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"Af Hen Hayu Be-oto Ha-nes"

(Part 1 of 2)

By Rav Mayer Lichtenstein

Translated by David Silverberg

  1. Origin and Parameters

In several instances in the Talmud, a halakha is formulated with precisely the same wording, in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, regarding the obligation of women in certain mitzvot:

  1. "Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in Megilla reading, for they, too, were included in that miracle ['af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes']." (Megilla 4a)

  2. "Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in Chanuka candles, for they, too, were included in that miracle." (Shabbat 23a)

  3. "Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in these four cups [of wine on Pesach eve], for they, too, were included in that miracle." (Pesachim 108a)

All three of these mitzvot are "mitzvot asei she-ha'zeman gerama" – time-bound mitzvot.[1] According to the standard principle established in the mishna in Masekhet Kiddushin (1:7) exempting women from time-bound positive mitzvot, we would, instinctively, exempt women from these mitzvot, as well. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, however, posits that women are in fact included in these obligations, because "they, too, were included in that miracle."[2]

The Rishonim disagree as to how to explain this reason for women's inclusion in these mitzvot. Rashi, in his commentary to Pesachim and Shabbat, explains that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi refers to the fact that each of these miracles occurred through a woman.[3] In his commentary to Masekhet Pesachim (108b, s.v. she-af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes), he writes,
"As it says (Sota 11b): In the merit of the righteous women of that generation they were redeemed. This is also said regarding Megilla reading, for they were redeemed through Ester, and also regarding Chanuka candles, in Masekhet Shabbat (23a)."
Rashi explains women's involvement in the miracle of Chanuka in his commentary to Masekhet Shabbat (23a, s.v. hayu be-oto ha-nes):
"The Greeks decreed that all virgin brides must first sleep with the commander, and through a woman the miracle was performed."[4]
By contrast, Rashi himself offers a different explanation in his commentary to Masekhet Megilla (4a, s.v. she-af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes):
"For upon the women, too, Haman decreed to destroy, kill and annihilate young and old, children and women, etc."
This interpretation is adopted as well by the Tosefists, who point out that this explanation would appear to emerge from the word, "af" ("too") in this expression. They note that this is also the implication of the parallel halakha in the Talmud Yerushalmi: "For they, too, were included in that uncertainty" – which apparently refers to the threat of annihilation.[5]
This approach differs fundamentally from the first regarding the nature of the halakha in question. Whereas the first explanation emphasizes women's obligation on the basis of their participation in the miracle's performance[6], this second approach stresses the obligation of thanksgiving to the Almighty on the part of the one for whom the miracle occurred, such that standard frameworks of exemption would not apply to him. This notion, in terms of its religious significance and the conceptual principle latent within it, is a basic and elementary one. It is also a far simpler reading of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's remark, and it therefore requires explanation why Rashi, in his first approach, suggested a different interpretation.
It stands to reason that Rashi attempts to implicitly resolve a difficulty raised explicitly by Tosefot.[7] Tosefot ask why Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states his halakha only with regard to these mitzvot, and does not apply it to other mitzvot, as well. In Masekhet Megilla (4a, s.v. she-af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes), Tosefot write:
"Some have asked concerning matza – why do we need [as a source for women's inclusion in this mitzva] the 'hekesh' [textual association, which teaches] that whoever is included in the prohibition against eating [chametz] is included in the obligation to eat matza? We can extract [their obligation] on the basis of their having been included in the miracle."
A similar question is posed by Tosefot in Masekhet Pesachim (108b, s.v. hayu be-oto ha-nes):
"That which is stated, that [women] are exempt from [the obligation of] sukka, even though they were included in that miracle, of 'for I made the Israelites live [in booths]' – there we speak of a Biblical command. But regarding the four cups [of wine on Pesach eve], the rabbis established it even for women, since they were included in that miracle."
Quite possibly, it is this difficulty that led Rashi to explain Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's comment to mean that the miracle in each instance occurred through a woman. This interpretation explains why Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's rule applies specifically in these contexts, since the range of instances where a miracle occurred through a woman is far more limited than the range of cases where women were included in a miracle that occurred to the nation at large.[8]
My grandfather, HaGaon HaRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l, suggested an additional answer to the difficulty raised by Tosefot. His analysis was known by word of mouth for many years, and we were recently privileged to have it included in the newly published book, "Iggerot Ha-Grid Ha-levi" (in Hilkhot Chanuka 4:9-11)[9][10]. In a letter written during his stay in Berlin to his father, Rav Moshe zt"l, Rav Soloveitchik wrote:
"It seems clear that this entire reason of 'af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes' applies only to those mitzvot where the miracle constitutes an independent halakhic entity within the actual fulfillment of the mitzva, that it [the mitzva] entails a fulfillment regarding the miracle and publicizing the miracle. We see, for example, that [when one cannot afford both] kiddush and Chanuka candles, Chanuka candles takes precedence because of 'pirsumei nisa' [the interest in publicizing the miracle]. At first glance, this requires explanation. Does not kiddush also involve pirsumei nisa? It is clear, however, that the halakha of pirsumei nisa constitutes an independent halakha and requirement within the actual mitzva act; it has nothing to do with the reason behind the mitzva, whether it is due to a miracle. Therefore, this applies only to Chanuka candles, regarding which the halakha of the miracle and publicizing the miracle is established as part of the actual mitzva act and requirement. Moreover, regarding Chanuka candles and Megilla reading, a separate berakha was instituted – 'she-asa nisim,' for this halakha concerning the miracle constitutes a fulfillment within the actual mitzva itself, and so a berakha is established over it. Indeed, we find 'af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes' only regarding Chanuka candles, Megilla reading, and the four cups. This is due to the fact that in all these mitzvot, the halakha concerning the miracle is not merely the reason behind the mitzva, but is rather established as part of the actual fulfillment and act of the mitzva, as evidenced by the special berakha instituted over it. Regarding kiddush and matza, by contrast, although they involve a commemoration of the miracle, there is no independent halakha, requirement or entity within the actual mitzva act. It would therefore seem that the entire factor of 'af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes' does not apply."[11]
The crux of this explanation is that the factor of "af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes" as a basis for including women in a given obligation does not relate to every mitzva whose background or reason somehow involves a miracle. This factor yields an obligation upon women only when it comes to those mitzvot where the actual mitzva is to publicize the miracle. This unique quality, of an obligation to publicize a miracle, is what sets apart the three mitzvot regarding which Rabbi Yehoshua casts the obligation upon women, as well. Essentially, the halakha he establishes says that one for whom a miracle is performed is obligated to publicize it. The clearest indicator of this type of mitzva is the berakha, "she-asa nisim la-avotenu," a berakha instituted over the obligation of pirsumei nisa which one fulfills through the given mitzva. In the context of Chanuka candles and Megilla reading, it was instituted that one recite this berakha alongside the birkat ha-mitzva recited before the performance of these mitzvot ("le-hadlik ner Chanuka;" "al mikra Megilla"). The double berakhot stem from the double requirements of these mitzvot: the mitzva act itself, and publicizing the miracle.
This is true not only regarding Chanuka candles and Megilla reading, but regarding arba kosot (the four cups of wine on Pesach), as well.[12] Although we do not recite the berakha, "she-asa nisim" at the seder, the Geonim write, as mentioned in Seder Rav Amram Gaon, that we omit this berakha because the content of the berakha "asher ge'alanu" recited at the seder overlaps with that of "she-asa nisim." Rav Amram objects very strongly to those who had the practice to recite "she-asa nisim" after kiddush at the seder:
"One need not recite 'she-asa nisim.' For this is what was said… by the Rosh Yeshiva: When reciting kiddush on Pesach, one need not recite over the cup [of wine], 'she-asa nisim la-avotenu.' Why? Because since one must recite 'for the One who performed for us all these miracles,' and there he must make mention of the bondage, slavery, miracle and redemption, one need not mention [this] here [at kiddush]. And if he mentions it twice, he utters God's Name in vain. On Chanuka and Purim, we recite that berakha independently, for then there is no kiddush, no Haggada and no formal recounting of the miracles as on Pesach. This is the practice of the two yeshivot, not to recite ['she-asa nisim' on Pesach]."[13]
This passage testifies to the fact that there were those who had such a custom. Indeed, in some texts of the Haggada from the Geonic period found in the Cairo "geniza," the berakha of "she-asa nisim" appears.[14] Rav Amram Gaon objects to its recitation at the seder not because it has no place at the seder, but rather, as we saw, because it is already recited at the seder, in a longer and more detailed form: the berakha of "asher ge'alanu." This explanation has been absorbed into the literature of the Rishonim, many of whom cite Rav Amram Gaon's comments.[15]
In short, the berakhot of "she-asa nisim" and "asher ge'alanu," which accompany Chanuka candles, Megilla reading and the four cups of the seder, testify to the uniqueness of these mitzvot, as mitzvot requiring one to publicize the miracle to be commemorated. Regarding mitzvot whose very essence is pirsumei nisa, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi establishes that they include all those for whom the miracle occurred.[16]
Further analysis of the relevant sugyot reveals that the halakha established by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi does not affect only women; rather, it is an all-embracing rule which affects other exemptions, as well – namely, minors and the poor. Here, too, he refers specifically to these three mitzvot.

1. Several articles discussing this topic have already been written, from different perspectives. I will make note of two in particular, which touch upon some of the issues discussed here:

Efraim Kanarfogel, "Be-inyan Af Hen Hayu Be-oto Ha-nes," Or Ha-mizrach 32, vol. 2 (5744), pp. 125-128.

A Ehrlich, "'Af Hen Hayu Be-oto Ha-nes' – Le-gilgula Shel Ta'ana Shivyonit Ba-olam Ha-halakha," in "Ein Tova – Du Si'ach U-pulmus Be-tarbut Yisrael," edited Nacham Ilan, 5759, pp. 142-159.

The title of Ehrlich's article expresses the approach taken in his treatment of the topic – a diachronic presentation of the development of the discussion surrounding this subject. By contrast, this article is written from a synchronic perspective, from the frame of reference of the halakha formulated in finalized form in the Talmud Bavli, in an attempt to demonstrate a broader manifestation of Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi's halakha concerning these mitzvot in relation to other exemptions, beyond that of women. Over the course of our discussion we will refer the reader to relevant sections in Ehrlich's piece, absolving ourselves of having to repeat that which he has already discussed. Kanarfogel, in his article, cites the explanation of Rav Moshe Soloveitchik zt"l regarding the unique obligation specific to these mitzvot. This article is written in the spirit of this explanation. Now that we have been privileged to have this approach published in "Iggerot Ha-Grid Ha-levi," our discussion will focus on the relevant passage there.
2. Tosefot in Masekhet Pesachim (108b, s.v. she-af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes) write, "If not for this reason, they would not be obligated, because women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot; although the obligation of four cups was instituted by the Rabbis, they instituted [their laws] resembling Torah laws."
3. As we learn from the Rashbam's remarks in his commentary to Pesachim (108b, s.v. she-af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes), this explanation originated from "our master, the Levi," a reference to Rav Yitzchak Halevi, Rashi's mentor.
4. Tosefot in Pesachim (108b, s.v. hayu be-oto ha-nes) understood that this refers to the story of Yehudit. See sources cited by Ehrlich, p.152.
5. Tosefot, Pesachim (108b, s.v. hayu be-oto ha-nes). I chose this formulation for this is how the halakha appears in the Yerushalmi, in the name of Bar Kapara. It is reasonable to assume, as Ehrlich contends (pp. 145-147), that the halakha's formulation in the Yerushalmi represents the original formulation of this halakha, and that the Bavli adopted a later, more developed formulation.
6. See Ehrlich's suggestions, pp.155-156.
7. See Ehrlich, pp.153-154.
8. I should point out that Rabbenu Tam ruled that women must eat se'uda shelishit on Shabbat because "af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes" – they, too, were included in the miracle of the manna, which we commemorate through se'uda shelishit. See Responsa Sefer Ha-yashar, Rosenthal edition, 70:4. In his view, we may extend the application of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's principle to other areas. The Maharam of Rothenberg argued with this ruling; see Teshuvot Maharam, Berlin edition, 473 (printed as well in "Teshuvot U-pesakim U-minhagim Le-Maharam Mei-Rothenberg," Y.Z. Kahana edition, Jerusalem, 5717, pp.219-220). The Maharam writes, "In any event, this reason of 'af hen hayu' applies only when the mitzva stems from a miracle that occurred to Israel when they faced some danger and were saved, such as Megilla, the four cups and Chanuka candles."
9. This is cited by Kanarfogel (above, note 1) and in the work, "Harerei Kedem" in the name of my great-grandfather, HaGaon HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik zt"l. Similarly, throughout all the years when I was aware of this approach only by word of mouth, it was known in the name of Rav Moshe. However, in "Iggerot Ha-Grid Ha-Levi" this analysis appears in a letter written by my grandfather, Rav Yosef Dov zt"l. He concludes the letter with the following sentence: "I do not remember whether or not I have already commented on this." It seems likely that he himself arrived at this explanation, though this final sentence perhaps leaves open the possibility that he had heard it earlier from his father.
10. "Iggerot Ha-Grid Ha-levi – Mikhtevei Halakha Ve-divrei Torah Shel Rabbenu Ha-gaon Yosef Dov Ha-levi Soloveitchik ztvk"l," Jerusalem, 5761.
11. Iggerot Ha-Grid Ha-levi, pp.91-92.
12. At the time when my grandfather zt"l wrote this, he seemingly was unaware of the comments of the Geonim. For he writes, "And although we do not have this berakha with the four cups, that is because the entire concept of a berakha was never instituted with regard to the four cups, and there is not even a birkat ha-mitzva recited over the performance of this mitzva." He suggests a different, less satisfactory explanation. However, both Kanarfogel and "Harerei Kedem" bring the comments of the Geonim in the name of the Rav himself. Apparently, he became aware of these sources after he wrote this letter his stay in Berlin, which occurred during his younger years.
13. Seder Rav Amram Gaon, Daniel Goldschmidt edition, Jerusalem, 5732, siman 79, p.111.
14. See Daniel Goldschmidt, "Haggada Shel Pesach Ve-toledoteha," Jerusalem, 5720, p.6; Shmuel & Zev Safrai, "Haggadat Chazal," Jerusalem, 5758, p.61.
15. For a summary of the relevant sources in the Rishonim, see Rav M.M. Kasher, "Haggada Sheleima," Jerusalem, 5727, pp.86-89.
16. Kanarfogel (p.126) associates this explanation with the comments of the Maharam of Rothenberg cited above, note 8. However, I believe that the thrust of this approach does not run entirely consistent with the Maharam. The Maharam's objection to Rabbenu Tam's theory is due not to the absence of an obligation to publicize as a characteristic of se'uda shelishit, but rather to the nature of the miracle spoken of by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. According to the Maharam, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi referred only to miracles that saved Benei Yisrael from danger, which was not the case when the manna fell. However, this does not necessarily mean that an obligation of "pirsum" was instituted whenever we experienced salvation from danger.

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