THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Shelach – פרשת שלח
June 29, 2019
This essay is sponsored by Joanne Wiesner-Steiner in memory of her mother, Marion Wiesner (Miriam Reyzl bat Tzvi Hirsh Z”L).
ADAPTING JUDAISM TO THE REALITY OF JEWISH LIFE
The Torah requires that native Israelites and proselytes be treated equally. “As for the congregation, there shall be one statute both for you and for the stranger that sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord (Numbers 15:15).” Discriminating between the two groups is not allowed.
Rabbi Judah the Patriarch (known as “Rabbi”) understands the words ככם כגר to mean that proselytes must undergo the same conversion rituals as did our ancestors who experienced the revelation at Sinai. These are: circumcision, immersion, and offering the blood of a sacrifice (Keritot 9a). However, in fact, the Pentateuch does not state that circumcision was a prerequisite for participation in the Sinaitic theophany. This is in contrast to the paschal lamb ceremony, with respect to which the uncircumcised are expressly excluded (Exodus 12:48).
The Talmud defends Rabbi’s interpretation by citing a later Scriptural verse, “For all the people that came out [of Egypt] were circumcised (Joshua 5:5).” As for the offering of sacrifices, although not every Israelite personally participated, representatives of the younger generation נערי בני ישראל brought burnt-offerings and peace-offerings at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:5).
The Biblical text does not indicate that all Israelites were required to immerse in a ritual bath before receiving the Law. The Talmud again defends Rabbi’s view by noting that Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrifices on the people (24:8), and that immersion always precedes purification through sprinkling אין הזאה בלא טבילה.
While the Holy Temple stood, it was possible for a convert to satisfy all the above requirements. However, following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, candidates for conversion were unable to bring an initiation sacrifice. Assuming the indispensability of each element of the conversion ritual, the Talmud asked how it remained possible to accept strangers into the ranks of Jewry.
The fourth century Babylonian Amora Rabbi Aha bar Jacob cited Scripture, “And if a stranger sojourns with you, or whosoever may be among you, throughout your generations (Number 15:14).” The implication of this verse is that outsiders are able to embrace Judaism in every generation, regardless of the status of the Temple (Rashi).
As an historical matter, the destruction of the Temple did not result in a cessation of conversions to Judaism. It is quite possible that the number of full-fledged converts and God-fearers (non-Jews who adopted some Judaic practices) increased during the late first and early second centuries. The practical impossibility of offering the convert’s sacrifice was, essentially, solely of academic or technical theological concern; in the event, it did not prevent anyone from switching denominational affiliation.
The sages themselves were divided about which conversion rituals were absolutely essential, to the point of post factum denying the validity of some conversions. Rabbi Eliezer held that only circumcision was essential and that a man could enter the Judaic covenant without immersion. Rabbi Joshua held that immersion is also indispensable (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 64d). According to the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Joshua held that immersion alone, even absent circumcision, suffices (Yebamoth 46a). These sources do not even address the issue of the convert’s inability to offer animal sacrifices, leading to the inference that, by the second Tannaitic generation, nobody had any reservation about the Jewishness of recent proselytes. [It is likely that, even when the Temple still stood, the convert’s sacrifice (or lack thereof) had no bearing on recognition of the individual’s religious status, since there were many converts to Judaism who lived in regions geographically distant from Jerusalem (that is, for whom the Temple was, literally, inaccessible).]
And yet, the requirement for converts to bring an animal or bird offering could not be entirely ignored. In the immediate post-Second Temple period, it was determined that proselytes must set aside a quarter-dinar to purchase a bird offering in anticipation of the Temple’s being rebuilt (Yerushalmi Shekalim 51a). According to both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, this ruling was overturned by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai as a precaution against misuse מפני התקלה. There was a reasonable concern that if sanctified money was stored for a lengthy period of time it would eventually be misappropriated for mundane use.
The great twentieth century Jewish historian Gedaliah Alon doubted the claim that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was responsible for abolishing the convert’s quarter-dinar obligation. He noted that in the Talmud this legislative action is attributed by Rabbi Simon to the much earlier RYBZ, while in the Tosefta this view is stated by Rabbi Simon without attributing it to any specific rabbinic figure of the previous generations (Tosefta Shekalim 3:22). Furthermore, the Talmud states that the quarter-dinar obligation was imposed upon converts בזמן הזה, “in our times,” i.e. post the destruction of the Second Temple (Rosh Hashanah 31b).
But: Since RYBZ was the leader of Pharisaic Judaism in the decades before and immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when could the quarter-dinar statute have been in effect, if RYBZ was himself opposed to it? Moreover, there are references in the Midrashic literature to an ongoing disagreement in subsequent Tannaitic generations regarding the continued applicability of the quarter-dinar obligation. And, if Rabbis Eliezer and Joshua, who were RYBZ’s greatest disciples, could still debate the matter (Sifre Zuta 15), it seems highly unreasonable to think that RYBZ made any definitive ruling abolishing that aspect of conversion.
Shmuel Safrai, who was Gedaliah Alon’s greatest student, disagreed with his professor. Safrai looked at the totality of RYBZ’s career and saw a man who tried to craft a viable form of Judaism in the absence of the physical Temple. In the eyes of RYBZ, it would be foolish for a proselyte to confer sanctity upon coins with the expectation of purchasing a sacrificial animal at some indeterminate time in the future and against the advent of the rebuilding of the Temple, then not in the offing, since the Romans had wreaked destruction upon Judea. The concern for תקלה was not so much the misappropriation of holy funds, but the negative feeling that an “iron curtain” came between the convert and God, and between the convert and his being able to feel, to be, and to be considered fully Jewish (Benny Lau).
Safrai argued that any Tannaitic dispute concerning the quarter-dinar did not occur between or among RYBZ’s disciples. Rather, according to Safrai, the correct reading of the sources finds the fourth-generation sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob arguing with Rabbi Simon (Masekhet Gerim 2:4). The fact that RYBZ’s enactment was rejected by some sages evidences the existence of competing schools in the Tannaitic period and the fact that the rulings of any one figure did not achieve universal acceptance. This was especially true for RYBZ; during his early days in Yavneh he had many detractors.
It seems, however, that Alon’s arguments are more persuasive than those of his student Safrai and are buttressed by the following example of an enactment wrongly attributed to RYBZ: Fourth year produce of the Land of Israel must be brought to Jerusalem and consumed within the city walls. One is, however, permitted to redeem the produce and bring sanctified money to Jerusalem instead. If, however, the produce was grown within one day’s journey of Jerusalem, redemption in that manner was forbidden. (Mishnah Ma’aser Sheni 5:2). This enactment was designed to beautify the marketplaces of Jerusalem by filling them with attractive fruit (Bezah 5a). With the destruction of Jerusalem this enactment no longer served a useful purpose and was repealed.
When and by whom was this law repealed? While the Talmud cites a Baraita attributing the change to RYBZ, this is difficult to accept; his own disciple Rabbi Eliezer was completely unaware of any such change. The Tosefta offers a more logical alternative. “When the Temple was destroyed the first court said nothing on the matter. The latter court decreed that produce could be redeemed just outside the wall (Tosefta Ma’aser Sheni 5:15).”
What emerges from our analysis of the issues of the convert’s sacrifice and fourth year produce is that, in the immediate post-Temple period, the sages did not know exactly how to respond to the radically-changed condition of Jewry. They had to feel their way. The evolution of many halakhot occurred in stages, with the law as practiced in 75 CE being quite different from observance at the end of the Mishnaic period (125 years later). The “first court,” which insisted that the convert separate a quarter-dinar and refused to countenance redeeming produce close to Jerusalem, functioned with the assumption (or at least the pious hope) that the Temple would be rebuilt speedily מהרה יבנה המקדש. Accordingly, it did not want to legislate significant changes in halakhah that might prove confusing or harmful in the event that, indeed, the Temple was built anew.
RYBZ is credited with forbidding new grain for the entire day on which the Omer would have been brought. Torah law permits consumption of new grain immediately upon sunrise of 16 Nisan in the post-Temple era. RYBZ acted out of concern that, after the hoped-for restoration of the Temple, the people at large might not properly distinguish between the then-present halakhic reality and that of the previous year, i.e., when the Temple had not yet been rebuilt. (Sukkah 41a). In other words, the early doctors of rabbinic law actively thought about halakhic issues relative to the imminent restoration of the Temple. [In more modern times, the Chofetz Chaim set aside in his closet the clothing that he anticipated wearing upon the arrival of Moshiach, and also emphasized that Kohanim should study, with care, all the rituals of Temple practice, against the advent of the Third Temple’s coming into existence at any moment, in which case the Kohanim would need to be prepared to perform, immediately.]
The belief that the rebuilding of the Temple was or might be imminent waned over time. Rabbi Ishmael, who was a young lad at the time of the destruction in 70 CE and who achieved renown a half-century later in the third Tannaitic generation, once inadvertently violated the Sabbath. He wrote down in his ledger, “I, Ishmael ben Elisha, tilted a candle on the Sabbath. When the Temple is rebuilt, I will bring a fat sin-offering (Shabbat 12b).” Ishmael, who may have been martyred by the Romans, made this notation before the Bar Kokhba rebellion (c. 130 CE). In his days, the possibility of rebuilding the Temple may have been slim; it was, decidedly, believed not to be nil.
Two generation later, however, in the days of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, popular and rabbinic sentiment was different. Consider the fact that Kohanim are forbidden to drink wine prior to officiating at sacrificial services. During the time that halakha took into account the possibility that the Temple could be restored swiftly and suddenly, it was prohibited for Kohanim to drink intoxicating beverages at any time. But Rabbi permitted Kohanim to imbibe spirits. He noted that many years had passed since the cessation of the sacrificial cult and there was no reasonable expectation of its resumption in his lifetime (Ta’anit 17a).
Claiming as it does to possess an eternally binding body of revealed legislation, Judaism has benefited from a large measure of fixity in its religious practices. We are a stiff-necked people; and we tend to be averse to departing from established courses of action. We do not readily embrace change. Our sages were hesitant to adjust Judaism to the political and social realities of Jewish life. They did not desire to cut their halakhic rulings to fit that year’s fashions or politics. When disaster struck and the independent Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael was lost, many mitzvoth could no longer be fulfilled in the accustomed manner. Uncertain how long this disruption would last, the sages debated whether and in what way the law could be refashioned to serve the needs of Judaism sans Holy Temple.
Modern history has shown that the great decisors of halakhah are slow to react even to fortuitous developments in Jewish national life. The twentieth century return to Zion and reestablishment of Hebrew sovereignty in the Promised Land has not led to the restoration of the Sanhedrin, sacrificial cult, agricultural laws, etc. Rabbinic Judaism seems stuck in a Diaspora mentality. Our liturgy still speaks of a desolate Jerusalem and of an exiled Jewish people at the mercy of hostile neighbors. While it took the Mishnaic era sages several generations to recognize the long-term ramifications of the Destruction, they clearly understood that they were living in a wholly different epoch from that of their Temple-era grandfathers. The sages of today are still coming to terms with the post-1948 and post-1967 reality. For two thousand years our hope was not lost. With our national dreams largely – though certainly not entirely — fulfilled, we still wonder what course will be charted for Judaism.