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

AishDas Home

Midrash and Method Home
Toldos 5765

Al Tikrei

It is now close to year that we have together labored to understand the methodology of Midrashic masters and how they approach exegesis. We are perhaps ready to begin to tackle one of the most obscure and difficult to grasp Midrashic techniques of interpretation - "al tikrei". What does one make of an exegetical method that tells you to read not what is written but something other than what is written? How can this seemingly blatant substitution of the exegete's own idea or thought for the one in the Scripture be anything other than taking a blasphemous liberty? Why did the Chazal employ such a shocking expression and for what purpose?

As you might imagine, this topic occupied many great scholars though the ages. Several different explanations have been advanced, ranging from a poetic license[1] to an extreme solution to a severe exegetical difficulty[2] to a mnemonic device[3] to a type of semi-k'ri/ k'tiv[4]. Each of these suggestions suffers from a difficulty; for example, explaining it as a mnemonic device does not account for the limited use of al tikrei - only in situations where there is a minimal change in vocalization of a letter or substitution of closely related letters, such as ches for hei. It is therefore clear that not all cases of al tikrei are mnemonics, although some undoubtedly are. The other suggestions suffer from certain difficulties as well but the limitation of space prevents full discussion at this time.

While we will not fully encompass this topic in this session, we will, I hope begin to impact on these questions. There may not be a single solution but a series of solutions, each one of them resolving a significant number of cases. In addition, we will begin to formulate a text based approach to demonstrate that the Chazal were grappling with severe exegetical and textual issues when they resorted to the expedient of "al tikrei." and that they did so with great respect and felicity for the inner dynamics of the text itself.

And Hashem said to her: Two nations are in your belly and two peoples will from your insides separate out; a nation will overpower a nations and the great shall rule the young (Gen. 25,23).

The word that is used for nations is goyim, spelled in our manuscripts as GYYM. The masorah tells us that this word is always spelled GOYM, except in this case. Thus, it appears to be an uncomplicated case of k'eri (GOYM) and K'tiv (GYYM).

The Talmud in Avodah Zara 11a[6], however, has the way the word is written and the way it says we should read it in reverse and appears to employ "al tikrei" rather than k'ri and k'tiv.

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Do not read GOYM but GYYM. This is Antoninus and Rebbi from whose table there did not pass lettuce and radishes, neither in the summer nor in the winter.

Is this Talmudic statement evidence of a different spelling of this word than that found in all Masoretic versions?

Comparison to a word that shares many spelling characteristics with GOYM may be instructive. This word, TzVYM (tzvoim) is spelled differently each of the three times that it appears in the Chumash.

We first encounter it in Genesis 10, 19 and it is spelled TzVYM (one yud only) but read TzVOYM. However, as Minchas Shai points out there also existed a version that spelled it TzVYYM (two yudim). In 14,2 and 8 it is spelled TzVYYM but read TzVOYM . Finally in Devarim 9,21 it is again TzVYYM but spelled TzVOYM.

We see from this example that the word GOYM could also be thought OK to spell in many different ways. It remains the fact that it is always spelled GOYM and the only place where our masora spells it GYYM is in our verse. It seems then that the Talmud is doing nothing more than pointing out this exception and darshining the spelling, or k'tiv of the word exactly as we have it. There is thus no contradiction between masora and the Talmudic text after all. Rather, the Talmud is legitimately focusing us on the unusual spelling; it says: "do not read it as it is usually written (GOYM) but darshin it according to its k'tiv as GYYM"?

Our case illustrates that al tikrei, in this as well as in certain other cases, does no more than point out legitimate exegesis, in this case, emphasizing the k'tiv and its meaning, representing a type of pshat rather than drash.

I appreciate comments or questions at mlevinmd@aol.com

1 Guide, III;43

2 Shelah, Torah SheBa'alPeh,1

3 ibid.

4 R. N. Katz in Semichas Chochomim quoted in the name of the Chid"o in the introduction to Ki Aim Lbina Tikra, a work devoted to explaining all al tikrei in the Talmud. See also a similar work by R. Bamberger cited in the Encyclopedia Talmudit, entry Al Tikrei. A good and more accessible discussion can be found in the Z. H. Chajes, The student's guide through the Talmud, Ch. 25 (devoted to al tikrei), Feldheim, 1960

5 Also in Brochos 57b

6 That the Talmud may have slight variations from the masora is not surprising; the existence of minor variations has been well documented and pointed out by the Rishonim, form Hai Gaon forward. See Y. Maori, Rabbinic midrash as evidence for textual variants in the Hebrew Bible: History and Practice, in Modern scholarship in the study of Torah, ed. S. Carmy, The Orthodox Forum, Jason Aronson, 1994, p. 101. The Rishonim generally dismissed variant quotations of verses as either errors or as representing a derasha, leaving only a few incontrovertible examples, which they discuss at length. These remaining examples are no more egregious than the well documented differences between various medieval manuscripts cited in Minchas Shai. IN this vein, the Torah Temima to our verse suggests, as we find in parallel sources, that the text should read: do not read GYYM but GAYM, with an aleph, obviating the problem of contradiction between masorah and the Talmud.