The Torah Spoke in a Human Manner
“And [Chana] made this vow and said: ‘O Lord of Hosts, if You will only look [im ra’oh tir’eh] upon the suffering of your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant your maidservant a male child” (I Samuel 1:11)
What did our rabbis say about the duplicate language “ra’oh tir’eh“?
The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 31b: “‘Im ra’oh tir’eh‘; Rabbi Eleazar said: ‘Chana said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the world, if you look–good, and if you don’t look–I will hide myself away with a man other than my husband Elkana [so my husband will suspect me of adultery and the laws of Sotah will apply; I will drink the bitter waters and then be given living seed]…But according to the opinion that if she birthed in sorrow she shall birth easily, if she had daughters–she will have sons, if she had dark children–she will have light children, if she had short ones–she will have tall ones, what can be said? [To this opinion, the bitter waters will not help Chana have children, so why the duplicate language?] Ra’oh tir’eh–the Torah spoke in a human manner.”
We have already clarified in our earlier essay, Poetical Rhetoric, that Chazal explain what was written as they wish–and here, too, we see how Rabbi Eleazar builds whatever construct he likes upon the duplication of the verb “to look”. In this essay, however, we will consider a different opinion–that which says, “The Torah spoke in a human manner.”
You can see for yourself how our rabbis were divided on a basic issue: does the Torah repeat its words and is it verbose like people are, or does it hint at lessons to be learned (as is appropriate for a Divine creation) and does not include an unneeded word or even letter? Thus wrote the Radak on I Samuel 1:11 “If You will look–they created exegeses on this point because of the repetition, but there was no need, for this is the custom, to repeat verbs, as in ‘If you will listen’ (shamoa tishme’un). This repetition is to strengthen the point and they, OBM, interpreted it as ‘if you look–good, and if you don’t look–I will make my husband Elkana jealous and I will give birth, as You wrote in Your Torah: if the woman has not been defiled and she is pure…’.” The Radak himself tells us here that our rabbis erred in interpreting the duplication because it was a common linguistic convention amongst the Israelites of the Scriptural era.
Similarly (Exodus 3:7): “And G-d said, I have seen (ra’oh raiti) the affliction of My nation who are in Egypt.”
In the midrash we learn two lessons from this repetition. To show you that any who wish can come and interpret, we will cite them both. Shemot Rabbah (Vilna edition), parasha two: “‘And G-d said, I have seen the affliction of My people’: why does it say ‘I have seen’ twice? Since first they would drown [the babies] in the river, and then brick them up into the walls of buildings.”
Another explication is in Shemot Rabbah (Vilna edition), parasha three: “‘And G-d said, I have seen’: It does not say ‘I have seen’ once, but twice. The holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, ‘You see one vision, but I see two. You see them coming to Sinai and accepting the Torah. I see them accepting the Torah, which is one vision, and the other vision is the sin of the Golden Calf.”
Similarly (Numbers 13:30): “And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, ‘Let us go up [‘aloh na’aleh] and possess it; for we are well able [yachol nuchal] to overcome it’. (We have not found our rabbis learning anything special from these duplications.)
What does the Sforno (Exodus 3:7) say about this? “The meaning ofra’oh ra’iti is ‘I have indeed seen.’ This is the meaning of all places where the language is duplicated, such as ‘aleh na’aleh and yachol nuchal–it is ‘indeed,’ to show that it is the truth.”
We will bring another example which shows the strange nature of Chazal’s interpretations. In Leviticus 19:20 it is written, “And whosoever lies carnally with a woman who is a bondmaid, betrothed to a husband, and not at all redeemed [hafdoh lo nifdatah]…they shall not be put to death.” It is clear to any reasonable person that the Scripture means the bondmaid has not been redeemed, and thus Ibn Ezra wrote on this verse: “Hafdoh is a verb…and it means her father has not redeemed her.” But our rabbis, in the Talmud, disagreed about the meaning of the verse (Kritot 11a): “Our rabbis have learned: hafdoh–is it possible she is fully redeemed? lo nifdatah–is it possible she is not redeemed? The Scriptures say hafdoh–what is this? She is redeemed yet not redeemed, half a bondmaid and half free and engaged to a Jewish slave–these are the words of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Ishmael says: The Scripture speaks of a Caananite bondmaid engaged to a Jewish slave. So why does the Scripture say hafdoh lo nifdatah? The Torah spoke in a human manner.”
Not only did our rabbis disagree on a very basic principle from which many Halachic laws are learned–how to interpret the duplication of verbs in the Torah–but even those who thought that the Torah indeed spoke in a human manner, and hence no law can be learned from duplicated verbs, did not apply this principle consistently. Thus wrote the Tosafot on Tractate Avodah Zarah 27a: “The Torah spoke in a human manner–Rabbi Isaac said that one who supposed that here the Torah speaks in a human manner may not disagree about hashev tashiv, hocheach tochiach and others like these which they interpreted [to learn some laws therefrom] (Bava Metzia 31a)–for we have found nobody who would disagree with those interpretations. And a proof is that Rabbi Simeon said in the chapter Metziat ha-Isha (Ketubot 67b) on ha’abet ta’avit, that the Torah spoke in a human manner, while it was Rabbi Simeon himself who interpreted in the first chapter of Rosh Hashanah (8a) ‘aser te’aser[to mean that the Scripture spoke of two tithes to be separated, one of animals and one of grain.] It needs to be examined why the Talmud sometimes applies one principle and sometimes another.” How amazing–only 800 years had passed from the time when the Talmud was finished to the Tosafot’s time, and there was already confusion about the ways of interpretation. What shall we say about what happened in the 1700 years between the giving of the Torah and the time when the Talmud was finished? See how far the matters go–in Deuteronomy 14:22 it is written: “You shall tithe [‘aser te’aser] all the increase of your seed.” Our rabbis come and interpret the duplication of verb to mean that animals also need to be tithed. It is clear that in this overarching method of interpretation the sages will be able to interpret any verse to mean anything they can conceive. This is what they did in Tractate Shabbat 119a: “‘Aser te’aser–tithe [‘asor] so you will become rich [tit’asher].” Not only do they not ascribe a human manner of expression to the Scriptures, they learn two new laws from a single duplication of verb, and there is no end to the nonsense. If the gates of interpretation are open to anyone, we, too, can interpret this verse to mean “tithe so that you will not become wealthy,” for the abundance of the rich brings them only ill (Ecclesiastes 5:12). This shows you that there is no limit to the number of possible interpretations if you are not obligated to follow the Scriptures’ language and when there is no unity in the basic approach to the text.
As a sign that all of Chazal’s interpretations are from their own opinion and knowledge: the Tosafot wrote on Tractate Ketubot 67b on the question of whether one should loan to a person who has his own money and even so chooses to starve, “Rabbi Isaac said that [duplication of verbs] should always be interpreted to mean something special [the case in question is ha’avet ta’aviteno (Deuteronomy 15:8)], and one should not say that the Torah spoke in a human manner regarding anything but this case–for here it would not be plausible to interpret this [duplication of verb to mean that one should loan to such a person], in accordance with the Sages’ opinion, for the verse implies that it refers only to a needy person, as it is written, ‘to take care of his wants’.” So you find it explicit that all of Chazal’s interpretations start from some speculation, and this is what we repeatedly say–that the Halacha is a human construct like all other human constructs.
Know that the expression “The Torah spoke in a human manner” was taken to further extents by Maimonides, who applied it to all the verses which mention G-d’s physical attributes. In Laws of the Foundations of Torah, chapter one, halacha 12: “…all these things and the like which were said in the Torah and the words of the prophets are all parable and rhetoric, as ‘He who sits in the heavens shall laugh,’ ‘They have angered me with their nonsense,’ ‘As the Lord rejoiced’ and the like–about all of these did our Sages say that the Torah spoke in a human manner. Thus, it says ‘Do they provoke Me to anger?’–for it says, ‘I am the Lord, I have not changed,’ and were He sometimes to be angry and sometimes happy He would change. And all these things are not found except amongst the low, dark bodies living in houses of clay, whose foundations are dirt–but He, the holy One, blessed be He, is elevated above all that.” Yet we have not found our rabbis in the Gemara saying this about G-d’s physical attributes, and this seems something of a proof that Chazal understood those verses, which point to His physical nature, to mean exactly what they explicitly say. See what we wrote in our essay The Body of G-d.
To strengthen our words about the lack on consistency in Chazal’s interpretation of the Scripture, we will bring another example from Tractate Bava Kama 85b. There they learned three things from the duplication of verbsve-rapo yirape (Exodus 21:19). One–“that doctors were given permission to heal” and one should not say that since G-d makes a person ill, He should heal him also; two–that one who harms his fellow must also heal injuries not caused by the actual blow, and three–that he is obligated to finance the healing without relation to the compensation which he does or does not pay for the damage proper. “They have learnt in the school of Rabbi Ishmael: ve-rapo yirape–from here we see that doctors were given permission to heal! So, why did the Scripture not say, ve-rofe yirape? To teach that healing must be paid even where compensation for damage [proper] was already made. Still, this may have another meaning, as they said that there must be a Scriptural reference to healing payments in the first place. Were it to mean only that, the Scripture could say, rapo rapo, or yirape yirape–why did it say, ve-rapo yirape? To teach that healing must be paid even where compensation for damage was already made.” This is how our rabbis understood language: the Scripture would have repeated the same word twice, were it not for some special message it had to convey. Yet, in Leviticus 25:37 it is written, “You shall not lend him your money at interest, and you shall not advance him your food usuriously “–and what did our rabbis say about this? Tosafot on Tractate Bava Metzia 60b: “Why, then, did the Scripture state it twice? To make one violate two prohibitions [if he charges a Jew usury].–And if you ask, why did the Scripture not use the same wording in this regard, for it could have been written, ‘You shall not lend him your money at interest, and at interest you shall not advance him your food’? It should be answered that since the Scripture was meant to formulate two prohibitions in regard to this issue, it used different [synonymous] terms, for thus it looks nicer.” So we find that sometimes the Scriptures uses synonyms only in line with common ways of expression and sometimes one can employ this detail to build on it skyscraping Halachic constructs. The Tosafot had already commented in Tractate Menachot 17b, “So, why did the Scripture not say, he’achol he’achol or ye’achel ye’achel?–This is like what they said in the chapter Ha-Chovel (Bava Kama 85b) regarding rapo yirape. But from what is said in the beginning of the chapter Hayu Bodkin of Tractate Sanhedrin (40b) it appears that, were it written darosh tidrosh ve-chakarta, there would be no room for any special interpretation, and they would make no use of the fact that it would not be darosh darosh or tidrosh tidrosh.” Thus did our rabbis, whenever they wished, go into far-reaching interpretation of duplicated verbs and base Halachic laws on such interpretation–or leave it as is without any special interpretation; all according to their own understanding and knowledge.
We find that many prohibitions are repeated in the Torah several times. What do our rabbis say about this? Sefer HaChinuch, commandment 343: “Not to lend at interest to Israel, as is said (Leviticus 25:37), ‘You shall not lend him your money at interest, and you shall not advance him your food usuriously.’ These are not two prohibitions, for usury is interest and interest is usury, and as they OBM said in [Bava] Metzia [60b], ‘There is no usury without interest nor interest without usury. Why, then, did the Scripture state it twice?’–that is, why is it not written simply, ‘You shall not lend him your money or food at interest’? ‘To make one violate two prohibitions’–that is, to multiply warnings about this matter. This is what I said above, that the Torah multiplies warnings about what G-d wants to distance us from. It is possible that here, too, what they, OBM, said on other issues is applicable, that the Torah spoke in a human manner. The Torah would repeat warnings about what we must greatly beware of, as people warn each other about grave matters, repeating themselves at length so that the one warned would always remember the matter in question and be careful about it.”
When the Torah repeated the instruction “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” thrice (Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21), our rabbis did not learn that this came to make one violate three prohibitions, as they learned regarding the issue of interest. But thus they interpreted this triplication in Tractate Kiddushin 57b: “‘Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’ is written thrice–one is the prohibition against eating it, one against getting gain from it, one against cooking it.” We have expanded on the matter of repeated warnings in our essay on the portion of Kedoshim.
Another example of the lack of consistency in Chazal’s interpretations can be found in Tractate Bava Kama 54b: “An ox is equal to all other animals regarding [the issue of animal] fallen into a pit…and double payment, and returning lost items…and the Sabbath; and to beasts and birds also. If so, why does it say ‘ox’ or ‘ass’? Because the Torah spoke in specifics while meaning the general.” So we find that when it is written ‘an ass,’ not only asses are meant but all animals and birds–yet the verse “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” is not interpreted this way. Tractate Chulin, 113a: “Rabbi Akiba said: [the ban on cooking] beasts and birds [in milk] is not from the Torah, for it is written ‘Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’ thrice – to exclude beasts, birds and impure animals.”
From interpretations of duplication of verbs and prohibitions we will turn to a different linguistic issue: In the Hebrew language there is a difference between masculine and feminine, and this causes confusion about when the Torah refers to women along with men and when it does not. Our rabbis taught in Tractate Bava Kama 15a: “Rav Judah said in the name of Rav, and so it was taught in the school of Rabbi Ishmael: the Scripture says, ‘When a man or a woman commit any sin’ (Numbers 5:6)–the text equates men and women for all the punishments in the Torah. In the school of Rabbi Elezar it was taught: ‘Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them’ (Exodus 21:1)–the Torah equated men and women for all the laws in the Torah.” On the other hand, in Tractate Sanhedrin 85b they learnt: “‘If you find a man kidnapping his fellow’–I only see a man kidnapping. How do I know about a woman? It says, ‘And whoever kidnaps a man’. So we have a man who kidnaps, either a man or a woman, and a woman who kidnaps a man. How do we know about a woman kidnapping a woman? It says, ‘that the kidnapper should die’–in all cases.” Here you see that when the Scriptures use “man,” our rabbis exclude the women. How do they reconcile this contradiction? Tosafot on Tractate Bava Kama 15a: “The Torah equated men and women–it is only where an indefinite passage speaks in the masculine, as explained in Tractate Temura (2b), where they asked why redundancy was needed [to teach that the laws in question apply to females also], since the relevant verses are written in masculine, and the Torah equated male to female. But where it is written ‘man’ specifically, it does need the redundancy, as it is said in the chapter Arba Mitot (Sanhedrin 66a): It is written ‘If a man curses’–I see the man written, but how do I know about the woman?” And in their commentary on Tractate Sukkah 28b they pursued the issue further: “Still, the matter is difficult, for in the chapter Shor she-Nagach Arba’ah ve-Chamishah (Bava Kama 44b) it says that sevenfold repetition of the word ‘ox’ came to include [among others] a woman’s ox, regarding the issue of an ox who killed–yet, there is no verse like ‘a man’s ox;’ only ‘and its owner shall be killed.’ That is an indefinite verse, merely put in masculine [so why was repetition of the word ‘ox’ needed to apply the law in question to women also?] And perhaps [“perhaps” and “maybe” are words which reconcile any oddity; see what we have written in the essay What the Sages Knew About Fish] there is some redundant detail which we could understand to exclude the women, had the Merciful One not repeated [the word ‘ox’].”
Anyway, we find that wherever the Torah says ‘man’ specifically it is to exclude women. What, then, can be said of the following verses?
Exodus 10:23: “They saw not one another, neither rose a man from his place for three days, but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” Did the Egyptian women see one another?
Exodus 18:16: “When they have a matter, they come to me and I judge between one man and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” Did Moses not judge between one woman and another?
Exodus 34:24: “For I will cast out the nations before you, and enlarge your borders. No man shall desire your land, when you shall go up to appear before the Lord your God thrice a year.” Does this mean a woman will desire your land?
Deuteronomy 24:16: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers. Every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” Does this mean women will not die for their sins?
Deuteronomy 34:6: “And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor, but no man knows of his sepulchre to this day.” Do women know the place of Moses’s burial?
It is clear that the Scripture spoke in specifics while meaning the general, just as our rabbis said on the verse of Exodus 22:17, “A witch shall not live,” in Tractate Sanhedrin 67a: “Our rabbis taught: a witch–either a man or a woman. If so, why does it say ‘witch’ [in feminine]? Because most women are involved in witchcraft.”
We will bring further examples which caused confusion and embarrassment: Chazal’s interpretation that when “the sons of Israel” is written it does not include the daughters of Israel, nor do “the sons of Aaron” include the daughters of Aaron. As it says in Tractate Chulin 85a: “As is taught–the sons of Israel lay their hands [on the sacrifice] and the women of Israel do not.”
The Magen Avraham questioned this explanation in writing on Orach Chayim, paragraph 14, subsection two: “Tzitzit…women are permitted to make them–this requires study, for in every place they explain ‘the sons of Israel and not the daughters of Israel,’ as in Kiddushin 36 and Menachot 61, where they exclude idolaters and women.” He remained puzzled.
We will conclude with the confusion and embarrassment which we have found because Boaz married Ruth the Moabite and from them King David was born; from David’s descendants the Messiah will eventually issue. The Scriptures say, in Deuteronomy 23:4, “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord. Even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever.” In Yevamot 76b we find: “Doeg the Edomite said [to Saul]: Before you clarify whether [King David] is fit for kingship or not, ask whether he is fit to enter into the congregation or not. Why? Because he comes from Ruth the Moabite. Abner said to him: We learn ‘Ammonite’ [in masculine] but not a female Ammonite, ‘Moabite’ but not a female Moabite. So, would you say ‘a bastard’ [in masculine] but not a female bastard? It is written ‘bastard’ [mamzer = mum zar; it means anyone who has the defect of foreignness–Rashi]. So, would you say ‘Egyptian’ [in masculine] but not an female Egyptian? [No,] but here, the Scripture is explicit: ‘Because they met you not with bread and with water on the way’ (Deuteronomy 23). It is the way of men to meet others on the way and not the way of women to do so. Still, they should have sent men to meet the men and women to meet the women! He was silent…If the Halacha eluded you, go and ask in the study hall. He asked and was told: ‘Ammonite’ but not a female Ammonite, ‘Moabite’ but not a female Moabite.”
And the Tosafot wrote on Tractate Yevamot 77a: “R’ Judah asked about ‘Egyptian’ but not an female Egyptian. R’ Isaac said that the Scripture could have abbreviated and written ‘Ammon’ and ‘Moab,’ but it wrote ‘Ammonite’ and ‘Moabite’ [in masculine] as a sign that female Ammonites and Moabites were excluded. Yet, if it wrote ‘Egypt’ [Mitzrayim], it would be longer than ‘Egyptian’ [mitzri]. Why, then, is it written ‘Edomite’ and not ‘Edom’? To match ‘Egyptian’.”
These matters speak for themselves, showing how our rabbis treat the Torah text as their own. The Torah becomes as clay in the hands of a sculptor and as an ax in the hands of a woodsman. When they wish, they take away, and when they desire, they add. Sometimes they interpret the Torah as merely speaking in a human manner and sometimes they are exacting about every word. Were Chazal’s writings indeed given at Mount Sinai, how would it be possible that some linguistic details would be specially interpreted to derive laws from them and some would not? There is consistency and order in the Creator’s world, so how is it possible that there is not consistency and order in His Torah? This is why we say that all of Chazal’s constructs are human constructs, and the confusion is all Chazal’s.
Words of True Knowledge