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Parshat Berchukotai

The good, the bad, and the holy

If a person designates an animal and sanctifies it, the Torah tells us that it may not be exchanged for a different animal. “It should not be exchanged, not good for bad or bad for good. And if one exchanges an animal for an animal, then it and the one it is exchanged for will be holy.” (23, 10; and a similar instruction in verses 32-33) This commandment does not merely preclude exchanging a good animal for a lesser one, the Torah also prohibits exchanging a bad animal for a better one; for example one may not substitute a perfect animal in place of a blemished one. (Malbim ibid; T.B. Temura 9a) 

This prohibition seems completely arbitrary. It requires a person to stick with their original choice no matter what, even if the new choice is a vast improvement. The Chizkuni tries to make sense of this prohibition which does not distinguish for better or for worse: 

“For you do not know what is good and what is bad, what illness it may have or if it is malformed.” 

The Chizkuni explains that the basis for the prohibition is that our knowledge is limited; we do not truly know what is good or bad. According to this explanation it seems that if this technicality did not exist, if we were able to use precise medical tests to definitively determine which animal was better and healthier, then the Torah would have allowed us to switch the original animal for a superior one. 

Rabbeinu Bechaye also looks for a rational explanation for this prohibition, but he comes to a different conclusion:

“If he was allowed to switch a bad animal for a good one he might come to switch a good one for a bad one, and tell himself: ‘This one is good.’” 

According to Rabbeinu Bechaye the Torah is careful not to give anyone the opportunity to conceal their wrongdoing. Essentially, the prohibition is meant to prevent hypocrisy and duplicity. It’s possible that this explanation is based on an assumption that people tend to sanctify their animals for sacrifice in times of hardship. Once the trouble has passed the person may regret what they deem to be excessive financial loss due to their impetuous sanctification and decide to replace the original sacrifice with one of lesser value. The Torah assumes that such a person would not be so blatantly hypocritical as to switch a clearly good animal for a clearly bad one, but the Torah is concerned that a person might attempt to surreptitiously take advantage of the system. Perhaps the person will even succeed in deluding themselves. So the Torah does not leave any room for such an option and prohibits all exchanges. 

According to the first opinion one cannot switch good for bad because everything in this world is hidden beneath a fog of the unknown, there’s too much room for fallibility between good and bad. According to the second explanation sometimes bad things can look good, and sometimes people have a vested interest in making something bad look good. 

The Toldot Yitzchak takes a different approach, one that is more mystical and symbolic. He connects this prohibition to the subject of the previous section, the beginning of Parshat Bechukotai. There the People of Israel are given a choice- if they walk in the way of God they will receive great rewards and abundant goodness, but if they sin then they will be exiled from the land and experience great suffering. In the end of this section God promises:


“But even then, when they are in the lands of their enemies, I will not reject them and I will not abhor them, to destroy them, to break my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God. And for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors, whom I took out from the Land of Egypt...” (Vayikra 22, 44-45)


God promises not to exchange the bad for something better. The people were chosen and that choice is unconditional. Sanctity clings to them and it cannot be removed or exchanged.

The Toldot Yitzchak’s comparison also clarifies another important distinction. Contrary to what some may assume, the concepts of good and evil are not interchangeable with the concepts of the sanctified and the mundane. The categorizations do not overlap. Holiness is unconditional, it is an absolute value and it transcends the difference between good and evil because it transcends any immediate considerations. Holiness stems from a deeper more internal power that is not dependent on external appearances and superficial impressions. Good and evil are relative, temporal terms. Holiness is eternal.


After relating the prohibition the Torah continues and tells us what happens if a person transgresses and exchanges the animal designated as an offering for another. The result of the prohibited exchange is that the second animal becomes holy, but the first animal remains holy. “It and its replacement are holy.” The prohibited action, removing the sanctity of one animal by transferring it to another, is not even possible. There is no exchange of sanctity. The gemara has a phrase it uses to explain such circumstances, which loosely translated means, “The Torah prohibits something, but even if you did it, it wouldn’t work.” (T.B. Temurah 4b-5a, and more) A person can’t even enjoy the product of his transgression.

Other justice systems have different terms to relay similar concepts. The idea of “Fruit of a poisonous tree” is a legal concept that invalidates all evidence obtained in an illegal manner. Such evidence is not accepted in a court of law. The doctrine “Ex turpi causa non oritur accio,” Latin for “from a dishonorable cause legal action does not arise,” excludes people from pursuing legal action if it arises from their own illegal act. One case where this doctrine was applied was the rejection of the claim of a woman who wanted to sue a married man with whom she had an affair because he broke his promise to marry her. The common denominator of all these rules is something we have known since we were children, “cheaters never prosper.” One should not be able to benefit from their misdeeds.


Yet in the case of our prohibition there are further repercussions. Not only is the attempt to exchange the animal unsuccessful, there is actually an expansion of holiness. The sanctity spreads to the new animal even as it remains with the original. This repercussion could be understood as a fine or punishment imposed on the transgressor, who must now give up both animals. But that is not the only plausible explanation. This person intended to sanctify the second animal instead of the first. This act is prohibited; it is considered a sin. And yet this act still contains a positive element that can’t be easily dismissed- the sanctification itself. A person intended to make this object holy. The positive aspect of their actions cannot be erased. The mere intention leaves an indelible impression of holiness and sanctification- and that is eternal. 

Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780