The Gemara, in Chulin (90b), presents a novel concept. Rabi Ami states there, “Dibrah Torah Leshon Havay, Dibru Nevi’im Leshon Havay, Dibru Chachamim Leshon Havay,” “The Torah, Nevi’im and Chazal [sometimes] speak in terms of hyperbole.” The Pasuk he brings as an example to show that the Torah speaks in exaggeration is “Arim Gedolot UVetzurot BaShamayim,” “Large cities and fortified to the heavens” (Devarim 1:28). The walls of the cities could not really have reached the skies; rather, the Torah must be exaggerating. In the time of Rav Sa’adyah Ga’on, there was a movement to reconcile the Torah with science. In his book Emunot VeDei’ot, Rav Sa’adyah Ga’on wrote about four instances in which one should not take the words of scripture literally.
The first instance is when a Pasuk explicitly contradicts another Pasuk. In Devarim 6:16, for example, the Torah writes, “Lo Tenasu Et Hashem Elokeichem,” “Do not test Hashem your God.” Yet Sefer Malachi (3:10) writes, “UVechanuni Na BaZot,” “And test me with that (the Ma’aseir).” This is seemingly a direct contradiction! Rav Sa’adyah Ga’on explains that the Torah means you should not test Hashem by challenging His abilities. One should, however, test Hashem on matters of whether he is worthy of meriting His assistance.
The second instance in which we may not take the words of a Pasuk literally is when Chazal possess a Mesorah (tradition) that contradicts a Pasuk. An example is the description of corporal punishment. The Torah writes that for violating a negative commandment, the perpetrator is given forty lashes. However, Chazal interpret the Pasuk as meaning “BeMispar Arba’im,” approximately forty. According to the Mesorah, the correct number of lashes is actually thirty-nine, and that is how we establish the Halacha.
The third instance when the words of a Pasuk are not taken literally is when the Pasuk conflicts with rational thought. The Torah writes, “Ki Hashem Elokecha Eish Ochela Hu,” “For Hashem your God is a consuming fire” (Devarim 4:24). How can Hashem be a fire? Fire is not permanent or indestructible, as it can be extinguished, unlike Hashem. Instead, the Pasuk means that the punishment of Hashem is like a consuming fire as it is stated elsewhere in Tanach.
The last instance in which Rav Sa’adyah writes that the text of scripture cannot be taken literally is when it comes into conflict with human observations. The example that he gives comes from our Sidra, BeReishit. The Torah writes, “VaYikra HaAdam Sheim Ishto Chava Ki Hi Hayeta Eim Kol Chai,” “And the man called his wife Chava because she was the mother of all living creatures” (BeReishit 3:20). It defies nature that a woman should give birth to an ox or another creature. Instead, the Torah is obviously referring to all humans.
I would like to take this approach and apply it to the most well-known story in the Sidra, the story of creation. The Torah details the process of creation over the course of six days. On the first day, Hashem created light. On the second day, He created the heavens and seas. On the third day, he created land and plants. The celestial bodies were created on the fourth day, and sea and air creatures on the fifth. On the sixth day, He finally created animals and humans. We have a Mesorah that it has been almost six thousand years of creation; modern science tells a different story. Are we to believe that millions of years of archaeological evidence is null and void? One popular explanation that fits well with the concept found in the Gemara and supported by the writings of Rav Sa’adyah Ga’on is that the days the Torah speaks about are metaphorical. Rather than being days, the Torah is really talking about millennia, over which the world was created.
Regardless of whether one should choose to believe this explanation of creation or not, the concept that the Torah does not always speak literally is important to remember throughout the coming year, from BeReishit through VeZot HaBerachah. Often, words that seemingly are contradictory in the Torah can be solved with a little bit of Derush.