Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Importance of Context

One of my teachers, a prominent Orthodox Rabbi, told the following eye-opening story many years ago. He related that someone had approached his son and told him that he heard the Rabbi had said it was permitted according to the Laws of Kashrut to eat french fries at Mcdonald's. The son of my Rabbi replied that it was hard for him to believe that his father, a pious Rabbi, would have erred on such basic information related to Kashrut, and there must be some misunderstanding. But, the other individual retorted, there was no misunderstanding as, a first-hand witness, related this conversation to me."   There was some sleuthing involved in discovering what had occurred. The forum was a "Ask the Rabbi" session, and someone asked if one can eat potato chips in a Mcdonald's. The Rabbi replied that while not advisable due to the concern of Maaris Ayin (false appearance), it was technically kosher as the potato chips were kosher. A British Jew was in the audience and heard that potato chips were kosher. In the lexicon of British English, french fries are referred to as potato chips. The British guest heard that what Americans refer to as French Fries are kosher at Mcdonald's. The news of this unintended halachic ruling spread quickly, and it wasn't easy to douse the flames.  This incident underscores the importance of having appropriate context to understand complicated situations properly. The Daf Yomi group just concluded the tractate of Nedarim this week. The primary topic studied in Nedarim is the issue of an individual making a vow. There is a rule that is taught multiple times in Nedarim, and that is בנדרים הלך אחר לשון בני אדם. The basic understanding of this Talmudic Law is that one must consider the context and location of where and how the individual makes a vow. For example, if someone makes a vow, he will not drink soda; it will have different meanings and applications depending on where the vow was made. For example, in New York, the vow would include all soft drinks, and in Israel, it would only apply to seltzer (as soda refers only to seltzer in Israel).  We live in a world where there are short recordings of people making statements, and these clips get plastered on social media in seconds. People immediately jump to conclusions based on the words uttered by an individual and captured on record by someone with a smartphone. Absent from this footage is any understanding of context or background that would enlighten the viewer for better understanding. Careers have been destroyed, and misunderstood headlines and yellow journalism have ravaged families. The media feasts on these stories and we are vulnerable to buying into a one or two-dimensional understanding of fundamental issues, real people, and real life. Regardless, if one just studied the Tractate of Nedarim or not, it might be worth looking for context the next time you see a piece of sensational news.  Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch.

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