Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Miracles in Halachah

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Rav Kahana asked Rav (Bava Kamma 116a) : If one person saved the other person’s donkey (on condition that he would be paid for his donkey), and the first person’s donkey ended up being saved anyway, what is the halachah?

Rav answered: Heaven had mercy on him (and the owner of the donkey he saved must still pay him the value of his donkey).

This is comparable to the case of Rav Safra. When Rav Safra was traveling with a caravan, a lion joined them and started traveling with them (protecting them from bandits and other wild beasts). Every night one person from the caravan would feed the lion his donkey (in order that he should not attack them). When it was Rav Safra’s turn, he offered the lion his donkey (rendering it hefker), but the donkey did not eat it. Rav Safra quickly went and reacquired his donkey. [Rav Safra had fulfilled his obligation by offering his donkey. He was not obligated to contribute any more to the cause, for the return of his donkey was regarded as a miracle – Heaven sent, and that would not undo the fulfillment of his obligation. This is comparable to Rav’s ruling: Since the rescuer’s donkey was miraculously saved, it does not undo the obligation from the owner of the donkey that he saved.]

Rav Acha from Difti asked Ravina: Why did he have to reacquire the donkey? When he made the donkey ownerless, he only did so because he had to feed it to the lion, not in order that anyone who wants can acquire it (i.e. he did not really make it hefker in the first place)?

Ravina answered: Rav Safra did this as an added precaution (just in case someone would claim that it did not belong to him any longer).

Tosfos asks: The Gemora in Bava Metzia rules that someone who rescues an animal from a lion attack is permitted to keep the animal for himself, for the owner abandoned hope of ever recovering his animal; it is therefore regarded as hefker. If so, shouldn’t Rav Safra’s donkey be legally regarded as hefker?

Tosfos answers that there is a basic distinction between the two cases. Here, the lion is not an attacker, but rather, it is a protector. The lion never attacked Rav Safra’s donkey; the donkey was given to it. It was not inevitable that the lion would kill the donkey. There could have been times that the lion was satiated and would have no interest in eating on that particular night. Accordingly, Rav Safra did not give up hope on his donkey, and is therefore not considered halachically hefker.

The Chazon Ish explains as follows: If Rav Safra’s donkey would have been saved in a completely natural manner (e.g. if there would have been other nights where the lion was satiated and did not kill the donkey), he would have been obligated to repay the others, for he would not have contributed to the caravan’s protection. The Gemora stresses that this was viewed as a miraculous event, for every other night, the lion did consume the donkeys. Rav Safra, being a holy person, was accustomed of having miracles performed on his behalf, and therefore he knew that there was a possibility that a miracle might happen and his donkey will be spared. It was therefore regarded as if he paid his portion towards the caravan’s protection.

However, with respect to reacquiring his donkey, it is not sufficient to say that Rav Safra relied on the fact that a miracle might occur and therefore he would not abandon hope on retrieving his donkey. It would depend on the type of miracle. If a public miracle, revealed to all, one that would involve a change in the laws of nature would occur and his donkey would be spared, even if Rav Safra was confident that such a miracle will happen, it would be regarded as if he had despaired on his donkey and he would be required to reacquire the donkey. It would be as if a different donkey was sent down from Heaven. This is because the Torah was given according to the laws of nature, and the halachah will not change due to an open miracle. But, if the miracle would be a hidden one, one that would be concealed by nature, although it only happened because of Rav Safra, it would be regarded as a natural occurrence, and if Rav Safra would be confident that this would occur, the halachah would consider it as if he did not abandon hope about it. This is because all of nature is in truth governed by Heaven, and a miracle such as this would be considered a natural occurrence for one who is accustomed to such miracles. Therefore, since there are times when a lion, due to some abnormality in its stomach, be satiated and it will have no desire to eat, this is viewed as a natural even that Rav Safra was waiting for, and it is as if Heaven sent satisfaction to the lion in order for it not to consume Rav Safra’s donkey.

It emerges from the Chazon Ish that something that changed through an open miracle is not halachically regarded as being the same item that it was before. This would be similar to Reb Chaim Brisker’s challenge to some of the answers given to the Beis Yosef’s famous question.

The Beis Yosef asks: Why do we celebrate Chanukah for eight days if we are celebrating the miracle that the oil that should have lasted for only one day instead lasted for eight days? We should celebrate Chanukah for seven days, since only seven days of the burning of the oil were miraculous!?

He offers two solutions to this problem. He first suggests that on each night, when the oil was poured from the container into the Menorah, the jug remained completely full (similar to the miracle performed by Elisha). Another suggestion is that after every night, all the oil remained in the Menorah.

Rav Chaim Brisker challenges these two answers, arguing that miraculously generated oil is not acceptable for the lighting of the Menorah. He notes that the oil used for the Menorah is described not merely as “Shemen” (oil) but as “Shemen Zayis,” oil produced by an olive tree. This implies that it must be produced by an olive tree, and not by a miracle.

This parallels that which the Chazon Ish stated: The fact that it was a public miracle would change the nature of the oil. Beforehand, it was olive oil, but now, it is “Heaven-sent oil.”