CONFRONTING THE SCRIPTURES
In Tanakh, when words have normal meaning and usage, there
is no evidence of the existence of any rabbis or any oral law.
The text actually precludes the possibility of there having been
either authoritative rabbis or oral law throughout the time encompassed
in the canon. The Scriptures themselves denied to the Rabbis any
legitimate authority or role. The Scriptures themselves were therefore
the greatest barrier standing in the way of the creation of rabbinic
Judaism, i.e. a system of rabbinic authority.
There were many adversaries to overcome before that could become a reality, but the Scriptures themselves were the greatest of all. They had to be neutralized, or even turned into an ally. The means of doing that was R. Akiba's unique system of interpretation. Some would question whether it should be called a "system" at all, since the rules were not fixed, but changed to fit the need of the moment.
Louis Finkelstein comments extensively on it. [Emphasis added] "Akiba's mode of interpretation of Scripture is a development of that which he derived from his master Nahum of Gimzo. Superfluous letters, words, and verses were the meat whereon he thrived. By the use of them he was able to read his whole juristic program into Scriptures. But what he called superfluous words would hardly seem such to us. The juxtaposition of the various chapters had a meaning which must be discovered. He rejected the old Hillelite principle of inference by generalization from particulars, and replaced it with a curious and complicated rule of his own invention which he called 'Inclusion and Limitation.' Neither rhetoric nor grammar offered a bar to his imaginative argument. Indeed, were we to accept at face value the technical reasons he gave for his decisions, we should be forced to the conclusion that, far from being the greatest of the Talmudists, he was simply a brilliant example of extraordinary - but wasted - ingenuity. But the rules which he derived through his curious and intricate logic are so reasonable that when we examine them we are even more impressed with his judgment as a jurist than with his skill as debater. It is obvious that he considered the interpretation of the written law merely the form which had to be followed in the derivation of desirable rules from the biblical text.
"Akiba was trying to change the complexion of the inherited law. To accomplish this he had to find an authority superior to that of his predecessors and accepted by everyone. Only one instrument could fulfill those requirements - Scripture itself."1
Several of Finkelstein 's observations are worth repeating:
1. Akiba had an agenda which he read into the Scriptures.
2. His method of interpretation rejected the logic and grammar of the text.
3. He rejected the accepted methods of interpretation.
4. To accomplish his agenda - changing the law as well as its authorized interpreters and enforcers - he had to tie his agenda to the Scriptures.
The highest accepted authority in Israel was the Scriptures. Akiba therefore sought to use the form of Scripture, without regard to its content, as a means of deriving the new law and religion which he wished to establish. This is a common human practice and tactic. A leader or group proclaims allegiance to the cultural bedrock. Even more, they pose as its defenders, while at the same time they work ceaselessly to change it in accordance with their own vision.
Akiba tied his own rulings to any peculiarity or verbal similarity in the Biblical text; thereby giving his views the authority of the Scriptures. Different verses, words, or even letters simply provided the pretext for him to introduce his own teaching, which otherwise could not be found in Tanakh. Louis Ginzberg notes, "How little he cared for the letter of the Law whenever he conceives it to be antagonistic to the spirit of Judaism, is shown by his attitude towards the Samaritans."2 For Akiba, the Scriptures themselves could "be antagonistic to the spirit of Judaism."
Obviously, the Scriptures were not antagonistic to the Judaism which they themselves created. They were, however, quite hostile to the spirit of the Judaism that Akiba was trying to create. To overcome this antagonism of the Scriptures, Akiba read his meaning into the text, rather than reading the plain meaning out of the text. The plain meaning of the text was of no use to him. It presented an insurmountable barrier to what he hoped to accomplish.
"As a result, Akiba became the foremost champion of eisegesis, while other scholars tried to stay (somewhat) closer to the actual meaning of the text as did R. Yishmael who maintained, 'The Torah speaks the language of the people,' i.e., seemingly superfluous text elements need not have a specific meaning. From the scientific point of view Ishmael was right, but Akiba's method was more useful and prevailed."3 I.e., Akiba's method made no sense grammatically or logically, but there was an attractive utility to it. It was the only way to legitimize the rabbinic authority.
Akiba used certain rules of interpretation when they suited his purpose, and disregarded them when they did not. "He used to say, 'Between a wide and a limited interpretation, choose the limited.' (Sifra Zabim, par 5.5, 79a; Yer. Yoma 2.5, 40a) It would be easy to show that he himself violated this rule frequently..."4
The only logic that governed Akiba was doing whatever he needed to do to attain what he was seeking. That was his overarching rule of interpretation. There was no other rule of interpretation which he consistently followed. When the rules for interpretation are not fixed, the interpretation can be arbitrary and artificial. The Scriptures then simply provide the pretext for asserting the desired conclusion. The desired conclusion was bringing Israel out from under the authority of the Scriptures, and placing her firmly under the authority of the Rabbis.
"Aqiba's statement in Sifre Num §131 (H.169), that 'every Scripture passage which is close to another must be interpreted with respect to it' appears to say the same [as an argument from the context]; however, this principle frequently leads not to a natural exegesis of context but to often farfetched expositions based on the accidental proximity of two terms."5
"His new rules of hermeneutics, and his utter independence of tradition were freely attacked. 'Akiba,' Eleazar ben Azariah once shouted at him, 'even if you continue to repeat for a whole day that the superfluous word proves your point, we will not listen to you.'"6 The traditional rabbis were both enraged and frustrated by Akiba's assertions.
Other rabbis were also said to have created ingenious interpretations of their own. "Thus, e.g., R. Ishmael directs the following critical words against R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanos: 'You say to the Scripture: Silence, while I interpret!'"7
Rabbi Ishmael is noted for his 13 rules of interpretation. His rules were fixed and logical. That is why he often found himself in conflict with Akiba. In one skirmish, because of an extra Hebrew letter [vav] in the text, Akiba maintained that, "'A daughter of a priest who commits adultery should be executed by burning.' Rabbi Ishmael said to him: 'Shall we burn this woman because you must find an interpretation for your vav?'"8
"R. Ishmael, the great teacher of the generation before Bar Kokhba, is regarded as the antagonist of Rabbi Aqiba especially in the area of Biblical interpretation. Over and against the forced interpretation of individual words he advances the principle, 'The Torah speaks in the language of men' (Sifre Num §112, H.121)."9 "Akiba created his own Midrash [commentary], by means of which he was able 'to discover things that were even unknown to Moses' (Pesik., Parah, ed. Buber, 39b). Akiba made the accumulated treasure of the oral law - which until his time was only a subject of knowledge and not of science - an inexhaustible mine from which, by the means he provided, new treasures might be continually extracted."10
"It was a mighty key that R. Akiba provided to unlock the Torah, so that a never-ending stream of halakoth could be derived from it....The written Torah, thanks to R. Akiba, kept its central place in Judaism without its hampering the development of the oral law....He supplied the principles for justifying this abandoning of absolute reliance on tradition without breaking with the alleged fount of all tradition."11
In other words, Rabbi Akiba kept the written Torah central, but made it irrelevant. He alleged obedience to the Torah, but transformed it into a powerless royal figurehead. Torah said whatever he wanted it to say. The words of the Rabbis became the law that Israel had to obey. As Akiba wrote, "Blessed be God, the God of Israel, who has chosen the words of Torah and the words of the sages, for the words of the sages are established forever and to all eternity."13 Since the words of the sages were the only means by which one could understand the words of the Torah, the words of the sages became the ultimate authority.
Here is a striking example of that. On one notable occasion, two witness came to Yavneh and claimed to have seen the new moon. The men who claimed to have seen the new moon had not really seen it. Rabban Gamaliel, accepting their testimony, erroneously proclaimed the new moon. Rabbi Dosa b. Harkinas and R. Joshua recognized that the new moon had really not yet come, and they said so. "Thereupon Rabban Gamaliel sent to him [R. Joshua] to say, I enjoin upon you to appear before me with your staff and your money on the day which according to your reckoning should be the day of atonement."14
Rather than admit his error and change his ruling, Rabban Gamaliel decided to compel everyone to affirm his error. He commanded R. Joshua to transgress the regulations of the actual day of atonement, the holiest day of the year. Rabban Gamaliel was compelling him to honor instead what would be the day of atonement according to Gamaliel's mistaken reckoning - a day different from the Biblical day.
Biblically, such transgression would bring the gravest consequences. "For any soul who does not humble himself in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people. And any soul who does any work in that same day, I will destroy that soul from among his people."15 R. Joshua was in a predicament. He could obey the Scriptures or he could obey Rabban Gamliel. He could not obey both. To obey Gamaliel would mean being cut off by God. To obey the Scriptures would mean being excommunicated by Gamliel.
That the nature of this predicament was genuine is borne out by The Book of Jubilees. "The angel of the presence relates to Moses that 'on the heavenly tables the division of days is ordained' (6,35; cf. also 16, 28-30). Use of any other calendar means that its adherents will '...make an abominable (day) the day of testimony, and an unclean day a feast day, and they will confound all the days, the holy with the unclean, and the unclean day with the holy....'"16
R. Akiba, with his unique manner of interpretation, convinced R. Joshua to obey Rabban Gamliel. "Come and hear, since it has been taught: R. Akiba went and found R. Joshua while he was in great distress. He said to him, Master, why are you in distress? He replied: Akiba, it were better for a man to be on a sick-bed for twelve months than that such an injunction should be laid on him. He said to him, [Master,] will you allow me to tell you something which you yourself have taught me? He said to him, Speak. He then said to him: The text says, 'you', 'you', 'you', three times, to indicate that 'you' [may fix the festivals] even if you err inadvertently, 'you', even if you err deliberately, 'you', even if you are misled. He replied to him in these words: 'Akiba, you have comforted me, you have comforted me'." 17
How did R. Akiba come up with his interpretation? To begin with, he changed the Biblical text. "The word otam (them) in Lev. XXII, 31, XXIII, 2 and XXIII,4 is read atem (you) for homiletic purposes."18 In the text, the word in question ["them"] refers to "the appointed seasons of the Lord." R. Akiba changed the word to make it refer to the Rabbis ["you"].
Then, having discarded the original text, Akiba assigned the meaning he wanted to the text he had created. Even so, the changed text still provided no basis for the meaning he invented. Yet in this way, we are told, he comforted R. Joshua, convincing him that whether or not the sages were right was irrelevant.
One more extreme example of Akiba's method of interpretation will suffice. The issue under discussion was the rabbinic ruling that there must be "four portions of scripture in the tefillin ," in four separate compartments. (The oldest known tefillin, which are from Qumran, contain five compartments.) How did the Rabbis derive their ruling from scripture?
"Our Rabbis taught: It is written, Letotefeth, letotefeth, and letotafoth, making four in all. So R. Ishmael. R. Akiba says, There is no need of that interpretation, for 'tot' means two in Katpi [perhaps the Coptic language] and 'foth' means two in Afriki [the language of N. Africa]."19
The interpretation of the Rabbis, and specifically of R. Ishmael, is a little tenuous. "The word Letotefeth (frontlets, i.e., the tefillin) occurs three times in the Torah, twice (Deut. VI, 8, and XI, 18) defectively written, Letotefeth so that in each instance the word might be read in the singular, and once (Ex.XIII, 16) written plene, Letotafoth, which indicates the plural number, thus making a total of four."20
Perhaps R. Ishmael was stretching the limits of "interpretation." R. Akiba, on the other hand, departed from the realm of rational discourse. Akiba was not actually maintaining that "letotafoth" was etymologically derived from a combination of one particular Coptic word with another particular north African word. He was simply demonstrating that his method of "interpretation" provided ingenious ways of obtaining any desired result.
But Akiba's method of interpretation should not be looked upon as an eccentric aberration. It was purposeful and necessary. Without it, there was no way to tie rabbinic authority to the Scriptures. Other rabbis found the method helpful for establishing the scriptural derivation of their own decrees. Another example concerns R. Meir who derived a certain rabbinic decree concerning the sacrifices in one way. "And the Rabbis? They derive it from the dot [above the word]."23
Often the Rabbis, following Akiba's example, disregarded the actual text, and pretended that it said something else. Then they would argue about how to interpret the text they had created.
Once the Rabbis have changed the text to support their ruling, the actual text is no longer relevant. "The question, however, arises on the view of the Rabbis: Does the Scriptural text... also bear its ordinary meaning, or since it was once torn away [from its ordinary meaning] it must in all respects so remain? Others say: According to the Rabbis no question arises, for since the text has once been torn away [from its ordinary meaning] it must in all respects so remain."24
Eliezer Berkovits has a simple comment on this example and procedure. "In this case, on the strength of a S'bara, because of logical argument, a new meaning was forced upon the biblical text, violating its linguistic content."25 What the text actually said was not relevant to the discussion.
Berkovits summarizes the Rabbinic rule: "Sound reasoning overrules an authoritative text."26 This, though direct, is somewhat circular in that someone must first establish what the basis of "sound reasoning" is. What was sound reasoning to Akiba was often nonsense to other rabbis. His "interpretation" was not limited by grammar, meaning, logic, or any of the rules of language. There were others for whom sound reasoning required a relationship between the text and the interpretation.
1. Finkelstein, Louis, "Akiba", in Great Jewish Personalities in Ancient and Medieval Times, Bnai Brith Great Books Series: Vol.1, edited by Simon Noveck, 1973 P.139 (emphasis added)
2. Ginzburg, Louis, "Akiba ben Joseph" & "Aquila", in The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vols. 1 & 2, Edited by Isidore Singer, Funk and Wagnalls, NY & London, 1906 P. 307
3. Guttman, Alexander, Rabbinic Judaism in the Making, Wayne State U. Press, Detroit, 1970, P.229
4. Finkelstein, Akiba, P.173-174
5. David Daube, "Rabbinic Methods of Interpretation and Hellenistic Rhetoric," HUCA, XXII, 1949, P.23
6. Finkelstein, Akiba, P.158; Sifra Zav perek 11.6 B. Menahot 89a; Niddah 72b;
Zebahim 82a; Sifra Emor par 7.2,98a
7. Sifra ad 13.49, ed. Weiss 68b; Birger Gerhardson, Memory and Manuscript, trans. E. J. Sharpe, Lund, Gleerup, 1961, P.172 n1
8. Finkelstein, Akiba, P.89; B.Sanh. 51b
9. Daube, P.23
10. Ginzberg, "Akiba," P.306
11. John Bowman, The Fourth Gospel and the Jews, Pickwick, Pittsburgh, 1975, P.6
13. Bowman, P.374, citing Aboth de Rabbi Nathan IV
14. Rosh HaSh. II.7
16. R. H. Charles, trans., The Book of Jubilees or the Little Genesis, 6,37 in J.C.
Vanderkam, "2 Maccabees 6, 7A and Calendrical Change in Jerusalem," JSJ, Vol.XII, No.1, 7/81, P.53 n4
17. Rosh HaSh. 25a
18. Rosh HaSh., p.111, n2.
19. Men. 34b
20. Men.34b, p.215, n.4
23. Men. 87b
25. Not in Heaven: the Nature and Function of Halakha, Eliezer Berkovits, Ktav
Publishing Co., NY, 1983, P.5
26. Eliezer Berkovits, Not in Heaven: the Nature and Function of Halakha, Ktav
Publishing Co., NY, 1983, P.7; cf.Berakot 37a; Yeb.108a; Git.15a; Ket.48b; Kid.59b
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What Is A Rabbi
Tanakh And Oral Law
The Oral Law As Interpretation
The Historical Development Of Oral Law
A Fence Around The Torah
Confronting The Scriptures
Uprooting the Scriptures