י״א בתשרי ה׳תשע״ה (October 5, 2014)

Hagiga 27a-b: Protected From the Fire of Gehenna

Among the Temple vessels mentioned in the Mishna were the altars, which were made of wood encased in metal. The outer mizbe’ah was covered in copper, while the inner one was covered in gold. Massekhet Hagiga concludes on our daf with Reish Lakish using the golden altar as a metaphor that teaches how Jewish people, even if they are sinners, are protected from the fire of Gehinom. He argues that just as the altar, whose gold plate is no thicker than the thickness of a dinar (a type of coin), was not affected by the continuous fire that was on it, similarly Jewish people are protected, since even the sinners among them are full of mitzvot. To support this idea, he points to a passage in Shir HaShirim (4:3) for which he offers an alternative, Midrashic reading. Instead of rakatekh (which would mean “your temples are like a pomegranate split open”), he suggests we read reikanim shebakh (meaning that even those Jews who appear to be empty of mitzvot are filled with them like a pomegranate is full of seeds).

The Sefat Emet explains Reish Lakish’s statement by reminding us that the Torah is referred to as gold (see Tehillim 19:11), which protects the individual as it does the altar. He also ties this in with statements made earlier in the Massekhet that emphasize how all Jews are seen as righteous and reliable during the period of the pilgrimage holidays.

In a similar vein, the Gemara quotes Rabbi Abbahu in the name of Rabbi Elazar who teaches that Torah scholars will not be affected by the fires of Gehinom. Just as the salamander, as a creature of fire whose blood can be used to protect an individual from fire, is safe from being burned, similarly Torah scholars, who are seen as creatures of fire, are protected. The idea that Torah scholars are made up of fire comes from Sefer Yirmiyahu (23:29), where the word of God is compared to fire.

Salamander is the common name applied to approximately 500 species of amphibians with slender bodies, short legs, and long tails. The common (or “fire”) salamander, salamandra salamander, lives in and around rivers and swamps in Israel and around the world. There is a superficial resemblance to lizards, but they have no scales and their skin is covered with moist mucous. This salamander is mentioned in the same context as the mythical “salamandra of fire,” which is described in the Midrash.Some suggest that the story in the Gemara refers to the common salamander, which was seen as fire-proof because of its moist body; however, the description of this creature in the Midrash cannot be reconciled with that idea.

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