinct alternative is formal legal process. The space of factors to consider contains three extremes in a triangle, not a dichotomy.

I believe that it was this element that changed most with the rupture in Jewish culture caused by the Holocaust. The drift away from prioritizing minhag avos was already well underway since the days of the Baal Shem Tov and Vilna Gaon, with the fall of the ghetto walls. But they were ideological motivated — the new perspectives (new angles of lighting) caused by their respective movements forced new pesaqim. With the Holocaust, we lost touch with those ideals, thereby needing to rely more heavily on the weightings implied by the formal process, shifting the Mishnah Berurah from a tool for studying halakhah in theory to a renormalization of practice.

And so, the 19th century was largely one of Isms. And during that time, aggadic supporting  pesaq came to the fore in many circles. Personally, this is where my own preferences lie; I would be happier if more poseqim resolved their gray areas and chose their sides of machloqesin based on their overall view of the values in conflict. Deciding which branch of the tree best fits the forest they’re trying to plant.

The interplay between these basic tendencies is critical. Without minhag, we could allow halakhah to drift into something unrecognizable based on the latest theory. Without the occasional textualist being willing to challenge the status quo, forgotten halakhos would lead to erroneous practices that are then enshrined over time. And without someone trying halakhah back to the basic goal of “his-haleikh lefanai veheyei samim — walk yourself before Me and be whole”, we fall into the current trap described by R’ Dr Haym Soloveitchik. “Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.” Repeatedly but unsuccessfully trying to fill a spiritual void by seeking stringency after stringency in halakhah.And even within each of these three categories (procedure, minhag and aggadic value), different poseqim would weigh different factors differently. What does the notion that Ravina veRav Ashi sof hora’ah (Ravina and Rav Ashi, the primary compilers of the Talmud, mark the end of halachic determination) mean for the relative weights to give rulings that have no known formal discussion until after them? Different poseqim, different prioritization.The Gra is not only process-centric, he also places a huge gap in authority between the Talmud and Ravina veRav Ashi and anyone afterward. Between the two, the Talmud’s authority ends up very great. Much more than in the weighting system of anyone else that comes to mind. (Except maybe the Rambamists, in theory. But they believe the Geonim and the Rambam’s Yad accurately record pre-Talmud textual mesorah, and thus give them that kind of weight as well.) For example, he follows the implication of the gemara that one should only use two matzos at the seider, even though one is broken well before hamotzi, and thus one doesn’t haver two full “loaves”. The Talmud considers the concept of “poor man’s bread” is part of the same concept as the meal’s hamotzi, and thus recommends using less than the usual two full loaves, not more by adding a third!Brisk stresses the Rambam not just in study methodology but also as a consequence they also de facto end up giving him more priority in pesaq than would other East Europeans. This gives their process orientation a different skew than the Vilna Gaon’s.

To show how differences in stressing various corners of this triangle play out, let’s look at women bentching with a mezuman. (For a good survey of the halachic issues as a whole, see R’ AZ Zivitofsky’s LegalEase column.) The supported possibilities are:(1) The gemara seems to say that three women who eat together must, just as three men must.(2) The Beis Yosef says they may make a mezuman, and should do so, but are not obligated to.(3) The Mishnah Berurah shifts that preference to concluce that while three women may makes a mezuman, the preference it that they don’t.The minhag avos oriented poseiq would have to explain why the answer is “don’t”, or at most “rarely”. After all, how many of our grandmothers took care to participate in a mezuman in this situation?The aggadic value oriented poseiq would be looking at the asker to see whether her goal is maximizing her avodas Hashem or some kind of adulteration of Torah values, or…. And then, depending on whether his aggadic orientation is toward finding ways to cleave to Hashem or toward the discipline necessary for wholeness, or …. he would have to come up with a ruling.The formalist’s answer would depend on whether he emphasizes Shas (the end of hora’ah), the Beis Yoseif (the end of the previous era with his Shulchan Arukha) or Mishnah Berurah (relatively recent codification).

Interestingly, though, the non-American Briskers (trying to exclude RYBS, RAS, RALichtenstein and the YU community) are NOT true to form on this. By their normal stress on their usual sources, the Brisker Rav and his talmidim should have required zimun for women, for the same reason the Gra does. His fealty to minhag avos and aggadic values are not non-zero, and for him they lead to not quite loyally following the usual sources. Even though in this case it’s a leniency.

This concludes my core thesis about how halakhah is made. Starting from the impossibility of capturing Hashem’s Word to forcing equally valid simplified models. The need to construct and follow a single consistent model. How the mapping is also bound to have to deal with conflicting values even within a single position. The shift over time with how we weigh the sides of these conflicts as the process is less inculcated and more conscious and though out. The three core areas of such issues, the nuances of differences within each, and how they interact: the relative weights of the formal rules used to identify the issues, the common practice that is actually followed and inherited from our ancestors, and choosing a model of the halakhah that fits our aggadic values and the path we are following to sanctity. Hopefully the discussion included enough examples along the way from teshuvos and famous rulings to show that this theory, while not articulated, does explain how halakhah is, in reality, done.I still have enough notes left from the Avodah discussion of these ideas I wish to share to warrant another blog entry of random related thoughts, be”H.

Halachic Process, interlude: What it isn’t

(I am going to do something I try to avoid when writing in public — dedicate a post to criticism. This post may someday disappear, if I ever change my mind, so read it now while you can.)

The story so far: In part I, I suggested that the process of pesaq isn’t a set of rules to be followed, but a set of rules that define pros and cons that the poseiq must weigh. In most cases, the difference is irrelevent But in complex cases (all the interesting ones), a rigid algorithm can not handle conflicts in values, the complexity of the real world. The heustic therefore adds more voice to halakhah by allowing some guidelines beyond those cases. Most of the previous post was dedicated to a philosophical discussion of why the A-lmighty would choose this system.

I had originally planned to continue with examples and details, flushing out the system. However, preliminary discussions about this notion led me to conclude it may be more useful to start out by defining what adding fuzzy edges to the system doesn’t do. How does this not simply lead to anarchy? I think this question is sufficiently pressing to deserve an interruption before drilling down into the details.

So, even though we inherently can’t articulate the weights one uses in judging the various conflicting desirata, here are some criteria they must meet:

  1. Honesty
  2. Consistency
  3. Loyal to Traditional Priorities
  4. Formally sound
  5. Produced from within a Torah gestalt
  6. Produced to find how to serve Hashem, not some other goal

But that’s too vague to be usable even as mottos. I therefore had to rely on examples for illustration. So, taking from using the Conservative legal process (hereafter “C”) and a couple of other examples as a foil to help explain these limits, this is what the halachic process isn’t:

1- Dishonesty: Obviously, dishonesty does not create valid halakhah. The few C responsa I have looked at have flaws such as partial quoting, or quoting a hava amina (a rejected suggestion) as though it was a conclusion.

For example, in Silverman’s responsum allowing pasteurized wine as yayin mevushal, he cites a teshuvah from the Rama. In it, the Rama deals with the question of how to treat the Jews of Moravia, who were willing to drink stam yeinam. At no point in time does the Rama say they are right for doing so, but he does conclude that since the current generation learnt this sin from their parents and grandparents, they are mistaken, not rebellious, and should not be categorized as mumarim. Silverman uses this as precedent for being lenient on stam yeinam itself.

2- Inconsistency: C will use conflicting weighting systems depending on the desired answer. Internal consistency is a clearly defined requirement, only a shade less self-evident than the need for honesty. As I wrote in the previous entry:

Someone who changes the weights to find a desired result is no longer simplifying an Infinite Truth to fit it into this universe. Different shadows of the same object are each valid. But if you trace the shadow while changing the direction of the lighting mid-stream, you are left with a picture something that isn’t a shadow of the original.

One can’t be self-contradictory in halachic ruling. To take an Orthodox example, the normal observance of omer is not to listen to music during some part of the omer. And therefore most people will not put a music station on the radio during that period. But they might throw a party, but not hire a musician for it. According to R’ YB Soloveitchik, the primary problem is partying, that music was cited because until recorded music, it was generally associated with celebration. Therefore his students do listen to music on the radio, but should not throw a party even without a musician. It would be inconsistent for someone to both listen to music privately, and attend parties that have no musicians.

The same is true in process. For example, many (but a decreasing number) Orthodox women do not cover their hair outside of the context of synagogue, because they believe there is a mimetic tradition, a minhag avos, of doing so. Therefore, it must be justifiable, even if we don’t know how. (This argument is flawed in that even back in Lithuania where this was the norm, it was acknowledged that it was an error for married women not to cover their hair. The rabbis complained, albeit most — including many of their wives — didn’t listen.) Meanwhile, there are Orthodox women looking to organize Women’s Prayer Groups, crafting a way to innovate a ritual service for women that fits the letter of halakhah (as their rabbis decide it).

I would argue, that this pair is procedurally inconsistent. If someone feels that mimetic tradition is the more weighty concern, then how can one innovate a kind of prayer service our ancestors would not have? And if instead one looks primarily at what is formally permitted in the texts, how can one not cover her hair after marriage? Perhaps one can draw a distinction between the two cases on other grounds, despite their similarity of domain, but the argument (flawed or not) illustrates what I mean by the need for procedural consistency.

3- Ignoring the Important: C will fail to weight matters that are indisputably important.

Example: C denies that the Torah was necessarily dictated by the A-lmighty, and therefore Torah law and particularly those Torah laws derived by derashah are considered the products of human invention. Therefore, even the distinction between Torah and Rabbinic law can be overlooked if they want to outweigh a Torah prohibition.

Or, amoraim were unwilling/unable to dispute the conclusions reached by tanaim, assuming we’re not just talking about choosing one tanna‘s position over another. Notably, the gemara often takes the time to point out “Rav tanna hu upalig — Rav counts as a tanna, and so could disgree.” and argue with tannaim despite not being Rav. In numerous places an amora’s position is questioned on the grounds “vehatenan — but didn’t the tanna say otherwise?” The inability to dispute a tanna was a given.

Similarly, with the closing of the talmud we are told that “Ravina veRav Ashi sof hora’ah — Ravina and Rav Ashi, the compilers of the gemara, were the end of real halachic decisionmaking.

The line between rishon and acharon is less clearly defined, and many hold it’s a matter of convention and respect, not authority. This is how we can have exceptions, like students of the Vilna Gaon or of the Ba’al Shem Tov, claiming their mentor as a “throwback” to the greater times. (Someone who managed to recover some of the Sinai culture, so that they “speak the language” more like a native than their era would indicate.)

But there is unanimity that rishonim‘s opinions get much more weight than those of (nearly all) acharonim, and that one must invoke one of the modes of halachic change to explain how one can defy what seems to be the precedent by Chazal (tannaim and amoraim). In other words, the dictum that they are “sof hora’ah” means that their opinions get SO much weight as to be indistinguishable from an absolute rule in the algorithmic sense that we can not defy their conclusions.

C responsa are willing to dispute mishnaic and talmudic conclusions.

An Orthodox example: Nearly all poseqim (with the exception of R’ Rackman) are not willing to anul a marriage. The gemara has 5 cases in which the court can anul a marriage, based on the notion that “kol demeqadeish adaas derabbanan meqadeish — anyone who weds does so on the acknowledgment of the rabbis.” (The standard wedding formula makes this explicit, as we have the groom say “according to the rite of Moshe and Yisrael.” But it’s a presumed condition on marriage even without this declaration.) But we find that there are nearly no examples of this being applied after the geonic era. And every application is not a by-case decision, but a general rule. Such as “Anyone who weds in a bar, we annul the marriage.” Today, one would have to ask, which rabbis does this conditional refer to? There is no historic community which anulled qidushin – and the possibility for a halachically married couple not being legally married (by civil law) has existed since slightly before the Emancipation!

Why? Because aishes ish (having relations with a married woman) and mamzeirus are very weighty issues. They can’t simply be ignored, even for the sake of the poor women whose husbands abuse the system to make them agunos. At some point, there is no dispute that one is working with misplaced priorities.

And so, R’ JB Soloveitchik broke from norm, and the only time he condemned the actions of one of his students in public was when Rabbi Rackman established a beis din that would anull such marriages.

4- Formally Unsound. C will weight “textual” factors, formal rules that simply are invented of whole cloth.

Such as their rule that the Committee on Law and Jewish Standards (their central lawmaking body) does not decide law by majority vote. Rather, any minority of at least 6 members is considered a valid alternative. This voting model simply has no precedent or place in the halachic process.

5- Not produced from within Torah: C values objectivity, and therefore end up trying NOT to bring the right gestalt / da’as Torah to the process.

C conflates rabbinics with modern notions of scholarship. However, the point of a scholar is to understand a topic objectively, from the outside. The purpose of talmud Torah is to internalize the values and priorities conveyed in the Torah.

Therefore, the inarticulatable part of the system, the proper weighing of pros and cons, is impossible.

E.g. There is a concept when it comes to eating kosher that non-kosher food is “metamteim es haleiv — closes up the heart”. (Whether one understands this mystically, or as a a psychological statement about people who do not try to elevate their eating to be more than that of an animal aside.) The C rabbi is incapable of feeling this tradition in his bones, because he was taught to learn the notion with an attempt at precision coming from cold detachment. And therefore, the C rabbinate was far more lenient on matters of kashrus than O would be.

5b- Ends-driven to non-Torah goals. C is “ends driven”, trying to get the desired pesaq. With this model in hand, I would now say that C is using values to weight their decisions that are more Western than rooted in aggadita. (Which is how C can seem to end up wherever R does, just 15 years later.) By adopting historical school beliefs, they invent a history of weighting things that bears no resemblance to halakhah but rather political power ploys. Both between rabbinic schools and to accommodate the masses.

Recently C decided that women could serve as witnesses (in matters beyond determining permissability; e.g. to validate a wedding), entirely on the grounds that once it allowed them to be rabbis and cantors, drawing the line at witnessing is absurd. This was simply an acknowledgement that they imported the modern western version of Egalitarianism into their judgement system, aside from the procedural problems mentioned above in ignoring Chazal’s decision without showing how it wouldn’t apply.

In the next (and last) post in this series, I will drill down into the details of the model and show how this description of how halakhah is made conforms to various famous halachic decisions.

Halachic Process, part I

Eilu va’eilu divrei E-lokim Chaim, vehalakhah keBeis Hillel — These and those are the words of the ‘Living’ G-d, but the halakhah is like Beis Hillel.” The voice rung out from heaven that even though the law is ruled according to Beis Hillel, Beis Shammai’s position is also the word of G-d. There is some variation in halakhah between people — and yet both are right. We can’t expect every halachic decisor to take the same data and reach the same conclusion, even if no one errs. In the past, we compared different models for explaining how multiple correct answers could coexist (see Eilu vaEilu parts I and II). Here, that would keep the conversation too broad. I will instead just explore the problem from the Maharal’s perspective.

The Maharal’s position is that “divrei E-lokim Chaim — the word of the ‘Living’ G-d” is simply too rich and too complex to exist in this world. Therefore they are mapped to oversimplified models, related to Hashem’s words the way a shadow is a flattened representation of the original. And thus, different people looking at the problem from different directions will get different shadows — even though they are all accurate representations of the same thing.

To finish out the metaphor: The angle at which we look at Devar Hashem is our “derekh“, our path in how we . This derekh, just like the lamp, is determined by two things: mei’ayin basa, ule’an ata holeikh — from where do you come, and to where are you going? Where the lamp is, and the angle it points. Different people were put together differently, and can have different emphases in how they interpret the ultimate goal.

The complexity of Devar Hashem causes the illusion (to us) of paradox. It’s no more real of a paradox than the 5 blind men who argue about the nature of the elephant. The one who felt the elephant’s ear would argue an elephant is like a fan. The one who felt its leg would think it is like a tree. But it’s only because we can’t capture the full picture.

We therefore see the Torah as demanding conflicting values and duties. (Unresolvable dialectics, in R YB Soloveitchik-speak.) Depending upon which we choose to prioritize, followers of different derakhim will obtain different results. But you won’t make it to the top of the mountain if you first try this route and that that. You need a consistent plan.

Someone who changes the weights to find a desired result is no longer simplifying an Infinite Truth to fit it into this universe. Different shadows of the same object are each valid. But if you trace the shadow while changing the direction of the lighting mid-stream, you are left with a picture something that isn’t a shadow of the original. The weighting can’t simply be to justify the result; and in that sense even including human cost is different than ends-driven decision making (picking the pesaq to fit some non-Torah desire). The weighting system, the angle of the light, is the a priori — and must itself be a product of the halakhos of making halakhah.
This notion, that halakhah is a human-sized model of something far richer, also dovetails well with another idea I fell in love with, something from Professor Moshe Koppel’s book, “Metahalakhah”. There are two ways to learn a language: The native speaker doesn’t learn rules of grammar before using them, he just knows what “sounds right”. In contrast, an immigrant builds his sentences by using formalized rules, learning such terms as “past imperfect” and memorizing the forms that fit each category. R’ Koppel notes that the rules can never perfectly capture the full right vs wrong. A poet has to know when one can take license.

He argues that halakhah is similarly best transmitted by creating “native speakers”. It is only due to loss of our progressive loss of the Sinai culture with each generation that we need to rely on transmitting codified rules. (RMK notes in a footnote the connection between this idea and some ideas in R’ Dr Haym Soloveitchik’s essay “Rupture and Reconstruction“, Tradition, Summer 1994.) Earlier cited cases are the loss of culture that occurred with Moshe Rabbeinu’s death, when 300 halakhos were forgotten, and Osniel ben Kenaz reestablished them – chazar veyasdum. Similarly the reestablishment of numerous dinim by Anshei Keneses haGedolah after the return from the Babylonian exile — shakhechum vechazar veyasdum. Leyaseid, he suggests, is this codification.The informal knowledge of a “native speaker” is limited by the capacity of the human mind. But still, it captures more of the ineffable whole, the true “divrei E-lokim Chaim” than can be set down as formal rules.

Even the codified rules, therefore, are not all-or-nothing absolutes. Rather, they give clarity to the issues that a poseiq must weight, highlighting the relevant aspects to different elements of the fuller picture. For example, “acharei rabim lehatos” means that rulings follow the majority. But this doesn’t mean the minority is entirely ignorable; and in fact one may need to rely on that minority opinion if other factors come into play. The poseiq can then weigh pro vs. con.

We’re dealing with a fuzzy system, which acknowledges a realm where answers may be more or less halachic, rather than entirely within or outside the fold. Of course in many situations, the answer is clear and the difference between this kind of system and a straight rule-based algorithm is moot. But those are not the scenarios that require complex pesaqim and become the “interesting cases” in our responsa.

This weight-based methodology doesn’t make for looser requirements. In fact, often quite the opposite. If all rules were absolute, always of the form that factor X always trumps factor Y, then our language for dealing with conflicts in priorities would be quite limited. In cases where conflicts come into play, where the Maharal’s notion of simplification of the Infinite is manifest, one is given no guidelines — and thus full autonomy would have been granted. Rather than an algorithmic interpretation of halakhah being more defining, it’s less.

To explain further by metaphor:
If you have a digital thermostat, it probably is based on Fuzzy Logic. I’m not sure Zadeh’s “Fuzzy Logic” is the best way to represent more or less vs all or nothing, but it was that meaning that I was suggesting. There are other multi-valued logics. Statistics could even be adapted as one. Quantum Mechanics suggests a third, etc… But it is a good example to serve as a parallel for our purposes.

Fuzzy Logic is one in which AND means “take the minimum”, and OR means “take the maximum”. Say two balls are different shades of red, one a real primary red — we’ll say it’s .9 red, and another somewhat muddier, some might even call it brown — just a .2 red. In FL, we would say that the statement “both balls are red” is also a .2 (AND — the minimum of .2 and .9), while the statement “at least one of these balls is red” is a .9 (this ball is red OR that one [or both] — the maximum).

Fuzzy Logic is used in thermostats because the question “is it hot?” really needs to be able to represent “no”, “a little”, “very”, etc… Without such gradations, digital thermostats tend to turn the heat on and off too often (or need some even more complicated solution). Now, one thermostat manufacturer may weigh the heat based on degrees above comfort zone. Another might acknowledge that these things are non-linear, that I’m not nearly half as uncomfortable when the temp is 5 deg off than when it’s 10, and may have some fancier weighting system.

Notice that there are basic rules that any thermostat must comply to. For example, the temperature should be within the desired range at all times. All thermostats will end up sharing certain properties of the rules and the weightings used.

In Artificial Intelligence software, the word “heuristic” is used to describe a system for finding a solution that is less formal than an algorithm, might not always get the optimal solution, but is used because the perfect algorithm either doesn’t exist or would be too slow or complicated to ever get used. In truth, computers are algorithm machines, and thus the heuristic is really a just a much faster or simpler algorithm than one aimed directly at solving the problem perfectly.

Heuristics better represent human thought, as people aren’t algorithm machines. Heuristics better capture that looseness. Like in this case, we weigh pros and cons, not follow strict “IF … THEN …” rules on true vs false prepositions.

And so we find a range of dependence on formal rules in teshuvos. There are those I would call da’as Torah teshuvos, where it’s clear the poseiq was enough of a “native speaker” to realize the issues and weigh them before he was even conscious of needing to. The teshuvah then becomes an excercise in explaining the ruling post facto, perhaps to confirm than the instinctive answer was sound.

My favorite example of the da’as Torah pesaq is the prohibition of electricity on Shabbos. There is far more universal agreement that electricity just doesn’t fit the feel of Shabbos, as shaped by hours of talmud Torah, than on the reason why it’s assur. And in fact, some of the reasons found are self-evidently stretches to explain after the fact what seemed obvious. Boneh (building) a circuit? Where else do we see something called boneh on Shabbos where there is no actual roof involved?

Then there are the teshuvos where the poseiq relies very heavily on rules and precedent.

In between are the typical teshuvos, ones where the heuristic nature stands out quite clearly. A common form of teshuvah in Even haEzer and Yoreh Dei’ah (as well as some parts of Orakh Chaim, e.g. eiruvin) is where the author starts out by proving the law in question is rabbinic, or that some major issue doesn’t apply, and then provide snifim lehaqeil, motivations for leniency, where no one is sufficient but the poseiq combines them as justification.

In a future entry, I will explore how this notion is applied differently by various poseqim, and what it means to understanding machloqes and the limits of pesaq. Defining a limit is more difficult when one can’t rely on checking compliance to specific rules. How does one differentiate between differences in prioritization of issues and outright violation of the system?

Halachic Change

Pesaq “changes” in a number of very different ways. I put the word in quotes, because I’m including things I do not consider an actual change in pesaq. R’ Herschel Schachter writes in a number of places of the difference between appropriate halachic innovation, “chiddush“, vs unauthorized change in established din, “shinui“. Much rests on whether one is actually changing established din, and whether that change is authorized.1- The realia change in some subtle but relevent way. What seems like a new pesaq for an old situation is actually a pesaq for a new situation. This isn’t what RHS would call chidush or shinui, it’s not really a change of halakhah. Chiddush — it’s a new pesaq for a new case.

If teaching girls Torah were declared “assur” rather than “tiflus“, the Chafetz Chaim’s grounds for backing Beis Yaakov would qualify. He held that universal secular education for girls was a change in realia which in turn changed the definition of “teaching them enough for them to observe Torah”. Teaching halakhah is no longer enough; they now must also see that Torah has greater beauty than the other systems of thought to which they are exposed. As it is, the Chafetz Chaim justified a change in minhag Yisrael, which is KEdin (like law) and thus follows the same rules — but what was changed wasn’t actually din itself.

1b- Technology advanced to make a new option possible. With a new set of options, we have a new reality. This may well call for a new pesaq.

Eg 1: If a woman ovulates before day 12, how do they ever have children? Many poseqim have historically permitted the couple not to fulfill the full 5+7 days of waiting, because the obligation to “be fruitful and multiply” outweighs a late practice of treating every period as though it might be zivah. However, with the advent of IVF-H (in vitro fertilization from the husband), a poseiq might decide not to wave the law, and require them to use IVF to fulfill the obligation to reproduce. If he so decides, it’s a new pesaq for a new case — not overturning precedent.

Eg 2: R’ SZ Aurbach held that modern ink making methods have advanced greatly due to superior grinding and therefore mixing of the ingrediants. In fact, he rules that indoor mezuzos ought not be checked. The chance of a letter cracking due to age are far smaller than the risk caused by unrolling and rerolling the parchment. Previous pesaqim are ignorable, since they speak to an inferior ink, not the situation now facing the rabbi.

1c- One can not overturn din because of the motivation of the din. If the motivation no longer applies, eg not using medicines on Shabbos lest someone may grind one (not that any of us grind our own medicines today), we may find that the balance of conflicting values shifted. But the din itself, to be implemented no conflict exists, stays on the books.

The exception to (1c) is where the motivation is codified in the din. For example, YD 1:1, women don’t shecht because it would make them queasy. If the pesaq was that queasy people who would be unable to maintain the settled mind necessary for good shechitah should shecht, eg women, then a veteran of a MASH unit may very well be allowed to shecht even as decided before employing her. However, if the pesaq is that women may not shecht, and the pesaq made because of assumptions about women, then we do not have such latitude.

This is a subcategory of #1 because we aren’t giving a new pesaq to an old situation. We are recognizing the fact that the current situation is actually a different one than what the precedent was set for.

2- “Halachic technology” advanced. Someone thought of this once-new concept of a heter mechirah (selling the land to a non-Jew so that the land may be worked during shemittah), or of a heter iska  (configuring something similar to a loan with interest, but structured as a permissible investment), etc… If a poseiq feels that this invention is obvious enough that if it were valid, someone would have utilized it by now, then he would find that lack of usage to be a proof that it must be flawed. However, if it’s not obvious, then pruzbul or a rider for the kesuvah to protect the bride in case the groom might someday refuse to give her a get, etc… have not been ruled out. And so, some such proposals are actually shinuyim, and others are healthy new growth, chiddushim.

Here we aren’t changing the pesaq, we are orchestrating a new situation in order to be able to be subject to a different pesaq.

3- The realia don’t change, our knowledge of them does. The advance of science. But what to do when the realia change is a huge dispute with three basic approaches:

Rav Kook allowed changes in scientific theory to make rulings more stringent, not more lenient. This is based in an idea earlier expressed by the Vilna Gaon, that for every known reason for a law, there could be many undocumented reasons. Therefore a change in science might remove a cause for a stringency, but other, unknown, causes may still exist. However, if  it removes a single explanation for leniency, then we have sufficient grounds to be strict.

Alternatively, one could argue that changes in theory do not warrant such change. Either on the grounds that we lack the pro forma authority to make changes (we lack the legal authority of Chazal), or because of a skepticism about scientific theory. Why change the law when the theory is bound to change eventually anyway?

A third possibility is to handle each one on a case-by-case basis. Often in effect this is means a resistance to change in halakhah, but in each case a distinct reason is found to support the original ruling. See for example this earlier essay in which I discuss my recollection of Rav Dovid Lifshitz explananing the kashrus of maggots.

Here, in the United States, around the 1980s, it became more common to have concern about the bugs on vegetables we eat. Any bug that is large enough to be seen by the naked eye may not be eaten. However, one need not use a magnifying glass or microscope to find tiny insects. My rebbe, R. Dovid Lifshitz, used a similar idea to explain a different problem. The Gemara explains that maggots found inside a piece of meat are kosher. (I presume that the case if where someone ate them accidentally and now wants to know whether he must bring a sacrifice.) The reason given is that they were born from the meat, and idea known in the history of science as spontaneous generation.” Therefore, halachah treats the maggots identically to the meat.

Spontaneous generation has since been disproven. Maggots come from microscopic eggs. Now that we know that the underlying science is wrong, does this mean that the halachic ruling is also wrong?

Rav Dovid taught that the halachic ruling is still correct. The microscopic eggs and maggot larvae are not within the realm of human experience. The only cause for the current presence of maggots that we can see is the meat. In terms of human experience, the meat is the source of the maggots.

Thus Rav Dovid manages to save the ruling, but does so by finding reasoning specific to the case. I do not know if Rav Dovid had an article of faith that such reasoning would always be found, and if not, what he would do when it couldn’t — change the halakhah or not?

The subject of chiddush vs shinui will therefore be omitted in this case; it depends on how one believes the halakhah should change — or not. Does precedent matter, or was the earlier ruling simply in error (technically: a valid ruling about a situation that doesn’t arise)?

Angry at G-d

A friend of mine wrote this morning about his three experiences with cancer in his immediate family. He was equipped to handle his wife’s bout, abut by the time he had to deal with it for the third time, he tells me that all he felt was anger, anger at G-d. His tefillos that Rosh haShanah he describes as mechanically filling the obligation.

In this week’s parashah, Avraham famously riles at Hashem. Upon being told of Hashem’s plans to destroy the five towns of the Sodom plains, Avraham takes it for granted that there must be someone there worth saving, other than his nephew Lot and his family. “הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע? Would You even sweep away the righteous person with the evil one?” (18:23) And so it goes for the next two pesuqim, when Avraham still assumes there are 50 people among the five cities who are worth saving. Now, admittedly, he immediately catches himself when he realizes that the assumption was wrong. And Avraham avinu uses less confrontational language during the rest of his attempt negotiation. “וַיַּעַן אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר ‘הִנֵּה-נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל-ה’, וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר’ — Here, please, I have presumed to speak to Hashem, and I am but sand and ashes.” (v. 27) But that first outburst is recorded, and we are never told it was wrong on Avraham’s part.

Doesn’t Moshe rabbeinu, the most humble man in history, express anger at Hashem when he says “If You would, forgive their sin; and if not, please erase me from the book You have written” (Shemos 32:32)?

It would seem that there is an appropriate time for anger. When someone hears of something that seems like a great wrong, it would be insensitive of him not to respond with outrage. Although it’s interesting to note that in both examples, the injustice would have been aimed at a third party. There is no personal motive in either case. And Hashem even lauds examples of where that anger is directed at Him!

Anger is part of any relationship. We are called into partnership with Him in finishing His creation — of the world, of ourselves, even of expounding the Torah. Can a human being participate in a successful partnership without ever feeling angry at their partner? Marriages are not built on avoiding fighting, but on learning how and when to fight productively.

When someone gets angry at Hashem for something that happens to them, there are a number of positive assumptions motivating that anger.

By getting angry one is participating in a personal connection to the Creator. Hashem is real, I am relating to Him. He is the Cause of something I didn’t want to happen. If as part of a healthy relationship, it could be a positive thing. Far more troubling would be the distance from Hashem implied by apathy.

After all, we are the Benei Yisrael. How did we get the name Yisrael? Because Yaaqov avinu battled an angel, and the angel responded: “וַיֹּאמֶר, ‘לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל; כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱ-לֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל’ — And he said, ‘No longer will they call you Yaaqov, but rather Yisrael; for you have struggled with G-d and with people, and succeeded.’”

Anger at G-d may seem inappropriate. But not being motivated to struggle with our unanswerable questions about His Actions is far, far worse.

Yisrael, Yaaqov and Beis Yaaqov

Someone asked on soc.culture.jewish:

Today in my Women In Hebrew Bible class we talked about how Yaakov (Jacob) was renamed Yisrael (Israel). This was a way of redeeming him of all his past trickery. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Yaakov. He is, after all, my favorite Patriarch. But he was quite a sneaky fellow in his young life….

She then repeats the argument that it was therefore appropriate that the institution was called “Beis Yaakov” rather than “Beis Yisrael”, since they had to trick the guys into letting them have an education. First, I can’t help but note the sad state of education this represents. I hope it is not typical of what goes on as non-Orthodox adult education. But to get to the point…

Here’s my reply, from the same forum. Others already quoted the pasuq “ko somar leveis Yaaqov vesagid livnei Yisrael — so you shall say to the House of Jacob, and instruct the Children of Israel”, which our Sages (as quoted by Rashi) interpret as gently telling (tomar) the women (Beis Yaaqov) and using “words as tough as sinews (gidin)” (tagid) to the men (Benei Yisrael). So I began simply by summarizing the point.

The sages understood the term “vesomeir leveis Yaaqov” as a commandment to Moses to teach something to the women of his generation. Seems like a pretty solid argument.

Then, in reply to the last sentence quoted in particular:

In much the same way Abraham had to go through the Aqeida (the Binding of Isaac). Jacob’s natural inclination was to be honest, a deep pursuit of truth. As the prophet begs, “Give truth to Jacob, lovingkindness to Abraham, as You promised in days of old.” Look how Isaac’s fatherly blindness kept him from seeing Esau’s faults. In comparison to Javob, who identified the strength and uniqueness of each of his sons, and blessed (or cautioned) each accordingly. Might be why Jacob produced 12 keepers of the covenant, whereas Abraham and Isaac each failed with one of their sons. (But did Abraham fail? Ishmael, in the end, repented. But only after mis-raising his own children.)

Israel is the name of the Image of Man carved on the Divine Throne (as described in Ezekiel). After their all-night battle the angel calls Jacob “Israel”, meaning the one on the course spiritually upward, on the road toward that idealization. (And the human ideal is a road, not a final state…)

The renaming is not the redemption of a trickster, but G-d acknowledging that Jacob broke through that level, passed the test, and was ready to establish the Kingdom of Priests.

If anything, calling a girl’s school “Beis Yaakov” would imply that they are teaching a group of potential Images of G-d, who are still the custom there. works in progress. Pretty much true for any school.

Anger and the Golden Mean

(I invite people to visit my analysis of the Orchos Tzadiqim’s psychological model. Among the points I discuss is the relationship between dei’os and middos. In painful brevity: a dei’ah is a feature of one’s psyche — which in turn is something performed by the soul. All people have the same set of dei’os. A middah, which literally means measure, is the dimensions it assumes in a particular person’s makeup. I believe the Rambam uses the term dei’ah in this sense.)

When it comes to anger, the question of whether one should seek the middle path is more complex. The Rambam’s Hilkhos Dei’os seems to contradict itself — which is impossible, given the attention he paid every word in the code. A contradiction in two adjacent chapters is beyond unlikely. So the question is finding the subtle nuance that distinguishes the two laws.

Emanuel O’Levy allowed Jon Baker to place his colloquial translation of the first three books of Maimonides’ code on line. So, even though it’s a far looser translation than I’d like, it’s available for easy cut-n-paste so I’m using it.

From Chapter I:

3) There are two opposite extremes to each and every temperament (dei’ah), one of which will not be a good mannerism and which is not fitting to follow or to teach to oneself. If one finds that one’s nature is tending to one of these temperaments or is being directed by one of them, or that one has already learnt about it and accustomed oneself to it, then one should return to good and go in the ways of good – this is the way of the upright.

4) The way of the upright is [to adopt] the intermediate characteristic of each and every temperament that people have. This is the characteristic that is equidistant from the two extremes of the temperament of which it is a characteristic, and is not closer to either of the extremes. Therefore, the first Sages commanded that one’s temperaments should always be such, and that one should postulate on them and direct them along the middle way, in order that one will have a perfect body. How is this done? One should not be of an angry disposition and be easily angered, nor should one be like a dead person who does not feel, but one should be in the middle – one should not get angry except over a big matter about which it is fitting to get angry, so that one will not act similarly again. Likewise, one should not have lust except for those things which the body needs and without which cannot survive, as it is written, “The righteous eat to satisfy his soul”. Similarly, one should not labour at one’s business, but one should obtain what one needs on an hourly basis, as it is written, “A little that a righteous man has is better, et cetera”. Nor should one be miserly or wasteful with one’s money, but one should give charity according to what one can spare, and lend as fitting to whoever needs. One should not be [excessively] praised or merry, and nor should one be sorrowful or miserable, but one should be happy for all one’s days in satisfaction and with a pleasant expression on one’s face. One should apply a similar principle to the other temperaments – this is the way of the wise.

5) Any man whose temperaments are intermediate is called wise. One who is particular with himself and moves away from the middle ways to either extreme is called pious. What does this mean? One who distances himself from pride by moving to its complete opposite of meekness is called pious, for this is a characteristic of piety. But if he distances himself only half-way and becomes humble he is called wise, for this is a characteristic of wisdom. The first pious people kept their temperaments from the middle ways and towards one of the extremes – one temperament they would bias one way, and another the other way [and as appropriate], but this is going beyond what the law requires.

6) We are commanded to go in these middle ways, the good and upright ways, as it is written, “And walk in His ways, et cetera”. As an explanation of this commandment, we have learnt that just as God shows mercy so also should we show mercy, that just as God is merciful so also should we be merciful, and that just as God is holy so also should we be holy. It was with this in mind that the first Prophets called the Almighty with the Attributes of: long-suffering, magnanimous, righteous, upright, faultless, mighty, strong, et cetera, in order to make it known that these are good and upright ways, and that one is obligated to accustom oneself to them, and to make one’s ways as similar to them as possible.

7) How should one regulate oneself with these temperaments so that one is directed by them? One should do, change one and change one’s actions which one does according to the intermediate temperaments and always go back over them, until such actions are easy for one to do and will not be troublesome for one, and until such temperaments are fixed in one’s soul. This way is known as the way of the Lord, for the reasons that the Creator has been called by them and that they are the intermediate characteristics which we are obligated to adopt. This is what Abraham taught his sons, as it is written, “For I know him, that he will command his children, et cetera”. One who goes in this way will bring upon himself good and blessings, as it is written, “…that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him”.

So, using the terminology I suggested, the Rambam is saying that the Chakham should aspire for middos in which each dei’ah is at the middle point between the extremes. The key tool recommended (so far) for doing so is habituation.

It also seems that this middle is not only being described as half of each conflicting dei’ah, but a mixture, a synthesis, of both. So that a person is using all of the skills given to him as an image of G-d.

From Chapter II:

3) There are some intermediate temperaments which one is forbidden to have, but one should adopt one of the extremities of such temperaments. One of these is the temperament of haughtiness. It is not good [enough] for one to be just modest, but one should be meek, and one’s spirits should be low. Therefore, concerning Moses our Teacher it is written, “…very meek”, and not just, “meek”. Therefore, the Sages commanded that one should be very meek. They said further that anyone who raises his spirits is denying the essence, as it is written, “…then your heart be lifted up and you forget the Lord your God”. They also said that all those with haughty airs should be excommunicated, even if they are only slightly haughty. It is the same with anger, which is an extremely bad temperament and from which it is fitting for one to distance oneself as far as its opposite extreme. One should teach oneself not to get angry, even over something about which it would be normal to get angry. If one wanted to instill fear in one’s sons or members of one’s household, or in the community if one was their leader, and one wants to be angry at them in order that they will return to the good [ways], then one should show them that one is being angry at them just to correct them, and, when displaying such anger, one should bear in mind that one is like a man who is similar to being angry, and that one is not really angry. The first Sages said that if one is angry, it is as if one has worshiped idols. They also said that when a man gets angry, then if he was wise his wisdom leaves him, and if he was a prophet his prophecy leaves him, and that the life of angry people is not [really] a life. Therefore, they commanded us to distance ourselves from anger until one is accustomed to not getting any angry feelings at even annoying things. This is the good way. The way of the righteous is to be humble without being humbled, not to answer back when disgraced, to do things out of love and to be joyous in suffering. Scripture says about them, “…but let them who love Him be as the sun when it comes out in its might”.

The Rambam appears to be contractictin himself. In 1:4, he advises “one should not get angry except over a big matter about which it is fitting to get angry.” But in chapter two , anger is comparable to idolatry, and to be avoided in all circumstances!

The Lechem Mishnah understands the Rambam to be recommending the Middle Path in all cases. However, since anger and egotism are so dangerous, one end of the spectrum is far more hazardous than the other. Therefore, the Chassid chooses to err on the side of caution, and lean toward avoiding them rather than stay in the ideal, the middle. The Lechem Mishnah makes a linguistic note. By most dei’os, the Rambam refers to pursuing the beinonis. But here the middle is described as emtza’is — it is not the middle distance between both extremes, but the mean taking into account the severity of either side. This distinction is the point of chapter 2.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:54) explains the seeming contradiction differently. The Rambam’s apparently conflicting advice parallels that of our sages.

In Ta’anis 4, the gemara declares that any talmid chakham who is not as tough as iron is no talmid chakham. However, in Pirqei Avos (5:11) we are told that a chassid is “difficult to anger and easy to appease.” According to Rabbein Gershom Me’or haGolah, the advice is as follows. If a teacher believes he is right and stands up and fights for his position, but then backs down, people will assume he wasn’t as sure as he claimed or realized he was wrong, and is using the anger to mask his incompetence. He will thereby cause people not to follow the truth, his original position, and it will lead them to dismiss his wisdom in the future. And thus, we till not be seen as a teacher (“he is no talmid chakham“). In Avos, it’s discussing the case of someone who actually made an obvious error. And therefore it would be wrong to become angry and defend his error. Anyone who sees him stand up for the truth above his own honor would realize, and think more of him.

Similarly, Rav Moshe understands the Rambam 1:4 as speaking of getting angry over important matters, so that his display and attitude prevent their repetition. However, when one can’t readily see the error, the anger just seems inane and doesn’t help anyone. In this case, one should follow the advice in chapter 2, and avoid anger.

Unfortunately, I was unable to satisfy my own frustration at understanding the Rambam since I couldn’t fit either suggestion into his words.

The Rambam’s exact words in 2:3 are “אלא יתרחק עד הקצה האחר — but he should distance himself until the other extreme”. Not “el – toward”, but “ad – until”. That makes it hard for me to embrace the Lechem Mishnah’s interpretation that the Rambam was saying that one finds an emtza, weighted average based on the evil of anger or egotism even when compared to the opposite extremes. And with respect to modesty, the Rambam even writes “מאוד מאוד הוי שפל רוח — be of very very low ego.”

Rav Moshe’s position assumes that the two are discussing different situations. When anger is productive, in standing up for something right that others may not otherwise realize is important, then one needs the middle path. But when someone makes a mistake, standing up for one’s error is misplaced, and therefore one should avoid anger in the extreme. However, the Rambam discusses general advice, what should be someone’s approach to the dei’ah in general. In one chapter, follow G-d and assume the middle/synthesis. In the other, avoid anger altogether because it’s tantamount to idolatry.

A possible resolution that seemed more straightforward to me is suggested by the Rambam’s words (also from 1:4). Obviously, advice about how to be a good Jew carries more weight when informed by the Lechem Mishnah’s knowledge or Rav Moshe’s, but this is how one person naively read the Rambam’s approach(es) to anger:

Any man whose temperaments are intermediate is called wise. One who is particular with himself and moves away from the middle ways to either extreme is called pious. What does this mean? One who distances himself from pride by moving to its complete opposite of meekness is called pious, for this is a characteristic of piety. But if he distances himself only half-way and becomes humble he is called wise, for this is a characteristic of wisdom.

Maimonides is defining two possible paths: the Chakham (Wise), and the Chassid (Pious). Both laudable ideals. In the majority of chapter 1, he addresses the path he himself took, that of the Chakham — finding the middle. In chapter 2, when he discusses modesty he clearly describes the Chassid approach. It would seem the same would be true of his discussion of anger in chapter 2.

(Similarly, the gemara in Ta’anis speaks of the iron-strength of the talmid chakham, whereas the mishnah in Avos describes the person as a chassid.)

Another possibility is that chapter 2 isn’t focusing on an ideal, but rather on how to cure a defect in one’s middos. From the previous law in that chapter:

2) How do they cure? They tell someone who is of an angry disposition to establish himself, and that if he is hit or cursed he should not react, and he should follow this way until his angry disposition has left him. If he was haughty, he should subject himself to a lot of disgrace and sit low down, and should dress in torn rags which are a discredit to normal clothes, and do similar things until his haughtiness has left him and he returns to the middle way, which is the good way. Once he has returned to the middle way he should follow it for the rest of his life. Other temperaments should be treated in this manner – if one was far over to one extreme, one should move oneself to the other extreme and accustom oneself to it for a long time, until one has returned to the good way, which is the intermediate characteristic that each and every temperament has.

Contrast that to the advice in 1:6, that the person “is obligated to accustom oneself to them” and 1:7, “One should do, change one and change one’s actions which one does according to the intermediate temperaments and always go back over them.”

One can combine these notions. The ideal, as described in chapter 1, is to follow the middle path in everything. To live that ideal is described in laws 6 and 7 (above) as “one is obligated to accustom oneself to them” and “One should do, change one and change one’s actions which one does according to the intermediate temperaments and always go back over them”. Habituation.

The Chassid ַadapts that situationally. When speaking of the more severe possible errors, one can’t rely on waiting for habit to set in. Instead we focus on a “cure procedure”, to tend to the other extreme. Training the vine by pulling it beyond where you want it to settle.


( You will notice that this entry is pretty much straight lomdus rather than my usual fare. When I wrote Rafi’s bar mitzvah speech, I ran overly long. Here is an even longer earlier edition, but one that is more complete in covering my thoughts on the subject. -mi)

In parashas Behar (25:18), it says:

“Vesapharta lekha sheva` shabasos shanim sheva` shanim sheva` pe`amim vehayu lekha yemei sheva` shabasos hashanim teisha vi’arbai`im shanah.”

“And you shall count for yourself seven sabbaths of years seven years seven times and i shall be for you the days of the seven sabbaths of years 49 years.”

The Torah here is discussing the mitzvah of Yovel, of the Jubilee year. The word “yovel” refers to the blast of the shofar which is blown on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year. In that year, any land that was divided by Joshua amongst the tribes is returned to the family that it was allotted to. Also, in the yovel year, all slaves are freed.

Yovel only applies when “kol yosheveha aleha — all of Israel’s inhabitants live on it”. Only when the majority of all 12 tribes and Levi are living within their ancestral borders — again, as Yehoshu’a divided them — does Yovel apply. There has not been a Yovel since the fall of the Kingdom of Israel, or perhaps even since the tribes in Transjordan were exiled, in the first Temple period.

The Torah is being pretty wordy, and that isn’t its normal style. Usually, the Torah will use the fewest words possible to get the idea across. Extra words imply extra, not obvious, ideas.

The Torah tells us that there is a mitzvah to count the number of years between two yovelos, two jubilee years. But why does Hashem spell out that we should count 7 cycles of seven years, and then again to count 49 years? Do we need Hashem to tell us that seven times seven is forty-nine? Can’t we do the math ourselves?

When it comes to the mitzvah of counting omer, the Torah uses similar terms. Omer is a special grain sacrifice brought during this time of year, every day from the 2nd day of Pesach, of Passover, until Shavuos. During this period there is also an obligation to count out 49 days. For example, last night we said, in Hebrew, “Today is 42 days which is 6 weeks in the omer.” There are two parts, counting 42 days, and counting 6 weeks.

For counting omer, the Torah in Vayikra (23:15) says:

“Vesafartem lachem mimocharas hashabas miyom havi’achem es omer hatenufah sheva` shabasos temimos tihyenah. Ad mimacharas hashabas hashevi`is, tisperu chamishim yom.”

“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the day of rest, from the day you bring the raised omer offering it shall be seven whole weeks until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days”.

The two are very similar, but we can also see some subtle differences.

The first is that by omer the Torah speaks in the plural — “vesafartem” is “and you shall count” when “you” means many people. By our pasuq, by yovel, the word is “vesaphrta”, “and you will count” speaking to only one “you”.

This is because the mitzvah of counting for yovel isn’t on each and every Jew, the way omer is. Each of us count omer. Each person needs to prepare themselves for Shavuos, for reliving getting the Torah. Yovel is one mitzvah for the entire Jewish people as a whole. The one “you” counting the years toward yovel is the nation.

Since we can’t all count together, Sanhedrin has the obligation to count as the representatives of Benei Yisra’el.

The Hapanim Yafos says that the reason why the math is spelled out by yovel is for the same reason as by omer. We learn from the pasuq by omer that we need to count both 49 days and seven weeks. As we said there are two parts to the count. Similarly when Sanhedrin would count the years toward yovel, they would have to count that it was “the 39th year” as well as being “the 5th cycle of 7 years, the 4th year of that cycle”.

There is a mitzvah that comes in cycles of 7 years, one that we just started, called shemittah. In the seventh year, the shemittah year, farmers in Israel are not permitted to work the land. The land of Israel rests. Also, in that year, all loans are forgiven.

The Torah is combining the mitzvos of shemittah and yovel, of the sabbatical and jubilee years. In fact, it is the opinion of Rebbe (given in the Yerushalmi, Shevi`is, 10:2) that whenever one does not apply, neither does the other. Since there is no yovel, shemittah today can not be the real mitzvah. We observe it only as a commemoration, to keep the mitzvah alive until we do once again live in Israel.

When Rebbe’s opinion appears in the Talmud Bavli, though, it is cited as part of a disagreement. Rebbe still says that shemittah today is not the biblical mitzvah, but his peers, the other rabbis, say that it is. That even without yovel, the Torah’s idea of shemittah still stands.

The later sages, Abayei and Rava, are quoted in the Talmud in three places trying to explain various rulings about shemittah in light of this debate. As we will see, Abayei’s position is quite clear — he assumes that the law is like Rebbe, that shemittah isn’t the biblical shemittah, and therefore one can take some leniencies. Rava’s isn’t as straightforward.

The first of these discussions is in Moed Katan 2b. There the mishnah says that one may water a fields that is on a slope, and must be watered manually, during the shemittah year. The gemara asks how this is permissible — how is one permitted to tend a field by watering it during shemittah? Abayei answers that the mishnah is like Rebbe. This wouldn’t be too surprising, since Rebbe is the one who compiled the entire structure of Mishnah, including this one. But this means that the mishnah permits watering a field on the side of a mountain because it assumes that shemittah today isn’t real shemittah.

Rava says that one can even say that the mishnah goes like the Rabbanan, the rabbis other than Rebbe, who say that shemittah is from the Torah even today. However, the Torah only prohibited the av, the actual kind of tending one’s field as framed for the laws of resting on Shabbos. Shemittah does not include any tolados, other derivatives of the same basic idea that are close enough for Shabbos to prohibit. What is being permitted in the mishnah is only one of these tolados, derivatives.

Note that Rava doesn’t actually say that he holds like the other sages. It is possible that he personally rules that shemittah is no longer the biblical shemittah. However, in explaining the mishnah, he can understand the mishnah even without assuming its author agrees.

The second gemara is in Gitin (36b). This gemara should help us understand Rava’s position.

In Gitin, the gemara asks about the justification for the law of “pruzbul“. As we said, normally all loans end at shemittah, and can’t be collected any more. Hillel enacted a kind of loophole, called pruzbul. It’s a contract, by which the loan is handed over to the court and thereby there is no one person who is obligated to annul the loan. In this way, people would still be willing to lend money to those who need it — even late in the sixth year. If they need to collect on the loan, they can write up a pruzbul and still collect.

The gemara asks how Hillel could have enacted pruzbul — doesn’t is defy a major point of shemittah?

And again Abayei appeals to Rebbe’s idea to explain the leniency. Since this isn’t the biblical shemittah, Hillel is not overriding the Torah. Maybe we can explain Abayei’s idea further by suggesting that since shemittah today is a commemoration, one remembers the Torah’s mitzvah when he does the pruzbul, and that’s enough.

The gemara continues and asks: but still, you’re overriding an earlier Rabbinic enactment. Even with our suggested reasoning behind his ruling, how does Hillel have the authority to do override an earlier and greater court?

Rava provides an answer, but we’re not sure which question he’s answering: the original one — how can Hillel override shemittah? Or the later one — how can he override even rabbinic shemittah?

According to Rashi, Rava answers the original question. In other words, he is starting from ground zero, that shemittah isn’t necessarily from the rabbis. Instead Rava assumes that shemittah is from the Torah even today, and uses a different principle. Hefker beis din hefker — something a court declares ownerless is ownerless. One once they make it ownerless, they can give it to someone else. So, they can make the borrowed money ownerless and hand it back to the lender. And on those grounds, he justifies pruzbul.

In other words, Rashi says that Rava does hold like the other Rabbis, that the Torah’s shemittah applies even today.

Tosafos disagree with Rashi. They say he is coming to answer the second question and he is adding to Abayei’s answer. They say that even according to Rava, the law is like Rebbe, and we assume shemittah is NOT biblical.

Rava is answering how Hillel can overturn the earlier sages, those who said we should continue to observe shemittah as a commemoration. He says that Hillel doesn’t override them. Instead, the court is using its power to hand money from one person to another.

Tosafos therefore have no later sage who upholds the opinion that shemittah today is from the Torah, so they clearly rule that it isn’t.

But, Rashi makes this out to be a debate between Abayei and Rava as well. Abayei, like Rebbe, says that shemittah is only a commemoration; while Rava, like the other Rabbis of Rebbe’s day, says that the original Torah law still applies.

However, Rashi states his own position when explaining a third gemara. Sanhedrin (25a) again questions a leniency about shemittah. The Romans levied a new tax, and R’ Yanai allowed sowing during shemittah so that people could pay it in the seventh year too. Rashi there assumes that the law is Rabbinic, and R’ Yannai rules that they never imposed such a costly commemoration. Much like Abayei’s explanation of why one can water a field that is sloped.

In contrast to Rashi and Tosafos, the Ramban comments on Gitin, the gemara on pruzbul, that shemittah is from the Torah even today. After all, this is the majority opinion against Rebbe, and we almost always rule like the majority. This is also the opinion of the 19th century responsa of the Beis Haleivi and the Netziv.

On the other hand, the Me’iri on that gemara in Gitin is MORE lenient than anyone else we mentioned so far. He says that not only isn’t the mitzvah from the Torah, there isn’t even a rabbinic mitzvah of shemittah today! During the 2nd Temple period, a rabbinic yovel was observed. The Me’iri understands Rebbe to say that when that rabbinic yovel existed, there was also a rabbinic shemittah. However, today shemittah is only a minhag chassidus, a nice custom, not a halachah.

All this helps us understand our opening pasuq from the Torah. We are told to count “sheva` shabasos shanim” — seven sabbaths, shemittos, of years, because shemittah is inherently connected to yovel.

Perhaps we can go one step further. There is a debate in Eiruchin (24b) as to when the eighth shemittah ought to be. Should it be seven years after the previous shemittah, like the weeks, going by sevens forever? Or, do we not count the yovel year toward the seven for shemittah?

In the first opinion, given by R’ Yehudah, one yovel could be the year after the seventh shemittah. But the next shemittah will be only SIX years after that. So that by the time you get to the 50th year the next time around, it will be the SECOND year after shemittah. Yovel‘s place within the shemittah cycle will drift.

Going back to the two quotes from the Torah at the beginning of this devar Torah, this is actually closer to counting omer. Omer too we are told to count 7 weeks, but we don’t mean starting on Sunday and keeping the weeks of omer in sync with the weeks of omer counting. Even though the word used in the Torah for week was “shabbasos” — Sabbaths. Instead, it is merely 7 period of 7 days. Whatever day of the week that period might end on.

So, when it says by yovel shabbasos shanim — Sabbaths of years” it doesn’t mean 7 Sabbaticals, but merely 7 cycles of 7.

The second opinion would not count yovel toward the shemittah cycle. The first shemittah of every yovel would therefore be the 7th year of the yovel. Instead of shemittah being an independent cycle of 7 years, it is set up as the 7th, 14th, 21st and so on in the yovel cycle. Shemittah and Yovel are parts of the same cycle.

We could suggest a reason based on the opinion of Rebbe. He makes shemittah dependent on yovel because they are parts of one bigger picture. Which is why they’re on the same cycle.

Looking at it the other way, if you say that yovel doesn’t count toward the shemittah cycle, what happens to shemittah when there is no Yovel? Because yovel isn’t skipped, shemittah is in a different pattern than it used to be. Which fits Rebbe, who says it’s only commemorative.

In which case, we can answer one last question. The Ramban rules that shemittah is still a Torah law, following the principle of ruling like the majority. How then can anyone else rule otherwise?

However, in the debate about whether to count yovel amongst the 7 years toward shemittah, it was the majority who said that one should not. That majority would therefore say that shemittah today, being every 7th year with no exceptions, is not the same as the original mitzvah. It is not Rebbe’s opinion alone.

Whatever the status is today, may we observe the next shemittah because of the Torah law; with the mitzvah of yovel restored because the people of Israel will have returned to our homes.

כג אלול תשס”א

Tonight begins the 6th yahrzeit. It can be no coincidence that it is a weak before Rosh haShanah that we have the reminder of how a beautiful sunny day can, in the blink of an eye, turn into the most horrible of tragedies.

…בראש השנה יכתבון, וביום צום כפור יחתמון
On Rosh Hashanah they will be written, and on Yom Kippur they will be sealed…

… מי יחיה ומי ימות,
מי בקיצו ומי לא בקיצו,
מי במים ומי באש…
מי ברעש ומי במגפה,
מי בחניקה ומי בסקילה…

… who will live, and who will die,
who in their time,
and who before their time
… who by fire… who in noise …
who by suffocation, and who by falling…

What is frightening is that we really can’t deduce who. The rescuer who didn’t make it out, or the broker who lived for his next trade who did. Two people standing next to each other — one lives, the other doesn’t. We have no means of knowing, for each person, which result is the fulfillment of “letav avad — [all that the All Merciful does,] He does to accomplish good.”

We pass before Hashem — כבקרת רועה עדרו, מעביר צאנו תחת שבטו — the way sheep do before a shepherd, letting each one pass under his staff to be counted for tithing.

And in one moment, a sunny clear day turns dark..

ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה. Note we aren’t promised that repentence, prayer and charity will destroy the evil decree or erase the evil from the decree. Even in the middle of a mitzvah, as Avremel SemanowitzHy”d who stayed with wheelchair-bound co worker, he can still be robbed of that chance to escape. Rather, we are promised that they are מעבירין, allow us to cross over, to get through it.

We can not be good in this world in exchange for promises of an idyllic life. There is no idyllic life. Nor would such a life be a “good one; it would simply be living by informed greed. We should act so as to have a purposive life, a meaningful one, one in which even the worst of tragedies or one’s own end can be faced with a belief that it has a purpose.

As the Vilna Gaon put it: We say in Shema “אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם — that which I [Hashem] command you today”. Did Hashem actually command us to perform mitzvos today? The meaning is that every moment I am alive, every act that I do, I should be thinking that I was placed there by the Creator. Hashem created the universe such that this needs to be done. Only I can accomplish this task. It could only be done here and now. And so I stand here and now to do this essential duty, one which is a permanent feature of the universe.

Victor Frankel describes an attitude much like this in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In his study of how various people managed through the Holocaust (including himself), he found it was those who associated meaning with their lives who faired the best. And this was the one thing the Nazis could not rob of him. Even if all they left him was the ability to suffer, his suffering too is a task only he could accomplish, only at that time and place, and the universe is different than the one it would have been had he chosen to suffer differently.

With berakhos for a Shanah tovah umsuqah, as the Bostoner Rebbe put it, a year that is we not only conceptually know to be good, but has a sweetness we can taste and experience, and no ro’ah, no tragedies to get through,
Shetir’u baTov,