Shavuos 5777

When was the Torah actually given?[1]

ותתן לנו יקוק אלקנו באהבה מועדים לשמחה חגים וזמנים לששון, את יום חג השבעות הזה זמן מתן תורתנו
Hashem our G-d, with love give us festivals of happiness, holidays and times of joy, this holiday of Shavuos, the time of the giving of our Torah[2]

In our calendar[3] Shavuos always falls out on the sixth day of Sivan. Something not mentioned explicitly in the Torah is the event that Shavuos commemorates. As noted in our prayers, Shavuos commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This is why we read the Ten Commandments Shavuos morning[4]. There’s actually a disagreement in the gemarra[5] what day the Torah was given. The Rabbis say that the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan, whereas Rabbi Yossi says that it was given on the seventh of Sivan. What is the basis for their argument?

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Bamidbar 5777

Rashi’s Royal Revelation[1]

ויקח משה ואהרן את האנשים האלה אשר נקבו בשמות
Moshe and Aharon took these men who had been designated by [their] names[2]

Rashi comments פרש”י
These men: These twelve princes את האנשים האלה: את שנים עשר נשיאים הללו
That were designated: To him [Moshe], here, by their names אשר נקבו: לו כאן בשמות

Parshas Bamidbar, the first in the book of Numbers, earns the book its name by beginning with a census of the Jewish people. This is one of many censuses that took place in the wilderness. Hashem commanded Moshe to count all the Jewish men above the age of twenty, those that would be suitable to serve in the army[1]. The leaders of the twelve tribes, described as princes, were appointed to help with the census. After listing the twelve princes, one for each tribe, the Torah states that Moshe and Aharon took them for their appointed task and began the count.

Rashi, the eleventh century biblical commentator, is unquestionably the most important and influential of the early authorities[2] on the Torah. His commentary is found in every edition of the Torah and has spawned dozens of supercommentaries whose task are solely to explain what Rashi meant. At the beginning of the Torah[3], Rashi describes the intention of his commentary by writing: “I came only for the peshat, the plain simple meaning of the words and verses”. Rashi only comments on the Torah when there is some difficulty in understanding the verse simply, or in order to correct a faulty first impression.

Given this introduction, Rashi’s comments on the above verse are puzzling. The verse is very self-evident; what is the need for clarification? What’s more puzzling is Rashi didn’t seem to add anything. After listing the twelve princes, the verse says that Moshe took “these men”, and Rashi tells us that it’s referring to “these twelve princes”. The verse says the men that were taken were the men that were designated by their names, and Rashi just adds the words “to him, here”. Meaning, the verse is saying that the men that were taken were the men that were designated to Moshe, here, by their names. What is gained by these additions?

The Mizrachi[4] tries to explain Rashi’s motivation. The verse could have simply stated “Moshe and Aharon took them”, why did the Torah add the words “these men”? Since the Torah added these words, Rashi was worried we would misinterpret the verse to be referring to some other men. This is why Rashi comments, to assure us that the verse is still discussing the above-mentioned princes. The problem with this approach is twofold. One, how does Rashi know the Torah is still referring to the princes? Maybe it really is referring to some other men. Even if it is referring to the princes, then why didn’t the verse say, “Moshe and Aharon took them”? What then was added by the words “these men”?

The Gur Aryeh[5] has a different approach to explain Rashi’s intent. When the Torah says that “Moshe and Aharon took these men”, it makes them sound like ordinary people[6]. Rashi wants to stress that these weren’t ordinary people; they were the twelve princes of Israel. Again, if this is the correct approach to Rashi, why did the Torah refer to them as men? Further, the verse uses the words אנשים, which Rashi elsewhere states[7] usually refers to men of importance. So why would I have misunderstood the verse?

A third approach to Rashi avoids all of these issues. This isn’t the first time princes were mentioned in the Torah. Before the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the Torah describes[8] the various contributions the people made. It says[9] the princes brought “shoham stones” for the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. However, the Torah doesn’t clarify which princes. Elsewhere, the Torah says[10] that the names of the twelve tribes are inscribed on these stones. Rashi names[11] which tribes, and lists Yosef as one tribe and also lists the tribe of Levi. Presumably, the princes who brought the stones were of the same tribes as those inscribed. However, the tribes listed in this week’s parsha are different than the ones listed by Rashi by the Mishkan. In this week’s parsha, Yosef is listed as two tribes: his sons Efraim and Menashe. To keep the number of princes twelve, a prince for the tribe of Levi isn’t mentioned.

This is exactly Rashi’s point. When the Torah says that “Moshe and Aharon took these men”, Rashi is stressing the fact that it’s these princes, not the ones mentioned earlier. When the Torah says that they were the men who “were designated by name”, Rashi stresses that they were designated to Moshe here by name. Meaning, the Torah is referring to the princes designated here in this week’s parsha, not the ones by the Mishkan. The need to make this distinction is because this is the first time that Efraim and Menashe are considered to be their own tribes. This required Levi not to be counted, in order to keep the number of tribes at twelve.

This is just one example of the extreme depth that can be found in Rashi’s commentary. Sometimes a tiny addition to a verse can make a huge difference in understanding. Whenever Rashi doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the verse, in reality he’s helping us tremendously. This case of the princes teaches us the significance of every word in Rashi’s commentary.

Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on the book What’s Bothering Rashi, by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek. The piece on this week’s parsha can be read online at http://www.aish.com/tp/i/wbr/48930822.html

[2] Numbers 1:17

[3] ibid 1:3

[4] Known in Hebrew as the Rishonim

[5] Genesis 3:8

[6] ad. loc., one of the above mentioned supercommentaries on Rashi

[7] ad. loc., the Maharal of Prague’s commentary on Rashi

[8] Rabbi Hartman in his commentary to Gur Aryeh explains that we may have thought that they were not chosen for this task because of their nobility, so Rashi wants to stress that this was exactly why they were chosen

[9] Numbers 13:3

[10] Exodus 35:22-29

[11] ibid verse 27

[12] ibid 28:9-10

[13] to verse 10

 

Behar-Bechukosai 5777

Quality versus Quantity[1]

ונתנה הארץ פריה ואכלתם לשבע וישבתם לבטח עליה: וכי תאמרו מה-נאכל בשנה השביעת הן לא נזרע ולא נאסף את-תבואתנו: וצויתי את-ברכתי לכם בשנה הששית ועשה את-התבואה לשלש השנים
The land will give its fruit, and you will eat to satiation, and dwell securely on it. And if you’ll say: “what will we eat in the seventh year? Behold we can’t plant and gather our produce!” I will command my blessing for you in the sixth year, and the land will produce [enough] crops for three years[2]

The beginning of parshas Behar discusses the laws of Shemittah, the Sabbatical year in the land of Israel. Every seven years, the land attains a special level of kedusha, holiness, causing a whole set of laws to come into effect. Among the many laws that apply during the Shemittah year, a major one is that all agricultural work is forbidden. The land of Israel is to lie fallow. Before the industrial revolution, this mitzvah was incredibly relevant to the entire nation (while they were living in the land). Most of the people were farmers, and essentially got a year off to focus on more spiritual matters.

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Emor 5777

Gleanings from the parsha[1]

ובקצרכם את-קציר ארצכם לא-תכלה פאת שדך בקצרך ולקט קצירך לא תלקט לעני ולגר תעזב אתם אני יקוק אלקיכם
When you reap the harvest of your land, don’t finish off the corners of your fields as you reap, and don’t collect the gleanings of your harvest; leave them for the poor and the convert, I am Hashem your G-d[2]

The end of this week’s parsha describes the various Jewish holidays. In between the holidays of Shavuos and Rosh Hashanah, the Torah mentions[3] the mitzvos of peah (lit: corner) and leket (gleanings). When a Jewish farmer is harvesting his crop, there are special mitzvos of tzedakah that he must fulfill. He must leave a corner of his field unharvested, allowing the poor to take as they need. Likewise, when harvesting crops, sometimes some of the produce falls to the ground, known as gleanings. The farmer is commanded to leave those on the ground for the poor to collect. In addition to commanding the farmer not to harvest peah and leket, the Torah adds the injunction to specifically leave them for the poor and the convert. What is this adding? If the farmer isn’t harvesting them, he is inherently leaving them for others. Why is there this redundancy?

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Acharei Mos-Kedoshim 5777

The forbidden fruit[1]

וכי-תבאו אל-הארץ ונטעתם כל-עץ מאכל וערלתם ערלתו את-פריו שלש שנים יהיה לכם ערלים לא יאכל; ובשנה הרעיעת יהיה כל-פריו קדש הלולים ליקוק
When you come to the land and plant any fruit-bearing tree, you’ll consider its fruit orlah, it will be orlah for three years and not be eaten. And in the fourth year all of its fruit will be holy, a praise[2] to Hashem[3]

This week’s parsha introduces a unique prohibition to fruit trees. The fruit they bear cannot be eaten by Jews for the first three years after it is planted. This prohibition is known as orlah, related to the Hebrew word for blockage[4], meaning the fruit is blocked from consumption[5]. During the entire fourth year of the tree all of its fruit is considered holy, and must be brought to Jerusalem for consumption[6]. Afterwards, the fruit may be eaten and treated normally. What are the reasons for this mitzvah? What is its purpose, and what is it trying to teach us?

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