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Dvar Torah Emor: Moses and the Blasphemer

The Akivan view purports that the entire Torah was given to Moses on Sinai — general principles along with all of the particulars — but this appears to come into conflict with the closing segment of this week’s parsha.

During a family dispute, a certain man took God’s name in vain and was immediately taken to Moses and sequestered “lifrosh lahem al pi Hashem,” “until it would be explained to them through the word of God.” (Leviticus 24:12)

According to the Ishmaelian school of thought, Moses did not receive the entire Torah at Sinai and it is entirely consistent with this perspective that Moses did not know what to do at this juncture — Moses had simply not yet received word from on high as to how to deal with a blasphemer.

The Sifre, a compendium of midrashic literature that largely advances an Ishmaelian viewpoint, points out that there were four rulings that eluded Moses, one of them being the megadef (the law concerning the blasphemer). The other three mentioned by the midrash are Pesach Sheini (the law of the Second Passover — Numbers 9:6-14), bnos Tzelofchad (the law concerning the daughters of Tzelofchad — Numbers 27:1-11) and the mekoshesh eitzim (the law concerning the wood gatherer — Numbers 15:32-36). All of this is very consistent with the view of R’ Ishmael, for Moses only knew what he knew when he knew it — spread out over some time in the wilderness rather than concentrated at Sinai.

Things are not so simple though, for the Akivan perspective, which must explain how it was that Moses was unaware of the appropriate response to these 4 situations if he had access to the Torah, and by “Torah,” R’ Akiva means nearly anything and everything related to the codified teachings of Judaism. The paradoxical nature of what follows from taking such a position amounts to something quite bizarre indeed. Moses learns on Sinai the law concerning the blasphemer, and not only can he not recall this later at the actual time of the blasphemer but part of the Torah that he learned at Sinai was the narrative of him in the future not recalling what to do with the blasphemer. Thinking about this brings back fond memories of the time I played Johnny B. Goode with Marvin Berry and the Starlighters at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.

To reconcile their position on the unified presentation of the entire Torah with the obvious plot holes that develop, the School of R’ Akiva proposes that the incident of the wood gatherer occurred prior to Sinai but after the events at Marah, which tradition maintains included the giving over of the laws of Shabbos. This is supported by the view of R’ Akiva which explains the special distinction of Saturday in relation to the manna as having been a function of the laws of Shabbos that had already been received by the Children of Israel.

In this week’s parsha, Rashi explains the use of the term “vayanichuhu” as specifically meaning that the blasphemer was placed livado — in solitary confinement — and not with another prisoner. But who else would be imprisoned? The Torah never speaks of imprisonment, other than a single time: in relation to the wood gatherer. Rashi, in line with the Akivan view, puts the two events together chronologically, making them both before Sinai and thus eliminating any paradoxes of Moses not knowing what to do even though he had not only been forewarned how to handle the situations but had been informed, in learning the text of the Torah, that he wouldn’t know what to do.

Moses knew that the wood gatherer — identified by R’ Akiva as Tzelofchad himself (commentary of Rashi on Numbers 27:3, v’hu lo haya) — was deserving of death (Bavli Sanhedrin 78b, 13th line from the top) because of the verse (Exodus 31:14) that states so explicitly…so what was it exactly that Moses was unsure of? Chizkuni suggests that Moses was torn over whether to sentence him to the default type of court-ordered execution, chenek (strangulation), because no special mention of another means of execution was stated by the verse, or whether he should die by skilah (stoning) because of a link to idolatry via a g’zeirah shaveh, which is punishable by stoning.

But as for the blasphemer, Moses was unsure if he even deserved the death penalty, and so he was not confined with the wood gatherer who was on death row.

This sort of chronological shifting works well for the wood gatherer and the blasphemer (even though it is the School of R’ Ishmael that applies the notion of dischronology in the apparent continuum of biblical events) but cannot be employed for the other two events that seem to expose plot holes in R’ Akiva’s version of the nature of the revelation at Sinai. The answers proposed, though — that Moses became weak and/or forgot (Sifra, heavily influenced by the Akivan philosophy) or that he really did know but chose not to reveal the information until such time as those in whose merit the laws would be elucidated came onto the scene (Rid) — seem somewhat contrived. Other answers are given that do not seem so strange but that extend beyond the focus of this post.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Seeker of Truth May 11, 2012, 8:23 AM

    good stuff! But why do rishonim feel the need to defend the Akivan approach and weren’t these blatant plot hole thought of by Akiva himself? Judging from his other statements he knew the verses of the Torah pretty well and knew that the chronological order argument would not apply to everything he is saying I doubt these stories eluded him. Is there no one that addresses this problem? You relate this Dvar Torah as though the Akivan approach is logically flawed, when in reality the “plot holes” are too blatant to not have been addressed either by R’ Akiva himself or someone thereafter. From the perspective of this piece it seems like a grand conspiracy being defended by rishonim whatever the cost when there is an easy way out (to explain as R’ Ishmael had). While at times the rishonim may say things that are too mystical to our liking, I don’t believe that they would defend an opinion completely bereft of basic logic so much so that the defense given by R’ Akiva was inconsistent for all cases it came to defend and then this “flawed” defense was further defended by rishonim. You finished off with saying that there were other answers that “do not seem as strange”. Why not present those as well? Seems like you have an Ishmaelian agenda by not providing all the answers given. It may not be the case, but judging from you previous posts, I’d say your leaning toward the Ishmaelian party. I’m not disagreeing just looking for equal representation.

    • DRosenbach May 11, 2012, 1:32 PM

      Modern day Akivans, as well as some who maintain what they perceive as a strict neutrality between the divide, might say that even R’ Akiva himself, as ironic as it sounds, was not as Akivan as he’s sometimes portrayed by the Ishmaelian camp. In other words, R’ Akiva was not as much of a purest as he’s made out to be and, with this case as a good example, even R’ Akiva is forced to accept to some degree the notion that the events listed in the Torah in the order that they are listed did not necessarily occur in that order. And even though this concept of ein mukdam u’me’uchar baTorah is Ishmaelian in origin, even the Akivan School of Thought employed it, although not as liberally as the Ishmaelians.

      With that, the predating of the events of the wood gatherer and the blasphemer prior to Sinai are consistent with the Akivan approach insofar as chronology modification and helps to explain these two of the four.

      As for Pesach Sheini, though, it’s explicit that these events occurred during the holiday season in the second year of the wilderness and no amount of maneuvering could suggest otherwise. To this, the Sifre (again, primarily an Ishmaelian text) explains that Moses simple responded to them, “I have no instructions,” which is fine except according to R’ Akiva, who cannot permit Moses to be at a loss when the Torah, which he had, makes overt reference to this. The Sifra quotes that Moses was not in doubt as to whether or not Pesach Sheini was an option, but that he wondered whether the Paschal lamb could be slaughtered and sprinkled on behalf of the impure people as part of the pre-assigned groups, even though they would be prohibited from consuming any portion of it.

      And as for the incident of the daughters of Tzelofchad, there is discussion of portions of the law being withheld until those who merited bringing them forth did so. Thus, the five daughters were those who merited it, they elicited Moses explanation of the relevant laws and in the end, this portion of the Torah is indeed referred to as “the section of the daughters of Tzelofchad.”

  • Mary May 11, 2012, 9:40 AM

    What happened was it was Purim and everyone was too drunk to think so they had to delay the decision of what to do.

    • DRosenbach May 11, 2012, 11:10 AM

      The act was unprecedented and Moses, as the chief adjudicator, knew not what to do.

      And Purim had not yet occurred and so no one would have gotten drunk in celebration.

  • A. Nuran May 12, 2012, 10:44 AM

    Victimless crime?

    • DRosenbach May 12, 2012, 9:46 PM

      You bring up a good point, A. Nuran. Legislative bodies make laws for a number of reasons and a common focus of many of these laws relates to victims: either to prevent there from being one of from protecting them after they become one. And it’s certainly a valid point to bring up the question of a ‘victimless’ crime when it’s explicit or even merely apparent that such legislation was drafted in the best interested of a victim or victim-to-be.

      But religious crimes — otherwise known as sins — are not that way. Of the myriad laws of Judaism, so many of them are ritualistic and binding upon one even in the middle of a deserted wilderness. Violations of the kosher laws and the Sabbath, to name a few of just the most well-known of Jewish laws, serve as prime examples of such.

      And so complaining about the victimless crime serves not only to confront the law but the religion itself — which might very well be your intention, and you are free to decide as you wish. But I think we should just make it clear that that is what you are doing. Judaism is full of victimless crimes — in fact, that’s largely the definition of a sin.

  • OfftheDwannaB May 14, 2012, 12:27 AM

    “Thinking about this brings back fond memories of the time I played Johnny B. Goode with Marvin Berry and the Starlighters at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.”


  • ghottistyx May 15, 2012, 2:37 AM

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it Rashi who believed Ein Mukdam U’Meuchar?

    • DRosenbach May 15, 2012, 6:28 AM

      No, you’re not wrong — but Rashi was born in 1040 CE and such a concept originates in the Mechilta of R’ Ishmael which is largely ascribed to Ishmael ben Elisha, the third generation tannaitic contemporary and philosophical opponent of Akiva ben Joseph — and R’ Ishmael died in 135 CE. And although it is apparently quite evident from the text of this Mechilta that it was necessarily edited at later dates (because of frequent and/or numerous mentions of things that occurred later), it is notwithstanding accepted that at least the core of the text was actually authored by R’ Ishmael. At the very least, it was penned by his disciples and is in line with his views.

      The initial premise that is used to suggest such a notion of lack of chronology is based on the seemingly inconsistent order of the verses in the Song of the Sea:

      “Amar oyeiv erdof asig achaleik shalal” — “The enemy stated: I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoils.” (Exodus 15:9)

      Why is this mentioned in the middle of Az Yashir when, clearly, it has already happened? Now, obviously, the entire song is recounting what has already happened, but the Mechilta of R’ Ishmael wants to know why it is recounted out of order — for in essence, when Moses wrote the Torah, except for the issue with the last 8-12 verses, everything had already occurred and if the Song of the Sea recounts things out of order, R’ Ishmael proposes that the entire Torah recounts things out of order.

      The Mechilta continues to give other, more glaring examples of non-chronology (for they do not occur within a song which could be explained away with poetic license rather than more far reaching theological and philosophical axioms), for example: Leviticus 9, which describes the initial events of the Mishkan’s installation period, should have been mentioned at the opening of Leviticus. However, one can argue that since nothing happens in Leviticus until chapter 8 (for chapters 1-7 contain abstract laws and contain no narrative of events) and these events seemingly immediately precede the events mentioned in Leviticus 9, there is no real loss of chronology. This is interesting, because Rashi actually claims that this section is out of order (commentary to Leviticus 8:2 — see the supercommentary in the Metsudah Chumash for elaboration). In essence, then, none of this (the Song of the Sea or the early portions of Leviticus) need really be called ‘out of order’.

      A further example is given as the apparently lack of chronology of Deuteronomy 29:9 —

      “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem rasheichem shivteichem zikneichem v’shotreichem kol ish yisrael” — “You stand this day, all of you, before God: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers…all of the men of Israel”

      This, explains the Mechilta, should have been stated first, 29 chapters earlier, for it is the introduction to Moses farewell oration. But, again, Moses was giving a speech and sometime people take liberties when speaking, emphasizing things that have already been stated. But I suppose this might be the most convincing of the three. Other examples exist, though, that are more readily persuasive of this axiom. The proposal, though, taken by R’ Akiva is that only those things that are necessarily out of order are said to be so — when his hand was forced, so to speak — while R’ Ishmael is very liberal with this idea and applies it to almost everything. For this reason, R’ Akiva maintains that adjoining verses and sections teach lessons based on their proximity while R’ Ishmael rejects such a method of exegesis, claiming that there can be no special meaning in contiguous passages for they are merely contiguous as we read them but with no real rhyme or reason having been applied to their placement in the order of the text.

      But perhaps to respond directly to what you were trying to say, ghottistyx, I’d suggest that it’s perhaps only because the School of R’ Akiva did embrace this Ishmaelian axiom to some degree that Rashi picks it up at all. The Akivan perspective overpowers our modern interpretation of Judaism and the few Ishmaelian flavors that penetrate are those that were assimilated into the Akivan worldview.

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