“Where There’s Smoke…” Parashat Va’etchanan 5774 In Parashat Va’etchanan Moshe retells the story of the revelation at Sinai. Rivers of ink have been spilled in comparing the Ten Commandments as they appear in Parashat Yitro (the “first” Ten Commandments) and the Ten Commandments as they appear in Parashat Va’etchanan (the “second” Ten Commandments). Today we are not interested in what is written in the Ten Commandments. We are interested in the scenery[1]. It all began when I read a most inspirational comment by Rav Mordechai Eliyahu on the verse in the “second” Ten Commandments [Devarim 4:12]: “Hashem spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words…” Rav Eliyahu comments that a person’s words are best heard when they are spoken “from the midst of a fire”, with passion. I can relate to that. But hold on a minute. Why does Rav Eliyahu teach this lesson via a verse from the second Commandments? Why doesn’t he bring a similar verse from the first Commandments? The answer is straightforward: only the second Commandments were given with fire. Numerous times in these shiurim we have discussed the exegetic method of Rav Elchanan Samet, which looks for a “Key Word”, a word that is used to the point of overuse in an episode. The word “fire” is a Key Word in the second Commandments, where it is mentioned more than ten times. Conversely, in the first Commandments the word “fire” is mentioned only once. In this episode the “Key Word” is “smoke”, which is mentioned about ten times. For instance, [Shemot 19:18] “The entire Mount Sinai smoked because Hashem had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently”. The question we now have to address is why the smoke in the first Commandments is replaced by fire in the second Commandments. To answer this question, we must be cognizant that the story of the second Commandments is retold nearly forty years after the first Commandments are given. The people who heard the second Commandments were either not alive or were children when the Torah was given at Sinai. These people had spent forty years wandering the desert, being weaned from slavery and idolatry, while being prepared to lead a nascent nation into its homeland. These people possessed spiritual maturity that that their predecessors who stood at Sinai did not. What does maturity have to do with “smoke” and “fire”? We must understand the difference between smoke and fire, and to do so, we turn to a Mishnah in Tractate Beitzah [5:5]. The Mishnah discusses five halachic differences between a glowing coal (gachelet) and a flame (shalhevet). These include:

  1. It is forbidden to use a glowing coal that comes from the Beit HaMikdash (hekdesh) for anything that is not Beit-HaMikdash-related, while a flame from the altar may be used to light one’s cigarette.
  2. It is forbidden to carry a glowing coal more than four cubits in a public domain on Shabbat. This prohibition does not apply to a flame[2].
  3. A person who has sworn off benefit from his (former) friend (mudar hana’a) may not benefit from his friend’s glowing coal, but he may light his cigar from his friend’s bonfire[3].

What is smoke? According to our sources at Wikipedia, “Smoke is a collection of airborne solid and liquid particulates and gases emitted when a material undergoes combustion”. The composition of the smoke depends on the substance being burned and the temperature at which it is burned. For example, automobile exhaust contains nitrogen, water vapour, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons. Automobile exhaust is primarily a gas, and assuming your spark plugs are working well, it contains few solid particles. Wood smoke, on the other hand, contains carbon monoxide, organic gasses, and nitrogen oxide. It can be seen by the naked eye that wood smoke contains far more particulate matter than automobile exhaust. To summarize, smoke is a physical object. It is comparable to the Talmud’s “glowing coal”. What is fire? According to my father[4], fire is the rapid oxidization of a substance that causes the emission of energy, most commonly in the form of heat and light. While fire can sometimes cause smoke[5], the two are not one and the same. Fire is not a physical object. Unlike smoke, fire has no weight or volume. Fire can only be identified by the energy it emits. By means of this scientific sidebar, the logic behind the halachot differentiating between a glowing coal and a flame is clear: a glowing coal is considered a physical object while a flame is not. Halachot that require a physical subject are irrelevant to a flame. For this reason, a flame cannot be halachically carried, and any benefit that comes from a flame is in essence coming from the energy that causes the flame. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook writes in Igrot [91] about “the unfolding of the spiritual dimension of existence”, in which concepts are revealed to man only after he is ready to understand them. For example, if man would have known about the existence of dinosaurs three thousand years ago, he would have been petrified by fright. He would not have left his house for fear of being attacked by a T-Rex. But by the time the first dinosaur bones were discovered and classified as such in 1824, man had sufficiently matured and his fear of dinosaurs was replaced by curiosity. Similarly, when Am Yisrael left Egypt, they had no concept of an almighty “G-d”. They witnessed Hashem’s physical power in Egypt, but they were incapable of understanding the meaning of a non-physical supreme being. In the Yigdal prayer, recited on Friday night in many shuls, we say “[Hashem] has no body (guf) and no substance (demut ha’guf)”. The Jews who left Egypt understood that Hashem had no body, but they were not yet ready to concede that He had no substance at all. Therefore, at the revelation at Sinai they see Hashem as smoke[6]. Had the Torah been given in fire, it would have gone completely over their heads. But while smoke is amorphous and it conceals its source, it is still a physical object, one that can be touched, tasted, and smelled. Am Yisrael at Mount Sinai saw a G-d very reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Forty years later, their children are far more mature. For the last forty years, they have eaten manna, they have been taught Torah, they have been rewarded when they obey Hashem’s words and punished when they do not. These people are ready to waive the requirement for bodily substance. They can peer through the smoke and see the fire. This reminds me of something else my father told me as I was researching this shiur: Fire can emit light in many wavelengths. Some wavelengths are visible, and some are not, lying in the infra-red and ultra-violet parts of the spectrum. Just because we don’t see the fire doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Food for thought in these troubling times. Shabbat Shalom, Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774   [1]In Hebrew – תפאורה [2]The Talmud in Tractate Beitzah [39a] explains that the flame is “carried” by being forcefully blown. [3]But not from his friend’s cigar, which is haachically considered a “glowing coal”. [4]My father is my scientific referee for these shiurim. [5]If there is incomplete combustion [6]Some readers may notice that the verse brought above in relation to smoke also mentions fire: “The entire Mount Sinai smoked because Hashem had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently”. One can answer that while Am Yisrael saw only the smoke, they knew that there something – a fire – that was causing the smoke. They just could not get their heads around the concept of fire.