The other night Shir Hadash hosted a lecture by Rabbi David Fink on the topic of Chumra and Kula within Halacha. It was a fascinating talk we hope to have online soon. In the meantime, though, we thought we’d share some of the sources discussed.
In this first installment, we look at a resonsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igeret Moshe, Even HaEzer ח”ד : יח אות ד). He was asked to endorse a new style of baking matzot as the most mehudar (highest level), and thus worthy of a higher asking price and greater consumer interest from those interested in stringent observance. Specifically: Whenever matzah is baked it is first placed on a wooden pole while still dough, which in turn is placed inside the oven. When the pole is removed it is thoroughly cleaned – with sand paper often – to make sure no dough has remained for the next use of the pole; for if any dough had remained, and 18 minutes had passed, then chametz would be on the pole during its subsequent use. The new style advocated by the questioner was to use a NEW pole each time different dough was used, that way eliminating any possibility of chametz ever making it through.
Rav Moshe refused to endorse such a policy and even condemned it: “There are not enough sticks in the world for all Jews to be strict about baking matzot in this way.” He didn’t mention, but perhaps could have, that this is not just a concern about practicability but also ba’al taschit, wanton wastefulness. After all, if a new pole was not halachically required, the creation of thousands of these extra poles – and lack of significant use of any of them – would be a waste. But as we have said, this was not Rav Moshe’s concern. What was his concern though was that: “Further, poor people could not afford to be strict (for obviously this stringency would add a significant premium on each matzah). Therefore, no one should be strict.” He then went on to add the following rule in evaluating whether or not a chumra is a good thing or a bad thing to add to one’s halachik lifestyle: “When ordinary people cannot be strict, even those who can be strict should not do so.” True, he admitted, someone can spend more money on the fulfillment of certain mitzvoth than others – a person can spend his money however he would like — but he should not view it as a religious value. For example, when it comes to Pesach one can either kasher his pots or buy new ones special for Pesach. It would be wrong (as the Gemara in Pesachim 30b points out) to make it a universal requirement for people to buy new pots. If, however, someone wanted to buy new ones because it is easier for them, that’s their right. But they shouldn’t think it’s holier doing so.
From Rav Moshe’s insight we learn two important rules about chumrah. First, it should be practical — something that all of Am Yisrael could perform if it wanted to. Second, one of the considerations of ‘being practical’ is financial; if a chumrah adds significant expense to the extent it would prevent some from performing it, then it should be abandoned as the ideal (though individuals may continue to behave that way, albeit without the belief that it is preferable).