Sunday, November 09, 2014

Here's what Pshat is (updated)

What's Pshat? This is a tricky question because the words pshat and drash were not used the same way in every era, but you can usually determine which is which by remembering a few simple rules:

1) Pshat answers the question "what is written here?" A commenter using the pshat approach wants to know what the text is saying. Usually he will rely on information provided by the text itself, and will not use outside information; also, he will not be concerned with messages, moral or hidden meanings and allusions.

2) Though many medieval pshat interpreters were biased against supernatural interpretations (ibn Ezra, Rashbam, etc) other pshat interpreters such as Rashi and the pshat interpreters among Chazal did not share this prejudice. They allowed for pshat interpretation that invoked the supernatural.

3) Though we think of Chazal as being primarily concerned with drash, this isn't so. Often Chazal are attempting to tell us "what is written here" and nothing else. This puts the comment into the category of pshat. This rule holds even if the comment is collected in a midrash anthology like Genesis Rabba. Not everything found there is a drash comment.



Verse: In Genesis 19:26 we're told that Lots wife became a pillar of salt.
But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

Seeking to answer the question "What is written here" some pshat commentators say that Lots wife delayed and was simply killed in the storm of sulfur and salt that destroyed the city. They read "looked back" as an idiom for "took it slowly" or "neglected to move as fast as necessary." And they read "she became a pillar of salt" as a naturalistic event. Salt was falling on the city, and some of it landed on her. [Note: There can be more than one pshat reading of the same verse, as Rashi said: הלא כה דברי כאש נאם ה' וכפטיש יפוצץ סלע, מתחלק לכמה ניצוצות:]

Other pshat commentators like Rashi seem to think that the transformation into a pillar of salt was a supernatural one. (Perhaps he reads this way because the text here only mentions sulfur, with salt only introduced later in Deuteronomy.) Following the midrash, Rashi additionally supplies an explanation for Mrs. Lots fate, and that explanation which (a) uses material not found in the text and (b) supplies a moral message is drash, but his view of HOW (as opposed to why) she was transformed into salt is a pshat interpretation as that's what he sees written in the text.)


Verse: Exodus 2:5 says that daughter of Paro stretched out her ama to grab the little basket that carried baby Moses.
Then Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her [something] to get it.

On BT Sota 12A R. Judah and R. Nechamia argue about the meaning of the word ama. As I understand it [see my post here] this is a pshat argument. Both commentators are trying to determine "What is written here" and both [really: see my discussion here] are informed only by information provided in the text. And neither man suggests that there was anything magical or supernatural about how her arm was stretched out. It seems clear that what they have in mind is an ordinary, natural, non-miraculous stretch.

However, later an unnamed amora has a follow-up pshat question: Why did the Torah use the word ama (an unusual word for hand) if it could have said yad (the expected work) His pshat answer: It teaches us that [her arm] became lengthened. Again, because he is using information found in the text to explain "What is written here" this comment belongs to the category of pshat. There is no message, or moral or secret allusion here. The goal is simply to find out what the text is trying to convey.

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