Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shelah 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Shelah 5760/24 June 2000

The Eight Strands in the Tzitzit -- We Follow the Thought"

(Batar Mahshava Azlinan)

Boaz Spiegel

Department of Talmud

This week's reading, Parashat Shelah, concludes with the commandment to make tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments. In Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch, his own interpretations on this week's reading are followed by material which he copied "from the Yesod of Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan" (Provence, first half of the 11th century), including several significations relating to tzitzit. The last of them (on Num. 15:41, s.v. "a cord of blue"), reads as follows: "The eight strands of which they are made are one for each of the eight days that Israel spent from the time they left Egypt until they recited the Song on the Sea."

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi (Re'em), a supercommentary on Rashi (15th-16th century Turkey) challenged Rashi on this point because his remark here, attributed to Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan, contradicts what Rashi had written earlier, in Parashat Beshalah, about the splitting of the Red Sea. There (Ex. 14:5) Rashi had said:

"And it was told the king of Egypt" -- He sent public officers with them, and when, after the three days set for them to go and return had elapsed, the officers perceived that they were not going back to Egypt, they came and told Pharaoh on the fourth day. On the fifth and sixth days they pursued them; on the night of the seventh day they went down into the sea, and in the morning they sang the Song. This was the seventh day of Passover, and therefore we recite the Song on the seventh day.

According to Rashi's commentary here, the Red Sea split on the seventh day after the exodus from Egypt, and then the Israelites sang the Song. This contradicts what he said above, in the name of Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan. In the light of this difficulty, Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi said, "What he wrote here (Parashat Shelah) are the words of Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan, and Rashi himself did not hold by them."

If possible, it is best to try to resolve the different approaches so that they not be contradictory, especially since Rashi's commentary in Parashat Beshalah is taken from an ancient tannaitic midrash, Seder Olam Rabbah (ch. 5), and it would be more convenient to reconcile the remarks of Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan with this midrash.

Many commentators on Rashi hold that Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan's remark can be shown to agree with Rashi. This is the gist of their argument: No one denies that the exodus from Egypt was on the morning of the 15th of Nisan, as explicitly stated in the Torah (Num. 33:3). It is also generally accepted that the Red Sea split on the seventh night, the 21st of Nisan, as Rashi says in Parashat Beshalah and as follows from midrashic sources; and on the following morning, the morning of the seventh day of Passover, the Song on the Sea was recited. In Parashat Shelah, however, the days are counted from the eve of Passover, from the 14th of Nisan, and therefore the count comes to eight. Thus the eighth day according to the reckoning of Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan is actually the seventh day of the exodus in the generally accepted reckoning.

Several points need to be clarified in this explanation. First, what grounds are there for counting the Israelites' exodus from Egypt from the 14th of Nisan, when they actually left on the 15th? Furthermore, Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan refers to "eight days that Israel spent from the time they left Egypt until they recited the Song on the Sea," so that even if we start counting from the eve of Passover and thus reach eight days, how could one refer to this day as being "from the time they left Egypt"?

Beyond what has been written in this regard by commentators on Rashi, we would like to offer a possible answer relating to the power of human thought: when a person's thoughts are given over to a certain time or place, even if his physical being is not there, all the same in a certain sense the person can be said to be there. Accordingly, since the Israelites knew that the approaching night would be the night of their redemption (see Ex. 12), by evening their minds were already set on the exodus from Egypt and their thoughts were on that event. One might say that they already had one foot out the door, and hence one could include this day before they actually left along with the days after the exodus.

The notion that the place where a person is can be measured not only by physical presence by also by mental location can shed light on the following source, cited from tannaitic literature. In Parashat Re'eh (Deut. 16:1) the Torah says: "Observe the month of Aviv and offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord your G-d, for it was in the month of Aviv, at night, that the Lord your G-d freed you from Egypt." Sifre, § 128, remarks: "Did they leave in the night? Rather, they surely left in the day, as it is said, 'on the morning after the passover (Num.33:3).' However this is to teach us that they were redeemed in the night."

This nocturnal redemption was interpreted by Rashi, both in his commentary on the Pentateuch (loc. sit., Deut.), and in his commentary on the Talmud (Berakhot 9a), as reflecting Pharaoh's giving permission to leave Egypt in the night, as it is written (Ex. 12:31): "He summoned Rabbi Moses and Aaron in the night and said, 'Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you.'"

Although the permission to leave was given in the night and it is considered that the Israelites were redeemed in the night, in the final analysis the Israelites did not leave until morning. So how could Scripture say so definitively, "it was ... at night that the Lord your G-d freed you"? It would seem that since spiritually they already perceived themselves as leaving, and their thoughts were on the exodus even though they had not actually departed yet, the body went in the wake of the head and thus figuratively the exodus from Egypt had already begun taking place. In this way one could say "the Lord your G-d freed you" even with respect to only having received permission to leave.

The notion that we follow our thoughts in determining time and place can also be learned from the mishnah pertaining to the conclusion of the High Priest's service on the Day of Atonement. According to Yoma 7.4, "He would make a festivity for his close associates when he exited from the Holy of Holies unharmed."

This festivity is none other than a feast, and this feast was held none other than on the eve after the Day of Atonement or on the following day; nevertheless, the mishnah says "when he exited." Why? Since the High Priest would be so joyous when he exited unharmed, most likely he would be thinking about this festivity, so that it had already begun, as it were, "when he exited."

This brings us to another understanding of a point raised by the Aharonim with respect to the remark of Hiyya bar Rav of Difti, cited in Berakhot 8b: "It is written, 'you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening' (Lev. 23:32). But do we fast on the ninth day? Rather, on the tenth! This is to indicate that all who eat and drink on the ninth day are considered to have practiced self-denial on the ninth and tenth day." The later authorities wondered why indulging in food and drink on the eve of the Day of Atonement was referred to in the Torah as 'inui, self-denial, and not as eating and drinking, which is the obvious way of viewing it.

This wonderment can be explained in the light of what we have said: since what we eat and drink on the eve of the Day of Atonement is intended to prepare us for the fast, and since a person's thoughts on this day, especially when eating and drinking, revolve around the approaching fast, this day itself acquires the character of a fast day, so much so that even eating on such a day is considered fasting. Therefore the Torah refers to eating on this day in terms of self-denial, and hence the reward for eating is the reward for a day of fasting.

In the spirit of the idea set forth here regarding the power of our thoughts we can resolve a question current in yeshivas regarding the story of Rabbi Akiva and his wife Rachel. Tractate Ketubbot (62b-63a) tells us of the stipulation Rabbi Akiva's wife made that after their marriage he study in the Beit Midrash for twelve years. After fulfilling these terms, the Talmud tells us, Rabbi Akiva "returned home, bringing with him twelve thousand disciples. [As he approached his home] he heard an elderly man say to his wife, 'How long will you continue living as a widow, despite your husband being alive?' She answered, 'If my husband would listen two me, he would study another twelve years.' Rabbi Akiva said [to himself]: 'So, I have permission.' He turned around and went off to study another twelve years in the Beit Midrash."

Looking closely at the Talmud's story, from the text, "So, ... He turned around and went off to study," we see that immediately upon hearing his wife's words he returned to the Beit Midrash. This raises the question, after not having been home or seen his wife for twelve years, now that he was finally at the door of his house and could enter and bring his wife joy, why did Rabbi Akiva refrain from entering if only for a short while?

I once heard a bright scholar suggest that the moment Rabbi Akiva heard that his wife permitted him to study another twelve years "he was no longer standing there," by his house. This illustrates our point: even though Rabbi Akiva physically had not moved and was still standing by his house, as soon as he heard his wife grant him permission to return to his studies he immediately resolved to return to the yeshiva; thus it was as if his location had changed and he was already in the yeshiva. If he was already in the yeshiva, it was no longer relevant to ask why he did not enter his house.

This notion, which we have traced in a variety of sources, was also enunciated by the founder of Hassidism, the Ba'al Shem Tov, in the following words: "The place where a person is in his thoughts, there he is in his entirety."

The commandment regarding tzitzit is designed to operate on a person's thoughts, to remind him of the Torah's commandments and of performing them, as it says in this week's reading (Num. 15:39): "Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them," and as the text continues (v. 40), "Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments."

We now see that wearing and seeing the tzitzit serves as much more than a necessary and essential reminder. An instructive message about the power of human thought is also woven into the eight strands of the fringes, based on the interpretation of Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan.

Editor's Note: This article was accompanied by lengthy and learned footnotes for those well-versed in Rabbinic and Talmudic sources. They will be sent, in Hebrew, to anyone who requests them in writing from the Editor.