Can You Feel Out A Rabbi’s Opinion Before Committing to Follow It?
Is there a way to feel out a rabbi’s opinion on something before committing to following their psak?
You’ve probably heard that one is not permitted to “shop around” for a psak (ruling) that one likes; rather, one should have a rav whose positions one follows consistently. But what’s the source for this?
Let us turn to tractate Pesachim, page 52b. There, we are told that if one brought sabbatical-year produce from Israel to elsewhere, it is to be burned in that other place. We are then given a dissenting opinion from Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar that one must return to Israel and burn it there.
The gemara then shares an incident in which Rav Safra brought barrels of sabbatical-year wine from Israel to another land. He asked his traveling companions, Rav Huna and Rav Kahana, how their teacher Rav Avahu ruled on this matter – leniently like the first opinion or stringently like Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar. Rav Kahana said that Rav Avahu ruled stringently like Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, while Rav Huna said that Rav Avahu ruled leniently like the first opinion. Rav Safra decided to rely on Rav Huna’s more lenient opinion, saying that Rav Huna is known to be meticulous about what he learns from his teacher. Rav Yoseif, however, disagreed with Rav Safra “shopping” for opinions in this way. He applied to Rav Safra the verse from Hoshea (4:12), “My nation asks advice of its wood, and its staff gives it to them.” The word “maklo” (its staff) is understood as referring to one who is meikil (lenient), i.e., to people who gladly accept any lenient ruling they hear.
We don’t need to defend Rav Avahu from Rav Yoseif’s criticism; Rav Avahu was qualified to rule on matters of halacha and, as noted, the lenient opinion was expressed by Rav Huna, who was known to be meticulous in reporting the words of his teacher. The question does apply to the rest of us, who are not qualified to rule in matters of Jewish law. When presented with differing opinions, do we automatically leap straight for the lenient one? If so, that would certainly qualify for Rav Yoseif’s disapproval, as expressed through this Biblical verse.
We previously discussed a Talmudic dictum to the effect that one who always follows the lenient position is considered wicked, while one who always follows the stringent position is considered a fool (Chulin 43b-44a). Rather, one should make an intellectually honest investigation of a matter and follow whatever is the objective outcome. For our purposes that means having a rav and following that person’s opinion consistently.
To give a real-life example, I am a big fan of the Halachic Organ Donor Society. (If you thought Jews couldn’t donate organs, read this.) A person can elect to have organs removed after the irreversible cessation of autonomous breathing, confirmed by brain-stem death, or only after the irreversible cessation of heartbeat. My HODS card has the box checked for irreversible cessation of heartbeat (which is the more stringent position). This may limit the number of organs that might be used but it reflects the opinion of the halachic authority I consulted on the matter. Many authorities – probably most – agree that the irreversible cessation of autonomous breathing (i.e., the more lenient position) constitutes the moment of death. So I must act according to the psak that I received but I don’t want others to follow me blindly. Everyone should investigate such matters with their own rabbi and not simply copy what others do, no matter how good-looking we might be.
That doesn’t mean that a person can only have one rav. It is possible to have people that one consults on particular areas of expertise, such as matters of family purity. I have experts whom I consult on funereal matters and conversion issues. This is not because I expect these people to give me more lenient rulings, it’s because they are experts in the intricacies of various areas of law.
Everyone is encouraged to find a rav whose approach speaks to them. If one is more inclined towards leniencies or stringencies, it’s fine to accept upon oneself a rav whose rulings are in line with one’s own tendencies. (It must be reiterated that, despite general tendencies towards lenient or strict, every ruling must be made in its own merits and not simply because it’s lenient or strict.) It’s also perfectly legitimate to have more than one rav and to consult with different authorities on different areas of halacha but that should be done because of the authority’s expertise and not because it’s a foregone conclusion that a certain person will necessarily tell you what you want to hear. However, if an authority is merely known to lean to the side of leniency, it’s okay to ask him because his answer to your particular question might surprise you by being stringent. In all cases, though, once a question has been asked and an answer has been given, it is not permitted to seek a more lenient “second opinion.”
Finally, to answer the question you actually asked, you could “feel out” a rabbi’s opinion on a question by saying, “I’m not asking you to poskin but, hypothetically speaking, what would you say if…?” But to ask a rabbi his opinion, then ask another rabbi his opinion – even if one isn’t asking them to poskin per se – would still seem to be the “leniency shopping” criticized by the prophet Hoshea.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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