YESHIVAT HAR ETZION
ISRAEL KOSCHITZKY VIRTUAL BEIT MIDRASH (VBM)
Introduction to the Study of Talmud
by Rav Michael Siev
Megilla: 21: 24b-25a
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Key words and phrases in Hebrew and Aramaic are marked in blue, and their translation/explanation can be seen by placing the cursor over them.
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Within the quoted texts, my explanations and additions are also written in red
We resume our study of the third perek of Megilla with the mishna on the 7th to last line of 24b. The mishna continues the previous discussion of people who are unfit to perform or lead certain parts of the prayer service.
One who says I will not go before the ark (to serve as chazzan) in colored garments - even in white he shall not go.
(If he says) in shoes I will not go - even barefoot he shall not go.
One who makes his tefillin round - there is danger, and there is no mitzvah.
If he put it on his forehead or the palm of his hand - this is the way of heresy.
If he coated them with gold and put it on his sleeve - this is the way of the outsiders.
האומר איני עובר לפני התיבה בצבועין - אף בלבנים לא יעבור.
בסנדל איני עובר - אף יחף לא יעבור.
העושה תפלתו עגולה - סכנה ואין בה מצוה.
נתנה על מצחו או על פס ידו - הרי זו דרך המינות.
ציפן זהב ונתנה על בית אונקלי שלו - הרי זה דרך החיצונים.
The gemara will explain the reasons for the first three halachot mentioned in this mishna. For the final two, we turn to Rashi on our mishna.
Rashi (s.v. harei, on the 10th to last short line) explains why placing tefillin on the forehead and palm is the way of heresy:
This is the way of heresy- that they denigrate the explications of our Sages and go after the plain meaning - "between your eyes" (Devarim 6:8), literally and "on your hand" (ibid.), literally. And our Rabbis explicated in Menachot through a g'zeira shava "between the eyes" - this is the skull, the place where the brain of a baby pulsates, and "on your hand" the upper part, the biceps on the top of the arm, so that the placing will be opposite the heart.
The heresy referred to here is that of the Sadducees and others, who rejected the oral law that accompanies our written Torah, and explained the Torah as they understood it. The oral law is composed of specific commands and explanations of mitzvot that Hashem told Moshe, as well as 13 hermeneutical principles which we can use to properly understand the written Torah. If one ignores the oral Torah and relies solely on his understanding of the written Torah, one will inevitably arrive at conclusions that contradict the accepted rabbinic halakha. There are numerous instances of such disagreements, and our discussion is an example of just such a phenomenon. One can easily understand that the verse that enjoins us to place tefillin "between our eyes" and "on our hand" means that they should be placed on the forehead between the eyes and on the palm of one's hand. The Rabbis, however, using one of the 13 hermeneutical principles, understood that we are commanded to place the tefillin on the upper part of the head, above the hairline, and on the biceps muscle, across from the heart.
Let's move to the last clause of the mishna. Rashi explains that the "outsiders" here are people who follow their own intuition regarding how to perform the mitzvah, rather than the details explained by the Sages. When it comes to proper placement of the tefillin on the arm, the Rabbis learned from the verse "and it shall be for you a sign on your arm" (Shemot 13:9) that it shall be "for you," meaning as close to you as possible, with nothing separating the arm and the tefillin.
With regard to the issue of coating the tefillin with gold, Rashi (s.v. tzipan zahav, fourth line from the bottom of 24b) explains:
It also says "So that Hashem's Torah shall be in your mouth," (Shemot 13:9) that it all should be from a kosher animal.
The source that Rashi quotes for this law is an extension of a comment that appears in the gemara elsewhere. The gemara (Shabbat 108a) explains that since the Torah mentions "in your mouth" in the context of tefillin, the tefillin may only be written on material that originates from a kosher animal. Rashi here extends this principle to apply to the materials used anywhere in the tefillin and not just the parchment used for writing the parshiot.
Parenthetically, the phrase quoted here by Rashi serves as the source for an interesting detail regarding the laws of tefillin. Because the Torah goes out of its way to explain the reason for the mitzvah of tefillin - "so that Hashem's Torah shall be in your mouth, for with an outstretched arm has Hashem taken you out from Egypt" - many authorities suggest that there is a special requirement that one bear in mind the purpose of this mitzvah, which is to recognize Hashem's omnipotence and to subjugate ourselves to Him, in order to fully and properly fulfill the mitzvah (See Mishna Berura 25:15).
We now move on to the gemara, which explains the reasons for the first three clauses of the mishna.
What is the reason? We suspect that heresy may have been thrown in him.
One who makes his tefillin round - it is dangerous and there is no mitzvah. Shall we say that we have learned in a mishna that which the Rabbis taught (in a b'raita): Tefillin must be square (based on) a law taught to Moshe at Sinai! And Rava said: in its stitches and its diagonal.
Rav Papa said: The mishna is where he made it like a nut.
מאי טעמא? - חיישינן שמא מינות נזרקה בו.
העושה תפלתו עגולה סכנה ואין בה מצוה - לימא תנינא להא דתנו רבנן: תפלין מרובעות הלכה למשה מסיני! ואמר רבא: בתפרן ובאלכסונן.
אמר רב פפא: מתניתין דעבידא כי אמגוזא.
The gemara starts by questioning the first section of the mishna, and explaining concisely that a person who wants to serve as a chazzan only if he is dressed in white or only if he is barefoot is suspected of heresy. Rashi adds that the idolaters of the time were careful to lead prayers in this fashion. Other commentators point out that since we have not actually heard him say anything heretical, our suspicion disqualifies the person only for the current prayer, but not for the future (Mishna Berura 53:47). (In a practical sense, standards of appropriate dress during prayer are in part determined based on societal norms regarding respectable appearance. Therefore, in most places it would in fact be inappropriate to daven at all, and not just as a chazzan, if one is barefoot. See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 91:5 and Mishna Berura.)
We move on to the next topic in the mishna, that of making one's tefillin round. The mishna makes two statements: 1) This practice is dangerous. Rashi explains that the reason for this is that round tefillin could more easily injure someone (if they were somehow hit while on the person's head) than square tefillin. 2) One does not fulfill the mitzvah, because the tefillin must be square.
Based on this second comment of the mishna, the gemara suggests that we may have mishnaic source for a rule that we learn explicitly only in a b'raita, namely that tefillin must be square. The source for this is a halacha l'Moshe miSinai; a specific law transmitted directly from God to Moshe and passed down through the generations. While on the topic of tefillin having to be square, the gemara adds Rava's explanatory comment that they must be square even with regard to their stitches and diagonal. Rashi explains that while stitching the seams of the tefillin box one must make sure not to pull the stitching so tightly that the perfect square shape of the box is ruined. The requirement of a square shape is also expressed in mathematical terms; the diagonal must be 1.2 times the length of each side, thus ensuring a perfect square.
Having clarified the meaning of the requirement that tefillin must be square, the gemara rejects the suggestion that this requirement is clearly implied in our mishna. Our mishna only refers to one who made rounded tefillin, like the shape of a nut. That does not necessarily disqualify tefillin that are not perfectly square, as the b'raita indicates.
The next mishna
We move on to the next mishna, which starts with the very last word of 24b:
One who says "may good ones bless You" - this is the way of heresy.
(One who says) "Your mercy extends to birds' nests," (or) "Your Name shall be mentioned on good (things)", (or) "Modim-modim," we silence him.
One who euphemizes the forbidden sexual relations - we silence him.
One who says (regarding the verse) "You shall not give of your offspring to pass before Molech," - "to give to an Aramean woman" - we silence him with condemnation.
האומר יברכוך טובים - הרי זו דרך המינות.
על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך, ועל טוב יזכר שמך, מודים מודים - משתקין אותו.
המכנה בעריות - משתקין אותו.
האומר (ויקרא י"ח) ומזרעך לא תתן להעביר למלך - לא תתן לאעברא בארמיותא - משתקין אותו בנזיפה.
The mishna opens with statements that would be inappropriate for one to direct toward God. The gemara begins its explanations with the second statements, so we will first turn to Rashi to understand the mishna's opening line.
Rashi (s.v. yevarchucha, top line of 25a) explains:
'May good ones bless you' this is the way of heresy - for he does not include the wicked in the praise of God, and our Sages learned from chelb'na, whose odor is bad and it is counted among the spices for incense (in the Temple), that the verse requires them for their presentation, to be one bundle.
Despite the fact that the wicked are in great need of improving themselves, they cannot be excluded from the community. One who says "may good ones bless You" implies that the wicked have no place in Divine service. This is not only unfair to the wicked, it lowers the quality of the communal service of God and misrepresents Hashem's will, as He in fact desires the service of the entire community with all its members.
Granted "modim-modim" (we silence him) because it looks like (he believes in) two domains.
And "on good things Your Name shall be mentioned" also, because it implies: on good (things) yes, and on bad - no, and we have learned (in a mishna): one is obligated to bless for the bad just as he blesses for the good.
But "Your mercy extends to birds' nests," what is the reason (we silence him)?
Two amora'im argued about this in the west (=Eretz Yisrael); R' Yossi bar Avin and R' Yossi bar Zevida. One said: because he injects jealously into the creation, and one said: because he makes God's attributes mercy, and they are but decrees.
בשלמא מודים מודים - דמיחזי כשתי רשויות,
ועל טוב יזכר שמך נמי, דמשמע: על טוב - אין, ועל רע - לא, ותנן: חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שהוא מברך על הטובה.
אלא, על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך מאי טעמא?
פליגי בה תרי אמוראי במערבא: רבי יוסי בר אבין ורבי יוסי בר זבידא. חד אמר: מפני שמטיל קנאה במעשה בראשית, וחד אמר: מפני שעושה מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא רחמים, ואינן אלא גזירות.
The gemara analyzes the instances in which the mishna writes that one should be silenced. The case of modim-modim refers to one who doubles the first word of the 17th b'racha of shemona esrei, that of modim (which can be translated as "we thank" or "we acknowledge"). The gemara understands immediately that one who doubles this word appears to address two different beings, which is clearly inappropriate in light of the fact that there is only one God. The gemara is similarly unbothered by the fact that we silence one who says "on good things shall Your name be mentioned," because we know that one must bless Hashem even in unfortunate circumstances.
The gemara is bothered by the fact that we silence one who says "Your mercy extends to the bird's nest." The reference here is to the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken, that one must send away the mother bird before taking her eggs (Devarim 22:6). This does in fact seem to be an act of mercy so that the mother bird need not witness the taking of her eggs. The gemara therefore questions why someone who mentions this should be silenced.
The gemara presents two answers to this question: 1) This injects jealously into creation, by implying that Hashem has more mercy for birds than for other of His creations.
What does it mean that if someone makes this statement there will be more "jealousy" in creation? Can creation be jealous? And, bottom line, the gemara here does not say that the assumption that shiluach ha-ken is based on God's mercy for birds is mistaken; so what's wrong with publicizing that mercy?
A possible explanation of the gemara's first answer is that it is important for us human beings to understand that God's mercy extends to all of His creations. If we keep emphasizing the compassion that Hashem has for birds, we may fool ourselves into believing that there is something special about the birds rather than understanding that this mitzvah reflects Hashem's general compassion for all of His creations.
2) The gemara's second answer is that this statement makes Hashem's attributes mercy, while they are in reality decrees. ("Attributes" here seems to refer to mitzvot.) This statement seems to imply that there are no specific reasons for mitzvot in general. The purpose of mitzvot is simply to give us an opportunity to follow Divine commands. Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:48) understands that this is the meaning of our second answer, but writes that he believes this to be a dispute among the Sages, and he emphatically takes the approach that there are reasons behind the mitzvot (Rambam himself devoted considerable energy to explaining the reasons behind mitzvot.) Ramban (Devarim 22:6), however, argues that even this opinion in our gemara agrees that there are reasons behind the mitzvot. The question at hand is what is the correct reason for the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken. The reason for this mitzvah is not Divine mercy, for if Hashem's concern for the comfort of animals superseded His concern for the needs of human beings, He would have forbade the entire practice of slaughtering animals. Rather, the reason for this mitzvah is to purify His people by making us more compassionate. Thus, even when taking eggs for human consumption, we need to take pains to do so in a compassionate way. According to this explanation, the reason that we silence one who says "Your mercy extends to the bird's nest" is because such a person misrepresents the purpose of the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken and misses the opportunity to reflect upon the development of his own mercy and compassion, which is in fact the real purpose of the mitzvah.