1) THE DEATH OF RABAH BAR NACHMENI
QUESTIONS: The Gemara relates that while Rabah bar Nachmeni was fleeing for his life from the Persian authorities, an argument was taking place in the Yeshiva in Shamayim. The argument involved the Halachah in the case of a white hair and a Baheres spot that appear on one's skin, but there is a doubt which appeared first. Hash-m, as it were, ruled that it is Tahor, while all of the members of the heavenly Yeshiva ruled that it is Tamei. They asked who could decide the matter conclusively, and they answered that Rabah bar Nachmeni could decide the matter since he was the greatest expert on Nega'im and Ohalos. They sent a Shali'ach to bring Rabah to them, but the Mal'ach ha'Maves could not take him from this world because he did not stop learning Torah. At that moment, a wind blew and made the reeds move and make noise. Rabah heard the noise and thought that the Persian legions were coming to kill him. He prayed that he should die at that moment rather than be taken by the authorities. At the moment that he died he declared, "Tahor! Tahor!"
The Gemara's account of this incident raises several questions.
(a) How could the students in the Yeshiva of Shamayim argue with the ruling of Hash-m?
(b) If they did argue with Him, why did Rabah not rule in accordance with the majority opinion (in accordance with Shemos 23:2)?
(c) Why was it necessary for Rabah to be taken from this world in order to resolve the argument? Why could they not have asked him for his ruling while he was alive?
(d) The RAMBAM (Hilchos Tum'as Tzara'as 2:9) rules that in a case of a doubt about whether the white hair preceded the Baheres, the Nega is Tamei. Why does the Rambam rule against the opinion of Hash-m and against the conclusion of Rabah?
(a) RABEINU CHANANEL (as cited by the Shitah Mekubetzes) writes that the argument that occurred in the Yeshiva of Shamayim was shown to Rabah in a dream. The dispute actually took place between two groups of Tzadikim. The group closer to the radiance of the Shechinah ruled that the Nega is Tahor, and the group farther away from the Shechinah ruled that it is Tamei. This was shown to Rabah in a dream so that he would leave the world with a calm, settled spirit.
The BEN YEHOYADA gives a similar explanation, but he says that in the dream that was shown to Rabah, it indeed was Hash-m who ruled that the Nega is Tahor and not the group of Tzadikim closer to the Shechinah. He adds that this dream was shown to Rabah in order to show him the infinite pleasure that a Tzadik experiences in the World to Come, so that he would yearn to go there and agree to leave this world. The Ben Yehoyada adds that the reason why an argument was shown to Rabah (and not just the pleasure experienced by the Tzadikim in the World to Come) was so that Rabah would respond to the inquiry, "Tahor," and thus his soul would leave this world while he was teaching a Halachah and uttering the word "Tahor." This symbolized that his soul would cling to its holy Source above, which is completely Tahor.
RAV YAKOV EMDEN answers differently and explains that the students of the Yeshiva of Shamayim did not actually argue with Hash-m. They stated their opinion first, and only afterwards Hash-m stated His opinion. The Gemara here changes the order merely out of deference.
(b) The MAHARSHA (in MAHADURA BASRA) answers that the rule that the majority opinion must be followed applies only in this world. Therefore, Rabah did not follow the opinion of the majority in the Yeshiva of Shamayim.
(c) The MAHARSHA explains similarly that Rabah had to be taken from this world in order to issue his ruling on the matter because he could not have decided the matter in this world. Since the majority opinion must be followed in this world, his ruling would not have been accepted because it contradicted the majority opinion. Therefore, he had to be taken to the Yeshiva of Shamayim, where it is acceptable to rule against the majority.
(d) The BEN YEHOYADA explains that the Rambam rules that such a Nega is Tamei, in contradiction to the ruling of Hash-m Himself, because the Rambam understands this incident to be a dream that Rabah saw. Hence, there is no indication that in reality Hash-m ruled that it is Tahor.
The KESEF MISHNEH writes that even if the argument in Shamayim actually occurred, the Halachah does not necessarily follow opinions that are expressed in Shamayim, as the verse says, "Lo ba'Shamayim Hi" (Devarim 30:12).
This, however, explains only why the Rambam rules against the ruling of Hash-m. How, though, could he rule against the ruling of Rabah?
The Kesef Mishneh answers that Rabah stated his ruling at the moment that his Neshamah left his body, and thus the rule of "Lo ba'Shamayim Hi" applies to his ruling as well. (I. Alsheich)
2) AGADAH: THE FOOD OF ANGELS
QUESTION: The Gemara relates that when the Torah says that the Mal'achim who visited Avraham Avinu ate the food that he served, it means only that they appeared as though they ate the food, but they did not actually eat it. If they did not actually eat the food, then why does the Torah refer to their act as "eating"?
ANSWER: This question can be answered based on what the commentaries teach about the verse, "Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Yisrael climbed [Har Sinai].... They gazed at Hash-m and they ate and they drank" (Shemos 24:9-11). The Targum Onkelus there translates this verse as, "They saw the Divine Glory, and when He accepted the offerings they brought to Him, they were as happy as if they had been eating and drinking."
On this verse, Avos d'Rebbi Nasan (1:8) relates that "they were nourished from the Divine Presence, just as the angels are."
These sources indicate that the term "eating" does not refer exclusively to a physical act. There is also a spiritual experience that is metaphorically described as "eating." When experiencing a "meal" of this sort, the soul itself is nourished in much the same way that the body obtains nourishment from the food that one eats. This spiritual nourishment is received from the "Ziv ha'Shechinah," the Glory of the Divine Presence of Hash-m. The pleasure of this non-physical form of eating is an eternal one and can be experienced without a physical world. It is this experience that is involved in the eternal bliss of the World to Come, as the Gemara in Berachos (17a) says, "In the world to come there is no eating and no drinking, no childbearing and no work, no jealousy, no hatred and no competition. Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and enjoy the Glory of the Divine Presence, as it is stated, 'They gazed at Hash-m and they ate and they drank.'"
This spiritual food can provide, at times, even physical sustenance. Moshe Rabeinu was in Shamayim for forty days at the time the Torah was given. He told the Jews, "Bread I did not eat, water I did not drink" (Devarim 9:9). On what, then, did his body subsist? The Midrash (Midrash Agadah to Devarim 9:9; see also Rabeinu Bachye) answers that his body subsisted on the Glory of the Divine Presence.
Not only did Moshe Rabeinu have such an experience, but the entire Jewish nation had such an experience. For forty years, the Jews subsisted on the heavenly Man which Hash-m showered on the Jewish encampment in the wilderness (Shemos 16:35). What was the Man that had such remarkable nutritional qualities? Rebbi Akiva taught that "it was the bread upon which the angels subsist" (Yoma 75b). Rebbi Yishmael objected and said, "Go and tell Rebbi Akiva that he is making a mistake. Do angels eat bread? Even when Moshe, a human being, was in heaven, he did not eat or drink!" What indeed did Rebbi Akiva mean? Rebbi Akiva must have been referring to the phenomenon mentioned above. The "bread" of the angels is the Glory of the Divine Presence, upon which they subsist. The Man that the Jews ate contained that quality. According to Rebbi Akiva, the Jews drew their physical sustenance from the Glory of the Divine Presence for forty years. (See Kli Yakar to Shemos 16:4.)
Similarly, the "eating" that Moshe, Aharon, and the elders who accompanied them experienced was not the consumption of physical food. Rather, it was the spiritual dining of the angels in heaven and of the righteous in the World to Come.
This is why Avraham's visitors were able to "eat" with him. Although it appeared as though they were eating the physical food, the angels were actually "eating" spiritual, other-worldly food. This is why the Torah refers to what the angels did as "eating." The Mal'achim found their spiritual food in Avraham's house because, as Rashi (Bereishis 18:3) relates, the Divine Presence did not depart from Avraham's tent while he was serving his three guests. Hence, it is clear how the guests, who were actually Mal'achim, enjoyed the Glory of the Divine Presence while eating with Avraham. Hash-m's Presence was right there with them, waiting for Avraham to finish serving his guests. In fact, this may be what the verse itself describes when it states, "And he [Avraham] stood by them under the tree, and they ate." The Midrash states that Hash-m appeared to Avraham in a tree (see Shemos 3:4). Perhaps the verse may be read, "And He (Hash-m) stood by them under the tree, and [because of that] they (the angels) ate" -- that is, they received their spiritual nourishment from the Glory of Hash-m's Divine Presence. (See Parshah Page to Parshas Mishpatim.)
3) THE GIFTS GIVEN IN THE MERIT OF AVRAHAM AVINU
QUESTION: The Gemara cites Tana d'Vei Rebbi Yishmael who states that in the merit of the three acts Avraham Avinu performed to serve his guests, the Jewish people merited to receive three gifts during their sojourn in the wilderness: the Man, the cloud that protected them, and the well of Miriam.
The Gemara here seems to contradict the Gemara in Ta'anis (9a) which says that the Man, the cloud, and the well were gifts to the Jewish people in the merit of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam, respectively. The Gemara there does not mention that they were rewards for Avraham Avinu's deeds. Moreover, the Gemara here explicitly refers to the well as "Be'erah Shel Miriam," the well of Miriam, which clearly implies that the well was granted to them in the merit of Miriam. (MAHARSHA)
(a) The MAHARSHA answers that the merit of Avraham Avinu's acts of kindness toward his guests would have provided the Jewish people with only a momentary miracle of the Man, cloud, and well. It was in the merit of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam that these miracles continued for many years while the Jewish people sojourned in the wilderness. This is why the cloud departed when Aharon died, the well departed when Miriam died, and the Man stopped falling when Moshe died.
(b) The BEN YEHOYADA writes that Hash-m originally decreed that these three gifts -- the Man, the cloud, and the well -- would be given to the Jewish people in the merit of Avraham Avinu's deeds. The time came for the Jewish people to receive the gift of the cloud when they left Mitzrayim. However, they left Mitzrayim "b'Yad Ramah" (Shemos 14:8), which can be translated as "with a haughty spirit." (This understanding is in stark contrast to the normal meaning of "b'Yad Ramah," and to the translation of the Targum Onkelus.) Consequently, they lost the merit to receive the protection of the cloud. When Hash-m did give them the cloud, it was in the merit of Aharon instead.
Similarly, the merit of Avraham Avinu was supposed to provide the gift of the Man when the food that they had brought with them from Mitzrayim was finished. However, they lost that merit when they sinned by complaining, "You took us out into this wilderness to kill us with starvation!" (Shemos 16:3). Hence, they needed the merit of Moshe to receive the Man.
Similarly, the merit of Avraham Avinu would have provided the gift of the well when the people arrived at Refidim. However, the people sinned there as well when they complained to Moshe, and they lost that merit. However, Hash-m gave them the gift of the well in the merit of Miriam instead.
(c) RAV CHAIM SHMUELEVITZ zt'l (in Sichos Musar 5732, #8) answers this question with a parable. A small seed is able to sprout into a huge tree. However, the seed itself cannot sprout without external factors contributing to its growth, such as soil, water, and sunshine.
Rav Chaim explains that when the Gemara here says that the gifts of the Man, cloud, and well were granted in the merit of Avraham Avinu, it means that the merit of the Chesed of Avraham was like the "seeds" of these gifts -- the initial reason for granting them. However, these "seeds" needed additional factors to cause them to sprout and come to fruition, and that purpose was served by the merit of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. (I. Alsheich)