I was a bit disappointed that Rabbi Moshe Taragin used the Nazir as an example of a “chumra” (“Chumrot and Life in Israel,” May 24, 2018). While I understand that he used it as a jumping off point to discuss the practicality of keeping chumrot on a national level in Israel, the application of becoming a Nazir to the way chumros/chumrot are commonly understood is not only misleading, but may lead to a widening of the gap between those perceived as being machmir in certain areas and those who are comfortable with not taking on such chumros.
In short, creating a protective fence to help improve religious observance (or to avoid becoming lax at same), such as becoming a Nazir to necessitate abstinence from alcohol, is separate and distinct from following a more stringent opinion on a halachic matter. It’s true that in most cases neither is absolutely required, and it’s also true that both are (hopefully) being done as a means of maximizing religious growth, but one (Nazirus) is taking on additional prohibitions, which, unless there is a dire need, is actually frowned upon, while the other, when not being done purely due to social pressure, is an attempt fulfill an already existing mitzvah (or halacha) in an optimum manner.
For example, we all know that it is forbidden to carry in a public domain on Shabbos. What may not be as well-known is that there is more than one opinion about what constitutes a “public domain.” An “eruv” does not make it permissible to carry in a public domain, it only allows us to carry in an area where it had been rabbinically prohibited to do so because of its similarity to a public domain (a “karmalis”). Although I may have oversimplified the concept (because much more is involved), because, according to some, having 600,000 people is not necessary for an area to qualify as a public domain, many communities would qualify, thereby preventing an eruv from making it permissible to carry there on Shabbos. Some are machmir not to rely on community eruvim for this reason. (There are other reasons as well, such as Rambam’s requirement that the enclosure referred to as the eruv be mostly walls, not “door frames.”) We all agree that keeping Shabbos is important, and we all (I think) agree that it is important for many (most?) to have the option of carrying something (or pushing something) from place to place on Shabbos, so it is important for a community to have an eruv (when possible). But it is also important to fulfill each mitzvah, and every halacha, as fully as possible, and if someone feels that their observance is more complete by following the halacha as understood by well-respected opinions, they should be commended for it.
Not that Rabbi Taragin wasn’t commending them, but his conflating building protective fences with fulfilling a halacha according to more opinions (rather than just relying on the more lenient ones) could leave the impression that being machmir means becoming more of an isolationist, rather than being the result of trying to live by a higher halachic standard.
Why some are more machmir than others, as well as why some are more meikil (lenient), is a separate, and important, topic. But the first step is to understand what it means to be machmir (or meikil), and how it differs from avoiding certain behaviors because they can (at least for some) be detrimental.
Rabbi Dov Kramer