This article is an edited transcript of the Aryeh Dorfler Memorial Lecture given in 1970 at Leo Baeck College. It was originally published in European Judaism 6.1 (Winter 1971/72), pp. 44-49.
The notion of ‘as if ‘ is known in modern philosophy chiefly through the work of Hans Vaihinger (1852-1933), whose theory is based on a Kantian mistrust of metaphysics. He argued that there are many ideas which may not be true, which are of such a nature that one cannot determine whether they are true or false, yet these ideas may be of value if they are treated ‘as if ‘ they are true. It is possible for someone to try to make certain ideas his own, not because of their truth or falsehood but because they are helpful in the conduct of one’s life. The rabbis in the talmudic period had a concept which was also called ‘as if ‘ but the difference from Vaihinger’s theory is that the rabbis were quite convinced of the truth of the concepts they put forward. What they tried to do was to heighten certain concepts that might otherwise have been treated lightly by comparing them with others which everybody treated very seriously.
This formula is found not only in one rabbinic school or in one circle of rabbis, but throughout rabbinic literature, both in the tannaitic and amoraic periods. They said ‘A equals B’, ‘A’ being a comparatively minor religious duty which they wished to heighten, by comparing it with ‘B’, another religious duty which everybody acknowledged as significant. The form used by the rabbis was ke’ilu, ‘as if ‘, a word which occurs through rabbinic literature: for example, ‘whoever put his neighbour to shame in public (and does it in such a way that the victim’s face becomes white) it is ‘as if ‘, ke’ilu, he had committed murder.  As the rabbis put it, ‘when the red departs and the white comes in its stead’, then there is in some sense a shedding of blood. Or, ‘whoever breaks things that belong to him, in his anger, it is ‘as if’ he had worshipped idols . A man who flies into such a rage that he loses control of himself and breaks something thereby demonstrates that at that moment he was not controlled by his God but by his passion, therefore he is like an idolator.
In both cases the rabbis wanted to impress upon their people the significance of these things, saying, ‘it might seem to be a comparatively minor offence but in reality it is in the one case like murder, and in the other it is ‘as if’ idolatry were committed’. In a number of cases, you find a reference to ‘mitzvot that a man treads down under his heel’.  That is to say, he treats them lightly, he steps over them, he ignores them. It would seem, therefore, although it is not put in this way in the sources, that one of the motives for the ke’ilu, the ‘as if’, was in order to heighten the significance of the concepts.
There was another motive too. In the rabbinic period, there were certain passages in the Bible which at one time were tremendously significant, but in the time of the rabbis had no real application or relevance. Statistics are not available, but one does not imagine that there were many Jews in that period who committed murder. Certainly there cannot have been many Jews who were idolators. (There is that remarkable passage in the Talmud which says, ‘the men of the Great Assembly captured the evil inclination and tried to kill him; they did not succeed, but they did succeed in destroying the evil inclination of idolatry’  This implies that there was a process which began in the post-biblical period, and as a result whatever other sins they committed, they were not idolators.) This means that biblical passages which deal with the sin of murder or idolatry had become a dead letter. In order to make them relevant, it was suggested that there are certain minor offences which nonetheless partake in some way of these major offences.
The rabbinic ke’ilu therefore had a double edge: first to heighten the A concept, and secondly to make the B concept relevant. In Mishnah Pesachim it says, ‘In every generation man is obliged to see himself “as if” he went out of Egypt’ and continues, ‘you shall tell your son on that day saying “it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt”‘.  Here a scriptural verse is used to show that God did it for me, but one notices that this verse is in fact speaking of the original fathers who went out of Egypt and told the story to their children in later years. For the rabbis this was a problem, because, if that is all that the verse meant, then it is totally irrelevant! (It is important to appreciate that the rabbis did not have an interest in history, in and for itself). They said that if a man imagines that he went out of Egypt then it is for him, the man who lives today, ‘as if’ he had gone out of Egypt.
There are a number of similar examples in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, e.g. the famous passage about ‘If three people eat at a table, and speak words of Torah, then it is “as if” they had eaten from the table of God [from God’s altar]. If they had not spoken words of Torah, then it is as if they had eaten the sacrifices of the dead [which means idolatrous worship]’.  A verse is then quoted in which the prophet says that ‘their tables are full of filth and vomit, bli makom [without place]’. Here bli makom means literally that ‘there is no place’ that is not full of filth. But bli makom can mean ‘without God’ (makom being the rabbinic name for God). Also in Pirkei Avot  you have an example of an ‘as if’ which is not based, as the others are, on a scriptural verse. This is the passage about the Seven Ages of Man. It indicates that at every stage of his life a man is of some use but, by the time he has reached a hundred he cannot really be of much use in any way, so it is as if he had died.
In the Mishnah, Sanhedrin,  we read of the rule about witnesses who have to be warned that it is not right to testify in a capital case because if the man is innocent and through their testimony he is declared guilty, then they are to blame. This is followed by a homily about the sacredness of human life. ‘Therefore but one man was created.’ Since a single man, Adam, is the father of the human race the whole of mankind being descended from him, ‘therefore whoever destroys a single human life it is “as if” he destroys the whole world. Whoever saves a single human life it is “as if” he saves the whole world.’ The rabbis imagined that people might say that to do one thing is not as significant as to do many things. Therefore with this ke’ilu they tried to show that by doing one thing, one is in fact doing many things.
This motif is repeated in the midrashic comment on the story of Cain and Abel. They take the text to mean ‘the voice [not of your brother’s blood but] of your brother’s bloods cries out to me’.  For them the text refers not only to Abel himself but to all those who otherwise would have been descended from him. Or again the midrashic reading of the Exodus verse ‘Moses turned this way and that and saw no-one’. According to the rabbis this does not mean that Moses was turning round to see if an Egyptian spy was looking, but rather he saw with the Holy Spirit that no one would have been descended from this man and therefore he was able to kill him.
A passage in the Mechilta comments on the words la’asot et hashabbat, literally ‘to make the Sabbath’. The Mechilta asks why ‘make’ the Sabbath and responds, ‘to teach you that whoever keeps the Sabbath it is “as if” he made the Sabbath’. This is somewhat obscure and Isaac Hirsch Weiss in his edition of the Mechilta commented that the Sabbath means refraining from work, and one might think therefore that it was purely negative. For this reason it states, ‘Scripture treats it as if he had made the Sabbath’.  He has done something positive. With great respect to the memory of Weiss this is not what it means. What the Mechilta intends can be seen from similar passages elsewhere in the talmudic literature to the effect that ‘without people who keep the Sabbath, there would be no Sabbath’. People who keep it are in fact making it.
Similarly in Sanhedrin it says, ‘whoever studies the Torah, Scripture treats him “as if” he made the Torah’.  Without students there would be no Torah, no teaching, so it is ‘as if’ he had made it.
Rabbi Akiva said, ‘whoever fails to visit the sick, it is “as if” he had shed blood’ , which implies that if people don’t visit the sick, they become worse, they become discouraged through lack of will to live. Therefore those who fail to visit them are in some way guilty of their death. Here one can see that the rabbis were preaching to people who neglected this mitzvah. Similarly you have Akiva’s contemporary, Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching that ‘a person who does not have children it is “as if” he had committed murder’. 
Finally, from tannaitic literature, there is a passage in the Avot de-Rabbi Nathan: ‘whoever makes peace in his own home it is “as if” he made peace for all Israel’.  Those who are busily engaged in making peace in the world are praiseworthy, but there is a Chinese proverb to the effect that ‘if there is peace in the heart, there is peace in the home-if there is peace in the home, there is peace in the world.’ I quote a Chinese proverb because it is important to appreciate that these rabbis were preachers, and these examples, if not Chinese proverbs, were Aramaic or Hebrew proverbs. They are not solid teaching, they do not belong to halakhah.
The rabbis were not only struggling with the conscience of their people, but with their own consciences. They were trying to realize an ideal or to set an ideal before their people and before themselves, and that explains why there is only one example (as far as I know) of the rabbinic ke’ilu in halakhah. ‘If a person digs a pit in the public domain, he is responsible for whatever happens to an animal who falls into it.’  Although it is not his pit, Scripture treats it ‘as if’ it were his. The same applies to leaven on Passover-it is not really his because no benefit can be had from it, but none the less it is treated ‘as if’ it were his. Here the ke’ilu is used in a legal context, and although it is not really relevant to our concern, it is an important key to rabbinic literature and thought.
Heinemann in his work Darkhei Ha’agadah has pointed out that you find many things in aggadic literature which are not found in the halakhic literature and are in fact contradicted by it. For example in the aggadah you find numerable instances of children being punished for the sins of their parents. The halakhah says clearly that ‘A child is not punished for the sins of his parents’. If one can speak of a normative Judaism it would be found in the area of the halakhah rather than the aggadah. The aggadah in its teaching is like a Chinese proverb. It’s very valuable, it’s very useful, it’s very helpful but there is always the poetic element in it. Part of the trouble in later Jewish thought was that many people took what was clearly intended to be poetry as if it were prose.
There are many examples of the ke’ilu in amoraic literature, for instance in Berakhot: ‘Whoever causes a bride and bridegroom to rejoice, it is as if he had rebuilt one of the ruins of Jerusalem.’  One does not need a great deal of imagination to see what was involved. The rabbi was speaking to people who, supposing the date of this statement is the 3rd-4th century, saw that the Temple had been destroyed and the land devastated. There did not seem to be much hope for the future, and so they despaired. The preacher says ‘Here is a Jewish wedding, be happy about it. That there are any marriages at all is something to be wondered at, after the destruction of the Temple’.
In the Talmud you get the statement of Rabbi Joshua that ‘certain people even refused to marry’. It seems they wanted to force God’s hand, saying ‘we will not marry if this is what you want, then the seed of Abraham will come to an end of its own accord`. Rabbi Joshua indicated that you do not do that sort of thing.
Elsewhere we read, ‘whoever sins in secret it is as if he had pushed aside the feet of the Shekhinah [the Divine Presence]’.  The attitude of rabbinic thought to whether it is better or worse to sin in secret rather than in public is complex. There are passages which seem to suggest that it is a lesser offence if it is done openly. For example with regard to martyrdom  the rabbinic rule is that it is much worse if a sin is committed openly, and in certain circumstances martyrdom is demanded. On the other hand sometimes a sin in secret is considered worse. For example there is the famous homily which goes back to the tannaitic period  about why the sneak-thief, the ganav, is treated more severely in Jewish law than the gazlan, the man who robs openly; the gazlan only has to pay for that which he has stolen-the ganav has to pay twice as much. And the homily notes that this is because the gazlan is like a man who invites only his own family to his party. The ganav invites all the townsfolk but he leaves out the king. His offence is the worst, because ‘he who sins in secret it is “as if” he pushes aside the feet of Shekhinah’.
A passage about which there is a good deal of discussion states, ‘whoever brings up an orphan in his house [in other words, one who adopts an orphan and raises him], Scripture treats it “as if” he gave birth to him.’  This is particularly significant because there was no institution of legal adoption in the rabbinic period. It may well be that precisely because there was no such institution, the rabbis wished to stress how important it was.
There is an example in the amoraic literature where the ke’ilu is used not to heighten the offence but to reduce it: ‘One who speaks ill of the dead, it is “as if” he spoke ill of a stone’.  Some say, ‘because the dead do not know`, others say ‘they do know, but they don’t care’.
We are told that two rabbis were discussing judges and one of them quoted the verse, ‘and the people stood about Moses from the morning to the evening’. The other rabbi said, ‘Do you really think that Moses sat and judged all day, when was his learning done?’ But it is to teach you that a judge who judges according to true justice, even for a single hour, Scripture accounts it to him ‘as if’ he had become a partner to the Holy One, blessed be He, in the work of creation.  Against the background of the time, presumably there were judges who felt (and judges were not paid in rabbinic times) that it was a burden and why should they bother, After all, there were so many teachings in rabbinic literature about how bad it is to give a wrong decision. Therefore, as an encouragement to the judges, it was said ‘if you do this it’s a wonderful thing, it is “as if” you were helping God in his creative work’.
Incidentally, there are a few examples in the Bible itself of this type of comparison. Jacob says to Esau, ‘Therefore I have seen your face, as one that sees the face of God’.  There is a problem not only with the ‘as if’ but generally with regard to what Jews have done with the rabbinic literature. This literature became a source of authority which has also been challenged in comparatively modern times. Somewhere along the line, the rabbis were lumped together as Hazal (hakhamim zikhronam livrakhah). It was part of the process by which the Talmud became an infallible authority. Through the concept of Hazal all the sayings of the rabbis were given the authority of ‘the Talmud’, the ‘sum total of rabbinic teaching’. Even stray sayings acquired an authority which originally was not intended. In this process even poetry becomes prose.
It has been pointed out that although you do find in a number of places from the Geonic period onwards the term ein lomedim min ha’agadah-‘You don’t derive laws or rules of conduct from aggadah, (from the non-legal side)’, all these sources belong to the Spanish school or their predecessors. The Spanish authorities had a more rationalistic attitude and did not take too seriously passages in the talmudic literature which were intended to be taken as poetry rather than prose. But people like Rashi and the Tosafists, and the French and Germans generally, imply that every talmudic statement was intended to be taken quite seriously.
Let us examine a few examples of how the ke’ilu fared in the post-talmudic period. Maimonides quotes here and there a ke’ilu of his own. For example, when talking about the rules of good conduct in ‘Hilkhot De’ot’ he quotes one or two ‘as ifs’ which are not found anywhere in talmudic literature. (Of course Maimonides may have had sources which we no longer possess) One of the great respondents was Isaac b. Sheshet Barfat (1326-1408) known as the Ribash. One of his responsa was about a man who disregarded a payment that was overdue to a certain community.  In the course of it Barfat discusses how seriously or how literally these ‘as ifs’ have to be taken. He says, ‘It is the way of the sages greatly to exaggerate the seriousness of certain sins in order that a man might take care not to commit them’. He says, for example, ‘would anyone in his right mind really suggest that an apparently minor offence which is compared in rabbinic literature to idolatry or murder should really be treated as idolatry and murder, with the result that a man would have to suffer martyrdom rather than commit them?’ It becomes clear that he means the ke’ilu belongs to poetry, not to prose; to aggadah not halakhah.
There is a delightful saying in this context that is attributed to Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschuetz (1690-1764). It is not found in his writings but many people quote it.  He interpreted Psalm 73: 15 to read ‘If I had said I will count (kemo) ‘as if’, behold I would have made faithless the generation of your children,’ i.e. if the ‘as if’ is taken too literally, then this would make all Jews faithless sinners! Despite this, on the basis of the ‘as if’ concept, many of the later teachers defended the full recitation of the standard Yom Kippur confession even where it refers to sins one has never committed, since there are sins of a comparatively mild nature which, nonetheless, are, ‘as if’ they were more serious offences. 
One of the hasidic masters, called Rabbi Zevi Elimelekh Shapira of Dinov (died 1841), wrote a work called Derekh Pikudekha, ‘The Way of Your Commandments’. In it he considered a number of precepts, both positive and negative, and then described in each instance comparatively minor matters which fell under the heading of that particular mitzvah because of the ‘as if’ principle. He does not quote simply the rabbinic ‘as ifs’ but he makes up some of his own. For example, ‘to show disrespect for scholars is “as if” one profanes the Sabbath’. On the face of it there is no obvious connection between the two, but his point is that a scholar does not do any manual work, and consequently is like the Sabbath when one does not work. So if one shows disrespect to a scholar it is ‘as if’ one broke the Sabbath. Or, ‘speaking foolish words is “as if” one had committed murder’, because there is no more precious gift than the gift of thought and the gift of speech: if man wastes them then in a sense it is like murder. Or ‘unfair competition in business is like adultery’, because in one case a man’s wife is taken from him and in the other his livelihood, and so on.
Although some of the later teachers warn against taking the ‘as if’ too literally, the warning frequently went unheeded. These and other aggadic sayings, originally the high ideals of individual teachers, were collected in the great anthologies such as the anonymous Orkhat Tzaddikim and Isaac Abohab’s Menorat Hama’or and were there treated as the unanimous opinion of ‘the rabbis’. The result of all this was that idealistic strivings were presented as the norm for Jewish conduct.
For example, the rabbinic concept of doing whatever one does ‘for the sake of Heaven’ was originally a passage in rabbinic literature, ascribed to Rabbi Jose Hakohen, who is described as ‘hasid’. Apparently he set this high ideal for himself and tried to live up to it, but commentators elaborated on it, Maimonides codified it, the Tur, the great code of Jewish Law, codified it. It is mentioned in the Shulhan Arukh. It is even found in the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh, a sort of compendium for the layman. Thus something which is a great ideal, beyond the reach of even the greatest saints, is put forward in Jewish literature not only as being in the reach of ordinary human being but as a positive obligation to which they have to conform. The strain this imposed on Jewish piety must have been considerable. Moralists have rightly concluded that it is as unhelpful to aim too high as to aim too low. If the gap between reach and grasp is stretched too far one succeeds in holding nothing at all. The ‘as if’ can serve as a useful aid to the good life. It should not be allowed to become a taskmaster.
- Bava Metzi’a 58b.
- Shabbat 105b.
- Tanhuma, Eikev, beg. ed. Buber, Deuteronomy 8b.
- Yoma 69b.
- Mishnah, Pesachim 10: 5.
- Mishnah, Avot 3: 3.
- Mishnah, Avot 5: 21.
- Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4: 5
- Gen. Rab. 22: 9.
- Mechilta, Ki Tisa, ed. Weiss, 110a.
- Sanhedrin 99b.
- Nedarin 40a.
- Yevamot 63b.
- Avot de-Rabbi Natan, 28
- Pesachim 6b.
- Berakhot 6b
- Hagigah 16a.
- Hullin 5a; Sanhedrin 74a.
- Bava Kama 79b.
- Sanhedrin 19b.
- Berakhot 19a.
- Shabbat 10a.
- Genesis 33: 10 cf. 1 Sam 29: 9, 2 Sam 14: 17 and 19: 28.
- Yad, De’ot 2: 3.
- Responsa, Ribash, No. 171
- Quoted by Jacob Ettlinger: Binyan Tziyon, Altona, 1868, no. 171.
- e.g. Commentary Etz Yosef to Siddur Otzar Hatefilot, Vilna, 1912, p. 1105.
- New ed. Jerusalem, no date.