The Mussar Dispute

Rav Yisrael Salanter wrote to Volozhin, the flagship yeshiva of the yeshiva movement. He offered the Netziv his services as a mashgiach ruchani. The Netziv said that he was welcome to come, but if Rav Yisrael came, the Netziv would have to leave. Rav Yisrael Salanter was a brilliant talmudist and overqualified for the job, but the Netziv felt he couldn’t operate in the same institution as Mussar.

Rav Yisrael’s student, Rav Itzele Petersburger, similarly offered in 1881. R’ Nasan Kamentzky weaves together three versions of the story to create a single plausible narrative about how his offer was received (starts at about 87 min in on this recording).

Rav Nechamiah Goldberg tells that while Rav Izele was turned down, he did get permission to give a mussar shmuess. The thrust of that talk was based on the thought from our sages that Hashem created the yeitzer hara and He created an antidote — Torah. Rav Itzele explained that the Torah cures us of evil desires the way a segulah cures a sick person. The person must perform the act or recite the text exactly, and if the segulah is to say it 7 times, there will be absolutely no effect if he only says it six. Similarly, in order for Torah to fight the yeitzer hara, it most be studied perfectly lishmah, with pure motive and no distractions. Mussar, however, is like medicine.  Even if you do not follow instructions perfectly, it will still work. Not as well, but there is still improvement. Thus, unless you are already capable of perfect Torah study, Mussar is the appropriate solution to the problem of yeitzer hara. R’ Chaim Brisker, who also taught at Volozhin at the time, was sitting near the exit. As Rav Izele left the room after his talk, Rav Chaim told him, “So mussar is for someone who is sick, but we in Volozhin aren’t ill!”

R JB Solovetchik, in Ish haHalakhah, quotes Rav Itzele Petersburger using a different idea from our sages. There is no reason to believe he didn’t actually used both, or that they are quoting the same talk.  The gemara advises: If the yeitzer hara comes upon you, sent the yeitzer hatov after it. If that succeeds, good; if not, learn Torah. If that works, good; if not say, say qeri’as shema. If that works, good; if not, remember the day of death. So you see that the final, most effective way to win out over the yeitzer hara is qeri’as shema and remembering the day of death — Mussar, not Torah study! Rav Chaim Brisker (R’ Soloveitchik’s grandfather) replied that the study of Mussar is listed is a last choice because Mussar is like castor oil — for sick people it cures, but if you don’t need it — it’s sickening! A healthy person would not need to get bayond learning Torah to vanquish his inclination.

The third version: When the Netziv found out the purpose of Rav Itzele’s visit, he expelled him from Volozhin. One detail found in Dov Katz’s Pulmus haMussar (The Mussar Dispute) that R’ Kamentzky did not retell is that students from the yeshiva bodily carried R’ Itzele Petersburger out of the building. Either this too could have been a different visit, or perhaps continues the story after the above conversation.

Where did this split come from? After all, R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, was married to Rav Chaim Volzhiner’s granddaughter, Rav Yitzchaq Volzhiner’s daughter. He inherited the yeshiva from them. Clearly he represented a tradition from Rav Chaim Volozhiner. On the other hand, Rav Yisrael Salanter was publicizing the version of Judaism he learned from Rav Zundel Salanter, who in turn was a student of the very same Rav Chaim Volozhiner! How did their two traditions diverge, and what exactly was the original point of conflict?

One can say that what happened was that Rav Chaim’s successors in Volozhin took to heart the fourth section, and therefore they pulled Volozhin to ever more exclusively focus on total immersion intellectually in Torah. (Along the way, his rebbe‘s title changed from haGaon haChassid Rav Eliyahu miVilna to just the Vilna Gaon — mentioning his brilliance in Torah, but omitting his chassidus.)  The Yeshiva Movement reads Nefesh haChaim as having 3 sections discussing the value and power of the soul, and how to develop yir’ah so that one can understand the sanctifying aspect of immersion in Torah.

Meanwhile, R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s pupil, R’ Zundel Salanter, placed more emphasis on the lessons captured in the first three sections. And so, when he spotted young Yisrael Lipkin — the future Rav Yisrael Salanter, father of the Mussar Movement — spying on his private spiritual exercises in the woods, Rav Zundel yelled out to him, “Yisrael, lern mussar zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim!” (Yisrael, learn mussar so that you can be one who feels the awe of heaven!”) A call to work directly on one’s middos in order to live a life of yir’ah; not a reliance on metaphysical effects of immersion in talmudic dialectic. According to Mussar’s understanding, the book is about internalizing the Torah’s values. To achieve this, one must develop the soul and yir’ah and only then one’s Torah can be retained within one’s being.

(Please do not take either of the previous two paragraphs as caricatures, all-or-nothing contrasts.)

In the next post I hope to explore the text. But in the meantime, I want to note that this phenomenon is common. It explains the diversity of paths attributed to the Vilna Gaon, the varieties of Chassidus produced by the Baal Shem Tov’s students, and their students, the different schools of Mussar, the different takes of Rav Kook’s teachings among different communities of followers, or more recently the various very different takes on how to continue R’ JB Soloveitchik and the approach to life he taught.

In each case, the mentor was a brilliant, complex, and subtle thinker. So much so, that the students only had the capacity to relate to part of the mentor’s message and connect to it. They accurately see the rebbe, but only a much as they can hold. And so, like the blind men’s description of the elephant, the results diverge. But each is accurately teaching a way the rest of us can understand the original message.

Baal Nefesh Yachmir

Continuing on the prior post… A recurring topic on Avodah is the Mishnah Berurah’s use of the concept of ba’al nefesh yachmir, that while the halakhah itself allows for some leniency, “one who masters their nefesh should be stringent”. (By the way, the idiom only appears 24 times in the MB, although the general notion of going beyond the letter does come up more frequently.)

What is a ba’al nefesh, and why are some chumeros more related to this ideal than someone else’s?

Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Ruach Chaim on Avos 3:1); see also Nefesh haChaim 3:1) defines the ba’al nefesh as:

This is what our Rabbis (Chagiga 12a) intended by: Adam was as tall as from the earth to the sky. And when he sinned, HQBH places His “Hand” on him and reduced him, standing him on two levels.

If he wants, like at the time when he has a neshamah [the higher aspects of the soul], even though he has feet on the ground, his body and essence are planted in the storehouses of on high. And when he sins, the Holy One blessed be He places His “Hand” on him and reduces him etc… two levels — it means to say two steps: nefesh [the soul's more animalistic functions] and ru’ach [its spiritual functions].

והנה הבחירה חפשית באדם ברצותו מהפך חומרו המגושם להיות רוחני, וכן להיפוך חס ושלום פוגם הרוח ושבה כבשרו, ובדור המבול הרעו לעשות, ופגמו הרוח ושב כבשר, ולזה אמר הכתוב (בראשית ו’) “לֹא-יָדוֹן רוּחִי [בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם, הוּא בָשָׂר; וְהָיוּ יָמָיו, מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה].” לא יהיה עוד הרוח בתוך הגוף בשגם הוא בשר נהפך לגשמי.
והאנשים המהפכים הבשר והיו לרוח נקראים בעלי הנפש…

A person’s free will turns his physicality into ruchani according to his will. Similarly in the reverse (chas veshalom) he can damage the ru’ach and reduce it to his flesh. In the generation of the flood they made their actions evil, they damaged their ruach and reduced it to flesh. It is about this the scripture says “My ‘Soul’ shall not put up with man for ever, for he also is flesh and blood; therefore his days shall be 120 years.” (Bereishis 6:3) There will no longer be a soul in a body, because [the soul] too is flesh — turned into something physical.

The people who change their flesh so that it becomes spirit are called “baalei nefesh”.  However, because of our many sins, these people who have the ruach within them are few. Rather [only] at a time when they have some merit, they lower it down into their bodies. This is what is written (Iyov 32) “And so it is ru’ach in man, and nishmas Sha-dai will understand them.” The ru’ach at times is in man — in him literally! — and the neshamah isn’t in him. Rather, it sends to him from on high a response to the ru’ach, the “Ru’ach Hashem, ru’ach chochmah ubinah … — the spirit of Hashem, the spirit of wisdom and understanding…”

So, the sinner obsesses with physicality until his nefesh, the “lowest” aspects and functions of his soul, is entirely about flesh and is physical. Whereas the baal nefesh is someone who can take even his body, and elevate it to being a pure vehicle for his nefesh. (Rav Chaim Volozhiner continues to explain how this is related to both reward and punishment in general, and how sin naturally caused the original fall from Gan Eden.)

This idea is also found in the Yerushalmi (AZ 5:4, vilna 33b). R’ Shimon ben Lazar went to a town in Shomron, and it seems he really wanted wine. The problem was that the locals were Kusim, not Jews. (The Kusiim were a tribe who presumably converted to Judaism, but as time progressed doubt arose as to their original sincerity. So, while they were initially treated as Jews, at some point the matter was treated as one of doubt, then probably not, until eventually they were considered non-Jewish.) At this point in history, it was permissible to drink a sealed barrel in a Kusi town. But an open barrel was too likely handled by someone capable of using the wine for religious libations. The town did hire a Jewish schoolteacher. RSBL asked him if there was any kosher wine available. The teacher offered him some water from a spring. Rav Shimon ben [E]lazar asked again, and the teacher replied:

אין את מריה דנפשך הא מבועא קמך שתי ואין נפשך מרתך “שַׂמְתָּ שַׂכִּין בְּלֹעֶךָ, אִם בַּעַל נֶפֶשׁ אָתָּה” כבר נתקלקלו הכותים

If you are the master of your nefesh, then the spring is before you — drink!

But if your nefesh is your master, “they placed a knife at your throat if you are a person of nefesh” [a glutton] — the Kusiim already ruined it.

The pasuq’s ba’al nefesh is a glutton, and therefore not quite the same usage as a modern description of someone who chooses stringency. Or is it? Perhaps the point is that someone who knows they have an internal tendency toward gluttony, hedonism, or the like is the one who needs to work on it — and therefor a “ba’al nefesh” should adopt extra practices to harness this tendency in a positive direction.

However, it is more consistent with what we saw from Rav Chaim Volozhiner to assume that the more recent Hebrew usage of “ba’al nefesh” actually derives from the Yerushalmi’s Aramaic, rather than the Biblical coinage. That the ba’al nefesh of today is the marei denafshei – master of one’s nefesh, the more animalistic functions of the soul — who turns his flesh and nefesh into something more spiritual (ruach, ruchnius).
Although this wouldn’t change the scope of ba’al nefesh yachmir. Rather than prescriptively advising the glutton to adopt the practice to sublimate his instincts, the phrase would be descriptive — the stringency would naturally fit the temperament of a spiritual idealist. (And of someone who wants to be one.)
This definition fits the older examples I found.
Shulchan Arukh (OC 240:8) discusses tzenius even during marital relations, and concludes “these are further separations, and a ba’al nefesh must be stringent in these”.
And in Yoreh Dei’ah (116:7), the Rama writes that an animal that was ruled kosher by the force of reason rather than established tradition is permissible, a baal nefesh shouldn’t eat it.
But the Mishnah Berurah (27 s”q 44) advises every ba’al nefesh to teach his shul-mates how to wear tefillin correctly. And similarly (32 s”q 189) that a ba’al nefesh would make the titura, the part of the tefillin base that the strap runs through, at least 2 fingers wide. Similarly, as we mentioned before, the MB (301 s”q 141) that a ba’al nefesh would not use a neighborhood-wide eiruv.
It would seem usage broadened by his day. Still, it’s possible that the MB does exclusively use the idiom for someone more focused on working on becoming in touch with his own soul than our other ideals –anavah (modesty), ahavas Hashem (Love of G-d), etc…. (Appointing oneself in charge of others’ tefillin poses a challenge with regard to anavah, actually.) So it is interesting to contrast the stringencies appropriate for the baal nefesh to that motivated by other ideals. I am not capable of a broad survey of this sort, so if you notice any that fit or violate this pattern, please leave a note in the comments.
To get the list going, let me open with what I feel is a glaring example:
The Chasam Sofer (YD 39) discusses the shocheit peeling off adhesions from the lungs and testing them for holes in warm water. If the adhesion can be removed without tearing the lung, the adhesion is external enough for Ashkenazim to still consider the animal kosher, albeit not glatt. He concludes that if done by a proper shocheit, “yokhlu anavim veyisbe’u — the modest will eat and be satiated” (Tehillim 22:27). However, “shomer nafsho yirchaq – one who guards his soul should stay away.” There are conflicting priorities here. The person working on his estimate of his own self-worth in relation to others’ should trust the shocheit to have checked correctly. But the person working on subduing his physical side should avoid all questions involving food and is advised by the CS to make a policy of only eating glatt.

Texualism and the Mishnah Berurah

In 1998 I suggested that the MB, having been written by the Chafeitz Chaim, reflects an attitude where the line between halakhah and personal improvement is intentionally blurry. To a ba’al mussar (although the CC was not an adherent of the movement), halakhah can be viewed as the bare minimum of a mussar regimen. Mitzvos exist to hone oneself, but someone who is serious about this task would try to harness them consciously toward that end, would commit to other practices toward that goal, etc… So, we can view “ba’al nefesh yachmir” as mussar advice, but that doesn’t stand entirely separate from pesaq.

Although… it’s not 100% clear that the Mishnah Berurah was even written with the intent that it be used as a practical halachic guide. The Chafeitz Chaim writes in his introduction (traditionally found in the beginning of volume IV, tr. Rabi Seth Mandel, posted here):

First is that the SA by itself without learning the Tur is not comprehensible, because when he wrote the SA it was the BY’s intention that people should first learn the sources of the halokho in the Tur and the BY, so that he would understand the reasoning and logic of each shitta and the practical differences between each… Many times it happens that the SA combines in one s’if something that is only l’khat’hilla with another that is b’di’eved and l’iqquva, something that is d’orayso with something d’rabbonon, and there will be a difference if there is a safeq etc… But learning every din in the SA with its sources and reasons from the Tur and the SA is too great a task for most people nowadays… since in this way one medium siman may take several days and sometimes a few weeks…

The second reason… is that it is difficult to know the halokho l’ma’aseh because of the multiple disagreements brought by the acharonim… and even if he would want always to be mahmir in the matter, that is also not a safe way, because sometimes it will be a chumra that leads to a kula. I also see that from the time the B’er Heitev summarized the Taz and the Mogen Avrohom and others and responsa about 150 years have passed, and in the meantime there have been very many famous g’onim who have dealt with the matters, such as the Elya Rabba, the Matteh Y’hudah, and many others, and the Sha’arei T’shuva only brings a little bit of this in some places. In particular, the Pri M’godim, which is a great work and deals in each siman with new questions l’ma’aseh, and whose conclusions have been accepted is almost not quoted almost at all in the Sha’arei T’shuva… and similarly many many other famous g’onim whose views have been accepted after the Sha’arei T’shuva was printed, such as R. ‘Aqiva Eiger, Derekh haHayyim… So that now if a person wants to understand some halokho l’ma’aseh that is not fully discussed in the SA, he will have so search in many acharonim… Therefore I have strengthened myself with the grace of G-d to fix these matters. I have written an explanation to the SA that is sufficient in my opinion… and explained each din in the SA with its reasons and logic from the g’moro and posqim… and in each matter where there are disagreements among the posqim I have presented the conclusions of the acharonim (gathered from the BaH, the D’risha, the Elya Rabba, the G’Ro the P’ri M’godim…)

It appears that the purpose of the book was not to provide his own ruling, but to survey the later posqim who have added complexity to the field so that someone looking to reach a decision knows who wrote on the matter.

Yes, the CC often gives his own opinion, including our “ba’al nefesh yachmir“, but it is unclear to me he intended that opinion to be a pragmatic ruling rather than a theoretical statement. This would explain why the Mishnah Berurah’s rulings diverge from accepted practice so much more often than the Arukh haShulchan (a contemporary work from the same region). Halakhah lemaaseh, pragmatic rulings, need to take such precedent and continuity into account; discussions of textual theory do not.

Dr Haym Solovetichik, in his famous paper “Rupture and Reconstruction“, describes the difference between the two as follows:

This dual tradition of the intellectual and the mimetic, law as taught and law as practiced, which stretched back for centuries, begins to break down in the twilight years of the author of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The change is strikingly attested to in the famous code of the next generation, the Mishnah Berurah.6 This influential work reflects no such reflexive justification of established religious practice, which is not to say that it condemns received practice. Its author, the Hafetz Hayyim, was hardly a revolutionary. His instincts were conservative and strongly inclined him toward some post facto justification. The difference between his posture and that of his predecessor, the author of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, is that he surveys the entire literature and then shows that the practice is plausibly justifiable in terms of that literature. His interpretations, while not necessarily persuasive, always stay within the bounds of the reasonable. And the legal coordinates upon which the Mishnah Berurah plots the issue are the written literature and the written literature alone.7 With sufficient erudition and inclination, received practice can almost invariably be charted on these axes, but it is no longer inherently valid. It can stand on its own no more.

6 Israel Meir ha-Kohen, Mishnah Berurah. This six volume work, which has been photo-offset innumerable times, was initially published over the span of eleven years, 1896-1907, and appears contemporaneous with the Arukh ha-Shulhan. Bibliographically, this is correct; culturally, nothing could be farther from the truth. Though born only nine years apart, their temperaments and life experiences were such that they belong to different ages. The Arukh ha-Shulhan stands firmly in a traditional society, un-assaulted and undisturbed by secular movements, in which rabbinic Judaism still “moved easy in harness,” R. Israel Meir Ha-Kohen, better known as the Hafetz Hayyim, stood, throughout his long life (1838- 1933), in the forefront of the battle against Enlightenment and the growing forces of Socialism and Zionism in Eastern Europe. His response to the growing impact of modernity was not only general and attitudinal, as noted here and below, n. 20 sec. c, but also specific and substantive. When asked to rule on the permissibility of Torah instruction for women, he replied that, in the past, the traditional home had provided women with the requisite religious background; now, however, the home had lost its capacity for effective transmission, and text instruction was not only permissible, but necessary. What is remarkable is not that he perceived the erosion of the mimetic society, most observers by that time (1917-1918) did, but rather that he sensed at this early a date, the necessity of a textual substitute. (Likkutei Halakhot, Sotah 2 la [Pieterkow, 1918].) The remarks of the Hafetz Hayyim should be contrasted with the traditional stand both taken and described by the Arukh ha-Shulhan, Yoreh De’ah 246:19. One might take this as further evidence of the difference between these two halakhists set forth in the text and documented in n. 7. One should note, however, that this passage was written at a much later date than the Mishnah Berurah, at the close of World War I, when traditional Jewish society was clearly undergoing massive shock. (For simplicity’s sake, I described the Mishnah Berurah in the text as a “code,” as, in effect, it is. Strictly speaking, it is, of course, is a commentary to a code.)

7 Contrast the differing treatments of the Arukh ha-Shulhan and the Mishnah Berurah at Orah Hayyim 345:7, 539:15 (in the Arukh ha-Shulhan) 539:5 (in the Mishnah Berurah), 668:1, 560:1, 321:9 (Arukh ha-Shulhan) 321:12 (Mishnah Berurah). See also the revelatory remarks of the Arukh ha-Shulhan at 552:11. For an example of differing arguments, even when in basic agreement as to the final position, compare 202:15 (Arukh ha-Shulhan) with 272:6 (Mishnah Berurah). This generalization, like all others, will serve only to distort if pushed too far. The Mishnah Berurah, on occasion, attempts to justify common practice rather unpersuasively, as in the instance of eating fish on Sabbath, (319:4), cited above n. 3, and, de facto, ratifies the contemporary eruv (345:7). Nor did the Arukh ha-Shulhan defend every common practice; see, for example, Orah Hayyim 551:23. (S. Z. Leiman has pointed out to me the distinction between the Arukh ha-Shulhan and the Mishnah Berurah is well mirrored in their respective positions as to the need for requisite shiurim in the standard tallit katan, noted by Rabbi E. Y. Waldenburg in the recently published twentieth volume of his Tzitz Eliezer [Jerusalem, 1994], no. 8, a responsum that itself epitomizes the tension between the mimetic culture and the emerging textual one.)

I am suggesting, though that this shift deemphasizing mimetic tradition (the flow of practice transmitted culturally) in favor of a near-exclusive focus on texts was not actually part of the Chafetz Chaim’s worldview as much as those post-war rashei yeshiva (such as R’ Aharon Kotler) who promoted the idea of using the Mishnah Berurah as a poseiq acharon. The Chafetz Chaim wrote textually because he was intentionally giving a survey of textual theory.

As further evidence that the Mishnah Berurah was not intended to be a practical law guide, we have a lot of testimony that shows that its own author often followed the common Lithuanian practice over his own “ruling”. Despite the origin of wearing one’s tzitzis strings out being in the MB, the CC did not. His qiddush cup doesn’t hold as much wine as the MB would require. (It is still in the hands of the Zaks family and has been checked repeatedly.) He used city eiruvin for carrying on Shabbos. The Chafeitz Chaim did not say “Berikh Shemeih” when taking out the Torah. Etc…

And the Path of the Moon at Night

Somewhat off topic for this blog, but I hope it will help those following daf yomi who are getting to the topic of astronomy and cross-examining witnesses to determine Rosh Chodesh (Rosh haShanah, mostly around 23b-24a).

Really, the statements about the appearance of the moon can be deduced from two things you already know.

1- The moon rises one less time each month than does the sun

The missing moon right before the molad isn’t that the moon just takes a day off. It’s that the moon goes a smidgeon slower across the sky than does the sun.

(You were probably taught that the solar system revolves around the sun, and we could describe the whole thing that way. But it’s unnecessary for the gemara. For those who insist: The moon is moving in the same direction as the earth’s spin, so that at the end of exactly 24 hours we are in the same place in our spin, but the moon is a little ahead. Until we get to seeing the moon in exactly the same spot, it will be more than 24 hours. As I said, this parenthetic confuses you, you don’t need it.)

Because the moon crosses the sky more slowly than the sun, on Rosh Chodesh it will be slightly behind the sun. Moonrise will be slightly after sunrise, and at the end of the day the moon will only be out a little after sunset and be done. The next day, it will be somewhat more behind sunrise. At a half-moon, the moon is rising at noon and setting at midnight. And finally a little before the new moon it will be nearly a day behind the sun, and therefore be slightly ahead of the next sunrise. The moon will rise slightly before dawn, and set slightly before sunset.

Aside: Notice that this means the moon is out during the day as often as at night. We just tend to ignore that pale white-and-blue daytime moon seen close to sunrise or to sunset, depending on the time of month. I have no idea why we teach children otherwise. In terms of the chumash, we are told that Hashem created the moon “lememsheles balaylah — to rule at night”. We aren’t actually told it’s only out at night; only that its role at night is somehow similar (whatever is meant by “ruling”) as the sun’s is during the day.

2- The moon’s light is a reflection of sunlight

Which means that the side of the moon that is lit will always be the one closer to the sun. When there is a partial moon, the “belly” of the lit side will be toward the sun. Or as the gemara puts it, the “horns” of the moon will always point away from the sun.

And you will only see the moon when the sun is either below the horizon or close enough to sunrise or sunset for it to appear dim enough to not wash out the moon’s white-and-blue daytime appearance. Which means that whenever you see the moon, it is close to the middle of the sky than the sun is. And therefore the lit side of the moon will be “down” closer to the horizon, and the “horns” pointing “up” toward the middle of the sky.

So…

Sighting the end of last month: The moon has fallen so far behind the sun that it’s leading the next day’s sun. So it will rise slightly before dawn. Since the moon is ahead of the sun in its east-to-west path, the moon will be to the sun’s west. (The sun will be at the east or south-east horizon, the moon slightly above the horizon.) The thin sliver of moon will be the sun-ward, i.e. eastward side — toward the horizon, and the “horns” will point west, toward the middle of the sky.

Sighting the molad: The moon just started trailing the sun, so it rises slightly after sunrise and set slightly after sunset. The most likely time to see it, given the brightness of the sun, would be in the evening. Since it’s behind of the sun in its path, the moon will be to its east. (The sun will be at the west or south-west horizon, the moon slightly above the horizon.) The thin sliver of moon will be the sun-ward, i.e. westward side — toward the horizon, and the “horns” will point east, which again is toward the middle of the sky.


The moon during the day is blue and white, and is only out during times of change — sunrise or sunset. How does this relate to the comparison of the Jewish People to the moon?

 

The Magrefah and Yir’as Hashem

The gemara (Eirukhin 10b-11a) describes the magreifah, one of the musical instruments in the Beis haMiqdash, which in Biblical Hebrew is either the minnim or the ugav. Shemuel describes it as a box about 1 ammah square with a board extending from one side (for keys? to work bellows?), and 10 tubes coming out the top. Each pipe had 10 holes allowing for 100 sounds. A beraisa (meaning: before Shmuel, a first generation amora) says 1,000 sounds. In the Yerushalmi’s version (Sukkah 25a), Rav argues with Shemuel and one of them says (judging from the Bavli, I would conclude Rav) there were 100 pipes and that both say it could make 1,000 sounds, although the Yerushalmi calls them “minei zemer — distinct chords”. While this is often taken as hyperbole, I would note that 10 pipes, each of which having only one hole that can be covered to turn it off, would allow for 1,024 combinations. So 1,000 distinct chords coming from Rav’s 100 pipes  would be a gross understatement for 10 pipes with 10 holes each, not an exaggeration. Maybe around 1,000 are “zemer” rather than considered just noise.

There is another utensil used in the Beis haMiqdash called a magrefah; it is a shovel (Rashi ad loc) used to tend the coals. So I picture the pipes together, like a pipe organ’s, thus giving the instrument its name. Similarly, those who translate the coal-tending magrefah is a rake would probably assume the pipes fanned out, bagpipe-like.

Guesswork by the Church trying to reproduce the music of the Temple and therefore to copy the magrefah led to the pipe-organ. But it sounds more like some kind of combination of accordion (a box) and a bagpipe (multiple pipes). Although (unlike the pipe-organ) both have reeds, and there is no reason to believe the instrument had reeds rather than the purer tones (in the sense of fewer harmonics — think flute rather than oboe) of blowing air across the pipe itself.

In much of the music written for pipe-organ, long stretches contain a “pedal point”. Wikipedia’s explanation of a pedal point is that it

is sustained tone, typically in the bass, during which at least one foreign, i.e., dissonant harmony is sounded in the other parts. A pedal point sometimes functions as a “non-chord tone”…

Here’s their example of a pedal point in organ music

On the other hand, if we look at the size of the magrefah, the Oxford History of Music says there is a sculpture of bagpipes on a Hittite slab, dating to around 1,000 BCE. Nero y”sh played one, according to Suetonius. So that too is plausible, although it’s shape suggests more bellows than a bag. And like the pedal-point, the bagpipe has drones. To again rely on wiki for a definition of drone, it is

a pipe which is generally not fingered but rather produces a constant harmonizing note throughout play.

The prolonged deep note, because it doesn’t change, ends up fading out of conscious attention, unless you’re reading a post like this one and made to think about it. But it adds weight to what you’re hearing. The base vibrates in your bones and reinforces the feeling of full immersion in the music.

Like these successor instruments, the magrefa was likely played with a pedal point or drones, as otherwise the player had to work 10 different pipes and the air pumping system simultaneously. Aside from the archeological evidence that drones were part of bagpipe-like instruments of the era as well.

All of which is a prelude to the following metaphor…

First to quote Rav Avraham Elya Kaplanzt”l, in the title essay of Be’iqvos haYir’ah (translation from an article by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer; discussed at more length and compared to the Ramchal’s position here):

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 passes through them like a spinal column that straightens and strengthens. And it envelops them like a modest frame that lends grace and pleasantness… It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son’s every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways – his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the “bundle” of his life’s meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it for a moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir’ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it – then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices…

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 clear from the original Hebrew that this is a reference to the rods that held the boards together to make the walls of the Tabernacle. -mi} [It is] the inner rod embedded deep in an individual’s soul that connects end to end, 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.

Yir’ah is the pedal-point of the shirah of life. As we say every  morning, “הַלְלוּהוּ בְּתֹף וּמָחוֹל;    הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּמִנִּים וְעֻגָב — Praise Him with drum and machol, praise Him with minim and ugav!” (Tehillim 150:4; said in Pesuqei deZimra) The pedal-point of yir’ah does not get in the way of the joy of the music, but to add the necessary gravitas to the song that pushes us to feel its importance.

A Kingdom of Priests

We are here between ourselves, so we may frankly make the confession that we did not invent the art of printing; we did not discover America, in spite of Kayserling; we did not inaugurate the French Revolution, in spite of some one else; we were not the first to utilize the power of steam or electricity, in spite of any future Kayserling. Our great claim to the gratitude of mankind is that we gave to the world the word of God, the Bible. We have stormed heaven to snatch down this heavenly gift, as the Paitanic expression is; we threw ourselves into the breach and covered it with our bodies against every attack; we allowed ourselves to be slain by hundreds and thousands rather than become unfaithful to it; and we bore witness to its truth and watched over its purity in the face of a hostile world. The Bible is our sole raison d’être, and it is just this which the Higher anti-Semitism is seeking to destroy, denying all our claims for the past, and leaving us without hope for the future.

I believe that this describes what it means for us to be the “mamelkhes kohanim“, Hashem’s “kingdom of priests”, with humanity as our flock.

Many consider Yeshaiah’s calls to bring Torah to the masses in a similar light (pardon the pun):

אֲנִי ה קְרָאתִיךָ בְצֶדֶק וְאַחְזֵק בְּיָדֶךָ וְאֶצָּרְךָ וְאֶתֶּנְךָ לִבְרִית עָם לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם

I, Hashem, have called to you in righteousness, and will hold your hand tightly, and given you to be as the people’s covenant, as a light for the nations.

- 42:6
וַיֹּאמֶר נָקֵל מִהְיוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד לְהָקִים אֶת שִׁבְטֵי יַעֲקֹב וּנְצוּרֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהָשִׁיב וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם לִהְיוֹת יְשׁוּעָתִי עַד קְצֵה הָאָרֶץ

And He said: It is too easy for you to be My servant, to establish the tribes of Yaaqov, and the besieged of Israel, and I shall submit you as a light for the nations, to be My salvation until the end of the earth.

- 49:6
וְהָלְכוּ גוֹיִם לְאוֹרֵךְ וּמְלָכִים לְנֹגַהּ זַרְחֵךְ

And nations shall walk to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

– 60:3

And leaving the “light for the nations” image, Yeshaiah also has:

וְהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים, וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל הַר ה אֶל בֵּית אֱ-לֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב, וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו, וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו: כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה, וּדְבַר ה מִירוּשָׁלִָם.

And many nations will go and say: Let us come and ascend to Hashem’s mountain and to the house of the G-d of Yaaqov; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will go in His light; because the Torah will come out of Zion, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.

– 2:3

Which is echoed by his contemporary, Mikhah (4:2). But all of these are descriptive, in the future tense, rather than prescriptive, in the imperative. Hashem is describing what will be, perhaps in a messianic context.

It is the pasuq in chumash which makes it clear that it is an imperative. We are duty-bound to be a priesthood for the nations. The world is a glorious mosaic, each nationality bringing its strength to the body of humanity. Ours is to provide its spirituality and moral voice.

וְעַתָּה, אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי, וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ. וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ: אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And now, if you surely listen to My Voice and guard my covenant, you will be for Me a treasure among all the nations; for all the world is Mine. And you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation — these are the things you should tell the Benei Yisrael!

– Shemos 19:5-6

And if we are dissatisfied with the level of morality and spirituality among the congregation, our reaction should not be to deride our parishioners, but to inspire them.

Ana Hashem

(This post comes with background music. If you listen to a capella singing during the omer, press play below now. “Ana Hashem”, sung by Nachum Stark, from “A Sefirah Kumzitz”.)

There is a story about an early Gerer chassid who went to the “Chiddushei haRim” (Rav Yitzchaq Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, 1799-1866) with a heavy problem. His business had been failing for a while, and now he was far behind on a number of bills, and facing the threat of debtor’s prison. The next day happened to be Rosh Chodesh, and the ChR advised the chassid that when he said Hallel the next day, he should say “Ana Hashem” with extra kavanah.

After the rebbe walked away, the man and his friend got into a heated argument about what exactly the advice was: One chassid insisted the rebbe meant “Ana Hashem hoshia na — Please, Hashem, save!” because the man needed to be saved from prison. The other was sure it was Ana Hashem hatzlikha na — Please, Hashem, provide success!” because the fundamental problem was that he needed more success in his business.

As they were debating, the Chiddushei haRim’s grandson, Yehudah Aryeh Leib — the future Sefas Emes, passed by. (The Chiddushei haRim raised his orphaned grandson and successor.) The boy interrupted. “Neither of you understand. The rebbe meant ‘Ana Hashem ki ani avdekha – Please Hashem, because I am Your servant’!”

אָֽנָּ֣ה ה֮׳ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֪י עַ֫בְדֶּ֥ךָ אֲ‍ֽנִי־עַ֭בְדְּךָ בֶּן־אֲמָתֶ֑ךָ פִּ֝תַּ֗חְתָּ לְמוֹסֵרָֽי׃

Please, Hashem, because I am your servant,
I am your servant, the son of your maidservant;
You have opened my bonds.

- Tehillim 116:16 (and Hallel)

Rav Hirsch understands the root of “עבד” as an intensive form of “אבד”, just as the ayin is pronounced (by traditions that pronounce it at all) as a voiced version of the sound of an alef. “לאבד” is to lose, “לעבד” is for one’s will to be lost to that of another, to do what they desire and the servant’s will remains submerged.

But the term for “maidservant” is from a different root, she is an “אמה”. When the Torah describes Pharaoh’s daughter reaching out to save Moshe from the Nile, the Author writes, “… she saw the ark among the reeds, and sent her ammah to fetch it.” The normal reading is that she sent a handmaiden. But an ammah is also forearm (which is why it’s also a cubit, the length of a forearm). And so the gemara (Sotah 12b) records a dispute whether indeed a maidservant was sent or that Pharaoh’s daughter’s arm (ammah) stretched many ammos as she reached out to get the baby. (Perhaps the dispute being whether the essence of the story was her refusal to rely on someone else coming by, including a miracle, or whether it’s about our duty to run to the aid of others and let Hashem worry about whether we succeed.)

We see from this gemara that an ammah is a servant who is an extension of her mistress’s will. (I would contrast to shifchah, another term for a maidservant, but it’s both out of scope and I have no ideas.)

So, in this verse of Hallel we are describing ourselves as servants in terms of ignoring our own desires in favor of Hashem’s, but as children of servants whose own desires are an extension of Hashem’s Will.

Perhaps this is also the difference between the morning berakhos. Men say “shelo asani ishah — Who did not make me a woman” in gratitude for being obligated in more mitzvos than women. Women too can perform nearly all of these mitzvos voluntarily — as an amah whose own desire coincides with the mitzvah. But a man is thankful to be an eved, commanded to act despite our own desires.

Instead of that berakhah, the geonim instituted that women say “she’asani kiRtzono — Who made me according to His Will.” Because the typical woman (and who is ever really fully typical?) is more “according to His Will”, an ammah.

But it is submission to duty despite my own Will and my own desire that does the most to hone my soul. To perform a mitzvah I feel already deepens that feeling, but to perform one I don’t feel yet has the power to create an inculcate it. And so we conclude the pasuq, “pitachta lemoseirai – you opened my bonds”. David haMelekh, “David avdi — David My servant” as Hashem calls him (Tehillim 89:21), thanks G-d for being freed from his bonds. Being an eved itself brings one to becoming a “ben amasekha“.

Which brings us back to the opening.

Rabbi Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi advises (Avos 2:4):

הוא היה אומר: עשה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו. בטל רצונך מפני רצונו, כדי שיבטל רצון אחרים מפני רצונך.

He would say:

  • Make His Will like your will,
    so that He will do your will like His Will.
  • Annul your will before His Will,
    so that He would annul the will of others before your will.

To annul my will before Hashem’s is to become His eved. To make Retzono, His Will, into mine would be to make the leap from eved to ben amasekha. And at that point, when our retzonos are one, is when Rabbi Gamliel assures us that Hashem will do our mutual will. And so, this is King David’s justification when he asks, “Please Hashem!”

Pesach, Matzah, Maror

AishDas’s motto is lifted from the motto of HaOlim, founded by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum which existed from the 1910s through the 1930s, ending with the decimation of European Jewry.
Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres” — Knowledge of G-d coming from an intimate relationship with Him, mercy toward others, and harmony of mind and emotion. The idea is an understanding of the three pillars upon which the world stands, described by Shim’on haTzadiq (Avos 1:2).

Torah is the study of Torah. It is the shaping of the mind and personality. In the ideal, the Torah one learned is inseparable from the rest of his thinking; so that even his choice of an end table for his living room is affected by his Torah self. The Alter of Slabodka once heard a student boast about having completed all of gemara. His retort, “It’s not how many times you go through sha”s, it’s how many times sha”s goes through you!” Tif’eres.

Avodah is service of G-d. It’s having a relationship with Him. Seeking His Will, and to express that Will in the world. The same biblical term for knowledge is used for marital intimacy. Da’as.

Gemillus Chasadim, supporting others through kindness and generosity, can not only be an activity. It must flow from empathy, from maternal-like care for another. Rachamim.

Shim’on haTzadiq is teaching us that the world stands on three things because all human activity centers around how he acts in three relationships: with G-d, with other people, and internally with himself. The Maharal (Derech haChaim ad loc) writes that this is in turn because man lives in three worlds: this one, in which he interacts with other people, the world of his mind, and heaven, which gives him a connection to G-d.

Therefore, the g-dly Tanna writes that one pillar that the universe stands upon is the Torah, for the pillar completes man so that he can be a finished creation with respect to himself.

After that he says “on avodah”…. For from this man can be thought complete and good toward He Who created him — by serving Him….

With regard to the third, it is necessary for man to be complete and good with others, and that is through gemillus chassadim.

You also must understand that these three pillars parallel three things in each man: the mind, the living soul, and the body. None of them have existence without G-d. The existence of the soul is when it comes close to Hashem by serving Him…. From the perspective of the mind, the man gets his existence through Torah, for it is through the Torah that man attaches himself to G-d. To the body, man gets his existence through gemillus
chassadim for the body has no closeness or attachment to Hashem, just that Hashem is kind to all. When man performs kindness G-d is kind to him, and so gives him existence.

Rabban Gamliel requires we mention and explain three things in order to fulfill the mitzvah of the seder: Pesach, Matzah, uMaror.

Pesach is described as “zevach pesach hu — it is a praise-offering of pesach.” There is no avodah clearer than that of the beis hamiqdash, and the pesach is in praise of our Creator, an expression of our awareness of His Grandeur. Da’as.

Rabban Gamliel says that matzah as something we eat because “lo hispiq betziqam — there wasn’t sufficient time for their dough to rise”. A lesson in zerizus: haste, alacrity and zeal. Matzah is also a lesson in anavah, modesty, not being “puffed up” like normal bread. It is “lecham oni — the bread of affliction”. And last, in its guide as “lechem oni, she’onim alav devarim harbei — ‘oni‘ because we answer ‘onim’ over it many things”, it teaches us to find these ideals in learning Torah. The perfection of one’s internal self. Tif’eres.

Last, we each maror because “vayimararu es chayeihem — they embittered their lives”. Maror is sharing the pain of another. Rachamim.

And so, Rabban Gamliel is not only requiring that we relate the mitzvos of the evening to the telling of the story of the exodus, but he is making that retelling an all-encompassing experience. The exodus gave us a mission to support the world on all three pillars, torah, avodah and gemillus chassadim.

But there is one difference… Pesach, matzah, maror are in a different order - avodah (relating to G-d), Torah (self-refinement), then Gemilus Chassadim (in how we relate to others). Describing a flow downward.

First we connect to the Source of all good, by eating the qorban Pesach which shows our trust in Him and an inviation to “eat off His table”, so to speak. Then we eliminate all of our selfishness, our ulterior motives and other goals that could get in the way, as we can find modeled in our matzah. We make ourselves into conduits of that good to His Creatures. And finally we feel the pain of others in the taste of our maror and share what we received from G-d to help them through their suffering.

And more than that, we find that it’s maror that gets dipped in charoses.  Charoses poses a paradox. On the one hand, the Rambam writes, “The charoses is amitzvah from the Sofrim, as a commemoration of the mortar that they worked in in Egypt.” (Laws of Chaomeitz and Matzah 7:11). Charoses represents mortar, slavery.

On the other hand, contemporary recipes for charoses are to make it sweet. Sephardic, Ashkenazic and Yemenite recipes have few ingredients in common, yet they all use a sweet mixture (see also Pesachim 115b, which warns against losing the bitterness of the maror under the sweetness of the charoses).

(The sweetness of charoses is discussed at more length in this earlier post.)

Charoses doesn’t represent the bitter servitude of Par’oh, but the sweet, voluntary yoke of heaven. We eat is with maror, which does represent the bitter slavery, and give it the appearance of that servitude to bring to mind the contrast. Charoses, like being a “servant of the Holy One” has a surface layer, an appearance of the mortar of slavery. But experientially, it’s very different. Or, as King David wrote, “טַֽעֲמ֣וּ וּ֭רְאוּ כִּי־ט֣וֹב יְהוָ֑ה, אַֽשְׁרֵ֥י הַ֝גֶּ֗בֶר יֶֽחֱסֶה־בּֽוֹ׃ — Taste and see that the Hashem is good; happy is the man who takes refuge in Him. ” (Tehillim 35:9, said in Shabbos and holiday Shacharis)

Maror gets charoses because the ultimate purpose of life is not our self-refinement or our cleaving to the Divine, but our utilizing them to aid those in need. In fact, neither of these can be defined without knowing what a person’s function is, and therefore how we measure refinement, and what it is G-d does for creation that we can contribute to ourselves. It is through giving G-d’s Good to others that we cleave to Him, reflect His Perfection, and achieve our own.

Why the Middle Matzah?

So, I was asked in the middle of the second seder: Why do we break the middle matzah for Yachatz? Is there some significance to it being the middle matzah?

Here was my off-the-cuff answer, I wonder if it has any truth:

This thought leverages ideas I developed in two earlier posts Bilvavi part I, and part II. Then, I was exploring the question why so much of the Torah describes the Mishkan, which existed for such a short part of Jewish History. To summarize what I wrote then:

There are three aspects of the soul that comprise a person’s individuality: nefeshruach and neshamah. These ideas are developed in numerous ways, the following is that of the Vilna Gaon in his “Peirush al Kama Agados”, and leverages the Maharal’s understanding of the three pillars R’ Shimon haTzadiq identifies in Avos 1:2.

Nefesh: This is man’s connection to the physical world. Through it, we share that world with other people, and work together to address our needs. It is thus holds both the drive for physical comfort and pleasure as well as the ability to relate to other people.

Neshamah: A person’s presence in heaven, his connection to a higher calling, sanctity, and the A-lmighty Himself. If that calling is harnessed to serve some baser instinct, one is left with idolatry. On the other hand, as we say upon waking up in the morning, “My G-d, the neshamah which you placed within me is pure” — the neshamah itself is an image of the Divine, never sullied.

Ruach: People carry entire worlds in the space between their ears. In there they have models of what is going on outside of them, they plan and imagine outcomes and concepts. The ru’ach is the will that chooses between the conflicting callings and therefore also the egotism that is driven to see that desire be done.

Three aspects, each living in a different world, and enabling a different kind of relationship.

And similarly, the gemara in Yuma 72a (and explained by Rashi ad loc) identifies three crowns given at Sinai. Each is a perfection of one of these relationships, and each is represented by one of the crowned utensils in the Mishkan: The shulchan, the table with its showbread, sport the crown of kingship, organizing the interpersonal and showing the communal need to provide for everyone. The crown of Torah is “worn” by the aron, containing the luchos and with the manuscript of the Torah between its carrying rods. The golden mizbeich, upon which the incense was burned to provide its intangible offering had the crown of priesthood, of connection with the Divine.

The Mishkan and Beis haMiqdosh had three more, uncrowned, vessels. Outside was the kiyor (washing vessel), which was used to wash the dirt of this world off the kohein’s feet. Next to it, also outside the sanctuary building was  the larger Brass Mizbei’ach where most of the Avodah was performed. The menorah, like the aron, represents wisdom. “For a mitzvah is a lamp, and the Torah its light.” (More detail in the posts specifically on this topic.) The uncrowned utensils represents navigating the challenges and opportunities of the three domains, while the crowned ones represent the ideal relationship each domain enables.

Notice that in both sets of three, the symbol of the nefesh is placed in a holier location than the other two. The shulchan and the golden mizbeiach are in the outer room, the aron — in the Holy of Holies. The kiyor and large mizbeiach are outdoors, the menorah — inside. Even though the neshamah is our presence in heaven, our spirituality, it is the ruach where our holiness truly resides. The neshamah is a recipient of holiness; the ruach, the will and power to consciously decide, which creates holiness in true imitation of G-d.

Perhaps we can say something similar in understanding the three matzvos. In is the ruach, torn between our spiritual and animal callings which is broken. Perhaps we can view the crack where the middle matzah is broken is where the two collide; Rav Dessler’s “battlefront” between conflicting desires which force the need for conscious deliberated. This is where free will truly resides. Hopefully, a person moves this front such that more and more good is beyond it, requiring no struggle to be performed.

And so we break the matzah into two uneven pieces, and use the bigger one for the afiqoman. Because our service should be with the middle matzah, that which makes us in the “image of the Divine”, and with the purest of our intentions, which we hope is the larger “half” of our selves.

Units of Measure

Pesach-time it’s common for people to start discussing how much matzah and wine one is obligated to eat, so why should I be any different?

What are we trying to compute?

The definition of eating in numerous contexts requires a minimum quantity of a kezayis (like [the volume of] an olive [including the pit]). This measure, like most halachic measures (shiurim), is halakhah leMoshe miSinai. Usually, that’s literal — “a law [given] to Moshe from Sinai”. Sometimes it’s more idiomatic, meaning more like “[as certain as] a law…”

Rav Chaim Volozhiner famously holds that the term is prescriptive — a kezayis is defined by the size of an olive as they are in your place and time. Which implies that there is something particular about olives that define what it means to eat.  Well, it’s one thing to say G-d gave us, or Chazal decided, a shiur that happens to be the volume of a typical Second Temple era olive. But if it’s actually tied to the drift in olives sizes, so that the point is related to the olive… In a society where olives are a staple, I could see saying that whatever your local olive is, that’s what you general consider “akhilah“. But why would this still hold in RCV’s 18th (or early 19th) cent Volozhin? So I’m stymied by the idea.

But it would help explain what most people remember as common practice, of taking far less matzah than the range of theoretically derived kezeisim. Unfortunately, there is another explanation…. In the 18th century, matzos got thinner. This is around when the Ashkneazi cracker-style matzah began. We decided it wasn’t safe to exclude kneading time from the 18 minutes — what if the person gets tired and pauses? So, the whole process got rushed, and we moved to a thinner, more quickly baked matzah. Then the matzah machine was introduced, even more thinning the matzah. Some point along the way, all that was left was crust — a cracker. But in any case, the eye gets fooled by this. Two very thin matzos will register to your eye as as “thin sheets”, but one could be twice as thick as the other, and it would a sheet of only half the area to make of the volume of a kezayis. So, it could be the matzos got thinner faster than the estimate of the kezayis kept up with it.

Another reason why even the Chazon Ish’s large kezeisim could be possible is that Israeli fruit shrank in size (and declined in quality) drastically in the late tannaitic era. Y-mi Pei’ah 7:3 33a would place it around the time of the Hadrianic persecutions. (Note this is not about their mythic past, nor all that different than Palestinian experience trying to farm the same land as Gush Katif did. It may be exaggerated, but it’s unlikely to simply be medrashic metaphor.) The kezayis was decided before the Temple was destroyed, and well before Hadrian harasha. With that in mind, even the CI’s shiurim are possible. Olive pits found at Masada or Betar wouldn’t reflect the huge olives we had at the time we started talking about kezayis.

The positions cited at the two ends of the normally discussed range of values for shiurim are products of very different approaches. The Chazon Ish, following the Noda biYhudah’s general approach, deals with the question in purely theoretical terms. If they reach empirically unrealistic conclusions, they quickly invoke the notion that breeding or nutrition changed the size of the average forearm, or the egg, or the olive. R’ Chaim Naeh also invokes theory, but his shiurim are typical values used in practice in the communities of Jerusalem in his day. This is similar to a difference of approach often pointed out between the Mishnah Berurah and the Arukh haShulchan. The Mishnah Berurah more often ends up in more stringent rulings because he considers all positions equally. The Arukh haShulchan, however, reads more as an explanation of the theoretical underpinnings of the rulings accepted in Lithuania in his day (with a few exceptions where the Arukh haShulchan disagreed with accepted practice).

Personally, I do not see any reason why today’s kezayis must necessarily be the same as chazal’s was, even if kezayis was descriptive of a particular set volume (and unlike RCV). I presume halakhah is constitutional; ie what those with legal authority interpret it to be. It is a process, it is supposed to evolve. (In an extreme case: Ezra and his court required tubes running into the altar to receive libations, meaning that in their era, Shelomo’s altar woudn’t have been kosher!) So perhaps a kezayis is what the theoreticians and common practice say is a kezayis, regardless of whether the historical measure was recaptured.

A New Way to Compute a Historical KeZayis

All that aside, here’s my own suggestion for how to compute a historical kezayis.

On one of the sides of the presumed Even Shesiyah, the rock under the Dome of the Rock, there are two holes 43.7 cm apart, and there is a niche in it that is 131 cm = 3 x 43.7 cm long. Two slabs of rock used in the eastern wall are 2.6 m long, six times 43.3 cm. And these, I am told, are only a few of many many examples. The repeated use of multiples of a particular unit suggests that it’s a standard unit of measure. Or, that an ammah is 43.5 cm +/- 2 mm.

At the end of Hizqiyahu’s Water tunnel, dug during the first Beis haMiqdah, is a plaque by the diggers telling us of the moment diggers from both ends met, “and the water flowed from the source to the pool for 1,200 ammos“. The actual length of the tunnel was given various values by archeologists, but with more recent tools (Gitt 2001), it was measured as 525m. Which comes to 1,207 of our even-shesiyah-amos long. (Well within rounding and measuring error. An amazingly on-target number, actually. Even the longest estimate I found, 537.6 m length given in 1870, would be within rounding to the nearest hundred.)

But, for much of the construction of the Second Temple, the ammah was overestimated by 1/2 etzba (see Pesachim 86a), ie by 25/24, as the workmen wanted to err on the side that would avoid accidentally short-changing the sacred (me’ilah). And in a small underground room under the north east corner of the current platform, the recurring unit of measure is 42.8 cm. If it weren’t for the Water Tunnel, it might have implied that the 43.5 cm length was the overestimate, not the ammah. As it is, I have no explanation. (Perhaps it was from a different era, with a different halachic ammah? Perhaps it’s because the rationale about me’ilah only applies to measures of construction material, and not the foundation on the rock?) Despite this problem, the convergence of both archeological indications of the ammah seems compelling to me.

Well, there is a way to convert from an ammah to the volume measures used in the seder.

An etzba is 1/24 ammah, and a revi’is, the measure of wine one’s cup must hold (and one must drink most of the cup), is 2 x 2 x 2.7 etzba’os, or 10.8 cubic etzba’os. So, we get an etzba is 1.81 cm, and a revi’is would be 64.3 cc (= 2.17 floz).

A kebeitzah is 2/3 of a revi’is, and a kezayis is either 1/2 or 1/3 of a kebeizah. So, a kezayis would come to either 14.2cc or 21.4 cc (.483 fl oz or 0.725 fl oz), depending on that dispute. Since matzah is deOraisa, it is customary to use the larger measure. Which you use for maror, which is rabbinic if there is no Pesach offering, is a matter for discussion with your rabbi.

Above I argued that perhaps the commonly cited range of values should be more halachically binding than historically determined ones. To give you an idea of where the values I just suggest sit in comparison to that range:

ComputedRambamR Chaim NaehArokh haShulchan*R Moshe FeinsteinChazon Ish
Ammah43.5 cm45.6 cm48.0 cm53.3 cm54.0 cm57.6 cm
Revi’is64.3 cc75 cc86.4 cc118.6 cc130.6 cc149.3 cc
Kezayis21.4 cc< 15 cc25.6 cc26.3 cc43.5 ml49.8 cc

(* The AhS’s measures are computed based on OC 16:4, which says that 3/4 ammah = 9 ווייערסקעס  (singular: вершо́к = vershok], for which Wikipedia says 1 vershok = 4.445 mm, combined with the AhS’s position of 2 kezeisim per kebeitzah. And the “o” in “Arokh” is intentional.)

So, while the Temple Mount based numbers are slightly lower than accepted range, they are not unrealistically so.

R’ Mordechai Willig reports that matzah weighs half of water, so that 21.4cc would weight 10.7 gm. This is much like the Sepharadi practice of using weight as a more accurate proxy for kezayis than guessing at volume of a thin sheet, but Sepharadim take the very conservative estimate of assuming matzah weighs as much by volume as water (1 cc weighs 1gm), when experimentally we find it’s about half.

I do not feel comfortable recommending anyone follow these numbers, though. It needs far more review by people who understand the archeology and posqim who understand the halakhah better than I do.