What can a bloody ox teach us about Hebrew grammar? Apparently, something.
The Hebrew language has unique syntax. For example, et (אֶת) is a preposition used to introduce a direct object. So if you wanted to say, “she turned the page,” in Hebrew the et would go immediately before the word “the.” It’s a word with no translation in English, and no meaning … or so we thought.
We’ve been discussing the rule that one may not derive benefit from leaven once the time for eating it has expired on Erev Passover. The rabbis bring analogies to other things from which one may not benefit including the meat or hide of an ox that gored someone and was put to death. The rabbis wonder: if the ox has never gored before, perhaps the prohibition of deriving benefit from the hide is different than in the case of an ox that is known to gore? Perhaps the owner cannot derive benefit from the meat, but can derive benefit from the hide?
From where do they derive the prohibition against benefiting from the ox’s hide?
They derive it from the wording: “Of [et] its flesh.” (The verse could have been formulated “its flesh shall not be eaten” and this word order would not require the word et.) The addition of the word et comes to include that which is secondary to the flesh (i.e., the hide).
The rabbis derive an entire halakhah from the word et, a word that means nothing! Those who have taken Hebrew grammar are not the only ones surprised by this answer.
And the other? (How does the other sage interpret the word et?) This sage does not interpret et!
The second sage responds by saying this word has no meaning! But the rabbis are so good at finding meaning in things others simply ignore or take for granted. And so we learn that there was (at least) one rabbi who would interpret every et in the Torah, until one day he was stumped:
Shimon HaAmmassoni, and some say that it was Nehemya HaAmmassoni, would interpret all occurrences of the word et in the Torah. Once he reached the verse: “You shall be in awe of [et] the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 10:20), he stopped interpreting.
His students said to him: Rabbi, what will be with all the et’s that you interpreted until now?
He said to them: Just as I received reward for the interpretation, so I shall receive reward for my withdrawal.
I love this teaching. Rabbi HaAmmassoni would derive meanings from words that others saw no meaning in. And what’s better? When he was stumped, or got to an interpretation he was uncomfortable tackling, he admitted it.
His questions remain: How do we add meaning to the idea of being in awe of God? Of loving God? What does the et have to teach us? What is it asking us to do? I am not sure, but this teaching invites us at least to pause; and a pause to contemplate the awe of God or the love of God can be quite powerful indeed.