Torah Creativity

The Gemara is replete with laws derived from seemingly superfluous words in the Torah, based on the principle that the Torah doesn’t contain even a single unnecessary letter. It is therefore difficult to understand why the Torah repeats at excruciating length the offerings brought by each of the 12 tribal leaders, when they were all identical to one another. Wouldn’t it have been much more concise to list the offering brought on the first day and to add that each subsequent leader brought the same offering on the succeeding days?

The Ramban explains that although their actions appeared identical on a superficial level, Hashem knows the inner thoughts motivating every action. He recognized that each leader had a unique intention behind his selection of the items brought in his offering. Because their personal motivations were unique, the Torah wrote out each one separately as if their offerings were completely different.

Harav Reuven Leuchter posits that because the Torah is the blueprint of the universe, the expression of any genuine concept can be found in the Torah. He suggests that the source for the idea of “creativity” may be found where one would least expect it — in the section recounting the offerings of the tribal leaders! The Ramban teaches us that although the Torah requires us to do certain concrete actions, we are still able to imbue them with our own individual perspectives and to find in them an expression of our own unique personalities.

Many people today complain that they feel constrained by the standard text of our daily prayers, which was established almost 2,000 years ago. They feel that as our daily needs change, so too should our expression of them. However, the Ramban’s explanation can be extended to teach that we need not feel stifled by the repeated expression of our needs and entreaties using identical phrases, as illustrated by the following story.

A close disciple of Harav Yechezkel Abramsky once mentioned that an acquaintance of his had recently undergone a difficult kidney transplant. Harav Abramsky sighed, feeling the other Jew’s pain, and then remarked, “I pray every day that I shouldn’t be forced to undergo such a procedure.” The surprised student questioned why he made a special point of reciting this unique prayer daily. Harav Abramsky responded that this request is included in the standard wording of Birkas Hamazon, in which we request that we not come to need matnas basar va’dam — gifts of flesh and blood (e.g. transplants).

The student challenged this explanation, as the simple understanding of the words is that we shouldn’t need monetary gifts from other humans (“flesh and blood”). Harav Abramsky smiled and explained that the Sages incorporated every need we may have into the text of the standard prayers. Any place we find in which we are able to “read in” a special request we have into the words is also included in the original intention of that prayer.

Just as the tribal leaders brought identical offerings and still found room for creative expression by doing so with their own unique intentions, so too our Sages established the standard wording of the prayers with Divine Inspiration, articulating within them every feeling we may wish to express. Many times, in the midst of a difficult situation, we begin the standard prayers with a heavy heart, only to find a new interpretation of the words which we have recited thousands of times jump out at us. This newfound understanding, which has been there all along waiting for us to discover it in our time of need, is perfectly fit to the sentiments we wish to convey, if we will only open our eyes to see it and use our Sages’ foresight to express ourselves.

Parashah Q & A

Q:May a Kohen who has never been married, or who was widowed or divorced, recite the Priestly Blessing?

A: The Mordechai writes that a Kohen who isn’t married should not say the Priestly Blessing. The Gemara in Yevamos (62b) teaches that an unmarried person lacks joy, and it is appropriate for one giving a blessing to be happy. The Darkei Moshe questions this opinion in light of the law that a minor may not say the Priestly Blessing. It should be unnecessary to exempt a minor since he is already exempt for the reason that a minor cannot get married. He answers that a minor does not yet feel sad over the fact that he is unmarried and therefore needs his own unique exemption. The Rashba writes that he never heard this opinion from any of his teachers or saw it in any work. Although it may have roots in Aggadic teachings, its omission from the Gemara means that this is not normative law. The Beis Yosef suggests that while it is difficult to exempt somebody from a Biblical mitzvah for a reason not mentioned in the Gemara, one who wants to rely on the Mordechai may do so by leaving the synagogue before the Kohanim are called. He adds that after further thought, it is clear that an unmarried Kohen should ascend to say the blessing if there are other Kohanim present, and he may do so even if there aren’t. Rabbeinu Bachyei agrees with the Mordechai, but for a different reason. He writes that an unmarried person is incomplete, and only one who is complete should give blessings. As a matter of practical law, the Shulchan Aruch rules that an unmarried Kohen should say the Priestly Blessing. The Rema quotes the dissenting opinion but writes that the practice is to say it, although he adds that it is permitted to leave the synagogue before the Kohanim are called. The Mishnah Berurah explains that although an unmarried Kohen may lack joy, he is still not sad and can therefore bless.


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