While travelling to Yerushalayim recently, the drive to the Old City took us through a labyrinth of streets and a multitude of neighborhoods. This was of course due to WAZE and its specific instructions, about which the driver commented that “ לא תסור מן הדבר אשר יגידו לך ימין ושמאל”. Adopting a phrase from this week’s parsha, (Devarim 17:11) the application was deemed to know it all and never to be questioned.
The phrase actually refers to the requirement to listen to the words of the חכמים. In fact the Gemara (Shabbat 22b) employs this idea to explain the syntax of the brachot we recite over various mitzvoth. The Gemara asks how we can say “אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציוונו” on mitzvoth such as lighting the Chanuka lights which are not mentioned in the Torah and hence not commanded by Hashem? The answer given is that by performing a rabbinically enacted mitzvah (miderabbanan), we are fulfilling the Torah mandated mitzvah to listen to the words of the sages. This notion is deduced from the above quoted phrase: לא תסור מן הדבר אשר יגידו לך ימין ושמאל . The Gemara also cites a further source for this idea שאל אביך ויגדך, זקנך ויאמרו לך which means “ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will inform you” (Devarim 32:7).
However, if we look at the words of Rashi on the former passuk, we find a somewhat surprising comment. Rashi states: “Even if (they, the sages) say to you about right that it is left or about left that it is right”. This implies that even if the חכמים make a demand of us which is based on an untruth, on right being left or vice-versa, we must still comply with the ruling.
Many commentators were troubled by this statement of Rashi. In order to try and explain his words, we begin by referring to Rashi’s source, the Sifri to our parsha. The words of the Sifri show a small but crucial difference to those of Rashi: “even if it appears in your eyes that the sages are saying about left that it is right, listen to them”.
The fact that what the חכמים say may “appear in our eyes” to be incorrect does not necessarily mean that it is wrong. Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein in the Torah Temimah also invokes these words of the Sifri to interpret Rashi. However, Rashi clearly chose to ignore these limitations set in the Sifri and make the categorical statement that we must always listen to the words of the sages even if they state that left is right.
Nechama Leibowitz quotes the words of Haketav Vehakabala: If in your eyes they seem to have made a wrong decision, nevertheless follow them; but if you are absolutely certain they are mistaken, the Talmud has already instructed you not to listen to them in the event of them calling the right left etc. Rashi’s words need amending.
The words of Rav Ya’akov Zvi Mechelsberg (author of Haketav Vehakabala) are based on the comment of the Talmud Yerushalmi (Horayot Aleph, halacha Aleph). Expounding on the passuk, the gemara there states that the mitzvah is to listen to our sages “only when they say about right that it is right and that left is left”. This is what caused Haketav Vehakabala to state that the text of Rashi needs amending.
However, Rashi chose to quote the Sifri somewhat selectively and ignores the words of the Yerushalmi. Surely there is a reason for this? Let us ask a further question. Why does the Torah issue such a severe warning about the need to listen to the Chachamim? Ramban explains that this is to avoid disputes within the nation. As the Torah was given to us written down but requiring further interpretation, there was a need for a system by which the people would follow one method of interpretation – that of the Bet Din in Yerushalayim. Without this mitzvah, the Torah would become a source of division and not of unity. (I have paraphrased the words of the Ramban.)
We can now suggest that Rashi shared the concerns of the Ramban. He furthermore felt that many regular members of Am Yisrael may think that they know better than the Bet Din and decide that what the Chachamim said was right is actually left, and therefore there is no need to heed their words. Rashi therefore states categorically that we must concede to the Sages and trust them implicitly. Rashi does not ignore the possibility that a Bet Din do actually err but he chooses not to discuss such a case. Should one be absolutely certain that bet Din have made an error then even Rashi would agree that we should not listen to their ruling.
However, it is possible that Rashi should be understood literally. The Mishna in Rosh Hashana (Perek 2) describes the dispute between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel as to whether to accept testimony from a set of witnesses who claimed to have spotted the new moon. Rabban Gamliel, who was the head of the Sanhedrin at the time, accepted their testimony, declared the day to be the first of the month, and the subsequent dates were fixed based on the decision of Rabban Gamliel. Rabbi Yehoshua disagreed with the ruling of Rabban Gamliel and claimed that the first of the month should therefore have been one day later that his (Rabban Gamliel’s) ruling.
Based on this dispute, it turned out that Yom Kippur was celebrated one day earlier than it had been had Rabbi Yehoshua’s ruling been accepted. The next Mishna relates how Rabban Gamliel forced Rabbi Yehoshua to turn up at Bet Din on the day following Yom Kippur, the date he (Rabbi Yehoshua) thought to be Yom Kippur with his staff and his money thus violating the holy day. Rabbi Yehoshua did as he was asked to do and Rabban Gamliel praised him for both his compliance and his wisdom. In the discussion in the Mishna both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Dosa explain that once Bet Din has ruled it is incumbent upon us to accept their ruling even if we may deem their decision to be incorrect. This is necessary to preserve the system of Halacha and the unity of Am Yisrael.
Returning to our Rashi, we propose that he is referring to a case such as that described in the Mishna. When the Bet Din, the accepted authority on all matters of Halacha has ruled, we must accept that decision whatever the circumstances. However, with regards to consulting with rabbis, not the Bet Din, even in areas of Halacha, if we are convinced that they are incorrect, we can and probably should follow what we believe to be the right path.
In this day and age, we unfortunately do not have a Bet Din or any such authority which is accepted by the entire Jewish nation. Yes, we still have a mitzvah to heed the words of the wise and elderly. But, we should also know that if the guidance we are given is incorrect we should act based on what we believe is the right path. The difficulty arises in a case where we choose to ignore the words of the contemporary sages. Are we doing so based on our emotions or what we may have read on the internet or because we are truly certain that the Halacha should be interpreted differently from what the sages have said?
This is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. In an age when wisdom and knowledge are not valued as they once were, when everyone who has access to “Google” thinks themselves an expert on everything, we are all “know it alls”. Our judgment is also swayed by the Western culture amongst which we live and this can affect adversely our ability to view the situation through Jewish/Halachic glasses. It is worthwhile remembering this mitzvah to comply with the words of the Chachamim and Rashi’s comment on this commandment. Keeping this notion in mind will ensure that decisions we make are guided by Emunat Chachamim, an unswerving commitment to Halacha and a great sense of Yirat Shamayim.