Let My People Know

"The timeless content and meaning of scriptural sources"


"In order to comprehend what a particular sage, kabbalist, or prophet meant, it is necessary to be familiar with the historic context within which he wrote and lived, with his personality, point of view, and even the manners and customs implicit in the text. 

Only then will it be possible to extract its more universal, human message. 

Although the words were originally intended for the writer's contemporaries, all generations of Jewish sages expressed themselves by means of imagery conceptualization of abstractions. 

If we approach the task in the proper way, we, too, shall be able to find the general meaning. 

Once we grasp what they were saying for their own time, we shall be able to understand what they are still telling us today.

The search to discover the timeless content and meaning of scriptural sources should therefore be conducted in the same way that the halachah is approached. 

First, a careful inquiry must be made to establish the exact meaning of the passage as it is expressed in the original text, and then the general meaning must be extracted. 

Let us take as an example of the halachic approach the treatment of the biblical precept, 'And if an ox gores a man . . .' 

The idea here is straightforward, and the meaning is clear. 

A simple, concrete situation is described. 

Nevertheless, it is necessary to ask whether the animal involved is necessarily only an ox. 

Could it not also be a donkey, a dog, or a bird? 

And is 'to gore' only one, specific type of injury, or could it also be applied to biting or kicking? 

After such questions are posed, and the text is carefully analyzed, both intrinsically and by comparison with parallel passages, all according to the techniques of traditional hermeneutics, halachic conclusions are drawn, and it is seen that this particular case of an ox goring a man can be expressed in the abstract, in terms of 'animals' that attack and 'injure' people."

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
 From "The Imagery Concept in Jewish Thought" in The Strife of the Spirit, p. 68 by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz