Which Family Brought Wood On Av 20?


The date Av 20 is mentioned only once in the Talmud,2 in tractate Taanis. There the Mishnah relates that this was a holiday for the descendants of Pachas Moav ben Yehudah, for on that day they would bring an offering of wood in the Beis HaMikdash.

To explain: At one time, there was a shortage of wood in the Beis HaMikdash, and several families agreed to donate wood for the altar. When the wood which one family brought was used up, another family brought more. In commemoration of their generosity, our Sages ordained that even when there was enough wood, the descendants of these families would bring wood on the days when their ancestors had, and their wood would be used on that day. These families would celebrate the day as a holiday.3

There are two opinions regarding the identity of the descendants of Pachas Moav ben Yehudah, the family who brought the wood offering on Av 20.4 Rabbi Meir maintains that they were “the descendants of David ben Yehudah,” i.e., of King David. Rabbi Yossi, by contrast, maintains that they were the descendants of Yoev ben Tzeruyah, commander of King David’s armies.

This passage raises a fundamental question. How is it possible for there to be two correct opinions regarding an historical fact? With regard to other differences of opinion in the Talmud, we are told: “These and these are the words of the living G‑d,”5 i.e., both opinions communicate spiritual truth. But how can this maxim apply with regard to a point of history?

One could answer that the difference of opinion between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yossi does not concern historical fact, for the descendants of Pachas Moav ben Yehudahwererelated to both David and Yoev, since the two families married together and thus their lineage was intertwined.6 The difference of opinion between the Sages centers on which of the two families should be given precedence. Rabbi Meir maintains that it was the merit of King David which prompted them to bring wood to the altar, while Rabbi Yossi maintains that it was Yoev’s virtues that spurred this initiative.

When Wood Can No Longer Be Cut

To understand the above, it is necessary to explain the problems inherent in bringing wood on Av 20, and why it was necessary to have ancestral merit to bring wood on that day. Our Sages relate7 that from Av 15 on, the power of the sun wanes and trees would no longer be cut down for use on the altar. Their wood would not dry in time, and thus could become worm-infested and thus unfit for the altar.8

Av 20 was the first time that wood was brought after Av 15. Thus this wood had to have been cut beforehand. Moreover, the family bringing it would have had to have this offering in mind even before the wood was needed. They had to have considered the matter thoroughly and made preparations.9

Therefore, the importance of the wood offering brought on Av 20 (and similarly, that brought by the family responsible for the delivery on Elul 20), surpassed that of earlier wood offerings brought by other families. For the other families had the opportunity to cut down other wood after bringing their offerings.

Thus bringing wood on Av 20 required unique virtue. Our Sages differed as regards whose hereditary qualities spawned this virtue.10

Giving With Self-Sacrifice

There is another factor involved. The wood these families originally brought to the Beis HaMikdash was not itself a sacrifice; it was needed so that others could bring sacrifices. Thus the sacrifices offered with the wood this family brought were not necessarily their own, nor were they only communal offerings in which they had a share. Instead, the wood was for the sacrifices of the entire Jewish people.

Moreover, among the sacrifices offered with this wood were guilt offerings and sin offerings brought by people seeking atonement. Nevertheless, these families took the trouble to plan ahead, not for themselves, but to help others — including those guilty of sins — offer sacrifices and gain atonement.

They gave up something which could not be replaced to help a sinful person, and did so with joy. So great was their happiness that this day was considered a festival for that family.11

So the Sages asked: Did the virtue to make such sacrifices stem from King David or from Yoev ben Tzeruyah?

The Sword of iron and the Sword of Torah

Our Sages teach:12 “Were it not for David’s [Torah study], Yoev would not have been able to wage war. And were it not for Yoev, King David would not have been able to study the Torah.” For Yoev’s success in war came as a result of David’s efforts in Torah study. And conversely, it was only because Yoev could replace him at the front that King David was able to study without disruption.13

Indeed, the fact that both concepts arise from the same verse indicates that they share a connection.14 Thus it can be said that it was not only that King David’s merit helped Yoev be successful, but that Yoev had a share in King David’s Torah study. For had Yoev not been successful at war, David would not have been able to study. Because of this symbiosis, King David’s Torah study helped Yoev.

The Divine service of both King David and Yoev was characterized by bittul and mesirus nefesh. There was, however, a difference in focus. King David expressed these qualities through Torah study. This elevated his study, for there is an advantage to Torah study characterized by bittul. And therefore our Sages interpreted15 the verse:16 “And G‑d was with him [David]” as “the Halachah follows his opinion.”

Yoev’s bittul and self-sacrifice, by contrast, involved worldly matters, helping make a dwelling for G‑d in this material world by waging war against the gentile nations that opposed this ideal.

All the qualities of holiness are interrelated. Therefore, David’s and Yoev’s Divine service complemented one another.17 The wars Yoev waged helped David study, and David’s study brought Yoev success in battle. Each one, however, had his primary area of focus: David’s being Torah study, removed from involvement in worldly affairs, while Yoev was involved with the world, waging war.

This is the focus of the difference of opinion between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yossi. The name Meir (מאיר) relates to the Hebrew word or (אור) meaning “light.”18 Rabbi Meir’s approach focused on that which transcends the darkness of our world. Therefore, he placed the emphasis on King David’s Torah study.19

The name Yossi (יוסי), by contrast, is numerically equivalent to G‑d’s name E-lohim (א-להים)20 which itself is equivalent to the word hateva (הטבע), “nature.”21 For Rabbi Yossi’s Divine service related to the Divine energies that maintain the natural order. Therefore he placed the emphasis on Yoev, whose Divine service involved waging war to refine the natural order.22

The Present or the Future?

The difference of opinion between these two Sages can be explained from another perspective.

In several places,23 we find a difference of opinion between the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud as to whether it is necessary to undertake a slight difficulty so that afterwards a great benefit will result. The Jerusalem Talmud maintains that since the benefit is much greater than the difficulty, one must undertake the difficulty despite the fact that it will take time for the benefit to appear.

The Babylonian Talmud, by contrast, maintains that the present situation is the determinant factor. Since the difficulty is immediate and the advantage — although significantly greater — will take time to manifest itself, there is no obligation to undertake the difficulty.

To relate this concept to the issue at hand: The advantage of King David studying Torah without worry is much greater than the difficulty which Yoev undertook by going to war. Nevertheless, David’s Torah study came afterwards, and was dependent on Yoev’s going to war. Therefore, the approach of the Jerusalem Talmud would oblige Yoev to undertake this difficulty. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Yoev had made a sacrifice which was not incumbent upon him.

Therefore Rabbi Meir, whose approach reflects light — which correlates with the Jerusalem Talmud, whose style of presentation is one of direct light24 — maintains that primary importance should be ascribed to King David, for it is through his Torah study that the spiritual heights were reached, and Yoev was obligated to play his part in facilitating this process.

Rabbi Yossi, whose approach emphasizes the refinement of material existence — which correlates with the approach of the Babylonian Talmud, whose style of presentation is associated25 with the verse:26 “You placed me in darkness,”24 since it involves a process of clarification through questions and paradoxes — maintains that since Yoev was acting on his own initiative, the primary advantage is his.

Doing Something For Others

To relate the above to our own Divine service: Even when a person possesses something which, like the wood for the altar, cannot be replaced, he must be prepared to sacrifice it to help another Jew — even a person who must bring a sin offering. Moreover, he must make these efforts even if they never bring recognition. Furthermore, he should consider this such a great merit that the day will be considered a joyous festival for him and his family.

In order for this feeling to be perpetuated among one’s descendants — both physical and spiritual, as our Sages’ comment:27 “‘Your sons,’ these are your students” — one’s own conduct has to be permeated by mesirus nefesh. This applies both to a person whose Divine service centers on Torah study and to one whose service involves the refinement of the world.

This will enable us to raise a generation prepared to give up its own possessions for the sake of other Jews, and to do so with happiness. Such ahavas yisrael, not motivated by intellect, but stemming from one’s own initiative,28 will atone for the unwarranted hatred which led to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash,29 and will speed the coming of the true and complete Redemption. May it come in the immediate future.

(Adapted from Sichos Chof Av, 5711)