Friday, August 15, 2008

A Tale of Two Elokims -- Is Elohim Holy or Profane?

In perek 4 of Devarim, there are two pesukim which talk about "Elohim" in ways that perhaps imply the existence of other gods. Though not really, when you come to really think about it, as we will discuss. The first is Devarim 4:7 and the second is Devarim 4:36.

The first one, pictured to the right (and available here) asks what nation is so great that it has "Elohim" close to him, like Hashem our God every time we call to him.

This could be interpreted as discussing the special relationship that Israel has with the One and Only God. The plural of kerovim to match Elohim is fine, since it is grammatical rather than connoting anything on the semantic level, and Elohim can be plural because of baalus. However, by the use of this plural and the contrast with the singular at the end of the pasuk and the use of the name YKVK there, it seems fairly clear on the level of peshat that this is Elohim rather than Elokim -- it is chol rather than kodesh. And so we see in Targum Onkelos, in Targum Yonatan, Targum Yerushalmi, and in Ibn Ezra.

How can we, chas veshalom, do this comparison?! Does a comparison not imply that these other gods exist? Not really. Hashem is the God of Israel, and other nations think they have gods. But we see that these gods are figments of their imagination, and that they are not close -- in that they do not respond to individual prayer.

Shadal appears to write it as Elokim with a kuf,

ז ] המצוות שני מינים , בין אדם לחברו ובין אדם למקום . על הראשונות יאמרו : רק עם חכם ונבון , יען מי גוי גדול אשר לו חוקים ומשפטים צדיקים וגו ', והשניות לא יבינו הגויים את טעמיהם , אבל יראו כי בשמירתן השגחת ה ' דבקה בישראל : כי מי גוי גדול אשר לו אלקים קרובים אליו וגו

but I do not think we can trust it, as we will see soon.

The next interesting occurrence is in Devarim 4:34, pictured to the right. (See here.) Once again, one could draw a contrast of the word Elohim and speaking in the general case in the first half of the pasuk, to YKVK Elokim with Hashem's actions on behalf of Israel in the second. Then, just as we read this contrast in 4:7, we should be able to read this contrast into 4:34.

But Ibn Ezra says that there are those who say it is lashon chol -- that is, referring to gods with a lowercase g, but chalila chalila -- forfend! Rather, it is referring to Hashem. Thus, Ibn Ezra finds something theologically troubling with this instance, even though he did not find anything theologically troubling with Devarim 4:7. What is the difference?

I would venture that this pasuk is discussing extent of action, rather than the basic question of whether the god listens to prayer. The implication may then be that these gods do exist, and do have some power, but not to the extent of being able to take one nation out of another nation.

Therefore, the question must refer even in the former case to Hashem. See Seforno for how to read this: "Even though it happens for a single individual or for several individuals that they are saved from amongst evildoers, even so this does not happen in general {perhaps to a wider group of people}."

I don't think Seforno intended that the deities of the nations are capable of saving individuals. Rather, I believe he agrees with Ibn Ezra, that the first Elohim is Elokim. Thus, this is speaking of Hashem's special love for Israel. In general, it does not occur that Hashem takes one nation out from another nation. This was a special, big deal that Hashem did.

Perhaps we can say that he agrees that it refers to gods. That is, in general it occurs by random chance. He says kara. And people would attribute it to their god. But the grand scale of this salvation of Israel makes clear that it is the actions of God.

The Targumim seem to take it almost not as a question, but rather referring even in the first half of the pasuk specifically to Hashem, and to Hashem's miracles in saving Israel -- thus rather than treating hanissa as "Has God {or a god} attempted," they take it as nissim, miracles.

In contrast, Rashi writes:
Or has any god performed miracles Heb. הֲנִסָּה אלֹהִים. Has any god performed miracles (נִסִּים) ?
Thus, he takes the position of the Targumim in terms of hanissa, but reads Elohim as profane, referring to the gods of the nations. Ibn Ezra says chalila! to Rashi.

See how great a deed Hashem did for us. This proves God's power, and His existence. The gods of the nations have never had such a miracle ascribed to them. And perhaps we can even apply something akin to the Kuzari Principle in interpreting the intent of this pasuk.

Shadal writes on this

לד ] או הנסה אלקים : אין ספק שהוא חול , כדעת רש"י ורמבמ"ן , ולפיניהם דונש בן לברט בהשגותיו על רבינו סעדיה הנמצאות בידי בכ " י . ובדברי ראב " ע בספר שפת יתר סימן ק " א נפלו טעויות סופר והשמטת מילות , אשר בגללן אין לסימן ההוא הבנה .

, that is, that there is no doubt that this Elohim is the profane one, in accordance with Rashi and Mendelssohn. Note the dibbur hamatchil has אלקים, even though Shadal is declaring the name to be chol.

I would add that Chazal have a list of Elohim which are profane -- in Shavuot daf 35, in masechet Soferim, and in the first perek of Yerushalmi Megillah -- and this instance is not listed among them.

In saying "there is no doubt," Shadal is actually echoing Dunash Ibn Labrat in countering the position of Rav Saadiah Gaon.

Berliner's comment on Rashi includes much of this, and so is worthwhile to repeat here. See picture.


Anonymous said...

In 4:34, "Elokim" gets verbs in the single not plural form. If it meant "gods" it should be in plural, right?

joshwaxman said...

I am not so sure of that.

Certainly where the verbs are *plural,* we should expect that it means multiple gods and thus not refer to Hashem. (though there are certain cases where we can claim is is just following the syntactic form from the plural of Baalus.)

However, what you are possibly suggesting here is the opposite -- that singular verbs should tell us it refers to Hashem. This is not so. After all, why in the case of Hashem does it have a plural form for the noun and singular for the verb? Because it is a single deity -- Hashem -- and yet the noun takes a plural form because of adnus (just as "Baalav" means "his owner" rather than owners).

But the same would be true for any other single deity. Thus, we see in I Kings 11:33:
יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עֲזָבוּנִי, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְעַשְׁתֹּרֶת אֱלֹהֵי צִדֹנִין, לִכְמוֹשׁ אֱלֹהֵי מוֹאָב, וּלְמִלְכֹּם אֱלֹהֵי בְנֵי-עַמּוֹן; וְלֹא-הָלְכוּ בִדְרָכַי, לַעֲשׂוֹת הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינַי וְחֻקֹּתַי וּמִשְׁפָּטַי--כְּדָוִד אָבִיו.
These are individual deities -- each one is a god of its respective nation. There is only one Kemosh mentioned. And yet it is called Elohei, because it is the plurality of adnus.

Such individual deities should have verbs in the singular rather than plural. And that is why Rashi (in translation) has it as "has any god," in singular with a lowercase g. My guess is that this is how Rashi and Shadal understand this pasuk.

Also, please choose a pseudonym so I can distinguish in case others comment.

Kol Tuv,

Anonymous said...

From Rashdal fan
Thanks for the post !
can you post that berliner image bigger its hard to see I want to see more on that topic...also keep bringing Dunash stuff on the parsha

joshwaxman said...

i have a link to Berliner at this source roundup post,
from two online versions, such that you can scroll and zoom in.

shabbat shalom,


Blog Widget by LinkWithin