Thursday, August 12, 2021

So Close Yet So Far Away (Part 1 of 2)

The following post first appeared in the Beis Medrash of Ranchleigh Pesach Kuntress 5781: 

     Mordy was late. There had been that last-minute dithering over whether to purchase a goat or a lamb for his Korban Pesach, and then a crowd of foreign tourists created a massive backup at the Chuldah Tunnel. Only by detouring to the Kiponos Gate in the west did Mordy stand of chance of joining the third and final shift of people entering the Azarah to offer their korban. He edged sideways through the sea of humanity gathered in the Ezras Nashim but then looked up in dismay to see the massive doors of the Nikanor Gate start to slowly swing closed for the start of the third shift. Throwing his lamb over his shoulders, he broke into a sprint and covered the remaining distance to the Azarah in record time, taking the fifteen round steps on the western side of the Ezras Nashim two at a time. But he didn’t make it. The double bronze doors met in front of his nose with a resounding clang, leaving Mordy holding his sides — and a very relieved lamb — just outside the Azarah.


The Korban Pesach is one of only two positive commandments in the entire Torah that carries the penalty of kareis for failing to perform it (the other is bris milah). Even so, there are valid circumstances that could prevent a person from performing this mitzvah, in which case he would be exempt from the punishment of kareis and instead must bring a Pesach Sheini the following month. One of the exemptions stated in the Torah is if a person is too far away from the Azarah on the 14th of Nissan at the time that the Pesach offering is being brought. The phrase that the Torah uses in Bamidbar 9:10 to describe this is:

בדרך רחוקה, on a distant road

Now, the Torah itself does not quantify just how “distant” a person must be. This matter is disputed in a Mishnah (Pesachim 9:2) and according to the view of R’ Eliezer a person is exempt even if — like our case of Mordy — he was standing right outside the threshold of the Azarah. R’ Eliezer appears to be defining the Torah’s bare minimum [תפסת מרובה לא תפסת] of how “distant” a person could be from the Azarah in order to qualify for the exemption of “a distant road.” 

The Mishnah adds that R’ Eliezer’s view is supported by the fact that in the Torah there is a dot over the letter ה in the word רחוקה. It is not immediately obvious how this proves R’ Eliezer’s point. Baal HaTurim (to the verse) connects the two ideas by writing that the dot over the ה teaches that we “ignore” that letter and deal with the remaining letters: רחוק. The gematria of רחוק is equivalent to that of the phrase זה מאיסקופה, this [means] from the threshold [of the Azarah and further].

Rav (to the Mishnah) records a tradition that the dot serves to separate the ה from the rest of the word, allowing us to read רחוקה as רחוק ה, at a distance of five. This is to say that a person who is five amos away from the threshold of the Azarah is exempt from kareis and eligible to bring a Pesach Sheini.
But why five amos, specifically?

to be continued...

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