Thursday, October 08, 2009

Why Did He Eat It?

As part of a discussion of whether an esrog must be whole or may be missing a portion (less than half), the Gemara (Sukkah 36b) tells the following puzzling story in a few brief words: Rabbi Chanina would dip his esrog, [take a bit from it, ]and use it for the mitzvah. This seems to imply that you can use an esrog that is missing a little, at least due to a human bite and on the later days of Sukkos, when this presumably occurred.

The Medieval commentators ask how he could do this. An esrog is set aside for the mitzvah and you aren't allowed to just eat something like that. Tosafos (Sukkah 46b sv. esrog) suggest that R. Chanina made an initial condition that the entire esrog would not become unusable and made sure to eat less than the amount to invalidate the esrog. The Ritva (Sukkah 36b sv. ve-ha) suggests that R. Chanina was planning on using that esrog the next day, and therefore it had not yet been set aside for a mitzvah of that day.

These technical answers explain how he could do it but not why.

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These technical answers explain how he could do it but not why. If you are going to use an esrog for a mitzvah, why would you take a bite from it first? Usually you try to use the best available tools or fruits for a mitzvah, particularly a whole item rather than a partial item. Why in the world would R. Chanina bite from the esrog he was going to use?

The Arukh La-Ner (Sukkah 36b sv. ve-ha) suggests that R. Chanina had no intention of using the esrog for a mitzvah. He did not have the other three species (lulav, hadas, aravah) and therefore gave up on fulfilling the mitzvah. So he took a bite out of the esrog. Then he unexpectedly obtained the other species and still used his bitten esrog for the mitzvah.

While this explains why he might bite the esrog, it still seems a bit strange. Was he really lacking any other food that he had to eat the esrog he would otherwise be using for the mitzvah? Perhaps he was thinking that the mitzvah of taking a lulav, esrog, etc. on the later days of Sukkos is from the phrase "And you shall rejoice for seven days" and not from the inital phrase "And you shall take for yourselves on the first day..." The rejoicing is understood by the Sages as meaning taking the lulav etc. (biblically in Jerusalem, and on a rabbinic level outside of Jerusalem).

Rejoicing as a mitzvah normally means eating, such as on Yom Tov when we rejoice by eating meat and/or drinking wine. Here, however, rejoicing is understood as taking the lulav (etc.). Perhaps, when Rabbi Chanina realized that he would not be able to rejoice with his esrog in the required way, he decided to rejoice with it in the other mitzvah way -- by eating it.

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