Shiur #25: R. Zadok and the Quest for Religious
Last week’s shiur introduced the concept of omnisignificance, the
idea that we should eschew technical or pragmatic explanations for various
textual phenomena in favor of explanations pregnant with religious meaning. This week’s shiur provides more
examples of this principle regarding textual issues and also highlights an
analogous approach in legal contexts.
Halakhic debates that could be explained in a purely technical legal
manner assume deep theological significance in R. Zadok’s
Juxtaposition of biblical sections, the numerical value of a given
chapter, names of individuals, and questions of placement all lend themselves to
pragmatic explanations. For
example, the laws of sefirat ha-omer appear in Shulchan Arukh Orach
Chayyim siman 489. Why this
particular number? Probably because
siman 488 finished up the laws of Pesach and the omer comes next
in the Jewish calendar.
Despite the simple cogency, R. Zadok
deviates from such explanations.
The mitzva to write a Torah scroll appears in Yoreh De’a siman
270. R. Zadok explains that
this mitzva repairs the sin of Er (numerical value of 270), son of Yehuda. He admits that R. Ya’akov Ba’al
ha-Turim (the author of the Tur) and R. Yosef Karo did not consciously
intend this message. However, the
spirit of God animated their project and the numbers contain meaning.
The same pattern emerges in reference to the relationship between
biblical stories and the names of the parshiyot they appear in. For example, we would be hard pressed to
find it significant that the tower of Bavel episode occurs in a parasha
named for Noach. However, R. Zadok
finds meaning in this area as well.
The story of matan Torah appears in a parasha called Yitro
(the originally non-Jewish father-in-law of Moshe) to teach us that the crown of
Torah remains accessible to everyone, including converts. According to one midrash, the Torah was
given in a desert to indicate lack of exclusive ownership; this parasha
name conveys a similar theme. Yitro
represents the potential throughout Jewish history for converts to join the
R. Zadok also assumes that names reveal much more than a parental
decision at the time of a child’s birth.
One gemara (Menachot 44a) relates the story of one Rav Katina who
does not wear tzitzit (ritual fringes) and receives a visit from a
threatening angel. R. Zadok
contends that the man’s name indicates why he did not wear tzitzit. In his world of symbolism,
tzitzit represents covering a person’s blemishes. R. Katina thought himself unworthy (from
katan) of honorific garb and he refused to cover up any shortcomings.
The same assumptions influence R. Zadok’s approach to a famous midrashic
interpretation of a verse in Kohelet (4:1). “And behold the tears of such as were
oppressed and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there
was power; but they had no comforter.”
Daniel the tailor suggests that the “oppressed” refer to mamzerim
who suffer for the sins of others (Kohelet Rabba 4:1). R. Zadok explains that the status of
mamzerut applies only to a person’s body, or his this-worldly identity,
but not to the soul, the person’s essence.
The tailor’s job is to mend the physically rent. Furthermore, the book of Daniel conjures
up associations with the end of days when mamzerim will shed their
status. Both name and profession relate to the
Ordering of tractates
provides another opportunity for R. Zadok’s search for meaning. The Torah (Bemidbar 5-6) follows
the laws of Sota with the institution of nezirut. The Talmud reverses the order and places
Nazir before Sota. Why the reversal? A gemara (Sota 2a) explains that
massekhet Nazir logically follows Nedarim since accepting
nezirut is a type of vow.
Sota follows Nazir in consonance with the biblical
juxtaposition, albeit in reverse order.
One can not deny the cogency of this explanation but it is technical and
not filled with religious meaning.
R. Zadok contrasts
two related temptations of desire: that of food and the sexual drive. People find it easier to control their
temptations with regard to food so it makes sense for the individual attempting
to deal with temptations to begin there and then proceed to work on restraining
sexual desire. At the same time,
successfully confronting the sexual urge constitutes a more significant
achievement. R. Zadok proves this
from the respective punishments for failure in the two areas. Since the halakhic punishments for
illicit relations tend toward greater severity than those for forbidden foods,
it stands to reason that overcoming sexual temptations is of greater religious
Sota represents the
battle with sexual temptation; it deals with a possible case of adultery. Nazir, on the other hand,
reflects the struggle with the temptations of the palate; the nazarite chooses
to forego wine consumption.
According to R. Zadok, this explains the biblical and Talmudic
sequences. The Bible represents the
Divine perspective irrespective of human strategizing and that perspective
begins with Sota, indicating its superior significance. The Talmud reflects the human
perspective and the reality of the human personality mandates tackling the
temptations of food before the more difficult problem of sexual urges. In place of technical suggestions, R.
Zadok offers an explanation with ramifications both for practical religious
decision making and for understanding the religious worth of various
Decisions to place
particular tractates at the beginning and end of the Talmud reflect much more
than technical considerations. Why
begin with massekhet Berakhot?
We could answer by explaining why Zera’im is the first of the six
sedarim and then explaining why Berakhot belongs at the beginning
of Zera’im. In other words,
we can answer two other questions that will obviate the need to come up with a
direct reason why Berakhot should initiate the Talmudic corpus. R. Zadok argues that there is a
particular reason why Berakhot must come first. He explains that berakhot
(blessings) precede an activity, such as performing a mitzva or enjoying
a pleasure, in order to dedicate that activity to the Divine. In the same way, the Talmud begins with
berakhot to place its study in the proper religious context.
R. Zadok also
explains why Nidda closes the Babylonian Talmud. Here, the very question makes a striking
assumption, since Nidda is not truly the final massekhet amongst
the mishnayot, but merely the last masskhet upon which the Amoraim
wrote a gemara. One could argue
that Nidda is only last due to the technical reason that it is the only
tractate of Taharot with enough post-churban relevance to justify
Amoraic analysis. Nonetheless, R.
Zadok insists on a reason that bears religious significance. He explains that the institution of
Nidda attempts to generate a sense of renewal in marital life. After an enforced break, the husband and
wife return to intimacy. When we
finish the Talmud and anticipate returning to the beginning, we also value a
sense of fresh innovation as we approach Berakhot once again. Again, R. Zadok eschews the technical in
favor of the spiritually meaningful.
The opening sections
of Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik comment on various Talmudic passages (primarily on
the first few pages of Massekhet Berakhot). In these passages, R. Zadok consistently
brings in religious themes that extend beyond concrete halakhot. A mishna in Pesachim (96a)
outlines halakhic distinctions between the paschal offering in Egypt
and that of subsequent generations.
Only the former had to be eaten with haste, be-chipazon. R. Zadok takes this as a metaphor for
religious life. A person’s entry
into divine service must be done with an alacrity that breaks free of previous
life patterns. However, after that
initial break, the slow pace of patient regularity becomes the norm. Laws about the paschal sacrifice reflect
broader themes of religious experience.
At times, R. Zadok
weaves together a host of halakhic detail in his spiritual commentary. Each morning, the obligatory time for
reciting keri’at shema ends one halakhic hour before the end of the time
for prayer. Morning prayer takes
place during the first four halakhic hours of the day whereas the evening prayer
can be recited all night.
Furthermore, the morning prayer reflects a concrete obligation but R.
Yehoshua ruled that the evening prayer is optional (Berakhot 27b). Though Halakha follows R. Yehoshua’s
opinion, the collective Jewish community accepted the evening prayer as an
obligation. R. Zadok builds a
Jewish thought structure that incorporates all of these legal
Prayer consists of
encountering God; keri’at shema does not. The latter involves an important
affirmation but not a dialogue with God.
For this reason, halakha demands stricter requirements regarding dress
and sobriety for prayer than for the Shema, and, additionally, more time
is allotted for prayer.
Encountering God is not an easy task and it requires more
preparation. The difficulties
increase at night which represents the darker parts of human existence. Acknowledging or encountering God at
night provides a real challenge; Halakha allows more time to meet the
challenge. In fact, the
difficulties of finding oneself in the presence of God at night were great
enough to motivate Chazal to make the evening prayer optional.
developing Jewish custom serves R. Zadok’s conceptual scheme. As mentioned, Jews decided to grant
obligatory status to the evening prayer.
R. Zadok claims that this reflects the growing awareness of God as the
messianic era approaches. It is
hard to stand before God in the nighttimes of our lives but the Jewish community
intuitively sensed the approaching clarity of the end of days; therefore, they
were willing to accept this increasingly less difficult task as an obligation.
In our final example,
R. Zadok weaves together halakhic argument, aggadic debate and theological
speculations. Beit Shammai and Beit
Hillel debate a principle in the laws of sukka. What if a person’s head and the majority
of his torso are in the sukka but the table they sit at is in his regular
house? Beit Shammai invalidates
this practice and Beit Hillel accepts it.
The very same Talmudic page (Eruvin 13b) records a two and a half
year debate between these rival schools. Beit Hillel claims that it was good that
the world was created; Beit Shammai says that it would have been better for the
world not to have been created.
According to R. Zadok, both debates stem from a basic theological split
between these two Talmudic academies.
A dialectic runs
through R. Zadok’s thought, a constant tension between attributing everything to
God and leaving space for human freedom and initiative. We shall analyze this tension in greater
depth next week, but for our current purpose, a barebones description
suffices. The sukka
symbolizes faith in and reliance upon God. A home owner leaves the security of
his castle and places himself at the mercy of God. Beit Shammai requires total faith or a
recognition that attributes everything to God. Therefore, they cannot be satisfied with
placing the table in the house. Everything must go in the
sukka. Beit Hillel, on he
other hand, allows for a consciousness of human independence. “Everything is in the hands of heaven
except fear of heaven.” Some parts
dwell in the sukka (reliance on God); others remain in the house (human
The same divide
animates the aggadic argument.
Creation represents the act of separation which apparently divides
between God and the world. Is this
separation the ideal perspective or do we prefer the sense that everything is
God? Beit Shammai favors
undifferentiated divinity; thus, they prefer to undo creation. Beit Hillel views the separation as an
ideal; they remain quite content with creation.
Remarkably, R. Zadok
finds meaning in the placement of these debates in Eruvin. An eruv unifies disparate
reshuyot into a single reshut. The tension between singular unity and
diverse variety links the tractate topic with our theological conflict. R. Zadok strives for the maximum of
religious meaning regarding both literary questions and halakhic debates.