Tuesday, November 17, 2009

the donkey of Rav Pinchas ben Yair

Yesterday we compared and contrasted the donkey of R’ Pinchas ben Yair, which would not eat prohibited food, with the camels of Avraham Avinu. Today I want to directly address this strange phenomenon of a donkey which does not eat ma’achalos asuros – how does this work and what can we learn from it?

The gemara (B.M. 85) tells of a fight between R’ Chanina and R’ Chiya. R’ Chanina warned R’ Chiya that he is not one to be trifled with – “If all the Torah were forgotten, I could restore it with my pilpul.” R’ Chiya was not fazed and replied that he is not one to be trifled with either – “I would ensure that Torah is never forgotten. I would first raise flax, then use the flax to weave nets; I would use the nets to catch fish, then use the fish to attract and capture deer; I would then use the hide of the deer to write books and the flesh of the deer to feed poor orphans. I would take the books I have written and go to a town and teach five children each one of the five books of chumash and then have them teach each other, and I would teach six children each an order of Mishna and then have them review with each other, and in this way the Torah would never be forgotten from the Jewish people."

Why did Rav Chiya have to plant the flax to make the nets to catch the fish to get the deer to write the books? Why not just go buy hides or paper? The Maharasha explains that we see from this gemara the importance ofnot just doing good deeds, but ensuring that the means which are used to accomplish them are pure and proper. Who knows where the paper in the store came from or why it was produced? But if you make it yourself, you know it was made l’shem shamayim. Rav Ya’akov Moshe Lesin, the former mashgiach of YU and talmid of Slabodka, adds in his Maor sheBaTorah that this goal even warrants the sacrifice of Rav Chiya’s own learning to bring it about.

The Shomer Emunim (Derush haEmunah ch. 7) quotes from early sources that there is a concept of “koach hapoel b’nifal”. A craftsman, for example, who makes an object is not divorced from the object once it is complete – something of the craftsman’s character, effort, motivation, soul remains with the object and defines its character as well. Were I to simply quote the Shomer Emunim’s advice in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov not to read even Torah literature unless you know that the author is an upstanding individual because the identity of the author, the poel, can corrupt the book, the nifal, even if it contains only Torah thoughts, you might dismiss it as an overzealous stringency of chassidus. But the same sentiment is echoed by R’ Lesin, who writes in the name of R’ Chaim Volozhiner that a student who uses a sefer which happens to have been published by a non-G-d fearing individual will have less success in his learning. Why did davening and learning in the days of the gemara take place in a field? The GR”A suggests it is because the presence of impure motivation in building a study hall might corrupt the learning that is done later in that building.

While this idea may have you trembling a bit, there is a positive side as well. I am sure Rav Pinchas ben Yair rode his donkey for good reasons, l’shem mitzvah. And when you use something, even a donkey, chamor=chomriyus in general, for good reasons, it becomes invested with all the love and l’shem shamayim of its owner: koach hapoel b’nifal. Such a donkey is not one that can eat ma’achalos asuros. I don't think it is by accident either that Chazal highlight the donkey's behavior specifically with respect to its not eating food which did not have terumos and ma'sros taken off. What made the food in question prohibited is the mixture of that which we can eat with that which must be given to the kohen or levi. A donkey whose master does not tolerate a mixture of motives is a donkey which will not eat a mixed up jumble of issur and heter either.

And if you need a little more of a boost, remember that Hashem is “machadesh b’tuvo” all of creation every single day. Think of the koach ha’poel all of the world is invested with – if only we pay attention and tap into it.

The madreigos the Shomer Emunim is speaking of, or R’ Chaim Volozhiner is speaking of, are far above where most of us are holding. I don’t think anyone would suggest that you start making your own paper instead of buying a notebook, but we can still glean something from these ideals in terms of our behavior. I recently heard a Rosh Yeshiva thank the accountant who watched the yeshiva’s books for making sure that although they were trying to raise money for a building, everything was done on the up-and-up. This is R’ Chaiya’s principle in action. The Rosh Yeshiva could easily divorce himself from how the bricks and mortar get there and focus on the benefit of saying a shiur to a larger audience in a more spacious environment, but whether we sense it or not, somehow that shiur would be a different shiur.


  1. "Yada shor koneyhu vechamo evus ba'alav. . ."
    Domestic animal learn to recognize their owners and the trough of their masters. It could follow that they learn to recognize which foods their masters regard as permissible and which as forbidden through their influence.

    The point you bring up on the publisher, I've heard applied to music. Some object to melodies originally composed for profane songs even if Jewish lyrics are fit in because the music would still convey that which is antithetical to kedusah.

  2. I considered the possibility of a behavioral explanation, but do not think it fits. Had the gemara been speaking of real forbidden food, then perhaps one could say that an animal becomes behaviorally habituated to eat only the type food its master serves. However, in this case the animal refused to eat fodder which did not have terumah taken. There is no difference in the type or quality of fodder which has had terumah taken and fodder which has not. How could the animal tell the difference?
    Also, were this merely a behavioral phenomenon and not a miraculous event, how could the gemara generalize and say that if the donkey of Rav Pb"Y did not eat forbidden food, then a tzadik certainly would not fall prey to eating forbidden food? The donkey is mechanically reacting to habit; the person chooses what he/she wishes.

    On the topic of music, while driving in the morning I simply cannot listen to the Jewish station most of the time because what passes for "music" is absurdly simplistic rock style tunes with a pasuk repeated over and over as lyrics. Chassidishe seforim speak of the power of nigunim - I have a hard time believing this is what they had in mind.

  3. Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz in the third drasha in his sefer says this regarding inanimate objects that were used le'sheim mitzvah. I always thought it to be a really big chiddush. I'm glad you have mekoros like Reb Chaim V and the Gr'a, but I would appreciate chapter and verse. Of course, the Mahrsha with Reb Chiya also points in that direction, though none of them takes it as far as Rav Shmuelevitz does.

  4. Chapter and verse: Even Shelima 5:4 in the footnotes quoting a GR"A on Tikunei Zohar (which i did not look up) and R' Chaim Volozhin m'pi hashemu'a. I already gave the mareh makom to the Shomer Emunim (not a good enough source? : )

  5. In case that wasn't rhetorical,


    The idea of holy relics seems strange and foreign, though. I know that "anything can happen on Torah Avenue," but other than kisvei kodesh, we don't find any special chashivus in objects, even tashmishei mitzvah, just to not be mevazeh them out of derech eretz.


    That's not to say that finding it in Catholic theology automatically passels it. Obviously, as you cited, it doesn't. And my finding it odd is, perhaps, a raya that it makes sense. But one could make an argument that the world of nistar was thus categorized not only to protect the kedusha of the topic, but also to protect us from it, e.g., Chagiga 14b.

  6. Thanks for the m'm. I found it here



  7. great unknown6:49 PM

    re Barzilai:

    Woe to Litvaks who are ignorant of the fundamentals of Litvishe torah, and have substituted Yekkeshe rationality for it.

    To expand your mind a bit more, see Shiurei Da'as [although you might reject Telshe as an exemplar of Litvishe torah, and who can blame you], chailek alef, 233, re the Rashi on VaYakam Sedei Efron,
    "Tekumah Haysah Lo..."

    At the bottom of the page the Maharil Bloch says:
    בשרשה מרגישה שדה זו התקומה שהגיעה לה ע"י תוספת איזה מעלה וחשיבות
    ...and that's a relatively minor part of the chidush, which he uses to explain various halachot!

  8. Imagine that...expanding my mind by reading something from the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva....

    Reb Meir Simcha, in his discussion of the Sheviras Haluchos, emphatically says that Moshe Rabbeinu wanted to make the point to Klal Yisrael that 'objects' only reflect the kedusha status of Klal Yisrael, but have no inherent kedusha. So it's not just a personal lacunam in my brain. Unless he's talking about gifted kedusha, as opposed to kedusha attained through human effort.

  9. great unknown7:56 PM

    Lech Raid also teaches us that even Moshe Rabbeinu's status depended on that of Klal Yisroel.

    The issue here is quite the opposite: the object has no inherent kedusha, but it is permeated with the kedusha of the user/owner. This kedusha does not necessarily disappear with the removal of said user/owner: e.g., perhaps, kedusha sheniya.

    Adhering more closely to the Meshesch Chochma (and various "chassidishe concepts found in the GR"A, Reb Chaim V, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, etc., etc.) the user is a conduit through which the true kedusha, that of the Ain Sof, Baruch Hu, passes into the object. This does not mean that it has inherent kedusha, but it carries kedusha.

    And note, as drush, that kedusha lo pak'ah bik'di.

    The Meshech Chochma seems to say that breaking the luchos was an extreme hora'as sha'a. I don't think he meant to imply that if chas vesholom all Jews became frei, one would be allowed to destroy sifrei torah, Hashem Yerachem, lechatchila.

  10. Here I was this afternoon thinking about incorporating a piece from the Shiurei Da'as into another post on this topic and someone beat me to it.

    Barzilai: do you mean to say you think there is no chalos of hekdesh in an object -- all the halachos of hekdesh are just dinim in the gavra in terms of how we relate to objects? I'll bring a ra'aya to you from Yevamos 5 lo min hamikdash atah yarei elah m'mi shemetzaveh... etc., but I don't think that's the pashtus.

  11. Yes, there's a chalos hekdesh. But that is a gzeiras hakasuv based on mikodshei Bnei Yisrael, as the Ktzos/Ramban etc in siman reish by chatzer le'hedkesh says. So being me'yacheid for hekdesh is not enough, you need kedushas peh to give it those dinim of me'ilah. I don't know. The idea of surrounding yourself with fetishes just doesn't appeal to me, like Benny in that movie, going through the cross, the crescent, and a mogen dovid to scare the mummy away. Though with Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz's approach, that the aura is fragile and will only benefit a person who reflects that kedusha, makes it more palatable.

  12. In case you're interested, the scene I was talking about starts at :38 in this piece of trash:

    I was thinking about this נייר שאין בו חשש חילול שבת ח'ו thing. You know how many yeshivos and shuls were originally churches? Lots, and under the auspices of gedolim, too. I think the pshat is that there was a time that kedusha appeared in physical form, such as Tzaraas. At that time, there were kochos of tumah, and equivalent kochos of kedusha. Sheidim and Kamei'os abounded, and some were mumcheh. Now, none of that pertains. Either kedusha has moved away, or we've moved away from it, and what was a fine line between the two is now a vast and uncrossable chasm. This stuff is wholly and entirely irrelevant to our lives, even for the greatest among us.