The Rabbi Asks You
A man asked Rava, “Is it permitted to circumcise on Shabbat?”
Naturally, Rava replied in the affirmative to this seemingly innocuous question. The Torah states that the mitzvah of brit milah is to be done on “the eighth day” of the child’s life, which our Sages teach to mean that it is done “even on Shabbat.”
It appeared that this was a straightforward case of “question asked, question answered.” However, Rava suspected that there was more to the matter than the asker had presented in the question. “Is it possible that the man didn’t know that the mitzvah of brit milah is fulfilled even on Shabbat?” Rava asked rhetorically. Rava decided to find out more, and went out to find the man who had just left.
“Please tell me the exact circumstances regarding the birth of the child whose mitzvah of brit milah you just now asked me about,” Rava said. The man replied, “Although my son was born on Shabbat, I actually heard the baby’s cry from inside his mother on Friday afternoon before Shabbat.” (For some unknown reason, the man omitted this detail when he first asked Rava his question.)
Upon hearing this additional factor of the baby’s cry on Friday afternoon, Rava issued a new ruling. He explained that in this case, following the clarification, the baby had reached a point in the birth before Shabbat which already constituted “birth.” Only a brit milah that is fulfilled on the day called “b’zmana” — literally, “in its time,” i.e. on exactly the eighth day from birth — is able to be fulfilled even on Shabbat. “However, in your case,” said Rava, “doing the brit milah on Shabbat would be considered ‘not in its time’ and the rule is that ‘any milah not done in its time may not be done on Shabbat.”
It appears that Rava, in his great wisdom, and with the ruach hakodesh in his heart, understood that there was additional pertinent information regarding the case than was initially provided by the new father. He therefore pursued the asker for more details. As the sage Rav Dimi from Haifa taught, “From the day of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, although prophecy was taken from the prophets, it was not taken from the Torah scholars.” (Bava Batra 12a)
We see how great and how difficult is the challenge to properly answer a question regarding halacha. This is so when the answerer is an expert in Torah law and the asker is present and able to readily provide any needed follow-up information. But how much more is this challenge amplified when the asker is not present, and asks the question through a messenger or via a written letter — the methods we find in countless Responsa that we find in a myriad of sefarim by great halachic authorities throughout history! (These Responsa of halachic questions and answers are known as shoo”tim, the acronym for sheilot v’teshuvot.)
This is no less true for a modern method of asking questions about Torah topics and halacha in our time — by email to a specific Rabbi or to a supervised “Ask the Rabbi” service provided by a Torah organization. This is simply a modern twist on an established practice. Of course, ideally one should pose any question face-to-face to a local halachic authority, but this is not always possible. One may be living in a place where there is no such authority, or, for personal reasons, would not ask the question without the anonymity provided by this medium. A Rabbi available from an “Ask the Rabbi” service is one’s only Rabbi in such a case.
The case in our gemara where Rava deduced that an unasked question was actually the intended question, reminds me of a story I once heard from Rav Mendel Weinbach, zatzal. A great Torah scholar from the previous century was given a chicken by a child on behalf of his mother to check whether or not it was kosher. The Rabbi examined the chicken and didn’t find even the smallest sign of doubt that might call into question its kashrut status. He subsequently told the child to please return home to fetch the other chicken from his mother. When the child reached his mother and told her what the Rabbi had said, she said, “Oy vey!” It clicked with her that she had in fact sent the wrong chicken to the Rabbi for checking. When she sent the second, correct chicken, it indeed was ruled to be not kosher. The Rabbi had followed in the footsteps of Rava, understanding what the true question was, and his great Torah wisdom resulted in preventing a Jewish family from eating non-kosher.
- Nidah 42b