Inscrutable Verses

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I. Ambiguous Words

The Torah’s many difficult verses are subject to extensive debate among commentaries. However, according to one Talmudic opinion, five passages are closed to conclusive explanation. Their ultimate meaning cannot be determined. This troubling view is compounded in multiple ways: Can any verse’s explanation be conclusively decided? The plethora of commentaries seems to indicate to the contrary. Additionally, obvious textual methods lend clues to some of these select passages. And why just these five?

Issi Ben Yehudah said: Five verses cannot be decided (ein lahem hechrei’a): “se’eis” (Gen. 4:17), “meshukadim” (Ex. 25:34), “machar” (Ex. 17:9), “arur” (Gen. 49:7), “ve-kam” (Deut. 31:16). (Yoma 52a-b)

Each of these five words are unclear. In Gen. 4:7, the word se’eis could be the final word of the prior phrase (“if you improve, you will be forgiven”) or the first word of the following phrase (“you will bear your sin if you do not improve”). In Ex. 25:34, the word “meshukadim” could refer either to the four preceding cups or the subsequent knobs and flowers. In Ex. 17:9, “machar” could mean that Yehoshua should fight the next day or that Moshe would ascend the mountain the next day. In Gen. 49:7, the first world “arur” could be part of the end of the prior verse, referring to the cursed ox they uprooted, or the beginning of thaat verse, meaning the cursed anger. In Deut. 31:16, “ve-kam” could refer to Moshe’s resurrection after death, as a continuation of the prior phrase, or that the nation will rise after his death.

II. Two Explanations

Multiple views emerge on the meaning of the phrase ein lahem hechrei’a. Ibn Ezra (on Gen. 44:31) asks why this verse is not included in the list. The word “and he will die” (va-meis) is ambiguous, possibly applying to Ya’akov, the father, or Binyamin, the son. Clearly, Ibn Ezra believes that Issi Ben Yehudah is referring to biblical words that are ambiguous, whose precise meaning cannot be determined. R. Chaim Hirschenson agrees. In his Chidushei Ha-Rachah on Rashi (Gen. 4:7). He points out that the word “se’eis” cannot be part of the subsequent phrase because then the “vav” of “ve-im” will be superfluous (“se’eis ve-im lo teitiv“). Rather, he suggests, Issi Ben Yehudah is not suggesting the “se’eis” can be part of either phrse but that it’s translation is unclear. Does it mean “forgiven” or “bear (your sin)”? Clearly, R. Hirschenson, like Ibn Ezra, believes that Issi Ben Yehudah’s list includes words whose translation or meaning are inconclusive.

However, Rashi (Yoma ad loc.) explains that Issi Ben Yehudah’s list is only for words whose placement is unclear, are they part of the prior or subsequent phrase. R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky (Emes Le-Ya’akov on Gen. 44:31) agrees and thereby responds to Ibn Ezra’s question. Issi Ben Yehudah does not include “va-meis” because that word’s placement is clear, even if its meaning is not.

The Ritva (Yoma ad loc.) takes this one step further. Noting that the cantillation marks and verse endings clarify some of these five words, Ritva argues that Issi Ben Yehudah includes words whose placement is unclear merely based on the words themselves, absent the implied punctuation of cantillation and verse stops. Essentially, words whose placement we could not determine by looking into a Torah scroll. The Chida (Ya’ir Ozen, Ma’arekhes Alef no. 119, quoted in Sedei Chemed, Ma’arekhes Alef no. 299; Ma’arekhes Ches no. 98) points out that the Rosh agrees with the Ritva (and, Sedei Chemed adds, R. Peretz in glosses to Semak 143 and Tosefos Rid, Megillah 3) while R. Yosef Karo takes a different approach. R. Karo (Avkas Rokhel no. 10) suggests that words whose placement can be determined by cantillation are excluded. However, the cantillation on these five words must have been subject to debate and therefore inconclusive.

As to R. Hirschenson’s question from the superfluous “vav,” R. Menachem Kasher (Torah Shelemah, Gen. ch. 4 n. 50) explains simply that if “se’eis” were part of the subsequent phrase, the “vav” would indeed be superfluous, as sometimes happens. It would be read as if the “vav” was not there.

III. New Interpretations

R. Reuven Margoliyos (Ha-Mikra Ve-Ha-Mesorah, ch. 20) suggests a novel interpretation of Issi Ben Yehudah’s statement. He points to a phenomenon of double letters at the end and beginning of consecutive words dropping. If a word begins with the same letter as the previous word’s last letter, the second appearance of the letter is often dropped. With this he explains many unusual phrases, such as “ha-kohanim ha-levi’im” (the Levite priests) which he suggests means “ha-kohanim me-ha-levi’im” (the priests from among the Levites) but the second “mem” dropped.

R. Margoliyos suggests that the same happens for doubled words. If the same word appears twice, it might be dropped the second time. While this sounds forced, Rashbam actually suggests the idea in his commentary to Gen. 36:11. Based on this, R. Margoliyos explains Issi Ben Yehudah’s statement as follows: regarding these five words, we cannot be sure whether they were supposed to appear twice (for both the prior and subsequent phrase) but one dropped or they were always meant to appear once.

In an entirely different approach, R. Azriel Hildesheimer offers a hint to a different interpretation (Responsa R. Azriel, vol. 2 on Parashas Va-Yeilekh). He suggests that while these words are understandable, they are unique because they cannot be explained on their own. They can only be explained if another passage is first explained. I have not tried too hard but I have been unable to take this to the next step. I encourage readers to try to flesh out this answer in more detail.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

24 comments

  1. On Gen. 4:7, Alter notes this is within the context of a poem and comments “The first clause of verse 7 is particularly elliptic in the Hebrew, and thus any construction is no more than an educated guess. The narrative context of sacrifices may suggest that the cryptic s’eit (elsewhere “preeminence”) might be related to mas’eit, a gift or cultic offering”.

    On Ex. 17:9, Alter comments “tomorrow. The Masoretic cantillation marking places “tomorrow” at the beginning of the next clause, which makes the adverb a modifier of when Moses will take up his station, but it probably makes better sense as part of the instruction to Joshua about when he will be fighting.”

    On Gen. 49:7, thank you for the opportunity to use the copy of http://taupress.tau.ac.il/index.php?cat=3&name=all&book=1056&nav=1 which I brought back from Israel last month. In the Samaritan text, that first word is אדיר rather than ארור!

    For completeness, on Deut. 31:16, Alter points to Ibn Ezra; and while he doesn’t address Gen. 49:7 directly he has much to say about the text of Jacob’s blessings.

  2. r. breuer’s article on this in leshonenu

  3. This post reads like a halachic discussion. The majority of rishonim say X… the majority of achronim resolve the difficulty in the rishonim by saying Y… one acharon has interesting hiddush Z. This approach makes perfect sense for halacha, which is anchored in communal agreement and practice. What relevance does it have to parshanut? How can you quote mutually exclusive opinions from Rashi and Ibn Ezra, and not bother to check the verses to see what their interpretations are based on and which seems to be more correct?

  4. r’shlomo,
    the halachic technique that interests me is “obviously” each was aware of the pros and cons of each explanation. what factors (meta vs. local) drove their final choice?
    GCT

  5. While we’re on the topic, what about the words לדור ודור in Modim in Shemoneh Esrei – before or after the period?

  6. I don’t understand the problem. The gemara in Yoma appears to reject the opinion of R’ Isi that the cited words can’t be definitely assigned to a sentence structure (i.e. is the pause before or after the word). Indeed, the suggested ambiguity is refuted by the Masoritic tradition as well as by the context. The suggestion that the words in question can be treated as if they were doubled is discussed by the Tosafot and largely rejected. I would add that the suggested ambiguity in the word ‘machar’ as to whether it refers to Joshua engaging in battle or Moshe praying is inconsistent with the logic of battle as well as the Masoritic reading (‘machar’ follows the etnachta). The verse informs us that Amalek attacked the Israelites. Obviously, the instruction to Joshua to lead the men into battle could not wait until the morrow. It had to be done immediately. Praying could wait for the need to be manifested – as Rashi points out (or until daylight when Moshe’s raised hands could be seen and give impetus to the defence), not the defence against a surprise, determined attack.

  7. the halachic technique that interests me is “obviously” each was aware of the pros and cons of each explanation. what factors (meta vs. local) drove their final choice?

    You’re right, I should have said “more correct according to our interpretive priorities”

  8. R’ Joel Rich:
    “the halachic technique that interests me is “obviously” each was aware of the pros and cons of each explanation. what factors (meta vs. local) drove their final choice?”

    Are you saying that rashi was aware of rabbis margoliyot and hildesheimer opinions? That each one is aware of the other opinions but choose theirs for whatever “factors”? I can understand the later rabbis knowing previous generations opinions but felt there was a better or more expansive understanding that they had to offer – see the Netziv intro to Chumash in hamek davar – that better addresses the problem they raised. But to say the earlier generations new this – is that not novel? Or am I misunderstanding . Or does it relate to only rashi and Ibn ezra?
    GCT

  9. It is difficult to say that “the suggested ambiguity is refuted by the Masoritic tradition”. I assume by this you mean the taamim? There can only be one set of taamim on a verse (ok I know there are a few limited exceptions). This means that the Masoretic tradition can never allow any ambiguity, but there are numerous instances where the commentators do not follow the taamim.

  10. Ruvie,

    Unless the information or the interpretation is based on information that previous generations could not know (Such as some archaeological find) it is best assumed that Rashi was aware of Rabbi Margoliyot’s position but didn’t present it for some reason. I don’t know if that is the case here, as I don’t know where this idea of dropping letters and words comes from. But assuming the information just comes from the text at hand, there is no reason to believe that they were not aware of the possibility, and therefore you need to assume that they decided to not share it for some reason.

    This is true if you are talking about Torah or Shakespeare BTW.

  11. I enjoyed reading this post. The comments of Ibn Ezra and Emes Le-Ya’akov are found on the word “and he will die” (va-meis) in Gen. 44:22 rather than 44:31.

  12. Matthew P, the derashot of the sages, whether halachic or aggadic in nature, often don’t follow the Masoretic reading of the text. However, in such cases they deliberately roam outside the evident meaning of that text. In this case, R’ Issi appears to be uncertain as to that evident meaning, to the extent that he questions whether the handful of words cited are meant to be linked backwards or forwards. My post carries no implication of questioning why a tanna apparently wasn’t aware of the Masoretic text. He lived centuries before the Masorites did their monumental work. We who live after that work and who have accepted its basic accuracy for over a millenia should not have R’ Issi’s quandry. One can, however, question how to make sense of the alternative formulations of the cited verses even without our punctuation. In other words, it appears that the work of the Masorites could have been accomplished in these cases on the basis of the context of the words.

  13. Avi – “….there is no reason to believe that they were not aware of the possibility, and therefore you need to assume that they decided to not share it for some reason.”

    It’s hard to believe that rashi new of all the commentators view- Ibn Ezra, ramban, rambam, rashbam, seforno…all the way to Netziv mesoch shochmah…to today’s literary analysis school. But rejected them for his perush for whatever methological or meta factors. My assumption was that he knew all that came before – midrashim and talmud and other commentaries- and use them to for the best possible understanding plus his own chidushim. To say he decided not to share them is a little far fetched.

  14. “It’s hard to believe that rashi new of all the commentators view- Ibn Ezra, ramban, rambam, rashbam, seforno…all the way to Netziv mesoch shochmah…to today’s literary analysis school. But rejected them for his perush for whatever methological or meta factors. My assumption was that he knew all that came before – midrashim and talmud and other commentaries- and use them to for the best possible understanding plus his own chidushim. To say he decided not to share them is a little far fetched.”

    Firstly, you seem to be ignoring the distinction of commentaries based on information that Rashi could not possibly have, (Like an idea based on Arizal’s understanding of Kabbalah), and commentaries based purely on the text at hand.

    Secondly, if a student in highschool can notice, see, ask, and answer the same way that some meforash did, without ever seeing those meforshim before, then I don’t see why one would find it so hard to believe that Rashi or any other author of ideas couldn’t see ideas in the text but decide not to share them.

    I find it much harder to believe that the writings we have today contain all the thoughts and musings of the authors who wrote them.

  15. Avi – I was under the impression you only excluded archeological findings. Do not understand your last sentence.

  16. “Avi – I was under the impression you only excluded archeological findings. Do not understand your last sentence.”

    Sorry no, I’m excluding any information which it would be impossible for the author to have. Archeology was just the most obvious example that jumped to my mind.

    As for my last sentence: I’ll use Rashi as an example, but really it applies to any Meforash or writer or commentator. Rashi spent time to write down a commentary. This process took a long time. Rashi had a purpose in his commentary, he did not just write down any and every thought that came into his mind. I find it hard to believe that Rashi, or anyone else, wrote all the possible ideas he had for any given verse. I am certain that if someone were to spend an hour in a Parsha class with Rashi, that he would said things which were not written in his writings that we have today. To suggest otherwise creates an unbelievable picture in my mind.

  17. Meir Weingarten

    Avi – “….there is no reason to believe that they were not aware of the possibility, and therefore you need to assume that they decided to not share it for some reason.”

    pls see the famous Rashbam at the beginning of parshat va’ye’shev (gen 37,2) in which rashbam relates that rashi (rashbam’s grandfather) told him that if he (rashi) had time he would write more commentaries “lefi hapshatot hamitchadshim b’chol yom” “based on the new understandings that present themselves EVERY DAY”. clearly even rashi understood that torah study is constantly advancing and new understandings present themselves all the time (b’chol yom).
    Hence, Rashi, by his own admission, didn’t know what his grandson the rashbam would write, no less the netziv.
    (This Rashbam is an absolute must read text for all serious students of Torah)

  18. MiMedinat HaYam

    on the subject of endings of psukim (and other losses of massorah) see RIETS RY r jeremy weider (i prsesume on http://www.yutorah.org, if you can cut through the (good) clutter of his laining every parsha and haftarah.)

  19. Re “ha-kohanim ha-levi’im”:
    What is the difference between “the Levite [or Levitical] priests” and “the priests from among the Levites”?
    You may have resolved an orthographic issue, but the phrase still leads one to wonder, as opposed to what other cohanim?
    (Yes, there’s a gemara which says this phrasing occurs 24 times and each comes to teach something unique–but what are those 24 unique teachings?)

  20. “Hence, Rashi, by his own admission, didn’t know what his grandson the rashbam would write, no less the netziv.”

    Kol Hakavod on your ability to completely twist the meaning of a statement 180.

  21. “(Yes, there’s a gemara which says this phrasing occurs 24 times and each comes to teach something unique–but what are those 24 unique teachings?)

    Aren’t there 24 designated families?

  22. Lawrence Kaplan

    Avi: It seems to me that Meir Weingarten understood the Rashbam correctly. But even if you believe that his (and my) understanding is totally incorrect, why did you have to be so personal and nasty about it? Why couldn’t you have said he misunderstood the Rashban and show how he did so– something, btw, totally lacking in your comment. And this just before Yom Kippur yet!

  23. Avi – the onus is on you to show that your theory of rashi knowing all other possibilities of other commentators that came after him – except for certain discoveries- and his rejection of them for his commentary. It’s a bold claim that should have some proof if even possible that others believe it – let alone rashi.

    Do you even have a source for your bold claim?

    Of course the observation at what was written is not the sum total of rashi thoughts and he rejected some other possibilities. But that doesn’t mean he systematically figured out every future commentators’ opinion and went with his perush on every pasuk. Your comment is also applicable to every student who writes a paper or thesis – they rejected other ideas that are not written in their piece – it’s a poor or non argument.

  24. “Avi: It seems to me that Meir Weingarten understood the Rashbam correctly. But even if you believe that his (and my) understanding is totally incorrect, why did you have to be so personal and nasty about it? Why couldn’t you have said he misunderstood the Rashban and show how he did so– something, btw, totally lacking in your comment. And this just before Yom Kippur yet!”

    Please point out what you think was nasty.

    The comment clearly means that Rashi found new insights every day, and wished he could write all the ideas he knew about down.

    It says nothing about not knowing what other people say, nor anything about the future generations.

    “Do you even have a source for your bold claim?”

    I find nothing bold about the claim. The text is the text. Anyone who has eyes can see what is before them. There is no reason to believe that which is written down is anything other than a filtering of all the possible ideas to be passed on to the audience.

    But if you truly require a source, I believe it’s in Kohelet which says “Nothing is new under the sun.”

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