June 5, 2014

The Torah discusses the laws of a person who could not bring the Pascal offering because he was either ritually impure or because he was at a distance from the Mishkan (or in later generations, from the Temple). He is to offer his Passover sacrifice a month later, on the 14th of Iyar.
Numbers 9:10
“Speak to the Children of Israel saying: Any man of you or of your generations who will be impure or is on a distant way nevertheless, he shall bring the Passover sacrifice to Hashem.”

Or on a distant way – : There is a dot on the letter “heh” (in the word “rechokah” – “distant” – which means that the letter is then regarded as non-existent) and this tells us that the Torah means that the way need not really be a distant one but merely outside the threshold of the forecourt during the time of the sacrificing of the Passover offering.

Rashi explains the meaning of the dot on top of the letter “heh” in the word “rechokah” which we find in the Torah scroll. Whenever a word has one or more dots on top, the Talmudic Sages interpret the significance of this strange phenomenon. The rule is that when the majority of the letters of a word have dots above them, then the meaning of just these letters is interpreted. When a minority of the letters of a word have the dots, then only the undotted letters are interpreted.

In our case, only one letter is dotted, so it is dropped and the word is read without the letter. The word that remains is “rachok” which also means “distant” but is the masculine form of the word.

Rashi tells us the significance of this. It teaches us that the words “a distant way” refer to a subjective distance and not an objective one. So the person need not actually be distant from the Temple to be excused from bringing the Pascal offering – as long as he is merely outside the entrance of the Temple he is excused, since that “distance” was enough for him to be delayed in making the sacrifice. The journey itself was not distant; the man was.

The meaning of this interpretation is based on the fact that the Hebrew word “way” (“derech”) can be either feminine or masculine depending on the context while the word “ish” (“man”) is always masculine. Therefore, once the letter “heh” is dropped, the word “distant” becomes a masculine adjective and refers back to “man” and not to “way.”

In the Tractate Pesachim (93a) we find the same dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer on this issue. Rabbi Akiva says that the distance is as far as the town “Modi’in,” which is about 15 miles from Jerusalem, while Rabbi Eliezer says (based on the dot interpretation) that the distance here is only beyond the threshold of the Temple entrance.

Rashi has chosen Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation, which is not the Halacha! But we see that Rashi always does this unless the halachik peshat is the literal meaning of the text.

In fact we could say that this is the disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Eliezer gives us the literal peshat and Rabbi Akiva gives us the halachik peshat. Naturally, Rashi gives us the peshat peshat.

Another point to note is that the verse (9:10) says: “Any man of YOU or of YOUR GENERATIONS ” ( see the complete verse above).

The Torah speaks on two levels. It addresses the generation of the Midbar and all future generations.
This could also be the argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation fits the actual generation of the Wilderness. Whilst Rabbi Akiva is applying it to all future generations.

The distance from Jerusalem to Modi’in is about 15 miles, while the complete Camp of Israel in the wilderness was only 12 miles square (see Rashi in the book of Joshua).

Another reason why Rashi chose Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation as the simple peshat as it better fits the circumstances in that generation (you).

But the deeper peshat is the halachik peshat (and of your generations) which makes the Torah Divine and relevant for all future generations.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Meir Wise

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