Saturday, March 24, 2007

Tzav, Vayikra 6:5,6. The Fire on the Mizbei'ach.

6:5-6. Tukad, ubi’eir, and Lo sichbeh. There is a halacha that even though there was a supernatural fire on the mizbei’ach, it is a mitzvoh to add natural fire as well. The Sefer HaChinuch says the purpose of the eish min hahediot, the natural fire, was to attenuate and lessen the neis. Even in the greatest of miracles, such as the splitting of the sea, the Ribono Shel Olam desires the contribution of a natural element.

I mentioned this rule once in the course of a drasha, and I quoted the words of the passuk "Eish tamid tukad ahl hamizbeiach lo sichbeh", an eternal fire shall burn on the Mizbei'ach and shall not be extinguished. Dr. Meir Z was sitting next to me, and he mentioned that he had taken care of Mr. W, YH’s father in law, until his death two or three years before. Toward the end, Mr. W suffered from dementia, but he constantly repeated this passuk, to the point that his non-Jewish caretakers used to call him Mr. Eishtamid. Dr. Z said that nobody had found a satisfactory explanation for why he did this, and it was a real puzzle, because he was incapable of any rational thought or intelligible speech besides this one possuk. Dr. Z said that the family had some theories about it, but before he continued, I told him that there was nothing to discuss, because the reason was very simple and very clear. There is a minhag, brought in the Siddur Ha’Ari Z’l, to repeat this possuk as one is falling asleep.

The idea behind the minhag is that we ask Hashem to protect us as we feel the bond between the body and the neshama weakening. This man apparently used to do this as he would fall asleep, and now that he found himself in a sort of unending dream state, forever suspended between wakefulness and sleep, he would do as he did his whole life and repeat the possuk. He was so accustomed to say it, that he did so even when he could no longer think, when his cognition was almost completely withered away. Dr. Z told this to YH, and when YH next saw me he rushed to bring over his wife, and I explained to her what it meant, and she tearfully said that she is learning far more about her father after his petirah than she knew when he was alive.

This reminded me of how, at the time that his blood calcium level had risen to a point that he had lost almost all his cognitive abilities, R Moshe Feinstein used to finger the corners of the woolen blanket he was covered with. At first, we assumed this was meaningless, compulsive movement. But we later realized that his whole life, he was machmir not to be covered with a woolen blanket during the day because of the tzitzis problem*, and that his body or his neshama felt that something was wrong, even though his mind was not functioning. When we changed blankets, he no longer exhibited this behavior.

These stories are a mussar haskeil about how a life of torah and mitzvos can so suffuse a person with spirituality that his body becomes intrinsically holy and aware of its circumstances, even when the physical mind no longer functions. It’s a kind of Daas Torah of the body. A person can reach a level where we the dualism of physical brain function / spiritual consciousness, which normally is very hard to discern in the physical world, expresses itself in the person's physical behavior, and the inviolate spiritual consciousness can be observed to control the person's physical awareness and action.

I suppose one could say that just as there was an eish min hashomayim and an eish min hahediot on the mizbeiach, so, too, every person's consciousness comprises both ishim. When the latter dies down, the former takes its place.

We see a similar thing in Tamid Nishchat when Hillel came from Bavel and said that he didn’t remember how to get the knives to the Shechitas Psachim on Shabbas, and he said let’s just wait and see what the people do. There, too, Hillel knew that there is a meta-physical aspect to the Klal Yisroel, both as a whole and as individuals, that will express itself when the intellect and conscious awareness fails.

* (The tzitzis problem I mentioned is this: the Rambam and the Rif hold that only wool and linen are chayav tzitzis mid’oraysa. The Rosh paskens that all cloth is chayov mid’oraysa. The Rosh holds that a night garment is not chayav tzitzis even if it is worn during the day. The Rambam, on the other hand, holds that a night garment worn during the day is chayav. Therefore: if a person wears a night garment made of non-wool during the day, according to everyone it is not chayav mid’orayso: according to the Rambam, it is pattur because it is a not wool. According to the Rosh it is pattur because it is a night garment. But if a person wears a woolen night garment during the day, then according to the Rosh it is not chayav mid’orayso because it is a night garment. But according to the Rambam, since it is wool and it is being worn during the day, it is chayav mid’orayso. Reb Moshe, although he paskened like the Ramo who paskens like the Rosh, was machmir like the Rambam where it was an issue of chiyuv d’orayso.)


  1. The Remak was taught by Eliyahu HaNavi to say the passuk "aish tamid tukad etc." many times when tempted with impure thoughts. Perhaps this yid wisely always used this segula when he was well.

    in the Pischei Olam 98, 1.

  2. That's interesting- that he would have been used to repeating it again and again so that it became automatic. Nice link, and a good and useful reminder- yasher koach. But it's not something I could have told his family, though- nobody wants to hear that their father was so challenged by impure thoughts that he used to say aish tamid all the time.