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My Leniency & Your Stringency

The complex nature of halachah leads to multiple opinions on various issues — expert judgment often varies. We expect that two scholars who legitimately disagree still respect each other’s right to an opinion. If I eat a certain food that is controversial, I would not feed it to someone who believes he may not eat it. This is basic courtesy. Yet we find a great Sage who acted to the contrary.

Rav and Shmuel disagree whether you may eat fish that has been cooked in a meat pan, when that fish is served together with a dairy food. The pan is clean but has absorbed meat flavor — a secondary taste. When cooked in that pan, the fish absorbs a permissible tertiary taste — which in Talmudic terms is called a nat bar nat de-heteira. Something neutral like fish that contains a tertiary meat taste is subject to this disagreement of Rav and Shmuel. Shmuel permits and Rav rules strictly (Chullin 111b).

When Shmuel served such a dish to his and Rav’s student, R. Elazar, the latter declined to eat it. Shmuel responded that he had provided the same dish to Rav, who had eaten it. R. Elazar still refused to eat it and later asked Rav whether, since Rav had eaten the meat-pan-cooked fish with dairy as served by Shmuel, he had changed his mind. Rav denied the incident, saying that God forbid someone like Shmuel would feed Rav something the latter considers forbidden.

According to Rav, you are not allowed to feed someone a food he considers forbidden. However, Shmuel seems to have done just that and even lied about it, telling R. Elazar that Rav had eaten it and presumably retracted his strict ruling. How could Shmuel have acted that way? Different interpretations have been offered.

Rav Levi Ibn Chaviv (Ralbach) escaped religious persecution in Portugal around the year 1500 and settled in Jerusalem after a brief stay in Salonica. He was part of a generation in which Jews of different communities and practices lived side by side, making this a timely issue for him. Ralbach quotes Rav Aharon Ha-Levi (Re’ah) who says that you may feed someone something he considers forbidden as long as the food is evident, so the recipient can choose whether to eat it. Ralbach offers three possible explanations of the above incident.

1. Miscommunication – Ralbach suggests that a miscommunication occurred. Shmuel believed that Rav had changed his mind and now only forbade if the meat came from an unusually strong taste. He told R. Elazar that if Shmuel would feed Rav fish cooked in a pan with normal meat taste together with dairy, Rav would eat it. R. Elazar misunderstood and thought that this had actually happened.

2. Confusion – Alternately, Shmuel fed Rav the kind of fish with dairy in a way that was not evident. Shmuel thought Rav considered this kind of fish permissible. Since Rav ate it without asking any questions, Shmuel assumed he was correct about Rav’s opinion. However, really Rav did not change his mind but assumed that Shmuel would make sure to serve him food that Rav considered permissible.

3. Investigation – Or maybe Shmuel fed Rav regular fish, untainted by even a taste of meat, together with dairy. However, since Rav didn’t ask any questions, Shmuel interpreted this behavior as indication that Rav believed even fish cooked in a meat pan can be eaten with dairy. Really, Rav did not change his mind but assumed that Shmuel would make sure to serve him food that Rav considered permissible.

Rav Shmuel de Modena (Maharshdam) was born in Salonica in 1506, when the Greek city was full of exiled Jews. In a question to Maharshdam (Responsa, Yoreh De’ah 227), Rav Moshe Rusho suggests a different explanation:

4. Independence – Shmuel was trying to determine whether R. Elazar would not eat the dish because he thought it was forbidden or merely out of deference to Rav. If the former, then Shmuel would honor his beliefs. If the latter, Shmuel could insists on his own honor. In front of Rav, R. Elazar has to respect Rav even if he disagrees with him. In front of Shmuel, R. Elazar should choose respect for Shmuel over respect for Rav. Therefore, Shmuel removed the element of respect for Rav to see what R. Elazar truly believed about the food.

Maharshdam replies with his own three interpretations to answer the questions posed by his teacher, Ralbach.

5. Accident – Shmuel presented the food to Rav, thinking the latter realized what it was. Rav did not and unwittingly ate something he considers forbidden. Shmuel thought that Rav had changed his mind but Rav was unaware of the whole incident.

6. Authority – Shmuel felt that in his community, his position should be followed. Therefore, he fed the fish with dairy to Rav and later to R. Elazar. Rav either did not realize what he was eating or felt he should not take a stand on this, in order to avoid a disagreement.

7. Providence – Shmuel relied on the saying that God does not let the righteous sin accidentally (Chullin6b). Therefore, he fed the food to Rav thinking that God would only let Rav eat it if Rav really agreed with Shmuel. He ate it unwittingly. Therefore, Rav was unaware of the incident but Shmuel still claimed it as vindication of his view.

All these explanations assume that Shmuel would not violate Rav’s conscience. If someone believes that a certain food is forbidden, we should not be tricking him into violating that belief even if we are confident that he is mistaken.

On the other hand, we also have to confirm things we hear and see. Just because people say that a rabbi ate somewhere or something does not free us from the obligation of asking whether we may eat likewise. Even if the story comes from a reliable source, which is a big “if,” we may still be missing the full context. A missing detail can change the answer completely.