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“Ke-Gavna” or “Ba-meh Madlikin?”

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Translated by Kaeren Fish

The final verse of parashat Behar reads, “You shall keep My shabbatot, and revere My Sanctuary; I am the Lord” (Vayikra 26:2). The Ba’al ha-Turim explains, based on the Gemara in Yevamot (6a), that Shabbat observance is juxtaposed to the Sanctuary to teach that despite the importance of building of the Sanctuary, it does not give us license to desecrate Shabbat. It is specifically with reference to the Temple – the site representing the climax of the spiritual and emotional religious experience – that the Torah sees fit to warn us against neglecting or disregarding aspects of Halakha. When we find ourselves in an environment of intense spirituality, we are in danger of overstepping bounds to which we are usually committed. Indeed, this message of caution might be broadened to apply to all situations of spiritual uplift, even in the absence of the Temple.

In a similar vein, R. Chaim of Volozhin describes, in his Nefesh ha-Chaim (VII, in the section in between Part 2 and Part 3), how the yetzer ha-ra tries to persuade a person to follow his feelings and intuitions in serving God; the evil inclination can even cite many sources in the Gemara to support this view. The yetzer ha-ra, furthermore, brings proof from the fact that our forefathers lived before the giving of the Torah, and followed the path that they believed was right and good without any specific Divine command.

R. Chaim counters this way of thinking (which he attributes to the chassidim of his time) by explaining that a religious approach based on inner direction and feeling was appropriate only in the time before the giving of the Torah. Once we have the Torah, a person is no longer entitled to choose for himself in what way to serve God, because God Himself has set down the laws for us to follow.

R. Chaim’s explanation supports the message that a person cannot allow his desire for closeness to God to lead him to violate Halakha. We can draw close to God only within the framework of Halakha.

Obviously, everyone needs some sort of spiritual experience. People need spiritual fulfillment, which lies beyond the realm of the intellect. However, this need must be channeled in the right direction. Too often, we witness the opposite. For example, we come across advertisements for courses on “the hidden secrets of Judaism.” An institute for kabbalah exposes Jews to “the inner wisdom” of Judaism even if they lack religious background and commitment to observance of the commandments. Kabbala is not the first dimension of Judaism that a Jew unacquainted with Torah should encounter. Participants in such groups receive the impression that all that God wants of us is that we should long for Him and look to Him, with no hint of commitment to observance. Some people argue that this sort of activity brings people closer to Judaism, but I ask – to what Judaism?

This phenomenon is not limited to the Jewish world. The media presents many stories of Americans – including mathematicians, doctors, scientists – who join various religious groups out of a need for some sort of spiritual experience. There are many people who travel to India with the aim of participating in the sort of religious ceremonies that are to be found in the Far East. Within Judaism, too, there are some groups whose focus is mainly the spiritual experience of serving God. These groups are very popular, because they offer a quick and easy solution to people’s existential troubles. Many groups offer participants spiritual experiences along with very limited practical observance. The idea that there is some sort of magic formula that can solve all a person’s problems is far more appealing than the idea that one has to commit oneself to fulfilling practical demands in order to redeem the individual soul. As a result, kabbalah has become more popular than it was in the past, and there are people who feel that kabbalah alone is their guide to religious life. What should actually guide a person is the Halakha.

Since the founding of our yeshiva, we have always recited as part of Kabbalat Shabbat both “Ba-meh madlikin” and the “Ke-gavna” prayer, which belongs to the tradition of Ashkenaz, even though the yeshiva usually follows the Sefarad prayer tradition. Most siddurim do not offer both, and for this reason on Shabbat eve I take two siddurim. I do not remember the reason for my decision that at the yeshiva both would be recited, but with hindsight I believe it had something to do with the idea discussed above. “Ke-gavna” is taken from the Zohar (Teruma 163, 2) and it deals with the spiritual essence of Shabbat, explaining how on Shabbat a person can draw close to God. “Ba-meh madlikin,” on the other hand, is a collection of mishnayot taken from the second chapter of Massekhet Shabbat, and deals with the laws of candle-lighting. To my mind, it is essential that the main motif of “Ke-gavna” – the spiritual, hidden nature of Shabbat – should be part of our Shabbat experience. However, it should not be viewed as the sole or even the most important aspect. Here at the yeshiva, we cannot focus on “Ke-gavna” without also focusing on “Ba-meh madlikin”: the laws of Shabbat. The spiritual experience of Shabbat cannot deviate from the boundaries of Halakha.

Nefesh ha-Chaim (IV, 7) cites a beraita from the academy of R. Yishmael, which appears in Massekhet Shabbat (31a). The beraita permits a merchant to add a kav measure of ‘chumtin’ – a sand-like preservative – to a ‘kor’ of grain. R. Chaim explains that this beraita teaches an important principle: a person may add this measure of preservative to the wheat, even though seemingly it takes the place of some of the wheat (such that one might have considered it dishonest to sell the wheat by volume), because this substance serves to preserve and maintain the wheat in optimal condition. In the same way, a person is permitted to spend some portion of the day contemplating his relationship with God, even though this comes at the expense of the Torah study he could engage in during that same time, because this is what ‘preserves’ the sanctity of his learning. If a person has no depth and substance to his relationship with God, there is clearly no point in him spending time in such contemplation. This would be comparable to a quantity of preservative without any wheat. The Torah is the foundation of man’s connection with God, and the fear of God is the treasure-house that stores and protects it (maamar 19, at the end of Nefesh ha-Chaim). R. Chaim estimates, on the basis of the measures mentioned in the Gemara, that a person should devote five minutes each day to ‘preservative’ contemplation, while the rest of his time should be devoted to the ‘wheat’ – Torah study.

In our times it may be that slightly more ‘preservative’ is needed than the measure recommended by R. Chaim; perhaps we need to spend ten minutes or even half an hour studying books of Jewish thought and mussar. It is important that our relationship with God have a spiritual dimension to it. However, it is essential that this spirituality accompany objective, practical halakhic observance, and be part of a true life of Torah. There is a need for the “Ke-gavna,” but it is lost and meaningless without the solid framework of “Ba-meh madlikin.”

(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Behar 5757 [1997].)