Until adultery became too commonplace (in the days of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, shortly after the destruction of the Beis haMiqdash) a wife whose husband suspected her of having an affair could forbid her from secluding herself with that man. If they are caught in seclusion, she is brought to the Beis haMidqash where a kohein would write the relevent wrds from the Torah, erase them in waster, and then float dust from under the floor of the Temple on top of it, and give her to drink. If she was guilty, and her husband wasn’t also having an affair, and she had no special offsetting merit (which could delay the effect), she would die a gruesome death.
(One thing to note is that unlike Xian Trial by Ordeal, in this case it takes a miracle to be found guilty, not to be saved. No killing of “false witches” in this process.)
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sotah 2:2, vilna daf 10b) gives this explanation for the recipe for Mei Sotah (translation mine):
And why water and dirt?
Water — from where she came.
Dirt — to where she is going.
Writing — before Whom she is destined to give [self-] judgment and accounting.
Over there the mishnah says:
Aqavia ben Mehallel would say: Look at 3 things, and you will never come under the control of sin. [1st half of Avos 3:1]
This in itself is a beautiful thought, and it would be worth posting just for its own sake. But I also found the continuation of the gemara interesting:
R’ Aba berei deR’ Papi and R’ Yehoshua of Sikhnin in the name of R Levi: Aqavia darshened these three from one verse [Qoheles 12:1], “And you should remember your Creator — Bor’ekha — in your days of youth…” [Which can be read:] “Be’eirekha“, “Borekha” [with no alef, or] Bor’ekha.
Be’erekha — from where you came.
Borekha — to the place where you are going.
Bor’ekha — before What you are destined to give [self‑]judgement and an accounting.
If we only saw the version of Aqavia ben Mehalalel’s thought that is in Avos, we wouldn’t get the same focus on our relationship to the Creator as Rabbi Levi gives it by his choice of source text. Not only is it He before Whom do we get final judgment, but our Creator is also the Wellspring from which we came and the destination to which we are going. All are found in the same word.
I posted this gemara to serve an example. So do yourself a favor and pause to enjoy the gemara before reading on.
It is rare that a ritual gets this kind of explication by Chazal so I therefore want to use it as a springboard for airing some approaches to the study of taamei hamitzvos — the reasons for mitzvos, or perhaps the meanings one can glean from mitzvos. And in particular, why Rav Hirsch’s approach which held such an attraction for me at one point in my life stopped doing so.
Ta’am hamitzvah is more literally the mitzvah‘s “taste”, which might lean toward the latter. If it were clear how to take the phrase, there would be little point for the rest of this post. What do we suggest is the connection between Aqavia ben Mehalalel’s three things and the mitzvah of sotah? It’s not inevitable that a woman given water with text dissolved in it and dirt floating on top is going to think “Oy, I came from liquid, I’m going to the grave, and my soul will have to stand in judgment — what am I doing?” So how to we understand this mitzvah makes this ta’am manifest? I see a scale of various possibilities, each of the following options overlaps with those immediately before and after it:
1- One could suggest it’s mystical. The ingredients move forces around in the higher worlds.
I’m too much of a rationalist to find refuge in it as a general approach; I don’t personally get a “ta’am” from mysticism’s emotional charge through realizing one is confronting something greater than the human mind. It seems more like saying the ta’am is out of reach. But regardless of general approach, how would it work when the ta’am hamitzvah is so blatantly placed in cognitive terms — “look at”, “know from where”?
2- There are levels of the soul which reach above those we are aware of. Thus, the sotah‘s soul can be moved by impressions on a level her conscious mind does not realize. I’m thinking of those who apply this idea to davening, by someone who doesn’t understand the siddur. The idea that the person’s soul understands the Hebrew they are saying even if they are unaware of it, and thus it still has value.
3- It needn’t be a lofty, otherworldly explanation, once we invoke unconscious processes. It could be that the person is shaped by associations even if they are unaware of those associations. It could be that water, dirt and scripture are Jungian symbols that have inherent meaning just based on the unchanging elements of the human condition, and thereby psychologically shape a person in ways they don’t realize.
4- Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s (RSRH) position is that mitzvos involve communication from the Creator via symbols. Rav Hirsch acknowledges natural symbols, such as tears and laughter where the meaning is innate in the symbol, as well as those established by convention. See Collected Writings vol. III pp 3 onward. (A chunk is missing from Google Books’ preview, though.) About those base on convention, he gives a list of symbols and a variety of their possible meanings, then writes (pg 12):
We can gain clarity about all these queries only if we first seek to establish, independently of the pictorial representation, the intention of the one who executed the picture, and the context of time and place in which the picture originated. Indeed, depending on him who devised it, and on the person to whom it is addressed, one and the same symbol or symbolic act may represent to diametrically opposed concepts.
And on page 55 (in the chapter titled “Symbolism in Jewish Law”):
IN general, whenever a bodily act of commission or omission whose natural, primary effect would only be physical, is expressed for a purpose that is not physical but spiritual, and, according to the wording of the law, is expected to yield spiritual results, that act must have a symbolic relationship to that purpose and to those results. The commanded act of commission or omission itself must have spiritual significance; it must serve to express an abstract thought, and so we see we are dealing with acts that are undeniably of symbolic character.
Symbols are a place where intellect and emotions intersect. Through contemplating a symbol, one can glean through analogy more details about the idea being represented. And through interaction with something more sensory, the person confronts the idea on a plane where it makes more emotional impact.
The problem I have with this, which eventually alienated me from my earlier love of Horeb, is that symbols are only of value to those who are aware of them. Anyone who isn’t aware of Hirschian Symbology would get next to nothing out of performing most of the mitzvos. Especially the two categories of mitzvos RSRH calls osos and edios , which are symbols established by Hashem yisbarakh or that reflect events of history (respectively), rather than innate symbols self-evident to all people. It would mean that the vast majority of observant Jews (and Noachides) through the ages left the world with souls little changed by all that observance, because they didn’t have the symbology key.
This problem truly bothers me, so let me elaborate on it further. Looking back at our example, yes, the beis din that the kohanim maintained to interpret their rites could have standardized explaining the symbology to the sotah but
- if they did it’s not mentioned by Chazal — which makes it either less likely or …
- less important. We know such explaining not mandatory, meaning the mitzvah has value without the explanation anyway. And…
- our question is a general one about the Hirschian Symbologic approach to taamei hamitzvos, not just sotah. I phrased it in terms of sotah because it’s an example from chazal rather than from RSRH, an acharon who lived after Ashkenaz’s split into derakhim (“Isms”) — and thus his philosophy has far from universal impact.
To rephrase the question around another example: What does Rav Hirsch believe is the value of basar bechalav to people who don’t know anything about an association to keeping human creativity separate from animal procreativity? Did the more than 99 44/100% of the observant Jewish population over the history of time gain nothing from obeying the issur because they didn’t know the key to the symbol and thus didn’t get the truth being communicated?
5- Rav JB Soloveichik understands the search for taamei hamitzvos not in terms of understanding why Hashem commanded something, but as lessons to take post-facto, derashos. RJBS even uses the word “hermeneutics”. This position is very consistent with the Brisker notion as developed by his ancestors that halakhah only stands on halachic terms with First Principles that stand logically prior to the din.
So how would you understand the association given in the opening gemara? (Nothing like overtly begging for comments…)
Personally, I believe both #2 and #3. This flows from my own idiosyncratic metaphysics, in which the difference between speaking of forces in higher worlds and of humans internalizing more abstract ideas and ideals is one of language, not substance. (See the post “Maimonidian Qabbalah“.)