Adopting a comparative approach that explores Jewish interactions with Muslim and Christian learning, Mordechai Z. Cohen sheds new light on the key turns in the vibrant medieval tradition of Jewish Bible interpretation, which yielded a conception of peshat exegesis that remains a gold standard in Jewish hermeneutics to this day.
2020 | 496 pages | Cloth $89.95
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
Chapter 1. Geonim and Karaites: Appropriating Methods of Qur'an Interpretation
Chapter 2. The Andalusian School: Linguistic and Literary Advances in the Muslim Orbit
Chapter 3. Rashi: Peshat Revolution in Northern France
Chapter 4. Qara and Rashbam: Refining the Northern French Peshat Model
Chapter 5. The Byzantine Tradition: A Newly Discovered Exegetical School
Chapter 6. Abraham Ibn Ezra: Transplanted Andalusian Peshat Model
Chapter 7. Maimonides: Peshat as the Basis of Halakhah
Chapter 8. Nahmanides: A New Model of Scriptural Multivalence
Within the tradition of Jewish Bible interpretation, few concepts are as vital as peshat, often rendered the "literal" or "plain sense," a notion that powered a medieval exegetical revolution that remains vibrant to this day. Generally contrasted with midrash (or derash), a term that connotes the creative and, at times, fanciful rabbinic modes of reading, peshat came to connote systematic philological-contextual and historically sensitive analysis of the Bible, powered by an appreciation of its literary qualities. As Jews in Muslim lands became aware, the "obvious" or literal sense—?āhir or ḥaqīqa in Arabic—enjoyed a special status in Qur'an exegesis and Muslim jurisprudence, and those concepts were correlated with the term peshat as early as the tenth century. The emergence of peshat is comparable to the increasingly privileged standing of Scripture's sensus litteralis in Christian interpretation from the Middle Ages onward. By that time, Christian Hebraists regularly consulted the peshat interpretations of Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yiṣḥaqi; northern France, 1040-1105), Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, Italy, France, 1089-1164), and David Kimhi (Radak; Provence, 1160-1235). The substantial impact of these three pashtanim (practitioners of peshat) is reflected by the many surviving manuscripts of their commentaries, including precursors of the Miqra'ot Gedolot, or Rabbinic Bible, in which multiple commentaries accompany the biblical text.
With the advent of printing, the influence of the peshat school spread immensely. From the sixteenth century onward, the commentaries of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak have accompanied the sacred text in the Rabbinic Bibles that became increasingly prevalent in the Jewish library. In the 1525 edition, the standard template for later Rabbinic Bibles, Rashi's commentaries are printed alongside almost every book of the Bible, paired with Ibn Ezra in the Pentateuch and Writings, and with Radak in the Prophets. Later editions expanded this roster. The Pentateuch commentary of Rashbam (Rashi's grandson Samuel ben Meir; Rouen, 1080-1160) began to appear from 1705 onward, and that of Nahmanides (Christian Spain, 1194-1270) from 1860. The Miqra'ot Gedolot layout of master biblical text surrounded by commentaries resembles that of the influential medieval Glossa Ordinaria. The Gloss, however, was superseded in the Renaissance, whereas the Miqra'ot Gedolot, featuring a continually growing list of commentaries, remained dominant into the modern period and is still used by traditional Jewish readers.
The Nature and Influence of Peshat
The forceful emergence of peshat interpretation reverberated widely, even outside the Jewish community. Nicholas of Lyre (1270-1349), considered to be the best-equipped medieval Christian Bible scholar, used Rashi avidly. He followed earlier Christian exegetes seeking to explicate the literal sense. Herbert of Bosham (1120-1194) cites Rashi ("Rabbi Salomon"); and it seems that Hugh of Saint Victor (c. 1096-1141) learned not only from Rashi but also from Rashbam, his contemporary, whom he could have met in person, as they traveled in the same cities in northern France. These Latin interpreters feature prominently in the influential work of Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (published in 1941 and republished a number of times). Smalley regards their interest in the sensus litteralis as a precursor of the philological-historical "scientific study" of the Bible. Prior Christian interpretation focused on the "spiritual senses," prompting readers to "not look at the text, but through it." "Spiritual exposition," for Smalley, "consists of pious meditations or religious teaching for which the text is used merely as a convenient starting-point."
In her characterization of literal-sense exegesis, Smalley reflects the prestige of historical-critical Bible scholarship in her day. The peshat movement, likewise, gained in standing greatly over the last two centuries, being celebrated as a precedent for modern Bible scholarship in the nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums ("scientific study of Judaism") movement. Though there is now increasing interest in the more creative interpretive modes of midrash and kabbalah (Jewish mysticism)—itself a reflection of postmodernism—the term peshat is often used nowadays to connote proper, scientific interpretation, that is, what the Bible "really says," as opposed to the "pious meditations" of midrash.
The rabbis of antiquity had explicated Scripture to establish the halakhah (religious law) much as the lore of Judaism was embodied in their aggadot (homilies, legends; sing., aggadah). In telling moments of hermeneutical self-definition, Rashi distinguishes peshat from that traditional interpretive mode. "There are many midrashic aggadot," he says, "and our Rabbis have already arranged them in their appropriate place in Genesis Rabbah and other midrashic works. My aim, however, is to relate only the peshat of Scripture . . . and the sort of aggadah that settles [meyashevet] the words of Scripture, each word in its proper place." Notwithstanding the novelty of his approach, Rashi argues that it is consistent with the talmudic dictum that "a biblical verse does not leave the realm of its peshat." This dictum, which we call the "peshat maxim," was regularly used to justify the tendency to privilege peshat among Rabbanite interpreters.
Rashi's peshat sensibilities are illustrated in his commentary on the account in Genesis of Joseph losing his way in the search for his brothers: "A man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, 'What are you looking for?' He answered, 'I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?' The man said, 'They have departed from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan'" (Gen. 37:15-17).
Rashi begins his gloss with a midrashic reading: "'A man came upon him'—This is Gabriel. 'They have departed'—from any feeling of brotherhood. 'Let us go to Dothan'—They seek legal pretexts with which to put you to death." This reading employs typical midrashic associative linkages to reconstrue this episode as something other than the chance encounter it may seem to be, making the "man" into an angel sent to reveal to Joseph his brothers' thoughts. Yet Rashi continues: "But according to its peshat, Dothan is the name of a place. And a biblical verse does not leave the realm of its peshat." Invoking the peshat maxim, Rashi registers the alternative peshat reading that takes the man's words literally. This also implies that the "man" is just a man, not Gabriel. As Ibn Ezra remarks: "According to the way of peshat: this 'man' was one of the people traveling on the road."
The thinking underlying ancient Jewish (and Christian) interpretation has been characterized by James Kugel as comprising four fundamental assumptions about the Bible:
1. The Bible is cryptic. Although Scripture might appear to say X, what it really means is Y, a meaning only hinted at. The Rabbis formulated rules for interpreting such "hints" in lists of middot (sing., middah; "hermeneutical principle"), such as "the thirteen middot of R. Ishmael" and the "thirty-two middot of R. Eliezer."
2. Though it recounts historical events, the Bible is not essentially a historical work. Rather, it is a "Book of Instruction" for readers in all ages, teaching how to behave and think—a point made explicitly by Paul in 1 Corinthians.
3. Scripture is perfect and perfectly harmonious. There are no mistakes in the Bible, and anything that might look like a mistake is clarified by proper interpretation. This led to the doctrine of "omnisignificance," whereby nothing in Scripture is said in vain or for rhetorical flourish: every detail is important; everything is intended to impart some teaching. Apparently insignificant details, such as an unusual word or grammatical form, or any repetition, were all read as potentially significant.
4. All of Scripture is the word of God. Though written down by humans, it is ultimately of divine provenance, or divinely inspired. Noting that the true author of the Bible is the Holy Spirit, the church father Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) likened its human authors to a pen in the writer's hand, since they were passive agents. The Talmud, likewise, describes how the Pentateuch was written: "The Holy One, blessed be He, dictated, Moses repeated, and Moses wrote" (b.Bava Batra 15a)—like a scribe taking dictation. The doctrine that "the Torah is from Heaven" (m.Sanhedrin 10:1)—the word of God Himself—is a comprehensive article of faith that excludes "someone who says that the entire Torah is from the Almighty except for a particular verse which was written by Moses on his own."
A fifth assumption ought to be added:
5. Events described in Scripture are supernatural and miraculous, manifesting divine intervention. This is usually dependent on Assumption 1: that is, what seems to be a mundane event ("Scripture says X") is actually extraordinary ("what it really means is Y"), with deep theological or cosmic significance—in accordance with Assumption 2.
The Rabbis were generally uninterested in the "plain sense"—the philological, literary analysis of Scripture in its historical setting. They mined the sacred text for eternal moral, religious, and halakhic instruction. They read through Scripture, between its lines, scrutinizing words and turns of phrase, making connections between different formulations, in order to discover hints to miraculous events in the past that were meaningful for the future.
The medieval endeavor to discover the "peshat of Scripture" departed from all five of the midrashic assumptions, albeit from some assumptions more than from others. Rejecting Assumption 1, the pashtanim explicated the "surface" of the text, its linguistic and literary structures and poetic style. This led them to sidestep Assumptions 2 and 5, as they began to appreciate Scripture as a literary text reflecting its ancient Near Eastern context and describing historical events that must be explained rationally. With their proclivity to appreciate the poetics of the Bible, many pashtanim rejected the doctrine of omnisignificance by explaining the supposed linguistic anomalies (e.g., extra words and letters) upon which the midrash capitalized as nothing more than literary conventions. Assumption 4 was more enduring, as the pashtanim generally accepted Scripture's divine provenance ("authorship"). Yet even this assumption was modified as medieval exegetes reconsidered the role of the human agents who penned and later edited the texts that would make up the Bible. The assumption of Scripture's "perfection," likewise, seems to have generally remained intact, though some pashtanim manifested increasing anxiety about contradictions within the Bible, rejecting facile resolutions offered in midrash.
Complexity of the Medieval Peshat Model
To be sure, there were variations among medieval pashtanim in their departure from midrash and its assumptions. Some do not even seem to live up to their own pronouncements about peshat. Rashi illustrates this dilemma, as he often adopts midrashic interpretations. An early Genesis episode regarding Abraham (when he was still referred to as Abram) relates the capture of his nephew Lot, which prompts the following reaction: "When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his trained men, who numbered 318, and went in pursuit as far as Dan" (Gen. 14:14). Rashi here begins with a philological analysis: "'His trained men [ḥanikhayw]'—whom he trained to observe the commandments [miṣwot]. The Hebrew root ḥ-n-kh means to initiate a person or utensil for the skill or function that he/it will have in the future. As in these verses: 'Train [ḥanokh; "initiate"] the lad . . .' (Prov. 22:6), '. . . initiation [ḥanukkah] of the altar' (Num. 7:11), '. . . initiation of the house' (Ps. 30:1). In the vernacular [la'az; Old French]: enseigner ('to instruct')."
Based on its other occurrences in Biblical Hebrew, Rashi concludes that the root ḥ-n-kh means "to initiate a person or object." As he often does, Rashi provides the equivalent enseigner in Old French, the vernacular of his community. Hence, ḥanikhayw would mean "the ones he instructed or trained." Given that Abram was a man of God, not a warrior, Rashi presumes that the "instruction" and "training" he imparted was religious. To identify these "trained men," Rashi relies on midrash: "'318'—Our Rabbis said that it was Eliezer alone, whose name adds up to 318 in gematria" (numerical value of the letters).
The Bible seems to recount how Abram took 318 "trained men." But the Rabbis, followed by Rashi, took this number as a gematria, a numerological reference to none other than Eliezer, Abram's faithful servant. In so doing, the midrash amplifies the miraculous nature of Abram's victorious pursuit to rescue Lot, achieved without a large military force. This popular midrashic tradition also appears in the Leqaḥ Ṭov commentary of Rashi's younger Byzantine contemporary Tobiah ben Eliezer.
By contrast, Ibn Ezra argues that Abram had indeed trained men for battle, who accompanied him on this campaign. Even without evidence from elsewhere in Scripture, making such an assumption is superior to the alternative, since "counting the letters of Eliezer is merely by way of derash, as Scripture does not speak in gematria, for that would allow anyone to interpret any name for good or for bad as he pleases." Fearing exegetical anarchy, Ibn Ezra rejects gematria as an interpretive technique. His target here may have been Leqaḥ Ṭov, a work he criticizes as being typical of "the sages in Greek (i.e., Byzantine) and Roman (i.e., Latin) lands, who pay no attention to grammar, but merely follow the way of derash."
It is true that Rashi's commentary on this verse features philological analysis, unlike Leqaḥ Ṭov, which uses only the gematria. But ultimately, it is at odds with the peshat program of Ibn Ezra, for whom "318 men" means just that—not "Eliezer alone." Notwithstanding Rashi's professed adherence to the "peshat of Scripture" in his commentary, Ibn Ezra elsewhere remarks dismissively: "He thought that it is by way of peshat, but the peshat in his writings is less than one in a thousand"; and so Rashi "interpreted Scripture by way of derash." Ibn Ezra seeks to distinguish his own exegesis as peshat. Indeed, as Aaron Mondschein has demonstrated, many of Ibn Ezra's interpretations appear to be directed against Rashi. Ibn Ezra inherited a tradition of philological-grammatical analysis that had originated in the Judeo-Arabic tradition in the Muslim East in the tenth century and developed in the eleventh century in al-Andalus (Arabic for Spain; Hebrew, Sefarad). Accordingly, he could apply a more systematic peshat approach to Scripture than Rashi did. As the product of Franco-German ("Ashkenazic") scholarship, with its intellectual center in the Rhineland talmudic academies (yeshivot; sing., yeshiva), Rashi had virtually no access to the Judeo-Arabic library that informed Ibn Ezra's Sephardic "way of peshat."
Rashi's own grandson Rashbam acknowledged his grandfather's reliance on midrash. But he credited Rashi for initiating the peshat project:
Our Rabbis taught us that "a biblical verse does not leave the realm of its peshat," even though the . . . early generations . . . tended to occupy themselves with the derashot . . . and therefore were not accustomed to the deep peshat of Scripture. . .. Now our Master, Rabbi Solomon, the father of my mother, luminary of the Diaspora, who interpreted the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, aimed to interpret the peshat of Scripture. And I, Samuel, son of his son-in-law Meir of blessed memory, debated with him personally, and he admitted to me that if he had the opportunity, he would have to write new commentaries according to the peshat interpretations that newly emerge every day.
In this remarkable self-reflection on an exegetical revolution in which he participated, Rashbam credits Rashi for putting peshat on the interpretive agenda after its neglect by the sages of the Talmud and their successors in the Rhineland academies. Rashi also recognized the further work that remained to be done—and acknowledged the continuing refinement of the method by subsequent pashtanim.
Ultimately, the peshat method that had emerged in the twelfth century would become a "gold standard" for subsequent Jewish commentators well into the modern period. In the view of contemporary Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg: "Essentially, nothing has changed in the definition of the interpretation of Scripture according to its peshat from Rashbam's time until today." Writing in modern-day Israel, his words reflect the common contemporary Hebrew usage of the term peshat to connote the Bible's original "true" meaning—now ascertained by historical-critical scholarship.
The notion of peshuto shel miqra can, of course, be traced to the peshat maxim in the Talmud. A discussion is recorded in the Talmud, b.Shabbat 63a, regarding a mishnaic dispute between the majority view that "a man may not go out with a sword or bow" on the Sabbath (on which carrying in the public domain is prohibited), and the dissenting opinion of R. Eliezer, who maintains that this is permitted because "they are ornaments for him"—and one is permitted to wear ornaments, just as one wears clothing. This prompts the inquiry: "What is R. Eliezer's reason? Because it is written, 'Gird your sword on your thigh, O hero; it is your glory and your majesty' (Ps. 45:4). R. Kahana objected to Mar bar R. Huna: But this refers to the words of the Torah! He replied: 'A biblical verse does not leave the realm of its peshat.'"
The verse in Psalms indicates that a sword is a man's "glory" and "majesty," which supports R. Eliezer's opinion. R. Kahana had received a symbolic interpretation, according to which "sword" means "the words of Torah." This reading, typical of the Rabbis, led R. Kahana to believe that the verse does not refer to weaponry at all. To refute that conclusion, Mar bar R. Huna states the rule that "a biblical verse does not leave the realm of its peshat." While he does not deny the validity of the symbolical reading, he argues that the verse retains its literal sense as well.
The appearance of the peshat maxim in the Talmud has led some to perceive a stable, continuous peshat-derash dichotomy from antiquity to the modern era. This supposed stability of the dichotomy is abetted by the notion that peshat—as opposed to freewheeling and open-ended derash—is fixed and static. The contemporary midrash scholar Jonah Fraenkel, for example, avers that "peshat is a category of interpretation fundamentally at odds with the term 'new,' since it does not intend to be new"; rather, it "simply wishes to reveal the original meaning." By contrast, derash is new interpretation by definition, as it entails "the connection, in a quasi-interpretive way, of Scripture to new ideas." Drawing upon Johan Huizinga's notion of intellectual "play" to depict the creative dimension of culture and the study of cultural history, Fraenkel casts midrash as a sort of interpretive "game" that follows hermeneutical rules but ultimately must be regarded as an artistic, rather than analytic, form. By implication, peshat is devoid of such creative dimensions, being an exposition of "the text itself."
The notion of a stable and fixed conception of peshat led to the tendency to emphasize the common features manifested by the medieval pashtanim. Individual exegetes who professed adherence to peshat but did not conform to this "homogenized" model were regarded as imperfect practitioners of peshat. The ideal of peshat was regarded as stable and objective, with various exegetes coming closer to it or remaining distant from it. Rashi is generally placed in the latter category, Rashbam in the former, with opinion about Ibn Ezra divided.
An Alternative Dynamic Conception
The current study is predicated on an alternative to the "homogenized," static conception, and regards peshat in dynamic terms, as a developing mode of interpretation shaped by the pashtanim themselves. As demonstrated by David Weiss Halivni, the conception of peshat in the Talmud did not actually have the valence(s) it would acquire in the medieval period; nor was the dictum that "a biblical verse does not leave the realm of its peshat" presented in the Talmud as an authoritative principle. It was, in fact, the medieval exegetes who endowed the dictum with new meaning and authority in accordance with their hermeneutical conceptions.
Furthermore, modern critical theory questions the very notion that "the text itself" ever has a singular meaning. As Frank Kermode remarks: "the plain sense, if there is one, must be of the here and now rather than of the origin," since "the body of presuppositions which determines our notions of the plain sense is always changing." Therefore, "the plain sense depends in larger measure on the imaginative activity of interpreters"; it is they who provide Scripture with a variety of contexts, some imposed by authority and tradition, others by the need to make sense of the ancient text in a different world. While peshat exegesis aims, in some sense, to illuminate an original meaning, it also necessarily bridges chronological and cultural gaps between the Bible and its readers. Huizinga's interpretive "game" model illuminates the creative balance that the pashtanim had to strike between the biblical text and their cultural-intellectual sensibilities.
Given these critical perspectives, the current study aims to provide a more nuanced understanding of how different pashtanim constructed a variety of hermeneutical models during the formative era of the peshat revolution, from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. This investigation is made possible, in part, by the augmented roster of medieval exegetes that modern scholarship has brought to light. More expansive Rabbinic Bibles published in the last generation include more commentaries than ever before. New studies and critically edited texts make even more stars of the medieval exegetical constellation visible. Recent studies, for example, reveal hermeneutical contributions by authors previously not recognized as Bible interpreters, such as the great Sephardic linguist Jonah Ibn Janah (al-Andalus, early eleventh century) and philosopher-talmudist Moses Maimonides (al-Andalus, Egypt, 1138-1204).
Dramatic developments have resulted from the publication of previously inaccessible or even unknown commentaries, some based on newly found manuscripts. Now available, for example, are the eleventh-century commentaries of Moses Ibn Chiquitilla and Judah Ibn Bal'am—cited by Ibn Ezra and Maimonides as chief authorities on the Bible in al-Andalus. The vibrant Karaite exegetical school is increasingly accessible, thanks to a plethora of studies and critical editions. A remarkable find in the Cairo Genizah of commentaries written c. 1000 by Greek-speaking Rabbanite Jews has brought to light an otherwise little-known exegetical tradition in Byzantine lands that some scholars believe served as an intellectual bridge over which interpretive traditions traversed from the Muslim East to Ashkenaz.
Based on these newly available texts and studies, a much broader and more variegated picture of the medieval Jewish exegetical tradition comes to light, as illustrated in the following chart (featuring the familiar commentators of the Rabbinic Bible in bold font):
The dramatis personae of this study are the authors on this chart, which illustrates the variegated landscape on which the peshat revolution occurred.
The augmented roster of exegetes places the familiar figures of the Rabbinic Bible into a larger context. It now becomes apparent, for example, that Ibn Ezra was hardly revolutionary in advancing his "way of peshat." He represents the culmination of a vibrant school that had developed over the preceding century in al-Andalus, where the powerful winds of Arabic linguistics had been harnessed to revolutionize the understanding of Biblical Hebrew by Judah Hayyuj, who discovered the triliterality of the Hebrew root. Jonah Ibn Janah consolidated Hayyuj's discoveries in his biblical grammar and dictionary, which served as the basis for the influential philological commentaries of Ibn Chiquitilla and Ibn Bal'am. New studies reveal the hermeneutical contributions of Moses Ibn Ezra and Judah ha-Levi, both philosopher-poets who addressed theoretical interpretive issues relating to the Bible's aesthetic dimensions. It was this tradition that Abraham Ibn Ezra absorbed during his formative years in Spain, where he evidently lived in both Muslim and Christian regions, and established a reputation as a talented Hebrew poet. In 1140, he emigrated from Spain and arrived in Rome, where he began a new career writing Bible commentaries and books on science and mathematics. For the remaining two and a half decades of his life, he traveled from town to town in Italy, Provence, northern France, and England, composing commentaries that brought Andalusian scholarship to Jews in Christian lands.
New studies also shed greater light on the precursors of the Andalusian school in the Muslim East, particularly on the towering figure of Saadia Gaon (882-942). Having emigrated from his native Fayyum in Egypt in the early tenth century, Saadia rose to prominence in Baghdad, a cosmopolitan center of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholarship. Drawing upon a broad range of Arabic learning, including qur'anic hermeneutics, Mu'tazilite thought and Muslim jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh), Saadia and his successor Samuel ben Hofni Gaon established a methodologically aware system of philological-contextual, rational Bible interpretation. Though the geonic school waned, the teachings of these two authors remained influential. Ibn Janah would take as his model "the peshat commentaries of Rav Saadia and Samuel ben Hofni," and Abraham Ibn Ezra lauded Saadia as "the first speaker on all matters."
Saadia was not the first Jewish author to devise a philological-contextual interpretive method. That distinction, as far as the extant record shows, belongs to the Karaite exegete Daniel al-Qumisi, who settled in Jerusalem (evidently from his native Persia) around 880 and founded a Karaite community there. The community flourished throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries, but came to an end with the crusader conquest in 1099, at which point the center of Karaite learning transferred to Byzantium. Unlike their Rabbanite counterparts, the Karaites denied the authority of the interpretive tradition codified in the Talmud. Whereas the geonim were always bound to the substance of rabbinic tradition, the Karaites had freedom to draw upon Arabic models to develop their new rational, philological-contextual modes of reading the Bible, as reflected in the extensive Bible commentaries produced by authors of the Karaite "Golden Age" in Jerusalem.
This account helps rectify a misperception abetted by the arrangement of the Rabbinic Bible. For centuries, its juxtaposition of Rashi and Ibn Ezra—together representing the best-known pashtanim in Jewish tradition—led to the perception of Rashi as a cautious traditionalist clinging to midrash, and Ibn Ezra a radical revolutionary in advancing the peshat agenda. It is true that Ibn Ezra was more skeptical than Rashi about the absolute authority of midrash. But the portrait of Rashi as the conservative and Ibn Ezra as the revolutionary is an oversimplification. Ibn Ezra actually was a traditionalist within his heritage, less radical than some earlier Andalusian exegetes. Rashi, on the other hand, was highly innovative within the milieu of Ashkenazic learning, centered on Talmud study.
New research also sheds light on broader developments in the northern French and Geonic-Andalusian exegetical traditions, which are only partially represented in the Rabbinic Bible. Within Rashi's school, we have access today to what are believed to be the long-lost commentaries by Rashbam on Psalms, Job, Song of Songs, and Qohelet, as well as a host of other peshat commentaries by unknown authors on these and other biblical books. We now can grasp the pivotal role played by Joseph Qara, Rashi's close student and Rashbam's older colleague. Indeed, Qara's work was integral to what Rashi referred to as the "newly emerging" peshat interpretations in his day. Modern scholarship has also brought to light the commentaries of Joseph Bekhor Shor and Eliezer of Beaugency, who represent the final phase of the northern French peshat movement.
In the Geonic-Andalusian school, new research focuses on Maimonides as a key Bible interpreter, though he has long been recognized as an authority on philosophy and halakhah. His influential philosophical opus, The Guide of the Perplexed, establishes rules for interpreting the Bible in light of reason. Most important for our purpose is the distinctive peshat model he constructed to stratify the talmudic system of halakhah. Maimonides exerted substantial influence on subsequent exegetes aligned with the Andalusian school as it was transplanted to Christian lands—especially Radak (son of the Andalusian émigré Joseph Kimhi) in Narbonne and Nahmanides in Girona, near Barcelona. Yet Radak and Nahmanides, living in Christian lands, were also influenced by Rashi, and hence represent an integration of the two most important earlier peshat schools—the Geonic-Andalusian and northern French.
It was not inevitable that the expanded roster of medieval exegetes would challenge the homogenized notion of peshat. Indeed, many modern scholars continue to apply a uniform peshat-derash dichotomy to evaluate earlier interpreters against a standard of "scientific" philological analysis. The medieval exegetes are thus often judged according to the extent to which they approximate modern conceptions of peshat. To be sure, such explorations have their value—and demonstrate the continued relevance of the medieval tradition for modern Bible study. Yet a fuller assessment of the peshat revolution on its own terms requires understanding how the medieval exegetes conceptualized their hermeneutical endeavors. This requires a more subtle investigation of the distinctive features of the respective constructions of peshat that they advanced, and how these were integrated within the broader peshat movement.
A challenge to the prevailing mode of assessing the medieval exegetes was formulated a generation ago by Greenberg, who noted the way in which Rashi's peshat project was understood in modern scholarship beginning in the nineteenth century: "Today as then, the concept of peshat was considered so self-evident that scholars of Rashi saw no need to discern precisely how he understood it, and regarded his work as missing the mark rather than asking if he had set a different target than they imagined."
Those who assumed that peshat is simply "what the text says"—in terms defined by modern scholarship—viewed Rashi's midrashic tendencies as a shortcoming. According to this conventional wisdom, the peshat method—inchoate in Rashi—was perfected by later exegetes such as Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, whose work, in turn, served as a stepping-stone toward modern historical-critical scholarship, as adumbrated, for example, by Benedict Spinoza in the seventeenth century. An analogous trajectory had been posited regarding the emerging Christian interest in Scripture's sensus litteralis in the school of Saint Victor and subsequently by Nicholas of Lyre, which was seen as the impetus that led inexorably to the Sola Scriptura doctrine of the Reformation. But just as this neat schematic portrayal of Latin exegesis has been challenged, the linear model of peshat must be questioned—leading to a more complex, and more interesting, account.
Greenberg's challenge to understand Rashi in his own terms was taken up by his student Sarah Kamin in her seminal book, Rashi's Exegetical Categorization in Respect to the Distinction Between Peshat and Derash (Hebrew; 1986). Kamin establishes a method for defining peshat through the hermeneutical notions of the medieval exegetes themselves. The talmudic peshat maxim—which Kamin traces through rabbinic literature—is far from clear and certainly does not imply the sharp peshat-derash dichotomy that would emerge in the medieval period. As she demonstrates, Rashi appropriated the vague maxim and transformed it into an exegetical principle to support his endeavor to interpret Scripture philologically and contextually. In her subsequent studies, published posthumously in the collected volume Jews and Christians Interpret the Bible (Hebrew; 1991; 2nd ed., 2009), Kamin emphasized that the northern French peshat revolution (as epitomized by Rashbam and his successors) should be understood in relation to contemporaneous developments in Christian exegesis in France—for example, in the school of Saint Victor.
Kamin's insight that the talmudic peshat maxim was subject to reinterpretation by the medieval exegetes inspired my monograph Opening the Gates of Interpretation: Maimonides' Biblical Hermeneutics in Light of His Geonic-Andalusian Heritage and Muslim Milieu (2011). That work aims to solve a conundrum that perplexed students of Maimonides for generations. On the one hand, the great philosopher-talmudist seems to grant supreme halakhic authority to peshat in his Book of the Commandments. Yet elsewhere, he seems to downplay peshat, leading some to speak of its "devaluation" by Maimonides. The resolution of this problem entails an understanding that Maimonides' conception of peshat is quite different from that of other interpreters and must be viewed against the backdrop of his Judeo-Arabic cultural milieu. Drawing upon conceptions from both Muslim legal hermeneutics and Qur'an interpretation, Maimonides recast the peshat maxim as a principle by which to integrate the derivation of the halakhah with rational Bible exegesis—in the spirit of the intellectual revolution precipitated by Saadia and the subsequent Judeo-Arabic tradition.
Rashi and Maimonides are the two most celebrated authors of medieval Judaism, and the aforementioned studies of the different constructions of peshat they devised point to the need to reevaluate the prevailing homogenized conception. The rich yield of recent scholarship enables us to chart out the "grand narrative" of the medieval exegetical revolution by applying a similar method to reveal how other exegetes recruited the talmudic peshat maxim to construct their hermeneutical models. Rather than presupposing a static peshat-derash dichotomy or a single linear progression of the peshat method, we can trace multiple trajectories by which the peshat maxim that was originally quite marginal in the Talmud came to be construed variously as a justification for plain-sense exegesis. Although the notion of peshat solidified late in the Middle Ages, acquiring connotations that it would retain well into the modern era, the formative period from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries produced a number of peshat models that responded in varied ways to Muslim and Christian interpretation of Scripture. The medieval quest to define the "peshat of Scripture" was not simply about what the sacred text "really says"; it was, rather, a medium through which readers in diverse cultural contexts encountered and made sense of Scripture intellectually and religiously. The aim of this volume is to trace these dynamic trajectories by showing how the talmudic peshat maxim was recruited and transformed into what we can call the "rule of peshat"—both as an interpretive principle and, ultimately, as a means of granting the plain sense of Scripture unique authority (the "rule" of peshat in the sense of hegemony or dominion) in relation to other modes of scriptural signification recognized within Jewish tradition.
While the conventional view of the peshat movement recognizes progress in the medieval exegetical tradition, that progress is plotted in terms of a dialogue exclusively with the biblical text—as suggested by the graphic design of the Rabbinic Bible with commentaries surrounding the master text of the Bible. But it seems that another set of coordinates is required to appreciate the hermeneutical transformations of the formative age of peshat: the intellectual heritage and cultural milieu of each exegete as he sought to make sense of the ancient Scripture in his time and place. It was perhaps inevitable that Samuel ben Hofni's construction of peshat in tenth-century Iraq would differ from that of Rashbam in twelfth-century France. Just as the former, writing in Arabic, embraced Muslim hermeneutical models, Rashbam's hermeneutics must be viewed against the backdrop of the Latin learning of his time. We must further consider the impact of inner dynamics on the Jewish exegetical tradition—for example, the polemical reactions among Rabbanites to the Karaite movement from the ninth century onward in Muslim lands, as well as the increasing contact, and occasional tensions, among the Geonic-Andalusian, Byzantine, and northern French peshat traditions. Responding to such internal and external intellectual, cultural, and religious stimuli and challenges, it should not be surprising that chronologically and geographically diverse exegetical schools would produce varying hermeneutical models.
Peshat and the "Literal" Sense
Until recently, it was standard to render the term peshat simply as the "literal sense"—with midrash being a figurative, symbolic, or otherwise nonliteral reading. This translation works in many cases—for example, in the peshat-derash dichotomy presented by Rashi on Gen. 37:17, "Let us go to Dothan." There, indeed, the peshat reading is "literal," whereas the midrashic one is a play on words. Yet it is not always accurate to render peshat as the "literal sense." At times, the pashtanim argued that a biblical phrase taken literally by the midrash should actually be interpreted figuratively.
Moreover, the very definition of what constitutes "literality" or "the literal sense" has been shown in recent scholarship to be quite complex—both in modern parlance and in their usage throughout the history of Christian interpretation, as well as the parallel terminology in Muslim learning. The term "literal" is often defined as "obvious" or "plain" and might be compared with the Arabic hermeneutical term ?āhir ("apparent" sense). But Muslim interpreters—since the ninth century—noted that in some cases, the bāṭin ("hidden" sense) is clearly more reasonable—for example, in the verse "Ask the village in which we have been" (Qur'an 12,82), which refers to the people of the village, rather than its physical structures. In such cases, the ?āhir might be termed the "pre-interpretive" meaning. In a similar vein, reflecting what Alastair Minnis has described as the increasingly "capacious" nature of the sensus litteralis in Latin interpretation, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argues that at times a figurative reading is part of the "literal sense"—for example, when Scripture refers to "the arm of God," in which case "the literal sense is not that God has a physical limb . . . but rather that He has that which is signified by this limb, namely, effective power."
These developments shed light on the complexity of the notion of peshat within Jewish exegesis. In the Judeo-Arabic tradition, some interpreters equated peshat with the ?āhir (which at times must be dismissed as incorrect), whereas others aligned peshat with the bāṭin, where it is indicated. This underscores the fact that peshat exegesis—as defined in the medieval tradition—often calls for a figurative or otherwise nonliteral reading of a given biblical locution.
To overcome these challenges, some scholars prefer other translations of peshat, such as the "plain" or "simple" sense. Others argue that peshat has no English equivalent. Japhet thus defines the term to mean an elucidation of "the text as it is," "according to its language, syntax, context, genre and literary structure, within a rational approach." This definition holds for the northern French peshat school, particularly when juxtaposed with midrashic readings that can be hyper-literal.
For example, in the account of Abraham and his men battling "four kings" and their armies, which features the unusual locution "the night was divided upon them" (Gen. 14:15), Rashi cites the midrashic reading that the night was, in fact, "divided," meaning that during its first half, a miracle was done for Abraham; but "the second half was saved for the midnight in Egypt" at the time of the Exodus. This midrash is typical, looking beyond the story at hand to seek "instruction" about God's future intervention in Israel's history. It begins with a strictly literal, word-by-word reading in order to discover an allusion in this story to an unrelated biblical episode—making a connection that highlights the miraculous nature of both. But Rashi proposes another solution that integrates the locution into the remainder of the verse: "According to its peshat, you must invert the order (sares) of the verse: 'He and his servants divided themselves upon them at night,' as is the manner of those who pursue enemies fleeing in different directions."
Rashi's peshat interpretation is not the most obvious one, as it requires some exegetical work, as opposed to the slavishly literal ("pre-interpretive") sense. Positing the syntactic flexibility of Biblical Hebrew, Rashi understands that it is grammatically legitimate to "invert" this verse and posit that "he and his servants" (not "the night") are the subject of the verb "divided," with "night" being an adverb (i.e., at night). To explain why Abraham's forces "divided," or split in different directions, Rashi cites a common battle practice. Instead of relating this verse to divine miraculous interventions in other epochs, the peshat reading views the event in mundane terms.
In some cases, Rashi adheres to the literal rabbinic reading, and subsequent exegetes would offer the nonliteral peshat alternative. For example, the Rabbis (b.Menaḥot 34b-37b) derive the obligation for every male Jew to don tefillin (phylacteries) daily, from a literal reading of Exod. 13:9, "And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder between your eyes—in order that the teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt." Rashi interprets accordingly—that the tefillin are the "sign" placed on the arm and head literally. Rashbam, though, explains "according to its profound peshat" that "as a sign on your hand" means that the Exodus from Egypt "should always be on your mind, as if it were written on your hand." As a prooftext, he cites Song 8:6, "Make me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm," in which the beloved beseeches her lover to think of her always. Similarly, "between your eyes," for Rashbam, means that the recollection of the Exodus should be "like an ornament or a gold chain that is customarily put on the forehead for decoration." Based on his awareness of the stylistic tendency of Scripture to speak metaphorically, Rashbam argues that this verse does not refer to anything literally placed on the hand or between the eyes. Rashbam probably regarded this as the "profound peshat" because it accords with the context of this verse. The rabbinic interpretation breaks the connection between Exod. 13:9 and the surrounding pericope (Exod. 13:3-10), which speaks exclusively of the annual celebration of the unleavened bread festival to commemorate the Exodus. Rashbam preserves the contextual unity of this pericope by construing Exod. 13:9 as a command to keep the Exodus in mind constantly.
Yet not all pashtanim were complacent about the prospect of diverging from the halakhic reading. Ibn Ezra on Exod. 13:9, for example, cites a similar metaphorical reading, noting that "some disagree with our holy forebears and say that 'as a sign . . . and reminder' is like 'for they are a graceful wreath on your head, a necklace about your neck' (Prov. 1:9)" and that accordingly, "for a sign . . . and reminder" means that the Exodus from Egypt "be constantly on your tongue." That remark appears in the early version of Ibn Ezra's Pentateuch commentary, composed in Italy in the early 1140s. A little over a decade later, when he resided in northern France and may have become aware of Rashbam's commentaries, he cites the non-rabbinic interpretation but concludes categorically that the verse must be taken "in its literal sense (ke-mashma'o), to make tefillin for the hand and tefillin for the head." As he reasons: "since the Sages, of blessed memory, transmitted thus, the first interpretation is void, for it does not have trustworthy witnesses as the second interpretation has." Though committed to the "way of peshat," Ibn Ezra—ever wary of the Karaite threat (far from Rashbam's purview)—tends to defer to the authority of the Rabbis in matters of halakhah, which highlights the audacity of Rashbam's peshat model.
At times, the challenge of the Christian allegorical reading of the Old Testament precepts made its way into the calculus of peshat. Joseph Bekhor Shor explicitly rejects this Christian interpretive mode. Ibn Ezra, likewise, criticizes the Christians for "concocting hidden meanings (sodot) for all matters" and for "their belief that the laws and statutes are allegories." Yet he acknowledges that "in one matter they are correct," for in the Bible, "every word . . . must be weighed rationally . . . and if it contradicts reason, then one must seek its hidden meaning (sod)." Ibn Ezra does not rule out figurative interpretation; he simply argues that it should be applied only when the literal reading is untenable. He illustrates this duality with the precept of circumcision. "Circumcise the flesh of your foreskin" (Gen. 17:11) must be taken literally as physical circumcision (be-gufot), since it does not contradict reason, whereas "circumcise the foreskin of your heart" (Deut. 10:16) would be absurd literally, and thus must be taken figuratively, as "mental" circumcision (be-maḥashavot). As Ibn Ezra explains, it could mean "avoiding crude desires that are 'coarse' like the foreskin," or "to purify the heart to understand the truth."
As Ibn Ezra would have known, the Christian view was that physical circumcision had become irrelevant, as articulated by Paul: "But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter" (Rom. 2:29). Physical circumcision represents subservience to the Law and "the flesh," whereas Paul celebrated "the Spirit" (Gal. 5:2-5, 16-18). Ibn Ezra's contemporary Joseph Kimhi (c. 1110-1170), who emigrated from al-Andalus to Provence, recorded the Christian critique of the Jewish fulfillment of the Law in a "corporeal" manner (gufanit), whereas the Christians follow it "spiritually" (ruḥanit). Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that Ibn Ezra adopts a "spiritual" understanding of circumcision in Deut. 10:16, illustrating his concession that the Christians are correct that figurative interpretation is necessary at times.
In sum, the medieval conceptions of peshat developed within specific and complex religious and intellectual contexts—and they bear the imprint of those contexts. In Kermode's words, "the plain sense . . . must be of the here and now . . . [as] the body of presuppositions which determines our notions of the plain sense is always changing," and therefore "the plain sense depends in larger measure on the imaginative activity of interpreters." It is to the understanding of the presuppositions behind the emerging strategies of peshat and the imaginative interpretive activity of the medieval pashtanim that this study is dedicated.
Outline, Scope, and Structure of This Study
This study explores the theoretical underpinnings of the methods of rational-philological interpretation that emerged c. 900-1300 and came to be associated with the term peshat. This subject will be investigated from three interrelated vantage points, summed up by the following questions: (1) How did the new constructions of peshat relate to earlier Jewish interpretation, especially its five midrashic presuppositions enumerated above, and to hermeneutical developments in the surrounding Muslim and Christian cultures? (2) How did the pashtanim negotiate their departure from midrash? (3) And, to this end, how did they enlist the maxim that "a biblical verse does not leave the realm of its peshat"? These three questions delimit narrowing concentric circles and focus this study on a well-defined hermeneutical theme over a vibrant four-century period. The chapters of this book trace the increasing force that the peshat maxim acquires—until it can be characterized as the "rule of peshat," which would become a central, defining feature of Jewish hermeneutics into the modern period. The originally marginal talmudic peshat maxim would first became a firm hermeneutical principle (the "rule of peshat" in the sense of a directive or regulation) in the medieval period; but at times, it was also invoked to establish the supreme authority of peshat over other forms of interpretation ("rule," connoting "dominion")—a radical move that sparked controversy.
There are other ways that a study of Jewish interpretation during this formative period might be conducted. Most obviously, one could outline the methods of peshat developed by Jewish interpreters, without concern for how they reconciled them with midrash, or even whether they actually invoked the peshat maxim. That, however, would yield a different study with a much broader scope, since a number of key interpreters engaged in (what others might characterize as) peshat exegesis without recourse to the peshat maxim. Accordingly, in addition to mapping out the content of each chapter of this study, the outline that follows also offers notes on such exegetes—who will not be discussed in detail in this work. We have chosen to frame this study in a focused way on the various construals of the peshat maxim because this trajectory most sharply tells the story of how Jewish interpreters perceived their own exegetical methods.
Chapter 1 is a necessary exception to the rule. Providing a foundation for the study as a whole, it explores the rational-philological interpretive methods developed in the Muslim East before Samuel ben Hofni Gaon, who was first to invoke the peshat maxim, late in the tenth century, and who sought to anchor the new methods in rabbinic teachings. As mentioned above, the Karaite Daniel al-Qumisi is the earliest attested exegete to apply such a rational-philological method. But his now fragmentary writings do not immediately manifest a clear interpretive theory. We therefore begin with Saadia, who wrote in Arabic—the philosophical-scientific language of the day—and articulated clear axioms that resemble contemporaneous rules of Qur'an interpretation and rationalist Mu'tazilite thought. Departing from midrashic practice, Saadia privileges the "obvious" or literal sense—which he terms the ?āhir—as a default position. However, where it contradicts reason, another verse, or rabbinic tradition, he argues that nonliteral interpretation (ta'wīl) must be applied to determine correct, deeper sense (bāṭin). Samuel ben Hofni would correlate this rule with the peshat maxim, which, in his view, meant that one must aim first to interpret a verse according to its literal sense (peshat = ?āhir), unless there are legitimate reasons that call for its reinterpretation.
The chapter then returns to Karaite exegesis, beginning with Daniel al-Qumisi, whose interpretive theory can be discerned against the backdrop of Saadia's axioms, and those applied in contemporaneous Qur'an exegesis. Al-Qumisi overtly eschewed "foreign" (i.e., Arabic) learning, and he wrote in Hebrew rather than in Arabic, in contrast to later Karaite exegetes. Yet his exegesis, like Saadia's, manifests the tendency to privilege the "obvious" literal sense, and he vigorously criticizes the Rabbis for positing that the Bible bears multiple recondite meanings. The first known Karaite author to formulate clear interpretive rules is Jacob Qirqisani (Iraq, tenth century). Like Saadia, and probably influenced by him, Qirqisani embraces the Mu'tazilite endeavor to harmonize Scripture and reason, and he even articulates the very same axiom that the Bible must be understood according to the ?āhir, except in the case that such an understanding would contradict reason or another verse—in which case, ta'wīl must be applied.
The chapter then charts the hermeneutical outlook of Yefet ben Eli of Jerusalem (c. 915/920-c. 1007), who carried on the tradition of al-Qumisi (e.g., explicitly shunning "foreign" learning), though he was influenced profoundly by Qirqisani. Yefet's extensive Bible commentaries reveal deep philological and literary sensitivity. He likewise privileged the ?āhir and criticized Rabbanite interpreters such as Saadia for their lack of exegetical discipline in this matter. Whereas midrash tended to treat Scripture as a finished literary product given by God, Yefet considered how the biblical narratives, laws, and prophecies were originally formulated and arranged by an ancient prophetic narrator-editor, whom he refers to with the Arabic term al-mudawwin (lit., "compiler").
The foundations of Karaite exegesis were firmly established in the tenth century. It is to the leading thinkers of this Karaite "Golden Age" that the current study devotes attention, as they shed light on subsequent developments within the peshat schools that are the focus of this study. The Karaite community of learning in Jerusalem—following Yefet's model—flourished for three more generations, producing exegetes such as Yūsuf Ibn Nūḥ, Abū al-Faraj Hārūn, and his student Jeshua ben Judah. In the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, parts of the Karaite library—written almost exclusively in Arabic—were summarized and translated into Hebrew by the Byzantine authors Tobiah ben Moses, Jacob ben Reuben, and Judah Hadassi. By transplanting Karaite learning to Byzantium, they enabled it to survive the destruction of the Jewish community of Jerusalem in the last third of the eleventh century. Their works, though, are rather rudimentary: apart from being unoriginal, the quality of the Byzantine translations is only fair. In the late thirteenth century, major Karaite works would again be composed in Byzantium—at which point, they were influenced by Rabbanites such as Ibn Ezra (assumed by the later Karaite authors to have been a clandestine Karaite), Maimonides, and Radak.
Chapter 2 traces the Rabbanite interpretive school that migrated westward in the Muslim world and flourished in al-Andalus in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Its two central figures are the great Andalusian linguists Menahem ben Saruq and Jonah Ibn Janah. Unlike the geonim, who sought to harmonize their Bible exegesis with the halakhic rulings of the Talmud, Menahem engaged in a pure philological analysis of the biblical text without regard for rabbinic interpretation—a move criticized by his contemporary Dunash ben Labrat, a student of Saadia's. The justification for Menahem's independent mode of analysis would come two generations later in a breakthrough by Ibn Janah, who recruited the peshat maxim in a new way to argue that a biblical verse always retains its philological-contextual sense notwithstanding the midrash, which determines halakhah. This critical step represented a departure from Samuel ben Hofni's construal of the peshat maxim. Since Samuel ben Hofni equated peshat with the "apparent" sense (?āhir), it was merely a default position that had to be abandoned where a nonliteral interpretation is indicated. His was thus a "weak" reading of the peshat maxim. Ibn Janah, however, defines peshat as the most reasonable philological-contextual sense of the biblical text, which retains its legitimacy even if it contradicts the rabbinic interpretive tradition, that is, midrash. In the case of this conflict, Ibn Janah argues that both senses of the text are correct—on different planes: one halakhic, the other philological. Ibn Janah thus advances a "strong" reading of the peshat maxim—that peshat is inviolate even when it conflicts with midrash. The maxim now became the "rule of peshat," a firm principle with no exceptions.
Chapter 2 also addresses other authors critical for mapping the trajectory of the Andalusian peshat school. It opens with a discussion of a key interpretive crux posed by the biblical anthropomorphic depictions of God as addressed by Judah ben Quraysh of Kairouan (tenth century), by navigating between the conflicting strategies of Saadia and Qirqisani. The chapter also takes stock of the contributions of Judah Hayyuj—a disciple of Menahem ben Saruq—whose discovery of the triliteral Hebrew root represents a breakthrough that put Hebrew linguistics on a firm scientific footing. The final sections of Chapter 2 outline the contributions of the influential Andalusian commentators Samuel ha-Nagid, Moses Ibn Chiquitilla, and Judah Ibn Bal'am, as well as the poet-exegete Moses Ibn Ezra.
Chapter 3 turns to the peshat movement pioneered by Rashi, who advanced a construal of the peshat maxim resembling Ibn Janah's "dual hermeneutic." But Rashi had limited exposure to the Andalusian school, and still relied on midrash, which led some to deny his commitment to peshat, as mentioned above. Indeed, given his background in the Rhineland talmudic academies, it is surprising that Rashi even privileged the "peshat of Scripture." This chapter addresses these challenges by considering Rashi's valuation of peshat within his cultural milieu, against the backdrop of contemporaneous Latin learning in northern France, particularly as manifested in the Psalms commentary of Bruno the Carthusian (1030-1101). Acknowledging the integrity of the literal sense, Bruno harnessed the analytic tools of classical grammar and rhetoric to critically select from among the interpretations of the church fathers to ascertain the Christological spiritual sense intended by King David in the Psalms. Analogously, Rashi seems to have regarded peshat as a baseline for selecting midrashic readings that best account for the language and order of the biblical text. As Greenberg and Kamin argued, Rashi should not be viewed as a flawed pashtan, as he never intended to limit himself to peshat exegesis. Rather, his goal was to utilize both linguistic tools and traditional interpretive sources to "settle" the words of Scripture, "each word in its proper place."
Chapter 4 traces the continued development of the conception of peshat by Rashi's students Joseph Qara and Rashbam and others in their scholarly circle. Qara aimed to exclude midrash and construct a "pure" peshat method. Building on Qara's achievements, Rashbam formulated a theoretical conception of peshat as an independent mode of analysis, even while acknowledging the authority of midrash, especially in matters of halakhah. This enabled him to freely engage in a peshat analysis of the legal sections of the Pentateuch at odds with the Talmud. Both Qara and Rashbam display familiarity with Christian interpretation. It is thus conceivable that they were aware of the emerging interest among twelfth-century Latin interpreters in the literary qualities of the Bible attributable to its human authors, independent of the spiritual senses imbued by the Holy Spirit. Qara and Rashbam likewise fashioned new literary approaches to the Bible that took into consideration the poetic designs of its human authors, which they associated with peshat, leaving the halakhah and doctrinal aspects of Judaism to the realm of midrash.
Chapter 5 investigates the Rabbanite Byzantine exegetical school, virtually overlooked until recently. Newly discovered commentaries and the identification of long-known ones as originating in the Byzantine orbit (which included parts of Italy) have brought this distinct tradition into focus. A pivotal Byzantine work long part of the traditional Jewish library is Leqaḥ Ṭov, once thought to be of Ashkenazic origin because it mentions the 1096 massacre of the Mainz Jewish community. In fact, however, its author, Tobiah ben Eliezer, lived in the Greek-speaking Byzantine orbit in the Balkans. Though Leqaḥ Ṭov is primarily a midrashic compilation, Tobiah manifests methodological awareness in sporadic references to the peshat maxim. The balance he struck between a primarily midrashic orientation and the integrity of the "peshat of Scripture" was embraced by two Italian authors whose works were published in the twentieth century: Samuel of Rossano, who penned a Pentateuch commentary in the first quarter of the twelfth century; and Menahem ben Solomon, whose Pentateuch commentary Sekhel Ṭov was penned in 1139.
This twelfth-century Byzantine-Italian school might be perceived as a parallel to Rashi's school, both working in a Christian environment, producing commentaries in Hebrew, developing sensitivity to the "peshat of Scripture," and distinguishing it from midrash. Yet the Byzantine context distinguishes this tradition in important ways. To begin with, Leqaḥ Ṭov engages in polemics with Karaism—a note absent in Rashi's school. More important, twelfth-century Byzantine peshat exegesis can be traced to a much older interpretive tradition in recently discovered commentaries by a certain Reuel on Ezekiel and the Minor Prophets, as well as anonymous scholia on Genesis and Exodus. These fragmentary works, written c. 1000, are the earliest attested philological Rabbanite commentaries written in Christian lands. It is conceivable that the nascent philological sensibilities in the Rabbanite Byzantine school were sparked by exposure to the Karaite tradition that had been transplanted there from Jerusalem. Evidence of such influence comes from the distinctive literary approach taken by Reuel, Tobiah, and Menahem to the editorial work underlying the arrangement of the biblical narrative, which they ascribe to a prophetic sadran (editor/narrator)—reminiscent of the mudawwin of which Yefet (and Qirqisani before him) spoke.
While Reuel and the Pentateuch scholia manifest a remarkably robust philological exegetical method, they do not invoke the peshat maxim to support it conceptually, nor do they differentiate peshat and derash theoretically. Both these features are manifest in Leqaḥ Ṭov and Sekhel Ṭov (but not in Samuel of Rossano's commentary), where the peshat maxim is invoked in a distinctive way, to assert the necessity of midrash notwithstanding the integrity of peshuto shel miqra—virtually the opposite of how the maxim was used in Rashi's school. We know little about developments in the Rabbanite Byzantine exegetical school during the century or so intervening between its early and late stages. But it stands to reason that Bible study and commentary continued within the Byzantine Rabbanite community, whether in writing or orally. It is thus conceivable that the label peshat became attached to philological exegesis during this unknown period and that it was privileged vis-à-vis midrash. That could explain the otherwise idiosyncratic usage of the peshat maxim introduced by Tobiah ben Eliezer and adopted by Menahem ben Solomon. The hypothesis raised in this chapter is that Tobiah and Menahem were reacting to the increasing prestige of peshat and sought to reinstate the traditional preeminence of midrash. This would suggest that the ascendance of the "rule of peshat" was not always linear; yet, once peshat exegesis had taken hold, it could not be dismissed.
Focusing on Abraham Ibn Ezra, Chapter 6 returns to the Andalusian school and its distinctive concerns. Unlike most of his Andalusian predecessors, Ibn Ezra wrote in Hebrew—for audiences in Christian Europe. Ibn Ezra rejected Rashi's peshat model, and even went beyond the dual hermeneutic formulated by Ibn Janah. Advancing a very strong reading of the peshat maxim, Ibn Ezra argues that the "way of peshat," as he termed the philological-contextual method, reveals the single true meaning of Scripture, and he relegates midrash to the status of mere homiletics. For Ibn Ezra, peshat has exclusive hermeneutical authority. The "rule of peshat" thus implies dominion over other interpretive modes. But Ibn Ezra paid a price for this transformation. Whereas Ibn Janah and Rashbam allowed for contradictions between the halakhah and the "peshat of Scripture," Ibn Ezra's singular hermeneutic forced him to harmonize his "way of peshat" with talmudic halakhah—which he was not prepared to adjust.
Ironically, as shown in Chapter 7, it was the great talmudist Maimonides who restructured the talmudic halakhic system by distinguishing between peshuto shel miqra and midrash. In order to maintain the talmudic system of halakhah as traditionally understood, Ibn Ezra had argued that many precepts within the halakhah were transmitted orally—and are fully authoritative even though they are not mentioned in the Bible. Maimonides, on the other hand, regarded peshuto shel miqra as the sole source of laws of biblical (de-orayta) authority, and relegated those laws derived midrashically—through the middot—to the lower "rabbinic" (de-rabbanan) status. He based this on what might be called a superstrong reading of the peshat maxim—that biblical authority is limited to peshuto shel miqra. Now the "rule of peshat" implied dominion over other interpretive modes not only hermeneutically but legally as well.
Maimonides' principle of peshat primacy redrew the theoretical map underlying talmudic halakhah—which Maimonides himself codified in Mishneh Torah, his comprehensive code of Jewish law. Maimonides anchored the halakhic system in the biblical text in a manner unprecedented in Rabbanite tradition. In order to do so, the great codifier drew upon conceptions and terms from Muslim jurisprudence. Writing in Arabic, Maimonides characterized peshuto shel miqra using the Muslim conception of naṣṣ, an explicit text, the authority of which is irrefutable, and he equated the midrashic middot with qiyās—logical inferences from the text, which may be subject to dispute. In the Talmud, Maimonides found a preexisting delineation of laws of biblical (de-orayta) and rabbinic (de-rabbanan) force, with an often fuzzy correlation of the former to the text of the Pentateuch and the latter with rabbinic enactments. Muslim jurisprudence provided a set of theoretical categories that he could correlate with talmudic ones—peshateh di-qera (Aramaic for peshuto shel miqra) versus midrash—to construct a more systematic account of the de-orayta/de-rabbanan classification.
The Maimonidean rule of peshat primacy represents an extreme point in the Geonic-Andalusian peshat trajectory, which would be moderated as that tradition was transplanted to Christian lands. The results of this shift are evident in the Provençal exegete Radak, who integrates midrashic elements into his peshat method, which otherwise is strongly influenced by Ibn Janah, Ibn Ezra, and Maimonides. Yet Radak does not advance a new construal of the peshat maxim, nor does he grapple with the sensitive issue of the relationship between peshat and halakhah. His hermeneutical system is therefore not the subject of a dedicated chapter, though some of his exegetical positions are discussed at relevant points throughout this study.
As discussed in Chapter 8, the Catalan talmudist Nahmanides would most decisively transform the rule of peshat in the post-Andalusian tradition. Criticizing both Ibn Ezra and Maimonides for endowing peshat with unique authority, Nahmanides reverts to a dual hermeneutic that empowers midrash to yield genuine interpretations of Scripture, as well as laws of biblical force. Yet the scuffle with Maimonides left an indelible mark on Nahmanides, whose dual hermeneutic was fundamentally different from that of Ibn Janah and Rashbam. For those predecessors, the authority of midrash was a given; their aim was to carve out a niche for the "peshat of Scripture." That battle no longer needed to be fought in the post-Andalusian milieu, in which the dominion of peshat was firmly established. Like Radak a generation before him, Nahmanides was beginning his exegetical road with peshat as his point of departure, beyond which he sought to account for the authority of midrash.
Nahmanides formulates his dual hermeneutic specifically with respect to the methods of halakhic derivation, the middot that were subjected to Maimonidean devaluation. But Nahmanides also validated other non-peshat modes of interpretation, specifically typological interpretation, termed remez (lit., "hint"); and mystical kabbalistic readings, termed sod ("secret"). The resulting fourfold scheme (peshat, halakhic midrash, typological interpretation, and kabbalistic readings) can be compared with the well-known "four senses" of Christian interpretation summed up in the medieval couplet Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia ("The literal teaches deeds, what you believe allegory, moral how you act, where you are going anagogical"). It is likely that Nahmanides had some exposure to Latin Bible interpretation, as he engaged in public disputations with the Dominicans. The distinctive terminology he coins in his typological interpretations resembles Latin terminology characteristic of the well-defined Christian mode of reading whereby Old Testament narratives prefigure events in the Gospel and in the history of the Church. Recent scholarship has shown that the relationship among the various senses of the Bible was a "hot topic" in late medieval Latin learning, and Chapter 8 explores how such distinctions reverberate in Nahmanides' exegetical thought. Beyond simply considering possible Christian "influence" on Nahmanides, the chapter outlines the challenges he faced that were caused by the convergence of the Andalusian and northern French peshat traditions, which he was uniquely able to address by appropriating tools from his Latin intellectual surroundings.
Nahmanides serves as a fitting closing point of this study, as he brought the rule of peshat to a point of stability that would guide Jewish exegesis for centuries. Bahya ben Asher (Saragossa, late thirteenth century), a student of Nahmanides' student Solomon Ibn Adret, would fashion a fourfold interpretive system heavily influenced by Nahmanides, as mentioned in Chapter 8. Elijah Mizrahi (Constantinople, 1455-1525), the great super-commentator on Rashi, would apply Nahmanides' standard of peshat as a yardstick by which to evaluate Rashi's exegesis, as noted in Chapter 3.
The chapters of this volume, as well as the discussions within each chapter, are arranged in an essentially chronological fashion. Yet it often proves helpful to diverge from chronological order so that an issue can be traced comprehensively as it unfolded in the medieval tradition. For example, an exegetical strategy applied by Saadia is illuminated in Chapter 1 by the reaction of Ibn Ezra and by comparison with an approach taken by Rashi. A debate about the relative standing of Mishnaic Hebrew vis-à-vis Biblical Hebrew sparked by Menahem ben Saruq is discussed in Chapter 2, where later opinions, such as that of Maimonides, are also presented. Therefore, in order to facilitate free movement from one exegete to another, all the major figures discussed in this study have been presented in this introductory chapter.