Sunday, September 25, 2011

Shailophobia: The fear of answering Shailos

I first wrote the post below in a different forum, in Sept '06. I still feel much the same.

It comes to mind now as I draft my viduy for another Rosh HaShanah, and I recall a dozen Yom Kippur viduys in which I apologized for any psak in which I may have erred.

One of the perks of being out of the shul rabbinate is that Shailophobia is mostly academic for me these days.


I don’t know whether my experience reflects that of other rabbis or not, but I become very nervous when faced with a shailoh (question of Jewish law).

Over the years I’ve dealt with such commonplaces as Living Will/Power of Attorney, brain death, organ donation, meat-lid/dairy-pot, mikvah chatzitzah (items on one’s skin that disqualify ritual immersion), personal eruv extensions, taharah (preparation for burial) problems, fertility treatments, etc - the sort of thing that every rav has to be able to handle, whether personally or with the help of a serious posek (legal authority).

I’m not that nervous about the knowledge issues - Thank Gd, I know where to look for answers. If need be, I know who to ask for help. My problem is with the application to real-life situations, and the nuances of psak for real, sensitive, people.

It’s hard to know when people are up for the l’chatchilah (ideal answer) and when the bedieved (ex post facto leniency, often employed under duress as well) is called for. It’s about knowing what their background is and how they’ll respond here. It’s about the strength of their commitment. It’s about whether they can afford to buy a new one. It’s about how they’ll handle future issues.

It’s about their friends, who will hear about this and make their own judgments as well as their own extrapolations to other circumstances. It’s about their cousin who’s a rabbi and who will hear my kula (leniency) and think I must be a lunatic lefty. It’s about their sister who will hear my chumra (stringency) and try to convince them I’m a right-wing nut. It’s about my own yom hadin, when I’ll have to answer for my mistakes in allowing that which was prohibited, or prohibiting that which was allowed.

There really is no up-side in psak (issuing legal decisions). At best you handle the situation correctly; at worst you fouled up her kitchen or his taharah or her tvilah or his tfilah, etc. But poskim are needed, nonetheless.


  1. the upside is helping someone the best you can to do the ratzon hashem.
    Joel Rich

  2. I'm reminded of the Netziv's sermon that appears in the Imrei Shefer haggada. Approaching greatness means the stakes are higher -- but that's what we're obligated to do.

    (The Jews tell G-d, "don't take me back to Israel. It's a place of religious passion, and I wound up worshipping idols. Let me stay in Bavel where my spiritual range is more moderated, muted, and numb.")

  3. Joel-
    True, but only if you get it right...

    But the stakes are only mine, they are also for those who ask me the question.

  4. Give it your best shot after due consideration. Explain the answer in a way that the person can understand its basis as much as possible.

  5. That's why rabbis earn the big bucks.


    But the stakes are only mine, they are also for those who ask me the question."

    Right. Too often I hear people claim that if they ask a question, any error is on the cheshbon of the rabbi.