Sunday, June 17, 2012

Accede to the Truth

Rabbeinu Avraham Ben Harambam (1186-1237) (RABH going forward) took over the leadership of Egyptian Jewry after his father’s death when he was barely 20 years old. He was a dynamic leader who instituted many changes in the communal and ritual customs of the community in Fustat (old Cairo). We have many Responsa from him and portions of his magnum opus – Sefer Hamaspik Le’ovdei Hashem – (SHLH going forward). The sefer is a Halachik sefer interspersed with philosophical insights and ethical/moral admonishments. It originally was quite lengthy, around 10 volumes of which we only have a very small part. The volume that I am reading, published and translated by Nissim Dana is part two, volume two, of the sefer. The first few chapters deal with Tefillah – Prayer is  a very satisfying and interesting read. As I go through the sefer I plan to post and comment on pieces that I find novel or intriguing. All translations are my own.

In a discussion about the obligation of washing hands before praying, RABH quotes his father in Hilchot Tefillah 7:8 that on Yom Kippur and Tisha Be’av, since washing is prohibited, one does not make the Bracha Al Netilat Yaday’im (on hand washing) nor does one make the Bracha of Hama’avir Sheina Me’einay which is made when washing one’s eyes after sleep. RABH explains that the basis for this ruling is the prohibition of even extending the tip of a finger into water on those days (Hilchot Shvitat Assor 3:1 and Ta’anyot 5:10). The Gemara in Yoma 78a also states that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi used a damp cloth to wipe his eyes on Yom Kippur instead of rinsing them. RABH continues:
However I hold that one is obligated to wash hands for Kryat Shema and Tefillah on Yom Kippur and Tisha Be’av just like one is obligated to do so on other days. The Rabbis never prohibited doing so because this washing is not meant for pleasure; it is a mitzvah. Proof is that a Ba’al Keri - before the Gezeira was abolished – was obligated to purify himself in a Mikvah on Yom Kippur. Washing for Kryat Shema and Tefillah is no less an obligation nowadays then the purification of a Ba’al Keri in those days. One cannot compare washing the face to this, because it is not as obligatory as washing hands and that is why Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi allowed substituting washing by using a damp cloth. This is a correct analysis, exact and there can be no dissent unless one does not understand it or one who has ulterior motives. Had my father heard this argument, he would have acceded as we are commanded “accede to the truth”. Indeed we always saw him clearly accede to the truth even to the least amongst his students despite the wealth of his learning which did not contradict his extreme religiosity for “unwitting errors who can grasp?” (Tehillim 19:13).”
This theme of not being bound by his father’s rulings or for that matter any ruling that he disagrees with will be recurrent in the book as we go along and I hope to point the more blatant ones out as I go along. It is interesting how his arguments are not textual or text based but rather conceptual. Washing hands for prayer is a rabbinical Takanah (See Hilchot Brachot 6:2). Rambam does not explain the reasons for the Takanah but it would appear that it is a form of preparation for Prayer and Kery’at Shema.  The requirements of a ba’al Keri to purify himself is also rabbinical, Takanat Ezra, with the reason given to limit sexual activity. RABH ignores the apparently different underlying reasons of the two Takanot, comparing the weightiness of the rulings both being Takanot and differentiating them from washing the eyes which has a lesser Halachik weight, it not being an official Takanah.