Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Re’eh 5768/ August 30, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The Hebrew Slave in the Light of  Peshat

Dr. Luba Harlap



This week’s reading, Parashat Re’eh, is unique for its marked halakhic content and wealth of commandments – some of them appearing here for the first time (for example, remission of debts). The majority, however, are commandments that previously appeared in earlier books of the Torah and are recapitulated here. These provide a good opportunity for analyzing the concept of the “plain sense” or peshuto shel miqra from two different angles. One such repeated commandment concerns the treatment of the Hebrew slave, on which we shall focus below.

Defining Peshat

Exegesis based on the plain sense (peshat) is one of the accepted approaches in classical interpretation of the Bible – some even say the preferred approach – alongside other exegetical methods such as homiletical interpretation (derash).  Sayings about peshat are to be found in the writings of the Sages.  For example, “A verse of Scripture cannot depart from its plain meaning (peshuto)” (Shabbat 63a and elsewhere); “the plain sense of Scripture” (Ketubbot 110b, and elsewhere); “be it in the plain sense … be it homiletically” (Sanhedrin100b).   In medieval Jewish biblical exegesis the expressions peshat and derash became firmly rooted as characterizing diametrically opposed methodologies. [1]

In general it is clear to all that the peshat is as its name implies:  the simple (pashut) and straightforward way of reading the text. The astute reader will not settle for this simplistic generalization and will surely ask whether the peshat can be characterized by quantifiable criteria. One definition of peshat that has been well-accepted in scholarship is that of Sarah Kamin:   “Explicating the text according to its language, syntactic structure, context, literary genre and literary structure, while paying attention to the interrelationship of these components.   In other words, interpretation according to the peshat is interpretation that takes into account all the linguistic elements in combination, giving each of them meaning according to the whole.” [2]   In this definition Kamin related the peshat to the text alone and did not take into consideration other criteria, such as the exegete’s own involvement, and the like.  However, Kamin did not settle for a definition of the peshat as merely a grammatical or philological interpretation; she listed other components that connect interpretation to the text:   language (apparently she meant the phonology, morphology and lexicon of individual words), syntax (the status of the words in the verse), context (the contents of the text in their broader setting – apparently the paragraph, or perhaps the entire narrative section or the parashah), the literary genre (narrative story or legal text), and literary structure (use of various literary means such as metaphors or parallel structures, for example).

Is her definition somewhat over-inclusive and pretentious?  Must every good peshat contain all these components?  From experience we know that sometimes the peshat is based on the form of a word, sometimes on the context; which is the ultimate peshat of the two?   Moreover, a definition basing peshat interpretation on the context requires further refinement, since sometimes a certain peshat follows from the immediate context, but a different peshat follows from the broader context (such as all the occurrences of a certain problem in the entire book or even in the entire Bible), so we must ask what is the optimal context in this case?  Such questions require further study and elucidation. We shall illustrate how the points we have raised find expression in the question of a Hebrew slave, recapitulated in this week’s reading. [3]

Lexical peshat versus contextual peshat

A possible contradiction between two types of peshat can be illustrated by the word olam that appears in the context of the laws regarding a Hebrew slave.  These laws appear in three places in the Torah:  Parashat Mishpatim in Exodus (21:2-6), Parashat Be-Har in Leviticus (25:39-42), and in this week’s reading (Deut. 15:12-18).   In Exodus it says that a Hebrew slave who refuses emancipation in the seventh year is to have his ear pierced and “remain his slave for life (le-olam)” (21:6); in Leviticus it says that the period of bondage is terminated come the jubilee year:   “he shall serve with you only until the jubilee year” (25:4); and in Deuteronomy, which also refers to a slave who has had his ear pierced, it says, “he shall become your slave in perpetuity (eved olam)” (15:17).  The lexical peshat of le-olam means “all his life” (and indeed that is how Rashbam interpreted Exodus 21:6), but in terms of the general context it seems that there is a contradiction here:  on one hand a slave who has had his ear pierced remains in bondage all his life, plain and simple, yet on the other hand, a slave goes free in the jubilee year (according to Leviticus, loc. sit.), and apparently piercing a slave’s ear is of no avail in canceling the requirement to emancipate slaves in the jubilee year.  Therefore the Sages interpreted olam as meaning none other than until the jubilee year (Mekhilta, Mishpatim 21.6), and not according to the plain sense of the word as it is known to us.

Is this interpretation of the Sages a homiletical interpretation (derash)?  Perhaps.  On the other hand, perhaps it is peshat according to the context of the entire Torah, which includes Leviticus, in which we read that all slaves, even those who have had their ears pierced, are to be emancipated in the jubilee year.   Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (Ex.21:6) wrote in this regard: “We know that the word le-olam when used in Holy writ denotes a certain time, as in ‘it occurred long since (le-olamim),’ i.e., ages ago; or ‘he must remain there for good’ (ad olam; I Sam. 1:22), i.e. until such time as he be grown; and likewise, ‘he shall remain his slave for life,’ until the time of the jubilee year, for there is no lengthier specified period of time in the appointed seasons of Israel.”   In his commentary on Leviticus (25:41), Ibn Ezra reveals his opinion that the impetus for the Sages’ interpreting the text in this way was the contradiction that follows from Leviticus, as we explained:  “Accordingly the Sages interpreted he shall remain his slave for life (as meaning until the jubilee year).”  Also Karaite exegetes, who strictly adhere to the peshat in understanding Scripture, interpreted olam not in the plainest sense, and in his commentary, Keter Torah, the Karaite exegete Aaron ben Eliyahu (14th century) applied this interpretation to other occurrences of the word in the Bible:   He shall remain his slave for life – until the jubilee year, … as also he (young Samuel) must remain there for good,” which he explained as follows:  “for durations of time for Israel are until the jubilee year” (commentary on Ex. 21:6).  Thus we see that in this case the contextual peshat (olam = the duration of time until the jubilee year) has the upper hand.

Exegesis by individual subject matter or by unified view of the Bible

The second question that we presented above concerns the scope of context, which is actually a part of the definition of this term.   Contemporary linguists have shown that the term “context,” which originally denoted 'that which was written with' (con) the text, i.e., before and after it, is now used in a broader sense, essentially denoting the entire setting of the text. [4]   This setting comprises not only that which is written adjacent to the passage being interpreted, but the entire environment in which the text is situated.  Following the approach of scholars who characterized context as “context of situation,” i.e., who extended the context of the text to the situation in which it was written or said, Halliday coined the term “context in culture.”   This refers to the context in its broadest sense and pertains to the relationship between the text and the world that the text is said to represent.

Clearly in biblical exegesis this component is significant, for the exegete can relate to the implications of the expressions within many perimeters – the parashah, the story, or – the broadest unit – the book, group of books, or even the entire Bible, and the stand that he takes towards the scope of the context is bound to have an impact on his interpretation.   This is especially evident when a certain story or halakhic command appears several times in the Bible, and the exegete is required to decide whether the limits of his context include each appearance of the subject matter in itself, or all the references to the subject throughout the Bible together.  We shall also illustrate this idea from the case of a Hebrew slave.

The laws of the Hebrew slave in Exodus include emancipation in the seventh year, the family laws governing a slave (his wife and children), the master’s duties to the slave’s family, and the duty to pierce the ear of a slave who does not wish to be freed after six years of service; the circumstances under which the person became a slave are not mentioned.   In Leviticus the Torah begins by setting forth the circumstances of enslavement:  “If your kinsman under you continues in straits and must give himself over to you,” indicating to us that the person was sold into slavery because of destitute poverty.  Later on it says that a Hebrew slave serves until the jubilee year.  In Deuteronomy, as in Exodus, the circumstances of enslavement are not mentioned, but female Hebrew slaves are specified in addition to male Hebrew slaves, and the laws of emancipation in the seventh year as well as piercing the ear are mentioned, plus a new law:  giving a grant upon emancipation.  Another circumstance of enslavement in addition to those mentioned in Leviticus is given in Exodus, namely a person may be sold into slavery by the court in order to pay for restitution for something he has stolen:   “He must make restitution; if he lacks the means, he shall be sold for his theft” (Ex. 22:2).

Two Kinds of Slaves

The Sages viewed the laws of the Hebrew slave in Exodus and Deuteronomy as applying to slaves sold by the court for theft, and the laws in Leviticus as applying to slaves who sold themselves due to poverty.   Slaves of the first sort, sold for their theft, go free after serving six years.  Those who do not wish to go free have their ears pierced and become slaves for life (eved olam – according to the Sages, emancipated in the jubilee year), and upon emancipation are given a grant (on the basis of what is said in Deuteronomy).  In contrast, slaves who sold themselves due to poverty are not released after six years, do not have their ears pierced, and do not receive a grant when they are emancipated in the jubilee year.  Now, among the Sages there are views (albeit minority ones) that do not make such a differentiation.  (For example, the view presented in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai [Mishpatim, 21, lines 25-29], and the view of Rabbi Eleazar [or, according to another version, Eliezer] in the Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 14b.)   According to Rabbi Eleazar, and contrary to the majority view of the Sages, also a person who sells himself due to poverty is released after six years. The same interpretation is given by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, who wrote, “When you acquire ... – including someone who sold himself because of hard times and someone who was sold by a court; in both cases he shall not serve more than six years.” [5]   Karaite exegetes, such as Aaron ben Joseph of Byzantium (Sefer ha-Mivhar, Exodus 40.1), also interpreted the text thus, viewing all the passages on this subject as a single halakhic unit.   According to these interpretations, each source contributes its part to the halakhah:   the law that a slave is set free after six years is learned from Exodus and Deuteronomy; the practice of piercing the ear, from Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the interpretation of “being his servant for life” as meaning until the jubilee year, from Leviticus.

In a certain sense one could say that this unified biblical interpretation is derash, since it does not strictly adhere to the sense of the text in every place, but rather is more interested in the meaning that follows from the sense of the text in all places taken together.   On the other hand, from another point of view one could actually say that the approach to Scripture as a unified harmonious text, in line with the saying, “The words of the Torah are sparse in one place and rich in another” (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh ha-Shanah 3.5), and extending the context to include the entire Torah is actually more faithful to the peshat or plain sense.

In conclusion, even from this limited presentation we see that further clarification is still needed in defining and applying the idea of context.  In line with the results of our analysis, we would suggest certain minor modifications of Kamin’s definition that actually make a significant difference.  We propose putting it thus:  the peshat explicates Scripture according to its language in respect of one or more of the following aspects:  morphology, syntax, context of subject (pragmatic circumstances), literary genre or literary structure (the bounds of discourse).  In the light of this definition it becomes clear that there is not necessarily a correlation between lexical interpretation and contextual interpretation. Interpretation according to the peshat is by its very nature an explanation that rests on the continuum between grammar of the word and grammar of the text. In accordance with the accepted concepts in contemporary linguistics, the entire text must be seen as a grammatical unit that can be sorted, in terms of the subjects dealt with, to various branches of linguistics.   The question of the scope of context is, as we have shown, an important component in the exegetical approach to the plain sense of the text.

Be that as it may, in comparison with other approaches to biblical interpretation, such as derash, the peshat is the more grammatical interpretation according to the broadest definition of “grammar” accepted today.

[1] For example, see Ibn Ezra’s comment on Amos 1:9:  “This is not the peshat, but derash.”  

[2] S. Kamin, Rashi – Peshuto shel Mikra u-Midrasho shel Mikra, Jerusalem 1986, p. 14.

[3] For a more comprehensive treatment, see R. Harlap, “Parshanut ha-Mikra al Derekh ha-Peshat:   Avhanot ahadot le-or teoriyot balshaniyot benot zemaneinu,” Oryanut:  Heker, Iyyun ve-Ma’as 10 (2006), pp. 133-152.

[4] M. A. K. Halliday and R. Hasan, Language, Context and Text:  Aspects of Language in a Social-Semiotic Perspective, Oxford 1990, p. 5.

[5] According to Razhavi, 1998, Arabic original, p. 318; Hebrew translation, p. 108.   Clearly the interpretation in the translation is not according to the halakhah.