SALT - Thursday, 5 Tammuz 5777 - June 29, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Yesterday, we noted the discrepancy between the Gemara’s comments in Masekhet Chulin (11a) and Targum Yonatan in Parashat Chukat (19:3) regarding the procedure of slaughtering and burning the para aduma (“red heifer”).  The Gemara writes that after the cow was slaughtered, it was burned whole, without being first dissected in order to verify the absence of simanei tereifa – fatal medical conditions.  Although an animal with such conditions is disqualified as a para aduma, nevertheless, the Torah requires burning the cow whole and relying on the statistical majority, as most animals are generally healthy and do not have simanei tereifaTargum Yonatan, however, writes explicitly that the cow must be inspected to verify it is not a tereifa before it may be burned.

            Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, in one of his published responsa, suggests that Targum Yonatan follows the dissenting view of Rabbi Meir, who, as cited several times in the Talmud, does not allow relying on a statistical majority in matters of Halakha.  In his view, we must take into account the minority possibility in any situation (“chayish le-mi’uta”), and thus, presumably, he would require inspecting the para aduma to ensure its validity before it is burned.  Targum Yonatan perhaps embraced this dissenting position, and for this reason wrote that the para aduma would be inspected before burning.

            This possibility is discussed at greater length by Rav Zev Wolf Leiter, in his Beit David (1:32).  Interestingly, Rav Leiter points to other contexts where Targum Yonatan makes puzzling remarks which could be explained in light of Rabbi Meir’s position.  One such instance appears in the context of the Torah’s discussion of divorce in Sefer Devarim (24:1), where Targum Yonatan writes that a divorce contract (get) must be written in a Beit Din.  This halakha is not mentioned explicitly anywhere in the Talmud, but Rav Shlomo Kluger, in Chokhmat Shelomo (E.H. 141), finds a subtle reference to Rabbi Meir’s requiring a Beit Din for divorce.  In the beginning of Masekhet Gittin (2b), the Gemara comments that since most Jews (at least in Talmudic times) were proficient in the halakhic requirements of divorce, a get which is delivered can be presumed to have been properly written, in accordance with halakhic guidelines, and she may thus be permitted to remarry.  The Gemara then adds that this is true even according to Rabbi Meir, who does not permit relying on a statistical majority, because “court scribes are proficient” in the halakhic requirements of divorce.  (Practically speaking, the Gemara states, Chazal added stricter requirements for a get to be presumed valid.)  Rav Kluger notes that in reference to the conventional view among the Tanna’im, that we may rely on a statistical majority, the Gemara writes simply that most Jews are proficient.  In reference to Rabbi Meir’s position, however, the Gemara specifies that most scribes hired by Beit Din are proficient.  This subtle but significant distinction might suggest that the Gemara implicitly assumed that Rabbi Meir requires gittin to be written specifically in Beit Din.  Since there is a minority of Jews who are not proficient in the laws of divorce, Rabbi Meir, who does not allow relying on a statistical majority, requires writing gittin specifically in Beit Din, which can be assumed to ensure compliance with the relevant halakhic details.  As such, it is possible that Targum Yonatan follows Rabbi Meir’s position, and for this reason he requires writing a get specifically in Beit Din.  If so, then Targum Yonatan here in Parashat Chukat is consistent with his view in the context of divorce, embracing the dissenting position of Rabbi Meir, who does not allow relying on a statistical majority.

            In a different responsum (187), however, Rav Leiter questions this explanation of Targum Yonatan’s comments.  Tosefot (Chulin 12a) and Tosefot Yom Tov (Taharot 3:8) claim that Rabbi Meir stated his position only on the level of rabbinic enactment; as far as Torah law is concerned, Rabbi Meir agrees that we may rely on a statistical majority.  It seems difficult to explain Targum Yonatan’s translation of Biblical verses on the basis of a principle which was enacted by Chazal, and thus we should likely assume that Targum Yonatan requires inspecting the para aduma on the level of Torah law.  Hence, we cannot, seemingly, explain Targum Yonatan’s comments on the basis of Rabbi Meir’s position.