Taamei haMitzvos

Until adultery became too commonplace (in the days of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, shortly after the destruction of the Beis haMiqdash) a wife whose husband suspected her of having an affair could forbid her from secluding herself with that man. If they are caught in seclusion, she is brought to the Beis haMidqash where a kohein would write the relevent wrds from the Torah, erase them in waster, and then float dust from under the floor of the Temple on top of it, and give her to drink. If she was guilty, and her husband wasn’t also having an affair, and she had no special offsetting merit (which could delay the effect), she would die a gruesome death.

(One thing to note is that unlike Xian Trial by Ordeal, in this case it takes a miracle to be found guilty, not to be saved. No killing of “false witches” in this process.)

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sotah 2:2, vilna daf 10b) gives this explanation for the recipe for Mei Sotah (translation mine):

And why water and dirt?

Water — from where she came.

Dirt — to where she is going.

Writing — before Whom she is destined to give [self-] judgment and accounting.

Over there the mishnah says:

Aqavia ben Mehallel would say: Look at 3 things, and you will never come under the control of sin. [1st half of Avos 3:1]

This in itself is a beautiful thought, and it would be worth posting just for its own sake. But I also found the continuation of the gemara interesting:

R’ Aba berei deR’ Papi and R’ Yehoshua of Sikhnin in the name of R Levi: Aqavia darshened these three from one verse [Qoheles 12:1], “And you should remember your Creator — Bor’ekha — in your days of youth…” [Which can be read:] “Be’eirekha“, “Borekha” [with no alef, or] Bor’ekha.

Be’erekha — from where you came.

Borekha — to the place where you are going.

Bor’ekha — before What you are destined to give [self‑]judgement and an accounting.

If we only saw the version of Aqavia ben Mehalalel’s thought that is in Avos, we wouldn’t get the same focus on our relationship to the Creator as Rabbi Levi gives it by his choice of source text. Not only is it He before Whom do we get final judgment, but our Creator is also the Wellspring from which we came and the destination to which we are going. All are found in the same word.

I posted this gemara to serve an example. So do yourself a favor and pause to enjoy the gemara before reading on.

It is rare that a ritual gets this kind of explication by Chazal so I therefore want to use it as a springboard for airing some approaches to the study of taamei hamitzvos — the reasons for mitzvos, or perhaps the meanings one can glean from mitzvos. And in particular, why Rav Hirsch’s approach which held such an attraction for me at one point in my life stopped doing so.

Ta’am hamitzvah is more literally the mitzvah‘s “taste”, which might lean toward the latter. If it were clear how to take the phrase, there would be little point for the rest of this post. What do we suggest is the connection between Aqavia ben Mehalalel’s three things and the mitzvah of sotah? It’s not inevitable that a woman given water with text dissolved in it and dirt floating on top is going to think “Oy, I came from liquid, I’m going to the grave, and my soul will have to stand in judgment — what am I doing?” So how to we understand this mitzvah makes this ta’am manifest? I see a scale of various possibilities, each of the following options overlaps with those immediately before and after it:

1- One could suggest it’s mystical. The ingredients move forces around in the higher worlds.

I’m too much of a rationalist to find refuge in it as a general approach; I don’t personally get a “ta’am” from mysticism’s emotional charge through realizing one is confronting something greater than the human mind. It seems more like saying the ta’am is out of reach. But regardless of general approach, how would it work when the ta’am hamitzvah is so blatantly placed in cognitive terms — “look at”, “know from where”?

2- There are levels of the soul which reach above those we are aware of. Thus, the sotah‘s soul can be moved by impressions on a level her conscious mind does not realize. I’m thinking of those who apply this idea to davening, by someone who doesn’t understand the siddur. The idea that the person’s soul understands the Hebrew they are saying even if they are unaware of it, and thus it still has value.

3- It needn’t be a lofty, otherworldly explanation, once we invoke unconscious processes. It could be that the person is shaped by associations even if they are unaware of those associations. It could be that water, dirt and scripture are Jungian symbols that have inherent meaning just based on the unchanging elements of the human condition, and thereby psychologically shape a person in ways they don’t realize.

4- Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s (RSRH) position is that mitzvos involve communication from the Creator via symbols. Rav Hirsch acknowledges natural symbols, such as tears and laughter where the meaning is innate in the symbol, as well as those established by convention. See Collected Writings vol. III pp 3 onward. (A chunk is missing from Google Books’ preview, though.) About those base on convention, he gives a list of symbols and a variety of their possible meanings, then writes (pg 12):

We can gain clarity about all these queries only if we first seek to establish, independently of the pictorial representation, the intention of the one who executed the picture, and the context of time and place in which the picture originated. Indeed, depending on him who devised it, and on the person to whom it is addressed, one and the same symbol or symbolic act may represent to diametrically opposed concepts.

And on page 55 (in the chapter titled “Symbolism in Jewish Law”):

IN general, whenever a bodily act of commission or omission whose natural, primary effect would only be physical, is expressed for a purpose that is not physical but spiritual, and, according to the wording of the law, is expected to yield spiritual results, that act must have a symbolic relationship to that purpose and to those results. The commanded act of commission or omission itself must have spiritual significance; it must serve to express an abstract thought, and so we see we are dealing with acts that are undeniably of symbolic character.

Symbols are a place where intellect and emotions intersect. Through contemplating a symbol, one can glean through analogy more details about the idea being represented. And through interaction with something more sensory, the person confronts the idea on a plane where it makes more emotional impact.

The problem I have with this, which eventually alienated me from my earlier love of Horeb, is that symbols are only of value to those who are aware of them. Anyone who isn’t aware of Hirschian Symbology would get next to nothing out of performing most of the mitzvos. Especially the two categories of mitzvos RSRH calls osos and edios , which are symbols established by Hashem yisbarakh or that reflect events of history (respectively), rather than innate symbols self-evident to all people. It would mean that the vast majority of observant Jews (and Noachides) through the ages left the world with souls little changed by all that observance, because they didn’t have the symbology key.

This problem truly bothers me, so let me elaborate on it further. Looking back at our example, yes, the beis din that the kohanim maintained to interpret their rites could have standardized explaining the symbology to the sotah but

  1. if they did it’s not mentioned by Chazal — which makes it either less likely or …
  2. less important. We know such explaining not mandatory, meaning the mitzvah has value without the explanation anyway. And…
  3. our question is a general one about the Hirschian Symbologic approach to taamei hamitzvos, not just sotah. I phrased it in terms of sotah because it’s an example from chazal rather than from RSRH, an acharon who lived after Ashkenaz’s split into derakhim (“Isms”) — and thus his philosophy has far from universal impact.

To rephrase the question around another example: What does Rav Hirsch believe is the value of basar bechalav to people who don’t know anything about an association to keeping human creativity separate from animal procreativity? Did the more than 99 44/100% of the observant Jewish population over the history of time gain nothing from obeying the issur because they didn’t know the key to the symbol and thus didn’t get the truth being communicated?

5- Rav JB Soloveichik understands the search for taamei hamitzvos not in terms of understanding why Hashem commanded something, but as lessons to take post-facto, derashos. RJBS even uses the word “hermeneutics”. This position is very consistent with the Brisker notion as developed by his ancestors that halakhah only stands on halachic terms with First Principles that stand logically prior to the din.

So how would you understand the association given in the opening gemara? (Nothing like overtly begging for comments…)

Personally, I believe both #2 and #3. This flows from my own idiosyncratic metaphysics, in which the difference between speaking of forces in higher worlds and of humans internalizing more abstract ideas and ideals is one of language, not substance. (See the post “Maimonidian Qabbalah“.)

Don’t Present Oneself as a Liar!

צריך שיהיו תפילין עליו בשעת ק”ש ותפלה.

A man must have tefillin on at the time of reading Shema and prayer [Shemoneh Esrei].

- Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 25:4

בשעת ק”ש ותפלה: ר”ל לכל הפחות בשעת ק”ש ותפלה וכדלקמן בסימן ל”ז ס”ב ואמרינן בגמרא כל הקורא ק”ש בלי תפלין הרי הוא כאלו מעיד עדות שקר בעצמו ח”ו ופירשו בתוספות לפי שאומר וקשרתם לאות וגו’ ואין קושר ואף שבדיעבד יצא ידי ק”ש מ”מ יש לו עבירה מצד אחר שמראה על עצמו שאין רוצה לקיים רצון הש”י וזהו עדות שקר שמעיד על עצמו ויש עוד פי’ אחר עיין בלבוש וכתב בספר חרדים דמזה נלמוד כשאומר ואהבת את ד’ וגו’ יראה להכניס אהבת הש”י בלבו שלא יהיה כדובר שקר ח”ו. ודע דלא אמרו כן אלא כשעושה כן במזיד שמתעצל להניח תפלין קודם ק”ש אבל מי שאין לו תפלין או כשהוא בדרך ומחמת קור וצינה אינו יכול להניח תפלין וכל כה”ג בודאי אין לו לאחר ק”ש בזמנה מחמת זה. לבוש בסימן נ”ח והעתקתי שם את לשונו עי”ש:

At the time of reading Shema and prayer: Meaning to say, at the very least during reading Shema and prayer. As it says later in 37:2.

As it says in the gemara, “Whomever reads Shema without tefillin, he is as though he gives false testimony about himself ch”v.” And its explanation in Tosafos is that according to what [Shema] says “and you shall tie them as a sign…” and he isn’t tying. Even though post-facto he fulfilled the obligation of reading Shema, still he has a sin from another angle in that he makes himself look like he doesn’t want to do Hashem’s will. And that’s the [talmud's] “false testimony” that he “says about himself,” (There is also another explanation, see the Levush.)

It is written in the Seifer Chareidim that from this we will learn from when [Shema] says “You shall love Hashem…” a person should look [for ways to] being love of Hashem into his heart, so that he will not be like someone telling lies ch”v(emphasis added)

But someone who doesn’t have tefillin, or is traveling and because of cold or heat he cannot put on tefillin, or anything of the like, certainly he should not delay Shema beyond the proper time for this reason. (Levush, siman 58, and I checked his language there, c.f.)

- Mishnah Berurah ad loc, #14

Obvious, no? If I’m careful to wear tefillin when saying Shema, so that we do not look like hypocrits, how the more so should I be careful to actually recommit to loving Hashem and finding ways to increase that love! So why is it so hard to remember to actually do so?

No rest for the weary…

(This post is a different treatment of the same themes as “Mas’ei — the Journey as a Name of G-d“.)

וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן.

And Yaaqov settled in the land of his fathers’ dwelling, in the land of Canaan.

– Bereishis 37:1

(איוב ט) “אם שוט ימית פתאום…”
אנטונינוס שאל את רבינו, אמר לו: מהו דכתיב: אם שוט ימית פתאום?
אמר רבי: גזור דיסב מאה מגלבין, והוא יהיבין מאה דינרים, דין סכום לדין, ודין סכום לדין, ולא מפקין מידיה כלום, כענין הזה מלעיג על המוכה. (שם) למסת נקיים ילעג.
אמר רבי אחא: בשעה שהצדיקים יושבים בשלוה, ומבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה, השטן בא ומקטרג. אמר: לא דיין שהוא מתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שהם מבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה. תדע לך שהוא כן, יעקב אבינו ע”י שבקש לישב בשלוה בעוה”ז, נזדווג לו שטנו של יוסף.

“If the scourge slay suddenly[, it will mock the tragedy of the blameless.]” (Iyov 9:23)

Anthony asked our rebbe [R' Yehudah haNasi]. He said so him “What does it mean, ‘If the scourge slay suddenly…’?”

Rebbe answered: [Say] it was decreed that he would have 100 lashes and he would get 100 dinar [for his suffering]. But only the full amount [of lashes] matches the full amount [of pay], and the full amount [of pay] matches the full amount [of lashes]. Like this they mock the battered — “it will mock the tragedy of the blameless”.

Rav Acha said: “When the righteous dwell in tranquillity or desire to dwell in tranquillity in this world, the satan comes and accuses. He says: ‘Is it not enough that which is prepared for them in the World to Come not enough, that they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world?’  You should know that this is so, for Yaaqov avinu sought to dwell in serenity in this world and the ‘Satan’ of Yosef attached himself to Yaakov: ‘Yaakov settled down’, but ‘I had no tranquility, no quiet, no rest, and trouble came’ (Iyov 3:26):

  • ‘I had no tranquility’—from Esav;
  • ‘No quiet’—from Lavan;
  • ‘No rest’—from Dina;
  • ‘And trouble came’—the trouble of Yosef.”

– Medrash Rabba ad loc (84:3), quoted by Rashi

Why is it so terrible that Yaaqov wanted to rest? He finally got out from behind his conflicts with Eisav and with Lavan, would it have been so bad had Hashem just given him a few years of peace?

Rashi  quotes Rav Acha. The righteous are getting the world to come, that should be enough for them. The reason why, though, is more inherent in Rebbe’s words. A person is in this world to accomplish something. No matter how much that person accomplishes, getting only most of the way there isn’t getting the job done.

בן זומא אומר: … איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו. שנאמר: (תהלים קכח:ב): “יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך.” “אשריך” — בעולם הזה. “וטוב לך” — לעולם הבא.

Ben Zoma would say: … Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot. As it is said: ‘When you eat from the toil of your hands, you are fortunate and it is good for you’ (Psalms 128:2). ‘You are fortunate’ — in this world; ‘and it is good for you’ — in the World to Come.

– Avos 4:1

When speaking publicly, I often use this story from the Kotzker Rebbe, a Chassidic master known for his sharp wit.

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students: There are two people on a ladder, one on the fourth rung, and another on the 10th, which one is higher?

The book where I saw this thought doesn’t record his students’ answers. I assume some recognized it as a trick question, and answered that it was the one on the fourth, some answered the 10th figuring the rebbe was leading them somewhere, and others were silent. But the rebbe’s answer was succinct, “It depends who is climbing the ladder, and who is going down.”

What is relevant isn’t our state at any point in time, it’s how we’re changing.

Given that idea, I think ben Zoma’s notion of my lot in life is the path Hashem placed before me to travel. Not where I stand now physically, socially, psychologically or spiritually. Not even where G-d is leading me. My lot is the trip along the way. The whole roller coaster ride, the peaks and the dips.

My lot isn’t what I have at any particular point in time. Not in the physical sense, although someone who makes $25,000 a year and is content is certainly wealthier than the millionare who is consumed with craving his next million. My lot, in ben Zoma’s sense, isn’t even my current spiritual state. It’s the road I’m to travel.

And I think this was Yaaqov avinu‘s mistake. He chose to rest, thinking it was time to be content with what he had then, rather than the notion of life in the process. He hadn’t finished all the work necessary for his life’s mission; it wasn’t time yet to stop.

I think this understanding is reinforced by Ben Zoma’s choice of proof-text and its image of eating by the work of one’s hands. “‘Fortunate’ in this world”, along the way, “and ‘it is good for you’ in the world to come” in terms of what you accomplish. The verse’s language can be taken as one of process, working toward a goal.

Here is the test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: if you’re alive, it isn’t.

- Richard Bach

The Alter of Kelm (R’ Simcha Zisl Ziv 1824-1898, Lithuania) says something similar in Chomkhmah uMussar, but nothing I could figure out how to reduce to a “sound bite”. Self perfection is the work of a life-time, but that’s exactly why we were given a lifetime.

The whole being-vs-becoming distinction is central to existentialism. Kierkegaard’s central problem was that of becoming a Christian, in explicit contrast to being one.

Sartre’s “Existence precedes the essence” is about the fact that the essence of a person is the process his existence follows. And thus a person exists before his essence does. In contrast to a building, where the essence inhabits the architect’s mind and blueprints before it exists. You could know everything there is to know about a table just by knowing how it will be built and what it’s from. Essence precedes existence. Not so for people.

[M]an first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.

- Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

Here’s a related thought from R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch’s (1808-1888, Germany) commentary on themes from Mishlei:

Man can aspire to spiritual-moral greatness which is seldom fully achieved and easily lost again. Fulfillment lies not in a final goal, but in an eternal striving for perfection.

The Alter of Novhardok (R’ Yosef-Yoizl Horowitz 1849-1919) studied under the aforementioned Alter of Kelm. (Alter is a title meaning “elder”; the intent of their students in using this title was to connote a grandfather-grandson relationship.) Here’s a related quote, also from my signature generator, from his Madreigas ha’Adam, but written in the reverse:

Man wants to achieve greatness overnight, and he wants to sleep well that night too.

Last, a thought from the Mussar Movement’s founder, R’ Yisrael Salanter (Lipkin 1810-1883, Lithuania), along the same lines as R’ Hirsch (above):

One doesn’t learn mussar to be a tzaddik, but to become a tzaddik.

The knowledge that this process is what constitutes my curriculum, something tailored specifically for the needs of my soul is quite comforting. The notion that there is something that Hashem’s plan for the universe needed me to do — and only I can do it.

The “payment” Rebbe speaks of is the World to Come. And perhaps, although this may just be homiletics, we could use this identification of “cheileq” (lot / portion) with the person’s entire path through life to explain a grammatical anomaly in another mishnah. The first mishnah in Sanhedrin pereq “Cheileq” (ch. 10 or 11, depending upon edition) begins:

כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא. שנאמר (ישעיה ס) “וְעַמֵּךְ כֻּלָּם צַדִּיקִים, לְעוֹלָם יִירְשׁוּ אָרֶץ; נֵצֶר מטעו מַטָּעַי מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי, לְהִתְפָּאֵר.”

All of Israel [Rambam: in good standing, i.e. those who believe the 13 foundations of our faith] have a portion toward the world to come. As it says “And your nation, they are all righteous, they shall inherit the land eternally; the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, for glorifying Myself.”

(The proof is based on the idea that only the World to Come is a “land” which a person holds eternally.)

Notice the mishnah says that every Jew has a “cheileq le‘olam haba — a portion toward the world to come.” Why doesn’t it say “cheileq be‘olam haba — a portion in the world to come”? Perhaps the mishnah is referring to cheileq in our sense of the term, a person’s lot in terms of their entire existence. In which case, we should translate the mishnah as, “All of Israel have an existence that is a path leading to the world to come”. And, as the Rambam warns, assuming they choose to actually grasp that entire path and walk the road to its intended conclusion.

When I start to feel like I’ve been treading water too long and my arms are getting tired and I’m scared that my head will soon go under, I try to return to the mental image that epiphany gave me. (And I hope I relayed, as it’s hard to convey an epiphany, as I can’t share that “Aha!” feeling, just paint the ideas.)  It doesn’t always work, but overall the idea helps keep me sane.

My lot in life is the ladder that I alone can climb. This is climbing the ladder, the process of becoming, Rav Hirsch’s “eternal striving”, the work of a lifetime, not a single night (with a good night’s sleep fitted into it, to boot!). It is the job for which G-d created me as I am, when I live and where I live, with the people I know, the responsibilities I face, and the challenges He throws at me, solely because this is something His great plan required that required his having a Micha Berger to do it.

Yir’ah and its Middos

The story so far…

Words are how we divide the space of ideas into more specific “countries”. Our choice of vocabulary therefore not only reflects our thoughts, but shape them. And more importantly, they change what parts of our experience we notice, remember, and reinforce in our memories. We can’t really work on our yir’as Shamayim if we continue dividing the space in terms of fear (and terror, panic, etc…) and awe. Yir’ah may cover some of the same territory as the English concept of “fear” and much of the territory as “awe”. But the language the mesorah speaks in does not divide this “continent” by the feelings generated by neurochemicals and hormones. Rather, it speaks of each constelation and dynamic of emotions in various kinds of encounters and entities in themselves. Pachad in the face of a well understood thread, eimah when facing something remote and incomprehensible, and yir’ah. Defining yir’ah as “awe / fear” misses this basic difference in perspective. We still think in terms of various bodily responses rather than recognizing the feeling of participating in something important — both the awe of the moment and the fear of making the wrong decision about something momentous. In reality, it’s all one sensation.

A thought that would have belonged in my previous post if I would have had the before writing it…

Rabbi Chanina speaks of “yir’as Shamayim” rather than “yir’as Hashem” when he says “All is in the control [literally: hands of] Shamayim except for yir’as Shamayim.” The one thing we can choose for ourselves is what we value. Are those values in line with Hashem’s plan for us, or are they creations of our own? Yir’ah as the key to free will isn’t so much our notion of Hashem’s importance in and of itself as the importance of that which He decreed central to our lives. This is “Shamayim“, Hashem in the context of a “retinue” running the universe.

But now, on to the intended topic…

Yir’ah, Zehirus and Zerizus

Zehirus is usually translated Watchfulness or Caution. I would suggest “Awareness”. The Ramchal opens Mesilas Yesharim ch. 2 (tr. R’ Shraga Simmons) with a description:

הנה ענין הזהירות הוא שיהיה האדם נזהר במעשיו ובעניניו, כלומר, מתבונן ומפקח על מעשיו ודרכיו, הטובים הם אם לא, לבלתי עזוב נפשו לסכנת האבדון חס וחלילה ולא ילך במהלך הרגלו כעור באפלה.

THE IDEA OF WATCHFULNESS is for a man to exercise caution in his actions and his undertakings; that is, to deliberate and watch over his actions and his accustomed ways to determine whether or not they are good, so as not to abandon his soul to the danger of destruction, God forbid, and not to walk according to the promptings of habit as a blind man in pitch darkness.

The connection to yir’ah is self-evident. Less obvious is the connection to zerizus. Again, turning to the Ramchal, this time ch. 6:

אחר הזהירות יבוא הזריזות, כי הזהירות סובב על ה”לא תעשה” והזריזות על ה”עשה”, והיינו (תהילים לד:טו): סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה טוֹב. וענינו של הזריזות מבואר, שהוא ההקדמה למצות ולהשלמת ענינם. … ותראה כי טבע האדם כבד מאד, כי עפריות החמריות גס, על כן לא יחפוץ האדם בטורח ומלאכה. ומי שרוצה לזכות לעבודת הבורא יתברך, צריך שיתגבר נגד טבעו עצמו ויתגבר ויזדרז, שאם הוא מניח עצמו ביד כבדותו, ודאי הוא שלא יצליח. הוא מה שאמר התנא (אבות ה:כ): הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר, וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר, וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי, וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹן אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם….

AFTER WATCHFULNESS comes Zeal, Watchfulness pertaining to the negative commandments and Zeal to the positive, in accordance with the idea of “Depart from evil and do good (Psalms 34:15).” “Zeal,” as the name implies, signifies alacrity in the pursuit and fulfillment of mitzvos. … A person’s nature exercises a strong downward pull upon him. This is so because the grossness which characterizes the substance of earthiness keeps a man from desiring exertion and labor. One who wishes, therefore, to attain to the service of the Creator, may His Name be blessed, must strengthen himself against his nature and be zealous. If he leaves himself in the hands of his downward-pulling nature, there is no question that he will not succeed. As the Tanna says (Avos 5:20) “Be fierce as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven.”

Zerizus is described at the flipside of zehirus. What zehirus taught us about when not to act (“sur meira — turn from evil”), zerizus teaches about when to do so (“va’asei tov – and do good”). More than that, the Ramchal notes that the basic job in developing zerizus is fighting the mass that comes with a body, laziness. Zerizus is actually a form of zehirus; it is a caution about being overly lazy, being aware about the cost of inaction.

Both are actually expressions of yir’ah, fear of damaging some of great value.

As we saw, yir’ah is the point about which free will revolves. It is not surprising, then, that both the motive for inaction and for action flows so directly from yir’ah.

Yir’ah and Anavah

These two middos are the transitive and intransitive versions of the same worldview, respectively. Yir’ah is my estimation of the other and my concern of damaging my connection to greatness. Anavah is the realization that my estimation of my self does not outweigh the importance of my connections to the other.

I also posted once on how true anavah motivates, because it as an awareness of the grand scheme of things and one’s place in it. Unlike the damaging effects of Rav Zechariah ben Avqulos’s modesty, when his inability to take a stand led to the destruction of the Temple. And perhaps this is why the gemara takes pains to coin the word “anavanus” for that story, rather than the usual term, “anavah“. This parallels what we saw about yir’ah, in contrast to pachad and eimah. Yir’ah is constructive; it motivates seeking appropriate action.

Yir’ah and Simchah

In the previous post in this sequence (“The Country of Yir’ah“) I already quoted Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan’s example of theyir’ah of dancing with your young son on your shoulders:

When the Torah was given to Israel solemnity and joy came down bundled together. They are fused together and cannot be separated. That is the secret of “gil be’re’ada” (joy in trembling) mentioned in Tehillim. Dance and judgment, song and law became partners with each other… Indeed, this is the balance… A rod of noble yir’ah passes through the rings of joy…  [It is] the inner rod embedded deep in an individual’s soul that connects end to end [like the inner rod that held together the walls of the Mishkan, it links complete joy in this world (eating, drinking and gift giving) to that which is beyond this world (remembering the [inevitable] day of death) to graft one upon the other so to produce eternal fruit.

He continues:

Indeed, this is the direct relationship. Indeed, this is the true vision that we call yir’ah… And this, therefore, is the reason that we dwell so much on fear of punishment (“yir’as ha’onesh”). This is also vision – seeing things as they really are… One who refuses to see his future shortchanges only himself. Only if he sees (re’iyah) will he fear (yir’ah), and only if he fears will he repent… And from here we proceed to the fear [awe] of loftiness (“yir’as haromemus”) – that is the vision [the perception] of loftiness. From here – “The maid servant at the Red Sea saw loftier visions than the Prophet Yechezkel.” From here comes the direct view, across all the dividers, to the source of existence. This is an unceasing inner gaze toward the matter that is one’s responsibility [the bundle of his life's meaning] (that he must safeguard lest it fall…). The gaze is one that leads to remembrance, remembrance that leads to care, care that leads to confidence, confidence that leads to strength (“oz”) – an inner, bold, uplifting, strength (“Hashem oz li’amo yiten…”) and a strength that leads to peace (“shalom”) and wholeness, internally and externally, in thought and in deed (“… Hashem yivareich es amo ba’shalom”). Indeed, This is the wisdom of life: “Reishis chochma yir’as Hashem.” A fear that is vision. “And remember” – “And see” – “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid…

This then is the preamble to the Song at the Sea (Shemos 14:31-15:1):

וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה בְּמִצְרַיִם, וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת ה, וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה’ וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ. אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת…

And Yisrael saw the Great Power [lit: Hand] which Hashem did in Egypt, and the nation had yir’ah for Hashem, and they believed in Hashem, and in Moshe His servant. Then Moshe and the Benei Yisrael would sing this song…

Sight (re’iyah) leads to yir’ah, leads to trust and faith (emunah), which leads to bursting out in joyous song.

Yir’ah gives an event or process the importance, the momentum, necessary to move us to joy.

Yir’ah and Ahavah

Yir’ah and love are often portrayed in contrast, as though they were poles of a dialectic. And if yir’ah meant “fear” this would be understandable. Fear for something drives out the possibility of living it. Even awe has some level of conflict with love — awe gives one a feeling of distance, love is an emotion of attachment, of closeness.

But yir’ah is an awareness of the value of something. And something that isn’t valued, that isn’t thought of as important, can’t be the object of love.

Yir’as hacheit flows from ahavas Hashem. It is very much the feeling a husband in a happy marriage has when making decisions that would impact his wife. He is not afraid of her revenge, but one that flows from how important it is to him that she remain happy. It is not the fear of repercussions for sinning, it is fear of the sin itself, of wronging my Beloved.

Yir’ah without love – surely there is here a deficiency of yir’ah;
love without yir’ah – there is nothing here at all.

- R. Yitzchak Hutner, Igeros uKesavim pg 346

Torah im Small Jugs

What is the role of the laws of business listed in Choshein Mishpat (the quarter of the Tur and Shulchan Aruch on financial matters)?

One approach could be that working for income is a necessary evil. It’s Hashem’s punishment to Adam for eating the forbidden fruit — “with the sweat of the brow shall you eat bread” (Bereishis 3:19). However, by following these laws these activities are kosher, they are rendered permissible.

But if all it offered were the ability to deal with a necessary evil, we would have difficulty understanding a gemara about this week’s parashah.

Yaaqov crosses his family and almost all of his belongings across the river, and has to return for some small vessels. There, on the far side of the river, he encounters and battles an angel until dawn.

“And Yaaqov was left alone.” (Bereishis 32:25) R. Eleazar said: He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. From here [we learn] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body. Why [do they care] so greatly? Because they do not extend their hands to robbery.

- Chullin 91a

At first this is very hard to understand. Are tzaddiqim, righteous people, supposed to be that materialistic? However, as we see from the answer, it’s not the monetary value of their belongings, but their spiritual value that holds the attraction. It is their sanctity that holds the attraction. It is their sanctity of being acquired within the laws of Choshen Mishpat. The Gemara teaches that the honest business deal is not a concession to reality, but part of the ideal.

This can be understood using the approach of Rav Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg, the author of the Seridei Eish. In a memorial volume, he explains that Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s motto of Torah im Derekh Eretz (TIDE)– Torah with the way of the world – is about the proper marriage between the Torah and the “real world”. The union between Torah and Derech Eretz in that tiny word “im” is not haphazard. In a collection of essays titled “HaRav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch Mishnaso veShitaso“, Rav YY Weinberg writes:

The Torah, according to Rav Hirsch, is the force that gives form. Form, to Aristotle’s thought, means a thing’s essential nature — in distinction to the substance from which it is embodied. Derech Eretz is merely the matter on which Torah works.

In Aristotelian physics, all objects are composed of two things: substance and form. Substance is the inherent matter. In Greek, the word for substance is “hyle”. The Ramban uses this term in his commentary on Bereishis 1:1. The initial beri’ah ex nihilo in v. 1 was of shapeless hyle, which was then given form during the yetzirah of the rest of the chapter. Form is the shape and other properties the substance takes on. But as the design adage goes, “Form follows function.” An object is shaped to serve an intended function. Form is not only the shape that the object assumes, but also its use and its goal.

When the Torah speaks of qedushah, it usually uses the preposition “le-“, “to”. The kohen gadol wore a tzitz that reads “Qadosh laShem“, “sanctified to G-d”. In the marriage formula, the chasan tells the kallah that she is thereby “mequdeshes li“, “consecrated to me”. We use the term “qadosh” when something is consecrated for a particular function, from something assuming a Form.

Torah defines the goal of our lives, the function for which we were created. It therefore dictates the form that we give the things we do. The resulting life has qedushah. To Yaaqov Avinu, his possessions were holy because they were the substance to which he applied the Torah’s blueprint.

It indicates that the halachic business deal is not a concession to reality, but part of the ideal. Observance of the laws of Choshein Mishpat doesn’t merely render these activities kosher, it’s maqdish, it brings sanctity, it makes even business dealings sacred.

When we look at Eisav in this light, the see that he took the exact opposite approach. The Torah (Bereishis 25:28) explains Yitzchaq’s attraction to Esav with “ki tzayid befiv” which the medrash (quoted by Rashi ac loc) understands to mean “he used his mouth to ensnare”. Esav would impress his father with shows of religiosity, asking questions like the correct way to tithe salt, knowing full well that salt isn’t tithed.

Seforno understands this pasuk not to mean that Yitzchaq loved Eisav instead of Yaaqov, but rather that “Yitzchaq also loved Eisav even though he knew he was not as whole as Yaaqov.” Yitzchak originally dreamed that his sons would live together in a partnership – Yaaqov would study Torah and Eisav would provide the means with which to do so. Eisav did commit himself to the land, but he became an ish sadeh, a person who is defined by the field, rather than learning the proper path in this world, derekh eretz. He therefore fit the Torah to his own purposes, inverting the form and the substance.

To Eisav, Torah was a tool, something you manipulate, to gain material ends.

Rashi quotes Bereishis Rabba (32:25) that the identity of the angel battled was the guardian angel of Esav’s children, the nation of Edom. The confrontation between Yaaqov and Edom’s mal’akh was a fundamental event about the relationship between the idealism of Torah and the realism of being in this world. When Yaaqov embodied the proper relationship of physical and spiritual, when he saw the holiness one can imbue even the purchasing of small jars, that was when he faced the specter of Eisav.

The Country of Yir’ah

The time it took me to write my previous post grew long, so I cut it down to being set-up material for this one just to get it out the door. Here was the summary with which I left things:

1- Words are how we divide the space of ideas into more specific “countries”. Our choice of vocabulary therefore not only reflects our thoughts, but shape them. And more importantly, they change what parts of our experience we notice, remember, and reinforce in our memories. A point the “Himba-Western Color Test” highlights. We could be living in different worlds.

2- In particular, we can’t really work on our yir’as Shamayim if we continue dividing the space in terms of fear (and terror, panic, etc…) and awe. Yir’ah may cover some of the same territory as the English concept of “fear” and much of the territory as “awe”. But yir’ah doesn’t come in two types / flavors / aspects. It is one stretch of emotional space.

3- And now that we looked at the neighboring “countries” of pachad and eimah, we are ready to explore the yir’ah as a primary concept in its own right.

To elaborate the last point:

… [E]imah and pachad incapacitate. Eimah freezes us with an inability to decide in the absence of data and surety; pachad triggers the fight-or-flight reflex, pushing us to react without taking the time for contemplation, for free-willed decision-making.

In contrast, yir’ah is the very essence of free will.

ואמר רבי חנינא הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים…

Rabbi Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except yir’as Shamayim…

The truth is, I already wrote what I still think of (7-1/2 years later) as my canonical attempt to define yir’ah. It’s a fusion of the beginning of the treatment in Mesilas Yesharim with Rav Avram Elya Kaplan’s Be’iqvos haYir’ah. To quote excerpts:

In Mesilas Yesharim, the Ramchal (R’ Moshe Chaim Luzato) writes of three kinds of yir’ah (fear / awe / awareness of magnitude).

1- Yir’as ha’onesh: fear of punishment. This is the lowest of the three. However, since even fear of punishment is a motivator, even yir’as ha’onesh is viewed positively.

R’ Shlomo Wolbe zt”l writes that today, we’ve lost that motivating quality. Punishment invokes more thoughts of rebellion than of compliance. …

2- Yir’as Shamayim: fear of [the One in] heaven

This is the lofty goal. It, in turn, comes in two flavors:

2a- Yir’as hacheit: fear of sin. This is distinct from the fear of punishment; it’s fear of the sin itself, of the possibility of erring. Mesilas Yesharim continues that when a traditional source speaks of “yir’ah” without specification, it means yir’as hacheit (fear of the sin [itself]).

Which would mean that it’s fair to assume this is the kind of yir’as shamayim is the one R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan described in Be’ikvos haYir’ah (translation from an article by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer):

…To what may yir’ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance…

It is a kind of fear of heaven that one is worried about letting G-d down, about doing something that would ruin the relationship.

The Maharal (Nesivas Olam, Nesiv Yir’as Hashem chapter 1) writes that “yir’as hacheit” (fear of the sin itself, which the Ramchal called the default definition) comes from a love of Hashem. When you love Someone, you give great importance to not disappointing Him.

2b- Yir’as haRomemus: fear of the Grandeur [of G-d]

Sadly, Rav AE Kaplan died in his early 30s and didn’t live to marry off a child. Having recently had that experience, I would provide what I think is a parallel but more extreme — and thus hopefully more clear — metaphor than dancing with one’s son: Yir’ah is what makes participating in one’s own daughter’s wedding so much more exciting and joyous than when attending the wedding of one’s neighbor’s daughter.

In music, a pedal point is “is a sustained tone, typically in the bass, during which at least one foreign, i.e., dissonant harmony is sounded in the other parts.” (Wikipedia) A low pitched note typically played on a pipe organ (with the pedal, the the name) and held. Even though the sound may fade from the conscious, it is played for its effects on how we perceive the other notes. One of the things a pedal point provides is a sense of weight to the music by giving a nice rich bass sound. Its role in music is akin to yir’ah‘s role in our psyche.

(Tangent: The pipe-organ evolved from a musical instrument used in the second Beis haMiqdash, the magreifah. [Eirkhin 10b-11a] Interestingly, another instrument that also has the magreifah in its ancestry also has notes played and held in order to give a bass and weight to the music is the bagpipe with its drones.)

Pachad is fear of the other, the instinctive fight-or-flight when encountering a danger. But while yir’as ha’onesh is equally a self-preservational fear, to avoid personal pain, it is a fear of making the wrong choice. The danger is in my control — if I make the right choice. For someone to have yir’as ha’onesh they have to at least understand their choices. Otherwise, one faces eimah, the fear of the unknown and the terror of a life out of control.

What then is yir’ah? It’s the experience of encountering the the valuable. If we were to think in terms of awe and fear, both are involved; the awe of the Other and fear of ruining the encounter with it come as one. In the case of yir’as Shamayim, it is both yir’as haRomemus, the awe of standing before Divine Grandeur, as well as yir’as hachait, the fear of committing an action that is not in accord with respecting that Grandeur.

We saw that Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that all Hashem demands of us is yir’ah, and Rav Chanina explained that this is because Rav Chanina saying that every free-willed decision revolves around yir’as Shamayim.

This idea underpins one of the Mussar Movement’s foundation stories. A young Yisrael Lipkin used to follow R’ Zundel Salanter around. Rav Zundel wanted to live privately, secretly, so Rav Yisrael had to sneak around to watch the actions of this ba’al mussar. One time, he followed Rav Zundel into the woods, where Rav Zundel engaged in passionate hispa’alus (pouring out his soul “with lips aflame”). (No, this really isn’t a Breslov story…) Suddenly, Rav Zundel turned around, made eye contact, and instructed, “ישראל, לערן מוסר, אז דו זאלסט וערען א ירא שמים — Learn mussar so that you will be one who lives in awe of [the One in] Heaven!” Nesivos Or relates that Rav Yisrael Salanter called the moment a “thunderbolt” that changed his life.

Every time we choose something over its alternative, we are weighing pros and cons. We used some metric to decide one side was in some way greater than the other. That “greatness” could be in moral terms, clarity of truth, aesthetic pleasure, creature comforts or whatever — but on some scale the side that was chosen was found to be greater. Thus, every decision revolves around whether we use the Absolute system of values, aligning with Hashem’s plan for us, or some other metric.

I expect to be writing one more piece in this series: How yir’ah interrelates with other middos. (Prelude — Yir’ah and love or yir’ah and happiness are not dialectics or contrasts…)

Awe and Fear

In a relatively recent post (“Confrontation and Babel“) I invoked a quote from R’ J.B. Soloveitchik’s Confrontation to highlight the linkage between language and worldview, and thus between language and religion.

Rabbi Soloveitchik writes:

The great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal private affair incomprehensible to the outsider – even to a brother of the same faith community. The divine message is incommunicable since it defies all standardized media of information and all objective categories. If the powerful community of the many feels like remedying an embarrassing human situation or redressing an historic wrong, it should do so at the human ethical level. However, if the debate should revolve around matters of faith, then one of the confronters will be impelled to avail himself of the language of his opponent. This in itself would mean surrender of individuality and distinctiveness.

I elaborated:

Words are pigeonholes for ideas. … A community tends to refer to some concept, be it “ball”, “run” or “salvation”, and therefore their language has a word for it. If the idea rarely comes up, they would use an expression to define it. But if the idea isn’t part of their worldview altogether, one would have to start with the differences in givens and spend hours building up our worldview in order to explain the idea to them….

… To someone who thinks in English, fear and anxiety caused by danger, the unknown or the possibility of erring are all variants of the same thing. …

I recently gave a talk on yir’ah which opened by discussing an example I gave then: the difference between dividing our emotional space between the “territories” of fear (and panic, terror, fright…) and awe and dividing our emotional space between yir’ah, pachad and eimah.

The Himba-Western Color Test

The Himba people of Nigeria are a favorite among some linguists and cognitive scientists. There was once a theory that if a society has only two words for color, they would refer to white and black. If there were a third word, red. And so on for the 11 most used color words that appear in English — and thus other languages. Which would imply that there is something hard-wired about how people perceive color. But the Himba did not focus on the hue of a color, where it sits in the spectrum. To them, darkness and lightness (to be more specific saturation and value) is just as primary. And thus they don’t share the same line between green and blue as we do.

To be specific, see the color chart at right. There are actually two colors that are not the same as the others. One you’ll probably see right away, the other may take longer, if you notice it at all.

To a Westerner, the aqua square at the second from the bottom on the right is obviously different. However, the lighter green square in the left column, second from the top, is a more of a challenge.

To the Himba, the reverse is true. They have only 4 primary color words, but they learn different words for these two shades of green when they are young, and the difference becomes obvious to them. However, the aqua square as the same darkness as the green ones, and so distinguishing it is a challenge.

This is startling, but it shows how much our perceptions are shaped by how we tag them. We use words to review our memories. So how we remember something also gets shaped by the language we use.

If this is true for something empirical, like color, how much more so for something so much harder to put a finger on, like fear or awe.

To really understand what yir’ah and yir’as Shamayim (yir’ah for [the One in] heaven) mean, we have to learn how to shift from thinking of yir’ah as a category that straddles awe and fear to thinking in terms of yir’ah itself.

Pachad and Eimah

To make this shift, I would step back and look at the other major “countries” dividing up this middah “continent” in the Torah’s terms.

The Chumash reads (in “Az Yashir”, Shemos 15:16):

תִּפֹּל עֲלֵיהֶם אֵימָתָה וָפַחַד בִּגְדֹל זְרוֹעֲךָ יִדְּמוּ כָּאָבֶן עַד יַעֲבֹר עַמְּךָ ה עַד יַעֲבֹר עַם זוּ קָנִיתָ

Terror and dread will fall upon them by the greatness of Your “Arm” they are as still as stone; until Your people cross, Hashem, until this people whom You acquired cross [the sea].

Rashi there comments:

“תפול עליהם אימתה” – (מכילתא) על הרחוקים

“ופחד” – על הקרובים כענין שנאמר (יהושע ב) “כי שמענו את אשר הוביש” וגו’

Eimah will fall upon them — those who are far. (Mekhilta)

And pachad — those who are near, like the matter which it says, “we [the people of Jericho] have heard how Hashem dried up the water of the Sea of Reeds…”

Eimah is remote, pachad is immediate.

Looking ateimah in particular, Yeshaiah 33:18

לִבְּךָ יֶהְגֶּה אֵימָה אַיֵּה סֹפֵר אַיֵּה שֹׁקֵל אַיֵּה סֹפֵר אֶת הַמִּגְדָּלִים.

Your heat will contemplate the eimah: ‘Where is he that counted, where is he that weighed? Where is he that counted the towers?’


“לבך יהגה אימה” – כשתראה השרים והחכמים של עכו”ם שהיו שליטים בחייהן והרי הם נידונים בגיהנם יהגה לבך אימה ותאמר איה חכמתן וגדולתן של אלו איה שהיה סופר בחייו ושוקל כל דבר חכמה שהיו שואלין ממנו כל עצת מלכות

Your heart will contemplate the eimah — When you see the lords and sages of the idolatrous nations that in their lifetimes are ruling, and behold they are being judged in gehenam “Your heart will contemplate the eimah” and say “Where is their wisdom and greatness? Where is the one who was a scribe in his life and weighed out every piece of wisdom that they asked of him, all of the advice for the king?”

As we saw in Shemos, those who heard of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds from afar experienced eimah. It also describes the experience of watching in wonder at the complete loss of greatness of the ruling class of the nations that oppress us. One experiences eimah when encountering the unknown.

Pachad, as we saw is the flip-side. It comes with immediacy. As when Yaaqov invoked the merit of Yitzchaq at the Aqeidah by referring to “pachad Yitzchaq” (Bereishis 31:42, c.f. Kelei Yaqar ad loc).Yitzchaq, whose prayer is described as going out “lasuach basadeh — to flirt [with G-d] in the field” experienced G-d as an immediate and very real presence. Pachad describes our fear of snakes.


But both eimah and pachad incapacitate. Eimah freezes us with an inability to decide in the absence of data and surety; pachad triggers the fight-or-flight reflex, pushing us to react without taking the time for contemplation, for free-willed decision-making.

In contrast, yir’ah is the very essence of free will.

ואמר רבי חנינא הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים שנאמר (דברים י:יב) “ועתה ישראל מה ה’ אלהיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה…?”

אטו יראת שמים מילתא זוטרתא היא? והא”ר חנינא משום ר’ שמעון בן יוחי: אין לו להקב”ה בבית גנזיו אלא אוצר של יראת שמים. שנאמר (ישעיהו לג:ו) “יראת ה’ היא אוצרו.” אין. לגבי משה, מילתא זוטרתא היא. דאמר ר’ חנינא: משל לאדם שמבקשים ממנו כלי גדול, ויש לו. דומה עליו ככלי קטן. קטן, ואין. לו דומה עליו ככלי גדול:

Rabbi Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except yir’as Shamayim, as it says: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem your G-d demand of you but to feel yir’ah?” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Is then the fear of Heaven a small thing?! Didn’t [the same] Rabbi Chanina say in the name of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai: God has in his storehouse nothing but the treasure of yir’as Shamayim, as it says: “The fear of the Lord is His treasure” [Isaiah 33:6]. Yes, for Moses it was a small thing. For as Rabbi Hanina said: It is like a person who is asked for a big vessel and he has it, it seems to him to be small; [if asked for] a small vessel and he does not have it, it seems to him to be big.

- Berakhos 33b (there are other versions at Megillah 25a and Niddah 16b)

Yir’ah is the one thing Hashem treasures because only something that is sourced in yir’ah is from a free decision by a person, rather than from Him. We see this contrast in theextended Birkhas Qedushah (the third berakahah of the Amidah) for the Yamim Nora’im:

ובכן תן פחדך ה’ אלוקינו על כל מעשיך,
ואימתך על כל מה שבראת,
וייראוך כל המעשים
וישתחוו לפניך כל הברואים,
ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם….

And so, place Your pachad, Hashem our G-d, on all that You have made, and Your eimah on all that you have created,
and all that were made will have yir’ah for You, and all that were created will bow before You,
and they will all be made into a single confederation to do Your Will whole-heartedly….

Pachad and eimah are placed on people by G-d. Yir’ah is something we do of our own.

In a future post (hopefully soon), I’ll discuss what yir’ah is. The points I’m trying to leave you with now are:

1- Words are how we divide the space of ideas into more specific “countries”. Our choice of vocabulary therefore not only reflects our thoughts, but shape them. And more importantly, they change what parts of our experience we notice, remember, and reinforce in our memories. A point the “Himba-Western Color Test” highlights. We could be living in different worlds.

2- In particular, we can’t really work on our yir’as Shamayim if we continue dividing the space in terms of fear (and terror, panic, etc…) and awe. Yir’ah may cover some of the same territory as the English concept of “fear” and much of the territory as “awe”. But yir’ah doesn’t come in two types / flavors / aspects. It is one stretch of emotional space.

3- And now that we looked at the neighboring “countries” of pachad and eimah, we are ready to explore the yir’ah as a primary concept in its own right.

The Avos Kept the Torah

There is a 3 way dispute on Yuma 28b about whether the avos kept all of halakhah, or just those mitzvos already given:

  • Rav: The avos kept the entire Torah
  • R’ Ashi: … even the rabbinic enactments!
  • R Shimi bar Chiya: Avraham only kept the 7 mitzvos benei Noach and beris Milah. (If we’re talking all three avos, presumably the only variation is Yaaqov and his sons keeping gid hanasheh.)

The discussion amongst rishonim is generally found surrounding the verse Bereishis 26:5.

Famously, Rashi holds like Rav Ashi. And this maximalist position has grown to be considered “normative” in many circles. It requires explaining — how did the avos know the Torah’s mitzvos before Sinai and rabbinic rulings and legislation years before the sages who made these decisions did? Did they hold like Rav Moshe Feinstein or Rav SZ Aurbach?  Did they say “morid hatal” in Shemoneh Esrei? (And what does that say, if anything, about the free will of the rabbinate? Or, for that matter, of the notion that both sides of a true halachic dispute are right, each in their own way?)

However, it should be noted that among rishonim, asserting Rav or Rav Ashi’s position as literally true was in the minority. Most rishonim (see discussions on Bereishis 26:5) hold like Rav Shimi bar Chiya. Including: the Rambam (Melachim 9:1), his son R’ Avraham, the Me’iri (intro to Avos), the Ramban, Seforno, Ibn Ezra, Radaq, Chizquni and the Rama (okay, not a rishon). Note the inclusion of the Ramban and Ramba in that list — it’s not just the usual list of names of staunch rationalists rejecting the maximalist position.

A consequence of the rise of the liberal movements is that maximalist hashkafic positions are pushed in some circles so as to avoid their mistake of compromise. Another consequence which feeds this is a focus on studying halakhah to the exclusion of machashevah. (There are other consequences too, but I’ll stick with the relevant ones.) Between these effects, people see Rashi and think that anyone who holds a position embraced by R’ Shimi Bar Chiya, rishonim of both sides of the qabbalah-scholasticism divide, and the Rama is watering down their Torah.

More recently (relatively speaking — going back 110 years or so), a different position emerged — siding like Rav Ashi, but assuming that he didn’t mean that they literally followed every detail.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner writes (Nefesh haChaim 1:21) that the avos were in tune with the needs of their souls, and could see the spiritual impact in all the worlds by their actions, and were thus able to intuit the Torah. And then he concludes that this is why Noach and the avos were not given the Torah. Because, for example, Yaaqov could not marry two sisters nor accomplish the spiritual / metaphysical repairs thereby had the prohibition been commanded already. According to R’ Chaim Volozhiner, “kept the entire Torah” refers to accomplishing the goals of the entire Torah, not that each law of each mitzvah was observed.

R MM Schneerson’s (the 7th Lub Rebbe’s) understanding of R’ Yoseif Yitzchaq Schneerson’s (his father-in-law and predecessor’s) position (Sefer haMaamarim 5697, pg 282, hagah titled “beruchnius velo begashmius“), is similar. That Rav and R’ Ashi aren’t being fully literal and they mean the avos accomplished the spiritual objectives of the mitzvos, and not that for every mitzvah did they physically fulfill it as we would.

Whereas it would seem that most rishonim did understand Rav Ashi literally, whether they personally hold like him or like Rav Shimi bar Chiya. And therefore they bring answers to the question of marrying both Rachel and Leah, and the like. Whether it’s because one of the Noachide mitzvos, which they were obligated in, was thus stronger than the prohibition, or a limitation such as their only following halakhos not yet given when living in Israel.

On the other hand, it is also possible that they took Rav Ashi’s words metaphorically. I posted back in 2009 sources that show that aggadic statements are spoken in metaphor was the norm amongst rishonim and pre-19th century acharonim. (And among later acharonim, I cited R’ Hirsch and R’ Yisrael Salanter.)  There I wrote:

ALL THAT SAID, it seems to be the rules of aggadic stories, even the ones that aren’t historical, that they do not have any of the “good guys” doing something we wouldn’t. And so we still find commentaries trying to justify things on a halachic basis. This shouldn’t be taken to mean they assumed the events actually occurred!

Here too… If Rav Ashi speaks in the metaphor of the avos keeping every last little halakhah, there has to be a way to understand their actions as conforming to that halakhah. If Yaaqov avinu did violate a future Torah law (in our example), then Rav Ashi wouldn’t have made his point using that metaphor.

A consequence of the rise of the liberal movements is that maximalist hashkafic positions are pushed in some circles so as to avoid their mistake of compromise. Another consequence which feeds this is a focus on studying halakhah to the exclusion of machashavah. (There are other consequences too, but I’ll stick with the relevant.) Between these effects, people see Rashi and think that anyone who holds like R’ Shimi Bar Chiya or the Ramban (never mind the staunch rationalists like the Rambam) or who considers Rav and Rav Ashi as speaking metaphorically is watering down their Torah. They both need to keep their Torah maximalist and aren’t investing time studying the other positions.


1- I like the new (Sep 2012) translation of Nefesh haChaim by R’ Len Moskowitz. (Hebrew in back.) It balances the precision of language really necessary for a philosophical text (even to the extent that yir’ah is consistently rendered “fear/awe”) while still remaining readable. Highly recommended.

2- You’ll notice that most of the links in this post are to pages on he.wikisource.org. I don’t know too many people who use this resource. But is has a complete Chumash with Rashi, Ramban, references to Shas and Rambam and more commentaries, a complete Shas, Rambam, siddurim in various nusachos and even Nefesh haChaim. (Other sefarim are not completed yet. E.g. the edition of Arukh haShulchan is more accurate than any in print, but only for what is filled in so far.)


Teaching Non-Jews Their Torah

In my previous post I discussed the basic problems with effective interfaith dialog.

All of which may be unimportant if Judaism is a prosletizing religion. Not in the sense that anyone would suggest that Jews are obligated to convert all people to Judaism. But if there is an obligation to bring all humans to conform to the 7 mitzvos benei Noach then perhaps we must overcome the problem rather than simply acknowledge it.

First, it looks to my eye that in practice most of the Jews who sell pendants and rings in the diamond exchange on 47th Street (in New York City) hold like Tosafos that trinitarianism conforms to the 7 mitzvos. Because otherwise selling crosses would be prohibited even in a market dominated by non-Jews. I don’t know which idea is dominant in the texts of halakhah. And yet, it seems to be common enough practice.

Second, those trinitarians who place the three-ness in the realm of their god-as-perceived would be observant Noachides according to all opinions. And a Moslem (assuming they are part of the non-murderous majority) also complies to the 7 mitzvos. Today’s more educated Hindus also teach that their 3.1 million gods are human perceptions of One Incomprehensible Divinity.

My point being, Noachidism is a meta-religion, a criterion a specific religion may or may not conform to. It might (see next issue) mean proselytizing to true polytheists, but it doesn’t mean “believe this specific religion”.

Third, are we obligated to teach Non-Jews? Or are we obligated to set an example for them to teach themselves? If we are supposed to passively lead them by example to Noachidism, not actively teach it, then it’s hard to call that missionizing.

The Sifri in Va’Eschanan can be read either way. The Rambam takes it to mean there is a mitzvah, either chiyuvis or qiyumis (either an obligation or a good thing to do if you happen to do it). I can’t tell. The Lubavitcher Rebbe clearly stated the Rambam obligated (Hil’ Malekhim 9 onward), but I think that is his novellum. The naive reading (pashut peshat) of the Rambam would be not to convert them to a religion of Noachidism, and only that he permits teaching them the parts of the 7 mitzvos they come to you to learn. Tosafos (Chagiga 13aein”) clearly says it’s a non-obligatory mitzvah to teach them the laws they are trying to observe. In contrast to the prohibition against teaching them the rest of Oral Torah. Unclear about the mitzvos they aren’t yet drawn to. If it weren’t for the LR, I would assume there is only one opinion shared by both rishonim.

Related: There is a Torahitic prohibition of lifnei iver (“[placing a stumbling block] before the blind”, enabling another to sin) with respect to leading a non-Jew to violate one of the 7 that they couldn’t otherwise do. But the rabbis saw no need to enact mesayeia lidevar aveirah (handing someone over to sin) when the issue is helping them do a sin that could have done (with more difficulty, and perhaps motivation-killing difficulty) without you, as they have with aiding a Jew to violate one of the 613. What are we suupposed to conclude from that?

Confrontation and Babel

וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים.

And the whole earth was of one speech and of one set of ideas.

- Bereishis 11:1

I blogged in the past about the difference between thinking in Biblical Hebrew tenses and in the tenses one finds in most contemporary languages and how the Holy Language does not distinguish between “he is a builder” and “he is building”. But vocabulary is a more obvious area where speaking a different language will change which thoughts come more naturally.

Rav Herschel Schachter recently criticized the actions of other students of R’ JB Soloveitchik, who engaged in interfaith dialog, teach Torah to Christians, and encourage Christian activities in Israel. (One such article is available on TorahWeb, here). R’ Shelomo Riskin defended his Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel. I am not interested in whether the events since RJBS wrote Confrontation call for a new halachic ruling than the one given there. I don’t understand the relevence of the question of whether the church is still hostile to Judaism or Jews, or whether not. It might not be productive if they hate us either way. It might be more productive to specifically talk with those who hate you, if it means understanding can replace hatred. I don’t know which, but that’s a tactical question, not a halachic one. I also believe that the underlying theme of such conferences is the search for a common ground, which in turn pushes toward novel (if plausible) interpretations of Judaism which aren’t what we would normally believe. But I really want to simply focus on the issue of whether such dialog is really possible, rather than whether it’s permitted.

I think one of the points RJBS makes in Confrontation means something more fundamental along these lines. He opens that essay, as I did this blog post, with a quote about the Tower of Bavel. We can speak about simple miscommunication due to the difference in language in the literal sense — most Xian denominations mean something different by the word “conversion” than we do, as they have room for “witnessing” as a buzzword where we wouldn’t. But when RJBS speaks about lacking a common language, I believe he means this on a deeper level — a lack of one-to-one correspondance of concepts.

To quote:

Second, the logos, the word, in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed does not lend itself to standardization or universalization. The word of faith reflects the intimate, the private, the paradoxically inexpressible cravings of the individual for and his linking up with his Maker. It reflects the numinous character and the strangeness of the act of faith of a particular community which is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community. Hence, it is important that the religious or theological logos should not be employed as the medium of communication between two faith communities whose modes of expression are as unique as their apocalyptic experiences. The confrontation should occur not at a theological but at a mundane human level. There, all of us speak the universal language of modern man. As a matter of fact our common interests lie in the realm of faith, but in that of the secular orders.8 There, we all face a powerful antagonist, we all have to contend with a considerable number of matters of great concern. The relationship between two communities must be outer-directed and related to the secular orders with which men of faith come face to face. In the secular sphere, we may discuss positions to be taken, ideas to be evolved, and plans to be formulated. In these matters, religious communities may together recommend action to be developed and may seize the initiative to be implemented later by general society. However, our joint engagement in this kind of enterprise must not dull our sense of identity as a faith community. We must always remember that our singular commitment to God and our hope and indomitable will for survival are non-negotiable and non-rationalizable and are not subject to debate and argumentation. The great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal private affair incomprehensible to the outsider – even to a brother of the same faith community. The divine message is incommunicable since it defies all standardized media of information and all objective categories. If the powerful community of the many feels like remedying an embarrassing human situation or redressing an historic wrong, it should do so at the human ethical level. However, if the debate should revolve around matters of faith, then one of the confronters will be impelled to avail himself of the language of his opponent. This in itself would mean surrender of individuality and distinctiveness.

Words are pigeonholes for ideas. [Editorial comment: It seems I discussed this before in relation to Migdal Bavel the week of Noach, 1995. See here.] A community tends to refer to some concept, be it “ball”, “run” or “salvation”, and therefore their language has a word for it. If the idea rarely comes up, they would use an expression to define it. But if the idea isn’t part of their worldview altogether, one would have to start with the differences in givens and spend hours building up our worldview in order to explain the idea to them. And even then they only know the words in the abstract, absent the emotional attachments.

Ge’ulah” and “yeshu’ah” don’t really mean anything like “redemption” or “salvation”. Nor does “berakhah” have much to do with blessing, nor “qedushah” to holiness. To someone who thinks in English, fear and anxiety caused by danger, the unknown or the possibility of erring are all variants of the same thing. And we wouldn’t naturally compare awe to any of them. But in Biblical Hebrew, there is pachad in the face of danger, eimah of the unknown, and by calling both the fear of erring and awe “yir’ah”, one  does naturally see their common theme of dealing with something greater than myself.

The two religious groups’ worldview lend themselves to a different set of pigeonholes — we lack ground for common dialog. We not only lack a “safah achas”, we lack a “devarim achadim”.

I think this is what R’ Soloveitchik means when he speaks of an uncrossable abyss between faith communities, that we speak different languages that makes meaningful dialog simply impossible. Instead what happens is that the majority community’s language is used, and therefore the minority community ends up shoehorning ideas into a lexicon that doesn’t really describe them correctly. Judaism is bound to be misrepresented in these exchanges.

Race or Religion?
One often hears it asked and debated: Is Jewishness membership in a people (a race or ethnic group), or is it adherence to a religion? I think the question doesn’t even start; it’s an illusion created by the English language which coerces us to think in a false dichotomy.

English evolved in a culture that was primarily shaped by Christianity. So its words fit pigeonholes of types of community in categories that make sense to Christians (and people whose thought is of Christian heritage): co-religionists, ethnic groups, etc…

However, for example, Arabs are united by a shared language and the resultant culture. In the Sudan, the Arabs are Moslems who are genetically African. As are many of those who have faced such oppression in Darfur Moslems who are genetically African. They differ in language and resulting cultural elements. There is no word in English for the kind of peoplehood that is meant by “Arab”. But there is in Hebrew. Next Rosh haShanah, those of us using traditional liturgy will be thanking G-d for having “uplifted us above all other lashon — [people who are united by common] language”.

What kind of peoplehood is denoted by “Jew”? Neither the unity of coreligionists, as there are atheist Jews, Buddhist Jews, and Jews who believe in Christianity. Not the unity of genetics, as we accept converts. Nor that of culture — Ashkenazic food is very unlike Sepharadic, Yemenite music very different than that of German Jews. Similarly our art and poetry is as diverse as the cultures among which we have lived.

What are we? We are an am and an eidah, a kelal and a kehillah. Those are the words that emerged in Hebrew, the language in which we have done most of our thinking about who we are. The lack of clear English term to pigeonhole our self-identity into is a non-issue; it’s an attempt to define ourselves in someone else’s terms.