Some Suggestions for Daf Yomi Cycle #14

With the end of Daf Yomi cycle #13 upon us this January and cycle #14 beginning immediately thereafter, we will soon find ourselves awash with celebratory tributes and articles extolling the extraordinary growth of the program and Talmud Torah itself by proxy. We will surely hear again how an idea floated in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro has transformed the Jewish world, as the Daf Yomi itself has mushroomed over the past few cycles alone from a fledgling start-up to one in which hundreds of thousands participate every day. The purpose of this article is not to cast aspersions on any of these claims or to bolster them either. I would like to call attention not to whether people should participate in Daf Yomi but to how they should do so. And in this, I must admit that I am a victim of my training and my craft; you can take the middle school teacher out of the classroom, but you cannot take the classroom out of the middle school teacher.

I have observed and participated in several Daf Yomi shiurim over the years, in many different locations, but I use the word “participated” loosely. If I taught my middle school classes the way that most Daf Yomi shiurim are taught, I would be fired, and for good reason. Daf Yomi shiurim, by and large, are models of the poorest of pedagogy. They generally consist of one person reading the Daf to everyone else in attendance and accepting their questions if they have any. No one else reads. The teacher does not check for understanding, summarize the Daf orally or with a handout, or emphasize the most salient or important points along the way or at the end. There is no means of accountability on the part of the students, who mostly could not pass a quiz on the day’s Daf – to say nothing of yesterday’s – if they were given one. People can attend a Daf Yomi shiur for many years and, for all we know, not be able to translate the most basic Gemara terminology on their own. Is such a person a successful product of the Daf Yomi movement? I will leave it to others to determine if watching someone else learn counts as Talmud Torah, but it is far from clear what the majority of Daf Yomi attendees are accomplishing, despite their obviously good intentions and those of their teachers.

The good news is that we can do better. Just as ArtScroll is credited with enhancing Daf Yomi when they published their set serially two cycles ago, we can make cycle #14 one in which we begin to rethink what is going on pedagogically in Daf Yomi shiurim and begin to improve the learning experience for those in attendance. As we say in my field, it is time to “turn students into learners.” Here are some specific suggestions:

(1) Give ten minutes at the beginning for chevruta time on the beginning of what will be learned that day, or ten minutes at the end for chevruta time to review some of what was learned, or ten minutes at the beginning to review the end of yesterday’s Daf. Hearing oneself read enhances engagement and forces the learner to grapple honestly with whether he can credibly translate key terms and phrases that will invariably come up even in the first several lines of the Gemara. If he is slightly confused by what he reads, that frustration becomes the grist for what he is looking to sharpen as the public part of the shiur proceeds. The teacher (or perhaps we can begin to use the more in-vogue term “facilitator”) can supply a short glossary of key terms to keep the learners on track during this short chevruta exercise.

(2) Strategically, particularly after a short or easy sugya, have a member of the group re-read what was just learned to the group. Alternatively, if the next few lines are not as challenging, have an attendee (perhaps one with a bit more learning experience) read them for the group instead of the teacher reading them, or break up into chevrutot again for a few minutes before coming back together and reading the sugya to the group, or have a member of the group read after the chavruta time is finished. Pedagogically, these are suggestions which shift the balance of power from the teacher to the learners, and which change the mission of the shiur from supplying free information to crafting better and more independent learners. They are also examples of what we call “mixed modalities.” Mixing modalities – ten minutes of chevruta, fifteen minutes of frontal presentation, a one-minute discussion with someone near you about the Gemara’s question, back to frontal, back to chevruta, and so on – keeps the learner on his toes and stimulated, much like a basketball team keeps its opponents alert by running different plays. Finally, hearing different voices besides the teacher’s own helps maintain engagement.

(3) In the classroom, I do not wait for learners to ask me questions. I give what we in the biz call formative assessments in the form of occasional questions to check for understanding as I proceed. This prevents learners from losing their focus, as they may be called on at any time to answer a question. It also gives the teacher clarity on whether it is safe to continue because he knows if the learners are on track. If questions are generated entirely by the attendees, there is little to ensure that that learner understands at any other time than when he is asking the question, and the majority of the learners who do not ask questions haven given us no reason to believe they understand the material. The classic call-and-response of “Got it?” “Mmm-hmm” is another example of extremely poor pedagogy. No one is going to admit at that moment that they do not understand what was just taught. Replace “Got it?” with specific questions that can only be answered if the learner truly understands what was just learned. Even if you do not feel comfortable putting adult learners on the spot by addressing questions to them personally, you can at least throw such questions into the air and see who, if anyone, can answer them. If the answer is no one, you must reteach.

(4) Optional daily, weekly, or by-Perek quizzes would help learners to maintain their focus in class so that they perform well on the next quiz, giving them something to shoot for and some accountability. Even if you cannot require such summative assessments, you can offer them and encourage learners to take them as a means for them to check for their own understanding. A short three or five question quiz on the way out the door, what we in the biz call an “exit card,” can similarly give the learner and you feedback on whether they understood what was taught that day, and may perhaps serve to guide a learner through an independent review of the Daf later that day.

(5) Handouts can add a dimension to your Daf Yomi shiur. If a handout is to be learner-focused, it would include some of the key terms that you would like to draw attention to in that day’s Daf (think תא שמע, הכא במאי עסקינן), an outline to bring the often disparate organization into sharper relief, and perhaps a chart if one is necessary at some point in the Daf. A good handout can keep the learners focused while providing the means for them to grow as independent learners both during and after the shiur. If a particular Daf contains, say, four or five sugyot, the handout can correspond to that, allowing learners who may drift off occasionally to regroup when a new sugya begins while bringing the Daf’s organizational structure into focus. If the Daf contains something which can be the basis for further enrichment, such as a practical Halacha, the handout can contain the actual source reference or a guide to how the enterprising learner can find it themselves later in the day. Keep in mind that a very large segment of the Daf Yomi world are retired people who may not mind a little homework to keep them occupied during the rest of the day. For them, the Daf Yomi shiur can serve in part as an introduction to further learning, rather than as the entire learning experience in toto.

And now, an exit card for my readers: Have you seen any of these or other methods implemented in a Daf Yomi shiur somewhere? Did you find it helpful, or was it gratuitous and unnecessary? Tell us about it in the comments, and together we can upgrade the learning experience and help Daf Yomi facilitators shift the balance of power by turning their students into learners.

Posted in Classroom Experiences, Communal Matters, Jewish Education (meta), Talmud / Daf Yomi | Leave a comment

Love Interrupted: When Ya’akov Finally Fell for Leah (Vayishlach)

Parshat Vayishlach opens with Ya’akov’s multi-pronged preparation for meeting his estranged brother Eisav. Famously, he sends gifts to his brother, prepares for war, and prays. When it comes time to meet Eisav, we find this final bit of preparation:

ספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק א
וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה עֵשָׂו בָּא וְעִמּוֹ אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ וַיַּחַץ אֶת־הַיְלָדִים עַל־לֵאָה וְעַל־רָחֵל וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַשְּׁפָחוֹת׃

Ya’akov lifted his eyes and behold – Eisav was coming, and with him 400 men. He divided the children among Leah, among Rachel, and among the two maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah).

This Pasuk requires explanation: What was Ya’akov’s novel idea in “dividing up the children” among their mothers? Wouldn’t each child naturally have gravitated to its mother at this tense moment in any event? What was Ya’akov trying to accomplish? Furthermore, even if Ya’akov had something in mind here, why does this detail require relating to us at this critical moment in the story?

Continuing on to the next Pasuk, we find the order of Ya’akov’s camp:

ספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת־הַשְּׁפָחוֹת וְאֶת־יַלְדֵיהֶן רִאשֹׁנָה וְאֶת־לֵאָה וִילָדֶיהָ אַחֲרֹנִים וְאֶת־רָחֵל וְאֶת־יוֹסֵף אַחֲרֹנִים׃

He put the maidservants and their children first, and Leah and her children last, and Rachel and Yosef last.

Commenting on this Pasuk, Rashi makes the following pithy observation:

רש”י לספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן חָבִיב:

Whatever comes last is (the most) beloved.

This is a reasonable explanation for how Ya’akov is not neglecting his two wives, as it might seem at first glance. The problem is the location of Rashi’s comment in his commentary. It would have made sense for Rashi to say this at the part of the Pasuk discussing Rachel, who was both last and the most beloved. It may also have made sense for Rashi to make this comment earlier in the Pasuk, when the maidservants are mentioned, as this is when the listing of names is beginning. In fact, this is essentially the approach taken by the Midrash:

ספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
וישם את השפחות ואת ילדיהן ראשנה (בראשית לג, ב), הדא אמרה אחרון אחרון חביב.

“He put the maidservants and their children first” (Bereishit 32:2) – This is like what people say, “Whatever comes last is (the most) beloved.”

Rashi, however, takes the least likely approach, inserting his comment at the part of the Pasuk dealing with Leah:

רש”י לספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
ואת לאה וילדיה אחרנים.
 אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן חָבִיב:

“And Leah and her children last” – Whatever comes last is (the most) beloved.

Rashi’s placement of this comment requires explanation. After all, Leah was neither the last of the first group (אחרון), or the last altogether (אחרון אחרון), or beloved (חביב)! As we well know, Ya’akov loved Rachel far more than he loved Leah. Why does Rashi choose to comment specifically on Leah that אחרון אחרון חביב, whatever comes last is (the most) beloved?

Let us offer the following approach to answering the two questions we have laid out so far. Perhaps Ya’akov did not place the children with their own actual mothers, such that Leah would have stood with seven children (six sons and Dinah), Bilhah and Zilpah with two each, and Rachel with one. Instead he divided them up evenly (ויחץ implying an even division), three mothers ending up with three children each and one mother with two. Leah’s abundance of children could thus not be easily discerned by Eisav upon his approaching the camp. Ya’akov’s next step was to mix up the order of the mothers so that Leah was third, rather than first (she was, after all, the oldest, the first one married, and the one with the most kids) or last (as she was the least beloved). Her spot at #3 further obscured her identification, again making it difficult for Eisav to spot her.

Upon approaching Ya’akov’s camp, Eisav had a legitimate claim to take Leah away with him as his wife, as Leah was intended to be Eisav’s bride, a proposition that was deeply troubling to her (see Rashi to 29:17). Both of Ya’akov’s actions described in the Pesukim mitigate the possibility of Eisav spiriting Leah away. Ya’akov divides up the children evenly (33:1), so that Eisav cannot easily discern which of the women is Leah based on her larger number of children. Ya’akov then puts Leah in a nondescript location within the camp (33:2), again obscuring which of the women Eisav could legitimately take as a bride. Eisav asks two times for Ya’akov to identify the members of his party (33:5 and 33:8), but each time Ya’akov demurs rather than identify each of the people, including Leah, by name. Eisav leaves without being able to take Leah away with him.

Now we can understand why Rashi places his comment that אחרון אחרון חביב (“the later, the more beloved”) on the part of the Pasuk discussing Leah rather than the part discussing Rachel. The words אחרון אחרון חביב could alternatively be explained as “in the final analysis, she was beloved.” Leah has waited fruitlessly for thirty years to be treated as beloved by Ya’akov, to be given his love and attention. And in this final moment of the story – אחרון אחרון – he shows his love for Leah by shielding her from the gaze of the libidinous Eisav. When all is said and done, אחרון אחרון, Ya’akov did indeed show חביבות, love, to Leah.

Sometimes we perform acts of chesed because we love someone, while at other times we love someone because we have performed acts of chesed for them. It is not a coincidence that Ya’akov only truly begins to love Leah at this late stage in the story, because it is now that he has performed an act of chesed for her, protecting her from Eisav by divvying out the children evenly and hiding her among the other wives. We make a mistake in thinking that Ya’akov’s love for Rachel was what led to his working for her; in fact the chesed that he did for her was what inspired that love. Consider their first meeting:

ספר בראשית פרק כט פסוקים י-יא
וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָה יַעֲקֹב אֶת־רָחֵל בַּת־לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ וְאֶת־צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב וַיָּגֶל אֶת־הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת־צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ׃
וַיִּשַּׁק יַעֲקֹב לְרָחֵל וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת־קֹלוֹ וַיֵּבְךְּ׃

And it was when Ya’akov saw Rachel, the daughter of Lavan, the brother of his mother – and the sheep of Lavan, the brother of his mother – that Ya’akov approached and rolled the stone from the top of the well; and he gave water to the sheep of Lavan, the brother of his mother.
Ya’akov then kissed Rachel, and he lifted his voice and cried.

What was it about Rachel that so infatuated Ya’akov? Surely he was attracted to her, as we find out later. Yet it was not until he had performed an act of chesed for her, rolling the stone and watering her sheep, that he loved her. Then he worked for her for seven years, and then for another seven years, but in all this time we never see Ya’akov perform an act of chesed for Leah, and so there is no love. But now, at this late stage of the story, אחרון אחרון, when he has performed the chesed of saving Leah from being taken away by Eisav, she too is חביב, beloved, to him. The timing is fortuitous, because Rachel will soon die in childbirth, leaving Leah as Ya’akov’s only remaining wife. It is intriguing that the Torah never tells us when Leah dies, unlike every other major character in Bereishit (and some minor ones), but this is the final moment that we see Leah alive; any references to her after this are hidden within references to her progeny (for example, 46:15). Scenes involving Ya’akov for the duration of the book always place him living alone; Leah is never to be seen again. And it is at this final moment, אחרון אחרון, that Ya’akov discovers in Leah the love that he could have felt for her all along.

A final word: Sometimes our love for someone is eternal, realized from the outset and stretching beyond the reaches of time. Other people gallop through our lives nearly unnoticed and unloved. Ya’akov captured the moment just before the clock expired on his time with his wives, at long last feeling Leah’s pain and coming to love her through a final act of chesed on her behalf. We always have the opportunity to reset the relationships we have with those around us, even at the last minute. It is never too late to view an old friend with fresh eyes. There is no better way to seize the day than to view it as our last, or as the last of someone around us. Seize the day.

Posted in Parshat Hashavua, The Week in Rashi | Leave a comment

19th Century Torah Commentaries Series

This past summer I had the privilege of sharing a five-week series on the rebirth of Torah commentary in the 19th Century, exploring the historical context, personal biographies, and literary styles of four giants of 19th Century Jewish life – The Netziv, the Malbim, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffmann. There is no audio because the series was given on Shabbat afternoons, but I am posting the handouts below for anyone out there who may find them to be of interest.

It could be that at a later date I will add more to this post in terms of some of the notes and conclusions that we reached in our discussions, but I would urge those taking advantage of the handouts to consider whether and to what extent each of the subjects under discussion was influenced in his life decisions and writings by the rise of nationalism, the Enlightenment, and secular learning and culture. The series sweeps westward both geographically and religiously, from the relatively conservative Netziv, who, at least in the 1850’s and 60’s, expelled students from Volozhin for possessing Antiquities of the Jews, to the relatively liberal Hoffmann, who incorporated into his Torah commentary – wait for it – Antiquities of the Jews. Yet each of the subjects was influenced, albeit in different ways and to varying degrees, by the rapidly changing Jewish and secular world around them.

Introductory homework for the course: The 19th Century Commentaries on the Same Pasuk

Subject 1: The Netziv

Subject 2: The Malbim

Subject 3: Rav S. R. Hirsch

Subject 4: Rav D. Z. Hoffmann

Video conclusion of the Hoffmann class:



Posted in Jewish History, Parshat Hashavua | Leave a comment

Sukkah, Beit Hamikdash, and Eternal Love

I had the opportunity the other day to have my middle school students over in my sukkah, and I shared the D’var Torah below. I am sharing it now for any larger benefit it may serve.

There is a curious addition to the Birkat Hamazon of Sukkot which finds little parallel among the other holidays of the year. Near the end of Birkat Hamazon, we add the line הרחמן, הוא יקים לנו את סוכת דוד הנופלת; “May He Who is merciful raise up for us the sukkah of King David that has fallen.” This brief addition begs several questions. 1) Why the need for an addition to the Birkat Hamazon of Sukkot, when no parallel addition is made on Pesach or Shavuot? One can imagine a similar line for Pesach, for example, asking the Merciful One to redeem us speedily or something of that nature, but it is in fact only on Sukkot that a line particular to the holiday is added near the end of Birkat Hamazon. 2) If a line is to be added for Sukkot, why connect Sukkot with the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash? Is this a common motif, a common theme of Sukkot? Of course we always hope for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, and the Mussaf Tefillot of every holiday drive home this desire, but it does not seem to be a wish that is relevant to Sukkot in particular. 3) In this brief Tefillah, the Beit Hamikdash is referred to as a “sukkah.” This is certainly convenient given the holiday that we are celebrating, but it still needs to be true in order to be a part of the Tefillot. I am not aware of anywhere in Tanach or elsewhere in the Tefillot that the Beit Hamikdash is referred to as a sukkah. Why is this comparison being made? How is the Beit Hamikdash similar to a sukkah?

Let’s begin with the final question, and in so doing let us consider a paradox in the mitzvah of sukkah. On the one hand, the sukkah is meant to remind us of Hashem’s protection of our ancestors in the Wilderness and of us as well. Yet if this were the intended symbolism of the sukkah, it would make more sense to build it in a way that we do not feel so acutely the forces of his occasional apparent displeasure with us – driving rain, harsh wind, buzzing bees. And yet the sukkah is deliberately built in a way in which we do feel these forces and are affected by them, which may occasionally make us wonder, while we are escaping to our warmer or drier home, whether Hashem indeed does care about us, love us, or protect us at all.

This presents a philosophical challenge for us, but one that we can overcome by remembering that Hashem’s love for us is not only evident at the times that He appears most to express that love. Mishna Megillah 4:9 teaches that one who expresses a belief that Hashem is only present at the times in which good things seem to be happening should be silenced (ועל טוב יזכר שמך, משתקין אותו). One could similarly but wrongly feel Hashem’s protection only when the weather in the sukkah is nice and the bees are in abeyance, but this would be the wrong belief – משתקין אותו, we would silence such a person as well.

In this sense, our sukkah and the Beit Hamikdash have something important in common. When the Beit Hamikdash was standing, with all of its concomitant miracles and wonders, one could not help but feel Hashem’s protection, much as one sitting in the sukkah in nice weather cannot help but feel the warmth of Hashem’s radiant glow upon him. But when the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, the smoke no longer rising straight up to Heaven and the lechem hapanim no longer staying fresh from week to week, we entered a long period of national confusion about whether Hashem truly still loved us or cared about us. The nations surrounding us were only too happy to seize upon this insecurity and craft ideologies built to exploit the lack of comfort felt by the wandering, Temple-less Jew. But history has shown that this belief was wrong from its inception. Hashem loved us when we had the Beit Hamikdash, He loved us after its destruction, and He loves us in the period of partial renewal we have experienced over the past 70 years.

The prayer that Hashem “raise up for us the fallen sukkah of Dovid” was written at a time before this renewal, when it was of particular urgency to remind ourselves and our brethren that despite our being prone to feel insecure as national wanderers without a central home, we are as much Hashem’s children today as we were when we had the Beit Hamikdash. Like our own sukkah that we may occasionally escape even while we know that Hashem’s love for us is still real, we should feel that way about the “sukkah of Dovid” which, despite having fallen, does not represent evidence of Hashem’s abandonment of His people. The brief prayer in Birkat Hamazon is a call to remember that our national confusion over Hashem’s apparent abstentia is no more valid than the feeling of abandonment we might feel as we sit in our unprotected sukkah or run away from it with hands over our heads.

To return to our first two questions, which we have really already answered: Sukkot, more than any other holiday, is programmed to allow us to feel comfort despite the loss of the Beit Hamikdash, and it may be for this reason that a line is added to Birkat Hamazon specifically on Sukkot. And because the sukkah affords us the protection of knowing that Hashem loves us even when that love is not evident, we compare the Beit Hamikdash to a sukkah in this brief Tefillah. All in all, in this Tefillah we are invited to remember that Hashem’s love for us, whether in the historical sense of the Beit Hamikdash or in the localized sense of our own sukkah, is universal, eternal, and non-negotiable. May we merit to feel this way throughout Sukkot, throughout the year, and until our long national exile reaches its conclusion with the rebuilding of the third and final Beit Hamikdash and Hashem’s love and protection are felt in abundance once more.

Posted in Holidays, Succot, Tefillah | Leave a comment

Musings On the Beracha of Leishev BaSukkah

I was fortunate to be able to learn about the beracha of “Leishev BaSukkah” with a group at my Shul over Yom Tov. Below are some of the salient points, with references to the sources, which are linked to here. In our usual style, the numbers in the notes below correspond to the numbers of the sources linked to above, which can be learned alongside the notes to create a full learning experience. As an added bonus, all of the sources have English translation alongside the Hebrew.

1) The Gemara (Source 1) presents a three-way argument regarding how many times a person should make the berachot on the sukkah (“Leishev BaSukkah”) and the lulav (“Al Netillat Lulav”) over the course of Sukkot. Shmuel says that the beracha on the sukkah should be made only once each year; because the mitzvah continues uninterrupted for seven straight days, night and day, there is never an opportunity or a need to make any additional berachot of “Leishev.” (Shmuel expresses this as לא מפסקי לילות מימים – there is no [meaningful] separation between night and day.) Lulav, on the other hand, which is not taken at night, requires a new beracha when the mitzvah is renewed each morning (מספקי לילות מימים). The Gemara then presents two versions of Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion, the first by Rabba bar bar Chana and the second by Ravin. According to the first version, Rabbi Yochanan felt that the beracha on sukkah should be made all seven days, because it is a Torah commandment even outside of the Beit Hamikdash. Lulav, on the other hand, which is only a Rabbinic commandment outside of the Beit Hamikdash on the second through seventh days of the holiday, should have a beracha made only on the first day, when it is a Torah commandment. (This is difficult given that we say many berachot on Rabbinic mitzvot; Chanukah and Megillah come to mind.) The second version of Rabbi Yochanan has it that the berachot on both sukkah and lulav should be made all seven days. No reason is given for this final opinion, and the Gemara concludes that we should follow the first version of Rabbi Yochanan. (See the chart at the end of Source 1.)

Although we all know experientially that we follow the second version of Rabbi Yochanan and make a beracha on both lulav and sukkah all seven days of Sukkot, it is fascinating how this Halacha has (or has not) come down to us. The Ein Mishpat on the Gemara, which notes whose opinion is accepted as the Halacha and sends us to the right location in the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch to learn more, puts the relevant superscript letter before the second version of Rabbi Yochanan (seven days for both mitzvot). However, the place where it tells us to go in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim סימן תרלט – 639; below but not in the sources) not only doesn’t mention the beracha at all but seems suspiciously to sympathize with Shmuel’s opinion (a beracha for sukkah only on the first day):

,כיצד מצות ישיבה בסוכה? שיהיה אוכל ושותה [וישן ומטייל] [טור] ודר בסוכה כל שבעת הימים, בין ביום ובין בלילה כדרך שהוא דר בביתו בשאר ימות השנה. וכל שבעת ימים עושה אדם את ביתו עראי, ואת סוכתו קבע …

What is the mitzvah of living in the sukkah? That a person should eat and drink (and sleep and spend time – Tur) and live in the sukkah all seven days, both in the day and in the night, in the same way that he lives in his house the rest of the days of the year. And all seven days, he should make his house his temporary abode, and his sukkah his main abode.

The seemingly extraneous verbiage that a person should live for “seven days, day and night” in the sukkah seems to mirror Shmuel in the Gemara that “לא מפסקי לילות מימים” – “there is no meaningful separation between night and day” when it comes to the mitzvah of sukkah. If the mitzvah continues uninterrupted for seven days, why indeed should we make more than one “Leishev?”

There is further evidence that the Shulchan Aruch has an affinity for the opinion of Shmuel. Later on in סימן תרסב (Siman 662) the Shulchan Aruch has this to say about the beracha on the lulav:

ביום שני מברך על נטילת לולב וכן בכל שאר ימים:

On the second day of Yom Tov, a beracha is made on the lulav, and the same is true for all of the rest of the days (of Sukkot).

And yet just one siman before that, the Shulchan Aruch says this about the beracha of “Leishev” on the sukkah:

בליל יום טוב שני אומר קידוש וזמן אחריו מיד ואחר כך ברכת סוכה [זו דעת הרא”ש וכן ראוי לנהוג]:

On the second night of Yom Tov, one says Kiddush, and She’hechiyanu immediately afterward, and then the beracha on the sukkah.

Naturally one makes the beracha of “Leishev” on the second night, because the second night of Yom Tov always mirrors the first night outside of Israel. But this would have been an excellent opportunity for the Shulchan Aruch to say that we make a “Leishev” every day of Sukkot, just as he goes on to say about the beracha on the lulav one page later. After all, both are subject to the same Talmudic dispute! Yet the Shulchan Aruch never informs us of this fact. Further complicating matters is the fact that the Tur says clearly (Source 9) that we make a beracha of “Leishev” every time we enter the sukkah, and the Beit Yosef (Source 10) appears to agree. Yet in the Shulchan Aruch, the Beit Yosef himself is silent on the matter. He only mentions “Leishev” one other place (Source 11), but again not in the context of how many days it is said.

It is hard to believe that the Shulchan Aruch would have taken as a given something that the Tur (and many other Rishonim; see Sources 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) needed to state explicitly and that the Gemara leaves open to dispute. Could the Shulchan Aruch perhaps be partial to Shmuel’s opinion? After all, Shmuel’s reasoning (which, as we saw, the Shulchan Aruch seems to reference in 662) is more compelling than Rabbi Yochanan’s distinction between Torah and Rabbinic commandments, since we make many berachot on Rabbinic mitzvot. And the second version of Rabbi Yochanan doesn’t come with any reasons at all. Shmuel’s reasoning about the continuance of the mitzvah for seven complete days is air-tight by comparison. צריך עיון.

2) Based on the Gemara, the beracha of “Leishev” would only be said either once (Shmuel) or seven times (Rabbi Yochanan) over Sukkot. Tosafot (Source 2) is the first to extend the recitation of the beracha to the nearly limitless times that one may enter his sukkah over the course of the holiday. They take this leap based on a comparison to Tefillin, which, although a daily mitzvah, nonetheless require a new beracha each time they are put on over the course of the day. Likewise, reasons Tosafot, although the beracha of “Leishev” is a daily beracha, it can and should be said as many times as one does the mitzvah of entering the sukkah for virtually any reason during the day – eating, drinking, sleeping, learning, spending time. I find this comparison, which other Rishonim adopt as well (see Sources 4 and 10), to be wanting. First of all, the need to extend the beracha on sukkah from once to multiple times per day is based on the assumption that Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan meant to require the beracha on sukkah once per day in the first place. This would be true if Shmuel had indeed meant that the beracha should be said once on the first day of the holiday and Rabbi Yochanan had either agreed or felt that it should be said once every day. In reality, though, Shmuel may have meant that the beracha should be said multiple times on the first day, while Rabbi Yochanan (in his second version) felt that the beracha should be said multiple times every day of the holiday. Or Shmuel may have felt that the beracha should be said only once on the first day, but Rabbi Yochanan felt that it should be said multiple times on the first day (as not saying it at all on the later days would not preclude its being said multiple times on the first day), or multiple times every day. Either way, we may not need this comparison to Tefillin altogether, because that comparison is based on what may be a faulty assumption, namely that Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan are discussing not merely the number of days that the beracha on sukkah should be said, but also the number of times per day that it should be said. Moreover, why choose Tefillin? A comparison could just as easily be made to the mitzvah of learning Torah, which is said only once per day even if a large amount of time separates instances of fulfilling the mitzvah, and in that case the beracha on the sukkah would similarly be made only once per day, even if Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan really had meant to express the number of times per day (one) that the beracha is said! צריך עיון.

3) The רא”ש (Source 3) presents a fascinating dichotomy between the Halachic ideal and reality in regard to the issue of this beracha. Ideally one should say the beracha every time he enters the sukkah for any reason, with the further implication that the beracha be said before one sits down, since once one has sat down he has done the mitzvah and it is now too late to say the beracha. (Berachot must be made prior to the fulfillment of a mitzvah – עובר לעשייתן; hence if one has fulfilled his mitzvah simply by sitting down, it is now too late to say the beracha.) However, the Rash tempers this ideal with the reality that most people associate the mitzvah not with entering the sukkah but with eating in it, and thus it is not too late to make the beracha once one has sat down, as long as he has not yet eaten. This is an extraordinary example of Halacha being shaped by common perception rather than by the strictest of Halachic ideals, and it resurfaces in an argument between the Rambam and Ra’avad (Source 5). The Rambam feels that it is very important to say the beracha of “Leishev” before one sits down – he emphasizes this point twice in the Halacha before us on the page. The Ra’avad, however, feels that הישיבה אינה אלא על דעת האכילה, וכל זמן שאינו אוכל, הברכה עובר למצוה היא באמת – “The sitting down is only with the intention to eat; so as long as he has not yet eaten, the beracha is still considered to be ‘prior to the mitzvah.'” Again, the popular misconception that the mitzvah is not to enter or sit down but rather to eat in the sukkah shapes both the recitation of the beracha at all, as well as its timing.

Interestingly, the Shibolei Haleket (Source 8) presents another reason to allow one to make the beracha even after sitting down. He explains that the rule requiring one to make a beracha prior to the fulfillment of the mitzvah – עובר לעשייתן – mandates only that one not make the beracha after he has done the mitzvah. However, the beracha may be made during the mitzvah, as with one who has already sat down but is now still sitting and thus still fulfilling his mitzvah. In our case, then, one could theoretically only not say the beracha once he has gotten up to leave the sukkah. See Mishna Berurah (Source 12, final paragraph) regarding one who realizes as late as after Birkat Hamazon that he neglected to say “Leishev” being able to say the beracha anyway because he is still fulfilling a mitzvah by sitting in the sukkah. This reverts to the original perception of the mitzvah as more than simply eating, so the Rash would be pleased.

4) Rav Hai Gaon (quoted in Sources 3, 7, and 10) assumes that one who visits his friend’s sukkah makes a beracha of “Leishev” whether he is planning to eat there or not. It is tempting to believe that this is simply a case of Rav Hai’s having lived at an earlier time in history when the beracha was made whether one was entering a sukkah to eat or to do any other activity. However, this would make Rav Hai’s statement regarding a friend’s sukkah in particular superfluous, since it would be true even in one’s own sukkah. Thus Rav Hai must have felt that ordinarily the beracha is said only when one will be eating, but that this case is different for some reason. I would submit that the difference is that in one’s own sukkah, the (mis)perception is that the overarching primary function is one of eating; if our subject does not eat now, he will eat at some point later. But in his friend’s sukkah which he is only entering temporarily and without any desire to eat, the entire period of residency will come and go without eating ever having been on the agenda, and we thus revert to the original law that entering for any reason at all necessitates a beracha of “Leishev.” The friend’s sukkah exists for the visitor only in the realm of spending time, but entirely outside the realm of eating. The case of the friend’s sukkah is essentially a case study in what would happen if one’s own sukkah were not in any way planned to be used for eating. The Mishna Berurah (Source 12, beginning of paragraph #48) picks up on this theme by discussing the case of a person who plans to fast for an entire day of Sukkot: דדוקא כשאוכל פת, סבירא ליה להנהו פוסקים שמברך על עיקר חיוב הסוכה ופוטר כל הדברים הטפלים. אבל כשאינו אוכל, לא שייך זה. “Yet it is only when he eats bread that … this central aspect of being in the sukkah exempts the secondary aspects. But when he is not eating, this is not relevant!” In other words, in a situation where eating will not take place – either because he is fasting or, in Rav Hai’s case, because he is visiting a friend with no intention to eat – there is no eating to exempt sleeping or spending time. In such a case we revert to the original law (preferred by the Rash in Source 3) that one’s entering for any reason warrants a beracha. We can only honor the perception of eating being primary if eating is to take place at some point. If it is not on the agenda, a “Leishev” should be made upon entering, and perhaps even before sitting down.

5) If one built two sukkot, one for eating and one for sleeping (more common in Israel than abroad), it would appear based on what we have said until now that he should make a “Leishev” before sleeping in the sleeping sukkah, since the sleeping sukkah exists for him entirely outside of the realm of eating, and there is thus no eating to exempt his sleeping from the beracha. However, this may not be the case. The Rash (Source 3) presents an additional reason to exempt sleeping from the beracha, namely that one may not actually fall asleep and his beracha will then be a beracha le’vatalah, an unnecessary beracha. This is hard to understand. The beracha of “Leishev” does not mention sleeping specifically, so the beracha would seem to be relevant even if he merely spent time resting the entire night without ever falling asleep. Recall that according to all Rishonim, the theoretical construct of the beracha is to be said even just for entering the sukkah with the intention of spending some time, which would certainly be accomplished by our restless insomniac. The usual beracha of “Hamapil,” on the other hand, which mentions falling asleep explicitly, seems more nearly to pertain to the problem of having been a beracha le’vatalah if one does not fall asleep at all or even for more than just a few moments. צריך עיון on both counts.

There is more to explore in the sources – ואידך זיל גמור. Chag Sameach, and may be zocheh to be יושבים in the fallen sukkah of Dovid very soon.

Posted in Halacha, Holidays, Succot | Leave a comment

Frum or Krum: Kohanim and Mummies

My local shul is holding its Annual Dinner in a museum which houses mummies. Being a Kohen, I have always understood that I cannot enter such a museum due to the tumah, very loosely translated as impurity, that these mummies emit. The CRC, Chicago Rabbinical Council, obviously agrees, as seen by their publishing (link) a Kohen’s guide to visiting museums in and around Chicago. But is the CRC’s warning to Kohanim an example of their being Frum, or is this an unnecessary stringency masquerading as something Frum in disguise? As usual, there can be no in between.

Kohanim and Mummies – An Appraisal

This topic properly begins in Yevamot 61a (starting with the final words of 60b), where we find a Beraita recording an argument between the Tanna Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai and the Rabbis regarding to what extent we should be concerned about tumah of a non-Jew:

תניא: וכן היה רבי שמעון בן יוחאי אומר, קברי עובדי כוכבים אינן מטמאין באהל, שנאמר, “ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי, אדם אתם.” אתם קרויין אדם, ואין העובדי כוכבים קרויין אדם. מיתיבי: “ונפש אדם ששה עשר אלף!” – משום בהמה. “אשר יש בה הרבה משתים עשרה רבוא אדם אשר לא ידע בין ימינו לשמאלו!” – משום בהמה. “כל הורג נפש וכל נוגע בחלל, תתחטאו!” – דלמא איקטיל חד מישראל. ורבנן – “לא נפקד ממנו איש!” ור’ שמעון בן יוחי – לא נפקד ממנו איש לעבירה. רבינא אמר, נהי דמעטינהו קרא מאטמויי באהל, דכתיב, “אדם כי ימות באהל.” ממגע ומשא, מי מעטינהו קרא?

We learned in a Beraita: Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai also said, Graves of a non-Jew do not transmit tumah by one’s being in the same enclosure as them (tumat ohel), as it says (Yechezkel 34:31), “And you, my sheep, the flock of my pasture, are men.” From here we see that you (the Jews, the pasture referred to here) are called men, and non-Jews are not called men. The Rabbis countered this argument with a different Pasuk (Bamidbar 31:40, which speaks exclusively of non-Jews): “And the souls of the (non-Jewish) men (killed in the war with Midian) were 16,000!” (Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai countered:) This is in order to distinguish them from the animals who were also killed in the war. (Relative to animals, non-Jews are men; relative to Jews, they are not.) (The Rabbis again countered with another Pasuk, Yonah 4:11, about the city of Ninveh:) “That there are there (in Ninveh) more than 120,000 men who do not know their right hand from their left!” (Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai rebutted this argument by again explaining that in this instance, as well, the word men is used only) to distinguish the people from the animals (who are mentioned after that point in the same Pasuk). (Once again, relative to animals, non-Jews are men; relative to Jews, they are not.) The Rabbis (rejoined with another Pasuk about the war with Midian, Bamidbar 31:19): “Anyone [any Jew] who kills a person, and anyone who touches a dead body, purify yourselves!” Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai (retorted that this warning was given) for the eventuality that a Jew had inadvertently killed another Jew. The Rabbis (then pointed out that according to Bamidbar 31:49), “No Jews were killed” (in the war with Midian)! To which Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai (replied that that Pasuk means to say) that not one Jew was lost to sinning (during the war with Midian). Ravina said that that explanation is unnecessary because (during the war with Midian, the Jews surely touched non-Jews who died, even if they did not contract tumat ohel through them, and) tumah via direct contact is certainly forbidden, even with non-Jews (see Bamidbar 19:14), even if tumat ohel cannot be contracted from a non-Jew.

What emerges from this Gemara is that Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai excludes non-Jews from the prohibition of tumat ohel, and thus, according to him, a Kohen could enter a museum with a mummy. The majority opinion in the Gemara, however, assumes that the prohibition of tumat ohel applies equally whether a dead Jew or non-Jew is in the same ohel (building) as a Kohen. The Ein Mishpat letter in the Gemara is before the first words of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai, which would lead us at first glance to believe that his lenient opinion is the accepted Halacha, but this is deceptive. The Rambam certainly agrees with him, but the Shulchan Aruch is more circumspect.

The Rambam clearly sides with the lenient opinion of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai:

ואין העכו”ם מטמא באהל, ודבר זה קבלה הוא. והרי הוא אומר במלחמת מדין, “כל נוגע בחלל,” ולא הזכיר שם אהל.
A non-Jew does not emit tumah simply by one’s being in the same enclosure. And this is a matter of tradition. As it says concerning the war with Midian, “All who touch a dead body,” and it doesn’t mention anything about simply being in the same enclosure as the dead body.
The Shulchan Aruch, however, sides with the majority opinion in the Gemara, albeit tentatively:
קִבְרֵי עוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים, נָכוֹן לִזָּהֵר הַכֹּהֵן מִלֵּילֵךְ עֲלֵיהֶם; (מהר”מ וְתוס’ פ’ הַמְקַבֵּל) אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁיֵּשׁ מְקִלִּין (רַמְבַּ”ם והגמי”י בְּשֵׁם ס’ יְרֵאִים)וְנָכוֹן לְהַחְמִיר.

Regarding graves of non-Jews – it is proper for Kohanim to be avoid walking on them (Tosafot), even though there are some who are lenient (Rambam). And it is proper to be strict regarding this.

The Shulchan Aruch here is uncharacteristically inconclusive. He quotes the lenient Rambam we saw earlier that non-Jews do not emit tumat ohel (tumah via enclosure), but before that he cites Tosafot on the page of Gemara that we learned earlier, to the effect that non-Jews do in fact emit tumat ohel. Here is the salient line of the Tosafot:

… ואמר ר”י דאין הלכה כרבי שמעון, דרבי שמעון בן גמליאל פליג עליה, כדתנן במסכת אהלות (פרק יח משנה ט כתובות עז.), והלכה כמותו במשנתנו, וצריכים כהנים ליזהר מקברי עובדי כוכבים. …

The Ri said that the Halacha does not follow (the lenient position of) Rabbi Shimon (Ben Yochai), because Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel argues with him, as it says in a Mishna in Oholot (18:3), and the Halacha follows him (Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel). So Kohanim need to be careful regarding graves of non-Jews.

The Mishna in Oholot which Tosafot quotes is not insignificant, as it seems that the stricter majority opinion from the Beraita in Yevamot can be found in Mishna Oholot as well:

שָׂדֶה שֶׁאָבַד קֶבֶר בְּתוֹכָהּ, נִזְרַעַת כָּל זֶרַע, וְאֵינָהּ נִטַּעַת כָּל נֶטַע. וְאֵין מְקַיְּמִין בָּהּ אִילָנוֹת, חוּץ מֵאִילַן סְרָק שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה פֵרוֹת. וּמְטַמֵּא בְמַגָּע וּבְמַשָּׂא וּבְאֹהֶל:

A field in which a grave was lost … emits tumah through direct contact (maga), carrying (massa) or enclosure (ohel).

To summarize up to this point: The stricter opinion, that non-Jews emit tumat ohel and thus a Kohen cannot be in a building with mummies, is adopted by the majority opinion in Yevamot; Mishna Oholot; Tosafot; and the equivocating Shulchan Aruch. (It is also accepted by Pitchei Teshuva on the Shulchan Aruch, 371:13.) The more lenient opinion, that non-Jews do not emit tumat ohel and thus a Kohen may enter a building with mummies, is shared by Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai in Yevamot and by the Rambam. Particularly for Ashkenazim, who generally side with Tosafot over the Rambam, this body of evidence is not encouraging, but it may provide some grist for leniency, as we will soon see.

Possible Leniency #1 – Ohel of a Non-Jew

One avenue of leniency is simply to say that, due to the equivocating nature of the Shulchan Aruch, or due to the opinion of the Rambam, or due to a time-honored lapse of attention to this issue, tumat ohel does not apply to a non-Jew. Rabbi Zvi Grumet is a senior staff member at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, editor of the journal Jewish Educational Leadership, chairman of the Bible department at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, and a faculty member at the Pardes Institute. In a thread online about this topic in the year 2000, he said the following (link):

Avram Witty asks about the ramification for Kohanim on trips to museums in
which bodies are on display.

The generally accepted halakhic opinion is that the bodies of non-Jews do
not generate Tumah in an ohel, although they do generate Tumah via direct
contact. Assuming that the students on the trip will not be handling the
mummies there should be no problem for Kohanim to attend those trips.
There is probably also no particular reason to be concerned that one of
the bodies might be that of a Jew given that the majority of residents in
the city (as well as the majority of mummies) are those of non-Jews.

If there is a Jewish body then there is a problem, unless the cases in
which the bodies are stored have more than a tefah separating between the
body and the lid of the case. (Note: This halakha prompted El Al to have
the caskets they use for transporting bodies to Israel for burial
redesigned so as to allow Kohanim to fly their airline).

Having the [Jewish – RLZ] body in a separate wing of the building is a complicated
question and depends on the design of the building. As far as children
under the age of Bar Mitzvah is concerned, aside from the educational
issue there is a prohibition for an adult to bring Tumat meit to any
Kohen, even a minor.

Rabbi Tzvi Steinberg, a Posek in my hometown of Denver, recently weighed in on the issue. He feels that although it is a valid chumrah for Kohanim to avoid being in a building with mummies (based on the Shulchan Aruch’s strict but tentative verdict), it is unnecessary to be strict if the mummies are encased in any sort of enclosure, as they usually are in a museum.

Thus, according to Rabbi Grumet and Rabbi Steinberg, a Kohen could safely visit virtually any museum with a mummy, provided that he does not touch the body. If the mummy was found to not be encased at all, the Kohen could rely on the Rambam and the tentative nature of the Shulchan Aruch rather than exit the building. If the mummy was encased, all the better.

Possible Leniency #2 – Sof Tumah Latzeit and Non-Jews

My own Posek, Rabbi Boruch Simon of Yeshiva University/RIETS, feels that it is proper to assume that tumat ohel does apply to non-Jews, like Tosafot and the Shulchan Aruch but unlike the Rambam. However, Rabbi Simon finds room to be lenient for a different reason. Within the rules of tumah, there is a concept known as sof tumah latzeit, which posits that tumah spreads to all areas of a building even if all doors or windows are closed between the Kohen and the dead body, on account of the fact that ultimately (סוף) the dead body (טומאה) will leave the building (לצאת) to be buried. However, Rabbi Simon, with whom I discussed this issue, cites a Tifferet Yisrael (a commentary on the Mishna) that sof tumah latzeit does not apply to non-Jews. Since we assume that mummies are not Jewish, this leniency would allow Kohanim to visit a museum with a mummy. However, it must be noted that this leniency is far less sweeping than the one employed by Rabbi Grumet and Rabbi Steinberg, because it would not apply to a situation in which doors or other openings were open between the Kohen and the mummy. A Kohen would need to ascertain the layout of the museum in question and be certain that no doors or openings could or would be open between where he would be and the room with the mummy. And of course, according to Rabbi Simon, a Kohen certainly could not be in the same room as the mummy, whereas this would be allowed according to the earlier line of reasoning that tumat ohel does not apply to a non-Jew. Naturally, neither leniency would allow a Kohen to touch a mummy.

Posek Leniency Based on … Applies to …
Rabbi Grumet
Rabbi Steinberg
Tumat Ohel does not apply to non-Jews Rambam, tentativeness of Shulchan Aruch Being in same building as a mummy
Rabbi Simon Sof Tumah Latzeit does not apply to non-Jews Tifferet Yisrael Being in same building as a mummy, if doors between Kohen and mummy are closed


There are two possible ways that I have found for Kohanim to be lenient regarding visiting museums with mummies. If we assume that tumat ohel does not apply to non-Jews – like the Rambam but unlike the Shulchan Aruch, Mishna Oholot, Tosafot, and the majority opinion in Yevamot – a Kohen could be in the same building and even the same room as a mummy. If we assume that sof tumah latzeit does not apply to non-Jews, a Kohen could be in the same building as a mummy, provided that he is not in the same room and that there are no direct openings between him and the mummy. With regard to my specific issue of the shul Dinner in the museum, the practical difference between the two leniencies is instructive. According to Rabbi Steinberg and Rabbi Grumet, I could certainly attend the Dinner, simply being careful not to touch a mummy while I am there. Rabbi Simon’s leniency, while trickier during the day when doors are being opened and closed all the time, applies quite well to a Dinner situation, when most of the museum is closed and the event primarily takes place in a single area. Still, research would need to be done beforehand on the layout of the museum. Of course, it is valid to hold that both tumat ohel and sof tumah latzeit apply to non-Jews, in which case there is simply no way for a Kohen to visit a museum with mummies. Hence the CRC’s Kohanic guide to the museums of Chicago, which is not Krum and even quite possibly Frum, but perhaps more Halachic guidance would have been in order to explain the specific nature of the prohibition and potential areas of leniency.

The life of the modern Kohen has its privileges and occasional setbacks, but ultimately all Kohanim should feel privileged to be part of the special group chosen by Hashem to represent the Jewish nation in coming close to Him each day. By keeping ourselves in a state of purity, we affirm our allegiance to the rules which govern our membership in this special caste. This in turn maintains the relationship which is so central to the lives of the Kohanim and the entire nation. Where there are valid leniencies, they may be utilized. But let us remember that our lives as a whole, and as Kohanim in particular, should be oriented toward higher levels of Divine service, not avoiding that service altogether. May we all, Kohen and non-Kohen alike, strive to reach such a level and to take pride in our having achieved it.

Posted in Communal Matters, Frum ... Or Krum??, Halacha | Leave a comment

The Origins of Slavery (On the Siyum of My Son on Bereishit)

My eight-year-old son and I just completed the Book of Bereishit, a study we began when he was just four years old. In honor of the occasion, I wanted to share some thoughts which I have been developing over the past few days regarding the ominous final verses of the book.

Prior to Yaakov’s death, at the beginning of Parshat Vayechi (see 48:29-31), Yaakov urges Yosef to commit to performing “a kindness and a truth” by burying Yaakov in the Land of Israel, and more particularly in Ma’arat Hamachpeilah, where his wife Leah, his parents, and his grandparents are all buried. Yaakov reminds Yosef that Ma’arat Hamachpeilah was purchased legally and publicly by Avraham from Efron Ha’chitti. Yosef agrees to do as Yaakov has requested.

Yet a strange series of events unfolds shortly after Yaakov’s death and protracted public mourning period. First, in 50:5, Yosef tells the household of Pharaoh to tell Pharaoh that Yaakov had compelled Yosef to swear that he would bury his father in a grave which he himself had dug and prepared for his own use. Why couldn’t as powerful a figure as Yosef speak to Pharaoh directly? Why does he sound so contrite (“If I have found favor in your eyes …”)? And perhaps most importantly, why does Yosef lie? Yaakov did not ask to be buried in a grave he had dug for himself, but rather in Ma’arat Hamachpeilah.

Continuing the series of surprising events, in 50:7 Yosef is accompanied (or perhaps followed) by all of Pharaoh’s servants and elders, and all of the elders of Egypt. Quite an entourage to escort the father of the Vice President! I imagine if Mike Pence’s father passed away, the Vice President might get a collection of condolence cards from Governors and Senators. But how many would escort the elder Mr. Pence for burial in a foreign country, then remain there an additional seven days (see 50:10 and :14) before returning to their own homes? And this is after a 70-day period (see 50:3) of public mourning by the entire country!

More perplexing details revolve around the journey to bury Yaakov. In 50:8 we are told that Yosef’s own household, his brothers, and his father’s household escorted Yaakov, which is not surprising, but why do we also need to be told that “only their children, their sheep, and their cattle were left behind in the Land of Goshen?” Why didn’t they come, and why do we need to be told that they stayed behind? And then in 50:9 comes a further oddity: The burial party is accompanied by “also chariots, also horsemen – a very intense camp.” Were they preparing for war?!

Maybe so. Bereishit 50:8, in which the children, sheep, and cattle remain behind in Goshen, parallels Pharaoh’s command to Moshe in Shemot 10:8-11 that the sheep, cattle, and children all remain behind while the men go to serve Hashem in the Midbar:


וְכֹל֙ בֵּ֣ית יוֹסֵ֔ף וְאֶחָ֖יו וּבֵ֣ית אָבִ֑יו רַ֗ק טַפָּם֙ וְצֹאנָ֣ם וּבְקָרָ֔ם עָזְב֖וּ בְּאֶ֥רֶץ גֹּֽשֶׁן׃


וַיּוּשַׁ֞ב אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֤ה וְאֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְכ֥וּ עִבְד֖וּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם מִ֥י וָמִ֖י הַהֹלְכִֽים׃
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֙נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ כִּ֥י חַג־ה’ לָֽנוּ׃
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם יְהִ֨י כֵ֤ן ה’ עִמָּכֶ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר אֲשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶ֖ם וְאֶֽת־טַפְּכֶ֑ם רְא֕וּ כִּ֥י רָעָ֖ה נֶ֥גֶד פְּנֵיכֶֽם׃
לֹ֣א כֵ֗ן לְכֽוּ־נָ֤א הַגְּבָרִים֙ וְעִבְד֣וּ אֶת־ה’ כִּ֥י אֹתָ֖הּ אַתֶּ֣ם מְבַקְשִׁ֑ים וַיְגָ֣רֶשׁ אֹתָ֔ם מֵאֵ֖ת פְּנֵ֥י פַרְעֹֽה׃

Further, while it is not clear in our story whether the chariots and horsemen are the property of the Jews or the Egyptians, it is tempting to say the latter on the basis of Shemot 14:9, where Pharaoh’s change of heart compels him to run after the Jews with chariots and horsemen – in nearly identical language to Bereishit 50:9:


וַיַּ֣עַל עִמּ֔וֹ גַּם־רֶ֖כֶב גַּם־פָּרָשִׁ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה כָּבֵ֥ד מְאֹֽד׃


וַיִּרְדְּפ֨וּ מִצְרַ֜יִם אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיַּשִּׂ֤יגוּ אוֹתָם֙ חֹנִ֣ים עַל־הַיָּ֔ם כָּל־סוּס֙ רֶ֣כֶב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וּפָרָשָׁ֖יו וְחֵיל֑וֹ עַל־פִּי֙ הַֽחִירֹ֔ת לִפְנֵ֖י בַּ֥עַל צְפֹֽן׃

The funeral of Yaakov then seems to take two forms in the succeeding pesukim. In 50:10, the expanded burial party reaches the border of Egypt and Israel, where they stop and mourn Yaakov for seven days. But then in 50:12-13, the sons, apparently sans Yosef, accompany Yaakov to Ma’arat Hamachpeilah for his actual burial. Why does the rest of the burial party remain on the border of Egypt and Israel (with the chariots and horsemen) while only the remaining sons of Yaakov actually go to bury their father in Ma’arat HaMachpeilah?

Putting all of the clues together, perhaps we can suggest that the period of slavery had already begun. Even Yosef was not allowed free movement, which explains his need to beseech Pharaoh, indirectly, for some time off, and his making up a story which would be more palatable to the Egyptians, given their custom of burying people in a way which would appease one’s god (link). As the seven years of famine are over, Yosef seems to have his position in name only: Although Pharaoh acquiesces to Yosef’s leaving, he sends an army batallion with him to ensure that he and the other Jews return, also ensured by his requiring them to leave behind their property and children, a tactic repeated in Shemot.

Upon reaching the border of Israel, Yosef and the brothers are conflicted. Pharaoh has called Yosef’s bluff and sent along a full cadre of messengers to ensure that he really is just going to bury Yaakov in his own grave, but this is not what they had ever actually intended to do. Hence the double funeral. During the seven days of mourning on the border of Egypt and Israel, the eleven brothers slip off from the much larger group to bury Yaakov in Ma’arat Hamachpeilah, which is probably about a seven-day round-trip journey by camel from the Egyptian border. (Google Maps says it’s a 54-hour walk or four hours by bike.) Upon their return from the secret mission to fulfill their father’s actual wish, all return to Egypt together.

The significance of all of this is that with the passing of Yaakov, the slavery has begun in earnest. The Jews (including Yosef) are no longer trusted to go and come as they please, even for a brief return to their homeland right across the border. Notice that Yosef seems to be aware of the even greater difficulty his brothers would face returning his own body to Israel, as the wall closes in on the Jews, instructing them as the curtain closes on the book of Bereishit only that at some future date his bones (not his body) be returned to Israel:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו אָנֹכִ֖י מֵ֑ת וֵֽאלֹהִ֞ים פָּקֹ֧ד יִפְקֹ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֗ם וְהֶעֱלָ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מִן־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֛ע לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב׃ וַיַּשְׁבַּ֣ע יוֹסֵ֔ף אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְהַעֲלִתֶ֥ם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַ֖י מִזֶּֽה׃

Yosef twice tells his brothers that, at some point in the future, Hashem will remember them and that it is only at that time that his bones should be returned to Israel. How sad that the one-time savior of the entire Land of Egypt, after having first been reduced to an honorific but untrusted figurehead, now must admit to his own brothers – they who once bowed down to him as a king and savior – that the ruse is up, the match is played, the gratitude of a nation has turned to ambivalence and scorn.

Commenting on the shamed-faced way in which Yosef approaches Pharaoh to seek permission to bury his father, Rav Hirsch writes that in truth the Egyptians were never fully comfortable with the foreigner Yosef as their leader. Naturally distrustful of outsiders, it could not have been a source of pride that their nation was saved and semi-ruled by a destitute Cana’ani slave-boy. Surely the entrance of Yosef’s foreign father and brothers into the story only serves to cramp his style, as he is forced to advise them on how to live and how to approach Pharaoh regarding their living conditions (see 46:31-47:6), further accentuating Yosef’s foreignness. As the book comes to a close and Yosef is no longer economically useful, his gig comes to an end as the noose is tightened on the neck of the nascent Jewish nation. He dies, is embalmed, and is placed in a box (50:26), but we are not told of any national mourning, and his posthumous return to the land of his fathers is forestalled by the slavery which has already begun at the hand of a nation he thought he knew.

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