Talmud Tips

For the week ending 13 May 2023 / 22 Iyar 5783

Sotah 44-49

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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A Special Merit of Tefillin

We learned in a beraita, “One who speaks between putting on the tefillin of the hand and the tefillin of the head has a transgression ‘in his hand’ and goes home from the ranks of the Jewish army.”

The gemara explains that this statement is consistent with the opinion of Rabbi Yossi Hagalili who gives a novel explanation in the Mishna on amud alef for the Torah exempting certain people from a Jewish army in the verse: And the officers shall continue to speak to the people and say, "What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, that he should not cause the heart of his brothers to melt, as his heart.” (Deut. 20:8)

Rabbi Yossi Hagalili teaches in the Mishna on amud alef that this refers to someone who is fearful due to his transgressions and as the gemara explains, even rabbinical transgressions. He also explains in the Mishna that the exemptions for a new wife, house and vineyard (verses 5, 6 and 7) act as a type of “cover up” for people to return from the battleground without suffering embarrassment. People who return from the other troops due to their transgressions will be judged favorably, as really returning due to their new vineyard, house or wife. (Rashi)

But why is speaking while putting on tefillin, which is an interruption in the mitzvah and a transgression, mentioned in the gemara as an example of this teaching that a transgressor does not go to battle? One answer is that by keeping the mitzvah of tefillin ‘properly’ (on the arm and head, without interruption) the army of the Jewish People merit that Hashem will bless them with the blessing that Moshe gave the tribe of Gad in Devarim 33:20, “He shall smite the enemy's arms and heads” (they would sever the head and arm of the enemy with one blow — Rashi).” (Rabbeinu Asher)

*Sotah 44a

The End of Humility?

“After the passing of Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuha Hanasi), the traits of ‘humility’ (‘anava’ in Hebrew) and ‘fear of sin’ ceased to exist in the world.”

This teaching, taught on the concluding daf of Tractate Sotah, is challenged by Rav Yosef and Rav Nachman on the concluding line in the gemara. Rav Yosef said, “Don’t teach ‘fear of sin’ (ceased), because there is me”. Rav Nachman said, “Don’t teach ‘humility’ (ceased), because there is me.” The commentaries question how Rav Yosef and Rav Nachman could each apparently praise themselves in this manner. And are we not taught, “May a stranger praise you and not your mouth…” in Proverbs 27:2?

One explanation is that they felt that it was their obligation to make sure that the teachings of the Torah were transmitted correctly, and if there was something incorrect, it should not be taught. Since Rav Yosef and Rav Nachman, great Sages without self-bias, felt that they still possessed these traits, it was their Torah obligation to say not to teach that these lofty traits had ceased. (Maharsha)

The Maharsha adds that the trait of “fear of sin” was no longer laudable to the people of this generation, and it could therefore not be considered “praise”. Perhaps even the opposite. A different answer is offered in the name of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon from Vilna. When it says “ana” in the gemara it does not mean “me or I”, the speaker. Rather it refers to another Sage by the name of Ana, and the speaker is in fact not praising himself.

*Sotah 49a

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