Saturday, August 03, 2019

The kohen marriage laws

A kohen cannot marry a divorcee, "zonah", or "chalalah". A kohen gadol, additionally, cannot marry a widow. Why do these laws exist?

My theory is that:

1) Speculatively: If a kohen married a promiscuous woman, it would shame him and by extension his priestly office. People would assume that her immorality reflected his immorality, or that he was likely suffering the humiliation of being cheated on by her. To avoid this shame to him and his office, he is prohibited to marry a "zonah", who was promiscuous. Perhaps the law of "chalalah" fits here too.

2) Speculatively: In ancient times divorce was usually due to suspicion of infidelity on the part of the wife. Therefore, a kohen marrying a divorcee would present the same issue as marrying a known promiscuous woman (perhaps to a lesser extent), so the Torah prohibits it.

The Mishna (Gittin 9:10) lists three opinions about when a husband may divorce his wife:
* Beit Shammai: only if he found a "matter of immorality" in her
* Beit Hillel: Even if she burned his food
* R' Akiva: Even if he found a more beautiful woman

Modern halacha follows R' Akiva, but all three opinions have their basis in Biblical verses (mentioned in the Mishna), and it may be assumed that all three are reasonable interpretations of the attitude to divorce expressed in the Bible. If we are to take the "consensus" of these opinions, it seems likely that many divorces in Biblical times were motivated by the wife's suspected adultery, even if there was no requirement that ALL divorces have this basis.

Should this approach stigmatize divorcees today as likely adulterers? No. Many divorces nowadays have no connection to adultery, and even if a kohen married a known adulterer, I don't think her stigma would transfer as easily to him now as it did in the past. So nowadays, this is a law without a purpose. This is not disturbing: There are many mitzvot whose purpose was relevant in the ancient world and not today (for example: not making sculptures of the moon, lest you worship it), and I am comfortable adding one more to the list.

This approach suggests that if a woman was divorced and then widowed, she would still be forbidden to a kohen, as the stigma from her original divorce would remain in her history. (This seems to be accepted halacha today.)

3) Speculatively: The kohen gadol must have even higher standards than a regular kohen. Thus he must marry a virgin, and cannot even marry a widow.

A virgin can be physically examined for signs of virginity. A widow has no signs of virginity, so there is no conclusive way of verifying that she has never been promiscuous. Apparently, for the kohen gadol, the requirements are similar to a regular kohen, but stricter.

This assumes that virginity is a physical state, which can be determined by physical examination. I hear that according to modern science (and to a lesser extent, sources in Chazal), this is not the case: a woman can have or lack the physical signs of "virginity" whether or not she is actually a virgin. But because our approach is based on how the kohen gadol in ancient times was viewed by people around him, what matter is not the science, but rather what ancient people *thought* was the science, even if they were wrong.

The Torah reading blessings

The blessings before and after each aliyah are very similar. Today in synagogue someone accidentally began reciting the wrong one, which got me thinking about them.

The parts of the two blessings which differ are:
אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים, ונתן לנו את תורתו
אשר נתן לנו תורת אמת, וחיי עולם נטע בתוכינו

Each of these lines has one topic in common (the giving of the Torah), and one topic different (choosing us from the nations, and eternal life).

Why do these topics appear, and in the places they appear?

Perhaps the answer is that choosing us as a nation happened in the *past*, so it is mentioned in the earlier blessing, at the beginning of the blessing. Whereas eternal life is the reward we get in the *future* for Torah observance, so it is mention in the later blessing, at the end of the blessing.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

The timing of Megillat Ruth

It is commonly stated that the events of Megillat Ruth take place around Shavuot. However, this is not quite accurate.

"...And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest" (1:22) - the first barley harvest occurs at Pesach, not Shavuot, as show by the Omer sacrifice.

"And [Ruth] stuck with Boaz' maidens to glean until the end of barley harvest and wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law. And Naomi her mother-in-law said to her: '... And now Boaz our kinsman... he is winnowing the barley in the threshing-floor tonight." (2:23-3:2)

So in short: Ruth left Moav around Pesach, and she got married around Shavuot.

Both parts of this are parallel to the earlier experience of the Jewish people: leaving Egypt on Pesach, and receiving the Torah (described by Chazal as a marriage) at Shavuot.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

On chassidic stories

Sometimes in shul, my glance to fall across a parsha sheet that's lying around. In my current Anglo-friendly shul, there is usually just one such sheet. It is focused on inspirational and chassidic stories, including this one, which I read recently, and (from what I've seen) seems to be representative of other chassidic stories.

After reading this story, it crossed my mind how similar it was to the stories of the Avot in Breishit. It concerned individuals, not the nation. The individuals go about their lives, year after year, struggling to make a living while upholding their religious principles. They are alternatively successful and failing, and this is a reflection of God's reward and punishment, as well as God's plans for each of them. There are virtually no open miracles, but occasionally a religious command is conveyed to them in a dream.

These similarities brings into focus the main difference between the Avot and the story's characters. The Avot (particularly Avraham) were unique individuals, chosen by God to father the chosen people due to their exceptional spiritual level. But what of the characters in the chassidic story? They are normal people - some of them rebbes (though often not uniquely special rebbes in their generation, much less all of history), and some of them completely unremarkable people like innkeepers.

Why does the chassidic story grant the same attributes to the ordinary Joe that the Torah only grants to some of its greatest heroes? This seems to be a case of the chassidic belief that normal people, not only rabbinic elites, are capable of obtaining holiness, and should be reassured that their lives are just as full of spiritual meaning as anyone else's.

Of course, I'm not the first to describe chassidut that way. The more interesting thing is probably what I was wondering about before starting the article, namely: how often do miracles occur? Are the "rationalists" correct and miracles are virtually nonexistent, or are the mystics correct that miracles are nearly constant? If normal people's lives seem to follow laws of nature, should we nevertheless expect that extremely holy people, or people at crucial moments in history, will witness miracles? The Avot, whom we'd presumably put in the "extremely holy" category, are a very interesting data point. While God clearly oversees their lives, essentially never does an open miracle help them out of one of their many crises. And they do receive Divine revelation and guidance - but generally through dreams rather than outright miracles. One might conclude that this is the highest level of miraculous intervention that a person can achieve through their merits (though higher levels can occur at defining historical moments like the Exodus). And this is exactly the level - no higher and no lower - which the chassidic stories assign to their characters.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Coals in the mouth

I know of two stories - one in Tanach, one in midrash - in which an angel causes a coal to be touched to a prophet's mouth:

In the year of the death of the king Uziyahu, I saw the LORD sitting on a high and exalted throne, and his robe-skirts filled the hall. ... And I said: "Woe is to me! For I am doomed, for I am a man of impure lips, and among a people of impure lips I dwell, for my eyes have seen the King Hashem Tzevaot." And one of the Seraphim flew to me, and in his hand a coal, taken with tongs from off the altar. And he touched my hand, and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips, and your iniquity is gone, and your sin is atoned." And I heard the voice of the LORD saying: "Who should I send, and who will go for us?" And I said "Behold, I am hear, send me." (Yeshayahu 6:1-8)

Pharaoh would kiss and hug [the child Moshe] and [Moshe] would take Pharaoh's crown and put it on his head, just as he would do in the future when he grew up... The Egyptian magicians were sitting there and said: "We are afraid of this [child] who takes your crown and puts it on his head, lest he be the one who will take kingship from you." Some of them said to kill him [by sword], some said to burn him. Yitro was sitting among them and said to them: "Perhaps this youth cannot [yet] think? Test him and bring before him gold and a coal in a bowl. If he extends his hand to the gold, he can think so kill him. If he extends his hand to the coal, he cannot think and he is not deserving of death." Immediately they brought before him. He extended his hand to take the gold. Gabriel came and pushed his hand and he took the coal and put his hand with the coal in his mouth and his tongue was burned. From this he became "heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue". (Shemot Rabbah 1:26)

It seems clear to me that the midrash about Moshe has its source, in large part, in the story of Yeshayahu's first prophecy. How could such a specific story (an angel causes a coal to be touched to a prophet's mouth) in the midrash not be linked to the same story in Tanach?

The continuations of the two prophets' stories contain another parallel. But this parallel is mirror image rather than identical: God asks who will be "sent" to the people and Yeshayahu immediately volunteers, while God tells Moshe to go to the people but Moshe asks that somebody else be "sent". Yeshayahu is extremely eager to go, while Moshe is extremely uneager.

And finally, there is one important detail that is simply different between the stories. In Yeshayahu, the coal takes an impure person and turns him into a pure person, ready to give prophecy to the people. In the midrash, the coal takes a speaking person and turns him into a speech-impaired person.

What are we supposed to make of the close parallel between the stories, which yet has some important differences?

When a person is touched by coals on the mouth, there seem to be two possible - contradictory - results. Scientifically speaking, this should cause a burn which might lead to some kind of speech defect. Yet with Yeshayahu the burn has a nearly opposite effect: it turns him into a prophet. In a given case, which of these results will occur, and why?

I think the best answer to this comes from Moshe's story:

Moshe said to Hashem: "Please O LORD, I am not a man of words, nor was one yesterday nor the day before, nor since You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue." Hashem said to him: "Who gives man a mouth, or makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not me, Hashem?" (Shemot 4:10-11)

Thus sometimes a burn leads to disability, but sometimes - whenever God chooses - it actually leads to a greater ability.

When Yeshayahu realized that God had chosen him as a prophet, he eagerly volunteered - despite the mouth burn he had just suffered. Moshe was placed in the same situation - called to be a prophet despite his limitations. It was only left for the midrash to fill in the exact story of how he got those limitations. By making them the same limitations that Yeshayahu had, the midrash highlights the contrast in their responses.