4 Levels of Jewish Interpretation

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Genesis 1:1

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

B’reishit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim ve'et ha-artz...

When Elohim began to create the heavens and the earth...


1. Peshat: Surface meaning. Suitable for kids.

Peshat: The Creator made the sky and the land.


2. Remez: Symbolic meaning. Textual-critical reading of language.

Remez: bara ("to create") is a Bibilcal verb only associated with the Creator. Humans can create, but never in the "bara" sense.
Also, "Heaven and Earth" is a dualistic merism, meaning "all things." So, the Creator brought all of existence into being
in a way only God could do.


3. Derash: Homeletic meaning. Compartive-critical view of ideas.

Deresh: Genesis 1:1 shows Elohim ("God of gods") as the Creator of phenomena other cultures personified as gods. But there is no sky-god. Because Elohim created the sky. Nor is there a harvest-god. Elohim created the earth. This is a huge polemical statement in the ancient world. Moreover, taking the merism "Heaven and Earth" seriously (i.e. God created all that exists) means that Elohim (God) is beyond all existence. For Jews, God is not a being — because God created being.

As the post-Holocaust Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas put it, God is “Otherwise than Being.” 


4. Sod: Mystical meaning. Studied after 40. Bible as transcendental wisdom.

Sod of the first letter: Since Hebrew letters are also numerals, we arrive at the esoteric question: why does Genesis begin with the number "2" (letter B) instead of the number "1" (letter A)? Because the letter "B" (ב) is closed on three sides and open only to the front (read right to left). The wisdom contained in Genesis does not engage in is what is above (the heavens), below (the fundament), or before our world. So, a Jew reads Genesis to understand how he should live in this world. Had the point of Genesis been to tell the whole cosmological story, it would have started with the letter "A."