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Thought for the Day: Learning Halacha By Rules Vs. By Example

I suppose some people get everything they needed for life out of kindergarten; I feel sorry for those people.  I, for example, learned the very important lesson in prioritizing required work ahead of elective work from the infamous giraffe coloring that I experienced in first grade.  More than that, though:  R' Noach Weinberg, ztz"l, said that that obviously there is tremendous intellectual/emotional/spiritual growth in the first five years of one's life.  If that oh so cute five year old would experience the next five years with no more intellectual/emotional/spiritual growth, you have a 10 year old whose life has become a tragedy.  The same is true, said R' Weinberg, for a person's entire life.  There must be continuous intellectual/emotional/spiritual growth; once that stops, the life is decaying into a tragedy.

Here's a lesson I learned from a graduate math professor:  You have to "get down in the gutter" with the definitions to really understand them.  In my naivete, I had always thought of definitions as simple sterile statements that needed to be memorized (I process I truly disdain, by the way) and then applied.  The truth, though, is (perhaps obvious to you, but certainly was not to me) that real understanding of the deeper meaning and reason for a definition only comes after applying it and following it through its consequences.

This is particularly important in halacha.  Consider the following rule: testimony must be complete to be acceptable.  Cool.  That is the rule.  Here's an example: If a person has two hairs stuck to their skin, that would invalidate their immersion in a mikveh.  Suppose two witnesses testify they saw one hair the left shoulder, and another pair of witnesses say they saw a hair on the right shoulder.  Since we do not have one pair of kosher witnesses that saw two hairs, the immersion is still valid.  That is true even though each pair is kosher and by combining their testimonies, we would have enough to invalidate the immersion.  Our rule kicks in, though, and the immersion is not invalidated.

That was fun; let's try another.  Yehuda has been working a field for three years, now Shimon (the original owner) comes to claim that he never sold the field to Yehuda.  It's been three years, so Yehuda is not required to have kept the bill of sale that long... as long as he can prove that he has been there for three years.  The problem is that he does not have a pair of witnesses who can testify to the whole three years.  What he does have is three pairs of witnesses who can each testify to one year (no, not the same year, smart guy; three consecutive years).  But we need complete testimony, so Yehuda is, regrettably, out of luck; right?  Wrong.  This does work... why?

So the Rif says that "complete testimony" means that a pair of witnesses saw all that they could reasonably be expected to see.  In the case of the immersion, it is strange that each pair did not see the hair on the other shoulder.  Not strange enough to invalidate their testimony, but strange enough to give us pause and call the testimony "incomplete".  In the case of the field, though, each pair of witnesses were only in the area for a year each, so their is nothing lacking in their testimony.  Therefore, even though no one pair of witnesses saw they entire three years (and therefore cannot help Yehuda), their testimonies can be combined to give him complete testimony that he has lived and worked on the field for three years.

Tosofos, though, says the reason is that while each individual testimony is not enough to let him keep the field, it is enough to let him keep the produce from that year.  Therefore, says, Tosofos, since the testimony of each pair of witnesses is effective for something, they can be combined to give a complete testimony for the entire three years.

For extra credit: imagine a blind person is made an agent to deliver a bill of divorce overseas.  The halacha is that the agent needs to say that they document was written and signed in front of him.  He's blind, though... so he gets witnesses to be able to testify that the document was written and signed in front of him.  When he delivers the document, he'll also need witnesses to affirm that they bill of divorce was delivered into the hand of the new divorcee.  Question: Do they need to be the same witnesses for both signing and delivering?  According to the Rif: no, because each is giving a complete testimony as to what it was possible for them to see.  According to Tosofos, however, they would need to be the same because each testimony on its own has no legal effect.  (We rule they must be the same.)

It is not enough for a rav to just "know the rules",  He has to have dealt with and/or learned about many cases; get down in the gutter with those halachos.  He also needs a strong connection to a rebbi, a main teacher, with whom he can "check his work."


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