Mesora and Psak: How it may differ between Chassidim/Mekubalim and others

The closeness to Mesora has always been primary. Halacha LeMoshe Misinai is immutable. Torah Shebaal Peh as written is a record of Mesora including contradictions and attempts to disambiguate and show through the Midos SheHatorah Nidreshes BoHem, including Sevara (which isn’t listed but is clearly a Midda as testified by the Gemora in many cases). As time advanced through Tanaim, Amoraim, Geonim, Rishonim we move to latter generations known as Acharonim. To be sure, there are some Acharonim, who on occasion would argue with Rishonim. Two well known examples are the Vilna Gaon and the Rogachover. They were guided by what they felt was Emes L’Amito.

When it comes to Acharonim, there  are those, depending on which group you align yourself with, who are considered “the last word” and there are others, such as the Chazon Ish in respect of electricity where everyone seems to be Chosesh to some extent to his opinion. That being said, others will say he was an Acharon in B’Nei Brak and if he was your Rav and/or you lived there you need to follow his Psokim.

The Brisker Shitta, is different. Whilst they are beholden to Beis HoRav (Volozhin/Soloveitchik) they were never afraid to disagree with each other. Of course, there is a group that follows every word of Reb Meshulam Soloveitchik, son of the Griz (Uncle of the Rav) in the same way that Chassidim follow their Rebbe. He’s just not called a Rebbe, and he doesn’t fir tish etc.

We saw that as a Posek became more recognised, people came for Brachos. Some were averse, and others would give a general Brocha to be Yotze. I sensed this from Videos of R” Shlomo Zalman.

The Rishonim (and here there is some difference amongst Ashkenazim) and certainly Sephardim, are untouchable. If you want to innovate=bring something consonant with Menorah you need to bring a Rishon.

I remember well, some 40 years ago when my zeyda bought a copy of the Meiri. At the time it was very controversial. Beautifully put together, it was ignored somewhat for years. Now, it seems nobody has a problem quoting a Meiri. The Meiri was a Bar Mitzvah present for my cousin Ya’akov Balbin and while it sat in my house for many years after he went on Aliya, I sent it to him at his request.

There have been plenty examples of Ziyuf. There was the fake Yerushalmi on Kodshim, and more.

The common denominator was that to qualify for Psak,  especially the style of Psak (especially Hungarian) where one joins different Kulos, you had to have a Rishon (or early Acharon who quoted a Rishon given that some had access to Rishonim we don’t have, or a Girsa we don’t have.

There are stories where the Rav’s Talmidim, would say but Rebbe it’s an open Maharsho that contradicts your Pshat. When he was younger, he angrily banged the Gemora and said, “and I’m not an Acharon”? This was not haughty. This was what he felt. He felt his Pshat was more correct than the Maharsho and was ready to debate it with anyone.

Many Acharonim either didn’t own, or look at other Acharonim. That’s not to lessen their importance. But, it’s a derech.

Where Chassidim/Mekubalim are different, I feel is that they would consider that when there is no clear way forward or where there are different views, Kabbola, whether from the Zohar or Ari on occasion trumps and guides the Psak. A pure non Chossid/Mekubal would note such opinions but would be less likely to PASKEN based on them.

Do people agree with me or have I over simplified. Drush is another class. One has license to extrapolate and certainly doesn’t need a Rishon to find a nice Pshat.

Aleppo Codex - Genesis

A very sad day in Jewish history

Over thirty years ago, I was listening to the radio in Israel, and was thunderstruck. People were ringing up with questions of halacha, and HaRav Ovadya Yosef ז’ל was answering in real-time. I was a young Yeshivah Bochur, who often simply struggled with a Tosfos, and this “machine” was speaking at a rate of knots, piling source after source after source into his sentences. I hadn’t even heard of half the Seforim he quoted, and Rav Ovadya didn’t just know of them or their opinions, but was quoting their sentences verbatim.

It was mesmerising. One could see his opinion unfolding in real-time, climaxing in a Psak Halacha, which he then often buttressed with more sources. Although he was a Sefardi Chacham, he would often say “אבל אחינו האשכנזים” and summarise how we (Ashkenazim) thought on the same issue, as opposed to Maran (the Beis Yosef and those who followed him).

I was so taken by the breadth of his Torah knowledge, that I just “had” to buy a copy of his first set of responsa (Yabia Omer) and later followed this with Yechave Daas. I loved reading responsa and was often exhilarated by the veritable encyclopaedic journey that Rav Ovadya led us on.

This was before the Bar Ilan CD came out. The Encylopaedia Talmudis still isn’t finished. For sciolists like me, though, the Teshuvos/Responsa constituted an incredible source of Torah that none of us would even remotely approach.

It is important to read the introduction to his Responsa. Based on tradition/Mesora, Chacham Ovadya followed a specific methodology. Some, mistakenly think (or perhaps this is one of those jokes I heard many times) that Rav Ovadya had 4000 opinions to say it was forbidden and then 10,000 that implied it was permitted and that’s how he came to his conclusions. This is overly simplistic, and is not respectful to such a genius and giant of Torah knowledge.

There is no doubt, in my mind, that we (Ashkenazim) created a situation (which could be described as racist) whereby we looked upon our brothers the Sefardim as “second-rate”. This was unfair. They didn’t emigrate from cultured Europe. They often came from third world Arab countries, and demonstrated many elements of that culture. Chacham Ovadya however, who was of Iraqi descent, and then went to Egypt (from memory) before coming to Israel, fought tooth and nail to lift the spirits of Sephardim and convince them that they were most certainly not second rate or second to anyone.

I remember the Sephardi taxi drivers back in those days. Unlike the “emancipated” Ashkenazim, these drivers were able to literally repeat Tanach off by heart. There was an Emunas Chachamim and Kavod HaTorah which was palpable, even among those who were less observant. One can still see this today, in my opinion.

This situation gave birth to the Sefardim seeking their own political party (Shas) and again I blame mainly ourselves (Ashkenazim) for this phenomenon. There was no reason to have a split in party politics just because of colour or because we follow the Ramah and they follow the Beis Yosef.

I am sure that Chacham Ovadya would have preferred not to be part of the politics, behind the scenes, but if not him, who would they turn to?

He was not swayed by the prestige of those who disagreed with his rulings. For instance, he was most often aligned with those who were in favour of “land for peace”. Jewish life was most sacred in his determinations. Sure, there was a judgement call, but he was entitled to that call. There is no doubt, this is what endeared him to even people like Shimon Peres.

Later in life, he changed his view. He did not trust Palestinian Arab intentions with respect to peace. Certainly he made some comments which were not “diplomatic” and unnecessary. I believe I blogged about some of these in the past.

Now that he left our world, a huge void is left. A giant of Torah learning has departed.

חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין