Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bo I: The Essence of Peshat

ראש חדשים - כר' יהושע שבניסן נברא העולם:

לחדשי השנה - בכל מקום שאומר לכם בחדשים שמיני תשיעי, לחודש הזה הם. ולר' אליעזר האומר בתשרי נברא העולם, עיקר פשוטו כך. החדש הזה לכם. אעפ"י שאינו ראש חדשים לשאר אומות, לכם יהי' ראש חדשים למנות ששי שביעי שמיני תשיעי חדש שנים עשר הוא חודש אדר. ממנו תמנו להיות לכם זכרון [כי] בו יצאתם ממצרים. וכשנאמר בתורה ובחודש השביעי, לירח יציאת מצרים פירושו. וכן רגילים הפסוקים לקחת חשבונם ליציאת מצרים, כדכת' בחודש השלישי לצאת בני ישראל וגו', וכן בבנין הבית ויהי בשמונים שנה וארבע מאות שנה לצאת בני ישראל מ[ארץ] מצרים:

I am not even sure if that is the best translation of עיקר פשוטו, the phrase used in the above passage. What is clear from this passage is that this term clearly does not mean, “the one indisputable meaning that the text obviously has to anyone who would read it closely.” In the above passage, Rashbam refers to the well-known debate between R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua, featured, among other places, on Bavli Rosh Hashanah 10b. R. Eliezer argues that the world was created in Tishrei—a view that ultimately informs the dominant liturgical tradition of considering Rosh Hashanah to be the birthday of the world, היום הרת עולם—whereas R. Yehoshua maintains that the world was created in Nisan, and the Exodus is thus a kind of second creation act.

Rashbam then explains how the peshat here could be read as supporting either view. For R. Yeshoshua, the phrase החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים is almost descriptive: This month, which is the first of the months—because the world was created in this month—will serve as your initial month for your new national calendar. In other words, the Jewish people are here being told that they will order their year in keeping with the history of the world.

R. Eliezer, on the other hand, will have to read the verse differently. החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים. For you, unlike the other nations of the world, this will be the first month of the year. You will be different; you will reckon time by your own calendar and realize that your history is fundamentally different from that of the world.

This reading is potentially an interesting inversion of how I have always read the debate in Hazal. Whereas R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua can fairly be read on their own terms as debating the significance of world history in light of Jewish history, Rashbam seems to read them as doing the opposite. Rather than taking the Jewish narrative for granted and then trying to understand where the global narrative fits into it, Rashbam’s reading of this debate back into God’s words to Moshe and Aharon has the effect of making this the moment when God tells the people how they ought to understand their emergent history in light fo the world context they take for granted. Those are two very different approaches to universalism and particularlism.

As noted above, Rashbam has no problem suggesting that both of these readings might be peshat, which adds another definitional element to our ongoing effort to explain this term. Peshat is not the search for a single, undisputed plain meaning. It is rather a style of reading, one with certain guidelines and parameters, but one which, like derash, can still produce multiple interpretations and theological possibilities.


At January 28, 2009 at 9:44 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

welcome back
i never gave up on you

At January 29, 2009 at 4:31 AM , Blogger ADDeRabbi said...

Welcome back.

At January 30, 2009 at 10:52 AM , Anonymous Michael said...

Thanks for coming back. RaSHBAM (and others) have re-ignited my learning of Chumash. Your blog entries enhance my learning and my apprceiationof the parsha.

At January 8, 2010 at 9:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!


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