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:

Bereishit:

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

Shemot:

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:

Bereishit:

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

Shemot:

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.

Posted in Parshat Hashavua | Leave a comment

Meet the Bar Papas, a Transnational, Intergenerational Nuclear Family

I came across something tonight rather by accident, which led me down a rabbit hole from which I am still trying to re-emerge.

In preparing a unit on the history and people of Gemara for my 6th graders, I came across a story regarding Rav Huna (our current subject) in Gemara Ta’anit 21b. What is of significance to us here is only the introductory line: “אמר ליה רבא לרפרם בר פפא: לימא לן מר מהני מילי מעלייתא דהוה עביד רב הונא!” “Rava said to Rafram bar Papa, ‘Tell us please, sir, some wonderful stories about the actions of Rav Huna!”‘ To which Rafram replies that he did not know Rav Huna when the sage was young, but he can recount stories of Rav Huna’s old age. To most people, including myself until a few days ago, this line would not be felt worthy of further investigation. But it gave me pause because it made me feel at first like all of my research and charts I have prepared for my students have been in error. Rav Papa was a 5th generation Babylonian Amora who lived from approximately 300-372 and headed the Narash Yeshiva (a branch of Neharda’ah) from 353-372. Rava was a 4th generation Babylonian Amora who lived from around 279-353 and headed the Pumbedita Yeshiva (in its transplanted home in Mechoza) from around 339-352. All of those facts are more or less as brought down in Rabbi Berel Wein’s Vision and Valor, the two-volume Hebrew אנציקלופדיה לחכמי התלמוד והגאונים, and the relevant Wikipedia articles. But if those facts are correct, Rafram bar Papa, assuming at the moment that he was the son of the 5th generation Amora Rav Papa, had he overlapped with Rava at all, would have been very young and not worth the great Rava’s asking for stories about the second-generation Rav Huna, who predated both of them. (Rav Huna lived from around 215-298 and headed the Sura Yeshiva from 255-298.)

But my mistake was in assuming that Rafram bar Papa and Rav Papa were related. I assumed this because Rafram is one Rav Papa’s ten sons (or are they his sons?) mentioned at every siyum. Yet even within אנציקלופדיה לחכמי התלמוד והגאונים, there is no reason to believe that Rav Papa and Rafram bar Papa were related. Rav Papa is listed, as he should be, as a 5th generation Amora, and Rafram bar Papa as a member of the 4th generation, so clearly Rafram could not be Rav Papa’s son. Meanwhile, Rafram’s “brother” Chanina bar Papa (also mentioned at every siyum) is listed as a 3rd generation Israeli Amora – so he, too, would not have been a son of Rav Papa. Another “son,” Surchav bar Papa, is mentioned only a couple of times in Gemara when he quotes the second generation Zeiri, so it doesn’t seem that Surchav could be a son of Rav Papa either. So when we recite the “Bar Papa” names at a siyum, these are not sons of Rav Papa, notwithstanding the note to the contrary on the Hadran page in the ArtScroll Gemara. Unless Rav Papa happened to have sons with identical names to other Amoraim in far-flung countries spanning many hundreds of years, the names listed in the Hadran are simply not his sons.

Meanwhile, according to אנציקלופדיה לחכמי התלמוד והגאונים, Rafram bar Papa was a 4th generation Amora and a student of Rav Chisda, who in turn was a colleague of Rav Huna. Rava, also a member of the 4th generation, was a student of the more contemporary Rav Nachman. So it is possible that Rafram bar Papa would have better access to information or stories about Rav Huna, as his own Rebbe (Rav Chisda) was Rav Huna’s colleague, whereas Rava’s Rebbe Rav Nachman was not. So the story in Ta’anit checks out as long as we can dislodge from the notion that Rav Papa was Rafram bar Papa’s father. It seems undeniable that Rafram bar Papa has no relation at all to Rav Papa, and when we mention Rafram bar Papa and the others at a siyum it is not with any intent to invoke Rav Papa or his wealth or magnanimity. Note that אנציקלופדיה לחכמי התלמוד והגאונים does not mention anything about Rav Papa’s children, and Rabbi Wein mentions only one son and one daughter. So why are these ten disparate people whose fathers were all named Papa mentioned together at a siyum?

I am glad that the brief Hebrew Wikipedia article on Rafram bar Papa affirms my conclusion: “בניגוד לדעה נפוצה, לא היה בנו של רב פפא, המאוחר לו,” “In contrast to popular belief, he was not the son of Rav Papa, who lived later than him.” But this “popular belief” is quite widespread, as a quick Google search for “the sons of Rav Papa at a siyum” unearths dozens of websites that assume per force (or per ArtScroll) that the names recited at a siyum are Rav Papa’s ten sons. That is remarkable, because one of them, our Rafram, would have had to be born long before his own father Rav Papa, who was born in 300, if he were to have known Rav Huna, who died in 298! I suppose there could be two Rafram bar Papa’s – one who was the son of Rav Papa and lived in the 5th or 6th generation, and one earlier Amora who knew Rav Huna. And two Chanina bar Papa’s, one a 3rd generation Israeli Amora and the other a son of the 5th generation Rav Papa. But that doesn’t sound overly likely. And by the way, wouldn’t the people mentioned at the siyum be “Rafram b’rei D’Rav Papa,” “Surchav b’rei D’Rav Papa,” and so on? Wouldn’t Rav Papa’s sons be referred to as the sons of “Rav Papa,” not just “Papa?”

More questions than answers here at this point. Maybe I will update this post at a later date with a better explanation as to why these people are mentioned at a siyum, given that they have no connection to each other or to Rav Papa, and the recitation of their names at the siyum is startlingly short on context. A historical review of old Gemara volumes seems in order. When did this tradition start? Was there at some point more clarity on why this list is said? Is the list borrowed from somewhere else? Why is the list said at that particular point in the siyum ceremony, just after praying that our children and grandchildren be immersed in Torah study? (I have long added a simple “כ” at the beginning of the list, the connection then being that we hope to be as successful in raising our own children as Rav Papa was in raising his.) In any case, צריך עיון for now, and thanks for coming down the rabbit hole with me.

Posted in Classroom Experiences, Jewish History, Talmud / Daf Yomi | Leave a comment

The Disappearance and Reappearance of Pesach in Tanach

I was privileged to give a shiur in my shul the last afternoon of Pesach on “The Appearance and Disappearance of Pesach in Tanach,” focusing on whether Pesach was celebrated in the midbar and on the disappearance and reappearance of Pesach at later points in Tanach. The sources are here (link). Here are some observations on the topic, corresponding to the sources in the link. My gratitude to everyone who came out to the shiur and offered their ideas and insights.

1) Outside of the original Pesach in Egypt, there is a debate when the ongoing mitzvah of Pesach went into effect. Source 13 seems to suggest that the observance of Pesach is dependent on being in the Land of Israel – “כי תבאו אל הארץ” – a suggestion also made by the Mechiltah (Source 6) which is quoted by Rashi (Source 7). But this is not definitely the case. A different Rashi (Source 8) quotes intermittently from a Gemara (Source 3) and two Sifri’s (Sources 4-5) that the order of the Pesach story within the Book of Bamidbar (see Sources 1-2) – or perhaps the telling of the Pesach story altogether (as implied by the Sifri in Source 5) – indicate to us that there was something inappropriate or shameful about the Jews’ observance of Pesach in the midbar, most famously that this was the only one they observed (Rashi in Source 8 based on the Sifri in Source 5). Yet how could their general lack of Pesach observance in the midbar be to their shame if, like the Mechilta (Source 6) and Rashi (Source 7), the Pesach commandment was not in effect anyway until they entered the Land of Israel? Furthermore, if it is to be bemoaned that they didn’t observe Pesach most years in the midbar, why didn’t they just do so?

These questions can be answered by exploring a Tosafot (Source 10) as well as the commentaries of Mizrachi (Source 16) and Nachalat Yaakov (Source 17) on Rashi. Tosafot explains that the Torah’s limitation of “כי תבאו אל הארץ” indeed precludes the Jews’ observing of Pesach until they have entered, conquered, and settled the Land of Israel. (Nachalat Yaakov [Source 17] wonders why Tosafot could not simply say that this Mitzvah kicks in the moment they enter the Land, not at the later stage of conquering.) The Pesach in Year 2, as well as Yehoshua’s Pesach immediately upon entering the Land, are extra-legal observances (“על פי הדיבור”). If so, wonders Tosafot, what was the shame that the Jews bore for not observing Pesach all those other years in the midbar? To wit Tosafot answers that the true shame lay in the unexpected delay in the midbar brought on by the sin of the spies, which prevented the Jews from entering more quickly and being able to observe Pesach sooner.

Tosafot then takes a different tack, namely that “entering the Land” (“כי תבאו אל הארץ”) may be more metaphorical or aspirational than we have assumed up to now. Take a glance at the list of Land-dependent mitzvot in Source 14. Most are predictable – Shemittah, Bikkurim, Orlah, Challah – but one that sticks out like a sore thumb is #g, Tefillin. Why would Tefillin be a Mitzvah that is dependent on entering the Land? Tosafot responds, based on another opinion here in Gemara Kiddushin, that Tefillin is a mitzvah in whose merit we gained entry to the Land; it is not dependent on being in the Land but is an entrance ticket into the Land. Pesach, too, says Tosfaot, may be viewed in this light, not as a mitzvah dependent on the Land but as a mitzvah upon which entering the Land is contingent. If so, wonders Tosafot, why not observe Pesach all 40 years in the Midbar? To which Tosafot answers that most of time, most people were uncircumcised due to the harsh weather in the midbar, and uncircumcised people cannot participate in the Korban Pesach. This, naturally, is still an implicit dig at the spies, whose actions (and those of the masses of Jews who followed after them) brought on the unexpectedly long journey in the midbar, without which the lack of circumcision would not have become an issue.

Many in the shiur (myself included) did not like this second path taken by Tosafot. Throughout the entire 40 years in the midbar, there were at least a few people (Moshe, Aharon, Yehoshua, and Kalev) who were circumcised and could have brought the Korban Pesach on others’ behalf. Furthermore, until 13 years later there would not have been anyone who was both uncircumcised and of age to bring a Korban Pesach. It is hard to see why the young children born in the early years in the midbar would have prevented the masses of adults Jews from bringing a Korban Pesach. I think this is a very valid question on Tosafot.

2) Mizrachi (Source 16, #ג) takes a creative approach in which the Sifri and Mechiltah do not contradict. According to both, says the Mizrachi, the mitzvah did not take effect until the Jews entered and conquered the Land. The shame which the Jews bore in not observing Pesach in the midbar, then, was that they would have entered the Land sooner had it not been for the spies. What the Mizrachi does not point out is that, utilizing this approach, the two Rashi’s (Sources 7-8) also do not contradict. On the one hand, like Rashi in Source 7, the Jews were not commanded to keep Pesach in the midbar. On the other hand, it was to their shame (as Rashi in Source 8) that the sin of the spies prevented their entering Israel sooner and thus delayed their observance of Pesach.

3) Someone at the Shiur took a very innovative approach to why the Jews observed Pesach in the midbar in Year 2 but never did so again, using a hard-to-understand line in the Sifri (Source 4). While Rashi (Source 8) picks up on the Sifri’s explanation (Source 5) that the Jews’ גנות, shame, was born of their only keeping one Pesach in the midbar, the competing Sifri (Source 4) gives a different explanation for the shame of the Jews in the midbar, namely “שהיה להם אחד עשר חודש שהיו חונים לפני הר סיני,” “that there were eleven months that they were camped before Har Sinai.” This cannot mean that they were lazy in arriving at Har Sinai (לפני meaning prior to), because we know there were 49 days of travel before arriving at Har Sinai after crossing the Yam Suf. What my friend at the shiur explained beautifully is this: Because they remained at Har Sinai an unduly long time (לפני meaning in front of) due to the protracted nature of the Golden Calf incident and the resulting building of the Mishkan, they were still at Har Sinai eleven months later when Pesach again arrived, rather than already being in Israel by that time. What was to their shame was that they were not yet in Israel by Pesach of Year 2, due to their own sins which drew out their stay at Har Sinai. This explains why the Jews would not have been expected to still be in the midbar at the date of Pesach #2, and thus why they needed to be commanded to observe it then (“על פי הדיבור”), but why they were nonetheless allowed to do so extra-legally rather than not observe it at all. Had this been their only mistake, however, they would have been in Israel by Pesach of Year 3. The subsequent 39 Pesach observances, however, were not expected of them because the Jews’ continued languishing in the midbar was due not to the Golden Calf incident, but to that of the spies.

4) Assuming the observance of Pesach was not mandated until the Jews entered or conquered the Land, why would this be so? Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch offers a beautiful explanation for the delay (Source 18):

העבדה – במובן רחב, כל חיי האדם הם עבודת ה’, להיות עבד ה’ – להשתמש בכל כוחותיו, בכל רגע מחייו, כדי לקיים את רצון ה’ – היא המטרה הנעלה ביותר, אליה יוכל האדם לשאוף. במובן מצומצם יותר, נקראים “עבודה:” המעשים, בהם מעמידים אנו את עצמנו כל פעם מחדש לשירות ה’, ומכינים עצמנו לשירות זה – הווי אומר, קרבנות ותפילה.

אולם התורה לא כינתה אף קרבן בשם “עבודה,” מלבד קרבן הפסח. ואמנם, היה הפסח הפעולה שסימלה את תחילת כניסתם של האדם היהודי, הבית היהודי, והמדינה היהודית לעבודת ה’. וכן הפסח הינו הפעולה המסמלת תמיד כניסה מחודשת לעבודה זו. לכן, “כי תבאו וגו:'” כאשר יימחו שיירי עקבות שעבוד מצרים, ואתם תהיו שמחים, בני חורין, וישובים על אדמתכם, חיזרו תמיד על “עבודה” זו בהקפדה. העמידו את עצמכם שוב במצב שהיה בראשית הווייתכם הלאומית, בהיותכם חשוכי שמחה, משוללי חירות וקרקע; ושוב, היכנסו מחדש, כאז, לעבודת ה’.

“Avodah” – In the global sense, all of the life of man is service of G-d, to become a servant of Hashem. To strive with all of our efforts, at every second of our lives, to fulfill the will of Hashem – this is the highest and loftiest goal, to which a person is able to strive. In the more localized sense, “Avodah” refers to actions, those through which we are able to stand ourselves up at all times newly to serve Hashem, and prepare ourselves for this service – that is to say, Korbanot and Tefillah (which are referred to as “Avodah”).

However, the Torah does not refer to any Korban as “Avodah” besides the Korban Pesach. And indeed, the Korban Pesach is the activity which symbolizes the beginning of the personal, familial, and national service of Hashem. And likewise, the Pesach is the activity which always symbolizes the renewed entrance into this service. Therefore, [when the Pasuk tell us that] “when you enter the Land” [you are to observe Pesach, it means the following]: When you erase the remainder of the Egyptian subjugation, and you are happy, free, and living on your own Land, you should always review and reflect upon this “Avodah” specifically. You should put yourselves again in a situation like you were at the beginning of your national journey, when you were devoid of happiness, absent of freedom or your own land; and return to, enter newly into, service of Hashem.

This beautiful description of Pesach as the original initiation into, and eternal restoration of, the personal and national service of Hashem lends an important and helpful perspective on three similar stories about Pesach which occur later in Tanach. The first (Source 19) relates to a Korban Pesach organized by King Chizkiyahu, whose reign was a rare bright spot in an otherwise bleak period for the Jewish nation. The second story (Sources 21-22), which in some ways is similar to the first, describes a Korban Pesach sponsored by another extremely positive character, King Yoshiyahu. The final account (Source 27) is of Ezra’s Pesach, brought immediately upon the Jews’ return to Israel following the 70-year exile brought upon by the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash. Let’s look at these three stories in light of Rav Hirsch’s description of what Pesach represents to the Jewish individual and nation.

As made clear in Source 19, Chizkiyahu’s Pesach was part of a program to restore a lost semblance of Jewish sensibility among the populace, but the idea was not without its hiccups. Chizkiyahu wanted the Pesach to be brought in Nissan, but his advisors convinced him to delay the ceremony by one month because so many people were absent and the Kohanim themselves were unprepared. Many Jews scoffed and mocked the messengers sent throughout the kingdom to inform the populace of the upcoming Pesach. In the end, even the Kohanim were taken by surprise that so many people showed up for the Pesach, resulting in a scramble among the Kohanim to prepare themselves in time for 14 Iyar. Clearly, this was a time of what Rav Hirsch would call “כניסה מחודשת לעבודה זו,” a renewed examination of what the service of Hashem should be.

This can be seen even more starkly in the chilling story of Yoshiyahu (Sources 21-22), whose reign followed the terrible reign of King Menashe. By the time Yoshiyahu came along, the religious abyss into which the Jews had sunk was so deep that the discovery of a single Torah scroll was a great surprise to the nation. Reading from the scroll, Yoshiyahu discovered Pesach anew – a literal encapsulation of Rav Hirsch’s description of the entire goal of Pesach: העמידו את עצמכם שוב במצב שהיה בראשית הווייתכם הלאומית, a renewed feeling of being in a similar position to that of the original birth of the nation. Ezra’s Pesach (Source 27), coming at the start of building the second Beit Hamikdash, was likewise a time of national renewal and rebirth. All three stories of national rejuvenation and reexamination are accompanied by Pesach.

Looking at these three stories – Chizkiyahu, Yoshiyahu, and Ezra – in the context of our earlier discussion about when the permanent observance of Pesach began, we are left to wonder how common the bringing of the Korban Pesach even was in the days of Tanach. Recall that the observance may not have begun until the land was settled, presumably the end of the life of Yehoshua. Commenting at some length on the remarkable statement (Source 21) in the Yoshiyahu story that “לֹא נַעֲשָׂה כַּפֶּסַח הַזֶּה מִימֵי הַשֹּׁפְטִים אֲשֶׁר שָׁפְטוּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכֹל יְמֵי מַלְכֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמַלְכֵי יְהוּדָה,” “a Pesach like this had not been done since the days of the Judges or in all of the days of the Kings of Israel or Yehuda,” Rashi (Source 26) points out that the split in the kingdom had resulted in most of the Jews’ having brought what amounted to Avodah Zarah for many years. Yoshiyahu was the first leader of a unified Jewish nation since the days of the judges. Again, this is a time of national renewal represented by a Pesach, but it is also a reminder that the Pesach ritual itself was more often neglected than performed. Still, the Tanach’s claim that this was the first Pesach since the days of the judges is undermined by the fact that, as we saw, there was a Pesach 100 years earlier in the days of Chizkiyahu. Radak (Source 24) offers several resolutions to this conflict, including that, as we saw, Chizkiyahu’s Pesach was mocked or dismissed altogether by many, while others ate the Pesach in a state of impurity. Yoshiyahu’s Pesach, on the other hand, was a more authentic symbol of national rebirth.

This is some of what we developed at the shiur. ואידך, זיל גמור. May our own Pesach observance mirror what Rav Hirsch describes and allow us to feel a true sense of personal and national renewal each year. Chag Sameach to all.

Posted in Holidays, Jewish History, Nach, Pesach | Leave a comment

Frum or Krum: Mikvah for a Kohen

The time has come once again to don our cape and venture out into the weird, wild, and wacky world of contemporary Halacha, to determine whether the writ as presented to us by the establishment is truly frum or a disingenuous dose of abject religiosity cloaked in frum garb but in actuality krum. As always, this being the Jewish blogosphere, there can be no middle ground.

Today’s Question was inspired by a phone call I received a few days ago. Some of my students are on a trip to our nation’s capital, and a chaperone called me with an urgent question. It seems that two of the boys, who (like me) are Kohanim, had inadvertently been in a museum with mummies and now wanted to know if they need to go to a mikvah. I was surprised by the suggestion and responded that they absolutely do not have to go to a mikvah. It turns out that if you Google this topic, you are likely to find one short article (link) on the topic, where both in text and audio the authority on the site says and repeats that “it is proper” for a Kohen who became tamei accidentally to immerse in a mikvah. That sounds awfully frum, but is it krum? Further research has given me more insight into the topic and, as usual, ever more skepticism about the selective sourcing by some in the frum world.

Discussion: The sole source in the article linked to above is the obscure work “Torah Lishmah” by the Ben Ish Chai. This volume of Teshuvot (responsa) of the great Sefardi sage of Baghdad (1833-1909) is available on HebrewBooks.org, so I took the liberty to learn the entire relevant Teshuva of the Ben Ish Chai (direct link to Teshuva #35). The discussion there is centered on a Gemara in Bechorot, 27a-b.

 ,רב נחמן, ורב עמרם, ורמי בר חמא, הוו קאזלי בארבא, סליק רב עמרם לאפנויי. אתאי ההיא איתתא עלת קמייהו. אמרה להו: “טמא מת מהו שיטבול ואוכל תרומת חוצה לארץ?” אמר ליה רב נחמן לרמי בר חמא, “וכי הזאה יש לנו?” אמר ליה רמי בר חמא, “לא ליחוש ליה לסבא?” אדהכי, אתא רב עמרם. אמר להו, הכי אמר רב: ‘טמא מת טובל ואוכל בתרומת חוצה לארץ.” ולית הלכתא כוותיה

Rav Nachman, Rav Amram, and Rami bar Chama were traveling on a boat. Rav Amram went to relieve himself. A woman came to them (Rav Nachman and Rami bar Chama) and said, “May someone who is tamei met (impure from contact with a dead body) immerse in a mikvah and then eat Terumah from outside Israel?” Rav Nachman said to Rami bar Chama, “(Why not?) Do we have (the ability to fully purify ourselves by) sprinkling from the ashes of the red cow (anyway)?!” Rami bar Chama responded, “Shouldn’t we wait for the elder, (Rav Amram, to return before we answer the woman)?” Eventually Ram Amram returned. He said to her, “Here is what Rav said: ‘A tamei met may immerse and then eat Terumah from outside Israel.” But the Halacha is not like him.

The Ben Ish Chai notes that how we understand this Gemara is contingent on a debate between Rashi and Tosafot. According to Rashi, the woman assumes per force that the tamei met needs to immerse in a mikvah; her question centered around the issue of whether he also needs to wait until the evening to eat Terumah (הערב שמש), as would have been necessary if he had access to the ashes of the red cow. Hence Rav Nachman’s answer that in the absence of the ashes, the need to wait until evening is no longer necessary. Tosafot, however, explains that the woman’s question centered on whether even immersion is necessary, given that the Terumah in question is merely Rabbinic, inasmuch as it is outside of Israel. Rav Nachman’s answer would then be that in the absence of the ashes of the red cow, even immersion is no longer necessary. Rav Amram and Rav clearly feel differently – that in fact a tamei met may immerse and eat Terumah (without הערב שמש), but the narrator of the Gemara nevertheless concludes that the Halacha does not follow their opinion and that immersion is unnecessary.

The Ben Ish Chai concludes that whether or not a Kohen who accidentally becomes Tamei Met must immerse in a mikvah hinges on this debate between Rashi (that this woman and the Rabbis are discussing הערב שמש only, but immersion is certainly required) and Tosafot (that they are in fact debating the necessity even of immersion). But in actuality, given the conclusion of the Gemara, this debate is less than consequential. Whether or not הערב שמש was under the microscope, Rav Amram and Rav clearly felt that the tamei met requires immersion, while the Gemara itself concludes differently (ולית הלכתא כוותיה – but the Halacha is not like this). Yet somehow, the Ben Ish Chai, while acknowledging that Tosafot questions the need for immersion, still concludes that even Tosafot would prefer ideally that a Kohen immerse:

נמצא לפי פירוש התוספות הנזכר, הדין הוא דלא צריך טבילה הוא. ועם כל זה יש לומר גם לפירוש התוספות חיובא הוא דליכא, אבל על צד היותר טוב, נכון לעשות טבילה, כי באמת הכי סבירא ליה לרב ולרב עמרם ולרב ששת. על כן גם לסברת הש״ס, לפי פירוש התוספות הנזכר, אין להחליט ולומר שאין ממש בטבילה, שאין להרחיק הדיעות של גדולי האמוראים מצד לצד

So we see from the explanation of Tosafot mentioned earlier that the law is that immersion is not necessary. But even still, it is possible to say that even according to Tosafot, while there is no definite obligation, it is nevertheless still a meritorious practice to immerse, because in truth this is certainly how Rav and Rav Amram and Rav Sheishet held. Therefore, even according to the opinion of the Gemara, as explained by the Tosafot quoted earlier, we should not be so decisive as to say that there is no value whatsoever in immersion, so as to not simply push aside opinions of our holy Sages.

This is a difficult Gemara to follow through the Halachic process, because, as the Gemara itself says, “לית הלכתא כוותיה,” “the law does not accord with this (opinion that immersion is required),” and Halachic works do not always write things that aren’t the Halacha (although sometimes they do). But perhaps we can learn something from the absence of such a requirement in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 369-374, which, while discussing the laws of Kohanim and Tumah at some length, never mention that a Kohen should go to a mikvah if he comes into contact with a dead body. The excellent new Hebrew book Taharat Hakohanim (link), which is essentially a commentary on that section of Shulchan Aruch, also never mentions such a requirement. The English-language version of that book, The Kohen’s Handbook, while discussing “What Happens if a Kohen Becomes Tamei-Mes?” (Chapter 2, pp. 44-46), also never mentions a requirement for a Kohen to immerse in a mikvah.

All of this makes it somewhat perplexing that the article and MP3 linked to above fixate on the Ben Ish Chai’s analysis, which in turn essentially takes a revisionist view of Tosafot’s opinion and ignores the conclusion of the Gemara and the absence of an immersion requirement from any other Halachic source such as the Tur and Shulchan Aruch. While it is certainly commendable that the Sefardi authority on the website follow the precedent of Sefardi authorities such as the Ben Ish Chai, it should be remembered that, of course, the Beit Yosef was also a Sefardi. The Ben Ish Chai may have meant his analysis to apply more in the context of what even he terms “a meritorious practice” for the particularly pious or Kabbalistic-minded set, yet the impression left by the article and MP3 is that the requirement is more universal than that. Of course, without even Rabbinic Terumah nowadays, or the ashes of the red cow, or a requirement of הערב שמש – and living as most of us do in a state of perpetual impurity brought on by being outside of Israel, or more generally by the lack of the ashes of the red cow – it is extremely difficult to explain what such an immersion would even begin to accomplish beyond the non-Halachic feel-good notion that the Ben Ish Chai seems to be trying to advance. In the Gemara’s case, the tamei met could look forward to eating Terumah. In our case, any practical outcome of the immersion seems to be null.

Verdict: Krum. Notwithstanding the Ben Ish Chai’s Teshuva in Torah Lishmah and its sole use by the website cited at the beginning of this post, I stand by my original assertion that mikvah is unnecessary for Kohanim today, in light of any reasonable read of the Gemara’s conclusion (and Tosafot’s read of the premise of the Gemara), and the absence of such a requirement in any mainstream Halachic text that discusses the subject as a whole. May we merit to see the Beit Hamikdash rebuilt, the red cow’s ashes restored, Terumah re-instituted – and my students needing to immerse for accidental tumat met so that they can perform their priestly duties properly.

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

Frum or Krum: Using the Shamash on Chanukah

The time has come once again for our should-be-award-winning exploration into mores and vicissitudes in the Jewish world and how they stack up to the light of objective research (spoiler: usually, not well).

Today’s question: Does the presence of the shamash in the Chanukah menorah allow one to read, learn, or otherwise benefit from the other candles? If not, may one receive such benefit anyway but presume that this benefit is derived in fact from the shamash?

Background: As we approach Chanukah, the question of the shamash is a thorny one, what with our ubiquitous electric light casting darkness over what was once a surefire solution to the prohibition against benefiting from the Chanukah candles themselves. Already in the days of the Gemara (Shabbat 21b), one who had an alternate light source did not need an extra candle (נר אחרת), unless he was an important person who did not rely on the alternate light source:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף כא עמוד ב
אמר רבא: צריך נר אחרת להשתמש לאורה
ואי איכא מדורה – לא צריך
ואי אדם חשוב הוא, אף על גב דאיכא מדורה – צריך נר אחרת

Given that we do use our electric lights exclusively, the shamash would seem to be expendable nowadays. Nevertheless, no competent Posek since the proliferation of electric lights has written that we can definitively do away with the age-old custom of having an extra light by the Menorah. But further obscuring the need to maintain the custom is the possibility that it serves no purpose anyway, as we read in ArtScroll’s aptly named volume “Chanukah” (p. 118): “If someone wishes to do anything needing light, he should refrain from doing it near the menorah, even though the shamash is burning (OC 673:1 with MB).” This struck me as a strange statement. Why bother lighting the shamash if it can’t be used anyway? What purpose is the so-called shamash then meant to serve? This claim by ArtScroll sounds frum, but is it true?

Discussion: Let’s first look at the sources ArtScroll claims to cite – “OC (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim) with MB (Mishna Berura).” To the Shulchan Aruch we go:

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות חנוכה סימן תרעג סעיף א
… ונוהגים להדליק נר נוסף, כדי שאם ישתמש לאורה יהיה לאור הנוסף שהוא אותו שהודלק אחרון. ויניחנו מרחוק קצת משאר נרות מצוה. הגה: ובמדינות אלו אין נוהגים להוסיף, רק מניח אצלן השמש שבהן מדליק הנרות, והוא עדיף טפי, ויש לעשותו יותר ארוך משאר נרות, שאם בא להשתמש, ישתמש לאותו נר (מרדכי).

We can already see hints of ArtScroll’s direction from the prevaricating nature of the wording of the Shulchan Aruch and Rama – note the bold words above. Still, we need to see how this is explained by the Mishna Berura:

משנה ברורה על שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות חנוכה סימן תרעג סעיף א
שאם ישתמש וכו’ – ועיין מגן אברהם, שלכתחלה אין להשתמש אצל כולן יחד, כם אם לאור הנוסף [או להשמש] בלבד, כשהוא אחד בפני עצמו, דהרואה יאמר לצרכו הדליק כולן, דלפעמים אדם מדליק כמה נרות, ועיין בבאור הלכה

The Mishna Berura references a vaguely worded Magen Avraham (paragraph 4) that “initially, one should not do things near all of them together, but rather (כי אם) only by the light of the extra candle, when it is by itself.” On its own, this could be interpreted to mean (as ArtScroll seems to assume) that even when it is part of the group of candles but separated slightly, the shamash should not be used, though again the point of having it there would then be hard to understand. But the Magen Avraham might also mean that it is only when the extra candle is by itself that the other candles may not be used, but then, by extension, if it is with them they all may be used. And would the Magen Avraham perhaps consider the shamash to be “by itself” (בפני עצמו) when it is near the group but raised or otherwise separated slightly? We need to see other interpretations of the Magen Avraham, most of which will not read it as ArtScroll does.

The Beur Halacha (the Mishna Berura’s own super-commentary) weighs in:

ביאור הלכה סימן תרעג סעיף א
שאם ישתמש וכו’ – עיין במגן אברהם שכתב, “אבל מכל מקום אסור להשתמש אצלן וכו’,” עיין בפרי מגדים שפירש דאף נגד אור הנוסף או השמש, גם כן אסור לכתחלה

The Pri Megadim, a super-commentary on the Magen Avraham, does indeed interpret the Magen Avraham as ArtScroll does, that the shamash should not be used. But the Beur Halacha continues:

והמעיין ברבינו ירוחם שהובא בבית יוסף לא משמע כן, אלא דנגד השמש, כשמניחו בפני עצמו רחוק קצת מהנר, מותר לשמש נגדו. וכן כתב במחצית השקל בביאור דברי המגן אברהם, עיין שם. אחר כך מצאתי באליה רבה שהסכים גם כן לדינא, דנגד השמש מותר להשתמש. ועיין בשערי תשובה סוף דבור המתחיל “השמש,” דעתו נמי כמו שכתבנו

The Rabbeinu Yerucham quoted by the Tur, the Machatzit Hashekel discussing the same Magen Avraham, the Eliyah Rabba, and the Sha’arei Teshuva all assume that if the shamash is separated slightly, it may be used, against ArtScroll’s narrower interpretation of the Magen Avraham. This seems to be the interpretation preferred by the Beur Halacha, who again is the same person as the Mishna Berura that ArtScroll was supposedly quoting.

The Machatzit Hashekel (another super-commentary on the Magen Avraham) makes the point that the Magen Avraham would allow use of the shamash itself, but not the candles it is “serving,” even though the very presence of the shamash would appear to mitigate the possibility that one is using the other candles:

מחצית השקל על שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות חנוכה סימן תרעג סעיף א
אבל מכל מקום אסור להשתמש אצלן – רצה לומר, דוקא אצל השמש מותר להשתמש, אבל אצל נר חנוכה, אסור להשתמש, אף על גב דאיכא שמש, דנהי דלא חיישינן במה שנהנה מאורן, כיון דאין צריך להם, דהא איכא שמש, וכמו שכתב מגן אברהם סוף סעיף זה [סעיף קטן יא] … ואף על פי שהרמב”ן לא מיירי שיש לו נר אחר אצל נר חנוכה כי אם על שלחנו, מכל מקום, סבירא ליה למגן אברהם, דהוא הדין בשמש, אף על פי שעומד אצל נר חנוכה. מכל מקום, שייך חשש הרמב”ן אם ישתמש אצל נר חנוכה, יאמר הרואה, לצורכו הדליק כמה נרות

The Machatzit Hashekel further assumes that the Magen Avraham, in allowing the shamash to be close to the other candles, is disagreeing with the Ramban, who requires it to be farther away. The Machatzit Hashekel does make an interesting distinction between the presence of the extra candle, which he says (explaining the Magen Avraham) may be close to the other candles, and the location of the activity (such as reading or sewing), which should nevertheless not be done close to the Menorah. Nevertheless, the extra candle may be put close to the other candles – and even should, so that one may then reasonably be assumed to be using that extra candle when engaging in activities elsewhere in the room.

Throwing a further wrinkly into the Pri Megadim and ArtScroll’s read of the Magen Avraham is that the Magen Avraham himself makes a startling revelation a few paragraphs down the page (paragraph 11):

מגן אברהם על שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות חנוכה סימן תרעג סעיף א
מותר להשתמש אצלן – דהא הדלקת השמש הוא כדי שישתמש לאורן! שמע מינה דאם הם ביחד, מותר להשתמש אצלן [דרכי משה]. והב”ח חולק וסבירא ליה דדוקא שמש שעומד למעלה מכל הנרות שרי דמשתמש לאור השמש, מה שאין כן כאן, עד כאן לשונו.

Here, in Paragraph 11, far from doubling down on his earlier claim that the shamash may not be used, the Magen Avraham claims that the entire purpose of the shamash is to allow use not only of the shamash but of all the candles! Not only does the Magen Avraham explicitly side with the broader interpretation of his earlier words preferred by the Machatzit Hashekel, but even the stricter opinion mentioned in this Magen Avraham in the name of the Bach would hold that if the shamash is “standing higher than the other candles” (as ours is), it would be “permitted to benefit from the shamash.” That is apparently the strictest the Magen Avraham can imagine being on the issue. So how does this square with the Magen Avraham’s earlier, apparently stricter opinion in Paragraph 4? Let’s look at it now inside piece by piece, rather than in the briefer form cited in the Mishna Berura which we saw earlier.

מגן אברהם סימן תרעג סעיף קטן ד
שאם ישתמש –
אבל מכל מקום אסור להשתמש אצלן, דהרואה אומר לצרכו הדליק כולן, דלפעמים אדם מדליק כמה נרות [מלחמות]

This was the line quoted by the Mishna Berura. While he could have meant (as ArtScroll assumed) that even the presence of the shamash does not permit the other candles to be used, he also might mean that despite the presence of the shamash, the candles still may not be used on their own, i.e. without the shamash assisting them. The existence of the shamash does not ipso facto permit the candles themselves to be used. This would fit with what the Magen Avraham himself says in the later paragraph (#11) that we already saw. Then, after quoting two other sources, the Magen Avraham concludes thus:

 ומכל מקום, צריך להניח שמש אצלן, שמא ישתמש אצלן

Apparently the shamash needs to be close to the other candles specifically so that in case the other candles are used, we will have a reasonable guarantee that one is in fact using the shamash. Again, this is an indication that the shamash itself is supposed to be used and that it should be close to the other candles, all as the Machatzit Hashekel explained the earlier Magen Avraham. Clearly, the beginning of Paragraph 4 (the part quoted by the Mishna Berura) was not meant to suggest that a shamash cannot be used or that it prevents other candles from being used, a point the Mishna Berura himself made in the Beur Halacha and the Magen Avraham made in Paragraph 11. This would seem to end any remaining interpretation of the Magen Avraham as having forbade use of the shamash altogether (or at least in the way that we lay it out in our Chanukiyot), and the line of argument based on that possible reading of the first line of Magen Avraham #4 by the Mishna Berura, as advanced by ArtScroll, becomes impossible.

Verdict: So what to do with ArtScroll’s frum-sounding statement that “if someone wishes to do anything needing light, he should refrain from doing it near the menorah, even though the shamash is burning?” We label it “krum,” and another example of the English-speaking Jewish world held hostage by books written as if their readers lack the resources, ability, time, or wherewithal to look anything up themselves, especially when, as in this case, no clear source reference is given. As an educator, it is a reminder that the central goal of our profession is to give every student the ability to question, research, and solve problems for themselves, or to consult competent authorities to which they have personal access, and not trust what is given to them in English books with which they cannot interact. A liberating feeling indeed, when we can do it. A happy holiday of liberation to all!

Posted in Chanukah, Frum ... Or Krum??, Halacha, Holidays | Leave a comment

Parshat Mattot: Mi Ya’aleh B’Har Hashem – Hearing the Echo of Diaspora’s Call

By a fluke of the calendar and my travel schedule, I got to hear Parshat Mattot twice – first in Israel, then in America. Parshat Mattot is a difficult one for those who have made Aliyah and like to stick their thumb in the eye of those of us who have not. Clearly, despite his initial misgivings, Moshe eventually comes to accept the request of Reuven and Gad to live away from their brethren on the eastern side of the Jordan for reasons that seem trivial at best. Finding the eternal message in this story, and applying it to our lives today, entails reflection and intellectual honesty.

In exploring the story of the tribes who are granted permission to live on the eastern side of the Jordan River at the end of Parshat Mattot, many questions emerge, specifically in regard to the presence of “חצי שבט מנשה,” “half the tribe of Menashe,” in the story:

1) Presence of Menashe: Strangely,”חצי שבט מנשה” does not appear in the story until 32:33, at the time that Moshe is actually giving the land to the separating tribes, long past the forging of the agreement with Reuven and Gad that they would first conquer the Land of Israel with their brethren and only then leave to settle east of the Jordan. Why the late entry of Menashe into the story? Are they, too, subject to the agreement made with the other two tribes which precedes their introduction into the narrative? What is the significance of their being referred to (32:33) as בן יוסף? In light of their being given land by Moshe in 32:33, why the need for them to conquer land in 32:39-41? Likewise, why the need for Moshe to approve of the conquering in 32:40 (as it seemed to be pre-approved), and why is he silent after Yair ben Menashe’s conquering of the villages in 32:41?

2) Makeup of Menashe: We are told that “חצי שבט מנשה,” “half of the tribe of Menashe,” will join Reuven and Gad. It is strange to see “half” of a tribe do anything, as a tribe is usually of a single destiny. But stranger still is the makeup of this “half.” As the Pesukim proceed, we find two sons of Menashe – Machir (32:39) and Yair (32:41) – conquering land of Gilad. A look back at the listing of the sons of Menashe in Parshat Pinchas (26:28-34) shows that the sons of Menashe are Machir and Gilad. Yair is not listed as a son of Menashe, but Gilad is both a son of Menashe (hence Machir’s brother) and a son of Machir. Remember that Gilad is also the name of the territory conquered by Machir and Yair in our story, at the end of Parshat Mattot. How did Yair become a member of the tribe of Menashe, and is Machir conquering his own son or brother, Gilad? And given that Menashe only has two sons, Machir and Yair would seem to represent 100% of the tribe, not 50%, unless we read the narrative as saying that half of the tribe (namely Gilad) is being conquered by his only legitimate brother Machir (the other half of the tribe) with help from Gilad’s familial replacement Yair. (Yair was actually from the tribe of Yehuda. Concerning his adoption into Menashe, see Ibn Ezra to 32:41.)

3) Novach: In the very last Pasuk of Parshat Mattot (32:42), a man named Novach (נֹבַח) conquers Kenat (קְנָת) and names it after himself. Who is this man, whose name does not appear anywhere else in Tanach? What tribe is he from? Does he have a mandate from Moshe to live east of the Jordan, or does Moshe at least approve of this land-grab post-facto as he does for Machir in 32:40? Rashi tells us that the absence of a dagesh in the word לה regarding the naming of the city indicates that the word should be read לא, because Novach’s renaming of the city was rejected and his sons reverted to the city’s original name of Kenat. Why would his own sons reject their father’s legacy? Compare this to 32:38, which emphasizes how successful Reuven and Gad were in renaming the cities that they conquered. Who is this mysterious man, what is his tribal affiliation and mandate to leave Israel, and why is he seemingly unsuccessful in doing so?

To begin with the end, some thoughts on Novach. Perhaps his lack of tribal affiliation is exactly the point. He is not a Reuvenite, a Gadite, or a Menasheite – he is an opportunist, a member of a different tribe who spies opportunity in the form of an easier life outside of Israel without the work of conquering the land as required of Reuven and Gad. He hitches a ride out of Israel on the coattails of Reuven and Gad, eager for a taste of the “good life” unencumbered by the Mitzvah obligations or military challenges that the Land of Israel entails. Unfortunately for Novach, his own sons turn their father’s legacy on its head, recognizing that he was a non-respectable sloth who sought the easy way out of a life in the Holy Land. His name may never appear before or after in Tanach, but it rings a bell:

אסתר פרק ג פסוק טו
הָרָצִים יָצְאוּ דְחוּפִים בִּדְבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַדָּת נִתְּנָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן יָשְׁבוּ לִשְׁתּוֹת וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן נָבוֹכָה:

תורה תמימה הערות אסתר פרק ד הערה א
כי המלה “נבוכה” שבפסוק הקודם, הוי משמעה כאדם הנבוך ומבולבל מאיזו ידיעה בלתי ברורה, המפילה עליו אימים ולא ידע מה.

The Torah Temimah explains that the city of Shushan being נבוכה means that it was “like a man who is confused and bewildered and has a lack of clarity about a certain thing, which is causing him fear but which he is not fully aware of.” Novach of our story – like the classic nebach that his name would engender – stumbled through the darkness of his life seeking the easiest and most convenient road, the path of least resistance. His own children did not respect him, and his machloket with the rest of the Jews was אין סופו להתקיים, not destined to last (see Avot 5:17).

The moral of this story: Those of us who choose to live outside of Israel, particularly in our generation when it is relatively easy to live there, must make a regular accounting to ourselves as to what our reasons are for doing so and whether they meet objectively meaningful criteria. Certainly there are some among us who follow the path of Reuven and Gad, having made a reasoned decision based on discussion with an objective authority, as modeled by the tribes of Reuven and Gad who spoke to Moshe and whose renaming of Diaspora cities was successful. But from the size and health of Jewish communities all over the globe, particularly in America, nearly 70 years since Israel became a State, it is hard to believe that this is the case for many of us who continue to live in the Diaspora even now. For how long we can continue to follow the path of Novach without squandering our legacy is a question that should give us pause.

If Reuven and Gad stand on one end of the spectrum and Novach on the other, where does חצי שבט מנשה stand? What of their absence for most of the story? Why don’t they ask permission of Moshe to live outside of Israel? Perhaps the answer lies in their apparently superfluous description as בן יוסף. Their permission was not sought from or granted by Moshe because it had already been granted by their ancestor יוסף. Consider the emphasis on the birthplace of Yosef’s sons in their presentation to Yaakov:

בראשית פרק מח פסוקים ה-ו
וְעַתָּה שְׁנֵי בָנֶיךָ הַנּוֹלָדִים לְךָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, עַד בֹּאִי אֵלֶיךָ מִצְרַיְמָה, לִי הֵם אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה כִּרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן יִהְיוּ לִי
וּמוֹלַדְתְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹלַדְתָּ אַחֲרֵיהֶם לְךָ יִהְיוּ עַל שֵׁם אֲחֵיהֶם יִקָּרְאוּ בְּנַחֲלָתָם

Yaakov’s reason for selecting Ephraim and Menashe as his own is precisely their having been born outside of Israel; any later progeny who are born in Israel are less essential and are not to be considered as tribes. Yosef picks up on this theme and emphasizes his sons’ foreign birthplace in responding to Yaakov:

בראשית פרק מח פסוקים ח-ט
וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת בְּנֵי יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אֵלֶּה
וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אָבִיו בָּנַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה וַיֹּאמַר קָחֶם נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרֲכֵם

Onkelos translates “בזה” as “הכא,” “here.” Once again, Yosef emphasizes the foreign roots of his sons on the precipice of their being blessed. The blessing itself demonstrates why their foreignness is an asset:

בראשית פרק מח פסוק טז
הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ

The identity of this ארץ is ambiguous – is it the Land of Israel or the entire earth? Onkelos explains:

תרגום אונקלוס בראשית פרק מח פסוק טז
מלאכא דפרק יתי מכל בישא יבריך ית עולימיא ויתקרי בהון שמי ושום אבהתי אברהם ויצחק וכנוני ימא יסגון בגו בני אנשא על ארעא

The charge to the sons of Yosef – who were born and raised in a foreign land – is to spread out over the entire earth and influence those whom they find there with a spark of spirituality. Like their father Yosef, who never tired of mentioning God in conversation with the pagans around him, it was the mission of his sons to spread out like fish all over the world and imbue Godliness in the hearts of everyone they might find. So it is that in our story, Menashe does not seek the permission of Moshe to live east of the Jordan, nor does Moshe feel the need to grant it, because they have already received that mandate from Yosef. Nor are they subject to the same agreement as Reuven and Gad, because their lack of participation in conquering the Land of Israel is not meanspirited or aloof. Their participation in conquest is expressed differently, as they crisscross the globe infecting all with Godliness. Unlike Reuven and Gad, whose reason for not living in Israel was more physical than spiritual, the people of Menashe are sheluchei mitzvah and not subject to the same agreement.

This begs the question that if both of Yosef’s sons were charged with the responsibility to stretch their legs and reach out to the world, why is Ephraim absent from our story here in Parshat Mattot? This, too, goes back to the origin story in Bereishit, when Reuven was speaking clandestinely to his brothers, unaware that Yosef could understand them:

בראשית פרק מב פסוקים כב-כג
וַיַּעַן רְאוּבֵן אֹתָם לֵאמֹר הֲלוֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר אַל תֶּחֶטְאוּ בַיֶּלֶד וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם וְגַם דָּמוֹ הִנֵּה נִדְרָשׁ
וְהֵם לֹא יָדְעוּ כִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יוֹסֵף כִּי הַמֵּלִיץ בֵּינֹתָם

Yosef strategically placed an interpreter between himself and his brothers, in an effort to carry on the ruse that he was not one of them and could not understand their Hebrew tongue. This interpreter, who knew both Hebrew and Egyptian and could relate to either camp, was none other than Menashe:

רש”י בראשית פרק מב פסוק כג
והם לא ידעו כי שומע יוסף – מבין לשונם ובפניו היו מדברים כן
כי המליץ בינותם – כי כשהיו מדברים עמו היה המליץ ביניהם, היודע לשון עברי ולשון מצרי, והיה מליץ דבריהם ליוסף ודברי יוסף להם, לכך היו סבורים שאין יוסף מכיר בלשון עברי
המליץ – זה מנשה

Thus it is not surprising that Menashe now is the branch of Yosef which presents itself at the opportune moment to join Reuven and Gad in living outside of Israel, in Menashe’s case to create a satellite location from which to promulgate the message of spirituality throughout the world.

The complexity of our relationship with the Land of Israel today has a long tradition. Nine and a half tribes fulfilled their God-given mandate to conquer and live in the Land of Israel. Two tribes sought and were granted permission to live outside of the Holy Land for reasons that seem fairly trivial – the better to graze their flocks. Half of one tribe followed a mandate from Yosef and Yaakov to serve as the outreach arm of the Jewish people, leaving Israel to imbue the rest of the world with the message of God. One man left Israel purely for the “good life” and left little to show for it – his own sons wrote their father off the page of history. Taken as a whole, our Parsha is not giving us an easy, one-size-fits-all directive for living in or abandoning Israel. What we are supplied with here is a series of guidelines for making that decision intelligently in our own lives. May we merit to make that decision wisely, honestly, and unselfishly.

Posted in Communal Matters, Parshat Hashavua | Leave a comment

My Actual All-Time Favorite Moments in Iggerot Moshe

For some time now I have taught classes and posted write-ups on landmark Teshuvot of Rav Moshe Feinstein under the header “My All-Time Favorite Moments in Iggerot Moshe” (link). But it has occurred to me over time that that title is a bit of a misnomer, because while these might be his most significant Teshuvot – on Chalav Yisrael, Mechitza, Mikvah and others – they are not truly my “all-time favorite moments.” That designation belongs to a special class of Teshuvot that would not be worthy of shiurim on their own, but in which we find the topic ostensibly unbecoming of the Gadol Hador, or we find Rav Moshe trying to understand an American milieu with which he was not entirely familiar, or unabashedly did not want to be. Here, then, in no particular order, are my truly all-time favorite moments in Iggerot Moshe. If you have any suggestions of your own, feel free to add them in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!

1) Can You Daven In a Shul with a Flag In It?
Iggerot Moshe Orach Chaim 1:46
My favorite thing about this Teshuva is how he turns on the questioner in the middle. In 1957, Rav Moshe was asked by a Chassidic Rebbe, Rav Yissachar Halperin of the Bronx (link), whether it was permissible to Daven in a shul with an American or Israeli flag in it. After pointing out that even committing a carnal act in a shul would not lower its level of holiness, Rav Moshe pivots to wonder what exactly would bother the questioner about the flag to begin with: All of our shuls are built על תנאי (on the condition that they can be used for non-holy purposes), and the Israeli flag is merely a symbol created by “רשעים” who never intended to invest it with any holiness, either Jewish or secular. Its purpose in the shul is merely “לסימן על מנהלי בית הכנסת שמחבבין מדינה זו ומדינת ישראל, וחפצו להראות זה במקום רואים,” “to signify that the administrators of the shul love this country and the State of Israel, and that they desire to show this in a public way.” In the end, Rav Moshe shows his keen eye for perceiving machloket and spends the final paragraph dressing down the erstwhile congregants for not being sufficiently aware of their own moral shortcomings:

ולכן אלו שרוצים לעשות בשביל זה מנין במקום אחר וחושבים שעושים בזה דבר גדול, אין עושים כהוגן, ורק הוא ענין פוליטיקא מצד כח היצר הרע והשטן אשר בענונותיהם הרבים מרקד בינן.
And therefore, those who, because of this, want to make a Minyan in a different place, and think that they are doing something monumental because of that, are not acting appropriately, and this is just a political matter powered by the strength of the Evil Inclination and the Satan who, due to their great sins, is dancing among them.

2) “Nusach” Sefard Is No Such Thing
Iggerot Moshe Orach Chaim 2:24
Try this one out on your Chassidic friends. To a questioner who wanted to know whether he should retain his family’s Nusach Sefard or adapt to the Nusach Ashkenaz of his shul, Rav Moshe professed to not understand why anyone would Daven Nusach Sefard at all:

הנה ידוע שכל אנשי פולין ואונגארן ורוסלאנד לבד מקומות הרחוקים הקרים וקאווקאז וכדומה, הם בני אשכנז, אף החסידים! ועד שנתפשתה שיטת החסידות, התפללו כולם בנוסח אשכנז … ונמצא שאין להחשיב שינוי מנהג, מה שהתחלת להתפלל נוסח אשכנז, אף שאביך ועוד ב’ וג’ דורות התחילו להתפלל בנוסח החדש, שהרי אדרבא – הם שינו מנהג אבותיהם, ורבותינו אדירי עולם חכמי צרפת ואשכנז. ואין ידוע טעם ברור במה שהתירו לשנות נוסח הקבוע …
It is well known that everyone from Poland, Hungary, and Russia – except for the faraway, cold places, and Caucasus and places like that – are all Ashkenazi, even the Chassidim! And until there became widespread the viewpoints of the Chassidim, everybody Davened Nusach Ashkenaz … So we see that beginning to Daven Nusach Ashkenaz is not considered changing one’s custom, even though your father and the past two or three generations began to Daven with this new Nusach. Because just the opposite is true – they changed the custom of their fathers and of our sages, the great Rabbinical luminaries of France and Germany. And it is not known what specific reason allowed them to change the established text of the prayers …

In other words, it is impossible to “change” one’s Nusach from Sefard to Ashkenaz, because the innovation was having ever changed to this sham “Nusach Sefard” to begin with. The questioner is simply returning to his roots and should feel no guilt in doing so. Reading between the lines, Rav Moshe is relegating Nusach Sefard to a מנהג טעות, a mistaken minhag which should never have been established to begin with and therefore can be discarded with ease. Quite a statement against the many Jews and Kehillot which follow Nusach Sefard.

3) Rav Moshe on Baseball – Is It Permitted to Play? Is It Permitted to Attend a Game?
Iggerot Moshe Choshen Mishpat 1:104 and Yoreh Deah 4:11
Rav Moshe wrote two Teshuvot on baseball, from what I can find, with very different attitudes to the national pastime of his adopted homeland. In an undated Teshuva in the first volume of Choshen Mishpat (the volume was published in 1963), Rav Moshe responds to the question of “אם מותר להתפרנס ממשחק הכדורים שיש בזה חשש סכנה רחוק טובא,” “whether it is permitted to earn a living from the game of the balls which has an extremely small likelihood of causing danger.” He responds that given that the unlikelihood of danger in playing “משחק זריקת הכדורים שנקרא באל בלע”ז,” “the game where you throw the balls which is called “Ball” in English,” which causes injury to only “one out of many thousands of people,” it is permitted to play the game. Indeed, this is the case whether the potential danger is to others or only to oneself, “דמאי שנא מחשש דליהרג בעצמו? דגם להרוג את עצמו יש איסור לא תרצח,” “because why should this be any different than killing oneself? For killing oneself is also included in the prohibition not to kill.” However, you can tell your old camp counselor that it is forbidden to force someone else to play baseball, ,דודאי אין לו רשות להכניס, אף בספק הרחוק כזה, את אלו שלא ידעו, או לא רצו להכנס אף בספק רחוק כזה, “because it is certainly forbidden to enter someone – even in such an extremely unlikely event of danger – who does not know or who does not want to enter into even such an extremely unlikely event of danger.”

Rav Moshe took a much dimmer view of baseball when it comes to watching it as a spectator, according to a Teshuva dated 1981 dealing mainly with the prohibition of ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו, not following in the ways of the non-Jews. In the first section of the Teshuva, dealing with going “לתיאטרון ואיצטדיון ספורט בימינו,” “to theatres and sporting events nowadays,” Rav Moshe first brushes away the possibility that we are in fact dealing here with an issue of ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו, using a similar pattern of thought established in connection with Thanksgiving, namely that if there is a clearly stated reason why the non-Jews are doing a certain thing (in this case, “frivolity and licentiousness”), that excludes the possibility that it is a violation of ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו. However, given that the reason non-Jews go to such events is ליצנות, fool-mockery, this fact in itself establishes a solid reason for Jews to be prohibited from attending. Other reasons given here to avoid such locales are איסור מושב לצים, “the prohibition of sitting among fools,” and ביטול תורה, “wasting time from Torah study,” which Rav Moshe goes on to clarify: “לא רק על זמן זה, אלא שגורם לו להיות בטל לגמרי מהתורה,” “not only the time wasted right now, but additionally that such a person will invariably become completely lost from a life of Torah.”

4) What’s Wrong with Teenage Dating?
Iggerot Moshe Even Ha’ezer 4:60
How about a lot? In 1975, ידידי הצעירים, a friend of the children, sent in a letter on behalf of one of his protegees asking what exactly is wrong with dating outside of the context of marriage, and the boy probably got more of an earful than he was expecting. We already know that the boy is in trouble when Rav Moshe tells us that he is interrupting his summer vacation (the byline is “במעון קיץ סמוך לנוא יארק,” “in my summer home near New York”) to answer the young man in all due haste: “אינו רוצה לשמוע דברי מוסר ותוכחה אלא כשישמע ממני הדבר על פי הלכה פסוקה, ואם כן מוכרח אני תיכף להשיב, שהרי נוגע למעשה תיכף,” “He does not want to hear words of rapprochement or rebuke, but rather he will only hear from me the matter according to the final Halacha, and if so it is incumbent upon me to answer immediately, as this matter is related to a practical, urgent need.” Indeed, Rav Moshe does not spare on the lomdus, quickly deriving from a qualifier in the Rambam (“כלומר”) that even things which will lead to the prohibition of avoiding contact with forbidden relationships – itself a protective fence – are likewise prohibited, thus prohibiting “דברים בטלים,” “worthless things” (i.e., hanging out) as much as kissing, hugging, and touching. Furthermore, while actions which are entirely of the boy’s choosing (such as smelling her perfume) may only be a Rabbinic prohibition, a conversation, which is mutual on the part of both the boy and the girl, would be a Torah prohibition. Rav Moshe worries about the consequences of this meeting on actions which might take place later in the day, and he professes that the prohibition of לא תקרבו, not coming close to a forbidden person, is in full force because the only reason he would possibly want to spend time with her – and not his male friends in whose company he would not be punished – is that she is a woman: “וזה ברור, שקשרי רעות עם נערה הוא מצד חבת אשה ולא רק רעות בעלמא, שלזה יותר היא ניחא  לו עם חבריו הבחורים, ולמה לו הנערה הזה? ובפרט שאין לו כבוד ושם טוב מזה, הרי ודאי שהוא מצד חבת הנערה מצד שהיא אשה.” Finally, Rav Moshe points out the prohibition of Yichud in such a situation would be stricter because לבו גס בה, he is already strongly attracted to her, which mitigates the usual exception of being alone where there is an open door to the outside of the building. All in all, although this young man quite likely kept up his relationship with the girl, he at least could not say that he had not been warned by the Gadol Hador not to do so. Who knows – maybe they read the Teshuva together on the next date.

5) A Glass Mikvah in a Bad Neighborhood
Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:91
A mikvah with glass windows in a neighborhood of voyeuristic non-Jews? What could go wrong? Spoiler alert: Rav Moshe feels this would be a bad idea. In a 1964 Teshuva to “הגאון הצדיק מפורסם במעשיו הגדולים לטהרת בנות ישראל,” “the sage, the Tzaddik, one famous for his great actions in the area of the purification of Jewish women,” Rav Moshe addresses the question of whether a mikvah could be built “במקום נכרים שהם פרוצים ורואים בהחלונות כשהנשים טובלות,” “in a place of non-Jews who are licentious and look in the windows when the women are immersing.” Rav Moshe is clear that this is a problem, even in a place where it is not definite that the non-Jews will in fact peer through the windows. In fact, to add insult to injury, a woman’s immersion in such a situation may in fact not even be valid (imagine telling her that when she gets home!). This possibility is based on a situation discussed in Tosafot and Shulchan Aruch in which a woman may not immerse in a river near a port where people may see her, because this may lead to her immersing too quickly due to her legitimate fear at that moment. Therefore, in the case of the port, “רק בדיעבד, באומרת ברי לי שטבלתי כראוי, עלתה לה טבילה,” “only post-facto, if she says she is sure she immersed properly, is the immersion considered valid.” Meanwhile, Rav Moshe rules, the community should find some method whereby it will become impossible for the non-Jews to peek inside the mikvah.

Honorable Mention: Do Chassidim Really Need to Dress Like That?
Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 1:81
No, they don’t. In 1953 Rav Moshe was asked whether Polish immigrants or their descendants need to maintain Polish garb, rather than dress like their Americanized counterparts “שאין חלוק בין ישראלים לנכרים,” “who make no distinction [in dress] between the Jews and the non-Jews.” Rav Moshe points out that the Maharik and Rama allow Jews to dress in the manner of non-Jews if the non-Jews themselves dress modestly and in a manner which does not make their dress distinct enough that it will be obvious that the Jews are copying them if they dress the same way. Even in the latter case, it might have to be stated or known definitively that the Jew intends to copy the distinctive non-Jewish garb for there to be a problem. Moreover, Rav Moshe wonders how we are even to know that our American garb is more non-Jewish than it is Jewish: “ומדוע לא נאמר שמתחילה הם גם מלבושי ישראל? דלא נקבע כלל מתחילה להנכרים ואחר כך גם להישראלים,” “And why should we not say that at first, these were also Jewish clothing styles? For these forms of clothing were in no way established originally as non-Jewish styles and only afterward copied by the Jews.” Thus, Polish immigrants who adapt to wearing Americanized garb are simply exchanging the clothing of Jews in one country for the clothing of Jews in a different country. Which may not have convinced too many Chassidim to run out to Macy’s, but it is another wonderfully colorful example of what makes Iggerot Moshe so unpredictable and engaging for those who take the time to read it – and occasionally be entertained by it.

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