Tuesday, January 10, 2017

how can Ramban argue on Chazal - what is the "true" meaning of the text?

I wanted to write a fuller post about this issue, but haven't had time, so I figure better a chatzi shiur than nothing at all.

The Ramban at the end of VaYigash (47:18) tries to reconcile Joseph's interpretation of Pharoah's dream, which called for 7 years of famine, with the events at the end of the parsha, which seem to indicate that the famine ended after only two years (as is Rashi's position quoting Chazal).  If the famine indeed ended, wouldn't that call into question Yosef's prediction and advice?  Ramban offers three possible solutions:

1) The famine ended completely in Egypt, bas Chazal teach, but it continued in Canaan and the surrounding areas;

2) The view of the Tosefta: the famine temporarily ended in Egypt after 2 years until the death of Ya'akov, after which it resumed for another 5 years;

3) Ramban's interpretation al pi peshuto: the famine ran for seven consecutive years as Yosef had predicted, and the events in the parsha are speaking about the final two years of famine.

R' Friedlander in Sifsei Chaim (Pirkei Emunah u'Bechira vol 2 . 261) asks the following question: the famine lasted either 2 years or 7 tears -- it couldn't have been both.  The two views are mutually exclusive.  Ramban and Chazal are arguing on a matter of metzi'us, a matter of historical fact.  If Chazal, as Rashi quotes, and as the Tosefta teaches, tell us that the historical fact is that the famine lasted only 2 years, how can the Ramban contradict Chazal and tell us that it lasted 7 years?   

In other words, when the pshat and the derash contradict as to what happened -- matters of fact -- either one or the other is true.  How  can we disregard what Chazal teach us is the TRUTH in favor of some other interpretation?   If Torah she'ba'al peh gives us the facts, what license do we have to argue?

I'm surprised that R' Friedlander makes no mention of the fact that his rebbe, Rav Dessler, addresses this very same question in a letter printed in Michtav M'Eliyahu vol 4 letter 31 (post on it here). 

Be that as it may, his answer in a nutshell is that we have to distinguish between the way the Torah expresses itself, what I would call the signon, and the true meaning of what is being said.  The TRUE meaning is of course what Chazal tell us the text means.  However,  the Torah deliberately expresses itself in a way that suggests other meanings because those other meanings have value for us as well.  For example, when we are told to put tefillin "bein einecha," the TRUE meaning of those words is not between your eyes, as that is not the proper place for tefillin.  But we need to appreciate that the pshat does mean between your eyes because that also teaches us a lesson -- the ideas contained in tefillin should be before our eyes, i.e. in our minds, always.

Two points: 1) It works well for the tefillin example, but I don't see how this approach resolves the Ramban; 2) More importantly, I hesitate to say it, but I don't really think the  pashtanim understood things this way.  My impression (e.g. see hakdamah to Ohr haChaim) is that the pashtanim understood that they did have license to argue with Chazal as to what the meaning of the text is.  They understood that Chazal are suggesting a possible meaning to the text, but not THE meaning, at least as it applies outside the realm of halacha. 

Developing this idea would take a lot longer to do than I have time for now, so that's it for the chatzi shiur.  A mareh makom to the idea to think about.


  1. Ramban Noach 8:4 at the beginning.

  2. I am confused by what makes the signon unique.

    First, Chazal often tell us conflicting things. How old was Rivqa when she got married -- 3, 15, something else? Did Nachshon enter the Yam Suf first because everyone else was reluctant, or did sheivet Yehudah as a whole enter after winnung a fight with Binyamin for the honor of being first? Which is the signon?

    Second, you write "The TRUE meaning is of course what Chazal tell us the text means. However, the Torah deliberately expresses itself in a way that suggests other meanings because those other meanings have value for us as well." But if the Author intended that we learn from the other meanings, what makes them less true?

    Are you saying that Chazal were more likely to give the historically accurate retelling of the facts? R' Daniel Eidensohn's Daas Torah (the book, not that vile blog) has a list of sources that say that Chazal didn't care about historicity of the nimshal, only the lessons of the mashal. E.g. The Rambam reminds you of this rule in his introduction to Cheileq when explaining how to face the more outlandish stories -- assume they're among the ahistorical medrashim. But this acceptance of ahistoricity is the Maharal, the Gra, the Marasha and Maharsham, R' SR Hirsch, R Yisrael Salanter... Pretty clearly the majority view until the 20th century Counter-Reformation.

    1. >>>Are you saying that Chazal were more likely to give the historically accurate retelling of the facts?

      Yes. Not more likely -- they are giving us the historical facts.

      We are not talking about a mashal or a story here. We are talking about an event -- the famine -- that the Torah reports on.

  3. Sorry for spamming your comment chain...

    Perhaps the Sifsei Chaim doesn't mention REED's answer because he rejects MmE's supposition that there are no real machloqesin on aggadita. This is the tenet which drives REED to say that the Chassidim and Misnagdim had the same definition of tzimtzum, and only argued about how it should be taught. Or his willingness to accrete a single position from a quote from the Rambam and another from the Ari. Etc...

    1. The "perhaps" is intended to tone down my guess of cause-and-effect. RCF's acknowledgment of machloqesin in aggadita is a certainty.

    2. >>>because he rejects MmE's supposition that there are no real machloqesin on aggadita

      I believe he very clearly states elsewhere that he holds of this idea, but I am too lazy right now to find the mareh makom : ) Take a look

    3. I wouldn't kn0w where to start -- this isn't a one chapter reference.

      However, I do recall (from interminable Avodah discussions) that the Sifsei Chaim discusses the various positions about how universal hashgachah peraris is.

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