Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musing Before Shabbat
Re'eh 5766

Lo Toseif V'lo Tigra

A traditional understanding of the mitzvot found in the Torah (both written and oral) rest squarely on this all important verse which begins chapter 13 of Sefer D'varim, the Book of Deuteronomy:

"Et kol hadavar asher anokhi m'tzaveh etkhem oto tishmeru la'asot, lo-toseif alaiv v'lo tigra mimenu"

"Every thing which I have commanded y'all it (him) to take care to do, do not add to him (it), and do not subtract from him/us (it)."

Bear with me on this translation style. For one thing, it's that gender issue with Hebrew. "Etkhem" is direct-object second person plural masculine. English has no equivalent. You is you, whether singular or plural, masculine or feminine, unlike the Hebrew. I've become convinced that "y'all" might just be the best way to translate it.

Also, I've gone to great pains to indicate the syntax and structure of the verse in as simple and direct a word-for-word manner as I can, albeit scholars have long agreed upon colloquialisms that help clean up Hebrew's sometimes odd way of phrasing things. JPS translates it as "Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it." The ever-poetic Everett Fox translates it as: "Everything that I command you, *that* you are to take care to observe, you are not to add to it, you are not to diminish from it!" (Fox italicizes the "that" for emphasis-I used the asterisks so that the emphasis will show even on systems using plain ASCII text displays.)

We'll get to some of the other translation oddities in a second. Basically, the "essential understanding" (for you uBD fans) of the verse is do what G-d has commanded exactly as G"d commanded.

Seems a simple enough concept. For a traditional Jew, one who fully accepts the rabbinic and subsequent codification of the written and oral law (as found in Mishna, Talmud, Rabbinic commentaries and further expanded into Halacha as found in the Shulchan Aruch et al) as being "exactly what G"d commanded" it can (on the one hand) be quite simple. (On the other hand, there's nothing simple at all about traditional Judaism. It may seem that way to us liberal Jews from the outside. We can sometimes look down upon the traditionally observant as "simple folk who live best when simply told what to do all the time" and compare it to "being in the armed forces." Truth be told, neither of those is all that simple. Most (but not all) of us liberal Jews don't have to struggle with each and every mitzvot - we just pick and choose. I don't believe that having to think about all the mitzvot all the time makes for a simple life, do you? I've heard it argued that being a liberal Jew is actually harder, and I can see how that might be so, if we all truly struggled each and every moment to understand what it is that G"d really wants of us. So, for the moment, let's just say that neither traditional nor liberal Jews have chosen the simple path. But I digress.)

Notice, by the way, how I translate et-kol-hadavar as "every thing" and not "everything." There's a point to that. We tend to think of "everything" as a plural, all lumped together. "Every thing" allows a certain distinctness to each of the components. "Hadavar" is singular. And elsewhere in the Torah we do find the Hebrew expression "et kol ha-d'varim." Every "things" or "all of the things." Seems to me there's a reason why here it says "et kol ha-davar" and not "et kol ha-d'varim." It is literally saying "all the-thing" and not "all the-things." That point could be for distinctiveness, as in "each and every little thing" or "every jot and tittle" to remind us that the whole is made of up distinct individual parts, each one different from the other. Maybe so. Maybe not.

The mystery is notched up when we examine the end of the verse. That last word, "mimenu" can be both 3rd person masculine singular (from him/it) but it can also be 1st person plural (from us/those). If one wanted to really play around with the translation, you could say:

"Every (individual) thing that I have commanded y'all to take care to do - do not add to this, and do not subtract from these."

More interesting:

"Every (individual) thing that I have commanded y'all to take care to do - do not add to this, and do not subtract from those."

Or even more interesting:

"Every (individual) thing that I have commanded y'all to take care to do - do not add to this, and do not subtract from us." (Reading mimenu as 1st person plural)

(For those who need a little refresher - these/those are the plural forms of this/that. In general, "this" refers to a specific thing that is close by or that one is experiencing. That generally refers to some thing more distant or less immediate, or a thing previously identified or experienced.)

That last one could be a way of saying that the act of adding (unnecessarily) to a mitzvah might diminish us. wow. Shades of my two favorite krispy critters, Nadav and Avihu. Never thought I'd be able to work them into this musing.)

Oy, may head is spinning with the possibilities of interpretation. What is the intended message here? Somehow, I'm now pretty sure it isn't as simple as "do things exactly as G-d commanded." Despite the vagaries of biblical Hebrew, the Torah could have found a more definitive way to say what it says in Deut. 13:1. It could say "Every individual thing that I have commanded y'all to take care to do, do not add anything to any commandment, or diminish any commandment." G"d could have found a more definitive way to make the point. G"d/Torah didn't. Saying "all thing I commanded y'all to take care to do, do not add to it, and do not subtract from it" (or possibly "from us") - which is a pretty literal translation if we disregard some of what we believe is normal syntax for biblical Hebrew - is not being explicit, no matter how you slice it. And if one (or perhaps The One) want to be explicit yet is going to use colloquialisms, one (The One?) had better make sure their meaning will be clear to future generations.

Do I have your head spinning yet? Good. Now allow the Shabbat Bride to bring you to a place out of time where you can relax. Maybe clarity will come. Or maybe you'll just relax and forget all about it. Either way, the text will be right there in the Torah next time you encounter it, perhaps with fresh, new insight, or perhaps as befuddled as ever. whether enlightenment or befuddlement, may you find it pleasing.

Shabbat Shalom,

2006 by Adrian A. Durlester


Some other musings on the same parasha:

Re'eh 5765--Revised 5759-Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5761--Our Own Gifts
Re'eh 5760/5763--B'lo l'sav'a
Re'eh 5759--Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5757/5758--How To Tell Prophet From Profit

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