Parsha and Manuscript: Ekev - Free Will in the Oxford Manuscripts

Friday, 23 August, 2019 - 2:21 am

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 165 (1396) Ekev.pngIn the Torah portion of Ekev, it discusses one of the principles in Jewish teaching of reward for keeping the Mitzvot (commandments). It states:[1]


And it will be, because (ekev) you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your G-d, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.[2]


The Hebrew word ‘ekev’ in this verse may be translated simply as ‘because,’ suggesting: because (ekev) you will heed the commandments, there will be the fulfilment of the promise of reward. The question that arises is why does the Torah use the definitive term ‘ekev’ (because), instead of the conditional term, consistent with free choice: ‘im’ (if), as in the verse in Leviticus:[3] ‘If you go in my statutes, I will give rain in its proper time,’ and Deuteronomy:[4] ‘And it will be if you obey the Lord, your G-d, to observe to fulfill all His commandments which I command you this day, the Lord, your G-d, will make you distinct amongst all the nations of the earth.’[5]


A similar expression (ekev) can in fact be found regarding Abraham, when G-d promises Abraham with reward for following His commandments:[6] ’Because (ekev) Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My instructions.’ However, the verse in Genesis is in the past tense, bestowing reward for Abraham’s offering of Isaac as a sacrifice, while in Deuteronomy it is expressed in the future tense: ‘Because you will heed these ordinances.’ This seems to contradict the principle of free choice.[7]


A further question is: why does the verse only mention the rational ordinances (mishpatim), whereas the preceding verse mentions also the superrational statutes (chukim):[8] ‘You shall therefore, observe the commandments, the statutes (chukim), and the ordinances (mishpatim), which I command you this day to do.’ The above two questions are based on the meaning of ‘ekev’ meaning ‘because.’


The answer to these questions lies in an alternative interpretation of the word ‘ekev,’ as found in the Midrash, elaborated on through the medieval period until today. In particular we will focus on Rashi’s commentary through the lens of the printed edition compared to the version of the commentary as found in the manuscripts at Oxford’s Bodleian library.




Because - Ekev




There are three principle interpretations of the word ‘ekev’ (because) in the above verse in Deuteronomy:[9] ‘because (ekev) you will heed these ordinances,’ referring to a. reward for the commandments, 2. a category of commandments, 3. a perspective on the commandments.


MS. Michael 384, fol. 123 (1399) Ekev.pngReward


The first category is in the context of reward, whereby the word ‘ekev’ means: a. for the purpose of,[10] or, b. in reward for.[11] The idea of reward is further implied by the word ‘ekev’ – literally: heel, since, as a heel is located at the end of one’s body, the very idea of reward is the end result of one’s actions. The idea of ‘ekev’ as heel may be further reflected in the relative types of reward that exists, suggesting that material reward for the commandments should be perceived as the lowest – similar to a heel, compared to future spiritual reward in the world to come[12] or the inherent reward of performing a Divine commandment itself.[13]


Superrational commandments


A second interpretation of the word ‘ekev’ is in the context of the superrationality of the commandments, either a. the superrational category of the commandments which the nations taunt Israel for and are therefore, as if, ‘treaded upon by the heel (ekev),’[14] b. performance of all the Mitzvot that should not be based on rationale but the will of G-d.[15]


Lenient commandments


A third interpretation of the word ‘ekev’ is in the context of the severity and leniency of commandments, whereby ‘ekev’ (heel) refers to lenient commandments that one may forget to observe completely,[16] view as worthless,[17] regard as of lowest priority[18] and observe with lack of enthusiasm.[19]


Alternatively, it may refer to sins a person does physically with one’s heel,[20] like the sending away of the mother bird before taking the chicks.[21]


Reading the verse


MS. Oppenheim 35, fol. 94 (1408) Ekev.pngThe commonality of the above interpretations is that they all avoid the problem of free choice, as it removes away from the meaning of ‘ekev,’ predicting definitively reward ‘because you will heed these ordinances.’ Instead, the Torah is intending to instruct about either the concept of reward for performing the commandments, or to encourage a person to be scrupulous regarding a particular category of commandments (superrational) or lenient commandments.


Difference in reading


The above interpretations, whether ‘ekev’ (heel) refers to superrational commandments or lenient commandments follows two ways of reading the verse:[22] ‘And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances.’ According to Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550 – 1619) the verse is a continuation from the previous verse in Deuteronomy that discusses two categories of commandments – statutes (superrational) and ordinances (rational). It states:[23] ‘You shall therefore, observe the commandments, the statutes (chukim), and the ordinances (mishpatim), which I command you this day to do.’ Naturally, the verse that follows immediately from the previous verse should also refer to both categories of commandments. With this in mind, the interpretation of ekev (heel) refers to the superrational statutes. A second approach to understand the verse is as a standalone verse, disconnected from the previous verse and connected with the verse at the end of the narrative:[24] ‘As the nations that the Lord destroys before you, so will you perish; since you will not obey the Lord your G-d.’ The issue with the text is concerning the matter of free choice. The interpretation that ‘ekev’ refers to the lenient commandments or the nature of reward indeed removes this question.




Rashi follows the interpretation, drawing from Midrash Tanchuma, that ‘ekev’ refers to the lenient commandments. Rashi states in the printed edition:


And it will be, because you will heed: If you will heed the minor commandments which one tramples with his heels. That the Lord, your G-d, will keep: He will keep His promise to you.


The source of Rashi’s commentary is the Midrash Tanchuma:


And it shall come to pass if you heed these statutes.[25] This text is related to Psalms:[26] Why should I fear in the evil days, when the iniquity of my heels encompass me? May the Name of the Holy One be blessed, because he has given a Torah to Israel in which there are six hundred and thirteen simple and weighty commandments; but because they are light, people pay no attention to them. Instead they cast them under their heels while saying they are simple. For that reason David was afraid of the Day of Judgment and said: Sovereign of the Universe, I am not afraid of the weighty commandments, which are in the Torah, because they are weighty. Of what am I afraid? Of the simple commandments, lest I have transgressed one of them, whether I have fulfilled it or not, because it is simple; for you have said: Be as mindful of the simple commandments as of the weighty commandments.[27] It therefore says:[28] Why should I fear in the evil days? “And it shall come to pass if (ekev) you heed these statutes.”[29]


MS. Canon. Or. 35, fol. 203 (1401-25) Ekev.pngAccurate source of Rashi - Yalkut Shimoni




The precise text of Rashi that contains the words: ‘the minor commandments which one tramples with his heels’ cannot actually be found in the classic text of Midrash Tanchuma, quoted above. The standard text of Midrash Tanchuma says: ‘they cast them under their heels’ (mashlich tachat akavav), instead of the text found in Rashi: ‘tramples with his heels’ (dash b’akavav). In a version of the Midrash Tanchuma text found in Yalkut Shimoni,[30] however, the commentary in fact does conclude with the following: ‘It therefore says:[31] ‘And it shall come to pass if (ekev) you heed these statutes, which one [usually] tramples with his heels.’ It appears that the Midrash Tanchuma text that Rashi used for his commentary contained the version found in Yalkut Shimoni.[32]




Interestingly, when looking at the manuscripts of Rashi found at the Bodleian Library and other libraries at Oxford, there are six versions of the commentary of Rashi.


1. If the minor commandments – as printed


In CCCMS165 (13th century),[33] MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-1225),[34] MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396),[35] MS. Huntington 445 (1376-1400),[36] MS. Huntington 425 (1403)[37] and MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408)[38] the text is as printed. Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525) also has the text of Rashi as printed: ‘If you will heed the minor commandments which one tramples with his heels.’


2. The minor commandments


In MS. Michael 384 (1399)[39] it states: ‘The (Hebrew: et) minor commandments which one tramples with his heels, you will listen to them.’ In MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396),[40] it also had initially the word ‘et’ before ‘minor commandments’ but was changed to ‘im’ (if). MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408)[41] has a light erasure mark by the word: ‘if’ (im), suggesting a change to ‘et’ (the), though leaves it as ‘im’ (if).


3. Erases ‘minor’


In MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408)[42] a light incomplete erasure mark appears by the word ‘minor’ (kalot), suggesting omitting this word all together. The omission of ‘minor’ (hakalot) appears to be the version of Rashi as found in the commentary of Daat Zekeinim by the Tosafists[43] and Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327), known as the Rosh.[44]


4. Omits if or the


In MS. Canon. Or. 35 (1401-25),[45] it omits ‘the’ (et) or ‘if’ (im) in the opening and states only: ‘the minor commandments (hamitzvot hakalot) which one tramples with his heels, you will listen to them.’


5. Lenient commandments


In MS. Huntington 425 (1403),[46] it first stated: ‘lenient commandments’ (kulot), before someone erased the ‘vav’ turning the Hebrew word from kulot (lenient) to kalot (minor).


For the sake of this study, we will reduce the variations to three versions, adjusting the wording according to the way the commentary is phrased in the Hebrew with ‘will you heed’ (tishmaun) at the end of the sentence:


1.     If (im) the minor commandments which one tramples with his heels will you heed.’

2.     With ‘et’ the minor commandments which one tramples with his heels will you will heed.

3.     If (im) the commandments which one tramples with his heels will you heed.


MS. Huntington 425, Fol. 88 (1403) Ekev.pngDifference between ‘if’ and ‘with’


The difference between ‘im’ and ‘et’ in the shape of their Hebrew letters - final mem and tav respectively - is very subtle and may easily become confused in the manuscripts. The meaning in the biblical verse is however significant. The word ‘et’ in the biblical text may mean simply ‘the’ but can also mean ‘with,’ as in Genesis:[47] ‘And also Lot, who went with (et) Abram, had flocks and cattle and tents.’[48] The difference between ‘if’ and ‘with’ in the opening of Rashi’s commentary in the manuscripts would appear to address the above two questions in the biblical text about free choice and the omission of superrational commandments.


Free choice - if


The question on free choice that the verse appears to suggest, ie that people will certainly keep the laws without free choice, is answered by the interpretation of ‘ekev’ (heel), as mentioned above, and also emphasis by the additional opening conditional word ‘if’ in Rashi’s commentary - as oppose to ‘et’ (the).


Superrational – with


The question about the omission of reference to ‘statutes’ is answered by the expression ‘et’ (with), found in some manuscripts, instead of ‘im’ (if). The use of the word ‘et’ (with) is meant to join the mention of the superrational commandments, implied in ‘ekev’ (heel), with the rational commandments (mishpatim), mentioned in the same verse. This is to be consistent with the aim of the commentary of Rashi - according to the view of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz - to answer the question about the omission of reference to the superrational statutes. Just as in the previous verse it mentions statutes with ordinances, the following verse also must reference statutes along with ordinances.


Minor – erased


The erasing of the word minor (mitzvot) in the manuscripts and the version of Rashi as found in the Rosh and the Tosafists reflects the version of the Midrash Tanchuma as found in Yalkut Shimoni that merely writes: ‘It therefore says:[49] ‘And it shall come to pass if (ekev) you heed these statutes,’ which one [usually] tramples with his heels.’ The word ‘minor’ (kalot) is extrapolated from the general commentary of the Midrash Tanchuma, but not the precise wording.




CCCMS165, fol. 134 Ekev.pngIn conclusion, two questions arise from the opening of the portion of Ekev, firstly, the phrase ‘(ekevbecause they will keep the commandments,’ denies the concept of free choice and, secondly, the omission of superrational commandments in the verse, despite having mentioned both, ordinances and statutes, in the previous verse. The interpretation found in Midrash Tanchuma that ‘ekev,’ meaning literally ‘heel’ answers these two questions. Explaining ‘heel’ as referring to lenient commandments allows for the verse to remain consistent with free choice, and explaining ‘heel’ as referring to the superrational commandments allows for the inclusion of the mention of superrational commandments in the verse.


While both these questions are pertinent and are answered through the interpretation of Midrash Tanchuma that ‘ekev’ means ‘heel,’ the subtle variations in the Oxford manuscripts of Rashi’s commentary that adopts the commentary of Midrash Tanchuma intend to respond to each of the questions selectively. The use of the word ‘et’ (with) in the manuscripts, responds to the question about the omission of the superrational commandments in the verse while the use of the word ‘im’ (if) responds to the question about free choice. In both versions, the verse enforces the idea that a person has free choice to choose to follow the commandments, while encouraging a person to not merely follow the commandments but to do so with enthusiasm to fulfil the will of G-d.[50]




[1] Deuteronomy 7:12.

[2] The converse is mentioned in Deuteronomy (8:19-20): ‘And it will be, if you forget the Lord your G-d and follow other gods, and worship them, and prostrate yourself before them, I bear witness against you this day, that you will surely perish. As the nations that the Lord destroys before you, so will you perish; since you will not obey the Lord your G-d.’

[3] Leviticus 26:3.

[4] Deuteronomy 28:1 and 28:15.

[5] Sifsei Chachamim on Deuteronomy 7:12. Translation of Deuteronomy 28:1 follows Ibn Ezra.

[6] Genesis 26:3-5.

[7] Talmud Megillah 25a. Sifsei Chachamim on Deuteronomy 7:12. Mizrachi on Deuteronomy 7:12.

[8] Deuteronomy 7:11.

[9] Deuteronomy 7:12.

[10] Chizkuni on Deuteronomy 7:12. Abrabanel on Deuteronomy 7:12.

[11] Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 7:12. Metzudat Tziyon on Psalms 70:4; 40:16; 119:33. Abrabanel on Deuteronomy 7:12.

[12] Kedushat Levi on Deuteronomy 1.

[13] Alshich on Deuteronomy 7:12.

[14] Kli Yakar on Deuteronomy 7:12. Kli Yakar explains this meaning due to its juxtaposition with superrational statutes in the previous verse (Deuteronomy 7:11): ‘You shall therefore, observe the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances, which I command you this day to do.’

[15] Malbim on Deuteronomy 7:12.

[16] Midrash Tanchuma 1. Derashot Haran 10:29. Daat Zkeinim on Deuteronomy 7:12. Rashi on Deuteronomy 7:12.

[17] Rashi on Talmud Avodah Zara 18a.

[18] Midrash Tanchuma 1. Likkutei Sichot 19, p. 89

[19] Likkutei Sichot 9, Ekev. Examples of a lenient sin is mentioned in Likkutei Torah, Derushim L’Rosh Hashana 65b by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, including neglect of Torah study when one is able to study Torah, neglect of giving charity when one is able to do so and neglect of other positive Mitzvot.

[20] Talmud Avodah Zara 18a: ‘And this is the same as that which Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “The iniquity of my heel encircles me” (Psalms 49:6)? It means that the sins that a person tramples with one’s heel in this world, i.e., dismisses and pays no attention to them as they seem to lack importance, e.g., the way that one walks, come and encircle him on the Day of Judgment.’ See Rashi commentary.

[21] Daat Zekeinim on Deuteronomy 7:12.

[22] Deuteronomy 7:12.

[23] Deuteronomy 7:11.

[24] Deuteronomy 8:20.

[25] Deuteronomy 7:12.

[26] 49:6.

[27] Avot 2:1.

[28] Psalms 49:6.

[29] Deuteronomy 7:12.

[30] Psalms 758. See also Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 676.

[31] Deuteronomy 7:12.

[32] Likkutei Sichot 19:89, footnote 2.

[33] Fol. 134

[34] Fol. 102.

[35] Fol. 165.

[36] Fol. 77.

[37] Fol. 88.

[38] Fol. 94.

[39] Fol. 123.

[40] Fol. 165.

[41] Fol. 94.

[42] Fol. 94.

[43] Author unknown. See:

[44] Rosh on Deuteronomy 7:12. He adds that the intention of Rashi is the easy commandments, as per the Midrash Tanchumah.

[45] Fol. 203.

[46] Fol. 88.

[47] Genesis 13:5.

[48] Kli Yakar on Deuteronomy 7:12.

[49] Deuteronomy 7:12.

[50] Likkutei Sichot 19:89.


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