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RABBI MENACHEM MENDEL SCHNEERSON of Lubavitch at a Lag Ba’omer parade in Brooklyn, 1987..(Photo by: Wikimedia Commons)
Not too many ‘L’haims’!
From a legal perspective, regulations that impacted the wider community are significant because they reflect authority beyond a circle of adherents.
All legal systems require procedures for abrogating or amending law. Such mechanisms are a necessity in order to accommodate change, transition, development and evolution. In most legal systems, legislation is a central tool. Alas, in modern Jewish law, legislation in its various forms – takanot and gezeirot – is seldom an effective legal instrument.

To illustrate the point: When Rabbi Asher Weiss (b. 1953) discussed light and air easement law – namely, claims based on the right to the passage of sunlight or air to a property – or the notion of a protected vista according to Halacha, he was well aware that traditional Jewish law did not offer protections that are now commonly accepted:

“If I had the power I would gather together all the heads of Rabbinical Courts, with the approval of the greats of the generation [who serve as] the eyes of the community, to consider with the mind and with the heart legislating regulations and establishing rules of adjudication for these matters and for many similar matters in many fields of hoshen mishpat [Jewish civil law]” (Responsa Minhat Asher 1:98).

Weiss was well aware that this was not a practicable solution; rather, it was legal dream. He therefore set about using other legal tools in order to provide protections under Jewish law.

NOTWITHSTANDING THE decline in legislative power, hassidic masters made contributions to this field of legal writing. Some legislation by hassidic masters addressed the hassidic community, and was more reflective of spiritual leadership than legal authority. Take, for example, Takanot Lozhni issued by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) around the 1790s in a bid to regulate visits by Hassidim; or rules instituted for Gerrer Hassidim in the second half of the 20th century, such as the unwritten guidelines – colloquially known as “takunes” – of Rabbi Yisrael Alter (1895-1977) and his successors regarding intimacy in a marriage.

Some rules were adopted by groups of hassidim as part of their quest for spiritual life. On occasion these rules may have been inspired or ratified by a hassidic master. For example, Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman of Boyan-New York (1890-1971) visited Israel in the winter of 1957/58, and his visit motivated a group of hassidim in Jerusalem to accept upon themselves particular rules of conduct and study.

From a legal perspective, regulations that impacted the wider community are significant because they reflect authority beyond a circle of adherents. Hassidic masters who served in official rabbinic positions had the opportunity to exercise legal authority for the entire community under their jurisdiction.

For example, in 1809, soon after taking up the post of rabbi of Iasi, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel (1748-1825) ratified the existing regulations of the local cobblers’ association. A few years later he did the same for the local tailors’ association.

Similarly, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dynów (1783-1841) enacted Takanot Tamchin De’orayta (Legislation for the Support of Torah Education) in 1827 or 1828 during his brief stint in the Munkatch rabbinate. This legislative act was designed to provide religious education for all Jewish males in Munkatch. To this end the legislation established a society responsible for the implementation of the regulations and an elaborate taxation system that was to be applied to members of the society in order to guarantee funding for the program. The regulations also sought to socialize both students and teachers.

The issues emphasized in the ordinances – such as wearing tzitzit – provide a window into the socioreligious challenges and priorities that occupied R. Zvi Elimelech in the 1820s. The commandment to tie tzitzit to a four-cornered garment appears in the Bible and is discussed in the rabbinic corpus of Jewish law, so “enacting” such a requirement is strange.

R. Zvi Elimelech realized that readers would find it absurd that he was “legislating” existing laws. He explained his predicament: “But what can I do? About this my heart is faint, for nowadays there are many people in this country who wantonly transgress in these matters. And it is not in our power to protest, for it has become for them like something that is permissible.”
Thus, Takanot Tamchin De’orayta provides a perspective into religious observance in Munkatch, Hungary, in the 1820s.

ONE PARTICULARLY interesting collection of hassidic legislation is the posthumously published compendium of directives issued by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch (1902-1994). The collection appeared in 2012, and was then translated into English and published in 2019 in a bilingual edition.

The original title, Takanot Harebbe (Legislation of the Rebbe), suggests that this is a work of law. In the introduction to the volume, the author argues that the contents are not just hora’ot (instructions) aimed as specific people, mivtza’im (campaigns) aimed at the masses, or matters concerning minhagim (customs); rather, these takanot have special legal standing. The author does, however, acknowledge that the distinction between the categories is not always clear-cut – a by-product of no central, recognized legal authority.

The 2019 bilingual edition seemed to soften the legal language by calling the work The Rebbe’s Directives and excising the legislative emphasis from the introduction.

Most of the Lubavitch legislation demanded additional conduct – for example, the 1952 directive requiring young men to complete rabbinic ordination before marriage, or the 1986 directive requiring each individual to appoint a personal rabbinic mentor.

One legislative act was termed gezeirat hamashke, the drinking edict, and it placed limitations on imbibing alcohol. In the 1960s, the rule limited hassidim to three shots, while in the 1980s, four shots were allowed. The rules addressed men below the age of 40, especially those not married. Those who were over 40 were also told to keep a cap on their drinking. It was not just the number of shots that were regulated; the rule also delineated a maximum volume. The rules applied equally to weekdays, as well as to Shabbat and festivals. Only Purim was excluded from the legislation. The regulations were not limited to a particular jurisdiction or geographic territory; they were to be followed everywhere.
The Lubavitch “Prohibition” laws have never been repealed.

The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a postdoctoral fellow with the Galicia project at the University of Haifa.
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