In a beautiful teshuva (Orach Chaim 4 #89) written during Chanukah 1960, Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked (by Rabbi Leo Yung, rabbi of the Jewish Centre in Manhattan) if one should protest the building of an eiruv in Manhattan. As Rav Moshe notes, “we do not have the power to allow” the building of such an eiruv and “I do not see anything that will change my mind in this matter”. In other words, Rav Moshe was of the view that one who would carry in Manhattan relying on the proposed eiruv would be violating Shabbat. Yet since there were “great rabbis” who allowed an eiruv to be built, “how can one protest[1]?”

Rav Moshe acknowledges that building such an eiruv would be a great benefit to many who carried on Shabbat without benefit of an eiruv. However, he feared many Jews would now begin to carry on Shabbat and would now, according to him and the view of others, be in violation of Shabbat. Thus Rav Moshe said he personally could not support an eiruv in Manhattan, however, those learned rabbis who disagree are well within their right to do so[2].

The above is a beautiful illustration of the well-known Talmudic principle of eilu veilu divrei Elokim chaim, these and those are the words of the living G-d (Eiruvin 13b). With much of the Torah consisting of “grey” areas—with good reason to both permit and forbid—it is inevitable that different rabbis will disagree as to which shade of grey is determinative. It is specifically regarding the hundreds of debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that this principle was articulated. The Gemara heaps great praise on these great schools of learning that their deep differences did not impact on their overall friendship and co-operation. The Mishna makes a special point of noting that, “Even though these prohibit and these permit, these disqualify and these allow, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel from Beit Shammai” (Yevamot 13b).The Gemara does note that in those cases where one side considered a particular marriage illegitimate they would inform the other and so they could call off that particular marriage. Respecting other views does not require, or even allow, us to give up one’s own. 

All this (and more) comes to mind as we read a simple comment of the Gemara relating to the subject of our last post, the debate between Rav Meir and Rav Yehuda regarding the status of food cooked on Shabbat. 

The Gemara (Chulin 15a) relates that when Rav Meir’s lenient view was repeated in the presence of Rav, he “shut them up.” To the suggestion that he did so because he held in accordance with the more stringent view of Rav Yehuda, the Gemara rhetorically responds, “because he agrees with Rav Yehuda, would he say to one who holds like Rav Meir to be quiet?”. Great rabbis welcome dissent and argue the cogency of their own views. 

Furthermore, the Gemara notes that even if Rav would (and he wouldn’t) be prone to stifle dissent, in fact, he agrees with Rav Meir. “When he rules for his students, he rules according to Rav Meir; when he would teach in public, he would teach according to Rabbi Yehuda”. 

That one would teach one thing to his students and another in public is something that, no doubt, troubles many. If we can’t rely on our rabbis to be fully truthful, how can we trust anything they may say? 

Issuing correct halachic decisions is oftentimes, more an art than a science. There are economic, social, geographic, and policy factors that must be taken into account and hence, two people can ask the exact same question (of the same authority) and yet get differing responses. A psak halacha is not just a response to question, it is a response to the specific questioner.

There is a big difference between “ruling for students” and “teaching in public”, akin to the difference between theory and practice. One cannot always say in public what one would say in private—and this is true in every discipline. Such is the nature of the real world. That which can work on an individual basis may be a disaster when applied across the board.

Presumably, anyone who took the trouble to personally discuss the issue with Rav himself, to become “his student”, was told to follow Rabbi Meir.

It is for this reason that our tradition places so much value on the personal, face-to-face relationship between teacher and student[3]. In such an environment, there is a greater opportunity for nuance and to understand the personal circumstances of the questioner. Of equal, perhaps greater, importance is the ability of the student to question, and be the spark to offer the posek a perspective he had not thought of. “Rabbi Chanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students more than all of them” (Taanit 7a).

When dealing with a broad audience, not only is there a danger of people hearing only what they want to hear, there is no ability to take into account individual circumstances and thus, teachings must be much more carefully formulated. 

And the more sensitive the issue, the more careful one must be. The Mishna rules that some topics are so sensitive and prone to error that they should not even be discussed in public. “One does not expound on sexual matters with three, nor the account of Creation with two” (Chagigah 11b).

This issue most acutely plays out in one of the modern genres of Jewish literature, halachic books translated into English. Available even (especially?) to those unable to read Jewish texts in the original, these works often present the most stringent view and tend to avoid nuance. Some do put other (more lenient) views in the Hebrew footnotes, acknowledging to the learned that alternate voices do exist and allowing them to explore the issue in greater depth and comprehensiveness. 

While others may disagree, I have long contended that detailed halachic works should not be translated and should be studied only by those well versed in the original. There is much else one can study instead. If a practical question arises, one should personally consult their rabbi and not try to rule based on, say, a translation of the Mishna Berura. And despite the fantastic wonders it does in spreading Torah, the Internet should never be one’s final authority. As a source of information it can’t be beat, but piskei halacha should be given by one’s personal rabbi only. 

One could make the same argument regarding the translation of the Talmud—and in fact, many did. Yet with the Talmud not used as a halachic text, the danger of misunderstanding is lessened, and I think this is a case where the results speak for themselves. The thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of extra hours of learning done daily because of the Schottenstein (and now Koren) Talmud does wonders to alter one’s perspective. Yet at the same time, the easy access to English has allowed some who should be studying in the original to use it as a crutch instead of “toiling in Torah” [4]


[1] For a brief and informative overview of the building of the original Manhattan eiruv please see here.

[2] This is a great example of how the same action can be a leniency for some and a stringency for others, and deciding which should rule is a matter of perspective. One could have just as easily argued that while many observant Jews would now begin to carry, perhaps inappropriately, many others who were carrying in any event might no longer be in violation of Shabbat. 

[3] Nehama Leibowitz did not allow her classes to be recorded. “Behar Sinai lo hayu tape recorders”, she would tell us. While it is a great loss that we cannot listen to this master teacher and pedagogue, Nehama felt that serious Torah learning requires face-to-face contact and one’s full attention. Amongst her other rules was, “You come every week, or you don’t come at all” (and pity those who did not bring a Tanach). As she told us, “This is not a country club” where one shows up when one pleases. 

[4] As to why Rav silenced the one who taught the view of Rav Meir, the Gemara explains that Rav felt in necessary to distinguish between the case of slaughter on Shabbat where it would be prohibited to eat and cooking on Shabbat where it may be permissible to eat.