Shiur #04: Vayikra Rabba 1:2 (Part 1 of 2)

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

The second petichta in parasha 1 of Vayikra Rabba opens with a petichta verse from Hosea 14:8. Before embarking on the midrash’s detailed interpretation of the verse, it is best to take a look at the entire verse in its original context. Hosea 14:6-8 reads as follows:


6) I will be to Israel like dew;

he shall blossom like the lily,

he shall strike root like a (tree of) Lebanon.

7) His boughs shall spread out far,

his beauty shall be like an olive tree’s,

his fragrance like that of Lebanon.

8) They who sit in his shade shall be revived;

they shall bring to life new grain,

they shall blossom like the vine;

His scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon. 


These verses are part of the famous closing section of Hosea that starts Shuva Yisrael, “Return O Israel,” and which is read in the synagogue as the haftara for the Shabbat between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur. This particular passage describes God’s reward to Israel when they repent. God compares Himself to life-giving dew, while Israel is compared to various trees and plants that are nurtured by it. Each verse ends with the word “Lebanon,” recalling the towering trees and lush vegetation of the area just to the north of the Land of Israel.


In verse eight, another group is introduced, those who “sit in his shade,” who “shall be revived.” The next two clauses of the verse are a little unclear.  The most straightforward reading is reflected in the translation: they shall grow grain and flourish like a grape vine.  There are several slightly problematic aspects of this reading. First, why would someone grow grain in the shadow of a tree? Second, “grain” and “vine” appear to be a pair, reflecting the basics of life, bread and wine. Yet “grain” in this reading is meant literally, while “vine” is used only as a simile for growth and success. Such a shift is, at the very least, confusing. Furthermore, if the dew represents God and the trees and plants represent Israel, who do these people who rest in the tree’s shade represent? Finally, why is it that they (whoever they are) are not compared to the vine, just as Israel is compared to other types of trees in the previous verses?


This petichta is a good example of the fact that darshanim tend to favor verses which are difficult on a peshat level. They latch onto and exploit the ambiguities and difficulties in the text and use them to generate new and original meanings from the verse under consideration. In this case, the darshan will seek to deal with the problems in Hosea 14:8 that we have just raised.  The petichta opens:


I.  Explication of petichta verse - the status of convert


R. Abahu opened [his discourse with the text],

They who sit in his shade shall be revived (Hosea 14:8). 

These are the proselytes who come and take shelter under the shadow of the Holy One, blessed be He. 

They shall bring to life new grain (ibid.):

They become the root just like Israel,

even as thou sayest,

Corn shall make the young men flourish, and wine the maids (Zechariah 9:17),

And they shall blossom like the vine (Hosea loc. cit.),

even as thou sayest,

Thou didst pluck up a vine out of Egypt;

Thou didst drive out the nations and didst plant it (Psalms 80:9). 


R. Abahu identifies the individuals who sit in the tree’s shade as converts to Judaism. He also reinterprets the metaphoric scheme of the verse. Despite the fact that in previous verses it is Israel who is referred to as a tree, in R. Abahu’s interpretation, the shade-giving tree refers not to Israel but to God.  Generally speaking, in Biblical and rabbinic language it is God who is referred to as giving protective cover to humans.  Thus in Isaiah 4:5-6 we read: “Indeed, over all the glory shall hang a canopy which shall serve as a pavilion for shade from heat by day and as a shelter for protection against drenching rain.” When read in the context of the verses that immediately precede it, this verse refers to Israel. However, when considered in the larger context of Biblical and rabbinic imagery and notions of God, we can easily see why R. Abahu prefers to understand this verse as referring to God. Indeed, once this verse has been isolated from its context, it does not necessarily refer to God as a tree, which is a rather anomalous image. (Trees in the Bible and rabbinic literature tend to be metaphors for humans, e.g.  Jeremiah 17:8, “He shall be like a planted tree by the waters.”) Rather, it simply refers to “His shade." God can be called a giver of shade without being compared to a tree.


We can now understand a little better why R. Abahu identifies those who take shelter under the tree as converts.  God’s relationship with converts is regularly described using this very image of God as a giver of shelter. Converts are called those who “take shelter under his wings,” a phrase which has it origins in Boaz’s words to Ruth (Ruth 2:12). Once we have established that this verse describes God as one who provides shelter to those in need, it is hardly a big jump to conclude that the people receiving this shelter are converts.


R. Abahu then goes on to interpret the rest of the verse.  He states that it means that converts become essential parts of Israel. There can be no distinction between those who are born Jews and those who convert. In order to allow the verse to yield this meaning, R. Abahu must assume an original interpretation of the verse. He determines that both the words dagan and gefen are meant as similes. The verse is best translated as, “They shall be brought to life like new grain, they shall blossom like the vine.” Furthermore he understands both of these terms as being metaphors for Israel. He brings two proof-texts, from Zechariah and Psalms, to demonstrate that this fact. Dagan and gefen thus serve as metaphors both for converts and for the people of Israel as a whole. R. Abahu’s conclusion is that converts must therefore be an integral part of the people of the Israel.


We can now suggest a further reason why R. Abahu interprets the verse as referring to converts. We have already noticed a certain instability in the verse’s metaphorical structure, especially if, like R. Abahu, we read both the second and third parts of the verse symbolically. At first, it is Israel who is compared to trees and other things that grow. In the context of this image, the verse refers to those who sit under the tree’s shade. Suddenly those very shade-seekers are themselves referred to using vegetative imagery. It may be this transformation that inspired R. Abahu to interpret these verses as referring to the transformation of converts from gentiles who dwell among the Jews into full-fledged members of the Jewish people.


The second proof-text in this section requires further attention. The Psalms verse makes reference to the foundational events of Jewish history. It describes God taking Israel out of Egypt and bringing them to the Promised Land. It does so using a metaphor of a vine which is uprooted and replanted elsewhere.  One might think that converts cannot be considered full Jews because their ancestors did not experience either the Exodus or the entry into the Land. They are not a part of the historical experience which is so crucial to Israel’s relationship with God.  Our midrash counters this idea by citing this verse as part of a proof to the equality of all Jews, born and converted.


II.  Parenthetical comment


Another interpretation:


They shall bring to life new grain (Hosea loc. cit.):

This speaks of Talmud;

And they shall blossom like the vine,

This speaks of Aggada.


The midrash now offers an alternate interpretation of the words dagan and gefen in the petichta verse. Rather than referring to Israel, they refer to Torah. More specifically, the midrash argues that dagan and gefen are each associated with one of the two basic categories of Torah, Talmud (which here seems to refer to the advanced study of Halakha) and Aggada. This pair of metaphors suggests the Rabbis’ understanding of the relationship between these two types of Torah study. Bread, which comes from dagan, is the staple of a person’s physical diet. So too, the intensive study of Halakha provides a Jew with his primary spiritual subsistence. Wine, on the other hand, is perhaps not essential to a person’s diet. However, it is the most prestigious of beverages, associated with joy and celebration. Similarly, Aggada may not be as crucial to our day-to-day existence as is Talmud, but it possesses a certain quality of religious experience and insight which cannot be achieved by living on Talmud alone.  Just as a full physical life needs both bread and wine, a full religious life requires study of both Talmud and Aggada (see Maharzu).


The question remains, who are they that satiate themselves through Torah study? If we follow the context of the petichta, it is the converts who engage in Torah study. This interpretation is suggested by Mirkin. Margoliot, on the other hand, sees this passage as a parenthetical comment, introducing an independent interpretation of the verse. He cites several other midrashic sources in which similar interpretations are brought without any reference to converts. Rather, this interpretation refers to all of Israel, and talmidei chakhamim in particular. They merit sitting under God’s protective “shade” and study Torah thoroughly and exhaustively. I tend to favor this reading, since, in the writings of Chazal, converts are not generally known for their knowledge of Torah (Onkelos being a notable exception).


Just because we see a passage as a parenthetical comment, a comment which is not an integral part of the petichta’s narrative development, does not exempt us from interpreting the passage in its current context. Now that this interpretation of the verse as referring to Torah study has been juxtaposed with an understanding of the verse as referring to converts, we must consider the relationship between these two readings. My sense is that the midrash intends to show that the same verse that discusses God’s rewards to the righteous can refer to both converts and talmidei chakhamim. The midrash implies that the merits of converts are equal to those of who study Torah, and vice versa.


III. The end of the petichta verse: Converts and the Temple



The mention thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said:

'The names of proselytes are as pleasing to Me

as the wine of libation which is offered to Me on the altar;'



and why is the latter called 'Lebanon?'

1) In accordance with the verse,

That goodly mountain and the Lebanon (Deut. 3:23). 

2) R. Simeon b. Yohai taught:

Why is the name thereof called 'Lebanon'?

Because it makes white (malbin) the sins of Israel –

this is indicated by what is written,

Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white (yalbinu) as snow;

though they be red like crimson, they shall be as [white as] wool (Isa.  1:18). 

3) R. Tabyomi said:

Because all hearts (levavot) rejoice thereat;

this is indicated by what is written,

Fair in situation, the joy of the whole earth, even Mount Zion, etc. (Ps.  48:3). 

4) The Rabbis say: Because [of the Scriptural passage],

My eyes [enayim (from ayin)] and My heart [libbi (from lev)] shall be there perpetually (I Kings 9:3).


The petichta has now arrived at the last section of the verse. It interprets these words as comparing the convert’s name to the wine libations in the Temple. In order to understand how the midrash comes to this conclusion, we must focus on how it interprets the individual words in the verse. First, the word zikhro. The word literally means “remembrance.” Ibn Ezra understands it to mean “scent.” However, the midrash understands the word to mean “name." This is a meaning that appears elsewhere in the Bible, as in God’s famous word’s to Moshe at the burning bush: “This is My name forever, this My appellation (zikhri) for all eternity” (Exodus 3:15). Second, the midrash understands the word levanon not as the mountainous and wooded region to Israel’s north, located in the modern Republic of Lebanon, but rather as referring to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  The final lines of this section of the midrash are devoted to explicating this claim. We will deal with them shortly. For now, it is important to point out that the interpretation of the word levanon as referring to the Temple is among that most common and consistent midrashic tropes in all of rabbinic literature. The trained reader of midrash will identify this word with the Temple almost as a reflex.


If “levanon” means the Temple, what then is the “wine of the Temple”? The most prominent wine in the Temple was that which was used for the wine libations poured on the altar to accompany the animal sacrifices. The basis of the midrash’s understanding that this verse is comparing converts to the wine libations in the Temple is now clear. Converts are not only integral parts of the people of Israel, they are exalted before God in a way that born-Jews are not. Their place is, metaphorically, on the altar itself.  Their sacrifice in leaving behind their families and communities to join a people whose political and economic circumstances were hardly favorable (in fact, in some periods conversion to Judaism was a capital office in the Roman empire) are likened to the sacrifices offered to God in the Temple. In the absence of the Temple, converts should thus be especially cherished. 


The rest of this section is devoted to an explication of the identification of the term levanon with the Temple in Jerusalem.  The midrash presents four different explanations. 


The first explanation is based on Deuteronomy 3:25, which comes at the end of Moshe’s entreaty to God to let him enter the Promised Land. Like many proof-texts selected by the rabbis, the meaning of this verse is difficult even at the most basic peshat level. Translated literally it reads, “Let me please cross over and see the good land which is on the other side of the Jordan: This good mountain and the Lebanon.” The first half of the verse is clear. Moshe wants to cross the Jordan River and enter the “good land.” The verse goes on to give more details about this land, referring to “the good mountain” and “Lebanon."  This raises some difficult questions: What and where is the “good mountain”? Why does Moshe mention Lebanon which, as we have noted, is not part of the Land of Israel, but to the north of it? One likely interpretation of the term “the good mountain” is that the word “mountain” is a collective noun referring to a mountainous region.  JPS thus translates the term as “the good hill country,” presumably the region of Judea and Samaria which is at the heart of the Land of Israel. One possible explanation of the use of the term “Lebanon” is that in this case it refers more generally to the northern regions of the Land of Israel, including the area that is know to day as the Galilee. In this reading Moshe refers to two major parts of the Land of Israel.


To a midrashic eye, another reading, one with far more theological import, emerges. For the Rabbis there is only one mountain of true significance in the Land of Israel, the Temple Mount. Thus “the good mountain” must refer to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Once we have established that the “good mountain” refers to the place of the Temple, there is good reason to interpret “Lebanon” along similar lines. Hence levanon means the Temple. Of course the Temple was not yet built in Moshe’s day. Perhaps this interpretation suggests a desire on the part of Moshe to enter the Land and build the Temple himself.


In reading the verse this way, the midrash presents a very different geography of the Land than is presented in the simple meaning of the verse. As we interpreted peshat in the verse, Israel is presented as a lush and fertile land of hills and valleys. According to the midrash, the Land of Israel’s fundamental significance is that at its heart lie Jerusalem and the Temple. It is important to note that the Pentateuch never mentions Jerusalem by name and it is only in Deuteronomy that the Temple Mount is referred to cryptically as “the place which God shall choose.” This is indeed problematic, given the centrality of Jerusalem and the Temple in much of the rest of the Bible and in the teachings of the rabbis. In finding an explicit reference to the Jerusalem Temple and its centrality in Moshe’s own words, the midrash is able to demonstrate that there is no discrepancy between the teachings of Moshe and those of the prophets and the rabbis. 


The next explanation of the term levanon is suggested by R. Shimon b. Yochai. He sees the word lavan, white, at the root of levanon. White is of course a symbol of purity. R. Shimon thus explains this sobriquet as reflecting the power of the Temple ritual to purify Israel of its sins. He cites the verse from Isaiah (1:18) “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as [white as] wool.” I do not know what to make of the ironic fact that in this passage the prophet is in fact attacking those who believe in the foolproof efficacy of Temple ritual. Isaiah emphasizes that redemption will come only through acts of mercy and justice, not through sacrifices.


The last two interpretations see the word lev, “heart,” as the ultimate root of levanon. However, they present two different applications of this approach. According to R. Tivyumi, the “heart” in question is the hearts of all Israel. Since the heart is the seat of the emotions, the term levanon refers to the great joy that Temple instills in the hearts of the people. The verse from Psalms which is cited as a prooftext describes the rejoicing associated with the Temple. In contrast, the Rabbis understand the lev in levanon as referring to God’s heart. There is in fact a biblical verse which explicitly refers to God’s heart in connection with the Temple. After Solomon completes the Temple, God appears to him and says, “My eyes and My heart shall be there perpetually” (I Kings 9:3). According to this understanding, the term levanon refers to the constant attention and concern that God devotes to the Temple.


Taken collectively, these explanations of levanon paint a picture of the greatness of the Temple. The Temple was the place that Moses himself yearned for. It has the capacity to erase our sins and bring great joy to the world. Finally, it is the place on earth to which God feels closest. In expanding our appreciation of the Temple, the midrash also magnifies the merit of the convert. If the convert’s actions are as great as the libation in the Temple, to a certain degree, he too is source of joy to God and man, a cause of expiation of sins, and the focus of divine attention.


This section of the midrash (1:2) has now come to a close.  The petichta has offered a complete interpretation of the petichta verse (Hosea 14:8), yet it has not brought us to the parasha verse, which in this case should be Leviticus 1:1, as in the previous petichta. If we look forward to section 3 we will find that, though it does not start with the standard opening formulation of a petichta  (Rabbi “X” patach:), it moves on to explicate an apparently unrelated verse from Chronicles. It would appear, then, that Vayikra Rabba 1:2 is a sort of “broken” petichta, which starts with a petichta verse but never makes it to the parasha verse. However, if we read the next section to the end, we will see that it does in fact end with the parasha verse, Leviticus 1:1. Furthermore, section 3 also concludes with a variation on the main theme of section 2, the greatness and importance of converts. Sections 2 and 3 are thus a single unit which presents an extended petichta form. What is unusual about this petichta is that it does not follow its interpretation of the petichta verse all the way to its arrival at the parasha verse at the end. Rather, having concluded its discussion of the petichta verse, the midrash selects another verse to interpret.  It is only at the conclusion of this second set of explications where we finally arrive at the parasha verse. 


In the next lecture we move on to section 3 and conclude our study of this petichta.