S.A.L.T. Parashat Naso 5776 / 2016
The Torah in Parashat Naso introduces the mitzva of birkat kohanim, which requires the kohanim to bless the rest of the nation. God commands Moshe, “Speak to Aharon and sons, saying: Thus shall you bless the Israelites” (6:23), and He then proceeds to dictate Moshe the precise text of the brief blessing that the kohanim should confer upon the people.
The Sefat Emet observes that God does not actually command the kohanim to bless Benei Yisrael, but rather commands them to use this specific text when blessing them. God does not instruct, “Bless the Israelites,’ but rather says, “Thus shall you bless the Israelites.” Apparently, it was self-evident that the kohanim would bless the people, and now God instructs the kohanim as to how exactly this is to be done. The Sefat Emet offers a remarkable explanation for why the command is formulated this way:
One who serves Hashem must recognize the stature of the simple Jews, that they are worthy of blessing, as it says, “Thus shall you bless” – implying that Hashem knows that the righteous kohen’s desire is to bless the Israelites, and He shows them the way how to bless them.
Indeed, it was taken for granted that the kohanim wanted to regularly bless the people. Having been elevated to the lofty stature of kehuna, to the elite position of God’s ministers in His Mikdash, it was naturally assumed that they loved the people and wished to confer a blessing upon them. Therefore, God did not have to command the kohanim to bless Benei Yisrael, and needed simply to command them which text should use.
In fact, the Mishna Berura (128:37) cites sources forbidding a kohen to recite birkat kohanim if he feels animosity towards the congregation, as the blessing must be recited with love. This halakha is a striking expression of the Sefet Emet’s theory, that the mitzva of birkat kohanim does not take effect unless a kohen truly wishes to bless the nation. If the kohen feels hostility towards the people, then he bears no obligation to bless them, because the obligation applies only once a kohen feels the kind of love and affection that he is expected to feel towards his fellow Jews.
Unfortunately, it often happens that growth in Torah knowledge and spirituality yields an attitude of disdain towards those who have not undergone such a process. “Kohanim,” people who have achieved stature in Torah study and observance, sometimes look condescendingly upon the “simple Jews” whose knowledge and level of observance leave much to be desired. The Sefat Emet’s insight teaches us how grave a mistake it is to allow one’s spiritual achievements to result in disdain or disrespect for his fellow Jews, regardless of their religious stature. From the perspective of the Sefat Emet, love and affection for “simple Jews” is an integral part of avodat Hashem, and, as such, religious growth must deepen, not dull, our feelings of respect and concern for our fellow Jews.
The Beit Ha-levi (Chanukah section) advances the theory that a kohen cannot fulfill his obligation of birkat kohanim – to bless the congregation – by listening to another kohen’s recitation. Normally, when Halakha requires reciting a certain text, one is able to satisfy his requirement through the mechanism of shomei’a ke-oneh, which means that listening is akin to reciting. As long as both the one reciting the text and the listener have in mind that the recitation should count even for the listener, he can fulfill his obligation in his manner. However, the Beit Ha-levi asserts that birkat kohanim marks an exception to this rule. The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (38a) establishes that a kohen must recite the blessing “be-kol ram” – in a loud, audible voice. The Beit Ha-levi asserts that although the concept of shomei’a ke-oneh allows one to be considered as having recited a text which he heard, it does not suffice to meet the condition of “be-kol ram.” The listener can fulfill a halakhic requirement to recite a certain text, but the requirement to speak audibly can only be fulfilled if he himself recites the text in a loud voice. Shomei’a ke-oneh can “transfer” the actual recitation from the speaker to the listener, but it cannot “transfer” the volume.
A number of Acharonim questioned the Beit Ha-levi’s assertion, noting instances in which Halakha imposes external conditions on a recitation requirement, yet allows for fulfilling the requirement through shomei’a ke-oneh. For example, kiddush must be recited specifically over a cup of wine, and one can fulfill his obligation by hearing another person recite the kiddush text over a cup of wine, even though the listener does not have a cup of wine. Likewise, we fulfill the obligation of keri’at ha-Torah by hearing someone read from the Torah, even though we only hear the reading and do not have a Sefer Torah in front of us.
The Tolna Rebbe suggested upholding the Beit Ha-levi’s ruling by noting the unique nature of the mitzva of birkat kohanim. In the berakha recited by the kohanim before conferring the priestly blessing, they give praise to God who commanded them “le-vareikh et amo Yisrael be-ahava” – “to bless His nation, Israel, with love.” As we noted yesterday, citing the Mishna Berura (128:37), a kohen does not recite birkat kohanim if there is tension between him and the congregation. As the blessing must be recited “be-ahava,” the obligation cannot be fulfilled in the absence of genuine feelings of affection towards the people. And for this reason, the Tolna Rebbe explained, it stands to reason that a kohen cannot discharge his duty by listening to the recitation of birkat kohanim by another kohen. Even if we concede that the mechanism of shomei’a ke-oneh can “transfer” external conditions to the listener, and not merely the actual recitation, it would still stand to reason that this does not extend to the kohen’s emotional state. Emotions are intangible and personal, and thus, presumably, cannot be experienced by proxy, even in the strictly formal, halakhic sense. A kohen must therefore personally recite birkat kohanim, because even if he can be halakhically considered “reciting” through listening, he does not fulfill in this manner the obligation to bless with sincere feelings of love and concern for his fellow Jews.
The final section of Parashat Naso tells of the special gifts brought by the nesi’im – Benei Yisrael’s twelve tribal leaders – in honor of the Mishkan’s consecration. This section begins with the words, “Va-yehi be-yom kalot Moshe le-hakim et ha-Mishkan” – “It happened on the day when Moshe completed erecting the Mishkan.”
The Midrash Tanchuma (12) advances an unusual reading of the first word of this verse – “va-yehi,” suggesting that it be read as “vay” – an expression of angst. While we would have naturally assumed that the occasion of the Mishkan’s formal consecration was one of great joy and celebration, the Midrash comments that it actually caused the Almighty anguish, so-to-speak. The Midrash draws an analogy to a king who had a whiny, argumentative wife. Once he asked his wife to make a special garment for him, and when she completed the project to satisfaction and brought it to him, he was pleased by what he saw, but he cried out in angst. When his wife asked him why he reacted this way to her skilled handiwork, he explained, in the words of the Midrash, “I found the work very satisfactory, but throughout the time you were involved in the work, you were not angry and you did not complain to me. But now that you are idle, I am afraid that you will anger me.”
Similarly, the Midrash comments, the completion of the Mishkan was a source of anguish, as it were, to the Almighty, as He anticipated that Benei Yisrael would now resume their complaints against Him.
When we are involved in lofty and important tasks, we are less inclined to fret over petty “problems” and concerns. As we focus our attention on the sublime, the issues and worries that would otherwise occupy us and break our spirits are put in perspective and tolerated without much effort. Pursuing meaningful and significant goals changes our outlook so we are not bothered by trivial concerns. And thus as Benei Yisrael labored to construct the Mishkan, they did not complain about their conditions. The complaints returned once this undertaking was completed and they were no longer intensively engaged in a lofty project.
Chazal here remind us to keep our minds and attention focused on lofty goals and aspirations, and to avoid allowing ourselves to get bogged down by vanity. We are to spend our limited time in this world involved in the “Mishkan,” in idealistic, spiritual pursuits, rather than worrying and complaining about matters which are, in the long run, petty and inconsequential.
The Torah in Parashat Naso presents the text of birkat kohanim, the special blessing with which the kohanim are to bless Benei Yisrael, which includes, “Yisa Hashem panav eilekha” – which is generally translated as, “The Lord shall show you favor.” The implication of this blessing is that God should grant us even more than what we strictly deserve, out of His special affection for us.
The Gemara, in a famous passage (Berakhot 20b), tells that the angels approached God and asked how this blessing could be reconciled with Moshe’s proclamation in Sefer Devarim (10:17), “asher lo yisa fanim” – that God does not show favor to anyone. Moshe there affirms that God judges in strict fairness, without granting any special dispensations due to a person’s status. How, then, can the kohanim bless us, “Yisa Hashem panav eilekha”? The answer which God gives the angels, the Gemara says, is that the Jewish People deserve special favor in the merit of the mitzva of birkat ha-mazon – reciting a blessing after meals. Specifically, we make a point of reciting birkat ha-mazon even after eating just a ke-zayit of food, despite the fact that the Torah obligation requires reciting the blessing only after experiencing satiation, as indicated in the text of the command of birkat ha-mazon: “You will eat and be satiated, and you shall bless the Lord your God” (Devarim 8:10). Since we thank God for even small amounts of food, we are deserving of His special favor, even though He generally does not show favoritism.
Rav Simcha Bunim of Pashischa explained that when a person receives a gift from a person of prominent stature, he treasures it, regardless of its size or value. Even the simplest object becomes a cherished possession if it was given by somebody important or distinguished. This, Rav Simcha Bunim explained, is the significance of reciting birkat ha-mazon over even small portions of food. If we truly view everything we own, have and enjoy as a gift granted to us by the Creator and King of the universe, then we would value and treasure it all, even if we do not experience “satiation.” Regardless of whether we have all we want, we are nevertheless capable of feeling grateful and joyous over every small “ke-zayit” if we recognize that everything has been given to us as a gift from the Almighty.
On this basis, Rav Simcha Bunim explained the Gemara’s comment. If we value even the unsatisfactory assets that we have due to the greatness of the One who gave them to us, then God will, in turn, value even our unsatisfactory level of Torah devotion in consideration of who we are. He will recognize that we are flawed and limited human beings, whose inclinations often lure us away from fulfilling the divine will. He will recognize that even the small amounts that we achieve reflect a strong and sincere desire to observe His commands and draw close to Him. If we appreciate and treasure the small gifts we receive in consideration of who it is who gave them, then God will appreciate and treasure our small “gifts” in consideration of who we are – complicated, deficient beings who struggle against internal and external pressures, often unsuccessfully, out of a genuine desire to fulfill His will.
The Gemara in Masekhet Megilla (27b) tells that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua was asked to identify his special merits on account of which he lived a long life. He responded by enumerating several admirable habits that he had, including, “lo nasati kapai be-lo berakha” – he ensured never to recite birkat kohanim without first reciting the introductory blessing which is to precede the berakha given to the congregation.
The implication of Rabbi Elazar’s response is that this introductory blessing (“Baruch…asher kideshanu…le-varekh et amo Yisrael be-ahava”) is not strictly required. If it constituted an outright halakhic obligation, then, seemingly, Rabbi Elazar’s consistent observance of this practice would not be remarkable and would not have rendered him worthy of an especially long life. Indeed, the Vilna Gaon, in his notes to the Shulchan Arukh (Bei’ur Ha-Gra, O.C. 128:13), writes on the basis of this Talmudic passage that the introductory blessing which the kohanim customarily recite before birkat kohanim is not strictly required.
Evidently, as noted by Rav Elyakim Pashkes (in Ka-matar Likchi, Parashat Naso), the Gaon maintained that Chazal did not institute a formal birkat ha-mitzva before birkat kohanim as they did for other mitzvot. Leaving aside the question of why Chazal established introductory berakhot for some mitzvot but not others, it appears, at least according to the Vilna Gaon, that no such berakha was established for birkat kohanim. Although kohanim customarily recite a berakha before birkat kohanim whose text follows the familiar format of birkot ha-mitzva (“asher kideshanu…ve-tzivanu”), this is not a standard birkat ha-mitzva, but is rather a different kind of blessing.
Rav Pashkes noted that this also appears to be the view of the Rambam, who rules (Hilkhot Tefila 14:12) that the kohanim recite the introductory berakha before they turn around to face the congregation in preparation for conferring the birkat kohanim. When a birkat ha-mitzva is recited before the performance of a mitzva, it must be recited immediately before the mitzva is performed, and no earlier. Presumably, this is why other opinions – as codified by the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 128:11) – require the kohanim to recite the introductory blessing as they turn around to face the congregation, but not beforehand. Since this blessing, in their view, is recited over the mitzva of birkat kohanim, it must be recited immediately before the kohanim begin declaring the blessing. The Rambam, however, perhaps understood that this berakha does not fall under the category of birkot ha-mitzva, and for this reason did not require reciting it immediately before conferring the birkat kohanim.
The question then becomes, if this introductory blessing does not constitute a standard birkat ha-mitzva, then what kind of blessing is it?
Apparently, Rav Pashkes writes, this berakha is an expression of praise given by the kohanim over the privilege they are given to bless Am Yisrael. They recite this berakha not in reference to the halakhic obligation of birkat kohanim – like the berakhot we recite before fulfilling certain halakhic obligations, such as sefirat ha-omer – but rather over the privilege and honor of blessing the Jewish Nation. It thus resembles other berakhot we recite to express praise to the Almighty over different experiences and phenomena, and, according to the Vilna Gaon, it does not constitute a strict halakhic requirement.
If, indeed, we view this blessing as an expression of praise over this privilege, then we may perhaps derive a meaningful lesson from this practice. Namely, we should see the opportunity to bless our fellow Jews and to wish them well as a great privilege and source of joy. If the kohanim give special praise to God before blessing Am Yisrael over this privilege, then we must perceive blessing fellow Jews as a great honor. The opportunity to wish another Jew well and convey words of blessing and encouragement is something we should cherish and which brings us joy and excitement.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we relish specifically the opposite opportunity – those instances when we discover something negative about a person’s character and conduct. These situations give us the chance to enjoy feelings of superiority and vindication, to view ourselves as better than others. The introductory blessing to birkat kohanim should perhaps teach us to feel privileged to admire and feel fondness for people, not to look down on them. The opportunities we should cherish are the times when we genuinely like people and wish them well, and not the times when we can arrogantly look down on them with ridicule and scorn.
The Torah in Parashat Naso introduces the law of sota, which addresses the situation of a man who suspects his wife of an adulterous affair. If a husband warns his wife not to be secluded with a certain man, and the woman is seen violating the warning and going into a secluded room with that individual, she and her husband may not engage in marital relations until she undergoes the process outlined here in the Torah. This process entails her drinking special waters, and if she survives, then she is considered innocent and may resume normal relations with her husband.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sota 1:2) raises the question of whether these laws apply in the case of a husband who warns his wife not to go into seclusion with an immediate family member, such as her father or brother. According to one view, violating this warning does not render the woman a sota, and she and her husband may continue living together as husband and wife. The classic commentators to the Yerushalmi (Korban Ha-eida and Penei Moshe) explain that the Yerushalmi’s question is whether the laws of sota hinge upon the prohibition of yichud – secluding oneself with a member of the opposite gender other than one’s spouse. According to the aforementioned view, the concept of sota is applicable only if the suspected adulterer is somebody with whom the wife is halakhically forbidden to be secluded. If she secludes herself with somebody with whom seclusion is halakhically permissible, such as her father, then even though her husband had warned her not to seclude herself with that person, the laws of sota do not apply.
Interestingly enough, this issue may have important practical halakhic implications. The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (26b) cites Shemuel’s comment that the laws of sota apply even if the man with whom the husband forbids seclusion is shachuf (impotent). Although it may be presumed in such a case that no adulterous act occurred, nevertheless, the laws of sota apply. The Gemara, somewhat surprisingly, reacts to Shemuel’s comment by asking, “Peshita” – why such a self-evident halakha needed to be stated. In the Gemara’s eyes, it is obvious that the laws of sota apply irrespective of the suspected adulterer’s sexual capabilities. The Gemara answers that Shemuel’s ruling was necessary because the Torah introduces the laws of sota by describing the scenario of a suspected adulterous relationship that included semenal ejaculation (“shikhvat zera” – Bamidbar 5:13). For our purposes, however, it is significant that the Gemara initially found Shemuel’s ruling intuitive and self-evident. As noted by Rav Moshe Yehuda Leib Zilberberg, in his Zayit Ra’anan (E.H. 1:1), this would seem to prove that the prohibition of yichud forbids even an impotent man from secluding himself with a female. After all, if yichud in such a case would be permissible, then the status of a shachuf with respect to the laws of sota would hinge on the aforementioned debate in the Yerushalmi. According to the view that a wife does not become a sota by being secluded with a family member, this would be true also in the case of a shachuf. As such, Shemuel’s ruling would hardly be obvious. Evidently, Rav Zilberberg reasons, the Gemara worked off the assumption that yichud is forbidden even for an impotent man who is incapable of intercourse, and therefore Shemuel’s halakha initially seemed self-evident.
Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, in a letter to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv which he then published in his Tzitz Eliezer (7:46), disagreed. Among his refutations of Rav Zilberberg’s proof is the fact that the question raised by the Yerushalmi is never mentioned in the Talmud Bavli. Indeed, the Mishna (Sota 24a) makes a generic statement that the laws of sota apply to all relatives with whom intimacy is forbidden (“Al yedei kol ha-arayot maknin”), which would certainly suggest that they apply even in the case of immediate family members. Quite possibly, then, the Bavli assumed that the laws of sota do not hinge at all on the prohibition of yichud, and they apply even if the man in question is somebody with whom the wife is halakhically permitted to be secluded. As such, even if yichud is permissible for an impotent man, the Gemara justifiably found Shemuel’s ruling obvious. Indeed, Rav Waldenberg rules that an elderly, impotent man who is incapable of intercourse may be secluded with a woman (see Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 6, pp. 230-231).
Parashat Naso begins by outlining the portions of the Mishkan which were transported by the Levite families of Gershon and Merari when Benei Yisrael traveled through the wilderness. This section is a continuation of the final section of Parashat Bamidbar, which told of the duties assigned to the other Levite family, the family of Kehat.
In discussing the articles assigned to Kehat, God commands the kohanim to appoint “ish al avodato ve-el masa’o” – each Kehatite to his specific role (4:19). Meaning, rather than leave it to the Kehatites to arrange their family’s workload themselves, the kohanim should take responsibility for this arrangement, and order each member of Kehat to a particular job. A somewhat similar statement is made in Parashat Naso with regard to the duties assigned to the family of Gershon: “U-fkadetem aleihem be-mishmeret eit kol masa’am” (4:27). The kohanim were to assign the Gershonites to their particular roles, so that each knew precisely which parts of the Mishkan he was responsible for transporting. This is mentioned in reference to the workload of Merari, as well, only with one interesting difference. The Torah writes, “u-ve’sheimot tifkedu et kelei mishmeret masa’am” (4:32) – the various utensils transported by Merari were to be assigned “be-sheimot,” by name. It appears that with regard to the portions of the Mishkan transported by Merari, the names – of either the utensils or the people of Merari – had to be specified.
The Ramban explains that in truth, there was no difference in this regard between Merari and the other Levite families. Every Levi, from any family, was assigned by name to a particular utensil of the Mishkan. The reason why this was mentioned specifically in reference to Merari, the Ramban suggests, is because the Merarites’ responsibilities included the heaviest articles – specifically, the planks and beams. The workload of the Merarites, in particular, lent itself to quarreling, as some might have wished to excuse themselves from the heavier articles and leave them for others. Therefore, it was especially important that the Merarites be assigned to their roles by name, though in truth, this was done for all three Levite families.
Maharil Diskin explains differently. He writes that Merari’s assignment was unique in that it included multiple identical parts. They were responsible for transporting the planks, pillars and sockets, all of which were numerous and indistinguishable from one another. Maharil Diskin noted that just as each plank, pillar and socket needed to be positioned in the same location each time the Mishkan was reassembled, it also needed to be carried by the same Levite each time the Mishkan was transported. And given that all the planks were identical to one another, as were the pillars and sockets, each needed to be given a name and labelled to ensure that it would be carried by the same person or people each time the nation traveled. This system was not necessary for the families of Kehat and Gershon. The Kehatites transported the sacred vessels – the altars, the ark, the table and the menorah – which were, of course, easily distinguishable from one another. And the Gershonites transported the various cloths and curtains, most of which differed from one another significantly, such that each could easily be distinguished from the others. Therefore, it was only the items carried by Merari which need to be labelled by name to ensure that they were all carried by the same Leviyim each time Benei Yisrael traveled.
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