Pshat vs. Drash: Part I

Agur bin-Yakeh

The terms "pshat" and "drash" are frequently used but seldom defined. In my opinion, the key to understanding the difference between pshat and drash lies in a principle explained by the Ibn Ezra in his introduction to the Aseres ha'Dibros (Ten Commandments):

Ibn Ezra on Shemos 20:1

As a general rule, the masters of the Holy Language, will sometimes explain their words very clearly, and other times they will say what is necessary in a few concise words, from which the listener can derive their meaning. Know that words are like bodies and meanings are like souls, and the body to the soul is like a vessel. Therefore, the general rule of all wise men in any language is to preserve the meanings without regard to a change of words, so long as the meanings remain the same.

The Ibn Ezra's message is clear: there are words and there are meanings. Words are merely the vehicle through which meanings are conveyed. For this reason, the same meaning can be communicated through different words or different combinations of words.

In light of this distinction, we can now define the difference between pshat and drash:

• To "give the pshat of a pasuk" is to uncover the meaning of the pasuk as intended by its author (i.e. Hashem, in the case of the Chumash, or the Neviim in the case of Nach).

• To "give a drash on a pasuk" or to "darshin pasuk" is to use the words of that pasuk as a platform to express an extrinsic idea, which may or may not bear any relation to the pasuk's actual meaning. 

The Ralbag expresses this very clearly in his critique of commentaries which consist largely or exclusively of midrashic material:

Ralbag on Shir ha'Shirim: Introduction

[We] have seen that all the commentaries which our predecessors have made upon it and which have reached us adopt the midrashic approach, including interpretations which are the opposite of what was intended by the author of Shir ha'Shirim. These midrashic explanations, even though they are good in and of themselves, ought not to be applied as explanations of the things upon which they are said midrashically. For this reason one who wishes to explain these and similar things ought not to apply to them the midrashic explanations regarding them; rather, he should endeavor to explain them according to their intention.

A simple litmus test can be used to figure out whether a statement of Chazal was intended as pshat or as drash. This litmus test can be expressed in the form of the following question: "Is this idea in the words or on the words?" To say that the idea is "in the words" means that it is a faithful restatement of the meaning intended by the author. To say that the idea is "on the words" means that the purveyor of the idea has used the author's words as a springboard for his own idea - an idea that may have nothing to do with the meaning of those words as used by the author.

Some examples will help to illustrate the difference between pshat and drash. The Radvaz explains that the Torah was written without vowelization in order to maximize the potential for drash; the example he cites serves as an excellent model for all drash:

Shailos u’Teshuvos ha’Radvaz 3:643

Know that vowelization is like a form and soul to the letters. Therefore, the Sefer Torah is made without vowels, in order that it encompass all of the panim (facets) and deep ways, and all of them can be expounded using each and every letter . . . If we were to vowelize the Sefer Torah, it would have a limit and a finite measure, like a material which has been endowed with a particular form, and it would not be possible for it to be expounded except in accordance with the particular vowelization of that word. But because all types of perfections are incorporated and mixed into the Sefer Torah, and each and every word is a hook for thousands upon thousands [of ideas], we do not make it vowelized in order that all of these perfections can be expounded.

Therefore, Chazal say, “Do not read such-and-such, rather such-and such” - and if [the vowelization] were specific, we wouldn't be able to say this. Chazal were moved by this in many places by way of superior drash. [For example,] “You shall have a yased (shovel) in addition to your azeinecha (weapons)” (Devarim 23:14). [Chazal expound by way of drash,] “Do not read ‘azeinecha’ (weapons), but rather ‘oznecha’ (ears) – this teaches us that if a person hears something inappropriate, he should put his finger in his ear [like a yased (peg)].

In this place, Chazal have indicated to us the secret reason why the Sefer Torah is not vowelized. The midrash (expounding) of this pasuk was given as bran bread for simpletons, and it was given to the wise as nutritional bread - and all from the pshat of the pasuk. The entire Torah follows this method. Therefore, Chazal said: “shivim panim la’Torah.” Understand this.

The example cited by the Radvaz is clear. Devarim 23:14 is undoubtedly talking about shovels and weapons - not fingers and ears. When Chazal said, "Do not read ‘azeinecha’ (weapons), but rather ‘oznecha’ (ears)" they were saying this by way of drash, not pshat. If a person were to actually interpret the word as oznecha, he would be missing the pshat.

The Shiltei ha'Giborim (on Avodah Zarah daf 6 in the dapei ha'Rif) gives another excellent example which reflects the proper understanding of the distinction between pshat and drash:

Shiltei Ha’Giborim: Avodah Zarah Daf 6a b’dapei ha’Rif
There is another category of midrashim in which Chazal aimed to expound the pasuk in accordance with every idea they were able to expound. They relied on that which is written, “One thing God has spoken, these two have I heard” (Tehilim 62:12), and on that which is written, “Behold, My word is like fire etc.” (Yirmiyahu 23:29). They learned from here that many meanings can emerge from one pasuk . . . Do not be astounded by this, for we see in many cases that even an ordinary person speaks his words with a double meaning [that can be interpreted] in two ways – all the more so the words of the wise, which were stated with ruach ha’kodesh. In this manner, Chazal expound Scripture in every manner that is possible to expound, but they said, “No pasuk can depart from its pshat,” which is the root. Of all these midrashim which are expounded - some of them are essential and close to the pshat, whereas others contain only a small allusion.

You can see what was expounded by one of the Sages in the first chapter of Taanis, for he said, “Yaakov Avinu didn't die.” One of the other Sages responded, “Did the eulogists eulogize him in vain? Did the embalmers embalm him in vain? Did the gravediggers bury him in vain?” The first Sage answered back, “Mikra ani doresh (I am merely expounding upon a verse).” This means to say, “I, too, know that he died, but my intention is to expound this verse in every manner that is possible to expound, and if it is impossible for the midrash to be in accordance with the [simple] meaning, it nevertheless contains an allusion [to another idea]. For one can say, “he didn't die” along the lines of that which was stated, “Tzadikim, even in death, are [considered] alive” (Berachos 18a) for their reputation, their memory, and their deeds last forever.

Unfortunately, the widespread ignorance of the distinction between pshat and drash has led many people to false and harmful conclusions about Chazal and Torah. The Rashba (commentary on Berachos 32b) writes that "some people are confused because they think that the Sages in their aggados are coming to explain the true meanings of the pesukim" when, in truth, they are only expounding on the words themselves, without intending to uncover the intended meaning of the pesukim. As a result of this misunderstanding, certain factions of the population "incline towards heresy, due to their [mistaken] belief that the Sages were actually interpreting these pesukim in an erroneous manner; some are led to an even greater error than this, for they conclude that even Chazal erred in their explanations of the Torah and mitzvos as well."

I have seen with my own eyes that the Rashba is correct. Many of my students were never taught to distinguish between pshat and drash. Consequently, they labored under the impression that Chazal's midrashim were intended to convey the actual meaning of the pesukim. When faced with fantastical or far-fetched drashos, the more rationally inclined students rejected these "interpretations" due to their perceived irrationality. This led them to believe that Chazal were stupid and irrational, which in turn, led them to view the Torah itself as stupid and irrational.

In my opinion, students should be taught to differentiate between pshat and drash, and this distinction should be continually emphasized - especially when learning midrashim or midrashic commentaries on Chumash.

Pshat vs. Drash II


I previously presented my understanding of the difference between pshat and drash"Pshat" refers to the meaning of the words as intended by the author, whereas "drash" refers to the  homiletic use of the author's words as a platform for expressing an extrinsic idea which may or may not have anything to do with the author's original intent. I supported these definitions with sources from Ibn EzraRalbagRadvaz, and Shiltei ha'Giborim.

In shiur this past Sunday my rebbi brought up two more sources which support these definitions: one from the Rashba in his commentary on aggadah, and the other from the Rambam's Moreh ha'Nevuchim. Since both of them make similar points, I decided to cite both.

Rashba: Commentary on Aggadah, Berachos 32b

The Gemara in Berachos 32b focuses on a pasuk in Yeshayahu 49:16. Here is the pasuk (bold) in context:

Zion said, "Hashem has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me." Can a woman forget her baby (ulah), or not feel compassion for the son of her womb (mayrachame ben bitnah)? Even these (ayleh) may forget, but I (anochi) would not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you upon my palms; your walls are before Me always. Your children will hasten [to return], and your ruiners and your destroyers will leave you.

The Gemara expounds on the four Hebrew words I singled out above:

"Can a woman forget her baby (ulah), or not feel compassion for the son of her womb (mayrachame ben bitnah)?" [Hashem said:] "Can I forget the burnt offerings (olos) and firstborn offerings (pitray richamim) that Israel has brought before Me in the Wilderness?" 

The Congregation of Israel responded: "Master of the universe, since there is no forgetting before the throne of Your glory, perhaps you have not forgotten the incident of the Eigel (Golden Calf)?" 

Hashem responded: "Also these (ayleh) may forget" (the midrash alludes to the incident of the Golden Calf, in which the worshipers said, "These (ayleh) are your gods, O Israel, who took you out from Egypt!"). 

Israel said before Him: "Since there is forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory, perhaps You have forgotten the Revelation at Mount Sinai?" 

Hashem responded: "but I (anochi) would not forget you" (the midrash alludes to the first of the Ten Commandments heard at Sinai, "I (anochi) am Hashem, your God, etc.").

The Rashba prefaces his commentary with a general statement about midrashim.

There are those who mistakenly think that Chazal are actually interpreting the pesukim which are brought in their aggadah, in accordance with their explanations therein. For example, they explain ulah (baby) as olah (burnt offering), and they explain ben bitnah (son of her womb) as peter rechem haba min harechem (a firstborn issue of the the womb), and they explain ayleh (these) as ayleh elohecha Yisrael ("these are your gods, O Israel") and anochi (I) as anochi Hashem Elohecha ("I am Hashem, your God"). This leads to mass confusion.

These [mistaken individuals] can be divided into two groups. One group is inclined towards [belief in] the opinions of Chazal and rely upon everything they say; they think that [these midrashim reflect] the true interpretations of these pesukim, since that is how the Sages present them. Another group mistakenly inclines towards kefirah (denial) [of the Chazal's authority]; they think that this was Chazal's intent in explaining these pesukim, and they ascribe error to them. This, in turn, leads to a greater mistake, for they then ascribe error to everything that Chazal taught in their explanation of the Torah and mitzvos. These are true fools - "the opposite of men of understanding" (Yeshayahu 5:21). In order to remove these two errors, I must provide insight and explain their intent in all matters such as these.   

The Rashba then goes on to give a beautiful explanation of the true meaning of the midrash (which we will omit here for the sake of brevity). He concludes by explaining why Chazal adopted this approach in their aggadah:

This is one style in aggadah, namely, that [the Sages] teach whatever it is they intend to teach, and they bring pesukim for their idea as if their intention is to interpret that pasuk in accordance with what they taught - but in truth, [the pasuk] only serves as an allusion and a mnemonic device for their own idea. For example, [they midrashically explain the pasuk "Their sovereignty over Cheshbon was lost" (Bamidbar 21:30) in the following manner:] "Vaniram" teaches us that the wicked one says, "ain ram" (there is no Exalted One); "avad Cheshbon" means "avad cheshbono shel olam" (the accounting of the world has been lost). In truth, the Sages had no intention to interpret these pesukim - which speak about the events of the war with Sichon - as speaking about the words, actions, and thoughts of the wicked; rather, their intention in this [midrash] and others like it is to remember the idea by remembering the pasuk, as a mnemonic device. This shows wisdom on their part, for they take important and necessary ideas which have tremendous value and firmly establish them in a language which will not be forgotten (i.e. the text of pesukim).

I'm going to hold off my comments on the Rashba until after we see the Rambam, since their statements are so similar. (It would surprise me if the Rashba didn't get his comments from the Rambam himself.)

Rambam: Moreh ha'Nevuchim 3:43

The final section of the Moreh ha'Nevuchim is devoted to the explanations of the reasons for the mitzvos. Before presenting his own explanation of the mitzvah of the arbah minim (the Four Species), the Rambam addresses the popular midrashic explanations. Presumably, he is referring to the midrash that the arbah minim represent the four different types of Jews, and the midrash that the arbah minim symbolize four parts of the human body which should be utilized in our service of Hashem. Here is what the Rambam has to say:

As regards the arbah minim, our Sages gave specific reasons for them by way of aggadic interpretation, the method of which is well known to those who are acquainted with the style of our Sages. They use the text of the Torah only as a kind of poetical expression [for their own ideas] – not that these are the actual meaning of the text

With regards to these midrashic interpretations, people are divided into two groups: some people think that the midrash contains the real explanation of the text, whilst others mock it and ridicule it, since it is clear and obvious that this is not the real meaning of the text. The former struggle and fight to prove and to confirm such interpretations according to their opinion, and to hold on to them as the real meaning of the text; they consider them in the same light as the received laws from the Oral tradition. Neither of the two classes understood that our Sages employ biblical texts merely as poetical expressions, the meaning of which is clear to every reasonable reader. This style was widespread in ancient days; all adopted it in the same way as poets [adopt a certain popular style]. 

In reference to the words: “and you shall have a shovel (yasade) in addition to your weapon (azaynecha)” (Devarim 23:14) our Sages teach: Do not read azaynecha (your weapon) but aznecha (your ear). You are thus told, that if you hear a person uttering something disgraceful, put your fingers into your ears.” 

Now, I wonder whether those ignorant persons [who take the midrashic explanations as actual interpretations] believe that the author of this saying gave it as the true interpretation of the text quoted and as the meaning of this mitzvah – that in truth, yasade (shovel) is used for “finger” and azaynecha denotes “your ear”? I cannot think that any person whose intellect is sound can admit this. The author employed the text as a beautiful poetical phrase in teaching an excellent moral lesson, namely this: it is as bad to listen to lashon ha’ra (evil speech) as it is to say it. This lesson is poetically connected with the above text. In the same sense you must understand the phrase, "Do not read so, but so," wherever it occurs in the midrash.

According to the Rambam, the midrashic explanations of the symbolism of the arbah minim were never intended as interpretations of the pesukim or the mitzvos contained therein - just as the midrash about the shovel was never intended as an interpretation of the pasuk in Devarim. Nevertheless, people still take these midrashim as actual interpretations - both l'shvach (to praise Chazal) and l'gnai (to disparage them).

The Root of the Problem

The Rambam mentioned the common denominator between the two groups: both of them fail to realize that Chazal were using the text of the pesukim as a poetic and mnemonic device to express their own ideas. But my rebbi asked a further question: What is the root of their error? The Rambam and Rashba paint a clear picture of the symptoms, but what is the underlying disease?

I answered my rebbi's question based on the Rambam's statement about the first group: "they consider [these aggadic explanations] in the same light as the received laws from the Oral tradition." In other words, both groups fail to realize that aggadic midrashim are entirely different than the halachos of Torah she'baal Peh. These groups believe that just as we are obligated to accept the mesorah (oral tradition) from Chazal that "an eye for an eye" refers to monetary compensation rather than corporal punishment, and "pri eitz hadar" refers to an esrog, and "ve'hayu l'totafos bein einecha" is an instruction to place tefilin on one's forehead above the spot between one's eyes, so too, we are obligated to accept Chazal's statements at face value when they write that R' Elazar ben Azariah miraculously grew a white beard at the age of 18, or that Yocheved was 130 when she gave birth to Moshe, or that Moshe Rabbeinu was 18 feet tall. Both of these groups are oblivious to the crucial premise of all aggadic teachings, namely, that they were not given at Sinai, but that they are Chazal's own interpretations, which they arrived at with their own minds and formulated in their own style.

Every student should be aware of Shmuel ha'Nagid's explicit definition of aggadah in his Mevo ha'Talmud:

Hagadah” (a.k.a. “aggadah” or “aggadic midrash”) is any explanation from the Talmud on a non-mitzvah topic - this is hagadah, and we only learn from it that which makes sense. It is incumbent upon you to know that established by the Sages as halacha regarding any mitzvah was received by Moshe Rabbeinu who received it from the Almighty, and we should not add to it nor subtract from it. But as for all of the explanations of the Scriptural verses - each of the Sages explained according to the ideas which occurred to him and what he saw with his mind. We should only learn from these explanations that which makes sense, and the rest we should not rely upon.

The members of the first group feel compelled to accept aggadic explanations in the same way that they accept Chazal's halachic teachings from Torah she'baal Peh, whereas the second group reject aggadic explanations and ultimately reject Chazal's halachic teachings from Torah she'baal Peh. Both groups assume that these teachings are of the same nature, in the same style (i.e. interpretation), and are on the same level of authority. In truth, they are not. I fully agree with Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch's statement that to believe that aggadah was given at Sinai is "a dangerous approach that poses a grave danger for the pupils who grow up believing this concept, for it very nearly opens the gates of heresy before them."

My rebbi gave a different answer. He said that the underlying disease shared by the two groups is a mistake about who Chazal are, namely, both groups believe that Chazal were not chachamimThe Rambam openly states in his introduction to Perek Chelek that the members of the first group "think that the only meaning in the wise words of Chazal is what they, themselves, understand – namely, the literal meaning." It doesn't even occur to them that Chazal are expressing great wisdom which is utterly beyond their own grasp.  Consequently, they drag down the words of Chazal to the low level of their own intellects, and assume that this is what Chazal actually intended. Likewise, the Rambam writes that the members of the second group "imagine that their own intelligence is of a higher order than that of Chazal, and that Chazal were simpletons who suffered from inferior intelligence were incapable of attaining genuine wisdom." Their arrogance (in contrast to the first group) renders them even more unlikely to uncover the true wisdom of Chazal's teachings.

Neither group recognizes the chochmah (wisdom) of Chazal. Both groups view Chazal as possessing inferior intelligence. This causes them to regard the statements of Chazal as simplistic and superficial. The members of the first group delight in this since it allows them to retain their own childish beliefs about Torah and reality, and the members of the second group enjoy mocking Chazal, rejecting their teachings, and rationalizing their own inclinations and ideas on the basis of their "superior" intelligence.

Unfortunately, these two groups are still at large, and the Jewish world is still plagued by the problems they cause. The best we can do is to turn to the Kadmonim (Early Sages) who truly understood Judaism, and look to them as our guides.