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Rabbi Jonathan Ganger
by Published on August 28, 2020

A common critique of Judaism is that the Rabbis added a significant amount of additional rules to what was an already overloaded system.  Kosher is one thing, but you have to take away my chicken parmesan on top of that?! I hear that. It can seem frustrating.  The short answer to that question is that nothing ‘new’ was added; rather, protections were made in order to ensure that the mitzvoth would be observed. Human beings tend to cut corners just about whenever they can.  And just like basic structures in nature are all protected- our eyes have eye lids, our fingers have nails, and our head has hair, so too the Rabbis were charged to defend the fragile mitzvah ecosystem[1].  Glad that has been ironed out.  But, if we really want to pick on the Rabbis that is not the question we need to ask.  The real question is from our parsha.


                The parsha says, when two ruffians come to court after a fight and the court convicts one of the men with lashes, then, ‘he is smitten before him (the judge) according to a number as his evil requires.  Forty lashes you will smite him, and do not add’.  Great, 41 lashes is out of the question.  But the Rabbis says something astounding.  The Torah doesn’t even mean to hit him 40 times; rather, 39[2]!  What gave the Rabbis the license to say something that seems to contradict a straightforward reading of the verse?  Now that is chutzpah!


                To begin, where does the concept of 40 come from? It is a popular Torah number: 40 days it rained during the flood, 40 days that it takes Moshe to get the Torah, and now this.  But what is the common thread? Kabbalah aside[3], it also says that it takes 40 days from conception until what we have is a recognizable human, and if we do throw in some Kabbalah, the human soul plops into the tiny human on day 40.  In other words, 40 means an entire process has been completed.  Now, when we have a ruffian, he has sullied what was once a pristine creation via his actions and so the Torah lashes him accordingly.  But wait, there is a lingering problem.  Day 40 is really soul day and we know souls don’t do wrong.  It is only because of his down and out partner, the body, that things go haywire.  So why punish the soul?


                That is what the Rabbis understood when they reduced the number of lashes.  And, of course, the text itself hints that 40 may not exactly mean 40[4].  While the soul was hijacked into negativity, and so on the surface, a.k.a the written text, it deserved a lash for not standing up to the body, it didn’t actively take part, and therefore that soul day is not given a lash, which leaves us with 39 lashes. Once again, the Rabbis were just doing their job without any chutzpah- analyzing and learning the Torah in the deepest way possible.  And it is a reassuring idea for Ellul. There is a spark within us that can never be fully buried or brought down, a remnant of soul day. Like a pilot light, it sits waiting to be kindled and the job in Ellul is to do just that.





[1] Be’er Hagola be’er rishon ‘further the number of mitzvos actually corresponds to parts of the body so it is fitting comparison. 


[3] There are four spiritual worlds with ten emanations in each


[4] Grammar technicalities are beyond the scope of this blog. But if curious, please reach out