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Do You Ever "Slaughter" Another Jew?

A Strange Talmudic Insight into a Biblical Verse Captures the Sense of Jewish Unity

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    4059 views
  • August 17, 2017
  • |
  • 25 Av 5777
  • Comment

Class Summary:

The Maharal raises a fascinating question on this week's portion, Reah. One verse, "lo sisgodedu," is explained to include two commandments: Don't scratch off your skin in grief; and do not splinter the Jewish community. Now, the Talmud and the Midrash often present various interpretations for one biblical term; but nowhere do we find two interpretations that are completely disjointed.

Yet it is here that we can once again gain insight into the depth of Torah wisdom. For the truth is, that the two interpretations are not only not divergent; they are actually one and the same. They both represent the same truth-one on a concrete, physical level; the other on a deeper, spiritual level.

In the late 18th century, in Eastern Europe, there was a terrible conflict between the Chassidim and their opponents. The opponents came to one of the greatest students of the Vilna Gaon, and asked him to sign the ban against the Chassidim. He refused. His explanation was remarkable.

Dedicated by Estrella and Sruly Heber in honor of their son, Yosef Aryeh Leib.

No Gashes

There is a fascinating verse in this week's Torah portion, Reah:

ראה יד, א: בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ וְלֹא תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם לָמֵת:

You are children of the Lord, your G-d. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes, for the dead. (Deut. 14:1)

The custom of many pagans was to cut themselves in demonstration of grief over the death of a loved one. To vent their agony, they would make incisions in their flesh, pull out their hair, and flay their skin. The Torah prohibits this behavior. [1] There must be limits to grief. This is the meaning of the Hebrew word "sisgodedu," to scrape off the flesh.

The Talmud, however, adds a second meaning to this commandment:

יבמות יג, ב: לא תתגודדו-לא תעשו אגודות אגודות.

The Torah is saying: Do not splinter yourself into separate groups. [2] ("Sisgodedu," from the root word "agud" or "agudah," means groups.)

This is a prohibition against the Jewish people becoming divided. Practically, this is a prohibition against one Jewish court dividing into two and guiding the community in a conflicting fashion, [3] creating division and conflict. [4]

One practical example would be this. If a synagogue has a certain tradition of how to pray, one may not come and begin praying in a different tradition without the consent of the community. [5]

But there is something strange here, and the question was first pointed out by the 16th century Jewish sage and leader, Rabbi Yehuda Leow (1512-1607), known as the Maharal, [6] chief Rabbi of Prague (who one of the most influential Jewish personalities of his time, and author of major works on Jewish thought.) The Talmud and the Midrash often present various interpretations for one biblical term or verse; but nowhere do we find two interpretations that are completely disconnected. On the simple level, "sisgodedu" means scraping off your skin. Now the Talmud tells us that it also means, "don't split up into separate groups." How do these two divergent instructions come together in a single word? Why would the Torah communicate such two disparate ideas in one word-lacerating your body and dividing a community?

Or to put it more poignantly and humorously, the sages, it seems, by imposing this second meaning are "violating" the very injunction they are trying to convey. They take a simple word in the verse and they "splinter" its meaning to connote divergent interpretations that seem to lack any common streak?

In words of the Maharal: [7] "Every man of wisdom and understanding will be amazed at the relationship of their [the sages] words with the simple meaning of the text, at a depth that is truly awesome. Yet, the man who is a stranger to this wisdom, will wonder at their unlikely reading of the verse, their words seeming implausible to him."

One Organism

Yet it is here that we can once again gain insight into the depth of Torah wisdom. [8]

The truth is, that the two interpretations are not only not divergent, they are actually one and the same. They both represent the same truth-one on a concrete, physical level; the other on a deeper, spiritual level.

The Torah prohibits us from cutting our skin as a sign of bereavement. Our bodies are sacred; our organism is integrated, precious and holy; we must never harm it. We must not separate even a bit of skin from our flesh. Even difficult moments of grief don't allow us to give up on our life and on the sacredness and beauty [9] of our bodies. [10]

But that is exactly what we are doing when we allow our people to become splintered. The entire Jewish nation is essentially one single organism. [11] We may number 15 million people, and come from different walks of life, profess extremely different opinions, and behave in opposite ways, but we are essentially like one "super organism." When I cut off a certain Jew from my life, when I cut myself off from a certain Jewish community, I am in truth cutting off part of my own flesh.

When I cut my skin, I am lacerating my body. When I cut you off from me, I am lacerating my soul. Because our souls are one.

Only G-d

I once read the following powerful story.

In the late 18th century, in Eastern Europe, there was a terrible conflict between the Chassidim and their opponents, the Misnagdim, who suspected the Chassidim in heresy and blasphemy. The chief opponent was the Vilna Gaon, the famed Rabbi Elijah (1720-1797), from the Lithuanian city Vilnius, who issued a ban (cherem) against Chassidim. He excommunicated them from the Jewish community. It was a terrible division which continued for decades.

The Misnagdim came to one of the greatest students of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Refael Hakohen Katz, the Rabbi of Hamburg and author of Toras Yekusiel (1722-1803), and asked him to sign the ban. He refused. They said: "But your own Rebbe, the Vilna Gaon, signed it, and your Rebbe is like an angel of G-d!" [12]

This was his response:

There is a famous question on the story of the Akeida, the binding of Isaac, in Genesis. G-d instructs Abraham to bring up his son Isaac as an offering. Abraham complies. At the last moment, as he is about to slaughter Isaac, The Torah states: "And a heavenly angel of G-d called out to him, and said: Abraham! Abraham!... And he said: 'Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, nor do anything to him." At the last moment, Isaac is saved.

There is something strange about this story. The instruction to bring Isaac as an offering came directly from G-d. [13] G-d Himself told Abraham to offer his son to Him. Why did the reverse stop-order come from an angel and not from G-d?

The answer, said Reb Refael, is this. If G-d wants to tell you not to touch a Jewish child, sending an angel will suffice. But if He wants you to "slaughter" another Jew, an angel can't suffice! G-d Himself needs to come and tell you to do it. If you are going to "slaughter" another Jew, make sure you hear it from G-d Himself.

To let Isaac live, the instruction could be communicated via an angel. To let Isaac die, G-d needed to show up Himself.

"My Rebbe is an angel of G-d," Reb Refael said. "But I will not sign a ban against another Jew," even when an angel tells me to do so. To "slaughter" a Jew I need to hear it from G-d Himself.

[The source of the above story is Toras Yechiel by Rabbi Schlezinger Parshas Vayeira. Chut Hameshulah, a biographey of the Chasam Sofer, page 27. In the latter the name of the student of the Vilna Gain is given as Reb Zalman of Valazhin, who was one of the most beloved students of the Vilna Gaon. There he also adds that when the Vilna Gaon heard this response, he himself abstained from any further action against the Chassidim!

It is also interesting to note, that according to many sources, the famed Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, who dedicated his life to increasing Jewish unity, and his works spread among all Jews, was a grandson of Reb Refael of Hamburg.]

Be Careful

Sometimes we get in to fights with people over idealistic reasons. We "slaughter" people-with our words or actions-and we feel that we are acting on behalf of an angel. We feel angelic about our actions.

Be wary, says the Torah! If you are going to cut someone off from your life, you want to hear it from G-d Himself. If not, let it go.

[1] What is the connection between the opening of the verse about our being the children of G-d and the prohibition of gouging ourselves over the death of a loved one?

The Ohr Hachaim explains that the Torah is teaching us that death has another dimension to it. It can be compared to a person who sent his son to a faraway land in order to start a business there. The son settled in that place and over time became very close to many fine people there. After many years, the father summoned the son to return home and the son acceded to his wishes. The son is not lost. Those who had grown to know and love him are no longer able to see him, but the son is not lost. On the contrary, the son is returning home to his father. The thought of those friends going ahead and gouging themselves over the agony of the son's departure is unjust. Sadness and a melancholy feeling are in order. Gouging is definitely out. Because "Banim a'tem laHashem Elokaichem," You are children of Hashem your G-d." At death, the person is returning to the Father. The duration of that person's visit to this transient world has come to a close. The time has come to return home. Therefore, "Lo tisgo'd'du," do not gouge yourselves over a death. Reacting in such a way really contradicts our beliefs.

The Chizkuni explains that the basis for the command not to gouge ourselves is that we are the children of Hashem--we are mere children. Do we have an understanding of why we live and why we die? Can we fathom the Divine decisions which determine these occurrences? Do we appreciate the meaning of life? Do we comprehend why a person is born or why they die? A child does not comprehend the decisions that a mature father makes-and we too are children. Thus, "Lo tisgo'd'du {do not gouge yourselves}." Cf. Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Daas Zekenim, Sefurno and Klei Yakar for their explanations in the juxtaposition.

[2] Yevamos 13b

[3] רמב"ם הלכות עבודה זרה יב, יג-יד: גדידה ושריטה, אחת היא... על המת, בין שרט בידו בין שרט בכלי, לוקה... ובכלל אזהרה זו, שלא יהו שני בתי דינין בעיר אחת, זה נוהג במנהג, וזה נוהג במנהג אחר, שדבר זה גורם למחלוקת גדולה, וכתוב לא תתגודדו, לא תיעשו אגודות אגודות.

[4] The Talmud in Yevamos 13b and 14a discusses the nature of this prohibition. Abayei maintains that Lo Sisgodedu applies when two different batei dinim (courts) in one city issue conflicting rulings. This makes the one Torah that was received at Sinai appear as "two Torahs" (Rashi ibid.) and causes confusion and discord (Rambam). Rava, however, does not object to different batei denim, even in the same city, issuing contradictory rulings, since it is within the very nature of the Torah that different rulings will be rendered by different schools of thought, as Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel did for many years. In Rava's opinion, the prohibition of Lo Sisgodedu is meant to discourage one beis din from rendering a split decision.

See Kesef Mishnah to Rambam ibid who amends the text so that the Rambam agrees with Rava not Abaya, as is usually the standard in Halacha,

It is interesting to note, that Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef maintains that regarding any halachic issue about which it is well known that there is a difference of opinion, there is no problem of "lo sisgodedu." However, many halachik authorities disagree. A case in point: Everyone knows that many Jews wear tefillin on Chol ha-Moed and many do not. Nevertheless, the Mishnah Berurah quotes from the Artsos HaChaim that you should not allow these two groups to pray together in the same shul; they should pray in different rooms. Otherwise, he notes, it looks like there are "shtei Toros" (two Torahs).

[5] See here for the entire discussion: http://olamot.net/sites/default/files/pdf/68.pdf

[6] In his commentary of Gur Aryeh to this verse Deut. 14:1

[7] Beer HaGolah p. 44

[8] I heard this insight from Rabbi Yosef Cheser (Montreal), who heard it from Rabbi Schneur Kotler, the famed dean of the Lakewood Yeshiva, when he once visited Montreal. It was during a Friday night gathering and on the table was the question if Ashkenazic Jews should support a struggling Sephardic school in Montreal.

[9] That is how Rashi explains the reason for the prohibition. Rashi Deut. 14:1

[10] Symbolically, perhaps, scraping of the skin demonstrates a lack of sensitivity that our flesh is part of "us," it is part of our soul. We may not separate the body from its internal soul. When we realize the body is part of the soul, and that the soul never dies, it altars our perception of death. When we gash our bodies after death, it demonstrates a lack of this awareness.

[11] See Talmud Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4. Cf. Tanya chapter 32. Derech Mitzvosecha Mitzvas Ahavas Yisroel and references noted there.

[12] See Talmud Chagigah 13b that a real Rebbe is like an angel.

[13] Genesis 22:2.

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  • D

    DH -2 years ago

    Very powerful read. Thank you. Just as an aside the chofetz Chaim's name was Yisroel Meir not Meir Simcha. 

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  • E

    EW -6 years ago

    Addendum to previous comment

    In fact, it is well known that Gr"o would have met with the Alter Rebbe, the Baal haTanya and Reb Mendel Vitebsker if not for his mother who was gozer b'gzeiras kibud eim that he shouldn't (and that too was at the instigation of others) and that's why he jumped out the back window (as he didn't want to offend them either).

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  • E

    EW -6 years ago

    Corrections?

    Afaik the Gr"o never signed the ches against Chassidim and wasn't it's instigator (although also afaik he didn't fight it either)

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  • E

    eli -6 years ago

    mistake

    Reb Refoel Hamburger was not a talmid of the Vilna Gaon, he was a talmid of the Shaagas Aryeh. The story you brought is told about Reb Zelmele of Volozhin/Vilna, the prime talmid of the Vilna Gaon, if I'm not mistaken it's brought in Toldos Adam. Also the Chofetz Chaim was not a grandson of Reb Refoel, this is a mistake some people make. His son does not mention Reb Refoel in his biography, nor does the CC himself ever mention him as his grandfather, and there is no source for it. The Rav of Radin was a Kohen and he was an einikel (the well known "Nazir" R' Dovid Cohen was from same family), but not the CC.

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  • RW

    Rabbi Welz -6 years ago

    Source of the story?

    Harav YY. This article is a Masterpiece. I've heard to powerful speech you've delivered it at the dinner in Montrael. I'm just wondering the source to the story where it is printed. I can be be reached via email [email protected] א זיס לעכטיג שבת Rabbi B. Welz

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    • Y

      YY -6 years ago

      Toras Yechiel by Rabbi Schlezinger Parshas Vayeira. Chut Hameshulah page 27. In the latter the name of the student of the Vilna Gain is given as Reb Zalman of Valazhin, who was one of the most beloved students of the Vilna Gaon. There he also adds that when the Vilna Gaon heard this response, he himself abstained from any further action against the Chassidim!

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      • RW

        Rabbi Welz -6 years ago

        Thank you Rabbi YY for such a quick response. Keep it up. If klal Yisroel would have just a few more voices like you, we'd be in great shape. חזק ואמץ

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      • EO

        Eli Ostrozynski -2 years ago

        R. Zalman of Volozhin or R. Chaim of Volozhin?

        Thanks & Good Shabbos!!

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  • MK

    Moshe katz -6 years ago

    Yashar ko'ach

    Brilliant brilliant essay. Thank you rabbi YY

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  • MK

    Moshe katz -6 years ago

    Yashar ko'ach

    Brilliant brilliant essay. Thank you rabbi YY

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • MK

    Moshe katz -6 years ago

    Yashar ko'ach

    Brilliant brilliant essay. Thank you rabbi YY

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • MK

    Moshe katz -6 years ago

    Yashar ko'ach

    Brilliant brilliant essay. Thank you rabbi YY

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • MK

    Moshe katz -6 years ago

    Yashar ko'ach

    Brilliant brilliant essay. Thank you rabbi YY

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • MK

    Moshe katz -6 years ago

    Yashar ko'ach

    Brilliant brilliant essay. Thank you rabbi YY

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Vayeira/Re'eh

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • August 17, 2017
  • |
  • 25 Av 5777
  • |
  • 4059 views
  • Comment

Dedicated by Estrella and Sruly Heber in honor of their son, Yosef Aryeh Leib.

Class Summary:

The Maharal raises a fascinating question on this week's portion, Reah. One verse, "lo sisgodedu," is explained to include two commandments: Don't scratch off your skin in grief; and do not splinter the Jewish community. Now, the Talmud and the Midrash often present various interpretations for one biblical term; but nowhere do we find two interpretations that are completely disjointed.

Yet it is here that we can once again gain insight into the depth of Torah wisdom. For the truth is, that the two interpretations are not only not divergent; they are actually one and the same. They both represent the same truth-one on a concrete, physical level; the other on a deeper, spiritual level.

In the late 18th century, in Eastern Europe, there was a terrible conflict between the Chassidim and their opponents. The opponents came to one of the greatest students of the Vilna Gaon, and asked him to sign the ban against the Chassidim. He refused. His explanation was remarkable.

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