In the course of studying for my rabbbinic exams at Beit Midrash Har’el, I was studying the Pitchei Teshuva, an 1800s-era commentary on the Shulkhan Aruch. After bringing a few different reasons that a rabbi found to be lenient in order allow a certain type of cheese-making process when the cheese-maker asked him about it, the Pitchei Teshuva adds that in addition to the reasons listed above, the man was poor (so there was an extra imperative to find a way to be lenient, so he could continue his business).
This is a case, on the books, where we see that a person’s personal circumstances can have an impact on the halachic decision -not as a flaw in the system, but rather, as a built-in feature. In my opinion, this feature of halacha is one of its greatest strengths, which has allowed it to adapt and to survive for 2,000 years.
Today, we live in an era of “The halacha is”. Many people don’t turn to rabbis when they have a problem related to halacha, because they don’t know that a solution within the halachic framework is possible. At the same time, many rabbis go “by the book”, and respond by saying, “The halacha is X”, without going through different sources -and perhaps, consulting with fellow rabbis -in order to find a halachic solution. In doing so, they only confirm laypeople’s belief in halacha’s inability to be responsive to their deepest needs.
This attitude towards halacha is destroying faith in the halachic system. But it also is a miscarriage of halachic justice: It goes against 2,000 years of halachic jurisprudence that was very careful to take personal situations into account. For example, throughout the laws of Kashrut, the Rama will often bring a stringency, and then add, “But in places of financial loss, one should be lenient”. This is not a meta-halachic principle, but rather, a halachic principle: The stringency only applies in cases where there is no major financial loss involved.
I do not know how Kashrut authorities operate today. I believe that ideally, “Kosher” should mean that, to the best of the certifier’s knowledge, no halachot have been broken in producing the food in front of me. This includes not only the laws of Kashrut, but also, the Torah law forbidding not paying employees in a timely manner, or the rules against excessive waste (baal tashchit).
But even if Kashrut only certifies that a specific set of halachot -those pertaining to the cooking process and to the food itself – is being upheld, then the certifier should refrain from making their Kashrut standards stringent beyond the letter of the law, if that will cause a significant financial burden to kosher keepers. To do so would be to violate the law itself, if one is applying stringencies where the Rama specifically said to be lenient in cases of financial loss. In other cases, it would violate the meta-halachic value of preventing people from suffering.The implicit presence of this meta-halachic value throughout the laws of Kashrut can be learned from the sheer number of times that it is explicitly stated to not deploy stringencies if they cause people financial loss.
(My underlying assumption is that causing financial loss means causing human suffering. Some might disagree. Others might say that the underlying value is protecting people’s property. But it’s hard to argue that the statement that one should prevent others from financial burdens is a value-free statement.)
I am going back to studying the Pitchei Teshuva, feeling a little bit more inspired by the halachic system that I am a part of, but also, a little bit sad, that today, a statement that a person’s poverty should be seen as a legitimate halachic factor might be seen as radical.