• Rav Moshe Taragin



Two gemarot in Shas describe an intriguing phenomenon known as yohara. Although the institution of chumra is a vital component of religious vigilance, it can present many dangers. One dangerous outcome of chumra is the issue of yohara, in which an individual adopts a chumra that Halakha or minhag has clearly rejected.


The first instance (Berakhot 17b) concerns a chatan who, although exempt from shema recital due to emotional stress, nonetheless is “machmir” upon himself and recites shema. A second situation concerns working on Tisha Be-Av. Although the gemara is quite stern in counseling against it, it was never actually PROHIBITED. As a result, different minhagim developed, and some cities never adopted the minhag to cease from work. The gemara in Pesachim (54b) claims that ceasing from work in a location in which this prohibition to work was never adopted, may constitute yohara. 


These are the only two gemarot in Shas to raise the ACTUAL concern of yohara. (There are several gemarot which raise issues which MAY be related to yohara.)


Interestingly, the two gemarot present a double contradiction. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was sensitive to yohara for a chatan who unilaterally obligates himself to kriyat shema, but he was not worried about someone who adopts an issur melakha on Tisha Be-Av. In contrast, the Rabbanan were not sensitive to yohara regarding a chatan reciting shema, but they saw individual desistance from melakha as a yohara issue.


The gemara in Berakhot raises this double contradiction; among the several answers provided, it seems that R. Shisha's approach is the most revealing. He comments that Rashbag was only concerned about yohara regarding unnecessary shema recital because it is BLATANT and MANIFEST: everyone will witness this irregular behavior. In contrast, unnecessary ceasing from labor on Tisha Be-Av may easily be attributed to a range of other factors (such as the person’s current state of unemployment). Since this behavior is not obvious, no yohara concerns entail. R. Shisha clearly believed that Rabban Gamilel maintained that yohara is problematic as a public display of ARROGANCE. By adopting unique and non-conventional chumrot, a person puts himself and his piety on public display, and such arrogance and vanity is unacceptable. Where such conduct can be excused as or even confused with other issues, however, yohara is not an issue.


By contrast, when commenting on the apparent contradiction according to the Rabbanan, R. Shisha provides a very different set of conditions. Avoiding melakha on Tisha Be-Av DOES constitute yohara according to the Rabbanan, even though it is not outright arrogance, whereas a chatan reciting shema WOULD NOT violate yohara, since all ordinary people recite shema. Evidently, according to the Rabbanan, the public nature of yohara is not the primary determinant. Instead, yohara is gauged primarily by the halakhic nature of the added chumra. Reciting shema is not a yohara since the chatan isn’t ADDING or creating any new halakhic concept, but rather subscribing to an extant mitzva from which he is exempt. Since he hasn’t created new mitzvot, he hasn’t violated yohara. By contrast, a person who refrains from working on Tisha Be-Av HAS created an ENTIRELY new halakhic chumra, and he therefore violates yohara even if public perception isn’t affected.


According to R. Shisha, both Rashbag and the Rabbanan accepted the concept of yohara, but they differed about its definition. Rashbag defined it as a display of arrogance and was sensitive to situations in which the arrogance is clear-cut. By contrast, the Rabbanan defined yohara as a prohibition of adding elements to Halakha through the device of chumra. More important than the public nature of the act is the legal novelty of the adopted chumra - whether a person is performing a mitzva from which he was exempt (not a yohara issue) or fabricating an entirely new concept.


This contrast between two different models of yohara may explain the conspicuous absence of mention of yohara in two very interesting gemarot that sound yohara-like. The gemara in Bava Kama (81b) discusses a “social agreement” that Yehoshua instituted allowing pedestrians to walk on the borders of people's fields to avoid well known barriers placed in the public street. Every landowner is Israel adopted these measures, and passersby benefitted from the expedited form of travel. The gemara recounts a story in which Rebbi and his talmid R. Chiya were traveling and noticed a person walking through the street and hopping comically from barrier to barrier rather than taking advantage of the “agreement” which would have allowed him to walk calmly through neighboring fields. Rebbi was upset by this behavior which demonstrated arrogance in front of himself and R. Chiya, who were Rabbonim. R. Chiya pondered [from afar] that perhaps it was his student, R. Yehuda ben Knisa. When R. Chiya's assumption was verified and R. Yehuda ben Kenusa approached, Rebbi rebuked him, "If you were not Yehuda ben Kenusa, I would have excommunicated you."


This story seems like a perfect yohara situation. In fact, Rashi and the Meiri both assume that this conduct was, in theory, in violation of yohara. In fact, Rashi infers from this gemara that yohara only applies in very public displays, as in this case. Although the Yam Shel Shlomo differs, he also assumes that this story bordered upon yohara. If yohara is based on concerns of religious arrogance, this case would certainly qualify as yohara.


Yet the gemara does not mention yohara specifically, suggesting that this issue may be unrelated. Additionally, there as several indicators that a non-yohara concern is at stake. First, Rebbi was specifically annoyed that this public display occurred in the presence of rabbis, whereas yohara proper is equally forbidden if performed in the presence of laymen. If the problem concerned yohara, why did Rebbi note the presence of Rabbis? Additionally, why was this person ultimately excused because he was a known talmid of R. Chiya? Again, presumably yohara is problematic even when performed for sincere intent. Finally, why did Rebbi consider the punishment of excommunication in this case? There is no precedent for applying this penalty in cases of yohara. All these factors suggest that yohara is not operative in this gemara.


If we assume that yohara stems not from the display of arrogance but rather from the fabrication of neo-halakhic behavior, this situation would not qualify as yohara. The allowance to tread upon other people's fields was part of a broad social contract that Yehoshua institutionalized. Choosing not to enjoy those benefits has nothing to do with Halakha; this is a non-halakhic issue. Adding an issur to Tisha Be-Av or even adding a mitzva of shema from which a person is exempt would entail halakhic reconfiguration and potential yohara issues. Declining a public benefit, however, has little to do with halakhic landscaping.


If this is true and the operative factor in Bava Kama is not yohara, Rebbi’s concerns may instead revolve around the issue of kavod rabbanim/Torah. As Rebbe himself said, he was opposed to the promotion of “self” in the presence of torah leaders. This deviation may very well mandate excommunication – as does all insult to talmidei chakhamim. Furthermore, the fact that R. Yehuda ben Knisa was HIMSELF a talmid chakham may have mitigated the punishment.


To summarize, it is altogether feasible that the concern in Bava Kama was unrelated to yohara and therefore was governed by halakhot which do not apply to yohara. In particular, if yohara constitutes extending the halakhic system, it would not apply in Bava Kama in a situation of non-implementation of socio-economic rights.


A second gemara that may sound similar to yohara but which may not be is a gemara in Ta’anit (10a). The mishna describes the early stages of a potential famine and the preliminary fasts that are conducted. If rain has not arrived by the 17th of Cheshvan, initial fasts are implemented for “special” individuals. The gemara elaborates that talmidei chakhamim are the “special individuals” who adopt these early fasts. R. Meir bans common folk from participation, whereas R. Yossi allows it. Presumably, R. Meir’s objection was based upon yohara – a common person accepting fasts typically reserved for scholars would be projecting yohara. R. Yossi justifies his allowance by claiming that anything which entails “tza’ar” or suffering would not be problematic.


Despite the initial sense that yohara concerns influence R. Meir’s restrictions, it may not be so obvious. Again, if yohara is problematic because of the display of arrogance, this case would be a prime example. By adopting a fast normally reserved for a talmid chakham, a common person is broadcasting presumed erudition. However if yohara were based upon extending Halakha to new categories, we may not apply yohara to adding a fast day. The mechanism of a fast day in response to either general or personal crisis is a well-established method of teshuva and adopting a fast cannot be considered “adding” to the halakhic system. Furthermore, if yohara dictated R. Meir’s restriction, how could the presence of suffering relax the concern according to R. Yossi? We have no record or likely logic to explain the release of yohara concerns if the person endures suffering. If anything, perhaps the suffering conveys greater heroism, and therefore greater self-promotion.


Again, it is possible that this gemara has little to do with yohara, and for that reason does not mention it specifically. As previously noted, specifically if yohara entails introducing novel halakhic concepts, this case would not qualify as yohara, since it merely describes adding extant halachik conventions. Instead, R. Meir and R. Yossi merely address the internal dynamic of fast days. R. Meir was concerned with the possible inflation of fast days; if everyone fasts immediately, we forfeit potential responses to more severe situations, which demand more intense fasts. If we “pull out all stops” from the very beginning, we may very well be hamstringing future responses. Hence, the process is performed in stages, and commoners are not allowed to join the preliminary stages. R. Yossi, on the other hand, felt that in as much as fasts generate suffering and are implemented in response to challenges, they will naturally intensify even if everyone joins the initial stages. R. Meir and R. Yossi debated the inner psychology of fasts and human conduct, not the issue of yohara.


In summary, by defining yohara as displays of arrogance, we lend the category broad definition and would likely extend it even to gemarot that don’t explicitly mention it. By contrast, if we define yohara as extending the halakhic system to novel halakhic activities we may limit yohara to cases in which actual halakhot are innovated and practiced. The two gemarot that don’t mention yohara may be avoiding invoking this principle since it wouldn’t apply to social policy, nor would it apply to classic expressions of teshuva.