The Plain Sense (Peshat) of the Text

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein



By Rav Elyakim Krumbein








            Before returning to the point at which we closed the previous shiur, I would like to expand a little on an issue that was mentioned in the past and has considerable methodological importance.  We rely in great measure on information culled from reports and stories, and we raised the question of the reliability of such reports.  We argued that there is more room to believe stories told about the Gra than tales told about the Chassidic masters.  Now that we have already begun to draw facts and gain impressions from such traditions, I wish to add a few remarks concerning the issue of credibility – all this despite the fact that the source upon which I will be basing my remarks is itself nothing more than a story.


            The following anecdote is told by an important disciple of R. Chayyim of Volozhin, R. David Tebel (the author of "Nachalat David"):[1]


            R. Chayyim of Volozhin sat with some of his senior disciples, and spoke about the greatness of his brother, R. Zalman (whom we also mentioned in a previous shiur).  R. Chayyim related that he was so great in Torah that even in the days of the Tannaim and Amoraim he would have been deemed a great Torah scholar.  Following this extreme praise, one of those present asked R. Chayyim: "This being the case, how would you describe the greatness of R. Zalman's master, namely, the Gra?" R. Chayyim filled with emotion and said: "Were my brother to have lived a thousand years, he would not have reached the ankles of the Gra, z"l," neither in sharpness nor in erudition.  On this the reporter of this story adds:


These people were astonished to hear such words issue forth from the mouth of R. Chayyim, z"l, whose words were always refined and distilled.  How then could he say such a thing that even in erudition he would not in a thousand years have reached the ankles of the Gra, z"l.


            The reporter continues to testify that R. Chayyim noted his disciple's astonishment and immediately explained himself in a precise and persuasive manner.  What is important for us at this point is not the specifics of his answer, but the initial reaction aroused by his words.  Exaggeration and hyperbole were uncharacteristic of R. Chayyim of Volozhin, and one senses that for his disciples as well, the need to be precise in his presentation of the facts is not set aside by the honor due to one's teacher.  R.  Chayyim understood their reservations from the looks on their faces, without them having to say a word about the matter.


            Indeed, this trait of R. Chayyim is evident from words that he himself wrote in his introduction to the Gra's commentary to "Sifra de-Tzeni'uta (part of the Zohar; we shall return to this introduction in the future).  R. Chayyim deals there with the Gra as a kabbalist.  He mentions that the Gra frequently merited heavenly "revelations." This fact follows from, among other things, the many times that he wrote or said: "It has been revealed to me." But R. Chayyim adds:


I have not yet been able to clarify whether these revelations came to him while he was awake, or perhaps they came in his sleep, his soul ascending to the heavenly academies.  But I have truly understood that his soul definitely ascended every night from the day that he reached his holy discernment.  But regarding revelations in an awakened state, I have no definite knowledge, because he was too closed and sealed to reveal [such things]… There is only one wondrous thing that I heard from his holy mouth that implies that he had great and awesome revelations even while he was awake…


            It would appear that R. Chayyim's goal here was to impress his readers regarding his master's greatness.  What would have been easier for him to do than simply to decide, on the basis of that "one wondrous thing" that he had heard from the Gra, that indeed he regularly enjoyed spiritual revelations, not only in his sleep, but even in an awakened state? But his great caution did not allow him to say more than what he had solid grounds to argue ("implies").  Indeed, the words written by the kabbalist, R. Yitzchak Eizik Chaver,[2] a famous kabbalist from the Lithuanian school, regarding R. Chayyim of Volozhin, seem to be right on the target:


For the Gaon and truly pious man, our master, R. Chayyim of Volozhin, of blessed memory – most of the members of our generation remember about him… that more than being a great Torah sage, who toiled in Torah and piety and excessive humility, learning and teaching, he was also very wise [in his ability] to measure his words, without exaggerating about anything, and without saying anything based on guesswork.  And he had the trait of the wise: regarding that which he did not see, he said I saw not, and regarding that which he did not hear, he said I heard not.  This is something well known to all of the masses of Israel in this generation, young and old alike.


            These words are instructive, in my opinion, not only about the personality of R. Chayyim of Volozhin, but also about his many admirers.  Shunning exaggeration and hyperbole was a deeply ingrained trait among the Lithuanians, and it stands to reason that this fact is cause to relate seriously to their traditions, at least in a relative sense.  Nonetheless one must read their words together with an understanding of their objectives.  No matter how hard a reporter strives to be precise, there is no escaping the influence of his agenda on the written product.




            Let us now go back to the words of R. Israel of Shklov in his introduction to Pe'at Ha-shulchan.  We pointed out the certainty, the speed, and the confidence with which the Gaon would ordinarily respond to questions addressed to him on Torah matters.  R. Israel cites first hand testimony from his friend, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, that the Gaon himself gave emotional expression to his feeling of certainty regarding his achievements in Torah study.  R. Menachem Mendel learned the Gra's commentary to Shir Ha-shirim from the Gra himself, and he describes what happened when the Gra completed his commentary:


He was happy, and he rejoiced in the joy of his holy Torah… and he ordered that his room be closed, and the windows were closed during the day, and they lit many candles.  And when he completed his commentary, he raised his eyes heavenward, with great devotion, blessing and thanksgiving to His great name (blessed be His name), who allowed him to merit attaining the light of all the Torah, both its inner and outer aspects…


            The Gra then delivered a long monologue, the first half of which we shall skip for the time being (but we shall return to it).  Let us focus on that which is connected to our topic:


Afterwards he said that he knew the entire Torah that was given at Sinai in perfect manner, and all the Prophets and the Writings and the Mishna and the Oral Law, how they are concealed within it, and that in his old age he is left with no doubts whatsoever concerning some law or passage in the entire Torah, and that he knows the entire Oral Law and all the Codes down to the Acharonim on the Shulchan Arukh, and that he clarified them and emended all the errors and turned them into fine flour clean of chaff.  And as for the esoteric lore, all that is in our hands, the Zohars, the Tikunei Zohar, Sefer Yetzira, the writings of the Ari, z"l, and the Pardes, he has finished them and he knows them perfectly, having cleaned them from the chaff and the many mistakes that had entered into them… And he warned them not to reveal anything of this, but after his ascent to heaven, his disciple, the aforementioned rabbi, related this to me.


            We see then that the Gaon was capable of saying about himself that he had attained perfect knowledge of the Torah, with no uncertainties and no errors due to incorrect readings.  What he knew was even more reliable than the books themselves, which constitute the source of knowledge of every Torah scholar.  This is because the books themselves are likely to be filled with the mistakes introduced by copyists and printers, whereas the Gra's knowledge of Torah was so perfect that he could discern the mistakes in the texts before him and correct them.  I allow myself to say with confidence that such a statement – self-testimony of absolute knowledge of the Torah – cannot be found anywhere else in our literature as issuing from the mouth of one of the great scholars in Israel.  The Gaon's order not to publicize his remarks is very understandable, for they are likely to put him under suspicion of arrogance.  It must immediately be added that if the Gra allowed himself to voice these words, even if only in his closest circle, it is clear that according to his own self-perception, such a suspicion would be unjustified.  As to his confidence regarding his textual emendations, it should be noted that his daring in this matter is striking in light of the severe prohibition that Rabbeinu Tam, in the introduction to his Sefer Ha-yashar, cast upon emending texts "inside." Rabbeinu Tam's position was accepted, and therefore we find the emendations of the greatest authorities restricted to the margin (e.g., Hagahot ha-Bach on the Talmud), and not "inside" the text itself.  Textual emendation was seen from early times as a dangerous and unsure endeavor.  But even this lack of certainty is missing in the case of R. Eliyahu of Vilna.


            As we saw in the previous shiur, even had the Gra not explicitly voiced these things, they reflect a living reality that was known to anyone who entered into a discussion of Torah matters with him.  This reality of certain and perfect knowledge of the Torah projected itself not only on the image of the Gra, but also on the face of the Torah itself.


            The question that I would like to address is: Upon what is this certainty based? What are its roots? It seems that we can point to three principles or fundamental qualities upon which it draws.  Two of them have already been mentioned in the past, but nevertheless we shall repeat them now in order to better appreciate their significance.


            One fact we shall mention briefly: the Gra's scope and mastery of the entire Torah.  We saw how the Gra's novel ideas were connected to his vast knowledge, for example, when he explained that the wording of the Mishna in tractate Beitza alludes to a law found in the Tosefta.  When a particular understanding is confirmed from different places in Torah literature, one's certainty about it increases.  In order to better understand this idea, consider modern researchers who try to confirm their arguments by matching information obtained from several sources, and even a variety of disciplines.




            The second foundation underlying the Gra's certainty – the one which we will expand upon here – is his devotion to the plain sense (peshat) of a text.  The plain sense enjoys a very strong power of persuasion.  Someone who is offered two explanations, both of which resolve the difficulties of a particular text in equal fashion, will presumably accept the simpler explanation as the "true" one.  What is more, we are occasionally prepared to accept the simple explanation even if it leaves certain difficulties that could be resolved were we to accept the alternative explanation.  The Gra was known for the strong emphasis that he placed on the plain meaning of a text, and for his distancing himself from pilpul and casuistry.  His method marks an important turning point with respect to the methodology of the Acharonim who preceded him.


            We saw above how the Gaon understood the talmudic idea of "chasurei mechasra" – those cases where the Gemara explains a mishna by adding words that are not written.  According to him, the Gemara's objective is to suit the mishna to the halakhic position of the Amoraim, which is different than that intended by the author of the mishna.  The mishna itself can be explained without any addition.  In practice, the Gra's attitude allows one to explain the mishna in its plain sense, as opposed to the interpretation given in the Gemara.  The Gra taught his disciples that it is possible to explain the mishna not in accordance with the understanding of the Gemara, even outside the context of "chisurei mechasra." R. Menashe of Ilya brings in his name that just as there is a plain sense and a midrashic sense regarding Scripture, so is there a plain sense and a midrashic sense regarding the words of the Tannaim.  The Amoraim sometimes adopt a midrashic method regarding a mishna, but permission is granted to the student to interpret it according to its plain sense, though for Halakhic purposes the Amoraic interpretation is the decisive one.


            Many such explanations have been reported in the name of the Gra, some of them appearing in his work on the Mishna, "Shenot Eliyahu."  One of the Acharonim, R. Shmuel Strashun of Vilna (the Rashash) noted one example, and commented: "It would seem that he explained this against the Gemara."[3] In the generations that followed the Gra, when such explanations started to characterize "Haskala" inclinations that were becoming prevalent in the Jewish world, the Halakhic authorities were not always comfortable recognizing this approach of the Gra.  The author of the "Arukh Ha-shulchan" said that the Gra undoubtedly introduced such an explanation with the following reservation: "Had Chazal not explained otherwise, it would have been possible to say…."[4] It is, however, difficult to set aside or diminish the importance of this approach of the Gra, for his love for the plain sense of a text stood out in many different contexts.


            The Gra understands the verse, "Bread of deceit is sweet to a man, but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel" (Mishlei 20:17), as a metaphor:[5]


The bread that comes to a person through great wrongdoing and cunning is very sweet to him, but afterwards his mouth will be filled with gravel because of it.  The idea is that it is sweet for a person to propose laws that are not good, explanations that are false, and grand homilies and distinctions, in order to glorify and elevate oneself.  But afterwards, his mouth shall be filled, etc…


            One of the Gra's disciples was R. Pinchas the Maggid of Polotsk.  This R. Pinchas wrote a commentary on the book of Tehilim, called Midrash Chakhamim.  In his introduction, he apologizes, in the manner of authors, for the utility (or lack thereof) of his work: Surely the book of Tehilim was treated extensively by the greatest of commentators? He argues, however, that what is still necessary is a commentary that will explain each psalm in an embracing manner and in accordance with the plain sense of the text.  He views himself as being particularly fit for the task:


This also stood for me in my credit that I ministered to the true Gaon, the holy light… the mighty hammer, our master R. Eliyahu, zt"l, of Vilna.  This may be likened to one who enters into a perfume shop, who no matter what absorbs the scents.  I entered into his shop, and absorbed his fragrant scent, not to follow down a crooked path after explanations… that are far from the plain sense of the word.  Whatever is closer to the plain sense is truer.


            Not only in his exegesis of Scripture and Mishna did the Gra give preference to simple explanations, but also in his study of Gemara and in his Halakhic deliberations.  On this point, it is worthwhile to compare the Gaon of Vilna to one of his great contemporaries, R. Aryeh Leib Ginzburg, the author of the Sha'agat Aryeh.  The Sha'agat Aryeh was a rabbi in Volozhin, and R. Chayyim of Volozhin was also a disciple of his, in addition to his well known relationship to the Gra.  The Gra and the Sha'agat Aryeh had many points in common,[6] and they knew about each other, though it is not known whether or not they ever actually met.  Regarding the issue under discussion – adopting the plain sense and forsaking pilpul – the Sha'agat Aryeh writes that in his book he has followed this approach, and that he views it as a blessed change.  He critically examines the pilpulistic approach that he had followed all his life, and he writes that all that "he didn't commit to writing, for it is all carried away by the wind, and it is nothing but vanity, even though I was as careful as possible that the essence of the pilpul reflect the truth of Torah, nevertheless it is impossible that untrue words should not become intermingled." And indeed, in his book, he commits to writing only those things that are follow the straight path and are absolutely true, with no pilpul.  It may be inferred from this that the Sha'agat Aryeh was the Gra's spiritual partner in his peshat revolution.  Nevertheless, R. Chayyim of Volozhin reports what his two teachers had to say about each other: "The Gra said about the Sha'agat Aryeh that he went to great lengths in pilpul, and the Sha'agat Aryeh said about the Gra that he went to great lengths in peshat." The Gra's devotion to the plain sense of the text was exceptional in the eyes of his colleague.


            The ramifications of this approach are striking to anybody who considers the many practical rulings of the Gaon.  The Gra forbade the eating of chadash in our time even outside Eretz Israel, as follows from the plain understanding of the law, and refrained from relying on the impressive justifications proposed by the Acharonim in order to explain the customary practice to be lenient on the matter.  His understanding of "bein ha-shemashot," according to which "sunset" is the moment that the sun disappears from the horizon, seems to be self-evident linguistically and realistically, but it stands in contrast to the understanding that was accepted since the days of the Rishonim, which was based on an ancient and complicated astronomical theory.  The accepted practice in Eretz Israel, according to which the priests recite the priestly blessing every day – fits in with the plain sense of the law, but runs counter to the common practice in Ashkenazi communities for centuries, which relied on side factors that do not appear in the primary halakhic sources.  He insisted that people eat in the sukka outside Eretz Israel during the entire day of Shemini Atzeret, once again in accordance with the plain sense of the law, and against all the explanations that were given to reconcile the prevailing laxity on the matter.


            To conclude this matter, I wish to make two comments:


            First, not everything which was viewed as "the plain sense" by the Gra or his contemporaries would be regarded as such in our time.


            Second, one should not understand from this that the Gra advocated peshat exclusively.  On the contrary, the Gra firmly believed in the traditional four elements of study and exegesis: "peshat" – plain meaning; "remez" – hints (allegoric or symbolic meaning); "derash" – inquiry (midrashic meaning); "sod" – mystery (mystical meaning).  Many of the Gra's explanations of Scriptural verses are on the level of remez, and especially, metaphor.  It would, however, still be correct to say that his attitude toward peshat was unique, and that oftentimes the spirit of peshat rested on the other modes that the Gaon followed.




            This approach was strong in the teachings of the Vilna Gaon and deeply influenced the Torah scholars of Lithuania.  We can bring an example from one of the most popular Torah works, the Torah Temima, authored by R. Baruch Epstein.  R. Baruch Epstein studied in the yeshiva of Volozhin, he was the nephew of the Netziv and the son of the author of the Arukh Ha-shulchan.  The author cites the teachings of Chazal on the verses, arranged according to the order of the verses, and he attaches to the citations words of explanation.  He frequently cites the words of earlier commentators and halakhic authorities, briefly comments on the difficulties in their positions, and then suggests an alternative which he sees as simpler.  In the following example (from Torah Temima, Bamidbar, chap. 15), he summarily rejects Rashi's explanation:


"After your heart and after your eyes" – It was taught: "After your heart" - this refers to heresy (minnut); and so it says (Tehilim 14): "The fool has said in his heart, There is no God" (Berakhot 12b).


            Torah Temima: The meaning of "minnut" here is obviously the denial of the existence of God, as is clear from the proof-text: "The fool has said in his heart, There is no God." But Rashi explained (Berakhot, ad loc.): "Minnut – those who turn the reasons of the Torah into an erroneous and idolatrous midrash.  As the verse states: 'The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.'" I do not understand why he toiled to give such a forced explanation, and not in accordance with its plain meaning and the plain meaning of the verse, as I explained above.[7]


            Indeed, the plain meaning as an exegetical standard in the rabbinic world gathered pace with the help of the Gra, and contact with modern currents apparently contributed to its continued strengthening in the following generations.  We see that R.  Baruch Epstein, at the beginning of the twentieth century, felt sufficiently confident to direct criticism at the greatest of commentators, Rashi.  Those who continued to promote the Gra's tradition did not maintain that his approach was reserved for geniuses like him, but rather it constituted an educational approach for the community of Torah students as a whole.


            Thus far we have dealt with two of the pillars of "certainty" in the Gaon's teachings: comprehensive erudition and the plain meaning of the text.  A third pillar of great importance still awaits us, and this will be the subject of the next shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] See the previous shiur, note 5.

[2] In his book, Magen ve-Tzina, chap. 25.  The aim of the book is to defend the authenticity of the Zohar.  Here he exploits the personal credibility of R. Chayyim of Volozhin as a persuasive proof in support of the truth of the kabbalistic tradition.  He also adds that this trait was shared by R. Chayyim and his distinguished teacher: "Nothing could incline them to exaggerate, or prevaricate or stray from the truth even a hair's width."

[3] Chidushei ha-Reshash, Berakhot 49b.

[4] On this, see R. Kalman Kahana, Cheker ve-Iyyun, I, pp. 150-151.

[5] These words are printed in the Gra's commentary to Mishlei.  The Gra attached great importance to this commentary, and instructed his students to publish it before the rest of his writings.  The basic principles of his moral outlook are found in this work.

[6] This issue was addressed by I. Ta-Shema, in Sidra, no. 15, pp. 181-191.

[7] This was the Torah Temima's reading of Rashi, but the manuscripts preserve the original uncensored reading of Rashi: "Minnut – those disciples of Jesus Christ who turn the reasons of the Torah into an erroneous and idolatrous midrash." It is clear that Rashi was trying to connect "minnut" to Christianity (an understanding which has support), and therefore he had difficulty explaining the words, "There is no God," in their plain sense.