Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Parshas Vayeitzei 5779

The Three Cities Called "Beth-El"

The Torah (Genesis 28:19) writes):
He named that site Bethel; but previously the name of the city had been Luz.
HaKsav veHakabalah explains (ibid):
Three places did Yaakov call "Beth-El": here he called it "Beth El" only, and later on (35:7) he called it "El Beth El", and with a different name he blessed it (35:15) "Elokim Beth El", and so we find by Shaul (Samuel I 14:3) "they went up to Elokim Beth El" ...

What is the Land of the Easterners?

The Torah writes (Genesis 29:1):
Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners.
Chizkuni (ibid) writes:
“to the land of Aram,” as we know from Isaiah (9:11) [where it says "Aram from the east And Philistia from the west"]
Ohr HaChaim (ibid) explains:
The reason the Torah describes these people as בני קדם, easterners, instead of referring to their city, i.e. Charan, is to tell us that only the district came towards him. Jacob himself walked to Charan ...
Radak (ibid) explains somewhat similar:
that land lies to the east of the land of Israel, Charan being the first town after one crosses the border into that country. The Torah does not mention the political name of the country but describes it as “the land of the people of Kedem,” in more general terms. Yaakov left the land of Canaan and crossed into this land, and while being close to Charan, he saw a well in the field.
Tur HaAruch explains (ibid) differently:
It is a mystery why Yaakov should go to the land of the people of the East, seeing the Torah already wrote that he was heading for Charan, (28,10). On the other hand, according to the tradition that Yaakov had reached Charan on the day he set out in that direction, but that he had turned back to pray at Moriah, not having been aware at the time that he had inadvertently gone past that site without doing so, the meaning of the verse becomes abundantly clear. From Moriah he went forth to the land of the people of the East, where he remained for 14 years before again going to Charan and joining the household of Lavan.
HaEmek Davar explains that the the verse implies that they dabbled in magic like the people of "Kedem" (i.e. the children of Keturah), and this is why it says that he "raised his feet" for he was afraid he may get drawn after it.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Parshash Vayera 5779

What Questions is Rashi Trying to Answer?

There are several instances in this Parsha, where Rashi's commentary seems to be addressing a specific issue in the text. When we contrast his commentary with other commentators, we can see the underlying question

1. The Wife of Lot
Rashi (Genesis 19:26) explains that when Lot's wife was punished by being turned into a pillar salt because she sinned with salt. However, the Ralbag disagrees and explains the same verse as referring to the city of Sodom turning into a pillar of salt instead of Lot's wife. The Ralbag also explains what the underlying question is: Lot's wife is listed as having left the city but when Lot goes into caves later on, she is no longer present. That is the question that Rashi also addresses - her disappearance from the story is explained by being turned into a pillar of salt.

2. Ishmael and the Guests of Avraham
When the guests come to Avraham, he orders a man to slaughter a calf for them (Genesis 18:7). Rashi explains there that this was Ishmael who was being trained in the mitzvos. Bartenura explains the underlying question - everything that Avraham did was done by him directly except this (and the kneading of the dough by Sarah). If Avraham strives to do everything himself, then handing off this job to a mere servant would sound derogatory to Avraham. Therefore, Rashi explains that this was no mere servant but Ishmael who was being trained.

3. Angels or Men?
As explained in previous years (see here), there is a disagreement among the commentators as to whether these visitors are angels or men (or a dream according to the Rambam). Rashi explains that these were angels but because of that he is forced to explain why there are initially called "men" in regards to Avraham but "angels" when they arrived at Sodom. Additionally, Rashi also explains why the number of visitors goes down from three to two.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Parshas Lech Lecho 5779

What is Ur Kasdim?

The Torah writes (Genesis 15:7):
Then He said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur Kasdim to assign this land to you as a possession.”
It also states earlier (ibid 11:28):
And Haran died in the lifetime of Terach his father, in the land of his birth, Ur Kasdim.
And (ibid 11:31):
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur Kasdim for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.
This is also mentioned later on (Nehemiah 9:7):
You are the LORD the God, who choose Abram, and brought him forth out of Ur Kasdim, and gave him the name of Abraham;
Rashi (ibid 11:28) says
The Midrashic explanation is that he died through his father. For Terah accused his son Abram before Nimrod of haying smashed his idols to pieces, and he cast him into a fiery furnace. Haran waited and said to himself, “If Abram proves triumphant I will be on his side; if Nimrod wins I shall be on his”. When Abram was saved they said to Haran, “Whose side are you on?” Haran replied, “I am on Abram’s side”. They therefore cast him into the fiery furnace and he was burnt to death. It is to this that the name of the place Ur-Kasdim (fire of the Chaldees) alludes (Genesis Rabbah 38:13).
Targum Jonathan (ibid) elaborates that it refers to the makers of the furnace:
And it was when Nimrod had cast Abram into the furnace of fire because he would not worship his idol, and the fire had no power to burn him, that Haran's heart became doubtful, saying, If Nimrod overcome, I will be on his side: but if Abram overcome, I will be on his side. And when all the people who were there saw that the fire had no power over Abram, they said in their hearts, Is not Haran the brother of Abram full of divinations and charms, and has he not uttered spells over the fire that it should not burn his brother? Immediately (min yad, out of hand) there fell fire from the high heavens and consumed him; and Haran died in the sight of Terah his father, where he was burned in the land of his nativity, in the furnace of fire which the Kasdim made for Abram his brother.


Metzudas Dovid (Nehemiah ibid) cites a similar explanation but Kasdim refers to the location:
Our Sages tell us that it was because Nimrod threw him into a fiery furnace while in the land of Kasdim and G-d saved him
Ramban (ibid) also explains this is regarding the location but differently:
In the land of his birth. Only Haran was born in Ur Kasdim. Terach was originally from Aram where his older sons Avram and Nachor were born. Afterwards Terach took Avram with him to Ur Kasdim while Nachor remained behind. That is why when Terach left to return to Aram (v. 31) Nachor is not mentioned.
Rabbeinu Bachya (ibid) explains in a similar fashion:
 It is a fact that Avraham’s birthplace was not Ur in the land of the Casdim, but that he was born on the west side of the river Euphrates. We have direct confirmation of this in Joshua 24,2 where we are told מעבר הנהר ישבו אבותיכם מעולם, “your ancestors have lived on the far side of the river Euphrates from time immemorial.” The word מעולם in that verse is clear proof of the fact that Avraham was not born in Ur. This is also why he was known as אברם העברי, in 14,13, “Avraham from across the river.” Had he been born in Ur Casdim he should have been known as אברם הכשדי, “Avram from the land of the Chaldaens.” Another proof for our contention is the fact that Nachor, Avraham’s brother is reported as living in Charan, a place well west of the river Euphrates. If we find in verse 31 that Terach took his son Avram and Lot the son of Haran with him as well as Sarai his daughter-in- law on his way from Ur Casdim in order to go to the land of Canaan and that they got as far as Charan, this suggests that Nachor was the only one who remained in Ur Casdim at the time. However, the truth is that Nachor had never left his birthplace in the first place. This is also the reason the Torah writes the word “in the land of his birth” in the middle of the verse instead of at its end. The word מולדתו, “his birthplace,” refers to Aram which was well to the west of the river Euphrates. We find that our sages in Baba Batra 91 mention that Avram was a prisoner for ten years, three of them in a place called Kuta, and seven years in a place called Kardo. According to some scholars the former place is identical with Ur Casdim. Others hold that it was west of the river Euphrates.

You should know that Terach begat his sons Avram and Nachor on the west side of the river Euphrates, the land of his fathers, and that subsequently he migrated to Ur Casdim to join his son Avram where his younger son Haran was born. Nachor had stayed in his birthplace in Charan all that time. The words בארץ מולדתו refer to Haran, who had indeed been born in Ur Casdim.

Maimonides, in his Moreh Nevuchim 3,29, writes that there is a record in Egyptian books about agriculture that Avram was born in a place called Kuta and that he disagreed with all the local people concerning their worshiping the sun. The king therefore imprisoned him where he remained for many years. Some time later the king feared that Avram would cause destruction to his country and that he would sway his subjects into changing their religion so that he decided to expel Avram to the borders of the land of Canaan.Thus far Maimonides.
The Malbim (ibid) explains that this refers to the fire itself:
For the Kasdim worshiped sun and fire, and they had a fire that was always lit as part of fire worship ... Ur Kasdim was on the other side of the river and Nimrod was also the ruler there ... and the furnace was also on the other side of the river, except that in Haran there was no ruler. And now you will understand what it means that "our forefathers lived on the other side of the river" ... and that was on the other side of the river and not the land of Kasdim ... it must be that Ur Kasdim refers to the fire of the furnace ...

Radak (ibid) says its name wasn't called that at the time:
 באור כשדים, a place known nowadays as Ur Kasdim, It could not have had that name at the time Terach and Avraham lived, as כשד the son of Nachor had not been born until later (Genesis 22,22) The offspring of this Kessed became were known as the Kasdim.
Rashi (ibid) cites another reason that it refers to valleys (also cited by the Radak):
Menachem ben Seruk, however, explains that אור means a valley, as (Isaiah 24:15) “Glorify ye the Lord in the valleys (באורים)”, and as (Isaiah 11:8) “the den (מאורת) of the basilisk”. Every hole or deep cleft may be called אור.
Rabbeinu Bachya (ibid) explains this may also refer to a mountain:
As to the meaning of the word אור in our verse. The word appears in three meanings. 1) valley or depression; 2) fire; 3) mountain. The reason that it may mean valley is based on Isaiah 11,8 מאורת הצפעוני, ”the den of an adder.” The prophet calls the den of that viper מאורה, and a valley is a depression in the earth. Our verse then would mean: “from the valley of the Casdim.” The reason the word may mean “mountain,” is based on Isaiah 24,15 באורים כבוד ה', “for the glory of the Lord is in the mountains,” and the reason the word was used to symbolise mountains was that the Israelites used to light flares on the mountains to inform the people that the new moon had been sighted so that the people who lived far from Jerusalem would observe the next day as New Moon. This is what is meant in Isaiah 24,15 באיי הים שם ה' אלוקי ישראל, “the name of the Lord G’d of Israel is (even) in the islands of the sea.” The prophet urges the people to proclaim the mighty miracles of G’d by honouring G’d with lights, as if the meaning of the words הר כשדים were “fire.” We encounter this word in Isaiah 44,16 חמותי ראיתי אור “I am hot, I can feel the fire (heat).“

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Parshas Noach 5779

Why Did Noach Send the Raven?

The Torah writes (Genesis 8:6-7):
At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; it went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.
1: Simplest explanation from the Sforno:
וישלח את העורב, to find out if the atmosphere had dried out after the tops of the mountains had become visible. Noach wanted to know if the atmosphere in the meanwhile was such that the raven could tolerate it.
ויצא יצוא ושוב, this proved that the atmosphere was not yet dry enough for the raven to tolerate it for any extended period of time.

2: The Bartenura cites a different reason:
I found that the reason for Noach sending out the raven more than other birds was because ravens eat dead bodies and if it would find one of those that died in the Flood, it would bring from their flesh back to the Ark; and he [Noach] would know that the waters dried up ...
3 - The Chizkuni gives a similar reason:
the reason Noach chose one of the impure birds for this mission, was that since that bird feeds on carcasses, the chances that it would find something to eat were far greater than if he had sent a pigeon which is more circumspect in what it chooses as its food. Do not question how Noach could have dispatched any creature from the ark seeing that at that time it was totally dark outside? While it is true that there was no sunshine or moonlight, and the light of the stars is insufficient to know thereby whether it is day or night, there was some light, as we know from when the Torah wrote in verse 5 that the mountain tops had become visible at the beginning of the tenth month. Furthermore, there is an opinion cited in B’reshit Rabbah 33,5, according to which light of sun and moon was usable, but was not usable by Noach for astronomical calculations. Unless this was so, how would Noach have been able to tell day from night?
Bechor Shor seems to disagree:
It went to and from for the waters were still high and it was afraid to fly far lest it gets weak and falls to the water but it still went out and ate from the bodies of people, animals and birds that it saw floating in the water and came back to its nest in the Ark, and it kept doing so until the waters dried up completely, and then he [Noach] sent the dove ...
4: HaEmek Davar cites another reason:
We need to understand why he sent these two birds specifically: the raven and the dove, for there are many other birds that can fly better than these two. Also, how did he have permission to let them leave the Ark before the time came for all of them leave? Therefore, it seems that these (the raven and the dove) were not from the pairs that entered [the Ark] in order to keep the species alive according to Hashem's command. It must be that before the Flood, Noach was like one of the noblemen that are accustomed to raise ravens and doves, and these came with him as part of his household like it is stated above, for it is a custom to raise ravens inside the house and not to send them away. However, doves are taught to carry letters far away and bring things back in their beaks. therefore when Noach sent the raven and it saw the water around the Ark, it did not fly far but went and came back near the Ark. But the dove was taught to bring things even from afar and this is why he sent it for it flew far away.
5: Ohr Chaim gives another reason:
.... The entire verse must be understood in light of the aggadah (Sanhedrin 108) that the raven mated while in the ark and that Noach knew about it. This is why he expelled the raven from the ark as soon as he opened its window. This is why the Torah does not mention that the raven was dispatched in order to examine the extent to which the waters had receded. The raven was forced to remain outside the ark though it tried to return to it. This situation continued until the waters on the earth had dried out. .....


Why Did the Raven Keep Coming Back?
1: As per Bechor Shor above, it was afraid of falling in the water

2: Rashi provides another reason why it kept coming back:
It (the raven) flew in circles round and round the Ark and did not go on its errand for it suspected that he (Noah) intended to injure its mate, just as we learn in the Agada of Chelek (Sanhedrin 108b)
Chizkuni explains this further:
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish in Sanhedrin 108 claims that the raven accused Noach with an ironclad argument of hating it, else he would have used a bird of which there were seven species rather than endanger the species of the raven of which he had only a single pair. As a result, the raven did not fly far away from the ark to ensure it would find its way back, and could protect its mate if need be.
The Malbim explains what Noach thought:
Since the raven, alone among the birds, produced offspring in the ark, Noach felt secure in sending it out knowing that the species would not perish. The raven was also the only bird that would have abandoned its nest to go on the mission.
However, Tur HaAruch disagrees:
Noach concluded at that point not to endanger the species of which only one pair was in the ark, and to dispatch birds of the “pure” species of which he had seven pairs each at his disposal.
3: Another reason - as per HaEmek Davar above,  it could be the raven stayed close because it was not accustomed to fly far like the dove

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Succos 5779

Eating in the Succah on the First Night

Rabbia Doniel Neustadt discusses this issue in his Weekly Halacha series and comes out with the following conclusions:
Since there are different rulings on all of these issues, the following, then, is a summary of the majority opinion:
  • If it is raining steadily and there is a reliable weather forecast for rain all night, one should make Kiddush [with shehecheyanu] and eat a k’zayis [or a k’beitzah] in the succah. No blessing over the succah is recited. The rest of the meal is eaten inside the house.

  • If there is no reliable weather forecast and there is a possibility that the rain will stop [e.g., it is drizzling or it is raining on and off], it is proper to wait an hour or two for the rain to subside. The poskim agree, however, that if the delay will disturb the dignity and pleasure of the Yom Tov, or if the family is hungry and/or tired, there is no obligation to wait.

  • If the rain stops while the meal is being eaten inside the house or even after the meal has finished, one is obligated to eat at least a beitzah of bread in the succah. Even if the rain stops after midnight, a beitzah of bread must be eaten in the succah. If one has already gone to bed and then the rain stops, there is no obligation to get out of bed in order to eat in the succah.

Shaking Lulav and Esrog on Shabbos

We do not shake the Lulav and Esrog on Shabbos today, but during the times of the Temple, this was done on the first day of Succos even on Shabbos. This is explained by the Rambam (Hilchos Shofar Sukkah veLulav 7:16-18):

While the Temple was standing, the lulav would be taken [in the holy place even] when the first day of Sukkot fell on the Sabbath. The same applies in other places where they were certain that this day was celebrated as a holiday in Eretz Yisrael. However, the places which were distantly removed from Jerusalem would not take the lulav on this day because of the doubt involved.

When the Temple was destroyed, the Sages forbade even the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael who had sanctified the new month to take the lulav on the Sabbath on the first day of Sukkot.

[This was instituted] because of the inhabitants of the distant settlements, who were not aware of when the new month had been declared. Thus, a uniform guideline was established, rather than having some take the lulav on the Sabbath and some not. [The guiding principle was] that the obligation [of taking the lulav] on the first day applies in all places, and there is no longer a Temple to use as a point of distinction.

At present, when everyone follows a fixed calendar, the matter remains as it was, and the lulav is not taken on the Sabbath in the outlying territories or in Eretz Yisrael even on the first day [of the festival]. [This applies] even though everyone knows the actual day of the month.

Finishing the Torah in Three Years and Simchas Torah

The Talmud (Megillah 29b) writes:
However, according to the one who said that the portion of “Command the children of Israel, and say to them, My offering” is read as Shekalim, does that portion ever occur at that time of the year? That portion usually occurs much later in the year, in the summer. The Gemara answers: Yes, it sometimes occurs that this portion is read during the beginning of Adar, for the people of the West, i.e., Eretz Yisrael, who complete the cycle of reading the Torah not in one year but in three years.
In Sefer Maasos Rabbi Benyamin (page 63) there is a mention of a similar custom in Egypt (in the 12th century):
... there are two congregations - one for those from the Land of Israel and one for those from Babylonia ... and they do not observe the same custom for reading the portions and sections of the Torah, for those from Babylonia are accustomed to read one portion every week like we do in Spain and according to our custom. [Thus], every year and year they finish the Torah. And those from the Land of Israel do not do that but they make every portion into three sections and finish the Torah in the end of the three years. However, they have a custom to come together and pray as one on the day of Simchas Torah and the day of giving the Torah (Shavous) ...

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Parshas Nitzavim 5778

Nature of the Covenant

The Torah writes (Deuteronomy 29:12):
You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer— to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Rashi explains (ibid 29:12):
SINCE HE MUST BE UNTO THEE A GOD, because He has promised it unto you and has sworn unto your fathers not to exchange their descendants for another nation. For this reason He binds you by these oaths not to provoke Him to anger since He, on His part, cannot dissociate Himself from you. — Thus far I have given an exposition according to the literal sense of the chapter.
and:
An Agadic explanation, however, is: Why is the section beginning with the words, “Ye are standing this day” put in juxtaposition to the curses in the previous chapter? Because when Israel heard these ninety-eight curses besides the forty-nine that are contained in Torath-Cohanim (Leviticus 26:14 ff.), their faces turned pale (they were horrified), and they exclaimed, “Who can possibly stand against these?!” Therefore Moses began to calm them: “See, you are standing today before the Lord!” — many a time have you provoked the Omnipresent to anger and yet He has not made an end to you, but you still continue in His presence (Midrash Tanchuma, Nitzavim 1).
We tend to think of a covenant like a contract - where either side can break it, but it is really more like a treaty where the sides cannot exit the treaty unless it itself includes such provisions.

Why Did G-d Exile the Jewish People?

The Torah writes (Deuteronomy 29:21-25):
And later generations will ask—the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the LORD has inflicted upon that land, all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it, just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in His fierce anger—all nations will ask, “Why did the LORD do thus to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?” They will be told, “Because they forsook the covenant that the LORD, God of their fathers, made with them when He freed them from the land of Egypt; they turned to the service of other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not experienced and whom He had not allotted to them.
Daas Zekeinim explains (ibid 29:23-24)

“what has caused the Lord to do this to this land?” If there were murderers and adulterers among the Jews, this is a world wide phenomenon and G–d has not reacted similarly against them? Why has only their land been laid waste?
and

“then they will say, etc.” even the gentiles will come to the conclusion that the G–d of the Jews had done to them was justified; they had entered into a covenant with their G–d voluntarily, and had abandoned their part of the bargain without reason. It is therefore no more than just that they had to pay the price for their treachery.

The Parshas and the Years

There is a tradition from the Vilna Gaon that each of the 5 books of the Torah correspond to 1,000 years of creation, with the last one (Devarim) corresponding to years 5000 - 6000. Each of the Parshios in Devarim (a total of ten) correspond to 100 years. Thus Parshas Ki Savo corresponds to 5600 to 5700 (1840 to 1940), and Nitzavim-Vayelech to 5700 - 5800 (1940 - 2040). There are 70 verses - 40 in Nitzavim and 30 in Vayelech, thus making every 7 verses correspond to 10 years. This means Nitzavim is roughly 5700 - 5757 (1940 - 1997), and Parshas Vayelech is 5758 - 5800 (1998 - 2040).

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Parshas Ki Savo 5778

There is an incident described the the Book of Jeremiah concerning the writing of Megilas Eichah. It is written (Jeremiah 36:21-25):
The king sent Jehudi to get the scroll and he fetched it from the chamber of the scribe Elishama. Jehudi read it to the king and to all the officials who were in attendance on the king. Since it was the ninth month, the king was sitting in the winter house, with a fire burning in the brazier before him. And every time Jehudi read three or four columns, [the king] would cut it up with a scribe’s knife and throw it into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed by the fire in the brazier. Yet the king and all his courtiers who heard all these words showed no fear and did not tear their garments; moreover, Elnathan, Delaiah, and Gemariah begged the king not to burn the scroll, but he would not listen to them.
Rashi expands on the story (Jeremiah 36:23):
Our Sages tell us that this was the Scroll of Lamentations [i.e. Eichah] that was read in front of him. [When they read the first four verses ] "Alas", "Bitterly she weeps", "Judah has gone to exile", "Zion's roads are in mourning" - for all of these he didn't care since he said "I will be the king of the remaining people". One he read [the verse] "Her enemies are now her masters", he said "from now I am not king?" and immediately he cut it up with a knife.
Why did the king not care about the first four verses? He felt safe in his palace and did not feel like any of these things applied to him.

Something similar applies in this week's portion. If we read through most of the Tochacha, it seemingly doesn't apply to us. A lot of the punishments are very specific and we are not affected by them. However, when we get to the end of the portion, we find an interesting thing. It is written (Deuteronomy 28:66):
Thy life shall hang before thee; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival.
This seems to describe someone who cowers in fear, afraid for his life - seemingly not applying to us. But Rashi cites a surprising explanation (ibid):
THY LIFE SHALL HANG BEFORE THEE: ... Our Rabbis interpreted this to refer to one who is obliged to buy produce in the market (who does not possess any of his own), ... WITH NO ASSURANCE OF SURVIVAL — this they refer to one who must rely on the baker (cf. Menachot 103b).
What this means, that even though we may be safe in our houses like the king was, and assured in our safety, this is merely an illusion since the food and bread we need comes from someone else.