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Thought for the Day: What's Wrong With Being Stringent?

I am learning the laws of writing t'filllin.  There are lots and lots (and lots and lots) of details, many of which are biblically mandated requirements.  The most important thing I have learned is that it is essential to buy from a trustworthy and knowledgeable scribe.  I also ran across a cute story about the G'ra (I know the word "cute" doesn't seem to go with "about the G'ra", but you'll see...).  As you know, the boxes contain four parshios from the Torah written on parchment; all four parshios are in one box on the arm and in four separate compartments on the head.  As you may not know, t'fillin must be absolutely square and the boxes must be made from a single piece of leather.  The Mishna Brura and Biur Halacha describes at length the issues and concerns with using glue between the compartments of the head box (to keep it square) and if  glue works to help two smaller pieces of leather be considered one large piece for the sake of t'fillin.  (Yes... that cute story is coming real soon now.)  The author of Sha'arei Rachamim asked R' Chaim Volozhin if it was -- after the fact -- permitted to use glue on the head box/compartments.  R' Chaim answered that, in his opinion, it was not only ok, but actually preferable to use glue....  However, he concluded, that he was once wearing t'fillin constructed that way and his rebbi, the G'ra, asked him why he was wearing his arm t'filllin on his head.

So that's one problem with stringencies.  Sometimes a stringency according to one posek is a leniency according to another.  You must be a bit of an expert before you start piling stringencies upon stringencies, lest you end up creating a situation where you end up taking shortcuts in unexpected areas.

One erev Pesach, at the end of davening, the rav of the shul said he had wanted to make an announcement.  He started with a question: What are the special biblically mandated obligations of the night?  People shouted out, "eating matzah" and "telling the story -- in question and answer format -- to the children."  (One smart aleck said, "bentching"... hey!  I gave him a whole drash about why this bentching was different from all other bentching; he just rolled his eyes and agreed wanly.  Since he is around my kids' age, I just chalk that up to the generation).  The rav then said, "You are all forgetting simchas Yom Tov.  Yes, you have to drink four cups of wine and you have to say the haggadah, and you have to do the four questions in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and maybe Russian... but all of those are rabbinic or custom.  Simchas Yom Tov is biblically mandated; don't let your stringencies on size of cup, matzah, and maror prevent you from enjoying the holiday!

But there's even a deeper issue with stringencies.  I recently heard a shiur from R' Moshe Heinemann entitled, Chumros - Benefits and Consequences.  R' Heinemann started with a Chazal that is often used at the end of a shuir: HaShem so loved the Jewish people that He gave us lots of mitzvos.  Hmm... if He loves us so much, why only 613 mitzvos?  Why not 1,000 or 10,000, or ∞?  R' Heinemann brought from the Chasam Sofer: Because HaShem created us to only be able to fulfill 613 mitzvos.  Therefore, said R' Heinemann, if you add your own mitzvos -- that is, make your own stringencies more important than the actual mitzvah itself -- you are automatically deducting a biblically mandated mitzvah from your Torah observance.  That's bad... real, real bad.  Or, as we said in my youth during the 70s, "That's really heavy, man."

Of course we all want to strive to keep mitzvos better and that includes keeping stringencies in order to be more certain that you are doing the mitzvah of the best possible way.  But stringencies and leniencies -- just like everything else in avodas HaShem -- demands direction from guidance from your rav.


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