The final words of today’s daf (Nedarim 74b) touch on a topic that I’ve often emphasized, and that – as it so happens – is a topic that I stumbled upon in an essay that I read over Shabbat.
To begin with the daf, having heard Rabbi Akiva present a thoughtful examination of the laws of vows in relation to the laws of Yibbum, we are informed that Ben Azzai remarked to himself, חֲבָל עָלֶיךָ בֶּן עַזַּאי שֶׁלֹּא שִׁימַּשְׁתָּ אֶת רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא – ‘Woe [chaval] to you, ben Azzai, that you did not serve (shimesh) Rabbi Akiva!’.
To remind you, and as I explained in my commentary to Ketubot 93 (see https://rabbijohnnysolomon.com/ketubot-93), this word ‘shimush’ refers to when ‘one is humbled to sit alongside someone more experienced than you and observe them as they wrestle with the challenges that come their way while, at the same time, you learn the difference between halacha in theory and halacha in practice’. In fact, as I also remarked in that piece, ‘a psak (halachic ruling) offered by someone who has not had ‘shimush’ may be correct in theory but is oftentimes incorrect in practice, and a lack of consideration for the range of factors that must be considered when ruling halacha in practice can produce halachic outcomes that are not reflective of the totality of halachic sensitivities and sensibilities.’
Having explained all this I’d like to tell you about my Shabbat reading since this week I received the latest edition of ‘HaMa’ayan’ (which is a rabbinic journal published by The Shlomo Aumann Institute of Yeshivat Sha’alvim which is available both in-print and online at https://www.machonso.org/hamaayan), and so along with a pile of other sefarim, I spent time over Shabbat reading through a number of articles in this journal, with one particular article making a significant impression.
For some context ot seems that HaMa’ayan has been the platform for a debate that has continued over a number of editions relating to the amount of financial support that a father must provide for his children in the situation that he and his wife divorce. It began with an essay by Rav Oriel Eliyahu in the Tevet 5782 (240) edition of HaMa’ayan (see https://www.machonso.org/hamaayan/?gilayon=64&id=1888) who argued that Battei Din were making excess financial demands of fathers and that various classic rabbinic texts imply that fathers are obligated to pay far less than the demands made by most contemporary authorities. This article was followed in a later edition (Tammuz 5782 (242) – see https://www.machonso.org/hamaayan/?gilayon=66&id=2178) by a lengthy critique by Chief Rabbi David Lau in where he made it clear that Rav Eliyahu had misinterpreted certain texts, and that Battei Din make judgements based on much broader considerations than Rav Eliyahu was apparently unaware of. Apparently dissatisfied with this response, Rav Eliyahu wrote a further essay in the Tishrei 5783 (243) edition where he made a range of claims that challenging Rav Lau’s remarks. And now, in the latest Tevet 5783 (244) edition (see https://www.machonso.org/hamaayan/?gilayon=68&id=2229) which I was reading over Shabbat, Rav Yosef Ginzler sharply challenged Rav Eliyahu where he made it clear that his thesis is riddled with errors. However, the primary reason why I am sharing all this is because, within Rav Ginzler’s essay, is a powerful observation about the importance of shimush and a critique of those who claim to speak about halacha but don’t have an understanding of the real-life application of halacha. Here is my translation of what he says:
‘With all due respect to the Sages of Israel, wherever they may reside, someone who has studied a topic in theory but has not addressed it in practice is incomparable to someone who has sat in judgement, who has listened to the different sides, who has examined the events, and who must render a judgement relating to these two parties. Someone who has delved in these subjects through their study of the Talmud and the Rishonim is not the same as someone who has had shimush in Battei Dinim, who is familiar with more recent enactments [which recognise the need to provide children with a range of provisions], who has sat in judgement alongside elder Dayanim and who has received a tradition about how we reach these halachic rulings in practice. In particular – those who sit in judgement, day after day, understand the situation ‘in the field’ which demands the application of halacha in practice, the true needs of those who stand in front of the judges each day, and the costs and abilities of each side, and they can recognise from the claims and from the evidence brought [to the Dayanim] when certain claims are ‘beyond their means’ and when they are not.’
Admittedly, while the particular details of this exchange relate to the financial obligations of a father, and while in this case Rav Eliyahu has erred in his reading of key sources, the remarks of Rav Ginzler apply to all areas of Jewish law and they powerfully expand upon what I myself wrote when I said that ‘a psak (halachic ruling) offered by someone who has not had ‘shimush’ may be correct in theory but is oftentimes incorrect in practice, and a lack of consideration for the range of factors that must be considered when ruling halacha in practice can produce halachic outcomes that are not reflective of the totality of halachic sensitivities and sensibilities’ – which finally brings us back to our daf where Ben Azzai said to himself, חֲבָל עָלֶיךָ בֶּן עַזַּאי שֶׁלֹּא שִׁימַּשְׁתָּ אֶת רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא – ‘Woe [chaval] to you, ben Azzai, that you did not serve Rabbi Akiva!’ because, as should be clear from all the above, one is nothing like the other.