Nasso: Razor Sharp ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

When detailing the laws of the Nazirite, the Torah forbids him from cutting his hair by stating, “A razor (taar) shall not pass over his head” (Num. 6:5). Later in the Bible, two famous people became Nazirites: Samson and Samuel. When the angel told Samson’s mother that her unborn son should be a Nazirite, the angel said, inter alia, “A razor (morah) shall not pass over his head” (Judges 13:5). Indeed, when Samson later unwisely revealed the source of his super-human strength, he said, “A razor (morah) did not pass over my head” (Judges 16:17). Regarding Samuel, his mother Chana vowed that should she produce a son, the child will become a Nazir, and that “A razor (morah) shall not pass over his head” (I Sam. 1:11). In these different passages we encounter two different words for razor in Hebrew: taar and morah. Are they synonyms? How do they differ from each other? Why does the Bible sometimes use one, and sometimes the other?

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah §10:5) touches on this issue in an interesting way: “Why is the razor (taar) called a morah? Because hair is only scared (morah) of the razor, because it shaves it with a shaving of destruction, as it says, ‘Do not destroy the corner of your beard’ (Lev. 19:27)”. The deeper meaning of this Midrash seems obscured, but it is definitely an opening for our discussion.

The truth is that we find that morah is associated with fear. In the context of Samson, Targum (to Judges 13:5, 16:17) translates morah as scissors, while in the context of Samuel, Targum (to I Sam. 1:11) translates morah as “fear of men”. The same is found in Rashi’s commentary to those respective stories. Radak, on the other hand, favors translating morah as “razor” across the board. Radak then explains that the approach of Targum and Rashi is based on the opinion of the Tanaaic sage Rabbi Yossi, who opined (Nazir 66a) that while Samson was a Nazirite, Samuel was not. According to this, when the Bible says a morah shall not pass over his head, this cannot refer to a razor since Samuel was not a Nazirite, but rather refers to the fear of other men. However, Radak himself favors the the opinion of Rabbi Nehorai who said that Samuel actually was a Nazirite.

What is the root of the word taar? Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) in his commentary to Num. 6:5 contends that taar is related to the root AYIN-REISH-HEY, which denotes “laying bare” or “exposing” something. This etymology also explains the connection between a mitaar,which is asword’s sheath (scabbard), and the razor: Just as the razor is instrumental in removing hair, which reveals one’s epidermis, so does the sword suddenly appear when drawn from its sheath.

Linguists admit that they are unaware of the etymological source of the word morah. However, some suggest that its original root is also AYIN-REISH-HEY, with the initial AYIN dropped. Rashi (to Judges 13:5) explains that the word morah is related to the root YUD-REISH-HEY, which means “shoots” or “throws away”, because the razor “throws away” the hair, so to speak. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) says that the root of morah is MEM-REISH, which refers to “transferring” or “switching” (like temurah which attempts to transfer holiness from one animal to another, or a mumar who rejects Judaism and switches to another religion) because by shaving away one’s hair, one paves the way for a new batch of hair to replace those hairs that were cut.

While these two words for “razor” essentially mean the same thing, I have not found any sources that clearly explain the difference between the two. I have also been unable to figure out why the Torah uses the word taar and the Prophets use the word morah when discussing the Nazirite’s prohibition of shaving his hair.




Shavuos: Sinai by Another Name ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

We are all probably familiar with the name of the site of the greatest mass revelation of G-d’s existence — Mount Sinai. However, throughout the Bible that place is variously mentioned under other names. These names include “Mountain of G-d,” “Mount Bashan,” “Mount Gavnunim” (Psalms 68:16), “Mount Hemed” (Psalms 68:17), and “Mount Horeb” (Exodus 33:6). Various Midrashic sources offer different interpretations of how all of these terms refer to one mountain and in the following paragraphs we will explore some of those ideas and how they relate to the holiday of Shavuot.

The mountain is called Har ha-Elokim, “Mountain of God,” because that is where the Jewish people accepted upon themselves the Godhood of the Creator. Additionally, of all the potential mountains on which God may have revealed His glory, Mount Sinai was the most fitting because it had never been previously worshipped by idolaters, while other mountains were, in fact, deified by such people. Moreover, the term Elokim (“Almighty”) as opposed to the Tetragrammaton implies G-d’s trait of judgement, an allusion to the fact that on Mount Sinai, He assumed the role of a “judge” in revealing to the Jewish People all the civil laws of the Torah (i.e. from Exodus 21 and onwards).

Mount Sinai is called Mount Bashan because the name Bashan is a portmanteau of the phrase ba sham (“He came there”), as the commentaries point out that the constants n and are so similar that they are sometimes interchangeable. This phrase speaking about His “arrival” refers to G-d’s arrival at the mountain in anticipation of giving the Torah. Alternatively, the word Bashan is an abbreviation of the word bi-shinav (“with his teeth”) and alludes to the fact that everything which the Jewish people enjoy “with their teeth” (i.e. all material success, typified by agricultural fecundity) is in the merit of their adherence to the Torah.

The name Mount Gavnunim is related to the Hebrew word giben (Leviticus 21:20) which is a blemish that disqualifies a Kohen from service in the Temple (in specific, it refers to abnormally long eyebrows). This is similar to Mount Sinai whose cleanness from idolatry “disqualified” all the other mountains by contrast, rendering them unfit for the giving of the Torah. Alternatively, the Midrash explains that the homiletic similarity between the name Gavnunim and the Hebrew word gevinah (cheese) recalls the fact that at the Sinaitic Revelation, all Jews who suffered any ailment or handicap were miraculously healed. Just as cheese is made by separating the most pristine curds of milk from any impurities (i.e. whey), so were the Jewish people at Mount Sinai in their purest state and nobody had any physical blemishes. Interestingly, some explain that the custom to eat dairy foods on Shavuot is related to Mount Sinai’s alternate name and its comparison to cheese.

Mount Hemed (Har Chemed in Hebrew) is another name for Mount Sinai because G-d desired (chemdah) to dwell His presence upon that mountain in specific. It is also called Mount Horeb (Har Chorev in Hebrew) in allusion to the word cherev (“sword”) and refers to the fact that the Sanhedrin received its right to implement capital punishment from the Torah received at Sinai. Of course, the mountain’s most popular name is Mount Sinai. This alludes to the fact that from that place comes “hatred” (sinah). Opposition to the Jewish people (i.e. “anti-Semitism”) stems from a deep hatred and resistance to the Torah and its values. That antinomian attitude began as opposition to the Jews’ cosmic role assumed at Mount Sinai.

Finally, some versions of the Midrash say that Mount Moriah is another name for Mount Sinai. The Zohar famously explains that Mount Moriah is called so because of the abundance of sweet-smelling Myrrh that is there. This is somewhat problematic because Mount Moriah is understood to be the place upon which the Holy Temple was built—in Jerusalem, not in the Sinai desert! Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (1075–1141), the famous poet and author of The Kuzari, writes in his song Yom Shabbaton, “He spoke through His holiness on the Mountain of Myrrh/You shall remember and guard the Seventh Day”. By writing that the commandments to observe the Sabbath were given on the Mountain of Myrrh, he also implies that Mount Moriah is the same as Mount Sinai. The simplest way of resolving this issue is that there are two different mountains which are both named Moriah. However, some of the most prominent Ashkenazi Kabbalists such as Rabbi Berachiah Baruch Shapiro (d. 1663) and Rabbi Naftali Katz (1649–1718) explain that Moriah and Sinai are actually the same mountain, and when G-d gave the Torah in the Sinai Wilderness, He uprooted the mountain from its regular place in Jerusalem and brought it to the wilderness, only to return it afterwards.




Lag B’Omer: Putting the Bar in Bar Mitzvah ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

On Lag B’Omer, Jews all over the world celebrate Rashbi’s hillula. Rashbi, of course, is an acronym for the Tannaic sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Or, is it Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai? Why do we sometimes use the word ben to mean “son,” and sometimes use the word bar? What is the difference between these two words? Moreover, why is a Jewish boy coming of age called a bar mitzvah, why not a ben mitzvah?

Simplistically speaking, the words ben and bar both mean the same thing — but in different languages. Ben means “son” in Hebrew, while bar means “son” in Aramaic. Indeed, whenever the word ben appears in the Bible, the Targumim translate it into Aramaic as bar. For this reason, ben is found in Hebrew texts, while bar is used in Aramaic texts. (The one possible exception to this is Prov. 31:2, which is written in Hebrew, but uses the word bar. However, see the Malbim who argues that in that context bar is a Hebrew word meaning “choicest,” not the Aramaic word for “son.”)

The word bar in Aramaic also means “outside” or “separate” and it is routinely used this way in the Talmud. For example, a baraita is a Tannaic teaching outside of the Mishna. Bar’s two meanings are reflected in a halachicdiscussionsurrounding how to properly write a get (bill of divorce).

Rabbi Yaakov Margolis of Regensburg (1430-1501) writes in Seder HaGet that when writing a get one should refer to the divorcer as “so-and-so ben so-and-so,” not “so-and-so bar so-and-so.” He explains that although the Aramaic word bar is used in all other legal documents, given that a bill of divorce must be as clear as possible, bar (with its multiple meanings) should be avoided in favor of ben. Rabbi Shlomo Luria (1510-1573), sometimes known as the Maharshal, supports Rabbi Margolis’ ruling but for a different reason. He contends that although in this context nobody would think that bar means “outside,” bar might be misconstrued as an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “ben reb” (son of Reb…). This creates a problem because it goes against the custom of refraining from using honorifics in bills of divorce. For this reason, explains Rabbi Luria, one should avoid writing bar, and use ben in writing aget.

Although Rabbi Yosef Colon (1420-1480), also known as Maharik, contests this ruling, the Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572) — who died on Lag B’Omer— twice codified Rabbi Margolis’ ruling in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer §126:30, 129:7).

As is his way, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces both of the words in question to their respective two-letter core-roots. He explains that the root BET-NUN refers to “building” and “producing.” The word ben fits with this explanation because children are “produced” from their parent’s marriage. Other related words include binyan (“building”): the building materials even (“stone”) and teven (“straw”), and even avnayim (a “birthing chair,” which helps facilitate the birthing process). He also writes that the words binah/tevunah (“understanding”) are related to this root as they are the “products” of contemplation and thought.

Rabbi Pappenheim maintains that the word bat (“daughter”) is also derived from the root BET-NUN and should really be spelled banat (like it is in other Semitic languages). However, the NUN is generally dropped, rendering the actual word bat. That NUN returns in the plural form banot (“daughters”).

Now, let’s continue on to the core-root of the word bar. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the two-letter root BET-REISH refers to “exclusion” or “separation.” For example, the word bahr refers to grains which have been “separated” from the chaff, bor/borit is a cleaning agent used to “separate” and “exclude” filth, and bari (versus shemma) refers to a sort of certainty by which all other options have been conclusively “excluded.” We can add to this the common expression bar minan, “except from us”. In this spirit, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that bar means “son” because the child was “separated” from his mother’s person by the act of childbirth.

Now what does all this have to do with a bar mitzvah? But once we’re on the topic, if we call a boy a bar mitzvah in Aramaic (as opposed to the Hebrew ben mitzvah), then why do we call a girl a bat mizvah in Hebrew? What would the Aramaic form of bat mitzvah even be? Although technically the Aramaic word for “daughter” is barat, the Targumim tend to leave the Hebrew word bat untranslated, so bat can also be used in Aramaic (as Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur writes in Meturgaman). Hence, a young lady’s coming of age makes her a bat mitzvah — even in Aramaic.

For some reason, the nomenclature for a young man’s coming of age is bar mitzvah. Why do we refer to the Jewish boy’s rite of passage as a bar mitzvah as opposed to a ben mitzvah? After scouring different sources I came up with three possible lessons that we may be teaching the bar mitzvah boy by using the word bar instead of ben:

Rabbi David Ovadiah of Tiberias (a nephew of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef) explains in the name of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) that because the word bar also means “outside” it serves to teach the young bar mitzvah boy that he is now standing “outside” — on the threshold to entering his adult life. At this fateful juncture he has the capacity to decide whether he will choose the correct path or the incorrect path.

The late Rabbi Alexander Sender Feuerstein of London explains that the Aramaic word for “son” is used to convey the lesson that the young man is not only expected to master the entire Written Torah — which is mostly written in Hebrew — but must also master the Oral Torah, which is mostly written in Aramaic.

Rabbi Meir Mintzberg (son-in-law of the late Rabbi Leib Mintzberg, the spiritual leader of the Jerusalemite “Masmidim” movement) takes a different approach. Like Rabbi Pappenheim he explains that the word ben is related to “building” and “producing,” and connotes that the son is the product of his parents’ building and nurturing. The word bar, on the other hand, has the opposite connotation: Bar implies the “son” as somebody independent (“separated” or “excluded”) of his parents. It is thus an appropriate term for the bar mitzvah boy because it stresses that his personal growth is no longer in the hands of his parents who have “built” him up, but is now his own responsibility. (See Haksav V’hakabbalah to Ex. 12:43 who explains how the word ben in the construct form can be attached to a noun to become an adjective.)

By the way, you should know that whenever the Mishna or Talmud refers to the Tannaic sage “Rabbi Shimon,” this is actually Rashbi. Why then is he sometimes called “Rabbi Shimon” and sometimes called “Rabbi Shimon ben/bar Yochai?” In his lexicon of Talmudic sages Yechusai Tannaim V’Amoraim, Rabbi Yehuda ben Kalonymos of Speyer (a 12th century Tosafist) writes that anything Rashbi said before he was famous is ascribed to “Rabbi Shimon ben/bar Yochai” in order to clarify who said it, but what he said once we was already an important figure is attributed to simply “Rabbi Shimon” because everyone already knew who he was.