SALT | Toldot 5784 - 2023
Parashat Toldot tells of Yaakov's cunning seizure of the birthright from Esav. On the surface, this is a story of reprehensible manipulation. As the Torah describes, Esav was famished after a long, hard day of hunting. It seems, at first glance, that Yaakov took unfair advantage of his Esav's handicap to usurp the birthright from its rightful heir.
It has been suggested, however, that the Torah may itself subtly allude to Yaakov's consideration before making this seemingly unfair offer. When Esav walks in, he requests "some of this red substance," without any concern for what was in the pot. This may allude to a fundamental flaw in Esav's personality: a narrow sense of vision that sees only the external qualities, ignoring the inner essence of that upon which he looks. Esav saw only the "color," the exterior, the aesthetic trappings that lured him to afford meaning to meaninglessness and strip the significant of its significance. Yaakov understood that such a person cannot be entrusted with the sacred service of the Temple, which at that time birthright entailed. Only one with a keen spiritual sensitivity who can appreciate the depth of profundity lying beneath the surface of the mundane can properly serve as God's emissary in the Bet Hamikdash.
A similar approach focuses on Esav's very request for food at that moment. Rashi cites the Midrash's comment that Yaakov at that time prepared lentils, the traditional food of mourners, for his father Yitzchak, who had just lost his father, Avraham. Esav's request of food intended for his bereaved father reflected a brazen disrespect that undermined the single quality for which Esav has traditionally earned praise: his devotion to honoring his parents. The insensitivity manifest by his demand for his father's food revealed Esav's hypocrisy, effectively demonstrating the insincerity of his respectful attitude towards his parents. Yaakov feared the repercussions of insincere service in the Temple. Feeling and emotion were critical components of the entire institution of sacrificial service; entrusting it in the hands of Esav could threaten the very sanctity of the Mikdash.
If we indeed look to Esav's callousness in this regard as a basis for his unworthiness for the birthright, we may perhaps take a different direction. The privileges of the birthright, especially in the context of the development of God's special nation, are meant for the firstborn to perpetuate the legacy of the deceased parent. This responsibility necessarily requires a subordination of sorts to past generations. Carrying a heritage entails a loss of some degree of individual identity and placing oneself at the shirttails of his predecessors. Esav's apparent disregard for the death of Avraham and neglect of the needs of his grieving father demonstrated his excessive sense of independence, his detachment from the great legacy of Avraham. It was only natural, then, that Yaakov, who devotedly tended to the needs of the mourners, would assume the privileges and responsibilities of Yitzchak's heir.
Parashat Toldot ends with Yaakov on the run. His parents order him to flee to the house of Lavan to find refuge from his vengeful brother who vowed to kill him. The Gemara in Masekhet Megila (17a) tells us, surprisingly, that Yaakov the fugitive took a fourteen-year detour at the yeshiva of Shem and Ever. Yaakov's decision to enroll in a lengthy "post-doc" program at such an inauspicious point in his life indicates that some specific and immediate need for intensive Torah study arose. What was it? Why was it so critical for Yaakov to engage himself in Torah study - after all these years of learning - specifically at this point?
One answer suggested points to the very end of our parasha, Yitzchak's parting words to Yaakov: "May E-l Sha-dai bless you… May He grant the blessing of Avraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Avraham" (28:3-4). Immediately prior to his departure, Yaakov receives his official designation as heir to the legacy of Avraham, as the one who will form God's special nation. Responsibly, Yaakov acknowledged the enormity of this task. He understood that if, indeed, he is to father the nation of God, he must increase his Torah study and develop himself with even greater diligence and intensity. Rather than "making a kiddush" to celebrate the news, Yaakov takes off to yeshiva. The stature just conferred upon him brought upon his shoulders a heavy burden of responsibility, one which demanded further religious growth.
A similar explanation is offered in the context of Yitzchak's attendance at the yeshiva of Shem and Ever after the "akeida," as the Midrash relates. Chazal speak of Yitzchak's becoming an "ola temima" - a sacrifice designated to God - as a result of the "akeida." Once again, our patriarch responds to his new responsibilities by studying Torah, by familiarizing himself with the basis of the sanctity with which he is now fully identified.
Examples of this phenomenon exist in modern Jewish culture, as well. A time-honored tradition has Jewish children deliver a special d'var Torah at the celebration of their reaching the age of mitzvot. They observe the acceptance of their new responsibilities by applying themselves to Torah study, the best form of preparation for the lifelong mission of "avodat Hashem." We can also point to the blessed phenomenon of secondary school alumni devoting a year or more to full-time yeshiva study before commencing their university career. At the point generally seen as the child's entry into the adult world of independence, a powerful statement is made that the responsibilities associated therewith can best be met with a solid basis of Torah study and religious inspiration. The period of growth and intensive engagement in advanced learning signifies the new adult's resolve to firmly ground himself in his tradition before engaging in other disciplines. This is how one readies himself for the formidable responsibilities of adulthood - the same way Yaakov readied himself for the formidable responsibilities of a patriarch.
Rashi (Bereishit 25:29) quotes the Midrash that Yaakov prepared a lentil dish for his father, Yitzchak, who had just lost his father, Avraham. This Midrash perhaps relates to the halakha in Masekhet Moed Katan (27b), codified in the Shulchan Arukh Y.D. 378, forbidding a mourner to eat of his own food on the first day of his mourning. This halakha forms the source of the common practice of "se'udat havra'a," the first meal eaten by a mourner after the burial, which friends and neighbors prepare for him. The Sedei Chemed considers this obligation of friends and neighbors to provide the mourner's food a Biblical requirement. Rabbenu Yerucham explains that this halakha evolves from the concern that in his state of distress a mourner may neglect his own need for food; the Torah therefore mandated that others take responsibility for his well-being and ensure that he eats properly. The Levush adopts a more straightforward approach, that supplying food for a mourner is a form of consolation, in fulfillment of the mitzva of "nichum aveilim" (consoling mourners).
Whether or not one understands Yaakov's cooking in Parashat Toldot as an application of this halakha may yield an interesting practical ramification. The Gemara states, "A mourner on the first day may not eat of his own bread," implying that the prohibition pertains only to bread. A mourner may, it would seem, partake of other foods from his own kitchen. Rabbenu Bechayei in our parasha, however, explicitly associates Yaakov's cooking with the halakha of "se'udat havra'a," claiming that Yitzchak was not allowed to cook this dish for himself. Apparently, the prohibition applies to lentils, as well. It should be noted, however, that Yaakov actually gives Esav both bread and lentils (25:34). One may consider the possibility that Yaakov prepared a dish of bread and lentils for his father, and thus this incident does not prove - even according to Rabbenu Bechayei - that a mourner may not eat any of his own food.
Additionally, some have claimed that the Gemara itself may not necessarily imply a restriction of the prohibition to bread. The Gemara employs the word "lechem," which in Biblical and classical lexicon often serves as a generic term for food. As such, one cannot limit the scope of this prohibition based on the Gemara's use of this term.
In any event, this halakha teaches us the responsibility we bear towards our peers in distress. When an individual feels alone or hurt, those around him must rise to the occasion and lend him the necessary emotional support. If nothing else, the institution of "se'udat havra'a" helps the mourner realize that he is never alone, that he has earned the constant concern and goodwill of many friends and neighbors.
May Am Yisrael hear only happy tidings, so that this discussion remains on the realm of theoretical learning, "l'hagdil Torah ulha'adira."
In honor of Rosh Chodesh Kislev, we will discuss today a halakha relevant to Channuka and tangentially related to Parashat Toldot, which tells of Yitzchak's blindness (27:1).
Must a blind person light Channuka candles? Needless to say, this question assumes that a blind person is in fact obligated to observe mitzvot. This a major controversy among the authorities, which evolves from a dispute in the Gemara on this very issue. Most Rishonim adopt the view of the Chakhamim, who obligate a blind person in mitzvot, while Rabbenu Yerucham and a small handful of others rule in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda, who exempts the blind from mitzva observance. Tosafot claim that even Rabbi Yehuda acknowledges a rabbinic requirement of mitzva performance by the blind.
The question thus arises, assuming a blind person must observe mitzvot, must he light Channuka candles, as well? The argument to exempt the blind from this obligation relates to the nature of this mitzva: "pirsumei nissa." This mitzva was instituted in order to publicize the miracle of Channuka to passersby who will see the candles burning by the front door (or, nowadays, by the window). Perhaps, then, a blind person, who himself cannot see the candles of others, is to be excluded entirely from this obligation. One for whom others cannot publicize the miracle may himself be exempt from publicizing the miracle for others.
The Maharshal (Shut Maharshal 77) rules that the personal obligation of publicizing the miracle in no way depends upon one's ability to behold the publicizing of others. As such, a blind person must light Channuka candles. Nevertheless, the Maharshal writes that a blind person should preferably have someone else who lives with him (e.g. a spouse or roommate) light on his behalf. This ruling is cited by the Mishna Berura (675:9). Considerable controversy exists, however, as to whether or not the blind individual should recite the berakhot when lighting. While the Maharshal appears to indicate that he should, the Mishna Berura cites an opinion to the contrary. Much of the discussion in this regard surrounds specifically the final two berakhot - "she'asa nissim" and "shehechiyanu" (the last of which is recited, of course, only on the first night). Rav Mordechai Eliyahu is cited as maintaining that these berakhot relate to the experience of seeing the candles, rather than lighting. Therefore, the blind individual may not recite the berakhot. Rav Shmuel Wosner, by contrast, believes that these berakhot are recited simply in honor of the day of Channuka, recognizing the miracles that occurred thereupon. As such, even those who cannot see the candles may and should recite the berakhot. (See Me'iri Shabbat 23a, cited by Sha'ar Ha-tziyun 676:3.)
Parashat Toldot concludes with Esav's marriage to Machalat, a daughter of Yishmael. The Yerushalmi in Masechet Bikkurim (3:3) notes that Machalat's real name was Basmat; she was called Machalat, which evolves from the word "mechila" - forgiveness, because upon her marriage to Esav, all of Esav's sins were forgiven. "From here," concludes the Yerushalmi, "[we learn that] a groom has his sins forgiven."
This concept, that a groom's sins are forgiven, is one of the reasons cited for the custom that a bride and groom fast on their wedding day. (Although the Yerushalmi mentions only the groom's forgiveness, this notion is commonly extended to the bride, as well.) As a day of forgiveness, the wedding day warrants fasting to earn that atonement. Another reason offered involves the need for a proper state of mind at the wedding ceremony itself. The concern arose that the bride or groom may come under intoxication before the ceremony, potentially impeding the proper execution of the ritual, which requires the conscious, willful agreement of both parties. The custom thus evolved to fast, thus ensuring that neither bride nor groom would step under the canopy under the influence of alcohol. Both these reasons for the custom of fasting on one's wedding day are raised by the Maharam Mintz, cited by the Bet Shemuel (61:6).
Several later authorities have raised interesting cases where the requirement of fasting would depend on these two bases for the custom. First, if a wedding is conducted well before sunset, may the bride and groom eat in the "yichud room," after the wedding ceremony? Common practice is to be lenient in this regard, though presumably this issue would depend on the two reasons offered by the Maharam Mintz. If couples fast on their wedding day due to the atonement provided thereby, then it would seem that they would have to fast the entire day, until sundown. If, however, we adopt the second approach, that they fast in order to ensure proper concentration at the wedding ceremony, then they would be permitted to break their fast immediately thereafter. Others, however, have contended that even if we view the fasting as evolving from the atonement attained on the wedding day, the couple may eat after the ceremony, whereas the "atonement day" effectively comes to an end at the wedding ceremony itself.
Another ramification will arise when, for whatever reason, the ceremony is delayed past nightfall. If the critical factor is the atonement of wedding day, then the bride and groom may eat at dark as on any other fast day (unless we adopt the aforementioned argument that the "wedding day" ends at the canopy). On the other hand, if the fasting serves merely to avoid intoxication at the ceremony, then it would seem that bride and groom should refrain from eating until the ceremony. The Chokhmat Adam, however, rules that no matter what the basis for this custom, it was never extended past the "deadline" of regular fast days. Therefore, even if one maintains the second reason mentioned above, the bride and groom may eat after nightfall should the ceremony be delayed, though they must ensure not to drink any intoxicating beverages.
Yesterday we mentioned the Talmud Yerushalmi's comment, based on the final verse in Parashat Toldot, that one's sins are forgiven on his wedding day. As we saw, one view attributes the custom of fasting on one's wedding day to this notion.
The authorities discuss the case of a wedding conducted on those days of the year on which fasting is prohibited. May/should the bride and groom fast on these days? The Rema in Orach Chayim 573 distinguishes between different festive days. On Channuka, on which celebrating is required by force of rabbinically ordained law, the bride and groom should not fast. One getting married in the month of Nissan, however, must fast, despite the general custom not to conduct fast days during this month. Whereas the prohibition against fasting during Nissan exists only on the level of custom, rather than mandated law, this custom is overridden by the custom of a bride and groom fasting on their wedding day. The Magen Avraham, however, distinguishes between the quasi-festivals mentioned in the Gemara and those whose observance emerged only later. Whereas the former are of a stronger level of obligation, one may not fast thereon even when his wedding occurs on these days. On festivals not mentioned in the Gemara, a bride and groom should fast according to this view.
This distinction affects those people who get married on Lag Ba-omer. Whereas the Gemara makes no clear reference to this mini-festival, according to the Magen Avraham marrying couples would have to fast on Lag Ba-omer. (This is how the Rosh Yeshiva Rav Aharon Lichtenstein shlit"a ruled for my wife and I prior to our Lag Ba-omer wedding.)
By contrast, the Magen Avraham cites a view that exempts a bride and groom from fasting on any day on which "tachanun" is omitted, which includes the month of Nissan as well as Lag Ba-omer.
(The last two "S.A.L.T."'s were taken from Matis Blum's work, "Torah La-da'at," vol. 1, pp.91-3.)
On December 4th, Jewish communities in the Diaspora generally begin inserting the special prayer for rain - "ve-tein tal u-matar" in the shemoneh esrei prayer. (On some years, they begin on December 5th; here in Eretz Yisrael, we have been reciting this prayer for the past month.) Indeed, rainwater constitutes one of man's most basic necessities and has therefore stood at the center of many major conflicts and wars.
In Parashat Toldot, we read of Yitzchak's difficulties trying to secure a water source. His father had dug several wells in Philistine territory, but after his death the Philistines filled them with earth. Yitzchak dug the wells anew, only to have the fraudulent Philistines claim them as their own. Only after the third digging did Yitzchak secure his own water source.
The Ramban questions the significance of these "water-fights" that renders them worthy of inclusion in the Torah. He concludes that these episodes earned their place in Chumash since the three wells symbolize the three Temples. The first two wells, whose ownership was contested, represents the first two Temples destroyed by our enemies, while the third well, which came under Yitzchak's undisputed ownership, alludes to the third and eternal Temple, whose construction we eagerly await.
Once the Ramban has opened the doors of symbolism with respect to the wells, we may perhaps explore other possible symbols associated with this incident. The wells dug by Avraham may represent his substantial accomplishments in disseminating the divine message to the world. During his lifetime, Avraham Avinu successfully preached monotheism and the ethical codes associated therewith. Upon his passing, it seems, the Philistines, to whose ethical depravity Avraham himself had testified (20:11), sought to reverse the trend initiated by the patriarch. They destroyed his work by continuing their campaign of paganism and immorality. Yitzchak, therefore, saw as his primary responsibility the "re-digging of the wells": the perpetuation of his father's teachings, the stubborn and resilient continuity of Avraham's legacy in spite of those who sought to erase Avraham's profound impact on the people of Canaan.
In truth, this level of symbolism does not steer too far from the allegorical approach advanced by the Ramban. The Torah refers to Avraham's education campaign with the expression, "He called in the Name of God" (see 13:8 & Ramban). Similarly, Sefer Devarim (chapter 12 and elsewhere) consistently speaks of the Bet Hamikdash as "the place that Hashem your God will choose to have His Name reside therein." The Mikdash serves the same function as Avraham's "calling in the Name of God": to publicize the Name of God to all mankind. Through history, beginning with the time of Yitzchak, opposing forces have threatened to bring this process to halt. But the great patriarch never gave in; he "dug" three times until he realized his goal. Even in the face of adversity, Am Yisrael must continue its campaign of representing the highest ideals of Godliness and spirituality both to ourselves and to the world at large.