Bo II: Deep Peshat
(ט) לאות על ידך - לפי עומק פשוטו יהיה לך לזכרון תמיד כאילו כתוב על ידך. כעין שימני כחותם על לבך:
In this comment on Shemot 13:9, Rashbam offers one of his most famous and controversial peshat interpretations on the Torah. The verse says “It shall be a sign on your arm and a rememberance between your eyes, so that the Lord’s teaching will always be in your mouth…” Rabbinic interpretation understands this verse to refer to the very concrete mitzvah of tefillin. One is to literally put the words of this passage—and three others with similar formulations—on one’s arm and head in the form of boxes containing written scrolls.
Rashbam comes along and offers a radical, straightforward alternative: The usage of arm and eyes here is figurative. The “sign” and “rememberance” refer to a desire that this powerful narrative be remembered and kept front and center in one’s consciousness. Rashbam cites a parallel usage from Shir Hashirim, where the female figure asks her male counterpart to make her like a seal on his heart and on his arm, which clearly does not refer to wearing some sort of tefillin item as a token of love! (For other examples of this sort of figurative usage, see Yirmiyahu 31:32, Mishlei 3:1,3, 6:20-22, 7:2-3.)
To have something as a “sign on one’s arm” means to have it so ubiquitous in one’s life experience that it is as if it is engraved on one’s body and thus unforgettable and unavoidable. Indeed, this is the understanding of non-rabbinic sects like Karaites and Samaritans, who do not have a practice of wearing tefillin. And, in fact, there seem to have been some of Rashbam’s contemporaries who were seduced by this reading of these verses. R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, a younger contemporary of Rashbam, in his own peshat-based commentary on the Torah, explains in a comment on Devarim 6:8 how the details of tefillin can be derived from the various verses of the Torah. He then goes on to say the following:
“There is no doubt in this matter [that the verses here refer to tefillin and all of the rabbinic specifications of how to make them], for so we have received from our masters, and such is the practice of our ancestors. And one who claims there is some doubt is like one who claims that alef might be bet and vice-versa and will be yet be called to account.”
It is fairly clear that Rashbam himself put on tefillin, however, leading us back again to the question of what exactly he thinks he is doing when he offers comments that diverge from traditional, practiced understandings of the Torah. Here the phrase עומק פשוטו—deep peshat—that he uses here may be helpful, and, in turn, we can understand better what he means by that phrase, which appears in 5 different places in his commentary. [The other 4 are Bereishit 37:2, 37:28, 49:16, and Shemot 3:14.] My best sense of what he means by this is that “deep peshat” is that plain reading of the text that one can only come to after working very hard to peel away the layers of preconceptions that obstruct one’s direct appreciation of the text at hand. In a way, the goal is to read the text like a novice, almost like a child, and to feel the power of what it has to say, unfiltered, as if it were being revealed for the first time today, with only its own language to explain itself.
Rashbam’s commitment to this sort of peshat seems to emerge from a conviction that without it, we would deprive the Torah of a major element of its essential character: its power to speak to us as a book. Even if the Torah is also interpreted in other ways, the deep peshat must not be neglected, lest we minimize the Torah’s power.
So how does this interact with the rabbinic interpretations that ground Jewish practice? David Weiss Halvini talks about this in his Peshat and Derash. Here is a brief passage from page 82:
“Peshat and derash are two distinct levels of interpretation. You follow the peshat when you are interpreting the meaning of the text…When peshat and derash contradict, one teaches the peshat but behaves according to the derash…one lives by the derash…Even when the peshat is not followed practically, one still has to study the text according to peshat. The theoretical (emphasis mine—EMT) value of peshat ought never to be ignored.”
I might soften this a bit and inject a bit more subtlety. The power of peshat is not just theoretical, in the sense of a stimulating and interesting intellectual exercise. It is religiously practical as well, if not ritually practical. One might put on tefillin every morning while still recognizing that this ritual action is ultimately connecting us to deep places in our national memory and to God’s deep love for the Jewish people as expressed through the story of the Exodus. Maintaining deep peshat helps us remember that the Torah retains a power to draw us into its message without need of accumulated layers of interpretation. Even if those interpretations shape and define my entire religious life, Rashbam encourages us to revisit the power of the Torah again and again through peshat, in a way that can help us recover and maintain the kind of connection necessary to keep its ongoing interpretation alive.