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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Omnisignificance

James Kugel has proposed the term “omnisignificance” to describe the essential stance of rabbinic interpretation. These interpreters assume that there is no detail of the text, however insignificant it may seem, that does not carry meaning. Further, this meaning is not merely a matter of emphasis or rhetorical variation; the text intends to teach, and it intends this with every part of itself. The interpreter must find the correct analytical tool to make the teaching clear.

This is a restatement of the rabbinic interpretation of Deut. 32.47 : “‘For it is not an empty thing for you, it is your very life,’ and if [it appears] devoid [of moral or halakhic meaning]—it is you [who have not worked out its moral or legal significance]” (y. Ketub. 8:11 [32 c]). In rabbinic terms omnisignificance has a sharply limited and highly focused range: It is restricted to moral, theological, or legal interpretations. A rabbinic comment attributed to the mid‐3rd century scholar in the land of Israel, R. Simeon ben Lakhish, will illustrate this: “There are verses which are worthy of being burnt, but they are [after all, when properly understood,] essential components of Torah” (b. Ḥul. 60b). “Omnisignificance” is not only a fundamental assumption of the rabbinic view of Scripture, it also guides interpretation into well‐defined channels and establishes a hierarchy of exegetical alternatives.

It also presents a challenge. Having claimed such profundity for all of Scripture, the rabbinic program should deliver on its promise. But the Bible contains a great deal of material which, by rabbinic standards, is not legal, ritual, moral, ethical, or theological: stories of Israelite ancestors, genealogies, poetry (not all of it religious), census lists, geographical and dynastic information of dubious interest to a legal scholar. Thus the Mekhilta (a halakhic midrash on Exodus) runs only from Exod. 12.1 to 35.3 , and skips long passages about the construction of the Tabernacle in Exod. chs 25–40 , except for brief sections relating to 31.12–17 and 35.1–3 . There is no halakhic midrash on Genesis at all. A truly omnisignificant program would fit in all the non‐legal and non‐edificatory passages. It would also cover what is missing. For instance, the Torah lacks explicit mention of matters that the Rabbis—and most Jews—would consider essential, such as the obligation to pray regularly. True, Abraham, Isaac,and Jacob pray, Moses prays, Joshua prays, but regular prayer is not mandated, nor is its structure laid down. The Rabbis settled on Deut. 11.13 , “serving Him with all your heart,” as referring to prayer, which is “the service of the heart” (b. Ta'an. 2 a), but this reference is very vague.

Thus the promise was never totally fulfilled. Omnisignificance is a rabbinic view of Scripture rather than a complete exegetical program, and an ideal which was never actually realized. Not every scriptural text has been interpreted as a strictly “religious” one. The available collections of classic rabbinic texts do not constitute an omnisignificant corpus; not only do they fail to deal with many verses, and even whole biblical chapters, but features which are considered significant—legally or morally—in one context are ignored in others. The rabbinic program or programs do not even attempt to provide a complete commentary, in whatever mode, to any biblical book, chapter, or passage, though in some heavily halakhic chapters in Leviticus something resembling a complete commentary could be composed (an attempt to do so was the Vilna Gaon, in 'Aderet 'Eliyahu). Indeed, the statement quoted above, “if [it appears] devoid [of moral or halakhic meaning]—it is you [who have not worked out its moral or legal significance],” which is reported in the name of the fifth‐generation authority, R. Mana, is an admission of this failure and a rebuke to his colleagues or disciples.

There is another aspect to this problem. The doctrine of omnisignificance assumes a uniform narrative or expositional density in Scripture; the biblical text is presumed to be uniformly informative on some level. The preserved rabbinic exegetical materials available to us do not bear out this assumption, however. For example, the phrases 'ish 'ish, “every man,” (Lev. 15.2; 17.3, 8, 10, 13; 18.6; 20.2, 9; 22.4, 18; 24.15; Num. 1.4; 4.19, 49; 5.12; 9.10 ) and 'ish, “a man,” (Lev. 19.20 ) are sometimes interpreted as including women (b. Zevaḥ. 108b), but at other times not, since the verse itself includes them within its purview when it employs the phrase, 'ish 'o 'ishah, “a man or a woman” (Lev. 13.29, 38 ). Why does Scripture employ these variations? The impression one receives is that rabbinic exegesis reflects a concerted effort to harmonize such expressions and level their applications. Women are included in the expression “every man,” as they are in the expression “a man,” and of course explicitly in the expression “a man or a woman.” The Rabbis never raise these questions in a systematic way.

The omnisignificant imperative proceeds directly from the view of the Torah and the entire Bible as divine revelation; it serves to justify interpretive approaches to biblical texts. Nevertheless, in practice this principle was not universally applied to all biblical texts nor was the meaning restricted to narrow halakhic or moral categories. Indeed, plain‐sense interpretations are not excluded, so long as they have legal, ritual, or edificatory value. At times, then, the interpretation borders on what we would consider the plain sense of the text, so long as it has omnisignificant ramifications.

Goals and Methods of Rabbinic Interpretation

Rabbinic interpretation was concerned to increase the understanding of the text and its acceptability. The Rabbis also aimed to define legal requirements more exactly. The resulting explanations were primarily concerned with interpreting biblical passages in terms that were more understandable or palatable to their contemporaries, and to provide exact definitions and interpretations for biblical verses that had legal or ritual significance.

An example of the first is found in the rabbinic dispute over whether the case of a “rebellious son” of Deut. 21.18–21 ever occurred, or whether it was presented as part of the Deuteronomic legislation merely as an object lesson.

R. Judah said: If [the “stubborn and rebellious” son's] mother is not like his father in voice, appearance and stature, he does not become a stubborn and rebellious son [andthus subject to the death penalty]. Why so? Scripture said: “he will not obey our voice” (Deut. 21.20 ), and since they must be identical in voice, they must also be [identical] in appearance and stature.…There never has been a “stubborn and rebellious” son, and never will be. Why then was the law written? That you may expound it and receive a reward.…[This may agree with R. Simeon, who said:] Because one [= the son] eats a tartemar (about 180 grams) of meat and drinks half a log (about a cup) of Italian wine, shall his father and mother have him stoned? But it never happened and never will happen. Why then was the law written? That you may expound it and receive a reward (b. Sanh. 71 a).

R. Judah interprets the biblical description of the parents’ complaint that their son does “not obey our voice” as mandating that their voices be identical, and the Talmud takes this as an impossible condition. How often will a father and mother have the same “voice, appearance and stature”?

Precise interpretation of a grammatical element is commonly used for legal or ritual texts which are intended to be carried out. Indeed, in other cases, the requirement that two elements of the act be identical is not absolute: for instance, the Mishnah prescribes that the sin offerings brought on the Day of Atonement be alike, but that requirement may be waived (m. Yoma 6:1). It is clear, however, that the imperatives of the two cases are different. Sacrifices must be offered, but executing a rebellious son for being a glutton and a drunkard seemed excessive to R. Simeon. This insistence on the exactitude of biblical expressions is typical of rabbinic interpretation of biblical texts, even when there is no apparent cultural disparity between the biblical and rabbinic worlds. It is bound up with the rabbinic view of Scripture's exceedingly precise mode of expression. While it was in all likelihood Scripture's divine origin that allowed such a mode of interpretation to gain sway, once established, this mode was adopted for rabbinic texts as well, and we find 4 th‐ and 5 th‐century Rabbis applying similar modes of interpretation to the Mishnah and other rabbinic texts, and later authorities doing the same to the Talmuds and later texts.

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