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Friday, 4 April 2014

When there's a rabbinic will, there's a halachic way


Beitzah 5

Partnership Minyanim claim to be Orthodox but women receive aliyot.  Are Orthodox women allowed to be called to the Torah? 

Reading the Mishnah, it would appear that they theoretically could be called to the Torah, but we don’t give them aliyot due to an antiquated technicality, called kavod hatzibur – the honour of the congregation.   The commentators explain that we are concerned lest a woman read from the Torah and make one of the blokes sitting there who can’t read feel bad. 

In our day and age when women have equal higher education opportunities as men, that’s a stretch.  Which man is going to feel bad because some lady can read the Torah better than he can?  Thus, it would seem that the original concern for kavod hatzibur no longer applies and we should annul the decree of the Mishnah against calling up women to the Torah.

And so what’s wrong with Partnership Minyanim?

If an egg was laid on the first day of Yom Tov, then it may be eaten on the second day.  The reasoning is as follows: We celebrate two days of Yom Tov due to our doubt as to which day is correct.  And so if the first day is the right day, then the egg may be consumed on the second day, since it is technically not Yom Tov.  And if the second day is the true day of Yom Tov, then the previous day when the egg was laid was not really Yom Tov and therefore may be consumed because it was not an egg laid on Yom Tov!

Rosh Hashanah is the exception to the rule.   Since Rosh Hashanah falls on the first of the month of Tishrei, there was no way of knowing whether anyone would witness the new moon on the 30th Elul, thereby initiating the new month.   Consequently, everyone had to keep Yom Tov on the 30th Elul every year, just in case.

Was it celebrated as Rosh Hashanah?  Yes and no.  While the people certainly desisted from work, they could not offer the Rosh Hashanah sacrifices until they had established beyond doubt that the day was Rosh Hashanah.  So what did you do if all services had been conducted as a weekday in the Temple and then the witnesses showed up?

To avoid this problem, the Sanhedrin decreed that they would not accept witnesses after the afternoon service had begun.  And so inevitably, Rosh Hashanah was often observed for two days even in the Temple.  As a result, one couldn’t use the logic above regarding first and second day Yom Tov and eating the egg, since both days were potentially Yom Tov in the Temple.

Once the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai announced that he would once again accept the witnesses all day, meaning that Rosh Hashanah was just one day in Jerusalem.  Consequently, the logic about either first or second day Yom Tov being the correct day, but not both, could be used once more.  And that presumably would mean that you could have your egg and eat it!

Rabbi Yosef demurs.  He explains that once the original decree about not eating the egg was in force, it could not be annulled by a later Beth Din, unless it was greater than the original rabbis in wisdom and number.   He cites a number of examples to support his contention, including the story of Rabbi Eliezer who needed to bring his sanctified fruit to Jerusalem to be eaten. 

Originally, instead of schlepping carts of fruit over long distances, one could sell the fruit and use the money to purchase other fruit when one arrived in the Holy City.   But the rabbis wanted to adorn the streets of Jerusalem with beautiful fruit and so they decreed that one must schlep the fruit.  After the destruction of the Temple, the later Beth Din annulled the original decree, reasoning that there was no point in adorning Jerusalem for its gentile conquerors.   But the Beth Din only had the right to annul the decree because it was greater than the original Beth Din in wisdom and numbers.

Maimonides explains that “greater in number” means that you need to have the entire 71-member Sanhedrin on board and that they must have even more students than the original rabbis!  And so it is highly unlikely in today’s day and age that we could ever overturn an earlier enactment even though the reason for the decree may no longer apply.  And so while it might make contemporary sense to annul the decree against women reading from the Torah, it is practically impossible to change the normative practice proscribing it.

Why was the system set up so rigidly, such that change is near impossible?

Our Sages understood that the preservation of the unity of the Jewish people – in the absence of the Holy Temple and with the Jews spread to the four corners of the earth – would only be possible with a certain degree of uniformity.   Consequently, one can pray in a Sefardic synagogue, a Yemenite synagogue or an Ashkenazic synagogue and be able to follow the service.  And a Yemenite Beth Din will issue more or less the same rulings as an Ashkenazic one, since Judaism has survived the diaspora experience intact.  If any Beth Din could come and overrule a previous Beth Din, we would have thousands of different Judaisms. 

Traditional Jews have always used ‘tradition’ as a baseline for halachic decisions.   Some of these traditional practices may be relevant today; some may have absolutely no contemporary relevance.  That’s irrelevant.  Judaism demands a degree of homogeneity in order to maintain our holy system.

We pray for the day when all Jews will return to the Holy Land and the Sanhedrin will be reestablished.  When that day comes and the majority of the Jewish people sign on to adhere to the counsel of such a body, we might begin to contemplate tampering with some of our age-old traditions.   Until such time, we have a wonderful Judaism that most of us have not even begun to scratch the surface of the experience that it has to offer us, to enrich our lives spiritually, emotionally and psychologically!

Today’s Life Yomi is dedicated l’iluy nishmas Zvi ben Levi, Harry Wasel z”l.