Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
on the weekly parasha by
Meir Levin

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Ki Tisa 5764

I thank all those who have offered helpful comments and suggestions to improve this weekly series. Based on your advice, I have decided to redesign the format to broaden its appeal while hopefully retaining the rigor and value of the information provided. Rather than providing a commentary upon selected passages, we will focus on a particular point of methodology and skill development every week. There will be a clear introduction of a problem, a solution and a teaching point. In addition, each lesson will be accompanied by a short interesting "midrash", suitable for sharing with others around the Shabbos table or in other settings.

Your comments and continuing interest are deeply appreciated.

Quite frequently, the Halachic midrashim present us with a number of seemingly equally valid derivations of the same Halacha, except that each one is authored by a different Tanna. At times, only one derivation seems to "survive" in subsequent Talmudic discussions and it becomes the one that is usually quoted. On a rare occasion, the Amoraim of the Talmud themselves appear to reject certain Tannaitic derivations and support others. That presents us with the question": "What is the status of these rejected derivations? Do they remain valid in some ways for purposes of Halachic determination or are they errors and rejected views with which we do not need to be particularly concerned? Are we justified to use them "to learn pshat" in a verse or are we not able to do that?[1]"

Just such a passage is found in the Mechilta on this week parsha. At issue is the derivation of the well- known law that danger to life sets aside Shabbos prohibitions.

And Hashem said to Moshe saying. You speak to the Children of Israel saying- only; you keep my Sabbaths for it is a sign between me and you for your generations, to know that I am Hashem who hallows you. And you must keep the Sabbath for it is holy to you... And Children of Israel will keep the Sabbath...(Shemos 31, 12- And 17).

The Mekhilta comments:

It already happened that R. Yishmael, R. Elazar ben Azariah and R. Akiva were walking on a way and Levi Hasadar and R. Yishmael ben R. Elazar ben Azariah were walking behind them. A question was asked of them: How do we know that danger to life sets aside the Sabbath?
Answered R. Yishmael and said "If a thief is found digging a tunnel into a house...(Shemos 22).This is a situation of doubt, if he came to steal or to kill (and yet the resident is permitted to kill the intruder, even on Shabbos). The sin of murder pollutes the Land and causes Divine Presence to leave, yet it sets aside the Shabbos, certainly danger to life sets it aside".
Answered R. Elazar ben Azariah: "Circumcision, which applies only to one organ of a person's body, sets Shabbos aside. Certainly saving all of one's body sets it aside". They objected: "this derivation applies to a case of certain danger to life but not to a case where there is merely a doubt (yet we know that Sabbath is set aside even for a possibility of danger to life)".
R. Akiva says: "A murderer may not serve in the Temple, thus setting aside Avodah (sacrifices). Yet Avodah sets aside Sabbath prohibitions. It follows that danger to life sets aside Sabbath prohibitions".
R. Yosi Haglili says: " (The word) only (in the above verse) implies that there are some types of Sabbath that you keep and others that you do not keep.
R. Shimon ben Menashiah says: "(The verse) says that the Sabbath is holy to you. It is given over to you (to keep) and not - you are given over to the Sabbath (to die for it)".
R. Nissan says: "And Children of Israel will keep the Sabbath - Profane a Sabbath (to save a life) in order that you may keep many Sabbaths"[2].

All of these derivations are rejected by the Talmud in Yoma 85a.

R. Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: If I was there I would have told them my (derivation) is better than yours: "And you shall live in them (commandments) (Vayikra 18) - and not that you should die through (keeping) them. Rava said: All of these derivations can be disproven except for Shmuel's which cannot be disproven... Ravina said... Better one sharp pepper (referring to Shmuel's derivation) than a full plate of pumpkins (the derivations of the Tannaim)".[3]

So what are we to make of this rejection? Does it mean that our Mechilta is all said in error?

The Netsiv in his commentary to Sheiltos on this parsha points out that the Sheiltos does bring down the derivation of R. Nasan; that means that it is not rejected. In addition, he explains that "Profane a Sabbath (to save a life) in order that you may keep many Sabbaths", indicates that one is permitted to violate the Sabbath in order to save an unborn child, a halachah that Shemuel's derivation does not contain within it, for his derivation speaks only of a fully adult person, not of fetuses. R. Nasan's point, however is that one can set aside one Sabbath so that a fetus may survive to keep many Sabbaths[4]. Netsiv points out based on this derivation that this halachah only applies in the case of certain danger to the fetus but not in cases of doubt, for one cannot violate a Sabbath in order to ensure that this fetus may possibly keep many in the future[5].

Stepping back, what we learn from the Netsiv, that there is no such thing as a rejected derivation, even when the Talmud appears to say so. Every derivation is valid and each one provides support for some detail or a particular in Halacha that another one may not. R. Nasan's derivation teaches us a Halacha about a fetus that Shmuel's derivation does not. We should always endeavor to discover what unique details are subsumed in each derivation. May we merit in this fashion enlarge the Torah and aggrandize it.

And Hashem said to Moshe saying. You speak to the Children of Israel saying- only you keeps my Sabbaths for it is a sign between me and you for your generations, to know that I am Hashem who hallows you.

Mekhilta: "not through a malach (angel) and not through a shaliach (messenger)".
With these words so reminiscent of a passage in Passover Hagadah, the Midrash teaches us that we may not entrust expressions of love to be delivered by a messenger. Ribbono shel Olam told the Jews that Shabbos is a sign between them for He is the one that makes them Holy. Would it not be inappropriate for a man to ask a messenger to propose to his bride on his behalf? In the same way, Hashem himself related to His children that he made with them a special covenant. Therefore, Hashem spoke these words directly to them, not through an angel and not through a messenger.[6].

1 I am working on the assumption that derashos represent actual derivations of halachic details and not that they are simply proof-texts for previously received laws. This position certainly appears to be that of the Talmud and the Rishonim and the Rambam says so explicitly in the 2nd shoresh of his Sefer Hamitsvos. There, however, authorities such as Doros Harishonim V.3, Ch. 29 (p. 148), Maharal in B'er Hagolah, end of be'er 3, Ohr Hachaim to Vayikra 13,34 who claim that derivations do not determine halacha but only serve to locate he received teachings within the Written Law.

2 I have employed the translator's license to translate freely, to make certain arcane points more intelligible.

3 Although Amoraim generally refrain form arguing on Tannaim, there are some exceptions, especially in derivations of laws. See also Megilah 7a and Hagigah 10a where other Tannaitic derivations are dismissed in a similar manner. To my knowledge, the best discussion in English on this subject is found on pp. 121-120 of Z. Lampel, The Dynamics of Dispute: The making of machlokes in Talmudic Times, Judaica Press, New York 1992

4 See the Ran to Yoma 82a in the name of the Bahag.

5 This assertion of the Netsiv is quite questionable. See Yerushalmi Yoma 8,5 where these derivations are applied to a doubt of a danger to life. See Y. Weiner, You Shall Surely Heal, Jerusalem Center for Reseach, Jerusalem, 1995 pp.108-113 for a discussion of this issue, although he does not mention the Netsiv by name.

6 Zais Raanan suggests that this is derived from the fact that the verse used the word "said" Vayomar Hashem instead of the more common "spoke" VaYidaber Hashem el Moshe.