Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sforno and the mythical schoolhouse of Shem and Ever

What were the "tents" in which Jacob sat?

The traditional interpretation These were the tents of Shem and Ever who ran some kind of proto-yeshiva where Jacob studied. Each founder had his own tent, thus "Jacob sat in tentS" (Beraishis Raba, popularized by Rashi)

Sforno's interpretation Jacob had two different tents. One was his shepherd tent, where he lived while he was with the flocks; the other was a meditation tent where he studied and prayed.

The merit of Sforno's interpretation At first, I preferred this reading because it does not rely on new information. Instead of introducing somthing foreign to the story, and pre-supposing an ancient yeshiva, it responds to the words on the page. The word tents is plural, and Sforno tells us why without getting too creative (or falling back on the creativity of the Sages). However, I must point out that Sforno does mention the mythical Yeshiva later in his commentary. He seems to have believed it existed, and he he seems to have believed Jacob studied there. Unlike Rashi and the Sages, however, he does not agree that the multiple tents of our verse are a reference to that institution.

More Sforno later.

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