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Hands-On Solutions

By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

An incident that occurred to George Bernard Dantzig became a legendary motivational story. In 1939, he was a graduate student at University of California at 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 he included Dantzig as its coauthor 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 berachah on Sukkos morning? The answer seemed obvious to me. Of course he should recite the berachah 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 thought 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 Gemara discusses a situation where an individual has a doubt regarding two of his animals. One should be brought as a sacrifice for maaser beheimah and one should be brought as a korban 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 semichah, to 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 berachah before performing semichah on a korban, just as one would recite a berachah before fulfilling any other mitzvah such a shofar, matzah, or sefiras haOmer. However, Rashi says that in our Gemara he would not recite a berachah because only one animal requires semichah, the other one does not, and it may be a berachah l’vatalah. The obvious question is: Why not just recite one berachah and then perform semichah on both animals? Since one animal definitely does require semichah it would not be a berachah recited in vain.

It would seem that Rashi feels that if one would perform semichah on the animal that is maaser beheimah before performing semichah on the shelamim which actually requires semichah, it would a berachah l’vatalah. This is because the semichah on the first animal would be a hefsek, an unnecessary interruption, between the recital of the berachah and the performance of the mitzvah. If one makes a bona fide hefsek between a berachah and the intended action that requires a berachah, the berachah 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 pasul and the berachah recited over the arba minim would be in vain. So while one would gain that he might have fulfilled the mitzvah with the most beautiful esrog possible, he risks a berachah levatalah if it turns out that the esrog is invalid.

Rav 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 berachah and grasping his lulav, the berachah 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 semichah. If one does semichah on the wrong animal first, he has not even started the mitzvah. That would be a bona fide hefsek and the berachah he recited would be in vain.

Please don’t come late to class on account of this article. v

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at

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Posted by on April 26, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.