Kabbala and Halacha
Rabbi Yosef Azuz
Shalom Uvracha. I have read your newsletter regarding the Lighting of Shabbat Candles with great interest. In addition to discussing this important halakhic issue, you attempt to impart to your readers information about the relationship between Sephardic Halakha and Qabbala. Furthermore you propose a thesis that suggests a bias of Rav Ovadiah Yosef against the Ben Ish Hai in specific, and minhagim based upon Qabbala in general.
I do not by any means consider myself an expert in Halakha. I do not wish to reiterate arguments that have already been presented in Yabia Omer (2, O.H 16, and 9, O.H.108) and Yehave Da'at (2, 33). Nevertheless, I felt it necessary to take issue with some points made in your article.
You state:
" As we have seen above HaRav Ovadiah's peers and elders do not accept his position on this matter. However, many Sephardic Rabbis who were educated under HaRav Ovadiah directly or indirectly all hold by his view.
It is clear that with regards to lighting and blessing or blessing and then lighting that the majority of Sephardic opinions do not follow HaRav Ovadiah. Indeed, all those who do follow his opinion are his students, or those who align themselves with him politically through Shas."
You make it seem as though the idea among Sepharadim to bless first then light is an innovation of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, and that no other Sephardic Poseqim before him rule as such.
Firstly, we need look no further than the Rambam and Maran Yosef Karo themselves to find basis for this position. Who among our great Sephardic sages can claim to be greater than these two giants?
As for authorities that came after the Shulhan Aroukh, Rav Ovadiah himself quotes many Sephardic gedolim who are in accordance with Maran. (See Rav Ovadia's aforementioned teshuvot where many sources are quoted. Interestingly, Rav Eliaou Mani himself, who was notably well learned in hochmat hanistar, and was a contemporary of the Ben Ish Hai, held in accordance with Maran.)
You State:
"A Rabbis' disciples are expected to follow in his footsteps and opinions. However, we do not count the opinions of the students as being separate from the opinions of their Rabbi. Therefore, the number of Rabbis who support blessing first and then lighting are few indeed."
This argument is exceedingly fallacious. I have yet to hear anyone say, for example, that the Rashba is expected to follow in the footsteps of his teacher, the Ramban, and therefore we do not count the opinion of the Rashba as being separate from the opinions of the Ramban. The opinions of disciples can and should count in deciding Halakha. Our sages, who are endowed with clarity of thought, have always been free to form their own views separate from those of their teachers. Examples of such instances are too numerous to mention. If they should happen to side with their teacher, then it demonstrates their independent approval of that opinion. To say that a student's opinion doesn't count because he is expected to side with his Rabbi is essentially a denigration of our holy sages and the process of transmission of our holy Torah.
You invoke the principle "Minhag b'Yisrael Torah He" (the accepted minhag has the authority of Torah law)", to support lighting then saying the Berakha.
Clearly, the parameters of a Minhag Yisrael are only applicable where the vast majority of Torah Jewry adopts the custom. In our case, however, there is no conclusive minhag among Sepharadim, one way or another. This was certainly the case in the time of Maran as he uses the term "qetzat nashim' to describe those who light then say the berakha, and it is even true today as Rav Ovadia himself points out. (See Yad Nissim of Rishon LeTzion Rav Yitzhak Nissim who says that the custom in Baghdad was inconclusive one way or the other before the Ben Ish Hai issued his pesaq).
Your reference to the siddur of Harav Shalom Messas is inconclusive as we generally do not decide Halakha based upon what is written in siddurim, as the laws found in siddurim are not necessarily presented for pesaq purposes. Furthermore, Rav Shalom Messas himself in Shu"t Tevuoth Shemesh (Y.D. 96) in fact endorsed the opinion of Rav Ovadiah Yosef.
Toward the end of your article you posit that, "The minhagim of the Ari'zal and the Kabbalah take precedence over the Halakha of the master Maran Yosef Karo" (Beit Yosef O.H. 141).
Before addressing factual inaccuracy of this statement, I must first point out the following, as a result of the confusion that exists regarding the relationship between Halakha and Qabbala.
We have a universal principle based upon the Passsuq, "Lo Bashamayim Hee". The import of this principle is that, with reference to Halakha, nobody has an inside track to Heaven. Haqadosh Baruch Hu gave the Torah to man and with it, the tools necessary to decide Halakha. Among those tools is man's clear and analytical mind. No longer would our sages be allowed to make recourse to divinely inspired prophecies, or revelations, to render legal decisions. This has been the universally accepted Derekh of our rabbis from time immemorial. What greater illustration of this point is there than the remarkable story in Bava Metsiah 59b? Despite the aid of a Bat Kol, the Gemara there rejects the opinion of Rav Eliezer.
The Rambam in his introduction to his Perush Hamishnayot also stresses this point. There he by states that even if a group of Nevi'im should argue against an opinion accepted by the majority of Rabbanim, one may not listen to the Nevi'im. If this passage was said with reference to an actual prophecy, how much more so does it apply to a Qabbala someone received "al pi sod'.
I have a friend who recently attended a wedding at a supposed center for Qabbala here in New York City. He related to me some of the bizarre rituals he witnessed while there (people shouting out strange chants in the middle of the Qedusha and other like practices), all in the name of Qabbala, and clearly against normative Halakha. Someone related to me about a well-known Hassidic group that prays shakharit (and reads the Sefer Torah) at two-a-clock in the morning because of their belief that such a time is Qabbalistically considered an et ratzon. Proponents of these practices would argue that since their minhagim are based on Qabbala, they require no rationalization. Herein lies the evident problem with the approach that Qabbalistic practices should override Halakha in the event of a conflict. If this were true, there would be no end to the level of deviation to the Torah, has veshalom.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong, per se, with customs based upon Qabbala. There are many true and profound ideas contained within these customs. But their treatment and analysis must be within the realm of the "arba amot shel Halakha'.
And it isn't a matter of a Sephardic versus an Ashkenazic approach to Halakha. There is only one approach to Halakha - that of hochma, and in the realm of hochma, there is no distinction between Sephardic and Ashkenazic. When it comes to the investigation of truth, the ethnicity of the investigator never comes into play. In fact, a most eminent Sephardic poseq, the Radvaz, says clearly (Siman 80) that if a law stated in the Gemara or "by one of the Poseqim" goes against that which is mentioned in works of Qabbala, he decides against the Qabbala.
The Ari'zal and Ben Ish Hai were indeed remarkable scholars. Yet when it comes to Halakha and hochmat hanigleh they are on the same playing field as Maran and all of our other great gedolim.
As for contemporary Sephardic Halakha, there is widespread consensus among Sephardic Poseqim that the opinions of Maran Yosef Karo are Halakhically binding. This applies whether Maran is stringent or lenient. (Hida himself is among those who view Maran as the ultimate authority on Halakhic matters). See Rav Ovadia Yosef's introduction to Sefer Halichot Olam for a comprehensive list of Poseqim and ensuing discussion.
Regarding your reference to the statement of Maran Yosef Karo in Bet Yosef (O.H. 141), "M'ahar Sh'lo Nizkar Zeh B'Talmud B'hedia Lo Shi'vaki'nan Divrei Zohar Mip'nei Divrei HaPoskim." (Any law not specifically stated in the Talmud is to be observed in accordance to the directives of the "Kabbalah', even if all the Rabbis disagree with what the "Kabbalah' says).
With all due respect, Maran was referring to that which is written openly in the Sefer Hazohar, and not by any means, any Qabbalistic practice mentioned among the Poseqim. Maran apparently held that the Sefer Hazohar carried the weight of a Tannaic work, and would therefore take precedence over the Poseqim. Maran quotes there, at length, the passage found in the Zohar pertaining to the issue discussed there. (I wonder why you translated the term Divrei Zohar into a generic term "directives of the Kabbalah'? This, no doubt, would cause great confusion among your English speaking readers.) Harav Moshe Feinstein makes this distinction in Iggroth Moshe (O.H. 4, 3). He states that the dictum that Qabbala is makhria in the event of an argument among the Posekim is only applicable where the law is explicitly stated in the Zohar. But, "the Ari and Sefer Peri Etz Haim, though his honor is exceedingly great, is but one of the Poseqim, where it is permitted to argue against him."
As for the Berakha of Hanoten La'yaef Koakh there are a number of reasons which render it's recital incomparable to our case of lighting candles.
Though Hanoten La'yaef Koakh was not mentioned in the Talmud, it is brought down among the Geonim which makes it quite likely that the Berakha did exist in the era of the Talmud. The problem of innovating Berakhoth that are not mentioned in the Talmud is therefore not applicable here. (See Taz in siman 47). The Ari'zal was merely one of many gedolim who preceded him who was in favor of saying this berakha.
Rav Haim Benveniste in Kenesset Hagedola notes testimony that Maran himself later retracted his position about Hanoten La'yaef Koakh.
Parenthetically, your references to Birke Yosef (46:31) and Kaf Hakhayim (O.H. 46:47) in support of your assertion that "Sephardim follow the minhag of the Ari'zal even over Maran' are also erroneous. Hida himself rules that we must adhere to the words of Maran (except in areas of issur ve'heter). This seems to contradict Hida's own statement here that, had Maran seen the words of the Ari'zal (concerning Hanoten La'yaef Koakh), he would have decided otherwise.
But the answer to this contradiction is clear. Sefer Petakh Hadavir (siman 25) points out that Hida made that statement not as a general rule but only with reference to this issue - the reason being that, in fact, Maran retracted his position when he was advanced in age. In general, however, Hida concedes to the supremacy of the conclusions of Maran even over the Ari'zal. Kaf Hakhaim merely reiterated the position of Birke Yosef, and therefore, the same can be said about him.
In conclusion, although there are important Sephardic poseqim who agree with the Rama regarding making the berakha for lighting Shabbat candles, lema'ase the Halakha is clear. The bottom line is that we follow the words of Maran through and through.

I look forward to your reply.
Hag Purim Kasher Vesameakh,
Yosef Azuz

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