MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's commentary Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
In our parsha, Pinchas receives a special eternal blessing for his zeal in preventing intermarriage between the Jewish men and the Midianite women. Intermarriage is considered one of the most severe breaches in Jewish tradition, and the desire to prevent it is the main reason for the prohibition on many kinds of foods prepared by non-Jews. This includes non-Jewish bread (YD 112), cooked dishes (YD 113), milk (YD 115) and wine (YD 123-138), and eating together with them at a festive meal (YD 152).
At the same time that our sages decreed that we should be involved in acts of mutual help and lovingkindness with our non-Jewish neighbors, they were concerned that excessive familiarity could lead to intermarriage.
Let us examine some of the reasons for this aversion.
The most explicit concern is that the non-Jewish spouse will draw the Jewish one away from proper Torah observance. The Torah tells us (Devarim 7:3-4) “Don’t marry with them - don’t give your daughter to his son, and don't take his daughter for your son; lest he should turn your son away from Me, and they will worship other gods. Then the wrath of HaShem will burn among you, and He will quickly destroy you”.
Even those non-Jewish religions which preach monotheism and believe in Moshe’s revelation are very far from the way of faith and from a proper understanding of that revelation. The Divinely-guided words of the Sages, which for us are the very spirit and continuation of the Torah of Moshe, are for the non-Jew at most a collection of inspirational folk sayings. Even a spouse who is favorably inclined towards the Jewish religion is certain to have deep misconceptions which are likely to lead the partner, and especially the children, very far from the faith of Israel.
This concern may be hinted at in the prohibition on non-Jewish foods. Our Sages explain that they prohibited certain ordinary foods “because of their wine, and their wine because of their daughters” (Shabbat 17b). One may ask why it is necessary to mention wine, since the foods themselves also lead to the intimacy which could encourage intermarriage.
One explanation is that the prohibition on non-Jewish wine is more severe than that on other foods, because it relates also the the concern that the wine could be an idolatrous offering - a libation to a pagan god. Connecting food with intermarriage through the connection of wine may suggest that all along we are worried about the connection with wine - the symbol of pagan worship. (See Likutei Halakhot, Breslav.)
Alienation from the faith community
Indeed, the Rambam writes (Teshuva 3:11), “One who parts from the community, even if he doesn’t do any transgressions but merely separates himself from the congregation of Israel and doesn’t perform their commandments in their generality and doesn’t take part in their sorrows nor fast with them but rather goes his own way like one from the nations of the world, as if he is not one of them, he has no portion in the next world.”
The phrase “in their generality” may refer to the commandments, meaning that he doesn’t perform the commandments as part of a general complete system of belief, as an expression of a transcending covenant between HaShem and the people of Israel. Or it may mean “in the generality” of the congregation, in which case it means he views the mitzvot as a purely personal obligation. Either way, the half-hearted community affiliation which is certain to be the lot of the intermarried Jew points in the direction of one who “parts from the community”.
Rabbi Meir HAS JUST COMPLETED writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha.
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own questions, at www.jewishethicist.com or at www.aish.com.