Vayishlach: Wisdom of Secrets III

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14 Jan 2007

The last two weeks we have been studying the blessing “the wise One of secrets”, CHACHAM HARAZIM, blessing God Who knows the secret thoughts and views of each individual. We make this blessing when we see “multitudes” of Israel; then we are specially aware of God’s presence and wisdom as each person’s unique view- point reflects one aspect of His holiness, just as each color in the spectrum makes up one essential aspect of the white light of the sun (SA OC 224:5, based on Berakhot 58a).

The gemara continues: “Ulla said, we hold that there are no multitudes in Bavel [Babylonia]. It is taught [in a b’raita]: There is no multitude less than 600,000.”

The significance of the number 600,000 is that this is the number of adult males counted among the children of Israel at the time of the Exodus. So this number represents a number of souls sufficient to encompass the entire scope of views and characters of the Jewish people. A common theme in Chasidic writings is that at all times the Jewish people comprises this number of individual souls, which are like the primal elements or building blocks from which all subsequent, “compound” souls are created. And indeed the Shulchan Arukh rules that the blessing is only said on 600,000 individuals.

The statement of Ulla regarding Bavel is more controversial. Rambam (B’rakhot 10:11) writes that the blessing is said only in the land of Israel. Although Ulla mentions only Bavel, Bavel is often the synechdochic term for the entire Diaspora, whose center was there for many centuries.

Rav Kook explains that these two characteristics, number and place, teach us that the unique status of the Jewish people is evident only when we are a nation, not when our multitudes represent only “a party or a faction”. [An appropriate thought for this election season.] Nationhood in turn has two conditions: a sufficient number of people, specifically the same number which saw the “birth of a nation” in Egypt, and in addition the land of Israel, which is the only place our national character can flourish. (Olat Rayah I:387.)

However, the Shulchan Arukh, following the Tur, does not rule out making the blessing in the Diaspora. The Beit Yosef mentions a number of possible reasons why the Tur does not rule like the Rambam. One possibility is that Ulla was merely making a factual statement: There aren’t enough Jews in Bavel to assemble a multitude of 600,000, so even if you see a huge crowd, don’t make the blessing. Another possibility is that Ulla does rule that the blessing can’t be made in Bavel, but his ruling is contradicted by the practice of Rav Chanina son of Rav Ika who made the blessing on seeing two Torah scholars in Bavel, as we mentioned in last week’s column. We saw last week that the Tur rules in accordance with Rav Chanina that the blessing can in principle be made on an outstanding Torah figure who embodies the many- faceted wisdom of Torah.

However, we also pointed out last week that the Tur himself states that practically speaking there are no Torah scholars of this stature, so the blessing is not made on scholars today. We also explained, based on Rav Kook, that the blessing can’t be made on scholars because it acknowledges not only that “their views differ” but also that “their faces differ” in other words, we wonder not only at the amazing variety of personalities but also at the remarkable combination of practical talents. Based on this explanation, we can partially reconcile Ulla’s view with the ruling of the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh. There is no actual prohibition on reciting the blessing abroad, but practically speaking “There are no multitudes in Bavel” the unique character of the Jewish people, combining spiritual outlook and practical talents, are destined to be realized only here in the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.