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I’ve Got a Secret

No one who learns Pshuto shel Mikra will ever approach Chumash the same way again



As we begin the new Torah reading cycle, the time has come to reveal a secret I’ve been carrying with me for over half a year.

That secret is the late Rabbi Yehudah Copperman’s Pshuto shel Mikra (Mosaica Press), translated into English by Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein. Since I started learning the two-volume work, my favorite time of the week has become that spent early Shabbos morning learning Pshuto shel Mikra.

On almost every parshah, there are multiple essays, and each one has opened my eyes to a new aspect of parashanut about which I was previously unaware.

Rabbi Copperman’s central question in each of those essays is not what is pshuto shel mikra, but rather: When the pshuto shel mikra differs from the halachic drashos of Chazal, what does the pshuto shel mikra add? For example, Chazal inform us that “an eye for an eye” actually takes the form of monetary compensation. But if so, the question remains: Why did the Torah write the requirement of compensation in such a way as to imply that one who has destroyed another’s eye should lose his own? What was it teaching us?

One particularly striking example of the question — What is the function of pshuto shel mikra? — occurs in Acharei Mos. The parshah begins with the order of the service of the Kohein Gadol on Yom Kippur. But one verse — Vayikra 16:23 — is out of order. As Rashi explains, that verse should really appear after verses 16:24-28.

Chazal know this because they had a tradition that the Kohein Gadol immersed in the mikveh five times on Yom Kippur, in conjunction with his changing from the linen garments he wore in the Holy of Holies to the regular garments of the Kohein Gadol he wore during all other parts of the Divine service, or vice versa. But if the verse in question were in order, there would only be three tevilos.

Fine. But again, why did the Torah not simply describe the service of the Kohein Gadol in the correct order? The Vilna Gaon offers an astounding resolution: There was a time when the order recorded in the Torah was correct. In Aharon HaKohein’s lifetime, he was not limited to entering the Kodesh Hakodoshim once a year on Yom Kippur. And when he did so other than on Yom Kippur, he followed the order recorded in the Torah.

That explains why opening of the parshah does not make explicit reference to Yom Kippur. Rather, it simply says, “With this shall Aharon come into the Sanctuary” (16:3). Only after the death of Aharon, according to the Vilna Gaon (and after the Mishkan was no longer operative, according to Meshech Chochmah), was the Kohein Gadol’s entry to the Kodesh Hakodoshim restricted to once a year on Yom Kippur.

RABBI COPPERMAN possessed a comprehensive knowledge of parashanut from the Rishonim to the modern commentators, among whom the Vilna Gaon, Meshech Chochmah, and Ha’amek Davar were particular favorites. He authored a monumental super-commentary on Meshech Chochmah.

But his singular contribution was his systematic approach to that vast corpus of commentary. Rabbi Bernstein, a longtime chavrusa, describes how every time he distilled an interpretive principle from one of the commentators, he would open up a file into which further illustrations of the principle would be added as they were discovered.

Many of those principles are ones that light up the landscape after they have been clarified, and leave one wondering (as Rabbi Bernstein notes in his introduction), “How could I have learned Chumash [for so many years] and not have known that?”

For instance, every student of Chumash knows that the Torah has two ways of expressing the past tense — the simple past tense and a future tense preceded by the conversive vav. Many assume the two are equivalent. But they are not. Rather they reflect two different past tenses, each with its distinct usage. The failure to attend to those differences can have an immense impact on the understanding of a verse, in particular on the chronological relationship of two events.

Over the course of his lifetime immersion in pshuto shel mikra, Rabbi Copperman identified no fewer than eleven different categories of ways in which the pshat adds to the halachic interpretations of Chazal.

“The pshat may not always teach us the halachah,” he would say, “but it always teaches us Torah.”

Similarly, he addresses multiple times in Pshuto shel Mikra the differences between related but not identical forms of usage and syntax in the Torah — e.g., between the use of the future tense and the imperative; between direct and indirect quotations — as well as larger structural issues, such as why a particular mitzvah is discussed in part in two different sections of the Torah rather than in one place.

Above all, Rabbi Copperman conveys his constant delight in the way the Torah conveys multiple levels of meaning so succinctly. Armed with his interpretive principles, his students and readers are guaranteed to learn Chumash with even greater excitement and attentiveness. I’m confident that no one who learns Pshuto shel Mikra will ever approach Chumash the same way again.


Tishrei Thoughts for the Year to Come

The Vilna Gaon was makpid to make Havdalah at the conclusion of Pesach on beer (i.e., chometz) procured from a non-Jew, to emphasize the necessity of carrying the lessons of Pesach forward into our normal day-to-day activities. In that spirit, I’d like to share two thoughts from the recently concluded holiday period that I hope to carry with me into the year ahead. Both have to do with the privilege of living in a community like ours.

From Elul through the Yamim Noraim, the focus of our efforts is on gaining an awareness of the tzelem Elokim within each of us, and then connecting that tzelem Elokim back to its Divine source. I realized that it is easy for me to relate to this idea precisely because I am surrounded all the time by Jews whose tzelem Elokim is immediately evident in their efforts to live G-dly lives.

On Simchas Torah, I noticed an older rav dancing enthusiastically. I do not know him well, and we rarely do more than exchange smiles and greetings. But then I remembered that more than a decade ago, he had learned from his son of an avreich in his son’s kollel who had not yet been blessed with children after many years of marriage. The father immediately organized a late-night minyan to go to the kever of the Chazon Ish to daven for the childless avreich — someone he did not even know. That concern for a fellow Jew is one obvious manifestation of a tzelem Elokim. But I could identify that tzelem in almost every person I know.

The major Chol Hamoed “entertainment” in my neighborhood is the Torah shiurim given in the various batei medrash by some of Jerusalem’s leading roshei yeshivah and talmidei chachamim on a daily basis. The culmination — at least for me — are the shiurim in halachah and aggadeta given by Rav Ariev Ozer, Rosh Yeshivas ITRI. This year’s crowd for Rav Ozer’s struck me as younger than usual, with hundreds of yeshivah bochurim and young avreichim in attendance (though grandfathers and great-grandfathers were still liberally sprinkled around the beis medrash as well). The 16-year-old yeshivah ketanah student sitting next to me remained glued to his seat from 6:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., filling up almost an entire pad of paper with his notes.

Again, I was struck with the privilege of being part of a community in which the greatest imaginable excitement is hearing Torah shiurim of such depth and elevation.

Only one note of sadness crept into the realization — likely triggered by the fact that I had just concluded a long piece on American Jewish continuity for a new publication aimed at Jewish leaders. While listening to Rav Ozer’s shiur, it suddenly occurred to me that over 90 percent of the Jews in the world would be incapable of appreciating anything of the presentation. They can say the words “Torah learning.” But the term “Torah learning” has no antecedent for them. Of what that learning actually consists, and of the dedication required to achieve any proficiency, much less mastery, they have no way of understanding. —

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 880. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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