Getting Pshat

The Chazon Ish, Ma Nishtana and the Limits to Talmudic Meaning

This letter (Kovetz Igros Chason Ish II 16) is vintage Chazon Ish: an intriguing and subtle point made using somewhat cryptic language via a less-traveled Talmudic source. It seems that the anonymous correspondent had proposed some interpretation of the Gemara (Pesachim 70a) that was not to the Chazon Ish’s liking.

The sticking point seemed to hang on the fact that the interpretation bore no obvious connection to the Gemara. Or, in other words, it felt forced and artificial, and was thus purely subjective. Once an interpretation is so subjective, it loses all value, for it is now no more likely to be correct than any one of an infinite set of competing possibilities. So while a student of the Talmud is allowed to be creative in seeking solutions, he must still retain a basic respect for the text itself.

Here’s the letter:

קובץ אגרות חזון איש
חלק שני אגרת טז
‫כשם שהעמיקו מחתימי התלמוד בעיקרי ההלכות כן ‫העמיקו בלשונם ובעריכת הדברים לפני הדורות הבאים אשר ‫כן הוא מדת החכמה ומדת ההכמים. ולא יתכן שיסתמו בדבר ‫שאי אפשר להבין, וכש”כ שיאמרו במאמר המורה אחרת‬ מהמכוון. ואם לפעמים מתפרשים דבריהם על צד עמוק הוא‬ מטבע החכמה והוא מובן למעיין, אבל צריך ליזהר מאד בזה‬ ‫שאם באנו להעמיס בדבריהם רמזים יתר על המדה, לא נשאר בידינו כלום, ולבן לא יתבן לפרש זו דברי בן תימא אלא‬ בפשוטו, משום שלדעתו רואה הבן לפניו על השלחן שינוי‬ ‫של כולו צלי, והוא שואל, ומשיבין לו שאין זה במקרה אלא‬ ‫יש לעולם מנהיג והוא מפקח על בריותיו וצונו במצוות‬ ‫וע”פ צואתו ית’ אנו עושים, אבל אם הבן רואה לפניו שלוק ‫ומבושל וצלי אינו רואה שינוי.‬


Just as those who sealed the Talmud embedded halachic principles (in a way that would require significant analysis to uncover), so too, for future generations, were (principles) deeply embedded in the very language and in the way (the sages) arranged their ideas. Such is the way of wisdom and of the wise.

It is not possible that the sages would have obscured their words in a way that cannot be deciphered, and certainly they would never have used words that suggest the opposite of their true intent. If their words can sometimes be explained only through deep study, that is the nature of wisdom. Its (organic connection to the words) will always become apparent to one who studies the matter carefully.

However, one must be very careful, for if he ascribes to (the Talmud’s) words too heavy a load (i.e., hints which are so abstract as to belie any connection to the text itself), we will be left with nothing at all.

Therefore it is not possible to interpret “These are the words of ben Teima” except in their simplest form, for in (ben Teima’s) opinion, the son must see before him on the table the unusual sight of only roasted meat, which will prompt him to ask (“why?”). To which we are to reply that all this is not an accident, but that the world has a Guide and He is aware of His creations and commanded us with His mitzvos and that we act according to His will. But if a son will see before him (meats, some of which are) boiled (and others) roasted, he will not notice anything unusual (and therefore, not be inspired to ask questions).

The letter is obviously referring to the Talmudic position (that of ben Teima) which extends the rule requiring that meat of the Passover offering be roasted to the Chagiga offering as well. The Chazon Ish interprets it thus:

The Gemara’s proof that this is indeed ben Teima’s position comes from his (unrelated) inclusion of a fifth question for children to ask at the seder (a question which, since the Temple’s destruction, we no longer say):

“Why is this night different…but this night, we eat only roasted meat?”.

If it was permissible to prepare the Chagiga offering by, say, boiling the meat, then the food on the table would appear no different from that served on any other night. The Chagiga had to be roasted to maintain the night’s unique and evocative flavor – to inspire children’s questions.


Is Staying Healthy a Mitzva?

I sometimes wonder why I so often hear people referring to “ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם” as though it’s a Torah source for the requirement to protect ourselves from illness and injury.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that the Torah most definitely does expect us to care for ourselves and to listen to the advice of medical experts on how to do that. And I know that the Rambam himself uses השמר לך ושמור נפשך as a source, even though that verse – like the other two that are often used – is actually referring to our responsibility to keep all mitvos (or, in some cases, just avoid idolatry).

The Levush (יורה דעה סימן קטז) actually acknowledges that the simple meaning of those passages are unconnected to health. But writes:

מכל מקום סמכו חז”ל על מקראות הללו ואסרו כל הדברים המביאין את האדם לידי סכנה

But did Chazal actually quote any of those verses? Well, there is this Gemara in Brachos 32b:

ת”ר מעשה בחסיד אחד שהיה מתפלל בדרך בא שר אחד ונתן לו שלום ולא החזיר לו שלום המתין לו עד שסיים תפלתו לאחר שסיים תפלתו א”ל ריקא והלא כתוב בתורתכם רק השמר לך ושמור נפשך וכתיב ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם כשנתתי לך שלום למה לא החזרת לי שלום אם הייתי חותך ראשך בסייף מי היה תובע את דמך מידי

The rabbis taught: It once happened that a certain chassid was praying along the road. An officer came by and offered a greeting, but (the chassid) didn’t reply. (The officer) waited until he’d finished his prayers. After he’d finished his prayers (the officer) said to him: “Empty person! Does it not say in your Torah ‘Just protect yourself and guard your life’ (Devarim 4:9) and ‘Take great care of your lives’? (Devarim 4:15) When I greeted you, why did you not reply? If I were to cut your head off with a sword, would you have any claim on your blood?”

So the only place I’m aware of in Chazal that offers a source for a health mitzva puts the superficially-related words into the unauthorised mouth of a non-Jewish officer. While we’re all sympathetic to the principle, is that enough to qualify as a source?

derush Yerushalmi

Are We Incapable of Understanding Aggadita?

ירושלמי מעשרות יז-יח
דלמא רבי זעירא ורבי אבא בר כהנא ורבי לוי הוון יתבין והוה רבי זעירא מקנתר לאילין דאגדתא וצוח להון סיפרי קיסמי. אמר ליה רבי בא בר כהנא למה את מקנתר לון שאל ואינון מגיבין לך. אמר ליה מהו דין דכתיב (תהילים עו) כי חמת אדם תודך שארית חמות תחגור. אמר ליה כי חמת אדם תודך בעולם הזה שארית חמות תחגור לעולם הבא. אמר ליה או נימר כי חמת אדם תודך בעולם הבא שארית חמות תחגור בעולם הזה. אמר רבי לוי כשתעורר חמתך על הרשעים צדיקים רואין מה את עושה להן והן מודין לשמך. אמר רבי זעירא היא הפכה והיא מהפכה לא שמעינן מינה כלום. ירמיה בני אזל צור צור דוקניתא דהיא טבא מן כולם.

Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Abba bar Kahana and Rabbi Levi were sitting and Rabbi Zeira was criticising the others (for their) homiletics and screamed at them (accusing them of working with) “books of sorcery!” Rabbi (Abba) bar Kahana: “why are you accusing us? Ask, and we’ll (respond?)” He (Rabbi Zeira) replied “What is it that’s written (Tehilim 76:11) ‘For a man’s fury is your gratitude, the residue of anger will fortify’?” He (Rabbi Abba bar Kahana) replied: “‘For a man’s fury is your gratitude’ refers to this world and ‘the residue of anger will fortify’ refers to the next world.” He replied: “(Perhaps) you can say the opposite: ‘For a man’s fury is your gratitude’ refers to the next world and ‘the residue of anger will fortify’ refers to this world.” Rabbi Levi said “When You arouse Your fury on the evil, the righteous see what You will do with them, and they will acknowledge Your Name.”

According to the Pnei Moshe, Rabbi Levi’s response suggested that you could, in fact, find a way to interpret the verse either way. To which, Rabbi Zeira responded:

Rabbi Zeira said: “Interpret it this way or that way, but I don’t accept anything from you, but my son Yirmiya (who had previously asked about how many figs one can eat without first separating מעשר) is better than all of them.”

Rabbi Zeira is effectively saying that, since aggadic interpretations of Torah passages are so often ambiguous, for all intents and purposes, they’re meaningless. Is Rabbi Zeira (whose opinion is not challenged by the Yerushalmi) telling me to give up my search for clear meaning in much of Tanach and Chazal?

This is something I’ve struggled with for years. I’ve written about it in other places and will hopefully revisit it again here in the context of other Yerushalmis.

Any thoughts?