A Random Walk With Rashi: Ain't Grammar Great?

Our Rashi study group was chock full of language lessons last week – reminding us of old grammatical tools and definitions, and bringing up new ones we’ve never seen before (and likely will never see again).
We learned that there is even a term – hapox legonimen – that is used to describe a word that occurs only once within a given context – whether that be within an entire language, in the works of an author, or in a single text. Believe it or not, there yet another term – a nonce – for a word that occurs but once, and is not likely to occur again. Perhaps kind of like the term “I’ll pass” in my vocabulary, when it comes to dessert.
Long ago, both Hillel and Rabbi Ishmael (among others no doubt, both before and since) fashioned various principles that they suggested would govern most if not all understanding of Torah – based largely upon the relationship between words and phrases, in their different contexts. See, for instance, the 13 hermeneutical principles known as the Baraita of R. Ishmael.
The second rule of both Hillel and Rabbi Ishmael,for instance, is known as “gezerah shavah” (“similar laws, similar verdicts”), a situation in which the meaning of a word or phrase is derived by analogy, between two or more different uses of the word, taking the meaning in one occurrence to suggest the meaning in another.
It is from this rule that we learn that the number of people required for a minyan is ten. How, you might ask?
In the game of Biblical Concentration, the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 4:4) provides the requisite two parts of the puzzle, both including the word “congregation” – with the connection between them by means of a gezerah shavah. In Leviticus 19:2 we read “[s]peak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy”. This sets the stage nicely for asking ourselves just how many people are needed for this holy congregation? We find the answer in Numbers 14:27, where we read “[h]ow long shall I bear with this evil congregation which murmur against me?” Since we happen to know that the term “congregation” in the latter verse refers to the ten spies, we can conclude that the number required for a holy congregation, or in turn minyan, is ten as well.
As it turns out, much of what we study from week to week is based upon principles such as these. Unfortunately, in our enlightened, Twitter based, digital new age, even these principles can tend to fall somewhat short. To fill what seems to be an ever-increasing gap between Rabbi Ishmael and Twitter, I have developed my very own Hermeneutical Principles. What follows are Fishel ben Eliezer’s (i.e., my) 12 Hermeneutical Principles for understanding a word or phrase in Torah:

  1. ask a Rabbi
  2. ask Hermen
  3. hope there are footnotes
  4. Google works good at this point
  5. ask your sister, not that she knows, but she thinks she does
  6. sometimes, though hard to believe, realize that a cigar may indeed be just a cigar, and move on
  7. consider the general and particular, in Mishnaic Hebrew based upon Bereishit Rabbah, remembering that the author takes precedence over Keirkegaard
  8. kip it, nobody will know
  9. chalk it up to midrash (though lower case “m”)
  10. look it up on a Christian site, subtract out new testament references, gender neutralize
  11. look it up on a Chabad site, tone down messianic references, recombine and neutralize genders
  12. stop at 11 principles when that is all you really have

Lets put these principles to the test, shall we? Torah-ho! Onward, to our verse.

Genesis 21:16
She went and sat herself at a distance, some bowshots [away], for she said, “Let me not see the death of the child.” And she sat at a distance, lifted her voice, and wept.
Rashi provides an odd assortment of commentary, including:
AT A DISTANCE – this means from far off.
SOME BOWSHOTS AWAY – about two bowshots.
Since she saw that he was near death, she put herself at a greater distance.

Rashi’s main concern is the same as ours, namely, wondering why describe distance in terms of a “bowshot” at all, and in turn, why the plural? He tells us, quite simply, that this refers to two bowshots, presumably each being a fairly well known measure of distance in its time (and his). We wonder though, were they simply linear, or perhaps at an angle with each other, taking a precipitous hook, akin to Bubba Watson’s shot onto the green in his recent Master’s playoff win.
Though not shown above, the remainder of a very lengthy Rashi commentary essentially provides a Hebrew lesson regarding the word “bowshot”, basically concluding that in this case at least, a cigar is indeed a cigar (Phil’s rule 6). Nearly 1000 years ago Rashi served several roles, as it turns out, including not only vintner and Torah commentator, but also a scholar of Hebrew. He took this opportunity to teach the reader the manner in which various occurrences of the word are found elsewhere, including in the Mishnah, with each being in synch with this clear meaning. This is particularly revealing when we realize that Mishnah did not appear on the scene until well after the Torah. How else could the use of Hebrew words in the Mishnah be relevant to understanding Torah, except as a lesson in Hebrew itself?
Without fully resolving any of these questions, we instead went somewhere else entirely with the word – noticing that the word for bowshot (keshet) is the same word that is used earlier in Genesis (9:12 to be precise) to describe the rainbow that G-d brought forth, following the flood, as a sign of his covenant with Noah. Both having the same general shape of an arc, but that time, close on the heels of what was a massive amount of water. This time, by contrast, the image of a bow appears while the two are parched and waterless in the desert. A bit of irony perhaps, if there is any connection at all.
Next, we also notice that the term ‘at a distance twice’ is used twice in our verse. This time, it is not Rashi himself, but rather a footnote that suggests that this means Hagar moved not once, but twice. Perhaps her first move took her out of eyesight from Ishmael, and the second put her further away, so that he could not hear her wailing over the situation.
Finally, we pause to consider the term ‘lifted her voice, and wept’ – was this two separate acts, or perhaps a hendiadys, the use of two words to describe or emphasize the very same act (as in the classic, ‘the sound and the fury’)?
Now you’re catching on.
My own theory is that it describes two different acts, where wept means wept, but ‘lifted her voice’ means something else entirely, and perhaps something quite unexpected. In my theory, Hagar becomes the first Edgar Bergen to Ishmael’s Charley McCarthy. (Curious how many more readers may need to look up these two names, as compared to hapox legonimen). Let us peek ahead one verse and see why.

Genesis 21:17
Gd heard the voice of the youth, and an angel of Gd called to Hagar from the heavens and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for Gd has heeded the cry of the youth as he is, there.
THE VOICE OF THE YOUTH From here we see that the prayer of the sick person is more effective than the prayers of others on his behalf, and it is answered first, before the prayers of the others.

Did you catch that? It is Hagar that cries out in verse 16, yet in the very next breath (verse 17), G-d responds to the cry of Ishmael, not Hagar. According to Rashi, this is because the sick person somehow gets to “budge” into the line of those waiting for G-d’s attention. We have certainly seen situations in which G-d hears or responds to people in a particular order, just as there seem to be hierarchies proposed with regard to who can hear what from G-d (most notably by Maimonides, who distinguished between various levels of prophecies, and prophets).
Still, we were not told anything about Ishmael’s condition. Was he even awake, or coherent at this moment? And if so, did he cry out as well? Various possibilities seem to exist. Perhaps Hagar and Ishmael were both wailing, yet G-d heard and responded to Ishmael first. Or maybe only Hagar was wailing, though G-d mistook that for Ishmael (or could she be the first ventriloquist in Torah, “lifting” her voice so as to come from the bush?). Or perhaps, only Ishmael was wailing, with Hagar moving further from the scene and out of sight, to the point where one hearing would be confused or misled.
Before getting into the much longer Rashi on this verse (which will have to wait until our next study group), our eyes gravitated to the very end of this, where we learn that G-d has heeded the cry of the youth, ending with the curious phrase, “as he is, there”.
Though we were not able to dive fully into Rashi for this verse, we did peek ahead enough to notice that Rashi picks up on this very verse, and spends the better part of a page discussing it.
So join us next week, as we are, there. Or here, as the case may be. I’m confused. Where’s Hermen?
(Photo: Cindy47452)