What is the best way to understand how texts from Tanach are brought in the tradition (such as in the Talmud) to add proof or solidity to a point... according to a really unintuitive reading of the verse or passage? Sometimes they may just be re-interpretations of those passages according to an already-accepted opinion. But they really do seem often to be brought as proofs, and they are then logically weak because of the many (sometimes more natural) possible readings.

I'm not asking here just to find an apologetic perspective. I really think I may be missing part of the pattern or mindset in which these verses seem to have been cherry-picked and misapplied. I'm just after the real intention and context of the time. What is the real foundation beneath this attitude, and what is the real strength being brought in such arguments, if there is any? It seems foreign to me.

  • 1
    Can you give some examples? Also see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asmachta_(Talmudical_hermeneutics) . Also, at least in Pirkei Avot, many times the proofs from the verse are actually from a portion of the verse not quoted, and the commentaries explain what the proof from the verse is
    – Menachem
    Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 16:34
  • I was reading theories in the Talmud about the relationship between Ktav Ivri and Ktav Ashuri in the historical writing of sacred texts, eg. the Torah scroll. One of the places where it's mentioned is in Sanhedrin 21b and 22a. The main thought that confused me was the way "the mishnah of this Torah" was read so as to imply a changed script. And the other references to Ezra ascending from Babylon, the writing Daniel saw on the wall, "that which was foretold would change," and "I have set God before me always"... It's hard to understand how any authority is placed on non-plain readings of these.
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 13:23
  • How would you understand them, hermeneutically?
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 13:23
  • I've rewritten the question here- judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/31667/… :)
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 15, 2013 at 4:52

3 Answers 3


It is important to understand that there is more than one way that a scriptural passage might be brought, to which your question may have already deliberately alluded. You refer to passages being brought as proof and also as providing solidity. These are not the same thing.

In the Mishna, most of the legislation lacks a stated explanation, but amongst those things that do receive a reason we have some that are given a scriptural basis and some that are simply given a basis in tradition. The latter might be learnt through observation, or might simply be part of the received tradition, dating back to Moshe on Sinai. For an example of the former, see Sukkah 3:9 where R' Akiva learns information about the recitation of Hallel through observing Rabban Gamliel and R' Yehoshua; for an example of the latter, see Peah 2:5-6.

When it comes to legislation that is given a reason, the reason is always scriptural. This is unlike the Talmud, in which reasons might be scientific (ie: based on observation, be it medical or astronomical, etc), or rooted in a popular expression. But just because the Mishna applies a scriptural source to something, that by no means implies that the information is learnt from that actual source. In some instances, the source is merely being brought in order to buttress that opinion ("to add... solidity", as you phrased it), which the Talmud refers to as an asmakhta (אסמכתא). Literally, this means "a support" - something on which the legislation can "lean".

The process of manipulating and applying a text in order to either derive halakhic information (what in English would be called exegesis) or in order to rest information upon it (eisegesis in English) is a process that the rabbis referred to as midrash. In actual fact, midrash can refer not only to the process but to the outcomes of the process as well, and it is not always clear whether those outcomes denote a proof or a support. An example of a midrash that unambiguously denotes a support would be drash in Sukkah 28a-b that derives from Leviticus 23:42 that women are not obligated in the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah (a halakha that we really learn out directly from the Mishna, Sukkah 2:8). For an unambiguous example of a proof text, see the drash of R' Elazar ben Matyah in Yevamot 10:3.

(If you are interested, examples of dinim that some people believed had a proof text and others believed were halakhot from Moshe on Sinai, consider the issue of the techum shabbat in Sotah 5:3, 30b and that of tosefet shevi'it in Sheviit 1:4 and Moed Qatan 4a.)

As for your primary question, which concerns the illogicality of some of those arguments that constitute proofs, be aware that the manner in which the chachamim conducted the process of midrash was anything but arbitrary. On the contrary, while their logic may not align with the manner in which you or I more naturally read a text, they employed a system no less consistent than our own, and one that they took the time to carefully delineate and expound. This is a system of middot, which in Biblical Hebrew means "measurements" but which also possesses a more metaphysical meaning in the language of the rabbis ("qualities", perhaps).

According to some texts (such as Tosefta Sanhedrin 7:5 and Yerushalmi Pesachim 6:1), the progenitor of these middot was Hillel the Elder, and they are seven in number. According to other texts (such as a baraita recorded at the beginning of Sifra), they are thirteen in number and were developed by R' Ishmael. One formulation has them being thirty-two in number and attributed to R' Eliezer ben R' Yose haGelili, which is no longer found in its original source (a baraita), but which is alluded to by later commentators.

For an English-language description of these middot and how they function, with examples, see Strack and Stemberger, An Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (2nd ed; Fortress Press, 1996), 15-22. You may also find some useful information in the Wikipedia entry for Talmudic Hermeneutics.

  • Thank you! I can reply later today, except to clarify now...you say their system was just as logical and consistent as our own systems today. Does that make them equally valid? Or can you make a measurement between the two? Systems with integrity tend to have a true-insight-locating function as well as social, cultural, emotional, pragmatic ones, I think. One can honour another's thought process and then either accept or reject it as valid for theirself.
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 1:58
  • @Annelise - I think that every hermeneutic system is equally valid, but whether they are equally effective at determining meaning will depend on the sort of meaning that you are investigating. The midrashim that employ the middot (and even the middot themselves) are now an object of study in their own right. They are no longer employed in order to generate new and unprecedented information.
    – Shimon bM
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 2:30
  • I like your thought that how we should determine meaning depends on what we are looking to find through that. But I don't understand that every such system is valid… What if it claims to deliver a certain kind of meaning, and then it is not effective at giving what it promises? I mean, what if the system harmonises well internally, but then I can't accept it for the very purpose it exists for? For that reason, I'd like to understand more about how this Talmudic system of hermeneutics worked, but also to gain more insight into the kind of meaning that they themselves were trying to get at.
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 13:45
  • In more reply to your answer… Would asmakhta be considered separate from the middot? And can they be used not only for Torah law, but also to support ideas about history, which are believed for other reasons? You can see what I was reading when wondering about these things in my comment on the original question here. It was historical speculation, but I felt it was difficult to understand the real heart of it because of the odd use of verses and passages, in my eyes.
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 13:57
  • So... I thought that maybe certain verses became part of the discussion for one reason or another, and then (for encyclopedic thoroughness, or a sense of full connectedness) each person would talk about their interpretation of such verses... not always as directly relevant to their own, but in the desire to show that their possible answer was engaging with every little place of the discussion in a unified way.
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 13:57

In the Chumash העמק דבר , introduction to the Sefer Vayikro, the Netziv says

“there are many droshos and halochos which Chazal did not learn in the Sifro through some difficulty in the biblical text but because of the traditions that they had from the Oral law” and this occurs frequently in Vayikro. He further says, “there is no tradition that is not hinted at in the biblical text” and “if these laws were not authorised from the Oral Law, they would not have been derived from the biblical text.”

I think your "logically weak proofs" fit this explanation..

  • Thank you, it does make sense if you look at them as trying to find hints to support the ideas, believing that such hints have an important role to play, even while not central to argument sometimes. It's a bit different with history than mitzvot or rulings, I guess, but what you're saying really does shed light. Do you know of any other references to this kind of thing?
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 13:30
  • I wrote another reflection in the answer below, which I would really like thoughts on… I really don't know if it's valid or not on any level. It begins "Perhaps it was a desire to be thorough"... If you have any thoughts, including disagreement, I'd value it.
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 13:31
  • PPS - How could he know that “there is no tradition that is not hinted at in the biblical text”? And would you agree that a high level of significance was placed in the hints? That is, even though they are only being used as anchors rather than proofs, the fact that they exist does seem to have a lot of resonance to the rabbis here. That gives me a foreign feeling.
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 14:15
  • @Annelise - I do not know enough to answer your questions. One thought, though. Your original question was well focussed. I feel like there is a probably a unifying principle underlying your many later comments. Do you think you could summarise this principle, please? Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 14:47
  • Probably, but what kind of principle, what feeling or connections, are you getting from the comments? If you're asking me what personally drives me to ask in this way- I'm deeply considering conversion to Judaism and have spent more than a year seeking God in the context of Orthodox Judaism. But I have some questions about how you fully know that your tradition carries reality from God. That's a different question, but makes me sensitive to things that don't seem to make sense. I know how foreign principles may actually make good sense when really understood, so I'm seeking those.
    – Annelise
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 15:00

Perhaps it was a desire to be thorough or find intricate connectedness, to take every theory and talk about whether it indeed could harmonise with all of the verses that had come to be seen as somehow relevant to the topic. For example, certain verses may have been part of the discussion for one reason or another, and then each opinion would talk about their interpretation of such verses... not as necessarily relevant to their own, not always as proof of anything (when they knew they weren't bringing the plain meaning), but just in the desire to show that their possible answer was engaging with every little place of the discussion in a unified way.

I'd appreciate comments on this answer. Do you think it is an accurate picture of what was going on? Or do you think they really were bringing non-plain meanings as if they were proofs? If so, examples would help.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .