Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hermeneutics - The Garden of Interpretation

Words I Learned in College

Hermeneutics is one of my two favorite words that I learned in college (the other one is: polemic). I love these words because of the amount of time that I invested in order to fully understand them - each word took me at least six months to master. As a reward for my efforts, they have stayed with me like a pair of faithful dogs ever since.

Hermeneutics basically means the art and methodology of interpretation - in the Beit Midrash we generally refer to the same concept as Parshanut. (Actually, I discovered that the Princeton Dictionary of Fancy Stuff defines hermeneutics as the theology of interpreting texts. That definition is also a good translation of Parshanut.) Hermeneutics/Parshanut should be part of your derech ha’limmud - your methodology of learning Torah.

Hermeneutics in Action

Chazal had many different forms of Parshanut of the Torah. One of these forms was: how to derive halakhot from pesukim. An example of this form of Parshanut is the 13 Middot of R. Yishmael; which can be found in a siddur before Psukei D’Zimrah. ArtScroll even translates the word, “Middot”, as hermeneutical principles. (NOTE - I am not guaranteeing how often I will actually agree with the ArtScroll Publishing Company in the future.)

One example of these 13 Middot is the gezeirah shaveh. If the same word or phrase appears in two places, then the halakhot from one mitzvah can be applied to the other and vice versa. A common example of a gezeirah shaveh is the link between Pesach and Sukkot. There is a mitzvah to make Kiddush and eat Matzah on the first night of Pesach. So too (because of this gezeirah shaveh), there is a mitzvah to make Kiddush and eat in the Sukkah on the first night of Sukkot. This is an example of how Chazal learned halakhot from pesukim using Parshanut as a methodology of hermeneutics. In later posts we will explore other forms of Chazal’s hermeneutics, including homiletical interpretation (Midrash) and mystical interpretation (Kabbalah/Sod).

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