Parashas Kedoshim: A Man’s Word Is His Bond

My weekly halachah column:

In parashas Kedoshim (19:36), the Torah commands: “Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall ye have”. The plain meaning of hin is a particular measure of volume, but the Talmud (Bava Metzia 49) interprets the word hermeneutically in the sense of hen (“yes”), and thereby derives the exhortation that “your ‘yes’ shall be just, and your ‘no’ shall be just”, which it further explicates to mean that one should honor one’s commitment (even when not formalized by a contract or any other civil ritual), or at least that one should not make a promise in bad faith.

The halachah is that both these types of faithlessness are unacceptable. Some authorities apparently understand that honoring one’s commitment is a bona fide Biblical commandment, and the Minchas Chinuch (#259) assumes that according to this view, a Beis Din will actually compel one to keep his word. The Minchas Pitim (204:11, and see 183:4), however, rejects out of hand the possibility that a mere promise is be enforceable by Beis Din. It is generally agreed, however, that one who fails to keep his word is considered a sinner, and may be publicly declared to be such (Shut. Maharam b. Baruch [Prague] #949, Shut. Maharam Mintz #101).

There is a major unresolved dispute over whether the obligation to keep one’s word applies even when circumstances have changed significantly from the time of the promise (see Rema Choshen Mishpat 204:11, Minchas Pitim Shiarei Minchah end of 204:11). There is also some debate over whether the obligation applies to a commitment made not in the presence of the beneficiary, or to a minor (see Minchas Pitim 204:8), or in various situations where a formal, contractual agreement would not be binding, such as a commitment regarding property that one does not yet own (davar she’lo ba le’olam or she’aino be’reshuso – Shut. Pri Yitzchak 49-50) or conditional or penalty obligations (asmachta – Erech Shai Choshen Mishpat 14:5).

My weekly lectures, on the same topic: Y version, K version.

[I generally deliver two versions of the same basic lecture. The Y version takes place first, and is less formal and delivered in a noisier environment than the K version. The K version includes handouts, usually benefits from additional preparation, and sometimes has some of the rougher edges of the Y version ironed out.]

Parashas Aharei Mos: The Luck of the Draw

My weekly halachah column:

In parashas Acharei Mos (16:8-10), the Torah mandates the casting of lots to determine which of the pair of selected goats shall be “for Hashem” – i.e., offered as a normal sacrifice, and which “to Azazel” in the wilderness. This is one of two Biblical commandments to cast lots, the other being to apportion the Land of Israel among the Jewish people via lottery (Bamidbar 26:55-56). Although the Temple service has not been practiced for millennia, the latter principle that jointly owned property is to be apportioned among its various owners by means of a lottery is codified as normative halachah (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat siman 174).

Similarly, there was a venerable tradition to assign various synagogue privileges, such as the right to say kaddish, via lottery. R. Shlomo Kluger explains that this type of procedure does not violate the Torah’s stricture against all sorts of divination, in which various halachic authorities explicitly include the casting of lots, as the prohibition is of attempts at prognostication, while our procedures are merely intended to resolve the impasse of mutually exclusive claims to some property or privilege (Shut. Ha’Elef Lecha Shlomo Orach Chaim #62).

Various authorities prescribe the casting of lots even where the stakes are higher than mere property or synagogue privileges. The Chasam Sofer rules that when a Jewish community is forced to provide a quota of military draftees, lots should be cast to determine who shall be drafted (Shut. Chasam Sofer 6:29). R. Moshe Feinstein asserts that when a physician is faced with conflicting needs for his services, he should cast lots (where other considerations are not dispositive – Shut. Igros Moshe end of Choshen Mishpat 2:75:2).

My weekly lecture, on the same topic.

The Songs of the Prophetesses and Risky Circumcisions

I currently deliver a weekly lecture (usually two versions thereof) on topics related to the coming week’s Torah reading, and write a short weekly column on halachic topics related to the same (the latter is usually a condensed, written version of the former). I intend to begin posting these regularly here.

For פסח, my weekly lecture was titled “The Songs of the Prophetesses”; it is an expanded version of this post.

My weekly column:

In the haftarah of the first day of Passover, we are told that “all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt” had not been circumcised (Yehoshua 5:5). The Talmud (Yevamos 72a-b) justifies this apparent dereliction by explaining that due to the particular circumstances of the sojourn in the desert, circumcision would have been dangerous. The Ramban in his commentary to this Talmudic passage takes for granted that the general rule that a father’s failure to circumcise his son disqualifies the father from participating in the Paschal offering (korban Pesach) applied to this situation of the Jews in the wilderness, and he therefore assumes that the derelict fathers of that period did not offer the korban Pesach.

The Avnei Nezer (Yoreh De’ah #323) finds this baffling, since the nonperformance of circumcision due to danger is not generally disqualifying. He resolves this by the proposal that a mere “suspicion” (chashash) of danger is insufficient grounds for neglecting the performance of the commandment of circumcision. After all, circumcision always entails some level of risk, and the Torah nevertheless demands it! He therefore concludes that the Jews in the desert had actually acted improperly by not circumcising their sons, and he notes that we are in fact told that the tribe of Levi did practice circumcision in the desert.

The Beis Yitzhak (Yoreh De’ah 2:90), on the other hand, assumes that the Jews were within their rights to refrain from circumcision due to the danger, but that the members of the tribe of Levi were also within theirs to volunteer to brave the danger and circumcise their children. He infers from this that the mitzvah of circumcision legitimizes the voluntary risking of not only one’s own life, but even that of one’s child (but cf. Avnei Nezer ibid. and #326).

Several years ago, I recorded a lecture on the general topic of the performance of circumcision in dangerous circumstances (previously posted here).