Parshat Ki Teitzei: The Double Portion of the Firstborn

“When a man will have two wives, one who is beloved and one who is disliked, and the beloved and disliked wife give birth to children for him; and the son of the disliked wife is the first-born” (Devarim 21:15)

This pasuk introduces the laws concerning inheritance. The Torah explains that a father’s firstborn son inherits a double portion of the property of the father. This law applies even in the special case in our pasuk. In this instance, the father has two wives. One is beloved. The other is shunned. The father’s firstborn is the child of the shunned wife. The father cannot disregard the inheritance rights of this son. He receives a double portion. The father cannot transfer this right to a younger son from the beloved wife.

Rashi explains that this law is related to the previous discussion in the parasha. In that section the law of yefat toar is presented. The yefat toar is a non-Jewish woman captured in battle. The Torah allows the soldier to have sexual relations with this non-Jewish woman. However, if the man wishes to marry the woman she must accept Judaism.[1]

Why does the Torah allow the soldier to have relations with this non-Jewish woman? Our Sages explain that the Torah recognizes the force of the desires awakened in the violence of war. The Torah assumes that these powerful instincts will overpower many soldiers. These warriors will not be able to overcome the desire to enter into sexual relations with captive women. This creates a dilemma. Enforcement of the normal prohibition against relations with non-Jewish women would be impossible. Therefore, a strict legal framework was created for the relations.[2] It is deemed preferable for the relations to take place in this framework rather than outside of the laws of the Torah.

What is the connection between the laws in inheritance and the mitzvah of yefat toar? Rashi explains that the shunned wife discussed in the laws of inheritance is a yefat toar.[3] In other words, the yefat toar will eventually be despised by the soldier who has taken her as his wife.

Why will the husband come to hate this yefat toar? The answer requires an understanding of human nature.

We have various instincts. At times these desires can overcome us. At these moments we may not be able to control our behavior. However, with time, this passion subsides. We return to our normal, more sane state of mind.

With the return of sanity we attempt to restore our self-image. We wish to see ourselves as good wholesome individuals. We do not wish to be reminded of the animalistic component of our personality. To accomplish the restoration of our self-image, we must purge all memory and reminders of our previous shameful behavior. If we are successful, we can again view ourselves as sane, rational human-beings.

Imagine a person who could not purge his conscious of a previous embarrassing lapse. This individual would be unable to completely restore a positive self-image. Surely, the individual would resent the constant reminder of downfall. The yefat toar is such a reminder. The presence of this wife does not allow the husband to restore his cherished positive self-image. Inevitably, he will come to resent this wife. She is a constant indication of the animalistic desires lurking just under the surface. She will become the shunned wife.

“You should not hang his corpse from a tree. Rather you should bury it on that day. For the hanging is a curse to the L-rd. And you should not defile your land, which Hashem your G-d, gives to you as a portion.” (Devarim 21:23)

The Torah requires that the departed receive immediate burial. Our pasuk explains that this law applies even to a criminal executed by the courts. The criminal must receive proper burial within the day.

This command is a response to the argument that the body of the executed criminal should be prominently displayed. What more vivid discouragement can the courts provide to an individual considering a violation of the Torah? We are commanded that despite this consideration the criminal must receive prompt burial. There are various explanations offered by the commentaries for the application of this law to criminals. These authorities also dispute the proper translation of the pasuk.

Maimonides explains that the law is an expression of respect for humanity. Even a criminal is a member of the human race. As such, the body of the criminal must be treated with dignity. Maimonides translates the pasuk somewhat differently in order to accommodate his explanation.[4]

Rashi offers a fascinating explanation of the law. He comments that even a criminal is created in the image of the Almighty. The display of the criminal’s body might reflect poorly on Hashem. This “negative publicity” is minimized through legislating a prompt burial.

Rashi is making an important point. At times we seem to be surrounded by evil. The news is dominated by demonstrations of humanity’s depravity. It may seem that the human race in inherently evil. This is not the case. We must always realize that every human being is created in Hashem’s image. This design provides us with the potential to do tremendous good. We have the ability and the free will to chose a productive and meaningful life. The criminal becomes engrossed in evil as a result of his or her own choices. There is no innate disposition which condemns humanity to evil.

Rashi maintains that for this reason we cannot allow the body of the criminal to remain hanging. We do not want to unduly emphasize the human’s potential for evil. Instead, we want to stress the opportunity available to every person to do good.[5]

Rashbam takes a completely different approach to explaining the law and translating the pasuk. Rashbam seems to premise his comments on the assumption that a successful legal system requires the support and respect of those governed. Without cooperation the law becomes a source of tyranny.

He explains that sometimes the law will seem very harsh. It will be difficult to accept the punishments indicated by the Torah. This is especially true for the family of a person sentenced to death. Imagine the feelings of the family of an individual executed for a violation of the Shabbat. It may be very difficult for these people to appreciate the ultimate wisdom and justice of the punishment. The harsher and the more protracted the punishment the greater the potential for deep resentment. Placing the body on display, for an unduly long period, unnecessarily torments the family. Such a policy will often result in bitterness. In order to avoid this reaction the Torah commands us to behave with sensitivity and bury the criminal promptly.[6]


“When you build a new house, you should make a fence for your roof. Do not allow a dangerous situation to exist in your house, since someone can fall.”
(Devarim 22:18)

The Torah instructs us to remove any hazard from our home. The Torah expresses this law in reference to a flat roof. These flat roofs were used for various functions. Dwellers and others had occasion to walk on these roofs. This created a danger. A careless person could fall from the roof. In order to prevent such an accident, a fence or railing must be placed around the roof.

This mitzvah is preceded by the commandment to send away the mother bird. The next pasuk discusses the prohibition against planting mixed species in a vineyard. Is there any connection between these commandments? Rashi suggests that there is an association between these mitzvot. He explains that these mitzvot are discussed together in order to communicate a message. This message is that the performance of one mitzvah leads to the performance of another mitzvah. How is this message communicated through these passages? First, the Torah discusses the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird. Then, the mitzvah of erecting a fence around a roof is discussed. The message is that the fulfilling the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird will result in the opportunity to perform another mitzvah. This is the mitzvah of erecting a fence. The mitzvah of erecting a fence is followed by the commandment prohibiting planting mixed species in a vineyard. Again, the message is that the performance of one mitzvah leads to the performance of another. The erecting of the fence leads to the observance of the prohibition against planting mixed species.[7]

The simple explanation of Rashi’s comments is that the performance of one mitzvah is rewarded by the opportunity to perform another. Rashi is not suggesting that a person who sends away the mother bird will suddenly occupy a new home. No material reward is received for the performance of commandments. Rashi is merely suggesting that the opportunity to perform some mitzvah will arise. This opportunity is the reward.

However, this simple interpretation of Rashi is difficult to accept. First, it seems impossible to derive this lesson from these specific passages. The lesson can be derived from countless combinations of passages. Any three passages that enumerate three commandments can teach the same lesson. The performance of one commandment is rewarded with the opportunity to perform the other commandment.

Second, these three mitzvot do involve material possessions. According to Rashi, the Torah is telling that the reward for performing a mitzvah is the opportunity to perform another mitzvah. In order to communicate this message, the Torah should have picked a different set of mitzvot. The Torah should have grouped a set of commandments that are not associated with the accumulation of wealth. Why did the Torah pick these specific commandments to act as the vehicle for its message? Why did the Torah choose mitzvot that are associated with wealth?

These two questions suggest a deeper understanding of Rashi’s comments. Many of the Torah’s mitzvot regulate our involvement in the material world. These commandments establish a healthy relationship between the human being and material possessions. A person should enjoy material blessings. A person should not become absorbed in these blessings. The mitzvot mediate our relationship with out possessions.

Wealth can be a blessing. It can also corrupt an individual. A person who observes the mitzvot establishes an appropriate relationship with the material world. Such a person can be rewarded with greater material wealth. Wealth will not corrupt this person. This person will scrupulously observe the mitzvot that apply to these new possessions. These mitzvot will regulate the person’s relationship with these new material possessions.

In contrast, a person that is corrupted by wealth cannot be rewarded with additional wealth. Such a reward would really be a curse. The additional wealth will only encourage the further corruption of the individual. The person will become more absorbed in the material world.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 21:11.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 21:11.

[4]

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 21:23.

[6] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Devarim 21:23.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 22:8.