SALT - Thursday, 22 Tammuz 5776 - July 28, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

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This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of my grandfather
Rav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l, whose yahrzeit is
Thursday 22 Tamuz, July 28
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            We read in Parashat Matot of the instructions given to the soldiers after Benei Yisrael’s successful battle against Midyan concerning the food utensils that they brought back as spoils of war.  The people were instructed as to how they needed to purge the utensils of all taste of the forbidden food with they were used in order for them to become permissible for use. 

The Ramban (31:23) famously raises the question of why these commands were issued only now, and not earlier, after the war againt Sichon and Og, which also resulted in Benei Yisrael’s seizing the possessions of the defeated gentile nations.  Seemingly, there was as much of a need to kasher the utensils of those nations before using them as there was to kasher the utensils of Midyan.  Why, then, were these instructions given only after the war with Midyan?

            The Ramban gives a surprising answer, claiming that the war against Sichon and Og marked the beginning of the campaign to conquer Eretz Yisrael.  Since this territory was destined to be permanently settled by the tribes of Reuven and Gad, this battle was considered part of the war to capture the Land of Israel.  And, as the Ramban cites from the Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (17a), the Israelite soldiers fighting the war of kibbush ha-aretz (capturing the land) were permitted to partake of the non-kosher food found among the land’s inhabitants.  Therefore, the utensils of the Emorites of which Benei Yisrael took possession after this war did not require kashering.

            The Ramban’s approach does not seem to answer a similar question that arises, namely, why the obligation of tevilat keilim was not presented after the battle against Sichon and Og.  The soldiers returning from the war with Midyan were told to “purify” the utensils in “mei nidda” (31:23), which the Gemara (Avoda Zara 75b) interprets as referring to the immersion of the utensils obtained from gentiles in a mikveh, even if they were never used with food.  Some Rishonim maintained that this law was actually enacted by Chazal, and the Gemara merely found an allusion for this law in the text (as indicated by the Rambam’s formulation in Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Assurot (17:5), but others claimed that this constitutes a Torah obligation.  The Ramban himself, earlier in this passage, expresses some uncertainty in this regard, writing that “my heart considers” (“libi meharher”) that the obligation of tevilat keilim was enacted by Chazal.  We might wonder why, according to the view that tevilat keilim constitutes a Biblical requirement, this law was presented only after the war with Midyan, and not after the war with Sichon and Og.  After all, this requirement has nothing to do with the presence of forbidden food or the taste of forbidden food in the utensils, and thus the Ramban’s approach regarding the laws of kashering is not relevant to the issue of tevilat keilim.  Seemingly, then, the fact that this obligation was not presented after the war with Sichon and Og proves that it does not constitute a Torah requirement, and was enacted by Chazal.  We must therefore ask how the Rishonim who consider tevilat keilim a Biblical obligation refute this proof, and why the Ramban himself expressed some ambivalence in this regard.

            Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, in one of his responsa (Har Tzevi, Y.D. 109), notes the answer given to this question by Rav Avraham Landau – the “Gaon of Tchechnov” – as cited by Rav Meir Dan Platzky in Keli Chemda (Parashat Ki-Teitzei).  The Gaon asserted that the obligation of tevilat keilim applies only if the utensil was transferred directly from the ownership of a gentile to the ownership of a Jew.  If a utensil was owned by a gentile and then became ownerless, whereupon a Jew took possession of it, it does not require immersion.  On this basis, the Gaon of Tchechnov explained the difference between the utensils seized from the Emorites and those seized from Midyan.  In the beginning of Sefer Devarim, Moshe describes how Benei Yisrael left no survivors from the kingdoms of Sichon and Og.  All the property of these nations thus became ownerless – as all the owners and their inheritors died – such that the people’s utensils did not transfer directly from the possession of gentiles to the possession of Jews.  By contrast, in the war against Midyan, Benei Yisrael killed the men, but captured the women and children alive.  As such, when they seized the Midyanites’ utensils, the utensils transferred directly from the possession of their Midyanite owners to the possession of Benei Yisrael, and they therefore required immersion.  For this reason, the obligation of tevilat keilim was relevant after the war with Midyan, but not after the war against Sichon and Og.

            We will iy”H discuss this topic further tomorrow.