Dvar Torah by Shoshana Stadlan
Masechet Chagigah contains a mixture of practical halachot: the Korbanot for the Chagim, and everyone’s favorite: Tumah Vetaharah, in addition to some very philosophical Aggadot and laws about what is permissible and prohibited to teach. Chagigah is most famous for a fascinating story of four Rabbis entering the “Pardes.”. As we studied each Daf, Rabbanit Sally had us learn through the lens of Pardes, looking for hints to the story of Acher, not looking at the Talmud as compiled randomly, but trying to tell us something beneath the surface.
The masechet begins with the discussion of the obligation of the Korban Chagigah and reiyah during the Shalosh regalim.
The gemara then delves into the specifics of who is chayav to actually make the trek to the Beit Hamikdash. While some may not have the obligation of traveling, they are still obligated in the Simcha of the Chag. Connected to this subject, a bit later in the chapter, Rav Daniel Bar Ketina says that you can’t get married on the Chagim, that you should be focused on the Simcha of the chag. This lends to the idea of Ein M’arvin Simcha B’simcha- don’t add another Simcha onto the first simcha. Each happy event deserves its own day, and if you add more and more you forget what you are celebrating in the first place. So we have to remember to live in the moment, soak in the joy at hand. In the middle of this conversation, a story of Rebbe Yochanan Ben Broka and Rabbi Elazar ben Chamsa visiting their Rebbe, Rebbe Yehoshua is brought up. Rebbe Yehoshua asks them what they learned and they respond,, with the drashot of rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah. He quotes the Pasuk from devarim of Hakhel et haanashim, vehanashim, ve hataf. Both women and men have some level of obligation for Hakhel, but not children, so why is it included? They are included, because whoever brings their children are rewarded–Chinuch is very much emphasized, and here Tosafot comments that this is why we bring children to shul. Though they might not fully comprehend, it’s important to introduce them to these concepts, especially community wide events, to connect them to Am Yisrael even at a young age. He continues by expounding on Pesukim which give analogies to describe words of Torah. One of them compares Torah words to a plant, that just as a plant grows and increases, so too the Torah grows and increases.
The second chapter of masechet Chagiga is the start of the lofty and abstract concepts in Judaism. I will not be explaining most of this chapter, since to be candid, I did not completely grasp the true meaning of most of the discourse, so it will be more of an extremely brief overview. There are three ideas which must only be taught in minimum company- Arayot, Maaseh Breishit, and Maaseh Mercava. The dialogue on Maaseh Breioshit includes but is not limited to the 7 Rakiahs/heavens, the inner and outer chambers of God with the angels, the length of the journey from the earth to one Rakiah then to each rakiah, then to the Chayot/angels above them all, then to the throne of hashem-which to summarize would take tens of thousands of years. Maaseh Mercava is even more restricted and elite than the rest; a teacher may only teach it to a singular student at one time. On top of that, the student must have studied it beforehand, and have the daat to comprehend it, relying upon his own abilities.
Beit Shamai holds that the Reyiah, a Korban Olah which is all given to God should be worth twice the price of the Chagigah, which is a Shelamim, partly given to God, and partly enjoyed by the people. Beit Hillel, in accordance with his mantra of Veahavta Lereacha Kamocha, argues that more should be spent on the Korban Chagigah than the reiyah(This idea was also shared by a very famous student of this school of thought, named Rabbi Akiva who we’ll be talking about later *hint*).
￼Other Rabbis add more requirements, to limit those who can learn these potentially dangerous chapters. Rabbi Zeira adds that one must שלבו דואג בקרבו - anxious of sinning. He must humble himself, not be arrogant, lest he will misinterpret it, think he is right and maybe leave the derech? To illustrate how risky it is to learn this without being completely certain that one is qualified to learn it, the Rabbis presented a story of a child who elucidated the word chashmal. Though he formulated the correct deeper understanding of the word, a fire came down from the chashmal and consumed him. Though he had daat, he was just a child, not strong in his foundations, not ready to take on something that could shake his faith.
Finally we come to the famous Aggadah, Arbah Nichnisu Lepardes. Rabbi Akiva, Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, and Acher, known formally as Elisha ben Avuya said the name of Hashem and entered this Pardes in shamaim. Rabbi Akiva warned them before going in that when they see water, don’t say it’s water, more generally, know that appearances are deceiving, especially in this spiritual world. Ben Azai looked at the Shechinah, couldn't handle it and died. Ben Zoma looked and his mind was damaged. Acher, meanwhile, cut down the plants, which earlier we said were compared to words of torah, and only Rabbi aKiva left B’shalom. He, with his love of people and connection to Olam Hazah was firmly grounded on the physical world while also having his head in the spiritual. Rabbi Akiva had a strong foundation to accept what he was about to witness, and a humbleness to know that in Hasehem’s upper realm, he might not achieve true understanding. Meanwhile, Acher does not heed Rabbi Akiva’s warning, entering the Pardes with his own preconceived notions. He thought that none of Hashem’s angels sit, and when he saw one sitting, he didn’t assume that he himself was wrong, but instead left his faith. For such a strong Talmeidi Chachamim, it’s surprising that that one seemingly small thing would push him off the derech. But the gemara says that even before this occurrence, he was influenced and involved in Greek heretical culture, that he wasn’t completely steadfast in his Torah before he entered. Once he left the Pardes, a Bat Kol announced Shuvu Banim, Shovavim, Chutz meacher. Although Acher decided that what was said was final, that there was no path of repentance for him, his student Rabbi Meir refused to give up on him. He continued to learn from him and tried to encourage him in the direction of returning. The Rabbis attempted to reconcile how Rabbi Meir could learn from a heretic, and one explanation which I particularly liked was the one given by Rabbah. He said that Acher was like a pomegranate, rabbi meir could throw away the exterior, but at the core was pure Torah. This reminded me of Rambam’s Hakdamah Lepeirush mishnah in which he writes that he does not mention who said certain ideas so no one will have biases against them, the truth is the truth, no matter the speaker. Additionally, Rabbi Meir believed Acher’s true essence was pure, he could salvage what was left in his life and return to Torah. With the teamwork of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yochanan, they succeeded in ultimately assisting Acher out of gehonim and into olam Habah, demonstrating that even when it seems with certainty there is no way back, there is always a path, Hashem always is ready to welcome you in.
Immediately in the same chapter and then leading into the final chapter, the talmud returns to tangible laws. The structure exemplifies how we must practice Judaism. The theoretical, metaphysical concepts are sandwiched between concrete Halachot, because at the end of the day, one has to follow the Mitzvot and halacha. You can have these higher level conversations, but irrelevant of the conclusion, one still must do the actions.
Which leads us into the nitty gritty details of Tumah vetaharah. The gemara meticulously and thoroughly describes the levels of Tumah, in which there are 4. The holier the object is, the easier it is to become Taameh. And being Taameh is not necessarily a bad thing. Rabbanit Sally explained it simply as being estranged from god for the time being. The Avi- Avot of Tumah is a dead body, and all descending levels of Tumah are related to death. When in contact with mortality, we are farthest away from Hashem who is Eternal, the being of Life. Death is natural. However, to regain contact with Hashem we must purify ourselves, return to life. Not just humans, but all vessels and food can also become impure. Regular, chulin food, could become Sheni letumah, while Terumah Shlishi, and Kadosh revii. Some people, referred to as Chaverim(or for all of us Chaverot:)), very knowledgeable in Torah kept even their chulin food as Kadosh level, ensuring that everything was Tahor. They would have to be careful when interacting and borrowing Kelim/food from Amei haaretz, who were less knowledgeable and less cautious. At first glance, what the Chaverim did seemed outrageous. It’s already difficult to keep the regular levels and ensure everything is Tahor, but to then elevate the status of your belongings seems impossible. Why can’t we just settle being tamei and purify yourselves only when absolutely necessary. But after some more thought, I realized how they simply just wanted to be extra careful to stay Tahor in order to always be in contact with God. They desired that connection and embodied the harmony of the physical with the spiritual world, elevating it to holiness.
The Masechet finishes off with a beautiful idea relating to the mizbeach. Reish lakish says that the fires of Gehonim can’t burn the sinners of Israel. Since the thin gold covering on the Mizbeach hazahav doesn’t melt even after being burned, so too the sinners of Bnei Yisrael, who are as full of mitzvot as a POMEGRANATE will not be burned. Even at its last line, the gemara is screaming of Acher. He sinned, yet he was still full of mitzvot which protected him from gehonim. We can learn from his cautionary tale to ground ourselves and humble ourselves before we delve into the secrets of torah. Which is not to mean to confine ourselves, instead to simply realize that we do not know everything. But at the same time it is comforting, because if the sinners are shielded, then how much more so, we learning and absorbing Torah every day in midrasha will be rewarded in olam Habah.