The Rational Believer

A Five Volume Series on Jewish Faith

Vol. 2, The Oral Law: G-d-Given or Rabbinic Fabrications?

What’s Up with the Far-Fetched Interpretations?

 

Overview: Explaining why the Talmud often interprets biblical verses extremely wildly and far-fetched, taken totally out of their context or simple meaning.

We will now explorer an especially relevant topic relating to rabbinic statements. Quite often, the Talmud quotes a verse in support of a teaching or rule and interprets the verse in a severely far-fetched matter, twisting the obvious meaning of the verse. What’s with the logic?

The idea is like this. No-one argues on the literal meaning of the verse, as the famous Talmudic statement goes ein mikra yotze midei peshuto,[i] roughly translated as the verse does not neglect its literal meaning. When the Talmud takes a verse out of context or twists its meaning, it is not saying that this interpretation is the literal intent of the verse. Rather it is called a remez or asmachta, which is a “hint” in the verse which alludes to the concept the verse is being applied to. The concept or law seemingly being derived isn’t at all learned from this play of words; it is rather a rabbinic invention or a tradition from Sinai that the concept is known from. It is only after we already have this piece of information independently of the verse, that the sages give a “hint” for it in the verse. It doesn’t either (necessarily) mean that the author of the Bible intended for that “hint.”[1] By the way, the Talmud is not the only literature that had this custom. The New Testament authors, for example, did this as well numerous times, apparently attesting to a practice of antique.[2]

For a Talmudic source for the concept of non-literal interpretations, see Kesubos 111b where, after interpreting a verse non-literally, the Talmud proceeds to ask “[but] what is the literal meaning of the verse?” Also see Sukkah 6a which, after interpreting a verse in support of a law, states that “this [interpretation] is a mere “hint” (asmachta).”[3]

[Not only does the Talmud have the custom of using these “hints” but even later Halachic works, such as Maimonides and Shulchan Aruch, occasionally do the same after citing a Halacha.[4]]

But why would the sages do this seemingly strange custom of connecting pre-existing concepts to a verse?

While from the Talmud itself it is not clear, here are three widespread explanations:

(1) Because it was prohibited to write the Oral Law at that time, this was used as a method to help recall what the teacher taught in class. Whenever the student would now go through the Written Torah, he would remember the “hints” in the words and recall the oral tradition.[ii]

(2) The twisting of the words is “different” and even “cute” in a sense. This would help the students pay attention in class and to remember it for the future. This custom is actually still commonly practiced by rabbis nowadays. It is known in Yiddish as vertelach.

(3) Some suggest that it was done to convince the simple un-educated populace, at least sub-consciously, that these laws are of biblical origins in order that they respect and adhere to them properly.[iii]

The fact that these interpretations were not intended to replace the literal meaning and that the sages didn’t learn the fact from the “hint,” can easily be proven. First, it is common sense that the geniuses of the generation didn’t misunderstand the verses so abnormally. Additionally, they wouldn’t be able to fool the masses on such simple awareness of the literal interpretation of the verse. Furthermore, it is clear from many instances themselves that their source is rabbinic—not from a verse. For good examples of “hints” and how clear it is that it isn’t to be taken literally, see Sanhedrin 56a (regarding the Seven Noahide Laws) and Chulin 106a (about ritual hand washing).[5]

 

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[1] Meaning, the verse didn’t intend for that concept or law.

[2]  See prefix to chapter “Deuteronomy 18—the Prophet” in Vol. 3 of The Rational Believer Series.

[3] For even more evidence also see: Talmud Taanis 17b, Eruvin 4b, Pesachim 96b, and Chagigah 4a.

[4] See e.g. Shulchan Aruch Harav part 4 chapter 608 Halacha 1.

[5] Why then, do we find at times an in-depth discussion on the exact nature of the “hint” and how it is learned from the verse? If it is merely a hint, there shouldn’t be the need or attempt to rationalize it? Based on the third explanation given, it is no question because that rationalization itself is part of the attempt to biblicalize the legislation to assure public adherence. The first two explanations would need to take a different approach of course. Perhaps it was because through the analysis and thought put into the hint, the teaching was assured to be remembered the next time the student bumps into that verse in the Written Torah.

Even in the Talmudic-era, at which point it was permissible to write the oral laws (thus abolishing the need for hints), it was still rare for the typical person to have notes on all that he learned in Yeshivah (no, pens weren’t invented yet and quills, ink, and parchment weren’t so accessible). This is why we find discussion on “hints” even in the Talmud. Additionally, let alone the fact that most times notes weren’t readily accessible to the individual, the Talmudic sages would still continue to discuss and learn in the form of hints simply continuing the custom of their predecessors. It can take generations to replace a more modern and fitting method of learning even after the reason for the outdated method has ended.

 

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[i] Talmud Shabbos 63a, Yevamos 11b, 24a, and many more commentators repeat this principle.

[ii] Torah Temimah 31:19:4, Kuzzari 3:73, and Rambam in his introduction to the Mishnayos chapter 4.

[iii] See Encyclopedia Talmudis on “amachta”; Maharil in Likkutim.

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