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Parshas Metzora/HaGadol - Making the Jewish People Whole Again    6 Nissan 5779

04/11/19 09:07:43


The daily impact of so many growing concerns from safety and security to the environmental issues which bombard us daily come at a cost of personal effort, money and time. I could discuss write each of these issues at length, but I’ve chosen to address the last one: the effect of time. Now this may sound silly, but after using the washroom, we dry our hands. At home we typically use a real towel, while in public areas paper towels were installed with proper dispensers. Along came the air dryer which in and of itself has been perfected to place your hands down into a dryer instead of holding up your hands while the water is running back down your arms.

We as Jews have two issues with electric hand dryers. The first is a time concern, as we are always in a rush. It takes longer to air dry our hands it takes to use a disposable paper towel. But all kidding aside, the second, and real issue is Shabbos. We can’t use the electric blower; we need to use those good old-fashioned paper towels. Before we get to the obvious problem with the electric blower, what is the story behind the ‘paper towel’?

Scott Paper Company was founded by brothers Irvin and Clarence Scott in Philadelphia in 1879. SCOTT® Brand Tissue with 1,000 sheets was introduced at a cost of 10 cents per roll. It was considered a medical item; print ads were used to increase awareness and address embarrassment. One day, Arthur Scott, head of the paper products company, had big trouble. An entire railroad car full of paper, unloaded at his plant, wasn't good for anything because the paper had been rolled too thick for toilet tissue, its intended purpose. Was he going to send the whole load back?

Meanwhile, Scott heard about a certain teacher in the city school system who had developed a novel idea to help fight colds in school. She gave every runny-nosed student a small piece of soft paper to use. That way the roller towel in the toilets would not become contaminated with germs. Scott decided he would try to sell the carload of paper. He perforated the thick paper into small towel-size sheets and sold them as disposable paper towels. Later, he renamed the product Sani-Towel and sold them to hotels, restaurants, and railroad stations for use in public washrooms. In 1931, Scott introduced the first paper towel for the kitchen, creating a whole new grocery category. He made perforated rolls of "towels" thirteen inches wide and eighteen inches long. And that is the story of how paper towels were born. It was to take many years, however, before they gained acceptance and replaced cloth towels for kitchen use.

The main issue with dispensing paper towels on Shabbos is the prohibition of tearing. I don’t know about you, but invariably after washing my hands in the washroom or prior to eating bread, the paper towel rips as I am pulling it out of the dispenser. This usually occurs when the towels are packed in tightly together. (When there are only a few sheets left, they fly out in enthusiastic bunches – far more than you need.) For me, this has been a problem of tearing on Shabbos, albeit accidentally and not wanting it to happen. Nevertheless, even though I am probably exempt from the violation of Shabbos, it is still a desecration of Shabbos. Perhaps we should seek guidance from the Torah on this matter and see if there are any recommendations… After perusing through the Torah, we see numerous references to the concept and application of water and washing, but not one word about drying. The issue of drying hands is addressed in the laws of washing for bread, but such washing is a rabbinic decree, not a biblical one.

The Gemara Bava Metzia 85b tells a story about washing hands. Eliyahu HaNavi used to frequent Rebbi's academy. One day it was the New Moon and Rebbi was waiting for Eliyahu HaNavi, but he failed to come. Rebbi said to him the next day: 'Why didn’t you come yesterday?” He replied: “I had to wait until I awoke Avraham, washed his hands, he prayed and I put him to rest again; likewise to Yitzchok and Yakov.” “But why not awake them together?” Eliyahu replied, “I feared that they would wax strong in prayer and bring Moshiach before his time.” There was no mention of Eliyahu drying the hands of the forefathers. Perhaps one could suggest it is implied that drying is the second half of washing and is therefore inherently understood. Nevertheless, we only find the imperative to dry when washing for bread in contrast to all other times when we wash our hands. The times we are instructed to wash our hands include when arising in the morning, coming into close contact with a corpse, after using the restroom, cutting our hair and nails ,and more. We specifically need to dry our hands when washing for bread for two reasons: (1) if we accidentally touch another person’s hands which were not cleansed, then we need to wash again and (2) the bread would become repulsive to eat after getting wet from our hands, hence the need to dry them. Eliyahu HaNavi is a central and key figure in the future, heralding the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people.

This week’s Haftorah, selected from the Navi Malachi, depicts the great battles and miracles that will lead up to that redemption. There are two Gemaros that mention the last three prophets of Bnei Yisrael. Sotah 48b which says Chagai, Zecharya and Malachi were the last prophets, and the Gemara Yoma 9b which states that with the death of Chagai, Zecharya and Malachi, Divine Inspiration departed from Israel. The concluding words of the Haftorah are the final words that complete the section of Neviim as part of Tanach. Who else but Eliyahu himself does the Navi Malachi give a last message for the future? The Navi Malachi 3:22 states: “Remember the Torah of My servant Moshe, whom I commanded at Chorev (Mt. Sinai) with rules and laws for all Israel. Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the arrival of God’s great and awesome day. He will bring back the hearts of parents by means of their children and the hearts of the children by means of their parents, lest I appear and strike the land a devastating blow”.

A clear reconciliation and joining together of the polar tides of life is necessary to bring about the redemption. Many leaders were able to pull one segment of the Jewish population and at best left behind the other half or at worst tore away from them. It takes the ultimate leader to pull the extremes of the Jewish nation and bring them together without harming and ripping one half. This is the drying factor that is representative of that ultimate Geula. The solution to the paper towel issue on Shabbos is to grab hold of both ends of the paper towel and slowly bring both ends simultaneously towards each other. This simple act prevents the paper towel from tearing. Getting our hands wet and washing them is the first part of purification. Drying our hands is the culmination of that purity and is accomplished in its entirety and completeness by bringing all of Klal Yisrael together from the four corners of the physical world and the four corners of our spiritual world. Through the symbol of not tearing, and more importantly, bringing the towel ends together may we merit to see the words of Chagai come speedily in our time!

Sun, May 24 2020 1 Sivan 5780