Tuesday, February 08, 2011

All who add, subtract

Summary: How to understand a gemara in Sanhedrin, about a pasuk in parshat Trumah.

Post: In Sanhedrin 29a, we read:
אמר חזקיה מניין שכל המוסיף גורע שנאמר (בראשית ג, ג) אמר אלהים לא תאכלו ממנו ולא תגעו בו רב משרשיא אמר מהכא (שמות כה, י) אמתים וחצי ארכו רב אשי אמר (שמות כו, ז) עשתי עשרה יריעות
Or, in English:
Hezekiah said: Whence do we know that he who adds [to the word of God] subtracts [from it]? — From the verse, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it neither shall ye touch it.44
R. Mesharshia said: [We derive it] from the following verse: Ammathayim [two cubits] and a half shall be his length.45  R. Ashi said: From this: 'Ashte-'esreh [eleven] curtains.46
In terms of Chizkiyah's prooftext, the idea is that by Adam adding to Hashem's command, with the addition of not touching it, he caused Chava to violate even that which had been commanded by Hashem. (This based on the midrash of the snake pushing Chava into the tree.)

What of Rav Mesharshiya's derivation? Here is how Rashi explains it:
אמתים - דל אל"ף מהכא קרי ביה (מתים) הוי שתי מאות אמה כל אותיות שבתורה הברתם ככתיבתם כמו ועשית ואמרת כאלו כתובה בה"א וכן אתה חסר כמו אותה מלא:
That is, you subtract the aleph from the word amatayim. The pasuk in question appears in our parashah, Terumah:

י  וְעָשׂוּ אֲרוֹן, עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים:  אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכּוֹ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבּוֹ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי, קֹמָתוֹ.10 And they shall make an ark of acacia-wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof.

Remove the אַ and you have מָּתַיִם. This is a chaser way of saying 200 (cubits). And in terms of pronunciation, this is fairly regular.

What of Rav Ashi's derivation? It is remarkably similar. From the next perek in Terumah:

ז  וְעָשִׂיתָ יְרִיעֹת עִזִּים, לְאֹהֶל עַל-הַמִּשְׁכָּן; עַשְׁתֵּי-עֶשְׂרֵה יְרִיעֹת, תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם.7 And thou shalt make curtains of goats' hair for a tent over the tabernacle; eleven curtains shalt thou make them.

Rashi explains:
עשתי עשרה - דל עיי"ן מהכא הוו להו שתים עשרה:T
That is, remove the עַ and you have שְׁתֵּי-עֶשְׂרֵה. Thus, by subtracting you add, and conversely, by adding this initial "ah" you subtract.

This is the plain meaning of the gemara and I believe that Rashi is correct. The context serves to reinforce this, in that both Rav Ashi and Rav Mesharshiya are dealing with the addition, or subtraction, of an initial /a/.

Maharsha raises an objection or two, and proceeds to give his own interpretation. I am going to complain about his objections perhaps more than is merited, for while he gives a straightforward-enough resolution, I want to make it clear that these objections are not so severe that a drastic alternative (suggested by others) must come into play.

The Maharsha's first objection is that we would not have the units! And so it could be 200 etzbaos, or tefachim, for all we know!

I (Josh) would answer this in one of three ways. (a) First, let us grant him this point, that it might be a lower unit. If there are 4 etzbaos in a tefach, and (say) six tefachim per amah, then that is 24 etzbaos per amah. 200 / 24 = 8.333 amos, which is still more than 1 and a half amos. And really, it is matayim vacheitzi, which is 250. So 250 / 24 = 10.4 amos. He didn't mention it, but let us say it is a seorah, a barleycorn. This is a standard unit of measurement, I guess. There are three barleycorn lengths to the inch. So 250 / 3 = 83.333 inches. There are 12 inches to the foot, so 83.333 / 12 = 6.94444 feet. An amah, or cubit is somewhere between 1.5 and 2 feet, so that makes about 3.5 cubits. Which is still more than 2.5 cubits!  Of course, one could introduce even smaller units, and so reject my rebuttal.

(b) We can deduce the units of measurement from context in the pasuk:

י  וְעָשׂוּ אֲרוֹן, עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים:  אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכּוֹ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבּוֹ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי, קֹמָתוֹ.
10 And they shall make an ark of acacia-wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof.

Given that all the other units in the pasuk are amos, cubits, it stands to reason that this 200 or 250 would be as well.

(c) Frankly, this question is not a valid question. Both Rav Mesharshiya and Rav Ashi are playing with the pesukim in cute ways. We are not looking for peshat here, and we would not be confounded by lack of units. The point is that in amatayim, we have a pair, or the number 2, and after the edit to delete one letter, we have the number 200. You aren't supposed to over-think this cute and clever analysis! It is like subjecting the punch line of a joke to intense analysis, and thereby concluding that it does not make sense and is not funny.

Maharsha offers a second objection to Rashi's peshat in the gemara:

Namely, while we find so in verbs, that the pronunciation brings an aleph, as well as with the helping letters (like imperative alephs., I think), but in nouns we don't find that is is deficient {chaser} and quiescent the letter aleph from the foundation of the name {J: I think, as in root letters}. {See also here.}

This is a similar objection to the first one above. But I would point out that this is a derasha, and that it is common to say things like this in the context of al tikrei X ela Y. We should not have to worry about the quiescent aleph not being written in the Torah text.  Especially since it quiesces and elides in other contexts. We could try to find examples for nouns and adjectives, particularly in cases of krei and ketiv, where the aleph quiesces and indeed disappears. For example, contrast Tamar's twins, in Bereishit 38:27:

כז  וַיְהִי, בְּעֵת לִדְתָּהּ; וְהִנֵּה תְאוֹמִים, בְּבִטְנָהּ.27 And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.

with Rivkah's twins, in Bereishit 25:22:

כד  וַיִּמְלְאוּ יָמֶיהָ, לָלֶדֶת; וְהִנֵּה תוֹמִם, בְּבִטְנָהּ.24 And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb.
But this seems rather beside the point to me, because this is an illegitimate line of argument, when evaluating a derasha of this sort.

Maharsha's answer is straightforward enough,  and I can agree to it. He says that it appears that this derasha is said only on the dibbur, the speech, that one is adding to it and it has the effect of subtracting. And consider, by way of example, two people conversing in the matter of cubits, and the first asks the second "how many cubits?" If the second one answers him matayim, he would deduce from this 200, since the aleph has fled from the word. But if he adds the aleph to make amatayim, he would only deduce from this 2 cubits. And thus, he ends up subtracting by his adding an aleph. And this that he brought the pasuk of amatayim vacheitzi orko, this is only as a sign, a siman, for it is the first instance of amatayim which appears in the Torah. But NOT that had it been written without an aleph, as mayayim vacheitzi orko, that they would have explained it as 250 cubits; for behold, the cubit is not mentioned, as I write. And this is fine, similar to the case of the snake, that by adding only a bit of speech, that she said "don't touch it", she subtracted from the command of Hashem, and his dibbur.

I would add that the proof from Rav Ashi is also the very first instance of ashtei esrei in the Torah. So they could be focusing on the dibbur, and using the pesukim only as signs or mnemonics. But they could also be looking specifically for pesukim in order to "derive" this principle, from the Torah. I am not sure that the questions were all that strong in the first place. A derasha is a derasha, and need not be subject to such intense scrutiny of how it should appear were it peshat.

The asterisk at the end brings us to a footnote with a suggestion we also see in the Gra, in Kol Eliyahu:

Basically, he notes the gemara and Rashi, as well as Maharsha's objection. The he proposes as follows. Given the statement אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכּוֹ, that means that its length was 2.5 cubits. If we were to remove the vav, we would have אַמָּתַיִם חֵצִי אָרְכּוֹ, or amatayim chatzi orko, that 2 cubits was half of its length. Which would make its full length 4 cubits. Thus, the addition of the vav of וָחֵצִי subtracts.

I think this is clever and cute, and a testament to the Gra's creativity. If really forced into a corner, it could be the meaning. But as I argued above, the Maharsha's objections were not really that solid to begin with, and if we think that his answer is a bit forced, we can revert back to the simple peshat. Given that there is an obvious interpretation to Rav Mesharshiya and this much less obvious interpretation, I would expect that Rav Mesharshiya expects us to understand the more obvious interpretation. Furthermore, as I noted above, there is this excellent parallel between the derashot of Rav Mesharshiya and Rav Ashi, about the initial aleph patach and the initial ayin patach, where one number transforms into another. This alone would make me prefer Rashi's peshat to that of the Gra.

So, at the end of the day, IMHO, this is all good limmud Torah, but we shouldn't just see this brilliant and creative peshat and dismiss Rashi's straightforward explanation.


Hillel said...

R' Waxman,
So basically you're saying the Maharsha is chaser aleph?

(PS: On a more serious note, since the gm' seems to give 2 examples of messing up the meaning of the Torah by adding/subtracting an aleph, is it possible this was also part of Ibn Ezra's rejoinder to ben Ephraim re Leah's eyes?)

joshwaxman said...

that would be a rather Ma-harsh thing to say. ;)

maybe; but local context gives us enough a reason, so i'd need more cause to think this. at the moment, i'd consider it somewhat remote.

kol tuv,


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