Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Mishpatim 5768 / February 2, 2008

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,



Nahmanides –Between Exegesis and Halakhah


Rabbi Johanan Kapah




Nahmanides’ writings are extensive and varied.   His works can be divided into several areas:  works in defense of the Rishonim (early rabbinic authorities), [1]   monographs on Halakhah, [2] monographs on Jewish thought and faith, [3] and commentaries on the Talmud [4] and Scriptures.  Scholars on Nahmanides note that often his commentary on the Torah contains a repetition of things which he wrote elsewhere.  According to Unna, most of the repeated material is taken primarily from his glosses (Hasagot)  on Maimonides’ Sefer ha-Mitzvot. [5]   This is to be expected, since Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot, beyond being a talmudic-halakhic work, also includes elements that are patently biblical exegesis.

Generally Nahmanides repeated ideas from one work to another, but in a number of instances in his commentary on the Torah he deliberately chose to interpret the text differently, sometimes even in a manner that contradicted things he wrote in his glosses.   Apparently the reason for this lies in the difference between a midrashic-talmudic interpretation and a straightforward (peshat) scriptural interpretation. 

An example of this is his commentary on a verse from this week’s reading:  “Be on guard concerning all that I have told you” (Ex.23:13).   This is interpreted in the Mekhilta (Kaspa, par. 20, Horovitz-Rabin ed. p. 331) in four ways:

Be on guard concerning all that I have told you.   Why is this said?     Because it says [about the sanctuary vessels]:  “and you shall set down the table,” etc. (Ex. 26:35) [making the placement of the vessels a positive commandment; therefore, this verse comes to teach] if he changes around their order he transgresses a negative commandment.   That is why it says, “Be on guard (tishameru) concerning all that I have told you.”  R. Meir says:  It is to make the words of the Torah obligatory upon you.   R. Eliezer says:   It is to make the positive commandments have the force of the negative commandments.   R. Eliezer b. Jacob says:  Thus far I would know only what the text explicitly states. How about the laws derived from the verses?   Scripture says:   “Be on guard concerning all that I have told you.”

The Mekhilta presents four tannaitic approaches to interpreting this verse.  According to tanna kama (the first opinion), this teaches us that one may not alter the arrangement of the vessels in the Temple; according to Rabbi Meir, the verse applies to all the regulations of the Torah, making them obligatory; according to Rabbi Eliezer, the verse adds a corresponding negative commandment to every positive commandment (as in Rashi’s interpretation of this verse), and according to Rabbi Eliezer b. Jacob, the verse is a general principle that cautions us regarding the subtleties of the Torah text, to observe not only that which is explicitly written but also that which is derived from the scriptural text.

From Maimonides’ remarks in Sefer ha-Mitzvot (fourth principle) it follows that he sided with Rabbi Eliezer b. Jacob’s opinion, [6] because he wrote that one should not deduce a negative commandment from the Torah from this verse, since Maimonides’ fourth rule regarding counting commandments states that  “it is not fitting to count those commandments that subsume the entire Torah.”   But apparently Nahmanides interpreted in accordance with tanna kama, that this was a specific negative commandment not to re-arrange the vessels in the Sanctuary. Therefore he criticized Maimonides in the section of his Hasagot (critiques, glosses) called “Commandments which Maimonides omitted” (third commandment), and he included this verse (Ex.23:13) in his list of the negative commandments:

The third commandment that we are instructed not to do is not to change the order in which the vessels are arranged in the Temple, such as the arrangement of the table, the lampstand and the altars, as He said, “Be on guard concerning all that I have told you.”  According to the accepted interpretation, this is a warning regarding the commandment pertaining to the arrangement of the Temple. . . In the Mekhilta it says:  Be on guard concerning all that I have told you.   Why is this said? [Here Nahmanides brings all the views]…   But the halakhah is according to tanna kama in the Mekhilta.

If follows from Nahmanides’ remarks that the Torah’s injunction to “be on guard” (tishameru) refers to a negative commandment derived from the Torah that forbids changing the arrangement of the vessels in the Temple.   Nahmanides concluded this from the Mekhilta. In his commentary on the Torah (Ex.23:13), however, Nahmanides, opening with a critique of Rashi, totally ignored the interpretation given by tanna kama in the Mekhilta and chose to follow only the plain sense of the text:

Be on guard concerning all that I have told you – Rashi (Ex.23:13) explained: “This verse is intended to bring every positive commandment also under the term of a prohibition; for whenever the term shmirah (“be on guard”) is used in the Torah it signifies an admonition which signals an express prohibition.” Now according to his explanation, the Rabbi [Rashi] would have to say that this verse is a negative generalization expressed in general terms (lav she-bikhlalot) [so that violation of any or all the prohibitions included in it does not render one liable to punishment], for if that were not so, the court would have to administer lashes to anyone who fails to fulfill any of the positive commandments of the Torah; but [if so, there is the following difficulty with Rashi’s explanation]: The Rabbis have already said that the term hishamer (“be on guard”) used in connection to a positive commandment, carries the force of an additional positive commandment; in that case, the Torah has added here   [not a negative commandment as Rashi has it] but a positive one [Nahmanides may be saying that the statement “Be on guard concerning all that I have told you” refers to the positive commandments mentioned in the preceding verses 10-12].  In the Mekhilta the Sages differed as to the explanation of this verse and  interpreted it in several ways. According to the plain sense (ve-al derekh ha-peshat) the verse means “concerning all I have told you [many times] with respect to [worshipping] other gods you should be on guard,” for the text is tied to the end of the verse [which states: “and make no mention of the name of other gods”].

On the face of things, there is a blatant contradiction between Nahmanides’ interpretation of our verse in his Hasagot and in his Commentary. However, one should not take Nahmanides’ remarks, “The Rabbis have already said that the term hishamer (“be on guard”) used in connection to a positive commandment, carries the force of an additional positive commandment,” to mean that Nahmanides views this verse as a positive commandment, which would contradict what he had said in “Commandments which Maimonides omitted” where he interpreted this verse as being a negative commandment.  His intention was simply to reject Rashi’s interpretation, which ultimately has to view the command to “be on guard” as a positive commandment, since Ramban feels that the expression “be on guard” is always to be understood according to the relevant commandment in the Torah to which it pertains:   if a positive commandment, then it is positive, and if a negative commandment, then it is negative. [7]   Nahmanides thinks that the words “be on guard” refer to the prohibitions that follow in the next half of the verse – “Make no mention of the names of other gods; they shall not be heard on your lips” – so that the “being on guard” indeed has the force of a negative commandment.

What is clear is that Nahmanides did not follow the line of his remarks in his Hasagot al Sefer Ha-mitzvot, where he indicated that the verse refers to the negative commandment concerning arrangement of the vessels in the Temple. Rather, he made do with rejecting Rashi’s interpretation, which followed that of Rabbi Eliezer in the Mekhilta, [8] and noted that the Mekhilta contains several possible ways of interpreting the verse, yet he ignored all of them, even the view of tanna kama, which, as he noted in “Commandments which Maimonides omitted” (third commandment), the halakhah follows.  Instead, in his Commentary, he chose to explain the verse according to the plain sense.  Nevertheless, one should note that Nahmanides generally explained every verse in his Torah Commentary according to its halakhic interpretation, yet here he completely ignored the view of tanna kama.

Why did he not do so here? Although Nahmanides held that “the halakhah follows tanna kama,” the reason for his change of position in his Bible commentary is that the tanna kama cannot be seen as explaining the plain sense of the Scripture, for one cannot say that the verse which appears in Parashat Mishpatim, in past tense – “concerning all that I have told you” – refers to a commandment given only six chapters later, concerning the Tabernacle, not to change the order of the Sanctuary vessels.  Clearly, Nahmanides cannot explicate the text like Rabbi Eliezer, either, for this is Rashi’s approach that Nahmanides rejected; therefore he completely ignores the words of the Mekhilta, which in no way match the plain sense of the text or even his own halakhic-exegetical method, and explains the verse only according to its plain sense.

This is in line with Nahmanides’ comment on Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 22:8):   “Regarding these laws there are ‘few words in Scripture but many rules of halakhah; [9] but there is no need to explicate them here, except insofar as is necessary to reconcile the biblical text [using a phrase coined by Rashi—yishuv ha-miqra’ot].”

[1] For example, Sefer Milhamot Hashem – in defense of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi against criticisms by Rabbi Zerahia  ha-Levi, called Ba’al Ha-Maor; Sefer ha-Zekhut – in defense of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi against criticisms by Rabbi Abraham Ibn Daud (Raabad); Hassagot al Sefer ha-Mitzvot – in defense of the Halakhot Gedolot (BaHaG)against criticisms by Maimonides.

[2] Tashlum Halakhot le-Nedarim, Bekhorot ve-Hallah – a supplement to Rabbi Alfasi’s work; Hilkhot Niddah; Torat ha-Adam – dealing with laws concerning the sick, dying, and mourning.

[3] Such as Sefer ha-Ge’ulah, Sefer ha-Viku’ah, Taryag Mitzvot, Arba Derashot, and others.

[4] His new insights into the Mishnah (Hiddushim la-Shas), and Sefer Dina de-Garmei.

[5] Y.Unna, “Ha-Ramban be-Tor Mefaresh ha-Mikra,” Sinai 9-12, Jerusalem 1943, p. 218.

[6] The Talmud comments about him, that  his teaching was not extensive but of excellent quality (Gittin 67a).

[7] Tosafot,  Rosh ha-Shannah 6a, s.v. tishmor, noted that tishmor in the verse, “You must fulfill [tishmor] what has crossed your lips” (Deut. 23:24) indicates a negative commandment since it refers back to “do not put off fulfilling it” (verse 22); whereas ve-shamarta in the verse, “You shall keep [ve-shamarta] this institution at its set time” (Ex. 13:10) indicates a positive commandment since it refers to the laws about Passover, mentioned in the preceding verses.

[8] According to the Mizrahi supercommentary on Rashi, loc. sit.; also according to notes in  Horowitz-Rabin ed. of Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, p.331, line 17.

[9] Based on Mishnah Hagigah 1:8: ‘The laws of the Sabbath, hagigah sacrifices, and me’ilah are as hills suspended by a hair, for Scripture is scanty and the rules are many.”