Women’s Learning – A Perspective from Slabodka

I happen to come across a piece from Rabbi Avraham Grodzinski (see here), a Mashgiach in Slabodka.  He is in the middle of a piece elaborating on the place of the human intellect in religious life and its status as a source of obligation.  In that context, he has  footnote why he thinks that women are obviously, to an extent, obligated in Talmud Torah, even if they are not formally included in the obligations derived from pesukim.   Continue reading Women’s Learning – A Perspective from Slabodka

A Rejection of God, not Land

Throughout the time in the desert, the Jews complain. They complain about the lack of water, the lack of food, the type of food, and then finally in Sh’lach, they complain about G-d’s desire to bring them to Eretz Yisrael. This seals their fate – they will not live to see the land; rather, they wander in the desert until each adult male between the ages of twenty and sixty perishes. What was so egregious about this complaint? Was it just that they rejected G-d’s land? Had they just challenged G-d one time too many? Or, perhaps, was there something particularly insidious about this rebellion? Continue reading A Rejection of God, not Land

You Can’t Be the Rabbi in Your Own Community

It is often hard for people to view their own children as adults, and to a lesser extent, the same is true for the children that grew up in their community.  When they have known people since they were born, seen all the things they did as immature children, recognizing that now they are now “all grown up” is hard.  I have often heard people say that this is why rabbis cannot be rabbis in the community they grew up in, as their friend’s parents are going to have a hard time going from seeing them as (insert name) to Rabbi.

I found it fascinating that this is one of the reasons that Ibn Ezra believes that Moshe had to grow up in the palace, away from the Jewish people.  Otherwise, no one would have taken him seriously.

אבן עזרא שמות פרק ב פסוק ג

ומחשבות השם עמקו, ומי יוכל לעמוד בסודו, ולו לבד נתכנו עלילות. אולי סבב השם זה שיגדל משה בבית המלכות להיות נפשו על מדרגה העליונה בדרך הלימוד והרגילות, ולא תהיה שפלה ורגילה להיות בבית עבדים. הלא תראה, שהרג המצרי בעבור שהוא עשה חמס. והושיע בנות מדין מהרועים, בעבור שהיו עושים חמס להשקות צאנן מהמים שדלו. ועוד דבר אחר, כי אלו היה גדל בין אחיו ויכירוהו מנעוריו, לא היו יראים ממנו, כי יחשבוהו כאחד מהם.

Of course, there are exceptions, as I gave a shiur that incorporated this passage in my parent’s shul, where the assistant rabbi did grow up in the shul.  I guess there are exceptions to every rule.

Ein Gozrin Gzeira L’Gzeira – Really?

For I long time, I have wondered about the rule of אין גוזרין גזירה לגזירה.  While Rashi (Beitzah 2b) and others in his Beit Midrash (Machzor Vitri Avot 1) make it clear that this is a biblical rule, and many Achronim follow suit, it is far from clear that the Gemara felt that way.  In some places (Chullin 104a-b) it is basically explicit that there are cases when we can make decrees to protect decrees.  Even when the Gemara says that we do not, it seems like Chazal did not, rather than they could not.  Finally, many Rishonim and Achronim thought that we do make decrees to protect decrees in certain circumstances (ex. Karet, as the Beit Yosef notes in several places, such as Yoreh Deah 183).   Continue reading Ein Gozrin Gzeira L’Gzeira – Really?

The Holiness of the Mundane

After the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the children of Aharon, G-d
issues a command to Aharon: “Do not drink wine, nor intoxicating drink (alt.wine which is intoxicating, see Keritut 13b), you or your children, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, so you do not die; this is an eternal decree throughout your generations. To distinguish between the sacred and non-sacred, and between the impure and the pure. And [so] you may instruct the Children of Israel in all the decrees that G-d has spoken through
Moshe.” (Vayikra 10:9-11)
It is not immediately clear why this law is presented here.

Continue reading The Holiness of the Mundane

“Violate One Shabbat”

“Ve-shameru Benei Yisrael et ha-Shabbat, la-asot et ha-Shabbat le-dorotam berit olam – And the Children of Israel shall guard the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath for all their generations an eternal covenant.” (Shemot 31:16)

The Talmud (Yoma 85b) offers this verse as one of the sources for the rule that if necessary, one can violate Shabbat to save a life. “Violate one Shabbat so that he can keep many Shabbatot.” Whether this is derived from word “ha-Shabbat” (that it is more important to maintain Shabbat the entity than ensure a single Shabbat is kept at the cost of human life), or the desire for the Shabbat to last “for all their generations” (Or HaChaim), the import is the same. At least when it comes to Shabbat, we are instructed to not only look at our actions narrowly, but to take the bigger picture into account. It is better from the perspective of Shabbat for a single Shabbat to be desecrated than lose the valuable life of a Jew who will guard the message of Shabbat for a lifetime.  Continue reading “Violate One Shabbat”

The Kapara of the Bigdei Kehuna

The Gemara in several places (Zevachim 88b, Arachin 16a) claims that the special garments of the Kohanim help the Jewish people achieve atonement.  The Chatam Sofer has two insights that add meaning both to the meaning of this Gemara in general, as well as to one of the begadim in specific.

In general, one wonders whether the garments really achieve atonement “magically” as it were.  My preference, whenever possible, is to say that they help achieve atonement by encouraging people to repent and do the correct thing.  The Chatam Sofer argues that this is the case, at least for some of the begadim.   Continue reading The Kapara of the Bigdei Kehuna

King and Rabbis – Who is Right?

The Gemara in Tamid relates a story of a conversation between Alexander the Great and some rabbis (who remain nameless):

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תמיד דף לא עמוד ב – דף לב עמוד א

עשרה דברים שאל אלכסנדרוס מוקדון – את זקני הנגב, אמר להן: מן השמים לארץ רחוק, או ממזרח למערב? אמרו לו: ממזרח למערב, תדע: שהרי חמה במזרח – הכל מסתכלין בה, חמה במערב – הכל מסתכלין בה, חמה באמצע רקיע – אין הכל מסתכלין בה; וחכמים אומרים: זה וזה כאחד שוין, שנאמר כגבוה שמים על הארץ [וגו’] כרחוק מזרח ממערב ואי חד מינייהו נפיש נכתוב תרווייהו כי ההוא דנפיש! ואלא חמה באמצע רקיע מ”ט אין הכל מסתכלין בה? משום דקאי להדיא, ולא כסי ליה מידי. אמר להן: שמים נבראו תחלה או הארץ? אמרו: שמים נבראו תחלה, שנא’ בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ. אמר להן: אור נברא תחלה או חשך? אמרו לו: מילתא דא אין לה פתר. ונימרו ליה: חשך נברא תחלה, דכתיב והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך, והדר ויאמר אלהים יהי אור ויהי אור! סברי: דילמא אתי לשיולי מה למעלה ומה למטה, מה לפנים ומה לאחור. אי הכי, שמים נמי לא נימרו ליה! מעיקרא סבור: אקראי בעלמא הוא דקא שייל, כיון דחזו דקהדר שאיל, סברי – לא נימא ליה, דילמא אתי לשיולי מה למעלה מה למטה, מה לפנים ומה לאחור. אמר להם: אידין מתקרי חכים? אמרו ליה: איזהו חכם – הרואה את הנולד. אמר להם: אידין מתקרי גבור? אמרו לו: איזהו גבור – הכובש את יצרו. אמר להן: אידין מתקרי עשיר? אמרו ליה: איזהו עשיר – השמח בחלקו. אמר להן: מה יעביד איניש ויחיה? אמרו ליה: ימית עצמו. מה יעביד איניש וימות? יחיה את עצמו. אמר להן: מה יעביד איניש ויתקבל על ברייתא? אמרו: יסני מלכו ושלטן. אמר להו: דידי טבא מדידכו – ירחם מלכו ושלטן, ויעבד טיבו עם בני אינשא. אמר להן: בימא יאי למידר, או ביבשתא יאי למידר? אמרו ליה: ביבשתא יאי למידר, דהא כל נחותי ימא לא מיתבא דעתיהון עד דסלקין ליבשתא. אמר להן: אידין מנכון חכים יתיר? אמרו לו: כולנא כחדא שוויין. דהא כל מילתא דאמרת לנא – בחד פתרנא לך. אמר להן: מה דין אתריסתון לקבלי? אמרו ליה: סטנא נצח. אמר להן: הא אנא מקטילנא יתכון בגזירת מלכין! אמרו ליה: שלטן ביד מלכא, ולא יאי למלכא כזב. מיד אלביש יתהון לבושין דארגוון, ושדי מניכא דדהבא על צואריהון. 

Alexander the Great asked these wise men from the south ten questions and they answered him, but not always in a way that made sense. They start by actually answering his questions. He asks them questions about issues of astronomy, issues on which the Greeks were well known for their knowledge. They respond and show that they know more than him. So far, the story seems to be mainly a polemic about how much more the rabbis know than Greek philosophers.

However, when asked the question about whether light or darkness was created first, rather than answer the question they choose to lie and say they don’t know. Why? Because he might then have asked what came before the story of creation, a question which may not be asked. The Mishna in Chagigah brings down this prohibition:

משנה מסכת חגיגה פרק ב משנה א
[*] אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים ולא במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו כל המסתכל בארבעה דברים ראוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם מה למעלה מה למטה מה לפנים ומה לאחור וכל שלא חס על כבוד קונו ראוי לו שלא בא לעולם:

That is to say, one should not ask about what came before the creation of the world as related in Bereishis or what will come after the world ends. This might be related to the fact that the group known as “Rabboseinu ShebaDarom” in Yevamos 62b are students of Rabbi Akiva who was a fellow of Acher, someone who descended into heresy by ignoring the advice in this Mishna, as seems clear in the Tosefta parallel to this Mishna. Those “Rabbis from the south” might have viewed what happened here as a cautionary tale told to them by their rebbe and therefore not want to even get close to those questions forbidden by the Mishna. In any case, at this point, the story might have just been a cautionary tale how even when answering questions from Goyim (who might also be very important people) we need to be careful about what we say.

It is at this point that the story takes a very different turn. Alexander asks them “who is wise?” In Hebrew “איזהו חכם” and they respond “one who sees what will come”. It seem that they are continuing their polemic against him because of his previous questions. At this point he goes on to ask them the rest of the questions which end up as a Mishna in Avos and they respond to him as per the Mishna, except for that one change:

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ד משנה א

[*] בן זומא אומר איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם שנאמר (תהלים קי”ט) מכל מלמדי השכלתי איזהו גבור הכובש את יצרו שנאמר (משלי טו /טז/) טוב ארך אפים מגבור ומושל ברוחו מלוכד עיר איזהו עשיר השמח בחלקו שנאמר (תהלים קכ”ח) יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך אשריך בעולם הזה וטוב לך לעולם הבא איזהו מכובד המכבד את הבריות שנאמר (שמואל א’ ב’) כי מכבדי אכבד ובוזי יקלו:

The one question here which has a different answer to that mentioned in the Mishna is the first (It should be noted that the last question, “who is honored, one who honors others” is left out altogether, perhaps because the Rabbis here are not giving Alexander the honor due to him). The text which the Gemara reported in Tamid is missing this element of “one who learns from everybody.” Presumably we are coming here to the first piece of implied criticism of the Rabbis in this Gemara. They tell him that the wise one is “one who sees what is coming” because they are warning him of the danger of heresy in his questions. Similarly, they tell him to rule over his inclinations to ask such questions and to be happy with what he already knows. However, they are not prepared to learn from him.

Eventually, he asks them “which of you is wiser?” They respond that “we are all equally wise because we have answered you together.” Perhaps the point here is not that they are in fact all wise, but rather that none of them are. We can see this from his response. His response is “why have you irritated me so?” Afterwards, they admit that they were wrong to do so. He proceeds to threaten them but when they persuade him to spare them he clothes the richly and sends them riding through the city.

So who won the encounter? On the one hand, it was the rabbis, for they finished the week with much to think about, safe and wealthy. However, maybe the king came out of this dispute ahead morally. The rabbis admit that they reason they deliberately (!) provoked Alexander is that they felt like it. The “Satan” made them do it. They admit they were wrong, that they shouldn’t have rebuked him, and maybe they should have even answered his original questions! There is a fascinating amount of self criticism in this Aggadah which comes to the fore. Even the greatest of Talmidei Chachamim should never be so sure of themselves that they come to disregard others.

Of course, this story stands in sharp contrast to another story where Alexander the Great encounters the chachamim. In the Gemara in Yoma we hear the following story:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף סט עמוד א
והתניא: בעשרים וחמשה [בטבת] יום הר גרזים [הוא], דלא למספד. יום שבקשו כותיים את בית אלהינו מאלכסנדרוס מוקדון להחריבו ונתנו להם. באו והודיעו את שמעון הצדיק. מה עשה? לבש בגדי כהונה, ונתעטף בבגדי כהונה, ומיקירי ישראל עמו, ואבוקות של אור בידיהן, וכל הלילה הללו הולכים מצד זה והללו הולכים מצד זה עד שעלה עמוד השחר. כיון שעלה עמוד השחר אמר להם: מי הללו? אמרו לו: יהודים שמרדו בך. כיון שהגיע לאנטיפטרס זרחה חמה, ופגעו זה בזה. כיון שראה לשמעון הצדיק, ירד ממרכבתו והשתחוה לפניו. אמרו לו: מלך גדול כמותך ישתחוה ליהודי זה? אמר להם: דמות דיוקנו של זה מנצחת לפני בבית מלחמתי. – אמר להם: למה באתם? – אמרו: אפשר בית שמתפללים בו עליך ועל מלכותך שלא תחרב יתעוך גויים להחריבו? – אמר להם: מי הללו? – אמרו לו: כותיים הללו שעומדים לפניך. – אמר להם: הרי הם מסורים בידיכם. מיד נקבום בעקביהם ותלאום בזנבי סוסיהם, והיו מגררין אותן על הקוצים ועל הברקנים עד שהגיעו להר גריזים. כיון שהגיעו להר גריזים חרשוהו, וזרעוהו כרשינין. כדרך שבקשו לעשות לבית אלהינו. ואותו היום עשאוהו יום טוב.

Here we have a story which feels extremely polemical. Alexander the Great is persuaded to destroy the Beis HaMikdash but Shim’on HaTzaddik (part of the chain of Messorah of Torah SheBa’al Peh according to the Mishna in Avos) walks all night to find him. When Alexander sees him he bows on the ground, thinking that Shim’on is an incarnation of G-d. Afterwards, he hand Shim’on a great victory over the Kuttim.

This story shares two important elements with the story we saw in Tamid. The first is that it features an encounter between Alexander the Great and the Rabbis. The second is that it ends with Alexander doing the Rabbis great honor.

However, the way in which is happens is very different. In the first story we saw, Alexander wants to learn from the Rabbis. He wants their encounter to be amiable and they reject him. In the story of Shim’on HaTzaddik, the encounter starts off as hostile and dangerous but quickly becomes pleasurable for all involved. In the story from Tamid, Alexander teaches the Rabbis an important lesson because he acknowledges their wisdom. In the story from Yoma he teaches Shim’on HaTzaddik nothing.

While there is no question that the representative of Greek culture bowing before the Kohen Gadol appeals to our (justified) sense of the vital nature of Torah when compared to mere wisdom (and certainly when compared to other religions), it is perhaps more useful to take the approach of the Gemara in Tamid. It will help us more to adjust the Mishna cited in the Gemara in Tamid to read “Who is wise? One who learns from all people” than it will be simply assume we have all the answers.