Parashat Behar – The Property Law of Man and God

לַצְּמִיתֻת לַקֹּנֶה אֹתוֹ

 

Parashat Behar discusses a variety of laws all based upon the idea of ‘א’s property rights. The laws of Shemittah assume that ‘א owns the land and thus Bnei Yisrael must treat it in accordence with His wishes (Vayikra 25:23). Similarly, the laws of the redemption of properties and the return of ancestral lands in the Yovel is due to ‘א being the one true owner of the land, and thus has the unique ability to apportion it as He sees necessary (Ibid.). Even the laws of the slaves are included, as ‘א has taken Israel to be in His service, and thus they cannot serve others, at least not as formal slaves (25:42). This in itself, the idea that ‘א owns things and that people therefore cannot treat those things however they wish, is of great importance. But it is the exception to the rule of property return that teaches us perhaps the most important idea of all.

The exception to the return of property in the Yovel is any property inside a walled city. This property can be redeemed within a year of its sale, but after that it belongs fully to its new owner (25:29-30). If the law of the return of property is based on the idea that the land belongs to   ‘א, then it seems a little incongruent that there would be an exception to this rule. It seems to imply that urban properties don’t get returned in the Yovel because urban land doesn’t necessarily belong to ‘א but rather whomever legally acquires it. Due to its location, what would otherwise be the property of ‘א is instead the property of Man.

An argument against this might be that ‘א as Creator of the World owns everything in it, and thus there must be some other explanation for this exception. However, ‘א’s conditional ownership is clear from the contrast between the laws of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves in Vayikra 25:39-46.

39 And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee, thou shalt not make him to serve as a bondservant. 40 As a hired servant, and as a settler, he shall be with thee; he shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee. 41 Then shall he go out from thee, he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. 42 For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen. 43 Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God. 44 And as for thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, whom thou mayest have: of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them may ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they have begotten in your land; and they may be your possession. 46 And ye may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession: of them may ye take your bondmen for ever; but over your brethren the children of Israel ye shall not rule, one over another, with rigour.

Israel belongs to ‘א as a result of His taking Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. By contrast the nations who live around Israel are not ‘א’s, and can thus be taken as slaves. Clearly not everything belongs to ‘א as a result of being created by Him.

While it is clear that urban property has left the realm of ‘א’s property and moved over into that of man, it is far from clear whether or not this is a good thing. On the whole, cities in Tanakh are not depicted very positively. The first city ever mentioned is Bavel, in the Tower of Bavel narrative in Bereishit 11. That city is so negative that ‘א has to personally intervene and destroy it. The next big city mentioned is Sodom, which is also destroyed by ‘א. It continues like that, with really the only positive city being the priestly city of Nov until the founding of Jerusalem by King David. The prophet Tsephaniah in particular takes a harsh view of city life, considering it to be innately evil and corrupt. He predicts the total destruction of the cities of Israel, utilizing imagery from the Flood and Tower of Babel narratives in order to make it clear that the destruction is due to the absolute corruption of the cities. In their place he suggests that society move back toward the more pastoral, shepherding lifestyle of the forefathers. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggested that this tension between cities and shepherds is a theme throughout the entirety of the Tanakh, going all the way back to the first conflict in the Torah. While Abel was a Shepherd, Cain was a farmer, whose descendants would go on to develop much of civilization (Bereishit 4:21-22). When the Jews go down to Egypt, the fact that they are shepherds is appalling to the Egyptians, who maintaine an agricultural society (Bereishit 46:31-47:4). The one real exception might be Yeshayahu’s prophecies on Jerusalem. Much like Tsephaniah, Yeshayahu uses imagery from the Tower of Bavel to demonstrate the total corruption of the city. However, instead of predicting the city’s destruction, Yeshayahu declares that the city must become better. It seems that in Yeshayahu’s view, urban life is not innately corrupt, and could in fact be ideal if the people acted properly. Thus the portrayal of cities in Tanakh is definitely not particularly positive, but also doesn’t have to be negative.

Just as the Tanakh’s view of cities seems more complex than simply ‘good or bad’, we can’t really determine if the nature of urban land as the property of Man is positive or negative. Certainly, it could potentially be either, which highlights the incredible fact of the exception itself. The Torah describes the laws of Shemittah, Yovel, Redeeming the Land, and the Return of the the Land, as all being based on ‘א’s ownership of the land. And then it says that by building walls and cities, the land becomes the property of Man. Bnei Yisrael are apparently able, in this case, to overwrite ‘א’s ownership with their own. This is an example of a much larger theme in Tanakh and Judaism, that of the importance and value of human initiative. Human initiative is real and has meaning, despite the presence of an all-powerful god. In Sefer Shoftim, the measure of a good leader is how little he requires ‘א’s involvement in saving the people. When ‘א helped the people conquer the land, the Kedushah was only temporary, but when the people returned of their own volition in the period of Bayit Sheni, the Kedushah was permanent. The ability for Bnei Yisrael to make property their own through urbanization is an incredible demonstration of the power of human actions. However, the Tanakh makes it clear that this has the potential to be either incredibly good or incredibly bad, and it might even be easier for it to go bad. If humans have such great power, then incumbent upon them is also great responsibility. We are meant to build a perfect world, and we have the power to do so. This by definition means we also have the power to ruin the world we’ve been given to work with. This is the great challenge of humanity. We’ve been given great ability and the material to utalize. What we do next is up to us.

 

[1] Translations from Mechon-Mamre.org

[2] One could still argue that ‘א, as Creator, owns everything, but one still has to explain the distinctions between the the rural and urban properties and the Israelite and non-Israelite slaves as per Vayikra 25 as being somehow different levels of ownership, and so nothing has really been accomplished in terms of ‘א’s ownership.

[3] ספר שמואל א’, פרק כ”ב, פסוק י”ט

[4] Divrei HaYamim Alef 11:4-5

[5] Rabbi Hayyim Angel, “Zephania’s use of the Genesis Narratives”, available on yutorah.org

[6] As a massively agricultural society, Egypt was actually the first civilization to develop leavened bread, which may explain the prohibition of Chametz on PEsach. For more information, see this link: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2014/04/why-do-we-eat-matzah-on-pesach.html

[7] Rabbi Hayyim Angel, Op cit.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Yevamot, 82b.

[9] Voltaire, “Œuvres de Voltaire, Volume 48.” Lefèvre, 1832; Uncle Ben, Amazing Fantasy #15.

Advertisements

Yom HaAtsma’ut 5774

Yom HaAtsma’ut commemorates the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948. It marks a moment in history, a turning point at which everything changed. The world was not the same place on the 15th of May, 1948, as it had been at the start of the 14th. In remembering this, in marking this day, we are presented with a challenge from both ‘א and the Nation of Israel, asking us if we are living up to our potential.

History is guided by ‘א’s hand. From the first spark of Creation through the Messianic Era, history moves according to the Will of ‘א. Great events like the Exodus from Egypt and the founding of the State of Israel are how ‘א reveals His will. Moments like the Revelation at Sinai are calls for a response from mankind. How will we respond to the will of ‘א?

The problem with this concept is that it is difficult to ever say that we know why ‘א did something. He controls history, but we do not know the specific reason why any one event happened. Thinking that we do is the kind of thing that leads to giving reasons for the Holocaust and other tragedies, which is an irresponsible and unthinkable thing to do. Unfortunately, once we say that we cannot give a reason for tragedies, we can’t honestly give a reason for any historical event. Once upon a time, Bnei Yisrael had prophets, messengers of ‘א, to tell us what ‘א intended by any event, what He wanted from us at any given nexus in history. Nowadays, all we have is the words of the prophets recorded in Tanakh and the words of HaZaL to tell us what we ought to be doing and what our goals ought to be. But in spite of this difficulty, Yom HaAtsma’ut still stands as ‘א’s challenge to us, asking us if now, in the new era of the State of Israel, we will live up to who we are supposed to be.

We face a similar challenge, perhaps even stronger, from the Nation of Israel, specifically from our fallen soldiers. Yom HaAtsma’ut follows on the heels of Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. In cities across Israel there are transitional ceremonies that start as mournful remembrances and end as joyful celebrations. This contrast colors the experience of Yom HaAtsma’ut. The happiness of the day is diluted, tinged with a strong sense of the sacrifice required to make that joy possible.

The juxtaposition of these two days creates a strong sense of  purpose for the deaths we remember on Yom HaZikaron. Far be it for us to say why they died, but we do know that their deaths helped create the State of Israel that we know and love today. However, this sense of purpose should color not just the past, but also the future; not just how we see their deaths, but also how we see ourselves, our lives, our goals. The purpose that their holy blood has served, the reason they gave their lives, cannot be ignored.

We don’t get to live our lives passively. We have to have the future in mind. This is true on the both the religious and moral levels. We have to respond to ‘א’s challenge, the challenge of history. We need to find our place in ‘א’s plan, to live up to his Torah. And we need to make sure we honor those who gave their lives for the State of Israel. This doesn’t mean that everyone should move to Israel tomorrow. Making hasty and reckless decisions honors neither the holy dead nor ‘א. But we can not pretend that the State of Israel is inconsequential or that those who died for it never existed. We have to feel the challenge. And we have to respond to it.

 

Parashat Emor – Distinction and Equality

מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח יִהְיֶה

Parashat Emor includes the second of the two narratives in Sefer Vayikra, the story of the Blasphemer, found in chapter 24. Upon its first reading, the story seems a little strange, but a closer examination reveals that this strangeness in fact discloses the great importance of this narrative.

10 There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. 11The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses-now his mother’s name was Shelomith daugh­ter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan 12 and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them. 13 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 14 Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. 15 And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; 16 if he also pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death.  17 If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. 18 One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. 19 If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. 21 One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. 22You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God. 23 Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Lord had commanded Moses.[1]

Why does the text go out of its way to detail the man’s half-israelite heritage? And why is the narrative interrupted by law of Lex Talionis, “an eye for an eye” (vss. 17-22)? As we shall see, a proper understanding of Lex Talionis will answer both of these questions, and thus unlock the meaning of the entire story and its purpose in Sefer Vayikra.

Lex Talionis, known more commonly by its refrain “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, is the biblical doctrine of exact compensation. It means that when a person commits a crime against another person that causes damage, the punishment or reparation must match the crime exactly. This doctrine is commonly thought of in Western society as a manifestation of a primitive need for vengeance, the likes of which society has long since outlived. This view is only possible when the law is examined superficially and out of its proper historical setting. Lex Talionis is found in plenty of law codes from the same time period as the Torah, and examining the law in context of those codes, and others, makes the real purpose of the law clear. The true purpose of Lex Talionis is not vengeance, but equality. The doctrine is a reaction to the common cultural and legal milieu of the time wherein the law treated people differently based on their class. People of higher social classes received preferential treatment. The biblical law explicitly fights against this in its requirement of one law for all people, “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra 10:22) One rule for all members of the society means no preferential treatment for higher classes. Even further, most law codes that mention Lex Talionis intend it literally, and this serves to create even more legal equality.[2] Monetary compensation innately favors the rich upper classes. If a poor person has to pay X amount for stealing, it’s going to cause them to suffer a lot more than a rich person who has to pay the same amount. Thus, on several levels, the doctrine of Lex Talionis is meant to create equality amongst the people of Israel.

If we take this idea of an anti-caste polemic and paste it into the narrative of the Blasphemer, the reason for many of the oddities of the story becomes clear. Moshe’s lack of clarity regarding the punishment for the blasphemer flows from the blasphemers mixed parentage. While the law regarding blasphemy is clear, Moshe was unclear on whether or not the same law applied to someone who was only a half-Israelite. The law was given for, and applies to, the Nation of Israel. But what degree of Israelite parentage is necessary to make a person fully Israelite? Full Parentage? Half? What if only one of a persons grandparents is an Israelite? ‘א’s response is unequivocal: there’s no class distinctions among the Israelites. Lex Talionis: If you’re an Israelite then you’re an Israelite; There’s no legal distinction between groups of people.

This same theme is present in the laws of the holidays, mentioned in Vayikra 23 and in other places in the Torah. In the laws of Sukkot (Vayikra 23:42) the Torah specifically states that the holiday of Sukkot is for every member of Israel, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.” Part of the purpose of Sukkot and the other Regalim, the three times all of Israel gather in Jerusalem, is to create unity in the nation. This is made clear when the laws of the holidays are discussed in Sefer Devarim, chapter 16,

“11 You shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. 12 Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws… 14 You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communi­ties.”

The holidays are there to remind the Nation of Israel that they all used to be slaves and thus there is no real distinction between them.

However, this lack of distinction is in direct contradiction to one of the largest themes of Vayikra, that of the distinction between different groups within Israel, the priests and the laymen. Within Parashat Emor itself this is a major theme. All of chapter 21 and the first sixteen verses of chapter 22 of Sefer Vayikra discuss the additional restrictions on the Kohanim as a factor of special status, distinct from that of the average Israelite. Their added restrictions cover not just the rituals of the Mishkan that they are in charge of, but also other aspects of their lives like who they can marry and under what circumstances they are allowed to become impure. This distinction, and so many others, permeates all of Sefer Vayikra, and much of the rest of the Torah, yet stands in direct contradiction to the ideas of Lex Talionis and the Regalim.

There are two values in the Torah, “Distinction/Purpose” and “Equality”, that stand in direct contradiction to one another. This contradiction does not have a resolution. Instead, the laws and ideology of the Torah exist in a state of tension. Neither value is compromised on, nor is either one victorious, on the large scale. Instead, certain laws promote one value and certain laws promote the other. There is no compromise on the level of the ideas; compromise on the practical level happens perforce. This method can serve as model for dealing with tension and competing values in the modern world. We don’t have to give up on values just because they’re not our only values. Being positive and accepting of all peoples, and treating them equally regardless of the differences between them, is a positive value. But so is recognition of those differences and of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, and treating them accordingly. Neither ideal should be compromised as a general principle. In each individual situation one ideal, practically speaking, must be compromised on. However, that does not mean that we have to give up on our ideals, or ever stop striving to live up to them as much as possible.

 

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[2] The Oral Torah makes it clear that the Torah intended Lex Talionis non-literally, and instead intends monetary compensation, but this is also clear from a close examination of the places it occurs in the biblical text. To use the story of the Blasphemer as an example, it’s clear from here that the law is not meant to be understood literally from the simple fact that it’s not employed literally here. He blasphemes god’s name and is killed as punishment. This is not exactly “an eye for an eye.” Clearly the literal meaning is not intended.

Engagement Party Speech

Engagement Party Speech

For those of whom I have not yet been fortunate enough to meet, I’d like to start with a little bit about who I am. I am currently in my first year of a teaching degree focusing on Tanakh and Jewish Philosophy. I became interested in teaching, and in teaching Jewish Philosophy in particular, after attending Yeshivat Orayta, a post-High School American yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. One concept from my learning there that I found to be particularly foundational for my growth was the Kabbalistic idea of the Tsimtsum.

The Tsimtsum (from the root “לצמצם” meaning to contract or withdraw) is a concept from the teachings of the Arizal which, while rooted in earlier sources, depicted a whole new way to understand Creation. The tsimtsum depicts the primary act of creation as ‘א creating a space within Himself in which reality as we know it will exist. This deals with a variety of philosophical problems regarding creation, while perhaps creating a slew of new ones, and there are many incredible and inspiring concepts built upon this idea. I was incredibly moved by this idea and I based much of my personal philosophy upon it. However, a few months into my relationship with Tikva I realized that I had not previously understood its full significance.

Not too long after Tikva and I began dating, someone asked me if I was going to be in Jerusalem for shabbat. I responded that I didn’t know yet, but as I did so it occurred to me that what I really meant was, “we don’t know, we haven’t talked about it yet.” I had stopped thinking of shabbat plans, of all my plans really, as being simply about me, but rather they were about me and Tikva together. I no longer identified simply as myself, but rather as part of a unit composed of both myself and Tikva. I had made a space within my identity, where I wasn’t concerned with my self but with hers. I no longer thought about “my concerns” and “her concerns”, but about “our concerns. I had experienced my own personal Tsimtsum.

This merging of concerns; this sense of a complex identity; this is what the Arizal is conveying with the metaphor of the Tsimtsum. Our existence and identity as creations, our concerns, are a very real part of ‘א’s concerns. And in regards to our own perspective, we shouldn’t just be concerned with ourselves and our own personal identities. As parts of a much larger whole, it is our job to not feel that god’s concerns, and His goals for creation, are external matters, but that they are very much our own concerns. We have to feel as if the communal concerns are our own personal concerns, because that’s what they are. We are pieces of a much larger whole, and our identities and concerns ought to reflect that.

On that note, Tikva and I would like to thank everyone here, and those who could not come today, for all of their enthusiasm and support. The level of communal excitement we’ve encountered has been nothing short of incredible. Thank you all so much!

 

Carbs and Keys – Schlissel Challah

There’s been a lot of talk floating around the internet in the last week regarding Schlissel Challah, the custom of baking challah either in the shape of keyskey-challah or with an actual key pressed into the bottom on the shabbat after Pesach. While slim to none of the participants have been in support of the custom, opinions have ranged from thinking of Schlissel Challah as a pointless but tolerable practice to thinking of it as actual Avodah Zarah. Many have used the minhag as a jumping off point for larger discussions about Judaism, such as open-mindedness and hypocrisy, or Hishtadlut (the idea that personal initiative is both necessary and important in everyday life). What these discussions have largely missed is that Schlissel Challah isn’t it’s own phenomenon, rather it is part of a much larger stream of thought in Judaism.

Since its very beginning, Judaism has possessed both Mystical and Rationalist streams of thought. This dichotomy can be found even in the Torah itself, such as in the discussion of the reasons for Korbanot in Vayikra 17:5-7. The presence of this debate in midrashei HaZaL is so prevalent that A.J. Heschel wrote his three-volume magnum opus, Torah Min HaShamayim BeAspeklariah Shel HaDorot, on the topic. This split continued through the generations, with Mysticism peaking with the Arizal and the Kabbalistic Renaissance in Tzefat, and Rationalism probably peaking with Rambam and Ralbag. Schlissel Challah, while it only goes back to the Hasidic Movement, is a manifestation of this much larger debate.

Part of this debate is the question of the greater purpose of mitzvoth. Rationalists tend to view mitzvoth as being for the purpose of Mankind and its improvement, on global, societal, and individual levels. Torah learning enables people to keep halakha and encourages intelligence. Giving tsedakah provides support for the destitute while making the giver more charitable. Mysticism sees mitzvoth as being for the sake of ‘א and the mystical health and sustenance of reality. Learning Torah brings godly sustenance to all levels of reality. The giving of tsedakah is a mystical necessity for the world. While some thinkers, such as Ramchal, created syntheses that utilized aspects of both approaches, most approaches to the purpose of mitzvoth fall squarely into one of these two camps.

One aspect of the debate regarding Schlissel Challah has to do with this idea of spiritual mechanics and the meta-divine. Part of the innovation of Monotheism that Judaism brought to the world was the absence of meta-divine, things that are outside of ‘א. Idolatry is thus based on the idea that there’s something outside of ‘א. This means that any implication of sustenance or help being received via a process, without the direct influence of ‘א, is absolutely forbidden.[1] Thus assuming that putting a key in a piece of bread would cause one to receive more sustenance would be absolutely forbidden. However, that’s not the only way to view segulot such as Schlissel Challah. This negative view assumes that segulot somehow affect a system of reality outside of ‘א, but that’s only one way to conceive of such a system. Such a system of mystical processes could just as easily be a part of ‘א, or a system he set up that is totally within his control. If that were the case then Schlissel Challah would not at all be Avodah Zarah. How you conceive of segulot is just a question of how you conceive of reality, and that is already very subjective.[2]

A perfect example of the way this debate affects mitzvoth is the commandment of Shiluah HaKen, sending away the mother bird before taking its eggs.[3] The rationalist approach to this mitzvah believes that it’s purpose is to make man more merciful. The mitzvah is not an obligation so much as a proper method. It’s not that a person is commanded to take eggs and send away a mother bird, rather if a person is going to take the eggs, then they must send away the mother first, as this is a more merciful method for getting the eggs. The mystical approach is completely different. From the mystical perspective, the command is intended to activate ‘א’s attribute of Mercy to influence the Nation of Israel. Thus the mitzvah of Shiluah HaKen is not simply a method, but a full on obligation. This is more than just a theoretical debate. The first practical difference is whether or not a person should search out eggs to find. From the rationalist approach, this mitzvah is not an obligation. Like the command to give a get, a divorce document, it is simply the proper method to perform a certain task, if and only if a person finds this situation before them. Without the need for the eggs, the mitzvah would decrease a person’s compassion rather than increase it. For a mystic the command is a full-on obligation. The second ramification of the debate isn’t just about whether or not one must perform the mitzvah, but whether one is even allowed to. According to many who say that the mitzvah is a matter of mercy, sending the mother bird away unnecessarily would fall under the biblical prohibition regarding cruelty to animals. Thus a person who did not need the eggs would actually be prohibited from fulfilling the mitzvah. From the mystical perspective this issue does not exist by Shiluah HaKen, and nobody claims that Schlissel Challah is anywhere near that problematic.

The practice of baking Schlissel Challah can be, and has been, challenged on numerous grounds. However, all of these attacks come from a fundamentally different perspective than that of those who actually practice the rite.[4] Challenging Schlissel Challah is itself essentially meaningless, as all a person is really doing is challenging the axioms upon which the practice of Schlissel Challah is based, and thus challenging a very large stream of the modern Orthodox world-view. This isn’t certainly allowed, but a person should be conscious that this is more or less what they are doing when they challenge Schlissel Challah, and it begs the question of if it’s even worth it. As pointed out above, from the Rationalist prospect, Schlissel Challah is hardly as problematic as Shiluah HaKen. The advantage for challenging Schlissel Challah would be its relatively recent development compared to other rituals, but it’s still a matter of differing axioms more than anything else. At that point, one might as well challenge Shiluah HaKen, a rite practiced commonly in the modern era, despite possibly being prohibited on a Biblical level. Cruelty to animals is a big deal, and something that ought to get paid more attention to in modern Judaism. If you’re going to challenge mystical practices, one involving animal cruelty would be a much better place to start. Otherwise, it might be worth getting used to the fact Judaism always has included both Rationalist and Mystical approaches, and it probably always will.

 

[1] It’s unclear to what degree practitioners actually believe there is a direct causative relationship between putting the key in the bread and receiving more sustenance. For many, the rite is simply a reminder that ‘א is the source of all sustenance, certainly a Jewish concept.

[2] It’s worth noting that a person can object to segulot without being a rationalist. HaRav Yaakov Peretz, Shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of the Beit Midrash Sefaradi, is known for saying that he knows of “four segulot better than any others: Torah, Tefillah, Teshuva, and Tsedakah.” While he clearly is not denying the potential validity and power of segulot, he simply believes that they’re not meant to be the focus of a jew’s attention.

[3] For more information on this topic, see Rav Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha, a truly excellent resource.

[4] Ignoring, of course, those who make Schlissel Challah simply as a reminder that all sustenance really comes from ‘א.

Parashat Kedoshim 5774 – On Kedushah and the Separation of Nations

וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי

Chapters 18-20 of Sefer Vayikra form one unit dealing with two very distinct subjects in three separate parts . Chapter 18 discusses the laws of forbidden sexual relationships, chapter 19 discusses a variety of laws related to Kedushah, and chapter 20 discusses both themes together. Through this unity, Rashi reasons that the definition of Kedushah[1] is separation from inappropriate sexual relations, a definition which fits clearly with the following juxtaposition:

You shall be holy: Separate (Root: פרש) yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness, [for example:], “[They (the kohanim) shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned…I, the Lord, Who sanctifies you [am holy]” (Lev. 21:7-8); and, “he shall not profane his offspring…I am the Lord, Who sanctifies him” (Lev. 21:15); and, “They shall be holy…[They shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned” (Lev. 21:6-7).[2]

However, a close study of the text involved demonstrates that this is just the beginning of a much larger picture.

There are many ways of determining the topic and unity of a passage in Tanakh. One of the key methods is through the use of keywords, words that are repeated several times. In chapters 18-21 we find four keywords, namely “laws” (root: חק), “rules” (root: שפט), “keep” (root: שמר), and “holy” (root: קדש). “Laws,” “Rules,” and “Holy” all show up ten times while “Keep” appears seven times[3], both numbers of biblical import, which highlights the thematic role of each of these ideas.

Another method of determining thematic importance is through parallels at the beginning and end of a unit, such a the parallel between 18:3-5 and 20:22-23:

3 You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. 4 My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God. 5 You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.[4]

22 You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out. 23 You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them.

This parallel denotes the beginning and end of the section while also reinforcing the topic ideas of Laws and Rules. What is not seen to be a topic, however, is separation from sexual impropriety. Yet it is undeniably a large part of the passage. So what then can be said of the definition of Kedushah from this context?

While Separation (פרישות) is not found in this section at all, and certainly not attached to Kedushah, there is a very similar word that is used here in context of Kedushah. Vayikra 20:24-26 discusses the idea that Israel is “set apart” (root: בדל).

24 and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the Lord am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. 25 So you shall set apart the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you to treat as unclean. 26 You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

Thus Kedushah is not simply about Separation, but about being distinguished and set apart.

A perfect demonstration of this is found in the law of shaatnez, found in Vayikra 19:19[5]:

“You shall observe My laws. You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.”

This law is generally interpreted as a symbolic law meant to teach man about the importance of separating between distinct realms. It is often taken as being directed against disorder[6] or intermarriage[7]. However, the assumption that shaatnez is inherently problematic, if only on a symbolic level, is hard to maintain once one takes a look at the broader context of the Torah. Due to the fact that shaatnez is only ever mentioned by name in regards to the prohibition of wearing it, many people miss its earlier appearances in the torah. It appears in Sefer Shemot, in 26:1, “As for the Tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them,” 26:31, “You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of cherubim worked into it,” 28:6, “They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.,” 28:15, “You shall make a breastpiece of decision/ worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen,” and 39:29, “and sashes of fine twisted linen, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, done in embroidery- as the Lord had commanded Moses,” among others. These verses all refer to the materials of the Mishkan and the garments of the Kohanim. All are composed of linen and colored wool[8]. Thus while shaatnez is forbidden to the average member of Bnei Yisrael, it is in fact mandatory for the Kohanim, and therefore it cannot be inherently bad. Furthermore, even for a normal citizen of Israel it is not entirely forbidden. Bamidbar 15:39, part of the original commandment regarding tzitzit, says that shaatnez is part of tzitzit. “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.” As with the colored wool of the Mishkan and the priestly garments, the colored string of the tzitzit is made of wool[9]. The inclusion of shaatnez, along with the otherwise priestly blue[10], is part of how tzitzit remind the wearer of their priestly purpose[11].

The commandment of shaatnez is not itself about two things that need to be kept separate, but about differentiating between two groups with different purposes, the Kohanim and the rest of Bnei Yisrael. Only in tzitzit, the mitzvah intended to remind Bnei Yisrael of their purpose as a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” do they wear shaatnez. This is the integral message of the entire section, of Vayikra 18-21. The two ideas of this pericope, that of keeping the Laws/Rules of ‘א as opposed to the Laws of the Nations and that of Kedushah, are actually one. What makes Israel holy is that it is differentiated, and differentiates itself, from the other nations by its practices. However, much like shaatnez, it is not that either set of practices is necessarily good or bad. While the Torah clearly takes a negative stance towards those practices of the nations mentioned in Vayikra 18-21, what is important about them is not their moral quality, but that they are not the practices which ‘א has laid down for Israel to follow. Kedushah is about the fulfilment of purpose, on both the national and individual levels. It’s not just avoiding negative or foreign practices, but also the active fulfillment of the purpose and laws that ‘א laid down for Israel that makes Bnei Yisrael a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”

[1] Found in his comment on Vayikra 19:2.

[2] Translation of Rashi from Chabad.org.

[3] The root שמר also appears in the word “משמרתי” in 18:30, but this is grammatically different from the other 7 uses.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] The ideas in this paragraph are owed to Jacob Milgrom in his article, “Law, Narrative, and the Exegesis of Leviticus 19”.

[6] B. Sanh. 60a; Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Bekhor Shor.

[7] Mikra KiPeshuto, A.B. Ehrlich.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 4b, Yoma 71b.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Shemot 28:31 and 39:22, in contrast to Bamidbar 15:39.

[11] Shemot 19:6.

In Defense of Peshat – Unpacking an Important Ramban

In Defense of Peshat – Unpacking an Important Ramban

 

There is often a great deal of opposition to the more peshat-oriented approach to understanding the text of the Torah taken by many modern readers of Tanakh. However, there are many mainstream, Orthodox, sources, especially from the Rishonim, that support such an approach. Many such critiques tend to come along with astonishment that such a reader might disagree with Rashi, and so a comment of Ramban on Bereishit 8:4 deserves particular attention. In a few short lines he critiques many fundamental issues with much of the opposition to the peshat approach, as a brief dissection and analysis will show.

 

The Text:

 

כתב רש”י מכאן אתה למד שהיתה משוקעת במים י”א אמה כפי החשבון הכתוב בפירושיו והוא כן בבראשית רבה (לג ז) אבל כיון שרש”י מדקדק במקומות אחרי מדרשי ההגדות וטורח לבאר פשטי המקרא הרשה אותנו לעשות כן כי שבעים פנים לתורה ומדרשים רבים חלוקים בדברי החכמים

 

Rashi wrote that from here it is learned that the Ark sank 11 amot into the water, according to the calculations that are written in his commentary and in Bereishit Rabbah. However, since Rashi is in some places critical [in his reading] of narrative midrashim, and exerts himself to clarify the plain sense of the text, he permitted us to do so, for there are seventy facets to the Torah, and there are many contradictory midrashim in the words of the Sages.[1]

 

The Breakdown:

 

Rashi wrote that from here it is learned that the Ark sank 11 amot into the water, according to the calculations that are written in his commentary and in Bereishit Rabbah (33:7).

 

That is the beginning of a long comment discussing the dating and chronicling of the flood, wherein Ramban takes a strong stance against the view of Rashi and Bereishit Rabbah (33:7). Before he does so, however, he gives four reasons why it is permitted for him to argue with Rashi and the midrash from Bereishit Rabbah. It is notable that while many of Ramban’s comments on the Torah take the form of arguments with Rashi, there are also many that argue with Ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra spends much of his commentary arguing with midrashim, and thus Ramban’s sense of needing permission to argue with Rashi/midrashim is not a matter of lacking precedent in doing so. He must have faced active opposition to doing so even in his own day, and it would be to this opposition that the following comments were directed.

 

However, since Rashi is in some places critical of narrative midrashim,

 

This addresses a mistake of incredible importance in the popular understanding of Rashi. People tend to assume that “Rashi” and “Midrash” are synonymous terms. This is incorrect. While Rashi often used midrashim in his attempt to find peshat, he certainly did not always do so. A perfect example of this is his comment to Bereishit 12:5:

 

אשר עשו בחרן: שהכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה, אברהם מגייר את האנשים, ושרה מגיירת הנשים, ומעלה עליהם הכתוב כאלו עשאום. ופשוטו של מקרא עבדים ושפחות שקנו להם, כמו (שם לא א) עשה את כל הכבוד הזה, (במדבר כד יח) וישראל עושה חיל, לשון קונה וכונס

 

that they had acquired in Haran:whom he had brought under the wings of the Shechinah. Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women, and Scripture ascribes to them as if they had made them (Gen. Rabbah 39:14). The simple meaning of the verse is: the slaves and maidservants that they had acquired for themselves, as in [the verse] (below 31:1): “He acquired (עָשָׂה) all this wealth” [an expression of acquisition]; (Num. 24:18): “and Israel acquires,” an expression of acquiring and gathering.

 

The pasuk, speaking about Avraham and Sarah’s journey from Haran, mentions the “nefesh asher asu”. Everyone knows the midrash that Rashi quotes, that this refers to the people they converted. However, Rashi follows the midrash by saying that the plain reading of the text is that it means slaves. One could debate what Rashi thinks about the historical reality of the departure from Haran, whether it is like peshat or like the midrash. What is clear is that Rashi felt this midrash was not the proper understanding of the text, and that he had no problem saying so.

 

and exerts himself to clarify the plain sense of the text,

 

This brings up an interesting point. Rashi himself describes the goal of his commentary as a “peshat” understanding of the text, famously in his comments to Bereishit 3:8, “יש מדרשי אגדה רבים… ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא,” “There are many Aggadic midrashim… but I have come only [to teach] the simple meaning of the Scripture,” and 3:24, “ומדרש אגדה יש, ואני איני בא אלא לפשוטו,” “There are Aggadic midrashim, but I have come only to interpret its simple meaning”. Based on this many have stated that when Rashi brings a midrash it is in fact peshat, and anyone who really looked into it would see this. The problem with that statement is that the quote from Bereishit 3:8 is truncated. The statement continues with a really important clause, “ולאגדה המישבת דברי המקרא דבר דבור על אופניו,” “and such Aggadah that settles [the issues in] the words of the verses, each word in its proper way”. The problem with this phrase is that it could be an expansion of the previous clause, or a new statement.  If it is an expansion, then Rashi is saying that he brings midrashim that fit well with the text as part of his search for a peshat understanding, meaning he thinks the midrash is peshat. If it’s a new statement, then Rashi is saying that in addition to his goal of finding a peshat understanding of the text, he also has a goal of bringing midrashim that fit with the text, for whatever purpose. The exact nature and purpose of Rashi’s commentary therefore remains unclear.

What is clear is that Rashi is interested, to whatever degree, in finding the peshat reading of the Torah, and that when Rashi brings a midrash, it is a midrash that Rashi believes will resolve problems in the text itself. Therefore midrashim are not self-justifying. A midrash must adequately address the textual issues in order to be of relevance to understanding the text, like Ramban obviously thought it did by Bereishit 8:4, or Rashi by Bereishit 12:5. In such cases a more text-based approach is needed.

 

he permitted us to do so,

 

This is an important point. Ramban is stating that because Rashi did it, we can do it too. Neither Rashi nor Ramban thought of themselves as being part of an elite class of people qualified to analyze the biblical text. They likely saw themselves as part of a long chain of readers of the Torah, all of whom have read the biblical text with a critical eye, and then tried to solve the issues they found with various techniques, text-based and otherwise.

 

for there are seventy facets to the Torah,

 

This old Rabbinic idiom is meant to convey that a text can have meaning on many levels or to many people, without any single one being the “correct” meaning. Thus Ramban can have his understanding of the text and Rashi can have his,and each would say that the other is wrong, but that doesn’t make anybody a heretic or necessarily more correct.

 

and there are many contradictory midrashim in the words of the Sages.

 

Many argue that midrashim cannot be challenged on the grounds that the Sages were recording the words of traditions that had been passed down to them from Har Sinai, or that they had received through Ruach HaKodesh. The problem with either of these approaches is that it ignores the facts as they are. Any quick look at midrashim will reveal that they are not of one voice or opinion in most matters. This creates an issue with the supposedly divine origin of midrashim, as then either the tradition would have to be mistaken, significantly reducing its value anyway, or multiple views were all received through Ruach HaKodesh, in which case they are probably not meant to convey the literal understanding of the Torah.

A secondary issue this introduces is that midrashim cannot simply be transposed to the biblical text.[2] Midrashim were never meant to be a fleshed-out commentary on the text of the Torah. Thus there’s no uniform density of midrashic comments on the Torah. There are many pesukim with no midrashim on them at all, and many with a huge number of related midrashim. Anyone attempting to create an understanding of the Torah text based on midrashim would not only find large gaps in their commentary, but they would also be forced to pick between differing midrashim or midrashic opinions when commenting on a pasuk. A perfect example of this is Rashi’s comment on Shemot 13:19, on the phrase, “וחמשים”:

וחמשים: אין חמושים אלא מזויינים. לפי שהסיבן במדבר גרם להם שעלו חמושים, שאלו הסיבן דרך יישוב לא היו מחומשים להם כל מה שצריכין, אלא כאדם שעובר ממקום למקום ובדעתו לקנות שם מה שיצטרך, אבל כשהוא פורש למדבר צריך לזמן לו כל הצורך, ומקרא זה לא נכתב כי אם לשבר את האוזן, שלא תתמה במלחמת עמלק ובמלחמות סיחון ועוג ומדין, מהיכן היו להם כלי זיין שהכום ישראל בחרב. וכן הוא אומר (יהושע א יד) ואתם תעברו חמושים. וכן תרגם אונקלוס מזרזין, כמו (בראשית יד יד) וירק את חניכיו וזריז. דבר אחר חמושים אחד מחמשה יצאו, וארבעה חלקים מתו בשלשת ימי אפילה:

 

armed: חִמֻשִׁים [in this context] can only mean “armed.” Since He led them around in the desert [circuitously], He caused them to go up armed, for if He had led them around through civilization, they would not have [had to] provide for themselves with everything that they needed, but only [part,] like a person who travels from place to place and intends to purchase there whatever he will need. But if he travels a long distance into a desert, he must prepare all his necessities for himself. This verse was written only to clarify the matter, so you should not wonder where they got weapons in the war with Amalek and in the wars with Sihon and Og and Midian, for the Israelites smote them with the point of the sword. And similarly [Scripture] says: “and you shall cross over armed (חִמֻשִׁים)” (Josh. 1:14). And so too Onkelos rendered מְזָרְזִין just as he rendered: “and he armed (וְזָרֵיז) his trained men” (Gen. 14:14). Another interpretation: חִמֻשִׁים means “divided by five,” [meaning] that one out of five (חִמִֹשָה) [Israelites] went out, and four fifths [lit., parts of the people] died during the three days of darkness.

 

The first things that’s worth noting is that Rashi actually brings the peshat explanation, along with multiple justifications of it, before he brings the midrashic approach. More important, however, is the way in which he quotes the midrash. The midrash (Tanhuma Beshalah 1), working off the similarity between the Hebrew words for “five” and “armed”, suggests that Shemot 13:18 is really saying that only one out of every five members of Bnei Yisrael left Egypt. Or rather, that is the midrash as portrayed in Rashi’s comment. The problem with this is that an examination of the midrash in question reveals that this is not all it says.

 

וחמושים עלו בני ישראל אחד מחמישה. ויש אומרים: אחד מחמישים. ויש אומרים: אחד מחמש מאות. רבי נהוראי אומר: העבודה, לא אחד מחמשת אלפים. ואימתי מתו בימי האפלה, שהיו קוברין ישראל מתיהן, ומצרים יושבין בחשך, ישראל הודו ושבחו על שלא ראו שונאיהם ושמחו בפורענותן:

 

And Bnei Yisrael went up “חמושים”, [this means only] one out of five [left Egypt]. Some say one out of fifty. And some say one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: By the [Temple] Service! Not [even] one in five thousand [went out]. And when did they [who did not go out] die? In the days of darkness, so that Yisrael buried their dead while the Egyptians sat in darkness, and Yisrael praised and gave thanks that their persecutors did not see and rejoice in their suffering.

 

Rashi quotes the first, and least extreme, of the four opinions in the midrash. He had to select the one that made the most sense to him. Any time anyone quotes a midrash they are not giving “the opinion of the midrash”, but their own opinion, selected from the plethora of midrashic opinions available. Thus when Rashi quotes a midrash it is no more or less his opinion than when he simply gives his own non-midrashic opinion.

It’s worth noting that in this comment, the Ramban in no way attempts to say that midrashim are illegitimate in their understandings of the Torah. Instead, he takes midrashim, and Rashi’s commentary as it is popularly thought of, and puts them on the same level as the text-based approach. The Ramban does quote midrashim in his commentary, when he finds them compelling, much as he doesn’t always argue with the midrashim that Rashi quotes, when he finds them compelling. Many midrashim are actually based on very close readings of the text. All that separates such midrashim from”peshat” is what methods of interpretation are used once the text has been read. Thus for everyone from Rashi to Ramban to modern Bible critics, midrashic opinions are totally valid, but only as long a they’re compelling, and not necessarily more than more text-based opinions.

 

[1] Translation of Ramban is from the author, as is the translation of the midrash. Translations of Rashi are from http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/63255/jewish/The-Bible-with-Rashi.htm, with occasional modifications from the author for accuracy or clarity.

[2] The ideas of this paragraph are heavily based on severeal essays on “Omnisignificance” by R’ Yaakov Elman.