Hermeneutics (Drash)

A method for learning Torah, developed by the rabbis of the Talmud.

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Hermeneutics (drash) is the science of biblical exegesis by the early Talmudic rabbis in accordance with certain rules. The idea behind the system is that the full implications of the biblical laws can only be ascertained by a close scrutiny of the text for which the hermeneutic principles provide the key. A question much discussed in modern scholarship is whether the application of these rules was believed by the rabbis to convey the true meaning of the law, so that the laws were seen as actually derived from the texts examined, or whether the laws were arrived at by other means, either by tradition or by independent reasoning, and the hermeneutical rules were intended to show that the laws have a basis in the Torah.


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It is impossible to provide a simple solution to this extremely complicated question. It often seems that when the rabbis engaged in detailed exegesis in order to arrive at the law to be followed, they saw their conclusion as actually one demanded by the exegesis.

On the other hand, where the exegesis was too unlikely for it to be believed to be the actual source of the law, it seems probable that the rabbis knew this and were really saying, this is what the law must be and we can attempt to show that our understanding has a basis in Scripture. The Karaites, in their opposition to the Talmud, alleged that the hermeneutical principles were a foreign importation into Judaism and were no more than Jewish adaptations of Greek reasoning methods.

The employment of seven hermeneutical principles is attributed in the sources to Hillel. But the formulation of thirteen principles by the first- to second-century teacher, Rabbi Ishmael, is the usually accepted formulation, appearing in the standard Prayer Book as part of the morning service. This inclusion in the Prayer Book is based on the idea that every Jew, in addition to his prayers, should study each day something of the Torah, which the rules provide in capsule form, although it cannot be imagined that the average worshipper has an inkling of what he is saying when he recites these difficult rules.

Considerations of space permit only a brief outline of Rabbi Ishmael's thirteen principles. The earliest source in which they are found is the Midrash known as Sifra, the introduction to which begins with: "Rabbi Ishmael says, by means of thirteen principles the Torah is expounded' and then gives the following list.

1. Kal Vachomer (also known as a fortiori): The inference from the minor to the major: If A is so then A2 is certainly so.
2. Gezera Shava: An inference by a similar expression used in two different texts. A law found in one text applies also to the other text.
3. Binyan Av: A conclusion derived from a construction stated in a single verse or from one stated in two verses.
4. Klal Ufrat: A general statement followed by a statement of a particular instance. Only this particular instance is intended by the general statement.
5. Prat Ukhlal: A particular statement followed by a general statement. The general statement is intended to include instances other than that in the particular statement.
6. Klal Ufrat Ukhlal: A general statement followed by a particular statement followed by another general statement. Other instances than those in the particular statement are to be included but only if these are similar to that in the particular statement.
7. Klal Shehu Tzarih Lifrat: A general statement requires a particular statement for its meaning or a particular statement requires a general statement for its meaning. Here the general and the particular complement one another.
8. A general statement is followed by a particular statement but something new is mentioned in the particular. This new addition is to be applied to the general statement.
9. Particular instances of a general rule are treated specifically in details similar to those in the general rule; then only the relaxations, not the severities, of the general rule are to be applied in these instances.
10. When particular instances of a general rule are treated specifically in details dissimilar to those included in the general rule, then both relaxations and severities are to be applied in those instances.
11. When a particular instance of a general rule is singled out for completely fresh treatment, the details contained in the general rule must not be applied to this instance unless Scripture does so specifically.
12. The meaning of a passage can be derived either from its context or from a statement later on in the same passage.
13. When two verses appear to contradict one another, a third verse can be discovered which reconciles them. In addition to Rabbi Ishmael's thirteen, other hermeneutical principles are found in the Talmudic literature. For instance, it is generally accepted that the portions of the Torah are not arranged necessarily in chronological order, so that events related in a later passage have taken place before those related in an earlier passage. Another principle is that while there can be additional interpretations of a scriptural verse, the verse does not lose entirely its plain meaning.

Once the Talmud had become authoritative, the later teachers developed hermeneutic principles for the interpretation of the Talmud itself but did not apply new principles to Scripture.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.