Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 1: Elisha’s Wings – by Rabbi Zev Farber

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 2: Women Wearing Tefillin

Preface

The debate about women wearing tefillin rages. The issue has many moving parts, some are halakhic, most are sociological. In this piece, I want to touch upon only one aspect of the debate, the concept of guf naqi (clean body) and its application to the question of whether women should wear tefillin.

Part 1 – Elisha’s Wings

The idea that tefillin require a guf naqi comes from a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 49a):

Rabbi Yannai said: “Tefillin require a guf naqi (clean body) like Elisha, with the wings.”[1]

This statement is enigmatic, both because it is unclear what it means by “clean” and because of the reference to this strange person, Elisha with the wings. More importantly, what the halakhic consequences of such a statement are meant to be. Assuming Elisha with the wings was an extraordinary person, does that mean that most people should not wear tefillin? As will be seen, there is more than one way to understand the import of the statement about Elisha.

Model 1 – Persecution and the Pure Spirit

The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 49a) relates Elisha’s story:

Why do they call him, “the man with wings”? Once the wicked Roman government made a decree against the Jews that anyone who wore tefillin would have his head pierced. Elisha, however, put on his tefillin and went out in public. An official saw him. [Elisha] ran away and the man chased him. When he was about to catch up, [Elisha] removed them from his head and held them in his hand. The man said: “What is that in your hand?” [Elisha] replied: “Dove’s wings.” He opened his had and there were dove’s wings. Therefore, he is called, “Elisha with the wings.”[2]

According to this story, Elisha’s righteousness was that he risked his life to fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tefillin. Not only that, he wore them in public, a bold if risky move.

Following this story, a number of commentators assume that the meaning of Rabbi Yannai’s dictum is that one should not wear tefillin during a time of persecution unless one is as righteous as Elisha. Rav Hai Gaon, for instance, in a responsum dedicated to convincing men that they should wear tefillin and should not worry about the cleanness of their bodies, writes (Sha’arei Teshuvah 153):

If one were to argue that tefillin requires a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings, the Sages explained it thus: In what context was this stated? During a time of persecution, where they made a decree that anyone who wore tefillin would have his head punctured. The Sages said: ‘Anyone who knows that he is as righteous as Elisha with the wings, for whom a miracle was done during the persecution when he risked his life, should wear tefillin. Otherwise, do not put yourself at risk.” For if you do not interpret it this way (but assume that one should not wear tefillin unless one is immaculately clean), a Torah scroll, which is bigger and holier and has many parshiyot and is complete – we open this and read from it all the time, certainly we can wear tefillin! Rather, learn from this that when the Sages said that tefillin needs a guf naqi, this refers to during a persecution and to no other time.[3]

In other words, in Rav Hai Gaon’s interpretation, guf naqi means something like “a pure spirit” and the halakha refers only to wearing tefillin at the risk of one’s life. It has nothing to do with physical cleanliness at all.

Clarifying this position, R. Shmuel bar Meshullam Yerundi (Sefer Ohel Moed, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Tzitzit 1:1) translates the term guf naqi as “free from sin (כלומר נקי מעבירות).” This is R. Tam’s position as well (Sefer Ha-Yashar, Novelae, 675):

Tefillin requires a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings – meaning, if one wishes for a miracle to be performed on one’s behalf as was done for Elisha, he must have a pure being like that of Elisha with the wings.[4]

For R. Tam, the import of R. Yannai’s position is only about hoping for a miracle. In other words, R. Yannai is discouraging men from endangering their lives in order to wear tefillin.[5]

Model 2 – Immaculate Bodies but not Halakha Le-Ma’aseh

Another interpretive tradition assumes that the statement was meant to limit tefillin wearing to very select individuals. The Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 2:3) makes this point clearly:

Over there (Babylon) they say that anyone who is not like Elisha with the wings should not wear tefillin.[6]

Although this statement mentions nothing about Elisha’s “clean body”, it states that if a person is not like Elisha, in whatever way he was special, he should not wear tefillin. Significantly, the Jerusalem Talmud attributes this position to “them,” which implies that it does not accept the statement as authoritative.

The Jerusalem Talmud is not the only one to distance itself from this position. Rabbi Menachem ben Shimon (Midrash Sekhel Tov, Exod. 13) writes:

It is forbidden to sleep in tefillin, whether just nodding off or really sleeping, lest one flatulate while wearing them, however, we are not worried about ejaculation [during sleep] as semen would not forbid a person from wearing tefillin, as we stated earlier. However, we do not follow the position of the person who said that tefillin require a clean body like Elisha with the wings, since the Torah was not given to the ministering angels, as it says (2 Sam. 7:19): “this is the Torah of man.”[7]

This is the understanding of R. Hananel as well (Shabbat 130):

The Halakha does not follow… Rabbi Yannai, who said that tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings. The Rabbis, however, interpreted R. Yannai and said that he was only referring to the time of persecution, and they support this with the account of [Elisha] running away and a miracle occurring on his behalf.[8]

According to R. Hananel, we simply do not follow R. Yannai’s position, although he is open to accepting the reinterpreted R. Yannai as described in the previous model.

Model 3 – Flatulence

The Babylonian Talmud offers its own clarification of the concept of guf naqi in the lines immediately following the quote from R. Yannai:

What does this mean? Abaye said: “Not to flatulate with them on.” Rava said: “Not to sleep with them on.”[9]

Assuming one were to accept both answers, i.e. that it is forbidden to flatulate with tefillin on or to sleep with them on, this does not seem like an impossible task. Is Elisha with the wings really the only person who was able to accomplish this? The answer that the vast majority of authorities who follow this model give is “no.” In other words, everyone should wear tefillin; it is only a warning to be careful while wearing them.

Many Rishonim further claim that R. Yannai was speaking about people who wear their tefillin all day, but, certainly, for people who wear them only during prayer there should be nothing at all to worry about.

Below are some examples of Rishonim who make this point.[10]

R. Moshe of Coucy (Sefer Mitzvot ha-Gadol, Positive Commandments, 3)

This refers to a person who wears tefillin all day, as is the mitzvah, lest he forget he is wearing them and he act inappropriately. During prayer, however, there isn’t a person wicked enough that he can’t be trusted with tefillin.[11]

Rashba (Glosses on Tractate Shabbat 49a)

The term ‘they require a guf naqi’ refers to someone who knows how to avoid flatulence while wearing them, meaning that he knows to remove them when he feels the need to flatulate – that is Rashi’s explanation, and it is Tosafot’s as well.[12]

Rosh (Hilkhot Qetanot, Tefillin)

This does not mean that he must be like Elisha with the wings, but rather that he can avoid flatulence and falling asleep like him. For since a miracle occurred for him because of his tefillin, it seems reasonable to assume that he guarded their purity. Nowadays, since we only wear them during prayer, it is easy for a person to be careful during that space of time.[13]

R. Joshua ibn Shuib (Derashot, Va-etḥanan)

There are those who are lenient with this mitzvah because of what R. Yannai said, that tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings. They say: “Who could be pure like him?” But this is not correct, because [the Talmud] explicitly asks what is the reason or what is the halakhic import of this statement, and it answers, to avoid flatulating or sleeping while wearing them. So any man who can avoid sleep or flatulence should wear them. This was also Rashi’s interpretation. It was back in the period when they would wear them all day that they said that tefillin requires a guf naqi like Elisha of the wings, but just while reciting the Shema, every person can be careful to avoid sleep and flatulence![14]

R. Avraham Zakut (Sefer ha-Yukhsin, Seder Amoraim, “Elisha”)

The Geonim wrote that the halakha does not follow [R. Yannai], since the Torah was not given to the ministering angels. However, later authorities wrote that it is halakha, and that a person can remain under control during prayer.[15] 

Halakhic Summary

In short, if R. Yannai’s statement was meant to warn regular Jews not to risk their lives by wearing tefillin, it is irrelevant to the question of cleanliness. If it was meant to limit tefillin only to exceedingly pious individuals, like Elisha, the Geonim already decided that his is not the halakha and we do not follow this position. If all it means is that people wearing tefillin need to be careful not to flatulate or sleep while wearing it, that is considered halakha, but is also considered easy to follow unless one has a stomach ailment.

The only people who might have trouble with it are people who wear them all day. For this reason R. Yannai suggests that only very pious people should wear them all day, but everyone should wear them during prayer, since there is nothing to worry about for the average person. This is the halakha as we have inherited it.[16]

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 2: Women Wearing Tefillin


[1]  אמר רבי ינאי: “תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים.”

[2]  ואמאי קרי ליה בעל כנפים? שפעם אחת גזרה מלכות רומי הרשעה גזירה על ישראל, שכל המניח תפילין ינקרו את מוחו. והיה אלישע מניחם ויוצא לשוק. ראהו קסדור אחד – רץ מפניו, ורץ אחריו. וכיון שהגיע אצלו נטלן מראשו ואחזן בידו, אמר לו: מה זה בידך? אמר לו: כנפי יונה. פשט את ידו ונמצאו כנפי יונה. לפיכך קורין אותו אלישע בעל כנפים.

[3]  ואם בא אדם לומר תפלין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים כך פירשו חז”ל במה דב”א בשעת השמד שגוזרים כל המניח תפלין ינקרו את מוחו אמרו חכמים כל היודע עצמו שהוא צדיק גמור כאלישע בעל כנפים שעשו לו נס בשעת השמד ומסר עצמו למיתה יניח תפלין ואם לאו אל יביא עצמו לידי סכנה שאם אתה אומר כן ס”ת גדול ומקודש שיש בו כמה פרשיות והוא שלם ואתה פותח בו וקורא בו בכל זמן וק”ו תפלין מכאן אתה למד שלא שנו חכמים תפלין צריכין גוף נקי אלא בשעת השמד ולא בזמן אחר.

[4]  תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים. כלומ’ אי בעי דאיתרחיש לי’ ניסא כמו שנעשה לאלישע צריך להיות גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים.

[5] R. Tam’s position is brought down as authoritative by R. Avraham bar Natan Even ha-Yarḥi in Sefer ha-Manhig (Tefillin) as well.

[6]  תמן אמרין כל שאינו כאלישע בעל כנפים לא ילבש תפילין.

[7]  ואסור לישן בהן לא שינת עראי ולא שינת קבע, גזירה שמא יפיח בהם, אבל משום קרי לא מיתסרי לאנוחי, כמא דפסקינן לעיל, ולא קיי”ל כמאן דאמר תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים, שלא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת, שנא’ וזאת תורת האדם (ש”ב ז יט):

[8]  ואין הלכה… כרבי ינאי שאמר תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים ומפרשי רבנן כי לא אמר רבי ינאי אלא בשעת הגזרה וסמיך דהוא עריק ועבדי ליה נס.

[9]  מאי היא? אביי אמר: “שלא יפיח בהן.” רבא אמר: “שלא יישן בהן.”

[10] See also the treatment of R. Baḥya ben Asher (Kad ha-Qemaḥ, “Tefillin”), who surveys more than one model for understanding R. Yannai.

וכיון שביד האדם לקיים מצוה זו אין לאחד מישראל שימנע מזה על המחשבה שהזכרתי למעלה, כי כל אדם ראוי להניח תפילין כל זמן שהוא בריא וגופו טהור מן החולי והמדוה, ואין צריך עכ”פ שיהיה לו גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים, הוא שטועין בו הרבה בני אדם מהמון ישראל גם קצת מן היודעים שחושבין שאין כל אדם ראוי למצות תפילין אלא א”כ הגיע למדרגת אלישע בעל כנפים שנעשה לו נס ושיהיה לו גוף נקי כמוהו. וזו היא הסבה שהמצוה הזאת מרופה בידם ולא יחזיקו בה, ולא ידעו ולא יבינו כי אין המאמר הזה אמור אלא בשעת השמד שאם המניח תפילין הוא כדאי ובטוח על עצמו שיעשה לו נס כאלישע בעל כנפים יש לו להניח תפילין בשעת שמד ואם לאו אין לו להניחם מפני הסכנה, אבל שאר כל המון ישראל שלא בשעת הסכנה חייבים להניח, וכל ישראל ראוים לכך כי כל העדה כלם קדושים, או יהיה ביאור המאמר לענין הנחתן כל היום כלו וזהו לשון גוף נקי שאם יש לו גוף נקי כאלישע ונזהר בהם הזהירות הראוי חייב להניח’ כל היו’ כלו כמו שהי’ עושה אלישע, אבל אם אין לו גוף נקי כמוהו די לו להניחן בשעות ידועות, ואין צריך לומר הגדולים שהם חייבין במצות תפילין ושהיא מצוה מוטלת עליהם, כי גם הקטנים צריכין להניחן כדי לחנכן במצות. וכן אמרו במסכת סוכה (פ”ג דף מ) קטן היודע לשמור תפילין אביו לוקח לו תפילין:

[11]  זהו באדם שמניחן כל היום כולו כמצותן פן ישכחם עליו ויעשה בהם דבר שאינו הגון, אבל בשעת תפילה אין לך רשע שלא יהא ראוי לתפילין,

[12]  פירוש צריכין גוף נקי היודע ליזהר שלא יפיח בהן כלומר שיזהר לסלקם בשעה שצריך להפיח, וכן פירש רש”י ז”ל, וכן פירשו גם בתוספות.

[13]  לומר לא שיהא צריך כאלישע בעל כנפים אלא שיכול ליזהר משינה ומהפחה כמוהו. דכיון דאירע לו נס בתפילין מסתמא היה שומרן בטהרה. והאידנא שאין רגילין להניחן אלא בשעת תפלה בקל יכול אדם ליזהר באותה שעה.

[14]  ויש מקילין במצוה זאת משום ההיא דרבי ינאי דאמר תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים, ואומרים [כי] מי הוא נקי [גוף] כמוהו. וזה אינו [כן] כי בפירוש אמרו מאי טעמא או למאי הלכתא, ואמרו שלא יפיח בהם ושלא יישן בהם, ואם הוא יכול ליזהר מן השינה וההפחה כל אדם ראוי להם. וכן פירש רש”י זכרונו לברכה ובאותן הזמנים שהיו מניחין אותן כל היום היו אומרין (זה) שצריך גוף נקי כאלישע לכל היום, אבל בזמן קריאת שמע כל אדם יכול ליזהר משינה והפחה.

[15]  והגאונים ז”ל כתבו שאינו הלכה כי לא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת, אבל האחרונים כתבו שהוא הלכה ויכול אדם בשעת תפילה להעמיד עצמו,

[16] See, for example, Shulḥan Arukh, Oraḥ Ḥaim 38:1, where R. Joseph Karo says that people with stomach ailments should not wear tefillin. Presumably, the average person without such an ailment can avoid flatulence during prayer.

 

2 Responses to Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 1: Elisha’s Wings – by Rabbi Zev Farber

  1. David Sedley says:

    In source 6 you cite the Yerushalmi, and claim that since it uses the term “over there” it means that in Israel they did not hold such a position.
    Since, as a general rule, the halacha follows the Bavli over the Yerushalmi this is a moot point, but for my own understanding, do you have a basis for saying that whenever the Yerushalmi uses the term “over there” it means that in Israel they did not agree?
    In the Bavli, where a similar phrase is often used, it does not mean that they Babylonians disagreed (unless explicitly stated as such).

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