In this week’s parasha, Moshe is given his mission again:
Rashi makes an incomprehensible comment:
What does יד ממש mean? Does G-d have hands? We say every morning:
The Rambam puts it more formally in the משנה תורה: G-d is incorporeal (has no body, no form).
However, it’s not that simple. The Raavad disagrees. He says that while it is true that ה׳ is incorporeal, it is not heresy to think so (it’s worth remembering that not all errors are heresy). In fact, there were גדולים who explicitly felt that ה׳ had a “body” of sorts. Not flesh and blood, but some sort of spiritual substance that made comments like יד ה׳ make sense.
Natan Slifkin addressed the possibility that Rashi, too, was a corporealist:
There are strong arguments both ways; my feeling is that Rashi agreed with Rambam that ה׳ has no form or body. But what about this יד ממש? Doesn’t that prove that Rashi felt that ה׳ had hands?
No. Some creative answers have been given:
The יד ממש was part of the miracles of the ten plagues, a vision of a giant hand swatting the Egyptians, like the hand writing on the wall:
A cute idea, but it means creating our own aggadah, which I really don’t like. There’s a better answer. יד ממש doesn’t mean a real, physical hand. We are mistranslating Rashi’s word ממש, as is clear from an earlier comment:
על יד היאר: אצל היאור, כמו (שמואל ב יד) רְאוּ חֶלְקַת יוֹאָב אֶל יָדִי, והוא לשון יד ממש, שיד האדם סמוכה לו.
No one claims that Rashi is a river corporealist, that the Nile had literal hands. ממש means that it is a valid definition of the word, even if not literal. Rashi explains further by קריעת ים סוף:
A dead metaphor has lost its poetic sense; it is just another entry in the dictionary.
Rashi is telling us that the word יד has at least three dictionary definitions that are not metaphors, that are not to be taken as a poetic imagery. There is the literal “terminal part of the vertebrate forelimb when modified (as in humans) as a grasping organ” (from Merriam-Webster), and also two figurative definitions, אצל and גבורה. All three are לשון יד ממש.
I have a computer and I’m not afraid to use it. I looked for all the times that I think Rashi defines the word יד. We have the three times above, plus:
This question, whether יד can mean רשות, has halachic implications:
But Rashi never says about יד as רשות that it is לשון יד ממש. It seems that Rashi considers the אצל and גבורה as “יד ממש”, or “משמעו”, ”literal“, and רשות (or פקיד) and שׁבוּעַ as not ממש (or at least, he never uses that term). I think he takes those meanings as explicitly metaphoric, not Orwell’s dead metaphor.
So Rashi is telling us that נטתי את ידי על מצרים והוצאתי את בני ישראל is not a metaphor; it means “I will use my power”. Why do we need to know this, and why comment here instead of the first time this expression is used?
I think that in both that pasuk and in ours, we could read יד either as גבורה (literal) or as רשות (metaphoric). ה׳ will save Israel with a direct manifestation of His power, or through some messenger acting in His authority. Now, we know what happened:
In the first case, in שמות ג, it doesn’t matter how we interpret יד. Moshe is being given a mission to speak to Pharaoh. In שמות ז, things are differnt. Moshe had just objected to ה׳:
Rashi isn’t telling us how to define יד. He is telling us that ה׳ is saying that the ידי of the earlier statement wasn’t metaphoric, My רשות, my agency. He is explaining the message to Moshe. ”Don’t worry about your ability to redeem Israel. It’s not up to you. I will redeem them, נטתי את ידי, My hand, with יד ממש, להכות בהם. It will be My גבורה, not any messenger acting under my רשות.“