There are two complaints I have heard fairly regularly about Orthodoxy. I have even heard both of these complaints from the same people, even though these complaints are logically mutually exclusive.
The first complaint is that we heap stringency upon stringency so that the halacha (law) ends up resembling nothing like what the Torah intended:
“What do you mean I can’t hang my wet clothes opposite the furnace on Shabbos? That’s not cooking!”
“Why can’t I eat rice on Passover? It’s not chametz (leavened food)!”
“Why shouldn’t we listen to recorded music during the Three Weeks? The rabbis couldn’t have meant that because it didn’t exist!”
The other complaint is that we contrive loopholes to get around halacha on a technicality or some legal fiction:
“An eruv (line circumscribing an area)? That’s just a loophole to carry on Shabbos!”
“Selling your chometz before Pesach? That’s just a dodge to avoid doing what the Torah really says!”
“A siyum (meal celebrating the completion of a volume of Torah study) during the Nine Days? That’s just a trick so you can eat meat when you’re not supposed to!”
So, which is it? Do we make things unnecessarily hard on ourselves or do we conspire to avoid our responsibilities? Logically, it can’t be both!
There are no doubt some who object to certain stringencies or certain leniencies based on philosophical differences. And there are also no doubt some people whose opinions are formed because the halacha conflicts with how they’d like to act. But I’m sure there are others who would object to things less if they had a better understanding of how halacha actually works.
Let’s use eruv as an example. The idea that running a string around a neighborhood magically turns a public domain into a private domain seems ridiculous – largely because it is. What many don’t understand is how an eruv works and where the idea originated.
When it comes to the laws of Shabbos, there are more than two types of domain. In addition to the public domain and the private domain, there’s the makom patur (“exempt area”) and the carmelis. The carmelis is a gray area, a kind of quasi-public domain. Most people cannot easily distinguish between a carmelis and a full-fledged public domain, so in the time of King Solomon, it was instituted to treat these outdoor areas alike. There was an exemption, however. By setting up a series of virtual “doorways” in the form of verticals (the poles) and a horizontal (the string), we are again permitted to carry in a carmelis. So, really, all an eruv does is restore our ability to carry in an area originally permitted by the Torah, which was rabbinically prohibited as a safeguard to the sanctity of Shabbos.
This phenomenon of “exemption-built-into-the-restriction” occurs in many places. When a yom tov (festival) falls on a Friday, we do not cook on that day for Shabbos unless we have already begun our Shabbos preparations. We do this by putting aside a cooked item and a baked item in what we call an “eruv tavshilin.” Is this a trick or a ruse? Not at all. The Torah originally permitted us to cook on yom tov for Shabbos. The rabbis prohibited this as a safeguard to the sanctity of yom tov. But once again, they built in an exemption: “unless one started his Shabbos preparations before yom tov.”
One more example: As a first-born son, I attend a siyum on erev Pesach, as the alternative is to fast. Again, this is not a loophole; it’s part and parcel of the law as instituted. “Firstborn sons may not eat on the day before Passover,” the rabbis instituted, “unless they participate in a festive meal like a bris, a pidyon haben, or a siyum.”
You’ll notice that all of these examples include an aspect of stringency (don’t carry, don’t cook, don’t eat) and an aspect of leniency (unless you make an eruv, an eruv tavshilin, or a siyum). So is Judaism too restrictive or too permissive? Maybe it just is.
The Talmud tells us (Chullin 44a) that one might follow either the school of Hillel or the school of Shammai, so long as he does so consistently. If one follows the leniencies of both schools, that makes him a wicked person, caring only to follow the path of least resistance. And if one should follow the stringencies of both schools? That would make him a fool.
Moderation is key. We see this in many places. Maimonides famously speaks of the “middle path” (Hilchos Deos 1:4). According to this principle, a person should be neither too miserly, nor too loose with his money. He shouldn’t be a glutton, but he shouldn’t deprive himself. One shouldn’t be too easily angered, nor should he be an emotionless automaton. By this logic, one should not be completely stringent, nor completely lenient. There’s a time and a place for each of these.
Sometimes we prohibit a permitted activity as a safeguard to prevent violating a Torah law. This is why we don’t blow shofar (a ram’s horn) when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbos. As important a mitzvah (commandment) as shofar is, invariably, someone somewhere is going to end up carrying a shofar through the public domain. It’s better for all of us to act passively when it comes to blowing the shofar than for some of us to actively transgress the laws of Shabbos.
On other occasions, we may split hairs and permit things on a technicality that would otherwise be prohibited. An example of this would be the pruzbul, a document instituted by the sage Hillel that transfers one’s debts to beis din (the Jewish court) so that they might be collected during the sabbatical year. You see, personal debts are canceled every seventh year. People in Hillel’s day had stopped lending to the needy out of fear that they would not be able to collect. By means of the pruzbul, the poor would be able to borrow and the lenders were assured they’d be repaid. The situation was not ideal but it was necessary because people were not acting charitably.
Each of these pieces of legislation was deemed necessary by our sages based upon the needs of the situation. Sometimes that means being lenient and other times it means being stringent.
A man once complained to Rav Chaim Soloveitchik ztz”l about Jewish law being too stringent. He asked for the rav to grant him some leniency. “All right,” the rav responded. “According to halacha, we’re not allowed to fast on Rosh Hashana. I grant you special permission to do so.” (Technically, that’s a leniency!) Ultimately, all people are unique and everyone has his or her own baseline. What you or I consider “normal” may seem “lenient” to one person and “stringent” to another.
Halacha is not about leaping straight for the most stringent or the most lenient position. It’s about experts making an informed analysis of a situation and deciding upon the best course of action within the Torah’s framework – even though that decision may fall to the left or the right of what you or I might have decided given our limited understandings. As was the case with the schools of Hillel and Shammai, what’s important for us is to select appropriate rabbis for our personal lives and, having done so, to follow them consistently. That way, we’ll actually enjoy a more well-rounded Judaism – which certainly beats being wicked or a fool.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book. His latest work, The Taryag Companion, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.