Guest Post by A. Prager
What exactly is psak halacha, and what does it achieve? This issue is and remains ambiguous to many. The nature and effect of psak is something ethereal, undefined and apparently abstract. What actually happens when the Rav issues his ruling, how do his words oblige the שואל, and what is the halachic and existential nature of Piskei Halacha?
In this post I would like to share some essential facts and information to unravel this unnecessarily elusive issue. Built upon the words of Rishonim, Poskim and Shu”t, I will explain that psak is a halachic reality, and examine how it is that a halachic ruling can obligate the questioner.
A well-known Gemara (Avoda Zara 7a) states that once one halachic authority is questioned and rules regarding the halachic status of an item, no other authority should be questioned to procure a differing ruling:
"ת"ר: הנשאל לחכם וטימא - לא ישאל לחכם ויטהר, לחכם ואסר – לא ישאל לחכם ויתיר"
There is a fundamental dispute amongst the Rishonim as to the understanding of the reason for this Beraisa, and accordingly we will be able to shed light on the nature of psak.
The Ravad (cited by numerous Rishonim ibid) explains that the שואל cannot ask again because: “שויה חתיכה דאיסורא”; the first authority has “created an item of איסור”; that can’t be undone by another authority. In other words, the psak has had a tangible effect of the actual halachic status of the item asked about. This is a tremendous idea. You bring a questionable piece of meat to the Rav, the Rav issues his psak he turns it into a piece of treif. If he would’ve asked a different Rabbi, and received a lenient ruling it would be completely מותר; the Rabbi has redefined the halachic existence of the item. ( It is necessary to note that here is not synonymous with the same expression used in Kesubos (22a) and in Nedarim regarding the קבלה, the acceptance, of the שואל. The Ravad is not saying that the questioner is obliged to follow the ruling of the Rabbi because we assume that by asking he accepts the psak. This is not the understanding of the Ravad and the Poskim who follow his approach, as I will demonstrate through the examples below. See however the response of R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch “Shemesh U’Marpeh” Y.D. 52, who does seem to be of this understanding)
The Ran’s approach, however, in the above Beraisa, is based on כבוד מורה הראשון; it is considered to be an insult to the כבוד of the first authority to ask another Rabbi after the first has made his own ruling; it’s as if the שואל doesn’t rely on the knowledge and abilities of the first.
A Halachic Reality
I would like to demonstrate how essential this machlokes is by examining the different practical outcomes which result from this machlokes:
If the first authority would be consulted, and subsequently agree to the questioner asking another authority, according to the Ran there would be no impediment to ask again, as his honor is not diminished by doing so since he has agreed. However, in the Ravad’s understanding, it is an impossibility to redefine the existence of the item once it has been created (Ran ibid). ( With the exception of where a mistake has been made by the Rav, in which case the initial ruling had no potency. See the Ritva there and the Rema and Shach (cited below), for a discussion of which mistakes this is true for.)
What about monetary issues, where there is no ruling on a specific item “Kosher” or “Treif”, pure or impure, rather a psak of who is חייב to pay? The Ran and the Rashba (Chulin 44b) write that according to the Ravad there is nothing to stop him from asking again to asking again in monetary issues, since there is no חתיכה דאיסורא in ממונות. However, in the understanding of the Ran there is the same concern for the honor of the first Rabbi.
A final example, which is a very good illustration of the differing opinions above is a reversal of the above case. What if the first Rav ruled Kosher, and the questioner wishes to ask a second Rav – perhaps he will rule that the item is Treif. Now, according to the Ran there should be no difference; it is not befitting the honor of the first Rabbi to ask a second, regardless of the ruling of the first. However, if the reasoning is that there has been a “חלות” i.e. a halachic change or happening in the item itself, this only holds true when something becomes אסור. The psak of the Rav can only determine היתר but cannot create it, not so his ruling to forbid something. So in this case, when the first Rabbi ruled that it was permitted, there would be no problem seeking the advice of another authority; maybe he would be machmir (Ritva Avodah Zara ibid).
Le’maaseh: The Shach (Y.D. 242:58,59) and the Chochmas Odom (52) both rule like the Ravad. This position is also reinforced by the Netziv (Meshiv Davar 2,9). The Rema, however, (seemingly) follows the understanding of the Ran. When Hagaon R’ Moshe Sternbuch was consulted about the halacha, he told me we follow both rulings, l’chumra. That’s important to know. As I explained above how we understand the nature of psak is going to have important practical differences in the application of the halacha.
On General Issues
One final caveat. The whole discussion here about the essence and power of psak only holds true to a ruling made on a specific item: e.g. the Rav is consulted about the kashrus of the chicken; or the beracha on a food, however, regarding a general halachic enquiry: for example, what is the halacha if I forget יעלה ויבא on Rosh Chodesh, should I follow a certain practice or minhag, the above discussion is not relevant. In such a situation there is no physical item for a חלות of psak to become active (Chut Shani, Y.D. 188). I look forward to sharing, in a future post, how it is in such questions that a ruling can obligate the שואל to follow the words of the Rabbi.