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The Gemara in Masekhet Avoda Zara (17a) tells the famous story of Elazar ben Dordaya, who is described as having visited every prostitute in the world, but once heard of a certain prostitute who lived in a remote land whom he had not visited. Elazar spent an enormous sum of money to reach the woman and to pay her for her services. During their encounter, the Gemara relates, the woman passed air, and then remarked to her patron, “Just as the air will never return to its place, Elazar will likewise never repent.” Shaken by the woman’s words, Elazar left, sat alone in reflection, and wept until he died. The Gemara concludes by stating that Elazar earned a share in the world to come through his repentance.
One of the many striking features of this story is the source of Elazar ben Dordaya’s inspiration to repent. Normally, we think of inspiration as originating from an inherently spiritual experience, or by observing or meeting a deeply pious person. In this story, however, the motivation to change was stirred by a world-renowned harlot, at a moment when she was serving her customer and her body performed a function which evokes revulsion. Everything about this setting was unseemly and dishonorable. The setting, when a prostitute passed air during an encounter with a client, was the remotest possible venue from spirituality and holiness. And yet, it was specifically this unbecoming encounter that spurred a lifelong sinner to repentance, to the point where he earned a share of the eternal world and, as the Gemara tells, was given the title “Rabbi.”
This story thus serves as a striking example of the accessibility of teshuva, of our ability to grow and improve regardless of our situation and circumstances. As the Torah says in a verse which the Ramban understands as referring to repentance, “For the matter is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart” (Devarim 30:14). We do not have to, and we must not, delay personal change and spiritual growth until our circumstances change, or until something or somebody comes along and gives us a jolt of inspiration. Even a person like Elazar ben Dordaya, mired in sin and decadence, can find an opportunity – and in the unlikeliest setting – for repentance. Certainly, then, we can find ways to grow in our current circumstances, whatever they may be, opportunities that present themselves every day to help us along our lifelong journey towards excellence.
Yesterday, we discussed the famous story told in the Gemara (Avoda Zara 17a) of Elazar ben Dordaya, a man who lived a decadent life, making a point of visiting every prostitute he could. Once, after expending a great deal of money and effort to visit a certain prostitute, she mentioned to him during intercourse that he is incapable of ever changing. Her remark startled Elazar, who went to a private place and wept until he died. The Gemara concludes that a heavenly voice declared that Elazar earned a share in the world to come.
The Arizal (cited by the Lubavitcher Rebbe) identified Elazar ben Dordaya as a reincarnation of Yochanan Kohen Gadol, a pious man who faithfully served as the kohen gadol in the Second Temple for eighty years but ultimately became a heretic (Berakhot 29). Elazar ben Dordaya was able to receive a share in the eternal world, the Arizal explained, on account of the merits accrued in his former life, as Yochanan Kohen Gadol, and his repentance before his death atoned for his having become a sinner toward the end of his previous sojourn in this world.
The association drawn between these two figures is both intriguing and compelling. Yochanan Kohen Gadol lived a life of piety until falling into sinfulness toward the end of his life; Elazar ben Dordaya lived a life of sinfulness until undergoing repentance at the end of his life. These two men represent, in the extreme, the two sides of the “coin” of the human capacity for change. We are able to change for the worse, as in the case of Yochanan Kohen Gadol, and also to change for the better, as in the case of Elazar ben Dordaya. The fact that people are capable of drastic change is both frightening and comforting. As the Gemara in Berakhot famously warns on the basis of the precedent of Yochanan Kohen Gadol, “Do not trust yourself until the day you die.” The prospect of moral and spiritual decline should alert us to the need to be constantly wary of ourselves and to stand guard against any kind of negative influences. At the same time, however, our ability to change offers us the promise of renewal and the encouraging prospect of self-improvement. We need to be mindful of both our innate weaknesses and our internal strengths, how the free will with which we are endowed grants us the potential to reach great heights but also the potential to plummet to the lowest depths.
During the Yom Kippur service in the Beit Ha-mikdash, the kohen gadol brought two sin-offerings whose blood was sprinkled in the kodesh ha-kodashim (the inner sanctum of the Temple). The first was a bull which atoned for him and his fellow kohanim, and the other was a goat which atoned for all Benei Yisrael. The blood of each sacrifice was sprinkled independently in the kodesh ha-kodashim and then on the parokhet – the curtain separating between the two chambers of the Mikdash. Afterward, the kohen gadol poured the blood of his bull into the basin containing the blood of the people’s sacrifice, mixing all the blood together. He then sprinkled blood from this mixture onto the mizbach ha-zahav (the golden incense altar).
In the Ata Konanta text of the Yom Kippur prayer, which is cited by those who follow the Nusach Sefarad tradition, this stage of the Temple service – the mixing of the blood of the sacrifices – is described with the expression, “Sas ve-ira” – “He rejoiced and mixed” the blood of one sacrifice with the blood of the other. The question naturally arises as to why the poet who composed this prayer chose to underscore the “joy” with which this act was done. While we could simply attribute this illustration to poetic license and to considerations of meter and the alphabetic structure of this passage, we should perhaps also search for possible deeper layers of meaning.
The Tolna Rebbe of Jerusalem cites a symbolic interpretation of this phrase from Rav Elchanan of Kalashitz. The mixing of the two sacrifices signified the kohen gadol’s viewing himself as part of the Jewish Nation, and not as somebody above and separate from the people. Although the kohen gadol was singled out to serve a unique role and observe a unique set of laws, he was to always consider himself equal in importance to all members of Am Yisrael, without exception. If the kohen gadol truly understood and appreciated his role, then the most joyous moment of the Yom Kippur service was the moment he mixed the priestly sacrifice with the nation’s sacrifice, symbolizing his “mixture” among the entire nation. This act was to be done joyfully because the kohen gadol should crave equal standing, rather than relish his position of honor and distinction. Especially on Yom Kippur, the kohen gadol must want to be together with the rest of the people, not separate from them.
Later in the prayer service, toward the end of the Avoda section, we describe Yom Kippur as “yom simat ahava ve-rei’ut, yom azivat kin’a ve-tacharut” – “a day of instilling love and camaraderie, and day of abandoning jealousy and competition.” Part of our striving for angelic perfection on Yom Kippur is viewing ourselves as equals with all our fellow Jews, leaving behind whatever feelings of envy, resentment and contention that we might feel. On Yom Kippur, we stand before God together with each and every member of our nation. We are not struggling against or competing with anyone. And Rav Elchanan of Kalashitz viewed the act of “sas ve-ira” as a powerful symbol of this quality of Yom Kippur. Even the kohen gadol, the highest religious figure in the nation, “mixes” with the rest of the nation with joy and exuberance, relishing not the exclusive privileges of the high priesthood, but rather the far greater privilege of standing together with the rest of God’s special nation and joining them in petitioning Him for mercy and forgiveness.
The kohen gadol immersed in a mikveh several times over the course of the Yom Kippur service. Specifically, he was required to immerse before changing from one set of garments into the other. Different parts of the service required different sets of garments, and the kohen gadol would immerse each time he would change. In describing the kohen gadol’s immersion, the Mishnayot in Masekhet Yoma write (in several contexts), “Yarad ve-taval ala ve-nistapag” – “He went down [into the mikveh], immersed, came up, and dried himself.”
The Mishneh Le-melekh (Hilkhot Avodat Yom Ha-kippurim 2:2) notes that it appears from this description that the kohen gadol was required to dry himself after immersing. By including the word “ve-nistapag” in its list of procedures, the Mishna seems to imply that this was an obligatory part of the process. The Mishneh Le-melekh theorizes that drying was necessary to ensure that no dirt or other substance in the mikveh became attached to the kohen gadol’s skin during immersion. Halakha requires the kohen to wear his priestly garments directly on the skin, without any obstruction, and even a small foreign object on the body constitutes a chatzitza (obstruction) for the purposes of this halakha (Zevachim 19a). Therefore, the kohen gadol needed to dry his body after immersion to ensure the removal of any substance which might have collected on his skin during immersion. Alternatively, the Mishneh Le-melekh adds, the water itself may constitute a chatzitza obstructing between the kohen gadol’s skin and his garments, and thus it needed to be removed before he could don his garments.
Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, both in his Or Samei’ch commentary to the Mishneh Torah and in his Meshekh Chokhma (15:2), offered a different reason for this requirement. The Torah instructs that the kohanim must wear their garments for the sake of honor and prestige (“le-khavod i-le’tif’aret” – Shemot 28:2). If a kohen gadol would put on his garments when his body was wet, the garments would become damp and appear undignified. For this reason, he needed to dry himself before putting on his garments.
A different, and particularly novel, theory to explain this requirement was suggested by Rav Meir Arik, in his work Tal Torah (Yoma 31b), where he writes that drying was required due to the prohibition of bathing on Yom Kippur. Although the kohen gadol was permitted to immerse on Yom Kippur as required, he was not allowed to remain wet after emerging from the mikveh, and he was thus required to dry himself immediately.
Rav Meir Arik’s theory seemingly yields a fascinating halakhic conclusion that is applicable to each and every one of us – namely, that when hand-washing is permitted on Yom Kippur, such as when awaking in the morning and after using the restroom, one must immediately dry his hands. Since one enjoys the sensation of moisture on the hands, he is obligated by the prohibition of rechitza (washing) to remove the water as quickly as possible. Likewise, if somebody bathed immediately before the onset of Yom Kippur, he must ensure to thoroughly dry himself before Yom Kippur begins.
Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is cited as rejecting this theory, however, in light of the fact that no such requirement is mentioned in regard to kiddush yadayim va-raglayim – the kohen gadol’s washing of his hands and feet before beginning the service on Yom Kippur. Seemingly, according to Rav Meir Arik’s theory, just as the kohen gadol was required to dry himself after immersing, he would also have to dry his hands and feet after washing them before beginning the service on Yom Kippur. As this requirement is never mentioned, it appears that the kohen gadol needed to dry his body only after immersion.
Rav Asher Weiss, however, noted that there may, indeed, be a distinction between immersion and kidush yadayim ve-raglayim. There is a debate among the Rishonim as to whether bathing on Yom Kippur is forbidden on the level of Torah obligation. Some maintain that bathing is forbidden only by force of Rabbinic enactment, whereas others maintain that bathing one’s entire body is forbidden by the Torah. According to this second view, we can easily understand why the kohen gadol would have to dry himself after immersion, when his entire body was wet, but not after washing his hands and feet, as washing individual body parts is not forbidden by the Torah prohibition of rechitza.
Nevertheless, despite refuting this argument against Rav Meir Arik’s theory, Rav Weiss takes the view that Halakha does not require one to dry himself after washing on Yom Kippur, even after washing his entire body. The fact that no sources make mention of such a requirement strongly suggest that Halakha forbids bathing, but does not require removing water that is on one’s body.
Yesterday, we noted the comments of the Mishneh Le-melekh (Hilkhot Avodat Yom Ha-kippurim 2:2) suggesting that the kohen gadol was halakhically required to dry himself after immersing during the Yom Kippur service. When the Mishnayot in Masekhet Yoma mention each of the kohen gadol’s immersions on Yom Kippur, they state, “Yarad ve-taval ala ve-nistapag” – “He went down [into the mikveh], immersed, came up, and dried himself.” The fact that the Mishnayot saw fit to make mention of the kohen gadol drying himself seems to suggest that this was a required part of the procedure. The Mishneh Le-melekh suggests that drying was required because the water droplets on the kohen gadol’s skin, or dirt in the mikveh that accumulated on his skin, would constitute a chatzitza (obstruction) between his body and his priestly garments. As the garments had to be worn directly on the skin without any substance in between, the kohen gadol needed to dry himself after immersion.
Rav Asher Weiss, in a recent essay on this subject, disagrees with this theory, and argues that the Mishnayot should not be understood to mean that the kohen gadol was halakhically required to dry himself. Rav Weiss notes that we find in two other unrelated contexts the Mishna mentioning a kohen drying himself after immersion, and where the explanation must be that this was because people normally dry themselves after immersing, and not because of a halakhic requirement. First, in Masekhet Para (3:8), this expression is used in reference to the kohen gadol’s immersion before burning the para aduma to prepare the purifying ashes. Even though there was no requirement for him to dry himself after this immersion, the Mishna nevertheless speaks of him drying after immersing because this is what was normally done. The second instance appears in Masekhet Tamid (26a), where the Mishna speaks of a case of a kohen who experiences a nocturnal emission one night during his term of duty in the Beit Ha-mikdash. The Mishna describes how the kohen would immediately immerse and was then allowed to remain in the Temple courtyard until the next morning. In this context, too, the Mishna uses the expression, “Yarad ve-taval ala ve-nistapag.” Apparently, this is simply the jargon used in describing the process of immersion, and does not indicate an actual halakhic requirement to immerse.
The Rama (O.C. 640:4) cites the view of the Mordekhai and the Yerei’im that if a sukka is constructed in a location that makes it unsuitable for eating or sleeping, then the sukka is disqualified entirely, even for the activities for which it is suitable. For example, if the sukka is situated in a place where sleeping is dangerous or uncomfortable, then it may not be used even for eating, despite the fact that eating in the sukka is perfectly safe and comfortable. The Rama explains that such a sukka fails to meet the criterion of “ke-ein dira” – that it resembles a residence. The famous law of “teishvu ke-ein taduru” establishes that one must treat the sukka as his home, and thus if the sukka poses discomfort, one may leave the sukka, just as one would leave his home if it causes discomfort. The Rama expands this halakha to include a requirement to construct one’s sukka in a location that is suitable for “dira” (“residence”), meaning, for eating and sleeping.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Sorotzkin, in his Gevurot Yitzchak, notes that this position can be formulated in two different ways. The more intuitive formulation, perhaps, is that the law of “teishvu ke-ein taduru” consists of two distinct elements: it affects both the construction of the sukka, and the actual performance of the mitzva of residing in the sukka. This rule both defines the sukka obligation as a requirement to reside in the sukka the way one resides in his home, and also sets parameters for the sukka itself, requiring that it resemble a home in certain respects. Alternatively, however, it is possible that the law of “teishvu ke-ein taduru,” even according to this view, affects only the fulfillment of the mitzva of residing in the sukka, and not the requirements of the sukka itself. We might explain that once Halakha establishes that one must reside in the sukka the way he resides in his home, this reflects the fact that a sukka is defined as a type of residence. The law of “teishvu ke-ein taduru” does not directly address the way a sukka is constructed, but rather reveals to us the halakhic definition of a sukka – as a place where one is capable of residing in an acceptable manner. The essential difference between these two approaches is the relationship between the Rama’s ruling and the law of “teishvu ke-ein taduru.” The first approach says that this law itself requires constructing the sukka as a suitable residence, whereas the second sees this requirement as a function of the very definition of the halakhic term “sukka,” and not of the rule of “teishvu ke-ein taduru.”
Extending this distinction one step further, the first approach views the Rama’s ruling as contingent upon the law of “teishvu ke-ein taduru.” Meaning, a sukka would be disqualified as long as it is built such that it poses the kind and degree of discomfort that would exempt a person from the mitzva by force of the rule of “teishvu ke-ein taduru.” Since, according to this approach, the Rama’s ruling is an application of “teishvu ke-ein taduru,” it is dependent upon the parameters of that principle. As such, the level of unsuitability for normal residence required to invalidate a sukka is the level of unsuitability that would absolve one from the obligation if the sukka had been built properly. According to the second approach, however, this might not necessarily be true. Since the disqualification of such a sukka is due to the definition of the term “sukka,” and not to the specific halakha of “teishvu ke-ein taduru,” the rules are not necessarily contingent upon the rules that apply to “teishvu ke-ein taduru.”
On this basis, Rav Sorotzkin explains the debate among the poskim concerning a sukka constructed in a way that causes the person himself discomfort but does not render the sukka unsuitable for most other people. The general consensus among the Acharonim is that if a sukka poses discomfort to a person because he is especially sensitive, but most other people would not be bothered by the conditions in the sukka, he is exempt from the mitzva, since he would not remain in his home under such conditions. Therefore, according to the first approach mentioned above, one may not construct his sukka in a place that causes him discomfort, even if most others would not find this location uncomfortable. Since he would be exempt by force of the law of “teishvu ke-ein taduru,” the sukka is invalid. According to the second approach, however, this might not necessarily be the case. It seems likely that a sukka meets the criteria of the halakhic term “sukka” as long as it is suitable for most people. Even though some especially sensitive people may be unable to live there, and would thus be exempt due to the provision of “teishvu ke-ein taduru,” neveretheless, the structure satisfies the definition of the term “sukka” since it can serve as a place of residence for most people. As such, the sukka is valid.
Rav Sorotzkin notes that this issue is subject to debate among the halakhic authorities. The Mishna Berura (640) cites the Nahar Shalom’s ruling that an especially sensitive person does not fulfill the mitzva by eating in a sukka where he cannot comfortably sleep, even if most other people can sleep there comfortably. However, the Mishna Berura himself disagrees, and maintains that since most people can sleep comfortably in the sukka, it is valid for eating even for those who cannot sleep there comfortably.
The Rambam, in Hilkhot Lulav (7:7), writes that one may, when fulfilling the mitzva of arba minim on Sukkot, add more than the minimum required three hadas branches. When it comes to the other three species, the Rambam rules, one may not add onto that which Halakha requires, but one is allowed to add more hadasim. The Rambam further notes that adding extra hadasim constitutes “noi mitzva” – an aesthetic enhancement to the mitzva, and it is thus acceptable and even laudatory.
The commentators struggle to determine the source of the Rambam’s ruling, and to explain why the hadasim are unique in this regard. One theory is advanced by Netziv, in his Meromei Sadeh (Sukka 45a), where he suggests that the Rambam drew this conclusion from the Gemara’s comment (there in Masekhet Sukka), “Whoever holds a lulav with its bundle and a hadas with its branches is considered by the verse as though he constructed an altar and offered a sacrifice upon it.” The Gemara extols the virtue of those who hold a “lulav ba-agudo ve-hadas ba-avoto” – singling out the lulav and the hadas. The term “lulav ba-agudo” seems to refer to the practice of holding the lulav tied together with the hadasim and aravot. Why, then, does the Gemara here add “hadasim ba-avoto,” which is already included in “lulav ba-avoto”? Evidently, Netziv observes, the Gemara here refers not to fulfilling the basic obligation of hadasim, but rather to extending beyond the basic requirement. After all, if the Gemara is praising those who fulfill this mitzva, saying that they are considered to have offered a sacrifice, it stands to reason that it speaks not of those who fulfill the strict obligation, but rather those who extend beyond the basic requirement and fulfill the mitzva on a higher standard. Hence, the Rambam understood that the Gemara speaks of taking extra hadas branches, which has the effect of enhancing the mitzva.
Netziv proceeds to note that the Gemara here uses the term “avot,” which the Torah uses in describing to the hadas (“anaf etz avot” – Vayikra 23:40), to mean a thick bundle. In its narrowest halakhic sense, the term “avot” refers to the fact that the branch of the myrtle is completely covered by its leaves, as the tip of each leaf extends to at least the stem of the leaf above it. But additionally, Netziv suggests, “avot” may also allude to the preferred standard of fulfilling this mitzva, by using a thick bundle of hadas leaves. Netziv draws our attention to a verse in Yechezkel (31:3), which compares the mighty Assyrian Empire to a cedar whose top is “bein avotim” – “among the thicket” – referring to an abundance of branches. The Gemara, as the Rambam understood, drew upon this meaning of “avot” and established a higher standard of this mitzva achieved by taking additional hadasim.
It should be noted, however, that the Kesef Mishneh cites editions of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in which aravot are also mentioned in this passage. Meaning, according to this version of the text, the Rambam permits and encourages adding not only hadasim, but also aravot. Netziv, of course, worked off the assumption that the Rambam speaks here specifically of hadasim, and not aravot.