Shiur #02: Vayikra Rabba 1:1 (Part 1 of 2)

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


The Petichta


The literary form that perhaps most defines midrash aggada of the amoraic period (200-500 CE), and Vayikra Rabba in particular, is known as the petichta.  No study of Vayikra Rabba can be done without at least a basic understanding of its workings. 


The petichta grows out of the rabbinic strategy of bringing together two verses that come from different parts of the Bible and creating a dialogue between them.  Every petichta is built within a framework of two biblical verses.  The "parasha verse" is a verse from the Torah, generally the first verse of the week's Torah reading.  The "petichta verse" can come from anywhere else in the Bible, but it most frequently is chosen from poetic and "philosophical" works such as Proverbs, Job, and Psalms.  The petichtas open with the petichta verse (hence the name petichta, from the verb "patach," to open).  This is followed by a series of interpretations and discussions that emerge from this verse.  Generally speaking, other biblical verses are cited and discussed along the way.  Eventually, the author of the petichta finds a way of segueing into a context where the "parasha verse" is relevant.  The petichta ends with a citation of the parasha verse.


Note that in most editions of the various midrashim, the petichta is preceded by a citation of the parasha verse.  This is not an integral part of the petichta; these citations were added by later editors.  We have eliminated them in our quotations of the midrash to avoid confusion.


The great 20th Century midrash scholar, Joseph Heinemann, argued that the petichta originated as a way of introducing the Torah reading in the synagogue.  When time for Torah reading came in the service, a rabbi would get up and begin a midrashic explication of a verse of his choosing.  Eventually, he would find occasion to cite the first verse of the day's reading.  At this point, the Torah reading would begin.


In light of this explanation, the art of the petichta relies on a sort of narrative suspense.  The reader or listener knows that the petichta must end with first verse of the day’s reading.  However, he or she does not immediately understand the connection between the verse chosen by the rabbi to begin the petichta and the petichta's ultimate destination.  This is only revealed as the petichta moves towards its conclusion.


As an interpretive form, the petichta is particularly effective at using two distant verses to shed light on one another.  Verses from the Torah tend to deal with the concrete; if they come from stories, they portray the actions or speech of a particular individual at a particular time, and if they are legal in nature, they are often technical, dealing with a specific instance or situation.  Verses from the books such as Job, Proverbs, and Psalms, on the other hand, tend to deal with more abstract and general themes.  By juxtaposing a verse from the Torah with a verse from the later Biblical works, the petichta encourages us to think of both verses in a different light.  On the one hand, the petichta verse will often help us identify a broader message in the parasha verse, which ostensibly deals only with a past event or technical ruling.  Conversely, the parasha verse directs us to find a concrete manifestation of more general lesson of the petichta verse. 


All of this will become clearer in the course of this lesson, in which we will begin our study of the first petichta in Vayikra Rabba.


Vayikra Rabba 1:1


The petichta verse


The opening petichta of Vayikra Rabba begins with a "petichta verse" from Psalms:


R.  Tanhum b.  Hanilai opened [his discourse with the text],

Bless the Lord, O His angels (malakhav),

mighty in strength, that fulfill His word,

Hearkening unto the voice of His word…  (Ps. 103:20). 


Before proceeding to the Midrash's discussion of this verse, it is first important to understand its place within the chapter of Tehillim in which it appears.  Psalm 103 largely deals with the blessings and goodness that God showers on humankind, and especially those who fear Him and follow His Word.  However, at the very end of the chapter the focus shifts from God's deeds on earth to those in the heavens.  In verses 20-21, the psalmist turns to the heavenly hosts and calls upon them to praise God.  According to the simple meaning of the verses, the Biblical text implicitly compares God's human servant with his divine ones, suggesting a possible equivalence between God's mortal and His immortal servants.


A. Interpretations of the word malakh

1) First interpretation


Of whom does Scripture speak? 

If we are to suppose that Scripture speaks of such as are above,

the question arises: is it not in any event said:

"Bless the Lord, all His hosts" (Ps. 103:21)? 

Surely, then, [when Scripture here uses the term "malakhav"] it speaks of such [malakhim] as are below. 

Of those above, since they can [unfailingly] execute [all] the charges of the Holy One, blessed be He, it is said,

"Bless the Lord, all His hosts,"

but of those below, since they are not able [unfailingly] to execute [all] the charges of the Holy One, blessed be He, it is said,

"Bless the Lord, O His angels,"

but not 'All His angels.'


The midrash builds on this comparison, arguing that it is unclear if the petichta verse refers to humans or angels.  The term malakh in Hebrew refers to a messenger of any sort, divine or human.  The midrash thus asks: Who is the verse referring to? Messengers of God from upper realms, or from the lower realms? The midrash resolves this question through a careful comparison between this verse and the first half of the verse that follows: 'Bless the Lord, all His hosts.'


A peshat (contextual) approach to these verses would see them as reflecting a type of poetic repetition, in which the same idea is repeated using different words (kefel inyan be-milim shonot, in the words of the Radak and other medieval pashtanim).  Chazal could not accept such a reading; their principle of omnisignicance means that all details of the Biblical text are inherently meaningfully and that there can be no purposeless repetitions.  They determine that the two verses must be talking about two different things; v.20, the petichta verse, refers to human servants of God, whereas v.21 refers to the angels.


Chazal come to this conclusion on the basis of two diyukim, technical observations, about these verses.  First, v.20 uses the word malakhav while v. 21 uses the word tzeva'ot.  According to the peshat, these two words are synonyms, but the midrash distinguishes between the two.  Since malakhim can refer to either humans or angels, whereas tzeva’ot in this context means only angels, it makes sense to differentiate between the two by saying that the first verse refers to humans and the second to angels.


However the midrash makes a more subtle argument for this distinction as well.  It notes that v.20 uses the term malakhav, without any qualifiers.  However, in v.21, the term tzeva'ot is preceded by the word kol, "all."  The midrash deduces from this contrast that v.20 refers to only some of malakhav, but not all of them.  Why would only some of malakhav be included, in contrast to all of the tzeva'ot? The midrash uses this as evidence for the claim that malakhav refers to humans; since humans are imperfect, not all of them actually fulfill the divine will and merit divine blessings.  Angels, on the other hand, are perfect; they always complete their appointed rounds and receive the appropriate blessings. 


This reading of the verses diverges from the peshat in yet another way.  Verses 20-22 all begin with the phrase “Barekhu Hashem…” The simple understanding of this phrase is as an imperative: "Bless God…" God's servants are commanded to bless Him in recognition of the many kindnesses He performs, as enumerated in the psalm.  However, another reading of the verse is possible as well.  Chazal reverse the subject and the object of these phrases, turning the verb into a declarative statement: "God blesses…" These verses thus do not deal with the praises that God's loyal servants give Him, but with the blessings that God showers upon His loyal servants.


This opening section establishes the central theme of the petichta: the potential of some mortals to rise to the level of the angels through scrupulous loyalty to the divine will.  In the rest of the petichta, this theme will be developed in conjunction with further analysis and discussion of the petichta verse.  Eventually, this discussion will lead us to the parasha verse, the opening words of the book of Vayikra.  We do not yet know how the darshan will take us there.  We can only guess, or wait patiently.


2) Further interpretations of the word malakh - malakh as prophet


The midrash now sets off on a further investigation of the term malakh in the Bible.  As we have seen, the term malakh refers to a messenger, mortal or immortal.  Now, the midrash sharpens its argument by focusing on the use of this term with reference to God.  In these cases, according to the midrash, the term can refer either to angels or to a specific class of human beings who deserve the name malakhei Hashem - the prophets.  According to this reading, the petichta verse refers specifically to the prophets when it discusses those mortals who are promised divine blessings akin to those received by the angels. 


The midrash now presents a series of proofs from the Bible, the interpretation of which support the notion that the term malakh can refer to a prophet.  The first of these verses is from the book of Bamidbar:


1. The prophets are called malakhim.

This is indicated by what is written,

"And he sent a messenger (malakh), and brought us forth out of Egypt…"  (Num. 20:16). 

Was it then an angel of the Lord?

Surely it was Moses! 

Why then does it call him 'malakh?'

In fact, from this one learns that prophets are called malakhim.


The midrash assumes that the malakh who was sent by God to lead Israel out of Egypt was none other than Moshe.  The reasons for this approach are not entirely clear to me.  Why can't this malakh refer to a heavenly angel? Indeed, in Sefer Shemot, the Torah repeatedly refers to a malakh sent by God, which is apparently distinct from Moshe and angelic in nature.  It is hardly surprising that the Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on the verse in Bamidbar, understands this malakh to refer to an angel.  Perhaps Chazal were motivated by the fact that earlier in the same passage, in 20:14, the Torah does, in fact, use the term malakhim to refer to human messengers. 


One way or another, the midrash presents this verse as evidence that the term malakh in the Bible can mean "prophet" and not just "angel."


Now the Midrash moves on to its next proof text:


2. Similarly it says,

"And the messenger (malakh) of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim" (Judg.  2:1). 

Was it then an angel?

Surely it was Pinchas! 

Why then does it call him 'malakh?' 

Rather, said R.  Simon, 

the face of Pinchas, flamed like a torch when the Holy Spirit rested upon him.


As in the previous section, there is nothing in this verse or the passage in which it appears that explicitly states that the term malakh Hashem refers to a human prophet rather than an angel.  Indeed, the midrash seems to assume this fact; it takes for granted that the subject of these verses is Pinchas the High Priest.  The implication is that this understanding is not based on Chazal's direct understanding of the text but rather on a received tradition. 


Nevertheless, there are several anomalies in the biblical text which would seem to suggest that the malakh Hashem in this case is not a typical angel.  This passage in Judges is, to the best of my knowledge, the only time an angel is portrayed as revealing himself to the entire people and rebuking them in the name of God; this is a role generally played by a human prophet.  One can therefore understand why Chazal mat have been motivated to understand the "malakh Hashem" in this verse as referring to a human prophet.


MaHaRZu (R. Zev Wolf Einhorn, d. 1862, Vilna), in his commentary printed in the Vilna Midrash Rabba, suggested another insight that might explain why Chazal identified this prophet specifically with Pinchas.  The verse states that the malakh Hashem "came up from Gilgal." If this were angel, wouldn't we have expected him to "come down from heaven?" Since Gilgal was the location of the Mishkan at the time, it would make more sense if this were a reference to Pinchas the High Priest, who came from there to rebuke the people. 


This section offers and explanation as to why it is that a prophet might be called by the same name as an angel.  We learn that Pinchas, and presumably other great prophets as well, took on the fiery appearance of angels when he prophesied.  The connection between prophets and angels is thus not simply a linguistic one; although prophets are mortal, they have something in common with the immortal angels.  The line between angels and mortals is not a sharp as we may have thought.  When prophets prophesy they are, temporarily, indistinguishable from angels. 


            This line of thought carries through to the next proof text:


3. The Rabbis said: What did the wife of Manoah say to him?

"A man of God came unto me, and his countenance was like the countenance of the angel (malakh) of God" (Judg. 13:6). 

Evidently, she took him to be a prophet, whereas he was not that but an angel. 


Here, in the story of the birth of Samson, Samson’s soon-to-be mother tells her husband that she has seen a “man of God,” i.e. a prophet, who looks like an angel. In fact she has seen an actual angel of God, whom she has mistaken for a prophet.  This verse shows how angels and prophets can appear to be indistinguishable from one another. Unlike the other proof texts, however, this verse does not provide an example of the usage of the term malakh to refer to prophets. Here the confusion between angels and prophets is not linguistic in nature, but rather happens as a result of a real life encounter between a human and an angel.  


Finally, the midrash cites its ultimate proof text:


4. R. Johanan said: The prophets were called malakhim, because of their essential purpose [as messengers of God].

This is indicated by what is written,

"Then spoke Haggai, the Lord's messenger (malakh) in the Lord's message (malkhut)" (Hag.  1:13).

Thus, we are bound to conclude from this decisive passage that the prophets are called 'malakhim.'


At long last, we have a verse that unequivocally demonstrates that a prophet may be called malakh Hashem: the prophet Haggai is referred to as such in no uncertain terms.  The verse even explains the usage, noting that Haggai deserves the title because he is, indeed, on a mission from God. 


The midrash has now completed its survey of biblical verses, which is meant to accomplish two interrelated goals.  The first is to prove that the term malakh in the Bible can refer not only to heavenly angels but also mortals, most notably prophets.  This linguistic and interpretative ambiguity underlies a more fundamental reality - the line between humans and angels is not always clear.  In their interpretation of the petichta verse from Psalms, Chazal argue that some individual mortals merit not only the title malakh, but also the same divine blessing as the angels.  Similarly, we see how people who encounter angels or prophets can confuse the two.


We should note that that from a modern peshat perspective, the question of the meaning of the term malakh in Biblical Hebrew is slightly more complicated.  Modern scholarship recognizes a fundamental distinction between the Biblical Hebrew in which the Torah and the majority of other biblical works were written, and the Late Biblical Hebrew of the post-exilic Biblical works.  In Late Biblical Hebrew, words often have slightly different meaning than in standard Biblical Hebrew.  It seems hardly coincidental that the only unequivocal example brought by the midrash of the Bible using the term malakh Hashem to refer to a prophet is from the book of Haggai, which dates from the early Second Temple period.  Similarly, Haggai's rough contemporary Malachi uses the term malakh Hashem to refer to a human being: "For the lips of a priest guard knowledge… For he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts" (Malakh Hashem Zeva'ot).  Although this verse is not cited in our midrash, it is quoted in a parallel passage later in Vayikra Rabba (21:12).


The upshot of all of this is that from perspective of modern scholarship, the usage of the phrase malakh Hashem to refer to human prophets most likely did not emerge until after the destruction of the First Temple.  In Biblical works that predate this period, it would be best to assume that the malakh Hashem refers to a divine angel and not a human being. 


However, Chazal read the Tanakh through a very different lens.  In their view, all of the books of the Bible form a single unity, and there cannot be distinction between the various types of Hebrew in which they were written.  Any verse or phrase in the Tanakh can be used to explain or enlighten any other.  All of the verses cited here collectively enlighten one another; they generate a general principle that allows Chazal to read virtually any use of the term malakh Hashem as referring to either an angel or a prophet. 


Along with this interpretive point, the midrash also develops a larger theological theme: The difference between humans and angels is not always as great as it would seem.  The greatest of human beings, the prophets, are in fact comparable, and perhaps even interchangeable with the angels.


            We will examine the second half of the petichta next week.