Friday, December 29, 2006

Freedom to Interpret

I just came across this excellent article: Freedom to Interpret written by Rabbi Aryeh Carmell A"H. It discusses, among other things, the correct approach to Aggadot (i.e. Rambam's approach).

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

נר איש וביתו

On 12-13, I made some changes to this post.

Rambam writes in the fourth chapter of Hilchot Megilla V'Chanuka:

נר חנוכה, מצוה להניחו על פתח ביתו מבחוץ, בטפח הסמוך לפתח, על שמאל הנכנס לבית--כדי שתהיה מזוזה מימין, ונר חנוכה משמאל; ואם היה דר בעלייה, מניחו בחלון הסמוכה לרשות הרבים.

The Chakhamim instituted that candles be lit outside near the entrance of the house right next to the left side of the door, as one enters the house. Rambam seems to add an unnecessary clarification when he tells us that this is in order (or so) that the m'zuza will be to the right and the Chanuka candle to the left. Why does it matter where the Chanuka candle is placed? Would it not have been enough to just light it outside? Why is it important that the m'zuza is to the right and the candle to the left of the entrance?

As was discussed in the previous post, the purpose of lighting candles on Chanuka is for each Jewish household to commemorate the miracle of the oil and thereby demonstrate its loyalty to the ideals of Mikdash. In order to understand why the Chakhamim decreed that the candles should be lit near the left side of the doorway opposite the m'zuza side we must explore the mitzva of m'zuza in greater depth.

Rambam writes concerning the m'zuza:

וכל עת שייכנס וייצא, יפגע בייחוד שמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא--ויזכור אהבתו, וייעור משינתו ושגייתו בהבלי הזמן; ויידע שאין שם דבר העומד לעולם ולעולמי עולמים, אלא ידיעת צור העולם, ומיד הוא חוזר לדעתו, והולך בדרכי מישרים. אמרו חכמים, כל מי שיש לו תפילין בראשו ובזרועו, וציצית בבגדו, ומזוזה בפתחו--מוחזק לו, שלא יחטא: שהרי יש לו מזכירין רבים; והן הן המלאכים שמצילין אותו מלחטוא, שנאמר "חונה מלאך ה' סביב, ליראיו; ויחלצם" (תהילים לד,ח).

To paraphrase Rambam: the m'zuza is placed on the doorway so that every time a person walks in and out of his house he will be encounter the idea of the unity of G's name and he will be awakened and will be reminded that the only thing that stands forever and ever is the knowledge of the Rock of the Universe and this will lead to a re-framing of one's mindset and will cause one to live a proper life.

Most people relate to their house as an everlasting structure. A house is a source of security both real and imagined (as discussed in this post). Through this structure man imagines that he possesses true sovereignty. As the saying goes, "a man's house is his castle". It is unimaginable to most people that one's house could, literally, fall. Yet, the only thing that stands for ever is the knowledge of G'. The doorway is the threshold between the outside chaotic world and the inside controlled environment of one's home. As one leaves the security of his house he encounter the m'zuza and is reminded of the unity of G's name - that the world is not as chaotic as it seems - it is all guided by G's wisdom. As one enters his house he is reminded that as secure and peaceful as his home may seem any sovereignty he attributes to himself is illusory because only G is the true Sovereign. The door is the perfect place for man to remind himself of the unity of G's name - on the threshold between the two spheres within which he lives - at the intersection of the private and the public, the chaotic and the controlled - man is reminded of his true credo. The m'zuza makes a statement about the character of one's household - that it is a household that does not glorify the sovereignty of man rather it glorifies the true sovereignty of G.

The doorway is the location the Torah selected for us to remember the ideals upon which our households should be founded. For this reason the Chakhamim decreed that one must light in one's doorway. In that place which the Torah instructed us to remember our most important credo - the unity of G's name - we also demonstrate our loyalty to that institution that proclaims that credo - the Beit HaMikdash. However, the ideals of Mikdash are more than just ideals that we proclaim our loyalty to - by lighting in our doorways we demonstrate on Chanuka that they are the ideals which act as the guiding light and foundation of our households.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Three Types of Commemoration

Some changes were added on 12-08-06 (especially the addition of the last two paragraphs).

The Torah presents us with two ways of commemorating an important event. Either we can talk about it (kiddush/havdala, haggada, etc.) or we do the same action our ancestors did (eating matza, dwelling in a sukka, etc.) - these methods of commemoration can be referred to as z'chira and asiya respectively.

There is a third type of commemoration: symbolic. This commemoration would be accomplished by doing an act that is reminiscent of some event. For example, fireworks on the Fourth of July could be viewed as a symbolic commemoration of the War of Independence ("And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.").

The Torah seems to endorse only z'chira and asiya.1 However, the lighting of candles is neither. The miracle of the oil took place in the Beit HaMikdash not our homes. Yet, we light candles in our doorways for eight nights to commemorate the miracle. This is clearly a symbolic commemoration.

Why did the Chakhamim depart from the Torah's normal format and enact a symbolic commemoration? The Greeks had waged a campaign to negate our way of life (as mentioned in the previous post). After the Greeks were defeated the kohanim had a tremendous challenge. The kohanim now had to ensure that the Jews would regain their loyalty to the Beit HaMikdash and the ideals it represented. This is why they instituted the symbolic act of lighting candles outside next to their doorways. They called upon the Jews to demonstrate every year their loyalty to the Beit HaMikdash by lighting candles which bring to mind the menora which stands in the heichal of the Beit HaMikdash.

From a halachik perspective2, the Chachamim could not use either of the methods from the Torah (z'chira or asiya) because of a special challenge that they faced. They could not use asiya because the menora in the Mikdash was lit, not candles in our homes. Likewise, they could not use z'chira because they wanted us to do a public demonstration of loyalty and not recite words privately. Therefore, they had to resort to symbolic commemoration simply because the other two methods could not produce their objective.

Why does the Torah seem to steer clear of symbolic commemoration? To give a very abbreviated answer: it could be that the Torah steers clear of symbolic commemoration because of the important role of symbolism in idolatrous, magical and superstitious practices (ואכמ"ל).


1.Charoset is not a contradiction to what has been said. Charoset is not a zecher l'tit on its own - it functions only in the framework of the mitzva of sippur.

2.The following insight and question were provided, with minor changes, by Danny (in the comments).

Chanuka and Toharot

In the first halacha of the third chapter of Hilchot Megilla V'Chanuka Rambam writes:

בבית שני כשמלכו יוון, גזרו גזירות על ישראל, וביטלו דתם, ולא הניחו אותם לעסוק בתורה ובמצוות; ופשטו ידם בממונם, ובבנותיהם; ונכנסו להיכל, ופרצו בו פרצות, וטימאו הטהרות.

The Greeks made decrees against us in order to prevent us from keeping the Torah. They attempted to demoralize us by taking our money and our women. They went so far as to enter the heichal and commit atrocious acts there and make tamei the tahorot. Entering the sanctuary of the Mikdash was the ultimate slap in the face to the Jews. The Greeks were making an absolutely unequivocal statement that they did not respect the beliefs of the Jews. Toharot signifies the Jews rejection that the perfection of man flows from his body. It is the body and its vital fluids that are the principal causes of tuma (I believe Rabbi Maroof has a nice article on this topic) . In fact Rambam (end of Hilchot Mikvaot) views the system of tuma and tahara as a remez to the essential role of the mind in the purification of the soul:

דבר ברור וגלוי שהטומאות והטהרות גזירת הכתוב הן, ואינן מדברים שדעתו של אדם מכרעת אותן, והרי הן מכלל החוקים; וכן הטבילה מן הטומאות, מכלל החוקים היא: שאין הטומאה טיט או צואה שתעבור במים, אלא גזירת הכתוב היא, והדבר תלוי בכוונת הלב; ולפיכך אמרו חכמים טבל ולא הוחזק, כאילו לא טבל. ואף על פי כן, רמז יש בדבר: כשם שהמכוון ליבו ליטהר--כיון שטבל--טהר, ואף על פי שלא נתחדש בגופו דבר; כך המכוון ליבו לטהר נפשו מטומאת הנפשות, שהן מחשבות האוון ודעות הרעות--כיון שהסכים בליבו לפרוש מאותן העצות, והביא נפשו במי הדעות--טהר. הרי הוא אומר "וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים, וטהרתם: מכול טומאותיכם ומכל גילוליכם, אטהר אתכם" (יחזקאל לו,כה).

It is clear the Jewish conception of tuma and tahara is an absolute negation of cruder forms of Hellenism and their concept of arete.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Gideon and Moshe

And the Messenger of Hashem came and sat beneath the elm tree in Ofra that belonged to Yoash, the Avi-Ezrite – and Gideon his son was threshing wheat at the wine press, to hide it from Midian. And the messenger of Hashem appeared to him, and he said to him, “G' is with you, mighty man of valor!”(Shoftim 6:11-12)

Rabbi David Kimchi quotes the following midrash: “He [the messenger] waited there until he found some merit for him, then he appeared to him. They say: Yoash, his father, was threshing wheat. Gideon said to him, “My father, you are old, go into the house and I will do the threshing – because if the Midianites come, you do not have the strength to escape.” The messenger said [to himself], you have fulfilled the commandment of honoring [one’s father] and you are fit to have my children be redeemed through your hand. Immediately, “the Messenger of H appeared to him…”

This midrash is difficult to understand. Though Gideon’s actions are certainly laudable they are by no means extraordinary and certainly do not make him a worthy instrument of G’s redemption. The midrash seems to be picking up on a nuance of the text. Why is the text so focused on Yoash's elm tree? Why is Gideon presented as the son of the man who owns the elm tree?

Consider another text from Sefer Shemot (3:1-2): “And Moshe was shepherding the sheep of Yitro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he guided the sheep to the end of the wilderness, and he came to the Mountain of Elokim, toward Horev. And the Messenger of Hashem appeared to him in the flame of fire from the midst of the bush…” Why is the text concerned with what Moshe was doing when his prophecy began?

Let us compare the two stories. Both Moshe and Gideon were doing work, not for their own household but for the household of their father (or father-in-law) – both were fulfilling the commandment of honoring one's father (or father-in-law) – when the Messenger of Hashem appeared to them. What does this teach us about these two men? Their disregard of their own household to secure the success of the greater household – that of their father (or father-in-law) – points to a great virtue. They were both demonstrating the core trait of the liberator - each disregarded the good of his own household for the sake of a larger more important household. They both put behind personal ambitions for the sake of the greater good. The liberator of Israel must abandon his personal aspirations for the sake of the entire House of Israel.

Now the meaning of the midrash is clear. Gideon's great merit is "honoring is father" - the great virtue of being able to set aside personal ambition for the sake of the greater good.