Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Defilement of the Hands, Canonization of the Bible, and the Special Status of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Defilement of the Hands, Canonization of the Bible, and the Special Status of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs

Article excerpt


In various places in talmudic literature the ability of three books of the Bible - Esther, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes - to make one's hands unclean ([Hebrew text omitted]) is doubted, with various Talmudic authorities ruling that each of these works does not defile the hands.(2) While none of the opinions are accepted as normative and thus do not cast doubt on the presence of any of these works within the Jewish canon,(3) these opinions and how to understand them remain problematic within Jewish tradition. Two modern schools of thought have arisen to explain the dispute concerning "clean hands." One asserts that those authorities who state that these works do not defile the hands also rule that these books are not part of the canon. Solomon Zeitlin stated this clearly:

According to [some opinions within] the Talmud the book of Esther also does not defile the hands, which means that the book was not canonized.... Therefore as late as the third century, it was recorded in the name of Samuel that Esther does not defile the hands - that is, Esther does not belong in the Canon.(4) [emphasis added]

According to this approach, the identity of the books of the Jewish Bible were not beyond dispute even as late as the year 200 C.E.

Sid Z. Leiman, in his book on this topic argues to the contrary. He states:

It appears likely that the biblical canon was closed prior to the earliest of the Talmudic discussions.... Speculation on the date of the closing of the biblical canon, based upon evidence from Talmudic passages treating books defiling the hands, would appear gratuitous. The rabbis were questioning the inspired status of some of the books in the biblical canon already closed; they were neither discussing canonicity nor closing the biblical canon.(5) According to this approach, "the Talmudic and midrashic evidence is entirely consistent with a second century B.C. dating for the closing of the biblical canon."(6)

This article will attempt to address three issues relevant to this dispute: First, this article will survey how the medieval Jewish commentaries (rishonim) and early modern Jewish commentaries (early achronim) understand the Talmudic dispute as to whether these works defiled the hands. Did they relate it to presence in the canon?(7) Secondly, this article notes that there are normative opinions within Jewish law which assign to Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs a status different from the other books of the Writings (Ketuvim) and discusses how that result is justified. Finally this article notes that there is a clear feature in common for these three biblical works - the complete absence of the Tetragrammaton ([Hebrew text omitted]) from these three works (and from no other books of the Bible) - which explains why one might assign to them a different status from all the other books of the Bible, while still never doubting their membership in the canon or why, perhaps, a Talmudic authority might even doubt their membership in the canon.

A. What is "Defiling of Hands"?

Defiling the hands is a status of ritual purity (or impurity) that is completely rabbinic in nature and was enacted by the Talmudic Sages not to promote ritual purity, but to protect holy works from destruction or desecration.(8) Essentially, the Sages of the Talmud observed people would store terumah (a "sacred" food) in the ark with holy scrolls saying "both are holy." In order to prevent this conduct, which apparently led to rats, mice, and weasels eating the scrolls as well as the sacred food, the Sages enacted a series of rabbinic decrees designed to deter this conduct.(9) The initial decree was that the torah scrolls defiled one's hands; thus, a person could not directly touch sacred scrolls and then sacred food. Secondly, they decreed that if one touched a sacred scroll and then touched sacred food, that food became ritually unclean (and could not be eaten). Finally, they decreed that when one touched sacred food it defiled one's hands, thus preventing one from first touching food and then touching sacred scrolls. …

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