Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ibn Kaspi and "The Torah Speaks in the Language of Men"

In several previous posts, I referred to the phenomenon of scientifically incorrect information in the Torah, such as the description of the heart and kidneys as the seat of the mind and consciousness (which I plan to summarize in a future post), the account of dew falling from Heaven, the firmament, etc. I proposed to address these with the principle of "The Torah speaks in the language of men," according to the way that it is developed and presented by Rav Kook. But I just realized that Rav Kook was not the first to use the principle of Dibra Torah in this way. Six hundred years earlier, R. Yosef Ibn Kaspi had already presented this approach. R. Yosef was certainly on the extreme end of the medieval rationalist spectrum, but he was mainstream and important enough to merit a lengthy biographical sketch in Artscroll's "The Rishonim."

Here is an extract from Isadore Twersky, “Joseph ibn Kaspi: Portrait of a Medieval Jewish Intellectual,” Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, volume 1 (Harvard University Press, 1979), Isadore Twersky, ed., pp. 239-242:

Kaspi frequently operates with the following exegetical premise: not every Scriptural statement is rue in the absolute sense. A statement may be purposely erroneous, reflecting an erroneous view of the masses. We are not dealing merely with an unsophisticated or unrationalized view, but an intentionally, patently false view espoused by the masses and enshrined in Scripture. The view or statement need not be allegorized, merely recognized for what it is. Where did such a radical hermeneutic originate? How could Kaspi validate such an unusual methodological construct?

The key factor is Kaspi's use of the well-known rabbinic dictum: dibrah Torah bileshon bene adam, "The Torah speaks in the language of men," famous for its medieval use in the realm of anthropomorphism. Actually, in its original context, this statement, a cardinal rule of the school of R. Ishmael, applies to a wide range of grammatical-lexical-interpretive issues but never to anthropomorphism. Maimonides, foreshadowed by R. Judah ibn Koreish, R. Nissim Gaon, R. Abraham ibn Ezra, is responsible for converting this dictum into the basis and rallying point for all anti-anthropomorphic interpretations.

"You know their dictum that refers in inclusive fashion to all the kinds of interpretation connected with this subject, namely their saying: “The Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man." The meaning of this is that everything that all men are capable of understanding and representing to themselves at first thought has been ascribed to Him as necessarily belonging to God, may He be exalted. Hence attributes indicating corporeality have been predicated to Him in order to indicate that He, may He be exalted, exists, inasmuch as the multitude cannot at first conceive of any existence save that of a body alone... In a similar way one has ascribed to Him... everything that in our opinion is a perfection in order to indicate that He is perfect in every manner of perfection and that no deficiency whatever mars Him. Thus none of the things apprehended by the multitude as a deficiency or a privation are predicated of Him."

As Maimonides continues to establish the foundations for his theory of attributes, he parenthetically defines leshon bene adam: "However, in accordance with the language of the sons of man, I mean the imagination of the multitude." In its Maimonidean adaptation, the rabbinic dictum may then be paraphrased as follows: "The Torah speaks in conformity with the imagination (and frequently crude perception) of the multitude" and therefore uses anthropomorphic imagery when speaking of divine attributes.

Now, Kaspi rather boldly takes a third step and more or less systematically extends the parameters of this philological principle to include issues and problems totally unrelated to anthropomorphism. In so doing, he converts it from a pedagogic principle which provides a license for allegorical interpretation to an hermeneutical principle which provides a lesson in what we would call historicism. Many scriptural statements, covered by this plastic rubric, are seen as errors, superstitions, popular conceptions, local mores, folk beliefs, and customs (minhag bene ‘adam), statements which reflect the assumptions or projections or behavioral patterns of the people involved rather than an abstract truth. In its Kaspian adaptation, the rabbinic dictum may then be paraphrased as follows: “The Torah expressed things as they were believed or perceived or practiced by the multitude and not as they were in actuality.”

...Leshon bene adam
is not just a carefully calculated concession to certain shortcomings of the masses, that is, their inability to think abstractly, but a wholesale adoption of mass views and local customs... The Torah did not endorse or validate these views; it merely recorded them and a proper philosophic sensibility will recognize them... Leshon bene adam, which insists that the text be interpreted in accord with all rules of language as well as all realia, including folk beliefs, enables the exegete to sustain a literalist-contextual approach, thus obviating the need for excessive allegory and yet not doing violence to philosophic conviction... [Ibn Kaspi] proposes an alternate exegetic procedure, simple yet far-reaching, which will yield a literal understanding of the text without adding or emending or shuffling. This procedure combines exegetical naturalism — trying to understand everything in the context of ordinary experiences — and historicism — noting cultural realities, differences in manners, habits, geography, expression.

You can download the full article here. Note that Ibn Kaspi's approach was also discussed by Joel B. Wolowelsky, “A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man,” Tradition 42:3 (Fall 2009) pp. 41-48.


  1. It would be more credible if you have it in the orginal Hebrew!

  2. It seems to me that R' Ibn Caspi's program of interpreting leshon hatorah as if it were written by a man of the times makes such a conjecture more than a semblance. If the torah is something that could have been so authored, then it must lose some of its stature. I prefer, instead, to view the torah as being written in the idiomatic language of the people. However, the narratives in Genesis aren't mere folk stories and myths, but represent historical events- even if some reinterpretation is necessary when it comes to Gen. 1-11.

  3. "If the torah is something that could have been so authored, then it must lose some of its stature. I prefer, instead..."

    I'd much prefer, instead, that the stature of Torah be supreme prophecy clothed in allegory. This is how Chochmat HaTorah has it, and this is where Rav Kook comes from. He explains "in the language of man" what is tradionally expressed "allegorically:" The Pshat of Torah is Levush.

  4. Do you eat simanim on Rosh Hashonoh?

  5. see tzphunot nissan 5749 page 69 at hebrewbooks for the sharp assessments of ibn kaspi by 'rationalists' abarbanel and rabbi shlomo fischer (bet yishai).

  6. If the question about simanim on Rosh Hashana was addressed to me, I would answer that I eat the apple with honey and carrots as an occasion to request a good year - not that I believe the act of eating these items to carry any intrinsic significance. By the way, I do not put honey on my piece of challa instead of salt since salt is an halacha rather than minhag. The torah states, "..bring salt on all your korbonot". We have had no altar or korbonot for 2 millenia. Jewish custom has been to treat the dining table as a substitute altar with food being in place of a korban. Hence the use of salt on the most significant part of the meal, the hamotzi.

  7. Y. Aharon:

    The implication of Rema (OH 167:5) and Mishneh Berurah (ibid. 33) is that the idea of שלחן דומה למזבח is satisfied by merely placing salt on the table. MB states that there's a Kabbalistic custom to dip the bread into salt (three times), but doesn't say that al pi nigleh there's a custom to do so.

    For a rationalistic understanding of the Rosh Ha'shanah simanim, see Meiri's חיבור התשובה.

  8. Hassidei HaAdmor MeSlifkaApril 28, 2010 at 3:25 PM

    For those who might want to read more about Ibn Caspi, here's a link to an online encyclopedia ( I can't vouch for all the content):

  9. I read the article that you linked - now where does Twersky cite the original words of ibn Kaspi that would suggest that ibn Kaspi had the view that you, or Twersky, ascribed to him. (Footnote 31, which is the only direct quote from ibn Kaspi on dibrah Torah bil'shon b'nei adam, deals with the Torah's narratives presenting the story from the viewpoint of the participant in the story and not necessarily from the objective viewpoint). So, at this point, without ibn Kaspi's words to back you up, the only thing you can say is that your version of dibrah Torah... is in accordance with Twersky's *interpretation* of ibn Kaspi - not that it is clearly ibn Kaspi's view itself. Unless you can back it up with a direct quote from ibn Kaspi himself. Here's a good rule of thumb: Never quote secondary sources as a proof when primary sources are available.

  10. It seems that trying to locate a physical place for mind and consciousness is irrelevant as if one did locate it could be extracted?

  11. "In several previous posts, I referred to the phenomenon of scientifically incorrect information in the Torah, ... the account of dew falling from Heaven, the firmament, etc. "

    I noticed that last week, the parsha mentioned dew descending(resh-dalet). In the same parsha, it said that God came down (resh-daled) in a cloud. How do I know that the early readers understood this to mean that the dew, and God, moved from a higher altitude to a lower altitude? I mean, when a cop tells the pickpocketer he just nabbed, "I'm taking you down to the station," I don't take the word "down" to mean that the police station is at a lower altitude.

    Concerning the "firmament," I had learned that the word rakia meant "expanse." The fact that it can also imply something solid does not mean that the early readers of this verse understood it to mean something solid.

    I hope your planned essay on this topic take these thoughts into consideration.


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