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Iyun Masechet Sota: 33a

Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein


Having established in the previous shiur the principle that the choice of language is a function of the nature of the textual requirement, either communication or recital, we must now examine the individual cases in detail.


a.   Birkhat HaMazon. Here, too, as in keriat shema and tefila, the rationale is that BM is not a formal text to be recited but the expression of man's gratitude to God for supplying his needs and providing for him, and therefore should be expressed in a language that the person understands. Although formally the Gemora cites the derasha of "uveirakhta – in whatever language that you bless," this derasha itself is based upon the axiom that the essence of BM is the subjective outpouring of thanks and is not rooted in a linguistic subtlety or midrashic clue that reveals this halakha to us. Actually, Rashi (s.v. bekhol) assumes that there is no derasha at all regarding BM, simply the self evident nature of BM as thanksgiving, while Tosafot (s.v. birkhat) claim that there is a derasha which establishes the idea "that since the blessing and the praise are directed towards the Shekhina, you can bless in any language that you prefer."


It is worth mentioning in this context the Yerushalmi's  (Berakhot 3:3) statement that the rule of "shomea k'oneh" (hearing another recite is equivalent to reciting it oneself) doesn't apply to BM, KS or tefila – "he that ate should bless…. is it not reasonable that each person should recite KS with his own lips?! is it not logical that each person should plead for himself?!" Had they been formal texts or even regular messages, the mechanism of "shomea k'oneh" would relate the text to the hearer who didn't actually recite it; however, since tefila, KS and BM are all an expression of the direct relationship between man and God, a personal message is required and no proxy can serve as a replacement. On the other hand, since these are a direct communication of a personally involved subject, the use of any language is legitimate.


b.   Tefila. Although the Mishna and Gemora are quite clear that a person can pray in any language, later authorities raised the possibility that the rule is not absolute. The Netziv (Devarim 1:45), commenting upon the pasuk "and God did not listen to your voices nor did he pay attention to your requests," claims that there are two forms of tefila. The first category is the formal legal petition that man presents to God in an organized manner, akin to a defendant who hires a lawyer to plead his case in the royal court. This sort of tefila requires the proper decorum expected in such circumstances; proper dress, procedural rules, use of official language etc. As the lawyer arguing the case in court follows these rules and addresses the sovereign in the language of the land, so, too, is the situation of the prayer who approaches God through the medium of formal tefila.


There is, in his opinion, an official form of tefila that is regulated by rules based upon the paradigm of appearance in the Heavenly court in front of the King of Kings. These dictate the format of Shmoneh Esrei, the posture of prayer, the propriety of dress and many other details, including the need to petition the KBH in His official language.


The other avenue of tefila is the informal, impulsive flinging oneself on the KBH's mercy in which a person cries out to his Father in Heaven from the depths of an aching heart. The Netziv compares this form of prayer to the mother who breaks through the lines and throws herself at the King's feet to plead for her condemned son. In paraphrase of Pope, it could be said that as "mothers rush in where barristers fear to tread" so, too, do "mitpallelim/daveners rush in where theologians fear to tread." It is this tefila that Chazal characterized as "Rachmana liba ba'i" (God seeks the heart) and it is only in regard to it that the Mishna legitimized the use of all languages. [The same idea was also developed by the Rav in his essay "Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah," though the application that he focused upon was the distinction between Selichot and standard tefila.]


The following story may serve to illustrate the Netziv's observation. When we moved to Eretz Yisroel thirty years ago, my father inquired of Rav Y. Z. Gustman, zt"l, whether he often went to the Kotel. "Not regularly," he replied "only when I want to daven in Yiddish."


A similar position is to be found in the Chatam Sofer's famous teshuvot against the innovations of the Reform movement. Aside from assailing their motivations, the Chatam Sofer penned detailed responsa in which he denied the halakhic basis that was being claimed for the newly introduced practices. As one of the main changes was the switch to the vernacular, he deals with a few issues regarding the replacement of Hebrew with other languages. Fully aware that our Mishna validates the recital of prayers in any language, the Chatam Sofer claims that a distinction must be drawn between individual prayer, whose purpose is to present the individual's statements of praise to God and to set forth his requests from Him and may, therefore, utilize any form of expression, and communal prayer (tefila betzibbur) that requires the use of Hebrew. The insistence upon Hebrew in communal prayer is twofold, based in part on the need to protect the status and dignity of our national language and not let it be relegated to a secondary position. In addition there are also intrinsic factors regarding the nature of communal prayer that dictate the use of Hebrew. The first reason, though obviously a serious consideration, is not a strictly halakhic position and is unrelated to the issues that we have been dealing with; therefore, we shall focus upon the second point.


     Zeroing in on one of the basic tensions in tefila, the Chatam Sofer points out that tefila has a dual function, for it is both the expression of a subjective personal message, yet also a mechanism through which we provide a verbal replacement for the Temple sacrifices ("uneshalma parim sefateinu"). This element, claims the Chatam Sofer, is not rooted in the subjective reality of approaching the KBH that is the common denominator between tefila and korbanot. Rather, it is due, to the effect of the text that Chazal established to reflect the metaphysical reality and is dependent on the words and their meaning. Thus, although there isn't an original Biblical text that must be exactly reproduced, there is specific content that must be expressed. It follows, therefore, from the metaphysical nature of this form of tefila and the results that it sets out to achieve, that Hebrew must be used, since it is well nigh impossible to arrive at a translation that will accurately reflect the multiplicity of inner meaning and intention that Chazal embedded in the text. Simply put, tefila betzibbur is of an objective formal nature, designed to express the idea of korbanot and is not the subjective outpouring of the feeling heart speaking to its God; therefore, the actual texts are crucial and translation, which cannot recreate the necessary wealth of metaphysical meaning hidden in the text, will not suffice. (Anyone familiar with the theory of tefila of Chasidei Ashkenaz and the elaborate mechanisms created by them [numerological and others] to harness the proper kavanot to the text will readily appreciate the Chatam Sofer's point of departure).


c.   Kriat HaTorah. The Gemora doesn't discuss the question of KT in other languages explicitly. [Rashi (Megilla 17b s. v. bechol, as understood by Tosafot), interprets the Gemora's suggestion (33a) as to the language of the Torah to refer to Kriat HaTorah; however, although the Gemora entertains both suggestions, it does not bring any proofs or arrive at any conclusions.] The Chatam Sofer addresses this dilemma in his Teshuvot and convincingly argues from the institution of Targum in former times that KT requires Hebrew, for otherwise why was there a need to both read the original and translate it. One could possibly argue that Chazal preferred the option of reading both the original Hebrew and the translation, although the minimal obligation of KT could be discharged by reading a translation alone, but such a claim seems implausible. Moreover, such an argument accepts the basic claim that there is a qualitative element in KT that can be achieved solely in Hebrew. This conclusion is supported by the Keren Ora in our sugya, who also arrives at the same position that Hebrew is required in KT from an analysis and discussion of other sources relevant to this question.


     Conceptually, the issue at hand is the nature of KT; is it essentially a mitzva of Talmud Torah, in which case the use of any language should be valid, or is there a ceremonial element to KT that requires Hebrew. The latter option viz. that KT is a ceremonial act whose purpose is to recreate and re-experience Matan Torah, an idea that was developed and emphasized by the Rav zt"l [basing himself upon the Rambam's interpretation of Hakhel (Hilkhot Chagiga 3:6)] would lead to the conclusion that KT must be read in Hebrew, as the CS and KO claim, while the former idea should allow the use of the vernacular.


     As the nature of KT is an issue that will reappear in much greater detail in the sugya on 39a, we shall postpone our discussion of it until then and not elaborate any further at this point.


d.   The two cases of oaths - Shvuat Haeidut and Shvuat Hapikadon - seem relatively straightforward, yet there is, nevertheless, an issue here that is not necessarily self evident and requires the sugya to mobilize a verse to support the Mishna. Obviously, if the idea of an oath is simply to express oneself convincingly in a legally binding manner, then the Mishna's ruling that any language will suffice is clear. However, were we to adopt an approach that conceives of an oath as an institution of metaphysical significance that harnesses spiritual forces, then we might claim that this might be achieved only through Hebrew speech (just as the Chatam Sofer claimed in regard to tefila). The Mishna's determination that Hebrew is not required can be construed either as denying such a metaphysical avenue or as assuming that Hebrew is not a necessary requirement for this spiritual outlet.


e.   Parashat Sota. Since the Kohen is communicating to the woman, it is clear that any language is legitimate, as Rashi explains here.


f.   Vidui Ma'aser. The inclusion of VM in the list of texts that can be made in any language is unremarkable; it is a statement expressing man's position vis a vis God in relation to his obligations and not a formal text. However, what is surprising is the wedge that the Mishna drives between VM and Mikrah Bikkurim. Intuitively, we would tend to assume that the same rationale should apply to MB, which is a classic case of man thanking God. If VM, that appears in proximity to MB in the Torah and is presented as an additional stage in man's dealings with the KBH regarding the harvest, can be recited in any language, the same should be true of MB as well. Tosafot raise the question that MB and VM should be equated, though they present it from the more technical angle of the relevant derashot, and leave it unanswered. All that we can state is that the Mishna axiomatically assumes that MB is a formal text, designed (apparently) to enable us to receive God's blessing (as exemplified by the episode of the Levi'im on Har Grizim and Har Eival from which it is derived by the Gemora), while VM is treated as a message and not a channel through which to receive God's blessings. [What remains somewhat unclear is whether this is the sole nature of MB or does it have a dual nature that requires Hebrew because of the metaphysical element, although there may be an additional element that is the expression of man's thanksgiving to God as a statement.]


g.   Chalitza. The basic question regarding chalitza in the context of our sugya is the halakhic mechanism of the dispensation to perform yibum. Is it a function of the breakdown of the human relationship between the brother and the wife that releases them from entering into a state of marriage or is it the inability and/or unwillingness to achieve the metaphysical goals of the mitzva of yibum that brings about the parting of the brother and the yevama? Once more, if it is the former, we would expect chalitza to be valid in any language (as is the case with divorce, a "get"), while if it is the latter, it is quite understandable that lashon hakodesh may be necessary.


     The focal point for understanding our sugya is the dilemma raised by Tosafot (s.v. verabbi) regarding the relationship between our Mishna and the Mishna in Yevamot (104a). There, the Mishna presents two opinions as to the essentials of chalitza that must be performed to validate the ceremony. Either the removal of the shoe alone is the crucial element that is required bdi'eved or there is a need for the spitting act as well; however, both Tanaim agree that the declaration of the woman is only le'chatchila. If so, wonder Tosafot, how can Hebrew be considered indispensable, when the entire recitation is dispensible? At first glance, Tosafot's question is difficult, since there is no logical or textual inconsistency to claim that Hebrew is required for the performance of kria, as the Mishna has never claimed that lashon hakodesh is crucial for chalitza, only for kria. Thus, if the woman omits the ceremony of kria entirely or proclaims the text in English, she has lost the mitzva of kria but the chalitza itself could be valid and there is no need to postulate a contradiction between the two sources. The Mishna in Yevamot rules only that a chalitza without kria is valid, while the Mishna in Sota reveals to us that Hebrew is necessary to achieve the mitzva of kria. Tosafot, though, conclude that Rabbi Yehuda is of the opinion that kria is indispensable for chalitza and that without it, the entire ceremony is disqualified.


     The logic for their seemingly unnecessary claim must be sought in the dilemma presented above. The debate as to the essential elements of chalitza is not only an argument as to the technical details of the actual ceremony; rather, the very essence of chalitza is at question. If spitting is crucial, the upshot of such a position is that the nature of chalitza is the impossibility of the PERSONAL relationship and the mechanism of chalitza is designed to express this fact. Therefore, the requirement of lashon hakodesh is logically inconsistent with such a concept of chalitza. This though, is true not only regarding the mitzva of kria itself but is applicable to the entire chalitza, since the idea that Hebrew is crucial presumes the METAPHYSICAL concept of chalitza. [The same would apply to the opinion that removal of the shoe alone is the primary element of chalitza; this, however, would require a much more complex analysis of chalitza that is beyond the scope of this shiur.]


     Thus, Tosafot see no alternative but to postulate a basic disagreement as to the essence of chalitza. A more moderate approach, though, would be to assume that although kria itself indeed expresses the metaphysical track of chalitza, yet this need not stand as an either/or contrast to the human mechanism. Both metaphysical and human factors are included in the chalitza ceremony, each represented by its respective act. The human element, though, is the primary consideration. Therefore, if there is a breakdown in the relationship, as expressed in the fact that she spat in his face, yibum cannot be attempted; the metaphysical need, though, has gone unanswered, if the kria has been neglected. The addition of kria in lashon hakodesh is introduced into the ceremony to solve this need, albeit that the chalitza is not disqualified without it.


h.   Berakhot u-kelallot. The metaphysical nature of these is readily apparent.


i.   Birkat Kohanim. We shall deal with birkat kohanim in great detail later in the perek. For the moment, the metaphysical element of Berakha from God to man explains the need for lashon hakodesh.


j.   Birkat Kohen Gadol. Though we would have thought that the Berakhot of the Kohen Gadol's Kriat HaTorah are like all other Berakhot and do not require Hebrew, the Mishna rules that Hebrew is required. This leaves us no choice but to conclude that there is an additional element in these Berakhot that the KG recites after KT on Yom Kippur, aside from the regular Berakhot of KT. Indeed, Rashi in Yoma (68b s. v. ba) and the Yerushalmi ad. loc. claim that KT of KG on YK is a Biblical obligation (midoraita), apparently as part of the avoda. Actually, the Gemora itself raises (and does not necessarily reject) the idea that KT is part of Avodat YK (see Yoma 68b). Moreover, the Berakhot of the KG on YK are largely pleas to the KBH to bless Am Yisroel (the texts of the Berakhot can be found in Hilkhot Avodat YK 3:11) on a day and a time of special religious import. Since the KG is not pleading for himself but as the official representative of the nation on a day of metaphysical significance in the presence of the KBH, it is not impossible to understand that his tefila should be in lashon hakodesh.


k.   Parashat hamelech. Here, too, we may have understood the reading of the Torah by the king to the people as a form of public Talmud Torah that should be valid in any language. However, the Mishna prefers to view it as a ceremonial act that is not knowledge oriented (unless we would claim that it is a derabanan to preserve the dignity of the official language). This point was famously emphasized by the Rambam who interpreted Hakhel as a ceremonial reenactment of Matan Torah: Quote Chagiga 3:6.


l.   Egla Arufa. As we shall see in the ninth perek, the Rambam views the EA as a ploy to attract attention to the murder so that witnesses will step forward, while the Ramban perceives it as a form of korban. Undoubtedly, the need for lashon hakodesh supports the Ramban's position.


m.   Mashuach Milchama. This is, perhaps, the most surprising of all, since the psukim seem to clearly state that the kohen is delivering a message to the assembled army. However, we shall see in the eighth perek that there is more to the kohen's speech than meets the eye and that it contains additional elements other than the proposal of return to various groups within the population.


Next week 


The next unit 33b-35b is mostly aggadata. The shiur will focus upon the discussion regarding nesiat ha'aron by kohanim and levi'im at the bottom of 33b.


Additional sources:

1. Rambam and Ramban in sefer hamitzvot (Rambam - mitzvat aseh 34, Ramban – third shoresh (pp.73-77 in the standard Warsaw edition),

2. R. Velvel's published correspondence (with the Rav zt"l) on this  topic (pp. 77a-77b of Chidushei HaGriz),

3. Tosefta 7:9 and the Tosafot that quote the Tosefta (42b s.v. mipnei)


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