Ibn Ezra vs. Rashbam
Can The Torah Contradict Halacha (Jewish Law)?
Is the Torah the source for halacha? The traditional answer would be yes and no. On one hand the Torah is the central document of Judaism, the center from which all else radiates. On the other hand, Rabbinic Judaism has a strong focus on the Oral Law, which often contains details and practices very much at odds with the plain meaning of the Torah legislation. How is a traditional Jew meant to navigate this tension?
There is no one answer to this question, which has been debated by rabbinic authorities for millennia. One particular instantiation of this debate is especially telling, both because of the sharp distinction between the two positions and the acrimony of the critique: the debate between Rashbam and Ibn Ezra.
Can Biblical Verses Contradict Halacha?
During the medieval period, beginning in the eleventh century but strongest in the twelfth, there was a strong movement towards peshat (simple/contextual) reading of the biblical text. The impetus came from two different schools of thought. The first was the French school, founded by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1041-1106) and the second was the rationalist school of thought coming from Arabic speaking Jews with an education in philosophy. The most prominent peshat commentator from the French school was Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158), Rashi’s grandson. The most prominent peshat commentator from the philosophical school was Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164).
Among the many nuanced differences between the approaches of these two scholars is a serious debate about how to interpret passages that have halakhic relevance. In other words, is it permitted to interpret a passage according to its contextual meaning even if that meaning is in contradiction to the halakha as understood by the Rabbis? Ibn Ezra takes up this question towards the end of his introduction to his commentary on the Torah.
ובעבור הדרש דרך הפשט איננה סרה, כי שבעים פנים לתורה, רק בתורות ובמשפטים ובחקים, אם מצאנו שני טעמים לפסוקים, והטעם האחד כדברי המעתיקים, שהיו כולם צדיקים, נשען על אמתם בלי ספק בידים חזקים. וחלילה חלילה מלהתערב עם הצדוקים, האומרים כי העתקתם מכחשת הכתוב, והדקדוקים. רק קדמונינו הי’ אמת, וכל דבריהם אמת וד’ אלהים אמת ינחה את עבדו בדרך אמת:
The way of peshat will not step aside for derash, for the Torah can be interpreted in a myriad of ways (lit. the Torah has 70 faces), however, when it comes to laws, statutes and rules, if we find two ways to understand a verse, and one of the ways is in line with that of the Sages, for they were all pious, we will rely on the truth of their assertions, since without doubt they are reliable (lit. the have strong arms). Heaven forbid that we join with the Sadducees who say that the Sages’ interpretation contradicts Scripture. Rather all their words are truth, and the Lord God is truth, and will lead his servant along the path of truth.
In other words, although Ibn Ezra’s preference is to interpret biblical passages without reference to Chazal, when it comes to halakhic passages, he believes that it is a requirement for Rabbinic Jews to interpret them in line with Chazal.
Rashbam has a very different approach. He writes in his introduction to Parshat Mishpatim:
ידעו ויבינו יודעי שכל כי לא באתי לפרש הלכות אעפ”י שהם עיקר, כמו שפירשתי בבראשית כי מיתור המקראות נשמעין ההגדות וההלכות, ומקצתן ימצאו בפירושי רבינו שלמה אבי אמי זצ”ל, ואני לפרש פשוטן של מקראות באתי. ואפרש הדינין וההלכות לפי דרך ארץ. ואעפ”כ ההלכות עיקר כמו שאמרו רבותינו הלכה עוקרת [מקרא]:
Wise people, you should know and understand that I have not come to explain the [practical] halakhot, even though they are the most important. As I explained in [my commentary on the first verse in] Genesis, the halakhot and aggadot are learned from extra [words or letters] in the text, and you will find some of these in the commentaries of my maternal grandfather, Rashi. However I have come to explain the simple meaning of the verses. Thus I will explain the laws and the halakhot according to common sense. Nevertheless, the [practical] halakhot are of primary importance, as our Rabbis said: “Halakha can uproot Scripture.”
Thus, according to Rashbam, it is perfectly fine for a commentator who is a Rabbinic Jew and follows Chazal’s interpretation of halacha to interpret the peshat of a verse in a way contradictory to halacha.
Essentially, it seems that Rashbam believes that Torah can be multivocal, and that a verse can mean both the peshat and the derash at the same time, even if the two are contradictory. (Unfortunately, Rashbam never offers an explanation of why he believes the Torah would have been written this way.) Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, seems to believe that every verse must have its correct meaning. Therefore, when it comes to narrative, he doesn’t feel bound by the Sages’ interpretation and offers his own. However, when it comes to halakha, Ibn Ezra, as a Rabbinic Jew, feels that he has no choice but to follow Chazal’s interpretation. Anything else, he believes, would imply that he was denying the Oral Law—a form of heresy in his eyes.
The Great Sabbath Debate: When Does the Day Start – Evening or Morning
Perhaps the most controversial biblical interpretation ever offered by Rashbam appears in the very beginning of his commentary on Torah. Reading the first creation account in Genesis 1, Rashbam (v. 5) offers a unique understanding of the repeated phrase “it was evening and it was morning.”
ויהי ערב ויהי בקר – אין כתיב כאן ויהי לילה ויהי יום אלא ויהי ערב, שהעריב יום ראשון ושיקע האור, ויהי בוקר, בוקרו של לילה, שעלה עמוד השחר. הרי הושלם יום א’ מן הו’ ימים שאמר הק’ בי’ הדברות, ואח”כ התחיל יום שיני, ויאמר אלהים יהי רקיע. ולא בא הכתוב לומר שהערב והבקר יום אחד הם, כי לא הצרכנו לפרש אלא היאך היו ששה ימים, שהבקיר יום ונגמרה הלילה, הרי נגמר יום אחד והתחיל יום שיני:
And it was evening and it was morning – It does not say “it was night and it was day”, but “it was evening”, [meaning] the first day passed and the light set, “and it was morning”, the ending of the night, for the dawn broke. One day of the six days mentioned in the Ten Commandments was completed. Afterwards the second day began, and God said “Let there be sky.” The verse is not coming to tell us that evening and morning constitute one day, for we do not need to explain anything but how the six days were, for with the coming of the morning the night was over – thus one day was completed and the second day begun.
In this brief passage, Rashbam suggests that in the simple reading of the creation account, God begins creating in the morning.God then finishes creating, and then comes the evening and the night, which ends at dawn the next day. With that dawn, God continues creating on the next day. In other words, the day of Genesis 1 begins with daylight, not with nightfall – the opposite of the halakhic tradition and the usual interpretation of the verse. To be clear, the halakhic tradition, that day follows night, is derived from this very verse (see, for example b. Berachot 26a), which, according to Rashbam, means the opposite.
Following Rashbam’s position about peshat and derash, interpreting this verse in a way contradictory to halacha poses no problem. In the peshat level of the Torah, day comes before night, but in the derash/halachic level, night comes before day; Jews follow the latter. However, if one takes Ibn Ezra’s view that the halachic interpretation of a verse must fit with the plain meaning of the verse, Rashbam’s understanding of this verse would actually pose a threat to traditional Sabbath observance. What would Avraham ibn Ezra have said if he had come across Rashbam’s interpretation of this verse? Luckily for us, he seems to have come across it and his reaction is nothing less than extraordinary.
The Letter of the Sabbath
During his stay in England (which is where many believe he passed away), Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah was brought to Ibn Ezra for perusal. Ibn Ezra eventually wrote up the incident and his reaction in the introduction to a work he called “The Letter of the Shabbat.” The work begins with a message from the Shabbat to Ibn Ezra, accusing him of harboring works that command the violation of the Shabbat. Ibn Ezra awakens from this dream vision and finds the said reference in Rashbam’s commentary. He ends his introduction with a scathing critique:
This (Rashbam’s) commentary is misdirecting all of Israel, the east and the west, the near and the far, the living and the dead. Those who believe this difficult commentary – God will avenge the vengeance of the Shabbat upon them. Anyone who reads it aloud – his tongue will stick to his palate. Any scribe who writes it as a comment on the Torah, his arm will dry and his right eye will go blind, but for the rest of Israel there will be light.
The rhetoric, especially the imagery of Ibn Ezra receiving a letter from the Shabbat, gives us a sense of how deep the difference of opinion between these two scholars ran. Ibn Ezra thinks that Rashbam has shown himself to be worse than a Sadducee, and that his comment is a forbidden interpretation of the text. He curses anyone who repeats it or writes it down, and even considered ripping up the text on Shabbat—he may have even done so—to avoid anyone reading it. He then stays up all of the next night composing a pamphlet to counteract Rashbam’s interpretation. And yet, Rashbam’s commentary appears in most standard printings of the Rabbinic Bible (Mikraot Gedolot) nowadays.
There is a further irony. R. Avraham Ibn Ezra, although a noted commentator on Torah, was hardly a towering halakhic figure. His one book on mitzvot, Yesod Moreh, is almost never quoted by any halakhic source, and is only a general treatise on mitzvot. He has no commentary on any piece of the Talmud and is even spoken of derisively by some traditional halakhists. Rashbam, on the other hand, was one of his grandfather’s chief students in Talmud. He wrote commentaries on the pieces of Talmudic tractates where Rashi did not finish his work. He also wrote glosses on R. Isaac Alfasi’s halakhic work. His opinions on matters of halakha are quoted by the Tosafists and have remained a staple of halakhic discourse for the past eight hundred years. Ibn Ezra’s few halakhic pronouncements are almost never quoted.
Does the Torah Mention Tefillin?
The commandment to wear tefillin appears four times in the Torah, according to a traditional Jewish reading of the biblical text. The four verses are virtually identical, and say “place them (=these words) as a sign upon your heart and as a remembrance/totafot (=meaning uncertain) between your eyes.” The paragraphs containing these four references are, in fact, the very passages that are placed inside the boxes and make up the tefillin. However, is the traditional reading of the verses the peshat? Rashbam thinks not.
In his gloss on Exodus 13:9 (one of the four references), he writes:
לאות על ידך – לפי עומק פשוטו יהיה לך לזכרון תמיד כאילו כתוב על ידך. כעין שימני כחותם על לבך:
‘As a sign upon your arm’ – according to the deep peshat [this means that the memory of the Exodus from Egypt] should be constantly in your memory, as if it were written on your heart. This is similar to [the expression found in Song of Songs 8:6]: “Place me as a seal upon your heart.”
According to Rashbam, this verse does not actually command Israelites to physically place the passage upon their hearts—or their left arms opposite their hearts—but is just a poetic expression for keeping the Exodus in mind (in the Deuteronomy passages, it would be keeping the Torah or the Book of Deuteronomy in mind.) The commandment to take these passages and make tefillin out of them is derash and part of the oral Torah.
Interestingly, the Sages (Song of Songs Rabbah 8:2) noticed this parallel as well, but drew the opposite conclusion.
שימני כחותם, ר’ ברכיה אמר זה קריאת שמע שנא’ (דברים ו’) והיו הדברים האלה וגו’ על לבבך, כחותם על זרועך אלו התפילין, המד”א (שם /דברים ו’/) וקשרתם לאות על ידך
‘Place me as a seal’ – R. Berechiah said: “This refers to the recitation of the Shema, as it says: ‘And these matters… shall be upon your heart. ‘As a seal upon your arm’ – this refers to tefillin, and this is what is meant when it says ‘and you shall bind them upon your arm’ (Deut. 6:8)”
As opposed to understanding the verse in Song of Songs as a poetic metaphor, and using this to explicate the passage in the Torah, Rabbi Berechiah uses the verse in the Torah to explicate the verse in Song of Songs and explains it as an allegorical reference to the donning of tefillin.
How does Ibn Ezra read the verses about tefillin in the Torah? According to his methodology, one would imagine that he must read the verses as referring to tefillin, which, in fact, he does. Commenting on the same verse as did Rashbam, Ibn Ezra writes:
והיה לך יש חולקין על אבותינו הקדושים, שאמר כי לאות ולזכרון, על דרך כי לוית חן הם לראשך, וענקים לגרגרותיך (משלי א, ט), גם וקשרתם לאות על ידיך (דבר’ ו, ח) כמו קשרם על לוח לבך תמיד (משלי ו, כא), גם וכתבתם על מזוזות ביתך (דבר’ ו, ט), כמו כתבם על לוח לבך (משלי ג ג). ומהו שיהיה לאות ולזכרון, שיהיה שגור בפיך, כי ביד חזקה הוציאך ה’ ממצרים.
‘And it shall be for you’ – there are those who dispute our holy ancestors, and say that ‘being a sign and a remembrance’ has the same meaning as (Prov. 1:9): “For they are a graceful wreath upon your head, a necklace about your throat.” [They] also [suggest] that ‘tie them as a sign upon your arm’ has the same meaning as (Prov. 6:9): “bind them upon the tablet of your heart always.” [They] similarly [understand] ‘write them on the doorposts of your house’ as the same in meaning to (Prov. 3:3) ‘write them on the tablet of your heart.” In that case, what would ‘a sign’ and ‘a remembrance’ mean? That God’s rescuing Israel from Egypt with a strong arm should be consistently spoken about.
ואין זה דרך נכונה, כי בתחלת הספר כתוב משלי שלמה, והנה כל מה שהזכיר הוא דרך משל, ואין כתוב בתורה שהוא דרך משל חלילה, רק הוא כמשמעו, על כן לא נוציאנו מיד פשוטו, כי בהיותו כמשמעו איננו מכחיש שקול הדעת, כמו ומלתם את ערלת לבבכם (דבר’ י, טז), שנצטרך לתקנו לפי הדעת…
However, this is an incorrect approach. For at the beginning of the book [of Proverbs] it states ‘The Proverbs of Solomon.’ Therefore, [the readers should expect] that everything mentioned in the book is a proverb (not literal). However, the Torah is not a book of proverbs—God forbid!—so that this verse must retain its literal meaning, and we will not remove it from its peshat. For its literal meaning doesn’t contradict any logical principle, as is the case for (Deut. 10:16) ‘and you shall circumcise your hearts,’ the understanding of which needs to be adjusted…
Here again, Ibn Ezra puts forth his methodology for interpreting verses in consonance with halakha. He writes that since there is no logical absurdity in assuming that the verses refer to tefillin, i.e. there is nothing supernatural and impossible about it, it is incumbent upon the rabbinic Jew to read the Torah in that light. In Ibn Ezra’s worldview, if the verses do not refer to tefillin, then tefillin is not a Torah law, and that cannot be because rabbinic tradition says that it is a Torah law. Although Ibn Ezra’s point has a certain common sense appeal—shouldn’t halakha be in line with the biblical laws from which it originates?—nevertheless, Rashbam appears comfortable with a reality where the peshat of the Torah and the halakha contradict, and both are considered true in their own ways. This perspective allows Rashbam to interpret the Torah according to its own words, which is one reason his commentary is so popular among modern day peshat readers.
For those of us debating key elements of Jewish faith nowadays, the fate of Ibn Ezra’s claim about Rashbam serves as an important lesson. As pointed out above, both commentaries appear together in the standard Mikraot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bible) found in the home of many religious Jews and on the shelves of every yeshiva and beit midrash. As acrimonious as the debate was, and as harsh as the rhetoric Ibn Ezra used was, this does not stop traditional Jews from embracing Rashbam’s interpretations or, at least, including them in the corpus of traditional commentaries. Furthermore, despite Ibn Ezra’s fears, no major movement to begin Shabbat in the morning or to stop wearing tefillin ever emerged from readers of Rashbam’s commentary. Time and again our tradition has proved strong enough to allow rethinking of the past without fear of destroying the present.
Translation of the Introduction to Igeret Ha-Shabbat
It was in the year 4919, in the middle of the night on Shabbat, on the 14th of the month of Tebeth, and I, Abraham the Sephardi called Ibn Ezra, was in one of the cities of the island which is called the edge of the Earth, which is on the seventh border of the borders of the civilized world. I was sleeping, and my slumber was pleasing to me, and I saw in a dream someone standing opposite me looking like a man, and in his hand was a sealed letter. And he said to me: “Take this letter which the Shabbat has sent you.”
And I knelt and bowed to God who honored me with this honor. I took [the letter] with both hands – and my hands were dripping myrrh – and I read it, and it was sweet like honey to my mouth. However, as I read the final lines, my heart became hot within me, and I almost lost my spirit. I asked the one standing before me: “What was my sin? What was my iniquity? For as long as I have known the great God who created me, and learned of His commandments, I have always loved the Shabbat. Before she would arrive I would go to greet her with all of my heart. Also, when she would leave I would send her away with joy and song. Who among all her servants was as loyal as I? Why would she send me this letter?” This is what it said:
“I am the Shabbat, the crown of the religion of the precious ones, the fourth of the ten commandments, a sign between the Lord and his children, an eternal covenant for every generation. God completed all His work with me, such is written in the first of the books. On Shabbat the manna did not fall, in order to be a demonstration to the generations. I am joy to those living on the earth and calmness to a nation dwelling in graves. I am the joy of men and women, elders and youths rejoice in me. Mourners do not mourn in me, and the righteous dead are not eulogized on me. Slave and maidservant find quiet with me, as do the strangers who dwell within the gates. All domesticated animals will rest: horses, donkeys and oxen. All of the wise will sanctify (=make Kiddush) upon wine, and those considered as nazirites will make the havdala. Every day wisdom can be found, but on my day one hundred fold. [I am] too honored for one to behave in one’s usual way, or to seek out one’s material needs or converse about such things. I have guarded you all of [your] years and you have guarded me since your youth. In your old age a fault has been found, since books have come to your house, within which are written to desecrate the seventh day. How can you be silent and not make vows to compose faithful letters and send them to all places?”
The Shabbat’s messenger said to me: “It was told to her that your students brought to your house yesterday a book which interprets the Torah, and therein is written to desecrate the Shabbat. You should gird your loins for the sake of the Shabbat’s honor, to fight the wars of Torah against the enemies of the Shabbat – and do not respect any person.”
I awoke and my heart was pounding and my soul was trembling. I arose and my anger was burning within me. I put on my clothes and washed my hands and I took out the book under the moonlight, and in it was written an interpretation of “and it was evening and it was morning”, and it said [that this meant] that when morning of the second day rose it was one complete day, for the night follows the day.
I almost rent my clothing as well as ripped up the commentary, since I said that it would be better to desecrate one Shabbat and not have Israel desecrate many Shabbats if they see this evil commentary. Also, we will become a laughing stock and humiliation to the gentiles – but I restrained myself in honor of the Shabbat. But I made a vow that I would not give my eye sleep after the end of the holy day until I wrote a long letter explaining when the beginning of a day in the Torah is, to remove stumbling blocks as well as traps. For all of the Jews, Pharisees and Sadducees alike, know that the only reason the story of God’s creation of each day was written was so that those who keep the Torah would know how to keep the Shabbat; that they should rest just like God rested, counting the days of the week. Now if the end of the sixth day was the morning of the seventh, then we should keep the following night.
This (Rashbam’s) commentary is misdirecting all of Israel, the east and the west, the near and the far, the living and the dead. Those who believe this difficult commentary – God will avenge the vengeance of the Shabbat upon them. Anyone who reads it aloud – may his tongue stick to his palate. Any scribe who writes it as a comment on the Torah, may his arm dry up and his right eye go blind, while for the rest of Israel there will be light.
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October 10, 2013
September 22, 2019
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter, BZAW 457) and the editor of Halakhic Realities: Collected Essays on Brain Death (Maggid).
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