Shiur #08b: Two Types of Sacrifice

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #08b:  Two Types of Sacrifice 

By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Miracles were performed in connection with the (Temple) Gates of Nikanor, and his memory was praised.

(Yoma 37a)


What miracles were preformed in connection with his gates?  Nikanor went to Alexandria in Egypt to bring the doors.  On his return voyage, a huge wave threatened to capsize the boat, so they took one of the doors and cast it into the sea, but still the sea continued to rage. When they prepared to cast the other one into the sea, Nikanor rose and clung to it, declaring: “Cast me into the sea with it!”  The sea immediately became calm.  He was, however, deeply grieved about the first door.  As they reached the harbor of Akko, it broke the surface and appeared from under the side of the boat; others say a sea monster swallowed it and spit it out onto dry land... Subsequently, all the gates of the Sanctuary were exchanged for golden ones, except for the gates of Nikanor (which were of bronze), because of the miracles done with them; others say that they remained because the bronze of which they were made had a golden hue.

(Ibid. 38a)


I would like to briefly focus on two shorter themes before addressing the central idea of this aggada. Over the course of this story, Nikanor progresses from gift-giving to a more enduring dedication, as the authentic volunteer spirit ultimately demands more than writing a check and even more than creating a gift: it involves an ongoing commitment to ensuring that the donation reaches its desired destination.  Nikanor's decision on the boat to save the second door represents this lasting dedication to a good cause.


The end of the story also steers us in a clear direction. Why were Nikanor's doors left in place as the sole Temple gates not refurbished with gold? The second explanation is technical, that the hue of the bronze meant that there was no great aesthetic difference between Nikanor's doors and the other doors.  The other possibility, however expresses a profound idea: that an object's history often proves more powerful than the relative beauty of its appearance.  Just as individuals zealously keep objects of personal significance despite their ugliness, the Gates of Nikanor generated a profound impression even when they could not match the beauty of the other doors.


Let us now turn to the story's dominant themes.  The sensitive reader cannot help but notice several parallels with the story of Yona. There is a storm at sea and something needs to be thrown overboard to save the ship. A sea creature swallows what was cast into the ocean and spits it out onto dry land. Clearly, this tale must either be compared to or contrasted with that of Yona.


To me, it seems that a sharp contrast emerges. Yona is passive during the early parts of the storm, sleeping in the lower decks as the other sailors pray. While he does agree to be cast into the sea, this seems to reflect an apathetic stance — the assumption that it does not truly matter what happens — more than an act of fierce heroism.  The fact that the literary parallel between the two stories equates Yona with the lifeless doors further indicates his passivity in the story. Nikanor, by contrast, risks his life precisely because he cares deeply.


Indeed, one can choose to sacrifice out of indifference or out of idealism.  Yet only the person who fully appreciates the great worth of life has the capacity to truly sacrifice, because only that person understand what it means to give up something worth caring about.  The challenge is to emulate Nikanor's sacrifice, rather than that of Yona.