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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.