Calves and Coins

My weekly halachah column:

During the episode of the Golden Calf, Aharon seemingly goes along with the mob’s frenzy, to the point of proclaiming that “Tomorrow is a feast to ‘Hashem’” (32:5), apparently intending an idolatrous feast. The Ibn Ezra struggles greatly to reconcile Aharon’s conduct in this episode in general, and in this proclamation in particular, with his holy and pious character, in the course of which he reports that “many say” that what Aharon actually meant by “Tomorrow is a feast to ‘Hashem’” is that the worshipers of the calf would be executed by Moshe. The Ibn Ezra vigorously rejects this solution, declaring that a blasphemer (megadeif) and one who incites others toward idolatry (meisis) are executed based solely upon their verbal utterances, irrespective of their internal intentions. He makes the following analogy: Suppose someone asks his friend in court “Are you my friend to whom I lent such and such a sum?” and the friend replies “I am.” The respondent cannot then retreat from his concession and explain that he meant merely that he is his friend, but nothing more.

The claim that a megadeif cannot defend himself with the claim that when he blasphemed against “G-d” he really meant some other deity seems to be contradicted by a Talmudic assertion that when Moshe charged the Jews to “obey what G-d (elokah) says”, it was necessary for him to expressly stipulate that the oath he was imposing upon them was to be interpreted from the perspective of Hashem and Moshe, since otherwise it could have been interpreted as referring to an idol, since the Hebrew word elokah sometimes has that meaning. Similarly, the Talmud entertains the possibility that when a debtor swears that he has repaid his creditor, without the express stipulation that the oath the court is imposing upon him is to be interpreted from its perspective, the taker of the oath could plead that he really meant that he had given him some [worthless] tokens (iskundri), which he has chosen to refer to as “coins” (zuzi) (Shevuos 29a).

We have previously discussed these passages from the Talmud and Ibn Ezra here.

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Urim, Astrolabes, and Overallegorization

From the ArtScroll Chumash:

Vilna Gaon gives a classic interpretation of how the message of the Urim v’Tumim could be misunderstood. When Hannah, the future mother of the prophet Samuel, entered the Tabernacle to pray for a child, the Kohen Gadol Eli saw her unusual demeanor and reckoned her to be a drunkard, rather than a supremely righteous woman (I Samuel 1:13). The Gaon contends that Eli consulted the Urim v’Tumim regarding Hannah, and the letters ש,כ,ר,ה lit up. Instead of reading them correctly as כְשֵרָה, a worthy woman, Eli mistakenly read the letters in the wrong order as שִכֹּרָה, a drunken woman.1

ArtScroll provides no source, but the one published version of this idea of the Gaon that I was able to find is clear that the correct interpretation of G-d’s message to Eli was not כְשֵרָה, “a worthy woman”, but כְּשָרָה, “an anguished, barren woman like [the Matriarch] Sarah, praying for children”:

ונראה שמ”ש שאין נשאלים אלא למלך ולמי שהצבור צורך בו הוא רק באורים ותומים של הכהן הגדול, אבל באפוד בד היו שואלים כל מי שידע השמות והיה רוח הקודש שורה עליו, ולכן כאשר ראה עלי את חנה שהיא מדברת על לבה ורק שפתיה נעות, והוא היה מכירה שהיא מהנשים הצדקניות תמה מאד על זה והיה חפץ מאד דעת מה זה, ושאל באורים ותומים שלו, ויצאו בולטים או מאירים האותיות ה כ ש ר, והוא צרפם שהוראתם היא “שכרה” ולכן אמר לה כדבר ודאי עד מתי תשתכרין הסירי יינך מעליך, על זה ענתה לו חנה לא אדוני, לא אדון אתה ולא רוח הקודש איכא גבך לצרף האותיות שלא כהוראתם האמתית, שצירופם באמת היא “כשרה” כלומר שאני אשה קשת רוח עקרה מתפללת על בנים כשרה, אם כן למה דנתני לכף חוב לצרף האותיות לומר שהוראתם “שכרה” ולא דנתני לכף זכות שהוראתם “כשרה” שהיתה עקרה, ובמדרש הוסיפו יותר באור כשרה רבקה רחל2

It is wonderfully Hofstadterian that in the context of an exegetical idea involving the possibility of multiple solutions to Divine anagrams, confusion has arisen over what the correct solution actually was …

My weekly column for פרשת תצוה:

Parashas Tetzaveh (28:30) contains the mysterious instruction: “And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim”. There are but a handful of other references to the Urim and Thummim throughout the Bible, and nowhere are we told what they are, and even the corpora of Midrash and Talmudic literature are mostly silent on this question. It is not until about a millennium ago that we begin to find various expositions within our tradition of the meaning of these most obscure terms:

  • Some understand that they were Divine names, written and inserted into the pouch formed by the folding over of the rectangular breastplate (choshen) into a square (Rashi, Ramban and cf. Rashbam).
  • Others interpret them as a reference to the stones of the choshen (or ephod – Otzar Ha’Geonim Berachos responsa p. 4, “Chazal” according to Ralbag, Rambam according to Mirkeves Ha’Mishneh and Ha’Kesav Ve’Hakabalah).
  • R. Yosef Bechor Shor explains that they were records of the tribal borders [within Eretz Yisrael].

The Talmud (Yoma 21b) states that the Urim and Thummim were “missing” during the era of the Second Temple. Tosafos and Rambam (Beis Ha’Bechirah 4:1 and Klei Ha’Mikdash 10:10) explain that they could not have actually been absent, since the complete set of eight priestly vestments is an absolute requirement for the High Priest, and the Talmud merely means that their prophetic function was not operational. Raavad disagrees, asserting that they were indeed absent, but that there was nevertheless no problem of missing vestments, since “they are not among the enumerated vestments”. The commentators explain that Tosafos and Rambam understand that the Urim and Thummim (at least in this context), refer to the choshen itself (or its stones, as above), which certainly could not have been absent, as it is one of the eight vestments (or at least an integral component thereof), whereas Raavad understands that they were separate entities placed inside the choshen.

My weekly parashah lectures, on the basic question what, exactly, the אורים ותומים were, are available at the Internet Archive.

Here’s R. Yosef Bechor Shor’s remarkable suggestion that the אורים ותומים were actually a centralized land registry, serving to forestall border disputes:

ונראה לי ש”אורים” לשון מדינות, כמו: באורים כבדו את ד’ [ישעיה כד:טו] וכמו [בראשית יא:לא] “אור כשדים”. תומים: לשון גבולים, מקום שהגבולים כלים ותמים שם, שהיה כתוב שם תחום פלוני לפלוני, וגבולין ומיצרין נתונים בתוך החושן, וכן לכל שבט ושבט הכתוב באבן, תחומו וקבולו נתון כנגדו, וזהו משפט בני ישראל: שלא יוכל זה לערער על גבול זה כלום, וכשהיו בימי יהושע מטילין גורלות, היה נופל הגורל כמו שכתוב בחושן, וגם הכהן היה מכוון ברוח הקודש כן, ולא היה מערער ומתרעם כל אחד על חלקו, כי היה יודע כי מן המקום ברוך הוא הוא לו וכן מפרש בבבא בתרא [קכב.] “וקלפי של שבטים וקלפי של תחומין מונחין לפניו, והיה מכוין ברוח הקודש וכו’ ובשעת הצורך היו עולות האותיות הכתובות, ואומרות מה שצריך להם לשאול.3

  1. The Chumash [ArtScroll: Stone Edition], p. 471. []
  2. דברי אליהו ספר שמואל א’ []
  3. בכור שור שמות כח:ל []
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Boldly Going Where No Man Has Gone Before

My weekly halachah column for parashas Hukas:

“And Hashem said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Parashas Chukas, 21:8-9) Centuries later, the serpent was destroyed by King Chizkiyah: “And he did that which was right in the sight of Hashem … and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nechushtan.” (Melachim 2 18:3-4)

The Talmud wonders how King Chizkiyah’s righteous predecessors Asa and Yehoshafat, who had destroyed “all idolatry in the world”, could have failed to destroy the serpent? It answers that “they had left place for him to be great”, and it derives from this a fundamental principle of the legitimacy of religious innovation: the fact that a novel idea was not advanced by the sages of earlier generations, who were admittedly greater scholars than contemporary ones, does not automatically render it unacceptable (Chullin 6b-7a, as explained by Toras Chaim there).

Various commentators explain that Asa and Yehoshafat had had concrete reasons for not destroying the serpent: they may have believed it prohibited to destroy an artifact commissioned by Hashem Himself (Tosafos), or they may have considered such destruction a flouting of Hashem’s will, since He had given the serpent to the people to heal them, and it had retained this power throughout the generations (Chidushei Agados of Maharal). Alternatively, they may have believed that the idolaters had no power to cause it to require destruction, due to the principle that “a man cannot prohibit something that is not his” (Maharal). Nevertheless, King Chizkiyah realized that its destruction was necessary and appropriate, and he did not shy away from his conviction of his duty, despite its novelty.

My weekly lecture for parashas Hukas, on the same topic (along with accompanying handout), is available at the Internet Archive (as is last year’s version of this lecture, previously posted here).

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