Parshat Naso showcases the phenomenon of a nazir as the symbol of “chumra” or halachic stringency. By abstaining from drinking wine and from overindulgence in personal etiquette he guards himself against the perils of vanity and the dangers of intoxication. Though halacha doesn’t demand these measures, it recognizes the value of a well-designed and implemented chumra. The nazir section is textually juxtaposed to the story of an adulterous woman; Rashi assumes that a nazir’s decision to adopt a chumra is in response to the revulsion he senses by witnessing adultery. Repulsed by the moral degeneracy of a marital betrayal and worried about his own human weaknesses, a nazir constructs a “wall of stringencies” to avoid dissolute behavior and protect against emotional pressures that could invite similar religious failure.
Chazal were well aware of the impact and benefits of a chumra. Pirkei Avot urges “asu s’yag laTorah,” employing the term s’yag or wall to describe a chumra as a defensive measure meant to guard our precious moral identities. Just the same, Chazal were acutely sensitive to the varied dangers of misapplied chumrot, noting many risks of a chumra-dominated religious experience that doesn’t differentiate between actual halachic restriction and additive stringencies.
If the calibration of chumra is challenging and complex within personal experience it becomes more complicated at a communal level. Often, the broader social needs of a collective overrides the value of a chumra. Often, within the halachic system we witness chumrot being retracted based on communal factors such as tircha d’tzibura (length of public ceremonies), or hefsed meruba (disproportionate financial loss due to halachic restrictions). Furthermore, a beit din must calculate public feasibility before enacting a decree—ein gozrin gezeira al hazibbur ela im kein yecholim la’amod bo (literally: decrees that cannot be practically adhered to cannot be legislated). In fact, the halachic tradition is filled with instances in which private stringencies were not broadly applied to the larger society.
This discrepancy between the feasibility of chumra at a personal level and the impracticality of these stringencies at a communal level is even more pronounced at a national level. Life in Israel isn’t merely collective—in that larger groups of people form societies that create demands that compete with chumra. Life in a Jewish state creates concerns and values that recast the entire conversation of chumra.
One area—which often confuses Jews visiting from overseas—is the experience of kashrut in Israel. Visitors are surprised to find that kashrut standards back home are more straightforward, rigorous and often more reliable. Hoping to “eat freely” in Israel, tourists are surprised by the entangled kashrut experience. Indeed, kashrut in Israel is complicated by many factors that don’t apply overseas. Outside of Israel, kashrut supervision is offered if strict requirements are adhered to. If those standards aren’t met, kashrut supervision will not be issued and interested kashrut consumers will patronize different businesses and establishments. By contrast, in Israel we aspire to national kashrut coverage to enable even non-interested Jews to conveniently eat kosher. An Orthodox Jew in Israel isn’t merely concerned with the kashrut level of his own “plate of food” but aims to enable reasonable kashrut adherence across the entire population. Given this need to establish national kashrut coverage, supervising kashrut agencies have little negotiating leverage and cannot always demand rigorous standards. National carriers such as Tenuva can’t be held to surpassing standards as they are well aware that kashrut supervising organizations need national suppliers to be kosher. This diminishes the leverage of kashrut agencies and necessarily limits the type of standards that can be demanded. Private kashrut organizations such as Badatz aren’t “saddled” with national responsibilities and can maintain stricter standards. The national kashrut agenda in Israel creates complexities that warrant the suspension of certain chumrot that might otherwise be desirable in a personal setting independent of national concerns.
If kashrut in general poses challenges, it becomes even more thorny every seven years during Shemita. Full Shemita compliance has always been elusive. Sadly, in the First Temple era, Shemita was completely disregarded; in the Second Temple era it only applied at a rabbinic level. In the modern era we face two complicating factors. The first concern is similar to general kashrut dilemmas: We desire a national Shemita compliance and aspire to a condition in which every Jew—Orthodox or not—consumes Shemita-approved food. Providing this volume of food is likely incongruent with classic Shemita observance. Secondly, agriculture entails a significant part of our national infrastructure and economic viability. A national cessation of agricultural activity every seven years would be harmful to our economy and at some point even dangerous to our national security. Of course we are promised Divine assistance during Shemita compliance, but do we have the right to rely upon miraculous intervention? Wouldn’t a complete suspension of agriculture and consequent reliance on Divine intervention betray the instructions of ein somchin al hanes, not to rely on miraculous intervention? Hence, Rav Kook spearheaded the arrangement of heter mechira—selling Israeli lands to non-Jews to permit continued agricultural development. This arrangement isn’t merely a suspension of a constraining chumra; it implements an extremely dubious kulah for national needs. In the absence of such significant national cause, this type of adjustment would be spurious; applied in the context of the modern state, however, it is absolutely vital for national sustainability and halachically sanctionable. Outside of Israel this leniency would reflect halachic recklessness and irresponsibility; in the State of Israel it is an irreplaceable element of the national reconstitution of our land and our sovereignty.
Through the prism of a nazir, the Torah projects the complicated experience of chumra. Life in the modern State of Israel adds layers of complication in trying to balance halachic adherence with national needs.
By Rabbi Moshe Taragin
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.