The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Surf A Little Torah
Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav David Silverberg



            Among the more bizarre passages in the Talmud is the story told in Masekhet Megila (7b) of Rava and Rabbi Zeira, who each year would eat the Purim meal together, until one year, during the festivities, Rava became inebriated and "slaughtered" Rabbi Zeira.  The following day, Rava prayed and the Almighty brought his colleague back to life.


            How are we to understand this story?  Could it be that Rava became so intoxicated that he murdered a fellow Jew, let alone a distinguished Talmud scholar?


            The Maharsha explains that Rava urged Rabbi Zeira to drink during the Purim festivities, to the point where Rabbi Zeira took seriously ill.  Rava then prayed on his colleague's behalf and Rabbi Zeira recovered from his intoxication.  According to this reading, the Gemara relates this story in order to emphasize the dangers of excessive drinking, and warns against encouraging others to drink beyond their tolerance levels.


Rav Yaakov Emden explains differently, claiming that Rava pretended to kill Rabbi Zeira in order to restore a degree of solemnity to what had become a scene of frivolous merrymaking, rather than a true expression of gratitude to God.  Rav Yaakov Emden refers us in this context to the famous stories told in Masekhet Berakhot (30b-31a) of wedding celebrations that became excessively frivolous, prompting rabbis to take drastic measures such as breaking an expensive glass to restore a sense of solemnity.  Similarly, Rava sought to bring a halt to the silly merriment by staging a murder.  Rabbi Zeira, who was unaware of Rava's intentions, was terror-stricken and fainted.  Rava thus had to pray for Rabbi Zeira's recovery, which the Gemara describes as his revival from death.  According to Rav Yaakov Emden's reading, the Gemara here seeks to emphasize the importance of maintaining a degree of solemnity even during the Purim celebrations, rather than allow the festivities to degenerate into sheer silliness.


Rav Yitzchak Hutner, in his Pachad Yitzchak (Purim, 32), suggests interpreting the Gemara's reference to Rabbi Zeira's "death" as a metaphoric description of the transformational experience he underwent over the course of his Purim observance.  Chazal famously describe Purim as a day of kabbalat ha-Torah, when we celebrate the Jewish people's reacceptance of the Torah even under the trying conditions of exile.  As part of our celebration of this festival, we, too, are enjoined to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the study and observance of Torah; the Purim festivities celebrate not only our nation's rescue from Haman, but also our spiritual renewal.  This experience of kabbalat ha-Torah, Rav Hutner explained, entails a process of internal transformation.  Thus, for example, Chazal comment that when Benei Yisrael accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, their souls departed and had to be restored to their bodies.  Rav Hutner understood this image as expressing the transformational element of kabbalat ha-Torah, the notion that committing oneself to Torah means fundamentally changing one's character, lifestyle and outlook.  In a similar vein, Rabbi Zeira experienced kabbalat ha-Torah so fully and genuinely that he could be said to have been "killed" as a result of this profound experience.


Rav Yitzchak Blau ("The Wildness of Purim," added an insightful observation concerning the implications of this story's conclusion in light of Rav Hutner's understanding.  The Gemara concludes that the following year, Rabbi Zeira chose to discontinue the practice of joining Rava for the Purim feast, unwilling to have to again rely on supernatural divine intervention.  If, as Rav Hutner explains, Rabbi Zeira did not actually "die," but rather underwent a powerful transformation of self as a result of reaffirming his commitment to Torah, why did he fear repeating this experience?  Rav Blau suggested that this perhaps reflects the instinctive fear that people have of substantive change and transformation.  People grow accustomed to their current selves and the "fear of the unknown" often prevents them from welcoming meaningful change in their lives, even changes that can profoundly enhance their characters and conduct.


We might add yet another dimension of Rav Hutner's understanding of this episode.  If, indeed, the Gemara refers to Rabbi Zeira's internal transformation, why does it attribute this experience to Rava – "Rava arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira"?  Why is Rava described as having brought this experience upon Rabbi Zeira?


Perhaps, the Gemara seeks to emphasize the profound influence that peers and colleagues can exert upon one another.  Rabbi Zeira could not have achieved this watershed spiritual experience alone; it was Rava's company and influence that inspired Rabbi Zeira to this level of kabbalat ha-Torah.  If so, then this Gemara becomes a powerful statement regarding the importance of dibbuk chaveirim, the extent to which friends and colleagues can inspire and impact upon each another.





            The Malbim, in his commentary to Megilat Ester, presents a novel and intriguing approach to understanding the techniques and schemes employed by Haman in securing Achashverosh's approval for his plan to destroy the Jews of Persia.  While it is commonly understood that Haman won Achashverosh's wholehearted support for his cruel edict, the Malbim interprets the verses to mean that Haman actually had to deceive the king in order to execute his plan.  Otherwise, the Malbim contends, Achashverosh would not possibly have agreed to the elimination of such a large group of people in his kingdom, certainly not the Jews, who had achieved in Persia a reputation of loyalty and made significant contributions to the empire's success.


            For one thing, the Malbim notes, Haman does not identify the name of the group of people he seeks to eliminate, referring to them instead as "one nation, scattered and dispersed among the peoples…" (3:8).  He proceeds to emphasize this group's allegiance only to their own rules and principles, and not to the mores and laws of the Persian Empire.  Even more deviously, he does not expressly request that this group be killed.  Instead, he asks "le-abedam," which the Malbim interprets as a reference to an aggressive program of acculturation.  Haman's request, as he expressed to Achashverosh, was only that the group be actively "converted" into loyal Persian citizens and persuaded to reject their cultural and ideological roots.


            Of course, in the actual sefarim – scrolls – that Haman dispatched throughout the kingdom, he clearly called for – in the name of the king – killing all the empire's Jews (see 3:13).  However, as the Megila tells (3:12), these scrolls were "sealed with the king's seal."  While this clause is generally interpreted to mean that the scrolls bore the royal seal as proof of authenticity, the Malbim claims that the scrolls arrived sealed to each locale with strict orders that they not be opened until the thirteenth of Adar.  In this vein, the Malbim understands the verse that tells of the writ being "revealed to all the peoples" and the announcement that the kingdom "be prepared" for the day of the thirteenth of Adar (3:14).  The content of the scrolls, which recorded the king's order to kill all the Jews in the empire, was to be revealed only on the day when this was to be executed.  All that the people were told in the interim was that they must be prepared for warfare come the thirteenth of Adar.  Haman thereby ensured that the Jews would have no possibility of preparing themselves for this day, either by lobbying government officials or by mobilizing a paramilitary.


            According to the Malbim, then, Haman's edict to kill the Jewish population of Persia was not public knowledge.  When the Megila describes the city of Shushan as "navokha" (literally, "dumfounded"), it does not refer to the Jews' horror upon hearing of Haman's decree, as is commonly understood.  (Indeed, these words – "ve-ha-ir Shushan navokha" – are traditionally chanted in a mournful tone, reflecting the understanding that the Megila speaks here of the people's dismay and shock upon hearing of Haman's decree.)  Rather, the verse refers to the confusion and curiosity that seized the capital in response to this mysterious royal edict which would be disclosed only eleven months later.


            What foiled Haman's plan, the Malbim writes, was Mordekhai's discovery of the plot.  This explains the otherwise peculiar phrase, "And Mordekhai knew of everything that was happening" (4:1), which suggests that we might have otherwise presumed that he had not learned of Haman's plan.  The Malbim chooses not to speculate as to how precisely Mordekhai gained access to this confidential information, commenting instead that Divine Providence saw to it that Mordekhai would discover the plan so he could summon Ester to work against it.


            The Malbim's approach accentuates one of the primary themes of Purim, that of "utzu eitza ve-tufar" (Mishlei 3:25), God's ability to foil even the most sophisticated and carefully-designed plan.  Regardless of what kind of schemes Am Yisrael's foes design in planning for our destruction, it is well within the Almighty's power to disrupt their plans and ensure our survival.




            The Torah in Parashat Ki-Tisa restates the mitzva of aliya le-regel, requiring all males from Benei Yisrael to frequent the Beit Ha-mikdash during the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot (34:23).  This mitzva had been mentioned earlier, in Parashat Mishpatim (23:17), but here, in Parashat Ki-Tisa, the Torah adds an accompanying guarantee that Benei Yisrael's properties would remain secure even when all the men are away in Jerusalem: "No man shall covet your land when you go to be seen by the Lord your God three times a year" (34:24).


            The Gemara (Pesachim 8b) derives from this verse that the obligation of aliya le-regel applies only to those who own property; men who own no land or houses are not required to make the tri-yearly pilgrimage.


            Rav Yissachar Frand observed that this halakha might affect our understanding of the reason behind the mitzva of aliya le-regel.  Instinctively, we might assume that the pilgrimage is intended to ensure regular pilgrimages to the Temple and thereby disrupt one's daily routines for the purpose of religious inspiration.  Aliya le-regel ensures that one does not become overly preoccupied in his professional pursuits, by refocusing his mind on God and his religious obligations.


            In light of the condition of land ownership, however, a more specific purpose may be attributed to this mitzva: to remind the landowner of the One who truly owns his land, that he lives on his property only through the grace and kindness of the Almighty.  The Torah requires one to leave his property to come and pray and bring offerings to God in the Beit Ha-mikdash, to impress upon him that the Almighty is the true owner over the entire earth.  This obligation requires one to trust in God's ability to protect his land during his absence, further emphasizing His unlimited power and control over the entire earth.  Indeed, as noted by Seforno (23:17), both here and in Parashat Mishpatim the Torah refers to God in this context with the term Adon ("Master"), a term rarely used in reference to the Almighty.  Seforno explains Adon as referring specifically to God's authority over the earth, thus reinforcing the notion that this mitzva serves as a reminder of God's ownership over all property on earth.


            It should be noted that both here and in Parashat Mishpatim, the section that mentions this mitzva includes as well the obligation of bikkurim – bringing one's first fruits to the Mikdash (23:19, 34:26).  This mitzva, too, serves as an expression of God's ownership over the land; the farmer brings his fruits to God just as a sharecropper transfers a percentage of his crop to the field's owner.  Similarly, the parallel section in Parashat Mishpatim includes the mitzva to desist from agricultural activity during the shemita year (23:11), an obligation that is intended – at least in part – to remind the farmer of his limited control and authority of his land.


            Thus, aliya le-regel, too, serves to remind Benei Yisrael that it is God, and not they, who enjoys full ownership and control over the land in which they settle.  Three times each year, Benei Yisrael leave their homes and fields to give honor to God in the Beit Ha-mikdash, trusting in his promise and ability to protect their properties from intruders.




            In the wake of the sin of the golden calf and Moshe's appeals to God on Benei Yisrael's behalf, God declares to Moshe the "shelosh esrei midot rachamim," the thirteen "attributes of mercy" which establish the possibility of earning forgiveness for sin.  This declaration allows for the covenant between God and Am Yisrael to continue even should Benei Yisrael break their side of the agreement; the divine attributes of mercy delineated in this list guarantee the nation the possibility of repairing its relationship with God through the process of teshuva.


            The thirteen attributes begin with "Hashem, Hashem," the double mention of God's Name.  As Rashi cites from the Gemara (Masekhet Rosh Hashanah 17b), "Hashem, Hashem" constitutes one of the thirteen attributes, and should be understood to mean, "I am Him before a person sins, and I am Him after a person sins and repents."  God declares His preparedness to relate to a person in precisely the same fashion after he transgresses as He had prior to the misdeed.  In interpersonal relationships, it often happens that even after an apology and granting of forgiveness, a certain tension remains between the two parties that prevents them from fully restoring their relationship to where it had been before the wrong was committed.  God therefore guarantees that sincere teshuva can bring a sinner's relationship with the Almighty to precisely the same point where it had been previously.


            Rav Shraga Pollak, in his work Tishbi (Hungary, 1927), notes an additional implication of this declaration of "Hashem, Hashem."  The concept of teshuva, the ability to escape divine retribution through repentance, could easily be misinterpreted as a "change of heart" on the part of the Almighty.  One might mistakenly approach the process of teshuva as a means by which a person can effect a change in God's attitude towards him, a way of soothing God's anger by arousing His compassion and kindness.  Therefore, at the outset of these thirteen attributes, God declares "Hashem, Hashem," that nothing about Him changes throughout the process of teshuva.  The power of repentance to restore one's relationship with God stems not from a change in God, but rather from a change in the individual.  It is the sinner, not the Almighty, who is to undergo a transformation, which enables him to return to his previous status of innocence and piety.  No violator can hope to earn divine compassion without effecting a change within himself, without repairing the flaws in his character that led him to sin, at which point he can then hope to repair his damaged relationship with the Almighty.




            The Ramban, in his commentary to Parashat Ki-Tisa (32:1), advances his famous theory claiming that the sin of the golden calf did not constitute idolatry.  According to the Ramban, Benei Yisrael fashioned the calf not as a substitute for the Almighty, but rather as a substitute for Moshe.  This indeed seems to be the straightforward meaning of the request they present to Aharon: "Go and make for us an elohim that will lead us [literally, 'that will go out before us'], for this man Moshe who took us from the land of Egypt – we know not what has happened to him" (32:1).  Situated in the barren wilderness, Benei Yisrael felt they needed some physical being to serve as a leader and guide in place of Moshe.  They chose for this purpose the image of a calf because the ox is one of the images that appear in the vision of the divine chariot (Yechezkel 1:10).


            The Ramban begins his discussion by citing Rashi's comments to this verse, and expressing his disapproval of Rashi's approach.  Rashi wrote in his commentary, "They desired many deities: 'for this man Moshe who took us from the land of Egypt' and would show us the way which we should travel – 'we know not what has happened to him' and we therefore need many deities who will lead us'."  It appears from the Ramban's presentation that he understood Rashi's remarks to mean that Benei Yisrael indeed worshipped the calf as a deity, and did not merely seek a replacement for Moshe.


            Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi explains that the Ramban arrived at this understanding of Rashi based on Rashi's comment, "elohot harbei ivu lahem" – "they desired many deities" – which seems to suggest that they were drawn to polytheistic worship.  However, as Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi contends, the word elohot need not be understood to mean "deities"; quite often this term is used in reference to human leadership and authority, particularly in the context of the judiciary.  Accordingly, Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi argues that Rashi, too, did not view chet ha-egel as a sin of idolatry, and he in fact subscribed to the Ramban's view, that Benei Yisrael sought a substitute for Moshe.  Indeed, Rashi explicitly describes the people bemoaning the perceived loss of Moshe who "would show us the way which we should travel," seemingly indicating that it was Moshe, and not the Almighty, whom they found it necessary to replace.


            The Taz, however, in his Divrei David, dismisses the approach taken by Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, and claims that Rashi indeed understood chet ha-egel as a sin of outright idol worship.  According to the Taz, the Ramban's reading of Rashi is based on Rashi's concluding remarks to this verse: "and we therefore need many deities [elohot] who will lead us."  Rashi understood the people's comments to Aharon as emphasizing that in Moshe's absence, they require specifically elohot – and not human beings – to lead them.  Moshe's presumed death did more than simply necessitate a substitute; it changed the people's perspective on their leadership needs.  The sudden loss of Moshe made Benei Yisrael feel insecure being led by a mortal who can one day disappear.  In their mind, they needed a leader that cannot die, in which they can confidently rely to bring them successfully to their destination.  They were no longer interested in a human prophet who would instruct them in accordance with the will of an invisible God; they desired physical beings that would not perish and to which they could look as a secure source of success and protection.

            According to the Taz's reading of Rashi, then, Benei Yisrael indeed sought to replace Moshe, but to replace him with a pagan deity, and they thus committed genuine idolatry through the fashioning and worship of the golden calf.




            Parashat Ki-Tisa begins with the mitzva of machatzit ha-shekel, the annual tax donated by each male of Benei Yisrael and with which the national census was taken.  God commands Moshe that the amount required for this donation is "a half-shekel in the shekels of kodesh" ("machatzit ha-shekel be-shekel ha-kodesh" – 30:13).  Rashi explains this expression as simply intended to identify the currency to which God refers.  He speaks here of "the shekels of kodesh," the unit of currency that Benei Yisrael were to use in making calculations relevant to the Temple treasury.


            The Ramban explains similarly, adding that it was Moshe himself who established this unit of currency.  It was common for kings to designate a currency that would be identified with their rule, and thus Moshe, who had the status of king of Israel, established this unit of currency that was used for all financial issues relevant to the Temple treasury.  The Torah refers to this currency as shekel ha-kodesh, which literally means, "the holy shekel," because this is the currency used in all matters involving the Mikdash.  The Ramban compares the term shekel ha-kodesh to the more familiar term leshon ha-kodesh – "the sacred language" – with which Chazal refer to Biblical Hebrew.  The Hebrew language is referred to by this term because it is in this language that God spoke to the prophets and had the Torah written.  Since this was the language chosen for the communication of the divine word, the Sages referred to it as "the sacred language."  The Ramban in this context cites and dismisses the famous explanation given by the Rambam for the term leshon ha-kodesh, in his Moreh Nevukhim (3:8).  The Rambam there claimed that Chazal employed this term in reference to Hebrew because it does not contain any terms that refer directly to matters related to sexuality or bodily functions.  The Ramban disputes this claim and argues that there is no need for this explanation, because, in his view, the term leshon ha-kodesh simply stems from the fact that God spoke to the prophets and transmitted the Torah in this language


            Rav Moshe Feinstein (as cited in Kol Ram, vol. 3) suggested a homiletic explanation for the term shekel ha-kodesh, in accordance with the literal implication of the phrase "the sacred shekel."  The Torah here seeks to convey the message that when a person donates money to important causes – in this case, the Beit Ha-mikdash – all his money assumes a "sacred" quality.  Generous donations to meaningful causes reflect the recognition of the fact that all that one owns has been given to him by the Almighty to be used constructively.  Thus, if a person is prepared to give his money to support the poor and religious institutions, his money becomes kodesh, property that has been designated for the sacred purpose of furthering the cause of Torah and mitzvot among the Jewish people.




            Parashat Ki-Tisa begins with God's instruction to Moshe, "When you count the Israelites according to their enrollment, each man shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord when they are counted" (30:12).  This verse establishes the obligation to conduct censuses by having each individual donate a "ransom for his soul."  In the next verse, God commands, "This is what they shall give, all who are included in the census: a half-shekel…"


            The conventional reading of this pair of verses views the second verse as explaining the first.  Meaning, it clarifies that the "ransom" given by each person included in the census was to be a half-shekel.  Whenever a census was taken of Benei Yisrael, they were each required to donate a half-shekel by which the census was conducted.


            The Vilna Gaon, however, as cited in Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala, explained this pair of verses differently, as referring to two entirely separate contexts.  The first verse establishes the obligation to count the nation by having each member donate a "ransom for his soul."  The second verse, which calls for a mandatory half-shekel donation, speaks of an obligation that applied only at this point– when Benei Yisrael constructed the Mishkan.  After the completion of the Mishkan, Benei Yisrael were called upon to make this half-shekel donation towards the maintenance and operation of the Mishkan; this verse does not, however, introduce an eternal obligation of an annual half-shekel tax.


            The Vilna Gaon's reading yields several ramifications.  For one thing, it means that the obligation for Benei Yisrael to donate a "ransom" when a census is conducted does not require specifically the donation of a half-shekel towards the Beit Ha-mikdash.  Indeed, the Ramban (30:15) already raises the question of why the monei ha-mitzvot, the Rishonim who listed the 613 commandments, did not list a prohibition against donating more or less than a half-shekel when a census is taken, as the Torah forbids here in Parashat Ki-Tisa (30:15).  According to the Gaon, the answer is, quite simply, that this prohibition was issued only for that generation, with regard to the one-time contribution required after the Mishkan's construction.  This did not establish a Torah obligation to donate precisely a half-shekel when a census is taken.  Furthermore, it emerges from the Gaon's approach that the Torah never explicitly requires an annual half-shekel donation.  The annual obligation of machatzit ha-shekel, the Vilna Gaon claimed, was taught through oral tradition, and was not established explicitly in the Torah.  Finally, the Gaon disagrees in this regard with the classic commentators (such as Rashi and Ramban) who explained that God here commanded that a census be taken of Benei Yisrael before the construction of the Mishkan.  In his view, as mentioned, the second verse of this pair – "This is what they shall give…a half-shekel" – is not a continuation of the first verse which speaks of taking a census.  Hence, when God ordered Benei Yisrael at this point to donate a half-shekel, it was not for the purpose of counting the nation, but rather simply to raise funds for the functioning of the Mishkan.


            The Gaon's approach to this pair of verses may also involve a linguistic issue, as discussed by Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala.  The second verse begins with the word zeh, which, of course, is generally translated as "this."  This verse is therefore normally translated as, "This is what they shall give…"  Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala, however, contends that according to the Vilna Gaon, the word zeh here means "now."  After introducing the law concerning the census, God tells Moshe that "now," at this point, no census is required, but Benei Yisrael must contribute a half-shekel for a different purpose, namely, to support the operations in the Mishkan.