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  • Writer's pictureNitzotzos

Parshas Pinchas: The Secret Life of Tzlafchad 

I'd like to express my hakaras hatov to Rav Yosef Bronfeld shlita for sharing with me this amazing Dvar Torah from Rav Binyamin Freilich. I would also like to express my hakaras hatov to Rav Freilich for granting me permission to share his wonderful Torah. Though the words are my own, the ideas herein are inspired by Rav Freilich.

Unfortunately, we do not have a sponsor for this week's Dvar Torah. To sponsor a shiur please email us at so we can continue our holy work. Thank you for your partnership. The Gemara in Shabbos (150b) relates to us a story of a man who noticed a hole in his fence on Shabbos. For a moment the man thought about repairing his fence but immediately regretted thinking about work on Shabbos Kodesh. As a form of teshuva the man decided that he would never fix the hole. Of course there is no halacha mandating that he do so but the man went lifnim mishuras hadin, beyond the letter of the law, and took upon himself that the fence would remain unprepared for the remainder of his days. Hashem took notice of the man's sincere teshuva (was it even an aveira?) and a plant grew in that hole, effectively repairing the fence. The name of that plant in Hebrew is a Tzelaf, in English it is known as a caper. We are all familiar with the Tzelaf plant as it is the plant that grows out of the Kotel. The question is, why of all plants did Hashem decide to plug the hole with this particular plant?

The Mystery Man is…? In our parsha, the five daughters of the deceased Tzlafchad beseech Moshe Rabbeinu that they too should have a portion in the Land of Israel. They argue that “…our father was not part of the Meraglim, the grumblers or the group of Korach (for which he might have lost his right to inheritance), rather he simply died because of his sin – בחטאו מת." When we consider the argument of Tzlafchad's daughters something seems amiss. While they make it clear that Tzlafchad did not die as a result of siding with Korach they also make it clear that he did die because of a sin. Two questions arise. Firstly, why would the daughters raise the notion that their father died as a result of his sin? Wouldn't this be something they would want to brush aside? Perhaps that sin makes them unworthy of having a portion in the Land of Israel? Secondly, it seems that Moshe Rabbeinu was aware of the sin that caused their fathers death. Was it a famous sin? How did Tzlafchad's daughters know their fathers sin? Generally when someone dies we do not claim to know the inner workings of God's plan and therefore we cannot say for certain why anyone lives or dies. What was the sin of Tzlafchad that was so well known that it was his obvious cause of death and why would his daughters make it part of their argument? The Gemara in Shabbos (96b) quotes Rav Akiva that Tzlafchad was the מקושש עצים, the individual who desecrated Shabbos in the midbar by gathering wood. The Torah says that since the halacha concerning one who is mechallel Shabbos was uncertain, the mekoshesh was placed in confinement until Hashem relayed what was to be done to him. Hashem subsequently told Moshe Rabbeinu that the man should be put to death by stoning; and so he was. When Rav Akiva suggested that it was Tzlafchad who was the mekoshes eitzim Rav Yehuda Ben Beseira said, "Akiva, you will need to give judgement on what you just said! Either way – If it is true then you have revealed something that the Torah concealed. And if it’s not true, then you have spread slander about a righteous man." We can now understand how Moshe Rabbeinu knew about the sin of Tzlafchad. Everyone knew. His death was quite public. However we still don't understand why Tzlafchad's daughters would bring up his sin at this critical time. And of course new questions now arise. Rav Yehuda Ben Beseira is making two critical arguments against Rav Akiva. The Torah chose to conceal the identity of the mekoshes eitzim, why would Rav Akiva reveal it? Furthermore, if Rav Akiva is mistaken it is a truly terrible thing to accuse someone falsely. What compels Rav Akiva to suggest that Tzlafchad is the mekoshes eitzim? Tosafos in Baba Basra (119b) suggests that the mekoshes eitzim was well intended. The episode of the mekoshes eitzim takes place right after Klal Yisrael has been informed that they will not be entering into Eretz Yisrael. The people were obviously distraught and were in a precarious spiritual position. The mekoshes eitzim was concerned that the people would not take the Mitzvah of Shabbos seriously and thus chose to be mechallel Shabbos and die in order to teach Klal Yisrael the value of the sanctity of Shabbos. In fact, Rav Meir Shapira (founder of the Daf Yomi) points out that the duplicitous nature of this act can be seen in the text itself. When we compare the stoning of the man that “blessed” Hashem, where the Torah writes וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיּוֹצִיאוּ אֶת הַמְקַלֵּל אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וַיִּרְגְּמוּ אֹתוֹ אָבֶן – the word stone is in the singular, whereas regarding the מקושש עצים we are told וַיֹּצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָה אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וַיִּרְגְּמוּ אֹתוֹ בָּאֲבָנִים where the word is in the plural. Why by the מקלל is he stoned with one stone whereas the מקושש עצים is stoned with many stones? Rav Shapira explains that when it came to stone the blasphemer, everyone agreed that he was a wicked person. All the people stoning him had the same SINGLE thought in mind – he should be punished ! Hence the expression of one stone. On the other hand regarding Tzlafchads aveira the people were divided. Those that could only see the act itself and were not privy to Tzlafchad's intentions were happy to stone him and fulfill God's will. While Tzlafchad may have appeared to be a righteous man, like so many others, he was just a fraud. On the other hand the Tzaddikim of the generation (Moshe Rabbeinu obviously included) understood - Tzlafchad's sacrifice. While they too threw stones theirs was an altogether different act. The Torah uses the world אבנים, stones, in the plural as a hint that there were those who knew that Tzlafchad did not actually deserve to die. With this in mind the opinion of Rav Akiva takes on a whole new light. The mekoshes eitzim is a hero! While the act itself may have been an aveira, it was an aveira that was designed to teach Klal Yisrael an invaluable lesson. Rav Akiva who always sees the positive (see the last Gemara in Makkos where Rav Akiva laughs at the desolation of the Beis Hamikdash) reveals that our hero is none other than Tzlafchad. Rav Yehuda Ben Beseira focuses on the chillul Shabbos and accuses Rav Akiva of denigrating Tzlafchads good name. Rav Akiva focuses on the intent of the act and it transforms the entire story. Perhaps the Torah concealed Tzlafchad's identify because at the end of the day he did perform an aveira but Rav Akiva felt comfortable revealing the Torah's secret to bring honor to a teacher who was willing to die to impart a lesson. It is as they say, classic Rav Akiva. With this in mind we can now understand why Tzlafchad's daughters raise their fathers death while arguing for a portion in Eretz Yisrael. Could it be that a man who sacrificed his life to teach the value of Shabbos should not have a portion in Eretz Yisrael???

A Second Mystery Man Or Is It? So far we have uncovered the identity of one of the mystery men in this Dvar Torah but one still remains. Who is the man who refused to repair his fence because he thought about fixing it on Shabbos? The Chasam Sofer quotes the Eimek HaMelech (a talmid of the Arizal) that it is none other than Rav Yehuda Ben Ilai, a talmid of Rav Akiva. While Tzlafchad's intentions may have been noble, at the end of the day he did commit an aveira and that required rectification. Rav Yehuda Ben Ilai was a gilgul of Tzlafchad and part of his mission in the world was to repair his sin. How can this sin be rectified? It is not enough it simply keep Shabbos, in order to rectify the sin of Tzlafchad one would need to observe Shabbos as it had never been observed before. Even the thought of work on Shabbos would have to be banished. And this is exactly what Rav Yehuda Ben Ilai did. By declaring that he would never fix the fence on Shabbos he rectified the sin of Tzlafchad. And to show that a tikkun had occurred Hashem sent Rav Yehuda Ben Ilai a message in the form of a plant. Do you remember the Hebrew name for the caper plant that grows on the Kotel and filled the hole in the fence? The Tzelaf. A clear reference to Tzlafchad our holy teacher. However we are not yet done. The plant is only called a Tzelaf. What about the last two letters of Tzlafchad's name? The Tzelaf plant is edible but on the outside it has tiny sharp thorns. The Tzlaf plant is like Tzlafchad himself, the inner intention was noble (edible) but the act itself deserved sekila (thorns). And now we understand the last two letters of his name צלף – חד means a sharp caper. In fact the official name for the Tzlaf in Hebrew is צלף קוצני. A horny caper or in other words a צלפחד. So the next time you gaze up at the Kotel and see the Tzelaf growing out of its walls remember the sacrifice of Tzlafchad, the man who was willing to die to teach us the sanctity of Shabbos, and how his presence continues to adorn our world.

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