When laypeople, Torah scholars and rabbis discuss concepts of halacha (Jewish law), they invoke various halachic principles in order to help understand and determine a particular halacha.
In particular, one of the most oft-cited halachic principles in such conversations is יחיד ורבים הלכה כרבים, meaning ‘where there is a disagreement between a single Torah scholar and many Torah scholars, the halacha is in accordance with the majority’.
In fact, this principle is so central to halachic discourse that when a book or teacher is summarizing the various opinions on a matter of Jewish law, they will inform the reader or listener that רוב הפוסקים – the majority of poskim (halachic decisors) – adopt a particular point of view and, by doing so, strongly suggest that the halacha is in accordance with these authorities (nb. whether it is possible to invoke the principle of ‘majority’ when summarizing various curated opinions found in the writings of halachic authorities living over a period of time is itself highly debatable).
However, today’s daf (Eruvin 46a) seems to challenge this principle in the context of its discussion about the lenient position of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Nuri as presented in the previous Mishna (Eruvin 4:5, 45a) where we are told that הלכה כדברי המיקל בעירוב – ‘the halacha follows the lenient opinion in the laws of Eruvin’ which, as Rava explains, applies even though this is the minority position.
In response, the Gemara provides a series of examples which challenge Rava’s claim that in all similar matters of Rabbinic law we do not distinguish between the majority and minority view. Yet while these examples successfully demonstrate that the majority view is generally given greater weight even when it is in opposition to a minority view, Rabbi Asher Weiss concludes from our daf that, ‘the entire premise….that the halacha is in accordance with the majority is seemingly not a hard-and-fast rule of the Torah and may not necessarily be an absolute rule at all’ (Responsa Minchat Asher Vol. 2 p. 181).
At the same time, just as it is possible to fall into the trap of applying the concept of majority law too broadly, it is also possible to fall into the trap of applying the principle of leniency in the laws of Eruvin too broadly as well. For example, the Chazon Ish explains that the principle found in our daf of ‘the halacha follows the lenient opinion in the laws of Eruvin’ is limited to Talmudic debate and cannot be invoked as an absolute rule in post-Talmudic debates (Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim 112:10).
What we learn from here is that while our Sages often summarized general rules in simple statements, these rules may apply generally but not always, and many of these rules are undoubtedly far less simple than meets the eye.
Yet just as we err when we over-simplify and over-generalize rabbinic statements, we also err when we over-simplify and over-generalize our attitudes to people, and though some rabbinic rules may follow some general rules but are far less simple than meets the eye, so too, most people may follow some general and predictable modes of behaviour but they are also far less simple than meets the eye. Sadly, in our pursuit of clarity both in terms of halacha and human behaviour, we often mistakenly make presumptions of simplicity, but by doing so, this often leads us to misunderstand halacha, and people.
In his tribute to the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt’’l, Rabbi Shalom Carmy explained that what made R’ Aharon special was that he was able to blend complexity and clarity. In particular, he explained that, ‘an appreciation of complexity (murkavut) is not the same as needless complication (histabechut). To the contrary, intellectual clarity dispels the mental clutter that obstructs decisiveness and clouds judgment.’
With this in mind, my hope for the coming year is that I too am able to maintain an awareness and sensitivity to the complexity of Jewish law and human behaviour, while still achieving some clarity in terms of my relationship with both.