The Missing Question: How Do We Experience Authority? – By Rabbi Josh Feigelson

January 16, 2015

This past fall, the Orthodox/halakhic community experienced the most honest public conversation about itself that I think I’ve ever seen. The arrest and investigation of Rabbi Barry Freundel opened up a series of powerful conversations. Husbands and wives talked about gender roles in Jewish law; friends talked about their feelings about rabbis and Jewish law at kiddush, at Shabbos meals, and walking to and from shul; and, most remarkably, the Jewish press, from the blogosphere to Facebook to the Times of Israel to the New York Times, openly and publicly discussed these questions. In my lifetime, I can’t remember anything like it.

While I welcome all of this discussion, I think that much of it has missed a central, big question, which has to do with a couple of central words, namely 1) authority, and 2) authenticity. To put the issue in the form of a question, I would raise it this way: 1) In what, or in whom, do we place authority? 2) When do we feel authentic? And 3) What do the two have to do with one another?

In some ways, the second question really comes Read the rest of this entry »


Crowd-Sourced Bibliography on Tefilin, Partnership Minyanim, and the Future of Orthodoxy

February 28, 2014

Will Rogers once quipped, “I don’t belong to an organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”  To which I would respond, “I don’t belong to an organized Jewish denomination; I’m Orthodox.”

Dozens of scholarly articles, essays, and blog-posts, have been published in the past month exploring the question of women and mitzvat tefillin and the phenomenon of Partnership Minyannim. This may all be a “tempest in a teapot” or this may become a milestone in the history of our community and its self-definition. To help record and organize all that is being written on this topic, I am creating a crowd-sourced bibliography. Please post links in the comments to articles/blog-posts/essays and I will add them to the bibliography once each week or two.

Reflecting the mission of this blog, priority will be given to articles that focus on how these issues percolate within the Orthodox community. I will also prioritize those writings that contain original analysis of primary sources. But, if there is something that you have read which you think should be part of this bibliography, paste a link in the comments and make a case (please also list which section the source belongs).

Part I: Girls Wearing Tefilin at Orthodox High Schools

The Jewish Week: Ramaz Would Permit Girls to Wear Tefilin

Rabbi Josh Strulowitz: It’s Not About Tefilin But Embracing School Choice

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark: SAR Principal Explains Decision to Allow Girls ot Wear Tefilin at School Minyanim

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein: Much Ado About Something: Women and Tefillin

Rabbi H. Schachter: Transcription of a letter by Rabbi H. Schachter on Women Wearing Tefilin, transcribed by Rabbi Josh Yuter

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt: Reflections on the Tefilin Debate

Part II: Analysis of Women and the Mitzvah of Tefilin

(With a strong representation from Harvard Hillel in the 1990’s…)

Rabbi Ethan Tucker: Gender and Tefillin: Possibilities and Consequences

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper: Gender and Tefillin: Assumptions and Consequences

Shira Fischer, MD: In Pursuit of Intellectual Genorisity: A Rejoinder to R. Aryeh Klapper on Gender, Tefillin, and Normativitiy

Rabbi Shlomo Brody: Women and Tefilin: A Response to Ethan Tucker

Rabbi Shlomo Brody: Women, Tefilin, and the Halakhic Process

Rabbi Jeff Fox: The Truth About Women in Tefilin

William Friedman: Why Women Can – And Must – Wear Tefillin

Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber: Tefillin and Clean Bodies Part I

Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber: Tefillin and Clean Bodes Part II

 

Part III: RCA Documents on Partnership Minyanim and Reactions

Partnership Minyanim in the Pages of “Tradition.”

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz: A Response to Rav Herschel Schachter shlita

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz: A Resposne to Rav Herschel Schachter shlita (English Translation)

Professor Aaron Koller: Women in Tefillin and Partnership Minyanim: A Response to Rav Schachter

Rabbi A. Goridmer: The Boundaries and Essence of Orthodoxy: A Response ot Aaron Koller

“Menachem Mendel” Partnership Minyans in Israel

Rabbi Dr. Yoel Finkelman and Professor Chaim Saimon: A Next Step in Debating Partnership Minyanim and Women in Tefillin

Part IV: Opinions and Advocacy

Dr. Elana Sztokman: Orthodoxy Must Not Reject Its Most Committed Women

Rabbi Avi Shafran: TefillinGate Unraveled: In Orthodoxy Women Just Don’t Wear Tefillin

Avigayil Halpern: You Say I don’t Need Tefillin: Here’s Why I Do

Eden Farber:  Not-So Blurred Lines

Professor Aaron Koller: On Submissiveness


Olympic Judaism

February 23, 2014

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

I know we’ve moved on to Pikudei, but I hope you enjoy my Drasha from this past Shabbat.

A bit of Olympic history for you:

When the modern olympic games were founded in 1894, only amateurs were allowed to compete. It was forbidden to play for any monetary gain. In fact, the 1912 Olympic decathlon champion Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Olympics.

Over the course of the 20th century, this idea slowly eroded, on mostly practical grounds. Athletes obviously needed to be funded in order to spend the time practicing and competing. They would avoid breaking the rules by having money deposited into trust funds rather than being paid directly. But slowly through the 1970s and 80s the rules were relaxed. In 1988, professional athletes were formally permitted.

It’s hard to imagine a world without baseball players on million-dollar salaries, or your favorite hockey player being paid to appear on a box of cereal. But in the beginning, there was a sense that the ideal athlete was an amateur, not a professional.

Why this fixation with the amateur player?

The word athlete comes from the ancient greek for “one who competes for a prize”. Ancient Greek athletes did, in fact, play for prize money. The word amateur, however, comes from Latin “amator”, or love. An amateur is someone who does it for the love of the game.

Our culture values the idea of the amateur, the person who acts out of love or commitment. Even when someone does something nice for me, I don’t feel as appreciative it if I think they did it out of a sense of obligation. We prefer good deeds that are done by choice. We consider it more noble to do the right thing because you WANT to, not because you feel you HAVE to.

It’s this tension between “have to” and “want to” that emerges from within our parsha.

We read about the beautiful and luxurious materials that were donated for the building of the Mishkan.

קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה, לַיהוָה, כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ, יְבִיאֶהָ אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה:  זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁת.

“Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it, [namely] the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and copper.”

The verses refer over and over to nediv libam – the people gave whatever they saw fit, out of the generosity of their heart; there was no prescribed amount. And in fact, they were so moved to give that Moshe had to do something that has never happened in any Jewish fundraising campaign ever since. Moshe had to ask them to stop donating! They had given too MUCH. (Devarim 36:6)

Rashi, however, reminds us that not all these materials were voluntary donations. Here, he refers back to a comment he made in Parshat Terumah, when we are first commanded with regards to the building of the Mishkan:

“[The materials]  were all given voluntarily; each person [gave] what his heart inspired him to give, except [for] the silver, which they gave equally, a half-shekel for each individual.”  (24:3)

The only material that came through obligatory collection was the silver. A tax of one half-shekel coin was levied from each person, and these coins provided the silver for the Mishkan.

What does Judaism more greatly value – a voluntary act of commitment, or one that is done out of a sense of obligation?

Our Sages assert Gadol hametzuveh v’oseh m’asher eino metzuveh v’oseh – It is greater to be commanded to perform mitzvot and to do them, rather than to do mitzvah out of choice or religious fervor.

This concept famously plays a central role when discussing the many mitzvot from which women are exempted. A woman is not obligated in a host of mitzvot – sitting in the sukkah, hearing the shofar, and wearing tzitzit to name a few. But a woman may choose to do these out of her own volition, and we know that Jewish women en masse have taken upon themselves some of these very central mitzvot – hearing the shofar is the most widespread example. And, of course, there is a very interesting discussion happening right now in the Orthodox community with regards to women who might choose to don tefillin. (Another conversation for another time; find me at Kiddush – or on a future blog post…)

We do admire people who go the extra mile, who do a mitzvah out of nedivut generosity of spirit. My husband Avi and I named our second daughter Nedivah as a nod to this concept – Nedivah means generous, or giving. Avi and I deeply value this characteristic of nedivut, and we wanted to impart it to our daughter.

But ultimately, Judaism places a greater value on the idea of obligation, commandedness – Metzuveh v’oseh. This is symbolized by the fact that although most of the Mishkan was built using materials that were given from a deep and overwhelming sense of zeal and generosity, it also contained in it the machatzit ha’shekel, the obligatory donation that each person was required to give.

The voluntary donations clearly provided all the materials needed, even more than enough. Why was it important to also utilize the half-shekel coins in the building of the Mishkan?

For this, we return to our Olympic athletes.

We may admire amateurs. Their sheer love and passion is what drives them. But ultimately, that is not sustainable en masse. The Olympics had to recognize the need for the professional athlete.

A pro athlete may feel exhilarated during his time on the rink, or on the ski slopes. But if he wakes up one day and doesn’t feel like getting on the ice, he still has to do it. He has committed himself to this, and he must rise to meet that commitment.

Ideally, we should all be amateur Jews. We should live the values of the Torah out of sheer joy and love for it. We hope that our fire of religious fervor is lit constantly.

But we also recognize that sometimes we may lose our motivation, or the challenges of a Jewish life may be too great. We may not always be internally motivated to make the decision to do what is moral and right. It is then that we might become “professional” Jews. We might recognize that we each have a responsibility to contribute that half-shekel to the world. We are obligated to uphold Jewish values and to participate in Jewish life, even when our internal drive is not as strong.

It is that sense of obligation that is gadol – that is greatness. Metzuveh v’oseh, it is our commandedness that keeps us active and committed, that keeps our community going.

Ideally, even when we act out of a sense of obligation, this will lead us to rekindle the fire, so that we can become Jewish amateurs, and do it simply because we love it.


Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 2: Women Wearing Tefillin – by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 31, 2014

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 1: Elisha’s Wings

Women are Exempt from Wearing Tefillin

According to the Mishna (Berakhot 3:3), women are exempt from wearing tefillin.

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema or wearing tefillin, but they are obligated in prayer, mezuzah and reciting the grace after meals.[1]

Why are women exempt from wearing tefillin? Rashi (ad loc.) suggests that it is because tefillin are a positive commandment tied to a particular time (a category of mitzvot that women are generally exempt from performing), since tefillin are not worn at nights or on Shabbat and holidays. The discussion in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 96a), which assumes that this is the reason for the exemption, supports Rashi’s position.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 2:3), however, offers a different reason.

From where do we know that women [are exempt]? ‘Teach them to your sons’ (Deut. 11:19) – not your daughters. Whoever is obligated in learning Torah is obligated in tefillin; women who are exempt from learning Torah are exempt from wearing tefillin.[2]

According to this source, women are exempt from wearing tefillin because they are exempt from studying Torah.

The Mekhilta of R. Ishmael (Pasḥa 17) offers the same reason.[3]

‘So that the Torah of the Lord be in your mouth’ (Exod. 13:9). Why was this said? Because it says (ibid): ‘This should be a sign [upon your arm].’ I would have assumed that women are included, and this would make sense since mezuzah is a positive commandment and tefillin is a positive commandment, if we assume that women part of the mitzvah of mezuzah shouldn’t we assume that women are also part of the mitzvah of tefillin? Thus the verse comes to teach us, ‘so that the Torah of the Lord be in your mouth,’ I am only referring to someone who is obligated in learning Torah. From here they said: “All are obligated in tefillin except for women and slaves.”[4]

Rambam codifies this reason in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (Positive Commandments, 13), referencing the Mekhilta.[5]

The Michal bat Kushi Story

May a woman wear tefillin voluntarily? The Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 96a) records a story about this.

Michal daughter of Kushi used to wear tefillin and the Sages didn’t object. Jonah’s wife used to come [to Jerusalem] for the holidays and the Sages didn’t object.[6]

According to this source, it would seem that women may wear tefillin if they wish.

The Mekhilta records the same story.

Michal daughter of Kushi would wear tefillin. The wife of Jonah would come [to Jerusalem] for the festivals. Tabi, Rabban Gamliel’s slave would wear tefillin.[7]

According to this account, which is the same as that recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, it appears that women may wear tefillin if they wish.

There is an alternative version of this story, however, which appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 2:3) and is included in the Pesiqta Rabbati (22). The passage follows the previously quoted the lines of the Jerusalem Talmud, where it was established that women are exempt from wearing tefillin.

A contradiction was offered: ‘But Michal daughter of Kushi would wear tefillin and the wife of Jonah would [come to Jerusalem] for the holidays, and the Sages didn’t stop her.’ R. Hezekiah in the name of R. Abahu: “The Sages sent Jonah’s wife back and objected to Michal bat Kushi.”[8]

The first version of the story included here assumes that Michal wore tefillin without any objection from the Sages. Moreover, the Jerusalem Talmud assumes that if she wore tefillin, she must have been obligated. (The Babylonian Talmud makes a similar assumption, suggesting that maybe she followed the opinion that tefillin should be worn at night and on Shabbat.) Hezekiah in the name of R. Abahu, to solve this problem, offers an alternative version of the story. The Sages did, in fact, object to what she was doing.

Tosafot and Women’s Fitness for Tefillin

The Tosafot (Eruvin 96a), having seen the source in Pesiqta Rabbati, wonder why the Sages would have objected. Since the Tosafot follows the position of Ri (=Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre) that women are permitted, even encouraged, to take on positive mitzvot for which they are not obligated, they cannot answer that doing that which one is exempt from doing is bad.[9] Thus, in order to answer the question, they turn to the position of Rabbi Yannai analyzed in part one.

It would seem that the explanation for the position that women are not permitted [to wear tefillin] is because tefillin require a guf naqi and women are not zealous enough to be careful about this.[10]

The Tosafot claim that the reason women may not wear tefillin, according to Hezekiah quoting Rabbi Abahu, is because they will not be careful about the cleanliness of their bodies. Since according to the Babylonian Talmud, being careful about “guf naqi” means avoiding flatulence or falling asleep, the Tosafot are saying that women will not be zealous enough about their tefillin to avoid flatulence while wearing them.

Why would the Tosafot say such a thing? Here is where modern readers, I believe, have difficulty accepting attitudes about women that reflect a pre-modern mentality that men are better or more spiritual or more serious about Torah than women. Yet this was a common, even normative belief in the pre-modern era.

In fact, this is the very reason that some sages believed that it is forbidden and a waste of time to teach women Torah.  This attitude was articulated most clearly by Rambam Mishneh Torah (Talmud Torah 1:13)

A woman who learns Torah receives a reward, but it is not like the man’s reward, since she was not commanded [to do so], and anyone who does something [good] which he was not commanded to do receives less reward than one who fulfills a command. Even though there is reward, the Sages commanded a person not to teach his daughter Torah, since most women’s minds are not designed for learning and they will turn the words of Torah into foolishness due to their weak intellect. The Sages said: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he taught her licentiousness/nonsense.” To what does this statement apply, to Oral Torah, but insofar as the Written Torah, de jure a person should not teach her this, but if he did, it is not like teaching her licentiousness/nonsense.”[11]

Rambam believes that women, because of their weak intellects, would make nonsense out of Torah study, specifically study of Talmud, which is very intricate.

Although it is possible that the Tosafot did not hold as extreme a view as Rambam about women, nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that in the Middle Ages, some rabbis would believe that women could not be trusted to take tefillin seriously enough to hold in flatulence or quickly remove their tefillin if they felt it coming on. Even though the Rishonim state explicitly that any person can hold in their flatulence during the short period of the morning prayers, they were thinking about men, whom they believed would take the mitzvah seriously; they were not (necessarily) picturing women doing this.

A number of other Rishonim expressed the Tosafot’s explanation of the alternative Michal story in even starker terms. For example, in the Kol Bo 21 (the source upon which Rama’s opinion in the Shulḥan Arukh is based), Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg is quoted as being against women wearing tefillin (he may have been the first to codify this position as halakha):

Rabbi Meir [of Rothenberg] wrote: “Women are exempt from tefillin because they are a positive commandment tied to a specific time, for we do not wear them on Shabbat and festivals. If women wish to wear them we don’t listen to them, because they do not know how to keep themselves clean.”[12]

Although R. Meir of Rothenberg may mean the same thing as the Tosafot, that women will not be careful about flatulence, it is possible that he has even more in mind than this. R. Meir may be envisioning the realities that come with women menstruating. Before the advent of feminine projects, it would have been quite difficult for women to keep clean during their cycles. Although such a concern does not appear in the Talmud, perhaps R. Meir is making an a fortiori – if flatulence is forbidden certainly menstrual bleeding should be forbidden—but this is just speculation on my part.

An even clearer expression of how women will not be careful can be found in Ritva’s commentary to Qiddushin 31a. In that text, he is discussing the question of whether women should make a blessing on mitzvot they perform but in which they are not obligated. As part of this discussion, he suggests a possible reason that the Sages objected (according to the source in the Jerusalem Talmud and Pesiqta Rabbati).

…because tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings, and women are not clean, they are not clean of body and they are not clean of mind.[13]

Ritva uses an extreme expression in order to get across the point that women, in his view, are not capable of being clean enough or serious enough to wear tefillin.

Although Ritva’s statement is extreme, the majority of the commentaries that follow the position of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, forbidding women to wear tefillin, repeat Tosafot’s interpretation verbatim (see, for example, TazMagen Avraham, and Mishna Berurah on the Shulḥan Arukh Oraḥ Ḥaim 38:3), i.e., “they are not zealous enough to be careful.”

Conclusion

In modern times, our attitude towards the intelligence and religiosity of women has changed dramatically. No longer do we claim that women are either not smart enough or not serious enough to learn Talmud. Instead, women’s Talmud programs are flourishing in our times. To my mind, the same must be said about women wearing tefillin.

Although in the past it may have been believable to claim that women should not be trusted with tefillin because they would not take the mitzvah seriously, and they may end up sinning by not avoiding flatulence while wearing them, such a claim must be discarded in our days. It is a relic of a time where attitudes towards women was very different.

In part one, we looked at the unanimous opinion of the Rishonim that any man at all, unless he is ill, can be trusted to treat tefillin properly if worn during prayer. In our day, this assessment applies to any woman as well. To put it starkly, if, as R. Moshe of Coucy said, “there isn’t a person wicked enough that he can’t be trusted with tefillin,” this dictum certainly applies to women as well. In short, the prohibition against women wearing tefillin must go the way of the prohibition against women learning Torah; we must consign it to history.

Addendum: The Arukh Ha-Shulḥan

Rabbi Yeḥiel Epstein, in his Arukh Ha-Shulan (Oraḥ Ḥaim 38:6), offers a novel formulation of the halakha.[14]

Women and slaves are exempt from tefillin because they (tefillin) are a positive time-bound commandment, since we are exempt from tefillin on Shabbat and festivals. If they wish to be strict upon themselves and wear them, we stop them. This is not similar to sukkah and lulav where they are exempt but they may say a blessing even so, since tefillin requires extra caution with guf naqi, as we said in Shabbat, “Tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings.” In the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot, it says: “They say over there that anyone who is not like Elisha with the wings should not wear tefillin.” Nevertheless, men are obligated so they will necessarily be careful with them during Shema and prayer. For this reason, however, they don’t wear them all day, as I stated in the previous paragraph. Thus, women, who are exempt, why should they put themselves into a situation with such grave concerns? For them, [wearing tefillin] during Shema and prayer is like men wearing them all day. Even though it says in Eruvin that Michal daughter of Saul wore tefillin and the Sages did not object, we cannot learn from that since they probably know that she was a totally righteous woman and that she knew how to be careful. All this applies to slaves as well.[15]

With the greatest respect for Rabbi Epstein, his reading of the Talmudic passages seems to me to be impossible. To return to the analysis in part one: If we interpret the Elisha passage to mean, “immaculately clean and superhumanly careful,” then, as the Geonim said, we don’t follow that position. For this reason, most Rishonim follow the plain meaning of the Talmud’s interpretation, that it means that it is forbidden to be flatulent while wearing tefillin and, therefore, unless one is like Elisha, one should not wear them all day.

Nevertheless, it was unanimous that wearing tefillin only for prayer poses no problem for anyone because it is easy to be careful during that short space of time. The reason this consensus was not applied to women (according to those who forbid them to wear tefillin), is because these rabbis believed that women could not be trusted to take the rule about flatulence seriously or to keep their minds on their tefillin, even for a very short time.

I suspect—and I am just speculating—that what motivates this unusual reading is the fact that Rabbi Epstein was living in a modern world and could not imagine that R. Moshe Isserles thought that women could not avoid flatulence, and that they were less spiritual or serious about Torah than men. In other words, it is possible that R. Epstein is trying to square the circle apologetically, to maintain the prohibition against women wearing tefillin which appears in the Shulḥan Arukh, but to make the reason for the prohibition less offensive and more believable to modern people. Whether or not this was the case, Rabbi Epstein’s interpretation contradicts the simple reading of the Talmud and the Rishonim and should be rejected le-halakha. Certainly, it should not be used in a last ditch effort to maintain a prohibition that is based on obscure sources and Ashkenazi custom, flies in the face of the Talmud, has no applicability or believability in the modern world, and offends the sensibilities of many Jewish women.

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 1: Elisha’s Wings 


[1]  נשים ועבדים וקטנים פטורין מקריאת שמע ומן התפילין וחייבין בתפלה ובמזוזה ובברכת המזון:

[2]  נשים מניין? ‘ולמדתם אותם את בניכם’ ולא את בנותיכם, את שהוא חייב בת”ת חייב בתפילין נשים שאינן חייבות בת”ת אינן חייבין בתפילין.

[3] In his excellent article on women and tefillin“Gender and Tefillin: Possibilities and Consequences,” Rabbi Ethan Tucker explores the full implications of this Mekhilta text.

[4]  למען תהיה תורת ה’ בפיך למה נאמר לפי שנאמר והיה לך לאות שומע אני אף הנשים במשמע והדין נותן הואיל ומזוזה מצות עשה ותפילין מצות עשה אם למדת על מזוזה שהיא נוהגת בנשים כבאנשים יכול אף תפילין ינהגו בנשים כבאנשים ת”ל למען תהיה תורת ה’ בפיך, לא אמרתי אלא במי שהוא חייב בתלמוד תורה, מכאן אמרו הכל חייבין בתפילין חוץ מנשים ועבדים.

[5]  הנה כבר התבאר לך קראם לתפלין שלראש ושליד שתי מצות. ושתי מצות אלו אין הנשים חייבות בהן לאמרו יתעלה (ס”פ בא) בטעם חיובם למען תהיה תורת י”י בפיך ונשים אינן חייבות בתלמוד תורה. וכן בארו במכילתא.

[6]  מיכל בת כושי היתה מנחת תפילין ולא מיחו בה חכמים. ואשתו של יונה היתה עולה לרגל ולא מיחו בה חכמים.

[7]  מיכל בת כושי היתה מנחת תפילין, אשתו של יונה היתה עולה לרגלים, טבי עבדו של רבן גמליאל היה מניח תפילין:

[8]  התיבון הרי מיכל בת כושי היתה לובשת תפילין ואשתו של יונה היתה עולה לרגלים ולא מיחו בידיה חכמים ר’ חזקיה בשם ר’ אבהו אשתו של יונה הושבה מיכל בת כושי מיחו בידיה חכמים.

[9] See the addendum in R. Ethan Tucker’s (above referenced) article for a discussion of this point.

[10]  ונראה לפרש דטעמא למ”ד דלא הוי רשות משום דתפילין צריכין גוף נקי ונשים אין זריזות ליזהר.

[11]  אשה שלמדה תורה יש לה שכר אבל אינו כשכר האיש, מפני שלא נצטוית, וכל העושה דבר שאינו מצווה עליו לעשותו אין שכרו כשכר המצווה שעשה אלא פחות ממנו, ואף על פי שיש לה שכר צוו חכמים שלא ילמד אדם את בתו תורה, מפני שרוב הנשים אין דעתם מכוונת להתלמד אלא הן מוציאות דברי תורה לדברי הבאי לפי עניות דעתן, אמרו חכמים כל המלמד את בתו תורה כאילו למדה תפלות, במה דברים אמורים בתורה שבעל פה אבל תורה שבכתב לא ילמד אותה לכתחלה ואם למדה אינו כמלמדה תפלות.

[12]  כתב הר”ם נשים פטורות מתפילין מפני שהוא מצות עשה שהזמן גרמה שהרי אין מניחין אותן בשבת ויום טוב ואם רצו להניח אין שומעין להן מפני שאינן יודעות לשמור עצמן בנקיות ע”כ,

[13]  …משום דתפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים ונשים אינם נקיות לא נקיות גוף ולא נקיות דעת.

[14] He is inspired by the retort of R. Avraham Gombiner (the Magen Avraham) to Rabbi Meir Perels (the Olat Tamid), who asks that if women should not wear tefillin because they don’t have to be careful, why should the explanation of women being exempt because tefillin are a positive time-bound commandment ever have been offered. Just say that people who cannot be careful may not wear tefillin and that should include a subset of men and all women? R. Gombiner responds by saying that since men are obligated the force themselves to be careful, and if women were obligated they would also have to force themselves to be careful, but since they are not obligated they are not permitted to take that chance. This retort seems to be the jumping off point for Rabbi Epstein, who references Magen Avraham and states that his analysis makes this position work.

[15]  נשים ועבדים פטורים מתפילין מפני שהיא מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא דשבת ויו”ט פטור מתפילין ואם רוצין להחמיר על עצמן מוחין בידן ולא דמי לסוכה ולולב שפטורות ועכ”ז מברכות עליהן דכיון דתפילין צריך זהירות יתירה מגוף נקי כדאמרינן בשבת [מ”ט.] תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים ובירושלמי ברכות שם אמרו תמן אמרין כל שאינו כאלישע בעל כנפים אל יניח תפילין אך אנשים שמחויבים בהכרח שיזהרו בהם בשעת ק”ש ותפלה ולכן אין מניחין כל היום כמ”ש בסי’ הקודם וא”כ נשים שפטורות למה יכניסו עצמן בחשש גדול כזה ואצלן בשעת ק”ש ותפלה כלאנשים כל היום לפיכך אין מניחין אותן להניח תפילין ואף על גב דתניא בעירובין [צ”ו.] דמיכל בת שאול היתה מנחת תפילין ולא מיחו בה חכמים אין למידין מזה דמסתמא ידעו שהיא צדקת גמורה וידעה להזהר וכן עבדים כה”ג [עמג”א סק”ג וב”י ולפמ”ש א”ש]:


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

January 31, 2014

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.

 


Metzitzah be-Peh and Protecting Jewish Infants – by Rabbi Zev Farber

March 7, 2012

It is difficult to believe I am writing about meẓiẓah be-peh, that there is a necessity to address this topic once again. Apparently, yet another Jewish infant has succumbed to an infection and died due to the practice of meẓiẓah be-peh. The Brooklyn DA is even now looking into the case. Even if this case of infant death turns out to be unrelated to the meẓiẓah be-peh, the practice of meẓiẓah be-peh among mohalim (Jewish ritual circumcisers) is on the rise, and inevitably, the death-toll will rise with it.

Basic Information

1) What is meẓiẓah be-peh?

It is the act of sucking the blood from the circumcised penis of the infant child by direct oral contact.

2) How do children get ill and die from this?

Since the penis has just been cut, the wound can be infected with any germs present in the mouth of the mohel (Jewish ritual circumciser). Nowadays, the main culprit is herpes, as documented by the New York City health commissioner. In the 19th century it was syphilis and in the 20th century there were cases of tuberculosis and diphtheria; there have certainly been other illnesses as well.[1]

3) What is the purpose of the ritual?

The ritual was originally invented for what were believed to be health benefits. In pre-modern times, before circulation was discovered, it was believed that if too much blood congregated in one spot it could rot and turn to pus, thereby causing illness. The sucking out of the “dangerous” blood shares the same logic as the sucking out of poison from a snake-bite victim.

4) Why is the ritual still done now?

Some believe – mistakenly I will argue – that this ritual is part of the mitzvah (commandment) of milah (circumcision). Others believe that if the rabbis of old thought this practice was healthy, then so it must be, and that anything that has been a part of Jewish practice for centuries cannot possibly be dangerous.

Meẓiẓah in Halakha

Meẓiẓah is mentioned in the Mishna (m. Shabbat 9:2) when listing all the parts of the circumcision ritual that are permitted on the Sabbath.

One does all the necessities for circumcision on Shabbat, the milah (circumcision), the priyah (uncovering of the corona), and the meẓiẓah (sucking of the wound). One places a poultice and cumin upon [the wound]. If one did not grind [the cumin] before Shabbat one can crush it with one’s teeth and apply it. If one has not mixed wine and oil before Shabbat, one can put each on separately. One cannot make a bandage for it ab initio, but one can wrap a rag around it. If one did not have [a rag] available before Shabbat, one may wrap one around one’s finger and carry it [to the infant], even through someone else’s courtyard.

Clearly, the point of the Mishna is that not only the circumcision itself, but even all the health measures taken to protect the infant afterwards are permitted on Shabbat. Additionally, it is clear that the poultice, the cumin, the bandage, and the wine and oil mixture are all meant as health measures. Where does the meẓiẓah fit in? Does it go with milah and priyah as essential parts of the circumcision ritual or does it go with the poultice and the cumin as part of the medicinal requirements?

The answer to this question is made clear in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Shabbat 133b).

Rav Papa said: “Any professional [mohel] that does not suck out [the blood] – this is dangerous and he should be removed from his position.”

Rav Papa states plainly that meẓiẓah is a medical practice. Furthermore, it is such a vital one, in his opinion, that any mohel who is willing to forgo it and risk an infant’s life must be removed from his position. In case this was not sufficiently clear, the Talmud comments further on Rav Papa’s words:

Obviously! From the fact that Shabbat is violated to do this, clearly it is a matter of danger. What might you have thought? That the blood was already pooled [and removing it would not be a Sabbath violation] – we learn that [the blood being sucked out] is still in the skin [and sucking it out would violate Shabbat if it weren’t for the medical necessity.] It is parallel to the poultice and the cumin: just like the poultice and cumin, if one were not to do this it would be dangerous, so too, if one were not to [suck out the blood] it would be dangerous.

In the Talmud’s analysis, the fact that meẓiẓah is a part of the post-circumcision medical intervention is a given: meẓiẓah is a medical intervention parallel to bandaging the wound and applying healing ointments; it is not part of the circumcision itself. To me, this is clearly the intent of the Talmudic passage, although I am aware that this point has been vigorously debated among the halakhic authorities of the past few centuries.

Some, who have found it hard to argue on halakhic grounds, have defended the practice on qabbalistic grounds, claiming that the practice has mystical significance. This may be so – I am not expert in such matters. Nevertheless, qabbalah and its requisite minhagim, in my opinion, do not have the same binding normative force that halakha does. Qabbalistic reasoning cannot be used to define the parameters of mitzvot against the simple meaning of the Talmud; it certainly cannot be used to override health concerns.

Meẓiẓah and Modern Medicine

Modern medicine denies any substantial health benefit to post-circumcision meẓiẓah. Nonetheless, if that were the only critique, the practice could be safely continued as harmless. The problem lies in the fact that, with the discovery of germs and contagion, modern medicine actually demonstrates the dangerous nature of the practice. Sadly, this is the exact opposite of what the practice was invented to do.

In truth, many practices once thought to be helpful have turned out to be harmful, blood-letting being the most obvious example. Once evidence began to accumulate that meẓiẓah was dangerous and that Jewish infants were, in fact, dying because of this practice, the question became, “what to do about it?” The answer has been debated for upwards of two centuries.

Some authorities, such as Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Herzog and R. Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk (followed by his son, R. Moshe Soloveitchik and his grandson, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik), advocated stopping the practice. Others held on tenaciously to a requirement to do meẓiẓah be-peh. Historically, this bewildering allegiance to the practice can be traced to the Orthodox battle against the early reformers in 19th century Europe. At a time when many early reformers were questioning the need for circumcision altogether a ban was passed among the reformers against meẓiẓah be-peh. In response to this ban, many traditionalists, such as R. Moshe Shik (1807-1879) and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), dug in their heels and defended the practice.

Despite the difficulty in endorsing the stance taken by these rabbis, it is important to note that in this period of time there was a widespread feeling that traditional religion was under attack and that it was important to defend every last inch of Jewish law and custom, lest one small change lead to an avalanche of irreligiosity. Furthermore, modern medicine as a scientific discipline was still in its early phases.

Nowadays, neither of these factors is operative. Orthodox Judaism has carved for itself a solid niche and cannot reasonably be described as threatened by the Reform movement. Modern medicine has more than established itself as the dominant paradigm, and every school-child knows that an open wound is susceptible to germs from anything with which it comes into contact. Any doctor that would touch an open wound without gloves and sterilized equipment would be opening him- or herself up for a lawsuit. And yet, there are still defenders of meẓiẓah be-peh, even in modern times.

Three Alternative Models

Three models have been suggested to deal with the modern challenges posed by meẓiẓah be-peh; I will call them the clean-bill-of-health model, the meẓiẓah-equivalent model and the ritual-meẓiẓah model. (I am only personally comfortable with the last two, but will explain all three.)

1)      The Clean Bill of Health Model

Proposed by R. Dr. Mordechai Halperin, M.D., first in Israel and then in an article in Jewish Action called: “Metzitzah B’peh Controversy: The View from Israel,” the suggestion is to devise a method to ensure that the mohalim who perform meẓiẓah be-peh do not have any illnesses, including sores in the mouth, that can transfer disease. (I have heard that this is the practice in England among mohalim that perform meẓiẓah be-peh.) The mohel would have to go through whatever testing deemed medically necessary to ensure the meẓiẓah is safe, and he would need to constantly renew this clean bill of health. Any mohel without this “license” would be barred from performing meẓiẓah be-peh, and any who did so anyway would be banned from practicing by the community.

Although Halperin’s suggestion is commendable, I am personally uncomfortable with it. Since meẓiẓah be-peh has no medical benefit and no halakhic basis nowadays, I see no reason to continue with a practice that reflects antiquated medicine in such a graphic manner. I feel that doing so, even if it weren’t dangerous, sends the wrong message (this, I hear, is R. Moshe Tendler’s argument as well). Furthermore, I can’t help worrying that even with safeguards, the practice may still pose some threat to the infant; one need only consider the amount of germs and bacteria found in a person’s mouth and the fact that illnesses often come about unexpectedly.

Nevertheless, since there are those that stridently disagree with me and believe meẓiẓah be-peh to be either a halakhic requirement or of paramount qabbalistic significance, I have included the clean-bill-of-health model in the hope that the opposition may at least adopt this, thereby protecting the lives of the infant boys who are otherwise in harm’s way.

2)      The Meẓiẓah-Equivalent Model

R. Shlomo Ha-Kohen of Vilna (1828-1905) wrote in a responsum (Binyan Shlomo 2, YD 19) that there is no mitzvah to perform meẓiẓah. Instead, he argued, meẓiẓah should be viewed as part of the general requirement to keep the infant healthy. Therefore, he claims, whatever modern medicine determines to be the best medical practice for keeping the child healthy should be considered the equivalent of meẓiẓah.

According to R. Ha-Kohen, the practice he witnessed in his time period, where the mohel would wrap the penis in rags (smartutin), was the equivalent of meẓiẓah, and that he could not venture to say what the practice would look like in the future. This is because the practice is purely medical and, as he reminds the questioner, he is not a doctor.

Applying Ha-Kohen’s analysis to our times, the modern mohel should sterilize his equipment and use whatever bandages and antibacterial creams are necessary to reduce the risk of infection. In this way he has fulfilled the requirement that is at the root of the – now defunct – requirement to suck out the blood from the wound.

3)      The Ritual-Meẓiẓah Model

Some authorities were less comfortable with cancelling the practice altogether, although they were certainly unwilling to risk the lives of Jewish infants to keep it. Hence the idea of a meẓiẓah performed without direct contact between the mohel’s mouth and the infant’s penis was suggested, and two basic forms of this practice were put forward. One idea, advocated by R. Moshe Schreiber (Sofer), known as the Ḥatam Sofer, was to use a sponge around the corona, with the mohel applying (slight) squeezing pressure to remove some blood.

Another method that is popular with a number of Modern Orthodox mohalim today was to use a glass pipet. The mohel would place the pipet upon the wound and suck from the other side, stopping when some blood would come out of the wound. This method was advocated (or at least permitted) by a number of halakhic authorities, such as R. Malkiel Tenenbaum, R. Elyakim Shapiro of Grodno and R. Avraham Kook. It also seems to be the preferred solution of R. Moshe Pirutinsky in his influential compendium, Sefer ha-Brit.

Ancient Rabbis, Ancient Science

One popular response to the critique of the practice of meẓiẓah be-peh has been that if the Sages of old defended the practice, it must be safe and even life-sustaining. It would be beyond the scope of this post to respond in full to this argument, but it is important to note that such an argument suffers from the fallacy of granting the Talmudic Sages superhuman intelligence, making them not only the expositors of traditional Torah laws, but also the repository of all scientific knowledge, past and future. It reflects the belief that the rabbis knew all of science and natural law.

When faced with contradictions between the statements of the rabbis and the reality as described by modern science, some more extreme apologists will even argue that the Talmud is correct and modern physicians are mistaken. This, of course, conflicts with all evidence and any semblance of reason. It reflects the fear that if one admits that the Sages were humans – albeit very wise ones – and that they erred in scientific knowledge, someone could suggest that their views on religion were also in error.

One can appreciate the fear of these ultra-conservatives based on what is at stake. Nevertheless, to me, the very idea that someone would defend a practice that by any reasonable modern standard is dangerous to infants – that has in fact killed a number of infant Jewish boys over the years – in order to support a misguided view of the Talmudic Sages’ infallibility is unfathomable. One cannot hide one’s head in the sand and protect an outdated and fictitious worldview at the expense of the lives of our sons. No matter how small the percentage of deaths may be – and it is admittedly rather small – it is an unacceptable cost for such a paltry return.

Additionally, it appears to me that claiming the performance of meẓiẓah is part of the mitzvah should be considered a distortion of the mitzvah itself. One who makes this claim, despite the obvious evidence from the Talmud to the contrary, is in serious danger of violating the prohibition of bal tosif – the prohibition of adding on to the mitzvot of the Torah. It is well known that one of the categories of this prohibition is changing the form of a mitzvah; the claim that meẓiẓah is a milah-requirement and not a safety-requirement does just that — it changes the form of the mitzvah.

Finally, the ḥillul ha-shem (desecration of God’s name) factor cannot be ignored. Religion in our society is constantly under a microscope. Although Judaism and Torah observance often requires acts that have no objective basis in empirical observation, stemming instead from revelation or tradition, we want to make evident that our religion is not harmful. In the current climate circumcision is controversial enough; the helpful vs. harmful aspects of the practice are being debated in a number of societies across the world even now.

Since circumcision is a Torah commandment as well as a core identity marker for Jews, we have defended this practice – and will continue to do so – in every conceivable manner. However, why should we defend meẓiẓah be-peh, a practice which is not a mitzvah and contains no material benefit to the child, only harm? With medical journals publishing pieces like Benjamen Gesundheit et al.’s Neonatal Genital Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Infection after Jewish Circumcision: Modern Medicine and Religious TraditionPediatrics 114.2 (2004): 259-263 – the defense of circumcision becomes that much harder, and the idea of Jews being “a light unto the Nations” – well-nigh impossible.

What Would Rav Papa Say?

Perhaps the saddest irony is how the current practice of meẓiẓah be-peh utterly distorts the words of Rav Papa. Rav Papa’s great concern was the safety of Jewish infants, and it was for the sake of safety that he ruled that any mohel who does not perform meẓiẓah should be barred from practice. He believed that skipping this act would endanger the child. Nowadays we understand that the reverse is true: performing this act endangers the child.

If Rav Papa were around today, following his own logic, he would have said that any mohel who touches the open wound without gloves and sterilized instruments – including with his mouth to perform the outdated and discredited medical practice of sucking at an open wound – must be barred from practice. Every mohel who practices meẓiẓah be-peh nowadays is really accomplishing the opposite of what Rav Papa wanted. Moreover, any mohel who does so  without ensuring that he has a clean bill of health, thereby, risking the life an infant Jewish boy in the name of Rav Papa, is, in fact, driving a knife into the very heart of Rav Papa himself. A greater insult to a greater man is hardly imaginable.

Suggested Policy

Since this issue cannot be settled with blog-posts and articles, I would like to suggest some practical steps:

For those who cannot accept my interpretation of the halakha and believe that meẓiẓah be-peh is required, and that a pipet or a sponge would not be sufficient – I implore you: at least adopt the clean-bill-of-health model. Consult with physicians and design a healthiness licensing system for your mohalim.

For those that do accept my reading of the halakha – and I assume this is the overwhelming majority of the Modern Orthodox community – we should reject the practice altogether. Meẓiẓah be-peh – at least without the mohel having attained a “clean-bill-of-health” – should be declared a sakkanat nefashot (a life-threatening danger), as it already has been by the New York City Department of Health, and a gratuitous one.

The simple understanding of halakha is that meẓiẓah is not a mitzvah and there are other ways to accomplish it even if it were. Therefore, I suggest the following policies be established in our communities.

  1. Our members will not use mohalim that do meẓiẓah be-peh. Only mohalim that follow either the meẓiẓah-equivalent model (i.e. no meẓiẓah just bandages and sterilization) or ritual-meẓiẓah model (pipet or some other indirect method) will be used.
  2. Our rabbis will not officiate at any brit that has a mohel that does meẓiẓah be-peh.
  3. Our synagogues will not allow the use of our sanctuaries, social halls or any part of our buildings for a brit if there will be meẓiẓah be-peh, at least until such time as these mohalim have instituted an acceptable clean-bill-of-health model.

This is a matter of the safety of our children, and we are accountable for any child that is hurt or dies because we were not strict about this. It is my fervent hope that in taking a strong stance on this issue, all Jewish communities will eventually follow suit. In a matter of life or death, with so much to lose and so little to gain, can we really afford to do less?

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta


[1] For a thorough discussion of this, see Dr. Shlomo Sprecher, “Meiah be-Peh – Therapeutic Touch or Hippocratic Vestige?” akirah 3 (2006): 15-66. I make much use of this excellent article in this blog-post. Also see some of the response letters in akirah 4, especially those of Dr. Marc Shapiro, Dr. Debby Koren and, of course, Dr. Sprecher’s response. For an approach similar to the one I am taking in this article, see Cantor Philip Sherman’s Metzitzah B’Peh-Oral Law? that appeared in Conversations 6, as well as on the Jewishideas website.


When not to act piously –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 9, 2012

Recently I came a across a passage in the Misilat Yisharim (Path of the Just) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzato, that seems so prescient of the times we are living in now as Jews with all our infighting and outfighting and acting out on the right and left.  If we keep in the forefront of our minds the following words of the Misilat Yisharim I think it will help to guide us as to what actions will be for the greater good of the Jewish people, the glory of God and to be a light unto the nations, and which actions, in contrast, are detrimental to those noble ends.

“…Though one should run to do mitzvoth (commandments)…there are times when they can lead to quarrel, such that the mitzvah and the name of Heaven will desecrated instead of sanctified.  In such cases certainly the Chasid (pious person) is obligated to put aside the commandment and not to run after it.

Though we are obligated to perform the mitzvoth with all their details and not to be afraid or ashamed, even so mitzvoth require great discernment, for this statement was said only about absolute obligations; but any added piety that if a person performs it the public will mock them for it, should not be performed; as the prophet says: “Walk humbly with your God.”

Thus a person who wishes to be pious must weigh all their deeds with attention to what their deeds’ repercussions will be according to the time, place and culture in which one is living.  If not acting will cause greater sanctification of God’s name, we must hold back and not act.  All acts must be judged according to their repercussions not according to whether the act itself seems good.  These things can only be discerned by one who has an understanding heart and common sense; for it is impossible to codify the details of this which are infinite….This should be our vision of the path which shall bring true light and faith, to do what is straight in the eyes of God.”

-Chapter 21: On the Balancing of Chasidut (Piety)