Parsha Pearls: Parshas Ki Sisa

For Whom Were the Tablets Brought Down?
Take Off Your Crowns!
What Makes the Holy Tongue Holy?

And Yehoshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, and he said to Moshe, “The sound of war is in the camp!” And he said, “It is not the sound of cries of victory, nor the sound of cries of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” (32:17-18)

Rashi explains that this sound of singing means “the sound of blaspheming and reviling, that afflict the soul of the one who hears them.” The Chasam Sofer writes that Yehoshua also understood that there was blasphemous singing going on in the camp, but he reasoned, “It is impossible that the righteous could be silent at such an act! There must be a war in the camp!” Moshe also shared this assumption, and this explains why he did not break the tablets on the top of the mountain, as soon as he heard from Hashem that the people worshipped the golden calf. He reasoned that there were certainly faithful Jews who were fighting the worshippers of the calf, and for these faithful Jews he would bring down the tablets. When he came down, however, and saw that there was no war, he broke them. Such was the reasoning of Moshe and Yehoshua: that whenever an abomination is committed by a segment of the Jewish people, there must be at least some faithful ones who fight it. Even if they are not strong enough to stop the sinners, the mere fact that they are fighting is precious in the eyes of Hashem, and for such people it is worth bringing down the holy tablets of the Torah.

Lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go astray after their gods, and sacrifice to their gods, and they call to you and you eat of their sacrifice, and you take their daughters for your sons… (34:15-16)

The Gemora says that Chazal forbade the bread of a gentile lest one come to drink his wine, and they forbade his wine lest one come to marry his daughters (Shabbos 17b). They eventually extended this decree to the Kuthites, for although they kept some of the Torah, they were found to be worshipping idols (Chullin 6a).

When Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, in his last years, heard about the new Zionist movement, he realized the danger it posed to the Jewish people. He called for his two of his greatest disciples, Rabbi Zorach Braverman and Rabbi Moshe Frankenthal, and said to them, “Write letters in my name to three of the gedolei hador, asking them to call a meeting of rabbanim to decide how to stop this movement before it is too late. There is a fearful danger looming on the horizon of Judaism, a danger the likes of which never existed before. This movement is likely to bring destruction on the Jewish people! Write that in my opinion, the rabbanim should get together and excommunicate the Zionists from the Jewish people. They should forbid their bread, their wine, and intermarriage with them, just as Chazal did to the Kuthites. I am certain that if we do not take this step, the Jewish people will eventually regret it.” But some people questioned the need for the such an extreme step - the Zionist leaders were known to be irreligious and heretical, and so in any case no good Jew would pay any attention to them. Others warned that the Zionists had support in the gentile world, and fighting them would only backfire. Still others said that it would be impossible to organize such a gathering because the Maskilim had connections in the governments and they would work hard to prevent the gathering. So in the end, the gathering never took place. Reb Yehoshua Leib was always upset about this and he warned, “A day will come when they will realize the correctness of my suggestion.” (Mara D’ara Yisroel, v. 2 p. 43)

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Reb Yaakov Leizer, the Pshevorsker Rebbe, related the following story about the Shinover Rav. Once the Shinover Rav’s grandson, Reb Chuna Hersch of Kalashitz, was sick, and the doctors said that the only cure was to drink wine of a certain type. Kosher wine of that type was only available from Carmel in Eretz Yisroel. The Shinover Rav ruled, “Carmel wine has the status of idolatrous wine. If one must drink idolatrous wine, better to drink wine made by gentiles, not Carmel, so that no one should make any mistake!” (Mishkenos Haro’im, p. 199)

And the people heard this bad thing, and they mourned, and they did not put on their ornaments. And Hashem said to Moshe, say to the children of Israel, you are a stiff-necked people; if I go up in your midst for one moment, I will consume you; and now, take off your ornament from you and I will know what I will do to you. (33:4-5)

The Alshich points out a seeming contradiction here: the first verse says that their ornaments were already off and they did not put them on, but from the second verse it appears that they were still on at this point, and G-d told them to take them off.

He explains that there were two groups among the Jewish people: those on a higher level were called "the children of Israel" whereas those on a lower level, who were somewhat sinful, were called "the people". Neither of these groups actually worshipped the golden calf (the worshippers of the calf had already been executed earlier) but they were guilty of not protesting against those who worshipped it. For the lower group, this sin of not protesting, combined with their other sins, was enough to make them lose their "ornaments" immediately after the incident of the golden calf. The "ornaments" were the two crowns given by the angels to each Jew when they said "naaseh venishma" – we will do and we will hear the Torah. Thus the Torah states, "And the people" – the lower group of Jews – "heard this bad thing" – that G-d would no longer be in their midst – "and they mourned" – because now they suffered a double blow – they had already lost their crowns, and now G-d would no longer be in their midst.

The higher group, for the single sin of not protesting, did not deserve to lose their crowns. However, G-d told Moshe to tell "the children of Israel" – this higher group – to take off their crowns for the following reason. The world was created for the purpose of bringing down G-d's presence among men (Bereishis Rabbah 19:6). The first man and woman, Adam and Chava, were perfectly suited for this purpose, but then they sinned and the stench of the snake entered them. At this point G-d's wisdom saw that to achieve their purpose, people would have to die, and their death would purify them and ready them to be a chariot for the Divine Presence like the angels. All of mankind gets the purification of death, but for His holy Jewish nation, G-d added an additional level of purification: exile. Avraham, father of all Jews, asked G-d to give them exile instead of Gehinom, and thus our Sages say (Eiruvin 19a) that Avraham sits at the door of Gehinom and refuses to let his children in, since they have suffered exile instead. The exile prepares them for their purpose of bringing the Divine Presence down into this world.

When the Torah was given and the Jews said "naaseh venishma" their stench departed, and they no longer needed the purifications of death and exile. Therefore they were given two crowns, one to protect them from death and the other to protect them from exile. But with the sin of the golden calf, this all came to an end, and they were back where they had started. They had the stench of the snake, and they would not get rid of it unless they went through the processes of death and exile. Therefore G-d said to Moshe, "Tell them to take off their crowns. Woe to the Jews if they do not take off their crowns, for then they will never experience death and exile and will never achieve their purpose in this world."

This is the meaning of the verse, "Take off your ornament from you and I will know what I will do to you." I alone known the good that I have planned for you, and it is for your own good that I ask you to take off your crowns, for if you keep them, you will never achieve that status."

This is what everyone who passes by the census taker shall give: half a shekel by the holy shekel. (30:13)

The Ramban explains that the shekel coin is called "holy" because it is the monetary unit for all payments in the Torah: erechin, pidyon haben, and the donations to the Mishkan. Every time the Torah gives a number as an amount of money, it means shekalim. For the same reason, says the Ramban, Chazal call the language of the Torah "Lashon Hakodesh" - the Holy Tongue - because it is the language in which Hashem created the world and spoke to His prophets. All the names of Hashem are in Lashon Hakodesh, as well as the names of the angels, and people like Avraham and Yitzchak who were named by Hashem Himself.

The Ramban then cites a second opinion as to why the language is called "Lashon Hakodesh", the opinion of the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim. The Rambam says that it is called holy because it contains no explicit words for matters of immodesty or human refuse. The Ramban counters firstly that there are such words, and secondly, the proper term for the avoidance of such words is "lashon nekiyah" - clean speech - rather than holy speech.

It would seem that the Rambam means to make a more general point about language. A language is an expression of how its speakers think and what kind of lives they lead. If a language contains an abundance of immodest words, one can be sure that its speakers lead immoral lives; if a language is modest, then its speakers must be moral. But that is just one example. The Rambam's point is that a language shows us the mindset and world view of its speakers, because they invented the language in accordance with the concepts they felt a need to express. In the case of Lashon Hakodesh, it is not the speakers who shaped the language; it is the language that shaped the speakers. Lashon Hakodesh is nothing but the words Hashem Himself used in the Torah and other prophetic books. When a Jew speaks, writes and thinks in Lashon Hakodesh, he is deliberately confining himself to the concepts it expresses, which are the thoughts of Hashem. He trains his mind to think like Hashem, as close as is humanly possible. That is why the language is called holy. Thus the Rambam is saying basically the same idea as the Ramban - that the language is holy because it originates from Hashem. He is only adding that that holiness manifests itself in the language's structure and vocabulary.

The Jewish people spoke Lashon Hakodesh only until the beginning of the Second Temple era; from then on, they spoke Aramaic (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Talmud Torah 1:1). During the Babylonian exile, when Jews lived in a land full of idolatry, the Sages decided that it would be disrespectful to the Holy Tongue to continue speaking it in such a defiled environment (Chasam Sofer on Orach Chaim 85). Additionally, they realized that the people were no longer on a high enough level to use such a holy tongue as their everyday language, for sinful speech is much worse when spoken in Lashon Hakodesh than when spoken in another language (Vayoel Moshe 3:8). The Aramaic they used was not the same as that spoken by the gentiles; it was a special Jewish dialect, written with Hebrew letters. Thus they continued to uphold the principle of keeping a separate language, a principle which the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 32:5) says the Jewish people maintained in Egypt. Later, Yiddish fulfilled the same function for European Jews, Judeo-Arabic for Jews in Arab lands and Ladino for Sephardic Jews.

The Modern Hebrew language invented by the Zionists would be forbidden to speak even if they had changed nothing at all of the original Lashon Hakodesh, since it was the Zionist heretics who started the practice of speaking it. Even a Sefer Torah written perfectly by a heretic must be burnt (Gittin 45b). All the more so now that they have made tremendous changes in the vocabulary, grammar and style of the language. Modern Hebrew was invented to make it easy to translate word-for-word from European languages into Hebrew and vice versa. The Jew who writes in true Lashon Hakodesh expresses pure Jewish thought and pure Torah views on life, but the Zionist speaks like a gentile under the thin disguise of a new language. Zionist Hebrew is nothing but English in translation.

In fact, it is much worse than English. When Bais Yaakov of Borough Park began teaching classes in Ivrit B'Ivrit (that is, translating the holy words of Chumash into Modern Hebrew), a group of parents complained, until the school staff agreed to present the question to Rabbi Aharon Kotler. The staff and a group of parents (among them the Debretziner Rav) came before Reb Aharon. The staff argued that they had no textbooks besides those produced in Eretz Yisroel, which were written in Ivrit. The parents argued that the purpose of teaching in Ivrit was to inculcate the students with the Zionist ideology. They demanded that the school teach in Yiddish, or at least arrange for separate Yiddish classes. As he listened, Reb Aharon's face grew stormy. He stood up and said fervently, "There is no doubt that teaching in Ivrit is completely forbidden. It is an assimilation worse than all other assimilations in the world. For the goal of Zionism is to uproot the holy Torah from its source. Assimilation with gentiles is like a gentile idol, which can be nullified; but assimilation with Ivrit is a Jewish idol, which can never be nullified! (See Avodah Zarah 52a.) If you teach in English, that is the language of the country and we have no choice, because we need to know the language to earn a living and so on. This is like teaching one's child a trade. But if we teach in Ivrit here in America, it serves no constructive purpose; it is only to bring the children closer to Zionism. Therefore it is definitely forbidden."

But the staff threatened that if Reb Aharon ruled this way, they would resign in protest and Bais Yaakov would have to close down. The Debretziner Rav commented, "Who ever heard of one of the parties in a Din Torah threatening the dayan?" In the end, Bais Yaakov arranged separate classes in Ivrit and Yiddish. (Botzina Kadisha v. 1 pp. 263-264; Shailos Utshuvos Be'er Moshe v. 4, 140:6)