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The Talmud in Shabbat 49a records the following story:

שפעם אחת גזרה מלכות רומי הרשעה גזירה על ישראל שכל המניח תפילין ינקרו את מוחו והיה אלישע מניחם ויוצא לשוק ראהו קסדור אחד רץ מפניו ורץ אחריו וכיון שהגיע אצלו נטלן מראשו ואחזן בידו אמר לו מה זה בידך אמר לו כנפי יונה פשט את ידו ונמצאו כנפי יונה לפיכך קורין אותו אלישע בעל כנפים ומאי שנא כנפי יונה משאר עופות משום דאמתיל כנסת ישראל ליונה שנאמר כנפי יונה נחפה בכסף וגו' מה יונה כנפיה מגינות עליה אף ישראל מצות מגינות עליהן

Because the wicked Roman government once proclaimed a decree against Israel that whoever donned tefillin should have his brains pierced through; yet Elisha put them on and went out into the streets. [When] a quaestor saw him, he fled before him, whereupon he gave pursuit. As he overtook him he [Elisha] removed them from his head and held them in his hand. 'What is that in your hand?' he demanded. 'The wings of a dove,' was his reply. He stretched out his hand and lo! they were the wings of a dove. Therefore he is called 'Elisha the man of the wings'. And why the wings of a dove rather than that of other birds? Because the Congregation of Israel is likened to a dove, as it is said, as the wings of a dove covered with silver: just as a dove is protected by its wings, so is Israel protected by the precepts.

(Soncino translation)

The Talmud in Berachot 53b records a different story with the same punchline about a dove's wings:

רבה בב"ח הוה קאזל בשיירתא אכל ואשתלי ולא בריך אמר היכי אעביד אי אמינא להו אנשאי לברך אמרי לי בריך כל היכא דמברכת לרחמנא מברכת מוטב דאמינא להו אנשאי יונה דדהבא אמר להו אנטרו לי דאנשאי יונה דדהבא אזיל ובריך ואשכח יונה דדהבא ומאי שנא יונה דמתילי כנסת ישראל ליונה דכתיב כנפי יונה נחפה בכסף ואברותיה בירקרק חרוץ מה יונה אינה ניצולת אלא בכנפיה אף ישראל אינן ניצולין אלא במצות

Rabbah b. Bar Hanah was once travelling with a caravan, and he took a meal and forgot to say grace. He said to himself: What shall I do? If I say to the others, I have forgotten to say grace, they will say to me, Say it [here]: wherever you say the benediction you are saying it to the All-Merciful. I had better tell them that I have forgotten a golden dove. So he said to them: Wait for me, because I have forgotten a golden dove. He went back and said grace and found a golden dove. Why should it have been just a dove? — Because the community of Israel are compared to a dove, as it is written, The wings of the dove are covered with silver, and her pinions with the shimmer of gold. Just as the dove is saved only by her wings, so Israel are saved only by the precepts.

(Soncino translation)

However, there appears to be an interesting difference in how the verse about doves is expounded in these two incidents. In the version in Shabbat the wings of a dove, and by exposition the mitzvot, are said to "protect" (מגינות) while in Berachot they are said to "save" (ניצול).

Now one might wish to simply suggest that there is no real difference between these passages, and the terms are in fact synonymous. However, the Talmud in Sotah 21a explicitly distinguishes between "protecting" and "saving" in the context of mitzvot:

א"ר יוסף מצוה בעידנא דעסיק בה מגנא ומצלא בעידנא דלא עסיק בה אגוני מגנא אצולי לא מצלא תורה בין בעידנא דעסיק בה ובין בעידנא דלא עסיק בה מגנא ומצלא מתקיף לה רבה אלא מעתה דואג ואחיתופל מי לא עסקי בתורה אמאי לא הגינה עלייהו אלא אמר רבא תורה בעידנא דעסיק בה מגנא ומצלא בעידנא דלא עסיק בה אגוני מגנא אצולי לא מצלא מצוה בין בעידנא דעסיק בה בין בעידנא דלא עסיק בה אגוני מגנא אצולי לא מצלא

Said R. Joseph: A commandment protects and rescues while one is engaged upon it; but when one is no longer engaged upon it, it protects but does not rescue. As for [study of] Torah, whether while one is engaged upon it or not, it protects and rescues. Raba demurred to this: According to this reasoning, did not Doeg and Ahitophel engage upon [study of] Torah; so Why did it not protect them? — But, said Raba, while one is engaged upon [study of] Torah, it protects and rescues, and while one is not engaged upon it, it protects but does not rescue. As for a commandment whether while one is engaged upon it or not, it protects but does not rescue.

(Soncino translation)

Given the passage in Sotah, are we forced to say that the passages in Shabbat and Berachot are actually disagreeing about what mitzvot (and a dove's wings) can accomplish? Or do both passages reject the distinction made in Sotah? Or is there some way to reconcile all three passages? Have any commentators discussed this?

  • Perhaps, we can partially answer by distinguishing between symbolic mitzvot like wearing tefillin, and conscious ones like Birchat HaMazon that may have a status of Torah as well. See, e.g. the Rav MiBartenura on Avos 3:3: לֹא אָמְרוּ עָלָיו דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה - וּבְבִרְכַּת הַמָּזוֹן שֶׁמְּבָרְכִים עַל הַשֻּׁלְחָן, יוֹצְאִין יְדֵי חוֹבָתָן, וְחָשׁוּב כְּאִלּוּ אָמְרוּ עָלָיו דִּבְרֵי תּוֹרָה. כָּךְ שָׁמַעְתִּי: – Loewian Apr 30 at 3:55
  • Note lashon of shade (ridbaz in yerushalmi B'B 1:3 also makes same obvious connection/explanation I imagine is elsewhere) sefaria.org/… – Dr. Shmuel May 3 at 1:58
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Rashi on Sotah 21 explains that מגנא ('protect') means protection from misfortune, and מצלא ('rescue') means moral protection from further challenges.

In the story from Shabbat 49 Elisha was in immediate danger, so it makes sense to use the term מגנא. In the second story about Rabbah b. Bar Hanah he was not in any immediate danger, and the doves symbolized the moral value of being exceptionally particularly about the mitzvos, so מצלא is more fitting.

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  • בין בעידנא דעסיק בה בין בעידנא דלא עסיק בה אגוני מגנא אצולי לא מצלא – kouty Apr 30 at 13:52

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