Ha-Mahamir, Mah Tavo Alav?:

Religious Stringencies and Their Psychological Considerations

BY: Shlomo Zuckier

From the Talmudic dictum safek de-Oraita le-humra (in case of doubt concerning biblically mandated laws, follow the stringent opinion), it seems that Judaism values religious stringency within its halakhic framework. The word humra can be used in several different ways, ranging from the internal legal examples just discussed to the term’s more ubiquitous use today, as referring to personal stringencies not mandated me-ikkar ha-din (by the basic, standard law), but
which one takes upon himself for reasons of personal piety. The latter category of individually-accepted humrot, in terms of the non-halakhic issues it presents, will be the focus of this article.

There is obviously much halakhic and/or exhortative material germane to this topic, which will not be pursued in this article. Instead, the article will attempt to analyze certain psychological and/or social considerations that pertain to the practical application of this subset of humrot. It will focus on the individual level, though many of the points in this article are also applicable on broader social planes. As with most things, this analysis will be colored by the hashkafic and religious context to which its author was party, but the potential issues and considerations are presented from an impartial perspective and should hopefully be applicable to similar cases in other religious settings.

Before entering the specific content of this topic per se, it is important to delineate two different determinations of humra and to orient the discussion towards one of them. First, there is the question of defining the ikkar ha-din (basic law) and the varying levels of stringency outside of it, ranging from reasonable adoption of the minority practice in the writings of Rishonim to practices with little to no basis in the primary sources. The established range of opinions will depend on the Talmudic sugya and its Rishonim, along with a responsible and serious study of the Shulhan Arukh and its attendants, discriminating between Ashkenazi and Sefaradi decisors when applicable and accompanied by an analysis of contemporary posekim on the issue, can yield the determination of what is ikkar ha-din and what is considered a legal humra. Second, there is the question of current practice in one’s community and of what qualifies as a sociological humra, a practice more stringent than that of the common man in one’s surroundings. This will depend on the country one lives in, and, more specifically, his community, whether that is determined by the neighborhood in which one resides or the shul or yeshivah he frequents. The sociological humra is usually more relevant in the context of analyzing one’s psychological relation to humrot, as the strongest frame of reference for most people is social.

Now that the categories have been demarcated, an analysis of the psychological ramifications of the humra can be undertaken, beginning with its positive consequences. In order to minimize tangential issues, let us analyze the case of someone keeping a humra that has significant basis in rabbinic sources but is not usually followed in his sociological context. As stated above, this section will leave out the pure halakhic benefits of following a humra, namely one’s increased chances of properly fulfilling the mitsvah or avoiding the aveirah (the validity of these claims may depend on one’s understanding of pesak
Halakhah and one might split between the two categories), among other issues, which are of extreme significance but beyond the scope of this discussion.

The first psychological effect of humra observance is arguably the most obvious one. The mahamir, aware that the posekim often call for a ba’al nefesh (a spiritual person) to be stringent and of the yeshivah world’s cultural admiration for such practices, presumably feels a stronger sense of personal religious identity as a result of his observances. He has gone beyond the call of duty in his adherence to God’s Law, and he therefore often feels a true and sincere sense of religious accomplishment for that. Falling into the category of a ba’al nefesh, then, is the first and most salient positive effect of observing humrot. Conversely, it is possible that one who only follows the letter of the law and never goes a step beyond may feel a sense of mediocrity. If his religious observance is equivalent to everyone else’s and incorporates no extraordinary initiatives, he may appear spiritually deficient in his own eyes. Of course, some people are satisfied by simply fulfilling the shurat ha-din (line of the law) and see that as a worthy religious goal and ideal. But many others feel drawn to the idea of halakhic maximalism and disappointed when they fall short of achieving it.

Another relevant factor is that of personal investment. One who decides to observe a humra within a particular din (law) or number of dinim based on his personal research and assessment of the issues feels a stronger connection to that din than one who follows the standard practice. We do not generally favor any one mitsvah over another, but a person who attaches himself to one mitsvah in particular and reflects that connection by following certain humrot therein will improve his overall religious observance. The halakhic system is one which of necessity permits little personal input, so humrot represent an arena that allows for individual expression and an increased bond to mitsvot. Assuming these extra, voluntary levels of observance are part of a healthy, broader life of religious commitment, the excitement and abundant energy generated by keeping a particular favored din in the best way possible can spill over and affect the rest of that person’s religious world as well. Of course, this idea of personal investment in a mitsvah on account of a specific humra is lost in a society in which everyone follows that humra. For example, in a place where everyone keeps chalav
Yisrael (milk whose processing was performed under Jewish supervision), the personal investment factor is negligible; one’s observance is based on communal expectation, not personal motivation and attachment.

Nevertheless, not everything about humrot is positive; the same mechanism which has the power to positively affect the religious Jew also has the potential to backfire. These pitfalls are by no means inevitable, and it is more than possible to steer clear of them, but it is important to be aware of them. One of the most dangerous snares in this area is the potential for losing focus on and understanding of the proper weight of different halakhic and hashkafic issues. The mahamir runs the risk of preferring the tafel (secondary) to the ikkar (primary), the shittat yahid (unaccepted minority position) to the basic din. In his rush towards halakhic maximalism, he may skip steps and not sufficiently concentrate on the more basic halakhic requirements. Mental energy expended on being makpid (meticulous) on humrot might be better employed reinforcing more basic religious obligations. Indeed, at times it may be the case that someone accepts upon himself extra religious observances in one area in order to assuage his guilt over religious failings in other areas, but this approach fails to treat the root of the problem itself.

Excessive humra observance not only affects mental focus, but issues of material allocation as well. Money spent on more expensive meat with an extra hekhsher (kosher certification) cannot be used for tsedakah (charity) purposes. Similarly, time spent working out practicalities related to a certain hakpadah (self-imposed restriction) cannot simultaneously be applied towards acts of hesed (kindness) or other mitsvot. In fact, there are certain cases where a humra indirectly blocks certain other desirable religious goals, including cases where those who refrain from eating certain foods find their ability to be me’urav im ha-beriyyot (involved with people) compromised. As some like to say, every humra is also a kulla, in the sense that the extra effort (of whatever form) utilized in order to promote a particular religious observance beyond the letter of the law necessarily mitigates one’s ability to pursue other religious goals and quests.

An oft-discussed side-effect of humrot is the dangerous and undercutting yohara (presumptuousness) that it can induce. Yohara is discussed in several places in the Gemara and it casts a significant shadow in the works of the commentaries and posekim as well. The more widespread understanding of this phenomenon is that the mahamir may feel a certain arrogance and sense of self-importance as a result of his increased religious observance and willingness to go beyond the letter of the law. This is definitely a potentially significant problem, and one should always be cautious not to apply his religious observance as a psychological kardom lahpor bo (utility).

However, presumptuousness is not the only meaning of yohara; one need not project a pompous aura in order to fail the yohara test. If the mahamir is keeping a humra that is out of whack with his level of general religious observance, if his reach ventures far beyond his grasp, then this internal inconsistency itself may qualify as yohara. Even if the person does not feel that he is acting for inappropriate reasons, the very fact that his humrot are incongruous with his general religious practice is reason enough to render this behavior inappropriate. Proponents of this understanding champion the idea of holistic religious behavior, that one should be consistent in his spiritual goals and not inappropriately overextend in any one area, especially not one that has the potential to engender feelings of self-importance.

One significantly negative consequence of yohara (and here I primarily refer to its definition as presumptuousness) is the opinion one takes towards others who may not be as superlatively observant as he himself is. There are many improper attitudes that can develop in this vein, ranging from a somewhat superior and condescending approach to an outright disdain or dismissal of others’ commitments to Halakhah. One example of a bad habit that can form is to begin referring to those things avoided in observance of a certain humra as asur (prohibited). This not only reflects a severely self-centered view of what the halakhah is on this issue (and how the halakhic process works in general), but it ignores the fact that there is a widely-accepted legitimate halakhic basis for the general, non-mahamir practice. Though one may prefer not to rely on it, that does not make such a halakhic hetter (permissive ruling) invalid, and far be it from some holier-than-thou layperson to condemn his neighbor for doing something asur when in reality it has significant justification.

Lest the reader get the wrong impression, let me be clear that, as per the “ha-mahamir tavo alav berakhah” formulations in the posekim mentioned above, the halakhic system has a very positive attitude towards humrot, at least when practiced in the right way by the right people. The challenge is for someone to know whether their particular situation calls for humra or not and whether they are acting out of the proper motivation. The fact that humrot have so much to offer and simultaneously contain such a risk-factor means that these issues have to be scrupulously attended to before one makes decisions about them.

This article has presented one person’s perspective on the potential effects of accepting humrot, of both salutary and detrimental nature, in order to try to clarify some of the non-halakhic considerations concerning the acceptance of humrot. Hopefully, it has described the issues a person contemplating accepting a particular humra or humrot may find in store for him and has laid out the potential pitfalls and windfalls of this phenomenon for one who already follows certain humrot and/or is aware of people who do. Whatever we individually choose to observe, let us maximize the extent to which we keep Halakhah for the proper reasons, in the spirit of ve-kol ma’asekha yihyu le-shem Shamayim (so that every act is done for the sake of Heaven).


Shlomo Zuckier is a senior at YC majoring in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and is an Associate Editor for Kol Hamevaser.


Leave a Reply



© 2010 Kol Hamevaser. Webmaster: Ariel Krakowski (Blog, Website) Suffusion WordPress theme by Sayontan Sinha