July 21, 2021

Sukkah 14

In today’s daf (Sukkah 14b) we are told by Rabbi Yehuda how, while living in a period and place of danger, he and others used four-tefachim-wide boards to cover a porch in order to fulfil the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah. However, the Sages then responded to him saying that, אין שעת הסכנה ראיה – meaning that decisions taken during time a danger, though totally understandable and even justified for that situation, cannot be invoked as halachic proof for other situations.
Significantly, this principle of אין שעת הסכנה ראיה is invoked in various forms within Rabbinic literature with reference to a range of situations – particularly including those relating to prayer – and it is from here that we learn that just because something was done in a particular way during a time of danger, it does not set a precedent in terms of normative halacha.
Unfortunately, however, I have noticed that this principle is either unintentionally overlooked or deliberately ignored in some of the halachic positions that have been proposed and promoted in the modern age, such that there have been those who have sought to establish practices and set precedents from what I refer to as ‘emergency halacha’ by taking, as the Navi Yeshayahu observes, צַו לָצָו קַו לָקָו קַו לָקָו זְעֵיר שָׁם זְעֵיר שָׁם לְמַעַן יֵלְכוּ וְכָשְׁלוּ אָחוֹר – ‘a precept for a precept, a precept for a precept, a line for a line, a line for a line, a little there, a little there, in order that they go and stumble backwards’ (Yeshayahu 28:13). The question, of course, is how could this be? For if people can access sophisticated rabbinic texts discussing cases of emergency halacha, then surely they would know this principle of אין שעת הסכנה ראיה?!
The answer to this question is simple – which is that while, with the power of internet searches and sophisticated databases, rabbinic texts have never been easier to access, many more people today are able to find and extract ‘a precept for a precept, a precept for a precept, a line for a line, a line for a line, a little there, a little there’ without investing sufficient time or without paying sufficient attention to the context of that precept, line, rule or practice. The obvious problem with this is – as various Bible scholars have previously observed – that ‘a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext’.
Personally, I am genuinely overjoyed with the increase of Torah text study today, and every single day I interact with men and women who – through using the tools of technology – are now engaging with rabbinic texts that even just 10 years ago would have been beyond their imagination.
Yet just as I believe in the power of text, I also believe in the importance of context and in understanding not just the meaning of words, but also the author, context and situation from which they emanated.
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