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.




Bechukosai: A Collection of Curses ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

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The Torah says, “A judge you shall not curse and a prince/king in your nation shall you not curse” (Ex. 22:27). This passage forbids cursing a judge or king because one might otherwise be tempted to do so if the judge or king does something against one’s own personal interests. In other words, if a judge rules against somebody in court, or a king makes a decree which negatively impacts a given individual, that person might vent his frustrations by “cursing” the relevant authority. In order to offset this attitude the Torah expressly forbids cursing a justice or sovereign. Interestingly, in this context, the Torah uses two different words for “curse”. Regarding the judge the Torah uses the word kelalah to denote cursing, while regarding the king the Torah uses the word arur. Why, in the same verse, does the Torah switch from using one word to using the other?

The Vilna Gaon explains that there is a difference between the word kelalah and arur. The word kelalah, while colloquially used to mean “curse”, is literally a diminutive, which one might invoke to belittle another, but is not truly a “curse”. The word kelalah is related to the Hebrew word kal which means “light” or “easy”, as one who offers a kelelah about another essentially dismisses him as someone unimportant. When discussing one’s “cursing” a judge the Torah uses the word kelalah because, in general, the harm a judge can do to an individual is not usually so damaging (especially given that society always strives to appoint upright judges), so his “victim” will merely suffice with disparaging the judge and need not actually curse him.

However, when discussing an individual who feels wronged by a king, the Torah uses the word arur because a king’s powers are more overreaching than those of a judge, so he can potentially hurt somebody more than a judge can (especially given that kingship is commonly an inherited position and the king’s moral standing is generally irrelevant). In such a case of grave maltreatment one might be tempted to actually curse the king, not just disparage him. Because of this the Torah uses the more intense word arur when warning one not to curse a king.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg writes that arur is a broad, all-encompassing curse that wishes all sorts of calamities and misfortunes to befall one’s adversary, while a kelalah is the word for a specific type of curse, and cannot be used to stand alone. In other words, one who curses another with an arur can simply declare that an arur shall befall him, while one who offers a kelalah must specify in what way that curse should affect his victim (i.e. he offers a kelalah that…).

Furthermore, Rabbi Mecklenburg writes that an arur can apply to something abstract while a kelalah can only apply to something which physically exists. Based on this, Rabbi Mecklenburg explains G-d’s promise to Abraham in which He says (Genesis 12:3), “Whoever curses (kelelah) you, I will curse (arur)”. G-d promises to protect Abraham so much so that whoever curses Abraham with a more specific curse — a kelalah — will receive in return an all-encompassing curse (arur) from Above.

There are two more words found in the Bible to mean curse: kavah and allah. How do these words differ from the other words that mean “curse”?

Malbim explains that kavah refers to a general curse in which one declares a certain individual and everything pertaining to him “cursed”. Furthermore, Malbim explains that kavah denotes a curse uttered in public in which the name of the cursed is stated explicitly (e.g. see Num. 1:17), while an arur does not have such connotations. On the other hand, arur refers to the practical ramifications of a curse manifested in a specific element of one’s victim (for example, his body or his property). It is related to the Hebrew word mearah which means “decrease” (see Deut. 28:20) and refers to a reduction in the net yield of, for example, his property as a result of a curse.

Regarding the curse-word allah, Radak explains that an allah is specifically a type of curse in which one expressly invokes G-d to carry out the misfortune. Rabbi Mecklenburg disagrees with this assessment and instead explains that an allah is a curse with conditions. Meaning, if one imposes a curse with certain stipulations (e.g., “Whoever does such-and-such should be cursed”), that curse is called an allah.




Bechukotai: The River of Light Illuminating the Eyes ~ Tzvi Abrahams

Parshas בְּחֻקֹתַי

The River of Light Illuminating the Eyes

יוֹרֶה: cast down

יוֹרֶה: satisfies

יוֹרֶה: instruct, teach, to show

תּוֹרָה: to give light, to flow like a river, to satisfy like the rains, to come down from a higher place

מוֹרֶה: teacher

הוֹרֶה: parent

הַר המוֹרִיָה: Har HaMoriah

אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץיְבוּלָהּ…וַאַכַלְתֶּם לַחְמְכֶם לָשֹבַע
If you will go in my statutes and you will guard and do them, I will give you your rains in their time and the earth will give forth her produce…and you will eat your bread to satisfaction.1

Rashi explains the words אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּto mean עַמֵלִים בְּתּוֹרָה/toiling in the Torah.

And later in the parshahit says:

אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרֹת אֲשֶׁר נָתַן ה’בֵּינוֹ וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר סִינַי בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה
These are the statutes and the judgements and the “Torahs” that Hashem gave between Him and between the Bnei Yisrael on Har Sinai by the hand of Moshe.2

Rashi explains that the word “Torahs” in the plural form refers to both the Written Law and the Oral Law, and that both were given to Moshe at Sinai.

But what exactly is the meaning of the word תּוֹרָה/Torah?

תּורָה/Torah comes from the root ירה/yoreh, which has three meanings: to cast down, to satisfy, and to instruct. By exploring these different meanings, we will have a better understanding of our subject matter, “the holy Torah,” and why Hashem wants us to toil in it.

יָרָה: Cast Down

When referring to the Egyptians being drowned in the sea, the Torah uses the lashonof יָרָה בַיָּם/being cast down into the sea. When referring to the punishment for drawing too close to the mountain at Har Sinai, it similarly says: יָרֹהיִיָּרֶה/ you will be cast down and stoned. Elsewhere it refers to being cast down like arrows.

יוֹרֶה: Satisfies

With regards to the rains, the earlier rains are called יוֹרֶה(as we say in the Shema, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקֹשׁ/the earlier and the later rains). Not only are the rains cast down from above, they also quench the earth and have the potential to satisfy man. The verse in Yeshayahsays:וְהָיוּ עֵינֶיךָ רֹאוֹת אֶת מוֹרֶיךָ/and your eyes will see your מוֹרֶה/teacher,3meaning that by feasting one’s eyes on one’s rebbi, one will cause himself to be satisfied with his learning, because by being up close, one can better see the expression on his teacher’s face and thereby get a greater understanding. This verse is also brought down in the Gemara, where Rebbi said that he only merited seeing the back of Rebbi Meir, but had he seen his face, he would have benefitted so much more.4

יוֹרֶה: Instruct, Teach, to Show

Torah is toras hachaim/the instructions for living. If you were to buy the latest state-of-the-art digital camera and instead of reading the instructions just learned how to use the camera as you went along (which the vast majority of us do because we are too lazy to read the instructions), we would probably only realize about 10 percent of the effectiveness of the camera. If only we would take the time to read the instruction manual, we could end up taking amazing pictures, for this is what it was designed to do. It sounds foolish, but this is exactly what most of us do with our lives! Hashem has given us a clear set of instructions that teaches us how to get the maximum out of life, so doesn’t it make more sense to read them instead of ending up fools?

מוֹרֶה: Teacher, הוֹרֶה: Parent

The instructor takes on various forms. Related to the word יֹרֶה, we have מוֹרֶהandהוֹרֶה/teacher and parent, respectively. The instructor hands us down themesorah/tradition, which comes from a higher source. Our teachers connect us to the source of life, so much so that the Gemara says that if our rebbiand our father are drowning, we must first rescue our rebbi, because although our father has brought us into this world, our rebbiwill bring us into the World to Come. This does not apply if our father is our teacher, which is why we should address our parents as אָבִי מוֹרִי וְאִמִי מוֹרָתִי/my father my teacher, my mother my teacher. Hashem is אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּינוּ/our Father our King, where our father should take on the role of teacher, teaching us the will and the law of the King. Avraham was known asאָבהַמוֹן גוֹיִם/the father among nations, where the Targum Yonasanexplains that he earned this title שֶׁאַבְרָהָם הוֹרֶה לְבְּרִיוֹת דַעַת ה’/ because Avraham instructed the people regarding the knowledge of Hashem. 

הַר הַמוֹרִיָה: Har HaMoriah

Har HaMoriah is first mentioned in reference to the binding of Yitzchak, where Hashem instructs Avraham to go to one of the mountains in the land of Moriah. The Gemara explains that the place was called Moriah because from that place instruction came to the world.5On this place stood the Beis HaMikdash, and from this place the Sanhedrin sat and issued their instructions to Am Yisrael. And we also say כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה וּדְבַר יְהוָה מִירוּשָׁלִָם/that from Zion came the Torah and the word of Hashem from Yerushalayim. 

Avraham names the place ה’יִרְאֶה, meaning “Hashem will be seen,” and it also means, “from there we will be seen by Hashem.” The Kli Yakar says that the idea is that when man comes to the Beis HaMikdash, at the same time as he is seen by the Shechinah/Divine Presence, he too sees the Shechinah and immediately feels an abundance of light, causing him to cleave to the Divine Presence and reach a state of shleimus/completion.

When Yaakov came to “The Place,” it says that the sun set two hours early. The Kli Yakar explains that since this place was the very source of all the שֶׁפַע/abundance in the world, there was no real need for the light of the sun; in fact, the very light of the sun is dependent on the source. He quotes a Midrash that says that although normally houses are built with windows that are narrow on the outside and become wider on the inside to maximize the light shining in, the windows of the Beis HaMikdash were narrow on the inside and wider on the outside. This was because its light shone out and lit up the world. This light is referred to as the אוֹר הָעֶלְיוֹן/the light from above, and so we see that there was no need for the light of the sun in this place.

From our definitions so far, we see that the Torah is cast down from a higher source; like an arrow, it is directed in order to reach its target.

It has the ability to satisfy us.

It instructs us on how to live.

Interestingly, the Aramiac words for נַהַרָא/river and נְהוֹרָא/light are very similar, hinting to us that there is a connection. So too, in Hebrew the words אוֹר/light and יְאוֹר/river are connected in that they both come from the root אוֹר. Indeed, the Ramban makes this connection to which he adds that the rain is also called אוֹר, where he explains that perhaps it is because the light, namely the sunlight, causes the water to evaporate, rise up, and then fall down as rain, which then forms rivers.6The first cause of the יְאוֹר/river is therefore the luminary of the מְאוֹר/sun that makes the אוֹר/rain. Everything is connected.

But more than this, the Torah is light — Torah Ohr. Torah in Aramaic is called אוֹרַייתָא, coming from the word אוֹר/light, so we can also connect the river, which is אוֹר/light, to the Torah, which is אוֹר/light. Just like a river flows and quenches the earth (like with the Nile), so too the Torah, which is compared to water, quenches the spiritual thirst within man, as the verse says: כָּל צָמֵא לְכוּ לַמַיִם/all who are thirsty go to the waters.7

Since through אוֹרthe rains, the rivers, and the Torah are all intrinsically connected, it therefore fits very nicely with the pasukabove, אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ, that if we toil in the Torah, the rains will fall in their times. The way it works is that since we are toiling in the Torah, we will bezocheh/merit that the light will do its job of evaporating the waters, which in turn produces the rains, which flow into the rivers andמַשְׁקֶה/quench the land, as it says, וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץיְבוּלָהּ/and the Earth will give its produce. But if we do not involve ourselves in toiling with the Torah, then the light will lose its power to evaporate the waters, then there will be no rain, the rivers will dry up, the land will not produce, and the land will lie desolate. This is the message of אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ.

The Kli Yakar, in his commentary to the pasukin Bereishis,וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר/And Hashem said “Let there be light,” that five times on the first day of the Creation the word אוֹר/light is used, whereas on the fourth day, when the luminaries were created, five times the word מְאוֹרis used — with an extra letter מ. He also quotes the Midrash that says that the original light created on the first day was hidden away for the tzaddikim, which is referred to as “the great light,” whereas the luminaries known as the מְאוֹרוֹתessentially do not give off their own light, but rather receive their light from the sparks of the higher-grade light that was created on this first day, this being the original אוֹר.

For this reason, the pagans who worship the sun are in fact deluding themselves into thinking that the sun is the source of light. The Torah, however, is coming to teach us from the extra letter מthat in essence the light is coming from a much greater source. We can learn an important lesson from this: that however much time we may spend lying on a beach or sunbathing around the pool, it will never truly warm us up and give us long-term satisfaction. (The fact that the tan disappears after a few days testifies to this!) So why settle for something fake? We can only truly get long-term satisfaction by toiling in the heat and the original light of the Torah. Only with great effort comes great reward.

For this reason, Hashem hid the light within the Torah so that only the eyes of the tzaddikimwill be illuminated by it. This is the meaning of the verse מְאִירַת עֵינָיִם/[the Torah] illuminates the eyes,8and also the verse mentioned above: וְהָיוּ עֵינֶיךָ רֹאוֹת אֶת מוֹרֶיךָ/and your eyes will see your teacher, namely that through being enlightened we become satisfied. Only through the light of the Torah can man reach his shleimus/completion, as the parshahcontinues to say: וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ/and I will give peace in the land, where Rashi says, אִם אֵין שָׁלוֹם אֵין כְּלוּם/ if one does not have shalom he has nothing. This means that we will always be lacking and searching for that missing component. Money can’t buy love, and it certainly can’t buy shleimus/completion, which only comes from having a deep connection with Hashem. And this can only be achieved by being עַמֵלִים בְּתּורָה/toiling in the Torah.

In conclusion, when the Jewish People fulfill their tachlis/purpose of toiling in the Torah, then the rains will fall and the land will produce. On the other side of the coin, if we do not immerse ourselves in the Torah, then the rains will not fall and the land will be desolate. For the rest of the nations, who are governed by nature, there are no spiritual rules for why the rain falls, as they live under the מְאוֹר/sun, which is only the reflective light. Yet the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael are governed by a higher system — this being the Torah — which connects us to the אוֹר הָעֶלְיוֹן/the original light, which is the true cause of the rains. Hashem gives us the power to be in control of nature; we literally have the power to form rivers of light, and in return Hashem reciprocates with rivers of rain.

Having passed through Lag B’Omer on our way to kabbalas haTorah, may the heat of the fires warm our souls and draw us close. May the light of the Torah מְאִירָה/shine and be a מְאִירַת עֵינַיִם/illumination of the eyes, giving us a clarity of vision so that we can make our way through the darkness.

My youngest daughter מְאִירָה/Meira was born on the twenty-fifth day of the counting of the Omer, which is represented by the sefirahof שֶׁבְּנֶצַח נֶצַח.Netzachis the sefirahrepresented by Moshe Rabbeinu. We are told that when Moshe Rabeinu was born, a great light shone out from the house of Yocheved. On the following Shabbos, we lit an extra candle for Meira. In the zechusof that extra light, may we merit to see a great light shine out from the house of Yocheved (my wife),and, just like the Beis HaMikdash, we too should merit the instruction and satisfaction of the Torah Ohrand be able to direct it to מְאִירָה/illuminate the world.

Dedicatedl’illui nishmasRav Meir Baal Haneis on his yahrtzeit, the fourteenth of Iyar,

and in celebration of the birth of Meira Malka, the tenth of Iyar 5774.

1Vayikra 26:3.

2Ibid., v. 46.

3Yeshayah 30:20.

4Eruvin 13b.

5Taanis 16a.

6Ramban to Bereishis 41:1.

7Yeshayah 55a.

8Tehillim 19:9.