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Wages for Sages

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rivital Singer

Parshat Korach ends with the laws of Truma and Maaser. The passuk on Maaser says: ”וְלִבְנֵי לֵוִי הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי כָּל-מַעֲשֵׂר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל לְנַחֲלָה חֵלֶף עֲבֹדָתָם אֲשֶׁר-הֵם עֹבְדִים אֶת-עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד”. We are to give the Leviim a tenth of our produce in return for the work they do in Ohel Moed. This halacha implies that we have a communal obligation to pay our spiritual leaders and teachers for their services. Despite this, there are discussions in a few different places in the gemara regarding whether or not one should be allowed to accept payment for teaching Torah. What is the difference between the work of the Leviim and the work of Rabbinic figures in the time of Chaza”l?

One possibility is that the work of the Leviim is a more encompassing job as a spiritual leader, and therefore they need to be paid so they can devote all their time to serving their community without having to worry about making a living on the side. My only problem with this answer is that it seems to imply that other people who teach Torah aren’t granting a communal service which requires a similar devotion of their time. We know that many of Chazal had other jobs, meaning it must be possible, but in my opinion, the question remains as to whether or not that’s the ideal situation. Should the people in charge of passing the Torah on not spend most of their time making sure to do so in the best way possible?

Another possibility is that it’s the difference between Am Yisrael living as an autonomic united group, as opposed to being dispersed in the diaspora. When we have our own leadership and are living under halakhic law we can designate people in our community to dedicate themselves to being the spiritual leaders of our community. Those people also have a specific God-given role in our day to day lives. In the diaspora, there is no need for a spiritual leader with an all encompassing job. Many of the jobs of the Leviim are not relevant with no Beit Mikdash, and the other spiritual needs that arise in the absence of the Beit Mikdash are dealt with in a more individual fashion. This answer also doesn’t fully satisfy me, because we see in our own communities the roles that rabbis working in communities or as teachers in yeshivot take on and they usually require high levels of dedication and a lot of time.

One final response I’ve heard was that Chaza”l didn’t want the people teaching (and deciding) Torah and halacha to be paid, out of a fear that they wouldn’t be connected to the community. It is impossible to correctly teach halacha if you’re unaware of what’s going on in your community. If you don’t have a job like everyone else, and don’t need to be out in the streets talking to people, you won’t know their struggles and won’t be able to teach Torah in the most relevant way for your disciples. The question that remains is why don’t we require the same of the Leviim. I don’t have a perfect answer, but maybe this is the reason that the Leviim have no nachala in Eretz Yisrael. They are dispersed among the different shvatim so that they won’t be able to create a closed off community and will be forced to be connected with the people and their struggles and desires.

Of course I don’t mean to say that today’s spiritual leaders should not accept pay for the very important work they do, but I do think that having the Torah community constantly remind itself to be connected to the world around it can only elevate us and our Torah learning to higher levels.

Shabbat Shalom

Rivital Singer (Midreshet Avigayil 2015) lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa and is currently finishing shana bet at Lindenbaum before drafting into the IDF education force this summer.

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The Idolatry of the Leaders

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel

The Thirteen Middot of Mercy appear for the second time in this week’s parshah, after the sin of the Spies (chet ha-meraglim).  They appeared the first time when G-d taught Moshe how to pray after the sin of the Golden Calf (chet ha-egel). In selichot, we recite the version of the Middot from Shemot, but follow them by citing verses from both episodes. There are many other textual and thematic commonalities. In both cases, G-d reacts with anger. He threatens to destroy the entire nation save Moshe, whom he plans to make into a great nation (וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל – Shemot 32:10; Bamidbar 14:12). Moshe intervenes, attempting to persuade G-d that doing so would diminish G-d’s standing among other nations, who will assume that G-d is weak for the inability to handle this nation (Shemot 32:12; Bamidbar 13-16). All this suggests that the two sins have something fundamental in common. Yet, at first glance, the Golden Calf is a paradigmatic transgression of idolatry, while the sin of the spies relates to ingratitude or lack of faith in G-d’s promises.  What is the link between them?

Let’s start by comparing the presentation of the Attributes in each episode.

שמות פרק לד, ו-ז

וַיַּעֲבֹר יְקֹוָק עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא יְקֹוָק יְקֹוָק אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת: נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים:

במדבר פרק יד, יח

יְקֹוָק אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים:

The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and truth, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Shemot 34:6-7, trans. Sefaria) ‘The LORD! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations’ (Bamidbar 14:18, trans. Sefaria).

In Bamidbar, G-d’s name יקוק is invoked only once, not twice as in Shemot.  The version in Bamidbar also fails to mention that G-d extends kindness to the thousandth generation.  What explains these changes?

The Talmud explains that the doubled יקוק represents G-d’s mercy both before and after sin (Rosh Hashannah 17b). Rosh (Rosh HaShanah 1:5) asks: Why would we need mercy before sin?

Rosh answers that with regard to the sin of idolatry, G-d considers the thought of idolatry along with the action as one, G-d and punishes both.  Therefore, there is the need for mercy even before the act of idolatry, when it is still merely a thought. Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Meshekh Chokhma) derives that mercy-before-sin is not needed in our parshah, as the sin of the Spies was not idolatry.

Yet, on the basis of our selichot practice, I would like to suggest that there is an aspect of idolatry involved in our parshah as well. The Gemara states that one who lives outside Eretz Yisrael is as if he worships idolatry (Ketubot 110b). (Throughout history, Jews have lived outside Eretz Yisrael due to the circumstances of exile; I do not intend to weigh in here on the issue of contemporary aliyah).  B’nei Yisrael were on the brink of entering Eretz Yisrael, yet not only did they shun the opportunity to enter the land, but they actively requested to return to Egypt (Bamidbar 14:3). In fact, the ma’apilim, those who tried later to enter the land, confessed their sin of desiring to return to Egypt (Rashi, 14:40). Implicit in this rejection of the land, in the eyes of G-d, is a rejection of G-d on the whole. G-d sees their outcry as a lack of recognition of all the miracles performed on their behalf, as in the Golden Calf episode (14:11). If the reaction of B’nei Yisrael in this episode is not itself idolatry, it entails a denial of G-d on the highest level, perhaps as if it were idolatry.

Note that while G-d forgives B’nei Yisrael after they build the golden calf, we do not achieve full forgiveness here. Perhaps earlier, they were still a young nation, and it was their first major mishap. but, as put by Rabbi Menachem Liebtag, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

An additional difference between the Middot brings to light a different explanation. Ramban (Bamidbar 14:17) explains that the phrase notzer chesed la-alafim, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, is not applicable here because Moshe cannot invoke the merits of the patriarchs on behalf of B’nei Yisrael. In Ramban’s words, “they rebelled against their ancestors and did not desire the gift that their ancestors greatly chose.” B’nei Yisrael could not be fully forgiven, especially with regard to Eretz Yisrael, because they were unable to embrace the most significant gift from G-d, that which had been the end-goal for our nation’s development from the time of Avraham Avinu. By rejecting such a significant aspect of the covenant that G-d made with the patriarchs, perhaps they were rejecting their connection with G-d on a larger scale, a further aspect of near-idolatry.

Wherever we may be for whatever reason, as we recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Yerushalayim and will soon celebrate the State of Israel’s 70th year of independence.   May we continue to recognize the miracles G-d has performed for us in recent decades and see the positive in that which happens in Eretz Yisrael.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is completing his third year at RIETS. He is also enrolled at the Bernard Revel Graduate School, concentrating in medieval Jewish history and the Ferkauf School of Psychology/RIETS certificate program in mental health counseling. He served as a rabbinic intern at The Roslyn Synagogue this past year.

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CTML Shavuot Aseret HaKesharim: 5777 Edition

In honor of Shavuot, check out these 10 links from the Center for Modern Torah Leadership related to Shavuot and Talmud Torah!

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Learning Torah is Like Taking Deadly Poison: A Dangerous Shiur

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Numerous Talmudic statements extravagantly praise Torah study “lishmoh”, and/or denigrate Torah study Torah “not-lishmoh”.  However, the term “lishmoh” is never defined[1].  What is the proper motivation for studying Torah, and what motivations are improper?  More sharply: is there a mental state of motivation for Torah study that is both humanly achievable and unquestionably proper?

Let’s start from a passage on Taanit 7a. [2]

A beraita:  R. Bena’ah would often say:

Anyone who is deeply involved in Torah lishmah – his Torah becomes an elixir of life for him,

as Scripture says “She is a tree of life for those who grasp her” (Proverbs 3:18)

but anyone who is deeply involved in Torah not lishmah – it becomes an elixir of death for him,

as Scripture says: “My teaching will be oref like rain”,

and oref refers to killing,

as Scripture says: They must be oref (=break the neck of) the calf there, in the wadi.

The term “tree of life” identifies Torah with the original Tree of Life in Eden.  The implication is that Adam was expelled from Eden because he failed to learn Torah lishmoh.  Similarly, Rava teaches (Berakhot 17a[3]) that one who learns not-lishmoh “would have been better off not created”, i.e. has not fulfilled the purpose of Creation.

The problem with this interpretation is that Adam was expelled from Eden to prevent him from eating of the Tree of Life. Why would G-d want to prevent him from learning Torah lishmoh?!  Moreover, if the Tree of Life is in Eden, and human beings are banned from entering, how can it be possible for us to learn lishmoh?

One might suggest that it is not possible, that learning lishmoh is a category of religious experience reserved for an age in which the Light of the First Day of Creation is again revealed to the righteous.  But R. Bena’ah goes much further than excluding not-lishmoh from the Tree of Life.  Torah not-lishmoh, he claims, is not the absence but rather the antithesis of lishmoh, and is therefore deadly.

His prooftext for this claim seems badly forced. While the noun oref means ‘back of the neck’, and in the context of the Eglah Arufah the root ערפ means ‘to break the neck’, it is very difficult to assign it that meaning in the context of rain.  I am unaware of rain ever falling with enough force to literally break a human neck.  Moreover, in other places in Tanakh, rain seems to be a positive thing.

There is however an excellent literary reason to associate Torah with death.  Eden contained two trees, one of life and one of death.  The tree that brings death is that of “knowledge of good and evil”, and, Torah is the proper source of knowledge of good and evil.  It follows that Torah is the Tree of Death as well as the Tree of Life.

Moreover, in Genesis 3:3, Chavah tells the snake that G-d said not to eat from the tree that was in the midst of the garden.  Thus the tree of knowledge of good and evil must be the tree in the midst of the garden.  Yet Genesis 2:9 tells us that “the tree of life was in the midst of the garden”!?

I suggest that Chazal read the whole verse as follows: “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, which was also the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  There was only one tree at the center of Eden.  Learned lishmoh – it gave life; not-lishmoh – death.

An apparent problem with this reading – and indeed, with the whole concept that learning Torah not-lishmoh is discouraged – is that it seems to leave those who do not already learn lishmoh with no access to the primary means of self-improvement, or to any way of knowing which actions are proper and which improper.

This difficulty is both intensified and addressed on Pesachim 50b:

Rava posed a contradiction:

Psalm 57 says: “Your Grace extends to Heaven”,

but Psalm 108 says “Your Grace extends above Heaven”!?

How can we resolve this?  Here (108) we are discussing those who do lishmoh, there (57) those who do not-lishmoh.  

This statement of Rava seems to disagree strongly with the idea that Torah learned not lishmah should be discouraged, or in any way disapproved.  G-d’s grace extends greatly to those who learn not-lishmoh, just not quite so far as to those who learn lishmoh.  This directly contradicts his statement on Berakhot 17 that a person who learns not-lishmoh would have been better off not created.

The Talmud continues by identifying Rava with a position cited by Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav:

This follows the statement of R. Yehudah in the name of Rav, for R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav:

A person should actually be deeply involved in Torah and Mitzvot even not-lishmah, 

because not-lishmah will lead to lishmah.

The import of this identification is that learning ‘‘not-lishmoh has instrumental rather than intrinsic value.  But this is not sufficient to reconcile Rava and Rav here with Rava on Berakhot 17a, or with Rav Benaah, each of whom evaluate not-lishmoh as negative.

This contradiction bothered all the Tosafist interpreters, who responded in their usual manner – by creating okimtot.  In other words, they say that there are different kinds of not-lishmoh.  There are three levels of motivations for learning Torah – lishmoh, not-lishmoh A, and not-lishmoh B.  Not-lishmoh A has instrumental value while not-lishmoh B is worse than worthless.

Here is a thematically arranged series of Tosafist-style categorizations:

Maharam Chalava Pesachim 50b[4]:

TYPE A = out of love or fear

to know the wisdom of Torah

TYPE B = lehitgader or lekanter[5]

Tosafot HaRosh Megillah 25b[6] complicates this taxonomy.

TYPE A =         out of love or fear of G-d.

TYPE B =         out of love or fear of punishment

It is not clear whether Maharam Chalava agrees to this bifurcation of “love and fear”.  He might instead hold that even learning out of fear of punishment or love of reward is instrumentally valuable.

 

Tosafot Sotah 22b[7]

TYPE A =         out of fear of suffering or love of reward

TYPE B =         not out of love or fear, but rather to compound his transgressions, making his accidental sins deliberate, for even though he knows that he transgresses he does not refrain from fulfilling any of his heart’s desires

This Tosafot contradicts Tosafot HaRosh above, which held that learning out of love of reward or fear of suffering does not have even instrumental value.

 

Tosafot Berakhot 17a[8]

TYPE A =         one who learns so that he will be respected

TYPE B =         one who learns only to attack his colleagues

Rivvan Pesachim 50b[9]

TYPE B =         not to become great and arrogant

The question is whether RIVVAN’s type B overlaps with TYPE A Tosafot Berakhot’s 17a.

 

Tosafot Pesachim 50b[10]

TYPE A =         no evil intent but is simply lazy[11]

TYPE B =         to be arrogant and attack and diminish his colleagues in the realm of halakhah, and doesn’t learn in order to practice

How would this Tosafot classify the TYPE A cases of any other position?  It seems likely that he resorted to his unparalleled case because he thought all others were TYPE B.    

 

It emerges that it is at least possible that, with the exception of Tosafot Pesachim 50b’s case of
“laziness”, every example offered of TYPE A by one rishon is classifies as TYPE B by a different rishon.

But Tosafot Pesachim’s suggestion is not a safe bet either, as it[12] seems contradicted by a statement of R. Eliezer bar Tzadok on Nedarim 62b[13].

R. Eliezer son of R. Tzadok said:

Do things for the sake of their Maker, and speak in them lishmah.

Do not make them a crown to be exalted through them, nor a shovel to dig with.

A fortiori:

If Belshazzar, who only used for his own benefit sacred utensils which had lost their sanctity, was uprooted from the world,

all the more so one who uses the crown of Torah for his own benefit!

Learning Torah to avoid other work seems to be an obvious instance of “making it a shovel to dig with” or “using it for his own benefit”!

Moreover, the entire Tosafist enterprise here founders on the rock of Nazir 23b[14]:

R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav:

A person should actually be deeply involved in Torah and Mitzvot even not-lishmah,

because not-lishmah will lead to lishmah.

because as a reward for the 42 sacrifices Balak the evildoer brought, he merited being the ancestor of Ruth

Presumably Balak’s sacrifices, which were brought with the intent of bringing out the annihilation of the Jewish people, do not match any of the criteria for TYPE A cited above!  Yet the Talmud identifies his not-lishmoh motive with the not-lishmoh that Rav said a person should engage in.

It therefore seems to me that the most likely correct explanation of the apparent contradictions regarding not-lishmoh is offered by Responsa Rabbeinu Chaim Or Zarua 163:[15]

Once shelo lishmah has come upI’ll say something else about it.

R. Tam said there are two types of not-lishmoh,one forbidden and one permitted.

But I, insignificant and small, say that all not-lishmoh is the same, and all are transgressive, but that transgression is permitted if it will lead in the end to a mitzvah,

like when a man saves a woman in a river or digs someone out of a pile on Shabbat.

This is also implied by the comparison (of a mitzvah not-lishmoh) to Yael (whose seduction of Sisera is called a “sin lishmoh”).  

But one who stiffens his neck, who will never do the mitzvah – better for him not to have been created.

Rabbeinu Chaim rejects the idea that not-lishmoh has instrumental value regardless of its actual consequences.  Rather, he holds that it has value only if it in fact leads to lishmoh.[16]  

In other words: A person who cannot yet learn lishmoh makes things worse if they nonetheless learn.  Every moment of learning is like taking deadly poison.  If they merit reaching lishmoh – they reach the antidote before the poison takes effect.  But it is perfectly possible that they will die without reaching lishmoh, and in that case the Torah they have learned will at best have been valueless.

Rabbeinu Chaim thus emphasizes a point that also emerges from the incompatibility of the Tosafistic solutions with each other: HALAKHIC RELIGIOSITY IS NOT A WAY OF AVOIDING SPIRITUAL RISK.  There is no way to achieve lishmohwithout passing through not-lishmoh.

Learning Torah is necessarily dangerous, but that does not mean that shev v’al taaseh adif, that we are better off playing it safe.  Indeed, there is no way to play it safe.  For human beings, who inevitably have mixed motives, every spiritual act is a double-edged sword.

I suspect that this point will be either liberating or obvious for many readers.  But for those who find it merely disturbing, here is a way out.

The Tosafistic approach is fundamentally incompatible with the Eden metaphor central to Rav Bena’ah’s statement.  The Torah mentions at most two trees “in the midst of Eden” not three.  Remember as well that Rabbi Bena’ah never explained how we can achieve lishmoh now that a flaming sword blocks the path to the Tree of Life.

Perhaps the sword only blocks the direct path.  In Eden, there were only two possible trees.  But in the world beyond Eden, intermediate motives are possible which make our study of Torah neither deadly nor life-giving.  Torah studied for such motives is instrumentally valuable, and may enable us to reach Eden through a back entrance.

For Rabbeinu Chaim Or Zarua, there is only one entrance, but the sword does not kill all who enter.  Perhaps that is why sword “revolves” – the blade sometimes faces away, as an invitation to the brave.  But only fools rush in where fearsome angels tread.

 

Notes:

[1] Prior investigations of this issue sought to define “lishmoh”, with “not-lishmoh” defined negatively as whatever occupied the remaining intellectual space. (See in this regard especially Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Torah for Torah’s Sake.)  My approach here will be the reverse, focusing on the definitions of “not-lishmoh” found in Rabbinic literature.

[2] תניא: היה רבי בנאה אומר:

כל העוסק בתורה לשמה, תורתו נעשית לו סם חיים, שנאמר “{משלי ג’} עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה” . . .

וכל העוסק בתורה שלא לשמה, נעשית לו סם המות, שנאמר “יערף כמטר לקחי”,

ואין עריפה אלא הריגה, שנאמר “{דברים כ”א} וערפו שם את העגלה בנחל”

[3] וכל העושה שלא לשמה נוח לו שלא נברא

[4]מהר”ם חלוואה פסחים נ:

תרתי שלא לשמה איכא:

דעביד מאהבה ומיראה או לדעת חכמת התורה – מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה,

אבל העוסק להתגדר ולקנטר – נוח לו שלא נברא

[5] The meaning of “lehitgader” is unknown – the other context in which it appears is “makon hinichu lanu avoiteinu lehitgader bo”, where it most likely means “to become great”, but I wouldn’t put very much weight on that.  “Lekanter” means to tear someone else down.  But “love and fear” are certainly praiseworthy.

[6]תוס’ הרא”ש מגילה כה: ד”ה מהו

דתרי מיני מאהבה ומיראה הן:

מאהבת שכר ומיראת עונש – אינו טוב,

מאהבת המקום ומיראתו – תרי מעליותא הם.

[7]תוס’ סוטה כב: ד”ה לעולם

עוסק שלא לשמה כגון מיראת יסורין . . . ומאהבת קיבול פרס, שאינו מתכוון להשלים רצון יוצרו שציווהו על כך אלא להנאתו . . .

אבל ההיא שלא לשמה דתענית ומס’ ברכות – אינו עוסק בתורה כדי לקיים לא מאהבה ולא מיראה, אלא להוסיף על חטאתו פשע, שעתה שגגות מעשו לו זדונות, שאע”פ שידע שעובר לא מנע מכל תאות לבו

[8]תוס’ סוטה כב: ד”ה לעולם

דהכא מיירי שאינו לומד אלא לקנטר חביריו

והתם מיירי שלומד ע”מ שיכבדוהו

[9]ריבב”ן פסחים נ:

לשם שמים ולא להתגדל ולהתייהר

[10]תוספות פסחים דף נ: ד”ה וכאן בעושים

ואור”י

דהתם מיירי כגון שלומד כדי להתיהר ולקנטר ולקפח את חביריו בהלכה ואינו לומד ע”מ לעשות

אבל הכא מיירי דומיא דההיא דלעיל “יש שפל ונשכר, דלא עביד כוליה שבתא ולא במעלי שבתא”, שאין מתכוון לשום רעה אלא מתוך עצלות, אפ”ה גדול עד שמים חסדו:

[11] Tosafot does not explain directly why laziness is a plausible motive for Torah study.  But it seems that this is evidence for early kollels.

[12] also RIVVAN

[13] נדרים סב. 

רבי אליעזר בר ר’ צדוק אומר:

עשה דברים לשם פעלם, ודבר בהם לשמם,

אל תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם, ואל תעשם קורדום להיות עודר בו,

וקל וחומר: ומה בלשצר שלא נשתמש אלא בכלי קדש שנעשו כלי חול – נעקר מן העולם,

המשתמש בכתרה של תורה – על אחת כמה וכמה.

[14]נזיר כג:אמר רב יהודה אמר רב:

לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצות אפי’ שלא לשמן, שמתוך שלא לשמן בא לשמן,

שבשכר מ”ב קרבנות שהקריב בלק הרשע – זכה ויצאה ממנו רות

[15] שו”ת מהר”ח אור זרוע סימן קסגושלא לשמה, הואיל ואתא לידן, נימא ביה מילתא –

כי ר”ת אומר:

שני עניני שלא לשמה יש, חד אסיר וחד שרי,

ואני הדיוט ופעוט אומר:

דכל שלא לשמה חד הוא, וכולם עבירה, א[ך] אותה עבירה הותרה, שסופה לבא לידי מצוה,

כמו מציל אשה בנהר, ומפקח גל בשבת.

וכן משמע בנזיר, שמדמה אותה למעשה דיעל.

אבל מי שמקשה ערפו לעולם לא יעשה מצוה – נוח לו שלא נברא.

[16] Or some other positive result.  I suggest that according to Rabbeinu Chaim, Balak’s sacrifices earn him the reward of being Rut’s ancestor only because his efforts actually lead to Bila’am blessing rather than cursing the Jews.

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Was Rabbeinu Gershom a Halakhic Progressive?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

First of a multipart series on halakhic solutions to male iggun (men who are in a dead halakhic marriage but are unable to remarry halakhically).

In the late tenth or early eleventh century, according to halakhic tradition, Rabbi Gershom of Mainz, known as Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah (“Luminary of the Exile”), enacting two decrees that radically changed the terms of Jewish marriage.

First, he banned polygamy.

Second, he banned divorcing women without their consent.

These decrees were accepted almost immediately throughout the Ashkenazic community, and over the centuries have largely become accepted by the Sephardic community as well.

Banning polygamy changes the emotional contours of marriage.  It defines the affective relationship between husband and wife as not only mutual but also exclusive.

Banning nonconsensual divorce changes the power contours of marriage.

What motivated Rabbeinu Gershom to make these decrees?

Three centuries later, Rabbeinu Asher (ROSH) offered this rationale for the ban on nonconsensual divorce (Responsa ROSH 42a):

אך כי ראה הדור פרוץ ומזלזלין בבנות ישראל בזריקת גט,

ותקן להשוות כח האשה לכח האיש

Because he saw the generation unbounded and degrading daughters of Israel by ‘throwing the divorce’, 

and so he decreed to equalize the power of the woman to the power of the man.

“Throwing the divorce” is an idiom for nonconsensual divorce; if a wife refuses to accept the divorce document from her husband, he can simply toss it at her or into her property.  This is Torah law, and the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud felt no need to change it.  ROSH asserts that a new social ill grew up in post-Talmudic Jewish Germany and impelled Rabbeinu Gershom to enact his decrees.  It is not clear what that ill was, or why Rabbeinu Gershom’s decree was so rapidly accepted in Ashekenaz.

Another way to frame the question is: Doesn’t the possibility of nonconsensual divorce necessarily degrade women relative to men?  Why did Rabbeinu Gershom think that only his and subsequent generations required the power of the wife to be equal to that of the husband?

In the eighteenth century, Chatam Sofer offered this pungent expansion of ROSH’s formulation:

When the unbounded ones who degraded the proper daughters of Israel grew numerous – 

“In the evening she came, and in the morning she returned” 

Chatam Sofer’s quote of Esther 2:14 strikingly compares a Jewish wife to a Persian virgin commandeered by Achashverosh for a one-night stand – here today and replaced tomorrow.  The problem with his explanation, as with ROSH’s, is that he doesn’t explain what changed in Rabbeinu Gershom’s time to newly create this issue.  Why was the decree against nonconsensual divorce a reaction to a new social ill, rather than a correction of a structural injustice?  Why wasn’t the possibility of nonconsensual divorce a per se degradation of Jewish women?

I suggest that ROSH and Chatam Sofer are placing Rabbeinu Gershom in the context of the Talmudic explanation for the institution of the ketubah.  The ketubah guarantees the wife support or a lump sum should she be widowed or divorced.  Talmud Bava Kamma 89b declares that the rabbis permitted marital cohabitation only in the context of a ketubah

So that she not be light in his eyes, to divorce her

In other words, the Talmud recognizes that the possibility of nonconsensual divorce makes women “light” in the eyes of men, and that this is a problem [1].  It presents the rabbis as trying to solve this by making divorce expensive.  In Rabbeinu Gershom’s community, this solution was apparently no longer effective [2], and so he banned nonconsensual divorce altogether.  But why didn’t the Talmudic rabbis adopt this method in the first place?

Here I think it is useful to look at the context in which ROSH’s explanation appears.  He is discussing the case of a man who discovers after two years of marriage that his wife is subject to a medical condition that makes living with her (in his opinion) impossible and perhaps dangerous, but who is also financially unable to pay her ketubah in full.  She refuses to accept a divorce without full payment, and meanwhile demands both financial support and conjugal rights.  ROSH responds as follows:

In the days of the Talmudic Sages, 

if a wife developed such a blemish – 

her husband would divorce her and be obligated to pay her ketubah;

he would pay whatever he had on hand, and the rest when he became able to.

But now that the Gaon Rabbeinu Gershom z”l decreed that he cannot divorce her against her will, 

it is implausible that he should be obligated to provide her support, clothing, and physical intimacy – 

if that were so, the power of the woman would be much greater than the power of the man,

as if such a blemish developed in a man – 

we would not compel her to remain with him, 

rather we would compel him to divorce her and pay the ketubah,

so how can we say that if such a blemish develops in a woman, 

we compel him to be with her and to support her!?  

If a man, who biblically divorces only by his free will, 

can be compelled to divorce and pay the ketubah if he develops blemishes, 

a woman, who biblically can be divorced against her will – 

shouldn’t this be true all the more so?!   

But Rabbeinu Gershom set a boundary in this matter.

But isn’t it a kal vachomer that he never even considered in such a situation “chaining the man” 

and preventing him from fulfilling “be fruitful and multiply”?!  

Rather, in this case certainly he may divorce her and pay her ketubah

because Rabbeinu Gershom’s enactment 

did not make the power of the woman so much greater than that of the man,

rather,

because he saw the generation unbounded and degrading daughters of Israel by ‘throwing the divorce’, 

and so he decreed to equalize the power of the woman to the power of the man:

just as the man divorces only willingly, 

so too the woman is divorced only willingly.

But it would be completely implausible to say 

that in a situation where the man would be coerced to divorce, 

he would not be able to divorce the woman against her will.

Even if you were to say

that he standardized the issue

so that no man could ever divorce a man against her will,

nonetheless

in a situation where the man would be coerced to divorce

the woman too is coerced to accept the divorce

and if she refuses to accept it – 

he may default on providing her with food, clothing, and physical intimacy,

and she cannot say “I do not wish to accept the divorce until he pays me my ketubah”,

as this is no claim,

since she is legally obligated to accept the divorce

as I have demonstrated. 

ROSH does not advance the egalitarian thesis that Rabbeinu Gershom sought to equalize men and women in order to justify a halakhically expansive understanding of the legislation.  Rather, he uses it as a ceiling, in order to reject an interpretation that, in his view, would give women more power than men.

ROSH makes us confront the reality that Rabbeinu Gershom’s legislation may have decreased inequality at the price of increasing unjustified suffering.  Rather than take the modern approach of no-fault divorce, which in theory equalizes marital power by denying either spouse the right to prevent the other from leaving the relationship, Rabbeinu Gershom increased women’s power over men.

For ROSH, I suggest, the Talmudic rabbis were unwilling to make this tradeoff.  Rabbeinu Gershom became willing to do so only because something happened to decrease women’s stature within marriage.  ROSH presents Rabbeinu Gershom as reactive, not progressive.

But it seems likely to me that Rav Mosheh Feinstein, in a responsum to Rabbi Shimon Trebnik dated 25 Tevet, 5721 (Igrot Mosheh EH 1:115), read ROSH and Rabbeinu Gershom quite differently.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series coming soon!

Notes:

[1] Why would the rabbis see this as a problem, if the Torah set up a system that permitted it?  The simplest answer. enshrined in our standard ketubah’s phrase דחזי ליכי מדאורייתא, is that the rabbis merely increased the amount of a Biblically mandated ketubah.  Why would they increase it?  I suggest that the rabbis understood the Torah as balancing the goal of protecting women from unjustified divorce with the risk of deterring men from committing to marriage.  The rabbis saw the balance shifting, either because women’s social bargaining position improved, or else because the risks of unjustified divorce increased, and responded accordingly.

[2] We can’t know how Rosh conceived of Rabbeinu Gershom’s community.  Perhaps he thought they were so rich that the ketubah-payment had become an ineffective deterrent to divorce; perhaps, as in some batei din in contemporary America, the ketubah was calculated by weight of silver and the price of silver crashed; perhaps clever lawyers or secular laws had made effective enforcement of the ketubah impossible.

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The Rabbi and the Gabbai: A Horsetorical Bromance

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The gaon Rav Chasdai, who was known for his outgoing and generous nature, once came across a group of children looking crossly at one another.  He asked them what was the matter, and their reply was:  We all want to play horsey, but no one is willing to be the horse.  So he volunteered to be the horse.  The children tied a rope around him and rode him or led him around for a while.  When they got tired and hungry, they tied the rope very securely to a tree and told him to wait like a good horsey while they went home and returned.

Of course, they forgot about him entirely.  The gabbai of the shul found him half an hour later, and said he would come back with a knife to cut the ropes.  But Rav Chasdai insisted that he instead go bring the children back to untie him, saying that he did not wish to disappoint them.

Thus I heard the story from Rav Chasdai’s grandson, whose credibility is beyond question.

To my mind, however, his grandfather gave the gabbai an implausible rationale.  The children would not have been disappointed.  They had forgotten all about the game, and would never have expected their “horse” to still be there when they remembered.

I suggest instead that Rav C thought it was important for the children to understand and take responsibility for their actions.  What if the gabbai hadn’t come by for hours?  Plainly the knots were so tight that he was unable to free himself.   Children have to learn that games can also have real consequences.

But why didn’t Rav Chasdai tell the gabbai his true motivation?  First of all, the gabbai was prepared to destroy the children’s rope, and Rav Chasdai was gently calling to his attention that the children had legitimate interests here.  Second, perhaps the gabbai had no sympathy for children, and would otherwise have punished them severely.

That was my speculation.  But it happens that I shared it with a colleague who turned out to be the grandson of the gabbai, and he assured me that his grandfather was legendary for his rapport with children.

Why then did Rav Chasdai pretend to be concerned about the children’s disappointment?  My colleague had a very different perspective.  His family tradition was that Rav Chasdai loved to play with children, and would be sad when they grew bored of him.  So he suggested that perhaps Rav Chasdai really just wanted the gabbai to bring his playmates back.

I was rather taken aback by the suggestion.  Would the gaon Rav Chasdai have used the gabbai’s time dishonestly?  Would he want to play with children, any children, so much that he would simply waste time waiting around for them?

Perhaps there was no wasted time, and Rav Chasdai spend his wait-time reviewing Shas in his head.  Indeed, I wonder whether Rav Chasdai loved playing with children because their games, unlike the social play of adults, let him have human contact and relationships without distracting his intellect from Torah.  Chasidic rebbeim are often described as functioning on both levels simultaneously, but Litvaks may not have the same capacity.

Perhaps Rav Chasdai spent his days looking for excuses to get away from adults, and the errand he gave the gabbai was the best he could think of in the moment.  He viewed it as a white lie, as the alternatives were either insulting the gabbai or else wasting time better spent studying Torah.

With all humility, though, I’m not sure he was right.   The Talmud famously declares that even Hashem tells white lies in order to preserve marital harmony, but hopefully everyone understands that this isn’t a license to tell your spouse that you’ve gone to daf yomi when you really went in to work.  And this isn’t obvious, but I think it also means that you can’t tell your spouse that you’re going in to work when you’re really going to daf yomi.  Preserving marital harmony doesn’t mean deceiving your spouse so that s/he won’t stop you from doing what you want to do, even if you think you’ll be happier doing it.  I also suspect that preserving rabbi-gabbai harmony is not at the same level of priority as preserving marital harmony.

But what if it wasn’t about their roles, but about their very human selves?  Both Rav Chasdai’s grandson and my colleague describe their grandfathers as deeply intimate, almost inseparable friends.  Sometimes inseparability can become overwhelming, and one person’s unwillingness to enforce boundaries, added to the other’s inability to recognize them, can put a profound relationship into crisis.  Aggada recognizes that same-sex friendship can be as powerful as heterosexual love; perhaps halakhah does as well, or at least should.  Surely Rav Yochanan would have been right to dissemble rather than shatter his relationship with Resh Lakish.

Moreover, the Talmud reports that Hashem once did lie in order to preserve a beit midrash society.  When Rabban Gamliel was removed from office for abusing Rabbi Yehoshua, his successor Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah opened the Academy to hordes of previously excluded students, and Torah flourished.  Rabbi Gamliel grew depressed, so G-d sent him a dream in which the new students were shown to be worthless hypocrites.  The Talmudic narrator makes sure we know that the dream was false; but believing that  it was true gave Rabban Gamliel the emotional strength to return to the scene of his humiliation, and eventually to (mostly) regain his office.  (Perhaps he also eventually gained the strength to realize that the dream was false.)

So if Rav Chasdai really needed the space, and he dissembled to the gabbai, I think I might be fine with it.

Except that there’s a difference between a one-time falsehood in a crisis, and an ongoing habit.  At some point Avraham would have caught on that Sarah thought of him as too old to have children; at some point Rabban Gamliel would have recognized that his dreams were a little too convenient.

So maybe this story became so worth retelling because it in fact records a crisis passed, and a relationship saved.

But I need to emphasize that it’s very possible that neither the rabbi nor the gabbai ever really understood what had happened between them.  Maybe in the moment the rabbi projected his desire to play onto the children; surely the gabbai really thought the rabbi needed amusement rather than privacy.  Real people do real things for complex and ambivalent motivations, so maybe nothing wholly false was thought or said, and a friendship was saved.

One difference between halakhah and aggada is just that allowance for unclarity.  The Talmud states that one who learns Torah lishmoh has fulfilled the purpose of creation, whereas one who learns Torah not lishmoh would have been better off uncreated.  It isn’t until chassidut that we really consider the question of whether anyone learns purely one way or the other.   Assuming that we will always be somewhat but not fully lishmoh, are we better off learning, or not?

Another way of putting it is that halakhah teaches us how to act, but aggada teaches us how to be.

Note: This dvar Torah is a fictional riff on versions of a story sometimes told about a specific past rabbi.  Any resemblance to him, or to any other specific historical figure, is wholly coincidental. 

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With Distinction: Egyptian Exodus and the Levitical Letter of the Law

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

Throughout Sefer Vayikra, including several times in this week’s double Parsha, we find an invocation of the Exodus to justify certain laws. To give one example:

ויקרא פרק כה

:לה) וְכִֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ וּמָ֥טָה יָד֖וֹ עִמָּ֑ךְ וְהֶֽחֱזַ֣קְתָּ בּ֔וֹ גֵּ֧ר וְתוֹשָׁ֛ב וָחַ֖י עִמָּֽךְ)

:לו) אַל־תִּקַּ֤ח מֵֽאִתּוֹ֙ נֶ֣שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּ֔ית וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְחֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ עִמָּֽךְ)

:לז) אֶ֨ת־כַּסְפְּךָ֔ לֹֽא־תִתֵּ֥ן ל֖וֹ בְּנֶ֑שֶׁךְ וּבְמַרְבִּ֖ית לֹא־תִתֵּ֥ן אָכְלֶֽךָ)

:לח) אֲנִ֗י יְקֹוָק֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לָתֵ֤ת לָכֶם֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִֽים)

Exodus 25

35 And if your brother becomes poor, and his means fail, then you shall uphold him: as a stranger and a settler he shall live with you. 

36 Take no interest or profit from him; but fear your God; so that your brother may live with you. 

37 Do not give him your money with interest, nor give him foods for profit. 

38 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. 

The prohibition against taking financial advantage of one’s impoverished fellow by charging interest appears to be justified by God’s historical role in taking the People of Israel out of Egypt. Later in the Parsha, we find the manumission of an Eved Ivri (25:41-42, 54-55) also justified by the Exodus, and specifically by the fact that we are servants of God, and, as Hazal gloss (bKidd 22b), not slaves of one another. During both the blessings (26:12-13) and the mitigation of the curses (26:44-45) of the curses in Behukotai, again the Exodus is invoked. What is the significance of this oft-repeated assertion?

On the simplest level, the Exodus is part of the foundational covenant of the Jewish People. The Covenant at Sinai may have sealed the theological-national deal, but the special relationship between Israel and God was principally forged when God took Israel out of Egypt. It is of course relevant that the Ten Commandments begin with אנכי ה’ א-להיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slaves.” (Ex. 20:2). See the commentaries on this verse, including Rashi’s very clear note: כדאי היא ההוצאה שתהיו משועבדים לי, “The Exodus is sufficient to subjugate you to me.”

But the reference to the Exodus may offer an additional reason, as well. The Talmud (bBM 61b) has a fascinating and enigmatic comment pertaining to several cases of Egypt invocation, including one in our Parsha:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף סא עמוד ב

אמר רבא: למה לי דכתב רחמנא יציאת מצרים ברבית, יציאת מצרים גבי ציצית, יציאת מצרים במשקלות? אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אני הוא שהבחנתי במצרים בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור – אני הוא שעתיד ליפרע ממי שתולה מעותיו בנכרי ומלוה אותם לישראל ברבית, וממי שטומן משקלותיו במלח, וממי שתולה קלא אילן בבגדו ואומר תכלת הוא.

רבינא איקלע לסורא דפרת. אמר ליה רב חנינא מסורא דפרת לרבינא: יציאת מצרים דכתב רחמנא גבי שרצים למה לי? – אמר ליה: אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אני הוא שהבחנתי בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור, אני עתיד ליפרע ממי שמערב קרבי דגים טמאין בקרבי דגים טהורין, ומוכרן לישראל.

Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia 61b

Rava said: Why did God mention the Exodus from Egypt regarding [the prohibition of] interest (Lev. 25:38); regarding [the commandment] of tzitzit (Num. 15:41); and regarding [the prohibition of unfair] weights and measures (Lev. 19:36)? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who “hangs” his money on a gentile and lends it to a Jew with interest [while the Jew thinks he is in fact borrowing from a gentile]; from one who hides his weighs in salt [at a disadvantage to the customer]; and one who ties kal’ilin (i.e. non-tekhelet blue) to his clothes and says it is tekhelet.

Ravina went to Sura on the Euphrates. Rav Hanina of Sura on the Euphrates asked Ravina: Why did God mention the Exodus from Egypt regarding [prohibited] crawling animals (Lev. 11:45)? [Ravina] said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who mixes non-kosher fish innards with kosher fish innards and then sells them to a Jew.

Here, the Exodus is invoked not for its historical value in understanding the relationship between God and Israel, but as an attestation to God’s extraordinary powers of distinction. The plague striking the paternal firstborn required not only great lethal power, but also the most precise paternity test known to man. The Exodus, proving this divine quality, can then serve as a cautionary tale for these cases. Do you think it doesn’t matter who is actually lending with interest? Well, it matters to God, and God is capable of finding out fairly easily. Who cares if it’s tekhelet blue or non-tekhelet blue? Can anyone determine if my 1 oz. weight is actually .9 oz.? Aren’t all fish intestines equally abominable? No! God has commanded these laws, and God has the capacity to make extremely fine distinctions, so you had better be careful!

As the Maharal (ad. loc.) puts it:

דברה תורה נגד יצר הרע, שיצרו של אדם גובר עליו לומר מי ידע דבר זה, ועל זה אמר אני הוא שהבחנתי וכו’ במצרים, אני הוא שעתיד להפרע, לפיכך יכוף יצרו [ה]מסית אותו לדבר זה

The Torah is responding to the evil inclination, which overpowers a person, asking “who will know [whether you did the permitted or prohibited action]?” In response to this, God says “I am the one who distinguished in Egypt etc., and I am the one to pay recompense.” Thus the evil inclination will be overcome.

There is a problem here, however. Many more than just these four commandments are occasioned by a mention of the Exodus from Egypt. Is there anything particularly holding them together? Why invoke particularly these four cases? Doesn’t this apparent arbitrariness weaken the claim? Some commentators, wishing to respond to this question, raise the possibility that all of these cases are interpersonal. You might think that you can con others by shaving off weights, hiding the true person behind the loan, or mixing up fish intestines, but God knows and is keeping score. (To a certain extent, this approach is similar to that of the string of Rashis on אני ה’ in Leviticus 19, which includes one of our cases.) This attempt has a major weakness – the case of Tzitzit. Given that the Gemara says nothing of selling these Tzitzit to unsuspecting customers, and only speaks of wearing them, it seems that not all cases are interpersonal and some relate to the and personal-Divine realm. The Maharal offers this rebuttal. But then we are left with our question: why are these the only examples provided?

In a related piece, the Maharal’s offers an answer in a characteristically brilliant disquisition:

חידושי אגדות למהר”ל בבא מציעא דף סא עמוד ב

יציאת מצרים דכתיב בשרצים וכו’. פי’ באלו ד’ מצות נאמר יציאת מצרים ולפי מה שמפרש בגמרא אצל כל חד אני הוא שהבחנתי וכו’ ולפי זה היה גם כן ראוי לכתוב אצל חלב אני הוא שהבחנתי בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור אני שעתיד להבחין מי שמוכר חלב ואמר שהוא שומן וכיוצא בזה וכמעט בכל (ה)מצוה ומצוה היה יכול לכתוב כך, אבל אני אומר כי מיוחדים אלו המצוות להבחנה כי אצל שקצים כתיב להבדיל בין הטמא ובין הטהור נמצא כי מצוה זאת מיוחדת להבדלה, וכן משקל הוא עצמו עשוי להבחין הדבר ששוקל וכן הרבית הוא להבחין ישרא’ דכ’ לנכרי תשיך ולאחיך לא תשיך והנה יש כאן הבדל, וציצית הוא להבחנה כדכ’ וראיתם אותו וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’ ועיקר תכלת הוא ההבחנה כמ”ש מאימתי קורין שמע בשחרית משיכיר בין תכלת שבה ללבן שבה. הרי אלו ד’ מצות הם להבחנה וכאשר יצאו ישראל ממצרים יצאו במדריגה העליונה ששם הבחנת הכל כי הוציא השם יתברך את ישראל ממצרים ולקחם לו לעם ובזה הבדיל השם יתברך בין ישראל לאומות. ולפיכך היה יציאת מצרים ע”י הבחנה עד כי היה מבחין הקדוש ברוך הוא בין טפה לטפה, שהכל היה בהבחנה.

Hiddushei Agadot of Maharal, Bava Metzia 61b

By each of these cases the Exodus from Egypt is mentioned, which the Gemara explains is based on God saying “I am the one who distinguished…” Therefore it would have been appropriate to include the law of prohibited fats: “I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who sells forbidden fats and says they are permitted fats!” And almost every commandment could have this [formulation]!? Rather, I think that these commandments are [chosen because they are] particularly focused on distinction. Regarding forbidden crawling animals it says “To distinguish between the impure and the pure” (Lev. 11:47). It emerges that this commandment is particularly focused on distinction. And similarly for weights – [the institution of weights] itself is based on distinguishing the [size of the] item being measured. The prohibition of interest is meant to distinguish Israel, as it says “Charge interest to the gentile, but do not charge interest to your brother” (Deut. 23:21), and here is a distinction! Tzitzit is meant to distinguish, as it says “And you shall see it and remember all the commandments of the Lord” (Num. 15:39). The primary point of tekhelet blue is one of distinction, as it says “From what time can one read Shema in the morning? From the time one can distinguish between its tekhelet blue and its white” (mBer 1:2). These four commandments are all about distinction! And when Israel left Egypt they left on the highest level, of absolute distinction, because God took them out of Egypt and chose them as God’s nation! Thus God distinguished Israel from the nations! Therefore the Exodus from Egypt was accomplished through distinction, to the point that the Holy One, Blessed be He, was distinguishing between every drop [of semen], as everything was distinguished.

The unifying theme among these commandments invoking Egypt is that they are thematically tied to the concept of distinction. It is not that one can imagine cases involving halakhically significant but nearly inscrutable distinctions.  One could likely do that for many commandments. Rather, these commandments are distinct, and therefore chosen by the Talmud, because they are all about distinction: weighing a precise measurement fairly; telling colors apart, separating Kosher from non-Kosher, and distinct economic laws for Jews and non-Jews. So of course the theme of “I am God, the one who distinguished,” will apply. And the Exodus from Egypt is emblematic of distinction beyond just the “Divine DNA test” to find the real firstborn Egyptians. The very process of the Exodus, where God takes Israel out of Egypt, is the greatest distinction one could imagine, and it is the nature of Israel’s chosenness! Of course, this fundamentally separation-based process will then be extremely precise in determining who is a firstborn Egyptian and who is not. The Maharal’s incredible re-reading of the Gemara, then, is complete: The Gemara only discusses symptoms of these four commandments and of the Exodus by finding particular cases of distinction; we are expected to figure out for ourselves that each of these not only are scenarios where minute distinctions may entail, but that their fundamental nature is all about distinction!

The Meshekh Hokhmah adds another piece to this puzzle in understanding the Talmudic passage:

משך חכמה שמות פרק יב פסוק ט

כיון שההשגחה חלה בפרטי פרטיות, תדע כי ישקיף ה’ וירא כל מפעל כל מצעד, ואז דבוק קנין האלקי בעם ישראל, שהוא בן בכורו, וקנה אותם לעבדים. כי פרעה וכל העם מהרו לשלחם מן הארץ, וחיוב כל המצוות תלה השם יתברך בעת הזאת.

Meshekh Hokhmah to Exodus 12:9

Since Divine Providence occurs at a level of such minute detail, one will know that God examines and sees every action and every step. Thus the Divine Acquisition of God’s nation Israel is complete. Israel is God’s firstborn, whom God acquired as a servant, after Pharaoh and his nation tried to speedily send them from the land. God ties the obligation in all commandments to this time [of Egypt].

The precision of these commandments and God’s enforcement thereof is no accident. Aside from encouraging Jews to be meticulous in their observance, it is also an important aspect of Jewish religious identity. God not only distinguished the Egyptian firstborn from their siblings, but also Israel, God’s own firstborn, from the nations. The degree of precision in this providential Divine Distinction defines not only these four commandments with particular focus on exactitude, but the entire Torah, and the relationship between God and Israel along with it.

I will add one short thought to the astute Acharonic assertions. Over the past 2000 years, Judaism has been much maligned as a hyper-legalistic religion, as focusing on the details of the law rather than on the its spirit, losing the forest for the trees. (At times that critique has even convinced Jews to reject their Pharisaic-Rabbinic heritage.) This Gemara and commentaries can be read as very much aware of the critique, and flouting it. As observant Jews, we “own” our attention to detail and hyper-legalism. In fact, we have no choice. We have been chosen by God, a God who applies infinite scrupulousness to every detail and demands from us the same (mutatis mutandis). The polestar of this focus on detail, in fact, is none other than the Exodus, that founding moment, where Israel was distinguished from Egypt. It precedes the law, and is in fact fundamental to what it means to be a Jew, God’s chosen nation! The exact color of our tekhelet and weight of our measures, the exact provenance of our fish guts and our firstborn, the details matter! That is what it means to be a Jew, that is what the Exodus means!

As the Book of Leviticus comes to a close, we can reflect back on the many distinctions that have been made throughout the book – Kosher versus non-Kosher, Israel and the nations, being Kadosh (=distinct) in one’s conduct just like God is Kadosh. The focus on these laws, and all of Jewish law, with its many distinctions and details, is no deviation from the “Big Picture” of the story of Israel’s Exodus and chosenness. In fact, that’s what it’s all about.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Shlomo Zuckier (SBM ’12) is co-director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University and a PhD student in Ancient Judaism at Yale University. Shlomo is a graduate of the Wexner, Tikvah, and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellowships, serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, and is a founding editor of Lehrhaus.

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