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

Nonlegal Interpretation

There is nothing like this systematic concern for nonlegal or “aggadic” interpretation in rabbinic literature, though here too the principle of omnisignificance holds sway. On the whole, the rabbinic collections of aggadic material were directed at the common people, and reflect their interests and concerns. Judging from this huge literature, theosophic and mystical concerns were then, as later, esoteric and limited to small numbers of adepts. Thus, the problems of interpreting the Bible as an omnisignificant text as described above were shaped by yet another concern: making the Bible relevant not only to rabbinic disciples but also to the nonscholarly audience who heard the Torah in synagogue rather than studying it in the bet midrash.

The Rabbis acknowledged the relative disproportion in the biblical text between rabbinic concerns and other material, as in this comment from R. Aḥa, perhaps the fourth‐generation 'amora' in Israel of that name:

The conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs is more pleasing before the Holy One, blessed be He, than the Torah[‐learning] of the[ir] descendants, for the passage [dealing with the journey] of Eliezer, [the servant of Abraham, in seeking a wife for Isaac takes up] two or three columns [of text in a Torah scroll], is said and repeated [i.e., the passage describes the journey and then quotes Eliezer describing the journey], while the [rule that] the blood of a [dead] creeping thing causes impurity as does its flesh, [which is] among the essential parts of the Torah (migupei Torah) [but is derived] from an inclusion [of one letter] (Gen. Rab. 60 :32, ed. Theodor‐Albeck, p. 650).

Later on another comment by the same sage is quoted, even more poignantly:

The foot‐washing of the servants of the Patriarchs is more pleasing before the Holy One, blessed be He, than the Torah[‐learning] of the[ir] descendants, for even the washing of [his] feet [in Gen. 24.32 ] must be recorded, [while the rule that] the blood of a [dead] creeping thing causes impurity as does its flesh, [which is] among the essential parts of the Torah (migupei Torah) [but is derived] from an inclusion [of one letter] (p. 651).

R. Aḥa's comment clearly calls attention to the disparity in Torah's treatment of halakhic matters versus the detail in the patriarchal narratives—and by extension, the nonhalakhic parts of the Torah. But his intent is less clear. To his successors, the Torah could hardly be conceived as intending to devalue the halakhot derived by one letter, or the halakhic process in general. The case of the patriarchs, or the subjects of biblical narratives in general, must have an importance in God's scheme of things that warrants such attention to their doings.

This led, in later times, to the idea that the lives of the patriarchs prefigured the history of their descendants. The kernel of this idea may be seen in the Genesis narrative of theCovenant Between the Pieces, where God informs Abram of the future Egyptian bondage, the exodus and the entrance into the land of Israel (Gen. ch 15 ). Thus, R. Aḥa (4th century), in describing the creation of Adam, concludes that God gives Adam his discharge after Adam's sin and says:

This is a sign for you: just as you have come in judgment before Me and been discharged, so too your descendants will come in judgment before Me and I will give them their discharge. When? On Rosh Hashanah, [the Day of Judgment] (Lev. Rab. 29:1 , ed. Margoliot, p. 669).

Without specifying this principle of patriarchal anticipation of the history of the people of Israel, R. Joshua of Sikhnin (4th century, a younger contemporary of R. Aḥa) comments on Abraham's battle with the Mesopotamian kings in Gen. ch 14 :

The Holy One, blessed be He, gave a sign to Abraham that whatever would befall him would befall his descendants. How? He chose Abraham from among his entire father's house…and he chose his descendants from the Seventy Nations (Midrash Tanḥuma).

On the whole, typical rabbinic midrash was intended to attract people and inculcate moral, ethical and religious values, particularly in preaching. In the process, a good deal of folkloric material was incorporated. At times, however, the folklore is brought in for its own sake, in order to appeal to the preacher's listeners. Thus, for example, in Lev. Rab. 19:6 (ed. Margaliot, p. 438), we find the following discussion regarding the name of Nebuchadnezzar's wife.

What was the name of the wife of Nebuchadnezzar? R. Ḥananiah said: Semiram was her name; R. Abin said: Semiramis was her name; and the Rabbis said: Semira'am was her name, because she was born in ra'am during an earthquake [or, in thunder].

While the names come from Hellenistic sources, and at least one partly Hebrew folk‐etymology was provided for one name, no moral lesson is drawn. The motive for the explanation of the names would seem to be the need to satisfy the curiosity of the listeners. In contrast, Noah's (scripturally anonymous) wife is identified with another biblical woman, and the name is expounded homiletically.

“And the sister of Tubal Cain was Naamah” (Gen. 4.22 ). Said R. Abba ben Kahana: Naamah was the wife of Noah [the assonance of Noah and Naamah should not be overlooked], and why was she called Naamah? Because her deeds were pleasant (ne'imim). The rabbis said: [She] was another Naamah, who would play her tambourine sweetly for idol worship (Gen. Rab. 23:22 , p. 224).

The purpose of this identification is more complex. It serves to connect two verses which are otherwise disconnected; it also serves to explain why Naamah is mentioned at all, since she plays no role in the events depicted by Scripture. And, finally, the iden‐tification allows the Rabbis to comment obliquely on the nature of the sinfulness of the generation before the flood. According to R. Abba ben Kahana, Noah, the righteous man, married a righteous woman, whose deeds were pleasant. According to the Rabbis, this Naamah was typical of her sinful generation, and her deeds helped bring on the flood. Needless to say, these identifications would also have satisfied the curiosity of the people who came to hear the scriptural portion expounded. Indeed, the Bible itself provides a precedent for such exegetical elaboration. The prophet Jehu ben Hanani is mentioned in 1 Kings 16.1–12 , and his father, Hanani, appears only in his patronym. But in 2 Chron. 16.7 , we find the father playing a more active role: “At that time Hanani the seer came to King Asa of Judah and said to him, ‘Because you relied on the king of Aram and did not rely on the LORD your God, therefore the army of the king of Aram has slipped out of yourhands.’” This then illustrates the rule expounded by R. Yoḥanan, that every prophet's father who is mentioned along with his son was also a prophet (b. Meg. 15a, Lev. Rab. 6:6, pp. 142–143 ). Such an assumption made sense in a society where sons most often followed their fathers' occupation. It also illustrates the idea that a person or family is to be judged as a whole: If a family is known for its piety, it (or, for that matter, a nation) is judged by its reputation. The result is the far‐ranging rabbinic principle that “one attributes meritorious behavior to the meritorious (megalgelin zekhut 'al yedei zakai), and sinful acts to the sinful” (Sifre Num. 114, p. 123) and its closely associated principle that if a person or nation performs a certain (minimally) meritorious or sinful deed, it is accounted as though she or they had performed a much greater one (ma'aleh 'alav/'alehen ke'ilu) (Sifre Deut. 253, p. 279).

In particular, when Scripture attributes a sinful act to an otherwise righteous character, or one whose reputation was considered, for one reason or another, sacrosanct, the Rabbis did not hesitate to reinterpret the relevant verse or verses. A case in point is David's adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his plotting the death of her husband, Uriah the Hittite (a story omitted in Chronicles because it does not comport with David as an ideal king). A long disquisition on David is included as one of a long series of defenses of biblical characters to whom sin is imputed (b. Shab. 55b‐56b).

R. Samuel ben Naḥmani said in R. Jonathan's name: Whoever says that David sinned is merely in error, for it is said, “And David behaved wisely in all his ways: and the LORD was with him” (1 Sam. 18.14 ). Is it possible that sin came to his hand, yet the divine Presence was with him? Then how do I interpret [the verse] “Wherefore have you despised the word of the LORD, to do that which is evil in His sight?” (2 Sam. 12.9 )—he wished to do [evil] but did not.

Rav observed: Rabbi, who is descended from David, seeks to defend him! [Not so, for] the “evil” [mentioned] here is unlike any other evil [mentioned] elsewhere in the Torah. For of every other evil [mentioned] in the Torah it is written, “and he did,” whereas here it is written, “to do”—this means that he desired to do, but did not (b. Shab. 56a).

The various verses that accuse David of adultery and murder are thereby reinterpreted; Uriah was guilty of disobeying the king's order to go home, and was therefore worthy of death as a rebel (see 2 Sam. ch 12 ). David was criticized for arranging his death in battle rather than having him arraigned before the Sanhedrin; again, his relationship with Bathsheba was not adulterous because all of David's soldiers gave their wives divorces before setting out to battle. Thus, Bathsheba was a divorced woman when David had his affair with her, and her husband was guilty of traitorous insubordination.

Unlike much of rabbinic midrash, which adds further layers of interpretation onto the plain meaning of the verse, the Rabbis' treatment of such incidents and verses run counter to that plain meaning. For the Rabbis and for the communities they represented, the stakes were simply too high to allow the plain sense to stand.

Similarly, at least for some Rabbis, the theological stakes were too high to maintain the plain sense of those verses which express an anthropomorphic view of God.

“And rested on the seventh day” (Exod. 20.11 ). But is He subject to such a thing as weariness? Has it not been said: “The creator of the ends of the earth is not faint or weary” (Isa. 40.28 )? And it says, “He gives power to the faint” (Isa. 40.29 ). And it also says, “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made” (Ps. 33.6 ). How then can Scripture say, “And rested on the seventh day”? Rather, so to speak, God allowed it to be written about Him that He created His world in six days and rested on the seventh. Is it not an a fortiori argument? If He, forWhom there is no weariness, allowed it to be written about Him that He created His world in six days and rested on the seventh, how much more should man, of whom it is written, “But man is born to toil” (Job 5.7 ), rest on the seventh day (Mekhilta Yitro, 7, end, ed. Lauterbach, vol. 2, pp. 255–256).

In this interpretation the Rabbis accomplish two objectives. First, any suggestion that weariness may be attributed to God is rejected, but, equally important, the verse in question is turned into one which stresses the importance of the Sabbath for humans.

Nevertheless, some Rabbis seem to have reveled in these anthropomorphic depictions of the Deity, and even added to them (b. Ber. 6 a):

R. Abin son of R. Adda in the name of R. Isaac says: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, puts on phylacteries (tefillin)? For it is said, “The LORD has sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength” (Isa. 62.8 ). “By His right hand”—this [refers] to the Torah, for it is said, “At His right hand was a fiery law to them” (Deut. 33.2 ). “And by the arm of His strength”—this [refers] to the phylacteries, as it is said, “The LORD will give strength to His people” (Ps. 29.11 ). And how do we know that the phylacteries are a strength to Israel? For it is written, “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the LORD is called upon you, and they shall be afraid of you” (Deut. 28.11 ), and it has been taught: R. Eliezer the Great says: This refers to the phylactery of the head.

This is not meant as a metaphysical statement, however, for the Talmud goes on to inquire as to what verses are written on the parchments of God's phylacteries. According to R. Ḥiyya ben Abin, “And who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth” (1 Chron. 17.21 ). The phylacteries become a visible symbol of the relationship of God and Israel, and God's love for His people.

God's love for Israel is one of the constant themes of aggadic interpretation. In a sense, we have seen it at work in the interpretation of the ancestral narratives as foreshadowings of the future history of the Jewish people. It also serves as a powerful exegetical tool for other nonlegal or nontheological passages. Any passage that has some relation to Israelite history, sociology, demography (as the various census lists), etc., may be viewed as a manifestation of God's love for His people. Such a love is expressed as a concern for anything that relates to the beloved.

“These were the marches of the Israelites” (Num. 33.1 ). A parable; to what may this be compared? To a king whose son was ill; he took him to one place to cure him, and on the way back, the father began to recount all the marches [they had undertaken], saying to him: Here we slept, here we were cold, here your head hurt. So too did the Holy One, blessed be He, say to Moses: Recount for them all the places they had angered Me. For that reason it is written: “These were the marches of the Israelites” (Tanḥuma Mas'ei 3).

Thus is a rather bare‐bones list of camping places in the wilderness converted into an expression of God's love for Israel. This interpretive tool serves several functions: It explains the omnisignificant worth of many biblical passages by allegorizing them as reflecting in some way the relationship of God the Father to the Israelites; and in doing so, it responded to an urgent need for the reassurance of God's love for Israel and Israel's chosenness at a time when Christianity challenged both notions.

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