Shiur #21: Joy and Dedication

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #21: Joy and Dedication

By Rav Yitzchak Blau




It was taught in a beraita: "Rabban Shimon ben Gamli'el said: 'Any mitzva that [the Jews] accepted joyously — such as circumcision (mila), as it says (Tehillim 119:162): "I rejoice at your word as one who finds great spoil" — they are still performing it joyously.  However, any mitzva that they accepted with quarreling — such as arayot (sexual prohibitions), as it says (Bamidbar 11:10): "And Moshe heard the people crying to their families," namely about the matter of families — they are still performing with quarreling, as there is no ketuba that does not involve some strife.'"


It was taught in a beraita: "Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said:  'Any mitzva that the Jews were willing to commit martyrdom for at a time of governmental edicts, such as idolatry and circumcision, is still adhered to strongly.  However, any mitzva that the Jews were not willing to commit martyrdom for at a time of governmental edicts, such as tefillin, is still adhered to weakly.'" 


It is as Rav Yannai taught: "Tefillin require a clean body like that of Elisha Ba'al Kenafayim (the Master of the Wings)."


Why was he called Elisha Ba'al Kenafayim?  Once, the evil government decreed that whoever puts on tefillin will have his brain cut out.  Elisha put on tefillin and went to the market, where an inquisitor saw him.  Elisha ran and the inquisitor ran after him.  When the inquisitor reached him, Elisha removed the tefillin from his head and held them in his hands.


He said to him: "What is that in your hands?"


He said to him: "The wings of a dove."  He opened his hands and the wings of a dove were in them.  Therefore, they called him "Elisha Ba'al Kenafayim."  Why did he specifically say the wings of a dove and not another bird?  He did so because the Jewish people are compared to a dove.  

(Shabbat 130a)



According to this gemara, circumcision represents a mitzva which the Jews both accepted joyously and were willing to risk their lives for.  Before discussing the relationship between those two ideas, let us look at each one individually.


The gemara cites a verse from Tehillim to illustrate that the Jewish people accepted circumcision with joy.  Although the verse does not explicitly mention circumcision, it seems that the proof stems from the usage of the singular “imratecha” — "your word."  The first mitzva that the Jewish people receive, in the time of Avraham, is circumcision; therefore, the singular word refers to this mitzvah.  After accepting this mitzva with joy, the Jews continue to perform this joyously, as every mila is accompanied by a festive meal.


Arayot serve as a contrast to mila.  Although the Jewish people in the desert ostensibly complain about the lack of meat, Chazal understand their complaints to truly be about halakhic restrictions.  In addition to the proof-text cited in our gemara, Chazal explain that the people’s fond memories of free fish in Egypt (Bamidbar 11:5, Sifri and Rashi ibid.) refers to freedom from the commandments.  The people are embarrassed to openly complain about restrictions, so they couch their complaints in other words, but the text of the Torah reveals the truth.  Some of the Jews are particularly perturbed about the new sexual prohibitions, and the initial resistance to these halakhot has long-term repercussions.  


In the next section, the gemara lists circumcision and the prohibition against idolatry as two commandments for which the Jewish people are willing to give up their lives.  Indeed, many of the heroic martyrs in our tradition were trying to preserve just these two mitzvot.  In contrast, the gemara depicts tefillin as a mitzva that did not inspire willingness to give up one’s life and cites the Elisha story to illustrate this lack of dedication.  Yet the story seems to indicate that Elisha was quite dedicated to the mitzva of tefillin?   Did he not put them on at great personal risk?    


Rashi and Tosafot offer different explanations as to how this story shows reluctance to perform martyrdom for tefillin.  Rashi explains that Elisha stands out because he is the only Jew willing to risk his life to preserve this important mitzva; Elisha is the exception who proves the rule.  Tosafot disagree and argue that Elisha himself reveals insufficient commitment because he does not tell the Roman official the truth about the tefillin.  Instead of making a public stand for a Jewish ideal, Elisha chooses to declare that he holds a different item altogether. 


The two interpretations raise the question of what obligation for martyrdom exists in the realm of mitzvot aseh (positive commands).  It is well known that at times of religious persecution, Jews are expected to give up their lives to preserve any mitzva being outlawed by the authorities (Sanhedrin 74a).  The Ramban (Shabbat 49a) mentions two explanations of why this ruling would not apply to mitzvot aseh.  Avoiding a mitzva involves a passive act, unlike the active transgression of a negative prohibition; only the latter, the active violation, generates a demand for martyrdom.  Furthermore, the authorities always have the ability to prevent one to from fulfilling positive mitzvot, as they could simply put one in jail without access to tefillin.  Martyrdom to avoid a transgression makes sense, but martyrdom to fulfill a positive mitzva represents a fruitless endeavor.


Of course, this calls into question Elisha’s putting on tefillin altogether.  Perhaps he was recklessly endangering himself when Halakha does not call for such action.  The Ramban suggests that Elisha originally thought that he could put them on without being caught.  Additionally, the Ramban states that in some circumstances, a Jew has the right to risk his life as an act of extra piety, even when Halakha does not command such martyrdom.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:4) vociferously rejects such an option.  The Rambam would either have to say that Elisha was obligated to risk his life (he may think that mitzvot aseh are not legally different) or that Elisha thought that he could get away with it out detection.


Are the conversations about accepting mitzvot with joy and the willingness to commit martyrdom for mitzvot related?  We could answer in the negative, contending that the Talmudic chapter about circumcision, the nineteenth chapter of Shabbat, begins with two distinct points about how the Jewish people have historically related to this commandment.  However, I would like to answer in the affirmative. 


We associate martyrdom with difficulty, dedication, perseverance and suffering.  Many of us associate joy with lightheartedness, frivolity and fun.  From these starting points, it would seem that these two themes should not overlap, as they reflect totally different states of mind.   Yet, a deeper understanding reveals that the most authentic joys of life also emerge out of perseverance and dedication.  Without denying the pleasures of the palate, one can conclude that they pale beside the pleasures of mastering a difficult but beautiful section of Torah or of engaging in an act of chesed sorely needed by the recipient.  Thus, the gemara may have purposely juxtaposed these two ideas about mila.  The joy of the mitzva and the passionate commitment to it are naturally interwoven: joy engenders commitment, and commitment helps to produce joy.