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Parashat Shelach: The Unique Mitzvah of Challah

Parashat Shelach: The Unique Mitzvah of Challah

The parasha praising the Land of Israel includes only one of its special mitzvot, and an exceptional one at that. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that this teaches us about the Sin of the Spies and about the nature of the true work needed in the Land of Israel.

Yoel Yakoby

Challah: the odd one out

This week’s parasha should have been a party for all of those involved in the mitzvot tied to the Land of Israel. In Shelach, which powerfully brings home the holiness of the Land of Israel, we would expect to find there a list of all of the mitzvot expressing this holiness. Hashem apparently thought otherwise. We will only read the extensive list next week in parshat Korach—and there only in the context of the sanctity of the Kohanim and Levi’im, not of the Land of Israel. But so not to leave us empty-handed, it seems, we get the mitzvah of challah this week.

To complicate matters, this mitzvah—part of the group of land-dependent mitzvot—is markedly different from the others and seems to downplay the Land of Israel’s sanctity: it is a biblical injunction to take challah, even when the flour is not milled from grain grown in Israel’s sacred soil. This is because the defining stage for dough being subject to the obligation of challah is the place where the dough is kneaded, not where the grain is grown.

That’s not all. Even on a rabbinic level, the mitzvah of taking challah is exceptional. It is the only mitzvah tied to the Land of Israel that the Sages enacted in the Diaspora, so that “the laws of challah will not be forgotten.” (Shulchan Aruch YD 322,3; Bechorot 27a) Why weren’t they concerned about the laws of shemita or terumot and ma’aserot being forgotten?

We believe that it is precisely in this parasha that the mitzvah of challah was commanded since it reveals more than any of its counterparts the Land of Israel’s exalted nature.

The Sin of the Spies: the land is holy, but it’s impossible to access its holiness

In the book Shiurei HaRav, Rav Soloveitchik zt”l explains (based on the Ramban),that contrary to popular belief, the spies did not reject the holiness of the Land of Israel. They believed that it was of a most spiritual, exalted nature, but claimed “אֶפֶס כִּי עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד וְגַם יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם.” “However, the people living in the land are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the giant’s descendants there” (Bamidbar 13:28). Their sin was tied to the word efes, which in this context can be rendered “we have zero chance.” If they had said we would face a difficult challenge, there would have been nothing wrong with their report; they were sent to scout out the Land, and they had to report back what they saw. The problem, though, is that they believed not that it would be difficult, but that efes — it would be impossible. According to the spies, the Land of Israel is sacred, but it is impossible to access its sanctity. It can be likened to huge gas deposits that are inaccessible and cannot be exploited. The problem, they believed, lay not in the Land, but in the people.

Had the Torah listed one of the regular land-dependent mitzvot, this would not be enough to negate the spies’ assertion. The holiness of Israel’s fruit, on account of which terumot and ma’aserot must be taken, shemita, etc. is due to land’s sanctity, a concept the spies readily accepted. The mitzvah of challah is different. While it is a mitzvah tied to the sacred soil of the Land of Israel, for the dough to be subject to challah it must be kneaded in Israel. That is, man’s actions are the defining factor that unleash this sanctity. In truth, there are two factors working together here: man’s actions and the sanctity of the Land of Israel (the place where the dough is formed). This mitzvah expresses—more than any other—our ability as Jews to bring out sanctity from the Land of Israel, in total contrast to the spies’ argument.

Perhaps this can explain why Israel is the land of sanctity—even prophecy—but we all know at least a few people who don't live their lives in Israel in the most exalted manner. The tools to sanctify the mundane are abundant in the Holy Land. The question is if and how we choose to use these tools, and if we indeed sanctify the world around us.

Challah: a land-dependent mitzvah that is also a personal obligation

Now we can understand why the Sages were only concerned about the laws of challah being forgotten, and instituted this mitzvah in the Diaspora, while they did not do so for the other land-dependent mitzvot. Had the Sages instituted all of Israel’s Land-related mitzvot for fruit and vegetables abroad, no difference would be felt between the Land of Israel and the rest of the world; this would downplay the Land of Israel’s unique status. Challah, on the other hand, is very different from the other mitzvot. Not only is it a mitzvah tied to the Land of Israel, it is also a personal obligation, just like the other mitzvot in the Torah, and as such would not deemphasize the Land of Israel’s uniqueness.

Moreover, it seems that the application of challah abroad can also encourage those who have not yet merited to live on sacred soil. Even wheat imported from abroad—if formed into dough in Israel, is subject to challah as a biblical injunction. This sends a clear message to those living in the Disapora: their Torah and spiritual endeavors in exile will eventually make Aliya to Israel, and join the dough in the Land of Israel, obligated in challah. The Torah of Rabbi Soloveitchik and of his extended family, starting in the Diaspora in Brisk, attests to this more than anything.  

Amnos Mountains – the border for Challah

"Rabban Gamliel says: there are three territories with regard to challah: From the Land of Israel to Chezib: one challah-portion. From Chezib to the river and to Amana: two challah-portions. One for the fire and one for the Kohen. The one for the fire has a minimum measure and the one for the Kohen does not have a minimum measure. From the river and from Amana and inward: two challah portions. One for the fire and one for the Kohen. The one for the fire has no minimum measure and the one for the Kohen has a minimum measure." (Mishna Challah 4:8)

Places the mitzvah of challah applies biblically only in the Land of Israel, and even there, only when the the majority of the Jewish People live there (Rambam Hilchot Bikkurim 5:5). Nevertheless, as mentioned above, the Sages instituted separating challah abroad so that the mitzvah would not be forgotten. The mishna above describes the order of taking challah in various places. Only in parts of the Land of Israel with the most sanctity—olei Bavel, the areas settled by the returnees from the Babylonian exile in the early Second Temple period—one challah is taken and given to a Kohen.

In areas outside of olei Bavel, there is a special rabbinically-instituted impurity. This impurity is called tumat eretz ha'amim, "the impurity of the land of the nations." The Sages instituted this impurity because the inhabitants did not always have organized graveyards and were not always careful to mark the graves. This meant that every place could possibly be on top of a grave, which causes tumat ohel (impurity contracted by an overhanging in connection with a dead body). This impurity exists also in places that belong to the second degree of lesser sanctity in the Land of Israel, settled by olei Mitzrayim (those who left Egypt) and conquered by Yehoshua bin Nun; this area is much larger than the olei Bavel areas. 

The Land of Israel of olei Mitzrayim and tumat eretz ha'amim

For this reason, in the areas of olei Mitzrayim, "from Chezib to the river and to Amona," one should separate two challot. One is the main challah, so it should be taken at least as the minimum required amount for challah (1/48 of the dough). Since this challah has a halachic status similar to teruma, when it contracts impurity Kohanim may not partake of it—so it is to be burned in the fire. However, since not everyone is aware of this impurity and knowledgeable of the differences between the areas of olei Bavel and olei Mitzrayim, people might think that pure challah must be burnt. For this reason, an additional challah is taken—besides this first challah—and is given to a Kohen. Since it is not considered teruma, it is also not contaminated by the tumat eretz ha'amim, and Kohanim may partake of it. Since this challah is only a rabbinic requirement, the rabbis did not designate a minimum amount.

In contrast to the areas "from the river and Amona and inwards," that is: areas that are outside the Land of Israel, the opposite concern exists. There, challah is not biblically mandated, but rather rabbinically instituted to prevent the mitzvah from being forgotten. Such challah can technically be eaten by a Kohen, even if impure due to tumat eretz ha'amim, since it is not biblically mandated. However, we are required to separate challah outside the Land of Israel and a Kohen partakes of it, there is a concern that people will think impure challah is permitted to eat. This is because everyone knows that this impurity exists outside the Land of Israel, but not everyone knows the obligation of challah abroad is not biblically mandated. For this reason, the Sages instructed burning one challah and separating another challah and giving it to a Kohen—so the laws of challah will not be forgotten. These two challot taken abroad, though, are rabbinic requirements. For this reason, the Sages instituted that the challah with the minimum amount (at least 1/48) be given to a Kohen, while the one designated for burning have no minimum amount (based on the Rambam, Hilchot Bikkurim 5: 8).

Amanus Mountains (Nur Mountains)

The Amanus (Nur) Mountains

Chezib is mentioned in the context of the three regions of the shemita year (Mishna Shevi'it 6:1), as one of the borders defining the areas until where land may not be cultivated, as well as the prohibition of sefichin (produce that sprouted on its own). The identity of Amona is also undisputed, since the Sages identified it clearly as the Amanus or Nur mountains.

This mountain range, together with the Taurus mountain range in South Anatolia in little Asia (as Amanus are branches of the Taurus range, and resemble a finger going downwards) marks the northwestern border of olei Mitzrayim. The mountain range extends for approximately 150 km; its highest peak is Mt. Bozdağ, some 2,240 m high. This range includes a passageway connecting Turkey to Aleppo (Aram Tzoba), the largest city of Syria.

The meaning of the phrase "From Chezib until the river and to Amana" is not sufficiently clear, and is the subject of dispute among Torah scholars and researchers—at least since the Middle Ages, especially the question of which river is being referred to. We will adopt the proposition of Prof. Yehuda Elitzur (see his article, "Mishnat Hagevulin," [Study of the borders] 5704 republished in Yisrael Vehamikra 5760, P. 384), that it is a reference to the Euphrates River. This means that the northern border of the olei Mitzrayim area serves to connect the Taurus and Amanus range and the Euphrates River. What this means is that residents of cities such as Aleppo, Beirut, Tyre, and Sidon, would need to separate challah, in keeping with the second degree of sanctity as described by the mishna: burning 1/48 of the dough and giving a Kohen the second challah, which does not have a set amount. This topic is complex, however, and additional study is necessary.

The Da'at Mikra (Bamidbar 34,7 n. 45b) notes that the name Amanus is a divergent form of the Hebrew name "Amana" mentioned in Shir HaShirim (4:8), which is the original name. Indeed, the midrash (Yerushalmi Shevi'it 6:1) states: "Said Rabbi Yosta bar Shunam: 'When the exiles will reach the Amanam mountains, they will break out in song. What is the reason for this? [As it is written]: "תשורי מראש אמנה" (Shir HaShirim 4:8) (rendered by JPS: "Look from the top of Amana," but the word tashuri is understood by the Midrash as similar to tashiri = "you shall sing").