5767 - #22


T.B. Yoma 72a,b, building upon Shemot 35:19, states that if not for the bigdei kehuna, the garments worn by the priests when serving in the Temple, there would have been total destruction. Rashi explains that, when wearing the garments, the kohanim brought the sacrifices that atoned for Israel. The message would seem to be straightforward. If not for the atonement achieved through the Templeworship, the nation of Israel could not have survived; the Templeservice would seem to be necessary in the process of atonement. This idea, though, is to be contrasted with the famous statement of Rebbi Akiva in the last mishna in this very same tractate, found on T.B. Yoma 85b. Ultimately, it is God who cleanses, absolves,1Israel of sin; the karbanot, sacrifices, are, in the end, not truly necessary.2 This is a dilemma that faces us in regard to all ritual, in fact all mitzvoth. To give value to our actions, we describe specific actions as necessary. We apply rules of cause-and-effect in order to give weight to our actions, make our actions consequential. Belief in an all-powerful God Who is above limitations, however, challenges this parameter of cause-and-effect. In the end, God can do as He wishes and if He wishes to forgive without sacrificial worship then forgiveness will be given without the sacrifices. And, conversely, if He wishes to limit the impact of sacrifices on the power of forgiveness, this is also within His Domain.3 This is a powerful dilemma within Torah. We state that certain actions are necessary but, ultimately, God can override these very actions thus limiting the reality of their impact.  

             Of course, this dilemma is not new within the world of Torah thought. It actually has many dimensions. One focuses on the cause-and-effect of the behaviour itself. To give meaning to an action, we attempt to find reason for the action itself. In this process, we may assign a specific value to the action or the articles involved in the action. For example, to explain the prohibition of not eating pork, we may describe pork as having negative spiritual properties that affect our soul negatively. But what if one eats pork unknowingly? What if one does not even know of this law? When questioned about the workings of the Parah Aduma, the Red Heifer, while presenting a different answer to a non-Jew, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai told his students that in actuality there is no special property in either a dead body (reflecting some spiritual characteristic of tumah, ritual uncleanliness) or the water made from the ashes of the Red Heifer (reflecting some special spiritual characteristic that can be mitaheir, make something ritually pure). The inherent significance is solely that it is the Word of God; it is done because God said to do it.4 Is there some inherent reality behind the mitzvoth that would explain their significance in terms of direct cause-and-effect or is their value simply in terms of their expression of the Will of God? Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai would seem to be expressing the latter view. Within such a view, the eating of pork would only have negative consequences when such behaviour reflects a rejection of the halachic system, i.e. a laxity in observing the Word of God; the actual eating of pork in itself is actually non-consequential. This issue, in fact, has many halachic consequences and reflects on the overall approach one has in the observance of mitzvot. There are many circumstances where the Halalcha will permit something although the underlying reality, thus inherent cause-and-effect, will not be absolutely defined. The one who focuses on the expression of Halacha as the Word of God, will not be bothered by this; if it is permitted, it is permitted. The one who defines a spiritual realm of cause-and-effect will be more cautious. Such a person may choose to be more stringent and not apply the heter, the permissive ruling, in order to absolutely avoid a negative spiritual consequence. The one who will apply the heter does not just do so because he/she is willing to take the risk. There is a rejection of any spiritual consequence outsider of the law’s nature as the Word of God. Another example of this debate may surface around the checking of mezuzot. There are those who contend that if misfortune falls upon someone, that person should check his/her mezuzah because the misfortune may arise from the lack of protection that is promised with having proper mezuzot affixed to one’s doorposts. There are others who contend that if the mezuzot have met all halachic requirements including checking them when demanded by law, it is wrong to check them again in the face of misfortune. The argument is that mezuzot have no special powers; it is the observance of the Word of God that brings the protection through the propriety of this action. To check when the law does not demand it ignores the true value of mitzvot as simply the Word of God. Yet, in following this view, the depth of meaning that we would like to believe to exist in our actions can also be lost. We wish to give meaning to mitzvot by seeing within them an inherent purpose beyond, and that explains, the Word of God.

             Of course, recognizing a mitzvah as the word of God still demands, and gives value to, its observance. Not bringing a karban when it is required could still face negative consequences be it because of the inherent properties of the karban or the fact that the Word of God was ignored. A distinction, though, may exist when bringing a karban is impossible such as our world today. In this context, the words of Rebbi Akiva could be understood to maintain that the significance of the karban is in its fulfillment of the Word of God not for any inherent value. Yet, in the time of the Temple, as the Word of God, there would be consequences in not bringing a karban as one thereby would be ignoring the Word of God. Yet, Rebbi Akiva’s words can be seen as going beyond this -- and so arises the second dilemma of his statement. There is a reason why people attempt to define inherent value in a mitzvah beyond its value as the Word of God. It is thereby that we find thought and meaning in the mitzvah and relate to observance not just as automatons – and this has meaning as well. So we define a world of cause-and-effect to describe the mitzvot, not recognizing that thereby we also limit God by placing him within this world of cause-and-effect, even spiritual cause-and-effect. Therein lies the second dilemma. Is God bound by the rules He has instituted, i.e. the system of Halacha with its consequences based on din, justice, or is God limitless and beyond even these limitations? This latter view is actually how some understand rachamim, the realm of mercy. The fact is that the more we tie God to any rules of cause-and-effect, the more we move to the realm of idolatry and remove the independent Will of God in His relationship to the world. Yet, the more we move away from a halachic world of cause-and-effect and toward relating to God in His Independence, the more we move toward Reform Judaism.5 The answer to this dilemma, as is often the case within Torah, may simply be to recognize the dilemma and live with it and within it.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


(1) Rebbi Akiva uses the root tahar to describe the action of God in absolving Israel of sin. The root for atonement, though, is kapar. and it is this root that is employed in describing the effect of the sacrifices in atoning for sin. This distinction is not to be ignored, yet this further discussion is beyond the parameters of this Insight. One interested in this topic, though, should see Rabbi Pinchus Peli, On Repentance, The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (in Hebrew Al HaTeshuva).
See, further, Yochen u’Boaz, Yoma 8:9, note 54.
(3) See, for example, Berachot 7b, which describes a change in the effect of prayer. Ultimately it is all subject to the Will of God. The role of sin and the effect of judgment and justice will be discussed further in the Insight.
(4) Quoted from Pesikta deRav Kahana in Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, Magic and Miracle.
(5) Martin Buber’s writings come to mind.

(c) Nishma, 2007.

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