R. Zadok and the Principle of Omnisignificance

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Lecture #24: R. Zadok and the Principle of Omnisignificance






R. Zadok Ha-Kohen Rabinowitz (1823-1900) was born into a mitnagdic rabbinic family.  Popular biographies recount that he was a remarkable illuy, a child prodigy.  A few years after his teenage marriage, rumors about his wife’s problematic behavior reached his ears.  Given the historical source material available, it is difficult to evaluate the precise nature or veracity of these rumors.  In any case, R. Zadok wanted to divorce her and she refused.  He travelled around Europe to acquire the signatures of one hundred rabbis which would allow him to remarry even if his wife remained adamant.  During his travels, he met R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the rebbe from Izbica, an encounter which inspired R. Zadok to become a chassid.  Ultimately, his wife did accept the divorce and he later remarried, although he never had children.


When the Izbitzer passed away, his court divided into followers of his son, the Beis Yaakov, and followers of his talmid R. Yehuda Leib Eiger.  Though he was certainly worthy of establishing his own branch, R. Zadok went with the latter group.  Only when R. Leibele Eiger passed away in 1888 did R. Zadok agree to form his own court.  Thus, his formal leadership period only encompassed the last twelve years of his life.




For much of his life, R. Zadok had time to write and he did so prolifically.  Since he wrote many works and the titles do not always clarify the content of these volumes, I will quickly survey his vast literary output.  R. Zadok wrote on both halakha and machshava topics.  His legal writings include Tiferet Tzvi, responsa on Yoreh De’a; Levushei Tzedaka, a defense of the Levush from the attacks of later authorities; Otzar Ha-melekh, a commentary predominantly on the first book of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah with an appended essay on tum’at ohel; and Meishiv Tzeddek, a defense of the practice to eat a meal inside the house on Shemini Atzeret.     


Some of his writings on Jewish thought are defined easily, others less so.  Takanat Ha-shavin addresses repentance, Yisrael Kedoshim focuses on the unique status of the Jewish people, and Sichat Mal’akhei Ha-sharet discusses rabbinic literature regarding angels.  Others are more of a potpourri but some essential themes stand out.  Both Resisei Layla and Machshavot Charutz emphasize the holidays with the former devoting considerable space to Purim.  Divrei Soferim and Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik contain insightful readings of Talmudic passages with the beginning of the latter dedicated to the first few pages of Berakhot.


In addition to the two major categories, a few other individual works stand out.  His Divrei Chalomot outlines novel insights that came to him while dreaming.  A letter entitled Iggeret Ha-kodesh encourages a childhood friend now living in Manchester to immigrate to the land of Israel.   We also have the text of his bar mitzvah derasha, a text that confirms his precocious learning skills.


This massive output illustrates R Zadok’s remarkable range.  He was a master of Jewish law and of Jewish thought, knowledgeable regarding both Jewish mysticism and Jewish philosophy.  As we shall see in subsequent shiurim, issues of history also intrigued him. 


Scholarly Analysis 


Though scholars have only scratched the surface of R. Zadok’s creative thought, they have produced some important studies.  In particular, I recommend Prof. Alan Brill’s book,[1] a collection of articles entitled Me’at le’Tzaddik,[2] two fascinating articles by Prof. Yaakov Elman,[3] and a series of articles by Dr. Yonatan Grossman.[4]  The remainder of this week’s shiur addresses a topic raised by Elman but not in the context of a focused study on R. Zadok.




This term helps set the stage for appreciating one important aspect of R. Zadok’s thought.  Prof. James Kugel coined the term in his analysis of biblical poetry and Yaakov Elman has utilized it in a broader context.  According to Kugel:


The basic assumption underlying all rabbinic exegesis is that the slightest details of the biblical text have a meaning that is both comprehensible and significant.  Nothing in the Bible, in other words, ought to be explained as the product of chance, or, for that matter, as an emphatic or rhetorical form…Every detail is put there to teach us something new and important.[5]   


Kugel mentions this idea in explaining the rabbinic approach to biblical parallelism, the essential form of Tanakh’s poetry.  Chazal refuse to say that the parallel repeats the same idea with different wording, insisting instead on finding a fresh idea in the second phrase.  They apply the same methodological assumptions to textual issues such as juxtapositions, extraneous wording, and superfluous letters.  This perspective eschews technical or aesthetic explanations for these phenomena in the search for maximum religious meaning.   Yaakov Elman notes that some Jewish thinkers applied the same interpretative procedure to rabbinic texts as well:


For the techniques that Chazal employ in their interpretation of Chumash , and, by extension, Nakh, came to be used, mutatis mutandis, for any hallowed text – tannaitic texts and amoraic texts, in turn Rishonim and Aharonim.[6]


Thus, the gemara assumes that each extraneous word in a mishna teaches something new.  Substantive interpretations take precedence over literary or technical explanations for the same phenomena.  As Elman points out, this assumption works more easily for a Divine text, whose author could include infinite levels of meaning, than for human texts.  He develops the idea expressed in chassidic writers that a text written by a rabbinic luminary, and accepted by klal yisrael, was written under the Divine influence (ru’ach ha-kodesh).  In this context, Elman cites R. Zadok and we shall see examples of this method in “the kohen’s” work. 


Placement of Aggadot


The location of both aggadic and halakhic Talmudic statements often seems based on purely technical considerations.  For example, the Talmud will cite a given statement because it was said by the same individual as a previous statement, it may use a similar word or structure to one just mentioned, or will often follow up on a concept mentioned tangentially in the previous discussion.  R. Zadok comments on examples where we could easily employ the above methods and insists that something deeper motivates the placement.  Even more striking, he resolutely seeks a significant reason for placement regarding both chapter and tractate.


R. Zadok offers a programmatic statement of his working assumptions. 


I received a tradition that even though according to peshat (the simple interpretation), Talmudic statements appear tangentially, al ha-emet (in truth), they are completely connected to the place where they appear and these places are the most appropriate.[7]


Apparently, R. Zadok accepts the more technical explanations on a peshat level but calls for deeper levels of explanation that move beyond the simple understanding.


His approach inspires a powerful idea regarding the aggada about the destruction of the Temple.  A word association easily explains why this aggada appears in the fifth chapter of Gittin (55b).  The word “sikrikun” appears in a mishna and this aggada includes a character named “Abba Sikra.”[8]  R. Zadok discovers a more powerful message.  As traditional sources compare the relationship between God and the Jewish people to that of human lovers, the churban ha-bayit represents a break in that relationship; therefore, the story of this rupture belongs in massekhet Gittin which details the laws of divorce.  At the same time, the break does not share the finality of an actual divorce.  The story appears in a chapter entitled “ha-nizakin” (damages) in order to categorize the destruction as damages where restitution remains an option.  R. Zadok refers to a Talmudic text (Bava Kama 60b) in which God promises to pay for the damages caused by fire in Zion.[9] 


R. Zadok also explains both the chapter and the tractate when discussing the aggadic passages regarding matan Torah (the giving of the Torah at Sinai).  The obvious rationale for its appearance is a mishna (Shabbat 86a) that mentions a waiting period of three days after relations to insure that a woman no longer emits seminal fluid.  The three days of marital separation prior to matan Torah provide a biblical source for this mishna.  On a peshat level, this fact alone justifies an aggadic elaboration of matan torah.  Moving beyond the peshat, R. Zadok explains that this aggada appears in massekhet Shabbat because matan Torah took place on Shabbat.  Furthermore, it appears in a chapter entitled “Rabbi Akiva” because Rabbi Akiva exemplifies the Oral Law; thus, it emphasizes that an oral law accompanied the written text at Sinai.[10]


Here, one might claim that R. Zadok’s explanation of the chosen tractate fails to provide greater religious meaning.  After all, the date of matan Torah might be viewed as a happenstance of the calendar.  I submit that for R. Zadok, the fact that matan Torah took place on Shabbat was no mere coincidence.  Rather, it reflects some significant connection between the Sabbath and the receiving of the Torah.  If so, R. Zadok remains true to his commitment to offer explanations with spiritual import.     


In another example, the name of the chapter and tractate coincide.  The aggadot about manna appear in massekhet Yoma (75a), perek Yom Ha-kippurim.  R. Zadok explains that manna was a spiritual sustenance that turned corporeal when it entered our world.  It parallels two approaches to eating over the course of Yom Kippur.  On the fast day itself, we are fully spiritual and abstain from eating.  On erev Yom Kippur, we eat to fulfill a commandment and redeem the physical act of eating.  The manna is thematically linked with Yom Kippur.[11] 


Sometimes, R. Zadok explains not just the chosen tractate and perek but also the specific mishna which leads to the aggada.  R. Pinchas ben Yair’s famous list of levels of spiritual achievement beginning with Torah and concluding with ru’ach ha-kodesh and techiyat ha-metim appears in Avoda Zara (20b) following a mishna about not selling land in Israel to Gentiles.  R. Zadok explains that R. Pinchas’ list only addresses Jews since Torah is a necessary prerequisite for that kind of religious achievement.  The list belongs in Avoda Zara, the tractate which distinguishes Jews and Gentiles most sharply.  It also links with a mishna that emphasizes the connection between the Jewish people and the sanctity of the Land of Israel.[12]


As Sara Friedland points out, finding meaning in the chapter names reflects a radical extension of this methodology.  Tractates have essential themes and we can imagine Talmudic redactors placing an aggada to cohere with that theme.  Similarly, they might choose to associate a story with a particular mishna.  However, Talmudic chapter names reveal nothing about content as they simply consist of the first words of the chapter.  Presumably, we use them merely for referencing purposes.  Yet R. Zadok asserts that something deeper connects aggadot with the chapter names of their Talmudic location.[13] 


We might say that R. Zadok here moves far away from peshat into the realm of derash.  At the same time, we need not assume that R. Zadok only engages in derash whose justification depends on assigning ru’ach ha-kodesh to generations of rabbinic writers.  The omnisignificance principle, in certain circumstances, leads to a better understanding of peshat.  As Kugel points out, it was precisely R. Meir Lebush Malbim’s omnisignificant orientation that led him to realize the fallacy of the notion that both phrases in a biblical parallelism state the same idea.  Although Malbim’s solutions can be farfetched, he avoided the error of Robert Lowth’s theories of parallelism still reigning in early twentieth century academia.[14]


In a similar way, the compilers of the mishna and gemara may well have had spiritually significant ideas in mind when they structured the Talmud.  Indeed, a myriad of possible technical and associative connections exist in the Talmudic corpus to introduce a given story and it seems logical to assume that the redactors sometimes relied upon spiritually substantive criteria to influence their choice of placement.  Some of R. Zadok’s explanations are clearly derash; others could very well be peshat. 


Some contemporary academics also argue that placement of aggadot reflects more than a technical connection.  Jeffery Rubenstein’s recent book provides a number of fine examples.  The aggada about R. Shimon bar Yochai hiding in a cave ostensibly appears in the second chapter of Shabbat due to the tangential reason of explaining why R. Yehuda was called “rosh ha-medabrim be-khol makom.”  Rubenstein argues that the real reason for the placement is that R. Shimon and his son are only reconciled to the mundane world when they see a Jew running with two myrtle branches for Shabbat.   The broader context of the chapter, preparation for Shabbat, explains the placement.[15]       


Rubenstein employs a similar approach to other aggadot.  He shares R. Zadok’s assumption that a mere word connection between sikrikun and Abba Sikra does not sufficiently explain the placement of stories about the Temple’s destruction.  Again, Rubenstein finds a connection between the broad theme of the chapter and the individual aggada.  The entire chapter deals with rabbinic takkanot for the sake of peace.  The aggada blames R. Zekharya ben Avkilus for the Temple’s destruction because he failed to initiate an ordinance that would preserve peace with the Romans.  This story justifies the creative rabbinic endeavors of the chapter as it testifies to the tragic outcome of rabbinic paralysis.[16]  Like R. Zadok, Rubenstein looks beyond technical connections and sees particular aggadot in the context of an entire chapter or tractate.  Furthermore, his explanations also provide spiritual meaning.


In sum, R. Zadok’s search for meaning reflects either a type of derash based on assumptions of Divine inspiration or a peshat-based outlook that sees technical explanations as inadequate grounds for placement.  According to the latter version, we end up with an unusual overlap between the approaches of R. Zadok and some contemporary academics.    



[1] Alan Brill, Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin (YU Press: New York, 2002).

[2] Me’at le-Tzaddik: Kovetz Ma’amarim al R. Zadok Ha-Kohen me-Lublin u-Mishnato ed. R. Gerson Kitzis (Jerusalem, 5760).   

[3] Yaakov Elman, “R. Zadok Hakohen on history of the Halakha,” Tradition 21:4 1985, pp. 1-26 and “Reb Zadok Hakohen  of Lublin on Prophecy in the Halakhic Process,” Jewish Law Association Studies 1 1985, pp. 1-16.

[4] A Rambi search reveals five articles written by Dr. Yonatan Grossman on R. Zadok’s thought.

[5] James L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1981), p. 104.

[6] Yaakov Elman, “Progressive Derash and Retrospective Peshat: Non-halakhic Considerations in Talmud Torah,” Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah ed, Shalom Carmy  (Jason Aronson: Northvale, 1996), p. 229.

[7] Peri Tzaddik Bereishit (Jerusalem, 1972), p. 235.

[8] The mishna appears on 55b and Abba Sikra appears on 56a.

[9] Peri Tzaddik on Bereishit, p. 12.  See also Dover Tzedek (Bnei Brak, 5727), p. 195.

[10] Peri Tzaddik on Devarim, p. 212.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Yisrael Kedoshim (Bnei Brak, 5727), p. 47.  Though R. Zadok can write quite negatively about the non-Jewish world, he did not think Gentiles incapable of spiritual accomplishments. See Ohr Zaru’a la-Tzaddik, pp. 7, 16; Yisrael Kedoshim, p. 55 and Machshavot Charutz, p. 141.

[13] See her Shekhenut ve-Korat Gag: Al Shenei Ekronot Darshanut Tzuraniyim be-Khitvei R. Zadok Ha-Kohen me-Lublin, Akdamot 8 (Kislev 5760), pp. 25- 42.  This article was reprinted in Me’at le-Tzaddik.  Some of Friedland’s article overlaps with our analysis and she has other interesting examples not mentioned here.  

[14] Kugel, op. Cit., pp. 288-292.

[15] Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition and Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1999), pp. 135-136.

[16] Ibid. pp. 162-165.  See also p. 237 where he suggests an explanation for the location of the aggada at the beginning of Avoda Zara.