I want to thank an old-time blogger by the name of DovBear for inspiring this post. We had gotten into a Twitter discussion about whether or not the Rabbis had hijacked the literal meaning of the text (peshat) in favor of non-literal exegesis (midrash) and were using the latter to replace the former. I realized that many people confuse these terms, and therefore some clarification is needed.
The first thing to understand is that the Rabbis have designated for types of understanding of the text, by the acronym PaRDeS. To a certain extent there are times that the lines between each category become fuzzy, so I will do my best to describe the categories as succinctly and accurately as possible:
- Peshat: the literal or simple meaning of the text, which we will soon see can be neither simple or directly literal
- Remez: literally hint, a subtle layer of meaning added to the text often created by abstract linking of texts or concepts, such as linking the numerical values of words (gematria)
- Derash: translated as exegesis, this often deviates from the literal meaning to convey some coded moral lesson or overarching principle. Derash is arrived at using hermeneutical principles of which there are many.
- Sod: otherwise known as Kabbalah, this is a completely abstract understanding of the texts using a knowledge base and exegetical rules that for the most part is only utilized by very advanced scholars. It is used to convey very deep ideas very succinctly, often in a way that laymen should not be able to understand.
For the purposes of this piece I will focus on peshat and derash and really I would like to focus on peshat. Peshat, the “simple meaning” is actually composed of four different components: general, literary, historical, and exegetical. General context means that the verse or passage is part of a longer narrative. Literary context is the specific wording of the passage. Historical context is the context that a particular work was written at a particular time period and that affects how the text should be understood. Exegetical context would be the underlying philosophy or assumptions made by the author, or that the reader superimposes on the author’s intent.
As much as I have tried to give a definition, it is really best to illustrate with examples. Now when we think of peshat, we think of something simple like when the Torah says don’t eat pig, then it means no luaus. But lets take a more complex passage like Isaiah 53. Isaiah 53 will illustrate my point very well. The original text can be found here, but a summary of the verses is that there are a group of people who are watching how a lowly, unlikeable person demonstrated their greatness before the world. Now, anyone reading this passage knows very well this is not just some random guy. The general context is that the passage comes from the book of Isaiah, which is a prophetic work, and it is a parable for something else. The literary context is that it is part of a much longer prophecy that starts in Isaiah 40 and basically continues to the end of the book. The historical context is that it is being written in the days of King Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah). The exegetical context is the source of a raging debate between Jews and Christians, but after a full workup it is clear that the real peshat, literal reading of the text, is it is speaking about the Jews. An in-depth treatment can be found here.
Unlike peshat, midrash is not beholden to the literal meaning of the verse in the same way. The example that comes to mind is this the following mahloket:
“And the frog came up, and it covered the land of Egypt” …Rabbi Akiva said, there was one frog, which then multiplied all over the land of Egypt. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said, Akiva, Why do you involve yourself with aggadata? Finish with your words and go to study nega’im and ohelos. There was one frog, it called to the others, and they came. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b; Midrash Shemos Rabbah 10:5; Yalkut Shimoni Shemos 8:183) (sic)
Here it is apparent that the literal meaning doesn’t matter. Ribi Elazar ben Azarya doesn’t criticize Ribi Akiva for being wrong, but rather criticizes is derash skills. They both point to a specific odd word, and come up with fanciful ideas that communicate a deeper message, such as the stubbornness of the Egyptians as the continued to hit the frog even as that spawned more frogs.
Here’s another example: the Gemara in Berachot 54b says that Moshe, who was fifteen feet* tall and had a fifteen-foot staff, jumped fifteen feet high to hit King Og of Bashan in the shins to get him to drop a mountain on his head. While this seems to be taken literally since the Shulhan Arukh says to make a blessing for a miracle when passing the spot that this happened, there seems to be something else going on here. If Moshe had to jump 45 feet in the air to hit Og’s ankle, that would easily make Og over 300 feet tall! Another Midrash (Pirke Ribi Eliezer Ch. 13) says that Og hung onto the outside of Noah’s Ark was about 500 feet, which clearly would have capsized the boat. Something else is going on here, and since both are accepted as being equally true it is pretty clear either one or both are not meant to be read literally.
Now, let’s take a different example, the one we were discussing. According to the book of Bereshit (Genesis), after Sarah dies Avraham takes a new wife by the name of Keturah. Rashi, the classic medieval Rabbinic commentator, identifies Keturah as being Hagar, Avraham’s concubine that Sarah had given him to have children with and was thrown out of the house with her son Yishmael because of Yishmael deviant behavior. DovBear wanted to say this was a case of the Rabbis throwing out peshat. Not so fast. Let’s look at what might be causing Rashi to say this:
1. We don’t know who Keturah is or why Avraham would marry her. We know why he married his first two wives, so this comes as a surprise.
2. Avraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Yitzhak in Syria, back where his family originated from. He forbid Eliezer from taking one of the local Canaanite women for his son. Something doesn’t seem right if a Canaanite woman was not good enough for his son but was okay for him. So then where did this woman come from?
3. Rashi may or may not have had a tradition that the descendants of Keturah such as Midian considered themselves full brothers with the Yishmaelites instead of half-brothers. This is purely speculative and of course there are not Midianites to ask since they have all been long killed out. Nonetheless, when trying to figure out what the text is saying, it is these types of things that need to be taken into consideration.
It could be that Rashi’s explanation is not meant to be literal, or it is an honest attempt to figure out who a random person is in Tanakh. Either way, this is the difference.
*1 1/2 feet is a very loose approximation of the unit amah, literally on arm’s length