In Berachot 30b it is said: “One should not stand to pray but with proper respect…From where do we know this?…R’ Joshua the son of Levi said, from here: ‘Bow to the Lord, majestic in holiness.’ Do not read it majestic (hadrat)but fearful (cherdat). But from what do you learn this? Perhaps it means actual majesty [that is, to don appropriate and elegant clothing before praying]? Thus did R’ Judah adorn himself and then pray.”
In this essay we come to clarify the ways Chazal explicate the Scripture and how they extract Halachic laws from it. We will see that not only are these ways amongst the most strange known to any reasonable person, but that there is no order or consistency in their learning.
Maimonides, in the book “Guide to the Perplexed,” part three, chapter 43: “Yet they, OBM, already mentioned some reasons for the four species in the lulav through exegesis whose ways are known to those who understand their ways — that is, that they used [their exegesis] as a kind of poetical rhetoric, and did not mean their exegesis to reveal the actual point of the verse. Indeed, in regard to [the Sages’] exegesis, people are divided into two classes. One class imagines that [the Sages] have said these things in order to explain the meaning of the Scriptural text in question, and the other holds [the exegesis] in slight esteem and ridicules it, since it is clear and manifest that this is not the meaning of the [Scriptural] text in question. The first class strives and fights with a view to proving what it deems the correctness of the exegesis and to defending it, and thinks that this is the true meaning of the Scriptural text and that the exegesis has the same status as traditional legal verdicts. But neither of the two groups understands that [the Sages’ exegesis] has the character of poetical conceits whose meaning is not obscure for someone endowed with understanding. At that time this method was generally known and used by everybody, just as the poets use poetical rhetoric. Our rabbis OBM said, ‘Bar Kapara taught: It shall be a peg on your belt (Deuteronomy 23:14) — do not read this as your belt (azancha), but as your ears (ozneycha), teaching you that if a man hears improper things he ought to stick his finger in his ear,’ and I wonder whether those fools think that this Tanna took it as the real meaning of the text and the commandment, that the peg is a finger and the belt an ear. I do not think that one whose intellect is complete would agree with this, but [this exegesis] is a very nice bit of poetical rhetoric. It warns of a character trait, that just as it is forbidden to say something improper, so is it forbidden to hear something improper. This approach to the text is poetical rhetoric, and similarly, all the passages in the exegesis enjoining ‘Do not read thus, but thus‘ have this meaning.”
Maimonides’s opinion is indeed common sensible, for in truth, what rational person would say that where it is written “Do not read thus…but thus…” it refers to the plain meaning of the texts?
But what can we do if the words of the Sages show that they themselves related to their “rhetoric” as the plain meaning of the texts? The gemara which we brought above shows that one must pray with proper respect from the exegesis “Do not read it majestic but fearful.” But if this is just poetical rhetoric, why does the gemara bother to ask: “Perhaps it means actual majesty”? What is the point of asking questions about poetical rhetoric? According to Maimonides, the explicator knew full well that the plain meaning of the text was “majestic,” but for rhetorical purposes turned “majestic” into “fearful.”
To strengthen these words of ours, we will bring an additional example: the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah 12b-13b: “Olives [should be tithed] since they are one-third ripe…From where do we learn this?…Rabbi Jonathan the son of Joseph says, ‘It shall yield a crop sufficient for three years’ (Leviticus 25:21). Do not read ‘three’ but ‘a third.’ But this verse is needed to teach something else [that the year before shemita will yield three years’ crops]! The Scripture says as well, ‘When you sow in the eighth year you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year’.”
According to Maimonides this, too, is poetical rhetoric (turning “three years” into “a third”) — so why does the Gemara ask “But this verse is needed to teach something else”? Rabbi Jonathan the son of Joseph knew the plain meaning of the Scriptural text and said what he did only as a rhetorical device. Against your will you have to admit that our rabbis related to their exegeses as though this is what the Scriptures wanted to explicitly say.
Maimonides wrote, in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah: “We have not found, either, any disagreement about what is written, ‘the fruit of a goodly tree,’ that one would say it is a citron and another it is a quince or pomegranates or such…But even though [such laws] were received through tradition and there is no disagreement between the Torah Sages about them, we could arrive at all the interpretations [implying these laws] through explication, parables, arguments and hints on what we find in the Scriptures. When you see them, in the Talmud, delving and disagreeing in investigative skirmishes and bringing proof for one of the above interpretations or the like — such as what is said about ‘the fruit of a goodly tree’ [in Sukkah 35a], when they argued that perhaps it is a pomegranate or quince or something like that, until they brought proof from what was written about that fruit: one said, ‘a tree whose wood and fruit have the same taste,’ and another said, the fruit of a tree which is water-based — they did not bring these proofs because in that case, [the Sages] would not be able to make decision about the matters in question…but they sought for a hint in the Scripture about the interpretation they had [already] received through tradition…And parables were found to these commandments in these verses so that people would know and remember them better. But it does not mean that a [specific] commandment is the point which the verse [related to it] makes; this is what [the Sages] meant wherever they said that a [certain] verse is merely a parable [for a certain Halachic law].”
We find that, according to Maimonides, Chazal played word games in the Gemara and asked questions simply as a rhetorical device, such as in the gemara of Sukkot 35a: “The rabbis teach: ‘The fruit of a goodly tree’ (Leviticus 23:40) — this is a tree whose fruit and wood have the same taste, the citron. Could it be pepper? As the Baraita goes: Rabbi Meir was used to say: it is written, ‘[When you come to the land] and plant any tree [bearing edible fruit, you must avoid its fruit as a forbidden growth]’ (Leviticus 19:23) — is it not clear that only trees bearing edible fruit are meant? Why, then, does it specify ‘tree bearing edible fruit’? To imply a tree whose wood and fruit taste alike, which is the pepper tree — to teach you that pepper also should be hold as forbidden growth [for the first three years after a plant is planted]. Behold, the land of Israel lacks nothing, as it says, ‘You shall miss nothing therein’ (Deuteronomy 8:9)! Yet [returning to the issue of ‘a goodly tree’], peppers cannot be used for this purpose: if we take one of them, it would not even be noticed, and if we take two or three, it would contradict what God said: one fruit, and not two or three. Therefore it is impossible.”
Know that there are many such arguments in the Gemara and you who seeks truth will find that the Talmud is full of word play and semantic games which have no real, serious meaning.
The Ritva on Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16a follows a different path: “Wherever there is a parable in the Scripture [to a certain Halachic law], it is God’s testimony that this would be a desirable thing to do, but He did not declare it obligatory, leaving this to the Sages. This is clear and true, and not as those who interpret these parables as mere sign which the Sages gave and which have no connection to the original intent of the Torah, G-d forbid. Let such opinions perish and be not repeated any more, for they are heresy. But [the laws to which the Sages found parables in the Scripture] were actually intended to by the Torah, it was only that the right of final verdict was given to the Sages, if they wished, as it is written, ‘Do as they tell you’ (Deuteronomy 17:10). Therefore you find the Sages giving in every place some proof or hint or parable from the Torah for their words. They innovated nothing on their own and all the Oral Torah is hinted at in our perfect Torah — G-d forbid that it lacks anything.”
It’s delectable: the Torah gave “the right of final verdict… to the Sages, if they wished.” So you have before you an unambiguously human construct, which draws its primal authority from the Scriptures but uses the Scriptures themselves according to the will of each and every sage: the written “three” they change to “a third,” the written “majesty” they change to “fear.”
While examining the matter we find that Maimonides terms one who takes the Ritva’s stance “an irrational person,” and the Ritva classifies Maimonides’s words as “heresy.” There is no end to the ridiculousness.
To continue demonstrating the confusion, let us bring an example of a matter, on which our rabbis could not decide whether it is a Rabbinical or a Biblical commandment — the law of eating on the eve of Yom Kippur. Our rabbis interpreted the verse of Leviticus 23:32, “It shall be to you a sabbath of rest, and you shall afflict your souls on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening shall you observe your sabbath,” in Tractate Yoma 81b: “Chiya the son of Rav from Difti taught: ‘You shall afflict your souls on the ninth’ — do we afflict ourselves on the ninth? On the tenth we afflict ourselves! But this is to tell you that all who eat and drink on the ninth, the Scriptures credits to them as though they had afflicted himself on the ninth and the tenth.” Any reasonable person understands that this is not the plain meaning of the text. The text states that on the night of the ninth, the start of the tenth, they should begin to afflict themselves. Thus precisely is the verse Exodus 12:18 explained, “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at eveningyou shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month atevening.”
The Magen Avraham on Orach Chayim, paragraph 570, subsection 9: “But it is proven that [eating on] the eve of Yom Kippur is from the Torah, for we learn from the Scripture about affliction that it is a commandment to eat. What the Beit Yosef wrote (Orach Chayim 418), that reference to eating on the eve of Yom Kippur is a mere parable and not the Torah’s law, is puzzling. For the Gemara asks in Yoma 81b, what the Tanna who interpreted [the Scripture’s words] ‘on this very day’ would learn from the word ‘afflict,’ and [the Gemara] answered that he would learn [the law of eating on Yom Kippur’s eve — which makes it impossible that the verse in question is merely a parable for this law]. So, it is proven that this interpretation [through which the law of eating was derived] is a valid interpretation of the Scripture [and not a mere parable], for were it not, the Gemara’s question would remain without answer.”
Come see how the Magen Avraham came to the conclusion that this bizarre interpretation of the Scriptural text is a valid one, and that to eat on the eve of Yom Kippur is a Torah’s law. All this he deduced from the Gemara’s question of how a certain sage would interpret the verse of Leviticus 23:32: were it speaking of a mere parable, there would be no room for this question — so this must be a valid interpretation.
Know, you who seeks truth, that in many places Halachic arbiters disagree about whether a certain commandment is Rabbinical or the Torah’s, since there is no order or consistency in the way our Rabbis learned Scriptures: sometimes an exegesis taken out of its Scriptural context is deemed a valid interpretation and sometimes a mere parable.
We find that the keys of exegesis were given to our rabbis to do with them as they pleased, even to come up with fantastical and strange interpretations and to rule them obligatory upon us. See for yourself what power the Sages have in stating “do not read thus, but thus.” It is possible thus to reach uncharted shores our forefathers never dreamed of. There are many strange examples; see how our rabbis interpreted the Scriptures in order to warn us to separate the challah from dough (Shabbat 32b): “Rabbi Eleazar the son of Rabbi Judah said: Because of the neglect of separating the challah there is no blessing on what is stored, a curse is set upon prices [what is stored does not keep, so prices rise], and seed is sown and others consume it, as it is written, ‘I also will do this unto you: I will visit you with terror [behalah], even consumption and fever that shall consume your eyes and make the soul to pine away, and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it’ (Leviticus 26:16). Read it not behalah but bechallah.” Thus do our rabbis turn terror into separating the challah; there is no end to their imagination in interpreting the Scripture.
We will conclude with Maimonides’s method for determining whether a certain law obligation is Biblical or Rabbinical. In Maimonides’s Sefer HaMitzvot, root two: “We have already clarified at the beginning of our commentary on the Mishnah [in the beginning of the introduction] that most Torah laws were inferred using the 13 methods through which the Torah is explicated. A law thus inferred may be disputed. But there are also laws based on traditional interpretation, received [through tradition] from Moses; these laws are not disputed, yet sometimes [the Sages] brought arguments for these laws which are based on the 13 methods – for it is the Scripture’s wisdom that such traditional interpretations may be hinted at in the text or inferred from it. We have already explained this issue there [in the introduction to the Mishnah commentary]. So, we cannot say that whatever [laws] the Sages inferred [from the Scripture] using the 13 methods were given to Moses on Sinai, nor can we say that all laws brought in the Talmud and inferred through the 13 methods were Rabbinical innovations — for some of them were based on traditional interpretations. Therefore, whatever [laws] you find not written in the Torah explicitly but inferred in the Talmud through one of the 13 methods — if [the Sages] themselves said it is one of the Torah’s principles or a Torah’s law, it should be counted as such, for those who received it said it is from the Torah. But if they mentioned nothing like this and did not expand on that law’s status, it should be deemed Rabbinical…
It has already been clarified that any [commandment] inferred through the 13 methods should not be counted as one of the 613 commandments given to Moses at Sinai — even if it was inferred in [Moses’s] own time, all the more so if it was inferred later. Yet, [the commandments] based on traditional interpretations should be counted [among the 613] — and these are the things on which the masters of tradition explicitly said that they the Torah’s laws (see the negative commandments 135, 194, 199) or principles (see the negative commandment 336). We should count them [among the 613 commandments] because they were received through tradition and not rationally inferred. Yet, there may be something like rational inference in regard to these laws: arguments may be brought for them through the 13 methods to demonstrate the Scripture’s wisdom, as we explained in the commentary on the Mishnah.”
So, according to Maimonides we cannot know, from what is written in the Torah, what the Torah deems obligatory and what the Rabbis deemed as such – instead, Chazal themselves rule what is “from the Torah” and what is not! See something wonderful: all those things which Chazal declared to be “from the Torah” are “from the Torah” not because they are written in the Torah but because people (Chazal) thus ruled!
After all these, how ridiculous is the claim that outreach professionals, those intellectual thieves, bring: “How is it possible that the Creator of the world would create Man without revealing to him how to handle His world?” This, they say, shows the Divine holiness of the Torah — it is a “users’ manual for the world”….
Does the Torah reveal to us what we must do? We are not obligated by the Torah, “dictated by the mouth of the Glory,” at all, but only by the interpretations and whims and rulings of Chazal (see also the portion ofShoftim, where we expanded upon this issue, and understand it well). Remember: The holiness of the Torah is a human construct.
Words of True Knowledge