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I've been taught, often enough that I thought it was universal, that there are no unnecessary words in torah (chumash) — every word is there to teach us something. I've seen plenty of discussions in the g'mara that seem to follow this principle, too, understanding that two similar-seeming verses (or words) are there to teach two different principles because they can't be serving the same purpose.

For example, Sanhedrin 64b (summarized in point 3 of this outline, h/t @ba) asks why the torah says three times that one is chayav karet for idolatry and then finds three interpretations. It doesn't say explicitly there that each of the torah's three statements must be "consumed" by a different halacha, but this lesson from the Virtual Beit Midrash (Yeshivat Har Etzion) states the rule explicitly but without citation in a discussion of Kiddushin 72b, discussing a baraita:

The gemara begins its analysis of the beraita by questioning the reasoning behind Rabbi Yossi's position. The gemara explains that, in the context of those who are genealogically unfit to marry into the broad Jewish community, the Torah (Devarim 23:3-9) employs the term "congregation" (for example, a mamzer may not "enter the congregation of God") five times. Since the Torah could have simply listed all the different categories (mamzerim and converts of Amonite, Moabite or Egyptian descent) and stated once that they may not enter the congregation, the gemara assumes that the word "congregation" must have been used extra times in order to teach further details about these prohibitions. This is quite characteristic of Talmudic methodology. Since there are no unnecessary words in the Torah, words that appear extra must be there in order to teach some detail that we would not have known otherwise.

I have also heard, but don't know where, that a perfect torah would not need to include superfluous words (along the idea of @WAF's comment below), and of course God's torah is perfect. I'm not sure how much weight to give a human interpretation of divine intent.

Today I read that this "rule" about unnecessary words is not universally held.

What sources are there for each position? Who holds that there are no unnecessary words, and who does not, and on what basis?

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FYI: In some of the literature, the concept you're referring to is called "omnisignificance." – Isaac Moses Aug 28 '12 at 19:58
Of interest: The argument between R' Akiva and R' Yishmael in Sotah 3A hebrewbooks.org/shas.aspx?mesechta=18&daf=3&format=pdf -R' Yishmael says that sometimes things are unnecessarily repeated because of the one new thing the passage is coming to teach us (which makes sense to me, since if just the novelty was stated it would be out of context). R' Akiva disagrees and says that we can even learn something out from the repetition. -- My understanding of R' Yishmael is that while the words themselves may not be teaching us something new, they are not unnecessary, since the provide context – Menachem Aug 28 '12 at 21:04
@Menachem, interesting, thanks. Sounds like an answer. – Monica Cellio Aug 29 '12 at 1:16
@MonicaCellio: I don't feel like I know enough about this topic to write it up as an answer. – Menachem Aug 31 '12 at 5:35
Well even if theoretically every letter is meaningful, it isnt at all clear that we possess a Torah that it is identical letter for letter with the original. The Talmud already says that we dont know which words are speeled malei and which chasser, to speak nothing of larger issues such as Ibn Ezra's "secret" of added verses into the Torah. – mevaqesh Mar 20 '15 at 0:38

There are 32 times in Bavli where the Gemara notes (for at least one person in the local discussion) that a certain word was included because:

דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם‏
The Torah spoke using the language of man

(The next one in Daf Yomi is this week on Brachot 31a.)

So I'm not entirely sure what you mean by unnecessary because I assume God actively chose to include the word, but the word is specifically not expounded to learn a certain legal rule, at least in the Bavli.

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I think the assumption is an absolute economy of words in the Torah: if a shorter formulation (using fewer words) of the same exact idea existed it would have been used. – WAF Aug 28 '12 at 22:28
@WAF, that seems to fit with what I've heard. (I've updated the question with more detail.) – Monica Cellio Aug 29 '12 at 1:17

The Ramban writes in his hassagos to shoresh sheni of the Rambam in sefer Hamitzvos that there is not even one extra letter in the Torah:

אבל הכתוב יכלול הכל כי אין הפשט כדברי חסרי דעת הלשון ולא כדעת הצדוקים. כי ספר תורת ה' תמימה אין בה אות יתר וחסר כולם בחכמה נכתבו

Rather, the verses contain all [of the ideas contained in the d'rshos of Chazal] for the explanation of the text is not [meager] in accordance with the words of those lacking intelligence, nor like the opinion of the Sadducees. For the Torah scroll of God is perfect, it has neither a superfluous nor a missing letter, they were all written with wisdom. (Trans. my own).

This is clearly stated by Rabbenu Bachye as well in his commentary to Genesis (47: 28):

אבל התורה כולה רמזים, אין בה תיבה ואות שלא נאמר לענין הכרחי ומוצרך

"The Torah is all hints; it has no word or letter that was not stated for necessary reason" (Trans. my own).

Also noteworthy is the comment of Rabbenu Avrahan ben HaRambam in his commentary to Exodus (20:20) where he seems to state this as well:

אין כפל במקרא

There is no repetition/superfluity in the Torah.

see below regarding his intent here

Rabbenu Avraham is approving of R. Saadya Gaon's distinction between לא תעשון אתי אלהי כסף and the end of the verse ואלהי זהב לא תעשו לכם. Regarding which he says אין כפל במקרא.

Rabbi Ezra Labaton z"l (in his dissertation here p. 154) understands these words to be Rabbenu Avraham's conclusion (that is an independent clause about the nature of Torah.) Accordingly, this would be similar to the Ramban.

However, it is not clear to me that Rabbi Labaton's reading is correct, for the whole line of Rabbenu Avraham reads:

ומאמרו אחרי כן 'לא תעשו לכם' אזהרה על קבלת הצורות והתמונות ולפי זה אין כפל במקרא

In context it seems likely that he is merely saying that Rav Sadya Gaon's explanation has the benefit of avoiding superfluity, which is avoided according to his explanation, not that scripture is never superfluous.

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+1 - efshar quote? – yEz Jun 12 '15 at 3:09
@yEz give me a minute... – mevaqesh Jun 12 '15 at 3:26
This is obviously difficult with the Gemara about m'leos and chaseros of course. Interestingly, I recall the same implication in his student the Rashba; that every letter is accurate. Also noteworthy, is that the Rambam (whom the Ramban is furiously disputing) himself writes quite similarly in Peirush Hamishnayos to chelek in his ikkarim. Of course his intent there has been discussed at length elsewhere on this website. – mevaqesh Jun 12 '15 at 3:56
Thanks for quote. The Ramban could always mean that the Torah which we were given at Sinai was perfect with no extra or lacking, and it's our loss if we are missing a piece of that, although it will have no bearing on the halachic veracity of the Torah. Have a good Shabbos! – yEz Jun 12 '15 at 18:22
@mevaqesh And perhaps we could learn from the miles and chaseros if we had them written properly? For sure they have meaning, even if we can't expound them. – LN6595 Jan 20 at 0:35

I personally, do not understand the premise of those who say that every word is necessary. It's application before the Achronim is truly very limited. I believe the times when every letter is measured is less than 200 out of 304,805.

The most famous example of the Torah using extra words, when less words could have been used to give the same message is in Parshat Naso, when the gifts given by the prince of each tribe is spelled out. For example, if the Torah wanted to teach us that each gift was essentially different, even though the physical gift was the same, it could have said, "The prince of Yehuda gave his own gift, like that which the Prince of Benyamin gave." And gone down the list as such. Or other similar techniques to reduce the number of words.

Similarly when counting the Jewish people, an extended formula is used to describe the numbers.

You will not find any attempt to explain the extra words used to describe these events until the Rishonim, and even then, not all Rishonim address this "problem."

It can be easily concluded then, that not all Rishonim, and certainly chazal felt that extra words had to "explained". Rather it is the fact that the Torah writes in the language of man, sometimes the people are just more impacted by certain areas of the text being explained in great detail with extra words and flourishes, and other parts being spoken of briefly.

In fact, if you look at the Gemora closely, you will find that actually the exact opposite is happening. Rather than looking at extra words and finding meaning, the Gemora uses known halachot, and tries to find extra words or phrases in the Torah to attach them. The desire is to show how the Oral Torah can be hinted to in the Written Torah.

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perhaps on pshat level there are extra words, but the torah has many layers of meanings and ultimately every letter is crucial like the transistors in a radio as the Derech Etz Chaim of the Ramchal wrote:

Because all the (22) letters that we see in the torah, all of them teach on the 22 lights which exist on high. And these supernal lights, shine on the letters. And from them comes the holiness of the torah, the holiness of the sefer torah, tefilin, and mezuzos, and all the holy writings. And according to the holiness in which they were written, so too will be the resting and shining of these lights on the letters. Therefore the sefer torah which has one invalid letter, becomes entirely invalid because the lights cannot remain in it properly, that it should pull down the holiness to the congregation with the power of the reading of it.....it comes out from this, that even though the torah is endless, and even each letter from it is like this, however one needs to ignite it, and then it flames. For this, the intellect of man was made. Because it also has the power of great attainment...

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Unfortunately as noted elsewhere on the cite the Gemara already states that we dont know which words in the Torah are malei and chasser respectively. This is quite problematic for said Ramchal (IMHO). – mevaqesh Mar 20 '15 at 0:36

In addition to the above answers, it has been well established that the Torah repeats itself for stylistic reasons or to emphasize a point. For example, there are many examples of chiasm (aka inclusio), where the Torah intentionally repeats two similar phrases to form a structure that emphasizes a certain point.

Additionally, there are multiple examples of poetry and song in the Torah, which sometimes appear to be contain extra words just to maintain the rhythm.

How the rabbis knew which 'extra' words should be expounded (darshened) and which were just there is a complicated topic, and is beyond the scope of this question.

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There is a definite Talmudic belief that there are no unnecessary statements in the Torah. See Sanhedrin 99b

Our Rabbis taught: But the soul that doeth aught presumptuously: this refers to Manasseh the Son of Hezekiah, who examined [Biblical] narratives to prove them worthless. Thus, he jeered, had Moses nothing to write but, And Lotan's sister was Timna, And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz, And Reuben went in the days of the wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field. Thereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother's son. These things hast thou done, and I kept silence, thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself' but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes. And of him it is explicitly stated in the post-Mosaic Scriptures, Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope. What is meant by 'and sin as it were with a cart rope'? — R. Assi said: Temptation at first is like a spider's thread, but eventually like a cart rope. À propos, what is the purpose of [writing], And Lotan's sister was Timna? — Timna was a royal princess, as it is written, alluf [duke] Lotan, alluf [duke] Timna; and by 'alluf' an uncrowned ruler is meant. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, 'I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.' From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? — Because they should not have repulsed her. And Reuben went in the days of the wheat harvest [and found mandrakes in the field]. Raba b. Isaac said in Rab's name: This shews that righteous men do not take what is not theirs.

This idea is elaborated upon in Rambam's Guide To The Perplexed part 3 chapter 50

THERE are in the Law portions which include deep wisdom, but have been misunderstood by many persons.; they require, therefore, an explanation. I mean the narratives contained in the Law which many consider as being of no use whatever; e.g., the list of the various families descended from Noah, with their names and their territories (Gen. x.); the sons of Seir the Horite (ibid. xxxvi. 20-30); the kings that reigned in Edom (ibid. 31, seq.); and the like. There is a saying of our Sages (B Ṭ. Sanh. 99b) that the wicked king Manasse frequently held disgraceful meetings for the sole purpose of criticising such passages of the Law. "He held meetings and made blasphemous observations on Scripture, saying, Had Moses nothing else to write than, And the sister of Lotan was Timna" (Gen. xxxvi. 22)? With reference to such passages, I will first give a general principle, and then discuss them seriatim, as I have done in the exposition of the reasons of the precepts. Every narrative in the Law serves a certain purpose in connexion with religious teaching. It either helps to establish a principle of faith, or to regulate our actions, and to prevent wrong and injustice among men; and I will show this in each case. It is one of the fundamental principles of the Law that the Universe has been created ex nihilo, and that of the human race, one individual being, Adam, was created. As the time which elapsed from Adam to Moses was not more than about two thousand five hundred years, people would have doubted the truth of that statement if no other information had been added, seeing that the human race was spread over all parts of the earth in different families and with different languages, very unlike the one to the other. In order to remove this doubt the Law gives the genealogy of the nations (Gen. v. and x.), and the manner how they branched off from a common root. It names those of them who were well known, and tells who their fathers were, how long and where they lived. It describes also the cause that led to the dispersion of men over all parts of the earth, and to the formation of their different languages, after they had lived for a long time in one place, and spoken one language (ibid. xi.), as would be natural for descendants of one person. The accounts of the flood (ibid. vi.-viii.) and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (ibid. xix.), serve as an illustration of the doctrine that "Verily there is a reward for the righteous; verily He is a God that judgeth in the earth" (Ps. lviii. 12). The narration of the war among the nine kings (ibid. xiv.) shows how, by means of a miracle, Abraham, with a few undisciplined men, defeated four mighty kings. It illustrates at the same time how Abraham sympathized with his relative, who had been brought up in the same faith, and how he exposed himself to the dangers of warfare in order to save him. We further learn from this narrative how contented and satisfied Abraham was, thinking little of property, and very much of good deeds; he said, "I will not take from a thread even to a shoe-latchet" (Gen. xiv. 23). The list of the families of Seir and their genealogy is given it the Law (ibid. xxxvi. 20-36), because of one particular commandment. For God distinctly commanded the Israelites concerning Amalek to blot out his name (Deut. xxv. 17-19). Amalek was the son of Eliphas and Timna, the sister of Lotan (ibid. xxxvi. 12). The other sons of Esau were not included in this commandment. But Esau was by marriage connected with the Seïrites, as is distinctly stated in Scripture: and Seïrites were therefore his children: he reigned over them; his seed was mixed with the seed of Seir, and ultimately all the countries and families of Seir were called after the sons of Esau who were the predominant family, and they assumed more particularly the name Amalekites, because these were the strongest in that family. If the genealogy of these families of Seir had not been described in full they would all have been killed, contrary to the plain words of the commandment. For this reason the Seirite families are fully described, as if to say, the people that live in Seir and in the kingdom of Amalek are not all Amalekites: they are the descendants of some other man, and are called Amalekites because the mother of Amalek was of their tribe. The justice of God thus prevented the destruction of an [innocent] people that lived in the midst of another people [doomed to extirpation]; for the decree was only pronounced against the seed of Amalek. The reason of this decree has already been stated by us The kings that have reigned in the land of Edom are enumerated (Gen xxxvi. 51, seq.) on account of the law, "Thou mayst not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother" (Deut. xvii. 15). For of these kings none was an Edomite; wherefore each king is described by his native land; one king from this place, another king from that place. Now I think that it was then well known how these kings that reigned in Edom conducted themselves, what they did, and how they humiliated and oppressed the sons of Esau. Thus God reminded the Israelites of the fate of the Edomites, as if saying unto them, Look unto your brothers, the sons of Esau, whose kings were so and so, and whose deeds are well known. [Learn therefrom] that no nation ever chose a foreigner as king without inflicting thereby some great or small injury upon the country. In short, what I remarked in reference to our ignorance of the Sabean worship, applies also to the history of those days. If the religious rules of the Sabeans and the events of those days were known to us, we should be able to see plainly the reason for most of the things mentioned in the Pentateuch.

Rambam there goes on to say

It is also necessary to note the following observations. The view we take of things described by others is different from the view we take of things seen by us as eye-witnesses. For that which we see contains many details which are essential, and must be fully described. The reader of the description believes that it contains superfluous matter, or useless repetition, but if he had witnessed the event of which he reads, he would see the necessity of every part of the description. When we therefore notice narratives in the Torah, which are in no connexion with any of the commandments, we are inclined to think that they are entirely superfluous, or too lengthy, or contain repetitions; but this is only because we do not see the particular incidents which make those narratives noteworthy. Of this kind is the enumeration of the stations [of the Israelites in the wilderness] (Num. xxxiii.). At first sight it appears to be entirely useless; but in order to obviate such a notion Scripture says, "And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of the Lord" (ibid. ver. 2). It was indeed most necessary that these should be written. For miracles are only convincing to those who witnessed them; whilst coming generations, who know them only from the account given by others, may consider them as untrue. But miracles cannot continue and last for all generations; it is even inconceivable [that they should be permanent]. Now the greatest of the miracles described in the Law is the stay of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, with a daily supply of manna. This wilderness, as described in Scripture, consisted of places "wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water" (Deut. viii. 115); places very remote from cultivated land, and naturally not adapted for the habitation of man, "It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, neither is there any water to drink" (Num. xx. 5); "A land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt" (Jer. ii. 6). [In reference to the stay of the Israelites in the wilderness], Scripture relates, "Ye have not eaten bread, neither have ye drunk wine or strong drink" (Deut. xix. 5). All these miracles were wonderful, public, and witnessed by the people. But God knew that in future people might doubt the correctness of the account of these miracles. in the same manner as they doubt the accuracy of other narratives; they might think that the Israelites stayed in the wilderness in a place not far from inhabited land, where it was possible for man to live [in the ordinary way]; that it was like those deserts in which Arabs live at present; or that they dwelt in such places in which they could plow, sow, and reap, or live on some vegetable that was growing there; or that manna came always down in those places as an ordinary natural product; or that there were wells of water in those places. In order to remove all these doubts and to firmly establish the accuracy of the account of these miracles, Scripture enumerates all the stations, so that coming generations may see them, and learn the greatness of the miracle which enabled human beings to live in those places forty years.

Concerning the doubled words in the Torah, although it is true we find the phrase in the Talmud 'Dibra Torah Kilashon Benei Adam' used as a way of explaining why we do not expound the doubled expression under scrutiny, we find many times that the Talmud does expound upon doubled expressions. And in fact the same person, Rabi Shimon, is found both stating that we can expound doubled words and stating not to expound doubled words because of Dibra Torah etc. Tosafos in Bava Metzia 31b s.v. Dibra Torah therefore explain that we only say Dibra Torah etc. when there is evidence in the passuk to say so. But otherwise any doubling is considered open for expounding, and not simply extra.

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Rambam poskins in Hilchot Teshuva 3:17 that if one denies that even a single word of the Torah is not from HaShem they are guilty of being a Kofer b'Torah and has no portion in the world to come.

By definition that means every word is essential.

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