May 16, 2012
In a previous blog, I promised you the story of how the Or Hahayyim Hakadosh came to write 42 explanations of the first verse of this week’s sedra and so here it is.
Rabbi Chaim ben Rabbi Mosheh ibn Attar was born in Meknes, Morocco, in a family that had produced outstanding Torah scholars and Rabbis. Rabbi Chaim was born in 5456 (1696). Rabbi Chaim studied under his grandfather, whose name he bore. (Sfardic Jews often name their children after living grandparents.) While still a young man, he became famous as a great Talmudic scholar and Kabbalist. He led a very saintly life and was called “Hakadosh” (“holy man”). He wrote several important works, the best known being his commentary on the Chumash, which is often printed alongside of Rashi, the Ramban, and other famed commentaries. He went to live in Jerusalem in 1733. Among his outstanding talmidim was the Chida ( Rabbi Chaim David Azulai) who said that the Talmud ran through the veins of his teacher the holy Or Hahayyim. He died in 1743 aged 46 and is buried on the Mount of Olives.
He became the rabbi of a small town called Sali. It was his custom, every Friday, to shecht an animal and after providing for his family, distribute the meat to poor talmidei chachamim (scholars) and other poor people. One Friday, all the animals that were shechted in the town were found to be treife (unfit) with the exception of the Or Hahayyim’s. As he was giving a portion to a poor Talmid Chacham, up stepped a rich member of the community and demanded that the poor scholar sell him the meat for Shabbat. On being refused, the man started cursing and abusing the Talmid Chacham. The Or Hahayyim kept silent not wishing to get involved (would you?!)
That night, Elijah appeared to the Or Hahayyim in a dream and told him that for standing idly by whilst a Talmid Chacham was being abused he had to go into exile (galut) as an atonement. After Shabbat, the Or Hahayyim took up his staff and started to wander along the coast of Morocco.
The next Friday was this week’s sedra of bechukotai and before entering the town, he sat down and composed 42 comments on the first verse, Im Bechokotie Telechu, if you will walk in My statutes , ve’et mitzvotie tishmru and will keep My commandments.
He then entered the town and went to shul, Friday night for kabbalat Shabbat. One of the local Baalbei batim ( householders) kindly invited the unknown visitor to say with him over Shabbat. The Or hahayyim kept his identity secret.
After the meal, the host told him that his custom, after each meal was to visit the local rabbi who was a great Kabbalist, who said the Torah that was being discussed in heaven.
The local rabbi announced that he was going to say 14 explanations of the first posuk that was now being said in heaven in the name of Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar. “Chaim ibn Attar” shouted the unknown visitor – without the title rabbi! The local rabbi and host didn’t look pleased but carried on not wanting to make a fuss.
The same scene took place after lunch. 14 explanations that are being discussed in heaven in the name of Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar. Chaim ibn Attar shouted the stranger.
At Seudat shelishit ( the third meal) the same scenario. Another 14 explanations of the first verse in the name of Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar. Chaim ibn Attar. By this time Shabbat was out and the patience of the local rabbi had run out. So they locked the rude stranger in the lockup and went to make havdala. Before they could, a storm arose the likes of which they had never seen in that place. The lights went out and the building rocked. The local rabbi decided to make a she’elat chalom ( to enquire of heaven in a dream) – you remember that he was a great Kabbalist.
The answer came back. Over Shabbat the souls of those in gehennom are released to spend Shabbat in heaven, but after Shabbat they return. The Sar (angel) of Gehennom is waiting for them but they cannot return as the Holy Or Hahayyim has not made havdala yet, he is locked in your jail!
The rabbi realised what had happened and apologising profusely released the holy Or Hahayyim whose exile was over as he had suffered the same abuse that he had witnessed in silence.
On this blog it might take 42 years to discuss them all but number 5 is my favourite. It deals with the crucial issue of what is a legitimate explanation of a verse and what is not.
After all there are 70 not 42 ways of explaining a verse derech PaRDeS – Peshat ie the simple explanation, Remez by way of allusion or hint, Derash homiletical, halachik method and Sod the hidden or mystic meaning of a verse.
The Or Hahayyim quotes the Talmud in Sanhedrin page 34:
Permission is given the the students of Torah to expound and explain it in many paths and ways, and the serious student may even find new insights so long as the verses are able to bear the meaning that he wishes to give but there is one proviso and this is what HaShem is commanding here:
Im bechukotie telechu If you want to walk in the garden ( Pardes) of My Torah – there is one condition – ve’et mitzvotie tishmru – you have to keep My mitzvot.
This is the prohibition of megaleh ponim batorah shelo kehalocho – to explain the Torah against the Halacha. ( Pirkei Avot chap 3)
In other words, we may not allegorise the mitzvot. Maimonides himself went as far as saying that Jacob only struggled with an angel in a dream and that Bilaam only imagined that the ass spoke! You can do what you want with the Aggadic parts of the Torah including the six “days” of creation and the age of the world that isn’t even mentioned in the Torah. No problem. But when it comes to the mitzvot, the halachik verses they are to be taken literally and not explained out of existence.
And if you think about it this is the major difference between Judaism and Christianity. Although Jesus, his brothers and most of his disciples were circumcised Jews, the next generation had a big big problem selling their new religion to the body worshiping hellenists. So they did away with the requirement for circumcision. How did they do that?
Very subtly is the answer by use of a midrashic technique. In Deuteronomy 10:16 we are told to circumcise our hearts – that isn’t to be taken literally so it doesn’t have to be taken literally elsewhere ( gezeira shava). I told you it was subtle.
But we are forbidden to allegorise the mitzvot – for if you do – you can allegorise them out of existence.
The Christians were followed in this path by the Reform movement. When the laws of Shabbat were given there was no electricity therefore the use of electricity, cars etc cannot be forbidden on Shabbat. Subtle but not consistent. When murder was forbidden it was before the invention of guns therefore killing with guns is permitted!!!
IM BECHOKOTEI TELECHU if you want to walk in the garden of Torah interpretation you may but – VE’ET MITZVOTIE TISHMRU as long as you keep My Mitzvot.
Rabbi Meir Wise