Shiur #07: Rigor and Restraint in Halakhic Theory and Practice

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


In this shiur we will examine a general and characteristic tendency of the Gra. Our discussion will be based on two issues in the Gra's halakhic thought and through them we hope to reach a fundamental understanding that connects also to other matters that we have already seen. As usual, we will open our study with a comment of the Gra regarding a halakha appearing in the Rema's strictures to the Shulchan Arukh.


I. One Who is Exempt from an Obligation but Nevertheless Fulfills it is Called a Fool


 It was customary practice on Shabbat ha-Gadol to read the story of the exodus from Egypt from the Pesach Haggada. The Rema writes as follows:


It is the custom to recite the Haggada at Mincha, from the beginning of Avadim hayinu until Le-khaper al avonoteinu. (Orach Chayyim 430)


In his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh (ad loc.) the Gra explains the custom as follows: "Because then the redemption began with its taking." That is to say, the people of Israel were commanded to set aside an animal as the paschal offering on the 10th of Nissan, which that year fell out on Shabbat, and with that the process of redemption began. In the continuation, however, the Gra rejects the custom:


This, however, is incorrect, for it is explicitly stated in the Mekhilta, as the end of Parashat Bo: "Do I hear [that the discussion of the exodus begins] from Rosh Chodesh? Therefore the Torah says: 'On that day' (Shemot 13:8). If 'on that day,' can this mean while it is yet daytime? Therefore the Torah says: 'Because of this' (ibid.) – when matza and maror are placed before you."


That is to say, the Mekhilta indicates that the obligation to tell the story of the exodus applies only on the night of the Seder, when the obligatory matza and maror are set before us. And indeed, it says in Ma'aseh Rav that on Shabbat ha-Gadol "one does not recite Avadim hayinu, for the reason explained in the Mekhilta" (177).


The Gra's argument sounds simple, only that after careful consideration, it turns out to be exceedingly problematic. Is it possible to imagine that there is any kind of contradiction whatsoever between the Mekhilta (which is cited in the Haggada itself) and the Rema's custom? Surely the Mekhilta is investigating the time of the Torah obligation to relate the story of the exodus, as is set down in the Torah: "You shall tell your child on that day" (Shemot 13:8). The question is: What is meant by "on that day," and the Mekhilta’s conclusion is that the time of the obligation is not before the night of the 15th of Nissan. Those who conduct themselves in accordance with the practice cited by the Rema do not disagree with this. Reading the Haggada on Shabbat ha-Gadol is certainly not more than a worthy custom, and everybody agrees that even one who engages in this advanced reading is still obligated to fulfill the mitzvaat its proper time. This custom can be seen either as a preparation for the Seder night, or else, as an expression of gratitude that arises on the day that the people of Israel were commanded to begin preparing for the exodus from Egypt. In either case, there is no contradiction whatsoever between the custom and the Mekhilta's determination. How then are we to understand the Vilna Gaon's opposition to the custom?


The Gra's argument appears to be based on the unique function that the Gra assigned to the rabbinic sources, and on the relationship that he saw between them and the world of practical Halakha. In the world of halakhic decision-making that preceded the Gra, the words of Chazal served several functions – from them the rabbinic authorities derived halakhot and other obligations, through them they reached decisions about how to act in cases of doubt or dispute, and to them they returned in order to make sure that new and developing customs do not clash with existing halakhot.


According to the Gaon of Vilna, however, the words of Chazal serve an additional function. According to him, knowledge of the source of a particular actionis meant, in the ideal situation, to accompany the performance of that action. When an individual fulfills a mitzva, he should aspire to know its source. The observance of Halakha involves a grand vision: the practical realization of the words of Chazal who interpreted the biblical texts and introduced ordinances in order to preserve them. Every detail that we observe in the service of God joins a magnificent system that draws from the foundations of the Oral Tradition, and through it even from the Written Law. Based on this approach, the Gra concludes that to take the Pesach Haggada, and read from it not at its proper time, without a source, is wrong, groundless, and detached from any context. The absence of a source impairs the execution, and the natural logic and good intentions that stand behind such a step change nothing. As the Gra formulates it: This is "incorrect," or more literally, "something that isn't (davar she-eino)."


Let us consider another example of this phenomenon. There is a well-known halakha that one who suffers discomfort (mitzta'er) is exempt from dwelling in the sukka. Therefore, one is exempt from dwelling in the sukka when it is raining. The Rema adds, based on a passage in the Yerushalmi cited by the Rishonim, that "whoever is exempt from the sukka but does not leave does not receive any reward for his actions, and is but a fool" (639:4). The wording of this statement alludes to an action lacking reason, perhaps even ridiculous or absurd, but there is no explicit mention here of any sort of prohibition. Nevertheless, some halakhic authorities understood that one is forbidden to remain in a sukka when it is raining. What is the prohibition?


One of the Acharonim, Rav Shmuel Leib Koider, relates to this question in his book, Olat Shemuel.[1]According to him, the prohibition to practice stringency in such a case only applies when the stringency is liable to lead to a leniency. The problem with dwelling in a sukka in the rain is that it interferes with another mitzva – enjoying the day of Yom Tov or showing respect to Chol ha-Mo'ed.Were it not for these considerations, a person would be permitted to waive his exemption from dwelling in the sukka and sit there even during the rain.


However, Ma'aseh Rav implies otherwise. This is what we read there in connection with proper conduct on the first night of Sukkot:


And if the rain did not stop, one should eat in his house. But he should not eat in the sukka even on the first night while it is raining, because then it does not have the status of a sukka.(Ma'aseh Rav, 217)


The plain sense of what is stated here is that one is forbidden to eat in a sukka when it is raining. The prohibition, however, does not appear to be connected to some external problem, e.g., an infringement upon the joy of Yom Tov; rather it is based on the simple fact that "it does not have the status of a sukka."The Gra brings us back to the simple understanding of the Yerushalmi that eating in a sukka in distressful conditions is an action lacking reason and foundation, and this suffices to prohibit the matter. Sitting "as if" in the sukka, at a time when the halakhic sources deny its status as a "mitzvaobject," is in itself considered an action that runs contrary to Halakha.


It would appear that, according to the Gra, it is prohibited to introduce new practices in circumstances where Halakha denies their fundamental validity, even when those practices involve the realization of positive moral or religious values. Reading the Haggada on Shabbat ha-Gadol is certainly an expression of gratitude and of the value of remembering the exodus from Egypt. Similarly eating in a sukka while it is raining expresses love of and emotional connection to the mitzva. A fundamental question arises here: Should there be no limit to the prohibition of such actions? Is there no room to conduct oneself with regard to the observance of mitzvot in a manner that goes beyond the letter of the law – li-fenim me-shurat ha-din? There is room for an extensive clarification of this issue, but this is not the forum for that discussion.


Still, it is worth mentioning one point. In both of the cases that we have seen, the action in question is the same, at least externally, to a well-defined mitzva act. The Pesach Haggada is the fixed format enacted by Chazal for fulfilling the mitzvaof telling the story of the exodus from Egypt. And, of course, a wet sukka is the same sukka as that which is fit to be used for the mitzvaof sukka on ordinary days. The Gra may only have been particular about clearly defined mitzvaacts such as these, that they must adhere to the circumstances and the times when the Torah obligates them. It is possible, however, that the Vilna Gaon would not have opposed the practice, for example, of reciting general words of praise about the exodus on Shabbat ha-Gadol, rather than the Haggada text.[2]


Lighting Chanuka Candles in the Synagogue


Truth be told, the Gra was indeed capable of granting permission to expand a mitzvawithout a direct source in the words of Chazal, relying solely on a persuasive parallel.


According to Talmudic law, one must light a Chanuka candle in one's home, a candle for each "man and his house." Throughout the Jewish world, however, a custom was accepted that is not mentioned anywhere in the rabbinic sources, i.e., lighting Chanuka candles every day in the synagogue with a blessing. The Shulchan Arukh codifies the law in accordance with this custom (671:7). Already the Rishonim discussed the rationale for this practice, which not all authorities were ready to accept. The Shibbolei ha-Leket writes as follows:


But we do not know the root of this practice. My teacher, R. Yehuda refrained from lighting [candles in the synagogue], so as not to recite a blessing. And so am I inclined. (Shibbolei ha-Leket 185)


The Rishonim provided various reasons for the customary practice. The Rivash (Responsa, no. 111), for example, writes that since in the Diaspora the Gentiles are in control, and we do not light candles in the public domain, the public lighting in the synagogue comes to fill the void. This, however, is only possible according to the accepted approach that allows for new practices based solely on rational argument. But the Gra's approach, which insists that one must not observe a practice that lacks a source, is faced here with an exceedingly difficult test.


In fact, the Vilna Gaon in his commentary bases the practice on an ancient source, which is surprising in itself. The Yerushalmi in Pesachim mentions that on the night of Pesach Hallel is recited in the synagogue with a blessing. Now, this recitation of Hallel within the framework of the evening prayers is an exception that is not found anywhere else. What is more, already the Mishna assigns a different framework for Hallel on the night of Pesach – it is part of the order of the Haggada. The Gra inferred from here a principle that in the case of an enactment that is meant to publicize a miracle, the primary fulfillment of which is in the private domain, the publicizing of the miracle may be enhanced through a public fulfillment of the enactment in the synagogue. This principle applies both in the case of Hallel on the night of Pesach and in the case of Chanuka candles.


In this case, the Gra confirmed a custom without giving up his principles. However, regarding Shabbat ha-Gadol, those same principles brought him to reject the common practice, as we saw above.


II. The Place of Supplications (Tachanun) After the Amida Prayer


At the end of the Amida prayer, we fulfill the Gemara's instruction (Berakhot 9b) to conclude the prayer with the verse: "Let the words of my mouth be acceptable etc. (Yiheyu le-ratzon imrei fi)" (Tehilim 19:15). However, it is customary to also add a section of supplication (Tachanun)after the Amida prayer, which opens with the words "My God, keep my tongue (Elokai netzor)."This supplication has a source in the Gemara, but there is no Talmudic obligation to recite it. The question arises whether the verse, Yiheyu le-ratzon, should be recited before or after the Elokai netzor supplication. Two customs developed. According to the Shulchan Arukh, Yiheyu le-ratzon should be recited immediately after the closing blessing of the Amida, whereas the Rema's custom was to recite it after the Elokai netzor supplication (Orach Chayyim 122:1; see also par. 7).


What stands behind this controversy? The Rema himself explains that the two positions share a common assumption: the supplication is not part of the Amida prayer. This being granted, the disagreement revolves around the question: Where does the Amida prayer end? According to the Rema's explanation, Rabbi Yosef Caro sees the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse as the conclusion of the Amida, and therefore he says that one should not insert a non-obligatory supplication between Sim shalom (the last blessing) and that verse. The Rema argues that according to his custom, the Amida prayer concludes at the end of the Sim shalom blessing, even before we have recited the aforementioned verse. We are therefore permitted to insert a supplication that is not connected to the Amida prayer. Based on this understanding, the Rema concludes that the difference in custom has another practical ramification. According to the Shulchan Arukh, just as one must not recite the Elokai netzor passage before the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse, so too one must not interrupt with anything else, e.g., responding to Kedusha, for according to him, the Amida prayer has not yet concluded. In contrast, according to custom of "these places" cited by the Rema, one is permitted to respond to Kedusha, just as one is permitted to recite the supplication passage.


Other important Acharonim, such as the Bach and the Taz, agree that Elokai netzor is not part of the Amida prayer, and based on this they challenge the Ashkenazi custom to recite that passage before the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse. According to them, the plain sense of the Gemara supports the view of Rabbi Yosef Caro that the Amida concludes with the verse, and therefore there should be no interruption between the final blessing and the verse. In the wake of their rulings, later Ashkenazi prayer-books began to add another recitation of the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse before Elokai netzor, without cancelling its recitation after the supplication, as had been the accepted practice.


All this stands before the Gra in his commentary. He strongly rejects the convention that the supplication should be separated from the Amida. Indeed, the Amida concludes with the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse, as argued by the Shulchan Arukh; but who says that a supplication cannot be inserted before that verse? Surely, one is permitted to add personal requests even in the body of the Amida blessings.[3] The supplication after the Amida is part of that prayer, and therefore it should be inserted prior to the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse. As opposed to the position of the Rema, this does not mean that at that point in the service one is permitted to respond to Kedusha, which is not part of the Amida prayer. This is forbidden as long as one has not yet recited the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse.


It should be noted that the Gra's words imply that one should be particular not to recite the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse before the supplication, but only after it. This point is not clear. Let us assume that the Amida prayerconcludes with the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse; but why can one not recite the supplication after the Amida? Is there something wrong with that?


A disciple of the Vilna Gaon cites the following in his name, and thus sheds light on his position:


Our master the Gaon said that well do those who recite Elokai netzor and the other supplications before Yiheyu le-ratzon; for after Yiheyu le-ratzon he has already completed the prayer, and it is as if he uprooted his feet…. (Imrei No'am, Berakhot 3b)


The Gra adduces proof for his position from the Gemara:


Although it was laid down that a man may ask for his needs in the Shome'a tefila blessing, if he wants to say something after his prayer, even at length - like the order [of confession] on Yom Kippur, he may do so. (Berakhot 31a)


The Gemara permits one to add a short request in the Shome'a tefila blessing, but after the Amida he is permitted to add even a very long prayer, "something like the order of confession on Yom Kippur." The Gra argues in persuasive manner that there is no need to permit a long prayer after Yiheyu le-ratzon. Did anyone think that one is forbidden to recite a lengthy supplication not in the framework of the Amida prayer enacted by Chazal?


But if he first says Yiheyu le-ratzon, it is obvious that one is permitted to say whatever one wants, for it is as if he uprooted (his feet). Rather, we are dealing with before Yiheyu le-ratzon, and this is what it is teaching us, that even though in the Shome'a tefila blessing, though one is permitted to say… nevertheless it is forbidden to go on at length, before the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse one is permitted to go on at length.


Now we can reach a more precise understanding of the Gra's position. One is clearly permitted to recite supplications as he wishes after the official prayer is over. But Chazal introduced the option of attaching a long personal request to the official prayer, that "standing before the King" that takes place three times a day. And one who does so "does well," that is to say, this is desirable and appropriate. The "supplication after the prayer" of which Chazal and the Posekim speak is not a personal outburst void of any framework, but rather a well-defined halakhic concept. There is a qualitative advantage to supplication recited in this manner, adjacent to the Amida prayer and as part of it.


The Gra continues to argue that sometimes this advantage is not merely optional, but indispensable. For example, the aforementioned Talmudic passage mentions the "order of Yom Kippur" as an example of a long request adjacent to the Amida prayer. The reference is to the confession recited by individuals on Yom Kippur after the Amida prayer (see Yoma 87b). One learns from this that the Yiheyu le-ratzon verse must be recited specifically after this confession. If not, the confession is recited without any connection to the Amida prayer, and in this manner it is clear that one does not fulfill the rabbinic enactment, according to the Gra (in most Machzorim, however, the order is contrary to the Gra's view – Yiheyu le-ratzon interrupts between the Sim shalom blessing and the confession).


Another case like this is Shabbat. Petitions and supplications are forbidden on Shabbat, and the allowance to recite them is only in accordance with the principle set down in the Yerushalmi – "Such is the formula of the blessings" (Shabbat 15:3).[4] That is to say, since the petition is included in the usual formula of the blessing, one is not veering from the fixed formula on Shabbat by saying it. The Gra argues that according to this, the Elokai netzor supplication is permitted only as part of the Amida prayer, that is, before Yiheyu le-ratzon. But according to the custom of the Acharonim to recite the verse immediately after Sim shalom, the supplication should not be recited on Shabbat.[5]


From Epistemology to Phenomenology


We saw in this shiur two chapters in the halakhic teachings of the Vilna Gaon, and they seem to present a common trend. We first saw that the Gra opposes mitzvaacts that are performed voluntarily based on some spiritual connection without a firm halakhic source. We then saw his clear preference to integrate personal prayer, which Chazal encouraged, in the official Amida.


The tendency exhibited by these two examples is clearly similar. The Vilna Gaon wants thinking, logic, ethics, faith and religious feeling to be planted in the binding world of Halakha. Independence and spontaneity are not rejected outright, but they must be subject to critical evaluation. They should be nurtured, especially when they derive their vitality from and depend upon binding Halakha. Distance from Halakha diminishes their value. This distance sometimes even requires forgoing them.


From here we see that the Gra's search for the source of every law is not only an epistemological matter, that is, a means by which to know and ascertain the law. The need to clarify the source is part of a more essential matter. The Torah is from heaven, and serving God means being connected to heaven. In the absence of a command, we might be "connected" to ourselves (as is fashionable in modern religious discourse), but the Gra's goal is that our selves be connected to the word of God. This has practical expression, and often involves restraining some desired, religiously motivated practice.


This understanding is also connected to the issues that we discussed in previous shiurim. In light of this, in the next shiur we will reexamine some of the material that we have already seen, with the hope of coming out with a more complete picture.


 (Translated by David Strauss)



[1] Prague, 5583, no. 98; the gist of his words is cited in Bei'ur Halakha, Orach Chayyim, ad loc.

[2] As was noted by the editor, Yishai Glazner, the Yotzer for Shabbat ha-Gadol (which according to the Gra should be recited after the morning service) fulfills this function. The intersted reader can find a discussion of the Gra himself regarding the question we raised here. See his comentary on the Mishna Berakhot (Shenot Eliyahu)chpater 1, mishna 3.

[3] The Taz rejects this proof, arguing that the additions in the Amida are temporary, whereas the Elokai netzor passage is a fixed formula recited after every Amida. An addition of this sort is forbidden in the Amida, and permitted only after that prayer is completed.

[4] The Yerushalmi is cited as normative law by the Rishonim; see Tosafot, Berakhot 48b, s.v. matchil be-nechama; Rosh, Berakhot 7:22; and others.

[5] Imrei Noam, Berakhot 48b. Aaccording to an alternative understanding, a petition is permitted on Shabbat even if it is recited independently, not in the framework of a fixed blessing, provided that it is recited every day (for example, the Harachaman passages recited after Birkat ha-Mazon; the Gra, consistent with his own position, did not recite them on Shabbat). Regarding the matter of petitions on Shabbat, see the article of my revered teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, "Ba'ayat Tefilla be-Shabbat," in Si'ach Yitzchak (Jerusalem 5740).