Body-breaking service (Shabbos 16)

Queen Salome Alexandra was a famous monarch of Judaea in the first century BCE.  Well-connected in many social circles, her brother, Shimon ben Shetach, was one of the leading rabbinic figures of the time.  There was never a dull moment in her life, and her son’s wedding day was not going to be the exception.  The bar was flowing, the band was playing, the guests were having an amazing time.  All of a sudden, amidst all the merriment, the bride’s great-uncle, collapses on the dance-floor.  They try to revive him, but alas, he has passed from this world.

They take him out to be buried.  But now they have a problem.  Everyone at the wedding and every item in the hall had become contaminated with ritual impurity.  The people purified themselves, but why go to the hassle of taking the ashes of the sin-offering to purify the utensils?  The queen, a learned woman, recalling the strict letter of the law, says, ‘If I damage the vessels and they need to be repaired, the breakage itself will effect purification!’  And with that, she takes a hammer and makes a dent and a hole in each of the utensils.

She then takes them off to the smith who repairs them, and voila, the vessels are like new, both physically and spiritually.  She is about to replace them in their cupboard of the royal kitchen, when the Sages stop her in her tracks.  ‘Not good enough,’ they say, ‘All you did was cut corners. You need a proper purification process for metal utensils.  The breaking of the vessels method of purification is only effective for earthenware utensils.’

תְּנַן: כְּלֵי חֶרֶס וּכְלֵי נֶתֶר טוּמְאָתָן שָׁוָה: מִיטַּמְּאִין וּמְטַמְּאִין מֵאֲוִירֵיהֶן, וּמִיטַּמְּאִין מֵאֲחוֹרֵיהֶן וְאֵין מִיטַּמְּאִין מִגַּבֵּיהֶן, וּשְׁבִירָתָן מְטַהַרְתָּן.

With regard to earthenware vessels and vessels made from natron, the halachot of their impurity are equal in that they become impure and they render impure from their air space. And they become impure from behind, but they do not become impure from their outer side.  And breaking them purifies them.

At the end of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer of the Days of Awe, we proclaim, “Man’s foundation is the earth and his end is the earth. He is analogous to broken earthenware.”

Rabbi Yaakov Zvi of Parisov was once about to enter his Sukkah when he suddenly let out a deep sigh.  ‘The halacha is that one may not bring pots into the Sukkah, as it is disrespectful.  If man is likened to broken earthenware, then how may I enter the Sukkah?’  He thought for a moment and recalled our Gemara.  ‘Breaking earthenware vessels purifies them.’  And with that he entered the Sukkah with joy.

What is the meaning of this extraordinary internal discussion that took place inside the rebbe’s head?  Each human being consists of body and soul.  On the one hand, these two actors work in partnership to serve Heaven.  On the other hand, they act in competition with one another.  The soul wants exclusively to engage in spiritual activity, while the body seeks physical and material pleasure.  Purification of the body entails breaking its desire for physical pleasure, which is temporary, and retraining it to seek engagement in spiritual, eternal pursuits.

While the paytan (author of the prayers) declares that we will eventually return to the earth, in actuality, that return is only short-term.  Eventually, the soul will be reunited with the body, in the era of the Resurrection of the Dead.  Why must the body endure this interim return to dust?  Because earthenware vessels are purified by being broken.  Our bodies are purified of all their life’s shortcomings during the period of earthly breakdown, following which they will reach the purification needed to be reunited with our souls in a pristine state of absolute purity.

Resurrection is a tenet of our faith because failure to believe in resurrection is a failure to believe in God’s justice.  Many religions emphasize the reward of the soul in the Afterlife.  But the soul did not act alone. In fact, the soul could not act alone.  Prior to its descent into the physical body, it was powerless in its ability to perform tangible mitzvoth.  Only through partnering with a physical body could the soul accomplish its Divine mission.  Consequently, it is only fair that the two partners – body and soul – be rewarded together.

Nevertheless, your challenge as the ‘nefesh hasichlis’ – the discerning mind – is to choose between these two opposing forces that make up who you are.  Hashem stood us at Mt. Sinai and offered us two paths – eternal life or short-term pleasure.  He wants you to choose life.  But it’s your choice.  Every time you choose spirituality over materiality, every time you break the will of your body, you purify it.  The more it is purified in this world, the less it will need to undergo the process of purification after 120.

They tell of righteous individuals who were exhumed many years after their passing and discovered to be perfectly physically intact. In fact, the Chasam Sofer of Pressburg had a railway line built around his grave, because the town-planners were so shocked at his physical completeness when they tried to move his final resting place!  The more you train your body to develop a desire to serve God, the more you break its natural proclivities and purify it.

You are here in this world on a Divine mission.  May you constantly break the near-sighted will of the body in favour of the long-term vision of the soul, a vision that extends for all eternity!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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