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How Is the Torah Interpreted?

How Is the Torah Interpreted?

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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 dealing with the infinite wisdom of the Infinite G‑d.

Our sages tell us that Torah can be interpreted in four different general 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, in a very literal sense.

Within these four methods of understanding Torah, there exist countless possible avenues of understanding2) Remez is the different hints and allusions which are contained within the Torah. One of the methodologies the Torah employs to make these hints is gematryia, the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, the gematriya of "Bereshit bara" ("In the beginning He created)" is the same as "b'Rosh Hashanah nivra ha'olam" (on Rosh Hashanah the world was created)!"

Bereshit bara and b'Rosh Hashanah nivra are both 1116.

3) Drush (or Midrash) expounds upon the deeper meaning of the verse. The Hebrew word for "In the beginning" is bereshit. The midrash tells us that this word can be split into two words—b reshit. The Torah is telling us that the world was created for two ("b") "reshit"s ("firsts")—the Jews and the Torah. Although this is not the simple interpretation of the word, nevertheless it is a true and valid way of understanding the Torah.

4) Sod (secret) is the esoteric, mystical part of Torah. The Tikkunei Zohar (a book which gives seventy (!) different esoteric explanations for the word bereshit) explains that the word bereshit 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 PeshatRashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and many more – and they will very often (it seems, more often than not...) disagree on the literal meaning of a verse. In fact, according to Kabbalastic teachings 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!

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.

When it comes to the halachah, however, 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, and does not allow for two ways to look at things.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Joshua Pearl London, England May 30, 2014

Does pshat, remez, drush and sod work for Neviim and Kesuvim as well? Reply

Joseph Solomon January 23, 2014

Interpretation Thank you for the interesting and informative article Reply

suzy handler woodland hills, ca October 11, 2013

Thank you for explaining about the different ways Torah can be interpreted. You are a terrific teacher. Possible avenues of understanding makes studying Torah easier. Reply

Anonymous August 11, 2013

How is the Torah interpreted ? Thank you this is so clear and easy to understand, yet informative. Reply

Anonymous Calgary, Alberta July 6, 2012

Justice and Liberty Is there a way to link liberty and justice through the methods outlined above? Reply

si browning austin, TX May 4, 2010

Just Like a Diamond Just likea diamond the Torah is full of many lights depending on the way you look at it. All beautiful! Reply

Mr. Richard Bligdon May 4, 2010

Amazing Torah... I am in awe of all the "hidden" gems found in the Torah,especially in the Hebrew.

Some months ago,I bought a Stone Chumash and while reading the Parashah stories about Joseph ,for example,I was amazed at all the "hidden details" the Rabbis shared.

Then there's the Gematria and Kabbalistic gems,Hebrew word play....and THAT'S just the Torah....the Tanach has even more "hidden gems" - again,especially in the Hebrew,that is. Reply

Anonymous lavergne, 47800 August 17, 2009

how many ways? In fact, according to Kabbalastic teachings there are 576,000 ways to understand Peshat, 576,000 ways to understand Remez, 576,000 ways to understand Drush, and 576,000 ways to understand Sod! Reply

cecilia nyc February 3, 2009

to Naftali You're comment is sooo funny. I'm a baptized Christian but I get it! Man, they left out a lot in sunday school. I grew up in a catholic school and the nun sent me to detention for asking "excuse me, why does G-d refer to himself in plural form."

It's great that I found the Jewish Torah, many many questions are being answered and even my Christianity is beginning to make sense. Reply

sue February 3, 2009

thank you I have never seen definitions of Torah studies and I thank you- I love to be a part of your ongoing teaching. Reply

Naftali Silberberg (Author) February 2, 2009

Re: Interesting and enlightening (II) You raise a very good point. Obviously, we don’t blindly follow the majority opinion—or we’d all be Christians today... We follow the majority opinion only when both opinions are based on valid interpretations of the Torah (see The Most Precious Gift). The spies, however, deviated from the mission with which Moses charged them. Their opinion defied the word of G-d rather than interpret it. See Mission Possible for more on this topic. Reply

Chaim N. Potomac, MD February 1, 2009

Interesting and Enlightening How do we know the opinion that was decided upon by majority consensus is actually G-d's will. We know from the Torah that the majority can be wrong. When the spies were sent to survey the land of Canaan that the majority report was wrong. Reply

Naftali Silberberg (Author) February 1, 2009

Re: Interesting and enlightening Halachah is indeed based on the various interpretations extrapolated from the Torah using the methodologies described in the article. However, these various interpretations can lead to differing practical conclusions. This is why the books of the sages, starting from the very first work on Jewish law – the Mishnah – are replete with disagreements as to the final halachah.

While all these approaches are correct, we follow ONLY one opinion—the opinion that was decided upon – usually due to a majority consensus – as halachah. To follow another opinion, though it is based on a proper interpretation of the Torah, would be to disregard G-d’s will.

For, as explained above, G-d’s intellect contains infinite possibilities. But His actual will is singular and absolute. Reply

Michael (Menachem Mendel ben Hillel) Stein Coral Springs, FL January 31, 2009

Interesting and enlightening This was very interesting in describing the four methods of interpreting the Torah. There is another interesting point raised by the Rabbi Silberberg, with all due respect, at the end of his article. He says that Halachah is absolute with only one interpretation. But is not Halachah based in Torah. And wasn't this article about interpreing Torah? Isn't this an inherent contradiction?
Please enlighten me. Reply

Chaim N. Potomac, MD January 30, 2009

Torah interpretation A very nice explanation but you forgot to mention that the first letters of pshat, remez, drosh, and sod form the word pardess meaning orchard. The Torah is an orchard that sustains us with its delicious and life-giving fruit. Reply

Stan Frank Montreal, Quebec January 29, 2009

Torah Interpretation I agree that when a statement is direct it is the way G-d means it to be. When we start to interpret meanings that are not so directed, we as humans with our limited abilities we can run into trouble. We cannot limit our interpretations to a single way of thought--my way or the highway. We must respect other points of understanding the way G-d wants our people to live & serve him. Laws without mercy, goodwill, & respect for divergence of thought of men who are sincere in their study & interpretation must be respected, studied, debated & given the respect of their conclusions. We chose the introspect of Hillel because be tempered his understanding of G-d's Mitzvot with a great love of our people that would us joy to obey G-d's way to live as God's children. I fear that the barriers we are setting up today between our people will bring us the results that broke Judea & Israel apart & made it easier for our enemies to scatter us to the four corners of the world. Reply

cecilia NYC January 29, 2009

Thank you for this article. I can understand it, it is something that adds to my understanding.

I find the Torah to be the most astonishing phenomenon in human history.

Bereshit seems to me like an airtight code of everything in the universe, summarized in letters that are numbers that are more than numbers and letters. It is like a box with parts that fit precisely to form a whole, or a picture, or perhaps even a thinking machine--the brain of the cosmic consciousness and how it operates. It describes reality in 600,000 ways and in one way at the same time. If I read only Bereshit in all the ways it could be read (and if I knew how), my suspicion is I will get more knowledge out of it than all the books in all the branches of Borders.

There is to me no greater Miracle than the Torah. Thank you for this, Rabbi. It's a great guide in the exciting journey of discovering G-d's greatest gift to mankind.

The Jewish People are truly lucky to have it at the center of their identity. Reply

Chaim Leime Teleshevsky S. M., CA via chabadonmontana.com January 28, 2009

How a Quote: 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."

This quote is an oxymoron. Either it’s a "novel idea" (meaning made up by the reputable scholar and never heard before) or it was given to Moses by Sinai (and the reputable scholar is merely repeating yesterdays news). Now to say that (as is the classic explanation) Quote: "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." is to say that Moses didn't really get the "novel idea"...

The Rebbe, (in the last essay printed in his book of talks from 1992) explains: G-d, from his vantage point of pre-creation observes the reputable scholar "invent a novel idea." G-d in turn appreciates this idea so much, that he is inspired to actually go ahead and write a Torah into which he incorporates this "novel idea". [Then he follows the Torahs instructions and actually creates a world.] 2448 years later at Sinai, he teaches that Torah to Moses. When teaching Moses the Torah he includes the otherwise unknown "novel ideas" yet to be "come up with by the reputable Scholar".
Thus, both statements are 100% true. The "novel idea" is really a novel idea conceived and developed exclusively by the reputable scholar.
Yet, this novel idea complete, with all of its nuances was given by G-d to Moses at Sinai... Reply

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