Law Is More Than Just Words (Isaiah 54:1- 55:5)

The return from Babylonian exile was fraught with challenges and the people were in great need of inspiration. In this context, God promised the people that he would not sever His connection with them nor their progeny: “And all your children (banayikh) disciples of the Lord and great the peace of your children (banaikh).” (Isaiah 54:13) In modern parlance, God promised them that their children would stay Jewishly connected and that their wellbeing (shalom) would be ensured. (Eternal Jewish parental concerns!)

In a Talmudic midrash, made famous by its inclusion in the siddur (Sacks, p. 560-1), the sages transformed this verse from a divine promise of wellbeing into a paean praising the virtues of Torah study: Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Hanina: The disciples of the Sages (talmedei hachamim) increase peace in the world, as it says, ‘And all of your children disciples of the Lord, and great the peace of your children (banayikh).’ Don’t read this word ‘banayikh – your children’ [as the regular vocalization suggests] but rather read it ‘bonaikh – your builders’. (Berachot 64a) A word or two is due to explain how these sages teased their message from this verse. Since the written biblical was unvocalized, the sages in their interpretive or midrashic explanation of the text, were often “playful”, vocalizing words differently than the accepted vocalization, in order to “tease out” new meaning from the text. So here, while normally, the word “banayikh” (your children) is vocalized with a “kamatz” (an “ah” sound), Rabbi Haninah vocalizes it with a “holam” (an “oh”) sound, rendering the word “bonayikh – your builders”.

What exactly is Rabbi Haninah’s message here? Rabbi Josiah Pinto, a 15-16 century Syrian – Eretz Yisrael commentator to the Ein Yaakov (a compendium of the non-legal sections of the Talmud), noted two approaches: 1. God promised that those who study and observe the Torah will be provided for and granted peace simply for fulfilling God’s will. (See Rashi to Leviticus 26:3); 2. The word ‘bonaikh’ does not mean ‘builders’ but rather ‘understanders’ from the Hebrew word ‘binah’. Since those who study bring understanding of the Torah to the world, peace will ensue.

Rabbi Shmuel Edels, a 16th-17th century Talmud commentator, approaches this question differently. He notes that this midrash is used as a conclusion for a number of tractates of the Talmud even though it bears no connection to the subject matter at hand. From this, Edels infers (creatively) that the purpose of Talmudic decision-making is to bring peace to the world, since the process of interpreting law necessarily meshes the pursuit of “mishpat – justice” together with the quest for “shalom – peace”. He crowns his interpretation by quoting the well-known verse: “its ways [the Torah] are ways of pleasantness and its paths are paths of peace. (Proverbs 3:17)

The takeaway from this discussion is that the Sages see the study of Torah and its observance as a world affirming vocation and that it was their expectation that those who truly understand it will aim to build a better world, fusing justice with peace.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.