To my readers:
You may have noticed there was no musing last week. I had the opportunity to take a much-needed vacation last week, and found myself truly relaxing. I barely posted anything on Facebook or Twitter, or check messages, respond to texts, read news feeds. That wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice on my part. It just happened. No, I’m not going to give a lecture on the joys of disconnecting. I still won’t be participating in the next Shabbat of Unplugging. I use and co-opt the technology into the service of my Jewish practice, just as I use it to support my life. It is a tool, and one that I strive to control rather than letting it control me. I can get through a week of minimal connection without developing serious FOMO. I did some biking and hiking, lots of reading, a lot of crosswords (and I did the reading on a Kindle, and the crosswords both on my phone and in printed books.) Mostly, I relaxed, and I discovered it was precisely what I needed. I managed to not publish a missing without feeling guilty about it, without even feeling the need to let my readers know. I was mellow. I was chill. It was good. There are some ways in which getting older is improving me. So thanks for indulging my chill. Now, on to this revisiting of an older musing.
A traditional understanding of the mitzvot found in the Torah (both written and oral) rest squarely on this all important verse which begins chapter 13 of Sefer D’varim, the Book of Deuteronomy:
אֵ֣ת כָּל־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֹת֥וֹ תִשְׁמְר֖וּ לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לֹא־תֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֔יו וְלֹ֥א תִגְרַ֖ע מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
“Et kol hadavar asher anokhi m’tzaveh etkhem oto tishmeru la’asot, lo-toseif alaiv v’lo tigra mimenu”
“Every thing which I have commanded y’all it (him) to take care to do, do not add to him (it), and do not subtract from him/us (it).”
Bear with me on this translation style. For one thing, it’s that gender issue with Hebrew. “Etkhem” is direct-object second person plural masculine. English has no equivalent. You is you, whether singular or plural, masculine or feminine, unlike the Hebrew. I’ve become convinced that “y’all” might just be the best way to translate it.
Also, I’ve gone to great pains to indicate the syntax and structure of the verse in as simple and direct a word-for-word manner as I can, albeit scholars have long agreed upon colloquialisms that help clean up Hebrew’s sometimes odd way of phrasing things. JPS translates it as “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.” The ever-poetic Everett Fox translates it as: “Everything that I command you, *that* you are to take care to observe, you are not to add to it, you are not to diminish from it!” (Fox italicizes the “that” for emphasis-I used the asterisks so that the emphasis will show even on systems using plain ASCII text displays.)
We’ll get to some of the other translation oddities in a second. Basically, the “essential understanding” (for you uBD fans) of the verse is do what G”d has commanded exactly as G”d commanded.
Seems a simple enough concept. For a traditional Jew, one who fully accepts the rabbinic and subsequent codification of the written and oral law (as found in Mishna, Talmud, Rabbinic commentaries and further expanded into Halacha as found in the Shulkhan Arukh et al) as being “exactly what G”d commanded” it can (on the one hand) be quite simple. (On the other hand, there’s nothing simple at all about traditional Judaism. It may seem that way to us liberal Jews from the outside. We can sometimes look down upon the traditionally observant as “simple folk who live best when simply told what to do all the time” and compare it to “being in the armed forces.” Truth be told, neither of those is all that simple. Most (but not all) liberal Jews don’t have to struggle with each and every mitzvot – we just pick and choose. I don’t believe that having to think about all the mitzvot all the time makes for a simple life, do you? I’ve heard it argued that being a liberal Jew is actually harder, and I can see how that might be so, if we all truly struggled each and every moment to understand what it is that G”d really wants of us. So, for the moment, let’s just say that neither traditional nor liberal Jews have chosen the simple path. But I digress.)
Notice, by the way, how I translate et-kol-hadavar as “every thing” and not “everything.” There’s a point to that. We tend to think of “everything” as a plural, all lumped together. “Every thing” allows a certain distinctness to each of the components. “Hadavar” is singular. And elsewhere in the Torah we do find the Hebrew expression “et kol ha-d’varim.” Every “things” or “all of the things.” Seems to me there’s a reason why here it says “et kol ha-davar” and not “et kol ha-d’varim.” It is literally saying “all the-thing” and not “all the-things.” That point could be for distinctiveness, as in “each and every little thing” or “every jot and tittle” to remind us that the whole is made of up distinct individual parts, each one different from the other. Maybe so. Maybe not.
The mystery is notched up when we examine the end of the verse. That last word, “mimenu” can be both 3rd person masculine singular (from him/it) but it can also be 1st person plural (from us/those). If one wanted to really play around with the translation, you could say:
“Every (individual) thing that I have commanded y’all to take care to do – do not add to this, and do not subtract from these.”
“Every (individual) thing that I have commanded y’all to take care to do – do not add to this, and do not subtract from those.”
Or even more interesting:
“Every (individual) thing that I have commanded y’all to take care to do – do not add to this, and do not subtract from us.” (Reading mimenu as 1st person plural)
(For those who need a little refresher – these/those are the plural forms of this/that. In general, “this” refers to a specific thing that is close by or that one is experiencing. That generally refers to some thing more distant or less immediate, or a thing previously identified or experienced.)
[That last one could be a way of saying that the act of adding (unnecessarily) to a mitzvah might diminish us. wow. Shades of my two favorite krispy critters, Nadav and Avihu. Never thought I’d be able to work them into this musing. I guess that “eish zara” qualifies as violating this commandment (even though that incident happens before this particular commandment is revealed in the text in this parasha – in a book (D’varim) which many scholars believe was a much later work than the previous four books of the Torah.]
Oy, may head is spinning with the possibilities of interpretation. What is the intended message here? Somehow, I’m now pretty sure it isn’t as simple as “do things exactly as G”d commanded.” Despite the vagaries of biblical Hebrew, the Torah could have found a more explicit and definitive way to say what it says in Deut. 13:1. It could say
“Every individual thing that I have commanded y’all to take care to do, do not add anything to any commandment, or diminish any commandment.”
G”d could have found a more definitive way to make the point. G”d/Torah didn’t. Saying
“all thing I commanded y’all to take care to do, do not add to it, and do not subtract from it” (or possibly “from us”)
– which is a pretty literal translation if we disregard some of what we believe is normal syntax for biblical Hebrew – is not being explicit, no matter how you slice it. And if one (or perhaps The One) wants to be explicit yet is going to use colloquialisms, one (The One?) had better make sure their meaning will be clear to future generations.
When I first wrote this musing 12 years ago, I included a thought which I later deleted. This year, I’m feeling the need to express it. It’s heretical, at least from a traditional viewpoint.
I’m no Karaite – while I do not consider myself bound by rabbinical halakha, I do believe it can and should inform our practice, or, at the very least, our attempt to understand Judaism and create our understanding of it. That being said, I can no longer restrain myself from stating the obvious.
Is not the very idea of the “oral Torah” a prima facie violation of the commandment to not add to or subtract from the Torah? (A Karaite would certainly agree with that.)
Of course, there do exist in Judaism some apologetics for Deut 13:1. The most common is to explain that this text is more specifically in reference to the rules that immediately precede it relating to not following the practices of others, about sacrifices, and the eating of meat. Eh. A lame and weak argument at best.
Now, I do not come to abolish the law and the prophets. (Hmmm, where have I heard that before? Hey, gimme a break. If it’s an accurate quote, it is quoting a Jew.) The creators of the oral law (and I do believe they were human and not Divine creators) realized early on that they were dealing with a somewhat vague and imperfect document in the Torah.(Dare we go down the rabbit-hole of the origins of the Torah herself? We could, but I do like to keep some level of mystery in my heart, so, at least for the purposes of this musing, I desire to hold open the possibility of a Divine it Divinely-inspired origin for Torah. Let’s give the creators of the Oral Torah a break, and assume they were seeking to help the people of Israel understand a Torah that they believed was of Divine origin.) So the creators of the Oral Torah started, I believe, dealing with the mundane and quotidian things that were perplexing in the Torah, and eventually expanded into a wider philosophical realm. They started out answering simple questions and gradually got into more esoteric things– at what time can we recite the evening Sh’ma? How do we deal with the laws of purity for women and men? How do we follow the Torah’s rules about latrines? What the heck is this stuff about not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk?
Building on the work of the creators of the Oral Torah, the rabbis reach an orgasmic climax in discussion of the kashrut status of an oven at which point they declare themselves the ultimate arbiters of what the Torah (and the Oral Torah) say and mean. Even a bat kol, a Divine voice command from heaven, could be ignored by the rabbis.
The irony here is that another story involving a bat kol has a very different conclusion.Never ones to be concerned with contradicting even themselves, elsewhere in the Talmud they declare, discussing a dispute between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai
אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים
These and those are the words of the Living G”d (Eruvin 13b)
(Not being ones to waste a lesson, it goes on to state that House Hillel in correct, because they have proven to be the more humble and agreeable party.)
The beauty of Talmud has always been that it preserves multiple opinions on topics, even while if may sometimes put a thumb on the scale. I have always admired this about Judaism. However, when examined through the lens I am using here, it may simply be the inevitable result of merging the varying conflicting stories, mishegas and bubble meises of the human sources that became the basis of the Oral Torah.
I often wonder if Mishna, Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh, et al are simply the inevitable result of the the tangled web the rabbis wove from their initial deception (even a well-intentioned deception.) Once they started explaining the Torah, they had to keep refining and expanding the explanations. Soon, they were in to deep to back out. I sometimes think this is still he case when it comes to modern poskim (deciders.) Traditional Jews are just too invested in the system to risk admitting that the whole thing is a house of cards.
Again, I respect the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition and practice, and believe one can find value in the wide range of Jewish text and commentary. I don’t have the need to believe it is of Divine origin in order for it to have value. Similarly, I do not have to believe it unerringly correct and immutable (true heretic that I am, I believe this can be true of the Torah herself.)
A thought enters my head, unbidden. Maybe I shouldn’t have so off-handedly rejected the notion that 13:1 really is just referring to some specific commandments mentioned in the previous chapter. After all, the Torah scroll text is laid out with 12:29-13:1 being part of one paragraph. This gives credence to the idea that 13:1 is a final comment on the contents of chapter 12, or, more specifically, those last few verses commanding to not follow the cultic practices of those who dwell in the lands that G”d is about to give to us.
Yes, that’s the easier way to deal with this. However, I’m not one prone to take the easy way. Not to mention that Traditional Judaism has seized upon the words of 13:1 to justify their own maintenance of traditions based on Torah and Oral Torah. Their position is that Oral Torah is included in this Torah commandment. I just can’t give that a pass.
Do I have your head spinning yet? Good. Now allow the Shabbat Bride to bring you to a place out of time where you can relax. Maybe clarity will come. Or maybe you’ll just relax and forget all about it. Either way, the text will be right there in the Torah next time you encounter it, perhaps with fresh, new insight, or perhaps as befuddled as ever. Whether enlightenment or befuddlement, may you find it pleasing.
©2018 (portions ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Re’eh 5777 – Between the Mountains
Re’eh 5775 – Think Marx, Act Rashi. Think Rashi, Act Marx (Redux/Revised 5772)
Re’eh 5774 – Our Own Gifts (Redux 5761)
Re’eh 5773 – Here’s a Tip
Re’eh 5772 – Think Marx, Act Rashi? Think Rashi, Act Marx?
Re’eh 5771 – Revisiting B’lo L’sav’a
Re’eh 5770 Meating Urges
Re’eh 5766-Lo Toseif V’lo Tigra
Re’eh 5765–Revised 5759-Open Your Hand
Re’eh 5761–Our Own Gifts
Re’eh 5760/5763–B’lo l’sav’a
Re’eh 5759–Open Your Hand
Re’eh 5757/5758–How To Tell Prophet From Profit