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Class Notes - Class #14

Deuteronomy 12 instructs the Jews entering Israel to destroy sites of idol worship.  We saw mitzvot related to this a few classes back. But in verse 4- 5, the basis for mitzvah #437, the Jews are told not to destroy the place set up for serving God.   That mitzvah prohibits destroying the Temple or any part of the Temple, or consecrated property, and it also prohibits obliterating the written name of God.  We are prohibited from destroying these things outright or destroying them in the course of getting some benefit from the process of destruction, for example by burning consecrated wood for a cooking fire. When text is written on parchment, the letters can be scratched off and the parchment can then be re-used.   This prohibition is consistent with the attitude of reverence and awe we should have for the sacred. Violation of this mitzvah is punishable with malkot. 

            Defining the scope of this mitzvah as it applies to obliterating the written name of God is harder than one might think.  We use many different appellations for God.  The core name is the Tetragrammaton.  There are six other names also covered directly by this prohibition and the author lists them.  Those names may not be erased or destroyed. D’rabanan suffixes of those names also may not be erased or destroyed.  Prefixes to those seven names may be erased or destroyed.  If someone wrote part of one of those names, that may be erased if the part that was written does not in itself constitute one of those names, but may not be erased of the partial name is itself a name of God. 

Other appellations for God, for example “the merciful one” or “the great one,” are considered merely descriptive and may be erased if someone has a reason to do so.

            Certain words can sometimes be a name of God and sometimes be an ordinary word.  For example, the word “elohim” can sometimes refer to God, but can also refer to judges.  The author gives several examples of verses where such words appear and explains which may or may not be erased but does not give a defining principle.

            Whether or not a word may be erased may also depend on who wrote it and with what intent.  The author says that the name of God written by a non-Jew should be hidden, the same thing we do with the name of God written by Jews. But the name of God or sacred texts written by Jewish heretics need not be protected, and actually should be burned.  Our author does not define who qualifies as such a heretic.       

            The rabbis extended this prohibition to any “kitvei hakodesh,” “sacred writings,” as well as their commentaries.  Our author does not tell us what is included in this category and what is excluded. 

            This essay leaves many unanswered questions.  Our author says we may not erase or burn the written names of God, but does not discuss other ways of treating text that might cause them to deteriorate. The author says we may not erase or destroy sacred writings, but does not define that category.  Nor does the author tell us what to do with texts we may not erase.  The only hint in this essay is that our author says we should “hide” rather than destroy the name of God written by a non-Jew.  It’s not at all clear what that means.  Nor does the author discuss whether this mitzvah has any applicability to God referred to in other languages.

            Everything our author does say refers to someone writing God’s name by hand.  Printing came later.  Printing itself went through different stages.  Originally printed text was expensive, albeit much less expensive than manuscripts.  As printing technology improved, printed text became much less expensive.  Later ordinary people got the ability to write and print at minimal cost and independent of specialized equipment.  How that technological history relates to this mitzvah is not something our author could discuss.

            Mitzvah #438 is a positive requirement that someone who vowed to bring a voluntary sacrifice or a donation to the Temple upkeep should follow through at the next pilgrimage festival.  Later in mitzvah #575 we will see a related prohibition on delaying fulfillment of such a vow beyond three pilgrimage festivals.  Someone who makes a pledge and waits past the first available pilgrimage festival to fulfill it violates this positive mitzvah but has not yet violated the prohibition we will see in mitzvah #575.  The author reminds us that after the Temple stopped functioning the rabbis told us not to make pledges dedicating sacrifices or promising donations to the Temple.

            The author explains the shoresh of this mitzvah as a balance.  When we pledge something for sacred causes we should fulfill our pledge promptly, just as we would fulfill a pledge to a human king promptly.  But God generously gives us leave to fulfill the pledge at a time when we would be coming to Jerusalem anyway, rather than demanding that we make an extra trip.  By building in that convenience the Torah encourages us to pledge things for sacred purposes where we might not have made a pledge if fulfilling the pledge was made less convenient because we would have to follow up immediately.

            In the context of this mitzvah/essay the author takes us through one more round of listening carefully to what someone says when interpreting a vow.  If someone vows “the responsibility to bring a sacrifice is on me,” then is the animal the person had in mind dies the person has to find a replacement animal.  But if someone vows “this animal will be a sacrifice,” then if the animal dies the person’s obligation under the vow is over.

            Mitzvot #439 and 440 are a positive/negative pair.  Mitzvah #440 requires that any sacrifices we bring be brought at the Temple, and mitzvah #439 forbids bringing sacrifices anywhere else.  Earlier, in mitzvah #186, we saw a prohibition on slaughtering sacrificial animals elsewhere.  These mitzvot are still binding.

            Making the Temple the exclusive site of sacrifices helps contribute to the overall atmosphere the Temple experience is aimed at.  If sacrifices could be brought elsewhere the Temple would not seem as special. The constant reverential activity in the Temple and God’s benevolent awareness of the Temple contribute to an atmosphere that inspired people to holiness and repentance.  The author ends his shoresh paragraph by saying that his explanation is “for the children,” and that there is much more depth to understanding these mitzvot.  It is hard to know what he has in mind.

            Much of these two mitzvah/essays is quoted from the midrash halachah in a form we are already familiar with.  The point of the midrash halachah is to establish that both the positive and negative mitzvot about sacrificing only in the Temple apply to all types of sacrifices.  Start with the source verses, Deut. 12:13-14: we should be careful not to bring our olot just anywhere.  Rather, in the place God chooses we should bring our olot and other things we are commanded to bring.  There seems to be a positive mitzvah to bring olot and all our sacrifices in the Temple, and a negative mitzvah to avoid bringing our olot anywhere else.  There does not seem to be an explicit negative mitzvah to avoid bringing other sacrifices in other places, and that is the blank the midrash halachah wants to fill in.

            Now look at the midrash halachah quoted in mitzvah/essay #439.  It starts with a familiar phrase, “ein li elah,” “I only have,” in this case a source verse for the negative mitzvah to avoid bringing olot anyplace except the Temple.  Next comes the predictable question “minayan,” “from where do I know.”  The speaker already knows the rule and is seeking a source.  In this case we need a source for the negative mitzvah on bringing other sacrifices somewhere other than the Temple.  The answer is introduced with the predictable term “talmud lomar,” “the verse says.”  Here, the verse says “there [in the Temple] you should bring all that I commanded you.”  We have seen this form of midrash halachah before.

            This time, though, the answer is not entirely satisfactory.  The provided proof text sounds like a positive mitzvah to bring all sacrifices at the Temple, and we are looking for a negative mitzvah prohibiting bringing other sacrifices away from the Temple. So the midrash halachah goes back to document exactly what we know.  We have a positive mitzvah to bring olot at the Temple, based on the words “there you should bring your olot,” and a negative mitzvah not to bring olot elsewhere, based on the words “be careful not to bring your olot” elsewhere.  Other sacrifices seem to be governed only by a positive mitzvah, based on the words “there you should bring” all the commanded sacrifices.  This is a positive mitzvah that casts a prohibition in positive terms, since the implication of the positive statement is that other sacrifices should not be brought outside the Temple.  But a positive commandment with prohibitive implications is still a positive commandment, so we don’t have a basis for a negative mitzvah about other sacrifices. 

            The midrash halachah is forced to switch direction.  It returns to the language “there you should do” all that you have been commanded, specifically to bring sacrifices at the Temple.  We know that all sacrifices should be brought at the Temple, and “all you have been commanded” includes olot.  So a specific positive mitzvah to bring olot at the Temple seems redundant.  The midrash halachah takes the apparently superfluous mention of the positive mitzvah about olot as a way to include things specific to olot in the analysis of other sacrifices.  We also have a specific negative mitzvah to avoid bringing olot anywhere but the Temple, since verse 13 specifically prohibits bringing olot elsewhere.  So the superfluous mention of a positive mitzvah to bring olot only at the Temple teaches that just as olot are governed by a negative mitzvah to avoid bringing olot outside the Temple, other sacrifices are governed by that negative mitzvah as well.

            The author quotes this midrash halachah in part in mitzvah #440 and in full in mitzvah #439.  It is always hard to know why the author choses to include things.  Here, though, the author is taking a midrash halachah with starts with the “ein li elah” pattern and then extends to a more complex argument.  The author is asking us to take the next step in following the text and argument of the midrash halachah.

            We saw in mitzvah #351 that we may not swap out a consecrated animal for a different animal.  Nor are we allowed to get benefit from consecrated animals other than bringing them as sacrifices. An owner of a consecrated animal that develops a mum, a defect, has a problem.  The animal was consecrated as a sacrifice but cannot be brought as a sacrifice. According to our author, mitzvah #441 requires the owner of such an animal to redeem the animal for money and use the money to buy a replacement animal.  Our author explains that this mitzvah is an example of God’s generosity.  It allows the owner to recover what would have been the loss of the value of the animal if the consecration would require the owner to bring a different animal as a replacement sacrifice.  And even an owner who might be hesitant, willing to take the financial hit rather than redeem a consecrated animal, will redeem the animal because there is a specific mitzvah to do so.

            The source verse for this mitzvah does not mention consecrated animals.  Our author says the midrash halachah makes the connection, but doesn’t explain how.

            The author describes more about this mitzvah, but unfortunately leaves several questions without answers.  For example, the author does not say how the redemption price is determined.  Nor does the author say exactly what promise the owner made in sanctifying the animal; did the owner promise this specific animal, or did the owner promise a certain type of sacrifice. 

The original animal, consecrated and then redeemed, is now “hol,” an ordinary animal that the owner may slaughter and eat or sell for food. The author does not specifically say whether a redeemed animal can be treated as an ordinary animal for other purposes, for example whether the owner may sheer the animal and use the wool.

            If a consecrated animal died before it was sacrificed, the carcass must be buried. Since the animal was consecrated when it died, no one is allowed to get benefit from it and we can avoid anyone getting benefit from it if it is buried.  The owner may or may not have to bring a replacement, depending on exactly the terms of the consecration.  Similarly, if a consecrated animal developed a mum and then died before it was redeemed, that animal is buried.  Until it is redeemed, it is still a consecrated animal.

            Consider the case of a pregnant animal that is consecrated.  We learned earlier that the fetus has the same status as the mother, so if the mother is consecrated the fetus is too.  If the mother develops a mum and then gives birth, the offspring is a consecrated animal.  The mother cannot be a sacrifice but the offspring, assuming the offspring itself does not have a mum, can be a sacrifice.  Let’s say a female animal is consecrated, becomes pregnant, then develops a mum and is redeemed.  The author says the offspring is forbidden and may not be redeemed, but he doesn’t explain why.  When the offspring is born, the mother is no longer consecrated so the offspring cannot be brought as a sacrifice. Apparently, though, the offspring retains some level of consecration. But the owner can consecrate the fetus before redeeming the mother and then bring the offspring as a sacrifice in place of the mother.

            The author also explains that the redemption procedure does not apply if a first born animal or tithed animal develops a mum.  A first born animal is consecrated at birth, without any act by the owner, although the owner should declare it sacred.  As we saw in mitzvah #18, a first born animal normally would be brought as a sacrifice and eaten by the cohanim.  If the first born animal has a mum, the cohanim eat the animal without sacrificing it.  So something useful happens to the animal even if it has a mum, and the owner does not suffer a loss. That animal may not be redeemed. Similarly, the owner designates tithed animals by counting and identifying one baby animal in ten. The owner takes the tithed animals to Jerusalem, where they are sacrificed and the owner and his or her guests eat the meat.  If one of those tithed animals has a mum, the animal cannot be sacrificed.  The owner keeps it and can eat it anywhere.  There is no loss to the owner and no reason to redeem the animal.

            However, those animals can only be sold for meat in private sales, without precisely weighing the meat.  Since the animals had consecrated status, they must be treated with respect, and apparently a private sale is considered more respectful.  But the consecrated animal that develops a mum and is the redeemed may be sold in the market and carefully weighed.  That is likely to bring a better price than a private sale.  The author says the benefit will go to sacred purposes.  Presumably, the owner of the animal can anticipate getting a better price for the animal and will therefore be willing to redeem it for more money and buy a better quality replacement animal for the sacrifice.  That turns out to be a benefit to the Temple, and that benefit outweighs the indignity of the public sale of the meat.

            Earlier we discussed agricultural taxes.  After a farmer sets aside t’rumah for the cohanim and ma’aser rishon for the levi’im, the farmer has one more step.  In certain years of the shmittah cycle the farmer takes off another 10% as ma’aser sheni.  The farmer brings the ma’aser sheni to Jerusalem where it is eaten by the farmer and his or her guests, or the farmer redeems it for money, adds a penalty of 25%, brings the money to Jerusalem and buys food with that money to be eaten in Jerusalem. In other years of the shmittah cycle the farmer takes off another 10% as ma’aser ani, which goes to poor people.

            Mitzvah #473 requires a farmer to allocate ma’aser sheni in the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the shmittah cycle.  Our author explained earlier that this mitzvah finances sabbatical time for people to come and study Torah in Jerusalem.  The author reviews some of the aspects of this mitzvah that he covered earlier.  The farmer must designate the ma’aser sheni from each year’s crops separately.  The fiscal year for each distinct year is set based on the agricultural cycle for that particular crop.  The fiscal year for tree fruit begins on the 15th day of Sh’vat.  D’oraita the farmer must take ma’aser sheni from grain, grapes and olive oil, but d’rabanan other crops as also subject to ma’aser sheni.  The obligation of ma’aser sheni is in effect only when the Jews are fully settled in Israel.

            Mitzvah #474 requires a farmer to allocate ma’aser ani in the third and sixth years of the shmittah cycle.  We have seen similar examples mitzvot requiring us to help the poor by requiring a farmer to leave certain parts of the harvest for poor people, and we saw mitzvah #66 that requires us to make loans to poor people. The mitzvot that require us to help poor people help the destitute survive and live with dignity, and help the donors develop generous and caring personalities.

 The farmer does not get to choose which poor people get the ma’aser ani.  Rather, the farmer provides a minimum amount of each type of crop to poor people who come by, first come first served.  The minimum amount approximates what someone would need to “satisfy hunger.”  If several poor people come at the same time, they decide how to allocate the available ma’aser ani. Poor women get preference over poor men.

 Mitzvot #442 – 444 prohibit our eating ma’aser sheni outside of Jerusalem.  Mitzvah #442 applies to grain, mitzvah #443 applies to wine and mitzvah #444 applies to olive oil.

            The author adds to what he says about ma’aser sheni elsewhere, mostly on the topic of punishments. Violation of this mitzvah is punishable with malkot.  The source verse, Deut. 12:17, lists several things that may not be eaten outside Jerusalem, including ma’aser of grain, wine and olive oil.  The verse could support treating the prohibition of eating ma’aser sheni of these three types as one negative mitzvah, and under that reading this would be a prohibition mitzvah that covers a variety of situations and therefore does not support punishment.  But the Gemara says these are three different mitzvot, so the rubric of a general inclusive prohibition eliminating punishment does not apply. That analysis relies on the fact that the source verse lists each type of ma’aser sheni separately, something the verse could have avoided with a more concise formulation.

Someone who doesn’t actually bring the food to Jerusalem but who eats some on the way, outside Jerusalem, is not punishable.  Rather, the farmer is only punishable for eating the ma’aser sheni if it arrived in Jerusalem and then was taken out of the city and eaten outside the city. 

Since olive oil is a liquid one might think that the minimal amount one has to eat outside Jerusalem in order to be punishable should be ¼ log, the usual minimal shiur for consuming a liquid.  But in this situation the minimal shiur is a k’zayit.  Even though some people do drink olive oil, most people include olive oil in solid food so the shiur is set as for solid food.  (It does seem appropriate that the minimum amount of olive oil that counts as eating is a k’zayit.)