Translated by Moshe J. Bernstein
This article originally appeared in Tradition, vol. 21, 3, 1984. Appears here with permission.
One of the difficult dilemmas confronting the traditional teacher of Bible concerns his attitude to the biblical exegesis found in Talmud and midrash (and often cited in medieval biblical commentaries). The question, posed bluntly, is whether we are obliged to explain the text in consonance with Hazal‘s interpretation, even when it does not seem to accord with the plain sense of the verse. The problem of course is not limited to the teaching community, but while the non-teacher can avoid the issue, it confronts the teacher day in and day out. If the question is answered, even partially, in the negative, there may lurk a suspicion at the back of the teacher’s mind that he is doing an injustice to his students by not teaching the text in consonance with Hazal, and that he is interpreting Torah in an unauthorized fashion (megalleh panim baTorah shelo kahalakhah). It appears that most teachers attempt to follow the exposition of Hazal consistently and without deviation in teaching the legal material in the Torah.1 In teaching the narrative portions of Torah, on the other hand, many teachers make an effort to search out the plain sense of the verse (peshat) and pay little attention to the material in midrashic sources. One symptom of this approach is that in teaching narrative material more use is made of the commentaries of such masters of peshat as R. Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra (ca. 1092-1167, Spain) and R. Samuel ben Meir (ca. 1090-1160; northern France). There also tend to be fewer reservations about resorting to the writings of authors who do not share a traditional weltanschauung.
Two factors appear to make for this distinction between halakhic and narrative material. The major one is that the exegesis of a verse concerned with halakhah has apparent implications for the actual fulfillment of the commandment (halakhah lema’aseh); the interpretation of narrative material has no such practical consequences. The second factor may be subconscious. There are three basic criteria according to which we can establish what is peshat and what is derash: (1) whether the explanation (and what follows it) is logically coherent; (2) whether it fits the context; and (3) whether it is compatible with the grammar of the language. The first two are primarily relevant in narrative sections where teachers are indeed reluctant to accept interpretations which are illogical2 or which do not fit the context.3 The third criterion, which is equally applicable to narrative and halakhic material, does not, unfortunately, affect teachers sufficiently. The teacher who cannot come to terms with an illogical or acontextual interpretation will readily accept a midrashic explanation with which the grammar of Biblical Hebrew is not compatible.
The following comment of R. Yosef ibn Caspi (early fourteenth century; Provence) is of interest in this context. He remarks on the opening words of Exodus 21:7, “And should a man sell his daughter”:4
I cannot explain the texts dealing with commandments in the fashion demanded by the normal usage of the language, for if I should do so, I should innovate commandments and change the coin minted by the talmudic sages. Rather, we remain faithful to the custom of our ancestors who yielded to their explanations, and we, too, their descendants, shall be like them.5 Therefore, if in this commentary I am brief in matters concerning the commandments, then the Talmud or the commentary of Rashi, z.l., should be consulted. But in matters which do not concern the commandments, I shall favor no authority and let truth take its course.6
A sharp distinction between the force of rabbinic statements pertaining to halakhic and narrative material was made clearly in the introduction of R. David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921; Germany) to his commentary on Leviticus.7 He contrasts the decisive authority of rabbinic dicta pertaining to the interpretation of verses concerned with halakha with the force of rabbinic comments in the matter of aggadah. A commentator on the Torah’s laws must yield to rabbinic exegesis in legal sections, since halakha is Sinaitic. But one cannot insist that the interpretation of non-legal passages was given at Sinai, and there is therefore no necessity to accept them. Hoffman finds support for his position in the Introduction to the Talmud (printed at the back of the first volume of the standard Vilna Talmud and attributed to R. Samuel HaNagid):
Haggadah is any talmudic interpretation which does not concern commandments …and you need not learn from it anything but what seems reasonable. You should know that whatever halakhah Hazalmaintained regarding a commandment from Moshe Rabbenu which he received from the Almighty may neither be added to nor subtracted from. But, as regards the interpretation of verses which is framed according to individual intuition and personal opinion, one need learn from such explanations only that which seems reasonable; and as for the rest, one is not dependent on them.
From Hoffmann’s comments one may conclude:8 (1) that in narrative sections of the Torah we are free to interpret as we choose without being subject to the statements of Hazal, and (2) in halakhic sections we are bound by what is found in rabbinic sources. Before considering whether the second thesis should be adopted in our schools, we must ask whether it is firmly grounded in the classical source. The answer, it would appear, is negative: Hoffmann’s distinction does not derive from the principles of earlier exegetes. The license to interpret the Bible in a fashion not in accord with rabbinic hermeneutics was derived by medieval exegetes from the words of the Talmud itself when it stresses that, granted the existence of rabbinic hermeneutical interpretations (derashot), “ein mikra yotse midei peshuto” (lit., “a text does not depart entirely from its simple sense/ plain meaning”).9
This rule is adopted by all our classical exegetes, and, with the exception of R. Yosef ibn Caspi (cited above), not one of them limits his practice to aggadah alone.10 It is relevant to cite in this context the words of R. Eliyahu Mizrahi (REM; 1450-1525; Turkey) in his Commentary to Rashi on Numbers 29:39.
And Rashi, z.l., because he addresses in his commentary only those derashot and aggadot which are close to the plain sense of the text (peshuto shel mikra), and this midrash is one of those which are remote from the plain meaning…he explained the verse according to its plain meaning, and disregarded the midrash of the Sifre. For thus he [Rashi] wrote on the passage “They heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden” (Gen. 3:8)-“There are many midreshei aggadah and other midrashot, but my concern is only with the plain meaning of a passage and with such aggadah as is compatible with the words of Scripture and its meaning [shemu’o].” And although from these words it appears that it is aggadic statements in non-legal contexts which Rashi does not quote, but that he does cite legal midrashot although they are at variance with the plain meaning of the verse, nevertheless, since we have noted several instances where Rashi disregards legal midrashot in order to follow the plain sense of the text, we may conclude that according to Rashi, there is no distinction between [legal] midrashim and [narrative] aggadot, both of which he feels free to disregard, interpreting the verses according to their plain sense, whenever the midrashim are not congruent with the plain sense.
With this lengthy comment, compare also REM’s reaction (on Ex. 22:8) to Ramban’s claim that Rashi interpreted the verse according to a minority opinion (divrei yehidim) and not in accord with the halakhah. Having shown, as above, that this position is consistent with Rashi’s approach elsewhere, R’Eliyahu stresses that Ramban, too, does the same in halakhic matters, and concludes, “And one is forced to say, therefore, that none of the commentators is concerned merely to make the text fit the halakhah, whether it seems to fit or not.” A brief survey of the commentaries of other Torah exegetes suffices to indicate that REM is correct in his assertion.11 Even Ibn Ezra, who seems to indicate clearly12 that he will not deviate from rabbinic interpretation in legal matters, does not always keep his promise; the painful attempts of his supercommentators to reconcile his non-traditional interpretations with what is stated in the texts bear ample witness to this.13
Hoffmann’s other thesis, that in narrative matters we are free to interpret independently of rabbinic sources, is also not accepted by the majority of exegetes. To be sure, the statement in the Introduction to the Talmud as to the non-authoritative nature of aggadah is supported by observations made by several of the geonim,14 but since the opinion of the Nagid is demonstrably based on the actual words of the geonim, we must understand his rule in light of those words. A survey of their statements indicates that the geonim refer generally to a limited number of places in rabbinic literature containing bizarre stories and totally unreasonable interpretations of biblical verses. In such instances, indeed, we are not merely reinterpreting the words of Hazal,15 but discounting them completely as statements inapplicable to exegesis. But these comments cannot be viewed as guiding principles, and certainly not as a standing dispensation to ignore rabbinic interpretation in our exegesis. Even Ibn Ezra. who claims to distinguish16 between his acceptance of rabbinic exegesis in halakhah and his freedom of choice in aggadah, must resort to self-justification when rejecting rabbinic interpretation in aggadah.17 In many places he discusses those words in Hazal seriously, and when they do not seem to him to convey the simple sense of the verse, he prefers to assume that they are not to be taken literally, but they possess an inner meaning [sod]. Other exegetes, notably Rashi, endeavor to select from rabbinic midrash that which seems to them compatible with the simple sense of Scripture.
It is obvious that our exegetes did not mean to determine practical halakhah on the basis of their interpretations ignoring those of the Rabbis, for they certainly considered themselves bound by the halakhah ofHazal.18 How then, can we justify their license to interpret halakhic passages in a way which does not coincide with the midrash of Hazal?19 The conceptual foundation of this freedom lies in the acceptance of the principle that “there are seventy facets to the Torah” (Numbers Rabbah 13:15), i.e. that a verse has more than one meaning. Rashi formulates this principle at the beginning of his commentary to Shir HaShirim: “God spoke one which I heard as two (Ps. 62:12).’ One verse may have several meanings [te’amim],20 but in the end no verse escapes from its simple sense and literal meaning [peshuto umashma’o].”21
There are, of course, occasions when two interpretations conform to the accepted rules of language and expression, and then both can be considered the simple meaning of the verse. But this is not always the case. When Rashi or some other exegete states that the midrash halakhah is not the simple meaning of the verse, he means that we are not to measure the midrash by the customary standards of textual exegesis- conformity to the established rules of language and style- and it emerges that, in the exegete’s opinion, Hazal, too, did not maintain that the midrash is the simple meaning of the verse. The zeal with which some exegetes attempt to enhance the authority of midrash halakhah by insisting that it is rooted in the language of the verse frequently causes unnecessary “twisting” of scriptural passages.22 There is no derogation to midrash in stating that a midrash is not the simple meaning of the verse. No other exegete pursues peshat as devotedly as Rashbam, yet he is of the opinion that “the essence [ikkar] of the Torah is to teach and inform us through the hints of peshat, the haggadot, halakhot, and dinim.”23 Similarly, in his introduction to parshat Mishpatim he writes, “Let the intellgent-minded know and understand that it is not my intention to explain halakhot even though they are central, but it is my intention to explain the simple meaning of the texts.”
The relationship between the halakhah and the derashah has attracted a good deal of discussion. Did midrashim of texts serve as a creative source of halakhot, or is the basis of the halakhot to be found in the chain of tradition, with the derashot merely constituting support for the halakhot which preceded them?24 R. Meir Leib Malbim (1809-79; Eastern Europe), the extreme advocate of the former view, and R. Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg (1785-1855; Germany), the author of Haketav Vehakabbalah [Scripture and Tradition], strove to demonstrate that the derashot of Hazal are anchored in the bedrock of the Hebrew language and its unique characteristics. According to Malbim (in the Introduction to his commentary of Leviticus), the derashah is the simple sense [peshat hapashut] which is inevitable and implanted in the depth of the language and the foundation of the Hebrew tongue.” However, despite the occasional successes of Malbim and Mecklenburg in demonstrating that the derash which, prima facie, is far from the simple meaning of the verse, may, in fact, be in conformity with the essence of its simple meaning, they often forced conformity between the peshat and the derashah in instances where there was no basis for it. An unprejudiced survey of derashot on Biblical texts teaches us that the rabbinic derashot are “divided into a variety of approaches.”25 In many of them, the Sages never meant to assert that the halakhot actually are derived from the meaning of the verse.26 The same conclusion is applicable to midrash aggadah; one who attempts to discover an interpretation of the text in each derashah will attribute to Hazal statements which they never intended to make because, “Sometimes they explain the verse properly according to its simple meaning, and sometimes they utilize a derashah for a deep or explicit inner meaning [sod amok o meforash].”27
On the basis of this distinction between interpretation (perush) and derash, we can understand the perplexing story in T.B. Ta’anit 5b:
R. Nahman and R. Yitshak were seated at a meal. R. Nahman said to R. Yitshak, “Please say a word [of Torah; c.f. devar Torah, vort].” He answered, “R. Yohanan said thus, ‘We do not converse during meals lest the trachea precede the esophagus [in swallowing] and cause danger [of choking].'” After they had dined, he said to him, “R. Yohanan said thus, ‘Our patriarch Yaakov did not die.'” He responded, “Then did the mourners mourn, the embalmers embalm, and the buriers bury in vain?” He responded, “I am using derash on a verse, as it states, ‘And you do not fear, my servant Yaakov, says the Lord, and do not be frightened, O Yisrael, for I am about to save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity (Jer. 30: 10).’ The verse equates him with his seed; just as his seed is alive, he, too, is alive.”
The immediate difficulty with this story was perceived by commentators; of what avail was R. Yitshak’s answer, “I am using derash on a verse”? The question of R. Nahman is still in place, “Did the mourners mourn in vain, etc.?” It appears that the emphasis in R. Yitshak’s response is on the word doresh; i.e., do you think that I am interpreting the section pertaining to Yaakov’s death? I, too know that our patriarch Yaakov died a physical death, and my intention is only to explain (lidrosh) a verse, that is to say, to express an idea via the medium of a verse from Jeremiah.28
It is in this spirit that we should understand the famous words of Rashi in his commentary on Ex. 6:9:
Our Rabbis explained it by derash (derashuhu) in connection with the matter preceding, that Moshe said, “Why did you treat poorly?” (Ex. 5:22). The Holy One Blessed be He responded, “Alas for those who are lost and cannot be found…” But the midrash is not in congruence with the verse for a number of reasons…therefore I say, “Let the problems of a text be solved in accord with its simple sense (peshuto), each expression according to its nature, and let the derashah be derived (‘liddaresh,’ or ‘and derive the derashah‘ = lidrosh), as it is stated, ‘Are my words indeed not as fire, says the Lord, and as the hammer which shatters the rock?’ (Jer. 23:29)- splitting into several sparks.”
The derashah is not, Heaven forbid, invalid, and, according to Rashi, the idea in it is both true and important, but this derashah has nothing to do with the straightforward interpretation of the verse, i.e., the meaning which is expressed in the passage according to its simple sense, and this is the meaning which interested Rashi as a Biblical exegete.
This approach is also the only way to explain how Rashbam can write the Preface to his commentary on the Torah, “Let the intelligent understand that all of the words of our Rabbis and their derashot are true, and can at the same time, attack sharply rabbinic interpretations (generally to be found in Rashi’s commentary) whose source is midrash, such as Gen. 49:9, “And he who explained it as pertaining to the sale of Joseph did not at all understand the meaning of the verse or its division by cantillation.”29 Rashbam’s attack is not directed at the use of derash on a verse, but rather at the equation of the derashah with the simple meaning of the text.
When attempting to solve questions arising out of incongruence between peshat and derash, we cannot, especially in the classroom,30 easily resort to the answer “we do not rely on words of aggadah.”31 On the other hand, to attempt to “correct” our exegetical criteria so that they conform to the words of the midrash is improper, and, moreover, cannot succeed, pedagogically. One cannot teach a student in literature and history classes and in some Bible classes (dealing with texts where the midrash does not oppose the peshat), that he must interpret on the basis of standard criteria, but that when reading texts which have been expounded by midrash he must entirely ignore those criteria.32 We can resolve these incongruities only by recognizing, as we have suggested earlier, that the midrash of a verse need not be intended as the meaning of the verse. Since it is not our purpose here to deal with the methodology of midrash and aggadah,33 suffice it to note that in many cases those midrashim which seem, prima facie, to be fashioned out of a fundamental misunderstanding of the text, are revealed upon further investigation, to be supplementary to the simple sense of the verse, whether adding conceptual depth to the peshat, or presenting an additional, more fundamental, interpretation side-by-side with the surface meaning of the text. The phenomenon of double meanings, whether side-by-side or one superimposed on the other, should be familiar to students from their literature classes, and it is important to develop sensitivity to it in the teaching of Scripture, too.
We can thus place in their proper perspective many of those midrashim which make no real attempt to deal with scriptural peshat but rather use the verse as a vehicle for the expression of an idea. What, however, are we to say of those midrashim which apparently purport to draw inferences from close reading of the biblical text,34 but which cannot be said to be linguistically or logically sound from an objective standpoint?35 It appears to us that Rashbam, who interprets Scripture (both in narrative and legal sections) according to its simple sense more than any of our other exegetes, is the only one who has succeeded completely36 in freeing himself from the tension between peshat and derash. His approach provides guidelines both to us and to our students for the resolution of the complex relationships between peshat and derash.
We read in Rashbam’s commentary to the opening of Genesis:37
Most of the halakhot derive from superfluities in the text or the changes from the language in which the simple sense of Scripture can be written to language from which the main point of a derashah can be derived; e.g, “These are the generations of heaven and earth in their being created [bhbbr’m] (Gen, 2:4),” and the Sages interpreted by derash38– through Abraham [b’brhm] from the lengthiness of the expression, since there was no need to say “bhbr’m.”
He supplies further details at Gen 37:2 (whose opening words were clted above):
The essence of Torah is to teach and inform us, through the hints of peshat, the haggadot, halakhot and dinim, by means of extended phraseology, and with the aid of the thirty-two principles of R. Eliezer the son of R. Yose the Galilean and of the thirteen principles of R. Yishmael.
According to the view of Rashbam, the simple sense of a passage and the midrash of Hazal are two distinct areas, two different levels of meaning. The layer of peshat is the meaning expressed explicitly in the verse, and which we uncover by all the accepted tools of textual exegesis. The layer of derash is the sense concealed between the lines and behind the words, and we expose it via the “peculiarities” of the passage and with the help of the “key principles” which Hazal have transmitted to us (the principles of derash according to which Torah is to be interpreted).
Certainly even Rashbam did not intend to say that in every case the derashah of a verse cannot be regarded as its simple sense, i.e., of the verse, whether explicitly or implicitly.39 Thus, in a passage where it is impossible to reconcile the midrash with the simple sense of the verse, we must follow the approach of Rashbam, and postulate that the midrash belongs to another category; our function in Bible classes is to explain the fundamental, plain, meaning of the text.
It should be stressed that, if, on the one hand, we accept the assumption of our exegetes (following the Talmud) that Scripture also has a simple meaning, and, if, on the other; it is clear to us that many midreshei Hazal cannot in any way be considered the plain meaning of a verse,40 then we cannot avoid Rashbam’s conclusion concerning the two layers of meaning in the text. There is no doubt, in our opinion, that such a distinction underlies the commentaries of other exegetes. Ibn Ezra, who did not formulate as clear a distinction, was compelled, on the one hand, to reject as incorrect several midrashim of Hazal on certain verses (particularly in the narrative portion of Torah), and, on the other, to indulge in forced interpretations to make other midrashim conform to the language of the text.41
The approach of Rashbam is most convincing when we are dealing with peshat and derash which can stand side-by-side; it is more difficult to apply when we have before us a derashah which presents itself as fulfilling criteria of peshat when in our eyes it actually contradicts peshat. This problem is most prominent in the interpretation of legal material.42 Scholars have attempted to reconcile some of the “contradictions” between peshat and derashah in various ways;43 such as that the peshat determines the ideal, and the derash the law in actuality; or that the peshat and the derash apply at different times, in different situations and the like.44 Whatever the explanation, the fact is that our classical exegetes permitted themselves to interpret texts according to the simple sense even when it stands in opposition to the conclusion which is demanded by the derashah of the passage, and that they saw no contradiction in this.
From the preceding discussion, we should conclude that, if we are to emulate our classical exegetes, we have not merely the right, but the obligation to teach the Bible according to its simple sense, both in its narrative and halakhic sections. If we can succeed in severing the “indispensable” link between a correct midrash and the simple sense of a passage, we can teach peshat without diminishing students’ respect forHazal. If the student realizes that midrash, too, has many facets, and that in the majority of instances it was by no means the intention of Hazal to supply a linguistic and contextual interpretation of Biblical passages, there is no danger that the stressing of peshat in teaching Bible may cause any disrespect whatever for the words of our Sages.45
A proper stance vis-a-vis the difference between midrashic literature and Biblical exegesis is especially important for teachers, for the real danger in stressing peshat is the potential neglect of the important exegetical and conceptual material contained in the midrashim of Hazal. Here are but two examples of many which could be adduced.
1) In Genesis Rabbah 84:13 (ed. Theodore-Albeck, p. 1016) there is a derashah: “’And he sent him from the Valley (emek) of Hevron (Gen. 37:14)’: And is not Hevron situated exclusively in hill-country, and you say ‘from the Valley of Hevron’? R. Aha said, ‘He went to fulfill the deep (amukah) purpose which the Holy One Blessed be He imparted to the good friend (haver na ‘eh; pun on Hevron) who is buried in Hevron, ‘And they shall serve them and afflict them (Gen. 15:13).'” This is not, of course, the simple sense of the verse, but there is no doubt that the thought expressed in the midrash that the dispatch of Yosef, his sale, and all the adventures of Yaakov’s sons until they descended to Egypt, which appear on superficial reading to be the result of accidental human actions, are but links in the divine plan to bring the Children of Israel down to Egypt. Indeed, the idea is stated explicitly by Yosef later (45:8), and is hinted at several times in the course of the story.47Hazal found support for this basic idea in the “change of expression” in this verse (“valley” for “mountain”). Anyone who considers this midrash to be a simple sense interpretation of the words “And he sent him from the Valley of Hevron” sins against biblical style, and probably attributes to Hazal thoughts which never occurred to them. On the other hand, whoever ignores the words of the midrash for the sole reason that they do not reflect the simple sense of the text, sins against himself (and his students) by deliberately overlooking an idea important to the understanding of the section and its significance.
2) In Exodus Rabbah 50:3, R. Levi expounds by derashah “For they were bitter” (Ex, 15:23)- “The generation was bitter in its deeds.” R, Levi certainly did not intend this to be understood as the meaning of the verse, since the continuation “And he threw it into the waters and the waters became sweet” (ibid., 25) shows that it was the waters which had been bitter. But the concept expressed in the words of R. Levi may indeed be the simple sense of the episode. The external cause for complaint was indeed the bitterness of the water, but the deeper, truer reason was the people’s own bitterness. If the waters had not been bitter, the people would surely have found another reason for complaint, as they indeed did later on. Excuses for complaining about life are not lacking even under normal living conditions, a fortiori in the desert.
The search for significance in Biblical texts and the educational use of the Bible cannot be accomplished without continually drawing on the material found in the sources. There are seventy facets to the Torah, andpeshat is one of them. If “Torah is light” (Prov. 6:23), then the facet of peshat, too, must be enlightening.