A Man with a Plan
Rabbi Bernie Fox
They shall not shave their heads, neither shall they shave off the corners of their beards, nor make any cuttings in their flesh. (Sefer VaYikra 21:5)
I. Shaving one’s head
The above pasuk includes three prohibitions. The first of these is a prohibition against shaving one’s head. The second prohibits shaving off the corners of one’s beard. The third prohibits lacerating oneself. This pasuk is directed to the Kohanim – to the priests. However, the Torah elsewhere extends the prohibitions to all Jews.1
Does this first prohibition mean that a person cannot cut his hair or shave his head? This prohibition is reiterated in Sefer Devarim. There, the Torah explains that the prohibition is against removing one’s hair in mourning. In conclusion, the prohibition is against shaving one’s head in sorrow over the death of someone dear to us and the prohibition extends to all Jews.
II. Two perspectives on the prohibition
If a person resorts to this expression of anguish in response to some other sorrow, does he violate this prohibition? Consider a person whose house is lost in a fire or learns that a loved one has been severely injured in an accident. This person, in anguish, rips out a clump of hair. Has this person violated this prohibition? Rambam’s – Maimonides’ – comments on this case are ambiguous. He explains that if one removes hair in response to death, he receives lashes. But if done in response to some other sorrow, he is not punished. Does this mean that the activity is permitted? Bait Yosef’s position is that the prohibition is not violated. BaCh disagrees. The person is not punished but he has violated the prohibition.2 Sefer HaChinuch explains that even if the activity is not prohibited by this mitzvah, it is grossly inappropriate. Therefore, it is prohibited.3 An incident in NaCh seemingly supports Bait Yosef’s position and contradicts BaCh and Sefer HaChinuch.
And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair from my head and of my beard and sat down appalled. (Sefer Ezra 9:3)
III. Ezra’s strange behavior
Ezra was largely responsible for inspiring the Jewish people to abandon their lives in the Diaspora and return to the Land of Israel. Under his leadership, the Second Bait HaMikdash was built. According to one opinion in the Talmud, Ezra was the prophet we know as Melachi.4 The Tosefot accept this position.5
Ezra discovered that during their period of exile many Jewish people had intermarried. Jewish men married non-Jewish women and created families. The children from these unions were not Jewish. The leaders of the Jewish communities had done little to discourage these unions. Ezra’s response to learning of the extent of this problem is described above. He mourned. He rent his garments, and he ripped out his hair. He engaged in the activity that BaCh insists is prohibited and that Sefer HaChinuch describes as repulsive!
IV. A prophet’s authority
CHIDA – Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai – responds that Ezra’s behavior violated normative law. However, he explains that Ezra had the authority to temporarily suspend the law. This is based on an established principle. Rambam explains this principle.
Moreover, should a prophet, who is known to us as a prophet, charge us to violate one of all the commandments spoken of in the Torah, or many commandments, whether minor or major, it is mandatory to hearken unto him if it is a need of the time. Thus, did we learn traditionally from the early Sages: "In all matters, if the prophet tells you to forego the words of the Torah...” (Mishne Torah, Yesodai HaTorah 9:3)
Rambam explains that a prophet has the authority to temporarily suspend a commandment. However, he may only suspend a mitzvah to strengthen observance of the Torah.
Rambam illustrates the principle by citing Eliyahu the prophet’s actions. He challenged the priests of Ba’al to a contest. He and these priests built altars on Mount Carmel. Each placed upon their respective altar an offering but neither placed fire on the altar. The priests and Eliyahu appealed to their deities to bring down fire and accept their sacrifice. Of course, the entreaties of the priests were useless. After mocking the priests, Eliyahu called out to Hashem. A flame descended and consumed his offering. Eliyahu did this during the period of the first Bait HaMikdash. It was prohibited to offer sacrifices outside the Bait HaMikdash. How was Eliyahu permitted to ignore this prohibition?
Rambam explains that Eliyahu was acting based on the principle he has described. A prophet may temporarily suspend a commandment – even a prohibition – to strengthen observance of the law. Eliyahu suspended the prohibition to demonstrate that the priests of Ba’al and their deity were frauds.6
CHIDA explains that Ezra acted on this principle. He suspended the prohibition against shaving his head in sorrow. However, this principle is only applied when the suspension adds to Torah observance. How did Ezra’s behavior encourage observance? Would not his suspension of a mitzvah send the opposite message?
V. Shocking the people
Ezra succeeded in inspiring his generation because he was a remarkably charismatic leader. Gershonides – Ralbag – provides an important insight. He explains that all the actions taken by Ezra – his mourning, tearing his garments, and ripping out his hair – were taken publicly. He wanted the people to know the degree of his sorrow and distress. He did not believe that the people would respond to an open rebuke. He hoped that the people would be more moved by his deep despondency. Their respect and concern for their beloved leader would prompt them to reconsider their behaviors.7
But Ezra was confronted with a problem. How does he get the people’s attention? He must shock them. He needs to express his distress in some extreme way so that people will take notice. Ezra knew what he needed to do. He shaved off his hair. He did something that the Torah prohibits!
VI. Acting with moderation
Why did he specifically choose this action to shock the people? To answer this question, we must consider the reason the Torah prohibits shaving one’s head in mourning. The commentators offer a few explanations. Sefer HaChinuch’s is the most relevant to Ezra’s behavior.
It is appropriate for the chosen nation, people possessing the precious wisdom of the Torah, to afflict oneself over any matter that is the act of Hashem only in the manner that the Torah commands to afflict oneself... But to destroy our bodies and damage ourselves like fools is not proper for us. It is not the way of the wise and intelligent people... (Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 467)
According to Sefer HaChinuch, this and related actions of self-mutilation are prohibited because they are excessive responses to the loss of a loved one. The Torah requires that we moderate our response to death. We must mourn our loss, but we may not adopt extreme behaviors. Sefer HaChinuch adds that we are required to act intelligently. We are admonished against adopting foolish behaviors.
VII. Ezra’s strategy
Now, we can understand Ezra’s decision to take out his hair. He chose this behavior because it is prohibited as excessive. The people would observe him. They would be shocked that he was suspending a mitzvah to engage in a form of mourning that the Torah restricted because of its severity. They would reflect. We have accepted intermarriage. We do not see it as a horrible sin. But Ezra feels this sin and its consequences are terribly alarming. It is so alarming, that he is mourning in a manner that would otherwise be excessive. Ezra hoped this would move the people to reconsider their behavior.
Ezra realized that some truths cannot be directly communicated. A person will not accept a rebuke directed toward an action that he regards as normal and accepted. But if a rebuke will not be effective, then one must move the sinner to be reflective – to turn his thoughts to his actions. The rebuke cannot be from an external source; it must emerge from an internal acknowledgment. Ezra’s strategy was designed to provoke reflection and be a catalyst for introspection. The contrast between his extreme behavior and their attitude gave the people pause. Ezra moved the people to reconsider their behaviors.
Ezra was an inspiring leader. His decisions and behaviors provide every aspiring leader with important lessons. Ezra was confronted with a generation that accepted intermarriage as a norm. He concluded that any rebuke would be ignored – perhaps, even ridiculed. Most leaders, confronted with this situation, would give up. They would move on to addressing some other challenge. Ezra did not give up. He considered how he might influence his generation and carefully designed a strategy to inspire. He took an enormous chance. He suspended a mitzvah! If the people were not moved by his demonstration, he would be mocked. We can imagine the people’s response. “Ezra condemns us for intermarriage, and he freely violates a mitzvah!” But he was not deterred. He took the risk. He put his reputation on the line. And Ezra succeeded in reaching the people with his message.
1 See Sefer Devarim 14:1, Sefer VaYikra 19:27 and 19:28.
2 See their comments on Rabbaynu Yaakov ben HaRash, Tur Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deyah 180. 3 Rabbaynu Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvot 467-8.
4 Mesechet Megillah 15a.
5 Mesechet Yevamot 86b.
6 Rambam explains that the courts also have this authority. See Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 2:4.
7 Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Ezra 9:3 (To’elet 7).