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Thought for the Day: Clearing the Confusion about Doubt

I learned another new word this week: selvage.  To produce a woven garment, one must first attach several threads to a frame, forming a sort of harp like effect of parallel threads; that's called the warp.  One then weaves a thread or threads through the warp (above one and below the next); that's called the weft.  At the conclusion of that process, their are some threads from the warp and/or weft sticking out.  Those may be cut off or, as often happens, they may be woven either together or with other threads to form a margin around the garment.  That margin (finished with another weaving or not) is known as selvage.  (Selvage is better than usufruct, because (1) you might actually have an occasion to use it, and (2) it doesn't sound like you are saying something rude.)

What's important about that, you ask.  I am so glad you asked!  Tzitzis are to be placed "on the corner" of a garment.  The Torah is precise: on the corner garment, not on the edge of the garment (so must be an inch away from the edge); on the corner of the garment, not on the body of the garment (so must be within three inches of the edge).  The problem is that we do not have a clear mesorah for how to handle selvage vis a vis the tzitzis.  Do we consider the garment to end before or after the selvage?  The recommendation is to trim the edges of the garment at the corners; which is what you will all talisos ("taleisim", in Yiddish).

The situation regarding the selvage itself, however, remains in doubt.  Not because I don't know how garments are made, not because I don't know how exactly to attach tzitzis.  The safeik here is not that I have a lack of clarity; the safeik is that we have a clear and definite uncertainty about the status of the selvage.

The rule, "safeik d'oraisa l'chumra, safei d'rabanan l'kula" is a rule about how to conduct oneself when the situation if one of clear doubt.  It is not a rule about what do to when you don't know what's going on.  Not being sure what bracha to make on a food, for example, is certainly not a case of "safeik"; it's a case of ignorance.  Hence, you can't say, "Well, I am in doubt about what bracha to make, so I'll make the default sh'ha'kol."  The Mishna Brura says the rule for ignorance is: go learn, but until you know, don't eat.

What's a situation of safeik?  There's the selvage mentioned above.  Strawberries, bananas, and pineapple all have roots that live for years, but foliage that dies every year.  Similarly to the selvage situation, there is a clear safeik about whether that is considered a tree or not in halacha.  Another clear safeik occurs when I can't remember making a bracha on the apple I am eating.  None of those are cases of ignorance regarding the relevant halacha, rather the status of the situation itself is -- without a doubt -- in doubt.

There now; that should be clear.

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