Is Love Blind?

The central narrative in parashas Hayei Sarah is the mission of Avraham’s servant to obtain a wife for Yitzhak. It is generally assumed, by midrashim, other commentaries (including Ibn Ezra, in a passing remark in parashas Yisro1), and contemporary Orthodox students of the Torah that the servant in question was Eliezer, but the servant is not actually identified anywhere in the Biblical text, and the name Eliezer does not appear even once in Hayei Sarah. In fact, the name “Eliezer” appears only once in all of Sefer Bereishis, in Avraham’s plaintive lament to Hashem over his childlessness:

וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֲדֹנָי יֱקוִק מַה תִּתֶּן לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי וּבֶן מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר.2

I had long been cognizant of the above, but in the course of preparing for my parashah lectures on פרשת חיי שרה, I was quite surprised to discover that according to one midrashic interpretation (by a sage ironically named “אלעזר”) of the aforementioned verse, “Eliezer” may not have even actually existed at all!

ובן משק ביתי ר’ אלעזר אומר: בן משק ביתי, זה לוט, שנפשו שוקקת עליו ליורשני, הוא דמשק אליעזר, שבשבילו רדפתי מלכים עד דמשק ועזרני הא-ל.

ריש לקיש בשם בר קפרא אמר: בן משק ביתי, בר ביתי הוא אליעזר, שעל ידו רדפתי מלכים עד דמשק, ואליעזר היה שמו, שנאמר: וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו שמונה עשר ושלוש מאות.
מנין אליעזר הוה, י”ח וג’ מאות:3

The lectures, on the topic of arranged marriages, with accompanying handout, are available at the Internet Archive. Previous lectures on this topic are also available there, and we have previously written about it here. Following are my weekly cognate halachah columns:

The main topic of parashas Chayei Sarah is the arrangement of the marriage between Yitzhak and Rivkah by Avraham and his trusted servant (often understood to be Eliezer). The Rabbinic tradition does not have much to say about the relative merits of arranged vs. autonomous marriages. We consider here one guideline that it does contain: the Talmudic prohibition against marrying a woman sight unseen, since he may subsequently find her repulsive, “and the Merciful One says ‘thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’” (Kiddushin 41a). Rabbeinu Tam suggests that this may not be normative (Mordechai Kesubos #179), but the consensus is that it is (Shulchan Aruch EH 35:1). The Beis Yosef (ibid.) states that viewing the woman beforehand is only required when it is feasible, but when it is not, due to geographic distance or other factors, it may be dispensed with.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was apparently common in Ashkenazic communities for marriages to be arranged without the couple having ever met. Various halachic authorities attempt to reconcile this practice with the Talmudic admonition:

  • The Derishah (ibid.) notes that although the couple did not meet prior to the engagement, they did meet before the actual marriage ceremony.
  • The Beis Hillel (ibid.) adds that this Talmudic concern may actually be the rationale behind the “chasan mahl” (“groom’s meal”), a meal held the night before the wedding during which the groom and bride would see and converse with each other. [This meal is less common today, although it is still practiced in some Chassidic circles (see Nitei Gavriel, Hilchos Nisuin I:4:2).] Some authorities argue, however, that the couple should really meet before the engagement, due to the binding nature of engagements (at least in certain societies) and the fact that breaking an engagement is humiliating to the jilted party (see Nitei Gavriel, Shiduchin Ve’Tenaim Ch. 3 nn. 2-3).
  • The Derishah (ibid., in an alternative justification) and Beis Shmuel (ibid. s.k. 2) suggest that since due to economic instability or demographic considerations a marriage that is not arranged immediately may wind up never coming to fruition, the requirement for the couple to meet may be dispensed with (as per the aforementioned position of the Beis Yosef).

The central narrative of parashas Chayei Sarah is the mission of Avraham’s servant to find a wife for Yitzchak. As we have previously noted, the Talmud (Kiddushin 41a) prohibits formally betrothing (kiddushin) a woman sight unseen, “lest he see something repulsive in her after the betrothal, and she will become repugnant to him, which will cause him to hate her.” Various commentaries address the question of why this halachah does not seem to have been followed here:

  • The Sefer Chassidim (#389) explains that Yitzchak had no choice, since he was unable to leave Eretz Yisrael (i.e., as per Avraham’s reiterated insistence to his servant that he not take Yitzchak with him to the land of Avraham’s birth).
  • Some of the Tosafists explain that the Talmudic prohibition only applies to actual kiddushin, and Yitzchak did not perform kiddushin until he met Rivkah. (Moshav Zekeinim) Others, however, assume that the servant did indeed perform kiddushin before Yitzchak ever met Rivkah. (See R. Asher Weiss, Kiddushei Rivkah U’Birchos Erusin [5776])
  • Some explain that personal observation of the woman is not absolutely necessary, and the man is able to rely upon reports of the woman’s appearance. (Accordingly, Yitzchak was able to rely upon the servant’s assessment of Rivkah.) (Tzeidah La’Derech, beginning of parashas Lech-Lecha)
  • Some suggest that since the entire problem with marrying a woman sight unseen is that one may subsequently discover that he is repelled by her appearance, one who never plans to look at his wife need not worry about this. Just as Avraham (according to an opinion of Chazal) never looked at his wife Sarah and never even knew what she looked like until the point that they traveled to Egypt, so, too, did Yitzchak plan to follow in his father’s footsteps and never look at his wife! (R. Avraham Yakir, cited in Shut. Va’Yageil Yaakov EH #17) R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, however, disagrees with this approach, arguing that the prohibition of Chazal is universal and does not contain exceptions. Moreover, we see that Avraham ultimately did wind up discovering what his wife looked like. (Cited in Eshkol Yosef issue #212 – see the extensive discussion there and in #214)
  1. שמות כ:א []
  2. בראשית טו:ב []
  3. בראשית רבה מד:ט []

Beyond the Law

One of the most provocative interpretations of the fundamental distinction between Misnagdic and Hassidic theology I have ever seen appears in R. Yehoshua Mondshine’s Letter To A Friend:

“מתנגדישע פרומקייט”

מדרכי החסידות הוא שלא לנטות מדרך ההלכה ימין ושמאל, להזהר עד קצה האחרון אפילו בדקדוק קל של דברי סופרים, לבטל את השכל אל ההלכה ורצון ד’ שאינו משתנה – בקיצור: מ’דארף זיין פרום. מאידך גיסא הכל יודעים כי החסידים לא גרסו את ה”פרומקייט”, וה”פרומער מתנגד” הי’ לגנאי. מה פשר הדבר?

מובן שהחילוק בין חסידישע פרומקייט ומתנגדישע, מתבטא בגמישותו ופקחותו של החסיד, לעומת המתנגד הנוהג בטמטום מרובע והולך עם הראש בקיר – מתוך הרגשה שהוא עושה בדיוק מה שנצטווה לעשות, ללא התחכמויות חסידיות.

ולכן לא יעלה בדעתו של המתנגד לאחר את זמן התפלה כפי שלא יעלה בדעתו לאכול מצה בסוכות. הוא יקום ויעמוד להתפלל מיד בקומו משנתו, ח”ו לא ילמד קודם התפלה כדי שתהא סמוכה למטתו, ולא יבטל תפלה בציבור אפילו אם לשם כך יצטרך לוותר על טבילת עזרא. ואם מן המהדרין הוא המשכימים ל”ותיקין”, הרי שתפלתו תהי’ בתכלית השלימות ההלכתית כשיעמוד לשמו”ע ושעון בידו לקבוע מתי בדיוק יתחיל בתפלה.

באים החסידים והופכים את הקערה על פיה: לומדים וטובלים קודם התפלה – אפילו אם יאלצו בשל כך להתפלל אח”כ ביחידות, אוכלים קודם התפלה אפילו אם ה”תענית” הקלה לא תזיק לבריאותם, ולבסוף אפילו מאחרים תפלתם אחר הזמן שנקבע בדברי חז”ל והשו”ע וברצונו וחכמתו של הקב”ה שאינו משתנה!

וכל כך למה? כדי לקיים את רצונו של הקב”ה! אמנם כל צעדיו של המתנגד ספורים ומדודים ומכוונים לדברי הש”ס והפוסקים ולדברי הבורא ית’ עצמו, אבל החסידים שואפים לקיים את רצונו של הקב”ה ולא את דבריו. ובלשון משפטית: קיום רוחו של החוק עדיפה על קיום לשונו. החסידים משוכנעים כי רצונו הפנימי של הקב”ה הוא שהתפלה תהי’ ע”ד ואשפוך את נפשי וכד’, וכדי להגיע לכך הם מוכנים לעבור אפילו על הלכות מפורשות, ללמוד, להאריך בהכנות, לאכול – והעיקר שתהא זו תפלה אמיתית, גם אם אינה בזמן וגם אם לשון החוק מעדיפה את התפלה המיכנית והמדוקדקת על תפלה שאינה עומדת בקריטריונים הברורים של ההלכה.

זו דוגמה אחת מני רבות שבה החסיד שופט בשכלו כי עליו לנטות מן ההלכה הפסוקה כדי לקיים את רצון בוראו. אותו חסיד גם יתן צדקה יותר מאשר מותר לו ע”פ לשון ההלכה, יהי’ מוכן לעבור על שבות דרבנן כדי לזכות במצוה (כידוע מר”ז ווילענקיס – מחסידי אדמוה”ז – שנסע בסוסו ועגלתו אחר התקדש ליל ראש-השנה כדי שיגיע למקום ישוב וישמע קול שופר), ומאידך גיסא יוכל לבטל תלמוד-תורה ומצוה כדי שלא יראוהו עוסק בהן ויכבדוהו (או שרצונו שיזלזלוהו), ויוכל לעבור איסור דאורייתא למען כבוד שמו – ככל הני עבירות לשמן שבדברי חז”ל, וכאותו א’ מאנ”ש שהרים מהקרקע בש”ק דף סידור וטלטלו אמות רבות ברשות הרבים דאורייתא, כדי ששמו הק’ לא יהא מונח בבזיון.

I recently encountered the delicious irony that this incredibly provocative Hassidic doctrine that fulfilling G-d’s will by following the spirit of His law can be preferable to a slavish adherence to the letter of His law is apparently also espoused by a leading contemporary Maimonidean rationalist, Rav Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch! Here is R. David Silverstein’s description of R. Rabinovitch’s view:

According to [R. Rabinovitch’s] approach, non-halakhically sanctioned behavior (aveirah) can never serve as an ab initio legal solution to a state of halakhic ambiguity. The context of R. Rabinovitch’s interpretation is an attempt to solve a contradiction in Maimonides’ position regarding the permissibility of giving up one’s life in circumstances not required by the Talmud. As noted above, the Talmud states that there are only three cardinal sins that one must die for rather than violate. What if an individual chooses to accept death rather than violate a religious norm not listed in this group of three? Tur rules that if done in a private setting, such behavior is permissible. Maimonides disagrees and argues that it is forbidden to give up one’s life in such cases. In fact, he claims that if one were to give up his life in cases not sanctioned by the Talmud, the individual would be legally liable for his unlawful behavior.

Maimonides affirms his position in a famous letter known as Iggeret Ha-Shemad. Trying to pacify a community threatened by forced conversion to Islam, Maimonides rules that there is no requirement to die in order to avoid declaring allegiance to the Islamic faith. Additionally, he makes it clear that if one decides to act beyond the letter of the law and give up his life, he is held accountable for his behavior. In an apparent change of tone, Maimonides adds a seemingly contradictory qualifier. While he concedes that a court would never sanction the act of martyrdom where not formally required, if an individual decides to do so nonetheless, he has “performed a mitzvah” and receives “great reward” before G-d since he has sanctified G-d’s name.

How can we reconcile these conflicting positions of Maimonides? Both in Mishneh Torah, as well as in his initial formulation in Iggeret Ha-Shemad, he is clear that under no circumstances is one to give up their life unless specifically granted license by the Halakhah. However, in the same letter he renders those who do give up their lives when not formally required as having performed a mitzvah and acted in a way that is religiously virtuous?

R. Rabinovitch argues that there is no contradiction within the view of the Rambam. He notes that Rambam consistently maintains throughout the letter that if asked, no court would ever legally sanction giving up one’s life when not required. Maimonides’ positive words for those who gave up their lives is directed at individuals who already chose death in order to avoid conversion. These people were in no way rebelling against the law. Rather, they were motivated by a love of G-d. Why else would they sacrifice their own life to avoid violating what they perceived to be a halakhic prohibition? It is only post facto, that Maimonides is able to evaluate their behavior and claim that given the purity of their motivation, they will receive great reward. From a strictly legal perspective, their act itself is defined as a sin. Since it was performed with pure intent, however, it has the status of an aveirah li-shmah.

Applying this theory to the case discussed by the Talmud,1 R. Rabinovitch argues that had Yael asked a court how to behave in the case of Sisera, they would have told her not to violate the law of sexual impropriety since it is one of the three cardinal sins that one must die for rather than transgress. However, once the action was already done, the Talmud is able to evaluate her behavior with the perspective of hindsight. Since the Torah equates her conduct with the religiously virtuous actions of the matriarchs, we see that G-d considers her actions praiseworthy. While her behavior is sinful from a legal standpoint it is still meritorious when seen from a broader religious perspective.

R. Silverstein proceeds to explore the theology of this approach and to situate it within the broader framework of R. Rabinovitch’s theology of halachah.

Now there is obviously a vast difference in emphasis and tone between R. Rabinovitch and R. Mondshine, with the former limiting עבירה לשמה to extreme and extraordinary situations, and the latter justifying antinomian conduct even as a daily occurrence, such as the failure to scrupulously abide by זמני תפילה. (Although R. Mondshine’s essay does not explicitly invoke the concept of עבירה לשמה, as noted below the Seer of Lublin does explicitly apply it to the disregard of זמני תפילה.) But the essential theological doctrine involved certainly seems quite similar – surely R. Mondshine does not mean to say that if the Hassid who saw a siddur on the ground would have “asked a court” whether he should carry it “many cubits in a Biblical public domain so that His Holy Name should not remain in a situation of disgrace,” he would have been told to do so!

My weekly parashah lecture for פרשת וירא four years ago discussed עבירה לשמה; it is available, along with accompanying handout, at the Internet Archive, and here is my cognate weekly halachah column:

Parashas Vayeira contains the account of Lot’s daughters, who, believing themselves along with their father to be the sole survivors of the human race, took the desperate step of procreating with him. Although such an act would ordinarily be inappropriate, and possibly even a violation of the Noachide Laws (see Sanhedrin 58b), the Torah expresses no criticism of the girls, and the Talmud even seems to approve of their conduct, due to the purity of their intent, applying to them the verse “for the ways of Hashem are right, and the righteous shall walk in them” (Hoshea 14:10 – Nazir 23a).

Elsewhere, the Talmud declares that “great is aveirah lishmah” (sin for a pure motive), but the scope of this dispensation is unclear. Acharonim debate the case of a group of Jews who were accosted by a band of cutthroats and faced imminent death. One of the Jews, a married woman, seduced the murderer(s) and thereby saved the Jews’ lives. The Shevus Yaakov (2:117) approves of her conduct, citing (inter alia) Esther’s decision to willingly consort with Achashverosh as part of her plan to avert Haman’s genocide (see Megillah 15a). The Noda Be’Yehudah (2:YD:161) disagrees, arguing that Esther was a special case since she acted to save “all of Israel, from India even unto Ethiopia” and we cannot infer from this a dispensation for the saving of mere individuals. Additionally, she acted at the direction of Mordechai and his Beis Din, and perhaps according to ruach ha’kodesh (“the holy spirit”, a form of Divine communication).

R. Chaim of Volozhin (Keser Rosh #121) insists that aveirah lishmah is no longer permitted, at least for Jews, subsequent to the giving of the Torah. In the same vein, he strongly rejects the idea of disregarding the proper times for the recital of the Shema and prayer for the sake of performing these rituals with greater concentration (Nefesh Ha’Chaim, “Chapters” #4). The Seer of Lublin, on the other hand, approves of doing precisely this, “for in truth, Hashem desires the heart, and great is aveirah lishmah, and this is what is meant by ‘all your actions shall be for the sake of Heaven’” (Zichron Zos, Pinchas, p. 124).

I also discussed the aforementioned responsa of the Shevus Yaakov and Noda Be’Yehudah in a recent Reading Responsa lecture, an incomplete recording of which, along with (the complete) accompanying handout, is also available at the Internet Archive.

  1. See our previous discussions of episode of Yael and Sisera here and here. []

אפשר לתקן

There are opinions among Hazal that Yosef nearly sinned with Potiphar’s wife before ultimately resisting the temptation:

אמר רב חנא בר ביזנא א”ר שמעון חסידא יוסף שקידש שם שמים בסתר הוסיפו עליו אות אחת משמו של הקב”ה …

Rav Ḥana bar Bizna says that Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida says: Joseph, who sanctified the name of Heaven in private, had one letter of the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the letter heh, added to his name. …

יוסף מאי היא דכתיב (בראשית לט, יא) ויהי כהיום הזה ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו א”ר יוחנן מלמד ששניהם לדבר עבירה נתכוונו

The Gemara explains: What is the situation where Joseph sanctified G-d’s name in private? As it is written: “And it came to pass on a certain day, when he went into the house to do his work” (Genesis 39:11). Rabbi Yoḥanan says: This teaches that both Joseph and Potiphar’s wife stayed in the house, as they intended to perform a matter of sin.

ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו רב ושמואל חד אמר לעשות מלאכתו ממש וחד אמר לעשות צרכיו נכנס

With regard to the phrase “when he went into the house to do his work,” Rav and Shmuel engage in a dispute with regard to its meaning. One says: It means that he went into the house to do his work, literally. And one says: He entered the house in order to fulfill his sexual needs with her.1

Rav Levi ibn Habib (Maharalbah) and Rav Zvi Hirsch Hajes explain that Hazal were not denigrating Yosef by acknowledging the strength of his temptation, but on the contrary, praising him for having ultimately triumphed over it:


עוד אני אומר שדרשה כזאת איננה כנגד מעלת הצדיק כיון שהוא דבר במחשבה ולא יצא לפועל אף על פי שתהיה לאיזו סבה שתהיה. ויש לנו דמחשבה רעה אינו הקדוש ברוך הוא מצרפה למעשה בישראל זולתי בעבודה זרה. ולכן אין זה חסרון בצדיק. דכל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול ממנו. אדרבה הוא לו מעלה כיון שלבסוף ניצול מהעבירה. ואין כוונת הפסוק להודיענו מחשבת אלו הצדיקים. אבל הכונה להודיענו שנצולו ושהקב”ה הרחיק מהם העבירה ההיא.2

מהר”ץ חיות

והנה הרב הרלב”ח כתב … וכן ביוסף כבר היתה מחשבתו לרעה, ובא לעשות מלאכתו ממש3 ובכל זאת כבש את יצרו, ולא חטא וזה מעלה יותר עצומה, דאם לא התעורר אצלו היצר מפני שינוי מצבם, ועבד שפל אינו נותן עיניו באשת אדוניו, אזי לא היתה פעולתו של יוסף ראוי להתפארות כל כך, אבל עתה דכבר התגבר עליו היצר, ובכל זאת היה אדון ושליט על מעשיו, וזה דבר גדול אשר בחרו חז”ל לשבח מעשה יוסף הצדיק, כי כבר היה הכל מוכן לרעה, וכמה גדול כחו על ידי יגיעותיו אשר טרח לכבוש את יצרו, דהרי כבר היה כאן מחשבה רעה, רק אצל ישראל אין מצטרפין מחשבה רעה למעשה, … והיא ספור נפלא להגדיל מעלתן של צדיקים, כי לא יאונה להם כל עון, …4

In a famous and provocative passage in his autobiography, Rav Yaakov Emden relates that he personally experienced “a miracle similar to that of Joseph the righteous and (even) slightly more so”:

A miracle also occurred to me, especially relevant to matters spiritual. (It was) a miracle similar to that of Joseph the righteous and (even) slightly more so. I was a young man, tender in years, in the full strength of my passion. I had been separated from my wife for a long time and greatly desired a woman. A very pretty unmarried young girl who was my cousin happened to meet me there and was alone with me. She brazenly demonstrated great love to me, came close to me and almost kissed me. Even when I was lying in my bed, she came to cover me well on the couch, in a close loving manner. Truthfully, had I hearkened to the advice of my instinct she would not have denied my desire at all. Several times it (indeed) almost happened, as a fire (consumes) the chaff. Frequently there was no one in the house with me but her. They (i.e. the members of her family) were also not accustomed to come for they stayed in the store on the marketplace, occupied with their livelihood all day. Had G-d not given me great strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power (Gen. 49:3), to overcome my fiery instinct which once almost forced me to do its bidding, (and) were it not for the grace of G-d which was great upon me, (I would have been unable) to withstand this very powerful temptation, greater than all temptations. I was a man at the prime of my strength and passion. There was a very pleasant beautiful woman before me who demonstrated for me all manner of love and closeness many times. She was related to me, unmarried, a tender child and recently widowed. She may have been ritually pure or would have ritually purified herself had I requested it. If I had wanted to fulfill my passionate desire for her, I was absolutely certain that she would not reveal my secret. I controlled my instinct, conquered my passion and determined to kill it. My heart was hollow and I did not … Blessed be the L-rd who gives strength to the weary for I was saved from this flaming fire.5

It is difficult to understand R. Emden’s apparent utter flouting of the laws of יחוד – which exist precisely to forestall the sin that he acknowledges “almost happened”. Indeed, Yosef as well seems to have engaged in יחוד, a problem raised by Rav Moshe Sofer (Hasam Sofer), who suggests that it was indeed this infraction that led Potiphar to believe his wife’s calumniation of the man whom he had erstwhile believed to be of impeccable character:

תמיה רבה על אותו הצדיק איך נכנס ביחוד עם אשה בשעה שאין אנשי הבית שם וכמדומה לי שאלולי כן לא האמין פוטיפר לאשתו על יוסף המוחזק בעיניו לצדיק, אלא שראה מבגדו שבידה שעל כל פנים נתיחד עמה שלא כדת, ועל כן האמין עליו גם הכל, ומכל מקום צ”ע עליו.6

I discussed these sources in a talk I gave several days ago on repentance and the struggle against temptation, and previously in my parashah lectures for this past פרשת וישב, on the topic of יחוד. The cognate column:

In parashas Vayeishev, the Torah relates: “Then there was an opportune day when he [Joseph] entered the house to do his work – no man of the household staff being there in the house – that she [Potiphar’s wife] caught hold of him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” Some of our Sages maintain that Joseph actually came dangerously close to sinning, and only vanquished his evil inclination at the very last moment. (Sotah 36b, Bereishis Rabah 87:7) The Biblical text seems to emphasize that the confrontation was triggered by the fact that they were completely alone, and the halachah indeed prohibits such seclusion (yichud), for precisely this reason. The Chasam Sofer actually raises the question of how the righteous Joseph could have violated the prohibition of yichud, and he goes so far as to suggest that this apparent infraction was what allowed Potiphar to believe his wife’s accusation of Joseph, whose reputation had been heretofore impeccable. Potiphar saw that Joseph had at the very least improperly secluded himself with his wife, and he therefore believed the full accusation against him. (Drashos Chasam Sofer, Chanukah [5]564. His justification of Joseph’s conduct is beyond the scope of this column.)

Since the prohibition of yichud is motivated by a concern for improper interaction between the secluded individuals, there are a variety of leniencies in circumstances where they are unlikely to act improperly, particularly where they are afraid of being interrupted and discovered. A comprehensive discussion of these exceptions and their precise scope and details is beyond the scope of this column, but a couple of basic examples follow:

  • A married woman whose husband is in the same city as her is beyond suspicion, since she is presumptively afraid of her husband. Many authorities understand this to mean that she is afraid of his discovery of her infidelity. (Shulchan Aruch EH 22:8; Pischei Teshuvah ibid. s.k. 7; Shut. Igros Moshe EH 4:65:7; Shut. Tzitz Eliezer 6:40:4-6)
  • Yichud does not apply in a house whose door is open to a public domain. (SA ibid. 9, PT ibid. 8, TE ibid. 11-12, IM ibid. 2,4-5,9)

In my talk on resisting temptation, I also discussed the tale of the portrait of Moshe Rabbeinu (which I have previously discussed in a lecture for פרשת בהעלותך, on the character of the master of all prophets):

[A] delightful account that I once saw in writing. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the nations heard, they trembled, etc. (Exodus 15:14). They were particularly curious about Moses, the man through whom all these marvelous deeds had transpired. So much so, that an Arabian king sent a gifted artist to the Israelite encampment with orders to paint a portrait of the Israelite leader, and to return with it to Arabia. The artist went, painted the portrait, and brought it to the king. The king then sent to his physiognomists, and ordered them to prepare an analysis of Moses’ character, virtues, and strengths based upon his facial features as reflected in the portrait. The physiognomists complied with the king’s order and reported as follows: “If we are to render judgment solely on the basis of the facial features in the portrait, we must report, O King, that, – despite his distinguished reputation – he is entirely wicked, arrogant, greedy, capricious, indeed suffused with every known vice. Upon hearing the analysis, the king was livid. “You are sporting with me,” he cried out. “From every corner of the globe I have heard just the opposite regarding this great man.” The physiognomists and the artist were seized with fright; they responded to the king pusillanimously, each accusing the other of incompetence. The artist claimed that the portrait was executed with precision; it was the physiognomists who had erred in their interpretation of the portrait. The physiognomists, in turn, blamed the artist, claiming that the portrait of Moses was obviously inaccurate. The king, determined to resolve the matter, set out in his chariot on a state visit – accompanied by his troops – to the Israelite camp. Upon sighting Moses, the man of G-d, from the distance, he took out the portrait, gazed at it and Moses, and knew at once that the artist’s depiction had been executed with precision. The king was astounded. He entered the tent of Moses, bowed down before him, and related the entire story to him. He concluded his remarks as follows: “Before I gazed upon your face, O man of G-d, I suspected that the artist had been incompetent, for my physiognomists are without peer. Now that I have established that the portrait is accurate, I can only conclude that the physiognomists are at fault; they have deceived me. Their wisdom comes to naught. I have been supporting them even as they misled me with their nonsense.”

Moses, the man of G-d, replied: “Not so. Indeed, the artist and the physiognomists are exceedingly competent and wise. Know that if I were naturally virtuous, I would be no more deserving of praise than is a block of wood. For it too has no human faults. I am not ashamed to admit, however, that I am naturally inclined to all the vices listed by the physiognomists, and then some. With great effort and determination, I overcame my inclinations until their very opposites became second nature to me. This is how I earned the glory that I now enjoy in heaven above and on earth below.”7

  1. סוטה לו: []
  2. שו”ת מהרלב”ח סימן קכ”ו ד”ה עוד אני אומר []
  3. רש”י בסוטה פירש ד “מלאכ[תו] ממש” היינו מלאכתו, ולא תשמיש. אולם בבראשית רבה אמר ר”ש בר נחמן “לעשות מלאכתו ודאי”, ומבואר שכוונתו לתשמיש.‏ []
  4. מבוא התלמוד, פרק כ’ ד”ה והנה הרב רלב”ח []
  5. Megilas Sefer, translation of R. Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, cited by Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, R. Yair Hayyim Bachrach as a Writer of Romance?, A Non-Jewish Song Made Holy, Love (and More) Before and After Marriage, and Memoirs that Maybe Tell Too Much, the Seforim blog, Fri., May 27, 2016. The original Hebrew text (along with a censored version) are available there as well, as well as here. []
  6. דרשות חת”ם סופר [כרך א’] חנוכה תקס”ד. ועיין שם מה שתירץ, ועיין שו”ת ציץ אליעזר חלק ח’ סימן י”ד אות ז’ וחלק י”ב סימן ס”ז אות ב’. ובעצם קושית החת”ם סופר, עיין ר’ מנשה ישראל רייזמן, שיעורים בפרשת השבוע, יום ו’ פרשת וישב כ’ כסלו תשע”ה, עמודים יב-יג.‏ []
  7. תפארת ישראל סוף מסכת קידושין, תורגם ב Shnayer Z. Leiman, R. Israel Lipschutz: The Portrait of Moses, in Tradition, 24(4), Summer 1989. []