How does this happen? Much of the latter portion of Sotah is devoted to a protracted discussion of which prayers and official legal formula must be recited in Hebrew, and which may be recited in the vernacular. Mishnah 8:2 on Sotah 43a begins by citing Deuteronomy 20:5 which describes the procedure whereby “officials” address battle-ready troops in a citizen army on the eve of war to stipulate who is exempt from fighting: And the officers shall speak to the people saying, “What man is there who has built a new house and not yet dedicated it? Let him go back to his home [lest he die in battle and another dedicate it]…” The verse in Deuteronomy continues by exempting one who has planted a vineyard but not yet harvested its fruits, and one who has betrothed a woman but not yet married her. Mishnah Sotah 8:2 explicates each: What constitutes a new house? What constitutes a vineyard? Precisely which marriages exempt a man from battle? Thus far, concrete and pragmatic.
By and large, Gemara addresses the question of who should be exempt from battle and on what basis, and how to balance the need for an effective army with exemptions for those engaged in building society (a competing priority during a time of war) as well as those who, if they stay, will demoralize the fighters. Amidst this discussion comes a curious diversion.
On Sotah 44a, the Sages consider the phrases asher banah (“who has built”), asher natah (“who has planted”), and asher eiras (“who has betrothed”), which we mentioned above. They draw a parallel to Proverbs 24:27 and use it as a launching pad for an interpretation that takes us far from the realm of the battlefield:
Our Rabbis taught: [The order of the phrases is] “who has built,” “who has planted,” “who has betrothed.” Torah has thus taught a rule of conduct: that a man should build a house, plant a vineyard, and then marry a wife. Similarly Solomon declared in his wisdom, Put your external affairs in order, make ready what you have in the field, and afterwards build your house (Proverbs 24:27: “put your external affairs in order,” that is a dwelling place; “make ready what you have in the field,” that is a vineyard; “and afterwards build your house,” that is a wife. Another interpretation: “put your external affairs in order,” that is Scripture; “make ready what you have in the field,” that is Mishnah; “and afterwards build your house,” that is Gemara. Another explanation: “put your external affairs in order,” that is Scripture and Mishnah; “make ready what you have in the field,” that is Gemara; “and afterwards build your house,” that is good deeds. R. Eliezer, son of R. Yosi the Galilean says: “put your external affairs in order,” that is Mishnah and Gemara; “make ready what you have in the field,” that is good deeds; “and afterwards build your house,” that is expound [upon Torah] and receive a reward. (Sotah 44a)At this point, a table may prove helpful to lay out the Proverbs verbs laid parallel to Deuteronomy 20:5, and the four interpretations offered in the Gemara.
The first interpretation (C1) of Proverbs 24:27 supports Deuteronomy 20:5 and establishes that this is not a mere set of three items but a chronologically ordered prescription for living. One should first build a home, next plant a vineyard to establish a source of income, and once firmly established, take a wife. The subsequent three offerings (C2 – C4), however, take us in an entirely different direction: we are now in the study house, rather than on the battlefield, discussing sacred texts. Moreover, there is a clear pattern to the last three interpretations (C2 – C4). Each builds on the previous troika. The pattern is ABC, BCD, CDE, as we work out way from “Scripture” to “Expounding Scripture and receiving a reward.” We have come full circle.
This pattern is all the more interesting if we consider the version found in Tosefta Sotah 7:21, which I will summarize with a similar table.
The same pattern emerges, although there are five interpretations offered: ABC, BCD, CDE, DEF, FGH. The additions are “Midrash,” “Halakhot,” and “Aggadot,” terms about whose precise meaning at the time Tosefta was generated we might ask many questions. Perhaps they become subsumed in the category of “Gemara” by the time the Talmud is redacted and codified.
The starting point and end point, however, are the same: “Scripture” and “Expound and collect a reward.” We might ask: is the reward for expounding Scripture truly the ultimate goal? Or is doing good deeds the goal, and the reward is motivation for doing good deeds (when energy and inspiration are flagging)? Or perhaps the Rabbis are telling us that Scripture, mishnah, and gemara – sacred texts through which God speaks to us – sustain us spiritually and promote the society God envisions, in which chesed (deeds of loving kindness) will be routine, and we will all reap the reward both here, and in olam haba, of creating and living in such a society. Scripture, mishnah, and gemara are then the “soldiers” that protect Israel, enlarge her spiritual territory, and protect her from the incursions of life. Time and event have proven the truth of this insight.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman