The Music of Halacha: Hachodesh: The Power of Chiddush
“Understand the years of generation after generation (Deuteronomy 32:7).” In each generation, and in each age, there comes from Heaven a new understanding of Torah that speaks to that generation. The righteous of each generation understand how to teach Torah to their generation, and it is for this that we request on the High Holidays, “Write us in the Book of Life,” and it is written, “It is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it (Proverbs 3:18).” [Chiddushei ha-Rim, page 266)
The Torah speaks in a different voice to each generation. Torah is renewed for each age to communicate in an appropriate voice that will resonate with the generation. We tend to think of the power of Chiddush as the ability to come up with new ideas. The Chiddushei ha-Rim tells us that the true power of Chiddush is the ability to communicate the Torah’s teachings in a new voice.
There is an interesting Responum of Rashi (262) that offers an additional aspect of Chiddush: Rashi’s students noticed him raying without a belt. They did not understand their great master as the Talmud (Berachot 24b) teaches, “It is prohibited to pray without a belt so that the heart does not see the lower body.”
Rashi offers a simple answer: People in Talmudic times didn’t wear pants (Shabbat 120a lists 18 garments; no pants), but robes. There was no separation between the upper and lower body. However, we wear pants that separate, hence, there is no need for a belt!
Rashi examined the Halacha through the eyes of his generation. This too, is part of the power of Chiddush; to see an established law through new eyes.
Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1513 – 1586) a prominent student of Rav Yosef Karo and Rav Moshe Alshich writes: “Do not think that it is arrogance that allows me to raise my head among these lofty mountains, for whenever we speak of our belief in God, the Torah says, ‘For you to pass into the covenant of God, your lord,..not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this imprecation, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before God, our Lord, and with whoever is not here with us today (Deuteronomy 29:11-14).’ Everyone of us, our children and grandchildren until the end of Time, are part of this covenant, and are obligated to delve into the secrets of the Torah to fortify their faith. We accept the teachings of the earlier masters, but know that they did not write to insist that their’s was the absolute truth, and there is no other perspective. We gather opinions, consider on our own, and further our studies, applying their teachings in new ways. If we only accept what we have been taught and do not explore further on our own; we are sinning, lazy, failing in our Torah study (Ma’asei Hashem, Balak).”
Chiddush is demanded of us. The Covenant of Torah obligates us to be Mechadesh, to study and think and arrive at new approaches (consistent with what former generations have taught) and consider new ways to transmit the Torah’s wisdom. Rabbi Ashkenazi describes the Alshich as hesitant to write down his thoughts for fear that people would simply accept them without searching for their own insights and new ideas!
The Chidah (Birkei Yosef, Yoreh Deah 244) rules that in our times most scholars do not have the status of a Talmid Chacham in terms of the strict rules of honor and respect, except for one who is a Mechadeish!
Chiddush demands that after we have absorbed and reified our teacher’s Torah that we apply those ideas in new ways, search for new insights, and find ways to communicate those ideas in a way that will resonate with our generation.
The concepts of Hachodesh expand and apply to all areas of Torah: It demands Chiddush, a new perspective, a fresh outlook, a quest for even more meaning, and finding the right way to communicate those ideas to our children and students.