intellectual breadth extends beyond scientific interests to math and history, as
well as to a range of Talmudic issues wider than that of most rabbinic
scholars. According to the
stereotype, academics focus on issues of history, authorship, textual
transmission, and etymology, while rabbis emphasize analysis of halakhic
content. While this stereotype
includes a good deal of truth, it should not be overstated. Many rabbanim were interested in
some of the “academic” questions, with R. Lipschutz serving as a prominent
More consistently than other classic commentators, R. Lipschutz points
out Greek and Latin roots for words that appear in Mishna or Gemara. In masekhet Sanhedrin, he notes
the foreign roots of the terms Sanhedrin (Yakhin 1:43),
kubiya (Yakhin 3:14), pitom (Yakhin 7:68) and
hedyot (Yakhin 7:82).
In masekhet Gittin, he explains that tofes, toref
(Yakhin 2:27), niyyar (Yakhin 2:29), diftera (Yakhin
2:31) and apotiki (Yakhin 4:26) all come from Greek or Latin. It is noteworthy that he brings foreign
sources even where Chazal offer a Hebrew etymology for these
Stylistic questions of composition and placement also interest our
author. The last two
mishnayot of the first chapter of Nega’im are mirror images of
each other. These
mishnayot discuss a case in which the seventh day of a metzora’s
“hesger” period falls on Shabbat.
A kohen is supposed to evaluate the metzora’s blemish on
the seventh day, but if the seventh day is Shabbat we push off the priestly
evaluation to Sunday. This move
generates both leniencies and stringencies. The first mishna outlines all the
leniencies; the second lists all the stringencies. As the latter scenarios simply reverse
the former, there seems to be little need for two lengthy mishnayot. R. Lipschutz asks this question and
explains that Nega’im is a particularly complex topic. Therefore, the mishna repeats seemingly
unnecessary details so that we can carefully internalize the basics at the
beginning of the tractate (Boaz, Nega’im
The second chapter of Rosh Ha-shana discusses the giving of
testimony to establish the start of the new month. The third chapter of the masekhet
addresses issues pertaining to shofar blowing. The division seems neat until one
realizes that the first mishna of the third chapter still focuses on the
sanctification of the new moon. R.
Lipschutz wants to know why this mishna is not the concluding mishna of the
second chapter. While his answer is
not fully satisfying, to the best of my knowledge R. Lipschutz is the only major
Mishna commentator who asks this question.
R. Lipschutz proves that tractates were structured and organized before
the final redacting work of R. Yehuda Ha-nasi. At the very end of Kelim (30:4),
R. Yossi says, “Fortunate are you, [tractate] Kelim, that you entered
with impurity and leave with purity,” thereby noting that the tractate begins
with a list of the sources of ritual impurity and ends with a case where a glass
vessel is pure. R. Yossi lived
before R. Yehuda HaNasi and yet his comment refers to Kelim as a defined
work with a beginning and an end.
Apparently, a work called Kelim had achieved a structured form
before Rebbi’s finishing efforts (Boaz 30:2). Here, it must be admitted that R.
Lipschutz’s awareness is not unique, since R. Akiva Eger and others took note of
this as well.
In several places in the Talmud, the gemara solves a problem by arguing
that “chasurei mechasera,” the mishna is missing some words. What does this answer truly mean? In some cases, we can interpret the
phrase literally: some mishnaic words got lost in the copying process over the
years. However, it is difficult to
say this each time the phrase appears.
After all, supplying missing words is too easy a way to solve every
difficulty. Tosafot (Shabbat
102a) suggest another model in which we do not emend the text of the mishna
but contend that the missing words are actually implicit in the text. According to this understanding, missing
words reflect not a scribal error but a concise mishna that assumes the reader
will fill in the blank. Another
understanding appears in the introduction to R. Yisrael from Shklov’s Pe’at
Ha-shulchan. He cites his
teacher, the Gra, who explained that the gemara wanted to rule in accordance
with another Tannaitic source which contradicts the mishna and it chose to
forcefully read the halakhically correct position into the mishna as
R. Lipschutz adds his own unique contribution to this question. He suggests that mishnayot were
recited in a concise form to help create a rhythmic pattern that facilitates
memorization. Added words would
just complicate matters for those trying to memorize. Interestingly, he adds that the same
reason could also explain some extraneous words or superfluous cases, since
additions can also serve to preserve the musical rhythm of the mishna
(Boaz, Arakhin 4:1).
I do not know whether this theory is correct as an understanding of
chasurei mechasera but it does show a sharp understanding of oral
culture. Walter Ong writes:
“Protracted orally based thought, even when not in formal verse, tends to be
highly rhythmic, for rhythm aids recall” (Orality and Literacy [London,
1982], p. 34).
Another novel area of R. Lipschutz’s commentary relates to historical
questions. He utilizes Josephus to
help explain various mishnayot and always cites precise references for a
reader who would want to look up Josephus in the original. A mishna in Chagiga (2:2)
mentions that Hillel’s first rabbinic partner was a sage named Menachem, but
when Menachem “left,” Shammai replaced him. Where did Menachem go? The gemara (16b) explains that he either
left to go on an evil path or to enter the service of the king. R. Lipschutz posits that Menachem
left to work for King Herod. He
bases this interpretation on a story told by Josephus (Antiquities 15) in
which an Essene named Manaemus predicted Herod’s rise to power when Herod was
still a small boy quite distant from kingship. R. Lipschutz’s approach involves a good
deal of speculation, as Josephus never says that Manaemus ultimately worked for
Herod. However, the very
utilization of such sources to interpret the Talmud is noteworthy.
Historical awareness also motivates his rejection of Rambam’s
interpretation of a mishna. The
third chapter of Bikkurim describes the joyous reception that those
bringing the fruit received as they approached Jerusalem and the Temple.
One mishna (3:4) says that even King Agrippas himself would take a basket
on his shoulder and carry fruit to the Temple courtyard. Why did the mishna select this specific
king to illustrate the point?
Rambam explains that Agrippas was a monarch of great authority and
stature, and even such a royal personage did not consider it beneath his dignity
to transport the fruit. R.
Lipschutz objects, claiming that Agrippas was king at a time of dwindling
prestige for the monarchy, since the Romans exerted their power and influence
during his reign. He offers an
alternative explanation. Agrippas
should not have been king, as his ancestry was not fully Jewish. Perhaps a person precariously holding on
to royalty like Agrippas should avoid doing anything that might cause him to
lose face. Nevertheless, he took
basket to shoulder and participated in this mitzva.
R. Lipschutz also utilizes Josephus to alter understanding of another
gemara. The Temple of Onias was a replica of the Temple in Jerusalem built in
Alexandria during the Second Temple period and destroyed by Vespasian
in 73 CE. One gemara (Menachot
109b) attributes its construction to the son of Shimon Ha-tzaddik. Due to a complex historical calculation,
R. Lipschutz determines that the Temple of Onias was built later in Jewish history,
and he endorses Josephus’ attribution of the construction to the grandson of
Shimon Ha-tzaddik. He then returns
to the gemara and argues either that “son” can mean grandson, or that the elder
Onias started the project while the younger one completed it (Boaz,
Menachot 13:2). It is important
to point out that R. Lipschutz does not declare the gemara historically
erroneous, but he does think that knowledge of Josephus enables correct
Citing chapter and verse of non-traditional sources indicates a certain
valuing of those sources, as it encourages others to look them up in the
original. In addition to Josephus,
R. Lipschutz cites chapter and verse for Euclid.
He mentions the Pythagorean theorem and correctly informs the reader that
this theorem can be found in the first book of Euclid’s Elements, proposition
forty-seven (Boaz, Ohalot 16:9).
Three more sources illustrate R. Lipschutz’s intellectual curiosity. A mishna in Sanhedrin (10:1) says
that a person who reads the “external books” forfeits his share in the World to
Come. R. Lipschutz explains that
this refers to the works of Homer or books of pagan religion. Yet he adds that such harsh language
refers only to someone who reads these works regularly. A believer can occasionally peruse these
works to know how to refute the heretic (Yakhin, Sanhedrin
10:8). Minimizing the extent of the
prohibition reveals a worldview which seeks knowledge in a broad range of
A similar attitude emerges from the last mishna in the third chapter of
Avot. The mishna says that
calculating the seasons and geometry are “dessert” to wisdom. In other words, Torah is the main
course, but these other studies add flavor to the meal. R. Lipschutz (Yakhin, Avot
3:145) provides two explanations for how such additional areas of study
help. Understanding astronomy helps
the halakhic endeavor of calculating the calendar. Furthermore, such wisdom enables us to
appreciate the grandeur of God’s created order. While the first reason is utilitarian
and narrowly focused on a particular halakhic topic, the second reason
significantly widens the scope of the benefit to be gained by pursuing secular
R. Lipschutz compares these others wisdoms to butter which a person
spreads on the bread of Torah. This
imagery helps counter a standard critique of Torah U’Madda. If we posit that Torah is more valuable
than other wisdoms, then whenever presented with a free moment one should choose
Torah study. R Lipschutz’s imagery
reveals the fallacy of the argument.
All things being equal, we would prefer a piece of bread to a stick of
butter. Yet, we would opt for nine
pieces of bread and the stick of butter over ten pieces of bread. In the same way, the other wisdoms can
find a place at our table.
On Shabbat Chol
Ha-moed Pesach in 1842, R. Lipschutz delivered a remarkable sermon
that he later published as a lengthy essay entitled Derush Orach Chayyim
(printed after masekhet Sanhedrin).
In this essay, he defends the concept of immortality, providing several
arguments on behalf of resurrection.
He also connects midrashic and kabbalistic ideas about earlier worlds
with some of the fossil finds of the nineteenth century. He enumerates a list of some of those
findings and cites the works of Georges Leopold Cuvier and Christoph Wilhelm
Hufeland, two important paleontologists.
For R. Lipschutz, the return of life after the destruction of these
earlier worlds parallels the notion of resurrection.
Those readers interested in this essay have some fine scholarly resources
to draw upon. Yaakov Elman has translated
and annotated the entire essay in a work by Aryeh Kaplan entitled
Resurrection, Immortality, and the Age of the Universe: A Kabbalistic
View (Hoboken, 1993).[ii] Raphael Shuchat discuses parts of this
essay in an article published in The Torah U-Madda Journal, Volume 13
(2005).[iii] I will not discuss the essay in depth
but merely highlight one interesting feature.
wonder why the Torah emphasizes reward and punishment in this world and seems to
not mention the World to Come.
Abravanel lists seven answers to this question in his commentary on
Bechukotai. One of the
answers is that this doctrine actually does appear in the Torah. This is an important claim, as some
academics argue that belief in immortality is a late entry into the list of
accepted Jewish beliefs. If several
sections of Tanakh testify to the existence of the afterlife, then this
argument becomes less tenable.
R. Lipschutz attempts
to show that each parasha supports the belief in the World to Come. He brings support from the first three
parshiyot of the Torah. The
voice of the deceased Hevel calls out from the grave (Bereishit
4:10). If the Torah threatens to
punish the suicide (Bereishit 9:5), then there must be life after
death. Finally, the karet
punishment for a person who never circumcised himself (Bereishit 17:14)
could only take effect after death.
In addition, he cites some of the classic verses used to support life
after death, such as Devarim 32:39, Daniel 12:2, Yeshayahu
26:19, Kohelet 12:7, and Tehillim 16:10, 17:14 and 31:20.
Accepting this line
of reasoning does not answer the question of why the Shema and the two versions
of the tokhecha focus on the mundane rewards and punishments of this
world. However, it would help put
an end to the claim that the Jews received the idea of immortality from their
encounter with the Greeks. If so,
R. Lipschutz adds yet another contribution to the world of Jewish thought. This wide-ranging commentator deserves
much more scholarly and popular attention than he currently receives. The recent efforts of two doctoral
students should make some inroads in the academic community. In the world of the beit midrash,
I hope that more students will open what once was the standard version of the
mishna with the commentary Tiferet Yisrael.
[i] It should be noted that
Josephus himself gives contradictory information regarding which Onias built
this temple. See Victor
Tcherikover’s Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Philadelphia, 1959), p.