The Meaning of PaRDeS: The Four Levels of Scriptural Interpretation

One of the most important hermeneutical paradigms introduced by the early and medieval rabbis is a belief that the Scriptures contain more than one layer of exegetical meaning. This intertextual approach came to be known during the medieval era by the acronym  פַּרְדֵּס”PaRDeS,” standing for “Peshat,” “Remaz,” “Derash,” and “Sod.” Briefly defined, peshat is based on the literal and factual meaning of a verse[1] and roughly corresponds to the medieval concept of sensus literalis as developed by the medieval Christian scholars Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Lyra: “that which the author intends.”[2] It is also helpful to remember that the early rabbinic approach of peshat serves to define the practical character of a community.[3] Remez (allusions) refers to the subtle types of word games and puns that are embedded in the text (cf. Gen. 1:31; 2:23; 6:8). Sometimes this may take the form of Gematria (numerology) Temurah (anagrams) and Notarikon (acrostics).

The third method of exegesis, derash, provides more of a philosophical, theological, and moralistic examination of the biblical pericope. As a general rule, the rabbis resorted to derash only when the text posed a problem that could not be adequately explained through the method of peshat. Derash as its root word connotes, implies a search for truth and authenticity, while Sod concerns itself with the mystical nuances and mega-themes that see the passage in broader cosmic terms. This is the method of interpretation found throughout the Kabbalah and in the Chassidic writings, however, whose origin has strong antecedents in the writings of Philo. There is a charming passage from the Zohar which illustrates this point:

Rabbi Shimon said:  Woe to the person who says that Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words! . . . Ah, but all the words of Torah are sublime words, sublime secrets! . . . This story of Torah is the garment of Torah and whosoever thinks that the garment is the real Torah and not something else—may his spirit deflate! He will have no portion in the world that is coming. . . . That is why David says: “Open my eyes so I can see wonders out of Your Torah!” (Psalms 119:18) what [sic] is under the garment of Torah! Come and see: There is a garment visible to all. When those fools see someone in a good-looking garment they look no further. But the essence of the garment is the body; the essence of the body is the soul! So, it is with Torah. She has a body: the commandments of Torah called “the embodiment of Torah.” This body is clothed in garments: the stories of this world. Fools of the world look only at the garment, the story of Torah; they know nothing more; they do not look at what is under the garment.

. . . Those who know more do not look at what is under the garment but rather at the body that is under that garment. The wise ones, servants of the King on high, those who stood at Mt. Sinai look only at the soul, root of all, real Torah! In the time to come they are destined to look at the soul of Torah! Come and see: So it is above. There is a garment and body and soul and the soul of the soul. The heavens and their host are the garment. The Communion of Israel is the body who receives the soul, the Beauty of Israel. So is She the body of the soul. The soul we mentioned is the Beauty of Israel who is real Torah. The soul of the soul is the Holy Ancient One. All is connected, this one to that one. Woe to the wicked who say that Torah is merely a story! They look at this garment and no further. Happy are the righteous that look at Torah properly! As wine must sit in a jar so Torah must sit in this garment. So look only at what is under the garment! So all those words and all those stories they are garments!”[4]



[1] In Mishnaic Hebrew the verb נִּפְּשָׁט may sometimes connote “straightening something out,” “to unfold” or “make something flat”; this usage corresponds to the Latin explanare (“to make plain or clear, explain,”) lit. “to make level,” or “flatten,” from ex- (“out”) + planus (“flat”). This description is how the Sages envisioned the methodology of interpreting the text. Common usage of פְּשָׁט suggests something that is obvious, or a matter of course. Early Talmudic texts suggest that the rabbis concurred that “a text cannot be taken from the meaning of its peshat.” In mystical texts, the term הַפְֹשָטָה implies something that is inherently abstract, i.e., when a concept is stripped of its concrete aspects, it leaves a distilled essence.

[2] Aquinas adds, “Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of the Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess., xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in the Holy Writ should have several senses” (Summa 1: Q. 1. Art 10). Like the rabbinic commentators of his era, Aquinas believes that all other aspects of interpretation ought to be subordinated to what he calls, “the literal sense.”

[3] The British scholar Raphael Loewe astutely notes that when the early rabbis used the term “peshat,” it did not usually refer to the “plain meaning” of the text as we now understand it to mean, but to the “traditional, familiar, and hence the authoritative meaning of the text.”

[4] Daniel Matt, Zohar, the Book of Enlightenment (Philadelphia: Paulist Press, 1983), 43-44.

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