January 2, 2022

Rosh Hashanah 14

Today’s daf (Rosh Hashanah 14b) quotes an oft-cited Beraita – capturing a unique period in Jewish history where personal halachic choice was prioritised ahead of collective consensus – where we are informed that: ‘The law always follows Beit Hillel [when they are in dispute with Beit Shammai]. Someone who wishes to act in accordance with Beit Shammai may do so, [and similarly, someone who wishes to act] in accordance with Beit Hillel may do so. [Nevertheless] someone who [solely] adopts the leniencies of Beit Shammai and the leniencies of Beit Hillel is considered to be a renegade, [while] someone who [solely] adopts the stringencies of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, about such a person the verse says, “the fool goes in darkness” (Kohelet 2:14).’
Clearly what we learn from here is that our halachic living demands some measure of consistency and integrity, and that just because a particular opinion ‘appears’ to be easier for us in any given situation, this may not necessarily be so – or alternatively – it may not align with some of our other halachic practices. Yet while much ink has been spilled in recent years on the so-called endeavor of ‘kula (leniency) shopping’, I would like to explore the meaning of the final statement in the Beraita concerning ‘someone who [solely] adopts the stringencies of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel’ who is considered to be comparable to a “fool in darkness”. But why?
Perhaps one might imagine that it only refers to someone who is unaware of the law and therefore adopts a more stringent position out of fear of error. However, as Tosfot (RH 14b DH HaKsil) observes, this attribution applies ‘even to someone who knows what the actual halacha is but chooses to be stringent upon themselves’.
In seeking to explain this remark, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Maskil-Leitan (1839-1904), in his Mitzpeh Eitan commentary (while quoting from the sefer ‘Beit Levi’), appears to disagree with Tosfot by asserting that someone who is unaware of the law who adopts a stricter position is not – in fact – considered to be like a “fool in darkness”. Instead, he argues that this attribution specifically applies to someone who knows better but chooses to be stringent upon themselves, to which he then adds that when someone is giving halachic counsel for others, they should never choose the stricter option (although does, towards the end of his remarks, he then refers the reader to Tosfot Niddah 36a-b from which a different conclusion may be drawn).
Overall, what we learn from here is that while a lack of knowledge may lead people to adopt positions that are stricter than they should follow, a “fool in darkness” is someone who has such knowledge but nevertheless acts – and instructs – as if they do not.
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