An age-old question in the world of rabbinics is what should be the right psak and policy when at least some parts of the Jewish world are less particular about halacha in terms of adhering to the specific demands of particular mitzvot.
Interestingly, we encounter this issue in a Beraita cited in today’s daf (Chagigah 22a) which addresses the question of how it is possible to accept the presumption (as stated in Mishna Chagigah 3:4 – see Chagigah 24b) that wine and oil brought by those who are unlearned (עמי הארץ) – at least in Judea – can be presumed to be spiritually pure? Or similarly, how is it possible to accept the presumption (as stated in Mishna Parah 5:1) that a utensil brought by those who are unlearned to be used for the Parah Adumah (Read Heifer) service can still be presumed to be spiritually pure?
On this point Rabbi Yossi explains that the reason for doing so is to prevent the possibility that ‘each and every person will go and build an altar for themselves, and burn a Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) for themselves’ (nb. on this point, see also Tosefta Chagigah 3:8). What this implies is that while a strong case could be made that such wine, oil, and utensils should not be automatically accepted as having a טהור (pure) status, since the Sages feared that such a rejection of the masses would cause a feeling of alienation and rejection and lead them to turn their backs on the Temple and thereby build their own altars, a more lenient psak was adopted as policy.
However, when we examine how the Rambam summarises these rules in his Hilchot M’Tam’ei Mishkav U’Moshav 11:1, and Hilchot Parah Adumah 13:12, and Hilchot Tum’at Met 23:3, we find a very different approach because he rules on each occasion that the reason why we accept the presumption that such items are pure is because we take the view that even those less knowledgeable don’t treat these serious laws lightly. Instead, as Rambam writes in Hilchot Parah Adumah 13:12 while basing himself on Bemidbar 19:9, we can rely on the fact that ‘all Israel are considered to be fit to observe these laws’.
What we have here is two models in terms of how we look at items brought by those who – ordinarily – may not be presumed to be particular about every aspect of Jewish practice. The former does so for fear of the alternative, while the latter does so because it is assumed that Jews are more careful about some aspects of Jewish law more than others, and this assumption can be relied upon when dealing with at least certain areas of halacha.
In seeking to make sense of these two seemingly conflicting approaches, the Tifferet Yisrael (on Mishna Parah 5:1 – as explained in the brilliant essay on this topic found in the sefer ‘Sha’arei Chagigah’) suggests that the Beraita and Rambam’s statement are not contradictory. Instead, while those who are unlearned would not be offended upon being told that we cannot presume that they are reliable about halachic matters which they are not particular about, precisely because those who are unlearned nevertheless treat these particular laws so seriously, a rejection of what they bring in good faith is why they would feel alienated and rejected.
As mentioned, this issue is one that regularly arises in the world of rabbinics, and it should also be noted – as stated in Mishna Chagigah 3:4 (see Chagigah 24b) – that notwithstanding all of the above, there are some people who cannot be presumed as even having even the minimum level of knowledge to establish a presumption of adhering to these complex laws.
Nevertheless, what we learn from here is that great sensitivity must be shown to avoid alienating and conveying a sense of rejection to other Jews, while we must also acknowledge that some Jews – though perhaps lax in some areas of Jewish practice – are nevertheless particular and strict in others.