Shabbat 49 – Elisha Man of Wings

Whilst I find it very difficult to imagine that my learning or my prayers have any impact on God’s decision making process in relation to current events in Israel I do hope that maybe my deep feelings of concern for my family and friends who are suffering on a hour to hour basis in some way benefit from the learning that I am doing whilst fervently concentrating on helping them in any little way I can.

With that thought we turn to today’s daf….and a beautiful message from Rav Kook in these difficult times. May we indeed elevate ourselves in the way described by Rav Kook below.

אמר רבי ינאי: תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים

“Rabbi Yannai said: [Donning] phylacteries requires a clean body like Elisha Man of Wings”

A Clean Body

Rabbi Yannai said that one should follow the example of Elisha Ba’alKenafayim (the ‘Master of Wings’), and only wear tefillin with a guf naki, when one’s body is clean. The Sages taught that wearing tefillin requires a strict standard of hygiene and control over one’s bodily functions.

Who was this Elisha, the ‘Master of Wings’? The Talmud in Shabbat49a relates the story of how he arrived by this unusual title.

“Once the Roman government proclaimed a decree against Israel, that anyone laying tefillin will have his brains pierced through. Nonetheless, Elisha put on his tefillin and went outside to the marketplace. A Roman official spotted him, and Elisha ran away. The official chased after him. When Elisha saw that he would soon overtake him, he removed the tefillin from his head and held them in his hand.
“The officer demanded, ‘What is that in your hand?’ Elisha replied, ‘The wings of a dove.’ Then he opened up his hand — and inside were the wings of a dove.”

Why does the mitzvah of tefillin require that one’s body be clean? And how does the story of Elisha corroborate this requirement?

Two Levels of Morality

The Torah calls tefillin an oht, a sign. They are a sign of the special covenant between God and the Jewish people. By wearing tefillin, we testify to Israel’s mission as ‘a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation.’ Due to this special role, the moral path and ethical ideal of Israel is higher than that which is expected of other peoples. “God did this for no other nation; they do not know His laws” (Ps. 147:20).

There is a basic level of morality, a standard of conduct that is the inheritance of all nations. All peoples are expected to comply with the ethical code of Bnei Noah, the foundations of natural morality. All peoples should aspire to a basic integrity, a love of justice and a hatred of evil. This standard of morality does not presuppose great spiritual aspirations. It is sufficient that one’s character is not defiled by the unbridled cruelty of predatory beasts. This level, when one’s natural inclinations are not soiled by malevolence and greed, may be called guf naki.

Those who wish to ascend God’s mountain — those aspiring to the higher moral level as represented by the elevated holiness of tefillin — must first have a ‘clean body.’ They must first acquire the fundamental level of natural morality, and not have lost their innate purity through coarseness and dark deeds.

Only after fully acquiring the level of natural morality may one ascend to the elevated morality that corresponds to the unique holiness of Israel. Then one may proudly wear tefillin, and “God’s name will be called on him” (Deut. 28:10).

This is the significance of Elisha’s wings. Wings enable one to ascend, to scale the mountain of elevated morality, to uplift the soul that has already acquired the basic level of morality.

But one should not think that it is possible to attain this higher level while one’s heart is impure and drawn to injustice. One must first have a ‘clean body,’ a basic level of integrity. The Sages related the story of a student who deposited his money with a person who wore tefillin. When the student came to collect his money, the man denied ever having received it. The student responded, “I did not deposit the money with you. I deposited it with the tefillin on your head” (see Tosaphot, ad loc).

Wings to Soar

But what does all this have to do with the story of Elisha Ba’al Kenafayim?

The ability to remain stalwart in our beliefs, even in the face of hardship, indicates that we have fully internalized the holy message to which our soul aspires. According to the degree by which we have absorbed this message, we will find within ourselves the inner strength to withstand the turbulent waves of the sea raging around us.

To be tightly bound to the holiness of tefillin, one must first acquire the preliminary level of natural morality, a guf naki. And yet one must sense that this level, with all of its purity, cannot satisfy the soul’s higher aspirations. The soul seeks to scale the heights of the Torah’s elevated morality.

The Master of Tefillin will also be a Master of Wings. His physical nature will be unable to confine his spirit to the earth. Such an individual will find inner resources of strength and dedication, even in a hour of trial. Elisha, in his stand against evil, was worthy of the title ‘Master of Wings.’ The dove wings that appeared in his hand testified to the purity of his body and the loftiness of his soul.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III sec. 1 on Shabbat 49a)


About bookabazza

I am an Osteopath and University Lecturer who is trying to keep up with the 7 year daf yomi cycle. I thought I would try and share a few small thought on the daf each week.
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