Changing the Torah by adding stringencies


Rabbi Evan Hoffman discussed the phenomenon of rabbis adding stringencies to the somewhat lenient biblical laws.[1] For example, Deuteronomy 8:10 states “eat and be sated and bless the Lord,” which required the Israelites to bless God, that is say a benediction, after eating only if they were sated by what they ate, meaning after a hearty meal. The rabbis converted the biblical requirement into a more severe mandate, a new law that demanded Jews to say a blessing after consuming even a small quantity of food, as small as an olive’s bulk.[2]

Rabbi Hoffman described why the rabbis added stringencies. They made laws to remind Jews of the ancient temple that they felt should not be forgotten,[3] to protect society and assure justice,[4] to maintain good relations among people,[5] to avoid acrimony,[6] as a preventive measure called “a fence around the Torah” to distance a person from even coming close to violating a Torah law,[7] and as a praiseworthy standard of piety.[8]

As commendable as this last reason seems to be, there were and are many groups[9] and individuals who carry the goal of increasing piety too far. Hoffman notes that “The late Second Temple period saw many Jewish groups committed to extra-Biblical religious practices as a means of currying divine favor. Haberim[10] ate mundane foods according to Levitical purity standards required for sanctified food.[11] The Dead Sea Sect (at Qumran) imposed upon its members many additional observances and lifestyle restrictions. The Hemerobaptists[12] insisted upon ritual ablution every morning.[13] The eccentric piety of the ‘Seven Pharisees’ made them the subject of derision.[14] Extremists mourning the loss of Jerusalem turned to radical asceticism.”[15]

Hoffman also tells us that “Sometimes the public itself is the source of religious obligation extending beyond that demanded by the Torah or the Sages. Three examples:  The daughters of Israel took it upon themselves to impose the seven-clean-day waiting period after the sighting of even the smallest amount of menstrual blood.[16] The lay people accepted upon themselves the obligation to recite the daily Evening Service,[17] and to undertake all four commemorative fasts.[18] Despite their having emanated from popular will and not formal religious authority, observances like these nevertheless have great standing in halakhah and cannot be easily undone or overturned.” Observant Orthodox Jews have accepted all three of these restrictive and difficult rules upon themselves today and dozens of others even though these practices are neither Torah nor rabbinical requirements.

If we listed all of the stringencies that Jews have taken upon themselves despite the practice not being mandated or prohibited in the Torah, we would have to list them in more than a single book. For example, although not required by the Torah: Jews feel they should hear a hundred shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah and many synagogues repeat the soundings at the conclusion of the service for people who came late and did not hear them; some Jews dissatisfied with wearing a single head covering don two, a yarmulke covered by a black hat; they wear their tzitzit (fringes) hanging outside their clothing; while the Shabbat is a single day, and a day is 24 hours, Judaism added an hour to lengthen the Sabbath, starting it before sunset and ending it when three stars are visible; while the early rabbis established a short prayer service for the Sabbath, an amida of only seven blessings, Jews extended the service to four times the length of the daily service; while rabbis of a century ago only delivered two sermons a year, synagogues today copy the Christian practice of an obligatory weekly sermon. Two more recent practices are standing when the kaddish is recited in the synagogue, and pointing at the Torah scroll with one’s little finger when it is raised at the conclusion of the Torah reading.

I have a friend in Baltimore, Maryland, an Orthodox Jewish law professor, who some fifty years ago began to collect what he called “the chumra of the day,” new stringency that ultra-Orthodox and non-ultra-Orthodox Jews accepted. He has hundreds of them.


[1] In his weekly “Thoughts on the Parashah” of August 8, 2015.

[2] Mishnah Berakhot 7:2.

[3] Mishnah Sukkah 3:12.

[4] Mishnah Gittin 4:3.

[5] Mishnah Gittin 5:8.

[6] Semakhot 5:11.

[7] Mishnah Berakhot 1:1.

[8] As in the added strictness added to Deuteronomy 8:10 mentioned above.

[9] Hereidi Jews are an example.

[10] This was a group of people who lived during the latter part of the second temple period who took upon themselves non-biblical standards of behavior such as eating only foods that the Levites, who functioned in the temple, were allowed to eat.

[11] Tosefta Demai 2:2

[12] Called tovlei shacharit in Hebrew.

[13] Tosefta Yadayim 2:20.

[14] Mishnah Sotah 3:4 and BT Sotah 22b.

[15] Such as not eating meat or drinking wine. Tosefta Sotah 15:11.

[16] As a result those who keep the Nidah laws may not engage in sex for an additional seven days, a total abstinence of almost half a month.

[17] The Torah does not require a prayer service. The rabbis invented a requirement to pray twice a day, morning and afternoon. Lay people felt that piety requires them to pray also at night and invented the Ma’ariv service.

[18] Orach Chaim 550:1.