Shabbat and Continuity

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #29a: Shabbat and Continuity

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

The Rabbis taught: "The mekoshesh (who violated shabbat, as recorded in Bemidbar 15) was Tzelofchad. And so it says, 'Benei Yisrael were in the desert' (Bemidbar 15:32, introducing the story of the mekoshesh), and later it says, 'Our father died in the desert' (Bemidbar 27:3, said by Tzelofchad's daughters). Just as there it is Tzelofchad, here, too, it is Tzelofchad. These are the words of R. Akiva.

R. Yehuda ben Beteira said to him: "Akiva, either way you will need to answer for your actions. If it is as you say, the Torah concealed it and you are revealing it. If you are wrong, you are slandering a righteous person."

But did he (R. Akiva) not derive it from a gezeira shava (an exegetical device, whereby a word used in two different contexts shows a relationship between the two)? He (R. Yehuda) did not learn that gezeira shava. But from where (which sin) was it? It was from "Those that presumed to go up" (Bemidbar 14:44).

(Shabbat 96b-97a)

Before focusing on the central, obvious question that arises from this passage, I would like to briefly touch upon a different issue. There is some debate as to whether every gezeira shava must come from a received tradition or if it can be suggested by independent human reasoning. Different gemarot convey opposing impressions on this matter (contrast Pesachim 66a with Nidda 22b, and see R. Yaakov Emden's notes on Nidda), and a range of intermediate positions exists in this regard. If we assume that any gezeira shava reflects, in its entirety, a received tradition, it becomes difficult to understand R. Yehuda's objection. After all, R. Akiva simply cited the tradition. On the other hand, if R. Akiva based the argument on his own analysis, R. Yehuda's objection rests on firmer ground.

R. Yehuda objects to R. Akiva's attempt to identify the sin on account of which Tzelofchad died. After citing R. Yehuda's objection, the gemara, oddly enough, proceeds to suggest a different sin, that of the ma'apilim – the group that tried charging towards the Holy Land after God condemned the nation to forty years of desert wandering as punishment for the sin of the spies. The obvious question arises, if R. Yehuda so strongly disapproved of attempting to identify Tzelofchad's transgression, which the Torah chose to conceal, how does it improve matters to come up with other transgressions to attribute to Tzelofchad?

Some commentators distinguish between the two sins' respective severity. Rashi points out that the sin of the ma'apilim does not reach the severity level of shabbat desecration. Rav Kook, in his Ein Aya, adds that the ma'apilim's sin was motivated by intrinsically noble intent, the genuine desire to atone for their misdeeds and yearning to enter into the Land of Israel. The mekoshesh, by contrast, expressed no authentic religious strivings by collecting wood on shabbat. Of course, the ma'apilim's noble intent does not change the fact that their actions were sinful; good intentions do not justify wrongful behavior. But at the same time, it seems reasonable to assess this sin much differently than an act devoid of any redeeming religious qualities.

The Sefat Emet provides an alternate explanation, one which does not involve the severity levels of the two sins. He observes that the mekoshesh was a single individual that violated shabbat, and the Torah purposefully chose not to mention his name. If the Torah consciously conceals information, we should not attempt to reveal it. In the case of the people who charged towards the Land, the Torah describes a collective endeavor. The absence of specific names might just reflect the fact that many different people were equally involved and responsible, without any single individual standing out as the prominent player in this episode. Thus, the Torah did not consciously cover up the identity of these sinners, and the Rabbis are therefore entitled to try to identify some of them.

Let us return to R. Akiva's position. Assuming he does not simply repeat a received tradition, we must ask, what motivated him to link the story of Tzelofchad's daughters with the wood gatherer who violates Shabbat? Rav Kook explains that the sanctity of Shabbat constitutes the foundation of the eternity of the Jewish people. Violation of Shabbat brings about lack of continuity. Tzelofchad's daughters struggled to assert their ability to retain ownership over their father's estate. The lack of material continuity mirrors the lack of spiritual continuity brought about by shabbat desecration. Appropriately, it is the word "in the desert" that links the two episodes. Am Yisrael's sojourn in the desert represents the temporary aspect of Jewish history; the wood gatherer thus indeed sinned "in the desert," as he chose temporality and eschewed eternity.

Achad Ha'am famously quipped, "More so than the Jewish people have kept the shabbat, the shabbat has kept the Jewish people." However, long before Achad Ha'am put pen to paper, Jews understood that shabbat plays a dominant role in enabling Jewish families to successfully pass down their traditions from parents to children. Jews who worked hard all week to support their family often found time for more explicit spiritual expressions, such as learning Torah or davening with greater concentration, on shabbat. Parents and children with little time to talk about matters of the spirit during the week found the time on shabbat. Perhaps most significantly, the warmth and radiance of the shabbat atmosphere was both a constant memory of tasted sanctity and a spur towards the attempt to spread that sanctity to the broader canvass of human endeavors.

According to Rav Kook's insightful reading of this aggada, R. Akiva employed a gezeira shava to illustrate this idea nearly two thousand years ago.