Congregation Ohave Shalom - Young Israel of Pawtucket

On-line Tanach Class
Peshat and Derash
Levels of Interpretation

Why Don't the Words Mean What the Dictionary Says They Do?

We all encounter this question at some point or another. Rashi [who claims to be offering the "simple nature of the verse,"] or Ramban, or one of the Aramaic commentators-cum-translators, offers a Midrashic interpretation of a story. We read the comment, turn it around, look at it from a few different angles, but we ultimately can make neither head nor tail of its textual source. "Where did the Torah say that?" we ask, not truly expecting anyone to point out an anomalous word or turn of phrase we hadn't noticed before.

To state the question differently: What is the basis for Derash?


Traditionally, "Derash" refers to a set of exegeses which are loosely linked to a Torah text, whereas "Peshat" is the 'simple' understanding, the literal translation of a set of words on a paper before us. The key to deciphering either level, lies in an understanding the connection between the two: Both "Peshat" and "Derash" are based on a "Masorah," a tradition.

The Masorah of Derash

One easily recognizes the tradition backing Derash. Every statement is cited from someone, and most statements bear double, triple, or quadruple levels of attribution. How many times have we read "R' Elazar stated, in the name of R' Chanina?" Surely, this is an act of Masorah. The notion of latter-day Midrash does not fit well within the Orthodox view of this body of interpretation; we may not make up stories regarding the Torah's figures, and link our fables to textual oddities. Such an approach denies and defies the Masorah.

Clearly, then, Derash relies on a tight Masorah.

The Dictionary Needs a Pedigree, Too

What about Peshat, though? It is rare to find an attribution attached to the literal translation of a word; there are such cases in the Talmud [R' Akiva and Amsa deBei Rebbe come to mind], but they are few and far between. The reason for this would seem to be self-evident - who needs to cite a source when presenting a dictionary definition? However, as a matter of fact, Peshat also involves a Masorah of sorts; a dictionary needs a Masorah, too.

Let us illustrate with a well-known story from the Talmud [Shabbos 31a]. Hillel was approached by a would-be convert who had an odd request: Teach me the Written Torah, but I have no interest in the Spoken Torah, the aspect of the Torah which has relied on human transmission instead of textual verification throughout the generations. Hillel accepted him, and began the first lesson.

Pointing to letters on a blackboard, Hillel pronounced them - "Alef," "Bet," "Gimel," "Dalet," he began, and the student faithfully practiced his lesson and left.

For the next lesson, Hillel again drew the letters on the board, but this time he gave them different pronunciations. "Tav," "Shin," "Reish," "Kuf," Hillel said, pointing to the letters as though this was the most normal lesson. The student was beside himself. "Yesterday you said those were 'Alef,' 'Bet,' 'Gimel,' 'Dalet!' he protested.

"Indeed," responded Hillel. "But how did you know what they were, without relying on me for that interpretation?"

The message of this Gemara is clear: "Peshat" is as much a part of the Masorah as any other method of exegesis, and it requires attribution and tradition, too.


Given the above, it becomes clear that Peshat and Derash, when properly based on a Masorah, have equal claim on our learning. Both originate in the same source, and both are true understandings of the text, whether dependent on dictionary definition, textual anomaly or Midrashic narrative.

Our twentieth-century bias is toward explanations derived from a dictionary, but that should not prejudice our study of an eternal book. There is Peshat, and there is Derash, and neither has sole right to the text.

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