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I have asked many people this question, and not yet got a comprehensive answer: What is psak?

Like, let's say I have a certain piece of food of uncertain status. If I ask my 6 year old kid if it's kosher, and she says yes, and I eat it based on that, obviously I'm an idiot and liable to whatever Heavenly punishment is in order if the food is really not kosher.

On the other hand, if I ask my Rav, and he paskens that it's kosher, I am presumably allowed (perhaps even obligated?) to rely on his psak. But what if he made a mistake, and it's really not kosher? Did I sin in G-d's eyes? Is it considered shogeig (careless) or oneis (accidental)? Do I get timtum halev (spiritual blemish from eating non-kosher)? If he applied the best of his knowledge of Torah, does the Rav get an aveira against his name?

Is there something special about having "semicha" in our times? (I deliberately put it in quotes, since it's not the real semicha.) In other words, if I took the same shaala to a yeshiva student, who's been learning in the Mir for 10 years but never got semicha, and he tells me it's kosher, can I rely on him? Same questions as above for if he's wrong - sin / shogeig / oneis?

Or is it all a matter of personal responsibility: when I have a health problem I consult the expert: my doctor. When I want financial advice, I go to a financial consultant. And when I need spiritual advice, I go to my Rabbi or local talmid chacham for expert opinion. The "semicha" that my Rebbe has is then kind of like the Med School certificate on the doctor's wall: accreditation from a recognized 3rd party that this person knows what he's doing, and I can rely on him, if I trust the certifying authority. It's helpful to have semicha, but if I have personal knowledge that my friend from the Mir knows his halacha, I can rely on him as much as a Rabbi with "semicha".

So, what is the correct explanation?

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With regarding making a psak, there are a few opinions as to the meaning of "psak" (as it pertains to the law of not making a psak in front of your teacher):

  1. One can make a psak if the case is clear, like Bittul Bshishim, Nosein Taam Lifgam, etc.
  2. One can make a psak if the matter was already written in poskim, but one cannot compare cases.
  3. One cannot answer any question, even an obvious question like "is an egg allowed in milk?"

With regards to nowadays-smicha, the Aruch Hashulchan writes that smicha has two components:

  1. A certificate of knowledge (like a degree).
  2. A "Ntilas Rshus" (Taking permission). When a Rav gets appointed to a city, he becomes like the "Rav Muvhak" of the city and its surroundings. Therefore, nobody is permitted to make any rulings within his juridiction. The purpose of smicha is like a "ntilas rshus" so he will be allowed to answer questions.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out a famous Sma(3:13) in Choshen Mishpat that the rulings of Baalei Battim and the rulings of Torah Scholars are opposites.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the Sma cannot be referring to ignoramuses because that would be obvious that his opinions are opposite the Torah. Rather the Sma is referring to a Torah scholar with smicha but not actively involved in Rabbonus full-time. Because he does not have a responsibility to paskin, he would not have the assistance from heaven to rule correctly.

In another place, the Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that the Gemarah says "Anyone who learned ... but didn't do shimush is an ignoramus". Therefore, anyone without shimush is not a Rav, but an ignoramus (with regards to psak).

So it comes out for someone to Paskin Shaailos he must

  1. Be knowledgeable.
  2. Have smicha.
  3. Do Shimush.
  4. Be involved in Rabbanus full-time.

EDIT

The Debretziner Rov writes that one is not allowed to decide practical questions (even for himself) unless his lifestyle is "Toraso Umanso".

  • 3
    Regarding semicha, the Aruch haShulchan seems to be talking about a city with a Rav Muvhak, therefore anyone taking a shteller in that city as a rav must take reshus. Most cities in America do not have this issue, though in Eretz Yisrael and other countries they may. Regarding the Sma, that is a nice drush and may be relevant, but there is no such halacha. – YDK Sep 21 '11 at 14:25
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    With regard to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's rules, specifically, #4, what if the person is specifically a part-time Rav? Eg 1: A small town cannot afford a full-time Rav. They have a Rav visit them for Shabbath occasionally and Pasken by correspondence. Eg 2: A chaplain in a reserve capacity. The military employs thousands of chaplains in the various branches of military reserves. Not thousands, but many, are Jewish chaplains, and many of those are Orthodox. Many of those do not have full-time pulpits or teaching positions. They have Semichah; they are trained; they do Shimush. Can they not Pasken? – Seth J Oct 24 '11 at 15:19
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If you ask your neighbor about this Shabbos lighting times - is it a Psak? But if you ask your Rabbi the same question? But if you ask Gdol Hador the same question? See, when does a [theoretically] Halachicly true answer turns into a Psak?

(I served a prominent Posek R' Shlomo Shlezinger Z"l in Jerusalem for about 10 years and I saw him answering tens of questions by phone, in letters, and in person (he didn't use email). He wrote a lot of Shutim. But I asked myself when his answer turns into a Psak?)

I concluded that a Psak:

  1. has to be in a generalized form, describing a generic situation with fixed variables and overall desirable or undesirable outcomes. Therefore a single consultation about a specific case cannot be called a Psak as it covers an unknown number of variables.

  2. has to be meant to be published as a Psak by its originator. So when a Rabbi writes a Shut or a Halachic compendium it can be considered Psakim, but sidenotes speculations or letters or personal talks cannot, because the Rabbi didn't really mean it.

If that's what a Psak is what are all other questions we ask - let's call them "arbitration" (בוררות). Similar to what a Jewish Beis Din does - it can either issue an official verdict signed by the judges (Psak Din) or offer arbitration. The difference is that the first is forced and obligating (for those who follow) and the second is voluntary - you're free to act differently.

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