By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
There is a famous story cited in the book HaGaon HaChasid MiVilna (pp. 253-254) which originally appeared in Yashar’s biography of the Chofetz Chaim.
It was late on a Friday afternoon in Vilna. Reb Chaim, the tailor of Vilna, was in a bind. It seems a question had arisen on the kashrus of the chicken being cooked in his kitchen. He quickly dispatched one of his children to pose the question to the Vilna Gaon.
The hour was late. Normally, the Vilna Gaon did not serve in the capacity of rav. But here, on account of the lateness of the hour, the Vilna Gaon made an exception. Upon examining the chicken in question, the Vilna Gaon could come up with only one answer: The chicken, unfortunately, was treif.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to our tailor, his wife Malka had dispatched another one of their sons to see the great Rabbi Shmuel, the official rav of Vilna, who ruled leniently. The chicken, in his opinion, was permitted.
Both children excitedly rushed into the tailor’s home to report the responses. Not knowing what to do, Rav Chaim quickly ran to Rabbi Shmuel’s house and explained to him that the Vilna Gaon had forbidden the chicken. Rav Shmuel, the mara d’asra of Vilna, remained firm in his ruling permitting the chicken. He instructed the tailor to prepare the chicken, and he and the Vilna Gaon would come that Friday evening and taste of it.
Rav Shmuel went to the home of the Vilna Gaon and said, “My Master and Rabbi, I am nothing but like dust under your feet. However, I was accepted as the mara d’asra here in Vilna by its residents for halachic rulings. Since I ruled in this matter and I did so in the proper manner with the proper research, the halachah is in accordance with me. I ask of you to come with me to the house of the tailor, and we shall both partake of the chicken so that the residents of Vilna will understand the full authority of the rav, and that there will be no one who argues or criticizes.”
The Vilna Gaon agreed. They both entered Reb Chaim’s home and sat to eat. All of a sudden, before they had a chance to taste of the chicken, a piece of cheilev (unkosher fat) fell from the candle above.
There are a number of fascinating insights from this incident. First and foremost, we see the authority of a rav in his community or shul. If the Vilna Gaon was willing to sit and eat something that he had deemed to be unkosher, that says a lot. How many people in our times would be willing to do that? (Another insight is that the Vilna Gaon and the rav of the community were willing to eat at the home of an ordinary tailor. Eating at the home of a ba’al ha’bayis who needed to ask halachic questions did not seem to be an issue whatsoever. For some reason, this attitude is no longer prevalent, notwithstanding that between the average husband and wife, a good quarter million dollars has been spent on their yeshiva education.)
The reader might object that this is merely a story and that we cannot rule based on a story.
We do find, however, that Rav Hamnuna placed a ban upon a student who ruled in accordance with Rav Shimon in regard to muktzah in one particular city. The Gemara (Shabbos 19b) objects that the halachah is actually like Rav Shimon in this case! The Gemara answers that the city under discussion was one where Rav Hamnuna was the outstanding Torah luminary. Clearly, undermining the authority of a rabbi in his community or shul is a very serious matter.
The halachah is further quantified in the ruling of the Rema in Yoreh Deah (245:22). He discusses when and where it would be permissible to conduct a chuppah ceremony in the domain of another rav. He concludes: “However, one should not rule in forbidden and permitted matters or to lecture in a manner that shows authority in the city of his friend.”
It would seem that the Rema’s ruling applies not only where there is a rav of the whole community, but also to the modern-day application of synagogue and shul rabbis.
The Rivash rules on a similar case (Vol. I, No. 271) and states that no other rabbi may rule outside his domain against the opinion of the local rav. What is fascinating is that the Rivash’s response deals with a spiritual issue and not a halachic matter. Nonetheless, the Rivash is quite clear that even in outside matters, the authority of the rav should not be undermined. The Rivash’s ruling is part of normative halachah. The Chasam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat, No. 41) quotes the Rivash authoritatively.
This idea is also seen from the words of Rashi in his explanation toChulin 53b. He writes, “It is unseemly [“lav orach ara’a”] to permit something in a place where the other rav forbade it.”
There are numerous other passages in the Talmud where this issue is brought to light. For those who wish to research further, see Shabbos 130a, Eiruvin 94a, Pesachim 30a, and Yevamos 14a.
The bottom line of all this? The rabbi of a shul or community has a s’yata d’Shmaya in his rulings. It is unseemly and against the Torah to undermine his opinion. This is true even if one happens to have the erudition of the Vilna Gaon. Certainly it is true in our own times.
The author can be reached at email@example.com.