Shiur #9a: "Peshat" and "Derash" – Midrash Aggada

  • Rav Amnon Bazak

a.            Introduction


Much ink has been spilled in the attempt to define the terms "peshat" and "derash,"[1] which have their origin in the teachings of Chazal.[2] It could happen that in a given debate over the explanation of a verse, everyone could agree that one of the proposed interpretations is a "peshat" one, while the other interpretation is a "derash” one, and yet disagree with one another as to which one is which! In fact, a well-known aphorism contends that "My interpretation of the verse represents the peshat (i.e., the plain meaning of the text), while yours represents derash (a homiletical lesson representing a different level of interpretation)." For the purposes of our discussion, we will assume the following definition:


"Peshat assumes that 'the Torah speaks in the language of human beings,'[3] and that it should be understood in the same manner in which human speech is usually understood – i.e., in accordance with the rules of grammar and syntax, with consideration for textual context, and within the framework of that which human rational thought deems plausible,[4] of social convention, and of the laws of nature. Derash assumes that the Torah does not speak in the language of man,[5] and it must be understood in special ways, with attention paid to elaboration and superfluities, and using the hermeneutical laws."[6]


A huge body of midrashic literature was created, starting from the time of Chazal and up to the end of the Middle Ages. Midrashei Chazal were widely disseminated and highly popular among Torah scholars – especially those midrashim familiar to us from the commentaries of Rashi, who was fond of integrating them into his work. For many scholars, a large number of midrashim became integral to the content of the text itself.


Midrashim may be divided into two main types: midrashei halakha, pertaining to laws that are derived from the verses or based upon them; and midrashei aggada, pertaining to the non-legal parts of the Torah. In this chapter we will be discussing midrashei aggada and our attitude towards them; in the next chapter we will turn our attention to midrashei halakha.


In recent years in Israel, we have witnessed two different trends within the Religious-Zionist community: on the one hand there are rabbis and religious Tanakh scholars, many of them graduates of Yeshivat Har Etzion and associated institutions, who propound the study of Tanakh on the level of peshat, sometimes making cautious use of academic tools and the accumulated knowledge of the academic world. Amongst this group special mention should be made of Rabbi Mordekhai Breuer, zt”l, and – may they live long – Rabbi Yoel bin Nun and Rabbi Yaakov Medan, who have raised a generation of students and students' students who study Tanakh in depth, on the level of peshat, as an integral part of the world of the beit midrash.


On the other hand, there are rabbis and scholars of a more Charedi-National (Chardal) orientation, who view the study of Tanakh on the level of peshat as a dangerous innovation, and therefore rule out the study of peshat of Tanakh in our generation. Tanakh is not studied much amongst these circles, and the main approach to such study relies on midrashei Chazal or exegesis in Hassidic or kabbalistic style.[7]


In this chapter we will seek to demonstrate that the approaches that ignore the level of peshat represent a substantial deviation from the path of most of the major medieval biblical commentators. These commentators interpret the text on the level of peshat and proceed from the assumption that God's word, as recorded in the Books of Tanakh, finds expression on the level of peshat, too – perhaps principally so[8] – and for this reason someone who wants to study God's word must know how to understand the meaning of the text on its plain level. They emphasize that the complementary insights offered by derash do not obligate the scholar of peshat, and they do not rule out the legitimacy of an interpretation that ignores these insights. In this chapter we will cite some comments in this spirit from the classical biblical commentators, and examine the ramifications of this approach for Tanakh study in our generation.


b.            The attitude of the Geonim to midrash aggada


The distinction between peshat and derash is apparent already in the writings of the Geonim of Babylonia, who in many instances are reluctant to be bound to midrashic interpretations of verses. We shall review briefly the attitude of the Geonim to the midrash.[9]


It appears that it was Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon,[10] the first rabbinic biblical commentator, who established the principle that "we do not rely on aggada,"[11] thereby setting the precedent for many of the Geonim to take a different view from that expressed in the midrash – obviously, with a clear distinction between halakha, as binding, and aggada, as non-binding. Rav Sherira Gaon writes explicitly:[12]


"Those matters which are inferred from biblical verses, known as midrash and aggada, are but conjecture; some of them are substantiated … but many are not – such as R. Akiva's teaching that the 'gatherer' [of wood on Shabbat, referred to in Bamidbar 15] was Tzelofchad,[13] or R. Shimon's assertion that 'the fast of the tenth month' refers to the 10th of Tevet,[14] and they mention each opinion, but as for us – 'a man is praised according to his reason' (Mishlei 12:8). Likewise the aggadot brought by their disciples' disciples, such as Rabbi Tanchuma and Rabbi Ushia and the like – most of them are not substantiated, and therefore we do not rely on the words of aggada. The correct interpretations among them are those which may be backed up by logic and by the text, but there is no limit or end to aggadot."[15]


According to Rav Sherira Gaon, aggada should be regarded as an educated opinion, not as an authoritative tradition handed down, and therefore the exegete has every right to accept or reject it. The guiding principle, in his view, is the question of the extent to which the aggada is based on reason and grounded in the text. Where the connection is strong, the aggada may be accepted; where it is not, "we do not rely on the words of aggada.”


A similar view was adopted by Rav Shemuel ben Chofni Gaon,[16] who drew a clear distinction between matters of halakha and matters of aggada, in terms of the obligation to accept them:


"Aggada is any interpretation brought in the Talmud that does not explain a commandment. This is Aggada, and one should only rely on it within reason. You should know that all laws that the rabbis [of the Talmud] enacted on the basis of a commandment come directly from Moshe our Teacher, may he rest in peace, who received them from the Almighty. One may neither add nor detract from them.But when [the rabbis] interpreted [non-legal] verses, they were expressing their own opinions and what happened to occur to them. We rely on these interpretations only when they are reasonable."[17]


A similar view is expressed by his son-in-law, Rav Hai Gaon:[18]


"Rav Hai was asked concerning the distinction between aggadot written in the Talmud, regarding which we are charged to remove their corruptions, and other written aggadot outside of the Talmud. He replied: Everything included in the Talmud is more clear than that which was omitted. Nonetheless, with respect to the aggadot included therein, if it cannot be reconciled or it has been corrupted, one should not rely upon it, for we have a principle that one does not rely upon aggada. Yet, we are charged to correct the distortions in anything included in the Talmud, for if a teaching did not contain a midrash, it would not have been included in the Talmud. But if a text lies so corrupted, beyond anyone’s ability to edit it, then we must treat it as words which are not legally binding. But regarding other aggadot we are not obligated to pay so much attention: if they are true and correct, they should be studied and preached, if not, they should be ignored."[19]


Rav Hai Gaon maintains that a distinction should be drawn between the aggadot found in the Babylonian Talmud, and those that do not appear there. In the case of the latter, the guiding principle is that "if it is reasonable and good – it is studied and taught; if not – we do not pay attention to it." Concerning the midrashim that appear in the Gemara, on the other hand, greater efforts should be exerted in order to understand them, but here too – "if they make no sense, and have been corrupted, they are not to be relied upon."


Elsewhere the Geonim discuss the midrashic interpretation of the verse, "And it shall be on that day that there shall be no bright light (or yekarot) but thick darkness (ve-kipaon)" (Zekharia 14:6):


"What is the meaning of the terms 'yekarot' and 'kipaon'? Rabbi Elazar taught: This means that the light that is precious (yakar) in this world, is considered of no value (kapuy) in the World to Come. R. Yochanan taught: These refer to the laws concerning leprosy and the ritual impurity of a tent in which there lies a corpse; these are dear [i.e., acquired at great cost, requiring great effort to understand] in this world, but are cheap [i.e., easily understood] in the World to Come. R. Yehoshua ben Levi taught: These refer to people who are honored in this world, but will be considered unimportant in the World to Come."


The Geonim devote brief discussion to these interpretations, but conclude: "These are all midrashim and aggadot… and there are other ways of understanding this verse."[20]


To conclude this brief review, let us consider what Rabbenu Chananel[21] writes in his commentary on Chagiga 12a concerning the many midrashim cited there: "These are all midrashim, and we should not be too exacting with them, holding them up to rational evaluation."


The critical attitude of the Geonim towards midrash was not passed down to later generations. During the Middle Ages the attitude changed, and midrash came to occupy a central and significant place in Jewish scholarship. For instance, in his Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishna, the Rambam writes:


"Do not imagine that the midrashim brought in the Talmud are of little importance, or of little value. They serve an important purpose, insofar as they include some profound allusions to wondrous matters, accessible to those who study these midrashim in depth. From them we understand something of the absolute, unsurpassed good, and they reveal some Godly matters, matters of truth, which these wise men concealed within them, and which have been sought by generations of philosophers."


Nevertheless, despite the value given to midrashim, the distinction between derash and peshat is still maintained, and the legitimacy of peshat as an independent level of interpretation in its own right is preserved. The medieval biblical commentators maintained the distinction systematically, throughout their commentaries, as we shall see in the next shiur.


Translated by Kaeren Fish




Originally, the statement that "The Torah speaks in the language of human beings" was meant in a rather limited context. Rabbi Akiva's approach was that it is necessary to seek the reason for every instance where the Torah uses an expression involving a repetitious phrase – such as "hikaret tikaret" (Bamidbar 15:31); "bashel mevushal" (Shemot 12:9); "shaleach teshalach" (Devarim 22:7), etc., while Rabbi Yishmael rejects this exegetical principle, maintaining that "the Torah speaks in the language of human beings" – i.e., in using these grammatical forms, the Torah does not mean to teach us anything extra; rather, the situation is "Just as when a person is telling his friend to do something: if he wishes to urge him, he repeats himself and commands him twice over; thus, the text doubles its language, in order to urge [us]" (Torat Chaim, Bava Metzi'a 31b). For instance, concerning the verse, "That soul shall surely be cut off (hikaret tikaret), its iniquity is upon it" (Bamidbar 15:31), Rabbi Akiva teaches: "'Hikaret' – [teaches that the soul will be cut off] from this world; 'tikaret' – [it will be cut off] from the World to Come" (Sanhedrin 64b), but Rabbi Yishmael rejects this interpretation, maintaining that the Torah is simply "speaking in the language of human beings."

This debate is related to the exegetical approach in general: while R. Akiva tended towards extensive, far-reaching exegesis, R. Yishmael adhered more closely to the plain meaning of the text. On the differences between their respective approaches concerning midrash, see A.J. Heschel, Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations, Bloomsbury 2006, pp. XLI-LIX.

It should be noted that many of the Rishonim extended the use of the principle that "the Torah speaks in the language of human beings" to apply also to the expressions in the Torah that seem to attribute some corporeality to God. Thus, for example, the Rambam writes (Hilkhot Yesodei haTorah 1:12):  "…All such [descriptions] and the like which are related in the Torah and the words of the Prophets – all these are metaphors and imagery. [For example,] 'He who sits in the heavens shall laugh' (Tehillim 2:4); 'They angered Me with their emptiness' (Devarim 32:21); and 'As God rejoiced' [ibid. 28:63]. With regard to all such statements, our Sages said: 'The Torah speaks in the language of man.'"

Similarly, Radak writes (in his commentary on Yirmiyahu 14:8), "In many places the Torah speaks about the Creator using the language of man, attributing to Him sight and hearing and smell, a hand, a foot – in the manner of human speech, but all is meant metaphorically, so that people can understand."  For an in-depth discussion on the use of the phrase from the period of the Talmud through to the Rambam and its connection to the philosophy of religious language, see Margalit and Halbertal, Idolatry, Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 54-62.



[1] See, for example, A. Touitou, Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar u-Perusho Or ha-Chaim al ha-Torah, Jerusalem 5742, p. 48, p. 13; S. Kamin, Rashi – Peshuto shel Mikra u-Midrasho shel Mikra, Jerusalem 5746, pp. 11-17; M. Ahrend, Parshanut ha-Mikra ve-Hora'ato, Jerusalem 5766, pp. 9-31.

[2] For discussion of Chazal's use of these terms and their meaning, see Kamin, pp. 32-48; D. Weiss Halivni, Peshat and Derash, New York-Oxford, 1991, pp. 54-76; Ahrend, pp. 9-16. It is unanimously agreed that it is difficult to find a distinct and clear system in the way Chazal related to the differences between the two concepts.

[3]See the appendix to this shiur for a discussion of the history of the phrase, “The Torah speaks in the language of human beings.”

[4] Obviously, it is clear that the biblical commentator lives within a certain cultural world, and his understanding of the peshat is inseparable from this world. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we cannot apply the same definition to the aim of his study (within the world that he is coming from): the desire to understand the text from within its authentic context.

[5] Obviously, the intention here is that derash assumes that the Torah does not speak only in the language of human beings; it does not mean to negate the plain meaning of the text.

[6] A. Touitou, Ha-Peshatot ha-Mitchadshim bekhol Yom – Iyyunim be-Perusho shel Rashbam la-Torah, Jerusalem 5763, p. 55. His insightful comment concerning other definitions (ibid. 54, n. 8) is worthy of note: "Words about the 'objectivity' of the peshat as opposed to the 'subjectivity' of derash are in fact the evaluation of [the respective interpretations on the part of] the scholars, and not definitions reflecting the view of the commentators."

[7] In recent years, statements have been heard such as, "We are fortunate enough to have Chazal, whose insight was close to the level of prophecy. In the Oral Law it is they who teach us greater depth than what we, with our meager abilities, are able to grasp ourselves. It is essential to know this, that through Chazal we see more depth… One can stand in front of a mirror and talk to himself, but this has nothing to do with what the Tanakh is saying" (Rabbi Tzvi Tau, Tzaddik be-Emunato Yichyeh, Jerusalem 5762, pp. 13-14); "In our beit midrash we emphasize the indispensable adherence to Chazal in studying Tanakh. Without this, the Book of Books is not complete" (Y. Rosen, Sefer Shoftim be-Gova Chazal, Jerusalem 5765, p. 9).

In the Diaspora, sentiments along similar lines were expressed by Rabbi Aharon Kotler. See Mishnat Rebbi Aharon III:179.

[8] As we shall see below, there are different views among the medieval commentators as to whether peshat represents the most important level of understanding, or whether it is an additional level subservient to derash.

[9] See Y. Fraenkel, Darkei ha-Aggada ve-ha-Midrash, vol. II, Givatayim 1991, pp. 504-507; Y. Elbaum, Lehavin Divrei Chakhamim, Jerusalem 5761, pp. 47-64. Among the reasons for this attitude, as Fraenkel and Elbaum note, was the considerable attention invested in polemics against Karaites and even Muslims, who attacked aggada from a rationalist position.

[10] Known by his initials – RaSaG (882-942), he was one of the greatest Jewish scholars in the early Middle Ages. He wrote books in the spheres of halakha, Tanakh, philosophy, and grammar, and these were a basis for later Jewish scholarship.

[11] See B.M. Levin, Otzar ha-Geonim: Berakhot, Haifa 5688, Chelek Ha-Perushim, p. 91, and n. 10.

[12] Rav Sherira Gaon (906-1006) was the Gaon of Pumbedita, and the author of a great number of responsa. The well-known Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon (Letter of Rav Sherira Gaon) deals with the development of rabbinic literature, and the history of the Talmud, the Savoraim and the Geonim.

[13]See Shabbat 96b. Rabbi Akiva bases his opinion on the hermeneutical principle of the gezera shava: "Here the text says, 'And Bnei Yisrael were in the wilderness, and they found a man…' (Bamidbar 15:32), and later on Tzelofchad's daughters say, 'Our father died in the wilderness' (Bamidbar 27:3). Just as the later quote refers to Tzelofchad, so does the earlier one." We may assume that Rav Sherira Gaon's reservations concerning this identification related to the fact that if it had indeed been Tzelofchad who had gathered wood on Shabbat, the text would have mentioned him by name – as indeed the continuation of the discussion there would suggest: "R. Yehuda ben Beteira said to him: Akiva, either way you will have to answer for this in the future. If the matter is as you say, then the situation is that the Torah chose to conceal his identity, but you have revealed it. And if it is not as you say, then you are slandering a righteous man."

[14] See Rosh ha-Shana 18b, where the opposing view is cited.

[15] Cited in Sefer Ha-Eshkol, Hilkhot Sefer Torah, Albeck edition 60b.

[16]Rav Shemuel ben Chofni (the Gaon of Sura starting from the year 997, d. 1013) wrote works in different spheres, including a Commentary on the Torah and philosophical works. For more about him see A. Greenbaum's introduction to Perush ha-Torah la-Rav Shmeul ben Chofni Gaon, Jerusalem 5739, pp. 11-23.

[17] Translation by Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan: This excerpt is from Mavo la-Talmud, which is erroneously attributed to Rabbi Shemuel ha-Naggid. The work is actually an abridged translation of a work by Rabbi Shemuel ben Chofni Gaon, entitled Mavo el Mada ha-Mishna ve-ha-Talmud; see Elbaum, p. 52, no. 11, and the bibliography listed there. Further on there are more quotations from the writings of Rabbi Shemuel ben Chofni Gaon, the most strident among them being an excerpt from a letter (originally published by S. Asaf, Tekufat ha-Geonim ve-Sifrutah, Jerusalem 5737, p. 283), in which he states, with rhyming literary finesse, that while some of the early Geonim would write aggadot to draw the hearts of readers, "we have adopted different paths in writing halakhot and traditions, and these are like fine flour, while the aggadot are like chaff…".

In his commentary on the story of the woman medium consulted by Shaul (Shemuel I 28), R. Shemuel ben Chofni Gaon maintains that it is inconceivable that the woman actually conjured up the spirit of Shemuel. In his view, the entire story is one of deceit on the part of the woman, and she herself invents all the messages conveyed to Shaul. He is well aware that Chazal understand the episode according to its plain meaning (see, for instance, Chagiga 4b; Sanhedrin 65b) – i.e., that the woman did indeed raise the spirit of Shemuel, but he writes: "Even though what Chazal say in the Gemara suggests that the woman truly raised up Shemuel, such statements cannot be accepted where they run counter to rational thought" (quoted in the commentaries of R. Yehuda ben Bil'am and Radak on Shemuel I 28).

[18] Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038), son and heir of Rav Sherira Gaon of Pumbedita, and son-in-law of Rav Shemuel ben Chofni, Gaon of Sura, is considered the last of the Geonim. His best-known works include Mishpetei Shevu'ot and Sefer ha-Shetarot.

[20] Teshuvot ha-Geonim Harkaby, siman 353.

[21] Rabbenu Chananel ben Chushiel (965-1055) was the first to write a commentary on the majority of the Babylonian Talmud. He was one of the greatest scholars in the early period of the Rishonim.