Matot: Extending Hashem’s Hand in the World ~ Tzvi Abrahams

Parshas מַטּוֹת

Extending Hashem’s Hand in the World

מַטֶּה: tribe, branch

מַטֶּה: stick

נוֹטֶה: to lean, to stretch out from, to deviate

מִטָּה: bed

לְמַטָּה: below

נְטִיָה: bias

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’
And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes, to the Bnei Yisrael saying, “This is the thing that Hashem has commanded.”

מַטֶּה: Tribe, Branch

In the concept of a family tree, children are represented by branches that branch out from the tree. In Derech Hashem, it describes the seventy nations as each having its own tree, with Avraham having his own separate tree. Yitzchak continued in the ways of Avraham, unearthing the wells that his father dug, which were blocked up by the Pelishtim, and making a similar pact with the seven wells at Be’er Sheva. In a way, then, Yitzchak was a continuation of the trunk of Avraham’s tree. It is not until Yaakov that we see the tree branching out. It was Yaakov, who was victorious over the angel of Eisav and who merited the additional name Yisrael. He was the pioneer, the one to branch out in the world and overcome the crooked Lavan and the murderous Eisav. It was Yaakov, now Yisrael, who gave birth to the Bnei Yisrael. The twelve tribes were each worthy to be a branch of their father’s tree, whereas Yishmael, Eisav, and the sons of Ketores never took on the attributes of their father Avraham.

A מַטֶּה/stick first starts off as a shoot, shooting out from the tree, soft and pliable. Over the years it hardens and thickens until it becomes solid like the trunk. Yisrael is compared to many trees: the גֶפֶּן/vine, the זַיִת/olive, and the דֶקֶל/palm. The tree of Yisrael is almost complete. After many successive generations of branching out and branching out, the tree has almost come to fruition.

מַטֶּה: Stick

The stick that Moshe held in his hand was called the מַטֶּה. It was the very same stick that was handed down from Adam to Noach, then to Chanoch, Shem, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Yosef. When Yosef died, it ended up in the house of Pharaoh and was snatched by Yisro when he fled from Pharaoh, to then be planted in Yisro’s garden. Yisro commited to give his daughter Tzipporah as a wife to whoever would dislodge the stick from the ground. Due to its heavy weight (forty saah, equivalent to more than half a ton!) it was unable to be dislodged, until Moshe came along, read the Hebrew inscription on the stick, and took it out with ease. Through this action, Yisro recognized that Moshe was special and would be the redeemer of Israel. Does this story sound familiar? Yes, this is the most likely source for the legend of King Arthur!

We are told that this was no ordinary stick. It was made from sapphire, the same material as the כִּסֵא הַכָּבוֹד/Hashem’s throne. The ineffable name of Hashem and the initials of the ten plagues were engraved on it. It was used in Egypt by Moshe as a sign to impress upon the Egyptians, the world leaders in sorcery, to show that their gods were no match for the real thing. When Moshe and Aharon first went to the house of Pharaoh, they went with the stick in hand, which when thrown to the ground turned into a snake. Pharaoh and his whole house laughed at them and told them that they had brought their goods to an overstocked market (the original coals to Newcastle).  The Egyptians then summoned their children to bring in their own sticks, which they also turned into snakes. “On the contrary,” Moshe and Aharon replied, “only by bringing your goods to the competition can you show their superior quality,” upon which their stick proceeded to swallow up all of the Egyptians’ sticks.

נוֹטֶּה: To Lean, To Stretch Out From, To Deviate

What is it about the stick that, when in the hand of Moshe Rabbeinu, it had the power to inflict plagues upon Egypt and split the Red Sea, while on the other hand could turn into a snake? The snake represents the original נָחָשׁ/snake, the Satan, the root of evil. The stick is called a מַטֶּה from the word נוֹטֶּה/to stretch out and to deviate, as it represents a bending away from the tree. For the duration of one’s travels on a straight road, one can always look back and see one’s point of origin; it is impossible to get lost. However, once one veers around a bend, one can no longer see where he has come from. Sometimes, when we look back at our life’s journey, we only see the fork in the road. When we have lost our point of origin, we can forget who we are and be tricked into thinking that we are something else. This is the other side of the מַטֶּה, the נָחָשׁ/snake that tries to deceive us into thinking that we have all evolved from our origin at the Big Bang, because that is as far back as we can see. Like goldfish who are unable to perceive anything else outside of their bowl, so too we can be blind to the bigger picture, i.e., that Hashem is the source of Creation, and that Creation was just a bending of Hashem’s light into a new world where “we” are able to exist — a bit like how light refracts as it enters water and how a stick looks bent even though it is really straight. 

The Midrash says that the מַטֶּה came from the Tree of Knowledge of good and bad, so it had a mixture of good and evil, and for this reason it could be both a מַטֶּה/stick and a נָחָשׁ/snake. Just like we see that the מַטֶּה/stick in the clutches of evil is represented by a נָחָשׁ/snake, so too in the clutches of good it is represented by sapphire (the spiritual, crystal-clear tree of the Eitz Hada’as). In its neutral state, it is just a piece of wood.

Hashem gives us the Torah, the Tree of Life, in order to broaden our restricted perspective of the world, to have the ability to see around corners, and to perceive the inner reality: that we are all just branches of the same tree.

Hence, the stick has the power to be both good and evil, all depending on whose hand it is in. 

מִטָּה: Bed

A bed is something we lie down on, something we stretch out on, something that is low to the ground. We are carried to the grave on a מִטָּה, and we are lowered into the ground לְמַטָּה on this מִטָּה.

לְמַטָּה: Below

Compared to the celestial upper world of stars and angels, we live in the lower world. The purpose of the Tree of Israel is to draw down the spiritual light of Hashem into the lower sphere and to illuminate it. Unlike a physical tree, which has its roots in the adamah and whose branches branch out toward the heavens, the spiritual tree has its roots in Heaven and its branches branch out לְמַטָּה /below (מַטּוֹת לְמַטָּה). This symbolizes the spreading of Hashem’s light into the world. This branching out of Hashem’s light is also symbolized by the Menorah. We live in an upside down world. The images we see through our eyes as they reach the back of our retinas are upside down before our minds flip everything the other way around in order to make sense of what we see.

The twelve מַטּוֹת/tribes correspond to the twelve constellations of the zodiac, which correspond to the twelve months. Through these constellations Hashem interacts with the world. These are the mediums, the channels that allow Hashem’s hashgachah/Divine Providence to flow into the world. They are also known as the mazalos, meaning “flows.” Hashem influences the world via these twelve constellations, and, likewise, the world is influenced by the Jewish People. The star worshippers are therefore the ones who do business with the middle-man, whereas we go straight to the Source. No surprise — that’s the way Jews do business!

We live in an upside down world. We think that just like a tree is sustained through its roots, drawing in water and nutrients from its physical surroundings, so too what we put into our physical lives is what we get back. But this reality deceives us, because what we see is only a limited, restricted view of reality. As we see from above, this is not true when we see things from the expanded viewpoint of the spiritual realm, where the tree has its roots in Shamayim where it is sustained from. A physical tree is really sustained from above. In Heaven, it has already been decreed how much water it will receive, how much of the sun’s rays it will receive, the quality and quantity of the fruits it will produce, whether there will be a drought, or a strong wind will uproot it, or whether it will stay healthy. So too with us, it has already been decided from above if we will be rich or poor, wise or stupid, tall or short, since all these factors have already been decided when we were mere embryos, forty days after our conception!

נְטִיָה: Bias

We all have נְטִיוֹת/biases that cause us to lean in certain directions, and these depend on our upbringing, education, family dynamics, circle of friends, religious beliefs, and personality, to name a few. Yet no one is the same; we all have a different take on life, a different way of perceiving the world. This is the difference between subjective and objective truth. 

If I want to make a decision in life about which school my child should go to, how do I go about making sure that the correct decision has been made? If I make the decision based on my own biases, then the decision becomes subjective, as in, I am the subject of the one making the decision. If I truly want to have an objective decision, I have to take myself out of the picture, the “me” who sees life from a certain vantage point and whose seeing is limited to my position. How do I take “me” out of the picture? Should I flip a coin and leave it to chance? Certainly not — that would be avoiding the decision altogether. Hashem created us with the gift of בְּחִירָה/the ability to choose, and by definition we are the sum total of the decisions we make.

For this reason, Pirkei Avos says to “acquire for yourself a friend.” By involving more people in the decision, one broadens the perspective opinions. One starts to see how things look from a different point of view, which could never have been seen from one’s own subjective viewpoint. With a more expansive horizon, one is better equipped to make an objective decision.

A higher level of decision making is allowing Hashem to make the decision for us. In the times of the Beis HaMikdash, certain questions of national importance were asked to the Urim v’Tumim, twelve precious stones on the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate that would light up, each stone with its own set of letters, and according to the sequence of the lighting up of the stones, the answer to the question would be spelled out. On a more individual level, one would ask the navi who had ruach hakodesh. Nowadays, when we don’t have the ability to inquire of the nevi’im or the Urim v’Tumim, our next best advisor is our rabbi. A different Mishnah in Pirkei Avos says to “make for yourself a rav and remove yourself from any doubt.” Obviously we don’t just ask any old rabbi, since the Mishnah specifically said to make for yourself a rav, meaning that everyone should choose someone he respects, someone he follows, and someone who knows him intimately. Just like a parent knows what’s best for his child, so too the rabbi, who has greater wisdom and who is more in touch with Hashem, knows better than we do. By doing what the mishnah advises, we are expanding our horizons and going beyond ourselves. By putting our trust in our rabbi, we are really putting our trust in Hashem, and in reality He is the one speaking to us through the mouth of the rav.

A key way to remove “me” from the picture is to daven to Hashem. In our requests to Hashem, we acknowledge that we are too limited to make the decision on our own and thus request from Hashem help to be guided to make the correct decision.

Sometimes, certain decisions are out of our control. We might have made the decision to apply to a particular school, but the ultimate decision comes from the school itself. For instance, the school might already be fully registered, or they may decide that one falls short of the school’s standards. In those cases, we trust in Hashem that He is making the decision for us. If the child is accepted, it is Hashem who accepted him, and if not, then it is also Hashem Who has decided that this is not the best place for us.

Giving up our individual right to choose and leaving it up to a higher power is also making a choice. This is the choice that was given to Adam HaRishon. He ended up making the wrong choice. Hashem gave Adam a choice and a command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. Adam had a choice to follow the command or not. Adam thought that it would be a far greater test and even a kiddush Hashem to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and cause evil to enter his very being and then triumph over the evil, than to just follow a simple command.

This was the wrong decision, because it involved the “me”; it was a subjective decision involving his own נְטִּיוֹת/biases of what he thought was best. 

What comes out from all this is that we are trying to navigate our way through life in a straight and upstanding way. Even though we have been divided into tribes and have thus branched away from the tree — where we can now easily deviate from the true path — our task is to not lose sight of our point of origin. Choose the straight path, as the Rambam calls it, and in this way we will truly exemplify the בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, the people who are יָשָׁר אֵ-ל/straight to G-d. And this is what we really mean when we wish someone יָשָׁר כּוֹחַ (sh’koach).

הַמַעַשֶׁה בֵּין יְהוּדָה וְתָּמָר: The Case of Yehudah and Tamar

וַיֵּט אֵלֶיהָ אֶל הַדֶּרֶךְ. וְרַשִׁ”י אָמַר: מִדֶרֶך שֶׁהָיָה בָּה נָטָה
Yehudah] turned to[ward] her [on the] path. Rashi says that by going toward her, he deviated from the way.

We are called “Jews” after יְהוּדָה/Judah. Although he deviated from the path, he was able to recognize where he had gone wrong and was able to correct his deviance and return to the straight path.

The מַעַשֶׂה of Yehudah and Tamar is discussed in the Gemara in Sotah where, appropriately, the סוֹטֶה/Sotah woman is defined as someone who has deviated and who causes others to deviate from the path, as it says, אַל יֵשְׂטְ אֶל דְּרָכֶיהָ לִבֶּךָ אַל תֵּתַע בִּנְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ/do not turn in the ways of your heart and do not stray in its ways, which means: do not let your heart cause you to turn to the way that leads to the house of ill-repute, and do not stray from the straight road to go in its ways.

Tamar, in desperation, posed as a prostitute in order to entice Yehudah to have relations, which she knew from ruach hakodesh would bear the royal lineage of Mashiach and Beis David. One of the items given as a guarantee for payment was the שֶׁבֶט/the tribal staff of Yehudah. When it was found out that Tamar had become pregnant, bringing shame to the royal house of Yehudah, she was placed under penalty of death. Rather than disgrace Yehudah publicly, Tamar discretely returned the guarantee of their courtship. Yehudah immediately recognized the staff and admitted the error of his ways, especially because the מַטֶּה was symbolic of his deviance from the straight path. 

This was the gadlus/greatness of Yehudah, who could easily have covered up his ways by proceeding with the death sentence of Tamar but instead humbled himself and ruled over his yetzer hara. This is real kingship, and this is the nature of the Jew.

The Gemara in Sotah ends with a description of the עִקְבְתָא דִּמְשִׁיחָא /footsteps of the Mashiach, which quite aptly describes the generation we are in now. We are literally at the endgame, and the footsteps of the Mashiach are approaching. We are living the חֶבְלֵי הַמָשִׁיחַ/ birth pangs of Mashiach, where the whole world is against us, and it is at this point the mishnah declares: עַל מִי לָנוּ לְהִשְׁעֹן/who can we lean on? עַל אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָׁמַיִם/on our Father in Heaven. 

Support

The מַטּוֹת are also known as שְׁבָטִים, where שֶׁבֶט means a staff, a scepter, a symbol of leadership, since the leader of each tribe had his own staff. A staff is also found in the hands of the shepherd who leads his flock. In the hands of the elderly, it is a support, a מִשְׁעֹן/something to lean on. So too a מִטָּה/bed supports our body. In Tehillim it says: אַל יִתֵּן לַמוֹט רַגְלֶךָ/[Hashem] will not cause our legs to falter. Hashem is our support.

Man is compared to a tree, כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָֹּׂדֶה, so in order to branch out we must be firmly rooted. Without a solid foundation, our branches have no support system, and our tree will be uprooted.

Hashem took us out of Egypt with a יַד הַחָזָקָה/mighty hand, symbolized by aבִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה/outstretched arm. The מַטֶּה is an extension of the hand; so too, when we are firmly rooted in the world, we personify the מַטוֹת/tribes of Hashem, where we are in effect an extension of Hashem’s hand in the world. In this way, when we allow Hashem to be our support, we in turn become His supporters. To all who trust in Hashem, Hashem will be their trust.

But if we are not rooted in the world, then we cannot extend ourselves, for the tree will fall over. The stick, instead of being a support, becomes a נָחָשׁ/snake, which causes us to deviate and יָנוּס/flee in sheer terror, and instead life is a scary place full of fears.

The sapphire-like quality of the מַטֶּה signifies its ability to give us crystal-clear clarity, which can only be achieved by taking the “me” out of the way. When we choose a life free of נְטִיָה/bias, where we extend our point of reference to encompass friends and rabbis, then we will have greater clarity and awareness of Hashem, which in turn will empower us to want to be Hashem’s emissary and ambassador in the world, to be a מַטֶּה ה’. These are the מַטּוֹת of Hashem who are a living extension of Hashem’s hand.

1 Bamidbar 30:2.

2 Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer 40.

3 See Rashi to Shemos 7:22.

4 For further reading, see “The Root of Evil,” in Rabbi Akiva Tatz’s Living Inspired (New York: Feldheim Publishers).

5 Pesachim 50a.

6 Shemos Rabbah 15:6. See also Ramchal, Derech Hashem, 2:4.

7 Sotah 2a.

8 Avos 1:6.

9 Ibid., 1:16.

10 Mishneh Torah, De’os 1:3

11 Bereishis 38:16.

12 Mishlei 7:25.

13 Metzudas Dovid on Mishlei ibid.

14 Bereishis 49:10.

15 Tehillim 121:3.




Mattos: Tribesmen Stick Together ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This week’s installment features two words which are not only synonyms, but also homonyms. The word mateh sometimes means “tribe” (almost exclusively in Numbers and Joshua) and its plural form serves as the namesake for Parshat Mattot. However, another word for “tribe” in Hebrew is shevet (or shevatim in plural). Moreover, both mateh and shevet share an alternate meaning: they both mean “stick”. Other words for sticks are mishenet, makel, sharvit, and choter. In this essay, we will discuss the different words for sticks in Hebrew and highlight their differences in connotation. Then, using some of that data, we will be able to understand the connection between sticks and tribes, which will help us discern the difference between the two synonyms for “tribe”.

Malbim (to Jeremiah 1:11) says that the word mateh denotes a stick held by a dignitary, which demonstrates the honor due to him by showing his exalted status. Mishenet is a walking stick upon which an elderly person can lean (mishan means “lean” or “rely”); in other words, a cane. Makel is a rod used for hitting. In the Bible, it generally appears in the context of a shepherd who hits the animals in his charge. (The word makel is probably related to the Hebrew word malkot/makkot, which means “lashes”).

Rashi (to Sanhedrin 5a) writes that the word shevet denotes the authority and the associated responsibility. In the context of law, the shevet or shotim is the instrument used for flogging those whose offenses deserve such punishment. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) explains that these terms originally referred to a stick used for hitting animals and only refer to hitting people as a borrowed usage. The Vilna Gaon (1720–1797) writes that both a mateh and shevet are using for hitting, but differ slightly: to hit with a mateh, one only needs to raise one’s hand a bit in order for the impact to be felt, while to hit with a shevet, one must wind up one’s hit with energy for the impact to be felt. The word sharvit appears in the Scroll of Esther as the royal scepter held by the Persian king Ahasuerus. Some explain that shevet and sharvit refer to the same object, but that sometimes the Bible adds extra r-sounds to words (just as the Bible generally calls the ancient Syrian city Damascus Damesek, but sometimes calls it Darmesek).

Similarly, Rabbi Wertheimer explains that mateh denotes a stick held by a person in a position of authority. Of all the characters in the Bible who carried a stick, only Moshe’s stick is called a mateh because he held a certain degree of authority unparalleled by any other Jewish leader on account of his dual role as a prophet and king. Moreover, R. Wertheimer argues that the word mateh is related to the Hebrew word mateh (“inclined”) and refers to the curvature at the top of the stick used for gripping the object. He also explains that mateh and makel are only made from wood, while shevet can be made from wood or metal (see Psalms 2:9 which refers to an iron shevet). Indeed, R. Yehuda ibn Kuraish (a ninth century Spanish grammarian) writes that the word mateh is specifically a stick made out of dry wood (although rabbinic tradition teaches that Moshe’s mateh was made of blue rock—either sapphire or lapis lazuli). According to R. Wertheimer, a mishenet is also made of wood, but must be an especially thick branch because a mere twig cannot support a walker.

The word choter is probably a Hebraized form of the Aramaic word chutra (which the Targumim use for translating mateh and shevet into Aramaic).

  1. Wertheimer explains in the name of Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum of Lissa (1760–1832) that the three words have different connotations. The word makel has a bad connotation (as it is generally associated with the meting out of punishment), the word mishenet has a good connotation (as it helps support an elderly person in walking), and the word mateh has a neutral connotation. With this, R. Wertheimer explains why the staff with which Moshe performed miracles in Egypt and on the Red Sea is called a mateh: because the effects of his staff were positive for the Jews, but negative for the Egyptians, the Bible uses the word mateh which neither implies something positive nor negative.

Citing an explanation from Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Luzzatto (1800–1865), Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) writes that the words shevet and mateh actually have different meanings, but because they are conceptually related, they became interchangeable. He explains that the word shevet originally referred to the leader of a tribe, while mateh originally referred to the other members of a tribe. The leader of a tribe is similar to a mast upon which a flag is mounted because all the members of the tribe rally around the leader. In this way, the word for a leader of a tribe is homonymous with the word for stick. Since all the members of a tribe are united behind their leader, references to them can be subsumed under the word used for the leader. Thus, the word shevet also came to mean members of a tribe because the leader of the tribe embodies the entire tribe itself. In terms of sticks, he argues that shevet and mateh can both refer to the exact same type of stick, but they refer to different parts of the stick. The word shevet refers to the top of the stick (just as the leader sits atop the hierarchal structure of a tribe), while the word mateh—seemingly related to the Hebrew word lematah (underneath)—refers to its bottom (just as the other members of the tribe live under the leadership of their clan chief).

Malbim (to Gen. 49:28) writes that the word shevet does not literally mean “stick”, rather it means “branch,” which was the most common item used as a stick. Based on this, he explains that shevet means branch and tribe because each of the Tribes of Israel are simply branches of the greater family tree of Jacob’s descendants.

Using the synonyms in question as a springboard for discussion, Rabbi Zev HaKohen Hoberman (1930–2012) sums up the dual role assumed by the tribes of Israel. On the one hand, they are called shevatim because G-d has granted them certain forms of authority and responsibility over the nations of the world. Yet, paradoxically they are also called mattot (which he equates with the words mishenet and chutra) because they serve as Jacob’s “cane” in death upon whom he “leans” to carry on his legacy. In that way, they are not autonomous, but simply follow the tradition of their illustrious forefather.

R. Moshe of Trani, also known as the Mabit, writes (Beis Elohim, Shaar ha-Yesodos ch. 48) that the tribes as known as matot because their merit is something upon which the Jewish People can lean for all generations, like a walking stick. They are also called shevatim because their merit serves as the justification for G-d smiting the Jews’ enemies with His rod of vengeance. Now you can re-read the title of this article and appreciate the pun. download.jpg




Mattot: Kol Nidrei… a Few Months Early ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

“And if her father deterred (הניא) her… and G-d will forgive her because her father deterred (הניא) her” (Num. 30:6). “And if, on the day her husband hears [about the vow], he deters her (יניא) and he nullifies (והפר) her vow… and G-d will forgive her” (Num. 30:9). “And her husband hears [about the vow] and he is quiet to her [i.e.,] he did not deter (הניא) her, then all her vows shall continue to stand” (Num. 30:12).

The root of the wordהניא  is ‘נוא’ [1] and various derivatives of that root appear more times in Parshat Mattot than in all of Scripture combined. In addition to the context of vows, words deriving from ‘נוא’ appear in Moses’ response to the request of Reuben and Gad to settle in the trans-Jordan region. Before eventually acceding to their appeal, Moses initially reprimanded them for making such a request and said to them, “Why do you discourage (תניאון) the heart of the Sons of Israel?” (Num. 32:7), and compares them to the Ten Spies who “discouraged (ויניאו) the hearts of the Sons of Israel in order to not go into the Land” (Num. 32:9).

Rashi explains that the core meaning of הניא  — and all related words (יניא, ויניאו, תניאון, יני) – is prevention and removal. [2]Rashi (to Num. 30:6) explains “And if her father deterred (הניא) her” is an expression of deterring and removing [the fulfillment of her vow] and points to three other passages in the Bible, in which such usage is found: The first passage is Num. 32:7 (cited above).[3] The second passage is Ps. 141:5, which reads: “may the oil of the anointment of my head not turn my head away (יני)”. The third passage is Num. 14:34, which states: “and you will understand [the ramifications of your] rejection of Me (תנואתי)”[4].

By contrast, Ibn Ezra explains that the main meaning of ‘נוא’ and its derivatives is breaking, [5] and he does not differentiate between the words הפר and הניא. Thus, Ibn Ezra (Ex. 12:9[6] and Num. 30:6) writes that when the Torah refers to a father or husband הניא his daughter or wife, this refers to him breaking her vow. He further explains in his commentary to Num. 14:3 that תנואתי refers to G-d breaking His oath to the Jewish people and cross-references to Num. 30:6. Finally, in his commentary to Ps. 141:5, Ibn Ezra writes that יני is also an expression of breaking, in this context meaning that the oil of the wicked “will not break my head.”

In any case, while Rashi’s own opinion on this matter seems fairly clear, he then cites the Sifrei which appears to cloud the issue. In his commentary to Num. 30:6, before explaining that הניא refers to prevention and removal, Rashi cites the Sifrei which poses a doubt about the meaning of הניא in this case and concludes it means הפרה , since the continuation of the verse uses the term והפר to indicate that he nullifies her vow. But after citing this explanation, Rashi continues on to explain that the plain reading of הניא refers to prevention and removal, as seen above. In this way, Rashi differentiates between the Sifrei’s interpretation of הניא, namely הפרה, and the “simple” meaning of הניא: prevention and removal.

This discussion raises two pertinent questions which we must ask in order to clearly understand Rashi’s view. Firstly, by labeling his second explanation as the “simple reading,” Rashi implies that the Sifrei’s understanding is not the plain understanding, or in R. Eliyahu Mizrachi’s words: “what is meant by the expression ‘simple reading’? Is the implication that the Sifrei’s teaching was homiletic!” Secondly, by using the phrase “simple reading”, Rashi distinguishesהניא  from הפר, as mentioned above. But although he defines הניא as withholding and removal, [7]Rashi never actually defines the meaning of הפר itself.

In order for us to better understand the implications of the word הפר, we must first introduce the two primary terms -reflecting the two mechanisms for nullifying a vow in Halacha- 1. הפרה (appearing in various inflections such as הפר, הפיר, מפיר, מפר) and 2.  התרה (also: ,מותר ,התיר ,מתיר etc.). The term הפרה (nullification) appears in the context of vows in Scripture only concerning a husband nullifying the vows of his wife, but because the Rabbis[8] compare the husband’s rights to a father’s rights, the term also applies to a father nullifying his daughter’s vows. On the other hand, התרה  (permitting, “unlocking”) is the mechanism by which the Sage has the power to issue a dispensation for any Jew to permit him to do what his vow forbids him from doing. As the Talmud (Nedarim 77b) explains, when a father / husband nullifies a vow, he must say to the woman in question that her vow is מופר, [9] and when the Sage issues a dispensation, he must say to the recipient that his or her vow is מותר. [10]If either the father / husband or the Sage uses the wrong expression, then the nullification is rendered void, and the vow remains in force.

There is yet another difference between הפרה and התרה  in terms of their potency. As R. Asher ben Yechiel (also known as “the Rosh”) explains in his commentary to Nedarim (76b), when a father / husband does הפרה , it takes effect only from the moment of the הפרה  and thenceforth, but not retroactively. He bolsters this position by citing Gen. 17:14 in which G-d describes one who fails to circumcise his son as “nullifying My covenant” (את בריתי הפר).[11] This nullification does not refer to a retroactive annulment of G-d’s covenant, but rather to the reality that from then onwards, said person is in violation of that covenant. By contrast, the Sage executing a התרה is indeed uprooting a vow retroactively—as if it had never been uttered. Moreover, R. Asher, as well as R. Isaiah of Trani, explain that a father / husband can forcibly[12] nullify a vow, even if his daughter / wife wishes that vow to remain in force and does not regret making the vow.[13] By comparison, the nullifying Sage can only issue a התרה  if he who undertook the vow regrets it, and wishes to overturn it (as the Talmud clearly states in Gittin 83b).

The notion that the Sage uproots a vow retroactively is explicitly stated in the Talmud. The Mishnah (Ketubot 72b) rules that if one betroths a woman on condition that she does not have any vows incumbent upon her, and it is discovered that she in fact does carry vows, or on condition that she is free of physical blemishes and does have such imperfections, she is not considered betrothed to him (since at the time of betrothal she violated his stipulations). Further on (Ketubot 74b), the Talmud cites a teaching in which there is a difference between a woman who has vows and a woman who has physical blemishes. If a man betroths a woman on condition that she has no vows, and she in fact does, if a Sage issues a התרה for her, she is then considered betrothed. However, if a man betroths a woman on condition that she is free of blemishes, and she, in fact, has blemishes, whereupon a doctor heals them, she is not considered betrothed. The Talmud asks: what is the difference between the Sage and the doctor? The Talmud answers: the Sage uproots a vow retroactively from its inception,[14] while the doctor can only heal from henceforth. Meaning, despite the woman’s encumbrance with vows at the time of the betrothal, with the Sage’s retroactive, uprooting התרה  she is considered to have been free from vows at the time of the betrothal, thereby fulfilling the man’s stipulation -rendering her duly betrothed. On the other hand, when a doctor later heals a woman who had physical blemishes, this cannot affect her status retroactively, leaving her in violation of the man’s condition for betrothal, rendering the betrothal void.

Another difference between התרה and הפרה is that the former can only be done after the vow has actually taken effect, while the latter can be performed even before the vow is in force. For example, if a person takes a vow that is activated by a separate action or the arrival of certain time, the Sage cannot yet issue a התרה  to permit what the vow forbids, while the father / husband can effect a הפרה  even prior to the vow taking effect. The Talmud (Nedarim 90a) finds Scriptural precedent for such a ruling in Job 5:12 which describes G-d as “He who nullifies the thoughts of the crafty” (מפר מחשבות ערומים). In this case, מפר, appears in the context of nullifying a mere thought—implying that הפרה  is even applicable to something which exists only in the abstract (but not in practice), like a thought. This, in contradistinction to the nullifying Sage, regarding whom the phrase “לא יחל דברו” (“he shall not violate his word”, Num. 30:3) is used, which the Talmud interprets as referring to a vow currently in force.[15]

With all of this in mind, we can now begin to understand the difference between הפיר and הניא [the latter being defined by Rashi as removal (הסרה) and prevention (מניעה), as above]. Of note is the addition of the object “את לב” (the heart) to the words”תְנִיאוּן”  and “וַיָּנִיאוּ (derivatives of ‘נוא’, like “הניא”) in Num. 32:7; 32:9. Rashi accordingly stresses the “distraction” and “discouragement” of the Israelites’ collective heart from entering the Land:

רש”י במ’ לב:ז – ולמה תניאון – תסירו ותמניעו[16] לבם מעבור.

Similarly, although in Num. 14:34 no object is mentioned explicitly, Rashi explains that there too the object is the hearts of the Israelites. Likewise in Ps. 141:5, the object of “יני” (another ‘נוא’ derivative[17]) is “the head” – which allegorically symbolizes the desires and will of his heart.[18] Finally, we find in Rashi’s commentary to Masechet Nazir[19] that the word “יניא” is referred to explicitly as “הפרה with her consent.” These final words imply that הניא in the context of vows also refers to an attempt to persuade the woman to change her mind, i.e. to sway her opinion with the goal of her regretting her undertaking the vow, leading to its nullification with her agreement. [20] This too implies that Rashi understood that הניא means to “remove” her will to sustain the vow. [21]

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, in contrast to Rashi’s distinguishing between הניא and הפיר, Ibn Ezra appears to make no such distinction, and consistently defines הניא as שבר, breaking. Indeed, the Midrash (Tanchuma, Shelach 18) seems to say just that in the context of the Ten Spies: “Those spies intended to break the heart of Israel, as we read, ‘ויניאו the heart of the Israelites from crossing into the Land’ (Num. 32:9).” In this sense, הניא mirrors the basic meaning of הפיר, which itself is termed “breaking” by the Midrash. [22]This would the Torah equating the two in stating: “But if her husband יניא her on the day he heard it, והפר the vow she had taken upon herself” (Num. 30:9).

By contrast, Rashi understood there to be a fundamental difference betweenהפיר  and הניא, and it is this difference that forms the basis of the Sifrei’s question quoted by Rashi (to Num. 30:6). The Sifrei reads: “’And if her father detered (הניא) her’… what is the meaning of this הניא? This may be deduced by the continuation: ‘and if on the day her husband hears יניא and הפר her’ – from here we may deduce that יניא [here] is equivalent to הפר.” In other words, הניא acts on the vower’s opinions and desires, whereasהפיר  can be effectuated even against the vower’s will –the two terms being therefore contradictory! The word והפר teaches that the husband ultimately has the power to annul his wife’s vows with her consent or without it, although the word הניא itself implies prevention or discouragement through persuasion.

This answers the question posed by R. Mizrachi who asked why Rashi seemed to frame the Sifrei’s defining הניא as הפר as other than the plain meaning, when it seemed to be intended literally. Given what we now know, the answer is obvious: the literal meaning of הניא and its cognates apply to a person who dissuades or removes one’s will, but in the context of vows, הניא is exegetically interpreted to also include annulment even without consent.

There is a third way of approaching this subject. Menachem ibn Saruq in his Machaberet (s.v. נא , §2) classifies all four occurrences of הניא and related words into one subdivision. The four verses which he groups together are Ps. 33:10 (הניא), Num. 30:6 (הניא), Ps. 141:5 (יני), and Num. 32:7 (תניאון). In all of these cases, the words in question mean prevention and removal. However, Menachem then suggests adding to this group the word נא (“uncooked”), defining the core meaning of all these verses as breaking. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 12:10–13)[23] similarly connects הניא with נא, and explains the common denominator between them to be interrupting or stopping. To that extent, he explains that the word הניא variously means to withhold, block, or refuse; and the word נא refers to something half-cooked (because the cooking process was interrupted). Midrashic support for this is found in Midrash Sechel Tov (to Ex. 12:9) which also groups together the words הניא, תניאון, and נא—explaining that all of them refer to nullification of some form or another.

Rashi departs from his norm and does not cite or paraphrase Menachem in explaining any of the הניא-related words, nor does he ever intimate a connection between הניא and נא. On the contrary, Rashi goes out of his way multiple times to explain that נא is an expression of request. It seems that Rashi rejected Menachem’s view on this entire discussion because Menachem is ultimately in consonance with Ibn Ezra who understood that הניא is an expression of breaking –which can even be forcibly imposed. [24] Rashi understood that this cannot be, as הניא elsewhere only refers to causing a willful prevention and removal through persuasion, a concept very different from arbitrary breaking.

May it be the will of the Merciful Father that He reject, withhold, remove and nullify the stratagems and thoughts of the nation who scheme against His beloved nation. May He who is wise to secrets uproot their ruses and impose His will before those plans are ever realized.

[1] [לשיטת רד”ק וסייעתו. ולדעת מנחם, השרש הוא שתי אותיות ‘נא’].

[2] [וכן ת”א את כל הופעות “הניא” בפרשת נדרים בתחילת מטות במלה “אעדי”1, שהיא תרגומה הרגיל של  הסרה[2], כגון]: במ’ ל:ו – וְאִם הֵנִיא… וַה’ יִסְלַח לָהּ כִּי הֵנִיא אָבִיהָ אֹתָהּ; ת”א – ואם אעדי… ומן קדם ה’ ישתביק לה ארי אעדי אבוהא יתהון. תת הערות: 1[ומקור מלה ארמית זו לפי רש”י וראב”ע הוא]: מַעֲדֶה בֶּגֶד (משלי כה:כ). [וראה גם רש”י ישע’ סד:ה. [2]וכך ת”א גם מלים קרובות במובנן, כגון]: ופרקת (בר’ כז:מ), ישא… ראשך מעליך (שם מ:יט), וימש (שמ’ י:כא), הורד (שם לג:ה), ויתנצלו (שם לג:ו), ומל (דב’ ל:ו). [ותרגם יב”ע בנביאים מלים אחרות הקשורות  להסרה במלה “אעדי”. ראה ת”י ליהושע א:ח, ש”א ט:יז, טו:כח, ישע’ ג:יז, ד:ד, ח:ח, ח:כא, כב:יח, לא:ה, נג:ח, ס:כ, הושע ה:יד, יר’ יג:יז, יחז’ כט:יט].

[3] רשי במ’ לב:ז – ולמה תניאון – תסירו ותמניעו לבם.

[4] רש”י במ’ יד:לד – תנואתי – שהניאותם את לבבכם מאחרי. תנואה ל’ הסרה, כמו: כי הניא אביה אותה (במ’ ל:ו).

[5] [וכך גם בתר”י]: תרגום ירושלמי במדבר לב:ז – וּלְמָא תִּתְבְּרוּן.

[6] [דרך אגב, בביאורו למלה “נא”].

[7] [כמובן, יש גם הבדל בין “מניעה” להסרה” בעצמן, ואיך כלל אותן רש”י כמין מקשה אחת? אולם, כפי שיש לכל מלה בלשון הקודש הוראה מיוחדת וייחודית, כך יש לה גם משמעות כללית, המשייכת אותה לקבוצת מלים המשתתפות במשמעות דומה (וכך יש להסביר את הביטוי המופיע רבות בפירושי רד”ק ומצודות: “כפל ענין במלים שונות”). לדוגמא, תפוח הוא מאכל בעל תכונות מיוחדות מחד, אבל מאידך יש לו גם מאפיינים משותפים עם מאכלים אחרים, ולכלל הקבוצה הזאת קוראים “פרי”. כ”כ, משותף ל”הסרה” ו”מניעה” עכ”פ התוצאה הסופית:  עיכוב, הפסקה, הפרעה].

[8] [ספרי מטות קנג].

[9] [וכן מועילות לשונות אחרות המורות על ענין הפרה לבעל והתרה לחכם]: ירוש’ נדרים י:ח – הבעל שאמר אין כאן נדר א”כ שבועה ל”א כלום. וזקן שאמר מופר ליך בטל ליך ל”א כלום. אלא… הבעל אמר מופר ליך בטל ליך. והזקן אומר א”כ נדר א”כ שבועה. [וכך מובא ברמב”ם (שבועות ו:ה; נדרים יג:א, ב. וראה שם גם ד:ה). והוסיף שה”ה ב”כל לשון” – משמע גם בשפות אחרות].

[10] [לעומת המלה “הפרה”, שמקורה מפורש בכתוב, המלה “התרה” שנוקט בה החכם אינה מופיעה בענין נדרים בכלל. ואכן, כל ענין שאלת הנדר אצל חכם נסמך על רמזים בלבד, כגון הצעת שמואל]: חגיגה י.משנה – היתר נדרים פורחין באויר ואין להם על מה שיסמכו… גמ’ (ת”ד) – ר”א אומר: י”ל על מה שיסמכו… א”ר יהודה אמר שמואל… שנא’: לֹא יַחֵל (במ’ ל:ג) הוא אינו מוחל, אבל אחרים מוחלין לו; רש”י – פורחים – התרת נדרים… מעט רמז יש במקרא. [הפסוק המלא שציטט שמואל הוא]: אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַה’… לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ (במ’ ל:ג). [כמצויין בהערות לקמן, רמב”ם פסק שבנוסף ללשון “מותר לך”, יכול החכם לומר גם “מחול לך”, בהסתמך על דברי שמואל אלו (ראה נ”י נדרים כד:, מעשה רוקח לרמב”ם נדרים יג:ב). ובעל הצרור המור הציע שלשון “התרה” מבוססת על הביטוי “לאסור איסר” – והיפך “איסור” הוא “היתר”. ובגמרא הביאו סמך נוסף]: נדרים כב. – מאי פתח?… יֵשׁ בּוֹטֶה כְּמַדְקְרוֹת חָרֶב וּלְשׁוֹן חֲכָמִים מַרְפֵּא (משלי יב:יח) – כל הבוטה ראוי לדוקרו בחרב, אלא לשון חכמים מרפא (השוה גם ירוש’ נדרים ט:א, ע”ז א:ט); רש”י – כל הבוטה – כל הנודר… ולשון חכמים מרפא – שמתירין לו. [ומצינו לשון “מרפא” הנופלת על היתר קשרים (בדומה לנדר הכובל את מעשיו של אדם), כגון]: יר’ לח:ד – מְרַפֵּא אֶת יְדֵי אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה; רש”י – לשון רפיון. [וכן בענין דבור]: משלי טו:ד – מַרְפֵּא לָשׁוֹן; רלב”ג – רפיון לשונו.

[11]  [דברים דומים כתב רלב”ג, והביא סמך מפסוק אחר]: רלב”ג במ’ ל:ו – וענין ההפרה הוא ביטול הנדר והאיסר מאז ולהבא, כאומרו: וַתֻּפַר… וַיֵּדְעוּ כֵן עֲנִיֵּי הַצֹּאן הַשֹּׁמְרִים אֹתִי (זכריה יא:יא).

[12] [כי כל הנודרת ע”ד בעלה (או “מפרנסה” – ראה ר”ן נדרים עג:) נודרת. וראה משנה למלך הל’ שבועות ו:ד].

[13] [וכ”כ תוס’ רבנו פרץ נדרים פרק י’, אות ד’, נימוקי יוסף יבמות לט., הון עשיר נדרים ח:ז].

[14] [וכך פירשו רוב המפרשים את לשון “התרה” (ראה למשל גור אריה במ’ ל:ב, שפתי חכמים ל:ג). ברם לעומתם,  רמב”ם (הל’ נדרים יג:ב; ובפהמ”ש נדרים י:ח, וראה כלי יקר, במ’ ל:ג) פירש בצורה הפוכה (ש”הפרה” = עקירה מעיקרא. “התרה” = ביטול מכאן ולהבא). וראה בהרחבה כסף משנה הל’ נדרים יג:ב, קרן אורה נזיר כא:].

[15] ר”ן נדרים צ. – לא יחל דברו – לא יעקור חלות [דברו] ודייקינן הא אחרים עוקרין אלמא אין חכם מתיר אלא אם כן חל הנדר.

[16] [כמאמר מוסגר, נעיר שצורת “תמניעו” משרש ‘מנע’ בבנין הפעיל היא ייחודית כאן, ואין לה חבר בכל המקרא (שנגזריו מופיעים רק בבנין קל או נפעל, כגון: בר’ ל:ב, במ’ כד:יא, יואל א:יא, משלי יא:כו) ולא בשום מ”א בפרש”י. מצד אחד, הצורות הפשוטות של ‘מנע’ מתארות מצבים רגילים של גרימת אי-הצלחה בהשלמת יישום כלשהו. אלא שצורת ההפעיל של “תניאון” מלמדת על פעולה כבדה ועמוקה יותר שגורמת לאדם להימנע -מדעתו- מליישם תכנית כלשהי. (יש לציין שבמהדורות מסויימות מופיעה “תמנעו” במקום “תמניעו”, אם כי צורה זו לא מתאימה למשפט כולו לכאורה, שהרי גם “תניאון” וגם “תסירו” מופיעות בבנין הפעיל)].

[17] [מלה נוס’ מגזרת ‘נוא’ לדעת רד”ק מופיעה בס’ איוב]: איוב לג:י – הֵן תְּנוּאוֹת עָלַי. [בנוסף לפסוק הזה, רד”ק חבר בערך ‘נוא’ גם את חברו, הפסוק בפ’ שלח שהשוה רש”י במטות למלת “הניא”, והוראתה  הסרה]: רש”י במ’ יד:לד – תְּנוּאָתִי – שהניאותם את לבבכם מאחרי. תנואה לשון הסרה. [ברם, את המלה באיוב פ’ באופן אחר]: רש”י איוב לג:י – תנואות – עלילות ל’ תֹאֲנָה (שופ’ יד:ד) לשוב מן המקום. [שרשה של “תואנה” לרד”ק הוא ‘אנה’ (למנחם ‘אן’), אבל רש”י סובר לפי ההקשר באיוב, שפירושה  עלילה. ברם, יש לשים לב שלמרות ההבדל בשרש המלים, תורף פירושו לשתיהן מאוד דומה (וכן פירושו למלה “כמתאוננים”: רש”י במ’ יא:א – מבקשים עלילה האיך לפרוש מאחרי המקום), היינו שהתוצאה הסופית היא  הסרת החפץ והרצון מפעולה / קיום כלשהו].

[18] [מלת “ראש” מופיעה כאח וחבר של “לב” ו”דעת” (במובן מושב הרצון) במקומות רבים בפרש”י. ראה דב’ לב:מד ד”ה הוא והושע, ברכ’ כב. ד”ה מכאן אמרו, שם לא. ד”ה קלות ראש, יומא עו: ד”ה נעשה ראש].

[19]  [עי’ מסכת נזיר, מהדורת מתיבתא, בהקדמה דף יא, שהביא מהנצי”ב ועוד מקורות שהפירוש המודפס לנזיר אינו של רש”י, אלא של חתנו, ריב”ן. אולם הביא מאידך גם מדברי ר’ אלחנן וסרמן שציטט מראשונים רבים שאכן התייחסו אליו כפירוש רש”י ממש].

[20] [וכך היה נראה לפרש במבט ראשון גם את תרגום המיוחס ליב”ע, שתרגם “תְנִיאוּן” בסוף הפרשה כל’  ביטול הרצון]: במ’ לב:ז, ט – וְלָמָּה תְנִיאוּן אֶת לֵב ב”י; תמ”י – וּלְמָא תְבַטְלוּן רַעֲוַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. שם – וַיָּנִיאוּ אֶת לֵב ב”י; תמ”י – וּבָטִילוּ רְעוּת לִבָּא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. [אלא שבתמ”י ל”הניא” בענין נדרים (וכן בתרגום המודפס לתה’ לג:י, קמא:ה), מלת “רַעֲוַת” מושמטת, מה שמלמד ש”רַעֲוַת” מתייחסת רק למלה “לב” המופיעה בענין בני גד וראובן שם].

[גם רשר”ה הדגיש את ענין מניעת והפסקת הרצון שבמלת “הניא”]: רש”ר הירש בראשית יב:י-יג – הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי – כל “נא” מפריע או מפסיק את דרך מחשבתו או רצונו של אחר. מכאן “הניא”: למנוע, לעכב, לסרב. [והשוה גם פירוש בית שאול נדר’ ח:ז. וראה הכוה”ק (במ’ ל:ו), שחילק בין ב’ פירושי רש”י למלה “הניא”: א) מניעה ב) הסרה, שהגם ששתיהן מתייחסות לרצון… ב”מניעה” נשאר הרצון, וב”הסרה” הוסר הרצון].

[21] [גם רשר”ה הדגיש את ענין מניעת והפסקת הרצון שבמלת “הניא”]: רש”ר הירש בראשית יב:י-יג – הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי – כל “נא” מפריע או מפסיק את דרך מחשבתו או רצונו של אחר. מכאן “הניא”: למנוע, לעכב, לסרב. [והשוה גם פירוש בית שאול נדר’ ח:ז. וראה הכוה”ק (במ’ ל:ו), שחילק בין ב’ פירושי רש”י למלה “הניא”: א) מניעה ב) הסרה, שהגם ששתיהן מתייחסות לרצון… ב”מניעה” נשאר הרצון, וב”הסרה” הוסר הרצון].

[22]  [שייחסו ז”ל משמעות  שבירה גם להפרה בענין הקסמים של העכו”ם המשתברים בגין תשובת ב”י]: במד”ר כ:כ – הגוים מקסמים ומנחשים, ואלו משברין אותם בתשובה, שנאמר: מֵפֵר אֹתוֹת בַּדִּים (ישעיה מד:כה).

[23]  [מצוטט לעיל בהערות בענין  ביטול רצון, וכאן בענין השוואת “הניא” ל”נא” – בישול שהופסק].

[24]  [והשוה את מאמרינו לפ’ בא בענין ההוראות השונות של מלת “נא”].