And You Shall Live by Them

This morning’s Torah reading, Acharei Mos, included the following pasuq (18:5):

שְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם; אֲנִי ה’.

Guard My statutes and My laws which a person shall do them and live by them; I am G-d.

Chazal expound “‘Vechai bahem': velo shayamus bahem — ‘and live by them': and not that you shall die by them.” The Torah’s obligations do not override the value of life, and by and large one is not permitted to perform a mitzvah that risks one’s own life. (And never when the life lost is someone else’s!)

But there are exceptions. War. Or when someone is being pushed to violate the Torah in public at a time when we are being oppressed in an attempt to get us to abandon it. Most famously, the three mitzvos that are “yeihareig ve’al ya’avor — get killed, but do not violate”: murder, idolatry and sexual immorality.

So it struck me when listening to leining that the very next words after this pasuq open a discussion about sexual immorality!

אִישׁ אִישׁ אֶל-כָּל-שְׁאֵר בְּשָׂרוֹ לֹא תִקְרְבוּ לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָה; אֲנִי ה’.

Every person must not approach his flesh to any near kin to reveal sexuality; I am G-d.

The contrast is jarring, and therefore must be significant. More so, the repeated closing “ani Hashem” reflects a connection between the two pesuqim. But why?

Taking a step back to look at the context:

17:10-16 The prohibition against consuming blood. Repeatedly invoking the notion that blood is associated with the animal’s nefesh. Quoting just the last three pesuqim:

כִּי-נֶפֶשׁ כָּל-בָּשָׂר, דָּמוֹ בְנַפְשׁוֹ הוּא, וָאֹמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, דַּם כָּל-בָּשָׂר לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ; כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל-בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ הִוא, כָּל-אֹכְלָיו יִכָּרֵת.
וְכָל-נֶפֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכַל נְבֵלָה וּטְרֵפָה, בָּאֶזְרָח וּבַגֵּר;  וְכִבֶּס בְּגָדָיו וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם, וְטָמֵא עַד-הָעֶרֶב וְטָהֵר.
וְאִם לֹא יְכַבֵּס, וּבְשָׂרוֹ לֹא יִרְחָץ וְנָשָׂא עֲו‍ֹנוֹ.

For any nefesh, the blood is in the nefesh, and I will tell the Benei Yisrael, do not consume the blood of any flesh, so the nefesh of any flesh is its blood, whomever consumes it will be cut off. And any nefesh which eats that which died of itself or was killed  by tearing, whether a native or a resident alien, shall launder his clothes and wash in water, and he is tamei until evening, then purified. And if he does not launder and does not wash, he carries his sin.

The elements I’m picking out is the use of the word nefesh, the punishment being kareis, and the facts that the sin causes tum’ah.

18:1-4 Do not act as they did in Egypt or would in Canaan — from which we learn the prohibition against lesbianism and homosexual marriage in general.

18:5 Note not only “vechai bahem“, but also the idiom of “es chuqosai ve’es mishpatai

18:6-23 A list of prohibited sexual partners: close relatives, male homosexuality bestiality.

17:24-26 We are warned about these prohibitions in a way that revisits the previous elements:

אַל תִּטַּמְּאוּ, בְּכָל-אֵלֶּה; כִּי בְכָל אֵלֶּה נִטְמְאוּ הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מְשַׁלֵּחַ מִפְּנֵיכֶם.
וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ, וָאֶפְקֹד עֲו‍ֹנָהּ עָלֶיהָ; וַתָּקִא הָאָרֶץ, אֶת-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ.
ושְׁמַרְתֶּם אַתֶּם, אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, מִכֹּל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה: הָאֶזְרָח, וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם.
כִּי אֶת-כָּל-הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵל, עָשׂוּ אַנְשֵׁי-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם; וַתִּטְמָא, הָאָרֶץ.
וְלֹא-תָקִיא הָאָרֶץ אֶתְכֶם בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר קָאָה אֶת-הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם.
כִּי כָּל-אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה מִכֹּל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה, וְנִכְרְתוּ הַנְּפָשׁוֹת הָעֹשֹׂת מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּם.
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-מִשְׁמַרְתִּי, לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת מֵחֻקּוֹת הַתּוֹעֵבֹת אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשׂוּ לִפְנֵיכֶם, וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ, בָּהֶם; אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways; for in all of them these nations are made tamei, those that I throw out from before you. And the land was made tamei, and I revisited its sin on it, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.

And you shall observe my statutes and my laws and do not do any of these disgusting things, neither the native nor the resident alien who lives among you. For all these disgusting things were done by the people of the land that is before you, and the land made tamei. And the land will not vomit you out when you make it tamei, as it vomited out the nations which are before you.

For whomever does any of these disgusting things, the nefashos who do it will be cut off from among their nation.

And you shall observe my observances, lest you do any of these statutory abominations which were done before you, and you will not be made tamai though them; I am Hashem your G-d.

Looking then at this as a full section, here is a lesson I took.

The paragraph on not consuming blood establishes that living on the plane where animals live is the life of the nefesh and induces tum’ah. Later, when discussing prohibited sexual relations, the person who commits them is described by the term used for living animals, he is a nefesh. Someone who lives as a nefesh is cut off from the Jewish national soul, and the land of Israel will not harbor them.

However, the verse we’re looking at doesn’t use nefesh to speak of a life-force, it says “vechai bahem” — chaim, alive. By observing the Torah, one lifts above the plane of nefesh to purposeful existance. Transitioning from being a living animal, a nefesh, to actively chai. For a human being, chiyus implies pursuit of meaning, not merely breathing and procreating.

And so, I think the sequence may be teaching us the reason behind this limitation of choosing life — it is chayim, not merely possession of a nefesh, that holds that value. Acts which drag one down from the pursuit of meaning to an animalistic pursuit of the physical, turn one into being a nefesh, who is already inherently cut off. If sexual immorality, murder, and idolatry were allowed a higher priority than life, we would be speaking of the attribute man shares with animals, not our uniquely human selves.

Qorach’s Heart

The title verse of this week’s parashah reads “ויקח קרח” (Bamidbar 16:39). The simple translation would be “And Qorach took”. However, the Midrash Rabbah takes it slightly differently, using an equally valid if less obvious translation. “‘And he took Qorach’ — meaning, his heart took him.” The Ramban notes that the word “vayiqach” consistently refers to a non-physical move. This connects our chapter to the previous one of tzitzis. “And you shall not explore after your heart and after your eyes, after which you stray.” (15:39). Rashi explains that the heart and eyes are spies for the body. The eye sees, the heart desires, and the body commits the sin.

Why was he moved to rebel? In what direction did Qorach’s heart take him? Moshe appointed Elitzafan ben Uzi’el to be the leader of the clan of Kehas. The Tanchuma (ch. 1) writes that Qorach, being older than his cousin Elitzafan, thought that the job would be his.

Had they focused more on character development than on theology, their fates would have been much more for the better.

Qorach could not belittle Moshe’s authority — the Jewish People all saw the beams of light radiating from Moshe’s face when he came down from Sinai. Instead, Qorach built up the masses. “The whole community, every one of them is holy, and Hashem is among them; and why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of G-d?” (16:3) He attacked Moshe politically by trying to make him redundant religiously.

This is the meaning of the two slogans a third midrash (Midrash Rabba, quoted by Rashi) attributes to Qorach. “If a garment is all blue, does it need tzitzis?” The whole garment is techeiles, reminding us of heaven and of G-d, so why would we need an additional blue thread? The whole community was at Sinai and had experienced the heights of prophecy at the Red Sea; we do not need priests and leaders. Similarly, “If a room is full of Sifrei Torah, does it need a mezuzah?”

R. Moshe Feinstein (Derash Moshe), stresses a second aspect that builds on the first. As his very examples show, Qorach assumes that anyone can interpret the Torah for themselves. That, somehow, at Sinai they were imbued with the “spirit of the law” and can use that to guide practice.

The meaning and purpose behind halakhah is critical. It is true that we rule that mitzvos do not require intent. However, as the Mishnah writes, “From [acting] shelo lishmah, not for its sake, one comes to act lishmah.” The purpose in the mitzvah performed by rote observance is in its bringing the person closer to later performing it with intent.

Rav Hirsch likens the relationship between halakhah and lishmah to that of experimental data and scientific theory. G-d gave us the halachic process; its results are the objective data with which we work. Our theories about the meaning and purpose are just that — theories. In a scathing comment against Reform, and Geiger’s notion of a “science of Judaism”, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch likens deriving practice from ideas about the purpose of the law to alchemy. (The 19 Letters of Ben Uziel)

Qorach’s rebellion is held up by the Mishnah as an archetype of lacking lishmah. “Any controversy which is lesheim Shamayim, for the sake of [the One in] heaven, will in the end persist; and that which is not lesheim Shamayim will not in the end persist. Which is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. And which is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Qorach and his entire congregation.”

Amazingly, Qorach was not inherently an evil person. The Arizal associates his name with the last three letters of the words “צַ֭דִּיק כַּתָּמָ֣ר יִפְרָ֑ח– the righteous shall blossom like the date-palm.” (Tehillim 92:13) The Ari concludes from this that Qorach will eventually have a place in the World to Come.

Where did the gap emerge between this Qorach and the one who challenged Moshe’s authority? He was hurt by being passed over for an honor. He did not rebel for the sake of heaven, although he might have convinced himself that his position was the more reasonable way to worship Hashem. A tiny seed of jealousy, and all objectivity was lost. Without deriving values from the grounding of halachah, all was lost.

A tiny gap opened between his heart and his mind, between his subconscious and his righteous ideals. And so Qorach “explored after his heart”. Such gaps are all too common. As we say in Aleinu, “וְיָֽדַעְתָּ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם וַהֲשֵֽׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶךָ֒– And you will know today, and you will respond to your heart.” (Devarim 4:39) The mind can know something even while it must still be answered to the heart.

Through the study of Mussar one can close that gap. Bridging mind and heart, mitzvah and lishmah, is critical. From the smallest of imperfections in his control of his inner self, Qorach took to leading a full rebellion. Mussar has the power to cleanse our hearts from all impurities — both conscious and subconscious. It gives depth and meaning to our observance of halakhah; it connects the act to the lishmah.

With thanks to Rabbi Zvi Miller of The Salant Foundation, who provided the core thought. Originally appeared in Mesuqim MiDevash, Qorach 5764.

Parashas Matos and Kol Nidre

My neighbor, R’ Eli Radinsky, recently drew the following similarity to my attention.

There is an obligation to begin add time to Yom Kippur, an obligation true of Shabbos and every holiday, but happens to be derived from a verse about Yom Kippur. (“You shall afflict yourselves on the ninth of the month in the evening, from evening to evening, you shall rest on your day of rest” -Vayiqra 23:32, which implies that Yom Kippur is observed starting at a point in the evening when it’s still the ninth.)

What do we do with this extra time, how do begin Yom Kippur? Kol Nidre, a declaration anulling the oaths of the past year, and/or pre-empting those of the year to come. (There are textual variants in the past tense, the future tense, and one that has the chazan saying both.)

We generally think of Moshe’s repetition of the Torah, “Mishnah Torah” or in Latin, “Deuteronomy”, as being identical to the last book of the chumash, the one we call today by the second word in the book, Devarim.

However, Rashi cites a Chazal that says differently.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה ה֖’ אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה׃

And Moshe said to the children of Israel, like everything which Hashem commanded Moshe.

- Bamidbar 30:1

ויאמר משה אל בני ישראל: להפסיק הענין דברי רבי ישמעאל לפי שעד כאן דבריו של מקום ופרשת נדרים מתחלת בדבורו של משה הוצרך להפסיק תחלה ולומר שחזר משה ואמר פרשה זו לישראל שאם לא כן יש במשמע שלא אמר להם זו אלא בפרשת נדרים התחיל דבריו חסלת פרשת פינחס.

And Moshe said to the children of Israel: “To end the subject”, is the words of Rabbi Yishmael. Because until here were the words of the Omnipresent, and the section on oaths begins the speech of Moshe. [Therefore,] it has to stop first and say that Moshe reviewed and said this section to Israel. For if not so, it would sound like he didn’t tell them this [everything up to this verse] and only with the section on oaths did his words begin, at the end of parashas Pinchas [this verse].

- Rashi ad loc.

The tanna, Rabbi Yishmael, writes that Moshe’s repetition of the Torah begins with parashas Matos and the laws of oaths. He then uses this to explain the need for the last verse of Pinchas, that it is to let us know that everything G-d told him directly was also taught to the Jews.

Now he gathers the heads of the tribes, and begins the process of mishnah torah, of the repetition of Torah from mentor to follower down the ages.

How does Moshe begin? With a preface before the actual book, and starting with the laws of oaths. Did we consciously follow this model when establishing the custom of saying Kol Nidrei? And if so, what does that tell us?

Notably, Hashem describes Moshe’s teaching as “hadevarim“, the words. The significance being words makes the possibility of anulling an oath or vow, of undoing words, is even more startling. It is very much the theme of Yom Kippur, this entire concept of being able to repair the effects of the past.

With respect to the book of Devarim, this connection is harder to explain, and I’m not sure I am satisfied with any of the answers I thought about. Perhaps Moshe is opening the chain of tradition with an admonition to future teachers. Don’t be too proud to admit a faulty teaching and correct yourself.

As I said, while the connection between the opening of parashas Matos and Kol Nidrei seems compelling, I’m not clear what the connection is supposed to mean.

Feel free to suggest something in the comments section.

Kehunah and Unity

Back on Chanukah I wrote:

Chomos migdalei, the walls of my citadel [mentioned in the poem "Ma'oz Tzur"], were not the mighty walls around the Temple Mount or the walls of a fortress. They were a see-through mechitzah, the realization that the Jew, as one of the Mamleches Kohanim, has a higher calling.

One possible reaction to assimilation is to build up the fortress walls. We can hope to stave off negative influences by reducing out exposure to the outside world. The idea that we need to stay distinct is not necessarily one that isn’t heard, but perhaps one that we are overly stressing.

I think this too is a message of the soreg. Yes, there is a separation between Jew and non-Jew, but it is only waist high and woven of slats with far more space than wood. The “walls of my fortress” are a reminder, not a solid barrier.

We are charged to be G-d’s “mamlekhes kohanim vegoy qadosh — a country of priests and a holy nation.” We need to balance the separation implied by the concept of qedushah with our role as kohanim, a priesthood providing religious leadership. We can not be priests if we do not stay to our special calling, but our special calling is self-indulgent if we do not use it to serve others. “Ki miTzion teitzei Sorah — because from Zion the Torah shall come forth.” By wallling ourselves in we not only protect ourselves, we prevent ourselves from teaching others.

I recently realize this dovetails well with an idea I posted about back in 2005 (this is only one part of a number of arguments for the beauty of and need for a plurality of Orthodoxies):

We must learn to look at other forms of Torah observance as “different parts of the same body”. Not to be tolerated despite their differences, but loved because of them. All come from the same toras imekha [and thus Jewish identity is matrilineal], the same basic worldview, values and aspirations. We differ, as did the shevatim, in mussar avikha [which is why sheivet membership is patrilineal], in the formal layer of education after that, where we learn our roles and where we fit in that greater mission.

This was the message Hashem gave Aharon in the beginning of parashas Beha’alosekha. Chazal write that when the heads of the shevatim brought their qorbanos (listed at the end of Naso), Aharon, whose role included being the head of Levi, was pained at not being able to participate. Hashem comforted him by pointing to the story of Chanukah. The chanukas habayis, the consecration of the Beis haMiqdash, by Aharon’s descendants the Chashmona’im, was greater than the offerings of the nesi’im. Why?

Each of the nesi’im brought what was physically the same offering. However, each offering was distinct in intent. The Ramban itemizes the allusions each nasi could find in the same offering that relate to his particular tribe, to his particular ancestor. The offerings were colored by mussar avikha, by each sheivet’s particularist role.

Aharon is then told, “When you cause the menorah [flames] to go up, toward the face of the menorah its lamps should burn.” The menorah has one central trunk, from which emerge six branches. The flame atop each branch must point toward the middle. Each branch is a different wisdom, a different skill-set. They all emerge from the same basic Torah, from the mother-taught values that define our Jewishness. It is Aharon’s job to remind us that they also must be channeled back toward that central core.

We all work toward a common goal. Knowing that each of us are unique, bringing unique thoughts and abilities, unique perspective and educational background, leads us not only to realize the full value of our own part in the greater whole (no man is “just another brick in the wall”) but to treasure the contributions of others because they are so different than our own, and bringing something to the whole that we can’t.

It struck me this morning that there is a common theme in the two.

Just as the shevatim had different roles in the same central goal, the various nations each have a role in humanity’s goal. That list of roles will always include the job of reminding the whole that they are a single whole that is supposed to work together for a common noble end. Whether it’s Aharon and the Chashmonaim reminding the Jewish people, or the Jewish people having the (unpopular) job of being the world’s reminder. That is called kehunah.

Gender Differences: Oaths

The Torah uses two different words for husband: ish, in particular when used with the feminine possessive “ishahh” (her man); and ba’al. Interestingly, in the beginning of parashas Matos, the section on annulling vows, only ishahh is used (v. 8, 9, 11, 12, twice in 13, twice in 14, 15; observation made to Avodah by Akiva Miller), ba’al is not used at all.

This is noteworthy because ba’al is the term used for the owner of proper or the master of a slave.

וְהָיָה בַיּוֹם-הַהוּא נְאֻם-ה’, תִּקְרְאִי אִישִׁי; וְלֹא-תִקְרְאִי-לִי עוֹד, בַּעְלִי.

And it will be on that day, by the authority of G-d, that you will call Me “Ishi“, and will not call me anymore “Ba’ali“.

- Hosheia 2:18

“Ishi” is a language of husband and the attachment of one’s youth; ba’al is a language of mastery and awe.

- Rashi ad loc

By not using the term ba’al, the Torah here seems to be quite clear that the authority to annull vows has nothing to do with the man having authority over his wife.

Rav Hirsch writes (new translation of commentary on Bamidbar 30:4):

A man’s vow is binding on him from the outset. He can — and should (see ibid. 59a; cf. Commentary, Devarim 23:22ff.)  — submit his vow to the national community and its representatives, so that they should examine the vow and decide on its fulfillment. Only in this way can a man dissolve his vow. For a man creates his position in life independently, and if he binds himself with a vow that cannot be absolved, he introduces into his life a new element that is not ordinarily applicable. This element changes and individualizes his life, and, since he is independent, he is able to take this individuality into account when he shapes the conditions of his life.

Not so for a woman. The moral greatness of the woman’s calling requires that she enter a position in life created by another. The woman does not build for herself her own home. She enters the home provided by the man, and she manages it, bringing happiness to the home and nurturing everything inside the home in a spirit of sanctity and orientation toward God. The woman — even more than the man — must avoid the constraint of extraordinary guidelines in her life, for they are likely to be an impediment to her in the fulfillment of her calling.

From this standpoint, one can understand the prescriptions instituted here out of concern for the woman. The Word of God seeks to insure the vowing woman against the consequences of her own words, and therefore confers on the father and on the husband a limited right to annul vows — on the father, as regards vows of a youthful daughter still under his care; on the father and on the fiancé, as regards vows of a betrothed daughter; on the husband, as regards vows of his wife.

I think Rav Hirsch’s intent is better understood if we revisit his writings on gender differences. (The following is taken from an earlier post.) His translation of Tehillim 45:14 is “But the king’s daughter is all glorious within, more than the golden borders of her raiment.” As Michael Poppers pointed out (on Avodah), this better fits the hyphenation of “kol-kevudah” as well as the use of “kevudah” not “kevudas“. The commentary reads:

“But”, the singer adds with infinite tact and delicacy, “though the princess may appear glorious and splendid in public, she reveals her true glory in quiet, more private circles, and the splendid qualities she shows there are much greater than the exquisite beauty of the gold borders which shine at the hem of her garment.” Penimah “within,” is always used to designate an inner recess as opposed to the outer chambers.

What may better capture RSRH’s position is his comments on “peru urvu umil’u es ha’aretz vikvishuhah — be fruitful and multiply and fill the world and subdue it” in Judaism Eternal, ch 11 (The Jewish Woman).

Vikvshuha is read malei [full, ie with the vav], but written chaseir [deficient]. In other words, while it is read as though both should participate in conquering the world, it’s written “vikivshah“, that only one of them should.

… [T]he command to “subdue”, and with it to procure the means necessary for marriage and for founding a household, is addressed only to the male sex, to whose function it belongs to compel the earth through labour to serve the needs of man. Hence the command to marry and found a household has absolute force only for the male sex. Since, however, these commands are after all addressed to both sexes, it is obvious that for the performance of man’s task of building up the world the Law-giver reckoned on the harmonious and equal co-operation of both sexes. Further, by excusing the female sex from the hard labour of subduing and mastering the earth, … [H]e left it free to be devoted to the higher and more humanistic task of employing the products of man’s labour for the ethical purposes of building up a house and family, that is to say, in the service of his true vocation and his welfare as a human being.

R SR Hirsch explains this verse as being about the Talmudic aphorism that “man brings in the grain, and woman makes it into bread”. Man conquers and acquires, woman develops the raw material into a finished product. Man builds a society, woman gives it a religious backbone. Ideally it would be man who produces technology, and women who make sure we don’t dehumanize ourselves in the process.

This is akin to an observation by “Dear Abby” (Pauline Phillips, born Pauline Esther Friedman). She wrote that men are goal oriented, while women are process oriented. This is an alleged gender difference from a totally unrelated source, albeit one probably based on anecdotal evidence, that would fit the roles assumed above.

Rav Hirsch speaks in terms of “inside” vs. “outside”, community in service of its members, vs the expansion of the community’s domain, reach, and standard of living. (Until here the review.)

This partnership, between the man extending the reach of qibbush and woman making sure it is done in a sacred manner, that I associate with the notion of ish ve’ishah.

In contrast, this is how we described the concept of ba’alus in the past:

R’ JB Soloveitcik identifies of the root of “qinyan“, \קנה\, with the notion of manufacture and repair. That a qinyan is a means of exchanging ownership caused by developing one thing for the work someone else put into their object or service. I therefore suggested, “By making marriage assume the qinyan format we are acknowledging that the bride and groom were literally made for each other, and hopefully will remain together until the end of time.”

Thus, qinyan refers to the work and to the responsibility of repair. This would explain why many of ususe a qinyan sudar, a kind of qinyan involving handing over a small object, usually cloth, to delegate the job of selling our chameitz. The rabbi isn’t acquiring our chameitz, he can’t own it any more than the rest of us can. He is assuming the responsibility for its sale, to serve as our shaliach, our proxy.

In the same way, Boaz takes responsibility for marrying Rus (in a quasi-yibum) by the exchange of a shoe with the unnamed relative. This too is a qinyan, “vezos hate’udah beyisrael — and this is a contract in Israel”. Qinyan as accepting responsibility.

R’ Dovid Lifshitz was once approached before shiur by someone who had recently bought a co-op. The problem was that the co-op board didn’t allow him to change the appearance of the outside of his domicile from the co-op’s standard by hanging a mezuzah.

Rav Dovid suggested (warning: I can’t recall if this was his conclusion or a hava amina, a possibility raised to be rejected) that perhaps someone who doesn’t have the authority to hang a mezuzah lacks ba’alus, and therefore wouldn’t be obligated to. (In either case, he suggested moving to a friendlier venue.) Note the implication: even if this lack of ba’alus is not sufficient to remove his obligation, it remains that a renter who can hang a mezuzah has more ba’alus than an owner who may not. And in any case, a renter doesn’t own, but is a ba’al with respect to hilkhos mezuzah. Ba’alus is not the same concept as that denoted by the English word “ownership”. A ba’al is one who has responsibility. With responsibility comes authority, but that meaning of ba’al is the derived one.

And so, we have a means of making a distinction between the two terms for husban. Ishahh, her man, is her partner in mastering the world. The ba’al, however, is the one who accepts responsibility for her food, clothing and sexual needs, and because of accepting that responsibility also must have the authority to carry it out.

By explicitly using the term ishahh rather than baalah when discussing the anulment of vows, we see that the husband has the power of hafaras nedarim not in his role of provider and therefore holding control (as anyone who holds the purse-strings will), but because it’s his role in the partnership to be the one who sets new directions, just as It’s hers to insure that they are developed in a holy way.

Tzitzis: Advance and Retreat, part II

I discussed the role of tzitzis and the various roles we have for clothing in a number of earlier posts in this topic.

The following is a different take on the idea from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK. He is closest in topic to my “Tzitzis: Advance and Retreat“. I wrote about two aspects to the mitzvah based on the differences between its two appearances in the Torah, Rabbi Sacks does so on the basis of the two manners in which we wear it. Also, I took the distinction in a Soloveitchikian way, advance vs. retreat. Rabbi Sacks uses a related but somewhat different distinction, public vs. private.

Our sedra ends with one of the great commands of Judaism – tsitsit, the fringes we wear on the corner of our garments as a perennial reminder of our identity as Jews and our obligation to keep the Torah’s commands:

“G-d spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations. Let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe: look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not stray after your heart and eyes which in the past have led you to immorality. You will thus remember and keep all my commandments and be holy to your G-d.”

So central is this command, that it became the third paragraph of the Shema, the supreme declaration of Jewish faith. I once heard the following commentary from my teacher, Rabbi Dr Nahum Rabinovitch.

He began by pointing out some of the strange features of the command. On the one hand the sages said that the command of tsitsit is equal to all the other commands together, as it is said: “Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them.” It is thus of fundamental significance.

On the other hand, it is not absolutely obligatory. It is possible to avoid the command of fringes altogether by never wearing a garment of four or more corners. Maimonides rules: “Even though one is not obligated to acquire a robe and wrap oneself in it in order to tsitsit, it is not fitting for a pious individual to exempt himself from this command” (Laws of Tsitsit, 3: 11). It is important and praiseworthy but not categorical. It is conditional: if you have such a garment, then you must put fringes on it. Why so? Surely it should be obligatory, in the way that tefillin (phylacteries) are.

There is another unusual phenomenon. In the course of time, the custom has evolved to fulfil the command in two quite different ways: the first, in the form of a tallit (robe, shawl) which is worn over our other clothes, specifically while we pray; the second in the form of an undergarment, worn beneath our outer clothing throughout the day.

Not only do we keep the one command in two different ways. We also make different blessings over the two forms. Over the tallit, we say: “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” Over the undergarment, we say, “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the precept of the fringed garment.” Why is one command split into two in this way?

He gave this answer: there are two kinds of clothing. There are the clothes we wear to project an image. A king, a judge, a soldier, all wear clothing that conceals the individual and instead proclaims a role, an office, a rank. As such, clothes, especially uniforms, can be misleading. A king dressed as a beggar will not (or would not, before television) be recognised as royalty. A beggar dressed as a king may find himself honoured. A policeman dressed as a policeman carries with him a certain authority, an aura of power, even though he may feel nervous and insecure. Clothes disguise. They are like a mask. They hide the person beneath. Such are the clothes we wear in public when we want to create a certain impression.

But there are other clothes we wear when we are alone, that may convey more powerfully than anything else the kind of person we really are: the artist in his studio, the writer at his desk, the gardener tending the roses. They do not dress to create an impression. To the contrary: they dress as they do because of what they are, not because of what they wish to seem.

The two kinds of tsitsit represent these different forms of dress. When we engage in prayer, we sense in our heart how unworthy we may be of the high demands G-d has made of us. We feel the need to come before G-d as something more than just ourselves. We wrap ourselves in the robe, the tallit, the great symbol of the Jewish people at prayer. We conceal our individuality – in the language of the blessing over the tallit, we “wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” It is as if we were saying to G-d: I may only be a beggar, but I am wearing a royal robe, the robe of your people Israel who prayed to You throughout the centuries, to whom You showed a special love and took as Your own. The tallit hides the person we are and represents the person we would like to be, because in prayer we ask G-d to judge us, not for what we are, but for what we wish to be.

The deeper symbolism of tsitsit, however, is that it represents the commandments as a whole (“look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord”) – and these becomes part of what and who we are only when we accept them without coercion, of our own free will. That is why the command of tsitsit is not categorical. We do not have to keep it. We are not obligated to buy a four-cornered garment. When we do so, it is because we chose to do so. We obligate ourselves. That is why opting to wear tsitsit symbolises the free acceptance of all the duties of Jewish life.

This is the most inward, intimate, intensely personal aspect of faith whereby in our innermost soul we dedicate ourselves to G-d and His commands. There is nothing public about this. It is not for outer show. It is who we are when we are alone, not trying to impress anyone, not wishing to seem what we are not. This is the command of tsitsit as undergarment, beneath, not on top of, our clothing. Over this we make a different blessing. We do not talk about “wrapping ourselves in a fringed garment” – because this form of fringes is not for outward show. We are not trying to hide ourselves beneath a uniform. Instead, we are expressing our innermost commitment to G-d’s word and call to us. Over this we say the blessing, “who has commanded us concerning the precept of tsitsit” because what matters is not the mask but the reality, not what we wish to seem but what we really are.

In this striking way tsitsit represent the dual nature of Judaism. On the one hand it is a way of life that is public, communal, shared with others across the world and through the ages. We keep Shabbat, celebrate the festivals, observe the dietary laws and the laws of family purity in a way that has hardly varied for many centuries. That is the public face of Judaism – the tallit we wear, the cloak woven out of the 613 threads, each a command.

But there is also our inner life as people of faith. There are things we can say to G-d that we can say to no one else. He knows our thoughts, hopes, fears, better than we know them ourselves. We speak to Him in the privacy of the soul, and He listens. That internal conversation – the opening of our heart to Him who brought us into existence in love – is not for public show. Like the fringed undergarment, it stays hidden. But it is no less real an aspect of Jewish spirituality. The two types of fringed garment represent the two dimensions of the life of faith – the outer persona and the inner person, the image we present to the world and the face we show only to G-d.

One nit, though. Rabbi Sacks is weaving the above out of custom, not halakhah. There is no duty to wear two kinds of tzitzis, one public, one private. Rabbi Seth Mandel posted the following to Avodah:

The facts of the matter are that a tales koton is an article of clothing invented in Ashk’naz, that was apparently not known to S’faradim in the time of the early rishonim. All of the references to it (as I said in my post discussing why it is tales — talesim and tales koton, not k’tanno) that the Beis Yosef and the R’Mo bring are from people like the Mordekhai, the T’rumas haDeshen, the Or Zarua’, whereas the Ba’al ha’Ittur, who is the source of much of what the Tur writes, makes no mention of them. By the time of the M’habber, however, S’faradim were also wearing them; he says “tales qoton shelonu.” Everyone understands that in the time of Hazal, there was no such thing; their tales was their outside garment, not a toga, but another garment of the Roman times called the peristyle, which was a rectangular piece of cloth that they wrapped themselves in sort of like Indian women wrap themselves in a sari.

We have some idea of what the Ashk’naz garment looked like, some had straps over the shoulders (not a hole cut for the head, like nowadays), and some buttoned (i.e. fastened with hooks) at the sides. It was worn under the clothing, with no tzitzis out: that we know from pictures depicting Jews throughout the medieval period that show all sorts of distinctive Jewish clothing — but NO tzitzis showing. NEVER. Unless the pictures showed the Jews at prayer with a tales godol; in those cases, the artists showed the tzitzis.

Because this beged did not conform to what Hazal say about a talles, neither in terms of size nor in the way it was worn, many rishonim in fact doubted that it really fulfills the mitzva d’orayso of tzitzis. To quote a few: the Mordekhai says “hanei talesos q’tannim shelanu einam min hamuvhar” [our talis qatan's are not of the choicest] because you cannot cover yourself in them. The Orhos Hayyim says that someone who makes a b’rokho of l’his’attef on them “over b’lo tissa [violated 'do not take Hashem's name in vain].” The R’Mo in Darkhe Moshe says that the b’rokho is ‘al mitzvas tzitzisv’hata’am nir’eh li ki ‘hash’shu l’divrei hposqim she’ein yotz’in b’tales qoton kozeh v’lakhen lo m’var’khin l’hit’attef d’az havei mashma’ d’akhshav m’aqayy’min hamitzva [the reason seems to me that they were concerned for the words of those who rule you do not fulfill your obligation with a tallis qatan like this. Therefore we do not bless ‘Who commanded to us wrap ourself’ for that would sound like we are now doing the mitzvah.” IOW, you are not yotze the mitzva with a tales qoton. Other rishonim defended the use of a talles kotos as fulfilling the mitzva at least partially, primarily basing themselves of the minhog of all Jews to wear them.

So if you are not yotze the mitzva, why wear it? As the Tur says in siman 24, in his pep talk “even though a person is not obligated to buy a tales with four corners to become obligated in tzitzis… nevertheless, it is good and proper for every man to be zahir and zariz in the mitzva, and have a small garment with tzitzis that he will wear all the day, because the ‘iqar of the mitzva is remembering the mitzvos…”

This custom of wearing the tales koton totally under one’s clothing continued in Ashk’naz throughout the generations, up until modern times when we have photographs, not pictures. I could point to the many street photographs of Poylin and Lita, of Warsaw and Vilna, of Hungary and Galitzia, before the war, of streets crowded with Jews and no tzitzis visible. To be sure, some were wearing long coats, so we wouldn’t see them anyway, but enough children and Jews without coats or short coats are visible to prove that tzitzis of a tales koton were not worn out. Lest someone claim that these might be the amaratzim and the g’dolim wore, let us look at the pictures of R. Chayim Ozer and R. Boruch Ber and R. Shimon Shkop accompanied by their talmidim, all of whom wore short coats….

Interestingly, Rabbi Sacks gives a solid motivation for making a point of not wearing the strings of one’s tallis qatan outside one’s pants.

Mas’ei — the Journey as a Name of G-d

Parashas Mas’ei opens with a description of Benei Yisra’el’s trip through the desert, and lists the forty-two stops made along the way. An oft-quoted Zohar identifies the stops in the desert with each of the letters in Hashem’s forty-two letter name. What’s the particular significance of the journeys and stops in Sinai that give them such cosmic significance?Jean-Paul Sartre, when asked to summarize the existentialist movement in philosophy, gave the following dictum: Existence precedes essence. What that means may be most easily explained by contrasting people to tables. With a table, you can study the plans for the table, the wood and other materials from which it will be built, and with a little math and science know everything there is to know about the table. The essence of the table precedes its actual existence. With human beings, it’s the reverse. I’ve existed since (at least) my birth. But who I am, my essence, is not what I was or even knowable back then. With human beings, our existence comes before our essence.Another existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, characterized his religion in a way we can apply to ours. The ideal is not to be a good Jew, but becoming one.

The same point was made earlier by the Kotzker Rebbe. The Kotzker asked his Chassidim, “If you see two people on a ladder, one on the fourth rung and one on the tenth, which is higher?” The chassidim, probably knowing it was a leading question, answered the obvious, “The one on the tenth rung.” “No,” the rebbe replied, “he might be descending the ladder. It is the one who is climbing upward.”

When we stand for Shemoneh Esrei we do so with our feet together to emulate the angels. “Veragleihem regel yisharah – and their legs are one straight leg [each].” (Yechezqeil 1:7) Angels stand on a single leg, a pedestal, stationary. As Zechariah (3:7) repeats Hashem’s message to Yehoshua Kohein Gadol, “then I will give you to walk (mehalkhim) among these that stand still (ha’omedim).” People are mehalkhim, goers; angels, omedim, standing still.

Angels might be on a higher rung on the ladder, but since only people have the power to ascend it, we have the potential to be loftier.

This is because we have free will, the ability to make and remake ourselves. The power of teshuvah.

In short, life is a journey, not a destination.

And so, Mas’ei benei Yisrael, the journey and growth in the desert, was to imbue the Jewish people with the essence of being a nation of kohanim. Therefore, it truly is His Name, a representation of Hashem’s Presence in this world.

Tzitzis, Advance and Retreat

There are two descriptions of the mitzvah of tzitzis. First, from parashas Shelach (and Qeri’as Shema):

… [T]hey should make for themselves tzitzis on the corners of their garments (bigdeihem) throughout their generations, and that they put on the tzitzis of each corner a thread of blue wool (techeiles). And it shall for you tzitzis, and you will see it and remember all the mitzvos of Hashem… (Bamidbar 15:38-39).

There are a few points I want to stress about this quote:

1- The term for garment used is beged. Hebrew has a number of terms for clothing. That it’s called a beged rather than a kesus or a levush is significant. The uniform of the kohanim is called the bigdei kehunah. By saying the mitzvah is on our begadim is to cast the mitzvah in terms of the uniform for a role. (For an analysis of these terms with respect to bigdei kehunah and all the mentions of clothing in Megillas Esther, see “The Natures of Clothing“, and with respect to the clothing of Adam and Chava see “Ki Arumim Heim“.)

2- The term for the tassel is tzitzis. Tzitzis is actually an agricultural term, it means “sprout” or “small growths”. Tzitzis implies human growth. It is associated with the idea in Menachos 39a that “the beauty of techeiles (meaning tzitzis in general -Rashi) is 1/3 gedilim (knotted cords), and 2/3 free.”

3- Hashem describes techeiles as a thread of blue wool on the tzitzis. From this phrase, the Rambam and Raavad (as opposed to Rashi and Tosafos, see below) conclude that only one of the strings should be blue. The Rambam defines that as one of 8 string-ends coming out of the knotted portion. The Raavad, that it’s one of 4 strings, i.e. two ends are blue. (The Vilna Gaon writes that he is convinced that one of these two positions should be followed, but couldn’t determine which.)

From the Rambam’s position, R’ SR Hirsch explains techeiles as the Jew’s higher calling. It is the eighth string, going beyond the six days of physical creation and even the seventh day of the sanctity imbued within this world. It is sky-blue, the primary color most associated with spirituality — beyond the physical red (adom, red= adamah, earth= dam, blood), and even the green of growth.

The techeiles, then, imposes spirituality on the growth of the tzitzis. As Rav Hirsch describes it, human growth must be expressed freely — represented by the 2/3 of free-string tassel, but only after it was channeled by that blue thread. )I discuss this idea in more detail in Toras Aish for parashas Shelach.)

4- Hashem gives a motivation and purpose to the mitzvah. It’s a mnemonic device to remember not to chase aveiros, and to do mitzvos.

But there is a second presentation in the Torah of the mitzvah. The mitzvah is repeated in Devarim 22:2, to appear next to the laws of shaatnez. This teaches that techeiles, which is definitionally blue wool, is put on a linen garment despite the laws of shaatnez. There the Torah reads:

You shall make for yourself gedilim (cords) on the four corners of your covering (kesusekha), with which you cover yourself.

In this presentation, all three points that I stressed above are different.

1- The term for clothing is kesus, a cover. And in case we missed it, the pasuq continues by saying “which you cover (mekhaseh) yourself in it.” As opposed to the uniform of the beged, this is clothing that one wears to hide. The beged is an appointment to a duty, the kesus, a retreat from shame.

2- There is no mention of the free strings of the tassel, only of the gedil, the knotted part. This is in concert with the notion of it being a kesus. There is no emphasis of human creativity and individuality.

3- It’s from this pasuq that we learn there are eight ends of strings in each tassel. A gedil, a term for a cord or rope from the root /gdl/ – large, must be more than one string. Gedilim, in the plural, is therefore at least 2 pairs of strings, four in all, or eight ends. In fact, Rashi and Tosafos conclude from this pasuq that there is one gedil of white strings, and one of techeiles, i.e. two full strings (four ends) are blue.

The image of the mitzvah of techeiles, then, is that it’s one of man’s forces — with no description to its role in binding and guiding the others.

4- Hashem doesn’t say why we should wear it. Gedilim are worn simply because Hashem said so.

In R’ JB Soloveitchik’s terms, a beged is worn when one is in a state of advance, a kesus, when one seeks retreat. We’re not looking at man advancing, but his withdrawing in order to re-aim himself at the higher goal. Thus, we only speak of the gedil, the channeling of forces.

To use another of R’ Soloveitchik’s models, we can say that Adam I, majestic man, is given begadim with which to accept the responsibility that comes with his ability, and to aim his mastery of the world in positive directions. Adam II, covenental man, is given a kesus with which to hide his needfulness, to help him retreat long enough to find G-d.

Therefore, in Bamidbar, the beged is associated with human creativity, with instructions how to sanctify it, and with a personal motivation for keeping the mitzvah. Whereas in Devarim, the focus is not on our sanctifying ourselves, but in our accepting G-d’s role in sanctifying us.

Both relationships are true. As Rabbi Aqiva asked “Before whom do you make yourselves tahor, and Who makes you tahor?” There are times when we should take the initiative, and times when we are unable, and allow Hashem to do it for us.

In general, I’m trying to explore the concept of clothing, of uniform, and the proper use of chitzoniyus(externals). Like it or not, others do form their first impressions of us from our clothes. While we all know it’s silly to judge people by their clothing, it happens preconsciously and we can’t stop ourselves from forming that first impression. Nor can we change the entire human race from forming such impressions of us.

And there is no neutral clothing. Wearing a black fedora means that people’s first impression of you is “he’s yeshivish”. Not wearing one, though, equally creates an impression, the person will conclude you’re not all that yeshivish (assuming you’re a man, of course). You’re judged in comparison to the stereotype of people with similar clothing. To avoid wearing clothing of any particular subculture marks you as an outsider, an oddball. Etc… But the point is, you’re always marked. There is no non-uniform.

The other contrast to a beged is a levush. (I’m using the terms as I see them in Tanakh. When Chassidim call their clothing “levush”, it’s obviously based on a different understanding of the differences in connotation between the words.) Achashveirosh’s royal robes are “levush malkhus”. Not begadim, because he wasn’t inherently a royal person. Achashveirosh is portrayed in the megillah as a real follower, being lead around by his advisors, a drunkard, and not the swiftest thinker. Begadim help one assume a role. Levush helps look like they are in a role they really aren’t.

We often end up viewing ourselves and trying to remake ourselves to live up to our clothing. That’s the role of beged, raising our self-image to motivate us to improve. However, without knowing the proper time for begadim, one could try to don a beged only to have it devolve into a levush, a means of fooling ourselves into thinking we are holier than we are.

The key is knowing when is a time for advance, and when for retreat. Knowing that is knowing when we’re using chitzoniyus constructively, and when not. But most of us are not in the habit of even noticing the choices we make, never mind working toward improving them. At risk of getting overly repetitive, I see no way of knowing when to don the beged and when the kesus without keeping a daily cheshbon hanefesh.

Different Parts of the Same Body

We can draw a theme from parashas Bamidbar through the beginning of Beha’alosekha.In Beha’alosekha, Moshe and Aharon count the Jewish People “according to their families, by their father’s household” (1:2), divided by sheivet. Sheivet is defined patrilineally. Membership in the Jewish People as a whole is matrilineal, though. Why? We also find this asymetry in a law mentioned later in that parashah — pidyon haben. While the father’s oldest child gets twice the inheritance of his other children, when it comes to the sanctity of the firstborn, and the need to redeem it, it’s the mother’s firstborn that is holy.We see a hint to the difference in a verse, “These are the children of Moshe and Aharon; the children of Aharon are…” The medrash explains that Aharon’s children are the children of Moshe, their mentor, as well. (Unlike Moshe’s own children, who did not follow their father as their mentor.) Fatherhood is captured by formal education. In fact, the mitzvah of chinukh, formal education, falls only on the father.

Mothers inherently teach, whether they wish to or not. They are the ones home, setting the tone that the children grow up within, the attitudes they absorb preconsciously. Deeper than formal education, the exchange of ideas, this is the exchange of culture, ideals, and values. In fact, a command to provide this education, which would necessitate formal and procedural “teaching” in order to fulfill this mitzvah, would get in the way of the true transmission of the instinctive culture.

The difference is summed up by Shelomo haMelekh: “Shema beni mussar avikha, ve’al titosh toras imekha — Listen, my son, to what your father gives over, and do not abandon your mother’s Torah.” It’s no coincidence that Chazal tell us “Do not read ‘toras imekha’ but ‘toras umaskha’ — the Torah of your nation.” Torah as orakh chaim, as the way the people live.

I analyze this aspect of things in more detail in Mesukim Midevash for Bamidbar. There are two aspects to Oral Torah which affects our understanding of the decline of generations in light of our progress to the messianic era, as well as explaining the need for mussar and the other derakhim that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries. I also wrote on this topic earlier, in an entry titled “The Fall of Mimeticism and Forks on the Hashkafic Road“.

But here I want to look at what it says about the nature of the shevatim. We all share common values, which is why Jewishness is matrilineal. Our roles, our assigned duties, are those of our sheivet, and since this can be formally taught, it’s patrilineal.

Parashas Naso continues this count down into the families of Leviim, and describing their duties.

In his Shabbos morning derashah, R’ Ron Yitzchak Eisenman (the rav of my shul), repeated an interesting point he found in a seifer titled Yalqut Shemu’el by R’ Shmuel Fine, a rav in Detroit in the 1930s. Among the coverings of the utensils of the Mishkan named when speaking of the duties of the Leviim to carry them form place to place were ones made of the leather of techashim. Tachash is the same kind of leather used in the top layer of the Mishkan’s roof. The word “tachash” is difficult to translate. Some, following a comment in Yechezqeil that Hashem made us shoes of tachash leather in the desert, identify it with an aquatic animal, since Bedouins use that to make their shoes. Others translate it as a “unicorn”. The Targum Unqelus defines it as “sasgona”, which the gemara (Shabbos 28a) tells us is an animal that rejoices (sas) in its many colors (gona). The Tankhuma (Terumah 6) says it has six (sheish – sas) colors. Chazal also say the tachash was created once, just for the Mishkan, which would fit the unicorn or the sasgona. (See Rabbi Nosson Slifkin’s Mysterious Creatures pp. 74-79 for a complete inquiry into the identity of the Tachash.)

The Yalqut Shemu’el asks why the animal used must be one that is sas, rejoices, in his colors. The sasgona is not only a single creature of diverse colors; it takes joy in its diversity! This is a key ingredient to building the Mishkan and in fact of building any qehillah. We shouldn’t merely tolerate Jews of other stripes, we should rejoice in their existence. Yahadus is stronger because we have Modern Orthodox Jews who take that Judaism to the streets, Yeshivish ones who are constantly raising the bar on the standards of Torah study, the chassidim who breathed life into America’s kashrus industry, the Zionists who secured for us a homeland and the anti-Zionists who insure we don’t worship it as an end in itself. Within the four amos of halakhah we need multiple expressions.

The tachash is not only identified with the sasgona, but also the unicorn. A kosher animal that had one horn, one qeren. “Keren” also means pride or power. As we say in Shemoneh Esrei “The sprout of David should sprout soon, and he will lift his qeren for your redemption.” The tachash is not simply a plurality, it’s a union of disparate parts, a synergy to make one greater force, one inseparable being.

We must learn to look at other forms of Torah observance as “different parts of the same body”. Not to be tolerated despite their differences, but loved because of them. All come from the same toras imekha, the same basic worldview, values and aspirations. We differ, as did the shevarim, in mussar avikha, in the formal layer of education after that, where we learn our roles and where we fit in that greater mission.

This was the message Hashem gave Aharon in the beginning of parashas Beha’alosekha. Chazal write that when the heads of the shevatim brought their qorbanos (listed at the end of Naso), Aharon, whose role included being the head of Levi, was pained at not being able to participate. Hashem comforted him by pointing to the story of Chanukah. The chanukas habayis, the consecration of the Beis haMiqdash, by Aharon’s descendents the Chashmona’im, was greater than the offerings of the nesi’im. Why?

Each of the nesi’im brought what was physically the same offering. However, each offering was distinct in intent. The Ramban itemizes the allusions each nasi could find in the same offering that relate to his particular tribe, to his particular ancestor. The offerings were colored by mussar avikha, by each sheivet’s particularist role.

Aharon is then told, “When you cause the menorah [flames] to go up, toward the face of the menorah its lamps should burn.” The menorah has one central trunk, from which emerge six branches. The flame atop each branch must point toward the middle. Each branch is a different wisdom, a different skill-set. They all emerge from the same basic Torah, from the mother-taught values that define our Jewishness. It is Aharon’s job to remind us that they also must be channeled back toward that central core.

We all work toward a common goal. Knowing that each of us are unique, bringing unique thoughts and abilities, unique perspective and educational background, leads us not only to realize the full value of our own part in the greater whole (no man is “just another brick in the wall”) but to treasure the contributions of others because they are so different than our own, and bringing something to the whole that we can’t.

Tum’ah and Taharah, part II

Rav Y Henken replied to my previous entry on this subject (repeated here for the benefit of Google). He wrote:

See in my “New Interpretations on rhe Parsha” (Ktav) and also Shu”t Bnei Banim vol. 4 maamar 22.

Q. Why is a woman in childbirth considered to be ritually impure?

A. That is a difficult question. Vayikra is full of laws of tumah and taharah. One of the six orders of the Mishnah is devoted to them. But there is little discussion of the meaning behind ritual impurity, and why it should be forbidden in the Temple.

To be sure, tumah is often connected with death and decay, and as such can be seen as antithetical to the idea of haShem, the living G-d. This would explain why the most potent source of tumah is the human corpse, and why various types of animal carcasses transmit impurity. Similarly, leprosy and certain diseases of the reproductive tract that cause tumah are forms of decay. The menstruant woman is impure because menstruation marks the waste of the ovum, the loss of a potential life.

The rock on which this explanation founders, however, is childbirth. Why is a woman impure after childbirth? Nothing seems further from death and decay than bringing a child into the world. Even if birth involves an element of illness for the mother, why should that outweigh the emergence of a new being?

The answer, it seems to me, is that not only death and decay are opposed to the idea of G-d, but birth as well. HaShem does not die, but neither is He born. The flux of human life, birth and death together, is antithetical to G-d’s immutable and eternal nature. Tumah represents the waxing as well as the waning of life and has no place in the Sanctuary, the abode of the Eternal. For that reason a woman in childbirth is impure, for nothing is less G-d-like than the cycle of generation.

This can explain several of the laws of purity and sacrifices. Why is a woman impure for one week if a boy is born, but two weeks if she gives birth to a girl? Because the female is the more visible link in the reproductive chain.

Why is it forbidden to add leavening and honey to meal-offerings (Vayikra 2:11)? Because these substances accelerate the formation of chametz: chametz waxes and swells more than matzo but quickly goes stale, whereas matzo can keep indefinitely. Chametz therefore symbolizes mortal existence, and has no place in the sacrifices.

Finally, why is chametz forbidden on Pesach? Because Pesach is the holiday of belief in G-d, we must avoid leaven, which symbolically contradicts His unchanging nature.


1. Commentators are cautious in ascribing reasons for tumah and its categories; for example, see Sefer HaChinuch, no. 159 (Chavel ed. no. 152). In Moreh Nevuchim 3:47, Rambam wrote that impurity exists simply in order to make the Sanctuary off-limits to most people.

2. For a summary of the types of impurity see Otzar Yisrael, s.v. tum’ah vetaharah, and Encyclopaedia Judaica, s.v. ritual impurity.

3. See Ramban, commentary to Vayikra 12:1.

4. Contrast this both with Christianity and the cult of the chief Canaanite deity, Baal, who was believed to die each year during the dry season and to be reborn with the first rains.

5. By contrast, the preservative salt is required for all sacrifices (Vayikra 2:13).

6. See below (in “New Interpretations on the Parsha”) Pesach, pp. 190-192.

My own take, from an essay on parah adumah (which further elaborates on the theme):

What does it mean to be tamei or tahor? When the Torah discusses the subject, it uses the avoidance of tum’ah as a goal in an of itself, not as something that needs further justification. The explanation Hashem gives us for certain animals being non-kosher is merely “tamei hu lakhem — it is tamei to you.” (Vayikra 11:4) Elsewhere, we find tahor used to mean pure; for example, pure gold is repeatedly called “zahav tahor.” (e.g. Shemos 25:31) But what is it that is pure, and from what kind of adulteration is it pure?

The Ramchal defines the personal attribute called taharah:

Taharah is the correction of the heart and thoughts… Its essence is that man shouldn’t leave room for the inclination in his actions. Rather all his actions should be on the side of wisdom and awe [for the Almighty], and not on the side of sin and desire. This is even in those things which are of the body and physical.
– Mesilas Yesharim Ch. 16

To the Ramchal, taharah is purity of the “heart and thoughts”. The the tahor man has “no room for the physical.” It is the purity of the deciding mind from the physical creature.

To cast the words of the Ramchal into the terms we discussed in the introduction, taharah and tum’ah focus on the relation ship between the physical and the mind. Taharah is the purity of the mind from physical prejudices. Tum’ah is its adulteration, so that the decision making process can not be freed of the physical urges.

This is mussar’s description of a personality trait called “taharah.” The halachah’s concept seems to derive directly from it. Rav SR Hirsch describes the tum’ah of a dead body.

A dead human body tends to bring home to one’s mind a fact which is able to give support to that pernicious misconception which is called tum’ah. For, in fact, there lies before us actual evidence that Man must — willy-nilly — submit to the power of physical forces. That in this corpse that lies before us, it is not the real human being, that the real human being, the actual Man, which the powers of physical force can not touch, had departed from here before the body — merely its earthly envelope — could fall under the withering law of earthly Nature; more, that as long as the real Man, with his free-willed self-determining G-dly nature was present in the body, the body itself was freed from forced obedience to the purely physical demands, and was elevated into the sphere of moral freedom in all its powers of action and also of enjoyment, when the free-willed ruling of the higher part of Man decided to achieve the moral mission of his life;
– Commentary on Lev. 11:47

R. SR Hirsch portrays the tamei object as one that causes the illusion that man is nothing more than a physical object, an animal, a helpless subject to physical forces and physical desires. In reality,

death only begins with death, but that in life, thinking striving and accomplishing Man can master, rule, and use even his own sensuous body with all its all its innate forces, urges, and powers, with G-d-like free self-decision, within the limits of, and for accomplishment of, the duties set by the laws of morality; …

“Thinking striving and accomplishing Man,” the conscious man, should use the “sensuous body with all its innate forces, urges, and powers,” the physical man, as a tool for doing good. The object which halachah calls tamei is that thing which will cause mussar’s tum’ah to awaken itself within the mind. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mind that is prejudiced by physical needs and urges can not fully choose its own destiny.

Note that tum’ah robs oneself of bechirah by being convinced — adulterating bechirah, if you will — of the idea that man is merely a subject, not an object. In the terms of the Gra’s Peirush al Kama Agados — purity of the ru’ach (soul as wind, as actor) from the nefesh (the animal soul).

The notion of subject vs object and its relationship to cheit’s power to be metamei is also discussed by Rav YB Soloveitchik in a 1974 teshuvah derashah. See our R’ Dr Arnold Lustiger’s, “Before Hashem You Shall be Purified”, Ohr Publishing, 1998.

The Rav starts with R”H 29a, where R’ Nachman says that someone who is half slave, have freeman (e.g. a slave who was owned by two partners, and subsequently freed by one of them) can not fulfill the mitzvah of hearing shofar from his own blowing. As a non-Jewish slave becomes a Jew when freed, such a person is half Jewish. Unlike other mitzvos, where he can fulfill the mitzvah himself — e.g. he can daven for himself, and need not rely on a fully Jewish chazan.

RYBS explains that blowing shofar is different because the mitzvah is not in the blowing, but in the hearing. The berachah reads “…who commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.” Inherent in the mitzvah is two kinds of individuals, the tokei’ah (the blower) and the shomei’ah (the listener), the nosei (mover) and the nisa (moved). An active subject and a passive object.

It’s not halachah that splits the individual in this way, it’s sin. Sin splits the personality into tamei and tahor components. The call of the shofar is the nosei awakening the nisa, calling across that chasm created by sin to restore unity, to bring us closer to the image of the Singular Nosei in Whose “Image” we were created.

The message of the shofar is that all is not lost. That no matter how much ruach one is mitamei, the core remains. Teshuvah is always possible. “For on this day, He will place kaparah atonement upon you, to make you tahor from all your sins; before Hashem you will become tahor.

If taharah is purity from the idea that man is merely a physical being, an object that is “forced [into] obedience to the purely physical demands”, than kaparah is the containment of that idea. Placing a kapores, a lid, upon the nefesh, man’s mammalian nature. Through kaparah one cordons off the animal within oneself, but did not yet address the damage to one’s decision-making due to habit.