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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Noah 5768

This week's sedra is all about the flood that destroyed a degenerate world and the salvation of one family - Noah's family - because of his steadfast righteousness, in spite of all the evil around him.

We will look at a Rashi-comment regarding the ark that carried Noah, his family and the animals to safety. And the Ramban's disagreement with a Rashi-comment. I have chosen it mainly because the Ramban's comment shines light on Torah exegesis in general.

Genesis: 8:4

And the ark rested in the seventh month on the seventeenth day of the month on the mountains of Ararat.


on the seventeenth day: Rashi: From here we learn that the ark was submerged in the water 11 cubits. (Rashi then goes on to make calculations that since the water was 15 cubits above the highest mountains and in 60 days the waters receded enough for the tops of the mountains to be seen - that is 15 cubits receded in 60 days. This comes to 4 days to recede one cubit. So by the 16th of Sivan the waters had receded 4 cubits leaving 11 cubits from the original 15 cubits of water above the mountains. Ergo, the ark rested with 11 cubits still under water. It should be noted that all of Rashi's calculations come from the Midrash Rabbah)


The Ramban disputes Rashi and the Midrash's calculations. One of the points he makes (he has others as well) is that the ark was built differently from most ships - it was widest at the bottom and narrowed to one cubit (Genesis 6:16) at the top, while most ships are narrow at the bottom and wider on the upper decks. If the ark was submerged as much as 11 cubits - the heaviest part of the ark - it would have sunk. The Ramban calculates that it was probably submerged only 2-3 cubits in the water.

But what is noteworthy about this somewhat esoteric dispute are the Ramban's opening words, as he prepares to argue with Rashi and the Midrash. He says:

"However, since Rashi closely examines the Midrashic interpretation- in certain places in the Torah - and the he makes the effort to offer the P'shat meaning of the verse, he has, in effect, given us permission to do likewise. For there are 70 faces to the Torah and many midrashim are disputed by the Sages themselves."


This statement of the Ramban is really quite remarkable. He is saying that since Rashi has disputed the interpretation of the Sages in certain places of his Torah commentary, so we too may we dispute their interpretations (if of course, a cogent argument can be made in support of a different interpretation). We must remember that in our verse the Ramban disputes the Sages on a historical event - how much the ark was submerged in the water. It is not a dispute over a theoretical matter or of philosophy, it is a dispute about facts, and yet he says this is permissible. In matters of law we have a clear hierarchy: The Talmudic Sages (Tanaim and Amoraim), the Rishonim, and then the Acharonim. This line of authority is rarely crossed. This means that an Amora will not argue with a Tana; and a Rishon will not argue with an Amora. etc. But the Ramban is teaching us that a latter rabbi can argue even with early Sage (Tana) when it comes to interpreting the words of the Torah.

The Ohr Hachayim (18th century) makes a similar comment in his comment to Genesis 1:3.

He writes:

"Be aware! Permission is given to us to interpret verses in the Torah after serious inspection and reasonable knowledge, even though earlier rabbis and may have explained it in a different manner. For there are 70 faces to the Torah and we are only prohibited not to stray from the words of the earlier sages in matters that have consequences in the laws [but not in understanding the p'shat of the Torah's words]."


These words of the Ramban and the Ohr Hachayim give all of us a wonderful opportunity and at the same time an awesome responsibility. We can all have our part in the ongoing and millennia long process of interpreting the Torah. We must study a lot and think a lot, but that is the joy of our wonderful Jewish heritage.

P.S. I would add a thought of mine. The Ramban, after telling us that he relate and argue with Rashi & Ibn Ezra, writes in his poetic introduction to his commentary the following words: "And may the G-d Whom alone I fear, save me from the day of wrath." I suspect that the Ramban may have had in mind such statements as we have just seen. His statement is revolutionary and he did not fear saying it without concern or fear of what others might say! Since he only had to fear G-d.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."

The Institute is preparing a new volume on Megillas Esther. It will be titled: "What's Bothering Rashi and the Midrash?" It analyzes both Rashi and selected Midrashim on the megillah. If you would like to be a sponsor, please contact us.

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