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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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Valuing Dissent in a Time of Celebration

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

When Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kochba to be the King Messiah, only one rabbi stood up to him. “Weeds will grow in your jawbones, Akiva, and still the Son of David will not have come”, said Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata.(Yerushalmi Taanit 4:5) His line was likely an ironic inversion of Yeshayahu 66:14, “and your bones will flourish like grass”.

But who was Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata (lit: “son of a cow”)? Let me tell you a story.

Once there was a pious Jew who owned a cow.  They worked hard together during the week, and they each rested on Shabbat.  Eventually the Jew lost his money and was forced to sell the cow to a Gentile.  The cow worked hard for the Gentile during the first week, but when Shabbat came she sat down and simply refused to move, no matter how much the Gentile yelled at her or how hard the Gentile prodded her.   

The Gentile came to the Jew and tried to cancel the transaction on the ground that the cow was defective.  The Jew, however, understood the problem.  He went up to the cow and whispered: “Dear cow, when you were in my possession we both ploughed during the week and rested on Shabbat; now because of my sins you are in the possession of a Gentile, and I ask that you stand up and plough!”  The cow obeyed, but the Gentile suspected witchcraft.  When the Jew explained what he had said, the Gentile reasoned to himself: If a cow has that much awareness of its Creator, am I not more obligated to do so!  Immediately he converted to Judaism.  (Pesikta Rabbati 14)

That convert was Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata.

There are many halakhic difficulties with this story. A cow being obstinate once a week is not grounds for reversing a transaction, and a Jew is not allowed to tell an animal to work on Shabbat. But aggadic narratives often rely on our willful suspension of halakhic disbelief.

Other rabbinic narratives celebrate the spiritual intuition of animals, such as the donkey of R. Pinchas ben Yair, which would refuse to eat untithed grains. Or learn human obligations via a kal vachomer from animals, such as the frogs who self-martyred by jumping into Egyptian stoves. Or have cows be religiously persuadable, as when Eliayhu haNavi convinces the sacrifice of the priests of Baal to accept its fate on Mount Carmel. So there is nothing unusual about this story.

But why (other than his name), is it told about Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata?

I can find only three other possible references to him in Rabbinic literature.

a)       Once, when Rabbi Akiva called him to the Torah, he refused the aliyah on the ground that he had not adequately prepared, and the Sages praised him. (Shemot Rabbah Ki Tisa 40:1)

b)      <He stated that the lips of Torah greats move in the grave when their words are cited. (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 7)

c)       <He stated that Shiloh was destroyed because sacred things were treated disrespectfully; Yerushalayim in its first form because of idolatry, sexual sins, and bloodshed: but that regarding the most recent destruction, we must acknowledge that the people were energetic in Torah study and punctilious tithers. Why were they nonetheless exiled? Because they loved money, and hated each other. (Tosefta Menachot 13:22)

It is tempting to connect each of these statements to a fundamental dispute with Rabbi Akiva about the Bar Kochba revolt:

a)       One must not be hasty to apply the words of Torah; perhaps one has misunderstood them, and Bar Kokhba did not fulfill the Messianic predictions.

b)      Eternal life is more important than this-worldly freedom.

c)       So long as these social ills persist, it is foolhardy to seek to reverse the destruction – and our people have not stopped loving money or hating each other

The first two connections are highly speculative, but I think the third has legs. It certainly fits well with the tradition that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they failed to treat one another respectfully.

Why was Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata the one rabbi capable of articulating this critique?

The story of the Shabbat-sensitive cow tells us that Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata converted not out of love of the Jewish people, but rather out of pure religious conviction. This is a situation that comes up regularly for conversion courts, and there are two ways to formulate the issue. One is pragmatic: Will a convert be able to sustain their commitment if they aren’t deeply connected to a community, or if they are regularly disappointed by a community? The second is fundamental: Is concrete ahavat Yisroel, love of the Jewish people as we are, with all our individual warts and collective flaws, an essential component of kabbalat hamitzvot? The story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata suggests that at least under certain circumstances we can make allowances for converts who are more connected to G-d than to people.

Moreover, there is something very striking about a convert who articulates positions that no one else is willing to say publicly. It takes courage to convert a person with courage, as one will likely be assigned some of the blame when they later take unpopular positions.

More sharply: Imagine that the Bar Kochba Revolt is beginning, and the rabbinic community is lining up behind him. The universally acknowledged gadol hador, the great scholar-leader of the generation, clearly believes the times to be Messianic. At this point a conversion candidate states during his interview that while he of course believes in the Messiah, it seems wholly implausible to him that the Messiah is anywhere nigh, and that the gadol hador – indeed the whole rabbinic establishment – has in his humble opinion succumbed to irrational exuberance. Would such a convert make it through the process?

One of the great beauties of Rabbinic tradition is its willingness to preserve even the sharpest of self-critiques, without allowing the possibility of error to lead to paralysis. I wonder if there were rabbis who specifically recognized the need for importing such a critique in a time of mass enthusiasm, and who welcomed Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata specifically because of his stance rather than despite it. I like to think that they did so even while disagreeing with him.

We should not need converts to fill the role of social critics; it is a terribly unfair burden to place on them. Happily our community today is sufficiently diverse that I don’t believe it is a necessary burden.

Moreover, it seems that the rabbinic community learned the wrong lesson from Bar Kochba’s failure, or at the least, that our political judgment is terrible. Bar Kochba failed despite rabbinic support, and Zionism succeeded despite rabbinic opposition. As a result, it is only in narrow sectors of Orthodoxy that messianic populism causes us to overlook ongoing social ills. Yet we cannot disclaim responsibility for those sectors.

Perhaps a subtle message of the Omer mourning is that Bar Kochba might have succeeded if he had paid more attention to Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata. At the very least, Orthodox Zionists, even as we properly and joyously celebrate the existence, success, and many incredible achievements of the State of Israel, need to ensure that we maintain a space and an open ear for the Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata’s among us.

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Music During the Omer? A Model Modern Orthodox Responsum

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi Klapper,

What are your thoughts listening to live music during the Omer?  I know that different people do different things regarding this.


Jack Smith


Dear Jack,

Thank you for your question!  Every halakhic question is vitally important in and of itself, but your formulation properly raises a really “big” and broad issue: How should an individual Jew in America today (or Israel, but that deserves separate treatment) decide or discover what their minhag is on issues where multiple legitimate minhagim exist?

A good first step is to study about the existing options.  For an excellent survey of halakhic positions regarding “mourning”, I encourage you to read the essay by Rabbi David Brofsky here.  A very different and valuable presentation is by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed here.  (It may be instructive to compare the breadth and depth of each to the presentations that come up first on Google.)  I won’t try to duplicate their work here, and to some extent will rely on them.  Rather, I will try to frame the discussion in a way that empowers you to make informed and meaningful choices, and look forward to further correspondence.

Mourning is the secondary halakhah of the omer period.  The primary halakhah is the Biblical mitzvah of counting the omer.  This mitzvah connects the barley and wheat harvests, the pilgrimage holidays of Pesach and Shavuot, and marks the period between the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai.  The counting seems intended to create throughout an atmosphere of excitement, celebration, and anticipation that is wholly incompatible with mourning.  Even without the Beit Hamikdash, and therefore without the mitzvot of sacrifices and pilgrimages, it seems inappropriate to be mourning while on the way to Sinai.

The Omer period begins with Chol HaMoed and the last Yom Tov of Pesach, which override any mourning restrictions.  The rest of Nisan is a period in which certain forms of public mourning, such as eulogies, are forbidden.  If mourning begins on day 1, the first sixteen days are our “Vulcan” period, in which the restrictions of Pesach, Nisan and the Omer combine to forbid both happiness and sadness. It seems that we are required to be purely rational and emotionless, at least in public.  But that doesn’t seem realistic or healthy, and one needs to think about how to handle situations in which, for example, insisting on the absence of music would constitute obvious mourning.  Then Yom HaAtzmaut comes only five days later (or six; another issue deserving separate treatment)!  At the other end, the 3 Days of Hagbalah immediately preceding Shavuot, which commemorate our preparation for Revelation, are also clearly a time of joy.  The New Moons of Sivan and Iyyar also fall within the Omer period.  So how can we mourn?

Yet there is no denying that just about every pre-20th century community observed an Omer mourning custom of 32 or 33 days,  starting either from Omer day 1 (=16 Nissan) or else on 1 or 2 Iyyar.  These customs are generally connected to the report that vast numbers of Rabbi Akiva’s students died during the first 32 or 33 days (as the result of interpersonal misbehavior, the Bar Kochba revolt, or both). The regnant explanation of the later starting dates (1 or 2 Iyyar) is that the mourning period was shifted in some parts of Ashkenaz in order to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Crusades, which reached Ashkenaz in Iyyar.  But why move the dates, rather than just extending them?    I wonder if it was an excuse to leave at least Nissan’s happiness unblemished.

The shifting of the dates yields a very odd halakhic result.  A doubtful custom cannot overcome a certain prohibition (and there is room to question the power of a definite custom as well).  Because there are divergent customs with regard to all dates except Iyyar 2-4 and 6–18, and the vast majority of American Jews do not belong to geographic communities bound by a particular custom, a good formal halakhic argument could be constructed to forbid mourning on many or all the other dates.  Instead, the standard halakhah in practice has been that at least those who identify as generic Ashkenazim may adopt any of the preexisting customs as to dates, and even to change their custom from year to year without hatarat nedarim.  One should ideally develop a consistent practice over time, and strive for consistency within any given year; but there is much space for accommodating the needs of friends who have different minhagim, e.g. friends’ celebrations or roommates who listen to music.  And speaking of music . . .

There are two basic frameworks for Omer mourning

1)  Simchat m’reut – essentially, parties.  In this framework there is no issue with live music per se, only with the atmosphere often generated by live music.  So for example chamber music concerts in a concert hall, when you’re not allowed to talk, would be fine (but receptions before and after would not be, even if there were no music).  Conversely, a party with dancing to recorded music would be forbidden.  Generally any combination of alcohol and music would be forbidden.

2)  Specific customs – Obviously there can be no minhag going back more than a century about recorded music.  Various practices have developed as to whether and how to extend a prior minhag about live music.

These options may reflect two radically divergent approaches to religious expression generally.

The first approach, which was championed (at least in this case) by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, contends that formal halakhah should set the pattern for all religious behavior.  Ritual creativity is inherently suspect as a potential violation of bal tosif (adding to the Torah) or as an imposition of subjective desire onto objective obligation.

By contrast, Rav Ovadiah Yosef sees popular intuition as a valuable guide to balancing conflicting religious emotions and spiritual sensibilities.  The omer period is legitimately a time of both mourning and celebration.  I contend that this balance is and should be affected by the establishment of the State of Israel and the development of Yom HaAtzmaut, Yom Yerushalayim, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom HaShoah.

If your friends and religious peers do not have a clear practice regarding dates and/or music, and a broadly respected local halakhic authority hasn’t taken a firm stand, and you haven’t been clear about your approach in previous years, there’s a great deal of room for personal choices, but one should have in mind “beli neder” if you want to be able to switch again next year.

I think you should aspire to adopt consistent frameworks for making those choices.

How do you balance the advantages and risks of giving halakhic force to popular spiritual intuition?  Do you see halakhah as a stabilizing force, a kind of spiritual insurance, that enables risk-taking?  As a potentially stultifying and homogenizing force that must be balanced by creativity?  As the best or sole method of turning self-satisfying human actions into service of G-d?

What role does music, recorded or live play in your life and the life of the communities?  Is it an essential and constant background that accompanies all emotions, or limited to celebratory contexts?  Does its periodic conscious absence enable you to focus on religious ideas and contexts that you might otherwise give short shrift to?  Does it make you more susceptible to dwelling unconstructively on negative emotions?  Bear in mind that a powerful halakhic argument can be made that music should always be forbidden while we have no Beit haMikdash, but is nonetheless permitted as a concession to our emotional and religious psychology.

How do you balance the “background” religious emotions generated by the ongoing state of the world and condition of the Jewish people?  Should that balance be different in Israel and the United States?

While you grapple with these questions, I suggest that the default American Modern Orthodox framework is that one should not listen to live music in any context from after Pesach through day 32 (other mourning practices may continue through day 33 for those who identify as Sefardim), excluding Yom Ha’atzmaut, but that listening to recorded music is generally permitted.


Aryeh Klapper

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Ruling Desire and Desiring Rules

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Betsy Morgan

On Shabbat Chol ha’Moed it is customary to read Shir ha’Shirim, a megillah of blooming flowers and blossoming love between two lovers. The are they/aren’t they protagonists are understood to represent God and the Jewish people. Throughout the megillah their metaphors and similes of passion never culminate in a final moment. Indeed, it ends with the Dod running away again.

What is the story of love meant to teach us about our relationship with God? The dialogue is limited to exchanges of compliments, but no conversation. Is this an ideal relationship? The most salient features of the megillah are passion and appreciation, but the megillah also serves an additional purpose in teaching about equality.

The presence of desire in a relationship creates an opportunity for unequal power dynamic. This is first expressed in the Torah in the aftermath of eating from the tree of knowledge. A punishment of Chava is “וְאֶל-אִישֵׁךְ, תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ, וְהוּא, יִמְשָׁל-בָּךְ”, that she will desire her husband, and he will rule her. Her desire creates a vulnerability that results in an imbalanced relationship. In this archetypical relationship in the Torah, there is a strain of closeness and distance, desire and inequality.

This idea appears again in Bereshit in the aftermath of Kayin killing his brother Hevel. God tells Kayin in regards to sin “הֲלוֹא אִם-תֵּיטִיב, שְׂאֵת, וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב, לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ; וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ, וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ”, is it not so that if you are good you will overcome it, because sin is crouching at your doorstep, it desires you and you rule over it. Like a virus needs a host, sin desires the sinner, and thus Kayin can rule over it.

The final time this language is used in Tanach is in Shir ha’Shirim “אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי, וְעָלַי תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ”, I am to my beloved and he desires me. Here is a reversal from Bereshit. First, a person is speaking, whereas God was the speaker of both instances in Bereshit. The affected parties are the active ones, aware of their situation and standing. Second, in Shir ha’Shirim, the man desires the woman, the opposite from Chava and Adam. We would expect that this would make him the vulnerable party, at the woman’s mercy to rule over him. However, she is declaring herself to him, making herself equally vulnerable to him. Using her power, she abolishes the power imbalance. They are equal.

Tracing this concept of desire and power gives Shir ha’Shirim a culmination of a larger story, showing how two entities can be vulnerable and equal. God desires us to be His people, as evidenced in the Exodus story from Egypt and throughout our journey in the desert. At Har Sinai we are declared His nation and are sustained in the desert until delivered to Israel. We desire God to be our God, and demonstrate this through the fulfillment of mitzvot and learning His Torah. Pesach is a time when we review the roots of our relationship with God, and renew it by teaching our history to our families at the Seder. The story in Shir ha’Shirim never really ends, because we are still playing the parts in this relationship through the choices we make every day.

Betsy Morgan (SBM 2013, 2014) is a Junior at Drexel University studying Materials Science and Engineering. She is currently serving as the Gabbai for Drexel’s Orthodox Minyan Group and as a Campus Fellow for the Jewish Institute for Ideas and Ideals.

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CMTL Pesach Reader, 2017 Edition

Check out the 2017 edition of the CMTL Pesach Reader for Divrei Torah about Pesach from Rabbi Klapper and CMTL alumni!

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הא לחמא עניא (from the Aryeh Klapper Haggadah, in progress)

  • הא לחמא עניא דאכלו אבהתנא בארעא דמצרים.

    כל דכפין – ייתי וייכול;        כל דצריך – ייתי ויפסח.

    השתא – הכא;                                         לשנה הבאה – בארעא דישראל.

    השתא –  עבדי;                                                                           לשנה הבאה – בני חורין.

    This is the bread of poverty that was eaten by our ancestors in the land of Mitzrayim
    Anyone hungry – let them come and eat!  Anyone in need – let them come eat a Pesach!
         This year – here;                                                        The coming year – in the land of Israel!
    This year – slaves;                                                                            The coming year – free people!

    In the United States, we generally recite this paragraph ritually in a locked house or apartment, or a wellguarded resort complex, where the poor – unless previously invited – could not possible hear us. This seems too ironic for words. But it is also true that we live in environments where the desperately and publicly poor are rarely known to us personally, and so reasonable concerns of safety and privacy make the idealistic framework set out here uncomfortable and likely unwise. Can we nonetheless make sense of it? Let us begin by recognizing that the paragraph is structured chronologically – we start in Mitzrayim at the point of the Exodus (“This is the bread our ancestors ate in the Land of Mitzrayim”), move to Israel during the Temple period (““Anyone in need – let him come eat a Pesach”), acknowledge contemporary reality, and finally express our hopes for the future. Our scripted invitation to the needy is a deliberate flashback to the Temple period, when all Israel was camped out in Jerusalem, and the “haves” provided for those who could not afford their own lamb for the Pesach sacrifice. It is not intended as a direct critique of Diaspora practice. Nonetheless, surely one purpose of the Pesach sacrifice was to create a circumstance in which each Jew of means had direct responsibility for the poor. Can we maintain the spirit of the law when the letter remains sadly out of reach? I don’t think the solution is necessarily open-air barbecue seders in public parks. Chazal (Bava Batra 7b) recognize a legitimate tension between the right to privacy and the obligation to remain accessible to the poor. Residents of a courtyard may legally compel each other to pay for the construction of a gatehouse; yet Elijah the prophet stopped visiting one chasid’s courtyard once a gatehouse was built, in protest against his exclusion of the poor. The proper balance between these values depends on social and individual circumstances. In a perfect world, no one responds to the last-minute Pesach invitation, because all the poor have already been provided for. We can recline in the privacy and freedom of our houses and hotels without guilt, but only if we have done our part in advance to ensure that the poor have the wherewithal to make their own sedarim.

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