We were previously taught in the Mishna (Yevamot 9:3, 84a) that marriages forbidden by Torah law (eg. a Kohen Gadol to a widow) are often treated less severely than those ‘secondary arayot’ forbidden by rabbinic law, with the Beraita quoted in today’s daf (Yevamot 85a) providing further details in terms of what this means in practice.
But why is this so? Why should rabbinic law be treated more severely than Torah law? The answer given by Rebbi (on Yevamot 85b), which expresses much of the overall spirit of the Gemara, is that: דברי תורה אין צריכין חיזוק (literally, ‘the words of Torah do not require extra support’ – meaning that the divine authority of Torah law means that it is generally known by the masses and is also generally observed), whereas דברי סופרים צריכין חיזוק (literally, ‘the words of the Sages need extra support’ – meaning that rabbinic law is often dismissed and disregarded by the masses; as such, the Sages established a range of halachic consequences relating to transgression of at least certain rabbinic laws in order to encourage the masses to take these laws more seriously). What we learn from this statement, as well as so many others, is that when there is a weakness in an aspect of Jewish living or Jewish observance, or where there is a lacking in aspects of rabbinic or communal leadership, then this is where we need to focus our attention.
Interestingly, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966) relates that when he was studying in the Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin, there was a clear instruction which Rav Hildesheimer (1820-1899) had conveyed to all his students that: ‘Nowadays, it is not enough that Rabbis know the laws of Issur V’Heter, Kashrut and Treifot, Tum’ah and Taharah which are undoubtedly the foundation of foundations of Jewish law, but they must also be capable of standing up in the wider world…and explaining to the people and to the world what Jewish teachings say about the moral problems, the legal questions, and the societal issues which the modern generation are wrestling with.’
In contrast, Dayan Shlomo Deichovsky asserts that our situation today is different, and that: ‘it is not enough that the Rabbis of our generation know how to deliver inspirational talks to their listeners and can involve themselves in the issues of the day. They must also know how to pasken halacha in practice, such that a Rabbi must have, at the very least, a firm foundation in Hilchot Shabbat, Niddah, the building of Mikvaot according to halacha, the laws of Tefillin, Eruv, Sifrei Torah etc. in the same way that a family doctor must have a firm foundation in every area of medicine.’
It is likely that some of us may claim that things have changes since Dayan Deichovsky made this statement. Still, what is clear, as Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky would regularly emphasise, is that every תקופה (period in history) has its own unique demands and challenges in terms of Jewish living, Jewish observance, and rabbinic and communal leadership, and our task is to consider them, identify them, and then respond to them.