Category Archives: Weekly Devar Torah

Not Adding or Subtracting, Just Doing My Own Thing?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The Torah commands twice (Devarim 4:2 and 13:1) against adding to the matters which G-d commands, or subtracting from them.  Nevertheless, the experience of observant Judaism is shaped by and saturated with rabbinic decrees and customs that are not found in the Torah. How can we reconcile our reality with our texts?

Rashi cites Chazal’s solution to explain both verses, without accounting for the redundancy. These commands relate to the forms of mitzvot. If the Torah commands one to pick up FOUR species on Sukkot, one must not pick up three or five.

Ramban 4:2 feels – “feels” feels like the appropriate word – that this solution is too exclusively formal, and ignores the obvious substance of the command.

לפי דעתי:

אפילו בדא לעשות מצוה בפני עצמה,

כגון שעשה חג בחדש שבדא מלבו,

כירבעם (מלכים א י”ב:ל”ג) –

עובר בלאו.

וכך אמרו (בבלי מגילה י”ד) לענין מקרא מגלה:

מאה ושמונים נביאים עמדו להם לישראל

ולא פחתו ולא הוסיפו על מה שכתוב בתורה אפילו אות אחת

חוץ ממקרא מגילה . . .

In my opinion:

Even if he invents a stand-alone mitzvah

such as making a holiday in a month that his own heart invented,

as Yerav’am did (I Kings 12:33) –

he violates this DON’T.

So they say (Megillah 14a) regarding reading Megillat Esther on Purim:

180 prophets arose for Israel

and they neither subtracted nor added to what is written in the Torah, even one letter

except for the reading of the Megillah . . .

Ramban is fully conscious that his prooftext is indirect, and ironic – if there is such a prohibition, how could it have been violated even that once?  How do he and the Talmudic rabbis account for the innumerable Rabbinic decrees other than Purim?  And doesn’t his entire effort risk adding a new mitzvah to the Torah, namely the command not to add mitzvot?

The Vilna Gaon uses the apparent redundancy to support Ramban.  Devarim 4:2, he argues, is a commandment not to add or subtract mitzvot.  13:1 is a commandment not to add or subtract within the form of each mitzvah.

Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (kudos to for making his commentary available) builds off the Gaon.  The commandment in 4:2 is written in the plural, whereas 13:1 has it in the singular.  Perhaps the commandment in 4:2 is addressed to the Sanhedrin, which has the power to change the law.  13:1 is in the singular, meaning that it is addressed to each individual, and relates to the way in which he or she observes the law.

Rabbi Hoffman notes that Rambam likely took this exegetical approach.  However, the mitzvah that Rambam derives from 13:1 is more sophisticated than Ramban’s.

Rambam Laws of Rebels 2:9

הואיל ויש לבית דין לגזור ולאסור דבר המותר

ויעמוד איסורו לדורות

וכן יש להן להתיר איסורי תורה לפי שעה

מהו זה שהזהירה תורה לא תוסיף עליו ולא תגרע ממנו?

שלא להוסיף על דברי תורה ולא לגרוע מהן ולקבוע הדבר לעולם

בדבר שהוא מן התורה בין בתורה שבכתב בין בתורה שבעל פה,


הרי כתוב בתורה לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו

מפי השמועה למדו שזה הכתוב אסר לבשל ולאכול בשר בחלב,

בין בשר בהמה בין בשר חיה,

אבל בשר העוף מותר בחלב מן התורה.

אם יבוא בית דין ויתיר בשר חיה בחלב – הרי זה גורע;

ואם יאסור בשר העוף ויאמר שהוא בכלל הגדי והוא אסור מן התורה – הרי זה מוסיף;

אבל אם אמר בשר העוף מותר מן התורה ואנו נאסור אותו,

ונודיע לעם שהוא גזרה שלא יבא מן הדבר חובה . . .

אין זה מוסיף, אלא עושה סייג לתורה, וכן כל כיוצא בזה.

Since beit din can decree to prohibit something permitted,

and have the prohibition stand for generations,

and they can also permit Biblical prohibitions temporarily,

what does the Torah mean when it cautions us “Do not add above it and do not subtract from it”?

Not to add above the words of Torah and not to subtract from them and fix the matter forever

in a Torah matter, whether Written Torah or Oral Torah,

An illustration –

The Torah writes “Do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk”

They learned on the basis of tradition that this verse bans cooking and eating milk with meat,

whether of domestic or wild animals,

but that fowlflesh is permitted with milk Biblically,

If a beit din came and allowed wild animal meat with milk – it would be subtracting;

But if it said that fowlflesh is permitted Biblically, but that we will forbid it,

and tell the people that it is a decree lest . . .

this is not adding, but rather making a fence around the Torah, and so too all similar cases.

Rambam thus neatly solves the question of how the Rabbis can legitimately have added so much to the Torah – the prohibition applies only if they add to the Torah, but so long as they acknowledge their own authorship, there is no violation.

Raavad immediately protests that this concedes too much.



כל אלה ישא רוח

שכל דבר שגזרו עליו ואסרוהו לסייג ולמשמרת של תורה –

אין בו משום לא תוסיף,

אפילו קבעוהו לדורות ועשאוהו כשל תורה וסמכוהו למקרא . . .

Says Avraham:

All these are just wind

as everything that they decreed against and forbade as a fence and guard for the Torah –

is not subject to “Do not add,”

even if they fix it for generations and make it as-if Biblical and lean it on a verse . . . .

The obvious basis for Raavad’s protest is that we have utterly failed to live up to Rambam’s requirement.  Halakhic literature is replete with unresolved disputes as to whether a particular law is Biblical or Rabbinic.  Most rishonim therefore adopt some version of Raavad’s contention that the verse “Do not stray from what they tell you right or left” gives the Rabbis an exemption from “Do not add.”  The problem is that making this claim seems a violation of “do not subtract,” because according to the Gaon, 4:2 is addressed specifically to the very group that Raavad exempts from it.

Some commentators therefore seek to narrow the scope of the prohibition against adding.  Chizkuni to 4:2 offers the most radical approach of this sort that I have seen among the rishonim:

תשובה למיני ישראל שפקרו על התלמוד ואמרו

איך הוסיפו חכמי ישראל כמה דברים בתלמוד שאינה בתורה

הרי כתיב לא תספו על הדבר, ולא תגרעו ממנו

ימחו ההוספות מספר חיים.

הרי תשובה לדבריהם

שהרי לשון זה אינו רק בשני מקומות בתורה, ואינו רק גבי אלהות ויראה,


אין לך להוסיף ליראה על יראת הקב”ה יראה אחרת, ולא לגרוע מיראתו . . .

אבל במצות דעלמא

לא הזהיר הקב”ה שלא להוסיף כדי לעשות סייג וגדר לתורה.

A response to the Jewish heretics who scoffed at the Talmud, saying

How could the Sages of Israel have added things in the Talmud that aren’t in the Torah?!

It is written Do not add above it and do not subtract from it –

let the additions be erased from the Book of Life!

The response to their words is

that this language only appears in two places in the Torah, and only regarding Divinity and Awe,


you must not add another Awe to your Awe of The Holy Blessed One, nor subtract from His Awe,

but regarding mitzvot generally

The Holy Blessed One did not forbid us to add for the sake of making a protective fence for the Torah…

According to this approach, it seems that the Rabbis have no special privileges – anyone can add if their purpose is to create a protective fence for the Torah.  This approach has the advantage of justifying private customs as well as Rabbinic law.  However, it also has a potentially dangerous implication.  What, in this view, is the prohibition against subtracting?  Rabbis can make fence-decrees that suspend mitzvot, such as the rule against blowing shofar on Shabbat Rosh haShannah – surely that power cannot extend to private individuals.

Netziv, perhaps in response, takes a completely opposite approach.  The Torah does not exempt additions and subtractions made with the proper motivation; rather, it specifically bans them.

Since there are other means of achieving devekut/cleaving to the Divine

certainly via sacrifices, which are great preparation for achieving knowledge of Divinity . . .

therefore it says that it is better to achieve this ‘life’ through statutes and laws than through other means.

About this it says do not add . . .

For Netziv, the Torah here is not worrying about additions or subtractions within Halakhah. Rather, it is worrying that some might come to see spiritual experience as the goal, and Halakhah, or more specifically the legal sections of the Torah as understood by Chazal, as but one means among many.  Possibly there is a tinge of old-fashioned anti-Chassidic hitnagdut here, but more likely Netziv was addressing tendencies among his own Lithuanian students.

Yet Netziv’s writings show that he did not confine himself to the four ells of Halakhah, but rather was himself open to poetry, for example.  What, in his mind, distinguished prohibited additions from his own efforts and experiences?  How can we open ourselves to the full potential breadth of human encounter with the Divine, while leaving the experience of Halakhah as central and controlling?  This is the eternal underlying challenge of the prohibitions against adding and subtracting, which has been met in many different ways in Jewish history, and perhaps our generation will find its answer yet.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

Imagining Divine Empathy

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Texts cannot defend themselves against interpreters, but interpreters can defend themselves against texts. For example, non-observant Jewish readers sometimes defend themselves against Rabbinic texts by creating distance, by adopting the least generous and most ethically off-putting interpretations possible. This prevents the texts from making claims on them.  Orthodox readers sometimes defend themselves by assimilating the text to practices and values they already agree with. This prevents the texts from challenging them.

These strategies are not illegitimate.  There is no way to read a text without preconceptions. The most we can do is to imagine ways to read with multiple, different, even contradictory preconceptions. People who believe in Torah properly seek to defend it by excluding meanings that we consider implausible, unethical, or even heretical. We can only ask each other to have imaginative and empathetic parameters of plausibility when considering interpretations.

One way a text can help us cultivate the necessary imagination, more-or-less safely, is by presenting perspectives that it clearly does not endorse. For example, the Torah often does not merely condemn its villains; it presents the self-justifications of idol-worshippers, or of libertines, or of those who resist the authority of Mosheh Rabbeinu. Some commentators read these like fantasy fiction, with the goal being to imagine sinners as alien beings having nothing in common with the interpreter. But others engage in imaginative empathy, with the goal being to present sinners as creatures very much like you and me who tragically succumbed to the wiles of our common yetzer hora, or fell prey to intellectual error. Some of the best of these are rabbinic dialogues in which the worst of killers make their decisions on the basis of sophisticated halakhic argument.

Bamidbar 14:13-19 presents a particularly rich opportunity to engage in imaginative empathy. The Torah presents Moshe’s presentation to G-d of what the Mitzriyim would say to the Canaanites – presumably convincing them –  if G-d destroyed the Jews.

Whose plausibility structure should be used? If we believe that Mosheh’s argument convinces G-d to call off our destruction, despite the theological baggage involved in such a claim, then the task is to construct a psychology of Mitzriyim and Canaanites that G-d would find plausible. We are required to consider what G-d would and would not believe about human reactions. Assuming that G-d’s beliefs, must be true even with regard to hypotheticals, our construction must fit our own beliefs about Mitzriyim and Canaanites as well.

The text presents Mosheh’s argument as follows:

ושמעו מצרים כי העלית בכחך את העם הזה מקרבו,

ואמרו אל יושב הארץ הזאת:

שמעו כי אתה ה’ בקרב העם הזה

אשר עין בעין נראה אתה ה’, ועננך עמד עלהם,

ובעמד ענן אתה הלך לפניהם יומם, ובעמוד אש לילה.

והמתה את העם הזה כאיש אחד, ואמרו הגוים אשר שמעו את שמעך לאמר:

מבלתי יכלת ה’ להביא את העם הזה אל הארץ אשר נשבע להם וישחטם במדבר.

ועתה – יגדל נא כח אד-ני, כאשר דברת לאמר:

But Egypt will hear that You have taken with Your power this nation from its core,
and they will tell the inhabitants of that land:

Certainly they have heard that you Hashem are at the core of this nation –

that You have appeared to them eye-to-eye, and Your cloud stands watch over them,

and that in a stand of cloud You go before them by day, and in a stand of fire by night.

So when you put to this nation to death as if it were one man,

the nations who have heard Your repute will say:

“It was out of Hashem’s inability to bring this nation to the land which He swore to give them,

that he slaughtered them in the desert.”

Now – let the power of Hashem enlarge, in accordance with what You said . . .

Mosheh appears to argue that if G-d destroyed the Jews suddenly, the Mitzriyim would say that He did so because He was unable to bring them to Canaan. The medieval French commentator R. Yosef Cara reasonably asks:

איך אפשר שיאמרו מצרים כן,

שהרי ראו כמה מכות וקריעת ים סוף?!

How is it possible that the Mitzriyim would say this,

when they had just seen many plagues and the splitting of the Reed Sea?!

Given that the Egyptians had just witnessed an extended display of awesome Divine might, how could G-d have believed that the Egyptians would think Him incapable of conquering Canaan?

R. Cara’s answer is that the Egyptians would have argued that G-d exhausted His powers by taking Israel out of Egypt. He supports this reading by noting that Mosheh’s subsequent exhortation for G-d to enlarge His power seems philosophically problematic, but now can mean that He should express his power yet more dramatically.  The power Mosheh is speaking of is power-in-the-world, not the power to bear with human beings despite their flaws.

Rav Cara’s reading however does not address what may be the most basic question. Why does G-d care what the Mitzriyim would say, and/or how the Canaanites would react?  We have to address not only the plausibility to G-d of Mosheh’s presentation of human psychology, but also the plausibility of the theopsychology, of G-d’s reaction to Moshe’s presentation.

Does R. Cara provides a plausible reconstruction of human psychology?  Is it reasonable to suppose that the Mitzriyim and Canaanites would, in the aftermath of the sudden destruction of Israel, have seen the Splitting of the Sea as exhausting G-d’s power rather than demonstrating its inexhaustibility? I think the answer is in part yes, and R. Cara does us a service by exposing this.

As both Yeshayah Leibowitz and Rav Dessler point out powerfully, displays of Divine might do not generate enduring belief. Isaac Breuer argued (I learned this from Rabbi Chanoch Waxman’s undergraduate article for Hamevaser) that what is miraculous about miracles is not their product, but rather our recognition of them as supernatural, since we instinctively assimilate all new data to models of comprehensible causality. Egypt would have been searching for a way to make G-d finite. Moreover, we have to admit that sometimes tremendous efforts lead directly to and immediately precede collapse. But the answer is also in part no. The instantaneous destruction of the entire Jewish people would itself have been a display awesome enough to put the lie to a claim of Divine exhaustion.

There really is no plausible way for G-d to be worried that His reputation for power to suffer as the result of His destruction of the Jews. Note that in Shemot 32:11-14 Mosheh apparently convinces G-d not to destroy the Jews via the at least equally implausible claim that the Mitzriyim would argue that He took the Jews out of Egypt because he hated them.) Moreover – why does G-d care so much about His reputation for power? If necessary, He could always do yet more wondrous miracles and restore his reputation, regardless of what became of the Jews.

But it seems to me that there is something that the other nations might have thought that would be legitimate grounds for Divine concern.  They might have thought that it was G-d’s inability to maintain a living relationship with a people that led to the destruction of the Jews. G-d wished to take the Jews to Canaan; He failed. Maybe that failure was inevitable, and will happen every time He tries.  This, I suggest, must be Mosheh Rabbeinu’s real argument, both here and in Shemot.

The question then becomes why Mosheh does not, and presumably cannot, make this argument explicitly.

The answer, I suggest, is that it proves too much.  Accepting that argument would mean that G-d could never destroy the Jews, ever, no matter how grave their wrongdoings.  His reputation is too bound up with their survival to allow Him free reign to punish them. K’b’yakhol – if it were possible to say such a thing – it seems that one arc of the Torah’s narrative is how G-d comes to terms with the ways in which our relationship with Him, as understood by the rest of humanity, limits the extent to which the Attribute of Justice can be expressed in this world relative to the Attribute of Mercy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

Must Halakhah Be Spiritually Fair?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

In the first month of the second year following the Exodus, G-d told Mosheh: “Bnei Yisroel must make the Pesach in its appointed time, on the fourteenth of this month, in the afternoon, you must make it, in its appointed time.”  (Bamidbar 9:2-3) Even one “in its appointed time” would have been redundant, since the date and time are separately specified – two seems extravagant. Mosheh then tells Bnei Yisroel to make the Pesach, and they make it at the specified time and date, with no mention of the “appointed time.” The discrepancy is resolved by a back story – a group of men protested the initial command as discriminatory, and G-d agreed to the point of providing them with a reasonable accommodation in the form of a makeup date, not the “appointed time.”

Who were these people, and why were they initially excluded? They describe themselves as “טמאים לנפש אדם,” ritually impure to a human spirit” (corpse).  Talmud Sukkah 25a provides three possible identifications.  They might have been the ones who carried Yosef’s coffin from Egypt; or who carried Nadav and Avihu’s bodies out of the Holy of Holies; or simply Jews who fulfilled the obligation to bury someone who died with no one specifically obligated to bury them (meit mitzvah).

RITVA (the medieval Spanish Rabbi Yom Tov ben Asevilli) points out that the self-report and the Talmudic identifications each raises a grave difficulty.

Regarding the self-report – the men admit their tamei meitness, and clearly understand this to be the ground for their exclusion. What then are they asking, and why isn’t the answer to their question obvious to Mosheh?

Regarding the Talmudic identifications – In a community of millions, one has to assume that many deaths happen each day, and therefore that some people will always be tamei meit.  So what difficulty requires resolution via a more specific identification?!

Rabbinic tradition provides a series of brilliant technical responses to the first question. The Talmud itself notes that Torah describes the excluded as unable to do the Pesach ביום ההוא, on that day – meaning that they would have been able to being it the next day.  Why, if tamei meitness lasts seven days?  Because the Pesach is slaughtered in the afternoon, but eaten at night.  The people asking would no longer be tamei meit when the time came for eating the Pesach.  Since the slaughtering of each Pesach is done by one person for the sake of a group, they contended that they could be part of such groups despite being tamei meit, and then participate in the eating at night.

Many later commentators note that the extra words במועדו are used to allow the Pesach to be brought when the community as a whole is tamei meit; the questioners here thought that this should also apply to individuals.

Some commentators root their answers in the specific identifications, e,g, perhaps Yosef’s coffin was designed to shield its bearers from tum’ah.  To take one spectacular example, Tzror HaMor (Rabbi Avraham ben R. Yaakov Sabe, Spanish expulsion) notes that the people describe themselves as tmei’im l’nefesh Adam, rather than mentioning death.  The deaths of Nadav and Avihu, he suggests, were not the result of sin but rather because they were so close to G-d that their deaths reversed the sin of Adam, and thereby enabled the exiled Divine Presence to return to Earth (in the Holy of Holies). Their pallbearers therefore contended that tum’ah related to this sort of death should not prevent them from sacrificing.  On the contrary – association with the deaths that brought the Divine Fire to burn on the altar should be a qualification!  Tzror HaMor’s reading is also supported by the odd locution that the people “draw near” to Mosheh and Aharon in order to ask their question.  The Hebrew is ויקרבו, which is the verb for sacrifice and also recalls G-d telling Moseh that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu were a fulfillment of בקרבי אקדש.

The problem with purely technical explanations of the question is that they don’t explain why Mosheh needs to refer the question to G-d, or why G-d responds with a make-up date rather than with an explanation for the exclusion.

Or HaChayyim does a better job of matching the question with G-d’s answer.

צריך לדעת טענת האנשים במאמר למה נגרע

הלא טעמם בפיהם יענו אנחנו טמאים,

ומה מבקשים ליתן להם תורה חדשה?!

ואולי כי לצד שנטמאו ברשותו יתברך,

בין למאן דאמר טמאי מת מצוה בין למאן דאמר נושאי ארונו של יוסף,

חשבו כי ידין ה’ אותם כטהורים

We have to understand the contention of the people when they said “Why should we be subtracted?” –

Isn’t the reason in their own mouths, when they said “we are temeiim?!”

Perhaps it was since they had become tamei with His permission,

whether one follows the position identifying them as tamei via a meit mitzvah, or as Yosef’s coffinbearers,

they thought that G-d would judge them as if they were tehorim.

Or HaChayyim subtly shifts the framework.  Technical explanations lead at most to doubt – maybe we should not be excluded.  Lamah nigora, why should we be subtracted, has a much more aggressive valence. It establishes a presumption that they should not be excluded. Moreover, Or HaChayyim sees their appeal as not to the law, but rather to G-d directly. Fundamentally, they claim that it would be unfair for Him to exclude them from this mitzvah.

G-d’s answer fits well this way. A makeup date leaves the law as-is while resolving the fairness issue. But Or Hachayyim’s approach requires us to insert facts and arguments into the question that cannot be derived from the text, which states their tamei meitcondition generically.

My own perhaps original suggestion is as follows. It is theoretically possible to bury someone without becoming tamei.  Kohanim, however, are required to become tamei to their dead relatives. Since the Pesach date was announced two weeks in advance, perhaps everyone other than kohanim took technical measures to bury without tum’ah. The only deaths in the one small family of kohanim that month were of course those of Nadav and Avihu, and therefore their buriers were the only tamei meit people among Bnei Yisroel when the time for the Pesach arrived. (This assumes that Mishael and Eltzafan were obligated to become tamei even though they themselves were not kohanim, an issue beyond our scope here.)

Alternatively, perhaps everyone was avoiding participation in burials lest they miss the Pesach. This in effect made every Jew who died a meit mitzvah, and so some people volunteered to be the chevra Kadisha for those two weeks. The question these volunteers asked was whether the exclusion applied to them even though they had become tamei in the process of fulfilling a communal obligation.

This question was both technical and moral.  There is nothing about the law as formulated up to now that allows an exception. But the law also never explicitly rejected this exception.  In this case, the law yields an unfair result without the exception, and that shifts the burden of proof.

Talmud Sukkah 25a learns from here that ha’osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah, that one who is engaged in the performance of one mitzvah, such as burial, is exempt from other mitzvot (such as the Pesach; this means that they can also engage in actions that will make them unable to perform the Pesach a week later.)  This principle had not been stated previously. The volunteers therefore assume that they are still obligated to bring the Pesach, and perhaps even that they will be punished with excision for failing to bring it, even though Halakhah forbids them to bring it, and their inability to bring it results from their fulfillment of a halakhic obligation! This seems doubly unfair to them.

Mosheh Rabbeinu might have responded by teaching the ha’osek principle – no, you will not be punished, because you are exempt. But he senses that this will not satisfy them; it removes the punishment, but not the fundamental unfairness of being excluded from one religious activity because they had volunteered on behalf of the community to perform another.  So he refers them to G-d.  G-d acknowledges that exempting them is insufficient, and so He provides the makeup date.

A makeup date has its own issues.  As Chatam Sofer points out, there is still a vast experiential difference between doing the Pesach with “all Israel” and doing it with a small group.  Moreover, what happens if someone has an equally valid reason for missing the makeup?  The Torah does not provide for a second make-up.

In other words, halakhah is a part of human life, and therefore can never be perfectly fair.  But this does not mean that unfairness is not grounds for complaint.  Perhaps complaints that ask for absolutely clear Halakhah to change are excluded.  But where there is ambiguity or undevelopment, challenges that seek to reverse presumptions are welcome.

However, we do not have Mosheh Rabbeinu’s option of referring such challenges to G-d, immediate reply requested. It matters a great deal whether we decide that this justifies us in giving purely technical answers, because only G-d can respond morally, or rather that it obligates us to respond morally, as G-d would if the Torah were still in the possession of Heaven.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

The Little Prince and His Rose Yeshiva

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

“An aspiring maggid shiur need not know every source that everyone else knows. What matter is knowing one hundred sources that no one else knows.” A friend’s rebbe told me this years ago to help me overcome feeling inadequate for my lacking bekiut. To some extent he succeeded, because in principle he was right.  The great shiurim of the past emerged from the capacity to notice things that other people hadn’t, not from comprehensively renoticing everything they had.

This approach carries with it a temptation to intellectual miserliness. Every time you teach one of your hundred sources, after all, if you’re any kind of effective pedagogue, other people learn them! Your students will talk to other teacher’s students, or become teachers themselves, and pretty soon it will just be one of the things that every maggid shiur knows.  

The proper solution to this dilemma, of course, is to keep learning, so that your supply of unique sources refills faster than it is depleted. But the more shiurim you give, the harder that gets.

All this was back in the days before the Bar Ilan Responsa Project, let alone Otzar HaChokhmah, Hebrew Books, Al Hatorah, or Sefaria.  The database revolution has democratized both sides of the equation. On the one hand, bekiut for the purposes of giving a shiur can be easily obtained by tracing a chain of citations from the Talmud, or by working backward from an article by Rabbi Bleich, a responsum of Rav Ovadiah z”l, or an entry in the Encyclopedia Talmudit (if they’ve gotten up to your letter), et al. On the other hand, just about every source in history has been indexed to standard sources, so that anyone inputting the right search string, or reading the standard anthologies, will likely meet all that was once considered unusual.

Preparing for this devar Torah, I had what you might call a “The Little Prince and His Rose” experience.  I followed an interpretive thread on the parshah and realized that it gave me the chance to share with you one of my favorite esoteric (so I thought) sources. But as I no longer recalled the title of the book where had seen it quoted years ago, I typed the key phrase into Bar Ilan in the hope that it might be tagged. It turned out that the idea had come up repeatedly in the past, and of course was referenced in the Daf Al Daf anthology.  My source was no longer special at all. “I thought that I was rich, with a flower that was unique in all the world; and all I had was a common rose.”

The fox comes along and teaches the little prince that “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.  You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose . . .” Talmud Torah is not a waste of time. But it may be that the function of a successful Torah teacher now is to present the sources he or she loves in a way that makes students and readers want to develop their own special relationship with them, so that there will be always be someone to make sure they are properly understood and have their proper place in a tradition that is now so accessible across intellectual and spiritual communities, in such breadth that, like multiculturalism, it begins by celebrating diversity and ends in homogenization.

So here we go.  Bamidbar 6:14 teaches that a one who takes an oath of nezirut brings a sin-offering = chatat at the conclusion of his period of nezirut.  The obvious question is: Why a sin offering, which is brought in the case of accidental sin? In what way have they sinned, and if they have sinned, in what way was it accidental?

The simple answer is that the Torah is talking about the special case in which the nazir had violated his oath by accidentally becoming tamei meit = acquiring corpse-impurity. But this seems difficult to fit into the verses, which seem to say that every nazir brings such a sacrifice.

The Talmuds accordingly cite several Tannaim as holding that every nazir sins per se.  What is the sin? One possibility is that it is arrogance, yohara. The Nazir’s oath demonstrates a belief that he or she is holier than everyone else and so requires additional religious restrictions, what Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb refers to as mistaking sanctimony for sanctity. This seems to be the reason that Shimon the Tzaddik refused to eat from any Nazirite’s sacrifice (except for that of one young shepherd whose oath was taken so as to force himself to shave the hair which tempted him to narcissism).

A second position, attributed to Rabbi Elazar haKappar, holds that the sin is unnecessary teetotaling, causing one’s body suffering by depriving it of the pleasures of alcohol. This position was taken to an extreme by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin in his tour de force essay “Mishpat Shylock,” in which he argued that since our bodies belong to G-d, we have no authority to cause them any suffering or deprive them of any pleasure.

Rabbi Zevins’ position is obviously unsustainable in Jewish tradition, as noted in Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli’s rejoinder, and easily leads to absurd conclusions such as the obligation to eat dessert if one has a sweet tooth, and worse. It rests on the false assumption that ownership is absolute, so that any limits on our rights to our bodies demonstrates that we are not owners.  But Halakhah, and most legal systems, limit the rights of property owners significantly, and the prohibition of bal tashchit applies to all our possessions. We may own our bodies as much as we own anything.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Elazar haKappar’s position is given halakhic weight, and is among the sources the Talmud cites for a prohibition against self-wounding (although it seems more likely an aggadic derivative thereof).  But in what sense then is the sin of the nazir accidental?  

A third possibility leads us to my rose.  A beraita on Nedarim 10a reads:

רבי יהודה אומר:

חסידים הראשונים היו מתאוין להביא קרבן חטאת,

לפי שאין הקדוש ברוך הוא מביא תקלה על ידיהם,

מה היו עושין?

עומדין ומתנדבין נזירות למקום,

כדי שיתחייב קרבן חטאת למקום;

Rabbi Yehudah says:

The First Pietists were desirous of bringing a sin-offering

because the Holy Blessed One never causes them to sin accidentally.

What would they do?

They would rise and voluntarily swear nezirut to the Omnipresent,

so as to be obligated to bring a sin-offering to the Omnipresent.

According to Rabbi Yehudah, the sin may be the same self-denial as Rabbi El’azar HaKappar, or more likely the whole phenomenon of voluntarily taking an oath and thereby risking a profanation of G-d’s Name. But the advantage of his position is that it explains why the sin is considered accidental.  The oath is taken deliberately, but the intent is to fulfill a command of G-d that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. They are sinning for the sake of Heaven.

But are they sinning at all, if that is their motive?  And if they are, does G-d accept their sin-offering?

Mishnah Yoma 8:9 seems directly on point.  

האומר “אחטא ואשוב, אחטא ואשוב” – אין מספיקין בידו לעשות תשובה.

One who says “I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent” – he is not enabled to perform repentance.

Why should he then be enabled to atone via a sin-offering?

Perhaps because the Mishnah only states its ruling about someone who plans to sin twice – but sinning once, in order to have the experience of repentance, is not disapproved of.  After all, it doesn’t seem fair to deprive the perfectly righteous of this experience, when the dominant opinion seems to be that “In the place where the masters of repentance stand, the perfectly righteous are unable to stand”!?

What emerges is a very powerful legitimation of spiritual ambition, alongside a recognition that such ambition will always be in profound tension with law in general and halakhah specifically.  Because of course this ambition is profoundly dangerous and antinomian. One commentator suggests that this was the argument that Potiphar’s wife made to Yosef HaTzaddik: how can you achieve your potential if you never do anything that generates the obligation to repent? Yosef’s response is that interpersonal obligations cannot be sacrificed in such schemes – the sin to G-d he could bear, but not the great wrong to his master.  

This, I suggest, is the key to the law of the nazir.  It gives an outlet for supererogatory ambition, for commoner Israelites to be quasi-High Priests, but in a way that gives the ambitious no basis for power over others; they have only the restrictions of the High Priest, not his rights or obligations.  The process ends with a forced formal admission that this ambition is in some sense sinful. Absent that concession, they would be Icarus, flying too near the sun so that their wings melt and they drown. Or perhaps in Jewish terms, they would be Nadav and Avihu.    


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

What’s in a Title? A Rav by Any Other Name Would Teach as Sweet

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Sefer Bamidbar is known as Numeri in Latin, and Numbers in English. Chazal call it Chumash HaPekudim, the Volume of Countings.  All this gives a sense that the book is about masses of people rather than about individuals.

The contrast with Sefer Shemot, the Book of Names, is stark.  Shemot covers the transition of the Jewish people from a family, each of whose members is listed, to a teeming nation.  Bamidbar assumes nationhood and the primacy of the collective.

Or not.  The word “shemot” appears 15 times in the first chapter of Bamidbar. It might well have been called Names if the title weren’t already taken. Each tribal census follows G-d’s command to produce a number – of names. Every individual counted had to be known in their individuality.  There was no lining up in even rows and counting off. Possibly – this is a matter of dispute among rabbinic commentators – there was not even an abstract representation of individuals by the common token of the half-shekel, as there was in – Shemot.

Yet the names of the counted individuals are not listed in Bamidbar.  This might be for reasons of space and weight – imagine doing hagboh on the expanded Torah! But more likely, the reason is that while G-d can know each star by name, even the greatest prophet ever could not know each Jew by name. Effective leadership requires effective administration, and that meant dividing people up into manageable units and generally dealing directly only with unit managers. This was the advice Yitro gave to Mosheh back in – Shemot.   

Sefer Bamidbar is therefore about managing the dynamic interplay and dialectic tension between individual and collective identity, and relationships.

One management solution is for each layer of a hierarchy to relate to the one immediately below it as individuals, while recognizing that those individuals represent the interests of a large group. The Torah may adopt this approach by naming the tribal leaders who conduct the census under Mosheh and Aharon’s direction.  Careful attention to the Torah’s language suggests that the individuality of these leaders is emphasized in the initial command, even before they are named. Finally, verse 17 shows that Mosheh and Aharon internalized the message: “Mosheh and Aharon took those people, asher nikvu b’shemot.”  Since the leaders had just been listed, the antecedent of “those people” is clear, but the Torah nonetheless reemphasizes that Mosheh and Aharon identified them by name.

But we may be overstating the importance of names. Names by themselves may not tell us more than numbers do. Richard Feynman was once walking with his father when he saw what was to him a new bird, and asked his father about it. His father taught him the bird’s name in various languages. But when he had proudly memorized that information, his father pointed out that he still knew nothing whatever about the bird – only what people called it.

Feynman’s story relates to the names of species, not the names of individuals.  But the point transfers. Names become meaningful only when they are mnemonics for specific information and experiences.

Seforno argues that the names of the Desert Generation encoded the essence of a person.  They enabled one person to know another the first time they interacted.

כי היה אז כל אחד מאותו הדור נחשב

בשמו המורה על צורתו האשיית למעלתם

על דרך “ואדעך בשם” (שמות לג, יז)

ולא כן קרה לדור באי הארץ,

ובכן לא נמנו במספר שמות

ולא נזכרו זולתי ראשי המשפחות ומספר האישים.

ועם זה הודיע שהיתה הכונה

שאותם האישים בעצמם יחיו ויירשו הארץ

ולא יפקד מהם איש:

Every member of that generations was considered

via their name that indicated their specific human form and their greatness

In the manner of “and I have known you by name” (Shemot 33:17),

But this was not the fate of the generation that entered the Land,

and therefore they were not counted “by the number of names,”

and all that are mentioned are the family heads and the number of men.

By this He informs us that the original intent was

that these very people would live to inherit the Land,

not one man would be missing from their count.

This is a powerful explanation if true, but it seems to be an assumption rather than something derived from out text.  Similarly, perhaps the Torah is telling us here that Mosheh and Aharon already had relationships with these individuals.  But this is not stated explicitly, or even hinted at, in the text.

So far we have assumed that the key difference is name vs. number.  An alternative is that names are opposed to titles.

Let’s look closely at the way the Torah presents the men who will assist Mosheh and Aharon with the census (v. 4-17).

וְאִתְּכֶ֣ם יִהְי֔וּ אִ֥ישׁ אִ֖ישׁ לַמַּטֶּ֑ה אִ֛ישׁ רֹ֥אשׁ לְבֵית־אֲבֹתָ֖יו הֽוּא:

וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ שְׁמ֣וֹת הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַֽעַמְד֖וּ אִתְּכֶ֑ם לִרְאוּבֵ֕ן . . .

אֵ֚לֶּה קריאי קְרוּאֵ֣י הָעֵדָ֔ה נְשִׂיאֵ֖י מַטּ֣וֹת אֲבוֹתָ֑ם רָאשֵׁ֛י אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל הֵֽם:

וַיִּקַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹ֑ן אֵ֚ת הָאֲנָשִׁ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִקְּב֖וּ בְּשֵׁמֹֽת:

Together with you, there will be one man per staff;

Each man will be the head of his ancestral household.

These are the names of the men who will stand together with you:

For Reuven . . .

These are the conveners of the community

the princes of the staffs of their ancestors

they are the heads of the thousands of Israel.

Mosheh and Aharon took those men, who had been identified by names.

The Torah makes clear that these men were not chosen by lot; they were chosen because they already held leadership positions. They had many titles.  The Torah mentions all these titles in its description of them. But Hashem’s instructions to Mosheh and Aharon, and their fulfillment of those instructions, refer only to their names.

A suggestion as to why may emerge from the last line of Tosefta Eduyot. It’s not clear what the proper text of that line is.  Here is likely the earliest version we have, cited in the Arukh {s.v. אביי) from a letter of Rav Sherira Gaon:

מי שי”ל תלמידים ולתלמידיו תלמידים – קורין אותו רבי,

נשתבחו תלמידיו – קורין אותו רבן

נשתבחו אלו ואלו – קורין אותו בשמו

One who has students, and his students have students – they call him Rebbe

If his students improve = nishtabchu – they call him Rabban

If these and those improve – they call him by his name.

This seems to be saying that a teacher who succeeds in creating a multilink chain of tradition deserves the title Rebbe. Those whose direct students are themselves noteworthy receive the title Rabban.  Someone who has noteworthy students and noteworthy grandstudents is beyond titles.

This version accords with what seems to have been a Rabbinic proverb, although it is not found in our written record of Chazal:

גדול מרב רבי

גדול מרבי רבן

גדול מרבן שמו

Greater than “Rav” is “Rebbe”;

Greater than “Rebbe” is “Rabban”;

Greater than “Rabban” is his name.

Reading this idea into our parshah, we can say that the Torah is emphasizing that the people chosen to stand with Mosheh were known to be worthy of their positions, rather than merely filling them. They were the equivalent of sports stars or cultural figures who become known by one name only, rather than needing both first and last name to identify them.  

Calling teachers by name is a violation of Halakhah. But not always – only when their name is seen as embodying less respect than a title.  When they reach the level of having two generations of noteworthy students, referring to them by title becomes less respectful than referring to them by name. Thus for example it may be improper to refer to Hillel as Rabbi Hillel, except in cultures where his name would not be recognized.

The question of insisting on titles, as opposed to earning one’s reputation and influence by personal merit, reverberates in Orthodoxy today.  The Rabbinic proverb suggests that while titles are never sufficient, they are a necessary stage in the process of earning communal respect, and even the greatest scholars cannot do without them until their position is established by generations of students who have experienced their Torah. But the parashah teaches that leaders should never be chosen simply because they already have titles.  


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

Why the Free Bird Sings

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

I know a bird
that sings when free,
but when caged
by you or me
it ceases to eat
and refuses to live.
Avraham Ibn Ezra, Commentary to Vayikra 25:10, as freely translated by Aryeh Klapper

The inscription on the Liberty Bell reads “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”  This excerpt (from the King James translation of Vayikra 25:10) makes several interesting translational choices. For example, why “throughout all the land,” when the Hebrew is בארץ, merely “in the land?”  Why “the inhabitants thereof,” rather than merely “inhabitants thereof,” when the Hebrew יושביה has no definite article?  These choices can seem odd even in English, and many internet sites quoting the Bell accidentally remove the first “all” and the second “the.” These imprecisions matter because  they license us to challenge the core translation: Is the Hebrew דרור/d’ror properly translated as “liberty?”

A translation can have any of three sources: tradition, parallel uses, and context. In the case of d’ror, the parallel in Yirmiyah 34:8-9 seems to make the meaning crystal clear.

הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־הָיָ֥ה אֶֽל־יִרְמְיָ֖הוּ מֵאֵ֣ת ה֑’
אַחֲרֵ֡י כְּרֹת֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ צִדְקִיָּ֜הוּ בְּרִ֗ית אֶת־כָּל־הָעָם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּירֽוּשָׁלִַ֔ם
לִקְרֹ֥א לָהֶ֖ם דְּרֽוֹר:
לְ֠שַׁלַּח אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עַבְדּ֞וֹ וְאִ֧ישׁ אֶת־שִׁפְחָת֛וֹ
הָעִבְרִ֥י וְהָעִבְרִיָּ֖ה
לְבִלְתִּ֧י עֲבָד־בָּ֛ם
בִיהוּדִ֥י אָחִ֖יהוּ אִֽישׁ:

The matter which came to Yirmiyahu from Hashem
after Tzidkiyahu cut a covenant with all the populace that was in Yerushalayim
to proclaim to them d’ror
to send forth each man his manslave and his maidslave
the Hebrew and the Hebrewess
to not work them as slaves
a Jew, his brother man.

It seems undeniable that a d’ror-proclamation sets slaves free. When the Jews fail to abide by the proclamation, G-d frames their coming destruction as poetic justice, declaring that He will grant His servants of destruction freedom to destroy:

אַתֶּם֙ לֹֽא־שְׁמַעְתֶּ֣ם אֵלַ֔י לִקְרֹ֣א דְר֔וֹר
אִ֥ישׁ לְאָחִ֖יו וְאִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֑הוּ
הִנְנִ֣י קֹרֵא֩ לָכֶ֨ם דְּר֜וֹר נְאֻם־ה֗’
אֶל־הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ אֶל־הַדֶּ֣בֶר וְאֶל־הָרָעָ֔ב

You did not heed me, to proclaim a דרור
Each man to his brother, and each man to his fellow
Behold I am proclaiming a d’ror regarding you, says Hashem,
to the sword and the plague and the famine

Yeshayahu 61:1 similarly reads

לקְרֹ֤א לִשְׁבוּיִם֙ דְּר֔וֹר

To proclaim d’ror regarding captives.

So d’ror plainly can refer to liberation from a previous state of constraint. Likely the King James chose “liberty” rather than “freedom” because the connotation of liberty at that time was “freedom from,” whereas freedom would be more likely understood as “freedom to.”

However, these are not the only Biblical contexts in which the word d’ror appears.

For example, Shemot 30:23 refers to “myrrh d’ror.”  Most commentators assume that the meaning in this context must be derived from the contexts we have already seen.  Thus R. Avraham ben HaRambam writes:

שם הטוהר והחרות

a term for purity/freedom (from impurities)

while BDB translates d’ror as “liquid” on the basis of “flowing; free run, liberty.”  Only Rashbam seems to take this instance as reflecting a different meaning entirely: חשוב, significant. I’m not sure that I’m understanding Rashbam correctly, though, and he may also see social significance as rooted in the capacity to resist others’ attempts to constrain you.

D’ror also appears twice in contexts where the intended referent seems to be a type or species of bird.

כַּצִּפּ֣וֹר לָ֭נוּד כַּדְּר֣וֹר לָע֑וּף

Like a bird to wander; like a d’ror to fly (Mishlei 26:2)

גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר׀ מָ֢צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֤וֹר׀ קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘

Also the bird found a home, and the d’ror a nest for itself (Tehillim 84:4)

One might see these uses as stemming from a different root entirely. BDB, for example, simply identifies the species as “swallow.” Ibn Ezra to Mishlei 26:2 seems to adopt this approach:

טעם שמות העופות והבהמות אשר פרשו הראשונים
הם כחלומות בלי פתרון
והזכיר הצפור והדרור
כי הם דרות בבתים עם בני אדם
וצריכין לנוד מהרה ממקו’ למקום מפני העוברים והשבים

The rationales that my predecessors gave for the species-names of birds and animals
are like dreams that have no interpretation
it mentions the tzippor and the d’ror here
because they live in houses together with human beings
and they need to flit rapidly from place to place because of the passers-by

Here Ibn Ezra denies that the species-name d’ror has any discoverable etymology, or that the species has any relevant characteristic that distinguishes it from the tzippor.  He does however identify it as a bird that lives in a space it shares with human beings.

Ibn Ezra to Tehillim 84:4 takes a radically different approach:

דרור –
שם עוף מנגן
אולי נקרא כן
בעבור שאין מנהגו לנגן
כל זמן שאיננו חפשי
וזה העוף ידוע הוא בספרד

“D’ror” –
This is the name of a songbird
Perhaps it is called thus
because its practice is not to sing
whenever it is not free
This bird is known in Spain.

Ibn Ezra here provides an etymology for the species-name d’ror – the same kind of etymology he scoffed at in his comments to Mishlei 26:2! Assuming this is the same species, we now learn that its residence among human beings does not imply domestication, or at least not total domestication; the bird sings only when it is free. Its constant motion is likely for the purpose of avoiding capture.

Even more astonishingly, Ibn Ezra to Vayikra 25:10 – the Liberty Bell verse – reverses the vector of derivation.

דרור –
והוא כמו חפשי.
וכדרור לעוף –
עוף קטן
מנגן כשהוא ברשותו
ואם הוא ברשות אדם
לא יאכל
עד שימות.

“D’ror” –
The meaning is known
and it is like “free.”
(as in the verse) “like a d’ror to fly”
a small bird
which sings when in its own reshut
but when in the reshut of a human being
it will not eat
to the point of dying

Here Ibn Ezra argues that the species name is the etymology of the term “liberty,” or at the least that we derive the meaning of d’ror here from the species name.  Why would he take that approach, which requires him to assume that the name was known via tradition, when the meaning seems clear from context here and from parallel passages?

I suggest that Ibn Ezra thought the translation of “liberty” was not a perfect fit in our context.  Why? Because although Yirmiyahu uses d’ror to refer to freeing slaves, and Yeshayahu uses d’ror to refer to freeing captives, a careful look at the Jubilee law in Vayikra 25:10 reveals no explicit contextual reference at all to slavery or freedom.  Rather, the unit Vayikra 25:10-13 speaks about the need for people to return to their hereditary homesteads. Slavery may be mentioned in 25:14, but as an additional element. One can argue that people who sell their land will eventually end up enslaved, or that 25:10-13 refers to people who were sold away from their lands rather than people who sold their lands, but this is certainly not obvious.

How does Ibn Ezra resolve this?  Perhaps the key is that he frames the bird’s refusal to sing as about reshut, which can mean both “space” and “authority.”  The bird will sing only when it is in its own reshut.  Similarly, even if people are not enslaved, they do not have d’ror unless they have a space they can call their own.

The problem is that Ibn Ezra to Mishlei 26:2 defines the d’ror species as one that lives in human houses, and therefore finds its space continually intruded on.

I can only suggest this. We all live within the impersonal constraints of time, space, and our own physicality.  We can only dream of perfect, Divine freedom. Perhaps we can even dream of that freedom only when we are not subject to any other person’s will. Until then we are constrained to imagine only freedom from, not freedom to.

The d’ror dreams of its own space, but its physical needs and limitations compel it to live in human abodes. So long as it is not captive – so long as it is not subject to a human will – the dream seems close enough that it can be expressed in music.

The free bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still.
it sings of freedom.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

Can Halakhah be a Desecration of Hashem’s Name?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֙ מִצְוֹתַ֔י וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם

אֲנִ֖י הֽ’:

וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל

אֲנִ֥י ה֖’ מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם:

הַמּוֹצִ֤יא אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵא-לֹהִ֑ים

אֲנִ֖י הֽ’:

You must guard my commandments, and you must do them

I am Hashem;

And you must not desecrate My Holy Name, and I will be sanctified within Bnei Yisroel

I am Hashem Who sanctified you;

Who took you out of the Land of Mitzrayim in order to be G-d for you

I am Hashem

Vayikra 22:31-33 can be read as a single Divine sentence, punctuated by self-identifying statements. We must keep His mitzvot, in order not to desecrate His Name, because He took us out of Egypt. On this reading, desecration and sanctification of His Name are merely functions of the other commandments, and have no independent substantive meaning. We sanctify by observing halakhah, and desecrate by violating halakhah. Similarly, the Exodus from Egypt is invoked only to ground G-d’s authority, and to explain why the status of His Name can be tied to Jewish observance of the mitzvot. Furthermore, the phrase “within Bnei Yisroel” suggests that observance of Halakhah is a purely parochial concern.

The Halakhic tradition itself adopts a much broader and more nuanced understanding of the categories Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem. Here are some of the variations the tradition introduces:

1) Under certain circumstances, there is an obligation of Kiddush Hashem to die rather than violate halakhah, even though generally the obligation to preserve life overrides halakhah.

2) For some purposes, Chillul Hashem is focused on Jews, and the obligation die requires a quorum of Jews (women count to this minyan according to most). For other purposes, the audience for Chillul and Kiddush Hashem specifically is nonJews. It is even possible to argue that the essential audience is always nonJews, and that a quorum is required because nonJews are more affected by Jews’ willingness or unwillingness to sin in front of their coreligionists.

3) Kiddush and Chillul Hashem can be associated not only with halakhah but with Jewish identity, universal ethics, and display of proper character. (See for example Rambam Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 5:11.) Public explicit denial of G-d’s authority by Jews desecrates His Name, but so does paying tradesmen late even though you have the funds, or being quarrelsome, or standing by the letter of the law even when that violates its spirit.

Broadening the scope of Chillul Hashem beyond halakhah untethers verse 32 from verse 31. This is especially important according to the Midrash Lekach Tov, which sees ushmartem mitzvotay as a commandment to observe mitzvot without regard to whether one finds them rationally appealing. “These are my commandments, and you have no permission to challenge them = להרהר אחריהם.

By contrast, Yerushalmi Bava Kamma 4:3 suggests that sometimes the halakhah itself can be a chillul Hashem.


ששילח המלכות שני איסטרטיוטות ללמוד תורה מרבן גמליאל

ולמדו ממנו מקרא משנה תלמוד הלכות ואגדות

ובסוף אמרו לו

כל תורתכם נאה ומשובחת

חוץ משני דברים הללו

שאתם אומרים

בת ישראל לא תיילד לעכו”ם אבל עכו”ם מיילדת לבת ישראל

בת ישראל לא תניק בנה של עכו”ם אבל עכו”ם מניקה לבת ישראל ברשותה

גזילו של ישראל אסור ושל עכו”ם מותר.

באותו שעה גזר רבן גמליאל על גזילות עכו”ם שיהא אסור מפני חילול השם . . .:

A true story:

The (Roman) Empire sent two officials to learn Torah from Rabban Gamliel

They learned from him Mishnah, Talmud, Halakhot and Aggadot.

At the end they said to him:

All your Torah is pleasant and praiseworthy

other than these two things

that you say

a Jewess must not midwife an idolatress, but an idolatress may midwife a Jewess

a Jewess mustn’t nurse the child of an idolatress, but an idolatress may nurse the child of a Jewess

in her space

An object robbed from a Jew is forbidden, but an object robbed from a Gentile is permitted

At that very time Rabban Gamliel decreed regarding the robbed objects of idolaters that they should be prohibited because of Chillul Hashem . . .

One aspect of this text seems impenetrably mysterious. The Romans refer to ‘two things,” but in the excerpt above there are three, and the ellipses conceals a fourth. Nonetheless, it seems fair to say that Rabban Gamliel responded to one of the Romans’ complaints by altering the halakhah, but not to all of them. If Rabban Gamliel is reacting to the Roman perception, why the difference?

Yet both in reason and in text it cannot be that Rabban Gamliel stands for the proposition that the proper reaction to an outsider’s moral critique of halakhah is always to change the offending law. There must be a basis for distinction. Indeed, it might be accurate to say that sometimes Gentile objections to Halakhah trigger the obligation to die al kiddush Hashem rather than transgress the law, while in other circumstances the proper reaction is to change the law. Surely the difference in outcomes is not arbitrary!

The simplest explanation is that it depends on whether, when confronted by the critique, we decide that we agree with it. The mere fact that outsiders dislike our laws cannot compel change; but fear of showing weakness cannot prevent change in the fact of moral critique.

The question then is why Rabban Gamliel found the Romans’ critique compelling in one case but not in the others.

One possibility is that the Romans’ other critiques were grounded in reciprocity rather than in objective right or wrong. They would have accepted a rule that required every nation to midwife or nurse its own mothers and babies, but they objected to allowing it only one way. Rabban Gamliel was not moved by pure claims of discrimination. If either result could be justified intrinsically, he was fine with having the results be asymmetrical between Jews and Gentiles.

This approach seems in stark contrast to Meiri, who claims that halakhah’s asymmetries are intended to mirror or compensate for discrimination against Jews in Gentile legal systems, and therefore do not apply to citizens of systems that give Jews equal rights. Note however that Meiri is commenting on the Bavli, which does not bring the midwifery and nursing cases.

Another possibility is that Rabban Gamliel thought the laws about midwifery and nursing were not intended to discriminate against Gentiles, but rather to avoid dangerous liability. The best of obstetric and pediatric care cannot prevent all deaths, and the deaths of Gentile mothers and babes under the most skilled and conscientious Jewish practitioners might have triggered pogroms. Allowing Jews to fence goods stolen from Gentiles, by contrast, had no aim but profit.

Yet a third possibility is that Rabban Gamliel saw chillul Hashem as a valid reason to prohibit what halakhah would otherwise permit, but not to permit what halakhah would otherwise forbid.

It is striking regardless that Rabban Gamliel reacted not to a critique of actual Jewish practice, but rather to a critique of the law per se. This suggests that the underlying issue of chillul Hashem is not so much the way that Jews are perceived by the world outside them, but rather by how Torah is perceived.

Yet it is also plainly the case that Torah cannot fold its hand in the face of moral censure or opprobrium. It seems reasonable to claim that those who enact laws against Judaism often find our laws immoral. Yet if they try to enforce their biases, we are likely to become obligated to become martyrs for the law as-is rather than change the law under pressure.

It is also striking that Rabban Gamliel did not claim that the Romans had misunderstood the law, or engage in other sorts of apologetics. He chose instead to explicitly override the law that irked them.

What seems to me the upshot here is that the Yerushalmi at least does not rule moral critiques of the halakhah out of bounds, and that we should be open to accepting moral critiques from any source. We should not claim that such critiques necessarily stem from a narrow vision and lack of broader halakhic context; rather, sometimes it is precisely the broad context that generates the sense that this particular law doesn’t fit well.

Openness to moral critique must not be either the result or the cause of a lack of overall moral confidence in the system. These are very legitimate concerns. But shutting ourselves off from moral critique carries equally serious risks. Our unwillingness to entertain and respond to moral criticism can cause others to lose their overall confidence in the system.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah