5770 - #15




Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet L’Yaakov, Shemot 13:15 poses an interesting question. Quoting from Sforno that a bechor, first born male, is redeemed in order to allow him to do regular work (avodat chol as distinguished from avodat hakodesh, sacred work), Rav Yaakov wonders why we then make a seudah, a celebratory meal, on the day that we perform this pidyan haben. Before this redemption, the child would seem to have been on a higher level, fully devoted to holiness -- so why would we celebrate what would seem to be a reduction in status, evidenced by this new allowance to be involved in the regular, the mundane, the secular? Rav Yaakov answers that the goal of Torah is not marked by the realm of total spirituality, total ruchniyot, but by the unified realm that combines the spiritual with the physical, a union of ruchniyot and gashmiyot. We celebrate the pidyan haben precisely because, with the redemption allowing him to undertake regular activities, the child is now able to strive towards his true purpose in the unified realm of the physical and the spiritual existent in this world.

            While Rav Yaakov’s words include certain new perspectives regarding this concept,1 the idea that Torah incorporates both the physical and the spiritual realms would seem to be a basic one familiar to even novices to Torah study. Our avodah, service of God, is through physical action; for example, we eat and drink in the performance of many mitzvot. It was not surprising to see Rav Yaakov refer to the distinction in Jewish karbanot, sacrifices, as a significant illustration of this principle. Rather than totally offering, i.e. burning, an animal on an altar, many sacrifices, including the korban Pesach, are consumed, either by the priests or the priests and those who offered the sacrifice. What Rav Yaakov may be adding, in further applying this concept to the specific case of pidyan haben, is the idea that this is not just a response to a given reality but is, in fact, the ideal. Physical mitzvot are not just attempts to raise up and find value within our physical existence because we are, after all, physical beings. We were intentionally created with a physical dimension because the Divine ideal is for us to achieve this unity of ruchniyot and gashmiyot. It is this, Rav Yaakov is informing us, which we celebrate at a pidyan haben.

            The further challenge, though, is defining exactly what we mean when we use these terms. What is this special value of the unity of the physical and the spiritual that we are to experience when we enjoy a tasty Shabbat meal or, in the time of the Temple, when individuals ate the delicious roasted meat of the korban Pesach? We may also ask: what, in fact, is ruchniyot? To many people, spirituality is precisely marked by the absence of interest in or concern for the physical. It is for this reason that many religions specifically define their spiritual constructs by such absences. The spiritual person is the one who, for example, lives in poverty, a reflection of an absence of ability or interest in acquiring physical possessions or, even goods and services. Proper ruchniyot, though, cannot reflect such a definition of spirituality for ruchniyot must be able to connect to gashmiyot in order to reach the ultimate Divine goal; how could a spirituality defined by the very absence of a physical dimension connect with this very physical dimension? In any event, to contemplate a goal of a unity of the spiritual and physical realms, we do need to first define what we mean by these terms, most importantly, what we mean by ruchniyot.

            One approach to defining ruchniyot, usually associated with those of a philosophical bent such as Rambam, is that the spiritual dimension is basically the intellect, most intently the knowledge of God. Thought within this perspective is the bastion of the spiritual. This view, however, while it does not present the same problems as the above voiced definition of spirituality, also would present difficulties in defining an ideal in the unity of the physical and the spiritual. While the spiritual is not defined by the absence of the physical, it nonetheless has no projected connection to the physical. The concern is simply that the physical, which would include the world of drives and emotions, can negatively affect the intellectual fortitude of an individual and, as such, it demands attention. To negate the physical is not the answer as this process itself can also have negative repercussions on the intellect. The goal must be to somewhat satisfy the physical in a manner that would ensure that it does not negatively affect the intellect. This, to those like Rambam, is the exact purpose of action mitzvot – to satisfy, respond to and control human physical drives so that they do not negatively affect one’s thoughts. Yet, in contradistinction to what would seem to be implied within the perspective presented by Rav Yaakov, the goal within this view is still not, and inherently cannot be, a unity of ruchniyot and gashmiyot.

            Some understand spirituality in terms of an altered state of consciousness, essentially a certain feeling. Within this perspective, indeed the physical can be perceived as potentially able to connect to the spiritual realm if physical objects or acts can be used to create this state.2 This is indeed the way that some understand what the Torah means by a unity of ruchniyot and gashmiyot, that the physical can be transformed to yield a spiritual result rather than a physical result. As such, with the proper concentration the act of eating a sandwich can yield the same spiritual state as prayer. The challenge is, though, that this act of eating a sandwich no longer functions within its own inherent parameters. For advocates of this perspective, this may not be a problem; in fact the inherent transformation may be what the Torah desires. The fullness of the physical perspective, however, is lost. One could contend that the physical effects of eating a sandwich should also be part of this unity of ruchniyot and gashmiyot,

            The words of Ramchal, Da’at Tevunot may shed a new light on the issue. Ruchniyot to Ramchal is the realm of God’s Oneness, where all comes together in the simply unity of the Divine. Gashmiyot, the physical, is the realm of division. For example, we see with our eyes; God ‘sees’ with His Entire Being. Within this perspective, the problem of the physical is that it creates a focus on the particular at the expense of the total vision. The challenge of the human perspective on spirituality, though, is that the intent to gain the broad picture lessens the ability to perceive the intensity of the particulars. Within this framework, though, we can understand the goal of the unity of gashmiyot and ruchniyot, in fact the only complete way to achieve a true understanding of ruchniyot. The Oneness of God includes the intensity of the particular; this must be our goal. In the physical realm, we encounter the specifics of the particular; the problem thus difficulty thus challenge is that they are divorced from each other. Our goal must be to unify life’s experiences – but not by simply rejecting the intensity of the particular but rather by gathering the intensity of the particulars under the canopy of Oneness.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See, also, Emet L’Yaakov, Bereishit 2:4B.

2 In that certain physical items, such as drugs or alcohol, can directly cause certain feelings, some even see a further connection between the spiritual and the physical in such direct causal effects. I have chosen, though, not to pursue this specific perspective in this Insight.

Nishma 2010


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