A Threefold Method of Biblical Interpretation

Tetzavveh | Shabbat Zakhor By :  Walter Herzberg Assistant Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Its Interpretation and Professional Pastoral Skills Posted On Mar 3, 2012 / 5772 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Deuteronomy 25:13–16 deals with God’s abhorrence of those who deal dishonestly in business:

13 You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. 14 You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. 15 You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the Lord your God is giving you. 16 For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the Lord your God.

That which follows immediately in the text (Deut. 25:17–19) is the command to remember the incident of the Amalekites (Parashat Zakhor, which is traditionally read on the Shabbat before Purim), when the Amalekites ambushed the “famished and the weary” Israelites after they left Egypt:

17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—18 how, he surprised you on the march, and cut down all the stragglers in the rear while you were famished and weary, and did not fear God. 19 Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.

Identifying the Textual Problem

Why are these two seemingly unrelated matters—the law against harboring dishonest weights, on the one hand, and the exhortation to “remember” Amalek’s treachery, on the other—juxtaposed?

Examining Responses to the Question

Juxtaposition (semihut parashiyot) is a tool of interpretation employed by traditional commentators as well as modern literary readers. It is not surprising, therefore, that Rashi (1040–1105, France) chooses to address this apparently arbitrary juxtaposition as follows:

If you were untruthful about measures and about weights, be worried about provocation by the enemy, as it says [in Proverbs 11:1] “Dishonest scales are an abomination to the Lord” and afterwards [in Proverbs 11:2] it is written “When iniquity comes, then comes shame.”

In other words, Amalek came upon the Israelites as result of the dishonest business dealings of some of them in the desert.

Gur Aryeh (supercommentary on Rashi by the Maharal of Prague, 1526–1609) expands upon Rashi’s comment, suggesting that God’s punishment is based on the principle of measure for measure: “because you [the Israelites] did not restrict yourself to proper measure (in weights), your enemies will no longer be restricted to the proper measure of power allotted to them by the Creator, and they will [literally] be free to harass you.” He is in agreement with Rashi’s understanding of the inevitability of punishment for offenses, but in addition insists upon a measure-for-measure relationship between the crime and the punishment, which reflects his theology that “since God’s attribute is measure for measure, it is thereby known that evil (bad) does not come from God, just good, and man through God’s attribute brings bad upon himself . . . and therefore it [bad] is not from God.”

The Netziv (Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, author of Ha’ameq Davar, Lithuania, 19th century) and Keli Yeqar (Ephraim of Luntschitz, Prague, 16th century), on the other hand, explicitly state that Rashi’s midrashically based comment is not to be taken literally, but metaphorically; Amalek did not in reality harass the Israelites because of their fraudulent commercial dealings. There was no commerce in the desert thereby obviating the need for weights and measures. Rather, dishonesty in weights is emblematic of a lack of faith in God, and that (lack of faith) is what will bring the enemy (punishment). It is as if the dishonest person believes that the “Eye Above” cannot see what is being done in secret. The juxtaposition, therefore, is coming to teach the greater lesson of the dangers that a lack of belief in God’s omniscience may engender.

Isaac Abarbanel (Spain and Portugal, 15th to 16th centuries) also addresses the juxtaposition of the verses dealing with dishonest weights with the commandment to block out the memory of Amalek. However, Abarbanel sees the juxtaposition differently from Rashi, the Maharal, and the Netziv (though he does invoke the principle of measure for measure). He comments that since the text (Deut. 25:16) mentions that all those who deal dishonestly are an “abomination to God,” it juxtaposed the mitzvah (commandment) to remember the war with Amalek who mercilessly attacked the weary Israelites, because Amalek’s actions were an abomination to God as well. Thus, Abarbanel seems to be saying that someone who deals dishonestly in business is as abhorrent to God as Amalek was, due to their merciless attacks on the helpless Israelite stragglers.

Finally, the Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Mikhel Weiser, Eastern Europe, 19th century) expands upon some of the interpretations we encountered above, articulating the following homiletical/theological reading of the juxtaposition of the two passages:

It is known that the pretext that the enemies of Israel use to persecute them [the Jews] is specifically the fact that there are among them some people who deal fraudulently in business matters; these Jews are thereby denying Divine Providence.

Note how the Malbim is highlighting the responsibility that an individual bears toward the entire community—for the untoward or dishonest behavior of a few members of the community may result in dire consequences for the community at large.

Reviewing and Considering Moral and Theological Implications

In summation, although Rashi’s textual question is clear enough (the question of juxtaposition), his articulation of the answer invites us to ponder some of the following moral and theological implications of his comment, along with the commentaries of the generations that followed him:

  • Belief in (reward and) punishment in this world: if we deal dishonestly, there may very well be consequences.
  • An individual’s actions (dishonest business dealings) may adversely affect the community at large; we bear grave responsibility for our actions.
  • Our relationship with humankind will affect God’s relationship with us.
  • Bad things happen as a result of our behavior; it’s we who cause the bad, not God.
  • Understanding the egregious nature of dishonesty, which is truly as abominable as literally attacking the weak and helpless.
  • Dishonest business dealings are emblematic of a lack of faith in God’s omniscience.
  • God’s world is one that operates under the principle of measure for measure.

The comments above are based on my work with Steven Kepnes (Finard Professor in Jewish Studies and Religion; director of Jewish Studies, Colgate University), in which we have developed a threefold method of biblical interpretation. The method proceeds by first identifying the textual problem(s), then exploring responses of the commentators to the problem(s), and finally considering the theological and moral implications of the responses.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.