Midrash and Method
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Pinchas 5765

How much leeway?

Sifri in Pinchas (134) contains an interesting passage that raises many questions. The verses present the laws of inheritance.

God spoke to Moses, saying:


The daughters of Tzelafchad have a just claim. Give them a hereditary portion of land alongside their father's brothers. Let their father's hereditary property thus pass over to them.


Speak to the Israelites and tell them that if a man dies and has no son, his hereditary property shall pass over to his daughter.


If he has no daughter, then his hereditary property shall be given to his brothers.


If he has no brothers, you shall give his property to his father's brothers.


If his father had no brothers, then you shall give his property to his flesh which is close to him, who shall then be his heir.

This was the decreed law for the Israelites, as God had commanded Moses.

Verse 11 is ambiguous. The Karaites interpreted it as saying that once there are no brothers, the property is evenly divided between all available relatives. This is not how the Sifri interprets the verse.

Torah gave knowledge (daas) to the Sages to interpret the Torah and to say that whichever relative is nearer (as a relative) is prior with regard to inheritance.

No Scriptural proof that this is the correct explanation is advanced. What justifies this interpretation? The knowledge that Torah gave to the Sages.

This perplexing passage can be interpreted in several different ways.

1. R. Pardo in Sifrei D'Bei Rav explains that the intent is that the Sages had Ruach Hakodesh which allowed them to divine the true interpretation. The idea that Divine Inspiration serves as the source of authority for Sages' interpretation is quite widespread and is found in many Rishonim and Acharonim.

The Chazon Ish in letter 2:24 expounds the idea that Divine Inspiration determined the unfolding of Oral Law. In his other writings he invokes the element of the Divine Spirit that rested on the Sages throughout history, an idea already enunciated by Nachmanides (Deuteronomy 17,11).

Azzan Yadin in his Scripture as Logos: R. Ishmael and the origins of Midrash, U.Penn. Press, 2004, proposes that Halachic Midrash is a product of two distinct schools. Mekhilta, and Sifrei on Numbers and Deuteronomy come from the school of R. Ishmael whereas the Sifro is largely from the school of R. Akiva . R. Ishmael was heir to "Priestly" tradition that saw correct interpretation as arising directly from Torah text. The role of the interpreter was to "hear" and learn from the verse (hakatuv), with the help of received principles of interpretation [1]. R. Akiva, on the other hand, saw the interpreter's role as finding the basis for received traditions within the text. To this end he and his school often resorted to interpretations that were far from pshat, for they did not as much interpret the text as attach traditions to it [2].

Interestingly, a similar idea had already been expressed by the Netsiv, the commentator per excellence on Halachic Midrash, in his introduction to the commentary on the Sheiltos (1:10, 17) and in He'emek Davar to Deutronomy 1,3. R. Berlin writes that from the very beginning two distinct methodologies of Torah study co-existed. The first, that he calls Eish, was utilized by Aharon, King Shaul, Temple Priesthood , Talmud Yerushalmi and the Geonim. It consisted of straightforward and direct derivation of Halacha from the Chumash under the influence of Ruach Hakodesh. The priests were especially qualified to apply this method for they were in daily direct contact with Ruach Hakodesh as they served in the Temple . The other approach is that of Moshe, David, Bavli and Rishonim and it consists of what we now call pilpul -intense, complex argumentation that aims to encompass all aspects of the question and thereby discover the truth. This idea can be easily applied to the schools of R. Ishmael and R. Akiva.

The Sifri thus enunciates the idea that Divine Inspiration is determinative in deriving law out of text.

2. There is another girsa (textual variant) in the Sifri. The Gra changes the word "knowledge (Daas) to "authority" (reshus).

This approach is consistent with his view that many details of law were "given over to the Sages to determine". Already found in the Rishonim, it was enunciated again in our day by the Chazon Ish (See Chazon Ish E'H 22,3; Y"D 5:3, Ch'M Nezikin 11:1, 8:1, Kovetz Inyanim pp. 194-197). Presumably, the laws of inheritance were ones of many that were left for the Sages to "fix" during a specific historical period. Once this period has passed, so did the authority to interpret [3].

M. Halbertal in People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority , points out that in interpretation can be correct because it expresses correctly the original intent, or because it is offered by the only individual or body that is authorized to interpret. Thus, for example, the United States Constitution means whatever the Supreme Court says that it means because it is the only body authorized to interpret the Constitution. Similarly, Chazal's interpretations are correct not because they tell us what the original intent necessarily is but because the Torah gave them, and only them, the authority to define its meaning.

3. A. J. Heschel has this to say about this passage: This saying that was observed in the school of Rabbi Ishmael , claims priority for logic in understanding Torah, and opens a path for understanding Rabbbi Ishmael's hermeneutical system" (Theology of Ancient Judaism, 1:12).

Much of Dr. Heschel has written is valuable but much of it is also altogether too facile. This explanation does not accord with either the simple meaning of the passage or with plain logic. The passage is clearly referring to the last verse - This was the decreed law (MISHPAT) for the Israelites, as God had commanded Moses. This unusual closing implies a specific principle that applies only to the laws of inheritance. The Sifri derives therein a principle, that there is special authority or knowledge that was provided to the Sages, specifically for this set of laws. It has nothing to do with the use of logic in general interpretation of the Torah and Dr. Heschel's comments are not, in my opinion, justified [4].

This short passage in the Sifri once again illustrates how much of contemporary theological and academic discussion can be traced to early sources. The Tannaim have already considered, argued and resolved many of the questions that we so unsuccessfully debate. May we be fortunate to understand and properly interpret their profound teachings.

1 The book is not entirely clear on this point but this is Dr. Yadin's intent, as I understood it in personal communication.

2 As we previously discussed in this series, the intent may have been mnemonic or polemical.

3 The Chazon Ish certainly believed that many laws were of Sinaitic origin and restricted the principle of "Torah gave permission" only to some laws. This is different from a similar idea proposed by Zecharias Frankel, the Rector of Breslau Rabbinic Seminary and spiritual father of Conservative Judaism, whose true belief in Sianitic Law was never clarified (See R.S.R. Hirsch, Selected Writings, Feldheim, Vol. 5)

4 The question of whether the 13 principles of interpretation of R. Ishmael are logic or received tradition has previously been discussed in this series. For additional sources on this topic that I recently found, see R. David Cohen, Kol Hanevua, (Mossad Harv Kook, 1979) and D. Schwarts, Unique Hebrew logic in the teachings of HaRav HaNazir, Higayon 2 (1993), 9-28.