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Shaye J. D. Cohen





The Torah Is Not an Allegory





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Shaye J. D. Cohen





The Torah Is Not an Allegory








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The Torah Is Not an Allegory

In a polemical response to Christian and Jewish allegorical interpretation of the Torah’s laws, Bekhor Shor writes that just as God speaks to Moses “clearly and without riddles” (Num 12:8), so too the Torah is clear and means what it says, and should not be interpreted allegorically.


The Torah Is Not an Allegory

Stained-glass window inside The Great Synagogue of Jerusalem on King George Street

R. Joseph Bekhor Shor flourished in northern France in the mid or second half of the twelfth century. He is probably to be identified with R. Joseph of Orleans, a disciple of Rabbenu Tam (Jacob ben Meir, 1100-1171).[1] For a long time, he and his Torah commentary languished in relative obscurity, but perhaps his moment has finally arrived. In recent years two editions of his Torah commentary have appeared,[2] as well as a book-length monograph,[3] and many articles.[4]

This new interest is due in part to the growing recognition of his importance as a Torah commentator who stands between the radical peshat orientation of his older contemporary Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, early twelfth century, brother of Rabbenu Tam), and the aggadic orientation of the Tosafist school of Torah commentators in twelfth-century northern France.[5] Bekhor Shor’s commentary is especially interesting when it is attacking “incorrect” biblical interpretation, such as Christian exegesis.

Moses Receives Clear Messages

One excellent example of this phenomenon is his reading of God’s rebuke of Miriam and Aaron in Numbers 12. In this story, Aaron and Miriam have just spoken out against their brother Moses. “Has not the Lord spoken to us too?” they complain. “What makes Moses so special?” God himself comes to Moses’ defense:

במדבר פרק יב:ו וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁמְעוּ נָא דְבָרָי אִם יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֲכֶם יְ-הוָה בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ. יב:ז לֹא כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא. יב:ח פֶּה אֶל פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת וּתְמֻנַת יְ-הוָה יַבִּיט וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה.
Numbers 12:6 And he [God] said, “Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I YHWH make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. 12:7 Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. 12:8With him I speak face to face—with clarity, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of YHWH. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (NJPS with adjustments)

Bekhor Shor uses these verses as an opportunity to dilate upon what makes Moses superior to all the other prophets: Moses is an intimate of God, to whom God speaks freely and to whom God reveals the entire truth of any given matter. Moses is an intimate of God, an agent whom God trusts entirely, and who understands the divine will completely. He begins by explaining that the reason Moses is trusted by all of Israel is:

כי אני מדבר עמו פה אל פה, במראה אני מראה לו הדבר ממש כמו שהוא ולא על ידי חידה ומשל, וכולם מבינים מה שהוא אומר בשמי.
Because I speak with him face to face – with clarity I (God) show Moses something as it actually is, not by means of a riddle or a parable, and everyone understands what he says in my name.[6]

Since Moses receives prophecies clearly, he can also communicate them clearly, making him an exceptionally successful prophet for the people who wish to know God’s word. The reasons Moses is given such clear messages is because he is particularly trustworthy:

והכל בא ממני, כי אני מגלה לו כל הסוד, כמו שאדם עושה [עם] שלוחו הנאמן לו, שמגלה לו כל סודו, ואומר [לו]: אמור לפלוני כך, כי כך וכך סוד ביני ובינו.
And everything comes from me, because I reveal to him the entire secret, just as a person does with a trustworthy agent to whom he reveals his entire secret. He says to the agent, “say such-and-such to so-and-so, because there is an understanding (secret) between him and me.”
ואם אין השליח נאמן לו, אומר לו: אמור לפלוני שיעשה אותו דבר שדברנו אני והוא, ואין השליח יודע איזו שליחות הוא עושה, ולפיכך כל באי עולם מחזיקין אותו בנאמן.
But if his agent is not trustworthy he says to him “say to so-and-so that he should do that thing of which we spoke,” and the agent does not understand the agency that he is accomplishing. Therefore, all the people of the world regard him (Moses) as trustworthy.[7]

Moses is the trusted agent from whom the master holds back nothing. Other prophets do not enjoy the same degree of trust, and thus they receive revelations (visions) from God whose meaning they do not fully comprehend. As a result of Moses’ special status “all the people in the world regard him as trustworthy.”[8]

Responding to Christian Allegory

Next, Bekhor Shor turns polemical and attacks the Christian allegorical interpretation ofmitzvot, noting that they don’t realize Moses doesn’t speak in allegories, but delivers clear messages from God that mean exactly what they say:

ובכאן נשברו זרועם של אומות העולם שאומרים על מה שאמר משה רבינו אלגורי”א הם, כלומר: חידה ומשל, ואינו מה שהוא אומר, ומהפכין הנבואה לדבר אחר, ומוציאין הדבר ממשמעותו לגמרי.
And thus the arm of the nations of the world is broken, for they say that what Moses our teacher said is anallegory,[9] that is, a riddle and a parable, and does not mean what he actually says. And they change his prophecy into something else and they totally distort his meaning.

Although Bekhor Shor in other places polemicizes against Christian truth claims (e.g. the Trinity, the Eucharist, the temporary authority of the Torah), this is the only passage in which he attacks Christian allegorization of the laws.[10] It is worth noting here that many scholars believe that Bekhor Shor knew Latin, which was unusual for rabbis of his (or any) period, and that he had direct contract with Christian scholars.[11]

In Bekhor Shor’s understanding, the Christians think that Moses speaks in allegory and parable and that the Torah’s laws have no “actual” (ממש) meaning,[12] since the verses can be twisted to yield any meaning at all. Bekhor Shor is essentially turning an old polemic back against its source. Christian scholars argued that the Jews have misinterpreted scripture by reading it literally and missing its spiritual message; Bekhor Shor responds that, in fact, it is the Christians who are misreading.

Christians had long claimed, based on some passages in the New Testament, that the Jews read the Torah according to the letter, whereas God wants them to read it according to “the Spirit.” In the Christian readings, the legal sections of the Torah do not necessarily mean what they say, but communicate a deeper, hidden message. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6: “For the letter [of the law] kills, but the Spirit gives life (NRSV).”[13] Bekhor Shor’s basic argument is that Numbers 12 teaches us that Moses does not receive allegorical prophecies but literal ones, and thus, the laws mean what they say (ממש).

God’s Plan: Why Christians Do not Understand

Bekhor Shor further explains why it is that Christians read this way:

ועליהם אמר דוד “מגיד דבריו ליעקב, חקיו ומשפטיו לישראל, לא עשה כן לכל גוי ומשפטים בל ידעום” שאעפ”י שהעתיקו את התורה מלשון – הקודש ללשונם, לא נתן להם הקדוש ברוך הוא לב לדעת ועינים לראות ואזנים לשמוע, אלא מהפכין הדברים למה שאינם.
Concerning them David said (Psalms 147:19-20), “he speaks his words to Jacob, his laws and statutes to Israel; he has not done thus to any other nation, because he does not make known to them his statutes.” Even though they have translated the Torah from the holy tongue into their language, the Holy One, blessed be he, has not given them a heart for understanding, eyes for seeing, and ears for hearing, for instead they change the words to mean something that was never intended.
כי אין [הקדוש ברוך הוא] רוצה וחפץ בהם שידבקו בתורתו.
The Holy One, blessed be he, does not want or desire them to cleave to his Torah.

The reason that Christians do not understand the Torah, Bekhor Shor argues, is not as a result of lack of Hebrew knowledge or intellectual deficiency[14] but rather, it is a result of the divine will. Because Christians are not God’s people, God does not want them to understand his revelation.

Bekhor Shor notes how Christians are not part of Psalm 147’s category of “Jacob/Israel,” and thus the laws were not meant for their observance or understanding. Accordingly, the choice of Psalm 147 as a prooftext can be understood as a response to the Christian claim to be the “true Israel.”[15] Nevertheless, Bekhor Shor’s main point is that even though the Christians may have translated the Torah and they may read the Torah, they do not understand it, since their allegorical reading of Moses’ laws is mistaken.

Too Polemical?

Surely, however, if we could remove Bekhor Shor from his polemical context and allow him to speak freely, he would acknowledge that the question is complicated.[16] Are the legal portions of the Torah always and invariably to be interpreted literally? Are there not many examples in Rabbinic literature where laws are interpreted metaphorically? Rashi himself, in his commentary on various legal passages, says explicitly that given verses are meant as a mashal.[17]

One simple and clear example of the Sages reading a law metaphorically is their interpretation of Leviticus 19:14:

לֹא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל…
You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind…[18]

For reasons which they do not reveal, the Sages understand the first clause as literally referring to cursing (i.e., insulting) but the second clause metaphorically as causing someone to stumble in sin. In other words, the second prohibition has nothing to do with a physical “stumbling block” designed to trip someone’s feet; it is a metaphor for something which causes a person to “fall” and with which a person can sin.

In other words, a person who puts a stumbling block before the blind is one who enables someone else to do a sinful act. The classic example of this used the by Sages is one who gives wine to a nazirite, who made a vow against drinking wine. The wine in this example is the stumbling block. From the Sifra to the Talmud to Rashi and yes, even to Bekhor Shor, the second clause of the verse is understood this way.[19] Bekhor Shor never discusses how to distinguish between “legitimate” rabbinic metaphorical readings and the “illegitimate” Christian ones.

Illegitimate Jewish Interpretation

Finally, Bekhor Shor turns to his fellow Jews who appear to treat certain Torah laws as metaphor and ignore the “actual” (ממש) meaning of the Torah’s laws.

גם מבני עמינו שמעתי שמפקפקין על תפילין ומזוזות וכיסוי – הדם, שאומרים “והיה לאות על ידכה ולטוטפות בין עיניך, וכתבתם על מזוזות ביתך ובשעריך” שהוא כמו “שימני כחותם על לבך, כחותם על זרועך”, שתזכרני תמיד, ואינו חותם על זרועו ולבו ממש. וכן אילו אינם ממש תפילין ומזוזות,
Also I have heard that some people of our nation have doubted the commandments of tefillin (phylacteries), mezuzot, and the covering of the blood [of slaughtered fowl], for they say that “it shall be for a sign on your hand and for totafot between your eyes” (Exodus 13:16), and “you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:8-9) has the same meaning as “place me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm” (Song of Songs 8:6), that is, you should remember me always, and is not an actual seal on the arm or heart. And thus, in their opinion, these words do not refer to actual tefillin and mezuzot.
וכן “וכסהו בעפר”, כמו “וכסינו את דמו”, וכמו “ארץ אל תכסי דמי”. ואינו אומר כסוי הדם ממש,
And likewise, “and he shall cover it with earth” (Leviticus 17:13). They say this is like “And we shall cover his blood” (Genesis 37:26) and “earth, do not cover my blood” (Job 16:18), which does not mean actual covering of the blood.
אוי להם מעלבונה של תורה, כי אף הם עתידים ליתן את הדין.
Woe to them for insulting the Torah. The day will come when they will have to face divine judgment.

Bekhor Shor highlights three Torah verses whose legal content is mis-read as metaphor by some of his co-religionists: the verses commanding the wearing of tefillin (phylacteries), the related verses commanding the affixing of mezuzot to the doorposts of a home, and the verses commanding the covering with earth the blood of slaughtered fowl and wild animals (kissuy ha-dam).

Tefillin and Piety in the Middle Ages

Bekhor Shor’s polemic here may have multiple targets.

Rashbam – The allegorical interpretation of the tefillin passage is known from Rashbam’s commentary on Exodus 13:9:[20]

לאות על ידך – לפי עומק פשוטו יהיה לך לזכרון תמיד כאילו כתוב על ידך. כעין שימני כחותם על לבך
A sign on your hand”according to its fundamental plain meaning, it means that it shall be for a permanent memorial as if it were written on your hand. Similar to what is said in the verse “Place me as a seal on your heart” (Song of Songs 8:6)

In other words, says Rashbam, the verse does not require – it does not even suggest – the literal wearing of tefillin. The verse is metaphor; keep the words of God with you always, as if they were written on your hand and on your heart.[21]

Although it is likely that Bekhor Shor has Rashbam’s commentary in mind here, Rashbam may not have been the main target of his polemic. First, Rashbam does not apply this metaphorical reading to the mezuzah. Second, Rashbam certainly wore tefillin and put amezuzah on his doorpost, and thus cannot fairly be described as someone who “doubts the commandments.”[22]

Karaite Exegesis – Karaite exegetes generally interpret both the tefillin and mezuzah passages metaphorically, and, in fact, Karaite Jews do not wear tefillin or put up mezuzot.[23]Thus, it is possible that Bekhor Shor has Karaites in mind here as well. Nevertheless, this still seems like an insufficient target for Bekhor Shor’s animus here. Karaites were hardly a significant competitor in twelfth century France. Also, Karaites do cover the blood after slaughtering an animal.[24]

Rabbinic Jews Didn’t Wear Tefillin or Put Up Mezuzot – Perhaps in addition to the theoretical allegorizing of Rashbam and the Karaite “practical allegorizers,” Bekhor Shor was aiming at local Jews who simply didn’t wear tefillin or put up mezuzot, not for philosophical reasons but because tefillin and mezuzah were not widely observed before this period. These mitzvot were observed by pietists but not by the (male) population at large.

Norms changed and expectations changed, however, and some members of the scholar class began to teach that these practices were to be norms of regular piety. At this point the old habit of ignoring tefillin and mezuzah was no longer tolerable; adult males were expected to don tefillin and Jewish habitations were expected to be marked by mezuzot. What was once perfectly acceptable behavior became deviance.[25]

If this is what was bothering him, then Bekhor Shor’s issue may not so much have been the neglect of tefillin and mezuzah born of philosophical speculation, but the failure in his community to adapt to new modes of piety. In fact, decades later, R. Moshe of Coucy (early 13th century) describes how he preached to Jewish communities about the importance of wearing tefillin (Semag, Positive Commandments 3):

כך דרשתי פרשה זו בגליות ישראל להוכיח שכל אחד ואחד חייב בתפילין ומזוזות.
Thus I preached about this biblical passage in the diaspora communities, to prove that each and every (man/person) is obligated in tefillin and mezuzah.

In short, Bekhor Shor seems to have had multiple targets, and he even seems to associate the Rashbam style allegories with the non-observance of these mitzvot within his community. Whether Rashbam’s interpretation actually aided “some of our people” in their resistance to the spread of new-found tefillin piety is not known.[26]

A Many-Sided Polemic

The commentary of Bekhor Shor on Numbers 12 is a window into several major issues confronting Ashkenazic Jewry in the twelfth century: Jewish vs. Christian truth claims, Jewish vs. Christian Bible interpretation, the power of allegory, and pietistic observances by the community at large.


May 29, 2018


Last Updated

August 8, 2022


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi Shaye J. D. Cohen is the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. in Ancient History from Columbia University and his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, The Beginnings of Jewishness, and The Significance of Yavneh and Other Essays in Jewish Hellenism.