Yivhar E-lohim Hiddushim
BY: Moshe Peters.
Imagine the following scene: you are in the beit midrash learning Gemara or Tanakh, and you offer your own novel interpretation of the source text – a hiddush. Your havruta (study partner) or friend responds that he or she cannot accept what you just said. Why does he or she refuse to accept it? Not because he or she was able to disprove your hiddush, not because there was some logical flaw in your argument, but rather because, as your friend explains, “it’s not found in any earlier sources – if it were really true, someone would have said it before you.” Such an incident would prove to be extremely frustrating. But is your friend’s claim valid? Is there a basis for such an assertion? What about the concept of “shiv’im panim la-Torah – there are seventy perspectives to the Torah?”[i] Is the fact that your idea cannot be found in an earlier source a reason to discount it?
The question at hand is a very broad one and, as such, the focus of this article will be on hiddush in interpretation as opposed to hiddush in its application to practical legal decisions (although some of those issues will be touched upon inevitably as well).
The Mishnah in Massekhet Orlah states: “he-hadash asur min ha-Torah be-kol makom,”[ii] which, in context, translates simply as: “the hadash (new grain) is prohibited on a biblical level in all places.”[iii] Hatam Sofer, R. Moses Sofer,[iv] famously commandeered this mishnaic statement and (ironically) applied it in a completely new context, explaining that all hiddushim are forbidden. According to this interpretation, the line from the Mishnah would read as follows: “the hiddushim (novel ideas or interpretations) are always forbidden biblically.” Given this comment of Hatam Sofer, it would appear as though the contention that “no one said it before you” is a valid one. However, before we jump to any conclusions, let us first examine some other literature.[v]
Devorah the prophetess, in what is commonly referred to as Shirat Devorah, the Song of Devorah, says, “Yivhar elohim hadashim – they chose new gods.”[vi] The Yalkut Shim’oni has a novel midrashic reading of this verse.[vii] The interpretation offered there completely changes the meaning of the verse, looking at it in a positive light instead of the negative light implicit in the literal reading. The Yalkut Shim’oni explains:
“…ve-kol mi she-mehaddesh divrei Torah al piv, domeh ke-mi she-mashmi’im oto mi-shamayim ve-omerim lo, ‘Kakh amar ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu: “Banneh li bayit,” she-sekhar gadol shello.’ Hu she-ne’emar: ‘Yivhar Elohim hadashim’ – and anyone who is mehaddesh words of Torah in his mouth is likened to a person about whom it is proclaimed from the heavens, saying, ‘So said the Holy One blessed be He: “Build for Me a house,” as it is a great reward for Him,’ as it says: Hashem cherishes novel ideas.”[viii]
Based on this Yalkut Shim’oni, it appears that not only are hiddushim permissible, but even warranted and “cherished.” R. Hayyim Volozhin, in his work Nefesh ha-Hayyim, expresses this sentiment and stresses the fact that Hashem cherishes hiddush immensely.[ix] He takes this idea even further, explaining that because of hiddush (in Torah learning), Hashem renews and creates new worlds, and that in any place where people are
“mehaddeshim hiddushei Torah, simhah mithaddeshet la-Kadosh Barukh Hu – interpreting the Torah in a novel fashion, joy is renewed to the Holy One blessed be He.” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his work Halakhic Man, also states that “‘the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoices in the dialectics of Torah’ [a popular folk saying]. Read not here ‘dialectics’ (pilpul) but ‘creative interpretation’ (hiddush).”[x]
The Rav was a very strong proponent of creative and novel interpretations in the study of Torah – whether in Tanakh, Mishnah, Gemara, or any other Torah discipline. He believed that this was the very essence, the sine qua non, of talmud Torah. “The study of Torah,” he explains, “by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah (hiddushei Torah).”[xi] In one of his other famous works, U-Bikkashtem mi-Sham, he states: “Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu natan Torah le-Yisrael ve-tsivvanu lehaddesh ve-litsor – The Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel and commanded us to innovate and to create.”[xii] Talmud Torah requires us to approach it creatively – Hashem commands us so.
Many of R. Soloveitchik’s works give the impression that the Torah was given on this condition. Hashem wants and commands us to be partners with Him in Creation,[xiii] and just as He is “mehaddesh be-kol yom tamid – renews [the world] daily,” so, too, we must do the same with His Torah that He imparted to us. We must make it something personal by relating to it in a personal manner, by approaching it in a way that speaks to us both as individuals and as a collective whole.
Support for this idea that the Torah is ours to develop can be found in Kiddushin 32a-b in a discussion about whether a talmid hakham, a Torah scholar, can be mohel (forgo) the kavod (respect or honor) that others are obligated to show towards him. The Gemara explains that Hashem can forgo His honor because the world is His and the Torah is His, so the honor is His to forgo. But Rava questions whether the talmid hakham should have the same right, as the Torah he represents, and the honor it deserves, are not his to forgo. Rava subsequently explained, “In – Torah dileih hi, di-ketiv: ‘U-be-Torato yehegeh yomam va-lailah’ – Yes, the Torah is his [the talmid hakham’s], as it is written: ‘And in his Torah does he meditate day and night.’” Rashi explains that initially it is called “Torat Hashem – the Torah of Hashem,” but as he studies and expounds it, “nikret Torato – it is called his Torah.”[xiv]
Hiddushim are valued so much that the Shulhan Arukh tells us that while it is forbidden to write on hol ha-mo’ed, writing down a hiddush in Torah so that it will not be forgotten is among the few legitimate cases in which the prohibition can be waived.[xv] While this might only tell us the value of hiddush in Torah in the general sense, it does not say anything about an imperative to develop our own novel interpretations. The Mishnah Berurah, however, takes this one step further, explaining:
“[It is permissible to write down a hiddush [on hol ha-mo’ed] even without the reason that it may be forgotten. This is because it is incumbent upon a person at all times and every moment to toil in Torah and produce new, novel interpretations and understandings – each according to his own level. Therefore, it is impossible for one to wait until after the festival in order to write down his hiddush, for at that time, there is a new hiyyuv (obligation) upon him to produce other hiddushim. If he were to wait until after the festival, he would have to re-study that which he already learned and remember that which he was already mehaddesh. This would prevent him from acquiring new hiddushim. There is no greater davar ha-aved (loss) than this![xvi]”
Such a perspective is fascinating, as not only does it very strongly support the idea that each and every person should be mehaddesh davar ba-Torah, but it even goes so far as to give this “hiyyuv” of hiddush halakhic implications!
We have mentioned several opinions explaining why creative interpretation is essential, and perhaps even necessary, when it comes to Torah study. However, it should be noted that in addition to the opinion of Hatam Sofer, there are other issues that need to be taken into consideration.
The Mishnah in Avot 3:11 says in the name of Rabbi Elazar ha-Moda’i that “he who unveils ideas in Torah that are not according to the Halakhah, even though he has in his hands Torah and good deeds, has no portion in the World to Come.”[xvii] While this might seem to be more relevant to issues of Halakhah and issuing incorrect pesak (legal decisions), Tosafot Yom Tov provides an example in Tanakh where one should be wary of novel interpretations, an example that seemingly has no halakhic import.[xviii].[xix] The implication of this interpretation is that harsh consequences for misinterpretation of Torah may exist, regardless of whether the mistake leads to practical halakhic ramifications, making us wary about creative interpretation and hiddush in our everyday Torah study.
Assuming we bypass the problem with proposing novel ideas, there is a second question: are we really saying anything new? Are all (or any) hiddushim really novel? Is there a possibility that everything that a person is mehaddesh has already been said previously? How do we relate to the verse, “Ein kol hadash tahat ha-shamesh – there is nothing new under the sun”[xx]? The Midrash explains that all halakhot were given to Moshe Rabbeinu at Mattan Torah,[xxi] including “Mikra, Mishnah, halakhot, Talmud, Toseftot, Aggadot,” and continues:
“Va-Afilu mah she-talmid vatik atid lomar lifnei rabbo – kullan ne’emru le-Moshe be-Sinai, she-ne’emar: ‘Yesh davar she-yomar, “Re’eh zeh hadash hu.”’ Havero meshiv alav: ‘kevar hayah le-olamim – And even that which a veteran student will say in front of his teacher – they were all told to Moshe on Sinai, as it says: ‘Is there a thing whereof it is said: “See, this is new?” The following [part of the verse] answers: ‘it hath been already, in the ages which were before us.’”[xxii]
If we take this literally, then a “hiddush” that we might come up with would not really be a “hiddush,” per se, as it has already been said previously at Sinai. While this might seem somewhat disheartening to the most creative thinkers, it is in fact very uplifting. For one, it means that these statements have credence to the extent that they can be considered part of “Torat emet – the true Torah.” Additionally, going back to the opening situation in the beit midrash, these “hiddushim” would in fact be considered part of the earlier “literature” – and not just any person’s literature, but the literature of Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu Himself![xxiii]
In a similar vein, the Gemara in Gittin 6b relates a story in which Rabbi Yonatan and Rabbi Evyatar were discussing an explanation of a certain story in Tanakh (pilegesh be-Giv’ah, the concubine in Gibeah). Both offered their own, seemingly mutually exclusive, opinions. Rabbi Evyatar ran into Eliyyahu ha-Navi and asked him what God was doing at the moment, to which he responded that He was discussing the very same story and suggested both of the answers offered by these Amora’im. Rabbi Evyatar responded and asked how there could be uncertainty in the mind of God, to which Eliyyahu responded, “Ellu va-ellu divrei E-lohim Hayyim – They are all (both) the words of the Living God.” This incident highlights the fact that there can be more than one explanation to a pasuk or a sugya, etc. Furthermore, we see something even more amazing here: each explanation offered was also being offered by God Himself, lending divine legitimization to each and every statement.
Avot de-Rabbi Natan takes this idea even further.[xxiv] Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai tells Rabbi Eliezer that he had the ability “to say words of Torah above and beyond what was said to Moshe on Sinai.” At first, Rabbi Eliezer was hesitant, but he soon “sat and deduced words [of Torah] above and beyond what was recounted to Moshe on Sinai and his face shone like the light of the sun, and rays extended like the rays of Moshe[‘s face] and a person did not know whether it was day or night.”[xxv] This story seems to indicate that there is room to deduce, expound, and interpret in ways of which earlier generations were unaware, allowing us to develop new ideas and explanations in our learning.[xxvi]
Mori ve-rabbi, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Rosh Kollel of Yeshiva University’s Gruss Institute, enjoys relating a story in which he was present while the Rav gave a shi’ur.[xxvii] “He was scintillating. His chiddushim were absolutely brilliant. There was one stranger in the audience who was taken aback at the Rav’s intellectual audacity and said to him, after the lecture, ‘But Rabbi Soloveitchik, what is your source?’ The Rav answered: ‘A clear and logical mind.’”
We must also keep in mind that there is a debate over whether or not one has the right to argue against previous generations – specifically the Mishnah and Gemara.[xxviii] Although we will not go into this in-depth here, as this issue usually relates more to the world of pesak Halakhah, Jewish legal rulings, Rosh (R. Asher ben Yehiel), a major thirteenth-century legal decisor, has a fascinating statement in one of his teshuvot that is worth mentioning here. He says:
“Mi lanu gadol ke-Rashi, zts”l, she-he’ir einei ha-Golah be-perushav, ve-nehleku alav be-harbeh mekomot yotse’ei yerekho, Rabbeinu Tam ve-Rabbi Yitshak, z”l, ve-sateru devarav; ki Torat emet hi, ve-ein mahanifin le-shum adam – Who is as great as Rashi, zts”l, who enlightened the Diaspora with his interpretations, and whose descendants, Rabbeinu Tam and Rabbi Yitshak z”l (for example), argued against him in many places and they contradicted his words; for this is a Torah of truth (Torat emet), and we do not flatter (mahanifin) any person.”[xxix]
R. Norman Lamm, in his book Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith, explains:
“Our Torah is a ‘Torah of truth,’ not a Torah of authoritarianism. We must never confuse authoritativeness with authoritarianism. A ‘Torah of truth’ requires that we challenge conventional opinions. That is what the massa u’mattan, the dialectic of Talmud is all about. Flattery – excessive respect – for an individual is harmful for Torah.”[xxx]
If we look at the declaration of Rosh in this light, we can posit that this would apply to “flattery” of previous generations as well, for, as Rosh correctly points out, Rashi’s own grandchildren argue against him!
The value of hiddush is so great; it is essential to the definition of a beit midrash. The Gemara in Hagigah recounts:
“Our Rabbis taught: Once R. Yohanan b. Beroka and R. Elazar Hisma went to pay their respects to R. Yehoshua at Peki’in. Said he to them: What new teaching was there in the beit midrash today? They replied: We are your disciples and your waters do we drink. Said he to them: Even so, it is impossible to have a beit midrash without some novel teaching.”[xxxi]
Later on, the Gemara compares hiddush to a pearl, emphasizing how beautiful it is. Additionally, on the very next page, the Torah is compared to a tree. It is not a mere coincidence that this comparison is made right here. The Gemara is trying to emphasize the fact that Torah, like a tree, continues to grow and increase, eventually sharing its fruit.
In conclusion, I would like to offer a certain perspective on the key line in this Gemara. R. Yehoshua says, “I efshar le-beit midrash be-lo hiddush – It is not possible to have a beit midrash without a hiddush.” Most interpret this in a positive light – namely, that a beit midrash will inherently have hiddushim coming forth from it. However, I believe that R. Yehoshua is making an even stronger point – namely, that a beit midrash that does not produce hiddushim is not considered a true “beit midrash.”[xxxii]
Moshe Peters is a junior at YC majoring in English.
[i] Bereshit Rabbah 13.
[ii] Orlah 3:9.
[iii] Author’s translation.
[iv] See, for example, Responsa Hatam Sofer, helek 4 (Even ha-Ezer 2), siman 19 and helek 1, siman 28, etc.
[v] We should note that Daniel Sperber in his article, “Paralysis in Contemporary Halakhah?” Tradition 36,3 (Fall 2002): 1-13, points out that this statement of Hatam Sofer was meant to polemically combat the Reform movement that had been spreading throughout Germany at the time. However, even given that fact, many still apply Hatam Sofer’s comment to hiddush in general (I myself have heard his explanation used in this manner).
[vi] JPS translation.
[vii] Yalkut Shim’oni, Shofetim, remez 49.
[viii] Author’s translation.
[ix] See R. Hayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh ha-Hayyim, Sha’ar 4, chs. 11, 12, 25.
[x] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1983), p. 99.
[xii] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Ish ha-Halakhah, Galui ve-Nistar (Jerusalem, 1944), p. 207.
[xiii] This idea is extremely prevalent throughout R. Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith.
[xiv] Rashi ad loc. s.v. u-be-Torato yehegeh.
[xv] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 545:1,9.
[xvi] Mishnah Berurah to Orah Hayyim 545:47 (author’s translation).
[xvii] Author’s translation.
[xviii] Tosafot Yom Tov ad loc.
[xix] The discussion here is about how to understand the story of “Pilegesh be-Giv’ah.”
[xx] Kohelet 1:9 (author’s translation).
[xxi] Vayikra Rabbah 22:1.
[xxii] JPS translation.
[xxiii] Alternatively, we could say that the way in which a person relates to or comes to a certain thought or idea is part of interpretation itself, thus making all “hiddushim” real “hiddushim.”
[xxiv] Avot de-Rabbi Natan 2:13.
[xxv] Author’s translation.
[xxvi] We can also tie this back to the famous Gemara in Menahot 29b in which Moshe Rabbeinu is perplexed by the Torah teachings of Rabbi Akiva. See also the comments of Ets Ya’akov and Hiddushei ha-Rim ad loc.
[xxvii] The following quote was taken from Norman Lamm’s book Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 2002), p. 16. However, I have personally heard this story from mori ve-rabbi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein himself.
[xxviii] This, however, seems to be more within the world of pesak Halakhah. See, for example, Maimonides, Hilkhot Mamrim 2:1 and Kesef Mishnah ad loc., as well as Kovets Shi’urim to Bava Batra 663.
[xxix] Responsa Rosh 55:9.
[xxx] Lamm, p. 13.
[xxxi] Hagigah 3a (translation adapted from Soncino).
[xxxii] It should be noted that these accounts in the Gemara highlight what seems to be an ongoing mahaloket (dispute) throughout Shas between R. Yehoshua and R. Eliezer regarding Masorah. R. Eliezer insists on Masorah, whereas R. Yehoshua champions hiddush.