Ari Sacher

‘Pledge of Allegiance’ Yom Kippur 5783

The vast majority of the Tractate of Niddah pertains to the purity and impurity of a woman as a result of various bodily discharges. Broadly speaking, a bloody discharge will cause a woman to become impure. She becomes forbidden to her husband and she is forbidden from eating holy foods[1]. The second chapter of the tractate defines which colours render a woman impure. The Mishna [2:6] teaches that five shades of red are indicative of blood and accordingly render a woman impure: “Red, and black[2], and like the bright colour of the crocus flower, and like water that inundates red earth, and like diluted wine.” The next Mishnah includes highly specific details of these colours. For instance, regarding diluted wine, the Mishnah teaches “It is specifically when the dilution consists of two parts water and one part wine, and specifically when it is from the wine of the Sharon region in Israel. If the stain is even slightly lighter or slightly darker than this, then the woman is pure.

The Jerusalem Talmud [7b] discusses the case of a woman who has seen a stain and is unsure if it renders her impure. To clarify her situation, she goes to ask a rabbi. For some reason, she does not bring with her to the rabbi the cloth upon which she saw the stain. Can the rabbi base his ruling solely upon her description of the colour without seeing it for himself? Surprisingly, the answer is yes: “If she saw on the bedsheet, is she trustworthy if she says ‘It looked like such and such’? Rabbi Abba in the name of Rav Judah; Rabbi Helbo, Rebbi Hiyya in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: If she saw on the bedsheet, she is trustworthy if she says, ‘It looked like such and such’. It was stated so [in a Baraita]: She is trustworthy.” The reason this ruling is surprising is twofold. First, the colour of the stain is described to the rabbi verbally, leaving significant leeway for interpretation. In today’s digital world, colours are usually defined by their RGB value, a vector of three numbers between 0 and 256 (8 bits) determining the content of red, green, and blue[3] in the colour. For instance, brown is 165 parts red, 42 parts red, and 42 parts blue, or simply [165,42,42]. Crimson is [220,20,60] and maroon is [128,0,0]. What is the colour of diluted wine from the Sharon region?[4] The Mishnah does not say. How, then, can we be sure that the rabbi and the woman are referring to the exact same colour? Another reason this ruling is surprising is that the human perception of colour is highly subjective. Not only are colours registered by our brains based on a plethora of factors, such as context and ambient light, but two people can see the same colours and perceive them entirely differently. In 2019, one optical illusion showing a man holding a sneaker went viral, divided the internet: Some people saw the shoes as mint green and grey while others clearly saw them as pink and white. How can the Talmud be sure that the woman and the rabbi perceive the very same colour?[5]

Our troubles are only beginning. The Talmud in Tractate Nida continues: “I could think that in the same way she shows the looks of her stain so she shows the looks of skin disease, scripture says [Vayikra 13:2]: ‘He shall be brought to Aaron the Priest (Kohen) or to one of his descendants, the priests.’” The topic at hand is “tzara’at”, a meta-physical malaise sometimes incorrectly described as “leprosy”. A person with tzara’at (metzora) becomes ritually impure, similar to the woman who has suffered a bloody discharge. And similar to the woman who has experienced a bloody discharge, tzara’at is diagnosed via its colour. The Mishnah in Tractate Nega’im [1:1] describes four shades of white that render a lesion “tzara’at”: snow, lime, an egg shell and wool. The Torah explicitly specifies that only a Kohen is certified to rule on whether a certain lesion is considered tzara’at. Here is the problem: The Talmud teaches that a Kohen cannot base his ruling merely on the description of a lesion without seeing it with his own eyes. Why is the woman believed when the person with the lesion is not?

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, a judge (Dayan) on the Boston Beit Din, offers a keen observation. The laws of family purity are intimate and lie solely in the bailiwick of the woman. She is authorized to state whether she is pure or impure. If she is impure, she must count seven clean days. Again, she is believed when she asserts that the seven days have passed[6]. Compare this with tzara’at, where the Kohen, and only the Kohen, can adjudicate. Rabbi Klapper suggests, “[T]he laws of niddah empower the object of the law to become an autonomous legal subject, whereas the laws of tzora’at [sic] compel the object of the law to become the legal object of another human being[7].” Accordingly, the autonomous woman is trusted to be able to describe the colour she saw while the subordinate metzora is not.

I would like to add a High Holiday spin to Rabbi Klapper’s proposal: Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who was the Dean (Rosh Yeshiva) of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, writing in his monumental “Return and Renewal”, describes the “Integrity of Teshuva (Repentance)”. He asks whether partial teshuva can be genuine. Humans are built such that we possess certain bad tendencies. Many of us suffer, to some extent or another, from envy, pride, anger, and a litany of other deficiencies. Now, repentance consists of three steps: confession, regret, and committing never to repeat that sin. A person who is intellectually honest will have great difficulty sincerely repenting for certain sins that run contrary to his character. This is not to say that we are not charged to better ourselves – it merely says that we have been known to consistently exhibit subpar behaviour. Rabbi Lichtenstein asks, “Can one presume to be honestly remorseful with respect to one transgression while remaining blindly indifferent to another?” He bases his answer on two verses stated by Moshe during the last week of his life [Devarim 10:12-13]: “Now, Israel, what does G-d demand of you? Only this: to revere G-d, to walk only in Divine paths, to love and to serve G-d with all your heart and soul, keeping G-d’s commandments and laws, which I command you today, for your benefit.” The first verse focuses on the “majestic” – unquantifiable concepts such as “loving” G-d, “revering” Him, and “walking in His path”. These concepts are less like commandments and more like attributes – we must strive to be a certain kind of person. The second verse zeros in on halacha. It requires a “comprehensive regimen, expressed and enmeshed in a welter of detail, relating to the minutiae of daily life”. The two verses are simultaneously orthogonal and yet complementary: We cannot have blind adherence to halacha without a strong core of belief just like we cannot believe in an Almighty G-d without being bound by His rules. Rabbi Lichtenstein then references the Rambam [Hilchot Ma’aseh HaKorbanot 3:4], who rules that, other than two sins, a person can flagrantly violate one commandment while achieving atonement for a different transgression, and he reaches a bold conclusion: “When we speak of… correcting a particular wrongdoing… some measure of selectivity, while not desirable, is nevertheless acknowledged. But if we speak of mending fences with the Almighty, then either we or committed or we are not”. When the Torah demands our allegiance, it is all or none. Similarly, when the Torah metes out trust to humans, it is meted out without any conditions. Whatever the woman says is ipso facto defined as the absolute truth.

We begin our prayers on Yom Kippur with the words “Blessed be His name, whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever”. We are tied to G-d in an eternal covenantal bond. We pledge complete allegiance to Him and He to us, no matter what, no matter when, forever and ever.

Gmar Chatima Tova,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.

[1] Such as teruma or sacrificial meat (kodshim).

[2] Blood turns black after it has been deoxygenated.

[3] All colours can be created by mixing red, green, and blue.

[4] An article titled, “Detection and quantification of adulterations in aged wine using RGB digital images combined with multivariate chemometric techniques” that appeared in “Food Chemistry” in 2019 indicates that RGB values can indeed be used to detect when one wine has been mixed with another inferior wine.

[5] The normative halacha is slightly different. The Shulchan Aruch [Yoreh Deah 188:2] rules that the woman is believed only if she lost the cloth upon which she discovered the stain.

[6] The Torah writes [Vayikra 15:28] “She counts for herself (lah)”.

[7] This thought can be connected to tzara’at being caused by slander.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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