Anyone who studies the Hebrew Scriptures from a Rabbinic Bible is struck by the number of different commentaries that surround the few lines of the Biblical text on each page.
Most religions that have a sacred scripture have editions that come with a commentary. Occasionally they have an edition with two or three commentaries. The standard Jewish study Bible usually comes with at least 5-10 different commentaries.
All of this traces back to a verse in the Book of Psalms: “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard” (Psalms 62:12) and its gloss in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 34a). In other words, multiple interpretations of each verse of Scripture can be correct, and the word of God, even if they contradict one another. The term for this concept of pluralistic interpretation is; Shivim Panim LaTorah (each verse of Torah has 70 different facets).
The earliest source for the term Shivim Panim LaTorahis in an early medieval text, Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 13:15-16. The term was used by the rationalist Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (died 1167 CE) in his introduction to his Torah commentary and, a century later by the mystic Rabbi Nachmanides (died 1270 CE) in his Torah commentary on Gen. 8:4. It also appears several times in the Zohar.
That this concept was used both by rationalist and mystical Torah commentators indicates how fundamental it is to understanding the meaning of Divine revelation. Indeed, the concept, though not the exact wording, also appears in a post Talmudic midrash Otiot d'Rabbi Akiba as “Torah nilm'dah b'shiv'im panim”- Torah is learned through 70 faces/facets.
Of course, we know of no verse that has 70 different interpretations; yet. After all, if we knew all 70 glosses to a verse we would understand it as well as it author; which is impossible. Also what would be left for future generations of Biblical scholars to do? But, most verses have at least three or four different glosses.
Jewish tradition recognizes four general types of interpretation.
P'shat; the plain simple meaning,
Remez; the allegorical metaphorical meaning,
De-rash; the moral educational meaning, and
Sod; the mystical hidden meaning.
For example: What kind of a tree was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? (Genesis 2:17 and 3:6). Most people think it was an apple tree. They have no idea why, or what that interpretation is supposed to mean.
The Rabbis offer four different interpretations of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; and each of them provides insights into the meaning of the Torah’s account of what makes humans special and what it means to be “like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)
Rabbi Yose said it was a fig tree for as soon as they ate from it their eyes were open and they covered themselves with fig leaves. (Genesis 3:7) This is the simplest explanation and has the most textual support but it doesn’t tell us why figs represent morality.
Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said they ate from a grapevine i.e. wine (alcohol) represents good and evil because humans have the free choice to use wine to sanctify the Sabbath or to become an alcoholic.
Rabbi Meir said it was a wheat tree i.e. wheat was the first crop to be domesticated and thus is a good. It is a metaphor representing the beginning of farming and then urbanization and civilization. Settled life is a great test of social morality because nomads can always split apart if they can’t live together, but settled people must develop an ongoing legal system and abide by it.
Rabbi Abba said it was an etrog tree. An etrog, used for Sukkot-harvest festival, is called a goodly tree and it is good to thank God for the harvest (Leviticus 23:39-42). Gratitude is a spiritual personal value transcending ethics, involving attitude, personality and feeling. The etrog, according to the Rabbis is special because its outside (bark and wood) tastes the same as the inside of the fruit. Thus a good religious person should be the same inside and outside.
These four ways of interpreting a sacred text illustrate the four kinds of Midrash:
The plain meaning of Rabbi Yose.
The moral lesson pedagogic way of Rabbi Judah bar Ilai who wants to teach people that many things like the grapevine are capable of being used for good or evil purposes. They are not intrinsically good or evil. We can choose how we use them, so we make them good or evil. (Sex,money and meat eating are other examples.)
Rabbi Meir. who was reputed to know dozens of fox fables, thinks social morality is the primary sign of humanity. Farming brings about relatively dense settlements, property disputes, government and economic hierarchies. All of this calls for a just legal system. Thus wheat is a good metaphor.
The forth way is the personal insight, mystical psychological way of Rabbi Abba. The etrog is part of the citrus family. Unlike an orange, a lemon or a grapefruit an etrog has no commercial value. Jews give it a high value (each one costs 100X what a lemon costs) for spiritual reasons. So too does morality have a spiritual value much greater than simple humanistic ethics.
My contribution to Shivim Panim is that the tree is a Torah tree. Torah is called a tree of life (Proverbs 3:18) and most Jews who study Torah and do Mitsvot live longer than most Jews who do not. Since it is desirable to live a long life it is also wise to live in a morally simple way which may be the literal or common sense way of Rabbi Yose.
There are examples of a verse with more than a dozen interpretations. For example Genesis 1:31 “God saw everything God had made, and behold it was very good.” On the other days it says God saw that it was good. What did God create on the sixth day that was so special that it made that day “very good”? I found a total of 15 different answers and added four of my own. These 19 can be grouped in three categories.
Category A: Very good refers to the best thing in all of creation.
1-Very good refers to the creation of human beings. (Genesis Rabbah)
2-Very good refers to the creation of women. (Midrash on Psalms)
3-Very good indicates that God did not procrastinate but ecstatically enjoyed creation immediately for God took pride and pleasure in creation. (Midrash Tanchuma) (I.e. an anti-asceticism view).
4-Very good refers to all those creatures deemed unnecessary and useless in this world like flies, gnats etc. who have their allotted task in the scheme of creation. (Midrash Exodus Rabbah) (I.e. a pro biological diversity view)
5-Very good refers to God, who is very good, or to Torah, or to Moses. (Midrash Alefbet)
6-Rabbi Hiyya said very good means perfect, and thus creation should remain unchanged forever. (I.e. a very conservative view)
7-Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar said it means sleep is very good. (a blessing for parents of babies. an anti workaholic view, or you have a good night's sleep because your mind is at peace i.e. undisturbed by worries, thoughts of revenge, jealousy, insult, etc. or bad dreams)
Category B: Very good refers to the challenge and value of conflicting or alternative possibilities.
8-Rabbi Samuel ben Rabbi Isaac says it alludes to the angel of life and the angel of death. (I.e. human awareness of the blessing of life and the inevitability of death)
9-Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish says it refers to a kingdom of heaven and a kingdom of earth. (I.e. a spiritual realm and a material realm)
10-Rabbi Huna said it refers to happiness and suffering.
11-Rabbi Simeon ben Abba said it refers to God’s bounty and to God’s punishment. (I.e. moral acts have consequences in this world)
12-Rabbi Ze’ira said it refers to Paradise and Gehinom. (I.e. moral acts also have consequences in the world to come)
13-Rabbi Samuel said good refers to the inclination toward good and very good refers to the inclination toward evil. Can the inclination toward evil be good? Yes! If not for the inclination toward evil no man would build a house, marry, or beget children as it says, “excelling in work is due to a man’s rivalry with his neighbor.” (Eccl. 4:4)
Category C: Very good refers to the beginning of a more advanced stage of development.
14-Rabbi Abahu said that very good means that God created previous worlds and then destroyed them because they were not good enough. Our world is very good.
15-Rabbi Abba said that all God’s creation was through a mediating agency i.e. earth or water. (I.e. natural evolution) Now that all was done God praised the whole work. (Zohar Midrash Hane’elam). (I.e. a gestalt view)
16-Rabbi Maller says that very good refers to language. Animals can act cooperatively but only with language can one be self-conscious of ethical and moral principles. Thus mankind’s development of language must precede the ability to internalize morality (eat of the knowledge of good and evil tree).
17-Rabbi Maller also says that good refers to the tree of life that extends human life, and very good refers to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that expands human morality. Some turtles live for more than 200 years but they never study Torah, worship God or do altruistic moral acts. Thank God Eve chose to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and not from the tree of life. Quality is more important than quantity.
18-Or good refers to the comfortable womb-like Garden of Eden, and very good refers to the expulsion from Eden into a challenging real world, which occurs after they eat of the morality tree and become like God. Freedom/moral choice is more important than security and comfort. Becoming an adult is better than remaining a happy infant.
19-Or good refers to nature/evolution, which has fashioned the world to this point, and very good refers to human cultural/moral activity, which will fashion the world from this point on. So very good refers to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, plus the stimulus to choose i.e.-the snake, Satan, temptation, competitiveness, challenge and free will.
Whenever students of Torah, like the readers and writers of this journal, come up with a new insight which becomes a part of the ongoing Jewish tradition, they find one aspect of meaning that was hidden prior to their discovery. May it always be thus.