(I’m surprised that it’s possible to get a picture of this book on the INTERNET. Isn’t use of the internet assur or something?)
Aah, the chumrah. The subject of much debate. Here is what I have to say on the topic.
When I was younger (circa shanah aleph) I would go off the deep end if anyone mentioned chumrahs around me and expected me to keep any. Of course, I’m sure I was on the chumrah bandwagon in some areas where I wasn’t even aware of it. Still, if anyone asked me to keep a CHUMRAH (ICK – they came in the same breath), I wouldn’t have it.
Now I have come to a more thought-out stance.
Nobody stone me here. Chumrahs have a lot in common with modern orthodoxy, which I find kind of ironic.
I can talk about modern orthodoxy another time. Lets dwell on the topic at hand, shall we?
As far as I can gather, chumrahs come from one of two places.
1 – Out of intense love for Hashem, we want to do even more than we are asked. Its a way of beautifying a mitzvah.
2 – When we don’t know what to do in a given situation, we err on the side of caution. (I.e. building a fence around the Torah).
Then we have the problems.
First off, I believe it was Rav Wolbe, z”l (who btw specifically requested, before he was niftar, that he NOT be referred to as “zt”l”) who said that in any given situation where there is more than one course of action, halacha comes into play. And if you don’t know or see that, it is because you don’t know halacha well enough.
If this is the case, there are certainly going to be situations where we err on the side of caution, because (almost) no one knows all of halacha perfectly and so sometimes this is necessary. However, this is not the ideal, and we should exert as much effort as possible trying to learn and then implement what Hashem would like us to do.
In addition, assuming this principle is true, another issue arises. If there is a halacha, a particular way to be behaving in a given situation, then all the OTHER ways of behavior are NOT correct. Rav Lawrence/Leib Kelemen, among others, has said that if someone is strict in one area, they are, by definition, being lenient in another area. He offers the (extreme) example of a young woman who takes it upon herself to say all of sefer tehillim each time she says birkat hamazon. The problem arises when she eats in her parents’ home, and while she is saying birkat hamazon AND tehillim, she misses out on an opportunity to be helping her parents clear the table and wash the dishes. It’s nice that she wants to be saying tehillim, but that is NOT what Hashem wants from her in that given moment. This type of situation addresses why #1 creates problems.
I’ll throw in another example of how being strict in one area causes lenience in another. There’s a question as to whether your food is kosher. You can be strict on kashrut, but you will be lenient in baal tashchit. Or vice versa. (Someone is going to tell me – “look! You can’t win!” but I say if you tried to learn the halacha, and you are trying to do the right thing, you can’t LOSE. )
Another problem that often arises is – it is assur to add to the Torah. Now, when a chumrah gets started, the person who thought of the thing either knows halacha well, or doesn’t.
If you DON’T know halacha well, being machmir is only a temporary fix. Now that you know you have had such an issue, you have the opportunity to find out what the halacha is so next time you’re in such a situation, you’ll know what to do.
If you DO know the halacha, you had better be careful when dealing with others and make sure they know that this is a chumrah and not halacha. Otherwise you are putting a stumbling block in front of a blind person, which, incidentally, is also assur. Especially when you are around someone who you both aknowledge knows less than you do. Chances are they are watching you to see what the CORRECT BEHAVIOR is. So you must explain.
[How do you start a new minhag? Tell a joke to a baal teshuva.]
If something hops on the commandment list without being authorized by G-d or His dudes (ye rabbinic authorities), it kind of gives a bad rep to the 613, as it makes people question them more, and increases the chance that someone will come along and ridicule a mitzvah (which is SO not allowed.)
Another problem with chumrahs is as follows. If someone is trying to become frum, or to increase their Torah observance, this whole extra chumrah thing could be viewed as a burden.
Rebbetzen Heller (yes, I’m quoting her again, I’m on a R. Heller kick lately!) says that if something is halacha, it is because Hashem considers it to be good for everyone (EVERYONE!) in that given situation. There are other things that are optional, gray area if you will, and those are good for some of the people, some of the time, and other people at other times, and never for the rest of them. If you have a fresh B.T., or someone traveling that path, and they see this huge boulder in their way, it could be a bit intimidating. OR a lot intimidating. They might even decide to turn around and walk the other way, or leave the path altogether. Now, if this boulder is halacha-related, so fine, its cool, they made their decision and they have to deal with the consequences, as Hashem put the boulder in their path.
But if that boulder is a chumrah, and it was put there by an individual person (note – you’re not allowed to impose your chumrah on other people, its assur) or a community standard, then you are partially responsible for turning this person off. And that is a HUGE responsibility to have on your head.
This is just another example of a situation where being strict leads to being lenient (but now on a community level). If a community standard includes certain chumrahs, it may make other people who might have moved into this community feel less welcome. This brings us back to the stumbling block issue as well, perhaps causing people to live in a less frum community, etc. (I define frum as being close to Hashem according to what He wants us to do, which brings me to my next point…)
Very often when people take on chumrahs, you’ll notice that they are in external areas, i.e. tznius, kashrut, etc. [post on my inability to keep my pronunciations consistent for another time] and not in less public areas. (You might ask, “If they are in private areas, how would we know about them? Of course the public chumrahs get more publicity!” Well, its true. But I have heard lots of people asking their local rabbinic authorities countless questions about their spiritual paths, and chumrah-wise they generally include only external stuff. This ISN’T necessarily the case when people ask about straight-up halacha. which leads me to believe that a lot of times people are more concerned with appearing frum than with being frum. This puts people as the focus instead of Hashem, which pulls us AWAY from him. So we should really stop doing that.
Now, there is value in having what I like to call the “frum jew handshake”, like when you’re at the mall, and you see a bunch of frum jews nearby, and you want them to know you’re frum too so you throw a “baruch Hashem” into your cellphone conversation just loudly enough that they hear you. It helps to create a closer-knit community in that it (hopefully) fosters love between fellow jews, and that is a good thing. But when it comes to mitzvah observance, it can take away from our doing the mitzvah lishma, for its own sake.
Jew handshake story: When I was in college, in the very beginning, I wore huge wideleg skater jeans. I asked my rav what the deal was with pants for ladies, and he said that if pants are baggy enough that they don’t show the leg separation above your knees, the only problem is regarding minhag hamakom, which a – I wasn’t quite up to at the time, being a bit of a nonconformist I had real idealogical problems with the concept of minhag hamakom at the time, and b – it was college. There were, like, no frum jews. So darnit, I could walk around looking like a more fashionable version of M.C. Hammer if I wanted to (plus, it sent a clear message to the guys – “Can’t touch this…”).
One day I was chillin’ with my jew crew and this girl (not frum, maybe a bit traditional? but she had gone to frum schools so she knew what was up) overheard a conversation I was having with someone and joined in. We were having some sort of halachik debate, and this girl turned to me and said “but you’re not frum! You’re a punk!” Suddenly, I realized what impression I was giving off. Yeah, I liked hanging with punks more, they were more fun than your average frummie chic in my mind, but if I wanted to find those few frum jews out there, I was going to have to dress the part. I had to re prioritize. So I sewed my jeans into skirts that very evening, and, shall we say, the rest is history. (Ok, B”H I’m always going to be a work in progress. 6 years down the line, I get people saying to me – “YOU used to be a PUNK?!” I am still the same inside, I’m just tighter with Hashem now.)
Back to the point at hand. If we get caught up in the “SEE HOW FRUM I AM” mentality, we are going to invest energy there that could have been better spent actually working on our relationships with Hashem. When chumrahs abound, people will spend time “working on” the chumrahs when they could have been working on an ACTUAL HALACHA that they have not yet mastered. I mean, come on, how many people actually make it through the day without speaking even one word of loshon hara or motzi shem ra? Just as a single example, I’m sure we could all come up with more.
Now that I have dissed chumrahs as much as can possibly be, I will say the following. There IS a valid place for them. Sometimes we do need that fence around the Torah. (ie only listening to explicitly sexual music is assur. But I try not to listen to secular music that ISN’T sexually explicit because I find that it often puts me in a mindset where music challenges Hashem (ie – this song is amazing. I don’t want to shut it off and go daven mincha.) I don’t want to test myself in that way, I don’t want to put myself in a situation where music has a chance to become THE PRIORITY, so I don’t listen to it. I don’t watch TV because the shows on put me in a G-dless reality, even for a short amount of time, I become idiot zombie girl. Hashem likes us to think!
My point in all of this is that chumrahs are sometimes appropriate if used sparingly and with a full head of brains.
Ask your local rabbinic authority/spiritual adviser. (No, I do not mean your swami.)