In the classic Torah Min Hashamayim Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) masterly tells the methodology of Rabbi Akiva and the difference between him and Rabbi Ishmael. Gordon Tucker translated the work into English as Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations.
The two Talmudic sages lived around 130 CE and disagreed on how to interpret the Bible. Rabbi Akiva won out, and Rashi, Nachmanides, and most ancient Bible commentators as well as most Midrashim and most rabbinical sermons today follow his view. Others, such as Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, ibn Ezra, and Maimonides interpret the Torah as Rabbi Ishmael.
Rabbi Akiva felt that the Bible is a word for word, even every letter, revelation from God. Since God is perfect, is able to say concisely and exactly what is meant to be said, and would never place any superfluous or non-relevant materiel in the divine book, whenever an idea is repeated in the Bible or there is an unusual word or change in spelling, God must have placed it to teach a lesson. People need to spot these additions and changes, and figure out what God meant to teach by placing them in the Bible.
The Akivian methodology goes so far as to even interpret the word et, which has no meaning in biblical Hebrew and is used in the Torah as a sign of the accusative. Under the Akivian method, when et appears it is suggesting not only what is mentioned, but also anything that can be associated with it. For example, when Genesis 1:1 states that God created et hashamayim v’et haaretz, the heaven and the earth, it should be understood that God created the heaven and earth and all that they contain. The methodology is also used is for seeing rabbinic Midrash in the crowns on the biblical letters in the Torah scrolls used in synagogue services (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29b).
Rabbi Ishmael disagreed. He felt that “the Torah (which is intended for humans) speaks in human language.” For example, just as people repeat themselves for emphasis, to gain attention, for the sake of clarity, or to make their statement more flowery or poetic, so too does the Torah. Nothing should be read into repetitions, of which there are very many. If God meant to teach an additional lesson, God wouldn’t have hidden it in a repetition that doesn’t mean or even imply what Rabbi Akiva, many synagogue rabbis, and other people read into it; God would have made an explicit statement.
Rabbi Akiva’s methodology became the accepted way to understand the Torah
Rabbi Akiva’s students compiled the Midrashim and influenced most of the Talmudic rabbis, and later Bible and Talmud commentators such as Rashi, who based their teachings on Rabbi Akiva’s method. Readers and listeners need to know that what they are reading, or what the synagogue rabbi is sermonizing, is based on what the commentator or rabbi thought (erroneously according to Rabbi Ishmael) was an unnecessary repetition or an unusual spelling.
Most Judaic teachings including rabbinical laws and the imaginative Midrashic versions of what transpired in biblical times hang from a flimsy string attached to the Akivian notion.
The following are examples from Genesis 23 and a couple of other passages where the French Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi (1040-1105) draws from the Torah text imaginative information that are usually non-sequiturs not hinted at in the text.
- Genesis 9:10 repeats that God will establish his covenant in Noah’s post-flood generation with humans and animals “all that goes out of the ark, every living thing of the earth.” Rashi, following the methodology of Rabbi Akiva, wonders why the Torah adds “every living thing of the earth,” it already said that God made the covenant with “all that go out of the ark.” He answers: the latter refers to demons, which were also included in the covenant. (Rashi was not alone in believing in the existence of demons. There are over three dozen discussions of demons in the Talmud. However, there is no explicit mention of demons in the Pentateuch other than to say, don’t worship them.)
- In Genesis 23:1, the Torah unnecessarily, according to Rashi, repeats years three times, “The life of Sarah(Abraham’s wife) was a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years.” Rashi states that the repetition reveals that at 100 she was like 20 concerning sin, and at 20 she was as beautiful as a girl of seven. (The repetition of years, as in this verse, is characteristic biblical phraseology, and has no hidden meaning. It is in Genesis 5:5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 23, 26: Exodus 12:40, 41, 25:10, and many other passages. None of them with the connotation that Rashi sees here.)
- Again in 23:1, after mentioning that Sarahlived 127 years, Scripture repeats, “these are the years of Sarah’s life.” Why were these words added? Rashi says they inform readers that despite difficulties that Sarah had in her life, she felt that they were all good.
- When Abraham negotiates with Ephron to purchase burial ground for his deceased wife Sarah, the Bible states in 23:10 that Ephron was sitting among the children of Heth, Rashi notes that the Hebrew word for “sitting” has an unusual spelling; it is missing the letter vav. He writes that the letter was omitted to inform readers that “on that day he (Ephron) was appointed ruler over them (the children of Heth). He was elevated (apparently Rashi means by God) because Abraham needed the elevated rank (to be able to negotiate with the leaders of the children of Heth).”
- Rashiignores the fact that there are hundreds of different spellings in the Torah. For example, there are differences in spellings in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Even Ephron’s name omits a vav in 23:16, not only 23:10. There Rashi says the Torah omits the vav to inform readers that Ephron diminished himself in how he handled his negotiations with Abraham. (Thus, inconsistently, in example 4 the missing vav is said to elevate and in example 5 to diminish.)
- Genesis 2:3 seems to have a duplication, “which God created, had made.” Why state both “created” and “made”? Ignoring the Ishmael idea that this is common human speech, Rashi’s view is that duplication suggests that God did double work on the sixth day. Nachmanides, who also follows the Akiva method, understands “had made” as suggesting, “That which God had made out of nothing.”
- Rashi also interpreted the Torah by using gematriot. A gematria (the singular form of the word) is the numerical value of letters that make up words using the numerical value of each letter. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, an aleph, equals one, the second, a bet, two, and so on. Commenting on 24:1, Rashi is bothered by the Bible’s need to tell readers that God blessed Abraham “with everything”; haven’t we seen many instances of God’s blessing to Abraham before? Why did God repeat this information? The Hebrew word for “with everything” is bakol. Rashi notes that the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of bakol is 52, the very same number as the Hebrew word ben, son. He writes that the Torah is stating that God blessed Abraham with a son, and then narrates how Abraham tried to secure a wife for this son. (The twelfth century rational sage Abraham ibn Ezra sarcastically commented, “God does not speak in gematriot.”)
I agree with both Rabbi Heschel and Rabbi Ishmael that “the Torah speaks in human language.” I also think R. Heschel’s views about faith make sense. I disagree with but respect Rabbi Akiva’s opinion. Thank you for another great essay.
I think that it is important to realize that the sermons of many rabbis follow the method of Rabbi Akiva even though they do not realize it.
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Thank you. This is one of the two items that I learned from Rabbi Heschel, a truly wise man. The other is as follows: As a youngster, my father brought me with him when Rabbi Heschel delivered a lecture. He said, Jews do not believe, or should not believe, that they must have faith. If faith means anything it is not accepting as facts thoughts that science, the senses, and logic disprove. If you want to use faith, it means being faithful. Accepting the laws of God after understanding them and being faithful to them.