Real Chumros

U’mi ha’ish asher eiras ishah v’lo lekachah yeilech v’yashov l’veiso pen yamus ba’milchamah v’ish acher yikachenah (Devarim 20:7)

Just before the Jewish army goes off to war, a Kohen who is specially anointed to oversee military affairs addresses the assembled soldiers and informs them that several groups are exempt from fighting. Specifically, a person who has built a new house and not yet inaugurated it, somebody who has planted a vineyard but not yet redeemed it, and one who has betrothed a woman but not yet married her are all excused from going off to battle.

Curiously, in his commentary on the last category of exemptions — a soldier who betrothed a woman but did not yet marry her — Rashi writes that if such a person disregards the Kohen’s instructions and insists on going off to fight in spite of his dispensation, he deserves to die in battle. While it is understandable that somebody who disobeys the Kohen’s directives warrants punishment, it is difficult to comprehend why Rashi waited to make this comment until the final group of excused soldiers. Why wouldn’t the same rationale also apply to somebody who built a new house and didn’t yet inaugurate it, or who planted a vineyard but didn’t yet redeem it, and nevertheless continues to the battlefield?

Harav Mordechai Druk, zt”l, explains that when a person wishes to be stringent and go beyond the strict letter of the law, it is generally commendable. However, in the case of a soldier who is exempt from fighting but doesn’t feel right abandoning his brethren in a time of national need, Rashi informs us that our evaluation of his choice to fight depends on the reason for his original dispensation.

If he is excused from fighting due to a new house that he built or a new vineyard that he planted, his decision to remain with the army is indeed praiseworthy. If, however, he belongs to the third category — those who have betrothed a woman and not yet married her — his commitment to be stringent and fight impacts not only himself, but also his betrothed, especially as he risks his life in the process. In such a case, Rashi is teaching us that while chumros (stringencies) are often quite laudable, when they affect others as well, they are inappropriate and misguided.

To illustrate this concept, Rav Druk recounted a story involving Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, who lived in Yerushalayim at a time when poverty was rampant. Once, as he was walking, he discovered a golden Napoleon, which was an extremely valuable coin that could sustain his family for an entire year. Based on the circumstances, he discerned that it had been dropped by a non-Jew, and he was therefore legally entitled to keep it (Choshen Mishpat 266:1).

Another Jew observed the scene and approached Rav Sonnenfeld to clarify his plans for the coin. Upon hearing that he intended to keep it for himself, the other Jew reminded him that even though he was technically permitted to keep it, the Shulchan Aruch adds that it is commendable to sanctify Hashem’s name by going beyond the strict letter of the law and returning it to its rightful non-Jewish owner.

Rav Sonnenfeld replied that while it is indeed praiseworthy to sanctify Hashem’s name, he had to balance this consideration against his responsibility to his family, which was afflicted by terrible poverty, and he therefore concluded that it would be unjust to cause them additional suffering by returning the coin when not required to do so. Unsatisfied with this explanation, the other Jew persisted in attempting to pressure him into returning the Napoleon to its original owner.

At that point, Rav Sonnenfeld proposed that because the man was so convinced of the need to sanctify Hashem’s name by returning the coin, he would lend it to him so that he could do so, and over the course of the upcoming year, the man would slowly pay Rav Sonnenfeld back for the value of the Napoleon, which he maintained was far inferior to the spiritual reward that would be generated by returning it.

Upon hearing this suggestion, the other Jew ran away and quickly fled the scene. As Rav Druk explained that while it may seem quite easy to come up with stringencies for others, a chumrah whose consequences will be unwillingly borne by anybody other than oneself is, in reality, nothing but misplaced piety.

Q: In warning judges against accepting bribes (16:19), the Torah commands, “You (singular) shall not take a bribe, because a bribe will blind the eyes of the wise (plural) and pervert the words of the righteous (plural). Why does the Torah switch from the singular to the plural within the same verse?

A: Harav Chaim de la Rosa, a disciple of Harav Chaim Vital, explains that almost all Jewish court cases involve more than one judge. Most monetary disputes are adjudicated by a panel of three judges, while capital cases require at least 23 judges, and the most difficult cases are brought before the full Sanhedrin, which consists of 71 judges. As such, even if one of the judges accepts a bribe, it would seem that the potential for perversion of justice is extremely small, as that judge will be overruled by the other judges who did not accept a bribe and are able to view the case objectively.

In reality, the Torah teaches us that this is not the case, because the judge who became compromised through accepting a bribe will become so fixated on ensuring a favorable outcome to the party who bribed him that he will fabricate arguments to persuade the other impartial judges to join him in his ruling. This phenomenon is alluded to by the verse hinting that if even one judge (singular) accepts a bribe, the end result will be that he will use his influence to blind and twist the judgment of the other judges (plural), even though they themselves are wise and righteous and untainted by bribes


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.