Right side versus left side

The universe is a poem in symmetry. Galaxies and star systems revolve in circles, ellipses, and spirals. Each side of the human body mirrors the other. Both function the same. One ear hears as well as the other, both eyes see with equal perspicuity, and one leg is no stronger than the other. But hands are an exception to the rule. Generally, the right hand rules supreme in writing and every manual activity. Why did Hashem create us with unequal hands?

Deriding the Left
Many or most human cultures despise the left side. Even their languages indicate preference for the right and disdain for the left. In English, the word .left. is a variation of the Old English lyft, which meant “weak.” The word “dexterous” comes from Latin for “right,” while the word “sinister” comes from Latin for “left.” In German too, linkisch means awkward or maladroit. The Italian word for left, mancino, derives from crooked or maimed (mancus). The plain reason for this disdain of the left is that because most people are right handed, the left has become synonymous with weakness and clumsiness.

History bears out that the right hand has dominated for thousands of years. In one example, Ehud, a shofet of the tribe of Binyomin utilized his unusual lefthandedness to assassinate Eglon the king of Moav. As sefer Shoftim (3:14-17) tells us:

The children of Yisroel served Eglon the king of Moav eighteen years. But when the children of Yisroel cried to Hashem, Hashem raised them up a deliverer, Ehud the son of Gera, a Benjamite, a man who was left handed. Through him, the children of Israel sent a present to Eglon the king of Moav.   Ehud made himself a dagger with two edges a cubit in length and girded it under his garment on his right thigh.   

Due to the scarcity of lefties, the king’s guards didn’t scrutinize Ehud’s right side for a weapon since righties generally gird swords and daggers on their left. This enabled Ehud to penetrate Eglon’s palace with a weapon and stab him to death. However, this story seems puzzling as most societies have significant numbers of lefties. Surely Eglon’s guards should have kept a sharp lookout for lefties as well?

Indeed, we find in Shoftim ( 20:16) that the tribe of Binyomin had plenty of lefties. During one war the Tanach tells us, Among all this people there were seven hundred chosen men left handed; every one could sling stones at an hair breadth and not miss. Elsewhere (I Divrei Hayomim 12:2) we find that many soldiers of Binyomin may have been ambidextrous:

They were armed with bows, and could use both the right hand and the left in hurling stones and shooting arrows out of a bow.

Some cultures had nothing against lefties for the simple reason that they had no concept of the egocentric concept of left and right. For example, if a member of the Guugu Yimithirr Aborigines of Australia forgot a hunting knife at home, he would tell someone to go back and take it from the northern edge of his eastern table. The people of this tribe would warn you that a bug was crawling on your southern shoulder, and the moment you turned around they would warn you the bug was on your northern shoulder.

One nation even gave preference to lefties. According to Sefer Erchei Hakinuyin (written in the 1600s by Rav Yechiel Halprin, author of Seder Hadoros), Alexander the Great once came across a nation that honored the left side more than the right due to its important function of providing a dwelling place for the heart.

A Middle Course
The Torah takes a middle course. While acknowledging that the right has superior qualities, it also furnishes the left with a vital role in fulfilling the world’s purpose.

Before going further it is vital to note that according to the Torah, north, south, east, and west are equivalent to left, right, front, and behind. Rashi (Bamidbar 34:15) puts it like this: “Just as the east is called the front and the west is called behind, so south is right and north is left.”

The Zohar says the same idea: “Michael is to the right, which is south; Gavriel is to the left, which is the north; Uriel is to the front, which is east; Raphael is to the back, which is west.”

In general, the Torah is more positive about the right and the south:

Yirmiyohu warns, Out of the north an evil will break forth upon all its inhabitants (1:14), Yaakov places his right hand on Ephraim’s head (Bereishis 47:17-19), Shlomo seats his mother, Batsheva, on his right side (II Melochim 2:19), and Nachash the Ammoni threatens to put out the right eye of Jews of Yavesh Gilad (I Shmuel 11:2). Shlomo tells us that a wise man’s heart is at his right, but a fool’s heart is at his left (Kohelles 20:2), and the menorah at the southern side of the Heichal represents Torah, while the shulchan at the north represents physical wealth.

Indeed, the Gemara (Yoma 15b) tells us a rule applying to the service of the Bais Hamikdosh that has universal application: “Whatever direction you turn should only be by way of the right.” The Meiri (Shabbos 61a) explains that because the right side represents good, we give it preference to remind ourselves to follow the proper path.

But sometimes it is not clear how to fulfill the rule of always turning to the right since the attempt can lead to contradictory results. Take the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles. The Tur (O.C. 106) cites the T.rumas Hadeshen who mentions two different customs. Communities along the Rhine River began lighting on the left and worked their way towards the right, while Jews of Austria began lighting with the rightmost candle and moved leftwards. The Levush and the Taz side with the Austrian Jews, arguing that because of the rule of turning to the right, one should start with the rightmost candle and proceed leftwards. They proved that this is the correct procedure from Hebrew script which likewise begins at the right side of the page and proceeds leftwards.

On the other hand, the Jews of the Rhine River could counter that by starting at the right you end up moving leftwards, which is contrary to the Gemara that instructs us to turn right. Therefore, it is better to start at the left candle and proceed rightwards.

Just as Hebrew script moves from right to left, so the famous clock mounted on the old Jewish Town Hall in Prague runs counterclockwise from right to left. Some think that this is in imitation of Hebrew script, especially as two other clocks on the tower with Latin letters run clockwise. But it is worth noting that even non-Jewish clocks did not always run clockwise. There were exceptions. One example is the old astronomical clock in the Munster Cathedral in Germany, whose hands move counterclockwise.

Chesed and Justice
As mentioned earlier, although the Torah gives preference to right over left, this does not mean that left is all bad. The medrash (Tanchuma, Sh.mos 17) comments on the verse, I saw Hashem sitting on His throne and the whole host of heaven standing before Him at His right and at His left (I Melochim 22:19), “Is there a right and a left in the above? But it means that the advocates for good stand at the right, and the accusers at the left.”

Similarly, we say every night that Michael, who advocates good for Yisroel, stands at our right, while Gavriel who advocates judgment stands at our left. Similarly, the right represents Avrohom’s quality of chesed, and the left represents Yitzchok’s quality of gevurah, strictness.

Because of right’s preference, most mitzvos involve the right side. The mezuzah is nailed on the right doorpost, yibum is done with the right foot, and kohanim do the sacrificial service with their right hands. The major exception is tefillin, which is placed on the weaker (left) hand.

A number of reasons have been offered for this exception: We choose the arm less used for mundane tasks, the right hand is better suited to tie the tefillin with, the tefillin are in remembrance of Hashem’s strong arm (Shemos 37) in Egypt and strength (gevurah) appertains to the left side. And tefillin subjugate the heart at the left side of our bodies to subjugate itself to Hashem.s service. Due to the fact that Tefillin are tied onto the left hand, when tying shoelaces we tie the left shoe first, although we put on the right shoe first.

At the beginning of the article we asked why the right hand is stronger than the left. Perhaps this symbolizes that although Hashem runs the world with both chesed and din, chesed predominates because “the attribute of good is always more than the attribute of punishment.” Indeed, mechanchim say that we should do the same when following the Gemara (Sotah 47), “Always, the left should push away and the right should draw near.” In imitation of Hashem, we should be generous with kindness and only use punishment as a last resort.

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