The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 27 May 2023 / 7 Sivan 5783

Naso/Shavuos: Just Say No

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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Jewish tradition recognizes that the Torah given at Mount Sinai consists of six-hundred and thirteen commandments. Of those, it is generally understood that 248 commandments can be classified as “positive commandments” (“thou shalt…”) that generally require a person to go out and actively do something, while the other 365 are labelled “negative commandments” (“thou shalt not…”) that typically demand that a person refrain from performing certain actions. Negative commandments in the Torah can usually be identified by the use of the terms lo or al (“no/not/without”). For example, the final five commandments of the Ten Commandments are lo tirtzach (“do not murder”), lo tinaf (“do not philander”), lo tignov (“do not kidnap”), lo taaneh (“do not afflict [others by giving false testament]”), and lo tachmod (“do not desire”). In all these cases, the Torah uses the word lo denote that a certain proscribed action may not be performed. Yet, when rabbinic sources refer to the same prohibitions that appear in the Torah, the rabbis use the word bal instead of lo/al. In this essay, we will consider whether the word bal is a true synonym to lo and al, or in a nuanced way expresses something slightly different from the terminology used in the Torah.

To give more concrete examples of the phenomenon described in the previous paragraph, we can look at various prohibitions in the Torah wherein the Torah uses the word lo when mentioning a proscribed act, whereas the rabbis instead use the word bal: For example, the Biblical phrase lo tashchit (Deut. 20:19) becomes bal tashchit in rabbinic sources (Bikkurim 4:2, Kiddushin 1:7), with the word bal replacing the word lo. Similarly, lo tossif (Deut. 13:1) becomes bal tossif (Zevachim 8:10), lo tishaktzu (Lev. 20:25) becomes bal tishaktzu (Shabbat 90b, Makkot 16b, Meilah 17a), lo ye’raeh (Ex. 13:7) becomes bal ye’raeh (Pesachim 3:3, 9:3), lo yimatzeh (Ex. 12:19) becomes bal yimatzeh (Pesachim there), and so forth. Essentially, as we will see, in Mishnaic Hebrew, bal is used in an abstract sense to refer to a specific prohibition already outlawed by the use of lo/al in the Torah.

The truth is that the word bal is not a rabbinic neologism, it already appears in the Bible itself — close to seventy times, in fact. These Biblical appearances of the Hebrew word bal are concentrated in four books of the Bible: Isaiah, Psalms, Proverbs, and Hosea (with one more instance in Job 41:15 and one more in I Chron. 16:30). Essentially, this means that while the word bal appears in the Bible, it does not appear in the Torah (Pentateuch) or, in fact, in most books of the Bible. In case it was not clear to the reader, Rashi (to Isa. 26:10) clarifies that the Biblical bal means the same thing as lo, as does Machberet Menachem when explaining the first category of words derived from the biliteral root BET-LAMMED.

That said, in most of its Biblical appearances, the word bal does not intend to convey a prohibition, but simply relates a fact that something does not happen or cannot happen. For example, Psalms praises Hashem by saying “He even prepared the world [in a way that] it will not (bal) falter” (Ps. 93:1, 96:10) and Proverbs praises the righteous man by saying that he “does not (bal) slip” (Prov. 10:30, 12:3).

Nevertheless, there are cases where the Bible uses the word bal in stating a historical fact, but the rabbis — who use the word bal for talking about prohibitions — used their exegetical prowess to give a proscriptive dimension to those historical facts. For example: "He told His words to Jacob / His statues and His laws to Israel / He did not do so for all the nations / And laws He did not (bal) make them know / Hallelujah!" (Ps. 147:19). This passage is clearly talking about the historical fact that Hashem revealed the Torah to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai, and that He did not offer a similar revelation to teach the Law to other nations. But possibly because of the word bal, the rabbis saw this passage as instructive, not merely historical, and therefore derived from it: “we do not transmit Words of Torah to gentiles” (Chagigah 13a). They thus took the word bal in this passage in the same sense that they themselves used the word bal, that is, to prohibit certain courses of action.

All of this leads us to the obvious question: Why did the rabbis prefer using the word bal when discussing Biblical prohibitions instead of using the Bible’s own wording of lo? Indeed, Rabbi Yishaya Pick-Berlin (1719–1799) in the introduction to his unpublished glosses to Sefer HaTishbi takes note of this phenomenon, and wonders out loud why the rabbis decided to switch out the word lo used in the Torah itself for the word bal.

Rabbi Chizkiyah Medini of Hebron (1834–1904) was once asked this question by one of his students and he agreed that this is a question worth asking, commenting that when he was first asked this question, he had not seen any earlier sources who wondered about this. But then, he writes that he later saw the aforementioned passage from Rabbi Pick’s writings.

Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi (1520–1592) in his Shitah Mekubetzes (to Temurah 6b) cites Rabbi Meir HaMeili (author of Sefer HaMeorot) as already addressing this question. HaMeili cryptically explains that the rabbis switched out the Biblical lo for the rabbinic bal because the latter is apparently somehow easier to pronounce and conveys a clearer meaning.

This last point may be an allusion to the answer to our question proposed by Rabbi Reuven Margolios (1889–1971). He posited that the rabbis of the Oral Torah replaced the Written Torah's verbiage lo with the term bal in order to disambiguate the meaning of lo in the context of negative prohibitions, as listeners might otherwise confuse lo ("no") with its homonym lo ("to him/for him") and totally miss the meaning of what is being conveyed. To avoid such confusion, the rabbis replaced the word lo altogether when talking about prohibitions and used bal instead.

Over the generations, several other answers to this question have been proposed. Because they are not as well-known and have not really been discussed before, we are citing these often arcane answers with the hope that perhaps some of them will resonate with some readers.

Rabbi Ber Oppenheimer (1760–1849) opts for a more technical answer to this question. He posits that the word al always serves as a negative imperative. Meaning, al always means "do not..." in reference to something that one might do in the future. It is never used in reference to an action that happened in the past (with the exception of I Sam. 27:10). By contrast, lo is a negative word that refers to the past in a factual manner or to the future as an imperative command. For example, "You shall not eat the cookie" and "You did not eat the cookie" — in both cases the word lo is appropriate. As alluded to above, the word bal when it appears in the Bible is also a term of negation for both the past and future (like al), but it is never used in the imperative sense as a command, it simply states the facts. For example, "You will not eat the cookie" and "You did not eat the cookie" — in both cases the word bal is appropriate.

Based on this, Rabbi Oppenheimer explains that when the rabbis used the term bal to refer to one who has violated a prohibition, they do so because it is not just a reference to something that happened in the past, but is still continuing to exist. For example, one who violated bal tigzal refers to one who stole and still holds the stolen goods in his possession without returning it. Similarly, other uses of the term bal in the Rabbinic Hebrew sense refer to a person who has variously committed other violations, and has hitherto yet to repent from the sins which he committed. In these cases, the point is not that one is prohibited by Divine fiat from doing a certain action, but rather the fact that one has already taken the forbidden course of action.

If I understood him properly, Rabbi Aharon Maggid (1909–1978) explains that lo denotes a command given directly to a second person in very concrete terms (“you shall not…), while bal refers to the commandment in a more abstract way (“the prohibition outlawing…”), without a concrete focus on to whom the prohibition applies.

Interestingly, Rabbi Eliyahu Gutmacher (1795-1874) offers what he admits is a novel take on our question. He suggests that whenever the rabbis switch out the word lo for bal when referring to a given prohibition, they mean to focus on the added rabbinic extensions to the core Biblical prohibition, but not to the actual core Biblical prohibition itself. For example, he explains that the plain meaning of the Biblical prohibition of lo tashchit only entails actually destroying a literal fruit tree, as explicitly mentioned in the Torah. Yet, when the rabbis use the term bal tashchit, it refers to the rabbinically-expanded prohibition that outlaws any sort of non-constructive destruction of property, even if does not technically fit into the words of the original Biblical prohibition. Rabbi Gutmacher expressly admits that this is an entirely novel suggestion and qualifies his explanation by noting that he would have to go through the entire Talmud and test whether his theory pans out. Spoiler alert: I don’t think that it does.

In a similar way, Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Hirshawitz (1887–1941) writes in Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun that lo implies an absolute, unconditional "no," while bal implies a general "no" that is more flexible. Accordingly, he explains that the rabbis who interpreted the Torah's prohibitions and explained exactly when they do and do not apply opted to use the more flexible verbiage than the Torah's original wording to reflect their efforts.

Interestingly, some scholars have suggested that the term bal is not actually a Chazalic expression, but was created by later copyist of rabbinic texts who wished to abbreviate the word b’lo (“included in the [prohibition of] ‘do not…’”). However, this theory has not gained much traction.

Rabbi Yisroel Rubin (Chabad of Albany) suggests — but ultimately rejects — that the rabbis purposely switched out the Biblical lo for bal when discussing prohibitions so as to avoid quoting Biblical verses verbatim by heart. This reflects the notion that content from the Written Torah should not be expressed by heart, and, conversely, content from the Oral Torah should be not committed to writing (see Gittin 60b). Thus, since the rabbis wanted to avoid saying actual Biblical passages by heart, they instead switched around the verbiage to avoid that issue.

Rabbi Rubin also relates that his colleague Rabbi Eli Silberstein (Chabad of Ithaca) suggested that the Rabbinic Hebrew bal is actually a short-hand version of the term bli/bilti (“without/lacking”), while Rabbi Rubin himself preferred to connect bal to the term bilui (“wearing out”).

Both of these suggestions touch on Rabbi Pappenheim’s understanding of the two-letter root BET-LAMMED, whose core meanings he sees as “negation” and “loss of form.” Of course, the word bal is clearly a term of negation, but Rabbi Pappenheim lists a whole bevy of words as derived from this root, including: bli ("without," i.e., negation), hevel ("futility," something that has almost no value and is thus negated), aval ("but," the negation of a previous clause), bilui (because as something gets “worn out,” it loses its form), neveilah (“animal carcass,” i.e., a dead creature who has lost its form), neivel (“leather flask” made from the skin of a neveilah), naval (an “uncouth person” who has lost his human dignity), taivel ("the physical world," because all physical entities are subject to wear and tear), and yevul ("produce" because fruits and vegetables are susceptible to spoiling and losing their form).

Another slew of words that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as derived from BET-LAMMED relate to the concept of “mixing”: balal (“mixture,” because as something mixes or assimilates into another, it loses its own form), tavlul (a sort of eye disease that causes the mixing of the white sclera and black pupil), tevel ("abomination," a term used for fornicating with one's daughter-in-law or an animal, because it implies a sort of mixture that is not supposed to occur), tavlin ("spice," a seasoning mixed into the food to bring out its unique tastes), avel ("mourning," because of the mixed and confusing feelings on the part of the mourner), behalah ("confusion," again referring to mixed feelings and sentiments), yovel (“Jubilee year,” which confuses the class structure by freeing slaves and returning estates to former landowners), mabul ("flood," an overflow of water that mixes everything up and wreaks destruction).

Going back to our question about why the rabbis replaced the Biblical lo with bal, I saved the best for last. Here’s my own pet theory to answer the question: The famed Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762–1839), writes in Toras Moshe (Lev. 10:1) that one of the names of the Angel of Death is lo. He sees this as alluded to in the passage concerning Nadab and Abihu’s death after engaging in a ritual “that was not (lo) commanded to them" (Lev. 10:1). Based on this, we may argue that the rabbis switched out the word lo for bal when discussing negative commandments in order to avoid invoking the name of the Angel of Death, which might cause accusations against the Jewish People who may have sometimes failed to uphold those very commandments. What do you think about that?

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