The Mishna tells us that the sheheheyanu blessing - "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time" - must be recited upon the acquisition of new clothes (M. Brachot 9:3). The Talmud cites a parallel source that suggests a dispute over the matter (B. Brachot 59b-60a): Rabbi Meir holds that only if the purchaser does not have a similar garment, may he recite the blessing over the new clothes; a second new suit, for instance, would not justify the recitation of the sheheheyanu. Rabbi Yehuda argued that a new garment always calls for a sheheheyanu.
After an ensuing discussion in the Talmud, one opinion suggests that there is a further point of disagreement between the two sages: Rabbi Meir would not require the recitation of the sheheheyanu if the purchaser bought the item, returned it and once again bought it; Rabbi Yehuda, however, would mandate the blessing even though he has previously owned the item, since it is once again considered new and hence it must be said.
The Talmud asks why only the similar garment stipulation is mentioned in the early sources, whereas the "bought and returned and bought" clause is not spelled out explicitly. The Talmud explains that emphasis is placed on the leniency of Rabbi Meir's position: Not requiring a blessing over "bought and returned and bought" is understandable since the joy of the new garment is a matter of the past. Rabbi Meir goes further with his lenient ruling: Even if the garment is truly brand new, yet the purchaser owns a similar garment, he need not recite the blessing. The Talmud explains this preference with a pithy but enduring statement: "The power of permissibility is preferable."
Elsewhere in the Talmud this principle appears as an accepted rule of talmudic discourse: It is preferable to relate the extent of a permissible ruling (B. Beitza 2b). In that case, Rashi (11th century, France) explains the logic of the preference for permissive rulings: To rule stringently is always easier, for prudence encourages a stricter position. It is far bolder to rule leniently for this reflects confidence in one's understanding of the matter at hand.
While the original talmudic statement - "The power of permissibility is preferable" - appears to refer solely to talmudic discourse, many authorities understood that this statement also reflects an ideal in normative Halacha to prefer leniencies and avoid humra, stringent rulings.
Without referencing the talmudic dictum preferring lenient rulings, one medieval authority saw the avoidance of humra as a principle of halachic decision making. In the context of adjudicating whether an animal that has been ritually slaughtered is fit for eating, he wrote: "Any time a decision is required by a scholar and a scholar may easily permit the matter without dispute, a scholar who is reliable should not try to be overly pious and seek out humras, rather he should be concerned about the property of Israel" (Meiri, 13th century, Provence). Declaring the animal unkosher would involve a financial cost; concern for financial well-being of the community is valid justification for avoiding a humra.
Despite this preference for permissive rulings, we find halachists extolling those who are stringent. This approach is often taken when the halachist is unable or unwilling to decide between normative alternatives. Alas, this approach also lauds the choice to be stringent and in our culture says less about the stature and confidence of the halachist and more about the practitioner who chooses to adopt or dismiss a particular humra.
Humra is a situation-specific tool to be employed sparingly where necessary; it is a device that should be used in areas of law that are widely neglected. It is not a panacea for halachic frailty or indecisiveness and it is not a way of life. Each humra should be carefully examined for its appropriateness for our generation's needs.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.