Asking “What If” Destroys Halacha

Writing in Mishpacha this week, Rav Chaim Aryeh Zev Ginsburg scolds MK Itamar Ben-Gvir for his passionate advocacy for Jewish visits to Har Habayis (the Temple Mount). Rav Ginsburg likens people who follow the halachic advice of their decisors to walking on train tracks, knowing that touching the third rail can be fatal, but without knowing exactly what that rail looks like.

Rav Ginsburg (I fondly remember the days when we were yeshiva-mates in prehistoric times) writes wonderful columns of thoughtful, sensitive chizuk, and has orchestrated some terrific community efforts. He is the source of much good in the Torah world. I am also no fan of many of Ben-Gvir’s antics that act as a lightning rod for global condemnation. Rav Ginsburg and I may arrive at the same station, but we get there via different spurs. His current Mishpacha essay, though, can only lead to a train wreck.

Rav Ginsburg points to the many, many stellar figures who forbade entry to Har Habayis. For the most part they held that there was great uncertainty about the location of the Kodesh Hakodashim and the Temple Courtyard. Entering the wrong place would put a person at least at risk of violating an issur kareis – at least according to some Rishonim. Rav Ginsburg concedes that those who go where some Jewish angels fear to tread rightfully claim “that their rabbanim allow it.” Still, he asks them, why take a chance? Even if you think that you have every right to rely on them, shouldn’t you exercise more caution? In the face of so many who have opined in the other direction, assuming the risk of violating a chiyuv kares is irresponsible.

Sorry. That line of reasoning destroys halachic process. Think of its logical consequences. We should never have a daas yachid disagree with a large rabbim. (The Talmud is full of them. In some cases, halacha follows those minority opinions.) Isn’t it better to be safe? If a childless couple came to Rav Ginsburg for guidance about IVF, would he respond, “Hey, Rav Moshe thought it was OK, but is it really worth taking the risk disregarding the Satmar Rov who held it was gilui arayos? What about the activities marked by Rav Yehuda HaChasid as dangerous, but ignored (for a variety of reasons) by many poskim? Are those poskim irresponsible in putting people at risk of the harm predicted by Rav Yehuda haChasid’s tzavaah? How about relying on bitul when non-kosher ingredients are present in minute amounts? Sure, we know that the majority did not go with the Rashba? But why take the risk of chewing on a digestive third-rail?

The general approach that we have always taken is yikov hadin es hahar – let halacha pierce the mountain. There is a clear difference between “producers” of halacha and “consumers.” The producers – the poskim and morei hora’ah who must make the large and small decisions – are dutybound to take all sides into account. They have to wade through all the information they believe is relevant before coming to conclusions. If the conclusion they reach butts up against too many voices they respect, they will think two or three times before offering their conclusion to others. If they are firmly convinced of the rectitude of their position, they will offer it even in the face of opposition.

But Hashem does not expect all of us – even consummate bnei Torah – to be halachic decisors. Consumers – the rest of the nation that go to their rabbonim for answers because they know they cannot responsibly handle all the material themselves – need not do any second guessing. They go to them with confidence that they’re acting according to what Hashem asks of us. They need not look back at those who disagree (except as an exercise in perishus), which would always leave us hostage to the strictest opinion available. An individual rav – assuming he is genuinely higi’a le-hora’ah – is allowed – obliged really – to follow the conclusions that his Torah analysis leads him to. And his followers are allowed to follow them, with confidence that they are doing the will of their Creator.

Nor do numbers carry the halachic day. Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor was initially a booster of the Darchei Teshuva project by Munkatcher chassidim. It was to be a line-by-line commentary on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah, which would assemble the contribution of centuries of halachic writing since its composition in the 16th century. Rav Yitzchok Elchonon withdrew his support when he saw the results of the project. He complained that all voices – large and small – got equal billing. That’s just not the way halacha is done. Some voices count quite a bit, some less so – and some not at all. Similarly, the numbers of signatories on a document should not impress us, particularly when we are aware of the practice of many (including those who haven’t even engaged in the halachic analysis) to add their signatures in deference to a name they recognize on the document.

We do know there are halachic figures with fine credentials who are satisfied with the evidence that the path taken by Jewish visitors to Har Habayis avoid coming near the problematic areas. I’m not going anytime soon, but I will defend the right of those visitors to rely on their morei hora’ah. More than defending them, I’m really defending halachic process from the fatal flaw of “What if.”

There is lots to discuss about Ben-Gvir and incitement, but the what-hurts-to-be-safe argument should be quickly derailed.

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41 Responses

  1. william l gewirtz says:

    As Dr. Grach (Haym Soloveitchik) points out, chumrot that were often practiced by yechidai segulah, have worked their way into the general public. The shiurim of the CI going back to Rav Yechezkel Landau and further are the best example. The Rav ztl combined the shittah of Rabbeinu Tam, a time to walk a mil of 22.5 minutes, and the modern notion of depression angles to wait over 2.5 hours to end Shabbat in the summer in Boston vis-a-vis milochot de’oraysah.</em Nonetheless, he allowed others to drive him during that interval.

    My theory is that Talmidei Chachamin convinced of the correctness of a particular sevarah not accepted le’halakha can be machmir in such an instance. For the rest of us, I consider it yuharah. RHS’s most devoted talmidim drink milk, despite his personal stringency.

    • mycroft says:

      Agreeing with Dr Gewirtz and to make his point even stronger. Boston might have had the highest percentage of Vilna Jews and their descendants in the US. Certainly, half a century ago and earlier many schules had Havdalah way before the 42 minute Shitat Brookhaven-everyone knew the Rav would not do melachah until way after everyone else was home showered, shaved and ready to go to Maimonides school to hear the Rav Motsei Shabbas. Similar, I’m aware that the Rav would not expect others to follow Brisker chumrot on Eruvim

      • William Gewirtz says:

        AFAIK, RAL ztl fastidiously followed the Rav ztl’s chumrot and hanhagot. Talmidim like RHS do not.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Dissension about such a matter indicates that we all remain in some degree of exile, wherever we now live, so we need to take stock. Some things we’re doing or not doing are delaying our total redemption.

    • mycroft says:

      humrot and hanhagot.

      It would depend which-the Rav following family minhag did not wear tfillin chol hamoed-yet when he was asked by someone living in metro NY of Ashkenazic descent should they put on tfillin chol hamoed-father did not put on tfillin-thus no preexisting family minhag-. Obvious case where Ravs family minhag would not change general default rule and certainly ones own family minhag. Certainly, I agree when a talmid dealing with other halachik matters for themselves they might be machmir like the Rav on zmanim, eruvim but would not tell others that they should follow the chumrot or hanhagot. I

  3. Dr. E says:

    Rav Adlerstein: The piece definitely resonates with my own thinking on this. While I might follow the opinions that practically lead me to conclusion to not go up on Har Habayit, I know of people who do go up and I respect their right to do so. I recognize that their practice is in part informed by a contrarian opinion, which actually may not even be contrarian after all. It is based on the nuanced discussion of the physically dimensions of Har Habayit and the parameters of what is actually off-limits in today’s times. So, to frame it as a binary yes/no begs for greater intellectual honesty, which of course is precisely your point.

    Furthermore, to say “why take a chance with an Issur Kareis?” is just adding a layer of scare tactic to the intellectual honesty issue. Those who are in-the-know are quite familiar with another well-known Issur Kareis for which there is an entire corpus of Halacha where there are legitimate and appropriate leniencies, based on d’Rabbanan situations and/or machlokos within the Rishonim and Acharonim.

    In a more general sense, challenges in the intellectual honesty department have ultimately been distasteful to consumers and unfortunately former consumers of the contemporary chinuch system. For example, the combination of intellectual dishonesty and scare tactics when it comes to Halacha, Chumra, and Tzniyus has led many to question the source and the content of everything that they have learned.

    • Nachum says:

      Obviously you have a point about that particular issur karet, but there’s an even more obvious one due in a month: We don’t avoid eating bread (in the form of matza) on Pesach just because of a ch’shash that it might be chametz. Well, some do, but most Orthodox Jews agree that’s extreme.

      If going up to the Har HaBayit is a mitzvah- and it is- and possibly a matter of pikuach nefesh and showing our sovereignty, then it would fall into the same category.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    I’ve been told that Har HaBayit was deliberately reduced in height by the destroying conquerors. If that’s so, is any location on its current surface inside the walls exactly where the holy functions were carried out?

    • Nachum says:

      On the other hand, parts of it were *raised* when Herod made his renovation. The stone under the Dome of the Rock is currently quite a few meters above ground level. It appears to have been so (but perhaps not as much) in the time of Shlomot’s Mikdash, but of course the Mishna tells us it was only a few centimeters tall in the time of Herod. Ergo, the ground was built up and then knocked back down.

      This is also, by the way, how we know *exactly* where the Mikdash stood (apart from continual Jewish tradition and halakhic psak that the Dome of the Rock is where the Kodesh HaKodashim was: The Even Shetiyah was, in the time of the Mikdash, the highest floor level point on the entire Har, and there’s no other projecting rock anywhere on the Har today that’s that tall.

      But, yes: We are told the mizbeach itself stood on bedrock, and indeed there are patches of bedrock exposed on the Har today. So even if your argument was valid- and I’m not sure it is- there would be places the Avoda took place. And of course people who go up today go nowhere near those.

      • Bob Miller says:

        This was a question about our current knowledge of the vertical dimension (call it the Z axis), and not an argument. If we have the area mapped accurately in the X-Y plane, we would still know where to avoid going. But, If such an off-limits place was much below (or above) the original feature of interest, would it still be off-limits?

  5. YS says:

    Excellent article.

    Along similar lines – I have always felt that we should be choshesh for possible factual circumstances but not, as we sometimes say, be choshesh for a shittah. At least not to the same extent.

    In a similar vein, I’m not crazy about the way poskim sometimes treat machlokot as sfeikot. I can’t say how frequently this is done and who exactly does it (the Mishna Berurah comes to mind), but I think it blurs the difference between sfeikot in matters of fact and machlokot, which it seems to me should usually be decided by poskim.

    When I hear that someone won’t eat a certain food because they’re not sure what the correct bracha is, that just turns me off. Isn’t it the job of poskim to make these decisions?

    I have similar thoughts about people who put on both RT and Rashi tefillin.

    • JS says:

      You might not be so turned off if you remember Tosfos Brachos 37a Hakoses who can’t decide (not doing their “job”, according to your comment) the correct bracha acharona on grains prepared in certain ways, and therefore says the correct thing to do is not eat them outside of a meal. This psak of Tosfos is brought in Shulchan Aruch, and you can find the same idea with regard to other foods in poskim throughout the ages.

      • YS says:

        I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the phenomenon I addressed was limited to late Achronim.

        I do, however, wonder how far back it does go.

        Are you familiar of examples of this in Shas?

  6. Sidney Stadler says:

    May we be all zoche to see the geulah on Purim or Now.
    חזק וברוך

  7. mycroft says:

    I believe your message is very important that people have a right/obligation to ask sheilas and rely on their Rabbi.
    In terms of your message the following is a mere quibble.

    “Consumers – the rest of the nation that go to their rabbonim for answers because they know they cannot responsibly handle all the material themselves – need not do any second guessing.’
    It is not only that one asks sheilas of Rabbonim because they in general know more than baale batim -but probably just as important-it is certainly not ideal to pasken for oneself and ones family-one would be a nogeah badavar-even in issur vheter. Why Im aware of Rabbonim asking personal sheilas of other Rabbonim evenm if the person they asked was not necessarily more knowledgeable.

    .” An individual rav – assuming he is genuinely higi’a le-hora’ah – is allowed – obliged really – to follow the conclusions that his Torah analysis leads him to”

    I agree, but sadly the tone of “assuming he is genuinely higi’a le-hora’ah” has a very bad side effect. A baal baas has the right to ask sheilas of his local Rav. The Rav has been given reshut to pasken in certain areas-obviously a new Rabbi will need much more shimush than an experienced one-but if one asks a sheila in good faith he has satisfied his obligation-thus any niddah question involved karet issues, should a person be obligated to fast or not on Yom Kippur involves issurei kares-yet I’m not aware of anyone saying you have to be careful has the Rav reach horaah stage. Obviously, complicated issues if possible Rabbonim will discuss with bigger experts, but sheilot come up on Shabbas, Yom Tov for example which need an answer and can’t wait for the Rav to ask a sheila of a leading posek. Obviously, when non-emergency-Rabbonim their whole careers discuss sheilas routinely with others-but one has satisfied one’s obligation by asking a Rav in good faith ones sheilot

    • I can’t fully agree. We don’t apply the same thinking to medical practitioners. We don’t say that we went to a fully licensed physician, and we have the right to feel confident in his decision. Instead, we recognize that there are doctors, and there are doctors. We try to get second opinions, and look for greater experts. We do this because we want the best possible advice. All of us know that semicha is just a license. There are practicing rabbis who are most qualified and least qualified. When you go to a rav, you are saying that you are relying on that person to determine halachic truth. On ordinary questions, we don’t need to go to the Gadol Hador for that, just as we would not insist on checking with a university hospital department head for advice on treating the common cold. We can’t be naive about the capabilities of the people we turn to for psak. They do indeed need to be magie’ai lehora’h. The gemara states clearly that those who are no magie’a lehora’ah and make decisions nonetheless are destroyers of the world

      • Bob Miller says:

        How do we know or find out if our immediately available posek (let’s say the rabbi of a shul or school) is wired into the network of highest level content experts on a given topic?

      • Abbish Rand says:

        That “should” be the Rov’s burden, to know when he isn’t qualified/when to turn to those with more knowledge/credentials

      • mycroft says:

        We don’t use medical practitioners who we dont believe are qualified to treat us, similarly if you ask a sheila of someone you trust him not to answer -barring an emergency answer needed. It is not rare for a physician to tell a patient -I think the answer is this but I believe you should go to a specialist. When one asks a Rav that one trusts one has the right to assume the Rav if he does not know the answer will discuss with others if he is not sure of the answer. I have a right to rely on a psak of my local Rav-if he is not trustworthy to only answer sheilot that he knows the answer he is NOT trustworthy to answer any question. It is an integrity question. Our system has always been to trust your Rav. Two personal sheilot-once asked a local Rav he told me he thinks what the answer should be-but if I have time for response he regularly speaks to Rav Schachter and would like to confirm. Did I mind-of course not I’d be glad to rely on his psak said. Turned out Rav Schachter agreed with his feeling-but I could have relied on my local Rav. Another time talking to a friend of mine a Rav I was discussing a different issue. He told me his answer-I was surprised. Answer more liberal than I expected-instantaneously he quoted Igrot Moshe exactly where RMF discussed identical issue. But his next comment is crucial. I’ve been a Rav for 45 years-you aren’t the first person who had this sheila-4th that I’ve had. I would never answer a sheila unless I’m sure of answer and 99.5% of time–he had been a Rav for 45 years at time -I’ve had the sheila before.
        Implicitly, I believe RYBS disagreed with the approach your advocating. Many times he would be asked by a talmid/Rav a sheila and he would answer you’re there I’m not. He would offer to review the sources with the local Rav but would then say well you know all the sources that i know rule-you’re there Im not there was the Ravs refrain. Clearly, not an approach that I’ve seen advocating that one must know who to ask. In order to pasken any sheila requires a few attributes-integrity, knowledge of halacha and knowledge of the facts. RYBS emphasized the importance of local Rabbonim. Remember he spent much more time in Boston with local Rabanus issues than at RIETS giving a shiur. Obviously, on many issues the Rav had guidelines but he trusted those that he trusted to follow them and being there was crucial in the Ravs approach.
        If the local Rav is acting improperly then whoever gave him reshut should take it away-otherwise everyone asking a sheila has a right on to rely on the answer. BTW halacha is different than medicine-medicine nothing wrong with going for multiple opinions if one is unhappy with the physician’s suggestion-once I ask the psak I am bound by the psak-one can’t then start going for other opinions.

  8. lacosta says:

    isn’t this just another case of Us against Them? where the haredi corpus is Right . and everyone else is Wrong? and that’s how one knows how to live?

    • Cvmay says:

      Really good point!

    • Bob Miller says:

      It’s sad to see halachic disagreements discussed as an offshoot of politics or team sports.

    • mycroft says:

      Abbish Rand February 28, 2023 at 1:16 pm
      That “should” be the Rov’s burden, to know when he isn’t qualified/when to turn to those with more knowledge/credentials

      Of course it is-it is the baale bas obligation to ask his Rav-routinely Rabbonim ask and discuss complicated issues with others. Any other approach would be impossible to live with. No way can one require or even expect that a layman should ask a sheila only of top talmeidei chachamim. If don’t trust the person to not pasken when not qualified to -don’t give him smicha or revoke his smicha. One must be able to rely on psak that local Rabbi gives and they routinely have fasked others any sheila that they are not positive of.

    • mark says:

      So far, all we know is that one person wrote an article in which he expressed his own feeling that it’s not worth going up to Har Habayis. I didn’t see where he represented himself as the spokesperson for the Charedim, nor where he said that his view is the only one.
      Is your comment reflective of anything other than your own sentiments?

  9. Joe Socher says:

    The real issue is the part not said out loud: some are just not “machshiv” those rabbonim who allow or encourage going onto har habayit.

    [Personally, it makes me very uncomfortable and I don’t get the arguments of those who say it is a mitzvah – what mitzvah is it if you are not bringing a korban? Are you mekayem aliya leregel without korbanos?]

    • Nachum says:

      Yes, going up to the Har HaBayit is a mitzvah even without korbanot.

      And that’s leaving aside the mitzvah of kibbush haaretz, or the lives that might be saved by doing so.

    • JS says:

      That part was said out loud. Or at least quietly. The tone of Rabbi Ginzberg’s article clearly implies that those Rabbonim are not reliable.

  10. Jennifer Niman says:

    “What about the activities marked by Rav Yehuda HaChasid as dangerous, but ignored (for a variety of reasons) by many poskim? Are those poskim irresponsible in putting people at risk of the harm predicted by Rav Yehuda haChasid’s tzavaah?” – I have recently come across a bochur who is overly makpid on some of these items in RYHC tzavaah and he doesn’t seem to understand the difference between Halacha and Minhag. Tell me, after learning in Yeshiva Day School, High School and then Bais Medrash for another 8 years, how does a bochur not know the difference?

  11. Weaver says:

    I think the possibility of inflaming violence is an equal – if not greater – concern than the potential issur kares in visiting the Har HaBayis.

    • Bob Miller says:

      Do the Arabs have veto power over legitimate actions because they act out violently? This is an incentive for them to stay that way.

    • Dr. E says:

      Weaver: It is indeed true that non-Halachic public policy concerns should also be considered in any analysis. However, the recent rash of terrorism has nothing to do with going up to Har Habayit. So, the incitement issue is merely a pretense, to be exploited when convenient. Politicians, diplomats, and Palestinians are fond of using the narrative that as soon as Israel tries to defend itself militarily that “we are afraid that this will contribute to the cycle of violence”. We all know that it’s not true, but it’s annoying to hear the myth perpetuated nonetheless.

    • Nachum says:

      Except every time it’s warned about, it never happens. Quite the contrary. *Not* going up is what encourages them.

    • Cvmay says:

      In the Arab world (Iraq for one), a woman going without a full head covering is a prescription for violence. Or a young Arab woman choosing her spouse rather than abiding by father’s wishes is an expected “honor killing”. Or the month of Ramadan is publicized as ‘killing spree of the Infidel/Jew”

      Inflaming Arab violence is an offshoot of living – breathing JEWS!!

    • oleh oleh says:


      The gemara Sotah 44 says: שתחילת נפילה ניסה, meaning it is the surrender itself which causes bloodshed.

      The Arabs complain about Jews visiting the Kosel, too.

      And if we bow to their wishes, we will soon abandon Jerusalem, followed by the whole country.

      It is the Jews on the mount which obligate the police presence there and stop the Arabs from stoning the Jews down at the Kosel!

      Au contraire, it is the voices of opposition on these grounds which itself encourage Arabs in the belief that if they only commit enough crimes, they will be victorious!

      • c-l,c says:

        So the Sinai Treaty with Egypt was a mistake?Was there a difference,though many made identical claims back then?

    • Ben Waxman says:

      That is a factor but on the other hand, it doesn’t take to be accused of inflaming violence in this part of the world. The government recently announced that it is authorising a new yishuv near the Gaza border and in response Hamas said that this decision will inflame violence.

  12. mark says:

    If it’s not said out loud, was it said quietly and to who? Were you privy to those conversations?

    Or are you projecting your own feelings here on others who may or may not have such thoughts in which case, your comment says more about you than about anyone else.

  13. Ben Waxman says:

    Full disclosure: I have gone up to Har Habayit and would like to do so again, the sooner the better.

    Regarding “how to pasken”: I have been learning Aruch HaShulhan Daily. We are about to finish Aruch Chayim. I can state flat out that:

    a) The AhS takes a limited number of opinions into consideration.
    b) He doesn’t hesitate to pasken against early Achronim like the Magen Avraham and the Taz, even on halachot involving mitzvot doreitta.
    c) On occasion, he even paskened against Maran the Shulhan Aruch and the Rema.
    d) In his comments, he is willing to state the opinion of various rishonim are problematic.

    Obviously these issues are very weighty and can’t be adequately discussed based on a few statements. However, his Independence of thought is right there for all of us to see.

    • William Gewirtz says:

      a) do we know how extensive his library was?
      b) and c) There can be any number of reasons. 1. the opinion of other rishonim that He finds more convincing. 2. Minhag okair din in action. 3. An assumption of changed circumstances justifying a different pesak. 4. Shas ha’tzorech. 5. etc. Each must be separately evaluated; however, he is not one to recommend stringency based on alternate shittot.
      d) As did many other achronim.

  14. Michael Halberstam says:

    I just want to take the opportunity to recognize the courage and intelligence it took to write this piece. The world, especially the olam hatorah we live in today has boxed itself and all of us who try to follow the Torah in, so that all attempts to test the boundaries will be discouraged. This will not work. Moreover the world of today is radicallty diffenrent fron the world of 65 years ago. The stakes are greater and they are diffenent. We have to allow people who are talmidei chachom,im to say what they think, and we have to know that there are those who will listen to them, even if we don’t. We are desparate for sources of authority, but we cannot decide that whoever doesn’t agree with what we may have heard from our rabbeim is michutz lamachaneh.

  15. Lshem nationalism says:

    Rabbi Adlersteins contention of following your Rav wherever halachah takes him ia only relevant, if at all, to private practice, not to public practice/policy.
    The manhigim, the leading poskim of the previous generations across the spectrum all forbade going up on the Har Habayis. These johnny come latelys don’t have the gravitas to argue.

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