Mordechai Silverstein

Look and Listen

It is well-known that observant Jews do not eat the blood of animals and poultry. Animals must be slaughtered properly (shekhita) in a manner which enables maximal bleeding. The meat is then soaked and salted to remove the blood. In addition, when poultry and certain other animals are slaughtered, it is a mitzvah to cover some of their blood which is symbolically spilled onto the ground with soil (mitzvat kisoi hadam). The Torah’s rationale for this prohibition is “for blood is the life [force] and one should not eat the life [force] with the flesh”. (Deuteronomy 12:23) The Torah follows up the proscription (along with other laws relating to the sacrificial order) with the following admonition: “Take heed and hearken (Shmor v’shamata) all these things that I charge you, so that it will go well with you and with your children after you for all time when you do what is good and what is right in the eyes of the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 12:28)

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain), who is known for his penchant to interpret Scripture according to its plain sense and context, read this last verse as the conclusion to the above cited laws. The intent, then, is that if you observe these laws, you will be rewarded and be well thought of by both God and man.

A midrash from the period of the Mishnah (2nd-3rd century Eretz Yisrael), however, read this verse with an entirely different intent:

“Take heed and hearken”: Whoever is not in the class of learning is not in the class of doing. (Sifre Devarim 79, Finkelstein ed. p. 145)

This brief teaching takes this verse out of its original context and turns it into a “rabbinic manifesto”, supporting the superiority of study as a necessary antecedent to deed. It is reminiscent of a famous rabbinic debate over this same question:

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nitza’s house, in Lod, when this question was raised before them: Is study greater, or is deed? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Deed is greater. Rabbi Akiba replied, saying: Study is greater. Then they all answered and said: Study is greater, for it leads to action. (Kiddushin 40b)

This intuitive position is didactically sound. It sees education as the means to both inform and inspire action. Still, we have a counterintuitive viewpoint in the rabbinic tradition which contradicts this idea.

When the children of Israel accepted the covenant at Mount Sinai, they responded with the words: “We will faithfully do (naaseh v’nishma)”. (Exodus 24:7) These words can literally be understood to mean “shall do and we shall understand”. This “midrashic” understanding became the foundation for the following midrash:

Rabbi Simai interpreted: When the children of Israel gave precedence to ‘we will do’ over ‘we will hearken,’ six hundred thousand ministering angels came and set two crowns upon each man of Israel, one as a reward for ‘we will do,’ and the other as a reward for ‘we will hearken’. (Shabbat 88a)

This midrash praises Israel as meritorious for accepting and performing God’s commandments even before understanding the significance of what they were accepting. Significant voices in tradition inferred from this midrash an educational approach emphasizing understanding though first doing.

What is one to make of these two seemingly contradictory rabbinic approaches? It is worthy to note that the tradition acknowledges both and appreciates that each has virtues. I would further add that the acknowledgment of different voices, even contradictory voices, is a sign of strength and not weakness, one for which the Jewish tradition is renowned.

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.
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