In the past few weeks I have been discussing various Halachot concerning the laws of Prayer. Various people have asked me to explain the process by which means Halacha is determined.
Technically, one can find a distinction between the Sefardi school and the Ashkenazi equivalent. The former primarily relies on the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch which was written by Rabbi Yosef Karo (16th Century). He himself writes in his introduction that he determines the Halacha based on the majority opinion of the three major medieval commentators; the Rambam (Maimonides – 12th Century), the Rosh (Rabbenu Asher – 13th Century) and the Rif (Rav Yitzchak Alfasi – 11th Century). In most cases even if the majority of medieval commentators argue, the Shulchan Aruch only considers the opinion of these “big 3” (what he calls “the 3 pillars upon which the Halacha rests”). If so, many Sefardi Poskim (Halachic Authorities) like Rav Ovadia Yosef will generally quote the Shulchan Aruch as the basis of all Halacha.
However, the Rama (Rav Moshe Isserles – 16th Century), the major Ashkenazi Posek of his day, totally disagrees with the way in which the Shulchan Aruch determines the Halacha. He says that in general, the Halacha follows the latest authorities who in their wisdom are able to weigh up the various views of those who preceded them and decide the Halacha accordingly. In other words: Instead of rendering the decision based on the “3 pillars”, he prefers to adopt the views of later Rishonim (Medieval Scholars). Using this logic, one can understand why Ashkenazi Jewry has not always followed the opinion of the Rama as they maintain that even according to his logic, one should always follow the later opinion. As a result many later authorities themselves argue on his view and the modern Poskim prefer the majority opinion.
There is however another variable in play and that is the role of the Minhag (custom). Traditionally where there is difference of opinion, one usually follows the local custom even when that custom contradicts the accepted halachic position, providing of course that it is at least following some source and is not a an unbased view. For example, the Rama stipulates that a person with fear of G-d should wait 6 hours between meat and milk. There are varying customs concerning this including the yekeshe, German custom to wait 3 hours. In such a case one should follow the custom with which he is accustomed and need not follow the stricter view which is discussed by the above Rama. (If he desires he may be stringent on himself but he does not need to be so.)
There is in fact another issue that will have a dramatic effect on the Halacha and that is the time, the place and the person in question. Jewish Law acknowledges that all situations are different as are the people that they pertain to. Even stringent Poskim are frequently lenient when passing judgment in certain circumstances. There is an unwritten section to the Shulchan Aruch which every Posek needs to take into account: the circumstances.
Thus, based on the above we see that deciding Halacha is an extremely complicated business and is reserved to those who are able to grasp all of its various components. The only true way to deal with these issues is to find a competent orthodox Rabbi with whom one feels comfortable with and acting according to his rulings i.e. “Asseh lecha Rav” (“Choose yourself a Rabbi”). (In many aspects of Halacha, books have taken on the mantle of being our Poskim).Therefore any halachic material found either here or in any particular book, may not be considered the bottom definitive line in the Halacha but rather a competent Rabbi should always be consulted before acting upon it. If any issue is unclear, feel free to ask me or anyone else at the Kollel.