Birkon Mesorat HaRav: Essay on Birkat HaMazon

Excerpted from Birkon Mesorat HaRav: The Wintman Edition, edited by Rabbi David Hellman with commentary from the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

OU Birkon HaRav front cover

 

Birkat HaMazon: To Bless the Great and Holy Name

 

Birkat HaMazon, like our entire liturgy, exists on two planes. On the one hand, it is a standardized text instituted by the rabbis that we are obligated to recite after every meal. However, it is much more than a codified formulation; its specific words and language encapsulate ideas, themes, and concepts that we must extract, define, and elucidate. Fundamentally, we must ask, what is the telos of Birkat HaMazon and what religious experience does it capture? In other words, what is the essence of the mitzva that the Torah itself commands? To address these questions we must turn our attention to a few crucial Talmudic passages.

The Biblical Obligation

Before we can appreciate the theological and religious implications of Birkat HaMazon, we must clarify the different views regarding its halakhic definition. It is quite clear that the Torah requires some sort of blessing after we eat: “You shall eat and be satisfied and shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). However, when it comes to the specific blessings we recite there seem to be two contradictory Talmudic passages regarding their origin and authority. One source, a beraita (Berakhot 48b), sees allusions to the first three blessings of the Birkat HaMazon in the above quoted verse: “Our Rabbis taught: Where is the saying of grace intimated in the Torah? In the verse, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and shall bless’ – this signifies Birkat HaZan [the first blessing]…‘For the land’ – this signifies Birkat HaAretz [the second blessing]. ‘The good’ – this signifies Boneh Yerushalayim [the third blessing].” This source implies that the first three blessings of Birkat HaMazon are all Biblical obligations. (The last blessing of HaTov VehaMeitiv was established in response to the burial of the victims of the Betar massacre, and is clearly Rabbinic in origin. See Reshimot, p. 209 .) Yet, the Talmud (ibid.) also quotes Rav Naĥman as stating that these same three blessings were instituted by the courts of three different generations: “Moses established for Israel the blessing of HaZan at the time when the manna fell for them; Joshua established for them the blessing of HaAretz when they entered the land; David and Solomon established the blessing of Boneh Yerushalayim.” As opposed to the beraita, this second teaching implies that all of the blessings of Birkat HaMazon are only of Rabbinic origin.

Looking to the Rishonim (medieval authorities), we find two major approaches to harmonizing these sources. Rashba (Berakhot 48b) explains that the Biblical obligation requires expressing thanksgiving for the themes of the first three blessings: for sustenance, for the Land of Israel, and for Jerusalem. Every time one eats, he must acknowledge God who provided him with his food, and who gave the people of Israel the Land of Israel and her capital, Jerusalem. However, the Torah did not mandate a set formulation. Instead, each individual could express these motifs in whichever way he chose, using the language he found most fitting. Later, Moses, Joshua, and then David and Solomon instituted set texts for the nation to recite. Thus, the formulation and phrasing are a Rabbinic institution, but the themes and motifs of the first three blessings are all of Biblical origin.

Ritva and Shita Mekubetzet (ad loc.), following Rashba’s approach, point out a parallel as well as a distinction between Birkat HaMazon and the obligation of tefilla. Like the commandment of Birkat HaMazon, the Biblical obligation to pray also has no required text; originally, one would pray in his own words. Only because of the displacements and chaos of the exile, explains Maimonides (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:4), did the Rabbis compose a standardized text of the Amida to facilitate prayer for those who wouldn’t otherwise have the tools to express themselves properly. However, the difference between these two commandments is that the Biblical mitzva of tefilla does not require reciting any specific praises of God or making any specific requests. A person could recite any prayer to fulfill his obligation. In contrast, the Biblical blessing of Birkat HaMazon has a structure that requires the inclusion of three specific themes: that God has granted us sustenance, the Land of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem.

There is, though, another approach which understands that the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon involves not three themes, but one simple, core idea. Naĥmanides, in his glosses to Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot (Shoresh 1) discusses several different commandments which are Biblical in nature, but for which the Rabbis codified a standardized text. Discussing Birkat HaMazon, Naĥmanides says that although the commandment is clearly Biblical, “its text is not Biblical; rather, the Torah commanded us to recite a blessing after we eat, each person according to his understanding, as in the blessing of Benjamin the Shepherd who recited, ‘Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread’ (Berakhot 40b).” This example of Benjamin the Shepherd proves that one can fulfill the obligation of Birkat HaMazon even with this simple blessing. Benjamin the Shepherd was not a scholar. He was a simple Jew who blessed God as best as he could, according to his meager understanding and capabilities. According to Rashba and his school, the Talmud means to say that Benjamin the Shepherd’s simple blessing would fulfill the first of the three Biblically-mandated blessings, but it would not have fulfilled the Biblical obligation to mention the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. However, Naĥmanides seems to imply that Benjamin the Shepherd’s blessing would fulfill the total Biblical obligation. In other words, according to Naĥmanides, the blessings for the Land of Israel and Jerusalem are Rabbinic in nature.

This opinion of Naĥmanides would also appear to be the position of Maimonides, who opens the first chapter of the Hilkhot Berakhot stating simply, “There is a positive commandment to bless after eating food, as it says, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the LORD, your God.’” In discussing the Biblical obligation, Maimonides makes no reference to the Land of Israel or Jerusalem; he mentions those ideas only in Chapter Two of Hilkhot Berakhot when he discusses the fixed text of Birkat HaMazon codified by the Rabbis. Like Naĥmanides, according to Maimonides we fulfill the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon by reciting any blessing for the food we have eaten, regardless of its specific form or content.

But how can Maimonides and Naĥmanides maintain that there is no Biblical obligation to mention the Land of Israel when the verse states, “You shall bless the LORD your God for this good land that He gave you”? Seemingly, we find in this verse an explicit requirement to mention the Land of Israel. In fact, however, a dispute between the ancient translators on how to translate this verse will resolve this question.

Targum Onkelos translates the verse literally, that we are obligated to bless God “for the good land that He gave you.” Accordingly, there is a clear Biblical obligation to thank God for the Land of Israel every time we eat, as is the opinion of Rashba and others. However, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates the relevant phrase as “for the fruit of the good land that He gave you.” This reading sees the phrase “the good land” as an elliptical reference to the fruit of the land, and thus the Biblical commandment does not include an obligation to thank God for the land itself, but rather only for its fruit, i.e., the produce one has consumed. Thus the dispute between Rashba and his school, on the one hand, and Maimonides and his school, on the other, revolves around how one translates the words “for this good land.” The halakhic argument was clearly formulated only in the days of the medieval authorities, but the disagreement regarding how to understand the verse dates back to the ancient Aramaic translators.

Remembering God and Recognizing His Mastery

Returning our focus to Naĥmanides’ position, that one can fulfill his Biblical obligation by stating “Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread” – we will recognize that not only does this reduce the number of Biblical themes in Birkat HaMazon from three to one, but it also offers a fundamentally different perspective on the mitzva. Intuitively, we would assume that Birkat HaMazon is a mitzva of hoda’ah, thanksgiving, of offering our appreciation for the food that we have just enjoyed. Yet Benjamin the Shepherd’s formula contains no trace of thanksgiving – his blessing does not thank God for the food at all. Rather, it is a statement of God’s mastery and kingship, that He is the master of this food and that I enjoy it only with His permission. According to Naĥmanides, the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon is not an obligation to praise or thank God for the kindness of providing us with food; it is an idea even more basic, a recognition even more fundamental to Judaism’s worldview. Birkat HaMazon is a declaration of God’s lordship over the world, and in particular, His mastery and ownership over the food we have consumed.

Indeed, if we examine the first blessing of Birkat HaMazon, we come to the same startling conclusion: it too contains no elements of thanksgiving. In the first blessing we recognize God as the creator and sustainer of the natural world, the one who feeds all living creatures. Only with the second blessing, opening with “We thank you LORD, our God…” does the concept of thanksgiving enter Birkat HaMazon. According to Naĥmanides, one fulfills the Biblical obligation of Birkat HaMazon even without expressing any sentiments of thanksgiving. The mitzva requires recognizing God’s sovereignty, and no more. However, according to Rashba and his school, the themes of the first three blessings are all Biblical, and thus Birkat HaMazon includes both concepts, recognition of God’s mastery over the world, and expression of thanksgiving for sustaining us. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates the verse as “you shall thank and bless,” reflecting these two concepts, and in this regard, he parallels the position of Rashba.

In truth, when we look at the context of the verse, the approach of Naĥmanides is almost explicit in the Bible itself. The Bible commands, “You will eat and be satisfied and bless the LORD your God.” However, it continues, “Be careful lest you forget the LORD your God and not guard His commandments…Lest you eat and be satisfied…and your heart will grow haughty and you will forget the LORD your God…and you will think in your heart, my strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth” (Deut. 8:10-17). The Torah doesn’t require man to thank God; rather, the Torah warns man lest he forget God. The purpose of Birkat HaMazon is to prevent the arrogance which creeps into a man’s heart and causes him to forget that God is the Creator. Fundamentally, Birkat HaMazon is not an act of thanksgiving or praise, but an act of remembering God, a fulfillment of the constant command to remember and be cognizant of our Creator in every aspect of our life. As the Torah concludes the section, “Rather you shall remember the LORD your God who gives you the strength to be successful.”

Thus, Birkat HaMazon is not simply a particular commandment regarding food and our satiation; it is instead an expression of the belief and commitment that underpins our entire religious life. Indeed, from the standpoint of the psychology of religion, the telos of Birkat HaMazon, to remember God, is the most important element in one’s religious experience. To offer praise before God is easy; to give thanks, one merely has to become sentimental. However, to remember God and ascribe everything to Him, to attribute the whole cosmic process of creation to God, and to know always that He is the Master, the LORD, and the Owner of everything, requires a mental discipline of the highest order, and it is in truth the fundamental religious experience.

Birkat HaMazon and All Other Blessings

Understanding Birkat HaMazon in this light – not as an expression of thanksgiving, but as an act of recognizing and remembering God’s kingship – also allows us to explain several passages in Maimonides’ Code that would otherwise be difficult to understand. In the beginning of Hilkhot Berakhot, Maimonides, as usual, begins with the Biblical commandment: “There is a positive commandment from the Torah to bless God after eating.” Maimonides then moves on to the Rabbinic obligations: “and there is a Rabbinic obligation to bless before a person enjoys any food…and to bless after anything a person eats or drinks.” Maimonides means to say that these Rabbinic obligations are not independent concepts, but extensions of the Biblical idea of Birkat HaMazon. However, the blessings that we recite before we eat are not expressions of thanksgiving, as they simply state, “Blessed is the LORD…creator of the fruit of the tree.” Moreover, the blessings before we eat couldn’t be expressions of thanksgiving, as thanksgiving is only appropriate after we have benefited from God’s kindness. Rather, the blessings that we recite before we eat are declarations of God’s mastery over this world, recognition that the food before us belongs to Him and that we enjoy it only with His permission. If Birkat HaMazon would have been an act of thanksgiving, it could not have been the conceptual basis for the Rabbinic blessings that we recite before we eat. Only because Birkat HaMazon is an act of recognizing God’s kingship and mastery over our possessions can it serve as the conceptual foundation for all blessings that we recite.

Maimonides continues, “Just as we recite blessings for all physical pleasures, so too we recite blessings before mitzvot and only then perform them. The Rabbis instituted many blessings as expressions of praise, thanksgiving, and request in order to constantly remember the Creator.” Maimonides groups the blessings that we recite before the performance of mitzvot with the blessings that we recite before we eat, and he understands that all blessings are based upon the Biblical blessing of Birkat HaMazon. How does Birkat HaMazon serve as the conceptual source for the blessings recited before performing a mitzva? Based on what we have explained, it is because fundamentally all blessings are statements of God’s authority. With birkot hanehenin we recognize His dominion over the natural order, and with birkot hamitzvot we similarly declare His dominion over the moral order. Just as He is the creator of the physical world and its laws, so too is He the author of the moral norm and the legislator of all religious laws. As Maimonides says explicitly, the common denominator of all blessings is to remember and fear the Creator.

We can now dispel a common misconception. Many believe that to bless God means to praise Him, and in fact, the English translation of berakha, benediction, comes from the Latin root words bene and diction, meaning to speak well of or praise. However, this understanding is simply incorrect. In Genesis we read “God blessed man, saying, ‘You shall be fruitful and multiply.’” God didn’t praise man; He blessed him: He instilled in him the ability to multiply, a new source of goodness and fortune in his life. So too, Rav Ĥayyim Volozhiner (Nefesh HaĤayyim 2:2) and Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Ba’al HaTanya (Torah Or, Parashat Ĥayyei Sarah), both explain that the word “barukh” means expansion, and to bless God means to expand God’s presence in this world. How can a mortal human being, a frail and finite creature, accomplish such a thing? The answer is that man has the unique ability to recognize and declare God’s authority and mastery. By dispelling the mirage of nature’s independence and declaring the true Creator, the influence of God’s presence thereby increases in this world. Similarly, the Sefer HaĤinnukh (Mitzva 430) writes in his discussion of Birkat HaMazon that when we say God is “blessed,” we declare that all blessing and goodness flow from Him. The prayer that God should be blessed is a wish that all people should recognize God as the source of goodness. All blessings, like Birkat HaMazon, are meant to forestall the natural human arrogance that makes man forget God. Blessing God is not an act of thanksgiving, but an act of remembering God, of declaring Him the true master of our world and its fullness, which is the very essence of Birkat HaMazon.

“His Great and Holy Name”

Finally, we can understand a cryptic phrase that Maimonides uses in the heading to Hilkhot Berakhot, where he writes that the Biblical obligation is “to bless the great (gadol) and holy (kadosh) name after we eat.” What does Maimonides mean when he includes the divine discriptions “great and holy”? Maimonides is known for his precise language, and he should have simply written that we are obligated “to bless the name of God after we eat.” Moreover, elsewhere Maimonides attaches different attributes to the name of God. For example, regarding the prohibition to erase the name of God he writes (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 6:1) that “anyone who destroys one of the holy and pure names of God is lashed,” and similarly, in another context he writes (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 2:1) that “there is an imperative to love and fear the honored and exalted God.” Maimonides wrote with extraordinary precision, and he was even more careful in his use of divine attributes, as is evident by his discussions in the Guide for the Perplexed. If he uses “the great and holy name” to describe God in the context of Birkat HaMazon, it is because these two descriptions capture the essence of the commandment. How is this the case?

To understand Maimonides’ choice of words, we must first understand what we mean by describing God as “great.” We find this divine description in the Bible in the following verse: “For the LORD your God is God of gods, and LORD of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, who favors no person, and takes no bribe” (Deut. 10:17). In this verse we see that God’s greatness flows from His mastery, because He is the master of all other powers. Thus, to recognize God as great is to recognize Him as the authority of our lives, the master of our world. The appellation “holy” means that God is absolutely above and beyond all of creation, that nothing in this world can be compared to Him. Thus, Maimonides defines the commandment of sanctifying God’s name (Kiddush Hashem) as demonstrating our absolute commitment to God even to the point of loss of life – to publicize that we recognize no other authority and that no other person or force in the world could intimidate us to violate His will. It follows that when these two appellations are used together, the phrase “the great and holy God” means the God who is the absolute master and authority of all creation, totally unique and beyond all matters and powers of this world. It is in this sense that the prophet Ezekiel uses these descriptions when he writes that God declares that in the end of days, after the war of Gog and Magog, “I will make Myself great and holy, and I will make Myself known in the eyes of many nations, and they will know that I am the LORD.” God will be great and holy when the whole world recognizes His dominion, that He is master of the world. The Tur (Oraĥ Ĥayyim 56) writes that the opening phrase of Kaddish, “Let His name be made great and holy” (“yitgadel ve’yitkadesh”), is based on this verse in Ezekiel, and he explains that Kaddish is a prayer for that time when all nations will ultimately recognize the authority and kingship of the one true God.

In defining the Biblical commandment as “to bless the great and holy name after eating,” Maimonides underscores that by reciting Birkat HaMazon we acknowledge God’s mastery of the world, and that He is the provider for the food we have just eaten, or as Benjamin the Shepherd put it, “Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread.” The mitzva of Birkat HaMazon is not to praise or offer thanksgiving, but to remove from our hearts the arrogance of material success that leads man to forget God and to declare “my strength and the might of my hand produced this wealth” (Deut. 8:17). By reciting a blessing after we eat and are full and satiated, we affirm that God is the source of our sustenance, of life, and of existence itself. The purpose of the blessing is to declare, as the whole world will in the end of days, that He is the one true “great and holy God.”

 

* This essay is based primarily upon a shiur delivered by the Rav in Boston in 1961, as well as Shiurei HaRav al Inyanei Tefilla, pp. 269-287, and Reshimot Shiurim, Berakhot, pp. 516-519. The essay also incorporates material from a shiur delivered in 1969.

Parshat Ekev: Anatomy of a Blessing

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Devarim’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

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Context

Towards the beginning of Parshat Ekev Moshe describes the land of Canaan’s physical bounty and warns the nation against taking God’s role in that bounty for granted:

“For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land: a land of streams of water, of springs and underground pools emerging forth in the valley and in the mountain; a land of wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat bread without scarceness; you will lack nothing within it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper. And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God upon the good land that He has given you. Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not observing His commandments, His laws and His statutes, which I command you today…and your hearts will become haughty, and you will forget the Lord your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery… And you will say in your heart: “My strength and the might of my hand has made me all this wealth!”

The Talmudic authorities identify one sentence from this passage as the source of a fundamental biblical commandment: “From where do we learn a Torah obligation to bless God? As it is said: ‘And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God, concerning the good land that He has given you.’” Aside from the Priestly Blessing, this blessing, known as Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), is the only blessing of uncontested biblical origin in Jewish tradition. Some authorities maintain that the recitation of Birkat HaTorah, the blessing recited before Torah study, is also commanded in the Torah text; while others consider the Bracha me’ein Shalosh, the blessing recited after foods containing at least one of the seven species associated with the Land of Israel, to be of Torah origin, as well. A myriad of other brachot are mandated by the rabbis, regularly punctuating the daily life of the Jew.

Questions

At first glance, the phrase “and you will bless” seems descriptive in nature, part and parcel of Moshe’s prediction concerning the nation’s eventual reaction to the bounty of the land. What, then, compels the Talmudic authorities to interpret the phrase “and you will bless” as an imperative, mandating a biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon?

What is the nature of this commandment? Why would man be commanded to bless God? Clearly, man requires God’s blessing; God does
not require man’s. As Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher emphatically declares, “Given that God is the source of all blessing…were [man] to bless Him all day and all night, how would God benefit at all?”

How did the multi-paragraph Grace after Meals regularly recited by Jews today emerge from the vague commandment “and you will bless…”?

Approaches

A

Immediately sensing the objections that might be raised to the derivation of a mitzva from this text, the Ramban refers the reader to other commandments derived from parallel phrases in the book of Devarim: “and you will make a fence for your roof,” “and you will perform the Pesach offering for your God,” “and you will take of the first of every fruit of the ground.”

At the same time, this scholar notes that the Torah is not consistent in its application of the formula “and you will…” While the phrase “and you will bless the Lord your God” constitutes a mitzva, the preceding phrases, “and you will eat, and you will become satisfied,” are clearly not meant to be seen as distinct imperatives themselves, but as helping to define the obligation to bless.

B

In spite of the Ramban’s observations, the question of context in our case still remains. Given the descriptive nature of the preceding text, why are the rabbis insistent upon interpreting the phrase “and you will bless…” not simply as part of Moshe’s narrative, but as a separate, distinct biblical imperative?

A rereading of the passage before us may provide an answer. This is a carefully structured presentation in which Moshe describes both the benefits and dangers presented by the natural resources of the land of Canaan. The very bounty meant to sustain you , Moshe warns the Israelites, could well prove to be your undoing.

The paragraph pivots on an apparent “cause-and-effect” structure established by the transition between three sentences:

A land where you will eat bread without scarceness; you will lack nothing within it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper.

And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God upon the good land that He has given you.

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not observing His commandments, His laws and His statutes, which I command you today.

Sated and satisfied by the wondrous natural wealth of the land, and filled with pride over your own accomplishments, Moshe warns, you could easily forget your dependence upon God for the countless gifts that you have received.

A problem, however, emerges from the text. One phrase does not fit the otherwise seamless “cause-and-effect” structure presented by Moshe. The insertion of the words “and you will bless the Lord your God” in the second sentence strikes an incongruous note. Blessing God can hardly be seen as a step along the path towards abandonment of our dependence upon Him. In fact, the opposite would seem to be true. If upon reaching a point of comfort and satiation, we bless God for the bounty that we have received, we will be less likely to forget His role in our good fortune.

Perhaps that is exactly the point recognized by the rabbis. In their eyes, “and you shall bless the Lord your God” cannot be understood as part of Moshe’s description of the potential problem facing the nation, but instead must be seen as a corrective for that problem. In the words of the Meshech Chochma, “When one eats and is satisfied, one is likely to rebel. God, therefore, commands the nation to recall His name and to bless Him, specifically at the point of satiation, and to remember that He is the One Who gives man power to succeed.” Precisely because of the context in which it is found, the rabbis interpret the phrase “and you shall bless the Lord your God” as a commandment.

 

C

The above interpretation suggests an answer to another of our questions. Why does the Torah command man to “bless” God? What possible purpose could there be in such an act?

According to the approach of the Meshech Chochma and others, man blesses God for man’s sake, in order to enable man to achieve and maintain proper life perspective. The recitation of Birkat Hamazon, specifically at a point of contentment and satiation, serves as a critical reminder of man’s dependence upon God for sustenance and success. Similarly, all brachot, recited at various points during the daily life of the Jew, are designed to help an individual maintain proper spiritual balance.

Other authorities take this approach one step further. Brachot, these authorities maintain, do not only serve man’s spiritual needs, but his physical requirements, as well. When an individual, through the act of blessing God, testifies to God’s personal care for all life forms, God responds by increasing the bounty provided.14 This phenomenon, Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher maintains, explains the Talmudic assertion that if an individual eats without a prior blessing, “it is as if he steals from God and from the assembly of Israel.” He steals from God by denying the Almighty’s Providence over all living things, and he steals from the Assembly of Israel by denying them the physical benefit that would have accrued as a result of his blessing.

D

Swimming against the tide, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch argues that man actually possesses the power to bless God. As the only creature granted free will by his Creator, man is capable of furthering God’s purposes and wishes in this world or of retarding and thwarting them. Man blesses God when, through his actions, he increases God’s sanctified presence in the world around him. The bracha recited after eating, Hirsch continues, is to be understood as a verbal commitment, or even a vow, to bless God through action. “As often as you strengthen yourself with that which God has granted you…,” this scholar asserts, “you are to dedicate the whole of your being to His service, to [the fulfillment of] His purposes and to the realization of His Will on earth. And this promise of dedication you are to pronounce in the words of bracha, of blessing Him.”

E

Having established that the phrase “and you will bless the Lord your God” serves as the source of the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon, the rabbis proceed to derive basic details of this mitzva from the surrounding text.

1. Two positions emerge in the Mishna, for example, as to how much food must be consumed to obligate the recitation of Birkat Hamazon. These opinions, the Talmud explains, reflect a fundamental disagreement as to where the emphasis should be placed in the sentence “And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God.”

The opinion of Rabbi Meir, recorded anonymously in the Mishna,18 emphasizes the word v’achalta (and you will eat). As the Torah clearly bases the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon on food consumption, Rabbi Meir maintains, the obligation should be gauged by the normative minimum food measurement throughout Jewish law: the amount equivalent to the bulk of an olive.

Rabbi Yehuda, however, disagrees. Focusing on the word v’savata (and you will be satisfied), this scholar maintains that the key condition governing the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon is not food consumption, but, instead, satiation. The minimum standard for this mitzva must therefore be higher than the normative halachic minimum. An individual must eat food equivalent to the bulk of an egg, Rabbi Yehuda insists, in order to incur the obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon.

Later halachic authorities disagree as to the parameters of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda.

According to some, these Mishnaic scholars are not debating the Torah law at all. Both Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda agree that, on a biblical level, no objective minimum standard for the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon exists. The Torah obligation of Birkat Hamazon is literally delineated by the term v’savata (and you will be satisfied). Biblically, an individual is only obligated to recite the blessing after a meal that leads to his own personal satiation. The amount that must be consumed to trigger this obligation varies, dependent upon the person and the situation. Uncomfortable with this lack of practical definition, the rabbis later issue an edict designed to create a uniform minimum standard. Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda argue about the scope of this edict. Rabbi Meir maintains that the rabbinic obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon takes effect once an individual consumes food equivalent to the bulk of an olive. Rabbi Yehuda, in contrast, argues that the rabbinic obligation only “kicks in” upon the consumption of an egg-sized portion. The textual proofs from the Torah derived by these scholars in support of their respective positions fall into the category of asmachtot, biblical hints used by the rabbis to support later mandated rabbinic laws.

Other scholars adamantly disagree and insist that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda disagree about biblical, not rabbinic, law. Their debate is straightforward, focusing on the minimum standard required for the biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon.

2. The question of which foods give rise to the biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon generates three opinions recorded in the Mishna and Gemara. Basing his position on the word v’achalta (and you will eat), Rabbi Akiva maintains that the Torah requires the recitation of Birkat Hamazon after the consumption of any food that an individual considers a meal. Rabbi Gamliel chooses a different path by noting that the biblical passage containing this mitzva specifically mentions the seven species associated with the Land of Israel, “a land of wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.” The blessing is obligatory, Rabbi Gamliel therefore argues, only after the consumption of a meal containing at least one of these seven species.

Finally, the majority rabbinic opinion insists that the obligation to recite the full Grace after Meals is limited to a meal containing bread. This opinion is based on the fact that bread is the foodstuff listed in closest proximity to the commandment itself: “a land where you will eat bread without scarceness…”

3. On a practical level, the law concerning these issues is codified according to the majority rabbinic opinion, that Birkat Hamazon must be recited after consumption of an olive-sized portion of bread or after a meal containing that amount of bread.

F

Moving into the area of the mitzva’s structure, the Talmudic scholars also discern references in the text to the number and content of the individual blessings meant to be incorporated into Birkat Hamazon.

The word u’veirachta (and you will bless), the Talmudists maintain, indicates that Birkat Hamazon must include a blessing referring to the physical sustenance provided by God to all living creatures; the phrase al ha’aretz (upon the land) mandates the inclusion of a blessing concerning the Land of Israel; and the reference to ha’aretz hatova (the good land) indicates that a blessing should be recited concerning Jerusalem.

According to some scholars, these biblical references indicate that the thematic structure and content of Birkat Hamazon are actually of biblical origin. Other scholars, however, maintain that the quoted textual allusions fall into the category of asmachtot (see above) and that the thematic structure of Birkat Hamazon is rabbinically rather than biblically mandated.

G

Even those scholars who view the structure and general content of Birkat Hamazon to be of biblical origin acknowledge that the actual texts of the blessings recited today are of later prophetic derivation.

Originally, each individual fulfilled the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon through his own blessings, in his own words. As time went on, however, the paragraphs of Birkat Hamazon were standardized by pivotal Jewish leaders at critical moments in Jewish history:

Moshe established the blessing concerning sustenance when the manna began to descend [for the Israelites in the wilderness]; Yehoshua established the blessing concerning the land upon the [Israelites’] entry into the land; David and Shlomo established the blessing concerning the building of Jerusalem, with David authoring the words “upon Israel Your nation and Jerusalem, Your city” [reflecting the conquest of Jerusalem during David’s reign] and Shlomo authoring the words “upon the great and sanctified House” [reflecting the construction of the Holy Temple during Shlomo’s rule].

The Talmud explains that a fourth blessing, over and above those alluded to in the Torah, was added to Birkat Hamazon in response to a series of dramatic events roughly fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. At that time, Shimon Bar Kosiba, renamed Shimon Bar Kochba by Rabbi Akiva, led an ultimately unsuccessful and costly revolt against continuing Roman rule. So devastating were the results of this failed rebellion that many authorities mark Bar Kochba’s final defeat, the fall of the city of Beitar, as the true onset of the Jewish nation’s exile from their land. For a period of time following the fall of Beitar, the Roman authorities prohibited the Judeans from burying those killed in the city’s siege. When this ban was finally lifted, the sages of Yavneh (see Vayikra: Emor 5, Approaches E–H) established the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon, Hatov v’Hameitiv, “He Who is good and bestows goodness.” This blessing was instituted in gratitude to God for the lifting of the Roman ban and for the miraculous preservation of the bodies of the victims, allowing for their proper burial.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that the events surrounding the fall of Beitar delivered a profound message to a shattered people: God’s providence will extend to the nation even during tragedy and exile. This message, Rabbi Meir Simcha explains, warranted the addition of a fourth blessing to Birkat Hamazon, a prayer built entirely upon the concept of God’s providence towards man.

H

The mitzva of Birkat Hamazon emerges from Moshe’s farewell messages to his people, only to accrue a myriad of halachic, philosophical and historical subtexts as it travels across the generations. The richness of Jewish experience is thus mirrored in the blessing that a Jew offers to his God.

Headlines: Shooting Down a Hijacked Plane – Killing a Few to Save the Lives of Many

Excerpted from Dovid Lichtenstein’s Headlines: Halachic Debates of Current Events

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Shooting Down a Hijacked Plane:  Killing a Few to Save the Lives of Many

 

The devastating tragedy of 9/11 introduced to the world a frightening new form of terrorism — the use of hijacked planes as torpedoes to blow up crowded buildings and skyscrapers, רחמנא ליצלן. The dreadful prospect of another 9/11-style attack gives rise to the difficult and ever so painful moral and halachic question of whether a hijacked plane may be blown up to save the civilians in the targeted building. If it is certain that the hijackers are steering the plane toward a building, would it be permissible, forbidden, or obligatory to fire a missile at the plane, killing the innocent passengers on board for the sake of saving the lives of the people down below?

 

I. Killing One to Save Many

Our point of departure in addressing this question is the Mishna’s discussion in Terumos (8:12) regarding a case in which enemies demand that the Jews in a town hand over a woman for them to rape, warning that they will otherwise rape all the women in the town. The Mishna rules that in such a case, the towns-people should refuse; they may not hand a woman over to the enemy even at the expense of the defilement of all of the town’s women.

The Tosefta in Terumos (7:23) addresses the similar case of enemies who demand that the Jews hand over one person to be killed, warning that they will otherwise kill all of the townspeople. In such a case as well, the Tosefta rules that the townspeople should refuse and submit themselves to murder rather than hand over a fellow Jew. However, the Tosefta then proceeds to note a critical distinction: “אבל אם ייחדוהו להם כגון שייחדו לשבע בן בכרי יתנו להן ואל יהרגו כולן.” The Tosefta rules that if the enemy identifies a particular Jew by name and demands that he or she be handed over to be killed, then the townspeople should acquiesce. The Tosefta points to the example of Sheva ben Bichri, a man who led a failed revolt against King David. Sheva sought refuge from David’s forces in the town of Avel Beis Maacha, and Yoav, David’s general, demanded that the townspeople hand him over. In such a case, the Tosefta rules, the townspeople should hand over the wanted person in order to spare the rest of the city.

The Tosefta then cites Rabbi Yehuda as clarifying that this applies only if the wanted person is in the city and would also be killed along with the rest of the townspeople if they refuse to hand him over. If, however, the situation is such that the townspeople would be killed instead of the wanted person and not along with the wanted person, then they may not hand him over to save their lives. It is only when the wanted individual is condemned to be killed regardless of the townspeople’s decision that they are permitted to hand him over to the enemy.

Rashi cites this Tosefta in his commentary to Sanhedrin (72b) in the context of a discussion regarding a woman whose life is threatened by a difficult labor. The Gemara establishes that if the infant had not yet exited the woman’s body, it may be killed to save the woman’s life, but once the head has emerged, the baby is considered a full-fledged living human being, and may not be killed to save the mother’s life.(1) Rashi raises the question of why this case differs from the situation in which townspeople are permitted to hand over a wanted individual in order to save their lives as long as the wanted individual was specifically identified by the enemy. Seemingly, in the situation of childbirth, there is also a “named’ individual — the newborn — who threatens the life of another person (the mother). Rashi explains that in the Tosefta’s case, the wanted individual would be killed regardless of whether the townspeople choose to hand him over. In the case of the newborn, however, the infant’s life is not at risk, and it is thus forbidden to kill the newborn to rescue the mother. (2)

This halacha is also addressed by the Talmud Yerushalmi (Terumos 8:10), which presents a debate between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish on the issue. Reish Lakish maintains that even if the enemy specifies a particular person by
name, the townspeople may not save their lives by handing that person over. According to Reish Lakish, the people of Avel Beis Maacha were allowed to hand over Sheva ben Bichri only because he was guilty of treason and thus deserving of death. Barring such exceptional circumstances, a town may not, according to Reish Lakish, hand over a person to the enemy to save their lives, even if the enemy demands specifically that person.

At first glance, it would seem that the question of torpedoing a hijacked plane hinges on this debate among the Amora’im. According to Rabbi Yochanan, although the passengers are innocent and certainly not deserving to die, their lives threaten the lives of the hundreds or thousands of people in the targeted skyscraper. Thus, just as in the case in which the enemy requests a particular resident of the town, where — according to Rabbi Yochanan — the people may hand him over since he would die either way, in our case, in which the passengers are bound to be killed regardless of whether the plane is shot down, the plane may be destroyed to spare the people below. Reish Lakish disagrees with this ruling and forbids killing a person to spare others even if he would in any event be killed.

This analysis, however, does not help us in our quest for a halachic conclusion, as no consensus has been reached among the halachic authorities on this issue. The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:5) codifies Reish Lakish’s ruling and forbids handing over a wanted individual to save the other townspeople’s lives unless that wanted person is guilty of treason, as in the case of Sheva ben Bichri. The Hagahos Maimoniyos, as well as the Beis Yosef (Y.D. 157), question why the Rambam accepts Reish Lakish’s view, in light of the fact that the Halacha always follows Rabbi Yochanan’s rulings in his disputes with Reish Lakish. Indeed, as the Beis Yosef notes, the Rash and the Ran follow Rabbi Yochanan’s view. (3)  Both opinions are cited by the Rama (Y.D. 157:1), leaving this debate unresolved. (4)

 

II. Whose Blood is Redder?

However, we may find a basis for allowing blowing up the plane in the Hagahos Ha-Ramach, who, commenting on the Rambam’s ruling, questions the rationale underlying the unanimous ruling regarding a case in which no particular person is named. He notes the Gemara’s comment in Sanhedrin (74a) that the reason why one may not kill to save his own life is מאי חזית דדמא דידך סומק טפי. Loosely translated, this means that one may not assume that his “blood his redder” — that is, that his life is more valuable — than that of his fellow. Killing another person to save one’s own life reflects the presumption that his own life is worth more, and since no person can make such an assumption, the Torah forbids rescuing oneself at the expense of another human being’s life. The Ramach notes that this rationale clearly does not apply in the case in which townspeople must decide between handing over one person and being killed. Under such circumstances, we can indeed determine which misfortune is graver, as whomever the people choose to hand over to the enemy would otherwise be killed along with the rest of them. This is not a decision of whose blood is redder, but rather a decision between having one person killed or having him and many others killed. Thus, since the rationale of מאי חזית דדמא דידך סומק טפי does not apply, we should seemingly apply the standard principle allowing the suspension of Torah law for the sake of saving human life.

The Kesef Mishneh answers that in truth, the rationale of מאי חזית דדמא דידך סומק טפי does apply even in such a case. Any individual selected to be handed over could legitimately argue that his blood is no less “red” than that of any others, and there is thus no justification for choosing him to die over any other person in the town. As such, the townspeople have no right to choose any one person over others if he was not singled out by the enemy.

The Kesef Mishneh then acknowledges that his answer does not resolve the Ramach’s question as it applies to Reish Lakish’s view — that even if the enemy specifies the person whom they want to kill, the townspeople may not hand him over (unless he is deserving of execution for a crime he committed). In this case, it seems, since the individual will in any event be killed, the rationale of תיזח יאמ does not apply and the townspeople should be allowed to save themselves by handing over the named individual. The Kesef Mishneh suggests that according to Reish Lakish, the rationale of מאי חזית is not the real reason that one may not save himself by killing another; rather, this law was in truth transmitted through oral tradition and is therefore relevant even when the reasoning of מאי חזית does not apply. (5)

We may also suggest an additional answer. As mentioned earlier, the Mishna applies this ruling even to situations in which the enemy demands not a life, but a woman to defile. Even in such a case, if no particular woman is named, the townspeople are forbidden from choosing a woman, even if this means that all women in the town will be defiled. This would seem to prove that this halacha has nothing at all to do with the issue of מאי חזית דדמא דידך סומק טפי, of whose blood is “redder.” Apparently, the Mishna and Tosefta deal here not with the prohibition of רציחה (murder), but rather with a more general prohibition against assisting an enemy by handing a fellow Jew over to them to be killed or raped. Thus, even if an argument could be made to permit handing over a fellow Jew on the grounds of פקוח נפש (saving human life), as the Ramach contends, it is nevertheless forbidden due to the separate prohibition against assisting enemies bent upon killing Jews.

This analysis directly affects the question concerning a hijacked airplane. In such a case, the enemies are not demanding any action on our part, and thus there is no issue of assisting a foe. Rather, there is simply the question of whether we may kill a small number of people who are bound to die anyway in order to save a larger number of people. As the Ramach observed, it seems clear that this would be permissible, and there is thus room to argue that the plane can and should be shot down in order to save the people in the building below.


III. Killing a Fetus to Save the Mother

Another basis for authorizing shooting down the hijacked aircraft is the ruling of the Panim Meiros (3:8) concerning a case that appears to involve the precisely identical question. He addresses the situation in which a fetus’ head has already exited the mother’s body and the doctors have ascertained that the infant is bound to die, and the mother will die as well if she completes the delivery. The Panim Meiros rules that this situation is akin to the case described in the Tosefta in which the enemy specifies a particular person whom they seek to kill and the townspeople are allowed to hand over the wanted individual since he is going to die in any event. Similarly, if the newborn is bound to die regardless of what happens to the mother, then it may be killed so that the mother may continue living. (The Panim Meiros concludes on an ambivalent note, however, writing, וצ״ע להתישב בדין זה.)

Surprisingly, the Panim Meiros here appears to assume the view of Rabbi Yochanan — that it is indeed permissible to hand over a person wanted by the enemy if he is specified by name and would be killed either way. As noted, however, this issue is subject to a debate among the Rishonim and the Rama cites both opinions, seemingly leaving this question unresolved. (6) In truth, however, we might contend that even Reish Lakish would agree in such a case that the infant may be killed for the sake of rescuing the mother.

The basis for this claim is the approach taken by the Chazon Ish (Sanhedrin 25, ד״ה ירושלמי תרומות) to explain the debate between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish. He claims that according to Rabbi Yochanan, if the enemy names a person whom they want handed over, that individual attains the status of a רודף (“pursuer”), as his life poses a direct threat to the rest of the townspeople. As such, he may be handed over to the gentiles, just as any רודף may be killed for the purpose of rescuing his victim. Reish Lakish, however, maintains that the wanted person cannot be considered a רודף unless there is a particular reason why he was chosen, such as in the case of Sheva ben Bichri, who was wanted because he instigated a rebellion. Whereas Rabbi Yochanan views the wanted person as a רודף under all circumstances, since he in effect threatens the towns-people, Reish Lakish contends that he cannot be considered a רודף if he was selected arbitrarily. He attains this status only if there is a substantive connection between him and the enemy’s threat. Thus, if the enemy randomly selects one person to be handed over, that person does not, in Reish Lakish’s view, obtain the status of רודף.

According to this approach, it would appear that the ruling of the Panim Meiros could follow even Reish Lakish’s view. The newborn’s existence directly threatens the mother’s life, and as such, it has the status of a רודף and may therefore be killed. This is not a random connection, but a natural, physical reality; the woman’s life is endangered by the infant, and under such circumstances, even Reish Lakish would agree that the infant should be killed to save the mother’s life.

Accordingly, in the case of a hijacked plane as well, Reish Lakish would agree that the passengers are regarded as a רודף with respect to the people in the building. They were not randomly selected to die in place of the others; rather, they pose an immediate threat in light of the fact that the plane is headed toward the building and threatens its occupants and the people in the area. In this case, there is a clear and direct connection between the passengers and the threat posed to the people below, and thus according to all opinions, they have the status of רודף and it would be permissible to destroy the plane to save the people on the ground.


IV. Diverting a Missile

We might also approach this issue in light of the question addressed by the Chazon Ish (שם ד״ה ויש לעיין) concerning the permissibility of diverting a missile away from a large group of people toward one person, so that only one life is lost. In discussing this case, the Chazon Ish observes that handing over a Jew to an enemy is inherently an act of cruelty which, under the circumstances, has the effect of rescuing a large number of people. In the case of a missile, the precise opposite is true — the act of diverting its path is fundamentally an act of rescue, which happens in this situation to result in a person’s death. In light of this distinction, the Chazon Ish suggests, even Reish Lakish would agree that one may divert a missile off course to save the lives of a large group of people, even if this would cause it to kill somebody else. (7)

The Chazon Ish cites in this context the story of Lulinus and Papus (which appears in Rashi’s commentary to Ta’anis 18b), two men who falsely confessed to a murder in order to save the Jews from the government’s decree. The Gemara lauds Lulinus and Papus for their selfless act, setting a clear precedent for killing a small number of people for the purpose of rescuing the lives of a large number of people. In the situation of the missile as well, we might conclude that it would be permissible to divert a missile toward one individual for the sake of rescuing the lives of many. It should be noted, however, that a clear distinction exists between the story of Lulinus and Papus and the case under discussion. Lulinus and Papus were condemned to execution along with the rest of the Jews, and thus they would have been killed even if they had not made their false confession. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives thus does not set a precedent relevant to the case of a missile, in which rescuing the large group requires killing someone who would not have otherwise been killed. (8)

It is not entirely clear how the Chazon Ish’s distinction would affect the question concerning the hijacked aircraft. On the one hand, shooting down the plane is an act of הצלה, rescuing the targeted building, much like diverting a missile is an act of rescuing the targeted group of people. On the other hand, one who diverts the missile does not directly kill the victim, whereas in the case of the hijacked plane, the passengers are killed directly through the firing of a missile. We thus cannot reach any definitive conclusions regarding our question on the basis of the Chazon Ish’s discussion.

V. חיי שעה

Another consideration that must be taken into account is the fact that shooting down the plane will cause the passengers to die several minutes earlier than they would otherwise have died. While it is true that they are going to die regardless of whether the plane is shot down or allowed to continue to its target, allowing the plane to continue flying grants them an additional few minutes of life. Do these extra moments warrant forbidding shooting down the plane, compelling us to allow it to continue into a skyscraper and to kill hundreds or thousands of civilians?

This issue appears to be subject to debate among the halachic authorities. The Yad Avraham commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 157:1) asserts that the Tosefta’s ruling allowing the townspeople to hand over a wanted person applies only if the enemies would otherwise kill the entire town immediately. In this case, since the wanted individual would die at the same time regardless of whether he is delivered to the enemy, we allow the townspeople to rescue themselves by handing him over. If, however, refusing to hand him over will result in the townspeople’s deaths at a later time, then the Tosefta’s ruling does not apply, and the people may not hand the person over to be killed, as they would thereby be denying him short-term survival.

The Yad Avraham’s ruling is predicated on the assumption that we may not sacrifice a person’s חיי שעה — the brief period he still has to live — even for the sake of the long-term rescue of others. According to the Yad Avraham, no distinction is drawn between short-term and long-term rescue. Thus, just as it is forbidden to kill one person to save another, it is forbidden to deny a wanted individual the brief period in which he could still remain alive by handing him over to the enemy.

By the same token, it would be forbidden to blow up a hijacked plane in order to rescue the people below, even according to the ruling of Rabbi Yochanan. Since destroying the plane would end the passengers’ lives several moments before they would otherwise be killed by the plane’s collision with the building, this would amount to killing some people for the sake of rescuing others, which is clearly forbidden.

However, the Chazon Ish (Sanhedrin 25, ד״ה ומש״כ בגליון) disputes the Yad Avraham’s view and maintains that once the enemy singled out a particular person for execution, it makes no difference whether he would otherwise be killed immediately or at some future point.

This debate hinges on the question of how to classify חיי שעה — whether or not it is equivalent in all respects to long-term survival. A number of Acharonim address this question in the context of the famous debate between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura (Bava Metzia 62a) concerning the case of two people traveling in a desert, one of whom has no water while the other has enough water to sustain only one of them. Ben Patura rules that the fellow must share his water with his companion, even though they will then both die, rather than drink his entire ration to sustain himself at the expense of the other man’s life. Rabbi Akiva, however, citing the verse וחי אחיך עמך (“Your fellow shall live with you”— Vayikra 25:36), establishes the rule of חייך קודמין לחיי חברך, which means that one’s life takes precedence over his fellow’s life. In his view, the traveler with the jug of water may drink as much as he needs to sustain himself, even if this results in his fellow’s death.

Several Acharonim note that Ben Petura appears to fully equate חיי שעה with long-term survival. In his view, one may not ensure his own long-term survival at the expense of his fellow’s short-term survival, and the traveler with the jug must therefore share the water with his fellow so that his fellow can live for another few moments. Although Rabbi Akiva disputes this ruling, he does so only due to the inference from the verse, וחי אחיך עמך, indicating that were it not for this inference, he would accept Ben Petura’s position and require sharing the water. This discussion thus perhaps lends support to the Yad Avraham’s view equating short-term survival with long-term survival, such that one may not save a life by killing someone who will in any event die later.

By contrast, the Shevus Yaakov (3:75) asserts that long-term survival indeed overrides short-term survival, drawing proof from the Gemara’s ruling in Avoda Zara (27b). The Gemara there establishes that although it was considered dangerous to seek medical treatment from idolaters (as they were regarded as potential murderers), it was permissible to seek medical treatment from them for a terminal illness. Since the patient in any event is certain to die, he may risk his life by seeking treatment from a dangerous physician. The Gemara explains, חליי שעה לא חיישינן  — meaning, we do not take into account the short-term survival that one potentially forfeits by taking this risk, as this brief period of life is not significant. Based on this, the Shevus Yaakov proves that short-term survival is not deemed halachically equivalent to long-term survival, and in some respects is considered insignificant. (9)

Clearly, however, we may distinguish between the Gemara’s ruling in Avoda Zara and the discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura. In Avoda Zara, the Gemara addresses the question of whether an individual may put his own short-term survival at risk for the sake of possible long-term survival. In such a case, it indeed stands to reason that the prospects of long-term survival warrant risking the patient’s short-term survival. Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura, however, address the question of whether one’s long-term survival overrides another person’s short-term survival, and the answer, in principle, is that it does not. With regard to our question, then, we might indeed draw proof from Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura that one may not sacrifice another person’s short-term survival to secure his own long-term survival, as the Yad Avraham claims.

As mentioned, however, the Chazon Ish disputes this ruling. In his view, we may indeed apply Rabbi Yochanan’s ruling to our case to allow shooting down a hijacked airplane to save the people on the ground, even though this means ending the passengers’ lives several minutes earlier than they would have otherwise ended. (10)


VI. Conclusion

Based on what we have seen, there is room to allow and even require shooting down a hijacked plane to protect the people in the targeted building. In addition to the fact that several Rishonim accept Rabbi Yochanan’s view, allowing handing over a wanted person to rescue a town, we noted that even Reish Lakish would allow shooting down the plane, as the passengers have not been randomly “selected.” Moreover, since this situation does not involve the issue of assisting an enemy threatening the Jewish people, it is likely that the entire discussion between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish does not apply and the rationale of מאי חזית is likewise inapplicable, thus warranting killing the few to rescue the many.

 

__________________________

1. The infant is not considered a רודף (“pursuer”), who may be killed to save the person being pursued, because, as the Gemara states, משמיא קא רדפא לה— it is God, and not the newborn infant, who threatens the woman’s life.
2. See also Rashi’s commentary to Shmuel II 20:22.
3. The Meiri in Sanhedrin also appears to accept Rabbi Yochanan’s ruling.
4. The Bach writes that the Rama appears to side with the Rambam’s ruling, but the Chazon Ish (Sanhedrin 25, ד״ה והר״ש) notes that the Bach’s claim has no basis.
5. This answer is also given by the Chemdas Shlomo (O.C. 38). The question of whether or not this halacha is based upon מאי חזית has been discussed at length by numerous Acharonim and yields several important ramifications. For example, the Meiri (Sanhedrin 72b) rules that if the enemy did not name a particular person, the townspeople may save themselves by handing over a טריפה (a person suffering from a terminal illness who is certain to die). He clearly works with the assumption that it is the rationale of מאי חזית that would prevent them from handing over someone to be killed and that this rationale does not apply to a טריפה. Similarly, the Minchas Chinuch (295–296:24) rules that one may kill a fetus (in a manner that does not endanger the mother) in order to save his own life. (See also Chazon Ish, Hilchos Rotzei’ach 1:9; Tiferes Yisrael, Boaz, Ohalos, end of chapter 7; and Iggeros Moshe, C.M. 2:69:4, ד״ה וגם לענין אונס) By contrast, the Noda Bi-Yehuda (Tanina, C.M. 59) rules that one may not save his life by killing a טריפה or a fetus. See below in our discussion of חיי שעה.
6. This may be the reason for the ambivalence expressed by the Panim Meiros at the end of his discussion.
7. The Chazon Ish then acknowledges that the reverse argument could be made: those who hand over a Jew to the enemy do not commit a direct act of murder, whereas when one diverts a missile away from its target towards a person, he directly kills the person who is ultimately struck by the missile. When the question is viewed from this angle, we might conclude that to the contrary, even Rabbi Yochanan would agree that it would be forbidden to divert the missile.
8. This point was made by Rav Eliezer Waldenberg in Tzitz Eliezer (15:70).
9. The context of the Shevus Yaakov’s discussion is the case of a gravely ill patient who, according the doctors’ prognosis, cannot survive in his condition for another day or two, but there is a procedure that could cure him of his illness, but might also kill him within an hour or two. The Shevus Yaakov draws proof from the Gemara’s discussion in Avoda Zara that the patient may take the risk and undergo the procedure, since in any event he is going to die and the חיי שעה that he may be forfeiting is insignificant.
10. One might examine the possible relevance of the Chazon Ish’s ruling with regard to the controversy surrounding organ transplants, which can generally be performed only when a patient is brain dead but still breathing. Contemporary halachic authorities have debated whether or not brain death constitutes halachic death such that organs may be removed from a brain dead patient. One might perhaps argue that regardless of this question, the organs may be taken because the donor’s חיי שעה does not override the recipient’s long-term survival. Even if we consider the brain dead patient halachically living, he is at very least a הפירט and has only a short period of time left to live, in which case his short-term survival should not take precedence over other patients’ long-term survival according to the Chazon Ish’s ruling.
In truth, however, we must distinguish between the situation addressed by the Chazon Ish, in which the enemy has stated their intent to kill the person in question, and the case of an ill patient. Clearly, it is inconceivable that we may remove the organs of any elderly hospital patient since in any event he or she has only חיי שעה in contrast to the young patients in need of a transplant. The Chazon Ish’s ruling was said in reference to a case in which the person is condemned to death, and thus allowing him some extra moments of life should not, according to the Chazon Ish, come at the expense of the lives of all the townspeople.

Parshat Pekudei: Time, Space, and Man

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers

In our traditional Jewish literature, especially our Kabbalistic literature, all of life, experience, and existence are conceived of as consisting of three dimensions: olam, shana, and nefesh. Literally, these mean world, year, and soul. Actually, what is intended by these terms is Space, Time, and Man.

One of the distinguished rabbis of the State of Israel, Rabbi Shelomo Yosef Zevin, sees this triadic structure in the opening verses of today’s sidra. We read, “vayak’hel Moshe et kol adat Benei Yisrael,” that Moses assembled the entire congregation, and there he taught them the commandments of the Shabbat and Mishkan, the construction of the Tabernacle. The act of assembling all of Israel represents the element of nefesh of Man. The Mishkan is that which occupies a specific place. And Shabbat recurs every week, and hence represents the dimension of time.

It should be understood that this is not merely a way of describing the world or experience. It is a framework that has high spiritual significance, for it means that Judaism considers that these three elements interpenetrate each other and are interdependent.

This view teaches that, on the one hand, man needs the awareness of time and space; that is, he needs the spiritual implications and the consciousness of the spiritual potentialities, of both history and geography, the realms of shana and olam. Thus, Judaism speaks of kedushat hazeman, the sanctity of time, as in the celebration of Shabbat and the various festivals. And Judaism speaks too of kedushat hamakom, the holiness of place, as, for instance, the Mishkan or, today, the synagogue.

On the other hand, both time and space are significant in the divine economy only because of man, because of nefesh. Thus, Shabbat, which is a symbol of time, requires the participation of man (nefesh) in order to make it meaningful. According to the Torah, on the seventh day of Creation, God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it; nevertheless man was commanded, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” i.e. man too must sanctify the seventh day. It is not enough that time be sacred on

its own; it requires the affirmation of man, the participation of his nefesh.

The same holds true of the category of space. The holiness of the Sanctuary is contingent upon the initiative of man. In the very commandment in which God makes known His will that we make a sanctuary for Him, we read: “ve’asu li mikdash veshakhanti betokham,” “and let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Rabbi Moshe Alshikh observed that the expression is “betokham,” “among them,” and not “betokho,” “in it.” In other words, God did not want a Sanctuary because He was homeless and needed someplace to live. Rather, the Sanctuary, symbol of the sanctity of space, is important only because it allows man the opportunity to have God dwell within him, “betokho.” Thus, both time and space depend upon man. Olam and shana require nefesh.

This same pattern of Time, Space, and Man may be observed not only in our regular Torah reading for today, but also in the special reading for Parashat haĤodesh. We read this morning, “haĥodesh hazeh lakhem rosh ĥadashim,” that this month of Nisan is to be for us the chief of months. This means that Nisan is Rosh HaShana.

But do we not have another Rosh HaShana, one which begins on the first day of Tishrei? What then is the difference between the Rosh HaShana of Nisan and the Rosh HaShana of Tishrei?

The answer is that Rosh HaShanah of the fall, of Tishrei, is that of olam or Space, whereas the Rosh HaShana of spring, of Nisan, is that of shana or Time. In Tishrei we celebrate the anniversary of creation, of geography; this is the day on which God created the natural world. In Nisan we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. We commemorate a great historical event, something that occurred in time and that made a difference for all time.

In both of these, Man, the possessor of nefesh, plays a crucial role. The two Rosh HaShana’s are not merely birthdays of mute nature, or anniversaries of some impersonal historical event. Rather, the Rosh HaShana of Tishrei emphasizes the element of din in which man is brought to the bar of divine justice. At this occasion we are told that man has within himself the capacity to overcome the limitations of the natural world, to transform the inexorable fate determined by the blind laws of nature. Thus, at the height and climax of our Rosh HaShana service in Tishrei, we proclaim, “uteshuva utefilla utzedaka ma’avirin et ro’a hagezera,” that by the exertion of his moral nature, by repentance and prayer and charity, man can actually change the decree of his future, the natural result of his conduct and misconduct in the past. So too, the Rosh HaShana of Nisan is not mere mechanical memorialization of some remote detached occurrence. It is a time of redemption, and therefore a signal for us that we are to strive for redemption during this month. Perhaps that is why we recite the “mi she’asah nisim” every Sabbath that we welcome or bless the new month. For the regular appearance of the new moon, on any month, now becomes the occasion to recall human redemption. Moreover, as the Rabbis pointed out, the Torah specifically tells us that, “haĥodesh hazeh lakhem rosh ĥadashim,” this month is “lakhem, “to you,” that is, the human court has the right to set the calendar and therefore to determine when the month of Nisan will fall. This is symbolic of the fact that the human element prevails, that man can determine what to do with his time, and hence with his fate and with his destiny. He can fashion his own history. In Judaism, Time, Space, and Man are inextricably bound together. This thesis has received remarkable confirmation by one of the most brilliant men alive today, Prof. R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, in a recent address reprinted in the latest issue of The American Scholar. Prof. Fuller points out that for many years now scientists have maintained that the entire universe is running down. The energy within the world is dissipating into a kind of randomness, which means that everything is becoming successively more disorganized and chaotic and therefore the world, physically, must come to an end. Prof. Fuller points out, however, that there is an opposite tendency to this physical dissipation of the world, this “increase in entropy” – that is the activity of men on earth, and intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe, who by their intellectual and spiritual capacity constantly organize their lives, their thought, and their experience more and more sharply. This tendency to organize runs counter to the disorganization tendency within the material universe. Man, by his systematic intellect and his creative spirit, represents the opposite of the chaotic and the destructive. Hence, even from the point of view of a distinguished scientist, Man, through the exertion of his nefesh, may yet be the one who will save and redeem the world of olam and shana, of Space and Time!

It is a pity that we do not recognize that fact with sufficient force in our daily experience. Too often we underestimate the role of man in the world, the significance of nefesh in our universe. Symbolic of this failure is what happened a couple of years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark. A television station received many protests when it scheduled a program of bull-fighting. Many irate citizens wrote in that this was an example of cruelty which they resented. Thereupon the television station substituted for the bull-fighting program a film on war, consisting of naval battles. This time no one called in to protest!

The same is true of many of our humane societies who agitate for public acceptance of human laws – which is as it should be. Unfortunately, however, the same people who are so concerned about the welfare of animals, are totally oblivious to man’s cruelty to man – especially when the man who is the victim happens to be a Jew.

A more heartening example of the creative role of man in the world came in recent weeks when an Israeli citizen decided to make a dramatic gesture for peace by flying a small plane to Egypt to see President Nasser, and thereafter proceeding to Rome to see the Pope, then to Paris for President de Gaulle, and then probably on to the United States. It matters little whether or not his effort was motivated

by self-glorification, cheap publicity, or a general flair for self-projection. The important thing is that in this terrible Cold War, with great power blocks and stubborn nations locked in deadly hostility, controlled by giant bureaucracies, one single human individual was able to emerge from anonymity and obscurity to make his presence felt and move the hearts of his fellow men. The nefesh somehow prevailed, even momentarily, over the olam and the shana.

The time is long past for us to take a good, long, and deep look at Jewish education from the point of view of this triadic structure of Time, Space, and Man. I believe that the failure of so much of Jewish education to date is a result of the fact that there is olam and shana, but no nefesh. There is a place called “school” to which children are sent, and a certain time limit which they must serve, generally to Bar Mitzva. But there is all too little of the one element which can redeem the entire procedure and make it more meaningful and effective; the child, his nefesh, his own interest and heart and soul. Too often children feel that they merely “take up space” and “do time” as if they were juvenile convicts condemned to the agonizing boredom of Jewish education. What is needed is nefesh – and that can be provided by parents who understand that school is not a place to send children but to bring them, and that the home must serve not as a counter-pressure to school, but as a model laboratory where the principles and ideals taught in the Jewish school are carried out in practice. The teachers, too, must re-emphasize as never before the elements of the child’s own nefesh. A great deal of research is needed in Jewish education if all the investment we have put into it and all the dreams we have dreamed for it are to come true. Much too much of Jewish education today is irrelevant. It is simply a matter of relearning and re-teaching new techniques of instruction and pedagogy. What a pity if in this age of technological and methodological progress in so many fields Jewish education should remain backward and retrogressive. Parents, teachers, and the community at large must bring back nefesh to the Jewish educational world of olam and shana.

Finally, all three elements merge together in one paean of praise to Almighty God as we welcome the new month of Nisan this coming week. Man, indeed, has a positive function as a new season of the year comes about in which nature is aroused to life once again. The Talmud put it this way: When a man goes abroad in spring, and notices the trees blossoming and the first green blades of grass pushing their way through the crunchy earth, he ought to make a blessing to his God. He should say, “Blessed are thou O Lord, King of the Universe, shelo ĥisar be’olamo kelum, uvara bo beriot tovot ve’ilanot tovot, lehitanot bahen benei adam, who has made His world perfect, lacking nothing, creating therein beautiful creatures and wonderful trees, in order to grant thereby pleasure and joy and benefit to the children of men.”

With the coming of Nisan and spring, the fullness of God’s beautiful world, His olam, and the onset of the most delightful of His regular seasons of the shana, must be sanctified by the dedication and gratitude of human beings who, each possessed of a true nefesh, will offer to Him a berakha, and themselves be blessed thereby.

Parshat Ki Tisa: Stubbornness

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers

 

It was Rabbi Simcha Zissel, one of the giants of the Lithuanian Mussar movement, who pointed out an unusual aspect of God’s reaction to the worship of the Golden Calf by the Israelites. The divine wrath

was kindled at the people of Israel not for idolatry, not for faithlessness, but because “hinei am keshei oref hu,” “because it is a stiff-necked people.” Evidently stubbornness is, in God’s scheme, more deserving of anger than idolatry. The Torah regards an obstinate character as more evil than a pagan soul. The calamities that followed the Golden Calf were due more to bad character than bad theology.

Certainly this is a valid point. The man with the stubborn streak has a rigid will. His mind is frozen, and so he cannot learn. His soul suffers from a rigor mortis which prevents him from communing with the Source of all life. Brazenness, ignorance, a closed mind, and a dead spirit – these are the prices of obstinacy and the casualties of stubbornness. A stubborn people will persist in its evil ways and never learn the ways of God. A stiff-necked people cannot raise its head above the Golden Calf.

And yet the matter cannot be dismissed so simply. A blanket condemnation of stubbornness does not fit in with the complicated facts of today’s sidra. For while, on the one hand, God points to stubbornness as the root of the sin of idolatry, and while he blames obstinacy for His withdrawal from Israel (“I will not go amongst you because you are a stiff-necked people”), on the other hand, it is this very characteristic that Moses presents as a reason why God should rejoin the camp of Israel! In his second prayer of intercession, Moses says “Let God go with us because we are a stiff-necked people!” The very reason God gave for abandoning Israel is the one Moses presents for His accepting them! If stubbornness is an unconditional evil, an absolute sin, then how can Moses point to Jewish obstinacy as a virtue deserving of God’s attention?

Obviously, then, stubbornness is a virtue as well as a vice, a mitzva as well as an aveira. To be unbendingly evil is worse than idolatry; to be unbendingly Godly is the greatest virtue. What is dogged obstinacy in the service of a bad cause, is valorous constancy in the service of a good one. Stubbornness depends upon what you do with it and how you wield it. There is an immoral stubbornness that insists, despite all signs of divine faithfulness, that “halo tov lanu shuv Miztrayima,” that it is better to live like an Egyptian slave than to die free under God in the desert (Numbers :). But there is a moral stubbornness that, despite all reports to the contrary, doggedly insists with Caleb that “alo na’aleh veyarashnu otah,” we can reach the Promised Land and build it up. Our Arab cousins practice an immoral stubbornness when they refuse to face the facts of a divinely guided history and recite daily over Radio Cairo the banal nonsense about pushing the Jews into the sea. But there is a moral stubbornness which refuses to concede that Jews behind the Iron Curtain are lost, and so it waits and prepares until they start to come; a moral obstinacy that will fight tyranny on the beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, and hills; a lofty stiff-neckedness that will not let freedom’s light darken.

 

Patriots in peace, assert the people’s right

With noble stubbornness resisting might.

( John Dryden, Epistle the Thirteenth)

 

This lovely and blessed tenacity which made the quality of “keshei oref” worthy of divine pleasure, is that which enabled the Jew to face up to the countless challenges thrust upon us by our persecutors throughout the ages. We are a stubborn, stiff-necked, obdurate people. We will not give up our national existence, our faith, our Torah, our God.

That is why we are alive to this day. That same quality that made us insensitive to the word of God and caused us to dance about a Golden Calf has been sublimated, and has made us strong, powerful people of God. That is what Moses meant in his prayer to God. The same characteristic that made them blind to you, O God, will keep them a holy nation though trial and temptation, through persecution and pogrom once they have accepted You. In every condition and under every circumstance, though ridiculed and laughed at, they will say proudly and stubbornly, “asher baĥar banu mekol ha’amim” – God has chosen us, and we must teach His word to the world. With principled obstinacy we shall bend the world toward God.

And if we need to convince ourselves further of the worthiness of the right kind of stubbornness, let us turn to the haftara where we are given the immortal picture of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel, challenging the priests of the idol Baal, swaying his people to him and away from Baal by the miraculous fire from heaven which consumes his sacrifice. What was Elijah’s purpose in this dramatic moment? To prove God’s existence? Is it possible or even proper to prove God by this kind of histrionics which could possibly be duplicated by a skilled magician? Not at all. What Elijah proposed in his sudden appearance out of the desert was to change the character of the people from the spiritual flabbiness of fence-sitting religiosity and wishy-washy faith back to the toughness of “am keshei oref.” Remember the challenge the prophet flung at this uncertain people, wavering ’twixt God and Baal? “Ad matay atem posĥim al shetei hase’ipim,” how long will you waiver between two opinions, how long will you keep jumping from one branch to the other like a bird that cannot decide where it wants to go? How long will you postpone the hard and tough choice: either God or Baal? The prophet was tired with the softness of the Jewish spirit of his day. He wanted to do away with the jelly-fish spirit. He longed for the “am keshei oref,” for a flint-minded, stiff-necked people whose head could not be turned by the glitter of golden idols and whose heart would not be turned to the temptations of petty pagan customs.

How interesting is the biblical idiom for stubbornness – “keshei oref,” “a stiff neck.” A man who has a stiff neck finds that his body and head must face in the same direction. In the evil, wrong kind of stubbornness, his head follows his body and his mind justifies his material cravings. In the right kind of stubbornness, his body follows his head, and he disciplines himself to follow his principles. When there is “posĥim al shetei hase’ipim,” when there is flabbiness, then head and body face different directions – the mind expresses the best of intentions, while the body indulges in the worst kind of deeds. God condemned the wrong kind of stubbornness. Elijah condemned all kinds of moral flabbiness. Moses praised the right kind of stubbornness – where the principles prevail and body must follow mind.

That this teaching of Judaism is as important today as always goes without saying. Our fight for freedom against tyranny, for Jewishness against assimilation, for the moral life against degeneracy – all these depend, in the end, on how properly stubborn we are. But today allow me to mention very briefly but one element of Jewish obstinacy that we must reaffirm urgently. We are a people who have never allowed our poor and unfortunate to become public charges. We have always taken care of our own. It is a wonderful tribute to our stiff-neckedness that we New York Jews, in keeping with this tradition of tzedaka and caring for our fellow Jews, have always supported the central, over-all agency for such purposes: The Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. The Federation cares for people in our city, through hospitals, orphanages, family and vocational guidance, summer camps, and Jewish education. It is the source of percent of Jewish sponsored care in this city. Last year, the Federation suffered a $2 million deficit. This year it faces the alarming deficit of $4 million. The Federation now faces a crisis in maintenance – it needs no less than $18 million this year just to continue its work without any expansion or improvement. We are called upon, we of the Jewish Center, to show our moral and ethical strength, to rally to the call of tzedaka, to reaffirm our insistence that we take care of our own, that no Jew ever be forced into the humiliation of the public ward. It is a peculiar feeling, and we are stubborn about it – but it is part of our moral heritage. Let us not stand accused of Elijah’s jibe “ad matayatem posĥim al shetei hase’ipim.” How long will we remain ambivalent and uncertain whether we will practice tzedaka or not? Let us brace ourselves, and support the Federation even if it hurts a bit. For we are “am keshei oref.”

The Halakha teaches us that an animal whose spine is broken is tereifa – it is not kosher. And if we are in doubt, the Halakha prescribes this interesting test: grasp the spine at its base. If it leans over at the side, that is the sign of a fracture, and the animal is a tereifa. If it stands erect, then the spine has its natural hardness and it is kosher.

If we want to be kosher Jews, Jews who are genuine and authentic heirs of the Torah tradition, we must possess strong backbones and stiff necks. We must show spine and stubbornness in the face of adversity and challenge. We must not bow before persecution; we must not bend the knee for any of the modern idols. We must stand proudly and straight upon our sacred principles. Then we shall be kosher Jews. Then we shall not have reason to fear Elijah’s taunt. Then we shall prove worthy of Moses’ prayer and God’s affirmative answer to that prayer: “yelekh na Hashem bekirbenu ki am keshei oref hu” – let God go amongst us, for we are a stiff-necked people.

Parshat Tetzaveh: Channeling Change

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers

 

One of the main and most fundamental contentions of all moralists of all ages is that human nature is not basically unchangeable.Ask any teacher of religion whether change is possible in Man, and his answer is inevitably “certainly.” And yet, my friends, if you were to ask me that same question I would have to qualify that assertion. Is change possible? Yes and no. If by “change” you mean the transformation of the entire character essentials, the metamorphosis of the basic qualities of the soul, the God-given talents and personality attributes, the answer is “no.” there are certain properties of the soul with which you were born, and which you cannot change, willy nilly.

Yet that is not the end of the matter. Because if by “change” you mean not the basic change of the koĥot hanefesh, the powers of the soul, but the salvaging of them; not the scrapping and subduing of the fundamental drives of Man, but their redirection and channeling, the answer is a resounding and wholesome “yes.” A man may not be able to rid himself of the trait of stubbornness, but he can certainly direct his stubbornness to desired and beneficial directions. Simpler still, a man may not be able to cure himself of insomnia. But he can himself determine whether these waking hours be spent counting sheep or studying Torah.

The Jewish ethical literature has two names corresponding to these two types of change, and there are two schools propounding these opposing theses. One group claims that the highest goal is shevirat hamidot, the breaking and crushing of the evil drives of man. The objectionable trait must be broken and destroyed. The other group believes this unnecessary and impractical. Rather, it proposes tikun hamidot, the correction and redirection of these dark forces, the channeling of them from the destructive ends for which they had been employed to new and constructive ends. Redirection, not breaking and destruction, is the highest aim of ethical development. And Hasidim, who were great believers in tikun hamidot, used to object to the other school’s theory and say that shevirat hamida, the breaking of one evil trait, often results in two new evil traits.

It is a remarkable fact that considering the contemporary emphasis on education, our parents and grandparents, who were probably more successful than us in this field, rarely mentioned that word. Education in Hebrew is “ĥinukh.” And that word was uncommon in the homes and academies of the most learned and devoted elements of European Jewry. Rather, the emphasis was always on “hadrakha.” That word comes from “derekh,” which means “way,” and “hadrakha” therefore means direction, guidance, and channeling. Take, for instance, that characteristic known as kina – jealousy, or envy. In its usual manifestations it is a terribly destructive and antisocial expression. How many homes have been broken and how many reputations ruined all because of jealousy! And Solomon properly exclaims “kasha khiShe’ol kina,” “jealousy is as hard and cold as the grave.” And yet, surprisingly, the Talmud exclaims with equal conviction “kinat sofrim tarbeh ĥokhma,” “The jealousy of scribes increaseth wisdom.” Well, which one is it – leading to the grave or leading to wisdom? Obviously, it is a matter of direction. If you express it by envying your friend’s Cadillac or his home or his wife’s mink coat – then it is “kasha khiShe’ol.” If, however, you envy his learning, his piety, his sincerity, or honesty, then “tarbeh ĥokhma.” The same jealousy, the same envy. Only the direction has changed.

The Talmud tells a remarkable story which is a sharp illustration of our theme. The great sage Rabbi Yochanan was bathing in the Jordan one day when there suddenly appeared a man known and feared, by the name of Resh Lakish, a man who was the head of a gang of robbers. He was a man of uncommon strength and determination. With one huge leap he spanned the Jordan and came to the side of Rabbi Yochanan intent upon either robbing or kidnapping him. When the sage witnessed this remarkable demonstration of power, he exclaimed “ĥelekh le’orayta,” meaning, “O, if only such power were used for the study of Torah.” This Herculean bandit subsequently turned to Torah and, as the student and later the brother-in-law of Rabbi Yochanan, redirected and rechanneled this extraordinary might so that he ultimately became the great and beloved sage Resh Lakish, second only to Rabbi Yochanan himself. You see, Resh Lakish originally knew that he could never rid himself of this extreme expression of power, and thought himself doomed to a life of banditry. It was Rabbi Yochanan who introduced him to the idea of tikun hamidot, direction and channeling.

In more recent times there is also such a case. My teacher of Talmud at the Yeshiva, the great scholar Rabbi Soloveitchik, recently told of an interesting conversation between his grandfather, the worldfamous sage and eminent talmudist, Rabbi Chaim Brisker, and his son, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father, Reb Moshe. Said Reb Chaim to Reb Moshe, “My son, I was not always the person you know me to be. I was born with mean and destructive tendencies. I was granted diabolic powers, and I have had to struggle all my life to turn these very powers to constructive ends, to redirect these urges and drives from the evil to the good.”

And in a way, my friends, the holiday of Purim commemorates this very element of tikun hamidot. Mordecai, the hero of the Megilla, was not heir to pink-cheeked angelic qualities. He was a hard, practical man, a man who had tasted exile, who was intimately familiar with the intrigues of the court of Ahaseurus and who had a staunch, unbreakable spirit. Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman, his brilliant execution of the plan to ensnare the anti-Semitic tyrant and his adamant refusal to concede defeat mark him a bold spirit. Now boldness is a thing which is not always good. Mordecai’s boldness was an inheritance from his ancestor, Shimi. Shimi was the bold and disrespectful insurrectionist who disparaged King David to his face and publicly accused him of being a bloody murderer. It was boldness indeed, and a libelous, false, evil type of boldness, for he besmirched the good name of the saintly author of the Divine Psalms. Yet this same boldness which he transmitted genetically to his descendant Mordecai was used by Mordecai for entirely different purposes. It was used to vanquish a Haman, not to insult a David. It was not the boldness of empty invectives, not the effrontery of disrespectful vituperation; but it was nevertheless boldness. Only it was used in the service of God, in the saving of a persecuted people, in the altruistic service of a high and glorious ideal. No wonder the Rabbis applied to him the verse from Job, “mi yitein tahor mitameh,” “who can bring a clean thing from an unclean thing?” Mordecai was the clean one who came from the unclean. He inherited a certain set of dynamic qualities which had been used for evil, but which he redirected and channeled to holiness.

Our national scene today could learn a bit from Mordecai’s determined boldness in the right direction. The two paramount issues in our national capitol these days are the issues of Communism in government and corruption in government. The main ire of our elected representatives has been spent trying to dig up incontrovertible proof that certain individuals, who once were distantly related to the government, wrote poison pen letters of a leftist nature when they were in knee pants. The witch-hunt has been marked by the parallel features of uncontrolled boldness and increasing stupidity. Meanwhile, the search into vital matters of national morals and ethics has gone unattended except for occasional blasts of publicity. What is needed is a shift in emphasis, a redirection. We must switch our emphasis from the silly boldness of the McCarthys and the McCarrans² to the boldness of seeking out corruption, or, if I be permitted the pun, a new boldness supporting Mr. Newbold Morris in his determined drive to seek out the sources of ethical degeneration in our government.

And, my friends, not only destructive urges, but also talents and gifts wasted unnecessarily must also be channeled, must also experience tikun hamidot. Many of us, thank God, are not possessed of exceptionally destructive tendencies. But many of us have been blessed with natural abilities which we often allow to go to waste. These two must be captured and harnessed to productive ends. To our talents we must also say, as Rabbi Yochanan said, “ĥelekh le’orayta,” let this strength be for Torah. Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and social critic, tells that he never plays chess, because when he was a child he was fanatically devoted to the game, and he came to realize that if he were to pursue it he would eventually become the world’s greatest chess-player. But then he pondered, and saw that his life would thus be wasted, for chess is, no matter how respectful a game, only a game. Harmless – but of no great benefit to humanity. And so Russell stopped playing chess and instead went into mathematics and logic and philosophy and so was ultimately able to become the co-author of Principia Mathematica. Modern man, because of his increased leisure time, has taken to hobbies on a grand scale. There is no doubt a criminal negligence involved in the human genius utterly wasted on golf, football, crossword puzzles, and bridge. A hobby is good up to a certain point. Then it becomes waste. Athletics is wonderful, hygienic. But after a certain limit it becomes a travesty. We must learn to channel and direct these forces and use them profitably and constructively.

The experience of Mordecai from Shimi is a universal one and an eternal one. Its message transcends the provincial borders of ancient Persia of that century and like a beacon whose rays are a blessing to those in the distance, we of today bask in the enlightening thoughts of yesteryear which prove an inspiration and lesson to us.

Parshat Bereishit — Reflections on the Divine Image

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Genesis

Parashat Bereshit teaches us one of the most fundamental concepts of our faith. It is something we speak of often, and that is perhaps why we frequently fail to appreciate its depth and the magnitude of its influence. The concept of man’s creation betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, is one of the most sublime ideas that man possesses, and is decisive in the Jewish concept of man.

What does it mean when we say that man was created in the image of God? Varying interpretations have been offered, each reflecting the general ideological orientation of the interpreter.

The philosophers of Judaism, the fathers of our rationalist tradition, maintain that the image of God is expressed, in man, by his intellect. Thus, Sa’adia Gaon and Maimonides maintain that sekhel, reason, which separates man from animal, is the element of uniqueness that is in essence a divine quality. The intellectual function is thus what characterizes man as tzelem Elohim.

However, the ethical tradition of Judaism does not agree with that interpretation. Thus, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his Mesilat Yesharim, does not accept reason as the essence of the divine image. A man can, by exercise of his intellect, know what is good – but fail to act upon it. Also, the restriction of tzelem Elohim to reason means that only geniuses can truly qualify as being created in the image of God. Hence, Luzzatto offers an alternative and perhaps more profound definition. The tzelem Elohim in which man was created is that of ratzon – the freedom of will. The fact that man has a choice – between good and evil, between right and wrong, between obedience and disobedience of God – is what expresses the image of God in which he was born. An animal has no freedom to act; a man does. That ethical freedom makes man unique in the creation.

But how does the freedom of the human will express itself? A man does not assert his freedom by merely saying “yes” to all that is presented to him. Each of us finds himself born into a society which is far from perfect. We are all born with a set of animal drives, instincts, and intuitions. If we merely nod our heads in assent to all those forces which seem more powerful than us, then we are merely being passive, plastic, and devoid of personality. We are then not being free, and we are not executing our divine right of choice. Freedom, the image of God, is expressed in the word “no.” When we negate that which is indecent, evil, ungodly; when we have the courage, the power, and the might to rise and announce with resolve that we shall not submit to the pressures to conform to that which is cheap, that which is evil, that which is indecent and immoral – then we are being free men and responding to the inner divine image in which we are created.

The late Rabbi Aaron Levine, the renowned Reszher Rav, interpreted, in this manner, the famous verse from Ecclesiastes (3:19) which we recite every morning as part of our preliminary prayers. Solomon tells us, “Umotar ha’adam min habehema ayin,” which is usually translated as, “And the preeminence of man over beast is naught.” Rabbi Levine, however, prefers to give the verse an interpretation other than the pessimistic, gloomy apparent meaning. He says: “And the preeminence of man over beast is – ayin, ‘no.’” What is it that gives man his distinction? What is it that makes man different from the rest of creation, superior to the rest of the natural world? It is his capacity to say ayin, his capacity to face the world and announce that he will not submit to it, that he will accept the challenge and respond “no”. An animal has no choice – no freedom – and therefore must say “yes” to his drives, to the world in which he lives. But a human being can say “no” to that which is unseemly and beneath his dignity. And when he says “no” to all that is ungodly, he is being Godly. He is showing that he was created in the image of God.

Adam and Eve had to learn this lesson, and their descendants forever after must learn from their failure. We are nowhere told in the Torah that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was in any way different from the fruit of the other trees in the Garden of Eden. Yet when she was tempted by the serpent, Eve looked at the fruit, and in her mind’s eye its attractiveness grew out of all proportion to reality. It looked more luscious, it looked more juicy, it looked more appetizing. She even imagined that this was some kind of “intelligence food.” Her instinct bade her to do that which was in violation of the divine command. But counter to this she had the capacity, as a free agent created in God’s image, to say ayin, to say “no” to her instinct and her temptation. But she forfeited her opportunity. The first human couple did not know how to say “no.” This was the beginning of their downfall.

Abraham was a great Jew – the first Jew. Yet in our tradition he is not famous so much for saying “yes” as he is for saying “no.” Abraham was the great iconoclast. It was he who said “no” to the idolatries of his day, who said “no” to his father’s paganism, who was the one man pitted against the entire world, shouting “no!” to all the obscenities of his contemporary civilization.

Moses was a great teacher. He gave us 613 commandments. When you investigate the commandments, you find that only 248 are positive – commanding us what to do. But 365 of them are negative – they say “no” to our wills and our wishes. For when we learn to say “no,” we are being free men and women under God. The famous Ten Commandments have only three positive laws; the other seven are negative. Indeed, it is only through these negatives that we can live and survive and thrive at all. Without “You shall not murder,” there can be no society. Without “You shall not steal,” there can be no normal conduct of commerce and business. Without “You shall not commit adultery,” there can be no normal family life. Without “You shall not covet,” the human personality must degenerate and man becomes nothing more than an animal, a beast.

“And the preeminence of man over beast is ayin” – it is this which gives man greater dignity and superiority over the animal – his power to say “no.” It is this freedom of the human personality taught by our Jewish tradition that we Jews must reassert once again in our own day.

The author Herman Wouk told me some time ago that a number of years earlier he was boarding a ship to go on a trip overseas. Several hours after he boarded, a cabin boy brought him a note from the apostate Jewish author Shalom Asch, asking Wouk to come to his cabin. There Asch complained to him and said, “I don’t understand you, Mr. Wouk. You are a young man – yet you are observant and Orthodox. When my generation of writers was young, we were rebels, we were dissenters. We rejected tradition, we rejected authority, we rejected the opinions of the past. What happened to you? Why do you conform so blandly?” Wouk gave the older man an answer that I believe is very important for all of us to know. He answered, “You are making a terrible mistake, Mr. Asch. You seem to forget that the world we live in is not a paradise of Jewishness. You seem to forget that the world we occupy has become corrupted, assimilated, emptied of all Jewish content. In a world of this sort, one does not have to be a rebel at all in order to ignore the high standards of Judaism. If you violate the Sabbath, if you eat like a pagan, if you submit to the cheap standards of morality of the society in which we live, then you are being a conformist; you are merely allowing your own animal instincts to get the better of you. Today, if I and some of my contemporaries are observing the Jewish tradition, then it is because we are the dissenters, the nein-sagers. For we are the ones who say ‘no’ to the desecration of the Sabbath, ‘no’ to the creeping assimilation that ridicules all of Judaism and threatens its very life, ‘no’ to all the forces that seek to degrade our people and diminish the uniqueness of Israel that is its dignity and its preeminence. You are the conformist.”

This is the kind of force, the kind of courage, the kind of conviction that has sustained us throughout the ages. It is that which has given us the power to say “no” to the threats of Haman, the cruelties of Chmielnicki, the genocide of Hitler, as well as the sugarcoated missionizing of more enlightened enemies of Judaism. We demonstrated the image of God when we exercised our freedom and said “no” to all this.

I am not suggesting that we ought to be destructively negative. It is, rather, that when we fully exercise our critical functions and faculties, then the good will come to the fore of itself. It is because I have confidence in the innate powers of the good that I suggest we concentrate on denying evil. “Depart from evil and do good” (Psalms 34:15). If you put all your energies into negating evil, then good will be done of its own accord.

It is this power to say “no” that we must exercise in our relations with our fellow Jews in the State of Israel. For, in addition to all our constructive efforts on behalf of the upbuilding of the land, we must also be able to call a halt to the creeping paganism that plagues it.

When we find that in our own Orthodox community in Israel certain things are done which serve only to desecrate the name of God, we must not be shy. We must rise and as one say “no” to all those forces which would compromise the sanctity of the Torah and the sanctity of the Holy Land.

In our own American Jewish community, we must, here too, be the critics. And when, to mention just a seemingly trivial matter, certain artists and entertainers who are Jewish, and who rely upon the community as such for acceptance of what they have to offer, elect to entertain on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we must say “no.” We must realize that it is no longer the domain of one’s own conscience, when the matter is a public demonstration of contempt for American Jewry. “And the preeminence of man over beast is ayin” – we must not sheepishly go along with everything that “famous people” are willing to tell us. We must be men, we must be human beings, we must use the freedom that God gave us when He created us in His image, and learn when to say “no.”

I conclude with the statement by one of the greatest teachers of Judaism, a man who indeed showed, in his life, that he knew the value of “no.” It was Rabbi Akiba, the man who was able to stand up to the wrath and the might of the whole Roman Empire and say “no” to tyranny and to despotism, who taught us, “Beloved is man that he was created in the image of God” (Avot 3:18). Beloved indeed, and precious and unique and irreplaceable is man when he has the freedom of will that is granted to him by his Creator. And furthermore, “Hiba yeteira noda’at lo shenivra betzelem” – a special love was given to man by God, it is a special gift when man not only has that freedom but when he knows that he has that freedom – and therefore uses it to combat evil and to allow the great, constructive forces of good, innate in himself, to come to the fore so as to make this a better world for all mankind.

Parshat Ki Tavo: Selihot – The First Fruits of the New Year

 

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Deuteronomy

 

At the beginning of today’s sidra we read of two institutions which were legislated for our ancestors by Moses. The first is the bikurim, the commandment to bring the first fruit to the kohen (priest). The second is the ma’asrot, the various tithes which were obligatory for the Jew – a tenth of one’s income to the Levite every year and, on alternate years, additional contributions to the poor and underprivileged, and the bringing of one’s fruit to Jerusalem and eating them there joyously. There are a number of similarities between bikurim and ma’aser. For one thing, both are compulsory contributions. Further, each of them is accompanied by a set recitation. And finally, both of them became effective only upon the entrance of the People of Israel to the Holy Land.

But even more significant than the similarities are the differences between these two great institutions. In introducing the recitation that is to accompany the giving of the tithes, the Torah merely says, “And you shall say” (Deuteronomy 26:13). Before the recitation for the first fruits, however, the Torah prefaces the words, “And you shall call out (ve’anita) and say” (26:5). That extra word “ve’anita,” “and you shall call out,” was interpreted variously by our Rabbis (Sota 32b). Thus, they said that the first fruits are to be brought and the recitation is to be read in a loud voice, whereas the recitation for the tithes is to be pronounced in a whisper.

Furthermore, the recitation for the first fruits must be in Hebrew, whereas the recitation for the tithes may be read in any language. A third difference involves the terminology used: the bikurim recitation is called “mikra,” a reading or proclamation; whereas the ma’asrot reading is called “viduy,” which means a “confession.” And then there is also a historical difference between the two. The first fruits were offered in the Holy Land as long as the Temple was in existence. The reading for the tithes, however, was interrupted in the middle of the Second Common­wealth by Yohanan the High Priest (see the last mishna in Ma’asrot).

Why this apparent discrimination favoring bikurim over ma’asrot? Why did both Halakha and history give preference to the institution of first fruits over tithes? We will discuss three answers.

The first relates to the difference in mood and temperament between these two mitzvot. When a man brought his bikurim, he spoke of his and his people’s low origins. He said, “Arami oved avi,” a wandering, or perplexed, Aramean was my forefather Jacob. In contrast to the origin traditions of Israel’s neighbors, there is no myth here of people being descended from a sun-god! Our ancestors were not great conquerors; instead, we were slaves who were persecuted and driven from one indignity to another. It is only because of God’s intervention that we were saved – it was God who took us out of Egypt. It was only because of Him that we came to this marvelous inheritance of the Land of Israel: “And He gave us this land” (v. 9). Without the Almighty we would have remained a slave people, crushed in between the millstones of degenerate Egyptian civilization, so that by this day nothing would have been left of us. All of the mikra bikurim, is, therefore, an expression of thankfulness and gratitude based upon the acknowledgement of our own helplessness without God.

The ma’asrot recitation is in a completely different category. One can easily misunderstand this string of verses as reflecting a sense of complacency and smugness. The donor recites the words, “I have paid all my debts to the Sanctuary. I have also given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the orphan and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me.” I have taken care of my obligations; I have done nothing wrong. I am a pious man and I am a good Jew. This was a speech that accompanied the bringing of the ma’aser. An innocent bystander might have expected that, at this point, the worshipper would remain silent, waiting for a divine pat on the back!

Now, whereas the facts mentioned in this recitation may be true and accurate, it is certainly unbecoming to pronounce them aloud. The facts may be correct, but the publicity given to them is by no means right. The feeling that one has given enough, done enough, observed enough, should remain just that – a feeling, nothing more. Because if it is not kept to a whisper, but is proclaimed in a loud voice, then devoutness degenerates into superciliousness, righteousness into self-righteousness, and piety into pomposity. The mark of the Jew, however, is that he is a bayshan, a shame-faced person; we are a unique people whose high morality has often been mistaken for masochism. We have traditionally underplayed our achievements, while publicly acknowledging our guilt and our faults. Our prayers speak of how “because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.” We accept the blame upon ourselves for our exile; it was caused by our moral failures. And our Scriptures are largely the record of our failures and insufficiencies. What a contrast to the atmosphere of political conventions, to which we have been subjected these past weeks, in which orator after orator points with pride to the virtues of his own party exclusively and views with alarm the faults of his opponents!

Perhaps it is time that we Jews in the contemporary era were now mature and bright enough to apply the lessons of the recitation of bikurim to the State of Israel in the kind of image we are trying to present to the world. We may be justifiably proud of Israel’s achievements in science and in industry, in security and housing and economics. But instead of publishing this record in a loud voice – overexposing it so that non-Jews will say: “Yes, Israel is that country of those inventive and ambitious Jews” – the weight and burden of our image ought to be the presentation of Israel as the land of the Bible, where an ancient divine promise to our forefathers was redeemed in our day. For this is the theme of the bikurim. A holy people never blows its own horn. Indeed, the only time it does so is at the teki’at shofar during the period leading up to Rosh HaShana – and the sounding of the shofar then reminds us of our errors, not our greatness.

A second answer as to the difference between the first fruits and the tithes concerns the nature of our religious orientation. The man who brought bikurim expected nothing in return for his pious gesture. On the contrary, in offering gratitude, he implied that what he had received heretofore was undeserved. Therefore he offered his thanks and expected nothing more – although he might have hoped for it with all his heart.

Contrariwise, the giving of the ma’asrot was concluded by a short prayer, beginning with the words, “Look forth from Your holy habitation, from Heaven, and bless Your people Israel, and the land which You has given us” (v. 15). How easy to misinterpret this beautiful passage as, “I have done my duty toward You, O Lord; now it is up to You to reciprocate and do Your duty towards me! I have fulfilled my obligations; now, O God, pay me back.” This is the kind of feeling that informs a person who, in conditions of distress and adversity, will complain that he is deserving of much better from God, and when he revels in prosperity and plenty, never entertains the thought that maybe he is undeserving of all this bliss and blessing. Now, it may be just that he is deserving – who are we to judge our fellow human being? But while it may be just, it certainly is not authentic piety. A mature religious person does not exact payment from God, just as a mature married couple does not base its life upon an exchange of duties legally exacted and juridically delimited. There is a danger that this concluding prayer of the recitation of the ma’aser can be misunderstood by the donor as a kind of quid pro quo, an attempt to strike a bargain with God and demand immediate payment. Compared with the mikra bikurim, the viduy ma’aser can be characterized as a kind of crass commercialism, a deal with the Deity. When a man speaks thus, and intends this, it is indeed a viduy, a “confession” that he does not understand the Torah and that he does not understand man’s destiny in the face of God.

Whereas the recitation for bikurim is called a mikra, a proclamation of maturity, because man knows his shortcomings and appreciates that he deserves nothing, the reading for ma’asrot is viduy, a confession of misunderstand and failure. That is why the bikurim was recited only in Hebrew, leshon hakodesh (the holy language); for the entire concept which one enunciated bespeaks a holy wisdom – whereas the business-like attitude towards God reflected in the viduy ma’aser is recited in any language, for it reflects the vulgar jargon of the market-place.

And there is a third and final difference between these two institutions – the difference in timing. The reading for the tithes was done at the end of the third year of the triennial cycle, after all else had been done. As Deuteronomy 26:12 says, “When you finish giving your tithes, then you must recite the following…” The ma’aser itself was offered towards the end of the season; only after all else had been done, then one would give God and His charges their contributions. Now, tithes are certainly generous – they involve over 10 percent of a man’s earning – and far better than nothing. But how much greater and more generous of the spirit is the giving of the bikurim. For even if a man could afford no more than a kol shehu, even a pittance, still he gave it joyously and enthusiastically – the very first fruits, the symbol of a person’s achievement, one’s triumph, and one’s success were devoted to God, thereby indicating the sense of gladness and joy in which he gave to his Lord.

These, then, are the three reasons why the bikurim were more cherished and emphasized. And all these three are present and stressed in the Selihot prayer which we shall recite tonight. They are, for one, thing, the very opposite of self-righteousness. For we shall say at the very beginning of our Selihot service, “lekha Hashem hatzedaka, velanu boshet hapanim,” “You, O Lord, are just, whereas we are ashamed of ourselves.” Second, we will acknowledge that we do not deserve any special favors: “lo behesed velo bema’asim banu lefanekha,” “We do not come before You boasting of great deeds or great acts of love on our part.” And, instead of a business-like trade, we announce “ki al rahamekha harabim anu betuhim,” that we can rely not upon our deeds, but only upon Your great mercies. And finally, as Rabbi Yitzhak Arama tells us, the Selihot too are offered at the beginning – at the beginning of the season when the nights grow longer, so that, as he puts it, “It is pleasant for man to serve God at the beginning of this time of the lengthening nights, devoting them to prayer and supplication, so that thereby all the nights of the year may be sanctified and hallowed.”

As the old year draws to a close and a new year is about to begin, ushered in by the Selihot prayers, may we learn to approach our maker, the God of Israel, in true humility and in the spirit of gratitude of the bikurim. And may we be privileged to fulfill especially the concluding words of the mikra bikurim: “And you shall be happy in all the goodness that the Lord Your God has given you and your household.” Amen.

Parshat Re’eh – Absent Presence: A Personal Retrospective

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Sefer Devarim

Context

By rabbinic mandate, the section of Parshat Re’eh detailing the agricultural and festival cycle of the Jewish year1 is among the Torah passages read in synagogue on the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Shmini Atzeret (the independent holy day attached as an eighth day to the Succot festival).

Questions

While the rabbinic decision to read this section of text on the festivals of Pesach and Shavuot is readily understandable, one fact makes the mandate to read this passage on Shmini Atzeret abundantly strange: the Torah reading chosen by the rabbis for public reading on Shmini Atzeret makes no direct mention of Shmini Atzeret at all.

Why would the rabbis deliberately choose to read on a specific holiday a section of biblical text that excludes any direct reference to that holiday?

To make matters even more troubling, the omission seems to be deliberate. Although this section of Parshat Re’eh clearly references the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals), including the holiday of Succot, it is described as a seven-day festival, with no clear allusion to an eighth day. This, in spite of the fact that Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day, is directly referenced in other biblical passages discussing the Succot festival.

The question is, of course, even more basic. In its review of the holiday cycle in Parshat Re’eh, why does the Torah fail to mention the festival of Shmini Atzeret? Why omit this significant festival from the list of pilgrimage festivals?

Approaches

A

For me, this issue is informed by a powerfully painful personal experience that recently touched my life. As mentioned in the introduction to our volume on Bamidbar, my mother passed away a little over two years ago. Our family lost a warm, loving, wise and courageous matriarch and life teacher whom we all miss deeply.

At the age of seventy-nine, a few years after my beloved father’s passing, my mother made aliya to Jerusalem, Israel, where she lived for ten wonderful years. Her funeral, therefore, was conducted in that holy city. Having experienced funerals in Israel before, albeit not so personally, I was prepared to encounter ceremonies vastly different in feel from those to which I had become accustomed in America. In Israel, the entire experience surrounding death is simpler, more austere and, I believe, healthier, than it is elsewhere. In Israel, there is no cushion created by pomp and circumstance. The emotional distance between the living and the stark reality of their loss is almost nonexistent.

One ritual during the proceedings, however, took me completely by surprise. As we left the modest chapel on the cemetery grounds where the eulogies were delivered, our journey to the grave was abruptly interrupted by a member of the chevra kadisha (literally “holy society”), the group of volunteers tasked with the burial arrangements. Without a word of explanation this stranger blocked my path, hurling a piece of pottery to the ground, shattering it into shards. I was stunned and bewildered by this dramatic yet puzzling act, and a sobering phrase from the High Holy Day liturgy came unbidden to my mind: mashul k’cheres hanishbar, “[man is] likened to shattered pottery…” Clearly, I reflexively reasoned, this graphic, destructive ritual was designed to underscore the finality of my mother’s passing from this world; the totality of her absence from our lives.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself returning over and over again to that moment in my mind, reassessing my initial reactions.

Is this what we really believe? Is an individual’s physical departure from this world truly “total” and “final,” or is the transition at the moment of death actually more nuanced? Death is a shift, after all, not from presence to absence, but, rather to a unique state that can only be called “absent presence.”

As anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can testify, a person may be physically absent, yet remain present in the most powerful ways.

One could actually argue that the most important chapter of my mother’s life in this world began when she “passed away.” At that moment the true test began. What of my mother’s life remains behind? How has the world changed because she was here? What lasting legacy did she leave in the hearts and minds of the many whose lives she touched?

As Jews, we believe in “life after death,” a spiritual afterlife in a world that we can scarcely begin to comprehend. We also recognize as equally important, however, the continued absent presence of an individual in this world – a world forever changed because of the life that person lived. The pottery may be shattered, but its imprint remains.

B

None of this, of course, was totally new to me. As a rabbi, I had shared similar ideas with countless families, counseling them at times of loss. Never, however, had the formulation been sharper in my mind. My thoughts inexorably led me towards another conclusion that, at least for me, broke new ground: while the transition to absent presence is clearest at the time of death, we actually deal with the phenomenon of absent presence throughout our lives.

In the arena of childrearing, for example, we train our children primarily towards the moments when we are absent. We hope that the morals, ethics, principles and values that we instill in and model for our children will be present in their lives even when we are not. Thus the parents of young children ask, “How did our children behave at someone else’s house?” The parents of older children worry, “Will our children maintain their commitment to Jewish observance on the college campus and beyond?” And the parents of young adults wonder, “Who will our children choose as life partners? What will their homes be like? Will those homes mirror the ideals that we hold dear?”

School, as well, is designed to teach our children to deal with the world outside the classroom, when teachers are not present to guide them. Friendships and marriages are tested by the loyalty and fidelity we show when our partners are not present. Even our relationship with God is often defined by our struggle to discern His presence in a world where His absence often feels pronounced.

Every sphere of our lives is marked by the challenge of making our presence felt in the lives of others even when we are physically absent. Death thus becomes another step in a natural process, the ultimate iteration of a test that we have faced over and over again, throughout our lives.

C

We can now return to our original questions concerning the omission of Shmini Atzeret from the passage outlining the holidays in Parshat Re’eh.

Shmini Atzeret is the most “absent” festival of the year, a holiday that in many ways is simply “not here.” The very character of the day remains unclear, the nature of the celebration elusive. Attached as an eighth day to the Succot festival, it is, nonetheless, a “festival unto itself,” independent of Succot. Alone in the Shalosh Regalim cycle, this festival commemorates no historical or agricultural event. Rabbinic sources define the festival only in general terms, as marking the relationship between God and His people. Shmini Atzeret is absent not only from the Torah reading of the day. Instead, the day seems to be strangely “absent” in character and focus as well.

Yet perhaps that is the point. Shmini Atzeret marks not only the culmination of the Shalosh Regalim cycle, but the culmination of the High Holy Day period at the beginning of the Jewish year, as well. In that position, as the year begins, Shmini Atzeret serves as a day of transition to a state of absent presence in our relationship with God.

Each year, with the passage of Shmini Atzeret, the majestic observances associated with the holiday season come to a close and the true test begins. Will the year to come be shaped by the introductory experience of the High Holy Days and Succot? Will the lessons learned during our encounter with the Divine remain with us even when God’s presence is not so keenly felt? Will the resolutions and commitments that we have made while in the rarefied atmosphere of the festivals take hold once we enter the everyday world? Will God be present in our lives even when we must work to seek Him out?

Shmini Atzeret moves us along, preparing us for the challenges ahead – a final holiday, perpetuating our relationship with God. Remain with Me one more day, the rabbis picture God telling His children, your parting from Me is too difficult to bear.8 As God and His people start to pull away from each other, only this day remains – one last day in each other’s presence, a celebration of the relationship itself.

Yet even now, on this final holy day, subtle changes begin to emerge, as God moves a small step away and becomes a bit more “inaccessible” to us. With no special rituals to guide us, no unique holiday traditions to illuminate our path, Shmini Atzeret – the very celebration of our bond with the Divine – forces us to find our own way, to define our own relationship with God. And if we make use of this last day of yom tov in this way, we will be better able to extend that relationship to the times of God’s absent presence throughout the year, when God’s apparent distance will challenge us to find His continuing presence in our lives.

 

Parshat Va’Etchanan: The Dialogue of Prayer

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Devarim‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers 

goldin_devarim_tadbik.indd

Context

Although a distinct, separate obligation, the mitzva of Kriat Shma is not performed in isolation. Instead, the three paragraphs of the Shma are woven into, and recited as part of, central sections of the morning and evening prayer services.

Questions

Why is the mitzva of Kriat Shma incorporated into the daily liturgy?

At first glance, the paragraphs that constitute the Shma can hardly be classified as prayer. Within these passages, man does not speak to God at all. God, instead, speaks to man. The Shma consists of instructional verses, chosen from countless others in the Torah text, informing the nation of its responsibilities. Whatever benefits might accrue from the daily recitation of the Shma, they would seem to be separate and distinct from the experience of prayer.

Even if a practical argument can be made for attaching this mitzva to the prayer service as an expedient way to ensure its performance, the weaving of the Shma into the most central sections of the tefilla remains difficult to understand. Why didn’t the rabbis append the recitation of the Shma to the conclusion of the service? Why insert these biblical passages at a point in the prayers where they would seem to be an intrusion, breaking the flow of each prayer service as it moves towards a crescendo. What connection is there between the mitzva of Kriat Shma and the experience of prayer?

Approaches

A

Our search for answers begins with the prayers that surround and weave the Shma into both the morning and evening services. Known as the Birchot Kriat Shma (Blessings of the Kriat Shma), these prayers are thematically connected to the passages of the Shma and are clearly referenced in the Mishna: “In the morning, one recites two blessings before [the Shma] and one after it. In the evening, one recites two blessings before [the Shma] and two after it.”

The Gemara and later halachic works identify these seven blessings as follows:

  1. Yotzer ohr, “He Who forms light” (said in the morning, before the Shma), describes and praises God’s creation of the physical world, beginning with His creation of light and darkness.
  2. Ahava raba, “abundant love” (said in the morning, before the Shma), praises God’s bestowal of the Torah upon the Jewish people and requests the wisdom to appreciate and understand that gift.
  3. Emet v’yatziv, “true and certain” (said in the morning, after the Shma), praises God’s faithfulness across the generations, with particular focus on the miracles of the Exodus.
  4. Hama’ariv aravim, “He Who brings on evenings” (said in the evening, before the Shma), praises God’s control of the passage of time, with emphasis on the transition from day to night.
  5. Ahavat olam, “eternal love” (a shortened version of the morning prayer, said in the evening, before the Shma), praises God’s bestowal of the Torah and its commandments upon the Jewish people.
  6. Emet v’emuna, “true and faithful” (said in the evening, after the Shma), praises God’s protection of the Jewish nation from its enemies, with particular focus on the Exodus.
  7. Hashkiveinu, “lay us down to sleep” (said in the evening, after the Shma), requests God’s protection from danger.

B

A puzzling statement in the Mishna forces the later Talmudic authorities to scrutinize the technical relationship between these blessings and the Shma itself.

After establishing that the appropriate time for the recitation of the morning Shma ends when three daylight “halachic hours” have passed (or in other words a quarter of the day), the Mishna asserts: “If one recites [the Shma] from that point on, he has not lost; he is like an individual who reads from the Torah.”

The Mishna’s halachic position is clear. Upon missing the appropriate time for the recitation of Kriat Shma in the morning, an individual loses the opportunity to fulfill the mitzva properly. Nonetheless, the Shma may yet be recited at any point throughout the day. One may, after all, always read passages from the Torah.

Less clear, however, is the meaning of the puzzling Mishnaic statement “he has not lost.” If this individual has lost the opportunity to perform the mitzva properly, what then, has he not lost?

In a striking move, the scholars of the Gemara quote sources from the Mishnaic period that connect this phrase to the blessings surrounding the Kriat Shma. If, on any particular day, an individual fails to recite the morning Shma in its appropriate timeframe, he has not lost the opportunity to recite the Shma’s blessings. These blessings may still be recited, together with the biblical passages of the Shma, even after the time for the mitzvah has passed.

C

Following the close of the Talmud, however, rabbinic disagreement develops as to the extent of this allowance concerning the Shma’s blessings. Until what point of the day, the authorities query, may these blessings yet be recited?

Taking the Mishna at face value, the Rambam is among those authorities who maintain that the Birchot Kriat Shma can and should be recited whenever the Shma itself can yet be said, throughout the entire day.

Numerous other scholars, however, including the towering fourteenth century halachist Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh), adamantly disagree. The blessings of the Shma, these authorities argue, are not governed by the time frame that governs the Shma. Instead, these blessings may be recited only within the appropriate time frame for the morning prayers. This time frame, also established in the Mishna, extends one daylight hour after the temporal endpoint for the mitzva of Kriat Shma, namely until one third of the day has passed.

If an individual misses the appropriate time for the morning Shma, these authorities thus conclude, he can yet recite the Shma itself at any point during the day. The Shma consists of biblical verses, and the recitation of biblical verses is always allowed. The Shma’s blessings, however, may only be recited for one more daylight hour, until the time for the morning prayers has passed. Past that point, the recitation of these blessings is prohibited and an individual who recites them transgresses the sin of “saying God’s name in vain.” This latter position is codified as law by Rabbi Yosef Caro in the Shulchan Aruch and is accepted as normative practice today.

D

The normative position outlined above concerning the Birchot Kriat Shma seems confusing. What exactly is the nature of these blessings?

If these blessings are, as their title indicates, “Blessings of the Kriat Shma,” why then are they governed by the time frame for the morning prayers and not by the time frame for the Shma itself? Logically, one of two other options should be chosen. Either the recitation of these blessings should be prohibited once the optimal time for Kriat Shma has passed, or the recitation should be allowed as long as the Shma can still be recited, throughout the day.

And if, conversely, these blessings are considered part of the morning prayers and are, in fact, governed by the rules of those prayers, why are they referred to as the “Blessings of the Kriat Shma”?

E

The tension mirrored in the above ruling may well be a product of a fundamental internal tension in the nature of the blessings themselves.

On the one hand, a review of the content of these blessings quickly reveals that, unlike the Shma itself, the blessings are prayers in the full, formal sense. Upon reciting these blessings we find ourselves in the familiar territory of classical tefilla, where man reaches out to his Creator with majestic words of tribute and heartfelt appeal.

At the same time, however, the blessings are clearly connected to the Shma. Carefully and consciously, the rabbinic authors of these brachot rework and expand upon the themes of the Shma, fashioning them into prayer. To cite a few examples:

1. While the Shma proclaims God’s oneness, the blessings of the Shma lead the supplicant to praise the unity of God’s physical and philosophical creations.
2. The commandment of Torah study repeatedly embedded in the Shma is transformed in the blessings into a request for the wisdom to engage in such study.
3. The Shma’s focus on God’s hand in history leads to appeals in the brachot for “a new light shining upon Zion” and an ingathering of the exiles from the “four corners of the earth.”

The blessings of the Shma move from one realm to the next. Thematically rooted in the paragraphs of the Shma, they transform the themes of those biblical passages into classical prayer. Although they retain their identity as Birchot Kriat Shma, therefore, these blessings are ultimately governed by the laws that regulate the morning prayers, as a whole.

F

The unique rabbinically designed bridging role of Birchot Kriat Shma may help us understand how the scholars view the inclusion of Kriat Shma itself in the prayers. Far from an alien intrusion, Kriat Shma and its surrounding blessings enable a two-way, man-God conversation to unfold at the core of the morning and evening prayer services. At the center of this exchange lies the Shma itself – Torah passages through which God daily conveys His aspirations for and challenges to His people. At the conversation’s peripheries lie the blessings of the Shma, the people’s contribution to the discussion: each supplicant wrestles with the themes embedded in God’s words, transforming them into personal prayers of praise and request.

The Shma thus helps shape the very paradigm of Jewish prayer: a dialogue, not a discourse. Just as certainly as man speaks to God during prayer, God speaks to man.

Three times daily, as the Jew approaches his Creator in prayer, God draws near, as well. An intimate conversation unfolds. Hopes, expectations, requests and challenges are freely exchanged, and an agreement to sanctify the world in partnership is renewed. The parties then part ways, with an implicit promise to return shortly, armed with additional life experience, for further conversation and dialogue.

Points to Ponder

The story is told of a security guard serving at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem. Over time, he takes note of one elderly man who arrives at the wall each day at the same time, prays with obvious devotion for an hour and leaves.

Finally, after decades of witnessing this scene, the guard stops the man and asks him, “Excuse me, sir, but I have taken note of the constancy of your commitment. Can you please tell me what you have been praying for each day over these many years?” “Well,” answers the man, “for years I have approached the Kotel to pray to God that He grant our people peace, security and the wisdom to deal with each other with sensitivity and respect.” “And now,” continues the guard, “as you look back on all these years of fervent prayer at the Western Wall, how do you feel about the experience?” “I feel,” answers the man, “like I’ve been talking to a wall.”

Tefilla is tough. We find ourselves locked in a continuing struggle. Can we breathe new life into the same words recited day after day? Can we continue to regularly approach a mysterious God, only to be answered with silence, never quite knowing if, when or how our prayers will be answered? Can we, who live in a world governed by intellectual search, learn to open our hearts to an unfathomable God?

Like most of my colleagues, I have shared, over the years, a multitude of ideas with my congregants and students as to how we might more meaningfully experience tefilla (all the while speaking to myself as much as to them). I have counseled concentration, the study of the prayers, introspection, arriving to synagogue on time, a cessation of conversation with our neighbors during the services and much more.

As important as all those steps may be, however, I would argue that another potential action can have even more far-reaching consequences upon our search for more meaningful tefilla.

We can decide to listen, as well as to speak, during prayer.

So many voices, after all, clamor for our attention as we engage in

tefilla: the voices of our earliest progenitors – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – whose own search for God at the dawn of our history leads them, according to Talmudic tradition, to establish the three basic daily prayer services, Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv; the voice of King David, whose impassioned Psalms take us on a journey through the turbulent events that marked his life and thus through the myriad human emotions that color our own; the voices of scholars and sages across the ages, whose contributions to the prayer services preserve in perpetuity their struggles, priorities and dreams; and above it all, the voice of God, speaking to us of His hopes for His people, individually and collectively, and of the tasks that we must fulfill if we are to bring about their realization.

And if we listen hard enough, we might even hear the voice of our own hearts, urging us to reflect upon our own place in this rising crescendo. Who are we to approach God in prayer? What aspirations do we have for ourselves and how do they relate to the dreams of those who came before? How can we shape our priorities so that they reflect an understanding of the truly important things in life? As we wrestle with these and other critical issues, we naturally turn to God in heartfelt prayer, asking that He aid us in our search for direction.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the root of the Hebrew verb l’hitpallel, to pray, is pallel, literally, to judge. The verb is conjugated reflexively. L’hitpallel, to pray, thus means to judge oneself. “Jewish praying, says Hirsch, “is not from within outwards, but from without inwards.… Hitpallel means to penetrate oneself, ever afresh again, with eternal, essential lasting truths and facts.”

If the tefilla experience becomes a process through which we gauge our lives and our actions against the backdrop of our nation’s ongoing search for God and God’s reciprocal search for us, then our thrice-daily approach to the Almighty will acquire new and powerful meaning.