Distinctions We Found in Going Back to Off the Beaten Path

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to Emor: Distinctions We Found in Going Back to Off the Beaten Path

After a week in which I yielded to the temptation to discuss Ramban’s I’ve thought about often, let’s go back to picking them as randomly as possible.

The Physical Follows the Spiritual

21;17 begins the discussion of mumin, physical differences that stop a kohen from offering sacrifices in the Beit HaMikdash [I dislike “blemish” as a translation, because the list of mumin includes differences that do not seem to be a blemish. This is not the place to share my personal theory about why mumin prevent service in the Mikdash; in brief, I think that a mum makes the kohen stand out, which interferes with his role as a representative of Hashem.]

Hashem tells Moshe to speak to Aharon about this disqualification, because one of his descendants might have such a difference.  In other discussions related to the priesthood, Hashem tells Moshe to speak to Aharon and his sons, with a phrase such as, “if any of you…” Ramban thinks the Torah refrained from that phrasing here, because it would imply what he thought impossible, that Aharon, “the sanctified one of Hashem,” might ever develop a mum. The discussion of mumin, in his view, matters only for Aharon’s descendants, and the Torah wanted that to be clear

On the other hand, 22;2, about ritual impurity, is addressed to Aharon and his sons, because Aharon might become (temporarily) ritually impure by contact with a corpse or an insect. Two verses later, when the Torah lays out rules for zav or tzara’at, forms of ritual impurity that stem from one’s body, Ramban again notices that the verse speaks of descendants of Aharon. Here, too, Ramban says that Aharon, an angel, could never suffer these bodily indignities.

He is so invested in this view of Aharon that he rereads a passage in Torat Kohanim to fit it. Torat Kohanim 3;5 finds inferences to say that Aharon, too, was included in the laws of mumin,  zav, and tzara’at. Ramban admits the simple reading, but argues that it might mean the High Priests who follow Aharon (to whom Torat Kohanim referred as Aharon because they fill the same role as he did). It’s not a completely implausible claim, since the Torah does sometimes refer to Aharon when it means all High Priests of history (although Aharon is usually included in those examples).

At the last moment, he backtracks and says maybe it did mean Aharon himself, because Torah law does not rely on miracles, so there had to be an inference to cover the theoretical possibility he would find himself in one of these situations. In actual fact, though, it would never happen.

Because Ramban is sure that Aharon was at such a spiritual state that these kinds of unfortunate physical events—a mum, zivahtzara’at—would never happen to him.

Promises and Dedications

Vayikra 22;21 refers to a neder and a nedavah, different ways people promise items or offerings to Hashem. Rashi cites the common Rabbinic distinction between the two, that aneder is where a person accepts upon him/herself the responsibility to bring a certain offering, while nedavah means the person set aside a particular object for donation.

Ramban adds the claim that a neder is the promise a person makes in a time of crisis, to donate in some way should Hashem provide needed salvation. That’s why the verse uses this verb regarding the promises Ya’akov made before going to Lavan’s house (that he’ll give a tenth of all that comes his way should Hashem protect him and bring him back safely), and is why the verse characterizes the Jews’ promises before going to war against Canaanites who had taken captives in a raid.

In contrast, Rashi comments on 22;23 that a nedavah was for the upkeep of the Beit HaMikdash (a financial rather than sacrificial donation). In context, Rashi makes sense, since the verse says that an animal with a mum can be given for a nedavah but not a neder.  As Ramban notices, though, the distinction we made above had nothing to do with what goes on the altar. We’d have to understand Rashi to mean that the animal with a mum could be either a neder or a nedavah, just that it can only be donated as a commodity, not a sacrifice.

That fits the rules we know, but not the wording, so Ramban suggests that most nedavot were in fact offered for bedek ha-bayit, to be used to support the upkeep of the Beit HaMikdash. Aside from verses that employ that verb for this purpose, Ramban thinks the logic pushes that way; a nedavah is a freewill offering, and those make more sense as supporting the Beit HaMikdash as a whole, not limited to sacrifices, which was only one part of its function.

For Ramban, aside from the technical distinction of whether the promise rests on the person or the object, neder and nedavah differ in fundamental motivation–one is a promise made in the hopes of securing some reward/salvation, the other is in response to such an event, which sparks a different kind of gratitude, one expressed by giving a sacrifice.

What We Speak About When We Speak About Holidays

23;2 introduces the list of mo’adim, holidays. That list appears in Vayikra because they are days on which special sacrifices are brought, says Ramban, although that claim runs afoul of the fact that these verses do not detail the additional mussaf offerings of these days. Ramban explains that the Torah left the discussion of the mussafim until afterBamidbar 26;53, which tells us to whom to apportion the land. Once it’s clear that these discussions will only become relevant in practice upon arrival in Israel, it was time to tell them about the mussafim as well.

That explains why chapter sixteen, the beginning of the parsha, does detail the Yom Kippur service of the Kohen Gadol, since that service was performed/observed in the desert. The section on the holidays here does mention some sacrifices, the sheep brought along with the Omer (on the second day of Pesach) and the two sheep offered with the loaves brought on Shavu’ot. Ramban thinks that’s because those sacrifices are essential to the nature of the day, so it’s impossible to describe the day without including them [an important point upon which he does not elaborate]. In addition, there’s little chance that the people would have thought those sacrifices could be brought in the desert, since they are tied to grain offerings that clearly come into play only when the people have begun planting and harvesting.

[I am struck by how carefully Ramban thinks the Torah chose where and how to dole out information. It seems to me to anticipate/support R. Mordechai Breuer z”l’s idea that the Torah expresses itself very differently depending on the point or emphasis of a particular presentation].

There Can Be Partial Jews

The last incident in the parsha tells of a “ben Yisraelit,” the son of a Jewish woman and Egyptian man, who blasphemed in the course of an argument (and was later put to death by Gd’s command). The verse that introduces him, 24;10, contrasts this ben Yisraelit with an Ish Yisraeli, a Jewish man. Ramban says it’s to teach us that the offspring of a non-Jewish man and Jewish woman is not in fact a Yisraeli, a full Jew.

He knows that Yevamot 45a rules that a Jewish mother is enough to produce a vlad kasher, a baby who is enough of a Jew to marry other Jews. That same passage declares the baby pagum li-kehunah, however, a ruling Shulchan Aruch records, Even HaEzer 4;5 [Aruch HaShulchan explains that pagum means that a girl baby could not marry a kohen].

To Ramban, it’s obvious that that blemish would mean this man would not be included in the degalim, the flags that separated tribes from each other, or in inheriting a share of the Land, which is set out for tribes that descend from fathers.

The rest of the comment hints at some of the complications this would create. Torat Kohanim 14;1 says the verse’s reference to be-toch benei Yisrael, that this half-Jew was amidst the Jewish people, meant he converted. That cannot be so, says Ramban, since that whole generation converted for the Paschal sacrifice, and then underwent immersion and the offering of a sacrifice just before Sinai. Instead, he says that Torat Kohanim meant to say this child chose to follow his mother’s people rather than his father’s, and joined the Jewish nation.

When Strict Law Leaves a Hole We Should Have Filled

To me, that highlights a tragic part to this story: one tradition assumed that the argument that frustrated him so much was about whether he could join a tribe and demand they include him in apportioning shares of the Land.

The tribe’s refusal was halachically correct, and may have been required, since share in the Land are not a purely monetary matter. The kedushah part of the Jews’ taking up residence in the Land of Israel might in fact require that only members of tribes get those shares.

At the same time, this man of troubled lineage did make a commitment to the Jewish people, including wandering with them in the desert, when the more natural choice might have been to stay with his father’s family. Whatever the halachic necessities, it’s sad to me that no way was found to assuage his hurt and sense of exclusion.

That does not at all excuse his blasphemy nor do I mean to suggest that he should have been let off. By that point, he’d made a bad enough decision that death was the only option, both because he deserved it and as an example for the rest of us.

But how much better would life have been if all the parties could have found an halachically viable solution that also welcomed his decision to join the Jewish nation and respected the effort and sacrifice that that involved?

For Parshat Emor, we saw distinctions: the physical and spiritual sides of holidays, oaths and donations that are personal or item-oriented, sacrificial or financial, the holidays that applied in the desert and those that did not, and the difference between full Jews, partial Jews, and what happens when we’re too strict about those distinctions.

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