Monday, October 13, 2008

Is the Torah pleasant? Is the truth pleasant?

The other day, I posted the following in my "Daily Torah Thought" blog:

"The Torah says [that one of the Four Species waved on Succot is] 'A braided branch,' meaning that the leaves should cover the wood. What is that? That is the Hadas [myrtle]...

"But perhaps it is the Harduf? Abayye answered: No - It is written, 'The Torah's ways are pleasant,' and the spiny Harduf is not pleasant.

"Rava disqualified the Harduf for a different reason - It is written, 'You should love truth and peace.' The poisonous Harduf is the opposite of this verse."

(Talmud, Succah 32b as explained by Rashi)

Which led to the following reply from a reader:
When do we apply "The Torah's ways are pleasant"? Not all of the mitzvos are pleasant.

People find it hard to eat the required amounts of matzah and drink the required amounts of wine at the same meal, but we do so anyway.

I think most people would prefer not to give up their lives if the other choice is idol worship. ...

Why is poison the opposite of truth? Death is a part of the world. That is the truth.

There is much I would love to say on this. Perhaps during Chol haMoed. For now, have a great Yom Tov!


  1. Is it really so hard to eat and drink the proper amounts at the Seder, though? A kezayis of matzah seems like a lot because it's thin (so it's got a large surface area) and hard; but when you get down to it, it's only an ounce or so. If it was regular bread, you would be able to eat that amount without a second thought. Same with the wine; we may not be accustomed to drinking it, but it was the common beverage in the times of the Gemara (and later), and we're talking only about a pint of it (a reviis being somewhere between 3-5 fl. oz.), spread out over an entire evening. So all told, these are hardly in contradiction to the Torah's pleasantness.

    Giving up one's life rather than worship idols? A Jew, says R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi, neither wants nor is able to be separated from G-dliness. If anything, then, with that instinctive feeling, it would be far more unpleasant to stay alive at the cost of irrevocably breaking one's relationship with G-d by worshiping another power. (And indeed we find throughout Jewish history that it was the simple folk who were more willing to give up their lives for Judaism, because they didn't try to rationalize away this instinctive feeling.)

    Death is part of the human existence, and maybe you could say that in that sense it's "true," but poison - which shortens life unnecessarily - is not. It's one thing when the loss of life accomplishes some purpose, as with martyrdom al kiddush Hashem, as above; but death, or something that leads to it, can't be made a symbol that we should be waving around and showing off.

    With all that said, it is perfectly true that had Hashem indeed wanted us to perform the mitzvah with the spiny and poisonous harduf, we would do so without question. (We're given rational explanations for some mitzvos as a G-dly gift, in order to engage our brains and to make them more appealing to us; but ultimately, as R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi puts it, "if G-d had commanded us to chop wood" - a task that involves only our muscles and not our mental faculties - we would perform it just as enthusiastically as the mitzvos that speak to our intellect.) As long as we're not clear on the parameters of the mitzvah, we can use logic such as Abbaye's and Rava's to exclude unpleasant possibilities; but once we know what the halachah is - that we have to eat x amount of this or that food, or that certain mitzvos override human life - then all such logic falls away, and we keep the mitzvah primarily because Hashem told us so (while still using our understanding of the mitzvah, where possible, to make it more appealing to do).

  2. Hi Alex,

    My own response to the questioner:

    I think part of this is a matter of how we define "pleasant." Certainly, some people do have trouble with shiurim at the seder, but there are manageable halachic options, including bedieved times for consuming the matzah and the use of low-alcohol wine.

    As far as yeihareg v'al yaavor, I would agree that there are some areas in which "pleasantness" is overridden by halachah. "Pleasant" seems to be a priority within halachic choices, but sometimes there is no "pleasant" choice. Along similar lines, the gemara invokes v'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha to argue that when choosing a method of execution, beis din must choose the most respectful way to execute someone.

    Re: Poison - I think the emphasis is on "peace" there.