R. Meir Simcha's Commentary on the Torah's Legal Sections
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
Commentators lacking erudition in rabbinic literature often focus the bulk of their attention on the Torah’s narrative portions. Conversely, Talmudically erudite biblical commentators frequently probe legal sections with greater precision and insight. Extensive knowledge of halakhic material can sensitize a reader to issues in the text that he might otherwise have overlooked.
On the other hand, great familiarity with rabbinic literature can blind a reader to the simple meaning of the verses. Talmudic scholars may immediately see rabbinic interpretations everywhere, rather than letting the Torah speak in its most direct voice. If the Torah instructs us on a peshat level as well, this approach misses an important dimension of Torah study. Even if an “eye for an eye” legally mandates monetary compensation, we should ask why the Torah expresses it in a fashion that suggests lex talionis.
The issue of peshat and derash has special sensitivity in the context of the Torah’s legal portions. As is well known, commentators differ regarding their degree of fealty to rabbinic interpretation of the narrative sections. Rashi tends to follow midrashim, whereas Rashbam and Ibn Ezra feel free to interpret the verses independent of midrashim. However, some commentators, including Ibn Ezra, change their approach when explaining the legal portions. They maintain the distinction between peshat and derash only with regard to narrative sections. Perhaps they felt that suggesting a simple reading that differs from Chazal’s halakhic rulings could have dangerously antinomian results. Yet others were willing to learn from the peshat even in legal portions.
One approach claims that the peshat level expresses a value judgment even if not carried out in practice. Seforno suggests that a person who knocks out another’s eye deserves to lose his own, even though the courts do not administer such a punishment. Along similar lines, Ramban contends that someone whose negligent guarding of a dangerous animal causes a human fatality deserves the death penalty, though we do not actually administer it. In an earlier shiur on R. Berlin’s thought, we encountered another interpretive possibility. Some legal sections work on two levels: a message for that generation and a message for eternity. Peshat reflects the message for that time, whereas derash teaches the halakha for subsequent Jewish history. Netziv reads a number of Torah passages in this dual light.
R, Meir Simcha opens up another option. Peshat may teach halakhot not covered by rabbinic derashot. In other words, the simple meaning cannot override traditional interpretation, but it can provide another layer of meaning that addresses novel situations. For example, the Torah (Shemot 21:6) says that a Jewish slave who chooses to remain in servitude after six years serves “le-olam” (forever). The simplest reading would be that this person remains in perpetual servitude. However, based on Vayikra 25, Halakha says that the Jubilee year frees this slave. Many commentators contend that the word “le-olam” need not mean “for eternity.” This reflects an approach arguing that traditional rabbinic interpretation reflects the peshat level of meaning. Note how Malbim and Torah Temima work to show how rabbinic derashot emerge from a careful reading of the verses.
What happens, however, if we insist that “le-olam” means forever?
The laws of a Jewish slave girl provide another example. If the master or his son marries the girl, they must provide her with food, clothing, and marital relations (Shemot 21:10). The next verse states: “If these three he does not do for her, she goes free without charge.” What are “these three?” All the classic commentators explain that the phrase does not refer to the three items listed in the preceding verse, but rather to three options outlined in the larger passage: either the master should marry her, his son should marry her, or someone should redeem her with money. If none of those three possible scenarios occurs, she goes free upon attaining physical maturity.
R. Yehuda Cooperman, in the introductory chapters to his edition of Meshekh Chokhma (this week’s shiur is heavily indebted to his fine introduction) cites two precedents for this kind of halakhic derivation. Someone who kills a Gentile slave receives the death penalty, but not when the slave lingers for a day or two before dying. The relevant verse speaks of an owner hitting his slave with a “staff” (Shemot 21:20). Rambam says that the distinction based on time of death does not apply if the owner uses a sword or knife. In such cases, the owner has no right to take these weapons to the slave, and the death penalty applies irrespective of the time lag between the assault and the death. Logic certainly influenced this ruling, but so did a careful reading of the verse.
In the example above, Rambam innovates a ruling but does not interpret a phrase in a way that differs from Chazal. The second example speaks more directly to the “le-olam” example. Sefer Devarim (24:16) says “lo yumtu avot al banim.” Chazal interpret this verse as teaching that parents and children cannot be put to death based on each other’s testimony (Sanhedrin 27b). Yet Sefer Melakhim still uses this verse as a source for not killing children due to their parent’s sins (II Melakhim 14:6). Rabbeinu Nissim explains that the verse instructs us on two levels. The derash invalidates the testimony of relatives, and the peshat emphasizes individual responsibility.
In the course of applying this methodology,
The biblical account of the mussaf sacrifices offered on the festivals mentions some of the other mitzvot of those chagim but not all (Bemidbar 28-29). For example, it takes note of eating matza on Pesach and the shofar sounds of Rosh Hashana, but it says nothing about dwelling in a sukka.
The opening verse dealing with the tort category of “bor” mentions that an animal fell into a pit, but it does not say that the animal perished (Shemot 21:33). This contrasts with the situation two verses later, where the Torah tells us that an ox pushed another and killed it. However, the second verse regarding “bor” speaks of a carcass.
Scrupulous attention to wording also motivates some significant innovations. The account of the mussaf offering on Pesach initially refers to the “first month” (Bemidbar 28: 16) and then refers to the fifteenth of “that month” (28:17). The shift to a pronoun becomes more striking when we contrast it with the description of offerings in the month of Tishrei, where the Torah constantly repeats the phrase “seventh month” without resorting to the pronoun (Bemidbar 29:1, 7, 12).
Attention to word choice inspires other innovative interpretations. When the Torah prohibits eating the Paschal offering raw, it uses the negative “al” instead of the more common negative “lo” (Shemot 12:9).
The next verse provides a problem for this line of reasoning. God forbids leaving over the Paschal lamb until the morning using the language of “lo.”
Double formulations also play a role in
Those interested in pursuing
 R. Ovadya Seforno, Shemot 21:24.
 Ramban, Shemot 21:29.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 21:6.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 21:11.
 It must be admitted that the phrase “without charge” works better according to the standard interpretation.
 Hilkhot Rotze’ach 2:14.
 Chiddushei haRan, Sanhedrin 27b.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Bemidbar 29:12.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 21:28.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 21:33-34.
 Ibn Ezra Perush ha-Arokh, Shemot 12:2.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Bemidbar 28:16-17.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 12:9.
 Rambam Hilkhot Me’ila 4:9, Ran Nedarim 35a.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Bemidbar 30:3.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Bemidbar 35:13.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Bemidbar 18:24.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Devarim 22:1.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 22:1-2.