The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.
This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, the Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan
The discussion of ma’aseh bereshit – the secrets of creation – continues with a description of the heavens. The Gemara records that Rabbi Yehuda recognizes two heavens, while Reish Lakish enumerates seven heavens. (It should be noted that Rabbi Yechezkel Landau explains in his Tziyon le-Nefesh Chayah that the heavens referred to here are spiritual ones, rather than physical ones. Rav Aha bar Yaakov argues, based on the passage in Yechezkel 1:22, that there is another heaven that stands above these.) Nevertheless, this highest heaven cannot be discussed, because of the saying that appears in Sefer Ben-Sira: “Do not discuss things that are beyond your understanding, nor investigate that which is hidden from you; contemplate that which is permitted, and deal not in secret things.”
Sefer Ben-Sira is one of the earliest books composed after the closing of the Biblical canon. It was authored by Shimon ben Yehoshua ben Sira, a native of Jerusalem, who was a younger contemporary of Shimon ha-Tzaddik, prior to the Hasmonean era. The book of Ben-Sira was held in great esteem, and after its translation into Greek by the author’s grandson (in the year 132 BCE in Alexandria) it because widely known even among those who were not familiar with the Hebrew language. Sefer Ben-Sira is included as a canonical work in the Septuagint (and therefore is considered such in many other translations of the Bible), and although the Sages chose to view it as one of the sefarim chitzoni’im – books outside of the canon – they quote it in a respectful manner throughout the Talmud, sometimes even referring to it as Ketuvim. Still, because of confusion between this work and another one that was known as Alfa-Beta d’Ben-Sira, which was a popular – and problematic – work, we find statements in the Gemara forbidding the study of Sefer Ben-Sira.
The quote from Sefer Ben-Sira that appears in our Gemara can be found (with minor changes) in chapter 3, passages 21-22.
The Gemara on our daf quotes a baraita that tells of arba she-nikhnisu ba-pardes – four tannaim who embarked on the study of esoteric secrets of the Torah: Rabbi Akiva, Acher (literally “the other,” but here referring to the Tanna Elisha ben Avuya), Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma. Rabbi Akiva, the eldest of the group, warned the others of the dangers involved in such an experience – for example, not to be taken in by illusions when engaged in this study. He told them that when entering the higher worlds and gazing on the pure marble, they should not shout out “water, water,” for even though it appears to be water, it is an illusion, and someone who utters a falsehood will not be allowed entrance into the higher realms (see Tehillim 101:7).
The expression pardes – which, in modern Hebrew, simply means “an orchard” – is mentioned in Tanach (see Shir ha-Shirim 4:13). Its source is apparently ancient Persian, where it meant “an enclosed area surrounded by a fence.” Variations of the word appear in many languages; English speakers may be most familiar with it as the source of the word “paradise,” which is the way the term Gan Eden is translated in the Septuagint. In our story in the Gemara, the pardes is, among other things, “the garden of God.”
In the end, each of the four participants in this study had different reactions to it:
- Ben Azzai died, and the Sages ascribed the passage in Tehillim 116:15 to him.
- Ben Zoma lost his sanity, and the Sages ascribed the passage in Mishlei 25:16 to him.
- Acher lost his faith.
- Rabbi Akiva survived the ordeal peacefully.
Shimon ben Azzai and Shimon ben Zoma were among the Sages of the generation immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple. Although we find a number of statements of halakhah in the Talmud in their names, neither of them received formal semikhah (Rabbinic ordination), most likely because of their youth.
As a continuation of the story of arba she-nikhnisu ba-pardes – four tannaim who embarked on the study of esoteric secrets of the Torah – our Gemara discusses the case of Acher, the Tanna Elisha ben Avuya, whose experience in the pardes led him to become a heretic. According to the Gemara, Acher peered into heaven and found the Archangel Mitatron who had received permission to sit down to write the merits of the Jewish people. From the midrashim it appears that Mitatron is the angel responsible for the entire world, and seeing him gave Acher the sense that there existed shetei reshuyot (two competing forces in heaven) – Mitatron and God – which was a common belief of Gnostic sects at that time.
Even after Elisha ben Avuya’s heresy, his student Rabbi Meir continued to study with him, and our Gemara relates a series of conversations that went on between them. The Gemara reacts to this by quoting Rabbah bar bar Hannah in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, who interprets the passage in Malachi (2:7) as forbidding anyone from studying with a teacher unless he is on the level of a heavenly angel. Two responses are offered:
- Reish Lakish quotes a passage in Mishlei (22:17) that instructs a person to learn from scholars, but to heed God’s word, indicating that one can learn from a problematic scholar, as long as it is the word of God that remains primary.
- Rav Chanina quotes Tehillim (45:11), which he understands as permitting study with a Sage, as long as the problematic teachings are ignored.
So is it appropriate to study Torah from a heretic or not?
The Gemara suggests that we must distinguish between a katan (literally “a small person”) and a gadol (“a great person”).
Alternatively, Rav Dimi taught that, in Israel, Rabbi Meir’s behavior was explained by saying that he treated this relationship like the fruit of a date: eating the good part and throwing away the pit.
It is interesting to note that we do not find the Rambam or the Shulchan Arukh accepting the distinction between a katan and a gadol when discussing whether it is permissible to study with a heretic. The commentaries on these works explain that we no longer have Sages who can be certain that they will be able to accept only what is valuable from such a teacher without being affected by his belief system. Some suggest that the term gadol in this context does not mean a great scholar, but only the leader of the generation. In his Zekher le-Chagigah, Rav Mordechai Zvi Rheinhold suggests a different approach entirely to this teaching. He argues that the katan and gadol do not refer to the student, but to the teacher. In other words, the Gemara is teaching that it is only when the heretical teacher is a great person (as was Elisha ben Avuya) that it would be permissible to learn from him (as did Rabbi Meir).
Our Mishnah describes the very first disagreement between the Sages: should semikha – leaning on the animal being sacrificed as part of the preparation for the korban, or offering – be permitted on Yom Tov or not? We find no fewer than five generations of Sages listed as arguing this point, which leads Rav Shemen bar Abba to quote Rabbi Yochanan saying that even a shvut – Rabbinic ordinance – must be taken seriously. Semikha involves use of the animal (similar to riding a horse, for example) which is prohibited only on Rabbinic grounds, yet its status on Yom Tov is the topic of discussion for generations.
Aside from the general argument about semikha, we also find a disagreement with regard to women performing semikha when bringing a sacrifice. The Gemara quotes a baraita in which we find that the Tanna Kamma limits semikha to men, based on the passage in Vayikra (1:2) that instructs Bnei Yisrael – i.e. Jewish men – to perform semikha, apparently excluding women from this commandment. Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Yishmael disagree, arguing that women may not be obligated in this mitzvah, but they can, nevertheless, perform it on a voluntary basis. Rabbi Yossi goes so far as to relate how an animal that was to be sacrificed was brought to the ezrat nashim (Women’s Court) specifically in order to allow the women to perform semikha.
From this Gemara and other similar ones, it appears that according to the Tanna Kamma, not only are women not obligated in the mitzvah of semikha – in fact they are forbidden from participating in it. This position can be understood most easily based on Rashi (Rosh HaShanah 33a) who rules that whenever a woman does a mitzvah that she is not obligated to perform, she effectively transgresses the commandment of bal tosif, which forbids adding to the mitzvot of the Torah. It should be noted that most of the rishonim disagree with Rashi’s position. Tosafot and others explain that, according to the Tanna Kamma, the potential problem is one of marit ayin – that it appears as though the women are engaged in the Temple service, from which they are excluded.
In the Mishnah on our daf, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree about whether various sacrifices can be brought on Yom Tov. According to Bet Shammai, a korban olah, which is totally burned up, cannot be brought. A korban shelamim, however, can be brought, since parts of it will be eaten by the kohanim and by the owner, making it not only a sacrifice, but also food preparation, which is permitted on Yom Tov. Nevertheless, they forbid performing semikha on the animal. Bet Hillel permit both olot and shelamim to be brought since they are connected to the holiday, even though there is no obligation to bring them on the actual Yom Tov. They also permit semikha on both.
The holiday of Shavuot presents a particular problem for Bet Shammai; because it is a one-day holiday, the opportunities for bringing sacrifices are rather limited. According to the Mishnah, if Shavuot falls out on a Friday, Bet Shammai would allow the sacrifices to be brought on Sunday, since they cannot be brought either on Yom Tov or on Shabbat (according to Bet Hillel the extra day is unnecessary, since the korbanot – sacrifices – should have been brought on Yom Tov itself). All are in agreement, however, that if Shavuot coincides with Shabbat, it will be necessary to bring the korbanot on Sunday. Nevertheless, certain things are done to ensure that everyone will recognize that Sunday is not truly a holiday (e.g. the kohen gadol wears his everyday clothing, and fasts and eulogies are permitted). This is done in order to emphasize that Shavuot does not necessarily fall out on Sunday.
The issue that the Mishnah has with Shavuot and Sundays stems from the position of one of the Second Temple period sects. The Baitusim rejected the traditions of the Sages and interpreted the pasuk in Vayikra (23:15) to mean that the counting of the Omer always begins on Saturday night during Pesach, so Shavuot would always fall on Sunday. Although the Baitusim were a minority, they were apparently wealthy and influential and attempted various methods to arrange for their position to be accepted. It was therefore important to the Sages to do everything in their power to make sure that no one thought that their interpretation was correct.
The intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot – the days of hol ha-mo’ed – are difficult to define. While not fully days of Yom Tov, neither are they regular days of the week. This necessitates the establishment of halakhic boundaries to guide us in our activities on those days. On Chol HaMoed there is no restriction on work in terms of the 39 categories of forbidden activities of Shabbat; rather, what is forbidden is toil, which is defined by the strain and difficulty involved, as well as by the level of professional expertise necessary to perform the task.
Who establishes what falls into the category of forbidden activities on these days?
According to Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, it appears that melacha is forbidden on a Biblical level, and, in fact, a series of baraitot appear on our daf that quote passages from the Torah as sources for this ruling. Tosafot note, however, that most of the Sages believe that work is forbidden on Chol HaMoed only on a Rabbinic level, and the pesukim from the Torah that are quoted here play the role of asmachta – a secondary support for the rulings of the Rabbis.
The last baraita supports this view. The source-text that it brings is from Sefer Devarim (16:8), which teaches that on Pesach we are commanded to eat matzah for six days, and on the seventh day is a solemn assembly to God (“u-bayom ha-shevi’i atzeret la-Shem”) on which no work can be done. In this case, the beginning of the clause – u-bayom -appears to connect the seventh day, which is Yom Tov, to the previous days, while the second word – ha-shevi’i – seems to emphasize the uniqueness of the seventh day. These contradictory inferences are reconciled by the baraita in its conclusion – that the days of Chol HaMoed are given over to the discretion of the Sages. They are the ones who decide how to best keep the individual focused on the holiday, which activities are permitted or forbidden on which days of Yom Tov.
Generally speaking, in order for a person to rid himself of his ritually impure status, he must immerse in a mikvah, a natural body of water that contains a quantity of at least 40 se’ah. The Gemara on our daf concerns itself with situations where it is not clear whether the required 40 se’ah are in one place. For example, if a wave containing 40 se’ah comes crashing down on someone, that person would become tahor. In the water, however, only the parts of that same wave that are connected to the ocean – called rashin – can be used as a mikvah; the kippin, or top of the wave, is considered to be air and is thus not a kosher mikvah.
Another case discussed by the Gemara is that of shalosh gemamiyot ba-nahal. In this case, three pools of water are connected to one another by a small trickle of rainwater. If the top pool and the bottom pool have less than the required 40 se’ah, but the middle one does have the required amount, we find a disagreement between Rabbi Meir, who permits immersion in any of the pools since the water between them connects them to one another, and Rabbi Yehuda, who insists that only the middle pool containing the full amount can be used as a mikvah.
The description of shalosh gemamiyot ba-nahal matches typical wadis (dry river beds) that are commonly found in the deserts of the Land of Israel and in the surrounding areas. While they are totally dry during the summer, during the rainy winter season floods of water race through these valleys, leaving behind ponds of water that are created naturally. We also find that cisterns are dug out specifically to access these rainwaters that collect underground (see, for example, Bereshit 26:19 where we find the servants of Yitzchak digging in the valley and finding water).
In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit www.steinsaltz.org or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.