Pardes–the Four Levels of Understanding Torah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The Talmud in Chagiga 14b, tells the story of four great scholars, Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva, who entered a “Pardes,” an orchard. The Talmudic narrative cryptically states, that upon entering the “Pardes,” Ben Azai looked in and died, Ben Zoma looked in and was stricken and Acher, chopped off the roots. Only Rabbi Akiva came out of the “Pardes” in peace.

The rabbis explain that the “Pardes” that the rabbis entered was not a real orchard, but rather the four levels of Torah study and understanding scripture represented by the acronym “Pardes.” The Hebrew letter “pay” stands for “p’shat,” the literal meaning of the scriptural text; the Hebrew letter “raish” stands for “remez,” which is the alluded-to meaning of the text; the Hebrew letter “daled” stands for “drash,” the homiletic meaning of the text; and the Hebrew letter “samach” stands for “sohd,” the mystical meaning of the text.

Four great scholars entered into a “Pardes“–began to delve into the four levels of scriptural meaning. Of the four, only Rabbi Akiva was able to reach the full depth of understanding and come out in peace. Ben Azai died. Ben Zoma became demented. Acher (whose real name was Elisha ben Avuya) cut off his roots and became an apostate (see As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg). Rabbi Akiva was the only scholar great enough to explore the deepest levels of the Torah secrets without being harmed.

According to Jewish tradition, every verse in the Bible has many levels of interpretation. Each verse has a literal meaning, the plain and simple message that the written text conveys (pshat). At times, the text itself raises questions that allude to interpretations other than the literal meaning (remez). On occasion, these questions are responded to by citing a Midrash, a legendary interpretation of the Bible, which attempts to resolve the disparities in the text (drash). Finally, there are instances where the verse suggests deep and intense new meanings that are generally hidden from the rational mind and are often beyond the ken of mere mortals (sohd).

A good example of the multi-leveled understanding of biblical verses can be found in this week’s parasha, parashat Bereishith. The story of the creation of the world is, of course, a multi-tiered narrative that has many levels of meaning. In Genesis 1:14, G-d creates the luminaries in the heavens. Scripture states: “Va’yomer Eh’lo’him, y’hee m’o’roht bir’kee’ah ha’shah’ma’yeem, l’hav’deel bayn ha’yom oo’vayn ha’lai’lah.” And G-d said, let there be luminaries in the firmament of the heaven to separate between the day and the night; and they shall serve as signs, and for festivals, and for days and years; and they shall serve as luminaries in the firmament of the heaven to shine upon the earth. And it was so.

The creation story continues, Genesis 1:16: “Va’ya’ahs Eh’lo’him et sh’nay ha’m’oh’roht ha’g’doh’leem, et ha’mah’or ha’gah’dohl l’mem’sheh’let ha’yom, v’et ha’mah’or ha’kah’tohn, l’mem’sheh’let ha’lai’lah, v’ayt ha’ko’cha’veem.” And G-d made the two great luminaries, the greater luminary to dominate the day and the lesser luminary to dominate the night; and the stars. And G-d set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, to dominate by day and by night, and to separate between the light and the darkness. And G-d saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

The numerous questions raised by these verses are particularly challenging. The most obvious conundrum is the fact that according to scripture the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day. If that’s the case, then how could the Torah have referred to the previous time periods as “day one,” or as “the second day” or “the third day”? To some commentators, this indicates that the duration of each of the first three days was not necessarily a 24 hour period, after all, without a sun there could be no 24 hour day. Some would even say that the length of each of the first three “days” of creation was actually many millions of years during which the universe developed, and suggest that as a way of explaining the issues raised by the theory of evolution.

Even more problematic is the fact that we know that the sun and moon are not at all the same size. The moon is much smaller than the sun. Furthermore, the moon does not radiate its own light, it only reflects the light of the sun. How then can the moon be referred to as one of the two “great luminaries”?

The “literal” meaning of the biblical text (p’shat) is that G-d created two spheres, and that the sun and the moon were both the same size. The fact that they are not the same size raises questions (remez). The rabbis respond to that inconsistency by providing a Midrash, a biblical legend (drash), which is found in the Talmud in tractate Chulin 60b and cited by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible). The Midrash states that the sun and moon were originally created the same size, but the moon complained to G-d that two kings can not reign over the same province. G-d responded to the moon by saying that, you are right, but since you complained, I will reduce you.

We frequently find that biblical legends not only address textual questions, but often convey ethical messages as well. Perhaps the ethical message here is not to complain or open a big-mouth unless there is a very good reason to complain. You never know how the “boss” is going to react! In this particular instance, the ethical message goes even further: What about the stars? Here Rashi cites another Midrash from Bereishith Rabbah, saying that in order to compensate the moon for being reduced, G-d brings out the stars and the other heavenly bodies to minister to the moon whenever it is out. So, even though the moon deserved to be reduced, G-d has mercy on this celestial body.

While invoking the various interpretations of “Pardes” addresses many of the major textual issues, we are still left with another unresolved question. If the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day, how could the Torah state in Genesis 1:3: “Va’yomer Eh’lo’him, ye’hee ohr v’ye’hee ohr,” And G-d said, let there be light, and there was light. What light was this, surely not the sunlight with which we are familiar? Here the rabbis invoke the element of “sohd“–mysticism, suggesting that the light that was created on the first day of creation was a “spiritual” light rather than a “physical” light, and that on the first day of creation the world was flooded with spiritual light. This spiritual light was taken away when the human being sinned and defied G-d in the Garden of Eden. Hidden away in the World to Come for safekeeping, it remains there until the end of days when the human souls will once again bask in this spiritual light.

The cycle of the Torah study that Jews the world over begin again this week with the reading of parashat Bereishith, is thoroughly unique. While the stories of Genesis are often transmitted as if they were simply children’s tales, we see that there is deep and intense meaning to each of these “stories.” The texts of the Torah possess wisdom, psychology and insight that probe the ultimate depths of the human spirit and knowledge. The so-called “fairy tales” about the creation of the sun and moon yield lessons of wisdom, knowledge and insight into human nature, lessons of transcendent value that can only be revealed through the most sophisticated and exalted study.

And all this is only the beginning. How much more there is to learn and what a privilege it is to study!

May you be blessed.