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"Honey and Milk are Under Your Tongue"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




"Honey and Milk are Under Your Tongue"

Adapted by Dov Karoll



And if you walk with Me with "keri," and refuse to obey Me, I shall increase your punishment sevenfold, in accordance with your sins. (Vayikra 26:21)

Rashi (s.v. ve-im), explaining the difficult word "keri," writes:

Our rabbis said that this word means "arai" (irregularity or impermanence). Thus, the verse could be read as follows: If you will follow the mitzvot only occasionally….

According to this explanation, the Torah speaks of the problems resulting from a lack of steadfastness or permanence in fulfilling mitzvot, keeping them only when the opportunity arises.


This deficiency of "keri," being fickle in one's observance, can be both quantitative as well as qualitative. On the quantitative level, if you fulfill mitzvot and learn Torah only when they fit into your schedule, you may well end up fulfilling and studying less. Accordingly, you must counteract this keri with consistency and stability in scrupulous observance of mitzvot, making them a permanent fixture in your life.

Beyond this quantitative aspect, there is also a qualitative deficiency that results from inconsistency, and that can be expressed at two levels. At the first level, the nature of one's learning and one's performance of mitzvot is of a different quality when it is done consistently. One can delve the depths in one's learning and immerse oneself entirely in the performance of mitzvot on an entirely different level when doing so consistently rather than mercurially. One's prayers and blessings can attain greater intensity when one is engages in these activities regularly instead of sporadically.


The Mishna (Berakhot 16a) teaches that day laborers who are working at the top of a tree can recite the Shema at the top of the tree, but for the Amida prayer they must come down. Given that prayer involves standing before God, a higher level of focus and concentration is required for that observance; therefore, reading from the top of the tree will not suffice. The Gemara there discusses whether they can continue to work while they recite the Shema, citing conflicting tannaitic sources. The Gemara resolves this contradiction by explaining that they must stop working while reading the first chapter of the Shema, while they can continue working as they read the second chapter.


One possible understanding of this distinction is to relate the need to stop working for the first chapter to the requirement of concentration (kavvana). Tosafot there (s.v. ha) point in this direction. They cite the view of Rava earlier (13b), that concentration is required only for the first verse of Shema. Since the law distinguishing between the first two chapters of Shema is also cited in the name of Rava, they conclude that the Gemara here really refers only to the first verse, maintaining the correspondence between the requirement of concentration and the requirement to cease from work.


The Rif (9a-b), on the other hand, believes that the Gemara's answer (i.e., that laborers must desist from work for the first chapter) is in accordance with the view of Rabbi Yochanan, according to whom kavvana is required for the entire first chapter. According to Rava, explains the Rif, the requirement to desist from work for the entire first chapter of Shema is not due to the requirement of kavvana, but rather to ensure that mitzvot be performed in a settled (keva) manner and not in a capricious (arai) one. The Rif then refers to a Gemara in Yoma (19b):

Rav Yitzchak bar Shmuel bar Marta said, "He who reads the Shema may neither blink with his eyes, nor gesticulate with his lips, nor point with his fingers."

It has also been taught: Rabbi Elazar Chisma said, "One who, while reading the Shema, blinks with his eyes, gesticulates with his lips, or points with his fingers, about him the verse states, 'You have not called out to Me, Yaakov' (Yeshayahu 43:22)."


The Rif points out that the Gemara explains that these statements apply to the first chapter of the Shema, with the reason being (based on the continuation of the Gemara there) that "You shall make them a regular program (keva) and not a casual topic (arai)." Similarly, here, explains the Rif, the requirement to desist from work exists to prevent the recitation of the Shema deteriorating into an "arai" activity.


The Ramban (Milchamot Hashem, 9a in Rif pagination, s.v. amar ha-kotev im ken), defending the Rif's position, expands this concept even further. The concern lest the performance of mitzvot become applies not only to the prohibitions mentioned in the Gemara in Yoma, but also to birkat ha-mazon, the grace after meals. The rabbis ruled that workers could recite a shorter version of birkat ha-mazon, containing only the first three, biblically ordained, berakhot. The Ramban explains that the reason for this is so that they not work while reciting birkat ha-mazon. If they could work while reciting birkat ha-mazon, the Ramban reasons, why would the rabbis have needed to establish this short version? The employer would not have been losing their work.


Accordingly, the Ramban continues, one must not work even while fulfilling the mitzva by hearing from someone else, for the Gemara states that even if the employer eats with them, they should recite the short version. If they could simply listen while they work, then the employer could recite the birkat ha-mazon on their behalf while they toil. The Ramban concludes, "All this is to assure that the mitzvot remain the primary and that they should not be treated lightly."


This leads us to the second, experiential aspect of the qualitative distinction between arai and keva. Kevi'ut, permanence, is central not only in order to maximize one's performance, and not merely to ensure a more serious and profound performance of the mitzva itself, but in order to define the very nature of that service. Keva entails the experience that Torah and mitzvot are indispensable for our existence. It is that the feeling of "For they [the words of Your Torah] are our life and the length of our days," which leads us to, "And in them shall we involve ourselves day and night" (from the evening prayers).


We assure that Torah and mitzvot are a constant part of our lives, because we cannot live without them. Kevi'ut at the existential plane is seen in the approach of the Rif and Ramban - the Torah and the mitzvot play such a central role that they must be performed in a manner that expresses keviut. Mitzva performance characterized by ara'iyut, impermanence, would undermine their very performance, even if they were still performed with the same regularity.


This notion of kevi'ut is also seen in the Rambam (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:8), who speaks of the centrality of being setting aside, or being kovea, times for the study of Torah. Whether old or young, wealthy or poor, every Jewish man must set aside time for learning every day and night. It is not simply that one must make sure to be fulfill the mitzva of studying Torah daily. Rather, it is essential that talmud Torah with kevi'ut be part of every day and every night.


One of the six questions that one is asked on the ultimate day of judgment, according to Rava (Shabbat 31a), is "Kava'ta ittim la-Torah," "Did you fix times for learning?" This is not merely a question of learning, but of making sure that Torah is part of your life with kevi'ut, an indispensable part of your existence. The hatmada, the existential connection, the constancy of one's connection to Torah, to encounter with Word of God, needs to fill one's existence.


This is highlighted when the Rambam speaks of the path one needs to follow in striving toward achieving the "crown of Torah" (3:13). One who strives for the crown of Torah must capitalize all his time; each night must be filled with Torah and not withwasteful activities. This is a very difficult standard, and rarely will people actually reach it, but it should certainly be appreciated as a goal and an ideal.


That being said, one could also claim that there is a price to pay for kevi'ut, for constancy. There is some value to "keri," to the exotic and the fresh, to the new and exciting, which is worn away by constant reapplication and routinization of one's performance of Torah and mitzvot. This criticism is not without basis. If one allows this degeneration to take place, the kevi'ut will wear away at the vigor of one's service of God. However, we are called upon to attain both of these goals. We must serve God with kevi'ut, with constancy and consistency, while maintaining the freshness and vigor of that learning.


The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 7:3) explains that the verse in Shir Ha-shirim (4:11), "Honey and milk are under your tongue," is a metaphor for the study of Torah. Torah, on the one hand, resembles milk, the most basic form of nutrition, the original and initial source of a baby's nutrition, providing the foundation of one's diet. Honey, on the other hand, is the epitome of a luxury item, a bonus, something that is beyond the norm but clearly enhances it.


As bnei Torah, we should regard Torah as our basic life-source, gaining from it essential sustenance. At the same time, we should treat it as honey, a delicacy, enhancing our experience of mitzvot and our connection to God. If we regard Torah as our very lifeblood and as our special treat, we shall grow into fuller servants of God and adherents to Torah.

[This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Parashat Bechukkotai, 5763 (2003).]

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