Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 50: Torah from Zion


מִצִּיּוֹן מִכְלַל יֹפִי, אֱ-לֹהים הוֹפִיעַ. (תהילים נ:ב)

“From Zion — the perfection of beauty! - God has shined forth.” (Psalm 50:2)

What is this unique radiance of Zion? Rav Kook explained that this refers to the special quality of Torah in the Land of Israel. Scholars who live in Israel are able to connect to the Torah on a level that is impossible to attain outside of Israel.

The unique quality of Torat Eretz Yisrael is illustrated in the following story, as recorded in Shabbat 53a.

Rabbi Zeira Arrives in Israel

Despite his teacher’s opposition, Rabbi Zeira succeeded in fulfilling his dream: he left Babylon and ascended to the Land of Israel.

When Rabbi Zeira arrived in Israel, he encountered Rabbi Benjamin bar Yefet, a disciple of the famed scholar Rabbi Yochanan. Rabbi Benjamin was teaching the laws of how to take care of domestic animals on the Sabbath. One is allowed to cover one’s donkey with a saddle-blanket to keep the animal warm, but one may not place a fodder-bag around its neck.

Upon hearing this ruling, Rabbi Zeira exclaimed, “Well said! And that is how a king in Babylon translated it.” The ‘king’ to whom Rabbi Zeira referred was Samuel, a master jurist and leading halakhic authority in third-century Babylon.

Why was Rabbi Zeira so excited when he heard this ruling? And why did he say that Samuel ‘translated’ this law in Babylon?

Animal Care on the Sabbath

We should first reflect on Rabbi Benjamin’s ruling, which seeks to navigate a path between two important values. On the one hand, we are responsible for the welfare of our animals. We have a moral obligation to care for them and relieve them of any pain (tza’ar ba’alei chaim). But if we were to spend our entire Sabbath tending to the needs of chickens and donkeys, what would remain of the special holiness of Shabbat? Overinvolvement in animal husbandry would destroy what should be a day dedicated to spiritual pursuits.

For this reason, the Sages distinguished between a saddle-blanket and a fodder-bag. The blanket is permitted as it protects the donkey from the cold. The fodder-bag, on the other hand, is only a convenience for the donkey, making it easier for the animal to eat. Here the rabbis drew the line, safeguarding the sanctity of the Sabbath day.

Straight from the Source

Rabbi Zeira had heard this ruling before, when he lived in Babylon. Nonetheless, there was a tremendous difference when he heard it in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Zeira felt a surge of energy in this teaching that he had not experienced before.

Yishar!” he shouted. The word yishar literally means ’straight.’ The scholar felt an inner connection to this ruling, straight from its vibrant source. What happened?

When the song of holiness pulsates in the heart, we can sense the spiritual and ethical source for each specific law. Even when dealing with what would appear to be dry, prosaic rules, the soul is overwhelmed by the beauty of its sublime poetry.

Our sensitivity to this inner song is a function of our physical and spiritual state. When the soul is exiled to foreign lands, the inner content of the Torah is relegated to a shadow of its true self. Torah laws become detached from their living source. Learning Torah outside the Land of Israel is like reading a poem that was translated into a foreign language. It lacks the vitality and lyric beauty of the original.

When Rabbi Zeira achieved his life’s goal and ascended to the Land of Israel, he underwent a profound transformation. His entire world was elevated. He could now perceive with greater clarity the inner essence of every law.

Yishar! he cried out. Now he could feel the inner vitality, the holy life-source residing within this law. Wonder filled his heart, as he perceived how the Torah’s lofty ideals penetrated even the most mundane aspects of everyday life.

Torah Outside the Land

Samuel, the great Babylonian scholar, had given a similar ruling. But there, outside of Israel, it was only a translation. It lacked the vitality of the original. “And that is how a king in Babylon translated it.”

With his superior legal acumen, Samuel was able to distinguish between covering a donkey with a blanket and hanging a fodder-bag over its neck. But to truly feel this fine distinction — when is the descent into mundane life justified, and when is it detrimental — this can be experienced only in their source, in the Land of Israel. In Babylon, the issue could only be grasped intellectually. A faded copy of the original.

When Rabbi Zeira heard Rabbi Benjamin teaching this law, he was struck by the contrast between the feeble light of Torah outside the Land, and the brilliant light when hearing these words in their natural setting.

Thus wrote King David, “From Zion, the perfection of beauty, God [Elokim] has shined forth.” The verse specifically uses the Divine name Elokim. Because in the Land of Israel, even the Divine attribute of middat hadin — even the legal realm of Halakhah — shines with a special light, as its original beauty is revealed.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 15-16)