Pesachim 53-54 Yom-Kippur candles, good intentions, and the power of looks

In loving memory of my dear father, Moreinu haRav Avraham Benzion ben Azriel Hertz Isaacson zt’l, whose love of Torah, passion for justice, and acts of kindness inspire everything I do.

Towards the bottom of daf 53, the Gemara presents a debate that took place while Ullah was travelling on his donkey, accompanied by Rabbi Aba and רבה בר בר חנה.

First, some background:

The Mishna had discussed a difference in customs regarding whether to light candles for Yom-Kippur or not.

Unlike shabbos eve, where lighting candles was a universally accepted obligation, Yom Kippur eve had no such consensus in this regard, and whereas in some locations there was a practise to do so, in others, the practise was to refrain from this.

Keeping with the general requirement to follow local custom, the Mishna ruled that everyone must follow the custom of his place.

The Gemara pointed out that this was not an issue of being stringent or lenient ,as is the case in many of the customs we have discussed- rather, there was strong reasoning on both sides, both related to the same concern.

Before we attempt to explain this, we should note that various reasons are given for the rabbinical mitzva of lighting candles for shabbos, among them:

  1. עונג שבת  (to allow one to enjoy shabbos- it being rather difficult to do so in the dark- see Rambam Shabbos 5/1)
  2. כבוד שבת  (honoring shabbos- a banquet without light is not  honorable – see Rashi Shabbos 25b ד”ה “חובה”  and Rambam Shabbos 30/5]
  3. שלום בית  (keeping the peace at home- it being rather difficult to do so if people are constantly falling over things or bumping into one another- see Rashi, Shabbos 25b ד”ה “הדלקת נר”

Whereas all these reasons could apply, perhaps with some nuances, to Yom-Tov, Yom Kippur might indeed be different.

Whereas there is no mitzva of עונג    (enjoyment) on Yom Kippur, there might certainly be a mitzva of כבוד  , yet according to Rashi, the כבוד  provided by the candles is achieved by making the meal more distinguished, and there is no meal on Yom-Kippur!

At first glance, it seems that given the holiness of the day, שלום בית  is certainly also  an applicable reason, and having people falling over things on Yom-Kippur is hardly a reason for this.

Yet שלום בית  has multiple implications, and its most highlighted component sometimes seems to revolve around the physical and emotional relationship between man and wife, the former being limited on Yom-Kippur by the prohibition against תשמיש המיטה  (sexual relations) and other physical contact. (See Shabbos 152a where Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta refers to his אבר תשמיש  (sexual organ) as the עושה שלום בבית  (the peacemaker at home!)

It might be that the damage to this  important component of שלום בית  when people are bumping into each other, putting the husband and wife in a bad mood not suitable for such relations, is what makes shabbos candles on shabbos obligatory, and this consideration is lacking on Yom-Kippur.

However, the Gemara’s analysis of this debate does not seem to center on these considerations, but rather on the prohibition of sexual relations on Yom-Kippur. (though see later the view of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar regarding lighting candles before Yom-Kippur that falls on Shabbos, for reasons of כבוד שבת!)

Rashi explains that on the one hand, if there is a candle lit on Yom-Kippur, people will be more likely to refrain from sexual relations due to the added prohibition of having such relations by the light of a candle (itself quite a statement, given that this seems to be a relatively mild prohibition compared to that of having sexual relations itself on Yom-Kippur, as well as the fact that everyone agrees that a candle is need on shabbos and this seems to present no such concern).

On the other hand, if one can see one’s wife on the night of Yom-Kippur, one is more likely to be attracted to her and tempted to transgress the more severe prohibition of actual sexual relations.

Whereas some explanation is needed for both above claims, the Gemara sees this as an example of how two communities can have opposite customs both with righteous intentions, applying the  passuk “ועמך כולם צדיקים לעולם ירשו ארץ. (“and your nation are all righteous people, they will forever inherit the land!)

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Another dispute is recorded regarding whether one makes the bracha בורא מאורי האש  on a candle during havdala after Yom-Kippur, or whether this bracha is reserved for motzai-shabbos.

Rav Yehuda quotes Shmuel as ruling that one does not, seeing as fire was created on motzai shabbos, and the bracha on it is thus reserved exclusively for that time.

רבה בר בר חנה is quoted as agreeing and as claiming that Rabbi Yochanan agreed!

Now, we return to the incident we opened up our post  with:

Rabbi Aba asked Ullah if it was true that Rabbi Yochanan had agreed that one only makes the bracha  בורא מאורי האש  on motzai shabbos, and not motzai Yom-Kippur, and Ullah responded initially by giving Rabbah bar Chana a “bad look.”

He then explained that when he quoted Rabbi Yochanan, it was not regarding this law, but rather regarding Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar’s claim regarding Yom Kippur that fell on shabbos.

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar claimed that everyone agrees that one needs to light candles on the eve of such a day, out of honor for shabbos, and Ullah had quoted Rabbi Yochanan as noting that the Chachamim did not agree, and held that it was still subject to the same debate above (note that כבוד שבת  seems according to this view to be more important than כבוד כפור  and to override the concern of being attracted to one’s wife- it also does not seem to be related to the shabbos meal)

רבה בר בר חנה then relented and accepted that Ullah was correct.

We should note that receiving a “bad look” from someone, particular a Torah leader, is not a simple thing, recalling how Rabbi Yochanan when angered by  a student’s heresy, stared at him and turned him into a pile of bones. (see Bava Basra 75a )

Yet in this case, Rav Yosef seems to see this “bad look” in a positive light, praising Ullah for the ability to communicate his disapproval with a look rather than by verbally attacking רבה בר בר חנה, and praising רבה בר בר חנה for his ability to note such disapproval and accept it, applying  a relevant passuk in משלי  to both of them.

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After asking what our custom is regarding the bracha on fire in havdala, the Gemara notes that רבי בנינין בר יפת  quoted Rabbi Yochanan (contrary to what was initially reported) as ruling that this bracha is made both on motzai shabbos and motzai Yom-Kippur, and that this is the way the people have spoken!    (note that this ruling is later qualified with the requirement that the candle used on motzai Yom-Kippur needs to be a נר ששבת  [a candle that was already lit over shabbos for permitted reasons, such as pikuach nefesh, or one that was lit before Yom-Kippur- see Rashi.])

Rashi explains that in the absence of the reason that fire was created on motzai shabbos, we require the other reason to make such a bracha, namely the fact that one is now able to use this fire for things one could not use it before (perhaps like lighting another fire with it.)

As such, we need a candle which was already burning but whose use was limited to us before Yom-Kippur ended due to the prohibition of melacha.

In conclusion, when it comes to lighting candles on erev Yom-Kippur, it seems that the usually authoritative view of Rabbi Yochanan is that it is still dependant on custom , whereas when it comes to making the bracha of בורא מאורי האש  on motzai shabbos, his view is that we do so, but only with a נר ששבת.

We have also learnt two amazing lessons in positivity, the one regarding how we view opposing halachik views as both coming from a place of righteousness, and the other regarding the benefits of using non verbal communication to resolve disputes.

As usual, counter examples to both the above could be found, but we shall focus on this angle for purposes of this post.

Eruvin 12-13 Tolerance, the origins of dispute, and “”אלו ואלו

In the Mishna on 12b, there is a 3-way dispute between Beis Shamai, Beis Hillel, and Rabbi Eliezer, regarding what is required to mark the open fourth side of a מבוי closed on the other 3 sides.

Whereas we have been working until now under the correct assumption that the lenient view requiring only one post on either side is authoritative, we see that though this is the view of Beis Hillel, Beis Shamai require a post and a beam, and Rabbi Eliezer requires 2 posts, one on each side.

In an early post )Shabbos 130b), we discussed the way Rabbi Eliezer was referred to by the Gemara there as a שמותי , a term that the Yerushalmi quoted in the second explanation in Rashi there, as well as in Tosfos, understood to mean that he belonged to Beis Shamai.

However, as we also know )Avos 2/9) that Rabbi Eliezer was one of the greatest students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, who received his tradition from both Hillel and Shamai, it is very possible that he had influence from the scions of both houses.

In this Mishna, it seems that Rabbi Eliezer was neither bound completely to either Beis Hillel or Beis Shamai, but fiercely independent.

This is somehow despite the fact that he took such pride in the fact that he never said anything that he never heard from his Rabbi (Sukkah 28a.)

This can be explained by the fact that his tradition came directly from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who learnt from both Hillel and Shamai, as mentioned above, and thus sometimes was in line with Beis Shamai and sometimes with Beis Hillel.

It can also be that what he meant was not that he heard every precise ruling from his Rebbe, but that he always followed the methodology he learnt from his Rebbe, no matter what conclusion it led to, thus ironically adding to his independence in the realm of practical halacha.

It is a common experience that independents, despite often being revered on both sides of the aisle, usually struggle for acceptance on either side.

Perhaps Rabbi Eliezer was both great and confident enough to have his feet in both worlds, but still able to interpret the Torah and rule according to his own view, even taking a separate stand from both strong “councils of sages.”

Even for the usually tolerant members of Beit Hillel, despite his having learnt from some of their teachers, he was never “Beis Hillel” enough, but a “שמותי”

This independence and consequent lack of acceptance came to a head in the case of the stove of Achnai (Bava Metzia 59b), where his refusal to accept the majority opinion of all the other sages resulted in his virtually unprecedented excommunication, which according to the first explanation in the above-quoted Rashi, was the reason for his being called a שמותי”” , from the word “שמתא” (excommunication.)

The truth is that lacking the safety in numbers that members of both main parties tend to have, independents often suffer the most, and are treated more harshly by members of the dominant party than members of the opposition are treated, even if their ideologies are somewhere in-between.

Whereas Rabbi Eliezer’s independence was virtually stamped out by his colleagues, who burnt all the things that he had declared pure, Beis Hillel are lauded towards the end of daf 13b for their respectful attitude to the views of Beis Shamai, not only quoting their views, but even mentioning them before their own, as illustrated in a Mishna in Sukkah brought by our Gemara.

My beloved son, Noam, asked me the other night, while learning mishnayos Shabbos together, why Beis Shamai are mentioned first so often in Mishnayos even though Beis Hillel are more authoritative.

I answered that this could very well be a reflection of this tolerant attitude first illustrated in the Mishna in sukkah quoted by our Gemara, which Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, a direct descendant of Hillel, carried on when he compiled the Mishna.

This tolerance of the other side, is given in our Gemara as the reason that the view of Beis Hillel became normatively accepted over that of Beis Shamai- In order for one’s view to be accepted, it seems important that one is open-minded, respectful, and confident enough to hear, consider, and even quote dissenting views. This shows that this view was acquired after fully considering all sides and without automatically putting down the other side and is thus a view worthy of acceptance.

Our Gemara points out that this preference given to Beis Hillel was not because the rulings of Shamai were not legitimate, but rather for the above reason- objectively speaking, “אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים”-“these and those are the words of the living G-d!”

It might seem logically impossible that two seemingly contradictory views can both be considered objectively part of the divine Torah, but this seems to be precisely what the Gemara is saying.

The Torah is the word of the “living G-d” and thus constantly branching off into different explanations and possibilities.

So long as different views are all based on the “מסורה”, that living chain of transmission that goes back to Moshe at Sinai, it is not so much the actual conclusion that makes them legitimate, but the way that was achieved.

Not every alternative view has halachik legitimacy- only those that can be justified based on previous stages in the tradition.

Both Beis Hillel and Beis Shamai were required to back their views up with pessukim in the Torah, or oral traditions dating back to Moshe at Sinai, and the same applies to those that come after them.

It is not tolerance alone that gave Beis Hillel their authority, as reading this sugya in isolation might imply. In other places, their authority is derived on their greater numbers and on the “voice from heaven” )see Eruvin 7a for example) that proclaimed that the halacha is like them.

In fact, in the earlier sugya in this masechta, it seems that before this voice from heaven, one was permitted to choose which one of these great schools of Torah to follows, and that according to those who did not consider a voice from heaven to be authoritative, such as none other than Rabbi Yehoshua himself, this was permitted even after this voice from heaven, despite the other factors in Beis Hillel’s favor!


We have explained the idea of “אלו ואלו” with the understanding that in matters subject to debate, there is no objectively true answer, but both sides are legitimate “Torah”- the superiority of Beis Hillel is only practical, and as a result of the traits they possess, their superior numbers, and the voice from heaven.

Yet the Rambam appears to limit this idea significantly.

According to him (Mamrim 1/4), matters mentioned explicitly in the Torah or received orally through tradition tracing back to Moshe’s revelation at Sinai are never subject to debate.

Only matters that are derived though Chazal’s use of the rules for interpreting the Torah, can be subject to debate.

Even the later, were subject to the final ruling of the great court, so long as that court was still functioning, and debate was only legitimate until such a ruling was given.

Once it ceased to function, such matters that had not yet been resolved became subject to debate again.

Given that many or most of the disputes between Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel occurred at a time when the great court was still functioning, it follows that these disputes were subject to a final ruling by that court.

It is those rulings, according to the Rambam, not the tolerance of Beis Hillel or the voice from heaven, that were authoritative.

This fits well with the view that the main reason for their greater authority was their superior numbers, which would have allowed them to dominate the great court they were part of.

How the Rambam would explain the other reasons given for their authority, is subject to further analysis- it is possible, that as might often be his way, he simply regarded one source to be more authoritative in keeping with other accepted rules of halacha, and rules accordingly.

It is also possible that it is precisely that tolerance and extra willingness to engage in respectful debate that swung the majority of the Sanhedrin, including the “independents” towards their side, and that the “voice from heaven” was the מכה בפטיש (final blow) that brought them to this decision.

This also explains the harsh treatment meted out to Rabbi Eliezer by the members of Beis Hillel.

According to the Rambam above, even matters that were subject to dispute, were eventually concluded by the Sanhedrin while it functioned , and thereafter, no-one had the authority to act to the contrary.

Their opinions were still recorded out of respect, but they were now out of the realm of accepted halacha.

They might still have theoretical value in the study-halls, and even be considered “the words of the living G-d,” but the option for anyone to rule accordingly was now closed.

It follows that in post Sanhedrin times, debate in practical halacha is possible once again, and there is no threat of excommunication for those who follow their own or other minority views, but only in matters that had not already been decided by the Sanhedrin, and in matters that fit the Rambam’s strict criteria for debate.

If so, given that the Talmud itself was sealed by Ravina and Rav Ashi long after the Sanhedrin had ceased to function, how do we explain the universally accepted binding authority given to it by all followers of the מסורות?

We will have to leave this for a difference discussion, but a good place to start is the introduction of the Rambam himself to the Mishna Torah, the great masterwork we just quoted from.

Does everyone agree with the Rambam’s strict criteria regarding which matters are subject to debate, and does the huge collection of debates scattered throughout the Mishna and the Gemara back up this very strong claim? This too, will need to be left for a later discussion.

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.

Shmuli Phillips Ari Kahn Johnny Solomon