Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality


The Law of the Nazir, as it appears in the sixth chapter of Sefer Bamidbar, presents an interesting dilemma. The law is introduced in verse 2, “When a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the Lord as a Nazir,” and then goes straight into the various details of the law without ever mentioning what might motivate a person to make such a vow. It is even unclear if this is a vow that everyone ought to make at some point in their life, or if it’s just meant for extreme individuals.

Ibn Ezra takes a clear stance regarding these questions in his comment on Bamidbar 6:2.

Yafli – He will separate, or will do wondrous (PL”A) things, for most of the world follows after their physical desires. Neder Nazir – a vow to be a “nazir“, which is a title. And this is from the same root[1] as “Vayinazru” (Vayikra 22:2), “they shall separate themselves”, meaning that he will distance himself from physical desires. He does this for the service of God, for wine destroys conscientiousness and the service of God.

Ibn Ezra is suggesting that while it is not mandatory for everyone to take the vow of a nazir, it is certainly the ideal, as the alternative is to give up on being a conscientious servant of God. Moreover, the nazir may head to one extreme, but this is only because everyone else is heading to the other. The nazir is motivated to serve God in the only way really possible. Given the choice between a life of constantly chasing after lust and desire or a life of godly asceticism, presumably everyone should choose the latter.

Rashi, however, brings a midrash with a very different approach. “Ki Yafli – he will separate. Why was the passage of the Nazir juxtaposed with the passage of the Sotah, the suspected wife? To teach you the anyone who sees the punishment of the Sotah should separate himself from wine, for wine brings a person to adultery.” According to the midrash, only a specific person under a specific set of circumstances should take the vow of the nazir. Specifically, someone who has seen the ultimate consequences of physical indulgence, someone so struck by their experience that they feel the only option is to stay away from all physical pleasure. Everyone else, however, should continue with life as normal, which presumably involves a normal amount of physical pleasure.

William James, in his “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, discusses the religious phenomenon of asceticism, which he relates to what he calls “the sick soul.”

For in its spiritual meaning asceticism stands for nothing less than for the essence of the twice-born philosophy. It symbolizes, lamely enough no doubt, but sincerely, the belief that there is an element of real wrongness in this world, which is neither to be ignored nor evaded, but which must be squarely met and overcome by an appeal to the soul’s heroic resources, and neutralized and cleansed away by suffering.

This is an approach to the world that sees it as inherently broken and evil. The sick soul’s only response is to flee from the world, to stand up against evil. The ascetic is thus a heroic figure, fighting for good by abstaining from that which is inherently evil.

As against this view, the ultra-optimistic form of the once-born philosophy thinks we may treat evil by the method of ignoring. Let a man who, by fortunate health and circumstances, escapes the suffering of any great amount of evil in his own person, also close his eyes to it as it exists in the wider universe outside his private experience, and he will be quit of it altogether, and can sail through life happily on a healthy-minded basis.

This approach sees the world as inherently good, despite the fact that there is some evil in it, and thus a person need only avoid the evil, rather than fight against it.

The nazir of the midrash is James’ ascetic. He has seen that there is evil in the world, that indulgence reigns and that it leads to great suffering, and his only response is to push the world away as forcefully as he can. He struggles on, his life a heroic fight against the flaws of the world he lives in. Everyone else, however, remains blissfully unaware that such a struggle might be necessary, and they can live their lives according to the rest of the laws of the Torah.

What makes the nazir of the midrash different from James’ is what they see as evil, what has led them to separate from worldly experiences. James’ “sick soul” has discovered that there is evil in the world due to its very nature as a physical realm. The nazir of the midrash has seen the moral consequences of physical indulgence. He has seen that over-indulgence has led to the destruction of the bond between individuals, to the humiliation of a person subjected to a ritualistic examination. All of these could be avoided if a person is willing to forgo their physical nature, to assume a more spiritual life. The ascetic flees the world into the welcoming arms of suffering; the nazir steps away from the world and toward its inhabitants, toward a more moral life. While the vow of the nazir is almost unheard of in our day and age, the drive of the nazir should not be. While we won’t decide to abstain from wine and cutting our hair, the passage of the nazir should give us pause to consider our excesses, and the way these excesses affect not only ourselves and our relationship with ‘א, but also the people around us.

[1] Note that this not the only possible etymology. Nazir could also come from the word “nezer”, meaning “crown.” That would explain the odd phrasing of Bamidbar 2:7 and explain the connection between 2:8 and Shemot 28:37 & 39:30. Based on this connection, it might be correct to consider the Nazir as a kohen gadol whose focus is on morality (see the end of this essay)  as opposed to the kohen gadol whose focus is on ritual.

Parashat Terumah 5774 – Mount Sinai and the Miskhan: On the Actualization of Beliefs

וְאֶל הָאָרֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת הָעֵדֻת אֲשֶׁר אֶתֵּן אֵלֶיךָ

Parashat Terumah is the first of five parashot, forming the last section of Sefer Shemot, which discuss the building of the Mishkan and the episode of the Golden Calf. These parashot are the setting of a famous argument[1] between Rashi and Ramban regarding the timing of the Golden calf versus the command to build the Mishkan. Rashi, embracing the principle that the Torah prioritizes themes over chronology in terms of structure[2], says that the parashot of Terumah and Teztaveh belong after the episode of the Golden Calf, while Ramban consistently avoids use of this principle[3] and so says that the parashot are in their correct chronological order. This debate affects the placement of the command to build the mishkan, placing it either before or after the Golden Calf. Rashi says that it comes afterwards, as Rashi sees the Mishkan as an atonement for the Golden Calf, while Ramban says that it comes before. However, their debate does not change purpose of the Mishkan. Determining the purpose of the Mishkan requires explaining why this series of parashot, start to finish, occurs here. If the command to build the Mishkan occurred after the Golden Calf, then why was it moved to its current location, just after the Revelation at Sinai? And if it occurred in its current location, then why was the command given here, just after the Revelation at Sinai?

Ramban says that the purpose of the Mishkan is to be the site of continuous revelation. It is a portable Mount Sinai. This is obvious not only from the verse, “And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark-cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel”[4] (Shemot 25:22), but also from the various parallels between the Mishkan and Mount Sinai. ‘א descends on both of them in a cloud (Shemot 24:15-18 and 40:34-38). Each is divided into three sections; for the Mishkan it is the Hatzer, the Kodesh, and the Hodesh HaKedoshim; for Mount Sinai it was the foot of the mountain, the mountain itself, and the summit. Finally, the luchot are given on Mount Sinai, and from then on they rest in the Mishkan. Thus Ramban is undoubtedly correct, and while Rashi does not explain why he thinks the command to build the Mishkan was placed there, it is reasonable to assume that he would agree with Ramban on that point[5]. However, the idea that the Mishkan will serve as the site of continuous revelation is only mentioned after the creation of the Aron and the Kaporet, the specific location from which ‘א would then speak to Moshe, and so seems to be a function of the Aron/Kaporet rather than the Mishkan. Moreover, this all seems both a little complex and unnecessary for the purposes of revelation. Not only would all the prophets after they enter the land get prophecy outside the Mishkan/Mikdash, Moshe himself has already done so many times. While Revelation occurs in the Mishkan, it is not a function of the Mishkan, nor is it dependent on it. What, then, is the purpose of the Mishkan?

The answer to this question is actually rather obvious, but it hardly clear. In the very beginning of the commands and instructions regarding building the Mishkan ‘א says, “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Shemot 25:8). Thus it would seem the purpose of the Mishkan is in order to enable ‘א to dwell amongst Bnei Yisrael. But how does it do that? ‘א is everywhere, so what good does building a tent do? The answer lies in the details of the Mishkan, all of which enable the fulfillment of its purpose.

The primary thing that Judaism says about ‘א, one of the few things agreed upon by all branches of Judaism, is that ‘א is one.The Mishkan expresses that in many ways, starting with the beautifully unitary structure of the Mishkan, especially the exact cube shape of the Kodesh HaKedoshim. More importantly, the text itself goes out of its way to emphasize this. “That the tabernacle may be one whole”(Shemot 26:6). “And couple the tent together, that it may be one”(Shemot 26:11). These and numerous other verses attest to the fact that the Mishkan was meant to embody the idea of ‘א’s oneness.

Another strong theme in the Mishkan is that of a graduated approach to Kedushah. In addition to the three-tiered breakdown of the area of the Mishkan into the Hatzer, the Kodesh, and the Kodesh HaKedoshim, the material structure of the Mishkan itself creates this delineation. The only metal used outside the Kodesh is copper, which is also used for the sockets for the entrance to the Kodesh, and for the clasps of the upper cloth covering the Kodesh. The sockets for the walls of the Kodesh and the entrance to the Kodesh HaKedoshim are silver. The clasps for the lower cloth covering the Kodesh are gold, along with all of the vessels in Kodesh. However, only the Aron HaEdut, in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, is covered in gold both inside and out. Thus the three zones are clearly delineated. This delineation emphasizes another very important idea about ‘א: His Kingship. A king by definition cannot just be approached by any person at any time. Specific people can approach the King, but even them only at specific times. Only the Kohen Gadol could enter the Kodesh HaKedoshim, and then only on Yom Kippur. This recognition of the absolute majesty of ‘א is an incredibly important idea. In the early centuries of the Common Era this idea made Jewish Merkabah mysticism unique among the various mystical trends in the world, emphasizing not the wondrous spiritual worlds one could explore, but rather the difficult and elaborate process of approaching the King of All Kings[6]. This idea is central to the relationship of Man to ‘א, and it is built into the very physical structure of the Mishkan.

In opposition to these gradations is the relation of Bnei Yisrael to the Mishkan. It would be easy to read this gradation as a function of elitism on the part of the priests, reserving the close encounter with ‘א for themselves. However, the Mishkan in its function and its origin rejects this idea. When gathering the materials from which the Mishkan will be made, ‘א asks “of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering” (Shemot 25:2). The Mishkan is a product of the nation as a whole. In terms of function, not only is the Mishkan the place where all of Bnei Yisrael come to serve ‘א, even when Moshe would hear ‘א’s voice from the Kodesh HaKodeshim, one of the more exclusive occurrences in the Mishkan, the Torah specifically states that this was it would be for the sake of all Israel (Shemot 25:22). Not only does this mean that the graduated structure of the Mishkan was a matter of respect rather than elitism, it also demonstrates the importance of equality and connectivity in the Nation of Israel.

The entire Mishkan is built around the Aron. The concentric quadrilaterals get smaller and smaller, with the Aron being the final, inner-most, rectangle. This central position in any other temple would be occupied by the god of that temple, by the deity of the local people. In the Mishkan this position place is filled not by ‘א, but by His Word, and more specifically, by his Law. While ‘א’s voice would come to the Kaporet for Moshe to hear it, the main purpose of the Aron HaEdut was to hold the Luchot HaEdut, and thus these remained constantly at the heart of the Mishkan. When Moshe first writes out a complete Torah-scroll in Sefer Devarim it is put in the Aron (Devarim 31:26). The centrality of the Law here cannot be over emphasized. While the degree to which Judaism cares about the beliefs of individual Jews has been debated constantly throughout the centuries, the very fact that such a debate was possible tells you about how central the Law is. Only when the law take center stage can the necessity of beliefs be questioned. Few, however, have been the voices in the Jewish Tradition that argued for a total lack of inherent beliefs in Judaism, with perhaps the most famous being Moses Mendelssohn. The reason that the centrality of the Law never eradicated the Torah’s inherent beliefs is that the Law functions on a large scale the same way as all the minutia of the Mishkan. The same way the very fixings of the Mishkan all express greater ideas and beliefs, so too all of the details of the Law. ‘א’s Law is about living ideas in everyday life.

Judaism doesn’t care about beliefs in the abstract. If the Torah wanted simply to convey certain ideas, it could have written them down in a book and done away with the rules and the narratives. But a book of ideas cannot tell you about what it means to live in context of ‘א. Only the stories of those who lived in relation to him can do that. Only ‘א’s Law enables you to live ‘א and His values into your life. And perhaps this, more than anything, explains the reason the command for the Mishkan was given right after the Revelation at Sinai. At Sinai, Bnei Yisrael experienced this supremely powerful event. They experienced something that wasn’t just once-in-a-lifetime, it was once-in-history. The question that has to be asked after such an event is how do you keep it relevant? How do you turn that peak experience into a living reality every day of your life? You have to have a framework of actions that are based off of and express that experience. The Mishkan not only serves that purpose in terms of expressing individual ideas, it also expresses that most basic idea that underwrites all of Judaism from that moment on: ‘א dwells in the life of Man.

[1] For more on this debate, see R’ Menachem Leibtag’s thorough shiur on it here.

[2] In Hebrew: אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה

[3] He is unable to avoid it entirely, as Bamidbar 1 and Bamidbar 9 occur in the second and first months of the second year in the desert respectively. Rather he simply minimizes it as much as possible.

[4] Translations from

[5] Menachem Leibtag, ibid.

[6] Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Ch. 1

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 3: Lower Criticism and Textual Emendations

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 3

Lower Criticism and Textual Emendations

(If you’re just joining the series, here is Part 1 and Part 2

Lower Criticism is the study of the various texts of Tanakh in order to determine how the text has changed over time (as opposed to Higher Criticism which is concerned with determining who wrote the Torah and the like). This is done by comparing the text that Jews use today[1], referred to as the Masoretic Text, with the Dead Sea Scrolls[2], the Septuagint[3], the Vulgate[4], the Peshitta[5], the Torah of the Samaritans[6], the Aramaic Targumim[7], and the quotations from the Talmud. Comparison of these texts reveals words or letters that differ between the texts, presumably due to change over time. Based on this, some Biblical Critics have attempted to sift through the different versions and correct the Masoretic Text that we use today, or even to find the original texts of the Torah and the rest of Tanakh.

Most of the texts that are compared to our Torah text are translations, and thus comparison requires first translating the texts back into Hebrew, and then comparing them. At this point the texts have been translated twice, so the accuracy of the text suffers somewhat, but not beyond usefulness. While these texts have not revealed extreme differences such as differing conceptions of god or the like, there are differences[8]. While these could present a difficulty for an Orthodox Jew, they could also be dismissed as a function of translation errors, or as intentional mistranslations on the part of sectarians; i.e., perhaps the Qumran sects intentionally changed their Torah to fit their own views. What presents more difficulty is the differences between the Tanakh text as we have it today, and the way Tanakh is quoted in the Talmud.

There are often differences in the quotations from Tanakh that the Talmud uses, and the text of Tanakh that we have it today. The first thing to note about this is that not every one of these differences indicates that the sages of the Talmud had a different text than we do. It’s also possible that somewhere in the years since the compilation of the Talmud, scribal errors were made in its transmission, and so what looks like a misquotation of Tanakh is actually a mistake in the text of our Talmud[9]. However, there are cases where it is clear from the discussion of the Talmud that the original quotations was in fact different from our text today.

The problem this presents for Orthodoxy is that most Orthodox Jews ascribe to Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, thirteen statements of belief that a Jew must affirm. The Eight Principle is that the Torah that we have today is exactly the same as the Torah that was given to Moshe[24]. According to this, to admit to even slight changes between our texts today and those of the time of the Gemara, let alone before that, would be heresy. Thus we are presented with a contradiction between the words of Rambam, and the contradictions that we see before our own eyes. However, salvation from this conundrum may be found if we extend our view beyond Rambam, to the other sages of the Jewish Tradition[10].

Rambam’s Eighth Principle expresses a very simple view of the text of the Torah[11], which is problematic not only in terms of the texts as know they existed, but also in terms of other Jewish opinions held by other great sages. One contradiction of the type mentioned above is found in Masekhet Shabbat on page 55b. Tosafot comments there (s.v. ma’avirim ktiv) and, instead of denying or brushing aside the contradiction, states, “הש״ס שלנו חולק על הספרים שלנו,” “Our Talmud argues on [read: contradicts] our Books [of Tanakh].” Rabbi Akiva Eiger comments there and, in possibly his largest comment in all of the Talmud, he brings the locations of every place in the Gemara where a quotation of Tanakh contradicts our text today. The Rashba, in discussion of the various cases where our Talmud contradicts our Tanakh, suggests that there are times when it might be appropriate to actually amend our Torah text in order to match the quotations of the Gemara[12]. The Chatam Sofer, by no means a liberal voice in the Jewish tradition, actually gives these contradictions as the reason why we do not make a berakhah when performing the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah[13]. These are only a few of the voices in the Jewish tradition that readily affirm the differences between the Talmud’s quotations of Tanakh and the Tanakh as we have it today.

However, there are also sources, from before Rambam, that suggest such changes had occurred to the text of Tanakh. The gemara in Masekhet Kiddushin, page 30a, discusses the possibility of determining the exact midpoint of the Torah, and concludes that it cannot be done because, by the time that they were having the discussion, they had already forgotten the correct spellings of many of the words[14]. There is also a midrash regarding the Torah that was used upon the return of Ezra HaSofer to Israel.

Three books they found in the Temple court, the book ‘מעונ, the book זעטוטי, and the book היא. In the one they found written קדם א׳לוהי מעון and in the two they found written מעונה (Deut. 33: 27), and they upheld the two and set aside the one. In the one they found written ישראל בני זעטוטי את וישלח and in the two they found written וישלח את נערי בני ישראל  (Exodus 24:5) and they upheld the two and set aside the one. In the one they found written nine times היא, and in the two they found written eleven times היא ,and they upheld the two and set aside the one[15]. (Jerusalem Talmud, Masekhet Ta’anit 4: 2)

This midrash states that the text of Ezra’s Torah was actually composed by going with two out of three torah scrolls on every occurrence of debate between them. While this is both logical and in accord with the halakhic principle of following the majority, the likelihood of our that Torah, let alone our text today, being exactly what Moshe gave to Bnei Yisrael in the desert drops dramatically with each contradiction.

While these sources discussed forced or accidental changes, there are sources that discuss the possibility that the text of the Torah was intentionally changed. Rashi makes a powerful statement on this matter in regard to the odd phrasing of a verse in Bereishit (18:22).

and Abraham was still standing, etc.: But is it not so that he did not go to stand before Him, but the Holy One, blessed be He, came to him and said to him (above verse 20): “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, etc.,” and it should have been written here: “and the Lord was still standing beside Abraham?” But this is a scribal emendation (that they [the scribes] switched it to be written like that) (Gen. Rabbah 49:7).

Rashi is saying that in order to demonstrate proper reverence to ‘א the scribes changed the text of the Torah. Moreover, this is not a local incident, as he uses this explanation in a variety of places throughout Tanakh[16]. An even bolder midrashic formulation, in a discussion of certain words throughout Tanakh that have dots above them, attributes words throughout the text to the authorship of Ezra.

Wherefore are the dots? Thus said Ezra: “If Elijah will come and say, why have you written these words? I shall say unto him: I have already put dots over them. And if he will say, thou has written well, I shall remove the dots over them.[17] (Bamidbar Rabbah 3:14, Avot de-Rabbi Nathan 34:5)

This midrash is saying that Ezra added these words to Tanakh, even though he was not 100% certain they belonged there. Therefore he put dots over the words in order to make it obvious that they were his additions, and that way they could be removed if Eliyahu HaNavi determined them to be out of place. Thus the midrash is suggesting that before the Gemara, before even the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Second Temple Period, Ezra had changed the text of the Torah.

Rambam’s Eight Principle flies in the face of all of these sources[18], and the evidence we see with our own eyes. It is hard to state with confidence that we possess the exact same text, letter for letter, that Moshe had. an interesting approach to this difficulty was taken by the Seridei Eish, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg.

Rambam knew very well that there variations existed when he defined his Principles. The words of Ani Ma’amin and the words of the Rambam, “The entire Torah in our possession today,” must not betaken literally, implying that all the letters of the present Torah are the exact letters given to Moshe Rabbeinu. Rather, it should be understood in a general sense that the Torah we learn and live by is for all intents and purposes the same Torah that was given to Moshe Rabbeinu. (Fundamentals and Faith, 90-91)

While this was not Rambam’s intent in writing his Eight Principle, it does provide a more workable model for someone confronted with all of this evidence and source material. Rather than burying our heads in the sand and pretending that the Torah has never changed, we should simply appreciate that there has been no truly significant changes [19], and that the Torah is for all intents and purposes the same as it was when Moshe gave it to Bnei Yisrael.

This brings us to the discussion of textual emendations. While Lower Criticism is a field of study in and of itself, it also has ramifications for the interpretation of Tanakh. Critical Scholars often switch or remove words and letters that seem to them to be incorrect in order to create a text that reads more correctly to them. The Orthodox Tanakh Scholar Shemuel David Luzzato also used such critical methods in his commentary on the Torah. However, both this approach to textual interpretation and the attempt to find the “original text of the Tanakh” have received critiques from within Biblical Criticism. In a study of a passage from Sefer Yehezkal, Moshe Greenberg argues that, regardless of which versions may be original, changing the Masoretic Text based on other versions often ignores and obliterates the brilliance of the text[20]. Critics often perceive “textual flaws” and instead of looking for a deeper reason for the text to be written that way, simply change it to a reading they find more fitting. Greenberg argues that perceived defects in the text of Tanakh should be a springboard for a deeper investigation, as they often point the way to discovering the masterful artistry of Tanakh. Meir Weiss argues similarly that most textual emendations are enacted based on faulty understanding of the text[21]. He says that most critics simply do not know enough about what the text should look like, and work off faulty assumptions about the nature of Biblical Poetry and Narrative. Greenberg also argues against the idea that scholars could determine the “original texts” of Tanakh, not because of the difficulty of the task, but because there is no such thing[22]. He argues that at any point at which there was a fully developed text of a book of Tanakh, there was multiple versions. He does make a caveat that the text of the Torah itself seems to have been concretized pretty early, but he still maintains that there were multiple versions. This final argument of Greenberg is complex from an Orthodox perspective. It contradicts the idea that the Torah was given by ‘א at Sinai, but not incredibly. It makes a similar statement regarding the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, but there is no principle of Faith in any part of Judaism that requires one to believe in the giving of a book of Nakh all together at one time. Jeremiah 36:2 in fact suggests otherwise.

Take you a scroll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke that to you, from the days of Josiah, even to this day.

Sefer Yirmiyahu seems to have been written more than once, at various stages of its development. Similarly the Gemara suggests that Sefer Shemuel was written in parts by Shemuel HaNavi, Gad HaChozeh, and Natan the Prophet, and then all those were compiled to make Sefer Shemuel as we know it today[23]. We have a lot more flexibility in terms of how we understand the books of Nakh than we do in terms of how we understand the Torah.

Lower Criticism can tell us a lot about the nature of the text of Tanakh, but it cannot tell use what this information means. What this means in terms of the text of Tanakh is up to us. We can either hold tight to a strict interpretation of Rambam’s Eighth Principle, or we can accept the true nature of the text, and embrace the sages and sources that understood Tanakh in this manner.

(Onward to Part 4) 

[1] The oldest version of our text that exists today is known as the Aleppo Codex, written in the 10th century, and was used by Rambam as the basis for his Hilkhot Sefer Torah. For more, see here.

[2] Tanakh texts from the Second Temple Period found hidden in caves in the Israeli desert area of Qumran, by the Dead Sea, thought to be written by jews of varying sects and then hidden from the Romans. For more, see here.

[3] An early Greek translation discussed in Masekhet Megillah 9a-b. Of the fifteen deliberate mis-translations recorded there, only 2 are found in the Septuagint as we have it today. For more, see here.

[4] An 4th-century Latin translation used by the Catholic Church. For more, see here.

[5] An early Syriac translation that is likely from the second century. For more, see here.

[6] The Samaritans were brought to Israel and settled in Samaria during the First Temple Period. They have their own traditions and a Torah that are similar to that of Rabbinic Judaism. For more, see here.

[7] The most famous of these Aramaic translations are the Targum Onkelos on the Torah and the Targum Yonatan on Nevi’im and Ketuvim. For more, see here.

[8] Kaiser, Walter (2001). The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant?. InterVarsity Press. p. 48.

[9] For more on this, see this shiur by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, Rosh Yeshiva of YU.

[10] I am indebted for many of the sources that follow to Marc Shapiro’s “The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides Principles Reappraised”. These sources and others can be found in the article that was later expanded into the book, which can be found here, pages 10-21.

[11] It is important to note that this principle is only referring to the Five Books of Moshe, not to all of Tanakh.

[12] She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Rashba ha-Meyuhasot le-Ramban (Warsaw, 1883), #232. See also Meiri to Kiddushin 30a, Kiryat Sefer, 57-58, and She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Radbaz; #1020

[13] She’elot u-Teshuvot Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, #52

[14] The form of spelling mistakes under discussion are what is called in Hebrew “מלא וחסר,” “plene and defective” in English. This is the spelling of words with or without extra letters that neither make a sound nor affect the meaning, rather they simply denote that sound is made by the vowel on that syllable.

[15] Translation from Marc Shapiro, Op Cit. This midrash is also found in Sifre Piska 356., Masekhet Soferim 6:4, and Avot D’Rabbi Natan, Ed. S. Schechter, (Vienna, 1887), Recension B, chapter 46, p. 65a;

[16] See Note 140 in the article by Marc Shapiro cited above in note 10. It seems that this is not necessarily the correct interpretation of the midrashic phrase “תיקון סופרים,” “Emendation of the Scribes,” but it is how Rashi understood it. For more on the proper interpretation, see this article by Avrohom Lieberman.

[17] Translation from Marc Shapiro, Op Cit.

[18] This is without even going into the discussion of the last eight verses of the Torah, a view from the Gemara that Rambam would have qualified as heresy.

[19] The only real ramifications are for the midrashic approach where every letter is of the utmost significance, which is beyond the scope of this discussion. Two quick points that should be mentioned: 1. This approach is not to be considered totally unusable, but it does have to be understood in light of this whole discussion. 2. There has always been a second midrashic school which did not place ultimate value on each letter.

[20] Greenberg’s article can be found here.

[21] The Bible From Within: The Total Interpretation Method, pp.

[22] Greenberg, Op Cit.

[23] Masekhet Baba Batra, 15a

[24] For a rather different, and not mainstream, understanding of Rambam’s Eight Principle that does not contradict the evidence, see here.

Parashat Kedoshim 5774 – On Kedushah and the Separation of Nations

וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי

Chapters 18-20 of Sefer Vayikra form one unit dealing with two very distinct subjects in three separate parts . Chapter 18 discusses the laws of forbidden sexual relationships, chapter 19 discusses a variety of laws related to Kedushah, and chapter 20 discusses both themes together. Through this unity, Rashi reasons that the definition of Kedushah[1] is separation from inappropriate sexual relations, a definition which fits clearly with the following juxtaposition:

You shall be holy: Separate (Root: פרש) yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness, [for example:], “[They (the kohanim) shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned…I, the Lord, Who sanctifies you [am holy]” (Lev. 21:7-8); and, “he shall not profane his offspring…I am the Lord, Who sanctifies him” (Lev. 21:15); and, “They shall be holy…[They shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned” (Lev. 21:6-7).[2]

However, a close study of the text involved demonstrates that this is just the beginning of a much larger picture.

There are many ways of determining the topic and unity of a passage in Tanakh. One of the key methods is through the use of keywords, words that are repeated several times. In chapters 18-21 we find four keywords, namely “laws” (root: חק), “rules” (root: שפט), “keep” (root: שמר), and “holy” (root: קדש). “Laws,” “Rules,” and “Holy” all show up ten times while “Keep” appears seven times[3], both numbers of biblical import, which highlights the thematic role of each of these ideas.

Another method of determining thematic importance is through parallels at the beginning and end of a unit, such a the parallel between 18:3-5 and 20:22-23:

3 You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. 4 My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God. 5 You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.[4]

22 You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out. 23 You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them.

This parallel denotes the beginning and end of the section while also reinforcing the topic ideas of Laws and Rules. What is not seen to be a topic, however, is separation from sexual impropriety. Yet it is undeniably a large part of the passage. So what then can be said of the definition of Kedushah from this context?

While Separation (פרישות) is not found in this section at all, and certainly not attached to Kedushah, there is a very similar word that is used here in context of Kedushah. Vayikra 20:24-26 discusses the idea that Israel is “set apart” (root: בדל).

24 and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the Lord am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. 25 So you shall set apart the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you to treat as unclean. 26 You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

Thus Kedushah is not simply about Separation, but about being distinguished and set apart.

A perfect demonstration of this is found in the law of shaatnez, found in Vayikra 19:19[5]:

“You shall observe My laws. You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.”

This law is generally interpreted as a symbolic law meant to teach man about the importance of separating between distinct realms. It is often taken as being directed against disorder[6] or intermarriage[7]. However, the assumption that shaatnez is inherently problematic, if only on a symbolic level, is hard to maintain once one takes a look at the broader context of the Torah. Due to the fact that shaatnez is only ever mentioned by name in regards to the prohibition of wearing it, many people miss its earlier appearances in the torah. It appears in Sefer Shemot, in 26:1, “As for the Tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them,” 26:31, “You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of cherubim worked into it,” 28:6, “They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.,” 28:15, “You shall make a breastpiece of decision/ worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen,” and 39:29, “and sashes of fine twisted linen, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, done in embroidery- as the Lord had commanded Moses,” among others. These verses all refer to the materials of the Mishkan and the garments of the Kohanim. All are composed of linen and colored wool[8]. Thus while shaatnez is forbidden to the average member of Bnei Yisrael, it is in fact mandatory for the Kohanim, and therefore it cannot be inherently bad. Furthermore, even for a normal citizen of Israel it is not entirely forbidden. Bamidbar 15:39, part of the original commandment regarding tzitzit, says that shaatnez is part of tzitzit. “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.” As with the colored wool of the Mishkan and the priestly garments, the colored string of the tzitzit is made of wool[9]. The inclusion of shaatnez, along with the otherwise priestly blue[10], is part of how tzitzit remind the wearer of their priestly purpose[11].

The commandment of shaatnez is not itself about two things that need to be kept separate, but about differentiating between two groups with different purposes, the Kohanim and the rest of Bnei Yisrael. Only in tzitzit, the mitzvah intended to remind Bnei Yisrael of their purpose as a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” do they wear shaatnez. This is the integral message of the entire section, of Vayikra 18-21. The two ideas of this pericope, that of keeping the Laws/Rules of ‘א as opposed to the Laws of the Nations and that of Kedushah, are actually one. What makes Israel holy is that it is differentiated, and differentiates itself, from the other nations by its practices. However, much like shaatnez, it is not that either set of practices is necessarily good or bad. While the Torah clearly takes a negative stance towards those practices of the nations mentioned in Vayikra 18-21, what is important about them is not their moral quality, but that they are not the practices which ‘א has laid down for Israel to follow. Kedushah is about the fulfilment of purpose, on both the national and individual levels. It’s not just avoiding negative or foreign practices, but also the active fulfillment of the purpose and laws that ‘א laid down for Israel that makes Bnei Yisrael a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”

[1] Found in his comment on Vayikra 19:2.

[2] Translation of Rashi from

[3] The root שמר also appears in the word “משמרתי” in 18:30, but this is grammatically different from the other 7 uses.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] The ideas in this paragraph are owed to Jacob Milgrom in his article, “Law, Narrative, and the Exegesis of Leviticus 19”.

[6] B. Sanh. 60a; Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Bekhor Shor.

[7] Mikra KiPeshuto, A.B. Ehrlich.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 4b, Yoma 71b.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Shemot 28:31 and 39:22, in contrast to Bamidbar 15:39.

[11] Shemot 19:6.

In Defense of Peshat – Unpacking an Important Ramban

In Defense of Peshat – Unpacking an Important Ramban


There is often a great deal of opposition to the more peshat-oriented approach to understanding the text of the Torah taken by many modern readers of Tanakh. However, there are many mainstream, Orthodox, sources, especially from the Rishonim, that support such an approach. Many such critiques tend to come along with astonishment that such a reader might disagree with Rashi, and so a comment of Ramban on Bereishit 8:4 deserves particular attention. In a few short lines he critiques many fundamental issues with much of the opposition to the peshat approach, as a brief dissection and analysis will show.


The Text:


כתב רש”י מכאן אתה למד שהיתה משוקעת במים י”א אמה כפי החשבון הכתוב בפירושיו והוא כן בבראשית רבה (לג ז) אבל כיון שרש”י מדקדק במקומות אחרי מדרשי ההגדות וטורח לבאר פשטי המקרא הרשה אותנו לעשות כן כי שבעים פנים לתורה ומדרשים רבים חלוקים בדברי החכמים


Rashi wrote that from here it is learned that the Ark sank 11 amot into the water, according to the calculations that are written in his commentary and in Bereishit Rabbah. However, since Rashi is in some places critical [in his reading] of narrative midrashim, and exerts himself to clarify the plain sense of the text, he permitted us to do so, for there are seventy facets to the Torah, and there are many contradictory midrashim in the words of the Sages.[1]


The Breakdown:


Rashi wrote that from here it is learned that the Ark sank 11 amot into the water, according to the calculations that are written in his commentary and in Bereishit Rabbah (33:7).


That is the beginning of a long comment discussing the dating and chronicling of the flood, wherein Ramban takes a strong stance against the view of Rashi and Bereishit Rabbah (33:7). Before he does so, however, he gives four reasons why it is permitted for him to argue with Rashi and the midrash from Bereishit Rabbah. It is notable that while many of Ramban’s comments on the Torah take the form of arguments with Rashi, there are also many that argue with Ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra spends much of his commentary arguing with midrashim, and thus Ramban’s sense of needing permission to argue with Rashi/midrashim is not a matter of lacking precedent in doing so. He must have faced active opposition to doing so even in his own day, and it would be to this opposition that the following comments were directed.


However, since Rashi is in some places critical of narrative midrashim,


This addresses a mistake of incredible importance in the popular understanding of Rashi. People tend to assume that “Rashi” and “Midrash” are synonymous terms. This is incorrect. While Rashi often used midrashim in his attempt to find peshat, he certainly did not always do so. A perfect example of this is his comment to Bereishit 12:5:


אשר עשו בחרן: שהכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה, אברהם מגייר את האנשים, ושרה מגיירת הנשים, ומעלה עליהם הכתוב כאלו עשאום. ופשוטו של מקרא עבדים ושפחות שקנו להם, כמו (שם לא א) עשה את כל הכבוד הזה, (במדבר כד יח) וישראל עושה חיל, לשון קונה וכונס


that they had acquired in Haran:whom he had brought under the wings of the Shechinah. Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women, and Scripture ascribes to them as if they had made them (Gen. Rabbah 39:14). The simple meaning of the verse is: the slaves and maidservants that they had acquired for themselves, as in [the verse] (below 31:1): “He acquired (עָשָׂה) all this wealth” [an expression of acquisition]; (Num. 24:18): “and Israel acquires,” an expression of acquiring and gathering.


The pasuk, speaking about Avraham and Sarah’s journey from Haran, mentions the “nefesh asher asu”. Everyone knows the midrash that Rashi quotes, that this refers to the people they converted. However, Rashi follows the midrash by saying that the plain reading of the text is that it means slaves. One could debate what Rashi thinks about the historical reality of the departure from Haran, whether it is like peshat or like the midrash. What is clear is that Rashi felt this midrash was not the proper understanding of the text, and that he had no problem saying so.


and exerts himself to clarify the plain sense of the text,


This brings up an interesting point. Rashi himself describes the goal of his commentary as a “peshat” understanding of the text, famously in his comments to Bereishit 3:8, “יש מדרשי אגדה רבים… ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא,” “There are many Aggadic midrashim… but I have come only [to teach] the simple meaning of the Scripture,” and 3:24, “ומדרש אגדה יש, ואני איני בא אלא לפשוטו,” “There are Aggadic midrashim, but I have come only to interpret its simple meaning”. Based on this many have stated that when Rashi brings a midrash it is in fact peshat, and anyone who really looked into it would see this. The problem with that statement is that the quote from Bereishit 3:8 is truncated. The statement continues with a really important clause, “ולאגדה המישבת דברי המקרא דבר דבור על אופניו,” “and such Aggadah that settles [the issues in] the words of the verses, each word in its proper way”. The problem with this phrase is that it could be an expansion of the previous clause, or a new statement.  If it is an expansion, then Rashi is saying that he brings midrashim that fit well with the text as part of his search for a peshat understanding, meaning he thinks the midrash is peshat. If it’s a new statement, then Rashi is saying that in addition to his goal of finding a peshat understanding of the text, he also has a goal of bringing midrashim that fit with the text, for whatever purpose. The exact nature and purpose of Rashi’s commentary therefore remains unclear.

What is clear is that Rashi is interested, to whatever degree, in finding the peshat reading of the Torah, and that when Rashi brings a midrash, it is a midrash that Rashi believes will resolve problems in the text itself. Therefore midrashim are not self-justifying. A midrash must adequately address the textual issues in order to be of relevance to understanding the text, like Ramban obviously thought it did by Bereishit 8:4, or Rashi by Bereishit 12:5. In such cases a more text-based approach is needed.


he permitted us to do so,


This is an important point. Ramban is stating that because Rashi did it, we can do it too. Neither Rashi nor Ramban thought of themselves as being part of an elite class of people qualified to analyze the biblical text. They likely saw themselves as part of a long chain of readers of the Torah, all of whom have read the biblical text with a critical eye, and then tried to solve the issues they found with various techniques, text-based and otherwise.


for there are seventy facets to the Torah,


This old Rabbinic idiom is meant to convey that a text can have meaning on many levels or to many people, without any single one being the “correct” meaning. Thus Ramban can have his understanding of the text and Rashi can have his,and each would say that the other is wrong, but that doesn’t make anybody a heretic or necessarily more correct.


and there are many contradictory midrashim in the words of the Sages.


Many argue that midrashim cannot be challenged on the grounds that the Sages were recording the words of traditions that had been passed down to them from Har Sinai, or that they had received through Ruach HaKodesh. The problem with either of these approaches is that it ignores the facts as they are. Any quick look at midrashim will reveal that they are not of one voice or opinion in most matters. This creates an issue with the supposedly divine origin of midrashim, as then either the tradition would have to be mistaken, significantly reducing its value anyway, or multiple views were all received through Ruach HaKodesh, in which case they are probably not meant to convey the literal understanding of the Torah.

A secondary issue this introduces is that midrashim cannot simply be transposed to the biblical text.[2] Midrashim were never meant to be a fleshed-out commentary on the text of the Torah. Thus there’s no uniform density of midrashic comments on the Torah. There are many pesukim with no midrashim on them at all, and many with a huge number of related midrashim. Anyone attempting to create an understanding of the Torah text based on midrashim would not only find large gaps in their commentary, but they would also be forced to pick between differing midrashim or midrashic opinions when commenting on a pasuk. A perfect example of this is Rashi’s comment on Shemot 13:19, on the phrase, “וחמשים”:

וחמשים: אין חמושים אלא מזויינים. לפי שהסיבן במדבר גרם להם שעלו חמושים, שאלו הסיבן דרך יישוב לא היו מחומשים להם כל מה שצריכין, אלא כאדם שעובר ממקום למקום ובדעתו לקנות שם מה שיצטרך, אבל כשהוא פורש למדבר צריך לזמן לו כל הצורך, ומקרא זה לא נכתב כי אם לשבר את האוזן, שלא תתמה במלחמת עמלק ובמלחמות סיחון ועוג ומדין, מהיכן היו להם כלי זיין שהכום ישראל בחרב. וכן הוא אומר (יהושע א יד) ואתם תעברו חמושים. וכן תרגם אונקלוס מזרזין, כמו (בראשית יד יד) וירק את חניכיו וזריז. דבר אחר חמושים אחד מחמשה יצאו, וארבעה חלקים מתו בשלשת ימי אפילה:


armed: חִמֻשִׁים [in this context] can only mean “armed.” Since He led them around in the desert [circuitously], He caused them to go up armed, for if He had led them around through civilization, they would not have [had to] provide for themselves with everything that they needed, but only [part,] like a person who travels from place to place and intends to purchase there whatever he will need. But if he travels a long distance into a desert, he must prepare all his necessities for himself. This verse was written only to clarify the matter, so you should not wonder where they got weapons in the war with Amalek and in the wars with Sihon and Og and Midian, for the Israelites smote them with the point of the sword. And similarly [Scripture] says: “and you shall cross over armed (חִמֻשִׁים)” (Josh. 1:14). And so too Onkelos rendered מְזָרְזִין just as he rendered: “and he armed (וְזָרֵיז) his trained men” (Gen. 14:14). Another interpretation: חִמֻשִׁים means “divided by five,” [meaning] that one out of five (חִמִֹשָה) [Israelites] went out, and four fifths [lit., parts of the people] died during the three days of darkness.


The first things that’s worth noting is that Rashi actually brings the peshat explanation, along with multiple justifications of it, before he brings the midrashic approach. More important, however, is the way in which he quotes the midrash. The midrash (Tanhuma Beshalah 1), working off the similarity between the Hebrew words for “five” and “armed”, suggests that Shemot 13:18 is really saying that only one out of every five members of Bnei Yisrael left Egypt. Or rather, that is the midrash as portrayed in Rashi’s comment. The problem with this is that an examination of the midrash in question reveals that this is not all it says.


וחמושים עלו בני ישראל אחד מחמישה. ויש אומרים: אחד מחמישים. ויש אומרים: אחד מחמש מאות. רבי נהוראי אומר: העבודה, לא אחד מחמשת אלפים. ואימתי מתו בימי האפלה, שהיו קוברין ישראל מתיהן, ומצרים יושבין בחשך, ישראל הודו ושבחו על שלא ראו שונאיהם ושמחו בפורענותן:


And Bnei Yisrael went up “חמושים”, [this means only] one out of five [left Egypt]. Some say one out of fifty. And some say one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: By the [Temple] Service! Not [even] one in five thousand [went out]. And when did they [who did not go out] die? In the days of darkness, so that Yisrael buried their dead while the Egyptians sat in darkness, and Yisrael praised and gave thanks that their persecutors did not see and rejoice in their suffering.


Rashi quotes the first, and least extreme, of the four opinions in the midrash. He had to select the one that made the most sense to him. Any time anyone quotes a midrash they are not giving “the opinion of the midrash”, but their own opinion, selected from the plethora of midrashic opinions available. Thus when Rashi quotes a midrash it is no more or less his opinion than when he simply gives his own non-midrashic opinion.

It’s worth noting that in this comment, the Ramban in no way attempts to say that midrashim are illegitimate in their understandings of the Torah. Instead, he takes midrashim, and Rashi’s commentary as it is popularly thought of, and puts them on the same level as the text-based approach. The Ramban does quote midrashim in his commentary, when he finds them compelling, much as he doesn’t always argue with the midrashim that Rashi quotes, when he finds them compelling. Many midrashim are actually based on very close readings of the text. All that separates such midrashim from”peshat” is what methods of interpretation are used once the text has been read. Thus for everyone from Rashi to Ramban to modern Bible critics, midrashic opinions are totally valid, but only as long a they’re compelling, and not necessarily more than more text-based opinions.


[1] Translation of Ramban is from the author, as is the translation of the midrash. Translations of Rashi are from, with occasional modifications from the author for accuracy or clarity.

[2] The ideas of this paragraph are heavily based on severeal essays on “Omnisignificance” by R’ Yaakov Elman.