Talmud

An Early Jewish Commentary from the Babylonian Talmud

One of the earliest references to Psalm 62.11-12 offering a commentary on the verse appears in Sanhedrin tractate 34 of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud preserves the Jewish oral tradition of interpreting the Torah, which is the law. In Sanhedrin tractate 34, the writer comments on Psalm 62.12 in the following teaching:

Come and hear! Two judges' clerks stand before them [the judges], one on the right and one on the left, and indite the arguments of those who would acquit, and those who would convict. Now, as for the arguments for conviction. It is well [that they be recorded], for on the following day another argument may be discovered, which necessitates postponement of judgment over night.  But why [record] the grounds of the defenders; surely so that should they discover different arguments for conviction, they may not be heeded?— No, it is lest two judges draw a single argument from two Scriptural verses, as R. Assi asked R. Johanan: What if two [judges] derive the same argument from two verses? — He answered: They are only counted as one. Whence do we know this? — Abaye answered: For Scripture saith, God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this, that strength belongeth unto God. One Biblical verse may convey several teachings, but a single teaching cannot be deduced from different Scriptural verses. In R. Ishmael's School it was taught: And like in hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces: i.e., just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so also may one Biblical verse convey many teachings. (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin)

A date for this particular reference may be difficult to pinpoint precisely; the Babylonian Talmud was composed over a long period of time, possibly between the third and fifth centuries B.C. (Bacher, Talmud) The Sanhedrin tractate is part of a larger collection of discourses, the Seder Nezikin, which mostly deals with questions of civil and criminal law. Nezikin means “damages” (Introduction to Seder Nezikin). The purpose of this section of the Talmud, or teaching about the law, is to consider areas specifically related to litigation. The context of the reference to Psalm 62 is not, therefore, primarily a theological commentary as much as a legal commentary. In the Jewish tradition, however, the law was given by God, so theology and jurisprudence are not separate domains. In the comment that a speaker called Abaye is recorded as having made, this teacher cites Psalm 62.12 not so much to analyze that verse but to use it as a basis or supporting argument for a principle of deriving and applying laws. It is not a literary analysis and is not concerned with poetic structure or the internal context of the verse. Instead the verse serves as a supporting textual basis from which to consider a particular judicial practice. The comment reveals an interpretive stance though. The speaker concludes that “One Biblical verse may convey several teachings, but a single teaching cannot be deduced from different Scriptural verses” (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin). This viewpoint interprets the one from the numerical sequence as representing specifically the number one, but two is considered to mean “many.” This interpretation is further elaborated by a reference to Jeremiah 23.29, which reads, “Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Rather than one rock breaking in two, the image from Jerimiah is of a single rock being shattered into numerous pieces. To interpret Psalm 62.12 as synonymous with the idea of Jerimiah 23.29, as the writer implies from this intertextual reference, is to understand the two of the numerical formula in Psalm 62 as an indefinite number meaning “many.”

In addition to the influence of this early commentary on interpreting the numerical formula אחד שׁתיםas “one…many,” the context of the interpretation also creates a strong association between דבר and the law, which is central to Jewish teaching. This association identifies the one thing God spoke as the source of many derived legal principles. Later commentaries on Psalm 62, particularly those written by Jewish scholars, extrapolate this association by asserting that the substance of the one thing God spoke was the Torah. A corollary to this point of view is the interpretation that the hearing of the law came through Moses. This interpretation has a long history, going back to the Targum, which paraphrases part of the numerical formula in Psalm 62:11 as “twice have I heard from the mouth of Moses, the great teacher” (McCullough, Taylor and Poteat 323). The Targum is the Aramaic translation of the Bible and was read in conjunction with the Torah during the liturgy of the ancient synagogue as early as the Second Temple period (Bacher, Targum). “As an interpretation of the Hebrew text of the Bible the Targum had its place both in the synagogal liturgy and in Biblical instruction, while the reading of the Bible text combined with the Targum in the presence of the congregation assembled for public worship was an ancient institution” (Bacher, Targum). The practice of reading the Hebrew text, followed by a translation, is mentioned even in the book of Nehemiah: “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh 8.8). The Targum, since it was read along with the text, serves somewhat as a commentary on the text; it is not a word-for-word translation. As A. F. Kirkpatrick explains in his preface to The Book of Psalms, “The Targum of the Psalter often assumes the character of a paraphrastic interpretation….It is interesting as preserving interpretations current in the ancient Jewish Church” (lxx). In giving the sense of Psalm 62:11-12, then, the earliest forms of Jewish commentary on the text reiterate the interpretation that the one thing God spoke was the law, and the people heard this law twice through Moses’ recitation.
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