Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mishpatim: The implications of refraining from commenting

Summary: Several pashtanim pointedly refrain from offering commentary on the Torah's legal codes, despite their innovation elsewhere. Rather, they endorse the traditional halachic conclusions. Examples: Ibn Ezra, Ibn Caspi. What does this mean, hashkafically speaking? And what could this tell us about their divergence in the case of midrash aggadah?

Post: Towards the beginning of Ibn Caspi's commentary on parashat Mishpatim, regarding amah ivriyah, he writes:

And when a man sells his daughter -- there is not in my ability to explain the statements relating to mitzvot as compelled based on the nature of the language, for if I do this {explain based on this methodology}, I would innovate mitzvot and change from the coinage that the Sages of the Talmud coined. And behold, the custom of our fathers is in our hands, and we will humble ourselves to their explanation; and also, we among them shall be like one of them. Therefore, if I am rather brief in the matter of the mitzvot, delve into the Talmud, or into the commentary of Rashi za"l. But in matters aside from the mitzvot I will not show favoritism to any man, and the truth will make its way.

Contrast this with Rashbam's introductory remarks to Mishpatim:

ואלה המשפטים -ידעו ויבינו יודעי שכל כי לא באתי לפרש הלכות אף על פי שהם עיקר כמו שפירשתי בבראשית, כי מיתור המקראות נשמעים ההגדות והלכות ומקצתן ימצאו בפירושי רבינו שלמה אבי אמי זצ"ל.
ואני לפרש פשוטן של מקראות באתי ואפרש הדינים וההלכות לפי דרך ארץ. ואעפ"כ ההלכות עיקר, כמו שאמרו רבותינו: הלכה עוקרת משנה. לשש שנים יצא ביובל. ויש שנותן חילוק ביניהם. 
Rashbam does the opposite, establishing the halachot as primary and yet explaining what he sees to be the peshat. See his commentary for details.

But Ibn Caspi does not just say once that he will not comment. Rather, he says this a few times. Thus, on

יח  וְכִי-יְרִיבֻן אֲנָשִׁים--וְהִכָּה-אִישׁ אֶת-רֵעֵהוּ, בְּאֶבֶן אוֹ בְאֶגְרֹף; וְלֹא יָמוּת, וְנָפַל לְמִשְׁכָּב.18 And if men contend, and one smite the other with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keep his bed;

Ibn Caspi writes:

באגרף . הוא היד הכפופה, ולא אוכל לפרש עוד בזה
להיותי נוגע במצות

and then on:

כ  וְכִי-יַכֶּה אִישׁ אֶת-עַבְדּוֹ אוֹ אֶת-אֲמָתוֹ, בַּשֵּׁבֶט, וּמֵת, תַּחַת יָדוֹ--נָקֹם, יִנָּקֵם.20 And if a man smite his bondman, or his bondwoman, with a rod, and he die under his hand, he shall surely be punished.

he writes:

וכי  יכה איש את עבדו וג'. יעויין בתלמוד, כי בזה
ובבא אחריו די לנו כונתנו , אם היה הרשות בידינו
נפרשנו, לכן נעזוב הכל, עד אמרו כג (יט) לא תבשל גדי
בחלב אמו , יעויין הכל בפרוש רש"י ובספרי התלמוד
ובפרוש החכם א"ע , כי לא אוכל לחדש דבר , ולא
ארצה להעתיק מה שאמרו אשר לפני ודי בזה:

Then, on perek 23, on the pasuk:

כה  וַעֲבַדְתֶּם, אֵת ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וּבֵרַךְ אֶת-לַחְמְךָ, וְאֶת-מֵימֶיךָ; וַהֲסִרֹתִי מַחֲלָה, מִקִּרְבֶּךָ.  {ס}25 And ye shall serve the LORD your God, and He will bless thy bread, and thy water; and I will take sickness away from the midst of thee. {S}

Ibn Caspi writes:

ועבדתם את י״י אלהיכם וברך את לחמך, היטיבי
בזה א״ע יעויין בספרו, כי אין רצוני לשנות בספרי זה מה שפרשו
הקודמים והיטיבו בו:

But by not commenting, and saying he is not commenting, he is in fact commenting. For simple matters, such as "Hashem said to Moshe saying", there would be no need to plead the Fifth. Rather, in each of these cases, it appears that he would have liked to have said something which would be neged Chazal, but does not feel that he is entitled to say so. (Or perhaps to say so openly.) And while Ibn Ezra's approach in Mishpatim (against Karaites) is to defend Chazal and show how their interpretations work out with the words of the pesukim, Ibn Caspi does not do all of this. In part, it is his reluctance to simply repeat that which others have said before him. He has said elsewhere in his commentary that he does not intend for his work to be a compendium of earlier sources. If you want to know what they say, read those other sefarim! Rather, he will usually just give his own novelties. And here, he does not feel like he can have novelties, or else that he cannot share them.

In all these places, it seems that his sense of the teva halashon, and that which is compelled by it, is not the same as all the derashot which Chazal produced, or even what we take as the pashut peshat meaning of these verses. Does that mean that he thinks that they are false? Not necessarily. It could be that the methodology in play is simply a different one than the one Ibn Caspi typically uses. Midrash halacha uses a different set of tools (kelal and perat, gezeira shava, etc.) than the tools of the typical pashtan. And this is fine.

On the other hand, he speaks about not showing favoritism when it comes to matters of narrative, and that ha'emet yaaseh darko. Does he really feel that this is not happening when it comes to midrash aggadah, and that existing practice and minhag avoteinu be-yadeinu supersedes that? I think there might be two ways of reading all this.

There is, of course, the idea that diverging from Chazal in halachic matters makes for a different religion, or sect. See what happened with the Karaites. That is why is is so important not to diverge in halachic matters. But that may well mean that all these meforshim who draw such a distinction effectively maintain that there is not usually pesak (based on consensus or tradition) in matters of hashkafah. Thus, in halacha they would be apikorsim to differ from Chazal. But in explaining the narrative sections, they can differ. (We might also say that it is easier to label a midrash aggadah as allegorical; do that for a midrash halacha and you have undermined the practical halacha!)

It would be interesting and fruitful to consider each of these notes of Ibn Caspi and figure out just what is troubling him in each case -- and what he would likely have proposed in each case. That is not the goal of this post. We are focused here on methodology rather than content.

In terms of Ibn Ezra on Mishpatim, he also generally gives the traditional explanation. One example:

ואם אמר -כבר פרשוה קדמונינו:
כי לא יהיה נרצע עד שיהיו בו כל אלה הדברים, עד כי אהבך ואת ביתך.

and another:

ומלת לעם נכרי 
עם זה הפסוק היא דבקה. כי על האב ידבר לעם נכרי. לא ימשול למכרה בבגדו בה. כמו: מדוע נבגד איש באחיו.
ואמת ונכון הוא, כי אין רשות לאדון למכרה לאיש מישראל. וזה ידענו מהקבלה ושמו זה לזכר ולאסמכתא. ואל תתמה בעבור מרחק לעם נוכרי מזה הפסוק. כי כמוהו: שלם ישלם כאשר אפרש.

about how it binds at a distance. Though I am not focused here on content, but on methodology.

On an earlier parashah, some of Ibn Ezra's supercommentators gave a defense of Ibn Ezra. In terms of the purpose of Maror, Ibn Ezra had said that he would not divert from the words of Chazal. That is, Ibn Ezra wrote:

על מרורים יאכלוהו -
אמר אחד מחכמי ספרד:

ידוע כי הליחה תגבר בארץ מצרים בעבור מימי היאור ובעבור שלא ירד שם גשם, כי האויר הוא לח תמיד. על כן מנהגם היה לאכול בכל שלחנם מיני מרורים רבים מעשבים וחרדל ואפילו לא יהיה למצרי אלא פת לבדה, לעולם המרורים יהיו על שלחנו לטבול בו הפת, כי הם רפואה לאוירם.
ואנחנו נסמוך על דעת קדמוננו ז"ל שפירשו לנו, כי המרורים זכר לוימררו את חייהם
and Ohel Yosef wrote:
"And we rely on the position of those before us, zal -- to explain, that our rabbis received from the first forefathers, that Moshe said that Hashem commanded that the maror be eaten in token of how the Egyptians embittered the lives of our fathers, as they darshened in the end of masechet Pesachim {116b}. We rely upon them just as we do in all the commandments.
Yosef the supercommentator said: This should also be evidence regarding Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra that he relied upon the words of Chazal and leaned upon their explanations in all the commandments, and he never differed with them in explaining the commandments; rather, he explained the peshat upon every verse when it was narrative, rather than commandment. But upon explaining the commandments, he relied upon our holy fathers. And those who say negative things against him should guard their mouths with a muzzle."
But I am not so convinced that this is precisely so. And there, I gave counter-examples. For example, the prohibition of razors; peru urevu; mimacharat ha-Shabbat. Yet Ibn Ezra's conduct in parshat Mishpatim should make clear that he does not really divert from Chazal's conclusions. What shall I make of this?

I would suggest that the picture is much more complicated. Ibn Ezra indeed agrees with Chazal's conclusions, but may get there in different ways. In terms of Pru Urvu, he holds it is not the meaning of the pasuk, but that it was an institution by Chazal. In terms of Shabbat as from erev to erev, he holds it is point to point, but the extension until bein haShemashot is tosefet Shabbat. In terms of mimacharat haShabbat, he holds that the Karaites are right, but just for that year, and as an example, but really it is any day the religious Jewish leadership would set, and subsequently, Chazal indeed set it. Indeed, see above. Ibn Ezra wrote:

ואמת ונכון הוא, כי אין רשות לאדון למכרה לאיש מישראל. וזה ידענו מהקבלה ושמו זה לזכר ולאסמכתא

That is, he doesn't think, based on the teva halashon, that Chazal's derasha is the true meaning of the pasuk.  Even so, it is practically correct. It is Oral Law, entirely aside from the written law, and Chazal did not mean to derive it seriously, but only to serve as a hint and reminder to the absolutely true law.

The Vilna Gaon, as we will see, be-ezrat Hashem, in Aderet Eliyahu takes a very different and fascinating approach.


Jeremy said...

Rabbi M. Cohen, one of the great Tanach teachers in YU, always explained the difference between Ibn Ezra (Spanish)'s pshat and Rashbam (France)'s pshat as having this Nafka Mina.

For Rashbam, who understands that there is a Rashi, who gives the midrashic interpretation, he can feel free to give his pshat-based commentary, and even contradict the halakhic drashot of chazal, because he knows that there are two levels. He's talking about pshat in the pasuk, while the halakhot are derived from the drash.

But for Ibn Ezra, there's only one level on meaning in the text, and that's the pshat (midrashim may stem from the text, but cannot be seen as a true interpretation of it). Therefore, if this pshat would contradict an explanation we know to be true (namely, the halakhic interpretations of Chazal), he sees that as problematic.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. that paradigm makes good sense.

(on the other hand, ibn caspi is from france, and he is afraid to diverge, though he does refer us to rashi; and i suspect that he doubted the veracity of some of it. on the other hand, he did travel about a lot.)


Jeremy said...

The truth is, that I didn't refer to Ibn Kasspi because I'm not familiar with his perush (and he certainly wasn't included in M. Cohen's Intro to Bible (Exegesis)).

Where can I find his perush?
And why is someone with such a Spanish sounding name from France?

joshwaxman said...

hebrewbooks has it; i often link to it.

good point about the name. ibn in this case refers to his hometown, Largentière, in south-eastern france; but while he was born and died in france, he did travel around to some spanish areas. and he pays a lot of heed to Ibn Ezra.


Lurker said...

Why look to Rashbam for an example of a medieval parshan who offers pshat interpretations as alternatives to midrashei halakha of Haza"l? (Or at least, why look to him as a prime example?) After all, Rashi himself does exactly that, and in this very parsha:

On Shemot 23:2, Rashi cites the drash-based interpretations of Haza"l from TB Sanhedrin, and openly faults those interpretations as being inconsistent with the actual intent of the text:

יש במקרא זה מדרשי חכמי ישראל, אבל אין לשון המקרא מיושב בהן על אופניו.

After detailing Haza"l's opinion (which he has already criticized as being irreconcilable with the words of the verse), Rashi goes on to say that in his own opinion, the verse should instead be interpreted in a manner consistent with its intent, according to the verse's plain meaning:

ואני אומר ליישבו על אופניו כפשוטו.

Whereupon Rashi then proceeds to offer his own, alternative, pshat-based interpretation.

This raises an interesting question about Ibn Caspi's approach: Obviously, Ibn Caspi knew this Rashi, so I cannot help but wonder why he was so reticent about offering pshat-based interpretations of halakhot. After all, Ibn Caspi openly endorses Rashi explanations of the halakhot in Mishpatim (in the passage that you cited). So if Rashi was unafraid to give pshat-oriented explanations of halakhot -- even when those explantions were different from the drash-based interpretations of Haza"l -- then why should Ibn Caspi have been unwilling to do the same?


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