Psakim u’teshuvot

PSAKIM U’TESHUVOT by Rabbi Aharon Arieh Katz
Jerusalem, 5777

If you walk into any Beit Midrash you are likely to find a set of Piskei Teshuvot written by Rabbi Simcha Rabinovitch, and if you are someone who enjoys researching halakhic issues, you may well have a set of Piskei Teshuvot on your shelves at home (as I do!).

To clarify, Piskei Teshuvot is a supercommentary on the Mishne Berura wherein R’ Rabinovitch provides a clear summary of more recent psakim (rulings) and customs relating to the Orach Chaim (the laws of daily Jewish life) section of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish law). Each of the six volumes of Piskei Teshuvot contain a dazzling array of sources, rulings and insights, and while there have been other attempts to produce a supercommentary on the Mishne Berura (such as the Dirshu edition), there is no doubt that Piskei Teshuvot is in a league of its own.

Sadly, and for a variety of reasons, the three other sections of the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah, Even HaEzer and Choshen Mishpat) have not received anywhere near as much literary attention, and with the exception of Issur V’Heter & Niddah (which are part of the core curriculum for advanced halacha students learning towards semicha), they are studied in far less depth by far fewer people despite many of these laws having a daily application.

Given this introduction you will now understand the significance of the publication of Psakim U’Teshuvot, an extensive 648 page commentary on Yoreh Deah Ch’s 240-266 (the laws of Honoring parents and teachers; the rules of halakhic decision-making; the laws of Torah study; the laws of charity & the laws of circumcision) modelled on the format of Piskei Teshuvot and written by Rabbi Aharon Arieh Katz, son-in-law of Rabbi Simcha Rabinovitch.

Since purchasing this volume just a few weeks ago I have studied it at every given opportunity, and I have no doubt that this volume (and I presume those that will follow) will also gain a prestigious place in Batei Midrashot and homes worldwide. In fact, I was recently discussing a specific halachic question with a good friend regarding the laws of Torah study, and the clarity of R’ Katz’s remarks, along with his exhaustive references, helped us find the answer that we were looking for.

However, it is precisely given the warm welcome that I think this volume will receive which forces me to highlight some less-than-wonderful rulings that it contains whose halachic, social and economic implications are sufficient for me to make mention of them, despite my general reluctance to do so. But to understand my ire it is crucial to appreciate the current social and economic climate within the chareidi ‘world’ today, both in Israel and in the diaspora:

1. As has been stated in a variety of studies and articles, poverty levels and charity dependence within chareidi communities both in Israel and in the diaspora are far too high. While in some cases households are supported by just one salary (while men learn in kollel), in instances where both husband and wife do work it is often the case that neither have received a sufficiently high level of education to get jobs that pay a reasonable salary to cover the living costs of large families. While changes are slowly taking place on the ground, there is a general feeling that far too little is being done by far too few.

2. It should be noted that higher education is not merely something that chareidi men and women would prefer to avoid. Instead, as has been forcefully expressed by numerous (but, it should be noted, not all) religious leaders within chareidi communities, centres of higher learning are to be regarded as forbidden territory, with higher learning itself being looked upon as forbidden fruit. Here too, some solutions have been created to address this challenge, with chareidi-only institutes of higher learning being established both in Israel and in the diaspora to avoid the possibility of chareidim mixing with irreligious Jews or being taught by secular Jews or non-Jews. However, while the number of such institutes continues to grow, the general attitude is that higher education is a necessary solution for those who do not have the stamina to remain in full time learning, but they are hardly the ideal.

3. This negative attitude towards non-Torah study permeates the entire (male) chareidi education system, beginning in elementary schools where a general disregard and dismissiveness is shown towards anything other than Torah studies (and here I speak as someone who has been involved in this sector). This lack of emphasis and general negativity towards other subjects implicitly means that young men will favour a kollel lifestyle over any other work which takes them outside of the ‘dalet amot’ of the Beit Midrash.

4. Beyond this, and as has been widely recorded, other aspects of chareidi education often fails to meet the required administrative standards as outlined and required by government agencies. This has led to a number of significant interventions in the US, the UK and in Israel.

5. Contrasting the male chareidi education system is the female chareidi education system. Here, women are granted greater license to develop their secular knowledge as a means to support their husbands in kollel, and among the reasons why greater latitude is shown within the chareidi world towards women studying secular knowledge is that women are not considered to have a duty to study Torah in the same way that men are dutybound to study Torah. This is why a model where women work to support their husbands in learning is considered to be balanced. In fact, by doing so, women are regarded as having a share in the Torah study of their husbands.

Having outlined the above, let me now turn to a number of rulings found in Rabbi Katz’s Psakim U’Teshuvot:

SECULAR STUDIES: In his remarks on Yoreh Deah 245 (note 19), Rabbi Katz discusses the duty of a parent to teach their child a trade (as famously stated in Kiddushin 29a). However, while a literal understanding of this rule is that a parent should ensure that their child is sufficiently trained that they are able to make a living, Rabbi Katz explains that this is a default solution to an already grown up child who has not found success in his Torah studies. In such an instance, he explains that the requirement is only to teach a child a trade, thereby excluding the study of secular subjects that do not directly lead to a particular vocation. He then adds that while there has been growing pressure to change the balance of the curriculum in chareidi schools, such schools must stand steadfast and not allow any change, however small. While it is true that in his remarks on Yoreh Deah 246 note 21 Rabbi Katz grants permission for the study of other subjects such as Medicine, Physics and Math, he makes it clear (while echoing the Rema in Yoreh Deah 246:4) that such study is only permitted if it is done in an informal manner and only once an individual has completed their study of the Talmud and Halacha to the point that they ‘know it well’. While he does refer to religious leaders such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (see Yoreh Deah 245 footnote 165) who adopted a much more positive attitude towards secularly studies, Rabbi Katz rewrites the history book and explains that Rabbi Hirsch did not take this position out of any affection towards secular studies but rather as a means for German Jewry to reconnect with their Judaism.

CHARITY: Having began his remarks on Yoreh Deah 255 that a person should always avoid taking charity (see Yoreh Deah 255 note 1) and having quoted the Shulchan Aruch stating that even a Talmid Chacham should choose a trade, even an unpleasant trade (eg. tanner) rather than rely on charity, he rules that ‘in our days, where it is a great dishonour to be involved in unpleasant trades, it is forbidden for a Talmid Chacham to maintain such a trade as it would constitute a Chillul Hashem’. Then, when discussing the laws of charity taking for Torah study, about which the Rambam (Talmud Torah 3:10) takes a firm position, Rabbi Katz (see Yoreh Deah 246 note 52) argues that ‘all the great Acharonim have rules that the halacha is not in accordance with the Rambam’ and that someone who studies with the right attitude and is in need of money to do so, is absolutely permitted to receive money from others for this purpose.

CORPORAL PUNISHMENT AT HOME AND AT SCHOOL: As expressed in numerous legal codes and most famously in Mishlei 13:24, corporal punishment was once permitted by both parents and teachers. However, times have changed and it is illegal both in Israel and most countries worldwide for a parent or teacher to physically harm a child. In fact, this change is apparent in numerous rabbinic works, with many rabbinic leaders such as R’ Shlomo Wolbe making it clear that parents and teachers may not smack a child. Sadly, Rabbi Katz not only explains that this may be done by parents (see Yoreh Deah 240 note 53) and teachers (see Yoreh Deah 245, notes 21-23), but makes no mention whatsoever of its illegality. To say that I was shocked by this omission is a huge understatement.

WOMEN AND TORAH STUDY: Having read the above, it will come as no surprise that Rabbi Katz is not supportive of advanced Torah study for women (see Yoreh Deah 246 notes 23-24), stating that ‘ideally, a woman should avoid Torah study [aside from the topic that will be explained in note 25], and any permission granted for (Torah) study is solely when this is done for the sake of heaven and not for reasons of hubris.’

There may be some people who are reading this and asking themselves why I care so much about a book whose conclusions do not fully reflect my worldview? The simple answer is that I take Torah study seriously and I consult serious books that help me with my studies, which is why I was so excited to purchase Psakim U’Tteshuvot. But, when reaching each of the rulings mentioned above, I can honestly say that my heart sank. True, there are other books that reflect the same positions, but the difference is that I know that this will become a go-to volume. But as I hope I have explained, it contains a number of rulings which are deeply disturbing both from a halachic, social and economic perspective.

In his comments to Yoreh Deah 242 Rabbi Katz discusses the care that should be taken by poskim when rendering halachic rulings. While there is much to praise in Psakim U’Teshuvot, the above-mentioned issues worry me deeply. Though many will study this work, the question is, how many will accept it blindly without thinking twice.