One little letter can make all the difference. The Ran explains that one of the three primary halachos of the Mishna is this: If he said k’imra, k’dirim, or k’eitzim, then the neder takes effect; but if he left out the chaf, according to Rabi Yehudah the neder does not take effect. The prefix of chaf means “like”, so when he says “this piece of bread is to me like the imra (i.e. sacrificial lamb)”, it’s a proper neder. But just saying “this bread is to me imra” is not clear enough since there is nothing inherent in these words that imply issur.
In stark contrast, is one of the other, primary halachos that the Mishna is coming to teach, and that is regarding one who says “this piece of bread is to me nosar (leftover meat from korban that becomes disqualified)”. In that scenario, the neder takes effect even in the absence of the chaf ha’dimyon. Why? Explains the Ran, because nosar (and so too pigul and tamei) inherently implies something forbidden. Therefore, even without the chaf, it is clear from his language that he is creating an issur of neder.
However, the Ran asks a kashya on himself: In the next Mishna we will learn that if someone says “this piece of bread is to me korban olah (etc.)”, Rabi Yehuda holds that the neder does not take effect because he did not say k’korban olah; he left out the chaf ha’dimyon. This, despite the fact that the words korban olah definitely imply issur?!
The Ran’s answer is crisp and clear: There is a fundamental difference between korban olah, on the one hand, and nosar, on the other. Yes, korban olah does indicate issur, but that is not what the title is all about. It isn’t called korban olah because of the issurim that are associated with it. When a person sanctifies an animal to be a korban olah, what he’s thinking about is what he is going to do with it: namely all the halachos of bringing such a korban. Nosar, on the other hand, is purely a title of issur; that’s all it is, and that’s what the word nosar is all about.
In other words, the term korban olah is inherently about the positive things that you do with the animal – the mitzvos that you are going to fulfill through it – and there happen to be attendant issurim, that one may not take benefit from it, which are a function of its special, exalted status.
This explanation opens up a discussion of how we relate to terminology. For example – an unpleasant example – Rav Yechiel Yaakovzon (a renowned mechanech in Eretz Yisrael) once ran an interesting field test. It was in a Beis Yaakov. He asked all the girls to write down on a piece of paper what associations come up in their mind when they hear the words “yiras Shamayim”. He assured them that they did not need to write their name on the paper, and no-one would know what anyone else wrote. Not even the teachers. They complied, and the results he got were extremely telling. The common themes were: “depression”, “anxiety”, “gehinom”, and so on.
Clearly, these girls’ way of relating to the term yiras Shamayim was decidedly negative.
It goes without saying that such a startling phenomenon cannot be poo-pooed away as mere semantics. It’s not, and we all know it. Yiras Shamayim is one of those examples of a term that defines, to a tremendous extent, the entire nature and barometer of one’s Yiddishkeit. A person who has a negative or distant association with the term yiras Shamayim means that he almost necessarily harbors negative or distant feelings about Yiddishkeit as a whole (unless he internally revamps his terminology based on his own making, but that is a discussion for a different time).
Ok, how about another one. Let’s run our own field test: Shabbos. What association arises in our children’s minds (or our own minds for that matter) upon hearing that word? Of course, we hope that thoughts such as “special”, “enjoyable”, and “warmth” are what would register; but it may or may not come as a surprise that for many children (and adults) it is just not so. For many, their associations consist of: “restrictive”, “boring”, “dreary”, and perhaps even “confrontations”. Shabbos is also one of those real biggies as far as Yiddishkeit as a whole is concerned, so this really does deserve our close attention.
Now, some of the issues underlying this matter can likely be of a fundamental nature. In other words, if Shabbos is a time when many fights occur in the home, R”l, then serious alterations need to be made in behavior patterns to change that. Sometimes that can demand a real overhaul, but other times a few minor adjustments here and there can make a world of a difference.
But, beyond that, there is a segment of this matter that should be so easy to avoid and fix, that it is practically tragi-comic that it often goes unchecked. Let’s go back to the yiras Shamayim example for a moment. If those Beis Yaakov girls associate the term with depression, anxiety, and gehinom, well that means that the way the concept is being conveyed to them is totally off kilter. After all, what is yiras Shamayim – the value of yiras Shamayim that we all yearn to see inculcated into our children – all about? Isn’t it all about cultivating a caring relationship with one’s Yiddishkeit? Isn’t that what it is all about? I care about Torah, I care about mitzvos; it is significant and meaningful to me, and I therefore follow its directions. And why is it meaningful to me? Because I recognize that the entire source of purpose and meaning in this world is Hashem! The awesomeness of His infinite goodness, wisdom, and power is such that I practically cannot help but recognize and be aware – on the deepest level – that His will is an imperative that must be followed.
Isn’t that what it really is all about?
Or is it all about punishments? Is the sum total of our conception of yiras Shamayim, “I’d better do this, or boy am I going to burn!”? Is that it?! Of course not! Do we need to be aware that there is such a thing as schar v’onesh, that there are consequences to our actions?! Of course we do. But that awareness should reflect what it really is, just as the awareness of the issurim that come along with being makdish a sheep into a korban olah.
Those issurim do not define what a korban olah is all about. Korban olah is all about the tremendous and incalculable opportunity to come close to the Almighty! To give Him a present! And He lovingly accepts it! It is all about the extremely positive mitzvos that one does with a korban olah. The issurim are there as a function of its newly acquired, exalted status. A necessary, attendant consequence and reality. A reality that serves to underscore the specialness and significance, and to ensure that the correct dynamic is maintained.
So too is how we really ought to view schar v’onesh. It is a necessary, attendant reality within the overall system of Torah and mitzvos. A person does need to know that he will be handsomely rewarded for all the good that he does, and that there are consequences for doing aveiros that are left uncorrected. But to focus on that as though it were the defining core and essence of what it is all about, is no different than saying that what a korban olah is all about is the issur meilah that it has! A complete and total distortion. Nothing more, nothing less.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t plug this whole thing into the example of Shabbos as well, since it is obvious by this point how the sentences would read were they to be written.
So, yes, how we relate to our basic terminology is very, very important. Crucial, in fact. It defines the whole nature and character of the essence of our relationship with Torah and mitzvos as a whole. So let’s get our definitions right, and make sure that those correct defintions – which truly represent the core and essence of those terms – comprise the primary focus and message that we convey and transmit both to ourselves and to our children.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensivechazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at email@example.com.