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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Chain of Attributes — BT Avodah Zarah 20b — #58

R. Pinchas b. Yair said: Study of Torah leads to caution; caution leads to diligence; diligence leads to cleanliness; cleanliness leads to restraint; restraint leads to purity; purity leads to piety; piety leads to humility; humility leads to fear of sin; fear of sin leads to holiness; holiness leads to divine inspiration; divine inspiration leads to resurrection of the dead. And piety is the greatest of them all, as it says, Then You spoke in a vision to your pious ones (Psalm 89:20). This differs from R. Yehoshua b. Levi, who said, “The spirit of God is upon me, for God has anointed me to bring tidings to the humble ones (Isaiah 61:1). It does not say ‘pious ones’ but rather ‘humble ones.’ Thus you learned that humility is the greatest of all of them.”

This baraita (a teaching from the first or second century), attributed to R. Pinchas b. Yair, is reminiscent of the favorite Passover song, Chad Gadya, which outlines a cascade of disastrous events that comes to a halt when God abolishes death. (Please note: you are obligated to read the next sentence in one breath.) The came the Holy One, Blessed is God, and slew the Angel of Death who killed the slaughterer who slaughtered the ox that drank the water that quenched the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the kid my father bought for two zuzim. The events in Chad Gadya, however, are not linked causally.

A closer analogy comes to us from Rabbi Yoda, who taught: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (View his shiur here.) The thinking  behind Yoda’s teaching is that one emotion leads to another in a logical chain of causality. The Talmud offers us a causal chain in which the nodes are middot (religious character attributes and the behaviors they imply). R. Pinchas b. Yair explains that cultivating in ourselves specific qualities or characteristics leads to the development of others in a chain that leads, ultimately, to resurrection when the messiah comes.

The context for R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching is a mishnah concerning what objects one may craft and sell to idolaters knowing that they might use them in idolatrous worship. This segues to a discussion of the threat that beautiful idolatrous women present to righteous men. For the Rabbis, this marked the intersection of the two most dangerous pulls away from Torah: idolatry and women. The Sages explain, You shall keep away from every evil thing (Deuteronomy 23:10) to mean that one should avoid any daytime thoughts that might give rise to tum’ah (impurity) during the nighttime. In other words, sexual thoughts. R. Pinchas b. Yair explains how it works.

R. Pinchas offers a causal chain—like a ladder with 11 rungs—beginning with caution and ending with resurrection of the dead. He tells us that mastering one attribute paves the way for one to acquire the next, and so on. The final two rungs, divine inspiration and resurrection, are surprising. Can one develop the gift of prophecy in oneself, or is this a gift from God? Why is resurrection the highest rung, given that it is not even an attribute to master and what is more, everyone will be resurrected in order to face final judgment at the end of time? Perhaps R. Pinchas means that at the time of resurrection, the one who has mastered the aforementioned qualities will merit a far greater reward in olam ha-ba (world-to-come). Some commentators interpret the Gemara to mean that one who climbs higher than even divine inspiration—a gift reserved for prophets—will gain the power to resurrect the dead, an accomplishment achieved only by Elijah and Elisha. A more metaphorical interpretation is that one who reaches such an  exalted spiritual level will inspire others to turn away from evil and onto the path of righteousness, thereby “resurrecting” them from spiritual death.

The attributes in R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching have become the focus of Musar (the teaching and practice of Jewish Ethics) and interpreted both concretely and metaphorically. For example, R. Mendel of Satanov, in Cheshbon ha-Nefesh (“Accounting of the Soul”), includes four of the first nine (cleanliness, humility, diligence, and restraint) among his list of thirteen essential soul-traits. The first nine attributes are the organizing principle of R. Moses Chaim Luzzatto’s classical work of Musar, Mesillat Yesharim (“The Path of the Righteous”).

The baraita concludes with a disagreement, first suggesting that despite the ordering, piety is the highest attribute. R. Yehoshua b. Levi, however, holds that humility trumps even piety in the divine hierarchy of religious attributes.


  1. Reflect on the causal order of R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching. Do you agree with it? How would you order the elements in R. Pinchas’ list and how do you see the relationships between the elements? For example, I’d be inclined to view the elements in Yoda’s formulation differently: suffering leads to fear (pain and powerlessness beget fear); fear leads to anger (powerlessness and fear beget resentment); anger leads to hate (born of a desire to cast blame for one’s suffering). Hence suffering can provide entry to evil in the absence of an empathetic response and compassionate care. What is your view?
  2. How important is R. Yair’s order? Is it possible that the Rabbis present R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching not as absolute truth, but rather to inspire thought and conversation, in the hope that we can identify in ourselves the attributes that need further development and might give rise in us to other attributes? Or is the order important, and why?
  3. Do you agree with the baraita that piety is the highest attribute, or with R. Yehoshua b. Levi that humility is the greatest quality? Which middah you believe to be the most important, and why?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sharing a Lulav With a Friend — BT Sukkah 41 b (#2) — #57

GEMARA: Whence do we know [what Mishnah Sukkah 3:12 taught]? The Rabbis taught: You shall take (Leviticus 23:40)—each and every person should take up [the lulav] by hand. For yourselves—that which belongs to you, which excludes a borrowed or stolen [lulav]. From this the Sages explained that a person cannot fulfill [the mitzvah of the lulav] on the first day of the festival with their friend’s lulav unless [the friend] gave [the lulav] to them as a gift.
 It once happened that [on the first day of Sukkot] Rabban Gamliel and R. Yehoshua and R. Elazar b. Azariah and R. Akiba were traveling by ship and only Rabban Gamliel had a lulav, which he had bought for a thousand zuz. Rabban Gamliel took it and fulfilled the obligation [of waving the lulav] with it. Then he gave it to R. Yehoshua as a gift. R. Yehoshua took it and fulfilled the obligation with it, then gave it to R. Elazar b. Azariah as a gift. R. Elazar b. Azariah took it and fulfilled the obligation with it, then gave it to R. Akiba as a gift. R. Akiba took it and fulfilled the obligation with it, then returned it to Rabban Gamliel.
Why do we need to mention that R. Akiba returned it? In this way, he teaches us that a gift made on condition that it be returned is nonetheless a valid gift, which is like what Rava said: “[If a person said,] ‘Here is an etrog [as a gift] on condition that you return it to me,’ and he took it and fulfilled his obligation with it and then returned it, he is regarded as having fulfilled his obligation. If he did not return it, he is regarded as not having fulfilled his obligation.”

In the previous edition of TMT, we examined Mishnah Sukkah 3:12, which tells us that, “One cannot fulfill their obligation on the first day [of Sukkot] with another person’s lulav, but on the remaining days of the festival, a person can fulfill their obligation with another person’s lulav.” The Gemara asks: What is the Rabbis’ source for this ruling?

We might think that Torah could not be the source for this ruling, since Torah does not appear to address the question of ownership of the lulav. Torah tell us: On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take for yourselves (u’l’kachtem lachem) the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days (Leviticus 23:40). Despite the fact that there appears to be nothing overt in this verse to warrant the Rabbis’ ruling, they nonetheless derive their teaching from this it: From the word u’l’kachtem (“you [plural] shall take”), the Rabbis learn that each individual is obligated to hold a lulav in their hands and wave it. This means that another person cannot fulfill the obligation for you or exempt you from it; you must wave the lulav yourself. From the plural word lachem (“for yourselves”), the Rabbis learn that one must own the lulav one waves to fulfill the obligation, because the term “lachem” connotes ownership. Hence, waving a borrowed or stolen lulav on Sukkot is unacceptable for fulfilling the mitzvah.

The Gemara next tells a story about four famous rabbis whose circumstance suggests that only by lending and borrowing a single lulav can they each fulfill the mitzvah. They happen to be traveling together by ship when the first day of Sukkot arrives. Presumably, their circumstance explains why only one of the four has a lulav in his possession. Additionally, the cost of the lulav—1,000 zuz is a hefty sum!—may explain why only Rabban Gamliel, who is independently wealthy, is in possession of a lulav, and perhaps why the other three are not. Thus we have a situation of four rabbis, only one of whom possesses a lulav; the other three cannot acquire one once the ship sets sail (ships in those days did not have gift shops). What are they to do? The story describes how Rabban Gamliel gifts R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah with his lulav so that the latter can fulfill the mitzvah. R. Yehoshua, in turn, gifts R. Elazar with the lulav and, having fulfilled his obligation, R. Elazar gifts R. Akiba with the lulav. When R. Akiba has fulfilled his obligation, he returns the lulav to Rabban Gamliel.

The story’s ending inspires a question: Why does R. Akiba return the lulav to Rabban Gamliel? Was a condition attached to the gift that the lulav be returned after it was used? And if that is the case, was the lulav truly a gift, and did R. Yehoshua, R. Elazar, and R. Akiba truly own  the lulav while it was in their possession? We are accustomed to thinking that when a person gives a gift, the ownership is permanently and unequivocally transferred from the giver to the recipient. If I give you something, you are completely free to do with it as you choose, and you have no obligation to return it to me. It appears that the gifting of the lulav in the story was conditional: only for the purpose of fulfilling the mitzvah, after which it would be passed along to another for the same purpose and eventually returned to the original owner. Did Rabbis Yehoshua, Elazar, and Akiba truly own the lulav when they fulfilled the mitzvah with it? The Gemara explains that yes, the gift was legitimate. Rabban Gamliel did not give possession of the lulav to his colleagues for all time, but in order to fulfill the mitzvah with the stipulation that the lulav be returned to him.


  1. Do you think that Gemara brings the story of the four rabbis to prove the contention that the mitzvah cannot be fulfilled on the first day with a borrowed lulav, or rather in order to illustrate a work-around to enable someone doesn’t own a lulav to fulfill the mitzvah?
  2. Do you think the Rabbis are stretching the meaning of “gift” and “ownership” excessively? Does it make a difference that the object under discussion is needed only for a short time?
  3. Could the Rabbis be offering a simple and workable solution for a common communal problem when not everyone has a lulav (or can afford one)? Could they be creating a category of temporary ownership that encourages (which we might be inclined to call “lending”) in order to insure that everyone can fulfill the mitzvah of lulav?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bring the Lulav: When? Whose? — BT Sukkah 41b (#1) — #56

MISHNAH: If the first day of the festival [of Sukkot] falls on shabbat, everyone brings their lulavim [and etrogim] to the synagogue [prior to shabbat]. The following day, they come early. Everyone recognizes their own [lulav and etrog] and takes it. [Why must everyone have their own lulav?] Because the Sages said: One cannot fulfill their obligation on the first day [of Sukkot] with another person’s lulav, but on the remaining days of the festival, a person can fulfill their obligation with another person’s lulav. R. Yose says: If the first day of the festival falls on shabbat and one forgets and carries their lulav out into the public domain, they are not liable because because they carried it out with permission.

The most obvious obligation of Sukkot is the sukkah, itself, a modest and temporary hut with a roof of vegetation, in which one lives for a week—eating, studying, reading, playing games, entertaining guests, and even sleeping (if you live in a conducive clime). Torah stipulates that, On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take for yourselves (lachem) the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days (Leviticus 23:40). The fruit of the hadar is the citron, also known as the etrog. The other three species—palms, myrtle, and willow—are bound together and form the lulav, the preeminent symbol of the festival. Graphic images of lulavim have been found on the walls of ancient synagogues throughout the Middle East and even on the walls of burial caves and carved into sarcophagi.
(All three are seen in the photo to the right is an inscription plaque from a third century C.E. synagogue in Asia Minor on the southern coast of Turkey. There is a lulav to the left of the menorah and a shofar to the right. This artifact is today in the Antalya Museum in Turkey.)

On the basis of Leviticus 23:40 (quoted above), the Rabbis ask and answer several questions in the mishnah. First, Leviticus 23:40 instructs us to take up the lulav to celebrate Sukkot on the first day of the festival. For those who lived while the Temples stood, this entailed carrying the lulav and etrog to the Temple on the first day of Sukkot. For the Rabbis, this means carrying the lulav and etrog to the synagogue. They therefore ask: What if the first day of Sukkot is shabbat, when one is not permitted to carry items from the private domain (one’s house and courtyard) into the public domain (streets, the Temple) because doing so constitutes m’lachah (work) as the Rabbis have defined it? The mishnah reports a work-around: People would bring their lulav and etrog to the synagogue prior to shabbat and leave it there. They collected it the following day on shabbat. Today, lulav and etrog are not waved on shabbat, just as shofar is not blown on Rosh Hashanah when it coincides with shabbat, both due to the prohibition against carrying on shabbat. 

 Leviticus 23:40 includes the seemingly superfluous word lachem (“for yourselves”), from which the Rabbis learn that in order to fulfill the mitzvah of lulav, one must own the lulav over which one makes the blessing and which one waves. The ownership requirement applies only on the first day of the festival, however, because the biblical verse in question requires that we bring lulav and etrog only on the first day. The Rabbis extended the ritual of waving lulav to all seven days of Sukkot and applied to the latter six days the leniency that since Torah does not specifically require lulav on the subsequent days, one need not own the lulav one waves on those days. Therefore, it’s fine to borrow your friend’s lulav to fulfill the (rabbinic) mitzvah of lulav on the last six days of Sukkot.

Finally, R. Yose addresses an inevitable (and likely not infrequent) occurrence: Someone brings their lulav to synagogue on the first day of the festival, forgetting that it is also shabbat. Normally, they would need to bring a sin-offering as atonement, but R. Yose exempts  them because the act was done “with permission” of the mitzvah of the lulav, meaning that R. Yose presumes that the mistake was made not out of willful disregard for halakhah, but rather because the person was focused on fulfilling the mitzvah of lulav and, as a result, forgot it was shabbat.


  1. Is the lulav waved in your synagogue when the first day of Sukkot falls on shabbat? Is shofar blown in your synagogue when Rosh Hashanah coincides with shabbat? The Mishnah suggests a solution to the conflict presented when a festival (or Rosh Hashanah) falls on shabbat. If the items needed—lulav and etrog on Sukkot; shofar on Rosh Hashanah—are left in the synagogue prior to the advent of the holy day, then they can be used on shabbat without violating the prohibition of carrying an object from the private domain to the public domain. Is the Mishnah’s “work around” practiced in your community?
  2. Do you agree with R. Yose that the violation against carrying the lulav from the private domain to the public domain on shabbat is cancelled by the individual’s intent to fulfill the mitzvah of lulav? Why or why not? Can you argue in support of both views?
  3. Some people argue that foregoing shofar on Rosh Hashanah when it falls on shabbat serves to constructively affirm the priority and holiness of shabbat even above Rosh Hashanah. (A similar argument is made concerning Avinu Malkeinu, which is not said on shabbat by Ashkenazim for the reason that we avoid supplications on shabbat.) Others argue that not waving the lulav is an unnecessary sacrifice of an important and meaningful ritual practiced only once a year and therefore should be preserved. What is your view?