R. Zadok and the Quest for Religious Meaning

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #25:  R. Zadok and the Quest for Religious Meaning



            Last week’s shiur introduced the concept of omnisignificance, the idea that we should eschew technical or pragmatic explanations for various textual phenomena in favor of explanations pregnant with religious meaning.  This week’s shiur provides more examples of this principle regarding textual issues and also highlights an analogous approach in legal contexts.  Halakhic debates that could be explained in a purely technical legal manner assume deep theological significance in R. Zadok’s writings.


            Juxtaposition of biblical sections, the numerical value of a given chapter, names of individuals, and questions of placement all lend themselves to pragmatic explanations.  For example, the laws of sefirat ha-omer appear in Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayyim siman 489.  Why this particular number?  Probably because siman 488 finished up the laws of Pesach and the omer comes next in the Jewish calendar.


  Despite the simple cogency, R. Zadok deviates from such explanations.  The mitzva to write a Torah scroll appears in Yoreh De’a siman 270.  R. Zadok explains that this mitzva repairs the sin of Er (numerical value of 270), son of Yehuda.  He admits that R. Ya’akov Ba’al ha-Turim (the author of the Tur) and R. Yosef Karo did not consciously intend this message.  However, the spirit of God animated their project and the numbers contain meaning.[1]


            The same pattern emerges in reference to the relationship between biblical stories and the names of the parshiyot they appear in.  For example, we would be hard pressed to find it significant that the tower of Bavel episode occurs in a parasha named for Noach.  However, R. Zadok finds meaning in this area as well.  The story of matan Torah appears in a parasha called Yitro (the originally non-Jewish father-in-law of Moshe) to teach us that the crown of Torah remains accessible to everyone, including converts.  According to one midrash, the Torah was given in a desert to indicate lack of exclusive ownership; this parasha name conveys a similar theme.  Yitro represents the potential throughout Jewish history for converts to join the covenant.[2]


            R. Zadok also assumes that names reveal much more than a parental decision at the time of a child’s birth.  One gemara (Menachot 44a) relates the story of one Rav Katina who does not wear tzitzit (ritual fringes) and receives a visit from a threatening angel.  R. Zadok contends that the man’s name indicates why he did not wear tzitzit.  In his world of symbolism, tzitzit represents covering a person’s blemishes.  R. Katina thought himself unworthy (from katan) of honorific garb and he refused to cover up any shortcomings.[3]


            The same assumptions influence R. Zadok’s approach to a famous midrashic interpretation of a verse in Kohelet (4:1).  “And behold the tears of such as were oppressed and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.”  Daniel the tailor suggests that the “oppressed” refer to mamzerim who suffer for the sins of others (Kohelet Rabba 4:1).  R. Zadok explains that the status of mamzerut applies only to a person’s body, or his this-worldly identity, but not to the soul, the person’s essence.  The tailor’s job is to mend the physically rent.  Furthermore, the book of Daniel conjures up associations with the end of days when mamzerim will shed their status.[4]  Both name and profession relate to the midrashic message.


Ordering of tractates provides another opportunity for R. Zadok’s search for meaning.  The Torah (Bemidbar 5-6) follows the laws of Sota with the institution of nezirut.  The Talmud reverses the order and places Nazir before Sota.  Why the reversal?  A gemara (Sota 2a) explains that massekhet Nazir logically follows Nedarim since accepting nezirut is a type of vow.  Sota follows Nazir in consonance with the biblical juxtaposition, albeit in reverse order.  One can not deny the cogency of this explanation but it is technical and not filled with religious meaning. 


R. Zadok contrasts two related temptations of desire: that of food and the sexual drive.  People find it easier to control their temptations with regard to food so it makes sense for the individual attempting to deal with temptations to begin there and then proceed to work on restraining sexual desire.  At the same time, successfully confronting the sexual urge constitutes a more significant achievement.  R. Zadok proves this from the respective punishments for failure in the two areas.  Since the halakhic punishments for illicit relations tend toward greater severity than those for forbidden foods, it stands to reason that overcoming sexual temptations is of greater religious value. 


Sota represents the battle with sexual temptation; it deals with a possible case of adultery.  Nazir, on the other hand, reflects the struggle with the temptations of the palate; the nazarite chooses to forego wine consumption.  According to R. Zadok, this explains the biblical and Talmudic sequences.  The Bible represents the Divine perspective irrespective of human strategizing and that perspective begins with Sota, indicating its superior significance.  The Talmud reflects the human perspective and the reality of the human personality mandates tackling the temptations of food before the more difficult problem of sexual urges.  In place of technical suggestions, R. Zadok offers an explanation with ramifications both for practical religious decision making and for understanding the religious worth of various struggles.[5]


Decisions to place particular tractates at the beginning and end of the Talmud reflect much more than technical considerations.  Why begin with massekhet Berakhot?  We could answer by explaining why Zera’im is the first of the six sedarim and then explaining why Berakhot belongs at the beginning of Zera’im.  In other words, we can answer two other questions that will obviate the need to come up with a direct reason why Berakhot should initiate the Talmudic corpus.  R. Zadok argues that there is a particular reason why Berakhot must come first.  He explains that berakhot (blessings) precede an activity, such as performing a mitzva or enjoying a pleasure, in order to dedicate that activity to the Divine.  In the same way, the Talmud begins with berakhot to place its study in the proper religious context.[6]


R. Zadok also explains why Nidda closes the Babylonian Talmud.  Here, the very question makes a striking assumption, since Nidda is not truly the final massekhet amongst the mishnayot, but merely the last masskhet upon which the Amoraim wrote a gemara.  One could argue that Nidda is only last due to the technical reason that it is the only tractate of Taharot with enough post-churban relevance to justify Amoraic analysis.  Nonetheless, R. Zadok insists on a reason that bears religious significance.  He explains that the institution of Nidda attempts to generate a sense of renewal in marital life.  After an enforced break, the husband and wife return to intimacy.  When we finish the Talmud and anticipate returning to the beginning, we also value a sense of fresh innovation as we approach Berakhot once again. [7]  Again, R. Zadok eschews the technical in favor of the spiritually meaningful.


Halakhic Debates


The opening sections of Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik comment on various Talmudic passages (primarily on the first few pages of Massekhet Berakhot).  In these passages, R. Zadok consistently brings in religious themes that extend beyond concrete halakhot.  A mishna in Pesachim (96a) outlines halakhic distinctions between the paschal offering in Egypt and that of subsequent generations.  Only the former had to be eaten with haste, be-chipazon.  R. Zadok takes this as a metaphor for religious life.  A person’s entry into divine service must be done with an alacrity that breaks free of previous life patterns.  However, after that initial break, the slow pace of patient regularity becomes the norm.  Laws about the paschal sacrifice reflect broader themes of religious experience.[8]


At times, R. Zadok weaves together a host of halakhic detail in his spiritual commentary.  Each morning, the obligatory time for reciting keri’at shema ends one halakhic hour before the end of the time for prayer.  Morning prayer takes place during the first four halakhic hours of the day whereas the evening prayer can be recited all night.  Furthermore, the morning prayer reflects a concrete obligation but R. Yehoshua ruled that the evening prayer is optional (Berakhot 27b).  Though Halakha follows R. Yehoshua’s opinion, the collective Jewish community accepted the evening prayer as an obligation.  R. Zadok builds a Jewish thought structure that incorporates all of these legal details.


Prayer consists of encountering God; keri’at shema does not.  The latter involves an important affirmation but not a dialogue with God.  For this reason, halakha demands stricter requirements regarding dress and sobriety for prayer than for the Shema, and, additionally, more time is allotted for prayer.  Encountering God is not an easy task and it requires more preparation.  The difficulties increase at night which represents the darker parts of human existence.  Acknowledging or encountering God at night provides a real challenge; Halakha allows more time to meet the challenge.  In fact, the difficulties of finding oneself in the presence of God at night were great enough to motivate Chazal to make the evening prayer optional. 


Even historically developing Jewish custom serves R. Zadok’s conceptual scheme.  As mentioned, Jews decided to grant obligatory status to the evening prayer.  R. Zadok claims that this reflects the growing awareness of God as the messianic era approaches.  It is hard to stand before God in the nighttimes of our lives but the Jewish community intuitively sensed the approaching clarity of the end of days; therefore, they were willing to accept this increasingly less difficult task as an obligation.[9]


In our final example, R. Zadok weaves together halakhic argument, aggadic debate and theological speculations.  Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel debate a principle in the laws of sukka.  What if a person’s head and the majority of his torso are in the sukka but the table they sit at is in his regular house?  Beit Shammai invalidates this practice and Beit Hillel accepts it.  The very same Talmudic page (Eruvin 13b) records a two and a half year debate between these rival schools.  Beit Hillel claims that it was good that the world was created; Beit Shammai says that it would have been better for the world not to have been created.  According to R. Zadok, both debates stem from a basic theological split between these two Talmudic academies.


A dialectic runs through R. Zadok’s thought, a constant tension between attributing everything to God and leaving space for human freedom and initiative.  We shall analyze this tension in greater depth next week, but for our current purpose, a barebones description suffices.  The sukka symbolizes faith in and reliance upon God. A home owner leaves the security of his castle and places himself at the mercy of God.  Beit Shammai requires total faith or a recognition that attributes everything to God.  Therefore, they cannot be satisfied with placing the table in the house.  Everything must go in the sukka.  Beit Hillel, on he other hand, allows for a consciousness of human independence.  “Everything is in the hands of heaven except fear of heaven.”  Some parts dwell in the sukka (reliance on God); others remain in the house (human initiative).


The same divide animates the aggadic argument.   Creation represents the act of separation which apparently divides between God and the world.  Is this separation the ideal perspective or do we prefer the sense that everything is God?  Beit Shammai favors undifferentiated divinity; thus, they prefer to undo creation.  Beit Hillel views the separation as an ideal; they remain quite content with creation.


Remarkably, R. Zadok finds meaning in the placement of these debates in Eruvin.  An eruv unifies disparate reshuyot into a single reshut.  The tension between singular unity and diverse variety links the tractate topic with our theological conflict.  R. Zadok strives for the maximum of religious meaning regarding both literary questions and halakhic debates.[10]

[1] Machshavot Charutz, p. 114 (Bnei Brak 5727).

[2] Machshavot Charutz, pp. 165-166.

[3] Resisei Layla (Bnei Brak 5727), p. 52.

[4] Dover Tzeddek, pp. 167-168.

[5] Pri Tzaddik Be-reishit Kunteras Et Ha-okhel 3.

[6] Likutei Ma’amarim, p. 228.  See also Tzidkat ha-tzaddik no. 2, 232.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tzidkat ha-tzaddik 1.

[9] Tzidkat ha-tzaddik 8.

[10] Dover Tzeddek, p. 11.