Monday, September 08, 2014

Book Review: Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's Minchat Aviv

Aviad Hacohen

Minchat Aviv: Studies in Talmudic Topics (Hebrew)
HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein
Editor: Rav Elyakim Krumbein
Jerusalem: Maggid Books and Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2014
xvi + 659 pages; source and subject indexes
Available here.


A person must exert considerable effort before producing words of Torah and wisdom. Toiling in Torah can be compared to toil in working the land: one must plow and sow, irrigate and fertilize, hoe and aerate, develop and cultivate, harvest and gather. Only after one completes all these tasks and receives God’s blessing does one merit to bring the fruits of one’s labors into one’s home and fulfill with them the mitzva of ingathering. Is it any wonder, then, that of all the Torah's commandments, and of all the holidays on the Jewish calendar, it is Sukkot, the Festival of Ingathering, that merited the designation of chag – “holiday” par excellence – and the special mitzva of “And you shall rejoice in your holiday”?

Ingathering of the Sheaves

The publication of Minchat Aviv, a collection of “lomdish” and halakhic essays authored by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and 2014 Israel Prize laureate for Torah literature, is cause for celebration for all lovers of Torah. For over half a century, HaRav Lichtenstein has been disseminating Torah both in Israel and abroad. Though some of his lectures have been adapted for print by students and are enjoyed by readers across the world, his written work has been relatively limited.

The eight volumes of lectures that have appeared to date under the title Shi’urei HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein testify to HaRav Lichtenstein's breadth of knowledge and profundity in analysis. But, as is often the case when works of Torah scholarship are recorded not by the master himself, but rather by his disciples, sometimes the author's particular "spark" is missing, both in substance and in formulation. While the lectures are unquestionably brilliant, and serve to showcase HaRav Lichtenstein’s unique style effectively, the personal electricity that one feels when learning HaRav Lichtenstein’s Torah directly from the source cannot be replicated. It is only natural that the lectures in the 8-volume series are largely limited to the Talmudic tractates that constitute the standard fare of yeshiva study, though here too HaRav Lichtenstein has left his mark. Thus, for example, one of the volumes deals with Taharot (ritual purity), while another deals with Dina De-garmi – an extraordinary phenomenon in itself in the yeshiva world.

Due to his very heavy teaching schedule, HaRav Lichtenstein has never been free to commit his teachings to writing in a systematic and consistent manner. Nevertheless, in free moments, and during the breaks between his classes, he has written on various topics. Over the years, these writings have increased in number and scope. The original articles appeared in a variety of journals, both in Israel and in the US. Only now, when HaRav Lichtenstein has reached his eighties, have these articles been gathered together and published in a single volume.

In their attempt to define the category of work known as immur, gathering, both with regard to the laws of Shabbat and with regard to the commandments relating to the Land of Israel, the halakhic authorities, both medieval and modern, took note of the nature of the labor of gathering. They understood that a sheaf is greater than the sum of its parts. A sheaf is not merely one ear of corn joined to another, but rather a new entity, of a different quality and with a different essence.

This is true in the field and equally true in the house – the house of study. Like the sheaf and like ingathering, so too the teachings of HaRav Lichtenstein. Collecting his articles in a single volume is not merely a technical act of gathering scattered items into one place, but rather a new creation. Studying the volume reveals a profound interplay of Torah and Jewish thought, of Halakha and Aggada, its various parts interconnected in different ways.

Alongside the standard issues found in the Talmudic orders of Mo'ed, Nashim and Nezikin, we find in-depth studies concerning the laws of Zera'im and the commandments relating to the Land of Israel, essays regarding matters discussed in the orders of Kodashim and Taharot and even several practical halakhic analyses. This is a book for experienced travelers in the world of Torah, but anyone who is ready to commit to reading it with the necessary concentration will profit from doing so, both with respect to the reader's learning skills and through the expansion of the reader's knowledge. 

Cancellation of debts in the shemita Year

            An examination of the various issues dealt with in this volume shows one common characteristic: the attempt to clarify the fundamental principles from which and through which the particulars arise. For this purpose, HaRav Lichtenstein makes use of all the expanses of Halakha, from top to bottom. For example, in discussing the mitzva to cancel debts in the shemita (Sabbatical) year, HaRav Lichtenstein starts with the explicit verse in the Torah, formulated in both positive and negative terms, the meaning of which is rather obscure: “Every lender who lends anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not exact of it of his neighbor, or of his brother” (Devarim 15:2). What is the meaning of this mitzva and how is it fulfilled? HaRav Lichtenstein cites a disagreement among the medieval authorities. According to the Yere'im, it is not the date in itself that nullifies the debt, but rather the lender's declaration: “I release it.” Once the shemita year ends, the lender acquires an obligation to cancel the debt. In contrast, the Or Zaru'a maintains that the passage of time, i.e., the end of the shemita year, is what cancels the debt. This also follows from the words of the Rambam: “When the sun sets on the night of Rosh Ha-shana of the eighth year, the debt is nullified” (Hilkhot Shemita Ve-yovel 9:4). Of course, the practical difference between the two positions expresses itself in a case where the lender, contrary to Torah law, fails to declare: “I release the debt.” The Ittur combines both positions and asserts that the cancellation of debts in the shemita year is governed by two parallel laws: a personal obligation upon the lender and a “Royal cancellation” by heavenly decree.

HaRav Lichtenstein does not stop here after setting each of the various opinions in its place. In light of the Rambam's opinion, he raises a difficult question: If indeed the cancellation of debts in the shemita year is a “Royal cancellation,” what exactly is the mitzva imposed on the lender?

In typical fashion, HaRav Lichtenstein examines the Tosafot, who try to explain the matter based on the law of a firstborn animal. There is a mitzva to sanctify the animal, even though it is automatically sanctified from birth. HaRav Lichtenstein concludes that the two cases are not similar. In the case of a firstborn, the mitzva to sanctify the animal does not merely dictate a “declaration,” a confirmation of the existing situation, but rather it “necessitates a novel act of sanctification that bestows additional sanctity upon the firstborn.” As for the cancellation of debts, however, if the debt is already cancelled, the lender's release adds nothing at all. Thus, the question remains: What is the nature of the positive commandment obligating the lender to cancel his debts in the shemita year?

Even according to the opinion that the cancellation of debts is a “Royal cancellation,” this release does not nullify the debt; it merely “freezes” it. This explains the need for the active cancellation of the debt on the part of the lender, which adds force to the borrower's exemption from repaying his debt, and utterly severs the connection between the lender and the borrower, not just temporarily, but absolutely and forever.

Using his characteristic method of tying together seemingly unconnected areas of Halakha, HaRav Lichtenstein links the laws of a firstborn to the laws of usury, and the laws of repaying a debt to the laws of a gift, and through them and with them he builds his edifice, a tower of scholarship, perfect precision and spectacular analysis. His subtle analysis, which penetrates the very foundations of the law, uproots the common assumption. According to HaRav Lichtenstein, in contrast to the common understanding, the “Royal cancellation” does not absolutely cancel the debt, but merely weakens its force. Thus, we understand why a borrower can repay a loan after the shemita year has passed, and why the Sages are pleased when he does so: The debt was never wiped out, but merely frozen. Based on this understanding, it is clear why the cancellation must be completed by way of an active step on the part of the lender. 

Intimacy in prayer

While the book is principally a volume of advanced halakhic analysis, between the lines it allows us a glimpse of HaRav Lichtenstein's spiritual world. For example, in the chapter discussing the issue of sounding one's voice in prayer, here and there HaRav Lichtenstein uses characteristic formulations that reflect the “man of prayer” in him: “There is an internal balance between two factors that shape the character and content of prayer, greater concentration on the one hand and a soft voice on the other.”

Although HaRav Lichtenstein generally avoids kabbalistic matters, he cites the Zohar, which states: “If a prayer is overheard by another person, it will not be accepted above,” and emphasizes, on the basis of this passage, “the intimacy and privacy of prayer, in the absence of which prayer is impaired and not accepted above.” While the analysis is strictly halakhic, the spirit of HaRav Lichtenstein's thought, rife with emotion, penetrates the dry and meticulous preoccupation with Halakha, instilling it with flavor and endowing it with sweet fragrance.

Another example, one of many, appears in the book's concluding essay, which concerns itself with a “routine question,” as it were, sent to HaRav Lichtenstein by his students serving in the army. The students wanted to know whether an army tent requires a mezuza.

In his usual manner, HaRav Lichtenstein does not content himself with the bottom line, with a halakhic ruling issued, as it were, by way of divine inspiration. He opens with a comprehensive clarification of the plain meaning of the verse that speaks of “the doorposts of your house,” and attempts to define the term “house,” both regarding the prohibition of leavened bread on Pesach and regarding the prohibition, “You shall not bring an abomination into your house” (Devarim 7:26). From here he moves on to the distinction between “house” on the proprietary level and “house” on the geographic and functional level – a “residence,” the place where a person establishes his principal dwelling in actual practice. HaRav Lichtenstein considers the essential distinction between the different halakhic realms: Regarding leavened bread, the “house” is not part of the fulfillment of the mitzva, but merely a circumstantial detail, the place in which the prohibition of leavened bread happens to apply. Regarding a mezuza, on the other hand, the “house” is the cheftza, the object of the mitzva, and that which obligates the mezuza’s very installation.

A practical difference, one that is mentioned already in the Talmud, and afterwards in the words of the later authorities, relates to a renter's obligation in mezuza. If we are dealing with an obligation of the inhabitant of the house, the question of ownership is irrelevant. But even if the obligation depends on ownership, there is room to consider whether or not renting creates proprietary rights in the property, if only temporarily (see Bava Metzi’a 56b). Characteristically, HaRav Lichtenstein also discusses the different levels of obligation. Even if a renter is not obligated to affix a mezuza to his doorpost by Torah law, it may be that he is bound to do so by Rabbinic decree.

Restoring Former glory

Here, as usual, HaRav Lichtenstein asks: What precisely was the Rabbis' innovation? Did they expand the mitzva in such a way that even when there is no “possession,” but only “residence,” there is still an obligation to install a mezuza? Or perhaps they expanded the law of renting and established that even “temporary possession” is considered possession with respect to the Rabbinic obligation of mezuzah? From the words of Tosafot in another passage (Avoda Zara 21a), he determines that it suffices that the house “appear to be his” for one to be obligated in the mitzva of mezuza. That is to say, according to the Tosafot, we are dealing with an expansion of the idea of possession, and that even a residence that only appears to belong to the person in question suffices to obligate him in the mitzva of mezuza on a Rabbinic level.

Still not satisfied, HaRav Lichtenstein moves on to an analysis of the concept of “residence,” examining the question whether or not a forced dwelling, e.g., a jail, or, in stark contrast, the chamber in which the High Priest resides during the week before Yom Kippur, is considered a “residence” for the purpose of obligation in the mitzva of mezuza. From here, HaRav Lichtenstein shifts gears, taking time to clarify the term “temporary residence,” e.g., living on a boat during an extended journey or in a hotel. In addition to all these considerations, it may be that the obligation to affix a mezuza to the tent does not apply to the soldiers themselves, as they are “temporary guests” in the tent, and certainly not to its owners, but rather to the community or to the army, which owns the tent/house.

In a world where people are especially meticulous about the mitzva of “making many books” (Kohelet 12:12), out of the abundance of books that inundates us, HaRav Lichtenstein's volume stands out, as its words of Torah are built on the most solid of foundations. Amidst the cacophony of "SMS responsa," lacking sources and reasoning and presenting their conclusions as a sort of divine fiat, Rav Lichtenstein's essay sing out with a unique melody, one that is clear and profound, systematic and logical. HaRav Lichtenstein's work restores the crown of Torah study to its former glory. Between the lines, it reveals something of the author's personality, in its moral and emotional dimensions – a personality in which Torah and wisdom, Halakha and Aggada, join together and become one.

(Translated by David Strauss)

Prof. Aviad Hacohen is Dean of Shaarei Mishpat College and author of The Tears of the Oppressed – An Examination of the Agunah Problem: Background and Halakhic Sources (New York, 2004) and Parashiot u-Mishpatim: Mishpat Ivri be-Parashat ha-Shavua (Tel Aviv, 2011).

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