Parashat Masei How to Resolve a Paradox

The sages induce an important Sabbath law from the words, ‘let no man go out of his place on the seventh day’: On the Sabbath, people should stay close to home and not set out on long excursions.

Yakov Z. Meyer
“Encampment of Israelites, Mount Sinai” after Joseph Mallord William Turner (1836).
“Encampment of Israelites, Mount Sinai” after Joseph Mallord William Turner (1836).
Yakov Z. Meyer

When God divides the Promised Land among the 12 Tribes of Israel, he commands each of them to allocate cities for the Levites, to whom no portion of Canaan will be given: “Command the children of Israel, that they give unto the Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to dwell in; and open land round about the cities shall ye give unto the Levites. And the cities shall they have to dwell in; and their open land shall be for their cattle, and for their substance, and for all their beasts” (Numbers 35:2-3). God also provides the exact dimensions of the cities and lots the Levites are to receive.

These dimensions, however, create an exegetical problem. In one verse in this week’s portion (Parashat Masei, Numbers 33:1 – 35:13), the Torah states, “And the open land about the cities, which ye shall give unto the Levites, shall be from the wall of the city and outward a thousand cubits round about” (Num. 35:4). Yet, in the next verse, it is written, “And ye shall measure without the city for the east side two thousand cubits, and for the south side two thousand cubits, and for the west side two thousand cubits, and for the north side two thousand cubits, the city being in the midst” (Num. 35:5). Is the radius of the open areas around the Levites’ cities 1,000 cubits (about .6 kilometers) or 2,000 cubits?

In the Mishna, in Tractate Sota, we encounter a number of homilies delivered by Rabbi Akiva in a single, dramatic day. In them, Rabbi Akiva attempted to solve various textual problems in the Torah. Among them is the paradox between Num. 35:4 and 35:5: “Says Rabbi Akiva: ‘One cannot say that the radius is 1,000 cubits because it is already said that the radius is 2,000 cubits. Yet one can also not say that the radius is 2,000 cubits because it is already said that the radius is 1,000 cubits. Then, why does the Torah give both figures? Because the radius of the open areas is 1,000 cubits, while the radius of the tehum Shabbat, or Sabbath boundary [the maximum distance one may walk beyond the city limits on the day of rest] is 2,000 cubits.’ Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean, says: ‘The radius of the open areas is 1,000 cubits and the radius of the fields and vineyards is 2,000’” (Mishna, Tractate Sota 5:3).

According to Rabbi Eliezer, the difference between the two verses in Numbers relates to the nature and functions of the areas around a city. The first 1,000 cubits refer to the open areas and the additional 1,000 cubits refer to the fields and vineyards. In his proposed solution to the textual quandary, Rabbi Eliezer considers the geographical reality of the Levites’ cities and the areas such locales require to meet their residents’ needs.

Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, employs another method of reading that is driven by a different kind of motivation altogether. He gives a literal reading to Num. 35:4, which states that the open areas measure 1,000 cubits. In order to solve the paradox created by 35:5, which states that they measure 2,000 cubits, he severs the verse from its context, reading it in an entirely different fashion and inducing from it one of the laws concerned with observance of the Sabbath.

In Exodus, in the passage dealing with the manna that the Israelites receive from heaven during their trek through the desert on the way to the Promised Land, it is written that, contrary to the other days of the week, Moses commands the Israelites to gather a double portion of manna on Friday, because on the next day, the Sabbath, God will not provide them with manna. The Israelites, however, do not obey Moses and set out to collect manna on the Sabbath as well, only to return to their homes empty-handed. In reaction to their conduct, Moses tells the nation, “See that the Lord hath given you the Sabbath; therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:29).

The sages induce an important Sabbath law from the words, “let no man go out of his place on the seventh day”: On the Sabbath, people should stay close to home and not set out on long excursions.

Yet, what are the dimensions of the boundary? Rabbi Akiva induces them from Num. 35:5, taking the verse out of context and establishing a link between the dimensions of the Levites’ cities and the laws of Sabbath. In Rabbi Akiva’s view, Num. 35:4 deals with the perimeter of the Levites’ cities, while Num. 35:5 deals with the perimeter of the Sabbath boundary.

The Talmud asks what point is being debated by Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer, and comes to the conclusion that Rabbi Akiva believes that the Sabbath boundary law stipulating 2,000 cubits beyond a city’s limits is derived directly from the Torah, while Rabbi Eliezer believes that it was determined by the rabbis (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, p. 30b).

Rabbi Akiva induces this law directly from Num. 35:5; according to his way of thinking, the law originates in the Torah and must therefore be strictly enforced. According to Rabbi Eliezer, who interprets Num. 35:5 solely in the context of the Levites’ cities, the Sabbath boundary law was determined by the rabbis, and it is less stringent than a law derived directly from the Torah.

The religious dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer is actually a basic dispute over the manner in which the Torah text dialogues with its readers. The passage in question contains a paradox that can be logically solved only through a certain degree of manipulation. Whereas Rabbi Eliezer’s manipulation is minimalist, focusing solely on the Levites’ cities and the different functions of the open areas surrounding them, Rabbi Akiva sees the manipulation as the goal of reading.

The Torah uses the law of non-contradiction in the text in order to “free” certain verses so that they can be used in other contexts. According to Rabbi Akiva, the Torah wants to tell its readers that the Sabbath boundary is 2,000 cubits in radius, and therefore a paradox is created between what is written in Num. 35:4 and 35:5. According to Rabbi Akiva, the reader’s role is to discover those seemingly paradoxical passages in the Torah and to extract from them, through the twisting and unraveling of the original fabric of the text, the desired meaning. The process of twisting and unraveling creates a “Torah reading”: in other words, it uncovers what is, in Rabbi Akiva’s opinion, the Torah’s original meaning.

Rabbi Akiva believes that the reading of a verse by means of extracting it from its original context and its insertion into a new one is the most faithful reading of the text’s original intention. The Torah, he implicitly argues, is meant to be read radically, as a flexible platform for the anchoring of the traditions of Jewish religious law. It is a dynamic platform, which is shaped in accordance with the reader’s capabilities and, the more virtuoso those capabilities are, the wider will be the scope of the meaning of the Torah text.



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