Monday, September 3, 2012

Do the Mitzvot have reasons? -Berachot 33b

I am struggling with the mitzvah of שלוח הקן  sending away the mother bird. About this mitzvah our Mishna famously says: אומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך... משתקין אותו One who says in his prayer that G-d should have mercy on us like he has mercy on the mother bird, one silences him.

The Rambam and Ramban famously argue over the reason for the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird. The Rambam states that this mitzvah is in fact a sign of G-d's mercy. He explains that despite the fact that the Torah allows humans to eat meat, it enjoins us from undue cruelty to animals. This includes the mitzvah of ritual slaughtering in order to kill the animal as painlessly as possible, the mitzvah not to slaughter a mother animal and its child on the same day, and the mitzvah to send away the mother bird when taking her young from the nest.

The Ramban argues that G-d is not concerned with mercy on the mother bird. Otherwise, he would prohibit eating her or her young altogether. Rather the mitzvot are not an expression of mercy on the animals and birds but rather they are commanded to teach US to be merciful. (For an excellent summary of these two opinions and others on שלוח הקן and טעמי המצוות in general, see Nehama Leibowitz's Studies in Devarim, Ki Teze 2, pgs 217-222.)

Fundamentally both the Rambam and Ramban agree that G-d commands the mitzvot for a reason that we should try to deduce. In the case of שלוח הקן they only argue on what that reason may be. So how do they deal with our Mishna?

The Gemara gives two explanations to why our Mishna enjoins against such a prayer. The first answer could fit easily into both Rambam and Ramban. One should not invoke G-d's mercy on the birds since this would result in jealousy on the part of other creations who would wonder why G-d is merciful on the bird and not on them.

It is the second answer that is more difficult the explain. The Gemara states: מפני שעושה מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא רחמים ואינן אלא גזרות. [One cannot evoke G-d's mercy on the mother bird in prayer] because one makes G-d's actions to be based on mercy when they are only divine decrees. This reason seems to enjoin against any delving into טעמי המצוות, trying to find reasons for the commandments.

The Mitzvot according to this approach are solely divine decrees. They are designed to test our ability to be עבדי השם divine servants. Any other reason found for a mitzvah where the Torah does not explicitly give one will cheapen our role as slaves totally subservient to our Almighty master and should therefore be silenced.

My question is how the famous ראשונים who try to find reasons for the mitzvot like Rambam and Ramban deal with this opinion in the Gemara. Do they merely say that this is a minority opinion which is to be rejected or do they try to find a way to reconcile this starkly anti-טעמי המצוות approach with their own attitudes towards טעמי המצוות? I welcome your feedback in the comments to this posting.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Audacity of our Avot- Berachot 31-32

People often assume that what makes our biblical personalities great is their blind obedience to Hashem no matter the situation. Today's daf indicates that in reality often the opposite is true.

The Gemara continues a discussion from yesterday about three of our great biblical giants who "threw words towards heaven", הטיח דברים כלפי מעלה. On Berachot 31b it lists Channah and Eliyahu.

Channah spoke insolently towards G-d in her prayer for a son, as it says 'ותתפלל על ה. Channah did not pray to G-d, literally she prayed "on" G-d, meaning she threw her words to heaven in an insolent manner. Rather than be angry at her, Hashem listened to her prayer and gave her a son, the great Shemuel who anointed the first two kings of Israel.

Similarly, Eliyahu threw his words to heaven when he blamed G-d for the wicked ways of the people of Israel by saying ואתה חסבות את לבם אחורנית. Eliyahu pointed his accusatory ginger towards G-d saying it is not the people's fault for doing wrong, rather it is Hashem who turned their hearts astray by giving them a יצר הרע, an evil inclination. Likewise, here Hashem ultimately agreed with Eliyahu's accusation.

The most notable example of a biblical character who threw accusatory words to heaven is Moshe Rabbenu. In his defense of the Children of Israel after the terrible sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe actually blames G-d for this betrayal. He says that if Hashem had not laden the people with gold and silver after the miracle of Yam Suf, the people would never have used these precious metals to build a graven image.

The Gemara gives a number of parables to explain this. One notable example is of a father who has a favorite son. He spares him nothing bathing him, anointing him, feeding him, and giving him a large wad of cash to hang around his neck. He then places his son by the door to the brothel. Who is at fault if the boy sins. In this case as well, Hashem consented to Moshe and spared the Jewish people despite their sins.

Moshe's case is especially noteworthy since Moshe Rabbenu defended his people without any concern for his own needs. Hashem promised Moshe that after the people were destroyed, Moshe would father a new Chosen Nation. Moshe spoke against this. Moshe was even willing to tell G-d to kill him rather than kill his people.

These three examples and dozens of others throughout the Tanach teach us a great lesson. Hashem does not want mindless robots. Hashem wants fighters. Hashem does not ask for blind obedience he asks for thoughtful obedience and sometimes even principled dissent. What made our biblical characters the great exemplars for us is that they had such a high standard of right and wrong that they were even willing to hold Hashem accountable כביכול when they felt he was not living up to it.

As Avraham Avinu rhetorically asks in his defense of the people of Sdom, השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט? Should the Judge of the world not act justly? This heroism and moral rectitude is what made our biblical forefathers and mothers great and is an example for us to aspire to.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

An Unforgettable Parable – Berachot 30b by @slerner Shimon Lerner

Continuing on the theme of "Awe and Joy" as it relates to today's daf, I just wanted to highlight an amazingly powerful explanation of the concept given by R' Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan.

I first heard this explanation from my Rosh Yeshiva in High School more than 20 years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since (even more so after becoming a father, as will soon become clear). [If you are capable and have the time, I highly recommend reading R' Kaplan's entire essay "Be-Ikvus Ha-Yirah" in Hebrew. I personally revisit it at least once a year before Rosh Hashana.]

"Yir'ah is not anguish, not pain, not bitter anxiety. To what may yir'ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance... It passes through them like a spinal column that straightens and strengthens. And it envelops them like a modest frame that lends grace and pleasantness... It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son's every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways - his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the "bundle" of his life's meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it for a moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir'ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it - then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices..."
(Translation taken from R' Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer here:

I think any added words on my part would be superfluous.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Between Awe and Joy -Berachot 22b and 30b

A few days ago on Berachot 22b, the Gemara presents an analogy between Torah study and the experience at Har Sinai. The Gemara states that just like we approached the Revelation at Sinai with אימה, יראה, רתת, ובזיע, with dread, fear, trembling, and quacking, so too we should approach daily Torah study with the same reverence and awe. I asked on Twitter how we can reconcile this with the the verses from Tehillim 19: תּוֹרַת ה' תְּמִימָה, מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁ... פִּקּוּדֵי ה’ יְשָׁרִים, מְשַׂמְּחֵי-לֵב. The Torah of Hashem is pure, it calms the soul...  The laws of Hashem are upright, they make the heart happy. In Psalms there is a clear association between Torah study and שמחה, happiness, while the Gemara in Berachot based on verses from Devarim 4 presents one's approach to Torah study to be one of fear and dread.

At first thought, one could explain that this is another example of the 2 different types of יראה, fear and awe which I have blogged about in the past. However, here the יראה experience is coupled with אימה רתת ובזיע, dread, trembling, and quacking. This awe inspiring experience is much closer to "awe"ful than "awe"some and seems to focus on true fear when approaching Torah learning which is hard to reconcile with joy.

After posing this question, I received responses from a number of my fellow #DafChat participants. You can find these responses here, and here, and here. I would like to focus on one response in particular by Shimon Lerner, a frequent guest poster to this blog, who suggested that this is similar to "וגילו ברעדה" in davening which can be found on Berachot 30b.

The Gemara there analyzes the verse from Tehillim 2, עִבְדוּ אֶת-ה’ בְּיִרְאָה; וְגִילוּ, בִּרְעָדָה, serve Hashem with awe and rejoice with trembling. The Gemara explains that in the place of rejoicing there should also be trembling. This Gemara seems to find no contradiction between rejoicing and trembling, between awe and dread on the one hand and happiness on the other.

The Rif on the Ein Yaakov expands this to describe both prayer and Torah study as Shimon Lerner had anticipated. He explains that one should always approach one's service to G-d, whether in the form of prayer, Torah study, or other mitzvot with level headedness and seriousness. This is despite the fact that it also says (Tehillim 100) עִבְדוּ אֶת-ה’ בְּשִׂמְחָה, to serve Hashem with happiness. One should approach G-d with joy but this joy should never get out of hand, leading to levity. It should always be tempered by trembling.

This is perhaps the meaning of Berachot 22b as well. One should approach every day of Torah learning with the same dread and awe as the original revelation at Sinai. However, this does not mean that one cannot and should not take pleasure in learning. Torah was meant to give us joy. However, when approached with an initial level of seriousness, we can be assured that the joy of Torah will always be in a respectful fashion and will never descend to levity and silliness.

This is something to think about especially as we approach the new school year.  As a Rebbe, I want my students to have fun in my class but fun alone is not enough. My students need to gain from the experience. This can only occur when they show a healthy dose of respect and seriousness for what is being studied. 

Happiness without reverence can quickly descend into silliness. At the same time, reverence without joy will rarely create an atmosphere where students will like what they are learning and begin to pursue a path towards life-long Torah study. It is the job of the teacher to strike a healthy balance between these two opposing but important values.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Serving G-d with One's Heart and a Woman's Obligation to Pray -Berachot 20b

Today's daf states that women are obligated in תפילה because דרחמי נינהו, Tefilla is asking Hashem for mercy which women would need to do just like men.The question is what is the halakhic status of this Tefilla asking G-d for mercy? Is this considered to be Torah ordained or merely rabbinic in nature?

The Rambam in ספר המצוות lists as a Torah commandment of עבודה שבלב, to serve G-d with one's heart. He then continues by asking what is this עבודה שבלב? Tefilla.

The Rambam reiterates this idea in Mishneh Torah where he writes:

רמב"ם הלכות תפילה ונשיאת כפים פרק א

הלכה א 

מצות עשה להתפלל בכל יום שנאמר ועבדתם את ה' אלהיכם, מפי השמועה למדו שעבודה זו היא תפלה שנאמר ולעבדו בכל לבבכם אמרו חכמים אי זו היא עבודה שבלב זו תפלה, ואין מנין התפלות מן התורה, ואין משנה התפלה הזאת מן התורה, 
It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day, as [Exodus 23:25] states: "You shall serve God, your Lord." Tradition teaches us that this service is prayer, as [Deuteronomy 11:13] states: "And serve Him with all your heart" and our Sages said: Which is the service of the heart? This is prayer.
The number of prayers is not prescribed in the Torah, nor does it prescribe a specific formula for prayer. Also, according to Torah law, there are no fixed times for prayers. (Translation courtesy of Mishneh Torah (English)
The Ramban argues on this. He says that daily תפילה is not מדאורייתא at all. Rather it is the kindness of Hashem that he accepts our prayers. The only מצוה is to daven in an עת צרה, a time of distress. In times of trouble, we as a community should turn our hearts towards Hashem in prayers.

The following excerpt on Prayer in the Teachings of Rav Soloveitchik based on a lecture by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein sheds light on this argument.
The Rav's daring comment on this debate ran as follows: the Rambam fundamentally agrees with the Ramban. Indeed, tefilla is obligatory only "in times of trouble," but the Rambam perceives man as existing in a perpetual state of crisis. Were it not for God, he could not exist for a single moment, and there can be no greater trouble imaginable than a person who is, heaven forfend, disconnected from God. Hence, we may deduce that the individual is in a constant state of crisis and needs God's contact and His mercy every day.
This argument between the Rambam and Ramban actually has a practical application a נפקא מינה להלכה in regards to a woman's obligation to pray.

According to Rambam, women are obligated in the Torah obligation of prayer which is to pray once a day. However, women are exempt from the later rabbinic enactments about the time of prayer, number of prayers, and the form and structure that prayer takes since this is all מצוות עשה שהזמן גרמה. However, according to the Ramban the entire obligation of daily prayer is rabbinic. The rabbis who obligated us to pray 3 times a day included the obligation to say שחרית ומנחה for women as well since it is בקשת רחמים.

The Mishna Berurah ( קו:ד) follows the opinion of the Ramban and writes that women should daven שמונה עשרה of שחרית ומנחה daily as well as the first פסוק of שמע, אמת ויציב until שמונה עשרה in order to be סומך גאולה לתפילה. But women do not have to say מעריב because it is a רשות, optional. Women are also obligated to say ברכות השחר ברכות התורה and פסוקי דזמרה. A woman can fulfill her ברכת התורה by saying אהבה רבה.

A woman who is so involved in child rearing that she has no time to daven should recite a short תפילה that includes שבח בקשה והודאה. The son of the חפץ חיים writes about his mother that she hardly ever davened שמונה עשרה when they were little and the חפץ חיים exempted her becasue she was so involved in raising the children. This short תפילה for women could be ברכות השחר and ברכות התורה which both contain these elements. The 3 blessings of ברכות התורה include these:


  ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לעסוק בדברי תורה
Blessed are you Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, who has  made us holy through his commandments, and has commanded us to engage in the study of the words of Torah. 

  הערב נא ה' אלהינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפה עמך בית ישראל ובצאצאינו ובצאצאי עמך בית ישראל 
ונהיה כלנו וצאצאינו מלומדי תורתך ויודעי שמך ברוך אתה ה' המלמד תורה לעמו ישראל Please Hashem our G-d, make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people, the house of Israel, so that we, our descendants, and the descendants of Your people, the house of Israel, may all know and study your Torah for its own sake. Blessed are you Hashem who teaches Torah to his nation Israel. 

 ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו. ברוך אתה ה' נותן 

Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who has chosen us from all the peoples and given us His Torah. Blessed are you, Hashem, Giver of the Torah. (Translation from the Koren Sacks Siddur.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Power of the Word -Berachot 19b-20a

Often when I teach Gemara my students quibble with the many Halakhic complexities that our rabbis derive from even one word of the Torah text. For example, on the bottom of yesterday's daf and the top of today's our sages derive that while someone who is going to bring קרבן פסח or to perform ברית מילה on his son cannot be מטמא if he hears that a close relative dies, he can and should be מטמא for a מת מצוה, an unidentified deceased person who has no one to bury him. The topic of מת מצוה and the importance of כבוד הבריות, human dignity, is a fascinating one which I hope to revisit in future postings.

This halakha is derived from the following verse:

ז לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ, לְאָחִיו וּלְאַחֹתוֹ--לֹא-יִטַּמָּא לָהֶם, בְּמֹתָם: כִּי נֵזֶר אֱלֹקיו, עַל-רֹאשׁו

He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because his consecration unto God is upon his head.

How do they derive this? From the seemingly extra word וּלְאַחֹתוֹ. The Gemara deduces that since we already know one can't become impure for a brother, the extra word sister must teach us that while for a relative one cannot become impure, one is obligated to make himself impure for the מת מצוה.

These are the types of דרשות that drive many of my students crazy. All this from an extra word? What difference does this word make? Today when I inadvertently made a mistake with one extra word in a Lookjed Listserve posting, I discovered how powerful an extra word can be.

I was commenting about this blog and the move by many to utilize social media for the Daf Yomi using the hashtag #DafChat and #DafYomi. I wrote:

In addition to the various Daf Yomi resources listed, many of us have been working to create a Daf Yomi community online through various social media and Web 2.0 tools. The progressive vision of Rav Meir Schapiro that Jews worldwide should all be on "the same page" and the power of Twitter to allow real-time global discussion seems like a natural shiduch.

I have blogged about using the hashtag #DafChat (#DafYomi is also a natural one) to facilitate this discussion. You can read my blog post here:

One great example of this is the new twitter account Tweet The Daf,, devoted to sending 3-5 to tweets daily about the Daf.

I have also created a new blog devoted to discussion of the Daf. You can access it here: I welcome your comments, constructive feedback, and guest blog posts so that this can truly become a world-wide Daf Chat.

Here's hoping that we can continue to live-tweet the Daf Yomi for the next 7 and 1/2 years (assuming Twitter is still around then).

Note the word "also" that I have placed in bold and italics. I meant to give three examples about using social media for the Daf Yomi: my TechRav blog post, a great twitter account called TweetTheDaf, and this new DafChat blog. I did NOT mean to imply that I created the TweetTheDaf Twitter account. I have not. I merely wanted to publicize this great resource and, since the name of the creator of TweetTheDaf is not listed on the account, I did not think it was appropriate to share it on a public forum.

However, from some emails that I have received in response to my posting, I appear to have caused a misunderstanding by adding the extra word also. This word implied to some that I was saying that in addition to the blog post and new blog, I had also created this TweetTheDaf Twitter account, which is NOT true. (One of the reasons for this post is so I can publicly correct this misunderstanding.)

This has been a humbling lesson for me about the power of the word. Every extra word, especially in a written format has a meaning and one must be VERY careful when composing responses. When speaking one has the benefit of verbal and visual cues like inflexion and body language. All of this is not possible in a written forum. Every word counts so choose your words CAREFULLY. This is especially important when writing on social media whether in blogs, Twitter, or Facebook, since one potentially could be writing for a very large audience.

If this is true for human beings then kal vechomer the same is true for the divinely written words of the Torah. Hashem carefully chose each word in the Torah for a reason. It is only logical that our sages should seek to derive lessons and halakhot from every single word of the Torah.

I would like to publicly thank the creator of TweetTheDaf for the valuable service he has done להגדיל תורה ולהדירה and apologize for any misunderstanding that I might poorly chosen words in my Lookjed posting might have caused.

Monday, August 20, 2012

לועג לרש, Tzitzit and our Sensitivity for the Deceased -Berachot 18a

Today's daf introduces us to the concept of לועג לרש, ridiculing the helpless, that our sensitivity extends to the deceased. The Gemara enjoins Rav Yonatan against walking in the cemetery with his Techeilet, his blue thread from his tzizit, dragging along the floor because this will cause displeasure to the deceased who are no longer can fulfill the mitzva of tzitzit. This is codified in Halakha that even one who normally wears his tzitzit out should cover up his tzitzit in a cemetery (see Mourning in Halacha 10:13 and 42:30).

Ironically, Tosfot points out that the Gemara in מנחות דף מא עמוד א rules that a deceased person should be buried in shrouds that have tzitzit, also for the same reason of לועג לרש. The reason brought is that if the deceased was used to always wearing tzitzit in his lifetime, it would cause him great displeasure to not be wearing tzitzit in his final resting place, as a constant reminder of the fact that he no longer needs tzitzit. Tosfot in Niddah 61b questions why we have a custom nowadays to remove tzitzit from the deceased or at least render them pasul by cutting off one of the fringes. For an excellent discussion of this Tosfot, see Rabbi Gedaliah Hochberg's lengthy treatment here.

It is interesting to note that the Rashba gives a dramatically different reason for the deceased being buried with tzitzit. He says this is based on the dispute in Shabbat 141b whether mitzvot will still be obligated in the future time of תחית המתים, resurrection of the dead. Those who hold that mitzvot will still be in effect at this time obligate one to bury the deceased in his tzitzit so that he should be able to come back to life already performing this mitzva on his garment.

The fascinating lesson of this complex discussion is the great sensitivity we all must have for the deceased. We are sensitive to their feelings so as not to unknowingly taunt them whether by what we are wearing or what we are depriving them of wearing. Likewise, we want to put them into the best position possible to prepare them for the תחית המתים, a time that we all await as a basic tenet of our faith.