Thou Shall Not Forbid

In today’s halakhic landscape it seems that the rule of thumb is “declare that it is forbidden.” This rule is applied when in doubt, when a question is asked, and when there is a fear about abandoning tradition or losing control of the community. A partial list of such prohibitions would include eating strawberries, bananas, broccoli, leafy vegetables, or at a friend’s house. It would also forbid people from swimming, riding bicycle, exercising, jogging, or reading non-Jewish literature on Shabbat. Listening to music, shaving, taking a haircut, showering, or washing clothes are also forbidden for long stretches of time. For some people who wholeheartedly believe that they observe the Torah, studying foreign languages, sciences, or using common sense, are also among forbidden activities. Some people even go further to call this approach stringency, when, as a matter of fact, it is usually a choice to remain passive, an inaction whose consequences could be interpreted as either strict or lenient.

Two admonitions against this methodology are found, side by side, in the Yerushalmi Talmud:[i]
כשם שמצוה לומר על דבר שהוא נעשה כך מצוה שלא לומר על דבר שאינו נעשה
כשם שאסור לטהר את הטמא כך אסור לטמא את הטהור
Just as it is a mitzvah to say that something is an obligation, so also it is a mitzvah NOT to say that something is forbidden!
Just as one not allowed to declare falsely that something pure, so also one is not allowed to declare falsely that something is impure!
These two were later merged and paraphrased to form the following succinct dictum, which, to our great chagrin, is rarely followed:
כשם שאסור להתיר את האסור כך אסור לאסור את המותר
Just as one cannot permit that which is forbidden, one cannot forbid that which is permitted.
 
I recall one particular case when I was asked by a congregant, at shul, whether one is allowed to use mouthwash on Kippur, and answered positively. Though for some my answer was a breath of fresh air, others could not grasp the scope of the problem, and rabbis all over town were arguing against the “leniency”, not considering that by allowing one to cause misery to his neighbors in shul, and by forcing people to abandon their basic hygiene needs, they are the lenient ones, while my ruling is strict. Eventually, one of my congregants sat with a rabbi he used to study with, and they pored over the sources for two hours. The rabbi finally admitted that he cannot say that using mouthwash on Kippur is forbidden. According to the rule mentioned above, then, it must be permitted.
Throughout history, this rule has been used by many commentators, interpreters of the law, and Halakhic decisors. In his commentary to the Mishnah, R. Ovadia of Bertinoro (1445-1515) wrote that those who impose unnecessary stringencies rule against the law of the Torah:[ii]
ועל המורים בתורה שלא כהלכה – לאסור את המותר ולהתיר את האסור
Rabbi Menahem ben Meir (1249-1310) writes that by trying to micromanage Halakha and attempting to cover all possible breaches of the law, the legislators might lose the trust of those who are willing to commit to a life of observance. He adds that the Creator knows that the capacity of humans to tolerate the burden of prohibitions and follow the mitzvoth is limited, and He crafted the legislative system of the Torah accordingly. One should try to adhere to the laws as given by the Creator and not add new layers. [iii]
The reason for the prohibition against making unnecessary prohibitions was clearly explained by R. Shabbetai Cohen (1621-1662), aka the Shach, in his commentary on Shulhan Arukh:[iv]
כשם שאסור להתיר את האסור, כך אסור לאסור את המותר, אפילו בשל עובד כוכבים, ואפילו במקום שאין הפסד, מפני שעל הרוב יש בו צד הקל במקום אחר מחמת שנאסר, והוי חומרא דאתי לידי קולא.
ואף על פי שלפי הנראה לא יבא מזה צד קולא, אסור! שאפשר שיתגלגל ויבא קולא עד אחר מאה דברים.
One is not allowed to declare that something is forbidden when in reality it is permitted. Even if it belongs to a non-Jew [he refers to prohibition of eating, and one would have thought that it will have no consequence for a non-Jew], even if no financial loss is involved [the poskim tend to be “lenient” to prevent financial loss].
Even though apparently no lenient result will emerge from the ruling [meaning that the “strict” ruling will not cause any transgressions of the law in the future], since it is possible for this to happen after a chain-reaction a hundred stages long [which cannot be anticipated by the current rabbi], one cannot declare that it is forbidden.
 
There are many examples for the practical use of this rule, and we will explore them in future posts, but for now allow me to point out one “leniency” which is the result of past “stringencies”.
By demanding religious uniformity and conformity of their congregants in Europe, Ashkenazi rabbis have pushed the majority of Jews away from the practice of traditional Judaism. Those rabbis liked to think of themselves as stringent, but they were actually very lenienet in allowing hundreds of thousands of Jews to drift away from tradition.
In recent decades, Sephardic rabbis in Israel and abroad followed suit and decided to retreat into a protective cocoon, instead of facing challenges head-on and providing viable solutions. As we shall see, declaring that a certain action or object is prohibited, not only is not considered a solution, but it is in itself prohibited.
To be continued…
Rabbi Haim Ovadia

[i] ירושלמי תרומות, ה:ג: רבי אחא בשם רבי יונתן כשם שמצוה לומר על דבר שהוא נעשה כך מצוה שלא לומר על דבר שאינו נעשה אמר רבי לעזר כשם שאסור לטהר את הטמא כך אסור לטמא את הטהור.
[ii] On Avoth 5:3
[iii] בית הבחירה למאירי, מסכת אבות, פרק א: ויראה לי בביאור זה שהוא הזהיר להיות כל אדם שומר פתחי פיו לתת להם בל יכביד השומעים בהם וכ”ש כשמדבר בדברי תורה שלא ידבר בהם אלא בזמן הראוי בשעור הראוי ובמקום הראוי לו ובדברים הראוים לו אם מצדו אם מצד השומעים ובמשלי הערב אמרו על חכם א’ שהיה מאריך בדבריו יותר מדאי ושאלו לו מדוע אתה עובר הגבול להאריך כל כך ואמר להם כדי שיבינו הפתאים אמרו לו בעוד שיבינו הפתאים המשכילים יקוצו ואמרו כדרך שעשה הקדוש ברוך הוא סייג לדבריו עניינו כמו שהקב”ה נתן התורה והמצות והחקים כפי מה שראוי לאדם לסבול לפי המונח בטבע עליו אין להוסיף וממנו אין לגרע
[iv] ש”ך, פלפול בהנהגת הוראות באיסור והיתר, סוף סי’ רמב:ט
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