Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Some apikursis to start your day

In Rashi's commentary to Numbers 11:15, he uses the words "tikun sofrim" to explain what seems to be a textual anomaly. Tikun sofrim means "a correction of the scribes."

Here is the verse, as the King James version has it. The anomaly Rashi spotted is clearer in English:

"And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favor in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness."

"My wretchedness" should be "your wretchedness" or even "their wretchedness." What had Moshe done that was wretched? Rashi tells us the scribes changed the word (and in Hebrew the changing "your wretchedness" to "my wretchedness" is a matter of deleting just two letters) because "your wretchedness" seemed disrespectful to their ears.

Some argue that Rashi's words should be understood euphamistacly. The words, as they appear in our text are the original words that God dictated to Moshe, but God behaved like a scribe and used the word "my wretchedness" so that Moshe would not appear to be using rude or disrespectful language. According to this interpretation of Rashi God was the editor, and not the later, human scribes.

If we take Rashi literally, though, we have a problem. After all, isn't the immutableness of the Torah one of our 13 core beliefs? Yet, here we have a rishon, a rishon that the Ramban said "had the right of the first born" when it came to biblical exegis, claiming that the scribes had made changes to the torah's text.

Is it possible to take Rashi literally? Suprisingly, the answer is yes: On Job 32:3 Rashi writes, "This is one of the verses in which the Scribes fixed the language of the text. It should have read, 'And they condemned G-d in their silence' but the text used a euphemism (kinah hakatuv)."

From here it seems clear that Rashi's use of the phrase "tikun sofrim" is not meant to be euphamistic. He thought the scribes had, in some instances, altered the text. And apparently, other Rishonim agreed with him (though some, plainly did not)

Further evidence, perhaps, that some rishonim would have chuckled at our generation's affectations of piety when confronted with questions of this sort?