Finishing Brachot, Relating to Torah Scholars, Making Aliyah, and Finding Peace

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image19 Elul, 5697 (1937): Tzitz Eliezer Finishing Brachot, Relating to Torah Scholars, Making Aliyah, and Finding Peace

I am a sucker for hadranim, for talks given upon the occasion of finishing a tractate of Talmud. Perhaps it’s because it’s so rare for me to finish a piece of learning, perhaps because it’s an opportunity to watch a great thinker reflect on learning just completed. Whatever the reason, I find them interesting, and Tzitz Eliezer included more than a few in the many volumes of his work (a quick check of the Bar-Ilan suggests tht he did this much more than other respondents).

Volume 10, responsum 32 is a hadran for tractate Brachot he dated to the 19th of Elul, 5697 (1937), when he was twenty-one. Since he includes it in his responsa, I’m counting it here. Note also that this is volume ten, which came out several decades after this hadran was written and/or delivered, and yet Tzitz Eliezer still had it in his papers, with the date of original delivery/writing.  It’s a monument to his record-keeping as well as all else extraordinary about him.

R. Avin HaLevi and Eating with Torah Scholars

The last little bit of Brachot, on 64a, has a series of statements by R. Avin HaLevi, who appears only here in the Bavli (and, as far as I can tell, otherwise only in Midreshei Aggadah). Tzitz Eliezer picks up on the one that says that anyone who enjoys a meal where a Torah scholar is שרוי (present is a loose translation, and we’ll return to this word), is as if enjoying the shining of the Divine Presence. R. Avin’s prooftext is the description of Aharon and the elders eating with Yitro “before God.”  Since there wasn’t yet a Mishkan that could count as more literally before God, R. Avin thinks it shows that their eating with Moshe Rabbenu (a Torah scholar) was as if they were eating in the Divine Presence.

Based on this, Magen Avraham 568;5 extended a rule regarding personal fast days. If someone vowed to fast ten days, without specifying which, certain events allow that person to break the fast day in the middle and make it up another time (since his or her choice of this day was purely personal). Shulchan Aruch says that would be true if a mitzvah of eating came that person’s way or it was necessary for the honor of an important person. Based on R. Avin haLevi, Magen Avraham adds joining a meal with a Torah scholar, since that’s like eating in the Divine Presence. Others disagree, such as Mahatsit haShekel, citing Chavot Yair, denying that just a Torah scholar’s presence turns it into a seudat mitzvah, a meal that fulfills a commandment.

Tzitz Eliezer’s Distinction

Tzitz Eliezer agrees with the second view. He notes that some meals, such as one celebrating a baby’s circumcision, or the redemption of a first-born, or the establishment of a house in the Land of Israel are occasions where eating is itself the mitzvah, part of helping the celebrant love and beautify the mitzvah in which s/he is engaged, and to help that person thank God for having reached that day before as large a crowd as possible. The mitzvah is the celebrant’s; the attendees at the meal fortify and expand that person’s joy at the opportunity to fulfill this mitzvah.

That’s a mitzvah opportunity that justifies switching the fast day to another day. But the essential benefit in having a meal with a Torah scholar is the connection fostered; that can happen without a meal, and is therefore not pressing enough to allow interrupting a fast day already undertaken. Ketubbot 111b lists other ways to create such a connection, such as having one’s daughter marry a Torah scholar, or one’s son marry the daughter of a Torah scholar, or benefitting a Torah scholar from one’s possessions, which that Gemara says is like cleaving to the Divine (even closer than being in the Shining Presence).

Since the meal is one way among many to accomplish the goal, there’s no reason the person fasting cannot use other means. In fact, Rambam in Hilchot De’ot 5;2 lists a general obligation to connect with Torah scholars, to learn from their deeds. The Gemara’s ways are examples of how to achieve that, with no intention of being exhaustive.

Not Just Any Meal

Further, Tzitz Eliezer argues, R. Avin’s idea applied only at a meal already defined as a seudat mitzvah. The prooftext, after all, was where Yitro had offered sacrifices, from which it is a mitzvah to eat. For Tzitz Eliezer, only at such a meal will the Torah scholar be particularly directed to his Father in Heaven. That added sanctity is what will bathe the participants in sanctity. An ordinary meal might not have that same quality.

To forestall the claim that the Gemara should have specified that, Tzitz Eliezer notes Pesachim 49a, where R. Shim’on says that a Torah scholar may only participate in seudot mitzvah, which Rambam includes in the same paragraph of Hilchot De’ot, 5;2. (A good friend once told me of an ancestor who decided to eat only at such meals; to keep to that, he completed tractates of Gemara every day, so that each meal he ate at was in fact at least a siyum).

If so, the Gemara didn’t need to clarify R. Avin’s assumption.

Defending Magen Avraham

There is an audacity to a twenty-one year old taking on Magen Avraham so directly but, as we saw last week,Tzitz Eliezer thought of it as the highest respect to engage others’ views in Torah. Here, he wants also to defendMagen Avraham.

He suggests that Magen Avraham assumed the scholar would say words of Torah at the meal, which converts that table into a place of the Divine Presence, as Avot 3;3 tells us, that if three eat together and have words of Torah at the meal, it’s as if they’ve eaten from Hashem’s Table (altar). Similarly, earlier in Brachot (55a), R. Yochanan and R. Elazar used that same verse (Yehezkel 41;22) to say that once the Beit haMikdash was destroyed, the atonement of sacrifices can be secured at one’s own table.  

Discussing Torah matters sanctifies the food, makes them into quasi-sacrifices. When a Torah scholar is at the meal, s/he will certainly do that, including teaching the others that eating is for the purpose of strengthening our bodies to better serve Hashem. If we focus on that, our meals will turn into service of Hashem, will in fact be like eating a sacrifice in the Divine Presence.

The Torah Scholar Doesn’t Have to Eat

A problem with that reading is that Magen Avraham assumed the person can break the fast to partake of such a meal even though it wasn’t a meal of specific mitzvah, whereas Tzitz Eliezer’s defense assumed that any time a Torah scholar is part of a meal, it is inherently a meal of mitzvah, because the Torah scholar will share Torah ideas, on food (and other matters).

Tzitz Eliezer therefore suggests that Magen Avraham meant to allow breaking these personally volunteered fasts (without a specific date) even though the Torah scholar would not be eating. R. Avin’s term was שרוי, that the Torah scholar was present, and Tzitz Eliezer says that’s how it could be a seudat ha-reshut; any meal at which a Torah scholar eats turn into a seudat mitzvah (Tzitz Eliezer doesn’t discuss what seems to me a problem in his reading—if every meal at which a Torah scholar eats becomes a seudat mitzvah, what did the Gemara mean by saying a Torah scholar cannot eat at a seudat ha reshut, a voluntary meal?).

As support, he notes that the Torah never says that Moshe ate with Yitro, Aharon, and the elders. He was just there, and that was enough to be thought of as being in the Divine Presence.

Another place for such a reading of Torah scholars’ role is R. Berechyah’s statement, Yoma 71a, that one who wants to libate wine on the altar should instead fill the throats of Torah scholars with wine. Tzitz Eliezer again says that it’s not the drinking of the wine that we care about, it’s the added volubility of a Torah scholar with some wine in him (as Bamidbar Rabbah Naso 11;1 says, when wine goes in, secrets come out). For the Torah scholar, those secrets will be ones of Torah, which he otherwise holds hidden within. With that, sanctity will prevail, as before.

In all of this, he resists another obvious reading, that it is the person of the Torah scholar, by virtue of all the Torah s/he has learned and knows, that brings the Divine Presence. Whereas other statements did provide ways to make a meal a sanctified occurrence, the simplest reading of R. Avin would have been that the very presenceof the Torah scholar makes it like enjoying the rays of the Divine. But Tzitz Eliezer would have none of that, was certain it had to be a matter of the content the Torah scholar shared.

Living In Israel

The two effects the Torah scholar can produce, making it like one is in the Divine Presence and also being a replacement for the atoning altar, are true of the Land of Israel as well. His turning in this direction reminds us that, earlier, he had included a meal celebrating the dedication of a house in Israel as an example of a seudat mitzvah, an obligatory meal.

Vayikra Rabbah 25;3 has the statement of R. Simon (with a samech, not Shimon) that the command to follow Hashem and cling to Him means to mimic Hashem’s actions. While that’s usually invoked to remind us to be compassionate as Hashem is, R. Simon notes that Hashem planted the Garden of Eden right after completing Creation, so too, when we enter the Land, we should first involve ourselves in planting. Proving, to Tzitz Eliezer, that a connection to Israel (which he, like others, calls ארץ חמדה, the desirable Land), ensuring that it is planted is an act of connecting with, clinging to, Hashem.

Ketubbot 111a says that being buried in Israel provides atonement, based on the last words in the Song of Ha’azinu, וכפר אדמתו עמו, His land will atone for His people. All the more so that one who lives in Israel will have his or her sins wiped away, an idea found also in Yeshayahu 33;24, which says that the nation that lives in Israel is raised above sin, and Midrash Shocher Tov to Psalm 85 praises those who live in Israel, since they have no sins in their lives or in their deaths. So Israel is an atoning altar as well.

Here, too, Tzitz Eliezer does not accept the plain sense, that the Land itself does it. Rather, it’s the wisdom Israel brings (with a reference to Baba Batra 158b, that the air of Israel makes us wiser), there’s no Torah like the Torah of Israel, and other such traditional expression of Israel’s greatness. That only works, however, for those wise enough to appreciate it—as Daniel 2;21 says, Hashem gives wisdom to the wise. Those who want to be improved, enlightened, and purified by Israel, will find Israel making it much easier (as a common saying has it, that if we open a tiny bit for Hashem, Hashem will open wide for us).


To earn all these benefits requires personal purification, repentance and adopting practices of sanctity, of refraining even from some of what is permissible, to heighten one’s awareness of Hashem. Among other sources, he thinks that’s the explanation for R. Zeira, whom Berachot 57a portrays as not having moved to Israel until he had a dream that, to him, indicated that all his sins had been atoned.

In R. Zeira’s case, there was added pressure, because R. Zeira’s teacher, R. Yehuda, held that it was prohibited to leave Bavel to go to Israel (a discussion of its own, but seemingly limited to Bavel, and therefore no longer applicable). Once R. Zeira had the dream that he had no sins (or, perhaps, no significant sins), he took that as a sign that even violating his teacher’s view was all right, and moved.

The Right Kind of Torah Scholar

After the Gemara offers several other statements of R. Avin haLevi, Tzitz Eliezer thinks for the sake of completeness, it offers one by R. Levi b. Hiyya, that someone who leaves shul and goes straight to the Study Hall and studies Torah also receives the Divine Presence. Tzitz Eliezer thinks it’s an addendum to R. Avin’s statement, helping us define the Torah scholar whose company we should cultivate. Someone who goes from the place where we speak to Hashem directly, demonstrating our awe, proving that that Torah scholar puts his awe of Hashem prior to his wisdom, and therefore, as per Avot 3;9, that his wisdom will last. That’s the kind of Torah scholar who merits the Divine Presence, and therefore in whose presence we, too, will merit it, from whose throat the Divine Presence speaks.

That leads to the final statement of the tractate, that Torah scholars bring peace to the world. Again abjuring the easiest reading (putting it in a series with what’s come before), Tzitz Eliezer says that they bring peace by bringing others to recognize Hashem, and to want to serve Hashem. When all humanity recognizes and serves Hashem, peace ensues naturally and without delay.

The thoughts of a twenty-one year old Tzitz Eliezer, finishing Berachot for the moment.

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. Sammy Finkelman

    Don’t say there wasn’t a mishkan when Aharon and the elders ate with Yitro.

    And already after the Egel HaZahav there already would have been some place that could be called lifnei HaElokim and an Ohel (Mo-ed)

    It certainly was after Matan Torah, that Yisro arrived, because they weren’t at Har Sinai until just before Matan Torah (although Moshe Rabbeinu and se elders had made a short trip there (to Horev = Har Sinai = Har HaElokim) for him to hit a rock and start a stream of water flowing to Rephidim.

    If Yisro had arrived just before, he’d have been here for Matan Torah, and this is not related.

    Also note, that Moshe was making judgments accoridng to law and that is more logical after Matan Torah.

    And also the next day Yisro suggests the appointments of judges, and we know from Devorim 1:9ff that Moshe carried out this plan only when they were close to leaving Har Sinai – that is, in the second year, after there was mishkan.

    And while you can say it was earlier, still this is all related in the Torah before Matan Torah is related.

    Why is it placed there? Maybe because Yisro decided to leave early. It could have taken him a long time to find Moshe and he only found him, say, in Kislev or Shevat or later. Arriving is whole separate Posuk.

    It might be that what we are dealing with here is that someone, or something, has been wrotten out of the Torah, as per Shemos 32:33, and, as a result. some things become a little obscure. (and the obscurity is obscured itself!)

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