Believing Is Seeing
Question #1: Kiddush Levanah on an Airplane
“It was cloudy on motzaei Shabbos, so I was unable to be mekadeish levanah after davening in shul. Later that night, I left for the airport, and I am now sitting in my window seat, which includes a beautiful view of the new moon. May I be mekadeish levanah now, although I am indoors, and I am also obviously looking at the moon through a window?”
Question #2: Havdalah on a Lightbulb
“I have been told that Rav Chayim Ozer, the posek hador before the Second World War, deliberately recited the brocha of borei me’orei ha’eish on an electric light. How could he have done this when a lightbulb must be encased in glass for it to burn?”
Question #3: This Week’s Parsha
“What do the above questions have to do with this week’s parsha?”
Of the many mesechtos of Mishnayos, the tractate named Nega’im, so germane to a proper understanding of both of this week’s parshios, may have the distinction of being the least familiar mesechta. Since few of us regard the laws concerning tzaraas on people, clothes and houses to be applicable, there is a tendency to assume that these are difficult topics and, therefore, they are often not studied. Nevertheless, a tremendous amount of Torah knowledge lies in this mesechta, in addition to it being essential to understand this week’s Torah readings correctly.
Mesechta Nega’im is arguably the most organized of the mesechtos of Shas.
Notwithstanding its length (it is the fourth longest mesechta), someone familiar with it can locate any Mishnah or subtopic effortlessly, since each of its 14 chapters is focused on a very specific aspect of the laws of nega’im and tzaraas.
The first chapter describes the various colors that a nega may have; the second, the details concerning how a nega is examined; the third is an overview and comparison of the various types of nega’im. The fourth chapter discusses the symptoms of white hair and expansion that are mentioned prominently in the Torah; the fifth chapter discusses cases of questionable tzaraas; the sixth explains the laws of healthy-looking skin inside a nega, known as michyah. The seventh chapter discusses cases of nega’im that are not tamei; the eighth analyses the laws of a nega that covers the entire body; the ninth chapter explains the laws of nega’im on injured skin; and the tenth chapter teaches the laws of nega’im on the scalp and beard.
The last four chapters are also very clearly organized, dealing, in order, with nega’im on clothing (Chapter 11), on houses (Chapters 12 and 13) and the process of making someone tahor after he became a metzora (Chapter 14).
As I mentioned above, the second chapter of Mishnayos Nega’im is devoted to the details concerning how a nega is examined. Among the many issues discussed here are the times of the day that the lighting is adequate for a kohen to view and rule on nega’im, the quality of vision required of a kohen to do this, and how a kohen examines a nega inside a house that does not have quality lighting.
This week’s parsha
Notwithstanding the fact that I have just sung the praises of the importance of proper organization and how much was invested in mesechta Nega’im, I am going to discuss the last of our opening questions first. “What do the above questions have to do with this week’s parsha?” To answer this question we need to explore a relatively minor detail germane to the laws of nega’im.
Seeing is believing
Among the issues discussed by the later halachic authorities is: What is the halacha if the kohen’s vision is impaired and he cannot see the nega properly without eyeglasses? Is this considered that the kohen saw the nega, a necessary requirement to rule the person, cloth or house tamei? Or is this considered that he did not see the nega correctly, and the person, cloth or house remains tahor?
One of the later commentaries on the Mishnah, the Tiferes Yisroel, discusses this issue, and draws analogy to several areas of halacha where we find discussion whether use of an implement to view something is considered as seeing it (Boaz, Nega’im 2:4).
The first comparison the Tiferes Yisroel draws is to the laws of the reading of the Torah. An early authority discusses the following question: Wax, presumably from a candle in the shul, fell on a Sefer Torah. In the course of reading the Torah on Shabbos, this wax was discovered, and the laws of Shabbos prohibit scraping off the wax. Assuming that the wax is opaque enough that one can read the words underneath, is this considered that the baal keriyah read the Sefer Torah and the mitzvah has been fulfilled, or do we consider those words to be covered and that it is impossible to observe the mitzvah with this Sefer Torah until the wax is removed? According to the first approach, they can continue with the Torah reading, whereas according to the second approach, they must put the Sefer Torah back and take out a different one to continue reading the Torah portion for this Shabbos.
The Tiferes Yisroel quotes an earlier source, the Leket Hakemach, as ruling that it is permitted to continue using this Torah by reading through the wax. The Leket Hakemach is one of several halachic works by Rav Moshe ibn Chagiz, one of the gedolei hador in Eretz Yisroel in the early eighteenth century. The sefer Leket Hakemach is unusual in that it is an anthology in which Rav ibn Chagiz often quotes the conclusion of many halachic sources without discussing the details of the issues involved. This style became popular over two hundred years later, as evidenced by such works as the Pischei Teshuvah, the Sdei Chemed and the Darchei Teshuvah. In this instance, the Leket Hakemach concludes that it is permitted to read from this Sefer Torah, provided that the baal keriyah can see the word clearly through the wax. This means that the intervening wax is not considered a chatzitzah (block or intervention) from reading the Torah. The Tiferes Yisroel concludes that there is certainly no problem for the baal keriyah or the person receiving an aliyah reading the Sefer Torah to use eyeglasses. Similarly, the Tiferes Yisroel suggests at the outset of his discussion that a kohen could rule on a nega on the basis of what he sees with his eyeglasses.
A similar question is asked by an early acharon. Can one perform a chalitzah when one of the dayanim can see the procedure only with the aid of his eyeglasses? Is this considered that he witnessed the chalitzah, which is necessary for the validity of the procedure?
The Shevus Yaakov rules that it is perfectly acceptable to perform the chalitzah this way (Shu”t Shevus Yaakov 1:126).
Kiddush levanah and borei me’orei ha’eish
The Tiferes Yisroel then compares his question to an area that has more halachic discussion – whether one can recite the brochos of kiddush levanah and borei me’orei ha’eish, should one see the moon or the flame through glass.
Let’s trace this halachic discussion from its sources. The tanna’im (Mishnah Megillah 24a) dispute whether a blind man is obligated to recite the brocha that we recite every morning immediately after Borchu, which closes with the words yotzeir hame’oros, praising Hashem for providing the world with light. Rabbi Yehudah contends that since the blind cannot see sunlight, it is inappropriate for them to praise Hashem for something from which they cannot benefit. The Tanna Kamma disagrees, noting that they do benefit from light, since it enables other people to look out for them. The Gemara proceeds to tell us an anecdote about a blind man who was seen walking in the pitch-black night holding a torch. Rabbi Yosi asked him why he was holding a light, to which the man answered, “As long as the torch is in my hand, people see me and save me from pits and thorns.” Thus, although he may not be able to see the light, he certainly benefits from it. The halachic authorities conclude in accordance with the Tanna Kamma that a blind person does recite yotzeir hame’oros (Shulchan Aruch 69:2).
Borei me’orei ha’eish
The Mishnah (Brochos 51b) states that the brocha of borei me’orei ha’eish cannot be recited unless the person can benefit from the light. How much benefit is enough to recite the brocha? The Gemara (53b) states: Enough that he can distinguish by the light between two coins of different size and value.
Upon this basis, the authorities conclude that there is a difference between the brocha of yotzeir hame’oros, which a blind person recites, and the brocha of borei me’orei ha’eish (Ra’avyah, Megillah, and all subsequent authorities). As we just saw, the Gemara provided a quantitative visual criterion for the recital of this brocha, that is, the ability to use the light to discern between two coins. Reciting borei me’orei ha’eish requires not only that one can benefit from the light, but that one must actually be able to see something specific with it. This precludes the blind man from reciting this brocha: although he gains benefit from the light, he cannot fulfill the second requirement, which defines something physical that he can see.
To review, the halachic conclusion was that the brocha of yotzeir hame’oros requires benefiting from the light, but not necessarily seeing the light whereas the brocha of borei me’orei ha’eish requires actually seeing the light and discerning something with its aid.
At this point, we need to discuss the brocha of kiddush levanah, about which the Gemara states that he does not recite a brocha unless he can differentiate by its light between two coins. Should it be compared to yotzeir hame’oros, which would imply that a blind man can recite the brocha, or should it be compared to borei me’orei ha’eish, in which case he cannot?
We find that sixteenth-century authorities dispute this question, the Maharshal ruling that a blind person may and should recite kiddush levanah, whereas his younger contemporary, Rav Yaakov Castro (known as the Maharikash), ruled that he should not. (The Maharikash was born in Egypt around 1525. As a youth he traveled to Yerushalayim, where he studied under the Maharlnach, Rabbi Levi ibn Habib, the posek hador and the rav of Jerusalem. In 1570, the Maharikash, who at that time was a dayan in Egypt, visited Tzefat, where he was a house guest of Rav Yosef Karo, and later recorded in his own writings many of the halachic practices he noticed there. Among the Maharikash’s many scholarly works, he authored footnotes to the Shulchan Aruch, sometimes referred to as the “second set” — the first set being those written by the Rema. The Maharikash named his notes on the Shulchan Aruch, Eirech Lechem, based on the posuk, Shemos 40:23, which means the bread laid out on the table of the Shulchan Aruch. The Rema’s notes were called the mapah, the tablecloth on the table. Thus, the three works describe a table perfectly set with bread on it, ready for a meal to be served.)
The Maharshal contends that there is a difference between the brocha of borei me’orei ha’eish and the brocha of kiddush levanah, writing that “the mitzvah of borei me’orei ha’eish is not dependent only on benefiting from the light, but also on being able to see… however this distinction is relative only to borei me’orei ha’eish, but regarding kiddush levanah, it seems to me that someone (who cannot see) can certainly recite the brocha, since the Gemara implies that it is sufficient if mankind in general can benefit from the moonlight” (Shu”t Maharshal #77).
The consensus of the later authorities is to follow the conclusion of the Maharshal that a blind man recites kiddush levanah, unlike the position of the Maharikash (Magen Avraham; Elya Rabbah; Pri Chadash, Biur Halacha , etc., all in Orach Chayim 426).
Kohen and nega
Notwithstanding the many proofs that seeing somethingthrough glass is valid, Tiferes Yisroel notes that some halachic sources indicate that a difference exists between the quality of viewing required for a brocha, versus that necessary for testimony. For example, he contends that someone cannot give testimony in court on the basis of something that he saw through a window. (His proof to this position is arguable, but we will not belabor the details.) Tiferes Yisroel contends that germane to testimony, we must be absolutely certain, and we must therefore be concerned that the tinting of color through glass might affect what we see. Similarly, he concludes that a kohen would not be allowed to rule on a nega on the basis of what he sees with his eyeglasses, or through any other glass.
Returning to glass
Let us return to our previous discussion about the mitzvos of kiddush levanah and borei me’orei ha’eish. May one recite borei me’orei ha’eish when the light is covered with glass? We find a dispute among earlier authorities whether one may recite borei me’orei ha’eish when one can see and use the light, but there is a pane of glass separating you from it. The Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 428) quotes a dispute between the Orchos Chayim and the Rashba (Brochos 53b s.v. Hayesa), the Orchos Chayim forbids reciting a brocha on such a light until it is removed from inside the glass, whereas the Rashba permits it. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 298:15) rules that one may not recite a brocha on such a light, whereas the Magen Avraham concludes that one may.
Kiddush levanah on an airplane
At this point, we can discuss the opening question of our article. “It was cloudy on motzaei Shabbos, so I was unable to be mekadeish levanah after davening in shul. Later that night, I left for the airport, and I am now sitting in my window seat, which includes a beautiful view of the new moon. May I be mekadeish levanah now, although I am indoors, and I am also obviously looking at the moon through a window?”
There are two questions here:
(1) Is it permitted to recite kiddush levanah indoors?
(2) Is it permitted to recite kiddush levanah when seeing the moon through a pane of glass?
Technically, these are two unrelated questions: one can physically see the moon when indoors by looking at it through an open skylight or window, and one can be outdoors and yet see the moon through glass.
Kiddush levanah indoors
Early authorities rule that kiddush levanah should be recited outdoors, since this demonstrates more respect (Shiltei Hagiborim). However, the consensus is that this requirement is only when it is practical to recite kiddush levanah outdoors. A person who is ill is permitted to recite kiddush levanah indoors, and the same law holds true for someone in other extenuating circumstances (Bach; Pri Chodosh).
What a pane!
Shu”t Radbaz (#341) asks an interesting question. What is the halacha if the moon is covered by a very thin cloud in a way that you can see the moon clearly, and it sheds enough light that you can use its light to tell the difference between two coins? The Radbaz rules that kiddush levanah may be recited under this circumstance. Similarly, kiddush levanah may be recited when the moon is clearly visible through glass and there is no practical way to see the moon directly, such as when you are on an airplane.
Havdalah on a lightbulb
At this point, let us examine the second of our opening questions: “I have been told that Rav Chayim Ozer, the posek hador before the War, deliberately recited the brocha of borei me’orei ha’eish on an electric light. How could he have done this when a lightbulb must be encased in glass for it to burn?”
On many occasions, I was told by my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Ruderman, zt”l, that Rav Chayim Ozer recited the brocha of borei me’orei ha’eish on an electric light. Rav Chayim Ozer’s reason for doing so was for people to realize that turning on an electric light on Shabbos involves a Torah prohibition of desecrating Shabbos.
Because of Rav Chayim Ozer’s efforts, today this is realized. However, in his day there were those who contended that turning on an electric switch was considered an indirect way (grama) of doing melacha and, therefore, did not involve a violation of Torah law. In order to demonstrate convincingly how strongly he felt about the issue, Rav Chayim Ozer deliberately recited the brocha of borei me’orei ha’eish on an electric light so that people would realize that turning on this light is prohibited min haTorah.
We see that the fact that the “flame” of an electric light must be encased in glass did not disturb Rav Chayim Ozer, since it can be seen clearly through the glass.
The Magen Avraham and most later authorities rule that one can fulfill the mitzvos of kiddush levanah 426:1) and borei me’orei ha’eish (298:20) when seeing the moon or the light through glass. It might be that this is insufficient for a kohen checking a nega, where there is a good possibility that he must see the nega without anything intervening.
Through this discussion, we see how understanding Torah properly involves deep familiarity with halachic sources that are ostensibly dealing with other topics. The rishonim referred to this as divrei Torah aniyim bimkomam va’ashirim bimkom acheir, the words of Torah are few in the discussion at hand, but vast and more explanatory in other places (see, for example, Tosafos, Kerisus 14a). Thus a posek must have a broad base of halachic knowledge.