Anyone who studies from a rabbinic Bible, such as Mikraot Gedolot, is struck by the number of different commentaries that surround the few lines of the biblical text on each page. Most religions that have a sacred scripture have editions that come with a commentary. Occasionally they have an edition with two commentaries.
I do not know of any other religion that has editions of scripture surrounded by five to ten or more different commentaries. All of this traces back to a verse in the Book of Psalms: One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard (Psalms 62:12) and its gloss in the Talmud, “One biblical verse may convey several teachings . . .
In R. Ishmael’s School it was taught: And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jer. 23:29), i.e., just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so also may one biblical verse convey many teachings” (BT Sanhedrin 34a).1
In other words, multiple interpretations of each verse of Scripture can be correct, even if they contradict one another. The term for this concept of pluralistic interpretation is Shivim Panim LaTorah (each verse of Torah has 70 different facets).
The earliest source for the term Shivim Panim LaTorah is in the Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 13:15-16. The concept, though not the exact wording, also appears in a post Talmudic midrash Otiot d’Rabbi Akiba as Torah nilm’dah b’shiv’im panim” Torah is learned through 70 faces/facets.
The term was used by the rationalist Avraham Ibn Ezra (died 1167) in his introduction to his Torah commentary and, a century later by the mystic Nahmanides (died 1270) in his Torah commentary on Genesis 8:4. It also appears several times in the Zohar. That this concept was used both by rationalist and mystical Torah commentators indicates how fundamental it is to understanding the meaning of Divine revelation. The number seventy is used in rabbinic literature to indicate a large number, e.g. seventy nations, seventy languages, and here too it reflects the idea that there are many different ways to interpret a biblical verse.
Jewish tradition enumerates four general types of interpretation. P’shat, the plain, simple, historical meaning; Remez, the logical, metaphorical, cosmic, universal meaning; Drash, the moral, educational, heathy community meaning; and Sod, the mystical, personal, inner directed, spiritual meaning. However, there are other ways of categorizing the different commentaries to a given verse.
For example: God saw everything God had made, and behold it was very good (Gen. 1:31) has more than a dozen interpretations in classical rabbinic literature. The main question regarding this verse is that on the other days of Creation it says that God saw that what He made was good, only on the sixth day is the term “very” good used.
What did God create on the sixth day that was so special to make that day very good? I will categorize some of the classical interpretations into three groups, adding some of my own as well.
Category A: Very good refers to the best thing in all of creation.
1) Very good refers to the creation of human beings (Genesis Rabbah 8:4).3 2) Very good refers to the creation of women (Midrash on Psalms 59:2). 3) Very good indicates that God did not procrastinate but ecstatically enjoyed creation immediately for God took pride and pleasure in creation. (Midrash Tanchuma, Shmini 3) (i.e. an anti-asceticism view).
2) Very good refers to all those creatures deemed unnecessary and useless in this world like flies, gnats etc. who have their allotted task in the scheme of creation. (Exodus Rabbah 10:1 and BT Shabbat 77b)) (a pro-biological diversity view). 5) Very good refers to God, who is very good, or to Torah, or to Moses (Midrash Alefbet).
3) Rabbi Hiyya said very good means perfect, and thus creation should remain unchanged forever (Zohar Hadash Midrash Hane’elam 13a) (a very conservative view). 7) Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar said sleep is very good (Genesis Rabbah 9), (ie. sleep is good because it revitalizes people making them able to study Torah, or a good night’s sleep; undisturbed by nightmares, fears and worries, or thoughts of insults, revenge etc.is very good annd should be everyone’s goal).
4) Rabbi Meir is reported to to have said that death is good. This opposes the explicit statement in the Torah that God wants us to choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19). The report comes from a Rabbi, who as a child “carried on his grandfather’s shoulders”, overheard a Rabbi’s lecture that stated that Rabbi Meir glossed ‘very good’ as ‘death is good’.
The child did not know the context of the quote, but remembered it because it was so startling. Perhaps Rabbi Meir meant that death itself was good because it pushed all people to repent; or it was a universal equalizer; or like sleep, all would awaken to a new ‘day’ i.e. life in a new world. Rabbi Meir’s quote is found in Genesis Rabbah chapter 9; a collection of glosses on the phrase “very good”.
Category B: Very good refers to the challenge and value of conflicting possibilities.
All the glosses in category B are from Genesis Rabbah 9 where the emphasis is on understanding that all the evils in the world are really good; because temptations and challenges enable humans to become morally and spiritually stronger and holier.
5) Rabbi Samuel ben Rabbi Isaac says it alludes to the angel of life and the angel of death. (I.e. human awareness of the blessing of life and the inevitability of death). 10) Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish says it refers to a kingdom of heaven and a kingdom of earth. (i.e. a spiritual realm and a material realm). 11) Rabbi Huna said it refers to happiness and suffering.
6) Rabbi Simeon ben Abba said it refers to God’s bounty and to God’s punishment. (i.e. moral acts have consequences in this world). 13) Rabbi Ze’ira said it refers to Paradise and Gehinom. (i.e. moral acts also have consequences in the world to come).
7) Rabbi Samuel said good refers to the inclination toward good and very good refers to the inclination toward evil. Can the inclination toward evil be good? Yes! If not for the inclination toward evil no man would build a house, marry, or beget children as it says, excelling in work is due to a man’s rivalry with his neighbor (Ecclesiastes. 4:4).
Category C: Very good refers to the beginning of a more advanced stage of development.
8) Rabbi Abahu said that very good means that God created previous worlds and then destroyed them because they were not good enough. Our world is very good. (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:11). 16) Rabbi Abba said that all God’s creation was through a mediating agency i.e. earth or water. (i.e. natural evolution) Now that all was done God praised the whole work. (Zohar Midrash Hane’elam) (i.e. a gestalt view).
9) I say that very good refers to language. Animals can act cooperatively but only with language can one be self-conscious of ethical and moral principles. Thus mankind’s development of language must precede the ability to internalize morality (eat of the knowledge of good and evil tree). 18) I also say that good refers to the tree of life that extends human life, and very good refers to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that expands human morality. Quality is more important than quantity. Thank God Eve chose to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and not from the tree of life.
10) Good refers to the comfortable womb-like Garden of Eden, and very good refers to the expulsion from Eden into a challenging real world, which occurs after they eat of the morality tree and become like God. Freedom/moral choice is more important than security and comfort. Becoming an adult is better than remaining a happy infant.
11) Good refers to nature/evolution, which has fashioned the world to this point, and very good refers to human cultural/moral activity, which will fashion the world from this point on. So very good refers to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, plus the stimulus to choose i.e. the snake, Satan, temptation, competitiveness, challenge and free will.
Whenever students of Torah, like the readers and writers of this journal, come up with a new insight which becomes a part of the ongoing Jewish tradition, they reveal another facet of meaning that was hidden prior to their discovery. May it always be thus.
1. Rabeinu Tam, based on Eichah Rabbah 4:7, explains that it is not the rock that is shattered into pieces, but the hammer. Just as the hammer, when it strikes a very hard object, may itself shatter into pieces, so too a biblical verse, when subjected to the scrutiny of a very keen intellect, can be split up into different meanings. Rabeinu Tam’s gloss means that when humans (the hammer) encounter God (the Rock of Israel), we experience and react in many different, yet each one authentic, ways.