Strategies for Navigating Uncertainty: Majority and Status Quo

What assumptions do we make when attempting to reach a solution in uncertain situations? In this session, we survey some rabbinic answers to this question.

This session is part of Ideas for Today, the Shalom Hartman Institute's virtual learning season with exclusive multi-session seminars, public lectures, and special programs that harness Jewish wisdom for a better future.

Dr. Sarah M. Gordon, “But One Generation Removed from Extinction”: Folklore Studies and the Mitigation of Precarity, Journal of Folklore Research , September-December 2021, Vol. 58, No. 3, Creating from the Margins: Precarity and the Study of Folklore (September-December 2021), 9

We turn to our cultures to help us manage the unpredictable. We create traditions to exert a sense of control when we feel powerless. Indeed, the concept of precarity is bound up in the concept of control: to exist in a condition of precarity is to exist in a condition wherein the scope of a person or community’s control over their situation—physical, biological, financial, familial, political—is limited to the present and immediate future, and excludes the long-term future. If you are clinging to the edge of a cliff, all resources available to you become devoted to keeping yourself from falling, and it becomes impossible to think about what you might do later in the event that you find your way back up into safety.

הרבנית ד"ר מיכל טיקוצ'ינסקי קונטרוס הספקות: מתודה, מגמה ומשמעות, שנתון המשפט העברי 43

על פי דברינו עד כה ניתן לשער שהשימוש בסוגיות הספק כבסיס לשני החיבורים תקפו כהן וקונטרוס הספקות, מצביע על כך ששניהם מתמודדים עם מציאות מבלבלת ומאתגרת. דרכם לפתרון הייתה שונה עד מאד ועל ידי השוואת החיבורים ודרך התמודדות שלהם ניתן לאתר את מגמותיו של בעל הקונטרוס, על רקע הפולמוס החבוי והגלוי שלו עם הש"ך.

Rabbanit Dr. Michal Tikochinsky, "'Kuntres HaSfekot': Methodology, Objectives and Meaning," Annual of the Institute for Research in Jewish Law, 43

Based on what we have said, we might suggest that the use of the passages about doubt/uncertainty as a basis for these two compilations - Teqafo Kohen and Kuntres Ha-Sefekot - points to the fact that they are both dealing with a confusing and challenging reality. Their way of resolving it was quite different, and by comparing the two compilations and their ways of coping, we can locate the writer of Kuntres' (R. Yehuda Kahane Heller, 18th c.) tendencies against the backdrop of the implicit and explicit polemic with the Shach (R. Shabtai ben Meir HaKohen, 17th c.)

Tools for Resolving Uncertainty: Status Quo (חזקה) and Majority (רוב)

מנא הא מלתא דאמור רבנן אוקי מילתא אחזקיה אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר ר' יונתן אמר קרא (ויקרא יד, לח) ויצא הכהן מן הבית אל פתח הבית והסגיר את הבית שבעת ימים דלמא אדנפיק ואתא בצר ליה שיעורא אלא לאו משום דאמרינן אוקי אחזקיה מתקיף לה רב אחא בר יעקב ודילמא כגון שיצא דרך אחוריו דקא חזי ליה כי נפק...

From where is this matter that the Sages said: Establish the matter on the basis of its presumptive status, derived? Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said that the verse states with regard to leprosy of houses that after a priest views a leprous mark: “And the priest shall emerge from the house to the entrance of the house, and quarantine the house seven days” (Leviticus 14:38). How can the priest quarantine the house based on his viewing the leprous mark? Perhaps as he was emerging and coming out of the house, the size of the leprous mark diminished and it lacks the requisite measure for leprosy. Rather, is it not due to the fact that we say: Establish the matter on the basis of its presumptive status? Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov objects to that proof: And perhaps the verse is referring to a case where the priest emerged backward, as in that case, the priest sees the leprous mark as he emerges...

מנא הא מילתא דאמור רבנן זיל בתר רובא מנלן דכתיב (שמות כג, ב) אחרי רבים להטות

רובא דאיתא קמן כגון ט' חנויות וסנהדרין לא קא מיבעיא לן

כי קא מיבעיא לן רובא דליתיה קמן כגון קטן וקטנה מנלן

From where is this matter that the Sages stated: Follow the majority, derived? From where do we derive it? As it is written explicitly: “After the majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2).

With regard to a majority that is quantifiable before us, for example, in the case of a piece of meat that was found on the street before ten shops, nine shops selling kosher meat and one shop selling non-kosher meat, one follows the majority and deems that piece kosher. Or when the Sanhedrin adjudicates a case, one follows a majority of the judges in determining the ruling. In these cases, we have no question.

We ask about the case of a statistical majority that is not quantifiable before us, for example, the case of a minor boy and a minor girl. If the boy entered into levirate marriage with the girl, it is permitted for them to remain married, and there is no concern that when they grow older it will be discovered that the boy or the girl never develop sexually. Rather, one follows the majority, that minors develop sexually at puberty.

Regarding that non-quantifiable majority, from where do we derive it?

(ב) לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת׃

(2) You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty-a

רב אשי אמר אתיא משחיטה עצמה דאמר רחמנא שחוט ואכול וליחוש שמא במקום נקב קא שחיט אלא לאו משום דאמרינן זיל בתר רובא אמר רב אשי אמריתא לשמעתא קמיה דרב כהנא ואמרי לה רב כהנא קמיה דרב שימי ואמר ליה ודלמא היכא דאפשר אפשר היכא דלא אפשר לא אפשר

Rav Ashi said: The principle of following a non-quantifiable majority is derived from the halakha of slaughter itself, with regard to which the Torah states: Slaughter the animal and eat it. And let us be concerned that perhaps he is slaughtering the animal in the place of a preexisting perforation. Rather, is the reason we are not concerned for this not due to the fact that we say: Follow the majority of animals that are not tereifot? Rav Ashi said: I stated this halakha before Rav Kahana, and some say that Rav Kahana stated this halakha before Rav Shimi, and the Sage before whom the halakha was stated said to the one who stated it: And perhaps where it is possible to examine the situation it is possible, and the majority is not followed; but where it is not possible to examine the situation it is not possible, and the majority is followed.

Rabbi J. David Bleich, "DNA," Tradition 51, no. 4, pp. 136-37
The Jewish law principle [that children born when spouses are nearby each other are the product of their union] is based on a general empirical presumption rather than upon policy consideration. The halakhic principle is the majoritarian rule of rov. That general rule is employed to determine questions of status. Given the existence of two distinct sets, a major set and a minor set, when doubt arises with regard to the status of a particular person or entity, the person or entity whose status is in doubt is assigned to the major set. Thus, for example, although some animals are treifot, the majority of all animals are not treifot. Consequently, if a question arises with regard to the status of a particular anima, the animal is presumed to belong to the major set of animals that are not treifot.

קובץ הערות סימן ס"ז סעיף ד

וי"ל דאע"ג שמעמידין כל דבר בחזקתו משום דאין ספק מוציא מידי ודאי מכל מקום אין זה בירור על הספק ואינו דומה לרובא דליתא קמן דהוא בירור

R. Elchonon Wasserman (19th/20th c.) Kovetz He'arot 67:4
And even though we presume the continuation of the status quo, because a doubt cannot upend what is certain, nonetheless, this does not mitigate the uncertainty. And it is not like a general statistical majority which does actually mitigate the uncertainty.

How sure are we: Trust but verify?

רש"י חולין יב. ד"ה פסח
...הלכה למשה מסיני הא דסמכינן ארובא אפי' היכא דאפשר אי נמי אחרי רבים להטות (שם /שמות/ כג) משמע בין רובא דאיתיה קמן בין רובא דליתיה קמן דמאי שנא האי מהאי

ואהא מלתא סמכינן ולא בדקינן כל י"ח טרפות ונקובת הריאה משום דשכיח בה ריעותא בדקינן והיכא דאיתרמי דאיפרשה ריאה ולא בדק מתאכלא דסמכינן אהא...

Rashi on Chullin 12a, s.v. Pesach
It is a law going back to Moses at Sinai that we rely upon the majority even where it is possible [to verify by checking], also "incline after the majority" sounds relevant to both a present majority and a general statistical majority, for what is the difference between these?

And we rely on this and therefore do not check for all 18 blemishes [that would disqualify the animal as a terefah]. But the puncture of the lung because there is frequently a mitigating factor, we check it; but if the lung was removed and wasn't checked, the animal may still be eaten because we rely on this...

How sure are we: Predicting human behavior

ר' ישראל מקרמז' הגהות האשרי חולין יב.

וכן פירש רש"י ונחלק עליו רבו ר"י הלוי וכתב דלא אזלינן בתר רובא אלא היכא דלא איפשר אבל היכא דאיפשר לא, ורב הונא נמי מודה בראיה דיש בה כמה מיני טריפות וכן כתב בהלכות גדולות וכן כתב ראב"ן דאי מיתרמי דאיתפקא בלא בדיקה טריפה, וכן היה מעשה בקולוניי"א ואסרו כל חכמי הדור.

ואומר רבינו ברוך דהיכא דלא שכיח טריפות כולי האי כמו בגדיים וטלאים הסומך על רש"י לא הפסיד והביא ראיות אין להאריך (מרדכי).

R. Israel of Kremz (14th c. Austria), Hagahot Ha-Oshri on Chullin 12a

And so explained Rashi, and his teacher R. Isaac [Eliezer] HaLevi [of Worms] disagreed with him and wrote that we do not follow the majority except in cases where verification is impossible, but if it is possible to verify the facts, we do not [follow the majority]. And even Rav Huna would admit this regarding the lung that has a number of types of terefot, and so it is written in Halakhot Gedolot and Ra'avan, that it was removed without being checked, the slaughtered animal is considered a terefa. And so it happened once in Cologne, and all of the generation's authorities forbade it.

And Rabbeinu Baruch said: that where there aren't so many terefot like among kids and lambs, one who relies upon Rashi does not lose out, and he brought proofs, and we shall no expound on the matter (Mordechai).

How sure are we: Present majority vs. General statistical majority

שב שמעתתא ב:טו

ולפי מה שכתבנו אם הוא רובא דליתא קמן וכמו בהך דלמא לאו אביו הוא רובא דתליא בסברא [וחשיב כודאי] אבל בהך רוב דכל דפריש מרובא פריש זה הוא רוב דלא תליא בסברא אלא דהתורה צותה כן אבל מידי ספק לא יצא.

R. Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller, Shev Shematata (18th c.) 2:15
And based on what we have written, if it is a general statistical majority that is not present, like the case of "perhaps this isn't his father," that is a majority that relies on logic and is considered as certain, but in the majority of "all that emerge come from the majority," this is a majority not based on logic, but instead the Torah commanded it, (so) there is still uncertainty.

...ויראה שמותר לאוכלן כאחת...משום דגזירת הכתוב הוא דכתיב אחרי רבים להטות הלכך חד בתרי בטל ונהפך איסור להיות היתר ומותר לאוכלן אפילו כולן כאחת.

Rabbeinu Asher ben Yehiel (13th c.)

...And it seems to me that it is permissible to eat them all together...because it is a Scriptural decree as it is written "incline after the majority." Therefore, one is two become nill and that which is prohibited becomes permitted, and one may eat them all at the same time.

Head to Head: Majority vs. Status Quo/Presumption

חידושי הריטב"א קידושין נ: ד"ה
אמר רב פפא

פשיטא דבאתרא דמקדשי והדר מסבלי חיישינן לסבלונות שיהו הן עצמן קידושין או שקדמו להן קדושין דהא לעולם לא נהיגי לאקדומי סבלונות לקידושין, ופרקינן לא צריכא דרובא מסבלי והדר מקדשי ומיעוטא מקדשי והדר מסבלי מהו דתימא לא ניחוש למיעוטא דהא בכל מקום אין חוששין למיעוט ולא ניחוש לקידושין קמ"ל דאזלינן בתר מיעוטא וחוששין לסבלונות

ואי קשיא לך והא קיימא לן כרבנן דלא חיישינן למיעוטא אפילו לחומרא, איכא למימר דהתם הוא ברובא דבחיוב וטבע שאינו תלוי ברצון כגון ההיא דקטן וקטנה שחולצין ומייבמין ולא חיישינן לסריס ואיילונית דהוו מיעוטא, וכההיא דאמרינן דרוב נשים מעוברות יולדות ומיעוט מפילות, אבל ברוב התלוי במנהג שאינו חיוב וכל אדם שרוצה יכול לנהוג כמנהג המיעוט ודאי חוששין למיעוט לחומרא, שהרי כיון שהדבר תלוי בדעת פעמים שאדם נוהג כמנהג המיעוט

Ritva (R. Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli, 13th c.), Novellae on Kiddushin 50b, s.v., R. Pappa said

Obviously in a place where first they betrothe and then they give gifts, we suspect that gifts are either the betrothal themselves or that betrothal came beforehand, for they are not accustomed to give gifts before the betrothal. And we answer: No, we need to say this for a case where most people give gifts and then betrothe, and some betrothe and then give gifts. What might you have said? Don't worry about the minority because we never concern ourselves with the minority, so no need to worry that betrothal has alreayd happened. Thus, this comes to teach us that we follow the minority, and we do suspect that the gifts [mean she is already betrothed].

And if you challenge - but we follow Rabanan that we do not worry about the minority even to be more strict, it is possible to say that this applies only to a majority regarding laws of nature, which is not based on a person's will, like the case of a minor male or female who can go through halitza or levirate marriage, and we do not suspect that perhaps the child will grow up to be infertile, for that is the minority; or like we say that most women who are pregnant end up giving birth and only a minority miscarry. However, when it comes to a majority that depends upon human behavior, which is not a necessity, and anyone who wishes may behave in the manner of the minority, we certainly are concerned about the minority for the purpose of being stricter, for here the issue depends upon a person's decisionmaking, and sometimes a person may behave like the minority.

דתנן תינוק הנמצא בצד העיסה ובצק בידו רבי מאיר מטהר וחכמים מטמאין שדרכו של תינוק לטפח

ואמרינן מאי טעמא דר"מ קסבר רוב תינוקות מטפחין ומיעוט אין מטפחין ועיסה זו בחזקת טהורה עומדת סמוך מיעוטא לחזקה ואיתרע ליה רובא

ורבנן מיעוטא כמאן דליתיה דמי ורובא וחזקה רובא עדיף

ואמר ריש לקיש משום רבי אושעיא זו היא חזקה ששורפין עליה את התרומה ורבי יוחנן אמר אין זו חזקה ששורפין עליה את התרומה

As we learned in a mishna (Taharot 3:8): If a ritually impure child is found alongside ritually pure dough, and the child has dough in their hand [that may have been removed from the larger portion of dough]: Rabbi Meir deems the [original dough] dough pure, while the Rabbis deem it impure.

And we say with regard to this dispute: What is the reason for the opinion of Rabbi Meir? He holds that a majority of children handle items that are within reach, in this case the dough, and a minority do not handle items within reach, and this dough retains a presumptive status of purity, since its impurity has not been definitively determined. Therefore, one should append the fact that the minority of children do not handle items within reach to the presumptive status of purity of the dough, and the force of the majority of children who handle items within reach is weakened. Therefore, the dough is considered pure.

And the Rabbis contend that in a case where the majority is followed, the minority is considered like it does not exist. And consequently, there is only a conflict between the majority of impure children who handle items within reach and the presumptive status of purity of the dough. Therefore, the majority takes precedence.

And Reish Lakish says in the name of Rabbi Oshaya: This halakha of a child is an example of a presumption, that children handle items within reach, over which teruma is burned, as the Rabbis hold that it is sufficiently certain that the dough has become impure to allow it to be burned. And Rabbi Yoḥanan says: This is not a presumption over which teruma is burned. Rather, the dough is left aside, and can be neither eaten nor burned, due to the uncertainty whether it is impure.

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