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In this week’s parshah the Torah teaches the halachos of an ir hanidachas – a city where a majority of the inhabitants serve avodah zarah. The halacha is that all of the city’s inhabitants are killed and all of their possessions are burned.
There are several criteria that must be met in order for a city to attain the status of an ir hanidachas. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 71a quotes the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer: if there is even one mezuzah in the city, the entire city is not an ir hanidachas. This is because of the earlier words in this week’s parshah: “lo sa’asun kein l’Hashem Elokeichem – [destroy avodah zarah] but do not do so to Hashem your God.” We derive from here that one may not erase Hashem’s name. A mezuzah, which contains Hashem’s name, may not be destroyed. Thus the entire city cannot be burnt since this one article cannot be erased. (We do not pasken in accordance with this opinion; rather, we pasken that the holy writings are to be buried.)
The Rambam in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 6:2 says that erasing seven names of Hashem will cause one to receive lashes for having committed the transgression of erasing His name. There are other categories of things – kisvei hakodesh (holy writings) – that may not be erased, and similarly one may not destroy the Mizbeach or any part of the Beis HaMikdash. In the latter category, however, one may destroy them if it is for the purpose of reconstruction. One only violates this lav if one destroys it and does not intend to rebuild it.
It is for this reason that when one makes a mistake when writing a Sefer Torah, he may erase the mistake – except if the mistake is in the name of Hashem. Any other part of the Torah besides the name of Hashem has the status of kisvei hakodesh; hence it may be erased for reconstruction purposes. However, none of Hashem’s seven names can be erased, even for reconstruction purposes. Therefore, if a mistake occurs in the name of Hashem, a patch must be placed over it and one may write on the patch.
Several Achronim raised the following point and question on the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, cited above: How would Rabbi Eliezer hold if the ir hanidachas contained not a mezuzah or another article with Hashem’s name on it, but only kisvei hakodesh? For example, if only a Megillas Esther were present, would that make the city an ir hanidachas or would kisvei hakodesh also prevent the burning of the entire city — since it can only be destroyed for reconstruction purposes? Perhaps since the burning is a mitzvah, then that too is considered reconstructive and not destructive, and the city along with the Megillas Esther would be burnt.
The Mishnah in Sanhedrin 111b says that if there is kisvei hakodesh in the city it is buried, and that the rest of the city’s inhabitants’ possessions are burnt. The Gemara there (113a) says that this Mishnah is not in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer’s view. The Gemara seems to equate the halacha of when there is one mezuzah in the city to that of when there are any kisvei hakodesh.
Rashi, on Sanhedrin 71a, explained Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion this way: one mezuzah prevents the burning of the entire city because a mezuzah contains Hashem’s name that cannot be erased. Based on Rashi’s explanation, the halacha should not be the same regarding kisvei hakodesh since they can be erased for reconstructive purposes. This is evidence that the burning of the city’s inhabitants’ possessions is considered destructive, and thus the halacha of burning Hashem’s name is comparable to burning kisvei hakodesh.
The Minchas Chinuch explains that the reason that the burning of the possessions is considered destructive, even though it is a mitzvah, is because the mitzvah in this case is to destroy. Therefore, even kisvei hakodesh would prevent the entire city from being burnt since in this case they cannot be burnt.
I would like to suggest that perhaps the Gemara in Sanhedrin that equates kisvei hakodesh with Rabbi Eliezer’s view of a mezuzah is referring to kisvei hakodesh that contain Hashem’s name. However, kisvei hakodesh that do not contain Hashem’s name, i.e. Megillas Esther, would not prevent the burning of the city, and it would be burnt along with the rest of the city’s inhabitants’ possessions. The reason is that in this case, even though the mitzvah is to destroy, it nevertheless is considered reconstructive. As the pasuk in the Aleinu tefillah says: “…leha’avir gilulim min ha’aretz, vehaelilim karos yikareisun, lesakein olam bemalchus shakai – to remove detestable idolatry from the earth, and false gods will be utterly cut off, to perfect the universe through the Almighty’s sovereignty.” The destruction of avodah zarah is considered a tikun for the world. Therefore, as the mitzvah is to destroy and since it is avodah zarah that is being destroyed, it is considered a tikun.
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