How Did 40 Lashes Become 39?

V’haya im bin hakos harasha v’hipilo hashofet v’hikahu l’fanav kedei rishaso b’mispar arba’im yakenu (Devarim 25:2-3)

Towards the end of Parashas Ki Seitzei, the Torah introduces us to the form of punishment known as malkus (lashes). Although the Torah says clearly that a person who transgresses certain prohibitions is to be given 40 lashes, the Gemara (Makkos 22b) teaches that, in reality, he receives only 39. Harav Yisroel Reisman notes that this is not the only time when we find that the number 40 is explicitly mentioned, yet it is decreased to 39.

After the sin of the spies, Hashem says (Bamidbar 14:34) that they will be punished in the wilderness for 40 years but, ultimately, the duration of the punishment lasted only 39 years, for no Jews died in the 40th year (Rashi, Taanis 30b). Additionally, it is common to refer to the span from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur as a 40-day period of repentance (see Rashi, Shemos 33:11), and many explanations are given regarding the significance of this number. However, the month of Elul has only 29 days, in which case the period of repentance is not 40 days but 39. What is the significance of this phenomenon in which the number 40 is repeatedly reduced to 39?

Rav Reisman explains that 40 days is considered a term of rebirth, as we find that the primary formation of a baby before it’s born is during the first 40 days (Yevamos 69b). Similarly, Hashem informed Noach (Bereishis 7:4) that the flood would last for 40 days in order to destroy any remnant of Noach’s contemporaries and enable the earth to be reborn. This also explains why Moshe remained on Mount Sinai for 40 days, as the giving of the Torah represented a new beginning for the Jewish nation.

A person who sins is punished with lashes that are intended to rekindle his commitment to mitzvah observance, and the Torah therefore prescribes 40 lashes. However, Rav Reisman explains that the need for a full 40 lashes to revitalize the transgressor is counterbalanced by the fact that deep down, every Jew possesses a pintele Yid (Jewish spark) that is pure and longs to do what is right. Even when a person’s yetzer hara prevails and tempts him to sin, he does not do so with his entire being, for the pintele Yid within him refuses to take part in his misdeed.

Therefore, although the Torah prescribes a punishment of 40 lashes, Chazal understood that this is only appropriate for a person who requires total renewal. Since a part of every Jew, even those who sin, remains eternally intact and does not require a fresh start, they reduced it to 39.

With this insight, we now understand that although Hashem initially decreed that the Jews in the desert needed to wander and die for 40 full years to enable them to be reborn, their actual punishment was decreased to only 39 years because even when they accepted the scurrilous report of the spies, the pintele Yid inside each of them resisted and the transgression was not committed with their full being.

Similarly, the period from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur is intended to serve as a time of repentance and rejuvenation as we atone for our transgressions. Although this renewal should require a full 40 days, the pintele Yid inside us remains pristine and unscathed no matter how much we may have sullied ourselves in the past year, and therefore we need only 39 days. As we prepare ourselves for the impending Day of Judgment, this beautiful insight into the power of the pintele Yid and why the number 40 is so often reduced to 39 should imbue us with the self-confidence we need to purify and renew ourselves in the weeks ahead.

Q: Why is no brachah recited before performing the mitzvah (22:3) of hashavas aveidah (returning a lost object)?

A: Harav Tzvi Pesach Frank, zt”l, strengthens this question by noting that the Shu”t Rashba (1:18) explains that no brachah is made prior to performing the mitzvah of giving tzedakah because of a concern that the poor person may refuse to accept it. In the case of returning a lost object, this logic would not apply since the item already belongs to the individual to whom it is being returned, and he will surely accept it.

Nevertheless, Rav Frank points out that it is possible that the owner of the object already had yi’ush — despair — that he would ever recover it, in which case there is no obligation to return it to him. Due to this concern, we do not make a brachah. Alternatively, he cites Rabbeinu Bachya who maintains that blessings were not established for the performance of logical mitzvos, a category that includes the returning of lost objects.

Q: The Vilna Gaon explains that a divorce document is called a get because these letters — gimmel and tes — aren’t found next to each other in any other word in the Hebrew language and symbolize separation. There are four other two-letter combinations that also never appear together. How many can you identify, and why is a divorce document called a get instead of one of the other combinations?

A: Demonstrating the encyclopedic mind for which he is renowned, Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, points out that the letter combinations zayin-tzaddi, zayin-tes, gimmel-kuf and samech-tzaddi never appear together in any word in the Hebrew language. To explain why a divorce document is called a get as opposed to one of these other combinations, he cites Tosafos (Gittin 2a), who explain that a divorce document contains 12 lines, which is the numerical value of the word get, something that isn’t true of any of the other letter combinations.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.