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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

How to weave straw into gold

Daf Yomi Nazir 37


Wouldn’t it be nice to have the golden touch?  Sadly, the myths of yore all have tragic endings.   From King Midas whose touch turned everything to gold including his own daughter, to Rumpelstiltskin who could spin straw into gold but ended up falling deep into the earth’s cavities, the wise men of yesteryear have long cautioned man against yearning for otherworldly materialism. 

But what if I could give you a failsafe formula to transform anything into gold with no undesirable consequences or side-effects?  You could be rich beyond your wildest dreams without any downside risk of tragedy or unfortunate ramifications!   What is that magic formula? 

Concerning the nazir who vows to abstain from wine or grape products, the Torah declares, “Nor may he drink anything infused by grapes.”
Beraisa: The word “infused” means that flavour takes the status of the primary item.  For if one soaked grapes in water and the water now tastes like wine, the nazir would be liable for drinking that water. 
From here we rule similarly for all Torah prohibitions: If regarding the law of the nazir – which is not a permanent prohibition nor is he forbidden to derive benefit from grape-products (only to eat them) and the fact is that he could always seek annulment of his vow of prohibition – the Torah deemed flavour to take the status of the primary item, then how much more so in the case of other prohibited substances, such as plant mixtures which are eternally forbidden, which one may not so much as derive benefit from them and there is no way to revoke the prohibition, does infused flavour take the status of the primary item.

Everything the Almighty fashioned in this world He created in equilibrium.  That means that if you have a case of an infused prohibition – in this case, the grape-flavoured water – there must exist cases of infused mitzvos.   If water can become prohibited to the nazir because it touched grapes, then certainly there are mitzvos one could perform due to the process of infusion! 

One such example is rice matzah.  For Sefardim who eat rice on Pesach, let’s say one was baking matzah out of rice.   Strictly speaking matzah may only be made from one of the five grains: wheat, spelt, rye, barley and oats.  Those five species must be baked within eighteen minutes; otherwise they become chametz and forbidden for Passover consumption. 

Rice is fine to bake bread from, but the consistency doesn’t really produce much of a loaf.  The way to improve the consistency is to mix in a little wheat flour.  But now of course you must bake it within eighteen minutes, because it contains one of the five grains.  You pull it out of the oven and voila, you have a beautiful rice bread.  You take a bite and despite only containing a small measure of wheat flour, it has a distinct wheat flavour. The same rule that forbids grape-infused water to a nazir now permits this wheat-infused rice matzah to be utilized for the mitzvah of matzah at the seder!  In other words, you have magically transformed rice into wheat and made it mitzvah-bread!

Ultimately, our ability to effect such a magical transformation exists throughout our interaction with the world.   When you take a piece of parchment and scribble some Hebrew letters upon it, you infuse it with spirituality and transform it from cowhide to Torah scroll.  If that scroll would now drop to the floor, G-d forbid, the entire congregation would have to fast!

Why?  It’s just a piece of cowhide wrapped around a couple of wooden rollers!  No, it’s not.  It has been transformed from a meaningless piece of this physical world to the holiest artifact in the universe!  When you read from that Torah, you are using your Midas’ Touch – you are transforming the cow into spiritual gold! 

And likewise with any physical item in this world that you use to perform a mitzvah – when you do that, you are employing your superhero powers.  You are transforming the physical into the spiritual.  As a child of Heaven, you have the power to transform a palm branch into a lulav!  You have the power to transform a ram’s horn into a shofar!  You have the power to transform tarpaulin into a sukkah!


You are more powerful than the most spectacular superhero!  Your hidden powers can transform the universe.  May you merit learning to master your secret powers and converting everything in this world into spiritual gold!