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Friday, April 29, 2011

Very Serious Nonsense! or More About Drash

"Come, come,” said the King impatiently. “Sir Alaric, what do you make of all this nonsense?”
"Very serious nonsense, Your Majesty,” answered Sir Alaric.

            The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss

A friend of mine who attended many of my classes in Talmud and Tanach was fond of dismissing any number of drashot of Chazal by tossing off a favorite Yiddish description of his, namely: naarishkeit! Roughly translated, it means 'nonsense.' It seemed to him that many of the midrashim which seemed to deviate from the simple meaning of the text were not worthy of scrutiny or understanding since they were simply nonsense.

But why should nonsense not be worthy of attention?

Nonsense by definition is something doesn't seem to make sense. Sometimes, we may miss important understandings by glossing over that which seems to not compute.

To bring an example from another master of nonsense, Lewis Carroll wrote the following riddle:

Dreaming of apples on a wall,
And dreaming often dear,
I dreamed, that if I counted all,
How many would appear?

So what's the answer? He told you the answer in no uncertain terms but you likely weren't paying attention. Ten apples would, of course, appear as he was dreaming of-ten!

Ha ha, you say, very funny. And perhaps Alice's creator meant nothing more than to trick you. But you might also say he was trying to get you to read everything he wrote with great care.

Essentially, this is how Chazal looked at Tanach and the Torah in particular. They would strive to understand the 'simple' meaning of the words but then would dig deeper and find more levels. In a number of instances, they also broke up words in order to discover hidden meanings. After all, if mere mortal writers had such meanings in their work, why not find them in the Torah, as well?

A salient example is:
בראשית פרק ב (ד) אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ בְּהִבָּרְאָם בְּיוֹם עֲשׂוֹת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהִים אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם:

Genesis Chapter 2 (4) These are the generations of the heavens and the earth in their creation on the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Now if you look closely at the letter ה in the word בהבראם you will see it is smaller than the other letters. This is how it appears in a Torah scroll. Chazal understood that was a tipoff that the letter should be read independently of the rest of the word.

The word בהבראם means “in their creation” but if we split off the ה (with the letter ב preceding it) then we get a new reading: ב-ה בראם He created them (the heavens and the earth) with (the letter) hei!

From here it is learned that this world we occupy was created with the letter hei. This notion fits into a much wider concept of the nature of creation and comports well with other sources. Check out my blog here for some of the wider concept.

Sometimes, that which is hidden at first sight because it seems so outlandish brings the greatest meaning.


  1. I thought the small ה was a tipoff that it was supposed to switch places with the א.

    אלה תולדות השמים והארץ, באברהם ביום ביום עשות ה' אלהים ארץ ושמים.

    Keep up the good work. ;^)

  2. I've just been reading transcriptions of Joseph Campbell's lectures (from: Thou Art That/Transforming Religious Ritual). I quote:

    'a mythological image is one that evokes and directs psychological energy. It is an energy-evoking and energy-directing sign. A mythology is a system of affect or emotional images; these representations themselves produce this emotion or effect...Our on mythology, yours and mine, is our particular heritage of affect images.

    ...On a rational level the images are said to be absurd and therefore to have no meaning. Our rational system thus breaks their connection and makes their energy unavailable to us in our lives.

    ...There are mythologies that are scattered, broken up, all around can select any of these fragments that activate your imagination for your own use. Let it help to shape your own relationship to the unconscious system out of which these symbols come.


    I like the role and authority that he attributes to the imagination in this conversation...

  3. @Aaron--touche, sort of. That midrash you allude to from Breishit Rabbah probably could have been said even without the small hei. One of the methods of drash with small letters is to read the word with and without that letter to get extra meaning. Cf. for example, ויקרא at the beginning of the book by the same name. The alef there is small which leads to a reading of ויקר, 'and He happened (upon),' which is the same word used when God speaks to Bilaam. It signifies a kind of indirect and lower address. Nonetheless, good point!

  4. @Tirtzah--Thanks for that lengthy quote. Yes, I think Campbell grasps this basic concept well and although I have not read him, I think he has a lot to contribute to this discussion.

    @Jonah--Thanks! Compliments are, of course, always welcome :) but so are challenges.