PESHAT (Heb. פְּשָׁט), word which came to mean the plain, literal meaning of a text, as opposed mainly to *derash, the homiletical interpretation, but also to any other method than the literal. According to W. Bacher (Die exegetische Terminologie der juedischen Traditionsliteratur, 2 (1905), 112ff.) it was *Abbaye, in the first half of the fourth century, who first made a distinction between peshat and derash as separate methods of exegesis, while Dobschuetz regards the word as the innovation of the academy of Pumbedita as a whole, including Abbaye, Joseph, and Rava. An examination of the one clear instance in which Abbaye advances two interpretations, one of peshat and one of derash (Sanh. 100b), however, does not bear out the assumption that the word indicates the literal meaning (cf. Loewe in bibliography, p. 163–4). Similarly, the frequently quoted statement, ein mikra yoẓe middei peshuto, "a text cannot be taken from the meaning of its peshat" – Shab. 63a; Yev. 11b, 24a – does not necessarily imply that peshat means the literal exegesis. In point of fact in parallel passages where one uses the verbal form peshat, the others use darash, or shanah, or matne (Heb. and Aramaic respectively for "studied," or "repeated"; Num. R. 18:22; Gen. R. 10:7 ed. Theodor Albeck p. 81, and notes), while in two interpretations given by R. Dimi to a biblical passage (Gen. 49:11–12) that which is called "the peshat of the verse" (peshta de-kera) is much further removed from the literal meaning than the other interpretation given (Ket. 111b; cf. also Kid. 80b; Er. 23b; Ar. 8b). Actually the rabbis had only two major methods of biblical exegesis, that of halakhah and that of aggadah, neither of which depended upon literal exegesis and in most instances deviated from it.

The basic meaning of the root of the word peshat in biblical Hebrew is "to flatten out," with the secondary meaning "to extend" or "to stretch out" (hence the meaning "to make a raid" – Job. 1:17), and from this was derived the talmudic meaning of "to expatiate upon," or "to propound." In context, peshat in talmudic literature seems to mean not the plain meaning but "the teaching recognized by the public as obviously authoritative, since familiar and traditional" (Loewe) or "the usual accepted traditional meaning as it was generally taught" (Rabinowitz). The present meaning of peshat is probably due to Rashi's biblical commentary, in which he was the first sharply to differentiate between the homiletical interpretation which he called derash and the literal meaning to which he gave the name peshat.


W. Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie der juedischen Traditionsliteratur, 2 (1905), 173; L. Dobschuetz, Die einfache Bibelexegese der Tannaim (1893), 11–15; L. Rabinowitz, in: Tradition, 6 no. 1 (1963), 67–72; R. Loewe, in: Annual of Jewish Studies (1965), 140–85.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.