Ikar v’Tafel is a principle of primary and secondary importance. The level of importance has halachic ramifications in hilchos Shabbos and in liturgy.
Hamotzei oechlin pachos mi’kshir b’kli, patur af al ha’kli she’ha’kli tafela lo.
One who carries out food [in a vessel on Shabbos] less than the amount of food one is prohibited to carry, is exempt, even for carrying out the vessel [which would otherwise be prohibited], because the vessel is secondary to the food inside it.
Shֶׁe’ha’kli t’feila lo vְ’ein kavanaso lְ’hotzaas ha’kli.
Because the vessel is secondary to it [the food] and you have no thought for taking the vessel out. (Rambam Hilchos Shabbos 18:28)
Rav Hutner ZTZ’L points out that this secondary item is ignored entirely. It is not even an issue when it comes to carrying it on Shabbos. It is as if it is non-existent. (Pachad Yitzchak, Shabbos, Maamar 1, Paragraph 4)
In the preceding example tafel doesn’t matter.
In the laws of liturgy, tafel is treated differently.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said: I am like seventy years old and I was never privileged to have the Exodus from Egypt mentioned at night until Ben Zoma interpreted this pasuk: That you may remember the day you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy 16:3). Ben Zoma interpreted it as follows: [if the Torah had said] The days of your life [it would include only] the days. [By adding the word “all,’ as in] All the days of your life the nights [are included as well]. And the Rabbis [interpret the addition of the word “all’ differently, as follows:] The days of your life, refers to the days in this world, All the days of your life includes the days of Moshiach. (Brachos 12b)
The question seems obvious. What did Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya gain from hearing Ben Zoma’s interpretation? The Rabbis gave a different interpretation that is recorded in the same Mishna! It is well known that we follow the opinion of a majority against the opinion of a minority. Rabbis is plural, Ben Zoma is one. The Rabbis are the majority opinion overruling Ben Zoma.
Try to imagine this conversation in the Beis Hamedrash:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya: Now I can convince you that we should mention Yitzias Mitzrayim in Maariv because I told you what Ben Zoma said!
Rabbis: Yes, but didn’t you hear? The Rabbis said something different from what Ben Zoma said.
Which leaves us with the question: Why do we mention Yitzias Mitzrayim in Maariv?
Rav Yehiel Michal HaLevi Epstein, ZTZ’L offers an answer.
There is a principle called Ikar v’Tafel. Sometimes, there are two matters of importance, once less important, called Tafel and one more important, called Ikar. The ikar Geulas Mitzrayim took place during the day, the tafel Geulas Mitzrayim took place at night. Ben Zoma said that the tafel should also be mentioned, that is, we should mention Geulas Mitzrayim at night even though it is tafel.
In our times, the ikar geulah is Geulas Mitzrayim. In the days of Moshiach, the ikar geulah will be the Geulah of Yemos Hamoshiach, and the Geulas Mitzrayim will be tafel to it.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is not bringing proof from Ben Zoma’s understanding of the word all in the pasuk. The Rabbis disagree with that understanding. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is bringing proof from Ben Zoma’s application of ikar v’tafel.
Imagine Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai speaking:
The Geulas Mitzrayim that took place during the day is ikar. The Geulas Mitzrayim that took place at night is tafel. We all agree to that.
In the days of Moshiach, the ikar geulah will be the Geulah of Yemos Hamoshiach, and the Geulas Mitzrayim will be tafel to it. We all agree to that.
The Rabbis said that even when the Geulas Mitzrayim becomes tafel, we will still mention it. I am saying that this same principle applies to the Geulas Mitzrayim at night. It is tafel and we should still mention it!
Based on this application of the principle of ikar v’tafel we mention Geulas Mitzrayim at night. (based on Haggadah Lail Shimurim, page 20)
We see that there are two ways in which something which is tafel can be treated. It can be completely ignored as in the case of the vessel on Shabbos which we ignore as tafel to the ikar food within it. Or it can be valued as in the tafel geulah which is nonetheless mentioned in our tefila.
In the course of our lives, ikar v’tafel applies to people, too. Im ani kaan, hakol kaan, means if I am here, all of me is here, as Rav Nisan Alpert ZTZ’L explained the famous statement of Hillel in Succah 53a.
If you are my focus of attention, you are the ikar. How do I treat the tafel? Do I ignore others while I give you my full attention or do I arrange for others to have someone’s attention, or at least assure them that they will soon have mine? Do I ask the ikar to postpone part of our conversation because I am aware of someone else’s need or discomfort? Are the other people in my life who are, at the moment, tafel, of any significance right now? How do I make sure that they know that?
Perhaps some people experience being ignored when they are tafel quite comfortably. They’re Teflon to tafel. Some people are not.
Some children, some parents, some husbands, and some wifes are quite comfortable being tafel and not mattering at all from time to time. Some are not.
If they matter to you, treat them as the tafel version with which they are comfortable, al pi darchom.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, dating, and parenting.
He is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575.