“Talmudic text that comments on some verses of Scripture calls in its turn for interpretation. Its intentions are not immediately apparent; its exposition can surprise a novice, and allows for several levels and dimensions of meaning,[i]” wrote the twentieth century French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. Verses or pesukim from Tanakh appear often within the pages of the Talmud. Sometimes the Talmud comes to expound halakha, ethical norms, and righteous behavior from the pesukim. Often the pesukim serve as proof texts that support the different positions and views of the tannaim and amoraim. In such instances, it is rare that pesukim are cited in their entirety. Rather short phrases, consisting of precise language which strengthens particular arguments, are commonly used. Though at times one does not need to understand the context of a quoted pasuk to follow the logical flow of Talmudic arguments, understanding the background of pesukim is a powerful tool when engaging in the interpretation Levinas calls for. It both enhances and deepens one’s understanding of the Talmudic conversation[ii]. This article will explore the pesukim that Rabbi Yohanan cites regarding God’s “three keys” and how their context enriches one’s understanding of his teaching.
“Rabbi Yohanan said: Three keys the Holy One has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Revival of the Dead. The Key of Rain, for it is written, “The Lord will open unto thee His good treasure, the heaven to give the rain of thy land in its season.” The Key of Childbirth, for it is written, “And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb.” The Key of the Revival of the Dead, for it is written, And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves.”[iii]
Rabbi Yohanan’s statement teaches that rain, childbirth, and the revival of the dead are exclusively in God’s control. The structure of his words builds from the least to the most dramatic of God’s actions, and demonstrates that God and only God holds in His hands the keys to all life. Angels and emissaries play no role in the transformation of desolate grounds into lush grass through rain, the creation of new life from the human body, or the revival of the dead. These acts of creation are too miraculous to be attributed to anyone but God.
But Tosfot and Rashi are troubled with the statement of Rabbi Yohanan: how can Rabbi Yohanan say that God does not entrust a messenger with any of these keys when the Tanakh relates how both Eliyahu[iv] and Elisha[v] brought the dead back to life? Furthermore, in Mesekhet Sanhedrin the Talmud tells that both the key of rain and the key of the revival of the dead were given to Eliyahu. Rashi resolves this question by explaining that when Rabbi Yohanan says “three keys the Holy One blessed be He has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger,” he means to say that all three keys were never entrusted to a messenger together, at the same time.[vi] However, this statement does not preclude the handing of only one or two of the keys to an emissary as was done with Eliyahu. Tosfot, resolves this question differently, explaining that Rabbi Yohanan’s words imply that these three keys can never permanently be in the hands of an agent. They can however be temporarily given to messengers, allowing Eliyahu and Elisha to momentarily possess the power of bringing the dead to life. A third approach to this question may lie in examining the pesukim which Rabbi Yohanan cites.
While Rabbi Yohanan’s unequivocally states that God alone controls rain, childbirth, and the revival of the dead, the pesukim he brings convey an almost subversive counter-voice to his statement. The verses teach that though God may hold the keys to creation, man has power over how and when God is able to use these keys[vii]. The first pasuk, brought in relation to the key of rain, is from the book of Devarim. The pasuk reads “The Lord will open for you his bounteous store, the heavens, to provide rain for your land in season and to bless all your undertakings.”[viii] This pasuk affirms Rabbi Yohanan’s point: that only God controls the heavens—the ultimate storehouse—and that only He provides rain for the world. But it is also important to note the context of this pasuk. The perek opens with the words “Now if you obey the Lord your God to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day,”[ix] and then lists the many blessings that will come upon the Jewish people if they heed the words of God. Thus, though only God holds the key of rain, it is man who determines when the key is used. Man’s choice to follow the mitsvot is what prompts God to unlock the heavens and bring rain to this world.
This idea of man actualizing God’s powers is further strengthened by Rabbi Yohanan’s next pasuk: “And God remembered Rachel, God listened to her and opened her womb.”[x] Again, this pasuk demonstrates how God controls childbirth and opens wombs. But the broader context, and even the pasuk itself, also testifies to man’s role in the process—God only opens Rachel’s womb after listening to her. The language of ‘opening’ is also used regarding Leah’s womb[xi], but there the pasuk does not say that God listened to Leah. Rabbi Yohanan specifically chooses a verse where God not only opens the womb of a barren woman, but where this opening also comes as a response to human action. However, surprisingly, when one examines the pesukim, one does not find any prayer that Rachel offers to God. Instead, one hears of Rachel’s distress when she turns to Yaakov and says “Give me children or I shall die”[xii] and senses her desperation when she tells Yaakov to have children on her behalf with her maid, Bilhah.[xiii] Unlike the example from Devarim, here what actualizes God’s use of the key is not the fulfillment of His mitsvot, nor even a request directed towards Him. Rather, it is Rachel’s intense pain and suffering that causes God to act, and open her womb. God does not only respond to the fulfillment of his commandments and action; He also responds to internal human emotion
Finally, the context of the last pasuk Rabbi Yohanan quotes is most astonishing. God says to Yechezkel, “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves,”[xiv], reinforcing the idea that only God can revive the dead. This statement appears after God shows Yechezkel a valley of dry bones, and miraculously brings them to life in front of Yechezkel’s eyes. But Yechezkel does not stand idle as the miracle occurs. Instead he plays a role in the process. “Then He [God] said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy O mortal!””[xv] And only after Yechezkel utters this prophecy are the bones revived. What purpose is there to Yechezkel’s prophesizing to the bones and the breath? Couldn’t God revive the dead without man’s words? Yet, what having Yechezkel prophesize accomplishes is the creation of space for man to act as a catalyst for this miracle, even if practically this catalyst is unnecessary. Though only God can revive the dead, He stretches out His hand for man to join Him in the process.
In light of this perek and its example of God and man acting as partners, the episodes of Elisha and Eliyahu no longer contradict Rabbi Yohanan’s statement. Like Yechezkel, these prophets act as vessels, bringing life into the world. Rabbi Yohanan’s words can be understood as stressing that the source behind the miraculous actions of the prophets, is not a messenger nor an angel, but God Himself. The pesukim he brings emphasize man’s power in bringing such miracles to this world, while simultaneously serving as a firm reminder that though man plays a role in such miracles, they are acts of God. Perhaps this is the idea that Tosafot and Rashi are imparting when they limit Rabbi Yohanan’s statement. Through stating that God does sometimes hand over the keys, but never all at once or permanently, Rashi and Tosfot relay that while oftentimes God empowers man and hands him a key, ultimately God is the source of all life.
An exploration of the context of Rabbi Yohanan’s pesukim suggests that his statement is not only about God’s power and a description of an arena where man and even angels have no control. Rather, Rabbi Yohanan’s statement is also about the power of man and the partnership between man and God. Man’s actions, words, and emotions shape when and how God interacts with this world. The idea of God’s three keys reminds man to recognize the glory of God as they partner to bring about miracles. Furthermore, just as exploring the context of the pesukim enriches one’s understanding of the Talmud, the Talmud’s use of the pesukim gives the verses of Tanakh meaning beyond their immediate context. The opening of the heavens, Rachel’s wombs, and the graves of the dead are no longer independent events. Picking up on the repeated use of the root patach, to open, Rabbi Yohanan puts these pesukim in dialogue with one another. Suddenly these three seemingly unrelated occurrences are all connected events that open the world to new life; they are God’s acts of creation. Rain is a miraculous occurrence, a direct blessing from God, akin to childbirth and the revival of the dead. One realizes that expressing deep emotion to God can have the same power as a prophet’s words bringing life into the world. Three seemingly unrelated pesukim come together to illustrate how God’s power and man’s potential interact.
Exploring the context of pesukim quoted in Tanakh breathes new life into Talmudic statements, as Talmudic statements breathe new life and understanding into psukim. Together, they create a beautiful conversation between man and God as divine words bring new meaning to human thought, and human thought reveals new meanings in divine words.
Miriam Pearl Klahr is a sophomore at Stern College and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser
[i] Emanuel Levinas, “The Jewish Understanding of Scripture,” Cross Currents, available at: www.crosscurrents.org
[ii] Rav Shai, director of Nishmat’s first year Israeli program and Rav Yehoshua Weisberg, director of Nishmat’s Shana Ba’Aretz, both exposed me to the beauty of analyzing the context of psukim quoted in the Talmud. I first studied the statement of Rav Yochanan that this article explores with Rav Yehoshua Weisberg.
[iii] Taanit 2a-b
[iv] Melachim Aleph 17:19-23, Soncino Translation
[v] Melachim Bet 4:31-37, Soncino Trnaslation
[vi] Rashi Taanit 2a
[vii] Rabbi Dov Berkowitz, Hadaf Hakiyumi, 245, Magid.
[viii] Devarim 28:12, JPS Translation
[ix] Devarim 28:1, JPS Translation
[x] Bereishit 20:22
[xi] Bereishit 29:31
[xii] Bereishit 30:1
[xiv] Yechezkel 37:13, JPS translation
[xv] Yechezkel 37:9, JPS Translation