Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Devarim 5765


We have already several times discussed interpretation of proper names in this series. Today we will come back to this topic for it opens for us an unparalleled opportunity to open a window into Rabbinic the method or interpretation. We begin with Rashi's citation for it is well known and from it will proceed to the Sifri.

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the bank of Jordan, in the desert, in the dry land, against Suf, between Tofel and Chatseros and Di Zahav, eleven days journey form Horeb by the way of Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea (Deuteronomy 1,1-2).

  R. Shimon Bar Yochai [1] said: We reviewed all of Scripture and found no place with the name Tofel and Lavan. Rather Moshe rebuked them regarding the Manna of which they spoke contemptuously (taflu) and which was white (Lavan).

Rashi follows this explanation in interpreting every location mentioned in this verse as referring to a particular sin. Thus, these names of places do not refer to places at all, neither in pshat nor drash. No such places exist and the only true explanation is that these terms are allusions to specific sins.

This explanation is found in the Sifri in the name of R. Yehuda. It is opposed there in no uncertain terms by another Tanna. R. Yosi Ben Dormaskis who proposes that these are names of real places but that nevertheless they in addition also bear a Midrashic explanation.

Said R. Yosi Ben Dormaskis to R. Yehuda BiRebbi: Why do you pervert verses? I bring Heaven and Earth as my witnesses and there is no place that has not be called its name except for what transpired there. An example, "He called the name of the place Eisek for they strove with him there" and it says, "And he called the name of the place Sheva". Similarly, R. Yehuda expounded (Zechariah 9), "The burden of Hashem's word in the land of Hadrach and Who rests in Damesek" - This is Moshiach who is sharp (Chad) to the nations and easy (Rach) to Israel. R. Yosi Ben Dormaskis said to him: "I bring Heaven and Earth as witnesses that I am from Damascus and there is such a place there. He answered him, So how do you interpret this verse? He said, "From where do we know that Jerusalem will extend to Damascus… [2].

The view of R. Yosi follows the pattern of many other Rabbinic statements. It argues that there is the simple meaning, the actual names of places, and the derash, the deeper or more profound meaning. Tofel and Lavan were the Midrashic names given to certain locations because of what happened there. What, however, is the view of R. Yehuda? He seems to say that there were no such places and that they never existed but are but an allegory.

The difference between allegory and drash is that the former negates the surface meaning. Tofel and Lavan do not refer to real places that happen to contain also a secondary intent. Rather, the one and only meaning of these words is their allegorical meaning.

The method of interpretation by allegory is familiar to us from the writings of Philo and it was taken from him into the Christian method of interpretation. In their hands, allegory served to divest the Jewish Bible of its meaning and to ascribe to it whatever meaning served best their theological ends.

Tanach itself contains occasional allegorical language. Yotham's parable a good example and so is its Rabbinic interpretation [3]. Another example, according to David Stern[4] is offered by the same R. Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Midrash that we are now discussing. Interestingly, Stern appears to have overlooked our midrash in Devarim that clearly employs allegorical interpretation.

R. Shimon Bar Yochai says: This thing is hard to say (i.e. allegorical) and impossible to express (theologically) - It (the story of Kain and Abel) is like two athletes who are wrestling in front of a king. If he wants to, he can separate them but the king did not want to separate them. One overpowered and killed another. He was screaming and saying, "Who can demand justice of the king". So also, "the blood of thy brother is screaming before me from the earth".

While this explanation can be used to nicely connect the two midrashim, it is hardly convincing.

Allegory is ultimately an extension of the concept of metaphor. In a metaphor, a term stands for another term but in itself has no meaning. When we say that the eyes of are beloved are stars, we mean that they shine like stars or are beautiful like they. However, we in no way suggest that they are actually stars. The word star is a metaphor, standing for some quality, such as brightness or beauty. Derash, on the other hand, does not negate the reality of pshat but proposes a secondary or additive meaning.

In conclusion, allegory is a method of interpretation that is basic to non-Jewish approaches to Biblical interpretation. Its great deficiency is inability to tolerate multiple meanings, an axiom of Jewish approach, for it insists that the true meaning of a verse is not what it actually says but its allegorical meaning. This is perhaps the reason for its rarity in midrash. There are but a few examples of its use among the Rabbis, and even there, it appears to meet with opposition. In the example with which we started, allegory is subject to vehement opposition; yet, it is the allegorical explanation that was chosen by Rashi and that has become the inheritance of the Jewish people via his commentary.

1 In some editions, R. Yochanan

2 This midrash imples that R. Yehuda disagrees that Hadrach is a real place; however, in Canticles Rabba 7, 10 he is quoted as saying "the place which is called Hadrach" and R. Yosi Ben Dromaskis appears to state again what he says here. Other editions substitute R. Nechmia for R. Yehuda.

3 Tanchuma Buber 1, 103, Yalkut Shoftim 65, 9. For a discussion of allegory in the methodology of Maimonides and Ibn Ezra and for overview of its central role in Christian and Moslem interpretation, see I. Lancaster, Deconstructing the Bible: Abraham's Ibn Ezra's introduction to the Torah, Routledge Curzon, 2003

4 In Midrash and Theory, Northwesten Univ. Press, 1996, p. 43.