More decrees or education?

The previous column ended with a question to the public: Should parties with a secular atmosphere be included in the prohibition against drinking at non-Jewish parties, or is teaching to refrain from drinking at such parties enough?

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 08:09

Judaism מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Previous Column’s Question

In the previous column, I asked a question: Most of the restrictions our Sages instituted regarding the wine of non-Jews to prevent assimilation and the abandonment of Torah and mitzvot are ineffective today because many people consume alcoholic beverages other than wine. The prohibition against drinking alcoholic beverages with non-Jews and at non-Jewish parties is also less effective, since in Israel, the process of abandoning Torah and mitzvot and assimilating occurs via a shift to Jewish secular society, as opposed to that of non-Jews. The question is: given all the halakhot and their rationales, is it possible today to issue a gezera (decree) declaring it is forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages in clubs and pubs of secular character, or is it more appropriate not to issue a decree, but rather, to educate against drinking alcohol outside of the context of a mitzvah?

Criticism of the Question

Before I share a few of the responses, there were some people who criticized the question itself. Some did so in a Haredi style: “How can a rabbi consult with the public? A rabbi should lead the public, and not follow them!” Others criticized it in a Torani style: “Rabbi, if the question was to find out what takes place in pubs, or what problematic situations should be restricted – fine; but asking the public whether prohibiting drinking in secular settings should be written as advice or halakha? Since when have we heard the public is a partner in considerations of halakhic rulings?”

First of all, the question was primarily intended to hear different perspectives on the subject. Second, many of the readers are Torah scholars and educators whose opinion is important, as Rambam wrote: “When a court sees it necessary to issue a decree, institute an edict, or establish a custom, they must first contemplate the matter and see whether or not the majority of the community can uphold the practice. We never issue a decree on the community unless the majority of the community can uphold the practice” (Hilkhot Mamrim 2:5).

Our Sages said (Avodah Zarah 36a, b) the source for refraining from issuing a decree the public cannot abide by, comes from the verse: “You are cursed with a curse, but you rob Me, the whole nation!” (Malachi 3: 9). In other words, if the entire nation can fulfill the decree – it should be issued; if not – it should not be issued. Rashi explains: ‘You are cursed with a curse’ i.e., the public accepts upon themselves a decree through an oath thus prohibiting them, but consequently ‘you rob Me’ – because, not being able to uphold the decree, the oath is transgressed. Thus, if the Sages issue a decree the public cannot uphold, they cause the public to sin.

Moreover, today we are unable to issue a new gezera; rather, the question is, if learners of Torah and the public think the existing decrees should also include drinking alcohol in a secular atmosphere.

Enlightening Comments

From the responses I received, I learned a great deal from the personal experiences and different opinions of my readers. I will quote from two similar responses, and then, explain the process of how gezerot(decrees) are issued.

“Rabbi, although you directed the question to young people and I am not so young anymore, and certainly do not spend time in places like bars, clubs, etc., some of my family unfortunately sometimes do. In my humble opinion, the definition should preferably be given as guidance, and not halakha. This way it will be easier for young people to accept. For, in any case, defining it as halakha won’t be very effective because young people will always invent all sorts of arguments why drinking and having a good time is permissible. It is also worthwhile to add reasons why drinking alcohol is bad other than unruly conduct and clowning around, such as the health damages of habitual drinking, and the moral reasons as well, like the fact that drunkenness leads to quarrels, stabbings, and road accidents. Also, to advise those who dodecide to go to bars, to drink small amounts, slowly, and so forth.”

Another response: “In my humble opinion, there is no point at all in writing it is forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages in bars and parties of a secular nature … On the contrary, similar to what you wrote rabbi, sometimes setting extreme restrictions distances people instead of bringing them closer, and in this case, determining it as a prohibition is liable to lead to a disregard for rabbinical writings on this subject altogether. If I were to propose a suggestion, I think it would be worthwhile to be meticulous about the kashrut of food when in a secular environment, and emphasize that the laws of kashrut require special study for those who find themselves in secular environments. Also, to strengthen the fulfillment of mitzvoth, and never forget to recite all blessings, and even recite them out loud, to give emphasis to religious identity.”

The Dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel

“Anshei Knesset HaGedolah” (the Men of the Great Assembly) said three things: “Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah” (Avot 1: 1). The fences indeed restrict Jews from violating the prohibitions of the Torah; the question is, is it preferable to institute more fences, or is it preferable to invest in education and guidance, and less in setting prohibitions.

On this question, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. Beit Shammai tended to be strict, believing that additional restrictions and decrees should be established in order to fortify the observance of Torah. Beit Hillel, on the other hand, acted modestly, believing it was preferable to attempt to educate, and minimize issuing gezerot, for adding too many decrees weakens and distances the general public from the observance of mitzvot.

Generally, halakha goes according to Beit Hillel who were more numerous, and whose words were more accepted by God and man, as our Sages said: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel… Then a bat kol (heavenly voice) issued, announcing: The utterances of both are the words of the living God, but the halakha is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel… because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before theirs”(Eruvin 13b).

Once, however, at a very tense meeting in the attic of the house of Hananiah ben Hezekiah, a dispute arose between the students of Beit Shammai and the students of Beit Hillel. When it came to a count, there were more students of Beit Shammai, and eighteen gezerot were decreed that day. Most of the decrees dealt with the addition of restrictions in the laws of tumah (impurity) and taharah (purity), especially in matters invalidating the terumot (heave offerings) that the Kohanim (priests) would eat in purity, but at the same time they also made a decree on the wine, bread, and oil of non-Jews (Shabbat 13b; 17b; Avodah Zarah 35b).

Rabbi Eliezer, who tended towards Beit Shammai, said: “On that day they overfilled the measure” i.e., they set limits in a beautiful and good way, to restrict the people from transgressions. Rabbi Yehoshua, who was from Beit Hillel, said: “On that day they emptied it,” in other words, they decreed too many decrees that were difficult for the public to uphold, and while violating the decrees of the Sages, people are also drawn to violate the laws of the Torah (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:4; Rashi, Shabbat 153b). Before relating what happened to those decrees, I will speak a bit about that meeting.

The Story of the Assembly in the Attic

Concerning Hananiah ben Hezekiah, in whose house the gathering took place, our Sages said: “In truth, that man, Hananiah ben Hezekiah by name, is to be remembered for blessing: but for him, the Book of Ezekiel would have been hidden, for its words contradicted the Torah. What did he do? Three hundred barrels of oil were taken up to him and he sat in an upper chamber and reconciled them.” Apparently, from time to time the Sages came to visit him to discuss words of Torah, and once when important discussions arose, “They took a count, and Beit Shammai outnumbered Beit Hillel, and on that day they enacted eighteen decrees.” Although Beit Hillel usually was the majority, it’s possible that at that meeting some of those from Beit Hillel joined Beit Shammai, perhaps because Hananiah was inclined towards Beit Shammai, and thus the gezerot were decreed according to the opinion of Beit Shammai (Mishnah and Gemara, Shabbat 13b).

It is said in the Yerushalmi: “That day was as difficult for Israel as the day the Golden Calf was made [because of the terrible tension that had arisen and had almost caused bloodshed]… Rabbi Yehoshua taught…the students of Beit Shammai stood below and were killing [an exaggeration] the students of Beit Hillel” (Shabbat 1: 4). In other words, the students of Hillel saw that the students of Shammai outnumbered them and they wanted to leave and thus cancel the assembly before being counted, and the ruling is decided according to Beit Shammai. But the students of Shammai “stuck a sword in the Beit Midrash (study hall)” to express the severity of the matter from their point of view – that no one should leave and no one should enter until a decision was made. The students of Beit Shammai were the majority, and the gezerot were decreed according to their opinions, and among the gezerot they also decreed on wine, bread, and oil (Shabbat 17a, b; Rambam in the commentary of the Mishnayot, Ra’avan, Chatam Sofer ibid. See Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:4, that some are of the opinion that from the outset bread and oil were decreed by agreement).

The Fate of these Decrees

Although Beit Hillel generally was the majority, and this majority expanded over the generations, the Torah scholars of Beit Hillel did not seek to challenge the validity of the decrees determined according to Beit Shammai, since they were accepted decisively, and by means of mesirut nefesh [self-sacrifice] (Avodah Zarah 36a).

However, in practice, following the destruction of the Temple and the cancellation of taharah in Israel, most of the eighteen decrees were terminated in and of themselves. Moreover, it became clear there was room for concern among the Sages of Beit Hillel, since, in practice, many of the Jews did not comply with the decree on the oil: some two hundred and fifty years after the prohibition in the early days of the Amoraim, the Sages probed and found that the gezera of oil had not been accepted by the majority of Jews, and Rabbi Yehuda Nisiah, the grandson of Rebbe, together with his Beit Din (religious court) annulled the decree prohibiting oil. It is further stated in the Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1: 4) that at times the attempt to observe the gezera on oil led to life-threatening situations since oil was in great need, and occasionally Jews would go up Har HaMelech to harvest olives, and the gentiles would kill them.

The decree on bread was also lessened by Rebbe, the author of the Mishna, and in the wake of his words, pat paltar goy (a gentile baker’s bread) was permitted. Nevertheless, the prohibition on wine remained in place, and our Sages even decreed it forbidden b’hana’ah (all types of benefit), lest it had been poured for avodah zarah (idolatry). They also added a prohibition of drinking alcoholic beverages at a non-Jew’s house, or near his store.

Thus, the conclusion emerging from the words of our Sages over the generations is that the main fence against assimilation they reinforced is wine and alcohol, and consequently, there is room to deliberate drinking in a secular atmosphere. However, we have also learned from this matter to be very careful in adding prohibitions.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew. For a more in-depth look at the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, please read Rabbi Melamed’s article: