04 June 2006

Finally Figuring Out The Midrash

There is an oft-cited section of the Talmud especially around this time of year - the following (Shabbas 88a):
וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ, בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר
"And they stood at the foot of the mountain" (Ex. 19:17).
א"ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב"ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם
Rabbi Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa, said, "[This] teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He cupped upon them the mountain like a tub (or a vat), and said to them, 'If you accept the Torah, then good. And if not, here will be your grave.'"
א"ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא
Rabbi Aha, son of Ya'akov, said, "From here, this is a great way out of the Torah." (I apologize for that translation, but basically one party would be able to get out of fulfilling their contractual obligations due to coercion of agreement. Thus, Israel would be able to say they were coerced into the agreement.)
אמר רבא אעפ"כ הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש דכתיב (אסתר ט) קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר
Rava said, "Even though that may be so, the generation in the days of Ahashverosh accepted it, as it is written, 'the Jews kept up and they accepted' - they continued what they had already accepted."
The common way of reading this understanding of the acceptance of the Torah (for instance, Ben's take and see also Dov Bear's) is that God forced us into it, but we accepted it later during the story of Esther. The problems with this are abound. I'm not going to bother going into the problems, but rather a much simpler read - a read that I deem more true to the sages' words.
What Rabbi Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa was trying to accomplish in his explanation of that verse is not any sort of theological or philosophical agenda, but rather he's trying to explain the word "at the foot of (תחתית)". To him, it's not simply "under" the mountain, but rather inside of the mountain. The word תחתית bears a close relationship with תחת, just as ציצית bears a close relationship with ציץ (there may be other Biblical examples, but I'm blanking right now). However, the two words are not the same (sorry, Rashi), but rather תחתית means something more like inside (such as inside a hollow). If it were to merely be under the mountain, why would Rabbi Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa have said "like a tub"? He wouldn't have needed to say that at all. Furthermore, he didn't mean to imply that Israel accepted the Torah against their will and would have had their way out of it.
A generation or two later, Rabbi Aha, son of Ya'akov, comes along and demonstrates a philosophical problem with his elder's read: the Jews would have had a way out of the Torah. At this point, the problem stands and Rabbi Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa's read is in jeopardy.
However, Rava, not so long after him, comes along and actually supports that read by saying that the Jews, while having been coerced into it initially, actually accepted it later (albeit by taking a verse out of context, the original of which was regarding the special things the Jews did on Purim).
Does this mean the Jews actually were forced into it? Obviously, according to the simple read of the Biblical text(s), no, not at all. If one asked
Rabbi Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa, it's not clear what he would have said, as he was merely speaking about an exegetical point based on a close read of the language employed in Exodus. Even according to Rabbi Aha, son of Ya'akov, he also probably would have said no, because he had a problem with that idea. It is only with Rava (the greatest figure in the Babylonian Talmud) that one gets that sense.
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Anonymous said...

I think Rava's comment is "hadar kibluha", not "hador kibluha". Meaning that the torah was accepted AGAIN in the days of Achashveirosh -- kiyyemu vekibblu, kiyyemu mah shekibblu kvar (sorry for the transliteration...)

miriam said...

While Rav Avdimi may be responding to a linguistic anomaly in making his derashah, it is hard to see it as _only_ an explanation of that one word. (that's an awful long story for one word.)
further, i don't know why you think he did not intend the philosophical implications. He isn't just saying that B"Y found themselves in the missle pf a geological curiosity, but that God put them there and then used it to make them accet the Torah. While you are right in that Rav Avdimi does not imply that they would necessarily not have accepted the Torah otherwise (though then one wonders why bother with the coercion...), he does clearly implu that the Torah waas accepted under durss - he records a direct threat from God! The fact that they might possibly have accpeted the Torah anyway does not deal with the problem of a contract under duress. Even if they would have wanted to commit legally then, they _didn't_ because they made a non-enforceable contract.

Also, many have pointed out that even according to the "plain sense" of the bible, there is some element of not-completely free choice when a people completely dependent on God for their national as well as day-to-day existence (eg, food) is "asked" to accept something from God. If a parent asks their two year old child whether they want to go to the doctor there's really only one right answer...

anyhow, cheerio.

Jen Taylor Friedman said...

I think in that first picture Moses is saying to Aaron "Oh crap, we're on the wrong mountain...quick, over there!"

Drew Kaplan said...

For Rav Avdimi (son of etc.), it was weird that they would be within the hollow of the mountain (at least being very particular about the language) - so he would want to know the answers to at least the following questions: 1) How did they get there? 2) Why were they there? 3) How did they get out?
For the first one, it's easy: The Holy One, Blessed be It. For the second one, it's unclear. For the third one, they got out the same way they got there - God. So what's the purpose of putting them there anyways (one cannot say that there is none, it would have been Divinely silly (if such a thing could be))? It must have been related to the giving of the Torah. How did they get out? The acceptance of the Torah.
Sharpening up the answer would be to have been that God did indeed put them there for purposes of making the seriousness of the Torah aware to them. And, thus, as there is no greater seriousness than death, or genocide, even, that's what one gets.
I still don't believe that Rav Avdimi believed that there was really Divine coercion to get the Jewish people to accept the Torah, thus that is why Rabbi Aha, son of Ya'akov points out a serious flaw with that exegesis.

miriam said...

"I still don't believe that Rav Avdimi believed that there was really Divine coercion to get the Jewish people to accept the Torah, thus that is why Rabbi Aha, son of Ya'akov points out a serious flaw with that exegesis. "

but maybe rav avdimi didn't think it was a flaw. i mean, it's not completely obvious that the torah has to be accepted completely freely - maybe if God tells you to do something, you do it, and "hoice" is irrelevant. At the moment of revelation at sinai B"Y were, as it were, in the position iof malachim - no free will... In fact, maybe Rav Avdimi is highlighting the absurdity of a story about us "choosing" to accept (in principle, before the yetser ha-ra or whatever tempts one away in particualr instances) something B"Y were 100% sure God wanted. What kind of choice is there in a situation of totally revealed divine will?
Rav Aha, on the other hand, thinks that we need to enter into the relationship with God like any other relationship - that we shouldn't consider ourselves "forced" heteronomously, as it were, but rather to have autonomously accepted the torah.
on that front, Rav Aha is in some way more radical: he wants to see the acceptance of the torah as a mutual, contract-like event even though one of the parties is a lot higher and mightier (sorry, couldn't resist) than the other. of course, that is what parts of the torah imply - at least that there is reciprocity in the covenant. even so, God always has the last word, and often brings 'claims" against us whereas we never bring "claims"/"moda'ot" against God, even when they seem justified (feeling abandoned by God, for example...) - God is party to the contract but is also the sole arbiter and enforcer, so how mutual can it really be?

Also, on the literal front, I think there would have to be some very compelling reason to believe that "tahtit" means "in the hollow" as opposed to anything else in order to go through all the steps you outlined of making it coherent. You are right, that reading generates osme questions, and answering each one takes you further and further from the rest of the text. so why does rav avdimi choose to be hyper-literal about this one word at the expense of the pshat sense of the rest of the story? there must be other, less intrusive, readings of the subtle tahat/tahtit difference, no?

Anyhow, yasher koach.