Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Not In Heaven!
The parshios of Tazria and Metzora discuss the laws of tzaraas, a
physical ailment seen by our Sages as being a result of laxity in Torah
observance, particularly the sin of lashon hara (gossip). Its identifying
mark was a white patch or patches appearing on the skin of the
victim. In order for the spot to indicate tzaraas, the white patch of
skin has to have caused at least two hairs in its area to turn white.
Thus, if the hairs had turned white prior to the appearance of the
white patch of skin, they were not "caused" by the tzaraas, and the
person is tahor (pure). If the white patch preceded the white hairs, he
is tamei (impure - i.e. this is a full-fledged tzaraas affliction).
What if there is doubt as to which came first? Regarding this case,
there is a most fascinating passage in the Gemara which records the
It was debated in the Heavenly Academy: The
Holy One, Blessed be He, said: It is pure. The
entire Heavenly Academy, however, said it is
"Who shall decide the matter for us?" they
asked. "Rabbah bar Nachmeini," for Rabbah
bar Nachmeini used to say, "There is none like
me in [knowledge of] the laws of tzaraas."
A messenger was dispatched to bring him [to
heaven]. As his soul was leaving him, he said,
"Tahor, tahor (pure, pure)!" [Bava Metziah 86a]
The Rambam, writes in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Tzaraas: Chapter 2,
Halacha 9): "If there is doubt as to which came first, the white hairs
or the white patch of skin, he is tamei (impure)." This is puzzling:
How can the Rambam rule tamei contrary to the ruling of Rabbah
bar Nachmeini, who was "unequalled in the laws of tzaraas?"
Kesef Mishneh (commentary on Rambam, ibid.) answers that there
is a well known rule that, "the Torah is not in Heaven (Lo
BaShamayim Hu)," (see Bava Metzia 59b). Namely, although the
Torah is Hashem's, He endowed it to the Jews, at which point He
"lost control" over the final outcome of halacha (Jewish law). When
there is a matter of halachic dispute, Hashem, so to speak, has no
say in the matter. All decisions are to be rendered by the Jewish Beis
Din (court), even if they rule contrary to Hashem's own intent, to the
extent that the Gemara concludes that even were a Heavenly voice
to state that the halacha is according to a certain opinion, this would
not change our outlook on the matter. (Indeed, it is this same
principle that allows the "Heavenly Academy" to debate the matter
with the Almighty, and which ultimately forced them to give over the
final decision to Rabbah bar Nachmeini.)
However, writes the Kesef Mishnah, this very principle also disqualifies
the ruling of Rabbah bar Nachmeini. Since the words, "Tahor, tahor,"
were uttered at the time of "his neshamah's (soul's) departure," at
which point he was, so to speak, more "there" than "here", such a
ruling can not be relied upon as having emanated from "this world,"
and thus the Rambam is justified in ruling to the contrary.
Chasam Sofer (Sha'alos ve-Teshuvos Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim
n. 208) takes exception to the Kesef Mishnah. If so, he argues, all
rulings that were delivered close to any Sage's death should be
disqualified, for perhaps he uttered his ruling when he was already
"more there than here!" To entertain such a thought is preposterous!
Rather, explains the Chasam Sofer, we must say the following: It
appears from the Gemara that no one was present at the time of
Rabbah bar Nachmeini's death (the Gemara [ibid.] says that a note
later fell from Heaven informing the Jews of Pumbedisa that he had
died.) And even were someone present at the time of his death, how
could they have known regarding what he was stating "Tahor, tahor?"
We must conclude that this story only became known either by
means of the same note that fell from Heaven, or by means of a
"Heavenly voice," or perhaps Eliyahu haNavi revealed the matter to
the Sages of the Gemara.
Since knowledge of Rabbah's ruling came only through such unusual
means, it falls under the category of "Lo BaShamayim Hu - The
Torah is not in Heaven," and can not be accepted as the basis for
halachic ruling. Thus the Rambam is justified in ruling to the
In relation to the above, I was thinking: Do we really appreciate what
it means that Hashem gave us the Torah? His most prized
possession - the blueprint of the universe and all its complexities - lies
in our hands. Hashem relinquished His dominion over the Torah by
handing it over to us. The trust implicit in this is enormous.
Jews in exile are compared to a metzora (tzaraas inflicted individual).
Like us, the metzora too was banished from his home. Perhaps,
homiletically we can find expression of this wonder in the opening
words of parshas Metzora - "Zos Toras haMetzora - This is the Torah
of the Metzora." The exiled Jew, robbed of all material goodness, still
possesses the most valuable item of all - the Torah.
As the Gemara states (Kiddushin 66a), "The Torah sits bound up
alone in a corner; whomever wants may come and study her!" May
we truly merit to comprehend its value, and to occupy our days
exploring its riches!
Text Copyright © 1999 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.