Monthly Archives: March 2018

CMTL Pesach Reader, 2018 Edition

Check out our Pesach Reader 2018, with articles about Pesach by Rabbi Klapper and CMTL alumni!

Have a Chag Kasher VeSameach!

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Did Women do Shechitah in Medieval Ashkenaz? Part 1

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Was this observed in practice in the Middle Ages?  Did women serve as ritual slaughterers for members for their families and for others?  The answer is positive: Female ritual slaughterers were to be found in most of the Jewish diasporas. Thus, the Tosaphists testified that: “It is an everyday matter for us to rely upon a woman or a servant for slaughtering and removing the veins”.  

Avraham Grossman, Pious and Rebellious

In the beginning there was a beraita, which went something like this:

הכל נאמנים על ביעור חמץ, אפילו נשים אפילו עבדים

Everyone is believed regarding the elimination of chametz, even women even slaves.

Possibly the sentence included one more phrase:

אפילו קטנים

even minors

This beraita found its way into both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi.  We’ll pick it up as it is cited on Pesachim 4a by the amora Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak (d. 356).

בעו מיניה מרב נחמן בר יצחק:

המשכיר בית לחבירו בארבעה עשר – חזקתו בדוק או אין חזקתו בדוק?

למאי נפקא מינה?! לישייליה!?

דליתיה להאי דלשיוליה. לאטרוחי להאי – מאי?

אמר להו רב נחמן בר יצחק:


הכל נאמנים על ביעור חמץ, אפילו נשים אפילו עבדים אפילו קטנים.

They queried Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak:

One who rents a house to his fellow on 14 Nissan – is it presumed chametz-inspected, or not?

            What practical difference is there?!  Ask him!?

            Assume he is not there to be asked. Do we trouble the renter to inspect it himself?!

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said to them: 

We have learned the answer to your query in a beraita:

Everyone is believed regarding the elimination of chametz, even women even slaves even children.

While Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak presents the beraita as an answer to the query, it actually seems to disprove both sides of the either/or.  If the house is presumed inspected, we don’t need corroboration, so what would it mean to “believe” anyone?  If the house is presumed not-inspected, why can we believe anyone other than ordinarily valid witnesses?!

The Talmud first explains why one might presume that the house was inspected, and then introduces the difficulty.

מאי טעמא מהימני? לאו משום דחזקתו בדוק,

דקסבר: הכל חברים הם אצל בדיקת חמץ,


חבר שמת והניח מגורה מליאה פירות, אפילו הן בני יומן – הרי הן בחזקת מתוקנים


וממאי?! דילמא שאני הכא משום דקאמרי הני?!

אטו אמירה דהני מידי מששא אית ביה?!  אלא מאי – דחזקתו בדוק.

האי “הכל נאמנים”, ‘כל הבתים בחזקת בדוקין בארבעה עשר’ מיבעי ליה!?

אלא מאי – משום אמירה דהני, הא לא אמרי הני – לא, תפשוט מיניה דאין חזקתו בדוק!?

וממאי?! דילמא שאני הכא משום דקאמרי הני?!

אטו אמירה דהני מידי מששא אית ביה?!

אלא מאי – דחזקתו בדוק.

האי “הכל נאמנים”, ‘כל הבתים בחזקת בדוקין בארבעה עשר’ מיבעי ליה!?

אלא מאי – משום אמירה דהני, הא לא אמרי הני – לא, תפשוט מיניה דאין חזקתו בדוק!?

Why are they believed? Isn’t it because the house is presumed inspected, 

because this beraita holds that all are considered chaverim regarding chametz-inspection, 

as we learned in a beraita: 

chaver who dies and left a storehouse of grain, even if they became liable to tithing on that day – they are presumed to have been tithed.


Why (do you presume that all houses are presumed inspected)?! Maybe we only make such a presumption in cases like ours, where it is corroborated by the testimony of these?!

(That can’t be, because) What substance could the testimony of such people have?!  

So it must be that there is a general presumption of inspection.

But if that is so, why does the beraita frame its rule around the credibility of people, rather than around presumptions regarding houses?!

So it must be that the statements matter, which means that without any such statement, the renter would have to reinspect, and therefore the beraita proves that we don’t make the presumption!?

Some background is needed here. At some periods and places of the Rabbinic era, there was a sharp and fraught social division between chaverim and amei ha’aretz.  Chaverim were the Torah-educated and punctiliously observant elite; amei ha’aretz ate dairy out, mocked anyone who tried to be shomer negiah, and thought that “eruv” was the Hebrew word for “loophole”. They also ate grains that had not been tithed, and therefore could not be trusted to certify that food had been tithed.  On the other hand, one could eat any grain that had ever been owned by a chaver, on the assumption that a chaver would tithe his produce immediately upon acquisition.

Here’s the rub: During the three annual pilgrimage-holidays, when the groups were brought together en masse in religious contexts, the rabbis declared that כל ישראל חברים = all Jews could be considered chaverim, so that tithe-kashrut would not catalyze further social division. The Talmud here suggests that our beraita holds that all Jews are also considered chaverim regarding chametz inspection on the 14th of Nissan, and therefore any house rented on 14 Nissan is presumed inspected.

At this point the Talmud asks: If the house is presumed inspected, why would you need to believe anyone’s testimony?!  Why would the statements of such people have halakhic weight!?

So it must be that their statements don’t matter.  But then why does the Mishnah frame its rule around their credibility?!

לא, לעולם אימא לך חזקתו בדוק,

והכא במאי עסקינן – דמוחזק לן דלא בדק, וקאמרי הני בדקיניה.

מהו דתימא? לא להימנינהו רבנן;

קמ”ל – כיון דבדיקת חמץ מדרבנן הוא, דמדאורייתא בביטול בעלמא סגי ליה – הימנוהו רבנן בדרבנן.

No – really all houses are presumed inspected, 

but here we are discussing a case where the renter has a valid basis for presuming that the rental was not inspected, and one of these says that it was inspected.

(This isn’t too obvious a case to include in a beraita, because) What might I have thought?  That the rabbis would still not believe them, 

so the beraita teaches us that because inspection is only rabbinically required, since Biblically verbal nullification is sufficient – the rabbis believed them about Rabbinic prohibitions.

The Talmud’s final solution to the either/or is to make an okimta – the Mishnah is dealing with an unusual case, with facts not mentioned in the text that undermine the presumption of inspectedness.  Credibility is necessary in such a case, but because inspection is only Rabbinically necessary, credibility can be extended beyond the usual unsuspects.

We can now formulate the Talmud’s conclusion as follows:

The beraita believes that all Jews are considered chaverim regarding chametz-inspection on 14 Nissan.  Therefore:

  1. All houses rented from any Jew on 14 Nissan are presumed inspected.
  2. All Jews may be believed if they claim that a house has been adequately inspected.

The Talmud does not explain whether the second principle is caused by the first.  Do we all Jews have credibility because they are all chaverim? Credibility is extended because the whole issue is derabannan, but perhaps the general extension of chaver-status happens only because the issue was derabannan.

We also must discuss to whom this credibility is extended.  The beraita says explicitly that women, slaves, and children are believed.  It is difficult to see the status of chaver being extended to slaves and children (although it is certainly extended to women in some cases).

It therefore seems that the beraita has two separate rationales.  First, it has a default setting that all houses are considered inspected because chaver-status is extended.  Second, if that presumption breaks down, we can extend credibility because the whole issue is derabannan.

But if the chaver and derabannan rationales are independent of each other, then the entire Talmudic discussion was pointless.  The Talmud should simply have said: Why are these believed?  Because the issue is derabannan.  Nothing else was needed or relevant.  Perhaps the Talmud concludes that R. Nachman bar Yitzchak erred in citing this beraita as a response to the query.  But this seems forced.

The less radical solution to this problem is to say that the presumption of inspectedness was put in place only because the issue was derabannan.  The presumption is weakened when we know that the landlord did not do an inspection personally, but not so weakened that it cannot be restored by testimony from children.

The more radical solution is to argue that women, slaves, and children are never discussed in this sugya.  Rather, the issue is exclusively amei ha’aretz.  (According to a beraita on Pesachim 49b, codified in Shulchan Arukh CM 34:17, amei ha’aretz are not valid witnesses, although the educational bar to escaping that status is very low.)  Chaver-status regarding chametz-inspection is initially limited to self-certification, and then extended to allow them to certify others when necessary, because after all the whole issue is derabanan.

The obvious weakness of the radical approach is that it does not explain in the end why slaves and children are believed.  There is no manuscript basis for arguing that the clause about women, slaves, and children is not original to the text.  And yet, children do not appear in the Yerushalmi version, an amora probably emends the Yerushalmi version to exclude women, and some rishonim argue that the logic of the sugya does not relate to either women or slaves.

Why does any of this matter?  Because the sugya as it stands seems to say that women have halakhic credibility only about derabannans, and possibly only when they are supported by a legal presumption.  In medieval Ashkenaz, that conclusion contradicted common sense and everyday experience.

How did the rishonim address that contradiction?  What is the proper relationship between Talmud Torah and experience?  How strong an intellectual or halakhic bias should we have toward interpretations and positions that comport with our sense of the world, even if they don’t comport as well with our understanding of texts?  Can Halakhic texts be reliable historical sources?    Stay tuned!

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Destinations and Transformations

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow

The Torah reading for the seventh day of Pesach begins, “It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that God did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, ‘Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.’ But God led the people around [by] way of the desert [to] the Yam Suf and the children of Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt.”

Both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua interpret the expression, “God led the people around [by] way of the desert [to] the Yam Suf,” not as a way to explain the circuitous route the Israelites took, but rather to mean that God led the people to three different “destinations” (i.e. the “way,” “the desert,” and the “Yam Suf”). (Mechilta d’Rebbi Yishmael 3:18) However, they conceive of the purposes of traveling to these destinations very differently.  

Rabbi Eliezer understands these destinations as trials, which were meant to remove the psychological and religious obstacles that hindered the Israelites’ ability to serve God fully.  For Rabbi Eliezer, the “way” was meant to make them weary, “the desert” was meant to purify them, and the “Yam Suf” was meant to try them.

For Rabbi Yehoshua, on the other hand, these destinations were opportunities for God to show the Israelites His love for them and His requirements for them.  For Rabbi Yehoshua, God led the people to the “way,” which was the Torah, “the desert,” where God gave them the manna, and the “Yam Suf,” where He performed miracles for them.

Given their different interpretations of the purposes for these three “destinations,” one can also see that they understand the verse to detail different timelines.  For Rabbi Eliezer, the three destinations are in order (and are in line with the verses that follow) – the Jews travel along the way to Esam, at the edge of the desert, then through the desert to the Yam Suf.  For Rabbi Yehoshua, the three destinations are in reverse order; the Israelites will ultimately be led to receiving the Torah, yet first they will experience the miracles at the Yam Suf and receive the manna in the desert.  

The differences between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua point to the different ways in which they conceive of how the Israelite’s travels transform them from being a people who might return to Egypt to a people who were armed when they went up out of Egypt.

According to Rabbi Eliezer, individual and communal transformation begins with an internal re-evaluation after experiences no longer reconcile with preconceptions.  When the Israelites left Egypt, they lacked complete faith in God’s plan. Even at the edge of the Yam Suf, the Israelites still question Moshe, asking, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert?”  To which Moshe can only respond, “Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see Hashem’s salvation that He will wreak for you today!” Losing the faux security of Egypt and enduring the hardship of actually leaving were therefore necessary to remove from themselves the perception that they were servants of the Egyptians to become servants of Hashem.  Only after the trial at the Yam Suf, when the Israelites had witnessed the deaths of the Egyptians on the seashore, do the people fear Hashem and believe in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant.

According to Rabbi Yehoshua, the Yam Suf should not be seen as the culmination of the Israelites’ transformation, but rather only its beginning.  Rabbi Yehoshua’s view is supported by the fact that after crossing the Yam Suf, in the desert of Sin (between Elim and Sinai), the Israelites complain before getting the manna, “If only we had died by the hand of Hashem in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death.”  

It is not that communal or individual transformation does not begin with an experience of internal dissonance – rather, internal dissonance is only a potential precursor to transformation, there must still be a vision or a goal as to whom one wants ultimately to become.  Therefore, according to Rabbi Yehoshua, at the Yam Suf the Israelites first began to understand (and exclaim through song) the relationship they were to have with Hashem. In the desert of Sin, they learned that Hashem not only gives manna from Heaven but demands that the Israelites follow His teaching, and ultimately at Har Sinai the Israelites fully accepted their responsibility, saying “We will do and we will listen!”  They became armed when they went up out of Egypt and received the Torah.  Only then was the option of returning to Egypt no longer a consideration, since they were given a new direction towards which to go and provided the means to get there successfully.

In Rabbi Yehoshua’s view, the connection between Pesach and Shavuos becomes even clearer – it is not that Pesach is a first step to be followed by Shavuos.  The surety that the Exodus of Egypt will not falter is in matan Toraseinu. Only in adopting a new direction (rather than simply running away) can one truly appreciate the cherus of Pesach.
Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow (SBM 2003) is the Director of the Biomedical Ethics and Humanities Program at New York Medical College and Senior Scholar of the Aspen Center for Social Values.

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Halakhic Discourse and Modern Sensibilities: A Dvar Torah l’ilui nishmat Rabbi Ozer Glickman z”l

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The internet is full this week with well-deserved and often insightful tributes to Rabbi Ozer Glickman, who passed away this week.  I have been hesitant to add my own thoughts and memories, because

  1. so many knew him longer and better than I did
  2. it might seem self-serving, as our conversations were mostly about how awesome my programs and my family were, and how he hoped to be helpful (many people’s conversations with him were of that sort)
  3. some of what he said was confidential in ways that may still apply

Some of the hespedim have tinges of claiming him for one or another camp, and that seems to me an ethical violation which I would prefer to avoid.  Some of them I think reflect a persona that he deliberately created and enjoyed inhabiting, but that was sometimes mistaken for the whole person. Others are very sincere but not quite right, and yet in ways that reflect his successes as a teacher and mentor.

Yet these don’t seem to be sufficient reasons for total silence.  So here are a few words of my own, and perhaps I’ll try something more developed in time.

  1. It might be helpful to think of his role in YU, on Facebook, and in the community as that of Mashgiach, rather than of Rosh Yeshiva.  I thought it was very appropriate that Rabbi Blau spoke at the levayah.
  2. He said to me very recently: I sent you students, and they thrived.  That’s really all I need to know.
  3. He was a pragmatist who dreamed.
  4. בתוך עמי אנכי יושב

The best tribute, I hope, will be a dvar Torah that he would have enjoyed.  I hope to have several more specifically dedicated to his memory fairly soon.

Berakhot 58a records a blessing that raises ethical hackles in modernity.  In translation it seems harmless: “Who diversifies haberiyot(referring either to human beings, or to all beings”.  But when should one make this blessing? Unless we make it on everyone and everything, we are setting a norm, and diverse becomes a code word for “different” and “other”.  In fact, the context, example, and commentators all make clear that we are dealing with an instance of “just as we bless over the good, we bless over the bad”. We make the blessing over differences that we perceive as deformities.

Several – perhaps all – of those differences are matters of color; black, red, and white.  The term for “black” is kushi, which literally means from Kush/Ethiopia, but in both classical and modern Hebrew often has insulting racial overtones.

However, those connotations have no place in the Talmud here.  This list is parallel to a list on Berakhot 45b that applies to both humans and animals, and clearly are seen as variants within a single breeding community.  Rashi, basing himself on the parallel, goes out of his way to ensure that these are not understood as references to race. Kushi means “very black”; gichor means “very red”; and lavkan means “excessively white”.  We can argue about whether the shift from “very” to “excessively” favors whiteness as normal (so long as it’s not excessive), or stigmatizes it (one can be excessively white even if one isn’t very white).  

But Rashi’s position requires a frame of reference.  In a Caucasian culture, all people of African descent are “very black”.  So inevitably, a position developed that one makes the blessing whenever one sees anyone of African descent.

In the 17th century, Rabbi Yakov Hagiz (Shu”t Halakhot Ketanot 240) found a radical way back to Rashi.  He pointed out that the blessing was clearly intended to cover unusual cases – so how could one explain the existence of a whole continent of people who are “very black”? Should they all go around making blessings whenever they meet?

One might answer that the blessing simply becomes passe in such circumstances.  Technically, perhaps, one should make it only if one has not seen a similar person in the past thirty days.  But this loses the initial connotation of deformity, unless one wishes to argue that halakhah sees all such categories as socially constructed.

Rabbi Hagiz takes a different approach.  Parents want children to look like themselves.  A black child born to white parents is a deformity.  He’s not clear on how to react to a white child born to black parents, as apparently some differences are good.  That is, he has not made it all the way back to Rashi, where only unusual coloration is relevant.

We can only speculate as to how Rav Hagiz’s position might have been altered by access to Mendelian genetic theory.

Rabbi Hagiz’s position is adopted by Kaf HaChayyim (h/t Rabbi Chuck Davidson), and then as at least an option by most of the myriad contemporary blessing manuals found on Otzar HaChokhmah.

These are the halakhic facts facing a contemporary Jew.  With them in hand, what do we do?

There are blessings on seeing friends for the first time in thirty days, or a year.  These blessings have fallen into desuetude among Ashkenazim. Why? I suggest because the risk of social awkwardness is great.  The berakhah is only for friends. What if we meet, and I make the berakhah, and you refuse to answer amen on the ground that my berakhah was levatalah, because we are mere acquaintances?

By the same token, I think it is hard to justify making berakhot over people that now impose a sense of inferiority and deformity on them, or an unwanted sense of difference.

There have been cultures for better or for worse in which such blessings would be the best some kinds of “different” people could expect, and perhaps would even create the context for needed pity and kindness. But one person cannot treat another as purely a cheftzah shel mitzvah, as an object rather than as a subject, as a means rather than as an end.  

One response is simply to let the berakhah fall away.

Another response is to reinterpret the Berakhah as a celebration of inclusiveness and rejection of “othering”.  There is nothing in the language of the blessing to prevent this, and there are certainly aggadic resources to root such a concept in Jewish tradition.  “Just as their faces are different from one another, so too their souls”. The narrative of the “ugly man” (Taanit 20a) warns us against judging people by their faces, and Rabbi Yehoshua as well was surpassingly ugly (Taanit 7a).  Should we have made the berakhah over them? How would they have reacted?

A third response is to find a technical solution.  

Berakhot 58a also quotes a beraita with a different list of cheftzot for this mitzvah: One who sees a pil, kefof, or kof recites “Who diversifies the beriyot.”  Now a pil is fairly clearly an elephant; and a kof is a monkey or ape.  (Rashi here says a kefof is a vulture; there are other identifications, and many commentators did not have it a part of the list in their text of the Talmud.)  Why are these specific animals chosen? Rashi says that each of them has facial features that resemble the human. On that logic, some argue that only specific species of elephant or monkey can be objects of this berakhah.  Most poskim, however, argue that the berakhah can be made on any animal that seems odd to us, and there are various stories of great rabbis going to the zoo for the purpose of making the berakhah. These generate a new question: If one sees two different odd species, does one make a separate berakhah on each?  What if one sees them on consecutive days?

One can combine the positions so as to yield the result that a person who goes to the zoo once a month will never need to make a berakhah over a person.

None of these options, or the ethical issues, show up in the aforementioned halakhic blessing manuals.

Nor do any of them discuss the added discomfort of making the same blessing over human beings and animals.  If one follows Rashi, one can argue that at least there is a visual connection. Some commentators note midrashim, likely rooted in the facial similarity, in which people who sin are turned into kofim and pilim, and perhaps even hold that those species are all descendants of degenerated humans.

A recent article on YNET, unfortunately picked up by Newsweek, highlights the difficulties of even discussing these issues.  The same beraita also mentions a blessing over beautiful trees. In discussing that blessing, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef naturally turned to “Who diversifies” for an analogy.  Having cited it, he clarified that he follows Rabbi Hagiz’s position that the blessing is made only over children born looking very different than their parents, and not, for example, over dark-skinned Americans of African descent.  This led to the accusation that he was using the word kushi as a racial epithet about African-Americans.  To further illustrate this point, taking a example from the next beraita, and perhaps even offering a creative interpretation of it, he said that one would make the berakhah over human children who looked like kofim, regardless of their parentage.  This led to the accusation that he had compared African-Americans to monkeys.  

Rabbi Yosef’s office responded that he had simply quoted the Talmud.  This is not quite true – the Talmud makes no mention of African-Americans, and Rabbi Yosef would have been much wiser not to mention them in the same lecture as the word kushim, let alone in the same sentence.  The same applies a fortiori to kofim.

SBM alum Yair Rosenberg wrote in the Washington Post this week that a public bigoted statement by a communal leader often reflects a deeper cultural problem – leaders would not make such statements if they expected communal pushback.  I prefer to believe the most innocent interpretation of Rav Yosef’s words – that he was explaining why the beraita’s term kushim did not refer to Africans – and to censure him for cultural obtuseness rather than bigotry.  (Please note that this is based on the audio; the transcriptions I have seen are inaccurate.)

But that the most guilty interpretation was easily believed within the Orthodox community, and not even seen as surprising, means that we have little moral faith in our leadership on this issue.  The absence of any moral conversation around the berakhah in our halakhic handbooks unfortunately justifies that lack of faith.

Torah leaders need to understand how deeply corrosive this lack of faith is to the religious health of our community, and especially of our youth.  It is taken as compelling evidence that Torah scholarship at best fails to enhance moral sensitivity, and at worst diminishes it, when great talmidei chakhamim are simply and pointlessly obtuse to ethical norms that saturate the surrounding secular culture.  This is definitional chillul Hashem.  Let us do our best to change it.

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Enduring Change

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Blau

The most eye-catching detail in Tzav is not a section, a phrase, or even a word, but a Masoretic ta’am: the shalshelet on the word וישחט at the beginning of Vayikra 8:23, in the midst of Moshe’s long series of actions towards making Aharon the kohen gadol.  There are only four shalshelets in the Torah.  Although each location can be explained by grammar, this neither satisfies our understanding that there is meaning imbued into every small detail of the Torah, nor our need to thematically connect the unique set of placements of the shalshelet.

All three other instances are in the book of Bereishit. The first occurs when Lot hesitates (ויתמהמה) to leave Sedom, the second when Avraham’s servant (whom Chazal identify as Eliezer) talks (ויאמר) to God asking for His help in finding a wife for Yitzchak, and the third when Yosef refuses (וימאן) to sleep with Potifar’s wife.

The oldest known explanation for the use of the shalshelet is offered by R’ Yosef Ibn Caspi, who wrote in his commentary to Bereishit that it connotes indecision. Lot’s indecision is blatant even in the word to which the shalshelet is attached (possibly thereby serving as the basis for this explanation); Eliezer’s may be due to his desire for Avraham’s son to marry his own daughters; and Yosef’s—to his struggle against giving in to Potifar’s wife’s advances.

Why would Moshe be indecisive here? The best explanation is that he is ambivalent about passing the priestly role to his brother Aharon, whereas Moshe has possessed this role up to now. This view is supported by Vayikra Rabbah (11:6). R’ Chelbo there says that Moshe assumed that the office of kohen gadol belonged to him based on the first seven days of the consecration of the Mishkan, but God corrected Moshe, telling him that the office instead belonged to Aharon. Relinquishing power is always a difficult task, even for a figure as humble as Moshe.

Ibn Caspi’s opinion, however, lacks the momentousness demanded by the shalshelet in its very sound and rarity. Moshe might have had some slight indecision, but many other important people in the Torah surely also did, and yet they do not have a shalshelet. Furthermore, indecision implies the possibility of a different choice, yet Moshe’s actions here are a foregone conclusion. Even if we assume that Lot could have either stayed or left, and that Avraham’s servant could have given up and pursued instead the possibility of his daughter as a match for Yitzchak, and that Yosef could have chosen to sleep with Potifar’s wife—can we imagine a world in which Moshe selfishly kept the priesthood for himself despite a direct Divine command to the contrary?

These problems are resolved by R’ Jonathan Sacks’ adjusted take on Ibn Caspi’s commentary. R’ Sacks suggests that the shalshelet, more than indecision, signifies existential crisis. For the first three instances, this follows largely from the nature of the actor and the situation. Lot repeatedly struggled with multiple issues related to Sedom, material possessions, and generally retaining the moral standards of Avraham; Avraham’s servant was explicitly told that Avraham did not want his son to marry outside of his family, and was also clearly very dedicated to his master and would have wanted his family to be as close as possible to Avraham; and Yosef was at times not only consumed with aesthetics, but also was at this point far removed from his family and had been integrating into Egyptian society since he was brought there by merchants. The same is true of Moshe—from the time he was contacted by God through the burning bush, Moshe was always the leader of benei Yisrael, and Aharon always his assistant and aide. Now that Aharon was to be a leader in his own right, and in a role that Moshe had been filling until now, at that, Moshe faced a challenge to his identity. He would, of course, persevere and do as commanded, but this does not undermine the existential struggle Moshe underwent.

While R’ Sacks’ elucidation is penetrating, I believe it is missing an essential piece of the story of Aharon and his sons’ inauguration at the hands of Moshe. To perceive a more illuminated portrayal of this event, it is necessary to look at some of the textual details encountered from the fourth aliyah (8:1) until the end of parshat Tzav. Two repeating elements are immediately salient upon reading this section. Firstly, the number of action verbs performed by Moshe—most of which are in the same form (future tense with a vav-hahipuch)—is staggering, summing to over 50. Almost the entire block of text is just a detailed description of what Moshe did as part of the consecration process. Secondly, the motif of command fulfillment is apparently very important to this event, as the idea that Moshe was fulfilling God’s commands is reiterated far more than seemingly necessary (the phrase כאשר צוה ה׳ את משה is repeated six times by itself, and there are a few other variations also). Additional textual details are based on the order of events. The placement of the shalshelet, for instance, is on the last of three times that Moshe performed ritual slaughter as part of the consecration. Finally, though through most of this section Moshe was the actor, Aharon and his sons intermittently did semicha and tenufa, and Moshe eventually—at the very end of the parsha—told Aharon and his sons to perform the nontrivial act of cooking the meat.

Putting all of these factors together yields an event representation of what might have been going through Moshe’s mind during the consecration. At least at first, Moshe acts constantly and solely because this is what he has been doing since he became the leader of the people. Yet, as always, he does so only at the bidding of God. Indeed, it is likely the direct Divine command aspect of this transition that gives Moshe the strength to not only endure the change, but to seamlessly slide into his adjusted role as relay between God and Aharon, as is demonstrated at the end of the parsha and emphasized by the change in signoff from כאשר צוה ה׳ את משה to אשר צוה ה׳ ביד משה. The transition is also made easier by its gradualness; as Moshe continues, Aharon and his sons become more and more involved, eventually relieving Moshe of his duties. Even still, despite this push, Moshe experiences the most inner turmoil as he begins the last portion of the last priestly sacramental act he will ever perform. Halakhically, shechitah must be done in one motion, with no hesitation, and so Moshe must resolve himself completely at this point. And he does, pausing to gather himself before this crucial turning point in his leadership.

Moshe’s experience can teach us much about change, and how to endure it even when we are confronted with an existential dilemma as a result. First, the importance of a measured and steady process for our ability to absorb what is happening. Second, the calculation of the magnitude of the change, or rather the fact that despite the apparent magnitude of the change, we still have the same role vis-à-vis God—that is, we are still charged to do everything for the purpose of serving Him, even if those things or our setting may have changed. This inherently restricts the change to a façade rather than relating to our fundamental being. Last, the fact that as much as we might be able to rationalize a change or mitigate our feelings about it, it can still weigh heavily, even for someone as great as Moshe, and sometimes all we can do is take a shalshelet’s length pause to gather ourselves before plunging into whatever it is that may lie ahead.

Joshua Blau (SBM 2017) lives with his wife Hodaya in Brookline, MA, where he enjoys learning, teaching, and discussing Torah with anyone available and willing to participate.

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Chametz and Dvash: Why not?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Leora Balinsky

כָּל־הַמִּנְחָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר תַּקְרִ֙יבוּ֙ לַה’ לֹ֥א תֵעָשֶׂ֖ה חָמֵ֑ץ

כִּ֤י כָל־שְׂאֹר֙ וְכָל־דְּבַ֔שׁ לֹֽא־תַקְטִ֧ירוּ מִמֶּ֛נּוּ אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַה’׃

No meal offering that you offer to the LORD shall be made with leaven,

for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the LORD.

Why can’t menachot contain Chametz, and why can’t leaven or honey can be part of the ketoret?

There are two fundamentally different approaches to answering these questions.

One path is to label using leaven and honey in sacrifices as ‘goyish’.  This is the approach of the Rambam:

Inasmuch as the idolaters offered only leavened bread and made many offerings of sweet things and seasoned their sacrifices with honey, as is generally recognized in the books that I have mentioned to you, and thus no salt was to be found in any of their offerings, He, may He be exalted, forbade offering up any leaven or any honey and commanded that salt always be offered” (Moreh Nevuchim, 3: 46, Pines translation).

This approach views the prohibition as contingent. It is not something essential about Seor and Dvash that makes them impermissible, but rather their use by others that render them unfit for the altar. According to this approach, in a parallel universe in which idolaters had not offered leavened and sweetened sacrifices to their gods, there would be no ban on such sacrifices for Bnei Yisrael.

Another path, taken by many mefarshim, attempts to identify essential characteristics of these products that explanation their exclusion. For example: Hametz and Dvash may represent the completion of a product and the stymieing of further growth. Leavened bread has risen and undergone chemical processes that completely change it, and once the bread has risen, it will soon begin to rot. Date honey comes from fruit that has already ripened. Bee honey is used to preserve that which is already dead, with a PH of 3-4.5, which is far too acidic for almost every organism to survive.  The Gemara recounts the story of Herod preserving the body of a slavegirl who took her own life rather than being forced to marry him in honey for seven years.

The Kli Yakar as cited in the Iturei Torah takes Chametz and Dvash to represent two unsavory elements in a Jew: pride and a desire for material pleasures:

חמץ ושאור הם סמל הגאוה, ההתנשאות, ההתנפחות ורדיפת הכבוד;דבש הוא סמל של מתיקות והנאה גופנית.

שני אלה פסולים בקדשי שמים, והעוסק בתורה ובמצוות מתוך פנויות אלו – הרי זו תורה ועבודה שלא לשמה.

אולם לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצוות אף-על-פי שלא לשמה, שמתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה (פסחים נ)

וזה שאמרה תורה: “קרבן ראשית תקריבו  אותם” –

רק בראשית עבודתך את ה’ תוכל לעבוד גם מתוך פניות הללו,

אולם עליך להתאמץ לעקור אותן מלבך כדי שתגיע לתורה ולעבודה לשמה

Chametz and leaven are symbols of pride, arrogance, self-aggrandizement and the pursuit of being honored; honey is the symbol of sweetness and physical pleasure.

These two are invalid for things made holy to Heaven, and one who engages with Torah and mitzvot out of these tendencies – their Torah and service are not lishmah.  

However, “a person should nevertheless engage in Torah and mitzvot even though not lishmah, since out of not-lishmah comes lishmah” (Pesachim 50).  

This is what the Torah means by saying in the next verse: “As an initial sacrifice you may bring them” –

only at the outset of your service of Hashem can you serve even out of these tendencies,

but you must try to become strong and uproot them from your heart so that you can reach Torah and service lishmah.

Chametz and Dvash, for the Kli Yakar, are symbols for two possible motivations for doing mitzvot, both of which are not considered at all Lishma. However, Chametz and Dvash are incorporated into קרבן ראשית as the korban shtei halechem and the bikkurim. According to the Kli Yakar, this is because this occasion is the beginning of the harvest, and given the principle of mitokh shelo lishma ba lishma, the Torah teaches us that it is incumbent upon individuals to rid themselves of their external motivations and learn to do mitzvot with proper intentions.

A beraita in the Yerushalmi supports the Kli Yakar’s claim:

תני בר קפרא:

הפטמין שבירושלים היו אומרים:

אילו היה נותן לתוכה מעט דבש לא היה כל העולם כולו יכול לעמוד בריחה

Bar Kappara taught:

The spicemakers in Jerusalem would say:

If a little honey were put into the ketoret – the whole world would not be able to stand its aroma

The Korban Ha’edah clarifies that the smell would be so good that it would be overwhelming.  If Dvash were to be offered, its overwhelmingly pleasant aroma would be too enticing and distract from the actual mitzvah.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch similarly views Seor and Dvash as impediments to ideal Avodat Hashem.  Chametz represents complete freedom, which he extends to political independence:

“Seor and Chametz are the signs of independence and being one’s own master…”

In Rav Hirsch’s scheme, Dvash then represents the possession of land:

“Dvash, Metikat Pri, ‘the sweetness of fruit’ is that product of the land which quite specially clearly expresses the value of possessing land. It is that which Nature furnishes finished and ready for Man’s immediate consumption and enjoyment, so that fruit is well fitted to represent the possession of land”.

Rav Hirsch explains that both of these elements- political independence and the possession of land- are ends, and the means to achieve them are mitzvot. We cannot offer these elements as part of our mitzvah observance, because mitzvah observance, according to Rav Hirsch, is the condition for their kiyum.

We have seen two approaches to understanding the exclusion of Seor and Dvash from the korban process: That it is the way of idol worshippers, and that the essential natures of Seor and Dvash clash with the meaning of korbanot.  By combining these two approaches, we can develop a distinctly Jewish way of being makriv korbanot and being an Eved Hashem. This way includes seeing the potential for growth, which Hametz and Dvash lack. It entails acting lishma. And it also involves knowing that ultimately, God is our master and the only master of anything in the world.  There ought to be room in our lives as Jews for moments of experiencing satisfaction and independence. Those moments are built into our calendar as we proudly present the first fruits of our labor. Still, this parsha teaches us that they must not become the focal point of our Avodat Hashem- they have no place on the mizbeach.

On Pesach, my father told me when I was telling him about this Dvar Torah, our homes become the mizbeach, we all become kohanim, and thus we cannot have any Chametz at all. Given the mefarshim above, this makes sense. We experience intimacy with God as we relive our journey from being slaves of Egyptians to being Avdei Hashem, wandering the wilderness. In such a scenario, we remind ourselves of our dependence on God and the journey upon which we are embarking.

May we be zokheh to experience the moments of satisfaction and completeness that result from a life centered around Avodat Hashem Lishma.

Leora Balinsky (SBM ‘16) is in her third year at Barnard College where she studies Philosophy.

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Does “It’s Never Been Done” Imply “It Shouldn’t Be Done?” Part 3

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Part one of this series can be found here. Part Two of this series can be found here.

PART 1 of this series established that there is no bar under halakhah to arguing that an unprecedented action is halakhically permitted.  This principle is expressed pithily by Mishnah Zevachim 12:4 as “אין לא ראינו ראיה”, “’We have not seen’ is not proof”.  Nonetheless, scholars may be required to conform when unsophisticated communities object to a practice on the grounds that they have never seen it done, even when the objection is halakhically groundless.  If a sophisticated community objects to a practice on those grounds, scholars can simply explain their grounds for leniency.  I argued that the Modern Orthodox community should be regarded as sophisticated by historical standards, but that there might – or might not – be reasons to treat it as if it were unsophisticated.

The conclusion of PART 1 is sometimes challenged on the basis Rabbi Moshe Isserles’ statement in Shulchan Arukh Choshen MIshpat 37:22 that sometimes “We have not seen” is a proof.  Part 2 demonstrated that R. Isserles was not addressing the question of whether an unprecedented action can be permitted.  Rather, he was discussing whether “We have not seen” can be evidence of practice in cases where the law is affected by standard practice.  For example: Unless otherwise specified, a halakhic labor contract incorporates local community standards.  If an employer required workers to rent proprietary tools, and the workers sued, a beit din would have to determine whether the requirement violated community standards.  To that end, R. Isserles stated, a beit din could rule that if no one had ever seen a local employer impose such a requirement, then doing so would be a violation of the contract.

One might argue that while Rabbi Isserles’s statement is limited, perhaps his source has broader application.  PART 3 will demonstrate that this is not so.

Rabbi Isserles’s statement is footnoted to Maharik 172.  This appears to be a typo, as the relevant material is in Shoresh 170 and 171.

Maharik received a question from the people of Firenze, Italy.  In their community, engaged men would transfer sivlonot, or marriage gifts, to their fiancees in advance of the wedding.  Some engagements were subsequently cancelled before the wedding.  This raised two intertwined issues:  Must the fiancée return the sivlonot? and, Does she required a get in order to remarry?  The basis for allowing her to keep the sivlonot, and to require a get, was the possibility that the groom intended the giving and acceptance of the sivlonot to effect kiddushin.

Recent immigrants to Firenze had indeed required gittin in such cases.  This was deeply troubling to the halakhic aborigines.  Many of them were descended from women who had married without a get after breaking an engagement.  Were their foremothers adulteresses?  Were they mamzerim?

Mahirik’s first response (170) discusses “We have not seen” in two ways.


והנה גלוי ומפורסם הוא כי כולם נוהגים מנהג זה, ואיש מהם לא נעדר

ופעמים רבות חוזרים בהם או מת החתן ב”מ קודם זמן החופה

ולפי מה ששמעתי מזקני הארץ הזאת ותושביה

שלא ראו שום פוצה פה ומצפצף להצריכה חליצה כשמת

או גט כשמתחרטין

It is open and public that they all without exception have this practice (giving sivlonot before betrothal)

and many times the engagement is broken off, or the chatan dies before the chuppah/betrothal

and according to what I have heard from the elders and residents of that land

they never saw anyone speak up and require the kallah-to-be to have a chalitzah (if the chatan died)

or a get when they change their minds (and break off the engagement)

Here, the absence of evidence is used to prove two different facts:

  1. That the custom of giving sivlonot before betrothal is universal in that country
  2. that no one in that country has every considered the woman married after a broken engagement.

Plainly, each of these facts are descriptions.  There is no halakhic bar to giving sivlonot after betrothal, and if that became the custom, people would be justified in requiring a get if an engagement were broken after the sivlonot were given, or chalitzah if the groom-to-be died, because we would presume that the sivlonot were preceded by a secret betrothal.


וראיה מהא דגרס בפ’ שני דכתובות (דף כב)

תנו רבנן 

שנים אומרים נתקדשה ושנים אומרים לא נתקדשה  –

הרי זו לא תנשא; ואם נשאת – לא תצא וכו’

ומפרש לה רב אשי הכי

שנים אומרים ראינוה שנתקדשה ושנים אומרים לא ראינוה שנתקדשה

ופריך עלה

פשיטא לא ראינוה אינה ראייה


לא צריכה דדיירי בחצר אחת 

מהו דתימא אם איתא דמקדשין קלא אית ליה למילתא

 קמ”ל דעבידי אינשי דמקדשי בצינעא

והרי לך

דאי לאו משום טעמא דעבידי אינשי דמקדשי בצינעא,

הוה לן למימר דאם איתא דמקדשי קלא אית ליה למלתא,

ואפילו להכחיש העדים שמעידין שראוה שנתקדשה,

ואף על גב שלא ראינוה דקאמרי אינך אינה ראייה;

We can bring proof from Ketubot 22:

A beraita:

Two (witnesses) say she was betrothed, and two say she was not – 

she may not marry (another man), but if she marries – she need not be divorced . . .

The Talmud challenges this:

Obviously!?  “We did not see her” is no proof!?

The Talmud responds

It is not obvious in a case where they lived in the same courtyard.

I might have thought that if they had been betrothed, it would have become known

The beraita teaches us that people sometimes betroth secretly.

So you see

that were it not for the argument that people sometimes betroth secretly,

we would say that if they had been betrothed, it would have become known,

even when that contradicts witnesses who testify that they saw her betrothal,

even though the statement of the other witnesses that “we did not see her betrothed” is no proof.

Here Maharik points out that obviously witnesses who say “we did not see X” are not directly contradicting witnesses who say “we saw X”. The witnesses who “didn’t see” might simply have been inattentive.  Nonetheless, if there are reasons to presume that X did not happen, we will give the witnesses who did not see X a certain amount of credibility.

Plainly this again relates purely to description.  Witnesses have no obligation to see or not see betrothals.

In 171 Maharik addresses the same case, this time in response to a critique.  The first relevant element is that the newcomers argued that their very presence demonstrated that the old custom was no longer universal.  Maharik responds to this in a variety of ways not relevant to our issue.  The second element begin with a claim that one can use witnesses together with an argument from silence to prove a negative.

ואשר כתב עוד כי לא ראינו ולא שמענו אינו ראיה

אלא דבר פשוט הוא דדוקא שיש שתי כתי עדים המכחישים זה את זה

אחת אומרת ראינוהו שנתקדשה ואחת אומרת לא ראינו כך וכך

אבל היכא שאין הכחשה

כי הכא, שאין אדם מעיד שנהגו הראשונים להחמיר באלו הסבלונות

פשיטא ופשיטא דמהמני האומרים ומעידים שלא ראו ולא שמעו מימים הראשונים שום פוצה פה ומצפצף

That which my critic wrote that “We have not seen or heard is no proof” –

obviously it applies only in a case where two sets of witnesses contradict each other

One saying “we saw her betrothed”, the other saying “we did not see such and such”

But where there is no contradiction,

as here, where no one testifies that the earlier ones had the practice of being stringent regarding sivlonot,

it is more than obvious that that we believe those who testify and say

“we have never heard or seen anyone from the earliest days opening their mouth to object”.

. . . 

As further proof of this claim, Maharik cites a beraita on Eruvin 41, in which Rabbi Yehoshua seeks to undo a ruling of Rabban Gamliel after the latter’s death.  His colleagues reply:

יהושע – אין שומעין לך

שכבר הוקבע הלכה כמותו

ולא היה אדם שעירער בדבר

Yehoshua, we will not heed you

as the halakhah has already been fixed in accordance with his opinion

and no person objected to this

Maharik notes that “no person objected to this” is valid evidence of the fact that no one objected, so long as no witnesses testify that they heard of an objection.

So Maharik as well addresses only issues of fact; he never addresses the question of whether “it’s never been done” means “it must not be done”.  This leaves us as we began, with no evidence that such an idea has ever been normative Halakhah.  I hasten to add that this does not mean that it is now forbidden to argue that it should become normative.

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