Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hayyei Sarah 5767/ November 18, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

The Exegetical Approach of Meshekh Hokhmah

 

Rabbi Tzvi Tal (Teich)

 

Leader in the Program Hiddaberut for Religious-Secular Dialogue

 

This week’s reading has no commandments, affirmative or negative, that are included in the list of 613 precepts (this is true of Genesis overall).  Precisely for this reason it would be enlightening to compare the behavior of the patriarchs before the Torah was given at Sinai and while it still lay in the lap, as it were, of the Holy One, blessed be He, with halakhah and Jewish customs as found in rabbinic literature.

This theme was approached by Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Cohen of Dvinsk, author of the Torah commentary Meshekh Hokhmah. [1]   His first and foremost expositor is Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Copperman, who in a detailed and systematic way showed the unique approach taken by this work and its author. [2]   One of the tendencies that he noted, inter alia, was the Meshekh Hokhmah’s attempt to find scriptural sources for various halakhic rules that appear in the Talmud or Midrash but for which no explicit source is mentioned.

In my humble opinion, I believe Rabbi Meir Simhah had several objectives in pursuing such a course.

  1. To reveal the close connection between what we call the written Torah and what we call the Oral Law.  Such evidence buttresses faith that the Torah is divine in origin, likewise that the teachings of the Sages is the true explication of the commandments.
  2. To educate and accustom those who study Torah to sharpen their senses and  to go beyond the simple understanding of the meaning of the words; to discover in the written Torah allusions to rules of halakhah and customs that are discussed in the Talmud but whose roots date back to antiquity and can be found in the daily behavior of our patriarchs.  We shall attempt to illustrate how this approach is manifest in the commentary Meshekh Hokhmah, on several verses in this week’s reading.

A.  Before Sarah is buried, we read:  “So Ephron’s land … passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites” (Gen. 23:17-18), and after she is buried it says again: “Thus the field … passed … to Abraham” (Gen. 23:20), this time without the additional words “in the presence of the Hittites.”  According to Rabbi Meir Simhah, this is the basis for the notion of the geonim which is mentioned in the Vilna Gaon’s explication of Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 194, that when a Jew acquires land from a gentile, any one of three ways of acquisition –kesef, shtar, hazakah-- money, bill of sale, or possession – suffices to make it no longer the property of the gentile, but only after all three ways of acquisition have been realized does it become the property of the Jew.  Therefore, it was only after Sarah’s burial, which fulfilled the requirement of hazakah (possession), that the field actually became Abraham’s property.

By paying close attention to differences in Biblical language that could be interpreted in numerous ways, Rabbi Meir Simhah draws a connection between stories about the patriarchs and the ways of acquiring real estate that are detailed in the Shulhan Arukh. In this way he tied details of the Oral Law with verses in the Torah.

B.  Another example is provided by his interpretation of the verse, “The Lord, G-d of Heaven, … who promised me on oath, saying, … and you will get a wife for my son from there” (Gen. 24:7).  In this verse Rabbi Meir Simhah finds the source of the halakhah noted by Maharik, [3] that a son need not heed his father if his father opposes his marriage to the women he wishes to wed.  Rabbi Meir Simhah sees in the fact that Abraham did not himself command Isaac not to marry a Canaanite woman, but rather delegated his servant Eliezer to carry out the mission of finding Isaac a wife, as hinting at this fine point of Jewish law. [4]

These two interpretations are not imperative, and certainly the verses could have been interpreted otherwise or no significance at all could have been ascribed to them; many of Rabbi Meir Simhah’s contemporaries – the Netziv of Volozhin in his commentary Ha’amek Davar, and Rabbi Michael Epstein in Torah Temimah, did not take R. Meir Simhah’s path, even though they generally followed a similar approach in their interpretations and categorically belong to the school of the Vilna Gaon.

C.  “The matter was decreed by the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good.   Here is Rebekah before you, take her and go” (Gen. 24:50-51).  In the conversation between Eliezer and Laban, Rabbi Meir Simhah finds an allusion to a talmudic discussion.  Abraham, after all, was Isaac’s agent in the matter of finding a wife.   That being so, how could he have appointed an agent in his place, since one agent is not allowed to delegate another agent, for that “goes against” an opinion in the Shulhan Arukh (Even ha-Ezer 36) – at least so Laban could have argued, refusing to accept Abraham’s servant’s act in the matter of marriage.   But, since “the matter was decreed by the Lord,” it did not depend on the wishes of the bride at all, and in such a case according to all opinions an agent may appoint another agent (shaliah ‘oseh shaliah) in the matter of marriage.

By adopting this exegetical approach, Rabbi Meir Simhah was taking a stand on the status of the patriarchs and their actions, even though the events took place before the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and involved people who, in the view of some of the early rabbinic authorities, may perhaps have had the same halakhic status as the sons of Noah.   Rabbi Meir Simhah sought to find indications in their actions that provide foundations for rules of halakhah and Jewish practice that were formulated after the giving of the Torah and over the course of later generations, for, according to an opinion expressed by the Sages, the patriarchs (and their servants) observed all the laws of the Torah.  In other words, the will of the Creator was tangibly present in all that they did and therefore one can find a correlation between the deeds of the patriarchs and the Teaching followed by their descendants. [5]

Examining several of the responsa of contemporary posekim, we have the impression that they relate to Meshekh Hokhmah as a work on Jewish Law, which happened to arrange its material in the order of the weekly Torah readings.  His commentaries are cited as evidential foundation for various rulings, without those who cite him mentioning that the cited “ruling” appears in a book of commentary on the Torah. [6]   It may well be that Rabbi Meir Simhah himself perceived his own work as such, as a halakhically significant book, even though it is based on interpreting the Bible and not on examining halakhic questions in the Talmud.



[1] The magnum opus of Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Cohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926.   He also wrote Or Same’ah, a commentary on Maimonides.  In his lifetime he was dubbed “Master of the Torah” and was one of the pillars of the Lithuanian-Polish Jewish community before the Holocaust.

[2] Pirkei Mavo le-Perush Meshekh Hokhmah al ha-Torah, Jerusalem 1976.

[3] 167, and in the Rema, Yoreh De’ah 240.25. Maharik=R. Joseph Colon, writer of responsa, France 1420- Padua 1480.

[4] The Midrash and Rashi assume that the servant was Eliezer.

[5] I deal with this question in my Master’s thesis, “The Hatam Sofer – A Study of His Teachings,” Ramat Gan, 1997, especially pp. 78-84.  In my opinion, the approach of Rabbi Meir Simhah to learning rules of halakhah from scriptural verses is similar to that of the Hatam Sofer.

[6] Further development of this idea can be found in the doctoral dissertation submitted to Bar Ilan University by Rabbi Atty. Yitzhak Cohen, dealing at length with the ideas of Rabbi Meir Simhah of Dvinsk.