Three Comments of Meshech Hochmah on Parashat Bereshit

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Introducing the Project

New year, new commentator to sample (for newcomers, in previous years, we looked at Rashi, Ramban, Onkelos, and then common themes of all three): the Meshech Hochmah of R. Meir Simhah of Dvinsk. I have always thought of him in terms of a comment I heard from my teacher, R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, many years ago.

Dr. Soloveitchik referenced Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which built off a comment attributed to a Greek poet, Archilochus, “the hedgehog knows many things, but the fox knows one big thing.” Berlin suggested the contrast applies to human thinkers, too, some of whom build on one foundational idea that shapes all their work, where others have multiple frames of thought.

As I recall, he suggested that his great-grandfather, R. Chaim Soloveitchik, was a hedgehog, where—drum roll—Meshech Hochmah was a fox. Because R. Meir Simhah wrote a well-known commentary on Rambam titled Or Sameah, novellae on Gemara known as Hiddushei R. Meir Simhah, and our current concern, Meshech Hochmah, comments on the Torah. Each work has its own approach and way of thinking.

For this year, let’s see if we can get to know R. Meir Simhah a bit by studying some of his Meshech Hochmah. I recently saw a story of a rabbi recommending to a student he only undertake very doable resolutions for Rosh HaShanah; when the student told him he had identified something, the teacher said, “good, now cut it in half, and then maybe you’ll be able to do it.”

In that spirit, I hope to take three comments each parsha, and am fairly confident they will give us good food for thought.

The First Day of Creation

Rashi already noticed the Torah refers to the first day of Creation as yom ehad, one day, where all the other days are spoken of in ordinal numbers, second, third, fourth. I leave Rashi’s answer for some other time; Meshech Hochmah argues it is referred to as one because it has no relationship with the days that come after (for reasons we will see in a second). First already implies a second, he says.

[It gives me an excuse to tell a story: in college, I wrote a letter to R. Dr. Norman Lamm, z”l, the president of Yeshiva University, on some scandal du jour. He invited me to his office to discuss the matter, was characteristically gracious, and was among the first to suggest to me I consider the rabbinate as an endeavor. I of course dismissed the idea out of hand. He also pointed out I had written “firstly,” and there is no such word, only a secondly or thirdly. Meshech Hochmah is saying “first,” too, already implies a second.]

It could not be called “first” because Gd eventually put away the light created on that day, light that let one see from one end of the world to the other, for the righteous in the World to Come. That idea of Hagigah 12a means the creation of Day One ended up having no impact on Creation as a whole.

[There’s too much to add here: Clearly, the Torah chose to include the first day, and mention the light, despite Gd’s later storing it for the righteous. How we explain and reconcile the two ideas is currently unimportant to me; it’s only that however we resolve it, it leaves that first day with some relationship to the rest. I suspect Meshech Hochmah thought the Torah named the essential characteristic of that first day as the special light, and in those terms its relationship to the rest was not lasting. But food for thought about what the Torah does or does not do with the story of Creation.]

Creation from the Side or the Center

In the same comment, he notes an idea in Sefer Yetzirah (a very old mystical work, probably from the time of the Talmud and already known by R. Saadya Gaon, not usually thought of as a kabbalist or mystic. Even for this rationalist-leaning writer, Sefer Yetzirah is clearly a work well within longstanding tradition). It gives three examples where R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshu’a have a similar disagreement.

In Yoma 54b, R. Eliezer says the world was created from the middle, R. Yehoshu’a says the side; in Sotah 45b, R. Eliezer holds babies are formed from the navel (the issue there is finding the closest city to a murder victim, to hold an eglah arufah ceremony, where a heifer’s neck is broken as part of the city’s taking responsibility for its failure to protect the roads, a ceremony I portrayed in my novel, Murderer in the Mikdash; R. Eliezer held the cities would measure from the navel, and the other view is to measure from the head, although R. Yehoshu’a is not named); and, third, R. Eliezer held the world was created in Tishrei, R. Yehoshu’a said Nisan.

Meshech Hochmah offers an example of his own, R. Eliezer says the world was created from the waters of the Okyanus, the one ocean the Gemara knew, where R. Yehoshu’a says it was created from the upper waters. To Meshech Hochmah, we can generalize: R. Eliezer tends to see creation as happening from the middle, R. Yehoshu’a from the side.

That makes Midrash Mishlei 909 interesting, because it has a debate about the seat and source of wisdom in people, R. Eliezer pointing to the head, R. Yehoshu’a the heart. To Meshech Hochmah, it is a reversal, R. Yehoshu’a putting wisdom in the center, R. Eliezer the side (this is the second time he referred to the head as “the side”). He ends with ve-haven, understand this, without more explanation.

[He says this very often, so I will work to suggest plausible ideas of what he wanted to indicate.  I think he means R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshu’a agree Gd creates very differently from how people do. He is calling attention to how both switched their views, the one who thought Gd started from the side switching to people working from the center, and vice versa. In that sense, this second part of the comment fits with the first, how the light of the first day ended up being disconnected from our world, both of them making points about how what Gd does is fully separate from this world.]

Human Sexual Ethics Affects the Natural World

Most simply, 2;16 is where Gd allows Adam to eat all the fruits of the Garden, in the next verse excluding the Etz Ha-Da’at.  Meshech Hochmah reminds us Sanhedrin 56b sees this verse as a source for (or hint at) the seven Noahide laws, taking most of the words of the verse as each implying a law. The Gemara reads the word lemor—Gd commanded lemor, a word we translate as “saying,” although commentators struggle with its best rendering—to convey the prohibition of arayot, wrongful sexuality, including adultery.

For a source, the Gemara cites Yirmiyahu 3;1, which starts with lemor and complains about the Jewish people’s marital infidelity (with the metaphor of the Jewish people as wife to Gd). Meshech Hochmah calls our attention to the end of the second verse of that chapter, the Jewish people’s infidelity defiled the land. Sifra Kedoshim 3;7;3-4 says it hurts the yield of the fruits, an idea R. Yehudah finds in the verse in Yirmiyahu itself.

To Meshech Hochmah, the lemor in this verse in Bereshit was a signal to Adam to be careful about arayot so that he would be able to eat the fruit of the Garden (he cites a Yerushalmi and Midrashim about how the crops went bad during the generation of the Flood). He singles out adultery (as did the verse in Yirmiyahu) because it is the form of sexual impropriety mentioned explicitly in this chapter in Bereshit, verse 24.

I think for Meshech Hochmah, the idea fit with his next comment on the verse, that Gd’s words achol tochel, you shall surely eat, were a commandment, a requirement to enjoy the natural world where permitted. Meshech Hochmah seems to see the original presentation of sexual ethics as a matter of this is how the world works, and you humans are supposed to be able to enjoy the world, so stay away from other men’s wives.

It strikes me because I fear the world has become split between mystics and rationalists, mystics overly certain they know all the ins and outs of the metaphysical world and rationalists writing the metaphysical out of the world. Meshech Hochmah offers an example of a metaphysical claim by ordinary exoteric [as opposed to esoteric, hidden lore or knowledge] Judaism: how we behave in our marital lives (as societies, Sifra in Kedoshim said, not each particular individual) impacts the yield of our crops.

Part of our Jewish worldview, he is reminding us, is that Nature isn’t all natural, even before we get to unusual or extraordinary divine intervention.

Human Effort Makes a Sacrifice Worthwhile

The Torah is not clear as to why Gd accepted Hevel’s offering and not Kayin’s, Bereshit 4; 3-5. Meshech Hochmah’s creative answer starts with Yerushalmi Bikkurim 1;3, which assumes date honey counts as the fruit (and therefore entertains the possibility one would bring bikkurim, the first fruits given to a kohen, from the honey). Yet the Torah explicitly rules out honey on the altar, Vayikra 2;12.

He attributes the latter rule to the former idea; since honey counts as the original fruit, there has been no human input into producing it, and a sacrifice must come from items human beings have contributed to making. People work at raising animals for sacrifice (all sacrifices are domesticated animals), and that is why the Torah prohibits offerings under a week old, to force a person to put effort into it and make it fit for the altar.

Fruit grow naturally, however, so they are not items to bring to Gd, where most wheat requires human effort to cultivate, and wine and oil are processed by people. Honey and other fruit juices take no significant human effort (as shown by their beracha being she-hakol, he says), and are therefore not what Gd wants as a sacrifice.

[I see two glaring questions, although the idea is still worth consideration. First, his distinction between fruit and grain is not completely clear, since people also tend to fruit trees, and some grains grow wild. He may have meant grains are processed into flour before being offered, or that since most grain is planted by people, it counts that way.

Second, his idea assumes Gd expected Kayin to know this, or that Gd’s ignoring the offering was not punitive or negative, it was how sacrifice works, although Kayin certainly took it as a slap. In his view, it seems, Kayin ideally would have walked away from the experience saying, “ok, I tried that, made a mistake, I’ll do better next time,” with no hard feelings. It didn’t work out that way.]

I reviewed it here because it is a third example (and I did not see the connection among them when I picked them out) of Meshech Hochmah’s emphasis on the roles people play in shaping the world: human wisdom comes from a different place than where Gd creates, human sexual misdeeds affect the natural world, and human input to an item is needed before Gd will accept it as a sacrifice.

Gd gave people the world, Meshech Hochmah to Bereshit seems to say, and they then play a large role in how it turns out.

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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