Thursday, November 08, 2007

anachronistic readings and literalness of midrash

This is not a fully formulated idea, but as I wanted to seperate it as a seperate post (it came up in the comments to the previous post). I highlighed Rashi's statement that Lot celebrated Pesach as an example of Rashi's use of anachronism, and while that example can be explained away perhaps using a thematic reading, it is by no means an isolated occurance in Rashi. Look at one chapter in our parsha - 27:3 Rashi refers to Yitzchak commanding Eisav to use a sharp knife so his meat would not be neveila; 27:9 Rashi refers to Yitzchak eating korban pesach; 27:9 Rashi refers to Rivka's kesuba. I am sure a thorough review of Rashi can bring to light many other examples. To dismiss all these as non-literal takes Rashi out of his role as interpreter of local textual problems. It also simply does not work when we move beyond Rashi, e.g. what is one to make of a question like how the sale of bechora worked when it is a davar she'lo ba l'olam? Aren't we imposing later halachic standards of kinyanim that may not yet have existed onto the text? Nonetheless, some meforshim have no problem raising such a question.

What I would suggest is that Rashi and many achronim approached the text of Chumash and Midrash as a discrete and self-contained system. Limud haTorah to these parshanim is like working on a mathematical equation; kashes of historical context or practical concerns simply do not come into play. Just like 2+2=4 is true in all possible times and places, once halacha declares lo ba l'olam an invalid kinyan it cannot exist **as a unit of text** in a Torah which is true at all times as places. In other words, the issue is not how historically a sale of something which is lo ba l'olam could occur, but rather how Torah as a timelessly true could text contain such a phenomenon.

By way of analogy, logical positivists say that issues of theology or metaphysics are not cognitively meaningful because they cannot be investigated. When one learns gemara, one looks for consistancy within the text; questions like whether "tav l'meisav" is sociologically accurate or how Chazal came to these umdenot are outside the purview of the Bais Medrash. A Mishna is a unit of text, not a historical statement.

Of course, Ramban, Rashbam, and so many others do not read the Chumash in this way. One can undoubtedly dismisses a kashe like "How could Yitchok eat from Eisav's meat without concern for shechitas mumar - hashta behemtam shel tzadikim ein HKB"H mavi takalah al yadam, tzadikim atzaman lo ksh"k" as taking a midrash too literally or being too anachronistic. However, given that such a question was oleh al shulchan shel melachim (see the Yismach Moshe) forces an acknowledgement that some meforshim had a different way of looking at things.

I appreciate the difficulties with this approach raised in the comments, but I don't see another model that would explain what these meforshim are doing. I'm open to ideas - any other suggestions? Final point: even if one rejects their approach to parshanut, the pilpul and of these meforshim is often valuable in a larger context and is an excellent way to stretch one's thinking. Oneg Shabbos for some is a piece of kugel, for others it's a Yismach Moshe, a Parashas Derachim, etc. Not so terrible : )


  1. I think your pshat is just a fancier version of the pshat I gave on my site.

  2. not really - I commented on your site.

  3. Anonymous4:48 PM

    I agree with both of you that the pilpul that results helps us understand the underlying halachos better -- even if it doesn't help us with the pshat here.

    What I still dont understand is where do you draw the line? What is the unit of text you are analyzing? The text does not provide indication that Eisav was a mumar, nor does the text indicate that the avos were makpid not to eat neveliah, etc. You are using outside information. Where do you draw the line and say it just doesn't make sense -- and that therefore the lomdus/halachic conclusion does not make sense based on the metzius that you are applying it to?

    The Rashba at the end of the first perek of megilah deals with the Agadeta that Mordechai was married to Ester but at the same time the gemara/medresh says that Ester went willingly to Achashverosh. The achronim go nuts trying to deal with -- I believe it starts with the Rashash and a diyuk in Rashi, IIRC, the Nodah Be-yehudah has a whole teshuvah which he applies le-mayseh (an example of your point of the value of the pilpul).

    But as to what actually happened, the Rashba concludes with Ein meshivin al ha-agadah. What that means to me is that it is not literal and not meant to be that way. If that was good enough for the Rashba, why isn't it good enough for us?

    Gil, a little while back, had a whole post on whether the gemara in Yevamos that Rashi quotes that ba Adam al kol chayah etc. before he joined with Chavah, whether Rashi meant that literally or not. Rashi is a pahstan yes, but not everything he quotes has to be the pshat.

    I still dont get it. My chisaron.

    PS -- none of this even gets to whether midrashim that dont seem to be literal are or not; there are midrashim which could be literally applied and still be logically consistent -- even if not "pshat." The issues result when you apply the halachic concepts which cause a logical inconsistency given the facts of the situation as presented by the Chumash and the medresh.

  4. Anonymous6:23 PM

    >Just like 2+2=5 is true in all possible times and places,

    Uh, don't you mean four?

  5. Well, thats ironic...(the 2+2=5 thing).
    Good post otherwise :)

  6. Corrected it - my brain must have shut down.

  7. Excellent post,of great value to me and I am sure others as well.I very much agree with your idea. The traditional commentaries saw all of torah as a timeless whole, one part being available to fill in a detail in another part. It is ridiculous to believe Rashi bought into modern historicism but then puts foward sily claims.

    It is only when a person implicitly internalizes the critical idea that tanach is to be read as a historical document, and hangs or fails on how closely it matches what we now think occurred, that the concept of anachronism occurs.

    Your explanation works best when you give up a sharp peshat/non peshat dichotomy, and allow one kind of reading to have elements of other more drush kinds of interpretations. These seforim didn't ring a bell every time they moved from one interpretative mode to another.

  8. Anonymous12:42 PM

    For those who are interested, here is a link to a good discussion by R'Yonasan Sacks on how Yaakov could buy the bechorah as a davar shelo ba la-olam. As Chaim already pointed out, the gedolei olam have discussed the issue at length.

  9. And Yaaqov marrying two sisters? Amram marrying his aunt? I'd love to hear you explain these in terms of Hilchot Ishut!

    According to this line of reasoning, Avraham Avinu could never have received the mitsvah of berit millah, since of course he must already have been circumcised, being that he fulfilled all the mitsvot!!!

  10. Anonymous3:35 PM


    I think your explanation tries to capture too much. It is generally true that Rashi and Chazal viewed halakha and even meta-halakhic principles as having an eternal, and hence timeless quality. They were unconcerned about the "historicity" of certain concepts -- they assumed that, if true, they were eternal.

    That said, neither Rashi nor Chazal held that certain events did not occur at a fixed point in history. Yetzias Mitzrayim and Mattan Torah are two such events that come to mind. To the extent that certain halakhic principles flow from these events -- the mitzvos that are "zecher le yetzias mitzrayim" or the chiyyuv generated on klal yisrael that commenced at mattan Torah -- these principles perforce have an halakhic starting point in history.

    That is why, for example, many Rishonim and acharonim struggle with the exact halakhic status of the Avos and whether, for example, they were able to keep Shabbos. If everything is collapsed into a single timeframe, then these questions are meaningless.

    That said, I think there is plenty of room to posit that there is an eternal Torah created, as Chazal say, 2000 years prior to the creation of the world. Even the seemingly "historical" halakhos can be reflective of this eternal reality.

    To use the specific example of Pesach, R. Chaim once famously stated that Pesach does not fall in the "Aviv" because of the historical accident of when Yetzias Mitzrayim occurred. Rather, the hasgacha arranged it that the geula would take place in the "Aviv" time to correspond to the Torah which had been created prior to the creation of the world.

    Perhaps it was written in the primordial Torah that the month of Aviv (what we call Nissan) was particularly auspicious for geulah, and the Avos, through Ruach ha Kodesh, intuited this reality. They therefore celebrated Pesach -- not the "zecher le yetzias mitzrayim" we do, but a celebration of this auspicious geulah time. (Note also that Bris Bein ha Besarim is acc. to Chazal supposed to have taken place on the night of 15 Nissan, and the geulah took place exactly 430 years later. Perhaps there is a tie in to that specific nevuah.) Matzoh is a symbol of geulah (see the Ran on the 4 questions who discusses this) and hence a particularly appropriate food for such an occassion.

  11. Anonymous3:41 PM

    According to this line of reasoning, Avraham Avinu could never have received the mitsvah of berit millah, since of course he must already have been circumcised, being that he fulfilled all the mitsvot!!!

    R. Maroof, you are surely aware of the many acharonim who ask why indeed Avraham Avinu did not perform Milah prior to his being given the mitzvah at 99.

    The simplest answer, which I thought of and then later saw in a sefer, is that milah is more than a mitzvah, it is a bris -- a covenental relationship between God and the circumcised. You cannot have a bris with only one party. Until Hashem revealed in a nevuah that he was willing to enter into such a covenant, there was no point in doing the mitzva.

    (One of the Brisker books brought this down as a complementary answer to the famous Brisker Rov who answered, based on a R. Tam. that until there is an obligation to remove the orlah, the skin is not a cheftza shel orlah and the person/child is not an arel. Thus, until AA got the mitzvah, his foreskin was not an "orlah" and hence removing it would be no more meaningful than cutting off his finger.)

  12. Rabbi Maroof,

    I think you need to pick up a copy of the Parashas Derachim who addresses these issues at length in his first two essays. And the kashe on bris milah is well worked over in achronim, including the brisker rav.

    I do not understand - your insistence on the exclusive rationality of your approach which reduces everything to metaphor oes not work in many Rashis also denies the legitimacy of a long list of achronim who take a literal reading and discuss the very issues you raise. I am not willing to cavalierly dismiss these giants like the Parahas Derchim, Chasam Sofer, Meshech Chochma, Netziv, and others as simpletons who could not tell metaphorical medrash from reality and so I return to the question I posed to you in the last round of comments - how do you approach their work?

  13. I think that the belief that the Avot literally observed the Torah is fraught with logical and theological problems, not to mention that it is not warranted by any textual evidence, and that it is the type of Midrash that the Rambam was referring to when he said that the literal interpretation of Aggadah can cause Judaism to be cast in a very poor light in the eyes of non-Jews and non-religious Jews.

  14. Tal,

    The fact that you find your approach to be a simple answer is a bit surprising! The simple answer is that berit milah was a new idea.

  15. All this being said, I think that your approach is probably an accurate depiction of what the gedolim you cite actually did believe about the Torah. I don't question their greatness or insight, and I understand that they had reasons for adopting the approach they did. I just have a hard time accepting their idea for reasons I have already stated.

  16. Anonymous3:24 PM

    I think that the belief that the Avot literally observed the Torah is fraught with logical and theological problems, not to mention that it is not warranted by any textual evidence,

    No textual evidence? Its a straight posuk!! (Yes, diffrent Rishonim read it differently, but even the Rashmbam says they kept SOME mitzvot)

  17. Anonymous3:24 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  18. Anonymous,
    I generally refrain from deleting comments, but I felt that remark was insulting to a fellow commentator and didn't add to the discussion. Please...

  19. BS"D

    I remember a text of the Ramchal specifically saying that Midrashim are the way to transmit Sodot Hatorah from one generation of Sages to another. Thus, whether they make logical sense or not is a meaningless question, as they need to be read with reading lenses which most readers do not have. And which Sages do have (please do not quote me, I am saying this by memory and using my own words).

    Regarding one poster's question about Yaakov marrying two sisters, it is not difficult to find answers which make perfect sense. I think the last Rabbi of Lubavitch wrote that the Avot kept Mitzvot because of their Chassidut (devotion) and not because there were commanded to. Therefore, it was a personal choice they could impose only on themselves and not on others. But Yaakov had promised to marry Rachel and as a Ben Noach he was commanded to keep his word. He could not ignore something he was commanded to do - in favor of his personal devotion in keeping Mitzvot he was not commanded to. Therefore Hilchot Ishut say he HAD TO marry Rachel as he promised and he was NOT ALLOWED to impose on her the rules of Torah he had imposed on himself.

  20. Anonymous5:52 AM

    interesting post. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did anyone hear that some chinese hacker had hacked twitter yesterday again.