Monthly Archives: March 2019

The Fire Last Time, And Almost Every Time

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

There is no way to keep religion away from politics and psychology. G-d is willHe-nilHe involved in human affairs, because every human being who has or claims a relationship with Him affects other human beings. Moreover, we all have expectations of Him, and our sense of self and our position in society are profoundly  affected by His choices to fulfill or frustrate those expectations.

Rashi and rabbinic interpretations generally construct a narrative of the Mishkan’s construction which is all about managing those expectations.

The Jewish people expect G-d to respond to their overwhelming response to His appeal by sending a perceptible or even tangible expression of His presence. They cheerfully watch their volunteer artisans and engineers make the components, expecting that as soon as the parts are done, the whole will miraculously erect itself, as Rashi himself later expects the Third Temple to descend flaming from Heaven.  But the parts just lie there.

So they go to the craftsmen, and tell them angrily: “What are you waiting for?!  Build it, and He will come!” Truth be told, the craftsmen might prefer it this way.  So they cheerfully set up their blocks and tackles and go about putting up the walls – which promptly fall right back down.  And again, and again.

The craftsmen cannot bear the possibility that their work is inadequate.  So they don’t abandon the structure; they admit defeat and bring it, still in kit form, to Mosheh (Shemot 39:33). But the people have no such personal investment, and there is much grumbling as they trail behind.  Here is the Midrash Tanchuma’s retelling:

כיון שגמרו מלאכת המשכן – היו יושבין ומצפין

אימתי תבא שכינה ותשרה בו

והיו מצטערין הכל מפני שלא שרתה שכינה עליו,

מה עשו? הלכו להם אצל חכמי לב. אמרו להן:

ומה אתם יושבין העמידו אתם את המשכן ותשרה שכינה בינותינו!

היו מבקשין להעמידו, ולא היו יודעין, ולא יכולין להעמידו,

וכשהן חושבין להעמידו – הוא נופל,

מיד הלכו להם אצל בצלאל ואהליאב. אמרו להם:

בואו אתם והעמידו המשכן שאתם עשיתם אותו שמא על ידכם ראוי לעמוד!

מיד התחילו להעמידו ולא יכלו,

התחילו מסיחין ומרננין ואומרים:

ראו מה עשה לנו בן עמרם!

שהוציא את ממונינו במשכן הזה והכניס אותנו לכל הטורח הזה

ואמר לנו כי הקדוש ברוך הוא יורד מן העליונים ושורה בתוך יריעות עזים

When they finished the work of the Mishkan – they were anticipating:

When will the Presence come and inhabit it?

Everyone was suffering because the Presence had not come to inhabit it.

What did they do?  They went to “the wise of heart” (craftsmen).  They said to them:

Why are you just sitting there?! Go erect the Mishkan and the Presence will dwell among us!?

They tried to erect it; but they did not know how;

when they thought they had it erected – it would fall.

Immediately they went to Betzalel and Oholiav (the architect and designer). They said to them:

You come and erect the Mishkan that you have made!  Perhaps it will be fit to stand via your hands!

Immediately (Betzalel and Oholiav) tried to erect it, but they were unable.

So (the people) began complaining:

Look what the Son of Amram has done to us!

He spent all our money on this Mishkan,

and put us to all this bother,

saying to us that the Holy Blessed One would descend from Above and dwell in goatskin curtains!

Why does the Mishkan keep falling down?  Not because of any flaw in His design, or their skill.  Rather, because Mosheh was frustrated that he had no tangible part in the work, so G-d ensured that the final stage would be his, with more than a symbolic ribbon-cutting.

ולמה לא היו יכולין להעמידו,

אלא שהיה משה מיצר על שלא נשתתף הוא עמהן במלאכת המשכן,

כי צד הנדבה נתנה על ידי ישראל

והמלאכה נעשית ע”י בצלאל ואהליאב וחכמי לב

Why were they unable to erect it?

Because Mosheh was distressed that he had not participated with them in the work of the Mishkan

because the materials were contributed by the Jewish people

and the labor was done by Betzal’el and Oholiav and the wise of heart.

Because Mosheh was distressed, G-d hid the method from them and they were unable to erect it.

Yet the task that G-d leaves Mosheh is beyond his, or for that matter any single human being’s, physical capacities (unless Mosheh was a giant, which some midrashim suggest). So G-d tells him to playact, to pretend as if he is lifting the components – “Do something with your hands and make it appear as if you were erecting it” – while He miraculously causes the Mishkan to erect, but assures him that the plaque will still have his name on it.  Thus in Shemot 40:17 “the Mishkan was erected,” whereas in 40:18 “Mosheh erected the  Mishkan.”

Now the Mishkan is standing. Mosheh, and only Mosheh knows that the Divine presence is there. The people expect that G-d’s Presence will make itself known, but nothing at all happens, at least so far as they can tell.  Mosheh goes through the seven day inauguration ritual, taking the Mishkan apart and reconstructing it each day – and each day, nothing new happens.  Why?

Mosheh realizes: G-d was concerned for My frustration, but I should be thinking about Aharon – how would he feel if he had no part in this? So Mosheh tells the people (Rashi Vayikra 9:23):

אהרן אחי כדאי וחשוב ממני,

שע”י קרבנותיו ועבודתו תשרה שכינה בכם

ותדעו שהמקום בחר בו

Aharon my brother is more fit and worthy than I

because it is through his sacrifices and service that the Presence will dwell among you

and you will know that the Omnipresent chose him

Aharon now goes to perform His service.  Like the people, he expects – everyone has been told this, by Mosheh! that his service will be efficacious, and G-d’s Presence will descend as he concludes the final ritual.  But nothing happens.  So it’s his turn to complain:

יודע אני שכעס עלי המקום בשבילי לא ירדה שכינה לישראל

כך עשה לי משה אחי

שנכנסתי ונתביישתי ולא ירדה שכינה לישראל

מיד נכנס משה עמו ובקשו רחמים

וירדה שכינה לישראל

לכך: נאמר ויבא משה ואהרן אל אהל מועד.

I know that the Omnipresent is angry with me.

It is because of me that the Presence has not descended to Israel.

My brother Mosheh did this to me!

I entered the Mishkan, and I was shamed, and the Divine Presence did not descend to the Jews.

Immediately Mosheh entered with him, and they prayed,

and the Divine Presence descended to the Jews

Thus Scripture says: “Mosheh and Aharon came to Ohel Moed.”

At long last, “a fire came out from Heaven, and consumed on the altar” (Vayikra 10:2).  The people experience the giddy mixture of joy and terror they have been awaiting; Betzalel’s craftsmanship and Aharon’s Priesthood are confirmed; Mosheh is involved at every step of the process.  Everything is hunky-dory at last.

But we have come a long way from Mosheh’s first experience with Divine fire, which consumed nothing.

In Vayikra 9:22, Aharon descends “from making” the sacrifices. The straightforward reading is that he descends physically from the altar.  One mussar step straight down: He descends from the spiritual high of the sacrifice:  One spiral Chassidic step further: He descends spiritually as a result of making the sacrifices. 

In Chassidic literature, Aharon’s descent is the inevitable consequence of his effort to bring the people up.  Perhaps Chazal had the same reading, but interpreted it differently.  Aharon’s sacrifice was only necessary because Mosheh realized he was frustrated. Otherwise, the Divine fire would have descended before there was anything on the altar to consume.

Satisfying Aharon’s expectations has tragic consequences. Because Aharon’s sons also had expectations – after all, they were given uniforms! But they feel that it is He a late for complaints – fire has already descended from Heaven, and no one else feels that anything is still lacking. So they try to involve themselves, and another fire comes down from Heaven, and consumes them.

Perhaps Mosheh’s experience of pure innocence was possible only when he was a shepherd in the Wilderness, when there was only one man, who came with no expectations, only a sense of wonder.  In society, G-d is always a “consuming fire” (Devarim 4:24).

Wonder also requires expectations: what attracts Mosheh is that the shrub is not being burnt up even though he is expecting the fire to consume it.  (This is parallel to T.S. Eliot’s argument that creativity can only take place in the context of tradition.) What Mosheh lacks is expectations for himself. It does not occur to him that private access to G-d can be a source of power. He has been there, done that, and has no interest in unretiring. This is why Mosheh is the right person for the job.

We sometimes wish that all our religious leaders were Mosheh Rabbeinu the shepherd, learning Torah with pure spiritual wonder and no thought for themselves. There is good reason for that; human ambition makes G-‘d’s fire consuming, and fire spreads. Many leaders are not self-aware enough to empathize with the ambitions of others, let alone to deliberately make room for those ambitions to be satisfied. People with enormous Torah talents end up consumed by their own ambitions, like Nadav and Avihu.

But to get Mosheh to take the job of redeeming us from Egypt, G-d has to rekindle his ambitions. Religion needs the yetzer hora of ambition, as it needs every other human drive. Otherwise Torah becomes disconnected from society, and thereby from justice.

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Holy and Non-Holy

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Tobie Harris

The root קדש appears nearly 150 times throughout the book of Vayikra. Kedusha is a concept both basic to Judaism and paradoxically (or correspondingly) difficult to pin down in terms of meaning and connotations but the shifts in its usage throughout the book may shed some light on its characteristics (For convenience, I will translate קדוש as ‘holy’; חול/חילל will be rendered ‘non-holy’ because I don’t really care for any other translation).

In the first section of Vayikra, the term holy is used only for korbanot and other sanctuary-adjacent objects. Things are made holy by touching a sacrifice. Later, the mishkan and its vessels are made holy by being anointed with oil and/or blood, as are Aharon and his sons and their clothing. Holiness belongs to ritual places and objects; only kohanim are holy, in some sense as ritual objects and without relation to their behavior. This usage continues throughout the book and accounts for the bulk of the mentions.

But additional usages creep in starting from perek 10. After Aharon’s sons bring a ‘strange fire’ and are killed, Moshe says, rather cryptically:

הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד.

For the first time in this book, God is the object of holiness and specifically of a process of holiness being endowed. A few psukim later, God tells Aharon:

יַיִן וְשֵׁכָר אַל-תֵּשְׁתְּ אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ, בְּבֹאֲכֶם אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד–וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ:  חֻקַּת עוֹלָם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם. וּלְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַקֹּדֶשׁ וּבֵין הַחֹל, וּבֵין הַטָּמֵא, וּבֵין הַטָּהוֹר. וּלְהוֹרֹת, אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–אֵת, כָּל-הַחֻקִּים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיהֶם, בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה.

Here a new term is introduced as an antonym to holy, and an obligation is created to divide between holy and nonholy.

At the end of the parasha, this obligation is echoed in the context of the obligation not to eat impure creatures:

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.  כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי. זֹאת תּוֹרַת הַבְּהֵמָה, וְהָעוֹף, וְכֹל נֶפֶשׁ הַחַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת בַּמָּיִם; וּלְכָל-נֶפֶשׁ, הַשֹּׁרֶצֶת עַל-הָאָרֶץ. לְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַטָּמֵא וּבֵין הַטָּהֹר; וּבֵין הַחַיָּה, הַנֶּאֱכֶלֶת, וּבֵין הַחַיָּה, אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵאָכֵל.

Holiness is now a category relevant to the entire nation – they can be holy and they can endow themselves with holiness, not as ritual objects but by virtue of their observing the laws of impure, which are now applied in a non-mishkan context. This holiness parallels God’s holiness. The obligation to be holy is presented as a syllogism: God is holy, God is our Lord, thus we must be holy. And this holiness is achieved, here, by avoiding that which is impure.

The use of holiness as a concept applying outside the mishkan is picked up again in perek 19, again as part of the syllogism stemming from God’s holiness and applying to the whole nation:

דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם–קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ:  כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

Throughout the subsequent few perakim, various laws are directly related to holiness endowing things as holy and in contrast endowing things as non-holy. Eating a sacrifice not in accordance with the proper laws endows a holy thing with non-holiness. Swearing in God’s name falsely endows the name with non-holiness. Making your daughter a harlot endows her with non-holiness. Giving a child to Molech endows God’s holy name with non-holiness. Kohanim must be holy and not endow God’s name with non-holiness, including by making a bald spot, sacrificing if they have a blemish or marrying the wrong sort of women (which would also endow their children with non-holiness). A kohen’s daughter committing harlotry endows her father with non-holiness. A Kohen Gadol leaving the mishkan to mourn would endow the holy place with non-holiness. Later another category of holiness is added – holiness of time – in perek 23 regarding holidays and in perek 25, the jubilee year.

The differing uses of holiness reflect a spectrum within the term itself: in the early verses, holiness is a concept reserved for ritual and ritual objects (including kohanim). It seems to be more or less inherent – it can be conveyed by contact with other ritual items but other than that neither created nor destroyed. But what is equally striking is that it has no particular relationship to God or God’s traits – it is a thing unto itself.

This usage continues throughout the book but something new is introduced following the completion of the dedication of the mishkan as a whole or specifically the death of Nadav and Avihu. Holiness is reframed as an aspect of God and of the relationship with God, relating to a wide variety of ritual and less ritual commandments. Holiness is something that we are by default and by virtue of our connection to God, but it is also something that we can endow as well as diminish, not just in objects but also in oneself, in others, in times, in God and in God’s name.

At the crux of this shift is Moshe’s cryptic statement that God is made holy through those close to God and honored before the entire nation and God’s subsequent command to the kohanim to separate between holy and profane and to teach the laws to the people.

Both statements reflect some shift in scope from a narrow circle to a wider circle beyond the mishkan walls. But there seems to be a subtle difference between them: Moshe still frames holiness as reserved to a narrow group. This is also reflected in his command that Aharon and his remaining sons continue their service, while the rest of the nation mourns: the kohanim’s primary job is to remain ritual objects, distinct from the people. In contrast, God’s statement (interestingly delivered directly to Aharon, circumventing Moshe) assigns kohanim a more outward-facing role: the kohanim must separate between holy and non-holy and between pure and impure – and they must teach this to the people. A few verses later, the job of being holy via separating between pure and impure belongs to the people as a whole. Holiness is not only a ritual status, but also a character trait and an obligation, spreading outward from the ritual sphere to the entire nation and to all aspects of service.

Tobie Harris (SBM ’05) lives in the Bakaa neighborhood of Jerusalem and works as an attorney for the Israel Competition Authority; in her spare time, she moderates the God Save Us from Your Opinion facebook group. 

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Shotgun Tabernacle? The Sifra on Philanthropy, Social Shaming, and Consequentialism

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier

The inauguration of the Tabernacle featured several milu’im offerings, which ushered in the new holy place and set the stage for all future offerings. One of these milu’im offerings was a hattat, which served “to atone” (see Lev. 8:14-15). But what sin does the hattat of the millu’im atone for?

The Sifra ad. loc. (Tzav, Mekhilta de-Millu’im 15) addresses this question:

וישחט ויקח משה את הדם… ויקדשהו לכפר עליו – כפרה זו איני יודע מהו? אלא שאמר משה: בשעה שצוה אדון העולם להתנדב בדבר המקדש, דחקו ישראל איש איש והביאו שלא בטובתם, תהא כפרה זו שלא יהי דבר גזול במקדש, וכן הוא אומר כי אני ה’ אוהב משפט [שונא גזל בעולה].

“And he slaughtered [the hattat bull], and Moses took the blood and [placed it on the altar]… and he sanctified [the altar] to atone upon it.” -I do not know what this atonement is for!?

Rather, Moses said: At the time that the Master of the World commanded to donate for the Temple [i.e. Tabernacle], the people of Israel pressed one another [to give] and brought not of their good [will]. Let this be an atonement so that there won’t be any stolen items in the Temple. 

Similarly it says “For I am the Lord who loves justice, who hates stealing in a burnt offering.” (Is. 61:8)

The divine charge to “take donations” for the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:2) elicited great excitement among Kelal Yisrael, to the point that people pressured one another to support the all-important cause. The social pressure yielded its intended result – massive participation – but it also meant that many offered gifts to the Tabernacle despite being less than fully willing. 

Targum Yonatan on this verse also worries about insincere giving:

אוֹ דִילְמָא הִישְׁתְּכַּח בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל דְלָא הֲוָה בְּלִבֵּיהּ לְמֵיתַיָא לַעֲבִידְתָּא וְשָׁמַע קַל כְּרוּזָא וְאִיסְתְּפֵי וְאַיְיתִי בְּלָא צְבוֹ

Maybe someone among the Israelites did not have it in his heart to donate to the project, and heard the announcement and was scared, and donated unwillingly. 

Donations offered in response to pressure rather than out of true conviction may be considered stolen, at some level.  Given this concern, the Sifra and Targum Yonatan explain that the sin-offering was brought to atone for the possibility that the construction of the Temple utilized stolen goods. 

This fascinating Midrash and commentary highlights two important points, both in the sin it identifies in this scenario and in its broader ramifications.  

First, the Sifra assumes that a donation made under pressure may be regarded as ill-gotten gains, requiring atonement. This position clearly assumes the importance of acting based on the proper motivation, even in carrying out good deeds. But it goes a step further, as well. The Sifra argues that, when people are forced into actions on the basis of censure, rather than on the basis of understanding the value of these actions, something is fundamentally amiss. In such cases, people’s very agency is being taken from them – along with their money! – as they are pushed to do things absent their fully willing participation. 

This critique can be expanded to scenarios where social pressure and censure are effective in getting people to say, or even believe, certain propositions. Using social pressure or censure to force someone’s hand demeans and even dehumanizes them; it removes their agency and makes them objects rather than subjects. This is true of any approach that shames those it disagrees with, rather than educating them.  

Coercion, of the softer or harder varieties, is sometimes necessary. But it always has a cost, and there is a point at which forcing someone else to do mitzvot becomes an act of theft. 

The Sifra offers this teaching specifically regarding the Mishkan, a context  crucial to fully appreciating its message. When defending their use of unsavory methods, people often offer the cliché that “it’s for a good cause,” or other arguments using the ends to justify the means. People often assume that, the more important the cause, the less important the means; arriving at the proper outcome is paramount, and the process must take a backseat. 

The Sifra argues precisely the opposite position: unsuitable methods actually become more problematic as the purpose rises in eminence. Extracting charitable donations through social pressure might not be ideal, but no hattat is required to atone for doing so. The Temple has loftier standards – the stakes are much higher! God hates stealing in His offerings, and thus even this less obvious sin of coercing donations must be rectified. 

The Mishkan is also the centerpiece of religious society. When building a religious world, one absolutely must take into account ethical concerns about the nature of the process.  Whenever religious leaders invoke the importance of their enterprise – “We’re building Israeli society!” We’re building the community’s shul!” “We’re ensuring the next generation remains affiliated!” – as justifying ethically dubious steps, the Sifra thunders: “Who are you serving? God!? God hates stealing in an olah! God abhors ethical compromises in building religious institutions! If you dare to lower your ethical standards on account of a religious goal, God will take notice and you will bear your sin.”

As we build our personal and public religious worlds, we ought to think very carefully about these two messages. Are we acting freely or in response to pressure?  Are we inspiring people to do the right thing, or are we forcing their hand? What compromises or ethical shortcuts are we taking, and to what degree do those choices of means that undermine our goals? God demands no less.

Shabbat Shalom!

R. Shlomo Zuckier (SBM ’12) is a member of YU’s Kollel Elyon, a PhD candidate and AJS Dissertation Completion Fellow at Yale University, and a Founder of The Lehrhaus.

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Halakhic Authority and Rabbinic Relationships: Annual Dvar Torah Honoring the Memory of Rabbi Ozer Glickman Z”L

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

My wife’s driving instructor Tom Scott had a rule: Right-of-way must be given, never taken. What about halakhic authority?  Must it be given, or can it be taken?

Most yeshiva students are taught to read the halakhic passages of Talmud with the goal of abstracting and depersonalizing the content. We care about the ideas, and we want the halakhah to be decided based on who has the stronger argument. Yet if we are honest, we cannot avoid recognizing that the formal rules of psak are often about who has authority.

How is that authority obtained? Is it apportioned solely on the basis of intellectual, spiritual, or pastoral merit, or do the personal and private interactions among halakhists affect them as well?

A snippet of halakhic sugya on Pesachim 100a may offer a window into this issue, or at least a useful platform for analyzing it.

Our snippet comes at the end of a sugya discussing the rules for eating on the eves of Shabbat, Yom Tov, and Pesach. An Amoraic statement that “The Halakhah follows Rabbi Yehudah on Erev Pesach” is interpreted as referring to a hypothesized argument between Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose about whether a person who was already in midmeal needs to end that meal at the moment Pesach begins.  This hypothesis is supported by a beraita which records a parallel argument regarding Erev Shabbat:


מפסיקין לשבתות, דברי רבי יהודה;

רבי יוסי אומר: אין מפסיקין.

ומעשה ברבן {שמעון בן} גמליאל [ורבי יהודה] ורבי יוסי שהיו מסובין בעכו וקדש עליהם היום.

אמר לו רבן {שמעון בן} גמליאל לרבי יוסי

{ברבי} (ב”ר)

רצונך נפסיק, וניחוש לדברי יהודה {חבירנו}?

אמר לו:

בכל יום ויום אתה מחבב דבריי לפני רבי יהודה, ועכשיו אתה מחבב דברי רבי יהודה בפני?!

הגם לכבוש את המלכה עמי בבית?!

{אמר לו:}

אם כן – לא נפסיק, שמא יראו התלמידים ויקבעו הלכה לדורות.


לא זזו משם עד שקבעו הלכה כרבי יוסי.

as we learned in a beraita:
We break for Shabbatot, according to the words of Rabbi Yehudah:
but Rabbi Yose says: We don’t break:
A narrative about Rabban [Shim’on ben] Gamliel. [Rabbi Yehudah], and Rabbi Yose.
They were reclining in Acre when Shabbat came in (lit: when the day became holy on them).
Rabban [Shim’on ben] Gamliel said to Rabbi Yose
Is it your wish that we break, and be concerned for the words of Yehudah [our chaver]?
He replied: Each and every day you show affection for my words in the presence of Rabbi Yehudah, and now you are showing affection for the words of Rabbi Yehudah in my presence?!
“Will you even conquer the queen with me in the house?!”
[He said to him:] If so, we will not break, lest the students see and establish the halakhah for all generations.
[They said]: They did not move from there until the halakhah had been established as following Rabbi Yose.

The Talmud then reports an Amoraic statement that presumably relates to the beraita:

אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל:

אין הלכה לא כרבי יהודה ולא כרבי יוסי,

אלא: פורס מפה ומקדש.

Said Rav Yehudah said Shmuel:
The Halakhah follows neither Rabbi Yehudah nor Rabbi Yose,
rather: One spreads a cloth (over the food) and says kiddush.

Three brief notes about manuscript variants:

  1. In some versions Rabbi Yehudah is present for the conversation, and in some he is not
  2. In some versions there is ambiguity as to whether RSbG responds to Rabbi Yose, or whether instead “If so, we will not break, lest the students see and establish the halakhah for all generations” is still Rabbi Yose himself talking.
  3. In some versions RSbG refers to Rabbi Yehudah as “our colleague.”

After a conventional presentation of the halakhic dispute between Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Yehudah, the beraita segues into a narrative. This narrative opens with one or both of the rabbis involved reclining at a meal with RSbG (in some versions Rabban Gamliel) on Friday at the moment of nightfall. RSbG turns to Rabbi Yose and asks him whether he wants them to break and “take into consideration” the position of Rabbi Yehudah.  Rabbi Yose responds angrily.

Why is he angry? RSBG did not suggest that the Halakhah followed Rabbi Yehudah against him! In fact, it seems that RSbG deferred absolutely to Rabbi Yose, to the point of letting him  decide whether they should even take Rabbi Yehudah’s position into account. This is even though RSBG is the Nasi, the head of the Jewish community and the academy.

Rashbam’s commentary offers a clue.  He understands RSBG as addressing Rabbi Yose using a term of great respect, “Berebbi,” that is never used in direct address elsewhere. Moreover, his version has the Nasi implicitly set Rabbi Yose up as his equal, “our colleague.” This courtesy seems excessive.

I suggest that according to Rashbam, RSBG knows that he is walking on eggshells here.  Most likely RSBG meant, and intended Rabbi Yose to understand, that he thought Rabbi Yehudah was correct on this issue, and intended to rule like him.  But in Rabbi Yose’s presence, he preferred to present this as merely accounting for all positions, and he gave Rabbi Yose the opportunity to save face by endorsing this.

Rabbi Yose does not take the graceful way out. Instead, he lashes out at RSBG, accusing of at least inconsistency and perhaps hypocrisy, and of spectacular chutzpah, while comparing him to Haman.  Possibly RSBG is cowed by the outburst and agrees to follow Rabbi Yose; or perhaps Rabbi Yose himself insists that they keep eating until it has been established that the Halakhah follows him.

In Rashbam’s reading, the Rabbis in the beraita understand each other perfectly. What we have is an authority struggle between RSbG and Rabbi Yose, which Rabbi Yose wins absolutely.  It seems that halakhic authority can be “taken.”

Except that the sugya’s final comment undoes Rabbi Yose’s victory; Rav Yehudah in the name of Shmuel disestablishes the narrative’s halakhic conclusion, and perhaps the entire beraita, and instead adopts a position that can be viewed as either entirely new or as a compromise.

But we can also read the beraita very differently than Rashbam. Perhaps RSbG sees Rabbi Yose as more authoritative than Rabbi Yehudah – and tells Rabbi Yehudah so every day – but when both rabbis are present, he’d very much like to avoid making that hierarchy explicit. But Rabbi Yose misunderstands, and thinks that RSbG’s allegiance is wavering. RSbG responds to Rabbi Yose’s outrage with complete submission.

Both these readings are predicated on the assumption that rabbinic relationships affect rabbinic authority. What makes that assumption compelling in this story is Rabbi Yose’s memorable citation of Esther 7:8: “Will you even conquer the queen with me in the house?!” The reference to the verse is at once brilliantly clever and deeply personal. To rule like Rabbi Yehudah is one thing; to do so in Rabbi Yose’s presence is something else entirely. Never mind that Rabbi Yehudah is present as well – he is just an innocent bystander, a Charvonah.  The queen is Torah, and RSbG is alienating her affection, whether by force of personality or by simple force. And without her affection, is Rabbi Yose still king? Note also that he regards himself as king even in the presence of the Nasi, who is the current link to the Davidic monarchy.

The verse may also help us choose between our suggested readings.  Because the truth in Esther, of course, is that Haman is not conquering Esther in any way, let alone threatening Achashverosh. He is merely pleading for his life.  Perhaps the beraita cites Rabbi Yose’s bon mot to undermine his perspective and teach us that he is badly overreacting to RSbG’s innocent attempt at preserving Rabbi Yehudah’s dignity.

Rabbi Yose’s assertion of his authority appears to work; They did not move from there until the halakhah had been established as following Rabbi Yose. Maybe there was a real risk that onlookers would misunderstand; maybe Achashverosh had no choice but to condemn Haman once he found him on the bed with Esther, whether or not he understood the true situation. Perhaps sometimes halakhic authority must and can be taken.

But maybe the risk was only in his mind. Perhaps everyone else knew that RSbG always followed Rabbi Yose, and would have immediately realized that adopting Rabbi Yehudah’s stringency for one night was only a polite gesture.  Rabbi Yose gains nothing, since the halakhah would follow him without a formal public establishment.  And readers of the beraita must now suspect that his authority was always taken more than given (even if in fact it originally stemmed from the clarity of his analysis, נימוקו עמו). In the long run, perhaps that is what emboldens Shmuel to disestablish the precedent Rabbi Yose insisted on setting.

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The Persistence of Memory: Sacrifice, Human Sacrifice, and Amalek

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The Bible has been a bestseller for thousands of years.  Leviticus as a stand-alone book, though, seems to have all the appeal of Magical Creatures and How to Slaughter Them next to a Harry Potter collection.  A little more humor, and a lot more explicit gore, and perhaps it could compete with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As best I recall, the Reader’s Digest Condensed Bible simply skips from Exodus to Numbers.

All these challenges are intensified if one deals with Parshat Vayikra alone.  Listen to the great medieval commentator Rabbi Yosef ibn Caspi in his Mishnat Kesef, believing that he is channeling Maimonides:

כבר התועדתי בפירושי זה פעמים,

ובספר הסוד ובספר במשל,

כי תכונתי חזקה בבחירת הקיצור בכל מקום.


כאשר ראיתי זאת הפרשה ורבות מהנמשכות אחריה סובבות על מעשה זבחים וקרבנות

אשר ידוע שמשרע”ה כתבו בספרו מוכרח ואנוס,

כי אין חפץ לה’ בעולות וזבחים,

רק הכרח מנהג האומות כולם בזמן ההוא הביאם לזה,


די לנו בידיעת מלות אלו הספורים

ואם לא נדעם – אין זה היזק בזה,

ורב במה שנמצא בפירוש רש”י וא”ע


אניח פרשה זאת, והפרשת צו . . .

I have already informed you twice in this commentary,

and also in my Sefer HaSod and Sefer HaMashal,

that my character tends strongly to choose brevity everywhere.


when I saw this Parshah and many that follow it focusing on the making of sacrifices,

which it is known that Mosheh Rabbeinu wrote in his book compelled and coerced,

because Hashem has no liking for sacrifices,

rather it was the compulsion of the universal custom of nations of the time that brought them to this, therefore

it is sufficient for us to know the meaning of the words in these descriptions,

and if we don’t know them – there will be no damage in this,

and more than enough can be found in the commentaries of Rashi and Ibn Ezra


I will leave this Parshah be, and Parshat Tzav . . .

But Ibn Caspi’s comment begs the question: why did sacrifice become a universal expression of religion?

One possibility is that sacrifice achieves atonement, and atonement is a universally recognized human need.  But I have always been bothered by the connection between sacrifice and atonement. What a waste!  An animal – a living thing, or at the very least a valuable natural resource – is reduced to its maximal carbon footprint.  What “sweet savor” could possibly waft from these pointless barbecues? Wouldn’t it be better to genuinely make amends?

Ok, I get it; atonement sacrifices are largely for commandments between man and G-d, and there really is no way to make things up to G-d.  Except there is – repentance, especially repentance out of love, which for some reason in G-d’s perspective transforms past sins into virtues.

You’ll tell me that sacrifices lead to repentance. The death of an animal is a significant thing – it makes one think that could’ve/should’ve been me, there but for the chessed or rachamim of G-d go I.  But honestly, anyone who would think that way probably doesn’t need a sacrifice to think that way – they’d react the same way to a dead squirrel on the sidewalk, maybe even to a pen that’s run out of ink.

History/anthropology seem to show that prescribed modes of repentance inevitably lead to cost-benefit analyses – is this sin worth a goat to me, or not? The equation tends to work out badly for the goats.

I read an article this week that tried to equate philanthropy with sacrifice. It is true that the Temple accepted voluntary sacrifices.  I suppose it’s even likely that there was a plaque somewhere with the names of the people who gave the most and best voluntary sacrifices – perhaps we’ll dig it up soon, which would seem to validate the initial investment in immortality. But I think the author was misled by the term in English.  The Hebrew term korban, means thing which is brought closer, or that brings closer – it has nothing to do with giving something up, let alone of giving something up voluntarily for a greater purpose. The same negative applies to words such as זבח and עולה.

In his commentary to Deuteronomy 12:30-13:1, Ibn Caspi raises a much darker possibility.  Here are the relevant verses, followed by his commentary:

הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֗ פֶּן־תִּנָּקֵשׁ֙ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֔ם

אַחֲרֵ֖י הִשָּׁמְדָ֣ם מִפָּנֶ֑יךָ

וּפֶן־תִּדְרֹ֨שׁ לֵֽאלֹהֵיהֶ֜ם לֵאמֹ֨ר

אֵיכָ֨ה יַעַבְד֜וּ הַגּוֹיִ֤ם הָאֵ֙לֶּה֙ אֶת־אֱלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם

וְאֶעֱשֶׂה־כֵּ֖ן גַּם־אָֽנִי:

לֹא־תַעֲשֶׂ֣ה כֵ֔ן לַה֖’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ

כִּי֩ כָל־תּוֹעֲבַ֨ת ה֜’ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׂנֵ֗א

עָשׂוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם

כִּ֣י גַ֤ם אֶת־ בְּנֵיהֶם֙ וְאֶת־בְּנֹ֣תֵיהֶ֔ם

יִשְׂרְפ֥וּ בָאֵ֖שׁ לֵֽאלֹהֵיהֶֽם:

 אֵ֣ת כָּל־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֹת֥וֹ תִשְׁמְר֖וּ לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת

לֹא־תֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֔יו וְלֹ֥א תִגְרַ֖ע מִמֶּֽנּוּ: פ

Guard yourself,

lest you be ensnared after them,

after they have been destroyed from before you,

and lest you seek after their gods, saying:

“How would those nations worship their gods?

I too will do the same.”

Do not do the same for Hashem your G-d

because all the abominations of G-d. that He hates,

they did for their g-ds

because even their son and daughters

they would burn in fire for their gods.

It is everything that I command you – that is what you must guard to do;

you must add nothing above it; you must subtract nothing from it.

הנה אלו יכול משה למונעם מהזבחים לגמרי,

להיותם נעשים לאלהי העמים,

היה השם חפץ בזה

ואחר כי לא היה יכול להעתיקם משרש

והעתק הסעיפים

ככל אשר יוכל

בעבודות המגונות,

כשריפת הבנים

אם שריפתם לגמרי או שריפת עורם או שערם בהעברם,

כי על הכל יאמר שריפה בשיתוף מה

Now had Mosheh been able to completely prevent them from sacrifices,

seeing as they were done for the gods of the nations,

Hashem would have desired this.

But since he could not remove them from the roots

he removed them from the branches –

to the extent he was able –

of the disgraceful modes of worship

such as burning children

whether completely burning them up, or burning their skin or hair by passing them through flame,

because all of them can be called burning, with some commonality

I suggest that Ibn Caspi sees “sacrifice” anthropologically as at core the dedication of an act of violence to a god.  What matters is not that the sacrifice is killed, but that you killed it, and the more significant the thing you kill, the better.  All sacrifice is at core human sacrifice, not self-sacrifice.

The Torah came along and, unable to extirpate this practice directly, tried to change its meaning.  Removing human sacrifice from the apex of the ritual pyramid opened up the possibility of understanding animal sacrifice as sublimating violence rather than as sanctifying it.  There is always a danger that the original meaning will break through.  But when violence is given no controlled religious outlet, sanctified violence often finds far more dangerous expressions.

Ibn Caspi’s understanding of the etiology of sacrifice does not mean that all those who endorse sacrifice at core endorse violence. Sublimation can be real and effective. Moreover, maybe the Canaanite meaning was not the original meaning either, but a later distortion, and the Torah restored sacrifice to its pre-Canaanite glory.

Preserving a practice while changing its meaning runs two risks: critics may accuse you endorsing its original meaning, and followers may come to adopt its original meaning.

A similar dynamic may occur with regard to the mitzvot of battling, remembering, and erasing the memory of Amalek. The urge to extirpate evil can be positive, but it can also be the inspiration for much greater evils than those it seeks to extirpate. Halakhah postpones the mitzvah to the Messianic age, noting that Yehoshua made a point to attack only combatants, and categorizing Samuel’s instructions to Saul as extralegal.  This in turn drives many commentators to find ways to “spiritualize” the mitzvah and expand the category of Amalek so that it can have contemporary relevance.  But this approach is subject to three kinds of misunderstandings.

  1. It is often misunderstood as reflecting an ethical difficulty with the halakhah, when instead it is a reaction to the practical irrelevance of the halakhah. Sometimes it is even an ethical protest against a halakhah that seems insufficiently exercised by the persistence of evil.
  2. Sometimes critics misunderstand such spiritualizing expansions as instead expanding the literal mitzvah of total war.  A recent article in an online Jewish magazine got there by mistranslating the Hebrew phrase במסירת נפש להריגה as “prepare to kill,” rather than correctly as “accept the risk of being killed.”
  3. Most dangerously, sometimes followers make the same mistakes as the critics, or worse, sometimes interpreters genuinely mean to expand the category so that the mitzvah can find practical expression.  It is therefore imperative to reiterate that not only is the mitzvah eschatological, the halakhic category of Amalek cannot apply to any people who have territorial conflicts with the Jewish people, and all ethnic Biblical categories were rendered halakhically obsolete by Assyrian population transfer policies.  Every attempt at giving contemporary relevance to the category Amalek must be must be monitored with great caution as a potential “stringency that leads to leniency.”

Shabbat shalom and Purim sameiach!

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They Might Be Giants

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The planks that formed the walls  of the Mishkan were 10 amot long, according to Exodus 26:16. Assuming that an amah is 18 inches long (the low end of the halakhic range of values), this means that the carpets that formed the ceiling and roof of the Mishkan needed to be lifted into place at least 15 feet above ground.

Not an impossible feat by any means.  For example, the carpets might have been attached to ropes and winched into place by a team of oxen.  Or the planks might have been lain on the ground, and the carpets placed on them.  When the planks were raised into place, again likely by oxen and pulleys, the roof and ceiling would have been raised into place automatically.

However, a hyperliteral reading of Shemot 40:18-19 tells a different story.  Mosheh first assembled and raised the walls of the mishkan.  Afterward, he spread the ceiling and then the roof over them. Assuming that these actions were all done by Mosheh personally, it follows that he was tall and strong enough to manipulate huge carpets more than 15 feet above ground.  On Bekhorot 44a, Rav uses this argument to conclude that Mosheh was at least 10 amot tall.

אמר רב:

משה רבינו עשר אמות היה,


ויפרש את האהל על המשכן,

מי פרשו – משה רבינו פרשו,


עשר אמות אורך הקרש

אמר ליה רב שימי בר חייא לרב:

אם כן, עשיתו למשה רבינו בעל מום,


גופו גדול מאבריו או קטן מאבריו!?

אמר ליה:

שימי [את]?! באמה של קרש קאמר.

Said Rav:

Mosheh our Teacher was ten amot

as Scripture says:

He spread the tent over the Mishkan.

Who spread it?  Mosheh our Teacher spread it,

and it is written:

ten cubits the length of a plank.

Said Rav Shimi bar  Chiyya to Rav:

If so, you have made Mosheh our teacher blemished,

as a Mishnah is taught:

(Among the blemishes that disqualify a kohen for Temple Service are:)

“If his body is larger than his limbs or smaller than his limbs”!?

Rav said to him:

Are you Shimi?! What I said was in plank-amot.

Rav’s initial argument is straightforward, but every line of his subsequent dialogue with Rav Shimi seems mysterious.  In what way does making Mosheh taller imply that he was disproportionate? And what are “plank-cubits”?

Rashi explains that an amah can be measure either objectively or subjectively (the length of a forearm). Rav Shimi initially thought that Rav meant that Mosheh was ten times as tall as his forearm was long, which would certainly have made him disproportionate.  Rav responds that he meant that Mosheh was 10 objective amot tall, just as the planks were, but that his limbs were proportionate.

This reading seems to make Rav Shimi’s question absurd.  Rav’s proof was that Mosheh must have been as tall as the planks, so obviously he meant objective amot!?

The Talmud records at least three other such dialogues between Rav and his grandson Rav Shimi bar Chiyya bar Rav.  In each of them, Rav Shimi objects to a factual claim made by his grandfather, who prefaces his response with “Are you Shimi?!” (The את is missing in our text, but present in the version in Yalkut Shimoni and one manuscript.) Rav then explains that either he or his prooftext has been misunderstood. The most directly parallel case is Menachot 29a, where Rav declares that the Menorah was only 9 tefachim high (maximum value = 3 feet). Rav Shimi objects that according to Mishnah Tamid 3:9, the priest who serviced the menorah stood on a rock that was three stairs high!? Rav responds that he was referring only to the height of the Menorah above where its branches began.

It’s unclear to me whether Rav’s preface “are you . . .” is intended to praise or put down his grandson. (Rabbeinu Gershom records a tradition that Rav did not look at other people and so had to identify them by voice, in which case it would be neutral.  But Rashi convincingly rejects this on the ground that Rav never refers to anyone but his grandson this way.)  Perhaps Rav meant to praise Shimi generally but claim that this question was uncharacteristically weak.

On Nedarim 38a Rav Yochanan appears to assume the truth of Rav’s statement, and the Talmud seems to find another ground for objection.

אמר ר’ יוחנן:

אין הקדוש ברוך הוא משרה שכינתו אלא על גבור ועשיר וחכם ועניו,

וכולן ממשה.

גבור –

דכתיב: ויפרוש את האהל על המשכן,

ואמר מר:

משה רבינו פרסו,

וכתיב: עשר אמות ארך הקרש וגו’.

אימא: דאריך וקטין!

אלא מן הדין קרא, דכתיב:

ואתפוש בשני הלוחות ואשליכם מעל שתי ידי ואשברם,


הלוחות – ארכן ששה ורחבן ששה ועביין שלשה.

Said Rabbi Yochanan:

The Holy Blessed One rests His Presence only on the gibor, wealthy, wise, and humble.

All of these are derived from Mosheh.


as Scripture says:

He spread the tent over the Mishkan.

and a Master said:

Who spread it?  Mosheh our Teacher spread it,

and it is written:

ten cubits the length of a plank.

But maybe he was tall and narrow (and therefore not a gibor)!?

Rather from this verse, as it is written:

“I took hold of the two tablets; I threw them from my two hands; I shattered them”

and a beraita teaches:

“The tablets were six long and six wide and three thick.”

The anonymous Talmud here suggests that the lack of proportion was not between torso and arms, but rather between height and width.  Mosheh was giant but puny.  This also seems absurd, as it requires not only height but strength to lift and spread out a massive carpet. The Talmud however takes the suggestion seriously, and derives Mosheh’s gevurah from a different verse.

On Shabbat 92a, the Talmud has a third discussion of Mosheh’s height.

אמר רבי אלעזר:

המוציא משאוי למעלה מעשרה טפחים – חייב,

שכן משא בני קהת.

ומשא בני קהת מנלן?

דכתיב: על המשכן ועל המזבח סביב,

מקיש מזבח למשכן;

מה משכן עשר אמות – אף מזבח עשר אמות.

ומשכן גופיה מנלן? –

דכתיב עשר אמות ארך הקרש

וכתיב ויפרש את האהל על המשכן.

ואמר רב: משה רבינו פרשו.

מכאן אתה למד: גובהן של לויים עשר אמות.

. . .

דילמא משה שאני,

דאמר מר: אין השכינה שורה אלא על חכם גבור ועשיר ובעל קומה.

Said Rabbi El’azar:

One who carries something out (on Shabbat) above 10 tefachim is liable,

as that was how Bnei Kehat carried (the Mishkan and accessories).

From where do we know that Bnei K’hat carried above 10 tefachim?

As it is written: “[the cover of the gate was on the Mishkan and the altar around”

which compares the Mishkan and altar:

just as the altar was 10 amot, so too the altar was 10 amot.

From where do we know the Mishkan itself?

as it is written: ten cubits the length of a plank.

and Scripture says: He spread the tent over the Mishkan.

and said Rav: Mosheh our Teacher spread it.

From here you learn: The height of the Levites was 10 amot

 . . .

But maybe Mosheh was uniquely tall,

as a Master said: The Divine Presence rest only on the gibor, wealthy, wise, and tall.

Here height replaces humility as a condition for the Divine Presence, and is a necessary condition independent of gevurah.  Rabbi El’azar claims that all Levites were as tall as Mosheh, but the Talmud seems to rejects this on the ground that there would be no purpose in making them so tall, whereas Mosheh’s height was necessary for the Divine Presence to rest on him.

Later commentaries resurrect Rav Shimi’s question. If the purpose of excluding the blemished from the Temple Service is to prevent visual distraction, wouldn’t superhuman height, however well=proportioned, be a blemish? This might be why we prefer to have all Levites be that tall.  Some contemporary commentaries even try to argue that at 15 feet, the Levites in the Wilderness were only slightly taller than the average person of their time.

There are ideological countertraditions.  The Divine Presence rested on Sinai because it was not high and mighty, neither tall nor gibor.  Perhaps Rav Yochanan deliberately replaced “height” with “humility” on the list of qualifications for the Divine Presence, and reinterpreted gevurah from physical prowess to conquering one’s own urges.

Rav’s tradition puts Mosheh Rabbeinu’s greatness obviously beyond our reach and grasp. Rabbi El’azar suggests that the same is true of all the Levites of that generation, and maybe of all people then.  Perhaps Rav Shimi and the anonymous Talmud, and maybe Rav Yochanan, contend that such claims are definitionally false.  Superhuman greatness is a disproportion or even distortion, and allegedly superhuman role models are distractions rather than inspirations.

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The Logic of Things and the Work of Our Hands

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Stephen Belsky

It’s clear why Gd wanted us to have a mishkan – it’s right there towards the end of Parashat Tetsavveh (Shemot 29:45-46):

So I will dwell within the Israelites and be their Gd.  They will know that I am Hashem, their Gd, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, so that I may dwell within them; I am Hashem, their Gd.

But the question of the week is – why did Gd want us to build a mishkan? After all, it could have just fallen from heaven, like the מן and the quail that sustained our ancestors in the Wilderness; or as Rashi imagines the Third Temple in his commentary on the Talmud, “built by the hands of Heaven.”  So why do we have to build it?

To be honest, we had the same question last week.  And two weeks before that.  And yet another week back, as well.  Four parshahs – full of lists, materials, and measurements, describing clothes, structures, fixtures, and tools, in sometimes painful and repetitive detail.  And now that we’ve reached the end of the shopping list, the final page of the blueprints, the question remains – Why did Gd want us to build a משכן?

Perhaps the answers lies in the “us,” the builders. What do we know about the ones who did the actual building?

A few chapters ago, Gd instructed Moshe, “You – speak to all the wise-hearted [minded] whose heart [mind] I have filled with the spirit of wisdom.”  According to the midrash Leḳaḥ Ṭov, the word “all” means that both men and women were included.  But the most salient characteristic, repeated here in Gd’s instructions to Moshe, is that they must be wise.

Does that mean that Moshe got philosophers, gurus, and scholars to do all the sawing, weaving, and engraving?  Maybe… but we’ll touch on that later.

First, we need to take a look at wisdom, at חכמה.  What is Wisdom, besides a statistic on your Dungeons & Dragons character sheet?  In his introduction to the Da‘at Miḳra’ commentary on Sefer Mishley, Israeli educator Yehuda Ḳil explains that Tanakh refers to four types of חכמה.

One we can call Smarts.  Intellect.  This is the חכמה that we are told King Solomon was blessed with, which he used to govern Israel.

Another is the Wisdom of Ethics and Morality; of Torah; the teachings that guide us to live lives of meaning, kindness, and justice, rooted in the love and awe of Gd.

A third type of Ḥokhma is what the books of Mishley and Iyyov call Gd’s Wisdom – the Divine plans and calculations that Gd uses to create and oversee the universe.

The last type of Wisdom is Skills – practical competence with tools and technology. The kind of חכמה you need to saw a beam straight; to dye wool the proper shade of blue with Murex sea-snail extract; to beat gold from a lump of metal into a candelabrum.  Tanakh first mentions this fourth type of wisdom here, by the builders of the mishkan: “All those of wise mind, which Gd filled with a spirit of wisdom.”

Why are Smarts and Ethics not enough?  Why are intellectual achievement and moral refinement insufficient to commune with the Divine and connect to the Wisdom that preceded creation?  Why was this fourth type of wisdom so essential?  Why get down and dirty with our hands in the sawdust, our faces soot-streaked from the forge, our clothes splattered with the blood of animals and the mucus of snails?

In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, philosopher, electrician, and motorcycle mechanic Dr Matthew Crawford explores the value of artisanship, of craft, of the trades – all what we would call the חכמה of the builders of the mishkan – and he reveals a paradox in the relationship between the objects we make, we create, we repair; and our selves who, in the terminology of the Torah, design the מחשבות and perform the מלאכה.

On the one hand, he quotes the words of Hannah Arendt:

The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.

I can make ḳiddush on a cup passed down for generations.  You can build a space probe and launch it to the moon, like the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet that recently lifted off from Cape Canaveral; or to farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond.  We can appreciate art painted on the walls of caves by Neanderthals, 65,000 years ago.  The mishkan itself was built, assembled, disassembled, and reassembled, over and over again, and lasted for hundreds of years.

It’s an awe-inspiring power – I may be a limited human being, but my work can transform the world!

Where there were tree trunks, now there are קרשים, structural beams.  Where there were animal skins, now there are יריעות, tenting sheets.  Where there was gold and silver, there are now altars and tables and sacrificial tools.  The act of Creation is Godly.  “You have made [us] but little less than the divine,” wrote King David in Tehillim.  Humanity is so close to Divinity.

And yet, on the other hand, Dr Crawford continues:

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self.  A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs.  At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption… Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things… practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on

If I’m a plumber, there is a single rubric by which my work can be evaluated – Does the toilet flush?  If I’m a mechanic, there is one way to know whether I’ve succeeded or failed – Does the car run?  And if I’m a volunteer in the great and holy national project of עם ישראל called “building the mishkan,” and I’m hammering out the כיור, the washbasin, or weaving the מגבעות, the turbans, or engraving the precious stones, or sawing the wall beams – I can’t do whatever I want with it; I have to submit to the design, to the blueprints, given by Gd through Moshe.  I have all the power, but I’m not in charge.  There’s a standard, a plan, an expectation; there are specs that must be fulfilled.

And so, through this worker’s paradox, this artisan’s dialectic – as our ancestors built the mishkan, בני ישראל came closer to Gd through והלכת בדרכיו, walking in Gd’s ways.  Just as Gd creates and recreates the universe, so too do we make and remake the world Gd gave us.

And in those very same moments, with every swing of the hammer, the Israelites came closer to Gd also in humility, in recognizing that for all our powers, we don’t run the world.  There are rules for what the Ark of the Covenant is supposed to look like, inside and out; and there are rules for how we worship our Creator and for how we treat our fellow human beings.  As it says in both Tehillim and Mishley – the beginning of all חכמה is respect for Gd.

This week in parashat Peḳudey, we read how when the project is finished, and the Tabernacle, its fixtures, its tools, and the כהנים‘s clothes are all ready, Moshe blesses בני ישראל.  The Torah doesn’t tell us what he said, but according to Rabbi Me’ir as quoted in a number of midrashim, Moshe blessed the people, “May it be Gd’s will that the work of your hands be infused with the Divine presence.”  And then בני ישראל responded to the blessing with the words of Tehillim 90:17, just as we say almost every Saturday Night, as we leave that alternate dimension called Shabbat, and reënter the world of work, of מלאכה, of creative labor: “May the pleasantness of the Lord our Gd be upon us, when Gd establishes the work of our hands upon our efforts; oh Gd, establish it – the work of our hands!”

Rabbi Stephen Belsky (SBM 2012), a native New Yorker and a graduate of Pardes and YCT, currently lives in Suburban Detroit, where he teaches torah, builds sukkot, and works as a manufacturing manager and safety coördinator for a car wash supplies company.

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A Change of Heart

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Blau

Several weeks ago, at the beginning of Parshat Terumah, G-d commanded the Jews to donate gold, silver, and many other precious goods needed for the building of the Mishkan. The realization of this command in our parsha yields a more elaborate description in which men and women donate not only those goods but also personal items and skills to the cause.

The Torah emphasizes both the continuity and the differences by using  a leitwort in VaYakhel that builds on a word from  the initial command in Terumah: לב, “heart.” In addition to being paired with the root נדב (meaning “donate” or “contribute”) as in Terumah, לב is now used in conjunction with the roots חכם, “wise,” (a wise heart, referring literally to skill in crafts) and נשא, “lift” (literally an uplifted heart, referring again to skill in crafts). The commonality in meaning of the phrases is the intersection of motivation and ability that leads to donation.

Why does the Torah make לב the leitwort here?  One might assert that such a commonality is meaningless because these are simply the idioms. However,  I suggest that these idioms may exist because of the very overlap in the words and the use of the phrases together in this very location. This being assumed, the best way to uncover the thematic thread connecting these words is to parallel this section to another section that shares the same leitwort.

The section that immediately comes to mind as containing an abundance of instances of the word לב—and indeed is the only other concentration of the word in the chumash—is the events of the exodus from Mitzrayim, and specifically the plagues. One recalls that Pharaoh’s heart is “hardened” several times throughout the story, and that this point is both thematically and narratively important to the exodus arc. It is of note that there is very little variation here in the accompanying root; almost every instance is paired with the word חזק (“strong” or “steadfast”), with a couple of exceptional כבדs (“hard” or “heavy”).

The thought that first surfaces when comparing these two sections is that the לב is taken in two opposite directions. In Pharaoh’s case, the characteristic of the heart symbolizes obstinacy, while in Israel’s case, the various descriptions of the heart paint a picture of generosity.

Analyzing the לב’s accompanying words directly and their relationships can shed light on the underlying mechanism of these two directions of the heart. נדב, חכם, and נשא share a certain sense of mobility. Donation entails a transition of ownership from one party to another, lifting is a physical movement from one space to another, and wisdom may perhaps be described as an open commitment to truth, inherently requiring that one be flexible in one’s assumptions of what is correct. חזק, on the other hand, is an expression of steadiness that, although it can be positive at times (such as in the case of Yehoshua), can also lead to a certain rash stubbornness. כבד is likewise by nature a word that connotes immobility and an opposition to change.

Thus, the words used by the Torah in these scenarios result in a connection between generosity and flexibility on the one hand, and obstinacy and inflexibility (the more obvious pairing) on the other.

But this is not the end of the contrast between Pharaoh’s role in the exodus and Israel’s role in the building of the Mishkan. The two stories also contain diametrically opposed underlying themes. Both Pharaoh’s obstinacy and the people’s generosity are, after all, directed towards God. And if Pharaoh’s perspective is one of denial of God, then this contrast would direct us to assume that the people’s generosity with respect to the materials for the Mishkan comes from a need to affirm God.

With this, Vayakhel is simultaneously conveying Israel’s underlying motivation to be generous and the mindset required to do so. After the chet ha’egel, those who remained alive must have been devastated and eager to correct the mistake they had made. Whatever their miscalculation was, even a minor blunder can have disastrous consequences when it concerns a subject so fundamental as the role of God and His relationship with His people. Pharaoh also suffered as a result of his misguided notions of God and His relationship with His people. But the primary difference between Pharaoh and Israel—what allowed Israel to turn around and correct themselves while Pharaoh continued to doom himself—is the capacity to change. A willingness to have a change of heart spelled the difference between sharing space with God and being miraculously smote to make an example for the world.


Joshua Blau (SBM ‘17) lives in Brookline, MA with his wife, Hodaya, and daughter, Eliya. He teaches STEM classes in Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael and writes software on the side.


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How to Read Like Chazal: The Five Pillars of Peirush and the Mishkan

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Did Chazal have a reading methodology?

In a LookJed exchange with Dr. Avie Walfish some time ago, I argued that “we would be well-served by developing a mode of teaching for the next generation that focuses on reclaiming the methodologies of Chazal,” rather than teaching them to read like a particular understanding of a particular subset of rishonim. If the answer to my question above is “no,” my argument is stillborn. This is the objection that several great contemporary Tanakh teachers/scholars have raised in response to my contention. There is a sense in which that response strengthens my argument, in that it reflects our failure to teach even our best and brightest that Chazal did more than brilliantly but randomly impose their feelings, beliefs, and admonitions on the text.

Now there is a sense in which their response is likely true. The term “Chazal” encompasses at least hundreds of sages, who lived over a period of at least 500 years and in a diverse array of geographic and cultural contexts, and who were educated by schools and teachers who often saw each other as ideological opponents. Rabbinic literature itself records fundamental methodological disagreements, such as whether or not the Divine Torah’s linguistic efficiency is subject to the constraints of idiom (דברה תורה בלשון בני אדם) as well as those of grammar. So to claim that Chazal had a single method of interpretation would certainly be overbroad.

On the other hand – schools of interpretation are often recognizable in retrospect, and the recording of occasional methodological disagreements itself suggests a common core. For example, the dispute about idiom seems to arise out of the common belief that Torah is written with maximal efficiency. It is not unusual for a culture to record primarily disputes, and leave little formal record of consensus or common knowledge. The problem then is how to recover that culture when the consensus has dissipated and the knowledge evaporated. There is grave danger that the incidental will be mistaken for the central in any such project of intellectual archaeology. This has likely happened with regard to “No Scripture leaves the boundary of its peshat” (אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו), leaving aside the question of whether that statement has been properly understood (I discuss the statement here).

Here are what I preliminarily propose as the “Five Pillars of Peirush,” principles that may reasonably characterize the exercise of reading like Chazal did:

  1. Bias toward meaningfulness
  2. Risk-taking
  3. Literary context
  4. Cultural context
  5. Mythological sensibility

I will briefly explain what I mean by each, and then try to provide an illustration via Parashat VaYakhel.

1. Bias toward meaningfulness

If there are two ways of understanding an element of a text, whether a single word, a structure, or an entire narrative, one should choose, or at least fully explore, the interpretation that gives the element greater significance.

2. Risk-taking

Interpretation is an abstraction, a web of meaning that can comport with but never be demonstrated by data. As in science – that a theory fits with the known facts may reflect its truth, or else the theorists’ failure of imagination (perhaps another theory fits even better); and in any case the theory may be proven wrong, or less compelling, as previously unknown facts emerge. Recognizing that proof is generally a chimera, it is worth making suggestions that explain one thing well even if, looking at the evidence overall, they are highly speculative.

3. Literary context

Every word of Tanakh refers to every other use of the same word in Tanakh. This is parallel to, but not the same as, the deconstructionist insight that the meaning of a word in conventional language is constructed for each reader out of every previous meaning the word has had for that reader.

Every incident in Tanakh is presumed to happen within the same universe. Characters who live at the same time can therefore interact even if they are not explicitly mentioned in each other’s stories, and anonymous characters in one story can be identified with named characters from another.

4. Cultural context

Tanakh does not construct a self-sufficient universe de novo; instead, it records a perspective on a universe known to readers from elsewhere. Think of a history of the Vietnam War written for veterans of that war. It is therefore legitimate to see a verse as referring to an incident known to us only via oral tradition.

5. Mythic sensibility

I use the term “mythic” with trepidation, as it can be misunderstood in two ways. To be as clear as I can – “mythic” in no way implies fiction. Furthermore, I do not mean to reject the argument that much of Tanakh is intended to demythify the natural world. What I mean by “mythic sensibility” is that one sees history as either a recurring pattern or else as the playing out of a cosmic plan, or both, and understands specific events in light of that sensibility. Ramban’s concept of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים is a fine example.

Now on to Vayakhel:

VaYakhel opens by reporting that Mosheh congregated (transitive) that entire edah of the Children of Israel. He begins by announcing

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה

וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן לַיקֹוָק

כָּל הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה יוּמָת

לֹא תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת

There are the things which Hashem has commanded, to do them.

Six days melakhah will be done

But on the seventh day, it will be for you holy, a Shabbat Shabbaton to Hashem,

Everyone who does melakhah in it must die.

You must not kindle a fire in all your dwellings on the day of Shabbat.

We are then told again that Moshe spoke to “the entire edah” of Bnei Yisroel. This time he commands them to bring terumah for the construction of the Mishkan, and to construct the Mishkan and its accessories.

The entire edah of Bnei Yisroel then leave Mosheh’s presence.

Any sensitive reader must ask why Mosheh feels compelled at this point to assemble the entire community. A Rabbinic reader might ask in addition whether Mosheh did so on his own authority, or rather on Divine instruction, and would explore (but not commit to) the position that Mosheh did so on his own even if there was no evidence for preferring that option.

Any sensitive reader must further ask inter alia

  1. why Mosheh begins with instructions about Shabbat, when the topic du jour is clearly the mishkan
  2. why there is a paragraph break between the Shabbat and Mishkan instructions
  3. at what point in the overall Exodus narrative the assembly takes place.

The answer to the first two questions, laaniyut da’ati, is that instructions about Shabbat are also the topic of the last paragraph Hashem tells Mosheh to say to bnei Yisroel before He gives him the first Tablets (31:12-18); in other words, Mosheh now does what he was supposed to do then, as if the Golden Calf had never happened.

At the same time, the very word vayakhel recalls the Golden Calf episode, which began as follows:

וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן

The people saw that Mosheh as delaying to descend from the mountain, vayikahel the people on Aharon.

(Note that the Golden Calf episode is framed by the people’s seeings: it ends with them seeing that Mosheh’s face is illuminated).

Perhaps Mosheh is mak’hil the people to demonstrate that the Golden Calf episode was not the fault of the people, but rather of weak leaders, who allowed them to assemble as a mob with no positive purpose.

Be that as it may, we must now ask perhaps more difficult questions: Why was Shabbat the last topic Hashem covered with Mosheh before giving him the luchot? And why are Shabbat and mishkan connected?

We can answer both questions with one presumption – Mosheh was originally intended to build the Mishkan as soon as he came down from Sinai (among other reasons, so that the luchot would have a storage place.) This was derailed by the Golden Calf.

From a Halakhic perspective, the question is: Is the juxtaposition of Shabbat and Mishkan intended to teach us that Shabbat suspends the Mishkan, or rather that the rules of Shabbat are suspended with regard to the Mishkan?

The rabbis end up saying that the Shabbat overrides the construction of the Mishkan, but that the activity of the Mishkan supersedes Shabbat. What justifies this apparent paradox?

My suggestion is that the Rabbis understood that the Mishkan had changed its nature as the result of the Sin of the Golden Calf. It had been intended to be a symbol that the first Sin was undone, that humanity was back in Eden. Instead, it became a symbol that we had sinned – an atonement, with cherubs at its heart guarding the route back to Eden.

Now the Rabbis understood as well that the Mishkan symbolized the world – there are linguistic markers of this throughout, of which the most prominent are the constant use of melakhah and ויכל משה. They knew as well that the world is created twice in Bereshit, once (1:1-2:3) without sin and once (2:4 – 3:24) with. It therefore seemed reasonable that the Mishkan as originally commanded – before the Calf – symbolized the world as it is presented in the first Creation narrative, whereas the Mishkan after the Calf also symbolizes the world as it is presented in the second Creation narrative.

The first Creation narrative ends with Shabbat. It follows that the construction of the Mishkan – which was commanded before the Calf – must not take place on Shabbat, lest in the very building of our symbol we deny the Creation it symbolizes. But in the second narrative, Shabbat is never reached. It follows that the work of the Mishkan – the work of repairing humanity so that the world can reach Shabbat – must never cease.

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2013

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