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Thought for the Day: Applying Halacha in Practice and How Bad is בדיעבד?

Now that my grandchildren are living with us, we sometimes have an out Shabbos to give them a break from us.  We stay and eat with friends who live in an apartment complex; minyan on second floor, lodging and day meals on third floor, erev Shabbos meal and morning kiddush on 15th floor.  I spend a lot of time traversing the stairs from third to 15th floor. (Yes, there is a Shabbos elevator, but you know me -- impatient and a fanatic; so I walk.)  Sometimes our friend's seven year old grandson comes to visit and we go to minyan together.  Once when I needed to run up to the 15th floor to get something, he thought it would be fun to come along.  Along about the 10th floor, he was rethinking just how fun this really was.  As we climbed past the 12th floor, though, I said, "You are going to love this."  We rounded the staircase and he saw -- much to his delight -- that we had completely skipped the 13th floor and were magically on the 14th floor.  Rest the of the trip and back down was a breeze.

I recognized the look of joy and relief on his face, because it was the same feeling I had the first time I learned Mishna Brura and finally got through siman 36.  I say "finally", because siman 32 has 52 siyefim; it's like arriving at the other end of a journey through the Sahara desert when you finally get through.  Then there is siman 34 with details upon details about Rabeinu Tam t'fillin.  Anyway; after siman 36 comes eight whole pages of something called "Mishnas Sofrim" on the details of how to make each and every letter as well as minutia on actually writing the scrolls for t'fillin.  I gleefully turned past all that (the first time) and moved on to siman 37 feeling very accomplished (for those few moments), indeed.

That was many years ago and I have since learned the Mishna Brura again.  This time I have bitten the bullet and am learning every Biur Halacha... even in Mishnas Sofrim.  Even, since I had made this personal commitment, concerning Rabbeinu Tam t'fillin.  I almost recanted, when I saw a two page Biur Halacha on the issues with wearing Rabbeinu Tam t'fillin at the same time as your Rashi t'fillin.  Since I only wear Rashi t'fillin (like most people) and if I ever thought to wear Rabbeinu Tam t'fillin, it would only be after removing my Rashi t'fillin (again; like most people).  So that Biur Halacha was long and complex and very far removed from anything I am likely to do; still, a deal is a deal (even if it is only with yourself), so I was stuck.

As it happens, the R' Kagan filed away a couple of extraordinarily fundamental ideas in those Biur Halacha's!  The first Biur Halacha in Mishnas Sofrim notes the he does not always tell you when this or that detail is לכתחילה or בדיעבד.  He does that for one of three reasons:
  1. It's obvious.
  2. It depends on other factors.
  3. He himself is not sure, so he just brings it up and notes the sources so you can make your own investigation if it becomes relevant to a practical application.
Those principles, it seems to be, are really an underlying foundation of any halachic work; they just don't speak it out so clearly.  That is why you can't just open a book (especially an English sefer that is mostly a summary), look up your question and be done with it.  Unless you study that topic, you have no idea what is obvious and what is not.  Unless you have all the relevant factors at hand, you have no idea how that will change things.  If you don't have more clarity on the subject than the author, you are really in trouble.

So... you'll tell me, "I'll just be stringent; then I'll always be fine."  Nope, as stringencies in one area often lead to leniencies in another (a sort of halachic "Whac-A-Mole").  So... you'll say, "For goodness, sake, it's only לכתחילה or בדיעבד; what's the big deal?"  For that you need that two page Biur Halacha on wearing Rabbeinu Tam t'fillin.  In the midst of which, R' Kagan brings a Yerushalmi that says brings up the case of someone who brought a korban chatas, which requires two sprinklings which are four (ie, on two opposite corners of the altar).  The kohein, however, is lazy and only makes on sprinkling.  The gemara says that בדיעבד it still works (that is, brings atonement), but the kohein has also transgressed the Torah prohibition of בל תגרע!  The Biur Halacha says that this is an obvious challenge to anyone who is lazy about any mitzvah and decides to get away with בדיעבד.  Besides the issue of missing out on לכתחילה, his laziness has also brought him to transgress a Torah prohibition.  Going for בדיעבד instead of לכתחילה, then, is no better than eating a ham sandwich.

The only hope, of course is: (1) learn halacha better; and (2) you really, really, really need a rav.

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