SALT Parashat Naso 2015/5775


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  • Rav David Silverberg

Motzaei Shabbat

            We read in Parashat Naso of the wagons that were donated by the nesi’im (tribal leaders) for the Leviyim, who were responsible for transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings when Benei Yisrael traveled through the wilderness.  God instructed Moshe that the Kehat family of Leviyim, which was responsible for carrying the most sacred items, were not to use the wagons, as “ba-kateif yisa’u” (7:9) – they must carry the sacred articles specifically on their shoulders.  The Rambam, in Sefer Ha-mitzvot (asei 34), cites this verse as the source of a Biblical command that the ark must be carried on the kohanim’s shoulders.  Whenever the ark is to be transported, it may not be carried by wagon, and must instead be carried on the people’s shoulders.  (The Rambam maintains that in general, it was the kohanim, and not other members of the tribe of Levi, who carried the ark, a position challenged by the Ramban in his critique of Sefer Ha-mitzvot.)  Indeed, the Gemara in Masekhet Sota (35) states that the tragedy of Uza, who was killed when accompanying the ark on a wagon during the time of King David (Shemuel II 6:6-7), occurred as a punishment for the ark’s having been transported by wagon.

            We might perhaps gain a clearer understanding of this prohibition in light of another incident related in Tanakh in which the ark was transported on a wagon.  In Sefer Shemuel I (6), we read of how the Pelishtim, who had captured the ark during battle against Benei Yisrael, returned the ark, placing it on a wagon.  They harnessed the wagon to a pair of cows, and had the cows walk randomly, wherever they wanted to go.  It was decided that if the cows walked to the nearest Israelite town – Beit Shemesh – then this would be a sign that the ark’s presence among the Pelishtim was responsible for the mysterious calamities that had befallen the Philistine towns over the previous seven months.

            This story perhaps underscores the fact that transportation via wagon limits the extent of human control over the ark’s destination.  Of course, in the case of the Pelishtim, this was especially pronounced, as nobody accompanied the ark and the cows were allowed to travel at whim.  But even when there is a person steering the animals, his control is somewhat restricted.  A person carrying something by hand exercises full control over where that object ends up, whereas if he places it on a wagon, even if the wagon is hitched to an animal which he tries to steer, his control over the object’s destination is more limited.

            Symbolically, then, the requirement to transport the ark by shoulder might represent the need to assume full responsibility for the future and destiny of Torah. We are called upon to personally “transport” our tradition and bring it to the next generation, rather than blithely assume that it will get there on its own.  We are commanded not to let the Torah sit on a “wagon” with the optimistic hope that it will go where we want it to go, that it will continue to accompany and guide our nation.  Rather, we must carry it on our “shoulders,” with a sense of responsibility and obligation to ensure that it is continued and perpetuated, and it reaches the next generation in its pure, pristine form, and remains with the Jewish people forever.


            The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (35) notes the Torah’s command in Parashat Naso (7:9), “ba-kateif yisa’u,” which requires transporting the ark specifically by shoulder, rather than placing it in a wagon.  This law was violated in the time of King David, when David had the ark transported on a wagon, which resulted in the death of Uza, one of the men accompanying the aron (Shemuel II 6:6-7).  The Gemara comments that David made this mistake, overlooking a clear, explicit command in the Torah, as a punishment for a comment he made in Tehillim (119:54), “Zemirot hayu li chukekha be-veit megurai” (literally, “Your statutes were songs for me, in my house of residence”).  God was angry at David for describing Torah knowledge, which requires intensive focus, concentration and diligence, as “song.”  David was punished for this disrespectful reference to Torah by forgetting a clear Biblical command, the requirement of “ba-kateif yisa’u.”

            Elsewhere (Sifrei, Korach), Chazal explain this verse in Tehillim to mean that David studied Torah during times of crisis.  The word “megurai” is understood as “fear,” and thus in this verse David professes that during his periods of distress, when he fled from Shaul and found himself living in caves, he turned to Torah as a source of comfort and joy.  When his life seemed to be crumbling, and he enjoyed no peace or security, his only source of solace was delving into the wisdom of Torah.  (See Rashi’s comments there in Masekhet Sota.)

            The question naturally arises, why did God criticize David for this description of Torah?  Why was he wrong for pointing to Torah as his only source of comfort during the difficult periods in his life?

            Perhaps, Chazal seek to impress upon us that we must not approach Torah as only as a source of comfort and joy.  Certainly, Torah serves as “zemirot,” bringing us satisfaction and enjoyment, and providing comfort and solace during life’s harder moments.  But this must not be the extent of our relationship to Torah.  Its role must not be limited to the emotional benefits it provides.  Torah indeed functions as “zemirot,” but it is also a burden that we must bear even when we are not in need of its emotional benefits, and even when, for whatever reason, it cannot provide such benefits.  And this might be why the Gemara’s response to “Zemirot hayu li chukekha” is the command of “ba-kateif yisa’u.”  This command symbolizes the “burden” aspect of Torah, that we must “carry” it on our shoulders without using “wagons,” without seeking comfort and convenience.  The obligations entailed in studying and practicing Torah are not always “zemirot”; they do not always provide us with an immediate sense of joy and satisfaction.  We must therefore approach these obligations as not only “zemirot,” but also as a heavy burden which we proudly and devotedly bear, committing ourselves unconditionally and without the expectation that they will always provide enjoyment and gratification.


            The Torah in Parashat Naso discusses the procedure to be followed in the case of a sota – a woman whose husband suspects her of infidelity.  Under certain conditions, the husband brings his wife to the Beit Ha-mikdash, and the kohen performs a special ritual whereby it is determined whether the wife had indeed betrayed him.

            The Gemara, toward the end of Masekhet Berakhot (63), notes the juxtaposition between this section and the preceding verses (5:9-10), which discuss the obligations of terumot and ma’aserot – the various gifts that one must give to the kohanim and Leviyim.  This juxtaposition, the Gemara comments, points to a causal connection between these two sections: “Why is the section of sota juxtaposed to the section of terumot and ma’aserot?  To teach you that whoever has terumot and ma’aserot but does not give them to the kohen will eventually need the kohen as a result of his wife.”  One who fails to meet his responsibilities to the kohanim by giving them their required gifts will be punished by having his wife act suspiciously, thus resulting in his having to come to the kohen in the Mikdash for the sota ritual.

            The Gemara here contrasts two vastly different contexts in which a person encounters the kehuna.  The first is that of terumot and ma’aserot – a person who enjoys a successful crop, and is required to give a percentage to the kohanim to support them and enable them to continue working in the MikdashTerumot and ma’aserot represent the requirement to engage in the “kehuna,” in spirituality, even during times of prosperity and success.  The second context, by contrast, is that of sota, when a person faces a personal crisis and his family is threatened, and he comes to the kohen for help.  This is a situation where a person turns to the kehuna for assistance during times of crisis.

            Chazal here might be warning us not to limit our encounters with the “kehuna” – with religion and devotion to God – to periods of crisis.  As we noted yesterday, King David was criticized for depicting Torah as his source of solace and comfort during times of hardship.  We must remain attached and devoted to our religion even in the context of “terumot and ma’aserot,” even when we enjoy success and prosperity.  Even when we might feel that we do not “need” religion, that our lives are fine the way they are, when we feel self-sufficiently comfortable and at ease, we must not neglect the “kohen,” our obligations to God. 

            Over the course of our lives, we will certainly face situations of “sota” – of personal crisis when we look to the “kehuna,” to our faith, as a source of comfort and guidance.  The Gemara teaches us, however, that we must look to our faith as a source of guidance even during times of success and stability, recognizing that we are to be bound to Torah and mitzvot at all times and under all circumstances.


            Yesterday, we cited the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Berakhot (63), “Why is the section of sota juxtaposed to the section of terumot and ma’aserot?  To teach you that whoever has terumot and ma’aserot but does not give them to the kohen will eventually need the kohen as a result of his wife.”  The Gemara observes that the Torah presents the laws of sota – the suspected adulteress, who is brought to the kohen to determine her innocence or guilt – immediately after discussing one’s obligations to the kohanim.  To explain this juxtaposition, the Gemara asserts that one who neglects his obligations to the kohanim is punished with a troubled marriage, which results in his having to bring his wife to a kohen.

            One approach that can be taken to explain the Gemara’s comment is that it seeks to emphasize the importance of generous and selfless giving in marriage.  If a person is unwilling to part with a percentage of his crop to fulfill the Torah’s obligations for supporting the kohanim, then he is, in all likelihood, stingy and self-centered, at least to some extent.  When people are unable to sacrifice and give of themselves, the Gemara teaches, their marriage is prone to come under crisis.  A stable marriage requires both partners to be generous and selfless, and thus Chazal warn that if a person stingily refuses to give the required percentage to the kohanim, reflecting a lack of willingness to sacrifice, then he might very well experience strain in his relationships, especially in his marriage.

            This might also be the message conveyed by the Gemara elsewhere (Chulin 141a, Sukka 53a, Nedarim 66b), where it notes the significance of the fact that the sota ritual entails the erasure of the divine Name.  The kohen would write a certain text – which included God’s Name – and then erase the ink into the water which he would give the wife to drink.  Chazal commented that for the sake of repairing a strained marriage, by determining a suspected wife’s innocence, God was prepared to have His Name erased.  Here, too, Chazal perhaps seek to teach that maintaining stable relationships requires self-sacrifice.  People must be prepared to forego on a degree of honor in order to make space for the needs and honor of others.  God is therefore prepared to have His Name erased during the sota ritual, teaching us that if we want to build and maintain strong relationships, we cannot be rigid and demanding, and must instead show flexibility and be willing to sacrifice a degree of personal honor.

(Based on an article by Rav Yaakov Neuberger)


            Yesterday, we noted the Gemara’s observation in several contexts that in a situation of a sota – a wife suspected of infidelity – the special ritual that is performed to determine the woman’s guilt or innocence entails the erasure of God’s Name.  The Gemara comments that due to the importance of maintaining peaceful relations between husband and wife, God is prepared to even allow His Name to be erased for the sake of repairing a relationship that had been strained by a woman’s suspicious behavior.

            The question arises as to whether the erasure of God’s Name during the sota ritual sets a precedent of allowing the violation of Torah prohibitions for the sake of shalom bayit (marital harmony).  Under which circumstances, if any, would it be permissible to transgress a Torah law in order to save a threatened marriage?

            Rav Hai Gaon, in one of his published responsa (cited by the Rashba, responsa 1:854), addressed this question in reference to the case of a person who (apparently upon being angered by his wife) took a formal vow that he would divorce his wife.  May this man violate his vow and remain married to his wife, due to the importance of shalom bayit?  Perhaps, just as God’s Name is erased for the sake of repairing a marriage, a vow may be violated for the sake of preserving a marriage.  Rav Hai Gaon does not accept this line of reasoning, and rules that the man must fulfill his vow and give his wife a divorce.  His reasoning is somewhat ambiguous, as he writes that the case of sota is unique because the erasure of God’s Name, and the wife’s drinking the water, serves to resolve the uncertainty as to whether she betrayed her husband.  God allows His Name to be erased in order to clarify the woman’s status, but this does not mean that in general one may transgress the Torah for the sake of preserving a marriage.

            The Rama, in one of his published responsa (100:10), suggests an explanation of Rav Hai’s comments.  He writes that in Rav Hai Gaon’s view, the concern for shalom bayit does not override any Torah prohibition, including the prohibition against erasing God’s Name.  This prohibition, the Rama explains, is limited – at least according to Rav Hai Gaon – to situations where the erasure does not yield any positive, constructive result.  When the erasure is done for a constructive purpose, however, then no prohibition is entailed at all.  The Rama draws a comparison to the case of a sofer who needs to erase God’s Name in a Torah scroll because a drop of ink fell and corrupted a letter.  The sofer may erase the letter in such a case, because this is done for the constructive purpose of producing a properly-written Name.  Similarly, the Rama argues, Rav Hai Gaon felt that erasing God’s Name to determine a wife’s guilt or innocence serves a constructive purpose, and thus is not forbidden at all.  Hence, this halakha does not set a precedent that may be followed in other situations.  It is unique to the prohibition of erasing God’s Name, which is not forbidden when this is necessary for a constructive purpose.


            Yesterday, we presented the question of whether perhaps the sota ritual may be seen as establishing a precedent allowing for the transgression of certain Torah laws for the sake of shalom bayit (peaceful relations between husband and wife).  The Gemara in several places makes the observation that the sota ritual involves the erasure of a text containing God’s Name.  Erasing God’s Name is strictly forbidden, yet the Torah requires doing so as part of the process of preparing the waters to be drunk by the sota to determine her guilt or innocence.  The Gemara viewed this measure as demonstrating the importance of shalom bayit, that God is prepared to have His Name erased in order to affirm the innocence of a woman suspected by her husband of infidelity, and thereby restore peaceful relations.  The question thus arises as to whether this provision is unique to the situation of sota, or if perhaps in other situations, as well, Torah law is waived for the sake of preserving marital harmony.

            Among the sources that have been cited in reference to this topic is the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Chulin (141a) regarding the obligation of shilu’ach ha-kein – sending away a mother bird when taking the eggs or chicks.  The Torah forbids taking the mother bird together with her young, and requires one who did so to send the mother bird away.  The Gemara there in Chulin addresses the case of one who took a mother bird together with her eggs, and he needs the mother bird for the purpose of a mitzva.  Specifically, the bird is needed for the purpose of the purification of a metzora, a process which involves two birds.  The Gemara considers the possibility of allowing the person to keep the mother bird, in violation of the Torah’s command to send it away, for the sake of the mitzva of purifying the metzora.  In explaining why the purification of a metzora should override the command to send away the mother bird, the Gemara points to the precedent of sota.  Just as the concern for shalom bayit allows for erasing God’s Name, likewise, the need to purify a metzora – who may not engage in marital relations during his state of impurity – should override the command of shilu’ach ha-kein.  Since the metzora’s marital stability is at stake, his purification should perhaps override the obligation of shilu’ach ha-kein and allow keeping the mother bird.  The Gemara accepts this rationale, but infers from a nuance in the text of the Torah’s command of shilu’ach ha-kein that the mother bird must be sent away even when it is needed for a mitzva.  This discussion would seem to suggest that as a rule, shalom bayit is grounds for violating a Torah command, and it is only when the Torah itself indicates otherwise that we may not override a command for the sake of shalom bayit.


            In truth, however, this conclusion is not entirely accurate.  The Gemara here does not speak of a situation where a Torah command is potentially superseded by the concern for shalom bayit.  Rather, it discusses a case where two mitzvot conflict, and there is reason to favor one over the other due to the factor of shalom bayit.  If one took the mother bird for the metzora’s purification together with her eggs, he now bears an obligation to send away the bird, but there is also an obligation to use this bird for the metzora’s purification.  Given that the metzora’s purification is necessary to maintain the metzora’s marriage, the Gemara ruled that in principle, the mitzva to purify the metzora should override the command of shilu’ach ha-kein.  Thus, all we may conclude from the Gemara’s discussion is that shalom bayit can serve as the determining factor when the need arises to choose between two conflicting mitzvot.  We may not conclude on the basis of the Gemara’s discussion that the concern for shalom bayit on its own overrides Torah obligations.

(See Rav Chaim Eisenstein’s Peninim Mi-bei Midresha, Naso)


            The Torah concludes the section dealing with the sota – woman suspected by her husband of infidelity – by stating, “ve-nika ha-ish mei-avon” – “the husband shall be clean of sin” (5:31).  The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (28a) explains this phrase as imposing an important condition relevant to the sota procedure.  Namely, the water drunk by the woman will affirm her guilt only if the husband is also “clean” of sin.  If the husband is also guilty, then the woman will not die after drinking the water, even if she indeed committed an act of infidelity.

            Rashi, commenting on the Gemara (and in other contexts in the Gemara), explains this to mean that the husband must not have engaged in relations with his wife after she became a sota.  If a husband warned his wife not to seclude herself with a certain man, and she and that man are later seen going into seclusion together, she becomes a sota and relations with her husband are forbidden.  According to Rashi, the husband must be “clean” of this transgression – engaging in relations with his wife after she is deemed a sota – in order for the sota water to be effective in determining the wife’s innocence or guilt.

            The Rambam, however, in Hilkhot Sota (2:8-9), understood the Gemara differently.  In his view, the sota procedure is ineffective if the husband had at any time since reaching halakhic adulthood engaged in a forbidden sexual relationship.  If he had ever engaged in a forbidden relationship, even if this occurred before he was married, and regardless of with whom he committed the offense, then his wife cannot be subjected to the sota ritual, as she would not die even if she was in fact guilty of adultery.

            A number of Acharonim questioned the Rambam’s position in light of a comment of the Sifrei here in Parashat Naso.  The Sifrei notes that the laws of sota apply only to a couple in a halakhically acceptable marriage.  If the husband and wife are not allowed to be married to one another, such as if one of them is a mamzer or mamzeret (product of an adulterous or incestuous union), or if the husband is a kohen and the wife is a divorcee, then the woman does not drink the sota water.  If the wife secluded herself with the man identified by the husband, in violation of the husband’s warning, then the couple must divorce, and they do not have the option of drinking the sota water to determine whether an adulterous act had been committed.  The Sifrei establishes this halakha on the basis of the Torah’s description of the woman in this context as “ishto” (“his wife”), which implies “ishto ha-re’uya lo” – she is worthy of being his wife.  In the case of a halakhically unacceptable marriage, the laws of sota do not apply, as the Torah does not wish for such a marriage to continue.

            According to the Rambam, it would seem, the Sifrei’s remark – and its inference from the word “ishto” – is unnecessary.  After all, in the case of a halakhically forbidden marriage, the husband is obviously guilty of having engaged in a forbidden relationship, and thus the sota water is ineffective.  Why did the Sifrei need to make a special inference from the text to exclude a forbidden marriage from the laws of sota, if in any event the husband is not “clean of sin,” and thus cannot subject his wife to the sota procedure?

            The answer is provided by the Rambam himself, in his commentary to the Mishna (Sota 4:1).  The Rambam writes that indeed, the reason why the laws of sota do not apply in the case of a forbidden marriage is precisely because “ve-nika ha-ish mei-avon” – the husband is guilty of engaging in prohibited relations.  Meaning, the Rambam did not accept the Sifrei’s inference of this law from the word “ishto.”  In his view, the halakha concerning a forbidden marriage is a natural consequence of the rule of “ve-nika ha-ish mei-avon.”

            Malbim (here in Parashat Naso, 5:12) adds that the Rambam likely felt that this issue is subject to a debate among the Tanna’im.  Unless indicated otherwise, passages in the Sifrei are generally presumed to represent the view of Rabbi Shimon.  The Mishna in Masekhet Sota (22b) cites the view of Rabbi Shimon that “ein zekhut tola be-mayim ha-marim” – an infidel woman is killed by the sota water even if she has special merits.  Whereas other Tanna’im maintained that the woman may be saved as a result of special merit, Rabbi Shimon disagreed.  He explains that if this were true, then a woman who survived the sota ordeal would still be viewed with suspicion, as the possibility remains that she in fact committed adultery.  Malbim notes that according to Rabbi Shimon’s rationale, it is inconceivable that a husband’s misconduct would render the sota ordeal ineffective.  After all, people might charge that the woman in fact committed adultery, but she survived the sota ideal because her husband was guilty of a sexual offense.  Necessarily, then, Rabbi Shimon could not have felt that the sota ritual cannot be performed if the husband had at any point engaged in a forbidden relationship.  He must have held the view followed by Rashi, that “ve-nika ha-ish mei-avon” refers only to the particular offense of engaging in relations with one’s wife after she was determined to be a sota.  As such an offense is rare, it is unlikely that people will attribute the woman’s survival of the sota ordeal to this particular offense. 

            For this reason, Malbim suggests, Rabbi Shimon – author of the Sifrei – needed to make a special inference to establish that the laws of sota do not apply in the case of a forbidden marriage.  Since he has a more limited understanding of “ve-nika ha-ish mei-avon,” it does not necessarily follow that the laws of sota do not apply if the marriage is forbidden, and thus Rabbi Shimon infers this halakha from the word “ishto.”


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