R. Zadok and the Principle of Omnisignificance
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
Lecture #24: R. Zadok and the Principle of Omnisignificance
R. Zadok Ha-Kohen
Rabinowitz (1823-1900) was born into a mitnagdic rabbinic family. Popular biographies recount that he was
a remarkable illuy, a child prodigy. A few years after his teenage marriage,
rumors about his wifes problematic behavior reached his ears. Given the historical source material
available, it is difficult to evaluate the precise nature or veracity of these
rumors. In any case, R. Zadok
wanted to divorce her and she refused.
He travelled around
When the Izbitzer
passed away, his court divided into followers of his son, the Beis
Yaakov, and followers of his talmid
For much of his life, R. Zadok had time to write and he did so prolifically. Since he wrote many works and the titles do not always clarify the content of these volumes, I will quickly survey his vast literary output. R. Zadok wrote on both halakha and machshava topics. His legal writings include Tiferet Tzvi, responsa on Yoreh Dea; Levushei Tzedaka, a defense of the Levush from the attacks of later authorities; Otzar Ha-melekh, a commentary predominantly on the first book of Rambams Mishneh Torah with an appended essay on tumat ohel; and Meishiv Tzeddek, a defense of the practice to eat a meal inside the house on Shemini Atzeret.
Some of his writings on Jewish thought are defined easily, others less so. Takanat Ha-shavin addresses repentance, Yisrael Kedoshim focuses on the unique status of the Jewish people, and Sichat Malakhei Ha-sharet discusses rabbinic literature regarding angels. Others are more of a potpourri but some essential themes stand out. Both Resisei Layla and Machshavot Charutz emphasize the holidays with the former devoting considerable space to Purim. Divrei Soferim and Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik contain insightful readings of Talmudic passages with the beginning of the latter dedicated to the first few pages of Berakhot.
In addition to the
two major categories, a few other individual works stand out. His Divrei Chalomot outlines
novel insights that came to him while dreaming. A letter entitled Iggeret
Ha-kodesh encourages a childhood friend now living in
This massive output illustrates R Zadoks remarkable range. He was a master of Jewish law and of Jewish thought, knowledgeable regarding both Jewish mysticism and Jewish philosophy. As we shall see in subsequent shiurim, issues of history also intrigued him.
Though scholars have
only scratched the surface of R. Zadoks creative thought, they have produced
some important studies. In
particular, I recommend Prof.
This term helps set
the stage for appreciating one important aspect of R. Zadoks thought. Prof. James Kugel coined the term in his
analysis of biblical poetry and
The basic assumption underlying all rabbinic exegesis is that the slightest details of the biblical text have a meaning that is both comprehensible and significant. Nothing in the Bible, in other words, ought to be explained as the product of chance, or, for that matter, as an emphatic or rhetorical form Every detail is put there to teach us something new and important.
Kugel mentions this
idea in explaining the rabbinic approach to biblical parallelism, the essential
form of Tanakhs poetry.
Chazal refuse to say that the parallel repeats the same idea with
different wording, insisting instead on finding a fresh idea in the second
phrase. They apply the same
methodological assumptions to textual issues such as juxtapositions, extraneous
wording, and superfluous letters.
This perspective eschews technical or aesthetic explanations for these
phenomena in the search for maximum religious meaning.
For the techniques that Chazal employ in their interpretation of Chumash , and, by extension, Nakh, came to be used, mutatis mutandis, for any hallowed text tannaitic texts and amoraic texts, in turn Rishonim and Aharonim.
Thus, the gemara assumes that each extraneous word in a mishna teaches something new. Substantive interpretations take precedence over literary or technical explanations for the same phenomena. As Elman points out, this assumption works more easily for a Divine text, whose author could include infinite levels of meaning, than for human texts. He develops the idea expressed in chassidic writers that a text written by a rabbinic luminary, and accepted by klal yisrael, was written under the Divine influence (ruach ha-kodesh). In this context, Elman cites R. Zadok and we shall see examples of this method in the kohens work.
Placement of Aggadot
The location of both aggadic and halakhic Talmudic statements often seems based on purely technical considerations. For example, the Talmud will cite a given statement because it was said by the same individual as a previous statement, it may use a similar word or structure to one just mentioned, or will often follow up on a concept mentioned tangentially in the previous discussion. R. Zadok comments on examples where we could easily employ the above methods and insists that something deeper motivates the placement. Even more striking, he resolutely seeks a significant reason for placement regarding both chapter and tractate.
R. Zadok offers a programmatic statement of his working assumptions.
I received a tradition that even though according to peshat (the simple interpretation), Talmudic statements appear tangentially, al ha-emet (in truth), they are completely connected to the place where they appear and these places are the most appropriate.
Apparently, R. Zadok accepts the more technical explanations on a peshat level but calls for deeper levels of explanation that move beyond the simple understanding.
His approach inspires
a powerful idea regarding the aggada about the destruction of the
R. Zadok also explains both the chapter and the tractate when discussing the aggadic passages regarding matan Torah (the giving of the Torah at Sinai). The obvious rationale for its appearance is a mishna (Shabbat 86a) that mentions a waiting period of three days after relations to insure that a woman no longer emits seminal fluid. The three days of marital separation prior to matan Torah provide a biblical source for this mishna. On a peshat level, this fact alone justifies an aggadic elaboration of matan torah. Moving beyond the peshat, R. Zadok explains that this aggada appears in massekhet Shabbat because matan Torah took place on Shabbat. Furthermore, it appears in a chapter entitled Rabbi Akiva because Rabbi Akiva exemplifies the Oral Law; thus, it emphasizes that an oral law accompanied the written text at Sinai.
Here, one might claim that R. Zadoks explanation of the chosen tractate fails to provide greater religious meaning. After all, the date of matan Torah might be viewed as a happenstance of the calendar. I submit that for R. Zadok, the fact that matan Torah took place on Shabbat was no mere coincidence. Rather, it reflects some significant connection between the Sabbath and the receiving of the Torah. If so, R. Zadok remains true to his commitment to offer explanations with spiritual import.
In another example, the name of the chapter and tractate coincide. The aggadot about manna appear in massekhet Yoma (75a), perek Yom Ha-kippurim. R. Zadok explains that manna was a spiritual sustenance that turned corporeal when it entered our world. It parallels two approaches to eating over the course of Yom Kippur. On the fast day itself, we are fully spiritual and abstain from eating. On erev Yom Kippur, we eat to fulfill a commandment and redeem the physical act of eating. The manna is thematically linked with Yom Kippur.
Sometimes, R. Zadok
explains not just the chosen tractate and perek but also the specific
mishna which leads to the aggada.
R. Pinchas ben Yairs famous list of levels of spiritual achievement
beginning with Torah and concluding with ruach ha-kodesh and techiyat
ha-metim appears in Avoda Zara (20b) following a mishna about not
selling land in
As Sara Friedland points out, finding meaning in the chapter names reflects a radical extension of this methodology. Tractates have essential themes and we can imagine Talmudic redactors placing an aggada to cohere with that theme. Similarly, they might choose to associate a story with a particular mishna. However, Talmudic chapter names reveal nothing about content as they simply consist of the first words of the chapter. Presumably, we use them merely for referencing purposes. Yet R. Zadok asserts that something deeper connects aggadot with the chapter names of their Talmudic location.
We might say that R.
Zadok here moves far away from peshat into the realm of derash.
At the same time, we need not
assume that R. Zadok only engages in derash whose justification depends
on assigning ruach ha-kodesh to generations of rabbinic writers. The omnisignificance principle, in
certain circumstances, leads to a better understanding of peshat. As Kugel points out, it was precisely
In a similar way, the compilers of the mishna and gemara may well have had spiritually significant ideas in mind when they structured the Talmud. Indeed, a myriad of possible technical and associative connections exist in the Talmudic corpus to introduce a given story and it seems logical to assume that the redactors sometimes relied upon spiritually substantive criteria to influence their choice of placement. Some of R. Zadoks explanations are clearly derash; others could very well be peshat.
academics also argue that placement of aggadot reflects more than a
technical connection. Jeffery
Rubensteins recent book provides a number of fine examples. The aggada about
Rubenstein employs a
similar approach to other aggadot.
He shares R. Zadoks assumption that a mere word connection between
sikrikun and Abba Sikra does not sufficiently explain the placement of
stories about the
In sum, R. Zadoks search for meaning reflects either a type of derash based on assumptions of Divine inspiration or a peshat-based outlook that sees technical explanations as inadequate grounds for placement. According to the latter version, we end up with an unusual overlap between the approaches of R. Zadok and some contemporary academics.
 Meat le-Tzaddik: Kovetz Maamarim al R. Zadok
Ha-Kohen me-Lublin u-Mishnato ed.
 A Rambi search reveals five articles written by Dr.
 James L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1981), p. 104.
 Peri Tzaddik Bereishit (
 The mishna appears on 55b and Abba Sikra appears on 56a.
 Peri Tzaddik on Bereishit, p. 12. See also Dover Tzedek (Bnei Brak, 5727), p. 195.
 Peri Tzaddik on Devarim, p. 212.
 Yisrael Kedoshim (Bnei Brak, 5727), p. 47. Though R. Zadok can write quite negatively about the non-Jewish world, he did not think Gentiles incapable of spiritual accomplishments. See Ohr Zarua la-Tzaddik, pp. 7, 16; Yisrael Kedoshim, p. 55 and Machshavot Charutz, p. 141.
 See her Shekhenut ve-Korat Gag: Al Shenei Ekronot Darshanut Tzuraniyim be-Khitvei R. Zadok Ha-Kohen me-Lublin, Akdamot 8 (Kislev 5760), pp. 25- 42. This article was reprinted in Meat le-Tzaddik. Some of Friedlands article overlaps with our analysis and she has other interesting examples not mentioned here.
 Kugel, op. Cit., pp. 288-292.
 Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition and Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1999), pp. 135-136.
 Ibid. pp. 162-165. See also p. 237 where he suggests an explanation for the location of the aggada at the beginning of Avoda Zara.