Sunday, 12 August 2018


Shemen laMaor by R. Shmaryahu Schneersohn, the last Rebbe of Kopust, proudly tracing his lineage - in his title-page - back to R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi.


We are all familiar with the story of Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the most popular and well-known Jewish movements in the world today. The movement had seven Rebbes and it is common knowledge that the last Rebbe was considered by many to either have been the Messiah-in-waiting, the potential Messiah, or actually the Messiah.

What is fascinating, though, is that the line of succession from Rebbe to Rebbe was not always a simple matter, nor was it without dispute. The rival groups which had coalesced around the various claimants, also considered themselves to be the true successors of the Chabad movement.

In this article, we will look at a number of claimants to the leadership of the movement over the past two centuries, since its founding in 1775.


After the passing of the founder of the Chabad system, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi[1] (1745-1813), there was a dispute as to who would take over the mantle of leadership and become the second Chabad Rebbe.

R. Shneur Zalman had three sons and three daughters. His youngest son, R. Moshe of Ule enjoyed the special fondness of his father. He was known for his ability to remember details and he was tasked with the duty of repeating his father’s talks to the Chassidim who had not been able to be present at the gatherings.[2]

In 1814, R. Moshe joined his two brothers in signing approbations for their father’s famous Tanya and Shulchan Aruch haRav. Interestingly, some later editions omitted R. Moshe’s signed approbations.  In some copies, the line referring to R. Moshe was deliberately erased and in others, the entire page was torn out.

One of the reasons for this attempt to obliterate all traces of R. Moshe was because it appears that he converted to Christianity.

However, before that, he enjoyed a substantial following and he expected to take over from his father and become the movement’s second Rebbe. According to one account, the Chabad movement actually split into two factions for a period of about two years.

According to another account, when he heard that his brother, R. Dov Ber had indeed succeeded his father, he said:  

“If a goy (Ber was considered to lack his scholarly ability) can become a rebbe, then the rebbe can become a goy.”[3]

[For more details and sources see WHAT HAPPENED TO MOSHE, SON OF THE BAAL HATANYA?]



It wasn’t just R. Moshe who felt he was eligible to take over the reins of leadership of the new movement. One of R. Shneur Zalman’s foremost students for a period of about thirty years, was the very charismatic R. Aaron haLevi Horowitz of Staroselye (or Strashelye, 1766-1828).

Initially, R. Aaron of Staroselye and R. Dov Ber (who won the succession battle in the end) got on well. R. Shneur Zalman selected the two to be study partners and in fact, it was R. Aaron who, being eight years his senior, taught R. Dov Ber his own father’s teachings. However, a dispute drove the two apart and R. Aaron went to settle in Staroselye.[4]

R. Aaron wrote two main books:

The first was Sha’arei haYichud ve’ha’Emunah, after the section in his teacher’s book, Tanya, which went by a similar title. He claimed that the section in Tanya as we have it, was incomplete and therefore his book was the key to the proper understanding of Tanya.

Sha'arei haYichud ve'haEmunah by R. Aaron of Staroselye
His second book was Sha’arei haAvodah in which he differs fundamentally with R. Dov Ber over the role of emotion in the service of G-d. He criticised R. Dov Ber’s insistence on not showing outward signs of spiritual ecstasy during prayer. R. Dov Ber was known to have prayed without movement, while R. Aaron infused his prayers with outward signs of emotion (just like, as he was quick to point out, his teacher - R. Dov Ber’s own father - had done).

In R. Dov Ber’s Kuntres haHitpalut, he writes rather tellingly:

“We observe the majority of the masses moved to ecstasy in their prayers with an external ecstasy, the result of vain delusion in soul and heart. In the category of an external cry, this comes into the fleshy heart with neither light nor life: it is in no way for the Lord...Even though people call the name of devekut or enthusiasm [hitpa’alut] it is, in fact an entirely false devekut...”[5]

One doesn’t need to read too much between the lines to understand the context and nuances of this teaching. This fundamental difference in theology between 'mind' and 'heart' appears to have been a significant cause of their dispute, which was then intensified when a monetary component compounded the issue:

“In a letter addressed to all of the Hasidim in White Russia, Dov Ber asked that they recognise him as his father’s successor by sending him the funds that they used to send to his father in Liady to his new court at Lubavitch.”[6]

R. Aaron passed the mantle of leadership on to his son, R. Chaim Refael (d. 1842). After those two generations, however, the movement was discontinued, and a substantial number of the Staroselye Chassidim returned to follow the official third Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn[7], the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866). It is probable that the Staroselye dynasty lacked the finance and infrastructure to perpetuate itself any longer.


After the passing of the third Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek[8] in 1866, another major succession dispute erupted. The Tzemach Tzedek had seven sons and two daughters. It was, however, his youngest son, R. Shmuel Schneersohn, who became the Rebbe of the town of Lubavitch.

“Shortly after the week of mourning [for the Tzemach Tzedek], a document purporting to be the late rebbe’s will surfaced. To the surprise of many, it tapped the youngest son, Shmuel, and not his older brother Yehuda Leib, as first among equals...Insiders who had watched what was happening at the court during the last years and months guessed that the ambitious young man[R. Shmuel]...would..."make a ‘revolution’ at the court."”[9]

R. Shmuel Schneersohn, as mentioned, was strategically situated in Lubavitch "...where he would call himself both a ChaBaD and Lubavitcher Rebbe. However, the other brothers who similarly established their own individual rebistves [Chassidic courts], took on the names of the towns in which they set up their headquarters.

To complicate matters, the brothers remained attached to and variously interpreted the ChaBad ways, texts, ideas, and traditions. This way R. Shmuel’s brand of ‘Lubavitch’ had lost its ChaBaD monopoly as the other brothers also claimed to represent Chabad.

At the age of thirty-two and in sole possession of the Lubavitcher succession, Shmuel had to come to terms with the fact that ChaBaD was no longer a unified rebistve and that all its various branches were growing in directions over which he had nothing like the control that his predecessors had.

In a number of ChaBaD communities during Shmuel’s reign, Hasidim were divided between Lubavitcher and other customs, and in some cases, fights broke out among the different groups."[10]

R. Shmuel, known also as the Maharash was prone to health problems - and his period as Rebbe was beset with pogroms and other distractions such as modernization, Zionism and emigration. He also did not have many followers, possibly due to the difficult times.

Samuel C. Heilman paints a rather negative picture of R. Shmuel:

“Little from his reign stands out even in Lubavitcher lore. Nor did he outshine his brothers, even though he controlled Lubavitch – indeed there is no official ChaBaD image left behind of how he looked.”[11]

Incidentally, according to a friend and colleague well respected within Chabad, a picture of  R. Shmuel does in fact exist, except it was never published as due to his ill health it would not have done justice to him. 

It was during R. Shmuel's tenure as Rebbe (which only lasted about sixteen years), that he introduced the notion of mashpia, or special mentors who would personally guide the followers through their religious journeys.

Heilman suggests that he may have ‘outsourced’ the leadership role somewhat to compensate for his 'inadequate leadership' and the difficult times. While his father, the Tzemach Tzedek did already introduce the notion of older Chassidim assuming prominent teaching positions (something usually done by the Rebbe himself):

“Shmuel’s appointment of a mashpi’a, however, seems to have been driven more by a desire to supplement his weaknesses, while his father’s strategy might be understood more as a way of controlling his court and keeping it unified...[as] the Hasidim, particularly those older than him [the Tzemach Tzedek], who had powerful links to the past, and later those who had their own charisma, ‘could easily command followers’ of their own. Better to allow them a higher profile, which they would have anyway, in return for their loyalty, then to create schisms.”[12]

Naftali Lowenthal, however, describes R. Shmuel rather more positively:

Besides his communal activism, he had wide intellectual interests. He spoke several languages, including Latin. He wrote widely on a range of religious and secular topics, and much of his writing has never been published and remains in manuscript form alone. His discourses began to be published for the first time under the title Likkutei Torat Shmuel in 1945 by Kehot and 12 volumes have so far been printed.”[13]

According to other historians though:

“Chabad historiography tends to paper over the impression that Shmuel was the least prominent Chabad leader in terms of political and literary activity. For example, the fact that his teachings are less sophisticated than those of other Chabad leaders is explained as his way of reaching lay people.”[14]

In fairness, though, it is possible that the vicissitudes of that period, as pointed out (pogroms, modernisation, Zionism and emigration), may have demanded less of a focus on theological technicalities and more of an outreach to ordinary folk who were grappling with those very real issues.

Whichever way one wishes to view R. Shmuel, the fact remains that after his passing in 1882, there remained a vacuum in the leadership position of Chabad which was only filled about ten years later in 1893 by R. Shmuel’s second son, the Rashab (probably after the elder son relocated from Lubavitch to Vitebsk).


At the same time as R. Shmuel was establishing himself at Lubavitch, his older brother, R. Yehuda Leib Schneersohn, became the Rebbe in the town of Kopys (present-day Belarus).

The Kopust Chabad Chassidim believed they were the rightful heirs to the movement and that they were the official representatives of the previous three Rebbes. The Kopust faction survived the longest of all the other offshoot groups, with a dynasty of four Rebbes and still boasts a number of adherents today, although most re-joined Chabad after the passing of the last Kopust Rebbe, Shmaryahu Noach Schneersohn in 1924. He had established a yeshiva in Babruysk in 1901 and authored the two-volume work ‘Shemen laMaor’.

As if mirroring the earlier debate of 'mind' vs 'heart' between R. Aaron Staroselye and R. Dov Ber, the Kopust Rebbes pointed to the neglect of ‘service of the heart’ in favour of ‘mental contemplations’ or ‘hitbonenut’. As we have seen, this debate seems to have plagued the movement over time and refused to go away.

The oldest Chabad synagogue in Israel is the Baal haTanya Shul, established in 1900 in Mea Shearim and affiliated to the Kopust school. Apparently, in the 1920’s, when the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe visited Israel, he was not welcomed at the synagogue. This gives some indication of conflicting politics between these movements, although the same sixth Rebbe referred respectfully to the Kopust leaders as ‘Admorim’ (Rebbes).


Another branch could be added to the list of parallel Chabad movements as one of the sons of R. Yehuda Leib of Kopust settled and held court in Retzitza. This group apparently only lasted one generation.


Simultaneously, while the Kopust movement was being established by R. Yehuda Leib, another of the Tzemach Tzedek’s sons, R. Chaim Schneur Zalman founded an additional branch, called Liadi. This branch only lasted two generations and was discontinued after the passing of his son, R. Yitzchak Dovber.


And yet another claimant to the leadership of Chabad was established by still another of the Tzemach Tzedek’s sons, R. Yisrael Noach of Niezhin. Niezhin was where Yisrael Noach’s grandfather, R. Dov Ber (the second Rebbe) was buried. It has been suggested that he set up his headquarters in Niezhin as a challenge to his youngest brother, R. Shmuel of Lubavitch, to show that he was indeed continuing with the authentic line. 

This movement of Niezhin, however, did not survive more than that one generation.
Interestingly, his son’s daughter, Nechama Dina later became the wife of R. Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad, so in a sense, both movements were reconciled.


A fourth son of the Tzemach Tzedek, R. Yosef Yitzchak of Ovrutch, also tried to create an authentic line with his Ovrutch dynasty. This group too did not outlive that first generation.


Hornisteipol is another group with strong ties to Chabad and consider themselves to be an extension of Chabad. It began with a marriage arranged by the first Rebbe, R. Shneur Zalman and the Chernobler Maggid (R. Mordechai Twerski) – whereby the former’s granddaughter married the latter’s son.

The groom, R. Yaakov Yisrael Twerski had lived and studied with R. Shneur Zalman and thereafter also spent some years residing with his father-in-law, the second Rebbe, R. Dov Ber.

R. Yaakov Yisrael Twerski later became a Rebbe in Hornisteipol where he taught much of the Chabad teachings he had acquired from his intimate connections with the first Rebbes.

[He was also later to become close to his brother-in-law the Tzemach Tzedek, whose son (R. Yosef Yitzchak of Ovrutch) went on to marry his (Yaakov Yisrael’s) daughter. They, in turn, had a daughter Shterna Sara Schneersohn who married the fifth rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, and she was the mother of the sixth Rebbe, the Frierdiker Rebbe, R. Yaakov Yitzchak.]

This movement still exists today, and they place great emphasis on the teachings of the first three Chabad Rebbes (although they have also integrated some traditions from other Chassidic groups as well).



Another group emerged after the generation of succession battles between the sons of the Tzemach Tzedek. They were formed sometime after the passing of R. Shmuel Schneersohn - the fourth Rebbe - thus claiming their connection only to the first four ‘legitimate’ Rebbes of Chabad. This group was founded by R. Chaim Avraham Dov Ber Levine (1860-1938), known as the ‘Malach’ or ‘angel’. He was one of the closest followers of R. Shmuel. He also was the teacher of the sixth Rebbe R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn!

On his arrival in America in 1923, R. Levine headed the Nusach Ari Synagogue in the Bronx. During that time, the head of Mesivta Torah Vodaas[16], R. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz would come to visit R. Levine in order to study Tanya.  R. Mendlowith would later encourage his own yeshiva students to also study with R. Levine, the ‘Malach’. Many students were thus influenced by R. Levine and the Malachim movement was born. They still exist today in small numbers.

The Malachim adopted a more overtly ‘Chassidic’ style of dressing than mainstream Chabad (who were more ‘modern’) and began to question the authority of their original Rosh Yeshiva, R. Mendlowitz. After some friction, they broke away (or by some accounts were expelled) from Torah Vodaas and established their own yeshiva.

Today the Malachim movement has ties with Satmar and adopt an anti-Zionist position.


No discussion on the issue of the direction of the contemporary Lubavitch movement would be complete without mention of the Meschichits who believe in a form of messianism relating to the last Rebbe. Much has been written about this phenomenon and there is much debate over just how widespread this new movement is.

I wish to share just one point: In the early 1980’s, I was a student at a flagship Chabad yeshiva. During one Thursday night gathering with the Mashpia, we started singing a song which proclaimed the Rebbe as Messiah. The Mashpia immediately stopped us in our tracks and told us never to sing that song ever again as ‘although it was true, it cannot get out to the wider community that that was our belief.’ I remember feeling very privileged thinking that I was now privy to a 'great secret'.


The battle over leadership succession was nothing new to the Chassidic movement. It went right back to the first candidate to succeed the Baal Shem Tov himself.

The Baal Shem Tov had two close students, R. Dov Ber known as the Maggid of Medzeritch, and R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye.  When the time came to hand over the mantle of leadership to the next generation, it was assumed that the more scholarly R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye would assume that vital role.

However, to everyone’s surprise, the following letter[17] from the Baal Shem Tov suddenly arrived at the home of R. Yaakov Yosef:

(My translation follows:)

“...I inform you very confidentially that my teacher, whose soul is in Eden, appeared to me – in (real) life and not in a dream nor in a perception, but in reality face to face.

(And he) revealed to me many matters concerning the mysteries of the world and the era preceding Messiah.

And he also revealed to me that my place will be filled by my (other) holy student, (and) officer of the Torah, Ber, may his light shine.

Therefore, know, my student (R. Yaakov Yosef), what lies before you.

And hand back to me (all) the writings from R. A(dam) Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory (who had handed the ‘secret writings’ to me in the first place), and I will transfer them to him (my successor, R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch).

Enough said.

The matter is secret and sealed.

From your teacher and rabbi,

Yisrael, son of our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem.


Cherson Geniza.

The Seven Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbes, by Chaim Dalfin.

Hasidic People, by Jerome Mintz.

Hasidism: A New History by  David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, Marcin WodziƄski.

[1] Known also as the Alter Rebbe, the Rav and the Baal haTanya.
[2] In more recent times the second last Chabad Rebbe, the Rayatz, wrote of R. Moshe: “The writings of Rabbi Moshe...are in my possession in his holy handwriting and they fill several volumes.” On one occasion, he showed eleven volumes of R. Moshe’s writings to the rabbi of Fastov, and told him that no one knew about these writings, but they were of a ‘lofty’ nature.
[3] See the link above for an in-depth analysis of the story from various angles, including sources.
[4] See Hasidism: A New History, by David Biale, David Assaf...p. 295.
[5] Dobh Baer of Lubavitch, Tract on Ecstasy, translation by Louis Jacobs, p. 67.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Not to be confused with the seventh (last) rebbe with the same name.
[8] The Tzemach Tzedek was the son of Devora Leah, daughter of R. Shneur Zalman.

[9] Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America, by Samuel C. Heilman, p. 216.

[10] Ibid. p. 218.

[11] Ibid. p. 219.

[12] Ibid. p. 220.
[13] Encyclopedia of Hasidism, entry: Schneersohn, Shmuel. Naftali Lowenthal. Aronson, London 1996.
[14] Hasidism: A New History, p. 302.
[15] Although not on the same scale and rather controversial - perhaps another attempt at some contemporary style of leadership is the ‘Liozna Chassidim’. After the passing of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn in 1994, R. Shaul Shimon Deutsch (b. 1966) started a new movement with himself in the position of Liozna Rebbe (after the town where R. Shneur Zalman had resided). He is situated in Boro Park and the followers are called Anshei Liozna.[15] (For R. Deutsch’s unusual story, see here).
[16] Mesivat Torah Vodaas was originally established in 1918 and adopted a ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’ philosophy, which encouraged secular studies in addition to Torah learning. Today, though, it has moved over to more of a Chareidi or ultra-orthodox philosophy. However, it still allows its students to attend college while studying at the yeshiva. Many of its graduates go on to work in the secular workplace.
[17] From the Cherson Geniza. There is some controversy as to whether these letters are genuine or forgeries. Most scholars believe them to be forgeries but, interestingly in our context, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe (in whose library these letters are housed) was one of those who claimed the letters were in fact genuine.

Sunday, 5 August 2018




Sometimes there appear to be two faces to Judaism:

One face is presented to the ‘new recruit’ who comes from a secular or moderately Jewish background. He or she is often the target of outreach work, a listener to a talk, or a participant at a weekend learning programme. This ‘new recruit’ can also be the first year student at a yeshiva or seminary specially geared for such initiates.

To these people, Judaism is presented as being open-minded and sensitive to all approaches and able to offer something to everyone relative to their particular path and level. There are no holds barred and any question goes. The rabbis appear broad-minded and charming; they speak well and smile a lot.

But after some time, when the student starts to move on to some higher form of Torah education - that wonderful multifacetedness begins to give way to subtly dominating dogmas.  Slowly hashkafic or politically religious nuances begin to shut out that initial universal openness.

And when the student has, after some years, come full circle and perhaps wants to assume a leadership role or go into the rabbinate, suddenly he is confronted with a type of ‘deep state’[1] and a strong persuasion to start towing party lines.

Depending on the institution’s affiliation, he is taught to suspend his thinking and adopt the thinking of the group. This is how ‘we’ pasken or rule halachically. This is what ‘we’ eat or don’t eat. This is ‘our’ stance on these issues and ‘we’ only study this book but not that one.
The student has thus been transformed from an inquirer and seeker of truth to a mere ‘spokesperson’ for a religious faction.

This occurs particularly as the student is exposed to the raw mechanics of the popular halachic system.

The procedure of determining a psak or halachic ruling, is an elaborate system which one learns through a process of shimush or a type of apprenticeship. But it is not an exact science and the fact remains that a strong subjective component is often present.

In this article, we will explore a number of different halachhic methodologies and see whether one, in fact, has no option but to become a subjective preacher of dogma - or whether it is still possible to remain an objective pursuant of Torah truth?


R. Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983) writes about a ‘collective Divine inspiration’ which the Jewish People possess when it comes to determining halachic practice:

“God...granted the Jewish people as a whole a sort of collective Divine Inspiration so that they would be able to recognize the correct opinion in questions of Torah law. 
Therefore, when there is any question, it is ultimately decided on the basis of what becomes common practice. Hence, when a decision is accepted as a general custom, it becomes universally binding.
Therefore, any practice, decision or code that is universally accepted by the Jewish people is assumed to represent God's will and is binding as such. Even when a decision is initially disputed, the commonly accepted opinion becomes binding as law.”[2]

R. ASHER WEISS (b. 1953):

This principle as described by R. Kaplan, is reflected in the view of the well-known contemporary posek and dayan R. Asher Weiss. 

Responding to a question on halachic methodology, regarding how to choose from a wide array of different opinions on any given issue, he answers:

“A qualified Rav will have the expertise and training to know which of the opinions is the ‘mainstream’ [and] generally accepted...opinion to rule in accordance with, as well as which other opinions may be relied upon in extenuating circumstances.”[3]


Of course, the question now becomes what is considered ‘mainstream’ by R. Weiss; and - considering all the different types of Jewish communities -  who are ‘the Jewish People’ and what is ‘common practice’ according to R. Kaplan?

The Orthodox Jewish world today is far from monolithic.  The term ‘mainstream’ would take on many different meanings depending upon who one asks. Try inquiring as to whether one can wear a watch on Shabbat, carry in an eruv, sing Hatikvah, drink milk from a government dairy store, don tefillin on Chol haMoed, and whether a feeding mother should fast on Tisha be Av.

The number of permutations of answers to these questions alone would be astounding.
In theory, the principle of the majority works well - but in practice, it depends upon which constituency one belongs to.

In terms of numbers, the majority of the religious orthodox population today is now Chareidi and that creates a de facto Chareidi mainstream. Does this mean that all orthodox practices must now follow that particular ideology?


The question of how to define a halachic ‘mainstream’ becomes even more compounded when we take into consideration the role that kabbalah has to play in halacha. As a general rule, Ashkenazim do not rule by kabbalah (even those Ashkenazim who study Kabbalah) - while Sefaradim do.

Thus the kabbalah component complicates the matter of determining halacha even further.


It becomes even more mystifying when in some circles, the notion of Da’at Torah is introduced as a pivotal factor in arriving at a psak or halachic conclusion.  

It is difficult to refer to Da’at Torah as a methodology as such because it is rather dictatorial in its nature and does not require a technical process of derivation and certainly does not feel the need to offer explanation or elucidation.

Da’at Torah is a perfect example of a ‘Deep State’ at play in some of the more conservative systems of halacha, and in many cases, its authority extends well beyond basic halacha and infringes upon personal, psychological, medical and financial areas as well.  (See KOTZK BLOG 48.)


Rav Kook (1865-1935) dealt with a dispute with the Chareidim of Jerusalem in his letter to their rabbinic court.
Rabbi Kook had certified as kosher for Passover a factory that produced sesame oil[4], and the Jerusalem rabbis argued that his permissive ruling damaged the ‘wall’ or ‘protective fence’ of halachah. If the smallest opening were allowed for the opinion of those who ruled leniently, they feared the entire wall would be breached.

Against the Chareidi claim that this leniency would undermine the entire wall, Rabbi Kook wrote as follows:

“...I well know the character of our contemporaries [i.e.; the non-Chareidi society].
It is precisely by seeing that we are willing to permit whatever an in-depth reading of the law makes permissible that they will understand that we are permitting it because of the truth of Torah, and many who adhere to Torah will come, with God’s help, to heed the words of halakhic teachers.

But if it is found that there are things that the law itself would permit but that the rabbis leave as prohibited, showing no concern about the resulting burdens and difficulties imposed on Jews, the result will be, God forbid, a great desecration of God’s name, as many of those who violate halakhah will come to say of important principles of Torah that if the rabbis wanted to permit them, they could do so; and the law will be perverted as a result.”[5]

Rav Kook is cautioning halachic decisors to be exacting and particularly accurate in their rulings and not to ‘err’ too much ‘on the side of caution’ - as although well intended, such an approach creates distrust and ultimately may be more detrimental to the structural integrity of the halachic enterprise.

R. DAVID BAR-HAYIM (b. 1960):

R. David Bar-Hayim suggests that we go back to a halachic methodology that was well used in the past. He says (in a talk):

 “...One studies the sources in depth. One does one’s utmost to understand, based on a thorough acquaintance with all the sources and all the interpretations of all the great authorities that came before us - and weighing all these things up - and if necessary and where appropriate, perhaps suggesting a new interpretation or a new understanding - and based on all that process, which is all based on intellectual honesty and trying to fully understand and arrive at the can finally express an halachic opinion.

-As opposed to what we see nowadays [where] by and large...yeshiva students who go on to become rabbis...are taught that you have no opinion, you do not know and you cannot know what the truth of the matter is, and all you are expected to do - and all you are in fact allowed to do - is to parrot the view of others to say this is what...Rabbi so-and-so holds and therefore that is what you should do – without any reference to the question of whether you actually understand the issue at hand fully, or believe this pesak halacha to be correct and fitting the reality before us.”

In other words, after a full and complete study of all the sources, the halachic decisor must apply his mind and decide according to what is most logical to him as to what will be the most meaningful application of all his research, to the particular circumstances he is dealing with.

He goes on to say that this was indeed the methodology of the Maharshal (R. Shlomo Luria 1510-1574) in his Yam Shel Shlomo.

The Maharshal, famously, objected to the Ramo’s method of presenting halakhic rulings without discussing their derivation. He wrote Yam Shel Shlomo to "probe the depths of the halacha" and to clarify the thought process by which those halachot are reached. He suggested one study all the sources including the Rishonim and then “deciding on which is the more reasonable – and following that view”.

This was also the path of the Chazon Ish (R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz 1878-1953) who would weigh up all the sources and options in his mind and based on that accumulation of sources and thought, he would decide the halacha. The Chazon Ish is known for avoiding formulaic or technically methodical analysis of Talmudic passages, instead preferring a more varied and intuitive approach similar to that of the Rishonim.

This was similarly the approach of the Vilna Gaon and his student R. Chaim of Volozhin. It was also the methodology of the Rogotchover. In fact, this was the general methodology of “all the Geonim and all the Rishonim”.

R. Bar-Hayim goes on to share a story about R. Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883), who is known primarily for his works on Mussar (ethics) but was also a great scholar. He refused to take up a position of rabbinic leadership in any community because:

“I know that some of the better-known poskim (halachic decisors) are not correct in my view - and when asked (for) my opinion, I would have to choose between repeating some earlier authorities even though I am convinced it is not true; or expressing my own view and running the risk of being told ‘how can you disagree with so-and-so, or don’t you know this is not how we hold.’”

R. Bar-Hayim concludes:

“But there is as a solution: - To return to the form of Torah study that has always been the gold standard for all our Chachamim; - To study the sources honestly and openly (and) not to accept any view or position as unassailable; - Always to strive for the truth; - To be objective (and) honest... - That has always been the true methodology for study and understanding the Torah.

 - This is the way that Torah students, who wish to achieve greatness, should follow.”


Finally, in the interests of balance and fairness, we return to the more popular position of R. Asher Weis. He was asked whether one can rule halacha based on the earlier Rishonim (scholars from 1038-1500) like Rambam or Rosh - or whether we can only rule based on the opinions of the later Acharonim (the codifiers from the 1500’s - after the Shulchan Aruch - till the present day)?

He responds:

“Our psak is based on the Shulchan Aruch and Rama [i.e. the later codifiers] with the opinions of the great poskim after them. Generally, one cannot override their psak because of an opinion in the Rishonim which was not codified.”[6] 

In other words, we cannot take the views of all the Rishonim and others into consideration if they were not endorsed and canonised by the codification process of the Shulchan Aruch and later Acharonim. This follows the well-known principle of Hilchata k’batrai, where the practical law follows the most recent of opinions.


There is no doubt that R. Asher Weiss is echoing the sentiment of the prevailing view in the halachic world today.

His position is certainly not without precedent.

This would be in sharp contradistinction to the view of R. Bar-Hayim who would have no difficulty in determining halacha based on ”all the interpretations of all the great authorities that came before us - and weighing all these things up” and then ruling accordingly.

Interestingly, as he points out, this view is also not without precedent.

Hence we have two mutually exclusive halachic methodologies.



R. Benjamin Lau makes a salient point and perhaps offers another angle to the discussion:

In the 12th century, when Rambam wrote his Mishneh Torah which was basically a summary of the entire Talmud, he was confronted by much opposition. Part of the resistance against him was due to the fact that he was taking authority away from other leading rabbis who no longer needed to be consulted on matters of law as everything was suddenly contained in a single concise, precise and even well-indexed work.

A similar phenomenon is taking place today in the aftermath of the information explosion of the internet.

R. Benjamin Lau suggests a shift of emphasis from deciding issues of halacha to one of ‘full disclosure’ and to ‘managing’ the vast and unprecedented array of halachic information so readily available to all who seek it:

“Knowledge has moved into the public domain.

Everyone can know everything.

Halakhic sages must recognize that change and become advisors and navigators on a sea of uncertainties. The Torah’s truth is revealed in all its expansiveness.

The rabbi is expected to know and present the various aspects of each issue and not to conceal those aspects that are inconsistent with his own point of view. If a rabbi is untrue to the sources and reaches his decision without taking account of conflicting views, he will be seen to be untrustworthy.

And a lack of trust between a rabbi and his community of questioners will drive a wedge between that community and the Torah overall. Stating the truth, of course, does not require the decisor to remain neutral; his role requires him to reach a decision one way or the other. But the decision must be reached through disclosure, not concealment, of the alternatives.

.... Now, when everyone has access to the Responsa Project data base and Google provides answers to all imaginable questions, everyone can check every responsum and examine its trustworthiness. A rabbi who rules in an oversimplified way, whether strictly or leniently, in an area of halakhic complexity will be caught as untrustworthy.”[7]

We are now, whether we like it or not, in an internet age where “everyone can know everything”.  This certainly applies to halacha as well. The horse has already bolted from the stable. Many posekim even consult the internet databases to research their sources.
We can no longer rely on the ‘grey art’, ‘deep state’ and sometimes ‘lottery’ of the halachic process.

[A colleague of mine once made a controversial statement in his shul which upset some of the congregants. He needed halachic backup so he consulted his Rosh Yeshiva, who responded: “Do you want me to find for you or against you?”]

The decisor today should choose, according to R. Lau,  to make full disclosure of all the halachic options - because he needs to know that the questioner has probably already done much of the research anyway - and only after that should he express his opinion, coupled with his clear motivation and convincing reasoning behind his opinion.



In an insightful article, The Yerushalmi as a Source of Halacha, by R. Michael Broydehe explains which of the Halachic decisors were prepared to rely on the Yerushalmi and which were not. Then he writes about Rambam's view:

"A good claim could be made that Rambam did not fall clearly into either of these camps and his exact methodology for resolving Talmudic disputes remains cloaked in mystery. However, it is clear that he was quite familiar with the Yerushalmi and sometimes accepted its rulings even when they stood in opposition to apparent rulings of the Bavli. My own intuition is that Rambam used logical tools to resolve disputes and was not even fully wedded to the notion of the complete superiority of the Bavli over the Yerushalmi in all cases.

....Rambam had an affinity to accept Talmudic views that are supported by logic over views supported by scriptural verses. As an initial proof to this proposition...(see) four examples from Tractate Sanhedrin: 8b, R. Yose omer; 10a, Rava amar malkot bimkom mitah; 30a-b, R. Natan ve-R. Yehoshua ben Korchah; and 16b, R. Shimon hayah doresh ta’ama de-kra."

[1] The term "deep state" was defined in 2014 by Mike Lofgren, a former Republican U.S. congressional aide, as "a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process." According to the journalist Robert Worth, "The expression `deep state’ had originated in Turkey in the 1990s, where the military colluded with drug traffickers and hit men to wage a dirty war against Kurdish insurgents."
[2] See "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 2, Moznaim Publishing).
[3] See “Beit Midrash for Biurei Halacha Binyan Zion”.
[4] Which some consider being legumes or kitniyot.
[5] See Responsa Orah Mishpat, 112.
[6] See Beit Midrash for Biurei Halacha Binyan Zion.
[7] See “The Challenge of Halakhic Innovation”, by Benjamin Lau.