The Mishna (Nazir 5:3) in today’s daf (Nazir 31b) addresses the situation of someone who vowed to be a Nazir, but drank wine in violation of their vow, and then sought a Sage to revoke their vow by claiming that when they made their Nazirite vow they did not use the words that would have made them a Nazir.
As the Mishna proceeds to explain, in the specific case under discussion the Sage could not revoke the vow since the individual concerned had – in fact – used the words that rendered them a Nazir. But this then leads us to consider the behaviour of this particular individual. Specifically, they believed that what they’d said may not have made them a Nazir, and they wanted to drink wine. So logic would dictate that they would first go to the Sage, clarify that matter, and only then drink wine. However, this is not what they did. Instead, they first drank wine and only then went to the Sage.
Of course, it is possible that the individual concerned suffered from alcohol addiction – in which case there would have been a range of other considerations why the Sage should not have revoked their vow (nb. for a similar discussion about smoking see Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy’s Responsa Asseh Lecha Rav Vol. 3 No. 25). However, presuming that this is not the case, why did they act as they did?
Naturally, there could be a range of reasons, but one is the fictitious and absurd presumption that a ‘heter’ (permissible halachic license) can be found for any action. Consequently, they decided to act as they wished, and only then find a ‘heter’ – which they were confident could be found. Yet, as our Mishna proceeds to explain, it could not.
For some people, a scenario like this is nothing short of comical. Unfortunately, however, I know of organisations and individuals who have acted in this way, along with various so-called Rabbis who will claim to find justification, ex post facto, for such actions when, in actual fact, no justification can be found.
To be clear, I am a strong proponent of empowering people to make decisions for themselves. As Rav Yehuda Amital explains in his essay ‘Independent Decision-Making’, ‘there are those who believe that, ideally, a person should turn to a rabbi for guidance in all matters; they see this as an elevated expression of fear of Heaven. In my opinion, this is a problematic phenomenon, one that contradicts what is expected of mankind.. [Instead], a rabbi must educate his students in such a way that they develop the capacity to decide significant issues on their own’. At the same time, a person also needs to know that there are areas of halacha where they lack knowledge and expertise. As such, they should have someone they can turn to, at the right time, to seek their halachic advice.
Ultimately, if an individual or organization claims to be committed to halacha, and if they are sufficiently honest enough with themselves to acknowledge that a situation has arisen which has raised a halachic question for which they do not have a clear response, they should seek advice before, and not after, they act.