Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Pekudei - Tearing up a Detailed Parsha

Parshat Pekudei describes the building of the Mishkan and, as such, the crafting of the priestly clothing. One piece of rectorial rainment is the מְעִיל, or robe. The initial command to create the מְעִיל adds an ambiguous detail:

שָׂפָה יִהְיֶה לְפִיו סָבִיב . . . לֹא יִקָּרֵעַ
Its head-opening shall have a border all around . . . it may not be torn. (28:32)

That is Artscroll's translation. But compare to JPS: ". . . so that it does not tear." Indeed, the thrust of the last two words is unclear: make a border so that it does not tear, or make a border - and don't you dare tear! In other words, do we have a reason or a command? The implication is central: if one tore the מְעִיל, would they be punished for violating a negative command?

Apart from occupying the great minds of Artscroll and JPS, this very question appears in the Gemara.

אמר רחבא אמר רב יהודה המקרע בגדי כהונה לוקה שנאמר לא יקרע מתקיף לה רב אחא בר יעקב ודילמא הכי קאמר רחמנא נעביד ליה שפה כי היכי דלא ניקרע מי כתיב שלא יקרע
Rachva said in the name of Rav Yehuda: One who tears the Bigdei Kahuna receives lashes- as it is written, "it shall not be torn." Rav Acha bar Yaakov questioned this: but maybe the Merciful One only meant to make a border so that it doesn’t tear! [The gemara replies:] Does it say שלא יקרע "so that it doesn't tear"!? (Yoma 72a)

Regarding our pasuk and others with similar structure, Rav Acha Bar Yaakov consistently takes the view that they should be read as giving reasons and not new commandments. However, the Talmud attacks Rav Acha on technical grammatical grounds. The pasuk fails to include a "ש", the explicit grammatical link for "so that." Rather, the verse continues without a link - suggesting a brand new commandment.

From first glance, the Gemara debates how to properly read the verse, much like Artscroll and JPS some milennia later. This is the interpretation of the debate suggested by Rav Avraham ben HaRambam, in his commentary on Sefer Shemot: (Hey, how's your Judeo-Arabic?)

חתי יתבת טוקה עלי טול אלזמאן לא יסהל תקטיעה ואלנקל בין פיה מצאף אלי דלך אנה נהי ען תקטיעה
So that his collar remains permanent and is not ruined by tearing; however, Tradition interprets it an additional way, as a command against tearing it.

Yet there is a problem with this straightforward understanding of two distinct intepretations. It is based on the premise that reasons for prohibitions shouldn't actually counted as prohibitions. Those who claim that the pasuk only presents a reason ("make a border so that it does not tear") should believe that no punishment is in order for tearing. But if the explicit rationale for making the border is to insure that the robe does not tear- doesn’t this mean that the Torah doesn’t want the מְעִיל torn, and doesn’t that mean that one should not tear it? Isn't violation of a reason still a violation of God's will?!

The only way I can think of resolving the problem is by distinguishing between a formal letter-of-the-law legal system and an informal spirit-of-the-law subtext. One could agree that violating a reason runs counter to the spirit of Torah law, yet maintain that such a deed can not be punished.

Of course, the opposite argument can be made, that breaches in the explicit spirit of the law likewise deserve punishment, that the boundary between formal and informal Law is far more transparent than usually believed. When Rav Acha claims that tearing the מְעִיל should not incur lashes, for it is only a reason, the Gemara could retort that informal reasons are still treated as any other mitzvah. It is a radical and thought-provoking idea, but one which finds expression in the words of the Ramban (Nachmanides.) Responding to the Rambam's (Maimonides') position that reasons are not to be treated as commandments, the Ramban concludes:

ואני אומר בזה העיקר לכאורה כוותיה משמע, וכי מעיינת ביה שפיר לאו הכי הוא
And I say about this principle- at first it sounds like he is correct, but when you look into it more closely, it is not so. (Notes on Sefer HaMitzvot, Shoresh 5)

Nachmanides maintains that even reasons, representatives of the spirit of the law, are on par with explicit commands. In fact, they are even counted towards the tally of 613 mitzvot! These words are of special significance in this season of Parshiyot. While Pekudei and its neighbors overflow with the technical, formal details of the Mishkan, it is integral to bear in mind the spirit and reason for the Mishkan's existence. Understanding the symbolism behind the Bigdei Kahuna, the message communicated by each Korban, and the significance of Mishkan architecture may not be a mere formality - but a Mitzvah in and of itself.

QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table (and this one needs it!)
--39:23 describes the priestly מְעִיל, or robe, but its a bit unclear: make a border around the head-opening so that it does not tear, or make a border and do not tear! Is "do not tear" a reason or new command?
--The Gemara debates the point. If it is a new command, tearing the
מְעִיל incurs lashes. If it is only a reason, no worries.
--The Ramban holds differently: even if the pasuk merely reads "make a border so that it does not tear", there is a full-fledged mitzvah to avoid tearing, one which can incur punishment.
--The Ramban seems to believe that informal, "spirit of the law" parts of the Torah are on equal footing with explicit mitzvot.
--This emphasis on the "spirit of the law" and the rationale behind mitzvot is integral to appreciating the message and meaning of the Mishkan and its service.

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