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.

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.


A Thought About Maoz Tzur

(Updated again for 2009, and again for 2013.) One line in Ma’oz Tzur I particularly love.

The 5th verse of Ma’oz Tzur describes the Chanukah story. One phrase in this verse is “ufortzu chomos migdalai“, which would be literally translated “and burst open the walls of my citadel”. Mentally, I used to picture breaking down the walls of the Beis haMiqdosh, or perhaps a fortress. However, I found the following mishnah in Middos (Ch. 2, mishnah 2 in the Yachin uBo’az edition, mishnah 3 in Kahati’s — who splits up the Yu”B‘s mishnah 1 into 2 parts). The second chapter describes the Beis haMiqdosh as it would appear to someone walking in from outside the Temple Mount to the Altar. This mishna picks up right after you walk through the gate and onto the Temple Mount.

Inside of it is the soreg, 10 tefachim [appx 2'6"] high. It had thirteen peratzos (broken openings) there, that the Hellenist kings partzum (broke open). They returned and closed them off, and legislated corresponding to them 13 prostrations.

To help you picture what a soreg is, the root means woven. The Bartenura describes the soreg as a mechitzah woven out of thin wooden slats running at diagonals. The Bartenura compares it to the part of the bed used to support the mattress, with plenty of open space inside the weave.

He goes on to say that the Hellenists opened up holes in the soreg opposite each of the gates in the outer wall to let anyone see in. Note the shoresh used /p-r-tz/, the same as in the piyut. The soreg marked the limit for gentiles, they were not allowed in beyond that point. To the Hellenist mind, this havdalah bein Yisrael la’Amim, separation between the Jews and the other nations, was repugnant. It ran against their assimilationist efforts.

Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchaq, Chanukah 1:5) explains that emphasizing this division is why the mishnah has no mention of Chanukah. It is the Oral Torah which separates the Jews from non-Jews. Anyone can pick up a text and study it. But it’s the fact that the majority of the Torah is “written” on the hearts of the Jewish People, that halakhah is dynamic, not written ink-on-parchment, but a creative partnership between Hashem and the Jewish People, that makes it uniquely ours. This is why there is a prohibition against teaching Oral Torah to non-Jews, a prohibitions our sages debate is a kind of theft, or akin to marital infidelity. Therefore, there was special resistance against codifying the laws of Chanukah in particular, a desire by Rav Yehudah haNasi to keep them oral.

Chomos migdalei, the walls of my citadel, were not the mighty walls around the Temple Mount or the walls of a fortress. They were a see-through mechitzah, the realization that the Jew, as one of the Mamleches Kohanim, has a higher calling.

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

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

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

This is an important facet of R’ SR Hirsch’s concept of “Torah im Derekh Eretz“. Yes, it does mean that we are to import derekh eretz, the ennobling elements of our surrounding culture and its sciences. But it also means that we are are to be the world’s moral voice, to contribute to the nobility of that society.

In the centuries of passion and scorn our mission was but imperfectly attainable but the ages of mildness and justice now begun beckon us to that glorious goal that every Jew and every Jewess should be in his or her own life a modest and unassuming priest or priestess of God and true humanity When such an ideal and such a mission await us can we still my Benjamin lament our fate?

- R’ SR Hirsch, “The Nineteen Letters”, 9th letter, tr. R’ Dr Bernard Drachman, pg 86

For this future which is promised us in the glorious predictions of the inspired prophets whom God raised up for our ancestors we hope and pray but actively to accelerate its coming were sin and is prohibited to us while the entire purpose of the Messianic age is that we may in prosperity exhibit to mankind a better example of Israel than did our ancestors the first time while hand in hand with us the entire race will be joined in universal brotherhood through the recognition of God the All One On account of this purely spiritual nature of the national character of Israel it is capable  of the most intimate union with states with perhaps this difference that while others seek in the state only the material benefits which it secures considering possession and enjoyment as the highest good Israel can only regard it as a means of fulfilling the mission of humanity Summon up I pray you before your mental vision the picture of such an Israel dwelling in freedom in the midst of the nations and striving to attain unto its ideal every son of Israel a respected and influential exemplar priest of righteousness and love disseminating among the nations not specific Judaism for proselytism is interdicted but pure humanity…

- Ibid. pp 162-163

Noach blessed two of his sons, “Yaft E-lokim leYefes, veyishkon beohalei Sheim — G-d gave beauty to Yefes, and dwells in the tents of Sheim.” To Rav Hirsch, this is a description of a partnership, Yefes’s mastery of derekh eretz and Sheim’s spiritual gifts.

When David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York, he called the city’s diversity a “glorious mosaic”. Not the melting pot metaphor that my grandfather encountered when they came to the U.S., the idea that convinced so many others of that generation that being a “real American” meant to assimilate. Being part of the whole and contributing to the whole by maintaining and celebrating our nation’s unique identity and perspective.

We are forced to find some kind of balance: we are supposed to both be a “unique nation in the land” and also contributors of religion, spirituality and ethics to the general society. I think this same tension informs the dispute among American halachic decisors over the appropriateness of celebrating Thanksgiving. Very indirectly, Thanksgiving is derived from Judaism. It commemorates a meal the Pilgrims ate in an intentional imitation of Sukkos in worship of the Creator that we taught the world about. The very name Jew derives from that of the dominant surviving sheivet, Yehudah, who was named by his mother “for this time odeh es Hashem — I shall thank G-d”. The entire concept of Thanksgiving would not exist without us. On the other hand, it was enacted by people who thought of the trinitarian god of Christianity, and the tradition itself comes from them, not us. Does this practice belong “behind the soreg” or within it? Are we advancing the cause of our national priesthood, or are we tearing down the walls of the citadel necessary to preserve its existence?

This too underlies the tefillah of Aleinu. The first paragraph is all about the uniqueness of the Jew. “It is up to us to praise the Master of Everything… For He did not make us like the nations of the world, and didn’t position us like the nations of the land… For they bow to vanity and emptiness… and we bow, prostrate and acknowledge before the King, King of Kings…” And then, the second paragraph switches to a universalist theme. “… That we soon see the Splendor of your Might… to repair the world into a kingdom of Shad-dai, and all children of flesh will bow to Your Name, to turn to you all the heads of the land…” And what’s the connector between these themes? “Al kein nekaveh — therefore we are expectant.” Because we are Hashem’s unique people with the unique role He entrusted to us, we await the day that all of mankind come together, and “they will recognize and know, all the dwellers of the globe, that to You all knee bows, and every tongue swears allegiance.”

Unfortunately, by building up the fortress walls, we miss many opportunities to act as a priesthood. It is a shame that it’s not the most observant Jews who are most vocal about Darfur, global hunger, or the ease of reducing the loss of life to malaria. If we accuse the world for their silence during the Holocaust, then people who feel that the events in Darfur do qualify as genocide can not stand by when it happens to someone else. How much more so if we recognize ourselves as kohanim to the world! More recently, the Union for Reform Judaism is currently raising money for the Nothing but Nets program, an initiative to distribute mosquito netting in malaria ridden parts of Africa. (Communities in which they have distributed $10 nets show a 90% decline of incidents of malaria.)

Similarly, helping out at the local soup kitchen. Earlier today I received an invitation from a synagogue to serve meals there. I was disappointed, although not surprised, to see that the synagogue was not Orthodox. Yes, we need to worry about Jewish causes; there are far more people out there to see to the general need. But I was proud of the local Young Israel, who used to staff a similar kitchen on days like the upcoming Thursday (Dec 25th), when non-Jewish volunteers tend to have family obligations.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting all this as a nice Shabbos-morning style derashah on the concept of a woven 2-1/2′ mechitzah as “the walls of my citadel”. I believe this is the actual meaning of the serug, which was sufficient as a reminder, and yet allowed Jew and non-Jew to serve the same G-d at the same Temple. “For My ‘home’ shall be called for all the people ‘a house for prayer’.”

Antiochus breached the soreg in an attempt to unify his empire as a melting pot, everyone Hellenized. This would have destroyed our goy qadosh, our nations unique voice in the world. However, the ideal soreg defines a distinction, not forces a separation. Once the tile that is the Jewish people, our role as teachers, moral guides and a conduit of sanctity, is protected and intact, then it can and must be part of Hashem’s glorious mosaic. Only by having a serug can we balance integrity and priesthood.

The word migdalai not only means “my towers” or “my citadels”, it can also be read “those things that make me great.” Only by having both separation and contact of a soreg can the walls of our miqdashei me’at, our synagogues and batei medrash, truly be chomos migdalai.

The Miracle of Oil

Ask someone why we celebrate Chanukah, and of course the first answer out would be about the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. This allowed the reconsecration of the Beis haMiqdash to be done at its halachic best, without relying on leniencies like “tum’ah huterah betziburtum’ah is permitted in public”. When everyone is tamei, no one is tamei. However, the Chashmonaim wanted to do it right, and therefore relied on the one tahor jug of oil for the eight days it took to produce more.

The earliest discussion of the laws of Chanukah is an appendix to Megillas Taanis, a list of dates from the late Bayis Sheini era which were minor holidays upon which declaring a fast was forbidden. I like the idea found in the Chida, the Eishel Avraham’s intro to Megillas Taanis and the Gra as for why there is no mishnah addressing the laws of Chanukah. (Although it is assumed and comes up in a number of places, so we know Rebbe considered Chanukah a holiday [Bikurim 1:6, RH 1:3, Ta'anis 2:10, MQ 3:9] with a specific Torah reading [Megillah 3:4,6] in which enough people lit something near their doorway that the person whose merchandise got burned by a Chanukah menorah is considered personally negligent and can’t sue for reimbersement [BQ 6:6].) They say that because it was already well documented in the appendix to Megillas Taanis, there was no need for a mishnah; and as you note — without need, there is no permissibility either. (Although why we assume this rule applies to rabbinic law rather than only interpretations of the original Oral Torah is beyond me. Also, the Gra’s son says his father speaks of “Mesechtes Chanukah” which I am only assuming is the appendix.)

But there is no mention there of the miracle of oil in Megillas Taanis. Nor in the Al haNissim we insert into Shemoneh Esrei and benching. In the Apocrypha, the reasons given relate to winning the battle for the Temple Mount, and the subsequent celebration of a quasi-Sukkos for eight days to compensate for the missed opportunity to celebrate Sukkos at the Beis haMiqdash while it was in desecration. The latter explains Beis Shammai’s position, that we light 8 lights the first night, then seven, then six, etc… to parallel the cows of the Musaf offering of Sukkos, which also decrease over time: 13 the first day, 12 the second, and so on. Clearly in their time, the connection to Sukkos was still a given.

The miracle of the oil would also be an odd reason for a holiday. How many people could have witnessed the miracle? The subset of kohanim who were tahor and working in the Heikhal that week so frequently that they can attest that no one refilled and re-lit the menorah while they were elsewhere. But a major feature of the importance Judaism ascribes miracles is their public nature. The entire word neis, miracle, is more literally a flag or military standard, something that calls attention to Hashem’s Presence. We have no (other?) holidays set up to commemorate private miracles.  I therefore think it makes sense to take the book of Maccabees and Al haNisim at face value and say the holiday was at that time about the restoration of some level of political autonomy and of Temple worship for the next two centuries.

The first mention of the miracle of the oil is in the gemara, written centuries later. The gemara goes off on a tangent in the middle of the laws of Shabbos lights to discuss those of Chanukah. At some point (Shabbos 21a) it asks, “Mai Chanukah — What is Chanukah?” and answers with the miracle of the oil. But given that we know that Chanukah was codified even before the mishnah, anchored — even if in a few mentions — in the mishnah, how could the rabbis of the talmud not know what Chanukah is about? And why is the answer one that was not given in any of the texts we have from before the gemara?

So I would assume this gemara records a conscious attempt to change the theme of the holiday. When instituted, Chanukah was about the restoration of the Beis haMiqdash and the autonomy possible under the Hasmonean kings. But then we lost it all. No autonomy, the majority of the community of the land of Israel forced to join their brothers in exile, no Temple.Notice it’s the Babylonian Talmud that is asking this question! The laws are on the books and they weren’t empowered to repeal a law enacted by a Sanhedrin in the Lishkas haGazis in the Temple. But the meaning was gone; rather than being a celebration, it became a reminder of everything lost.

And so the amora’im set out to reassign meaning to the mitzvos of the holiday by emphasizing a miracle than until then was a tangential thing — but at least related to the central mitzvah of the holiday, lighting the menorah. The Talmud isn’t asking “What is Chanukah?” in the abstract theoretical plane, it is asking pragmatically. In a time of exile, when Hashem’s influence in world events is more hidden, the most inspiring part of Chanukah is the one small way Hashem showed that the victory wasn’t merely incredible milirary prowess and good luck, but His intervention, the one explicit violation of the laws of nature — the miracle of the oil. Chanukah is very much a festival of light, reinvented as such in the darkness of exile.

From Qeren to Shofar

(Updated after Rosh haShanah 5774 with idea from the Tanchuma.)

The Ramban, in his Derashah leRosh haShanah, writes that a shofar is a keli, a formal utensil in the halachic sense. For this reason, while most rishonim hold that a hole in a shofar invalidates the shofar only if the hole is such that it changes the produced sound, the Ramban holds that any hole disqualifies it. He emphasizes that we take a raw natural qeren, a horn, and produce a new thing from it with a new name — shofar, from leshapeir (to improve).

(Tangent: Students of R JB Soloveitchik might note that he, RJBS, often referred to the shofar as a raw animal cry, emphasizing how un-technological a shofar is. These two approaches appear to be in conflict. But this entry is from the Ramban’s perspective.)

Literally a qeren is a horn (or something shaped like a horn, like a beam of light from Moshe’s head, or the cornerpieces of the mizbeiach). And once this horn is refined, meshaperes, we have the mitzvah of shofar which we are to blow before G-d.

This notion that Hashem left it for us to complete what He began is the topic of a story in the Medrash Tanchuma (Tzaria, Buber #7, Warsaw: second half of #5) that I discussed elsewhere:

Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Aqiva: Which acts are more pleasant, those of the Holy One, or those of flesh and blood?
[R' Aqiva] said to him: Those of flesh and blood are [more] pleasant.
Turnus Rufus the wicked said to him: Behold heaven and earth — can you make anything like them?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: Do not talk to me about something which is beyond creatures [to do], which they do not have mastery of them, but of things that exist among people.
He said to him: Why do you circumcise?
He said to him: I even knew you were going to say to me something llike this, therefore I preempted and said to you “the acts of fless and blood are more pleasant than those of the Holy One.
[Then R' Aqiva said to the staff:] Bring me sheaves and cakes.
He said to him: These [sheaves] are the Holy One’s work, and these [cakes] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
[Again R' Aqiva asked of the staff:] Bring me flax stalks and [linen] garments from Beis She’an.
He said to him: These [stalks] are the Holy One’s work, and these [fine garments] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
Turnus Rufus said to him: Since [G-d] wants circumcision, why doesn’t [the baby] emerge circumcised from the mother’s womb?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: And why his umbilical cord emerge with him, if his mother were not to cut his umbilical cord? Why doesn’t he emerge [already] circumcised? Because the Holy One only gave Israel the mitzvos in order to be refined by them. That is why David said, “the speech of G-d refines” (Tehillim 18:31)

This, then is one message of shofar: A person is not saved by simply trusting in G-d and leaving the job to Him. On the other hand, a person can only succeed in anything by entering in a partnership with the Creator. And so we do not awaken ourselves to repentance with the qeren He made. Nor do we use chatzotzros, metal trumpets that are so reshaped they are keilim, utensils, in which it’s so easy to see our own efforts, it is hard to notice Hashem’s initial contribution. The word “shofar” acknowledges that this is something from the Creator, but “refined” by man.

A second thought can be learned from the transition from qeren to shofar when we note that idiomatically, qeren refers to might or pride. As we say in Shemoneh Esrei, “The sprout of David may You quickly cause to bloom, veqarno — and his pride — You shall uplift with Your redemption…” Or in Tehillim (75:5), “אָמַרְתִּי לַהוֹלְלִים אַל תָּהֹלּוּ, וְלָרְשָׁעִים אַל תָּרִימוּ קָרֶן — I said to the arrogant, do not brag; and to the evil, do not ‘lift a horn’ [i.e. boast].”

So we take this symbol of pride, and we bore a small hole at the end. What used to hold air or liquid now amplifies the cry of another. By sharing the pain of another, self-interest gets harnessed to aid this community of suffering. This too is a sublimation and refinement. Thus the qeren of pride becomes a shofar of empathy.

Hashem gives us a set of middos, talents and desires. We can choose whether to use them to build a world of self-pride or one of yedidus, affection and connection to others.

We associate the shofar with crying. We blow 100 sounds because Sisera’s mother cried 100 times when learning her son (off to war against the Jews) was killed and would not return. There is a dispute whether the broken sound required by the Torah is more like yelulei yalal (uneven wailing) or genunei ganach (sobbing), so we blow both the teru’ah and the shevarim, as well as the two together as a pair.

The shofar is also a royal sound. “With trumpets and the sound of a shofar, call out before the King. The mishnah describes Hashem as saying, “Call before Me with the blast of the Shofar – to show that you accept of Me as your King.” In the same way they blow trumpets to announce that the king or queen is entering the room, we blow Shofar on Rosh haShanah to announce a new year of Hashem’s rule.

Is the sound of the shofar the 100 wails of Sisera’s mother, or the triumphant fanfare of the King?

אמר ר’ יוחנן כל מקום שאתה מוצא גבורתו של הקב”ה אתה מוצא ענוותנותו דבר זה כתוב בתורה ושנוי בנביאים ומשולש בכתובים כתוב בתורה (דברים י) כי ה’ אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדוני האדונים וכתיב בתריה עושה משפט יתום ואלמנה שנוי בנביאים (ישעיהו נז) כה אמר רם ונשא שוכן עד וקדוש וגו’ וכתיב בתריה ואת דכא ושפל רוח משולש בכתובים דכתיב (תהילים סח) סולו לרוכב בערבות ביה שמו וכתיב בתריה אבי יתומים ודיין אלמנות

R’ Yochanan said: Every place where you find the Might of HQBH, you find His anvanus (humility). This is written in the Torah, seconded in the Nevi’im, and stated a third time in Kesuvim. Written in the Torah: “For Hashem your G-d, He is the G-d over all powers and the L-rd over all lords”, and it says after it “who performs justice for the orphan and the widow.” Seconded in the Nevi’im, “As said the High and Exalted Who dwells eternally and Holy…” and it says after it, “and the broken and low of spirit.” And stated a third time in the Kesuvim, as it says, “Extol He Who rides on the skies, through Kah His name” and it says after it, “the Father of orphans and judge for widows.”

G-d’s greatness isn’t just that He is Infinite, but that He is SO infinite so as to not just set the stars on their paths and keeps the laws of physics running, but He has time, attention and resources to care for the needy.

The person who can share another’s cry is the very one who declares G-d’s majesty.

That is taking the qeren and making something new of it, something shofar — refined.

Kosher, Tahor, Qadosh

The pasuq (still in parashas Re’eih) discusses the various species of kosher and non-kosher mammals (Devarim 14:3-8), marine animals (v. 9-10), and flying creatures (v. 11-20). And the terminology is that this species is tamei, whereas that is tahor.

Then, in the final pasuq (14:21):

לֹא תֹאכְלוּ כָל נְבֵלָה, לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ, אוֹ מָכֹר לְנָכְרִי, כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לַה’ אֱלֹקיךָ; לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.  {פ}Do not eat from anything which died on its own; give it to the stranger who is in your gates, so that he can eat it, or you my sell it to a foreigner; because you are a holy  nation to Hashem your G-d; do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

There is a shift. When discussing which animals we may or may not eat, the Torah frames it in terms of tamei vs. tahor. But when describing the requirements of shechitah and separating meat and milk, the attribute in question is our qedushah.

As I wrote in a comment on the haqdamah to Shaarei Yosher:

When the Torah speaks of taharah,  the proposition is “mi-”, from, e.g. “vetiharo min hatzora’as”– and he [the kohein] purifies him from the [tum'ah associated with the spirito-somatic illness,] tzora’as“. What is taharah? While many object to translating it as “spiritual purity”, the word is used to describe the “pure gold” of the menorah, “zahav tahor”. Taharah is freeing the soul from a kind of adulteration, just as it describes gold that is free of impurities.  The tahor soul is one that is free from the habits and effects of living within an animal body.

On the other hand, qedushah is about pull. The golden tzitz on the kohein gadol’s forehead reads “qadesh Lashem”. Qedushah is being set aside for a given purpose. The wedding formula, “Hereby you are mequdeshes li…, committed to me…” uses the term where the “to” isn’t Hashem’ purpose. But in usual usage, if the “le-” is not provided, it means creation’s Ultimate Purpose, “for My Honor, lekhvodi, I have created it”.

(And then continued in R’ Shim’on’s vain that the Ultimate Purpose is to partner with HQBH to share His Good with the rest of creation.)

This dichotomy may explain the shift here as well. When the subject is what we eat, avoiding certain foods is staying away from what’s wrong, and thus is a path to taharah. But having rituals for how we eat, that elevates eating into a means of remembering our higher calling and serving him, and thus is part of striving for qedushah.