Sages and Scripture

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I. Mishnah and Scripture

When the Sages of the Talmud explain a verse homiletically, we understand that more literal-minded commentators may deviate from this explanation. But when the Talmud establishes a translation and explanation, do commentators have the right to differ? In other words, are traditional biblical commentators restricted by Talmudic commentary?

An interesting example is that of the first Mishnah in Bava Kama. The Mishnah lists four types of damages, one of them being מבעה. What, the Gemara (3b) asks, is מבעה? There are two opinions, based on verses with similar words. Isaiah (21:12) has the phrase “אם תבעיון בעיו,” which means “If you will search, search.” This is activity that a person will do. Therefore, מבעה refers to damage of the type “man”. On the other hand, Ovadiah (1:6) has the phrase, “נבעו מצפניו,” which, according to Targum, means “Its treasures were revealed.” This refers to damage of the type “tooth,” because teeth are sometimes covered and sometimes revealed.

The implication seems to be that the words בעיו and נבעו are different. The former means “search” and the latter means “revealed.” This is not on a midrashic level but on the level of basic translation. Once the Gemara established this, could commentators disagree?

II. Different Commentaries

As the Gemara noted, the Targum, translates “נבעו” in Ovadiah as revealed. Rashi, however, offers two possibilities, one like Targum and the other as “search.” Rashi then quotes the verse in Isaiah, implying that the usage there is the same as in Ovadiah. This second explanation seems to directly contradict the Gemara, which differentiates between the usages.

After Rashi, it seems that all commentaries equate the two usages — Ibn Ezra, Radak, even Metzudas Tziyon. Only Malbim, in his explanation of the words, explains נבעו according to Targum and the Gemara.

Even before Rashi, R. Menachem Ben Saruk in his Machberes (sv. בע) equates the two words. So do R. Donash Ben Librat in his Teshuvos Al R. Sa’adia Gaon (no. 8) and R. Yonah Ibn Janach in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim (sv. בעה). R. Donash quotes an unusual explanation from R. Sa’adia Gaon — that the word comes from Aramaic for shepherd. I was not able, however, to obtain the original to see what R. Sa’adia wrote.

III. Two Explanations

There are two possible explanations. Either 1) the Gemara is not able to codify the translation of a word. Its biblical translations and commentary do not bind future commentators. As Medieval scholars liked to say, the gates of commentaries are never closed.

Or 2) the Gemara never intended to finalize the explanation. Note that the Gemara quotes the Targum. Perhaps the Gemara meant to say that the word can mean different things — it can be translated like it appears in Isaiah or like the Targum explains its appearance in Ovadiah. All the Gemara was trying to demonstrate is a possible explanation and not a definitive translation. If so, then future commentators were certainly not bound by the Gemara’s suggestion.

(reposted from Nov ’10)

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.

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