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R. Meir Simchaӳ Breadth of Commentary and his Attitude to Physicality

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



This shiur is dedicated in memory of
our beloved father, Harry Meisles (Elchanan ben Yitzchak) z"l,

whose yahrzeit falls on 26 Adar – the Meisles family.



Lecture 21:

R. Meir Simcha’s Breadth of Commentary

and his Attitude to Physicality


R. Meir Simcha’s Meshekh Chokhma exhibits its author’s significant breadth of knowledge and interest.  One intellectual interest exhibited in this commentary, which does not appear in many commentaries on Chumash, is his concern with philosophical topics.  R. Meir Simcha frequently refers to Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim and to R. Yosef Albo’s Sefer ha-Ikkarim.  In an earlier shiur, we mentioned his extensive discussion of the classic Jewish philosophical texts on the problem of human freedom and divine foreknowledge.  He even indicates knowledge of issues debated in Western philosophy.  For example, he references the efforts of thinkers to determine the relationship between the soul and the body.[1]  Apparently, R. Meir Simcha was aware of different theories regarding the mind-body problem.

Although he certainly does not engage in a sustained response to Bible critics, one passage may be responding to criticism.  Those arguing that Halakha played no role in the First Temple period note the absence of reference in the prophets to certain halakhic practices.  For example, the prophets make no mention of observing Yom Kippur.[2]  R. Meir Simcha explains that the Yom Kippur service during the First Temple period was dominated by the Kohen Gadol.  As the people played a lesser role, this holy day receded from the biblical account, which focuses on the Jewish nation.  In contrast, prophetic books do include accounts of Pesach, a festival on which everyone brought his own paschal offering.  Yom Kippur took on a stronger national element during the Second Temple period because the Jews returning from the Babylonian exile were hungry for the return of prophecy and they thought that coming to witness the High Priest on the holiest day of the year might inspire the prophetic spirit.[3]         

 R. Meir Simcha’s breadth is also reflected in the many different Torah disciplines included in his commentary.  Halakhic analysis, interpretations of aggadot and midrashim, novel readings of biblical passages and his own philosophy of Judaism all make frequent appearance.  This shiur’s discussion provides good examples of the wide-ranging nature of the commentary.

When studying R. Hirsch’s thought, we highlighted his emphasis on sanctifying the physical.  While this theme is less prominent in the writings of R. Meir Simcha, it does appear several times.  When we recall that R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s writings include the identical theme,[4] we may conclude that this idea reflects a trend in recent rabbinic writing.  Perhaps the rabbis of modernity have been more inclined to reject ascetic tendencies and to stress elevating the mundane.

R. Meir Simcha argues that Halakha does not negate physical drives; rather, it channels them in a positive religious direction.  Eating, drinking, and having relations all have their place in the Jewish legal system.  Based on this assumption, he provides a creative reading of the midrashic idea that people have two hundred and forty eight limbs and three hundred and sixty five sinews, corresponding to the positive and negative commandments in the Torah.  R. Meir Simcha understands this midrash as conveying the idea that the Torah corresponds to the human body and its needs, and does not negate that body.  For that reason, the Torah’s passage about arayot stresses “I am the Lord your God.”  God declares that He made humanity and gave them a Torah attuned to the human body.  Those who appreciate this point will not view halakhic restrictions as creating an unnatural physical existence.[5]

R. Shimon ben Elazar says:  “Inclination, a baby, and a woman - a person should bring close with his right and push away with his left” (Sota 47a).  The first category, the yetzer, works beautifully with our theme.  We do not allow our instinctual drives free rein, nor do we totally nullify them.  R. Meir Simcha explains that “the right” represents wisdom, while “the left” symbolizes natural instincts.  We utilize our intelligence from “the right” to channel the drives in an appropriate fashion.  In his symbolic scheme, the baby and the woman refer to nature and necessity.  Thus, the entire statement teaches us about relying on human thought (“the right”) to redeem natural drives.[6]

For R. Meir Simcha, human instinctual drives differ from corrupt intellectual beliefs.  The former have their appropriate place and can be purified, but we fully reject the latter; they have no legitimacy.  This distinction finds symbolic realization among the different sin offerings.  Standard sin offerings atone for inadvertent sins; by definition, these are not sins of the intellect.  We bring such offerings on the outer altar.  The chata’ot ha-penimiyot, on the other hand, atone for sins of the intellect.  The offering when a beit din’s ruling misleads the people reflects an intellectual error.  The bullock of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur atones for intentional violation of the ritual purity of the Mikdash, another intellectual transgression.  We bring those offerings on the inner altar, which symbolizes the intellect.  Priests eat from the first group of sin offerings since the physicality of such sins finds redemptive outlets.  No one eats from the latter group because sins of the intellect lack positive potential.[7]                     

Of course, sanctifying the physical does not entail an endorsement of hedonism.   R. Meir Simcha’s commentary expresses concern about unbridled materialistic pursuits.   When the people in the desert complain about the absence of meat, God says: “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow and you will eat meat” (Bemidbar 11:18).  R. Meir Simcha says that only the prior act of sanctification justifies meat consumption.  Human beings merit the right to eat animals after the humans achieve intelligence and realize their unique role within the created order.  If humans remain immersed in bestial behavior, what right do they have to eat animals?  According to many commentaries, the deeper roots of Jewish complaints in the desert were anger and frustration with their new life of halakhic restrictions.  God told them that eating meat depends upon rising above physical cravings and realizing the moral potential unique to humanity.  For that reason, the gemara in Pesachim (49b) says that an am ha-aretz is forbidden to eat meat.[8]

This conception resolves the Talmudic tension regarding the relative superiority of the fully righteous and the penitent.  With regard to sins of the flesh, we need not uproot the desires; therefore, the penitent is superior to the fully righteous.   The penitent certainly had those desires but succeeded in ennobling them.  Regarding sins of the intellect, we tolerate no truck with these thoughts.  As a result, the fully righteous is preferable to the penitent.[9]       

Rav Kook provides an instructive contrast here.  He taught that all ideologies contain elements of truth and he even attempted to find the positive in contemporary atheism and secular Zionism, as well as in the thought of Spinoza and Schopenhauer.  For R. Kook, we can extract something positive from intellectual mistakes if we realize the partial truth embodied in those mistakes.  R. Meir Simcha apparently disagrees.  From his perspective, ideologies that deny the existence of God or the distinction between good and evil lack all redeeming quality.

Along related lines, R. Meir Simcha adopts Rambam’s distinction in the sixth chapter of Shemoneh Perakim.  Rambam asks: who is superior – the person tempted to do the wrong thing who still desists or the person devoid of temptation?  Do we prefer the kovesh yetzer or the chasid?  Rambam says that verses in Tanakh, as well as the philosophers (Aristotelian “virtue ethics”), prefer the chasid, whereas some statements in Chazal apparently hold up the kovesh yetzer as a superior model.  His resolution distinguishes between sins that the philosophers recognize as evil and sins that we only know about due to the Torah.  Having a desire to murder or steal reflects poorly on a person and the moral paragon rises above such thoughts.  Wanting to eat pork or wear garments combining linen and wool does not reveal negative character; here, the kovesh yetzer reigns supreme.

R. Meir Simcha locates this doctrine in a well-known verse in Yeshayahu.  “The wicked man should forsake his way and the man of iniquity his thoughts” (Yeshayahu 55:7).  The prophet instructs the first type of sinner to forsake his way, his evil actions; the second type of sinner must even abandon his sinister thoughts.  The former refers to sins such as eating non-kosher food, where the inclination per se deserves no opprobrium.  On the other hand, someone with thoughts of theft and deceit must find ways to forsake the very inclinations.[10]                            

While this debate reflects a question logically distinct from that of physicality vs. asceticism, some overlap exists.  In both contexts, R. Meir Simcha does not view physical desires as bad.  Desire for a cheeseburger need not be silenced, just overcome.  Analogously, physical desires find their outlet in halakhically permissible and mandatory eating and the like.  We sanctify physicality rather than suppress it. 

Concern with the corrupting impact of excessive physicality helps R. Meir Simcha’s interpretation of one halakhic gemara.  The gemara (Berakhot 48b) attempts to use a kal va-chomer (a fortiori) argument from the obligation to say birkat ha-mazon after eating in order to derive an obligation to make a blessing before eating.   The argument goes: if we bless when full, all the more so we should bless when hungry.  At the end of the day, Halakha does not accept this argument.  Why not?  R. Meir Simcha answers that a good meal can produce a feeling of prideful satisfaction that sometimes leads to forgetting God.  In contrast, a hungry person has a greater realization of dependency.  If so, the blessing after the meal becomes more imperative and the kal va-chomer falls away.

This also enables us to understand possibility raised in the Talmud that a meal of kodshim does not require grace after meals (Arakhin 4a).   Perhaps eating sanctified foods in a context of holiness would not lead to the hubris that we counter with birkat ha-mazon.   Therefore, such meals need not be followed by a blessing.  The gemara does not accept this argument because eating a korban can also be quite enjoyable to the palate.   Dangers of physicality apply here as well, and Halakha demands birkat ha-mazon.

R. Meir Simcha notes that we do the opposite regarding the study of Torah: we demand a blessing beforehand but not afterward.  He suggests that we are concerned that people may learn Torah for the wrong reasons.  We make the berakhot beforehand to create an atmosphere that encourages Torah lishmah.  However, we are less concerned about the aftermath of Torah study.  Though such study can also lead to arrogance, Halakha relies on the ennobling character of Torah texts to lessen the dangers.[11]  Here, R. Meir Simcha weaves together halakhic analysis with religious existential concerns.

Not surprisingly. R. Meir Simcha endorses Rambam’s golden mean, calling it the “essential intention” of the Torah.  We normally call for a balanced approach to physicality, neither overindulging nor ascetic.  However, he admits to one set of exceptional circumstances that hinges upon his conception of repentance.  R. Meir Simcha wonders what the mitzva of repentance consists of.  It cannot simply command improving our ways, because we are already required to fulfill the Torah’s laws without the mitzva of teshuva telling us to do so.  A Sabbath desecrator must desist due to the regular Shabbat prohibition and not because of an additional commandment to repent.

Perhaps the commandment to repent adds the need for confession.  This explains why Rambam focuses on confession in the beginning of his Hilkhot Teshuva.  Alternatively, the commandment mandates the unusual behavior sometimes needed by the penitent.  R. Meir Simcha adopts Rambam’s idea that someone with an imbalance regarding a particular trait should temporarily go to the other extreme in order to end up in a healthier middle ground.  A glutton must spend some time in a more ascetic stance before returning to the proper measure of consumption.  Perhaps the mitzva of repentance commands this taking on of extreme measures in the pursuit of religious improvement.   

Broadly speaking, Meshekh Chokhma integrates halakhic, aggadic and biblical material and arrives at a coherent and consistent worldview.   In our context, we have seen that R. Meir Simcha rejects asceticism, calling for a sanctifying of the physical.  Along the same lines, he does not view the desire for forbidden foods as evil.   At the same time, he expresses concern about the dangers of excessive physicality.   With rare exceptions, he instructs us to strive for the golden mean.        



[1] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 16:1-3.

[2] For a different approach to this question, see R. David Zvi Hoffmann’s commentary on Vayikra 23. 

[3] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 16:34.

[4] See R. Shalom Carmy’s discussion of this issue: “Of Eagle’s Flight and Snail’s Pace, “Tradition 29:1 (Fall 1994), p. 23.

[5] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 18:2.  See also Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 9:7.

[6] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 14:15.

[7] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 6:13.

[8] Meshekh Chokhma Bemidbar 11:18.

[9] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 5:25.

[10] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 16:30.

[11] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 8:10.