An Orthodox IDF soldier.
Orthodox IDF soldiers with tzitziot. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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In this week's Torah reading, one mitzvah, "Thou shalt not wear a mingled stuff [shatnez], wool and linen together," is immediately followed by another, "Thou shalt make thee twisted cords upon the four corners of thy covering, wherewith thou coverest thyself" (Deuteronomy 22:11-12 ). According to the first, it is forbidden to wear a garment whose fabric is a blend of wool and linen. According to the second verse, the four corners of one's garment must have tzitziot (ritual fringes ). It is an ancient tradition among our sages to permit only the ritual fringes to be made of a blended fabric. In line with this tradition, Rashi interprets the juxtaposition of these two commandments according to the sages in the following manner: "'Thou shalt make thee twisted cords' - even if they are a blend of wool and linen. That is why the two verses are written side by side."

The order of these mitzvot as described here - one after the other - is intended to establish a logical connection between them. The sages interpret this connection as being both the illustration of a rule and the exception to it. Except for the obligatory fringes, no garment may be made of a blend of wool and linen.

At first glance, it is possible to come to the opposite logical conclusion: to say that the above verses are meant to emphasize that the forbidden blend is especially forbidden in the tzitzit. But Rashi's explanation is intended to provide a logical basis for the tradition of allowing the fringes to be of blended materials. The explanation of the commandment of attaching the fringes to the corners of a garment, as a means of presenting also the exception to the rule, reflects an attempt to deal with what initially appears to be a paradox between the two verses. In effect, this is an example of a classical, constitutional method of dealing with a paradox: transforming apparently dichotomous elements so that they forge a relationship between a rule and the exception to that rule.

But the following drasha from the Sifre - the tannaitic midrash to Deuteronomy - offers another, abstract and even radical way of considering this paradox in the Torah: "'Thou shalt make thee twisted cords' - from this moment onward, we must say that both commandments were voiced in a single utterance. 'Remember [the sabbath day]' [Exodus 20:8] and 'Observe [the sabbath day]' [Deut. 5:12] were voiced in a single utterance. Similarly, 'every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death' [Exod. 31:14] and 'And on the sabbath day two he-lambs of the first year' [Numbers 28:9] were voiced in a single utterance. 'Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother's wife' [Leviticus 18:16] and 'her husband's brother shall go in unto her' [Deut. 25:5] were voiced in a single utterance. 'And every daughter, that possesseth an inheritance' [Num. 36:8] and 'So shall no inheritance remove from one tribe to another tribe' [Num. 36:9] were voiced in a single utterance. Mortals are incapable of voicing two things in a single utterance, as it is written, 'God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this' [Psalms 62:12]" (Sifre, Deuteronomy: 23 ).

The drasha does not seem to seek a halakhic "bottom line" here, when explaining the paradox of contradictory verses. Instead, it asks how it is possible for God to utter them. The surprising answer: "Both were voiced in a single utterance." The clash between these verses constitutes a linguistic phenomenon that does not accord with the laws of nature. God voices two opposite sentiments in a "single utterance." Whereas in human discourse, only one utterance at a time is possible, the unique feature of a divine utterance is its duality - which is something that cannot be verbalized by a human being.

To illustrate this point, Sifre cites the familiar dichotomy between the verses "Remember the sabbath day" and "Observe the sabbath day," stressing that solution is that the verses "were voiced in a single utterance." In addition there are other examples here of what seems to be a contradiction in terms of Jewish law, in a similar manner to the one regarding tzitziot.

In one part of the Torah, it is written that it is forbidden to desecrate the Sabbath, and yet in another, it is written that sacrifices must be offered on the Sabbath - an act that obviously entails violation of that holy day. While, in one passage it is written that a man cannot have sexual relations with his brother's wife, elsewhere it says a man must cohabit with his dead brother's wife if the brother had no sons. In one place, the Torah says the daughters of a man who has no sons inherit his land which, in any case, becomes part of the tribal property of the daughters' husbands; elsewhere, it says land cannot be transferred between the tribes. According to the midrash, all these paradoxes were voiced in a single utterance.

In the sages' perception, this marvelous ability distinguishes God from human beings. While it is impossible to imagine the actual vocalization of a divine utterance, it is worth considering the uniqueness of this phenomenon to solve the philosophical problem that arises from the perplexing paradoxes in the Torah. God himself never makes a statement and then immediately contradicts himself; instead, he makes two contradictory declarations simultaneously. The solution to the problem is quite simple: in most of the examples the Torah actually seeks to present a rule and the exception to that rule.

The artificiality of the "one utterance" solution reveals what the creator of the drasha is arguing: not making and solving a new problem, rather saying something about the phenomenon of - and the nature of the sear for a solution to - the use of contradictions.

God's utterances are his vehicle for communicating with mortals; however, they cannot imitate his capacity for expressing a contradiction in a single utterance. Moreover, mortals are not even able to absorb or grasp the divine manner of utterance. In yet another homily, there is a succinct explanation of this "short circuit" in communication: "The Torah states, 'Remember [the Sabbath day]' and 'Observe [the Sabbath day].' Both statements were made with reference to the same thing, although it is impossible for the human mouth to make such an utterance or for a human ear to hear it" (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, Jethro: 20:8 ). The very same utterance the human mouth cannot imitate also cannot be heard by the human ear.

There is a partial solution to the above-mentioned philosophical problem, which includes an important diagnosis of the Torah's textual character and appears in a verse that proves that this linguistic phenomenon indeed exists: "God hath spoken once, twice have we heard this" - or, as this explanation appears in the traditional Masoretic text: "God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this." Although God voices the contradictory verses in a "single utterance," it is heard by the human ear as two distinct ones. God's simultaneous "vocalization" of a certain declaration as it appears in the Torah, and its apparent opposite, cannot be heard by the human ear except as two consecutive verses. The human ear first hears "Thou shalt not wear a mingled stuff, wool and linen together" and only then hears "Thou shalt make thee twisted cords upon the four corners of thy covering, wherewith thou coverest thyself."

The written Torah, as we read it, is revealed not as a precise transcription of "God's word," but rather as a transcription of the manner in which God's word is heard by the human ear. In any event, the text represents the human hearing of God's utterance, not the utterance itself. This is a far-reaching reduction of the manner in which communication between God and mortals takes place. God's language is one that cannot be heard and which includes in a single utterance statements that apparently contradict each other. It is a language in which paradox does not exist: In effect, the contradiction can be revealed only through what is heard by the human ear. Paradox is the human way of reading the multiplicity of silent possibilities inherent in God's utterance.