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Wednesday, 21 October 2015

No two chickens are alike

Daf Yomi Nazir 60


An integral part of rabbinic education is called shimush – on-the-job practical training.  Typically, a junior rabbi will follow a senior rabbi around for a couple of years, similar to an internship.   These mentoring years are vital to our system of Oral Law transmission.  No matter how many books of the Oral Law have been committed to writing, there are certain elements that can only be transmitted from teacher to student.

The story is told of a junior rabbi who is seated in the senior rabbi’s office when a balabusta (homemaker) comes in with a chicken, inquiring as to its kosher status.
“Kosher!” the senior rabbi rules.

The next day, another lady arrives with her chicken that looks exactly the same as the case from the day before.
“I’m sorry, it’s not kosher,” says the elderly rabbi.  She thanks him for his time and guidance and leaves.
 The young rabbi turns to his mentor, incredulous. “With all due respect, Rebbe, I don’t understand!  What was the difference between those two chickens?”

“There was no difference between the two chickens,” replies the senior rabbi.  “There was a difference, however, between the two women.  You see, the first lady that arrived is a widow eking out a meagre living by selling eggs early each morning in the marketplace to feed her seven orphaned children.  For her, I utilized a lenient opinion in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law).  The other lady, Baruch Hashem, is married to a wealthy parnas (community benefactor) and so I gave her the standard ruling of the Shulchan Aruch.”

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai’s students asked him: What is the law concerning a purifying nazir who is also a metzora (leper)?  May he simply cut his hair once and cover both haircut requirements?
He replied to them: He cannot cut just once.
They said to him: Why?
He answered them: If the haircutting in both instances was for the purposes of further hair growth, or alternatively for the purposes of hair removal, you would be correct in your reasoning.  In these cases, however, the purpose of the nazir’s haircut is to remove his hair (in celebration of his heretofore abstinence); whereas the purpose of the metzora’s haircut is to grow his hair (in anticipation of his final purification seven days later).

From Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai’s students’ perspective, a haircut is a haircut.  What difference does it make why he’s doing it?  Rashbi responds to them that that is not the case.  They both may appear to be doing the same thing, but their motivation comes from very different places.

No two individuals are the same.  Even when people appear to be performing the same mitzvah, you cannot judge, because you have no idea what is driving them.  Every individual has their own challenges and natural temperaments and only G-d knows what is in their heart.

For example, two people give a thousand dollars to the capital campaign.  For the first, who is making half a million dollars a year, the donation is chump change.   The second is barely making ends meet and has quietly struggled to pull together their donation by means of careful budgeting at twenty dollars a week over the course of a year.  Then again, the first donor may be dealing with a major illness in the family that they must pay for and every penny is equally rationed.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for more when you’re hitting the ‘campaign trail’; it simply means that when they say they cannot afford to give any more, you don’t judge them.

Or let’s consider Torah study.  One fellow comes to shul every evening and sits and learns for two hours solid.  The other fellow attends a shiur two nights a week.  You might be tempted to think of the second as a slacker compared to the first.  But maybe the first simply has more of a penchant for learning?  Or maybe the second has an ADHD kid at home that he learns with every night so that they can keep up in school?

That’s why you can’t compare yourself to anyone else in your service of Heaven.  It doesn’t matter how much anyone else is giving to tzedakah.  It doesn’t matter how many minyanim anyone else attends.  It doesn’t matter how many hours your friend spends learning or doesn’t.  No two people who appear to be tackling the same task are indeed doing the same thing; each one has a completely different set of internal and external challenges. 

That is also why you can’t simply adopt a heter (permissive ruling) that a rabbi has given your friend.  Every situation is different and every individual is different.  A good rabbi will know when to pasken (rule) more leniently and when to apply the Halacha more strictly.  There are certainly basic guidelines for psak (decision-making) in the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, but as the saying goes, ‘Most importantly, the rabbi must be expert in the fifth section’ – common sense, sensitivity and empathy with the particular questioner.


No two haircuts are alike.  No two people are the same.  Every individual has their own natural proclivities, strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and challenges.  May you never judge anyone and may you never compare yourself to anyone else as you strive to be your best in your Divine mission!