Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Parshas Eikev 5777

One of the things issues you find in both fiction and non fiction literature is the issue of continuity. Continuity is about the narrative making sense to the reader from a timing and location perspectives. That means that various characters in the story cannot simply appear and disappear in ways that are not realistic or do not resemble those in the real world. Often, a fiction author may resort to a possible but unlikely solution to these issues which often leave the readers somewhat confused.

We find a similar example of continuity in regards to the false witnesses (עדים זוממים) in Tractate Makkos. The usual way someone commits the sin of being a false witness is to bear witness along with another person against somebody, only to be proven by a second pair of witnesses to have been impossible such as him being elsewhere and not able to reach the original person/place in a reasonable time. The Talmud has a discussion about some plausible but unlikely scenarios such as very fast camels in order to solve some of these continuity questions.

In this week's parsha we find four instances of continuity being unclear:
  1. In regards to the Tablets that Moses took down from Mt. Sinai - the Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 10:1-3) that G-d commanded Moses to make an Ark for storage of the broken Tablets. However, we know that the Ark wasn't built until the Tabernacle was built, which took place either later that year or next year.
  2. In regards to the Golden Calf, we know that only one calf was made (Deuteronomy 9:16), however the language of the verses earlier (Exodus) imply there were multiple calves ("these are your gods, Israel", "lets make gods", etc).
  3. In regards to the Tent of Meeting, we find that Moses initially made the Tent outside the camp. However, when the Tabernacle was built, it was now called the tent of meeting and that's where G-d spoke to Moses. The term seems to refer to both.
  4. We also find that Joshua got the honor of being the next leader instead of the sons of Moses because "he didn't leave the Tent" (Exodus 33:11). Joshua wasn't a Levite and if the Tent of Meeting referred to the Tabernacle, how was he able to go there?
Many commentators discuss these questions, and here are some answers that may explain the issue of continuity:
  1.  As stated by Rashi here, there were two arks made. The first ark was made by Moses to store the broken Tablets, and the second Ark was made by Betzelel when the Tabernacle was made. There is a disagreement as to what happened with the first Ark:
    1. Some say it was put away and not used, and the Tablets were transferred to the second one.
    2. Other say it was used for war only and stored the broken Tablets.
    3. Another opinion says that the remains of the Tablets were transferred but they still used the first Ark for war.
  2. In regards to the Golden Calf, most opinions interpret the language as referring to one calf but because the word "gods" in Hebrew is plural (אלקים), it is written that way. However, there is an opinion in the Jerusalem Talmud that each tribe made their own calf, and another one was made for all of them, thus totally in 13 calves.
  3. Regarding the tents, there were in fact two tents. However, most opinions learn that the original tent was put away once the Tabernacle was built. There are opinions that learn that there were always two tents - one for serving and one for speaking to G-d.
  4. Regarding Joshua, it seems in the context of those verses that it was the first tent where Joshua didn't leave. It must have been that after the Tabernacle was built, there was still a separate tent for a house of learning.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Parshas Vayeschanan 5777

Bitcoins and Cows

Earlier this week a virtual currency called Bitcoin had a disagreement on how it is governed. The minority in this dispute ended up splitting off and creating a copy of the existing currency which resulted in every holder of the Bitcoin currency with equivalent holdings in the new "Bitcoin Cash" currency. However, the largest Bitcoin exchange in the world which holds these currencies on behalf of their owners, decided not to support the new currency. A well known lawyer commenting on this said that this maybe cause for legal action due to common law precedent.

One would think that the precedent cited in such dispute would be a banking or a stock trading case. However, the precedent is actually related to ... cows. US common law has a principle where a cow that gives birth to a calf while being cared of by someone else on behalf of its owner, results in the original owner having rights to the calf as well. What is surely a cutting edge story of 21st century technology and finance is now directly tied to common law which stretches back centuries.

Those who encounter Judaism are often struck on how much attention is focused on what is seemingly mundane civil law. Most of the material learned in many of the yeshivos is not around the philosophy of Judaism or its core principles, but rather around sundry details of civil law like property rights, laws of damages and similar topics. Similarly in this week's parsha we find that the 10 commandments consist of two parts: the first 5 focus on the relationship between a person and G-d, while the last 5 focus on the relationships between people including civil law. One would expect that the very foundation of Judaism - the 10 commandments - be solely focused on people and G-d, but that is not the case.

The answer is that while details of civil law such as goring livestock and newborn calves may seem mundane, the principles that underlie those laws are in fact not mundane at all. What we find as we examine these is that the minute details of these laws actually reveal important lessons in morality that the Torah teaches to us and can be applied in other areas of our lives as well.

The Kuzari Principle in the Torah

Sefer Kuzari written by Rabbi Yehuda haLevi is an important work of Jewish philosophy which describes how the King of the Khazars decided to convert to a monotheistic religion and invites the representatives of the major monotheistic faiths to convince him. One of the well know things from this book is something often called as the "Kuzari principle" - the fact that mass revelation at Mt. Sinai to millions of people is something that is unique and cannot be faked.

It seems that the original source for this is from this week's Parsha where this event is described along with the Exodus itself as being unique in history (Deuteronomy 4:32-35):

You have but to inquire about bygone ages that came before you, ever since God created man on earth, from one end of heaven to the other: has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known? Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived? Or has any god ventured to go and take for himself one nation from the midst of another by prodigious acts, by signs and portents, by war, by a mighty and an outstretched arm and awesome power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the LORD alone is God; there is none beside Him.

The Torah Speaks in the Language of Mankind

In this week's Parsha we find a repetition of giving of the Torah that took place at Mt. Sinai. There are two issues that people often ask about in regards to this event:
  1. If G-d knows the future, why did He write in the Torah about all the things that we have today like electricity, space travel, computers, organ transplants, etc?
  2. The things that do appear in the Torah are hard to apply to today's world - especially many of the laws that seemingly are out of place with today's society. These include examples such as slavery, stoning, etc.
Practically speaking how would the Torah write down these things? At the time of the Revelation the vocabulary and understanding of these concepts did not exist, and would not exists for thousands of years? Instead the Torah addressed the people and society of that time. There is a well known principle in the Talmud that applies to the Torah - דברו תורה בלשון בני אדם - which can be translated as that the Torah speaks in the language that regular people use. One of the ways this is interpreted is in regards to the imagery used when referring to G-d - the Torah often describes G-d as having a hand or a nose. However, another way to interpret that principle is that the Torah was given during the time that it was, and used the language and setting of that time. However, at the same time the Torah encoded its eternal truths and principles within those laws.

Practically what that means is that since the society of that time had slavery, the Torah legislated laws of slavery. Since society had the principle of lex talionis or "eye of an eye", the Torah legislated that as well,  However, within those laws we find crucial differences - for example slaves could go free if their masters beat or abuse them. People who choose to have indentured servants had to support their entire family and set the servant free after six years. And "eye for an eye" is always satisfied through a financial payment. The principles that underlie these laws which are focused on rights of even the lowest classes of society is what stands eternal and separate from the laws themselves.

At the same time, the Torah also assigned unique power to the Sages. They had the power to enact decrees as the circumstances changed and apply the underlying principles as the circumstances and history changed. As an example, the Written Law requires that loans are forgiven every seven years but because this would lead to people not willing to lend, the Sages enacted the instrument of pruzbul which allowed the loans to remain past the seven year period. In more recent times various great leaders applied the laws of Sabbath of new technologies like electricity and mass transit.

So in order to transmit its core message, the Torah spoke to the people and society of that time, using the terminology and laws that they were familiar with. The Torah encoded its message within those laws and gave the Sages power to apply and adjust them to fit the circumstances that will come in the future.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Parshas Pinchas 5777

About Stories

When we are children, the stories that we are told are often simplified and are reduced to black and white. This is especially true in regards to good and evil, especially in regards to people and actions. However, it is only when we grow up that we realize that the world around us, ourselves included, does not operate in black and white terms but rather gray. People, events and actions are almost always gray, not wholly good or bad. We also find a similar phenomenon in adulthood in regards to things like politics and war, where great sections of the populace end up being convinced to believe in things in the same child-like terms of black and white, good and evil.

What actually happens in these cases is that as children, we are unable to yet grasp the complexity of the world. When we become adults, it is sometimes easier to revert to this child-like behavior as well. In both instances, we end up outsourcing our critical thinking to others and end up relying on their determination of what is good and evil, rather than doing that analysis ourselves. Unfortunately, reality is usually more nuanced, and is almost never black and white, good and evil.

The Story of Pinchas and Zimri

It is common for us to remain on the same "cheder" understanding of many stories in the Torah, which we are initially told when we are children. The same is true for the story of Pinchas and Zimri in this week's parsha. The simplistic understanding of the story goes as follows:

The evil Moabites and Midianites hated the newly redeemed Israelites. They did not have the military power to attack them directly, so they hired Bilaam to curse them. When Bilaam was unable to curse them, he recommended that they should try to entrap the Israelites in sin instead, so G-d gets angry at them and punishes them. The Midianites and Moabites proceeded to do just that by sending out their women to entice the Israelites men into multiple sins including immorality and idol worship. Among those enticed into sin was an evil man named Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. When Moshe and the other leaders started to judge those who sinned, Zimri who wanted to continue living in sin, grabbed his paramour - a princess named Cozbi, and brought her to Moshe. He challenged Moshe by asking: "Is she permitted or forbidden, and if she is forbidden how is that different from your wife, who is also a foreigner?". With Moshe unable to answer, he proceed to lead Cozbi with him to his tent. At that time, a righteous man named Pinchas - who was a grandson of Aharon haCohen and great-nephew of Moshe, but not a Cohen himself, approached. He was often mocked by others for also being a grandson of Yisro (through his mother). He took matters in his own hands and with a spear, killed both Zimri and Cozbi. The shocking action stopped both the populace that was sinning and the plague that G-d brought on them. As a reward, Pinchas was made a Cohen in his own right, even though he wasn't originally one.

In the classic simplistic retelling of the story, the lines are colored in black and white - the Moabites and Midianites are evil, and so is Zimri and Cozbi. On the other side we have the righteous Pinchas who was the underdog of the story. He leaps into action, does the right thing and gets rewarded. Bad guys lost, good guys win, and the curtain sets, right? However, if you look closer at the story we will find that things aren't quite black and white, good and evil, but quite more nuanced and gray, just like the real world is.

Moabites and Midianites

In the end of the previous week's parsha we find that the Israelite men sinned with Moabite women. However, it is the Midianites that end up being attacked later in Parshas Mattos and not the Moabites. The commentators explain that this was either because the Moabites motivation was fear which was legitimate, or it was because the idea to seduce the people came from Midian as the result of them hiring Bilaam. So while the simplistic reading of the story may imply that they did it because of hate, the more nuanced reading suggests that it may only have been the Midianites but not Moab.

Additionally, we also find that later on the Torah excludes Moabite men from joining the congregation but not Moabite women, because they did not bring out food and water. However, Moabite women like Ruth were not excluded because they were essentially powerless in a male-dominated society. This would seem to extend to the case here as well, where it seems that the women were forced into this episode and did not go into it of their own free will. Thus, while they may have gone on to try and seduce the Israelites, they may have been forced into it.

Zimri and Cozbi

The simplistic reading implies that Cozbi seduced Zimri, and then in the heat of passion he went and challenged the leadership of Moshe. However, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) tells us two facts that challenge this interpretation. First of all, Cozbi's name wasn't really Cozbi but she was called that because she wasn't true (Cozbi means "false") to what her father (Balak) told her to do. He commanded her to target the very top leadership like Moshe and Aharon, but instead when she ran into Zimri it was Zimri who convinced her to ago along with him.

The second thing that we find in the Talmud is that Zimri was not motivated by lust or passion. Rather, he acted after various members of his tribe of Shimon cam running to him asking for help once they saw that Moshe setup a court of law to judge and prosecute the sinners. It was only then that Zimri went ahead and decided to challenge the leadership of Moshe in order to save his people, not due to passion. It was a well intentioned but a misguided gesture.

We also find a curious coincidence. Our Sages tell us that Cozbi's father was Balak, and Balak himself was a grandson of Yisro. Pinchas's grandfather was also Yisro, and Moshe's father-in-law was Yisro as well. When Zimri brings Cozbi to Moshe and challenges him, this coincidence may take on a special meaning - Zimri was challenging Moshe's marriage with a daughter of Yisro by bringing in front of him a great-grand daughter of the same person - Yisro - and asking how can one be permitted and one be forbidden. It may be possible that this was part of Zimri's plan all along. 

The Act of Pinchas 

On a simplistic level, the story is read in a way that implies that the actual action that Pinchas did was a good thing. However, if we dig deeper there is an issue with it: Moshe setup a court of law and proceed to try and execute the sinners in accordance to Torah law. As the Sages discuss, the action of Pinchas was extra-judicial and lay outside of boundaries of regular Torah law. As mentioned by the Rambam, it was something that is not even normally taught for the fear of it being misused, if someone comes and asks whether it should be done we would tell him no, and if he gets killed in the process of trying to do it the other party cannot be prosecuted. It was vigilante justice  - an action taken only in extreme circumstances, and only by someone who can do it with 100% correct intentions. So while it accomplished the goal of stopping Zimri, shocking the other sinners and stopping the plague, the action itself lies outside the scope of normal Halacha as administrated by the courts of law.


In regards of Pinchas himself, we also find two additional incidents in his life where he was punished for what seems to be zealousness that should not have been pursued. The first incident happens when the Judge Yiftach makes a vow that ends up with his daughter about to be killed or banished. Our Sages tell us that both Yiftach and Pinchas were punished because they should have traveled to each other in order to have this vow annulled by Pinchas, but each thought that the other one should be the one traveling because of the proper honor of their respective positions (Judge and Cohen Gadol). As the result, Pinchas lost the gift of prophecy - for what seems to have been zealousness about the proper honor of his position, but not his personal honor.

We find a second incident later on, during the incident of the Concubine at Giveh, the entire nation ended up initiating a civil war which resulted in the tribe of Benjamin almost being wiped out. Tanna deBei Eliyahu writes that Pinchas was punished during this episode and was stripped of being the Cohen Gadol. Why - because he should have protested against the war plans. As commentators explain, he could not bring himself to protect the people who did a similar immoral action like Zimri.

Pinchas's Reward

While many commentators learn that Pinchas's reward was the grant of priesthood, there are others that disagree. The core of the disagreement revolves around a disagreement in the Talmud of when the priesthood was granted to Aharon if it included grandchildren already born or not. According to those that learn he was already a priest himself, the reward that he received was different (either that he would have a peaceful life or that many High Priests would descend from him).

Additional Notes

The commentators point out Pinchas was a descendant of Levi, and Zimri was a descendant of Shimon. The two brothers were the ones who acted in zealousness to protect their sister's honor during the episode of Dinah's kidnapping in Schechem, but now when Shimon's descendant sinned a similar way it was up to the remaining brother to act.

Another interesting thing that we find is that the Talmud tells us that Zimri was the same person as Shaul, son of Shimon, which many explain as being either the son of Simon and Dinah, or perhaps even the son of Schechem from Dinah who was adopted by Shimon as his step son.

We also find in the verses, that both Cozbi's father and Zimri may not have been the heads of their tribes (Midian and Shimon) but only the heads of one of the houses (there were 5 in Midian and 5 in Shimon).

There are discussions in Hassidic sefarim about that Pinchas was wrong and that Zimri was right in their actions based on Kabballah sources (see Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izhbitz, in Sefer Mei Shiloach).

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Parshas Balak 5777

Continuity Issues

In this week's Parsha, some of the characters are purposed to live a very long time:
  1. Balaam - our Sages tell us that he was also Laban and Cushan-Rashasaaim (a king that appears during the times of the Prophets). That would make Balaam live for hundreds of years. Additionally, later in the Torah he is killed "by the edge of the sword" which makes this harder to understand. Also, the Talmud tells us that Balaam was 33 years old at the time of his death and as the same time we have Midrashim that tell us that he advised Pharoh to kill the male babies prior to the birth of Moses over 80 years earlier.
  2. Zimri -  our Sages tell us that he was the same person as Shalmuel, the prince of the tribe of Simeon, and Saul son of Dinah. That would also make him live for hundreds of years. Additionally, according to some commentators, the princes died and were replaced before the story of Balak.
  3. Phineas - our Sages connect Phineas with Enoch from before the Flood,  Elijah the prophet and the angel Matatron. However, Enoch was taken to Heaven alive thousands of years later.
  4. Talking donkey - as the Mishnah in Avos writes, "the mouth" of the donkey was created during the six days of creation.
There are several general approaches to dealing with characters living such long time:
  1. Accept it as fact and a miracle deviating from nature. However, this is not necessary in all cases unless it is clear from the text or our Sages that it was the same person literally. We find this in regards to Achijah the Shilonite and Serach daughter of Asher, but it is not explicit here.
  2. Explain this as a "descendant of", or that the people that appear here are descended from the original people mentioned but aren't them. That is the approach that can be found in Chizkuni that explains that the Balaam in this week's Parshah was the grandson of the original Balaam.
  3. Explain this as a reincarnation of the original person or some sort of spiritual but not physical transfer. This would explain all the cases here, even the donkey (since the concept of the talking donkey was created earlier but not the donkey itself).
  4. This approach only applies in some cases but not here. In some cases where a title is used like Abimelech or Pharaoh, it can refer to different people with the same title.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Parshas Chukas 5777

The Rise and Fall of Balaam the Prophet

We find a curious thing in the end of this week's parsha (Numbers 21:26-30), where the Torah is quoting what is seemingly a non-Jewish book:
Therefore the bards would recite: “Come to Heshbon; firmly built And well founded is Sihon’s city. For fire went forth from Heshbon, Flame from Sihon’s city, Consuming Ar of Moab, The lords of Bamoth by the Arnon. Woe to you, O Moab! You are undone, O people of Chemosh! His sons are rendered fugitive And his daughters captive By an Amorite king, Sihon.” Yet we have cast them down utterly, Heshbon along with Dibon; We have wrought desolation at Nophah, Which is hard by Medeba.
According to Rashi (ibid) this poem was recited by Balaam and his father Beor whom Sihon hired them to curse the Moabites [it is unclear if this in fact was the curse itself].  What is also interesting is Balaam is one of the few characters in the Torah whose writing is also found outside the Torah (see the Deir Alla inscription). What was special about Balaam?

Balaam had a talking donkey, one of the two animals in the Torah that was able to talk (the other one was the Snake in the Garden of Eden). However, the donkey was made to talk not in Balaam's merit and died right after (see Rashi ibid).

Balaam was also a magician. There are generally two types of magic discussed by the Sages, one of which is magic accomplished through a deal with a demon (see the servants of Pharaoh) and the other by changing nature by compelling an angel through a divine name or something similar (see Sefer Derech Hashem). Balaam's skill lay in the second area as our Sages discuss - Balaam was able to know when G-d got angry and redirect that anger. We also find a similar concept later on that he was able to figure out which actions can cause this anger by advising Balak on how to make the Israelites sin.

Balaam was also a prophet and as our Sages tell us even greater than Moses, and was able to talk to G-d directly. Later on, Balaam refers to himself as a man "with an open eye" and some explain that as a reference to a prophetic lens. Most prophets interpret their message through the lens of their personality which is why we find during the time of King Zedekiah that he sought out a female prophet (Chuldah) because she would be softer speaking. The uniqueness of Moses as a prophet was that while he possessed a similar "lens", that lens was entirely clear and did not change the message. Balaam's uniqueness was even greater in that respect that there was no lens at all and as we see later G-d was able to talk directly through Balaam to Balak when He pulled Balaam as a "fish with a hook".

Balaam's potential laid in the fact that if another nation were to accept the Torah, he would have served the same function as Moses in transmitting that message. However, he choose not to pursue that mission and instead ended up trying to hurt the people of G-d by advising Pharaoh, then by going to curse them and later on giving advice to Balak on how to make them sin.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Parshas Korach 5777

Who Got the Land of Korach's Company?

The Torah writes (Numbers 16:32):
and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions.
The Talmud (Bava Batra 118b) states:
Abaye said to him: We are referring to the protesters who were among the assembly of Korah. This term is not referring to all those who protested, but rather to the 250 individuals who protested along with Korah, and it is their portions of land that Joshua and Caleb received.
(Korach himself was a Levite and did not get land, plus his sons survived and they probably got whatever portion of Levite cities he was supposed to get)

When Did Korach Get His Name?

The Zohar writes (3:49a):
When did he get the name Korach? At the time he was shaved [like all the other Levites]. At the time that Korach saw his head without any hair and he saw Aaron adorned with royal garments, it became light in his eyes and he became jealous of Aaron
(see also our previous post about his name being the same as the grandson of Esau)

What Was Korach's Job?

The Midrash writes (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:15):
Korach was the treasurer of household of Pharaoh and in his hands he held the keys to all of the treasuries
Midrash also writes (ibid 18:3):
Our Sages say: Korach was a wise person and he was from the carriers of the Ark

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Parshas Shlach 5777

Why Did Moses Sends the Spies from the South?

The Torah writes (Numbers 13:17):
When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country,
Bekhor Shor (ibid):
They were near the south of the Land of Israel and he told them to go through the Negeb which was near by
Sforno (ibid):
Moses wanted them to commence their mission from the very spot the Israelites found themselves in at this time, i.e. in the south of the land of Canaan. He considered that at this point entry into the land of Canaan would not present any difficulty and they would not have to travel around the country inn order to enter from a more distant location.
Rashi (ibid):
It (the South) was the worst part of the Land of Israel. He bid them spy this out first because such is the way of merchants: they show a prospective purchaser the inferior goods first, and afterwards they show the best 
The Traveling Staff
Rabeinu Bachya (ibid) writes:

Moses gave them his staff in order to safe them from their hands

Related Posts

See also our previous posts relevant to this parsha:
 [Published at parshapeople.blogspot.com / Comments welcome to parsha-people@publishyoursefer.com]

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Parshas Behaaloscha 5777

What Did Miriam Tell Aron about Their Brother?

The Torah writes (Numbers 12:1-2)
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” They said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” The LORD heard it.
Rashi (ibid) - he divorced his wife:
THAT HE HAD MARRIED A CUSHITE WOMAN, and had now divorced her.
and (ibid) - he separated from his wife:
And whence did Miriam know that Moses had separated himself from his wife (for this was the statement she made; cf. Rashi below)? R. Nathan answered: “Miriam was beside Zipporah When it was told to Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp’ (Numbers 11:17). When Zipporah heard this, she exclaimed, Woe to the wives of these if they have anything to do with prophecy, for they will separate from their wives just has my husband has separated from me!” It was from this that Miriam knew about it, and she told it to Aaron.
Daas Zekeinim:
“for he had married a woman from the land of Cush.” (Ethiopia) According to Moses’ biography, Moses had been king in that country and his wife had been a queen in her own right previously. Moses had ruled over that land for a period of forty years (before coming to Midian) This is why the Torah reported Miriam and Aaron as speaking critically only of Moses (“did G–d only speak with Moses?”) They thought that seeing that G–d had spoken with Moses, Moses had felt that no Jewish woman was good enough for him to marry, i.e. that he had given himself airs. They did not criticise Moses for having married Tzipporah, as he had done so in circumstances when he was a refugee from Egyptian justice at the time.

they wondered why Moses had chosen this point in time to separate from Tzipporah and concluded that it was because she wasn't beautfiul, and they could not understand that he had married her in the first place seeing that she had always been that way.
A different interpretation of this line: She had been a queen in her land, the land of Kush. This would fit with what we have read in Chronicles that Moses had been a King in that land. At the time, he had to marry a local woman. Now there was no need for him to remain married to a Kushite woman. 

Several Points about the Story of Miriam

  • The definition of the words "אשה כושית" has several possibilities but the simplest is that it was someone from the land or the people of Cush
  • That is a problem if Tzipporah is the person referenced here since her father, Jethro, was from Midian who was one of the sons of Abraham. There are several possible solutions:
    • it does in fact refer to her, but the word doesn't mean "someone from Cush".
    • it does refer to her since her mother was from Cush (see Rokeach)
    • it refers to Moses's first wife who was the Queen of Cush
    • Midrash states that Tzipporah and Basiah, the daughter of Pharaoh, were twins who were abandoned in the marketplace and adopted by Jethro and Pharaoh. This way these still could have been originally from Cush.
  • What was the issue that Miriam noticed?
    • According to Rashi it was that Moses separated or divorced his wife
    • According to other opinions above, it was that as if Moses was too important to marry someone Jewish
    • Or that he should be marrying someone Jewish now that he has the opportunity
  • How did Miriam know this and why is this story placed here?
    • According to Rashi it was she overheard Tzipporah saying that during the story of Eldad and Medad (who were Moses's half brothers)
    • It is also possible she hard about her lineage from Jethro's family that was just here
[Published at parshapeople.blogspot.com / Comments welcome to parsha-people@publishyoursefer.com]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Parshas Bamidbar 5777 / Shavuos 5777

Why Were Levites Counted from the Age of 30 Days and not 20 Years?

The Torah writes (Numbers 3:15):
Record the Levites by ancestral house and by clan; record every male among them from the age of one month up.
Chizkuni (ibid) answers:
The reason why they were not counted from twenty years and up is that they would not participate in any wars, and from 30 days of age and up they could be used to redeem firstborns of the other tribes. A first born son of any tribe became viable at the age of 30 days.

Why Didn't the Levites Get Any Land?

The Torah writes (Numbers 3:12):
I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine.
Chizkuni (ibid) answers:
these firstborns also had not been intended to inherit ancestral fields, ever, as they were meant to be the priests in their respective families. When the Levites were appointed to perform the tasks previously meant to be performed by the firstborn, they forfeited their claim to ancestral heritage in the Land of Israel, and the firstborns, after redemption, could then lay claim to ancestral territory as did all the non firstborn.

What Was Drawn on the Flags of the Tribes?

The Torah writes (Numbers 2:2):
The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.
Rashbam (ibid) writes:
There was a symbol on every flag, as for instance, the picture of a lion on the flag of the tribe of Yehudah, or that of an ox on the flag of the tribe of Joseph.
Ramban (ibid) writes:
Each banner was a cloth dyed with a dye, and the dye of this one was not the same as the dye of that one. Each one's dye was colored like their stone from the breastplate [worn by the High Priest]
Tur ha-HaAruch (ibid) writes:
Rashi explains that each flag had coloured insignia woven or embroidered on it reflecting the appearance of the respective gemstone of the tribe on the breastplate of the High Priest. Ibn Ezra writes that each flag had a pattern that easily identified the tribe it belonged to; (possibly reflecting the definitions used by Yaakov when he had blessed his sons before his death.) They could also have reflected the images seen by the prophet Ezekiel in his famous vision of the merkavah.
Bereishis Rabbah (2:7) describes the flags
  • Reuben - red flag with mandrakes on it [that he picked for his mother] [see below where it says it was also a person]
  • Simon - green flag with the city of Shechem [because he conquered that city to rescue his sister]
  • Levi - flag that was 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 red and it has a picture of Urim veTumim [because they had the priesthood[
  • Judah - blue flag like the sky with a picture of a lion [from Jacob's blessing]
  • Issachar - very dark blue (almost black), and pictures of the sun and the moon [because they were wise in astronomy]
  • Zebulun - white like the moon with a picture of a ship [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Dan - somewhat blue with a picture of a snake [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Gad - the color was white and black mixed with pictures a military encampment [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Naftali - light red like diluted wine with a picture of a deer or gazelle [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Asher - gem-like white with a picture of an olive tree [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Joseph - black with a picture of two animals, for Menashe and Ephraim (an ox, and a wild ox or a unicorn - re'eim [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Benjamin - a multicolored flag containing the colors of all the other flags with a picture of wolf [based on Jacob's blessing]
Midrash Bereishis Rabbah as cited by the Chizkuni (ibid) states:
the flags had the names of the (fore)father’s houses inscribed upon them. How did this work? On the flag of Reuven there was an inscription אי׳י, the respective first letters of the names of the patriarchs אברהם, יצחק, יעקב. On the second flag (there were four flags, for each army group of four tribes.) there were inscribed the letters בצ׳ע, the second letter in the names of each of the three patriarchs. The third flag would have the letters רח׳ק representing the third letter in the respective names of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov, and the fourth flag the letters מק׳ב, representing the last letters each in their names. The letter ה which had been added to Avraham’s name, would be represented by the protective cloud that rested above the Israelites and protected them against nosy intruders during all the years they were in the desert. An alternate interpretation of the line: באותות לבית אבותם. The flag of the camp of Reuven had the outline of a human being in red colour, matching the colour of his stone on Aaron’s breastplate. It represented the mandrakes Reuven had found in the field and brought to his mother Leah, which the latter had traded for an extra night with her husband. (Genesis chapter 30) These mandrakes were shaped like a human being. The outline of a lion was drawn or stitched ion the flag of Yehudah, who was called: “lion” in the Torah by his father (Genesis 49,9) The colour of that outline was turquoise as was the colour of his gem on Aaron’s breastplate. The flag of Ephrayim showed the outline of an ox, whom his father Joseph had reputedly called שור, ox, (Deuteronomy 33,17) The colour of that outline was onyx, as was the colour of his gemstone on the breastplate of Aaron. On the flag of Dan there was the outline of an eagle, coloured in a variety of colours, iridescent, as the gemstone that represented the tribe of Dan on Aaron’s breastplate. (Ibn Ezra) The Tabernacle located in the centre, was flanked by all these camps, and was a symbol of the holy angels called chayot, which surround the throne of G-d forming a square. The various nations learned from the Israelites to make tablecloths and the like in a variety of colours.

Shavuos 5777

The many ways to described a relationship between G-d and the Jewish people:
  • Like one between a king and his servant, or master and his slave
  • Like one between a parent and a child
  • Like one between spouses
  • Like one between two countries making a treaty
All of these are found in our everyday lives which serve as examples for us

[Published by parshapeople.blogspot.com]

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Parshas Acharei Mos - Kedoshim 5777

Who Took the Goat to the Azazel?

The Torah (Leviticus 16:21) writes:
Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.
Rashi (ibid) explains:
A READY MAN — one who was held in readiness for this purpose from yesterday (Yoma 66a; Sifra, Acharei Mot, Section 4:8).
Rashbam (ibid) explains:
A man familiar with the paths and the desert regions, someone always available, on call, for such an assignment.
Rabbeinu Bachya explains:
Our Rabbis taught us: "man" - this could be a regular Israelite (i.e. not a priest); "designated" - even someone who is spiritually impure / tomeh; and even on the Sabbath
Ibn Ezra disagrees:
Our Sages, whose words are true, said [Yoma 66a] that this person was a kohen.
HaEmek Davar explains:
Someone who was wise and knew what to do in the right time
Chizkuni explains:
According to a Midrashnot found) the word: עתי, “which could be translated as: “whose time had come,” this is someone who was destined to die before this year is out. This would account for the fact that it was noticed that the man who had been entrusted with this task never lived out that year. We must assume that in those days people used astrology to determine who was not destined to live out the year.
(see also Sefer Limakesi Atik that cites several other opinions)

What Are the Seerim?

The Torah writes (Leviticus 17:7):
and that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the seerim after whom they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.
Kli Yakar explains why this is written here:
...This was written in order to answer the heretics who say that the goat [to Azazel] was sent to the demons in the desert, G-d forbid...
Rashi explains:
means TO THE DEMONS. Similar is (Isaiah 13:21) “and demons (ושעירים) shall dance there" (Sifra, Acharei Mot, Chapter 9 8).
HaEmek haDavar explains:
The demons are called this way because they don't rest and dance like goats
Ibn Ezra explains:
These are the demons, so called because when one sees them, one’s body convulses [Hebrew: yis̀ta‘er]. Also, the lunatics who see these demons experience visions of goat-like creatures [Hebrew: s̀e’irim].
Tur explains:
“to the demons;” the spiritually negative phenomena, שדים, the expression occurs in that sense also in Isaiah 13:21 ושעירים ירקדו שם, “and the demons are dancing there.”
Radak and Metzudas Zion on Isaiah (13:21) explain:
They were called this because their appearance was similar to goats
Sforno explains that the blood of the sacrifices would feed them:
... Apparently, although they are composed of composite material, their bones are extremely thin and transparent. That just as ordinary human beings in common with the animals possess a נפש חיוני “intangible life-force” which, seeing that it dies with the body it inhabits, as distinct from the human נשמה which is an intangible spirit emanating in the celestial regions, is basically terrestrial in nature, these demons are “powered” by such a life-force. The reason we find that “life-force” referred to on occasion as נפש is the fact that it cannot exist without its tangible partner, the one which feeds on food and drink secured from what is available in our terrestrial universe.
Consider the very fact that the Torah describes “blood as the life-force” (Deuteronomy 12:23). If someone were to sacrifice blood to such a creature, especially, seeing that it is powerful enough to sustain the life of such creatures, the blood sacrificed to such creatures would be equivalent to keeping these demons alive. (compare Maimonides, Moreh Nevuchim,3,46 on the subject). 
At any rate, when a situation exists when many people find such demons useful and pliable to their wishes, people indulged in offering them blood so as to endear themselves to these creatures and to get them to perform their wishes. ...
[Published at parshapeople.blogspot.com / Comments welcome to parsha-people@publishyoursefer.com]

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Parshas Tazria-Metzorah 5777

The Fall of Gehazi, Servant of Elisha

In the beginning of the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam describes the line of transmission of the Oral Law. We find in that line the prophet Achijah the Shilonite, followed by Elijah, followed by Elisha and then followed by Yehoyada the Priest. However, we also know that Elisha had a servant named Gehazi and just like Elisha served Elijah and succeeded him, it stands to reason that  Gehazi would be the successor of Elisha. But what we find is that instead of being the successor of Elisha, he is listed the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:2) among four commoners who lost their share in the World to Come. How did that happen?

There are five places on the Book of Kings that we encounter Gehazi. The first place is in the Haftorah of Parshas Vayera (II Kings 4) in the context of the story of the woman from Shunam who had a son that died and was brought back to life by Elisha (the Zohar writes that this child became was the prophet Habbakuk). Gehazi played a pivotal role within this story by first letting Elisha know that she had no son so Elisha can ask for a her to have a son, and then when her son passed away, Elisha sent Gehazi with his staff to try to revive the child. That didn't work and Elisha ended up resurrecting the child by himself.

The second place where we find Gehazi is in the Haftorah of Parshas Tazria (II Kings 4:42-5:19) which describes the story of general of Aram named Naaman, who was sick with tzaraas and went to Elisha to get healed. After Elisha told Naaman to submerse himself in the Jordan seven times, he was healed and came back offering a gift to Elisha but Elisha refused his gifts. After Naaman left, Gehazi followed him and made up a story asking for silver and clothing which he hid. After he came back to Elisha, and denied what happened, Elisha cursed him and his children with tzaraas (his sons were cursed because they knew what their father did).

A third place where we find Gehazi is in the Haftorah of Parshas Tazria-Metzorah (II Kings 7:3-20) where a siege is laid against the city of Samaria. The story mentions four lepers who discover that the military camp besieging the city has suddenly left, and they start taking treasures from the abandoned camp and hiding them. They stop and decide to let the people in the city know about this instead. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 107b) explains that these four people were Gehazi and his three sons.

A fourth place where Gehazi is found again is in conversation with King Jehoram (see II Kings 8:4-5) where Gehazi shares various stories of Elisha including the story of the dead boy. While relating the story, the boy and his mother show up to speak to the king about a house they lost. The Meshech Chochmah (Metzorah 64) also mentions here that even though people with tzaaras are normally shunned, in this case King Jehoram was speaking with Gehazi even though he had tzaraas. This was because Gehazi and his three sons accomplished a great thing for the people of the city, seemingly indicating that what Gehazi did here was a good thing.

The fifth place where Gehazi is found is immediately following this episode (II Kings 8:7) where Elisha has just arrived in Damascus. The Talmud (Sotah 47a and Sanhedrin 107b) explains that Elisha was pursuing Gehazi in order to get him to repent. Gehazi refused to repent by telling Elisha that those who made the public sin don't get a chance to repent.

In addition to these five places, the Talmud (Sotah 47a and Sanhedrin 107b) criticizes Elisha for "pushing Gehazi away with two hands" - meaning speaking to him harshly after he asked for gifts from Naaman. The Talmud also adds that Elisha was punished with a sickness for this specific behaviour in regards to Gehazi. Sefer Nachlas Shimon (pp. 221) quotes four reasons why Elisha was punished:
  • Because he also cursed his sons (Ben Yehoadah)
  • Because he did not go back to Gehazi after a few days and try to get him to repent (Ben Yehoadah)
  • Because he cursed Gehazi with having tzaaras forever (Margilous haYam)
  • Because when he used the language "forever", it sounded to Gehazi like he will never be able to repent (Shtei Lechem)
What was the sin that Gehazi got tzaaras for?
  • The obvious reason for profaning G-ds name with his interactions with Naaman by taking money after Elisha swore in G-d name that he wouldn't take anything
  • The Talmud (Sanhedrin 100a) says that Gehazi was punished with leprosy because he used to refer to Elisha, his teacher, by his name as seen during the time he spoke to King Jehoram (see extensive discussion in Sefer Nachlas Shimon regarding this prohibition [siman 13, pp. 161])
  • Avos deRabbi Nathan (9:3) explains that he was punished because he spoke improperly about Elisha. As explained by Binyan Yehoshua based on the Talmud (Sanhedrin 100a), when Elisha sent him to revive the dead boy, he explicitly told him not to talk to anyone. However, Gehazi spoke to everyone he met on the way mocking Elisha and saying: "Guess where I'm going? I'm going to resurrect the dead".
What was the sin that caused Gehazi to lose his share in the World to Come?

  • The obvious reason for profaning G-ds name with his interactions with Naaman by taking money after Elisha swore in G-d name that he wouldn't take anything
  •  The Talmud (Sanhedrin 100a) answers that:
    • either he magnetized the idol of Jeroboam and made it float in the air,
    • or he made the idol of Jeroboam speak. Either way, this caused more people to worship it.
    • Some add a third opinion, that he pushed away other Sages from coming to Elisha this preventing their learning
  • The Talmud (Jerusalem Sanhedrin 10:2, Berachos 10a and Berachos 17b) also mention that he acted immorally and inappropriately towards the boy's mother, a married woman.
  • The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 10:2) also adds that while Gehazi was a great Torah scholar, he had three flaws:
    • he was stingy by not allowing other Sages to come,
    • he behaved with women immorally and specifically he approached the woman from Shunam inappropriately (also see Berachos 17b),
    • and he denied the resurrection of the dead by mocking Elisha when carrying out his mission to resurrect the dead boy.
[Published at parshapeople.blogspot.com / Comments welcome to parsha-people@publishyoursefer.com]

Friday, April 14, 2017

Passover 5777

Gradual Steps of Redemption

Starting from Shabbos haGadol there were several steps in redemption:
  1. The Israelites as commanded by Moshe each picked a lamb in front of a populace that worshipped them. There was a hidden miracle that they were not attacked but first they had to show via their action that they were ready to serve G-d.
  2. On the 14th of Nissan, they brought the lambs as a sacrifice, once again extending themselves to do something that was being commanded by G-d even though they feared retribution from the animal-worshipping populace around them.
  3. On the night of Passover, G-d skipped over the houses painted with the blood of lambs while killing the firstborn people and animals elsewhere. Through this visible miracle, G-d separated out the Israelites as a separate nation.
  4. On the morning of Passover, the people left Egypt thus completing the process of being separated into a nation as it is stated (Deuteronomy 4:32-34): "has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known? Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived? Or has any god ventured to go and take for himself one nation from the midst of another by prodigious acts, by signs and portents, by war, by a mighty and an outstretched arm and awesome power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?"
Thus the Jewish people extended themselves to do something for G-d and He responded first with a hidden miracle, and then with open miracles and took them out as a nation. This is similar to how lightning works - even though we see the lightning extending from the heavens to earth, there is an almost invisible channel that goes up from earth first. The Passover miracle of "skipping over" is the essential lesson of the holiday - this is when G-d separated them into a nation after they reached out to fulfill His commands.

Passover and Time

One of the things often lost during the bustle and hustle of the holidays is the immense span of time between where we are today and the original date of Passover. It has been 3,329 years since the original night of Passover and that immense amount of time is longer than almost everything we encounter around us including the foundations of Western civilization such as the Greek and Roman cultures. Even in other parts of the world things such as the origin of the Japanese monarchy, the origin of the Chinese state, birth of Buddhism, are all at least 1,000 years younger than Passover.

This also creates a sense of displacement since many things we encounter in the Torah and our observance do not mash with things around us. Things like the host being responsible for guests (story of Lot), animal sacrifices, how business transactions are done with shoes (story of Ruth), slavery, casting out impure people outside the city walls, etc. are all strange to us since the original frame of reference was thousands of years ago while today's civilization that we encounter no longer has these aspects.

There are two possible reasons why the Jewish people have been around for such long time:
  • To fulfill the original Divine plan that was intended for the entire world (as described in Sefer Derech Hashem)
  • To serve as an example for the rest of the world (Ohr LaGoyim) for a world without the presence of people who serve G-d may end up being a world without any morals or ethics at all, but one where the strongest rule
Those two aspects directly grow out of the holiday of Passover. Out of the all the holidays, Passover serves as the foundational holiday of the nation since the action of "skipping over" was the one that  created the nation in the first place, even prior to them leaving Egypt. And that is where two two parallel aspects of time started - the newly created nation took on the responsibilities of both serving G-d and the rest of the world.

Three Aspects of Yom Tov

There are three aspects to Yom Tov:
  1. The prohibition of not working, however unlike the one for Sabbath, the purpose of not working during the Yom Tov is not a remembrance about G-d resting on Sabbath, but rather a way to allow the people time of celebrate properly. This is also why certain things like cooking are allowed since they serve to enhance the holiday.
  2. There is also an aspect of happiness and celebration since Yom Tov is often called a chag. This is related to the words used during the episode of the Golden Calf - "a chag for G-d tomorrow". We also find a reflection of this in a special commandment to be happy on Yom Tov which we don't find elsewhere. Because the three main Yomim Tovim align with agricultural celebrations as well and with special "New Years" for things like water, fruit and grain, that is also channelled in the happiness that is experienced during the holidays.
  3. Another aspect that we find is one of "meeting" reflected in the term "Chol haMoed" - "Moed", and "Atzeres". That refers to several types of meetings: us meeting with our family and friends, us meeting with the rest of the Jewish people to celebrate, us meeting with the holiness of the Temple in Jerusalem, and us meeting with G-d for during these times He reaches closer to His people.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Parshas Vayikra 5777

Four Things about Kehuna - Priesthood

  1. The original plan was for the firstborn to serve as Priests and Levites, we see evidence of this for Priests in Exodus 24:5 (see Rashi regarding the sacrifices brought on Mt. Sinai by the firstborn) and for Levites (see Chizkuni on Exodus 8:12 regarding the waving of the Levites in exchange for the firstborn). It does require further study since the tribe of Levi was already set side as priests before the Exodus (see Rashi on Exodus 5:4).
  2. In order to serve as priests, Aaron and his sons need to undergo a special inauguration ceremony during the establishment of the Tabernacle. However, that ceremony itself needed a priest and so G-d made Moses into a High Priest (see Zevachim 101b).
  3. Once the priesthood was given, it was only given to people specifically enumerated by the verse, so Moses got it but not his sons, and Aaron and his sons, but possibly not his grandsons (see our earlier discussion about how that applied to Pinchas).
  4. Priesthood was not meant to be shared with kingship and so we find that King Uzziah was punished with leprosy when he attempted to bring sacrifices as a priest (see Chronicles II 26:16). Similarly, the Hasmonean kings was also accused of the same problem of sharing priesthood and kingship, however, as I once heard from Rabbi Shmuel Irons, the position of the High Priest held the highest authority during the Era of the Second Temple and that was the way that the Hasmonean kings could rule. Their problem was that once things stabilized, they should have given up one of them.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Parshas Ki Sisa 5777

Single Things in the Tabernacle that Had Doubles

There were several things related to the Tabernacle and the Temple that seemingly there is only one of but may have additional doubles:
  1. Urim veTumim - as explained last week, the mentions the existence of at least one other Ephod that has the same power as the Urim veTumim because the way it was created was known by Moses and passed down through the generations.
  2. The Outside Altar - when the Tabernacle was not housed in a permanent structure and before the Temple was built, certain sacrifices were allowed to be brought on additional altars called "Bamos" that were outside the Tabernacle. Additionally, during the inaguration of the Temple, King Solomon temporarily consecrates the floor of the courtyard itself as an Altar (see Kings I, 9:64).
  3. The High Priest - in addition to the High Priest, there was also a second Priest that was anointed for war. The Talmud (Makkos 11a) cites opinions that in the context of the law of the exiled murdered, the death for the Priest anointed for war counts to release the murderer from exile. The same goes for a High Priest that steps down from his position. The Talmud (Sotah 42a) also discusses a deputy High Priest who steps in when the High Priest becomes disqualified.
  4. The Menorah - while the Torah describes only one Menorah, we do find additional ones mentioned in some places. For example, King Solomon made 10 additional Menorahs in addition to the original one from Moses (see Kings I 7:59 and Malbim there). There is also discussion in the context of Hanukkah about a temporary Menorah made by the Hasmoneans. There is also a visual disagreement between the Menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus (with curved branches) and the opinion of the Rambam (straight lines). This disagreement is explained by some as referring to two different Menorahs.
  5. The Keruvim - the Torahs describes these as being attached to the lid of the Ark and looking like two angels with faces of children. However, King Solomon had a second set made that stood attached to the floor over the Ark (see Kings I, chapter 6). This explains how they were able to overlook the Ark when it was brought in (see Kings I, 7:6-7). Additionally, this also explains what the Talmud writes (Yoma 54b) regarding the conquerors of Jerusalem parading the cherubim around at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. Since the Talmud (Yoma 52b) states that the Ark was hidden long before that by King Josiah, it must be that the cherubim that were being paraded around later on were the extra ones made by King Solomon.
  6. The Ark - as discussed last year, two arks existed - one used for war and one used in the Tabernacle (see Deuteronomy 10:1).
  7. The Tent of Meeting - as discussed earlier, the original Tent of Meeting was setup by Moses after the Sin of the Golden Calf outside the camp (see Exodus 33:7-11). It was later replaced by the Tabernacle.
Some additional things that had doubles:
  1. Mordechai and Esther -  both of them had two sets of names - Mordechai also had the name Pesachia, and Esther was also called Hadasah. It seems that one was their legal Persian name and the other was their personal Hebrew name. This would also explain why their names were similar to the names of Persian deities - it was a common custom among the Babylonians and later rulers of their empire to give foreign people names based on deities (see Daniel).
  2. The Golden Calf - as discussed earlier, some opinions mention multiple calves being made.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Parshas Tetzaveh 5777

What is the Urim veTumim?

The Torah writes (Exodus 28:30):
Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the LORD. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD at all times.
Rashi (ibid) explains:
This was an inscription of the Proper Name of God which was placed between the folds (i. e. the two pieces forming the front and back) of the breast-plate through which it (the breast-plate) made its statements clear (lit., illuminated its words; מאיר from אור, light, this being an allusion to the אורים) and its promises true (מתמם from the root תמם, an allusion to תמים) (Yoma 73b).
The Rashbam (ibid) explains the purpose:
the function was somewhat similar to that of oracles employed by the priests of idolatrous cults. If those had any value at all, -and we may assume that at least their worshippers had concluded that they did, -how much more influential would these urim vetumim in the sacred garments of the High Priest be in order to elicit answers to questions posed to G’d, seeing that the means employed were holy and sanctioned by G’d Himself?
Rabbeinu Bachya explains that these were not made by human hands:
It is mentioned with the letter "ה" as it was known before but we do not see it being cited anywhere until now, for it is not mentioned with the other vessels in the work of the artisans to say "and they made the Urim and Tumim" like it says by other vessels. This is testimony that this was not made by a human artisan but directly by Heaven, and this is why it is mentioned with this letter like we find earlier [Genesis 3] regarding the angels, all this is mentioned by the Ramban.
Ibn Ezra as cited by the Tur disagrees:
Nachmanides writes that Ibn Ezra,in an effort to be very astute, wrote that the Urim and Tumim were something constructed by human hands, by artisans. (compare Leviticus 8:8 where Moses is described as placing the Urim and the Tumim inside the breastplate after Aaron already wore the breast plate). He clearly thought that these Urim and Tumim were something man made of silver and/or gold. He appears to have thought that these mysterious inserts were similar to what the astrologers use in order to understand communications from their zodiac signs
The Tur also mentions other "Turim":
It is quite possible that these names of G’d which Moses wrote on the parchment which he inserted in the folds of the breast plate, were known as such to the elite of the Jewish people at the time, and that this would explain the use of the definitive article used here, i.e. האורים, התומים, something which is never used unless the subject is a known quantity, a phenomenon that at least some people are familiar with. This may also explain why David possessed an ephod comparable to that which Moses had in his time, and why we read that in Nov the city of priests (whom King Shaul murdered) there were 85 priests wearing such a type of ephod. (compare Samuel I 22:18) These priests were all trained by prophets, and possibly they used their ephods to address inquiries to G’d on certain occasions.
(see also here and here)

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Parshas Terumah 5777

The Special Gifts

The Torah writes (Exodus 25:3):

And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;
Bechor Shor (ibid) explains the difference between gifts collected here and everywhere else:
They only brought things that were usable for construction itself, and not like all other gifts that people can gift anything to the Altar or the upkeep of the House and those gifts are then sold and the money is kept for the upkeep of the House or the Altar. But here they did not gift things that could be sold and money taken from it, but only things needed for the Tabernacle like metals, animals, and clothes that were given directly for the work itself as it says described the specific 13 things appropriate for construction
HaEmek Davar (ibid) explains similarly:
The command from G-d was not according to the wealth of each individual in money, even though "money answers everything" to buy the things they needed, only it was according to what each person possessed from these things and one who didn't have any of these things, even though he was rich, was exempt

The Purpose of Silver

Rashi (ibid) writes:
All these came (were brought) as voluntary gifts, each man giving as his heart prompted him, except that silver which was brought by all in equal quantities (cf. Rashi above), a half shekel by each person. For we do not find in the account of the entire work connected with the Tabernacle that any silver was needed for the work there described in detail over and above this, for it is said, (Exodus 38:25-26) “And the silver of them who were numbered of the congregation [was an hundred talents, etc.] … a beka for every man etc.” and vv. 27 and 28 inform us that of this silver were made the Sockets and the hooks. Of the other silver which came (was brought) there, as a free-will gift they made the holy vessels (lit., vessels for service), and it is this silver that is referred to in this verse and which is stated in the preceding verse as having been brought voluntarily.
Ibn Ezra disagrees:
And to me it is not necessary to sat that for the Torah can exclude one item from a list of 16 for 15 of them were voluntary. And we find similarly by the sonds of Jacob that were born in Padan Aram and Benjamin was born in Israel; and the 70 souls that descended to Egypt

Wool, Not Silk

The Torah writes (Exodus 25:4):
blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair;
Kil Yakar writes (ibid):
The blue, purple and crimson yarns are all the same type of wool

Rabbeinu Bachya (ibid) writes:
And we don't find silk among the gifts to the Tabernacle, for it comes from the body of an unclean creature which is a worm, and is not fit to be used for the work of Heaven ... and regarding the crimson yarn, it does not come from the body of the bug but from the nest in which the worm lives in

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Parshas Mishpatim 5777

What was the Tzeirah?

The Torah writes (Exodus 23:28):
I will send a tzeriah ahead of you, and it shall drive out before you the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites.
Rashi (ibid) explains:
This is a kind of insect which wounded their eyes and injected poison in them, so that they died. The hornets did not cross the Jordan ... for our Rabbis have explained in Treatise Sotah 36a that the hornets placed themselves on the east bank of the Jordan and from there cast the poison against them.
The Ramban (ibid) explains:
This was a species known to them like the bee, and the Sages mentioned them saying "honey of bees, honey of hornets")
(see also the Chizkuni who explains that there were two types of hornets)
Ibn Ezra (ibid) explains:
This was a bodily sickness, from the decree of leprosy that weakness the strength of the body
Who were the Leaders of Israelites?
The Torah writes (Exodus 24:11):
Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.
Rashi (ibid) explains:
these were Nadab and Abihu and the elders
אצילי means “the great men”, as, (Isaiah 41:9) “I called thee from the chief men (אציליה) thereof”; (Numbers 11:17) “And he increased (ויאצל) some of the spirit” (cf. Rashi on Numbers 11:17 and Onkelos on 11:25); (Ezekiel 41:8) “six cubits in its size (largeness) (אצילה‎)”.
Ibn Ezra (ibid) explains that the reason the term "elders" wasn't used was in order to include Nadab and Abihu

Targum Jonathan (ibid) explains that this refers only to Nadab and Abihu, and not the elders

Pirkey DeRabbi Eliezer (45:1) explains this referring to the princes of the tribes

Shadal explains (ibid):
This means Aaron and other who went up with him
Bechor Shor explains (ibid):
And to the leaders - meaning the firstborn

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Parshas Yisro 5777

What Did Jethro Hear?

The Torah writes (Exodus 18:1):
Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.
Rashi (ibid) writes:
What was the particular report which he heard so that he came? — The division of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek (cf. (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 18:1:1; Zevachim 116a).
Chizkuni (ibid) asks how he hard about Amalek:
How did Yitro hear about all this now? Maybe someone had escaped from the battle with Amalek and he heard it from him.
The source that Rashi quotes (Zevachim 116a) cites a third opinion:
R' Eliezer of Modiim said: he heard about the giving of the Torah and came

Sforno (ibid) explains in a similar fashion:
However, if we understand the words כי הוציא as meaning כאשר הוציא, “when He took out,” we must understand Yitro as saying that he had heard all that G’d had done for Israel at the time when He took them out of Egypt. This would include a reference to all the plagues, the drowning of the Egyptians army, etc. It was this information which had prompted him to journey into the desert himself instead of sending a messenger who would accompany Tzipporah and her children so that they would be reunited with their husband/father. He was primarily motivated by his quest for G’d.
Rashbam (ibid) explains the reference to Moses:
that Pharaoh never tried to harm him personally, and that G’d provided him with such an imposing image in the eyes of Pharaoh and his servants seeing He let him perform all these miracles.
Bechor Shor (ibid) explains also:
And Jethro heard about all the signs and the miracles and the great Hand which G-d has done for the Israelites through Moses and that he placed Moses at their head to be a king and a great man
Sefer Torah Shleimah (ibid) cites additional opinions from Midrashim:

Rabbi Shimon says: he heard that the Manna descended from Heaven and about the quail and he came to convert.

Rabbi Yose says: he heard that the Clouds of Glory protected that from the heat by day and from the cold by night and he came to convert

He heard that G-d healed the speech impediment of Moses

(there is also an opinion that heard about the building of the Tabernacle)

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Parshas Bo 5777

How Did Moses Start the Plague of Locusts?

The Torah writes (Exodus 10:12):
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Hold out your arm over the land of Egypt for the locusts, that they may come upon the land of Egypt and eat up all the grasses in the land, whatever the hail has left.”
Ibn Ezra (ibid) writes):
Rabbi Moshe haDarshan writes the reason why it says "for the locusts" was because a locust was attached to the staff and that is not a proper explanation only the reason why it says "for the locusts" means so they should come
Mechochek Yehudah (ibid) explains Rabbi Moshe haDarshan:
The opinion of Rabbi Moshe haDarshan was that Moshe placed on the staff images of locusts in order to draw in the upper powers to bring locusts to Egypt, and according to this he brought locusts through astrology and therefore Ibn Ezra writes that it is not proper
The Ohr HaChaim (ibid) explains:
Perhaps he tied a locust to the staff or he mentioned the name "locusts" when he raised his hand, for he raised his hand because of the locusts

The Lawsuit over the Borrowed Vessels

The Torah writes (Exodus 11.1-3):
And the LORD said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all. Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbour and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” The LORD disposed the Egyptians favourably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) cites a related story:
There was another time when the Egyptians came to ask for judgment against the Israelites in front of Alexander of Macedonia [Alexander the Great]. They told him: It says [in the Torah] that G-d gave favor to the people in the eyes of the Egyptians and they borrowed [vessels]. Give us the silver and gold that they took from us! Gaviha ben Pesiah asked the Sages: give me permission and I will go and ask for judgment against them in front of Alexander. If they win, you can tell them that they won against a regular person, and I win they will say that the Torah of Moses our teacher won. They gave him permission and he went and asked for judgment against them. He asked them: where do you bring proof from? They answered: from the Torah! He told them: I will also bring you proof from the Torah - for it says that the time the Israelites spent in Egypt was 430 years. Give us the wages for work of 600,000 people who worked in Egypt for 430 years. Alexander of Macedonia told them: answer him! They asked for 30 days to respond. He gave them 30 days and they could not find an answer. They left their fields and their orchards and fled.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Parshas Vaeira 5777

What was the serpent?

The Torah writes (Exodus 7:10-11):
So Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh and did just as the LORD had commanded: Aaron cast down his rod in the presence of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and it turned into a serpent. Then Pharaoh, for his part, summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and the Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their spells; each cast down his rod, and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed their rods.
Rashi (ibid) explains:
לתנין means A SERPENT
Earlier Rashi explains differently (Genesis 1:21, see also Job 7:12):
התנינים THE HUGE CREATURES — the large fishes that are in the sea
The Malbim has another explanation (Isaiah 27:1):
Some explain this as referring to the crocodile and that this was the wolf fish
However, the Abarbanel cites Rabbeinu Chananel (Exodus 7:26) that the crocodiles were something else:
And that which is written here "צפרדעים" most commentators say that these are small fishes which always croak in the marshes, but Rabbeinu Chananel explains that these are the big creatures which live in the Nile which are called in Arabic "Al Tamsach" [which is translated as crocodiles]
Both of these would be referring to the Egyptian Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus):

Metzudas Zion (Isiaah 27:1) explains differently:
This refers to a fish which is similar in its appearance to a snake
(Please see Rabbi Natan Slifkin's Sacred Monsters where he suggests many other possibilities including an oar fish as seen below)

Why did the Egyptians dig around the Nile?

The Torah writes (Exodus 7:24):
And all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile.
Bechor Shor (ibid) explains:
They had to make wells for themselves which did not have fish and would go bad from the rot of the fish
Haemek Davar (ibid) explains:
And the Egyptians searched around the river for water to drink from the river, but other water they had through getting it from a Hebrew and they wouldn't need to dig
Ibn Ezra disagrees (ibid):
Many say that the water held by an Egyptian was red like blood and turned clear when an Israelite held it, if so why didn't the Torah write this sign? To me it seems that the plagues of Blood and Frogs affected everyone including Egyptians and Hebrews for afterwards they were separated, but for these three they were slightly damaged. Only from the plague of wild beasts which was very strong did G-d separate between the Egyptians and the Israelites etc.
The Malbim (ibid) cites another opinion:
The Midrash writes, that according to Rabbi Yehuda it says that only the waters above ground were stricken and not below and Rabbi Nechemiah is of the opinion that even below were stricken
[therefore according to the first opinion that's why the Egyptians were digging to get to the water below ground]
(There are also opinions that only regular water was affected but salty or bad-tasting water was still available)