The other night Shir Hadash hosted a lecture by Rabbi David Fink on the topic of Chumra and Kula within Halacha.  It was a fascinating talk we hope to have online soon.  In the meantime, though, we thought we’d share some of the sources discussed.

In this first installment, we look at a resonsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igeret Moshe, Even HaEzer ח”ד : יח אות ד).  He was asked to endorse a new style of baking matzot as the most mehudar (highest level), and thus worthy of a higher asking price and greater consumer interest from those interested in stringent observance.  Specifically: Whenever matzah is baked it is first placed on a wooden pole while still dough, which in turn is placed inside the oven.  When the pole is removed it is thoroughly cleaned – with sand paper often – to make sure no dough has remained for the next use of the pole; for if any dough had remained, and 18 minutes had passed, then chametz would be on the pole during its subsequent use.  The new style advocated by the questioner was to use a NEW pole each time different dough was used, that way eliminating any possibility of chametz ever making it through.

Rav Moshe refused to endorse such a policy and even condemned it: “There are not enough sticks in the world for all Jews to be strict about baking matzot in this way.”  He didn’t mention, but perhaps could have, that this is not just a concern about practicability but also ba’al taschit, wanton wastefulness.  After all, if a new pole was not halachically required, the creation of thousands of these extra poles – and lack of significant use of any of them – would be a waste.  But as we have said, this was not Rav Moshe’s concern.  What was his concern though was that: “Further, poor people could not afford to be strict (for obviously this stringency would add a significant premium on each matzah).  Therefore, no one should be strict.”  He then went on to add the following rule in evaluating whether or not a chumra is a good thing or a bad thing to add to one’s halachik lifestyle: “When ordinary people cannot be strict, even those who can be strict should not do so.”  True, he admitted, someone can spend more money on the fulfillment of certain mitzvoth than others – a person can spend his money however he would like — but he should not view it as a religious value.  For example, when it comes to Pesach one can either kasher his pots or buy new ones special for Pesach.  It would be wrong (as the Gemara in Pesachim 30b points out) to make it a universal requirement for people to buy new pots.  If, however, someone wanted to buy new ones because it is easier for them, that’s their right.  But they shouldn’t think it’s holier doing so.

From Rav Moshe’s insight we learn two important rules about chumrah.  First, it should be practical — something that all of Am Yisrael could perform if it wanted to.  Second, one of the considerations of ‘being practical’ is financial; if a chumrah adds significant expense to the extent it would prevent some from performing it, then it should be abandoned as the ideal (though individuals may continue to behave that way, albeit without the belief that it is preferable).

Part 2

Previously we had learned that one should not take on a chumra – an halachik stringency – unless it was practical for the entire Jewish people to adopt it as well, including poor people; or stated in the negative: if a stringent halachik practice will preclude the poor from participation by imposing an unneccessary financial burden, then it is not permitted.  Now we will learn a second principle to help guide us when and when not to add a chumra.

The Da’at Torah(סימן סג סעיף ב) rules that it is “forbidden to sit at a celebratory meal, such as a wedding, with others and in a public fashion be stringent on oneself and say that he/she does not eat from the particular kosher supervision of the meal.  Doing so is disrespectful of the Rabbis responsible for this supervision and is likely to cause discord between them.  And if there are great Jewish leaders at the meal as well, and they are eating from the food available, then the person being stringent should be excommunicated.  He may be strict in his own house, and he can refrain from going to the celebratory meal in the first place, but once he is there he may not be ‘machmir’ in front of others.  [All this is with the caveat that he has a doubt over whether or not the food is kosher; obviously, if he has certain evidence that it is not kosher, then he should be strict]”

A related text can be found in the Talmud, Tractate Gittin 5b: “Rav Ami and Rav Asi forbade adding any stringencies in writing a get (bill of divorce), for doing so mocks those that came before.”*  Here, the Rabbis are referring to a case when someone wants to add something to the get that did not exist previously.  Doing so, argue Rav Ami and Rav Asi, casts aspersion on the earlier Rabbis that didn’t find the addition/stringency necessary, perhaps even suggesting their gittin were not appropriate … which in turn casts aspersion on the halachik status of the people who relied on the get for their divorce and subsequent marriages to other people … and raises the spectre of mamzerim.

Both of the above texts make a similar point.  Being strict may be appropriate in private, but when made public it might reflect negatively on upstanding Jews who chose not to be strict — whether Rabbis currently alive or those that ruled differently in the past.  And calling into question the ‘kashrut’ of such a person is simply too high a cost for one’s desire to appear more strict than others.

*At this point in the class Rabbi Fink offered an interesting example.  In Helsinki the Jewish population is closer to the Swedish minority than the Finnish majority, and as a consequence many of them refer to Helskinki in the Swedish way, which constitutes a different place name.  Following the war the Chief Rabbi was asked to write a get for a divorcing couple — and the question arose “what should the name of the city be for the purpose of the get – the Finish name or the Swedish name?”  Of course he could have just written both names — but that would have involved a violation of the rule presented in the Talmud of not adding anything not previously required (two names instead of one would eventually become a stringency, for if a future get was written without the second name perhaps it would not be kosher).  The Rabbi looked to see how gittim used to be written before the war but all records had been destroyed and no one had memory of the policy.  What to do?  In the end, Rabbi Chaim Ozer permitted the writing of both names, but only because there appeared to be no other choice.  The fact that he had to be called in – and had to justify his decision with significant effort – makes this the exception that proves the rule: even adding a minor stringency such as adding a second name for a city must be done with great sensitivity and trepidation.