Monthly Archives: February 2017

Mishpatim 5777: Head Home Little Bird!

A little gosling is all alone in a field, hopping mad. Perhaps it is cheeping at every stranger who passes, “Are you my mother?” But according to the Talmud, each stranger is asking, “Are you my gosling?” In Bavli Bava Batra 23b, the Mishnah states that if a gosling is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote, it is presumed to belong to that owner. Outside of the fifty-cubit radius, it is a case of finders keepers.

Still, the Talmud is exceedingly concerned with the mitzvah of returning lost property, השבת אבידה, which is also a concern of our portion at Exodus 23:4: “When you see your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him.” But how to determine whose property the animal is? Our Mishnah makes it seem straightforward, but then continues to complicate matters, demanding an environmental scan to see who else could be a likely owner.

In the Gemara, Rabbi Hanina states that two biblical principles are at play—preponderance (rov) and proximity (karov). If I find a gosling, I must ask who owns the most birds in the area, and also, whose birdhouse is closest. Between the two considerations, Rabbi Hanina claims that preponderance has priority. So, the gosling might be 25 feet from A’s birdhouse, but if B owns twice as many birds, even if they live a little further, then our unclaimed gosling is likely to belong to B.

From where do the biblical principles of rov and karov derive? For the second principle, karov, the rabbis recalled the case of an unsolved murder in an isolated ravine—responsibility is assigned to the closest town, even if a larger town in also nearby (Deut. 21:3). For the principle of rov, the sages didn’t need to search so far. Just two verses earlier we read the following: “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony so as to pervert it in favor of the might.” (JPS) This verse would seem to have nothing to do with lost property or the preponderance of birds in competing henhouses. The plain meaning of the verse is that of the Aramaic Onkeles translation—do not refrain from teaching/ruling according to what is correct in your eyes, and do not show deference to the mighty. Continue reading

Yitro 5777: Getting Married to God

The liturgy of Shabbat is suffused with wedding imagery. This theme is most pronounced in the prayer Lekha Dodi, which depicts the marriage of God and Israel, and also the union of two aspects of God, the sefirot of Tifereth and Malkhut (which is associated with Israel). However, we may detect the marital motif also in the fourth blessing of the Amidah prayers of Shabbat, starting with “Atah kidashta” (you sanctified) on Friday night, which hints at the first stage of marriage, kiddushin, and proceeding in the morning with “Yismah Moshe” (Moses rejoiced), which connects to the joyful liturgy of the second stage, nissuin. This analysis, which I first heard from Brandeis professor (and JTS-ordained rabbi) Reuven Kimelman, skips over the Musaf service, resuming with Minhah and “Atah Ehad” (You are One), which is said to refer to yihud, the seclusion of a couple after the ceremony. Finally, the Saturday night addition of the Havdalah prayer alludes to the separation of a couple for three days after their first coitus.

While this analysis is obscure and even troubling, it becomes relevant when examining the preparation for revelation at Mount Sinai in this week’s portion. The covenant between God and Israel very much resembles a marriage, with the “book of covenant” mentioned next week filling in for the ketubah. And yet we wonder who exactly is included in this marriage. At Exodus 19:3, God instructs Moses to “tell this to the house of Jacob, and speak to the sons of Israel.” This parallel language is standard biblical poetics, but the rabbis (in Mekhilta and ever after) understood the “house of Jacob” to refer to the women, and the “sons of Israel” to refer to the men. As such, they understood the revelation, and thus the covenant, to include both men and women. Continue reading

Bo 5777: Memory Cards for the Mind; Power Packs for the Arm–For Women and for Men

Chapter 12 of Exodus introduces Israel to the rituals (setting their sacred calendar and the Pesah rite) that will attend their exodus from Egypt. Chapter 13 shifts perspective to the future reenactment of this formative event, declaring that firstborn sons and also animals owned by Israelites will forever be associated with the sparing of Israel in the tenth plague. In addition, the Torah speaks somewhat cryptically about a ritual reminder of God’s mighty hand, to be placed on the arm and head: “Place a sign on the hand and a memory between the eyes so that the Lord’s instruction will be in your mouth; for with a mighty hand the Lord removed you from Egypt.” This is the first of four references, two in Exodus and two in Deuteronomy, which led the rabbis to design tefillin with the four passages contained within the head and hand compartments.

Although the Torah itself does not designate the mechanics of this commandment (should the words perhaps be tattooed on the arm and head?), Jewish oral tradition developed specifications which the sages declared were all “from Sinai.” They used these verses to clarify many questions about the tefillin—may they be made from the hide of any animal, or only a kosher one which could go “in your mouth”? May they be worn at night? On Shabbat and festivals? On the top of the arm or down on the hand? Hidden, or visible? The dominant hand or the weaker one? Round or square? Black or colorful? Each of these questions is discussed in rabbinic texts such as Midrash Mekhilta D’Rabbi Ishmael and the Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai, as well as in the Talmud, especially in Bavli Menahot 32-44. Tefillin are praised extravagantly as a sign of divine glory placed on the Israelite head, as a mitzvah to equal all mitzvoth, and according to Reish Lakish, as a guarantor of long life.

For all of their praise of tefillin, the Sages of Israel decided that for women, they were not required. In Mishnah Brakhot 3:3, the Rabbis declare that women, like slaves and minors, are exempt from the mitzvah of tefillin, though they are obligated by the mitzvoth of prayer, mezuzah and blessing after meals. Already in the Mekhilta, this distinction is explained by means of the concept of “positive, time-bound commandments.” A positive commandment such as saying blessings after a meal which can be done at any time is considered to be obligatory for women as for men. But a time-limited commandment such as reciting Shema (done only in the morning and evening) and wearing tefillin (not done at night or on Shabbat) is considered to be optional for women. There are many exceptions to this rule (lighting Shabbat candles, reading megillah and more), but the principle is well known and frequently cited to support gender distinctions in Jewish practice. Continue reading