Shoftim: New and Improved!

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11 Aug 2010

Every once in a while, when I wander into a supermarket, I find the same old comforting brands, the ones to which we are so accustomed. Honey Nut Cheerios, Maxwell House, Reynolds Wrap, Heinz, Erewhon (for California people). What’s amazing is that these same reliable brands that have been around for 30, 40, and 50 years somehow manage to carry that magic “n” word. The whole psychological torah of using words that sell is a lucrative one. The right sounds and the proper formulations are critical. At the top of the list of those attracting words is the word “new”.

You might ask, after all these years what can be new about Coke? It might only be a new size, design, offer or slightly new ingredients – but that is irrelevant – the main point is that it is new! Somewhere deeply embedded in the human psyche is a love of the new, and a boredom/antipathy for the old (1).

Is it not remarkable that nothing seems as irrelevant as yesterday’s newspaper (which is today’s classic fish wrapping). And what is old? These days, it boggles the mind in the fast paced internet media era, a Yahoo headline may have a shelf life of about 30 minutes. (And I thought 40 years was young!)

It is not only a Madison Avenue thing. The intellectual world realizes the value of new. One cannot earn a PhD without a novel thought, theory, invention or analysis. Nor is the fascination with new limited to the secular world.

The pursuit of the new or chiddush is a vaunted one in the Jewish world. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Torah scholarship is a chiddush Torah – a Torah novella which creates a whole new perspective on aged wisdom. A chiddush might allow us to reevaluate a piece of knowledge in a completely different manner. Perhaps it will explain a difficult Rambam, oft misunderstood laws; better yet, it will allows us to extrapolate to new scenarios that have not yet been placed under the halachic microscopic.

Arguably, the leading school of Torah thought, the Brisker approach, is predicated upon a revolutionary system of categorization/analysis that is scarcely 100 years old; a fairly new structure in a society that has been learning Torah for about 3300 years.

One might even leap to say that chiddush, the act of developing new approaches, is a form of Divine imitation. God, we pray daily is mechadeish b’chol yom tamid – constantly renews His world. Chassidic thought (also a relatively new development in Jewish History) teaches that the act of creation is constantly being renewed, such that the act of destruction requires nothing more than ceasing creation. Thus finding the new becomes a sacred activity of clinging to our Creator.

But not all that is new need appear as new. (In other words, let us present a new notion about new)

The Hebrew word for new, Chadash appears four times in the Torah. Three of the four times, the word is descriptive. Two of those three times appear in our parsha, Shoftim (2). The context: the draft exemptions for a milchemes reshus (a permissible war). The four famous exemptions are those men that within the previous year (1) established a new marriage, (2) planted a new vineyard and (3) built a new home. The fourth appears to occupy a category of its own and exempts those that are afraid. In the opinion of R. Yossi Haglili, we are not talking about primal fear, but spiritual fear – those that are afraid of sins that they possess.

So much Torah can be said here. What do these categories represent? What link might there between the first three and the fourth category? Are these mandatory exemptions (3)?

Here’s an apparent technical detail that ultimately looms large: What if the home is not new, but is being completely renovated? The shell or perhaps the façade remains – but the inner home is being completely gutted. Does that constitute new?

The opinion of Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud is that this is not new (4). One needs to raze the structure and start afresh (and expand (5)) in order to cop the new home exemption. There does not appear to be any dissenters in the Talmud. It would appear that renovations do not constitute a new home.

Remarkably, Rambam(6) argues and claims the new home exemption applies even for a renovation. The difficulty is that he argues on R.Yehuda the Tanna (a Mishnaic sage). Rambam, as great as he is, does not have license to argue on a Tanna – unless he has some Talmudic support. There appears to be no basis for Rambam!

R. Yosef Chaim of Baghdadh (aka Ben Ish Chai) comes to Rambam’s defense.

He claims that if we must look at the first time the Torah uses the word chadash (7):

Vayakam melech chadash al mitzrayim asher lo yada es Yoseif

A new king came into power over Egypt, who did not know Yoseif.

The wording appears redundant. If he was a new king, he surely did not know Yosef (at least as a monarch)?!. Rav and Shmuel argue (8). Rav states that it was really a new king. Shmuel (9), however says it was the same ole Paroh who had an epiphany (or a political makeover) and no longer acknowledged Yosef’s role in the development of the Egyptian empire.

Shmuel teaches that new need not be a different physical or external persona. Paroh was the same man and yet a new person. Rambam, says Rav Yosef Chaim, simply transposes that definition to a new home, and derives that a new home can have the same external façade as long as it possesses a completely different internal reality. In his view and ultimately, in the view of the halacha, new as a Torah concept, relates to the inner world.

Transposed to our world, new then means developing a new attitude, not a new wardrobe; reworking one’s character, not renovating one’s home; not creating new facts, (new cars, homes, spouses) but rather working with what is and creating a (proper and healthy) internal metamorphosis. Most significantly, it means the hard work of introspection and evaluation that presupposes the internal changes.

The month of Elul has arrived. No it is not a typo! We Jews count by the moon – a twin paradoxical symbol of dynamism and consistency. Constantly changing – waxing, waning and doing everything in between and yet starting the cycle again and anew, the moon symbolizes our people. We sanctify the new moon and its ability to renew while at the same time laud the moon (and the various luminaries) who happily and consistently do their Creator’s bidding.

The challenge of Elul is to renew the stale without razing the infrastructure, to revitalize our Divine service without changing it and to walk into the new year finding new meaning within our traditional milieu. Let us pray for success and a beautiful new year and may the inner work begin.


1. Yes, there are old things we like as well, a well worn pair of shoes, an old sweater that seems to provide the right warmth and comfort. Coming back to my hometown, I like to see that the old stores still remain and the people on the block are still there. While old provides comfort, new gives dynamism.

2. Devarim, 20:5, 8

3. Those that are interested in studying the topic should start with Sotah 43 or so and look up Maimonides, Laws of Kings, Chapter 7.

4. Sotah, 43a

5. Cf. Rashi, Sotah, ibid who implies that even complete destruction without changing the dimensions would not constitute a new home.

6. Cf. Peirush Hamishnayos

7. Shemos, 1:8

8. Sotah 11a

9. The Talmud is not clear who said what. Ben Ish Chai assumes that the opinions are presented in order. One can dispute this assertion – but working with this approach, Rambam follows Shmuel in monetary matters (as is a classic Talmudic principle) and thus exempts the homeowner.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

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