Jewish Learning
Jewish Learning
Rabbi Michael Laitner

Is every word of the Torah always to be taken literally?

‘...and before a blind person, do not place a stumbling block.’ (Vayikra 19:14)

The Torah is a relevant text for all time given by G-d to the Jews via Moshe (Moses) at Mount Sinai.

How did the Torah remain our central, G-d given text through millenia of exile and cultural change?

This topic is especially pertinent for a significant number of contemporary Jews ,who may not understand Hebrew but still wish to connect with the Torah. Our passage above (from next week’s sidra) provides some initial answers...

If taken literally, our passage would be unlikely to cause much discussion. It would be unsurprising that the Torah should encourage a merciful attitude to those not blessed with sight. Yet the commentator Rashi (d. 1105) did not explain the verse literally. Quoting a Midrash (the earliest Rabbinic commentaries to the Torah), he explained that the meaning, rather than the literal explanation, of our passage, is that we should not give bad advice to somebody who is ‘in the dark’ (ie blind) about a particular matter, such as a commercial transaction.

This follows the approach of Torah Sheba’al Peh (TSP), the Oral Law, which accompanied the giving of the written Torah and also originated at Mount Sinai.

TSP provides a dynamic framework for explaining and keeping Torah relevant throughout changing circumstances, as new situations emerge and new questions arise. It sets an apparatus in place for applying and studying Jewish law and ethics. It is a cornerstone of Judaism. Historically, it has faced opposition, such as from the Karaites (from 9th century CE) as well as from contemporary non-Orthodox denominations.

Rashi’s comments illustrate this framework, teaching that our passage has a broader relevance than just its literal meaning. This helps us to understand our passage as conveying a legal principle. Given that new situations arise, the further applications and ramifications of this principle are endless, making the prospect of writing them down in the Torah both unwieldy and impossible.

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 6b), the major source of Rabbinic legal and ethical material, puts the apparatus into place by describing a framework of law which is derived from our passage. Its particular example details how to act when somebody asks you to assist them in committing a sin. Using a case study, the Talmud investigates how much indirect responsibility you may have in such a situation.

The approaches of that section of Talmud and Rashi both stem from the TSP, which does not read our passage literally. These approaches help us, as Jews today, to study, discuss and apply the Torah that Moshe received from G-d and which remains our central religious text.

We have only given one answer to our title question. There are of course parts of the Torah which must be taken absolutely literally.

I hope this gives you food for thought and appetite for study. Your local US Rabbi can help with study suggestions. Look out for future courses being developed by US Living & Learning.

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