Why It Matters that the Torah Temimah Says Damesek is Not Biblical Hebrew

  • 0

I saw something interesting in the Torah Temimah on Lech Lecha. I thought I remembered exactly what it was so I recklessly posted it on Facebook.

Turns out, I made a big mistake and misremembered what the Torah Temimah said. It’s inexcusable and I regret not double checking what he actually says before I posted. Chatasi. So I wrote a second post correcting my error.

The Torah Temimah lists Damesek as one of many examples where the Torah uses a foreign language in the Torah. He says that the word is used as “domestic help” in “old languages” and is still used in French in this way.

In the comments, people wonder if this is a big deal. Maybe it’s not. It definitely shouldn’t be a big deal but I think it is a big deal. Here is why.255337-1

There are some questions about the Bible that have traditional answers. But some of those traditional answers appear to be insufficient to Orthodox Jews in 5774. Sometimes the questions are better than the answers. One kind of answer that has been presented and rejected by traditionalists is that the Torah speaks in the language of man and may include anachronisms that made sense to the original intended audience in a way that our modern ears can’t relate.

The reason this approach is rejected is because it breaks some of the self imposed traditional frum rules of learning Torah. It’s considered too liberal or too reform-like to allow for non-eternal meanings to the Torah.

Two of the arguments used to bolster this claim are that the Torah was a closed book at Sinai and that the Torah cannot be influenced by factors external to the text itself. The commonly held position on the closing of the Bible is that everything was taught at Sinai. Opinions that allow for the final verses (and more) to have been added by later prophets from unimpeachable sources are shunned because they burst this bubble. Similarly, allowing for outside influence into the Torah implies that the Torah is somewhat subjective. For example, the famous statement of Maimonides that sacrifices were a concession to a people with pagan leanings is considered borderline problematic. The conventional wisdom is that if the Torah included sacrifices it must have been God’s “original intent.”

Showing that the Torah is a book with external influence bolsters the claim of Maimonides and may allow for extending it to other ideas in the Torah. This is considered dangerous and out of bounds for “Torah True” Jews.

Whenever we have traditionally accepted sources that allow for outside influence we are showing that the contemporary reluctance to this kind of interpretation actually runs counter to tradition. The Torah Temimah had no problem listing several places in the Bible where the Torah borrows from other languages. This is a big deal.

Of the two options above, let’s call them “closed book” and “not completely closed book,” which fits better with this Torah Temimah? It’s clearly the “not completely closed book” option. In other words, we are reinforcing the idea that the Torah could have outside influences. Why would the Torah use a non-Bible word it its text? It certainly could have used a native word or invented a Biblical word. Why didn’t it? Isn’t the obvious answer that the Torah was speaking to an audience familiar with these words and thus it chose to use familiar language?

The implication of that answer is that the Torah considers its audience. It spoke in a way that people would expect it to speak. It’s an eternal book that was written under specific circumstances. Therefore we are able to extend this theory to answer questions we have with new non-traditional answers. The answers might be new, but the approach is not new. Of course we are not at liberty to change it or ignore its commands, God forbid. But we can understand many of its tenets, rules, and stories in this context.

This might shed light on the Creation Story and the Flood Story. Or not. But I think it should be an option on the table for Orthodox Jews.

Read the Torah Temimah here: PDF

  • Yossie Bloch

    What on earth is a non-Bible word? If it’s in there, it’s biblical.

    • Holy Hyrax

      Exactly. Why is Damesek any different than “me’arat (cave)”

  • Holy Hyrax

    >This might shed light on the Creation Story and the Flood Story. Or not.

    It doesn’t. 🙂

  • student

    Why does this seem different to you than Rashi’s commentary on the word “totafot”?

    • It’s not different. It’s another example. And he is not a rishon so he has a shorter leash…

      • Yossie Bloch

        Are you talking about Rashi’s appropriation of Rabbi Akiva’s statement (Sanhedrin 4b)? That’s not a medieval explanation (very little of what Rashi says is).

        • Obviously. Rashi is a collection of divrei Chazal. Just making a general statement. When a 20th century authority uses this principle it’s noteworthy.

          • Yossie Bloch

            I still can’t figure out why. The frummies consider this no more significant than all the Greek words in Shir haShirim. You’re making the jump from vocabulary to narrative, which will only be supported by those who couldn’t care less about the Torah Temimah’s etymological theories (such as myself).

            • I just think that the more we hear it, the more comfortable we become with the idea that the Torah was written for a particular audience.

  • olesker

    There is a world of difference between the Torah using a name or proper noun from another language (totophot?) and suggesting that principles of ta’amei hamitzvos are merely accommodations to the cultural milieu in which it was revealed. That (I think) is one of the reasons that the Ramban argues so strongly against the Rambam’s explanation of the reason for korbonos; a) he actually disagrees and b) he feels it opens the door to a relativistic interpretation of the text.

    But of course, no one can get away from the fact that the Rambam actually does suggest a cultural reason for korbonos and we can’t dismiss it just because it raises issues. But it’s an old maklokos and a really don’t think that the Torah Temimah’s attribution of a non-Jew’s name to a non-Hebrew source is such a big deal.

  • Dov Kramer

    Since this word is part of the narrative of Avraham’s conversation with G-d, as long as Avraham used the word, it makes sense that it would be used in the Torah whether the Torah otherwise uses the words of other languages or not. Torah Temimah does include it as one of numerous examples where other languages are “borrowed” (including referencing the Gemara re: “totafos”), but it’s use here needn’t impact other uses.

    Besides, since this is part of the “Book of the Covenant” that was the historical overview presented before the covenant at Sinai was enacted (see http://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/parashas-bereishis-5774/), using terms that the nation understood in 2448 makes sense. If it was written pre-Sinai, and included in the holy texts studied by the Children of Israel throughout the years even before the exodus (with G-d telling Moshe to include it as is), such language usage fits as well.

  • mg

    The Torah Temimah was a scholar, but not an Odom Godol. He was unexceptional in personal righteousness, and his opinions were not considered as coming from a Daas Torah, though he was well respected for his knowledge. His derech halimud and Hashkofo were influenced by untraditional sources and he sometimes said things (some printed in the Torah Temimah) that may not be said. He was resepected as a highly knowledgable person, but not beyond that level. Its not like you cant use the sefer, just take what he says with a grain of salt (especially when it says things like change the girsa, or choshech was cataracts etc), and accept it for the maalos and chesronos that it has.

    • max

      although, if you subscribe to the common claim that many parts of torah temima were plagiarized, then it is quite possible that this was an opinion of someone much earlier and much greater.

    • Pinchos Woolstone

      who determines who is or is not an “Odom Gadol”?.

    • Pinchos Woolstone

      there has develop the “Gedolim” industry a disturbing development