By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
ואלה תולדת אהרן ומשה ג:א שכל המלמד את בן חברו תורה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו ילדו רש“י
Last week, we fulfilled takanas Ezra to read the curses of Sefer Vayikra before Shavuos (Megilla 31b). But what is the connection between parshas Bamidbar and Shavuos? True, there is a discussion in Tosafos (ibid.) if it is ok to be interrupt between parshas Bechukosai and Shavuos, but there definitely is a connection. The connection, or at least one of the connectons, is what Rashi says on the pasuk, “V’eileh toldos Aharon v’Moshe b’yom diber Hashem es Moshe b’Har Sinai”. The next pasuk only mentions the sons of Aharon which shows that teaching someone Torah is like fathering him. And when did the sons of Aharon become the progeny of Moshe? On the day that Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai – the day of Matan Torah – because it was then that he taught them what he learned from Hashem. Even on the superficial level, this is an amazing concept. The Gra says that this comparison to fathering a child is not mere allegorical expression. It is literal. Just as there is exists a birthing process on the physical plane, so too is there a spiritual birth process. The Mishna in Maseches Bava Metzia (33a) says that returning a lost object to one’s rebbi takes precedence over returning a lost object to one’s father, because a father brings him to Olam Ha’zeh and his rebbi brings him to Olam Ha’Bah. What this shows is that just as one’s entire existence in Olam Ha’zeh is due to his parents having brought him into the world, so too is existence in Olam Ha’Bah only possible through Torah. The Torah is what gives one life. And this comes about through one’srebbi. Now that Torah sheh’b’al peh is written down, it is possible to get this – to a certain extent – by learning from a seifer; and access thereto is not as critically limited to getting it from a rebbi as was in the time when Torah sheh’b’al peh was transmitted orally.
In addition, there is a deep point here. Biological reproduction is essentially an escape hatch from the curse of “b’yom acholcha mimenu mos tamus (Breishis 2:17).” The day being referred to in the pasuk is yomo shel Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu (e.g. 1000 years [minus the 70 that Adam ha’Rishon gave to Dovid Ha’Melech). But still, the consequence of death really should be a dead-end in this world. However, the ability to produce progeny means that a part of Adam Ha’Rishon survived and continues to survive. So too is it with every person in the world. The curse of mos tamus applies to everyone. But there is an escape hatch. A person’s progeny provide him with a continuity. What this means is that all of human existence is one chain of life. An unbroken nexus. It’s not the same body – it is in a constant state of flux of assuming different particular forms – but it is nevertheless a linkage of one continuum of life. Literally. The k’ilu yaldo of Torah – the birth process of teaching talmidim – is also an unbroken chain of life in the spiritual realm. Not going back to Adam Ha’Rishon, but to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai. It means that there is no absolute severance at any point in the chain. A part of the spiritual life-energy of each rebbi is passed on to the next generation.
Chassidic thought has it that a person can have two types of rebbeim: a rebbi that he learns from in person during the rebbi’s lifetime, and aHimmeldikeh rebbeh, even if he did not live in that chacham’s lifetime at all. By learning his divrei Torah, one can become his talmid. That means that we can all be talmidim of Rashi. And you can also be a talmid of the Rambam, Rabi Akiva Eiger…anyone you want; who not?! Of course, this is only to the extent that we make ourselves their talmidim by investing the appropriate effort to understand and absorb what they say. The most direct way, though, that one connects to this continuum of spiritual vitality going all the way back to those who heard Anochi Hashem Elokecha is from the living mesorah – by learning and absorbing from a rebbi directly. As Rabbeinu Yonah says (Avos 1:1), even after Ravina and Rav Ashi completed putting down Talmud Bavli into the written word, there still is a necessity of Torah transmission from Rebbi to talmid in every generation.
This provides us with a new perspective on kol gadol v’lo yasaf – the sound of Torah that was transmitted at Har Sinai never ceases, because the rebbi to talmid connection in every generation perpetuates it as one continuum of spiritual vitality. Ultimately, this means that we are all talmidimof Moshe Rabbeinu. There’s a Gemara in Maseches Menachos that says the expression “talmidim of Moshe Rabbeinu” is meant to exclude the tzedukim apostates. The Medrash (Tikunei Zohar 114a) says “ispashtusei d’Moshe b’chol dor v’dor”. The influence of Moshe Rabbeinu is in every generation. This link of rebbi to talmid means that we have an unbroken chain of spiritual vitality going all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai. Within every generation’s Torah transmission there exists a piece of that influence of Moshe Rabbeinu. Learning Torah is not just a serious business. It is a serious business – ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu, and without it, chalila, the opposite. But it is not just a serious business, it is also a tremendous, glorious endeavor. And it is only Torah that has this incredible quality. Someone who devotes himself to avodah or chesed the whole day, even though his zechus may be very great, he does not necessarily have this. Torah gives us this! This glorious, existential reality of one, unbroken continuum of spiritual life-energy that connects all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai. (Audio available here)
קח את הלוים תחת כל בכור בבני ישראל ג:מה
Because there were only 22,000 Leviim to the 22,273 bechoros, 273 of the latter had to make a payment of 5 shekalim to redeem themselves – which had to be given to Aharon and his sons, as the pesukim explicitly state. I always understood that this whole process was unrelated to the mitzvah of pidyon ha’ben – that, although the mitzvah of pidyon ha’ben is recorded at the end of parshas Bo and was told to Moshe on the day they left Mitzrayim, it only went into effect at a later point. However, at the end of his Hilchos Bechoros, the Rosh explicitly says that what was going on here was the mitzvah of pidyon ha’ben. That being the case, what happened to the obligation of the 22,000? How come they did not have to make the 5 shekalim payment? The word pidyon – as it relates to korbanos and hekdesh items – means to transfer the kedusha off of that item on to something else (such as money). When we are dealing with pidyon ha’ben, we need to understand how exactly are we to define the “redemption” that is happening? Some Achronim seem to say that the mitzvah of pidyon ha’ben is really not a pidyon in the strict sense of the term. You really are not redeeming the first-born; rather, it is purely a monetary obligation that the Torah imposes upon the father of the bechor(or the bechor himself if the father did not do it) to pay to a kohein (for example, see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deiah in Biur Ha’Gra 305:17). Like any other monetary obligation.
However, this cannot be taken at face value. The Gemara in Maseches Bechoros (47b) says that if a Kohein died within 30 days of the birth of his chalal son (e.g. the Kohein married a divorced woman), that boy will have to redeem himself. The Rosh explains – and this is how the halacha is paskened in Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deiah 305:19) – that all he has to do is set aside the requisite 5 selaim, and he then keeps them for himself. This is similar, says the Rosh, to the case of a Kohein who has only one daughter who married a Yisrael, and from that marriage the Kohein has a grandson who is a Yisrael. If the Kohein grandfather dies and leaves a batch of tevel as part of his yerusha to his grandson, that grandson needs to separate terumah from the tevel but he gets to keep it for himself. What is evident, then, is that the mitzvah of pidyon ha’benhas two facets to it: a) the act of redeeming a first-born child, and b) the monetary right that a Kohein has to the money (for example, if a Koheingrabs the 5 selaim that a father set aside to redeem his son with, Beis Din will not take it away from the Kohein). Usually these two components stick together, but in the case of the chalal son of a Kohein, there is a split between the essential pidyon aspect from the monetary aspect.
The first-born chalal has to redeem himself because he is a zar – a full-fledged non-Kohein. As far as the monetary aspect is concerned, though, he does not have to give the 5 selaim that he used to redeem himself to a Kohein, because he is the heir of his father who was a Kohein. Had his father been alive, his father would have redeemed him and kept the money for himself. That monetary right is fully inheritable. If all there was to pidyon ha’ben is a monetary obligation, well, in this case of the chalal son of a Kohein, there is no monetary obligation because he’s going to keep the money for himself anyway! Yet he still has to redeem himself. Clearly, then, there exists an inherent pidyon obligation irrespective of the monetary-obligation component of it. If pidyon ha’ben was merely a monetary obligation and that’s it, it would be impossible to understand how the 22,000 bechoros that were redeemed by the 22,000 Leviim were exempted from this obligation. Now, though, that we’ve clarified that pidyon ha’ben is a mitzvah in of itself to redeem the first-born – which carries an additional, monetary obligation as well – we can venture to explain how those 22,000 were exempted from redeeming themselves with the regular 5 shekalim.
A bechor has a particular status. The Aruch Ha’Shulchan says an incredible chiddush: until a father redeems his bechor, he is not allowed to use him for any work (e.g. as a weight on one side of a scale). Everyone asks on the Aruch Ha’Shulchan from the explicit Gemara in Maseches Bechoros (9b) that excludes bechor adam from the prohibition of gizah v’avodah (shearing and work). In any event, according to the Aruch Ha’Shulchan, the distinct status of a bechor is an actual kedusha that needs to be removed through pidyon. There is a Seforno that also implies that the human bechor has actual kedusha. Even if you don’t want to posit that bechor adam has actual kedusha, he definitely has a distinct status called bechor. For example, if not for the sin of the eigel ha’zahav, the first-borns would have been involved in some way or another in the Mishkan/Beis Ha’Mikdash. The selection of Aharon and his progeny to serve as Kohanim was determined irrespective of that, so it’s not as if the lack of the sin of the eigel ha’zahav would have changed that; but in some form or another the first-borns would definitely have been involved. That is obviously an expression of their specialized status. And it is that specialized status to which the mitzvah of pidyon ha’ben pertains. Pidyon ha’ben is an act of removing that status (not regarding the laws of inheritance, only regarding the specialized status as described above). It happens to be that the pidyon act of removing that status entails a monetary obligation to a Kohein, but it is the neutralization of that status that is the essential mandating force of this mitzvah.
Now we can understand why those 22,000 bechoros did not need to pay 5 shekalim to a Kohein. Their specialized bechor status was neutralized via being “swapped” with the 22,000 Leviim. True, that is obviously a horaas shaah – a one-time manner of doing it that does not carry any application subsequent to that event – but it was a horaas shaah that functioned in appropriate accordance with the basic mechanism of how pidyon ha’ben works and what it is meant to do. By being swapped with the Leviim, their special bechor status was removed. Naturally, then, there was no more mitzvah of pidyon ha’ben left to do, so of course there is no reason why they should have had to pay any money to a Kohein. The 273 extra bechoros, though, who were not able to be swapped with a Levi, were not able to have their bechor status neutralized through this horaas shaah mechanism, and they therefore still had the mitzvah of pidyon ha’ben on them – obligating them to pay 5 shekalim to a Kohein. (Audio recording available here)
What was the status of the bechoros (first-borns) before the appointment of the Leviyim that takes place in this week’s parsha? In Midrash Rabbah (4:8) – and in Pirush Ha’Mishnayos (of the Rambam) at the end of Maseches Zevachim – we find that, until the Mishkan was constructed, the bechoros were the ones who carried out the avodah of bringing korbanos. The Medrash proves this from the fact that Adam Ha’Rishon was bechoro shel olam (“the world’s bechor”), and he wore the vestments of the Kohen Gadol and brought a korban; and, succeeding Adam Ha’Rishon in this role were Sheis, Mesushelach, Noach, Sheim (who was Malki-Tzedek), Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. And the “young lads” (n’arim) who brought korbanos at Har Sinai were the bechoros. From the fact that Sheim and Avraham are included in the above list of the Medrash, it is clear that bechor in this context is not in the literal sense of “first-born son”. Rather, it is referring to the greatest personage of the generation. The gadol ha’dor. Based on this, the Brisker Rav poses a question on the Gemara in Maseches Bechoros which discusses whether or not the kedushah-based halachos of bechor applied in the Midbar, and proves that they did from the fact that the bechoros were the ones to carry out the avodah of bringing korbanos until the Mishkan was constructed. But, asks the Brisker Rav, how can this be insofar as the Medrash and the Rambam clearly indicate that bechorah had nothing to do with being first-born (but was instead a function of personal greatness)? The Brisker Rav answers this question on the basis of a Gemara in Maseches Megillah of Talmud Yerushalmi that indicates that, following yetzias Mitzrayim, bechor-status shifted to being dependent on being first-born and was no longer a function of personal greatness.
The halachah is that a first-born son whose father is a Yisrael but whose mother is a Leviyah, does not have bechor status (meaning, he does not need a pidyon ha’ben). There are two ways one could understand this: 1) essentially, the obligation of pidyon ha’ben is dependent on the status of the father as a Yisrael, just that since the Torah clearly states that only if the baby is a peter-rechem (emerged first from the womb), this baby does not require pidyon ha’ben because he is missing that latter, obligating factor of peter-rechem. 2) The bechor-status requiring pidyon ha’ben is dependent on the status of the mother as a Yisraelis; so, of course, a baby whose mother is not a Yisraelis does not need pidyon ha’ben. Rashi in Maseches Chullin (daf 132) takes the first approach, whereas in Maseches Bechoros (daf 4 and 47) Rashi takes the second approach, as does Rabbeinu Gershom (Bechoros daf 4). In perek Beheimah Makshah the Gemara has a discussion about a first-born animal that was birthed with a chatzitzah blocking between the fetus and the opening of the womb. Does that animal have the kedushah status of a bechor beheimah or not? Now, we could ask: does that discussion apply to bechor-adam (human first-borns)? It would seem that it depends on whether or not we say that it is the emerging from the mother’s womb which confers kedushah upon the child. It is possible that this question is dependent upon which of the above two approaches one takes. (From the notes of Reb Daniel Fast)
“Whether one is aware of it or not, on Shabbos one enters an entirely different realm.”