Multi-Leveled Historical Interpretation in Netzivӳ Exegesis

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #14: Multi-Leveled Historical Interpretation in Netziv’s Exegesis



Netziv explains a number of the Torah’s legal sections as working on two levels – a commandment for that generation and a commandment for subsequent generations.  This approach allows him to solve several exegetical problems.  Why does the Torah repeat a mitzva we already know about?  Why does rabbinic interpretation differ from the simple reading of a verse?  How do we reconcile conflicting themes within a given commandment?  Netziv’s method helps him resolve these types of questions.


Leaving the Camp


The Torah (Bemidbar 5:2) tells us that the metzora (one afflicted by an impurity manifested by skin blemishes), the zav (one who is impure due to a type of genital discharge) and the temei met (one who contracts ritual impurity from a corpse) must leave the camp.  The verse draws no distinction between these three categories.  However, according to Chazal, the temei met only must leave the camp of the Shekhina (the Tabernacle), the zav must also leave the Levite camp, and the metzora needs even to depart from the Israelite camp.  According to R. Berlin, Chazal teach the correct law for the bulk of Jewish history.  However, during the sojourn in the desert, all three categories of people had to depart from the entire Israelite camp.  Thus, the simplest reading of these verses teaches the law for the generation of the desert, and the rabbinic interpretation instructs us for the rest of Jewish history.[1]


Careful attention to biblical wording helps support the point.  The Torah says that the Jews did “ka’asher dibber Hashem el Moshe” (Bemidbar 5:4) instead of the more standard formulation of “ka’asher tziva Hashem et Moshe.”  Netziv explains that the verb “tziva” connotes an oral tradition, whereas “dibber” refers to the simple meaning of the words spoken.  The Torah utilizes the unusual formulation to teach that beyond the commandment for all generations, there was a particular fulfillment of this commandment for the generation of the desert. [2]    That particular fulfillment depends upon peshuto shel mikra (the simple meaning of the text). 


This innovative idea explains other verses as well.  After the war with Midyan, all those who killed or who came into contact with a corpse are told to reside outside the camp (Bemidbar 31:19).  If the temei met only needs to leave the camp of the Shekhina, this verse makes little sense.  According to Netziv’s theory it works out beautifully, since that generation’s temei met did have to leave the Israelite camp.[3]  The same idea explains why the Torah (Bemidbar 19:7) depicts the temei met as returning to the Israelite camp only after undergoing the ritual of the red heifer.  Rashi says that that verse refers to a return to the machaneh Shekhina, but Netziv can interpret the verse in a simpler fashion.[4]


Entering the Holy of Holies


Vayikra 16 outlines the Temple service needed in order to enter the Holy of Holies. While we are accustomed to the idea that this possibility exits only on Yom Kippur, the Torah surprisingly does not mention Yom Kippur until verse 29.  Netziv explains that this section also works on two levels.  Aharon is able to perform this service and thereafter enter the Holy of Holies on any day of the year.  All other High Priests are restricted to Yom Kippur.   The verse (Vayikra 16:2) tells Moshe to speak to his brother Aharon rather than to “Aharon u-vanav” (Aharon and his sons) because the first part addresses Aharon exclusively.[5]  Only when discussing Yom Kippur does the Torah employ the phrase “chukkat olam,” a law for eternity (Vaykira 16:29, 34), because the law for all generations restricts this practice to that holy day.  The fact that verse 34 mentions “chukkat olam” while emphasizing “achat ba-shana” (once a year) strengthens the point.[6]   


Netziv uses this idea to solve other problems of interpretation.  To enter the Holy of Holies, the High Priest must bring a bullock for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering (Vayikra 16:3).  Chazal (Yoma 70b) identify this ram with the ram included as part of the Yom Kippur mussaf service, mentioned in Bemidbar 29:8.  This raises an obvious question.  If the Torah wants to discuss the Yom Kippur mussaf offerings in Vayikra 16, why does it only mention one of them?  R. Berlin’s analysis allows for a clever answer.  All the other animals brought as part of the mussaf offering accomplish only one purpose, the mussaf offering.  The ram, on other hand, is both part of the mussaf offering and also part of what enables the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies.  Normally, the ram simultaneously accomplishes both goals.   However, Aharon was able to perform the service on any day of the calendar.  When it was not Yom Kippur, he would not have to bring the other parts of the Yom Kippur mussaf service, but he would still have to bring the ram as part of the service that enables his entry into the innermost sanctum.[7]  Therefore, the Torah mentions the ram but not the rest of the mussaf offerings.


The Red Heifer


The law of the red heifer raises the issue of conflicting themes.  One gemara (Mo’ed Katan 28a) says that the juxtaposition between the red heifer and Miriam’s death teaches us that the death of the righteous atones for the transgressions of Am Yisrael.  Just as the heifer atones, so, too, does the death of Miriam.  A different gemara (Yoma 2a) explicitly states that the heifer does not atone.  The heifer helps make the temei met ritually pure, but tahara (ritual purity) and kappara (atonement) are two different concepts.  Can we reconcile this contradiction? 


Netziv’s methodology provides the solution.  The first red heifer in the desert was meant to atone for the sin of the golden calf.  Indeed, midrashim link these two animals, which are from the same family (calf and heifer).  The juxtaposition with Miriam’s death also fits this theory.  Miriam represents the women who did not participate in the sin of the golden calf.  Thus, the parallel between the heifer and the death of Miriam points specifically to atonement for that sin.  Subsequent use of the red heifer in future generations only purifies and no longer has an atoning quality.[8]  


Netziv’s assumptions regarding the terms “tziva” and “dibber” aid him here again.  Bemidbar 19:2 incorporates both terms.  Zot chukkat ha-Torah asher tziva Hashem leimor, dabber el bnei Yisrael…”  The presence of both terms indicates that this section must be read on two levels – on a peshat level for that generation and with rabbinic midrash for all generations.  For example, the ritual for this first red heifer had to be done by the Segan Kohen Gadol but all subsequent use of the ashes of red heifers could be made by any priest.[9]


This division has further halakhic impact.  Since the red heifer is not a sacrifice, we could have concluded that the priest’s role here is akin to his role in ruling on blemishes and would not require that he wear priestly garments.  Yet we do demand priestly garments for the red heifer ritual.  R. Berlin explains that we demand all legal requirements that help the priest establish his functional kohen identity.  The bigdei kehuna (priestly garments) and the washing of hands and feet establish his ability to function as a priest, and both requirements apply to the red heifer.  However, the inability to bring offerings during the period of aninut (the period between losing a close relative and the burial) has nothing to do with kohen identity but rather is a law connected with the offering of sacrifices.  Since the heifer has to do with tahara (purity), not kedusha (sanctity), the onen should be allowed to perform the ritual.[10]


According to Netziv’s theory, the above applies to all red heifers except the first one.  All the others relate to purity and not atonement.  The first heifer had an atoning quality and therefore partook of the sanctity of sacrifices.  An onen would have been invalid for that first red heifer.


The Olat Tamid


The Torah calls the daily burnt offering “korbani lachmi” (Bemidbar 28:2).  What does the term “lachmi” mean in this context?  Netziv says that it includes two disparate meanings.  Obviously, “lechem” means bread, the symbol of basic sustenance.  Additionally, the word “malchim” means to join together (see Vayikra Rabba 3:3). This dual meaning illustrates two potential purposes of the daily burnt offerings.  They bring together God and the Jewish people, or God and particular individuals.  They also entreat God to provide our daily bread. 


Once again, Netziv differentiates between a mitzva’s nature during the generation of the desert and its nature afterward.  During Moshe Rabbeinu’s lifetime, his merit is sufficient to provide the Jewish people with sustenance.  Therefore, the only role for the olat tamid is to serve as a meeting point between God and Moshe.  After the sin of the spies, God ceases to communicate with Moshe (see Tosafot, Bava Batra 121a) because Moshe can receive revelation only as a representative of a worthy people.  This explains why some opinions think that the Jews did not bring the daily burnt offerings in the desert (see Chagiga 6a). If the sole purpose of the burnt offerings was to enable Moshe’s meeting with God, an era where such meetings stopped rendered the olat tamid without purpose.


Upon entry into the land of Israel, the daily burnt offering took on the additional theme of providing sustenance.  From that point on, the burnt offerings would continue irrespective of the nature of the relationship between God and the Jewish people at that time.  Even when intimate meetings with God are impossible, the need for sustenance continues.  Netziv’s approach explains why the commandment to bring the olat tamid appears twice, both in Shemot 29:38 and again in Bemidbar 28:2.  The commentators on Bemidbar 28 offer various solutions to this question.  Rashi suggests that the former command relates only to the days of the milu’im ceremony.  Ibn Ezra says that the Torah repeats this commandment because it wants to enumerate the mussaf offerings, and the inclusion of the tamid makes the list more complete.  Ramban cites a midrashic explanation that the second parasha adds halakhic details not clarified in Shemot 29.  For R. Berlin, the answer is straightforward.  Bemidbar 28 conveys the new theme added to the olat tamid.  This new theme demands that the daily offerings continue without any kind of interruption.[11]


Shechutei Chutz


Our final example relates to the parasha of shechutei chutz.  The Torah (Vayikra 17:3-4) commands anyone who wants to slaughter an animal in the camp to bring that animal to the Tabernacle as an offering.  Rashi restricts the scope of this law to a person who intends to bring an offering.  Such a person is obligated to come to the Tabernacle.  However, someone who simply wanted to eat meat for dinner could slaughter it anywhere.  Ramban contends that Rashi follows the view of R. Akiva (Chullin 17a) that non-sanctified meat was eaten in the desert.  According to the view of R. Yishmael that only shelamim meat was eaten in the desert, the parasha addresses anyone who wanted to eat.  The only option for eating meat was to bring a peace offering, part of which would be sacrificed and the rest of which the owner would consume. 


Based on a view of Rambam, Netziv applies this tannaitic debate to our passage in a novel way. Rambam holds that R. Akiva allowed nechira (a different method for killing an animal) but not shechita for non-sanctified meat.[12]  Since the pagans used shechita for their offerings and not nechira, Halakha specifically limited the former to offerings to God so the people wouldn’t slip into pagan worship using shechita in the camp.  Thus, both positions would restrict eating meat killed through shechita to peace offerings.  R. Akiva and R. Yishmael read Vayikra 17 the same way for the generation of the desert.  However, after Devarim 12 prohibits meat from an animal killed by nechira and allows shechita for non-sanctified meat, the meaning of Vayikra 17 changes.  The shechutei chutz prohibition becomes limited to offerings because we can now eat meat produced via shechita without bringing a peace offering.


Netziv may be motivated by the simplest reading of the verse.  The context of Vayikra 17:3 does not seem to restrict the prohibition of shechita to someone who wants to bring an offering.  His reading enables him to apply the peshuto shel mikra to dor ha-midbar, even as the rabbinic interpretation applies to future generations.  As noted, Netziv solves a myriad of exegetical and theological problems with this method.


            This method indicates a certain historical awareness on the part of Netziv.  R. Berlin shows sensitivity to the varying needs of different epochs in Jewish history and addresses such issues in other contexts as well. 


[I want to bring to the readers’ attention another work that aids research on Netziv.  Dr. Nissim Elyakim’s Ha’amek Davar la-Netziv: Middot ve-Kelim be-Farshanut ha-Peshat categorizes a wide range of exegetical and ideological subjects in R. Berlin’s commentary on the Torah.] 

[1] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 5:2.

[2] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 5:4.

[3] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 31:19.

[4] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 19:7.

[5] Ha’amek Davar Vayikra 16:2.

[6] Ha’amek Davar Vayikra 16:34.

[7] Ha’amek Davar Vayikra 16:2.

[8] Harchev Davar Bemidbar 19:2.

[9] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 19:2.

[10] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 19:4.

[11] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 28:2.

[12] Hilkhot Shechita 17:13.