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.