The Non-Holy vs. The Unholy

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Vayeitzei

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Was Yaakov permitted to use the stones he rested on for an altar?

Early in the morning, Yaakov took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. (Genesis 28:18)

The Tur, in his commentary on the Torah, is baffled by how Yaakov could take the very rocks that he slept on and subsequently consecrate them as an ad hoc altar. Afterall, the Talmud in Zevachim (116b) and Menachos (22a) teaches us that anything that was used for mundane means may not be repurposed for the sacred altar of God. If so, how was it appropriate for Yaakov to take the very stones that he used as a makeshift resting place and designate them for holy services?

The issue can, perhaps, be resolved by an important detail which is filled in by the Medresh (Yalkut Shemoni, no. 119):

“…and he lodged there because the sun had set…” (Gen. 28:11) Yaakov took twelve stones from the stones of the altar upon which Yitzchak was bound and placed them under his head. The place (Hamakom) came to make known to him that in the future twelve tribes would rise out of him, and they were made into one rock in order to make known to him that they would all in the future be one nation in the land.

The Minchas Chinuch (40:3) writes that the stones which Yaakov used were, in fact,  previously used by his father Yitzchak during the binding, and these very stones were also the same ones which Adam used to offer a sacrifice to God in the early days of the world. Thus, it was not only appropriate, but poetically apropos to utilize these very same stones to serve God once more. 

However, this revelation, in truth,  raises a new difficulty. The Chasam Sofer (O.C. 40), citing Zayis Ra’anan, inquires that if these stones were truly the same ones that Adam and Yitzchak had already consecrated to God, how then could Yaakov initially use them for his own personal benefit – this would constitute a violation of meilah, a defilement of the sacred for mundane purposes! 

One potential approach to resolve this dilemma is to suggest that since Yaakov was alone outdoors he faced a situation of life endangerment (see Bereishis Rabbah 68:11), which would supersede the violation of meilah, thus permitting him to use the stones for shelter. However, even if we accept that Yaakov was allotted a dispensation to utilize these stones for his own needs, would not the act of using them for a non-sacred purpose diminish their status of sanctity? Indeed, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Mizbeiach 4:6) rules: 

[When an animal] has been worshipped as a false deity, it is forbidden [as a sacrifice] whether one served his own animal or one belonging to a colleague, whether he acted under compulsion or voluntarily, willfully or inadvertently, whether he did so before the animal was consecrated or afterwards. [In the latter instance,] it should be left to pasture until it becomes permanently blemished and then it should be redeemed, as we stated.

It would seem from the ruling of the Rambam, that one who worships an animal will prohibit it for holy use, even if it was previously consecrated. If so, it should not matter whether the stones that Yaakov used were originally used by Yitzchak and Adam to serve God. Once Yaakov used them for his personal benefit, it should disqualify them from ever being used as an altar going forward.

This contradiction can be reconciled by R. Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, “The Brisker Rov” (Chiddushei Maran Ri”z Halevi, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 8:1), who distinguishes between utilizing something for non-holy purposes versus unholy purposes. When something is used for the unholy purpose of idolatry, it becomes incompatible with Jewish worship merely by dint of the deed. Whereas, using something for a non-holy objective, such as creating an ad hoc place to rest, while under normal circumstances it would be considered  inappropriate, it would still not invalidate it for Temple service. One would need to go so far as to designate an item for a non-holy purpose in order to disqualify it from ever being used ritually. Therefore, since Yaakov did not designate the rocks for personal use he did not undo their prior sanctification by Adam and Yitzchak.

The Chasam Sofer further suggests that deriving benefit from consecrated items in an abnormal manner (hana’ah shelo k’derech) would not constitute meilah. This is supported by the Talmud in Pesachim (26a) which relates that “Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai would sit in the street adjacent to the Temple Mount in the shade of the Sanctuary and expound to a large number of people all day long.” Rava explains that since the Temple walls were meant to provide shelter to the interior, anyone who incidentally benefited from the shade it provided outdoors would not be guilty of meilah. In a similar vein, Yaakov’s makeshift sleeping arrangement did not constitute a regular form of derving benefit from the stones, thus leaving their sacred status intact. 

In either event, the fact that so much concern is given to ensuring the proper use of holy objects teaches us how much we must endeavor to protect and cultivate all that is holy. It is imperative to sanctify the profane – not to profane that which is sacred. 

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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