Get the Whole Story

Ach es zeh lo toch’lu mi’maalei ha’geirah u’mi’mafrisei ha’parsah (Vayikra 11:4)

Parashas Shemini introduces us to the laws governing which animals may be eaten, and which are not kosher. In order for a land animal to be kosher, it must possess split hooves, and it must chew its cud. The Torah notes that there are three animals that chew their cud, but which are forbidden because they do not possess split hooves. However, in recording this information, there seems to be a glaring grammatical inconsistency. The Torah explains that even though it chews its cud, the camel is not kosher because its hoof is not split (present tense), while the hyrax may not be eaten because its hoof will not be split (future tense), and the hare is forbidden because its hoof was not split (past tense). Why does the Torah use a different verb tense for each of these animals?

Harav Yissocher Frand explains that in deliberately switching the verb tenses, the Torah is teaching us that before we can label a species — or any individual — as non-kosher, we must first examine and take into account its past, present and future. Only if we know with certainty that an animal did not have split hooves, does not presently have split hooves and will never have split hooves can we rule that it is forbidden. If, however, we are unaware of any one of these three components, we are missing the full picture and cannot definitively declare something to be non-kosher, as illustrated by the following story.

There was a religious couple in Europe who endured all of the unspeakable pain and suffering of the Holocaust. Although they survived physically, the husband informed his wife that after everything he had gone through, he was no longer interested in Torah and mitzvos. His wife begged him to at least go to shul each day, but he refused. Changing her tack, the wise woman asked him to do her a favor. Each morning, he bought the daily newspaper and read it at the breakfast table. She suggested that instead of returning home from the newsstand, he should take the newspaper to the synagogue and read it there. Although the man had no interest in the synagogue and the religious services taking place there, he loved his wife and wanted to make her happy, so he agreed to her unusual request, and each day he began to sit in the back row of the shul and read the daily paper from cover to cover.

If we would see an older man coming to our morning prayer services, not opening a siddur and not putting on his tallis or tefillin, but instead spreading out his newspaper, most of us would respond critically, advising him to respect the sanctity of the synagogue and read the newspaper elsewhere. Had the individuals in this particular shul done so, that would have been the end of this man’s religious experiences. Instead, they took the opposite approach. They made small talk with him and slowly got to know him, and they invited him to join them for an occasional l’chaim after services when one of them had yahrtzeit. After being warmly welcomed and socially accepted, the bitter Holocaust survivor returned to his roots, putting his newspaper aside so that he could pray with them three times daily, and he eventually became the president of the shul.

Rabbi Frand points out that the natural reaction to label the Holocaust survivor’s conduct as non-kosher was incorrect because the observer did not know the whole story. Without being aware of his past suffering and how it impacted his actions, without any insight into his unorthodox present situation, and without any way of knowing about his potentially bright future, passing critical judgment on his actions would have been premature and misguided, as the Torah intentionally changes the verb tenses to hint to us that we can only judge something and label it non-kosher if we know its past, present and future.

Q: The Gemara in Brachos (53b) derives from 11:44 the requirement to wash one’s hands at the end of a meal (mayim acharonim). After doing so, may one speak prior to Birkas Hamazon?

A: The Gemara in Brachos (42a) rules that teikef l’netilah brachah — immediately after washing one’s hands, a person must say a blessing. Rashi and the Rambam explain that this means that after washing mayim acharonim, a person may no longer eat or drink until he recites Birkas Hamazon. The Kesef Mishneh infers from them that only eating food is forbidden, but talking is still permitted. However the Bach, Arizal and Magen Avraham disagree.

The Eliyah Rabbah writes that a scholar once recited a Mishnah after washing mayim acharonim and began to suffer tremendous pain in his shoulder. He mentioned the incident to the Arizal, who told him that he was punished in his shoulder (kasef) for transgressing the requirement of the Sages to immediately (teikef) begin Birkas Hamazon. The Shulchan Aruch Harav permits a person to say two or three words after washing mayim acharonim. The Aruch Hashulchan permits speaking, explaining that speech is only a prohibited interruption between a blessing and the action on which the blessing was said. In contrast to washing one’s hands before the meal, on which a blessing is recited and speech is therefore forbidden until the blessing on the bread has been said, no parallel blessing is made when washing mayim acharonim, and one may therefore speak after doing so. However, the Mishnah Berurah rules that a person should be careful to avoid speaking after he has washed mayim acharonim.


 

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.