Peshat vs. Halakha Dilemma: Shadal and Tradition
What does a traditional Jew do when a verse in the Torah seems to say one thing but halakha, Jewish law, attributes a different meaning to it? The problem can be acute for Jews who are sensitive to peshat (the plain, contextual meaning of the text) but at the same time committed to observing halakha.
In the nineteenth century, Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal; 1800-1865) developed a new, radical way of solving the peshat-halakha dilemma, suggesting that midrash halakha (rabbinic interpretation of biblical legal texts) often represents rabbinic legislation, not biblical commentary. He makes his clearest and most detailed statement on the topic in his commentary on Parashat Tzav.
First, though, let us examine how religious Jews before Shadal dealt with this issue.
The Yittur (Superfluous Word) Methodology
Over the centuries, peshat Bible commentators often used the yittur (“superfluous”) method (which actually has roots in the Talmud itself) to deal with the problem. They claimed that the Talmudic rabbis used peshat criteria when interpreting a biblical text until they found superfluous words (millim meyutarot). Once they discovered such words, they stopped usingpeshat criteria and felt justified in offering explanations that seem contextually unlikely or even implausible.
The Law of Inheritance (Num 27:11) as an Example
Numbers 27:11 addresses the problem of someone who dies and leaves no surviving sons, daughters, brothers or even uncles:
וְאִם אֵ֣ין אַחִים֘ לְאָבִיו֒ וּנְתַתֶּ֣ם אֶת נַחֲלָת֗וֹ לִשְׁאֵר֞וֹ הַקָּרֹ֥ב אֵלָ֛יו מִמִּשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ וְיָרַ֣שׁ אֹתָ֑הּ וְֽהָ֨יְתָ֜ה לִבְנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לְחֻקַּ֣ת מִשְׁפָּ֔ט כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה ה’ אֶת מֹשֶֽׁה:
If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, and he shall inherit it. This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with the Lord’s command to Moses.
The verse says that when the deceased does not have close relatives, we still look for the closest relative that we can find and he or she will inherit it (the estate, which is grammatically feminine in biblical Hebrew) — וְיָרַ֣שׁ אֹתָ֑הּ.
But classical rabbinic literature derives another halakha from these two words. In context, they mean “and he shall inherit it.” But the rabbis read the word אותה , the direct object marker with the feminine singular suffix, as meaning “her,” not “it.” The phrase then means “and he shall inherit her.” The rabbis then read the word שארו in that same verse as being a specific reference to “his wife.” They thereby derive the law from the two words וירש אותה that a man inherits his wife’s estate.
This is Not Peshat – Ibn Ezra’s Objection
The Talmud itself comments that this law is completely divorced from the words and from the context. Ibn Ezra expresses himself strongly against the idea that שארו means wife. As he points out, Lev 18:6 forbids every man from having sexual intercourse with שאר בשרו. Following this interpretation of Numbers 27:11, Lev. 18:6 would then imply that it is prohibited for a man to have sexual intercourse with his own wife! He also points out that this explanation flies in the face of the words in another way. The verse says that the inheritance is given לשארו, to his she’er, while the halakha says that the man inherits fromhis wife, and not vice versa.
Rashi’s Defense – A Midrash on Superfluous Words
Like ibn Ezra, Rashi says that contextually it is not possible to interpret שארו as meaning “his wife,” but he explains the factor that led the Talmudic rabbis to this non-contextual explanation. As he points out, the words וירש אותה are superfluous. Had they been omitted and had the verse simply read “ונתתם את נחלתו לשארו הקרוב אליו ממשפחתו—you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan,” nothing would have been missing.
Rashi then explains that a yittur of this nature, unnecessary words in the Torah, justifies offering a non-contextual reading of the phrase, and even possibly what appears to be a purposeful misreading of individual words.
For Rashi, the Bible is to be read on two levels. We study the peshat, but when we encounter a yittur, a superfluity that cannot be justified on the peshat level, we change our exegetical methodology. Identifying yitturim (superfluities) is the most common strategy for resolving the peshat–derash problem. It allows traditional readers to pursue peshat but also to respect the midrash halakha as the word of God.
Shadal’s Approach: Rabbinic Legislation
Shadal’s approach to the peshat–derash issue is novel and simple. Whenever the peshat says one thing and the midrash says something very different, Shadal says that the peshat is what the Torah means and the midrash represents rabbinic legislation, not biblical interpretation. The following two texts show the contrast between the yittur approach and Shadal’s:
An Animal that Dies by Falling Into a Pit (Exodus 21:33-34)
לג וְכִֽי יִפְתַּ֨ח אִ֜ישׁ בּ֗וֹר א֠וֹ כִּֽי יִכְרֶ֥ה אִ֛ישׁ בֹּ֖ר וְלֹ֣א יְכַסֶּ֑נּוּ וְנָֽפַל שָׁ֥מָּה שּׁ֖וֹר א֥וֹ חֲמֽוֹר: לד בַּ֤עַל הַבּוֹר֙ יְשַׁלֵּ֔ם כֶּ֖סֶף יָשִׁ֣יב לִבְעָלָ֑יו וְהַמֵּ֖ת יִֽהְיֶה לּֽוֹ
33 When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, 34 the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; with money he must pay the owner, but the dead animal shall be his.
Theoretically, the last three Hebrew words of this passage contain an ambiguity. Literally והמת יהיה לו means “the dead animal shall be his,” but there are two possible antecedents for the word “his”: it could refer either to the owner of the pit or to the owner of the dead animal.
Owner of the Pit
Every peshat-oriented reader, traditional or modern critical, understands that the owner of the pit must make full restitution for the price of the animal but he can keep the carcass. The JPS translation appropriately removes the ambiguity and does not translate “the dead animal shall be his,” but, “[he shall pay the price to the owner] but shall keep the dead animal.”
Owner of the Animal
Rabbinic literature, however, holds the opposite conclusion–that the dead animal is “his,” i.e., belongs to the original owner of the animal. As Rashbam writes: אבל חכמים פירשו לניזק—however, the rabbis interpreted the verse to mean that [the carcass belongs] to the one who suffered the damages.”
The Talmud explicitly explains this position on the basis of the yittur method. Had the Torah wanted us to think that the owner of the pit keeps the carcass, it could have simply omitted the words והמת יהיה לו. Of course, if the owner of the pit makes full recompense he keeps the carcass! Thus, these three superfluous words show that the carcass belongs to the owner of the animal.
Shadal, though, justifies both the peshat and the rabbinic tradition, arguing that the peshat represents Torah law but the midrashic tradition represents rabbinic legislation:
והמת יהיה לו – למזיק מאחר ששלם כל דמיו (רשב”ם), ורז”ל הקלו על המזיק, ואמרו שאינו חייב לשלם לו כסף ממש, ויכול לשלם לו בכל דבר . . .. ולפיכך מניח לו הנבלה ומשלם לו כל מה שהחי שוה יותר מן הנבלה.
“The dead animal shall be his,” i.e., shall be the property of the one responsible for the damage, since he made recompense for the entire value of the animal (Rashbam). But the rabbis decided to be more lenient [than the Torah was!] to the one who caused the damage. They said that he does not have to make recompense specifically with money [as the verse says: כסף ישיב לבעליו—with money he must pay the owner] but he can repay with any item . . .. So he can leave him the carcass [as partial payment] and then give him a further [monetary] payment to make up for the difference between the worth of the live animal and a carcass.
(Thinking about) Eating a Sacrifice after the Proper Time (פיגול; Leviticus 7:18)
Parashat Tzav, contains another large gap between the peshat and the accepted rabbinic interpretation. The verse reads:
וְאִ֣ם הֵאָכֹ֣ל יֵ֠אָכֵל מִבְּשַׂר זֶ֨בַח שְׁלָמָ֜יו בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי֘ לֹ֣א יֵרָצֶה֒ הַמַּקְרִ֣יב אֹת֗וֹ לֹ֧א יֵחָשֵׁ֛ב ל֖וֹ פִּגּ֣וּל יִהְיֶ֑ה וְהַנֶּ֛פֶשׁ הָאֹכֶ֥לֶת מִמֶּ֖נּוּ עֲוֹנָ֥הּ תִּשָּֽׂא:
If any of the flesh of his sacrifice of well-being is eaten on the third day, it shall not be acceptable; it shall not count for him who offered it. It is an offensive thing (piggul), and the person who eats of it shall bear his guilt.
The peshat is about what happens if someone eats of the sacrifice on the third day. But the rabbis say that the verse is actually about someone who, when offering the sacrifice, thought to eat the sacrifice on the third day. In other words, the rabbis feel that the infraction took place in the mind of the person who brought it while the sacrifice was being offered, not two days later.
Rashi in his commentary to the verse tries to justify the rabbinic conclusion by examining the wording of the verse. In fact, many commentators search for the ostensible yittur, the superfluity, in the verse. Rashbam simply writes that the explanation of the rabbis is very different from and incompatible with the peshat: “חכמים עקרוהו מפשוטו—the rabbis uprooted this verse from its plain meaning,” without explaining how or why that happened.
Shadal begins his commentary on the verse with the peshat explanation—that a sacrifice that was offered properly is retroactively disqualified if someone ate of it on the third day—and adds that it, not the rabbinic midrash, is the meaning of the verse. He writes:
זה הוא משמעות הכתוב, אבל זו באמת חומרא גדולה, שמי שאכל מבשר הזבח בתוך הזמן ישא עונו כאילו אכל פגול, מפני שאחר כן לא נשרף הנותר יהיה כמי שאכל ממנו ביום השלישי . . . לפיכך הוצרכו חכמים להוציא הכתוב מפשוטו, ולפרש שאין הקרבן נפסל באכילת יום שלישי, אלא אם כן בשעת הקרבתו היתה כוונת הבעלים לאכלו בשלישי,
This [what he wrote above] is the meaning of the verse. But it is a great stringency to say that if someone ate of the sacrifice during the permitted time he could still be considered a sinner who ate piggul. Just because the remainder of the sacrifice was not burned, he [who ate the sacrifice legitimately on the first day] becomes like someone who ate of the sacrifice on the third day? . . . So the rabbis had to remove the verse from its plain meaning and say that a sacrifice is disqualified by eating on the third day only if the person who offered it had that [illegitimate] intention in mind when he [first] offered the sacrifice.
In other words, the rabbis, according to Shadal, considered the Torah law overly strict so they made it more lenient.
אחרי כמה שנים שהייתי מתמיה על רז”ל, למה (כדברי רשב”ם) עקרו הכתוב הזה מפשוטו, היום (פורים, תר”ז) זכיתי להבין מה ראו על ככה. וכן בכל מקום שנטו רז”ל מפשט הכתובים, כשאין הדבר דעת יחיד, אבל הוא דבר מוסכם בלי חולק איננו טעות שטעו, אבל הוא תקנה שתקנו, לפי צורך הדורות. ומי כמוהם ריפורמאטור? אבל תקנותיהם היו בחכמה עמוקה, וביראת ה’ ואהבת האדם, לא להנאת עצמם או לכבודם, ולא למצוא חן בעיני בשר ודם.
After many years of wondering why the rabbis–as Rashbam put it–uprooted this verse from its plain meaning, today, on Purim 1847, I successfully understood why. Similarly, whenever not just an individual rabbi but the rabbis as a whole, without disputes, strayed from the peshat of a verse, it is not because they made an [exegetical] error. Rather it was a new regulation they were enacting to respond to the needs of the generation. Where can we find Reformers like them?! However their new regulations were based on deep wisdom, fear of God and love of humanity. They were not done for their own benefit or honor, and also not in order to gain favor in other people’s eyes.
According to Shadal, a midrash halakhah that teaches us to whom the carcass belongs when an ox falls into a pit, or when a sacrifice does or does not become piggul, is not biblical exegesis but rabbinic legislation, motivated by the desire to be more lenient than Torah law.
Isn’t a Derashah De-Oraita (Torah Law)?
From a halachic point of view, this approach may be problematic: these laws that were connected to biblical verses by means of a derashah were standardly considered by the rabbis to be of Torah, not rabbinic, origin (דאורייתא, not דרבנן), as Shadal’s approach apparently implies. Remarkably, for Shadal, the classical rabbis were religious reformers who changed the laws of the Torah, making them less stringent. Shadal lived in the early days of Reform Judaism and took issue with its innovations. Accordingly, he takes pains to distinguish the motivations of the classical rabbis from what he understood to be the motivations of his more liberal contemporaries.
Shadal was a brilliant Renaissance man. Cecil Roth wrote of him: “He has been termed ‘the greatest Jew in an age so peculiarly rich in great Jews’—at least an arguable estimation.” By the time Shadal was 18 years old, he had studied Bible, Mishnah, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, German, French, mathematics, geography and history. He had studied the entire Babylonian Talmud twice and had begun translating Aesop’s fables into Hebrew. In Italian, he had published a volume of poetry and a book about Hebrew grammar. He later studied Semitic languages, becoming an expert both in the critical study of Bible and the traditional Jewish and Christian Bible commentaries.
He was a strong opponent of Reform Judaism although he was personally friendly with some of its leaders, including Abraham Geiger. Shadal taught Bible and Jewish thought at the Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Padua. Recent years have seen a flurry of scholarly interest in Shadal and his Torah commentary. Ironically, Shadal may have received in later generations a taste of his own medicine. He showed that the classical rabbis and the “Reformers” shared some characteristics (although he emphasized the differences). These days some wonder whether Shadal himself was Orthodox.
The great 20th century Bible teacher, Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997), often cited Shadal’s explanations. But she also occasionally opposed his interpretations forcefully: “His words here appear to us to be an example of teaching the ‘reasons for the commandments’ inappropriately, in a way that is likely to do more harm than good.” And in another place: “Shadal’s explanation . . . has not even the slightest connection to the words of the verse.” While Leibowitz had a sharp critical mind, she rarely used language like this about Bible commentators whom she considered more kosher.
Shadal is not part of the canon of accepted commentaries in the hareidi yeshivah world. Many yeshivah students have not even heard of him. Even in the relatively modern yeshivah where I studied in the 1970s, Yeshivat Mercaz Harav , the rosh yeshivah expressed reservations about Shadal. When asked, he did not, however, prohibit reading his works in the yeshivah.
Are Shadal’s Works “Orthodox”?
To what extent are the works of Shadal considered legitimate today among Orthodox Jews? On a site for modern Orthodox Jews in the United States recently, one blogger tallied up the nineteenth and early twentieth century rabbis who did and did not consider Shadal kosher. (There are surprises in both directions.)
Barry Levy reports in a regretful tone that the Torah u-Madda Journal, the flagship journal of intellectual Yeshiva-University-affiliated Orthodoxy in the United States, “effectively excommunicates Luzzatto, who, it seems, is now better left outside the canon of acceptable Orthodox writers.” One American centrist Orthodox gatekeeper has also written recently, “Only someone ready to do theological battle with Shadal should tread–carefully–through this commentary. . . . Shadal’s commentary occasionally deviates from Orthodox beliefs.”
On the other side of the ocean, a new edition of Shadal’s Torah commentary was launched with fanfare in December 2015 at a major modern Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, Beit Knesset HaRamban. Among the speakers was Rabbi Yosi Slotnik, one of the leading rabbis of the modern Orthodox Israeli yeshivah, Maaleh Gilboa.
A Two Hundred Year View
As there is no universally accepted definition of “Orthodox,” we should not be surprised to find differences over time and place. Almost two hundred years ago, Shadal’s interpretations of the Bible were sufficiently orthodox for the Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Padua. In 1965, Shadal was sufficiently Orthodox for Yeshiva University to publish, without any trigger warnings about theological deviations, a book about Shadal’s religious philosophy. In the introduction to the book, Rabbi Dr. Leon Stitskin, the editor of Yeshiva University’s “Studies in Torah Judaism” series, wrote:
We have set as our purpose in these studies to underscore the conviction that Torah Judaism has a rationale and that our doctrines and beliefs are grounded in ideological constructs and philosophical schemes with which reflective traditional scholars of all generations have come to grips. Luzzatto was an eminent exponent of such a school of thought. He was at home in the intellectual currents of his day and applied them to the organic resources of Torah Judaism to revitalize its creative faculties and render them in modern thought modes.
In 2016, Shadal’s worldview may no longer be considered Orthodox in Washington Heights, but it still is for the Jews of south Jerusalem and Maaleh Gilboa.
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March 23, 2016
January 3, 2021
Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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