Derasháh: The Art of Interpretation in Jewish Tradition

By David Ramírez


Every culture, every civilization has developed a way to give a reason for its existence. Often, the reasons depart from foundational narratives lost in history or developed over time based on collective sentiments that give shape to a national understanding. Sometimes, these narratives come in the form of sacred texts; others too in the form of oral histories passed generation after generation. Be as it may, in one way or another, these narratives do not only give an identity to any given nation, be this tribal or complex, but also informs a people about their behavior and expectations, their hopes and their dreams. For Israel, the narrative that is central to Jewish existence is commonly called the Toráh, otherwise known as the Five Books of Moses, or in its Greek given name, the Pentateuch. We shall explore in this short article how the Jew reads the Toráh according to a time-bound tradition, how this reading informs Jewish existence across time and space, and reason being why reading and writing of this text are central to the aesthetic experience of Jewish civilization, one lacking visual and sensory traditions of the arts.

   At its most basic level of composition, made-up of letters, the Toráh is written in Hebrew, an ancient Semitic language closely related to Arabic and Aramaic. As all Semitic languages, Hebrew is made-up exclusively of consonants, therefore forcing the reader to previously know or re-create the vowels that make up the words as he reads.

   For the Jew, the Hebrew language is sacred, lashón haQódesh, a derivative of the word qadosh. But the word qadosh is mistranslated as “holy” or “sanctus” in Latin, and denotes a sanction or approval by someone in a position of authority. Qadosh actually means “separate / apart,” one that runs through the immense praxis of Jewish perception, and informs what is proper or improper in the entire gamut of Israelite existence.     

   According to Jewish tradition, God taught the first man, Adam, how to speak, and this primary language was Hebrew.  By virtue of it being taught, speech is something artificial, already existent by another source outside our biological nature, thus not being intrinsic to our being.

   We have already mentioned that the Toráh requires a consonantal reading, whereby the reader inserts the vowels as he reads the Hebrew text. To make matters more interesting, the text of the Toráh also lacks punctuation and diacritics. So not only the reader has to know the proper pronunciation of each and every word, but also how to phrase the sentences, as well as how to enunciate them with the proper stress in the words.

   One answer about how the preservation of vocalization of the Toráh has been accomplished is with the understanding that its reading has been passed generation to generation, whose present form was formalized by a group of rabbis during the post-Talmudic period (7th to 11th c.), often called by historians as the “Masoretes.” This, however, does not exclude the different debates and commentaries argued by Rabbis and their students across history, where not only the proper spelling is matter of discussion, but also the very shape, size or position of the letters comes into view.

   The Masoretic text reflects the official reading of the Toráh, and further writings of the Bible, fixed and accepted by Rabbinic Tradition. This text resolves the representation of vowels by a system called niqqud, which is a series of dots and markings, not only signaling the type of vowel and its accentuation, but also the stress or change in consonantal value of the letter itself.

   The prosody, that is, the phrasing of sentences and emotive character of the text is shown in the Masoretic text with a series of additional markings called ta‘amím. The ta‘amím not only show punctuation marks indicating phrasing, as dots, commas, semi-colons and colons, and the like, do in Western tradition, but these also indicate a melodic character of the text itself. The text of the Toráh is parsed melodically, a feature that acquires an obligatory status according to Jewish Law during public readings. This practice not only seems to be ancient but also to have been widespread in Middle-Eastern and early Christian traditions, both of whom also have and had systems of melodic representation along the text called neumes.

   Therefore the text of the Toráh as seen in the parchment of the scroll possesses a guiding representation of its reading. This representation is printed in a book called tiqqún, which is the book studied by those who will read from the Toráh.

   In the scroll, the text looks like this:


  While in the tiqqún, the text is represented like this:


  According to legal precedent, it is the obligation of the shaliah ssibur, the prayer leader who is also in charge of the public reading, to perform his duty by memory, without missing a mark. If the shaliah ssibur were to make a mistake in the melodic prosody, that is the ta‘amím, or in the correct vocalization of the words, he is obligated to repeat the passage until it is performed correctly. In some traditions, it is a custom to have a helper with the Masoretic text at hand in order the assist the shaliah ssibur in its proper reading. Others have even developed hand-gestures that indicate the corresponding ta‘am, or melodic-prosodic mark, and who stands next to the one doing the public reading.

   The melodic representations of the ta‘amím, besides providing a syntactical and phonetic function, has a rich musical tradition developed in different parts of the Jewish Diaspora. Though all share similarities to one another, the melodic representations have provided a stage for different or more elaborate intonations of those very melodic structures. Syrian Jewry has the most developed kind of ta‘amím via a system called maqqam. While for other traditions the ta‘amím remain pretty much the same for the weekly reading, for Syrian tradition the melodic style of the ta‘amím changes week after week.

   All these basic multi-layered aspects of just reading the Toráh have strong implications in interpreting the biblical text, which gives way to grammar and context, metaphor and allegory. Via this process, the reader actually becomes the writer of the text as he performs the reading. Its interpretation will depend on the application to be given. Since Jewish knowledge proceeds from a unifying whole – as a tree would provide its foliage, flower and fruit from the same root and trunk – represented in the text of the Toráh, the text provides the grounds for history, law, metaphysics and homily. In essence, anything and everything needed to give shape to individual and national Jewish existentialism.

   According to tradition, the Toráh can be read in two synchronic levels: The plain sense and accepted meaning by tradition (peshat), and the generated meaning by the reader (derash).

   At the peshat level, the simple and obvious come to fore using the contextual sequence of how the text is put together at the grammatical, syntactical and prosodic levels. As José Faur reports the sensus communis of the peshat,

“For Maimonides the peshat is the linking sense of the Torá (=de-oraita) and as a consequence something that counts with the unanimous consent of the community of Israel. A synonymous expression of peshat prior to the Common Era is dabar she-ha-Tsadoqim modim bo, “something on which the Tsadoqites concur with;” in other words, that which is accepted by all, even the sectarians (Tsadoqites).” (my emphasis)

   Because the biblical text happens to be concise, it renders itself to unfinished thoughts, broken-narratives or tantalizing ambiguities. At this point it is where the level of derash comes into play, a meaning generated through temporal association to figures and symbols common to the community and the society where it lives. It is part of what Ernesto Grassi designates as fantastic universals of the sensus communis, also known as poetic language, and this meaning is produced via inductive thinking to make it relatable to the audience to which it speaks.

   The derash level has produced a rich literature called Midrashím, which in ancient and pre-modern times often contained a fantastic language equal or superlative to fables and legends in non-Jewish lore. It provides the heart and soul of Jewish homilies, which week after week attempt to give a “moral of the story” to the synagogue attendee.

   The generally-accepted-sense-peshat belongs to deductive thinking via the logical sequence of the text, and the generated-derash level to inductive thinking via the creative imagination of the reader. To avoid an over reaching creative license on behalf of the reader, Jewish jurisprudence indicates that the derash sense cannot depart beyond from its peshat sense. This definition of boundaries, in theory, keeps in check any delusive, impossible and absurd interpretations, therefore restricting its manipulation by free-form rhetoricians and ideologues, hence preventing an absolute anarchy.

   The point of Jewish interpretation is to generate meaning, not to read or figure out the intent of the text according to the mind of the author, a practice that remains impossible. Its process develops horizontally, where the text unfolds by using the literary context as well as the figures it generates pending on the daily existence and experiences of human life. This notion becomes clearer when observing the terminology utilized by the Rabbis to explain this concept, as José Faur explains:

“Although in biblical Hebrew, pashat means ‘to strip,’ ‘to flatten,’ and also ‘to extend,’ ‘ to stretch out,’ in Rabbinic Hebrew, as with the Christian Aramaic version of the Bible, Peshitata, it was used in the sense of ‘ common, vulgar,’ ‘generally accepted.’ The relation between the notion ‘to stretch out’ and ‘vulgar’ and ‘generally accepted’ becomes clear upon considering that in the Hebrew ‘to stretch out’ was associated with the act of ‘unrolling’ (poshet) the scroll and exposing the text[.]”

      Peshat and Derash are intrinsically linked. In Jewish tradition, the legal minutiae makes it obligatory to study the weekly portion of the Toráh twice in the Hebrew original, and once in its Aramaic translation of the Targum of Onkelos. The Targum is a derash of the original, and the only sanctioned translation for study in the rabbinical canon. To illustrate the point between the two readings, I shall present one sample text as understood in the peshat sense, and following the same text as understood by the Aramaic derash of the Targum,

“The angels called one to another, and said,

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,

   The fullness of all the earth is His glory.”

And they receive word from each other and say, Holy in the highest heavens, the abode of His entire presence, Holy upon earth the work of His mighty power, Holy forever and all eternity, is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glorious splendor.
   The tension between the general tenor of the Toráh and the particular view of the reader has given way to a great number of commentators and debates over the centuries. The most prominent ones, and espousing the very difference between the two characters of interpretation explained above, have been R. Abrahám ibn Ezra and R. Shelomó Yisshaqi (Rashí). While Ibn Ezra, as his predecessors in Sefarad and the Talmudic centers of learning of Babylonia under the Ge‘oním, preferred the philological method of peshat, Rashí enjoyed the figurative method of derash.

   Despite this seeming exclusive character of Jewish interpretation, Jewish commentators have not been reluctant in accepting and integrating opinions and observations at the derash level from biblical commentators of non-Jewish and sectarian stock. For example, José Faur reports the old custom of Syrian rabbis to consult with the Aramaic-speaking Syrian Church on difficult Aramaic terms and expressions found in the Targum. Thanks to the work of rabbi Salomón Gaon (1912-1994), the Hahám of the Spanish & Portuguese congregation of London, we know that the giant commentator R. Yisshaq Abravanel (15th c.) integrated some biblical commentaries of the eminent Spanish Catholic theologian Alfonso Tostado into his now iconic Toráh commentaries. This too is the case of rabbi Menasséh ben Israel, who in his work Conciliator freely sifts through diverse thinkers of Christian and Islamic persuasions, as well as those of Classical antiquity. The most recent example of this ancient Religious-Humanist stance of accepting wisdom wherever is found is the Soncino edition of the Humash, the weekly companion to the Toráh portions and their after-readings called Haftaroth. Completed under the guidance of the former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, rabbi J. H. Hertz (1872-1946), he expresses this very attitude in the preface,

“Jewish and non-Jewish commentators – ancient, medieval, and modern – have been freely drawn upon. ‘Accept the true from whatever source it come,’ is sound Rabbinic doctrine – even if it be from the pages of a devout Christian expositor or of an iconoclastic Bible scholar, Jewish or non-Jewish.” (p. vii).

   Another modern scholar who follows in their eminent footsteps is Sir Jonathan Sacks, current Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, who in his weekly commentaries seamlessly and elegantly weaves modern and ancient commentators, poets, philosophers, writers – in other words, an impressive breath of scholarship and knowledge, combined with his creative writing talents, very few possess in the rabbinical world in our days.

   We will do well to mention other forms of interpretation that rose during the high Middle Ages, spearheaded by a group of rabbis in France and Northern Spain who began a mystical movement now known as the “Kabbalah.” The “Kabbalist” developed, perhaps under the influence of their cultural environment between a still struggling nascent Christianity and the memory of the superstitious past, Gnostic notions that played with the dualist ideas of light and dark, the fight of the forces of good and evil, the control of the divine through words and incantations, as well as the transformation of language as talismans. The text of the Toráh in the eyes of the “Kabbalists” becomes a fétiche, where words become omens and oracles, and letters become numbers, who in the right combination reveals the secrets of the universe and the thoughts of God: In other words, sorcery and paganism disguised as a Monotheistic faith. In essence, “Kabbalah” is the textual anarchy the Rabbis and their successors were trying to prevent, a movement that has been a point contention and controversy with the traditionalist ever since.

   For last, I shall briefly explain the more restrained role that interpretation plays in the realm of jurisprudence. Despite the relative freedom that homilies enjoy in Jewish tradition, in the area of jurisprudence, interpretation is controlled via a series of rules and canons not easily discernible to the common folk, and one that requires an advance training, and furthermore a majority consent of the judiciary, and final assent of the community.

   There are two basic sources for legal interpretation; one is called mide‘Oraitá and the other mideRabbanán.  Mide‘Oraitá basically represents the explanations of the written text given by God to Moses, and from him to the judiciary. This explanation may and may not have anything to do with the peshat sense of the text, and it is essentially one that lasts unchanged over the generations. MideRabbanán, on the other hand, are the final decisions of the High Court not covered or strictly defined by the mide‘Oraitá sense, decisions approved by a majority of votes. Usually these take the form of extra provisions that protect or extend the laws as defined by the mide‘Oraitá, or these are complete innovations outside it. The different opinions and digressions recorded in the Talmud are examples of majority and minority opinions, including those of women and sectarians. These opinions and digressions are intense arguments engendered through the utilization of the differing rules of interpretation to arrive at a conclusion. The most fundamental rules were formulated by Rabbi Hillel I (circa 110 BCE – 10 CE), and these are as follows:

  1. Qol wa-homer: “Argumentum a minori ad majus” or “a majori ad minus”; corresponding to the scholastic proof a fortiori.
  2. Gezerah shawah: Argument from analogy. Biblical passages containing synonyms or homonyms are subject, however much they differ in other respects, to identical definitions and applications.
  3. Binyan ab mi-katub ehad: Application of a provision found in one passage only to passages which are related to the first in content but do not contain the provision in question.
  4. Binyan ab mi-shene ketubim: The same as the preceding, except that the provision is generalized from two Biblical passages.
  5. Kelal u-Perat and Perat u-kelal: Definition of the general by the particular, and of the particular by the general.
  6. Ka-yosse bo mi-maqom aher: Similarity in content to another Scriptural passage.
  7. Dabar ha-lamed me-‘inyano: Interpretation deduced from the context.

   Considering there has not been a High Court since the 5th c., the use of mide‘Oraitá and mideRabbanán may appear overly restricting and frozen in time. This, however, is not the case. There are further provisions that allow the local pro-forma courts to make further decisions, circumventions, or emendations as time and society evolves through the use of decrees called taqqanot (positive decrees) and gezerot (negative decrees). But unlike the decisions of the High Court, and those accepted by Tradition, local decrees do not hold universal validity for the Jewish people as the High Court decisions do, and these can only be enacted if the local community so desires. And like the derash level, local decisions cannot depart from the general understanding already promulgated and defined by the High Court.

   These decrees have given rise to another set of literature called She‘eloth uTeshuboth (Questions and Answers), this time showing the judicial creativity of the rabbinical mind.

   So far we have showed the basic elements of interpretation effected through a single text. For over 3,500 years the Jewish people have organized an entire society, their immanent needs for existence through imagination rooted in literature and the polis through jurisprudence, along the lines of the Toráh, thus not only fulfilling spiritual needs but also those that give structure to the pragmatic needs of Jewish life and society.

This ever evolving, ever present and ever ancient text effected through their reader-writers – perhaps the only true democracy of minds – has met and overcome the challenges in every age, and has provided a rich source covering every possible gamut of applications in the continuing survival of Israel.

Article originally published in June 24, 2010.

3 responses to “Derasháh: The Art of Interpretation in Jewish Tradition

  1. Thanks as always for your latest.


    On Tue, Feb 23, 2016 at 8:08 AM, “David Ramírez” wrote:

    > dramirezg70 posted: “By David Ramírez Every culture, every civilization > has developed a way to give a reason for its existence. Often, the reasons > depart from foundational narratives lost in history or developed over time > based on collective sentiments that give shape to a” >

  2. Dear Hakham David,

    Thank you for sharing your essay. I found myself agreeing with much of what you wrote, but what you write about kabbalah does not tally with my experience of kabbalah and chassiduth. Through the writing of Ramchal, the Chasssidic rebbeim, and Yehuda Ashlag, we find deep insight into human personality, and practical advice on dealing with the disparate parts of our personalities and integrating the teaching of the Torah into our daily life.

    I do appreciate your work, and thanks again for sharing it.


    On Mon, Feb 22, 2016 at 2:08 PM, “David Ramírez” wrote:

    > dramirezg70 posted: “By David Ramírez Every culture, every civilization > has developed a way to give a reason for its existence. Often, the reasons > depart from foundational narratives lost in history or developed over time > based on collective sentiments that give shape to a” >

    • Hello Shuviel,

      Thank you for your response. My comments about the Kabbalah is not meant to preclude the fact that people across the ages have found utility and meaning in its beliefs. It has indeed proven very popular, but so other popular beliefs have proven utilitarian and meaningful that we normally would deem superstitious. Being popular does not necessarily make it valid from a Jewish point of view. If you are interested to know the type of damage that Kabbalah has fraught on Judaism in more detail, I invite you to read Hahám Faur’s “Anti-Maimonidean Demons.” Be well and Shabbat Shalom.

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