"When," Not "If"
This week we start the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. The book is referred to as the Laws of the Priests, since it deals to a great extent with the sacrifices in the Temple (or Mishkan) and other laws of puriy and impurity.
Let us look at the following comment by Rashi on the meal offering.
"And if you offer a meal-offering of first grains to Hashem, then of newly ripened crops, roasted over fire ground kernels, shall you bring your first grain meal-offering."
And if (Hebrew = 'im') you offer - RASHI: The word 'im' here means 'when' (not 'if') for this is not a voluntary offering, since the verse deals with the Omer meal-offering, which is obligatory (brought every year on the 16th of Nisan). Similarly, " 'If' (which really means 'when') there will be a jubilee year..."
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi tells us that although the word 'Im' usually means 'if,' in this verse it cannot mean that. The bringing of the first fruits offering is not optional nor conditional on our desire. It must be brought. So in this case the word 'im' must mean 'when.'
RAMBAN DISAGREES WITH RASHI
The Ramban differs with Rashi and says that one need not change the ordinary meaning of 'im' in this verse. He knows of course that the first-fruits offering is obligatory. But he says we must see the whole chapter here to get the correct understanding of this verse.
Chapter 2 begins by discussing the meal offerings. Then it describes various types of meal offerings. Verse 5 says, "If your offering is a pan-baked meal offering, then it shall be etc." Verse 7 says, "If your offering is a deep-pan meal offering, then it shall be etc." We see, says the Ramban, that the Torah is outlining the requirements of different types of meal offerings. The first-fruits meal offering is but one of the possible meal offerings. So, when the word 'im' (if) is used, it means "if the meal offering that is being brought is the first fruits offering, then it must be etc." This does not mean that the offering is optional, it only means that 'if' we are discussing the first-fruits offering, then it must be such and such.
The Ramban seems to have a point.
CAN YOU DEFEND RASHI?
Can you defend Rashi's position against the Ramban's attack, that the word 'im' here must mean 'when' and not 'if'?
An Answer: If you read verses 5 and 7 carefully, you will see that they differ from our verse in a significant way. Both those verses begin "If your offering is etc.," which means it is discussing a choice of possible types of meal offerings. But our verse is different; it begins, "If you will offer etc." But we cannot say 'If you will offer,' because you must offer the first-fruits offering. Rashi was sensitive to this slight difference in phrasing which gives a different emphasis to the words. Therefore he says here 'im' must be interpreted to mean 'when' not 'if.'
The Ramban often picks up on issues that Rashi seems to have been unaware of. Upon closer analysis we often find that Rashi took these points into account and can reasonably withstand the attack.