Halachic Information from Heaven

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

17 Shevat: R. Kook on When We Can Get Halachic Information from Heaven

[Click to hear an audio summary of this responsum].

Some strands of Jewish thought take up the metaphysical, discussing, analyzing, or investigating how the divine and/or angelic realm interacts with and impact our physical world. Our state of exile sometimes lets us forget that that is an issue no Jew can ignore completely. Shu”t Mishpat Kohen 92, dated 17 Shevat 5694 (1934), shows us one example where the metaphysical affects the ordinary world in pure halachic terms, not just in the world of thought or ideas.

Knowing the Place of the Altar

R. Kook was writing to R. Ovadya Hedaya, the head of Yeshivat Porat Yosef, regarding some comments of R. Yaakov Chai Zerihan (when I first searched his name, I found an entry on a very sweet website called Chacham Yomi, which seeks to perpetuate our memory of the rich Torah legacy of Sephardic Torah scholars). While considering R. Zerihan’s ideas, he had noticed that R. Hedaya himself (Shu”t Yaskil Avdi) had been bothered by a ruling of Rambam’s, that if a Jew offers a sacrifice in our times, s/he will be liable for ha’ala’at chutz, offering a sacrifice outside the Beit HaMikdash, outside the Temple.

For Rambam to decide that one would be liable for that prohibition, he must have held that the sacrifice was ra’ui lifnim, eligible to have been brought in its right place.  R Hedaya questioned that, since whoever offered that sacrifice today is ritually impure in a way that meant that person could not have entered the Temple grounds. We do not have space for R. Kook’s explanation of that passage, but I mention it to keep us in mind of this idea of ra’ui lifnim, that the prohibition of shechutei chutz, slaughtering sacrifices outside the Mikdash, applies only when the sacrifice could theoretically have been brought in the Mikdash itself.

The Floor as Substitute for the Altar

That seems to ignore the gaping hold that we do not have a Temple, so how could a sacrifice be possibly brought there? True, all we actually need is the mizbe’ach, the altar, since tradition holds that we can offer sacrifices even if the Mikdash itself is not yet standing. That lets us understand that—since building an altar is much less complicated than a whole Temple—sacrifices can count as possible even now.

The flaw is that we do not know where that altar was supposed to go with the exactitude required for it to be valid. R. Zerihan suggested that perhaps we do not even need an altar to be liable for sacrificing outside the Temple, because Shelomo HaMelech sanctified the whole floor of the courtyard of the Temple (the azarah), the open area where the altar was.

R. Kook disagrees, because Zevachim 62a discusses how they knew where to place the altar in the second Temple: R. Elazar claimed they had a vision of it in the right place, the archangel Michael offering sacrifices [archangel is from another religion, but the Gemara refers to him as “ha-sar ha-gadol, the great officer” which is not that far from archangel]; R. Yitzchak Nafcha said they saw Yitzchak’s ashes at the place of the altar [based on the tradition that the Akedah, the binding of Yitzchak, happened on the Temple Mount]; R. Shmuel bar Nachmani says that as they walked the area of the azarah, most of it had the aroma of incense, but at the place of the altar, the aroma was of animal parts being burned; and Rabbah bar bar Chanah quotes R. Yochanan, that prophets came back from Bavel and testified to necessary pieces of knowledge, including the place of the altar.

That disproves R. Zerihan’s idea, says R. Kook, since had the floor of the Temple been permanently sanctified, they could have done without all that [R. Zerihan is not defended here, but I could imagine him saying that it’s better to have a mizbe’ach even if it were possible to offer the sacrifices on the floor. True, they made do without other important furnishings in the Second Temple, such as the Ark of the Covenant, but it still makes sense that the more they could know about how to rebuild the Mikdash fully, the better].

R. Kook concludes that Shelomo’s sanctification of the floor must have been limited to when that first Temple stood, which then explains the need to find the exact place of the altar. [R. Kook does not bring it up, but Rambam famously claimed (Laws of the Select House 6;16) that the sanctity of the Temple never went away once it was built, since once the Divine Presence comes to a place, it never goes away. R. Kook would seem to have to claim that Shelomo’s sanctification of the floor was a separate issue, and therefore could be and was batel, went away once that Temple was destroyed].

The Baseline Assumption on Prophetic Information About Torah

That brings us back to the question R. Zerihan had raised, that our inability to determine where the mizvbe’ach would go should mean that we cannot be liable for offering sacrifices outside the Temple, since we have no way to offer them in their proper place. R. Kook’s daring suggestion is that even today, prophets could tell us where the mizbe’ach should go [this is not the first place that people have noticed that R. Kook believed in a more prophetic view of halachah, as Prof. Benjamin Brown notes in his great biography of Chazon Ish; it is a particularly practical one, in that R. Kook seems to bring his belief in prophecy into an ordinary, technical halachic context. But since he also says that ru’ach hakodesh, the Divine Spirit that infuses some great people, works, we might not need to go that far].  

That at first seems wrong, not daring, since several Talmudic discussions say that matters of Torah law cannot be decided based on input from divine sources. The most famous is Baba Metziah 59b, where R. Yehoshua rejects a bat kol, a Divine Voice, that said halachah always agrees with R. Eliezer.

Temurah 16a also takes that view; it mentions that when Moshe passed away, the anguish of the mourning led the Jews to forget many halachot. When people suggested asking Heaven to re-reveal those prophetically, the Gemara points to Bamidbar 36;13, which says eleh hamitzvotthese are the commandments, to which no prophet may add.

A First Insufficient Carve Out to Accept Divine Input Into Halachah

Tosafot in a couple of places (Chullin 44) suggested that we only reject Divine Voices where we have some alternative explanation. In Baba Metzia, the good reason to dismiss that Divine Voice as not intent on ruling halachically (but rather offered purely to honor R. Eliezer, who had requested it), is that that Voice contradicted the halachic principle that we follow the majority. Barring that, Tosafot think we could accept the halachic rulings of such a Voice.

R. Kook points out that the Gemara in Temurah does not seem to agree, since Yehoshua and others decided they could not recover the information lost during the mourning for Moshe. He suggests that the problem for those Jews was that they would have had to ask for information from Heaven, and that was only allowed for Moshe, who had the unique right to assume Hashem would answer him with information any time he asked.

That doesn’t work perfectly, since then Tosafot should have given that as the reason R. Eliezer’s Divine Voice was to be ignored, that he had asked for it. Regardless of how we resolve that, Temurah seems to show clearly that some kinds of information about Torah may not be accessed by resort to the prophetic, which Rambam sets as more of an absolute rule in Mishneh Torah.

The Temple Is An Exception

A better answer lies in a Sifrei, commenting on Devarim 12;5, you shall seek after His Presence and come there. Sifrei wonders whether we have to wait until we’re told where this special place will be, and notes that the verse tells us tidreshu, to inquire. Since the beginning of the verse referred to the place Hashem chose, R. Kook understands Sifrei to be saying that we have to ask, and then Hashem will tell the prophet where it goes.

R. Kook recognizes the novelty of his suggestion, that the place of the altar (or everything that has to do with the structure of the Mikdash, possibly) is unique, in that we are permitted or obligated to seek out Divine guidance on how to practice halachah. Once that’s true, for all that we no longer know where the altar goes, sacrifices are halachically possible, since we could ask a prophet where to put the altar (and once we could do something, it’s often not necessary to actually do it, a principle extrapolated from the laws of flour offerings, called kol ha-raui le-bilah ein bilah me’akevet bo, that as long as the flour could be properly mixed with the oil, it did not need to be actually mixed).

Since we need not access such information purely by human intellect, even ru’ach hakodesh could work. That might be his more prosaic answer to the question I raised above, that we no longer have prophecy, since ru’ach ha-kodesh comes to the worthy in every generation (he cites R. Chaim Vital, but also a Tanna de-Bei Eliyahu, which says that the Divine Spirit rests on each person according to his merits. Lest we worry that we have no one today with sufficient merits, R. Kook points out that Sukkah 45b tells us there are never fewer than thirty-six righteous people in the world.

The Prophetic that Comes After the Human

Another answer to the original question of how we can let prophecy guide our halachic practice is that all the sources that banned prophetic input into Torah were where that was deciding the whole question.

Where human intellect (the combination of tradition and inference) has set the parameters of the discussion, R. Kook thinks prophecy can do the rest. Once Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai reported their traditions and how they understand them, a Divine Voice telling us that we should rule according to Beit Hillel is not as much of a problem, since it’s not producing new Torah, it’s helping us know how to act on our existing Torah.

The need for a baseline of human knowledge explains why Megillah 3a is troubled by the tradition that prophets taught us that certain letters have a different form at the end of a word than elsewhere (the letters are menatzpach, mem, nun, tzadi, peh, kaf). Since R. Kook has found so many ways to permit Divinely sent information, he is bothered by the Gemara’s choice of answer, that this was information we once had and lost. In the case of those letters, there was no tradition, no two sides, no human input on what should happen with the alphabet; that’s where R. Kook continues to understand there to be a complete prohibition on innovative Divine information.

None of that is true for the Beit HaMikdash, since that’s where the Torah said we are supposed to seek Divine guidance, le-shichno tidreshu, seek after His Presence, so that we will be able to go there.

A view with upsides and downsides, since it means we might be able to build the Mikdash sooner than we would think (and could rely on any plausible claim of ru’ach hakodesh about where to put all the pieces of the Mikdash), but that also means one could be fully liable for offering a sacrifice outside the Mikdash today, since offerings within the Mikdash are possible.

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