This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Stretching the Truth *

When the Israelite scouts returned from their ill-fated reconnaissance mission to spy out the promised land, they gave an unnerving report about Canaanite cities that were “great and fortified in the heavens.” If understood literally, then it would appear to imply that the walls reached impossible heights, or that the cities were actually hovering above the earth as if in some science fiction scenario.

Many of us would likely dismiss this as a harmless exaggeration. Such expressions are not meant to be understood literally, any more than our modern use of terms like “skyscraper.” The same could be said about other cases in the Bible, such as the account of Solomon’s coronation at which the noise of the acclamation—like a super-amplified rock concert—was said to be so loud “that the earth split with the sound of them.” We have become very comfortable about reading the Bible as a masterpiece that utilizes literary techniques, including judicious sprinklings of hyperbole and other varieties of figurative imagery.

However, the “Bible as literature” approach can also be a source of discomfort for some religious Jews. Works of divine revelation, they would argue, are too serious to be reduced to our frivolous mortal standards of esthetics. If Picasso was correct in his observation that “art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” then art has no place in sacred scriptures that are devoted to uncompromising truth.

Nevertheless, our ancient sages appear to have felt less threatened by the presence of exaggerations in holy texts. Indeed, the Talmud quotes Rabbi Ami as declaring that the Torah, the Prophets and the sages were all accustomed to speaking in hyperbolic language.

Rabbi Isaac bar Ami noted three instances in which the rabbis of the Mishnah were also guilty of stretching the truth. His examples included: a description of the Temple altar whose mound of ashes was allowed to pile up until it reached a prodigious volume of three hundred kor; a golden vine to which donors would contribute leaves for the benefit of the Temple, and which became so laden with its precious foliage that it required three hundred priests to harvest it; and the Temple curtains that were woven so thickly as to require three hundred priests to immerse them if they became ritually impure.

According to A. J. Heschel, the claim that the languages of the sacred texts conform to human literary conventions was distinctive to the school of Rabbi Ishmael. However, the rival school of Rabbi Akiva insisted that scriptural language possesses a uniquely transcendent quality.

Sixteenth-century Italy produced Jewish humanists like Rabbi Azariah de Rossi, who was proud to acknowledge that the ancient Jewish sages adhered to the highest standards of classical rhetorical art, including the use of hyperbole. This sentiment would later be shared by Moses Mendelssohn and his team of translators and commentators in central and eastern Europe.

The Talmud’s observations about exaggeration and hyperbole created a theological dilemma for traditionalists in more recent times. It was one thing for Rabbi Isaac bar Ami and other holy sages in talmudic times to point out the Mishnah’s exaggerations. However, later generations came to ascribe to the ancient rabbinic works a sanctity that was barely indistinguishable from that of the Bible itself; and therefore for them it verged on blasphemy to suggest that the sages of the Mishnah had indulged in flights of fancy. And yet, to defend the Mishnah on this count would contradict an explicit statement in the Talmud!

The Babylonian Ge’onim had adopted a moderate position regarding this question. While defending their beloved Babylonian Talmud, Rabbis Hai and Sherira noted pointedly that the Talmud had carefully limited its list of hyperboles to only three items--thereby providing us with the implied assurance that there were no other cases., Therefore, we may safely assume that all other teachings in the Mishnah are to be accepted as literal truth.

In later times, the question of how to deal with the Mishnah’s alleged exaggerations became an ideological touchstone for distinguishing between the modernist and traditionalist camps. As a general rule, the traditionalists championed the Babylonian Talmud as the definitive interpretation of the Mishnah, whereas the modernists were calling for freedom of inquiry and the right to study the Mishnah on its own terms. However, not all Jewish savants could be neatly pigeonholed into these stereotypical categories.

Rabbi Elijah, the celebrated “Ga’on” of Vilna, comes across as a troublesome anomaly in this matter; though in most respects he was an archetypal religious conservative, he was at the same time a staunch advocate of the objective reading of classical texts. His distinctive approach comes to the fore in his explanation of the Mishnah’s tradition about the Temple curtain. With his characteristic affinity for mathematical explanations, Rabbi Elijah calculated that the curtain’s circumference added up to precisely six hundred hand-breadths, thereby allowing three hundred priests to grasp its edges if each of them placed both his hands side by side. This careful attention to arithmetical precision, even if it did not necessarily describe a practical or historical reality, demonstrated that the Mishnah’s’ incredible sophistication could not be dismissed as any trivial kind of hyperbole.

As clever as his interpretation might strike us, some major commentators, including Rabbi Israel Lifschuts of Danzig, found it problematic, and were impelled to remind their readers that it was the Talmud itself that had raised the charge of “hyperbole.”

In the nineteenth century, the methods of academic text-critical studies were being increasingly applied to rabbinic scholarship, producing novel readings of traditional texts. Some lesser scholars crudely tried to explain away the Mishnah’s difficulties by suggesting that they had originated in textual errors or misreadings of abbreviations. Skirmishes over the differing interpretations of the Mishnah and its exaggerations began to fill the pages of Hebrew periodicals.

One way out of the theological conundrum was to argue that the Talmud was not really referring to exaggeration and hyperbole, but rather to symbolism and allegory. Though the passages in question might not be “true” in the factual sense, they do convey profound spiritual truths. This approach was advocated by the Italian kabbalist Menahem Azariah of Fano (died 1620). In his opinion, each of the Talmud’s instances of hyperbole was carefully crafted to teach an important spiritual lesson.

A certain Jacob David Trachtman (in an article published in Odessa in 1865) proposed that the story of the golden grapevine, while perhaps not literally accurate, does evince a more profound spiritual truth if it is read as an allegory for the state of Judaism. Thus, the vine represents the core values and practices of the Jewish people, whereas the leaves and grape clusters symbolize the numerous extraneous customs and additions that have been allowed to accumulate on the original vine over the generations. Eventually those add-ons, precious though they might have been when they were originally affixed to the vine, became so burdensome that they threatened the vine’s vitality and had to be pruned by the “priests,” the spiritual leaders who were concerned for the tradition’s future sustainability. Clearly, Trachtman’s allegory was directed less at the bygone days of the Second Temple than at the religious malaise that he discerned in his own generation.

Indeed, the scholarly discussions about hyperbole in Jewish religious texts generated a stack of writingsr that reaches all the way to the stars.

—But wait! I must have told myself a million times to avoid such wild exaggerations.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, June 8, 2012, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Etkes, I. The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image. Translated by Yaacov Jeffrey Green. The S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
    • Gafni, Chanan. “Hyperbolic Language in the Mishnah.” Jewish Studies: An Internet Journal 8 (2009): 155-166.
    • Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations. Translated by Gordon Tucker and Leonard Levin. New York: Continuum, 2005.