We are taught in today’s daf (Megillah 18b) that a Megillah or, in fact, even one letter of the Megillah, may not be written by heart (אסור לכתוב אות אחת שלא מן הכתב). Instead, it must be copied from a pre-existing Megillah.
Nevertheless, we are then taught a Beraita telling us of a specific incident when, while visiting Assya to add an extra month to the year, Rabbi Meir was informed that the community did not have a Megillah. In response, כתבה מלבו וקראה – he wrote one out from memory and then subsequently read from it.
As the Gemara proceeds to explain, Rabbi Meir was unique as he had a photographic memory and was already admired for his perfect recall of Tanach. Moreover, there are those who deduce from the words of כתבה מלבו וקראה that he actually wrote a Megillah from memory and then used this as a text from which to copy a further Megillah – which was the one that was used to read from. Yet as the Gemara itself points out, notwithstanding the uniqueness of Rabbi Meir, he nevertheless still wrote a Megillah from memory which should not be done.
In response, the Gemara tells us that שעת הדחק שאני – meaning that a different and less-than-ideal (בדיעבד) practice (i.e. writing from memory) may be followed in exigent circumstances (שעת הדחק), and as the Gemara and various commentaries explain, in this case the exigent circumstance was the fact that the people of Assya did not have a Megillah.
Of course, notwithstanding Rabbi Meir’s photographic memory, it would have been understandable for him to choose not to write a Megillah from memory given the law that אסור לכתוב אות אחת שלא מן הכתב (it is forbidden to write even one letter unless it is copied from a text), and he could have justifiably told the people of Assya that while he is sympathetic to their situation, they would have to skip hearing the Megillah that year.
Yet what is clear from this Gemara, as well as many other sources elsewhere in the Gemara and the poskim (rulings and responsa of halachic decisors), is that part of the task of a religious leader is not only to know a range of halachic positions ranging from the ideal (לכתחילה) to the less-than-ideal and often normatively invalid (בדיעבד), but also to understand the needs of the time and whether the situation faced by the community they are leading demands that we look beyond what has always been done to meet the needs of what needs to be done.
Of course, while many people would agree with what I have written, there will be those who take the view that what matters more is the ‘who’ (i.e. the specific rabbinic personality who makes the judgement of adopting a בדיעבד position in a שעת הדחק), over that ‘what’ which needs to be done (i.e. the duty of addressing the needs of people who find themselves in a שעת הדחק), and they will make the argument that unless we are being led by those who are on par with Rabbi Meir, we should always default to demanding the halachic ideal even in the most challenging of circumstances.
However, this argumentation is faulty, because each generation has its unique challenges that need to be met by leaders of each generation who understand those unique challenges, which means that even those whom we do not consider to be on par with Rabbi Meir, but who are the rabbinic leaders of specific communities, have the license to decide halacha according to positions that some may deem less-than-ideal if they feel that the community whom they are leading are facing a שעת הדחק. And though others may not agree, the key point here is that only a leader who is in the community that they are leading can fully comprehend the needs of that community.
Ultimately, pesika (the art of halachic decision-making) is nuanced and subtle, and it involves a delicate balancing act between promoting the demands of halacha while responding to the needs of the people. It is one that is often misunderstood and misrepresented. But what is clear is that there are times when we must look beyond what has ‘always been done’ to meet the needs of ‘what needs to be done’, and while it takes broad shoulders to make such decisions, it is incumbent on those who represent communities to have broad shoulders.