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To dedicate this lesson

To rely on leniencies

Is one allowed to research and decide halachic questions oneself? Can one search out lenient opinions? Can one do so constantly for every question?


Rabbi David Sperling

Shvat 5773
I do not have a Rabbi to whom I regularly ask my questions. Am I allowed to look for answers in halachic books, or on the Internet, and rely on the most lenient opinion in every case?
Your question can be broken down into three parts :- 1) Is one allowed to research and decide halachic questions oneself? 2) Can one search out lenient opinions? 3) Can one do so constantly for every question?

1) In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers 1,16) it states "Get yourself a Rabbi [literally "make oneself a Rabbi"], and remove yourself from doubt". If a person has not "made" themselves into a rabbi through years of studying Torah and following great rabbis, then one should strive to find a rabbi who can answer one’s questions. We are blessed to live in a generation that has no shortage of rabbis who are willing and able to answer questions. (One does not have to turn directly with every question to the Chief Rabbi, but one’s local synagogue rabbi, or the rabbi of one’s school etc. is usually very qualified to answer most questions). A person who is not a "posek" (halachic authority) needs to be very careful in trying to find answers to their questions themselves. Even though there are simple questions which one can, and should, open up books to find the answers oneself (e.g. one forgot "ya’aleh v’ya’voh" in the Rosh Hodesh prayers – do they need to be repeated or not? See Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 19,10) – there are other questions which one should not attempt to answer oneself. This is because either the question is a very weighty one (for instance, disconnecting a life support machine), or because of the halachic complexity (laws of working the fields in the Shmitah year), or because the question involves issues that affect the community at large (determining the Jewish status of a person, or trading land for peace). Therefore one needs to be very careful before deciding a halachic question on one’s own, but on the other hand, learning that leads to halachic practice should be encouraged - everything according to a person’s level of learning Torah.
2) There are cases where one can look for lenient opinions on which to rely. Halacha takes into account concepts such as "times of need", "for the needs of Shabbat", "loss of property" and "rule leniently in cases of rabbinic doubt" etc. Also a person who has a certain need for a lenient ruling may rely on one – and this is true even if the need is a spiritual one. For example, a person who feels that they are not ready spiritually to live up to a certain law, may be granted permission to rely (for a time perhaps) on a lenient view. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l ruled "the strictures that are appropriate for a strict person, are not needed, or even appropriate for other people" (Yoreh Deah 4, 24). To which I add, that sometimes certain leniencies are appropriate to certain people in certain times. But one should be very careful not to be led astray by the evil inclination that tells you to be lenient, when in fact all it wants to do is stop you from growing in the service of Hashem. Sometimes a clear ruling from the Rabbi that something is forbidden is enough to help overcome weaknesses, and stand up against the evil urge.
Nonetheless, to search for leniencies for no real need, but just because one wants to be lax, is forbidden. The Rema rules in the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 25,2), "A person should not say ‘I will rule like any opinion I feel like’, and if they did so it is a false ruling. If he is a wise rabbi and knows how to determine the case with proofs, then he has permission [to decide according to his own reckoning]".
3) To constantly search for the lenient opinion is certainly forbidden. The Gemara states that one who takes the lenient side in all arguments – "the leniencies of Bet Shammai and the leniencies of Bet Hillel" – is an evil person (Eruvin 6b-7a). There is also a great danger in such an approach that one may come to contradict oneself. For example, the most lenient opinion concerning the size of a Kiddush cup (which will hold that an olive’s worth is a smaller measure) cannot be reconciled with the most lenient opinion concerning the amount of food that obligates an after blessing (which will be based on the opinion that an olive’s worth is a larger measure). Often one is not even aware of such contradictions.
Apart from the halachic difficulties with such an approach, someone who constantly looks for leniencies needs to check if this is not a symptom of a more serious problem in their service of Hashem. One needs to find the correct path to be able to grow to one’s full spiritual potential, without feeling the mitzvoth to be a burden to heavy to bear. Be strong and of good courage !

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