You Lifted Us from Amongst all the Languages

In the Amidah for Yom Tov, we credit Hashem as the one who “lifted us from among the languages”. Importance is given not just to our nationhood (“You chose us from among the nations”) but also to our bond of common language.

George Orwell made our generation very aware of how language shapes thought. I was recently reminded of this idea when someone on the net asked the old question, “Is Judaism a race or a religion?”

On the one hand, your Jewishness is typically inherited from your mother. This would lead one to think of Jewish identity as racial. On the other hand, we accept converts, as would a religion.

As I see it, the problem is caused by the pigeon-holing. Why must it be one or the other? Because English has these two terms readily available, we — without even thinking — try to force this concept into one of these two categories. English, though, was created by Christians, and need not have a term that describes how Judaism views itself. We don’t even notice how the language channeled our thoughts.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to this week’s parashah makes a similar observation. Hebrew has no word for “religion”. It’s an alien concept. “Religion” connotes a belief system, rituals, ways of escaping the world into G-d’s comfort. But Judaism is about bringing G-d’s ways into how we act and react in the everyday world.

Another example he offers is “virtue”. In Latin languages the root is “vir”, manliness, virility. The German equivalent, “Tugend”, is from “taugen”, meaning useful. In Hebrew, the word is “mitzvah” a commandment. The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, pointed out how it had also had connotations of the root mem-tzadi-vuv, and could indicate “to aim” or “to focus”. There is no way for a Hebrew speaking person to talk about doing the right thing without some level of his mind getting vague hints that the “right thing” is “doing what G-d commanded so that we may achieve His goals for us”.

The Torah begins the story by telling us “The whole earth was of one language and uniform ideas (devarim)” (Breishis 11:1). The source of the problem was not only that their ability to communicate aided their plans, but it also lead them to being of like mind. One person was able to mislead an entire generation.

According to traditional histories, Avram was 48 when the Tower of Babel was built. He was an adult who consciously chose not to participate in the endeavor. And as a reward, when the other clans were given their own languages, causing them to spread out and become separate nations, Avram was not so punished, and still spoke and thought in Hebrew.

The gift of speaking Hebrew, then, is no small thing. It’s not just exposure to a holier mode of speech. Hebrew gives us the tools to organize our concepts in the way Hashem intended. Instead of asking whether Judaism is a race or a religion, with the connotation of those words, we can look at Am Yisrael, and Adas Yisrael, and the meaning given those terms by the Chumash.

Parashas Lekh-Lekha 5756

Most young Yeshiva children come home sometime around Shavuos with the story of how Hashem offered the Torah to all the nations of the world, but only the Jews accepted it.

The medrash, as told in the Yalqut Shim’oni, tells how first Hashem went to Edom and offered them the Torah. They asked, “What is written in it?” Hashem replied, “Do not murder”. Edom declines because “our very substance is murder because our father, Eisav, was a murderer”.

Next, Hashem approaches Ammon and Moav. When they asked, “What is written in it?” Hashem replies “You may not commit adultery”. They too reject the Torah, because, “our very substance is adultery because our father, Lot, was sexually immoral”.

The third example given in the Yalkut is the Ishmaelites. They too want to first know what is written in the Torah before accepting it. To them Hashem says, “Do not steal”. They answer, “our very substance is theft, because our father, Yishmael, was a thief”. In this way, each nation declined, until Hashem approached the Jews.

Hashem’s answer to each of the nations is strange. Why choose the one sin their forefather was known for? Especially since in each of these cases the sin is prohibited to all Benei Noach; they may not do any of these things even without getting the Torah.

By comparing this medrash to the opening pasuk in this week’s parshah, we can get a better understanding of the point of the story.

“Hashem said to Avram, ‘Go for yourself from your homeland, from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you’.” (12:1) The first sentence recorded in the Torah of the Jewish mission on earth is a commandment for Avram to leave his home and his father.

Avram didn’t say, “I can’t worship G-d because my very substance his idolatry, because my father, Terach, manufactures idols”. Hashem orders Avram to leave the culture that made him, to leave his father’s sphere of influence, and he does.

Avram’s reply was “And Avram went, just as G-d told him”. (12:4) If Hashem said he could change, rise above Ur Casdim to become fit for both the land of Israel and the father of the people of Israel, then he goes.

Is man a creature of fate or of destiny? Is his future foretold, etched in rock, unchangeable? Or can he rebuild himself into something greater than he was?

Clearly the Torah insists on the latter. The very key to accepting the Torah is to be committed to use its ideas and its mitzvos to improve and to grow.

This was the failing ascribed to the other nations in the medrash. They saw a given flaw in their national character as their substance, immutable. Hashem wasn’t asking them about a particular prohibition, but about their commitment to leave their “father’s house”. If they do not believe they can change, what purpose can getting the Torah serve them?

Of Arks and Rainbows

There are two events in the Torah that can be identified as yeshu’os, by which I mean events where Hashem saved someone even though they didn’t really merit it.

The more obvious is Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, the Exodus. Hashem saved us just as we were slipping from the “49th level of impurity” into being hopelessly corrupt. And in the introduction before Az Yashir, the song by the Red Sea, we are told that “Vayosha’ Hashem… — and Hashem saved on that day Israel from the hands of Egypt…” (Shemos 14:30)

An earlier example is when Hashem saved Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. There too Lot was saved primarily in Avraham’s merit, that Avraham should be spared the pain of losing his nephew.

There is a common feature in these two stories. The ones being saved are restrained from rejoicing over the fall of those who were not. I would suggest that this is a property of yeshu’ah. Without the element of witnessing divine justice, there is no justification for reveling in the fall of the wicked. And here the potential witness was saved by Hashem’s mercy, justice isn’t in evidence.

Among the reasons the gemara (Megillah 14a) gives us for why we do not recite full Hallel on the last day(s) of Pesach is a medrash about G-d’s discontent with the angels joining in our singing Az Yashir. “The work of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you sing?” The day we crossed the sea is not to be one of unrestrained joy. Note that we do not have a similar muting of the joy of Chanukah, despite the deaths of the Saleucids and Hellenized Jews. The Exodus, however, was a yeshu’ah.

With Lot this point is particularly stressed. Lot was told not even to look back at the destruction. His wife was turned into salt for trying to do so.

What about Noach? Was his a yeshu’ah, or did he earn being saved?

There is a famous Rashi on the words of the first verse of this week’s parashah. “Noach was a wholehearted man in his generation.” (Ber’ 6:9) Rashi notes two interpretations of this comment. On the one hand, it could be taken as a compliment of Noach. Even in the environment and culture of Noach’s contemporaries, he was still a good person. Alternatively, it could be taken as a criticism. By the low expectations of that period, he was a good man. But had he lived in Avraham’s day, he would have been a nobody.

There is another debate recorded in Rashi that also touches on our question. In (6:16) Noach is told to make a tzohar for the ark. Rashi quotes Bereishis Raba, and again there are two positions. One defines “tzohar” to be a window, the other a gem.

I would like to suggest that these two Rashis are recording different aspects of the same disagreement. According to the first position, we look at Noach in terms of the relative scale of his potential. Noach did an excellent job, given what he had to work with. In that light, he merited being saved. Therefore, Noach was not in the position of Lot, he was allowed to see what transpired to his peers. Therefore, this tanna would have no problem saying that the ark had a window through which Noach could see out.

The second looks at him in an absolute scale. By that standard, he didn’t get as far. His salvation would therefore be seen as an act of Divine Mercy, a yeshu’ah. So to this opinion, the tzohar couldn’t have been a window. It was a gem that obscured his view.

After Noach left the ark, Hashem made a covenant with him. Hashem gave Noach seven mitzvos for all of humanity to observe and promised Noach that He would never again flood the entire world.

There are two seemingly contradictory halachos about rainbows. The first is that we make a berachah of thanks when seeing a rainbow (Berachos 59a). On the other hand, we are told not to gaze at a rainbow because it’s a sign of Divine Anger, that G-d is telling us that it’s only his promise to Noach that keeps Him from again flooding the world. (Chagiga 16a)

There is another difference between having the light come into the ark via a window or a gem. Light that comes in through a cut stone will be refracted. The inside walls of the ark would have been covered with little rainbows.

Perhaps this is another reason why G-d chose the rainbow to be the sign of his covenant with Noach. The rainbow reminds us that the world is our “ark” by painting a similar spectrum on our “walls”. The sign of the rainbow is therefore that of a yeshu’ah, of unmerited salvation. For which we should be thankful, but not proud.

Miqeitz: Time and Process

The parashah opens “Vayhi mikeitz sh’nasayim yamim — and it was at the end of a pair of years of days”. After Yosef spent two years in prison, Par’oh’s dream leads the wine steward to remember Yosef and eventually leads to his redemption. But why does the pasuk say “sh’nasayim yamim”, rather than just “shenasayim”? [1]

Second, why is the term used here for the arrival of the denoted time “mikeitz”, at the endpoint (from “katzeh”, edge [2])? How does it differ from saying that the “z’man”, or “eis” (both meaning “time”) had arrived?

This duplication of terms for time is echoed in next week’s parashah, when Ya’akov describes his age to Par’oh as “The days of the years of my travels…” [3] as well as at the beginning of parashas Vayechi, in counting out Ya’akov avinu’s lifespan, “… And the days of Ya’akov was, the years of his life…” [4] The repetition implies that there are distinct concepts. Yom and shanah refer to different things.

Most ancient societies viewed time as cyclic. Among the motivations suggested [5] for the building of the Tower of Bavel was the fear that the flood was part of a 1,656-year cycle, and they would need to prepare for a second flood.

The position is understandable. Plato [6] concludes that since our means of measuring time was the cyclic movement of astronomical objects so must the time they define be cyclic. The month and its cycle of phases, the year and its cycle of seasons define a cycle of time. The seasonal cycle also shapes the farmer’s lifestyle into cycles. Time cannot be measured without a predictable repetition of events, be it the falling of grains of sand, the swing of a pendulum, the escapement of a clock, the vibration of a quartz crystal or the waves of light emitted by cesium atoms.

This mindset is alien to modern man. The contemporary western view of time is linear, a dimension — a progress from the primitive to the advanced. This notion that history progresses comes from Judaism, from our view of time as running from First Cause to Ultimate Purpose, a history spanning from Adam to the Messianic Era and beyond. This acceptance is an accomplishment of the Chashmona’i revolution against the Greek mindset. Linear time gives us a view of man in which he can redeem himself; he is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. On the other hand, Judaism simultaneously embraces a cyclic view of time. As the Hagaddah phrases the purpose of the seder, “A person is obligated to see himself as though he himself came out of Egypt.” Every Shavuos we are to accept the Torah anew. Our holidays not only repeat the cycle of the Exodus, they are tied to agricultural events and thereby the cycle of seasons. The holiday is both reliving the Sukkos of the desert as well as celebrating bringing in our crops. [7]

The Zohar [8] describes a system of grammatical gender follows the conventions of sexual reproduction: Biblical Hebrew uses masculine nouns for those things that we think of as initiators that start a process. Feminine nouns take that seed and develop it into something more complete and usable. “Yom”, being in the masculine is therefore an initiator. “Yom” represents a unit of progress. It is a unit of linear time, a progress from birth to death. The culmination of history is notably called “acharis hayamim” [9] and in the navi, “yom Hashem” [10].

In contrast, “shanah” is from the same root as “two”, “to repeat”, “to learn”, or “to change”, and perhaps even that of “to age” and “to sleep”, as in “venoshantem ba’aretz” [11].

Shanah speaks of a retreat. A person can actively embrace that retreat, use it as a chance to build on what one already has. Or, it can be a time when he simply is a victim of circumstance.

While there is a need for progress, there is also a need to step back, to review, to develop the idea into something we can incorporate within ourselves and can use as a basis for future growth. It can be a time to regain a balance between technological progress and one’s basic humanity and values. If he embraces and uses the time, then he has achieved productive review, “years of days”.

Perhaps this is why the Malbim [12] explains Ya’akov avinu’s reply to Par’oh as having two parts. To Par’oh’s question about years, he answers that he traveled this earth 130 years. About days, Ya’akov laments that he did not use his time as productively as did his fathers, “Few and insufficient were the days of my life’s years, and they never reached the days of the years of my forefather’s lives.” [13]

R’ Aharon Kotler zt”l commented to a student on the occasion of the birth of the student’s son about the phrase “The bris should be be’ito ubizmano”, using both “eis” and “z’man” to denote its proper time. Rav Aharon explained the difference. If the baby is healthy, then the bris is at the pre-decided time, on the eighth day. If not, then it will be at the right time for that individual baby. Ideally the bris would be at both.

A z’man is a time that comes according to a pre-scheduled appointment, ready or not. It is a point in a shanah, in cyclic time that runs its celestial heartbeat regardless of human action. And so, the repeat of the exodus is “Z’man Cheiruseinu”, our time of freedom. An eis is a landmark in the course of progression. And so, one is “kovei’ah ittim baTorah”, one sets aside times for Torah.

But neither a z’man nor an eis can represent the goal of the trip. Reflection without progress and progress without reflection as to its purpose does not get one to a meaningful goal. A keitz, an endpoint, can only come from both.

Yosef’s experience in the pit was not simply measured in years of survival, but also in personal progress. After the culmination, the qeitz, of shenasayim yamim, he was ready to emerge a leader.


Footnotes:

[1] We find the exact same turn of phrase in Shmuel II 14:28 and Yirmiyahu 28:3. In all three cases, the time measured is one in which someone (here — Yosef, Avshalom in Shmuel II) or something (the utensils of the Beis HaMikdash in Yirmiyahu) was in hiding.

[2] C.f. Shemos 36:33, “And he made the middle bar to pass through the boards [of the Mishkan] from the katzeh to the katzeh.”

[3] Bereishis 47:8

[4] Ibid. v. 28. Notable is the use of singular “hayah” referring to the days.

[5] Bereishis Rabba 38:1, third opinion

[6] Timaeus 36c-d

[7] Vayikra 23:39,43

[8] Pinechas 249a-b

[9] Eg. Sukkah 52b

[10] Eg. Malachi 4:5

[11] Devarim 4:25

[12] Bereishis 47:8

[13] Bereishis 47:9

Ki Arumim Heim

“And the snake was [more] arum than all the animals of the field…” (Bereishis 3:1)In this pasuq, “arum” is variously translated. JPS has “subtle”. Others have “sly”, “cunning”, and the like. In Iyov (5:12), Elifaz describes Hashem as One Who “annuls the thoughts of arumim”. In these contexts, it would appear that being an “arum” is no compliment. But in the very next pasuq in Iyov (v. 13), it is attributed to Hashem, who “overtakes the wise in ormah”! And in Mishlei (12:16), “A fool — in the moment his anger will be known; but the arum covers an insult.” The word “arum” describes a kind of wisdom that isn’t entirely negative.Then we get further in the story of Gan Eden, and after Chavah and Adam eat from the fruit, “Their eyes were opened and they knew they were eirumim.” (3:7) Same root, but in this case the translation is consistently “naked”.

Another point that confused me about the story is the choice of word used for garment when Hashem dresses them. There are a number of such words: “beged”, which is the same root as “bagad”, to spy; “kesus”, a covering… The latter in particular would have been the more obvious choice. They were ashamed of their nudity, so Hashem covered them. However, HQBH chose to call the garments “kasnos or” (v. 21), “leather tunics”. The next time we encounter the concept of a “kusones” is in the garments made for kohanim (Shemos 28:4). Hashem gave Adam and Chavah uniforms, something that implies a mission and a station. This isn’t simply a response to physical nudity.

Our rabbis retold: Yisrael are dear, for HQBH surrounded them with mitzvos; tefillin on their heads, tefillin on their arms, tzitzis on their clothing, and mezuzos on their doorposts. Of these [King] David said, “Seven times a day do I praise You by Your righteous laws.” (Tehillim 119:164). When David went to the bathhouse and saw himself arum, he said: “Woe is me, that I stand arum without a mitzvah.” But when he remembered the milah in his flesh, his mind was set at rest. After he left, he gave song, as it says “For the conductor, on the eighth [lit: an eight-stringed instrument, but intended here to be milah, the eighth mitzvah] a song of praise of David.” (12:1)
- Menachos 43b

To be arum is to have wisdom, but no mitzvos, no higher goal to which to set it. The snake was arum in this sense. The wise person who Hashem frustrates is one who abuses that wisdom, plotting how to do something better off undone.

Chavah and Adam ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and suddenly they realized they were arumim. They realized there is such a thing as having a higher calling as opposed to wasting one’s life in frivolity. No longer was a life of “working and protecting” (c.f. 2″15) the garden sufficient. In full realization of their ability to create, they had a need to produce, to properly channel their knowledge.

Hashem removes them from Gan Eden, from a position where one can live on dependency, and needs only to preserve what was given. Instead, He gives them kusnos or, uniforms for a life of creative service.

The power of speech

I had an epiphany during leining this past Shabbos (parashas Bereishis). Such things are notoriously difficult to convey, but I’ll try anyway.Usually, shmuessin on the subject of shemiras halashon revolve around showing how much power is in speech, how speach is a real “thing”, and has a challos (impact) the world.I realized something, though: It’s the exact reverse! It’s not merely that speech is a real thing, the point is that every real thing is in truth “just” speech! All of creation is “And E-lokim was saying….” Our words have power because words are the more primary ontology, they are more real than, and the source of, objects.

But the name of the city was “Luz” originally

And he [Ya'aqov] called the name of that place Beis-el, but the name of the city was Luz originally.

- Bereishis 28:19

Luz, the original name for Beis-el, is apparently the name of a kind of tree, usually translated “chestnut”. It’s one of the kinds of wood from which Ya’aqov avinu made sticks for the sheep and goats to look at while drinking.

Bereishis Rabba (69:8) discusses the amazing properties of living in the city of Luz:

  • They always told the truth.
  • No one in the city died. When people got old and tired, they needed to move out for nature to take its course.
  • The city was never conquered by Sancheirev, and wasn’t destroyed by Nevuchadnetzar at the end of the first commonwealth. Even though both invaded Luz.
  • Luz is where they made the tekheiles dye.

Luz is also the name of a special bone in the body, where the skull and spine meet. Two medrashim associate the luz bone with Hadrian y”sh. Bereishis Rabba has him trying to grind a luz and failing. There’s a strong parallel to the city of Luz resisting conquest at the end of the first beis hamiqdash, since the Hadrianic persecutions are at the end of the second commonwealth. Second, Qoheles Rabba has Hadrian asking R’ Yehoshua’ ben Chananyah about techiyas hameisim, and RYbC explains that Hashem starts by softening the luz with dew.

(This connection to dew is why the praise of “morid hatal — He Who lowers dew” is in the berakhah of Shemoneh Esrei that ends “Who revives the dead”. It also explains why there is a version in which one says in the summer “morid hatul”, with a qamatz, making it the end of the sentence with “mechayei hameisim”, while in the summer they would say “umorid hageshem” is with two segol’s, connected to “mekhalkeil chaim” — rain being necessary for this life — “bechesed”…)

Luz seems particularly connected with Yaiaqov, the one who renames it. First, his service of G-d centers around emes, truth, the middah exemplified by the citizens of Luz. He uses the luz sticks. And according to the Ben Ish Chai, there is a connection to his father-in-law’s and brother-in-law’s names, as well as his own names/titles.

And the mequbbalim write: There is a bone in a person’s body which receives no benefit from food, except from the se’udah revi’is on Motza’ei Shabbos. And this bone does not disintegrate in the grave. It is called variously “niscoi”, “luz”, and “besu’el”. These three names have the acronym of “lavan”, which are also the final letters of Yisrael, Yaakov and Yeshurun, and from this bone the body will be rebuilt at techiyas hameisim, and this is specifically applied to Israel only, as the pasuk says: “Ve’atem hadeveqim Bashem E-lokeikhem, chayim kulekhem hayom — and you who cleave to Hashem your G-d, you are all alive today”.

- Ben Ish Chai, yr. 2, Bereishis 27

So, given that Luz was renamed Beis-el, why does the gemara and medrash sometime refer to the city as “Luz”? (Particularly when referring to the city in the times of Sancheirev and Nevuchadnetzar, after many years of it being the Kingdom of Israel’s Beis-el.) And what exactly is the common theme here between the tree, the city, the bone and all the people?

The mishnah says “derekh eretz qodmah laTorah — proper behavior in society is a prerequisite to Torah.” Our aggaditos and midrashim seem to converge on underscoring that point. Luz is the city of truth, it has the permanence of truth both territorially and in the lifespans of its inhabitants. And it’s truth, the personality trait about which Yaiaqov centers his service of Hashem, which determines techiyas hameisim. All of these medrashim refer to Luz, to the trait. When referring to applying the pursuit of truth to Torah study or worshipping Hashem, then we progress from Luz to Beis-el.

The stick shows the influence of environment. As does the longevity only imparted when one is actually in the city. Luz, the trait, is not a personal endeavor. (Which raises questions of emes vs. shalom, coordinating truth and peace.)

The bone luz is situated just where the mind connects to the body. It is therefore, in a very real sense, “beis keil”, G-d’s “home” in this world. Ya’aqov builds a circle of stones in which to sleep at this spot, which — as R’ Hirsch notes ad loc — is the first home of Israel. He gets a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, an externalized luz bone between mind and body.

Once one has the foundation of “Luz”, one has the proper personality and attitude to provide some solidity in time and in social context. Then one is capable of building that derekh eretz into Torah, making their soul a house of G-d.

Noach and the Use of Wine

We were discussing on Avodah the origins of the idea of Qiddush. I argued that the notion of celebrating or thanking G-d with wine would seem to be one people would stumble upon naturally, arguing from Noach’s instinct to plant a vineyard.

Rn Toby Katz noted that I was making an unsupported assumption:

“Celebrating”? as Noach celebrating the “human condition” of having almost everyone you know dead in a world-wide catastrophe, and desperately wanting to escape the pain and grief of it all?

Interesting question: Was Noach drinking to forget, or to thank G-d for being saved? I really just assumed the latter. But looking at the context, I can see why I did so.Here is the sequence. Noach:
- gets off the ark,
- brings olos (entirely consumed offerings) thanking Hashem for being saved, and
- enters into a covenant with HQBH.

This covenant ends with “peru urevu … umora’akhem vechitekhem” (a repetition of the blessing to Adam to be fruitful, multiply, and dominate the creatures of the earth). In
short, the attention is firmly on rebuilding a future. As it is the introduction to the story about Noach getting drunk, where Hashem again lists those who left the ark, and introduces Kenaan.

So that explains why my mind went in that direction.

Looking at Rashi to answer this question, I also noticed the following:

Rashi makes a point of telling you that Kenaan is introduced because this story explains the root of Kenaan’s cursed state. Notice that it all starts with wine.

In saying Noach returned to his tent, the word “ohaloh” is oddly spelled with a final hei rather than ending with a vav to complete a full cholam, the usual suffix for “his”. Rashi tells us this is a reference to the 10 Shevatim, who were also called Ahalah — after the Shomeron. (A nickname for the Northern Kingdom that finds its way into Yom Kippur’s Qinos.) And why? Because the 10 Shevatim were lead astray through grape – “hashosim bemizreqei yayim — who drink wine from bowls and annoint themselves with the first of the oils, but are not pained by the downfall of Yosef (Amos 6:6)”.

There would seem to be an implied undercurrent of the 10 Tribes being accused of assimilating the attitude toward wine their Canaanite neighbors picked up from / demonstrated in this story.

And, judging from Amos, the problem with wine that Rashi is focusing on when explicating the story of Noach is inappropriate revelry.

Shemittah

( You will notice that this entry is pretty much straight lomdus rather than my usual fare. When I wrote Rafi’s bar mitzvah speech, I ran overly long. Here is an even longer earlier edition, but one that is more complete in covering my thoughts on the subject. -mi)

In parashas Behar (25:18), it says:

“Vesapharta lekha sheva` shabasos shanim sheva` shanim sheva` pe`amim vehayu lekha yemei sheva` shabasos hashanim teisha vi’arbai`im shanah.”

“And you shall count for yourself seven sabbaths of years seven years seven times and i shall be for you the days of the seven sabbaths of years 49 years.”

The Torah here is discussing the mitzvah of Yovel, of the Jubilee year. The word “yovel” refers to the blast of the shofar which is blown on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year. In that year, any land that was divided by Joshua amongst the tribes is returned to the family that it was allotted to. Also, in the yovel year, all slaves are freed.

Yovel only applies when “kol yosheveha aleha — all of Israel’s inhabitants live on it”. Only when the majority of all 12 tribes and Levi are living within their ancestral borders — again, as Yehoshu’a divided them — does Yovel apply. There has not been a Yovel since the fall of the Kingdom of Israel, or perhaps even since the tribes in Transjordan were exiled, in the first Temple period.

The Torah is being pretty wordy, and that isn’t its normal style. Usually, the Torah will use the fewest words possible to get the idea across. Extra words imply extra, not obvious, ideas.

The Torah tells us that there is a mitzvah to count the number of years between two yovelos, two jubilee years. But why does Hashem spell out that we should count 7 cycles of seven years, and then again to count 49 years? Do we need Hashem to tell us that seven times seven is forty-nine? Can’t we do the math ourselves?

When it comes to the mitzvah of counting omer, the Torah uses similar terms. Omer is a special grain sacrifice brought during this time of year, every day from the 2nd day of Pesach, of Passover, until Shavuos. During this period there is also an obligation to count out 49 days. For example, last night we said, in Hebrew, “Today is 42 days which is 6 weeks in the omer.” There are two parts, counting 42 days, and counting 6 weeks.

For counting omer, the Torah in Vayikra (23:15) says:

“Vesafartem lachem mimocharas hashabas miyom havi’achem es omer hatenufah sheva` shabasos temimos tihyenah. Ad mimacharas hashabas hashevi`is, tisperu chamishim yom.”

“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the day of rest, from the day you bring the raised omer offering it shall be seven whole weeks until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days”.

The two are very similar, but we can also see some subtle differences.

The first is that by omer the Torah speaks in the plural — “vesafartem” is “and you shall count” when “you” means many people. By our pasuq, by yovel, the word is “vesaphrta”, “and you will count” speaking to only one “you”.

This is because the mitzvah of counting for yovel isn’t on each and every Jew, the way omer is. Each of us count omer. Each person needs to prepare themselves for Shavuos, for reliving getting the Torah. Yovel is one mitzvah for the entire Jewish people as a whole. The one “you” counting the years toward yovel is the nation.

Since we can’t all count together, Sanhedrin has the obligation to count as the representatives of Benei Yisra’el.

The Hapanim Yafos says that the reason why the math is spelled out by yovel is for the same reason as by omer. We learn from the pasuq by omer that we need to count both 49 days and seven weeks. As we said there are two parts to the count. Similarly when Sanhedrin would count the years toward yovel, they would have to count that it was “the 39th year” as well as being “the 5th cycle of 7 years, the 4th year of that cycle”.

There is a mitzvah that comes in cycles of 7 years, one that we just started, called shemittah. In the seventh year, the shemittah year, farmers in Israel are not permitted to work the land. The land of Israel rests. Also, in that year, all loans are forgiven.

The Torah is combining the mitzvos of shemittah and yovel, of the sabbatical and jubilee years. In fact, it is the opinion of Rebbe (given in the Yerushalmi, Shevi`is, 10:2) that whenever one does not apply, neither does the other. Since there is no yovel, shemittah today can not be the real mitzvah. We observe it only as a commemoration, to keep the mitzvah alive until we do once again live in Israel.

When Rebbe’s opinion appears in the Talmud Bavli, though, it is cited as part of a disagreement. Rebbe still says that shemittah today is not the biblical mitzvah, but his peers, the other rabbis, say that it is. That even without yovel, the Torah’s idea of shemittah still stands.

The later sages, Abayei and Rava, are quoted in the Talmud in three places trying to explain various rulings about shemittah in light of this debate. As we will see, Abayei’s position is quite clear — he assumes that the law is like Rebbe, that shemittah isn’t the biblical shemittah, and therefore one can take some leniencies. Rava’s isn’t as straightforward.

The first of these discussions is in Moed Katan 2b. There the mishnah says that one may water a fields that is on a slope, and must be watered manually, during the shemittah year. The gemara asks how this is permissible — how is one permitted to tend a field by watering it during shemittah? Abayei answers that the mishnah is like Rebbe. This wouldn’t be too surprising, since Rebbe is the one who compiled the entire structure of Mishnah, including this one. But this means that the mishnah permits watering a field on the side of a mountain because it assumes that shemittah today isn’t real shemittah.

Rava says that one can even say that the mishnah goes like the Rabbanan, the rabbis other than Rebbe, who say that shemittah is from the Torah even today. However, the Torah only prohibited the av, the actual kind of tending one’s field as framed for the laws of resting on Shabbos. Shemittah does not include any tolados, other derivatives of the same basic idea that are close enough for Shabbos to prohibit. What is being permitted in the mishnah is only one of these tolados, derivatives.

Note that Rava doesn’t actually say that he holds like the other sages. It is possible that he personally rules that shemittah is no longer the biblical shemittah. However, in explaining the mishnah, he can understand the mishnah even without assuming its author agrees.

The second gemara is in Gitin (36b). This gemara should help us understand Rava’s position.

In Gitin, the gemara asks about the justification for the law of “pruzbul“. As we said, normally all loans end at shemittah, and can’t be collected any more. Hillel enacted a kind of loophole, called pruzbul. It’s a contract, by which the loan is handed over to the court and thereby there is no one person who is obligated to annul the loan. In this way, people would still be willing to lend money to those who need it — even late in the sixth year. If they need to collect on the loan, they can write up a pruzbul and still collect.

The gemara asks how Hillel could have enacted pruzbul — doesn’t is defy a major point of shemittah?

And again Abayei appeals to Rebbe’s idea to explain the leniency. Since this isn’t the biblical shemittah, Hillel is not overriding the Torah. Maybe we can explain Abayei’s idea further by suggesting that since shemittah today is a commemoration, one remembers the Torah’s mitzvah when he does the pruzbul, and that’s enough.

The gemara continues and asks: but still, you’re overriding an earlier Rabbinic enactment. Even with our suggested reasoning behind his ruling, how does Hillel have the authority to do override an earlier and greater court?

Rava provides an answer, but we’re not sure which question he’s answering: the original one — how can Hillel override shemittah? Or the later one — how can he override even rabbinic shemittah?

According to Rashi, Rava answers the original question. In other words, he is starting from ground zero, that shemittah isn’t necessarily from the rabbis. Instead Rava assumes that shemittah is from the Torah even today, and uses a different principle. Hefker beis din hefker — something a court declares ownerless is ownerless. One once they make it ownerless, they can give it to someone else. So, they can make the borrowed money ownerless and hand it back to the lender. And on those grounds, he justifies pruzbul.

In other words, Rashi says that Rava does hold like the other Rabbis, that the Torah’s shemittah applies even today.

Tosafos disagree with Rashi. They say he is coming to answer the second question and he is adding to Abayei’s answer. They say that even according to Rava, the law is like Rebbe, and we assume shemittah is NOT biblical.

Rava is answering how Hillel can overturn the earlier sages, those who said we should continue to observe shemittah as a commemoration. He says that Hillel doesn’t override them. Instead, the court is using its power to hand money from one person to another.

Tosafos therefore have no later sage who upholds the opinion that shemittah today is from the Torah, so they clearly rule that it isn’t.

But, Rashi makes this out to be a debate between Abayei and Rava as well. Abayei, like Rebbe, says that shemittah is only a commemoration; while Rava, like the other Rabbis of Rebbe’s day, says that the original Torah law still applies.

However, Rashi states his own position when explaining a third gemara. Sanhedrin (25a) again questions a leniency about shemittah. The Romans levied a new tax, and R’ Yanai allowed sowing during shemittah so that people could pay it in the seventh year too. Rashi there assumes that the law is Rabbinic, and R’ Yannai rules that they never imposed such a costly commemoration. Much like Abayei’s explanation of why one can water a field that is sloped.

In contrast to Rashi and Tosafos, the Ramban comments on Gitin, the gemara on pruzbul, that shemittah is from the Torah even today. After all, this is the majority opinion against Rebbe, and we almost always rule like the majority. This is also the opinion of the 19th century responsa of the Beis Haleivi and the Netziv.

On the other hand, the Me’iri on that gemara in Gitin is MORE lenient than anyone else we mentioned so far. He says that not only isn’t the mitzvah from the Torah, there isn’t even a rabbinic mitzvah of shemittah today! During the 2nd Temple period, a rabbinic yovel was observed. The Me’iri understands Rebbe to say that when that rabbinic yovel existed, there was also a rabbinic shemittah. However, today shemittah is only a minhag chassidus, a nice custom, not a halachah.

All this helps us understand our opening pasuq from the Torah. We are told to count “sheva` shabasos shanim” — seven sabbaths, shemittos, of years, because shemittah is inherently connected to yovel.

Perhaps we can go one step further. There is a debate in Eiruchin (24b) as to when the eighth shemittah ought to be. Should it be seven years after the previous shemittah, like the weeks, going by sevens forever? Or, do we not count the yovel year toward the seven for shemittah?

In the first opinion, given by R’ Yehudah, one yovel could be the year after the seventh shemittah. But the next shemittah will be only SIX years after that. So that by the time you get to the 50th year the next time around, it will be the SECOND year after shemittah. Yovel‘s place within the shemittah cycle will drift.

Going back to the two quotes from the Torah at the beginning of this devar Torah, this is actually closer to counting omer. Omer too we are told to count 7 weeks, but we don’t mean starting on Sunday and keeping the weeks of omer in sync with the weeks of omer counting. Even though the word used in the Torah for week was “shabbasos” — Sabbaths. Instead, it is merely 7 period of 7 days. Whatever day of the week that period might end on.

So, when it says by yovel shabbasos shanim — Sabbaths of years” it doesn’t mean 7 Sabbaticals, but merely 7 cycles of 7.

The second opinion would not count yovel toward the shemittah cycle. The first shemittah of every yovel would therefore be the 7th year of the yovel. Instead of shemittah being an independent cycle of 7 years, it is set up as the 7th, 14th, 21st and so on in the yovel cycle. Shemittah and Yovel are parts of the same cycle.

We could suggest a reason based on the opinion of Rebbe. He makes shemittah dependent on yovel because they are parts of one bigger picture. Which is why they’re on the same cycle.

Looking at it the other way, if you say that yovel doesn’t count toward the shemittah cycle, what happens to shemittah when there is no Yovel? Because yovel isn’t skipped, shemittah is in a different pattern than it used to be. Which fits Rebbe, who says it’s only commemorative.

In which case, we can answer one last question. The Ramban rules that shemittah is still a Torah law, following the principle of ruling like the majority. How then can anyone else rule otherwise?

However, in the debate about whether to count yovel amongst the 7 years toward shemittah, it was the majority who said that one should not. That majority would therefore say that shemittah today, being every 7th year with no exceptions, is not the same as the original mitzvah. It is not Rebbe’s opinion alone.

Whatever the status is today, may we observe the next shemittah because of the Torah law; with the mitzvah of yovel restored because the people of Israel will have returned to our homes.

Yisrael, Yaaqov and Beis Yaaqov

Someone asked on soc.culture.jewish:

Today in my Women In Hebrew Bible class we talked about how Yaakov (Jacob) was renamed Yisrael (Israel). This was a way of redeeming him of all his past trickery. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Yaakov. He is, after all, my favorite Patriarch. But he was quite a sneaky fellow in his young life….

She then repeats the argument that it was therefore appropriate that the institution was called “Beis Yaakov” rather than “Beis Yisrael”, since they had to trick the guys into letting them have an education. First, I can’t help but note the sad state of education this represents. I hope it is not typical of what goes on as non-Orthodox adult education. But to get to the point…

Here’s my reply, from the same forum. Others already quoted the pasuq “ko somar leveis Yaaqov vesagid livnei Yisrael — so you shall say to the House of Jacob, and instruct the Children of Israel”, which our Sages (as quoted by Rashi) interpret as gently telling (tomar) the women (Beis Yaaqov) and using “words as tough as sinews (gidin)” (tagid) to the men (Benei Yisrael). So I began simply by summarizing the point.

The sages understood the term “vesomeir leveis Yaaqov” as a commandment to Moses to teach something to the women of his generation. Seems like a pretty solid argument.

Then, in reply to the last sentence quoted in particular:

In much the same way Abraham had to go through the Aqeida (the Binding of Isaac). Jacob’s natural inclination was to be honest, a deep pursuit of truth. As the prophet begs, “Give truth to Jacob, lovingkindness to Abraham, as You promised in days of old.” Look how Isaac’s fatherly blindness kept him from seeing Esau’s faults. In comparison to Javob, who identified the strength and uniqueness of each of his sons, and blessed (or cautioned) each accordingly. Might be why Jacob produced 12 keepers of the covenant, whereas Abraham and Isaac each failed with one of their sons. (But did Abraham fail? Ishmael, in the end, repented. But only after mis-raising his own children.)

Israel is the name of the Image of Man carved on the Divine Throne (as described in Ezekiel). After their all-night battle the angel calls Jacob “Israel”, meaning the one on the course spiritually upward, on the road toward that idealization. (And the human ideal is a road, not a final state…)

The renaming is not the redemption of a trickster, but G-d acknowledging that Jacob broke through that level, passed the test, and was ready to establish the Kingdom of Priests.

If anything, calling a girl’s school “Beis Yaakov” would imply that they are teaching a group of potential Images of G-d, who are still the custom there. works in progress. Pretty much true for any school.