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The Difference Between R. Saadia and Rashi in Their Approach to Words

When I write about a biblical word, I always assume that the word has one underlying meaning and that our task is to find it. There are many statements in Rashi that show that he takes this approach as well. Of course, sometimes it turns out that a word has a few different meanings. But that does not mean that my initial attempt was improper.

A few years ago I came across an article by Richard Steiner, a professor at Yeshiva University for several decades. He pointed out that, prior to Rashi, a widespread assumption was that a word could easily have many meanings. He published an article: “Saadia vs. Rashi: On the Shift From Meaning-Maximalism to Meaning-Minimalism in Medieval Biblical Lexicology” (JQR 88, 1988). I would like to share some of his insights.

Aside from doing a translation of the entire Chumash, Rav Saadia Gaon (d. 942) wrote a detailed commentary on the Chumash. The commentary may have spanned the entire Chumash, but there are also grounds for the view that it only spanned Genesis 1:1 to 28:9 and Exodus and Leviticus. (Only portions are known to us today.)

Saadia includes semantic analyses in his commentary that go well beyond what is needed to clarify the meaning of the passage in question. Steiner suggests that the reason Saadia wrote so expansively was probably because there were not yet any Biblical dictionaries in his time.

Steiner writes further: “Saadia believed that words have many meanings, while Rashi held that they often have only one basic meaning. Saadia made the multiplication of meanings a cornerstone of his exegesis, while Rashi pursued a reductionist policy. In short, Saadia was a meaning-maximalist, while Rashi was a meaning-minimalist.”

What motivated Saadia to propose multiple meanings for words? Obviously, positing multiple meanings helps resolve contradictions in Tanach.

But it also sometimes helps reconcile the Bible with our intellect. For example, if a certain interpretation of a word would describe God in a way that made no sense, one can then give a different interpretation of the word. Steiner provides the following example. In the case of the root נחם, Saadia gives six different interpretations: regret, threaten, console, forgive, see and consider. The usual meaning in the nif’al is “repent, regret” but Saadia avoids this interpretation when the verb applies to God. For those cases, he uses the meanings: threaten, forgive, see or consider. Steiner explains Saadia’s thinking: “An interpretation according to the usual meaning would imply that God is susceptible to change, but since our intellect tells us that this cannot be true, we are duty-bound to posit the existence of other, less-common meanings.”

Finally, positing multiple meanings helped as a weapon against the Karaites. For example, the date of the Shavuot holiday depends on the interpretation of the phrase “mi-macharat ha-shabbat” at Lev. 23:15 and 23:16. In the rabbinic interpretation, the phrase in the first verse does not mean the day after Shabbat (as the Karaites would have it), but “the day after the day of rest (=Passover).” In the second verse, “mi-macharat ha-shabbat ha-sheviit” means “the day after the seventh week.” In his commentary to Genesis 2:2, Saadia stresses that the Biblical word “shabbat” may refer to holy days other than the Sabbath.

Steiner writes that Saadia’s Torah commentary exhibits “a marked tendency to vary the translation of words to fit the context, resulting in smooth, coherent renderings.” One scholar has counted 47 different translations of “vav” in the commentary, each one attested to at least three times! (Also, in his discussion of the “Tree of Life,” Saadia lists eight meanings for the word חיים!)

Steiner explains further: “Saadia’s approach is adopted from Muslim exegetes, lexicographers, grammarians and philosophers who were heirs to a tradition going back to Aristotle… Saadia was heir to several intellectual traditions in which semantic distinctions which today appear unnecessary were both commonplace and respectable. The principle, later to be enunciated by William of Ockham, that ‘entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity’ did not play much of a role in discussions of meaning in those traditions.”

Steiner amply documents Rashi’s different approach. He writes: “Rashi has a fondness for definitions of the form ‘every occurrence of term X, whether pertaining to +Y or to -Y, has the meaning Z.’ Some of these definitions may have been designed to challenge Menachem’s claim, borrowed from the Muslim lexicographers, that a word can have two diametrically opposed meanings.” Steiner cites the following comments of Rashi: Num. 14:36-37, Deut. 22:9, Ezek. 16:43, and Hab. 1:10. (These comments are regarding the roots דבה, קדש, זמה and קלס.)

In Rashi’s view, there is typically only one meaning that “the interpreter adjusts according to the context.” See his comments at Ex. 14:31.

What motivated Rashi’s approach of meaning-minimalism? Steiner suggests that a major factor was early rabbinic literature. Steiner notes that Tannaitic definitions are usually of the form “ein…ela….” More significantly, Steiner points to a statement in Sifre Numbers: “ein nezirah be-chol makom ela perishah.” Rashi cites this seven times in his commentaries.

I often use the Sefer Ha-Shorashim of the Radak. Radak lived in 12th-century Provence. When one goes through the entry for each root, sometimes he gives an explanation to unite the different meanings. But many times he just shifts gears mid-entry and says וענין אחר (=another meaning is). He then makes no attempt to connect the different meanings. This always bothered me as it seems that he gave up too easily. After reading Steiner’s article, I now understand. For centuries, there was an intellectual approach to words that was satisfied with different meanings. Starting with Rashi, there was a movement toward “meaning-minimalism.” But in being satisfied many times with different meanings of words that looked the same, Radak was following an ancient tradition as well.

Ibn Ezra (d. 1167) lived a few decades after Rashi. He only cites Rashi by name 13 times in his Torah commentary. He traveled a lot and probably did not have constant access to Rashi’s commentaries. But Steiner points out that he too had a “marked tendency to minimize, to the extent possible, his recourse to the exegetical strategy of ‘this word has to be interpreted in two senses.’”

One of the reasons biblical Hebrew has a lot of homonyms (=words that are spelled the same but mean something different) is that the Hebrew alphabet of 22 letters is a reduced one. A widespread view is that the original Semitic alphabet had 29 letters, just like Arabic. Accordingly, several of our Hebrew letters (zayin, chet, ayin, tzade and shin) are letters in which earlier different letters have coalesced. Words may look the same in our reduced alphabet but in an earlier stage, one or more of the letters were different. (For example, in an earlier stage, the first letter in “shemonah” was different than the first letter in “shemen.” There are hundreds of such examples.)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org. He is an attorney, scholar and meaning-minimalist.

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