Menachot 40 – Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel, Tzitzit and Matzah

I realize that everyone now is undoubtedly working on their last preparations before Pesach.  Nevertheless, the daf yomi continues, and I wanted to share the following reflection on today’s daf.

In today’s daf (Menachot 40) we read that R. Eliezer ben R. Tzaddok states that although Torah allows and obligates one to wear wool techelet tzitzit strings in a linen garment, it was nevertheless made prohibited to do so.  As the Gemara explains, this Rabbinic prohibition grew out of a concern that such tzitzit may become invalid, or may not be made of genuine techelet, and thus a person would come to transgress the prohibition of shatnez without the mitzvah of tzitzit which would have allowed it to be overridden.

Now, Rashi (s.v. li’fi) already notes that by prohibiting tzitzit to be placed in this linen garment, the Rabbis are not only creating a prohibition, but they are also preventing a person from fulfilling a mitzvah – the mitzvah of tzitzit.  Rashi explains that the Rabbis are empowered to do this, to require a person to passively not perform a mitzvah, out of a concern that were he or she to do so, he or she could come to transgress a negative prohibition. This is why we do not blow shofar when Rosh HaShanah falls out on Shabbat- we passively do not perform a positive mitzvah out of concern that doing so may lead to an inadvertent transgression of Shabbat.

Of course, just because the Rabbis have this power does not mean that they should, or do, use it regularly.  It is very rare that the Rabbis actually prohibit a mitzvah out of concern that it could leave to an aveira.  It is worth noting that according to one explanation of Rashi (s.v. li’fi, “lashon acher”) and according to Tosafot (s.v. Sadin and Amar) that R. Eliezer son of R. Tzaddok is explaining the position of Beit Shamai, and that according to Beit Hillel no Rabbinic prohibition was ever promulgated.   Thus, the position that there is a Rabbinic prohibition here may only be the position of Beit Shamai.

This debate, then, could reflect a larger debate betwen Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel.  It is well known that Beit Shamai is stricter than Beit Hillel.  Sometimes this relates to Biblical issues, and sometimes – most of the time – to the area of Rabbinic prohibitions and restrictions.  While Beit Shamai is more prepared to restrict actions in order to prevent transgression, Beit Hillel is less so.  This is not because Beit Hillel is not concerned about transgression; it is because they believe that such concerns, when excessive, compromise other Torah values.  They limit the freedom of individuals, their ability to engage and be creative in the world, and – as we see from the case of tzitzit and linen garments – even the ability to do mitzvot.

The philosophy that underpins the different worldviews of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel is probably best captured in the passage of Yerushalmi Chagiga 2:1 (with parallels in Bavli chagiga 12a, and Breishit Rabba 1:2), which records a debate of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel regarding the first act of creation:

ב”ש אומ’ שמים נבראו תחילה ואח”כ הארץ וב”ה אומרים הארץ נבראת תחילה ואח”כ השמים

Beit Shamai says that the Heavens were created first, and then Earth; and Beit Hillel says that the Earth was created first and then the Heavens.

That is, for Beit Shamai, the primary focus is the Heavens – God and God’s concerns – and this focus sometimes requires us to remove ourselves from the Earth.  For Beit Hillel, the primary focus is the Earth – and we must focus on living up to our responsibilities to engage the world.  Beit Hillel does not reject Beit Shamai’s approach of stringency because he is not as seriously religious as Beit Shamai.  He rejects it because he believes that it over-emphasizes certain concerns at the expense of others.  If one believes that “the Earth was created first,” then one understands that a primary form of religious engagement is engaging the world, not removing ourselves from it, and in giving humans a wide sphere of activity.  If we do this, we will find that we have performed many mitzvot that we would have lost had we listened to Beit Shamai.

[Another way to frame this is whether one emphasizes סור מרע, turning away from evil, or עשה טוב, doing good.  A serious religious engagement requires both, and the Torah, of course, commands us both in the positive mitzvot and in the negative prohibitions.  But where should our religious emphasis be?  On avoiding the bad or on doing the good?  If the former, then we will only engage the larger world if we are completely certain that no sin will result, and thus our primary mode will be one of disengagement.  If  the latter, then  while we demonstrate proper care to not sin, we will see engaging the world, and not  building walls and  protections, as the primary sphere in which to invest our religious energies.  Said yet another way – is our religious mode one of ahavah or one of yirah?

For further elaboration on this issue as the core of the differing philosophies of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel, see Rabbi Shlomo Zevin’s piece on Hanukkah from his LiTorah u’Lomadim on “Fire or Light?”.  For a different approach on the debate, see his longer essay “On the Philosophies of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel,” in his L’or HaHalakha.  Both essays are available on our Resources page.]

With all of the above in mind, and apropos of Chag HaMatzot which is almost upon us, I share with you below a short essay I wrote on this theme and on the tension between eating matzah and avoiding chametz.

A chag kasher vi’sa’mayach to all!


Passover: Chametz, Matzoh, and the Challenge of Confrontation

Rabbi Dov Linzer

The Torah calls Passover the “Feast of Matzot” and it commands us both to eat matzot on the first night and to not eat chametz, or leavened bread, for the entire 7 day holiday. The Torah’s prohibitions regarding chametz seem inordinately severe: the punishment for eating it is greater than for eating most prohibited foods. Moreover, not only must we refrain from eating it, we cannot derive benefit from it either. If that were not enough, the Torah commands that we do not own chametz or have it in our possession in any way over the entire holiday of Passover. How are we to understand this extremist attitude towards chametz?

Many commentators explain that, perhaps ironically, because chametz is permitted during the rest of the year, it is so severely prohibited on Passover. When we see a piece of pork, we know – “that’s treif” “its off-bounds” “stay away”. However, when we see a piece of bread on Passover, we don’t think of it as a forbidden object; we may even put it in our mouths before we remind ourselves that it is Passover and we are not allowed to eat it. To prevent this from happening, the Torah intensifies the prohibitions of chametz and, as a result, we will hopefully increase our vigilance regarding this prohibition.

I believe that there is a very important lesson that we can learn from this. There are aspects of our cultural and intellectual environment that we know are treif, we know are foreign and corrosive to Jewish values and a Jewish way of life. These blatant threats are relatively easy to avoid. However, there are elements of our culture that might look kosher, that we might “pop in our mouths” before realizing we’ve ingested something harmful. These hidden threats can be more dangerous precisely because they are hidden, because they look kosher, and we must be extra vigilant in avoiding them.

The story, however, does not end there. The logical culmination of such vigilance is total rejection. If there are such threats lurking around in the shadows, why not stay out of the way altogether and reject contemporary culture? We all know that it is easier to quit cigarettes than to diet: when you quit cigarettes, you can just avoid them altogether, but when you diet, you can’t stop eating. Moderation and vigilance are difficult, so why not just opt for total avoidance and rejection?

The answer is to be found in the other commandment of Passover: the mitzvah to eat matzah. The Talmud explains that matzah is made from the exact same ingredients as chametz – flour and water. There is only one difference between the two: vigilance. Matzah has been carefully watched to ensure that it is baked before it begins to rise, while chametz has been unattended and rises naturally. The Torah is actually making Passover doubly difficult for us. Not only can we not have chametz, we have to get involved in matzah! Why not just avoid flour and water altogether for the entire holiday? The Torah, however, does not allow us such an easy out; it does not allow us to take the route of rejection. If we avoid and reject, we will be sure we aren’t eating chametz but we will be just as certain that we aren’t eating matzah. If we close ourselves off from our intellectual and cultural environment, we won’t be corrupted, but we just as equally won’t be enriched. We must rather engage the problem, face up to the challenge of vigilance, and strive to serve God maximally.


About Rabbi Dov Linzer

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a groundbreaking Orthodox smicha program. Rabbi Linzer spearheaded the development of YCT to create an innovative four year smicha program which provides its students with rigorous talmud Torah and halakhic study and sophisticated professional training in the context of a religious atmosphere which cultivates openness and inclusiveness. Rabbi Linzer has published Halakha and machshava articles in Torah journals and lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to Halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity. He is most recently the awardee of the prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship.
This entry was posted in Conceptual, General Interest, Menachot, Tzitzit and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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