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Levels of Meaning in Holy Scripture: "PaRDeS" 1 of 2


Professor Bryan Griffith Dobbs

MishnahThe fourfold method of textual interpretation [hermeneutics] in Judaism is implicit in the Mishnah, the Baraitot [the external tractates] and the Talmud.  The four levels of interpretation are:

The initial letters of these four words form the acronym 'PaRDeS' = garden or walled garden or through the wonders of transliterative translation, Paradise.

The wall around the garden is what kabbalists have referred to as the 'malbush' or 'garments' of the text, almost always in reference to the Torah.

These four levels of meaning are directly linked to the four universes of creation, the so-called ABYA:

  1. Peshat, the literal meaning, is related to the World of Assiah, the World of Actions, in which we live.
  2. Remez, the allegorical meaning, is related to the World of Yetzirah, the World of Formation, the angelic realm.
  3. Derash, the moral or homiletic meaning, is related to the World of Briah, the World of Creation, the archangelic realm.
  4. Sod, the mystical meaning, is related to the World of Atzilut, the World of Archetypes or Emanations, the realm of the Divine Names.

In the kabbalistic linguistics that I have elaborated and will be discussing in a forthcoming volume, I make the following syntactic links:

  1. Sod = Atzilut = Nouns, Pronouns, Nominals and Pronominals
  2. Derash = Briah = Adverbs and Adverbials
  3. Remez = Yetzirah = Adjectives and Adjectivals
  4. Peshat = Assiah = Verbs and Verbals

According to the Torah, God created the universe through language.  God said 'Vayehi' 'Let there be' + [a noun, for example:] 'Or' 'light' and 'there was light'  The Talmud goes on to specify that the world was created by ten words and these words were eternal and pre-existed creation.

If one examines the symbolic movement in the Divine statement, the Divine Will directs Itself to the heart of its concentrated essence [tzimtzum] and selects from within Its pre-existing Plenitude something to be created, which is then projected outward into the space left when the Divine withdrew into Itself.  The movement bridges verb to noun, linking inextricably the first and fourth universes or worlds of creation.

The kabbalah divides itself metaphorically into two systems:  those based on linguistic imagery [the Sefer Yetzirah is the prime example] and those based on light symbolism [the Bahir and the Zohar are the principal examples of this type].  So, creation is presented as a process either of the uttering of Divine Words or the emanation of Divine Light.

The 12th century Franco-German school of RaShI [Rabbi Solomon Itzhaki] concerned itself primarily with distinctions between the contextual and philological level [peshat] and the rabbinic exegitical level [derash]. Spanish commentators and mystics and those influenced by them emphasized allegory in order to bring scripture into congruence with rational or philosophical truth, culminating in 1291 with the masterful fourfold commentary of Bahya ben Asher.

In my next message, I will summarize Christian fourfold interpretation, discuss its origins in rabbinic hermeneutics as understood by the Fathers of the Church and mention how it was applied in the Christian cabala.

posted on Donmeh forum
Thu, 6 Jull 1999


Pardes:The Quest For Spiritual Paradise In Judaism - Moshe Idel

About the author: Bryan Griffith Dobbs Phd, lecturer and scholar, is Principal Consultant of The Circuit Communications Group, Sometime Professor of Jewish Studies in the Universities of Texas at Austin and Arizona, among other numerous awards, honours, and positions held, and is an Admiral in the Navy of the Republic of Texas.

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