We are taught in today’s daf (Moed Katan 12b) in the name of Rav that it is permitted to cut down a palm tree on Chol HaMoed even if one just does so for sawdust. However, not only did Abaye disagree with this ruling, but he felt so strongly that it was not halachically justified that that he cursed those who chose to follow this position.
We are then told how Rav Ashi went to cut down some trees in his forest on Chol HaMoed while taking the view that Abaye’s opinion was not agreeable to him. However, upon starting to cut the trees, the iron axehead slipped and almost severed his thigh. Realising that this may have been caused by Abaye’s curse, Rav Ashi stopped immediately and came home.
Before proceeding to discuss the role of the supernatural in halacha, I first want to address why Abaye’s curse was actualized through the slip of the axe, and according to Rabbi Ephraim Oved (in his ‘Torat HaAggadah’), the answer to this is hinted to in Ta’anit 4a where we are taught that, ‘any Torah scholar who is not as hard (i.e. steadfast) as iron is not a Torah scholar’. As he explains, Rav Ashi was dismissive of Abaye’s steadfast opinion, and therefore, the iron axehead was harnessed as a medium to fulfil Abaye’s curse.
However, putting aside this particular incident where it seems that Rav Ashi was disrespectfully dismissive of Abaye’s view, how should we look at extraordinary events that occur while fulfilling one particular halachic opinion? Should we really see such events as a sign from above that what we are doing is wrong?
Admittedly, the principle of לא בשמים היא (‘it is not in Heaven’ – Devarim 30:12) as applied in Gemara Bava Metzia 59b suggests that we should dismiss such events and such signs. To quote Rav Soloveitchik (Halakhic Man p. 80), “the prophet, the transcendental man par excellence, has no right to encroach upon the domain of the sages, who decide the law on the basis on their intellect and knowledge. Halakhic man is a mighty ruler in the kingdom of spirit and intellect. Nothing can lead him astray; everything is subject to him, everything is under his sway and heeds his command. Even the Holy One, blessed be He, has, as it were, handed over His imprimatur, His official seal in Torah matters, to man; it is as if the Creator of the world Himself abides by man’s decision and instruction.”
At the same time, there are numerous examples where such events and signs have been recorded by various poskim. With this in mind, I would like to share the thoughts of R’ Moshe Sternbuch who writes in Teshuvot VeHanhagot 1:431 as follows:
“Question: If someone ate meat at nighttime and then went to sleep and woke up in the morning and wanted to drink a coffee with milk less than six hours from having eaten meat – what is the law? Answer: In the book ‘Vaya’as Avraham’, it is quoted in the name of Rabbi Avraham of Sochachov zt’l that the waiting period of six hours between eating meat and milk is due to the time it takes to digest meat, and that sleep speeds up the digestion process and therefore it is unnecessary to wait six hours (if sleep has taken place during this period). And I heard that one of the great halachic decisors of Jerusalem once ruled this way, and it is surprising since they (seemingly) had not seen the book ‘Zichron Moshe’ recording the practices of the Chatam Sofer zt’l who initially ruled that this was permissible and who then prepared milk for his coffee to drink in the morning which then spilt, and from this he understood that the law is not as such, and from then on he ruled that the law is six hours with no exceptions. Of course, who can rule against such a great halachic decisor as he?! However, this does require elucidation because this conflicts with the principles of ‘it is not in heaven’ by ruling according to heavenly signs.
And it would seem that in general one should not rule based on an event, and that only halachic study and reasoning should determine the law. However, the great geniuses of Israel – such as the Chatam Sofer zt’l – had Ruach Hakodesh (a heavenly spirit), they felt that this was a sign, and they then reviewed the halachic sources and identified further reasons to forbid and therefore he changed his ruling and thus his ruling can be relied upon. And it is told about our Master the Vilna Gaon zt’l that he wanted that those who attended and prayed in his Beit Midrash to recite the Priestly Blessings on a daily basis (as is done in Israel), and the night prior to when he intended to begin this, he was imprisoned due to a plot against him, and from then on he decided that no change should be made. Having heard about this, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter zt’l was perplexed based on the principle of ‘it is not in heaven’ which teaches us that we should pay no attention to signs or wonders and instead only determine the law based on halachic study and reasoning. However, according to what we have said here, the holy and elevated ones who had Ruach HaKodesh sensed whether this was a sign or hint, after which they would then review the halachic sources and establish a ruling.”
What we learn from here is that halacha should not be determined by an event or a sign. Still, when an event or a sign occurs – especially in the midst of adopting a particular halachic approach – this may be viewed by some as a divine ‘nudge’ to take a second look at the halacha.