In this week’s Torah reading (Pinchas: Numbers 25:10-30:1), the daughters of Zelophehad speak to Moses and tell him about their father: “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons” (Numbers 27:3). They present their claim to Moses: According to the law current at the time, a man could bequeath his possessions only to his sons, not his daughters. However, these young women protest: “Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father” (Num. 27:4). When Moses submits their question to him, God changes the law: “If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter” (Num. 27:8).
Here the incident comes to its legal end, though not its biographical conclusion. Although we know that Zelophehad was not one of the conspirators led by Korah, we do not know what the sin was for which he was subjected to capital punishment; the Torah hides that fact from the reader. A baraita (a tannaitic fragment quote in the Talmud) in Tractate Shabbat seeks to discover the sinner’s identity and states that the gatherer of wood on the Sabbath was Zelophehad (Tractate Shabbat, p. 96b).
Toward the end of Parashat Shelach Lecha, which we read four weeks ago, the Torah relates a laconic tale about someone who gathers wood on the Sabbath and is handed down a death sentence: death by stoning. According to the sages, the stories about the unnamed sinner and the unknown sin are in fact a single episode. The baraita’s conclusion that the sinner was Zelophehad is rooted in the sages’ quest for harmony in the biblical text: Through their intensive, creative reading of the biblical text, they attempt to seal gaps in that text. This reading leads to an unusual dispute between two rabbis over the goals and limitations of one’s reading of the biblical text.
“It is written: ‘And while the Children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks upon the Sabbath day’ [Num. 15:32]. Further on, the daughters of Zelophehad state, ‘Our father died in the wilderness’ [Num. 27:3]. In both cases, the reference is to Zelophehad, according to Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Judah, son of Beteira, retorted, ‘Akiva, no matter how one looks at your interpretation, you will be punished for it. If what you say is correct, the Torah concealed his identity and you have revealed it. If, however, you are wrong, you are guilty of slandering a righteous person’” (Tractate Shabbat, p. 96b).
Basing his reading on the presence of the same word in both of the latter verses, “wilderness,” Rabbi Akiva concludes that the two verses refer to one and the same person: Zelophehad. Rabbi Judah’s critique of Akiva’s interpretation is actually a critique of the entire interpretative enterprise of midrashic literature. The midrash tries to identify gaps in the text and often transfers a word or phrase from one context to another one altogether. In doing so, the midrash establishes linkages between seemingly diverse texts and thereby creates new meanings. In contrast with Rabbi Judah, who believes that the Torah’s secret should not be revealed, Rabbi Akiva seeks out the text’s subconscious and discloses it, despite the text’s desire for concealment.
Here one has two different approaches to the biblical text. According to Rabbi Akiva, that text is fluid and can be shaped and reshaped by various readers. He believes that it is perfectly valid to change its fabric when necessary. Although he does not argue with Rabbi Akiva’s textual approach, Rabbi Judah claims that his colleague’s reading is subversive, running contrary to the text’s intention, and is therefore unacceptable.
According to Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Akiva has no right to disclose what the Torah wants to conceal: the identity of the sinner who gathers wood on the Sabbath and is sentenced to death for that transgression. In Rabbi Judah’s view, his colleague’s reading negates the text’s conventional literary qualities, which conceal, or at least partly obscure, the Torah’s meaning. He believes that the ideal reader should take note of the degree to which the Torah conceals and reveals certain truths and should not disclose what it seeks to hide. According to this approach, the text exerts the appropriate influence on its readers even without their making any special effort to reveal its secrets. Its various layers float to the surface in varying intensities in accordance with the degree to which the Torah wishes to disclose or conceal them. The intensive attempt to reveal the Torah text’s “true” meaning, argues Rabbi Judah, ultimately undermines the text and, indirectly, through the mechanism of Jewish religious law, has a detrimental effect on the reader as well.