Professor Yehuda Elitzur and Bible Study: Part III

[Previous Sections: Intro, Part II]

[Translator’s note: Translations of psukim were taken from Machon Mamre. My comments and emendations are in square brackets. I apologize for the somewhat clumsy translation of Rabbinic sources; I’m used to translating modern Hebrew. I hope the message gets across nonetheless – Avi Woolf/AIWAC]

Chazal’s Parshanut

Now that the dust has largely settled on this matter, it is worthwhile to look back at this issue with a clear and critical eye. The truth is that Chazal were not Bible Critics in the mold of Wellhausen. Rashi, Radak, even Ibn Ezra, who is often used as an example of such, were not 19th century style Bible Critics. But they learned Tanach, and taught Tanach, and even researched Tanach with the scientific methods of their day, to the extent that it could help their endeavors. If, for instance, an interpreter from a few hundred years ago – R. Tanhum Yerushalmi, makes a comment on Joshua 15:47, that the names of the cities mentioned here are Israelite, or pre-conquest names, and perhaps even translated, some from a language similar to Hebrew – this is a scientific comment. There is no need to bring that many examples to demonstrate that all of our classical interpreters dealt with linguistics on a scientific basis, of course, to the degree that comparison of languages, grammar, development of word forms &c was known in their day.

From linguistics to archaeology. The Ramban tells us, while discussing the shekel mentioned in the Torah, that he saw an ancient shekel in Akko, and he said the following: “A silver coin marked with stamp seals, on one side [there was] a type of almond staff, and on the other side a type of flask, on both sides around [the images] there were marked writings…and he showed it to the Kuttim [the Samaritans] and they read it immediately, that it is Hebrew script, which the Kuttim still possessed.” We have before us [an interpretation] basing itself on archaeological findings, an explanation of Hebrew script as against Assyrian script, the nature of the Shekel etc. The same ancient interpreter and man of mystery was happy, therefore to make use of external knowledge, of scientific findings. If he lived in our day he would not avoid reaching conclusions from the Hazor and Ashdod excavations with regard to the understanding of the Tanach.

Ancient interpreters spent much time thinking about and researching geographical problems. The debate regarding the location of ‘Nahal Mitzrayim’ is well known. Already Rav Saadiyah Gaon proved in his perush that Nahal Mitzrayim is Wadi El-Arish. It is clear that not only the texts and halachot were clear to them but also the geographical reality. Another example is the author of Caftor Vaperach, who established the foundations of the scientific study of the Land of Israel 600 years ago, alongside his approach to the sources, when he said: “Most of the locations of the Tanach are known. The names of the towns and the rivers, which are written in the holy scriptures, very few of their names have changed under the Ishmaelites.” How does he know what the Ishamelites called the towns and streams of the Land of Israel? He tells us that he criss-crossed the Land of Israel for years, asking and researching and checking, learned the Arabic language, wrote down his findings and compared them to the Biblical names. What can we call this? Is this not science and research at its finest?

Chazal on Textual Variants

More than that. In BT Shabbat 58: there is a famous tosfot: dibbur hamatchil “Ma’aviram”. The gemara there interprets Eli’s words in Shmuel I 2:24: “for it is no good report…the lord’s people do spread (מעברים)” and states there that “it is written מעבירם, not מעברים” (in other words a yod follows the bet, but not the reish). Tosfot comments there, that in our books the relevant passuk has a yod after the reish, as opposed to the Talmud. Tosfot brings another example of textual changes from the Yerushalmi which does the following drasha on Judges 15:16: One text states that Shimshon judged Israel for twenty years, and one text says that Shimshon judged Israel for fourty years, from here [we derive] that the Phillistines will see Shimshon twenty years after his death.” Tosfot comments: in our books there is no mention of Shimshon judging Israel for fourty years, and indeed, in [our version of] Judges 15:16 it is clearly written that Shimshon judged Israel for twenty years, and there is no trace of fourty years. From here – and this is the language of the Tosfot – that the Shas is at odds with our [versions of] scripture. In Gilyon Hashas on site many more examples of such textual variations are given. Indeed, the study of textual variants already exists in the Gemara and the first interpreters and this is not considered passul in the eyes of Tosfot.

True, Tosfot did not know at the time that Protestant [researchers] would arise and produce Christian and Jewish students who would say the Tanach has 600 thousand or 700 thousand errors which need “fixing” and that the main job of the Biblical student and researcher is to “reconstruct” the Tanach &c. One can understand how this attitude has deterred many Orthodox Jews who no longer wanted to hear about the study of textual variants. A common parable says that after the Flood Noach was disgusted by a jug of water. However, solid and careful study of textual variants within the dimensions of common sense is part of traditional ancient interpretation.

Here’s a slightly different example. It is said in Parshat Haazinu: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask thy father, and he will declare unto thee, thine elders, and they will tell thee. When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men, He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel.” A scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in our day, says instead of the “children of Israel” – “the children of God”. The Septuagint says the same thing. Up until now, one could argue that the Septuagint was wrong and inaccurate as they were in many other places. However once it turned out that the people of Qumran 2000 years ago agreed with the Septuagint, there can be no more doubt that in the time of the Second Temple there was a version that said “the children of God” and one that said “the children of Israel”. In any event, this is no mere corruption and the researcher has the right to wonder about the textual variant which was rejected. The halacha, of course, does not change one iota. No-one would consider declaring a sefer Torah or even a Chumash written according to a textual variant which differs from Chazal’s Masorah to be kosher, but the man of science has the right to ask what those ancients who read [the passuk as] “the children of God” thought.

A matter of much heavier weight is analysis of a prophetic text, and differentiating between statements in terms of attributing them to a particular prophet. This too, ostensibly, is a clear-cut method of Bible Critics. Many are disgusted – usually correctly – from such interpretive attempts. Yet lo and behold, in Vayikra Rabba 13 and in parallel in the Yalkut Shimoni – Rabbi Simon the amora says on Yeshayahu 13:19-20 : ‘And when they shall say unto you… [those] that chirp and that mutter…” &c.’ [Beginning of commentary – AIWAC] “Two things were prophesied by Be’era, and it did not amount to a book, and was attached to Yeshayahu, and these are: “And when they shall say unto you… [those] that chirp and that mutter…”. In other words: These two psukim in Yeshayahu Chapter 8 do not belong to Yeshayahu the prophet, but to a different prophet, named Be’era. ‘Rabbi Aha said: “Even the ruach Hakodesh does not dwell, except in measured manner. Some prophesize a whole book, some prophesize two books and some prophesize two psukim.” From the statements of the Amoraim we learn that according to Chazal there is nothing wrong with the assumption that a book named after one prophet contains the statements of another prophet.

Pshat and Drash

Now to the approach of our classical interpreters to pshat and drash. We can determine without a shadow of a doubt that the classical interpreters – Rashi, Ramban, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and Radak – all acted with complete freedom with CHazal’s interpretations – halachic midrash as well as aggadic midrash. We can bring a multitude of examples to demonstrate this fact. However here we will suffice with two-three of the most famous ones. On Shmot 13:9 “And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes” the Rashbam says: “a sign unto thee upon thy hand – according to the pshat interpretation: and it will be to you a constant reminder, [it is] as though it says: upon thy hand, like: put it as a seal against your heart. Between thine eyes – like a golden desert jewel, which is placed on the forehead for ornament[al purposes].” Rashbam here joins the extreme “pshat pursuers. After all, seventy percent of those who read the Torah will say, that the pshat of the passuk refers to the Mitzvah of tefilin. Yet here the Rashbam disagrees with the prevalent opinion (which might be the correct one, but that is a problem in and of itself) and stresses that the Mitzvah of tefillin is the midrash of the text while the pshat is different. It goes without saying, of course, that this does not detract anything from the Mitzvah of tefilin. After all the Rashbam obviously fulfilled this mitzvah with care and hiddur. But pshat and drash remain separate.

It says in Shmot 23:2 in Mishpatim: “Thou shalt not follow a [majority] to do evil; neither shalt thou in a cause to turn aside after a [majority] to [to incline]”. From here Chazal learn three major, fundamental halachot of Sanhedrin: One – not to follow a majority to do evil; that capital cases are not decided by a majority of one but at least two. The second principle: Don’t read: “neither shalt thou in a cause” but “neither shalt thou one who is greater [than you]” that we start [in judicial voting] from the most junior member – so that the junior and younger member of the Sanhedrin will not be swayed by the great and prominent judge [above him], we start with the juniors and end with the seniors. The third [principle]: “after a majority to incline” – one of the fundamentals of the Torah in general. What does Rashi say about this? “There are on this passuk midrashim of [Chazal], but the language of the passuk does not sit with them [according to the plain meaning], and I will resolve the language according to its plain meaning”. These important and venerable fundamentals of the halachas of Sanhedrin still stand, of course, but may interpret the passuk according to its plain meaning. We learn from Rashi’s words that even these important and fundamental matters do not need to be found according to the plain meaning of the passuk. Pshat and drash remain separate and halacha, of course, remains firmly in place.

Up until here we separated between pshat and drash. Radak goes even further. Here is one of his interpretations, where he sharply disagrees with a midrash of Chazal. In Joshua 5:14, God’s minister of war tells Joshua: “now I have come”. Radak says: “and [this passuk has a] drash, that it was to scare them for bittul Torah, and for not sacrificing the tamid of bein ha-arbayim. Joshua said to him: which one did you come for? [The minister] said: now I have come, for the bittul Torah you are committing now. Immediately “And Joshua rested within the valley” – he rested in the depths of halacha – and this drash is distant [from the text], as wartime is not the time for torah study. More than that: the passuk: “And Joshua rested” – is far from this parsha (three chapters later – in Chapter 8] – and it involves the was against Ha’ai (in other words an entirely different context). More than that – the writer of the drash erred in the passuk of “And he rested. For there are two [relevant] psukkim: “And Joshua rested…among the people” and the other passuk: “And Joshua walked that night within the valley”. The drash in question is a gemara in TB Megila 3. Here the Radak doesn’t just suffice with separating pshat from drash, but rather disagrees with the drash and criticizes it for a number of reasons: 1. He argues that it contradicts halacha and logic (even as an aggada) to demand from soldiers on the day of battle to sit and study Torah. 2. “And Joshua rested” is not in this chapter but another matter, distant from this one. 3. The darshan erred, that there is no passuk “And Joshua rested in the valley” (from which the Amora learned that he rested in the depth of halacha) but “And he rested among the people” and another passuk “And Joshua walked in the valley”.

The bottom line is that Judaism does not follow the path of the Catholic Church. The Church has an approved and sanctified interpretation and those who stray from it are branded heretics. Not so by us. Our classical interpretations are completely free – in its quest for the plain meaning of the text it is dependent neither on the statements of Chazal or the conventions of the ancients.  “The plainness which spreads every day”. Every interpreter also collects, summarizes and innovates and dissents from those who preceded him. Just as Rashi diverged from Chazal’s interpretations, so did his students and heirs diverge from his own. An interpreter of our day must of course examine the matter in light of our contemporary knowledge in linguistics, history, realia, archaeology, geography and all the branches of human knowledge. If he does so, then he follows in the way of the ancients even if he disagrees with them on a thousand details. But the one who copies the words of the ancients whilst ignoring the facts which have been discovered and the knowledge which has been accumulated in our day, he abandons the way of the ancients and rebels against them.

Next: Part IV (the final part): Chazal and Wellhausen – what’s the difference?


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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1 Response to Professor Yehuda Elitzur and Bible Study: Part III

  1. Pingback: Professor Yehuda Elitzur and Bible Study: Part IV | QED

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