Pesachim 8 from Corona to Searching for chametz: Do Torah and Mitzvos protect us from danger?

Without prejudging this issue, I would like to daven that in the zechus of this and all the other learning we do, My dear father שליט”א , and teacher of so much Torah to so many, should have a refuah shleimah.

One of the most emotionally, politically, and religiously charged topics in Israel during the Corona outbreak has been the closure of shuls, Torah schools, and Yeshivos in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

On the one hand, preservation of life is one of the most sacred principles in Judaism, and one is not only permitted, but required, to transgress all commandments, except for murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality, in order to save lives (Yoma 85b,Sanhedrin 74a.)

On the other hand, not only is Torah study and prayer considered to be pillars of our and the entire world’s existence (Mishna Avos 1/2,) there is even some evidence that at least some Chazal considered both Torah and the commandments to have protective, or even healing power (see Sotah 21a.)

Despite this possibility, however, there is also a clear prohibition against intentionally using the words of Torah to heal  (see Shvuos 16b,Sanhedrin 90a/101a) opening the door to a third approach whereby learning Torah and performing mitzvot for their own sake might be permitted despite the existence of dangers in doing so, due to this protective power.

The subject is complex, and there are many sugyos that need to be studied to even get a superficial view of the issues involved.  In the context of a daf post like this, I wish to study the topic as it appears in this daf, what seems מוכרח (indisputable) from it, and what possibilities are left open.

Near the bottom of Pesachim 8a, the Gemara brings a Beraisa which states that we do not require a person to put his hand into holes and cracks in order to find chametz (rather a visual inspection with the candle is sufficient.)

The reason given for this is due to the danger involved.

The Gemara, in questioning what this danger is, rejects the possibility that it is the danger that a scorpion might be hiding in one of the holes and cracks, because it was normal to use these holes and cracks (in the walls) for storage (otherwise one would not be required to search there anyway, as only places where chametz is kept need to be searched.)

The rejection of this concern can be explained in two ways:

  1. One would not use holes and cracks for storage if scorpions were found in them due to the danger, so the danger almost certainly does not exist.
  2. There is indeed some danger of scorpions in the holes and cracks, but as it clearly did not stop one from using them for storage, it is clearly not enough of a concern to exempt one from the mitzva.

An important נפקא מינה (practical ramification) would be whether one is liable to take reasonable every-day risks for the sake of a mitzva.

If the reason that the danger factor is rejected is because we are referring even to places where scorpions are not find in holes in the wall used for storage, it could follow that in places where people used holes in the wall for storage despite the risk of scorpions (whether this is permitted or not,) there might still be no obligation to take this risk in order to perform the mitzva of בדיקת חמץ.

On the other hand, if the danger factor is rejected because we are dealing with places where despite the danger of scorpions, people still take the risk and use the holes, it would follow that in the case of a reasonable every day risk that people take, such a risk might indeed be obligatory for the sake of a mitzva like בדיקת חמץ .

It should be noted that given that, at least when בטול  is performed, בדיקת חמץ  is only דרבנן (a rabbinical requirement,) extending the exemption due to this level of danger to biblical obligations, though possible, should not be taken for granted based on this sugya alone.

After rejecting the possibility that the Beraisa is exempting one from searching holes or cracks in the walls for chametz, it concludes that we are dealing with searching in the holes formed in the heap of a collapsed wall.

Though it does not state precisely what the danger is, Rashi takes for granted that this concern is indeed due to scorpions, seeing as scorpions are far more common in garbage dumps and heaps.

Despite the more significant danger involved in this case, the Gemara is still troubled by the Beraisa’s exemption, due to the principle stated by Rabbi Elazer that     שלוחי מצוה אינם ניזוקין  (those on a mission to perform a mitzva are not harmed.)

This principle seems to indicate that a person merits protection while performing a mitzva, and that even if there is a real danger of scorpions in the pile,  the mitzva of בדיקת חמץ  will protect him.

It is important to stress that we see from here that this principle, whatever it means, applies even to a rabbinical mitzva!

After some give and take, the Gemara seems to accept the fact that although a real concern normally, the danger of scorpions is not sufficient to exempt one from the search, due to this rule.

It concludes that the danger mentioned is that once the mitzva is over and the protection it affords is no longer active, he might continue feeling for a lost item and get stung by a scorpion while doing so.

We see from here that whatever protective power a mitzva has, it ceases to function once the mitzva is complete, even if one does a voluntary action that one would not have done had he not performed the mitzva.

Alternatively, Rav Nachman bar Yitchak suggests that the danger referred to is not that of scorpions but of his non-Jewish neighbor, who might find his actions suspicious and suspect him of practicing witchcraft against him.

The Gemara once again attempts to refute this with Rabbi Elazer’s principle that שלוחי מצוה אינם ניזוקין  and concludes that “היכא דשכיח הזיקא שאני” (where danger is “שכיח”  , it is different.)

The word שכיח  is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew “מצוי”, literally translated as “found or present” but most often refers to “common.” (note that in a similar discussion in Yoma 11a, the phrase  (fixed)קביע הזיקא  is used, and as the same prooftext is brought, it seems that the two are equivalent at least to some degree.)

It follows that  where the danger is common (such as a non-Jewish neighboring accusing a Jew of witchcraft,) as opposed to danger that is real but less common (such as a scorpion being present in the hole at the time or stinging one when he puts his hands in) the principle  may not be relied upon.

We can now attempt to list a hierarchy of dangers, regarding the applicability of the principle of שלוחי מצוה אינם נזוקין .

  1. A situation with no significant danger (such as holes in the wall in a place where scorpions are hardly ever found.)- There is no need for this principle, and it is obvious that the mitzva must be fulfilled.
  2. A situation where there is some risk of danger, but it is a normal risk accepted in every day life  (Equivalent or similar to what Chazal call “דשו בו רבים”  in other contexts such as Shabbos 129b and Yevamos 12b- It is possible that  here too there is no need for this principle, and the mitzva must be fulfilled even without it, but it is also possible that in the absence of this principle, there would be no obligation to take the risk, even if its permitted to do so voluntarily.
  3. A situation where the danger is significant enough that one would normally avoid it in every-day life, but not in the category of “common.”

The principle would require one to take the risk for the sake of a mitzva.

  1. A situation where the danger is common ,the principle is not relevant, and one is exempt from the mitzva.

The above analysis, though already complex, deals solely with the question of whether one is obligated to take risks to perform mitzvot and not whether one is permitted to do so voluntarily, a topic for another discussion.

It also fails to tackle the actual meaning and mechanism behind the principle, and the fact that we see In front of us many cases where people have been harmed, even by freak occurrences, in  the performance of a mitzva  (see Kiddushin 39b for example re שלוח הקן)

We have to bare in mind the possibility that the principle is less a statement of fact, and more of a halachik principle (as well as a kind of hope, blessing or prayer), which defines certain types of risk that one would normally avoid as obligatory when it comes to performing mitzvot.

The sugya ends with Rav being asked whether his students who live far away in the valleys should risk harm in order to go early and come back late from the study-house.

His response was that he took the responsibility for any harm that comes to them on himself.

Once again, there are two possibilities for understanding what he meant:

  1. Rav admitted that some risk was involved, but was prepared to take responsibility for the risk, given the enormity of the mitzva of Torah study. Such a willingness to risk other people’s lives would certainly require further discussion.
  2. Rav believed that due to Rabbi Elazar’s principle, there was no risk at all, and they would not be harmed (see Rashi who seems to understand it this way!)

Whereas this explanation appears easier to understand ethically, it is harder to understand on a factual basis.

Although the Gemara does not elaborate on the level of danger that was involved in making this daily journey before dawn and after dark, it seems clear that it was great enough that people would normally be hesitant to risk it for non-mitzva related purposes, and despite that fact, Rav still encouraged them to come for the sake of Torah study and took the risk on himself.

It is also necessary to point out that the above analysis applies to an individual taking certain levels of danger on himself for the sake of a mitzva- none of these examples directly deal with endangering other people or the public in general for the sake of one’s own personal mitzva or Torah-study, or endangering the public for the sake of a public mitzva or public Torah study, though the above case of Rav and his students might come closest to this.

I do not intend to come to practical conclusions regarding the current situation from this analysis- there are far too many other sugyot to analyze  (see for example Yoma 11a which seems to include monetary risk in the exemption, Kiddushin 39b regarding שילוח הקן, Kesubos 77b regarding חולי ראתן, Sotah 21a regarding the מים המאררים ,as well as what might be a completely different approach to the entire idea of שלוחי מצוה אינם ניזוקין   in the Rambam and the Meiri)  and I leave this to senior Talmidei-Chachamim, but what seems certain from this sugya is that

  1. A certain level of significant risks that people normally try to avoid in their everyday lives wherever possible not only may, but MUST, be taken for the sake of mitzvot, even rabbinic mitzvot, and even more so for Torah study.
  2. There is a level of risk which may not be taken even for the sake of mitzvot.

Finding the balance between the above two levels of risk, is not simple, but is essential to make practical decisions in this and other situations.

Eruvin 63 and 64    Could today’s Gedolim have “Ruach haKodesh” Part 2

In the post on Eruvin 60/61, We discussed various interpretations in the Rishonim of the phrase “דברי נביאות”  attributed to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi by Rav Idi.

Whereas most Rishonim do not seem to see this as referring to actual prophecy or “ruach hakodesh,” and some even see it as לגנאי ( a critical statement,) we saw that the Rabbeinu Yitchak, quoted in Tosfos, takes this almost literally and understands it to be referring to actual “ruach hakodesh,” based on a Gemara in Bava Basra.

We mentioned the famous and oft-cited Beraisa that states that “ruach hakodesh” departed from Israel after the death of the last prophets, and suggested that it is due to this Beraisa that most Rishonim did not wish to understand that Rav Idi attributed real “ruach hakodesh” to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.

We also discussed the ruling of the Divrei Chaim that a teacher who claimed that the Ohr haChaim did not have “ruach hakodesh” was a heretic and that removing him from his post was the correct thing to do (though he was not willing to rule regarding the monetary implications of this.)

We pointed out how this ruling seems to be contradicted by the above Beraisa, and that the implication of that Beraisa is that even Hillel did not have “ruach hakodesh,” so the teacher appears  at first glance to have said nothing inappropriate.

Although I left the post without coming to any conclusions and noted that the view of the Tosfos, Ramban and the sugya in Bava Basra would be discussed in a follow-up post when it is next relevant to the daf (my intentions were of course for today’s daf,) I  received an unusual amount of both positive feedback and pushback for it.

I even received a mild and friendly rebuke from my Rebbe, Moreinu haGaon haRav Mendel Blachman שליט”א  for seeming to make light of the words of the Divrei Chaim, whose status as one of the great Torah authorities is debated by none- although I thought it was completely clear that this was not my intention, I wish to clarify again that I was merely attempting to build the sugya in an orderly and exciting  manner and was always fully aware that the Divrei Chaim was fully aware of the Beraisa and had his own explanation thereof.

I was also pointed by more than one to the Gemara on our daf today, which I had already planned on discussing at the appropriate time, which seems to be a clear proof for the approach of Tosfos, at least in theory.

Given the danger of people jumping to premature conclusions and not understanding the purpose of these posts, something I clearly need to be clearer about, I have decided to leave my planned post on Eruvin 62 and 63 for another opportunity and try to address  these issues as soon as possible.

The Gemara brings a Beraisa which narrates  how Rabban Gamliel was riding his donkey and Rabbi Ilai was riding behind him (this is a shortened version-please see the daf for the full version.) They saw a loaf of bread on the road, and Rabban Gamliel picked it up and told Rabbi Ilai to take it. They carried on and saw a non-Jew whom Rabban Gamliel addressed by his name, מבגאי  and told to take the loaf from Rabbi Ilai.

Rabbi Ilai then asked the non-Jew where he was from and what his name was. The non-Jew told him where he was from and that his name was מבגאי. Clearly surprised that Rabban Gamliel had “guessed” his name correctly, he asked the non-Jew whether Rabban Gamliel knew him, and he answered in the negative.

The Beraisa says that we learn from this that Rabban Gamliel כון (directed his thoughts) with “ruach hakodesh.” It also brings 3 other rules that we learn from this story, something we need to come back to a little later.

It seems clear as daylight that the author of this “Beraisa, and the Amoraim who brought it, attributed “ruach hakodesh” to Rabban Gamliel, even though he lived long after the last of the prophets!

There are also various other primary sources that attribute “ruach hakodesh” to other great Tannaim, among them  Rabbi Akiva (see Ran/Nedarim 50b) and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (פסיקתא דרב כהנא יא) .

How do we reconcile this with the Beraisa that holds that “ruach hakodesh” departed with the last of the prophets, and that even Hillel never had “ruach hakodesh?”

Several possibilities can be entertained, among them:

i.                    These are contradictory Beraisa’s, reflecting two different views amongst Chazal, and there is no need to reconcile them. Although legal, this approach needs to be reconciled with the Amoraim  who brought each Beraisa, and given that it is not just an aggadic discussion but one that could have major practical ramifications (such as the case in the Divrei Chaim,) one would expect the Gemara to acknowledge such a debate if it indeed existed. It is also an answer of last resort, as the way of Chazal was always to try and avoid machlokes wherever possible and rather reconcile apparently differing views as much as possible.

ii.                  We could be dealing with different types of “ruach hakodesh,” in which case we would need to clearly define each type and prove that such a distinction in fact exists. We shall focus on this approach in more detail below.

iii.                It is possible that נסתלקה רוח הקודש  was not a total end to this experience but rather a general removal whereby it would not be a regular “as needed” experience for all people who merit it, but only an occasional experience by the greatest of people. This could fit well in the context of the Mishnayos and sugya at the end of Sotah, where other things such as chasidim and the wealth of Torah scholars which are said to have ceased after certain key figures died clearly did not disappear completely  (see Beis Shlomo O.C. 112 who makes this point.)

It is thus very plausible that the Beraisa did not mean to say that Hillel and Shmuel haKatan NEVER experienced “ruach hakodesh” but rather that it was not a common experience for them like it was for the Neviim, and/or of a lesser quality.

Evidence for this can be found at the end of this very Beraisa, where we are told that Shmuel haKatan predicted the fates of many of the Tannaim on his death bed, something we also see with Rabbi Eliezer when visited by Rabbi Akiva (Sanhedrin  68a.)- Of course it is also possible that the death-bed of the greatest of people provides a flicker of “ruach hakodesh” not provided during life.

The fact that Rabbi Ilai was so surprised by Rabban Gamliel’s ability to identify the man’s name also attests to how unusual this was, even for Rabban Gamliel, as does that fact that Rabban Gamliel does not seem to have known the halachic status of the loaf via “ruach hakodesh.” (the later point could also indicate that when it comes to halachik rulings, “ruach hakodesh” is not a factor due to the rule of “לא בשמיים היא ” ,or that even unique individuals like Rabban Gamliel did not get assistance via “ruach hakodesh” when it comes to halachik matters. “

Of course, the fact that there were still people great enough during the Tannaic period to merit the occasional “ruach hakodesh,” does not mean that this extended into the period of the Amoraim or later.

Even according to Tosfos who understood that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi had “ruach hakodesh,” it should be pointed out that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi formed part of the transition period between the Tannaim and Amoraim, and also had his own very unique qualities  ( see Shabbos   156a regarding פנקסו של ריב”ל  or Kesubos 77b regarding חולי רעתן for examples of this.)

Yet the sugya in Bava Basra that Tosfos brings as support, as understood by the Ramban, paves the way for distinguishing between different types of “ruach hakodesh” and attributing one type thereof to a far wider circle of Torah scholars as well as on a far more regular basis.

The context for the discussion there regards the law of dividing up shared property.

Such property may only be divided up at the insistence of one of the partners if it is large enough to be divisible into two viable portions for each partner, otherwise mutual agreement is necessary.

Shmuel’s father and the Tana Sumchus are of the view that when it comes to a vineyard, the minimum size  that is called a “vineyard” is one that can produce 3 kav .  Rabbi Yossi comments that these words of Sumchus  are דברי נביאות , the same expression we saw back on Eruvin 60b.

This leads into the words of רב אבדימי דמן חיפה  who states that from the time of the destruction, prophesy was taken away and given to the חכמים, implying that Rabbi Yossi’s statement is a positive statement attributing prophecy to Sumchus  (though see רי מגש who does not understand it this way at all.)

The flow of the sugya and the various interpretations thereof in the Rishonim are too long to analyze in this post, but the view of the Ramban is so critical to our topic that we have to at least give it a rudimentary treatment.

אלא הכי קאמר אף על פי שנטלה נבואת הנביאים שהוא המראה והחזון, נבואת החכמים שהיא בדרך החכמה לא נטלה, אלא יודעים האמת ברוח הקדש שבקרבם

“rather, this is what he is saying- Even though the prophecy of the prophets, which is the sight and the vision, was taken, the prophecy of the wise-men which comes through the way of wisdom, was not taken- rather they know the truth through the “ruach hakodesh” inside them.”

The Ramban seems to be describing a type of prophecy that comes through the “ruach hakodesh” inside the sages which is a product of their wisdom, and that this type of prophecy was not taken away and remained with the sages.

What the Ramban does not do is explain our Beraisa in Sanhedrin that says that ruach hakodesh departed when the last prophets died.

It is clear historically that the last prophets lived well into the period of the Babylonian exile, after the destruction of the first Temple.

In the absence of the continuation of the sugya in Bava Basra, the story on our daf and other similar cases, it could be possible to suggest that there were two stages:

1.       The era of prophecy proper ended with the destruction but remained with the wiser prophets through “ruach hakodesh” for some time and this is the type of prophecy that the last of the prophets experienced in the exile.

2.       When these last sage-prophets died, this “ruach hakodesh” via wisdom type of prophecy also departed.

Yet from the continuation of the sugya in Bava Basra where various Amoraim bring examples of this wisdom-derived prophecy in every-day life, this does not appear to be the case, and cases like those of Rabban Gamliel on our daf also make this suggestion implausible.

It thus seems most likely that just like there are two types of prophecy, there are also two types of “ruach hakodesh” and that the “ruach hakodesh/prophecy” inspired by wisdom outlived the time of the prophets well into the period of the Tannaim, some of the greatest of whom were endowed with it.

It is also possible that this wisdom related “ruach hakodesh” of the Ramban never completely ceased and that at least some of the greatest sages of each generation too have some degree of it, according to their merit, though whether this “ruach hakodesh” simply assists one’s natural intellect to come to correct halachik conclusions or goes so far as to allow one to discern secrets and predict the future is also not clear- whereas the case of Rabban Gamliel certainly seems to involve the later, the examples brought by later Amoraim in Bava Basra seem more focussed on the former.

What seems clear from the case with Rabban Gamliel, however, is that at least the type of “ruach hakodesh” which gives “supernatural” knowledge of facts or possibly even the future, is NOT  a regular event, and was not even experienced by most Tanaim, let alone later authorities- otherwise it would not have been recorded as a novelty.

This is further substantiated by the case in Eruvin 63a of the student of Eliezer who transgressed the serious prohibition of ruling in halacha in front of his Rabbi.

Rabbi Eliezer told his wife that that student would not live through the year, and it was.

When asked whether he was a prophet, he replied that he was not, but that he simply had a tradition that someone who makes a halachik ruling in front of his Rebbe deserves to die.

We see that Rabbi Eliezer’s wife was very surprised that he seemed able to see the future to the point that she asked him incredulously whether he was a prophet- This in itself shows that it was certainly not the norm for great Tannaim to be able to see the future.

Unless it was said merely out of humility, Rabbi Eliezer’s answer also makes it clear that he did not consider himself to have this ability either, and given the context of the sugya which discusses this prohibition and its punishment, this is likely to be what it he meant (though it is still difficult how he knew that the punishment would occur within the year and that it would definitely take place, given that he could always repent and be exempted from this punishment- perhaps he did experience some form of “ruach hakodesh” and his answer was indeed out of humility? Either way, we certainly see that this was certainly not the norm by the Tannaim.)

Back to the wisdom-derived form of “ruach hakodesh” discussed by the Ramban, The Divrei Chaim in the earlier quoted teshuva makes it clear that it is this type of “ruach hakodesh” that he is referring to, and it appears that he had reason to believe that the teacher had denied that the Ohr haChaim had even this kind of “ruach hakodesh,” something he saw as an extreme sign of disrespect for someone he held up as one of the greatest sages of his time.

Whether this is the final word on the subject, whether the teacher indeed had that kind of “ruach hakodesh” in mind, and whether the view of the Ramban is indeed compatible with the view of many of the other Rishonim is beyond the scope of this  post  – much has been written on the subject and I hope we shall get a chance to revisit this again- the reader is encouraged to pursue this topic further outside the scope of this post, obviously based on authoritative sources only.

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

Eruvin 60 and 61 Do Gedolim have “Ruach haKodesh”

In a rather unusual responsa, Rav Chaim of Sanz (the Divrei Chaim,) founder of the Sanz dynasty of Chasidim (Y.D. 1/105,) dealt with the issue of a school teacher who had told his students that Rabbi Chaim Attar, author of the famed “Ohr haChaim” super-commentary on the Chumash, did not write his work with “ruach haKodesh” (“holy spirit-“ loosely translated as “divine inspiration” and possibly described as a form or means of prophecy.)

The teacher was fired from his position, and the Divrei Chaim was asked whether this was the correct decision, to which he responded in the affirmative, going so far as to say that the author of any great Torah work who is fit for it, can be said to have ruach-hakodesh.

This position seems rather problematic at first glance, given that the Gemara (Sanhedrin 11a and various other places) brings a Beraisa which states that ” משמתו נביאים האחרונים חגי זכריה ומלאכי – נסתלקה רוח הקודש מישראל, ואף על פי כן היו משתמשין בבת קול (Once the last prophets, Chagai, Zecharia, and Malachi died, “ruach haKodesh” departed from Israel, and nevertheless,they would make use of a “bas kol.”

It continues to tell how a voice from heaven once proclaimed that there was someone worthy of having the שכינה rest on him like Moshe Rabbeinu, but the generation was not worthy, and the sages assumed it was referring to Hillel!

This Beraisa seems to imply a number of things, among them:

  1. Ruach hakodesh is tied to prophecy, and when prophecy ceased, so did it.
  2. Even arguably the greatest sage of the early Tannaic period, Hillel himself, did not have “ruach hakodesh.”

The Divrei Chaim’s claim is also particularly ironic, given that the Ohr haChaim himself (Bereishis 6/3 ( states emphatically that there is not even a ריח (smell) of “Kodesh” left in our time, never mind “ruach hakodesh.” (thanks to )

Yet at the bottom of Eruvin 60b, Rav Idi quotes an important rule regarding Eruvin in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.

Although there is a rule that an entire city (at least a walled one) is considered like 4 amos, and thus counts very little towards the 2000 amos a person is allowed to walk on shabbos, this rule is not absolute, and only applies in certain circumstances.

For example, if a person’s shabbos base is outside the city, and the city fits in its entirety into the 2000 amos of his techum, it only counts as 4 amos and he earns the rest of the length of the city in the same direction on the opposite side of the city. (כלתה מדתו בסוף העיר)

However, if the 2000 amos of his techum ends somewhere in the middle of the city (כלתה מדתו בתוך העיר) , then the city counts as part of the 2000 amos, and he may not move past the point where it ends, even within the city itself.

After reporting this view in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, Rav Idi comments that “אין אלו אלא דברי נביאות” (lit- these are only matters of prophecy), as on a logical level, there should be no difference in the law between the two cases.- either the city should count as part of the 2000 amos either way, or be considered as 4 amos in both cases!

Rava then takes issue with Rav Idi’s comment by bringing evidence from the next Mishna that this distinction indeed exists, after which Rav Idi holds his ground and explains the Mishna in a way that it does not serve as precedent for our case, in a discussion that carries over onto Eruvin 61a.

There are various ways to interpret the comment of Rav Idi regarding Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s ruling being “דברי נביאות”

  1. This could be understood literally as coming to praise and agree with Rabbi Yehoshua’s ben Levi’s words by saying that they were derived prophetically by him , without any earlier source or logical principle to back them up. This is the approach that Tosfos takes, bringing another sugya (Bava Basra 12a) to back up his view. In Tosfos haRosh, the Rosh seems to take a similar approach.
  2. Rashi, possibly unwilling to entertain the notion that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi experienced prophecy or even “ruach hakodesh,” takes a more nuanced view of this approach. He too, understands that Rav Idi views the ruling of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi positively and as being, at least to some extent, prophetic, but does not attribute this prophecy to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi himself. Instead, he explains that in the absence of any logical or textual evidence for his rule, he must have received it as a tradition from his Rebbe going back to something heard מפי הגבורה (by Moshe from Hashem) at Sinai! This explanation is also brought by the Ritva.
  3. Rabbeinu Chananel, seemingly unwilling to treat this ruling as any form of prophecy, seems to understand that Rav Idi simply meant that it was a גזירה of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi himself, without textual support or obvious logical basis. He also seems to understand that Rav Idi meant to weaken Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s statement, not strengthen it.
  4. As mentioned above, it is also possible that Rav Idi is not coming to strengthen the status of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s ruling, but rather to weaken it, and possibly even rule against it. His labelling of his words as דברי נביאות could be somewhat sarcastic, as if to say that the only way he could have come up with something like that was through prophecy, which he clearly did not have.
  5. Without going so far as in the above point, it could be that Rav Idi is attributing a certain degree of prophecy to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, but views such a source for halacha as inferior to one grounded in textual and/or logical support, and perhaps unauthoritative, given the principle of לא בשמים היא.

The Rif and the Rosh both state that we rule like Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi because Rava brings a Mishna to support them, even though Rav Idi was able to explain the Mishna differently. Though they point out that Rav Idi’s main intention was not to rule differently, it seems that they acknowledge that he indeed did hold differently, or at least made his comment to weaken the authority of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s ruling rather than strengthen it. A similar approach can also be seen in the Meiri.

It seems clear from the above that most Rishonim do not take the comment of Rav Idi to mean that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi actually had prophecy and/or “ruach hakodesh, even if this is the most simple reading of the text.

It seems compelling that the reason they did not do so might well be because this would contradict the often quoted earlier source that “ruach hakodesh” and “prophecy” are either equivalent or at least go together, and that both ended with חגי זכריה and מלאכי .

The Tosfos, on the other hand, who do understand Rav Idi’s comment literally, need to deal with this issue, and this takes us into a study of the sugya he quotes in Bava Basra, as well as a fascinating Ramban, which I hope to go into in a couple of days when we revisit this discussion, Hashem willing.

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

Shabbos 156 Astrology, Mazal, and acceptable risk-taking

In an earlier post (Shabbos 129,) I promised to find an opportunity to deal with a fascinating sugya on that daf that I was not able to cover at the time.

The grand finale of Shabbos is here, and with it, on the penultimate daf, the opportunity has come to revisit the question of mazal and astrology, as well as its relevance to risk-taking.

First, lets go back to 129b, where The Gemara rules that for astrological reasons, it is dangerous to let blood on a Tuesday, and one should thus avoid it.

This is because “Mars” is dominant during even hours of the day, and the combination of the dangers of זוגות (pairs- see Pesachim 109b) and Mars makes it a particularly dangerous time for doing so.

The Gemara points out that it is equally dangerous on a Friday, but notes that seeing as it has become the norm for people to do so, it is not forbidden, and we apply the verse שומר פתאים השם”“ -Hashem protects the foolish.” )Tehillim 116/7)

Rashi explains that people are under pressure to let blood before shabbos, seeing as the large fish eaten on shabbos helps to replenish one’s blood supply, and they thus accepted the risk, which made it permitted.

This “leniency” has been applied by various later authorities to permitted engaging in activities with some level of risk, if the population of a whole has voted with their feet that the need for the activity outweighs the risk, and rely on the fact that Hashem will or at least might protect them.

In truth, it is clear from the everyday life described in the Mishna and Gemara that people took calculated risks in their day to day life, particularly while pursuing their livelihoods, and going to study Torah or perform other mitzvos, and with the exception of situations of clear and definite danger, this was barely criticized.

We find that workers said Shema while working up in trees or building platforms )Brachos 16a), and do not see any suggestion that they should not take the risk of working in such risky positions in the first place.

Although travel in general, and going out to sea in particular, was fraught with dangers, to the point that one said a prayer for a safe journey and sometimes said a special blessing of thanks (הגומל) when returning, we do not see any prohibitions against doing so.

Yet using our case of the bloodletting as a precedent is extremely problematic, as it assumes that danger or assumed danger based on astrological factors is equivalent to physically observable danger.

While it is true that even “rationalists” such as Meiri (Shabbos 129b) seem to have believed that certain effects of the stars alignment were not supernatural at all but simply a part of nature, it would be almost impossible to entertain such a suggestion in light of today’s scientific knowledge.

Even if we assume that Chazal, or some Chazal truly believed in the power of the stars, and even if we ourselves followed that belief to the extent that Chazal seem to have permitted doing so, it is clear from the Gemara that the concern regarding blood-letting had to do with the general concern of things that go in זוגות (pairs,) and Chazal were very clear that in times where people were not concerned about them, their effect was also negligible (see Pesachim 110b.)

It therefore stands to reason that if דשו בו רבים (the people have ignored the concern,) the danger is simply not there anymore, and one can then rely on Hashem’s protection (why the term “fools” would then relevant, does admittedly required some explanation.)

However, with physically observable dangers, simply ignoring them does not make them go away at all- the risk remains the same.

As such, although for the others reasons mentioned above, it is clear that society-drawn lines in acceptable risk-taking certainly are a factor, it seems less clear that this particular case where the principle of דשו בו is mentioned could serve as any real proof for the existence of this line and where it be drawn

Despite the above, this sugya and its idea of כוין דדשו בו רבים, שומר פתיים ה seems to have become the gold standard for evaluating what risks are acceptable as part of daily life, and those of us who prefer to see the entire idea as metaphorical, in the line of Rambam’s usual methodology with such things, could perhaps simply relate to the entire precedent as metaphorical for publically accepted risk.

Our daf begins its long discussion on the subject of “mazal” with the views of two Amoraim, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Rabbi Chanina, who both hold that the time that a person is born plays a major impact on their personality and their future.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi held that the day of the week on which a person was borne was the critical factor, whereas Rabbi Chanina held that it was the star/planet dominant at the time of birth that was significant.

One often-quoted example of the later, that has its origins here, is the idea that someone born under מאדים (Mars -the red planet) will be predisposed to spilling blood (note the reference to red or blood in its name.)

Rav Ashi comments that such a person could either be blood-letter, a thief (according to Rashi, a robber who kills people), a butcher, or a moheil.

Even if we follow a literal reading of this passage, It seems to follow from this comment that although Rabbi Chanina believes that a person’s personality is predetermined by his “mazal,” what he does with his personality traits is not preordained, and he may choose to use them for good or for bad. (I have taken the liberty of assuming that this is Rav Ashi’s intention, though it is also possible that Rav Ashi is not suggesting that a person has a choice in the matter, but simply that these are all possible things that a person’s fate might lead him to become if he was borne under this “mazal.”

The Gemara narrates how the leading Amora of his time, Rabbah, had objected to this claim of Rabbi Chanina, pointing out that he was borne under the mazal of “mars” and was certainly not a spiller of blood.

His student, Abaya, retorted that Rabbah himself had also punished and killed before.

The simple meaning of this is that it is a reference to Rabbah’s role as a judge, which we know from a recent daf (Shabbos 153) was known to have been particular uncompromising, to the point that the people of his home-town Pumbedita “hated” him.

Although there was no capital or corporal punishment in Rabbah’s time, and his main authority was in monetary matters and verbal rebuke (the later being stressed by Rashi over there,) it is possible that he made use of the permission given to the courts to hand out exceptional capital or corporal sentences when deemed necessary for the stability of society, a rule formulated (Sanhedrin 46a) as ב”ד מכין ועונשין שלא מן התורה .

Another possibility is that this refers to the case (Megila 7b) where Rabbah, while making a Purim feast together with Rabbi Zeira, attempted to follow the reported dictum לאבסומי בפוריא(to drink wine on Purim to the point of inability to distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.”)

The Gemara related how he became inebriated, and in his stupor, slaughtered Rabbi Zeira, his co-host.

The Rabbis prayed for mercy and Rabbi Zeira survived (or came back to life, depending how the story is interpreted), but the lesson was learnt the next year by Rabbi Zeira, who declined Rabbah’s invitation to feast together once more.

If this is what Abaya was referring to, it could be that even if a person is able through his sheer greatness to completely control his predetermined personality to the point that it does not impact at all on his actions, it remains dormant and asserts itself at times when the person is under the influence.

It might be possible for those who reject there being any truth in astrology (the Rambam being the prime example) to interpret this entire sugya symbolically, and say that all reference to the stars or days of the week are simply metaphors for a person’s innate personality traits, which people cannot totally change, but can certainly direct towards good or bad.

However, the precise wording of the statements, and the continuation of the sugya, which brings various stories to illustrate the power of astrology and of tzedakah to change it, does seem to show that Chazal did indeed believe in it, even if they held it was forbidden to base one’s actions on it.

The Gemara brings the statement of Rabbi Chanina, that “mazal causes wisdom, mazal wealth, and יש מזל לישראל (there is Mazal for Israel.)

In contrast, Rabbi Yochanan rules in contrast that there is no “mazal” for Israel, a position that Rav Shmuel, and even Rabbi Akiva himself are then shown to have accepted.

The view of Rabbi Yochanan that “there is no mazal for Israel “could initially be understood in various ways:

i. The Jewish people simply do not believe in the power of astrology at all.

ii. The idea of Mazal does apply to people in general, but the Jewish people are completely unaffected by it.

iii. Although everyone can be affected by Mazal, the Jewish people are able to change their mazal through repentance and good deeds, such as giving צדקה (charity.)

The stories brought from Rav, Shmuel, and Rabbi Akiva respectively to illustrate and support the view of Rabbi Yochanan are both examples of cases where a Jewish person’s “astrology” predicted something, yet it did not come to pass.

Rav interprets the passuk ויוצא אותו החוצה (and he took him outside) to mean that Hashem took Avraham Avinu out of the limits of his astrological fate, which involved remaining childless, by realigning the stars so that they should let him have a child.

By deriving from this statement that Rav agrees with Rabbi Yochanan’s rule of אין מזל לישראל, the Gemara indicates that Rabbi Yochanan accepts the power of the stars, believes that even Jews are technically subject to it,

yet holds that when they deserve it, Hashem intervenes and changes their “mazal” in their favor.

The next story, involves the leading Amora Shmuel sitting next to a lake with Avleit, identified by Rashi as a non-Jewish wise-man and astrologer.

Some people headed into the lake, and Avleit predicted based on the stars, that a specific one of them would not return, but would be attacked by a snake and die.

Shmuel commented that if the man was Jewish, he would return safely.

The man indeed returned as Shmuel predicted, and they found a snake inside his bag, cut into two!

Shmuel asked him what he done to merit this miracle this, and replied by describing an act of chesed he had done.

Shmuel went out and used this case to apply the passuk וצדקה תציל ממות – “charity saves from death.” )Mishlei 10/2;11/4)

It seems clear from this story that Shmuel also believed that Jews were also subject to the power of the stars, but they could bypass this power through their good deeds!

A look at the final story, the famous case of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter on her wedding day, seems to reveal the same conclusion. As such, it seems clear why Rashi chose this rather limited way of explaining the idea of אין מזל לישראל.

Putting all the modern scientific evidence against the entire concept of the star’s power aside for a moment, the biggest issue with this belief comes from our own classical sources.

The Torah) Devarim 18/1) warns us against superstitious beliefs and practices, including מעונן , which is identified among others things (Sanhedrin 65b) as believing that certain times are good for certain things, something that sounds a lot like astrology.

Those who take a more literal view of our sugya need to address this prohibition, and show somehow that astrology is different, perhaps because it is a part of nature itself and not supernatural, an idea entertained at least for a short time by the Meiri (Shabbos 129b.)

Those who take this prohibition at face value and hold that it refers to astrology might differentiate between believing in the power of the stars, which is legitimate, and basing one’s actions on what they predict, which is not. They could hold that because a Jew is able to change his mazal through his actions, he needs to do exactly that rather than follow what his mazal says blindly.

This view is extremely problematic, seeing as a person has no way of knowing whether his deeds will be good enough to merit this intervention, and it is forbidden in any case to rely on miracles- after all, even Yaakov Avinu was afraid of Esav, according to Chazal (Brachos 4a) because he feared that his sins would stop him from meriting the divine protection promised to him.

How could one then rely on Hashem’s intervention and perform an action against his astrologer’s advice?

Alternatively, one could assume that the halachic sugyas that deal with the prohibition against astrology are the עיקר שמעתתא (main sugyos) and the largely aggadic sugyos that seem to assume the truth of astrology to be secondary, either viewing them as completely non authoritative or interpreting them symbolically in a way that they do not contradict the Torah’s disdain for such beliefs.

The former would be controversial, to say the least, and the later would require a great degree of creativity.

I should also be noted that the earlier sugya on daf 129b seems far from aggadic and seems to involve a halachik discussion as do some other sugyos on the subject.

Whereas Rashi on our daf and the Ramban (Devarim 18/9-12) clearly seem to accept the legitimacy of astrology in some way, taking the more narrow interpretation of Rabbi Yochanan’s dictum, a reading of the Rambam’s views on the subject (A.Z. 11/9 for example) will reveal that he takes the approach of completely negating any truth in astrology.

Identifying which approach he takes to dealing with all these sugyos that assume its truth, takes us out of the scope of this post!

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

Shabbos 98 Miracles and technical matters

Shabbos 98 Miracles and technical matters

את חטאי אני מזכיר היום
I have admitted before that technical matters are not my strong point, and like many others, I usually tend to glide over the more technical sections of the Tanach and Talmud, without really understanding what is going on.

Hence, when it comes to Parshas Teruma, and other similarly styled parshiyos , I have a particularly hard time getting though the required weekly שניים במקרא ואחד תרגום (reading the weekly portion twice in Hebrew and once in the Aramaic translation/commentary of Onkelus.)

The depth of the technical descriptions of the makeup and precise dimensions of the Mishkan and its vessels simply are not recognized easily by me, and even when they are , the required level of focus and mental visualization usually proves too much for me- I thus usually land up making do with a quick leining- style reading and move on to the more conceptual or contemporary topics that seem to match my talent set better.

However, one takes oneself with wherever one goes, and such human weaknesses always come back to haunt us, not only each year, but also whenever we get to parts of the Talmud that analyze these matters, which given the nature of the Shas, can pop up in the most unexpected places.

Seeing as so much of the laws of Shabbos are derived from the work of the Mishkan, it is inevitable that at some point, they will lead back to the technical descriptions in the relevant verses of the same.

Our daf is one of those moments, and a discussion of whether a public domain covered by a roof is similar enough to the public domains in the biblical camp of Israel to be considered as such regarding the law of passing and carrying, takes us to a discussion of the wagons that were used to transport the components of the Mishkan, in particular its beams, and status of the enclosed space between them.

This in turn takes us to a discussion of the properties of the beams themselves and the bars that reinforce them, which brings us to a rather cryptic passuk that describes the central bar.

Each beam was 10 Amos (handbreadths) tall, 1.5 Amos wide, and 1 Amah thick (at least at the base.)

20 beams thus made up the 30 Amos length of the Mishkan on both the North and South side.

Another 6 beams made up the 10 Amos width, with 2 other beams on either side to fill the gaps.

Various bars were placed along the length of the planks, with one central bar in the middle.

The passuk tells us (Shmos 26/28) “והבריח התכון בתוך הקרשים מבריח מן הקצה אל הקצה” (and the main bar in the midst of the beams should run from one end to another.)

The simple meaning of this verse seems to imply that the wooden bar ran all the way from the south-eastern corner of the Mishkan, to the north-eastern corner, making a perfect right-angled turn twice along the way, a somewhat challenging if not impossible task for any carpenter, as Rashi on our daf points out.

So much so, that a Beraisa teaches that the middle bar of the Mishkan was put and held in place miraculously!

Tosfos, however, quotes the ר”י (Rabbeinu Yitchak, one of the leading Tosafists, who brings another Midrash that holds there was no miracle here at all.

It explains simply that the 2 lower and 2 upper rows of beams each contained 5 separate beams- One went from the south-east corner half -way down the southern wall of the Mishkan, another from there till the south-west corner. Another then covered the western wall, and the other two similarly covered the northern wall.

The main “beam”, in contrast, consisting of only 3 separate beams, one for each of the 3 walls, and when the passuk says that it went from one end to the other, it means from one end of each wall to the other end of the same wall, not along the entirety of the 3 walls!

Whereas this is far from the simple meaning of the verse, and requires one to interpret “the main beam” as the 3 “main beams of each wall”, as well as the “5 beams” of each side as the “5 sets of beams of the southern and northern side and one set of beams of the western side”, it allows us to explain this completely naturally without resorting to a miracle.

This seems to illustrate that the debate over how common miracles are and whether to try and interpret seemingly miraculous descriptions in the sacred texts in a natural way where possible, commonly largely ascribed to the Rambam and the Ramban (for another post) , is in fact a much older debate, amongst the sages themselves!

Another example of this can be found in the story of Rav Huna and his wine cellar (Brachos 5b)

The Gemara tells how a financial tragedy befell Rav Huna (who seems to have been either a wine merchant or a very serious collector), where 400 barrels of wine went rancid (turned to vinegar.)

On visiting him to, two other Amoraim respectfully advised him to investigate his financial affairs to see if he had done something to deserve this huge loss.

After some debate, he admits to something seemingly rather minor (and perhaps not even strictly forbidden-another post some time bli neder) and commits to making it right.

One opinion then tells us that that a miracle took place and the vinegar turned back into wine!

Another narrative is then suggested that it did not really turn back into wine, the price of vinegar simply went up and matched the price of wine!

While the later case shows a debate as to whether the reward he received was through a supernatural miracle, or an unlikely natural event that took place at the precise time it was needed, also a form of miracle, albeit a natural one, we again see two different views regarding whether to interpret events as supernatural miracles, or to explain them in a natural way where possible!

When one studies the original Talmudic sources in depth and breadth, rather than just reading summaries of far-reaching debates and controversies amongst the Rishonim and even contemporary authorities , one often sees how the debate can be traced back much further than one originally thought.

The later Amoraim after do that with a dispute amongst earlier Amoraim, with the claim of כתנאי (claiming that this argument is actually based on an earlier debate amongst the Mishnaic sages)

Is there any reason why we should not attempt to do the same with the disputes amongst the Rishonim?!