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Meditations on Torat Emet: A Symposium
Subjective Dimensions of Truth
Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber
The rabbis have taught us that the Torah has seventy facets, and numerous sparks of understanding are emitted from it. Presumably, this means that a single Torah text can be legitimately understood in a variety of different fashions, at a multiplicity of levels, all of which have a degree of truth. So each person views the same scene from different angles and describes them with full honesty and accuracy. Yet each description differs.
In the human dimension, truth is not absolute but has an element of subjectivity and relativity. That is the essential nature of human truth. Hence, multiple insights and comprehension of a single canonic text may all have legitimacy. Thus R. Abba in the name of Samuel could state (B. Eruvin 13b and B. Gittin 6b):
שלש שנים נחלקו בית שמאי ובית הלל, הללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו והללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו. יצאה בת קול ואמרה: אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן, והלכה כבית הלל.
|For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel, each claiming “the halachah is as we say.” Then a heavenly voice declared, “These and these are the words of the living God, but the halachah follows the rulings of Beit Hillel.|
And the Ritba – R. Yom Tov Alshvili (13-14 cent.) to Eruvin (ibid., ed. M. Goldstein Jerusalem 1974, p.107), writes as follows: 
שאלו רבני צרפת ז”ל היאך אפשר שיהו שניהם דברי אלהים חיים וזה אוסר וזה מתיר,
|They asked the Rabbis of France, of blessed memory: How is it possible that both [opinions] be the words of the Living God, when the one forbids and the other permits?|
ותירצו כי כשעלה משה למרום לקבל תורה הראו לו על כל דבר ודבר מ”ט פנים לאיסור ומ”ט פנים להיתר, ושאל להקב”ה על זה, ואמר שיהא זה מסור לחכמי ישראל שבכל דור ודור ויהיה הכרעה כמותם,
|And they replied: When Moses went up to the heavens to receive the Torah, [the angels] showed him for every single detail 49 facets to forbid and 49 facets to permit. And he questioned the Holy One blessed be He concerning this. And He said that it would be given to the Sages of Israel in each generation [to make a determination], and the determination would be according to their ruling.|
ונכון הוא לפי הדרש ובדרך האמת יש טעם וסוד בדבר.
|And this is correct according to the homily, but in truth there is a secret [explanation], (i.e. an esoteric one).|
Compare this to Midrash Tehillim 12:7, ed. Buber, pp.107-108:
אמר ר’ ינאי לא ניתנה דברי תורה חתיכין, אלא על כל דבור שהיה אומר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה היה אומר מ”ט פנים טהור, ומ”ט פנים טמא.
|Said R. Yannai: The Torah was not given “cut and dried” (hatichin), but for each word that God gave to Moses He gave 49 facets for [declaring] purity and 49 for impurity.|
אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם עד מתי נעמוד על בירורו של דבר, אמר ליה אחרי רבים להטות, רבו המטמאין טמא, רבו המטהרין טהור,
|Said Moses before Him, “Master of the Universe, how then will we be able to clarify the issues?” He replied to him, “We follow the majority; if the majority declare impurity, it is impure, if they declare purity, it is pure.”|
That having been said, not all descriptions are concrete, and not all interpretations valid. The challenge is to distinguish between our truths and falsehoods.
 Hiddushei ha-Ritba al Massechet Eruvin (ed. M. Goldstein; Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1974),117-118. This is found in Tosafot Rabbenu Peretz to Eruvin (ed. S. Wiliman; Bnei Brak 1980), p.16 (=ed. Dickman, Jerusalem 1991, p.48). And R. Peretz b. Eliyah of Corbeil (died 1298) notes that this interpretation is found in the Tosafot of his Teacher, R. Yehiel of Paris, who had located it in an unnamed midrash, probably Midrash Tehillim cited below. See Ephraim Kanarfogel, The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Authors of Mediaeval Ashkenaz (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013), 26-27.
 See Moshe Halbertal’s analysis in People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 63-72, on what he calls “The Constitutive View.”
 The number 49 derives from the Song of Songs 2:4, “He brought me to the banquet hall and marked me with His Love” – “and marked” – ve-diglo – has the numerical value of 49, (cf. Y. Sanhedrin 4:2). The number, (see below) is derived from the first part of the same verse, “He brought me to the banqueting house” – literally “the house of Wine”, where wine – yayin –has the numerical value of 70. See Konarfogel, Intellectual History, p. 30 note 104, who refers us to R. Avigdor Katz’s commentary to the Song of Songs (ed. S.A. Wertheimer; Jerusalem 1981), 17, interpreting this half of the verse to mean that the Almighty brought the Children of Israel to receive the Torah at Sinai, which can be interpreted in seventy facets. R. Avigdor also adds that seventy is the gematria (numerical value) of the word sod, as in the verse in Psalms 25:14, “The secret (Sod) of the Lord is with them that fear Him. [and He will show them His covenant]”. See further Ephraim Kanarfogel, “Torah study and truth in Mediaeval Rabbinic Literature”, apud Study and Knowledge in Jewish Thought (ed. Howard Kreisel; Beer Sheva: Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 2006), 109-113.
 This text is derived from Palestinian Talmud Sanhedrin 4:2, 22a. Cf. b. Eruvin 6b. See further, R. Hayyim Vital, (1542-1620), Shaar ha-Kavanot: Inyanei Tefilin, Derush 6, 11a (ed. Yeshivat-ha-Mekubalim, Jerusalem) n.d. but c. 2005, vol.1, p.199. Cf. b. Shabbat 88b, and b. Sanhedrin 34a, on Jeremiah 23:29, “It is not Thy word like fire? Saith the Lord;] and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces.” On which De-Bei R. Yishmael comments: “Just as the hammer is devided into so many sparks, so each word that was entitled from the mouth of the Holy One blessed be He was divided into seventy tongues.” (See Rashi and Tosafot ad loc.) B. Shabbat has “tongues” – leshonot, while B. Sanhedrin has taamim – explanations, reasons. Cf. Sefer Hassidim, ed. R. Margaliot, Jerusalem 1957, no.985, p.523, “Why was the Torah formulated in brevity and without detail (u-be-stam)? … Because one verse can be explained in many ways (yotzei le-kamah taamim), and if it were expressed explicitly, we would not know [the] other explanations.” See further Sefer Hassidim, ed. S. Gutman, Elad Horovitz, Leipzig 1917, pp.47-48: “God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this…” (Psalms 62:11), and it says, “Is not My word like as fire? Saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” I.e., one divine statement can mean more than one thing. Cf. Mechilta-Be-Shalah, Shirah sect.8, ed. I.A. Horowitz & I.A. Robin, 2nd edition, Jerusalem 1960, p.143. And see the interesting passage in Zohar Yitro, vol.1, 83b, (p.166): that when the word came forth it appeared to be one; but when it was carved into its places, that word appeared in seventy forms (anpin) or variations that came forth from it, and with fifty-less-one crowns on each side… as it is said, “… – then the verse from Jeremiah ibid.
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