Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Peshat in the Or Ha-Chaim Commentary

It is now a staple in the history of Parshanut (Jewish Bible commentary) that the term "peshat" has meant different things in different times and places. To some, it has meant the literal translation of the words. To others, it has meant a contextual meaning. This has been amply explored in a number of studies, two that come to mind are Prof. David Weiss Halivni's Peshat and Derash and a brief essay in R. Reuven Margoliyos' Ha-Mikra Ve-Ha-Mesorah.

This past Shabbos, I spent some time learning straight through R. Chaim ben Atar's (Morocco, 1696-1743) Or Ha-Chaim commentary, without stopping to look at any other commentaries, and I noticed something. Please note that this is all preliminary and requires further study. However, the Or Ha-Chaim seems to be insistent on offering peshat and feels free to reject explanations from Rashi or the Sages as not being peshat. However, when he offers an explanation that he considers to be peshat, it is often something that many other commentators would reject as not being peshat.

I would suggest that to R. Chaim ben Atar, peshat means an explanation that reads smoothly with the words of the text. It can be based on a midrashic expansion of the text and assume a backstory which is not mentioned anywhere in the text, but as long as the text itself reads smoothly based on this explanation then it is peshat. In other words, he distinguishes between a derash, which is a non-literal reading of the words, and a midrash, which is a backstory that is not mentioned in the text. Unlike many peshat-oriented commentators who will not consider information that is not contained in the text, he will utilize midrash to establish peshat, a literal reading of the text.

It is perhaps best stated by Rashi (Gen. 3:8): "אגדה המישבת דברי המקרא Aggadah which serves to clarify the words of Scripture in a way which fits those words". However, given the frequency with which R. Chaim ben Atar disagrees with Rashi, one would have to suggest that either Rashi does not consistently abide by this guideline or R. Chaim ben Atar disagreed with Rashi over how closely an explanation must "fits those words".

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