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May a Chazan Lead High Holiday Services from a Wheelchair? Part 4

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi:

Mr. Toviah Goodman has davened 1st day Rosh Hashannah Shacharit and Yom Kippur Neilah for our shul since its founding in 1993.  However, he suffered several health setbacks this year, and now is in a wheelchair full time.  Should he continue to serve as shaliach tzibbur, or should we replace him with someone who is able to stand?


The Members of the Ritual Committee, Congregation Mevakshei Psak


We can sum up our pre-20th century precedents as follows:

Maharam and Maharshal prefer blemished shluchei tzibbur.

Mahari Brona and Chavot Yair prefer shluchei tzibbur who are unblemished and physically whole.

Sefer Chassidim is indifferent to the question of blemishes.  However, Sefer Chasidim sees disability as an issue if it prevents a shaliach tzibbur from fulfilling the prayer obligation in the manner incumbent upon, or perhaps even preferential for, people without disabilities, lest they learn from him.

In the 20th century, the question of a shaliach tzibbur in a wheelchair was addressed, whether analytically, by reporting anecdotes, or by reporting responses they received, by

  1. Rabbi Ezra Batzri in Techumin vol. 4
  2. Rabbi Shmuel Toledano in Tzohar vol. 3 (5758), and again in Tzohar vol. 10
  3. Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein in Chashukei Chemed to Berakhot 30a
  4. Rabbi Hillel Herzl Yitzchak in Beit Hillel 35 (5768)
  5. Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Leibes in Responsa Beit Avi OC3:38
  6. Rabbi Pinchas Toledano in Responsa Brit Shalom 3:7
  7. Rabbi Mordekhai Tzvi HaLevi Tziyyon in שו”ת השואל #8

1. R. Batzri concludes forcefully that there is no halakhic issue so long as the community does not object, and the community ought not to object.

2. R. Shmuel Toledano in Tzohar vol. 3 (5758) concludes that there is no issue ad hoc or when the person has a chiyuv.  For Yamim Noraim, the same is true if it is clear that the congregation forgives its dignity in this regard.  (However, he discourages appointing an amputee lekhatchilah for the Yamim Noraim or regularly).

He reports that R. Wozner, author of Responsa Shevet Levi, told him that a chazan who cannot stand can be appointed for the Yamim Noraim if he is best for the tzibbur’s kavvanah, and that he might remember R. Meir Shapiro, founder of Yeshivat Chakhmei Lublin, sitting while being shaliach tzibbur for the Yamim Noraim.

In Tzohar vol. 10, R. Toledano revisits the issue and provides more fascinating anecdotes:  

a) Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein reported that the Imrei Chayyim (Gerrer Rebbe) served as shaliach tzibbur on the Yamim Noraim while seated.

b) R. Chaim Kanievski distinguishes between ad hoc and regular service.  The logic seems to be that the shaliach tzibbur standing is a matter of the dignity of the congregation, and the congregations is permitted to forgive its dignity only on an ad hoc basis.

3. R. Zilberstein reports that R. Elyashiv preferred a shalaich tzibbur who could stand even if that meant a decline in piety or vocal ability.  He assumes that the shaliach tzibbur standing is not only an issue of the dignity of the congregation, but a fundamental requirement of prayer.

4. In Beit Hillel 35 (5768), Rabbi Hillel Herzl Yitzchak notes that one might argue that when the Chazan is using a wheelchair, everyone will know that he is unable to stand, and there is no risk that people will learn from him to sit.  This would remove the proof from Sefer Chassidim.  He nonetheless adopts the positions of Rabbis Elyashiv and Kanievski.

5. R. Leibes argued that in America, where in his perception standards had slipped, it is particularly important that the shaliach tzibbur stand.  He also finds Chavot Yair’s arguments compelling. Unfortunately, the specific question he is responding to is elided on  It seems that he believed that a shliach tzibbur who cannot stand should not be allowed to serve on the Yamim Noraim, even if he has already been appointed and will have to be bought off financially.

6. R. Pinchas Toledano in Responsa Brit Shalom 3:7, assumes the issue is purely one of the dignity of the congregation, and concludes that a chazan whom the community desires can therefore serve, as the community may forgive its honor.

7. R. Tziyyon in Responsa HaShoeil #8 cites a wealth of contemporary poskim, of varying stature, as follows:

a) R. Aviner strongly supported Maharam.

b) R. Nebenzahl also ruled that there was no basis for objecting.

c) The book Tefilah Kehilkhatah rules like Maharam in principle.  However, for the Yamim Noraim it prefers to follow Chavot Yair. However, if there would be a loss of human dignity in excluding someone from serving as shaliach tzibbur, he goes back to Maharam.

d) R. Shammai Gross (following Magen Avrohom) thought that one should not follow Maharam lekhatchilah

e) R. Elchanan Prince distinguishes between ad hoc and fixed appointment

f) R. Eliyahu Schlesinger was opposed

g) R. Herschel Schachter reports that Rav S.Z. Auerbach ruled the same way as R. Zilberstein’s report of R. Elyashiv, and thus Rav Shimon Schwab ceased being shaliach tzibbur for Neilah in Breuer’s

h) R. Tziyyon cites Rav Ovadiah Yosef as opposed.  (However, I think this report is an error, and Rav Ovadiah was referring only to a shaliach tzibbur for keriat haTorah.)

i) R. Tziyyon cites the newsletter Vayishma Moshe, however, as reporting some of these same poskim very differently.  For example, it cites Rav S. Z. Auerbach as saying that there is no issue if the community is agreeable, whereas Rav Schachter’s report indicated a substantive opposition.  It also quotes R. Chaim Wozner, son of the author of Shevet Levi, as saying that he could not imagine any Jew raising the issue against someone who wished to be shaliach tzibbur for a yahrtzeit.

Where does all this leave us?  

Major contemporary poskim apparently reach conclusions ranging from unqualified paskening like Maharam to a hard lekhatchilah preference for chazanim who can stand, even if they are less pious or musical.  However, none of them has given the issue a sustained treatment in print, and the secondhand or anecdotal reports are often contradictory even regarding the same posek.  

From my perspective, the two figures here whose opinions might significantly change the landscape of psak are R. S. Z. Auerbach and R. Yosef.  However, the former’s opinion is reported in contradictory ways, and the report of the latter I think reflects a misunderstanding.  So there is no controlling contemporary authority.

One option is to say that there is no real basis for adjudication here.  Once all the formal arguments have been made, and all positions have survived relatively and roughly equally intact, the issue can and should be left to the lay community to decide.  They may choose to ask a halakhic authority to decide for them anyway, either because leaving it to the congregation would likely lead to intracommunal dissension, or because they resonate with that halakhic authority’s religious intuition.  But that is their choice, and the decision would not be made on what Modern Orthodoxy generally recognizes as formal halakhic grounds.

A second approach is to evaluate the textual evidence ourselves, without regard to the weight of previous authorities.  But in this case, we have already concluded that there is essentially no primary textual evidence.     

A third approach is to frame the issue in terms of broader halakhic issues and values.  For example, three kinds of dignity, or kavod, are mentioned in the responses above.

  1. Kavod hamitzvah – the dignity of the commandment.  
  2. Kavod hatzibbur – the dignity of the congregation
  3. Kavod haberiyot – the dignity of the individual human being

Key questions include:

Is there a halakhic hierarchy among these types of kavod?  How do we evaluate their strength, and relative strength, regarding specific issues and cases?  

Modern Orthodoxy often frames itself as strongly committed to the value of “inclusion”.  Is this just another way of saying “kavod haberityot”, or does it have different connotations and implications?  How does “inclusion” play out halakhically?

A related but not identical approach is to frame the issue in terms of the experiences of the people involved.  For example: Maharam prefers a disabled shaliach tzibbur since “G-d’s formal table-service is broken vessels”.  Would disabled people wish to be shluchei tzibbur if that requires them to perceive themselves as “broken vessels”?

Stay tuned next week for the exciting conclusion of Rabbi Klapper’s responsum!


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Bare Cunning: Cognitive Desire in Eden

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ben Kaplan

The story of the “original sin” is embedded into both the Jewish and non-Jewish consciousness. While many of us take this story for granted, looking into it on a deeper level can help us understand deep truths about the human condition. In particular, analyzing the linguistic nuances of the original Hebrew can provide deep insight into two distinct types of human desire.

Seemingly identical words lie on each side of the border between the second and third chapters of B’reishit:

וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים, הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וְלֹא, יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ.

וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה’ אֱ-לֹהִים; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱ-לֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן.

In the second perek, the root ערם clearly means that the humans were “naked”, while in the third perek, since presumably none of the animals in the garden were clothed, it is instead translated as “clever.”

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, a proponent of the idea of the deep and interconnected nature of the Hebrew language, separates the two instances of ערם into two distinct linguistic roots.   He connects the root’s definition as “clever” to the Hebrew word ערמה, heap, since a clever person takes many seemingly small actions which are “heaped” together to great effect. Rav Hirsch concludes that the form of ערם meaning naked comes from the root עור, meaning skin. So too, a blind person is called an עור (vowelized differently) since the primary sense he uses to find his way around is touch, which is sensed through skin.

Even if we assume with Rav Hirsch that the two words come from unrelated roots, the use of the same letters to describe humans and animals seems intended to draw a parallel between the naked man and woman and the cunning snake. The deliberate nature of the juxtaposition grows more evident with the acknowledgement that the chapter separation between the two verses is not intrinsic to the Torah itself, but was added by later (by a Christian archbishop in the 13th century). The Masoretic notes make neither a p’tuchah nor s’tumah separation between the two verses.

Some hints from the language of the Torah, as well as from a (somewhat baffling) midrash, may yield a unified definition for the two instances of the root. Rashi on verse 3:1 quotes B’reishit Rabbah as saying that the snake wanted to cause Adam and Chavah to sin due to the desire he felt at seeing them being publicly intimate with each other. This is a reasonable implication of  2:25. The Torah then describes the serpent tempting Chavah to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. At first, Chavah seems to have no desire to eat from the tree, simply answering the serpent’s questions about which trees she may eat from and which one she may not, citing the danger of death. The serpent rejects her concerns, informing Chavah that God does not wish her and her husband to eat from the tree because then “their eyes will open” and they will becomes like gods. Only after this speech is it stated that Chavah desired the tree.

ו וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ, וַיֹּאכַל.

It should be noted that the verse refers to eyes and seeing twice, “Chavah saw… that the tree was temptation for the eyes.” Noticing the oddity that Chavah is only seeing these aspects of the tree now, Rashi comments that it was not the tree that Chavah is seeing, rather she is “seeing” i.e. agreeing with, the argument of the serpent. After Adam and Chavah eat from the fruit of the tree, they begin to feel its effects.

ז וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת.

Interestingly, the serpent’s promise is partially fulfilled, as the verse testifies that “their eyes opened and they realized that they were naked.” What exactly was the nature of the change wrought by the forbidden fruit? What does it mean that it opened their eyes?

Eyes and vision play a prominent role in the story, as has already been demonstrated. Additionally, seeing and desire seem to be closely related. Chavah “sees” and desires the tree, which “desirable for the eyes.” Additionally, the “opening of the eyes” caused by the fruit of the tree seems to have awakened some form of desire for evil in Adam and Chavah, as is stated explicitly by Rashi in 2:25. However, it seems odd to take this at face value, since the desire to deviate from God’s command clearly existed before eating from from the tree. After all, the very act of eating from the tree was an evil act!

A possible reconciliation of this contradiction is that there was a form of desire that existed before eating from the Eitz HaDaat and a form of desire that only entered the human consciousness afterward. Base, physical desires were absent from the human consciousness until after they ate the forbidden fruit. However, cognitive desires of the mind still existed. This is why the serpent was able to persuade Chavah to eat the fruit and why she only desired the fruit after the serpent gave her an intellectual argument of why she should. The “opening of the eyes” caused by eating the fruit was the human consciousness awakening to the existence of this physical type of desire. As is pointed out by the S’forno (on 3:1), the distinction between cognitive and physical temptation is explicated in Bamidbar 15:39.

וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם

The Torah here warns both not to follow the temptations of the eyes (physical temptations) as well as the temptations of the heart (cognitive temptations). The new awareness of physical temptation is what causes Adam and Chavah to be ashamed of their nakedness after they eat the fruit. The knowledge that they are displaying the parts of themselves that ignite temptation in others is shameful.

If sight is symbolic of the ability to desire that which is external, then nakedness is symbolic of one’s internal existence as an object of desire. As was indicated by the midrash, Adam’s and Chavah’s nakedness ignited temptation in the serpent. If this is true, then a unified definition of ערום can be proposed; namely, an object of desire. While Adam and Chavah ignited physical desire in others, the serpent was ערום in the sense that he ignited cognitive desire in others. His “cleverness” is what allowed him to tempt Chavah to sin. It then makes sense why Rashi connects Chavah’s act of “seeing” to the words of the snake rather than the tree itself. Since physical desire was only awakened by eating the forbidden fruit, the temptation that Chavah “saw” must have been that of the snake’s words.

The idea of a snake being harmful to look at is not only present in our parshah, but in secular sources as well. In Greek myth, the Medusa was a creature with snakes for hair; those who gazed upon her would turn to stone. Likewise, the basilisk featured in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (inspired by the creature of European myth) causes death to those who look into its eyes. In the Disney films The Jungle Book and Aladdin looking into the eyes of a snake (or in the latter case, a snake-shaped staff, which conjures other biblical parallels) causes the gazer to come under its thrall.

Rav Hirsch’s idea of ערום stemming from עור, skin, fits well into this concept as well. The Gemara in Arachin (15b) draws a parallel between a snake who bites and does not eat his prey to one who speaks lashon hara (evil speech). One who speaks lashon hara is inherently making himself into an object of cognitive desire, as it is forbidden to listen to lashon hara as well as to speak it. Since the snake in B’reishit misuses his faculty of speech to tempt others to sin, one who speaks lashon hara is compared to the snake. As is stated on the same amud, the punishment for speaking lashon hara is tzaraat, an affliction of the skin, the עור. This connection is seen strikingly when Moshe is given signs to prove to B’nei Yisrael that God has sent him. The first two signs he is given are his staff turning into a snake and the skin of his hand being covered with tzaraat. Rashi comments on Sh’mot 4:3 and 4:6 that these signs hinted to Moshe that he spoke lashon hara about Israel by saying they would not believe him.  

While certain ascetic streams of thought would have us focus on rooting out physical temptation from our society, B’reishit indicates that the “original sin” had nothing to do with physical desire. Rather, promises of power and glory as well as clever schemes designed to harm others caused the first ever sin. Chazal draw the parallel of such cognitive sins to lashon hara, often spoken in an attempt to increase one’s own place in the social pecking order. In order to truly correct humanity’s most fundamental flaw, our focus must be on treating our fellows well and using our knowledge and cunning to assist our brothers and sisters, rather than using them as stepping stones for our own material gain.

Ben Kaplan (SBM 2017) graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in bioengineering in May 2017. After spending the summer in SBM, he made aliyah in August and is currently working as a madrich at Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion. 

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CMTL Sukkot/Shabbat Bereishit Reader, 2017 Edition

Check out the 2017 edition of the CMTL Sukkot/Shabbat Bereishit Reader for Divrei Torah from Rabbi Klapper and CMTL alumni!

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May a Chazan Lead High Holidays Services from a Wheelchair? Part 3

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi:

Mr. Toviah Goodman has davened 1st day Rosh Hashannah Shacharit and Yom Kippur Neilah for our shul since its founding in 1993.  However, he suffered several health setbacks this year, and now is in a wheelchair full time.  Should he continue to serve as shaliach tzibbur, or should we replace him with someone who is able to stand?


The Members of the Ritual Committee, Congregation Mevakshei Psak


Halakhic data can be arranged synchronically or diachronically. Synchronic means presenting all positions as if they exist at the same time; diachronic means showing how positions originated, were eliminated, developed or changed over time.

A certain element of diachronicity is ineluctable in current Orthodox halakhah. We have a structure of authority that is popularly understood to give more authority to a precedent the further back it goes. This is not quite true; what is generally true is that halakhah gives more formal authority to texts from an earlier era than texts from a later era. Roughly speaking, there are four eras: Tannaim, Amoraim, Rishonim, and Acharonim.

Halakhah actually has a counter-principle known as halakhah k’batrai, meaning that the law follows the latest authority within every era in a dispute. However, this principle does not seem to operate well in the era of the Rishonim, which from a halakhic perspective ended more with a whimper than a bang. The extent to which it will operate regarding the period of the Acharonim is in question; we’d first have to settle whether that era has ended.

All these principles functioned on the presumption that the halakhic world could reasonably be understood as revolving on a single axis. Thus we speak of “the Rishonim” and “Acharonim” as if the cultural progression of medieval Judaism in Yemen and France were perfectly coordinated. Of course, this was not the case. But each culture could imagine that it was. When cultures met, either one attained dominance, or they negotiated a rough compromise, so that the presumption could be plausibly maintained.

Why should legal authority be affected by who comes first? The notion of descending authority, in Hebrew yeridat hadorot (which Rabbi Norman Lamm brilliantly termed “the degeneration theory”), is rooted in the sense that Torah still emerges out of the experience of Sinai, which grows more and more attenuated over time. The notion of ascending authority uses the imagery of nanas al gabei anak, the dwarf standing on a giant’s shoulders. Since we believe in the possibility of Redemption, progress must be possible. How can progress be possible, if we are moving further away from Sinai? The answer is that our contributions never start from scratch; we build on the advances of our greater predecessors

Standing on the intellectual shoulders of our predecessors requires us to be aware of their work. Here is where modernity and what we might call the “Standard Model of Halakhah” can come into conflict. A combination of astounding wealth and the growth of information technology means that the contemporary talmid chakham has access to a broad array of past texts and halakhic cultures that did not make it into earlier cuts of the tradition, or at least of his or her tradition.

Moreover, it is much easier than before to make a convincing argument that a later source was unaware of an earlier source, or had access only to corrupted versions of that source.

Why does this matter?

Halakhah has a category called toeh bidvar Mishnah, which roughly means that a halakhic ruling can be declared null and void if its author demonstrably was unaware of a relevant precedent that, had he or she known it, would or should have changed the ruling. This demonstration is difficult to accomplish directly; how can you know what you yourself would have thought, let alone what someone else would have thought? So we adopt essentially a “reasonable halakhist” standard, namely that if in our opinion a reasonable halakhist would or should certainly have changed his or her mind, then the ruling can be declared null and void.

Now we have access to much more material of the Rishonim than any of the later Rishonim or early Acharonim did. By the formal rules of halakhah as we understand them today, this means that halakhah k’batrai does not apply; instead, if an acharon decides an issue differently than it was previously decided by a rishon, but was unaware of that rishon’s decision – the acharon’s decision is null and void, and certainly we should pasken like the rishon rather than the acharon.

All this brings us back to our specific question of the shaliach tzibbur who uses a wheelchair.

In the previous two sections of this teshuvah, we studied three strands of the tradition.

The 13th century R. Meir of Rothenburg (Maharam) probably ruled that the disabled are ideal chazzanim. We noted that his responsum exists in at least two versions, only one of which explicitly addresses disability, but thought that the version which does so is likely correct. This version, printed and heartily endorsed by Maharshal in the 16th century, is the one cited by all subsequent authorities.

The 15th century R. Israel (Mahari) of Brona conceded that there was no halakhah barring a disabled shaliach tzibbur. He nonetheless opposes appointing a disabled man as the official shaliach tzibbur, rather than to lead services ad hoc, and, all things being equal, would rather have services led by a man who has none of the physical conditions or characteristics that disqualify a kohen from serving at sacrifices in the Temple. He cites as precedent the 13th century Or Zarua, without a specific source; we were not convinced that Or Zatua took any relevant position.

R. Israel seems wholly unaware of Maharam. We can plausibly conjecture that he would have changed his mind had he known of Maharam. So on a halakhic level, we are entitled to rule like Maharam even though a later rishon ruled otherwise.

It is also true that Maharshal was unaware of Mahari Brona. However, he would likely have made the same calculation we did, and thus discount him.

The 17th century Chavot Yair agrees with Mahari Brona that there is no halakhic issue, and furthermore rejects any analogy to the Temple service. He comes up with a host of independent reasons, however, for reaching Mahari Brona’s conclusion.

Chavot Yair makes a reference to a prooftext cited by Maharam, and soundly rejects its relevance, but he nowhere indicates awareness that Maharam’s authority was relevant to the issue. Can we presume that he was unaware of Maharam’s ruling, and that he would have changed his mind had he been aware of it? It seems to me at least as likely that he would have developed a compromise similar to that of Mahari Brona.

In the 20th century, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein (Chashukei Chemed to Berakhot 39a) casually introduced an early 13th century (pre-Maharam) source that had either been overlooked or been unavailable to all previous decisors. Sefer Chasidim (Margoliot edition) #5756 reads as follows:

אחד זקן היה רגיל להתפלל ביום הכפורים

שנה אחת לא היה חזק לעמוד (ולהתפלל בעמידה)

אמרו מקצתם

כיון שאין לנו כיוצא בו מוטב להתפלל בישיבה,

אמרו הזקנים

כיון שאינו יכול לעמוד – יתפלל אחר אף על פי שאינו כל כך הגון

פן ילמדו ממנו אחרים ויתפללו מיושב,

ואשר כתוב (ש”ב ז’ י”ח) וישב (דוד) לפני ה’

ישב לבו בתפלה

ואמרו במכילתין ויקחו אבן וישימו תחתיו וישב עליה (שמות י”ז י”ב) –

ויקחו אבן אלו האבות

וישימו תחתיו אלו מעשה האבות

וישב עליה אלו מעשה האמהות


הרי לא ישב ממש.

An elderly man regularly served as shaliach tzibbur on Yom haKippurim

One year, he was not strong enough to stand (throughout the prayer)

Some of the (?congregants?) said:

Since we have no one equal to him, it is best that he lead services while seated.

The elders said:

Since he cannot stand – let another lead, even though he is not as appropriate

lest others learn from him to pray while seated

As for 2 Samuel 17:12, He yashav=sat before Hashem –

Translate instead he yashav-settled his heart in prayer.

and Mekhilta to Shemot 17:12 They took a rock and they placed it under him and he sat on it

They took a rock – meaning the forefathers;

they placed it under him these are the deeds of the forefathers

he sat on it- these are the deeds of the foremothers

so (Moshe) never actually sat.

If one takes Sefer Chasidim as a halakhic source, must we take it as halakhically dispositive? Note that Sefer Chasidim is not addressing the question of the nature of the disabled body; he is concerned with the actual inability to stand. Perhaps Maharam would concede in such a case; we cannot prove otherwise, as Maharam’s case so far as we know involved a chazzan whose disability (an arm injury?) had no effect on any of the ritual of prayer. Very likely Mahari Brona and Chavot Yair would agree that this specific form of disability would pose a formal halakhic difficulty.

This week’s section has treated halakhah as if it were purely a formal game – authority is determined by rules, and whoever has more authority, wins. But that is far from an accurate portrait of halakhah. What about our own intellectual evaluation of the evidence provided in precedents? What about values? Moadim lesimchah and please look for Part 4 next week.

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The Virtue of Beauty

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Matt Lubin

“All mitzvot are to supposed to be done in the most beautiful manner as possible: with a beautiful tallit, a beautiful Sefer Torah, etc. (Shabbat 133b)” Hazal learn this from the verse זה א-לי ואנוהו, “this is my God, and I will beautify [myself before] Him” – with/in mitzvot. Yet while this is a principle regarding all mitzvot, it becomes a central theme specifically with regard to the Four Species on Sukkot. The Torah identifies the etrog as פרי עץ הדר, the beautiful fruit of a tree.  While regarding other mitzvot beauty is an ideal, an etrog which is not beautiful is invalid.[1]  Why is this mitzvah so connected to beauty?

The halakhah that mitzvot are supposed to be performed in a beautiful manner appears in the middle of the song that Moshe and the Jewish people sang at keriyat Yam Suf, the Song of the Sea.  The Gemara (Shabbat 133b) also uses this verse as the source for the legal concept that man is supposed to follow God’s ways of lovingkindness and graciousness, for example by visiting the sick and burying the dead.  In the Mekhilta, these two interpretations are presented as originating from different rabbis, and thus are two mutually exclusive ways to understand the verse. However, the Gemara clearly accepts both readings. How can two different laws be derived from the same phrase?

There is another, perhaps more esoteric connection between the “Song at the Sea” and the holiday of Sukkot. Each day of the holiday in the Temple, when the kohanim would circle the altar, they would recite the phrase אני והו, הושיע נא, “Ani ve-Ho, save us now,” referring to God as אני והו (Gemara Sukkah 45a). Rashi there explains that this is a reference to God’s 42-letter name, which can be derived from the verses in the “Song at the Sea”. Other commentators, however, (such as Rabbeinu Bachayei to Ex. 15:2) point out the similarity between אני והו and זה א-לי ואנוהו – both appear to refer to some kind of parallel between God and ourselves.

R. Yitzhak Hutner, in a discourse on Pesach, explains how the Talmud can derive two distinct laws from the same scriptural source of זה א-לי ואנוהו.  The context of that verse was a moment in which Israel saw God through a deliberate grand show of His strength and presence. Israel saw the clearest picture of God’s grandeur when He was intentionally painting that picture to be seen. This explains how the same phrase can be used to teach us that we are to act in God’s ways, as well as to beautify mitzvot: Aesthetic beauty is something that is outward-focused; it is a something done for others to see. This was how God was manifest at that moment, and so imitating Him (“just as He, so too you”) in this case obligates one to perform mitzvot in a way meant to be seen and noticed by onlookers.

Religious grandstanding can hardly be considered a virtue, and one might rightfully shirk from such halakhically-sanctioned (and even obligated) mitzvah exhibitionism. Viewed from the perspective of the Israel-God relationship as it was expressed during the Exodus, however, this ‘beautification of mitzvot’ as understood by R. Hutner becomes perfectly understandable. At the splitting of the Sea, God was not bragging, nor was it purely an instance of showing His own might by turning the laws of nature upside down: God was performing an act of love towards His now chosen people. The splitting of the sea caused the nations to tremble not just in fear of God, but they were silenced עד יעבר עמך ה, in recognition of the relationship between God and His people.

Sukkot is, beyond the celebration and recognition of God having chosen us as a people (which is the focus of Pesach and Shavuot), a rejoicing in God’s continued love and guidance, as symbolized by the Sukkah that is a commemoration of God bringing Israel through the desert. It is thus the most appropriate time of year to similarly express, through the concept of Hiddur Mitzvah (beautification of mitzvot) our own love of God. The obligation of Hiddur Mitzvah is not merely an obligation to obtain an aesthetically pleasing tallis or Sefer Torah, but it is an expression of our cherishing of those mitzvot. Thus, starving oneself on the eve of Pesach in order to eat matzah with greater gusto is a fulfillment of Hiddur Mitzvah (Rashi to Pesahim 99b) because that too is an expression of enthusiasm for the performance of God’s command.[2] In doing so, while holding those beautiful plants, we have a right to demand אני והו, הושיע נא, reminding God of the love for us that He demonstrated so dramatically at the splitting of the Sea.

R. Hutner’s understanding of Hiddur Mitzvah as being an outward-focused obligation appears to be directly opposed the trend towards the privatization of religious beliefs and practices. We may sometimes chafe against overly public displays of religiosity; peddling one’s religious beliefs to passers-by in the streets seems to not only smack of sanctimonious arrogance, but also to can appear to cheapen the religious experience itself. However, halakha demands more than just cognitive belief in God and fealty to His commandments, but a genuine love of God—and with it, an enthusiasm for His commands that cannot be kept to oneself. As Maimonides writes of the command to love God (Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh 3) “this mitzvah includes that we call to all of humanity to serve Him and believe in Him.” While religious arrogance and showboating is hardly virtuous, a genuine show of love is not only praiseworthy—it is godly.

Matt Lubin (Winter Beit Midrash 2016) in a biology research assistant in Yeshiva University, and student in RIETS Semicha



[1] Whether as a direct result of that verse, or rather because the general principle is intensified in this case.  See Tosafot, Rashi and Meiri to Sukkah 29b

[2] As explained to me by my teacher Rabbi Mendel Blachman (However, it should be noted that R. Blachman does not believe that there is any aesthetic component whatsoever to the qualifications of the four species to be taken on Sukkot)

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