Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Peshat Study of the Torah

May a biblical commentator offer an interpretation of a biblical passage that contradicts an interpretation of the Sages? Is this sacrilege or merely creative Torah study?

R. Hayim Friedlander, the late mashgi'ah of the Ponevezher Yeshivah, addresses this in his Sifsei Hayim - Pirkei Emunah u-Vehirah, vol. 2 pp. 257-272. R. Friedlander brings numerous examples from classical commentators, such as Ramban and the Vilna Gaon, where these great scholars disputed the interpretation of the Sages. For example, the Tosefta (Sotah 10:9) and Midrash Rabbah (BR 89:11) state that the famine in Egypt ended five (of the projected seven) years early when Jacob entered the land. Ramban (Gen. 47:18) writes "al derekh ha-peshat" that the famine lasted for seven full years.

Similarly, the Mekhilta (cited by Rashi, Ex. 21:6) states that a slave's ear may be pierced only on a door and not on a doorpost. The Vilna Gaon (Aderes Eliyahu, ad loc.) writes that the simple meaning of the verse includes the option of piercing a slave's ear on a doorpost.

R. Friedlander explains that there are many ways to read the biblical text and each path teaches us a lesson. "We see the importance of trying to understand the peshat (simple meaning of the text), even when it contradicts practical halakhah or does not match the historical reality as relayed to us by the Sages. Every peshat in the Torah teaches us something in hanhagah (practice) or hashkafah (philosophy), even if we do not always understand the lesson." (R. Friedlander, op. cit., p. 272)

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