Shabbat Parashat Vayechi| 5763
Ask the Rabbi
Question: I am very confused about a certain attitude among Orthodox people. Many people place a lot of importance on how long you wait between eating milk and meat.
However, let us look at the source of waiting between milk and meat. It is just a rabbinic geder (fence) not to eat them together (when cooked separately) and a further geder not to eat them in the same meal. As a result, people in different cultures who had a meat meal would end up waiting the amount of time until the next meal to eat milk. The whole six hour/three hour thing doesn’t seem to be so important, yet people make you feel so guilty if you take on a more lenient custom.
Answer: I understand your confusion and frustration. Let me try to put things in perspective a little bit.
There is a system behind how halacha and minhag have developed over the centuries. However, there is a lot of fluidity which allows for both Divine intervention, rabbinic ingenuity and socio-religious developments. It is sometimes hard to know how certain rulings/minhagim have developed (although there has been some good research on the topic). Without a doubt, certain issues seem to have taken on a certain “blown out of proportion” importance in comparison to other issues which would appear more crucial. In certain areas, stringency has been added onto stringency, while in other areas, leniency has been added onto leniency.
At times, it is proper for rabbinic leaders to step in and return things to proper proportion. However, most of the time, there is a certain trust in the dynamics of the development of normative practice which causes the rabbinic community to keep hands off. There are two, divergent statements in Chazal on the issue, which happen to start with the same words. One source says: “Leave Yisrael alone; if they aren’t prophets, they are the sons of prophets” (Pesachim 66a). The other says: “Leave Yisrael alone; it is better that they sin unintentionally than that they sin intentionally” (Beitza 30a). (There is a responsa of Terumat Hadeshen (II, 78) where he ends off with the words, “Leave Israel alone, etc.” The poskim try to figure out which of the two quotes he is alluding to and, thus, how enthusiastic he is about the discussed practice). The first quote refers to a confidence in Divine approval of the development of a given minhag. The other refers to a degree of fatalism, that even when a minhag is regrettable, it is difficult (and often unwise) to alter it.
Regarding your specific issue, I agree that we seem to be very stringent, and I discourage people from being overly judgmental of others. However, I also remind you that just as sometimes a minhag (or the weight given to it) is particularly stringent, so too, minhagim can be surprisingly lenient. As traditional Jews, we usually take the phenomenon as a whole, and we follow the stream in most cases, accepting the accepted stringencies along with the leniencies. Passing on family traditions and community minhagim is an important part of our tradition and our spiritual survival and should not be taken lightly.
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