Few things get me more annoyed down here than to see the way in which certain members of the Rabbinate place the keter of torah upon their own head and use halacha not to glorify the Most Sacred Name, but for their own wealth and glorification. I, myself, have been the object of this, being denied the opportunity to perform the most sacred mitzvah of participation in the chevrah kaddisha in retaliation for my attending the "wrong" shul. For this reason I find credible the tales that reach me from others regarding the use of certain edicts of our beloved and learned sages of old (The memory of the righteous is a blessing!) to place stumbling blocks before those who would serve the Jewish community.
In particular, halachos based on the nature of competition and the economic and social circumstances of the times of the Talmud and the medieval period. Notably, edicts such as hasagas g'vul, what we would now consider deliniation of trade boundaries, and laws relating t competition within the Jewish community.
Now these edicts, when established by our Sages of Blessed Memory, were not made to give power to a small clique of men, whether Rabbis or merhcants. Certainly they were not made to impose needless barriers to those who would offer the religious community goods and services because, as it is writen "deracheha darche noam," her (the halacha's) way are ways of pleasantness. Rather, these edicts were established because of the nature of the circumstances in that time and that place.
To take a few well known examples. Why do we read the Torah on Monday's and Thursday's? Because Ezrah the Scribe, the memory of the righteous is as a blessing, ordained that the Torah should be read on market days when many more people would be present than perhaps on Shabbat. Similarly, marraiges of virgins were ordained to take place on Sunday night and Wed. night, so that an allegation wrt the bride's virginity (motzi shame rah) could be resolved speedily the next day by the courts, which met on Monday and Thursday.
Now, we also have the concept of "Nishtaneh Hatevah," the nature of things has changed since the days of our forefathers of old. Now, most simply understood, this explanation is offered as a literal change in the physical nature of things. But the learned understand that this cncept has greater meaning. For example, although cows were well known in the Talmud and subsequently, the question of milking cows on Shabbos, lest they suffer pain from their swollen udders, was not presented until modern times. How could this be? The answer is that in the course of thousands of years, human beings have bred milk cows t produce more and more milk until the very nature of cows changed. Whereas the cows of old could endure a day or two without milking, our modern cows would suffer terribly if left unmilked.
Similarly, the Talmud explains, based on the best medical knowledge of the day, that one should not break shabbos to save a miscarried fetus before the seventh month, since there is no way to save such a fetus (of course, all would agree that one should take steps to save the life of the mother). But in these days, it is possible to save a premature baby mch earlier. Lishtaneh Hatevah, the nature of things has changed, making permissible what the Talmud had previously made explicitly prohibitted.
We have proof of this from the Talmud itself, for the date of weddings for virgins was altered. At first, it was altered to fool the Roman govenors -- cursed be their names! -- who wished to exercise droit de signeur as part of their oppression of our people. But, subsequently, our sages maintained that since the courts no longer met on Monday and Thursday, it was no longer mandatory to marry a betulah on Sunday or Wed. (although many still do so).
To abolish or alter in any way a custom of our fathers is not a matter done lightly. For example, although the market days are not Monday and Thursday, we still read from the torah. For one thing, when examining a custom, we must be sure that we understand the reason for the takana. In the case of reading the Torah, the purpose was to ensre that Jews would hear from the reading of the Torah at least sometime during the week. This reason is still sound, even if the market days no longer meet. After all, it may be that someone will attend davening during the week but fall ill or be elsewhere during the shabbos. But as there is no longer a beit din that meets on Monday and Thursday, there is no reason to require weddings to take place on Sunday or Wed if other days are more convenient.
We shall now turn to the matter of hasagas g'vuel and other halachot based in the economies and political structures of old. No one can doubt that nishtaneh hatevah, the nature of economics and political situations has changed since the times of these takanot. We live in a society with greater numbers of Jews and a proliferation of services. Competition can provide positive benefits, and we do not worry about secular authorities playing one community against another.
Further, we must consider the great pressure that exists today for ourselves and our commnity to maintain our religious ways. Should we not make all matters of observance as easy as possible? For it is a real danger that those who consider observing the ways of Torah will perceive it as made needlessly difficult when "deracheha darche noam." Therefore, will these people sadly not "chose life, that [they and their] descendants may live." (Deut 30:19)
Finally, the reputation of our Rabbis and sages in our current age suffers from the conduct of a few wicked ones who pile chumrah on chumrah and invoke these takanot not for the benefit of the community, but for the benefit of themselves. Now, while "God shall judge the righteous with the wicked" (Eccl. 3:17), we are commanded "rebuke and warn thy bretheren" and not "set a stumbling block before the blind." Therefore, it would be a wise and good thing, it seems to me, to carefully examine these economic injunctions and justifications that cause among us much contention and have proven such a temptation to righteous men who, making their living and their position by the exercise of these rules, have proven "bribery blinds the eyes and confuses the words of the righteous." (Deut. 16:19).
Now perhaps you will answer me "but, if we shall begin to reexamine the takanot of our sages, where shall the mater end? In this way will we not come to heresy?" To this I would say, do we not already, as I have stated, make new and different calculations in this matter? Why should it be that in some matters we will say "Nishtaneh HaTevah" and others we will not?
To lay the mind at ease, I would propose the following safeguards.
1) That we dare not question the authority of any edict established by the Sanhedrin;
2) That we must have confidence that the reason for the takanah derives from matters subject to changes in nature;
3) That our understanding of nature today shows that the takanah not only no longer serves the purpose for which our sages established it before the nature of things changed, but that it does harm in the new nature of things.