History and Sources

How do Jews interpret their scriptures?

Biblical interpretation began within the Hebrew scriptures themselves, with later authors referring to the earlier texts and thus at least implicitly commenting on their meaning in new contexts. By the time the latest texts were written, new historical circumstances had inevitably led to interpretations of events long past that earlier authors could scarcely have imagined. According to tradition, one of the earliest rabbis to devise a systematic foundation for biblical exegesis was Hillel the Elder (c. 50 B.C.E.-30 C.E.). His “seven principles” (middot) of exegesis taught generations of scholars how to approach the sacred text rationally and consistently. One example of an important principle is called the “light and heavy” (kal va-khomer). According to this principle, if the scripture allows or prohibits a certain action in a minor matter, one is justified in assuming the same allowance or prohibition applies in a more serious case. If the Law allows you to rescue an animal from a ditch on the Sabbath, surely it will also permit alleviating a human being’s suffering.

Later rabbinical scholars devised still more comprehensive and elaborate exegetical frameworks. Perhaps the most famous is summed up in the acronym PaRDeS (an ancient Persian term meaning “paradise”). Each of the uppercase consonants stands for a Hebrew term referring to one of the four principal levels or methods of exegesis. Peshat is the literal sense and the kind of interpretation prevalent in oral Torah; remez looks for the allegorical meaning; derash (“inquire”) derives the homiletical or ethical significance; and sod (“mystery”) unveils the mystical significance of a text. Jewish exegesis has devised highly sophisticated methods of drawing out the various meanings of the sacred text and has preserved the results in an enormous library known as rabbinical literature.

Torah scroll being carried in family procession at Wailing Wall. (Photo courtesy of David Oughton.)


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