Friday, March 30, 2012

The Only Thing That Has Shrunken – Is Us

There is a wonderful article entitled Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy by Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik. It was published in Tradition Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994). He attributes the ‘swing to the right’ in Orthodoxy to the loss of mimetics.

In the sense that he uses this word it means that we have stopped looking to - and emulating - our own family Mesorah and instead follow what we see in ‘books’. We no longer look to how our fathers and mothers did things. We have come to rely on how various Poskim see the Halacha and follow that. More often than not this means that we have adopted a Chumra – a stringency based on how a certain Gadol or Posek saw things and recorded them in various Teshuvos (responsa).

I too am guilty of that. Nowhere is this more evident to me than at the Pesach Seder. I now do something that I did not see my father do.

Most people know that we have a biblical obligation to eat Matzah on Pesach – specifically at the Seder. The minimum Shiur (quantity) is what we call a K’zayis. A K’zayis is a Hebrew word meaning ‘like an olive’. In other words the minimum Shiur of Matzah required to fulfill the Mitzvah of eating Matzah is the volume of an olive.

However as most Yeshiva students know there is a famous Teshuva mentioned by Rabbi Shimon Eider in his Sefer Hilchos Pesach. He quotes it in the name of Rav Yechezkel Landau (the Noda B’Yheuda) and referred to as Niskatnu HaShiurim – literally our ‘measurements have shrunken’. Rav Landau has determined - by process of observation and deduction - that our K’zayis is about half the volume of the K’zayis of Chazal. Our K’zayis is really K’beitza – ‘like an egg’ . In other words an egg in our day is about the same size as an olive in the days of Chazal.

Thus we are told that we should rely on the greater quantity of a current K’beitza to insure that we have eaten the proper Shiur.

This novel understanding about ‘shrinking measurements’ affects the minimum quantity of wine per cup - the Revi’is - needed to fulfill the Mitzvah of Daled Kosos (the four cups of wine at the Seder).

I do this as do my children. But my father never did. He never said that we have to double the size of a K’zayis. And his cup was relatively small… certainly not the famous ‘Chazon Ish Shiur’ for the minimum requirement. (I wonder how many of our parents or grandparents doubled their Shiurim…)

I am not advocating that people abandon these Chumros. I am certainly not going to. But I agree with Dr. Soloveitchik’s sentiments. Something has been lost. We no longer ‘trust’ our parents Mesorah.

There are many arguments why these Chumros should be adopted by people whose family Mesorah did not have them. One of them being that these Chumros are real and that if one’s parents didn’t have them, it was because it was somehow lost due to ignorance or just plain forgetting about them post Holocaust.

I suppose that may be true in some cases. But not in mine. My grandfather was a Posek in Poland. He was the rabbinic authority for 5 small communities in his area. He knew what he was doing. And my father venerated him and followed his Minhagim. These enlarged Shiurim did not exist in my father’s home nor in my grandfather’s home. Nor did they exist in the home of one of the biggest Gedolei Yisroel in pre Holocaust Europe, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski whose Kos (Kiddush cup) was famously smaller than the Chazaon Ish’s minimum Shiur.

And yet is there any Yeshiva student that is aware of the Chazon Ish’s Shiur that doesn’t insist on it for Kiddush and the Daled Kosos?

An article by Rabbi David Bar-Hayim in the Jewish Press makes note of this phenomenon as well. In a well reasoned and well researched analysis of Halachic sources he has amazingly concluded that our Shiurim have not shrunken. From the article:

It is claimed by some that once upon a time olives were much larger. This claim is false. Olives and olive trees have not changed, as evidenced by the fact that there are over 70 olive trees in Israel ranging between 1,700-2000 years old, and 7 are approximately 3000 years old. These trees continue to produce fruit identical to the olives of younger trees. Halakhic responsa from the G’onic period echo these facts, stating plainly that olives do not change. Some would have you believe that there are two kinds of olives: real olives and ‘Halakhic’ olives.

In their view, Halakha need not reflect reality; it exists in an alternate reality of its own. This is a tragedy because it paints Judaism as divorced from reality and irrelevant to a rational person. This is a lie because Torah was intended by Hashem as our handbook for operating in the real world.

In one of his concluding paragraphs he says the following:

Nothing could be more pernicious than the notion that truth and Torah do not mix. The same goes for the idea that Halakhic opinions rooted in Exile-induced misconceptions are sacrosanct and immutable. A philosophy that turns aberration into truth, the Torah of Galuth into the real McCoy, is intolerable. The clear implication is that Judaism, as a system, is broken and beyond repair.

I must say that I am very sympathetic to his view. But as I said earlier, I am not encouraging anyone to use the smaller Shiurim of our parents and grand-parents. There is no reason not to use the larger Shiurim unless there are health issues. But it is nevertheless sad that we have so easily transitioned away from what our parents did. Perhaps our parents and grandparents - and R’ Chaim Ozer - knew something that those of us who look at Teshuvos don’t. Perhaps they too realized that olives don’t change.