All are welcome to Masechet Erachin

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Amongst the most obscure laws of the Torah are those of erachin, which form the subject matter of the last chapter of sefer Vayikra. The Torah details the amount of money that one must give to the Temple treasury when one proclaims his or her erech, loosely translated as one’s value. The amount is determined by one’s age and sex with no reference to one’s personal attributes. In contradistinction, if one said damai alai, the amount due would determined by quantifying the economic value a person contributes to society. While the notion of putting a value on human life is distasteful to say the least, in the world that we inhabit, we often have little choice. Only by estimating the economic output one contributes can sound economic and social policies be adopted. The details of these personal vows, along with vows of property to be dedicated to the Temple, forms the primary subject matter of Masechet Erachin.

Yet more than one might expect, masechet Erachin discusses a whole host of other subjects. It is masechet Erachin where the primary discussion of the laws of lashon hara takes place. Included in the mishnayot of the masechet are discussions about the calendar, the status of a fetus, brit milah, shofar blowing in the Temple, rape and seduction, and the laws of Yovel.

When one considers that the Talmudic text is primarily an oral one, this is most understandable. We get to listen in and join a discussion with its give-and-take, proofs, counterproofs, refutations and even digressions. As in an oral conversation, there are no punctuation marks, and the discussion flows from one topic to another seamlessly, yet with great precision. But an oral text “reads” differently than a written one, and topics of conversation have a different flow to them. Topics are often grouped together due to some associative nature, while groups of laws that may have few legal connections are brought together due to some other common feature. It could be due to common phraseology, a common Tanna or Amora teaching the law, or laws about various groups of people. 

Masechet Erachin begins by noting that “hakol, all, can declare a vow of valuation and all can be the subject of a vow of valuation”. The Gemara immediately asks, Hakol, latruyei mai? What, or shall we say whom, does “hakol” come to include? The Gemara explains that it includes the vow of a mature 12-year-old boy (or 11-year-old girl). Normally the actions of a minor are not recognized in Jewish law; however, if the child understands to whom they are making a vow and its implications, the vow is rendered binding. 

Working off the word hakol, the opening pages of the masechet discuss a range of mitzvot, connected by the use of the word hakol, “all are obligated”. On the first daf alone—actually, amud beit, the second side[1] of the first daf—we discuss such subjects as sukkah, lulav, tzitzit, tefillin, the mitzvah of aliyah laregel, freeing slaves, pru u’revu, shofar and megillah

One-by-one, the Gemara explains what the expression of hakol, “everyone”, includes for each of the mitzvot listed above—offering us a glimpse into a heretofore unknown aspect of the mitzvah. 

“All are obligated in sukkah…includes a minor who does not need his mother”. Not needing one’s mother is defined as a child who wakes up in the middle of the night and does not cry out, “Mommy, Mommy”. In other words, this child is old enough to sleep through the night on his own. We can thus expect that he can make it through the night in the sukkah. While the child may not yet be bar-mitzvah, he is old enough to sleep in the sukkah. When one considers that women are exempt from sleeping in the sukkah, it could be quite traumatic for a child to wake up at 2:00am and hear nothing when he yells out, “Mommy, Mommy”. To prevent such trauma, such children should sleep in the house. 

“All are obligated in lulav…to include one who knows how to shake the lulav”. While there is no obligation to actually shake the lulav—one fulfills one’s obligation by lifting alone[2]—the mitzvah is most properly fulfilled with the proper waving of the lulav during Hallel. And only when the child can do such properly does the mitzvah of chinuch begin. Being creatures of habit, it is best not to have a child do a mitzvah in a less-than-optimal way, as he may continue doing so even when he is older. It is for this reason that one should not purchase a “chinuch set”, a non-kosher lulav and etrog for little children. If it can’t be done right, don’t do it at all.  

Along the same lines, the Gemara continues, noting that the expression “all are obligated” regarding tefillin and tzitzit, teaches that we do include minors, but only those who know how to properly wrap themselves in tzitzit, and to properly “safeguard” tefillin. While learning how to properly dress oneself is relatively easy—and thus, we purchase tzitzit for little children—guarding tefillin is not. While tefillin is the embodiment of holiness, tzitzit are little more than a piece of clothing that can and should be a constant reminder of G-d above. To put it slightly differently, tzitzit help us to have a subconscious, yet constant awareness of G-d as we go about our daily activities, whereas tefillin requires a conscious focus and concentration as we take time off from our daily routine to focus on our relationship with G-d[3].  

“All are obligated in seeing”, i.e., the mitzvah to come to Jerusalem for the three pilgrim festivals. The Gemara explains that “all” comes to include a “half-slave, half-free person”. This sad situation arises when two partners jointly acquire a slave and subsequently one, but not the other, of the owners frees his "half" of the slave, leaving the slave in a state of limbo—granted neither all the protections offered a slave (i.e., free room and board and Shabbat off) nor the independence of a free person.

While this sounds much better than being a full slave—“he works for his master one day, and for himself one day; these are the words of Beit Hillel”—it creates an even greater problem. 

“Beit Shammai said to them: You have repaired his master, but himself you have not repaired. To marry a maidservant he cannot do, for he is half-free. [To marry] a free woman he cannot do, for he is half-slave. And was not the world created for the sake of pru u’revu, for our children? As it says, ‘Not for emptiness did He create it [the world], but for settlement He formed it’" (Yishayahu 45:18).

Being a slave—even with the provisions of Jewish law, which ensure one is treated with dignity—is not good. But far worse is being neither a slave nor completely free. The uncertainty of whether one is free or not leads to halachic paralysis and hence, the slave must live in limbo—and “alone”. So terrible is that situation that Beit Shammai rules that “we force his master, and he makes him a free man”. And after hearing the argument put forth by Beit Shammai, the House of Hillel “retracted and ruled in accordance with the words of Beit Shammai[4]”.

“All are obligated in the blowing of the shofar” comes to teach that we may let a child blow the shofar on Yom Tov—something that might have been thought forbidden due to the general rabbinic prohibition to play musical instruments on Shabbat and Yom Tov. 

“All are obligated to read the Megillah…to include women, as they, too were included in the miracle”. As Rashi notes, with women no less obligated than men, they may read the Megillah on behalf of men. That this view has not been generally adopted has little[5] to do with the laws of reading the Megillah and much to do with what we may call meta-halachic issues involving the proper role of women in public life. Only time will tell if, like many other former taboos, this too will change, or whether traditional practice will continue to hold sway. 

 

[1] One must recall that a Talmudic page is a double-sided folio. If we were to use modern parlance, Daf Yomi would be said to actually be two pages a day, or 5,422 pages over seven years and five months.  

[2] That is why we are careful to lift the etrog with the pitum facing down. Just lifting the etrog (along with the lulav) right side up fulfills the obligation, and once the obligation is fulfilled, a bracha can no longer be made. 

[3] In previous times, many were able to so intensely feel the presence of G-d as they went about their daily business that they could wear tefillin all day. For most of us, it is hard to focus on spiritual matters, even for the few minutes a day we may wear tefillin

[4] Masechet Eduyot, historically the first masechet to be collated as the Mishna was formed, begins by noting three cases in which Beit Hillel retracted their view in favour of view of Beit Shammai. There are no recorded instances of the reverse. The Talmud explains that the reason we follow the rulings of Beit Hillel is due to their humility, demonstrated by the fact that they would first quote the opinion of Beit Shammai before expressing their own. One who is open to hearing and understanding the views of others is one who seeks the truth, and is much more likely to find it. 

[5] At the same time, there were those who interpreted this passage slightly differently, in a manner that would not allow a woman to read on behalf of men.