The Wood-Gatherer and Bedikas Chametz

Parashas Shelach concludes with a tragic incident in which the Jewish people discovered a man desecrating Shabbos by gathering wood. They told him to stop, but he disregarded their warning. At that point, they knew that he would be killed for his sin, but because they were unsure which of the four types of death penalty should be used, they placed him in jail while they clarified the issue.

Commenting on his confinement, the Midrash Pliah cryptically states: Mikan l’bedikas chametz min haTorah — this is a textual source from which the Rabbinical obligation to search for chametz before Pesach may be derived — a connection that seems to defy a logical explanation.

The Satmar Rebbe, Harav Yoel Teitelbaum, zy”a, brilliantly explains the Midrash by pointing out that the concept of imprisonment appears to have no place in Judaism. Although the Torah specifies the appropriate punishment for various transgressions — such as financial restitution, lashes and the death penalty — there is no sin that is punished with jail time.

The concept of incarceration has been implemented by other societies when they are afraid that the defendant may attempt to flee before his trial, or to prevent a convicted felon from committing additional crimes.

However, in the case of the wood gatherer, neither of these rationales was applicable, for Tosafos (Bava Basra 119b) writes that his intentions were purely for the sake of Heaven. After the Jewish people heard Hashem’s decree (Bamidbar 14:34-35) that they would be forced to wander in the wilderness for an additional 40 years and would die there without meriting to enter the Land of Israel, they concluded incorrectly that they were no longer required to observe the mitzvos.

The wood-gatherer therefore violated Shabbos to have himself put to death in order to teach them that they were still obligated to keep the Torah’s laws. If so, running away before he could be sentenced would defeat his entire purpose, and he certainly had no incentive to sin again, but if there were no legitimate grounds on which to imprison him, why did the people do so?

The first Mishnah in Pesachim discusses the Rabbinical obligation to check for chametz on the night before Pesach. Tosafos (Pesachim 2a) questions the need for this search in light of the Biblical requirement of bitul chametz (Pesachim 6b), when we declare that any chametz in our possession is null and void like the dust of the earth. After we have done so, why is there any further need for bedikas chametz?

Tosafos answers that even if a person wholeheartedly disavows himself of any chametz he owns, the sages were still worried that he may encounter chametz during the course of Yom Tov and be tempted to eat it.

In other words, the Satmar Rebbe explains that we are afraid that even though a person enters Pesach with the best of intentions, as evidenced by his willingness to firmly renounce all chametz in his possession, he may later change his mind. What Biblical source did the Rabbis find to support an enactment that compels us to second-guess our sincere commitment to adhere to halachah?

The Midrash Pliah suggests that they derived it from the incarceration of the wood gatherer, for even though his actions were motivated solely for the sake of Heaven, the people were still worried that he might subsequently reconsider and attempt to escape.

Just as they were unable to trust his initial desire to make an example of himself to teach the people a lesson, so too the sages do not allow us to rely on our well-intentioned bitul chametz and so require us to additionally do bedikas chametz.

Q: Who was greater, Yehoshua or Calev?

A: The Ramban writes that the spies are listed in descending order of greatness. Thus, since Calev is mentioned third and Yehoshua is fifth, it would seem that Calev was greater. However, the Ramban subsequently writes that when the Torah records (14:38) that Yehoshua and Calev were the only spies who were not killed for their actions, Yehoshua is mentioned first because he was wiser than Calev.

Similarly, the Ramban suggests that Yehoshua is referred to as “bin Nun” (the son of Nun) instead of the more traditional “ben Nun” because the phrase bin Nun can be read as one word — binun — which is derived from the word navon (insightful). This indicates that Yehoshua was the smartest of Moshe’s students. Yet in Parashas Shelach, the Ramban appears to say that four of the spies — including Calev — were greater than Yehoshua.

The Ichud B’Chidud resolves the apparent contradiction based on the Rambam’s list of the chain of transmitters of the mesorah. The Rambam writes that Achiya HaShiloni was among those who left Egypt and learned Torah from Moshe. Later in life he received the mesorah from Dovid and his beis din and eventually passed it on to Eliyahu.

The Raavad disagrees and says that Achiya was not a student of Dovid’s beis din, but an equal member of it. The Kesef Mishneh posits that the Raavad believes that because Achiya was so much older than Dovid and likely wiser as well, since he learned Torah directly from Moshe, he could not have received the Torah from Dovid and his court.

The Rambam, on the other hand, maintains that a person’s role in transmitting the mesorah is not solely determined by age or wisdom, and it was possible for the younger Dovid to convey the oral tradition to the older, more learned Achiya.

With this insight, the Ichud B’Chidud suggests that we can similarly say that although Calev was greater than Yehoshua, as evidenced by the fact that he is mentioned before him in the list of the spies, Yehoshua was nevertheless deemed the worthiest of Moshe’s disciples to receive the Torah from him and pass it on to future generations, and it is in this sense that the Ramban describes him as superior to Calev.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi 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