Conflict of Interest

The Torah teaches that Yitzchak loved Esav because ציד בפיו….

Question #1: Conflict of Interest

Does the Torah discuss a government official having a conflict of interest?

Question #2: Cash or Credit?

Is there any violation of shochad if someone receives a service that does not have a market value?

Question #3: Friend or Enemy?

Are you permitted to judge a case in which a friend of yours is one of the litigants? What about someone who davens in the same shul? Or someone who consistently rubs you the wrong way?

Introduction

There are three places where the Torah mentions the prohibition against accepting a bribe, once in parshas Mishpatim, a second time at the very beginning of parshas Shoftim and again in parshas Ki Savo. In parshas Mishpatim, the Torah states: “Do not accept a bribe, because bribery blinds those who see clearly and corrupts just words” (Shemos 23:8). In parshas Shoftim, the Torah states: “Do not pervert justice… do not accept a bribe, because bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and corrupts just words” (Devorim 16:19). And in parshas Ki Savo, the Torah states: “Cursed is he who accepts a bribe.” Thus, we see that not only is there a lo sa’aseh prohibition, mentioned twice in the Torah, for accepting a bribe, it is also accompanied by a curse, one that was declared by the entire people of Israel.

We all recognize that paying a judge to rule in one’s favor is forbidden and, in the contemporary world, can lead to fines, imprisonment or both, as well as a tarnished reputation. We will soon learn that what halacha prohibits under the category of the taking of shochad, bribery, is much more far-reaching than what anyone would consider bribery in today’s world. Virtually all cases that we would consider “conflict of interest,” which is a lesser crime in today’s world than straightforward bribery, are prohibited by the Torah as shochad. In other words, making a decision on the basis of a “conflict of interest” is just as forbidden in halacha as receiving a direct bribe on the matter. Both are severe Torah prohibitions; violating either invalidates the individual from being permitted to be a judge or even a witness, and both are included in the curse that the Torah metes out in parshas Ki Savo.

A very exclusive club

We see in Chazal that even minor reasons were considered sufficient for a judge to disqualify himself. The Gemara (Kesubos 105b) notes several instances in which great scholars excluded themselves from being judges:

1. Shmuel was crossing a stream, probably on some type of unsteady rope bridge (or, according to the Rambam, he was exiting a ferry), when a passerby extended a hand to steady him. Shmuel, realizing that the passerby was not someone he knew locally, inquired as to what brought the visitor to town. The passerby replied that he had a din Torah with someone.

Shmuel informed the visitor that, since he had assisted Shmuel on the rope bridge, Shmuel was excusing himself from being a judge in the case (Kesubos 105b). Shmuel pointed out that it is inappropriate to be a judge in any situation when the judge has a tendency to look at one side more favorably than the other. Note that there was no conflict of interest or any implied bribery in this case, since there is no indication that the service was rendered in anticipation of better treatment in beis din. Also note that Shmuel would not gain anything if he ruled in favor of the passerby or against him. From this we see how careful a judge must be to avoid a case where he may have a conflict of interest, even as little as a debt of gratitude for a minor favor, which might influence his decision.

According to the Rambam (Hilchos Sanhedrin 23:3), in this case, and the three cases I will be quoting next, the judge is invalid min hadin, whereas, according to Tosafos, these dayanim were permitted to judge the situations, but chose not to.

2. Ameimar was sitting as a judge, probably in some outdoor venue, when a feather landed on his head. A well-doer quickly removed the feather from Ameimar’s head. Ameimar asked him what brought him to beis din, to which he replied that he was waiting his turn for his own litigation. Ameimar then informed him that he, Ameimar, now did not consider himself objective enough to be the judge in the case, since the well-doer had performed a chesed for him. In this case, Tosafos rules that Ameimar was halachically permitted to be the judge, since we do not assume that such a small kindness would render it more difficult for the judge to maintain his objectivity. However, Ameimar withdrew himself from litigating, considering it difficult for him to judge the case objectively, since the well-doer had done him a favor.

3. Some spittle was lying on the floor in front of Mar Ukva, when a passerby saw and covered it. When Mar Ukva asked the passerby what brought him to town, he answered that he had some litigation. Mar Ukva then replied that he (Mar Ukva) could no longer serve as a judge in the passerby’s litigation, since the latter had helped him and he would be inclined to favor him.

At this point, we can address the second of our opening questions: Is there any violation of shochad if someone receives a service that does not have a market value?

The answer is we see that there certainly could be a violation, if it was done intentionally to influence the decision that a dayan will be making.

4. The sharecropper of Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosi paid his rent with a basket of fruit, brought every Friday. One time, he showed up with his fruit on Thursday, instead. When Rabbi Yishmael inquired why the rent was paid a day early, the sharecropper answered that he had some litigation to attend to, and since the beis din was open only on Monday and Thursday, he brought his rent money early, to save himself the trip.

Rabbi Yishmael was a judge in the beis din in this town. Notwithstanding that the sharecropper had paid a day early because of his own convenience and was completely forthcoming that he was not expecting any favors in the litigation as a result, Rabbi Yishmael notified the sharecropper that, because the payment was earlier than required, he was not accepting it. In addition, Rabbi Yishmael disqualified himself from judging the case. Instead, Rabbi Yishmael appointed two other scholars to serve in his place as the judges. (The commentators discuss why he replaced himself with two other judges, but answering that question takes us away from our topic.)

Rabbi Yishmael remained in the courtroom as a spectator. While the two parties were sparring with their claims and counterclaims, Rabbi Yishmael found himself thinking of legal arguments that the sharecropper could use – in other words, he felt himself reacting to the litigation as the sharecropper’s advocate, rather than as a bystander who could judge objectively. This, of course, justified Rabbi Yishmael’s earlier decision to withdraw from judging the case. In summary, he noted: “Those who accept bribes should have their bodies swollen. Look how I lost my objectivity, notwithstanding that I did not accept the early payment, and it was money that was legitimately owed me. How can anyone possibly expect to judge properly any matter in which he has a conflict of interest?”

The Gemara points out that bribery does not necessarily have to be cash, but can be a different form of benefit. It also explains that any time a judge receives benefit from one side in litigation, this creates a conflict of interest that distorts the judge’s objectivity and may disqualify him from rendering objective judgment.

Note that had the sharecropper not brought payment a day earlier, there would be no halachic problem for Rabbi Yishmael to judge the case, even though it involved a person who worked on his field.

Conflict of interest

At this point, let us discuss our opening question: Does the Torah discuss a government official having a conflict of interest?

Several major authorities rule that anyone with communal responsibility must be very careful not to receive any remuneration from an interested party in an issue that he is deciding (Pilpula Charifta, Sanhedrin, 3:17; Shu’t Chasam Sofer; Pischei Teshuvah, Choshen Mishpat 34:27; Aruch Hashulchan, Choshen Mishpat 9:1). This should also affect issues of conflict of interest when fundraising for political purposes.

Friend or enemy?

The Gemara (Kesubos 105b) states that a person should not be a judge for a case involving a close friend or an enemy. The rishonim dispute whether this law is true only when the party to the case is a very close friend or a true enemy (Tosafos ad loc.), or even if he is not his best friend or biggest enemy (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 23:6). The Rambam adds that the best situation is when the judge does not know either party.

It is permitted to be the judge for a case involving a business associate or a neighbor, provided the judge feels that he can be truly objective. If he feels a bias toward one side or the other, he should refrain from judging the case.

Paying a bribe

It is interesting to note that the violation of bribery applies only to the judge who receives the bribe. Unlike interest, where the Torah prohibits not only the lender from receiving interest, but also the borrower who pays interest with a specific lo saaseh¸ the individual who bribes a judge or official to provide him with a benefit to which he is not entitled violates only the Torah’s general prohibition of causing someone else to sin (lifnei iveir lo sitein michshol) [Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 9:1].

Visual acuity

The Gemara makes a very interesting comparison regarding the foolishness of people. It is not uncommon for a person to expend copious sums of money on the possibility of finding a cure to alleviate some visual issues from which he is suffering. Yet, the same person will allow himself to have a conflict of interest, notwithstanding that he has blinded his ability to see the matter objectively (Kesubos 105a).

Poor judge

There is another situation in which someone should not be a judge because of a subtle conflict of interest. If a person always needs to borrow things and has nothing to lend in return, he is disqualified from being a dayan (Kesubos 105b), even if he has not yet borrowed anything. If the judge has something that he can lend when the lender needs it, then he (the judge) feels no outstanding obligation to that person. However, if he has nothing to lend him, he feels a sense of debt to the person who assisted him that makes it difficult for him to be objective when he is forced to judge him.

“If the judge is comparable to a king who has no need ever to borrow an item from someone else, he will succeed in holding up the world through proper justice” (Kesubos 105b, based on Mishlei 29:4). However, the opposite is true if the judge is poor. As the Gemara expresses it, he can be compared to a kohein who visits the silos of those who have recently brought in their harvest, in the hope that he will receive the gifts coming to the kohein because he is in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, having a dayan who is very poor may easily result in justice being skewed.

Salary?

The Gemara discusses whether the judicial practice of the amora Karna was acceptable according to halacha. Karna was not a salaried judge, but a Talmudic scholar whose livelihood came from smelling wine to determine whether it was beginning to sour. In order to judge a case, Karna would charge each litigant one sela (Kesubos 105a with Rashi). The Gemara, in discussing why Karna could charge this money, rules that payment for judicial services may fall under three categories, two of which are always forbidden, and the third of which is sometimes permitted. They are:

A. Bribery

Someone being paid for a favorable decision involves shochad, even when both litigants pay him. According to the Derisha (Choshen Mishpat 9:1), this means that both litigants paid the judge to be certain to rule correctly, if their argument is justified; yet, this is forbidden min haTorah, because it is still considered a form of shochad.

B. Wages to rule

The Mishnah (Bechoros 4:6) rules that a judge is forbidden to be paid money for the expertise of rendering a judicial decision, even when both litigants pay him equally (Kesubos 105a). This is forbidden because we are required to observe mitzvos without financial remuneration. This is a vast topic germane to many other areas of halacha, which we will leave for a different article.

C. Lost time

It is possible that the dayan is paid what is called sechar batalah, payment for the time he has lost while involved in the case. The Gemara’s conclusion is that if taking time off from his livelihood to judge the case caused him to lose money, the dayan is entitled to sechar batalah.

The Gemara chooses a couple of examples of this ruling. In addition to the above-mentioned case of Karna, another case it mentions was the practice of Rav Huna, who told the litigants that they should hire a workman who would take his (Rav Huna’s) place and water his fields while he was judging their case.

If it is unclear whether he suffered any loss, he should lechatchilah not collect sechar batalah, but if he received payment, the ruling is nevertheless valid. An example would be where it is possible, but uncertain, whether a customer will arrive while he is busy judging. Since it is uncertain that he loses anything by judging, lechatchilah he should not collect sechar batalah, but if he received payment, the ruling is nevertheless valid.

The Rambam emphasizes that he can receive only the amount that he is actually losing, and no more (Hilchos Sanhedrin 23:5).

The Rambam adds another condition to the case of sechar batalah: The dayan must take from both litigants, and when both of them are in front of him. This is to avoid anyone from thinking that the dayan is receiving illegitimate or inappropriate compensation (Kesef Mishneh).

In the contemporary world, the most common application of this principle is when a dayan is paid to be available to serve on a beis din, such that he can no longer seek employment or other income during the time he has reserved for a din Torah. The Gemara rules that whether this is permitted or not lechatchilah depends on whether he will definitely be losing money or not.

Here is an example which is certainly permitted. A dayan I know does well-paying consultancy work. He instructed the beis din that sought his availability that he usually earns a certain amount per hour, and that he would definitely lose this amount of money while preoccupied with a din Torah. In this case, he is entitled to compensation from the two litigants, provided the two sides pay him equally. According to the Rambam, the two litigants should pay him in front of each other.

To avoid any appearance of impropriety, the proper approach is that a Jewish community hire dayanim and provide appropriate salaries. To quote the Shulchan Aruch, “It is a requirement on the Jews to provide their judges with a livelihood” (Choshen Mishpat 9:3). The community is permitted to accept private donations for this purpose, without concern that the dayanim will favor those who made major donations for this cause, which is, after all, their salaries.

It is preferred that all fundraising for these salaries be at the beginning of the year for the coming year, to avoid any conflict of interest (Tur and Rema, Choshen Mishpat 9:3). If the funds are raised at the beginning of the year, then the money is available when dinei Torah occur without the donors having direct influence.

Still, an individual judge who feels a bias in favor of one of the litigants, because of benefits that he has received in the past or because the litigant is a prominent member of the community, should excuse himself from judging the situation. A similar halacha is true if a litigant is a prominent member of his shul – the dayan or rav should withdraw from being the dayan if he feels that he cannot judge the matter objectively.

Conclusion

As we now see, the details of not taking shochad are far more extensive than what we usually call “bribery” or even “conflict of interest.” The Chasam Sofer rules that when the membership of a community or congregation votes to elect a rabbi, the members have the halachic status of dayanim and must be concerned about any issue of shochad. They must be careful that they vote for whom they think will be best for their community and not because of a personal interest.

This mitzvah helps us highlight the importance of being responsible for other people and for their property and rights. We should pray to be successful messengers, whenever we are entrusted with carrying out Hashem’s will for our community.

Calendar Controversy

When Yamim Nora’im “Fell” on Disputed Days

In the year 4681 (920), the greatest halachic authority in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Aharon ben Meir, proclaimed that the months of Marcheshvan and Kislev of the coming year (4682) would both have only 29 days. As a result, the next Pesach (4682) would begin on a Sunday and end after Shabbos, in Eretz Yisrael, and after Sunday, in Chutz LaAretz.

Prior to Ben Meir’s proclamation, all had assumed that Marcheshvan and Kislev that year would both be 30 days long, which would result in Pesach beginning two days later — on Tuesday, and ending on Monday, in Eretz Yisrael, and on Tuesday, in Chutz LaAretz. Thus, Ben Meir was pushing Pesach forward two days earlier than anticipated. Those communities that followed Ben Meir would eat chametz when it was still Pesach according to the original calculation!

Just as shocking, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of 4683 would also be two days earlier. Ben Meir’s ruling had Rosh Hashanah beginning on Tuesday and Yom Kippur observed on Thursday. The original calculation had Rosh Hashanah on Thursday, and Yom Kippur falling on Shabbos.

That year, most communities in Eretz Yisrael and Egypt observed Pesach, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah following Ben Meir’s calendar; the communities of Syria, Bavel (today’s Iraq), Europe and the rest of North Africa observed these Yomim Tovim two days later!

Thus, on Shabbos before Sukkos of 4683, Ben Meir’s followers were reading parshas Ha’azinu and enjoying their Shabbos repasts; the other communities were fasting and observing Yom Kippur!

Why did Ben Meir observe the calendar differently? Why was his opinion rejected?

Creation of the Jewish Calendar

Our current Jewish calendar was instituted in the fourth century by Hillel Hanasi (not to be confused with his ancestor, the Tanna, Hillel Hazakein. Historians call Hillel Hanasi either Hillel the Second or Hillel the Third, but I will refer to him the way the Rishonim do.) Prior to this time, the Nasi of the Sanhedrin appointed special batei din that were in charge of determining the Jewish calendar, which included two areas of responsibility:

·         Determining whether each month is 29 or 30 days.

·         Deciding whether the year should be made into a leap year by adding the month of Adar Sheini.

A beis din of three judges representing the Sanhedrin, the main beis din of klal Yisrael, would meet on the “thirtieth” day of each month to determine whether this day was Rosh Chodesh and the previous month was only 29 days, or whether to postpone Rosh Chodesh to the morrow, which would make the day on which they met the last day of a 30-day month.

The determination of which day was Rosh Chodesh was based heavily, but not exclusively, on whether witnesses appeared in the special beis din on the thirtieth day to testify that they had witnessed the new moon.

In addition, the head of the Sanhedrin appointed a panel of judges who met during the winter months to deliberate and decide whether the year should have an extra month added and become a leap year. Many factors went into their considerations, including the weather, the economy, the condition of the roads, the shmittah cycle and, of course, whether the Jewish calendar year was early or late relative to the annual solar cycle.

In Eretz Yisrael

The Gemara (Berachos 63) states unequivocally that as long as there is a beis din in Eretz Yisrael that is qualified to establish the calendar, no beis din elsewhere is authorized to do this.

This system worked well for thousands of years – from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu until about 300 years after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, which was during the time that the Gemara was being written. However, by this time, severe Roman persecutions took a tremendous toll on the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, and its yeshivos suffered terribly.

It was at this time that the head of the last main beis din functioning in Eretz Yisrael, Hillel Hanasi (usually assumed to have been a great-grandson of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi), established the Jewish calendar as we currently observe it. In establishing this calendar, Hillel Hanasi resolved that whether a year would be a leap year or not would be determined by a cycle of 19 years that includes a set schedule of 7 leap years.

He also decided that the months of Tishrei, Shevat, Adar Rishon (when there is one), Nissan, Sivan and Av are always 30 days, whereas Teves, Adar (or Adar Sheini), Iyar, Tammuz and Elul are always only 29 days. The two months of Marcheshvan and Kislev would vary each year, depending on when the next year’s Rosh Hashanah should be. The latter was based on a calculation of how long we estimate the moon to orbit the earth and decisions made by Hillel Hanasi regarding on what days of the week the Tishrei holidays should fall.

Hillel Hanasi’s established calendar allowed that a Jew anywhere in the world could make the calculations and determine the Jewish calendar. All he needs to know is the pattern of the 19-year cycle, and the information necessary to determine how long the months of Marcheshvan and Kislev are in a given year.

One noteworthy point is that, originally, each month’s length was determined primarily by the witnessing of the new moon, whereas in the calendar created by Hillel Hanasi, the length of the months is predetermined, regardless of when the new moon appears. Only Rosh Hashanah is determined by the new moon, and, even then, there are other considerations.

History has proved the unbelievable clairvoyance of Hillel Hanasi’s calendar. To understand what he accomplished, note that, at the time of Ben Meir, almost 600 years had passed since Hillel and Jewish communities had scattered across the entire known world. There were already, at this time, Jewish communities strewn throughout Europe and North Africa, what eventually developed into the Ashkenazim and the Sefardim, and throughout the Middle East and central Asia.

Yet, wherever Jewish communities lived, they observed the same Jewish calendar, whether they lived under the rule of Christians, Moslems or Zoroastrians. It is a fascinating historical fact that, although there was no absolute central authority to determine Jewish observance, Jewish communities that were spread out everywhere observed and continue to observe the identical calendar, without any error or dispute, probably without a single exception, other than the one incident we are discussing!

The Controversy

Rav Ben Meir was, without question, a gadol  be’Yisrael who, in any other generation, might have been the gadol hador. However, Hashem placed him in the same generation as one of the greatest talmidei chachamim in history, Rav Saadia Gaon.

Rav Ben Meir held that all of the Jewish people were bound to follow his ruling regarding Klal Yisrael’s calendar, since his beis din was the most qualified one in Eretz Yisrael. He contended that the final decision on determining the calendar still rested among the highest halachic authorities in Eretz Yisrael, and that Hillel Hanasi’s calendar had not changed this.

At the time of Hillel Hanasi, the Jewish community in Bavel had surpassed that of Eretz Yisrael, both numerically and in scholarship, producing the greater talmidei chachamim. This is why the period of the Amoraim essentially ended earlier in Eretz Yisrael than in Bavel, and why the Talmud Bavli is more authoritative than the Talmud Yerushalmi. The main headquarters of Torah remained in Bavel for hundreds of years, including most of the period when the Gaonim headed the yeshivos of Sura and Pumbedisa in Bavel.

However, at the time of this controversy, both yeshivos, Sura and Pumbedisa, were weak, and Rav Aharon Ben Meir, who headed his own yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael, surpassed in learning the heads of both Babylonian yeshivos.

Enter Rav Saadia

At the time of the dispute, Rav Saadia Gaon was only 29 years old. Virtually nothing is known of his rabbei’im. We know that he was born in Egypt, probably the second largest Jewish community at the time (after Bavel). At about 23 years old, probably already the greatest Torah scholar of his era, he traveled eastward, visiting the various Jewish communities of Eretz Yisrael, Syria and eventually Bavel, becoming very familiar with the scholars there. Although very young, we see from later correspondence that he already had many disciples prior to leaving Egypt, with whom he maintained contact after he left.

Pronouncing his Verdict

About a year before he changed the accepted calendar, Ben Meir announced his plans. At the time, Rav Saadia was in Aleppo, Syria. When he heard of Ben Meir’s intentions, Rav Saadia immediately addressed a succession of letters to Ben Meir, explaining that the established calendar was correct and should not be tampered with. Simultaneously, the authorities of Bavel addressed a letter to Ben Meir, written with tremendous respect and friendship, but sharply disputing his halachic conclusions.

Apparently, Ben Meir was unimpressed by the letters from either Rav Saadia or from Bavel. It appears that he then formalized his planned calendar change with a pronouncement made on Hoshanah Rabbah, from Har Hazeisim. Because of its proximity to the Beis Hamikdash, the Torah leaders of Eretz Yisrael held an annual gathering on Har Hazeisim to perform hoshanos. At the same time, they used the occasion to discuss whatever issues faced their communities and decided on plans and policies. Apparently, Ben Meir used this opportunity to announce the decision of his beis din to adjust the calendar in the coming year.

Indeed, the communities of Eretz Yisrael, and several (if not all) of those in Egypt followed Ben Meir’s ruling and kept 29 day months for both Marcheshvan and Kislev.

After the two questionable roshei chadashim had passed, we find correspondence between Bavel and Eretz Yisrael, but now the letters are more strident. By this time, Rav Saadia had arrived in Bavel, and the next correspondence includes letters from the established leaders of Bavel to Ben Meir strongly rebuking his decision. Apparently, these letters were signed not only by the elders and scholars of the Bavel community, but also by a young Egyptian newcomer — Rav Saadia.

At the same time, the leadership of Bavel as well as Rav Saadia addressed circulars to the various Jewish communities, advising them to observe the established calendar, not that of Ben Meir.

Rav Saadia wrote his disciples in Egypt, advising them that all the leaders of Bavel had concurred to follow the old calendar and to proclaim Marcheshvan and Kislev as full months and to observe Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos accordingly. In his own words:

Close this breach! Do not rebel against the command of Hashem. None of the people would intentionally work on Yom Tov, eat chametz on Pesach, or eat, drink or work on Yom Kippur. May it be the will of Hashem that no stumbling block be placed in your community nor anywhere else.

Rav Saadia was barely 30 years old and already he was viewed with such esteem that the established Torah leadership of Bavel requested that he join them in their correspondence on the issue!

Ben Meir’s Retort

In reaction to the initial letters from the Gaonim and from Rav Saadia, Ben Meir sent his son to Yerushalayim to announce, once again, his planned calendar change. Ben Meir also wrote, in an aggressive and disrespectful tone, that final authority in all matters of the calendar lies with the Torah leadership of Eretz Yisrael. At this point, he began to write disparagingly about his antagonists.

Pesach was approaching and communities were bewildered as to what to do. Rav Saadia wrote a second letter to his disciples in Egypt. It should be noted that, notwithstanding the personal attack leveled against him by Ben Meir, Rav Saadia dealt specifically with the issue and refrained from any remark belittling his detractor.

Why did Rav Saadia not accept Ben Meir’s assertion that the Torah leadership of Eretz Yisrael had the final say about these matters?

Rav Saadia wrote that Ben Meir’s calculations were mistaken. The calculations that we use are all based on an old mesorah from Sinai, as can be demonstrated from the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 20). Thus, this is not a matter of opinion, but an error. Rav Saadia rallied support from the fact that, since the days of Hillel Hanasi, no one had questioned the accuracy of the accepted calendar.

Two Different Pesachs

Indeed, that Pesach, many communities followed Ben Meir, while others followed Rav Saadia and the Gaonim of Bavel. The controversy continued the next year, through the disputed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos.

History has not bequeathed to us the final steps of this controversy, yet we know that, by the next year, the logic of Rav Saadia’s responsa swayed the tide against Ben Meir’s diatribes, and Rav Saadia became accepted as the gadol hador and its final arbiter in halacha.

Ben Meir blamed Rav Saadia for torpedoing his initiative, which probably is true. History knows nothing more of Ben Meir after this episode, and of no community that subsequently followed his approach. His opinion on any halachic matters is never quoted by later authorities.

Six years later, Rav Saadia was asked to assume the position of Gaon of Sura, the only time in history that the position was granted to an “outsider.” Indeed, we have Rav Saadia to thank that the Jewish world, everywhere, always observes Yomim Tovim on the same day.

Pruzbul

Foreword

As I discussed in a previous article, the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim comes into effect this year immediately before Rosh Hashanah. This law cancels all debts that someone is owed, meaning that the creditor cannot force collection.

Notwithstanding the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim, the Torah commands a lo sa’aseh, that states: “Be careful, lest (hishameir lecha pen) a wicked idea enter your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year that releases, comes near’ and your eye disdains your brother, the pauper, and you fail to give him” (Devarim 15:9). Technically, the words “Be careful, lest” qualify as a mitzvas lo sa’aseh (Eiruvin 96a), although this mitzvah requires a positive action — to lend, notwithstanding the approaching deadline that will release the borrower from liability. This is in addition to the mitzvas aseih, the positive mitzvah, in effect at all times, to lend money whenever we are able.

Unfortunately, Jews violated both mitzvos and stopped lending money out of concern that they would not be repaid after the shemittah year. Since this violates a Torah law, Hillel felt the responsibility to create a system that allows loan collection, notwithstanding that shemittah has passed. The vehicle he created is called a pruzbul. The origin of this word is two Aramaic words that mean “benefit for the wealthy” (Gittin 36b). The Gemara notes that a pruzbul benefits both wealthy and poor – the wealthy, because it allows them to collect loans, and the poor, because they can now borrow money when needed.

To quote the two places where the Mishnah introduces pruzbul: “Hillel established the pruzbul as a tikun olam” (Gittin 34b). “A pruzbul is not released [by the shemittah year] — this is a takkanah established by Hillel the Elder, when he realized that people were refraining from lending money, and were thereby violating what the Torah commands, ‘Be careful lest…’ (Devarim 15:9), Hillel established the pruzbul (Shevi’is 10:3).”

How could he?

By what means could Hillel change the law that the Torah established? The Gemara (see Rashi) presents two options:

(1) The tanna,Rebbe, contends that shemittas kesafim applies min haTorah only when the laws of yoveil apply. Hillel held like Rebbe that shemittas kesafim is only a rabbinic rule today — since the mitzvos of yoveil do not apply until the tribes all return to their lands. Chazal have the ability to suspend rabbinically declared laws (Gittin 36a).

(2) The Torah provides batei din with the ability to declare property ownerless. This ability, called hefker beis din hefker, allowed Hillel to require borrowers to pay their debts that would otherwise have been released by the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim.

How did he?

How does a pruzbul work?

According to most rishonim, the technical way a pruzbul operates is as follows: Min haTorah, the prohibition of shemittas kesafim exists only when an individual demands payment, but not when a beis din does. This halacha is implied by the words in parshas Re’eih (Devarim 15:2): “Every creditor must release his hand from what his fellow owes him. He may not demand payment from his fellow or from his brother, because he has declared a release for Hashem.” These words teach that the prohibition of shemittas kesafim applies only to an individual, not to beis din (Sifrei). Thus, min haTorah, there is a relatively simple way to avoid violating the prohibition of shemittas kesafim. Before this law takes effect at the end of shemittah year, the creditor transfers his loans to beis din (Mishnah, Shevi’is 10:2; however, cf. Rashi, Gittin = and=, who appears to understand the topic differently), thereby authorizing the beis din to collect the debts. Now that the debts are in the hands of beis din, shemittas kesafim does not apply, and the debts can still be collected.

Min haTorah, this process requires the creditor to hand over his loan documents to the beis din. If the creditor does not have the documents, he does not give them to beis din, or the loans were not made in writing, the creditor cannot use this heter to avoid shemittas kesafim. The pruzbul allows the transfer of the debts to the beis din without physical movement of any documents, or even if there are no documents.

As the Yerushalmi expresses it, pruzbul allows transferring documents that a creditor has in Rome. (An alternative interpretation understands this passage of Yerushalmi to mean that a creditor in Israel may transfer his loans to a beis din in Rome, even though at the time of the Yerushalmi, PayPal had no business operation yet in either Israel or Italy. We will return to these two interpretations of the Yerushalmi.)

Non-written loans

Thus, pruzbul works for loans created in the presence of witnesses, even when no written contract was drawn up (Rema, Choshen Mishpat 67:19 and Sma; see Urim).

Non-pruzbul

We should note that, even without pruzbul, there are at least four ways whereby a creditor may avoid violating shemittas kesafim. Apparently, people were not utilizing these methods, and therefore Hillel created a simpler vehicle to avoid the prohibition. I will utilize an acronym BACK — whereby debts must still be paid BACK, notwithstanding the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim:

(1) Beis din

As explained above, the creditor delivers his loan documents to a beis din; collection of the debts is through beis din (Rambam, Hilchos Shevi’is 9:15; Rashi, Gittin 36a).

(2) After – payable after shemittah

Although this ruling is disputed in the Gemara, the accepted halacha is that shemittas kesafim applies only to a loan that could be collected, at least in theory, at the end of the shemittah year (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:10). Thus, a simple way for someone to lend money and avoid shemittas kesafim is to schedule the loan’s due date for after shemittah year (see Makkos 3b). Of course, by doing this, the creditor forfeits any right to collect the loan earlier. In addition, this suggestion will not help if the loan is overdue and the borrower has not been paying, whether his delay is because he is without funds or because he chooses to be a deadbeat.

(3) Condition

There is a technical way that, when the loan is originated, it can be made conditional to be payable even after shemittah ends. Because of space considerations, I am unable to explain this in the current article.

(4) Kollateralized

You are correct, it should be collateralized, but I think that you’ll remember BACK better than BACC.

At the time of the loan, the creditor can insist on receiving collateral (a mashkon) [Gittin 37a] that is worth more than the loan. Some authorities contend that shemittas kesafim does not apply even if the mashkon is worth less than the loan (Shmuel in Yerushalmi, Shevi’is; Rashi, Bava Metzia 49a; Rash, Shevi’is 10:2, in his explanation of Shavuos 44b). These authorities hold that the existence of a mashkon automatically exempts a loan from the rules of shemittas kesafim. The reason why a mashkon exempts the loan from the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim is because the loan is considered already collected.

The Shulchan Aruch cites both of the opinions I quoted, but rules, according to the first opinion, that the mashkon preempts shemittas kesafim only when it is at least as valuable as the amount loaned (Choshen Mishpat 67:12).

Paying BACK (or BACC)

Now that we know about these four options, we realize that the creditor can easily arrange matters such that shemittas kesafim is avoided. Nevertheless, Hillel realized that people were not utilizing these methods to guarantee return of their funds, but instead, they were refraining from lending money — thus violating both an aseih and a lo sa’aseh. This necessitated the new takkanah of pruzbul.

What type of beis din?

As explained above, the legal vehicle whereby a pruzbul works is that the loan is transferred to a beis din, which avoids the prohibition of shemittas kesafim. The Mishnah (Shevi’is 10:4) states: “This declaration is the essence of a pruzbul: ‘I transfer to you, dayanim xxx of community y, any loan that I am owed, such that I can collect it whenever I want to.’”

We may have noticed that beis din is involved in the din of pruzbul in two ways:

(1) The Torah exempts loans owed to a beis din from the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim.

(2) Transferring the ownership of the debt to beis din may require utilizing the principle of hefker beis din hefker, which is a legal concept that requires a beis din to implement.

This brings up a new question (Gittin 36b). The Gemara states that a pruzbul can be created only by a high-level, established beis din, such as that of the renowned amora’im, Rav, Shmuel, Rav Ami or Rav Asi. Why can only these gedolei Yisroel create a pruzbul? Because the ability to declare someone’s property ownerless, hefker beis din hefker, is not granted to just any beis din (Sma 67:36).

Technically speaking, three learned, adult, male Jews can form a beis din. For laws such as hataras nedarim, releasing someone from vows, we follow this practice. Is the same type of beis din valid for creating a pruzbul? The Gemara quoted above disagrees — not every beis din may create a pruzbul, only one in the league of Rav, Shmuel, Rav Ami and Rav Asi. This implies that even a beis din experienced in dinei Torah may not issue a pruzbul. Several rishonim, including the Rambam and Rabbeinu Tam, conclude that only an exceptionally regarded beis din may issue a pruzbul. This is also the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch: “A pruzbul may be written only in a prominent beis din, meaning, three experts who know halachic civil law, the laws of pruzbul and shemittah and were appointed judges by the community of their city” (Choshen Mishpat 67:18).

Nevertheless, the accepted practice among Ashkenazim follows the Rosh (Gittin 4:13), who understands that the Gemara later reevaluates this decision, and that is the conclusion of the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 67:18). Common contemporary Ashkenazic practice is that the three “dayanim” who perform hataras nedarim on erev Rosh Hashanah sign someone’s pruzbul.

From a distance?

May the creditor transfer the loans to the beis din without appearing before them, by declaring in front of witnesses, “I am transferring all loans that are owed me to beis din, consisting of dayan D1, dayan D2 and dayan D3, in city C?” If you follow the Ashkenazic practice that a pruzbul may be issued by any beis din, this question is not that serious, unless you intend to spend all of Elul outside any Jewish community. However, for those who follow the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling, this is a very practical concern, since a pruzbul may be issued only by a major beis din. Must the creditor appear in front of the beis din for them to issue a pruzbul, or is it sufficient that he declare in front of witnesses that he is transferring all debts he is owed to a major beis din?

The Mordechai (Gittin #380) cites this question as a dispute between himself and Rabbeinu Yechiel, in which Rabbeinu Yechiel required the declaration to be in the presence of the beis din, whereas the Mordechai ruled that it is adequate for the creditor to declare to the witnesses that he transfers his loans to the beis din. The Shulchan Aruch mentions both opinions (Choshen Mishpat 67:19 and 21), concluding (Choshen Mishpat 67:19) that he must make this declaration directly to the beis din, an approach accepted by both the Sma and the Tumim (67:21). The Rema (Choshen Mishpat 67:20) concludes that it works even if he is not in front of beis din.

Remember Rome!

Or, more accurately, remember the passage of the Yerushalmi (Shevi’is 10:2), regarding Rome! That Yerushalmi states that a pruzbul can transfer what is nesunin beRomi, “located in Rome.” If nesunin beRomi refers to the location of the dayanim, the creditor may transfer loans to a beis din hundreds of miles from where he is, as concluded by the Mordechai and the Rema. On the other hand, if the Yerushalmi is referring to loan documents in Rome, all we can prove is that pruzbul permits the transfer of loans, without the creditor handing his documents physically to the beis din.

One pruzbul covers all

A creditor need make only one pruzbul, regardless as to how many outstanding debts and debtors he has. This is because the pruzbul transfers all the loans he is owed to the beis din.

Oral pruzbul

Must a pruzbul be written down, or can it be an oral declaration, without a written form? The Shulchan Aruch implies that, in normal circumstances, it should be a written document, whereas the Rema rules that it can be performed orally (Choshen Mishpat 67:20). Accepted custom is to make a pruzbul into a simple, written form, although the exact text may vary, often dependent on some of the halachic issues we have discussed in this article.

Postdated pruzbul

A pruzbul transfers to the beis din any outstanding debts that exist at the time that it is made. It cannot transfer a debt that does not yet exist. Therefore, if a creditor made a pruzbul on the 20th of Elul, and then loaned someone money on the 23rd, shemittas kesafim will take effect on this loan. As a result, a postdated pruzbul, such as one transacted on the 20th of Elul, but dated the 29th, is invalid, since it might be used as proof that a loan made between these two dates was transferred to beis din when it wasn’t (Mishnah, Shevi’is 10:5).

On the other hand, a predated pruzbul is perfectly valid. Dating it earlier than necessary only causes a potential loss to the creditor, since it cannot prove that he transferred to beis din a loan that took place after the date written on the pruzbul. Since the creditor would be harming only himself with such a pruzbul, a predated pruzbul is valid (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:32 and Sma there #54).

Borrowing tenants

The Mishnah states that a pruzbul is written only when someone owns land (Shevi’is 10:6). Who must own land? The borrower must be someone who owns or has a right to some land.

However, this does not mean that a creditor cannot create a pruzbul to collect from someone who rents an apartment. A tenant has a right to his apartment, and this is adequate “land ownership” for a pruzbul to be effective. Even if the only land right a person has is that he has borrowed an area upon which his stove rests, he has enough “land ownership” to be included in a pruzbul.

Potential lenders solicited by someone homeless, who are concerned that a pruzbul will not guarantee their loan – be aware that Hillel took you into consideration, although the explanation as to how this pruzbul needs to be made is beyond the scope of this article. If you have loaned money to someone who has no rights to any landed property, ask your rav or posek how to make your pruzbul credit-worthy.

Why land?

Why does a pruzbul work only if the debtor has land?

According to Rashi (Gittin 37a s.v. ela), this is because most people who borrow money have land to serve as understood collateral. Any serious loan will require some means of guaranteeing collection, and chattel can easily “disappear.” Therefore, a loan made for a borrower who has no real estate at all is so uncommon that Hillel felt no need to make a pruzbul to cover this situation.

The Rash (Shevi’is 10:6) offers a different suggestion why land ownership is an essential component for a pruzbul: A loan turned over to beis din is exempt from shemittas kesafim since it is as if beis din has already collected the debt — there is nothing preventing them from taking the land for collection.

Lost my pruzbul

The Mishnah (Kesubos 89a) implies that a creditor who comes to beis din after shemittah year and claims that he made a pruzbul must bring evidence that he did so. However, the Gemara (Gittin 37b) notes that the amora’im,Rav and Rav Nachman, followed the opinion of a different tanna, in a beraisa, who disagreed. Most rishonim accept their ruling that someone who claims to have made a pruzbul may collect his debt after shemittah (see also Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:33). The reason is that we assume that a frum Jew would not violate the Torah when he can accomplish something in a permitted way (Sma 67:55). According to all authorities, the lender may not claim to have made a pruzbul if he did not, and it is theft to do so. It also violates the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim, releasing his loans at the end of shemittah year.

Conclusion

Why do people view loaning money as an optional “good deed” rather than as a commandment? The Chofetz Chayim (Ahavas Chesed 2:8) raises this question and mentions several excuses people make to avoid lending money. After listing these reasons, the Chofetz Chayim proceeds to refute each one of them. Simply put, the answer to this question is an old Yiddish expression, Ven kumt tzu gelt, es iz an andara velt, “When dealing with money, people approach matters in a completely different way,” and, if I might add my own commentary, often not in a very rational way. People find it difficult to part with their money, even temporarily. This is precisely why one receives such immense reward for lending. As Pirkei Avos teaches us, lefum tza’ara agra, “we are rewarded in direct relationship to the level of discomfort we feel when observing the mitzvah.”

Otzar Beis Din or Heter Otzar Beis Din?

An Otzar Beis Din is literally “a storehouse operated by Beis Din.” Why would Beis Din operate a warehouse? Before explaining more fully the true purpose of an Otzar Beis Din, which is a halachically approved method of distributing shemittah produce, we must first review the halachos of shemittah. These rules fall under two general categories:

(1)   Laws of the Land

The Torah teaches that every seventh year is shemittah, and we are prohibited from working the land of Eretz Yisrael. One may not plow, plant, prune, or harvest one’s grapevines as an owner, or perform most other agricultural work. Furthermore, one may not allow one’s land to be worked during shemittah, even by a non-Jew.[1] One may perform activities whose purpose is to prevent loss, such as watering plants and trees so that they do not die.[2]

The landowner may not treat what grows during shemittah as his own; rather, he must allow others to enter his field or orchard and help themselves. They may take only as much as their family will eat, and the landowner himself may also take this amount.[3] One may not sell shemittah produce in a business manner.[4]

(2) Laws of the Fruit

Shemittah produce is imbued with special sanctity called kedushas shevi’is. The Torah provides specific rules that govern how one treats such produce. These laws fall under the following categories:

a.       Commerce with Shemittah Produce

One must be careful not to sell shemittah produce in a way that implies that one is its true owner. For this reason, shemittah produce may not be sold by weight or measure[5] nor sold in a regular store.[6] Instead it should be distributed in a way that implies that this is a division of produce rather than a sale.

One may not export shemittah produce to chutz la’aretz.[7] The later poskim even dispute whether one may ship esrogim to chutz la’aretz for people to fulfill the mitzvah of Arba Minim.[8]b.      Sefichin

The Torah permits eating produce that grew by itself, without the farmer working the field during shemittah. However, Chazal felt it necessary to prohibit grains and most vegetables that happened to grow on their own during shemittah year or were planted in violation of the laws of shemittah. This was because even in the days of Chazal it was unfortunately common to find Jews who deceitfully ignored shemittah laws. One practice of enterprising, unscrupulous farmers was to plant grain or vegetables and market them as produce that grew on its own.

To discourage this illegal business, Chazal forbade even grains and vegetables that grew on their own, a prohibition referred to as sefichin (literally, “plants that sprouted”). Several exceptions were made, including produce grown in the field of a non-Jew, who has no obligation to observe shemittah.[9]

c.       Hefker – Ownerless

Since all shemittah produce is halachically ownerless, every consumer has the halachic right to “help oneself” to whatever his family might eat. The poskim dispute whether one has the right to do this even if the owner is not halachically compliant and does not give others permission to enter his field.

The Otzar Beis Din

With this introduction, we can now discuss an Otzar Beis Din.

The owner of a vineyard is not required to produce wine for me, only to allow me to harvest the grapes for myself. If I do not have the equipment or expertise to press and process grapes into wine or olives into oil, I will be unable to utilize my rights to these fruits. Similarly, although I have a right to travel from Yerushalayim to pick citrus, mangos and bananas grown along the coast or in the northern part of the country, it is not that convenient for me to go. How then can I possibly utilize the benefit of shemittah?

Enter the Otzar Beis Din. The Beis Din represents the consumer and hires people to gather the fruit, crush the grapes and olives into juice and oil, ferment the juice into wine, package the product, and then distribute it to the consumer. The Otzar Beis Din acts as the consumer’s agent and hires pickers, truckers, and other laborers; rents wine production equipment; purchases the bottles; produces shemittah fruits, wines and oils; and delivers them to a convenient distribution center near my house.

Obviously, the Otzar Beis Din cannot expect the pickers, truckers, and other laborers to work as unpaid volunteers, nor can they use the production equipment without paying rent. Similarly, the managers who coordinate this project are also entitled to a wage for their efforts. The Otzar Beis Din divides these costs among the consumers. However, no charge is made whatsoever for the fruit, since they are hefker; the charges are only for the labor and other costs involved. Thus, Otzar Beis Din products should cost less than regular retail prices for the same items.

Similarly, the farmer is required to allow anyone to enter his field and help himself to his crops. However, since it is inconvenient for a resident of Yerushalayim to travel to an orchard in the northern part of Israel or along its coast to pick oranges and bananas, the Otzar Beis Din picks and transports the fruit to the consumer. All the other halachos of shemittah apply to this produce.

The Development of a ‘Modern’ Otzar Beis Din

The rabbonim and Beis Din of Yerushalayim organized the first “modern” Otzar Beis Din over 110 years ago. In 5670 (1910), Rav Tzvi Hirsch Cohen, a talmid chacham from Rechovot who owned vineyards and orchards, came to the rabbonim of Yerushalayim requesting that they function as his Beis Din to distribute the wine and fruit from his orchards for the coming shemittah. The written contract, signed by Rav Chayim Berlin, Rav Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, Rav Yisrael Yaakov Yaavetz and Rav Moshe Nachum Wallenstein, enabled Yerushalayim residents to receive wine and fruit from Rav Cohen’s orchards.

Someone had to arrange to harvest the fruit, process the grapes into wine, and transport the products to Yerushalayim. Since Rav Cohen was the most qualified person to take care of these arrangements, the Beis Din appointed him to be their representative on behalf of the general public. As an agent, he was entitled to a wage for his work, as were the other employees who harvested, crushed, packaged, and transported the crop, but no one was entitled to any profits on the produce.

The Beis Din established several rules to maintain that the laws of shemittah were scrupulously kept in this arrangement, and to guarantee that Rav Cohen was paid as a manager and not as an owner of the product. For one thing, they predetermined the price that the consumer would pay for the wine, guaranteeing that it was significantly lower than its usual market price.[10]

Because of the laws governing the harvest and use of shemittah products, the Beis Din also insisted on the following rules:

  • The wine and fruits could be distributed only to people who would observe the shemittah sanctity of the products.[11]
  • The vineyards and orchards had to be available for any shemittah-observant person to enter and harvest for his own needs.[12]
  • The products were not distributed through stores, but were divided as a communal division of bulk product.
  • The products were not weighed or measured. Each individual who participated in dividing the shemittah produce paid Rav Cohen as Beis Din’s agent, for which the consumer was entitled to ‘shares’ of wine and produce, which were delivered in bulk containers without an exact weight.
  • The actual harvest of the product was performed by non-Jews and in an atypical way.[13]

In his analysis of the procedure of an Otzar Beis Din, the Chazon Ish follows a more lenient approach than that of the above-mentioned Beis Din of Yerushalayim.[14] He ruled that representatives of an Otzar Beis Din may harvest in the normal way and use Jewish labor. Thus, the Otzar Beis Din of a modern farm that follows the Chazon Ish’s ruling allows Jewish staff to use tractors and other equipment to harvest and process the shemittah produce.[15]

In addition, the Chazon Ish permitted weighing and measuring produce sold through Otzar Beis Din. In his opinion, the prohibition against weighing and measuring shemittah produce is only because this indicates that I am the owner of the produce. However, weighing and measuring Otzar Beis Din produce is to determine a fair division of costs involved in supplying the produce, and not to demonstrate ownership.

In today’s Otzar Beis Din, the grower plants everything before shemittah and is given extremely detailed instructions regarding what he may and may not do during shemittah. The grower must allow any shemittah-observant person to enter the field or orchard and help himself to the produce.[16]

The Heter Otzar Beis Din Controversy

The modern term, heter Otzar Beis Din, is used pejoratively. The purpose of an Otzar Beis Din is to service the consumer, not the producer, as explained above.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous individuals sometimes manipulate the rubric of Otzar Beis Din to allow a “business as usual” attitude and violate both the spirit and halacha of shemittah. I know of farms that call themselves Otzar Beis Din but, in reality, bar free entry of their fields during shemittah, or the field owner treats the produce as completely his own and charges accordingly.

Since this contradicts the meaning of Otzar Beis Din, these cases are called heter Otzar Beis Din, meaning permitting something based on an abuse of the concept of Otzar Beis Din. Because of these concerns, some hechsheirim discourage the use of Otzar Beis Din. Thus, in practice, Otzar Beis Din becomes a michshol when it degenerates into a heter Otzar Beis Din. Indeed, as with every “treasure,” one must make every effort to ensure its principle stays intact. How much more so with the principles of the Otzar Beis Din!

Conclusion

Just as observing the seventh day, Shabbos, demonstrates our beliefs in the Creator, so too, observing every seventh year as shemittah demonstrates this faith. For someone living in Eretz Yisrael, observing shemittah properly involves assuming much halachic responsibility and education. For the modern farmer, observing shemittah can indeed be true mesiras nefesh, since among the many other concerns that he has, he also risks losing customers who have been purchasing his products for years. For example, a farmer may be selling his crop somewhere in Europe. If he informs his buyer that he cannot produce during shemittah, he risks losing the customer in the future.

Of course, a Jew realizes that Hashem provides parnasah and that observing a mitzvah will never hurt anyone. An observant farmer obeys the Torah dictates knowing that Hashem attends to all his needs. Indeed, recent shemittos have each had numerous miracles rewarding observant farmers in this world for their halachic diligence. Who can possibly imagine what reward awaits them in Olam Haba!


[1] Avodah Zarah 15b.

[2] Moed Katan 3b; Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 1:10; Cf. Chazon Ish, Shevi’is 16:4, 21:14, who is more lenient.

[3] Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 4:1.

[4] Ibid., 6:1.

[5] Mishnah Shevi’is 8:3.

[6] Yerushalmi Shevi’is 7:1.

[7] Mishnah Shevi’is 6:5.

[8] Beis Ridbaz 5:18; Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:186.

[9] Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 4:29.

[10] Sefer Minchas Yerushalayim, page 161.

[11] Ibid., 163; see also Tosefta Shevi’is 6:11.

[12] Sefer Minchas Yerushalayim, page 181.

[13] Katif Shevi’is, page 125.

[14] Shevi’is 11:7 s.v. bemashekasavti

[15] Sefer Hashemittah, 21.

[16] Mishpetei Aretz, page 103.

The Fateful U-Turn

ACT I – THE FATEFUL U-TURN

Location: The highway

Reuven missed his exit off the highway. Since it was a bright, clear day, he decided to make a U-turn to get back in the right direction. Although this was illegal, he did not consider it dangerous, since the road was virtually deserted, except for a car coming in the other direction which seemed to be quite a distance away.

Reuven was mistaken. His car collided with the other vehicle. Fortunately, no one was injured, but both cars suffered significant damage.

The other driver, Shimon, considered Reuven responsible for the damage to his vehicle, although Reuven insisted that Shimon must have been speeding for the accident to have occurred. Shimon insisted that he was not speeding.

To complicate matters, the car Reuven was driving was not his own. That morning, his friend Yaakov had asked Reuven to drive him to the airport using Yaakov’s car. On the way to the airport, Yaakov mentioned that, since he was leaving for a week, Reuven could borrow the car while he was gone.

After the accident, Reuven discovered that Yaakov’s car had no collision insurance, and worse yet, no liability insurance for any driver except Yaakov. Thus, there was no insurance coverage for the damage done to either vehicle.

Because Reuven would never have driven the car had he known it was uninsured, he claims that he never assumed responsibility for the value of the car when he borrowed it.

Is Reuven liable for the damage to both vehicles? Although Reuven is over his head in debt, if he is halachically obligated to pay either Yaakov or Shimon, he will do so. But if he is not required to do so, he feels that he is not in a financial position to make the compensation.

Reuven, Shimon, and Yaakov submit the shaylah to a beis din for arbitration. They schedule an appointment and come prepared to present their cases.

ACT II – THE COURTROOM

Location: The offices of the beis din

On the appointed day, the three litigants appear in the beis din. Shimon claims that Reuven must compensate him for the damage to his car, and that Yaakov should also be liable as the owner of an improperly insured vehicle. Reuven claims that Shimon is responsible for all the damages, since the accident happened because of Shimon’s speeding. Yaakov claims that Reuven damaged his vehicle and is therefore obligated to pay for its repair.

Yaakov presents his claim against Reuven first, stating that he has claims against Reuven for two different reasons:

1. First, Reuven should be liable as the borrower of the car, even if the damage was not his responsibility.

2. Second, Reuven is liable as a mazik, one who damages, since his negligence caused an accident.

Let us examine the validity of each claim separately, and then we will see what Reuven counters.

SHO’EIL

A sho’eil, a borrower, is responsible for almost any damage that takes place to the item he borrows, even if the damage is accidental and not caused by the borrower. (There are two circumstances where a sho’eil is not liable, but they do not apply here, and I am therefore omitting them from our discussion.) Yaakov claims that Reuven is responsible to make full restitution for the value of the car, since he borrowed it.

REUVEN’S DEFENSE

Reuven turns to the dayanim and explains, “I believe that I am not a sho’eil according to halacha, but I have the halacha of a socheir, a renter, notwithstanding the fact that I paid no money. Furthermore, I claim that as a socheir I am not responsible for the damages sustained, as I will explain.”

WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF A SOCHEIR?

A socheir is liable for damage if the item is lost or stolen, or if he is negligent, but he is not responsible for accidental damage. There is also another major difference in halacha between a sho’eil and a socheir that Reuven uses as an essential component of his defense, as explained below.

WAS REUVEN A SHO’EIL OR A SOCHEIR?

In order to analyze this question, we need to explain why a sho’eil carries so much responsibility. The Gemara mentions that a sho’eil’s liability is so great because he gains all the benefits of the loan, without any responsibilities in return. (This is called kol hana’ah shelo, “all benefits are to the borrower.”) Since the borrower receives all the benefits, the Torah obligates him to compensate the owner for any damage whatsoever, even if it was beyond his control. Put in other terms, a lender who receives no benefits has a right to assume that his item, or its value, is returned to him.

However, any time the lender receives some compensation, even non-monetary, the arrangement is not kol hana’ah shelo, and the borrower is not liable for accidental damage. In our situation, Yaakov received a chauffeured ride to the airport in exchange for Reuven’s borrowing the car. Halacha views this as if Reuven rented the car from Yaakov, paying him for the rental by driving him to the airport. This is enough to make Reuven into a socheir rather than a sho’eil, and exempts him from paying for accidental damages (see Shu’t Haran #20).

BUT WAS THIS A CASE OF NEGLIGENCE?

Yaakov objects to Reuven’s defense. “Even if I received some benefit and you are not a sho’eil, you are still liable as a socheir, because the damage was caused by negligence!”

Furthermore, you are a sho’eil because giving me a ride to the airport was not an exchange for using the car; it was a chesed that you did for me.

However, Reuven has done his homework. He knows that there is another distinction between a renter and a borrower with regard to assumption of responsibility.

DID REUVEN ASSUME RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE CAR?

Reuven claims he would never have driven the car, had he known it was uninsured. Therefore, he never assumed any responsibility for the car’s value, and he is not liable for the damage. Does this defense have any merit?

The Gemara discusses a case where someone assumed responsibility for an item assuming it was worth far less than it actually was. If the item is subsequently lost, he is only responsible for as much value as he originally thought the item was worth (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 291:4). Thus, Reuven can legitimately claim that he was not responsible as a socheir of the car, because he never assumed responsibility for its value.

BUT WHY DID REUVEN INSIST THAT HE WAS NOT A SHO’EIL?

Reuven first claimed that he was not a sho’eil because Yaakov had received benefit. Only then did he claim that he wasn’t even a socheir, because he never assumed any responsibility. The first claim seems like an unnecessary step in his defense — let him simply claim that he never assumed any responsibility, whether as a sho’eil or as a socheir.

The answer is that there is a halachic difference between borrowing and renting. A borrower becomes responsible for all damages, even if he did not assume responsibility; that is, the fact that he uses the item without providing the lender any compensation makes him responsible (Machanei Efrayim, Hilchos She’eilah #1; Milu’ei Mishpat 346:8; cf. however Nesivos HaMishpat 346:8, who implies that even a sho’eil is not responsible under these circumstances).On the other hand, a renter’s liability is limited to how much responsibility he assumed.

WHY IS A BORROWER DIFFERENT FROM A RENTER?

A sho’eil is responsible because of the concept of kol hana’ah shelo, “all benefits are to the borrower.” The circumstances are what make him liable, not necessarily his agreement. (Although the lender can agree to exempt the borrower from all damages, in the absence of such an agreement, the borrower is responsible for all damages.) Thus, a borrower claiming that he never assumed responsibility, or that he was unaware of the liability, may not be a defense. However, a socheir’s liability results from his agreement to be responsible as a socheir. Therefore, claiming that he never assumed responsibility is a valid defense.

Thus, Reuven claims that he is not responsible as the borrower of the car for the following reasoning:

1)      He is not a sho’eil, but a socheir, since Yaakov received benefit from the “loan.”

2)      As a socheir, he can claim that he never accepted responsibility for the value of the car, because he assumed that insurance was covering the financial liability.

WHAT ABOUT A MAZIK, SOMEONE WHO DAMAGED SOMEONE ELSE’S PROPERTY?

Reuven has successfully demonstrated that he is not obligated to pay as a borrower. However, this does not exonerate him from Yaakov’s claim that he damaged the vehicle. His defense against this claim was that Shimon caused the accident. Is this claim a sufficient defense? Moreover, is it Yaakov’s responsibility to prove who caused the accident, in order to collect the damages from Reuven?

First, we must clarify two shaylos:

1. If someone damaged property in a traffic accident, is he considered a mazik who must pay for damages?

2. When two parties are involved in a collision, how do we assign financial responsibility?

The following incident that happened over seven hundred years ago resolves one of our questions.

ACT III – SOME HORSEPLAY

Location: Thirteenth century Germany

The Rosh (quoted by Tur, Choshen Mishpat 378:9) discusses the following din Torah:

During a wedding celebration, the groom was riding a very expensive mule that he had rented from a non-Jew for the occasion. (This was the thirteenth-century equivalent to renting a white Cadillac for a newlywed couple.) One of his well-wishers galloped up the street on horseback, unintentionally crashing his horse into the groom’s mule. Baruch Hashem, the groom emerged unscathed from the collision, but the mule suffered severe damage. Under civil law, the groom, as renter of the mule, was obligated to pay not only damages, but also a sizable penalty. Must the reckless rider compensate the groom for the damages and the penalty?

The horse rider refused to pay, contending that he was exempt from damages, since he was riding on a public thoroughfare. Furthermore, he had not done the damage; the horse was responsible. He claimed that this case is comparable to that of an animal that tramples on property while walking through a public area. In that instance, the halacha does not obligate the owner of the animal to pay if his animal tramples property left in a public area.

The Rosh ruled that there is a difference between an animal walking and a rider galloping on a horse. In the latter case, the rider, himself, is the damaging party, and the horse is the “tool” with which the rider damaged. A person is required to use a public thoroughfare in a responsible way, and galloping on a horse when other people are nearby is irresponsible. Since the rider acted irresponsibly, he must pay damages. (For reasons beyond the scope of this article, the Rosh absolved the rider from paying for the penalty that the groom incurred.)

When two cars collide, who is responsible for the damage?

Based on the above ruling, any damage performed by an automobile is considered damage performed by its driver, and the automobile is considered his tool. However, this does not tell us how we determine which driver is responsible, and for how much damage.

For this we will have to refer to an older discussion that traces back to the time of the Gemara.

ACT IV – A COLLISION

Location: Bavel, seventeen hundred years ago

The Gemara (Bava Kamma 32a; 48a) and the poskim discuss at length the case of two people colliding into one another on a city street, both of whom sustain injuries. Who is held responsible to pay for the damages?

We will simplify a very complicated discussion by providing some general rules that apply to our case:

If one party acted responsibly and the other acted irresponsibly, and the two parties collided, the party acting irresponsibly is liable for damages. Thus, if one person is running through the street and the other is walking, and the two people collide, the running person is liable, since that is considered acting irresponsibly. (There is an exception. The halacha acknowledges that someone is permitted to run through the streets late Friday afternoon, in order to complete his Shabbos preparations. Such running is not considered irresponsible.)

If both parties acted irresponsibly, the poskim dispute how we determine liability. Rashi (Bava Kamma 48b s.v. chayovin) rules that when the two parties collided into one another, each person is liable for the damage he did. Thus, if Levi and Yehudah collide, Levi is responsible for Yehudah’s injuries, and Yehudah for Levi’s.

Tosafos (Bava Kamma s.v. shenayim) disagrees, contending that in a case where both parties acted irresponsibly and the damage was accidental, neither party must pay for damages, since the damaged party also acted negligently. However, if someone injured or damaged intentionally, he must pay, even if the other party was negligent.

How do we pasken?

The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 378:7) rules like Rashi,whereas the Rema (421:8) rules like Tosafos.

Let us now apply the rules just mentioned to our case. By his own admission, Reuven made an illegal turn, which certainly qualifies as negligent driving. Thus, even if we accept Reuven’s claim that Shimon was speeding, it is still a case of both drivers acting irresponsibly. According to Rashi’s opinion, this would still make Reuven responsible for the damages to Shimon’s vehicle. In addition, Reuven would be responsible for the damage to the car he was driving, since he acted negligently. Reuven is claiming that Shimon should be responsible for those damages, a claim that he cannot substantiate.

According to Tosafos, Reuven is claiming that both parties contributed to the damage and that, therefore, he is not liable for the damages to Shimon’s vehicle. However, he would certainly be liable for the damages caused to the car that he was driving.

This is all assuming that we accept Reuven’s contention that Shimon was speeding. However, Reuven cannot prove that Shimon was speeding, and Shimon denies it. Since we know that Reuven made an illegal turn, the beis din ruled that Reuven acted negligently and is liable for the damage to both cars. Since there is no proof that Shimon was negligent, we cannot make any claim against him.

ACT V – EPILOGUE

Reuven was understandably disappointed with the beis din’s decision. However, as a G-d-fearing Jew, he knows that he is bound by their psak. Thankfully, there was only property damage involved, and he did not inadvertently suffer or cause any bodily harm. He now davens for Hashem’s help that he continue his driving career with no further incidents or accidents.

Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies of the 16th and 21st Centuries

This article will be devoted to an explanation of the various halachic underpinnings of the Sanhedrin, including:

  • What are the roles and responsibilities of the Sanhedrin?
  • What exactly is semicha, and why is it such a central factor in the creation of the Sanhedrin?
  • What attempts have been made in the last hundreds of years to reconvene a Sanhedrin and reestablish semicha?

WHAT IS THE SANHEDRIN?

The Sanhedrin, also called the Beis Din Hagadol, is the final authority on all matters of halacha. Their interpretation of Torah she’be’al peh is authoritative.

Any halachic issue that is questionable and disputed by lower batei din is referred to the Beis Din Hagadol for a binding decision.

The Sanhedrin also fulfills several vital political and administrative roles. It appoints the Jewish king, as well as the judges who serve on the courts of the shevatim and the cities. Each shevet and each city was required to have a Beis Din of 23 that the Sanhedrin appoints. Thus, the Sanhedrin is not only the supreme halacha authority, but it is also, quite literally, the “power behind the throne,” “the power behind the courts,” – and, at the same time, the court of final appeal. It has the final say in all matters, both temporal and spiritual.

There are several other halachos that require the participation or agreement of the Sanhedrin, including a decision to wage war and expanding the halachic boundaries of the Beis HaMikdash or of Yerushalayim (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1). (We are permitted to eat many holy items, including certain korbanos and maaser sheni, only in halachic Yerushalayim, which has nothing to do with its current municipal boundaries. Expanding the city requires a special procedure that includes participation of the Sanhedrin.)

In addition, several types of adjudication require the participation of the Sanhedrin, including prosecuting a false prophet, and the law of zakein mamrei, an elder who ruled against the Torah she’be’al peh (both taught in parshas Shoftim), the law of a city that went astray (ir hanidachas), the procedure of the and that of eglah arufah (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1).

The Sanhedrin is also in charge of supervising the Jewish calendar through the appointing of a specially-designated committee. (In the absence of a Sanhedrin or Beis Din Hagadol, Hillel Hanasi established a permanent calendar over 1500 years ago, so that the calendar can continue to exist even though we no longer have a Sanhedrin.)

WHERE AND WHEN DOES THE SANHEDRIN MEET?

The Sanhedrin was open daily in its main headquarters inside the Beis HaMikdash, called the lishkas hagazis. When they are involved in litigation, the entire Sanhedrin, consisting of 71 members,is present. When not in session, there must still always be 23 members of the Sanhedrin in the lishkah.

WHO QUALIFIES TO BE IN THE SANHEDRIN?

There are many technical requirements that all members must meet, but as a basic requirement they must all be superior talmidei chachamim and yirei shamayim (G-d fearing individuals). In addition, all members of the Sanhedrin — and indeed, of all the lower courts — must also receive the special semicha that Moshe bestowed upon Yehoshua, authorizing him to rule on all areas of Jewish law.

DOESN’T EVERY RABBI HAVE SEMICHA?

There are several levels of semicha. The most basic semicha, called yoreh yoreh, authorizes the recipient to rule on matters of kashrus and similar areas. A more advanced level of semicha, called yodin yodin, authorizes its recipient to rule as a dayan on financial matters. A still higher level, no longer obtainable today, is called yatir bechoros, which authorizes its recipient to rule on whether a first-born animal is blemished and therefore inappropriate to offer as a korban (see Sanhedrin 5a). This semicha permits the firstborn animal to be slaughtered and eaten.

There was also a qualitatively different type of semicha that could be obtained from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu until the time of the Gemara. This semicha authorized the recipient to rule on capital and corporal cases (chayavei misas Beis Din and malkus) and to judge kenasos, penalties set by the Torah. Only a Beis Din consisting exclusively of dayanim ordained with this semicha may judge whether a person receives lashes or the death penalty for his actions.

In earlier days, each city and shevet had its own Beis Din of 23 judges, all of whom were possessors of the highest level of semicha. In addition, all 71 members of the Sanhedrin must have this form of semicha.

HOW MANY DAYANIM GIVE OUT SEMICHA?

A single judge who is himself a musmach may grant semicha to as many qualified people as he chooses, although the grantor must be accompanied by two other people, who need not be musmachim themselves. Dovid HaMelech (himself an expert judge and tremendous talmid chacham) once granted 30,000 semichos in one day (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin, 4:7)!! Semicha that was granted to someone who is not an expert in all areas of halacha is not valid (Meiri, Sanhedrin 14a).

This special semicha must be issued within Eretz Yisroel. Thus, even if a talmid chacham is highly qualified, he may not receive semicha unless the grantor of the semicha and the recipient are both in Eretz Yisroel (Sanhedrin 14a). For this reason, most of the Amora’im, the great talmidei chachamim of the times of the Gemara, never received this semicha, because they lived in Bavel, not in Eretz Yisroel.

THE STORY OF RAV YEHUDA BEN BAVA

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 13b) tells us the following fascinating story which took place during the extreme persecutions that followed the failure of the Bar Cochva revolt: The Roman Empire once decreed that issuing semicha was a serious crime, punishable by death for both the grantor and the recipient. Furthermore, they ruled that the town in which the semicha was issued would be destroyed, and the areas near it would be razed.

After the execution of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava realized that he was one of the last musmachim (recipients of this special semicha) still alive. If he failed to grant semicha to some young scholars, the semicha would terminate with his own death. He therefore endangered himself and granted semicha to five surviving disciples of Rabbi Akiva: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Yehudah ben Ila’i, Rabbi Yosi ben Chalafta, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua – basically, to an entire generation of Torah leadership. In order not to endanger anyone else, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava brought them to a place that was midway between two major cities and between two mountains. Thus, for the Romans to fulfill their decree they would need to level two mountains.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava succeeded in his mission, although he paid for it with his life. Because of his supreme sacrifice, the semicha continued among the Jewish people for several more generations.

With the increased persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the Jewish population of Eretz Yisroel dwindled, and with time, ordination through this semicha ended. Thus, no one received the semicha that qualifies someone to judge capital, corporal, or kenasos cases, and this aspect of halachic life came to an end.

CAN SEMICHA BE REINSTITUTED?

The Rambam writes: “It appears to me that if all the chachamim in Eretz Yisroel agree to appoint dayanim and grant them semicha, they have the law of musmachim, and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant semicha to others… a person who received semicha from someone who already has semicha does not require authorization from all of them – he may judge penalty cases for everyone, since he received semicha from Beis Din. However, this matter requires a final decision” (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11).

Thus, the Rambam suggested a method whereby the semicha can be re-created. However, several issues need to be clarified before this project can be implemented:

1. Did the Rambam conclude that this is the halacha, or is it merely a suggestion he is conjecturing? Don’t his final words, “However, this matter requires a final decision,” imply that he was uncertain about his suggestion and that he deferred making a final decision regarding this issue?

2. Assuming, unlike our previous sentence, that the Rambam ruled definitely that semicha can be reinstituted, did he require, literally, all of the Chachamim in Eretz Yisroel to agree, or does a majority suffice? Must the rabbonim be assembled all in one place, or is it sufficient if they are aware of the process and grant their approval?

3. Is the Rambam’s opinion on this subject universally held? And if not, do we rule like him?

THE 16th CENTURY CONTROVERSY– REINTRODUCING SEMICHA

After the Spanish expulsion, many Jews remained in Spain, practicing their Judaism in secret, while publicly appearing to be Christians. Thousands of these Marrano Jews, also often called by the Spanish term conversos or the Hebrew word, anusim, eventually escaped to areas where they could return to the religion of their fathers, yet they were haunted by the transgressions they had committed on Spanish soil. Many were concerned that they would never escape the specter of their more serious aveiros, many of which carried the punishment of kareis. Although they had become true ba’alei teshuvah, they lived in fear of their ultimate day of judgment, when they would have to provide a reckoning for their actions and face the serious consequences.

THE SOLUTION

The Mahari Beirav, Rav of Tzefas in the early sixteenth century, came up with a solution to the problem of these ba’alei teshuvah. He proposed the creation of batei din that could carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases a person from the punishment of kareis (Mishnah Makos 23a).

There was one serious problem with this proposal. In order to create batei din that can administer these punishments, one must have dayanim who have received a special semicha that can be traced to Moshe Rabbeinu. Since this semicha had terminated over a thousand years before, the Mahari Beirav needed a method of reintroducing the semicha.

TZEFAS, 5298 (1538)

In  5298 (1538), 25 gedolim of Tzefas, at the time the largest Torah community in Eretz Yisroel, granted semicha to the Mahari Beirav, based on the writings of the Rambam (Peirush Hamishnayos, Sanhedrin 1:3; Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11). He then ordained four people with the new semicha, including Rav Yosef Karo, who had already written his monumental works Kesef Mishneh and Beis Yosef, and later authored the Shulchan Aruch, and Rav Moshe diTrani, the author of several major halacha works, including Beis Elokim, Kiryas Sefer, and Shu’t Mabit. Mahari Beirav also sent a semicha to the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Levi ibn Chaviv, known as the Maharalbach, who he assumed would be delighted to receive such a wonderful gift!

The Maharalbach was not happy with the gift and refused to accept the semicha. He took strong issue with their granting semicha, for the following several reasons:

1. The Rambam’s closing words, “This matter requires a final decision,” shows that he was not fully decided on this halacha, and therefore it cannot be relied upon.

2. The Ramban (Sefer Hamitzvos, Aseh 153) disagrees with the Rambam, contending that semicha can not be reinstituted until Moshiach arrives. Thus, since the Rambam was uncertain about this halacha, and the Ramban was certain that there is no such thing, the halacha follows the Ramban.

3. Even if we assume that the Rambam meant this ruling to be definitive, the Tzefas rabbonim had not fulfilled the procedure correctly, since all the gedolim of Eretz Yisroel must be together in one synod. (This opinion is actually mentioned earlier by the Meiri, Sanhedrin 14a.)

Furthermore, the Maharalbach insisted that all the scholars must be involved in the active debate and that all must agree. He also contended that even if someone holds that a majority of gedolim is sufficient, the minority must be aware of the debate and participate in it. He further contended that creating such a synod after the fact would not help, since, once the Tzefas rabbonim had ordained the Mahari Beirav, they now have a bias in their ruling (noge’a bedin), which invalidates their opinion on the subject.

The Maharalbach proved his opinion, that the Rambam’s suggestion was not accepted as normative halacha, from the fact that there had been numerous opportunities for gedolei Yisroel to create semicha, and yet, they refrained from doing so. The Maharalbach concludes that semicha will not exist again until the arrival of Moshiach.

WHAT ABOUT THE MARRANOS?

As for the ba’alei teshuvah that would be left without release from their kareis, the Maharalbach pointed out that if they performed sincere teshuvah, they would be forgiven for their sins, no matter how severe they were. Although it is possible that they may suffer somewhat in this world for these aveiros, despite their teshuvah, they would receive no punishment for their aveiros in the next world (Makos 13b).

On the other hand, the Maharalbach pointed out that he did not understand how semicha could accomplish what Mahari Beirav wanted, anyway, since Beis Din cannot punish someone for violating the Torah, unless several requirements are met, including:

The sinner must receive a warning, immediately prior to his violating the commandment, telling him that he is sinning, explaining to him that what he is planning to do is wrong, and informing him what punishment he will receive if he sins. The sinner must acknowledge that he heard and understood the warning, and then perform the sin, anyway. Furthermore, Beis Din does not punish a sinner unless two adult male Jews witness the entire procedure and then testify in front of Beis Din. Clearly, none of these Marranos had received warning prior to performing the aveiros, and, therefore, they were not punishable with malkus in Beis Din. Thus, how would these ba’alei teshuvah receive the malkus they desire, even if dayanim musmachim exist?

We will continue this article next week.

How Does Someone Convert to Judaism?

When our ancestors accepted responsibility to observe the Torah, they did so by performing bris milah, immersing in a mikveh, and offering a korban. In the same way, a non-Jew who chooses to join the Jewish people is entering the same covenant and must follow a similar procedure (Kerisus 9a).

The privilege of becoming a geir tzedek comes with very exact and exacting guidelines. On a technical level, the geir is accepting responsibility to perform mitzvos. Through the geirus procedure, he creates an obligation upon himself to observe mitzvos (Birchas Shmuel, Kiddushin #15).

DEFINITION OF A JEW

To the non-Jewish or non-observant world, the definition of a Jew is based on sociological criteria. But to the Torah Jew, the definition of a Jew is someone who is a member of a people who are obligated to fulfill all of the Torah’s commandments. For this reason, it is axiomatic that no one can become Jewish without first accepting the responsibility to observe mitzvos (kabbalas mitzvos). This concept, so obvious to the Torah Jew, is almost never appreciated by the non-observant. Someone who does not (yet) observe mitzvos himself usually does not appreciate why observing mitzvos is imperative to becoming Jewish. This is why a not-yet-observant Jew often finds our requirements for giyur to be “unrealistic” or even “intolerant.” However, in reality, attempting to bend the Torah’s rules reflects intolerance, or, more exactly, a lack of understanding. The Torah Jew realizes that the basic requirement for becoming a Jew is accepting Hashem’s commandments, since a Jew is, by definition, someone who is committed to leading his life in its every detail according to the laws of the Torah.

DISCOURAGE CONVERTS

As we all know, when someone requests to be converted to Judaism, we discourage him. As the Gemara (Yevamos 47a) says, if a potential convert comes, we ask him, “Why do you want to convert? Don’t you know that Jews are persecuted and dishonored? Constant suffering is their lot! Why do you want to join such a people?”

Why do we discourage a sincere non-Jew from joining Jewish ranks? Shouldn’t we encourage someone to undertake such a noble endeavor?

The reason is that, even if the potential convert is sincerely motivated, we still want to ascertain that he or she can persevere to keep the mitzvos, even under adversity. Although we can never be certain what the future will bring, by making the path to conversion difficult, we are helping the potential convert who might later regret his conversion, when the going gets rough. Because of this rationale, some batei din deliberately make it difficult for a potential convert, as a method of discouraging him. As the Gemara explains, we tell him, “Until now you received no punishment if you did not keep kosher. There was no punishment if you failed to observe Shabbos. If you become Jewish, you will receive very severe punishments for not keeping kosher or Shabbos!” (Yevamos 47a)

I have used a different method of discouragement, by informing potential converts of the seven mitzvos bnei Noach. In so doing, I point out that they can merit olam haba without becoming obligated to keep all the Torah’s mitzvos. In this way, I hope to make them responsible, moral non-Jews, without their becoming Jewish.

I once met a woman who was enthusiastically interested in becoming Jewish. Although she was living in a town with no Jewish community – she was keeping a kosher home!

After I explained the mitzvos of bnei Noach to her, she insisted that this was not enough for her. She wanted to be fully Jewish.

Because of her enthusiasm, I expected to hear from her again. I was wrong. Perhaps her tremendous enthusiasm petered out. Alternatively, and more likely, she found a different way to consider herself Jewish, either on the basis of her grandfather’s Judaism, or a “conversion” that was more “flexible.”

Had we accepted her for conversion immediately, she would have become a sinning Jew, instead of a very observant non-Jew, which is what she is now. These are the exact issues that Chazal were concerned about. Therefore, they told us to make it difficult for someone to become Jewish, to see whether his or her commitment survives adversity. It was better that this woman’s enthusiasm waned before she became Jewish than after she became Jewish and had no way out.

The following story from my personal experience is unfortunately very common. A gentile woman, eager to marry an observant Jewish man, agreed to fulfill all the mitzvos as a requirement for her conversion. (As we will point out shortly, this is not a recommended procedure.) Although she seemed initially very excited about observing mitzvos, with time she began to lose interest. In the end, she gave up observance completely. The unfortunate result is that she is now a chotei Yisrael (a Jew who sins).

MOTIVATION FOR CONVERTING

We must ascertain that the proposed convert wants to become Jewish for the correct reasons. If we discern or suspect that there is an ulterior reason to convert, we do not accept the potential convert, even if he is committed to observing all the mitzvos.

For this reason, converts are not accepted at times when there is political, financial, or social gain in being Jewish. For example, no converts were accepted in the days of Mordechai and Esther, nor in the times of Dovid and Shelomoh, nor will geirim be accepted in the era of the Moshiach. During such times, we suspect that the convert is somewhat motivated by the financial or political advantages in being Jewish (Yevamos 24b). This applies even if we are certain that he will observe all the mitzvos.

Despite this rule, unlearned Jews created “batei din” during the reign of Dovid HaMelech and accepted converts against the wishes of the beis din hagadol (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:15). There is much literature on whether these geirim are accepted, but, if indeed their conversion was sincere and afterward it is obvious that this is true, they will be accepted.

The Rambam explains that the “non-Jewish” wives that Shlomoh married were really insincere converts. In his words, “In the days of Shlomoh, converts were not accepted by the official batei din…however, Shlomoh converted women and married them…and it was known that they converted for ulterior reasons and not through the official batei din. For this reason, the pasuk refers to them as non-Jews…furthermore, the end bears out that they worshipped idols and built altars to them” (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:15-16).

Because of this rule, we do not accept someone who is converting because he or she wants to marry someone who is Jewish, even if the convert is absolutely willing to observe all the mitzvos (Yevamos 24b). I have seen numerous instances of non-Jews who converted primarily for marriage and who agreed to keep all the mitzvos at the time of the conversion. Even in the instances where mitzvos were indeed observed initially, I have seen very few situations where mitzvos were still being observed a few years (or even months) later.

GEIRUS WITH IMPROPER MOTIVATION

What is the halachic status of someone who went through the geirus process for the wrong reasons; for example, they converted because they wanted to marry someone?

If the convert followed all the procedures, including full acceptance of all the mitzvos, the conversion is valid, even though we disapprove of what was done. If the convert remains faithful to Jewish observance, we will treat him with all the respect due to a Jew. However, before reaching a decision as to his status, the beis din waits a while, to see whether the convert is indeed fully committed to living a Jewish life (Rambam, Issurei Bi’ah 13:15-18).

However, someone who is not committed to mitzvah observance and just goes through the procedures has not become Jewish at all.

Jim was interested in “converting to Judaism” because his wife was Jewish, and not because he was interested in observing mitzvos. At first, he went to a Rav who explained that he must observe all the mitzvos, and certainly they must live within a frum community. This was not what Jim had in mind, so he went shopping for a “rabbi” who would meet his standards. Who would believe that there is any validity to this conversion?

CONVERSION PROCESS

How does a non-Jew become Jewish? As mentioned above, Klal Yisrael joined Hashem’s covenant with three steps: bris milah (for males), immersion in a mikveh, and offering a korban (Kerisus 9a). Since no korbanos are brought today, the convert becomes a geir without fulfilling this mitzvah. (We derive from a pasuk that geirim are accepted even in generations that do not have a Beis HaMikdash.) However, when the Beis HaMikdash is iy”H rebuilt, every geir will be required to offer a korban olah which is completely burnt on the mizbei’ach (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:5). Those who have already become geirim will become obligated to bring this korban at that time.

Besides these three steps, the convert must accept all the mitzvos, just as the Jews originally took upon themselves the responsibility to observe all the mitzvos.

Preferably, each step in the geirus procedure should be witnessed by a beis din. Some poskim contend that the bris and tevilah are valid even if not witnessed by a beis din. But all poskim agree that if the kabbalas (accepting) mitzvos does not take place in the presence of a beis din, the conversion is invalid (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:3). Thus, a minimal requirement for proper giyur (conversion) is that the geir’s commitment to observe all the mitzvos and practices of a Jew be made in the presence of a kosher beis din. Any “conversion” with no commitment to mitzvos is, by definition, invalid and without any halachic foundation.

Unfortunately, some well-intentioned converts have been misled by people purporting to be batei din for geirus. I know of more than one situation in which people underwent four different conversion procedures, until they performed a geirus in the presence of a kosher beis din with proper kabbalas mitzvos!

KABBALAS MITZVOS

As mentioned above, kabbalas mitzvos is a verbalized acceptance to observe all the Torah’s mitzvos. We do not accept a convert who states that he is accepting all the mitzvos of the Torah except for one (Bechoros 30b). Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses a woman who was interested in converting and was willing to fulfill all the mitzvos, except the requirements to dress in a halachically tzenuah manner. Rav Moshe rules that it is questionable if her geirus is valid (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3:106).

If the potential convert states that he/she accepts responsibility to fulfill all the mitzvos, we usually assume that the geirus is valid. However, what is the halacha if a person declares that he accepts the mitzvos, but his behavior indicates the opposite? For example, what happens if the convert eats non-kosher food or desecrates Shabbos immediately following his conversion procedure? Is he considered Jewish?

Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that, when it is clear that the person never intended to observe mitzvos, the conversion is invalid. The person remains a non-Jew, since he never undertook kabbalas mitzvos, which is the most important component of geirus (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:157; 3:106).

BEIS DIN

As mentioned before, conversion is an act that requires a proper beis din, meaning minimally, three fully observant male Jews.

Since a beis din cannot perform a legal function at night or on Shabbos or Yom Tov, conversions cannot be performed at these times (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:4).

CHILD CONVERSION

Until now we have discussed the conversion of adults. A child can also be converted to Judaism (Kesubos 11a). There are two common reasons why this is done: either when the child’s parents are converting to Judaism, or when a non-Jewish child is adopted by Jewish parents.

The conversion of a child involves an interesting question. As we explained above, the convert’s acceptance of the mitzvos is the main factor that makes him into a Jew. However, since a child is too young to assume legal obligations and responsibilities, how can his conversion be valid when it is without a legal acceptance of mitzvos?

The answer is that we know that children can be converted from the historical precedent of Sinai, where the Jewish people accepted the Torah and mitzvos. Among them were thousands of children who also joined the covenant and became part of klal Yisrael. When these children became adults, they became responsible to keep mitzvos (Tosafos, Sanhedrin 68b). Thus, in the case of giyur katan, the geirus process consists of bris milah and immersion in a mikvah.

There is, however, a qualitative difference between a child who becomes part of the covenant together with his parents and an adopted child who is becoming Jewish without his birth parents. In the former case the parent assumes responsibility for the child’s decision (Kesubos 11a; Rashi, Yevamos 48a s.v. eved), whereas an adoptive parent cannot assume this role in the conversion process. Instead, the beis din supervising the geirus acts as the child’s surrogate parents and assumes responsibility for his geirus. This same approach is used if a child comes of his own volition and requests to be converted (Mordechai, Yevamos 4:40).

CAN THE CHILD REJECT THIS DECISION?

Yes. If the child convert decides upon reaching maturity that he does not want to be Jewish, he invalidates his conversion and reverts to being a gentile. The age at which a child can make this decision is when he or she becomes obligated to observe mitzvos, twelve for a girl and thirteen for a boy (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:162).

CAN HE CHANGE HIS MIND LATER IN LIFE?

No. Once the child achieves maturity and is living an observant lifestyle, this is considered an acceptance of the conversion that cannot be rejected afterwards.

WHAT IF THE CHILD CONVERT WAS UNAWARE THAT HE WAS A GEIR AND DID NOT KNOW THAT HE HAD THE OPTION?

Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses the case of a couple that adopted a non-Jewish child but did not want to tell him that he was adopted. (Not telling the child he is adopted may be inadvisable for psychological reasons, but this is an article on halacha, not psychology.) Rav Moshe raises the following halachic reason why the parents should tell the child that he is a convert. Assuming that the child knows he is a child convert, he has the option to accept or reject his Judaism when turning bar mitzvah (or bas mitzvah for a girl), which is a time that the parents have much influence on their child. Subsequent to this time, he cannot opt out of Judaism. However, if he does not discover that he is a convert until he becomes an adult, he would have the option at that time to accept or reject his Judaism, and the parents have limited influence on his decision.

WHAT IF THE CHILD WANTS TO BE A NON-OBSERVANT JEW?

What is the halacha if the child at age thirteen wants to be Jewish, but does not want to be observant?

There is a dispute among poskim whether this constitutes a rejection of one’s conversion. Some contend that not observing mitzvos is not the same as rejecting conversion; the conversion is only undone if the child does not want to be Jewish. Others contend that not observing mitzvos is considered an abandonment of one’s being Jewish.

Many years ago I asked my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Kulefsky zt”l, about the following situation. A boy underwent a giyur katan and was raised by non-observant “traditional” parents who kept a kosher home but did not observe Shabbos. The boy wanted to be Jewish without being observant, just like his adoptive parents. The family wanted to celebrate his bar mitzvah in an Orthodox shul and have the boy read from the Torah. Was this permitted or was the boy considered non-Jewish?

Rav Kulefsky, zt”l, paskened that the boy could read from the Torah and was considered halachically Jewish. Other poskim disagree, contending that being halachically Jewish requires acknowledging the mitzvos we must perform. Someone who rejects the mitzvos thereby rejects the concept of being Jewish.

GEIRIM ARE SPECIAL

If a potential geir persists in his determination to join the Jewish people, the beis din will usually recommend a program whereby he can learn about Judaism and set him on track for giyur. A geir tzedek should be treated with tremendous love and respect. Indeed, the Torah gives us a special mitzvah to “Love the Geir,” and we daven for them daily in our Shmoneh Esrei!

Throughout the years, I have met many sincere geirim and have been truly impressed by their dedication to Torah and mitzvos. Hearing about the journey to find truth that brought them to Judaism is usually fascinating. What would cause a gentile to join the Jewish people, risk confronting the brunt of anti-Semitism, while at the same time being uncertain that Jews will accept him?  Sincere converts are drawn by the truth of Torah and a desire to be part of the Chosen People. They know that they can follow the will of Hashem by doing seven mitzvos, but they insist on choosing an all-encompassing Torah lifestyle.

One sincere young woman, of Oriental background, stood firmly before the beis din. “Why would you want this?” questioned the Rav.

“Because it is truth and gives my life meaning.”

“There are many rules to follow,” he cautioned.

“I know. I have been following them meticulously for two years,” was the immediate reply. “I identify with the Jews.”

After further questioning, the beis din authorized her geirus, offering her two dates convenient for them. She chose the earlier one, so she could keep one extra Shabbos.

We should learn from the geir to observe our mitzvos every day with tremendous excitement – just as if we had received them for the first time!

Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies of the 16th to 21st Centuries, Part II

This is the continuation of the article I sent out last week. Although the news story for which this was written is no longer a hot topic, the halachic information is still germane and relates directly to Parshas Ki Seitzei.

In part I of this article, we explained that the Sanhedrin, which is also called the Beis Din Hagadol, is the final authority on all matters of halacha and that the interpretation by its 71 members of Torah shebe’al peh is both exclusive and authoritative. Any halachic issue that is questionable and disputed by a lower beis din is referred to the Beis Din Hagadol for a binding decision. We also noted that the Sanhedrin fulfills several vital political and administrative roles, including the appointment of the Jewish King and the judges who serve on the courts of the tribes (the shevatim) and the cities. Furthermore, many other halachos require the participation or agreement of the Sanhedrin, including a decision to wage war, or any attempt to expand the boundaries of the Beis HaMikdash or of the city of Yerushalayim (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1). Thus, the Sanhedrin is not only the supreme authority in matters of halacha, but it is also, quite literally, the “power behind the throne,” “the power behind the courts,” – and, at the same time, the court of final appeal. It has the final say in all matters, both worldly and spiritual. The Sanhedrin is also in charge of supervising the Jewish calendar through the appointment of a specially-designated committee. (In the absence of a Sanhedrin or Beis Din Hagadol, Hillel Hanasi established a calendar over 1500 years ago, so that the calendar can continue to exist, even during the interim that there is no Sanhedrin.

We also noted that among the many technical requirements that all members of the Sanhedrin must meet, there is a basic one: they must all be superior talmidei chachamim and G-d fearing individuals. In addition, all members of the Sanhedrin and, indeed, of all the lower courts must also receive the special semicha that Moshe bestowed upon Yehoshua, authorizing him to rule on all areas of Jewish law. We noted that there are several levels of semicha, and that all members of the Sanhedrin are required to have the highest level of semicha –one that authorizes its recipient to rule on capital and corporal cases (chayavei misas beis din and malkus) and to judge kenasos, penalties that the Torah invoked. This semicha can only be given to someone who is an expert in all areas of halacha.

We also studied the question as to whether the semicha can be reintroduced by us, and the controversy that developed in the 16th century about this matter. We noted that the conclusion was that the attempt to reintroduce the semicha then was not accepted on halachic grounds, for several different reasons. One of those reasons  was that the person receiving semicha must be a talmid chacham with the scholarship to rule on any subject in Torah.

How, then, will the Sanhedrin be reestablished?

The Radbaz, gadol hador of that generation, concluded either that Eliyahu HaNavi will issue semicha to others, as the harbinger of Moshiach’s arrival; or, that descendents of shevet Reuven may reappear who have semicha. A third option he suggests is that Moshiach, himself, will grant semicha and thus create a Beis Din Hagadol.

At this point, we continue our discussion:

SEARCHING FOR SEMICHA IN THE 1830’S

In the 1830’s, a leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon who had settled in Yerushalayim, Rav Yisroel of Shklov, made another attempt to restart semicha. Rav Yisroel was interested in organizing a Sanhedrin, but he accepted the ruling of the Maharalbach and the Radbaz that we cannot create semicha by ourselves. Instead, he decided to utilize the suggestion of the Radbaz of receiving semicha from the tribes of Reuven. Rav Yisroel charted out where he thought the Bnei Reuven were probably located, and sent a certain Rav Baruch, as his emissary, to find them (see Sefer Halikutim, in the “Shabsei Frankel” edition of Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11). Unfortunately, Rav Baruch did not succeed in locating the shevet of Reuven, and the plan came to naught.

It should be noted that Rav Yisroel raised the following question: How could the Bnei Reuven have kept the semicha alive, considering the fact that they were outside Eretz Yisroel and the semicha can be granted only in Eretz Yisroel? He answered that since the Bnei Reuven had been distant from the rest of Klal Yisroel before the decision that semicha can be only in Eretz Yisroel had been accepted, there is no reason to assume that they accepted this ruling, and they were probably still issuing semicha!! It is odd that Rav Yisroel assumed that although we paskin that semicha can be given and received only in Eretz Yisroel, he still held that a semicha granted outside Eretz Yisroel is, nonetheless, valid.

Rav Yisroel’s vain search to locate a musmach was an attempt to reintroduce the Sanhedrin, a far more ambitious plan than the Mahari Beirav had considered. Apparently, Rav Yisroel understood from the Gemara (Eruvin 43b) that the Sanhedrin must exist before Eliyahu can appear, a position that almost all poskim reject, as we pointed out above.

NAPOLEON’S SANHEDRIN

In 5567 (1807), Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, decreed the opening of what he called “The Sanhedrin,” consisting of 71 Jewish leaders, mostly Rabbonim, but including many communal leaders, many not religious.

This group had nothing to do with being a Sanhedrin other than that Napoleon had given them this name. Napoleon presented this group with a list of 12 inquiries to answer, all of which questioned whether the Jews were loyal to the French Empire and its laws, and about the interactions between Jews and non-Jewish Frenchmen. Of course, the “Sanhedrin” had to be very careful how they answered Napoleon’s questions to make sure that they were not guilty of treason. This Sanhedrin met many times in the course of about a year and then disbanded. It was never called into session again.

THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Those who call their modern organization the “Sanhedrin” base themselves on the Mahari Beirav’s opinion that we can recreate semicha today, based on the acceptance of most of the gedolei Yisroel. On this basis, they claim to have created semicha for one of the well-known poskim in Eretz Yisroel, who subsequently ordained a few others, who have ordained yet others, until they now claim several hundred “musmachim.

I spoke to one of the “dayanim” of the “Sanhedrin” about the procedure used to appoint their musmachim. He told me that the organization mailed letters to every shul and settlement in Israel requesting appointment of a certain well-respected Rav as musmach. They then counted the votes of those who responded and approved of their appointment. Since most of those who responded approved of the appointment, they have ruled that this Rav is now a musmach whose semicha qualifies people to serve on the Sanhedrin! To quote this “dayan,” “those who chose not to respond do not count. We have a majority of those who responded!?!”

Obviously, this system carries absolutely no halachic validity according to any opinion.

When I spoke to the “dayan,” he asked me if I was interested in becoming one of their musmachim. He told me that he would send me the information necessary for an appointment with their committee that approves musmachim. Consequently, I received a letter inviting me to the next meeting of their “Sanhedrin,” and a note that they had asked one of their members about me and, upon that basis, they were preparing a semicha with which to present me at the next meeting of the “Sanhedrin”!! I noted above that the Radbaz ruled that the person receiving semicha must be a talmid chacham with the scholarship to rule on any subject in Torah. Since I do not qualify for semicha on that basis, I am curious what criteria they are applying to determine a minimum standard for semicha. Unfortunately, I think I know the answer.

The group behind this “Sanhedrin” often implies that several different gedolim are behind their activities. This is highly misleading, since these gedolim refuse to be identified with this group’s activities. Any Jewish organization built upon falsehood is doomed to failure, even if it is well intentioned, since the Torah is Toras Emes.

When I spoke to the “dayan,” I told him that I had some questions about the halachic basis for their procedures. He answered that they prefer to reply to questions in writing, and he requested that I send my letters via e-mail. He promised that they would answer all my inquiries quickly. In a subsequent conversation, he told me that he had received my initial inquiry. I sent him two respectful letters, one asking several halachic questions about their procedures, the second asking for verification that some of the gedolim they have quoted have, indeed, endorsed their position. Although I sent each of these requests to them twice, I never received any reply from them.

Moreover, there are some serious issues that this “Sanhedrin” is delegating to itself. If I might quote from a list of their activities:

“Among the many topics the Sanhedrin intends to address are the bridging of the divisions between various communities of Jewish exiles who have returned to Israel; the establishment of authentic techeilet, the biblical blue thread Jews are commanded to wear amongst the fringes attached to four-cornered garments; the definition of the measurement of the ‘amah’ (the biblical cubit); the determination of the exact point of human death, so as to deal with the Jewish ethics of euthanasia; and the issue of agunot — women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce.”

I would like to point out that all these issues have been or are being dealt with by Klal Yisroel’s gedolei haposkim. (In other articles, I explained why most gedolei haposkim rejected the suggested sources of the techeiles dye.)

Recently, the group has gotten involved in several really serious issues. Apparently, they are exploring the location of the mizbeiach, the possibility of offering korban Pesach, and of appointing a king from the descendants of Dovid Hamelech. One of their meetings was, apparently, conducted on the Har Habayis itself! (Please note that most poskim prohibit ascending the Har Habayis.) The discussion about bringing korbanos is a well-trodden halachic discourse and, here also, all gedolei poskim have ruled that we cannot offer korbanos now. (Again, I refer the reader to an article on this subject that is available on this site.)

Based on what I have seen about this “Sanhedrin,” I pose the following questions to the reader:

Are the members of this “Sanhedrin” qualified to make decisions that affect Klal Yisroel? Are they qualified to make any halachic decisions at all? Is this not an attempt at arrogating halachic decisions from the Gedolei Yisroel and the Gedolei Haposkim? Are these the people who should be determining Klal Yisroel’s agenda? Doesn’t this organization cheapen the kedusha that the word Sanhedrin implies? Isn’t this organization an insult to anyone with Torah sensitivities?

The Gedolei Yisroel could organize a Sanhedrin today, if they considered it halachically acceptable. Clearly, they are of the opinion that the halachic foundation for such a move does not exist or, alternatively, that Klal Yisroel will not benefit from its creation.

We should all daven with more kavanah when reciting the bracha Hoshiva shofeteinu kivarishonah, “Return our judges like the ones we had originally,” as a result of Teka bishofar gadol licheiruseinu, “Blow the Great Shofar that will free us.”

Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies of the 16th to 21st Centuries, Part I

This article was written a number of years ago. Although the news story for which it was written is no longer a hot topic, the halachic background included is still very germane and relates directly to Parshas Shoftim.

The Anglo-Jewish press has been carrying occasional coverage of a group in Eretz Yisroel that calls itself “The Sanhedrin,” a group of 71 rabbis convened in Teverya claiming that they had the semicha necessary to create a Sanhedrin as specified by the Rambam. The group chose Teverya because the original Sanhedrin last met there. The “semicha” that they received was based on a semicha granted to one well-known talmid chacham who had received semicha from “many prominent rabbis.” In the opinion of those organizing this “Sanhedrin,” this talmid chacham is now considered to have received semicha as handed down from Moshe Rabbeinu, and, therefore, he is now qualified to give this level of semicha to the others. The goal of the group is to have a body of rabbis who convene and issue rulings on pressing issues relevant to Klal Yisroel. The issues that the group plans to discuss and rule upon are: how to unify Jewish practice across the spectrum, to determine and reestablish halachic techeiles, to define the measure of an amah, to find ways to deal with agunos, to determine precisely the point of human death, so as to deal with issues of euthanasia, and to find a way to offer the Korban Pesach once again.

This group’s claims have generated some serious halachic issues pertaining to what the poskim have written about how the semicha and the Sanhedrin will be reestablished.

This article will be devoted to an explanation of the various halachic underpinnings of the Sanhedrin, including:

What are the roles and responsibilities of the Sanhedrin?

What exactly is semicha, and why is it such a central factor in the creation of the Sanhedrin?

What attempts have been made throughout history to reconvene a Sanhedrin and reestablish semicha?

Does this new organization fulfill its title?

WHAT IS THE SANHEDRIN?

The Sanhedrin, also called the Beis Din Hagadol, is the final authority on all matters of halacha. Their interpretation of Torah shebe’al peh is authoritative.

Any halachic issue that is questionable and disputed by the lower batei din is referred to the Beis din Hagadol for a binding decision.

The Sanhedrin also fulfills several vital political and administrative roles. It appoints the Jewish King, as well as the judges who serve on the courts of the tribes (the shevatim) and the cities. Each shevet and each city was required to have a beis din of 23 that the Sanhedrin appoints. Thus, the Sanhedrin is not only the supreme halachic authority but it is also, quite literally, the “power behind the throne,” “the power behind the courts,” and, at the same time, the court of final appeal. It has the final say in all matters, both worldly and spiritual.

Many other halachos require the participation or agreement of the Sanhedrin, including a decision to wage war and expanding the boundaries of the Beis HaMikdash or of Yerushalayim (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1). (We are permitted to eat many holy items, including certain korbanos and maaser sheini, only in halachic Yerushalayim, which has nothing to do with its current municipal boundaries. Expanding the city requires a special procedure that includes participation of the Sanhedrin.)

In addition, several types of adjudication require the participation of the Sanhedrin, including the laws of eglah arufah, and prosecuting a false prophet, a city that went astray (ir hanidachas), a sotah, and a zakein mamrei, an elder who ruled against the Torah shebe’al peh (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1).

The Sanhedrin is also in charge of supervising the Jewish calendar, through the appointment of a specially-designated committee. (In the absence of a Sanhedrin or Beis din Hagadol, Hillel Hanasi established a calendar over 1500 years ago, so that the calendar can continue to exist even during the interim that there is no Sanhedrin.)

WHERE AND WHEN DOES THE SANHEDRIN MEET?

The Sanhedrin was open daily in its main headquarters, called the lishkas hagazis, inside the Beis HaMikdash. When they are involved in litigation, the entire Sanhedrin is present. When not in session, there must still always be 23 members of the Sanhedrin in the lishkah.

WHO QUALIFIES TO BE IN THE SANHEDRIN?

There are many technical requirements that all members must meet, but as a basic requirement, they must all be superior talmidei chachamim and yirei shamayim (G-d fearing individuals). In addition, all members of the Sanhedrin, and indeed, of all the lower courts, must also receive the special semicha that Moshe bestowed upon Yehoshua, authorizing him to rule on all areas of Jewish law.

DOESN’T EVERY RABBI HAVE SEMICHA?

There are several levels of semicha. The most basic semicha, called yoreh yoreh, authorizes the recipient to rule on matters of kashrus and similar areas. A more advanced level of semicha, called yodin yodin, authorizes its recipient to rule as a dayan on financial matters. A higher level, no longer obtainable today, is called yatir bechoros and authorizes its recipient to rule on whether a first-born animal is blemished and no longer appropriate to offer as a korban (see Sanhedrin 5a).

There was also a qualitative different type of semicha that could be obtained from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu until the time of the Gemara. This semicha authorized the recipient to rule on capital and corporal cases (chayavei misas beis din and malkus) and to judge kenasos, penalties that the Torah mandates. Only a beis din consisting exclusively of dayanim ordained with this semicha may judge whether a person receives lashes or the death penalty for his actions.

In earlier days, each city and shevet had its own beis din of 23 judges, all of whom were possessors of the highest level of semicha. In addition, all 71 members of the Sanhedrin must have this form of semicha.

HOW MANY DAYANIM GIVE OUT SEMICHA?

The highest level of semicha may be granted by a single judge who is, himself, a musmach of this level, although the grantor must be accompanied by two other people, who need not be musmachim themselves. He may grant semicha to as many qualified people as he chooses, The Gemara records that Dovid HaMelech (himself an expert judge and tremendous talmid chacham) once granted 30,000 semichos in one day!! However, semicha given by anyone is valid only when it is granted to someone who is an expert in all areas of halacha. Semicha given to a person who is not expert in all areas of halacha is not valid (Meiri, Sanhedrin 14a).

This highest level of semicha must be issued within Eretz Yisroel. Thus, even if a talmid chacham is highly qualified, he may not receive semicha unless the grantor of the semicha and the recipient are both in Eretz Yisroel (Sanhedrin 14a). For this reason, most of the Amora’im, the great talmidei chachamim of the times of the Gemara, never received this semicha, because they lived in Bavel and not in Eretz Yisroel.

THE STORY OF RAV YEHUDA BEN BAVA

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 13b) tells us the following fascinating story: The Roman Empire once decreed that issuing semicha was a serious crime, punishable by death for both the grantor and the recipient. Furthermore, they ruled that the town in which the semicha was issued would be destroyed, and the areas near it would be razed.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava realized that he was one of the last musmachim (recipients of this special semicha) alive after the execution of Rabbi Akiva, and that if he failed to grant semicha to some young scholars, the semicha would terminate. He therefore endangered himself and granted semicha to five surviving disciples of Rabbi Akiva: Rabbi Meir (the author of the original draft of the Mishnah), Rabbi Shimon (ben Yochai, author of the Zohar), Rabbi Yehudah (ben Ila’i), Rabbi Yosi (ben Chalafta) and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua – basically, to an entire generation of Torah leadership. In order not to endanger anyone else, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava brought them to a place that was midway between two major cities and was between two mountains. Thus, for the Romans to fulfill their decree, they would need to level two mountains.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava succeeded in this mission, although he paid for it with his life. Because of his supreme sacrifice, the semicha continued among the Jewish people for several more generations.

With the increased persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the Jewish population of Eretz Yisroel decreased considerably, and with time, ordination through this semicha ended. Thus, no one received the semicha that qualifies someone to judge capital, corporal, or kenasos cases, and this aspect of halachic life came to an end.

CAN SEMICHA BE REINSTITUTED?

The Rambam writes: “It appears to me that if all the chachamim in Eretz Yisroel agree to appoint dayanim and grant them semicha, they have the law of musmachim and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant semicha to others… If someone received semicha from someone who already has semicha, then he does not require authorization from all of them – he may judge penalty cases for everyone, since he received semicha from beis din. However, this matter requires a final decision” (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11).

Thus, the Rambam suggested a method whereby the semicha can be re-created. However, several issues need to be clarified before this project can be implemented:

  1. Did the Rambam rule this as a final decision or was it merely conjecture? What did he mean when he wrote in his closing words, “However, this matter requires a final decision”? Did he mean that he was uncertain about his suggestion, or was he referring to a different aspect of his comments?
  2. Assuming that the Rambam meant to rule definitely that semicha can be re-instituted, did he mean, literally, that this process requires all of the chachamim in Eretz Yisroel to agree, or does a majority suffice? Must the rabbonim involved all meet in one place, or is it sufficient if they are aware of the process and approve?
  3. Is the Rambam’s opinion on this subject universally held? And if not, do we rule like him?

THE 16th CENTURY CONTROVERSY- REINTRODUCING SEMICHA

After the Spanish expulsion, many Jews remained in Spain, practicing their Judaism in secret, while publicly appearing to be Christians. Thousands of these secret Jews eventually escaped to areas where they could return to the religion of their fathers, yet they were haunted by the sins that they had committed in their previous lives. Many were concerned that they would never escape the specter of their more serious aveiros, some of which carried the punishment of kareis. Although they had become true baalei tshuvah, they lived in fear of their ultimate day of judgment, when they would have to give a reckoning for their actions and face the serious consequences.

THE SOLUTION

The Mahari Beirav, Rav of Tzefas in the early sixteenth century, came up with an original solution to the problem. He proposed the creation of batei din that would carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases someone from the punishment of kareis (Mishnah Makos 23a).

There was one serious problem with this proposal. In order to create batei din that can exact these punishments, one must have dayanim who have received the special semicha that can be traced to Moshe Rabbeinu. Since this semicha had terminated over a thousand years before, the Mahari Beirav needed a different approach.

TZEFAS, 5298 (1538)

In 5298 (1538), based on the writings of the Rambam (Peirush Hamishnayos, Sanhedrin 1:3; Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11), 25 gedolim of Tzefas, at the time the largest Torah community in Eretz Yisroel, granted semicha to the Mahari Beirav. He then ordained four people with the new semicha, including Rav Yosef Karo, who had already written his monumental works Kesef Mishneh and Beis Yosef, and later authored the Shulchan Aruch, and Rav Moshe deTrani, the author of several major halachic works, including Beis Elokim, Kiryas Sefer, and Shu’t Mabit. Mahari Beirav also sent a semicha to the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Levi ibn Chaviv, known as the Maharalbach, who he assumed would be delighted to receive such a wonderful gift!

The Maharalbach was not happy with the gift and returned it. He took strong issue with their conferring semicha, for the following reasons:

  1. The Rambam’s closing words, “This matter requires a final decision,” show that he was not fully decided on this halacha, and therefore it cannot be relied upon.
  2. The Ramban (Sefer Hamitzvos, Aseh 153) disagrees with the Rambam, contending that semicha can not be reinstituted until Moshiach arrives. Thus, since the Rambam was uncertain about this halacha, and the Ramban was certain that there is no such thing, the halacha follows the Ramban.
  3. Even if we assume that the Rambam meant his ruling to be definitive, the Tzefas rabbonim had not fulfilled the procedure correctly, since all the gedolim of Eretz Yisroel must be together, in one synod. (This opinion is actually mentioned earlier by the Meiri, Sanhedrin 14a.)

Furthermore, Maharalbach is insistent that all the scholars must be involved in the active debate, and that all must agree. Furthermore, he argued that even if someone contends that a majority of gedolim is sufficient, the minority must be aware of the debate and participate in it. He further contended that creating such a synod now would not help either, since once the Tzefas rabbonim had ordained the Mahari Beirav, they now have a bias in their ruling (noge’ah bedin), which invalidates their opinion on the subject.

Maharalbach proved his opinion that the Rambam’s suggestion was not accepted as normative halacha from the fact that there had been numerous opportunities for gedolei Yisroel to create semicha , and yet, they refrained. Maharalbach concludes that semicha will not exist again until the arrival of Moshiach.

WHAT ABOUT THE CRYPTO-JEWS?

As for the baalei teshuvah that would be left without release from their kareis, the Maharalbach pointed out that if they performed sincere teshuvah, they would be forgiven for their sins, no matter how severe they were. Although it is possible that they may experience some suffering in this world for these aveiros despite their teshuvah, they would receive no punishment for their aveiros in the next world (Makos 13b).

On the other hand, the Maharalbach pointed out that he did not understand how semicha could accomplish what Mahari Beirav wanted, anyway, since beis din cannot punish someone for violating the Torah, unless several requirements are met, including:

The sinner must receive a warning immediately prior to his violating the commandment telling him that he is sinning, explaining to him that what he is planning to do is wrong, and what punishment he will receive if he sins. The sinner must acknowledge that he heard and understood the warning and then performed the sin anyway. Furthermore, beis din does not punish a sinner unless two adult male Jews witness the entire procedure and then testify in front of beis din. (Of course, consequently, this means that cases in which Beis Din punishes for violating a Torah mitzvah are quite rare.) Clearly, none of these crypto-Jews had received warning prior to performing the aveiros, and therefore they are not required to suffer malkus in beis din. Thus, how would these baalei teshuvah receive the malkus they desire, even if dayanim musmachim exist?

RESPONSE FROM TZEFAS

The Mahari Beirav responded to the Maharalbach’s arguments. As far as the punishment of malkus is concerned, the Mahari Beirav held that if someone voluntarily asks for malkus for his sin in the presence of an authorized beis din, the punishment is carried out, even though there were no warnings and no witnesses. Thus, the creation of a beis din of musmachim facilitates the atonement of these people.

As far as semicha is concerned, Mahari Beirav did not accept the Maharalbach’s criticism that his semicha program was invalid. Mahari Beirav explained that the Rambam’s ruling is definitive, not theoretical or suggestive, and he questions whether the Ramban disputes this opinion. Even if the Ramban does question it, the Mahari Beirav contends that the halacha follows the Rambam. Furthermore, the Mahari Beirav contends that a simple majority of gedolim living in Eretz Yisroel is sufficient to create semicha, since the halacha in all other cases of jurisprudence is that we follow the majority. Thus, since all the gedolim of Tzefas, who were a majority of the gedolim in Eretz Yisroel at the time, had appointed him as dayan, the semicha could be renewed on this basis. In addition, the Mahari Beirav contends that correspondence with the other gedolei Yisroel is a sufficient method to determine whether a majority favor renewing semicha, and that it is not necessary for all the gedolim to attend a meeting together for this purpose.

A lengthy correspondence ensued between the Maharalbach and the rabbonim of Tzefas, which is referred to as the Kuntros Hasemicha, and is appended to the end of the Shu’t Maharalbach.

Incidentally, the dispute between Maharalbach and Mahari Beirav as to whether the gedolim can reinstitute semicha dates back to the Rishonim. The Meiri (to Sanhedrin 14a) rules that semicha can be reintroduced by having all the gedolei Yisroel of Eretz Yisroel gather together and appoint someone to be a dayan. However, he rules that the gedolim must meet together in one group for this ruling, which precludes the Mahari Beirav’s method. The Rashba (Bava Kamma 36b) also cites Rambam’s opinion, although he rules the opposite, that renewal of semicha must await the arrival of Moshiach, following the opinion of the Ramban, as explained by Maharalbach. In addition, the Ritva and the Nemukei Yosef (both at end of Yevamos) state that semicha must await the arrival of the era of Moshiach.

Evidence to support the Mahari Beirav’s opinion, if not his method, can be drawn from the Gemara (Eruvin 43b), that states that Eliyahu will declare his arrival as the harbinger of Moshiach by coming to the Beis Din Hagadol. This Gemara implies that the Beis din Hagadol will precede the arrival of Eliyahu, and not the other way around (see Maharatz Chayes ad loc.). However, the Ritva and the Nemukei Yosef appear to hold that there will be no Sanhedrin until Moshiach comes.

THE RADBAZ GETS INVOLVED

Both sides appealed to the Radbaz, the acknowledged gadol hador, who lived in Egypt at the time, for a ruling. (The Radbaz later moved to Eretz Yisroel, but at the time of this dispute, he was outside of Eretz Yisroel and, therefore, had not been involved in the initial debate and discussion.)

The Radbaz ruled like the Maharalbach that the semicha was invalid, believing that the Rambam, himself, was not certain that semicha could be reinstituted by agreement of the Chachamim in Eretz Yisroel. Furthermore, universal acceptance of the semicha would be necessary, even according to Rambam’s approach. In addition, Radbaz felt that the person receiving semicha must be a talmid chacham with the scholarship to rule on any subject in Torah. He did not believe that his generation had any talmidei chachomim in this league.

HOW, THEN, WILL THE SANHEDRIN BE REESTABLISHED?

The Radbaz does discuss an issue: if we cannot create a new semicha, how, then, will we have a semicha in the future? As mentioned above, semicha is necessary to create a Sanhedrin, and the Sanhedrin is necessary to appoint the Jewish King and judges, and for many other community activities. Radbaz presents three methods whereby semicha can be re-established:

  1. Eliyahu HaNavi, who is a musmach (see Rambam, Introduction to Mishneh Torah), will issue semicha to others, when he arrives as the harbinger of Moshiach’s arrival. (Some poskim raise a question with this approach, pointing out that the Gemara [Eruvin 43b] reports that Eliyahu will announce to the Sanhedrin that his arrival is the harbinger of Moshiach. However, how could this happen if Eliyahu must first create the beis din? [Maharatz Chayes ad loc.] Many answers can be given to this question, but will have to be left for discussion another time.)
  2. Descendants of shevet Reuven who have semicha may reappear. Just because we are unaware of anyone with semicha, does not mean that members of other shevatim, who have been separated from us since before the time of the Churban, do not have semicha. (This approach creates a question. If semicha can only be given in Eretz Yisroel, how could members of these shevatim receive semicha, when we know that they were exiled from Eretz Yisroel? See below for an answer to this question.)
  3. Moshiach himself will grant semicha and thus create a Beis din Hagadol. Radbaz does not explain where Moshiach himself gets his authorization to grant semicha.

As noted above, Radbaz contends that no one in our generation qualifies in learning and yiras Shamayim to qualify. Specifically, he states that only someone who is qualified to paskin on any area of the Torah qualifies for this special semicha.

RESULTS OF THE TZEFAS SEMICHA

The Mahari Beirav passed away three years after the semicha project began. Although Rav Yosef Karo had received this semicha and actually ordained Rav Moshe Alshich (author of the Alshich commentary to Tanach), by all indications he never utilized the semicha in any other way. Nowhere does he refer to a renewal of semicha, and, furthermore, numerous places in Shulchan Aruch would be written differently, had its author assumed that a beis din of semuchim existed today. In all of these places, Rav Yosef Karo assumes that no beis din exists today that is authorized to rule on the laws of penalties and punishments. This is even more intriguing in light of the fact that, in his commentary Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 295), he records as definitive halacha the Rambam’s opinion that semicha can be renewed.

Although Rav Moshe Alshich ordained Rav Chayim Vital (Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 1:7), who was renowned as the primary disciple of the Ari, z”l, the semicha trail appears to end at this point. There is no indication of anyone continuing the semicha project after this time. From all indications, we can assume that the psak of the Maharalbach and Radbaz, that we should not introduce semicha on our own, was accepted. Thus, the issue was left for the next two hundred years. We will continue our discussion on this topic in part II of this article.

My Vows I Shall Fulfill

It is rather obvious why we are studying this topic this week – since the laws pertaining to vows are the first subject mentioned in Parshas Matos.

Question #1: Quiz question

Can performing a mitzvah become a liability?

Question #2: Is this a “klutz question?”

What does it mean that I am doing something “bli neder?”

Question #3: A sixty-thousand-dollar question

Yankel asks: “When I attended a Gemara shiur on Nedarim, I got the impression that performing hataras nedarim requires having a talmid chacham deliberate over the specific neder, until he concludes that there are grounds to release the neder. This seems to have no relationship to what we do on Erev Rosh Hashanah.”

Question #4: A frum question

“My friend Billy Nader* says bli neder on almost everything. Is this being too frum?

Answer: What Is a Neder?

Someone who recites a vow, an oath or a pledge is required to fulfill it (see Bamidbar 30:3). By virtue of the vow, oath or pledge, one creates a Torah obligation on oneself that one is, otherwise, not required to observe. For example, someone who declares that he will begin studying daf yomi every day is now obligated to do so, even on a day when it is inconvenient. Similarly, one who pledges tzedakah at yizkor or pledges a contribution to a shul upon receiving an aliyah becomes fully obligated min haTorah to pay the donation. In the case of a pledge to tzedakah¸ one must redeem it as soon as practical; otherwise, one risks violating an additional prohibition, bal te’acheir leshalmo, do not delay paying it (Devarim 23:22), as I will soon explain.

In general, one should be careful not to make vows or pledges. For one thing, he has now created a stumbling block for himself; since he runs the risk that he will not observe his commitment (see Nedarim 20a, 22a). Furthermore, one has created an accusation against himself, for by committing to observe something that the Torah did not require, he implies that he is so skilled at observing mitzvos that he can add a few of his own. The Satan can now level accusations against his occasional laxities in a much stronger fashion (see Nedarim 22a, based on Mishlei 20:25). (There are a few circumstances in which one is encouraged to make vows, but we will leave that topic for a different time.) For this reason, it is better not to pledge to contribute to tzedakah — if you have the money available, donate it; if it is not currently available, don’t pledge it! (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 203:4). It is very important that gabayim be in the habit of declaring that people’s pledges are bli neder, and a similar wording should appear on pledge cards.

Different Types of Obligations

There are six main ways that one may create an obligation upon oneself either to fulfill something or to abstain from doing something.

(1) Nedarim, vows

A neder, a vow, in which one declares that something otherwise permitted is now prohibited — such as, declaring that certain foods are prohibited.

Example:

In her desire to keep to her diet, Yaffah states: “I am going to prohibit all chocolate on myself.” Yaffah has now created a neder, which prohibits her, min haTorah, from eating chocolate.

(2) Shavuos, oaths

A shavua, an oath, in which one swears to fulfill or refrain from some activity — such as swearing that one will fast on a certain day, or that one will say Tehillim every day.

Example:

To repair his somewhat sloppy record at making it to minyan every morning, Shachar swears a shavua that he will be in shul for shacharis for the next three days. Should he fail to to make it to shacharis any of those days, he will be breaking his shavua, which contravenes a Torah prohibition.

Whether a specific declaration constitutes a neder or a shavua depends on halachic technicalities, usually contingent on how one makes the declaration. Several halachic differences result from whether someone made a neder or a shavua, including that violating a shavua is a more serious infraction (Ran, Nedarim 20a). Later in this article I will mention another important difference between them.

(3) Kabbalos mitzvah, declaring that one will perform a good deed

Someone who declares: I will arise early and study this chapter or that mesechta has declared a great vow to the G-d of Israel (Nedarim 8a). Someone intending to perform an exemplary act who expresses these plans has now obligated himself, even though he did not use the terms “vow,” “oath,” or “pledge” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 213:2).

Example:

Asking others to say certain chapters of Tehillim can create a stumbling block. One should be certain to specify that they are accepting bli neder.

(4) Kabbalas tzedakah, intending to donate charity

In the specific instance of contributing tzedakah funds, even deciding to give to tzedakah without verbalizing one’s intention creates an obligation to donate tzedakah (Rama, Yoreh Deah 259:13; see also Choshen Mishpat 212:8; based on Shavuos 26b).

(5) Performing a stringency

Someone who is aware that performing a certain hiddur in halacha is not obligatory, and begins doing so, intending to observe it regularly, becomes required to continue the practice as a form of vow. It becomes a binding obligation, requiring hataras nedarim, annulling vows, even if the individual fulfilled the practice only one time, and even if he did not declare that he intends to continue the practice (Nedarim 15a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 214:1).

Examples:

Someone who begins standing during keriyas haTorah, intending to continue the practice, becomes obligated to do so, unless he specified that he is doing so bli neder. He should perform hataras nedarim at the first opportunity, so as to avoid violating the prohibition of abrogating observance of a vow.

A woman began lighting a third Shabbos candle in her own home after her first child was born, and then did so the first time she visited her parents’ house. This now became an obligation. She asked a shaylah what to do and was advised to make hataras nedarim on the practice of kindling a third light, and, certainly, when she is a guest in someone else’s home.

(6) Three times

Someone who performs a stringent practice three times without saying bli neder must continue to fulfill the hiddur, even if he did not necessarily plan to always observe it (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:7).

Saying “Bli Neder

Should I not observe hiddurim? I want to do these mitzvos, but I certainly do not want to be punished if I fail to continue performing them! How do I avoid becoming responsible?

To avoid creating this liability, someone expressing intent to perform a good deed should be careful to say that he/she is acting bli neder, without accepting it as a responsibility (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:4). Similarly, someone who begins practicing a halachic hiddur should say that he is not accepting it as a responsibility.

Example:

Hadassah decides that she will eat only glatt kosher meat or will use only cholov Yisroel products, both meritorious activities. She should state that she is doing it “bli neder.”

Similarly, when pledging money during Yizkor, while making a mishebeirach or making any other oral commitment to donate charity, one should be careful to say bli neder. When others are pledging to tzedakah and one feels pressured to participate, specify that the pledge is bli neder (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 257:4).

Saying “Bli Neder” Even for a Non-mitzvah

Some authorities recommend saying bli neder on all one’s activities, even those that do not fulfill a mitzvah, so that the habit helps prevent one from inadvertently creating nedarim (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:4).

Example:

Chavah tells her husband, “I am planning to go to exercise class this morning, bli neder.” Although the statement that she plans to exercise does not create any obligation on her part, habituating herself to say bli neder is a good practice to develop.

We can now answer one of the questions asked above. “I have a friend who says bli neder on almost everything. Is this being too frum?” The answer is that your friend is being astutely cautious and following the advice of halachic authorities.

Don’t Delay in Paying

In addition to the above-mentioned concerns involved in pledging tzedakah, the Gemara rules that the mitzvah of bal te’achar, not to delay the donation of a korban, applies also to tzedakah (Rosh Hashanah 6a). This means that someone who pledges money to a charitable cause is required to pay the pledge as soon as he can.

To quote the Rambam: Tzedakah is included in the laws of vows. Therefore, one who says “I am obligated to provide a sela coin to tzedakah” or “this sela shall go to tzedakah” must give it to poor people immediately. If he subsequently  delays redeeming the pledge, he violates bal te’achar, since he could have given it immediately since there are poor people around. If there are no poor people, he should set aside the money until he finds poor people. However, if, at the time of his pledge, he specified that he is not intending to redeem the pledge until he locates a poor person, he is not required to set aside the money (Hilchos Matanos Aniyim 8:1).

Someone who declares that he will give tzedakah to a certain poor person is not required to give the money, until he sees that person (Rama, Yoreh Deah 257:3). However, someone who pledged to contribute to deprived people, without qualifying which poor people he meant, is required to fulfill his pledge immediately (Mordechai, Bava Basra 491).

What Is Hataras Nedarim?

Now that we realize that the obligations included in making vows is rather extensive, we want to find out, quickly, how to release ourselves from these vows.

Chazal derive from the Torah that there is a way one can be absolved from a vow, pledge or other such commitment, which is called hataras nedarim. Performing hataras nedarim does not in the slightest way diminish the reward that one receives for the good deeds one performed. It simply removes the continuing obligation to perform the vow from the individual who created it. Therefore, in the vast majority of circumstances, someone who made a neder should perform hataras nedarim, so that he does not violate the neder (see Nedarim 22a).

How Does One Perform Hataras Nedarim?

First, the person who made the vow or other commitment goes to three Jewish men who understand the logic of halacha and know the basics of how hataras nedarim operates (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:1 and commentaries). These three form a type of ad hoc beis din for the purpose of releasing vows. One of the three should be a talmid chacham proficient in the laws of hataras nedarim, including which vows one may not annul (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:14; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:8).

The nodeir, the person who made the vow, shares with the three (or, at least, the talmid chacham who is proficient in the laws of nedarim) the content of the vow, oath, or good practice from which he desires release and why he seeks relief. The talmid chacham will ask the nodeir several questions that must be answered truthfully. The talmid chacham thereby determines whether or not there are valid grounds to release the nodeir from the commitment (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:14). Only a talmid chacham who understands the very complicated laws of vows should undertake hataras nedarim, because there are many details that must be met for the hataras nedarim to be valid. (The details of what does and what does not constitute an adequate basis for hataras nedarim are beyond the scope of this article.)

Assuming that the talmid chacham feels that there are adequate grounds for hataras nedorim, the beis din declares the neder or other commitment annulled, by declaring mutar lach, mutar lach, mutar lach – the activities prohibited by the vow are now permitted. Of course, in the case of a vow to do something, the words mutar lach mean the reverse — you are no longer obligated to carry out the vow.

Someone who violated his vow prior to performing hataras nedarim has indeed sinned, and is required to perform teshuvah for his or her infraction.

The Difference between a Neder and a Shavua

There is a halachic difference between performing hataras nedarim to release someone from the obligation he created with a neder, and between performing hatarah after someone recited a shavua. Whereas in most instances one should arrange to release someone from a neder, one annuls a shavua only under extenuating circumstances (Rama, Yoreh Deah 203:3; Rambam end of Hilchos Shavuos). Explaining why this is so will need to wait for a future article.

May I appoint an agent to perform hataras nedarim for me?

No, one must ask directly to the beis din to release oneself from vows (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:16). If the members of the beis din do not understand the language that the nodeir speaks, they may use an interpreter to facilitate communication (Rama ad loc.).

There is one instance in which someone may make an agent to release nedarim. Sometimes, a husband may act as an agent for his wife to annul her nedarim. If a husband finds three people already gathered together — for example, they were performing hataras nedarim for him or for someone else — he may act as his wife’s agent to ask them to release her from her neder at the same time, if she appointed him to do so on her behalf (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 234:56).

How does a woman perform hataras nedarim?

A woman who has a specific oath, vow, or practice from which she wishes release should arrange to perform hataras nedarim with a talmid chacham or beis din. As I mentioned above, if she is married, she may ask her husband to be her agent to perform hataras nedarim at a time when he is doing so for himself (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 234:56).

Hataras Nedarim on Erev Rosh Hashanah

At this point, we can address Yankel’s question:

“When I attended a Gemara shiur on Nedarim, I got the impression that performing hataras nedarim requires having a talmid chacham deliberate over the specific neder, until he concludes that there are grounds to release the neder. This seems to have no relationship to what we do on Erev Rosh Hashanah.”

Indeed, Yankel’s question is extremely valid: hataras nedarim requires that one mention, specifically, the vow from which one seeks redress, and the beis din must deliberate whether this particular neder can be revoked. It is, therefore, unclear whether the generic hataras nedarim recited on Erev Rosh Hashanah, indeed, releases one from any commitments. The proper thing to do is to mention to an appropriate beis din every specific neder or practice that one wants annulled.

Mesiras Modaah

The Gemara mentions that should one declare at the beginning of the year that all the vows one makes in the course of the year are invalid; this pronouncement has some value. This declaration is called a mesiras modaah. The Gemara concludes that this statement has only limited value, and one should not, intentionally, rely upon it. In point of fact, the standard hataras nedarim procedure performed on Erev Rosh Hashanah includes a mesiras modaah.

Kol Nidrei

The Rishonim dispute whether the purpose of Kol Nidrei that we recite at the beginning of our Yom Kippur service is also meant to be a form of hataras nedarim, performed at a time when virtually everyone is in shul to include the maximum number of people, or whether it is a mesiras modaah. It is for this reason that there are three different versions of the text: one that has kol nidrei refer to the past year’s declarations, which means that it is hataras nedarim; one that refers to the coming year’s declarations, which means that it is a mesiras modaah; and one that mentions both the past and the future years, which means that it is meant to accomplish both.

There is another interesting difference in halachic practice that results from this last dispute: Should the congregation recite Kol Nidrei together with the chazzan? If it is a mesiras modaah, then one must declare it oneself, and each individual should read the Kol Nidrei together with the chazzan. On the other hand, if it is a form of hataras nedarim, then it should be declared by the chazzan alone accompanied by the two honored men alongside him who hold the sifrei Torah, so that they form a beis din that is annulling everyone’s nedarim. The Mishnah Berurah (619: 2) rules that we should consider it a mesiras modaah, and therefore concludes that each individual should recite Kol Nidrei softly along with the chazzan.

Conclusion

Now that we realize how serious our speech can be, we should reflect not only on the ideas of nedarim, but also on all the ramifications of our speech. As the pasuk (Mishlei 18:21) states, maves vechayim beyad lashon, Life and death are controlled by our tongues!

*Obviously, this is not his real name, but a nickname.

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