Signs, Covenants, and Where They Lead Us

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drashot of the Aruch HaShulchan, Drasha 11: Signs, Covenants, and Where They Lead Us

It’s Erev Rosh Chodesh Nisan; tomorrow, my most recent book, As If We Were There, starts its daily readings through the end of Pesach.

The opening salvo of this sermon is Eruvin 96a, where R. Akiva explains that we do not wear tefillin on Shabbat because the Torah refers to tefillin as an ot, a sign. Since Shabbat and Yom Tov are themselves otot, signs, tefillinwould be redundant. Rashi says the sign is that we are holding fast to Hashem’s Torah, a proposition Aruch HaShulchan will eventually question.

His starting point is that holidays are not called an ot anywhere, so it’s not clear how this logic exempts men from wearing tefillin on holidays; in addition, R. Akiva didn’t say these days are called a sign, he said they are a sign.

This logic seems faulty for yet another reason, since men are always “wearing” their berit milah, their circumcision, which is also called a sign. According to R. Akiva, they should never have to wear tefillin, then.

Signs of Covenant, Servitude, and Much Else

The first part of Aruch HaShulchan’s answer is that ot can refer to different kinds of signs; even non-Jews had signs, for example. Tehillim 74 (for which Aruch HaShulchan offers readings of many verses, which we’ll mostly skip) refers to the signs non-Jewish actors in Tanach took to be meaningful. There’s a tradition that Nevuchadnezzar used signs to tell him whether his war on Jerusalem would succeed; Gittin 56a envisions Niron Kesar shooting arrows toward Jerusalem to be sure that he was supposed to destroy the city; and Titus reportedly stabbed the parochet, the separation between the Kodesh and the Kodesh Kodashim, the first room of the Temple and the Holy of Holies, only to have blood come out. That, too, was a sign.

Once we remind ourselves that signs play multiple roles, then, we need to know which kind of sign was relevant to R. Akiva’s comment about tefillin and Shabbat. Aruch HaShulchan accepts the view of Sefer Rokeach 30, that the ot we care about for this discussion is one that reminds us of the Exodus. Circumcision is about the covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people, with no relevance to the Exodus, and therefore has little bearing on our current discussion.

Aruch HaShulchan expands on that, saying that the sign that mattered to R. Akiva was the one that shows that we accept Hashem’s kingship, recognize we are servants to Hashem, made so in perpetuity by the Exodus (which is why the Aseret HaDibberot, Ten Pronouncements, starts with the declaration that Hashem is our Lord Who took us out of Egypt, rather than, e.g., created Heaven and Earth).

It is that sign of servitude that we need every day. Since Shabbat and holidays commemorate the Exodus (including Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur; despite the lack of an obvious connection to the Exodus, we still do say Zecher li-yetziat Mitzrayim in their liturgy), that’s all the sign we need. While we’re in exile, the signs of servitude stay in full force, shown by our observance of the Torah and its commandments.

The sign of the covenant, the love and friendship between Hashem and the Jewish people, is not as obvious (it’s still there in our circumcision, but it is less clear in the world at large). When Yeshayahu (55;12-13) describes the joy of future redemption, he refers to it being a permanent sign, that will never be cut off. For Aruch HaShulchan, that’s because the exile might have depressed us into thinking the covenant had been broken.

Shabbat as a Sign of Both Covenants

Later in that chapter, Yeshayahu singles out the observance of Shabbat as important to that future redemption, as do Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel (the verse from Yirmiyahu is also the source for Shabbat 119a’s claim that wherever Shabbat desecration is found, fires are found, to which Aruch HaShulchan will return).

Shabbat is singled out, he suggests, because it reflects two covenants, the same one signified by circumcision, of lasting connection between Hashem and the descendants of Avraham, as well as the one signified by tefillin, of the servitude created by the Exodus. The two come together in Shabbat because the real connection between Hashem and the Jewish people is through Torah (I am skipping multiple examples he gives of where the Torah, and the Ark that contained the Tablets of the Law, are referred to as berit, covenant); after all, the world was created for the Torah and exists only because of Torah (the famous “three things upon which the world stands, Torah, service, and acts of kindness are all contained within Torah).

Shabbat is a reminder of Creation and of Torah. That’s why the Jews were taught about Shabbat before the giving of the Torah, and why Hashem reacted so strongly to the Jews who went out to collect man on Shabbat. Hashem calls it a refusal to keep His Torah, even though no Torah had yet been given. Shabbat was, at that point, the Torah that had been given.

The other reason Shabbat came so soon was to stress that the Jews would always be governed miraculously rather than naturally. Right around the time Hashem gave man and Shabbat, the Jews went three days and did not find “water,” which the Midrash says is Torah. By nature, they’d have no water and would thirst to death, but Hashem intervened; without Torah (the “tree” Moshe throws into the water), the Jews won’t survive.

When Chametz Becomes Prohibited, and Why

Aruch HaShulchan notes (in a longer passage I’ve had to skip, for space reasons) that both Shabbat and Pesach are referred to with the verbs zachor and shamor, remember and guard (for Shabbat, it’s from the two versions of theAseret HaDibberot; for Pesach, it’s Shemot 13;13, remember this day that you left Egypt, and Devarim 16;1, Shamor et chodesh ha-aviv, guard the spring month), and wonders why.

As prelude to the answer, he brings up an halachic question we’ve seen him discuss before, when the prohibition ofchametz begins. In Pesachim 28b, R. Yehudah held that it is Biblically prohibited from noon on the fourteenth of Nisan, while R. Shim’on held that the Torah only prohibited it with the advent of the fifteenth.

In this sermon, Aruch HaShulchan links their disagreement to another issue they debate, from Shabbat 93b, the status of melachah she-einah tzerichah le-gufah, acts whose goal is not the same as the Shabbat-prohibited goal, such as digging a hole for its dirt rather than to create a hole. R. Yehudah sees those as halachically the same as any Shabbat violation. R. Shim’on thinks they are Rabbinically rather than Biblically prohibited.

Aruch HaShulchan suggests that R. Yehudah is taking the position that preparatory acts are the same as the goal acts themselves, that removing dirt from the hole is the same as creating the hole (for Shabbat purposes). Since removing chametz is about preparing for the Exodus, it becomes fully prohibited as soon as that’s relevant, the afternoon of the fourteenth, when Jews are offering the Pesach sacrifice. Preparing for the Exodus by offering the sacrifice that “earned” that Exodus is legally the same as being in the Exodus, Aruch HaShulchan is suggesting as R. Yehudah’s view.

(This doesn’t seem to account for the fact that halachah accepts R. Yehudah’s position regarding chametz on the fourteenth, but not regarding melachah she-einah tzerichah legufah,

However he would have answered that,) the idea of preparatory acts being as significant as the essential ones answers why both Shabbat and Pesach have verbs of remembrance and guarding attached to them. Remembrance, for the Torah, is holding on to the past in the present (he notes the Rabbinic dictum that Jews have to see themselves, in each generation, as if they left Egypt, from which I took the title of my recent book, As If We Were There­—which offers daily readings starting with the first of Nisan).

For Shabbat and Pesach, there is the additional element of guarding, for Shabbat by not doing melachah, for Pesach by not eating chametz. Each day, in other words, has attached to it a set of preventative practices, of ways in which we are supposed to stop ourselves from getting close to violating the day.

His message here isn’t the clearest, to me. I think he wants to show why observing these days, being careful about their “negative” halachot, the prohibitions they involve, is essential to their positive message, the covenant they demonstrate and uphold. We keep Shabbat as a sign of our lasting connection to Hashem’s Torah, which is the essence of creation, and we keep it even in ways that don’t seem attached to its lofty purpose.

So, too, we keep Pesach, another sign of our connection to Hashem as servants and as bearers of a positive covenant, in positive ways but also by avoiding chametz, even at a time when it’s not yet connected to the essence of the holiday.

Contemporary Overtones

There is a bit more to the drasha, which I don’t have the space to summarize even briefly, but I want to take one moment for an example he gives of how Shabbat is vital to observance. Let’s suppose we got equal rights, he says, so that a Jew could be appointed to some ministerial or judicial position, and we tried to convince that person that taking the position would get in the way of being an observant Jew. He’d deny that, would point out that no one knows if he puts on tefillin or eats kosher, etc.

We’d then say but how would you keep Shabbat? And he’d have to admit that, indeed, Shabbat forces us to separate ourselves from the nations around us (nowadays—in both Democratic and Republican administrations, so I’m not being political—Jews find heterim, avenues of halachic permissibility to violate Shabbat when necessary for their service in the government).

For Aruch HaShulchan, the point of these otot, the tefillin during the week, and the holidays themselves, is the reminder of two of our connections to Hashem, a covenant and a servitude to Hashem’s Will, and it is in observing those days fully, as a commemoration of Egypt, with full attention both to their essential practices as well as their preparatory ones (such as chametz on the fourteenth of Nisan) that we maintain the health of those covenants. It is that commitment that will lead us to merit the redemption, however long in coming, that will make clear both Hashem’s power and Hashem’s abiding love for the Jewish people.

About Gidon Rothstein

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