A chumra, or stringency (חומרה) is a prohibition or obligation in Jewish practice that exceeds the basic requirements of the Halacha. It may be accepted by a community; perhaps by an individual or even a specific family may take upon themselves a certain stringency in certain areas of Jewish law. Let’s be very clear from the outset that any action, mitzva, chumra, etc that one does for the sake of growing in a person’s service of G-d is indeed praiseworthy!
However, there are pitfalls in the concept of chumrot (plural of chumra).
In the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) and the accompanying words of the Mishne Berurah, there are approximately 36 instances where the Halacha mentions the idea of being machmir (stringent) in certain cases. However, there are those who feel that in order to enhance nearly any mitzva, and certainly to make the prohibitions even more restrictive, they decide to be more stringent in the observance of that mitzva or prohibition. And, again, I say, if it is being done to enhance one’s service of Gd then that is wonderful.
BUT…when the chumra becomes the halacha and people begin to believe that if YOU do not follow such and such a chumra that you are merely an Am Haaretz (a boor), then something has gone awry.
One example will suffice. In a famous responsa, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, he discusses the making of instant coffee on Shabbat. One is prohibited, of course, from cooking on Shabbat. So, the question is, what would be the proper way to make coffee and, at the same time, not transgress the issues of cooking on Shabbat. He concludes (O.C. Volume 4 Responsum 74) that while HE is stringent for himself to use only what is called a Kli Shlishi (a third utensil; the first being the pot, the second a cup and the third yet another cup) in making instant coffee, people need not follow such a stringency. Yet, in spite of Rav Moshe’s comments, many have decided to add this stringency to their coffee-making on Shabbat. So far, no problem. HOWEVER, when those same people start saying that the HALACHA says one must do it that way, and if you DO NOT do it that way that you are WRONG and an Am Haaretz, then the chumra becomes confused in the mix with the Halacha.
In addition, when a person takes on a personal chumra (one provided for within the proper framework of Halacha) and then attempts to force it as the norm onto others, that is patently wrong. (Note: I say when he “forces” it on another. If this person tries to explain why he feels it will enhance the other person’s observance and then allows it to be the other person’s decision, that is fine!)
One other area wherein chumrot become problematic is when they are invented out of thin air and are recorded in the Book of Everlasting Chumrot, as though it were a rule handed down from Moshe on Sinai. One that comes to mind: One year, shortly before Pesach, the word went around town that when you use water from the tap on Pesach, it would be necessary to skim the top of the water. This was due (we were told) to the fact that would there be any chametz in the water, it would have floated to the top. (And, no, I am not making this stuff up!)
And finally, the biggest problem of all with chumrot is when they become the “Ikkar” (the main thing) and the Halacha becomes the “Tafel” (the secondary thing). In those cases, the individual is SO worked up about trying to make the chumra solid and immutable that the actual performance of the mitzva is relegated to a second-class status.
It bears repeating that a chumra that one takes upon himself can be quite praiseworthy! However, the intention, use and promulgation of said chumra needs to be examined when it is put into use.