Samson and the Rabbis

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I often struggle with the vast differences between the plain meaning of biblical narratives and the understandings of the Sages. Among the most severe cases is that of Shimshon. The book of Judges portrays him as an intermarrying sinner while the Sages see him as a holy judge (see Samson’s Struggle). Which of these incompatible views is correct?

The dilemma can appear to be a case of the rabbis telling us to trust them over the plain evidence available to all. On the other hand, every reading involves interpretation, both our own and that of the Sages. Perhaps we need to recognize that what we see as facts are colored by our own, often only implicit, interpretations.

R. Aharon Lichtenstein expresses the moderately conservative position, as recorded in R. Chaim Sabato’s Mevakshei Faneikha: Sichos Im Ha-Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (p. 92):

On the other hand, the Rambam’s words (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Issurei Bi’ah 13:14) always stand before my eyes: “Do not think that Shimshon, the savior of Israel… married gentile women”, and then I struggle with some of the people in my circles over the question of how to understand the national Patriarchs.

Recognizing the possibility of interpreting the book of Judges in a way that significant portrays Shimshon negatively, R. Lichtenstein defers to the Rambam’s insistence to the contrary.

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 has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five 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.

54 comments

  1. (see Samson’s Struggle).

    Out of print. Now available in an expanded edition, as Shimshon’s Struggle.

    http://www.amazon.com/Shimshons-Struggle-Rabbi-Gershon-Weiss/dp/1600911838/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346815642&sr=1-1

  2. >“Do not think that Shimshon, the savior of Israel… married gentile women”

    Is this not just another version of “kol haOmer … Eino Ela To’e”?

    A formula used by the sages to reinterpret stories such as King David and Bat-Sheva. A formula, which I may add, did not prevent many great parshanim from learning the parsha al pi pshat.

    Midrash is midrash. It does not have to fit in with pshat. The more interesting question is: Why did the sages feel the need to read Shimshon the way they did?

    The reverse situation is also quite common. Eisav is a much more sympathetic persona in the chumash than he is in the aggadot and midrashim. Why did chazal sometimes darshen a person leShevach and sometimes leGnai? That is the question! Reconciling is futile and ultimately intellectually meaningless.

  3. R’ Ya’akov Meidan, in a series of rather convincing remarks, suggests that the solution is also found between the lines in the Rambam, and in contemporary times: the women did convert, in a setup like the Conversion Authority, meaning, there was genuine halakhic disagreement on whether the women were properly converted. Initially, it was accepted, later on, questioned or even rejected. He primarily applies this analysis to Shlomo’s wives, but also to Shimshon.

    This approach essentially allows one to have the cake and eat it, as before a final psak was recorded and taught to us, there is no reason to assume (and many midrashim support the idea we should indeed not assume) that present psak was already then widely known and universally accepted. Before we ruled mostly like Beit Hillel, there was them and Beit Shammai offering competing piskei din, and before ‘Amoni velo ‘Amonit was decided upon, some could dispute that and question David’s fitness as king. Why not the same on conversion standards?

    The Scriptural support for this approach regarding conversion standards is actually evident from Shimshon all the way through Shivat Tziyon.

  4. looking at the whole series of eino elahs starting on shabbat 55b , i got the impression that the gemara was trying to walk a fine line setting up a “they “sinned” but only “on their level”. i’m not sure the meta message was any different (that great people can do the wrong thing)-much like anyone can be as great as moshe rabbeinu “at their level”
    KT

  5. Is this not just another version of “kol haOmer … Eino Ela To’e”?

    A formula used by the sages to reinterpret stories such as King David and Bat-Sheva. A formula, which I may add, did not prevent many great parshanim from learning the parsha al pi pshat.

    Actually, at least regarding David and Batsheva, that is the opinion of one sage, R. Shmuel bar Nachmaini, that seems to be rejected halacha l’ma’aseh in favor of the contrary opinion of Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav found in the Gemara in Sanhedrin (107a) (at least we don’t say “Elokei David” in shmone esrei.)

  6. Moshe Shoshan

    I honestly dont understand the question, there is something called pshat and there is something call drash. sometimes they are quite similar and sometimes they diverge wildly. as to how and why this works, thats a much longer discussion and there are many approaches to that question. But the bottom line that there is a dichotomy between pshat and drash should sufice here.vidach zil gmor.

    id love to see the entire passage where the RAL quote appears.

  7. Moshe:
    I think the question is simply: historically, what really happened? In cases where the pshat contradicts the drash, they can’t both be historically true.

  8. david zalkin – if you ask any historian you will get a different answer of when conversions began in jewish history – i think late second temple is the consensus. but for theological reasons that viewpoint is problematic.
    Does RAL defers (or is it defaults) to that opinion based on theological grounds or does he believe that is what happened?

  9. william gewirtz

    I heard a shiur by prof. uriel simon a while back where he suggested what I now understand to be widely accepted that shofeit is not (just)a judge but a protector

  10. Gil — I don’t understand. Do you think that “what we see as facts are colored by our own, often only implicit, interpretations” is relevant here?

  11. Srully Epstein

    There seems to be a perception that the Torah Shebiksav tells the real story, while the Torah Shebaal Peh is simply “interpretation.” And though, ein mikrah yotzei miyedei peshuto, one still must view the Midrash as equally authentic.

  12. “. The book of Judges portrays him as an intermarrying sinner while the Sages see him as a holy judge (see Samson’s Struggle). Which of these incompatible views is correct”

    Personally, I don’t find these two views incompatible.

    Jewish leaders are real leaders, they have highs and lows. Even Moshe Rabeinu sinned.

    But regarding Shimshon and intermarrage specifically,
    Did Moshe’s wife undergo a conversion? Certainly not a conversion that follows the exact wording of the Talmud!
    Ezra tells us that he made a special rule regarding Non Jewish women. Ezra is long after Shimshon.

  13. I heard a shiur by prof. uriel simon a while back where he suggested what I now understand to be widely accepted that shofeit is not (just)a judge but a protector

    R’ Eliezer Berkovitz in his Collected Essays has a rather comprehensive article with exactly this thesis.

  14. Not only that, aren’t many of the laws of converts derived by Chazal from the book of Ruth? Chronologically speaking then, these procedures were hardly operative before.

  15. To throw this out there, in Punic, the title of their chieftains was cognate with sh-p-t.

  16. Anonymous on September 5, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Not only that, aren’t many of the laws of converts derived by Chazal from the book of Ruth? Chronologically speaking then, these procedures were hardly operative before.
    ===============================
    The traditional answer is that these rules predate Ruth, we “learn them” from Ruth as an asmachta.
    KT

  17. srully e. – one can’t not recognize that:
    there is no absolute prohibition in marrying non israelite women in the bible except the seven canaanite nations -devarim 7:1-4 (or exceptions in devarim 23:2-9)- nor is the bible familiar with conversions of gentiles. it appears that the idea of someone not born an israelit can become was foreign (like an american becoming a frenchmen by moving to france).

  18. I don’t understand the quotation Gil selected. The first half of the sentence about Rambam and Shimshon is the lead in to the second half — and then I struggle with some of the people in my circles over the question of how to understand the national Patriarchs which seems to be the point of the sentence. Some relevant context seems to be missing to understand RAL’s meaning. What is it?

  19. It’s not just a question of Shimshon. Al pi peshat, you can read the entire book of Shoftim and not find anything that even hints of any form of halacha being practiced or even known.

  20. “LI Reader on September 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm
    It’s not just a question of Shimshon. Al pi peshat, you can read the entire book of Shoftim and not find anything that even hints of any form of halacha being practiced or even known.”

    You seem to be missing the pshat. Yes, halacha was not being practiced, and stated in the second chapter:
    http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0702.htm

    But you can’t say that it was not even known.

  21. Avi:

    “You seem to be missing the pshat. Yes, halacha was not being practiced, and stated in the second chapter:
    http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0702.htm

    But you can’t say that it was not even known.”

    No, Torah shebiksav was not being practiced, and how well did the rank & file know it? If they had, wouldn’t they have correlated it with the bad things that were happening to them, and changed their ways?

    But, “halacha”? As in, decision-making process? TSBP? What evidence is there from Shoftim of such a process? All I see is endless repetitions of BY not keeping the laws. Maybe they forgot them?

  22. Avi- “But you can’t say that it was not even known.”

    do we know what they knew? what specifically didn’t they follow besides praying to avoda zara?

  23. But, “halacha”? As in, decision-making process? TSBP? What evidence is there from Shoftim of such a process?

    Since when does TSBP require a decision making process? All it requires, as a minimum, is that you once observed other people (your parents, or anyone else you trust) keeping mitzvot. Based on what you saw, you can then keep mitzvot yourself.

  24. No, Torah shebiksav was not being practiced, and how well did the rank & file know it?

    Who cares? Much later Ezra had to the reteach the masses the details of halacha. Something like that could have happened earlier as well.

    If they had, wouldn’t they have correlated it with the bad things that were happening to them, and changed their ways?

    If it were so easy to see reward and punishment in action, then there would be many fewer sinners in every generation.

  25. The context of R. Lichtenstein’s comments is a discussion of the value he finds in Milton’s writings. Here are the relevant pages:
    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8448/7939160864_35b4e17007_o.jpg
    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8446/7939167244_0966a9c6c0_o.jpg

  26. How dare you call shimshon a ‘sinner’. Find me any proof for that. Why they preferred foreign women see R Zadok Hakohen. It was not only shimshon but many others starting from Moshe rabainu. Joshua, Boaz, David, Solomon etc. Also see about ‘y’fas toar’.

  27. Gil – thanks. Without debating your selected quotation and this post, I’m still no wiser as to what RAL means by ואז יש לי מאבקים עם חלק מהאנשים שבסביבתי בשאלה איך מבינים את אבות האומה. Can you (or someone else who has read the full Q &A) explain?

  28. I interpreted it to mean that he disagreed with some of his colleagues at the Herzog Institute, as per his son’s debate on these and other subjects.

  29. “But, “halacha”? As in, decision-making process? TSBP? What evidence is there from Shoftim of such a process? All I see is endless repetitions of BY not keeping the laws. Maybe they forgot them?”

    Don’t confuse the topics.
    How can you have a “decision making process” when you have prophets running around?
    Why would you expect a post prophetic TSBP to look the same as halacha when you can go to your local prophets are telling you what to change?

    “No, Torah shebiksav was not being practiced, and how well did the rank & file know it? If they had, wouldn’t they have correlated it with the bad things that were happening to them, and changed their ways?”

    They most certainly did! That’s half of what Tanach is about!

  30. Fotheringay-Phipps

    I disagree that the Sages saw him as a “holy judge”. Chazal include him as one of the “sh’losha kalei olam”, and the Chinuch proves how bad it is to say Hashem’s name in vain because “even Shimshon” was strict about this.

    Samson’s Struggles was not written by Chazal.

  31. Fascinating lecture on the topic:
    Scandal For Spirituality: The Samson Story
    Rabbi Shmuel Braun
    http://www.torahcafe.com/rabbi-shmuel-braun/scandal-for-spirituality-the-samson-story-video_8d8140388.html

  32. The gemoro RH 25 means compared to the others. See maharsho it really refers to yiftoch.

  33. I have to wonder what it means to ‘believe Chazal’. Not that I want to slip the rug out from under the rationalists, but let’s say one accepts the fact that there was no global flood in Noach’s time. It is also perfectly clear that Chazal didn’t interpret the mabul story allegorically. There are plenty of other examples that strongly indicate the Chazal had no special knowledge of the factual basis of what was occurring in Biblical or even early Bayis Sheni times (missing years anyone?), and not a single piece of evidence to the contrary. Why then should one believe that they had special knowledge of what actually occurred with Dovid Hamelech?

  34. Avi,

    A navi is not allowed to answer halachic questions based on nevua. This is the famous gemara with Yehoshua when they forgot a lot of halachos and they asked Yehoshua to ask Hashem and he said no, לא בשמים היא.

  35. See the Rambam Yesodei Hatorah 9:7 that a Navi cannot answer a halachic question based on Nevua:

    או שאמר בדין מדיני תורה שה’ ציווה לו שהדין כך הוא והלכה כדברי פלוני–הרי זה נביא שקר, וייחנק אף על פי שעשה אות: שהרי בא להכחיש תורה שאמרה “לא בשמיים, היא”

  36. Marty,
    The talmud regarding Yeshoshua is problematic to take litteraly, as we see that Yehoshua was instructed by Gd in certain halachic aspects, and that he acted on them. (oaths, thefts, wars, inheritance etc etc.)
    However, regarding the Rambam, he does not say that a Navi cannot answer a halachic question, what he does say is that such a Navi who makes such a claim is a Navi Sheker. Because no Navi would behave that way, knowing the fluid applicability of Halacha and the importance of Mesorah and the halachic process.

  37. The Rambam writes the reason, לא בשמים היא, in other words Nebua is not a valid way of deciding halacha.

  38. I also question the assumption that “The book of Judges portrays him as an intermarrying sinner.” It is more nuanced than that. First, I think twice it says “ruach Elokin” when describing Shimshon. Second, miracles were done for him (the water out of the bones (reminiscint of a similar miracle)). Third, he is compared to Aharaon HaKohen in one midrash. Of course, there is also the intermarying, not acting like a nazir etc. I think that’s one of the main issues that we confront with Shimshon–who was he really-shofet or sinner, and the answer seems to be -both.

  39. “The Rambam writes the reason, לא בשמים היא, in other words Nebua is not a valid way of deciding halacha.”

    Yes, now go look up what that phrase means and it’s importance in the Talmud and Midrash.

    Nevuah is most certainly a valid way of deciding halacha. What do you think Eliahu Hanavi is rumored to do?

    However, Nevuah can not trump an already existing opinion on a topic, or overrule halachot derived by the Sages.
    Rambam’s words are very precise in what they say, and they do not say that Nevuah can not be used for halacha.

  40. Nevuah cannot decide halacha (see for example in Derashos Haran derasha 11 where the Ran explains why we don’t pasken like a Navi). Nevua can create a הוראת שעה as the Rambam explicitly states in the ninth perek of Yesodei Hatorah

  41. Here is the exact quote from the Ran (Derasha 11):
    שלא מסר הש”י הכרעת ספיקות התורה לנביא ולא לבת קול אלא לחכמי הדור
    The Ran says explicitly that halacha cannot be decided by a Navi.

  42. Marty, what about a דור that doesn’t have any חכמים?

  43. The Ran’s asks (in that derasha) that since chachamim can make a mistake in psak (since it is based on their understanding) why don’t we have neviim pasken as their knowledge is god given? He answers that Neviim (except for Moshe) don’t have nevua on demand and therefore what happens if we need a psak and the navi can’t get an answer? Also he says there is a time (now) that we have no neviim. On the other hand we will always have chachamim as the pasuk says כי לא תשכח מפי זרעו. In other words, what the Ran is saying is that there never will be a dor with no chachamim but there (obviously) are many doros without neviim.

  44. You’re confusing the issue with N’vua and halacha – is it relevant here? We’re talking about reading and understanding a text. Even David Zalkin’s question of “what really happened here” is besides the point – we don’t know and we’ll never know – the question here is how we understand the simple pshat of a text, and how do we understand hazal’s interpretation when, in our eyes, they seem to be doing violence to the text. The Netziv says that one must bring all manner of interpretive tools and sensitivity to the text JUST TO UNDERSTAND THE PSHAT – if you stop with what’s just on the page you are not reading Torah.

    What we don’t see is the tools and process by which Hazal get to their reading. We see the results, not the process of their interpretation. “Believing” in Hazal, then, means believing that their interpretation is the result of a knowable process, and we don’t (I don’t at least) have the key for it, rather than saying that their interpretations are arbitrary. I can accept that and see the interpretations of Hazal as a new “text” to interpret and understand, but I don’t think that relieves me of the responsibility to understand why the Tanach writes these stories about Ya’akov or David or Shimshon. I do believe that if the Tanach includes these stories as they are recorded, there is something important to learn about our forebearers and ourselves by learning these stories. “What really happened?” – we tend to fixate on questions like this, but you can’t know precisely both the position and the momentum of a story at the same time. Hamevin yavin.

  45. I discuss precisely this point and its history in this article from the Lander Memorial Volume
    https://docs.google.com/open?id=0BzPciWsXnOpgOTYwYWQzYTktYTcxMy00OWZkLTlhY2ItMDQxZTYwN2FjN2Y3

  46. Have a little sense. G-d listened his prayers at the end of his life and perform such amazing miracles, it’s hard to take the descriptions of actions which wouldn’t be performed by you and me literally.

  47. “Have a little sense. G-d listened his prayers at the end of his life and perform such amazing miracles, it’s hard to take the descriptions of actions which wouldn’t be performed by you and me literally.”

    Gd has in the past listened to my prayers and still performs amazing miracles, why should I not take his actions literally?

    I’m sure if you lived in Israel during those times, you would do things then that you are unwilling to do today, and you wouldn’t do things then, that you are willing to do today.

  48. “Gd has in the past listened to my prayers and still performs amazing miracles?”..

    That’s exactly why I called for sense, you are totally taking things out of scale!

  49. I missed this discussion, but I am surprised no one mention the mishnah in Niddah.

    שמשון הלך אחר עיניו לפיכך נקרו פלשתים את עיניו שנאמר (שופטים ט”ז) ויאחזוהו פלשתים וינקרו את עיניו אבשלום נתגאה בשערו לפיכך נתלה בשערו ולפי שבא על עשר פילגשי אביו לפיכך נתנו בו עשר לונביות שנאמר (שמואל ב’ י”ח) ויסבו עשרה אנשים נושאי כלי יואב ולפי שגנב שלשה לבבות לב אביו ולב בית דין ולב ישראל שנאמר (שם ט”ו) ויגנוב אבשלום את לב אנשי ישראל לפיכך נתקעו בו שלשה שבטים שנאמר (שם י”ח) ויקח שלשה שבטים בכפו ויתקעם בלב אבשלום:

  50. Tosephtha

    שמשון בעיניו מרד שנ’ ויאמר שמשון אל אביו אותה קח לי וגו’ אף הוא בעיניו לקה שנאמ’ ויאחזוהו פלשתים וינקרו את עיניו וגו’ ר’ או’ תחלת קלקלתו בעזה היתה אף עונשו לא היתה אלא בעזה

  51. Berachot:

    שמשון בעיניו מרד שנ’ ויאמר שמשון אל אביו אותה קח לי וגו’ אף הוא בעיניו לקה שנאמ’ ויאחזוהו פלשתים וינקרו את עיניו וגו’ ר’ או’ תחלת קלקלתו בעזה היתה אף עונשו לא היתה אלא בעזה

  52. Sorry. Wrong copy paste.

    ברכות דף יב עמוד ב
    אחרי עיניכם – זה הרהור עבירה, שנאמר: +שופטים י”ד+ ויאמר שמשון אל אביו אותה קח לי כי היא ישרה בעיני,

  53. The Talmud criticized Shimshon far more than praises him. And note that several of these verses are not referring to Delilah, but to his first Philistine wife.

  54. I meant Sotah. Don’t know why I said Niddah

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