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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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Read section 3 here – b a Aug 28 '12 at 17:56
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 -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
Monica, see WAF's comment to my answer and consider clarifying precisely what you mean by unnecessary. – Double AA Aug 28 '12 at 22:38
@Menachem, interesting, thanks. Sounds like an answer. – Monica Cellio Aug 29 '12 at 1:16

5 Answers 5

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).

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 at 3:09
@yEz give me a minute... – mevaqesh Jun 12 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 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 at 18:22

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 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 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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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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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
Downvoter: care to comment in the language of man? – Double AA Nov 6 '12 at 4:38
I'm apparently the downvoter, though it was unintentional. Fat fingers on my phone, I guess. I just noticed my reputation went down by one vote and clicked here to see what I voted down. I had clicked the page to read these answers in discussing the question I was commenting on. – Seth J Nov 6 '12 at 14:31

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