By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Who Makes Up The Rules?
As we are about to begin the Nine Days (Tuesday night, July 13), our thoughts
should be focused on mourning the past and building the future. In order to
do so we must have a clear understanding of why the Bais Hamikdash (Temple)
was destroyed and in what merit it will be rebuilt. An analysis of the final
two Parshios in Sefer Bamidbar offers significant insight into the reason for
the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash and what we must do to rebuild it.
The second Bais Hamikdash was destroyed because of Sinas Chinum - unwarranted
hatred between Jews. As the Talmud in Gitten states, "Yerushalayim was
destroyed because two Jews, Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza couldn't get along with
each other." The rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash will therefore be rebuilt
when Jews figure out how to set aside their unfounded animosities and get
along with each other.
It would be an impossible expectation for Jews to set aside all their
differences. As a nation, we have always embraced different opinions,
outlooks, and Halachik decisions. As the Medresh in last week's Parsha
states, "Just as their faces are different one from the other, so do their
opinions differ one from the other." However, we must be certain that when
we differ and the way in which we differ should not be classified as
Given the publicized rift between the Orthodox and the other denominations of
Judaism, Tisha B'Av is a perfect backdrop for discussion and analysis of our
divided people. Everyone should decry the deplorable state of affairs that
exists within the general Jewish community. Entire segments of Jews, to the
right and to the left, have been demonized by written and spoken rhetoric
that does not offer sufficient understanding and clarity. If the Bais
Hamikdash was destroyed because two individuals could not get along with each
other, how can we ever expect to rebuild the Bais Hamikdash when unwarranted
animosity exists among us?
Let us be honest with ourselves and with each other. The issue today is not
whether Jews can get along with Jews. The issue is, can Judaism embrace a
pluralistic view of the fundamental beliefs that have been the foundation of
our tradition for over three thousand years? Can such fundamental beliefs as
the divinity of the Written and Oral Laws be opened to serious debate? Is
there a place in Judaism for a non-theist rabbi, or must we conclude that the
argument between the Rambam and the Ramban as to whether belief in G-d is a
prerequisite to all the Mitzvos or its own Mitzvah was theoretical theology
rather than fundamental religion? Must we believe in a G-d Who is good
because He rewards and punishes, or can we fool ourselves into thinking that
nature and society are independent of causation and our behavior?
However, far more honest and down to earth is the question of, "Who makes up
the rules?" Are the values and laws of Judaism an open ended system that
allows for each generation to redefine the meaning of truth; or, does truth
span time and circumstance because it is divinely determined and therefore
The Orthodox have always maintained that there is a G-d Who took us out of
Egypt, gave the Written and Oral Law to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, and that the law
remains irrefutable regardless of time and circumstance. If we follow G-d's
Torah as taught to us by the rabbis throughout the millenium, we will be
rewarded, if not, we will be punished. The other denominations challenge all
or some of those basic tenets of our religion. (Note Maimonidies 13
Principles of Faith 6 through 9)
This week's two Parshios herald the end of the 40 years of wandering in the
desert. The Bnai Yisroel were poised to enter the promised land, and aside
from Moshe's final words that comprise Sefer Divarim, this week's two
Parshios were G-d's final instructions to the Jews. The first circumstance
that G-d addressed in Mattos was personal vows. What is so significant about
personal vows and a father or husband's right to annul some of his daughter's
or wife's vows that they should be among G-d's final instructions?
To understand why the regulation and application of personal vows are so
significant, we must consider what has been the underlying focus of Sefer
Bamidbar. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes, "This Fourth Book… shows the
relationship of the nation of Israel, as it actually is, to the ideal of its
calling " (Commentary on 1:1). As the Jews moved away from Mt. Sinai
toward the fulfillment of their destiny as a "kingdom of priests and a holy
nation" living in the Promised Land, their unquestioning acceptance of G-d's
every law was of paramount importance. They were to be judged by the scale
of their own words, "We will do and then we will understand." To the extent
that their behavior reflected their declaration of acceptance was the extent
of their individual and collective successes and failures.
In the course of the 40 years, the Jews studied and practiced the mandate of
their own words. For 40 years they heard the commandments of G-d relayed to
them through Moshe Rabbeinu, and for 40 years they struggled to understand
and integrate G-d's commandments into a workable lifestyle. For the most
part, they succeeded so admirably that they earned the title of "The
Generation of Knowledge". However, they were a generation that had not been
tested. The extent and depth of their commitment to accept and fulfill G-d's
commandments had never been challenged in societies arena of assimilation.
Their one and only test in withstanding the seductiveness of Midian's
daughters had ended in abject tragedy and failure.
It became obvious after the incident with Baal Peor (end of Balak) that
acceptance and study of G-d's commandments were not powerful enough to
withstand the temptations of a materialistic and sensuous world. Only when
they are coupled with self-discipline do they meld into an impenetrably
protected lifestyle. The very first step toward self-discipline is accepting
authority. Whether the authority of parents, teachers, government, religion,
or G-d; acceptance of that authority guarantees the system's viability.
Authority alone without the self-discipline of the followers can not succeed
either. If the followers are unwilling to accept the authority of the
leaders there is not leadership, unless the leadership can force them to
comply in some manner. Therefore, in order for any system involving a
hierarchy of authority to function properly it must work in concert with
self-discipline or coercion.
A true indication of the success of leadership is when their constituency
takes the initiative to do more than the stated demands and expectations.
That kind of personal commitment reflects a belief in the values and goals of
the system and its leadership. However, even personal commitments are
subject to the rules and regulations of the system. Regardless of personal
fervor and feelings, authority must still regulate; otherwise there is chaos.
"Every man doing as he sees fit", is always a prescription of systemic
breakdown and disaster.
A person who embraces Torah and Mitzvos as an exciting, growth challenging,
and comforting life style will be inspired to integrate more than the
expected into his day. Such a person will seek out more opportunities for
Torah study and acts of Chesed. Such a person will approach prayer with
greater intensity, joy, and sense of connection to G-d. Such a person will
obligate himself in the form of a personal oath or vow to attach greater
sanctity and meaning to his life. Such a person will desire to express his
devotion through even greater discipline than otherwise demanded. Such a
person validates the goals of leadership in developing a kingdom of priests
and a holy nation. However, such a person is still subject to the review and
sanction of Halachik authority.
The case of the father or husband annulling the personal vow of a daughter or
wife symbolizes the place of authority in maintaining the integrity of the
entire system. Rashi references the Talmud in Nidarim 79a that restricts the
husband's power of nullification to those vows that might cause his wife
personal discomfort or impact her relationship with the rest of the family.
Such a vow, regardless of her religious fervor or conviction, is subject to
the symbolic authority of the family system represented by the husband. All
other vows are beyond the purview of the husband's symbolic power.
Rav Hirsch's eloquence best expresses the relationship between personal vows
and the system of family and nation. "The intent of the regulations which
now follow (referring to the beginning of Mattos) is to make it possible for
individuals, for communities and for the entire nation to establish for
themselves permanent norms that will ensure the faithful observance of the
actual Law… The one indispensable means for achieving this end, of bringing
about the development of the nation as a whole, and of every form of communal
life is the acknowledgment that such vows must be regarded as inviolable. At
the same time, the heads of the tribes are entrusted with the task, if need
be, of annulling such vows in an effective manner."
On the one hand, we hope for expressions of personal commitment and devotion.
When such dedication is expressed as a personal vow, the full force and
severity of Torah authority binds it, "according to whatever comes from his
mouth shall he do" (30:3). On the other hand, Halachik authority, as
represented by the husband and as vested by the Torah in the Rabbis, must
As I said earlier, the real question dividing Orthodoxy from the other
denominations of Judaism is, "Who makes up the rules?" Orthodoxy fully
accepts the absolute authority of a divine Torah as taught to us throughout
the millenium by our Rabbis. It does not mean that we are perfectly
observant. It simply means that we accept the absolutes of tradition and
authority. It means that we are committed to fulfilling the vow of our
ancestors who collectively proclaimed, "We will do and then we will attempt
The other denominations must understand that our differences are not
"unwarranted animosity." The weight of history and the strength of our
devotion, support our principled stance. We can not accept compromises in
the fundamental beliefs that are the foundation of our relationship with G-d.
However, we must always welcome sincere inquiry and debate. The manner of
our speech must be respectful but courageous. We are the true champions and
teachers of our traditions and we owe no apologies for who and what we are.
If we respond with forcefulness and passion, it is because we know the
richness and beauty of a lifestyle that fully integrates G-d. We wish to
share the goodness. We wish to heal the rift. However, we will not
compromise the authority of our traditions and rabbis who are the soul of our
When the Bais Hamikdash will be rebuilt it will be founded on the fulfillment
of our own national vow, "We will do and then we will attempt to understand."
Understanding is important. However, before we can understand we must first
fully accept the divinity of our law and the authority of our rabbis.
THE NINE DAYS
The Nine Days begin on Rosh Chodesh Av, the evening of July 13, and end
Thursday evening, July 22. This interval of time imitates the period of
"shiva" with some of its restrictions.
Washing and Cleaning Clothing:
It is forbidden to wash or iron clothing during the 9 Days, even if it is
done by a non-Jew. You may give clothing to the cleaners before the 9 Days,
even if they will be cleaned during the 9 Days. One may not, however, pick
up the clothing until after the 9 Days.
Freshly laundered clothing:
It is forbidden to wear new or freshly laundered clothing during the 9 Days,
except for undergarments and socks. All garments to be worn during the 9
Days should be worn for a short time before the 9 Days begin. If clothing
becomes soiled and you don't have a clean change, you may wash only that
which you need. Small children's clothing that are constantly getting dirty
may be washed during the 9 Days. Bed linens should not be washed or changed,
except when truly needed. Purchasing new clothing, even if they will first be
worn after the 9 Days, is forbidden. Sewing and all types of alterations are
not allowed during the 9 Days. If needed, minor tears and buttons may be
Eating Meat and Chicken and drinking wine:
Eating meat or chicken is prohibited during the 9 Days. Drinking wine or
grape juice is also prohibited. These prohibitions do not extend to Shabbos
or a Seudat Mitzvah such as a Brit, Pidyon Haben or a Siyum.; The custom is
to have a young child drink the wine from Havadalah; however, if there is no
young child, the one making Havadalah may drink.
Bathing and washing:
Among the more difficult restrictions to keep during the 9 Days is the
prohibition against washing and bathing. Being that we are imitating the
period of "shiva", the expected mental attitude is one that "doesn't care"
due to the enormity of the loss suffered. It is obvious that the Rabbis
wanted us to act as if we are affected by the absence of the Beit Hamikdash
in a manner that reflects a deep sense of loss in our relationship with G-d.
Our culture, much more so than other cultures, places a priority on personal
hygiene. This is taken into account by the Halacha. The criteria
established by the Halacha is: bathing for pleasure vs. bathing for
necessity. The degree of "necessity" changes from person to person, so the
Halacha expects some modification in our personal hygiene depending on the
individual. Saunas, steam rooms, swimming, and other forms of pleasurable
bathing activities are certainly prohibited during the 9 Days for every one.
Small children are permitted to swim, bathe, etc.; however, we are especially
vigilant during this period of time in supervising any activity which might
Each of us must seriously assess our level or "necessity"; however, everyone
can take a quick, lukewarm shower, rather than a leisurely hot one, and still
accommodate our "need to be clean". Women preparing for the Mikvah are
permitted to wash in the usual manner.
Copyright © 1999 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.