The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Surf A Little Torah
Yeshivat Har Etzion
By Rav David Silverberg
We read in Parashat Beshalach that after Benei Yisrael's miraculous crossing through the Sea of Reeds, they entered the wilderness of Shur, where "they went three days in the wilderness without finding water" (15:22). The Mekhilta on this verse, and the Gemara in Masekhet Bava Kama (82a), famously comment that "water" in this verse refers to Torah, which is often likened to water. (The source of this analogy is Yeshayahu 55:1: "O, all who thirst shall go to water," which Chazal understood as a reference to those who "thirst" for knowledge.) Benei Yisrael went three days without studying Torah, and, as a result, they "rebelled" as the Mekhilta describes by angrily complaining to Moshe about the lack of water. The Mekhilta and Gemara add that as a result of this incident Moshe enacted that the Torah should be read several times a week (on Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat) to ensure that Benei Yisrael would not go without Torah for three complete days.
The association between Torah and water has been explained in many different ways. One point of comparison between Torah and water involves the quality of cleansing. Just as water is the primary cleansing agent used to eliminate dirt, so does Torah study have the capacity to "cleanse" an individual. Beyond simply conveying knowledge and practical instructions for religious life, Torah study has a cathartic, spiritual effect on the individual, and in this sense the Torah is indeed comparable to water.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, observes that in this sense, the analogy drawn between water and Torah becomes particularly meaningful in the context of this verse. Chazal here attribute Benei Yisrael's impatience and disrespect towards Moshe to the fact that they had had no exposure to Torah for three days. This clearly reflects the "cleansing" quality of Torah, the internal, spiritual effect it has upon the student. For this reason, perhaps, specifically here the Torah chooses to highlight this comparison between Torah and water, because this situation provides a perfect example of what can happen to a person's spiritual orientation when an extended period passes without his engagement in Torah learning.
Of course, the precise nature of this "spiritual effect" of Torah study requires further elaboration, and one would likely discover different approaches to this issue among the various streams within Jewish thought. (Most obviously, the Kabbalistic perspective would differ substantially from the rationalist approach to this concept.) What is clear, however, is that Chazal perceived Torah study as something far more meaningful than a mere intellectual exercise, and acknowledged a spiritual dimension that is not shared by other academic disciplines.
Parashat Beshalach records the shirat ha-yam the song of praise sung by Benei Yisrael after the miracle of the splitting of the Yam Suf. In the second verse of this song (15:2), we find the famous verse, "Zeh Keli ve-anvehu, Elokei avi va-aromemenu" "This is My God, and I shall glorify Him; the God of my father, and I shall exalt Him." In several places in the Talmud (e.g. Shabbat 133b), the Gemara extracts from this verse the well-known halakha of hiddur mitzva, beautifying mitzva performance by ensuring a high aesthetic standard with respect to the articles involved. The Gemara speaks in this context of using a beautiful lulav and sukka on Sukkot, wearing a beautiful tallit, writing beautiful Sifrei Torah, and so on.
Rav Shlomo Ha-kohen of Vilna, in his work of responsa Binyan Shlomo (siman 6), writes that he was once asked why the Gemara never mentions a requirement to purchase beautiful tefillin. Seemingly, tefillin is no less a religious article than a tallit, Sefer Torah or lulav, and thus the obligation of hiddur mitzva should apply equally to tefillin. Rav Shlomo devotes a lengthy essay to this topic, citing many interesting sources relevant to the issue. For one thing, he notes, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pei'a 1:1) indeed does include tefillin in its list of religious articles to which the requirement of "Zeh Keli ve-anvehu" applies. As for the other sources, which omit tefillin from their lists, Rav Shlomo speculates that the obligation of hiddur mitzva perhaps pertains only to mitzva articles that are displayed in public, as we must demonstrate the importance and value with which we regard mitzvot. Articles that are not exposed to public view, however, are not subject to the requirement of hiddur mitzva. Now when it comes to tefillin (as we discussed last week), Halakha distinguishes between the tefillin shel yad and the tefillin shel rosh. The tefillin shel yad is generally seen as the "private" component of the mitzva, as indicated in the Gemara in Menachot (37b), whereas the tefillin shel rosh is specifically intended to be worn in public view. Perhaps, therefore, the Gemara did not mention tefillin in the context of hiddur mitzva, since it applies to only one component of the mitzva.
Of course, this does not explain why the Gemara made no mention of the tefillin shel rosh, to which hiddur mitzva does apply. Rav Shlomo Ha-kohen does not answer this question, but he does note that the Mekhilta, in its comments to this verse in Parashat Beshalach, indeed mentions "tefila na'a" having a beautiful tefila, the singular of tefillin. The author of Zeh Yenachamenu, a commentary on the Mekhilta, suggested emending the text of the Mekhilta to read "tefillin na'in," in the plural form. Rav Shlomo Ha-kohen, however, observes that the Vilna Gaon, who carefully reviewed the prevalent texts of the Mekhilta and made emendations that he deemed necessary to correct them, does not make this correction. Quite possibly, then, the Mekhilta distinguished between the two tefillin, and held that the obligation of hiddur mitzva applies only to the tefillin shel rosh.
Rav Shlomo Ha-kohen points out that this discussion will yield practical ramifications beyond the general issue of whether one must endeavor to acquire a tefillin shel yad of high aesthetic quality. The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 32) codifies the ruling that the leather of tefillin must be colored specifically black. This halakha is mentioned by the Rosh (in Halakhot Ketanot), who explains it by citing the verse, "Zeh Keli ve-anvehu." Thus, if we accept the premise that hiddur mitzva does not apply to the tefillin shel yad, then we might conclude that the tefillin shel yad need not be colored black.
Of course, common practice is to ensure that both tefillin are colored black. This perhaps reflects our acceptance of the Yerushalmi's position, which requires hiddur mitzva for both the tefillin shel yad and the tefillin shel rosh.
Tomorrow we will iy"H discuss this issue further.
Yesterday, we discussed one aspect of the law of hiddur mitzva the obligation to maintain high aesthetic standards in the performance of mitzvot which Chazal extract from the verse in Parashat Beshalach (15:2), "Zeh Keli ve-anvehu" ("This is my God, and I shall glorify Him"). As we saw, Rav Shlomo Ha-kohen of Vilna posited a theory that this obligation applies only to mitzva articles used in public view, but not to articles that are not seen by the public. On this basis, Rav Shlomo Ha-kohen raised the possibility that hiddur mitzva would apply to the tefillin shel rosh (the head tefillin), which is generally worn in full public view, but not to the tefillin shel yad, which is not intended for public display.
Rav Shlomo Ha-kohen notes that this issue will impact upon a halakhic question addressed by the Rama in Orach Chayim (147:1). The Rama cites the Mordekhai as maintaining that if the covering of a Torah scroll is made partially from linen and partially from fine silk, the side made from silk, which is more expensive and decorative, should face specifically inwards, towards the Sefer Torah. The linen material, which is far cheaper and simpler, should face outward and be visible. However, as the Rama proceeds to cite from the Beit Yosef, common practice does not follow this view. Rather, communities traditionally chose to place the covering such that specifically the more decorative and ornamental side would face outward. The Mishna Berura cites the Magen Avraham as ruling that synagogues should preferably follow the first position, and then records the Vilna Gaon as arguing that to the contrary, the first view has no basis and should therefore not be followed.
Presumably, this debate revolves around the question as to whether or not the obligation of hiddur mitzva relates to public viewing. The first position perhaps held that hiddur mitzva requires beautifying mitzva articles as an objective value, regardless of whether the beauty will be noticed or even visible altogether. The second view, by contrast, likely believed that hiddur mitzva means publicly displaying the value and importance we afford mitzvot by ensuring high aesthetic standards in their performance. Therefore, it is specifically the more decorative side of the covering that should face outward, to demonstrate to all who look upon the Sefer Torah just how valuable and precious we deem this religious article to be.
The Torah tells in Parashat Beshalach of Benei Yisrael's
experiences in Mara, where God miraculously sweetened the bitter waters. Moshe then tells Benei Yisrael in
the name of the Almighty, "If you heed the voice of the Lord your God, and you
do that which is upright in His eyes, and you listen to His commandments and
observe all His statutes, all the maladies that I cast upon
According to one view in the Mekhilta, the phrase "ve-ha-yashar be-einav ta'aseh" "and you do that which is upright in His eyes" refers to honesty in the marketplace: "This refers to commerce, teaching that whoever deals honestly in commerce, such that he is pleasing to people, is considered as having fulfilled the entire Torah."
We will not endeavor to explain philosophically why dealing honestly in business is deemed equivalent to observing the entire Torah. We might, however, gain a somewhat clearer perspective on this equation in light of a section from Sefer Yirmiyahu, which, appropriately enough, is read as the haftara for the morning of Tisha B'Av. The prophet cries, "If only I were in a desert, an inn for wayfarers, so that I may leave my nation and I may go away from them, for they are all adulterers, a band of betrayers" (Yirmiyahu 9:1). Yirmiyahu expresses his disgust with the nation, all of whom have become "adulterers, a band of betrayers," and he longs for the opportunity to leave and live in some remote, isolated motel. While at first glance he appears to bemoan the sexual offenses committed by the people, it becomes clear from the ensuing verses, in which Yirmiyahu cites God's description of the condition of the people, that he uses "adultery" allegorically as a generic reference to disloyalty and moral corruption:
They draw their tongues their bows with falsehood, and have earned fame in the land not for honesty; rather, they have gone from one evil to the next, and they have not known Me, says the Lord. Beware each man of his fellow, and do not trust any brother, for every brother is scheming, and every friend is a talebearer. Each one cheats the other, and they do not speak truthfully; they have trained their tongues to speak falsehood, they grow tired from iniquity. You [Yirmiyahu] dwell among treachery; in their treachery they have refused to know Me, says the Lord.
Yirmiyahu saw many awful kinds of behavior during his years as prophet. Most prominently, perhaps, he himself was scorned and ridiculed and ultimately imprisoned by a stubborn, arrogant leadership that denied his stature and refused to heed his calls for repentance and to surrender to Babylonian rule. But what made him feel like leaving his people was the reality of "beware each man from his fellow for every brother is scheming, and every friend is a talebearer." When the Jewish people reached the point where they could not trust one another, where each man had to beware of his brother and close friend, where there was nobody to trust, Yirmiyahu felt he no longer belongs among such a people. The rampant deceit, dishonesty, and scheming left the prophet in a state of utter disorientation, where he was no longer capable of even associating with his people. He therefore longed for the day when he could just pick up and leave; he would rather live alone in a remote, isolated campsite in the desert rather than be part of a nation whose members must suspect one another of cheating and lying. Yirmiyahu's prophetic mission demanded that he remain and continue issuing his warnings about the impending destruction and exile; but otherwise, he was prepared to leave them.
"Whoever deals honestly in commerce, such that he is pleasing to people, is considered as having fulfilled the entire Torah." The Mekhilta was undoubtedly aware that there is much more to "fulfilling the entire Torah" than dealing honestly with one's employer, employee, associates, clients and authorities. This passage could perhaps be understood in light of Yirmiyahu's prophecy. So long as people deal honestly with one another, there is hope that through proper guidance and instruction, they will, over the course of time, cure the spiritual ills that currently plague society. But when people cheat and lie to one another, when merchants sell faulty merchandise, when workers or employers fail to live up to their commitments, then the prophets despair, they can no longer work to improve such a society. And under such circumstances, even the Almighty despairs, as Yirmiyahu's prophecy concludes, "Their tongue is a sharpened arrow, speaking treachery; in his mouth, one speaks peacefully to his fellow, while inside he plans his ambush. Shall I not make an accounting for these, says the Lord? Shall I not visit retribution upon a nation such as this?" (Yirmiyahu 9:7-8).
Parashat Beshalach contains God's promise to Benei Yisrael that in reward for observing His commands, "all the maladies that I brought upon Egypt I will not bring upon you for I am the Lord your healer" (15:26).
But there is a second berakha which we recite, to acknowledge the
Almighty's other power of healing the berakha of refa'einu in
the Shemona Esrei service.
Here we submit a special petition to God to cure all the sick patients
among Am Yisrael, presumably asking that they recover even before the
time when the given illness would leave through natural means. In this berakha, we address the
Almighty in terms of His power to cure beyond the natural, bodily processes, to
intervene supernaturally and bring a cure even before it would normally be
expected. Appropriately, we
conclude this berakha by describing God not as "the Healer of all flesh,"
but rather as "Rofei cholei amo Yisrael" "Healer of the sick among His
This analysis of Rav Chayim
Rav Waldenberg advances numerous arguments in favor of the view of the
Mishna Berura and Chayei Adam, including the aforementioned
analysis of Rav Chayim
(Taken from the compendium Ke-motzei Shalal Rav)
Parashat Beshalach concludes with the story of Amalek's vicious and unprovoked attack against Benei Yisrael in Refidim. In response to Amalek's offensive, Moshe summons Yehoshua and orders him to quickly draft an army and wage battle against Amalek.
The Midrash Shemot Rabba (26) advances an intriguing explanation for why specifically Yehoshua was called upon to perform this task. In Sefer Bereishit (42:18), we read that Yosef, by then the Egyptian viceroy, tells his brothers after their three-day imprisonment, "et ha-Elokim ani yarei" "I am God-fearing." Later in the Torah, in Sefer Devarim (25:18), the Torah describes Amalek at the time of their attack on Benei Yisrael as "lo yerei Elokim" "not God-fearing." Moshe thus told Yehoshua a descendant of Yosef's son Efrayim "Let the grandson of he who said, 'I am God-fearing' come and exact retribution from he about whom it is said, 'and he was not God-fearing'."
The Midrash draws a contrast between Yosef's "God-fearing" quality and Amalek's lack of fear of God. Wherein precisely lies the point of contrast between Yosef and Amalek?
The answer perhaps emerges from a closer look at the contexts of the two
verses cited in the Midrash. When
Yosef's brothers arrived in
Yosef, however, tells his brothers, "I am God-fearing." He makes this remark as he prepares to inform them of his sudden change of plans: rather than keeping them all prisoners and sending one brother back to bring Binyamin, he would instead imprison just one brother and send the others back. "God-fearing" in this context might point to Yosef's sensitivity even at a moment where he could have perhaps justified cruel treatment. Even under such circumstances, he displayed a degree of compassion and did what he could to ease the torment to which he felt compelled to subject his brothers.
Amalek, by contrast, acted in the precise opposite manner. As God describes in Sefer Devarim, Amalek "surprised you along the road and cut down all those straggling behind, and you were tired and weary." Benei Yisrael were in a position that would arouse within any ethical person a degree of compassion. Here was a newly freed nation of former slaves traversing the searing wilderness without proper provisions. Amalek, rather than offering assistance, capitalized on Benei Yisrael's frailty, and targeted specifically "those straggling behind," the especially weak and defenseless members of the nation.
In this sense, Yosef's conduct towards his brothers may be seen as conversely parallel to Amalek's attack on Benei Yisrael. Yosef, in a position that warranted a degree of mistreatment towards his brothers, found a way to mitigate the suffering they would have to endure, whereas Amalek, faced with a situation that called for compassion and sensitivity, acted with unbridled cruelty and hatred.
The Torah tells in Parashat Beshalach of Moshe's reassurance to Benei Yisrael as they found themselves trapped between the Sea of Reeds and the pursuing Egyptian army: "Moshe said to the nation: Have no fear! Stand in place and behold the Lord's salvation that He will perform for you this day; for as you see Egypt today you will never again see them, ever!" (14:13).
Chazal, in a number of places (Mekhilta; Yerushalmi, Sukka
5:1; Ester Rabba, introduction, 63), cite this verse as one of the
Biblical sources for the prohibition against returning to
Rav Eliezer of Metz, more commonly known as the "Re'eim" or by the name
of his work, Sefer Ha-yerei'im (or just "the Yerei'im"), famously
imposed a remarkable restriction on this law, claiming (in siman 309)
that it forbids specifically traveling from Eretz Yisrael to
The Yerei'im brings proof to his surprising theory from the
Gemara's discussion in Masekhet Sanhedrin (93a) of the dramatic incident of
Chananya, Mishael and Azarya. These
three Jewish men (who are also referred to by their Aramaic names Shadrakh,
Meishakh and Aveid Nego) were high-ranking officials in the Babylonian
government who refused to bow to an idol as the king had commanded; he sentenced
them to be burned, but they miraculously emerged from the furnace
unscathed. Daniel, who also served
in the Babylonian government at the time, is not mentioned in this narrative in
Sefer Daniel (chapter 3). According
to one view in the Gemara, he had been sent to
The Gevurot Ari (Yoma 38b) objects to the Yere'im's proof
in light of the Rambam's ruling (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:8), based on the Yerushalmi
(Sanhedrin, end of chapter 10), that the Torah forbids only permanent residence
in Egypt; going there for commercial or military purposes, the Rambam writes, is
permissible. Daniel, of course,
Rav Gershon Arieli, in his work Torat Ha-melekh (on the Rambam's
Hilkhot Melakhim), responds to the Gevurot Ari's objection by noting that
the Rambam and Yerei'im held two very different perspectives on the
definition of this law forbidding a Jew from returning to Egypt. The Yerei'im clearly felt that
the Torah forbids the actual trip to
Clearly, then, the Yerei'im would not subscribe to the Rambam's
ruling permitting a temporary visit to
By the same token, the Yerei'im, in discussing this law, adamantly
rejects the theory proposed by some that this prohibition no longer applies
after the rule of the Assyrian emperor Sancheriv, who displaced the populations
of all conquered lands. (See
Masekhet Yadayim 4:4; Berakhot 28a.)
Proponents of this argument claimed that the prohibition involves
residence among the ancient Egyptian people, and does not relate to the
In principle, we could conceive of the Rambam accepting such a theory; it should be noted, however, that he makes no mention of this point in Hilkhot Melakhim, in contrast to Hilkhot Issurei Bi'a (12:25), where he specifically writes that after Sancheriv's conquests one may marry an Egyptian convert. (For more on this topic, see www.maimonidesheritage.org/ContentFolder/4/Beshalach.pdf.)