Tag Archives: Haim Ovadia

Yom Kippur Quick Guide

Kippur Quick Guide – Rabbi Haim Ovadia

Kippur Eve and Teshuva

• The guiding rule in observing Kippur is maintaining a balance between respecting the sanctity of the day and one’s physical health.
• According to Shulhan Arukh, the practice of doing Kapparot with chickens should be eliminated. (see appendix)
• We must ask for forgiveness and reconcile with those we have hurt. If applicable, payments should be made. A token apology will not suffice.
• Whether we repent for transgressions of laws between us and God, or between us and others, the steps of Teshuva should be followed: recognition of the wrongdoing, genuine repentance, a commitment to never repeat the act.
• The one being apologized to should be willing to forgive, but if the apology is not sincere it can be rejected, especially when dealing with a habitual offender. If you see a pattern of offenses and genuine apologies from the same person, it is better to keep a distance in the future, even after forgiving.
• Confession on Minha of Kippur Eve, as well as on Kippur itself, should be focused on things we are aware of and want to repent for. It is better to say your personal prayer than use the alphabetical lists printed in the Siddur, which should be viewed as a reminder what we might have done.
• It is recommended to eat the last meal an hour or two before the fast.

Prohibitions of Kippur

• Five actions are mentioned in Halakha as forbidden on Kippur, besides the laws of Shabbat which apply to Kippur as well:
Eating and drinking; Applying oils; Washing; Wearing leather shoes; Having marital relationships.
• Of the five, only eating and drinking are punishable, since they are the only ones with basis in the Torah. The rest are instituted by the rabbis and supported by biblical texts, and it is therefore easier to allow exceptions in observing them.

Water

• Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the fast is not drinking, and quite often people push themselves to the limit and put their lives at risk. One example is that of R. Yisrael of Ruzhyn, who resisted the urge to drink on Kippur, even against his doctor’s advice, and passed away shortly afterwards at the age of 54. (1)
• R. Yaakov Haggiz (1620-1674) writes that it is possible that by biblical law one is not forbidden to drink water, since it is not nutritious. We can rely on his opinion for cases of need, as shall be explained below. (2)

Medical conditions

• If there are clear doctor’s orders, they should be followed. Attempting extreme piety and fasting against doctor’s orders is a transgression.
• Expectant and nursing mothers can sip water all day in small quantities (less than 3 fl. oz.) and in intervals of no less than five minutes.
• Pills taken on a regular basis can be taken with less than 3 fl. oz. of water. The same applies for those who need to take pills for severe headaches, including caffeine pills.
• If one feels the need to eat or drink because of physical conditions, water and food can be consumed in small quantities (less than 3 fl. oz. and 2 oz., respectively). It is recommended to use high-energy foods. They should be consumed in intervals of no less than five minutes.
• If one feels that following these rules will not suffice, and might cause him damage, he should eat and drink regularly until he is no longer at risk.
• Using mouthwash or brushing teeth is allowed on Kippur, and maybe even mandatory because of dignity and respect towards others.
• Fasting before bar or bat Mitzvah is just a custom and children should not be pushed beyond their limits, or made to feel guilty if they “broke” the fast.
• Parents and caregivers should practice great caution during Kippur, since the children or adults under their care might feel too proud or religiously committed to ask for food or water.

Other Prohibitions

• Washing is forbidden only when for pleasure, and permitted when it is for cleanliness. In antiquity only hands soiled with dirt or worse were considered unclean, but today, with our heightened hygiene awareness, one can wash hands regularly with soap when needed. (3)
• Washing the face is allowed for those who otherwise will not feel dignified or relaxed. (4)
• The prohibition of applying oils to the skin refers only to actions done for pleasure, and it is therefore allowed to use medicinal creams, lip balm, Vaseline, deodorants of all kinds, perfume, or eau de cologne.
• If one who has only leather shoes and cannot walk barefoot because of danger, or discomfort, he can wear these shoes.
• Similarly, if leather shoes are essential to provide protection from rain or snow, or for orthopedic needs, they may be used. (5)
• Abstinence is limited to intimate relationships, and does not include other forms of affection.

Kol Nidre

• The Kol Nidre ritual, at the opening of Yom Kippur services, is largely symbolic. Though the text suggests that it is an official court session, meant to annul unwanted vows, the truth is that it has no legal validity.

• Those who view Kol Nidre as a legal process, argue that since a court cannot convene at night, the text should be recited before sunset. This causes some synagogues to struggle with Kippur Eve schedule. This should not be a concern, since Kol Nidre has no legal significance.

Prayers

• The prayers of Yom Kippur are peppered with many poems and supplications, many of which are difficult to understand even for Hebrew speakers, and others to which a modern reader might not easily relate. The time we spend in the synagogue on Kippur should be meaningful and purposeful, and we should avoid reciting prayers by rote or if we do not relate to them.

• The essential components of the prayers are Shema and Amidah, and one can choose to read only those parts in each prayer. Such was the custom of the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, who would spend hours reciting those parts.

• The purpose of Yom Kippur is to prompt us to acknowledge our mistakes and repent. If this is achieved by tuning in to and following the poems and Selihot, that is wonderful, and if not, it is better to use the time in the synagogue or home for reflection and contemplation.

• We should use whatever means available and appropriate to reflect on mending our mistakes and cultivating an aspiration for spiritual growth.

• Rabbenu Yaakov ben HaRosh mentions several practices of additions to the prayer. He writes that most of the additions are optional, and that the prayer should not be stretched to the point where Shema or Musaf are not recited on time. (6)

• In general, the religious and lay leaders of the synagogue should bear in mind that on Yom Kippur they get a mixed crowd, with varied levels of expertise and interest in prayers. The common working assumption is “let us keep them here while we can”, but from experience I have learned that a shorter and more meaningful service is beneficial to all. Those who are not well-versed do not feel that they were sitting in the synagogue as extras for prolonged periods, while the more seasoned shul goers are not distracted by the conversations of those who are bored. Those interested in more poems and Selihot can remain in the synagogue and recite them after the official services have been concluded.

• One can read portions of the Tanakh, especially Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Micah. Many synagogues offer Yom Kippur readers, and one can also read the writings of the Mussar movement, Hassidic teachings, or general literature such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

• Most Orthodox communities are reluctant to translate prayers into the spoken language. However, the Tur and Shukhan Arukh [codes of Jewish law] both rule that one could recite the prayers in any language he chooses. Especially when reciting the very long prayers of Kippur, it would be advisable to use that ruling of the Shulhan Arukh, and not only translate prayers recited in Hebrew, but replace certain segments with the translation, to avoid redundancy and burdening the community. (7)

• If this is not possible, it is recommended that during the Selihot and the repetition of Mussaf, classes and prayer workshops will be offered to those who find it difficult to follow the prayers and remain focused.

Neila and Ending

• Birkat Kohanim of Neila should be said, preferably, before sunset. However, in most cases the sunset deadline is not met, and if it is, too much time is left until the fast is over, and as a result, the cantors drag the prayer and burden the community. It is better therefore to rely on the opinion of Rabenu Tam’s that night starts much later, and push Birkat Kohanim to about 20 minutes after sunset, thus making perfect time for the end of Tefila and Arvit.

• In some synagogues, there is a massive exodus right after the Shofar is blown. Many congregants, who stay for Arvit, get very frustrated with the noise and commotion, and of course it disrupts the Arvit prayer. It is therefore suggested to wait with the Shofar, start Arvit about 15 minutes before the fast is over, and then blow shofar at the simultaneous end of Arvit and the fast.

• If this is not possible, it is better to conduct Havdala immediately when the fast is over and let people break the fast. Then, when most people have left the synagogue, and those who stayed have quenched their thirst and satiated their hunger, they can pray with calmness and intention.

• There is a custom of starting to build the Sukkah immediately after Kippur, but it is of course not mandatory. It is a symbolic act which shows that we are eager to observe the Mitzvoth, but it should not put anyone in a predicament. The sukkah can be built before kippur, or, if one is too tired after the fast, it can be built later.

May we all have an easy and meaningful Kippur, one in which we will be able to reconcile, forgive, and propel ourselves to new spiritual heights.

Shana Tova VaHatima Tova
Rabbi Haim Ovadia

Maurycy Gottlieb Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878, Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

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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 | rabbiovadia613@gmail.com

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

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