Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Vaeschanan 5764

Lists and list making

Hashem GOD, thou hast begun to show thy servant thy greatness, and thy mighty hand... (Devarim 3,24)

This week we will try our hand in explaining how Tannaim make lists. Anyone who had ever studied the Mishna recognizes that list-making is at the core of the Tannaitic method. Many if not most mishnayos are based on lists. Yet, paradoxically, so often these lists are not complete. At times, the missing elements or examples can be located in the Tosefta, at other times, it is the Gemara that points out what is not there. This puzzling feature of the mishnaic arrangement has been called "tanna v'shiar - he taught but left out[1]." Apparent from the Rishonim is the realization that this feature is deliberate and not a consequence of forgetting or skipping certain examples. In fact, the very wording "he taught but left out" presupposes leaving out with intent. Why would the Tannaim regularly leave out information and what may explain this strange feature of their method?

Let us begin with the supposition[2] that much of the activity of forming lists took place in the early Second Temple period. Let's propose for a moment that at that time, a group of scholars titled sofrim, or scribes, was active in collecting and systemizing the laws and customs that they received by tradition. "Why were they called sofrim? Because they arranged the Torah by numbers: the chiefs of (Shabbos) labors are forty minus one, four chief categories of damages, etc (Yerushalmi Shekalim 5 quoted by Tosafos to Kiddushin 30a).

An interesting list is found in the beginning of the Sifri (2,5) to our parsha. It classifies and categorizes the term "eved", slave or servant and can serve as a point of departure for our investigation.

Israel called themselves servants and the Holy One Blessed be He (HKBH) called them servants.
There are those who call themselves servants and HKBH did not call them servant and there are those who did not call themselves servants but HKBH did call them servants.
Avraham called himself servant as it says (Bareishis 18) "do not pass from Thy servant". HKBH called him servant as it says: "for the sake of Avraham, My servant (Bareishis 26). Yakov called himself servant as it says "I became small from all the kindness and all the good which you had done with your servant (Bar. 22) and HKBH called him servant, as it says, "...and you My servant Yakov (Ishaia 41)." Moshe called himself servant (in our passage ) and HKBH called him servant as in, "Moshe, My servant died) (Yehoshua 1)." Dovid called himself servant- "I am Your servant, the son of Your maid (Psalms 116)" and HKBH called him servant, as it says "for the sake of My servant, Dovid" (Kings I, 11."
Ishaiah called himself servant, as it says "He made me from the womb to be His servant" (Ishaiah 49) and HKBH called him "My servant Ishaiahu (ibid 20). "
Shimshon called himself servant (Judges 16) and Shmuel called himself servant. Shlomo called himself servant "and you will give to your servant an ear to hear (Kings I, 3)" but HKBH did not called him servant but attributed it to his father Dovid - "for the sake of my servant Dovid ( ibid 11)."
Iyov did not call himself servant but HKBH called him servant, as it says " have you considered My servant Yiov (Yiov 1)"...
The passage goes on to include Yehoshua, Kalev, Elyakim, Zerubabel, Daniel in this group and ends:
'The early prophets (neviim harishonim" did not call themselves servants but HKBH called them servants, as it says, "except that he revealed His secret to his servants the prophets".

Thus we have here a list that includes the following members:
1. Those who called themselves and also were called servants by G-d. The only example of that is Israel as a people.
2. Those who called themselves servants but HKBH did not call them so.
3. Those who did not call themselves servants but HKBH did so call them

There is an important exception that the list does not include. Nebuchadnetzar is also called "My servant" but his name is not on this list (see Yirmiahu 25,9, 27,6, 43,10).

I would propose that, as in the formation of the Masorah, the original activity consisted in forming all-inclusive lists. Once accomplished, subsequent scholars attempted to explain or find a rationale to explain why certain examples belonged in one group and others in other. After various explanations were sifted and considered, one was selected and the list was reconfigured. Particulars that did not "fit" with the preferred explanations were then omitted.

In this case, the original list may have well contained Nebuchadnezzar's name. However, the Tannaim realized that this exalted term should only be applied to characters who in some way actually served G-d. "Eved" can mean either servant or slave. They thought that the term can be applied to an individual who privately aspired to farther G-d's purpose for humanity but did not fully succeed in realizing this goal. Such an individual would call himself a servant but it would not be confirmed by G-d. There are others who thought of themselves as private individuals but willingly ended up playing an important role in the Divine plan. A person like is more a slave than a servant. He could still be called "eved" by G-d.

Nebuchadnezzar may have ultimately fulfilled Divine intent but he certainly never saw himself as subservient to His purpose. There is no reason to suppose that he was fully cognizant of himself as G-d's agent[3]. It is also unseemly to apply such an elevated term to the one who destroyed Hashem's Temple and exiled His children from their land. Consequently, at the last stage of the reduction of this beraisa, he was omitted from the list.

1 A related principle is "ein lomdin min haklalos". We don't generalize from general principles, even when exceptions are listed.

2 There are different opinions about how exactly the Oral Law was transmitted. This is a very large and important topic that we cannot take up here. See Meiri Kiddushin 24a and notes there for some support to what is proposed above.

3 There are midrashic passages that suggest that he was aware of his destiny and others that indicate that he was led unawares to it.