Tum’ah in a Private Domain

A central theme in this “Phenomenology” category of this blog is an extension of an idea from a responsum by R’ Aqiva Eiger. That extension isn’t really part of this observation, but since I’m revisiting the topic, I’m categorizing it here anyway. To save you looking up a prior post and me figuring out another way to explain RAE’s position:

Rav Aqiva Eiger (teshuvah #136) divides [the laws of cases of ignorance, how to rule when the realia of a situation isn’t known] into two types:

  • ways of applying the halakhah to an uncertain situation and
  • resolving what to do when the halakhah is uncertain

In other words, the doubt could be about the reality, and now we need a halakhah, or the halakhah could have once been set, but now we don’t know what it is.

Before looking at each category separately, let’s look at the problem Rabbi Aqiva Eiger was addressing. There is an oft quoted beraisa that contrasts two kinds of halachic uncertainty.

[A city has] nine stores all of which sell shechted meat, and one store that sells neveilah meat (meat killed in other ways). Someone buys from one of them, but he doesn’t know which of them he bought from. His doubt makes the meat prohibited.

But if the meat were just found, one may follow rov (the majority).

Pesachim 9b, Kesuvos 15a, Chullin 95a, Niddah 18a

The beraisa contrasts two principles. The first is “kol qavu’ah kemechtzah al mechtzah dami” (anything that’s established is like half against half). It is specitically this rule that we There is no playing odds, a doubt is a doubt whether it’s 50:50 or 90:10. For Torahitic laws we would have to assume the stricter possibility, and for Rabbinic ones, the more lenient side.

The other rule is “kol deparish meirubah parish” (anything that leaves the group [can be assumed to have] left the majority). Here we see that majority is a deciding factor. The first case is called “qavu’ah” (established), the second “parish” (separated). How does “qadu’ah” differ from “parish“? When is majority ignored, and when is it a determining factor?

Tosafos (Zivachim 72b, “Ela amar Rava”) write “qavuah only applies to a thing that is known”.  Rabbi Aqiva Eiger explains that the piece of meat bought from the known store had an established halakhah. The buyer knew the state of the meat. We therefore call the halakhah qavu’ah” — established. However, now it got mixed up, and we don’t know what that halakhah is.  The doubt is in the halakhah.

However, if the meat is simply found, then the uncertainty begins one step earlier. We don’t know the state of the meat. The doubt is in the reality, what part of the set this item was parish – separated from.

The same distinction appears to underly a dispute in the Yerushalmi, Nazir 8:1 (vilna ed 40a). There is a rule that in a safeiq tum’ah birshus harabim, a doubt about whether something in the public domain became tamei, we assume it’s tamei. (And a converse rule that safeiq tum’ah birshus hayachid, where a similar doubt exists about something in a private domain, we assume it’s tahor.)

This rule is tested in two cases. In the first: “נזיר שנטמא בספק רשות היחיד ואינו בפסח ר’ הושעיא רבה אמר הנזיר מגלח ר’ יוחנן אמר אין הנזיר מגלח.” A nazir may or may not have become tamei when he was in a public thoroughfare. The problem is that a nazir who is tamei has to restart his nezirus in a process that includes shaving all his hair. But, if the nazirus is intact because he didn’t become tamei, he is not permitted to cut his hair at all! Thus, neither error is “safe”; neither is simply being stringent.

R’ Hoshea Rabba says the nazir should shave his head.

R’ Yochanan says he does not.

The second case, “יחיד שנטמא בספק רשות היחיד בפסח רבי הושעיה אמר ידחה לפסח שני רבי יוחנן אמר משלחין אותו דרך רחוקה.” In the days when there is a Beis haMiqdash, a person got tamei too shortly before Pesach to being the qorban Pesach with everyone else would bring the qorban a month late on Pesach sheini. Again the Yershalmi poses a doubt in which neither assumption is a pure stringency. If we assume he is tamei and he isn’t, then he both missed the qorban Pesach and on Pesach sheini he brought a non-offering (since he wasn’t obligated) on the altar. If we assume a tamei person isn’t tamei, he would bringing the qorban Pesach in impurity.

R’ Hoshea Rabba says he waits to Pesach sheini.

R’ Yochanan tells him to avoid the problem — he should flee to a place too far from the Beis haMiqdash to be obligated to come for the qorban and thereby eligible for Pesach sheini either way.

(I couldn’t find a parallel in the Bavli. Anyone?)

As the Penei Mosheh and Qorban ha’Eidah (the acharonim on the sides of the daf) both explain, this is the underlying dispute:

R’ Hoshea Rabba holds that safeiq tum’ah bereshus hayachid renders the person tamei as if we were sure. So, the nazir is definitely a nazir tamei and must shear his hair and restart nezirus. And the person definitely is disqualified from his qorban Pesach on Pesach, and eligible for Pesach Sheini.

In contrast, R’ Yochanan considers safeiq tum’ah brh”y to be a rule for how to deal with a doubt. It is insufficient grounds to permit the nazir to cut his hair because he might be tahor and a haircut would be prohibited. So, he outwaits his nezirus, cuts his hair then, and then, in case he was tamei, starts over. Which is why R’ Yochanan also needs a way to circumvent the Pesach sheini issue. In both cases, he tells the potentially tamei person to worry about both possibilities.

I believe this is the same distinction as the one I generalized from R Aqiva Eiger:

R’ Hosheia is saying that safeiq tum’ah brh”h is a rule for dealing with doubt in facts of the ground. The halakhah established in cases of encountering maybe tum’ah, or maybe encoutering definite tum’ah, is that if one is in a public area the halachic state is tamei and in a private area, tahor. A mapping from a doubtful reality to a definite law.

Rav Yochanan holds these are rules in determining the how to act when the halakhah is unknown. We do not establish a definite law, and therefore we need to know what to presume so that we could continue acting — act stringently and assume it’s tamei if the possible contact is in a public area, and leniently when in a private one. But when neither option is more stringent than the other, as in our two cases, Rav Yochanan tells you to be stringent in both ways.

HP, Chaos, and QM

Nowadays, it’s the norm to believe that all events in the universe, even which way a leaf falls in the middle of the forest, is subject to specific Divine Providence (hashgachah peratis — HP in Avodah parlance). However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe says this notion was a chiddush of the Baal Shem Tov’s, and R’ Chaim Friedlander in Sifsei Chaim credits the Vilna Gaon. Given this, it’s unsurprising that we can’t find a rishon who clearly backs the notion. Most teach that the events in all people’s lives are subject to HP. Some, such as the Rambam, say HP is something earned, and that there are people for whom parts of their lives are left to nature or chance. (In fact, in Moreh Nevuchim 3:17 the Rambam says that the position of Chazal is that all people are subject to individualized providence, and in ch. 18 he modifies this by nothing that a given homosapien can be more or less a “person” in this sense — based on how well he understands G-d and His Truth. (More on the various beliefs about HP in another post, someday.)

I actually think this drift in how we see individualized Providence shares a lot with the drift in Western Philosophy since Kant to Existentialism and beyond. There is now little focus on trying to figure out the world as it is, and we instead talk about the world as it is experienced. So, when the rishonim talk about hashgachah they’re having a metaphysical discussion about how G-d relates to the universe. A statement of emunah. Moderns have given up, since such a relationship is inherently unknowable. Instead, it becomes a statement of bitachon (trust [in the Almighty]); everything that happens in my life it the result of my partnership with the Eibershter. It’s not even that we’ve shifted position, we’ve changed topic.

Personally, I feel that the Rambam’s position is hard to defend mathematically, and even the majority opinion that HP includes all events in all people’s lives doesn’t exclude that many other events. This is because of the math that emerged from Chaos Theory.

To explain: The law of large numbers is the idea that if the probability of flipping a coin and getting heads is .5, then if you flip enough fair coins, you are likely to get numbers closer to 1/2 of them coming up heads. That only works for the small minority of aggregates where there are no feedback loops, so that each coin toss is independent. In systems that have such loops, Chaotic results — in which a small, even unmeasurable, change in starting conditions could make large differences in outcome. Thus, the proverbial “Butterfly Effect” — the tiny input of whether or not a butterfly flapped its wings in Africa could change whether or not there is a tornado in Missouri impacting thousands of lives.

All events interact and interplay. The vast majority of systems in the messy real world are chaotic, and nearly everything (if not actually everything) involving humans is. If there were anything whose final outcome wasn’t influenced by HQBH, how could there be anything impacting a person who merited hashgachah peratis whose final outcome was?

(Which is also how I can believe that people have free will in terms of what they do, but can have bitachon that everything that occurs to them is hashgachah. A person has the choice to interject one vector into the mix; weaving them into a total package is Hashem’s orchestration.)


So far my thoughts with respect to classical physics, in which the laws of physics produce deterministic results, even if we can’t get enough information to draw conclusions about the future. But from a Quantum Mechanical (QM) point of view, some things are only statistical. Do the molecules in a gas even have a specific location before a person takes measurements and observes them? Oddly enough, the answer is “no”. This is a different angle then the above. Chaos Theory is about unpredictability because you can’t fully know how things began. Quantum theory deals with true randomness. But it’s another interesting wrinkle anyway.

To explain (somewhat):

Double Slit ExperimentIf you shine light through a narrow slit onto a wall or some film, it makes a broader line than the slit — the wave expands after leaving the slit. And if you shine it through two such slits that are close enough together, the waves interact leaving a pattern of light and dark stripes on the wall.

But — and here is where QM gets really weird — the same thing is true when you shine less light through the slits. Even down to a single particle. Photons shot at the slit one particle of light at a time will hit the wall in a pattern that over time will create those very same stripes. The light acts like a particle in how it moves, but the probability of where it moves acts like a wave. And while you might be able to dismiss this as a feature of energy, the same experiment can be done with electrons or other things we think of as matter!

And, just to make sure you’re totally bewildered, whether the photon or electron does this weirdness can be turned on or off by choosing whether or not you put a measuring device at one of the slits. If you know which slit the particle went through, the whole wave pattern thing disappears. Until a measurement is done, the particle somehow goes through both paths in a “superposition of states”, in all the places it could have been at once and interacting with the other versions of itself.

Schroedinger's Cat: Both Alive and Dead?Erwin Schroedinger emphasized its weirdness with a famous thought experiment generally called Schroedinger’s Cat. Picture some mad scientist takes a tiny bit of radioactive substance and places it in front of a detector, which in turn has a hammer aimed at a vial of poison gas. This set-up is designed so that there is a 50% chance that enough radiation would be emitted in one hour to set off the detector and release the gas. This being a mad scientist, he takes the whole assembly and a cat and puts them into a sealed box.

It is now an hour later. Whether the cat is alive or dead depends on a quantum event, the amount of radiation. So, like the light passing through two slits, the radiation both and didn’t reach that trigger level until measured. And thus, the vial is both smashed and intact and the cat both alive and dead.

Or is it? There are numerous attempts to explain when a system shifts from the statistical realm of QM and the more deterministic world we live in and how. Here’s a thought that crossed my mind:

Perhaps the line is between nature and HP. Nature is quantum and statistical,but human events are mediated by HP which is deterministic. Which is why observation causes collapse of the wave function — and thus the range of probabilities, it introduces a human being and thus (according to Chazal and most rishonim) individual, non-statistical, Providence. Schroeder’s poor cat wouldn’t merit HP, and therefore his state needn’t be determined until a person opens the box and Providence selects a single outcome.

What’s the rush?

דְּבַשׁ מָצָאתָ אֱכֹל דַּיֶּךָּ פֶּן תִּשְׂבָּעֶנּוּ וַהֲקֵאתוֹ.

If you find honey, eat just enough; lest you get full and vomit it.

– Mishlei 25:16

(In the days of the geonim and earlier rishonim it was customary to start a derashah with a verse from Mishlei and then use its explanation to conclude with an explanation of something from the parashah. I’m happy to have once found a way to work within that structure.)

Mishlei is a collection of metaphors, as the name of the book itself is “The Parables of [Shelomo ben David, king of Israel.]” (1:1) In this vein, the Vilna Gaon explains our opening verse based on the notion that “devash” here is meant as an acronym of “de’iah, binah, seikhel — theoretical knowledge, reason, applying the knowledge”, to use the translations he gives in the introduction to the work.

Sidenote: This is the same triad found in Nusach Ashkenaz’s version of birkhas Da’as (the fourth berakhah of the Amidah, “Atah chonein…”)  but with a different conjugation: “dei’ah, binah, haskeil.” Perhaps because asking Hashem for help turning what we know into practice would be asking for Him to violate free will, so we instead ask to provide us with more skill at doing so, rather than help in the actual doing.

But intellect and spirituality are good things, so what would it mean to say “if you gain knowledge and the wherewithall to use it, apply just enough; lest you get full and vomit it”?

In Aesop’s “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs”, he writes (tr. Harvard Classics 1909 ed.):

ONE day a countryman going to the nest of his Goose found there an egg all yellow and glittering. When he took it up it was as heavy as lead and he was going to throw it away, because he thought a trick had been played upon him. But he took it home on second thoughts, and soon found to his delight that it was an egg of pure gold. Every morning the same thing occurred, and he soon became rich by selling his eggs. As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find, —nothing.


In “real life” we have to balance our production with our capacity to produce. If we are overly short-sighted in our pursuit of immediate gains and accomplishments, we can kill the goose, and end up accomplishing less in our lives overall.

In the context of religious worship, this is the need to both perform mitzvos, and to develop within our selves the abilities necessary to do future mitzvos (including rest as needed), and the middos to make the right choices when opportunities arrive. As R’ Shimon writes (tr. mine):

וכמובן בכל הקדשות שהוא התיחדות למטרה נכבדה, והנה כשהאדם מישר הליכותיו ושואף שתמיד יהיו דרכי חייו מוקדשים להכלל, אז כל מה שעושה גם לעצמו להבראת גופו ונפשו הוא מתיחס גם כן אל מצות קדושה, שעל ידי זה יטיב גם לרבים, שבטובתו לעצמו הוא מטיב עם הרבים הצריכים לו.

And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose – which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him.

And similarly the Gra says that Shelomo haMelekh is warning us not to try to exceed our grasp. That by trying for more da’as, binah and haskeil then one is ready for, one can end up burning out. (Sorry for what will be in retrospect a poor turn of phrase; check back when you get to the end of this post.)

Many of us have encountered the baal teshuvah who tries to take on too much too soon, and after a short while gives up on the whole enterprise. Or have ourselves set overly high expectations during the High Holidays, and all the resolutions unravel in the days (or day) after Yom Kippur — leaving us with no change.

Now to turn to the parashah… When one looks at Chazal and rishonim explaining the magnitude of Nadav and Avihu’s sin, to find why it was so grievous as to warrant their death, one finds numerous different suggestions. As I wrote last 10 Av in the post “No Answers“:

Eight different answers…, each made with the claim that it’s the sole reason for the destruction of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Jack Love, a rebbe-chaveir, would point to this very variety of answers, or of identification of the specific sin committed by Nadav and Avihu to warrant their death, or what Moshe did wrong when he struck the rock. The gemara is making a statement. This kind of question has no final answer. The gemara grapples with the problem, but doesn’t claim to have a final answer.

So then why ask the question, if we know it’s unanswerable?

Knowing there is no conclusive answer to finding the cause, and they would never even succeed to find a cause, they still needed to struggle with the question of causes in order to find motivations to change. And by framing the problem in terms of that sin, they inspire their students to repair it.

In that spirit, I would like to take a lesson by combining some of the statements Rashi quotes from the medrash as well as an idea from the Seforno on the sin of Nadav and Avihu.

Let’s assume that the opinion that says that it was Nadav and Avihu about whom Hashem said “biqrovai aqadeish — through those close to Me I will be stanctified” (Vayiqra 10:3) is consistent with the one that says that at Har Sinai Nadav said to Avihu, “When these elders [Moshe and Aharon] die, you and I will lead the generation.” It would mean that they had the purest motives in wanting to lead. Not out of a desire for personal importance, but out of an awareness that they are indeed close to Him and thus — in their opinion — make good leaders.

But they were impatient. And when bringing the qetores they decided how it should be done on their own rather than asking Moshe Rabbeinu. Without explicit permission (which is the point of today’s semichah), it is prohibited for a student to rule on a halachic matter when in the same region — even when the student reaches the same answer.

Another way in which they jumped the gun is the opinion that the qetores was in error because it was the kohein gadol‘s job. Not only did they presume on Moshe Rabbeinu’s role before their apprenticeship under him was complete, they did the same with Aharon’s.

An improper qetores caused the death of many kohanim gedolim during the second Beis haMiqdash. The Yerushalmi (Yuma 1:5, vilna daf 7b) contrasts those who punished with death by omitting one of the ingredients of the qetores with those who die by entering the holy of holies without adding a smoke-generating agent to the qetores or lights it outside. “That is a punishment… and that is a warning.” In the latter case, the death isn’t as much a punishment as the consequence of exposure to Hashem’s Presence without the obscuring cloud. Trying to get more spirituality than one is ready for.

The elders were criticized for drinking and celebrating at Mount Sinai (Shemos 24:11). Nadav and Avihu repeat this mistake now — the gemara suggests that their sin here was in serving while inebriated. The pursuit of true spirituality takes years of development, but using drink and parties to create a shallower but immediate experience is a common shortcut.

The Ramchal writes (Mesilas Yesharim ch. 4):

לשלמי הדעת, תהיה להם ההערה במה שיתברר להם כי רק השלימות הוא הדבר הראוי שיחמד מהם ולא זולת זה, ושאין רע גדול מחסרון השלמות וההרחקה ממנו. כי הנה אחר שיתבאר זה אצלם ויתבאר להם כמו כן היות האמצעים אליו המעשים הטובים והמדות הטובות, ודאי הוא שלא יתרצו מעולם להמעיט מאלה האמצעים או להקל בהם.

To those who are complete in knowledge [or, as per the Gra: abstract knowledge in particular?], will have the insight that will clarify for them that only Wholeness and nothing else is worthy of their desire and that there is no worse evil than the lack of and removal from perfection.

And yet a little later he writes:

וזה כי זה פשוט אצל כל בעל דעת, שאין המדריגות מתחלקות בעולם האמיתי שהוא העולם הבא, אלא לפי המעשים.

And this is simple to anyone with any knowledge that there only distinction in levels in the World of Truth which is the World to Come is according to actions.

Is it in the completion, or in the deed? I believe the reason for the Ramchal’s wording is exactly the lesson that Nadav and Avihu lacked. They were “those closest to Me” not because they were on a higher plane than Moshe and Aharon, but because they were processing the most. And similarly, someone born with a calmer disposition isn’t more whole who has more of a temper if that anger is still less than what he was born with. Wholeness is according to one’s actions, how much one has developed Himself, and not on an absoute standard. Thus a person’s actions, which anyone with intellect could prize, really is the wholeness that the more complete person values.

Nadav and Avihu, like the Boesian kohanim gedolim, exposed themselves to more of G-d than they had prepared themselves for. And so they died as a punishment — they remained biqrovai (those close to Me), but as a consequence.

In a generation slated to spend 40 years in the desert in a process that would get us ready for Eretz Yisrael, they couldn’t have leadership who wanted holiness now, rather than valuing the process. Nadav and Avihu could not be Moshe’s and Aharon’s successors.

The Fourth Son

We can consider the rasha, the evil child, to be a failed chakham (the wise one). He is engaged with the laws of Pesach, but unlike the first child, he rejects them.

The third son, the tam, is usually defined simple in an unsophisticated or ignorant sense, as though his approach is inferior to the wise child’s. But when we find the word “tam” in the Torah, it is a complement. Yaaqov grows up to be an “ish tam yosheiv ohalim — a tam man, who dwelled in tents”. There is a kind of simplicity that is holy, positive — being of one mind, pursuing G-d without conflicting desires or motives.

And if the tam is someone who pursues Hashem on an experiential, desire, level, then the she’eino yode’ah lish’ol, the child who doesn’t even know to ask a question, is his failed counterpart. Just as the rasha is one who tries to encounter Judaism on the chakham‘s cerebral level but rejects what he finds, the she’eino yode’iah lish’ol fails on the experiential level, he finds nothing he can relate to.

And so we continue the Hagadah explaining why the mitzvah of retelling the story of the Exodus is limited to the night of the seder:

יָכוֹל מֵרֹאשׁ חֹדֶשׁ, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר בַּיוֹם הַהוּא, אִי בַּיוֹם הַהוּא יָכוֹל מִבְּעוֹד יוֹם, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה – בַּעֲבוּר זֶה לֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֶלָא בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיֵשׁ מַצָה וּמָרוֹר מֻנָּחִים לְפָנֶיךָ.

I might have thought [the mitzvah applies] from the beginning of the month. Therefore we learn from what [the Torah] says, “on this day”. If it’s “on that day”, perhaps the mitzvah begins while it’s still daytime. Therefore we learn from what it says, “because of this” [– “this”, indicating something to point to]. “Because of this” I wouldn’t have said except at a time when matzah and maror are set out before you.

The mitzvah of telling the story cannot be cerebral teaching, from a book. It must be accompanied with the mitzvos of matzah and maror. An experiential education, an inculcation. This is the only way to reach the disaffected, the she’eino yode’a lish’ol.

And even the rasha requires this approach.  The thing that gets someone to reconsider their postulates and explore a different philosophy is the experience of (eg) a Shabbos or a Pesach seder. Otherwise, all the “proofs” in the world fall on deaf ears.

Redemption and Teshuvah

My friend Neil Harris wrote over on his blog Modern Uberdox:

I pray that this Pesach brings an end to the exile of the self and a redemption of the person I was created to be.

On which I commented:

First reaction: Beautiful!

Second reaction: Woah, wait a second, how then is Pesach different than Yom Kippur? (not meant rhetorically)

I liked our answers to this question sufficiently to want them recorded here on my turf.

R’ Neil’s suggestion:

Teshuva is a return to the state of who we should be. I think geulah (redemption) is the actualization of the potential. It’s the difference… of wanting to serve Hashem and serving Hashem.

Which is powerful enough to warrant pausing here rather than rushing to my reply. I’ll wait.

Between the time I asked and the time I was able to revisit RNH’s blog, I played with the following:

Tishrei is (in the Zohar’s language) an is’arusa delesata (an awakening from below) — we awaken the qedushah, and Hashem responds. Nissan is an is’aru dele’eilah (from above) — Hashem offers us the qedushah, and it is for us to respond. This is why Tishrei is associated with Din (Divine Justice), as Hashem’s response is in measure to what we earned, whereas Nissan is unearned holiness, an expression of Rachamim (Divine Empathy).


Applying this idea…


Ge’ulah is being freed from those external challenges that are holding us back. Thus, Hashem can offer it to us without violating our free will. And so it happens in Nissan.


Teshuvah is freeing ourselves from our internal flaws. Something we must do for ourselves — a Tishrei awakening from below.