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:



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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 battalion 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, an 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 | 1 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, Parshat Hashavua, 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, 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