Monthly Archives: April 2013

“Eleh Moadei” According to the Gra

by Rabbi David Eisenman

It is by now well-known that the Vilna Ga’on’s learning towards the end of his life focused on reading Tanach (Bible) very closely, and finding in the nuances of the Torah bases for  the entirety of our system of halakha (Jewish law).

One striking instance of this can be seen in the The Vilna Ga’on (Gra’s) revolutionary explanation of a seemingly simple pasuk (verse) in this week’s parshah (Torah portion). Vayikra (Leviticus) 23 is a list of all the mo’adim, the holidays, starting from Pesach and ending with Sukkot.   This list is introduced in 23:2, “Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them [these are] the holidays of Hashem, that should be designated as Holy Days.” Verse 3 then continues. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day it is Shabbat Shabbaton …, you may do no work [on it]”   Then verse 4 begins listing the Mo’adim.

Asks the Gra: First, verse 3 seems completely out of context—verse 2 introduces a list of the Mo’adim, a list that begins in verse 4.  Verse 3 is about Shabbat, most certsinly not a mo’ed.  What is that verse doing here?  And second, why is the Seventh Day that this verse mentions— Shabbat—referred to as “Shabbat Shabbaton,” and not just as Shabbat?

The  Gra suggest reading verse 2 completely differently from its simple meaning, and reading it in a way that supports the halakha that one may cook on yom tov (holidays), but not on Yom Kippur.

Suggests the Gra:  The six days referred to in verse 3 , days on which work may not be done, refer to the six days during the year which are mo’adim, but in which we may cook: Rosh HaShanah, the first day of Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, The first and last days of Pesach, and Shavu’ot.  (Of course, we are speaking of the ideal calendar, not the chutz la’aretz (outside of Israel) calendar, with its second days of each of these yom tovs.)  These  are the six days the Torah is referring to, on which one may work.  The seventh day on which one may not work is Yom Hakippurim, a day on which cooking is forbidden, and a day which is referred to as “Shabbat Shabbaton” (e.g., Vayikra 23:32).

Thus, our pasuk is not at all out of context: it introduces the mo’adim as a whole, and introduces us the basic difference between them and Shabbat Shabbaton. With this explanation in mind, we see that Shabbat is not mentioned at all in this verse.  A great example of how deeply one must dig when reading the Torah.

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What’s the Difference Between a Hasid and a Mitnaged?

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the Lubliner RavI can’t resist posting a cute story Rabbi Bleich quotes in the latest Tradition (46,1, Spring 2013). Full disclosure: I have not read the rest of the article yet, though it looks very interesting. The topic is “Liability for Harm Caused by Metaphysical Forces”, and if you don’t know what that means, read the story, and you’ll get it. I’ll just quote the beginning of the article:

“Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the renowned Lubliner Rav and head of Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin, was once asked to explain how the approach to Torah study in his yeshiva differed from that of the Lithuanian yeshivot of his day. He responded that the difference was that which distinguishes a hasid from a mitnaged. Asked to elaborate, the Lubliner Rav responded with an apocryphal example.
Once, two students, one a hasid and the other a mitnaged, were studying tractate Sukkah together. When they reached the statement “It was said of Jonathan ben Uzi’el that when he was engaged in Torah study a bird that flew through the air would be immediately burned” (Sukkah 28a) both students became lost in thought. “What are you thinking?” the mitnaged asked his friend. The hasid answered, “I am pondering the awesome spiritual conduct of the sacred Tanna, Jonathan, who was privileged to attain such a great, superhuman state.” “And what are your thoughts?” continued the hasid. The mitnaged responded, “I was sitting and pondering the liability of Jonathan ben Uzi’el. Assuming that the bird had an owner, would Jonathan ben Uzi’el have been liable for the damage that he caused?”
And so, that is the difference between a hasid and a mitnaged. In case you’d like to know why Rabbi Bleich wrote about this question, it is because, in his own words:
“This writer unabashedly confesses that he shares the quixotic interest of the mitnaged”.
I can’t help but be interested too now, and I’m excited to finish the article. I might post a tidbit or two from it when I do, but I won’t give away the conclusion.

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Is “Kedusha” Arrogant?

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Many of us say Kedusha1 hundreds, maybe thousands, of times in our lives. Unfortunately, there seems to be a basic aspect of the prayer which makes no sense. The premise of Kedusha seems to be that we will sanctify God (Nekadesh et Shimkha, We will Sanctify Your Name). But how is it possible to think that we are going to make God holy? What is the meaning of this statement? We say every day that we are going to take the unchanging God from a state of “unholiness”, and through our prayer, make Him holy. Does this make any sense to you whatsoever? Does this not seem arrogant, and theologically foreign to Judaism?

So what is the possible meaning of this prayer?

Rabbi Dr. Faur says the following, and I will quote him at length:

Qedusha is a delocutive expression. It derives from a special class of verb, ‘to say’ that particular word (e.g. ‘to welcome’, that means: ‘to say: welcome’!). Similarly, in Hebrew le-qaddesh (to sanctify) means: ‘to say: qadosh! (holy!). Thus, in the qedusha of the hazara, before exclaiming “Holy! Holy! Holy!” it is stated: Neqaddesh et Shimkha be-‘Olamakh, keshem shemeqaddeshim Otakh bi-Shme Marom. Properly translated it means: “We shall declare that your name is ‘Holy’, just like it is declared among the heavenly beings.” Similarly in the Sephardic liturgy: Naqdishakh ve-Na’arisakh ke-No’am Siah Sod Sarfe Qodesh, “We shall declare: ‘You are Holy! You are Exalted! As in the reverential chanting of the congregation of holy Seraphim.” (Homo Mysticus: A Guide To Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, page 87)

This being the case, Dr. Faur has explained away the problem very simply. It is not that we “sanctify” God, whatever this might mean, but rather we express that He is Holy! Properly understanding this word, we see that the question never really gets off the ground.

With this explanation in mind, I think it seems clear that the text of the Kedusha does just this. In it, we declare that God is holy, not perform a ritual whereby He becomes holy. It seems that this is the simplest meaning of the entire text, and so this is the conclusion one should come to. I was confused, however, by the introduction, though I am told by others that they were not.

At any rate, I think this clears up the question of how it is we might sanctify God. For more on holiness itself (and Faur mentions it in passing later in the paragraph quoted above), it’s worth taking a look at Menachem Kelner’s Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism, where he effectively demonstrates the true meaning of “holiness” according to Rambam.

1 The daily Kedusha (Sanctification) prayer, is recited in the morning blessings before Shema, during the repetition of the Shmone Esrei (Silent prayer, also called Amida,or even just Tefila/prayer), and during Uva Le’Ziyon. In it we imitate the angels in their praise of God, and say “Holy! Holy! Holy! God of Legions!”.

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