The way the rabbis read the Torah can be exciting — and confusing. We might find ourselves asking: How do they come to these unexpected readings? Do they have any rules at all for interpretation?
If you find yourself thinking this very thing, you’re not alone. The rabbis of the Talmud themselves had the same thought! That’s one reason why so many talmudic discussions revolve around determining principles of biblical interpretation: which interpretations are allowed and which are not — and why.
A few days ago, we discussed the principle of smuchim, or juxtaposition — and learned that two adjacent verses that apparently have nothing to do with one another can be used to interpret each other. Today’s daf discusses yet another method of interpretation: yotzeh min haklal, something that stands out from a generalization. According to this principle, when a verse from the Torah offers a statement about a general category of things, and then breaks out one example, the specific example is meant to elucidate something about the general category.
Let’s look at an example of how this works. Leviticus 7:19–20 discusses the rules about who can eat sacrificial meat, and in what state: “Flesh that touches anything impure shall not be eaten; it shall be consumed in fire. As for other flesh, only one who is pure may eat such flesh. But the soul that eats of the flesh of the sacrifice of peace-offerings that belong to the Lord, with his ritual impurity upon him, that soul shall be cut off from his people.”
The first verse discusses the general category of all sacrificial meat, which should not be eaten if it touches anything impure — nor should it be eaten by a person who is in a state of impurity. The next verse is more specific, naming the meat of peace-offerings which, if eaten by someone in a state of impurity, causes that person to be cut off.
But, of course, peace offerings are part of the general category of sacrifices — so what are we to make of this general rule for sacrificial offerings followed by a sudden pivot to talking about a singular kind of sacrifice?
Today’s daf explains:
And why were they (peace offerings) explicitly singled out? To draw an analogy between them and to say to you: Just as peace-offerings are unique in that they are consecrated for the altar, so too, (this halakhah that one who eats of them is liable to be cut off from his people) applies to all food that is consecrated for the altar, to excludes that which are consecrated for the Temple maintenance.
Breaking out this example allows the rabbis to see the Torah as distinguishing between food that is dedicated to the altar as a sacrifice, and food that is dedicated to the Temple for maintenance (which they could theoretically sell at the market and then use the proceeds for general Temple upkeep). Only eating the food dedicated to the altar while in a state of impurity makes one liable for karet.
Of course, using this interpretive principle is a slippery slope. Does it mean that every time a general case is followed by a specific example, that example teaches us something about the general rule? After all, if so we might argue:
This case of a brother’s wife was included in the general category of all women with whom relations are forbidden, and why was she singled out (in the case of yibbum)? To say to you: Just as a childless brother’s wife is permitted, so too, all women with whom relations are forbidden are likewise permitted.
If a brother’s wife, who is ordinarily forbidden, is made suddenly available for a sexual relationship in the situation of yibbum, can we therefore assume yibbum will permit us to access other people who are ordinarily forbidden to us? Can one, for example, marry their sister or daughter to perform yibbum?
Absolutely not! The rabbis determine that the principle of yotzeh min haklal is not actually at play here. Instead, this is an example of a different interpretive rule:
A matter that was included in a generalization but emerged to discuss a new matter.
In other words, sometimes a specific example is cited to teach us something true about all cases, and sometimes it is just the opposite: to teach us something that does not apply to the general case. In the case of yibbum — which suddenly makes a brother’s wife permitted whereas under ordinary circumstances she would not be — there is no sudden license to transgress other forbidden sexual relationships.
Today’s daf demonstrates that attempting to create rules for understanding how the rabbis derive law doesn’t solve the problem of how complicated things are. In fact, when trying to impose interpretive rules on the Torah, we end up with a new problem: knowing when each rule applies. After all, if we get it wrong, we could accidentally marry our sibling!
Read all of Yevamot 7 on Sefaria.