Monday, 16 December 2013

Why so much Kabbalah in Halakha

Apologies for those looking for Madonna.

In my last blog I mentioned that the custom of Turkish Jews was to wear Talet and Tefillin on a fast day even when the fast falls out on a Friday. Subsequently there has been much debate whether that minhag is a correct custom or not. I would like to state that this blog is not here to make halakhic rulings on particular minhagim or practices. It is here for the process of debate, discussion and food for thought. As such please feel free to comment on the blog or to send me a private email.

Let's start with an introduction. Levantine Sephardim and Sephardim from Western Europe have the custom of wearing Talet and Tefillin on the afternoon of all fast days (except for Yom Kippur of course). Some people have the custom to wear Talet and Tefillin every mincha.

The Be'er Hetev in his commentary to the Shulkhan Arukh (O.C. 37:3) writes that one does not wear Talet and Tefillin on Friday afternoons because of the sanctity of Shabbat. However Rabbi Mordechai Margoliot in his commentary to the Shulkhan Arukh called Sha'arei Teshuva (O.C. 37:3) writes that from a purely halakhic position there is absolutely no problem with wearing Tefillin erev Shabbat and one should not protest if someone wears tefillin on Friday afternoon. However, he adds that he asked many great Rabbis in Israel and they said not to wear Tefillin erev Shabbat. The Kaf HaChaim on the Shulkan Arukh (O.C. 25:100 and 37:11) first writes that there are those who do wear Talet and Tefillin Erev Shabbat but that the minhag in Beit El synagogue was not to wear Talet and Tefillin Erev Shabbat.

The reason given for not wearing Talet and Tefillin Erev Shabbat was Kabbalistic in nature that the holiness of Shabbat already starts from Friday afternoon and already permeates the feel of Friday afternoon especially late on Friday afternoon. This Kabbalistic teaching is held as law by the majority of great Sephardic Rabbis such as the Hida, Kaf HaChaim and Rav Palachi.

The Moroccan Poskim are in debate whether the Talet and Tefillin problem is all Friday afternoon or just late Friday afternoon. The consensus of the Moroccan authorities is that if Mincha Gedola is done on Friday there is no problem of Shabbat's holiness already taking hold. 

Nevertheless according to Maran if a person wishes to wear tefillin all day or even just Shacharit and Minha there is no problem with a person doing this on Friday afternoon from a halakhic perspective. The only issue is kabbalistic. 

My question which I don't really have an answer to is why does Kabbalah play such a central role in halacha? Maran was also a great kabbalist. But he took great pains not to bring too much Kabbalah into halakha. However, the Arizal, the Hida, the Kaf Hachaim, Rav Palachi and others saw Kabbalah and Halakha so intertwined that they always based their halachic rulings in Kabbalistic sources.

For example in my class last Wednesday night we were discussing whether it was permissible to wake up early before the fast started and eat breakfast if one made a declaration before going to bed? From Maran it was clear that this was acceptable to do but Rav Ben Zion Abba Shaul brings the Kabbalah that says even with a declaration once a person goes to bed they cannot get up to eat as the halakha. Now I'm not knocking Kabbalah I just find it strange that Maran would try and keep it away from halakha but in the last few hundred years it has been brought to the forefront.

As a postscript for future years: The next time that Asara Be'Tevet falls on Friday is Dec 25th 2020. There would be no problem having an early mincha on that Friday and that may resolve the problem a little. But there are many who hold even an early mincha is problematic.


  1. One answer to your question would be that Kabbalah sees itself as the spiritual roots of the Halachic tree. So while the tree itself is made up of intellectual discussion based on the underpinnings of the Halachic framework, the unseen element that guides the conversation is, Is this [insert discussion here] fulfilling the ultimate role of *unifying* (or, revealing the unity of) G-d and His creation? In order to answer that question, one must know the spiritual flows - how that synthesis works between G-d and creation with regards to space, time, and situation (olam, shana, nefesh). And that is Kabbalah.

  2. Halacha is basically the Rabbinic common law, which varies based on public policy of the time period. Differences in halacha itself are found among Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Yemenite Jews, which are reflective of the historic and geographic diversity of various Jewish communities within the Diaspora. Perhaps, bringing Kabbalah into the forefront of halacha in the last few hundred years is a reflection of the shift in Jewish public policy.


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