(Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23)
January 5, 2002
There are verses in the Bible which are difficult to explain. These verses often produce radically different interpretations and translations among the commentators. The following verse (27:8) from this week’s haftarah is a case in point: “Assailing them with fury unchained (b’sass’ah), His [God’s] pitiless blast bore them off on a day of gale.” (NJPS translation) According to this translation, God’s fury will punish Israel for her sins “b’se’ah se’ah” – in full measure of punishment – the doubling of the word “measure” implying “fullness”. Another interpreter (see the International Critical Commentary) translates this word as a four letter root – “se’ah se’ah” meaning “divorce” or “exile”. This explanation renders the verse: “By expulsion, by dismissing her (as a divorcee) , You [God] contend with her”, namely, that God’s punishment of Israel will be by means of expulsion.. Each of these interpretations attempt to capture the “pshat” or simple meaning of the word “b’sass’ah” but does not adequately contend with the meaning of this verse within its literary context since the previous verse seems to indicate that God will not punish Israel as severely as He punished Israel’s enemies while each of these two interpretations imply harsh punishment.
Targum Yonathon, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, seems to have this problem in mind when he interprets this verse. He explains the word “b’sass’ah” to mean “In the measure that you measure you also will be measured,” implying that God’s punishment of Israel’s sins will not be overwhelming, but in moderation. He interprets this word to mean “seah for seah,” – “measure for measure”. This explanation seems to fit better with the previous verse even though it probably is not the plain meaning of the verse.
Rabbi Meir, one of the leading students of Rabbi Akiba (2nd century C.E.), utilized the same interpretation of this obscure word to intimate a significant rabbinic moral concept. “Rabbi Meir taught: ‘In the measure that a man measures out, so is it measured out to him. For in the verse: ‘In full measure (se’ass’ah), when You send her away, You do contend with her’ (Isaiah 27:8), se’asse’ah, taken as a reduplicating form, is read se’ah for se’ah – that is “measure for measure.’” (Tosefta Sota 3:1)
Rabbi Meir derived from this unusual word the idea that every person should be concerned with the consequences of his/her actions, note their implications, and draw the appropriate conclusions for his/her life. This assessment has served as the cornerstone of the concept of religious responsibility, so central to the Jewish tradition. It is one of Judaism’s legacies as a prescriptive for the well-being of the world.