י״ז באדר א׳ ה׳תשע״ד (February 17, 2014)

Sukka 14a-b: Overturning Grain and Anger

In the context of discussing whether the stems of vegetables are significant with regard to the laws of ritual purity (see the mishnayot in Massekhet Yadayim which deal with this question at length), the Gemara on our daf mentions a farm implement called an eter – a type of shovel or pitchfork whose purpose is to turn over the grain in the fields. This pitchfork succeeds in turning over the grain with the help of the stems, indicating that they are still an important part of the plant.

Eter or pitchfork

Eter or pitchfork

This discussion leads the Gemara to bring a Midrashic homily about this tool.

Rabbi Elazar taught: Why are the prayers of the righteous compared to an eter (see Bereishit 25:21, where Yitzhak’s prayer that Rivka should have a child is described using the term vayetar)? To teach you that just as a pitchfork turns the grain from place to place, so the prayers of the righteous turn God’s dispensations from His attribute of anger (midat ahzariyut) to mercy (midat rahmanut).

Generally speaking, when the Talmud describes God’s attribute of anger, it refers to midat ha-din, whose connotation is that God demands justice – the letter of the law – rather than offering compassion. The commentaries note the use of the term ahzariyut in our Gemara, which is unusual, as it implies a level of cruelty and mercilessness that goes well beyond justice.

One approach suggested (see R. Hayyim ben Attar’s Rishon Le-Tzion and R. Yehiel Michel ben Uziel’s Nezer ha-Kodesh, a commentary on Midrash Rabbah) is that the particular situation of Yitzhak and Rivka appears to go beyond midat ha-din. According to the strict letter of the law, there was no reason that Yitzhak and Rivka had to be childless. Thus the midrash searches for a more powerful term, one that expresses the suffering – the yissurin shel ahavah – that played a role in this particular situation. Based on this, the midrash teaches that even in a situation as difficult as this one, the will of God can be changed through the means of the prayers of the righteous.

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