Rosh Hashana Simanim

The gemara (Horiyus 11a) famously recommends using symbolic foods on Rosh Hashana as an introduction to the new year:

אמר אביי השתא דאמרת סימנא מילתא היא [לעולם] יהא רגיל למיחזי בריש שתא קרא ורוביא כרתי וסילקא ותמרי

The obvious problem is that this looks a lot like the kind of divination described as לא תנחשו that’s forbidden by the Torah (Vayikra 19:26).

My normal approach to such problems includes assessing the source and confirming that the popular or initial reading is actually justified.

In this case, the gemara begins with משיחת מלכים על המעיין (“Kings should be anointed near a wellspring”). This, in fact, doesn’t by any means have to mean that there’s a direct connection between the location they’re using and the success of the royal dynasty. Rather than assuming there’s some magical connection directing human events (for which there’s no source), it’s far simpler to say that a wellspring carries symbolic meaning helpful for impressing on everyone present the importance of, perhaps, maintaining a strong loyalty to the Eternal Source of a king’s legitimacy.

The gemara’s next cases involve actions meant to predict how particular events will turn out. Here, however, the gemara explicitly rejects the thought that the method of divination (lighting a candle in a dark room, monitoring a chicken’s growth, etc) has any actual impact on events:

ולאו מלתא היא דלמא חלשא דעתיה ומיתרע מזליה

“But (these methods are) not valid: (but) perhaps a person will be discouraged by (his interpretation of the result) and he’ll be weakened.”

According to Rashi, the method can’t predict anything, but there’s a genuine (and rational) fear that someone might give too much credibility to a negative outcome and give up hope.

Finally, the gemara says:

השתא דאמרת סימנא מילתא היא [לעולם] יהא רגיל למיחזי בריש שתא קרא ורוביא כרתי וסילקא ותמרי

“Now that you say symbols are legitimate, a person should show at the start of the year” these vegetables.”

These simanim are not more connected to the physical world than the others we’ve discussed. They’re just symbols that can, at best, be used to encourage us and point us towards appropriate behavior.

By contrast, ניחוש, according to R’ Hirsch, is the attempt to bypass the real world’s cause and effect requirements AND to bypass the influence of God on the world. It’s a way of reducing the world to a purely mechanical framework where blindly pushing the right buttons (or reading the right combinations of Torah texts) will force the universe to adjust so you can acquire all knowledge and get everything you want. ניחוש isn’t just about divining the future (which, on its own, can be a problem), but about controlling the future.

Unexpected Yerushalmi

Who Wants to Learn?

You’re probably familiar with the mishna in the third perek of Eiruvin:

…אם בא חכם מן המזרח עירובי למזרח בא מן המערב עירובי למערב

(A person may make an eruv techum – extending the distance he may travel outside his town on Shabbos – conditional, saying:) “If a wise man will come from the east, my eruv will (extend my techum) in the east (so I can go to meet him). If the wise man will come from the west, my eruv will be in the west.”

But you may not be aware of an alternate reading quoted in the Yerushalmi (עירובין פרק ו הלכה ג):

אית תניי תני במערב מאן דמר במזרח באילין חכימי’ מאן דמר במערב ברגיל

“There is a tana who taught: ‘(regarding the wise man who comes from the east, that he wants his eruv in the) west. The one who would say (his eruv should be in) the east refers a to (true) wise man. The one who says (his eruv should be in) the west refers to a wise man (who only teaches things everybody already knows).

The scenario presented by the alternate version gives us a man whose motivation for setting an eruv techum is to escape from the chochom, presumably so he wouldn’t need to sit through his lecture.

But this gets more interesting. Later in Eiruvin (פרק ח הלכה א), we find that one should only set an eruv techum for the purpose of a mitzva. Meaning that, according to the Yerushalmi’s version, not only is it reasonable for a person to wish to escape a chochom, but it can even be a mitzva!


Getting Pshat

The Chazon Ish, Ma Nishtana and the Limits to Talmudic Meaning

This letter (Kovetz Igros Chason Ish II 16) is vintage Chazon Ish: an intriguing and subtle point made using somewhat cryptic language via a less-traveled Talmudic source. It seems that the anonymous correspondent had proposed some interpretation of the Gemara (Pesachim 70a) that was not to the Chazon Ish’s liking.

The sticking point seemed to hang on the fact that the interpretation bore no obvious connection to the Gemara. Or, in other words, it felt forced and artificial, and was thus purely subjective. Once an interpretation is so subjective, it loses all value, for it is now no more likely to be correct than any one of an infinite set of competing possibilities. So while a student of the Talmud is allowed to be creative in seeking solutions, he must still retain a basic respect for the text itself.

Here’s the letter:

קובץ אגרות חזון איש
חלק שני אגרת טז
‫כשם שהעמיקו מחתימי התלמוד בעיקרי ההלכות כן ‫העמיקו בלשונם ובעריכת הדברים לפני הדורות הבאים אשר ‫כן הוא מדת החכמה ומדת ההכמים. ולא יתכן שיסתמו בדבר ‫שאי אפשר להבין, וכש”כ שיאמרו במאמר המורה אחרת‬ מהמכוון. ואם לפעמים מתפרשים דבריהם על צד עמוק הוא‬ מטבע החכמה והוא מובן למעיין, אבל צריך ליזהר מאד בזה‬ ‫שאם באנו להעמיס בדבריהם רמזים יתר על המדה, לא נשאר בידינו כלום, ולבן לא יתבן לפרש זו דברי בן תימא אלא‬ בפשוטו, משום שלדעתו רואה הבן לפניו על השלחן שינוי‬ ‫של כולו צלי, והוא שואל, ומשיבין לו שאין זה במקרה אלא‬ ‫יש לעולם מנהיג והוא מפקח על בריותיו וצונו במצוות‬ ‫וע”פ צואתו ית’ אנו עושים, אבל אם הבן רואה לפניו שלוק ‫ומבושל וצלי אינו רואה שינוי.‬


Just as those who sealed the Talmud embedded halachic principles (in a way that would require significant analysis to uncover), so too, for future generations, were (principles) deeply embedded in the very language and in the way (the sages) arranged their ideas. Such is the way of wisdom and of the wise.

It is not possible that the sages would have obscured their words in a way that cannot be deciphered, and certainly they would never have used words that suggest the opposite of their true intent. If their words can sometimes be explained only through deep study, that is the nature of wisdom. Its (organic connection to the words) will always become apparent to one who studies the matter carefully.

However, one must be very careful, for if he ascribes to (the Talmud’s) words too heavy a load (i.e., hints which are so abstract as to belie any connection to the text itself), we will be left with nothing at all.

Therefore it is not possible to interpret “These are the words of ben Teima” except in their simplest form, for in (ben Teima’s) opinion, the son must see before him on the table the unusual sight of only roasted meat, which will prompt him to ask (“why?”). To which we are to reply that all this is not an accident, but that the world has a Guide and He is aware of His creations and commanded us with His mitzvos and that we act according to His will. But if a son will see before him (meats, some of which are) boiled (and others) roasted, he will not notice anything unusual (and therefore, not be inspired to ask questions).

The letter is obviously referring to the Talmudic position (that of ben Teima) which extends the rule requiring that meat of the Passover offering be roasted to the Chagiga offering as well. The Chazon Ish interprets it thus:

The Gemara’s proof that this is indeed ben Teima’s position comes from his (unrelated) inclusion of a fifth question for children to ask at the seder (a question which, since the Temple’s destruction, we no longer say):

“Why is this night different…but this night, we eat only roasted meat?”.

If it was permissible to prepare the Chagiga offering by, say, boiling the meat, then the food on the table would appear no different from that served on any other night. The Chagiga had to be roasted to maintain the night’s unique and evocative flavor – to inspire children’s questions.


Is Staying Healthy a Mitzva?

I sometimes wonder why I so often hear people referring to “ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם” as though it’s a Torah source for the requirement to protect ourselves from illness and injury.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that the Torah most definitely does expect us to care for ourselves and to listen to the advice of medical experts on how to do that. And I know that the Rambam himself uses השמר לך ושמור נפשך as a source, even though that verse – like the other two that are often used – is actually referring to our responsibility to keep all mitvos (or, in some cases, just avoid idolatry).

The Levush (יורה דעה סימן קטז) actually acknowledges that the simple meaning of those passages are unconnected to health. But writes:

מכל מקום סמכו חז”ל על מקראות הללו ואסרו כל הדברים המביאין את האדם לידי סכנה

But did Chazal actually quote any of those verses? Well, there is this Gemara in Brachos 32b:

ת”ר מעשה בחסיד אחד שהיה מתפלל בדרך בא שר אחד ונתן לו שלום ולא החזיר לו שלום המתין לו עד שסיים תפלתו לאחר שסיים תפלתו א”ל ריקא והלא כתוב בתורתכם רק השמר לך ושמור נפשך וכתיב ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם כשנתתי לך שלום למה לא החזרת לי שלום אם הייתי חותך ראשך בסייף מי היה תובע את דמך מידי

The rabbis taught: It once happened that a certain chassid was praying along the road. An officer came by and offered a greeting, but (the chassid) didn’t reply. (The officer) waited until he’d finished his prayers. After he’d finished his prayers (the officer) said to him: “Empty person! Does it not say in your Torah ‘Just protect yourself and guard your life’ (Devarim 4:9) and ‘Take great care of your lives’? (Devarim 4:15) When I greeted you, why did you not reply? If I were to cut your head off with a sword, would you have any claim on your blood?”

So the only place I’m aware of in Chazal that offers a source for a health mitzva puts the superficially-related words into the unauthorised mouth of a non-Jewish officer. While we’re all sympathetic to the principle, is that enough to qualify as a source?

derush Yerushalmi

Are We Incapable of Understanding Aggadita?

ירושלמי מעשרות יז-יח
דלמא רבי זעירא ורבי אבא בר כהנא ורבי לוי הוון יתבין והוה רבי זעירא מקנתר לאילין דאגדתא וצוח להון סיפרי קיסמי. אמר ליה רבי בא בר כהנא למה את מקנתר לון שאל ואינון מגיבין לך. אמר ליה מהו דין דכתיב (תהילים עו) כי חמת אדם תודך שארית חמות תחגור. אמר ליה כי חמת אדם תודך בעולם הזה שארית חמות תחגור לעולם הבא. אמר ליה או נימר כי חמת אדם תודך בעולם הבא שארית חמות תחגור בעולם הזה. אמר רבי לוי כשתעורר חמתך על הרשעים צדיקים רואין מה את עושה להן והן מודין לשמך. אמר רבי זעירא היא הפכה והיא מהפכה לא שמעינן מינה כלום. ירמיה בני אזל צור צור דוקניתא דהיא טבא מן כולם.

Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Abba bar Kahana and Rabbi Levi were sitting and Rabbi Zeira was criticising the others (for their) homiletics and screamed at them (accusing them of working with) “books of sorcery!” Rabbi (Abba) bar Kahana: “why are you accusing us? Ask, and we’ll (respond?)” He (Rabbi Zeira) replied “What is it that’s written (Tehilim 76:11) ‘For a man’s fury is your gratitude, the residue of anger will fortify’?” He (Rabbi Abba bar Kahana) replied: “‘For a man’s fury is your gratitude’ refers to this world and ‘the residue of anger will fortify’ refers to the next world.” He replied: “(Perhaps) you can say the opposite: ‘For a man’s fury is your gratitude’ refers to the next world and ‘the residue of anger will fortify’ refers to this world.” Rabbi Levi said “When You arouse Your fury on the evil, the righteous see what You will do with them, and they will acknowledge Your Name.”

According to the Pnei Moshe, Rabbi Levi’s response suggested that you could, in fact, find a way to interpret the verse either way. To which, Rabbi Zeira responded:

Rabbi Zeira said: “Interpret it this way or that way, but I don’t accept anything from you, but my son Yirmiya (who had previously asked about how many figs one can eat without first separating מעשר) is better than all of them.”

Rabbi Zeira is effectively saying that, since aggadic interpretations of Torah passages are so often ambiguous, for all intents and purposes, they’re meaningless. Is Rabbi Zeira (whose opinion is not challenged by the Yerushalmi) telling me to give up my search for clear meaning in much of Tanach and Chazal?

This is something I’ve struggled with for years. I’ve written about it in other places and will hopefully revisit it again here in the context of other Yerushalmis.

Any thoughts?


Gedolay Hador

Just how do gedolay hador spend their yom tov days? Well, I can’t speak for all gedolay hador – nor am I qualified to decide who is or is not a gadol – but there is a gemara that shows us how at least some gedolim behaved. And it’s not what you’d expect.

סוכה מז
אמר רב יוסף נקוט דר’ יוחנן בידך דרב הונא בר ביזנא וכל גדולי הדור איקלעו בסוכה בשמיני ספק שביעי מיתב הוו יתבי ברוכי לא בריכי ודלמא סבירא להו כמ”ד כיון שבירך יו”ט ראשון שוב אינו מברך גמירי דמאפר אתו

Rav Yosef said: take Rabbi Yochanan’s (opinion) in hand, for Rav Huna bar Bizna and all the gedolay hador went to a succah on the eighth day (of Succos outside of Israel) which might (because of ספיקא דיומא) have been the seventh day. They sat (in the succah) but they didn’t make a bracha (לישב בסוכה). Perhaps (you could argue) they held like you only make that bracha on the first day (of the chag)? I (i.e., Rav Yosef) heard (from my teachers) that (the gedolim) had come from the field.

גמירי דמאפר קאתו. למדתי מרבותי שהן באו מן האפר שבהמותיהן רועות שם ולא ישבו בסוכה כל ימי החג

“I heard that they had come from the field” I learned from my teachers that they had come from the field where their cattle had been grazing. They therefore had not sat in a succah all through the chag (until now).

So, for the first seven days of Succos, the gedolay hador were so busy tending to their cattle that they hadn’t managed to even once sit in a kosher succah. According to Tosafos, they weren’t even able to build themselves a סוכת רועים!