The second chapter of Tractate Hagiga is one of the most fascinating chapters in the Gemara in terms of its connections between halacha and aggada, between the revealed and the hidden. It seems that the remarkable commandment addressed by the first chapter – to go on pilgrimage to the Temple and see the face of God, of which it is said “My face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:23) – finds its way into the second chapter, which discusses questions and laws related to the learning of mystical or hidden matters. The first mishna of the chapter stipulates the way in which one may learn such matters; it concludes by asserting that there are things one must not examine:
אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים ולא במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו כל המסתכל בארבעה דברים ראוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם מה למעלה מה למטה מה לפנים ומה לאחור וכל שלא חס על כבוד קונו ראוי לו שלא בא לעולם:
MISHNA: One may not expound the topic of forbidden sexual relations before three; nor may one expound the act of Creation before two; nor may one expound by oneself the Design of the Divine Chariot, unless he is wise and understands on his own. Whoever looks at four matters, it would have been better for him had he never entered the world: What is above the firmament and what is below, what was before, and what will be after. And anyone who has no concern for the honor of his Maker deserves to have never come to the world.
The meaning of the phrase “Whoever looks at four matters” is clear: It does not refer to physical “looking,” but to spiritual or intellectual contemplation. That said, when the Gemara debates this portion of the Mishna, it brings a statement by Reish Lakish listing additional images at which one is forbidden to look. In this statement, the forbidden “looking” is physical sight by means of the eyes; however, it seems that here, too, there is a fundamental aspect of the internal, of hiddenness. Reish Lakish says:
דרש רבי יהודה ברבי נחמני, מתורגמניה דריש לקיש: כל המסתכל בשלשה דברים עיניו כהות: בקשת, ובנשיא, ובכהנים. בקשת – דכתיב כמראה הקשת אשר יהיה בענן ביום הגשם הוא מראה דמות כבוד ה’, בנשיא – דכתיב ונתת מהודך עליו. המסתכל בכהנים בזמן שבית המקדש קיים, שהיו עומדין על דוכנן ומברכין את ישראל בשם המפורש.
Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi Naḥmani, the disseminator of Reish Lakish, interpreted a verse homiletically: Whoever looks at the following three things, his eyes will grow dim: One who looks at a rainbow, at a Nasi, and at the priests. He explains: At a rainbow, as it is written: “As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about, this was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel 1:28). At a Nasi, as it is written: “And you shall put of your splendor upon him” (Numbers 27:20), which indicates that the splendor of the Divine Presence rested upon Moses, who was the Nasi of Israel. The third item, looking at priests, is referring to one who looks at the priests when the Temple is standing, as they would stand on their platform and bless Israel with the ineffable name.
Rashi on the Gemara explains the problem with looking at the priests as they bless the nation:
שהשכינה שורה על קשרי אצבעותיהם.
…As the Divine Presence (Shekhinah) would rest above the joints of their fingers.
Like the instances we saw in last week’s Torah portion – God’s response to Moses’s request to see his face, and the mask or veil that Moses is required to place over his face at the end of the portion (incidentally, it is interesting to think about the connection between these two descriptions) – the fingers of the priests are also filled with the light of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, while they bless the nation, and therefore it is both undesirable and impossible to look at them.
Tosafot here, as usual, sends us to another sugya in the Gemara that deals with the priests in a different context:
מכאן קשה על פרש”י דפ”ג דמגילה (דף כד:) על ההיא דתנן ידיו בוהקניות לא ישא כפיו ופי’ משום שהעם מסתכלין בו ואמרינן בחגיגה המסתכל בכהנים בשעה שנושאין כפיהן עיניו כהות והא ליתא דמסקינן דוקא בזמן שבית המקדש קיים ואילו התם בגבולים מדמקשי מיניה בגמרא מההיא דהוה בשיבבותיה דרב הונא והוה פריס ידיה ומשני דלמא דש בעירו הוה
Before we examine the challenge raised by Tosafot, we will try to understand the source the Tosafot provides. After eight pages of ceremonies that must be performed in the presence of “ten,” the Mishna in Tractate Megillah refers specifically to the Priestly Blessing, stating:
כהן שיש בידיו מומין לא ישא את כפיו רבי יהודה אומר אף מי שהיו ידיו צבועות אסטיס ופואה לא ישא את כפיו מפני שהעם מסתכלין בו:
MISHNA: A priest who has blemishes on his hands may not lift his hands to recite the Priestly Benediction. Because of his blemish, people will look at his hands, and it is prohibited to look at the hands of the priests during the Priestly Benediction. Rabbi Yehuda says: Even one whose hands were colored with satis, a blue dye, may not lift his hands to recite the Priestly Benediction because the congregation will look at him.
The Mishna establishes that a priest with blemishes on his hands may not lift his hands in blessing. Rabbi Yehuda expands the prohibition to encompass a priest whose hands have been colored with dye. The explanation brought by the Mishna is “because the congregation will look at him. In other words, when a priest with hands liable to draw attention goes up to bless the people, the people will look at his hands – which appears to be problematic.
Perhaps this explanation applies only to Rabbi Yehuda’s corollary (regarding a priest with dyed hands), such that the original prohibition (regarding a priest with blemishes on his hands) can rather be explained by the general disqualification of priests with deformities from Temple service. Or perhaps it explains not only Rabbi Yehuda’s corollary but the original prohibition – and if so, we must understand the priestly blessing as fundamentally different from other kinds of Temple service, such that in principle a priest disqualified by a deformity from other forms of Temple service will be permitted to perform the priestly blessing. (Incidentally, the question of the priestly blessing as a form of Temple service is fascinating; its foundations are explored in Tractate Sotah.)
In his commentary on the Mishna in Megillah, Rashi returns to our sugya in Moed Katan, saying:
לפי שהעם מסתכלין בו, ואמרינן במסכת חגיגה (טז, א): המסתכל בכהנים בשעה שנושאין את כפיהן עיניו כהות, לפי שהשכינה שורה על ידיהן.
Rashi explains the Mishna in Megillah in light of the statement in our sugya that we are forbidden to look at the hands of the priests because the Shekhinah rests upon them. According to Rashi, this is why a priest with hands that draw excessive attention cannot go up to bless the people – he is liable to cause the public to look at his hands, thus violating the injunction in our sugya.
Tosafot poses a challenge to Rashi: Reish Lakish’s statement in our sugya specifically addresses the priestly blessing in the Temple. Ostensibly, the statement believes the reason for the prohibition to look at the priests’ hands has to do with the Shekhinah, and therefore holds true only in the Temple – as the Temple is the dwelling-place of the Shekhinah. Tosafot rules out the possible explanation that the Mishna in Megillah deals exclusively with the priestly blessing in the Temple, as the Gemara in Megillah tells a story in which Rav Huna’s neighbor, a priest with a deformity, nonetheless went up to bless the people; this story certainly did not take place in the Temple, which had already been destroyed by the Babylonian sage Rav Huna’s time. There, the sugya explains that perhaps everyone in the city was already well acquainted with the priest in question, so that there would be no reason to suspect that his hands would draw attention during the priestly blessing.
This contradiction causes Tosafot to find an explanation for the Mishna in Megillah different from that provided by Rashi, and to distinguish between the Mishna in Megillah and our sugya:
נראה לפרש דאף בגבולין מיתסר משום היסח הדעת והכי איתא בירושלמי דהתם א”ר יוסי הדא אמרה שאסור להסתכל בכהנים בשעה שהם מברכין את העם א”ר חגי כלום אמר אלא משום היסח אנא מסתכל ולא מסחנא דעתאי.
According to Tosafot, our sugya forbids one to look at the fingers of the priests because the Shekhinah dwells upon them, and this holds true specifically in the Temple. The Mishna in Megillah, however, has another reason to forbid a priest with unusual hands from blessing the people – because it is a distraction, both in the Temple and in other venues. Tosafot brings evidence for his interpretation from the Yerushalmi. There, we encounter the story of a sage named Haggai who says that he looks at the hands of the priests because he does not experience it as a distraction.
Rashi and Tosafot disagree on several significant points, both in terms of content and methodology:
- For Rashi, the sugyot in Hagiga and Megillah deal with the same issue: in both cases, looking at the fingers of the priests is problematic because the Shekhinah rests there. Tosafot disconnects between the two sugyot, stating that the sugya in Hagiga connects the problem to the presence of the Shekhinah, while the sugya in Megillah ascribes it to a distraction that impedes one’s ability to listen to the blessing.
- Rashi understands the sugya from the Bavli in light of another sugya from the Bavli, while Tosafot understands the sugya from the Bavli in light of a sugya from the Yerushalmi.
- Rashi seems to believe that even in non-Temple venues – for example, in our very own synagogues – the Shekhinah rests on the fingers of the priests as they bless the congregation. Thus, the priestly blessing is probably a special form of divine service that extends even outside the Temple. Tosafot, by contrast, understands that while in the Temple the Shekhinah is present, outside the borders of the Temple the world operates in a more rational fashion. The blessing is an important commandment that requires concentration and intent, but the Shekhinah is not involved.