Category Archives: halakha

The role of non-Jews in the synagogue

An intermarried couple joins the synagogue. What are the boundaries for participating in services?

Temple Beth Abraham

For comparison, having no boundaries is a characteristic of another, non-Jewish, monotheistic religion, Unitarian-Universalism. Not allowing any intermarried couples to join a synagogue removes the question entirely – which is the common Orthodox approach – but also drives the children of such couples eventually to other faiths.

Orthodox Judaism

Many Orthodox synagogues won’t allow intermarried couples or join. For those that do, a gentile may not become a member of a synagogue, nor serve on synagogue committees. For both halakhic and theological reasons, they may not lead prayers or recite a berakhah. Gentiles, however, are warmly welcomed to prayer services and communal events.

Conservative/Masorti Judaism

For both halakhic and theological reasons, non-Jews may not lead prayer services or recite a berakhah. They are welcomed to prayer services, and communal events. Conservative synagogues recognize that many intermarried families exist, and has created roles for non-Jewish parents/grand-parents who wish to participate in life-cycle events for their Jewish children/grandchildren.

This could include the recitation of a personal prayer, a relevant section from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible.) The booklet “Building the Faith”, from the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, notes that non-Jewish family members may be given honors to open and close the ark that contains the Torah scrolls; they may dress the Torah in its cover, and may lead the congregation in various English readings. Many Conservative synagogues are now creating support groups for intermarried families.

Reform/Liberal/Progressive Judaism

In many Reform Temples gentiles may serve on Temple committees, and may count as full members of the movement. “In many congregations…non-Jewish choristers and soloists have occupied positions which seemed to make them into shelichei tsibbur [cantor, leader of prayer services].”

Various Reform teshuvot (e.g. “Gentile Participation in Synagogue Ritual 5754.5”) offer guidance limiting the role of gentiles in Reform prayer service, but leadership is not obligated to follow.  Surveys show that 87% of Reform congregations allow gentiles to serve on synagogue committees; 22% allow gentiles to have an aliyah to the Torah.

Survery conducted by the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach, noted in “A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America”, Jack Wertheimer

Reconstructionist Judaism

Allows rabbis to officiate at intermarriages, and accepts patrilineal descent. Children of a gentile mother are considered Jewish; despite official policy, in many congregations this does not matter whether or not they are raised as a Jew. As such, non-Jewish children raised as Christians may nonetheless be accepted as “Jews” in Reconstructionism. [Feld]

Gentiles may become members of Reconstructionist Temples, they may serve on Temple ritual committees. They may sing prayers on the bima during prayer services. The JRF has issued a non-binding statement limiting the role of gentiles in services, “Boundaries and Opportunities: The Role of Non-Jews in JRF Congregation.” However these issues are ultimately decided by local lay leadership.

  • From “Can Halakha Live?” by Rabbi Edward Feld, “The Reconstructionist”, Vol.59(2), Fall 1994, p.64-72



Tosafot expanding the Talmud

The Tosafot or Tosafos (תוספות‎) are medieval commentaries on the Talmud. They are printed in most Talmud editions, on the outer margin of the page. The authors of these commentaries are known as Tosafists (“ba’ale ha-tosafot”.) The period of the Tosafot began after Rashi had written his commentary; the first tosafists were Rashi’s sons-in-law and grandsons.

The word tosafot literally means “additions”. The reason for the title is a matter of dispute.

Some scholars, e.g. Heinrich Graetz, think the glosses writings about Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud.

Other scholars, e.g. Isaac Hirsch Weiss, note that many tosafot have no reference to Rashi. In this view, tosafot are an extension and development of the Talmud. Just as the Gemara is a commentary on the Mishnah, the Tosafot are commentary on the gemara.


List of Tosafists (Authors of the Tosafot) – Wikipedia

The Emergence and Development of Tosafot on the Talmud, by Aryeh Leibowitz

The Legal Thinking of the Tosafot: A Historical Approach, By: José Faur

The Tosafist Oeuvre and Torah u-Madda, Ephraim Kanarfogel, The Torah U-Madda Journal, Vol. 2 (1990), pp. 51-60

Collected Essays: v. 1, Haym Soloveitchik, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

Thou Shalt Not Forbid, IV Four-Inch Matzah

By Rabbi Haim Ovadia

Everybody “knows” that matzah can be made only from closely guarded wheat which was ground under strict supervision and baked into thin crackers. We also expect the hand-made matzah to be almost burnt, and we are aware of many observant Jews who would not eat “Gebrakht”, or wet matzah. There are even those who constantly sweep matzah crumbs from the table into bags to avoid their leavening. In a conversation I had with a colleague about this strange practice, he commented that God is surely very happy upon seeing his fervent believers keeping his commandments with such zeal. I concurred that if we could attribute human emotions to God, there we be some happiness there, but, again in human terms, it would be more like “yeah, my favorite sit-com is on”.

The obsession with matzah dryness, thinness, and ash-like qualities has become an economic burden and a social divider, even though it has been around only for three or four hundred centuries. Here is what R. Yaakov ben Hakham Tzvi Ashkenazi of Emeden, aka Yaavetz (1697-1776), has to say in his commentary to the statement of the Tur that one should not soak wheat before grinding it, as was customary in Talmudic time to make the grinding easier[i]:

The ruling of the Gaon [that one can buy commercial flour for matzah] is correct, and it follows the clear ruling of the Talmud that one could buy unleavened dough baked by non-Jews. There is only a requirement that the matzah eaten for the mitzvah of the Seder-night [מצת מצוה]will be guarded from the moment of kneading. Therefore, if one bought commercial flour and kneaded it for the sake of the mitzvah of matzah, he doesn’t need any other matzah… some Geonim were strict regarding soaking wheat, but that is only for מצת מצוה, and even that is an exaggerated stringency which goes against the Talmudic discussion which indicates that it is an obligation to soak the wheat… I therefore cannot fathom the great concern of the Magen Abraham[ii] regarding the ruling of a rabbi who allowed people to use commercial flour, and even demanded that the rabbi would fast and repent for his ruling.
Why do those who take a strict approach toil for no reason to forbid that which is permitted according to the Talmud? They would not even allow it at a time of need, and they demand atonement for nothing.

As history proved, the toil of the strict rabbis was not in vain. The exorbitant prices of supervised matzah, the anxiety of those who fear that their matzah will turn to hametz right there on the table, and the religious walls erected between people based on the fine print on their matzah packages, are all a result of the push for stringency.
In that context, it is interesting to read the following words of Shulhan Arukh[iii]:

If, on Pesah, one found a piece of bread at home, and he doesn’t know whether it is hametz or matzah, he is allowed to eat it.

מצא פת בפסח בביתו, ואינו יודע אם הוא חמץ או מצה, מותר אפילו באכילה

The Mishnah Berurah explains:

דין זה הוא לפי מנהג זמנם שהיו אופין מצות עבה קצת ולא היו חלוקין בתארם מככרות של חמץ
This law is in accordance with their practice of baking thick matzah which looked like hametz loaves.

R. Haim Mordechai Margulies (1780-1820) attests to that practice, and explains that the concern about wetting the matzah applies only to those very thick matzot in which pockets of unbaked dough can hide: [iv]

There is no concern [of unbaked pockets] with thin matzah… in places where they still bake thick matzah, the rabbis should warn them not to make them more than four inches thick.

To summarize the discussion so far, these are practices of baking matzah which were prevalent in our not too recent past:

  1. Soaking wheat in water to make grinding easer.
  2. Buying commercial flour for matzah baking, if other flour is not available.
  3. Requiring supervision from the moment of kneading the dough only.
  4. To be strict, one would require supervision from the moment of grinding.
  5. Matzah would be made very thick.
  6. Avoidance of making the matzah wet applied only to thick matzah.

The question should be raised: were there negative consequences to the triumph of the strict approach, despite the warnings of Yaavetz, or was he the short-sighted one?

Part 2

Yesterday I posed this question: Were there any negative consequences to the triumph of the strict approach [not allowing commercial flour], despite the warnings of Yaavetz, or was he the short-sighted one?

It would be difficult to answer the question objectively, since the results cannot be measured in clear-cut numbers, quantities, or phenomena, and are rather a matter of attitude. I, however, do believe that had other rabbis heeded the call of Yaavetz, they would have saved observant Jews a lot of trouble and heartache.

While the ruling of Yaavetz was not a call to drop all cautionary measures and use only commercial flour, he wanted people to understand the definitions of hametz and matzah for two reasons:
1. To allow them to rule for themselves in changing circumstances.

2. To eliminate the hametz-anxiety factor.

Unfortunately, Yaavetz’s attempts have failed and as a result, we look back at centuries of increasing anxiety around matzah consumption. The anxiety manifested itself in the decision of many observant Jews to not eat matzah on Pesah [except for the first two nights], the war against the matzah-baking machine [which originally was no more than a dough flattening device], many years of inability to have matzah in the Soviet Union, exorbitant prices for “extremely kosher” matzah, the fear of getting the matzah wet [which also ruins the Seder and does not let one enjoy any meal], and ridiculous articles in the papers about the black-clad Hassidim watching over parched wheat fields in the driest parts of the U.S. We can just imagine the next generation of wheat grown on waterless diet under umbrellas.

In that context, it is worthwhile to present another famous and “daring” ruling of Yaavetz regarding Pesah, where he explains why were people baking very thick matzah. It was, you guessed it, the disastrous result of another “strict” practice[i]:

אי איישר חילי, אבטליניה למנהג גרוע הלז, שהיא חומרא דאתיא לידי קולא, ונפק מנה חורבא ומכשול (תחת אשר חשבו להתרחק ממנו מרחק רב) באיסור חמץ גמור! כי מתוך שאין מיני קטניות מצויים להמון לאכול ולשבוע, צריכין לאפות לחם מצה הרבה. בפרטות העניים ומי שבני ביתו מרובים, ולא יספיקו להם תבשילים הרבה לשבר רעבונם, מוכרחים על כרחם להספיק להם מצה די לחמם לביתם וחיים לנערותם. מתוך כך אינם נזהרים בעסה כראוי וכחובה, עושים אותה גדולה הרבה ושוהים עליה מאד, וקרוב הדבר שנכשלים באיסור כרת, רחמנא ליצלן. גם המצות עומדים להם ביוקר, ואין יד כל אדם משגת לעשותם די הצורך לבני ביתו… וקטניות נמצאים בזול בלי טורח ובהתר. ואתו לאמנועי משמחת יום טוב, בסבת חומרא שאין לה טעם וריח! לכן אשרי שיאחז צדיק דרכו, יתן אוכל למכביר ונפץ את עלולי החומרות הזרות אל הסלע

If I were able, I would abolish this terrible practice, which is a stringency that leads to a leniency. It is destructive and (instead of guarding themselves from it, as they have hoped) it causes people to stumble with the prohibition of consuming genuine hametz! Because the masses are not permitted to consume legumes, which would have sustained them and satisfied their hunger, they must bake large quantities of matzah, especially poor people and those with large families, who cannot afford meat and vegetables, and they need to rely on matzah as their daily bread. They therefore make large batches of dough [also: thick matzah] and they are not careful to bake it as necessary. Those people probably transgress the prohibition of not eating hametz.
[Commercial] matzahs are also very expensive and many people cannot afford buying them for the whole family, while legumes are cheap, and can be easily and permissibly bought.
They lose the joy of the holiday for a stringency which has neither flavor nor fragrance [i.e. meaningless.]
Blessed be the righteous man [who will permit the consumption of legumes on Pesah], will provide food in abundance, and will smash on the rocks the consequences of these alien stringencies.

The last sentence of Yaavetz is very powerful and it shows his frustration with the “stringent” practices which flourished around Pesah. He laments the fact that the rabbis do not look beyond the immediate halakha and do not assess the long-term consequences of their “strict” ruling. He does not only call for the abolition of the practice, but also for that of its “alien consequences”.

He emphasizes the importance of seeing the whole picture, and also uses a Hebrew term החומרות הזרות which resembles the term עבודה זרה- idolatry. In other words, he believes that those who choose to add prohibitions to the original requirements of halakha are practicing paganism.

It is a dire warning to all those who pile stringencies upon stringencies to stop and think whether they adhere to the intention and will of the Giver of the Law, or maybe they are erecting an altar upon which they worship alien gods, the embodiment of their own fears and anxieties.

[i]מור וקציעה סימן תנג: תשובה דגאון מתקנתא היא, אתיא שפיר אליבא דהלכתא כפשיטותא דגמרא דבצקות של גוים אדם ממלא כרסו מהם, ולמצוה הוא דלא נפיק עד דעבד שימור מלישה ואילך. הילכך אם לקח קמח מן השוק ולש אותו תו לא צריך למצה שמורה אחרת כמ”ש הרא”ש בפשיטות. והטור בודאי קאי ליה בשטתיה דאבוהי מסתמא, דלענין דינא לית בה ספקא. אלא שגאונים אחרים החמירו בלתיתה למצת מצוה בלבד, ואף זו חומרא יתרה היא נגד סוגית התלמוד דמסיק מצוה ללתות במצה דמצוה ורבא קבע בה מסמרות כדאיתא התם, אבל למלא כרסו מבצקות דגוים לית דין ולית דיין, דשרי אף לכתחלה ואצ”ל ליקח קמח מן השוק שלא בשעת הדחק, עאכ”ו בשעת הדחק, שאין בו בית מיחוש.
מעתה לא ידעתי מה החרדה הגדולה אשר חרד עלינו במג”א בהוראת חכם אחד שהורה ליקח קמח מן השוק, ושוב גזר תענית על שגגתו. ולא ירדתי לסוף דעת המחמירים הללו דטרחי בכדי במ”כ, לאסור את המותר מדעת חכמי התלמוד לכתחילה, ואתו אינהו וגזור תעניתא אף לדיעבד ושעת הדחק, כפרה בכדי לא אשכחן
[ii] R. Abraham Abele Gombiner, famous for his commentary on Shulhan Arukh, 1635-1682.
[iii]שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות פסח סימן תמו סעיף ד
[iv]שערי תשובה סימן תסא
וכבר כתבתי שהדבר שמואל כתב שברקיקין אין חשש נפוחה וכן נוהגים עתה שלא לדקדק כלל במצות רקיקין רק כשרואה האופ’ בביאת המצה לתנור היא מנפח ועולה כדרך עוגות חמץ והם בקיאים במעשה ידיהם להכיר אי הנפוח מחמת חימוץ או לא אך במצות עבות קצת יש ליזהר ולדקדק בחילוקים שנזכרו בפוסקים ובמקומות שאוחזין מעשה עבות בידיהם מוטל על המורה למדרש בפרק’ שיזהרו שלא תהיה עבה טפח

Thou Shall Not Forbid, II – Kashrut

By Rabbi Haim Ovadia

R. Raphael Emanuel Hai Rikki, a 17th century Italian kabbalist, suggests a mystical reason for not ruling unnecessarily that something is not kosher [i]:

It is possible that the food contains a reincarnated soul. When one says a blessing and eats that food, the soul is healed and elevated from the status of an inanimate object to that of humans. By declaring the food non-kosher, the rabbi will prevent this healing process from happening… as it is written in Proverbs (17:26), a righteous person should not administer punishments…

The last comment of R. Rikki is interesting. The verse in Proverbs recommends that a judge should be compassionate, and R. Rikki applied that to the Halakhic questions presented to a rabbi.
If you do not connect so much to kabbalistic teachings, consider the following statement from the Yerushalmi Talmud (Kiddushin 4:12):

עתיד אדם ליתן דין וחשבון על כל מה שראו עיניו ולא אכל ממנו
One is going to be held accountable for all that he saw [i.e. was available to him] and he chose not to eat.

R. Ovadia Yosef adds that when a rabbi declares, unnecessarily, that an animal is terefah [treif], he is a sinner, and his sin cannot be atoned for by repentance[ii]:

When a rabbi mistakenly declares a terefah to be kosher, he has sinned towards God [and Yom Kippur will atone for him], but when he declares the opposite, he has wronged a fellow man by causing him monetary damage. This cannot be atoned for by repentance and by Yom Kippur, until he will appease the wronged party and pay for the damages he caused.

R. Yosef’s words are an admonition to the vast Kashrut systems which control the lives of Jews everywhere [I wonder… are they a Behemoth? A Leviathan? Both will be served as delicacies to the righteous at the end of days…]. The additional cost on “kosher” products to consumers is staggering, and the kashrut net is also cast over institutions and events, dictating where and when to have an event, and affecting the lives of observant and non-observant Jews alike.

The rabbis in charge of this massive extortion program excuse themselves by saying that the additional cost to each costumer is negligible and that they must adhere to the higher standard, but these excuses are not valid. There is no difference in the eyes of the law between stealing a penny or a million dollars, and while it is fine to adhere to a high standard, people should be given other options and informed that the “lower standard” product is as kosher as the “higher standard” one.

Kosher cheese and Pesah products, with their exorbitant prices are only the tip of the iceberg. For example, several years ago, observant entrepreneurs approached one of the biggest poultry processing companies with a proposal for automated kosher slaughtering. The possibility of automated slaughtering as completely viable is mentioned in the Talmud, and it would have erased the price differences between kosher and non-kosher poultry. As you may have already guessed, the proposal was killed by the Kashrut organizations.

Another example, more personal, is of a family who was geared up for a Bar Mitzvah and made all the necessary arrangement, including booking a caterer. A day before the event the caterer informed them that he will have to cancel because the event was taking place between the 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Av. It is hard to assess the emotional and monetary damage caused, unjustifiably, to the family.

Not only that, decisions of kashrut which impact many people, sometimes in the range of hundreds of thousands, the doors of repentance are blocked for the rabbis who made those decisions, since they do not know who needs to be appeased and recompensed, as Maimonides explains in his laws of Teshuvah (4:3):

חמשה דברים העושה אותן אי אפשר לו שישוב בתשובה גמורה לפי שהם עונות שבין אדם לחבירו ואינו יודע חבירו שחטא לו כדי שיחזיר לו או ישאל ממנו למחול לו, ואלו הן: (א) המקלל את הרבים…. (ב) והחולק עם גנב.. [ה]גונב לרבים … (ד) והאוכל שור עניים ויתומים ואלמנות, אלו בני אדם אמללין הם ואינן ידועים ומפורסמים וגולים מעיר לעיר ואין להם מכיר כדי שידע שור זה של מי הוא ויחזירנו לו

There are five things which one cannot fully repent for because they are an offense towards another person, and the transgressor does not know the wronged person:
(a) one who curses a group of people… (b) one who buys from a thief… who steals from many… (d) one who steals from the poor, the orphans, and the widows, who wander from town to town and have no acquaintances, so the transgressor does not know whom to return the stolen object to…

Regarding such complications it was said: חכמים, הזהרו בדבריכם
Sages! Be careful with your rulings and teachings!

To be continued…
R. Haim Ovadia

[i]הון עשיר, חולין ב: וטעמא נ”ל עפ”י מה שכתוב בלמודי האר”י זלה”ה דשמא יהיה שם באותו דבר נפש בן אדם, המתוקנת ע”י אכילת אדם אותו הדבר בברכתו הראויה אליה ובכוונה רצויה, ואם יאסר אותה והיא מותרת הרי הוא גרמא בנזיקין שאין אותה הנפש מתתקנת, ואדרבא ע”י זה אפשר שיורידנה במדרגה יותר גרועה שתאכל מבהמה טמאה או כיוצא בה, וכתיב (משלי יז, כו) גם ענוש לצדיק לא טוב
[ii] חזון עובדיה, ימים נוראים, עמוד רמג: המכשיר טריפה בשגגת הוראה, היא עבירה שבין אדם למקום, אבל המטריף כשרה בשגגה, היא עבירה שבין אדם לחבירו, שהפסידו ממון, ואין יוהכ”פ מכפר עד שירצה את חבירו ויפייסו… וכשם שאסור להתיר את האסור, כך אסור לאסור את המותר… ודאי שעליו לרצות את חבירו, ולפייסו בממון, כדי שיסלח לו. שהוא בכלל עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו. ואין יום הכפורים מכפר עד שירצה את חבירו

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Rabbi Haim Ovadia |

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

The Use of Municipal City Water for a Mikveh

The Use of Municipal City Water for a Mikveh and a Case Study of the
Seattle Rabbinate in the 1950s

Rabbi Yossi Azose

The purpose of the following essay is twofold. First, we shall highlight an example of a lenient halakhic practice in America that had gained widespread acceptance among the Orthodox Jewish community throughout the first half of 20th century, and the subsequent opposition to this practice by leading Orthodox authorities in the 1950s who successfully challenged its legality, to the point where today it is generally considered beyond the bounds of accepted halakha.

Second, we shall focus on a critical juncture in American Orthodox Jewish history wherein a noticeable shift occurred in the paradigm of halakhic authority, from initially residing primarily within the domain of the community rabbi into the hands of the country’s leading gedolei hador and roshei yeshiva. The effects of this shift have laid the groundwork for a current trend in America that increasingly favors the authority of gedolim and roshei yeshiva over the local Orthodox rabbi.

As a backdrop to our analysis, we shall examine the circumstances surrounding the controversy that erupted over the kashrut of the Seattle mikveh
in the 1950s. This little known story, long ago forgotten by but a very few who are still around to remember, represents a vivid moment in the history of the American Jewish experience when the forces of these two aforementioned sources of authority collided with one another. Though the in-depth, technical halakhic questions involved in using municipal city water to fill a mikveh are beyond the scope of this essay, it is hoped that it will provide both a historical overview, as well as a general summary of the halakhic issues surrounding the matter.

Municipal City Tap Water for a Mikveh Rabbi Yossi Azose

Mikveh in Every Home, by Rabbi Haim Ovadia

Thou Shalt Not Forbid, III
Mikveh in Every Home, by Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Several months ago, in a discussion about the methodology of the great Sephardic rabbi of the past, I mentioned, by passing the famous ruling of R. Abdallah Somekh, who allowed using the public water system for a Mikveh. According to that ruling, large bathtubs and swimming pools would qualify as a mikveh. Reliance on that ruling, as was customary in Iraq and Morocco, would allow Jewish communities to have a mikveh on every block and would encourage many women, who are otherwise reluctant to attend the mikveh, to do so.
In response to the article, I received the following email from R. Yossi Azose, a descendant of R. Somekh (who also ordained my Great Grandfather, R. Yehudah Fetaya), in which he introduced me to his learned study of the prevalence of tap-water mikvaot in America in the early to mid-20th century, and the causes leading to today’s stringent stance. R. Azose wrote:
The practice was endorsed not only by Sephardic poskim. as you mentioned, but many Ashkenazic authorities as well (most prominently Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of Arokh Hashulhan).  
In the 1890’s, R. Pesachya Hornblass member of the Warsaw bet din, visited the spa resort of Carlsbad [Karlovy Vary] and encountered married non-observant Jewish women who remarked to him that they would consider keeping the laws of niddah if they could immerse in a spa, rather than in the cold waters of the community mikva’ot of the time.  This gave R. Hornblass the thought that perhaps the rabbinate should allow these women to immerse in a thermal spa and reduce their prohibition to a derabbanan (according to the Rambam who holds that mayim she’uvin is only a rabbinic prohibition), whereas doing nothing would keep them as niddot under the penalty of karet.  R. Hornblass presented his suggestion to his colleagues in an article in the Torah journal Sha’are Torah, and after a couple of months of feedback, he wrote a follow-up article in the same Journal stating that it wasn’t a good idea because such a leniency would lead to abuse by observant women who otherwise would have used the regular mikveh, but would misunderstand that the rabbis were giving them carte blanche to use the thermal spa.
R. Azose concluded that the “ultimate fear of the unintended consequence that being very lenient would have on otherwise God-fearing people, is a factor that must be considered as well”.
In the article (see PDF link below), R. Azose shows that at least a dozen of the most highly regarded halakhic authorities in America prior to WWII, all signed on to the permissibility of using tap water for a mikveh. In addition, he has shown evidence that indeed most mikva’ot in America, and some in the UK, were originally constructed in this manner.
All this changed with the arrival of European rabbis after WWII. Those rabbis, led by the Helmetzer Rebbe, launched a campaign against the mikveh’s and the communities which sustained them, and with the fall of the Seattle Mikveh, the last one standing, have accomplished the mission of abolishing all of them.
That battle was part of the general war against the “lenient” practices of American Jews, which have evolved gradually and were adjusted to the reality of American life. The rabbis who came from Europe after the war did not experience the gradual changes, and were not familiar with the circumstances which bred those changed. What they saw was strikingly different than their religious life-style and they reacted with zeal.
In retrospect, one realizes that with the abolishment of the tap-water mikveh, the rabbis have created a new map of the Jewish United States, in which small rural communities cannot survive. Jews must gravitate around a large enough community which can sustain a “rigorously” kosher mikveh, whose construction could range from 300,000 to a million dollars.
The “stringent” approach of the newly-arrived European rabbis, has solidified, in their mind and that of their modern-day successors, the identity of orthodox Judaism, but it had disastrous results.
The readers recall the warning of the Shach that a stringency is bound to breed a leniency, even if after a hundred stages, so here are some of the problems that “stringent” rabbis have not foreseen. We could say that they were very lenient in allowing the following things to happen:
Many women do not observe the laws of family purity simply because they live far from a mikveh, or because they feel that visiting the mikveh is an invasion of privacy. It is very difficult for young mothers to find time to visit the mikveh without the children taking notice, and if the time to go to the mikveh falls on a Friday night, it is almost impossible to attend the mikveh. These coming High Holidays present us with three weekends of Yom tov, Yom Tov, and Shabbat back to back, causing observant couples who do not live within a walking distance to a mikveh sadness and agony as they feel separated for three days. Serious problems are also presented for those traveling to those parts of the world where a kosher mikveh is a rarity.
Some people will still argue that these are sacrifices we make for God’s sake or for the integrity of the law, and I would remind them that there were cases of women who were assaulted on their way to or from the mikveh, and some fifteen years ago, a woman was killed on Friday night, walking in a dark street in Lakewood, NJ, on her way back home from the mikveh.
Had the rabbis not launched their war against tap-water mikveh, we would see the creation of ritual baths in private homes all over the country, and all the problems mentioned above would have been solved. There is no doubt that the “traditional” mikveh would have continued to exist and that many observant women would only use that kind of mikveh, but then it will be their choice.
To be continued…
Rabbi Haim Ovadia