Comments on an Article Entitled "Changing the Halakha" -- Women Reading the Torah and Checking Foods for Bugs

by Mordecai Plaut

Someone sent me an article by Irwin Brandwein ("Changing the Halakha" from a recent issue of Judaism). The article purports to show that earlier sources of halakha are liberal and they have been changed by modern interpretations that have become more strict and restrictive. Two examples given are: 1] a passage in the Shulchan Arukh that is thought to permit women to read from the Torah scroll in public; 2] strict regulations issued by a kashrut authority about eating foods that are suspected of harboring insects.

Sincerity does not seem to be his problem, since he is obviously very sincere.

There are many other problems, however. I will give only two detailed examples, as noted above. They are very characteristic of what he writes and indicate the strength of his claims.

"In the Shulhan Arukh, . . . R. Joseph Caro . . . ruled: `Kol hatemayyim afilu niddot mutarrim le'ehoz b'sefer torah' (Y.D. 292:9) . . . all impure individuals even any women are permitted to hold the scroll of the Torah and to read from it (publicly). The final clause `Veliqrot bo' always means to read liturgically with trope and publicly as part of the worship services."

This is part of a series that is intended to give examples of the "explicitly pronounced liberalism" of Halakha.

It is true that "Veliqrot bo" can mean to read liturgically, but it is not true that it always means this, and it is unlikely that it does mean this in the passage quoted.

The focus in the given quotation is on the holding of the scroll, as is evident in the continuation that is not quoted (see below). This is also evident from the fact that this quotation is from a section on the laws of a Sefer Torah in the part of the Shulchan Oruch entitled Yoreh Deah, which apply to handling it, and not in the laws of the liturgy that appear in an altogether different section of the Shulchan Arukh known as Orach Chayim.

The basis of this law is an extended discussion in the Talmud: Brochos 20b-23b. Throughout Brochos, the word "liqrot" and its cognates are used for any study or reading of the Scriptures, as opposed to study of the Oral Law and not specifically for liturgical reading (e.g. The first mishna: "Mei'eimosai qorin es Shema . . . "). Study of the Scriptures is called "reading" since, as it deals with the Written Torah, reading is its central activity in contrast to the Oral Law (in those days).

Moreover, the specific law in question is set against the issue of male tum'ah, which was once stricter than female tum'ah in this respect. A male who was tomei through normal marital seminal emission was not allowed to study (read) Torah, according to many opinions, until he purified himself. The passage comes to tell us that these restrictions do not apply to any tomei today.

This would be more evident had the author translated his own quotation more exactly. "Afilu niddot" does not mean "even any women" as he has translated but "even menstruating women." And the point being made is that even though in some respects their tum'ah is stronger than a man's, nonetheless they (as well as men) may hold a sefer Torah and read it, meaning study it, as long as their hands are not dirty, as the passage continues.

If I may be allowed to speculate a bit, this false reading of the Shulhan Arukh might come from a much broader failure to appreciate one of the presuppositions in halachic discourse that crops up again and again in modern discussions of reading the Torah in public.

The public Torah reading, in the halachic life, is not the high point or focus of the communal liturgy. It is a part of it, but not the main part. The key part, about which all else revolves, is in fact the silent Amidah. This may be surprising only to those who are used to considering public acts to be the main part of life.

Moreover, the main part of observing the Shabbos, from the Torah/halachic point of view, is not the communal liturgy altogether, but rather the meals at home, the three Shabbos seudahs. These include the fulfillment of the Biblical commandments to "Remember Shabbos" (at kiddush) and the Rabbinical additions of honoring it and making it pleasurable. They are certainly more unique to Shabbos and also more central to its observance and to its message.

In fact the public Torah reading is not important enough to have developed a special name or technical term to refer to it. Generally as well, the body of law that refers to it treats of general Torah study and the reading of the Torah as just one instance of Torah study.

Thus, an example that the author cites as showing a supposed past leniency.

An example that he gives of what he calls "tinkering with our dietary laws" is a Montreal kashrut publication that prohibits, due to possible insect infestation since the government standards for cleanliness are far more lenient than halachic standards, the use of many fruits and vegetables without careful checking for the presence of bugs or signs of bugs. That publication also prohibits completely artichokes, asparagus, blackberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chicory, dill, lettuce, fresh oregano and parsely, raspberries and spinach.

It is not clear if the author is aware that this is not the innovation of the Montreal "tinkerers" but part of a more general worldwide awareness in Jewish circles of the presence of insects in foods, which has been gathering for more than a decade.

In fact the problems cited are not a case of tinkering with the laws at all, but a classic case of practice changing due to changes in circumstances. The presence of insects has become a more serious problem in modern times, in part due to the fact that the bugs have availed themselves of modern transport to travel the world. Anyone who has ever brought back citrus (which may carry Mediterranean fruit fly) from outside of the US knows about this. Kinds of insects that never used to be a problem in some parts of the world are now well established there. There are other reasons as well that insect infestation is a bigger problem today than it was in the past.

The prohibition against eating insects is Biblical. In fact there are multiple(4-6), separate Biblical commandments not to eat bugs, see Vayikro 11:42-45 and elsewhere. Also, a well- known Talmudic source quoted by Rashi says: They learned in the school of Rabbi Yishmael that Hashem said, If I had taken you out of Egypt and only accomplished that you do not eat insects like all the other peoples do, that would have been sufficient justification.

So concern about eating bugs is not new, and a modern expression of this concern is not "tinkering with our dietary laws" but tinkering with our dietary practice, which is something quite different.

I think that it is no less than fair to characterize the author's calling regulations issued to avoid a Biblical prohibition "tinkering with our dietary laws" as clearly wrong.

That is not all that I could say about the article but I think that it is enough to indicate its level.

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