1) OMITTING THE INGREDIENT THAT MAKES THE SMOKE OF THE KETORES RISE
QUESTION: The Gemara relates that the Chachamim once commissioned a group from Alexandria to prepare the Ketores in place of the artisans of Beis Avtinas. The Alexandrians did not know what ingredient causes the smoke of the Ketores to rise straight up, and the smoke of their Ketores rose and dispersed. The Chachamim decided that since the smoke of the Ketores made by Beis Avtinas rose straight up and was much more beautiful, it must be that their knowledge was a gift from Hash-m, and therefore they asked Beis Avtinas to return to make the Ketores.
The HAGAHOS HA'BACH asks why the Gemara says that the Chachamim re-commissioned Beis Avtinas only because of the beauty of the smoke of their Ketores. The Ma'aleh Ashan is one of the essential ingredients of the Ketores. If one omits the Ma'aleh Ashan from the Ketores which is brought in the Kodesh ha'Kodashim, the Ketores is invalid and the one who made it is Chayav Misah. That should have been the reason why the Chachamim re-commissioned Beis Avtinas, and not merely because the smoke of their Ketores was more beautiful.
(a) The TOSFOS YESHANIM (DH Hachi Garsinan) and the TOSFOS HA'ROSH answer that anything that causes smoke to rise and is called "Ma'aleh Ashan" is valid for use in the Ketores. As long as it has the name "Ma'aleh Ashan" it is valid, even though it is a different species and does not cause the smoke to rise straight up. The Alexandrians used a Ma'aleh Ashan in their Ketores, but it did not cause the smoke to rise straight up. (A similar answer is given by the SHA'AR EFRAIM #16.)
(b) REBBI ELAZAR LANDAU explains that there is a general species of Ma'aleh Ashan which was well known and which had a number of sub-species. The Alexandrians knew about only one sub-species which worked to make the smoke rise straight up but not as well as other sub-species.
(c) The BEIS YOSEF (OC 133) writes that the Ma'aleh Ashan differs from the other main ingredients of the Ketores. Since it is included only in order to make the smoke rise and not to add to the aroma, the Ketores is valid, even l'Chatchilah, if it is omitted. He proves this from the Gemara here which says that the Chachamim re-commissioned Beis Avtinas merely because the smoke of the Ketores of the Alexandrians was not as beautiful, but not because their Ketores was invalid altogether.
However, the BE'ER SHEVA (Kerisus 6a) strongly rejects the assertion of the Beis Yosef. He cites the Gemara later (53a), the Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:1), and the Rambam (Hilchos Avodas Yom ha'Kipurim 5:25) who explicitly state that one is Chayav Misah for omitting the Ma'aleh Ashan from the Ketores used on Yom Kippur. The MISHNEH L'MELECH (Hilchos Klei ha'Mikdash 2:3) answers that the Beis Yosef distinguishes between the Ketores of Yom Kippur, of which the verse states that its smoke must rise, and the daily Ketores of the Heichal. The Mishneh l'Melech cites support for this answer from the words of the Rambam in Hilchos Klei ha'Mikdash (2:8). (See Insights to Yoma 53:1.)
(d) The MAHARATZ CHAYOS writes that one is Chayav Misah for omitting the Ma'aleh Ashan only if he has Ma'aleh Ashan and leaves it out. If he does not have it all, he is not Chayav Misah for omitting it.
2) BEN KAMTZAR'S TALENT
QUESTION: The Mishnah relates that Ben Kamtzar was able to write four letters with one hand simultaneously by placing four quills between his fingers. In this way he wrote the four letters of the Name of Hash-m at one time.
What was so great about this feat? The letters of the Name of Hash-m must be written in successive order. They may not be written in the wrong order, and presumably they also may not be written all at one time.
ANSWER: The TESHUVOS MAS'AS BINYAMIN (Rav Binyamin Aharon Selnik of Krakow, 1633) writes that the Gemara here provides proof that printing or stamping the Name of Hash-m in such a way that all of the letters are written at one time is not considered writing the letters of the Shem Hash-m out of order. Only writing them backwards is considered out of order. Therefore, he concludes that the use of a printing press to write a Sefer Torah is permitted, provided that one verbally is Mekadesh the Shem (by saying, "l'Shem Kedushas ha'Shem") before he imprints it on the parchment with the press. In addition, he rules that printed Sefarim have the same Kedushah as a Sefer Torah. (The Halachah does not follow his opinion.)
(See MAHARATZ CHAYOS, who suggests that Ben Kamtzar developed some sort of rudimentary printing press which enabled him to write many letters at one time.)
3) AGADAH: A TZADIK IN THE MIDST OF EVIL PEOPLE
QUESTION: The Gemara says, "When Hash-m blesses the Tzadikim, he punishes the sinners at the same time. When he punishes the sinners, he rewards the Tzadikim."
What is the reason for this system of reward and punishment?
ANSWER: The Gemara here can be understood based on the words of the SHELAH HA'KODESH. The verse says, "Then I shall remember My covenant with Yakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and I will remember My covenant with Avraham, and I will remember the land. The land will be deserted..." (Vayikra 26:42-43). This verse is written in the middle of the Parshah of the Tochechah (rebuke) which depicts the punishments that will befall the Jewish people if they fail to follow the word of Hash-m. This hopeful verse seems out of place, as it is preceded and followed by prophecies of gloom.
The SHELAH HA'KODESH explains that this verse is not intended to be an isolated statement of consolation surrounded by curses (as Rashi and most other commentators seem to understand it). Rather, it is intended to be an additional component in the series of curses that comprise the Tochechah: Hash-m will recall that He made a covenant with the forefathers of the Jewish nation, and that recollection will cause His anger with them to grow rather than to abate. Hash-m will say, "The Jewish people had such illustrious ancestors from whom to learn the ways of Torah and righteousness, and they nonetheless veered from the proper path and pursued lives of sin. This is cause for greater punishment."
Hash-m expects more of a person who was raised in a home in which a high priority was given to spiritual values than He expects from a person who was raised in a home where corruption and immorality were common. If the person raised in a virtuous home decides to pursue a life of sin, he will be held more culpable than the person who was raised in a home devoid of moral values.
A similar concept is related in the incident of Lot. Lot told the angels who escorted him from Sedom to safety, "I cannot escape to the mountain, lest evil reach me there and I will die" (Bereishis 19:19). Rashi explains that Lot pleaded with the angels not to take him back to live in proximity to Avraham (where he lived before he moved to Sedom). Lot was concerned that if he would live in proximity to such a great Tzadik, then "evil will reach me, and I will die." When he lived in Sedom, Lot felt that Hash-m judged him favorably because he was compared to the other citizens of Sedom who were notorious for their wickedness. Lot feared that if he took up residence near Avraham, he would be judged according to a much stricter standard, one which he was sure he would not be able to withstand (see Bereishis Rabah 50:11). When a person is exposed to an environment of virtue, he is expected to assimilate the holiness of that environment and he is punished if he fails to do so. Less is expected of one who lives among wicked people and still manages to maintain an average standard of decency; such a person is judged favorably.
This is the intention of the Gemara here. When Hash-m sees the righteousness of a Tzadik who lives in proximity to evil people, He becomes even more upset with the evil people because they did not learn from the Tzadik to correct their ways. In this sense, the righteousness of the Tzadik causes the wicked to be punished. Conversely, the evil deeds of the wicked accentuate the righteousness of the Tzadik in their midst who did not learn from their evil deeds. Thus, Hash-m rewards the Tzadik at the same time that He punishes the evil.
Perhaps Avraham Avinu realized that to some degree he was responsible for the annihilation of Sedom. This might be the reason why he offered such a lengthy and impassioned plea on behalf of the people of Sedom, begging Hash-m to spare them (Bereishis 18:23-33). He knew that it was his exemplary behavior and virtuous way of life that reinforced the verdict of guilt for Sedom, and thus he felt a personal responsibility to intercede on their behalf. (M. Kornfeld, heard in part from Reb Yisrael Dissin of Chicago and Jerusalem)