There are those who prefer the path of humra, stringency in the application of Jewish law. To what extent is this approach rooted in the Talmud? In reference to this question there are two stories in our tractate, Berachot, that are worth recounting: the Golden Dove and the Reclining Sage.
Our sages discuss the appropriate course when one neglected to recite Grace After Meals and remembers upon reaching a different location (M. Brachot 8:7). According to the School of Shammai, the diner must return to where he ate and recite Grace. The School of Hillel felt that it was not necessary to return to the original site.
Normative law follows Hillel's school. In this case, however, acting in accordance with the strict opinion of Shammai's school is praised (Shulhan Aruch OH 184:1 and commentators). This understanding is buttressed by the story that follows the halachic exchange: Rabba bar bar Hana was traveling in a caravan. When the convoy stopped, Rabba bar bar Hana ate but forgot to say Grace. Realizing once the group had moved on, he wondered what to do; surely his companions would not be sympathetic to a delay in their journey. Yet he sought to return to where he ate, as per the position of Shammai's school.
The sage therefore devised a plan: "I would be better off saying that I forgot a golden dove, for then they will agree to stop and allow me to return and retrieve it." Rabba bar bar Hana put his plan into action, and sure enough his fellow travelers agreed to wait for him. The Talmud tells us that beside reciting Grace, Rabba bar bar Hana miraculously found a golden dove! The discovery seemed to reflect divine approval and encouragement for adopting a humra approach.
But not all cases reflect this trend: Our sages debate the appropriate posture for the recitation of Shema (M. Brachot 1:3): The School of Shammai maintained that there was a prescribed stance for each of the Shema readings. This position is based on the source of the twice daily reading of Shema: And you should teach them to your children: [recite them] when you stay at home and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you get up (Deuteronomy 6:7). According to the School of Shammai, the verse refers both to the time of day and the appropriate stance: Shema should be read when you lie down, that is, while reclining in the evening and when you get up, that is, while standing in the morning.
On the basis of the same verse, the School of Hillel ruled differently. According to Hillel's school, the cited verse relates only to the time of day that Shema should be recited, with no required posture. The appropriate pose is given by a different phrase in the verse: and when you walk along the way - each person should read Shema in the position that he happens to be.
The Mishna continues with a tale related by Rabbi Tarfon: "I happened to return by road and [in the evening] I lay down to read [the Shema] in accordance with the view of the School of Shammai, and I endangered myself [by lying down] because of bandits." Rabbi Tarfon's peers responded without sympathy: "You deserved to forfeit your life for you transgressed the words of the School of Hillel!" The harsh response is startling: If Hillel's school has no particular posture requirement what was wrong with Rabbi Tarfon's decision to adopt a humra and act in accordance with Shammai's school? It appears that the Talmud condemns adopting a humra.
The two tales reflect conflicting trends; what is the preferred course? A careful reading of the tales suggests a distinction: In the case of the Reclining Sage there is fundamental argument as to the interpretation of the verse. Once the Halacha has been decided, no quarter should be given to the opposing opinion. Adopting the dissenting position is not a case of humra; it is defying the authority of the halachic community.
In the case of the Golden Dove all agree that Grace should be recited where the meal was eaten. The two schools only differ in the case of an unintentional mistake. While normative law follows the lenient position, adopting the other position is not an act of defiance, since all agree that this is the preferred course.
This distinction offers a nuanced approach to the possibility of adopting a humra, indicating that there are occasions that adopting the humra is possible though not normative, and there are other cases where preferring the humra is not only discouraged, but is despised as a flouting of halachic authority. Humra, therefore, is of dual nature: At times praiseworthy, at times contemptible.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.