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A Legendary Motivational Story

An incident that occurred to George Bernard Dantzig that became a legendary motivational story. In 1939 he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Near the beginning of a class for which Dantzig was late, professor Jerzy Neyman wrote two examples of famously unsolved statistics problems on the blackboard. When Dantzig arrived, he assumed that the two problems were a homework assignment and wrote them down. According to Dantzig, the problems “seemed to be a little harder than usual”, but a few days later he handed in completed solutions for the two problems, still believing that they were an assignment that was overdue. Six weeks later, Dantzig received a visit from an excited professor Neyman, who was eager to tell him that the homework problems he had solved were two of the most famous unsolved problems in statistics. He had prepared one of Dantzig’s solutions for publication in a mathematical journal. As Dantzig told it in a 1986 interview in the College Mathematics Journal: A year later, when I began to worry about a thesis topic, Neyman just shrugged and told me to wrap the two problems in a binder and he would accept them as my thesis.
Years later another researcher, Abraham Wald, was preparing to publish a paper which arrived at a conclusion for the second problem, and included Dantzig as its co-author when he learned of the earlier solution.
This anecdote reminded me of an incident that occurred to me in ninth grade. A Rebbe asked me the following question: Suppose a person has two esrogim, an inferior one that is definitely kosher or a beautiful one of questionable validity (it may have been from a grafted tree). Upon which esrog should he recite the beracha on Succos morning? The answer seemed obvious to me. Of course he should recite the beracha over the esrog that is more beautiful and subsequently replace it with the inferior esrog. If in fact the beautiful esrog turns out to be kosher he has fulfilled the mitzvah in the most mehudar fashion. If it’s not kosher, he at least still fulfilled the mitzvah with the inferior esrog. Whereas, if he first holds the aesthetically inferior esrog, he has definitely fulfilled the mitzvah in a non-mehudar fashion. The fact that he later took hold of a beautiful esrog is of no regard. He already fulfilled the mitzvah, what can possibly be gained by holding a beautiful esrog now? It’s meaningless.  This seemed so obvious to me that I couldn’t imagine what the question was. I thought to myself that if a Rebbe is asking me this question there must be more to it than meets the eye. Perhaps the very fact that an esrog is definitely kosher is itself a reason to consider it more mehudar than the nicer esrog. I reasoned that I figured out the trick and I answered the Rebbe that he takes the inferior esrog first. To my astonishment, the Rebbe answered that the person takes hold of the aesthetically superior esrog first for the very reason I though obvious.
Over the years I have heard the question repeated numerous times attributed to Rav Chaim Brisker zt”l. However,  I never fully  understood why anyone would disagree with his solution. Fast forward to the daf this week. The gemora discusses a situation where an individual has a doubt regarding two of his animals. One should be brought as a sacrifice for maser behaima and one should be brought as a korbon shelamim. Since we are unsure which one is which, we offer both animals as sacrifices in exactly the same way. Rashi notes that there is a mitzvah for an owner to perform semicha or lean with his hands on his shelamim. Since he is unsure which animal is a shelamim he leans on both animals. Rashi assumes that generally one recites a beracha before peforming semicha on a korbon, just as one would recite a beracha before fulfilling any other mitzvah such a shofar, matzah, or sefiras haomer. However, rashi says that in our gemora he would not recite a beracha because only one animal requires semicha, the other one does not and it may be a beracha l’vatalah. The obvious question is: why not just recite one beracha and then perform semicha on both animals. Since one animal definitely does require semicha it would not be a beracha recited in vain.
It would seem that Rashi feels that if one would perform semicha on the animal that is maser behaima before performing semicha on the shelamim which actually requires semicha, it would a beracha l’vatalah. This is because the semicha on the first animal would be a hefsek, an unnecessary interruption, between the recital of the beracha and the performance of the mitzvah. If one makes a bonafide hefsek between a beracha and the intended action that requires a beracha, the beracha is invalid. The Tzitz Eliezer, says that HaRav Silber said that this Rashi proves that Reb Chaim’s solution to the aforementioned esrog dilemma is incorrect. If one would pick up the questionable esrog first, that action would constitute a hefsek if indeed the esrog turned out to be posul and the beracha recited over the arba minim would be in vain. So while one would gain that he might have fulfilled the mitzvah with most beautiful esrog possible, he risks a beracha levatalah if it turns out that the esrog is invalid.
HaRav Yitzchok Zev Halevi Soloveitchik zt”l defended his father’s position. He said that the Shulchan Aruch rules that one fulfills the mitzvah of the four minim even if one takes all four species individually. There is a mitzvah that all four species be held together but that is a preference not a requirement. As soon as one picked up his lulav, he began fulfilling the mitzvah. He has not completed the mitzvah however until all four species are taken. Rashi would agree that even if one picked up a non-kosher esrog after reciting a beracha and grasping his lulav, the beracha would still be valid. Once the mitzvah process began a temporary interruption in that process would not be deemed a hefsek, In the case of the two animals, however, only one requires semicha. If one does semicha on the wrong animal first, he has not even started the mitzvah. That would be a bonafide hefsek and the beracha he recited would be in vain.
Please don’t come late to class on account of this article.

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Posted by on April 23, 2013. Filed under Jewish News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.