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
Who is obligated in the three pilgrimage holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot?
In several places (see, for example, Devarim 16:16) the Torah commands all Jewish males to participate in this mitzvah. The first Mishnah in the Masechet lists the people who are not obligated. Specifically:
- people who are mentally deficient (in Talmudic terms, someone who is deaf, an imbecile or a child),
- people who are not male (this includes not only women, but also people of uncertain gender)
- people who cannot make the trip, like a sick or aged person, or someone who “cannot go up on his legs.”
The cases of uncertain gender are the situations of a tumtum and an androgenus who are not obligated to participate in aliya la-regel. Both of these groups are people whose gender is unclear, the tumtum because we cannot tell whether it is a man or a woman, and the androgenus who shows both male and female sexual organs.
How to interpret the case of “someone who cannot go up on his legs” is the subject of some debate among the rishonim. Rashi presents it as a case where the individual cannot walk from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount. Tosafot point out that Rashi is offering the most radical case; a person who cannot make it from his own town to Jerusalem would certainly fall into this category, as well. The Rambam claims that this exemption in the Gemara refers to someone who is uniquely sensitive and never walks anywhere. Others suggest that this refers to someone who cannot walk around barefoot, since wearing shoes into the Temple is forbidden.
Finally, Tosafot point out that the list in the Mishnah is not exhaustive. There are additional cases where an individual’s personal situation or even his profession may free him from the obligation to travel to Jerusalem.
Rav Kahane quotes Rav Natan bar Manyumei in the name of Rabbi Tanchum as offering an interpretation of the passage (Bereshit 37:24) which describes how Yosef’s brothers stripped him and put him in a bor (a pit). The Torah mentions that “the pit was empty; there was no water in it.” If we already have been told that the pit was empty, why does the Torah need to emphasize that there was no water in it? Rather, the Torah was hinting to the fact that although it was empty of water – which we expect to find in a bor – there were other things in it, specifically snakes and scorpions.
One question raised by the commentaries about this interpretation (which has become well-known, since it is quoted in Rashi on the passage in Chumash), is that although a close reading of the Torah does indicate that there was something in the pit, how can we reach the conclusion that it was specifically snakes and scorpions? In his Petah Einayim, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai quotes the Ar”i as explaining that only snakes and scorpions – creatures that can hide away in cracks and crevices – could have been in a pit about which we are told “the pit was empty.” Thus the intention of the passage is to say that the pit appeared to be empty, but, in fact, it was inhabited by creatures like these.
Another passage that is interpreted on our daf is quoted in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, who expounds on the pasuk (verse) (Devarim 31:12) that teaches how every Jewish person – man, woman and child – is obligated to travel to Jerusalem once in seven years for the mitzvah of hakhel (assembly). While the men and women come to learn and to listen, what is the purpose of bringing children? Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria explains that it is so that extra reward can be given to those who bring them. The Ri”af explains that this is derived from the unnecessary command to bring children – after all, if the men and women are all in Jerusalem, the children will have to accompany them, since there is no one who is home to tend to them. Thus, if the Torah commands that they be brought, there must be an additional reason for it.
The passage (Devarim 16:16) obligates kol zekhurkhah – every Jewish male – to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year. Our Gemara interprets kol zekhurkhah to mean that every Jewish male who can travel to Jerusalem with others is obligated to do so. Three people are mentioned who cannot travel with others – a mekametz (a gatherer), a metzaref nechoshet (someone who purifies copper) and a bursi (a tanner) – and are therefore free of this obligation.
In the Tosefta, two approaches are offered in defining mekametz. One suggestion is that the mekametz is a bursi katan – a non-commercial tanner, that is, someone who has a private business tanning skins at home in small quantities. Someone who has such a business does all aspects of the job himself. The other suggestion is that the mekametz is someone who collects dog droppings. Until the last century, softening skins in preparation for tanning them was done by adding dog droppings to the water where the skins were being soaked. The fermenting that takes place and the enzymes that are released play a central role in this process.
Although copper is occasionally found in pure form, most deposits that contain the metal have it mixed with various sulfides. The purification process separates out the copper from the sulfur, and the residue that is created often has a very strong smell attached to it. The metzaref nechoshet who works regularly with these metals will likely find that his clothing – and his body – absorb these odors. The bursi and mekametz have a similar problem.
The Geonim explain that the reason these people are not obligated in the mitzvah of traveling to Jerusalem is not due to our concern with the comfort of those around them who may be offended by their smell. Rather our concern is for these people, themselves, and their own honor. Were someone to travel to Jerusalem and find that everyone deliberately keeps their distance from them, this would be a great embarrassment to them, and they are, therefore freed from this obligation.
Our Gemara includes a list of passages from the Tanach whose message was so painful to Rabbi Yochanan that they caused him to cry. One of these pesukim (verses) appears in Kohelet (12:14), and is understood by Rabbi Yochanan as teaching that God will hold someone responsible for sinful acts committed by him, whether intentional or accidental.
The Gemara merely comments that learning this pasuk would bring Rabbi Yochanan to weep; it does not explain how God can hold someone responsible for accidental acts. The Mesillat Yesharim explains God certainly distinguishes between a sin done purposefully and one done accidentally. The pasuk in Kohelet is teaching that even an accidental sin will be judged, and that God will not simply overlook it.
The continuation of the pasuk also presents a serious difficulty. In closing, the passage seems to teach that an individual will be held responsible for good deeds as well as bad ones. Why would someone be “held responsible” for a positive act? Three examples are given:
- In the study house of Rabbi Yannai they suggested that it refers to someone who gives money to a poor person in a public – and humiliating – manner.
- In the study house of Rabbi Sheila they suggested that it refers to a man who gives charity to a poor woman in secret, which will lead to suspicions about her.
- Rava suggests that it refers to a husband who sends uncut meat to his wife on Friday afternoon. Since it is uncut, the gid ha-nasheh – a sinew in the leg that cannot be eaten (see Bereshit 32:32) – has not been removed, and in the rush of Shabbat preparations, may not be dealt with properly.
To the Gemara’s challenge that Rava himself was known to send such meat to his wife on erev Shabbat, we learn that Rava’s wife was the daughter of Rav Hisda, who he was certain would check the gid ha-nasheh and deal with it properly.
The marriage between Rava and Rav Chisda’s daughter was a second one for both of them, although they were childhood friends. In a number of places in the Talmud we see that they had a uniquely close relationship. Similarly we find that Rava relied on her, not only because of her upbringing in Rav Chisda’s house, but also because of her personal integrity.
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.