Monthly Archives: April 2014

Blessing our Countings: Should ritual be ritualized?


Miss Weasley is a 12 year old Jewish prophetess living in Stoatown MA.  Her bat mitzvah was on the last day of Pesach.

That night, she counted the Omer for the first time, saying “Tonight is 8 days, which are 1.142857 (repeating infinitely) weeks of the Omer.”

The next afternoon she crosses the international dateline going westward, so that evening she counts again (to be safe, she counts both 9 and 10, this time actually mentioning the days), and does so for the next 4 days.

On day 13 (14), she crosses back at night and forgets to count until the following morning.

The next evening (day 14 for her acc. to everyone), she goes to shul and davens maariv and counts before tzeit hakokhavim.  She has intent to fulfill her obligation if and only if she remembers to count that evening – and she forgets.

On day 20, she hears a Heavenly voice say that she will be asleep for at least one 25 hour period before Shavuot, and that very afternoon she is diagnosed with a condition that requires surgery under general anesthesia the next day, and the doctors confirms that owing to the pain she will likely not be fully conscious for at least a day.

Should/may Miss Weasley make the berakahah before counting that night?  On the nights after she emerges from anesthesia?


On Erev Pesach I suggested that rishon-shitah-maximization, the art of constructing one’s religious life so that it fits with as many halakhic positions as possible, should not be the primary metric of behavioral religious success.  Thus I objected to the position that one is required to, or even should, fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on the seder night by swallowing two large kezayits after having carefully chewed them in distinct mouth quadrants.  I pointed out that the result was unaesthetic, unpleasant, and likely dangerous, and each of those descriptions also carries significant halakhic weight.

It is also clear, as Professor Chaim Saiman has argued forcefully, that the result creates an enormous gap between the conventional and ritual acts of eating – no one would consider eating matzah that way absent the particular confluence of halakhic positions (of course, some of us wouldn’t consider eating matzah at all absent the mitzvah, but I don’t think that is relevant here).

The challenge for me is that I very much enjoy similar ritualizations of the act of counting.  For example, I happily adopt the position that if one is in shul before starsout, one should listen to the chazan’s berakhah and then count oneself with the mental or verbal stipulation that one intends this counting to fulfill one’s obligation if and only if one does not remember to count again after starsout, thereby preserving the capacity to make the berakhah when counting after starsout.

Is there a difference, other than personal aesthetics and the risk of choking, between the two cases?

I want to make a very tentative suggestion.

It is very important for ritual to relate to life – I do not think it would be positive for us to adopt the position that the phonemic relationship between mitzvah-akhilah and non-mitzvah-akhilah is sheer coincidence, as per Rambam’s negative theology.

But it is also important for ritual to relate to Talmud Torah, to the experience of learning Torah as the ritual actor has experienced it.  As Rav Lichtenstein memorably argues, action is necessary (only) because it diminishes the worth of one’s learning if, given the opportunity, one fails to give it a practical outlet

There is a chicken-and-egg question here – for those who never enjoyed thinking scenarios such as Miss Weasley’s, and always felt that the proliferating uncertainties I tried to create in her case should simply be paskened away, imitations of learning and of the natural world may well yield the same result.   Perhaps that would be best, but I am not yet convinced.

That leaves many of us with the question of when and how it is better for ritual to hew closer to life, and when to learning.  I welcome your suggestions.  Bonus points to the person who identifies the most issues in Miss Weasley’s case, and nonetheless gives a clear halakhic answer.

Shabbat shalom

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Divine Ambivalence in the Exodus

מדרש אבכיר, מובא בילקוט בשלח רמז רכו

ד”א “ולא נחם אל-הים” –

אעפ”י שיצאו ישראל ממצרים , לא קיבל הקב”ה תנחומים על בני אפרים שנהרגו,

שמנו הקץ וטעו, ויצאו ל’ שנים קודם הקץ –

שמנו לבין הבתרים, והקץ היה משנולד יצחק.

משל למלך שהיה משיא בנו, ומתוך החופה מת לו בן אחר.

אמר: אי אפשי בשמחה מפני בני המת, ואי אפשי להתאבל מפני שמחת בני החי. 

ומה עשה?  התחיל מרקד בידו אחת וסופד בידו אחת. 

הוי “ולא נחם”.


Another interpretation of “v’lo nacham Elo-him” –

Even though Israel exited Egypt, the Holy Blessed One did not accept consolation over the Children of Ephraim who died,

Because they counted the endtime (of the foretold exile) and erred, and departed 30 years prior to the endtime –

Because they counted from the Covenant Between the Pieces, and the endtime was actually (400 years) from the birth of Yitzchak.

A parable – to a king who was marrying off his son, but as they came out of the canopy, a different son of his died.

He said: I do not wish rejoicing because of my son who died, and I do not wish to mourn because of the joy of my living son.

So what did he do?  He began dancing with one hand and eulogizing with the other hand.

This is the meaning of “and He was not comforted”.


At first glance, this midrash seems to be an example of the most extreme form of eisegesis-via–wordplay, as

a)      the proper translation of נחם is clearly “G-d directed them” rather than “G-d was not consoled”, and

b)      “G-d was not consoled” makes no sense in context, as it has no possible continuity with the following phrase דרך ארץ פלשתים, and

c)      furthermore, the midrash’s interpretation of the verse rests on a historical premise, the death of the Ephraimites, that is mentioned nowhere in the text of Torah. 

So we have a midrash that mistranslates, atomizes the text, and interprets on the basis of a hypothetical extra-textual narrative.  Is there anything we can say on its behalf?

            Let’s start with the question of translation.  I have no quibble with the presumption that the primary contextual meaning of נחם is ‘directed them’ or some close analog.  The question is whether the author of this midrash had a basis for suggesting that this is not the exclusive meaning. 

            Here we can begin with grammar/linguistics.  All 44 other uses in Tanakh of the consecutive letters נחם use it as the root, meaning either “changed mind” or “consoled” or “was consoled”.  The two other uses of נחה in the perfect with a plural object, one in verse 21 of our chapter, and an apparent derivative in Nechemiah 9:19, each insert a ת between the root and the final ם.  The choice of נחם over הנחיתםcan therefore reasonably be seen as significant.

            Perhaps more importantly, the verb נחם appears later in our verse clearly meaning “changed their mind”, and the two verbs are causally linked: Elo-him was/did not נחם lest they be מנחם.   It is possible that this is mere soundplay, or coincidence – within the literary unit that comprises this פרשה one can find examples of soundplay that are clearly semantically significant, such as the centrality of נס in each of the final four episodes, and others that seem not to be, such as שם שם and לכם לחם.  But there is certainly room to argue that the verbs are intentionally linked.

            Now a premise of midrash, which later becomes an insight of deconstruction, is that while much of the mechanics of language is intended to disambiguate, the process of interpreting language involves the constant development of multiple hypotheses as to meaning, most of which are then discarded as more evidence is assimilated.  Great authors take advantage of this, instinctively or consciously, and construct the experience of their texts out of the entire tapestry of interpretation, out of the inevitable (mis)understandings as well as out of the primary meaning.  This is most obvious in the kind of joke that depends on the development and then correction of such (mis)understanding, but has broader application.

            The midrash therefore argues that the Perfect Author must intend us to think that the changeability of the Israelite mind, which reveals their ambivalence about leaving Egypt – will they not describe it within two chapters as the “land of fleshpots and abundant bread”? – must be reflected in a Divine ambivalence.  It must not be only that taking the direct route will make Israel reconsider, but that it will make G-d reconsider as well.  But why should this be so?

            Here we need to raise several questions about the narrative as a whole. 

a)      Why are the Israelites so terrified of war, when they’ve seen G-d’s power through the plagues?

b)      Why is G-d so worried about their turning back specifically when they see war? As the narrative develops, the Jews regularly seek to turn around as the result of the hunger and thirst He deliberately subjects them to – so why was He particularly worried about their reaction to war?

c)      Why do the Jews not turn around when actually confronted by war, with the Amalekites?

Now the midrash indulges here in what may seem a flight of fantasy, but deserves more serious discussion, the story of the premature revolt and exodus by the Children of Ephraim.  We need to make clear at the outset that the midrash assumes that story and builds off it; it is not in any sense intended as evidence for that story. 

The story of this rebellion is connected in various rabbinic texts to I Chronicles 7:22, Psalms 78:9, and Ezekiel 37.  If these connections are intended as evidence, they fail: Chronicles seems to be describing a much earlier event, in the lifetime of Jacob’s actual sons; Psalms seems to refer to an event that follows the Exodus rather than preceding it; and the dry bones of Ezekiel are of course seen only in a prophetic vision.  It is true that we have no better match in other Biblical narratives for the first two of these, and so some form of conservation-of-narratives principle may be at play, but this application is not at all convincing.

But there is another view of midrashic narrative which sees textual pegs as post-facto rather than as generative.  Professor James Kugel has popularized the idea of supplementary narratives whose origin is simultaneous with Torah, or which perhaps antedate the literary formulation of Torah as it appeared in history at Sinai.  One way of testing for such is whether they are assumed by other interpreters, especially if those interpreters feel compelled to account for them, rather than using them only opportunistically to explain textual problems or make predetermined moral points. 

Perhaps the story of the Ephraimite rebellion is one such story.  That is to say, the narrative of their early departure and death existed as part of the Israelite story and was not derived via Biblical interpretation.  Then it was used to interpret otherwise difficult texts in Chonicles, Psalms and Ezekiel.  The clearest instance of it being utilized opportunistically is a midrash on our home verse, one I believe is deeply connected to our midrash, which suggests that the reason the Jews would have turned round had they gone the Phillistine way was not fear of war per se, but rather terror inspired by seeing a war, or more precisely the results of a war.  (Note though that Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer seems to have the Ephraimites killed by Egyptians – but this seems to me like it must be mistaken, as it explains none of the subsequent uses of this text.)

But I have one more view of midrashic narrative to introduce.  Midrash is very much like fan fiction, that is to say, it is narrative that develops the characters and plots of Tanakh in ways that are supposed to be consistent with, but not necessarily demanded by, Tanakh itself.  Most such efforts have no halflife; a few raise interest for the way they read the original; and a very few blend so seamlessly into the original, and at the same time so improve it, that many people can no longer imagine that it was not present in the original, and subsequent fanfic treats it as part of the original.  In other words, such stories, or interpretations, are utterly compelling readings of the original.

Let us assume that the story of the Ephraimites is such a story.  Why is it such a compelling interpretation?  In Meir Sternberg’s terms, what is the glaring gap that it fills?

One possibility is that the narrative of the Exodus needed, mutatis mutandum, a Warsaw Ghetto uprising; some indication that the Jews did not simply passively accept their lot, and yet at the same time not undermine the prophetic narrative of the Covenant Made Between the Pieces. 

Now as with almost all values-conflicts expressed in narrative, the issue for G-d is the same as for human beings.  So if the Jews needed a tragic hero, they would also wonder whether G-d would find that hero tragic, rather than merely rebellious.  More dramatically, they would wonder how G-d would react to the gap between the bravery and commitment of the tragic Ephraimite rebels and the constant weakness of the generation of the Exodus.

Out of all this we emerge with a wonderfully nuanced reading of the first verse of Beshallach.  When Pharaoh sent the Jews out of Egypt – note how G-d distances Himself from the process, so that it is Pharaoh who chooses which generation gets to leave – G-d does not direct them on the path that goes through the land of the Phillistines, because He had not yet found consolation for the massacre that took place there, and perhaps He was afraid that He would change His mind about the Exodus, especially as the people might find consolation for slavery and change their minds about the Exodus when seeing war in their future, especially when they see where the Ephraimites fell in their attempted Exodus.

Choosing the long way around ensures that Israel and G-d never see the Ephraimite grave.  It also ensures, via the Reed Sea drowning, that returning to Egypt is not a live option for some time, as the Egyptian thirst for revenge would be too great.  When war comes, it is forced upon them – they have no place to return to – and it is a descendant of Ephraim who leads them into battle, according to another midrash, which this is not the place to discuss in detail, the son of the leader of the failed Ephraimite Exodus.





דברי הימים א פרק ז

(כ) ובני אפרים שותלח וברד בנו ותחת בנו ואלעדה בנו ותחת בנו:

(כא) וזבד בנו ושותלח בנו ועזר ואלעד והרגום אנשי גת הנולדים בארץ כי ירדו לקחת את מקניהם:

(כב) ויתאבל אפרים אביהם ימים רבים ויבאו אחיו לנחמו:

(כג) ויבא אל אשתו ותהר ותלד בן ויקרא את שמו בריעה כי ברעה היתה בביתו:

(כד) ובתו שארה ותבן את בית חורון התחתון ואת העליון ואת אזן שארה:

(כה) ורפח בנו ורשף ותלח בנו ותחן בנו:

(כו) לעדן בנו עמיהוד בנו אלישמע בנו:

(כז) נון בנו יהושע בנו:

(כח) ואחזתם ומשבותם בית אל ובנתיה ולמזרח נערן ולמערב גזר ובנתיה ושכם ובנתיה עד עיה ובנתיה:

(כט) ועל ידי בני מנשה בית שאן ובנתיה תענך ובנתיה מגדו ובנותיה דור ובנותיה באלה ישבו בני יוסף בן ישראל: פ


תהלים פרק עח

(א) משכיל לאסף האזינה עמי תורתי הטו אזנכם לאמרי פי:

(ב) אפתחה במשל פי אביעה חידות מני קדם:

(ג) אשר שמענו ונדעם ואבותינו ספרו לנו:

(ד) לא נכחד מבניהם לדור אחרון מספרים תהלות יקוק ועזוזו ונפלאותיו אשר עשה:

(ה) ויקם עדות ביעקב ותורה שם בישראל אשר צוה את אבותינו להודיעם לבניהם:

(ו) למען ידעו דור אחרון בנים יולדו יקמו ויספרו לבניהם:

(ז) וישימו באלהים כסלם ולא ישכחו מעללי אל ומצותיו ינצרו:

(ח) ולא יהיו כאבותם דור סורר ומרה דור לא הכין לבו ולא נאמנה את אל רוחו:

(ט) בני אפרים נושקי רומי קשת הפכו ביום קרב:

(י) לא שמרו ברית אלהים ובתורתו מאנו ללכת:

(יא) וישכחו עלילותיו ונפלאותיו אשר הראם:

(יב) נגד אבותם עשה פלא בארץ מצרים שדה צען:

(יג) בקע ים ויעבירם ויצב מים כמו נד:

(יד) וינחם בענן יומם וכל הלילה באור אש:

(טו) יבקע צרים במדבר וישק כתהמות רבה:

(טז) ויוצא נוזלים מסלע ויורד כנהרות מים:

(יז) ויוסיפו עוד לחטא לו למרות עליון בציה:

(יח) וינסו אל בלבבם לשאל אכל לנפשם:


יחזקאל פרק לז

(א) היתה עלי יד יקוק ויוצאני ברוח יקוק ויניחני בתוך הבקעה והיא מלאה עצמות:

(ב) והעבירני עליהם סביב סביב והנה רבות מאד על פני הבקעה והנה יבשות מאד:

(ג) ויאמר אלי בן אדם התחיינה העצמות האלה ואמר אדני יקוק אתה ידעת:

(ד) ויאמר אלי הנבא על העצמות האלה ואמרת אליהם העצמות היבשות שמעו דבר יקוק:

(ה) כה אמר אדני יקוק לעצמות האלה הנה אני מביא בכם רוח וחייתם:

(ו) ונתתי עליכם גדים והעלתי עליכם בשר וקרמתי עליכם עור ונתתי בכם רוח וחייתם וידעתם כי אני יקוק:

(ז) ונבאתי כאשר צויתי ויהי קול כהנבאי והנה רעש ותקרבו עצמות עצם אל עצמו:

(ח) וראיתי והנה עליהם גדים ובשר עלה ויקרם עליהם עור מלמעלה ורוח אין בהם:

(ט) ויאמר אלי הנבא אל הרוח הנבא בן אדם ואמרת אל הרוח כה אמר אדני יקוק מארבע רוחות באי הרוח ופחי בהרוגים האלה ויחיו:

(י) והנבאתי כאשר צוני ותבוא בהם הרוח ויחיו ויעמדו על רגליהם חיל גדול מאד מאד: ס

(יא) ויאמר אלי בן אדם העצמות האלה כל בית ישראל המה הנה אמרים יבשו עצמותינו ואבדה תקותנו נגזרנו לנו:

(יב) לכן הנבא ואמרת אליהם כה אמר אדני יקוק הנה אני פתח את קברותיכם והעליתי אתכם מקברותיכם עמי והבאתי אתכם אל אדמת ישראל: ס

(יג) וידעתם כי אני יקוק בפתחי את קברותיכם ובהעלותי אתכם מקברותיכם עמי:

(יד) ונתתי רוחי בכם וחייתם והנחתי אתכם על אדמתכם וידעתם כי אני יקוק דברתי ועשיתי נאם יקוק: פ


תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף צב עמוד ב

ומאן נינהו מתים שהחיה יחזקאל אמר רב אלו בני אפרים שמנו לקץ וטעו שנאמר )דברי הימים א’ ז'( ובני אפרים שותלח וברד בנו ותחת בנו ואלעדה בנו ותחת בנו וזבד בנו ושותלח בנו ועזר (ואלעזר) [ואלעד] והרגום אנשי גת הנולדים בארץ וגו’ וכתיב )דברי הימים א’ ז'( ויתאבל אפרים אביהם ימים רבים ויבאו אחיו לנחמו


פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) שמות פרק יג ד”ה פרשת בשלח: יז

כי אמר אלהים פן ינחם העם בראותם מלחמה. כדי שלא יראו עצמות אחיהם מושלכים בפלשת ויחזרו להם ד”א למה הקיפן, שלא יחזרו למצרים, שנאמר נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה (במדבר יד ד): ד”א בראותם מלחמה, אלו בני אפרים שמנו לקץוטעו ויצאו בלא רשות ונהרגו שנאמר בני אפרים נושקי רומי קשת הפכו ביום קרב (תהלים עח ט) מפני מה, שלא שמרו ברית ה’ ובתורתו מאנו ללכת (שם שם י):


שכל טוב (בובר) שמות פרק יג ד”ה יז) ויהי בשלח

ומפני מה לא ניהגם כך: כי אמר אלהים. למשה: פן ינחם העם. שיצא מיד עבודה קשה ועכשיו יצאו לקראתם בני פלשת שהן מלומדי מלחמה להלחם אתם, כדרך שעשו עם בני אפרים שמנו לקץוטעו שלשים שנה ויצאו שלא ברשות והרגום בני פלשת, שנא’ (בני) [ובני] אפרים שותלח (בנו בכר) [וברד] בנו וגו’ (דה”א ז כ), וכתיב והרגום אנשי גת הנולדים בארץ כי ירדו לקחת [את] מקניהם (שם שם כא), וכתיב בני אפרים נושקי רומי קשת הפכו ביום קרב (תהלים עח ט), מפני מה, מפני שלא שמרו ברית ה’ ובתורתו מאנו ללכת (שם שם י), עברו על הקץ שנגזר בין הבתרים, עברו על השבועה, דכתיב וישבע יוסף את בני ישראל לאמר (בראשית נ כה), ועכשיו יראו ישראל מלחמה שקשה עליהם, ויראו עצמות יוסף אחיהם מושלכין בפלשת ושבו מצרימה, ו’ שבראש התיבה ושבו משמעתה לשון עתיד:


ילקוט שמעוני דברי הימים א רמז תתרעז

)ז( ובני אפרים שותלח וברד בנו וגו’ והרגום אנשי גת הנולדים בארץ כי ירדו לקחת את מקניהם ויתאבל אפרים אביהם ימים רבים, אמר רב אלו בני אדם שמנו לקץוטעו, ואותם מתים החיה יחזקאל שאמרו יבשו עצמותינו אבדה תקותנו וגו’, ר’ אליעזר אומר כל אותם שנים שהיו ישראל יושבים במצרים היו בני אפרים יושבים בטח שאנן ושלו, עד שבא נון מבני בניו של אפרים ואמר נגלה עלי הקב”ה להוציא אתכם, בגאות לבו שהם מזרע המלוכה ושהם גבורי כח במלחמה, עמדו ולקחו בניהם ובנותיהם ויצאו ממצרים ועמדו המצריים והרגו כל גבוריהם,



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Seder plates can get awfully crowded these days, with all the causes vying to place a new symbolic food on them.  Some of these causes are dear to my heart, and some of the foods are delicious.  Nonetheless, I think the effort to formally incorporate them into seder ritual is a mistake.  Here’s a very rabbinic and somewhat winding explanation of why.

We say the complete Hallel on the first day(s) of Pesach, but we say an incomplete Hallel on the remaining days?  Why?  

Pesikta Derav Kehana cites as explanation Proverbs 24:17: “Do not rejoice at the downfall of your enemy”.  This explains why we don’t complete Hallel, but what is different about the first day(s) that allows us to complete it?

Here is a parallel question.  Talmud Sanhedrin 39b states that after G-d drowned the Mitzriyim in the Reed Sea, the angels sought to sing His praises, but He restrained them: “My handiworks are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?!”  But the context, of course, is that the Jews were singing the Song of the Sea, and by all accounts they are praised for doing so.  Why was it proper for the Jews to sing while His handiworks were drowning?

One more question: The Haggadah tells a story in which a group of rabbis stay up all night telling the story of the Exodus, until their students come and tell them that the time has come for the morning Shema.  Now the third paragraph of the Shema is intended, the rabbis tell us, to fulfill the commandment of . . . telling the story of the Exodus.  What is the difference between these mitzvot?

I have one answer for all three questions.  The mitzvah on the first night of Pesach is to tell the story not as an observer, but rather as a participant.  In Yosef Yerushalmi’s famous framework, it is intended to create memory rather than to teach history. 

Direct beneficiaries of a miracle have an overwhelming obligation to express gratitude, even if a third party would note that the miracle caused harm to other human beings.  Thus the Jews were obligated to sing, but the angels were not permitted to.

On the first night(s) of Passover, we place ourselves in the position of the generation of the Exodus, in other words as direct beneficiaries of G-d’s miracles.  We therefore may and must sing the complete Hallel.  On the remaining nights, we are more like the angels (although unlike them, we are second-degree beneficiaries), and so we cannot complete Hallel – did not His handiworks drown even as we were redeemed?

How does this relate to the question of whether contemporary social justice causes should find symbolic expression at the seder?

Let me be clear.  The ultimate purpose of the Seder is to recommit us to justice, to recognizing that everything in Torah is mediated by our experience of the G-d Who hates slavery intervening to redeem us from slavery.  But the immediate purpose of the Seder is to root that experience in our minds, and the minds of our children, as uncontroversial and incontrovertible memory rather than as potentially controversial history.  The immediate purpose of the seder is to establish a narrative, not to draw morals from it.

When we impose meaning on the story, rather than simply telling it, we transform experience into opinion.  The story by itself must generate the meaning.  So long as we share memory, our conflicts as to the obligations imposed by that memory will occur within, and perhaps even strengthen, our shared identity.  They will be conflicts of interpretation about a common text.  But if the controversy is allowed to feed back into the memory – if our political differences no longer stem from a shared memory – those same conflicts risk turning us into multiple people, with multiple Torahs.

Now it is human and proper for Jews’ opinions to find their way into their divrei Torah at the Seder, just as every Jew experienced the original Exodus and Revelation at Sinai uniquely.  And it is beautiful and necessary for Jews to experience the Seder as generating obligations to act, to change the world toward greater morality and justice.  But we need the Exodus to be available to inspire our descendants as it inspired us; we cannot risk having it be seen as the constructed past of a dead ideology.

As we preserve a common text of Torah, we need to preserve a common core of Exodus narrative, and my strong sense is that this is best done by keeping the seder plate as is.

Chag kasher vesameiach!


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Who was hurried on the night of Pesach? Or: Why Rambam opens the Haggadah differently

The seder text I am accustomed to begins with the recitation

הא לחמא עניא

This is the bread of oni that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

The use of הא=this, equivalent to the Hebrew זה, suggests that one is pointing at a matzah,


The literary issue, however, is that no context has been set.  An anthropologist visiting the seder would reasonably conclude that the Jews ate matzah throughout their stay in Egypt, rather than specifically during the Exodus[1].


In Rambam’s Haggadah, however, the text begins בבהילו יצאנו ממצרים.  ‘בהלה’ is a translation of the Biblical חפזון, and seems to mean something like “hurry under stress”.  This makes the opening a straightforward reference to Devarim 16:3:

לא תאכל עליו חמץ

שבעת ימים תאכל עליו מצות לחם עני

כי בחפזון יצאת מארץ מצרים

למען תזכר את יום צאתך מארץ מצרים כל ימי חייך:

You must not eat chametz over it –

for seven days you shall eat over it matzot, bread of oni,

because it was in chipazon that you departed the Land of Egypt,

so that you will remember the day of your departure from the Land of Egypt all the days of your life.


It is possible that the absence of this opening is an error in our texts, although if so, the error precedes Rambam, as our text is found in the Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon.  But[2] the problem here, as in many Biblical texts, is determining the referents of the prepositional phrases.


Devarim 16:2 and 3 put together read as follows:

וזבחת פסח ליקוק א-להיך צאן ובקר

במקום אשר יבחר יקוק לשכן שמו שם:

לא תאכל עליו חמץ

שבעת ימים תאכל עליו מצות לחם עני

כי בחפזון יצאת מארץ מצרים

למען תזכר את יום צאתך מארץ מצרים כל ימי חייך:

You will sacrifice a Pesach to Hashem your G-d, flock and cattle,

in the place where Hashem your G-d will choose to have His Presence dwell there.

You must not eat chametz over it  –

for seven days you shall eat over it matzot, bread of oni,

because it was in chipazon that you departed the Land of Egypt,

so that you will remember the day of your departure from the Land of Egypt all the days of your life”


Grammatically, the term chipazon may relate either specifically to the command to eat matzah and not chametz, or else to the Pesach sacrifice.  The evidence that it relates to the Pesach sacrifice is Shmot 12:11:

וככה תאכלו אתו

מתניכם חגרים נעליכם ברגליכם ומקלכם בידכם

ואכלתם אתו בחפזון

פסח הוא ליקוק:

Thus you must eat it –

your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staffs in your hands.

And you must eat it in chipazon

it is a Pesach to Hashem.

This indicates that the eating of unleavened bread is not an essential component of chipazon, and this might lead someone to object that Rambam’s Haggadah makes an unwarranted connection between them, and remove the opening.


But isn’t eating unleavened bread is in any case part of the recollection of the “stressed haste” with which we left Egypt?


Not necessarily – Mishnah Pesachim 9:5 tells us that while the Pesach of Egypt was eaten in chipazon, subsequent Pesachs should not be, perhaps even must not be.  The immediate evidence for this halakhic position, as brought on Pesachim 96a, is

ואכלתם אתו בחפזון –

אותו נאכל בחפזון, ואין אחר נאכל בחפזון

you must eat it in chipazon’” –

it is eaten in chipazon, but no other is eaten in chipazon


This seems to indicate that while the entire Pesach ritual recalls the chipazon with which we left Egypt, it is not intended to recreate that chipazon.  If matzah were in fact a recreation of chipazon, then, it would be inappropriate to eat it with the Pesach.  That we eat matzah at the Seder is therefore evidence that matzah is not associated with chipazon, and therefore Rambam’s text is problematic.


Why should the Torah not wish the chipazon to be recreated?  One possibility is the controversy as to who, exactly, was in a “stressed hurry” to have the Jews leave Egypt.  Various midrashim suggest that it was the Jews, the Egyptians, and/or Hashem!  If we take the last approach, which is many ways the most interesting, chipazon may be a reference to the idea that redemption from Egypt was urgently necessary, and came prematurely, because the Jews would otherwise have descended into “the 50th gate of tum’ah” and become permanently unworthy of redemption.  Perhaps this is not an aspect of the Exodus that we wish to recall at the Seder, at least not at its outset, despite the principle that “we begin with shame”.


Another reason to not recreate chipazon may be the description of Ultimate Redemption in Yeshayahu 52:12:

כי לא בחפזון תצאו ובמנוסה לא תלכון

כי הלך לפניכם ה’ ומאספכם א-להי ישראל:

For you will not depart in chipazon,and you will not go in the manner of fleeing,

because Hashem goes before you, and the One who gathers you is the G-d of Israel.

This verse, as noted by many midrashim (but not Radak), seems to see the chipazon with which we left Egypt as a flaw in that redemption.  Perhaps the Pesach is supposed to look both forward and back, and we do not recreate those aspects of the Pesach that did not foreshadow ultimate redemption


These two rationales are intriguingly combined in a fascinating Midrash Sekhel Tov on the Song of the Sea (appended but not translated).  Exodus 15:12-19 is written in a grammatical form that obscures present and past, but there seems to be a perhaps anachronistic mention of the Temple as an ultimate goal, and the verses can be read as suggesting that the inhabitants of Canaan have already been struck dumb by the passage of the Children of Israel among them.


The verse Sekhel Tov focuses on is 15:13,

“You have guided with Your chessed this nation which You have redeemed;

You have directed them with Your strength to Your holy dwelling-place”.

“Your chessed” suggests that this was undeserved – but when had Hashem redeemed the Jews, let alone taken them to His holy dwelling-place?   Sekhel Tov posits that Hashem took the Jews to the Temple Mount (on the wings of eagles: see Shmot 19:4) on the night of Passover, where they brought and ate the Pesach sacrifice, and then returned them to Egypt in time for the Plague of the FirstBorn.  While Hashem was in chipazon lest they return too late, in His chessed He did not hurry them.

ושנשאתנו בעוזך על כנפי נשרים בשעה קלה

והבאתנו (ב)[מ]מצרים בלילי הפסח:

. . . למקום בית המקדש. . .

ואכלנו שם הפסח,

והחזרת לנו למצרים מיד,

ואע”פ ששכינתך היתה נחפזת לכך…

לנו לא החפזתה בכך

And that You brought us in Your strength on wings of eagles in a mere moment

and brought us from Egypt on the night of the Pesach

to the place of the Temple

and we ate the Pesach there

and then You returned us to Egypt immediately.

Even though Your Shekhinah was in chipazon for this

You did not put us in hurry/stress as a result


In this reading, we did not leave Egypt with chipazon at all, although we did eat the Pesach while G-d waited, patiently, but kebyakhol stressed.  And so it would certainly be inappropriate to begin the Seder by saying that we left Egypt in chipazon, and that the matzah recalls that chipazon.


In a Chassidic mode, we might suggest that the underlying message of this reading of the poetry of Exodus is that redemption can only happen to those who have already experienced it – the Jews could not leave Egypt unless they had a true understanding not only of what they were leaving, but where they were going.  Thus in the narrative of Exodus it is clear that true redemption cannot occur until Sinai, and perhaps not even then, until the message of Torah has been fully understood as well as heard.  This is a useful cautionary note with regard to contemporary dreams of redemption, but may we merit that complete understanding speedily and in our days, and strive toward it regardless.


Shabbat shalom



“נחית בחסדך” –

דומה לו “וינחם אל מחוז חפצם” (תהלים קז ל), “וינחם בענן יומם” (שם עח יד)

ולשון נחיי’ היא כאדם המפרש בים וקם סער עליו, או כיוצא בשיירה ותעה ורדפוהו ליסטין, ונזדמן לו אוהבו והוליכו והנחהו בשלום למחוז חפצו,

לכך נאמר “נחית בחסדך” –

שלא היו בידינו מעשים טובים ומצוות, אלא חסד עשית עמנו ונחיתנו:

“עם זו” –

כלומר עם זה, ולשון זכר היא,

ודומה לו “עם זו יצרתי לי” (ישעי’ מג כא):

“עם זו גאלת” –

במה גאלתם, בכופר שנתתה מצרים בתמורתם:

“נהלת” –

אין נהילה אלא נהיגה בלט,

ודומה לדבר “אתנהלה לאטי” (בראשית לג יד), “אין מנהל לה” (ישעי’ נא יח), “וינהלם בלחם”       (בראשית מז יז), וכל דומיהן:

“בעזך” –

בתוקף שלך, שאע”פ שאתה עזוז וגבור, לא היתה מדביקתו ללכת במרוצה, אלא כמחזיק ביד בנו    ומכה לו לאט,

ולא עוד, אלא שנהילתך היתה עריבה ביותר, שנשאתנו בעוזך על כנפי נשרים בשעה קלה והבאתנו             במצרים בלילי הפסח:

“אל נוה קדשך” –

למקום בית המקדש, דכתיב ביה “נוה שאנן אהל בל יצען” (ישעי’ לג כ),

ואכלנו שם הפסח,

והחזרת לנו למצרים מיד,

ואע”פ ששכינתך היתה נחפזת לכך, דכתיב “ואכלתם אותו בחפזון” (שמות יב יא), לנו לא החפזתה בכך:


1] This incongruity is one reason that עוני is not necessarily best translated “affliction”, as apparently we ate leavened bread throughout our affliction, and ate unleavened bread only as we were escaping it.

[2] see on this Rav Kasher’s הגדה שלמה

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Rabbi Lamm on Woman and Tefillin

On April 9, 1972, Rabbi Norman Lamm, then serving as Rabbi of the Jewish Center in Manhattan,  delivered a sermon titled “As If Things Weren’t Bad Enough” that expressed his opposition to an Orthodox Rabbinic coalition that was lobbying against the Equal Rights Amendment.  An aside in that sermon, which was edited out of the version published earlier this year, spoke approvingly of women forming minyanim and wearing tefillin.

Understandably, the most immediate reactions to the rediscovery of the aside were understandably framed by its potential role in contemporary controversies.  (See here and here.)  In the process, I think a chance was lost to introduce a new generation to Rabbi Lamm in his own terms, as the aside seems to me a quite wonderful introduction to what he was like in his prime (granted that the period in which I could claim to be his student, and on which the following speculations are based, was 18 – 20 years later) – creative and courageous, yet cautious and humble; serious, and intellectually playful. 

Let me show you what I mean, and what I think he meant, and I will of course happily accept corrections.

Here is the most relevant section (the paragraph immediately after this one will be the topic of a subsequent post iyH).    

The principle of separate seating in the synagogue must not be thought of as representing any claim of inequality of inferiority. Its purpose is to remove the distraction that may come because of erotic stimulation. If the purpose of coming to a synagogue is for American Jews to indulge in a kind of social ritual of self-identification as Jews, then there certainly is no reason for men and women to sit separately. But that is not our conception of prayer. For us, is the presentation of oneself before God, the focusing and concentration of all his thoughts on the One before Whom he stands, and hence any distraction must be banished. The ideal for prayer, so conceived, is kedushah or holiness; and the bane of holiness is eroticism. Kedushah is perishah mearayot. If ten women so desire, they may organize a minyan, and conduct tefilah be-tzibbur, public services; and in such a case, if men straggle in to such a synagogue, it is they who are guests sitting behind the mechitzah. I am told that in Boston there is a group of young Orthodox students, all girls, who are highly concerned about their role in Judaism, and have decided to pray every morning while donning the tefillin. I have no objection to that, and would encourage them. There was a time that (according to Rema) such behavior was frowned upon as yuhara , or arrogance, but that was because it was an act of exhibitionism by an individual. However, the case is far different when a whole community of women has decided to accept such a mitzvah. More power to them! I wish that every man would join a minyan to lay tefillin

Here is my commentary:

Was Rabbi Lamm issuing a psak halakhah?  For sure not – I can’t see him making a ruling for people who had their own rabbis and had not turned to him, especially without specifically invoking the advice and counsel of the Rav.  But I believe he was stating what he thought was likely the Halakhah, not merely engaging in a rhetorical flourish.  In classical terms, he was speaking lehalakhah but not halakhah lema’aseh.

But exactly what did he intend to say leHalakhah?  Rabbi Lamm as a darshan considered it proper to use words that were literally true in a narrow sense, but would be misunderstood by his audience as having a much broader reach.  Note for example his famous description of nonOrthodox denominations as valid, with the subsequent and I believe sincere explanation that “valid” understood in light of its Latin etymology is a descriptive/sociological  term – “strong” – and must be contrasted with the prescriptive term “legitimate”.

His 1972 sermon must also be read carefully and hyperliterally.  Rabbi Lamm says that “If ten women so desire, they may organize a minyan, and conduct tefilah be-tzibbur, public services; and in such a case, if men straggle in to such a synagogue, it is they who are guests sitting behind the mechitzah”.  He was well aware that the Rav (among others) distinguished tefillah be-tzibbur from tefilat hatzibur.  Tefilah betzibur is the act of praying as a group, and refers to the silent amidah said by each individual in the presence of a praying quorum.  Tefilat hatzibur refers to the repetition said by the sheliach tzibbur on behalf of the unified quorum.  I suggest that Rabbi Lamm meant that women who prayed their individual amidahs together were considered to be praying betzibbur, but in no way meant to endorse their instituting a chazan’s repetition, or saying devarim shebikedushah.

Where would this suggestion have come from?  Rabbi Lamm was presumably aware that according to some positions ten women constitute a quorum for the purposes of Kiddush Hashem, keriat megillah, and birkat hagomel.  His novel idea was that this worked as well for tefillah betzibbur, and yet that a men’s minyan as still essential for chazarat hashatz.  But his audience would not have been expected to grasp that nuance – they would simply have heard him asserting women’s ritual equality.  The very quick-witted might have noticed that he failed to explain why, when both ten men and ten women are present, it is the women who are presumptively guest.  But generally it took some time for the effect of his rhetoric to wear off so that one felt comfortable raising such detail questions.

What about tefillin?  Rabbi Lamm makes the suggestion that the prohibition of yuhara, spiritual arrogance, is the basis for RAMO discouraging women from wearing tefillin.  He borrows this rationale from RAMO’s position regarding tzitzit (although RAMO’s sources do not indicate that it was the rationale re tefillin).  Rabbi Lamm then argues that this prohibition applies only to individuals and not to groups.  I believe his basis was Magen Avraham’s position that women as a class have accepted counting the omer upon themselves as obligatory, even though they are Biblically exempt since it is a time-related commandment.  Why should tefillin be any different than counting the omer in terms of yuhara?  Answer:  There is no difference.

As per above, it is likely that yuhara is not the basis for REMA’s position regarding women and tefillin, which would limit Rabbi Lamm’s suggestion to tallit.  One could also argue that Magen Avraham asserted that all Jewish women had accepted the mitzvah of the omer, so that none was being holier than any other when fulfilling the mitzvah, whereas a subgroup that began accepting tefillin would be engaged in mass yuhara.

In sum:  I do not think Rabbi Lamm’s halakhic authority, however far that may extend, can be invoked based on this sermon.  However, it does record two innovative halakhic theories that deserve further investigation.




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How not to eat Matzah

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but two Wrights make an airplane, two rights make a lawsuit, and sometimes – two rights make a wrong.  Let me explain. 

Not all chumrot (stringencies that go beyond the basic legal requirement) go well together, even if separately they are praiseworthy. 

My usual illustration of this has been that there is a chumra that one should fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah by putting a full olive-volume of matzah in one’s mouth simultaneously and swallowing (some suggest chewing first).  There are also chumrot as to how much matzah constitutes an olive-volume, depending on the size of olives and how finely one grinds the matzah to measure it.  Combining these chumras requires one to put a huge quantity of matzah in one’s mouth and try to swallow it in one shot, and not surprisingly, every year the newspapers report a number of emergency room visits by people who choked on the mitzvah.

This safety concern is heightened now that my friend Professor Chaim Saiman sent me a link to a Yeshiva World article that goes this combination one better.  The author, Rabbi Yair Hoffman, contends that each Jew should try to fulfill the mitzvah by putting two olive-volumes of matzah in their mouth and chewing.

Now Rabbi Hoffman’s article has a marvelously honest and revealing prologue in which he acknowledges that his proposal will seem alien to just about all lay Jews, no matter how meticulously observant, and that they would be correct in assuming that it was not practiced by their parents. 

“What?  I never heard of that!”

“I’m sorry, but I do not know anyone who eats matzah like that.  It can’t be true”.

“My parents would have told me if this was true.  I don’t care if you say it is in the Shulchan Aruch.  This is just not done.  It can’t be that tens of thousands of people are doing it wrong.”

Here is how he justifies it nonetheless: 

Let us remember that for centuries, Jews have tried to fulfill mitzvos in the most ideal manner possible.  Often what this means is to fulfill the mitzvah in a manner that is consistent with the views of as many of the rishonim as possible.  Some people who are not accustomed to this notion will find such dedication extreme.  Others, however, will realize that dedication to mitzvos and Torah observance is a manifestation of ahavas Hashem, the love we have toward G-d”.

Let us concede that sometimes “the most ideal manner possible” to fulfill a mitzvah is to engage in rishon-position-maximization (the parameters of when deserve full discussion, but that is not my purpose here).  Surely there are other values as well, though, both general and matzah-specific, and relating to both the letter and spirit of the law, such as hiddur mitzvah (making commandments aesthetically pleasing), simchat mitzvah (joy in fulfilling commandments), oneg yom tov (making the holiday pleasurable), akhilah b’teiavon (eating matzah with appetite), avoiding akhilah gasah (gross consumption), and last but not least, avoiding potentially fatal behaviors.

In other words, there are very good reasons to oppose Rabbi Hoffman’s outcomes even if one concedes the truth of his specific halakhic analysis of matzah.  Rabbi Hoffman simply dismisses popular practice (minhag) here on the ground that it strays from the Shulchan Arukh – he grants mimetic culture no power at all against books.  But perhaps here the mimetic tradition has the authority of near-fatal experience, as when Rabbi Zeira refused to again eat a Purim meal with Rabbah the year after Rabbah had violently killed him at such a meal (albeit resurrecting him through prayer the next day).

But what about the Shulchan Arukh itself?

I think there are three good reasons not to follow Rabbi Hoffman’s understanding here.

1)  Shulchan Arukh may have been using a much smaller olive-volume.  In other word, when he proposed his position, it was not even potentially dangerous.

2)  Shulchan Arukh was referring to soft pita-like matza rather than the hard crackers with which Ashkenazim make do.  Again, when he proposed his position, it was not dangerous.

Reasons one and two are valid separately but are also mutually reinforcing justifications for the contemporary public failure to heed the Shulchan Arukh on this matter.

3) Shulchan Arukh never said any such thing.

Here is the language of the Shulchan Arukh OC 475:1

יטול ידיו ויברך על נטילת ידים,

ויקח המצות כסדר שהניחם,

הפרוסה בין שתי השלימות,

ויאחזם בידו ויברך המוציא ועל אכילת מצה,

ואחר כך יבצע מהשלימה העליונה ומהפרוסה,

משתיהן ביחד,

ויטבלם במלח,

ויאכלם בהסיבה ביחד, כזית מכל אחד,

ואם אינו יכול לאכול כשני זיתים ביחד, יאכל של המוציא תחלה ואחר כך של אכילת מצה,

He must wash his hands and make the blessing “regarding washing the hands”,

then he picks up the matzot in the same order that he left them,

the broken one between the two whole ones,

and he grasps them in his hand and blesses hamotzi and “regarding the eating of matzah”,

and afterward he cuts a piece from the upper whole one and from the broken one, from the two of them together, and dips them in salt,

and he must eat them reclining, together, an olive-volume from each one. 

But if he cannot eat two olive-sizes together, he eats the one from hamotzi first and afterward al akhilat matzah.

Rabbi Hoffman, following some acharonim, understands this as follows:

If one reads the Shulchan Aruch carefully, the indication is that both kezeisim should also actually be swallowed together. However, both the Magen Avraham and the Mishnah Berurah (475:9) write that it is only necessary to have them in the mouth together, chew them, and separate them in the mouth, but it is not necessary to swallow them together—one after the other will suffice.

If it is not possible to put two kezeisim of matzah in the mouth simultaneously, then one should take a kezayis from the whole matzah for the berachah of HaMotzi and, after chewing it, swallow it in its entirety. Afterward, he should take a kezayis from the broken piece, chew it well, and swallow that one in its entirety.

I contend, however, that a careful reading of Shulchan Arukh reveals no trace ever of an obligation to put any olive-volume of anything in the mouth at one time.  Rather, to “eat an olive-volume” of something always means to chew it deliberately, bite by bite, so long as one finishes it bikhdei akhilat pras, in the time an ordinary person eats 3-4 egg-volumes (this measurement has of course been downsized by its own chumras, although it may be that the chumra of necessity cancel each other out mathematically, i.e. the time must increase if the volume does).  To eat two olive-volumes together is to eat them both within that time-period, and Shulchan Arukh reasonably notes that many people will not be able to do this (let alone swallow them simultaneously).  He therefore allows them to be eaten in consecutive time periods, so long as an akhilat pras period does not elapse in which he is not eating matzah.  (Even Mishnah Berurah concedes that this is sufficient bediavad – I simply contend that there is no evidence that it is not lekhatchilah, and Shulchan Arukh’s language offers no basis for a lekhatchilah/bediavad distinction of this sort.)  The requirement that pieces of both matzot be in the mouth together immediately after the blessings refers to an initial bite of indeterminate quantity. 

The broader point is that practical texts are best read in light of lived experience, and reading them without any physical or cultural context leads to error, and ruling in accordance with such readings can lead to dangerous error. 

Now to be fair, the position that the mitzvah of matzah requires swallowing the whole olive-volume simultaneously is cited by Darkei Mosheh from Terumat haDeshen 139 (Darkei Mosheh seems to claim that Beit Yosef also cited this position from Tosafot, but I have not been able to find a relevant reference.)  Terumat HaDeshen in turn cites as his precedent Mordekhai to Pesachim 116a.

However, here too I suggest humbly that an error has crept in.  Terumat haDeshen notes that Mordekhai understands the Hillel sandwich as involving an olive-volume each of matzah, maror, and charoset.  Mordekhai then asks:  How can the throat hold all this?  He responds that it can once the food has been chewed up.  Terumat haDeshen reasonably concludes that Mordekhai must require the entire sandwich to be swallowed at once, and presumes that the same applies to the independent mitzvot of matzah and maror.

My contention, however, is that Mordekhai was responding specifically to the language that Hillel was “korkhan bevat echat v’okhlan”, wrapping them at one time and eating them.  The language at one time suggested to him that Hillel ate his sandwich in this fashion, but Mordekhai had no intention of suggesting that this should be required of the other mitzvot.  Indeed, it is possible that Mordekhai understood the gemara to mean that Hillel’s capacity to eat that much at one time was unusual.  As the Talmud there points out, Hillel’s sandwich was not obligatory even when the Temple was standing.

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