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What are the different valid methods used to interpret the Torah?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg


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Torah is G-d's wisdom. Intellect, by its very nature, allows for – and indeed demands - different avenues of understanding; how much more so when we are dealing with the infinite wisdom of the Infinite G-d.

Thus our sages tell us that the Torah can be interpreted in four different ways: peshat, remez, drush and sod.

1) Peshat is the simple interpretation of the Torah. When the verse says (Genesis 1:1) that "In the beginning G-d created the Heaven and Earth," it means exactly what it seems to mean.

2) Remez are the different hints and allusions which are contained within the Torah. One of the ways the Torah hints at something is through gematriah (the numerical value of the Hebrew letters). The gematriah of "beraishit bara (in the beginning He created)" is the same as "b'Rosh Hashanah nivra ha'olam (on Rosh Hashanah the World was created)!" (Baal Haturim on the verse).

3) Drush (or Midrash) expounds upon the deeper meaning of the verse. The Hebrew word for "in the beginning" is "beraishit." The midrash tells us that this word, can be split into two words - 'b' and 'raishit'. The Torah is telling us that the world was created for two ("b'") "raishit"es - which are the Jews and the Torah (see Rashi on the verse). Although this is not the simple interpretation of the word, nevertheless it is a true and valid way of understanding the Torah.

Torah is G-d's wisdom. Intellect, by its very nature, allows for – and demands - different avenues of understanding; how much more so when we are dealing with the infinite wisdom of the Infinite G-d
4) Sod (secret) is the esoteric, mystical part of Torah. The Tikunei Zohar says that the word beraishit can also be split into "bara shis (created [with] six)." This is because the world was created through G-d's six emotional powers: kindness, severity, beauty, victory, splendor and foundation.

Within these four methods of understanding Torah, there exist countless possible avenues of understanding. For example: There are many different ways to understand the Torah according to Peshat. That's why there are many Torah commentators who concentrate on Peshat (Rashi, Iben Ezra, Rashbam and many more) and they will very often (it seems, more often than not) disagree on the meaning of a verse. In fact, according to Kabbalah there are 600,000 ways to understand Peshat, 600,000 ways to understand Remez, 600,000 ways to understand Drush, and 600,000 ways to understand Sod!

However, when it comes to the Halachah, there is only one truth. For whereas Torah is G-d's wisdom which, as abovementioned, allows for different opinions, Halachah is (not intellect, but rather) G-d's will. And will is absolute, there are no two ways to look at things.

Any insight in Torah is acceptable as long as it (makes sense and) does not contradict any of our fundamental beliefs.

Our sages tell us that "any chiddush (novel idea) which a reputable disciple will ever come up with was already given to Moses by Sinai." Moses might not have heard this specific idea which the rabbi living thousands of years later has just thought of, but the basis of this idea was already given by Sinai.

G-d gave us the tools to delve into the words of Torah and reveal the divine wisdom hidden therein.

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Torah » G-d's Wisdom

Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Jewish Law. All halachah which is applicable today is found in the Code of Jewish Law.
Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year. An early autumn two day holiday marking the creation of Adam and Eve. On this day we hear the blasts of the ram's horn and accept G-d's sovereignty upon ourselves and the world. On Rosh Hashanah we pray that G-d should grant us all a sweet New Year.
The most basic work of Jewish mysticism. Authored by Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai in the 2nd century.
Acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105). Legendary French scholar who authored the fundemental and widely accepted "Rashi commentary" on the entire Bible and Talmud.
Jewish mysticism. The word Kaballah means "reception," for we cannot physically perceive the Divine, we merely study the mystical truths which were transmitted to us by G-d Himself through His righteous servants.
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
The first book of the Five Books of Moses. It records the story of Creation and its aftermath, and chronicles the lives of the Patriarchs.
1. A Hebrew priest and scribe, who, together with Nehemiah, revived Judaism in the 4th century BCE. He was instrumental in the building of the 2nd Temple. 2. One of the 24 books of the Bible, which describes the events of Ezra's lifetime.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.