Chumrahs – an earful, if you care for it.

ozvehadar.jpg

(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.)

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6 Responses to Chumrahs – an earful, if you care for it.

  1. tzivo nishta says:

    very very true!! A personal example- a certain person I know always says everything is assur, mostly through ignorance. Especially when it comes to hilchos shabbos. His attitude is better safe than sorry. But, in a classic case of crying wolf, he once told me that something I was doing on shabbos was assur, but of course I didnt pay him any attention, because according to him everything is assur. But, it turns out that he was right. Had he not been so involved in chumrah-inflation, I would have believed him…
    Btw, I think the source for the lenient on the one hand but machmir on the other originated with R’Chaim of Brisk who was very meikil when it came to eating on yom kippur if the person was ill. When he was asked how he could be so lenient about yom kippur, he replied that far from being meikil about yom kippur, he was just very machmir about pikuach nefesh!!

  2. Frum Hiker says:

    I used to envision my wedding as having a couple punk/ska bands at a concrete skatepark- preferably with a big street course. I was envisioning this Reel Big Fish or Face to Face version of Od Yeshama- which would totally fit- and instead of everyone dancing like retards ion a circle we would all be running around in circles trying to beat the crap out of each other.

    By the way due to my mediocre skating abilities- IE I can do shove its, 180s and kick flips- I took up trick biking and longboarding and continue to be one of the few frum yids who partakes in such sports.

  3. Yo TN 🙂 Thank you for that, I love sources and the more the better!

    FrumHiker (I still want to call you “Fine Dining”) it sounds like that was a plug for yourself. If you were a girl I’d ask you to teach me some skate tricks (going in a straight line on a flat surface would be a good place to start!) but you’re not so I can’t. One day perchance I will learn, unless babies interfere first.
    I have some music you should check out and review after the 9 days are up. You are SUCH a rebel.

  4. I think that “When we don’t know what to do in a given
    situation, we err on the side of caution.” and
    “building a fence around the Torah” are two different
    though related sources. Doesn’t concept of “building
    a fence around the Torah” usually refer to d’Rabbans?
    Meaning, further laws created in order to keep one
    from even encountering a point of dispute in order to
    further remove a person from the possibility of
    breaking a d’Raita. Like, not riding a bike because
    it might break and then one might be tempted to fix
    it… Come to think of it, I think “building a fence
    around the Torah” is a different concept from Chumrot
    altogether (sorry for the scatteredness, open thought
    process).

    “if someone is strict in one area, they are, by
    definition, being lenient in another area.”
    *nod* difficult problem.

    “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.”
    A friend told me in the name of a Rabbi (I forget
    which one) that the sin of Chava was caused by exactly
    that; Adam was told ‘don’t eat from the tree, lest you
    die’ (paraphrase, gen 2:17) and he told Chava ‘don’t
    touch the tree, lest you die’ (paraphrase, gen 3:3).
    Then the snake bumped into Chava and she touched the
    tree and he said ‘see! you didn’t die!’ and things
    kinda snowballed from there…

    “Very often when people take on chumrahs, you’ll
    notice that they are in external areas…which leads
    me to believe that a lot of times people are more
    concerned with appearing frum than with being frum.”
    wow… nice observation. I’ll have to watch for this,
    and take it as some personal mussar as well.

    “Now, there is value in having what I like to call the
    “frum jew handshake”…”
    lol… interesting… it’ll be less of an issue I
    think once you get married though. Nice story too,
    isn’t it amazing how HaShem can send anyone, even a
    non-religious (or slightly religious) as a shaliach?
    It must mean that somehow somewhere they have some
    kind of special merit, right? Or not necessarily?

    “My point in all of this is that chumrahs are
    sometimes appropriate if used sparingly and with a
    full head of brains.”
    I love this kind of conclusion… it’s always a good
    sign when, after arguing back and forth, one ends up
    with “maybe, sometimes”.

  5. Note: There’s a different between being Machmir and
    not be Makel. There are alot of things people do that
    are Makel, which is just plain wrong. For example, in
    Israel, buying food that just has a Rabbanut Heksher
    and not re-massering it, or eating meat or cheese that
    just has a Rabbanut Heksher, or eating at a fully
    Kosher restaurant that’s open on Shabbat. Then
    there’s what my Rosh Yeshiva calls ‘Kulah Collectors’,
    meaning people who look for the Makel opinion on every
    matter and follow that which is technically OK, but my
    Rosh Yeshiva says it’s a bad sign. He advises picking
    one posek and one shitah and then adding on any
    individual chumrot as desired.

  6. “Note: There’s a different between being Machmir and
    not be Makel.”

    Heck yeah!

    Also, the whole business of Kulah Collection (nice term!) is kind of face-slapping and does not make for a great relationship with one’s Beloved, and is also not conducive to having a great relationship with one’s beloved. Note the difference. (Beloved=Hashem, beloved=flesh y blood)

    Just to make it relatable, using the ‘beloved’ example. A made up story though I’m sure it could happen:
    Ploni and Ploniette are married. Ploni and Ploniette disagree have lots of preferences that are NOT in line with eachother’s. For example, lets say Ploni is really into having the toothpaste squeezed from the bottom, and Ploniette doesn’t care where she squeezes. She knows Ploni has his preference, but he’s not going to divorce her over the middle-squuzing, so she doesn’t bother to change her middle-squeezing habbits. At the same time, Ploniette likes the toilet seat to be left down (she once had an incident where she was in a hurry, didn’t notice that it was up, and fell in. Gross. ) Ploni knows this but he can’t be bothered to put the seat down when he’s done, especially since he knows that Ploniette doesn’t want to cause a fight, so she won’t say anything about it.

    More than that, Ploniette really likes cucumbers, and Ploni’s favorite veggie is tomatoes. They both don’t mind the other, but they prefer their respective veggies. They can only afford one type of veggie at a time, so on their individual days to shop, they get their personal favorite instead of the veggie that their spouse likes.

    They can get away with it, they’ll still have A relationship, but its totally not the same as the relationship between Fred and Marcia, where they have the same preferences as the above couple, but Marcia went out and got an extra temporary job so she could then buy a squeeze-it thingie so she would ALWAYS remember to squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom. And Fred went out and got a part time job so he could get one of those glowing toilet seats – he always makes sure to put the seat down but in case he forgets, the glow will allow Marcia to see that it’s open, even in the dark, so she won’t fall in. And he cleans the toilet daily, so that in case she falls in, its not that nasty.

    AND each of them buys their spouse’s favorite veggie, and saved the seeds and planted them in the yard so they could always have fresh ones, even when their spouse shops and buys the others favorite, the shopper will still have their favorite snack to eat. And they save a couple of seeds from their own veggie because they don’t want their spouse to feel bad that they don’t have the option to eat their favorite.

    OK that last bit was awkward, but you get the idea. We should run to do stuff Hashem wants us to do because we love Him and it makes Him happy and yeah.

    More to say, another day.

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