By Rabbi Nosson Greenberg
In this week’s parsha the Torah gives us the list of the names of most of the 24 non-kosher birds. One of them is the duchifas. The Ibn Ezra quotes the Tziddokim (Saducees) who identify this bird as the garden variety hen. He then makes the following comment on their opinion: “V’aileh tipshai olam ki mi higid lahem” – “And these are the world’s fools for who told (this to) them.” Now, we would understand this remark if the Tziddokim were way off the mark, but they were pretty close to getting it right. For Rashi, citing Chazal (and Targum concurs), tells us it was the “tarnegol Bar” – “a Mountain Hen.” So why does the Ibn Ezra consider their explanation so foolish?
The answer I believe is a simple one, which carries with it a message of heavy import. The end-game with Judaism is not only the result. It is also the mechanics used in getting there. In deciphering and explaining words of the Torah there is some leeway. But it must be within the boundaries of something we call mesorah – an unbroken chain of information passed from rebbe to talmid beginning with the ultimate Rebbe, Hashem, who at Sinai taught Moshe the Oral law. Any other approach is just plain incorrect. The Tziddokim did not believe in Torah sheba’al Peh. So yes, perhaps they got lucky every now and then and correctly deciphered a mitzva. But their attempt to understand an ancient word like duchiphas by taking a “stab at it” is plain old stupid. And therefore, even if they came oh-so-close to translating duchiphas, it is of no merit because of their flawed approach, and thus is much deserved of the Ibn Ezra’s barb.
Next time you take a trip to Manning, South Carolina, stop off at the public library. Outside you will find a bronze statue of a behatted young lady and a cat. She is none other than Amelia Bedelia, a daffy housemaid who is the protagonist of a series of popular children’s books. Her adventures usually involve Amelia innocently misunderstanding various commands of her employer by always taking the English language quite literally, with hilarious results. The Tziddokim were the original Amelia Bedelias of the world, taking the words of the Torah quite literally, but with one difference. Unlike Amelia who, at the end of each adventure would invariably make everyone forget her foolishness by baking a delicious pie, the Tziddokim had no redeeming value on which to hang their hats.
It never ceases to amaze me that non-Jewish media outlets use reform and conservative clergy for a perspective on Judaism. They are the unfortunate flavor through which the world gains knowledge of our religion. This is akin to a medical column employing the services and advice of a witch-doctor with a bone through his nose with nothing more in his medical bag than a mortal, pestle and some tree roots. Like the Tziddokim, they too get things right from time to time. But when that happens kudos are still not in order. For their mechanics are corrupt, they just got lucky.
Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.