Editor’s note: This series is reprinted with permission from “Insights & Attitudes: Torah Essays on Fundamental Halachic and Hashkafic Issues,” a publication of TorahWeb.org. The book contains multiple articles, organized by parsha, by Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mayer Twersky.
In this week’s Torah portions we learn that the Jews constructed the Mishkan and prepared the bigdei kehuna, priestly clothes. Although in both cases the Jews followed the directions they had been given, the Torah stresses at every stage in the preparation of the bigdei kehuna that the work was done “כאשר צוה ה’ את משה, just as Hashem commanded Moshe” (see Ramban 37:8, 38:22). Why would the Torah stress the fact that the Jews obeyed their orders only regarding the bigdei kehuna? Why not include the phrase in relation to the construction of the Mishkan as well?
To answer this question, R. Velvel Soloveitchik (Chiddushei HaGriz, stencil #79) explains that the verb tzivva is a halachic term; whenever it appears in the Torah, it denotes the presence of a mitzva ledoros, an obligation that is binding throughout the generations, as opposed to a hora’as sha’ah, an obligation that was binding only for a limited time. This distinction between perpetual mitzvos and temporary obligations was noted by Tanna’im in the Sifra and was quoted by Rashi (Vayikra 6:1); the Rambam also adopted this as a criterion for inclusion in his Sefer HaMitzvos (shoresh 3). For this reason, the Torah only used the phrase “כאשר צוה ה’ את משה” regarding the bigdei kehuna, whose specifications would never change. It would be inappropriate for the Torah to use the term tzivva when referring to the details of the Mishkan, whose boards and curtains would later be superseded by the stones of the Beis Hamikdash.
The distinction between mitzvos ledoros and hora’os sha’ah is not limited to the realm of biblical exegesis. It is relevant today as well, particularly in the area of ma’aseh rav, attempting to determine current policy based on the practices and recorded opinions of our rabbeim. Developing a pesak, (decision), requires careful analysis of a given case’s details, therefore the recorded pesak of a rav may not be applicable to other cases in which the details are different. Sometimes even the actions of a rav must be considered hora’os sha’ah and, therefore, inapplicable to the world today.
The great care that must be exercised when drawing conclusions from the actions of a rav is stressed by the Talmud itself. The Talmud (Chullin 6b) relates that when Rebbi heard that R. Meir ate fruit grown in the town of Beit She’an without taking terumos uma’asros, Rebbi followed this ma’aseh rav and ruled that Beit She’an should not be considered part of the Land of Israel (produce grown outside Israel does not require tithing). But he only lent such weight to R. Meir’s reported actions because they were attested to by R. Yehoshua ben Zeruz, a Torah scholar in his own right, and brother-in-law of R. Meir. Rebbi was sure that R. Yehoshua ben Zeruz would have understood properly what he had seen R. Meir practice, and so he relied on R. Yehoshua’s report in determining the Halacha. If R. Meir’s actions had been reported by a person of lesser stature, Rebbi would have had to be concerned that important details of the situation had been overlooked, or that R. Meir’s actions could only be considered a hora’as sha’ah.
The distinction between mitzvos ledoros and hora’os sha’ah is not the only one recognized by Halacha; we must also distinguish between mitzvos possessing different levels of holiness. When a Yom Tov falls on a Sunday, for example, we recite the blessing המבדיל בין קדש לקדש, to distinguish between the higher holiness of Shabbos and the lower holiness of the arriving Yom Tov.
In fact, there is a hierarchy of importance which encompasses all the mitzvos and distinguishes between different levels of holiness among them. Just as we must know which mitzvos were given ledoros and which were only intended lesha’ah, so too we must know today which mitzvos have priority over others, which are the rule and which are the exceptions to the rule.
It is clear that words and ideas take on new meanings when set forth in different arrangements. The philosopher Blaise Pascal, for example, wrote that although each of his individual ideas may have appeared in the writings of earlier philosophers, the arrangement in which he presented them created his unique philosophy (Thoughts 1:22). Similarly, although all poets use words from the dictionary, no one would argue that therefore all poems mean the same thing. The same is true of mitzvos: to interfere with the hierarchy of mitzvos is to change the mitzvos themselves, and to depart from the established values of Judaism.
Rabbi Hershel Schachter joined the faculty of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1967, at the age of 26, the youngest Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS. Since 1971, Rabbi Schachter has been Rosh Kollel in RIETS’ Marcos and Adina Katz Kollel (Institute for Advanced Research in Rabbinics) and also holds the institution’s Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud. In addition to his teaching duties, Rabbi Schachter lectures, writes, and serves as a world renowned decisor of Jewish Law.