Monthly Archives: March 2017

Who Gets to Decide What’s “Shabbesdik”?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Is halakhic sophistication always a virtue?

Mishnah Demai 4:1 states that “One who buys fruits from someone who lacks legal credibility with regard to tithing, and then forgot to tithe them (before Shabbat) – may ask the seller about them on Shabbat, and eat them on the basis of his assurance.”  Why should it matter whether the seller is asked before or after sundown?  Bartenura explains that whereas halakhically sophisticated Jews know that honesty and holiness are unrelated, amei haaretz (=halakhically unsophisticated Jews) regard lying as a violation of the sanctity of Shabbat.  Therefore, while the weekday rule is that only those who observe an area of halakhah have credibility regarding it, one can extend halakhic credibility to amei ha’aretz on Shabbat even regarding laws they violate themselves.

Netziv (Haamek Davar 35:1-3) cites other examples in which halakhah takes the religious intuition of the unlearned into serious account.  In each case, these intuitions may be more constructive socially than scholarly interpretations based on analytic rigor.  Why, then, is law generally determined by scholars rather than by popular practice?

One of the classic intra-Jewish sectarian debates is whether or not one may allow a useful fire to burn in one’s house over Shabbat.  The Prushim (=Pharisees or Rabbanites) said yes, and the Sadducees said no.  The underlying interpretative issue is whether to translate “תבערו” in 31:3 as “do not light a fire”, or rather as “do not allow a flame to burn”.  Our practices of lighting Shabbat candles and of eating cholent are in part demonstrations of loyalty to the Perushi position.

Ibn Ezra records, in amusing emotional detail, a controversy he had with a Karaite (whom he calls a Sadducee) about this verse.  He took the devil’s advocate position that lighting fires should only be forbidden on Shabbat day, “ביום השבת”, and challenged the Karaite to disprove him.  The Karaite failed to do so (over a period of months, with many back-and-forths).  Ibn Ezra concludes that “I have mentioned all this, because an intelligent person can explain Scripture in many ways, which is why we need with regard to all commandments the Kabbalah, Masoret, and Torah Shebe’al Peh [1], as I said when beginning this book”.  Every text can be read plausibly in ways that are nonetheless false; the only way to exclude them is on the basis of received tradition.  The contextual implication is that one need not disprove the Sadducee position regarding fire on Shabbat; if the Rabbinic position is possible, it is necessary.

But why should this be so?  Rabbinic tradition itself records innumerable legal disputes.  Once a dispute arises, both positions are treated as reasonable, and final legal decisions result from interpretive choices rather than Heavenly voices.  No specific rabbinic choice is presumed correct.  Since nothing about the Sadducee interpretation of תבערו conflicts with rabbinic hermeneutics, there seems no intellectual basis for intellectually privileging the Prushi position.  Presumably this is true of many other Sadducee/Prushi disputes.

Many responses to this challenge start from Rambam’s assertion that Mosheh received from Sinai a broad interpretative substratum that is never subject to controversy.  But the more difficult problem to solve is not how one knows where Tradition comes from, but rather why one can have faith that it has been accurately transmitted.  Granting Divine origin, and Mosaic perfection, wouldn’t misunderstanding have crept in the moment Mosheh transmitted his knowledge?  Wasn’t this why Mosheh resisted Yitro’s suggestion that his authority be diffused?

Rambam (Introduction to Mishneh Torah) argues that Mosheh set up a near-perfect pedagogic system, with repetition and reinforcement at every level, so that at least for one generation the Oral Torah could be preserved pristine.  Netziv, however, acknowledges the inevitability of misunderstanding, commenting wryly that “even in that generation of knowledge, there must have been a few amei haaretz, let alone women [2]”.

Netziv goes further.  He suggests that Mosheh, and later Yehoshua, was well aware of these misunderstandings, but where they tended to legal stringency, he did not seek to uproot them.  In other words, from the very beginning there was a practical popular tradition alongside the intellectual tradition, which differed substantively from it.  This is similar to what my teacher Dr. Haym Soloveitchik has famously called “mimetic Judaism”, but with two key qualifications:

  1. it is explicitly acknowledged that the mimetic tradition arose out of folk intuition, rather than seeing it as evidence of lost scholarly positions
  2. the mimetic tradition was tolerated only when it was stricter, not when it was more lenient

Dr. Soloveitchik argues that there is a particular historical reason that the intellectual tradition today (or at least in the late 20th century) tends to stringency, namely the diminishing power of affective religious experience in the halakhic community.  “Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.”  He does not suggest that intellectual traditions are inherently or necessarily more stringent than mimetic traditions.  (In a version of this essay published several years ago, I wrote that “In the long run, I contend, those who wish to make significant changes toward ‘leniency’ are better off supporting the primacy of the intellectual over the mimetic.  This may be particularly true with regard to issues of women’s place in ritual, and it is perhaps time that advocates of such changes acknowledged this.”  I think the contention has now been largely verified.)

Netziv contends that the populace in Mosheh’s time adopted the interpretation of תבערו that eventually became the Sadducee position.  He is well aware that this popular tradition eventually turned noxious and generated a position that denied the legitimacy of the Rabbinic intellectual position.  Was Mosheh then wrong to permit it?  Netziv might have adopted the approach (perhaps following the midrash cited by Rashi on “naaseh Adam”) that mistakes are inevitable, and one cannot tell which current mistakes will cause real problems in the future.  

Instead, I suggest, he argues that Shabbat is a uniquely subjective mitzvah, which Mosheh was commanded to explain in a fashion that gave experiential discretion even to those with limited intellectual comprehension.  Therefore, in this case the category “misunderstanding” may be inapplicable.  Verses 35:1-3 represent Mosheh’s explanation of Shabbat in broad categories to those incapable of more precise comprehension, and their subsequent understandings were personally legitimate.  Possibly the Sadducee position represented one such understanding.  Netziv even argues that it was true intellectually with regard to the construction of the Mishkan.

Over time, it became urgently necessary to oppose that understanding.  Why? Perhaps because the mimetic tradition began to see itself as exclusively valid, and delegitimated the intellectual tradition.  Another possibility is that the Sadducee position in the end turned out not to be a stringency, but rather, after the first generation, became a felt burden that diminished the positive mitzvah of enjoying Shabbat, and diminished rather than increased the feeling of holiness.

Netziv himself suggests that the legitimacy of subjective interpretation only applied to the first generation, and thereafter the very same text was properly appropriated for the exclusive use of the intellectual tradition.  Nonetheless, it seems likely to me that Netziv preserves the value of experiential discretion with specific regard to Shabbat, and that, accordingly, Halakhic rulings with regard to such issues as oneg Shabbat, uvda d’chol, and other issues of “Shabbasdikness” should be made with great deference to mimesis and with a deep appreciation of subjectivity taking precedence over the desire for consistent rules.

Shabbat shalom

 

Notes:

[1] I don’t know the specific referent of each of these three terms for Ibn Ezra, or even whether they refer to separate aspects of tradition.

[2] This is not the place to discuss Netziv’s attitude toward women’s learning and intellectual capacity; a good place to start are the various contemporary discussions of the depiction of Netziv’s wife Rayna Batya in his nephew’s autobiographical Mekor Barukh.

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Can We Judge a Psak Based on Its Consequences?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

What should Aharon have done?  What could Aharon have done?

It is vital to recognize that these are not the same question.  The first question can be asked even if none of the available choices would have stopped the making and worshipping of the Golden Calf.  And there may have been things that Aharon could have done to stop the Calf that he was nonetheless correct to avoid doing.

The underlying difference is between consequentialist and nonconsequentualist ethics.  Can the choice which yields the best overall result be wrong?  

The same issue comes up regularly in the context of halakhic decisionmaking.  To what extent are perceived negative consequences evidence of the rightness or wrongness of a psak?

To be sure, consideration of consequences is often part of the purely internal halakhic calculus.  “The Torah has concern for the money of Israel”, and so one can rely on minority positions when the standard psak would cause significant loss.  (Almost) Nothing stands in the way of preserving life.  Rabbinic prohibitions are vacated when the alternative is damage to human dignity.  And so on and so forth.

However, the formal internal calculations of halakhah generally require that these consequences be clearcut.  What if human dignity will suffer either way, but likely more severely one way than the other?  What if this will cause a loss to some people, and a gain to others?  How does one evaluate tradeoffs between quantity and quality of life?

One might say that in such cases one must simply fall back to the formalities of the law.  “Let the law pierce the mountain”, and let the ship of Judaism proceed without regard for the presence of floating mines (a.k.a. torpedoes).

Rabbi Moshe Tendler argues (Kavod Horav p. 167-9) – to my mind convincingly despite minimal evidence – that psak for a community should consider consequences differently than psak for individuals.  For example, communal psak can impose current hardships and risks in the interest of future generations, whereas individual psak must focus on those presently alive.  Communities can also consider statistical consequences whose probable effects on any defined individual are trivial.  In a real sense the formalities of law lose their formality in the context of communal decisionmaking, and consequentialism becomes a much larger factor.  

To take one example: R. David Stav ruled that the town of Shoham could run round trip buses to Tel Aviv and its nightlife on Friday night, in order to prevent the deaths from drunk driving that would otherwise be statistically probable.  I’m fairly confident that he would not permit individuals to offer a group of teenagers a lift if they missed the bus.

But life and death cases are low-hanging fruit.  My question is whether on a communal level poskim may or must also consider much more amorphous consequences.  I liked to tell my high school students that I judged my work as a teacher by the condition of their souls ten years after graduation – ought a shul posek to consider in advance how a given psak will affect the souls of congregants ten years on? Perhaps Rav Tendler’s distinction applies only to concrete matters, but poskim need to consider the future condition of even specific individual souls.

Judging what will be best for other souls inevitably introduces an element of paternalism.  How can I make decisions on the assumption that you will otherwise make poor decisions?

My suspicion is that in principle almost everyone thinks that psak should nonetheless take such consequences into account.  We want poskim to be in relationship with sho’alim, not to be reference books.  We want this not only so that they can understand the underlying situation, but also so that they can respond to it.

Nonetheless, there are at least two valid sources of resistance to this idea.  For many laypeople, giving Rabbis discretion extends the sphere of influence in their lives of people whose values they don’t fully share.  For some senior halakhists, this discretion should be vested only in truly great halakhists with demonstrated capacity to resist the pressures of the moment, otherwise halakhah will lose all its formality and integrity.  Which brings us full-circle, to Aharon HaKohen at Sinai.

Let us set the scene.  Mosheh Rabbeinu has been gone for (a little or a lot) longer than everyone had anticipated.  Rumors are spreading wildly, and a group of agitators are beginning to run riot.  Chur, whom Mosheh had given interim judicial authority together with Aharon, stood up to the rioters and is killed.  No attempt at all is made to censure his murderers.  Aharon reasonably believes that he will be killed if he directly opposes the construction of a constructed image to replace Moshe.  What should he do?

On a halakhic level, the answer may seem simple.  One must give up one’s life rather than commit idolatry or its אביזרא, violations falling within its penumbra.

But in truth it is not simple.  Aharon surely did not intend the Calf to be an actual idol; from his perspective, he simply sculpted a statue.  If no other Jew had worshiped it after he made it, there would be no reason to assume that the calf was assur behanaah, forbidden for Jews to derive benefit from, as are images constructed for the sake of worship.

Nor is there evidence that Aharon himself ever worshipped the calf.  It is an anonymous plural that declares “These are your gods, O Israel”.  He builds an altar before it, but then declares that there will be a holiday for Hashem the next day.  What Aharon violates is lifnei iver, the prohibition against placing obstacles in the path of the spiritually blind, and there is much debate in the tradition as to whether lifnei iver of idolatry is an abizra that one must die rather than commit.

Aharon reasonably believes that the Jews’ souls will be even further damaged if he is killed.  Moreover, if Moshe returns to find him dead, he will absolutely despair of the people, and abandon the whole project of shaping them into the People of Torah.  Moreover, by sort-of participating in their sin, he creates a bond and sympathy and credibility that will be helpful in what will clearly be a long and painful process of spiritual recovery.

But Aharon spent months in Moshe’s yeshiva researching the question of whether lifnei iver of idolatry is an abizra, and came out quite convinced that the weight of the mesorah favored the position that it is.  Nothing about this admittedly traumatic experience has changed his reading of the texts, or the weight of the authorities involved.  It’s just that faced with an actual circumstance, it seems clear that his community would be better off if he paskened the other way, and he can’t claim that the other way is demonstrably incorrect.  So what should he do?

The Torah does not tell us explicitly whether Aharon’s decisions were right or wrong.  Moshe’s first words to him are harsh, but Aharon responds, and then the issue seems to be dropped; in other cases, such as after the death of Nadav and Avihu, this seems to indicate a withdrawal of his initial criticism.

Aharon becomes High Priesthood.  He goes on to save the Jews from Divine wrath when Moshe can’t or won’t, and he dies beloved by both the people and G-d.  The evidence seems to be that from a consequentialist perspective, he made the right decision.

The problem is that a purely consequentialist perspective undermines law completely.  If one should always choose the option that produces the best results, what is the purpose of rules?  

The best halakhists understand that the most important consequence of all is the preservation of halakhah as law, in other words the ability to find meaning in and give authority to rules regardless of their consequences.  

Embracing that paradox is the key to a vibrant halakhic future.

Shabbat shalom.

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The Holy Anointing-Oil and the Pure Incense

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dan Margulies

The baraita of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, which is quoted in many rabbinic sources (e.g. Avoda Zara 20b) and formed the scaffolding for Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Mesillat Yesharim, lists a ladder of ascending character traits. The version quoted by many of the rishonim includes the phrase: “and purity leads one to holiness”. To the modern reader, the traits identified as “purity” and “holiness” may be somewhat obscure, but beyond their technical halakhic meanings in the world of the temple service, they speak to broader themes in our service of God and our construction of Jewish society.

Parashat Ki Tisa introduces us to two preparations—the incense and the anointing-oil—which can shed some light on the meanings of purity and holiness through their similarities and differences.

The anointing-oil (described in Shemot 30:22-33) and the incense (Shemot 30:34-38) share many points in common. They are both made up of a variety of exotic spices, they are described variably as “holy”, “holiest of holy” and “for use with holy objects”. And their production or misappropriation for personal use carries the punishment of karet.

The contrasts are highlighted by the rabbinic interpretations of these details. The anointing-oil was only made once, in the time of Moshe (Menachot 88a) while the incense was made yearly or as needed (Keritot 6a-b). According to rabbinic tradition, the anointing-oil only needed to be made once because it exists in miraculous perpetuity without being consumed:

“Of the 12 log of oil … the fire burned some off, and the wood absorbed some, and the kettle absorbed some, and it was used to anoint the entire mishkan and its vessels … and Aharon and his sons and all of it remains for future times” (Yerushalmi Sota 8:3, Bavli Horayot 11b)

Part of the defining nature of the anointing-oil is that it will not run out, and thus will never need to be replaced. It exists “for [God] for generations to come” (Shemot 30:31). It, like the aron, is a part of the original mishkan that will never be destroyed.

In commenting on the phrase “and [Betzalel] made the anointing-oil—holy” (Shemot 37:29), Rabbi Ovadia Seforno connects the holiness of the anointing-oil to its permanence. He writes: “this points to the idea that it will not be lost [i.e. consumed] as [God] said, ‘This will be holy to me for generations’ (Shemot 30:31)”. Sforno makes explicit the notion that the holiness of the anointing-oil is bound up with its permanence; that is, we are meant to understand that things that attain a holy state retain it permanently. This is reflected by the rabbinic dictum “we only ascend is matters relating to holiness,” as well many of the halakhot regarding misappropriation of temple property (meila), and specific laws concerning the anointing-oil itself (Keritot 7a).

Unlike the anointing-oil, the incense mixture was meant to be consumed—to be burned on its altar twice daily—and thus needed to be replaced regularly. Although it too is called “holy” (Shemot 30:35), the Torah twice refers to the incense as “pure” (Shemot 30:35, 37:29). In Shemot 37:29 it is quite explicitly being contrasted with the “holy” anointing-oil. In his comments on Parashat Vayakhel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (author of the Shem Mishmuel) asks why the pasuk poses this contrast between the incense being “pure” and the anointing-oil being “holy”.

The Shem Mishmuel’s question was preempted by Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (author of the Sfas Emes) in his comments on Parashat Korah 5658, who based on the Zohar (Naso 121b and Shoftim 275b in Raya Mehemna) explains that the kabbalistic aspect of a levite is “purity” and of a kohen is “holiness”. He goes on to explain that this is because “holiness” is something that comes from God down to human beings, but “purity” is something based in human initiative. The ability to bring the incense was unique to someone who possessed both qualities—purity and holiness—and that was Aharon and not Korah.

This paradigm can help explain further why the anointing-oil is called “holy” while the incense is called “pure”. The anointing-oil was produced once and lasts forever—it has a kind of stasis to it, while the incense needed to be produced regularly by generations of experts who dedicated their skill to perfecting it. The incense required human effort, expertise, and regular input to maintain its purpose. In our service of God we can strive for holiness, but as the Sfas Emes suggests holiness can be difficult to cultivate since it stems from a Divine source. But we can also strive for purity, a human trait that grows and is enriched by our input and our effort in our service of God.

Dan Margulies (Winter Beit Midrash 2016) is a fourth-year semikha student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and teaches Talmud at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center.

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Parashat Zakhor: Carry On My Wayward Son

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Gedwiser

What are we remembering with parashat zakhor? Unlike so many of the questions that Deuteronomy 25:17-19 raises, this one seems to have a straightforward answer:  we remember “what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt.” Yet for one midrash, the answer was not so obvious.

We begin with a family of midrashim that share a common denominator of Israel as a wayward child, and Amalek as its punishment. One better-known permutation explains the juxtaposition between Exodus 17:7 (Israel wondered, “Is God in our midst or not?”) and 17:7 (“Amalek came”), distilled by Rashi to Exodus 17:8:

משל לאדם שהרכיב בנו על כתפו ויצא לדרך, היה אותו הבן רואה חפץ ואומר, אבא טול חפץ זה ותן לי, והוא נותן לו, וכן שניה וכן שלישית, פגעו באדם אחד, אמר לו אותו הבן ראית את אבא. אמר לו אביו אינך יודע היכן אני, השליכו מעליו ובא הכלב ונשכו

An analogy to a person who put his child on his shoulder and went on a journey. The son would see an object and say “Abba, pick up that thing and give it to me.” And he gave it to him, and so a second and third. They met a certain man. That son asked him: “Have you seen my father?” His father said to him, “You don’t know where I am?!” He cast him down off of him and a dog came and bit him.

Israel is the ungrateful child and God is the angry parent who decides to teach that child a lesson by withdrawing his protection. Amalek is the biting dog, ever ready to attack if God puts Israel down. This version of the midrash grows out of the text in Exodus and does not refer to parashat zakhor in Deuteronomy. (See Midrash Tanhuma (Buber ed.), Yitro 4; see also Shmot Rabbah 26:2.)

A similar midrash appears in Pesikta de-Rav Kahanah (Zakhor, 3) with a twist: at the end, God does not put the child down with a rhetorical question, but with an explicit lesson:

אמר להם הקבה הרהרתם עלי, חייכם שאני מודיע לכם, הרי הכלב ונשך אתכם. ואי זה, זה עמלק שנאויבא עמלק (שם /שמות/ ח), לכך נאמזכור (דברים כה: יז).

God said to them: you doubted Me?  By your life I will inform you. Behold a dog will bite you. And which is that? It is Amalek, as it says “Amalek came” (Ex. 17:8). Therefore it says, “remember” (Deut. 25:17). (emphasis added).

Withdrawing God’s protection is supposed to answer the Israelites’ question “Is God in our midst or not,” presumably in the affirmative.[1] Most interestingly, this version of the midrash connects the lesson learned to the commandment of memory, suggesting that we are to remember not only the fact of Amalek’s attack, but its purpose. If Jews ever veer toward ungratefulness for the benefits of God’s world, remembering Amalek serves as a cautionary tale, and perhaps implicit threat, about what happens if they permit doubt to overtake them.

Another related midrash from the Tanhuma (this time on Deuteronomy (Ki Tetse, 9), not Exodus), takes the same idea one step further:

מלהד למלך שהיה לו כרם והקיפו גדר והושיב בו המלך כלב נשכן אמר המלך כל מי שיבא ויפרוץ את הגדר ישכנו הכלב, לימים בא בנו של מלך פרץ את הגדר נשכו הכלב, כל זמן שהיה המלך מבקש להזכיר חטא של בנו שפרץ הגדר אומר לו זכור אתה היאך נשכך הכלב, כך כל זמן שהקבה מבקש להזכיר חטאן של ישראל שחטאו ברפידים שנא‘ (שמות יז) היש הבקרבנו, אמר להם זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק

What is the analogy? A king who had a vineyard, and he surrounded it with a fence and put a guard dog inside. The king said, anyone who comes and breeches the gate, the dog will bite him. In some time the son of the king came and breached the gate and the dog bit him. Every time the king wished to recall his son’s sin of breaching the gate he says to him, “recall how the dog bit you.” So every time that God wishes to recall the sin of Israel who sinned at Refidim, as it is said “Is God in our midst [or not]? He said to them, “Remember that which Amalek did to you.”

This midrash casts remembering Amalek as more than a reminder of the consequences of sin; the thing we are supposed to remember is not just Israel’s punishment, but the sin itself. “Remember Amalek” is God’s roundabout way of saying “remember when you breached the gate?” Though most people assume that the purpose of remembering Amalek is to carry out the next commandment in the Torah, erasing them, this midrash would seem to divorce the two.  We remember Amalek to remember our own sin.  The connection to anti-Amalek violence becomes unclear, and the focus of shabbat zakhor shifts radically from nursing a sense of victimhood to one of regret and repentance.

In addition to this unexpected shift in focus, the Tanhuma also at least hints at an even more radical suggestion. If “remember Amalek” means “remember yourselves,” then, grammatically, we are “Amalek” for the purposes of that sentence. If so, we may wonder whether we are Amalek in a deeper sense as well. Recall, after all, that Amalek’s ancestor and ours were twins.[2]

This is fraught territory. Does the idea of “Amalek is us” address the moral quandaries in the passage or exacerbate them? At the very least, it could be a worthwhile experiment to turn our memories inward this shabbat, rather than toward external enemies. And, perhaps, shaking up our us/them categories on a shabbat when Purim begins in just a few hours will lead us to new understandings of the difference (or lack thereof) between ארור המן (cursed is Haman) and ברוך מרדכי (blessed is Mordecai).

 

Notes:

[1] Exactly how being attacked is supposed to convince Israel that God is in their midst is unclear. Perhaps the lesson works through some combination of demonstrating, by contrast, the protection they previously enjoyed, and requiring faith to win the battle. Alternatively, perhaps God’s חייכם שאני מודיע לכם is more of a threat, along the lines of “I’ll show you” – that is, show you what happens when God is really not in your midst. This role of Amalek would also dovetail with the role of Amalek in the story of the ma’apilim, Numbers 14:42-45.

[2] See generally the chapter on Amalek in R. David Silber’s recent work on Megillat Esther, עם לעת כזאת.

 

Miriam Gedwiser (SBM 2002) is on the faculty of Drisha and is a nonpracticing attorney.

 

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Some Kind of Blue? Tradition, Tekhelet, and the Rav

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The color of an object can be defined by the wavelengths of light that it reflects, which means that objects really have no color at all.  Identical reflected lightwaves can then hit human retinas and generate wholly different mental experiences.  Wittgenstein thought that our capacity to communicate about color at all was miraculous.  Regardless, there is no way to convey subtleties of color reliably through pure language.

For this reason, halakhic treatments of color are heavily based on practical tradition.  Which colors create niddah and which don’t is learned by show and tell, not by reading ArtScroll.

All this by way of introduction to the topic of tekhelet, the dye of uncertain color (sky-blue? sea-green? wine-dark like the Homeric ocean?)  that was used in the High Priest’s garments and that we have a mitzvah to place on our tzitzit.  The fundamental halakhic difficulty with tekhelet is that it disappeared from history for a millennium.  In “Two Types of Tradition” (שעורים לזכר אבא מרי ז”ל כרך א), the Rav made famous a family tradition about his great-grandfather the Beit Halevi’s response to the Radziner Rebbe’s attempt to recover tekhelet in the late nineteenth century.

ידוע מה שאירע

בין זקני הגאון רבי יוסף דוב הלוי ובין האדמו”ר הגאון מראדזין

,בנוגע לתכלת שבציצית

.שהרבי מראדזין חידשה וציוה לכל חסידיו להטיל תכלת בציציותיהן

האדמו”ר ניסה להוכיח על יסוד הרבה ראיות

.כי הצבע הזה הוא באמת התכלת

רב יוסף דוב טען כנגד ואמר

שאין ראיות וסברות יכולות להוכיח שום דבר

.במילי דשייכי למסורת של שאל אביך ויגדך

:שם אין הסברה מכריעה כי אם המסורה עצמה

.כך ראו אבות וכך היו נוהגים וכך צריכים לנהוג הבנים

It is well known what happened

between my ancestor the Gaon Rav Yosef Dov Halevi and the ADMOR Gaon from Radzin

with regard to the tekhelet in tzitzit,

that the Rebbe from Radzin renewed it and ordered all his chasidim to put tekhelet among their tzitzit. The ADMOR tried to demonstrate on the basis of many proofs

that this dye is in truth the (halakhic) tekhelet.

Rav Yosef Dov countered that proofs and rational arguments cannot demonstrate anything

with regard to matters that affiliate with the tradition of Ask your father and he will tell it to you.

In such matters, reason is not decisive, but rather the tradition itself:

This is what the fathers saw, and so they practiced, and so the children must practice.

 The Rav understood the Beit HaLevi to be sealing the issue of tekhelet off from the realm of argument and discussion.  What is not clear is exactly what aspect of tekhelet is off-limits to reason and evidence.

I always thought the issue was color; how could we possibly know that we had matched the Torah’s intent or Chazal’s practice?  The discovery of ancient tekhelet textiles would not help with that, as surely even a colorfast dye will change significantly over a thousand years.  The fascinating disputes about how best to restore medieval paintings suffice to demonstrate this.

But rereading the Rav’s essay this week, it seemed more likely that he had in mind the identity of the chilazon, the creature from which the dye is produced.  But this made his claim much harder to accept – why shouldn’t archaeological or chemical evidence be sufficient to identify ancient dye works, and then the chilazon?

The Rav makes the identity of the chilazon a quasi-halakhah l’Mosheh miSinai, and analogizes identifying the chilazon to identifying the etrog as the pri eitz hadar required by Vayikra 23:40.  Let us accept the analogy for the sake of argument.  If the identity of the etrog were lost for a thousand years, there would be a reasonable basis for claiming that it could not be restored on the basis of arguments from texts, no matter how clever or clear.  But if we found an ancient repository of palm, willow, and myrtle branches, and together with them the right quantity of one and only one species of fruit, would that not be sufficient grounds to reconnect us with the original tradition?

Proponents of contemporary tekhelet make this argument, with a shiur by Rav Herschel Schachter providing far and away the most coherent and compelling version I have heard or seen.  But Rav Schachter adds a wrinkle.  As part of the ongoing debate over his tekhelet, the Radziner published on p. 13 of the introduction to his Ein HaTekhelet a letter that he described as being an authorized representation of the Beit Halevi’s position.  That letter seems to undermine the Soloveitchik family tradition. 

הגאבד”ק בריסק דליטא שיחיה

מסר כל טעמו ונימוקו בדבר מיאונו במצות התכלת

לאחד ממיודעינו

:שיכתוב ויאמר לנו משמו בזה הלשון

,כמע”ל לא ביאר בדבריו מה זאת מצא אחר שנשכח

,אם מציאת הדג או הוצאת צבעו

,ורק אחרי אשר כמע”ל יברר זאת, היינו האם היה בזה דבר הנשכח והוא מצאה

.אז נהיה מחויבים לשמוע אליו וללבשו

,אכן אם נאמר כי  הדג היה במציאות

,וגם הוצאת צבעו היה ידוע בכל זמן מהזמנים שעברו עלינו מעת שפסקה התכלת בישראל

,ועל כל זה לא לבשוהו אבותינו ואבות אבותינו

הרי הוא כאילו יש לנו קבלה ומסורה מאבותינו

כי זה הדג וצבעו איננו החלזון והתכלת

,אף שהוא בכל הסימנים שסמנו חז”ל

.כי אפילו נרבה כחול ראיות, לא יועילו נגד הקבלה והמסורה

ורק אחרי אשר יברר לנו כי דג זה או מלאכת צבעו נפסק ונשכח מציאתו או ידיעתו בשום זמן מהזמנים ונפסקה בזה הקבלה, אז יהיה לנו דברי ההלכה לראיה

.ע”כ דבריו שיחיה

The Gaon Av Beit Din of Brisk in Lithuania, may he live,

gave over all his reasons and rationales in the matter of his eschewing the mitzvah of tekhelet

to one of our intimates,

so that he would write and say to us in his name, as follows:

Your Honor did not explain in his words what it is that he found after it had been forgotten.

whether it is the finding of the fish or of the way to extract its dye,

and it is only after Your Honor explains this,

namely whether there was something here that was lost and that he found,

that we will be obligated to heed him and to wear it.

However, if we say that this fish was in existence,

and the extraction of its dye was known in all the times that have passed over us from the time that tekhelet ceased to be in Israel,

and that despite all this it was not worn by our fathers and our fathers’ fathers,

that would be as if we had a received tradition from our ancestors

that this fish and its dye are not the chilazon and the tekhelet

even if it fits all the identifying characteristics given by Chazal,

and even if we multiplied proofs like sand,

they would not prevail against a received tradition

Only after it became clear to us that this fish or the craft of making its dye had its existence or knowledge ceased and forgotten at some time and this interrupted the reception,

then we would use the words of the halakhah as proofs.

Rav Schachter reads this letter as saying that empirical evidence is perfectly sufficient in the absence of a positive tradition, but cannot overcome a negative tradition.  In this case the negative tradition was that no known creature and manufacturing process could yield tekhelet.  Rav Schachter then cites Rav Elyashiv as finding the Radziner’s letter a more plausible account of the Beit HaLevi’s position than the Rav’s report, and this seems clearly to be his own opinion, even though the Rav’s report is confirmed by other branches of the Soloveitchik family.

Now the whole point of “Two Types of Tradition” is that students can challenge their teachers’ intellectual traditions but must simply receive their practical traditions.  Rav Schachter implicitly points out that this metatradition of the Rav is grounded in intellect, and therefore can be challenged and even rejected by his students.

I suggest that metatraditions by their nature as abstractions are always grounded in intellect rather than pure reception, and therefore can never have unchallenged authority.  A claim of authority on the basis of tradition is therefore never self-sufficient.  It can succeed only if there is a shared prior metatradition about the authority of tradition, and that metatradition will be accountable to the ordinary intellectual processes of Torah.

Even without Beit HaLevi’s authority, however, I find the argument that color requires a live tradition to be powerful.  Furthermore, Beit HaLevi seems to have been quite right in doubting that the Radziner had properly identified the chilazon with the cuttlefish, and I remain unconvinced by the partisans of murex trunculus (with the caveat that Rav Schachter argues that neither precision of color nor of mollusk are necessary).  The barriers to reconstructing lapsed traditions such as tekhelet should not be impassable, but they can and should be quite high.

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The Message of the Keruvim

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Shaul Epstein

Hashem commands Moshe to create Keruvim on top of the cover to the Ark of the Covenant. The verses state that these Keruvim “shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings… two beings with faces and wings that will face each other.” (Exodus 25:20)

Having beings with faces and wings in the Mishkan seems to contradict Judaism’s strong theological and halakhic condemnation of the use or creation of graven images. This problem is intensified if one accepts Rashi’s opinion that all the commands related to the Mishkan came after the building of the Golden Calf and its subsequent punishment. Why would G-d command the creation of Keruvim if similar images had led the Jewish people to commit one of their gravest national sins?   

Even if one assumes against Rashi that the Torah is in chronological order, the Jewish people had just heard on Mount Sinai the commandment “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image” (Exodus 20:4)!  And if that was not clear enough, the first set of commandments Moshe receives after the revelation at Mount Sinai include the prohibition  “… you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” (20:20)

The Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael parasha 10) cited by Rashi on this second verse clearly picks up on this tension:

?אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב – למה נאמר

– לפי שהוא אומר ועשית שנים כרובים זהב, (אמר) הריני עושה ארבעה –

…תלמוד לומר אלהי זהב – אם הוספת על שנים, הרי הם כאלהי זהב

לא תעשו לכם – שלא תאמר: הואיל ונתנה תורה רשות לעשות בבית המקדש, הריני עושה בבתי כנסיות ובבתי מדרשות – תלמוד לומר לא תעשו לכם

Gods of silver and gods of gold– why was this said?

Since it is written (Exodus 25:18) And you shall make two golden cherubs, one might say “I shall make four!” –

To this end it is written “gods of gold” – If you make more than two, they are considered “gods of gold”…

you shall not make for yourselves

So that you not say: “Since the Torah permitted the making (of cherubs) in the Temple, I shall do the same in synagogues and in houses of study” – i

It is therefore, written: You shall not make for yourselves.

According to this halachic Midrash, these first commandments after the Revelation at Mount Sinai anticipate our concerns.  But why does the Torah create those concerns, and why are two cherubs okay when four would not be?

Chizkuni, echoing Midrash Lekach Tov (quoted in Torah Sheleimah), considers this an example of a biblical prohibition with explicit exceptions.  Famous examples of this paradigm include the mixing of wool and linen in Tzitzit despite the general injunction against mixing those fabrics (shatnez), as well as the prohibition of a man marrying his brother’s wife being overridden by the mitzvah of yibbum when the brother dies childless.  Rashbam (Exodus 20:20) and Abarbanel (25:10) both explain that no contradiction exists as the keruvim were not intended for worship, while the prohibition only centers on creating foreign gods.  Dr. Alexander Klein of Bar Ilan University suggests that according to Maimonides, the absolute prohibition of creating images was a decree to prevent people from coming to worship them.  It was a סייג לתורה, a decree that serves a protection from violating another prohibition.  Therefore, states Dr. Klein, since there is no innate prohibition of making images, the Torah can allow their creation in carefuly controlled ways in the Mishkan.

All these explanations provide ways to work around the apparent contradiction,  but  they avoid a larger question: Why would G-d create such a tension in the holiest center of Jewish service?  He could have commanded the Mishkan to exist without any Keruvim, thus avoiding the problem all together.

I would like to humbly suggest that facing such a contradiction in the Mishkan provides us a model for confronting the many other theological challenges we face daily. We would have much simpler lives if things were black and white and we had clear lines and paths drawn for us. Due to many circumstances mostly connected to the imperfection of this world, we live with much grey area and thus need to have exceptions and apparent inconsistencies as part of our daily existence. Seeing the Keruvim in the Mishkan, while recognizing the general prohibition of such images, teach us that sometimes appropriate tension exists within our service to the Divine.

This idea is highlighted specifically through the message and apparent purpose of the Keruvim. While there are numerous opinions regarding what these Keruvim beings might represent (children, angels, male/female to name a few), they all center on some aspect of the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem. As stated at the end of the section describing the Keruvim (25:22)

וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ, שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת–אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.

At the location where direct communication emanates from Hashem to Moshe and Bnai Yisrael, we see what the relationship represents through the Keruvim and we recognize that this relationship, based on love, will sometimes create discomfort, but will remain strong so long as we stay committed to maintaining this important connection.
Rabbi Shaul Epstein (SBM 2003) currently serves as a Rabbinic Coordinator for Buckeye Kosher in Columbus OH and as the Midwest Representative for KVH Kosher.

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