Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Twisted Torah Study

Today, we examine the ninth commandment, "You shall not bear false witness."

The most direct, straightforward interpretation of this command is a ban on lying, especially as it pertains to bringing false charges in a judicial setting. Closer examination, however, reveals that precisely the opposite is intended.

Hebrew has no commas, nor much of any other punctuation. By careful insertion of commas to the English text, however, scholars have made an astonishing discovery. The text is actually intended to read thus: You shall, not bear, false witness. The restriction against falsehood, then, is applicable to ursine members of the community only!

Rabbi Herman Moskowitz comments that the order of words in Hebrew is not the same as in English, and that Westerners have always misinterpreted this verse. "False," says Moskowitz, "applies adjectivally to the word 'bear'. The commandment should read, rather, "(as a) false bear, you shall not bring witness! (in the courts)"

Historian William Steigner concurs. "It was often the practice in the Ancient Near East to acquire justice by frightening the other witnesses into silence. We have at least one instance of a man named Ethshan who stood before the judge, having girded himself in the skin of a bear. With much loud growling and snarling, he managed to unsettle those bringing charges against him. With no one to accuse him, he went away free."

Arthur Gottwald, textual critic, brings forth a different interpretation altogether. Gottwald suggests a scribal error. "In the scriptorium, the lector (reader) read--correctly--the word 'bare.' The copyist, however, misheard him and wrote instead 'bear.' What the law is plainly stating is that it is abominable in the eyes of the Lord to appear at a judicial hearing in the nude."
Rabbi Moshe Kleinfelder agrees with Gottwald's interpretation, but for a slightly different reason. "In the original tongue, there were no vowels, as you know. It is but a simple matter to read 'b-r', and assume 'bear', intead of the intended 'bare'." When pressed, however, Kleinfelder allows that the intent of the law may be the prevention of the baring (e.g., stripping) of witnesses in court so as to shame them, and that, in fact, Rashi may have proposed that very thing in the Talmud.

Finally, a theology student, Abigail Simmonds, proffers this solution. Following in the footsteps of Rabbi Kleinfelder, Simmonds suggests that it is a spelling problem. The misunderstood word to pay attention to, however, is not "bear," but "false." The command should read, she says, "You shall not bear floss witness."

And so the debate rages on...

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