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Class Notes - Class #6

Mitzvah #385 requires someone baking bread to give part of the dough or bread to a cohen.  The dough or bread given to a cohen is called “hallah,” but the mitzvah applies to any kind of bread not just our rich Shabbat bread.  The cohanim received many different kinds of support from the rest of the Jews.  For example, we have seen the cohanim get to eat parts of the sacrifices, and the cohanim receive goods someone declares to be herem if the owner did not designate another recipient.  We will see others as we continue.  These various gifts help support the cohanim so that the cohanim have leisure to help in the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people.

            Our author explains the shoresh of mitzvot that require gifts of bread to the cohanim.  Bread is a ubiquitous basic food so God gave us a mitzvah related to bread so we would have a frequent opportunity to do meritorious things.  A gift of bread or dough is especially helpful to the cohanim because it is ready to use.

Someone who bakes bread is required to give hallah from bread dough made of any of the five basic grains:  wheat, rye, oats, barley and spelt, or any combination of those.  A baker is only obligated to give hallah to a cohen from a substantial batch of dough, at least the equivalent of 43 1/5th eggs.  (The author explains exactly how that amount is calculated.)  Bran that is left in the flour counts toward the requisite amount but bran that is added back into the dough does not count.  It doesn’t matter what kind of liquid is used for the bread.  The obligation is triggered when the flour and water are mixed together and are ready for kneading.  The baker can deliver the hallah to a cohen at that time of any time thereafter. The baker can give unbaked dough to a cohen or can wait and give the cohen finished loaves of bread.

            Calculating the amount of dough is more complicated than it looks since under some circumstances small batches can be combined into a larger batch.  Loaves do not combine just because they happen to have been baked in the same oven.  But the author gives two examples of when small batches do combine. Someone who has a large kneading trough might knead one dough at one end and another dough at the other end.  If those doughs never touch each other they are considered separate.  But if the doughs touch each other they are considered combined.

Also, if someone bakes a small batch of bread and then bakes another small batch and combines the two sets of baked loaves, the two small batches combine which may mean there is enough bread to trigger the obligation of hallah.  Our author cites his teacher for the notion that the two small batches of baked bread only combine if as the loaves come out of the oven the loaves are put directly into some sort of container.  If the baker takes the loaves out of the oven and puts the loaves down on the ground or does not put them in a container, the batches do not combine. 

            If dough is jointly owned by a Jew and a non-Jew, if the portion that belongs to the Jew is enough to trigger the obligation of hallah, then the Jew is obligated to give hallah from his or her portion.

            The mitzvah of hallah applies to dough baked by any process, whether the dough is baked in an ordinary oven, placed in a cold oven which is then heated, baked on the wall of the oven, or even baked in a pan above heat.  But dough that is boiled in a pot or dried in the sun is not subject to the obligation of hallah. Dough destined to become animal food is not subject to the obligation of hallah.  

Dough from which hallah has not yet been taken is considered tevel, produce from which taxes have not yet been deducted.  Sometimes tevel dough might get combined with dough from which hallah has already been taken.  If possible, the baker should add enough dough so that there is enough tevel dough to trigger the obligation of hallah, and then say the appropriate blessing and take hallah.  If no extra dough is available and the mixed dough is too small to trigger the obligation of hallah, the baker takes hallah from the mixed dough without saying a blessing.

 D’oraita the baker can fulfill the obligation of hallah by giving even the tiniest bit to a cohen, but the rabbis required the baker to give at least 1/24th of the batch, an amount that seemed respectably substantial.  A householder who might typically bake small batches of bread might avoid the obligation of hallah entirely.  But a professional baker who needs to bake big batches to sell and who needs to make a profit need only give 1/48th of each batch as hallah.

The baker may give the hallah to whichever cohen the baker chooses.  Although the author doesn’t explain clearly, it seems that the bread or dough must be tahor and the cohen who eats it must be tahor.  At the end of the essay, in describing how this mitzvah works now, the author says that in cases where hallah is d’rabanan, some communities allow certain cohanim who are tamei to eat it.  The author mentions the possibility that a cohen who is a minor, and therefore is not tamei because of bodily emissions, might eat the t’rumah, and maybe even an adult cohen who has just immersed in a mikvah.  That bit of information leaves more questions than it answers about how tumah and taharah relates to the mitzvah of hallah.

The mitzvah to give hallah to a cohen applies to men and women, but d’oraita is applies only in Israel when the tribes of the Jewish people are settled there. The rabbis required us to take hallah outside of Israel lest Jews forget this mitzvah.  The author describes his own practice, that the rabbis were lenient about hallah outside Israel in several ways.  The rabbis only required taking a k’zayit from even a large batch of dough. That dough was to be burnt.  It could not be given to a cohen because the cohen was tamei. 

But the author notes that other communities had a different practice and he quotes Rambam who accepts this alternate practice.  The baker outside of Israel does not take off any hallah to burn, since the Torah mitzvah of hallah does not apply.  But the baker takes 1/48th of the dough as hallah and gives it to a cohen who is a child and therefore is not subject to the kinds of tumah that emanate from one’s body.  That cohen may eat the hallah.  The baker may also give the hallah to an adult cohen who has immersed in the mikvah even if the cohen is still a t’vul yom.  That cohen could eat the hallah. 

The author also quotes Rambam on what to do about hallah in Israel after the tribes are dispersed. That dough and the cohanim are tamei.  Rambam holds the Torah requirement of hallah applies to that dough.    The baker should take 1/48th part of the dough and burn it.  We have seen earlier that it is not always clear what areas are considered part of Israel and what areas are not.  Rambam discusses areas which were conquered by Joshua but were not resettled when Ezra led the return from Babylonia.  In those areas a baker would take the hallah required in Israel, 1/48th part to be burned, and take a second portion of any amount to be given to a cohen who could eat it.  Apparently the dough given to the cohen is not actually hallah, but is a way of keeping the mitzvah of hallah fresh in our minds.  We will see more about different definitions of the land of Israel later in our study.

Hallah taken outside of Israel has another unusual feature.  We have seen several discussions of the concept of bittul, that de minimis amounts of forbidden items can be ignored if mixed with a sufficiently large amount of permitted items.  Normally, if some forbidden item is mixed with permitted items but there is too much of the forbidden item for the forbidden item to be batel, we are not permitted to add more permitted items to adjust the proportion.  This is the principle of “ain m’vatlin issur l’hatchilah.”  But hallah outside of Israel is an exception.  (The author seems to be extrapolating this point about hallah from the Gemara’s discussion of t’rumah d’rabanan.) Let’s say a baker takes hallah from dough from which the baker is required d’rabanan to take hallah.  At this point only a cohen could eat that hallah, and only under certain conditions of tumah and taharah.  That hallah gets mixed with ordinary dough.  It would seem that only a qualified cohen could eat any of the combined batch.  But the baker is permitted to add more ordinary dough so that the hallah in the mixture becomes batel, and then anyone can eat it. The author says there is only one other case where bitul l’haltchilah is permitted.  Some branches from an overhanging tree fall into a stove.  It would be prohibited to burn those branches on the holiday since when the holiday started they were part of the living tree.  Enough branches fell in so that they are not batel to the branches that were already in the stove.  In that case, one may add more branches that had been prepared before the holiday until there is a majority of permitted branches and that will make the prohibited branches batel, allowing someone to light and use the stove.



Mitzvah #386 requires tzitzit, tassels tied in a prescribed pattern, on the corners of certain garments.  The tzitzit consist of white threads and blue threads dyed with “t’chelet.” Our author describes in detail how to tie the tzitzit; if you have trouble following his description, look at tied tzitzit as you read this passage. (Note that the term tzitzit refers to the tassels, not the garment itself.)

The shoresh for this mitzvah appears in the source verse, Num. 15:39:  the wearer will see the tzitzit on the clothing and be reminded to follow mitzvot.  The author seems to identify a related practice in his own community, where someone might affix the heraldry of one’s master to one’s garment as a reminder of the loyalty owed to the master.

The author also plays out several elaborate symbolic interpretations of tzitzit, with each aspect of the tied tzitzit representing something.  First, adding the numerical value of the word tzitzit with the number of threads and knots gets to 613, a reminder of all the mitzvot. Second, the tzitzit might remind us of the human body and soul, with the white threads representing the body and the blue thread, the color of the sky, representing the soul.  Third, the windings allude to the firmaments of the heavens and the spaces between them.  The tzitzit have between seven and thirteen windings, seven representing the seven firmaments and the extra six representing the spaces between the firmaments.

Our author rarely indulges in this kind of symbolic interpretation.  Perhaps the author felt free to speculate about symbolic meaning for this mitzvah because the Torah itself identifies tzitzit as a reminder.  The notion that there are seven cosmological layers is based on the medieval understanding that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun, moon, and five known stars each rotated around the earth at its own level.  That notion is mentioned in medieval Jewish, Christian and Moslem sources.  This is medieval science, not mysticism.

The dinei hamitzvah section of this mitzvah/essay is long and detailed.

The author describes exactly which garments require tzitzit: garments made of sheep wool or linen; garments large enough to cover the body of a child aged six or seven; garments with four or more corners.  If a garment has more than four corners it gets tzitzit on the four corners farthest away from each other.  At the end of the essay our author says garments made of other fabrics do require tzitzit, but that requirement is d’rabanan and not d’oraita.

The four tassels of tzitzit on a given garment are m’akev to each other.  In other words, the mitzvah has not been fulfilled unless all four corners have properly prepared tzitzit.  But the white and blue threads are not m’akev to each other.  In other words, tzitzit made entirely of white or of blue threads would fulfill the mitzvah.  The author does not say how many of the threads should be blue, but he does mention that the dye for the blue thread, “t’chelet,” is derived from a Mediterranean sea creature called “hilazon,” and that the tradition of how to obtain t’chelet has been long lost.  Recent work has attempted to recover this tradition.  For more information on that topic, see  or

The materials for tzitzit must be spun and dyed specifically to make tzitzit. But if the materials were produced without that specific intent, b’diavad the materials may be used. (Note that the author forces us to review the concepts of l’hatchilah and b’diavad.)  Since the tzitzit require only relatively short threads, one might be tempted to spin them from scrap wool, but that is not allowed.  If the wool for the tzitzit was stolen, taken from consecrated wool, or taken from a town that had fallen into idolatrous practice, the tzitzit are disqualified.  The materials must be produced by adult Jews.  Tzitzit made by a non-Jew are not acceptable.  Our text says that women may not make the materials, but the translator is skeptical about whether this statement was part of the text our author wrote.

L’hatchilah the tzitzit should have five knots with windings between each knot, and should hang such that 1/3 of the tassel consists of knots and windings and 2/3 consists of the strings hanging straight below.  But b’diavad even one section of windings is sufficient, and strings that are only long enough to make a loop are sufficient. 

The author considers a dispute about whether the mitzvah of tzitzit applies to the “heftzah,” the object, in this case a garment, or the “gavra,” the person, in this case the person wearing the garment.  This distinction determines whether four cornered garments need tzitzit even when no one is wearing them.  If the mitzvah applies to the heftzah, the garment, then garments would need tzitzit even when folded up and sitting in a drawer.  If the mitzvah applies to the gavra, the person, then garments would need tzitzit only when someone is wearing them.  The author says we follow the opinion that the mitzvah of tzitzit applies to the gavra. 

Someone who wears a borrowed garment that requires tzitzit but has no tzitzit may wear that garment for thirty days.  Thereafter the borrower must attach tzitzit.

The author has an extended discussion of how the mitzvah of tzitzit interacts with the prohibition of wearing a garment consisting of both wool and linen, a mitzvah we have not studied yet.  Start with a fact: linen does not take t’chelet dye. Recall that d’oraita the mitzvah of tzitzit applies to garments of wool and to garments of linen.  But in order to put tzitzit with a string dyed with t’chelet on a linen garment one would need to use wool tzitzit, and that would seem to violate the prohibition on wearing a garment consisting of both wool and linen.  That leaves three possibilities:  1. No tzitzit on linen garments, since tzitzit should have t’chelet and that would violate the prohibition on mixed wool and linen garments.  2. Linen tzitzit on linen garments, which would mean tzitzit without t’chelet.  3. Wool tzitzit with t’chelet on linen garments, which would require tzitzit to be an exception to the prohibition on mixed wool and linen garments.

Beit Shammai holds that a linen garment does not need tzitzit. Beit Hillel holds that a linen garment does need tzitzit.  Our author explains the basis of their disagreement as a principled dispute about one technique of Biblical interpretation: whether there is halachic significance when two different topics appear consecutively in the Torah.  The mitzvah of tzitzit is repeated in Deut. 22:12.  The immediately preceding verse prohibits wearing garments of mixed wool and linen.  Beit Hillel holds that two disparate matters that appear consecutively imply some halachah we would not otherwise have known.  Here, it teaches that tzitzit is an exception to the prohibition on wearing garments of mixed wool and linen.  Beit Shammai does not think such a juxtaposition has halachic significance and therefore learns no such exception.  Our author says we do not follow Beit Shammai’s opinion, so we have eliminated the first possibility and are left with the other two possibilities.

It turns out to be complicated to choose between those options.  Add one more factor.  Wool dyed with t’chelet was expensive and looked very much like wool dyed with indigo, so there is some danger people will use wool dyed with indigo instead of wool dyed with t’chelet.  Beit Hillel would allow wool tzitzit on a linen garment, but would not allow improper wool tzitzit on a linen garment and sometimes a tassel that looks proper for tzitzit is not proper because it has an indigo dyed thread instead of a t’chelet dyed thread.  Beit Hillel appears to be unwilling to take that risk, and therefore Beit Hillel holds that one puts linen tzitzit on a linen garment.

The author explains an objection to this conclusion that appears in the Talmud, M’nachot 40a.  Why choose the incomplete solution of using linen tzitzit without t’chelet over the incomplete solution of wool tzitzit where one thread is dyed with indigo rather than with t’chelet?  The answer refines what Beit Hillel is willing to derive from the juxtaposition of two disparate topics:  such a juxtaposition can justify making an exception to one mitzvah in order to fulfill another mitzvah, but only if the mitzvah will be done completely properly.  Here, where the wool tzitzit might be improper because indigo dye was used, the exception does not apply.  So Beit Hillel concludes that a linen garment gets linen tzitzit.

Based on the Talmud in Shabbat 133a, the author adds a different reason for Beit Hillel’s preference for linen tzitzit on a linen garment.  Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish dealt with a situation where a positive mitzvah seems to contradict a negative mitzvah.  Here, for example, we have a positive mitzvah to put tzitzit on linen garments, and a negative mitzvah that forbids wearing garments of mixed wool and linen.  Rabbi Shimon says if it is possible to find some way to accommodate both mitzvot that is what we are required to do.  If we cannot finesse the situation with something that satisfies both mitzvot, the positive mitzvah controls and the negative mitzvah is set aside.  In this case it is possible to do both mitzvot by putting linen tzitzit on a linen garment and therefore there is no justification for allowing someone to wear a garment of mixed wool and linen by putting wool tzitzit on a linen garment.

Our author is aware that he has taken us on a long, winding logical journey, and that the conclusions he reaches might not be airtight.  It is hard to know why our author chose to write this extended discussion, but following his discussion requires us to use many of the intellectual skills he has been teaching us all along.  At the end of this discussion our author addresses his son in a way that clarifies the author’s goal for his student.  Making sure that the student accepts everything the teacher says is emphatically not the goal.  Rather, the goal is for the student to be an independent thinker.  Once the student has the requisite skills, the teacher wants the student to question and challenge, and to defend the student’s position even if the student disagrees with the teacher.  The teacher will not consider that impertinent; rather the teacher will see that as the student succeeding.  Our author looks forward to the time when his son will make convincing arguments to refute the author’s position.

This mitzvah is obligatory for men but not for women.  But our author says that a woman may choose to put tzitzit on qualified clothing.  The author cites authorities who disagree about whether a woman who puts on a garment with tzitzit recites the appropriate blessing.  This dispute is not unique to the mitzvah of tzitzit.  Rather it reflects a broader dispute about whether anyone who is not required to do a mitzvah but does the mitzvah anyway recites the appropriate blessing.

Our author emphasizes the importance of observing this mitzvah.  Medieval illuminations of Hebrew books show many garments which would require tzitzit, but rarely show those garments with tzitzit attached, so it is possible the mitzvah of tzitzit was not very popular.  The author does not mention wearing a specially designed garment to create an opportunity to observe this mitzvah, either a tallit worn during prayer, or a four cornered undershirt as is popular now.  Talitot for prayer appear in medieval illuminations.


Mitzvah #387 is more amorphous than most other mitzvot.  The source verse, Num. 15:39, tells us not to stray after our hearts or our eyes.  It seems to prohibit our voluntarily engaging in behavior we know might tempt us to misbehave.  The source verse worries about straying after our hearts, and our author identifies that with heresy. For example, we should avoid studying topics we know might lead us to heretical beliefs.  The source verse also worries about straying after our eyes, and our author identifies that with cravings that might lead to sexual immorality or other misbehavior. 

An Oscar Wilde quip comes to mind: “I can resist anything but temptation.”  Our author’s discussion of this mitzvah seems to disagree.  At least sometimes we can see trouble coming and have the self-control to avoid it.  This mitzvah requires us to do just that.  Staying away from temptation is the foundation of our good behavior.  The author quotes the well-known adage that one mitzvah leads to another and one sin leads to another.  Someone who allows him or herself to encounter temptation is starting down a long path toward trouble.

This is a mitzvah that hinges on each individual person’s motivation.  What tempts one person does not tempt another person.  One person encounters a tempting situation and contemplates the joy of sin while another person encounters the same situation and uses it as an impetus to behave better.  Everyone is tempted sometimes, so it is impossible for anyone to avoid violating this mitzvah.

But it is not clear exactly what we should avoid.  Is that an individual decision or a communal decision?  What about exposure to something that might be tempting to some people but not to others?  What about someone who pursues information from intellectual curiosity without knowing where that inquiry will lead?  How does someone quell doubts without thinking them through carefully?  These questions do not have clear answers but are very much matters of controversy in our contemporary Jewish community.  But our author emphasizes that it is the responsibility of each individual to draw the line between what is appropriate and what isn’t.


Mitzvot #392 and 393 return to the topic of the sanctity of the first born, a topic we saw in mitzvot #18 and 22.  Mitzvah #18 requires us to sanctify certain male firstborn domestic mammals.  For animals appropriate for sacrifices the owner would give the firstborn animal to a cohen, who brings it as a sacrifice.  The cohanim ate the meat of the sacrifice in Jerusalem.  Firstborn male donkeys are also sanctified. Since donkeys cannot be brought as sacrifices, mitzvah #22 requires the owner to redeem the firstborn donkey for a sheep or for money.  Mitzvah #23 mandates that a firstborn donkey that was not redeemed should be killed.  The sheep or the redemption money becomes the ordinary property of the cohen, and the owner gets to keep the donkey.  Our author understands these mitzvot as a way of showing thankfulness to God.  When we work toward a goal, we are overjoyed when we see the first achievement of that goal.  Sanctifying the first born, whether animals or people, shows our gratitude to God for helping us achieve our goal.  These mitzvot also commemorate the miracle of God protecting first born Jews during the final plague in Egypt.

            Mitzvah #392 plays out the notion of sanctification of firstborn male Jews.  A son who is the firstborn of his mother should be redeemed by the father, who redeems the son by paying a cohen.  We are familiar with this enterprise as the “pidyon haben.” 

            The source verse, Ex. 13:2, describes the firstborn son subject of the mitzvah as “peter rechem,” “the one who opens the womb,” and the author provides information about what that means.  The mother must be Jewish; a firstborn son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother need not be redeemed.  This must be the mother’s firstborn child.  If the mother previously had a miscarriage, that might or might not count depending on whether the miscarriage would have made the mother a yoledet under the rules of tumah.  The firstborn son gets a larger share of a father’s inheritance than other sons, but the definition of firstborn for inheritance does not match the definition for this mitzvah.  (We will get to the topic of inheritance in mitzvah #400.) A child who is a cohen or levi or whose mother is the daughter of a cohen or levi need not be redeemed.  Originally the first born son was the spiritual leader of the family.  The Torah changed that system, making the cohanim and levi’im the spiritual leaders.  Therefore, children of cohanim and levi’im are not redeemed; they actually have the job of spiritual leadership.

            The mitzvah to redeem a firstborn son begins from the time the child is 30 days old.  Before that, there is too much danger the child will not survive.  The mitzvah lasts from that time until it is fulfilled.

            The obligation to redeem the child falls on the father.  Even if the child is not redeemed until the child becomes an adult, the obligation to redeem the child stays with the father.  But once the child becomes an adult, the child also has an obligation to redeem himself if his father has not done the redemption.

            Ideally the redemption price is five shekel of silver, equivalent to five sela.   The father pays that value in actual silver or in the equivalent value in goods with intrinsic value, like ordinary household goods.  The author quotes the equivalent amount of silver coin current in his time, and the translator traces that through research on the history of European coinage. It may not be paid in land, slaves, or contractual obligations.  The father pays the redemption price to one or more male cohen; the father may not pay a cohenet.  The redemption price is the property of the cohen, who may do whatever he wants with it. 

The father must be wholehearted in understanding that the price belongs to the cohen.  The cohen may choose to return it to the father, but the cohen is not obligated to do that. If the father has a mental reservation that he is giving the cohen the money but really expects the cohen to give it back, the payment does not succeed in redeeming the child.  But if the father and the cohen agree beforehand that the cohen will return the money to the father, the redemption is successful.  The author cites the Gemara’s discussion that elaborates on the relationship between the father and the cohen by citing these different cases but the author does not explain how the cases fit together. 

            Our author’s description of the redemption ceremony is a bit confusing. First the author describes what would seem to be the practice in his community.  Apparently the father begins with the predictable blessings, one on the mitzvah of pidyon haben and then shehechianu on a rare happy occasion. The ceremony requires a cup of wine and myrtle branches.  The father gives the money to the cohen and the cohen recites the blessing on the wine and on smelling sweet spices.  Then the cohen recites a long blessing which the author quotes.  The author describes another ceremony that he attributes to Ramban.  The father gives both the child and the money to the cohen.  The cohen then asks which one the father wants back.  Presumably the father asks for the child. The cohen blesses the child and returns the child to the father.  The author quotes the text of the blessing.  That second version is a closer match to our current practice.

            Although we are required to redeem a firstborn son and a firstborn donkey, mitzvah #393 says we are not allowed to redeem other firstborn kosher domestic mammals.  An attempt to redeem such an animal does not work, the animal is not redeemed. The owner gives the animal to the cohen, and the cohen may not sell it or redeem it either, since the animal is designated to be a sacrifice.

            Even cohanim and levi’im are required to bring a qualified firstborn animal as a sacrifice, although a cohen may then eat the sacrifice himself.  According to the authorities our author cites here, the mitzvot to consecrate a firstborn animal and to avoid redeeming such an animal applies only in Israel, but they do apply whether or not the Temple is functioning.  That means these mitzvot apply in Israel now.  According to Talmudic sources (cited by the translator), since we cannot bring the firstborn animal as a sacrifice, the owner can give the animal to a cohen, who keeps the animal until it develops a mum and then the cohen can eat or sell the animal.  The rabbis prohibited selling the animal in public, though, lest people get confused and think we are allowed to sell a firstborn animal and use it for ordinary purposes.

 The author takes the opportunity to explain a passage from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.  Rambam starts out with a statement that is just what we would expect; he says that the owner may not sell a firstborn animal and that a cohen the owner gave it to may not sell that firstborn unblemished animal because the animal is designated to be a sacrifice.   But Rambam goes on to say that now, when sacrifices are not possible because the Temple is not functioning, the animal is destined to be eaten and therefore a firstborn animal may be sold or eaten.  It is a surprise that Rambam says the firstborn animal now is destined to be eaten.  Our author salvages this statement by inserting an implied condition:  the animal is destined to be eaten once it develops a mum.  With that implied addition Rambam’s position agrees with Talmudic sources.

Instead of just explaining what to do with a firstborn animal now, the author chooses to quote Rambam and walk us through the difficulty in Rambam’s explanation.  This seems to fit with the pedagogic technique the author recently introduced of quoting earlier sources rather than paraphrasing them.  We postulated that this provides the reader with an introduction to typical arguments that appear in various genres of halachic literature. Here, Rambam’s position seems to differ from the accepted rule. The author uses a common technique to solve the difficultly: read in a condition that would make the difficult statement match the accepted rule.  That technique gets used often, not only in interpreting codes of rishonim, but also in interpreting statements in mishnayot and b’raitot.