Talmud Tips

For the week ending 19 June 2021 / 9 Tamuz 5781

Chukat: Yoma 58 - 64

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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The Right of the Way

Rami bar Yechezkel said, “All turns that you make must be towards the right.

This statement of the direction for turning is found a number of times in Masechet Yoma, as well in other places in Shas. However, in the context of the mishna and the gemara, this “turning teaching” refers tothe correct direction for a kohen to turn when on the Altar while maneuvering about in his service of Hashem in the Beit Hamikdash.

If we might consider this Torah Sage’s words to be literally “speaking for themselves,” we might ask if this teaching — “all turnings that you do are only to the right” — applies to aspects of life outside of the Beit Hamikdash as well. In particular, does this teaching have halachic implications nowadays, when there is no Beit Hamikdash? In our present mitzvah observance, does the distinction between “right” and “left” play a halachic role?

But, before any further words, a strong disclaimer must be made. The words “left” and “right” in this article are absolutely in no way related to any political terminology or significance. One who even begins to imagine any such link is purely mistaken — and, dare I add, a fool.

Another disclaimer: Although we have previously written a general disclaimer regarding the correct method of any practice addressed in this series, it must be repeatedly emphasized that in any matter of practical halacha one should not rely on what is written here, but should rather ask a competent halachic authority for a ruling. It is not uncommon to find a dispute among the great halachic authorities regarding the halachic conclusion to be drawn from the Shas and the writings of the Rishonim.

It is important to note that the significance of “right and left” and “right vs. left” should be viewed as two separate concepts, although there may be a correlation at some level of understanding. One idea, the more basic idea, is that we find in nature that the right is stronger. For example, for the majority of people, the right hand is naturally strong and with greater coordination. For this reason, when fulfilling a mitzvah, one should do it with one’s right hand in order to show one’s love for Hashem and the dearness one has for His mitzvahs. A few examples: taking the lulav with one’s right hand, holding the Kiddush cup in one’s right hand and giving tzedaka with one’s right hand.

On a “deeper” level, right and left represent what we have been taught to perceive as the traits that Hashem reveals when interacting with the Creation — in particular, with people. A correct, Torah understanding of these concepts can help us better understand the hows and whys and kavanas (intents) for everyday life, helping us follow the way of Hashem. In a superficial manner, “right” often represents the Divine trait of strict justice. “Left” represents Hashem’s merciful nature. One of many examples of this is the halacha found in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim (95:3): to stand in prayer with one’s right hand over one’s left hand, over one’s heart. Why the right over the left?Prayer in this manner indicates a plea from one’s heart to Hashem, that His Divine attribute of mercy “conquer” strict judgment, so to speak. In this manner we pray that Hashem will mercifully grant our requests — even if our merits are lacking. We seek His mercy to receive His countless gifts, such as sustenance, good health and wisdom, and that He guide and help us to repent and grow closer to Him. This explanation of standing with the right hand over the left hand in prayer is taught in the writings of the Arizal. The Aruch Hashulchan (91:6), however, notes: “Each person is different and for some it is difficult to pray like this (with the hands over the heart, as written in the Shulchan Aruch). Instead, these people place their hands on a shtender (for stability). Each person should do whatever is best for him in order to pray with focus and concentration, standing in awe before the King of kings and turning to Him in prayer for all his needs.”

  • Yoma 58b

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