A review of some of this week’s key Daf Yomi concepts
By: Rabbi Shmuel Wise
Parshas Eikev, August 2017, Sanhedrin
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Do we probe the reason for laws in the Torah?
There is a very famous and important dispute about this question that we studied on 21a this week. Let’s review the case of the dispute.
In Ki Seitzei, the Torah lays down some rules about taking a security for a loan. If a security is taken from a poor borrower–say, his only blanket–the Torah enjoins the lender to return it to him every night as needed. Later the Torah forbids taking a security from a widow. Since the Torah doesn’t specify otherwise, R’ Yehudah says that the prohibition would apply even to a wealthy widow. R’ Shimon disagrees and limits the prohibition to a poor widow. R’ Shimon’s assertion is based on his view that “we do probe the reason for the Torah’s laws.” R’ Shimon points out that reason for this law is connected with the earlier law that requires the lender to return the security to the borrower as needed. If the lender would return the widow’s security every night it would make the neighbors suspect them of having an inappropriate relationship. Therefore the Torah forbids taking a security from a widow whatsoever. But this reason doesn’t apply to a wealthy widow who doesn’t need the security returned each night. Says R’ Shimon: since the reason doesn’t apply, the law doesn’t apply and therefore one may take a security from a wealthy widow. R’ Yehudah, however, says, “we don’t probe the reason for the laws of the Torah,” and therefore one cannot take a security even from a wealthy widow. In R’ Yehudah’s opinion only the Torah itself can limit its laws.
In the Mishnah on 21a, this dispute R’ Shimon-R’ Yehudah appears to get turned on its head. The Mishnah discusses the verse in Shoftim that limits the number of wives that a king may marry. “He shall not marry too many wives,” the Torah warns, “so that his heart not turn away (from G-d).” Ostensibly, we have another law that tests the question of whether we can use the rationale behind the law to limit it. For the reason that the Torah itself provides (i.e. that the king’s wives not negatively influence him) would not apply to wives of sterling character such as the righteous wife of Dovid HaMelech, Avigayil. We would therefore expect R’ Shimon to issue an exemption by righteous wives and R’ Yehudah to reject this exemption. Yet the Mishnah teaches just the opposite: R’ Shimon includes righteous wives and R’ Yehudah excludes them!
The Gemara resolves this problem with a fascinating observation. As mentioned above, the Torah uncharacteristically provides the reason for this prohibition, which leads R’ Shimon to ask: Why did the Torah need to provide this self-evident reason? Apparently, R’ Shimon concludes, the Torah here is teaching a separate prohibition that has nothing to do with the number of wives a king may marry. The Torah is saying that a king may not marry even one wife of questionable character, something that could compromise his devotion to G-d. Since the Torah forbids the king from marrying even one wife of lowly character, it must be that the limitation on the number of wives applies even to wives as righteous as Avigayil. R’ Yehuda’s stance against probing the reason for laws of the Torah also flips in this case because of the same oddity that here the Torah provides the reason for the prohibition. For R’ Yehudah the Torah’s taking pains to explain the reason here indicates that even though in general we cannot factor in the reason for the prohibition, here we do. Therefore, R’ Yehuda concludes, where there is no fear of the king being negatively influenced, the king may marry any number of wives.
Aside from this Talmudic debate that concerns itself with the technical rules of expounding verses, there is also a philosophical debate that continued well after the Talmud about the propriety of offering reasons for the laws of the Torah. There is a school of thought that condemns offering rational reasons for the mitzvos, for surely the depth of any mitzva is beyond our limited human comprehension. For this reason, seforim like Mora Nevuchim and Sefer HaChinuch were met with serious controversy.
On 21b, the Gemara provided another reason to be wary of delving into the reason for the Torah’s mitzvos: the danger of giving fodder to rationalizing why the mitzva doesn’t apply to one’s specific circumstance. The Gemara points out: the two times that the Torah did provide the mitzva’s reason it caused one of our greatest, Shlomo HaMelech, to stumble (i.e. by the mitzvos not to take too many wives or horses, Shlomo HaMelech rationalized that they didn’t apply to him, but the outcome proved otherwise). The message here seems to be: there’s a Talmudic debate about whether reasons for the mitzvos can be expounded for drasha purposes, but the yetzer hara is the biggest fan of divining the reason for a given mitzva–as a means of figuring out how it doesn’t apply to us!
Is matchmaking as hard as splitting the sea?
On 22a the Gemara described matchmaking as “difficult” as the miracle of splitting the sea. Now we can’t interpret the Gemara literally since there is no such thing as a task that is difficult for G-d. Rather, the Gemara wants us to appreciate yet another complex facet of G-d’s supervision of the world. We know that a basic component of G-d’s providence is the fact that it is conducted behind a thick veil of nature. It is the will of G-d that His direction of the world be attributable to the laws of nature, thus ensuring that reaching true emuna be a task that requires real effort and deserved of great reward. So G-d will almost never show His hand as the true guide of all events. Almost never. Every year on the seder night we recount the miracles of Egypt which have no natural explanation; they can only have been wrought by the hand of G-d. Reliving the supernatural events of the Exodus, the climax of which is the Splitting of the Sea, strengthens our faith and enables us to see the hand of G-d, even when the world is enveloped by the deepest fog of nature.
The Gemara is informing us that there is actually an ongoing miracle that we can witness today which can provide a reinforcement of our faith as powerfully as the Exodus: the daily miracle of people finding their soulmates. Given all of the possibilities and all of the events that need to happen to bring about the couple’s meeting, that somehow the two people in the world meant for each other meet is a miracle of the highest magnitude, on par with the Splitting of the Sea. This is especially so considering that G-d has accomplish all of this under the guise of “Nature.”
The Gemara questions this claim from the well known teaching that says that before a person is formed in the womb, Heaven announces some major things about how his life will unfold, including, who he will marry. If the question of one’s mate is a pre-determined, “mazel,” fate, why is this considered such a complex facet of G-d’s providence? The Gemara answers, that match-making gets especially “tricky” for G-d when a person is marrying for the second time. For if someone has the misfortune of having to remarry, now it is not only a matter of fate, but a matter of matching the person with the ideal mate based on his specific worthiness–something that is fluid as the person continues to make life decisions. The feat of arranging the ideal spouse based on the person’s current spiritual level, all through the guise of nature, is a work of mastery on par with the miracle of the Splitting the Sea.
We can take from this piece of Daf that for inspiration of the Almighty’s infinite wisdom we of course have the Exodus to recall; but we can also turn to everyday occurrences like people getting married. There are seas splitting right beneath the surface.
Rabbi Wise is maggid shiur of Real Clear Daf (realcleardaf.com). Real Clear Daf is a website and mobile app (for IOS and Android) that offers free audio shiurim and other resources to assist your journey through Shas. You may reach Rabbi Wise via email: email@example.com or by phone: 855-ASK-RCD-1 (275-7231).