Is Derush Part of Torah?

Note: I’m unsure how to even translate the word “derush”. Words like “research” or “investigation” come close, but the way it’s used in Torah literature has a clear overtone suggesting greater authority. And then, as we’ll see, there are two distinct ways the word is used even within the context of Torah.

What exactly is “Torah”? Are there limits to the kinds of explanations and interpretations that can reasonably be included and, by extension, connected with the Mt. Sinai revelation? It goes without saying that modern efforts to understand how Torah law (halacha) should be applied to our lives are legitimate parts of the process, as are ethical works (mussar) that are designed to inspire us to properly observe halacha. But is any derush-based interpretation automatically included? What about commentaries that claim to fill gaps in the Biblical historical record? Are they “Torah”? By what mechanism could they be included?

Let me apply my question to two kinds of derush: interpretation and historical analysis. Many interpreters of Torah principles like Rabbi S. R. Hirsch and Malbim don’t claim to have a direct connection to Mt. Sinai but, instead, offer their intelligent sense of the meanings behind various Torah passages. They show us the methodology they used and leave their readers free to either agree or disagree with their conclusions. This class of derush presents no practical difficulties: its limits are clear.

Figuring out how to understand historical analysis, on the other hand, can be a challenge. Exactly what status do such commentators (“darshanim”) claim for their explanations? Do they feel that the actual thoughts and calculations motivating the events of each Biblical story are accurately and definitively reflected in their comments? Do the darshanim claim that they’re simply repeating what they’ve heard as part of an unbroken chain of tradition going back to Mt. Sinai itself? Do they claim to be inspired by some Divine guidance? And if, on the other hand, it’s all just assumptions, can that be reasonably called “Torah” rather than the educated musings of (very smart) human beings? 

Now you might ask what difference it really makes one way or the other. I would suggest that the distinction should impact the emotional and doctrinal energy we invest in the material. Does it, in other words, become part of the way we define ourselves as Jews. And, from a purely practical perspective, this should define the way we organize our learning time. If a commentator can’t really be called “Torah” in terms of either authentic historical tradition or by being part of the process, then we should devote less time to its study in favor of alternatives.

Here’s an example. Rabbi Moshe Sofer (known as the Chasam Sofer), in his work Toras Moshe, quotes a couple of midrashic sources relating to the violence considered by Joseph’s brothers in Gen. 37:18-19. He writes that the brothers considered encouraging their dogs to kill Yosef, but rejected the possibility, worried that an angel named “ba’al hachalomos” (“Master of Dreams”) would be free to tell their father about it despite their previous mutual agreement preventing them all from talking. Since the dogs all technically belonged to Yakov, however, the agreement would not restrict the angel from disclosing everything. 

While the discussion incorporates a number of midrashic and halachic sources and tries to fit them together in a quasi-halachic style, it’s most likely the result of a creative process. Would R’ Sofer expect us to believe that the way he portrayed the brothers’ plans and concerns was the objective historical reality lying behind the Torah’s verses? Does he claim to have inside information on the events? I strongly doubt it. 

How, after all, could R’ Sofer – and others like him – have acquired that knowledge? Was a kind of prophetic inspiration?

To my knowledge, no mainstream Torah commentator (previous to 16th Century members of the “Tzfat school” associated with the Ari and those who worked under their influence) ever claimed that explicit Divine inspiration lay behind their writings. Furthermore, I personally find it difficult to fathom what God could gain by delivering such inspiration: the Torah we received from Mt. Sinai is perfect and needs no additions. And Torah scholars (“chachamim”) are great because of their wisdom (“chachma”), not because of what they effortlessly overheard.

It’s also worth noting that, by the way they so sharply criticized each other, Medieval scholars can all be safely said to have lived under no illusions about the human origins of the Torah they wrote. This is certainly true of the famously sharp comments of ibn Ezra and others, but it’s even noticeable from the way the more conservative Nachmanides (Ramban) would write about Rashi and Maimonides (Rambam). These three examples hardly fit the way you would expect a man of that stature to describe words of Divine inspiration:

Ramban to Gen. 3:16 – לשון רש”י ואיננו נכון (“…those are the words of Rashi, but they are not appropriate.”)

Ramban to Lev. 1:16 – אבל לשון נוצה לא ימצא כדברי הרב (“…But the word ‘notza’ will never be found [in a way that fits] the words of the Rav.”)

Ramban to Gen. 18:1 – ואלה דברים סותרים הכתוב, אסור לשומעם אף כי להאמין בהם (“And these words contradict the Torah [itself]. It is forbidden to hear them or even to believe them.”)

I also find it very difficult to believe that R’ Sofer was in possession of a direct – and secret – oral tradition originating with Moshe or even Yakov himself. It’s highly unlikely that any such ancient tradition could have survived through so many centuries without being either forgotten or become widely known. 

Just what, then, is the status of such commentaries? Examples like this one from R’ Sofer don’t seem to be meant to inspire readers to repentance – R’ Sofer had no trouble writing in that style when he wanted to – and it’s not an addition to the historical record (whatever value there might be in such an exercise). So what benefit did great sages like R’ Sofer see in having us spend precious time learning their commentaries?

derush segula Yerushalmi

Shemira: Why Protect the Dead?

As Rabbi Michal notes on his Kotzk Blog, many of the customs currently associated with death in Judaism were formalized only in the last few centuries. Reading that article got me thinking about some specific practises and their origins.

The first of those that came to mind was the protection (shemira) we insist in providing bodies before they reach burial. Besides the obvious fact that it’s perverse and cruel to just abandon a human body – especially that of a loved one – to its fate, is there any reason to continue watching it even once it’s safely reached, say, a hospital or funeral home morgue?

In the modern world, the place to begin such a discussion is with Rabbi Yechiel Tukaccinsky and his brilliant and popular compendium of the laws and philosophy of death and mourning, Gesher Hachaim.

Now I should emphasise how the warm feelings I harbour for Gesher Hachaim go back many years. R’ Tukaccinsky’s penetrating insights and broad scholarship have long inspired many elements of my thinking. But that doesn’t mean I understand everything he writes. And I’m afraid I simply have no way forward when it comes to what he writes about shemira. Here (from Section 5, Chapter 4 of Gesher Hachaim) are his words:

שמירת המת היא מב’ טעמים האחד: משום כבודו שאם יניחוהו לבדו הר”ז כאלו עזבוהו ככלי אין חפץ עוד בו ומוטל לבזיון (ראה ירושלמי ברכות פ”ג ותוס’ רפ”ג ות”ה המובא ברמ”א שם). שנית: שהגוף נרתיק קדוש שהורקה הנשמה ממנו שלפמ”ש המקובלים שואפים אז יצורי דמסאבותא לחדור אל תוכו…וכמ”ש בזוהר (אמור פ”ח:)…(וראה גם במעבר יבוק מ”ב ט’ ומ”ג סוף ט’)

“Shemira of a body comes from one of two reasons. The first is concerned with honoring the dead, for if we would leave him on his own it’s like we’ve abandoned him like an unwanted object, cast out and degraded…

We’ll return to the second reason a bit later. As a source for this one, however, R’ Tukaccinsky points us to the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 3:1) and the Tosafos (Berachos 17: דה”מ ואינו מברך). The problem, as you’ll soon see, is that neither of those two sources seems to be discussing anything connected to shemira.

We’ll begin by noting that Rashi commented on the gemara’s ruling that the “onen” – the close relative of an unburied Jew – does not make blessings on food. In Rashi’s understanding, “does not” means “is not required.” Tosafos, on the other hand, based on the Jerusalem Talmud, insists that “does not” really means “may not.”

Here’s the original text of the Jerusalem Talmud:

תני אם רצה להחמיר על עצמו אין שומעין לו למה מפני כבודו של מת או משום שאין לו מי שישא משואו מה נפיק מביניהן היה לו מי שישא משואו ואין תימר מפני כבודו של מת אסור ואם תאמר מפני שאין לו מי שישא משואו הרי יש לו מי שישא משואו

“It was taught: if (an onen) wants to insist (on reciting a blessing) we don’t allow it. Why? To honor the dead. Or (perhaps) because (if the relative is busy making blessings) there will be no one available to (prepare for the burial). What’s the difference between them? A case where there are others available for preparations. If you say (the reason) is to honor the dead, blessings are still forbidden. But if you say that it’s because there might not be anyone left free to prepare for burial, in this case there are others.”

I think it’s clear that both the Talmud and Tosafos would be perfectly comfortable with leaving a body alone in a safe location as long as appropriate burial preparations are being made and/or relatives aren’t distracting themselves and ignoring their loss. And Rashi would apparently go further and even permit at least some distractions (i.e., making blessings).

So what did the Gesher Hachaim mean by quoting the Jerusalem Talmud and Tosafos in support of the shemira custom?

What about the second source? Here’s that part of the Gesher Hachaim translated:

“The body is a holy container from which the soul has poured out. According to writings of the kabbalists, impure creations now seek to enter (in place of the soul)…based on the Zohar.”

Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (the “Ben Ish Chai” – Sefer Rav Poalim Vol 1, Responsum 56) maintained that the Zohar text has no simple meaning. It’s not that there’s a risk of misinterpreting its words, it’s that interpreting them properly is impossible. So, in the view of at least one pre-eminent kabbalistic authority, it simply makes no sense to use Zohar as a proof text.

But if a positive source for the custom of shemira within traditional Torah sources (like the Jerusalem Talmud) is doubtful, the Zoharic source is obscure and ambiguous, and the practical connection between spending time in rooms adjacent to hospital or funeral home morgues and demonic possession is unclear, is there really much point in shemira?

derush Updates

What Does Modeh Ani Really Mean?

This post is the latest addition to my Finding Tradition project.

מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה רבה אמונתך

Those 12 words mark the start of each day for many Jews. It’s a beautiful prayer and an expression of the many debts we owe to God. But three of those words might, on reflection, represent a significant theological innovation.

Here’s the whole thing translated:

“I acknowledge before you, the living, eternal God, that you returned to me my soul, with grace and good faith.”

The three words in question are: שהחזרת בי נשמתי – “that you returned to me my soul.” Where’s the innovation in that?

Well for God to have returned our souls first thing each morning, He would have had to have first taken them. And, while relevant but ambiguous language can be found in a few midrashim (see עיון תפילה לספר אוצר התפילות) I’m not sure we should be so quick to assume that death and rebirth is what literally happens each night.

A similar prayer is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 4:1 – 29b in the Vilna print):

בשחר צריך לאדם לומר מודה אני לפניך ה’ אלקי ואלקי אבותי שהוצאתני מאפילה לאורה

“In the morning a man must say: I acknowledge before you G-d…that You took me out from darkness to light”

But that makes no mention of the soul and its travels.

So where did the idea come from? As far as I have seen, the first reference to the text of מודה אני itself would appear to be ספר סדר היום, written by the 16th Century kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe ben Makir of Tzfas. As Tzfas during that time was famous for its culture of innovation, it would seem reasonable to assume that Rabbi Moshe himself is the prayer’s author.

But isn’t the idea that our souls are taken each night itself common in traditional Torah literature? Not that I’ve seen. In fact, The Bais Yosef himself (אורח חיים ד), while quoting a Zohar on the subject of washing hands in the morning, testifies that it’s “not found in halachic sources (פוסקים).”

Here’s the Zohar itself (1:184b):

הכא דלית בר נש בעלמא דלא טעים טעמא דמותא בליליא ורוחא מסאבא שריא על ההוא גופא. מאי טעמא? בגין דנשמתא קדישא איסתלקת מיניה דבר נש ונפקת מניה, ועל דנשמתא קדישא נפקת ואסתלקת מניה שריא רוחא מסאבא על ההוא גופא. וכד אהדרת נשמתא לגופא אתעברת ההוא זוהמא…

“There is no man on earth who doesn’t taste the taste of death at night, (as) an impure spirit rests on his body. Why? Because his holy soul …leaves a man and because his holy soul has left, an impure spirit rests on his body. And when his soul returns to his body, the impurity is removed.”

So it’s certainly true that the Zohar associates the concept of a departing soul with the laws of washing hands in the morning. But it’s equally true that, according to the Bais Yosef at least, it’s not an association that finds an easy home within the halachic tradition

Indeed, the traditional explanations for hand washing in the morning make no mention of our souls. The Rosh (ברכות פרק ט סימן כג) wrote that we should wash because:

לפי שידים של אדם עסקניות הם ואי אפשר שלא ליגע בבשר המטונף בלילה

“A man’s hands are busy (i.e., always moving) and it’s impossible that they didn’t touch unclean parts of his body during the night.”

And the Rashba (שו”ת הרשב”א א סימן קצא) attributed the rule to our need to recognize the spiritual rebirth we have just experienced:

בשחר אחר השנה אנו נעשים כבריה חדשה

“In the morning, after sleep, we become like a new creation.”

…None of which hints to any association between sleep with death. Now, as I’m sure you’re already wondering, the Gemara (Berachos 57b) does state that “sleep is one sixtieth of death.” But it would be hard to see a connection between such a general comparison and the claim that our souls leave our bodies when we sleep.

In fact, as I’ve written on more than one occasion, drawing logical or legal proofs from aggadic sources is virtually impossible: their language and context is just too ambiguous. This would most certainly apply to a passage in that most ambiguous source of all: Zohar.

Just how difficult is it to understand the meaning of the Zohar by reading its words? Let’s see what one of the undisputed giants of Kabbala, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad (the Ben Ish Chai), wrote in his halachic work, Rav Poalim (Vol 1, Responsum 56). He was explaining why one should never translate Idra or other Zoharic works into Arabic or any other language. It’s fine, he wrote, to translate the Tanach (even though no translation can capture the full, inner meaning), because the Tanach also has a simple meaning…

משא”כ דברי האדרא וזוה”ק אין להם פשט כלל ובעל המאמר לא כיון לפשט הדברים כלל ועיקר ויש מקומות שהפשט יהיה חירוף וגידוף ואם אתה מתרגם הדברים ללשון אחר נמצא אתה עושה הפשט אמת כי התרגום הוא יהיה כפי הפשט ולפי האמת אין הפשט של דברים אלו אמת…

“Which is not true of the Idra and the Zohar: they have no simple meaning at all. And the author never intended a simple meaning for the words at all. And there are passages where the simple meaning is pure heresy! And if you would translate these words to another language, you will have elevated the simple meaning to ‘truth,’ because a translation is (assumed to be) true. But in truth, the simple meaning of these words is not true.”

The bottom line is, that we really can’t know exactly what the Zohar meant. But we should hesitate before taking this fairly modern prayer as a literal expression of mainstream Jewish belief.


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?