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Shabbat Parashat Vaetchanan| 5765
Ask the Rabbi
Question: Instead of answering a question we received, we want to discuss the following question, which we often ask ourselves. What is our role and mandate in the “Ask the Rabbi” service, a relatively new forum for answering (and publishing some) halachic questions?
Answer: There have always been three basic forms of deciding halachic questions that arise. The first sounds surprising but is actually the most common. A layman independently deals with questions that arise based on his memory, sources at his disposal, or his intuition. Sometimes this is done responsibly and sometimes less so, but the phenomenon is inevitable.
A second type of halachic decision is reached by the local rabbi. He is the local expert on halacha and, also importantly, on local practice and his congregants’ backgrounds and needs. He answers some questions effortlessly, whereas others require hours of research, analysis, contemplation, and halachic acumen. However, rarely does the local rabbi take on a halachic consensus on a crucial matter or render a decision that creates a new minhag. His standard ruling, given orally and often informally, does not serve as a precedent beyond his local constituency.
The third type of halachic decision is one that is rendered by a recognized posek (expert, halachic authority). Rulings of such poskim are rendered in three possible, primary forums. 1) The posek is himself a local rabbi, who answers questions and gives instructions to his community. 2) He writes sefarim on halachic topics, which are studied by rabbis and knowledgeable laymen throughout the world. 3) He answers questions that are posed to him by rabbis throughout the world, who see the posek as a world-class authority to be turned to for questions that they deem to be too complex or too weighty to handle alone. Many of these responses have been preserved for posterity, and they include straightforward answers along with surprising or groundbreaking rulings on old and new questions alike.
For a decade and a half, Eretz Hemdah has been answering questions posed by rabbis, as described above. All of our responses underwent a process of approval by leading halachic authorities, originally, by our mentor, Harav Shaul Yisraeli z.t.l. and, subsequently, a very qualified panel of rabbanim. The responses have been published in the volumes (five, to date) of Bemareh Habazak and have taken their place in many bookshelves of halachic literature.
The idea of the Internet, Ask the Rabbi service was not to use new technology to provide the same service. Rather it was to use technology to widen the reach of the rabbinate to benefit those who either do not have local access or, for some reason, do not desire to take a specific question to a local rabbi. (We often steer those who ask us to local resources and refuse to deal with matters that are in another’s jurisdiction.) We have the disadvantage of lacking an ongoing relationship but have the advantage of sending written responses that have undergone review by a distinguished panel of rabbis (volume and language do not allow the same group). We choose questions that we feel are appropriate for the public and share them with a broad, reading public.
Our intention in the public forum is to inform and educate, not to render earth-shaking rulings. We, as a matter of principle, do not argue on the clear, halachic consensus. (Of course, a consensus is a highly subjective term, and changing situations may impact on the application of classical rulings). Nor do we lightly disagree with accepted practice, even if, in our opinion, classical sources raise questions on the practice. (The reader should be are aware that a practice that is accepted in one community may not be accepted in others). So we request the following of our readers. If you think that we have contradicted a halachic consensus or widespread practice, please re-read the article, revisit the sources or the prevalence of the practice, and/or contact us with your insight. We will be happy to explain and/or reconsider, as appropriate.
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