R. Meir Simcha's Commentary on the Torah's Legal Sections

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

Lecture #22:

R. Meir Simcha’s Commentary on the Torah’s Legal Sections

 

 

            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.[1]  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.[2]  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?  R. Meir Simcha says that this simpler meaning addresses a scenario in which the yovel (Jubilee) cycle stops while a slave is in the middle of his service.  This could have happened toward the end of the First Temple period when the ten tribes were exiled and the institution of yovel ceased.  At that point, any slave who had chosen to extend his servitude found himself permanently trapped in that state.[3]  The peshat level teaches a halakha above and beyond the rabbinic derasha.

 

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. Meir Simcha contends that the peshat level of the verse applies to food, clothing, and marital relations.  He maintains that this supports Chazal’s ruling that we coerce a husband to divorce his wife if he fails to provide his basic husbandly duties.[4]  In this case, R. Meir Simcha’s innovative reading provides a source for a halakhic idea found in rabbinic literature without scriptural support.[5]

 

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.[6]  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.[7] 

 

In the course of applying this methodology, R. Meir Simcha sensitively probes the biblical text for unusual phrases, shifts in terminology, and the like.  In each case, the reading generates halakhic rulings.  Sometimes, it confirms halakhot that appear in rabbinic literature and other times, it generates new laws in cases not covered by Chazal.  While I cannot claim that every reading clearly reflects the peshat, I do think that his interpretive endeavor differs significantly from that of Torah Temima.  R. Barukh Epstein’s starting point is defending rabbinic interpretation, whereas R. Meir Simcha begins with close reading of the pesukim. 

 

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.  R. Meir Simcha explains that this chapter reflects the fact that Jews travel from their homes all over the land of Israel to come to the Temple for the festivals.  As wayfarers and as those who are mitzta’er (distressed), they are exempt from the commandment of sukka.  Most authorities root these exemptions in the rabbinic derasha of “teishvu ke-ein taduru,” but R. Meir Simcha sees them as implicit in this chapter.  The absence of sukka alludes to a scenario in which this obligation does not apply.[8]

 

R. Meir Simcha applies his sensitive eye to the monetary laws of parashat Mishpatim.  The Torah sometimes uses the phrase “shor ish” (Shemot 21:35) – a man’s ox – but only says “shor” when describing an ox that kills a human (Shemot 21:28).  R. Meir Simcha cites a gemara in Bava Kama (44b) that we also put an ownerless ox to death for such killing.  Leaving out the word “ish” conveys that the passage includes an ownerless animal.  If so, what is the meaning of the phrase “u-ba’al ha-shor naki” (and the owner of the ox is absolved)? Another gemara in Bava Kama (41a) explains that “naki” conveys an inability to use the animal.  Combining the various components, R. Meir Simcha contends that this prohibition applies even to a person who claims an ownerless animal after the courts put it to death.  This conclusion sheds light on the nature of the prohibition to derive benefit from a shor ha-niskal.  The prohibition does not come merely to punish the inattentive owner but reflects distancing ourselves from a murderous creature.[9] 

 

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.  R. Meir Simcha suggests that these conflicting themes of bor led Chazal to rule that two legal categories of pits exist – a deeper pit which generates responsibility for death and damages, and a shallower pit where the owner bears responsibility only for damages (Bava Kama 3a).[10]  Here, his careful reading does not create a novel ruling, but it does provide a basis for a Talmudic idea.

 

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).  R. Meir Simcha cites a Yerushalmi (Pesachim 9:1) that questions what happens if we build the Temple after the date of Pesach but before Pesach Sheni.  The makeup date for the Paschal offering normally applies only to individuals but not to the entire community.  However, in this unique scenario where the community lacked the option of bringing an offering on the fifteenth of Nissan, the people can jointly bring the Paschal lamb in Iyar.  R. Meir Simcha posits that the pronoun supports this idea, since it indicates some flexibility regarding the date of Pesach.

 

R. Meir Simcha extends the point in a more radical fashion.  King Chizkiyahu celebrated “Chag Ha-matzot” in the second month (II Divrei Ha-yamim 30:13).  One gemara explains that he added a leap month in Nissan; therefore, he celebrated the festival in its proper time (Pesachim 56a).  Ibn Erza endorses this interpretation.[11]  Meshekh Chokhma argues that Chizkiyahu actually celebrated the entire Pesach holiday in Iyar.  Chizkiyahu understood the pronoun in our verse as conveying the potential for all of Pesach moving to another month.  If the collective body of Am Yisrael brings the Paschal offering a month late, the entire holiday shifts over.[12]  In this example, his reading leads to a very novel halakhic idea. 

 

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).  R. Meir Simcha points out other biblical contexts (see Bereishit 18:3, 30) that indicate that “al” implies a request more than a commanding prohibition.  For the same reason, we utilize this word in our prayers (Tehillim 22:12, 27:9).  We do not address God with commanding prohibitions but with pleading requests.  If so why does God prohibit the uncooked Paschal lamb with a language of request?

 

R. Meir Simcha explains that the binding nature of mitzvot began only after the plague of the first-born.  This plague clarified the nature of divine providence and led to the immediate departure of the Jews from Egyptian slavery.  Only at this point did God begin to issue commands.  Since the directives for the Paschal offering precede this final plague, God could only make requests of the people; it was premature to command them.

 

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.”  R. Meir Simcha explains that this prohibition regarding notar addresses a time period following the midnight plague of the first-born.  In anticipation of the oncoming obligations, God uses the more commanding formulation.  In contrast, the Jews might eat the offering before this plague; thus, God used “al” in the cooking context.[13]

 

Double formulations also play a role in R. Meir Simcha’s interpretive world.  The Torah says that a person who took on a vow “should not break his word; he should fulfill all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Bemidbar 30:2).  R. Meir Simcha suggests a novel halakhic reading of this verse.  The gemara raises the possibility that vows resemble kodashim (items sacred to the Temple) to the extent that the category of me’ila (the prohibition to benefit from sacred items) applies to items forbidden via vows (Nedarim 35a).  Normative pesak apparently rules that me’ila applies to vows.[14]  If we extend this parallel to the utmost, a person who breaks a vow and, say, eats from the forbidden item should then be allowed to use that item.  In the context of sacred objects, profane usage nullifies the sacred status of the item.  Perhaps the same applies to vows.  R. Meir Simcha contends that the second phrase negates this idea.  The Torah first prohibits breaking the vow.  “He should fulfill all that proceeds out of his mouth” adds the idea that failure to adhere to the vow does not impact on that vow’s enduring binding quality.[15]

 

Those interested in pursuing R. Meir Simcha’s novel legal interpretations should see his derivations regarding the continuing status of cities of refuge,[16] his source for the idea that Levitical Temple responsibilities continue even if the Levites fail to receive tithes,[17]  and his readings of laws of lost property[18] and of theft.[19]  I also recommend Rabbi Cooperman’s essay, which collects the sources and provides valuable analysis.

 

 

[1] R. Ovadya Seforno, Shemot 21:24.

[2] Ramban, Shemot 21:29.

[3] Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 21:6.

[4] Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 21:11.

[5] It must be admitted that the phrase “without charge” works better according to the standard interpretation.

[6] Hilkhot Rotze’ach 2:14.

[7] Chiddushei haRan, Sanhedrin 27b.

[8] Meshekh Chokhma, Bemidbar 29:12.

[9] Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 21:28.

[10] Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 21:33-34.

[11] Ibn Ezra Perush ha-Arokh, Shemot 12:2.

[12] Meshekh Chokhma, Bemidbar 28:16-17.

[13] Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 12:9.

[14] Rambam Hilkhot Me’ila 4:9, Ran Nedarim 35a.

[15] Meshekh Chokhma, Bemidbar 30:3.

[16] Meshekh Chokhma, Bemidbar 35:13.

[17] Meshekh Chokhma, Bemidbar 18:24.

[18] Meshekh Chokhma, Devarim 22:1.

[19] Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 22:1-2.