Bezalel Naor, Shod Melakhim (Makhon Ramhal and Orot, 5778/2018)

Reviewed by Rabbi Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg

It gives me great satisfaction to see the publication of another volume of chiddushei Torah by my dear friend, Bezalel Naor. Rav Naor is known to most people as one of the leading interpreters of the thought of Rav Kook, but he is a talmid chacham of great versatility who has published works of kabbalah, a critical edition of Raavad’s glosses on Mishneh Torah, volumes of original poetry, chiddushim on Maseches Peah and Temurah, and many other Torah topics.

His latest work, Shod Melachim, is devoted to Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, but in the course of analyzing Mishneh Torah-related issues, he gives us a little bit of, if not everything, at least a lot. We find essays on topics as diverse as whether a sense of terror is a side effect of the prophetic experience or essential to it; whether Rambam was influenced by the Sefer Yetzirah; and evidence that Rav Chaim HaLevi Soloveitchik viewed some laws in the Mishneh Torah as the product of Rambam’s original Scriptural exegesis, without a source in the words of Chazal.

Much of the book is devoted to “yeshivishe lomdus,” but the method of presentation is unique. Usually, one cannot understand, much less appreciate, a piece of Ohr Sameach or Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim HaLevi without having spent a great deal of time familiarizing oneself with the sugya under discussion. Rav Naor tackles deep halachic concepts with extraordinary clarity, quoting and explaining the sources, and pointing out the problems, in a way that engages even a person unfamiliar with the topic at hand. All this without any sacrifice of depth of analysis.

Thus, we have a masterful discussion of the power of the Altar in the Beis HaMikdash to impede the execution of the death penalty. The author shows how this breaks down into two distinct laws. With regard to unintentional murderers, holding on to the Altar provides temporary refuge in the manner of the cities of refuge. Indeed, the court is required to escort an unintentional murderer who has found such temporary reprieve to more permanent protection in a city of refuge. But in other situations, the Altar provides not only refuge but actual pardon. This is particularly true in the case of lèsemajesté (mored be-malchus). Adoniyahu, who rebelled against King David, was pardoned by Shlomo after having fled to the Altar.

In this essay, and in others, the author displays another quality that makes his style so engaging. The Gemara (Bava Kama 60b) tells us that Rav Ami and Rav Asi both wanted their teacher, Rav Yitzchak Nappacha, to teach them a lesson in Torah, but one of the two disciples was interested in hearing a matter of halachah, while the other wanted to hear aggadah. Rav Yitzchak Nappacha came up with a lesson that satisfied them both. Going in the path of Rav Yitzchak Nappacha, the author masterfully weaves together both halachic and aggadic sources, demonstrating that the Torah’s broad underlying principles are evident in all of its areas.

Rav Naor mines a vast array of esoteric Torah sources to support his theses. In an essay on Hilchos Chanukah, he raises two questions. First of all, why does Rambam include the laws of Hallel in Hilchos Chanukah? Shouldn’t they be in Hilchos Tefillah? Secondly, Rambam mentions in Hilchos Chanukah 3:12 that the 123 times “Hallelukah” is uttered in Hallel correspond to the 123 years of Aharon HaKohen. A siman such as this fits right into a work of derush, but is anomalous in an almost purely halachic work such as Mishneh Torah.

In sleuthing this mystery, the author has recourse to the discovery of Rav Yitzchak Yehudah Trunk in his responsa Chasdei Avos (17:17), appended to his grandfather, Rav Yehoshua of Kutno’s Yavin Daas (Piotrkow, 1932). According to Rav Trunk, a precise reading of Rambam’s wording reveals that Chanukah was originally established purely as days of Hallel. The mitzvah to light candles was instituted later. Assuming that Rav Trunk’s reading of Rambam is correct, that would explain why the laws of Hallel are situated in Hilchos Chanukah: Hallel is the very essence of Chanukah.

This also leads to the solution of the riddle of the siman of the 123 years of Aharon’s life. With the siman, Rambam alludes to a deeper theme that underlies the holiday. Ramban (Parashas Behaalosecha) quotes Megillat Setarim by Rav Nissim Gaon of Kairouan that Aharon, who was left out of the Chanukah or inauguration of the Tabernacle, was consoled with the future Chanukah of his descendants, the Chashmonaim. Thus, it is warranted that Hallel, which in Rambam’s system is synonymous with Chanukah, be associated with Aharon Hakohen. Rav Naor documents that Megillat Setarim was a source with which Rambam was familiar and which he viewed as authoritative.

The footnotes of Shod Melachim are as rich in esoteric and fascinating information as the main text. In the course of his discussion of the Altar referred to above, Rav Naor tells us in a footnote that there are three places in which Rambam writes that Mashiach will be a descendant of Shlomo (Peirush HaMishnah; Sefer HaMitzvos; and Iggeres Teiman). Rambam’s source for this is obscure. The author sees it in a Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin 110a: “Whoever contests the Davidic Dynasty deserves to be bitten by a snake.” The proof-text is a passage concerning Adoniyahu. Now, Adoniyahu was not actually questioning the legitimacy of the Davidic Dynasty. He himself was a son of David. What he was challenging was Shlomo’s claim to the throne. Yet the Gemara views dissent against Shlomo as dissent against the Davidic Dynasty itself. Hence Rambam’s conclusion that Mashiach, the scion of the House of David, must descend from Shlomo.

The author goes on to cite Rav Yosef Kafih’s note to his edition of Peirush HaMishnah that Rambam required Solomonic ancestry in order to counter Christian claims. The Christians trace their “messiah”’s Davidic lineage through David’s son, Nathan. According to Rambam, that would disqualify him.

After an insight like this, we could well say “Dayeinu,” but Rav Naor does not stop there. He goes on to cite another comment of Rav Kafih in his edition of Moreh Nevuchim. At the end of Part Two, chap. 40, Rambam cautions against “prophets” given to unbridled sexuality, such as Achav ben Kolayah and Tzikdiyahu ben Maaseyah (Jeremiah 29:21-23), “and others.” Rav Kafih suggests that by “others,” Rambam had in mind the founder of Christianity, who once made a lewd remark to his teacher, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah, concerning the female innkeeper (Sotah 47a). Rav Naor takes issue with Rav Kafih’s suggestion, and points out that this entire chapter of the Moreh is a barb directed at Muhammad. He finds support for his interpretation in Rambam’s description of Arabs as being “steeped in licentiousness” (Hilchos Teshuvah 8:6).

In addition to his own insights, the author is “doleh u-mashkeh,” drawing from the wells of Torah of his illustrious teachers Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Soloveichik , zt”l, and Rav Shlomo Fisher, yblcht”a.

Shod Melachim is a significant contribution to the already rich body of Torah literature that has evolved around the Mishneh Torah. May we be privileged to enjoy many more works by the author, both on the Rambam and in many other areas of Torah.

Rabbi Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg is the translator of ArtScroll’s Sapirstein Edition of Rashi, and the author of many volumes of Torah scholarship, including Keren David to tractates Nazir, Makkos, and Arachin. He has taught at Yeshivos Aish HaTorah, Shapell, and Yesodei HaTorah, and currently teaches at Shaalvim for Women.

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