Baal Nefesh Yachmir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texualism and the Mishnah Berurah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pesach, Matzah, Maror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the Middle Matzah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Units of Measure

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

What are we trying to compute?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Way to Compute a Historical KeZayis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raba Got Up and Slaughtered Rav Zeira

Rava’s position in the gemara is famous:

רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

Rava obligated people to drink on Purim until he would not know between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordachai”.

- Megillah 7b

This is the law as recorded in the Shulchan Arukh (O”Ch 695:2) , although his other work, the Beis Yoseif, does explore other opinions. Those who can’t believe that it could possibly be Jewish to get that drunk offer other explanations. E.g. the Rambam’s position is that one should drink until they fall asleep, at which time they are unaware of the distinction between Haman and Mordachai. The Mei’iri maintains the literal meaning, but warns that the obligation not to make a fool of oneself and of the Torah overrides this obligation; it only applies to people who can maintain self-control.  The Rama (O”Ch ad loc) writes that the obligation is simply to drink more than usual.

Another possibility which sets the required amount of drink quite low is offered by the Marahil, who notes that in gematrai, “arur Haman” and “barukh Mordachai” are equal, both come to 502. The Maharil suggests that the obligation is to get too drunk to do the math.

Along similar lines, I would point out that the distinction that is to get blurred isn’t between Haman and Mordachai, but between cursing Haman and blessing Mordachai. Between knowing when to attack evil and when to build good. Which is pretty hard to know even when sober!

But what happens in all these explanations to the words of the gemara?

What is often omitted is the rest of the discussion of this obligation. The gemara continues:

רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי איבסום קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה לשנה אמר ליה ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי אמר ליה לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא

Raba and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim meal together. They got drunk. Raba got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, [Raba] begged for [Divine] Mercy, and [Rabbi Zeira] came to life.

A year later, [Rabba] said to him, “Come, master, and we will make a Purim meal together.”

He said to him, “Not every time will we experience a miracle.”

A cautionary tale, Rava’s is not the final word on the subject.

There are some hints that more is going on here. Rabba’s name means “large” or “great”. “Zeira” is Aramaic for “young” (c.f. Hebrew “tza’ir“) or “small”.

Rav Elyakim Getzel Levitan, the Maggid of Brisk, (cited in Kehilas Yitzchak by R Yitzchok Reitbard, in Pirchei Nisan to Parashas Mikeitz) cites a number of sources to show the personalities of these two amora’im. (R’ Levitan says that Chavos Yair 152 speaks about this. I didn’t have a chance to look it up, and I wanted to post this before Purim. Kehilas Yitzchak directs us to Hagahos R’ Shaul Katzenelenbogen, Berachos 30b, which is printed in the Vilna Shas. it’s worth looking up.)

Shabbos 30b says that Rabbah would begin every shiur with a milsa dibedichusa, a humorous and entertaining thought. As for R’ Zeira, Niddah 23a has R Yirmiyah trying to cheer him up, and Sanhedrin 59b has R Avahu calling him by the name of a bird with a mournful dispoition.

In addition to the sources provided by the Maggid of Brisk, there is also a story in which Rabbah makes a man (presumably a golem) and sends it as a gift to R’  Zeira (Sanhedrin 65b). When Rabbi Zeira spoke to it and it wouldn’t answer, R’ Zeira realized it was made by a sage and told it to return to dust. In another gemara (Berakhos 57a), we are told that Rabbi Zeira moved to Israel from Bavel after being told in a dream that his sins were forgiven. First he took efforts to forget the Babylonian mode of study. Then R’ Zeira went in such haste, “to obtain a blessing denied Moshe and Aharon”, he crossed the Jordan by foot without taking the time to change out of his clothes!

To generalize, then, the gemara draws Rabba as a cheerful teacher who tried to share his joy of life with his students, as well as with R’ Zeira. Rabbi Zeira, at least at the time Rabbah knew him in Bavel, as a sad person (perhaps he lived in the shadow of belief that he was an undeserving sinner).

One was “Rabba – Great” the other “Rabbi Zeira — the smaller rabbi”.

Perhaps a reference to the ideas of Gadlus haMochin and Qatnus haMochin. (Hat tip to Dr Alan Morinis for introducing me to these concepts. Any mis-presentation, though, would be due to my trying to understand the ideas while coming from a fundamentally different upbringing. As you shall see, my presentation draws from my YU-based upbringing, and is therefore not necessarily loyal to the more chassidic worldview from which is comes.)

Gadlus haMochin, literally: Greatness of Mind, is the entire mindset that breeds self-confidence, security. In Modern Orthodox parlance, it is Adam I — the last element in Bereishis ch. 1′s description of creation, ready and confident that he can recreate the world and conquer it. Qatnus haMochin is more Adam II. The Adam of chapter 2 is lonely and seeks companionship, reaches out in need to the A-lmighty. Gadlus haMochin strives to understand G-d, Qatnus haMochin is the intimate experience of Him that comes so readily in times of trouble. Gadlus serves through ahavah and yir’as haRomemus (love of G-d and awe of His Greatness), qatnus through yir’as ha’onesh and yir’as hacheit (fear of punishment or fear of the failing of the sin itself). Returning to Rav Soloveichik’s language — advance and retreat. “Yes I can!” and “Yeah, but…”

Rabba served G-d through gadlus hamochin, constantly looking at the joyous possibilities. Rabbi Zeira, at least in Bavel, served through qatnus, through caution, taking each step as though looking for possible land-mines. (Perhaps this is why Rabbi Zeira took efforts to forget his former mode of thought as part of his aliyah to Israel.)

Think of the worse curse we can think for someone. In the weekday Amidah we curse those who slander and work against the community. Who thereby endanger other Jews. (Actually, the earlier version was against apostates;
but many historians believe that in both cases the reference was to the early Christians who were willing to endanger the rest of us in order to endear themselves to the Romans. Not that it helped keep them from being fed to the lions.)

So here we are, cursing turncoats and apostates, and what’s the horrible fate we foresee G-d meting out to them? “And for the informers, let there be no hope.”

There is a famous notion in the gemara “nichnas yayin, yatza sod — wine enters, secrets (or: the foundations) go out” (Eiruvin 65a). Rabba drank wine, and out came his fundamental cheerfulness. Rabbi Zeira drank wine, and he got enmired in hopelessness.

Rav Zeira imbibed wine, and out came his fundamental pessimism. He lost hope. He was slain.

Taanis 22a tells the story of how Rav Beroqa of Benei Chuza’a (perhaps: from among the seers) would go to the market of Lapat and meet Eliyahu haNavi. One time he asked the prophet if anyone in the market was deserving of the World To Come. The prophet said no. (Rabbi Aqiva Eiger understands this gemara to mean that none were deserving before going through the trials and atonement of death.)

In the course of other encounters, Eliyahu pointed out a jailer who kept the men and women separate, and would dress as a non-Jew to get information back to the Jewish people. (Note the contrast to the aforementioned turncoats.)

The story ends with Eliyahu pointing to two brothers who happened just then to pass by. Rav Beroqa approached the men and asked what they did for a living. They explained they they were jesters, their job was to cheer up unhappy people and to heal disagreements between people.

There is a time for Qatnus haMochin, for caution, for “yeah-but”, for facing our troubles and seeking Hashem’s support — but not Purim. The happiness that comes from hope, from focusing on opportunity, is an essential element of the day. The smoothing over of past grievances, the unity and happiness of mishloach manos. What is Purim about if not the story of redemption from invisible and unexpected places?

And so, a person is obligated to drink on Purim, but only if he is Rabba, where wine will bring out the joys of potential. Rav Zeira should follow the Rama’s advise, and spend the afternoon napping, in a vacation from his worries. Barukh Mordachai and Arur Haman.

Let me leave you with this litmus test for which approach to take:

If you find yourself reaching for a drink to celebrate Purim, drink, it’s a mitzvah!
But if you find yourself celebrating Purim because it’s a license to drink, don’t!

(For the curious: In Ben Asher, the mesoretic text considered more authoritative, the name is written “מָרְדֳּכַ֗י”, with a chataf qamatz under the dalet. For that reason I transliterated it “Mordachai”, with an “a” after the “d”, not the more common “Mordechai”. In any case, the first vowel is a qamatz qatan, closer to the long /ō/ sound of a cholam than the usual qamatz.)

For the Jews, There Was Light

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂן וִיקָר.

For the Jews, there was light, happiness, joy and preciousness.

קִיְּמוּ וקבל [וְקִבְּלוּ] הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל זַרְעָם וְעַל כָּל הַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת שְׁנֵי הַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה כִּכְתָבָם וְכִזְמַנָּם בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה.

The Jews established and accepted upon themselves, on their descendents, and on all those who join them, so that it would not fail, to make these two days as they were written and according to their times every year.

Purim as Part of the Jewish Year

The three upcoming holidays — Purim, Pesach and Shavuos — have each been compared to holidays in Tishrei.

The Gemara notes that Yom Kippur, or, as the Torah calls it, Yom haKippurim, could be read as “The day which is like Purim”. It is kind of hard to see how the day where one is required to “suppress your nefesh” can be compared to the day where “one is obligated to drink until one can not distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai”. Yet, the Gemara invites such a comparison .

Similarly, many of the laws of matzah and sukkah are derived by comparing Sukkos and Pesach. The grounds for this is the hermeneutical rule of “gezeira shava“, which is usually a comparison of two things described in the Torah by similar terminology. In this case it is the fact that both are on the 15th of their respective months that invites the comparison.

Last, the gemara consistently refers to Shavuos as Atzeres, whereas Shmini Atzeres is qualified as Atzeres HaChag, the Atzeres of Succos.

We can therefor look at the fall yamim tovim, and how they are structured, and learn something about their spring parallels.

Yom Kippur and Shmini Atzeres share a theme. On Yom Kippur we are judged to determine our fate for the next year. On Shmini Atzeres, the rain, and by extension our finances, are decided. (See Taanis 2b, where the “key to rain” is given as the source of all fiscal blessing.) One could think of Shmini Atzeres as a reprisal of the theme introduced by Yom Kippur. Sandwiched between them is Succos, presenting the mirror image of the same idea. Instead of focusing on earning sustenance, on Succos we celebrate those things Hashem already gave us.

By parallel, we see how Pesach and Shavuos present opposite side of the same idea. On Shavuos we focus on assuming the responsibility of getting and keeping the Torah. On Pesach, we celebrate the special providence Hashem gives us as Jews.

Purim and Accepting the Torah

This would mean that to find the theme to Purim, we should look at how it would fit into the same pattern, how it shares the theme of Shavuos.

“And they [Bnei Yisrael] stood under the mountain [Sinai]” (Shemos 19) — R. Avdimi bar Chama bar Chisa said, “This teaches that Hakadosh Baruch Hu flipped the mountain [Sinai] over them [Bnei Yisrael], like a barrel, and said, ‘If you accept the Torah, good, and if not, there will be your graves.’” R. Acha bar Yaakov said, “This provides a major complaint against the Torah.” Rava said, “Even so, the [whole] generation accepted it in the days of Achashveiros. For it says (Esther 9), “the Jews fulfilled and accepted”, they fulfilled that which they had already accepted.
Shabbos 88b

What the Jews accepted by force in the desert, was finally accepted willingly. Just as Yom Kippur is the complete judgment, and Shmini Atzeres is only a part, Purim represents the completion of what was started at Shavuos.

There are also textual parallels between the two acceptances of the Torah. At Har Sinai, we said “na’aseh venishmah — we will do, and we will listen.” Counterintuitively, we’re placing obedience to the mitzvos before listening to what they are. Similarly, “qiymu beqibelu haYhudim – the Jews fulfilled and accepted”, also placing the fulfillment of the mitzvah before accepting it. Both phrasings reflect the idea that Torah is “heard” by being performed. We internalize Hashem’s Will more by doing the mitzvah than by studying its laws in the abstract.

Second, at Har Sinai, we all stood as one. “וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל, נֶגֶד הָהָר — and Israel camped there, opposite the mountain.” (Shemos 19:2) Chazal note there that “vayichan — camped” is written there in the singular, and comment “like one person, with one heart.” In our verse in Esther too, “veqiblu — accepted” is read in the plural, but is actually written in the megillah in the singular — “veqibeil“!

Purim and Esther

“Where is Esther in the Torah? (Devarim 31) ‘I will hide in hiding (hasteir astir) My Face’.” (Chullin 139b).

This question is particularly valid since when Esther is introduced in the megillah (2:7) we are told her real name is Haddasah (cf Tr. Megillah 13a). Even further, Esther is the name of a pagan goddess. In all likelihood, like many American Jews today, Esther had two names, a religious name of Haddasah, and a legal name of Esther. This is consistent with the fact that we brought back with us from the same exile month names that are clearly pagan in origin. So why is does the megillah choose the name Esther?

A major theme of Purim is the fact that Hashem’s role is hidden, there are no overt miracles, just a steady string of what looks like fortuitous coincidences. Hashem is never named in the megillah. The Yom Tov is named after the lots Haman threw to choose a day, and ended up choosing a date as far ahead in the year as possible.

The book and the queen are called Esther because it brings to mind a pun, and recalls the promise that Hashem will never abandon us as a punishment, but merely hide.

But what about Purim and its relationship to Shavuos? Didn’t we say that the primary theme should be the acceptance of Torah that started at Shavuos?

Torah in a Mundane World

Purim happened at a critical time in Jewish history. The last people who remembered the miracles of the first Beis haMiqdash were already old and dying. Until Moshiach, we won’t see fire descend from the sky to consume the karbanos, the scarlet wool turn white on Yom Kippur, the Urim veTumim, light up prophetically. The last of the prophets (until the return of Eliyahu) were aged. Tzoraas no longer punished those who spoke lashon hara. But until then, all these miracles occured. And as in seifer Shofetim, the cycle of military threat followed by teshuvah followed by a shofeit and military success followed by contentment followed by sin which in turn motivates Hashem to provide the next military threat. This knowledge that acting badly will definitely get punished is — or at least should have been — compelling.

There is a famous gemara:

“And they [Bnei Yisrael] stood under the mountain [Sinai]” (Shemos 19) — R. Avdimi bar Chama bar Chisda said, “This teaches that HaQadosh Baruch Hu flipped the mountain [Sinai] over them [Bnei Yisrael], like a barrel, and said, ‘If you accept the Torah, good, and if not, there will be your graves.’”

R. Acha bar Yaakov said, “This provides a major complaint against the Torah.” Rava said, “Even so, the [whole] generation accepted it in the days of Achashveiros. For it says (Esther 9), “the Jews fulfilled and accepted”, they fulfilled that which they had already accepted.

Shabbos 88b

The Meshech Chokhmah (introduction to Shemos) explains that what the gemara means is that while the threat of punishment for sinning was tangible it was as if the mountain was held over their heads. And even so, the moment they came out from under the mountain, when they are bid to “return to your tents” (Devarim 5:27), they returned to the hum-drum world and that feeling that observance is self-evidence subsided. (In the Meshekh Chokhmah’s thought, free-willed observance is the ultimate purpose of existence. He therefore explains this gemara with a strong interest in explaining that free-will was not compromised.)

Then came Purim, with the appearance of happenstance, of Hester Panim, the Hidden Face. The Jewish people were taught a new way to relate to G-d. And the reaction — “the Jews fulfilled and accepted”. A new level of Torah observance was reached, one of trust and faith instead of miracle and prophecy.

Being Jewish

The exile to Bavel after the first Beis Hamiqdash was attributed to many things; one of the less intuitive (and therefore more discussed) reasons given was that they didn’t make a berakhah before learning Torah. What was so terrible? This period had problems with idolatry, with oppression of the poor and weak, and the destruction is being blamed on people who were even learning Torah?! In one way this makes sense. If even the righteous weren’t up to standard, who would the rest of the generation look up to? Who would motivate their change? But only up to a point; this lack of berakhah still doesn’t seem like a destruction-worthy flaw, even in the leadership.

The megillah is the first book to refer to us as Yehudim, Yidden, Jews. Even Mordechai, an “ish yemini“, from the tribe of Binyamin, is called a Yehudi. This new usage of the word was because the Jewish people now included only survivors of the Kingdom of Yehudah (Judea). The name “Yehudah” is itself significant. It comes from Leah’s words upon naming her son, “This time I will thank — odeh — Hashem.” It is no coincidence that shaped history to give us this name. We are a people of thanking. The first words out of our lips every morning are “Modeh ani lefanekha” thanking Hashem for allowing us to wake up. Rav Saadia Gaon (Emunos veDei’os 3:1) and the Chovos haLvavos (sec 2, intro.) hold that the driving force behind mitzvos is the recognition of the good Hashem bestows upon us.

“When Adar enters, we increase our simchah.” What is “simchah“?

Rav Dovid Lifshitz would have us hang a banner in the beis medrash that followed that quote with two more. “Ein simchah elah Torah — there is no [true] simchah except that of Torah.” “Vekhol hamarbeh harei zeh meshubach — and whoever does more, he is praiseworthy.”

There are three stories (Sanhedrin 101a) in which Rabbi Aqiva seems to laugh at an inappropriate time. First, when he, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and Rabbi Yehoshua were walking on the road, and they heard the revelry and idolatry of the Roman army loud enough to be heard from a distance from 120 mil. They mourned — Jerusalem is in tatters, and the Romans thrive? And Rabbi Aqiva laughed — if this is the good Hashem gives the idolater, how much more awaits the righteous! Second, when they saw a fox leaving the place of the Holy of Holies, the other rabbis cried — isn’t this the place about which the Torah says “and the stranger who enters shall die” and foxes play there? And Rabbi Aqiva laughed — this is the fulfillment of the prophecy, which means that the prophecies of redemption shall too come to pass. When Rabbi Eliezer became ill, they went to visit him. The other rabbis were pained — we see a veritable Torah scroll in agony, can we not share it? And Rabbi Aqiva laughed — now I see that my rebbe is receiving his punishment in this world, and his reward still awaits him in the World-to-Come.R’ Saadia Gaon observed that laughter is the reaction people have to a sudden realization of an underlying truth. And so, when R’ Akiva suddenly saw the deeper truth, he laughed. R’ Saadia adds that “simchah” is the kind of happiness associated with laughter.”When Adar enters, we increase our simchah.” Purim is the story of G-d working behind the scenes, through natural forces, to redeem the Jews. That’s the time when one feels simchah, insight into the deeper truth.

And that’s the time one feels hoda’ah, thankfulness. It’s only through that inner truth that one sees the greatness in G-d allowing us to wake up, rather than taking it for granted. If you don’t even think about the marvel of having air to breate, you can’t thank G-d for giving us air! That’s why it’s at Purim that we’re first called “Yehudim“.

Seeing the Light

Toward the end of the exile to Bavel we have the story of Purim. At this point, Megillas Esther tells us “laYhudim haysa orah visimchah visason viykar — for the Jews there was light, happiness, joy and preciousness.” Rabbi Yehudah (Megillah 13b) explains that orah (light) refers to Torah, simchah (happiness) is Yom Tov, sason (joy) is beris milah, and yeqar (preciousness) is tefillin.

(Without the other four terms to provide contrast and specificity to the words “Torah” and “simchah”, they take on broader meaaning. Torah would include holidays, milah and tefillin — were we not given the Torah we wouldn’t have had any of them. And simchah would mean positive attitude in general, including light, joy and preciousness. “There is no simchah but Torah” is speaking in that broader sense.)

So why didn’t the megillah simply say “for the Jews there were Torah, holidays, milah and tefillin. Why the code words?

In the first beis hamiqdash we had Torah, but it was not or to us. This is why the berakhah was not made. We observed the laws of Yom Tov, but found no simcha in it. We kept milah and wore tefillin, but with no joy or sense of preciousness. This basic misdirection, that halakhah was fulfilled as a duty, not a love, was what made the leadership unable to direct the masses.

Rav Levi Yitzchaq, the Barditshiver Rebbe, writes in Qedushas Levi that this change even impacted how the Torah was written. It seems that the gemara’s conclusion (Sanhedrin 21a-22b) is that until Ezra’s day, the holy script was not in mass use among Jews. It was used in the first luchos, but not the second. (Aside from the script also being a reward to Ashur, the forefather of Assyria, for not participating in the Tower of Bavel, and thus is the Assyrian script.) In this generation, Torah was restored to Ashuris script. It was with the generation that saw G-d’s Presence in the mundane that was ready to see Hashem’s Word even in the limitations of specific shapes.

With Purim, with the simcha of seeing the deeper truth rather than the explicit reward-and-punishment of the First Temple era, Torah took on a deeper life. We experienced the message of the berakhah, “Who chose us from among the nations and gave us His Torah” thereby correcting the flaw that lead to the exile, and started the process of redemption. With the opening berakhah of commitment, Torah provides light, gratitude and happiness.

LaYhudim haysa orah visimchah visason viykar, kein tihyeh lanu” — so may it be for us!

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂן וִיקָר.

Eilu va’Eilu part II

[Updated 1/9/2014. The story so far: In part I I gave a survey of opinions from rishonim discussed in essays by RM Halbertal and Rav Michael Rosensweig.]
RMHalbertal spelled out three approaches to machloqes: (1) retreival — all machloqes are about recovering forgotten laws, attributed to many ge’onim; (2) accumulative — Torah is built analytically, which means different people can reach different legitimate conclusions (eg the Rambam); (3) constitutive — the halakhah is constructed by the poseiq.
As I noted in the last section, I am not sure the latter two categories are necessarily different. But in any case, the Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 4:1, vilna 21a-b) seems to assume at least one of them:

Rabbi Yanai says, had the Torah been given clear-cut [predecided] there would be no place for the leg to stand. What is the source, “Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe leimor — and Hashem spoke to Moshe to say”.

Usually this is taken to mean “… saying”. But it can also, and perhaps more grammatically, taken to mean that Hashem told Moshe and the sages to say something. The verse implies rabbinic development of the initial revelation. Continuing:

[Moshe] said before Him: Master of the world! Please let me know how the halakhah should be.
[Hashem] said to him: “Follow after the majority. It the majority find merit, then merit, if the majority obligate [either a duty or a punishment], obligate him. So that the Torah is expounded 49 ways tamei and 49 ways tahor. From where do you know [the number]? It is the number [of the gematria], “vediglo” [and His flag].
Similarly [Tehillim 12:7] says, “The words of Hashem are tahor words, as silver tried in a crucible on the earth, refined seven times.” And [Shir haShirim 1:4], “they love Him meisharim — sincerely.”

As the Penei Moshe explains, the verse in Tehillim is taken as proof of the 49 ways by being read as “seven times seven”. And Shir haShirim is cited to find balance, meisharim, through the conflicting opinions. The Yershalmi is advocating a dialectic approach, in which the Torah’s truth is in the process as much or more than the conclusion.

But in any case, the entire discussion starts from and elaborates on Rabbi Yanai’s idea that the Torah does not give one true ruling for us to recover.

My personal inclination is close to the philosophy of the Maharal’s. If I can use a variant on Plato’s metaphor, we are like people looking at shadows of an object. Since reality can not capture all “three dimensions” of “divrei E-lokim Chaim“, we see what looks like conflicting “two dimensional” shadows. Shapes that accurately represent the whole, but only from the direction from which we are shining the light. The process of pesaq is that of deciding how we should grow and develop given where we stand; what are angle ought to be in relation to that 3 dimentional object and therefore what shadow it casts.One can’t adopt two conflicting positions, neither leniencies (as would the Conservative movement do) nor stringencies (as per the insufficiently fictional “Chumrah of the Month Club”). That would be combining two different angles, to produce a “shadow” the object could never really cast. One is no longer representing the “object”, the Word of G-d.True pluralism (within a range of valid positions) seems to be a compelling conclusion from the Gemara (Hagigah 3b) is concerned about the person who will note when “those [Rabbis] prohibit, yet those [authorities] permit [the very same thing]… how can I possibly learn Torah today?” The answer is found in the words of Koheles 12, “Nasnu meiRo’eh echad – both views were given by the same shepherd.”

Rav Tzadoq haKohein (Resisei Laylah sec. 17), defines a different kind of logic when it comes to thought than when it comes to action, and uses this to understand the nature of pluralism.

Whenever a new thing found about the Torah by any wise person, simultaneously arises its opposite…. When it comes to the realm of action (po’al) it can not be that two things true simultaneously. In the realm of the mind (machshavah), on the other hand, it is impossible for a man to think about one thing without considering the opposite.

This model differs from the Maharal’s. The Maharal assumes that truths can’t contradict. Rav Tzadoq denies the applicability of the rule of contradiction. The two ideas can coexist: Man’s thoughts are designed to be able to handle conflicting truths because it is the best way to approximate a full understanding of the Divine Truth. Like the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant: the elephant is not a fan, a wall, a rope or a tree trunk, and the complete picture is closer to the contradiction as a whole than any one position.

This is actually the literal meaning of the word “teiqu“. When the gemara’s debate can not reach a conclusion, it says teiku. Most students are taught the medrashic meaning, that it’s an acronym for “tishbi yetzareitz qushyos ve’ibayos — Eliyahu the Tishbi will answer all questions”. But the word itself means “let it stand”. Not that there is a question left unanswered, but that both positions stand — despite the contradiction.


For the mathematically inclined, then there’s Goedel’s Theorem. Everyone else may choose to stop at this point.In short and without lots of formula and Greek letters, Kurt Goedel presented a set of theorems that boil down to showing that any sufficiently robust finite formal system that is consistent (i.e. does not claim both something and its opposite — A and not A) must be incomplete. This includes all systems that have formal rules from getting from a finite set of givens to an infinite set of conclusions, and are robust enough to be used to describe mathematics. All such systems must either be able to produce contradictory conclusions, or be unable to produce conclusions that are known to be true.According to the Malbim (intro. to Vayiqra), all of the Oral Torah could be reconstructed from the Written Torah and 613 rules of logic and derashah. Even if we add the halakhos leMosheh miSinai, to fit the understanding of most that these have no source in the written Torah (the Malbim’s statement would imply they do), this is a finite number of postulates and a finite set of rules for elaborating on them. What about Goedel’s Theorem.Given eilu va’eilu The question could be resolved on a number of levels:

As Rav Tzadoq haKohein writes, Divrei E-lokim Chaim are not consistant. Either inherently so, or — as the Maharal takes it — our comprehension is limited to inconsistent approximations. Divrei E-lokim Chaim can therefore be complete.

Halakhah as ruled would have to be constitutive, Rabbanim given the power to define which position is correct. If we took a “retrieval” (Rabbanim try to reconstruct the forgotten) or “accumulative” (deductions from the known) model without a constitutive component, then when we rule out contradictions we would necessarily create areas in which no ruling could be produced.

Bread, Meat and Wine

Rav Aharon Rakeffet recently noted a contrast in wording between the Rambam and the Rama, and mentioned that someone might find “a whole pilpul” in the difference. (Listen to the shiur on YUTorah.org: Responsa Literature #14 – “Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz” 12-30-13, the observation starts at 8:24, in the opening review of the prior shiur.) Here’s my attempt.

Rambam, Hilkhos Yesorei haTorah 4:13:

… וַאֲנִי אוֹמֵר שְׁאֵין רָאוּי לְהִטַּיַּל בַּפַּרְדֵּס, אֵלָא מִי שֶׁנִּתְמַלָּא כְּרֵסוֹ לֶחֶם וּבָשָׂר; וְלֶחֶם וּבָשָׂר זֶה, הוּא לֵידַע בֵּאוּר הָאָסוּר וְהַמֻּתָּר וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן מִשְּׁאָר הַמִּצְווֹת. …

And I say that one isn’t fit to stroll through the Pardeis except someone who filled his belly with “bread and meat”. Which is to know what is permitted and what is prohibited and the like from among the rest of the mitzvos.

Rama, Yoreh Dei’ah 246:5, citing this Rambam:

… ואין לאדם לטייל בפרדס רק לאחר שמלא כריסו בשר ויין, והוא לידע איסור והיתר ודיני המצות.

… and a person should not stroll through the Pardeis until his belly is full of “meat and wine”. Which is, to know prohibition and permission and the laws of the mitzvos.

There are differences in grammar, but I want to focus on the difference R’ Rakeffet pointed out. The Rambam describes Jewish Thought and secular knowledge as “bread and meat“, but the Rama changes it to “meat and wine“. Why?

As I noted in the past (see The Rambam’s Philosophy and Mesorah, and The Rambam, Knowledge and Akrasia), the Rambam’s philosophy is unique in emphasizing knowledge over character. It is the subject of Rav Samson [ben] Raphael Hirsch’s criticism of the Rambam in Nineteen Letters (letter 18). The Rambam opens the Moreh discussing how the ideal, pre-fruit Adam, chose between truth and falsehood, and the need to choose between good and evil was part of man’s decline due to the sin. He closes the book with a discussion of four planes of human perfection, the lowest being wealth, then health, morality, and the final highest level — intellect. In between he attributes prophecy to mental perfection, to the point that he considered Aristotle a near-prophet; individualized Providence (hashgachah peratis) is proportional to man’s understanding of G-d; mitzvos are defined as a means to learn about Him, unlearn the mistakes of idolatry, and setting up a stable society so that we have the peace and time to study; the Rambam requires knowledge of G-d by philosophical proof, not ecstatic experience or relying on trusted sources; etc…

So the Rambam’s notion of mastering Judaism would be very intellectual, and therefore would be to the mind much like bread and meat are to the stomach — the staples.

If the Rama understands Judaism as would the majority of Jewish tradition, then he would understand Judaism as having more of an emotional or middah component. Therefore, instead of bread, the Rama invokes putting into our “stomachs” something more connotative of emotion — wine.

This might also explain the difference in sequence. The Rama could have simply been repeating the idiom as it appears in the gemara‘s discussion of the laws of Yom Tov, “there is no joy except through meat and wine”. Or, perhaps the Rama — or even the original thought about Yom Tov joy — could not put emotions ahead of intellect, wine ahead of meat. We do not know because we are passionate, we are passionate about what we know.

Rabbi Meir’s Rhetoric

Rav Meir disagrees with the other sages on a number of topics involving logic.

1- When framing a tenai, a condition on a business dealing, an oath, a pledge or the like, the majority opinion and the halakhah is that for a condition to be binding, it must be stated in both the positive and the negative. In other words, the person or contract must state what will happen if the condition is met, and what will not happen if the condition is not met. So, an example conditional oath might be, “I will donate this cow to the Temple if my child arrives home in the next day, and I will not donate it if my child does not arrive by then.” Rav Meir holds that the tenai is binding even without the second, negative, clause.

It would seem that Rav Meir is a believer in the dictum that “the exception proves the rule”. That if I say “I would never eat a garlic bagel” it implies that in general I would eat bagels, which is why I singled out the particular kind I wouldn’t eat. Whereas from a strict logical point of view, if I didn’t eat bagels at all, it remains true that I wouldn’t eat garlic ones either. Rav Meir is basic himself on a rule of rhetoric — I wouldn’t have phrased it as an exception if the rule (that I generally do eat bagels) wasn’t true. So to Rav Meir, the positive implies the negative condition.

The Chakhamim, on the other hand, are being more formal about it. Not judging it by laws of rhetoric, but by laws of logic. And therefore the negative clause DOES need to be spelled out explicitely.

This dispute in oaths and contracts. When it comes to interpreting Chumash, all the sages do deduce the negative case from the positive one. Perhaps because the Torah’s parsimony with words makes it even more compelling to assume that the conditional wouldn’t be there if the case weren’t the exception to the rule. (The exception thus proving the existence of the rule.)

The pasuq states (Shemos 22:10)

שְׁבֻעַת ה תִּהְיֶה בֵּין שְׁנֵיהֶם אִם לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ בִּמְלֶאכֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְלָקַח בְּעָלָיו וְלֹא יְשַׁלֵּם.

The oath of Hashem will be between the two of them, if he did not put his hand against [i.e. break] his peer’s work, then the owner shall accept [the oath] and he need not pay.

If a rentor takes an oath that he didn’t damage the rented item, he need not pay the owner. But what if he didn’t take an oath? For example, what if he were someone already suspect of making false oaths, and the court doesn’t want to tempt him into lying again to make an oath that isn’t trustworthy anyway? The Yerushalmi Shavuos 7:1 (vilna 33b) opens by assuming that Rabbi Meir would have to conclude that the verse implies that in that case, the rentor would indeed have to pay. After all, stating a condition implies that if it isn’t met, the reverse conclusion holds. But Rabbi Chiya concludes that in when it comes to verses, the Chakhamim and R’ Meir would agree.

Perhaps because rules of rhetoric only apply to how people speak. And so, when we talk about the exception proving the existence of the rule, this is only when a person bothers making a condition. The rules of rhetoric for the chumash are the rules of derashah – they operate somewhat differently. Even under Rabbi Yishma’el’s “diberah Torah belashon benei adam – the Torah is written in human language. That rule speaks to what kinds of things are subject to derashah, the meanings of phrases, not analyzing syntax. {Although, Rabbi Meir is a student of Rabbi Aqiva, Rabbi Yishma’el’s disputant on this point.) Rabbi Yishmael says that the meaning of a word includes idiom; Rabbi Meir goes further and says it even includes usual intent.

2- A second case is when there is a list of clauses in an oath, or a number of contracts on one parchment with one set of witnesses’ signatures (Yerushalmi Shavuos 26b). Rabbi Yehudah holds that if a person swears not to eat “wheat and barley and spelt”, with the connecting vav meaning and between them and he happens to eat all three, he sinned only one time. However, if the grains were simply listed with no conjunctive — “wheat, barley, spelt” — then each of three is its oath, and therefore eating all three types of grain would be three violations. Rabbi Meir says the reverse — with the vavs eating all three would be three sins, and without, one sin.

Similarly, consider the case of when two contracts are written on the same parchment, but the whole thing is only signed once, on the bottom. Rabbi Yehudah says that if the second contract begins “Ve-” (and) then the signatures apply to both contracts, but without it, the second contract is valid but the first contract is not signed and unenforceable. Rabbi Meir again says the reverse: with the ve- the witnesses only validate the second contract, and without it — both.

This also appears to be a question of logic vs rhetoric. Rabbi Yehudah feels that since the vav means “and”, it inclusion explicitly binds the two parts into one whole. Otherwise, they remain independent. Rabbi Meir is using rules of rhetoric. The fact that the person didn’t even bother pausing to connect the clauses verbally shows how tightly coupled they are in his intent. Thus, without that ve-, R’ Meir feels they are more connected.

3- There is a notion in the halakhos of contracts called an asmachta, where the clause is so outrageous, it clearly wasn’t made seriously, and since one clause of the whole contract is invalid, the contract as a whole is void. (This is a problem that needs to be avoided if a prenup were added to the kesuvah. Is the groom promising something that he had no intent of honoring because the odds of divorce seemed so outrageous at the time of marriage?)

In Sanhedrin 3:2 (mishnah, not Y-mi), the chakhamim rule that if someone promises to accept a ruling of a court that includes his father, the other party’s father, or even three cow hands, the court’s ruling is valid. Rabbi Meir says that the person can indeed reneg.

Because Rabbi Meir looks to how people talk rather than what was actually said, he has a much broader scope to the rule of asmachta than the majority opinion. Such a claim would clearly be a boast about the strength of his case, and not an actual promise to accept the ruling, and therefore Rabbi Meir takes it as such. This too is beyond “belashon benei adam” of Rabbi Yishma’el, where we are talking about idiom, not intent.

4- A case that may not seem related is whether one may neglect a minority possibility. In general, we say that if the permitted is more likely than the prohibited we can neglect the minority and assum the item is permitted. Such as if three pieces of fat were mixed up, two from areas in the animal where the fat is permissible, one a prohibited fat, one may pick a piece up and eat it. However, “Rav Meir chayash lemi’utei — Rav Meir does worry about the minority.”

This doesn’t sound like a logic issue, except that I have already suggested that Rabbinic logic doesn’t deal in true-false black-and-white questions. (In technical terms: it’s multivalent, not boolean.) So that questions of more vs. less likely would be viewed by our sages as logical ones.

It would seem that while the sages can rule that a halachic state depends on an item’s more likely physical state, but Rabbi Meir, dealing in rhetoric rather than logic, would have to worry about a person’s niggling “what if?”

More on this topic:

In The Semitic Perspective I listed a number of differences between what I called the Yefetic perspective and the Semitic one.  Differences that are sometimes so fundamental, they can group the various schools of Western, Yefetic, philosophy — whether we speak of Aristotle to Derrida — into one camp by comparison.

One of these differences is that in general, it doesn’t appear that Chazal embraced simple true-false all-or-nothing logic. In Aristotle’s world, something is either true or false, and ideas like exactly where the line is between red and purple are addressed as secondary, exceptions to the norm. It was only in the 20th century that Western Logic started exploring systems where sets have blurry edges. Like “tall” in “a tall man”. Someone who is 6’6″ is definitely tall, someone who is 5’4″ is certainly not. But what about people just around at the edge?

In Jewish Thought, it is quite the reverse — everything is a matter of degree, and all-or-nothing situations are the degenerate case where the options happen to lay at the ends of the spectrum. And this runs from Leah being called the “senu’ah”, the “hated” wife of Yaaqov, all the way through history to the Yiddishism of calling someone “not dumb” or “not ugly”. In reality Leah was not hated, although certainly less loved than Rachel. Attributes are always meant in a relative sense, it is taken for granted that the reader who sees a contrast between “beloved” and “hated” would see them as comparative, not absolutes. In my second example, the person who attempts to avoid an ayin hara by voicing a compliment in the negative is basing it on the idea that the listener will assume that their calling someone “not stupid” is because their bright, but technically the words include also the average and so no conspicuous bravado is uttered. In halakhah we find this idea recognized when we have rules telling us when we can ignore the chance that something came from the minority of possibilities (e.g. a piece of meat in a store where nearly all the butchers are kosher) or simply improbable.

Note, though, that if we were concerned with minorities, as R’ Meir does, there would be only two logical states — definitely permitted, and everything else.

This might even be connected to Rabbi Meir being willing to learn from Acher, the sage Elisha ben Avuyah after he chose Greek wisdom over Torah. Is it that Rabbi Meir’s logic ends up being the Greek two-valued sort, which gave him an affinity to Acher’s spin on things? Was it his like of rhetoric over abstract logic that made him more immune to the negative elements in Acher’s teachings? More likely it was both — the constant awareness that comes from seeing the world slightly differently than the sages made him alert to Acher’s divergences.