Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Torah begins with the letter Bet

The first pasuk in the Torah:

א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Why does the Torah begin with a bet, and not with an aleph? Simple. Because the pasuk wouldn't make any sense if the first word were אראשית! ;)

Seriously, though, this is a question addressed in Bereishit Rabba 1:10, where it is phrased as why the world was created with a bet (rather than an aleph):
רבי יונה בשם ר' לוי אמר:
למה נברא העולם בב'? ש
אלא מה ב' זה סתום מכל צדדיו ופתוח מלפניו, כך אין לך רשות לומר מה למטה מה למעלה, מה לפנים מה לאחור, אלא מיום שנברא העולם ולהבא.

בר קפרא אמר:
ש(דברים ד) כי שאל נא לימים ראשונים אשר היו לפניך. ש
למן היום שנבראו אתה דורש, ואי אתה דורש לפנים מכאן.
(שם) ולמקצה השמים ועד קצה השמים, אתה דורש וחוקר, ואי אתה חוקר לפנים.

מכאן דרש רבי יהודה בן פזי:
במעשה בראשית בהדיה דבר קפרא:
למה נברא העולם בב'? ש
להודיעך, שהן שני עולמים העוה"ז והעוה"ב..ש

דבר אחר:
ולמה בב'? ש
שהוא לשון ברכה.

ולמה לא באל"ף? ש
שהוא לשון ארירה.

דבר אחר:
למה לא באל"ף?
שלא ליתן פתחון פה לאפיקורסין לומר, היאך העולם יכול לעמוד שהוא נברא בלשון ארירה?!
אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא, הרי אני בורא אותו בלשון ברכה והלואי יעמוד.

דבר אחר:
למה בב'?
אלא מה ב' זה יש לו שני עוקצין, אחד מלמעלה ואחד מלמטה מאחוריו.

אומרים לב' מי בראך?
והוא מראה בעוקצו מלמעלה ואמר: זה שלמעלה בראני.

ומה שמו?
והוא מראה להן בעוקצו של אחריו ואומר: ה' שמו.

אמר רבי אלעזר בר חנינא בשם ר' אחא:
עשרים וששה דורות היתה האל"ף קורא תגר לפני כסאו של הקדוש ברוך הוא.
אמרה לפניו: רבש"ע אני ראשון של אותיות ולא בראת עולמך בי?!
אמר לה הקב"ה: העולם ומלואו לא נברא אלא בזכות התורה, שנאמר: (משלי ג) ה' בחכמה יסד ארץ וגו'.
למחר אני בא ליתן תורה בסיני, ואיני פותח תחילה אלא בך שנאמר: (שמות כ) אנכי ה' אלהיך.

רבי הושעיא אומר:
למה נקרא שמו אל"ף?
שהוא מסכים מאלף, שנאמר: (תהלים קה) דבר צוה לאלף דור:

Within that list was the letter beis was a lashon of beracha, while aleph was a lashon of arira:
דבר אחר:
ולמה בב'? ש
שהוא לשון ברכה.

ולמה לא באל"ף? ש
שהוא לשון ארירה.
In his Hakdama to his commentary on Torah, Ibn Ezra attacks all the other approaches before
setting out his own. While doing this, he attacks this midrash, writing: "There is also a derash which is good for others, and directs in a way of contemplation the children. For there is a bird which does not see in the day the brightly lit; and in the night it sees, because its eyes are dim; like the derash that the world was created with a bet because of Blessing. And if the matter were so, behold, {Yeshaya 24}

הִנֵּה ה' בּוֹקֵק הָאָרֶץ, וּבוֹלְקָהּ

He makes the earth empty and waste..."

He proceeds to give many other examples of negative words which begin with the letter beis; and then all sorts of other derashot which one can free-associate and create if one so-wishes. (And see Mechokekei Yehuda on it.)

This attack on a midrash Chazal naturally bothers his frum super-commentator, Avi Ezer. And he has good ammunition in this case, because Ibn Ezra appears to contradict himself. Avi Ezer writes:

"Behold, the Rav, in his introduction to the Torah contradicts the midrash which darshens the beginning of the Torah with a bet to place blessing in the creation of Heaven, etc.

Yet, in sefer Tzachot is explained the opposite, for he writes regarding the form of the letters and their meaning, and these are his words: "The Kuf is the opposite of the Truth, and {the word} Kelalah is as witness, etc."

Therefore, I believe the words of many, and complete people, who have decreed and said about many of the words written in the sefer that they are not from him mouth. Rather, strangers have come and profaned it, and erring students have written in his name in order to profane his holy words. And see Michlol, nikud gimel, he writen that what the Rav writes in Mishlei, on על גפי like על גבי, an erring student wrote it. See there.

However, what the author of Ohel Yosef {I don't see it here; perhaps elsewhere?} wishes to make the student correct when he says that one of his students took his words from the first nusach which Ibn Ezra wrote, for all the authors wrote two nuschaot, and he took the latter and left off the former. End quote.

And I don't think so. Rather, in matters which don't touch upon, and oppose, the words of our Sages, but are merely a contradiction in the words of the Rav himself, I will believe the words of the author of Ohel Yosef. However, in matters which contradict our Sages, za"l, as well as in other matter which are not in accordance with religion, I say that an erring and suspect student wrote them in order to render impure his holy words, as is written {Tehillim 52:5}:

ה אָהַבְתָּ רָּע מִטּוֹב; שֶׁקֶר, מִדַּבֵּר צֶדֶק סֶלָה.5 Thou lovest evil more than good; falsehood rather than speaking righteousness. Selah

For the entire trend of the scoffers is to show deviation from a good man, in order that their words be believed by the general public. For the words of the Rav are full of fear {of Heaven} of wisdom, and intelligent instruction."

This does not seem to me to be a very auspicious way of beginning his commentary. While certainly it can sometimes be true, he claims here that he will apply it in the way most convenient to his frum biases! Where the conflict is merely between Ibn Ezra and Ibn Ezra, he will say it was first vs. second nusach; but where it conflicts (additionally?) with what Chazal say, or what Avi Ezer deems frum thought, he will assert that a talmid toeh wrote it.

I am reminded of the reaction of a certain rav in my neighborhood, when my father showed him some introduction of Rambam, about the importance of studying secular subjects. He did not know what to do with it for several minutes, but then, he finally figured it out, and declared that it must be a ziyuf, a forgery! Because the holy Rambam would obviously not say this. And so everything was once again right with the world.

And we see the same thing nowadays, with some rabbis arguing with Rabbi Slifkin. The writings of Rav Shamshon ben Refael Hirsch must be a ziyuf! The writings of Rabbenu Avraham son of the Rambam must be a ziyuf!

There are indeed times where the evidence leads one to the conclusion that something is a forgery. But if it is your natural biases leading you in this direction, and if you previously did not want the source to say X, then one should take caution. Which is why I say this makes for an inauspicious start to the perush.

But Avi Ezer does make a good point. If Ibn Ezra, in his sefer Tzachot be-Dikduk, indeed practices what he decries in this lengthy hakdamah, then we have a contradiction between Ibn Ezra and Ibn Ezra that asks for resolution. And the resolution could be that he simply changed his mind. Or it could be that he didn't write one of the two conflicting texts, but that an erring student wrote it.

But having examined Ibn Ezra's Tzachot beDikduk in detail, I am not convinced that there is a contradiction.

First, let us understand what he says in Tzachot, and then we can contrast it with what he says in his hakdama. In Tzachot, on the letter Kuf, he writes:

Letter Kuf: No letter descends from the line of the writing except Kuf. And behold, it is like an inverted Lamed, and so is its form. And its meaning is the opposite of the truth and the upper matter, and behold קללה is as evidence. And behold, its name is like "ivory and apes" (I Kings 10:24), for its {=the ape's} actions are imaginary {?}, and there is no trust in them. And there is no complaint from the five doubled letters {where the final letter descends} which are long, for they go out my matter of happenstance, and I have already mentioned their secret according to my opinion.

And see the lengthy perush on this provided by Rav Gavriel Hirsch Lippman, on the same page. For example, in saying that Kuf was the opposite of the Truth, this is because the Truth is the uppermost thing upon all the thoughts of man, and the Kuf brings it down, for it goes below the baseline; and the word Kelalah is as testimony and evidence upon this, because Kelalah is the opposite of Berachah, which is founded upon Truth and Faith, which is uppermost of anything, while Kelalah brings it down to a lowly state; and behold the word Kelalah begins with the letter Kuf. And furthermore the import of the word for monkey, etc.

If so, it would indeed seem that Ibn Ezra makes use, as evidence, of the very mechanisms he disparages in his Hakdamah. And so we have conflict.

However, we should also look at letter Lamed, where Ibn Ezra writes something related.

Letter Lamed... And behold I will reveal to you my position. Behold we see that there is no letter in this writing system in our hands which rises above except for the Lamed. And behold its meaning it the Cause of every matter and its Inducement. And there is no wisdom above it; therefore it is called Lamed {teaching}. And once we discover that there is no letter which {phonologically speaking} lifts the tongue somewhat except for the Lamed alone, this is a sign that our writing system is on the way of the Toldot {"after nature"}, except that we do not know the basis of all the letters appropriately because of the deficiency of our knowledge.

Now, from some simple browsing, Ibn Ezra does not do this for other letters, such as Aleph, or Bet, or Gimel. Just in terms of Lamed, and by extension, Kuf. Not because he maintains that there is nothing encoded in the form, phonology, and meaning of the other letters, but because there is deficiency in his and our knowledge.

But now, if we expand upon Ibn Ezra's idea here, we might realize a major distinction between what Ibn Ezra criticizes in his hakdama and what he strives to do in this one place in Tzachot.

To Ibn Ezra's mind, Bet is for Bracha and Aleph is for Arira is entirely arbitrary. It is the same as saying C is for Cookie. There are plenty of other words which start with C, such as Cabbage and Carnival. They didn't establish that there is a connection between C and Cookie. And Chazal seemed to arbitrarily take two words, Bracha and Arira, which opposed each other, and started with these letters. But not that the letter Beis was somehow deeply linked with the concept of Bracha. And to this end, Ibn Ezra showed plenty of other candidates, of negative words starting with Bet.

In sefer Tzachot, that wasn't even his goal at all. He began with the form of the letter, associated with its meaning. After developing it for the ascending letter Lamed, which stood for all things positive and uppermost because its head ascended, and because of its phonology, he developed the opposite idea based on the form of the descending letter Kuf, which was an inverted Lamed; and on the basis of the parallel to apes.

That Kuf started a negative word with the meaning he was trying to develop was somehow evidence to him. Perhaps not as simply a negative word starting with that letter, like "C is for Cookie", but as a concrete example of the letter Kuf playing out the role he had designated for it already given the other evidence. Thus, as a practical example showing the correctness of his theory, rather than the basis.

I would also point out that in the word קללה, it is not just a Kuf but a Kuf followed by two Lameds. And since he had already established the meaning of Lamed and of Kuf, which was the bringing down of that which was already up, we should see this word קללה as the Kuf doing this to the Lameds as he describes, in a way that matches well to the meaning of the word.

This is a far cry from an arbitrary choosing of a positive and negative word, respectively, which start with the letters under consideration.

To sum up, I don't think that there really is a contradiction between Ibn Ezra in his hakdama and Ibn Ezra in Tzachot. And if I have not already removed entirely the contradiction by clearly elucidating Ibn Ezra's precise meaning, I believe I presented enough evidence to raise a reasonable doubt, such that it is extremely credible that were Ibn Ezra here to give full account, he could resolve any apparent contradictions arising from his various works. And I don't know of any manuscript evidence to support the assertion that this was inserted into his work. The contradiction is likely only in the minds of his supercommentators, who should not be in such a hurry to attribute his "heretical" words to the hand of an erring student.


Anonymous said...

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a bet is just a bet.

joshwaxman said...

wanna bet?


Ariella said...

See the Maharal's profound argument on this point. There are many levels to understanding Torah. There is simple pshat (which itself deserves study) , but that is not the sume of all Torah.

On a lighter note: the Torah, obviously, has to begin with Bet as a nod to Brisk, and Bet is 2 because the Brisker approach is to come up with analytical dichotomies. Here's the proof that is min haTorah. Kidding, kidding!


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