In this answer, I proposed that since there is a machlokes rishonim on a certain issue, it counts as a safek (doubt), although the Shulchan Aruch rules strictly. DoubleAA commented, saying that he didn't believe that every machlokes rishonim is a safek. I gave an example where a machlokes rishonim counts as a safek even though the Shulchan Aruch rules otherwise. DoubleAA gave other examples to the contrary.

My question is when you can say that a machlokes counts as a safek.

(I thought I had asked this in June, but apparently I forgot.)

  • Have you taken a look at the sefer 'Kuntres HaSfaikot'? It's all about questions like this. I don't have it, though, and don't remember if it deals with your question.
    – paquda
    Aug 24, 2012 at 19:36
  • @paquda I found it, I'll take a look at it in a while
    – b a
    Aug 24, 2012 at 19:39

2 Answers 2


It seems to me that a disagreement among rabbis can very well acquire the status of a safek.

The Gemara in Avodah Zarah (7a) says:

היו שנים אחד מטמא ואחד מטהר אחד אוסר ואחד מתיר אם היה אחד מהם גדול מחבירו בחכמה ובמנין הלך אחריו ואם לאו הלך אחר המחמיר ר' יהושע בן קרחה אומר בשל תורה הלך אחר המחמיר בשל סופרים הלך אחר המיקל א"ר יוסף הלכתא כרבי יהושע בן קרחה

If there are two sages present and one declares unclean and the other clean; one forbids and the other permits; if one of them is superior to the other in wisdom and in numbers, his opinion should be followed. Otherwise, the one holding the stricter view should be followed. R. Joshua ben Korcha says: In laws of the Torah, follow the stricter view. In those of the rabbis, follow the more lenient view. Said R. Joseph, the Halacha is according to R. Joshua ben Korcha.

The Rambam (Mamrim 1:5) rules this way as well, and incidentally this is the same way we rule on every matter of safek; i.e. in questions of biblical law we are strict and in questions of rabbinic law we are lenient. To me, the simplest explanation is that these two rulings are one and the same, for every matter of doubt based on conflicting opinions is actually a safek.

However, there are certain considerations one needs to take into account. Most basically, everyone has the right to an educated opinion. If someone is confident about their opinion and has the requisite knowledge to be this confident then it is certainly not Halachically considered a safek to them, regardless of who disagrees, as long as this opinion works within the Halachic system. For this reason the Rambam (ibid) qualifies the above ruling by saying it only applies "when you do not know which way the law leans." This is why the Shulchan Aruch will often rule in accordance with one opinion and not the other without mentioning that it is a matter of doubt, because to him it simply wasn’t. He ruled that way because in his opinion that view carried more weight logically.

A spinoff of this consideration is the fact that everyone has the right to have a specific rabbi one always follows when one does not know the Halacha. The Gemara’s ruling is only to prevent picking and choosing in a Halachically arbitrary fashion, but one who says “I always follow Rabbi X” can follow him even when he is a lenient minority and it is a question of biblical law. As the Gemara itself (Eruvin 6b) says:

והרוצה לעשות כדברי בית שמאי עושה, כדברי בית הלל עושה, מקולי ב"ש ומקולי ב"ה רשע, מחומרי ב"ש ומחומרי ב"ה עליו הכתוב אומר (קהלת ב:יד) הכסיל בחשך הולך, אלא אי כב"ש כקוליהון וכחומריהון, אי כב"ה כקוליהון וכחומריהון

One who wishes to follow the words of the House of Shammai may do so. The words of the House of Hillel; may do so. The leniencies of the House of Shammai and the leniencies of the House of Hillel; is wicked. The stringencies of the House of Shammai and the stringencies of the House of Hillel; upon him Scripture (Ecc. 2:14) says “the fool walks in darkness.” Rather either the House of Shammai with their leniencies and their stringencies, or the House of Hillel with their leniencies and their stringencies.

As the Gemara elaborates, the specific application mentioned in the passage does not apply anymore; for reasons not relevant to this discussion.

The point is that one does have the right to choose an opinion even though one is not sufficiently educated and knowledgeable to have one, as long as one always follows the opinions of this individual and is therefore not acting recklessly and wickedly.

On this authority we can theoretically follow the decisions of the Shulchan Aruch even when we do not feel confident enough deciding ourselves which of the Rishonim got it right. The idea is, simply put: the Shulchan Aruch is our rabbi. When we don’t know, we always follow him. Or the Rema. Or the Aruch HaShulchan. Or the Mishna Berura. This can apply to anyone, and is really the concept known as posek acharon, final Halachic authority. It isn’t that we truly believe that any particular person has the final word, but there are certain people we hang our hats on, so to speak, in all cases where we aren’t confident to have our own opinion. Doing so is of great benefit to us for this very reason – it takes care of a lot of doubts and precludes them from acquiring safek status.

In summary: Every disagreement is potentially a safek, but in actuality if one has a confident, educated opinion, or if one consistently relies on someone else who has a confident, educated opinion, then said opinion does not have the status of safek at all (unless one has an educated, reasonable doubt about the particular opinion that is not simply translated as "but someone else said...").

  • Doesn't the gemara say the safek deXXX leXXX rules only apply when both ruling parties are of equal stature? So when they aren't of equal stature, then it isn't a safek according to everyone.
    – Double AA
    Aug 26, 2012 at 4:44
  • 1
    @DoubleAA But you can't tell me that we have to know precisely who is greater, because then you can basically throw the whole halacha out the window since it's almost never possible to know exactly. I think it obviously means to differentiate between people who are recognized to be miles apart and those who are considered to be in the same playing field, which is the normal case with any machlokes rishonim and the like.
    – Dov F
    Aug 26, 2012 at 4:49
  • Besides, the Rambam leaves out this Halacha of going after the one who is greater בחכמה ובמנין.
    – Dov F
    Aug 26, 2012 at 4:51
  • Good point about the Rambam. I guess he understands that the first part is also argued upon by RJBK. But he does say those rules only apply when you don't know להיכן הדין נוטה which is basically your next point, you just don't really bring a source for it.
    – Double AA
    Aug 26, 2012 at 13:22
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    Thanks (and +1 from before btw). I see why you might think it is obvious, but even not on Mi Yodeya, obvious things have prooftexts stating them, cf Yesodei Hatorah 1:1.
    – Double AA
    Aug 26, 2012 at 19:15

This isn't a full answer, because it doesn't address when you can call a disagreement a Safek, but it answers, I think, why you can or can't in some of the examples you gave.

I think there are at least two differences between the case of the wisdom teeth and the case of the 'Omer. With the 'Omer, first comes the Safek that perhaps you counted it already. Then, since there is a difference of opinion in the Halachah, we allow you to call the Mahloketh a Safek for purposes of establishing a Sfek Sfeka. With the wisdom teeth case, you're essentially saying maybe the Halachah is different, and maybe the Halachah is different (in this case). That's, at best, the same Safek repeated. Not enough to establish a Sfek Sfeka, or even to call the Mahloketh a Safek for any purpose with a Nafka Minah.

  • Your saying safek echad bemetziut safek echad bedina is better that sefeik sefeika bedina. IIRC many rishonim hold the opposite actually. Can you source this ordering?
    – Double AA
    Aug 26, 2012 at 4:41
  • Um, sure... Btw, who were those other Rishonim, out of curiosity? Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V.
    – Seth J
    Aug 26, 2012 at 23:02

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