Chulin 9: Practical Rabbinics

By: rabbi jay kelman |

There are few, if any, semicha programs that require their students to learn shechita or safrut, and even fewer that require good penmanship. None would accept a student who did not know how to write. But the requirements of rabbis in Talmudic times were of a different nature than today.  

“Rav Yehuda, quoting Rav, said: A Torah scholar is required to learn writing, ritual slaughter, and circumcision. Rav Chananya bar Shelamya said in the name of Rav: even [how to tie] the knot of the tefillin, the blessing of the grooms, and [how to tie] tzitzit” (Chulin 9a). 

Rav teaches that a Torah scholar, first and foremost must take care of the basic necessities of religious life: shechita, milah, tefillin, tzitzit and weddings. As Rashi understands the Gemara, often there were just not enough skilled people who could render these services and thus, it fell upon the talmid chacham to ensure that he could provide them. The dispute between Rav Yehuda and Rav Chananya is a most practical one. Rav Yehuda does not require a talmid chacham to master tying the tefillin and tzitzit, nor to recite the brachot at a wedding, as these skills were easily mastered and were commonplace amongst the masses. Hence, a talmid chacham need not specifically learn them. 

One might suggest that there is more to these tasks than ensuring the technical know-how to perform them. Asking a talmid chacham to carry them out would be a fulfillment of the mitzvah of kavod, honor, due a Torah scholar. And the talmid chacham must be prepared when he is so honoured.

We might further suggest that due to complicated questions that may arise in performing these duties, it is best if they are done by a talmid chacham, or at least with his oversight. This interpretation finds support in that the next teaching of the Gemara, also by Rav Yehuda quoting his teacher Rav, that “any slaughterer who does not know the halakhot of ritual slaughter, it is prohibited to eat from his slaughter[1].”

The same would hold true regarding birchat chatanim, the brachav we recite as we sanctify the relationship between chatan and kallah. While the bracha itself requires no special expertise beyond knowing how to read Hebrew, it may require halachic expertise. The Gemara advises that those who are not expert in the areas of marriage or divorce should not involve themselves with them (Kiddushin 6a). 

In a fascinating comment, Rav Yaakov Reiser,in his commentary to the Ein Yaakov, wonders why the Gemara singles out the brachot at a wedding. In an era when many could not read and many had to rely on others to make brachot on their behalf, would we not require a Torah scholar to have expertise in all brachot? He suggests that the requirement of birchat chatanim is not a reference to the bracha, per se. Rather, it mandates that those reciting the brachot at a weddings have beautiful voices, thereby enhancing the joy to the chatan and kallah.  

While writing, the first of the three requirements mentioned by Rabbi Yehuda, may not be a skill we associate specifically with rabbinic scholars—do you actually know anyone who cannot write?—in the days before the printing press, writing (and reading) was a skill many never acquired and hence, it was imperative that scholars could write[2].

Rashi understands this need as a reference to signing one’s name on court documents, a task that only one trained in the law could properly carry out. 

The Rashash suggests that writing is a reference to the ability to write sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot. In other words, a true talmid chacham must be a qualified as a shochet, mohel and sofer.

The Rashash then suggests that the obligation to learn writing refers to penmanship. A Torah scholar needs to “write beautifully and straight when he needs to write responsa or sheilat shalom, letters of greeting (or peace) and the like to people”. Yet beautiful penmanship—a basic skill that, with the advent of the typewriter (remember those?), was no longer quite so necessary[3]—is not enough. 

One must, the Rashash argues, become a skilled writer[4], enabling one to spread the beauty of Torah. Torah scholars must write with clarity, precision, passion and would also be well advised to study the techniques of creative writing. They surely must avoid mistakes in grammar, spelling or punctuation. It is painful to read a poorly written article—more so when it was written by a Torah personality. Even if the article manages to teach some Torah, it is more likely that the Torah and its representatives will be diminished in the eyes of the reader[5]

In the introduction to the Melamed L’hoeel, the responsa of Rav David Tzvi Hoffman (published posthumously), his son writes that, “the jewel in his father’s mouth was that no day should pass without the writing down of a new insight.” Writing one’s thoughts, be they Torah insights or any others, is the best way to crystalize, clarify and communicate those thoughts.

Rav Meir Shapiro, the visionary who founded Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin (and the idea of Daf Yomi) included time in the daily schedule of the yeshiva, at 10:00pm each evening, for students to write down the chiddushei Torah, novel Torah insights, they thought of during the day—and if they had none, to at least write chiddushim they heard from others. 

As one who has written hundreds of articles, I can attest to the many, many benefits of writing—much greater than those experienced by giving a shiur. It makes the many hours invested in doing so most worthwhile. 

 

[1] This seemingly contradicts much of what we have learned up to now in the masechet, where we have seen that, with rare exceptions, one can eat from any piece of slaughtered animal, even if we do not know who slaughtered it and even if the shochet is a non-observant Jew (provided he does not worship idols). 

[2] Yet even a lack of reading ability need not prevent one who is determined from becoming a Torah scholar. At least two of our leading Talmudic Sages, Rav Yosef and Rav Sheshet, were blind. 

[3] As the Rashash notes, penmanship was also needed for letters of greeting, and there is little doubt that a handwritten letter displays caring, friendship and commitment that cannot be matched via a typed letter or email. This is even truer today when, with rare exceptions, we no longer receive letters from loved ones. 

[4] Being a clear speaker is equally, if not more, important. Those with great oratorical skills can inspire and motivate others, and it is for good reason that shuls hire those who are good speakers. At the other end, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 5b) rules that one may not give semicha to someone who does not speak clearly—such a person cannot be entrusted to teach Torah. 

[5] I highly recommend you read this (short) fascinating piece, by Rabbi Emmanuel Feldman, Tefillin in a Brown Paper Bag, here