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SALT 2015 - Parashat Vezot Haberakha/Sukkot

Rav David Silverberg

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            The famous first Mishna of the third chapter of Masekhet Sukka establishes that a stolen lulav may not be used for the mitzva of arba minim on Sukkot.  The Gemara (30a) cites Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai as explaining this disqualification based on the rule of mitzva ha-ba’a ba-aveira – an object of sin is invalid for mitzva use. 

            Several Rishonim grappled with the question of why the Gemara in other contexts does not invoke this rule when discussing the disqualification of objects of sin.  For example, earlier in Masekhet Sukka (9a), the Gemara cites a Biblical source for the disqualification of a stolen sukka.  Likewise, in Masekhet Pesachim (35b), the Gemara cites a Biblical source as the reason why one cannot fulfill the mitzva of matza on Pesach with matza made from tevel (produce from which the required tithes had not been taken).  Why did the Gemara search for a Scriptural basis for these halakhot, rather than attributing them to the general disqualification of mitzva ha-ba’a ba-aveira?

            A surprising answer to this question is given by Tosfot Ha-Rosh in Pesachim (cited by the Chatam Sofer in his commentary to Masekhet Sukka).  The Tosfot Ha-Rosh contends that the rule of mitzva ha-ba’a ba-aveira is very limited in scope, as it applies specifically to sacrifices.  Indeed, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai cites as the source for this rule a verse in Malakhi (1:13) in which the prophet decries the practice of bringing stolen animals as sacrifices.  As this rule is sourced in a verse relating to korbanot, Tosfot Ha-Rosh argues, the rule is limited to that context.  The Tosfot Ha-Rosh explains that Rabbi Shimon applies the rule to the mitzva of arba minim on Sukkot because the arba minim serve as a kind of “korban.”  We bring the four species as an “offering” of sorts, with which we praise and give homage to God, and thus they are subject to the rule of mitzva ha-ba’a ba-aveira just like a sacrifice.  This theory is also cited by the Ramban, in his commentary to Pesachim.

            This perspective on the arba minim may also explain the Torah’s discussion of Sukkot in Parashat Emor (Vayikra 23:33-43).  The Torah begins by introducing the requirement to offer special sacrifices on Sukkot, and then proceeds to issue the command of the arba minim.  Only thereafter, in the conclusion of this discussion, does the Torah briefly append the mitzva of sukka.  The reason for this sequence becomes clear in light of the aforementioned theory that the four species are brought as a kind of sacrifice.  In the context of commanding the offering of special sacrifices on Sukkot, the Torah mentions as well the mitzva of arba minim, which are also a “sacrifice” offered to God, and only afterward does the Torah mention the obligation of sukka.

            This point is made by Rav Shmuel David Friedman, in his Sedei Tzofim – Sukka (45a), where he also notes the Gemara’s comment (Sukka 45a) that one who properly fulfills the mitzva of arba minim is considered as though he offers a sacrifice upon the altar.  Since the four species are brought as a sacrifice of sorts, by fulfilling this mitzva we are considered to have offered a sacrifice.

            The concept of the arba minim serving as a sacrifice should perhaps be understood off the backdrop of the general theme of simplicity and austerity that, to a large extent, characterizes the Sukkot celebration.  Halakha requires living in a crude, temporary dwelling, which must be covered by raw, unprocessed vegetation.  We reenact our ancestors’ sojourn in the wilderness, when they lived a miraculous existence with their minds focused on God, free from the distractions of material bounty.  The special mitzva of simcha (rejoicing) on Sukkot reflects the idea that true joy comes from our relationship with God, and not from our material possessions.  It is specifically in the sukka, in a crude, makeshift home, where we experience the greatest joy of all.

            Similarly, the Torah requires us to offer to God a “sacrifice” of vegetation.  We demonstrate that even simple, readily-accessible plants suffice as a meaningful offering to the Almighty.  Whereas generally it is only the poor who offer grain as a sacrifice because they cannot afford animal sacrifices, on Sukkot we all bring a sacrifice of simple, unprocessed plants.  We show that material luxuries are not a precondition for the devoted, joyous service of God, and that we are capable of living happy, meaningful and fulfilling lives even with minimal assets and while living a simple, austere existence.




            The Torah (Devarim 16:13) commands observing the festival of Sukkot “be-aspekha mi-garnkha u-mi’yikvekha” – during the season when the grain and wine are collected from the granaries and presses.  Rashi, citing the Gemara (Sukka 12), comments that this verse alludes to the fact that the sekhakh, the most critical part of the sukka, must come from “pesolet goren ve-yekev” – the refuse from the granary and press.  The sukka must be covered by vegetation which is no longer attached to the ground and which has not been processed and converted into something usable.  It is thus referred to by the Gemara as “pesolet” – the “refuse” left over in the fields.

            Remarkably, the most critical portion of the sukka is made from “pesolet” –leftover vegetation which is normally discarded or ignored.  The Torah requires us to take specifically the refuse and use it to form our commemoration of the clouds of glory that encircled our ancestors in the wilderness.  And, Halakha requires that this refuse be placed within twenty amot of the ground, to ensure that it is visible and directly providing us with shade and protection.  This point comes into sharper focus in light of the comments of the Ba’al Ha-turim to this verse, suggesting that the phrase “be-aspekha mi-garnkha u-mi’yikvekha” alludes to the practice of using vegetation to decorate the sukka. According to the Ba’al Ha-turim, we are encouraged to use the “refuse” from the fields for not only the sekhakh, but also to enhance and beautify the sukka.  Materials that would normally be thrown into the trash or left to rot are elevated on Sukkot to a special place of prominence, and even regarded as objects of beauty.  (This point is made by Rabbi Saul Aranov in “Room at the Top.”)

            Coming on the heels of Yom Kippur and the Yamim Nora’im, Sukkot conveys the encouraging message that there is goodness within each and every one of us, that we all have at least a spark of holiness and nobility.  The Midrash’s famous portrayal of the arba minim as a symbol of the different kinds of Jews coming together underscores the point that on Sukkot we focus our attention not on what we have accomplished, but on how much we can and hopefully will accomplish.  Whether somebody is “fragrant” and “tasty” as an etrog, or bland and tasteless as an arava, he can stand tall together with the rest of Am Yisrael, because we now look with hope and optimism toward the realization of each Jew’s full potential, and thus there is no difference between us whatsoever.  Likewise, the Gemara (Sukka 27b) interprets the Torah’s formulation of the mitzva of sukka (Vayikra 23:42) as implying that in principle, all Jews can reside in a single sukka.  The most righteous tzadikim and the most ignorant, unlearned Jew, and everyone in between, are viewed as spending Sukkot all together under the same roof.  We are all equals, because we believe in the potential of all people and their capacity for change and growth.

            All people have moments in their lives when they feel like “pesolet.”  Sometimes, when we reflect upon mistakes we have made or on our limited achivements, we feel unimportant and worthless.  Sukkot reminds us that even the “pesolet” is significant, that everything – and certainly every person – has importance, value and worth.  Regardless of our past, we are able to turn ourselves into “sekhakh,” into vital, indispensable components of the sukka of the Jewish Nation, by tapping into our God-given potential and making the most of our opportunities to achieve.




            The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 651:8) writes that the arba minim are to be waved not only when we take them to fulfill the mitzva, but also during Hallel.  Specifically, the Shulchan Arukh rules, we wave the arba minim during two segments of the Hallel recitation – “Hodu l-Hashem ki tov,” and “Ana Hashem hoshi’a na.”

            It is perhaps not insignificant that these two passages of the Hallel service express opposite emotions.  “Hodu l-Hashem kol tov” is an exclamation of thanksgiving, the jubilant expression of gratitude to God by someone who feels blessed and fortunate.  By contrast, “Ana Hashem hoshi’a na” is a frantic plea for help, a cry from the depths of the heart when a person finds himself on the brink of despair during a time of crisis.

            The waving of the arba minim is often viewed as expressing our recognition of God’s control and dominion over the entire Earth.  We point the arba minim in all directions to signify that wherever we turn, whichever direction we take, we are under the Almighty’s dominion and supervision.  Significantly, we make this proclamation at two opposite moments during the Hallel service – when expressing gratitude, and when pleading for assistance.  There are those who feel God’s presence and turn to Him only in times of success and good fortune, but during times of hardship, they assume He has abandoned them and thus turn their backs on Him.  Conversely, there are those who turn to God in times of desperation, when they face crisis and have nowhere else to turn.  During periods of joy and prosperity, however, they feel self-sufficiently capable, and assume they have no need for God or religion.  The waving of the arba minim during Hallel reminds us that we must remain committed to, and mindful of, God and our religious obligations under all conditions, both when we feel grateful and when we feel desperate.


(See Rabbi Milton Polin’s “The Hour for Faith”)




            Towards the beginning of Masekhet Sukka (2a), the Gemara defines the obligation of sukka as a requirement to “leave one’s permanent residence and live in a temporary residence.”  The Gemara introduces this principle to establish that the sukka must be constructed as a “temporary residence.”  This definition affects several aspects of the sukka, including the fact that the sukka must be lower than twenty amot, as a very tall sukka would resemble a permanent residence.

            Interestingly, the Gemara does not simply state that the sukka obligation requires residing in a temporary residence.  Rather, it first says that one must “leave his permanent residence,” suggesting, perhaps, that this is also part of the mitzva’s definition.  Meaning, taking leave of our homes is necessary not merely for the practical purpose of enabling us to fulfill the mitzva of sukka, but rather as part of the actual fulfillment of the mitzva.

            This conclusion is reinforced by the Mishna’s comment later in Masekhet Sukka (28a), requiring that one make his sukka his primary residence during Sukkot, and his home only his secondary residence.  The Mishna does not simply instruct us to reside in a sukka, but to lower the status of our homes to that of secondary.  Here, too, the impression given is that leaving our regular homes is part and parcel of the mitzva of sukka.

            The sukka obligation requires a reorientation and change, that we alter our lifestyle for seven days in order to reenact our ancestors experiences as they traveled through the wilderness under the Almighty’s supernatural care and protection.  The Rambam, in the Guide for the Perplexed (3:43), writes that the purpose of the sukka is for us to remind ourselves of our ancestors’ experiences so that we can more fully appreciate the blessings that we now enjoy.  Just as we eat marror on Pesach to taste the bitterness of slavery and thereby appreciate the blessing of freedom, on Sukkot we experience the instability and austerity of our ancestors’ conditions as they traveled so we can appreciate the luxuries in our lives.  Accordingly, the mitzva is defined as leaving our normal conditions and entering the crude sukka.  The obligation is not only to live in a sukka, but to lower our standards of comfort in order that we can more fully appreciate and be thankful for the conditions that we normally enjoy.


(Based on an article by Rav Aryeh Shapiro in Umka De-parsha, Sukkot 5776)




            The etrog features two appendages, one on either end of the fruit.  On the bottom lies the oketz, with which the fruit is attached to the tree until being plucked.  On the top is the piece commonly known as the pitem, which extends outward as the fruit grows and expands during its period of growth.  The generally accepted halakhic ruling disqualifies an etrog from which either appendage has been removed.

            Rabbi Norman Lamm suggested an insightful symbolic explanation for this requirement that both the oketz and pitem be present on an etrog.  The oketz, the fruit’s point of connection with the tree, symbolizes our link to our past, our unwavering devotion to our forebears and their traditions.  The pitem, by contrast, which advances outward away from the stem, symbolizes the natural progressive instinct, the desire for change and advancement.  In Rabbi Lamm’s words:


The pitem, or blossom, is part of the fruit that protrudes as it grows, as if it were pointing in the direction of growth.  It represents, therefore, the youthful openness to change, newness, the state of being pliable, alert and alive, in motion, and full of promise.  While the pitem represents change and growth, the oketz or stem is that which ties the fruit to the tree itself.  It therefore symbolizes rootedness, stability, continuity, and endurance.  While the pitem points to the future, the oketz binds to the past.


The requirement that an etrog must have both appendages thus represents the need to balance these opposing forces – strict devotion to our past, and a restless urge to grow and change.  Rabbi Lamm writes:


The harmonious life is one in which there exists a balance between the elements of change and stability, innovation and consolidation, the old and the new, the loyalty to the past and the openness to the future.  If we have too much of an oketz and too small a pitem, we become stodgy and stagnant, rigid and inflexible.  If we have too big a pitem and too small an oketz, we become unsteady and erratic, vagrant and spasmodic.


The message of the oketz and pitem is that the natural tendency to seek change must not be suppressed, but must be tempered by a genuine and authentic rootedness in our past.  The pitem, the progressive impulse, must lead us to the kind of change that expands and enhances the etrog, not one which supplants it with something different.  We are to grow and advance in a manner that extends the “tree” from which we originate, our ancient heritage and traditions, and not in a manner that severs us from this “tree.”  Our “etrog” will then truly be a “peri etz hadar,” a beautiful yet authentic product, continuing to grow while remaining a faithful extension of our past.




            Chazal in several places tell that the book of Kohelet was initially deemed unworthy of being canonized as part of the Tanakh.  Interestingly enough, Chazal in different contexts give different reasons for the ambivalence surrounding Kohelet.  In Masekhet Shabbat (30b), the Gemara attributes the early Sages’ uneasiness about the book to the fact that “devarav soterin zeh et zeh” – it contains contradictory statements.  Rather than presenting a clear, straightforward philosophical message, Kohelet contains numerous inconsistencies, as the Gemara proceeds to demonstrate.  In Avot De-Rabbi Natan (1), however, we find a different reason for the ambivalence: “she-heim meshalot.”  The book appears to lack substance and to offer only superficial observations and musings which do not deserve the lofty status of canonization.  Finally, the Midrash (Kohelet Rabba 3:1 and elsewhere) says the Kohelet contains “devarim she-heim notim le-tzad minut” – words which could perhaps lead to heretical ideas. 

            The Sages nevertheless decided to include Kohelet in the canon, because, as the Gemara (Shabbat 30b) comments, it both begins and ends by alluding to the importance of Torah study.

            Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter suggested viewing this analysis of Kohelet as symbolic of the problematic nature of human beings.  We feature the same three flaws that made the Sages uneasy about Kohelet.  We are awfully fickle and inconsistent, in temperament, attitudes and opinions.  We are also lazy, and tend to prefer simplistic, superficial ideas and interests over depth, profundity and substance.  Finally, we all occasionally struggle with doubt, as our skeptical, cynical tendencies push us to challenge the truth of God and Torah and dismiss the notion of religious responsibility.  And thus, like the Sages’ attitude toward Kohelet, we might question whether we deserve to be included in the “canon,” whether we are worthy of membership in God’s special nation.  With all our inconsistences, superficiality and doubts, we might write ourselves off and assume we have no place in the realm of sanctity and avodat Hashem.

            The Gemara therefore emphasizes that Kohelet was ultimately included in the canon, because it begins and ends with the message of Torah study and observance.  As long as we learn and seek to grow, and as long as we continue to observe to the best of our ability despite our failngs and shortcomings, then we indeed earn our rightful place among the “Scriptures.”  As Rabbi Schacter writes: “…Kohelet teaches us that with all our inconsistencies, superficialities and skepticism we need not feel unworthy. We too can be considered part of the ‘Biblical Canon’—as long as we recognize the importance and centrality of ‘keeping His commandments.’”  God created us as imperfect human beings and challenged us to struggle with our imperfections and work to overcome them.  Although we will always remain flawed, we must never write ourselves off, and must instead continue to believe that God truly cherishes our efforts and wants us to continue working and struggling to grow and improve.




            In Parashat Vezot Haberakha, we read Moshe’s blessings to Benei Yisrael before his death, including his blessing to the tribe of Levi, which focuses mainly on Levi’s role as servants in the Bet Ha-mikdash.  In this blessing, Moshe wishes, “Bareikh Hashem cheilo u-foal yadav tirtzeh” (33:11) – that God should bless and find favor in the service performed by the Levites in the Temple.

            The Gemara in Masekhet Kiddushin (66b) cites this verse as a possible source for the surprising ruling of Rabbi Yehoshua concerning the case of a kohen who is discovered to be disqualified from the priesthood.  This view is cited in Masekhet Terumot (8:1), and deals with the status of a sacrifice performed by a kohen who is later found to have been the product of a forbidden marriage – such as if his father had married a divorcee (which is forbidden for kohanim).  Rabbi Yehoshua rules that despite the fact that the product of such a union is not qualified for the priestly functions, and thus the sacrifice was performed by somebody who is forbidden to serve in the Mikdash, the sacrifice is nevertheless valid.  Since the kohen had been presumed to be halakhically suitable for the service, the service is valid.  One of the sources cited for this rule is Moshe’s blessing, “Bareikh Hashem cheilo,” which is understood as a declaration that God should accept the sacrifices performed by the kohanim even when they should be invalid in light of the subsequent discovery of the kohen’s disqualification.

            The Gemara also cites two other possible sources for this halakha.  One is a verse toward the beginning of Parashat Pinchas (Bamidbar 25:13) in which God promises that Pinchas’ offspring would be considered kohanim.  According to this view in the Gemara, God here confers the status of priesthood upon even disqualified offspring of Pinchas, at least with respect to sacrifices they perform before their disqualified status became known.  The third source is a verse earlier in Sefer Devarim (26:3) which speaks of “the kohen who will be at that time” in the context of the mitzva of bikkurim.  This description is understood to mean that a kohen who is presumed qualified “at that time” is considered qualified even if he is later discovered to be the product of a disqualifying marriage.

            Rav Asher Weiss (Minchat Asher, Parashat Vezot Haberakha) noted that there is a significant difference between these different sources.  The last two sources appear to suggest that Halakha affords the kohen the formal status of kehuna as long as he is presumed qualified, and this status is not retroactively revoked even when it is determined that he was not qualified.  The sacrifices he performed before his disqualification was discovered are valid because he is treated as a qualified kohen even retroactively after his disqualification is discovered.  By contrast, the source from Parashat Vezot Haberakha – “Bareikh Hashem cheilo” – speaks not of the kohen himself, but rather of the service he performed during his period of presumed suitability.  The Torah here establishes not that we treat the kohen as suitable for performing for the avoda, but rather that the avoda is accepted even if it is performed by a disqualified kohen, as long as he was presumed qualified at the time.  According to this perspective, the kohen is in fact deemed unsuitable retroactively, but the service he performed is nevertheless considered valid.

            The practical difference between these two perspectives can perhaps be seen in the aforementioned Mishna in Masekhet Terumot.  The Mishna there also addresses the case of a kohen who eats teruma – food reserved for kohanim – and then discovers that he is the son of a forbidden marriage.  Rabbi Yehoshua – who validates sacrifices performed by a kohen who is later found to be disqualified – rules that the kohen does not have to pay the penalty that is normally paid by a non-kohen who partakes of priestly food.  Although he turned out to be disqualified for the priesthood, nevertheless, he is absolved of the penalty since he was presumed to be a valid kohen at the time he ate the food.  The Talmud Yerushalmi links these two rulings of Rabbi Yehoshua, noting that they both stem from the same basic premise – that a kohen presumed to be qualified does not lose this status retroactively after he is found to be disqualified.  This link is seemingly based on the two sources which speak of the kohen’s personal status.  The source from Parashat Vezot Haberakha, however, speaks specifically of the avoda performed by a kohen who is then discovered to be disqualified, but not of his personal status.  According to this source, then, Rabbi Yehoshua’s position regarding the sacrifices performed by such a kohen would not necessarily apply to the question of whether he must pay a penalty after partaking of teruma.



Moadim lesimcha!




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